Racine, Wisconsin: Our living room on December 16, 2023
Racine, Wisconsin: Our living room on Saturday, December 16, 2023.

Another Week: Number 51

by | December 17, 2023

But we decide which is right
And which is an illusion

— Graeme Edge, “Late Lament

It’s funny how my mind flips back and forth in predicting the days ahead based on the latest developments. Amy eats a little food and makes a keen observation, and I see her gradually recovering her appetite and strength — maybe enough to walk around the house without getting exhausted. A little later, she vomits it and I have to help her take each step up the stairs to bed as waves of grief wash over me.

My focus this week has been her next hospital trip on Monday. I’m trying to build her energy and stamina through whatever combination of nutrition, exercise, and rest is attainable. In between, I control what I can — keeping the dishes moving through the dishwasher, cleaning the bathroom, making runs to Walmart for provision, and micromanaging preferences in my software.

On Wednesday, we watched A Conversation Between Matt Berninger and David Letterman and, while discussing depression with Breninger, the frontman and lyricist of The National, Letterman passed along an especially depressing description he had heard of the condition: “Depression is life — is actual human existence — with twenty-twenty vision. You’re seeing the real thing, and it’s a mechanism in you that keeps you away from that.”

In other words, depression is seeing without your rose-colored glasses.

My rose-colored glasses are on again and off again from minute to minute, and as I watch myself from a slight distance, optimism seems naive and panic seems hysterical.

As I watch Amy from right behind her, holding her gait belt as she climbs the stairs, the fact is this: She has to lift and place her right foot and then her left foot fourteen times each. Wednesday night and again on Saturday night, she got through thirteen and a half of these only to arrive at a complete stalemate on that last footlift.


Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

Stuck in the house here, we wait for the big movies to stream at no extra charge. Everything Everywhere All at Once looked very intriguing last year, and we cheered as it won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actress even though we had only the vaguest idea of what it might be — something about hot dog fingers?

But we finally watched it on Amazon Prime Video this week, and it was something to see. It’s a bit of a firehose of action, so we took a few breaks to avoid overload. All in all, it’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking even if its philosophy or mythology are not entirely coherent.

The main idea here is “modal realism,” which posits that “all possible worlds are real in the same way as is the actual world.” What if every fork in the road is a choice between two alternate, equally “real” universes? What if you could jump between them?

The film’s directors — the Daniels — reportedly became intrigued by this idea via Ross McElwee’s 1986 documentary Sherman’s March, one of my favorite films back then that I can now only dimly remember.

Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan are both fantastic in this, and the flood of audio-visual effects is astounding. At the same time, the script maintains a sense of humor. Near the end, there’s a face lit by rotating colored lights which is one of the best simulations of an LSD experience I have ever seen on film.

Ultimately, though, there is no transcendent revelation here, no Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life.

There’s just a very simple message — the same one Roger Ebert arrived at in his autobiography.


The Fablemans (2022)

Another big movie that finally made it to no-extra-charge streaming is Steven Spielberg’s fictionalized autobiography The Fablemans.

Although I was awed by Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977 (perhaps because I was on angel dust at the time), Spielberg’s movies generally strike me as slightly plastic, with emotional strings being pulled more by lighting effects and musical scores than by story and character.

Even though it’s not especially manipulative, The Fablemans nevertheless rings like a plastic bell.

The movie is two intertwined stories — a Jewish boy with model trains and a camera gradually grows into a working filmmaker while the disharmony between his precise, computer genius father and his artistic, free-spirited mother eventually convulses the family.

The steps of the young filmmaker’s progress are clichéd — more extras, more effects, but never any development of vision. The anti-semitic high school bullies who bloody Sam’s nose are cartoons.

The only standout in this film is Michelle Williams as Sam’s mom. As a woman with yearnings that few understand, she feels a bit more like an actual person.


Barbie (2023)

Speaking of plastic characters, we watched Barbie on Max on Friday and enjoyed it pretty much.

Amy was a tomboy who rode with neighborhood boys as a girl, scavenging cardboard boxes from appliance stores with which they built forts. She had little interest in Barbie or her Dreamhouse.

Meanwhile, I had four sisters and a dad who sold Barbies in the toy department of the Ace Hardware store he managed in Kenosha, so I remember stepping, barefoot, on plenty of Barbies strewn around our home’s shag carpeting as my Kiss and Alice Cooper records played on the home stereo.

Amy and I have loved Greta Gerwig’s generally indie work over the years and were apprehensive to see what she would do with this colossal commercial project.

What she’s done is make a huge pop movie full of color and music that nevertheless is in garbled contact with the real world, receiving messages through the wall from this adjacent universe. There are hints of death, shocks of sexism, and even some gentle skewering of Mattel, Inc. These pokes are never so preachy as to spoil the fun. They are just seeds of awareness, offsetting the sweetness with a little acid.

As a guy with a guitar, the part that stabbed me through the heart was all the Kens subjecting all the Barbies on the beach at sunset to their unplugged renditions of Matchbox Twenty’s “Push.” I don’t actually know that song, but ouch.


American Symphony (2023)

This new documentary, streaming on Netflix, contrasts the blossoming career of musician and composer Jon Batiste and his victories at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards with the concurrent recurrence of his wife Suleika Jaouad‘s leukemia.

Amy loves Batiste as a personality and she has read Jaouad’s book, Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted — much of it aloud to me. Upon viewing the film’s trailer last month, Amy said, ”This is the first time I have cried through this whole thing.”

So now we have Netflix for at least a month, and on Saturday evening, we watched American Symphony.

I felt the film mostly kept to the edges and never really got to the heart of these realities.

The story culminates in Batiste’s performance of his American Symphony at Carnegie Hall in September of 2022 and we see him composing and rehearsing the work through the film, but we only get tidbits of what it’s supposed to be.

Likewise, there are glimpses here and there of Jaouad’s cancer ordeal, but there is no full revelation of what she’s going through.

Batiste himself displays joy and anguish on his face but doesn’t verbalize it at any length. Even though the film eavesdrops on his over-the-phone therapy sessions, his suffering is mostly internal.




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