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

FILM

LA SAPIENZA (2014) Directed by Eugene Green

La Sapienza is not an explicitly religious film, but I think it just might feature one of the most powerful arguments for the notion of faith. At the heart of the film is a discussion about the relationship between architecture and people, with architecture containing both the stories of humanity and the stories of the divine, however one interprets the divine. Buildings are designed to do two things- to draw us in and turn our gaze upwards to whatever Truth or god this building represents, be it the gods of modernism or the gods of the ancients, and then, through its use of space and light and detail, to draw our gaze back downwards so that we can apply this upward looking perspective back into our lives here on the ground level. It is through this horizontal and vertical exercise that buildings can then tell the stories both of the eternal “Truth” which governs our trajectory, and the stories of that truth as it is then revealed in the personal journies of our lives and our relationships.

The way this film captures this relationship between people and architecture and architecture and divine is powerfully rendered then, symbolically speaking, into the relationships that govern this film’s central human arc. As it follows an architect, a creative in search of inspiration in his very modern context, he travels to the old world to find this inspiration and in the process finds the inspiration he needs to reinvest in his relationship with his wife. It’s a beautiful portrait framed by this narrative device that features performers who all remain “emotionless” and “expressionless” throughout the story, a choice that then shifts our perspective to the emotional gravity of the buildings and the world around them. It’s an inviation to be swept up in the most basic human vocation to create, but a reminder that we create in faith or trust that it is Truth that gives creation its value.

DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES (1988) Directed by Terence Davies

This is the second film in an “autobiographical” series reflecting the Director’s life, and here we are given insight into the working class family that defined his growing up in the 40’s/50’s in Liverpool. From the opening scene it becomes clear that the Director intends to evoke a miriad of emotions all at once, leaving me as a viewer a bit unsettled in terms of precisely what kind of film this is and where it is heading. But this becomes the means by which the film invites you into the process of what it becomes. It bears a distinct feeling of nostalgia even though this is not my world and not my life, and functions as a collection of “stills” as if it were a scrapbook of photographs set in a world full of music and visuals and experiences that allow these stills to come to life in full interprative force. That it also functions in part as a kind of musical sets these images in synch with the rhythms and lyrics of its song. A magical and stylistic vision of ones own dance with the ebb and flow of life’s journey.

MY SALINGER YEAR (2020) Directed by Philippe Falardeau

A captivating performance by Margaret Qualley anchors this exceptional look into a period of Salinger’s life from the perspective of a colelge grad who takes a clerical job working for the literary agent of Salinger. It tells the personal story of Joanna, but it is through her story that we gain insight into the literary world that she is immersed in and shares with Salinger. At it’s heart it is an exploraiton of the power of story and the telling of our stories, but  it contextualizes this through the story of Joanna in her desire to become a professional writer. As she tries to make sense of her own life and her own passions and ambitions, she finds insight and inspiration within the story of this reclusive writer who is as distant as he is present in the world that surrounds her. As a period piece it is rather wonderful, but as a character study and as an examination of the power of story and the art of writing I found it quite captivating and memorable.

ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS/ASCENEUR POUR L’ECHAFAUD (1958) Directed by Louis Malle

There is an inevitability to the way in which events unfold in this older film noir/crime caper. The perfect crime that immediately goes wrong, leading to a sequence of things that just seem to keep spiralling towards that inevitable end, a persitant foreshadowing of a series of unfortunate events. At the same time, it is in the imperfect exucution of the perfect crime that the film finds its poetry, concocting this sense of a cycle that they both must break and that defines their collective drive and need. As poetry, the film becomes an examination of the question of how it is that the interconnected events of our lifes can be seen as a narrative rather than an inevitability, something it holds in tension but also represents as a mystery in terms of the film’s intricate detailing of colors and visuals and moments. When we can see in life a narrative to step into, this empowers the writing of a story from life’s imperfect plans.

ON-GAKU: OUR SOUND (2019) Directed by Kenji Iwaisawa

Whether you play an instrument, are in a band, or simply appreciate music, this understated animated gem is a must see. The film is not just a love letter to the power of the note to inform our world and our selves, its a love letter to that sense of being a young teen trying to discover their voice and find their way through the language of song. The animation is simple and lovingly crafted in its hand drawn detail, and as we follow the events of these young kids it brings to life the Japanse culture that surrounds them as well as inviting us into their own wandering experience through this world. While we might want to describe these kids as rebels, the films compassionate and empathetic view reframes this, particularly through the creation of their punk style music, into a universal language full of common human emotion. It could almost be described as a musical, but in its deconstruction of the punk rocker stereotype its much more than this. It’s a reminder that all human stories hold equal merit regardless of age.

Honroable Mentions: News of The World is now available on demand. It’s a film I had been waiting anxiously for as I loved the book quite a bit. The film makes a couple interesting interpretative choices that reframe the narraative ever so slightly, but it remains a powerful picture of what it is for us to see beyond the present divide and to imagine a world where relationship can draw us together regardless of language and place and culture. It’s up for some Oscars, so now is a great time to catch up with it, along with the wonderful documentary The Painter and the Thief, a film that explores themes like forgivness and restorative justice in a powerful and intimate fashion. Lastly, The Last Blockbuster proved to be a perfect romp through the nostalgia of a past, longing for some of what we have lost in our modern push towards an increasingly digital and isolated experience of what is at its heart a social and cultural exercise and expression.

SERIES/TV

ZOEY’S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST SEASON 2

I was a big, big fan of the first season of this eclectic, fun and highly emotional series, and so I was curious to see how they continued the story. As the first half of season 2 has looked to find its voice and direction, a couple of things stand out for me. First, it has taken more of an episode by episode approach rather than the larger and linear storyline of the first. The result might be a bit more uneven in terms of that cohesive focus, but it has led to some of the strongest material I have seen in a series in a long, long while at the same time. Not every episode carries the same weight, but episodes like 2 and 5 see it at the peak of its game, experimenting and taking it to new heights and new places. This is especially impressive given how they had to navigate what is a show with a lot of working elements and a large cast during Covid. You can see the limitations at points, but also the creativity. As an additional note, this kind of elongated series is a lost art form, and to have this show as a part of my (and our) week is something I cherish and will cherish for as long we have it. It gives me something to look forward to and anticipate.

WANDAVISION

It’s the show everyone was eagerly anticipating, and to particapate in the collective viewing of this show across streaming platforms reminds me that every once in a while the social experience of watching together still exists and persists. As it is the show, for me, surpassed expectations, even in its amped up final episode that didn’t quite land for everyone in the same fashion. The inventiveness of its opening episodes which each refelect a different era through its sitcom style offering, shifting from black and white to color, stands as some of the most inventive Marvel storytelling to date, and the way it parallels this thematically with the story lying behing this plot device provided a startling and powerful exploration of the grief process. Quite powerful.

STORM OF THE CENTURY

I was made aware of this series through a podcast that I follow and listen to weekly called The Fear of God, and so I would direct you to their episode on this short series turned lengthy film should you be interested. It’s currently avaialable for free on YouTube. It’s an adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name, and it’s one of his most spiritually aware works that he has written. The themes that pour from the story are immense and powerful in their ability to frame our understanding of how it is we pair our moral awareness and the weight of certain moral choices and points of crisis/tension in our world with our responsibility to engage our social responsiblity to one another. The story goes to some dark places, but it employs its vision of spiritual forces and agencies as a metaphorical device that helps to bring to the surface just how it is that blind ourselves to the sins we bond ourselves to on a daily basis. It brings to light the idea that we sacrifice the freedom that certain choices to break sins cycle and power over us can bring for the future in exchange for the need to evade the suffering that sin brings with it now all the time. It’s a sobering realization and a genuine wake up call found within a narrative that, while in its on screen adaptation is slightly uneven, holds a real punch.

BOOKS

JIM HENSON: THE BIOGRAPHY by Brian Jay Jones

There is a bitterwseet tone to this celebrated biography of an iconic and recognizable figure in the field of children’s work, puppetry and the arts, and it comes in the way this exhaustive work draws out the honest character alongside the equally honest struggle of existing within a brutal and competitive industry. It’s even heartbreaking when we come to wonder near the end of the book and realize that perhaps it was the weight of the industry in which we were privileged to get his most creative and reknown work that was the reason for his premature death. That aside though, this book is certainly a celebration of his life and work, and it’s equally a joy to uncover the story of the man behind the art and the characters that have become so beloved. Henson was as deeply spiritual as he was creative, and that spirit shines through his creations in an undeniable way, revealing a complex man who loved people, who loved his craft and certainly found inspiration through the young minds that his art was created to serve.

IRRATIONALITY: A HISTORY OF DARK SIDE OF REASON by Justin E. H. Smith

A profound expostion of the challlenges and limitations of modernism and reason, and a critique of the strong tendency of modernism to gloss over one of the most important truths of the human experience and the human longing for truth- that humanity and reason is at its heart an irrational exercise. There is an old world-new world picture that Smith draws on to help outline the larger picture of how it is that we arrived where we are today, and by helping us to gain a well researched and well articulated picture of the bigger picture, he helps to dismantle some of the key points of contention and tension tha exists between the old world and the new world approaches to truth and reason. This book is important in how it humbles those in the West and necessary in how it calls us to recognize the ways in which, when we ignore the irrational nature of reason we actually end up becoming more irrational, and more imporantly we become irrational in the most dangerous of ways. Ways that actually steer us away from truth rather than towards it.

FLORA AND ULYSSES: THE ILLUSTRATED ADVENTURES by Kate DiCamillo and K.G Campbell

I watched the film adaption before becoming aware of the novel, and the film struck such a strong chord with me that i had to read the book. And I am so glad I did. I love stories about the struggle with adult cynicsm paired with the wonder and and magic of the childhood imagination, and this book hits all the right marks. It’s incorporation of the superhero motif is a central part of the story, bringing this discussion into the modern setting, but what the book elevates is the story’s philosphical and theological perspective. It’s a powerful picture of what it means to understand that there is more to this world than just what we see on the surface, and it presents an empowering exercise for wondering minds to perhaps be equpped to push back on some of the teachings and belief systems they have inherited from the enlightenment and western assumptions.

THE LADY FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: HOLLYWOOD MONSTERS AND THE LOST LEGACY OF MILICENT PATRICK by Mallory O’Meara

Amazing. Funny, heartbreaking, revealing, socially relevant, entertaining, part mystery, biography, and passionate for all things horror. And super readable. The way she brings to light what it is to be a horror fan and a woman (read: hard) was stuff I was aware of but needed to hear again, and again… and again. As a white male, I rarely consider the fact that while creatures and monsters are meant to express those most human parts of oursleves in metaphorical and universal ways, those images are all male, relegating women to being victims, sexualized and subservient in the genre as a whole. Brilliant book.

THE DEATH OF THE MESSIAH AND THE BIRTH OF THE NEW COVENANT: A (NOT SO) NEW MODEL OF THE ATONEMENT by Michael Gorman

What makes this book so exceptional is not simply that it’s another model to add to the mix, but that it cuts through the heart of what so often divides the Church to offer a way and a means towards real and fruitful conversation. It is, after all, our ability to converse with one another from our places of disagreements that brings unity about, and if unity is not optional, and in fact division within the Church and the people of God is the central problem that Christ came to address on the Cross and in the Resurrection, then we better sit up and take notice. What is crucial to allowing conversation to happen is the table, the eucharist, It is at the table where Christ is able to take precedence over our agreements, and thus it is our ability to come to the table together, to partake and eat together where unity comes from. If we can’t do this then we stand divided.

The key for Gorman in terms of coming to the table is, as he outlines, the new covenant reality. This new covenant reality is the place where all of the models find their intersecting conversational interests, and it offers the narrative in which all models can then be brought into conversation and thus shaped and challenged and formed by the other in light of Christ as the central force and focal point. The new covenant model offers freedom in Christ to enter into community together with our differences in tow, and to know that at the end of the day we can all still come to the table together.

MUSIC

HARRY CONNICK JR.- ALONE WITH MY FAITH

Harry Connick Jr. edges into full on Gospel territory with this latest release, and it provides a mix of upbeat and hopeful and contemplative and reflective, all of course wrapped with his signature style and tone. I’ve been listening to this one along with Andra Day’s Billie Holiday Soundtrack, and together the old school jazzy stylings have been provided a soothing and soulful soundtrack to make it through these never ending Covid days.

JON BATISTE- WE ARE

I would highly recommend the Song Explorer episode of the creation for We Are. That’s a big part of what inspired me to pick up this record, and it didn’t disappoint, It’s inspired and anthemic, and he brings a real spiritual awarness to his grassroots concern for the universal story of people seen from the unique perspective of the black experience.

JOSEPH- GOOD LUCK, KID

I came across this band by complete random chance, and this trio of women churn out some really outstanding tracks. It’s catchy, layered, and features lots of great melodies (and harmonies) and compositions set within a serious hard rock style.

MIKO MARKS- OUR COUNTRY

Apparently absent from the industry for a good while, Miko Marks makes her return with an exceptionally strong album that is simply dripping with delicious country roots. To hear her story is to know the rough go she had as a Black woman trying to break into the Country scene, something we can to the story of the autobiographal cut “We Are here”. Nevertheless she stayed true to her passions, found her niche and remains an important and iconic voice in the Country music scene.

FRUIT BATS- THE PET PARADE

This is a true band unit, with every aspect of the instrumentation, the lyrics and the vocal effort working together to create these nuanced indie folk songs steeped in atmsophere and a grass roots style simplicty. It’s the kind of album that fit a variety of moods, always ready to accompany you on a rock or a ride or simply a day at home.

Honorable Mentions: The richly spiritual and eclectic Gable Price and Friends album Fractioned Heart is one that I can listen to over and over again, and the new Julien Baker, stock full of some experimental instrumentation to help accent her songwriting and vocal skills normally set to minimal orchestration. A must listen.

Memorable Singles: Sour Widows- Crossing over, Jervis Campbell- Teach me to Dance; Wayley- Ready For It; Lighning Bug- The Right Thing is Hard To Do; Hardline Lightning Bug; Middle Kids- Today We’re the Greatest- Jackie Hill Perry- Crescendo

PODCASTS

AMON SUL, Episodes 1 and 2 (The Fellowship of the Steve and I shall Make for Weathertop)

I recently was made aware of Father Andrew’s podcast from Ancient Faith Radio which deals scripture from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, which also led to a recommendation for this podcast which is all about Tolkien and his writings. Since I have about 6 books on Tolkien ready to go in preparation for the series, this has been a perfect compliment to that foray.

And while you’re at it, check out Father Andrew’s podcast The Lord of Spirits. It is seriously amazing. Perfect for anyone who struggles witih some of that Western tendency to be cynical of magic in the world and ignorant of the power of metaphor and symbolism to open our eyes to the greater truth that lies in the unseen world.

SONG EXPLORER Episode 215 (Jon Baptiste- We Are)

I mentioned this episode already above, but it’s worth rementioning. Hearing the story of this song’s construction from the perspective of its writer and creator was eye opening and added a whole new level of appreciation for its many working parts, especially the insane amount of singers and people and voices and musicians who played a role in bringing it to life. A testament to the Black spirit but even more so a song with universal inspiration.

THE LETS READ PODCAST Episode 83 (Vacation and McDonald’s Stories- 21 True Scary Horror Stories)

Maybe I’m weird, but there’s something about hearing true horror stories that I find therapeutic. I like having my senses challenged, and I also love suspending any cynicism I might have and just letting them sweep me away, be it straight up mysteries and scary situations or something supernatural. And some of the stories are genuinly challenging for the rational mind. Thankfully I’m built for resisting cynicism and employing childlike wonder for even the craziest things. I highlighted Episode 93 not because it stands out, but because it is about travel stories, particularly going to McDonalds. Being in Covid times still, any chance to travel in other ways is more than welcome. And if you want more, I would also send you to the podcast The Confessionals (try out Episode 319, “The Monster Outside My Winidow”. It’s crazy), and Strange Journeys, a true horror podcast that hits the road.

THE BIBLE FOR NORMAL PEOPLE Episode 159 (Richard Elliot Friedman and Who Wrote the Pentateuch)

Friedman is such an excellent and distinguished speaker, but his greatest strength as a scholar and theologian is his ability to break down complex ideas and make them accessible to normal people. Here he does such an incredible breakdown of the structure and composition of the Pentateuch, and he helps walks us through some of its complexity and intricacies, especially in the different threads that we have to navigate in terms of different Traditions evident in the text, but he does it with such humility and grace and out of a great love for God and scripture that even the most difficult problems become swept up into that grander perspective and story about the relationship between God and Humanity.

MYTHS AND LEGENDS Episode 301 (Italian Folklore: Unhand Me)

Host and storyteller Jason Weiser has a gift for bringing these old myths and legends to life in a fresh way, with some of them being unfamiliar, and helping us to hear some of the stories we are familiar with in a new light and with information we might not expect. In this episode he travels to the Italian countryside to tell a story from the Pentamerone. It’s fun and lively, and because I can’t get out travel right now it gives me a slice of a culture that is able to transport me to a different time and place. I would also recommend the Podcast “Tales” if you are looking for good storytelling from different places.

Published by davetcourt

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

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