With Which I Am Well Pleased IV (Zoso)

The news is just exhausting these days, isn’t it? I work to stay engaged as a literate, informed citizen, but it’s still a soul-sucking endeavor just reading my small catalog of lucid, trusted sources. I can’t imagine how bad it would be if I was still letting my brain be bludgeoned into pulp by the unrelenting dumb cuts, hot takes, and pointed, perverted propaganda of the social media cesspool. I also continue to do my part as a good member of the herd — masking up, keeping social distance, avoiding restaurants, getting my flu shot, etc. — but I live in one of the very worst states in the Nation in terms of government and community response to the pandemic, so all of my efforts at self- and group-protection could be nullified by one coughing idiot in my apartment building elevator. Did I mention exhausting?

But even in dark times, there are sparkling stars in the sky to guide us, lights at the ends of tunnels to inspire us, and shining works of art, small and sublime, to illuminate the spaces we inhabit. We’re down to less than four weeks remaining in our Iowa time, and we’re already deep into packing boxes and disassembling our apartment. That feels good. Very good. I ordered some sweet new masks, figuring if I’ve gotta wear ’em, then I’m gonna make a statement. Even if that statement is “I’m weird.” We’ve planned a final little Midwestern road-trip over to hike around the Effigy Mounds and Galena, just to get us out of Des Moines for a few days before we head out and turn hardcore Southwestern. And maybe, hopefully, Sweet Jesus let it be so, our current Federal kakistocracy will be on its way out soon if motivated voters get the job done in such overwhelming numbers that the cheaters can’t game the broken system again. You got a voting plan?

On a less macro basis, I continue to find and surround myself with books and films and music and sundries that give me joy and inspiration, and today seems a good time to share a few of those in what’s apparently emerging as an ongoing series. There are three earlier “With Which I Am Well Pleased” installments, here, here, and here. And for this edition, here are 15 of the things that have been rocking my world most effectively, most recently. If you’ve got something else to suggest, hit me in the comments. Always game for good recommendations, as long as they’re not exhausting and soul-sucking!

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The Madness Of “With Which I Am Well Pleased” III

With so many things to be stressed, obsessed and/or depressed about in recent months, those little escapes, thrills and distractions that can brighten the hours and days are to be cherished, without doubt or question.

First and foremost in our family’s case, of course, is that none of us have had any medical emergencies to contend with during this our anno virum. Marcia and I were additionally pleased when Katelin called us earlier this week to tell us that she had received a very nice work promotion, demonstrating that her chosen work-remote situation in Nevada is clearly acceptable and sustainable to her employer, atop the satisfaction that she and John are feeling with their new Western lifestyle. We gave ourselves Six Parenting Gold Stars for that one. Very pleasing.

Marcia and I continue to have our own work opportunities to keep the mental juices and financial benefits flowing, I continue to find things to enjoyably think and write about, and we both continue to prioritize daily woodland and countryside walks of five-miles-plus to keep the body tuned along with the brain.  (I’m also cycling when I can to further that physical component, with ~650 miles covered over ~15 rides since May). We will be heading back up to Minnesota next week to see family in socially safe circumstances, so another change of scenery in Marcia’s beloved home state will feel good, for sure. Keeping on with keeping on, at bottom line. As one does.

Beyond those macro existential things, there are lots of smaller thrills that have delivered me the joy juice of late as well, so it seems fitting to provide a third installment to my “With Which I Am Pleased” series, building on this one and that one. As with the earlier posts, I feature 15 items in various categories, and commend and recommend them for your attention and (maybe) enjoyment as well. May they distract you from distress, alleviate your duress, and/or prepare you to safely impress your social (distant) circles with hot fresh content. Got recommendations for me in return? That’s what the comment button is for. Hit it!

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Going Medieval

Daily Abstract Thoughts

The Diversity of Classic Rock

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With Which I Am Well Pleased (Redux)

While our State of residence is opening up prematurely and irresponsibly, Marcia and I are still doing our part to protect ourselves and others through smart adherence to science-based guidance on social distancing and personal protection. So that means we’re spending a lot of time at home, still, even as we have diligently worked through our dire local climate to get good, healthy walks in every day, usually way out in the countryside away from the selfish, oblivious idiots who are bumbling around our neighborhood as though COVID-19 were a thing of the past already. We’re not exactly experiencing the sabbatical year that we had planned for 2020, but we have our health and we have each other and we have a variety of things, both mundane and meaningful, that are filling the hours and satisfying our souls. At the risk of repeating a titular heresy, I revisit my earlier With Which I Am Well Pleased post for a peek at 15 other specific things that have been keeping me entertained over the past month or so. Maybe you’ll be easily amused by them too.

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With Which I Am Well Pleased

I ended my prior post with the words titling this one. It’s a phrase I often use in written pieces, and one that we as a family often say around our household. I must confess that there’s a spot of respectful blasphemy in using it as often as I do, since the quote is actually culled from a piece of New Testament Scripture, within the story of Jesus’ baptism by John:

And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3: 16-17 RSV)

Having been raised in a strong scripture teaching tradition, I know there are other bits and bobs of the Bible that dot my speech and writing in odd ways. Those words are deeply ingrained in my mental filing cabinets, easily drawn forth when certain points and positions require comment or exposition, usually completely unrelated to their original occurrence or intention.

“With which I am well pleased” seems particularly resonant right now, since there are so many things that so many of us find displeasing, from the minor nits associated with confinement, to the macro unraveling of the global economy, hyper-partisan politics, and the ever-rising infection and mortality figures that frame and define the news cycle, hour after hour, day after day. So at the risk of further damning myself through misuse of scripture, today I share 15 odds and ends in a quintet of categories that have brightened my days of late, in the hopes that you, too, may find yourself well pleased with them.

And, of course, on the “with whom I am well pleased” question through Life During Quarantine Time, that answer should be quite obvious . . .

(Note: All the images are linked to relevant pages, if you wish to explore further).

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Best of the Archives #11: Trio dans le Studio

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

TRIO DANS LE STUDIO: ANN MASON STOCKTON, CATHERINE GOTTHOFFER AND DOROTHY REMSEN ON THE HARP IN FILM (1999)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

As I noted in the background story to my Kim Deal piece, the normal rubric for a musician interview in most print or online publications revolves around the writer asking a fairly short set of questions via phone of a trending artist who either has a new album out or is playing in town soon, then boiling those brief remarks down into a promotional piece. The writer recognizes that the artist will likely have already been asked the same questions many times already by other writers, meaning that their answers may be rote and ossified through repetition, thus limiting the unique value and depth of the articles that emerge from this type of mass-production process, especially given the fact that today’s hot commodity musician may be a passing fancy of little interest to future readers and listeners.

As I also noted in the Kim Deal piece, being an interesting musician does not necessarily correlate with an ability to say interesting things about anything interesting, so a lot of those going-through-the-motions interviews are dull to write and dull to read. It’s therefore a treat when a writer is given the opportunity to speak with artists of vast proven accomplishment, and those artists have insightful and interesting perspective about interesting things, and the writer is given the column space to do justice to the story. Today’s archival article is, for me, the finest personal example I have of such a fortuitous alignment of story elements.

I wrote the piece for The American Harp Journal, the long-running periodical of The American Harp Association. It is a group interview of three of the most prominent and beloved film studio harpists of the 20th Century: Ann Mason Stockton, Catherine Gotthoffer, and Dorothy Remsen. If you have a favorite big studio movie from about the 1940s to the 1990s, and you hear a harp in its score, the odds are high that one of them played it.

I chanced upon this writing opportunity after I had engaged Albany-based harpist Elizabeth Meriweather Huntley for an event in one of my other professional positions. She was a wonderful player, and I had multiple opportunities to appreciate and recommend her work during my time in Albany. As it turned out, Elizabeth was also the editor of The American Harp Journal, and as we chatted about things at some event or another, and my music critic work for the regional newsweekly came up in conversation, she told me I might be able to help her with a project.

Stockton, Gotthoffer and Remsen were getting on in years, and the Harp Society wanted to capture, preserve and share some of their history and memories while they were still able and available to share them. Music historian Russell Wapensky (a great authority on California music-making and Musicians’ Local 47, including some epic research and preservation efforts on the Wrecking Crew’s and Beach Boys’ myriad sessions) was attached to the project, and he conducted and filmed a three-hour interview with the three harpists, aided by Remsen’s husband.

I was then given copies of those raw interview tapes and assigned the task of transcribing them and compiling their contents into a readable standalone article. This wasn’t my normal working approach, at all, but it was a very enjoyable undertaking, and I found the three harpists to be delightful long-distance companions as I listened to their stories and studied their lives and work.

It was fascinating to gain insight and perspective into just what attracted prospective musicians to chose such an unwieldy and expensive instrument, and the group psychologies and tics of those who did so and then stuck with it for decades. It was also amazing to get some first-hand perspective about some great artists of the 20th Century before their greatness had been widely recognized. Ann Mason Stockton played on some of Frank Sinatra’s very first recordings, for example, and she knew he was special, even then.

All three of the harpists featured in the story have passed away since this article was published, so I do hope that it served its purpose as a valuable remembrance of them, and a useful long-term research resource for the American Harp Association. They were delightful subjects and great artists, and I’m glad to have been given the gift of sharing their stories.

Ann Mason Stockton (1916-2006)

Movie Buff: My 50 Favorite Films

Right before our ever-more living through interesting times trip to Tampa Bay, Marcia and I watched Bob Fosse’s 1979 film All The Jazz. She had watched the Fosse/Verdon miniseries without me, then watched Cabaret on Netflix while I was traveling. She expressed an interest in seeing Fosse’s autobiographical Jazz as well, since it covers aspects and elements of the story told in the miniseries, only lightly fictionalized (with a few crucial, shocking exceptions). I have long cited All That Jazz as one of my favorite films, so I was perfectly happy to order the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray edition of it for us to watch, since it was not available to stream. Bring on the popcorn!

This was, oh, I dunno, probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve watched that film since its release. My regard for it grows with each viewing, and that was affirmed again this time around. I believe it is Fosse’s greatest masterpiece, and one of the finest films ever made. It’s really rare that I ever want to watch movies more than once, even ones I like, so when one moves me enough to consider multiple repeat screenings, that cements its favorite status in my heart and mind. That’s especially true in Jazz‘s case, with its musical structure and Broadway-style set pieces, given that I usually hate those in movies, just on principal. It takes a lot to overcome my general revulsion toward that form.

Of course, me being me, and me also looking at a lot of unexpected hunkering down time to watch movies over the weeks ahead, after watching All That Jazz, I got to thinking about what other films I’d rank as my all-time favorites, and be willing to watch again. And again. I’ve done that sort of life-time list with albums on here for years, but when it comes to films, while I’ve occasionally plonked some off-the-cuff “Top Ten Movie” ideas down here, or done some time-specific lists as decades roll to a close, I’ve never really sat down to think about my All-Time Best of the Best Film List in any meaningful way.

So while we were in Florida, I went back through all of my various old small lists and made one big list out of them. And then I edited it to a nice round number — fifty — and I decided that for the purposes of this list, I’d not include  documentaries; I might need to give them their own list at some point. I tried to stick to the things that I really, really love, and that I personally believe to be true masterpieces, and not to start off the way that so many lists of this ilk do, with the “usual suspect” entries that critics are obliged to cite.

You know the ones: Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Godfather, Battleship Potemkin, 8 1/2, Breathless, etc.  All fine, important films, of course, but none of them move me as deeply on a personal basis as the ones I put on my own list. On the flip-side of that rubric, I also tried to apply some reasonable objective quality filters to knock things off the list like, say, John Boorman’s Zardoz or George Roy Hill’s Slap Shot, both of which I’ve also seen numerous times and which always tickle me to pieces, but which I know are just not great films, as much as I want them to be so.

I was not particularly surprised when I came up with my final 50 to see that almost all of the films were made in my lifetime. Things with relevance and current release energy that I first experienced when they were relatively fresh are more likely to move me deeply than things from earlier eras. I mean, I’ve read and been told so many times how to process and respond to Citizen Kane that I don’t really quite know what my real personal feelings are about it any more. (I suspect this is true for most folks, though I also suspect that few critics would admit it). While Kane may truly have changed the way we view and make cinema, I’m of the era that was raised on its followers, such that many of its then-revolutionary aspects look, feel and sound tame (and dull) to me, and I can’t remove the lenses through which I view it and others of its venerable stature.

But sitting through Ari Aster’s Midsommar last year? Blammo! My Head A Splode! And I thought about that flick for a long time after it was over, the feelings it created were deep and powerful, its artistry and acting were sublime, and I didn’t need anybody to tell me what I should think about it, and why it mattered. It was objectively great and subjectively a favorite, for sure, in it’s own damn right. Onto the list with you! Huttah!

Okay, with all of that as (long) preamble, I present my Top 50 Film List below, in chronological order (oldest to newest) by United States’ premier dates. Title, release year, and director noted for each one. I wish the directors’ roster wasn’t as much of a white boys sausage party as it is, but that’s what’s been mostly put before me for most of my lifetime by the film-making powers that be, so it reflects that, alas. That said, I am very, very glad to see that dynamic (slowly) changing, bit by bit, year by year, no matter how white and paternalistic Oscar apparently continues to want to be, damn him and his enablers.

I don’t know how many of these are available for streaming, or even on Blu-Ray for some of the obscurities, but I’ll keep the list handy near the TV Command Station in the weeks ahead, and see what we see. Let me know if you’re moved to watch any of these on your own, and what you think/thought if you do. Always happy to discuss great flicks!

    1. The Great Dictator (1940, Charlie Chaplin)
    2. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, Stanley Kubrick)
    3. Seconds (1966, John Frankenheimer)
    4. Cool Hand Luke (1967, Stuart Rosenberg)
    5. The Graduate (1967, Mike Nichols)
    6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
    7. Petulia (1968, Richard Lester)
    8. A Clockwork Orange (1971, Stanley Kubrick)
    9. Walkabout (1971, Nicolas Roeg)
    10. Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972, Werner Herzog)
    11. Deliverance (1972, John Boorman)
    12. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, Luis Buñuel)
    13. Don’t Look Now (1973, Nicolas Roeg)
    14. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Miloš Forman)
    15. Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese)
    16. The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976, Nicolas Roeg)
    17. Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)
    18. Eraserhead (1977, David Lynch)
    19. The Last Wave (1977, Peter Weir)
    20. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, Philip Kaufman)
    21. All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse)
    22. Time Bandits (1981, Terry Gilliam)
    23. Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)
    24. Liquid Sky (1982, Slava Tsukerman)
    25. Brazil (1985, Terry Gilliam)
    26. A Zed & Two Noughts (1985, Peter Greenaway)
    27. The Princess Bride (1987, Rob Reiner)
    28. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989, Peter Greenaway)
    29. Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)
    30. The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)
    31. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993, Lasse Hallström)
    32. Dead Man (1995, Jim Jarmusch)
    33. Mulholland Dr. (2001, David Lynch)
    34. Lost in Translation (2003, Sofia Coppola)
    35. The Fountain (2006, Darren Aronofsky)
    36. WALL-E (2008, Andrew Stanton)
    37. Up (2009, Pete Docter)
    38. Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)
    39. Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier)
    40. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012, Benh Zeitlin)
    41. Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson)
    42. A Field in England (2013, Ben Wheatley)
    43. Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)
    44. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Wes Anderson)
    45. Inside Out (2015, Pete Docter)
    46. The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers)
    47. Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins)
    48. A Ghost Story (2017, David Lowery)
    49. mother! (2017, Darren Aronofsky)
    50. Midsommar (2019, Ari Aster)

It’s showtime, folks!