So I’ve still been watching my Blindspot list. I’ll try to have my review of A Brighter Summer Day and The Piano up this week.
With that out of the way, I’m going to dive into a new project I’ve been wanting to try for a long time, in which I watch a slate of Best Picture nominees and decide for myself which one was the best. I don’t have a name for the project yet, but I do have a year that I’m starting with, and it’s… 1949.
As I use the “year the films came out” definition of “Oscar year”, here are that year’s best picture nominees:
All the King’s Men (winner)
A Letter to Three Wives
Twelve O’Clock High
Of these I’ve only see All the King’s Men, so I’m looking forward to parsing through this year. I’ll try to have this done sometime in August and hopefully make this a monthly feature.
Peace and love and all the best!
This started out as a plan to list a bunch of scenes of a certain type that I am fond of and turned into an personal treatise on beauty, grief, and grace in art. I don’t know how I swerve from talking about Labyrinth and Lost into Sufjan Stevens and Flannery O’Connor, but hey, that’s writing, isn’t it? I considered not publishing it, but this post is why I’ve taken so long to return after announcing my return, so I’m not gonna NOT publish it, am I? Regardless, I hope you get something out of it.
She is standing, defiant, in the face of a being of unknown power. He has her brother hostage and has thrown a multitude of tests at her to prove her worth at getting him back. And then, at the end of it all, he simply decides to ignore them and keep the child. Then she says, with the sudden clarity, of sunbeam breaking through a cloud, “you have no power over me.” His world falls to pieces, and her brother is saved.
That moment in Labyrinth made me love epiphanies in art. Sure, it’s on the nose. But as a seven-year-old this moment was monumentally satisfying; that a character trapped in a world with seemingly no escape realized, all at once, that the secret to defeating it was far simpler than she’d imagined; that this whole world was essentially her own creation and that she was the only one with power (forgive me for undoubtedly getting plot details wrong; I’m writing this from how I remember it from childhood).
Epiphanies can be a character’s or my own. Epiphanies can be Chihiro discovering Haku’s name all at once as they fly, or they can be me, realizing as I watched Spirited Away that I’d never seen a movie so perfectly meant for me before. Epiphanies can be Gabriel Conroy realizing he will never be able to love his wife the way Michael Furey did, or me reading The Dead for the 15th time and discovering a passage that is just perfect, whose perfection had eluded me the first 14 times. Epiphanies in art are wonderful, capable of delivering joy and heartbreak in equal measure, as utterly clear when they happen as they are nebulous to describe.
Lost had been much better than I’d ever imagined it could be. It was spellbinding from the first episode and gripping for nearly every moment after that. The season’s penultimate episode was called Exodus, Part 1, and it ended on a moment that felt like a prayer. A small handful of the show’s characters have decided to try to find help by sailing off on a man-made raft. The sequence where the raft departs is unlike anything I’d seen from any work of art before it, a dialogue-free sequence that represented a culmination of at least half a dozen storylines, concocted and depicted feverishly by Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof. The departure of the raft was a single act that was as weighty for its literal implications as its symbolism. It could only have worked on TV, with the medium’s unique ability to weave longform narratives by breaking them up into hourlong chunks, mingled with the visual beauty of Jack Bender’s direction and Michael Giacchino’s gorgeous music. It was a moment of grace like few I’ve seen on TV since. It was transcendent in a way that that word is very rarely used: it opened my mind to the possibilities of TV as a storytelling platform, but did so in a way so graceful and perfect for this specific show that I knew that a moment this good would come again very rarely. Indeed, I’ve watched and loved a lot of TV since this moment, including many shows that were much more consistent, more tightly written, less haphazard and frustrating than Lost became. But has there ever been a moment on television, before or since, that was so simply beautiful? There is grace in beauty, in concocting it out of parts that add up to something that completely transcends their sum.
I think a lot about the concept of grace in fiction. Not strictly in a religious sense, though I can’t deny that my understanding of grace as a concept is through a Catholic filter. In that sense, grace is the acceptance of God. In that sense, grace is tied quite closely with epiphanies; in Catholicism, the Epiphany is the celebration of the revelation that baby Jesus was one and the same as God.
Which is all to say that my religious upbringing no doubt set the table for this concept that so fascinates me in many ways beyond religious. And I’m not alone. The concepts of epiphanies and grace enrapture short story writers. The short story is really the perfect format for stories about epiphanies and grace. Their brevity prevent excessive exposition and usually require a fairly intense study of a single character. It helps is a character arrives mid-conflict and, in the story’s final act, is forced to make a decision about their lot. Most of us has read, Araby, the story by James Joyce that is so often taught for its clear, astute use of epiphany in the context of coming of age- in this case a young boy getting a harsh reality check about how life can let you down.
But epiphanies are more than just metaphors for adolescence. They way they tie in with grace make for my favorite works of fiction. The great Flannery O’Connor, master of Southern Gothic short fiction, made stories about epiphanies and grace a sort of obsession. Her vision of grace was violent and brutal. In her stories, grace presents itself at times inconvenient and epiphanies come too late to do much with them- staring down the muzzle of a serial killer’s rifle, or watching one’s mother collapsing and dying on the floor of a bus.
And it is in O’Connor’s stories that grace as a concept beyond a straightforward “person accepts or doesn’t accept God” choice began to resonate with me (ironically perhaps, as O’Connor was quite frank about her stories being parables). It was the horrific beauty of her presentation of epiphany that resonated with me. Many writers present characters who make grand realizations too late. In Flannery O’Connor, it really didn’t matter: the epiphany was the point. Whether a character might die or live mattered less than their discovery that grace was always hovering above them, waiting to be accepted or rejected.
These notions of life, death, and grace were all too abstract to me for most of my life. Of course, I had family members who passed away when I was a child, and when I was 18 my mother survived a harrowing medical ordeal involving a stroke and hospital-acquired pneumonia. But the blunt cruelty of death struck my family hard in 2016. In February, my grandmother died suddenly at 84. In April, my mom passed away at 59, just weeks after she discovered that the breast cancer she’d been battling for more than two years had spread to her spine.
I did what many people have done facing grief. I retreated. I stopped doing things I loved doing and found solace where I could. I turned to art. One album in particular I listened to a lot of was Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell, which he wrote after his own mother passed away. There was one song on there that stuck with me: the album’s opening track, “The Only Thing”. I’ve written about it before. After that essay, which I wrote a month after my mom passed away, I kept listening to “The Only Thing.” I wasn’t sure why this particular song, which wasn’t always my favorite off the album (for the record, it’s an immaculate album, and “Fourth of July”, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”, and “John My Beloved” are all just about perfect songs). It’s scarcely comforting, addressing depression and overpowering sadness head on. There was something more than despair to it, though. And all at once, on perhaps my 100th listen to it some months ago, the bridge hit. And listening to the lyrics again, closer than ever before, I was overcome. You see, the song is, for the most part, a first-person account of grief, one that hits closer to my own experience than any other portrayal of it that I’ve seen or heard or read.
Should I tear my eyes out now? Everything I see returns to you somehow
Should I tear my heart out now? Everything I feel returns to you somehow
God if that isn’t how I felt for so many days. There is no vocabulary for grief in our culture. There’s nothing that prepares you for it. For so many months, these were the lines that resonated most with me.
And all this time I hadn’t realized a slight shift, a glimmer of hope, that occurs right in the bridge, in the very next line.
I want to save you from your sorrow
It’s a slight shift, in perspective. It doesn’t even change the voice. It is, and can only be, a voice of the departed, trying to comfort those left behind. It had taken me months to realize this, and now that I had I started bawling. This lyric is an epiphany, emerging as a slight burst of light in a song that is about darkness. And for me, at that moment, it was the sort of epiphany I had needed, a reminder of my own mother’s relentless positivity. How she’d want to save me from my sorrow. There are flashes of grace in life, and they carry an outsize importance to me now. I find them in art more than anywhere. In moments when there is a synthesis of narrative and beauty that I find overwhelming. In moments where a character discovers a strength they didn’t know they had. But most of all, I find it music, when words and melody create a soundscape of sadness and then, for a moment, reveal the light that is waiting, always waiting, to burst through.