Here begins what I hope will be a regular feature of this blog: The Weekly Top 5. Here I’ll list some stuff I’ve been into this week – what I’ve been watching, reading, eating, listening to, et cetera. It might be new stuff or old stuff; it might be stuff I recommend or stuff I really couldn’t stand. Whatever I’m up to, if it’s on my mind at the end of the week, it’ll be mentioned here.
I’m hoping that this column, as it were, will not only provide a running document of cultural and personal experiences, but will also inspire me to explore more interesting stuff per week, if only for the sake of not having a shitty column.
So let’s get down to business. Here’s the Top 5 things I’ve been into this week:
Magical Mystery Tour (film)
I’m spending the early part of this summer working on a project for the upcoming 50th anniversary of the White Album, so lately I’ve been spending time filling in some of the few remaining gaps in my Beatles knowledge. I’ve successfully avoided the legendarily trashy Magical Mystery Tour film for the bulk of my life on a technicality: The only copy of it in my house growing up was on VHS, and my dad had taped over the entire middle of the film with the Shea Stadium concert, which I can only assume was not an accident. So coming into this week, all I knew about this movie was the last ten minutes or so, most of which are taken up by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, which didn’t really compute for my twelve-year-old self (though I liked the stripper very much). I’ve not been anxious to go back to it, but I had an iTunes gift card and, well, scholarly duty calls.
And look, no, it’s not quite the irredeemable turd that history has made it out to be. Well, irredeemable, maybe, but it’s nowhere near offensive enough to warrant turdly status. It’s mostly boring, embarrassing, and odd in that deliberate way that clues you in on the Beatles’ (primarily McCartney’s) deep naivety and oversimplified understanding of the avant-garde. It’s not too hard to make arguments for it – Victor Spinetti’s part could be read as a statement on the senselessness of militarism, the romance sequence a satire on how typical films depict the act of falling in love – but these readings require some real mental gymnastics from the viewer. We know enough about the habits of the ’67 Beatles – too many drugs, too much distraction, and enough grand hubris to earnestly believe that they could literally just show up wherever and shoot whatever and it would turn out awesome – to know that any “interpretation” is futile, since there’s nothing here to interpret. “Blue Jay Way” is better than I remember, though.
Lend Me Your Ears (podcast)
With the historical deep dive Slow Burn this past winter and a host of perennial standbys, the Slate network of podcasts is fast becoming my favorite go-to for stuff to listen to while driving or doing the dishes. (That’s not an insult; look out for Top 5 Reasons Why I Love Doing the Dishes, coming soon!) And if you’re anything like me – a thirtysomething English teacher with nothing much to do during the summer – then this new one is a must. It’s a Shakespeare pod, for one, and as the bard always seems to manage, it’s actually relevant, “exploring how Shakespeare’s works have shaped our modern views on politics.”
My primary interest in this pod is its interactive quality. The first episode, on Julius Caesar, inspired me to finally go and read a play that I was definitely supposed to read in my sophomore year of high school. (It’s a good place to start – a short, easy read, compared to other Shakespeare works.) Having that context, following the pod was easy and enlightening, and helped me to feel smart when confronted with last year’s Shakespeare in the Park performance of Caesar, with, all too predictably, a Trump figure playing the title role. (Yes, it’s stupid, but not for the obvious reasons: the true demagogue and villain of the play, as stated by host Isaac Butler, is Marc Antony.) The pod is monthly, so there’s plenty of time to read up if you want to listen. The most recent episode is on Richard II – historically less popular than Richard III, but maybe our modern context will change that.
William Wordsworth (poet)
My absolute favorite book series is the Viking Portable Library – straightforward, austere, shockingly lightweight books of 600-800 pages, collecting survey-course-like overviews of great writers, movements, and historical periods, published by Penguin Random House. My prized possession among all my books is The Portable James Joyce, containing the full text of two of my absolute favorite books (Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) as well as Joyce’s rarely-discussed poems, which add a good deal of depth to a historically inscrutable dude. Best about these books is that they’re all text – no pictures or extra nonsense – and the text is in that gorgeous Caslon-esque typeface so often seen in PDFs of old books. You get the feeling of reading something very serious and worthy of respect, while not being burdened with the weight of a small child.
Lately, as the summer days off have graduated from freeing to lonesome, I’ve taken to picking up my Portable Romanic Poets in the mornings. Reading the poems of William Wordsworth, I’ve found, has done a great deal to remove the burden of anxiety from the early stretches of my days and helped me to see beyond immediate feelings of stasis and worry and into those that are more eternal and therefore more comforting. I’ve always known the classic Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey to be a pleasant nature-hike, but poems like Mutability and Ode: On Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood plumb the twisted and tense relationship that youthful wonder and adult reason have with death and eternity. It sounds a bit heavy for morning coffee, but Wordsworth’s hope and his love of beauty run beneath all of these Big Thoughts. The heavy and loathsome feelings are intrinsic to who we are, as stated by Wordsworth in The Prelude:
…How strange that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself!
The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry (book)
Speaking of poetry. Subtitled “Unlocking the Poet Within,” I found this lovable little volume years ago, at a shady discount bookseller that popped up in my hometown and was gone within weeks. At the time, I knew Fry’s name but little about his reputation beyond his supporting role Blackadder Goes Forth. Since then, his 2008 miniseries Stephen Fry in America has become one of my standard annual rewatches, and his distinct manner – jovial but cutting, excitable but shrewd, and as self-consciously British as they come – all but defines my #personalitygoals.
The Ode Less Travelled is a curious guide, encouraging the practice of poetry as a hobby while taking the craft very seriously, with a technical depth that would intimidate if Fry’s prose wasn’t so playful, so warm and assuring. I picked it up randomly yesterday and saw that I’d stopped reading after the long first section dealing with meter. That was at least five years ago, maybe more, but I’m taking it up again and finding it great fun. Fry explores the history behind the verse and his exercises encourage the reader almost as much as his statement of purpose, from the foreword: “It really is enough to have fun.”
Shine a Light by Martin Scorsese (Rolling Stones concert film)
I caught a bit of this concert doc from ’08 on TV yesterday and…I dunno. Listen, I’m a Stones fan thru and thru; I saw this when it first came out nearly ten(!) years ago and probably really dug it. But now it strikes me as one of Marty’s lazier efforts as a documentarian. There seems to be precious little rhyme or reason to the archival footage he chooses to include between songs; rarely is it illuminating for the seasoned fan. And make no mistake, the seasoned fan is exactly who this film is for: The setlist is, with a few notable exceptions, a parade of deep cuts – which, while often satisfying (“Some Girls,” “You Got the Silver”) and occasionally transcendent (“As Tears Go By”) can also seem random and wasteful (I mean, “Far Away Eyes”? And if you can tell the difference between “Champagne and Reefer” and, like, any other blues song, well, mazel tov).
Call it nostalgia, but for me the Stones doc to beat is still 1989’s 25 x 5: The Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones, a wart-ridden thrill ride with comprehensive interviews and enough full performances to satisfy even the hungriest Stonesphile. That said, I’ve been blasting Through the Past, Darkly all morning, and it’s Scorsese’s fault.