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A screenshot of the diegetic Jonathan Larson in Lin Manuel Miranda's "tick, tick...BOOM!"

Jonathan Larson & Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “tick, tick…BOOM!” (2021)

I’m certain that Jonathan Larson was an outstanding waiter. With his engaging, outgoing personality, he must have certainly earned a copious amount of tips in order to manage within his small, New York City flat. Working Friday through Sunday, he would then spend the rest of his week composing. A personal hero of mine, Larson is the mind and composer behind the rock musical Rent, which ran on Broadway for 12 years. It also won the Pulitzer Prize. It ran so long, in fact, that its success makes it easy to take for granted. But it wasn’t always this way. Larson, a musical theatre major, worked as a waiter and never deviated from his life mission (albeit not without his personal frustration). His goal was to write music and eventually break into the industry and this he did inevitably. Unfortunately, he did not live to see it.

tick…tick…BOOM! (directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda) is a Netflix Original musical, which renders the story of Jonathan Larson’s adult life, as well as his creative struggle. Set in 1990, just days before his 30th birthday, Larson is attempting to complete the final song within Supurbia, his first musical. He has been working on this musical for eight years, apparently. He lives in near poverty, wherein he can’t even manage his electric bill. At times, he feels like a failure for not having achieved the success he so covets, like that of his peers. Constantly comparing himself to earlier, younger musicians, the film recreates Larson’s One Man Show, wherein he details these frustrations—his creativity, his friendships, and his ‘career’ as a waiter while using them as creative fodder. ‘Hi, I’m Jon. I’m a musical-theatre writer. One of the last of my species.’ […]

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A stylized screenshot of the Stalker from Andrei Tarkovsky's "Stalker"

Awakening & Escaping Happiness: Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” (1979)

In watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, I found myself missing a man I’ve never met, who died when I was only 10. He is one of those directors who, amid the visual, transcends film as a medium and moves it into something other, something ethereal, and something understandable. Yet, as for what that understanding is—it will vary upon audience. Upon rewatch (as I’ve seen the film a number of times), Russia invaded Ukraine only a day earlier. The sad news of events only adds to the film’s relevance. I also recently reviewed Antonioni’s Red Desert, wherein I refer to the human intrusion that has desecrated nature. By contrast, Stalker is almost a rebellion to all of that—nature’s uprise perhaps? After all, where do humans fit amid all this? Where exactly are we supposed to fall?

The story, shot in long, dreamlike sequences, is meant to immerse one into a sort of dream. (I often thought that watching a Tarkovsky film is the closest to observing dream.) The film, set in an unknown country in an unknown time, begins with a journey involving unnamed citizens. Stalker, Writer and Professor are the titles distinguishing these three figures who, in their search through the Zone (a site supposedly loaded with traps) contains a Room where one can wish for their secret desires to come true. The anonymity of the characters serves a purpose—that this could be any one of us. And what of the Zone? How do we interpret this place that is ever so difficult to navigate? Here, weeds are overgrown (according to human standards, anyway) and the flowers hold no scent. When the Writer is asked what he writes about, ‘My readers,’ he replies. […]

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A stylized screenshot of the protagonist in Jane Campion's "An Angel at My Table"

All Sweet Things: On Jane Campion’s “An Angel at My Table” (1990)

One of the key exchanges in Betty Smith’s great novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn involves the young protagonist, Francie Nolan, and her schoolteacher. Francie, a budding writer, is being upbraided by the older woman for reasons the girl cannot yet make perfect sense of.

Something similar occurs more than once in Jane Campion’s 1990 film An Angel at My Table, an adaptation of a three-set memoir by New Zealand author Janet Frame. Like the Smith novel, it also follows the childhood and maturation of a young girl who is a budding, and then famous, writer. The first scene is when Janet is a child, and, after first acquiring a taste for poetry due to a kind teacher’s instruction, she is trying her hand at it at home. One of her older sisters peeks at her paper and asks: […]

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A stylized photo of Arseny Tarkovsky smoking a cigarette.

An Initiation: On “I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky”

As someone with an affection for the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, I was eager to finally meet his father. I met him momentarily within Andrei’s 1975 film Mirror, but we barely got acquainted. Arseny Tarkovsky (1907-1989) held a huge place in his son’s life. And like with Jean Pierre Renoir, here we have another father-son dynamic wherein both are artists. Andrei admitted that his father’s work had a huge influence upon him, and how fortunate is that? To have a father who not only encourages the arts but also is an artist himself? In watching many interviews with Andrei, it is clear that he was a very sensitive soul. He loved his father and because his father’s work held such impact in his life, and he chose to honor him by using his work within his films. As example, take this poem from I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (translated by Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtsev), which is set against one of the more famous scenes within Mirror. […]

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A cancellation sign on a shelf of books, for censorship of ideas.

Are Ideas Going Extinct?

Eliminating books by burning or banning them isn’t just about getting rid of the physical objects, and not just the ideas, either. It’s also about what state of mind and heart the people and society who do the banning are in. Setting fire to the Qur’an or Huckleberry Finn tells us more about the people than the pages.

Turning books to ash or hiding them from sight is ongoing. And it is not a new phenomenon. In the 15th century, Mayan sacred texts were burned by Catholic Bishop Diego de Landa. He wrote that they were full of “superstition and lies of the devil…We burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree and which caused them great affliction.”

The early 20th century saw U.S. Postal Inspector and founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Anthony Comstock, hot on the trail of vice, immorality, and obscenity. In 1873 he lobbied Congress to pass an anti-obscenity law titled “An Act for the Suppression in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.” He is credited (if that’s the correct word) with the burning of fifteen tons of books. These included Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, anatomy texts for medical students, and especially anything related to providing women information on contraception. “Books are feeders for brothels,” he declared. One cannot, of course, overlook the Nazi contribution. As soon as they came to power in Germany, books began turning from paper and ink to flames and smoke. On May 10, 1933, there was a nation-wide event which took place across 34 university towns. Nazi-led student groups burned books which propaganda minister Joseph Geobbels deemed “un-German”, including works by Helen Keller, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and scores of Jewish writers, not the least of which was Heinrich Heine, who wrote, presciently, “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.” […]

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A screenshot from Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" of two characters arguing

Life, Death & Romance: Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947)

I first heard about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir via Harry Nilsson, who appeared in the 1960s television series. Nilsson played—you got it—a singer who’d been forced to spend the night at this seaside abode due to impending rain and thunder. Such a strange concept, I thought. A ghost who haunts a woman he loves only in afterlife? I watched the episode, and aside from Nilsson’s performance, I found it dull. The show didn’t last and was cancelled after two seasons. Thus, imagine my surprise when I learned this was a film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Really? They made a series from this film? How very odd.

Following recommendation, I watched it, and afterwards, I watched it again. And what a darling film this is. Love, death, longing, and romance—what else does one need? The film begins with Lucy (Gene Tierney), a widow who longs to live by the sea. Despite opposition from her in laws who want her to remain in London out of respect for her late husband, headstrong Lucy goes to purchase an abandoned cottage that is now overrun with four years’ vegetation. Gull Cottage, is what it is called, and it is supposedly haunted. In fact, no one is willing to stay there for more than a night. But upon Lucy’s visit, she falls in love with the house instantly, as though something is pulling her towards it. Oh, and what could this be other than Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison)? […]

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A stylized illustration depicting the flag of Cuba and an injured brain, for Havana syndrome

The Ghost in the Machine: From Havana (Syndrome), With Love

Imagine suffering tinnitus, visual problems, vibrations inside your skull, nausea, vertigo, insomnia, fatigue, and dizziness. You are understandably alarmed and immediately visit your doctor, who pronounces you fit and well. You get a referral to a more specialized physician, who runs quite a few very sophisticated examinations. She finally pronounces that you are in peak condition—fit and well. But the symptoms persist—excruciatingly so—to the point where you go to a renowned, top-of-the-line expert (you have excellent insurance!) and you are put through a battery of tests and procedure involving machinery you’ve only seen n sci-fi movies. After three days of expert investigation, the doctor gives you the results: You are fit and quite well, and he suggests a visit with a psychiatrist. Puzzling, frustrating and very worrying, right?

The symptoms were first reported in 2016, by U.S. and Canadian embassy staff in Havana, Cuba—thus the sexy “Havana Syndrome” moniker the media so adores. By 2017, more people, including U.S.  intelligence and military personnel, reported pain and tingling in the ears in other places, like China, New Delhi, Europe, and Washington, DC. The people in the Cuban embassy reported these debilitating neurological attacks and the Trump Administration called them “targeted attacks.” Those evil Cubans or Russians or Somebody had a secret, powerful “sonic weapon” to harm the Good Guys. Panic ensued. Fifteen Cuban diplomats were expelled from Washington, and most of the U.S. staff was withdrawn from the embassy in Havana. Five years later, more than 200 U.S. Government officials were claiming the effects of what came to be known as the “Havana Syndrome.” President Biden signed a bill which compensated the victims.  The victims of an affliction which, up to now, has no known cause, but has generated a wide variety of theory and pearl-clutching speculation about not just targeted attacks, but targeted attacks by a microwave weapon wielded by hostile foreign powers—Russia, in particular. In 2018, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study of the 21 diplomats, led by Douglas H. Smith, Director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania. Smith and his team found signs of brain damage but no signs of impact to the patients’ skulls—a condition they called “immaculate concussion.” […]

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A shot of mother and daughter arguing in a car from Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird" (2017)

Her Identity of Place: On Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” (2017)

When you are 18, your identity resides in the past. Where you are from, where you went to school, and who your parents are. You simply haven’t lived long enough to accumulate a string of accomplishments, nor have you had the opportunity to make enough life choices to define you. So, when you are uprooted at 18 and transplanted to a university—‘Where are you from? Where did you go to school?’—these are the questions asked. They serve as a shallow introduction—a way of establishing your place—of defining you—within these new surrounds.

Lady Bird is directed by Greta Gerwig, and I was familiar with her performance in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012), which is one of the most cinematically unattractive films I have ever seen. Shot in dingy black and white for no other reason than to evoke French New Wave, the film is typical Baumbach insomuch that you can almost hear him whispering, ‘This is a Noah Baumbach film. Expect it to be intellectual with lots of literary namedropping.’ His films are sciolistic in some way or other, but admittedly there was something about Frances Ha that made me enjoy it, despite its weaknesses. Perhaps that something is Greta Gerwig’s performance as the ambitious yet vulnerable Frances.

Lady Bird stars Saoirse Ronan as Christine, a high school senior who prefers to be called Lady Bird, rather than her birth name. The reason is never explained but we can gather that she doesn’t like her ordinary life and so this is her attempt to differentiate herself. ‘Do I look like someone from Sacramento?’ she asks. ‘I hate California.’ Her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) works double shifts as a nurse and she takes her daughter’s words as a slight. ‘You have a great life,’ she informs. But Lady Bird, in midst of her longing, doesn’t see it. ‘I wish I could live through something. I want to go to the East Coast,’ she says. ‘I want to live where there are writers.’ ‘You can’t even pass your driver’s test,’ Marion reminds. (Gerwig, who is from California and attended university in New York, based Lady Bird on her own experience.) […]