Avengers: Infinity War & Lifetime Viewership

Earlier this week I saw Avengers: Infinity War. Having seen a grand total of four of the prior 18 (!!!) films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I knew only a few of Infinity War‘s characters by name (or sight) but as the movie very clearly designates all of its principals as either a “good guy” or “bad guy” it wasn’t much of a challenge to follow the film’s rudimentary plot. Perhaps unfairly, I had been prepared to find myself adrift in a sea of confounding proper nouns and under-explained MacGuffins—after all, this is a comic book movie at heart, with all the silly names and omnipotent objects that such a lineage entails. To my surprise, and to the benefit of similarly under-equipped viewers, Infinity War doesn’t sink too deeply into the minutiae of its lore—in fact, the opposite could be argued to be true: seemingly the only dialogue spoken across the film’s 160-minute run-time is a combination of one-liners and characters re-stating that, in case you missed it, the Big Bad is collecting rocks so that he can kill a lot of people.

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The Author of the Quixote: On Pierre Menard, Miguel de Cervantes and Jorge Luis Borges

In his short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Jorge Luis Borges—that miraculous, mind-fucking Argentinian—proposes an unusual premise. The titular Menard is shown to be obsessed with unusual literary feats and, as such, he decides to take it upon himself to rewrite Cervantes’ classic, Don Quixote. He’s not planning to translate the book or simply copy it. He’s not planning to write a new, modern version of it. No. He’s planning to write it. As in, create circumstances in his life that drive him to write a new book. And that new book is exactly, word for word, Don Quixote. I’ll let the story’s narrator explain:

“Those who have insinuated that Menard devoted his life to writing a contemporary Quixote besmirch his illustrious memory. Pierre Menard did not want to compose another Quixote, which surely is easy enough—he wanted to compose the Quixote. Nor, surely, need one be obliged to note that his goal was never a mechanical transcription of the original; he had no intention of copying it. His admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.”

That is an insane plan. Obviously. Writing a book that already exists, let alone one that was written hundreds of years prior in a completely different world and culture is, as plans go, not only ludicrous but also seemingly impossible. At the risk of spoiling an 80-year old story that you’re probably not going to read anyway: Menard doesn’t fully succeed. But, incredibly, he does partially succeed. Through his labors, he generates a few chapters that happen to be identical matches to those of Cervantes. That seems impossible and it probably is but—as with most of Borges’ work—the possible here isn’t meant to reflect the tangible world at hand but rather the intangible world of our minds, the world of imagination.

Continue reading “The Author of the Quixote: On Pierre Menard, Miguel de Cervantes and Jorge Luis Borges”

What a World We Have Made

Three years ago The Decemberists released What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, the band’s seventh full-length album which, like most releases from Portland’s premier prog-folk outfit, is clever and catchy and thoughtful. Stylistically, What a Terrible World hews closely to The Decemberists’ well-established folksy style but the album is no worse for being something of a retread (in fact, the haunting ‘Lake Song’ may be the single greatest installment in the band’s extensive archive).

Despite its simple construction, the most interesting song on What a Terrible World is undoubtedly ’12/17/12′ in which lyricist Colin Meloy reflects on, among other things, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults.

Through his laconic lyrics, Meloy tries to reconcile the joy that he feels from the impending arrival of his second child with the immense grief that empathy for the Sandy Hook victims and their families demands. In confronting the inherent complexity and duality of simultaneously experiencing both intense joy and utter anguish Meloy poignantly states,

“Oh my God, what a world you have made here. What a terrible world, what a beautiful world.”

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And the Rest Is Silence: In Memory of Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin, my hero, died on a Monday. On the Wednesday that preceded her passing, only five days before her death, I sent her the only piece of fan mail I’ve ever written. In it, I struggled to contain and express the boundless praise and thanks due to a woman who, despite our never meeting or interacting in any way, was and is one of the chief figures of my life. Though I know that it is almost impossible that Ms. Le Guin received, let alone read, my letter before her passing, I am glad to have sent it. Through her I learned that to write words is to create magic and so even if she never read my thanks, they are out there now, in the world, their spell of gratitude cast in the act of writing. That will have to be enough.

Phillips-Ursula-K-LeGuin
Before I knew that I wanted to write, my passion was music. It is fitting then, that I was introduced to Ms. Le Guin, unquestionably my favorite author, by the music of Gatsbys American Dream, unquestionably my favorite band. I found them both, Gatsbys and Le Guin, at a crucial stage in my life; as an adolescent I may have discovered my personhood through Third Eye Blind and The Lord of the Rings but in my burgeoning adulthood I discovered purpose – that I had meaningful control over who I was and who I could be – through Gatsbys American Dream and Ursula K. Le Guin. In my mind they are bound together, those two, the author and the band, and for many years now I have lived in the tangle of their connection.

Continue reading “And the Rest Is Silence: In Memory of Ursula K. Le Guin”

This Week in NFL Incompetence: Week 17 – The Ravens Really Blew It

A little after 4pm on Sunday the Cleveland Browns lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, plunging them to the NFL’s second-ever 0-16 finish. The loss would have been soul crushing if only there had been any souls left to crush in Cleveland. Bad as the Browns season finale was, though, it wasn’t the worst of the day. There’s a strong case to be made that the Browns reached a new level of misery on Sunday but the drop from 1-15 to 0-16 is a lot less dramatic than the fall from making the playoffs to missing them.

Of all the teams with a chance to claim a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season, the Baltimore Ravens entered Sunday’s matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals with the best odds of making the postseason. Per ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Ravens had a 97% chance of making the playoffs on Sunday morning – almost 30% higher than the team with the next best odds – and with the game against Cincinnati winding down, the Ravens seemed to have it in the bag. After trailing all game, they had stormed back to take their first lead of the day late in the 4th quarter. With Cincinnati facing a 4th and 12 at the Baltimore 49-yard line, with 53 seconds on the clock and the Bengals out of timeouts, the Ravens needed just one stop to punch their ticket to the postseason.

You’ve read the title of this article. You know what happens next.

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The Best Albums of 2017

Okay, so that title is misleading. These aren’t necessarily the best albums of 2017 – who am I to judge? – but they’re certainly the new releases that I enjoyed most this year.

(Presented alphabetically by artist.)

I’m Only Dreaming by Eisley

By the end of the album’s very first song, it’s clear that I’m Only Dreaming is a special record. You want proof? Album opener ‘Always Wrong’ rides deliberate melodies that transform into stratified harmonies while the serenity of springtime seems to bloom right out of the speakers during in ‘When You Fall.’ If those don’t do it for you, try the majestic closure of ‘Brightest Fire’ or the tranquil tenderness of ‘Rabbit Hole.’ Few albums this year offer a single song as brilliant as any of these and yet I’m Only Dreaming has them all and more, including what is perhaps the album’s greatest passage as the second half of ‘Defeatist’ unfolds across a looped melodic line, tracing out a verse that hits maybe a little too close to home:

“As the dust falls down, I usually give up so easily. I let my head hang down before I even see a truth that’s plain as day staring back at me. I’m a defeatist, but I don’t have to be.”

I’m Only Dreaming is that rare album that grabs you from the moment it begins and never lets go; it’s bright and warm and surprisingly existential. The end result is that with this release, Eisley, on the heels of significant lineup changes, has created what is likely their best album. Continue reading “The Best Albums of 2017”

This Week in NFL Incompetence: Week 16 – Jimmy Garoppolo is Incredible

On October 30th the San Francisco 49ers sent a 2nd round draft pick to the New England Patriots for Tom Brady’s understudy, Jimmy Garoppolo. As San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan opted to take things slow with his potential franchise quarterback, Garappolo didn’t start a game until December 3rd but since then, well, let’s just say that the 49ers have to be happy with how that trade worked out.

“Good thing that Brady trade didn’t work out.”

Going into Week 16, Garoppolo had led the 49ers to three straight victories despite the fact that he was taking over a team that was 1-10 and absolutely terrible at nearly every aspect of the game. In beating the Bears, Texans and Titans, Jimmy G. had shown a promising amount of star power but it was fair to wonder if his game had looked better than it actually was due to the quality – or, more specifically, the lack thereof – of his competition.

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This Week in NFL Incompetence: Week 15 – Seahawk Down

In a feature literally named after the NFL’s penchant for constant, unyielding incompetence, you might’ve guessed that today we’d be honoring (well maybe not honoring, exactly) the League itself again. And yet, even as both the Raiders and Steelers lost their games due to controversial-but-true-to-the-rulebook verdicts from their referees, there’s only one place truly deserving of our incompetent gaze. I’m looking at you, Seattle.

And what I’m seeing is an unholy abomination.

The Seahawks have a well-established reputation as a dominant team, their hype built on the foundation of two recent Super Bowl appearances – including one victory – and a multiyear run as one of the greatest defenses of all-time. Injuries to their defense and ineffectiveness along the offensive line have somewhat dampened Seattle’s reputation for excellence this year but they remain a formidable foe, especially at home where they’ve had one of the only legitimate home-field advantages in the sport over the last few years. Even as 2017 seemed to be turning into a down year for the franchise, Russell Wilson vaulted himself into the MVP discussion with a series of masterful performances including an impressive defeat of fellow MVP-candidate Carson Wentz’s up-and-coming Eagles squad in Week 13.

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The Underwhelming Characters of The Last Jedi

(SPOILER ALERT. This post, written after only one viewing of The Last Jedi, is absolutely spoilerific. I’m going to ruin the movie for you if you haven’t already seen it, is I guess what I’m saying. Continue at your own discretion.)

As The Force Awakens drew to a close, Rey stood atop the scenic island cliffs of Ahch-To, her arm outstretched towards Luke – lightsaber in hand – offering him his old weapon, his lost power, the life he had abandoned. When The Last Jedi picks up this narrative thread, Luke carefully accepts the weapon, cradling it in his (semi-robotic) hands. It’s a powerful image: the old master weighing his failures and successes, hosting an internal debate over whether or not to once again take up the legacy that had made, and subsequently destroyed, him. Then, with an annoyed nonchalance, he flings the damn thing over his shoulder and stomps away.

That this is all played for laughs isn’t the problem. (Laughs are good! Who doesn’t like laughs?) The problem is that this scene is representative of the narrative and emotional development of every character in the film – save Poe Dameron – which is to say that any meaningful development is casually tossed aside in favor of taking the path of least resistance, the easy way out. Let me explain. Continue reading “The Underwhelming Characters of The Last Jedi

This Week in NFL Incompetence: Week 14 – The NFL’s Policies Are a Mess

When a yellow flag landed it was immediately clear what the call was going to be. It was also immediately clear that it was going to be the wrong call.

Detroit Lions defensive back Quandre Diggs had just leveled Tampa Bay’s O.J. Howard, causing a fumble that was recovered by Detroit’s Glover Quin. As broadcaster Ronde Barber predicted – despite the attribution of that tweeted quote, it was Barber and not Spielman who made this comment – Diggs was flagged for unnecessary roughness on the play, his hit deemed a shot to the head of a defenseless receiver. As Barber also noted, this was the wrong call, mainly because the receiver wasn’t defenseless (per NFL rules) and because Diggs didn’t hit him in the head.

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