From California to the Misssissippi: Competing Stories of America

I love it when two seemingly disassociated current reads, which I’ve only just begun, come together in unexpected ways.

I have long been fascinated by the Mississippi, and years back it was a bucket list item to travel the river road from its start close to where I live to its mouth. Didn’t make it to the gulf coast, but we did make it from Winnipeg to Memphis. In Rinker Buck’s new book Life on the Mississippi, his own fascination with the rivers history led him to build a boat and travel in the wake of its now forgotten past.

In Malcolm Harris’ book Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World, he narrows in on Palo Alto in efforts to show how California became the seedbed for the emergence of Ameican style capitalism through a series of developments, including the creation of mass farming and Hollywood.

Buck’s interests are in locating the river as a lost portrait of America that remained somewhat detached from the ideological interests of the east coast, consumed as it was in establishing American principles over and against the presence of Britain. If the East Coast became the entry point for immigration into the new world, the river became synonymous with building and maintaining relationships with the old world. This river culture eventually becomes consumed by the obsession with land and westward expansion, formulated as it was around the western mythos.

Harris picks up the story from the West coast now pushing Eastward with its new vision of capitalist pursuit. The two together provide an interesting way of seeing this development unfold.

A Brief Reflection on a Piece of Metal

I know it’s just a piece of metal. And this happened back before spring break.

But there is a whole lot of memories wrapped up in this thing I affectionally called Old Blue. More specifically, my, and our, 2005 Ford Focus. Creeping close to 400,000, I really thought we’d make it to 20 years. Just in time to inherit the car Jen is currently driving. But alas.

I remember driving Old Blue on a cross country trip from Winnipeg to California, the base model/no air conditioning proving to be an adventure in Arizona and Nevada in the thick of summer. The car was the first car we bought together after getting married, and it has been with us for all but the first months of our married years. It was the first time we were able to negotiate a good deal- 10,000 brand new, no tax, and free extended warranty.

Through those years we had a number of cars come and go, and Old Blue just never seemed to stop, coming to the rescue numerous times. Even after sitting for a long time over Covid, a moment when I genuinely thought the kilometers were done.

Here is a cool story too. We bought Old Blue 18 years ago because I managed to wreck Jens Pontiac Grand Am driving the stretch of Grassie between Lag and Plessis. Fast forward and I wrecked Old Blue driving that exact same stretch of street. Only to end up buying a Pontaic G5 as a replacement.

All three cars staying in the tradition of the stick shift.

In any case. Seems strange to grieve a car. But it was sad to see Old Blue go, not gonna lie.

Film Journal 2023: Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie

Film Journal 2023: Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie
Directed by Davis Guggenheim

A case study in how to make a documentary proper. Far more than simple details or the dissemination of details and facts, the filmmakers find ways to creatively imagine Fox’s story so as to unearth some surprising revelations. Not only that, but they map the essential pacing and energy to Fox’s exuberance, a storytelling choice that takes those revelations and makes them immersive.

It’s easy to parse out the basic beats of the story; a rising young star struggles with the inherent tension that exists between the challenges of fame and his responsibility to life, before a life changing event brings him crashing down to earth. What the film invites us into is an exploration of how the ways we often deal with this tension is by masking. Masking our true selves from the world, and likewise from oursleves. This journey then becomes something of a fall from innocence that moves into a process of maturing, largely by way of Wisdom incarnated into the spaces of his experience.

This is a must see for any fan of Fox and his career. It is poignant, reflective, fun and insightful. A peak behind curtain, but probing even greater depths still. More so it is an expertly crafted doc that should resonate far beyond the simple constraints of fandom. It finds a striking syncronicity between the storylines of his career and the story of his life, breathing into the film’s title multiple meanings. It strives to take a larger than life persona and ground it in lessons we can all afford to learn from, regardless of our experience. In that sense this really does feel like someone who is seeking out a legacy from the scattered lines of his unscripted life, demonstrating that hope can come even from the greatest challenges and failures of our past

Film Journal 2023: Blackberry

Film Journal 2023: Blackberry
Directed by Matt Johnson

The film’s grainy texture compliments the nostalgic vibes, while the hand held camera melds nicely with the real life news footage interspersed throughout the story. The nostalgic vibes run underneath a story that feels, at this point in time, as forgotten as it was the day Apple announced its iPhone. Thank goodness for this sudden interest in older properties. A film about Air Jordan. Tetris. The pinball machine. A weird trend to be sure, but given the quality of those aforementioned films, I’m here for it.

I’m tempted to say this is a story so crazy it seems impossible to believe. However, the film’s “fictionalized” take on real world events works as well as it does becasue it feels far too indebted to its inspiration to be made up.

It would be an understatement to suggest this is a story about capitalism run amok. This is a depiction of a world tied to its ruthless system, governed as it is by money that doesn’t exist, hostile takeovers that threaten at every turn, the looming threat of rising and crashing stocks, and of course rich powerful men. There is something unsettling about the fact that this is what drives such legacies. How fickle and fragile it is. Here it is Tmthe person who comes up with the idea who becomes lost to time, with corporate corruption ruling the day. Even more unsettling is to realize how the consumers who are both controlled by the system and simultaneously the ones who feed it. It’s what makes the world go round.

The film does an expert job of handling the tonal shift that occurs at a pivotal point in the story. It captures the abruptness of the whole enterprise moving from the energy of a group of young, inspired minds to the hostile takeover of their dreams. The irony being that their inspiration hinges on this hostile takeover being a thing. How else does the blackberry make it’s way out into the world, becoming the seedbed for Apples hostile takeover.

The first words I uttered about this film, out loud while walking out of my viewing, was “that was stressful”. It is absolutely that captivating and that absorbing. The casting is so spot on, creating not just a portrait of a corrupt system but filling it with unsettling figures ready to be despised. The “co-CEO” who comes in with the promise of changing these young persons lives just might be one of the more memorable villains of the last while. Fits the persona so perfectly. And it’s such a bizarre story to tell simply in it’s own right. Like a train wreck you can’t look away from. And yet one you both want to cheer for and against all at the same time. This film creates the space to choose your poison, which is what makes it so dang entertaining.

Shout out as well to the film’s Canadian roots too. Or perhaps more to the point, this is Waterloo, and don’t you forget it. So get out there and support good Canadian film while you have the opportunity.

Reading Journal 2023: Ultimate Questions; The Story of Philosophy

Reading Journal 2023: Ultimate Questions; The Story of Philsophy
Author: Bryan Magee

I paired this with Magee’s The Story of Philosophy. If Philosophy functions as a textbook inviting us to consider philosophy as a means of common wonder rooted in reason, ultimate questions is a heart laid bare autobiography into why Magee values philosophy. One is personal the other is didactic. One is void of documentation and details, the other an in depth examination of the how philosophy came to be.

There are definite overlaps however. Such as the notion of Platos cave, which rests on the idea that we can only ever see and understand the world from our unique perspective, bound as we are to our bodies. Or the relevance of language as the container through which we can express what we know. Language is the thing that limits our ability to know. It’s also what allows us to know.

Or the stark relationship between space and time, especially as it relates to past, present and future. Experience roots us in the present, but knowledge itself is not bound by such constraints. Within that we have the push and pull of philosophy in many different directions- towards the relativists, the humanists, the skeptics, the nihilists, the materialists, the romantics, the stoics, and on and on, shaping, movements throughout history from its common beginnings to its Greek expressions to its modern evolution. Magee is distinctly interested in its western progression, which shows itself most clearly in Ultimate Questions, although you can see his bias’ sown into the fabric of his textbook material as well.

On a base level Magee hitches the story of his fascination with philosophy on a trajectory away from religion. He does so, however, under the guise of a wanted agnosticism. His ultimate goal in Ultimate is to demonstrate that knowledge is limited, it will always be limited, therfore we operate on the basis of not knowing which moves us forward in our questions towards a reconciling of our limited knowledge with the truth that knowledge itself stands apart from the confines of our experiences. This, he says, is a good thing, and I’m inclined to agree.

At the same time though, I think he betrays some of his own inconsistencies towards that end. He wants to distance himself from religion because he sees religion as anchored in claims of certainty. And yet the very reason he does this is based on certain claims he believes to be true about religion. Here he demonstrates a tendency to avoid the fact that he holds convictions, and those convictions drive how he sees the world and how he experiences reality. In truth, in naming knowledge as limited he refuses to apply those same constraints when it comes to his convictions. He can’t quite figure out a way to avoid becoming what he desperately does not want to be; a person making certain claims about the world. Thus he uses religion as a scapegoat hoping that it will divert the attention away from him. Perhaps the most noted thing that Magee glosses over is that there are different ways of knowing, and that knowing doesn’t mean the absence of mystery.

Now don’t get me wrong. I actually really enjoyed reading through The Story of Philosphy. The facts can still stand even while acknowledging the interpretation exists alongside that. Something I think Magee could stand to learn. And there is much about his personal journey that I agree with and connected with, even if I interpret the same ideas towards different ends. I really appreciated how he highlights the importance of language. I think language lies at the heart of understanding the relationship between philosophy and religion and knowing God and ourselves. I like his appeal to mystery and a willingness to ask questions. I loved his reflections on space and time. I think he places western philosophy on way too high of a pedestal and misconstrues its strengths when it comes to dealing with life’s biggest questions, but I do like the way he uses it to reason in concise and well constructed patterns of thought. The books might seem daunting, and demand rereading large sections in order to connect the flow of thought, but it’s actually quite accessible. On the front I would definitely recommend.

Film Journal 2023: Master Gardener

Film Journal 2023: Master Gardener
Directed by Paul Schrader

Parallels the plot and structure of Schraders most recent films, almost to the point where you could map whole sequences from one film on to another and have it work seamlessly within that story. There is the man trying to leave a complicated past behind, a journal operating as a narrator, the unexpected relationship that proves redemption and forgivness is something this man still needs to find, the moment of transcendence that breaks the otherwise grounded narrative, ect ect. This is, of course, an intentional draw of what has been billed as “the man in the room” trilogy. But the thematic and structural interplay between the three films definitely makes itself known in a stand alone viewing, for better or for worse.

The story is slightly more optimistic than his previous efforts, which might be where I would be interested in a repeat viewing just to see the film in light of its predecessors. That wasn’t top of mind here for me in my initial viewing, so I am wondering if noting a trajectory between these three stories in terms of Schraders interest in using personal stories to say something about America at large, past and present (here the personal maps on to the subject of racism) might actually help me appreciate what he is doing on a macro level. I some ways this third film can’t help but be more hopeful given the whole gardening metaphor. It forecasts the essential theme of the tended flowers in the manure growing and thriving and being rejuvenated with the seasons and necessary hands that help us grow and mend in to new life. The film adds a wrinkle with the unexpected friendship, a young woman dealing with the muck of her own life being brought in to work in the garden as a way of therapy and recovery and investment. This provides some decent subtext in terms of the connective threads that ultimately bind her and the gardner togther in the mud of their perspective lives.

Sadly though, this latest project by Schrader can’t seem to rise to the occasion. There is a great idea here left to be explored, and further gets explored in his previous films with far more poignancy, but the plot itself feels disjointed, the editing is a mess, and by the time it reaches the end it feels like the journey itself is being held together by a thin thread. The fact that all of this simply hyperlinks back to much better films, particularly with The Card Counter and First Reformed, just underscores the film’s shortcomings.

The flavors and stylings that drive Schraders work are nevertheless here, and make it worth at least an initial viewing. Quintessa Swindell is particularly good as an up and coming star in her own right. Ridiculously charming and captivating to watch, she shows a great deal of control over and investment in her craft. Being cast alongside Joel Edgerton, who despite feeling constrained by the disjointed nature of the script manages to carve out something of substance, provides the necessary chemistry needed to at least allow us to feel what this story was going for.

Disappointing given my love for Schrader. But truth be told, even his worst efforts can mine something from the mess. Perhaps, at the very least, fitting for the themes in this film

Reading Journal 2023: This Time Tomorrow

Reading Journal 2023: This Time Tomorrow
Author: Emma Straub

I love time travel. I love books about time travel. A book about a father who wrote a book about time travel and a daughter who finds herself caught up in her fathers time travel stories feels tailor made for me. Add to this the fact that this was my initial foray into someone who is a beloved and celebrated author by many and I was ready to dive in.

Unfortunately I found myself labouring to really get into the story in the early going, which kind of tarnished the bits of redemptive value the final third manages to conjure. The writing is not the issue. Straub is clearly good at her craft and has a handle on pacing and plot development. It was the characters I couldn’t connect with. Worse yet, I found them mostly unlikeable and superficial. I get this was part of the point; the superficiality of the daughters life leads to certain revelations later on. But it never felt to me like Straub was willing to fully confront the superficiality of the past that she tables in the first quarter of the novel. It just kind of sticks around colouring the slightly more aware persona that emerges from the journey Alice (the daughter) takes over the course of the narrative. Even worse yet, Straub makes some predictable moves to encase what is at its heart an existential crisis in a romanticised nihilism. There are are some decent lessons to mine underneath it all for the art and act of living in the present, but for me even that rings a bit false considering the authors failure to truly attend for the reality of our main characters past.

That’s a lot of negative, and so its worth saying that I did actually appreciate the way Straub imagines the time travel motif. It felt fresh and original, even if it borrows from some familiar motifs and ideas. She strikes a nice balance between upholding the rules of the game within her story (always important) while.never letting that burden the story itself. It has a natural telling in that sense. You can enjoy the straightforward premise without needing to understand a complicated theory about time and its philosophical interests. Full credit there, and for me it was the strongest element of this story.

Reading Journal 2023: Outlawed

Reading Journal 2023: Outlawed
Author: Anna North

Outlawed is a feminist alternative (neo) western. The setting is early America and barren women are being outcast from society, labeled witches and curses and a blight on society’s need to progress. The book, as is expected positions religion as the backdrop, marrying it to the politics of such positions of power and control. It also makes some strides, albeit, more nods than anything truly fleshed out, to see barrenness as broader than simply a “young woman who cannot conceive, pushing to locate the systemic issue across lines of gender and race. One of the options for women (and others) who have been given the mark of death is to become an Outlaw. This is what our main character Ada does, fleeing the accusations that follow not bearing a child. For her, she has heard rumors of a place and person(s) who are educated about what causes barrenness and feels driven to find his place and learn from these persons studying as she had been to be a midwife alongside her fairly liberal minded mother. This begins a partnership with the outlaw gang that becomes the basis for the unfolding story.

This book is advertised as progressive feminism in line with genre interests. Seemingly it has riled up readers with knowledge and awareness of the genre, who seem to be saying the book doesn’t push nearly far enough when it comes to tackling feminism from the full spectrum of gender and race related issues. It as even been accused of whitewashing and has even been called toxic, which seems a little drastic to me and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in context of the story. I don’t really have strong enough feelings for the book to come too hard to its defense, but if this book is being jettisoned by modern voices, it seems like very little could actually win in such a contest. I did enjoy what felt like a unique take on the western, and the story moves fluidly. The strongest parts were in the first quarter, losing some steam as it goes. But the hook feels decently present nonetheless the whole way through, contained as it is to the partnership and the mission that emerges from its formation,

Film Journal 2023: Are You There God, Its Me Margaret

Film Journal 2023: Are You There God, Its Me Margaret
Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig

One of the best coming of age stories to release in a while. Honest and authentic to its core. Perfectly captures what it is to go through puberty with all its uncertainty and struggles, and does so with grace and sensitivity without sacrificing the raw reality of the process. Even where the particularities of this story about a young girl becoming a woman sits outside of my own realm of experience, I think the story itself can translate universally.

I have never read any of Blooms books, and my only point of reference was the recent documentary from this year on the author, which I confess left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. My fear was that this film would be anti-religious and cater to what the doc portrayed as a deeply rooted allegiance to individualism and the cult of the self. That’s not at all, however, what this film is.

Given the way it parallels the religious conflict with the uncertainty of growing up in to puberty, I thought the script did a really nice job of demonstrating how growth and understanding comes through maturity. Maturity brings wisdom, and Margaret’s honest seeking after God comes in light of her struggles, where God seems to be all but silent. And yet the film dares to imagine the struggle as an invitation to seek God in the process of living. The film likewise extends a welcome freedom both to ask questions and to learn how to form and hold convictions in the uncertainty.

Religion becomes the divisive backdrop that echos Blooms own experience growing up. Religion becomes for Margaret a source of hurt and pain, not hope. And yet, whereas the doc would suggest that Bloom found an answer to her struggles by replacing God with a renewed commitment to the “I”, as though stripping God from the equation could solve her personal crisis and get rid of the division, the film never loses sight of the fact that the crisis is born not of religion but of the human experience. To sacrifice God on the alter of our experiences might be the most honest reaction we can find, but I think this film shows that it doesn’t take long for an allegiance to the self to find itself mired in a need to be anchored in something bigger than the “I”.

If there is a message that flows from Margarets own wrestling it is that the graces we need to navigate this thing we call existence often arrive against expectations. Which might just be the most hopeful portrait of God we can find.

Film Journal 2023: Fast X

Film Journal 2023: Fast X
Directed by Louis Leterrier
Wherr to watch: now playing in theaters

I have an interesting relationship with the Fast franchise. I mostly ignored it up until the point when we adopted our then 13 year old son back in 2015. Truth be told, navigating life with a kid who doesn’t speak English was a challenge. Turned out Fast and Furious is a universal language. Or at least one of a handful of films he had watched when he was back in Ukraine.

That year was the release of Fast 7, which ended up basically being my introduction to the series. Fast forward to today and I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m heading in with expectations. Truth be told I’ve resigned myself to knowing that Fast 7 is and remains and will always remain the height of the series. But 8 through 10 have become something of a mainstay over the last 8 years as one of the few films I can count on seeing with my now significantly older and English speaking son. Not to mention they have continued to occupy my wife’s birthday weekend. “Hey mom, guess where I’m taking you for your birthday” has basically become an inside joke at this point.

Which is all also to say, at this point I know what I’m walking into. I know how the series has evolved. And I get the long term fascination with and subsequent hate of this franchise, depending on who you talk to, that refuses to die.

If Fast X proves anything though, it still has the ability to surprise me. Say what you will about the bombasticism of the most recent entries- they are a far cry from grounded nature of the earlier films or the emotional charge of 7’s perfectly orchestrated tribute to its varied arc and deceased star. In a sense 8 and 9 are of a piece, both revelling in their desire to reinvent themselves as the bigger is better franchise on the other side of the series defining loss of Paul Walker. What makes Fast 10 work as well as it does, especially given it is now a two part final installment, is that it knows both where it comes from and where it is now. The film takes a road that feels tailer made for bringing all the different facets of what it represents to a fitting close. This is about the four essential F’s: fast, furious, faith and family. And as this film explores, what this culminates in is fear. Fear can either break you or it can reveal what truly matters. And the film leaves plenty of space in its 2 and half hour mash up of mayhem to remind us of the long road that brought this group to this precise place at this precise point.

Say what you will about this franchise overplaying its hand and persisting long after its fallen out of favor, but Fast X demonstrates that it has more than enough life left in it to remind us of why this franchise mattered in the first place. It is the quintessential summer blockbuster shouting out loud that familiar phrasing: alright guys, one more time with feeling.