Looking Back on 2013, and Looking Forward Too

Well, I got what I wanted from last year for 2013: change. This whole year saw significant change in my life in a variety of arenas and pushed me to develop aspects of myself that I had otherwise ignored the past few years.

The last time I can recall such significant changes going on in my life was back in 2009: I graduated with my M.A. in English into the worst job market in recent memory (at that time) for young college graduates with Humanities degrees. Unable to find full time employment, I moved back in with my parents, back to the hometown I’d tried my best to avoid for the six years prior after graduating from high school. I worked full time at the family bowling alley as a manager and taught part-time, mainly at Missouri State University’s satellite junior campus in West Plains. At one point, I was doing all of that and getting my MFA from Stonecoast. Most of my friends from high school were already gone by that point (pretty much all of them, actually), off living lives far away from West Plains the way I wished I could’ve been doing.

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I spent four years in that town working hard on different things so I could ignore the ghost of the life I really wished I could live. In retrospect, all of the dark feelings and thoughts I was wrestling with were really four years’ worth of anxieties and disappointments coming to a head at the prospect of yet another failed job search, indefinitely prolonged adjunct limbo, and living in a place where I felt like a perpetual exile.

All of that is to set up a realization I had: 2013 has been like 2009, but in reverse.

The bulk of January was basically me trying to change emotional course from 2012, doing whatever I could to slap myself awake.  That was when I wrote this blog post, outlining all of the things I wanted to do in 2013, which boils down to this checklist:

  • I will continue to develop and challenge myself as an editor.
  • I will continue to travel to new places.
  • I will continue to attend conventions this year.
  • I will exercise regularly.
  • I will write and sell at least six stories.
  • I will start working on a novel at some point.
  • I will make new progress toward my ideal academic career.
  • I will move away to somewhere new by the end of the year.
  • I will be more active in fighting back against any dark moods that rise up on me.

It worked, for the most part. Having explicitly stated goals always helps with affecting my mindset.

Back in February, though, the first harbinger (such a fun word) of change came with a letter of acceptance to the PhD program in Creative Writing at Kansas University, which I previously wrote about here and here.  I’ll bring it up simply to say that this was the first sign of – cliché alert – the light at the end of the tunnel. I started thinking about all I could do at KU, and how much of an improvement being a GTA would be over serving as an adjunct at MSU-WP for five more years (better pay, basically, and better career advancement opportunities).

It gave me a goal, something good to focus on for the next few months. I worked my way through Spring in oddly good spirits. I also took that semester off from teaching because, quite frankly, I needed it. The previous semester was incredibly stressful, and I needed to hit the Reset Button so I could see if I still wanted to do this later, and also so I could recover from what was obviously (looking back, that is) a tipping point for total burnout.

Come August, I was leaving West Plains for Lawrence, hopefully for good, at least for the next five years. We packed my things on a trailer and drove a convoy five hours up to Lawrence and moved my stuff into my apartment. In terms of my personal life, that’s where I last left this blog, in fact.

So, what has happened since then? Oh, lots of stuff.

I found a city I feel happy living in. Lawrence is a massive improvement over West Plains. It’s not a terribly big city – about 90,000 at max population (during the school year, thanks to the undergrads) – but I don’t feel deprived of any resources that I think a city should have. Compared to where I lived before, I feel swamped by options. Downtown Lawrence is really nice; I like the bar and restaurant scene here. And for anything else I might want, I’m less than an hour away from Kansas City. I guess what I mean to say is that I don’t feel isolated from the rest of the world anymore. I feel like I’m part of it instead.

I rediscovered my fondness for teaching. This semester wasn’t easy, by any means. It’s a new place, with new resources and new colleagues. The personality of KU is very different from MSU or any other place I taught, and I had to figure that out. I also had to learn a new curriculum for teaching composition and new theory to use in my classes, most notably multimodal composition theory, which I didn’t even realize was a thing until I arrived on campus for orientation week in August. I had to teach myself how to teach the assignments, sometimes with very little time between learning what I had to do and implementing it in the classroom.

And yet it worked. My classes overall performed admirably, even freakishly well. Both classes had distinctly different personalities and levels of preparation as students, but the vast majority of my students in both classes saw significant growth in the quality of their writing and their student skills. I enjoyed the dialogic process of negotiating the terms of good writing with them, finding enough common ground to show them what they needed to do. It was so fulfilling seeing so many of my students, especially the ones who had been more skeptical throughout the semester, become more invested in their work. The difference from the start of the semester to the very end was quite profound in some cases.  I’m proud of them, and I also feel validated in knowing that all of those measures I took to try and reach them actually worked (well, most of them, hopefully). It was heartwarming to receive so many messages from students at the end of the semester thanking me for teaching class.  I don’t teach because I want those thanks, but it was pretty great to receive them.

I got re-engaged with my writing. One of my classes this semester was a workshop in mixed genre writing – basically, an experimental writing class. I took part in a similar workshop during a Stonecoast residency a few years ago, but that only lasted four days and was mainly limited to nonfiction writers. So, it was nice to study experimental writing over the course of a whole semester. The second story I wrote for that workshop was the first new story I’d written all semester, and in fact all year. I wrote it blind, honestly not knowing how it was going to end while I was still writing it. I had an initial idea of what would happen with it, but that idea changed drastically, and I allowed it to change. I allowed myself to be more spontaneous and left myself more open to my reactions while writing the story. Above all, I told myself I wouldn’t make my own judgments about its quality until I felt like the draft was finished. The result? For the first time in a while, I felt excited by what I was writing. It became fun again.

I made some amazing new friends. It was kinda rough for me at first, living up in Lawrence, just because I felt nervous about uprooting myself and moving to a place where the only person I knew was someone I went through my Master’s program at MSU with. After living for four years in a town where I had trouble finding peers with similar interests and life situations, I was both afraid I wouldn’t be able to socialize with people properly and also eager to socialize in the first place. That’s… not a great mixture. Kinda problematic.

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Thankfully, I started bonding with my fellow GTAs pretty quickly, almost from Day One. By the end of that week, I’d realized that they were all pretty cool, intelligent people who would be fun to spend time with. By mid-semester, I relaxed myself a lot and learned to ignore my fears about socializing. As a result, I discovered I could trust many of them as not just valuable colleagues, but good friends as well. By now, with the completed semester a few weeks behind me, I feel great about my personal life and my circle of friends here.

I’m in a healthy relationship with someone. And it is awesome. Which is implied by the use of “healthy” as an adjective, of course. Still, though, it’s pretty great. It’s the first one I’ve had in a while – the dating scene in West Plains didn’t suit me very well (that is not a dig on that town, by the way; it’s just that nothing really worked out for me). Here in Lawrence, though, it was easier to find people with shared interests and personalities, and I had the free time to invest in dating, for instance. Not that it was easy; far from it, really. It was often fun, but also challenging.

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Sometimes dating feels like this.

There’s something odd about relationships and dating, when you think about it. Sure, there are those dates where you go out with someone and find out that they’re boring, or sexist, or deplorable or unengaging in some obvious, sitcom-funny way. Weirder still, though, are the times you go out with people that you do actually like on a personal level, who are genuinely good, cool people with a lot going on, and you think it’s going to work, and then it doesn’t. It hinges on a lot of factors unrelated to how good or attractive a person is: desired levels of chemistry and intimacy, personality types, personal values, preferred methods of dealing with the world, emotional availability, communication ability, etc. (Those last two are absolute kickers, by the way.)

I think the temptation for a lot of people – myself included, at times – is to look at the situation like it’s something on paper you can read and check for errors, saying “This should work. The blueprint looks good.” It takes a special mixture of all sorts of things that is quite frankly impossible to predict until it happens. I’m in a relationship with a fantastic person because I did something I never thought I’d be capable of doing until I arrived in Lawrence: I left myself open to possibilities and tried my best to not second-guess everything or predict what was going to happen. I decided it was okay to throw out the script and improvise, to say, “You know what? Let’s do this and see what happens.” I acted on my feelings when they manifested in the right place at the right time. I’d say it’s working out magnificently.

So, how is that checklist looking from earlier this year?

  • I will continue to develop and challenge myself as an editor.
  • I will continue to travel to new places.
  • I will continue to attend conventions this year.
  • I will exercise regularly.
  • I will write and sell at least six stories.
  • I will start working on a novel at some point.
  • I will make new progress toward my ideal academic career.·
  • I will move away to somewhere new by the end of the year.
  • I will be more active in fighting back against any dark moods that rise up on me.

Didn’t do so hot on the exercise thing this year, and I didn’t sell squat on my writing, nor did I start a novel. (I’m still not sure how to tell I have an idea or ideas that would generate an entire novel in structure or content; then again, only one way to find out.) The convention thing died away once I knew I’d have to save up money for the move. So, I didn’t get to see any of my con peeps from last year, but at least I can stay in touch with them through other means. It’s not the end of the world because I missed some resolutions, though. I’m just rolling them over to this year. I may fail on them again, and that’s okay; I’ll just try again. The important thing is, I feel better about myself, what I do, and where I’m at, figuratively and literally. Because of that, I can continue pursuing other things and not get discouraged if I fall short.

So, I feel ready for 2014. (Not that I would have a choice, but whatever.) I’m happy for what I have now, and I’m eager to see what’s next.

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Bonus: For any interested parties, here are links to my favorite music, films, TV, and books from the last year.

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Favorites of 2013: Books

I’m somewhat disappointed with my reading this year overall. I thought I did pretty well earlier in the year, while I was still living at home, waiting to hear what would happen with PhD applications and such. Once I moved to Lawrence, though, and started school, my for-fun reading dropped off a lot. It’s been all textbooks for the past eight months, which I very badly want to rectify over break. It also feels like a cheat and, quite frankly, a bore to talk about classroom reading, although I enjoyed reading The Next American Essay, edited by John D’Agata, quite a bit. It’s ostensibly a collection of lyrical/experimental nonfiction writing, but it’s really a mixed genre writing anthology. I found myself reading it outside of class sometimes just because the writing challenged me to recontextualize my own writing and create new reading strategies. So, it gave me a fair amount of mental and creative exercise.

Books I’ve written about here before, which I would include among the best of my year in reading, include Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, The Divinity Student by Michael Cisco, and Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell. There are still several books I want to read too. I’ve heard fantastic things about Alice Nutting’s Tampa and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, as well as George Saunders’s Tenth of December. For now, though, I’ll wrap up the year in reading with these.

5643595329_ca2ffaeaa9Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations (Trans. John Ashberry): Rimbaud is probably my favorite poet ever. I have this really intense draw to his writing in general. His poem “Wandering” touches a part of me that I still have trouble expressing at times, and so I let the poem do the hard work for me. The way he uses language to challenge my mind and provoke my emotions, while crafting some of the most beautiful and surreal imagery I’ve ever encountered, continues to influence me. I read all of Illuminations, however, for the first time this year, courtesy of Ashberry’s deft translation. A strong candidate for my favorite book I read this year.

the_stories_of_vladimir_nabokov.largeThe short fiction of Vladimir Nabokov: I finally, finally got into Nabokov this year. I’ve tried getting into his work in the past, and for some reason it just didn’t click with me in a meaningful way. That changed this year when I read his story “The Leonardo” while helping Jeff VanderMeer with edits on his and Jeremy Zerfoss’s Wonderbook (which is also easily one of the best books I’ve read this year; go get a copy now!). I love the playfulness of Nabokov’s writing and how he so casually manipulates the reader and what she sees without that manipulation feeling jarring or undeserved. I also love how so much of his writing plays on the edges of fantasy without committing to hard-and-fast fantasy tropes. It feels fantastical, which is lovely.

16057298Nathan Ballingrud, North American Lake Monsters: My favorite short story collection from this year, pound for pound. It’s hard to believe that the stories in this collection were taken from almost a decade of publications. It really speaks to the unity of Ballingrud’s creative vision and approach, I think. These are dark, difficult stories, but they’re the best kind of dark and difficult because of their close eye to humanity and the kind of wisdom and awareness one can gain from reading such stories in the first place. It would be hard for me to pick favorites, but there are some stories I consider required reading for horror fans, such as “You Go Where It Takes You” and “The Monsters of Heaven,” which is utterly devastating.

0819573493.02.LZZZZZZZKit Reed, The Story Until Now: Great retrospective of short fiction from a writer with a long, accomplished career. Reed deserves merit as both a literary and genre writer, I think. She excels at excavating the minds of her characters and ensuring that their perspectives filter how readers interact with stories. The story we reprinted at Weird Fiction Review this year, “Special,” is an excellent example of this. I also love how she either mixes genre tropes freely or outright challenges and flouts them. She utilizes a great deal of freedom in her writing. Maybe that’s why she hasn’t garnered a lot of acclaim in the form of awards and nominations for her science fictional and fantastical writing. That’s a shame.

Lynda Barry, What It Is: One of the best books on writing I’ve ever read. I’m used to reading craft books that are so stuffily academic and interchangeable with each other that there’s no point reading more than one or two in my lifetime. They all say the same things, quote the same people, reprint the same stories and writers, etc. Boring. This book? Not nearly so much. It’s idiosyncratic, sometimes contradictory, sometimes opaque, and always stimulating. It’s also an absolutely gorgeous construction worth reading as a work of art in its own right.

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Jeff VanderMeer and Jeremy Zerfoss, Wonderbook: This might be cheating, since I helped Jeff and Jeremy with this book during the editorial stage (copyedits and other assists, basically), but damn it if this isn’t one of the most original and helpful books on writing I’ve ever read. I love the sheer number of people cited in this book, and the idea of reading the voices and opinions of many different writers with many different opinions. A lot of attention has been paid to how great this book looks (and it is gorgeous, by the way; besides Zerfoss’s featured art, there are a ton of other artists included to help demonstrate writerly concepts). In addition to that, I want to point out how objective and fair this book is because of its effort to be inclusive.

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13542949Stefan Kiesbye, Your House is On Fire, Your Children All Gone: I read this book around the time I watched The White Ribbon, and they eerily complemented each other, with similar basic story structures: a group of children in a small German town do horrible things to each other and other people while living out often stultifying and hard lives. They’re still different experiences in the end, most obviously because this book offers a possibly supernatural reading of things while Ribbon does not. This book, also, revels in darkness while still strangely offering and developing sympathy for the characters, while still acknowledging the cruelty of the things they do. It doesn’t lead you by the hand in terms of telling you how you should feel about the characters, which I really liked. This is a huge turn-off for some people, who like having characters they can “root for.” I, however, found myself regarding this difficult, excellently written book as my favorite of the year.

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Favorites of 2013: TV

This was the year when I finally started catching up on a lot of shows I’ve missed in prior years. For the most part, this was a rewarding experience. There are still a few new series I need to dip into, namely Black Mirror, Orphan Black, and Orange is the New Black (hat trick!). The most important part of my playing catch-up was easily…

Breaking Bad: Holy shit, this show. I can’t believe it took me until now to finally watch it. This is one of those instances where peer pressure definitely helped; many of my friends and coworkers at KU were fond of the show, and they gently coaxed me into starting. I blazed through it in a matter of weeks once it began. The overall run of this show constitutes one of the best stories I’ve ever read or seen. The character work is impeccable; the White/Schrader family and Jesse Pinkman rightly stand as some of the best television characters ever created. The acting is masterful on pretty much all counts, and the writing more often than not was spectacular. The entire back half of the final season was tense and horrifying, especially the episode “Ozymandias,” which features my favorite moment in the series as a whole, the pivotal moment when the White family finally fractures. It was terrible and sad to watch, and yet I was rapt for every second of it.

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Mad Men: Another impeccably acted and written show that I finally started watching this year. Jon Hamm really does deserve an Emmy for his portrayal of Don Draper, but rightly so could much of the cast for their respective performances (Elizabeth Moss is a particular favorite of mine as Peggy, as well as John Slattery playing Roger Sterling). This whole show runs on the dramatic irony of me knowing that these men in power of advertising, and as a result cultural thought, are so woefully equipped for the changes that will rock their status quo throughout the 60s. I never expected to find myself enjoying these sexist, racist, misguided, naïve characters and their stories so much, and actually finding glimmers of empathy within them. Much credit to the cast and crew on this one.

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Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra: I’ve made no secret of my fondness for animated shows and movies in the past, so it might be surprising that up until this year, I’d never watched more than five episodes of Airbender and nothing from Korra. Luckily, I rectified that situation this year (thanks to my girlfriend Alyse). These shows aren’t just fantastic cartoons. They’re excellent stories, period. I love the care that the writers and animators take in so fully realizing these worlds – the worldbuilding is splendid overall – and I also love that they don’t get so wrapped up in the worldbuilding that they forget to tell fun, engaging, challenging stories.

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Gravity Falls: My favorite discovery last year was Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, which still merits inclusion among my best of 2013 (the episode “Simon and Marcy” deserves its own entry). Gravity Falls snuck up on me this year and quickly became a personal favorite. It’s also an example of how I actually discovered a show I knew otherwise nothing about through social media, in this case GIF files on tumblr such as this one:

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Or this one:

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It’s an audaciously imaginative show with bizarre and mind-blowing scenarios unlike much of what I find on cartoons primarily made for all audiences. It also features character work and storytelling that wouldn’t be out of place on something like Adventure Time. I don’t want to harp on that comparison too much, though, because Gravity Falls is a great work in its own right.

Community: I’m still making my way through this show on Hulu Plus – currently early on in Season 2 – and it’s already one of my favorite network comedies of the past ten years. I’ve never watched something on television that is so conversant with the conventions and expectations of both itself (for its audience) and of other shows and genres. It has a sense of awareness of itself and its tone and purpose that stays the same from episode to episode. Many of the parodies are spot-on as well, with my personal highlight being “Modern Warfare” so far (the first paintball episode). The zombie episode, “Epidemiology,” is spot-on and fantastic as well. Above all, though, this show has some of the best character development and interaction I’ve ever seen in a sitcom. Color me impressed.

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Kaiba: Slowly but surely, I started getting back into anime this year. Kaiba is easily the best anime I watched (though I also really enjoyed Elfen Lied). The animation and art style is simple, yet beautiful. It reminds me of a more psychedelic take on Osamu Tezuka’s art, kind of a mashup of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Astro Boy. That’s actually a rather good description of the story too. The whole series revolves around a future where people can transfer their consciousness between different bodies, provided they can afford the procedure. It’s amazing how the writers take a basic (and admittedly cool) science fictional premise and make it into something so existential and emotional at its core. The ending of the series goes off the rails a bit, but that’s something you just have to roll with when it comes to most anime.

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Bates Motel: One of my favorite new shows from 2013. Psycho is one of my all time favorite movies, and I wasn’t sure how I would take a series that essentially rebooted that story for new purposes. This show quickly acquitted itself for me, though, thanks to smart and suspenseful writing and some fantastic lead performances from Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga as Norman and Norma Bates. Farmiga especially impressed the hell out of me.

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Hannibal: My other favorite new show from 2013. I am in awe of what they did with this show, on all counts. I never expected to like a new take on Thomas Harris’s Hannibal universe this much, but Bryan Fuller has turned out to be the right man for the job. They do stuff on this show that I never expected to see on network television; the violence and menace is so disturbing, and yet it’s so surreal at points and artfully done, and it always turns back on the characters and its impact on them, so it never feels sensationalistic. Special mention should go to this show’s Hannibal, Mads Mikkelsen, for providing a brilliant take on the character without stepping on the toes of Anthony Hopkins’s iconic version, and also to Hugh Dancy as Will Graham, one of the best, most complex “tortured” protagonists I’ve ever seen. The show rightfully revolves around these two.

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The League of Gentlemen: One of the best, and most twisted, shows I watched this year. I could never imagine something like this working on American television. The show – revolving around the citizens of a backwater English town named Royston Vasey – is so macabre and horrific that it would be a great horror story if it wasn’t so funny. Special mention goes to Dr. Chinnery, a kindly veterinarian who somehow winds up killing off his charges in increasingly horrific ways. What’s so great about the show is that they play the horror of everything completely straight, and yet it still winds up being hilarious.

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Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace: Speaking of horror-comedy! This one makes a great one-two punch with The League of Gentlemen. It’s ostensibly the brainchild of a hack horror writer, Mr. Marenghi, who created a show in the 80s revolving around a Marty Stu of himself saving people and fighting monsters in a cheesy soap opera-esque hospital. The intentional terribleness of the show is hilarious, best exemplified by The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade playing Marenghi’s friend and partner Dean Lerner, who may also be the most horrible actor in existence.

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Black Books: If nothing else, I’m thankful to this show for introducing me to one of my new favorite television characters: Bernard Black, one of the crankiest, foulest, wittiest characters ever. He actually wound up serving as a spirit animal for me at various parts of the year, when I could feel my usual nice guy self beginning to crack. We’ve all been in situations like that, when we want to drop normal niceties and just let people have it. Which is why it’s so gratifying to watch Bernard do it instead sometimes.

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Favorites of 2013: Movies

I did not see a lot of the big movies that came out this year, unfortunately. The first 2/3 of the year was spent living in a town with a six-screen cinema that mainly played the big stuff that came out. The final 1/3 was spent during a busy semester where I struggled to find time to go to the movies at all. What I did see wasn’t bad, necessarily, but it wasn’t what I would consider great. Pacific Rim? Very fun, but flawed. Thor: The Dark World? Again, fun, but also kinda boring. Man of Steel? Don’t. Get. Me. Started. I’ll probably wind up seeing the new Hobbit movie at some point, though I’m in no rush. And the Anchorman sequel was quite underwhelming overall. Also, I did not care much at all for Star Trek Into Darkness, which did nothing to improve my current impression of J.J. Abrams and the quality of his filmmaking overall. Iron Man 3 was fun, but it also hasn’t stuck with me throughout the year. And I’ve seen movies like Elysium and The Wolverine, which I liked, but didn’t love for various reasons. I’ve also so far missed out on features like 12 Years A Slave, Gravity, Blackfish, The Act of Killing, Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, The World’s End, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Place Beyond the Pines, Trance, and other movies that I still want to see.

In all honesty, what made the cut for me this year were a lot of movies that weren’t made in 2013. I wonder if that says more about me or about 2013. Probably more about me. Anyway…

Berberian Sound Studio: This one is a headtrip that rewards repeated viewing and, I think, holds up to close scrutiny (as opposed to Upstream Color, which has gotten more attention, but I think is overly obscure). What starts out as a story of a meek British sound engineer brought on board an Italian giallo (read: slasher) film in the 70s becomes something more sinister and bizarre as it goes. The final act of the movie takes it completely into WTF-ville, in the best way. I’d love for more people to watch this movie, mainly so I could talk to them about it and hear their theories on what really happens.

Holy Motors: Another headtrip, and a deliriously imaginative one. Basically, a strange man moves through a large city, inhabiting a series of radically different lives at every stop, doing sometimes mundane, sometimes eerie, sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant things. Why he does this is never explained, but there is an actual sequence to it all that can be followed quite easily. The movie is brilliantly conceived – if it were literature, it would be New Wave SF, and good New Wave at that – and the acting is superb.

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Sauna:  Great little Finnish horror film that stayed in my head for weeks afterward. As a student of horror stories and storytelling, I consider this required viewing for anyone in the same vein. The level of historical detail and background is really impressive, setting the story at the end of the 16th century at the close of a 25-year war between Sweden and Russia. The story itself involves two brothers  – one a solider (who looks like the Finnish Walter White), the other a mapmaker and academic – who get lost in a Finnish border village where no new citizens are born and people live forever, despite still aging, and the specter of a young girl seemingly haunts them. At the edge of the town: the titular sauna, which houses horrifying visions for those who might visit. The horror of this movie is strongly derived from the intense, unnerving imagery and set design (the sauna itself is a high point), but much of the movie’s grip on me came from how deeply it excavated the guilt of the principals and made that guilt an axis for the story (the arc phrase for the movie as a whole is “Wash your sins,” and for good reason).

The White Ribbon: This one definitely wasn’t released in 2013, but that hardly matters here. What does matter is that it left a profound mental and emotional impact on me. Ostensibly a story of sinister happenings in a small German village in pre-Great War days, this movie pretty much cored me out as I was watching it. I felt like I was watching the origin story for a particular kind of evil that we are all familiar with from studying the events of World War II. What is often ascribed by some to seemingly supernatural causes – the rise and power of Nazism – is given a more realistic treatment here, and it’s all the scarier and sadder for it.

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Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky: Lest you all begin to think I’m a completely mature individual with sophisticated tastes, feast your eyes on this. It’s a perfect example of how I can consider a movie to be great, despite obvious flaws in storytelling and moviemaking. This one feels like watching a live action anime made by a teenage boy given free range to creatively express his id-like desires. The main character punches holes in prison walls and ties a tendon in his arm with his fingers and teeth when it’s sliced during a fight. One of his foes smashes a poor fellow’s head with his hands like a soggy watermelon. Another one bloats up into a one-eyed demon when angered. You get the idea. Watch it late at night with your friends and have a laugh. (Side note: the following embedded video is the full movie.)

The Host: One of my absolute favorites that I watched this year. Part horror movie, part environmental cautionary tale, part family tragedy, part comedy, this movie holds up amazingly well because of its stellar story, which switches between and mixes several storytelling tones in a compelling and cohesive manner. The ensemble of actors and actresses in this movie is amazing as well. Indeed, if it weren’t for the naturalistic and relatable manner of their acting, I don’t know if I would have engaged with the movie’s more outlandish elements as well.

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The Red Shoes: Those of you with access to the Criterion Collection (like, say, Hulu Plus users) must watch this movie. It’s a masterwork. The writing is superb, as is the acting. The story follows a template seemingly old as dirt: an aspiring ballerina is caught in a tug of war between the struggling playwright she loves and the rich producer who loves her. The actual movie is more complex than that, especially once it starts taking more creative risks in externalizing the ballerina’s struggles. The centerpiece of this movie is a staged adaptation of the titular fairy tale, where the ballerina acts out an increasingly phantasmagorical and frightening drama that forces her to engage with her own conflicts. It blew me away when I saw it.

Suspiria and Deep Red: I went on a Dario Argento kick earlier this year, after watching Berberian Sound Studio, appropriately enough.  I’m not an Argento defender; his movies are way too scattered in terms of their quality, and once you see enough of his work, the Argento formula becomes exhausting. Tenebre and Phenomena and okay, though not great (and Suspiria is a partial ripoff of his own Suspiria), and I thought Inferno and Opera, though sometimes imaginative, were mostly terrible. Suspiria and Deep Red, however, are legitimate horror/thriller classics that I would consider required viewing. Suspiria is the quintessential creepy boarding school story, cooked with bizarre, metaphorically charged imagery and genuine suspense. The fantasy elements of the story work well enough (except for at the very end), making the movie feel like a twisted fairy tale, of sorts. Deep Red is a much more realistic affair, though still very much suspenseful and actually clever in its use of psychoanalysis as a mode of investigation. It also boasts a great lead performance from David Hemmings.

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Brazil: Why did it take me so long to watch this movie? Why? It’s so beautiful. It’s one of the best science fiction movies I’ve ever watched. It’s the best dystopian movie ever, period. It’s a fantastic satirical work and a product of genius. It’s also imaginatively and emotionally rewarding in equal measure. So brilliant that it will likely serve as a creative touchstone for me in decades to come. The best movie I saw in 2013, but it also shares that honor with the last movie…

Performance: The headtrip to serve notice to all headtrips. A genuine oddity of storytelling and moviemaking that couldn’t have been produced by any other combination of principals (Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg, James Cox, Mick Jagger), any other set of influences (Borges is a huge touchstone here), and any other time (the turning of the 60s into the 70s in London). The first half of the movie is realistic gangster drama, with Cox playing the volatile gangster Chaz finding himself in trouble with his bosses for breaking too many rules of conduct. He shacks up with Jagger’s drug-addled, philosophy-obsessed, creatively blocked rocker Turner in the second half, and that’s when the fun really starts. What we wind up with is the ultimate Cortazaresque/Borgesian story, a puzzle box of conflicting philosophies, gender and sexuality, and identity as a whole. The climactic music video where Turner burrows into Chaz’s psyche – that’s a fairly literal way of describing it, by the way – is easily my favorite movie moment from this year.

Other movies that easily make this list, but I’ve already written about on my blog: 13 Assassins (fantastic samurai historical action), Walkabout (gorgeous Outback coming-of-age story), Velvet Goldmine (glam rock tribute opus), Cemetery Man (wryly funny zombie mindtrip), If… (barbed boarding school satire), Trollhunter (found footage brilliance), Mother (heartbreaking Korean family tragedy), Santa Sangre (best Jodorowsky movie? possibly), The Good, The Bad, The Weird (madcap Korean western action), The Secret of Kells (beautifully animated gem), Brick (teenage detective story with stellar acting), The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (deliriously weird and fun), and A Tale of Two Sisters (chilling family tragedy as horror).

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Favorites of 2013: Music

All told, this was a rather good year for music. I enjoyed a lot of what came out from new and established artists. There’s still some albums I need to get caught up on, and as always, I’m welcome to suggestions from people. Here’s what I consider my favorites…

Arcade Fire, Reflektor: Amazing that possibly my least favorite AF album could still stand alongside a year’s best albums in general. The back half of Reflektor is too inconsistent and maudlin for my tastes, but it also contains my favorite track from that album, “Afterlife.” The first half of the album, however, is classic. I’m impressed with what AF is able to accomplish by getting a little more groove-heavy, even if the results are a little scattered by their usual standards.

David Bowie, The Next Day: Excellent album that honestly stands along the better albums of Bowie’s career. Lots of highlights from this one, but “Where Are We Now?” is a personal favorite. I’ve always loved Bowie’s ballads.

The National, Trouble Will Find Me: I’ve been a fan of The National since I first heard “Fake Empire” years ago. That song, like pretty much every album of theirs I’ve listened to, always puts me in a very particular state of mind: mellow, clear-headed, maybe a little melancholy. They’ve inevitably become an important part of my internal soundtrack, and Trouble Will Find Me is no exception.

CHVRCHES, The Bones of What You Believe: Possibly my favorite album of the year, and one of the year’s best surprises for me in music. One of the best overall debuts I’ve heard as well. This one is responsible for a handful of my favorite songs of the year too: “The Mother We Share,” “Gun,” “Lies,” and “Recover.”

Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d cityI know, technically this is a 2012 album, but I didn’t get to listen to it until this year. I’m glad I did, because this is the best rap album I’ve listened to in a long time, since Kanye West’s My Dark Twisted Fantasy. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is on constant repeat on my iPod, but really, the album as a whole is fantastic. It has a strong sense of narrative and pushes the boundaries and expectations of not just rap, but music as a whole, and in a necessary way.

Drake, Nothing Was Ever The SameBetween this album and his last one (Take Care), I got into Drake big time this year. He has a lot in common with other musicians with a strong sense of narrative and mood, like Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd. “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is an amazing single and, surprisingly, reminds me of Sade. Another personal favorite is “Furthest Thing,” mainly because of how the song winds down at the 2/3 point, only to make a total musical and lyrical U-turn. I love it when something can surprise me.

Disclosure, Settle: This album totally snuck up on me toward the end of the year, but it made my radar thanks to suggestions from a few friends. I’m not a fan of mainstream electronic music in general, but I think this album demonstrates the genre’s potential when placed in the hands of meticulous, thoughtful practitioners. Also, the vast majority of the album is purely catchy and addictive.

Boards of Canada, Tomorrow’s Harvest: Three straight electronic-based albums? Hell yes. Also, this is Boards of Canada we’re talking about here. This album in particular should be considered as a straight-up album, which shouldn’t be listened to on a solo track-sampling basis. It sounds like a soundtrack to a lost John Carpenter movie, from the period when he was making classic movies (think The Thing or Escape From New York). I want to write the story that goes with this album.

My Bloody Valentine, m b v: This one’s not on Spotify, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that this was one of the best albums of the year, and an excellent comeback album in a year full of great (and not-so-great) comebacks. I feel comfortable saying this album matches up splendidly with MBV’s classic Loveless.

Foals, Holy Fire: This one is getting hardly any year-end press, probably because it was released at the start of the year. It’s excellent, though, and a great follow-up to Total Life Forever. It’s also more consistent than that album, making this a wonderful step forward in quality for Foals.

The Joy Formidable, Wolf’s Law: The most epic album of the year, hands down. Loud, dynamic, dramatic rock music meant to be played at full volume, preferably while base jumping or something. I wish Muse’s last album (2nd Law) had been even half as good as this one (it wasn’t, sadly).

Queens of the Stone Age, …Like Clockwork: Speaking of great comeback albums! This one is possible QOTSA’s best album overall since their early work. Ten songs, all killer, no filler. Personal favorite tracks include “My God is the Sun,” “I Sat By The Ocean,” “If I Had A Tail” and the surprisingly funky “Smooth Sailing.”

Sigur Ros, Kveikur: So, Sigur Ros went dark on this one, and it sounds fantastic. Another album for the writing soundtrack playlist, preferably for stories with tons of internal struggle and storminess. At times this year when I felt particularly troubled or conflicted, this was almost a perfect musical interpretation of what I was feeling, much in the same way Bat For Lashes’s The Haunted Man did for me last year.

The Knife, Shaking the Habitual: Another great comeback album! This one is pretty massive, and to be honest it took me a few tries to get all the way through it. The album as a whole is rather exhausting, and rather daring too. The one-two punch of “A Tooth for an Eye” and “Full of Fire” at the very beginning is hard to beat too.

Haim, Days Are Gone: Haim actually visited Lawrence a few months ago to play at the Granada. I had no idea who the band was at the time, but I was assured of their quality afterwards by a coworker. Upon listening to the album, I immediately regretted not seeing the band in person. They’re quality musicians and songwriters. Also, “The Wire” is the best song of the year.

As an added bonus, in case anyone wants to check out my favorite songs of the year, here’s a link to my Spotify playlist. I’m not going to list it out here, but it’s safe to assume that there’s some good jams included.

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Movie Roundup: Mechas, Mugwumps, and Samurai

Time for another batch of movie reviews! I’ve watched a ton of movies in the past few months, but I haven’t written about it in a while because I’ve been busy with things, most recently with packing up and moving to Lawrence. Now that things are settled and I’ve got some free time, I can get back to this.

The big thing I’ve taken away from the last batch of movies I’ve watched (which is much, much bigger than the sample size here) is that my movie-watching tendencies are changing. For one thing, I am much more willing to give up on a movie now, if I get thirty or so minutes into it and it bores or infuriates me. I don’t like giving up on stories, and I always want to give people the benefit of the doubt, but the fact is that there are so many other stories out there that may or may not be worth watching, and the majority of the time it just isn’t worth spending two hours on a movie when the first forty minutes are terrible. Hell, most of the time I can tell within twenty minutes. I’ve even given up on movies right before the final stretch recently because I just couldn’t take anymore (for instance, House of 1000 Corpses and Calvaire). They were just doing nothing for me at all, and I figured, why bother?

I’ve also gotten much more critical of genre movies that I have been in the past. I’m pretty sure that’s due to the fact I’ve seen so many of them now. I’m beginning to see where some movies base what they do off of what other movies have done, less so out of homage and more so out of a lack of imagination. A lot of sci-fi/fantasy/horror movies don’t do it for me anymore because I can call all their shots now. So, increasingly I’ve turned toward other kinds of movies, most notably noir and historical dramas. I really enjoyed a trio of British crime films recently, in fact – The Long Good Friday, Layer Cake, and Croupier – that I didn’t write about here, but I do want to mention them so people can seek them out for their own viewing.

But, there are reviews to get to, and with that I turn to the biggest blockbuster of everything I saw, and one of the hot button topics in film this summer…

Pacific Rim: Before and at the time it came out, this movie was the leading cause for activism in my own geek circles. It’s a movie about giant mechas battling transdimensional monsters for the fate of the world. It’s basically a live action retelling of the cartoon mashups I used to make up with my action figures when I was 11. There are obvious touchstones for fans of Mobile Suit Gundam, Godzilla, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and Neon Genesis Evangelion (oh goodness, yes). A $200 million blockbuster made by nerds, for nerds. Pure fanservice. (Which goes a long way in explaining the outright defensive stance many people took on behalf of the movie before they even saw it.) And you know what? It is a lot of fun to watch. The visual design and polish of the movie is fantastic, and it is very well shot for a CGI-heavy blockbuster. Guillermo Del Toro does in fact know what he’s doing when it comes to spectacle. The fights themselves are awesome, easily the main reason to see the movie. The story? Not so much. Like I said before, it’s cobbled together from bits of other stories and the characters are cardboard, mostly. I’m also fairly certain Charlie Hunnam might be the new Keanu Reeves. That speech from Idris Elba’s character that they play in all the trailers? It sounds cool in the trailers, but when I watched it in the movie I had flashbacks to Bill Pullman’s pre-climactic speech in Independence Day. Still, there is much fun to be had in the movie, so long as you treat it like the spectacle it is and accept the fact that it isn’t terribly original.

header-pacific-rim-epic-wondercon-trailer-unleashes-jaeger-furyUpstream Color: I really wanted to like Upstream Color, much like I really wanted to like Shane Carruth’s first movie, Primer. There’s a very strong imagination at work in this movie, but it’s a primarily visual, cinematographic imagination. It’s a gorgeous movie: beautiful colors, texture, camerawork, etc. The sound is impeccable too, as is Carruth’s score, which stands up surprisingly well even when divorced from the movie. The story in Upstream Color is somewhat coherent, but still convoluted. The emotional component of the movie is definitely stronger than it is in Primer, which is quite a welcome change, as I think Carruth is a bit too cold with his characters. In the end, I think that Carruth has potential, but right now he is much more gifted as a cinematographer and director than he is as a writer and actor. I think he relies too much on obscurity in his storytelling, to the point of annoyance. He frequently defends his obscurity as part of his process in interviews, which to be honest kinda bugs me. His obscurity comes from the fact that he isn’t actually presenting the pieces of his stories in such a way that they can be properly reassembled at the end. There is a strong difference between a story about an inexplicable thing and an inexplicable story. Carruth shouldn’t confuse the two.

Upstream-colorLunopolis: I found this one on Netflix, and it wound up being a semi-pleasant surprise. IT’s shot as a faux-documentary about a secret alternate history of America involving moon bases, the lost city of Atlantis, glowing moon rocks, Men in Black, time travel, and other things. So, it’s sort of a mashup of different conspiracy-ish things, the kinds of things that make UFOlogists and Forteans perk their ears up. I happen to have a fondness for Forteana, so I enjoyed it for that component alone. It’s a movie that doesn’t attempt to disguise the fact that it’s trying to depict something that is batshit crazy (albeit fictional), and I admired that. The story itself is both good and not-so-good. Once it introduces the time travel component, things get unnecessarily twisty and convoluted, which is unfortunate because it’s otherwise still quite creative. The other thing is that the story is so packed to bursting with ideas that the backstory of the movie overalls the foreground story. So, it would be easy to classify this as a case of the filmmakers’ intentions outspanning their grasp, but their overall energy and creativity of the movie must be commended.

LunopolisCobra: Wow, this movie is bad. Like, really bad. Even by 80s action movie standards, which quite frankly weren’t that high to begin with, it’s bad. This should be a Reagan-era-approved, by-the-numbers “badass cop fights crime with disregard for the rules” movie, thoroughly mediocre. And yet, it doesn’t even clear that mark. What it is, is flamboyantly bad. It’s a Marty Stu piece for Sylvester Stallone, who basically hired George Cosmatos as a ghost director for the project, much like Kurt Russell did for Tombstone. The hero is so hypercompetent and macho as to reach the point of caricature, complete with random expertise and skills and improbable weapons storage. Every other character in the movie is basically there to pay testament to how much of a badass Stallone – erm, Marion Cobretti – is. This setup is also so thoroughly transparent that it turns into an unintentional comedy. So yeah, it does wind up falling into the “so bad, it’s good” category.

Troll 2: Speaking of so bad it’s good, we have this little treat. I recently tried to explain this movie to my friend, Matt Switliski. I’ll just quote what I told him: “You remember The Room? This is an unintentional comedy goldmine of the same caliber, absolutely. It’s about goblins, even though the movie is called Troll 2, and these goblins are vegetarians. They only eat vegetables. But they eat people. See, what they do is make people ingest this poison that turns them into vegetable goo, and then they eat that. Apparently, that works better for them than just eating vegetables. So, this family goes to this town called Nilbog – yes, Nilbog, ‘goblin’ spelled backwards – and the goblins come after them so they can eat them, and the youngest son is the only one who knows what’s going on because his dead grandfather told him – he’s a ghost. Oh, and there’s a scene where the goblin queen makes herself hot – really, all she does is dye her hair brown, take off her glasses, brush her teeth really good, and put on a dress – and seduces a guy in a trailer by dancing around with a corncob. And then they make out in the trailer and popcorn erupts in the air. It’s that kind of movie.”

Naked Lunch: This is one of the better David Cronenberg movies I’ve seen, a step below Videodrome and The Fly, but still quite good. It features a lot of ingenious, twisted imagery: typewriters that turn into alien cockroaches and, ahem, copulate; a disembodied alien head that dispenses drinkable liquid from one of its antennae; bug powder that double-functions as a snuffable hallucinogen; etc. All of this is utilized, however, in service of what is in fact a biography of William Burroughs filtered through the imagination that spawned his famed book, Naked Lunch. Even though it traffics in speculative detail, the movie feels very faithful to Burroughs, even affectionate at times. What may be the issue with this movie, however, is that you honestly need to read Burroughs’s book to understand this movie. Otherwise, you’ll marvel at the strangeness, but the references in the strangeness won’t add up the way they should.

394951457_640I Sell the Dead: Watched this one just the other night on Netflix. It’s nothing special, but is a pleasant bit of horror comedy done very much in the vein of Don Coscarelli and some of his movies, with a fondness for character interactions and horrific elements that ultimately come across as absurdly glib and fun. It’s a story of two gravediggers who sell corpses for money and their rivalry with other gravediggers, and also their encounters with some very peculiar creatures, namely the undead (along with a more distinctly science fictional critter that I won’t give away here). It isn’t really a story so much as a series of events from the main character’s life, told by himself to a priest while he awaits his execution. It’s the kind of thing that could easily see a sequel or two, so long as the people behind it continue to find stories to tell.

Cypher: Netflix kept tossing this movie at me as a recommendation, and so I finally gave in and watched it just to shut Netflix up. My verdict? It’s not particularly good. I really hope it doesn’t bear out too accurately as an indicator of Vincenzo Natali’s other movies, because I do want to see Cube and Splice eventually. It starts out promisingly, peaking about a third of the way in with a fondly Philip K. Dickian scene depicting a mass brainwashing in a hotel conference room, conducted by shadowy corporations whose only function seems to be instilling their employees with false identities and then brainwashing them in favor of newer false identities, without notable reason or purpose. If it had stayed in that weird SF vein, I would have loved it more. Instead, it becomes a standard corporate espionage “who’s double-crossing who” intrigue for the sake of intrigue. Also, the characters suck. So, no, Netflix, you blew this one.

cypherUpside Down: My God, this movie really sucked. The premise is sorta cool, sorta incoherent: two planets are locked in the same gravitational orbit around their sun, hanging out in space like a pair of those Chinese arthritis balls resting in the palm of your hand. Each planet has its own gravity that affects only the people and things native to it. A person from Planet A cannot stand on the surface of Planet B because Planet A’s gravity will pull them back. However, they can stay on Planet B if they wear or weigh themselves down with matter from Planet B, much like ballast. However! Matter from one planet will ultimately burn up when in contact with matter from the other planet, so you can’t use the ballast for long. Now, this creates a lovely visual style for the movie, with unique use of color and staging; lots of altered perspective shots, people running on ceilings, gravitational shifts, very cool. The science, clearly, is shit. You can’t even properly call the gravity of the two planets “gravity” because, well, that’s not now gravity works. It’s a force field, not a rubber band. These physical rules are only created to serve the purpose of the story. Problem is, the movie then proceeds to constantly break these rules whenever it serves to benefit the story, to the point that having them in the first place is mainly pointless. And on top of all of this, the story sucks. There is genuine potential to be had – the more affluent planet constantly takes resources and manpower from the other planet, leaving it poor and decrepit. This should have been a story of social upheaval and change. Instead, this background is used in service of a story about two bland, unlikable paper cutouts of people who fall in love with each other and their struggle to be together, which I frankly did not give a rip about.

13 Assassins: This might be my favorite Takashi Miike movie! Which is strange, because it’s also not particularly Miike-esque, in the sense of how people characterize him from his horror cinema. Also, I have a fondness for jidai-geki stories. Nevertheless, this is a well-made, rousing movie. It revolves around thirteen assassins (duh), more specifically twelve samurai/ronin and one woodland hunter who joins up with them randomly, and their mission to kill a nobleman who is causing problems for Japan because of his ruthless cruelty. So, they clear out a small town in the Japanese countryside and turn it into a giant deathtrap for the nobleman and his men. This leads to the final third of the film, entirely composed of the sequence where the nobleman rides into town and the trap is sprung. And it is awesome. The action is well-choreographed and seriously gratifying, never dull or boring, always intense, with some seriously inventive set pieces, my favorite being an alleyway pincushioned with swords, which the samurai proceeds to use as a makeshift gauntlet to mow through a procession of mooks. If it helps, imagine it as a smaller, Japanese variation on 300 with less abs, more substance, and no racism.

Walkabout: This movie haunted me during and after watching it. It’s a simple story: a boy and his sister are lost in the Australian Outback after their salaryman father goes nuts and tries to kill them, only to off himself and torch the family car. They reach the brink of starvation and are then rescued by an Aboriginal Australian boy, who takes a shine to the sister. This movie is a lovely experience, one of the most beautiful movies I’ve watched. Nicolas Roeg lingers on scenes of nature and animal activity – lizards, birds, kookaburra trees, water buffalo, all in their perfect natural functions – and really makes you adore it all and also lament when human activity spoils it, as happens later in the movie when some callous hunters nearly run down the Aboriginal boy and shoot an animal for no clear reason. It feels senseless, and that has much to do with the intense empathy the characters have for their surroundings by that point, and also for our empathy with it. The heart of the movie, though, is the sweet, awkward budding friendship/romance between the sister and the Aboriginal boy. They are keenly aware of their own bodies and also each other at a time when they are going through adolescence, growing comfortable around one another. They are also divorced by their respective cultures; one mistakes the other’s ritual for bad magic or insanity. It all makes you long for the ability to put aside language and culture and just reach a state of union, with other humans and with nature.

A Field in England: The latest movie from Ben Wheatley, who made Kill List, an intense little gem that still sticks with me. A Field in England is much, much stranger, but it sacrifices some coherence for that strangeness, which leaves it as a less enjoyable affair, though still worth watching. Basically, it’s a story of an alchemist, Whitehead, fleeing a battle during the English Civil War (we’re talking 17th century, non-Brits) who gets roped in with some grunts in service of an evil man named O’Neill who wronged Whitehead’s master and is now in pursuit of some treasure supposedly buried in the titular field. What this all builds up to is bantering about alehouses, torture, rune divination, ingestion of “magic mushrooms,” and an apocalyptic battle of the wills between a coward and a murderer. Even with its flaws, and it’s definitely far from perfect, it’s still worth watching for anyone in pursuit of distinctive cinema.

fieldVelvet Goldmine: Now this was a trip to watch. The whole thing is ostensibly the story of the rise and fall of this glam rock star named Brian Slade, along with his various love affairs and musical endeavors, and also his attempt to fake his own murder on stage, which wreaks horrible consequences on himself and others. If I had to describe the movie, it’s basically a glam rock concept album brought to life, something David Bowie would’ve done (which is funny, because Brian Slade is basically a thinly disguised David Bowie, with liberal doses of Oscar Wilde splashed in). The story structure itself is pretty inventive, told in a nonlinear style that assembles various pieces from interviews with characters who knew, loved, and hated Slade. It’s very much set up as a “who’s the man behind the mystery” thing, with a vaguely SF-nal feel to everything – Brian Slade has a Ziggy Stardust-like alter ego named “Maxwell Demon” (as in Maxwell’s Demon, the famous thought experiment) who, like Ziggy, is not of this planet – and really, glam rock itself is pretty SF-nal, when you think about it. Gender bending, identity politics, the power of music, glamours and façades, it all feels very fantastical when seen in a movie, but it was pretty much par for the course in the scene itself and its music. It was all about building a new mythology, and that’s something this movie absolutely nails. Another thing that’s totally nailed down is the music; this movie has quite possibly one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard.

velvet goldmine6Cemetery Man: One of the most peculiar movies I’ve seen recently, and definitely one of the most imaginative. It’s a total mindscrew of a movie, in fact. Rupert Everett plays the caretaker of a cemetery in a small Italian town, and he has what amounts to the worst job in the world, since almost anyone he buries comes back to life as a zombie. He doesn’t have much of a life, since the majority of it is spent either burying people or killing them again. He attempts to have a love life, but that ends badly too, especially since they often die, and he has to bury them, and you see where this is going. Except you don’t, or you won’t. I didn’t. I refuse to say anything more on the movie, other than to say it’s well worth watching, if you can get your hands on it. (Apparently, versions of the whole movie exist on YouTube! I don’t know how legal it would be to watch it, but if anyone wants to take the plunge, that would be up to them.)

Cemetery-ManV/H/S/2: I previously reviewed V/H/S, this movie’s precursor, and found it lacking for many reasons, namely the annoyance of the found footage formats, the lack of actual quality storytelling, and the dependence on obnoxious, unlikable characters. If those problems hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have minded the blatant shock value of the movie. Those problems are definitely addressed  all around in V/H/S/2. Hell, I even liked this movie. I found three of the four segments ultimately forgettable, but still enjoyable in the moment. The first segment is still the weakest part here, a bit about a guy who can see malevolent spirits after a cybernetic eye transplant, although it does utilize its jump scares effectively. The bit with the guy on the bike becoming a zombie, shooting everything from the POV of his bike helmet,  was fun but slight. The ending segment, with the alien abduction at the slumber party, is a pleasant surprise, with its science fictional trappings standing out from the usual horror of the movie. One of the segments, however, is worth sitting through the whole movie to see: “Safe Haven,” directed by Gareth Huw Evans and Timo Tjahjanto. This one, about a news crew investigating an Indonesian cult with decidedly sinister, demonic underpinnings, is a minor classic. The escalation of this piece is fantastic, and once the payoff begins and shit hits the fan, it crackles with energy and intensity. It’s simply brilliant.

If…: If this movie and a handful of other novels and movies I’ve encountered are any indication, I would never, ever, ever want to go to an English boarding school. Good grief, no. The boarding school in If… is downright fascist and chilling. The prefects are abusive snobs, the headmasters are ineffectual and unattached, the teachers are bundles of neuroses, and young men like Malcolm McDowell’s Mick Travis have to play revolutionary to get their points across without being beaten down. If…, then, is a great movie. It functions on multiple levels, as both a horrid account of boarding school life and as an allegory for what happens when people are manhandled by institutions larger than themselves. Because of this odd mixture of detail and intent, among other things, the movies gives off this impression of being realistic and fantastical at the same time, and so the proceedings are deeply weird, never more so than in the final minutes of the movie, where Travis and his friends stage a literal coup against the school. The violence in the movie isn’t terribly explicit, but it is frightening, especially the scenes of corporal punishment; there’s a moment about two-thirds of the way through where one of the prefects canes Travis repeatedly with running windups, clearly above and beyond the recommended level of severity, that stands out in particular. The coup at the end isn’t as frightening, given that’s the point where the allegorical reading of the movie bulldozes its previously established reality, but it is chilling in the context of what we’ve seen from actual school shootings in the real world thirty-odd years later. So, then, does that make If… a prophetic work? It’s not impossible.

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Ad Astra, Per Aspera

As of right now, I’m sitting on the couch in the living room of my new apartment in Lawrence, watching Lunopolis on Netflix and writing this. I’m by and large finished setting up my apartment, aside from some wall decorations and clocks I still need to take care of. Right now, I feel very comfortable and relaxed, ready to tackle whatever awaits me in Lawrence and at KU. The path leading up to here, though, was much less relaxing. In fact, it was downright intense and grueling at points.

The actual act of packing everything up in the first place was rather time-consuming, mainly because I had a lot of stuff to get together: clothes, books, mattress, couch, computer, desk, the works. In the days awaiting the move, my dad and I managed to get everything I needed into a single 6’x16’ trailer and the bed of a pickup truck, miraculously enough. We strapped everything down beforehand as best we could with trailer straps and wrapped it all three times over in polyethylene sheeting.

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The top of the packed materials is in fact level with the top of that ladder, which is full-sized.

Despite his very vocal insistence, I did not bring my cat to Kansas.

Despite his very vocal insistence, I did not bring my cat to Kansas.

The idea behind all of this was to minimize risk as much as we could, because unlike so many times before, handy, do-it-all Dad couldn’t make the move with me. Business was beginning to pick up again at the family bowling alley, and my move was happening on a Saturday, our busiest day of the week, so he had to stay behind. That left only my mom and I to move everything on our own, plus my brother, who promised to join us in Springfield, MO to help on the second leg of the five-hour drive.

I spent the rest of that weekend saying my goodbyes to friends and family in town, which left me feeling very wistful and sad, more than I was anticipating. I don’t think you ever really know what you mean to people, or what they mean to you, until either you or them leave for good, and then there’s this sense of tragedy involved, because the departure is supposed to be permanent, or semi-permanent. I’m always going to have ties to West Plains, no matter what, because my family lives there, as do some very dear friends, but the intent is to make Lawrence, and wherever I go after it, my home, on my own. And so, goodbyes were said, and many long, emotional embraces, and that Saturday morning I left town in my Camaro, following Mom as she drove the truck and trailer by herself.

That was when things started to fray a bit.

Driving as fast as we did, with as much stuff as he had on the trailer, stacked as high as it was, the plastic started stripping away from the trailer. It did not hold up as well as we had hoped it would. It peeled off like string cheese, flapping in the drag of the trailer down the highway like tendrils of an angry jellyfish. It came off in flakes, floating to either side of my car while I rode behind Mom. We called Dad and he said there was nothing we could do; we’d just have to hope that the straps would hold everything down. So, we stopped, cut off the excess plastic so it wouldn’t be a hassle, and drove off down the road.

Except then we had to stop about ten minutes later because my driver’s side window wouldn’t work. My AC sucks, and it was a hot day, and my Camaro turns into a dutch oven on hot days, so I rolled my window down. It wouldn’t roll back up. We stopped, then, and messed with the door and the window until it rolled back up (it hasn’t worked again since then, which is just marvelous). I rolled my passenger side window down, and off the highway we went again.

But then we had to stop in Rogersville, ten minutes or so outside Springfield, because one of my boxes was about to fall out of the trailer. The only thing holding it in was the plastic wrap, which threatened to give at any moment. At that point, I was really worried, so Mom and I pulled over in a school parking lot and I drove across the street to an O’Reilly’s, where I bought extra trailer straps. Mom and I discussed the possibility of driving back to West Plains at that point, so I could try and drive up to Lawrence with Dad on Tuesday. That wouldn’t have worked, I said, because I had things I needed to do in Lawrence starting on Tuesday. She said we’d just have to suck it up and try to make everything work, and stop worrying.

It was at that point Mom sliced her hand open with a box cutter.

It was purely an accident, something that happened while Mom was trying to cut the trailer straps out of their packaging. The card backing the straps slipped in her hand, and the point of the box knife dug in and out of the fleshy part of the top of her hand, between her thumb and forefinger. It left a flap of skin shaped at an acute angle and a sudden oozing of blood.

I felt horrible. I felt partly responsible for what happened, because I insisted on getting extra trailer straps to shore up weak points on the trailer. I had insisted on continuing the move to Lawrence. Mom also felt horrible, for obvious reasons.

So, I made the trip to a local Dollar General to grab a bottle of super glue, some gauze and bandages, and a bottle of isopropyl alcohol. My brother, Graham, was waiting at the trailer on my return. We made the group decision to keep going, no matter what, and not to freak out about what might happen on the move. Like a pro, Mom patched up her cut with the super glue, and Graham and I strapped the trailer down as securely as we could.

From that point on, the move went much more smoothly and less stressfully. The new straps on the trailer held securely. Not a single physical article fell off the trailer. Not a single tire blew. Not a single car cut us off. We just rode on in a chain down the highway.

I made a playlist for myself, for the journey to Lawrence (yes, I make playlists for shit like this). When we crossed the border into Kansas on the highway, The Chemical Brothers’ “The Test” played on my stereo: “Am I coming through?/Am I coming through?/Is it sweet and pure and true?”

It turns out we came through the move better than we thought we would three hours earlier, in the school parking lot in Rogersville. Mom’s wound did not get worse, and when she saw someone at an Urgent Care clinic in Lawrence a few days later, they said she’d patched it up rather well, all things considered. We got everything moved into the apartment in less than two hours, and as of now everything of importance is put together and unpacked. There’s a few boxes left to be thrown away and a few wall hangings left to set up, like I said at the beginning, but the move itself is over. What blood was spilled in the process is already healing up.

The hard part begins now, I think. This is the first time I’ve truly lived on my own. Yes, I was often living on my own when I was in college before, but I lived in residence halls on campus. I didn’t have to worry about getting groceries, or paying utilities, or keeping up with monthly bills. I have to do all of that on top of school now, all by myself. School itself isn’t going to be easy either. It’s a PhD program; half of all PhD students don’t get to the dissertation phase (my statistics might be bad there, though). It’s going to be a tough five years, with lots of work involved. As comfortable and relaxed as I feel right now, there will be hardships and difficult decisions to make.

What I’ll do in those moments is think of the long drive up here, and the flapping plastic on the trailer, and my mother driving on with her makeshift first aid on her bleeding hand so I could come here to Lawrence for a fresh start. I’m not going back on any of that. I’m going to honor those difficulties by tackling my own and aiming for the better things that will hopefully result. I’ve never been a quitter, not even at times when I’ve felt most stressed. It’s not a quality that runs in my family.

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