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Leaning into gratitude: the art that got me through my worst year

As bad as 2016 was for so many, it was also a nightmare for me on a personal level. I’m still grappling with the deaths of my mom and grandmother. The despair I fell into caused huge setbacks for my mental health. Simply put, there’s been sadness to spare.

But my mom wouldn’t have that. She did not allow hopelessness. That was ironclad with her. Never did she waver from her belief that there was always hope, no matter how bad the situation. Her personal mantra, one I hear her say countless times in my life, was “lean into gratitude”. Clinging to that without her here to help has been my greatest test. I waver constantly. My family helps. My friends help. And, well, so does art.

An odd irony of this year: as grief sapped my will and desire to consume art, especially films, at my usual speed, I did all the more appreciate the art that I did love. I wanted badly to write a summary of my favorite films of this year, as I did last year, but simply put: I haven’t seen enough. Instead, I’m going to write about art across the spectrum that lifted me in my darkest hours, that gave me hope when I was most in need of it. These are the artists and works of art of 2016 that I’m grateful for.

Coloring Book, by Chance the Rapper

Chance the Rapper’s mixtape Coloring Book came out almost exactly two weeks after my mom died. Listening to it gave me the first real sense of joy I’d felt since that day, from Chance breaking into laughter with gratitude for how good his life is in record’s first few seconds to the literal come to Jesus moment in the final track as he sings with a chorus, over and over again “Are you ready for your blessings? Are you ready for your miracle?”

Never had I needed to hear words like that so badly. For a solid month, I listened to Coloring Book in its entirety, every day. It’s one of the most joyful, earnestly spiritual albums I’ve ever heard, and I’m so grateful that Chance the Rapper dropped it when he did.

Cynthia Erivo

In June, I did something I hadn’t done in years: I watched the Tony Awards. In my younger, theatre kid days, the Tonys were required viewing. They were an invaluable way of keeping up with the year’s notable Broadway productions. As I got older, I sort of fell out of keeping up with theatre and the Tonys fell to the wayside as well. But last year, I was caught with my whole family in the spell of Hamilton, the megahit musical that needs no more explanation from me. So we were all gathered in the living room to watch the Tonys, to watch a show we loved win awards, and to see the cast perform. I wasn’t at all disappointed. Hamilton swept the night, and their performance of “Yorktown” (one of my favorite tracks from the cast album) lived up to expectations. But the highlight of the evening for me had nothing to do with Hamilton. A tiny woman from London with a voice clear and powerful as a winter wind completely stole the show. Performing “I’m Here” from The Color Purple, Cynthia Erivo completely captivated my living room and, given the huge ovation she received, everyone watching her live. From the first note she sang I was breathless with astonishment and by the end of her performance there were tears falling down my face. God bless live theatre. No other medium so easily allows one person to level crowds with sheer talent and artistry.

The Invitation, dir. by Karyn Kusama

I didn’t see many movies this year. I’m going to go out of my way to see more in 2017, but I simply lacked the energy most days. One thing no one tells you about grief: it completely drains you of energy, physically and emotionally. But I did see one film in 2016 that is going to stay with me for a long time, and that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. It’s no mistake that it’s a movie that understands that point about grief. Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is one of the finest horror films I’ve seen in a long time, a work that shows the emotional scope possible within a genre that is so often unfairly dismissed as trivial. As someone with anxiety and who has spent most of this year grappling with grief, The Invitation was a rare film in any genre to tackle both of those topics head on, with honesty and deftness. It builds to a climax that is genuinely chilling, all the more so because the horror is the logical endgame to this story, and not simply an excuse for wanton bloodletting. The Invitation isn’t simply a scary film, it’s a heartbreaking one.

Overwatch

From a design standpoint, I could endlessly praise Overwatch to high heavens for how thoroughly it eschews everything about the first person shooter genre that I’d grown weary of. It’s so lively, so colorful, so unabashedly goofy and fun. But beyond all that, Overwatch was the perfect distraction for me in a year when I needed one badly. No matter how bad my anxiety would get, no matter how sad I might be on a given day, Overwatch was there to give me a burst of color, a quick endorphin rush, something I could count on to lift my spirits in a year that was so relentlessly trying.

Inside

I played all of Inside in one late night rush, finishing at about 5 in the morning. Although there were many points where I thought time to go to sleep, I couldn’t pull away. Developers Playdead took the basic mechanics of their first game, Limbo and refined them beautifully. They also crafted a haunting world in which the game takes place. Inside is a thrilling,  disturbing, altogether astonishing experience. Its gameplay is fluid and intuitive; the puzzles are ingeniously designed so that we understand immediately what we need to do without breaking the narrative flow. The story is wordless and captivating, saying all it needs to say with what we can see. Inside is an unforgettable experience, the sort of game that will inspire future developers to continue to seek increasingly creative ways to use games to tell original, beautiful stories.

The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin

I wanted to keep this post to things released in 2016, but I’m making an exception for this extraordinary book, which was published in August 2015. It’s rare to find a fantasy novel as original as this one, which takes place in one of the most extraordinarily realized worlds that I’ve read in fiction. The Stillness (the planet the novel takes place in) is a chaotic wilderness dotted with cities of astonishing architectural detail that Jenisin describes vividly while never slowing down its propulsive narrative. Once every few centuries, the world is struck by apocalyptic events called Seasons, which are prevented by beings called Orogenes, who have the power to control the earth at a tectonic level. The Fifth Season is inspiring reading, and I can’t wait to begin on its sequel, The Obelisk Gate, which came out this August.

5thseasonscover

“8 (circle)”, by Bon Iver

22, A Million is a splendid album, but sometimes the power of one song is worth highlighting. Bon Iver has long been one of my go to musicians for meditation and calm. No matter the period of my life, there seems to be something in their music that reaches into my soul and connects at a level that is almost spiritual. This plaintive, gorgeous song aches with uncertainty, sadness, and a desire of hope. It is the most simply beautiful song I heard this year.

Moana

As I said, I didn’t see many films this year. But I felt like I couldn’t miss this one. There is something still pure and healing about the animated musical to me. The way it transports me back to my childhood, when nothing could be more enchanting than a darkened theatre and a Disney movie. Moana delivered as much as I hoped it would, which is to say that its music made me cheerful, its story made me smile, and I got easily caught up in the sweep of it. Its simplicity was a welcome relief from the more madcap plotting of recent Disney films, whose plots often seem to be playing catchup to their worldbuilding. Moana didn’t reinvent the Disney musical, but as the holidays approached and I prepared for a series of firsts without my mom and grandmother, watching something simple and joyful with my siblings was what I needed. For that, I think I’ll always be particularly grateful for this film.

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Wrapping up 2015: Amy

I figure I’ll give myself until the end of February (the end of the new release graveyard, basically) to keep posting reviews of last year’s films. Until then, there are still some terrific movies that need seeing. Amy is one of them.

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Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy opens with home video footage of a 14-year-old Amy Winehouse singing “Happy Birthday” to a friend. Her voice is startling: rich, beautiful, and robust. I imagine any music producer hearing this snippet would clamor to find out more about this girl. Then something far more grim struck me: at 14, Amy Winehouse was more than halfway to her death. Never deviating from footage (much of it home video shot by Winehouse and her friends) Kapadia builds a narrative from this moment, when Winehouse was so full of promise, to the realization of that promise as she catapulted to superstardom, and finally her self-destruction and death at age 27 from alcohol poisoning.

I remember well when Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” was all the rage. I was a sophomore in college, immersing myself in music for the first time as I took jazz vocal lessons and sang with musical ensembles. Her ascent coincided with my first deep appreciation of music. “Rehab” was my favorite song for some time. I wasn’t alone. It was so catchy and energetic that it overtook any room in which it was played. Everyone in the room had no choice but to stop and listen. My younger sister, however, couldn’t listen to the song. It was too bleak for her. She saw through the veneer of defiant buoyancy and saw underneath a song about self-aware self-destruction laid bare for the world to see. In hindsight, I think she was right. Today it’s hard not to see “Rehab” as a confession from someone who was not long for the world.

Celebrity documentaries are a tricky business. It’s easy to fall into the trap of hagiography, spouting platitudes and downplaying the subject’s life off the stage. Go too far the other way, and you run the risk of seeming disingenuous: stardom and the price of fame is an inescapable aspect of any superstar’s life story. Kapadia’s great achievement with Amy is finding balance. Every frame of the movie is about Amy Winehouse. Voiceovers are kept to the soundtrack; there are no cuts to talking heads. We get the sense of the flow of a lifetime. It’s devastating that that lifetime can be covered in only 2 hours.

There are always limits to how thoroughly a documentary can examine its subject. If you simply recite a glut of facts, you don’t end up with a watchable movie, and you don’t do the story justice. Amy makes no attempt to be a “tell all”. Its aims are clear. Odds are, you know Amy Winehouse as a musician who skyrocketed to fame, became tabloid fodder, and died young. In interviewing her friends, family, and closest colleagues, Kapadia aims to have us empathize with someone we likely hadn’t before. There are no justifications of Amy Winehouse’s self-destructive behavior. But it’s one part of a person. Winehouse’s surge to fame feels like a suffocating blanket. She seems woefully unprepared to handle the burden of it. Shots of paparazzi swarming her with flashbulbs feel like a horror film. Her collapse into bulimia, drug addiction, and alcoholism was covered with intense glee by the entertainment press. I felt stings of guilt as footage that I no doubt once gawked at and forgot now seemed like a harbinger. When a standup comedian mocks Winehouse’s haggard appearance near the end of her life, it’s crushing, not just for the callousness of the words, but because odds are we probably found it funny at the time.

As I wrote before Amy is not a hagiography. It is a reminder of how easily we dehumanize other people, even as we admire their talent. When Winehouse died, that too was what we paid lip service to. “Such talent, wasted,” is the go-to sentiment when an artist dies too soon. And then we move on. We reserve our deep sympathies. We compartmentalize. It’s easy to forget that everyone has a story worth telling, worth knowing. Even if you know nothing of Amy Winehouse, I imagine you would still find Amy to be compelling and terribly sad. It’s all too human a story. Some people are blessed with extraordinary artistic abilities. Some people die young, under tragic circumstances. Too often, they are the same person.

What I Did For Love (or not): A tale of a magnificent, much hated ballad

I don’t talk much about music on this blog, and this next statement might well be evidence as to why: Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” is easily one of my favorite songs of all-time.

“I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” has no sense of self-awareness, and is 12 minutes of relentless cheesecake. It is the lowest of low hanging fruit on the “let’s bond by all making fun of a song that no one is going to feel compelled to defend, so we can mock free of guilt” tree.

But here I stand.

“I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” has that sort of shameless-bordering-on-hopeless bombast, the willingness deep dive into embarrassment with the belief that you if flail blindly enough with your dying breaths in a storm of piano chords and choral singers that you will find a heartstring. It is driven by the force that was the heart behind early-90’s pop culture, which was fueled by grand appeals to big emotions. To deny “I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” is to deny that which made us who we are today.

Even if “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” is a terrible song (it’s not, or I don’t care),  it’s in a grand fashion. And its massive success in 1993 (it went number one for five weeks) is not an embarrassment. No, the same culture that could embrace a song by a 46 year old man named after a congealed meat dish, who had gone more than a decade without a hit, giving it his absolute all on a song that could only be sung by one with nothing left to lose, could also embrace a film whose primary appeal was “Dinosaurs are amazing and you know it” or a TV show about beautiful FBI agents perpetually searching for a truth that might just be out there.  Jurassic Park and The X-Files have better stood the test of time for good reason (they are legitimate classics in their mediums and genres), but they thrived as entertainments of sincere conviction in an environment willing to give in with wide-eyed enthusiasm.

What I’m saying is, sing on, Meat Loaf, and let no one tell you what you won’t do.

P.S: If you can’t enjoy this holy mess of a video, we can’t be friends.

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