Saturday, January 28, 2017

Evening in America: 31 Years After the Challenger Explosion

January 28, 1986. We were out of school that day for snow. My best friend, Donna, and I were riding sleds off the strip mine across the road from my house.  My mother came out onto the porch and hollered, telling us to come in "right now". She didn't say why but her words telegraphed over the frozen air to us that something bad had happened. 
I had not wanted to miss school that day because we were scheduled to watch the launch. There had been a special station set up for schools to watch via NASA and it was always exciting when the massive television was wheeled into our classroom on its metal stand.  This was a time when children were very interested in the space program and the space shuttles had made us even more interested.   There were action 
figures and model kits and toys dedicated to the space missions.  We learned all about the astronauts in class. We were the children of the Cold War, still three years from the fall of the Berlin Wall, and there was national pride in the space race.  Like many children, I worried a lot about the Russians and how they might drop the bomb on us someday with no notice.  Somehow the space program assuaged those fears with Regan's "Star Wars" initiative to ward off nuclear missiles and such.

Inside, my mother had built a roaring fire in the fireplace.  She had a talent for making fires.   The heat surrounded us and I knew something was really wrong because my mother wasn't at our heels to make sure we didn't get mud and snow on the carpet. Instead she insisted we come on in without even taking off our shoes. She wasn't crying but her face was shaped by a new grief. She worked in the lunchroom at school, so she had been enjoying the snow day, too. She was still in her nightgown and housecoat and house shoes even though it was almost noon. My mother hardly ever arose without instantly dressing. From the living room I could hear Dan Rather, whom my father still didn't like because he wasn't Walter Cronkite. And then I knew it was something beyond our own lives. "That teacher," my mother said. "All of them." We watched the news a long while, the only time I remember being parked in front of the news like that. They replayed the explosion, the reactions of the crowd, the stories of each of the astronauts, especially Christa McAuliffe. We had been watching her especially close because she was a school teacher, a civilian who was going into space. In the weeks leading up to the launch we had been well-versed in her story through our study of The Weekly Reader, a favorite part of school for any member of Generation X.  It was Morning in America and we were proud of it.  

My father, who worked third shift at the local fiberglass factory (which would explode seventeen
years later, killing seven people), got up earlier than usual and watched, too, in silence. We sat there far into the evening, until President Reagan came on and gave his speech.  He was supposed to give The State of the Union address that night but instead spoke to the country that was united in grief.  Despite what anyone might think of Reagan now, there's no denying the real emotion he felt that night, and his beautifully delivered words were a balm (written by Peggy Noonan, using parts of a poem from John Magee): "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

I asked if I could go for a walk. By this time it was full dark and the whole world seemed stilled and frozen. There was no sound except the distant and insistent barking of a dog.  Our road was completely covered in an inch of ice, then several inches of snow. All the houses held windows glowing an eerie blue from the televisions inside. I looked up at the sky, pocked by hundreds of stars.  I was thirteen years old but in my memory I felt much younger.  I recall it as the first time I ever felt part of a national tragedy, a story the whole world was watching.  Back then I thought that was the worst thing that could ever happen to us as a country.  I've thought back on it during other dark days in our history since, obviously on September 11, but on other days when we didn't feel as united in our griefs. For my generation, it's the first moment we can all look back on and tell you where we were when it happened, the way my parents's generation can tell you where they were when Kennedy was assassinated, or the way my daughters' generation already speak with nostalgia about 9/11.  For me, it's also one of the first times I realized the power of language, the impact that words can have.  

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Favorite Movies of 2016

1.  Manchester by the Sea is a heartbreaker that feels so real you leave the cinema feeling as if the story has happened to someone you know well and care about.  I think it also boasts the best performances of the year in Casey Affleck's heartbroken handyman and Michelle Williams as a woman doing everything she can to survive.  Rarely does a film so well use sense of place as this one.  It was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, who also made You Can Count on Me, and--a favorite film of mine--Margaret, an underrated masterpiece inspired by a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem.

2. Sunset Song.  Terrence Davies is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers ever yet this film didn't make much of a splash in America.  It should have, as it is the film that has most haunted me this year with its sweeping scenes of farmers working their fields or the rising chorus as they stroll to church (as shown in the short scene I'm embedding below).  It's a film that uses words like "gloaming" and Scottish colloquialisms, where long scenes have characters singing folk songs, where the lead character, Chris, sits in fields of golden wheat and considers her life.

3.  The Witch.  This is one of the all-time best horror films, I think.  I loved everything about it, especially what it says about the dangers of fundamentalism.  Most of the dialogue is taken from actual witch trial documents of the time period.  The blooms of red amongst the mostly black, white, and gray tones of the film make the scenes of violence even more startling. At least a couple of the scenes are absolutely mesmerizing.

4.  La La Land.  True movie magic, and a soundtrack I can't stop listening to.  Emma Stone will steal your heart.

5.  Moonlight.  The colors, the performances, the sense of place, that "baptism" scene, all of it is masterful, and perhaps its strongest suit is that it takes characters who are so often stereotyped and paints them as dignified, faulted, vulnerable, angry, and everything in between for complex and realistic creations.

6.  Sing Street.  The feel-good movie of the year but I confess the ending left me a sobbing mess.  But in a good way.  This story of a rag-tag bunch of musicians in 1980s Dublin will appeal to anyone who ever had a dream.

7.  Midnight Special.  I'm not a big fan of sci-fi so it's interesting that three of my favorites of the year easily fall into that genre.  This film is by one of my favorite directors (Jeff Nichols) and I love him because he so accurately captures the ways and cadences of rural people.  He really gets country folks in  way that very few people in Hollywood do.  My favorite movie by him is Mud, but I was enthralled by this one, too.  Most of the movie deals with very real issues before it turns more sci-fi toward the end and every moment of that is pretty perfect.  I wasn't crazy about the ending but I loved everything before that, especially Michael Shannon's performance.

7.  Arrival.  The main thing I love about this is that a big blockbuster has as its main character not a superhero but a linguist.  I love what this movie says about communication, language, and the truth.  It's a profound film and Amy Adams' performance is luminous.

8.  Rogue One.  I loved everything about this one, although I went in with some trepidation. Some people have lamented the CGI but I even loved that new layer it brought to the film.  My favorite parts of it were:  the last couple seconds of the film;  the performance of Felicity Jones, whom I love in everything; the instantly-iconic couple Chirrup and Baze; and the new tag-line "The Force is with me and I am one with The Force".  It's excellent blockbuster filmmaking but it's even more profound than that, reminding us that "someone is listening," as Jones's character Jyn Erso says.

9. The Light Between Oceans. Old fashioned romantic filmmaking at its finest.  I'll watch anything with Rachel Weitz in it, and she doesn't disappoint here in one of the most beautifully filmed pictures of the year.

10.  The Lobster.  Rachel Weitz stars in this one, too, and it's easily the weirdest movie on my list.  But I can't stop thinking about it, and especially that silent vogueing in the woods (if you've seen it you'll know what I mean).  Warning:  there is a disturbing scene that involves a dog in this one that almost made me stop watching.  I think the graphic nature of that scene was uncalled for but it's still a very interesting and original movie with some of my favorite actors, including Weitz, Colin Farrell, and the always wonderful Olivia Colman (Broadchurch).

11. Anthropoid.  An intelligent, moving, and tight war thriller about an assassination attempt during WWII.

12.  The Conjuring 2.  I'm a sucker for horror movies but only when they're well-made.  This one is, never relying on cheap thrills, and anchored by very strong performances from Vera Farming and Patrick Wilson.  I especially love how this one takes its time in the way horror films from the 70s.  And that singing scene (in the clip below) was pretty sweet.

13.  Loving.  I had high hopes for this film.  It's based on one of my favorite true stories, it's written and directed by one of my favorite directors (Jeff Nichols, the aforementioned writer and director of Midnight Special), it has some great actors in it, it explores the complex lives of rural people.  It didn't live up to my expectations but I still think it's a very good film.  I love the performances, the sense of place, the realism of it all.  But I kept waiting for a big emotional release in the film where the tension comes to a head and all of the frustration of the characters.  Still, definitely worth seeing.

Biggest Disappointments:
While both were beautifully made I was very disappointed by Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals (which is enjoyable to watch but is ultimately just a retread of Deliverance, complete with a "hillbilly" using a toilet on his front porch) and by The Girl on the Train, which, despite a great lead performance by Emiy Blunt, just becomes two hours of watching women being assaulted.