Month in Review: Memorable Reads, Watches and Listens For February 2021

Film

In and of Itself (2021)

A one man show written together along with his audience. An emotional and conceptual magic trick that proves all too real. A love letter to all those who struggle with knowing who they are, their value and their worth. And a gift to those struggling with mental illness, depression or just general feelings of lostness, sadness and hopelessness.

Who am I? Know you are more than labels and perceptions.

Dear Comrades (2020)

“It all made sense then. Who’s an enemy and who’s one of ours.
She’s one of ours.”

A stunning and powerful recreation of the 1962 massacre in Novocherkassk of unarmed protesters by the Soviet army and KGB leaders. One of these leaders is a young mother who’s unflinching and often unquestioned commitment to the Soviet Union and the KGB is thrown into contest when she has to contend with the reality that her daughter is amongst these protestors. 

The films isn’t trying to make a political point as much as it wants to explore a complex conversation regarding the intricate marriage of politics, people, ideologies and struggle. There’s as much in subtext as there is in the surface script, bringint to light the common humanity that drives and challenges convictions on either side of this conversation. It is within the (necessary) tension that this attention and awareness of our shared humanity creates where we can begin to enter these kinds of conversations together, which I think is what Dear Comrades ultimately desires to invoke.

Sometimes Always Never (2018)

The dry wit in this film is delicious, mouth-watering, appetizing, flavoursome, flavourful, toothsome, inviting, very enjoyable, very palatable. succulent, luscious, rich, sweet.
tasty, savoury, piquant, scrumptious, delish, scrummy, yummy, yum-yum. 

I totally get the elevated emotions over a game of scrabble. And the off beat reality that these character’s exist in also feels relatable in that unfamiliar way that seems to suggest in some way or form this could very well be my reality. Life as it is when we take off the filters. Kind of melancholy, kind of sad, kind of eclectic, kind of fun, and more often than not irreverent about the stuff we take seriously while being aware of the stuff we should take more seriously. All wrapped up in a mystery solving drama revolving around a missing son and a game of scrabble.

Delightful British film that offers a nice twist on the prodigal son narrative, including a meaningful and insightful angle on the son who stayed.

La Llorona (2019)

This is the international film Directed by Jayro Bustamante, not the American version released in the same year.

The film uses the ancient context of the familiar lore that informs its story to comment on what is a very modern political challenge facing Guatemala. It’s the way it does this, layering the different facets of its story into the different elements and characters that populate this modern stage, that is so effective. What one might assume would be traditional horror translates into something much more subtle. This is a drama with horror notes, and rather than use jump scares it uses visuals and tone to bring about this working commentary on the class divide. And given how this focuses in on a singular family responding to the political crisis, each family member is given a unique position to play into the story from their own contrasting perspectives. 

An exceptional film with a perhaps an even more important voice.

Legend of Deification, or Jiang Ziya (2020)

This was one of two outstanding foriegn animated films I saw in Feburary (the other being 2018’s The Tower, a starling Palestinian film that explores the nature of hope in seemingly hopeless situations, rooting its story in a real world tragedy and the power of a child to find freedom in light of the past). This is the second film in a proposed new universe of films that began with the equally wonder Ne Zha from last year.

What was so impressive about Ne Zha is how it brings together cultural notes from Chinese Tradition and belief with the myths and stories that guide their history. It is a wonderful expression of what makes their culture and heritage so rich, weaving in a real sense of spirit and religious conviction that is often absent in Western stories. This second film leans darker and more serious, trading in the world building of Ne Zha for a more streamlined, quest like narrative. Both are equally impressive, and taken together prove complimentary in terms of the way they center on the Fengshen Yanyi” (Investiture of the Gods and the important intersection in their history that shapes this book, the shifting from the falling Shang Dynasty to the rise of the Zhou dynasty.

The animation is beautiful, and the storytelling feels exciting and fresh from my Western perspective, especially in its ability to imagine a real world context that is much bigger than what we can see simply on the surface.

Books

Nomadland by Jessica Bruder

An books formed from Bruder’s own journey into a sub-culture of America. It follows what is an organized community of people who live without a home and who survive “nomadically” by taking seasonal jobs in places like Amazon and State parks. There is a central figure who gives this documentation of this vast and diverse community of people a narrative shape, but every single person we encounter has arrived at this lifestyle for a different reason and with their own unique story in tow.

At the same time, there are shared concerns they all face, many of which shed light on the larger systemic problems that feed into their individual and shared challenges. Bruder helps to give this context while bringing these stories to light not as an anomaly, but as a beautiful and even necessary part of the fabric of our societies. These are not homeless, but people without homes, some by choice, some by necessity, and all with a story that is worth being told. Given how this is told as a kind of travelogue, the further Bruder finds herself on this journey of discovering this community of people, the more she finds hersself gaining empathy for and even capturing the spirit for this kind of lifestyle.

Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

A new find for me in terms of author, and after encountering her brand of introspective horror on full display in this fairly easy read I am hooked. In truth though, I was hooked after one of the best prologues I can remember reading in a long time:

“My beloved aunt, Sara Harrison Shea, was brutally murdered in the winter of 1908. She was thirty-one years old.

Shortly after her death, I gathered all of the diary pages and journals I was able to locate, pulling them out of dozens of clever hiding places throughout her house. She understood the danger these pages put her in.

It then became my task, over the next year, to organize the entries and shape them into a book. I embraced the opportunity, as I soon realized that the story these pages tell could change everything we think we understand about life and death.

I also contend that the most important entries, the ones with the most shocking secrets and revelations, were contained in the final pages of her diary, written only hours before her death.

Those pages have not yet been found.

I have taken no liberties when transcribing these entries; they are not embellished or changed in any way. I believe that, as fantastical as the story my aunt tells may be, it is indeed fact, not fiction. My aunt, contrary to popular belief, was of sound mind.”

Jesus: A Pilgrimage by James Martin, SJ

Phenomenal book that functions as a blend of travelogue, scholarship and devotional. Father James Martin, whom anchors himself in the Ignatious Tradtion of the Christian faith, structures each chapter according to an on the ground, practical pilgrimage through the Holy Land, and pairs it with thoughts on the scholarship and ultimately reflections on his own spiritual journey and awareness of encountering the text while walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

It’s incredibly accessible, highly engaging, and quite often revealing and profound as an honest depiction of this journey. It takes us into the nooks and crannies and dirty corners of the life behind the text, and brings us up close and personal to the one who claimed to be God and yet walked this earth as a man amongst humans.

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

I could just as easily include the film in my above list as I rewatched it following this read, for the first time in over 30 years I might add. But this read was special in that it not only brough up all those childhood memories of images still anchored in my mind, but gave me a fresh perspective through which to understand this story about fear and hope. From my adult eyes, it was a process of reaching back into my childhood perspective to uncover what it could teach me about about overcoming fear and recovering hope, pushing back against the cynicism that so easily comes with those adult eyes. I wrote in this space already about my experience with this book, so I won’t rehash that. Just simply to say that I never realized how much depth there really was tothis story. Or at least it seems I had forgotten.

Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra

This is one of two books I read in February on the similar subject of anger and empathy and its roots in human development and history as a working tension (the other being the book, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World In Crisis, itself a natural follow up to a book I readin January called Survival of the Friendliest: Why We Love Insiders and Hate Outsiders and How We Can Rediscover Our Common Humanity). I picked this one up in preperation to read Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason over the month of March.

There’s not a table left unturned in this hardhitting, empathetic but intelligent discourse on where we are as a world, how we got here, and perhaps, if our imaginations might allow, where we could go should we confront some of the biggest problems of our modern modes of thinking. At the heart of the author’s intent, someone who lives as an adopted Westerner while also understanding this narrative from an Eastern perspective, is exploring the nature of story. The stories we tell ourselves are the stories that define us on a cultural and socio-political lives. Further, its how we understand these stories that turn something from benign history to dangerous rhetoric. And this is as true for what it means to understand the modern stories that tend to guide us in our present age, particularly in the neglect of history and this increasing allegiance to rationalism.

Much of the books premise navigates this notable shift from cultures that once built their lives around stories to a modern and largely godless culture that exists without stories, without myths, at least in the sense in which they are tied to our history. It’s shocking how much of this problematic story emerges from that modern, godless, mythless worldview. It’s also shocking how this shift from religious (given) mythtelling to created mythtelling continues to see itself as the championing of truth, when in fact it is truth built on a modern story, a story that itself hands us the same rheoric that sets one against the other. If anything, it has just revealed the consistent inconsistency and polarization that exists within the human will, along with a will that is intrinsicly tied to the stories that inform us and inform our lives. This isn’t a condemnation of religion as much as it is the will’s continued resistance to truth in a larger, universal sense. In truth, religious mythtelling, or storytelling actually allows us a greater chance to attend to the will. We might think we are more free in a rationalist driven Western society, but we are in fact not. And this will only become more and more pertinant as society progresses towards a future where we are controlled more and more by change and technology, the very things that are stealing away human vocation and guiding progress. We celebrate the success of something going viral, giving way to some of the greatest disparities the world has ever known.

Honorable Mention: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely (A super easy read, and even a fun read given how it exploits our predictably irrational behavior as humans. There is a bit of irreverance to the way the author sheds light on the hows, whys and what’s of our decisions and choices and actions, revealing how much all of us, whether we want to admit it or recognize it or not, are very much controlled by these recognizable external forces and factors. We actually know this more often than not, which adds in the added factor that typically we don’t actually care more often than not. Or we simply choose to ignore it. And yet taking the time to reflect on some o this stuff can actually help us in those small and few moments where we can effectively circumvent the predictably irrational)

Music

Jon Foreman- Departures (2021)

As a huge fan of Switchfoot, I was keenly interested when frontman Jon Foreman first entered into the realm of solo work. His albums are much more scaled back than Switchfoot, which gives them a meditative quality (which colors his previously released Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter series). Departures is his most complex work yet, and also one of his best. Here he brings in a variety of instrumentation that lends layers to that stripped down nature, and lyrically we find him exploring even deeper realms of introspection and faith. It’s both his most overt album on a religous level, and its also his most compelling.

Foo Fighters- Medicine at Midnight (2021)

At first glance this might seem like a bit of a deviation from the material Foo Fighter’s are usually known for. Dig a little deeper though and there’s some compelling song structure and lyrics to be mined from their latest full release. It comes out firing right of the gate before settling into this grove that seems to take this ablum where it will. For my money that is to some interesting places, and thematically speaking this fits with its overt call to revolution colored by the album’s call to try and throw off that which oppresses us and both enter into the rallying cry of No Son of Mine, and also strip off the burden of Shame Shame, the deep depression apparent in the film’s title track, while getting up to dance. There’s a dark side to this album, but it’s also it’s most upbeat, lending itself to the experience of going from being on the ground to participating in the experience.

Single: Child of Love by We The Kingdom feat. Bear Rinhart of Needtobreath (2021)

This is a song that ws featured on We The Kingdom’s 2020 release, Holy Water. This new version brings in Rinhart to add his vocal powers to an already great song, and it gives this single an undeniable new force and purpose.

Vocal Few- Love will Tear Us Apart (2021)

This is a cover of Joy Division’s haunting and powerful song from the 80’s, which lyrically continues to capture the leads dark days leading up to his eventual suicide. You can feel the Vocal Few, a solo project by the front man for The Classic Crime, re-contextualizing the song for our present times. And the results are pretty effective.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis- Carnage (2021)

If you are looking for something to accompany a journey through the dark places but with a view for optisim and hope, this deeply reflective but intentional record by someone who knows his way around the dark times is a breath of fresh air. It’s meditative of course, fitting with the artist’s overall vibe and tendencies, but it is also in a way uplifting and informing in a road trip kind of way. From the opening track, Hand of God, there is an undeniable spiritual longing that runs through the songs, looking and longing for spiritual renewal and the promise of a new reality, and perhaps even finding it.

Podcasts

The Disney Story Origins Podcast, Epidsode 14a,b (Pinocchio)

Given that there are a couple of new Pinocchio adaptations releasing this year, this was a great way to get familiar with the roots of the actual story.

The Bible For Normal People Podcast, Episode 155, Sarah Bessey

I picked up Sarah Bessey’s new book called The Rhythms of Prayer, and this was a really great interview with the author that dives into why she wrote it, what’s challenging and liberating about recovering an active prayer life, and some of the honet questions that flow from that. You can also find an interview with her on the Relevant Podcast.

The Symbolic World Podcast, Episode 144, feat John Strickland- History of the West in View of the East

I love the way the way this podcast sheds light on the stories we have lost and the history we have disconnected from in terms of the modern language we use and the oppenness we have to the lanuage of metaphor as opening us up to truth and a broader view of the world’s spiritual reality.

On Script Podcast, Episode 159, Matthew Thiessen- Jesus and the Forces of Death

I could just as easily recommend Episode 158, which features an interview with Ben Witherington 111 and Jason Myers on their new book that helps readers to navigate the broad and diverse world of the New Perspective on Paul (called Voices and Viewon Paul). But I went with this interview with Thiessen because of the light it sheds on the difficult language of the purity system. The way he was able to shed light on the differentialation between ritual, personal, demonic, and cultural impurity is really compelling, and I’m very much looking forward to picking up the book.

The Fear of God Podcast, Episode 212, The Wolf of Snow Hollow

Don’t miss the excellent episode on The Vast of Night, but I wanted to highlight this film becuase it is a bit underseen in 2020, and the conversation the hosts have around this film brings so much light to both the production of the film and some of those intricate and intimate details that mark the film’s story. Excellent companion piece to help you dialogue with the film after you see it, and please, do see the film.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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