To Saunter (Mindful Habits & the Writerly Life)

IMG_2181
For a few months now I’ve been involved in a Facebook group called ‘Writers Who Write’ with my mother, older brother, and some close friends. A very original group name conjured up by yours truly. Why complicate it? I wanted to have a casual space with people I know that identify as writers and with those for whom the craft is a vital part of their life’s pursuits. We share articles and personal insights regarding the development and polishing of writerly skills. We also discuss our own experiences with writing–successes and challenges–as we post the work we occasionally publish online. The active members of the group all have hopes of, and current projects, writing a book.

In December, we undertook a 21-day challenge where we committed to always carry a notebook.. I had done this myself for months, jotting down inspiration and ideas, keeping myself organized with reminders and lists of daily to-do’s. It helped so much I felt that challenging my writing mates could be a sly way of getting them to have similar revelations about ‘the notebook doctrine’. Slightly narcissistic of me, and no doubt looking for validation of my own efforts.  We checked in daily and shared various insights on how carrying the notebook was helpful for our creativity and writing practices.

I’ve learned from my choice to identify as a writer that habits are essential not only for consistency, but for keeping the mind fresh, whereby inspiration can occur with greater frequency. The notebook challenge was a lot of fun for all of us, so I searched for other subtle ways for keeping the idea muscles in shape, charged, and healthy. Writing often, with vitality and with confidence, is as much about the lifestyle built around being a writer as it is about the act of writing itself.

When February rolled around, I proposed the 21-day ‘go for walks’ challenge. One where devices would be a ‘no no’. The point was not to be strict, but was to be in the spirit of sauntering, as described in Hendry David Thoreau’s small book Walking. With this activity, we’d be getting out of our routine, allowing the mind to roam and wander outside the confines of what we considered a normal day.

When on these walks, I take special note of the felt experience in both mind and body. I try to be mindful of my gait, pace and breath; and also the things my eyes are drawn to or become focused on. The ‘presence’ I’ve experienced while walking, and the feeling I have afterward is akin to what I’ve found in my practice of seated meditation. I see the world again with curious eyes. My mind ceases from anxiously churning over thoughts. I am reminded that the here and now, the subtle and simple qualities of life, hold the key to contentment. I wonder how I ever manage to forget this essential truth.

Towards the end of Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walking’, he states “methinks we might elevate ourselves a little more. We might climb a tree, at least.” This after observing how often as human beings we “hug the earth”. This I interpreted as people’s tendency to play it safe. The spontaneity and image of someone randomly climbing a tree is perfect. Consider the act of climbing a tree yourself, at this moment. Do you know any adults who’d climb a tree while being publicly observed? Silliness right? And that’s exactly the problem with the cultural self-seriousness of adulthood. Not to say that being an adult–refining our manners towards others and considering our place in the world less selfishly–or that participating in the experiment of civilization is wrong, but it does rob us unintentionally, and sometimes intentionally, of our playfulness and curiosity.

When I go walking it is most often along a road. I am lucky enough to be living on a hillside a fair distance from the nearby town. Here the roads are accessible but never busy. Out here, overlooking the valley below, a saunterer can treat the road as though it were a footpath, and there’s no one who’d object.
When I dropped my concern for what a passerby might think, or whether someone might be gazing at me from out of their window (like that is something people normally do), I allowed myself to wander and take time with the smallest of observations. I will take quite a few pictures, but also make a concerted effort at soaking up the vistas and random happenings before acting on the impulse to capture it on the screen of my phone. This used to be very difficult for me.

I even spoke to a herd of cattle one day. They themselves having sauntered up to the cattle grid at a hilltop rise along Shalerock Road. Off to the side I spotted lone horses grazing. They were curious about me, the hairless creature on two legs. The cows, however, were more reticent, backing off a few yards, but did not flee. I slowly approached the grid and asked, “whaddup?”

There is much to see when observing the seemingly mundane from a fresher, even childlike perspective. The things we are more often prone to consider superfluous. Playfulness is what this is, curiosity towards anything and in any place. Walking is not the only way to engage this mindset. Walking is just very simple and instantly available to almost any of us, truly an untapped resource for insight.

I fidget a lot when trying to settle during seated meditation. 5-10 minutes can easily pass before I can consistently focus and re-engage with my breath. I’m committed to improving, training my mind and body to be more “okaywith stillness. When I actually get to “okay”, it’s a genuinely rewarding experience for the very reason that it is challenging. A quick note: “okay” does not mean calm or relaxed necessarily, but more so reaching a presence where mindfully taking note of thoughts, feelings, and sensations is able to occur without so much narrative and egoic background noise.

Thankfully, walking helps get me to a similar state. One of calmness, clarity, curiosity, and at the very least a less judgmental and more open exploration of conscious experience as it unfolds. To be in motion, for me, feels more natural. Paradoxically, movement serves as an anchor for my mind. When I move, it would seem, I can finally be still.

Step outside, get out of your narratives and routines. The simplicity and subtle effectiveness of something like walking often causes such a habit to be overlooked and underappreciated. I have a tendency to intellectualize just about everything, so I hesitate trying to break down any sort of science behind why simple habits work. It’s almost better, for me, that a few of these basics work without me thinking too hard about the ‘why’ of it.  Call it faith, call it fatigue with my normal display of skepticism towards about everything else in life. Sauntering is now vital for keeping me sane, for sparking creative insight, and for maintaining my exploratory spirit. The world can be seen with fresh eyes every day, I know this. The challenge is to remember, and gently bring yourself back to the things that work. Walking is one of those things.

The Tyranny of Cinematic Spectacle (A review of The Hobbit 3)

battle-of-the-five-armies-smaug-dies-and-nothing-else-happensThe Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies was finally released and I can only imagine what that must be like, or has been like, for the easily awestruck 12 year olds out there. My heart is envious of their youth and increased capacity for novelty. Though, I fondly recollect my own relative experience viewing the first Lord of the Rings trilogy in my late teens. I was 16 when the Fellowship of the Ring came out, working my first job at a Sam Goody music store; Northway Mall Anchorage, AK.

It was one of those REAL snowy days, but not blizzardy. The snowfall was slushy and water logged. For whatever reason, these conditions gave the family quest getting to the move on time an air of daring and mystery. Successfully traversing the odd road conditions and suction cup pockets of slush in the parking lots, we were now cozily huddled in a dark theater, ready to witness the beginning of what became the seminal theatrical experience of my generation.

Oddly, despite growing up as somewhat of a budding cinephile, I wasn’t all that aware of Fellowship’s release before hand. It may have been that first job, or school, or girlfriends — I don’t fully recall — but I was mostly ignorant of what lay in store. Fantasy movies hadn’t ever reached for the level of gravitas and dramatic impact which Peter Jackson achieved on a New Line Cinema production gamble. But, I doubt any of this was going through my mind at the time. It was more like, “oh, hmmm, family has tickets for a movie, family is picking me up from work, I’m down for a flick, I hope it’s good.”

The theater lights dropped and those whispers beckoned. Lady Galadriel’s voice permeated the dark space around us with poetic and ethereal presence, and then the strings played the theme of the ring. I was taken from this earthly realm, Middle Earth became reality for those near 3 hours. I hardly knew what this place was, having never read the books. I was perfectly primed for Fellowship to be an otherworldly spectacle having very few preconceptions. Put it this way, if no one had ever played for you Stairway to Heaven, had you barely acknowledged Led Zeppelin’s existence, had you never had to hear it played in a dive bar, and while driving late at night–randomly flipping on the radio–and before having even chosen a station–clear night with a mostly empty road–on a trip that allowed stretches of pensive contemplation, and you heard those first string moments of Stairway, taking that journey as ignorantly as possible; imagine what that might be like.

I would say my Fellowship viewing experience was something akin to that; novelty, majesty, mystery, beauty, tragedy, action, myth-making, world building, sagacious wisdom, philosophical concepts, moral dilemmas, sacrifice, love, friendship, the quest, the loneliness of despair…The Fellowship of the Ring will forever remain one of the greatest movie experiences I ever had and ever will have. They just don’t make them like that anymore…am I right?

Well, more so, my expectations are now primed in too many ways before attending movies as an adult. Too often, bombastic filmmaking is accompanied with worn tropes, a lack of subtlety, and obvious thematics. So, in attending The Battle of the Five Armies, there was no way the Fellowship experience of my youth could be matched. “It’s not you PJ, it’s me,” is what I’d like to say, but I cannot assert that as truth. “Peter Jackson, it’s definitely you that was the problem this time around.” The Hobbit trilogy was too often about Jackson’s need for spectacle, need for epicness, need for hitting us over the head with Middle-Earthisms (a tag I propose to describe the ways in which PJ tries so hard to make this finale feel like LOTR magic that it then loses its natural quality and becomes borderline absurd). The original LOTR trilogy–Fellowship, Towers, and ROTK–never felt absurd (with the exception of Legolas skating down a giant elephant trunk and his delivery of that line, “a diversion”).

The Hobbit films aren’t parody, per se, but they are most certainly pandering. As if Peter Jackson in his years away from the land of Middle Earth got it twisted that these films needed one specific quality, and that this quality is what made the original trilogy the fantastical bliss that it was. But that’s incredibly facile to infer, since so much of what was brilliant about LOTR comes down to nuances in storytelling. Battle of the Five Armies has ne’ery a moment of subtlety, and where the nice touches do exist, they are rare and only remind you of what possibly could have been.

Almost every one of these moments comes via the masterful performance of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. It’s hard for me to say, but even Gandalf became rather gimmicky. There is no moment on par with McKellan’s early master strokes: “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us”, the sublime moment of his arrival at Helms Deep, his consoling Pippen before the battle for Minas Tirath. The best scemne we get Gandalf laboring with his weed pipe, next to Bilbo, after the orc hoard has been dispersed. Thanks, Peter Jackson, for reducing Gandalf’s significance and impact such that a humorous stoner moment feels like his most inspiring.

In other respects–acting, visual effects, awe, and wonder–Five Armies does make out pretty well. Thematically, unlike the other two, Five Armies also gets to the point. Although not much time is spent on it, the essence of why this story is interesting and has moral significance is touched on poignantly, even if, not nearly enough. Friendship transcends our differences and the world we come from. Bravery, love, and sacrifice can inspire great things in people towards acting in the interest of the greater good. Darkness overwhelms, but if compassion and wisdom are fostered, their capacity for changing hearts can be what drives people and cultures down a better historical path.

Though these messages can be pieced apart from Five Armies, it often felt too obvious, sensationalistic, and a cheap facsimile compared to the first trilogy. The Hobbit 1-3 felt like they were very much for the kids. I won’t even hesitate in suggesting that Jackson pulled a George Lucas here; granted these prequels were not so insulting to the intellect. The storybook and staged feel that exists in Five Armies may actually be intentional; something understandable but not necessarily defensible. Middle Earth for me worked much better when it had a sense of being lived rather than feeling like a grand stage for apocalyptic doom.

In certain ways it even cheapens how Fellowship begins. You’d think that Gandalf might be more aware that Middle Earth stood poised on the precipice of destruction, and not just swinging by Bilbo’s for tea and toast. But whatever, that only goes further to serve my ultimate point about Five Armies and the Hobbit flicks; they are incongruous to the craft and care that existed a decade ago.

What works? Thorin’s descent into madness was shown with considerable impact and visual pizzazz. The scene where he gets swallowed by a floor of mirror like gold was particularly effective. What didn’t work? Thorin’s sudden turn to fight with the rest against the Orcs was just another staged moment. I didn’t feel much sense that he and his band could turn the battle nor was I all that sympathetic since his madness was so selfish. I felt like Thorin had just been a deluded jerk. Contrast this with how clearly Theoden was influenced by otherwordly forces in the Two Towers, much more effective. What is the point with Thorin? That he has a dwarven greed at the essence of who he is; that this greed is dangerous and utterly self absorbed? I’m not sure, which is the source of my disappointment because his change back to being heroic wasn’t  earned. I will say, Richard Armitrage and Martin Freeman still play the key moments to perfection with the material that they’re given. Maybe the Five Armies extended addition will flesh out more of that psychological conflict. But as it stands, it’s thin and unconvincing.

What else worked? Legolas! Strangely, it’s as though Orlando Bloom came back primed to demonstrate his veteran status, while taking it up a notch with his dramatic presence. Legolas mostly serves one role: be a badass. Legolas is supposed to be younger in The Hobbit, though he neither looks nor acts younger. So take that for what you will, it’s hardly my biggest grievance.

Five Armies’ major weakness comes from an inability to decide who the main character is, and thus we really don’t have one. By the end, it would seem that Bilbo serves that purpose, after the first 2/3rds toyed with the Bard and Thorin in this role. I was mostly disinterested with the Bard’s leadership arc and the plight of Laketown. The entire Laketown saga came off as PJ’s excuse for extending the run time and justifying a trilogy. Smaug’s assault was visually impressive but lacked dramatic heft since the wind in those sails had long blown over from a years passing since Desolation. So he breathes his fire and dies in completely predictable fashion, tacked on as a limp prologue.

This “tacked on” feel demonstrates a strangeness that’s present in all three films. We jump from set piece to set piece as though Peter Jackson is ticking off boxes on his homage-to-Tolkien checklist. This is all less about a coherent story and more about squeezing out every last drop of spectacle. But he’s still TRYING to make story seem important. The elf/dwarf romance–the names of whom I can’t even conjure–, the Bard’s hero arc, Thorin’s madness, Gandalf’s foray to some uber scary tower, and in this installment the band of dwarven fellows who we’d grown fond of fade into the background completely. It’s like Jackson occasionally thought “oh yeah, characters matter”, but the thought didn’t linger for long before tossing the ball over to WETA for some more visual splendor. I daresay this could qualify as the advent of ‘Middle Earth porn’.

So why the naysaying and criticism? Well, Return of the King won the Oscar, that might be one reason. We’ve had it proven that high fantasy can work as both spectacle and dramatic brilliance. As a cinephile and a fantasy nerd, it would have been pleasing to see these heights reached for again. Alas, the LOTR films are probably just one of a kind. If you’re looking for high art in fantasy anymore, it’s going to be on HBO’s Game of Thrones, and that’s about it. Fantasy as film, in all honesty, may not exist to be taken with complete seriousness. Let it be known that The Hobbit in its own right is still an immersive and awesome theatrical experience, taking digital and technical mastery to a whole new level.

But here’s the rub with for me. I won’t watch the first two again for probably 5 years, if ever. Five Armies I might revisit when released in extended form, and for the fact that it felt more quintessential to what I expect from Middle Earth excursions. Yet, I won’t be revisiting it as any sort of study in dramatic craft or for getting creative inspiration. When it comes to movies and art, I want to know and witness genius. I want to ask myself what the creative intent was and consider whether it’s worthwhile or profound. And with The Hobbit 1-3, the genius just isn’t there.

The bare bones assessment: Five Armies should be seen in High-Frame Rate, on a large screen, while witnessed, beheld, and experienced in the way that one might experience skydiving. “WOOOOOOOO, exhilaration, but am I coming away a better human being or a more inspired artist?” I guess that’s for each viewer to decide individually. For me, the answer to that question is ‘no’. Nevertheless, I have zero regrets seeing the movie at least once in its full theatrical glory.

PEACE

Favorite Shtuff 2014 (A long read contemplation on the loads of good shtuff/art in 2014)

trophyFavorite Shtuff of the VO Review in 2014

5 Favorite Reads

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges
Chris Hedges is a polemicist. He’s a self righteous, feisty, and occasionally disingenuous far left intellectual that is so fed up with the corporate state that he discards any sense of responsibility for keeping a measured tone. Which is what makes Empire of Illusion so engaging as he takes aim on the deluded culture of American consumerism (broken down by chapter into the illusions of Literacy, Love, Wisdom, Happiness, and America itself). He’s shooting with urgency for a necessary wake up call, just don’t expect Hedges to play fair or give his targets leeway to defend themselves. There are very few shades of gray in his perspective, but that’s because the institutions complicit and active in creating our cultural delusions make it pretty easy to paint a stark picture.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kanheman
This is a fat volume and heavily researched. The mind is a master manipulator, that’s what I learned from reading this exhaustive breakdown by Kanheman regarding the two loose conceptual modes which our brains work in. We have to think fast, or we basically would be frozen by every decisions and all the data that comes our way throughout daily existence. But this instinctual lens through which we perceive reality is prone to bias and error. Our slow thinking is more deliberative and effective, but it takes time and gets bogged down in the details. You might come away feeling like you basically know nothing and that we as humans can’t be sure of much, and that’s true in many respects…but we’ve learned to live with it, often times because we’ve become very good at fooling #1, that is ourselves.

Waking Up by Sam Harris
Sam Harris, a controversial figure for saying things that make sense or presenting something with a little more nuance than people are comfortable with, takes a very personal approach with Waking Up. Regardless of how someone feels about Harris – I once was very critical of him before learning how woefully misrepresented his views were by a couple of sycophantic attention seeking quasi-intellectuals – anyone can be fascinated by Waking Up as it delves goes deep into theory of mind, neuroscience, and the nature of the self. Spirituality has a relevant potency for human beings, and we can actually tap into and understand it without taking on dogmatic or delusional beliefs, which is Harris’s basic thesis. This book put me onto meditation and mindfulness. I hesitate to say it changed me, but I read it while in the right place and in the right frame of mind and thus it does not feel hyperbolic to characterize my reading experience of it that way.

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
This “biography of cancer”, along with The Panic Virus, this year illuminated for me the potential storytelling power that the history, conflict and study of medicine possesses. Maladies will likely be remembered as integral for raising the public awareness and consciousness about cancer as a disease. At the very least its an unmistakable milepost for showing us the progress we’ve made, and we can revisit its tale every 5 or so years for this purpose. Maladies is laden with science, politics, and a fascinating cast of characters. If you can get past the unavoidable medical terminology, there is a raw and beautiful heart coursing at the center of it all. Maybe that’s why it won a Pulitzer…just maybe.

Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
It’s difficult to express how profound this book was for me. If I try to describe the power that I feel is possible with a good study of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work here, I fear I’d do it a serious disservice. It worms into the psyche and inspires change with compassion and subtlety. Heaping praise on it would prime too many expectations. Most of the advice regarding mindfulness and meditation is rather simple, nevertheless poignant. I suppose I would just say read it, and given the right circumstances and readiness, Wherever You Go has the potential to be a greatly inspiring, bordering on life changing, read for anybody.
5 Favorite Films:

Particle Fever
We built the particular accelerator in Switzerland, not completely sure what utility it held, other than gaining some elemental and maybe ‘first mover’ glimpse of the universe. It was an international and human effort on par or exceeding flying to the moon. But it involves science and machinery that boggles the mind and isn’t immediately accessible for society to grasp its profundity. But they indeed spotted the Higgs-Boson, and it provided ambiguous information regarding the nature of reality and the cosmos. But perhaps it’s the process, the cooperation, and the questions it challenges humanity to ask that makes it worth it. These are the things watching Particle Fever had me thinking about.

Grand Budapest Hotel
In the past, Wes Anderson’s style kind of irritated me. It felt too eccentric in its aesthetic choices; too deliberately quirky. But I still respected his films, and could enjoy the wit and dryness with varying degrees of satisfaction. Even though Grand Budapest might visually be the most committed to Anderson’s characteristic style, the acting and story felt less wooden and more human compared to, say, Moonrise Kingdom or A Life Aquatic. Ralph Fiennes and his co-pilot Tony Revolori probably had a lot to do with this more engaging effect. And Fiennes’ work as Monsieur Gustave H. reaches comedic transcendence.

Gone Girl
For my thoughts on GG, I direct you to my earlier review.

Only Lovers Left Alive
It may have been the music. It may be my personal obsession with the already dystopic landscape of Detroit that gives the film its realness. But most the credit probably goes to the peculiar and endearing performances from Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as they play philosophical foils to one another in this totally unique future-fiction tale. The word that came to mind all throughout while I considered how pleasant Only Lovers Left Alive’s was for me, was ‘hypnotic’. It’s one of the most unique viewing experiences I’ve had watching a movie in quite some time. When a movie can make you feel something truly novel, and take your mind into a strange reality, I’d say it delivered as a piece of artistic expression.

Boyhood
Richard Linklater is one of those directors, for me, who can do no wrong. His films span all sorts of genre’s but still always feel established outside of any genre distinction. He even defies any obvious quality that makes me think “awww, yes, this is a Linklater joint”. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a clear artistic voice, I’d say he’s just not overly concerned with making his movies about one signature style. He seems focused often onn opening the minds of his characters through organic and engrossing dialogue. The scenes often take on a free associative element that is more akin to how human interaction occurs in the real world. Boyhood puts that on full display, and will likely be the film that is tagged as his masterpiece. Filmed over 12 years with the same actors, and the same boy from age 6 on, it’s a totally new way of experiencing character drama. The concept could have been a gimmick, but instead it really does feel like you grow up with Mason Evans Jr. Throw in career capping brilliance from Ethan Hawke with his supporting role, and you have yourself one of those movies that gets at the essence of what it feels like to be human – confused, hopeful, and searching.

5 Favorite TV Shows:

Cosmos (FOX)
After watching Cosmos, Caitlin developed a nerd crush on Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I might have one too, mostly driven by the fact that he rocked blue jeans with a sport coat on Bill Maher. Seeing the wonder, excitement, and enthusiasm with which he describes the known universe, this galaxy, the planet we reside on, and the history of science is truly inspiring. Cosmos also has stunning and cinematic effect, a quality that rarely gets pared with educational television. It’s not just a delivery of dry factoids, it’s a journey of discovery and an effort to have the audience connect with scientific concepts the same way someone might feel while meditating or reading holy scripture. But, lest someone suggest that Cosmos is a quasi-attempt at making science religious, the experience is merely evoked because of the expansiveness and nature of the topic and the genuineness with which Tyson expresses it. Secularists, agnostics, or the non-believer do not seek converts. They simply look for wonder in the world just like anyone else, and find it very often right underneath their feet when wondering how it is that the ground they walk on came to be constituted in its current form. Cosmos is one of the most impressive examples of these insights being detailed and produced for a mass audience. Can be streamed on Netflix

Game of Thrones (HBO)
Season 4 of GOT saw the showrunners, writers, and actors all coming together with singular focus on taking this epic drama to a level of artistry which the source material was begging for. Not to say that this hadn’t occurred occasionally in the first 3 seasons, but nearly every scene this season seemed intent on reaching that level as we explored the cynical landscape of Westeros in 2014. The Red Wedding went down, where possibly could we go from there? Some critics feared and even telegraphed a message that Game of Thrones stood on a precipice of losing its focus in the wake of such earth shattering events; as though Season 4 couldn’t possibly wield the same narrative heft anymore. And, as the entertainment and internet media is wont to do, they trumpeted many forms of faux-controversy and nit-picky critique on GOT because…well because people click on that stuff. For awhile I allowed myself to be irritated by this, but over the course of the season I let the naysayers naysay and wisely began ignoring GOT articles. Weekly, I permitted myself to marinate in GOT’s now established stylistic sophistication. From the Taratinoesque Road Inn scene with Arya and the Hound, Sophie Turner’s next-level-coming-out-of-her-shell work as Sansa, small but poignant moments even provided to minor characters – such as Dontos tenderly offering up his last valuable possession -, witnessing Maisie Williams become one of the most engaging and chilling performances I’ve even seen from a young actor, to Game of Thrones finally stepping into the territory of high fantasy with Bran’s journey or the goosebump inducing scene where we witness the citadel of the white walkers; we’re now on a plane of dramatic storytelling that other shows and even films rarely reach. Sure, maybe most of the good guys are dead now, and the world is looking more and more bleak, but GOT was at its highest level, and sustained it, throughout Seson 4.

Hannibal (NBC)
Hannibal is on network television. This is very strange. It’s also on the weakest of the networks, which they would seem to be the least amenable to taking this kind of risk. Hannibal continues to get lowish ratings, but its become a cult hit online and a critical darling. So it’s sort of NBC’s prestige project, even though they don’t play much of a role in the production process of it anyway. Even more odd is it being the most disturbing and gorey show on television – even surpassing Game of Thrones – although they compete heavily for the title. Hannibal has concocted what is basically a new genre. I’d call it Lynchesque-‘fever dream’-art house-gore-hypnosis-horror-drama. The gore on this show is positively beautiful and I admit that’s uncomfortable to say. The lead performances from Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelson are on point to a level where it pierces the mind in such a manner that you’ve hardly noticed being impaled by theatrical brilliance. Yeah, I’m HEAPING praise on this show because it’s that strange, arresting, and awesome. They’re exploring a new philosophical angle on the nature of psychopathy that leaves behind the trope and gets at basic questions of what makes someone human, what constitutes moral action, and asks if one were as self aware as Hannibal, does his behavior constitute an evolution in individual will that doesn’t even cross into the realm of normal human ethics because we simply can’t understand what drives him? I don’t think the show is interested in asking whether Hannibal is good or evil, compassionate or disdainful. He’s utterly alien, but the writing of his character focuses the viewer in such a way that we can’t help but ask questions about what instincts drive us and what depths of madness are okay to explore in an effort to better understand ourselves.

Fargo (FX)
Fargo has the sort dramatic craft that rarely exists on television. It knows how to build tension, explore darker themes, humanize characters without justifying their despicable actions, and has just enough of the Coen Bros aesthetic to pay worthy homage to the 90s film while remaining its own animal completely. Apparently the show will be continued under the anthology format that True Detective also chose – a trend spearheaded by the American Horror Story folks. This is new territory in television drama, basically giving us 10 hour films as they often have the acting klout, the stylish flourishes, and contained storyline that film posses. In time, I could see it becoming an often used middle ground between the two mediums. It gives creators the freedom of time as well as the focused vision of knowing their beginning middle and end. Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, along with a coming out performance from Allison Tolman and a career shifting turn from Colin Hanks, showcase some of the best ensemble casting and acting I’ve ever seen in a TV show. Kudos to FX for taking a chance here.

True Detective (HBO)
Some folks on the internet wondered if TV goers were becoming prisoners of the moment when it came to True Detective’s surprising popularity. I don’t think there was any question that the show would bring in fans of crime drama and psychological thrillers, but there was an upswell of fascination with the central mystery of the TD plot that was a surprising for people who keep up on pop culture. Which might give a critic the perception that a gimmick lay at the center of TD’s growing respectability. I toyed with such a thought, but even with a surprisingly hopeful and oddly tidy conclusion to the mystery of the Yellow King, my critical analysis of True Detective. It challenged me, it took risks with its narrative structure, it had a salient and powerful emotional arc, it forwardly explored concepts of existential and nihilistic philosophy, and evoked performances from veterans Woody Harrelson and Matthew McChonaughey that basically put them in Bryan Cranston territory. Can they make a buddy cop dynamic, have it be clever and occasionally hilarious, as well as explore questions of meaning, masculinity and the nature of reality itself? Why yes, yes they can.

My Favorite albums this year (quick, before it changes in the next 5 minutes)

10-6 tie cause distinguishing after the top 5 feels pointless:

…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of  Dead – IX
These dudes just deliver. You get straight rock, arena rock, loud and wall-of-sound guitar riffs, and a epic progressive and conceptual framework. They don’t make mediocre music and are a consistent go-to for me when I’m needing a combination loud and epic rock experience that still delivers in a simpler rock & roll kind of way.

Lucius – Wildewoman
This sort of dropped out of the sky. I had never heard of them, saw that the album was getting a warm reception, and I gave it a shot. This is one of those finds that comes from looking for new stuff to listen to, and its always encouraging to land on a gem like this. Awesome female vocals, great songwriting, and very memorable, listen on a road trip kinds of songs.

Robert Plant – Lullaby…the Ceaseless Roar
If you liked Robert Plant’s work on ‘Band of Joy’, there will be plenty of goodness to revel in here on his latest effort. I guess this is considered his album with a new band called The Sensational Space Shifters. There are more experimental quirks that some might find out of place, but I actually appreciated some of the electronic and psychedelic touches.

Strand of Oaks – Heal
It’s odd because I don’t know that I can give a real tight critical analysis of this album, but I know that I’ve come back to it as much as any other album this year asides from my top 5. It’s rock music, but has unique and genreless elements that allowed it to stand apart from the robust selection of great music that came down in 2014.

Jozef Van Wissem – Only Lovers Left Alive OST
Films have been doing a lot of unique things lately with their scores and music. The music in Only Lovers Left Alive becomes one of the characters, and is a big part of setting the mood that made this one of the most hypnotic and unexpectedly great moves I saw all year. It makes for stellar regular listening as well, good for creative inspiration.

My best of 2014 ranked in order 5-1

5. Sylvan Esso- Sylvan Esso
sylvan-esso1-608x608
Another difficult to describe project that I would nevertheless return to with frequency. It took me outside of my normal range of tastes, but they made it a pleasure to challenge my listening habits. 2 or 3 of the best songs I heard this year are present on this self-titled gem.

4. Woods – With Light and With Love
homepage_large.b854982a
Folksky, psychedelic, singer/songwriter rock music…I’m down. Too many memorable tracks not to love this album and a  I-feel-like-I’ve-heard-this-before-and-I’ve-always-known-it-was-classic-even-though-its in-fact brand-new quality to all of it.

3. alt-J – This is All Yours
Alt-J_-_This_is_all_yours
Here I sit with feelings of indignation about the treatment alt-J gets from some critics. To be sure, alt-J is mostly embraced as an innovative and brilliant new outfit. But their subsequent rise to popularity, and some fool in the UK calling them the next Radiohead, naturally brings out the contrarians. Pitchfork did their nonsensical pseudo-analytical-too-many-big-words-that could-have-been-small-words review and gave them a 4.3 because that’s what Pitchfork does. When they’re feeling like being the tastemaker, they go and shit on some band people are respecting because it seems sophisticated to do so. I don’t like being my indignant self, but I will stick up for alt-J as I have Arcade Fire. They are stepping into that realm of next-level artistry. This is All Yours has some at times bizarre seques and various atmospherics that might seem like gimmicks or otherwise as though they didn’t know how to filter ideas from their jam sessions, but I would disagree that this what’s going on, that to me the music on comes across deliberate in its compilation. A full album experience in the truest sense. They’re weird, and still somehow make really catchy songs that flirt with the mainstream. Anytime “out there” stuff gets serious recognition, I will applaud that and defend it from those who wish to prematurely lay down labels like “sell out” or “pretentious”.

2. EMA – The Future’s Void
ole-1054_ema_the_future_s_void

It feels strange considering that this album was indeed released this year. I’ve nearly forgotten that for the first half of 2014 it was my go-to listen. You can put it on and let it go without skipping a track. Here we have a timely mishmash of 90s angsty female fronted rock, gritty underground electronica, with a penchant for taking her tracks up to a fully expansive scale that conjure visions of William Gibsonesque, cyberpunk, dsytopic landscapes <<<< that was my best Pitchfork impression of a sentence. It’s an awesome album, plain and simple.

1. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
RunTheJewelsRTJ2

Killer Mike and El-P possess some serious jewels to open up track 1 ‘Jeopardy’ with Killer Mike vociferously spouting sans music “I’m finna bang this **** the **** out…you might wanna record the way you feelin’ like history being made”. It’s almost as though they’re challenging a listener immediately to check their perception as a shouting black man’s braggadocious and vocal swagger, unsullied by any backing track, is presented for first impressions. And, rest assured, let up on ferocity it never does. Here is the uncorked ‘id’ of an admitted misanthrope and a political and social justice activist. The most unlikely pairing of rap artists I think anyone could have conjured now taking the game down by breaking all the rules. Release album for free, entreaty street artists around the world to market your trademark fist and gun imagery, reinvent yourself at 40 and plant yourself atop the king-of-the-hill mountain of rap emcee’s; accomplishing all of this by hardly acknowledging the normal industry process of getting the word out on your shit. If you’re going to do these things, it’s best you make sure that the album is suitably badass, but also poignant and necessary.

The sounds cooked up from the mind of El-P are spooky, futuristic, with the occasional fusion of jazzy trumpets and guitar strings paying homage to the sounds he grew up on. That might seem brow raising were it not for the fact that the ferocious instrumentals only let up here and there to allow listeners to contemplate that this isn’t just dick measuring and street swaggering. They utilize the in your face tropes of battle rap and competitive fervor to speak not about their stacks or the keys they got in the trunk, but to tell people they’ve swallowed the red pill and what they now see is absurd. Those who remain complicit or blind to it are certifiable f*ckboys. This is as entertaining, head nodding, and feeling-awesome as social commentary will ever get…until the next Run the Jewels album. I bequeth unto it my #1 slot not only for sound but also for the manner in which they got the word out; simultaneously the best and most necessary album of 2014.

On my bubble or otherwise should be mentioned:
Spoon – They Want My Soul, FKA Twigs – LP1, Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness, Hozier – self titled, Pharoahe Monch – PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Kate Tempest – Everybody Down, St Vincent – self titled, Ty Segal – Manipulator, Lanterns on the Lake – Until the Colours Run, Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence, Wildbirds & Peacedrums – Rhythm, We Were Promised Jetpacks – Unraveling, Vince Staples – Hell Can’t Wait, Barrows – Red Giant, Sharon Van Etten – Are We There, Damien Jurado – Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, and I know I’m forgetting other stuff…its been a great year for music.

2013 albums that had serious staying power:
Danny Brown
– Old, Darkside – Psychic, Run the Jewels – self titled, Forest Swords – Engravings, Arcade Fire – Reflektor, Chelsea Wolfe – Pain is Beauty


Forward to good art and entertainment in 2015!

Life in the Making (Free writing about meaning and story)

IMG_6745
I have a lot of random experiences in my life that could make for humorous storytelling. Some of them are less than flattering of my judgement and character. Other stories I could tell relate to some of the more tragic circumstances in my life; tragic only because I was putting extra effort into acting tragically. I don’t think I consciously worked at this, but the idea popped into the back of my mind occasionally that if things went really bad maybe I’d get a tragic Lifetime movie made out of my sad existence. Sad only if it had ended in the few spots where it seemed possible. A made for Lifetime movie would probably be the real tragic event, everything else being unnecessary or at the very least misguided drama.

Most of us probably have a few moments in our lives that could have been the end, or could have been the situation that resulted in everything following it being tragically altered. I’ve been in two rollover accidents in my life, both I walked away from basically unscathed. Then there are those various stories I could tell that perhaps will make it into a memoir but at this juncture would just border on TMI (too much information). Needless to say, we’ve all had those moments that when recollected take on the shape of good fodder for dramatic storytelling.

But that’s the thing, it’s not that these events inherently hold the weight that sometime later we infuse with particular meaning, it’s that story is one of the ways we’ve learned to make sense of our life and our world. This might be a worn topic, but it’s constantly coming up in my mind. Perhaps it’s because I’ve read so much this year, mostly nonfiction. And it’s very interesting to see how people retell history and form plot threads. Good guys, bad guys, conflict, resolution, these things exist mostly in our mind and are matters of subjectivity.

Surely pain and strife will come upon us, and it’s not that the meaning we cobble together has no meaning, it’s that things happen for a reason because we later give them the reasoning for why they happened. Especially if they were unexpected or if things didn’t happen as we intended them to.

I suppose the question worth asking might be ‘is there existential utility in considering from time to time that our meanings are meaningless in the objective sense, and that our life stories are made up after the fact as much as they are in the moment of the making?’ Is it worth asking? I don’t know, but I still ask myself that question all the time.

Talking Less (The non-art of my own self deception)

the-fool-front-e1380690847246Featured Image: ‘The Fool’ a sculpture by Caitlin Smith @ www.caitlinaudreysmith.com

Communicating with language is a vital but equally frustrating process. Over the course of human evolution, the human brain has developed the apparatus for learning and understanding unique and specialized vocalizations. It is undeniably crucial to how we’ve progressed as a species; a key component in the rise of civilization and the resultant age of technology. It is not a stretch to suggest that most modern marvels wouldn’t exist if we didn’t possess the capacity for communicating with such detail and specificity.

But on an individual level, I’ve often noticed how inadequate or limited the spoken and written word feels when expressing ideas and emotions. Language, for all its beauty and utility, is still secondary to consciousness itself. Our thoughts and impressions precede the words that eventually arise to describe and explain them. There is always bound to be varying degrees of disconnection.

I’ve often been told I am good with words, that I have a distinctive knack for communicating my thoughts in both conversation and writing. Though there have been other times where I get labeled a bullshit artist or called out for glibness. While I’ve managed to grow in awareness when it comes to the perils of eloquence, there have been countless experiences where I was oblivious of how earnestly and with singular motivation I might be weaving a tale. A counselor once used that word ‘glib’ to describe me. That’s actually how I know the word exists; and it’s a pretty damn good word.

He observed that my ability to intellectualize just about anything was keeping me in a pattern of self destructive behavior. My intellect for a good while had been hijacked in service of more selfish and misguided intentions. This is basically glibness embodied. He gave it to me straight, and – not to suggest that I had everyone else fooled – he had bluntly pointed out the disconnect from my actual life by serving up a heaping plate of stark reality. It was still several years before I took much of a hint. Paradoxically, it would seem, that I was highly self aware while also being insidiously self deluded. Growing more mindful of the ego’s tricks takes time; and a boat-load of humbling experiences.

This is not all that unique, however. It’s a human failing. As Will Storr spotlights in the book The Unpersuadables, people who think they are the truth tellers, who are certain that they are the exception to the rule with regards to delusional thinking, are the most deluded of all. If you’re thinking to yourself right now while reading this that you are the exception, welcome to the desert of masterful self deception. He states at one point with little need for tact that “a great many of the findings from decades of experimental psychology come to one grand shameful conclusion: we are all deluded egotists” and that most of us experience a “restless urge to prove that [other people’s] world, and not ours, is the illusion.”

For some time, my chief delusion was thinking I was one of the few who truly had my eyes open to the nature of things. I was pretty good at convincing myself, and on occasion others, that this might be true. In retrospect, however, I see that I was just good at making other people leary of correcting me. Not because the convoluted defense I had for my troubled life was difficult to poke holes in, not because the logic was ironclad, but because it was too mind-numbing and laborious to attempt addressing me on a rational or emotional level. I needed Rafiki from The Lion King to come out of the underbrush and just smack me in the head with his staff.

Looking back on this floundering chapter in my life – this time of wrongly assuming that I traversed some inevitable path of sagacious self destruction – I now see the fundamental conceit by which I allowed this delusion to persist: I often talk way too much. This realization  has led me to consider the merits of talking less. In the past, even though I questioned myself endlessly, I still couldn’t manage going long before whipping myself into a frenzy with another facile philosophy of superficial wisdom; either soaring hope for improvement, or contrarian despair masquerading as iconoclastic and warped asceticism.

For a good portion of my life, and to a larger extent in the last 5 years, I never REALLY shut up and considered that maybe I don’t have the answers. Or if there are no concrete answers, at the time I didn’t possess  the will or resilience for cobbling together a method of gaining personal fulfillment. I built a model of reality that justified my failings. Seriously, what I needed was to shut the hell up for more than a little bit. And – at the risk of sounding overly metaphysical about it – I needed to listen to what life, the world, the universe had to teach me.

What’s intriguing about taking on this more humble approach to understanding is that, ultimately, the wisdom gained will still be one’s own. By talking less, by foregoing pontification and forcing less and less ego onto reality, a vision of what we want and need more naturally takes shape. And, remarkably, it will be far less rife with notions of self importance. I suggest that this kind of self discovery comes from letting your ego talk less, and not so much about the literal act of talking less. It’s still something we create, but is much more conducive to allowing life’s lessons to sink in.

From my own experience, still being in the early stages of ceasing my self-righteous destruction, diligence is key. Even with vigilance, my selfish desires and self doubts still creep and nag and look for ways to make themselves manifest in bombastic fashion. Only by remaining mindful of what triggers my more troubling tendencies am I able to see how that self-sabotage sneaks up. Am I listening to people? Am I listening to myself? Am I listening to the more subtle hum of peace that seemingly eluded me for so long? These questions must be answered before I talk; before I act. Without this habit of self inquiry, the charismatic ego can lead me in quick like fashion like a lemming off the cliff of sanity.

Mindfulness and Meditation (Finding benefits despite a distracted disposition)

IMG_2680

Meditation has been “in” for awhile now. But it seems 2014 has produced an even greater surge in the practice’s popularity and with those who tout the benefits. In his book, Waking Up, Sam Harris addresses meditation and mindfulness in lucid detail. Waking Up proved effectual for me in many ways, so much so that I emailed Harris expressing my appreciation for his work in the volume. Much to my surprise, he promptly responded — which was pretty freakin’ cool. I was particularly influenced by his knowledge regarding Vipassana meditation. The practice, as presented in the book, is fairly straight forward, and Harris demystified the contemplative approach for me by grounding the concepts firmly in the language of science and overall intelligibility.

In the past, I have mostly approached meditation with skepticism. This is not to say I doubted its potential benefits, I simply struggled sitting still and thought myself incapable of the necessary patience and commitment. Hearing a lot of misinformation and some of the peculiar rhetoric from committed proponents of the practice also contributed to my reticence. My own biases were certainly hedging up the way. Concluding that there was just too much weirdness surrounding the concept and practices of mindfulness made it far easier to be dismissive. “I’m a self aware dude, I don’t need this esoteric jibbery jabber. Meditation just isn’t for me.”

It remains my opinion that meditation is not very well taught or explained because it is more often being proselytized. What resolved my doubts, or rather frustrations, was having the discussion brought into the realm of secular understanding; learning about the real and proven effectiveness of contemplative rituals. Not only this, but reading about and pondering the theories of mind as well as the neuroscientific principles at play when it comes to meditation. What became clear was that I was knowingly denying myself, and remaining ignorant of, a distinctly powerful aspect of human experience; one that didn’t require much effort to partake in if I could merely discard my stubborn preconceptions.

Here are the myths that needed to be dispelled for me:

1. Meditation is about relaxing

Meditation is often work, or effort, or whatever word you’d choose to describe a not entirely comfortable experience that requires training the mental faculties. It is work making myself sit down and do it; something I still frequently struggle with. It’s often strange getting settled, consciously disengaging with the activity of the day, to only sit and breath and do little else. It’s initially discomforting. For me, the use of guided meditations helped significantly for engaging something so novel and outside my normal realm of experience. It provided some structure. I used Sam Harris’s on SoundCloud (9 and 26 minutes depending).

Fair warning, when looking for guided meditation audio, just know that you will find funky ones. This became clear while looking for some other options on youtube. I don’t like the accompaniment of floaty music or poetic instruction that tries to guide my thoughts towards imagining sensation as a fire that represents the force of my being. This kind of esoteric approach might appeal to some folks, but it is not my particular cup o’ metaphysical/contemplative tea. What was important for me was having a voice prompting and reminding me to bring my thoughts back to breathing, for helping me engage the immediate sensations and contents of conscious awareness.

2. My mind can’t wander during meditation, if it does I fail.

This isn’t true, although it is part of the challenge when meditating. What becomes interesting, once feeling less frustrated by a wandering train of thought, is discovering what made the mind wander in the first place and what patterns emerge when learning how these distractions occur. When disciplining myself to notice thoughts as they arose, and acknowledging them as thoughts and potential distractions, the moment grew easier to stay in. This keener momentary awareness also afforded more patience, comfort, and with time, a desire to meditate longer…the length became less and less important. It wasn’t a fight with boredom or restlessness anymore, although this ease only comes when the habit is being kept to steadfastly. It’s a tool that requires constant use, or the mind gets quickly reoriented to the more distracting nature of everyday life.

3. Meditation is going to blow your mind and expand it into the multiverse

While I’ve had some meditation sessions that I came away from feeling pretty damn good, I’ve never noticed a third eye on my forehead or come away from it sensing that I was floating on a new plain of existence. I can attest that my later and longer sessions led to a more distinct and welcome calmness — both of mind and body. The “spiritual” or “mind expanding” quality of meditation I would more appropriately describe as gaining an understanding for the workings of ones thoughts. With meditation, we can learn what habits of thinking try incessantly to tear us away from the moment, and develop a capacity to guide our awareness back, or rather stay in the present; so much so that the experience in meditation becomes something of a thoughtless state, where guiding and redirecting ceases to be of necessity because the mind is literally in a state where what is being thought is immaterial to the mere sensation of present experience…as it has been described, this is what pure consciousness is. This is the more difficult but rewarding quality that meditation can provide.

Humans are really bad at being able to sit and embrace a calming sense of everything being okay just because it is okay. We always seem to believe we need reasons for it, or that we need to be working to achieve a better situation for ourselves, a situation that likely does not exist. This immediate moment that I am in right now CAN be okay and I CAN feel okay about it being okay.

4. That I should “know” when it’s working
Although meditation works, it isn’t something that must be or even can be made/forced to work. Certain conditions are more conducive to having an effective session, but thinking too hard about whether I’ve done it correctly or deliberating with myself about whether I’m in the proper mindstate will basically defeat the purpose of the practice. Just by making a habit of meditating, I was able to slowly get past the nagging concern of whether I felt like it was working or not. It was indeed weird for me to just sit in a room and breath and do very little else. That awkwardness also dissipated as I continued to just do it, and do it daily. Know, within yourself, that sitting still for 4-5 and later 10-20 minutes is quite impressive for a modern human being in a consumerist society. Later on, the “working” quality — the benefits — become apparent without having had to think about it very hard.

5. That I could not sit still long enough to succeed at meditation

Yes I could, and I did. I just simply had to do it.

To sum up my sentiments concerning meditation: it’s been quite the departure from what I normally participate in, but it’s that very foreign quality that was probably essential for me. I needed to be shaken from my normal frame of mind, from my normal day to day scrambling — and scrambling is often what I am doing. Although, with new habits taking shape in the area of exercise and mindfulness, scrambling has been less of a problem for me. But recently Caitlin and I packed up and moved from Lakewood, WA to Emmett, ID, and I’ve let the meditation habit grow more sporadic. It is something I’ve seen benefits from if and when I’m committing myself to doing it daily, and regardless of any anxiety or a busy brain. Writing this blog is my manifesto for declaring the goodness of meditation as well as my recommitment to making it a daily habit again. Here are some resources for getting started if perhaps you were interested at giving it a shot:

The full text and audio of Waking Up Ch. 1, of particular relevance being the section on mindfulness

Guided meditations:
9 Minute
26 Minute

Further information:
Dan Harris and Sam Harris talk mindfulness and meditation
Wherever You Go, There You Are
http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/14096.Wherever_You_Go_There_You_Are

Course Corrections (On choosing what our missteps and detours mean)

Change-Your-Path

The day came for posting a new entry to the VO Review, and it passed by while I balked on my weekly commitment. Though it’s not too late, as this now posted just a few days following. I had my original concept prepared and basically written out, but while doing the edits, my enthusiasm slowly and depressingly waned. I chose not to use it; not now anyway. I was still determined to get something posted in an effort to remain true to my new habits and goals

Good creative decisions require knowing when an idea or project must be shelved, or axed completely; and finding the thin lines between procrastination, lost causes, misguided perseverance, and giving up too soon. In this situation I knew that the original article just wasn’t ready yet. It had not reached the level of desired cohesion. But publishing and sharing is vital to growth as a writer. For this entry, I want to describe the course correction I made with the hope of illustrating an overlooked element of the creative process.

As creators, writers, and artists, we make choices that determine what our efforts or lack thereof will eventually mean to us. If we aren’t making these choices with awareness, external or subconscious forces will take up the slack, and before long what we intended originally with our efforts is mired in a narrative of doubt or inauthenticity. It’s the way our minds work. We imbue past actions and choices with post-hoc interpretations and rationalizations for why we did things and in describing the bigger picture we hope we’re apart of. Without diligent awareness, it’s easy to take on a self serving bias or a victim mindset. A narrative starts forming that excuses or construes the meaning of our inevitable mistakes and detours. By deciding that the post I was working on wasn’t where I wanted it to be, I consciously determined to write something else and to decide what that meant about for my developing goals and writing habit. But these decisions did not come without doubt and dissonance.

It’s difficult not to allow self doubt, insecurities, or outside pressures color what it is we believe about our actions and decision. Sometimes we unconsciously surrender the freedom to shape the story ourselves. “I’m a quitter, a procrastinator, a model of inconsistency”…this could easily be what I said about my first post not coming together quite right. In fact, I did say these things to myself, and believed them momentarily. The question I had to ask myself about how to label my creative decision, action, or lack thereof, is this: are these labels and interpretations my choice or are they the identity I’ve allowed uncertainty and external forces to impress upon me?

There were both subtle and simple reasons behind my decision to write this post, in an effort to keep me on a disciplined creative track. I had doubts when I felt that my other write-up hadn’t taken on the desired shape. I started telling myself, “nobody cares if I post this week anyway” or, “how can you feel so good about something one day and find it to be utter nonsense the next?” However, I chose a different train of thought. I consciously discarded this old habit of fixating on my inadequacies. Something that could easily derail me in the past.

I’m not faking it ‘til I make it, or making excuses for giving up, or browbeating myself for being a few days late on posting. I made the willful decision to take action in a different direction, rather than hold myself to the impossible standard where every action must result in brilliance, and that it must go according to the plan or I’ve failed. And with this willful decision, I’ve written another blog entry for the VO Review. Here she be!

 

Quick hits

Thoughts on the Marvel film universe (after viewing Guardians of the G): the more bloated the installments get, the less I care about the paper thin plots and any impetus for the conflicts. They’re basically visual roller coaster rides. I enjoy them and move on.

Things I’d forgotten: how cold the winters get, how hard habits are to form and how easy they are to break, how smart people still do plenty of dumb things (mostly speaking for myself).

Rediscovering for the first time: the value of lists and keeping notes

Awesomeness of the week: seeing our cat use the stuff we’ve packed in boxes as her personal jungle gym and sleeping perch.

New shows for me: Broad City, Hell on Wheels

Books I’m enjoying or enjoyed: No Country for Old Men, Founding Brothers, Dataclysm

Albums to give a listen: Divisionary by Ages and Ages, Room 93 by Halsey, Wildewoman by Lucius

New irrational appreciation: Vintage sodas in glass bottles (chiefly Root Beer and Cream Soda)

Is Nolan Who We Think He Is? (A VO Review of Interstellar and its director)

interstellar.black_.hole_
Spoilers are VERY minor with story elements and devices only hinted at.

Often after seeing a major release from the likes of Christopher Nolan, my first inclination is to defend the work. Without question, when it comes to Nolan, my critical sense is in what I would term ‘High Art’ mode. His films have their various flaws and his technique is at times clunky, but I have my theories for why this is the case and why these are insufficient for disputing his greatness as a director. Chris Nolan, often with his brother Jonathan Nolan in the writer’s seat, makes ambitious and praiseworthy overtures towards bridging the gap between mainstream, big budget fodder and a more sophisticated artistic vision. Naturally, this brings out the trolls, contrarians, and the hyper-critical.

Soon after The Dark Knight was exalted by critics and audiences alike, there were detractors who felt a special need to temper the conversation with a “hey now, folks, hold your horses.” Some did it tastefully and brought appropriate realism to the consensus of what Nolan’s work means in the public conscience and consciousness. Others were in full on take-Nolan down-a-notch mode, and invariably their go-to zinger went something like, “Nolan is no Kubrick”; delivered as though they’d been personally insulted. It’s easy enough to respond to such contempt by saying, “well no shit.” Neither are The Black Keys any sort of Led Zeppelin, but they are still pretty damn great. It seemed to be a commonplace demonstration of intellectual grandstanding following Inception for someone to write or tweet “Inception wasn’t THAT mind blowing, I understood the WHOLE thing” or “the reason your mind was blown was because of the Earth sized plot holes you didn’t catch onto, so you FELT like it was deep and epic! But if you were smart enough, you’d know better.”

So before delving into my own critical breakdown of Interstellar, I’d like to address the issue of minds being blown and glaring logic loopholes. Firstly, spotting plot holes doesn’t always entail that you were the smarter viewer. On repeat viewing of Nolan’s films, which are often packed like puzzles, it becomes clear that he and his brother are very particular and most questions are answerable or purposefully left ambiguous. I will admit that his pacing and degree of explanation is sporadically suspect; an issue of editing and cutting down to digestible size I imagine. But simply because I’m unsure exactly what transpired in a scene, or because I didn’t gather why so and so did such and such in scene ‘A’ or ‘B’, doesn’t give me free rein to accuse a director or writer of laziness or speak of those who enjoyed viewing it scornfully.

Secondly, when it comes to Nolan’s work, viewers run a high risk of becoming prisoners of the moment. I know this was true of me when it came to The Dark Knight Rises; which in retrospect I now see as being Nolan’s most flawed effort, paling as compared to TDK. However, when I first saw it I was convinced it was superior; that he’d taken his TDK template to that next epic level. I was a POM to the IMAX experience and the mythic/epic Chris Nolan overtones. TDKR had a certain level of hubris, the auteur attempting to elevate the pulpy comic book action movie to the plain of legendary. To Nolan’s credit, this vision was mostly realized. But, on additional sit downs with TDKR, I started noticing its glaring blemishes. Nolan’s shortcomings became more readily apparent: a telegraphed twist, clunky and disengaging action sequences, Shakespearean and dramatic flare occasionally drifting into silliness, pacing issues, and distracting editing. But let’s remember why the susceptibility for being caught up in Nolan’s magic exists in the first place; he indeed makes magic on the screen and often evokes transcendent and sublime emotionality.

So, I went into Interstellar with my bias detectors as fully in check as I could muster. But I still possessed the sort of giddiness that a youthful me had whilst attending Jurassic Park or Return of the King for the first time. I was stoked. So as I hunkered down for the feature presentation, I was of two minds. Despite Nolan’s flaws, he still creates awe inspiring movies that equate to what I would only describe as ‘spiritual’. With Interstellar, some of his directorial tics show through again, yet, in the IMAX setting is wholly engaging in the ways that Nolan is known for. This is why I go to the theater. These are the kinds of movies I hope for and rarely ever see.

Most movies are just that, movies (crude and entertaining). Christopher Nolan still adheres to this ambition of making FILMS; not simply moving pictures that assist the popcorn going down more smoothly. He often manages to deliver on both fronts. Interstellar, however, might alienate the more casual tenants of weekend features. More than any of his other projects, the Nolan brothers are firmly in the driver’s seat and were given ample amounts of leeway to try the patience of standard movie goers; not only in its mood but with its near 3 hour length. Movie goers that are likely more accustomed to the Marvel comic freneticism, hokey one-liners, and a predictable cadence of rising conflict, climax, and clean resolution. This isn’t a criticism of movie going audiences as much as it is an acknowledgement that a certain style of filmmaking is going extinct, and Nolan refuses to let it die. Of this I am grateful, because that style is a beautiful thing.

From the get go, another brilliant score from Hans Zimmer sets the tone for a journey that is grand in scale. The aesthetic of the film is clean and noticeably free of obvious digital doctoring and clutter. The setup for the premise does require patience, but I didn’t feel any annoyance watching it unfold. A number of plot devices are left unclear, and at times might frustrate. Here, I’d suggest, is a known problem for Nolan in general. In an effort to save some of the big reveals, we are kept in the dark maybe too much. Conversely, he is prone to expositive info dumps that are unusual for wide audience releases. I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks felt that they were sitting through a science lesson that, even though laden with dialogue, left them scratching their head for having not brushed up on their cosmology and astrophysics. I didn’t have a problem here, but I’ve taken an interest in these subjects most of my life . This isn’t a tooting of my horn, I readily admit that Nolan could have done better explaining some stuff.

As Interstellar takes off into space, Nolan’s nods to Kubrick’s 2001 are so obvious that it can hardly be levied as a criticism. He is PURPOSEFULLY paying tribute to particular aesthetic touches from one the greatest sci fi films of all time. He has said himself that “you can’t pretend 2001 doesn’t exist when you’re making Interstellar.” But these are mostly visual and not tonal or thematic similarities. The storytelling and manner of how the plot unfolds is almost entirely unique to Nolan with the exception of what I would term Interstellar’s ‘monolith moment’. Thankfully, Christopher Nolan felt the need to inject humanity into this epic space opera and also grants the audience a sleek resolution, rather than leaving them like a quivering fetus in space contemplating their existential insignificance.

I anticipate that some will say the resolution was predictable, cheesy or too tidy. Without giving it away I can still express understanding of where these criticisms would come from. I had my moments of skepticism and I wasn’t in love with the ‘monolith moment’ myself, but the epilogue of the film largely erased my doubts. I left feeling respectful of how Christopher Nolan chose to solve his little puzzle. He’s one of those artists that seems deliberate and calculated enough that I trust his choices without over thinking whether I completely agree with it. This allowance of artistic latitude when it comes to exacting scrutiny is a conscious choice, and honestly it has made most movies and shows more enjoyable for me. I have spent too many days being prudish and pretentious in pursuit of something searing to say as a demonstration of my intellect. I think it doubtful that anyone else could have managed a better denouement without just leaving the end ambiguous, which is often the typical route taken by art house or more idiosyncratic filmmakers of the Lars Von Trier variety. There is a reason those movies often don’t get wider releases. They might be cool and interesting, but they’re weird, even awkward, and they often conceal their intentions and message to a maddening extent.

Interstellar is not for everyone and that doesn’t mean it’s not still great and admirable in most respects of these words. Lovers of the Dark-Knight-Nolan are going to get something worlds apart from those installments. The Inception crowd will have its patience tried as Interstellar is light in the action department. Where it tries to create tension with action, the movie slips considerably. A middle act devolves into an awkward astronaut fight that felt forced while also attempting to overlay poetic flourishes that frankly didn’t work. But this was brief and the film then moved onto its epic finale. This is mostly a character drama set in space that saves the bombast for the key moments. The meanwhile-on-earth plot gets significantly more screen time towards the latter end of the picture, and the editing choices with that were at times clunky, frustrating, and less engaging.

I would suggest this film be witnessed in the full IMAX glory, but I imagine it’s still great in other formats. Chris Nolan is one of the few filmmakers actually choosing to utilize the IMAX cameras during principle photography, so the entire geography of the screen is covered for most of the running time — no doubt looking spectacular. The non-IMAX intercuts are in a narrower aspect ratio, noticeably darker and less vivid; perhaps bothersome to purists or perfectionists. I await the day that the IMAX cameras and film are more affordable and versatile so Nolan can just have the entire experience be properly wide and tall, as the ambitions of his films demand it. But I’m also hearing that the format might altogether be retired, and this could very well be some of the last times we can witness this preferred Nolan medium.

Some will go in expecting life altering and world changing cinematics. Many of these folks will probably prisoner-of-the-moment their way right to that desired conclusion. And more power to them, it’s awesome to feel like your life was altered and your world was shattered and reformed in a 3 hour span. Others will go into it expecting epic action and coolness, and I imagine some of these cravings might be left unsatisfied. There are also those who will attend looking to depreciate Nolan’s stock with a how-dare-anyone-compare-him-to-Stanley chip on their critical shoulder. Admittedly, there are poetic and romantic touches that Nolan paints with that sometimes come across more silly than intriguing; but he hits far more often than he misses. I’m not going to let one badly delivered Matt Damon pontification spoil the experience. And yes, Matt Damon is in this movie…I’m not getting my Matt’s mixed up.

Let haters hate and allow some people to have a fleck of bitter taste ruin an entire heaping pile of delectable, satisfying, intellectual and creative desserts. This is the way of the modern movie goer and hyper-critic: to feel like they are owed what they want or expected. Those who don’t get it will haughtily levy labels like “overrated” and “pop sci-fi” against Insterstellar more as an expression of their dislike for Nolan and people who revere him. There are relevant criticisms of this and his other work; that they are “pop” or “silly” are not some of them. I also anticipate that the media narrative will paint the response as more polarized than it actually is. But there will be yay-sayers and naysayers, as immutable a fact as time itself…wait, is time immutable??…

I for one was satisfied to a large extent. There were a handful of moments that created that undeniable upswell indicating that I was witnessing greatness. I wouldn’t want to belittle that with minor grievances. Christopher Nolan has done for the medium in its early 21sty century form what is otherwise not granted by major studios to most other filmmakers. This sort of freedom and ambition should be applauded, even when it doesn’t match all of our expectations. Otherwise, we’ll be condemned to a smattering of Michael Bayesque CGI orgies, Judd Apatow knockoffs, and overextended franchise money pits; with the occasional bright glimmers like Edge of Tomorrow or the Hungers Game series. Even those often lack the same ‘high art’ aspirations that Nolan and his team clearly hold themselves to. Color me fooled or hoodwinked by the magic, but I see the sophistication present in his craft as being real and achieved, not some hallucinatory mindtrick of cinema. Go forth and enjoy, and do not over think all the over thinking I just did with regards to Christopher Nolan’s Insterstellar. PEACE

Fuzzy Boundaries (The merits of intentionally getting lost)

IMG_9388
I recently started reading a gem of a book entitled ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’ by Rebecca Solnit. Sometimes I get lucky enough to stumble on a book like this; the sort of book which defies any solid genre distinction. Solnit’s work here reads as a collection of biographical essays but is more a philosophical contemplation on the concept of ‘being and getting lost’. It’s rife with existential fodder…and I am loving it, because I’m apparently psychologically masochistic like that. Other books that land in this fuzzy, challenging category are Colin Wilson’s ‘The Outsider’, John Gray’s ‘Straw Dogs’ among others — these kinds of books often end up in the favorites column. I’ll likely also recommend them insistently to my friends; both those who read and those who don’t.

I have a hankering for getting lost in reading and more generally in the experience of discovery. I typically delve through art and information that cannot be readily categorized or otherwise covers a swath of stimulating subjects (psychology, philosophy, physics, social criticism, etc). The Pacific Standard (website and magazine) is particularly notable for this kind of content; the Brain Pickings blog being another. I encourage myself in this sort of thorough, even scattered, approach despite being somewhat anarchic and occasionally without direction.

My music listening habits follow this form of ‘looking to be lost’. In building an extensive playlist of new music from 2014, I’ve been aiming for the deep end hoping to find the unexpected. It’s an ongoing project of perusing the web for albums I can add regardless of whether I have heard the artists/bands before; then later, semi-randomly picking a release, often unsure of what I’m about to get myself into. With these efforts, I’ve almost exclusively listened to new music and new artists this year. I can say that its been largely worthwhile. Some of the best music I’ve heard in several years I found via this process — the process of intentionally looking to get lost.

I’m an enthusiast for taking walks. This interest unfortunately eluded me for decades. But now circumstances are such that I have little choice but to take part in this simplest of activities. I was please, however, in finding out that I truly enjoy walking. And even more so, wandering. The A and B of my treks would often be determined, but there were always alternative paths to take and strange corners to behold. Where I currently reside, there is a strange patchwork of Pacific Northwest greenery, suburban homes, retail strip malls, semi-urban apartment complexes, as well a few historic and longer established fixtures. I wouldn’t qualify it as mind blowing by any stretch, but it is unpredictable. Once again falling into that not so neat category of defying distinction.

A key point that Solnit establishes early in ‘Field Guide’ is that being lost is OKAY if that is our desire and if we are equipped for it. Because people crave certainty, and seemingly require the formation of narratives and memories that bolster this sense of certainty, getting lost becomes of particular importance for self awareness and spiritual/emotional well being. There is too much in life that we will never know or be able to fully understand. An appropriate means for exploring the fuzzy boundaries of reality is essential. Without a healthy methodology for ‘getting lost’, people are prone to drift into madness, despair, or rigid and dogmatic thinking.

“Touching the edge of the unknown…sharpens the senses,” she suggests. The wording here could be interpreted several ways. Are we touching the edge of the ‘unknown’ as we stand still within our personal area of the “known”? Or are we always within the ‘unknown’ and we discover its edge where we manage brief glimpses of the realm of knowledge? Is putting knowledge and understanding into geographical terms utterly facile? I could easily be over thinking this simple quote, but it felt relevant to explore the paradoxical ways it could be read — which highlights the paradoxical nature of knowledge altogether.

Could it be that we are better served assuming that we are already, and always will be, lost? And knowing how to be lost well, accepting this fundamental characteristic of being in existence, is how we can stay sane while also finding joy in the uncertainty. Awe and wonder are undeniably some of the most sublime of emotions that anyone can experience, and they both seem intrinsic in this act of discovering — or ‘being lost — when we are going about it with the appropriate reverence for the elusiveness of reality.

I once wrote in a poem/meditation “let go of what I cannot control / embrace and have reverence for mystery / always aware of that uncertainty / but inviting towards the possibilities of each new day.” Personally, I have long felt that much of life was beyond my control. I easily could and have used this as an excuse to put little effort towards having control in my life — to eternally “go with the flow”. Those who drive their sanity into the ground seeking control in every aspect of their life are equally misguided. As is true with most things in life, balance and moderation are critical to emotional well being. And key to our balance is knowing that nothing is ever completely balanced, or rather, such harmonious states are never known or felt by us as individuals. If ever they are permitted to us, they’re gone before we can fully comprehend the purity of such moments.

For awhile I assumed that it was not up to me what my moods were going to be from day to day or where my motivation would be at. I left it up to chance. Or, I was so convinced that chance was in charge, that I took more drastic measures in trying to “feel” how I wanted to feel. The reality was, I could DO a lot more than I realized in helping myself wander through this inexplicable conscious experience, but it required work, willingness and discipline. Maybe extra work for someone with a mind and disposition such that I have. Regardless, it takes time for that work to demonstrate its benefits, and that’s where I struggled mightily. I didn’t want to wait, I didn’t want to believe in the process of self mastery and discipline. I wanted to believe these were a fiction, or at least wholly beyond my grasp.

These were just ways in which I chose to crumble in the face of perceived futility. I’m now beginning to see the journey for what it is. A journey that is inevitable but rife with possibility for joy and satisfaction. It’s an active process learning how to ‘be lost’. Part of that process is continuing to seek out the unknown and uncomfortable so that my mind avoids the lull of complacence. Always watchful for that fallacious sense of thinking I know the nature of things. A habit of thought that led me to assuming all was futile was in fact that exact fallacy — thinking I had the universe figured out. I had forgotten how to be lost.

When I listen to music with a concerted effort towards keeping it fresh, and when I take a walk with the intention of wandering, these are small measures for reminding me how to be lost. They may seem mundane or even trivial when it comes to contemplating the existential nature of my very being. But, in fact, they are essential to being at peace with the strangeness and inexplicability of it. What better way is there to face challenges then to always be uprooting our perceptions of art, society, self, and reality itself? So watch a movie you maybe wouldn’t have ever thought to, start a journal if you’ve never recorded your thoughts, play a video game if you’ve never tried. Is this getting self helpish? Meh… whatever, it’s sound encouragement. We spend too much time convincing ourselves that we don’t believe the good advice and ideas that we are often freely given. I meditate and jog now even though I never used to and thought I’d never be able to make a habit of it. Let’s continue surprising ourselves.

Quick Hits:

A fitting dialogue exchange, given this blog entry, from the film ‘Boyhood’ between Mason (the boy in Boyhood) and his father Mason Sr. (played by Ethan Hawke)
After discussing graduation, breakups, and other ‘normal’ things Mason inquires: So what’s the point?
Mason Sr: Of what?
Mason Jr: I don’t know, any of this…everything?””
Strange stare from Mason Sr, unsure if the question is a joke: everything?! Befuddled chuckle. What’s the point? I mean I sure as shit don’t know…
Mason Jr smiles and roles eyes in a ‘aww geez Dad’.
Father continues: neither does anybody else, okay, we’re all just wingin’ it, you know. Shrugging and look around, looks back at Mason Jr: I mean the good news is your feelin’ stuff, you know, and you gotta hold onto that.

By the way, watch ‘Boyhood’, easily one of the years best.

Currently in excited anticipation of: Viewing of Insterstellar in IMAX on Saturday No. 8th
Thing I’m cutting it close on: my 40 book goal for 2014, currently at 23 with 2 months to go
Simple pleasure I appreciate: Having the perfect pen around that glides well and writes dark and makes me feel like a boss when I write with it.
Activity that makes me feel surprisingly awesome: Running in brisk autumn weather while wearing dorky wool socks and listening to my ‘Get Pumped’ playlist.

The Antipathy Prone Millennial (A critical review of labeling something as “overrated”)

keep-calm-you-re-overrated

I would like to propose a thesis, and it might just be pure conjecture. But it’s something that seems to crop up online with relative frequency, especially in the age of linkbait. I’m speaking of a common trend in blogging, journalism, and opinion writing; that trend being “overrated” lists and articles. I would imagine they are easy to write and stir up a good amount of traffic. I see this driven by 2 major factors: millennials (people my age) enjoy saying stuff is overrated — it makes us feel like iconoclasts — and websites exploiting this fixation. They are easy to write because basically all that needs to be done is finding something that has often been considered “classic” or held in high regard and proceed to suggest that the praise is unwarranted. Pepper it with snark, smugness, and a properly contrived sense of contrarianism.

My conjecture is that this particular phenomenon has become increasingly common as the social media generation flowers into adulthood. Something about seeing the “overrated” tag in a headline seems to spike an emotional response one way or the other, and we must click and find out what sacred cow is being desecrated. The manifestation of this trend in music writing and journalism is particularly insufferable. And I use strong words here because I have been just as prone towards this fixation of wanting to come across as iconoclastic. But often times it’s more demonstrative of an ‘overwrought’ and antagonistic disposition.

One particular example of this was a “most overrated bands” list I found during past inter-web perusals. These are often written under the guise of “hipster hating” or some other nefarious form of high-mindedness, and oddly, the most hipster sounding articles now are the ones hating on hipsters. Anti-hipsters are the new hipsters. Back to the example; what this fellow chose to do was dig up 20 or so of the most respected or appreciated indie bands of the last decade (The Black Keys, TV On the Radio, Death Cab for Cutie, Arcade Fire, etc) and contrive the most facile ways to insult them, or more so insult the listeners and their fashion choices. It was almost admirable in its troll-like nature. But if a reader had never listened to these bands, they might actually think this guy knew what he was talking about. And that’s why this trend of internet monologuing and entertainment can’t just simply be dismissed. Nor should we seek it out. However, it would behoove us to understand the generational and cultural context behind this sort of rhetoric; hoping that we gain a greater understanding of why we like to basically make fun of things.

Parody and trolling are too often looking exactly the same nowadays, which is ruining the art and utility of parody. These “overrated” articles apparently work, but they’re lazy and serve no higher purpose but to generate clicks and frustration. The frustration is key as often people will turn to their social media outlets, even sharing the link, voicing how appalled they are (I’ve done this). Or the reverse, posting smugly and declaring “HA, I’ve always told everyone those flannel wearing neckbeards listening to Arcade Fire ARE out of their mind” as though one article confirms this theory in their mind; a theory which is largely based on the individual’s insecurity. I am being critically harsh here, and I feel warranted in doing so as I have done both these things — being smug or feigning outrage. It’s emotionally satisfying…word of advice: RESIST!

What are the motivations behind what we post or what we choose to click on and subsequently share? I find it useful to ask myself this question with frequency and have avoided considerable consternation as a result. The purpose of this kind of writing was often just about riling people up. It’s the nature of the linkbait beast.

I can only hope we are starting to move on from this hijacking of our reactionary natures and seeing it for what it is — shallow distraction serving as a veiled form of status seeking. If I can say such and such is overrated, I demonstrate my superiority…right? On the contrary, I’ve made it obvious that my identity felt threatened.

So I’ll end by simply suggesting that millennials have much to offer, but their fixation on what is “overrated” seems very clearly overrated. The larger attitude being one of rebellion and iconoclasm; which can be wholly healthy and necessary. Just not so much on Buzzfeed threads or a Tubmlr blog while aimed at suspect and trivial targets. Its become an unfortunate distraction that co-opts the passions driving individuality, jettisoning them off in a dubious scatter shot of forced big words so it still has the veneer of clever individualism. We feed the beast this way. Self awareness is called for. I continue to try, and I hope we all do.

PEACE

Quick Hits

Album that surprised me greatly: Goddess by Banks

Album of the year watch: Run the Jewels ‘RTJ2’, Kate Tempest ‘Everybody Down’, alt-J ‘This is All Yours’, Sylvan Esso ‘self-titled’, EMA ‘The Future’s Void’, among others and much more to listen to.

Observation from rewatching Lost: Season 3 has been better than I originally recall, stuff actually starts happening! The fact that it is often ambiguous or inexplicable, I’ve better understood this time around, is key to the themes that run through the entirety of the show.

Observation about the Pac Northwest: Wow! You easily forget how rainy the rainy season is. Lakes in the parking lot, that about describes it.

Random Quote:  “Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them…Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer.” (there were a variety of different translations of this, quite interesting to see how many different ways it is presented)

-Rainer Maria Rilke