It’s Friday, which means nothing to me personally since I don’t work during the summer, but it feels like time to recap the week. Here’s the top 5 items of note from the past seven or so days of my life:
Atonement (2007 film)
Angela had been on me for a while to watch Joe Wright’s The Darkest Hour, which she’d told me was surprisingly lively compared to how it was marketed (i.e., as yet another exhausting biopic about someone who no living humans really care about in a more-than-abstract way). She was right, of course: Wright’s film is an urgent business, with a back-to-the-wall Winston Churchill sputtering and careening through a dour mesh of bureaucratic dumbshits in order to LITERALLY SAVE EUROPE. And it’s not without the mark of a skilled stylist, as so many recent period pieces so tragically are: Wright loves movement, his camera often drawing us through a maze of hallways as the marching, insistent soundtrack keeps us on constant high alert. He also loves shadow, darkness, dim lighting in tiny rooms. The Darkest Hour feels like a billowing black cloud of dread through which faint glimmers of hope struggle to sneak and shyly announce themselves.
So it was that we resolved to catch me up on what is probably Wright’s best known film, 2007’s Atonement. I remember hearing quite a lot of critical buzz about it at the time, but at least for me it was inevitably swept under by a powerhouse year that also featured There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, two of the baddest-ass prestige films of the new century. (Again, the advertising didn’t help, giving the impression of a weepy war-epic-as-romance-novel, a la Pearl Harbor.) I’m glad I had a chance to revisit it (it’s currently streaming on Netflix), even if I remain a bit more ambivalent about it than the critics seem to have been. The first act is near-perfect: The movement is at least as propulsive as in The Darkest Hour but Wright also takes his time letting us feel the intense longing and tension among our main characters. (Its only Oscar win, for best original score, was well-deserved: the use of typewriter keys as percussion is advanced.) Things slow down a bit in the second act, which is where the war narrative enters, although the minutes-long shot of the swarmed and hopeless beaches at Dunkirk is as overwhelming as anything in Christopher Nolan’s movie devoted to that desperate retreat.
But where I’m really torn is on the third act reversal. (I won’t bother spoiling it, because the film is still very much worth seeing.) The film’s doubling-back on itself in its final moments adds a turn of the tragic screw, but I wonder if it’s a bit too easy; it’s hard to really feel the tragedy when you’re told two versions of the same story that you know full well is made up anyway. I’m eager to read Ian McEwan’s book to see how this was pulled off in print, because as much as I love the film’s tension and dread, that ending is just sitting with me funny, like the weird smell in my breadbox.
The weird smell in my breadbox (curious phenomenon)
As stated in the Top 5 First Principles of this blog, I am not a very interesting person. I do my food shopping at Target, I have a negative water to LaCroix ratio at all times, and I eat the same thing for breakfast every day: mashed avocado on toast with just a touch of olive oil and a bit of sea salt. Roll your eyes at my profound dullness if you must, but few things make me happier first thing in the morning than a full French press and some avocado toast. Except, that is, when my bread smells weird.
Now, I characterized this weird smell as being “in my breadbox” even though the weird smell was probably definitely originating from the bread itself. I noticed it on Monday only momentarily, assuming it was something maybe floating in from outside. Tuesday it was more pronounced: There was no way this smell wasn’t coming from the breadbox. I smelled the bread, and yes, the bread itself also smelled weird, but was this a chicken or egg situation? The bread looked perfectly fine: No mold, no foreign objects or substances in the plastic. Was it the plastic? The bread tasted fine, as far as I could tell. But by Wednesday morning the smell was too distracting not to be dealt with. I tossed the bread as a precaution but lo and behold the smell is still very much IN the breadbox, like the beast in Jerry’s car.
I hesitate to attempt a description of the smell, because it isn’t an obvious smell – it doesn’t smell like rotting food or turned milk or even shit. It’s something that isn’t native to bread or to food in general or even to supermarkets. The best I can approximate: It smells like the BO of someone who works around weird animals.
I really hope this blog takes off, so that I can start buying the expensive bread, the kind you have to cut yourself. This experience will for sure turn me into a bread snob.
Queer Eye, Season Two (Netflix show)
Speaking of pursuing slightly classier versions of everyday foods, what is up with Antoni Porowski, the food and wine guru on the rebooted Queer Eye? First of all, he pretty much never talks about wine, which was a beef I also had way back when Ted Allen held his post, but more pressing is the matter of his wardrobe. In almost every episode of season one, Antoni could be seen wearing a Strokes t-shirt – sometimes it was the same Strokes t-shirt (the mock-chrome logo from the band’s first album was popular, I seem to remember) but oftentimes it would be different t-shirts advertising the same band. I came away from season one perfectly fine with Antoni as a cast member – he sure can dice an avocado, which, yeah, great – but also convinced that he only owned Strokes t-shirts.
So hallelujah for episode two of the new season – which also happened to feature the by-far most remarkable transformation of the season, on a schlubby film nerd who used to TUCK IN HIS T-SHIRTS – when Antoni finally made it to the front seat of the Fab 5 pickup wearing a National t-shirt! What a relief – he found a new band to pimp AND he digs High Violet maybe! The relief, however, was short lived, because it soon became clear that Antoni also owns multiple fucking National t-shirts. I’m not sure what Karamo Brown does, exactly, but as the culture dude can he maybe help expand his friend’s outlook beyond two indie rock bands???
Fixed vs. Growth Mindset (psychological paradigm)
The reason I love makeover shows like Queer Eye is because they shrewdly (and with three-act TV flair) draw parallels between bad fashion and psychological trauma. I could’ve grown into an easy target for the Fab 5 if I hadn’t spent a good deal of my twenties watching TLC’s What Not To Wear, a program that blew my mind by suggesting that the clothes we use to present ourselves to society inevitably reflect whatever fucked-up modern psychosis is going on inside us at any time. The schlubbily-dressed tend to hate their bodies and feel vulnerable in public, preferring to cover themselves up, to hide in plain sight; the oversexed reveal anxieties about aging past relevance; those who dress like they don’t care do so because they think the world doesn’t care about them. Everyday fashion may have been the selling point of these shows, but their bedrock was a heavy emphasis on self-esteem and its connection to how we are in the world.
And while psychologist Carol Dweck‘s work doesn’t exactly concern self-esteem per se, her “fixed mindset” vs. “growth mindset” paradigm – which I read about in my weekly Brain Pickings email – seems to present data-supported reasons why certain among us are able to stick to our good habits and others fall back into stagnation and self-loathing. According to Dweck, the fixed mindset (learned early in life, like so many self-destructive behaviors) is held by those who believe their abilities, talents, and basic characters are “fixed” – in other words, that they can’t be improved, that they’re given to us in a set amount and that they can’t be cultivated beyond where they currently stand. This mindset creates people who need constant validation, and who see any failure as an unquestionable affirmation of inferior ability. As such, those with a fixed mindset certainly pursue success, but only in an effort to prove something, primarily to themselves; they actively fear and avoid failure, not seeing it as a potential learning experience – which of course is what distinguishes the “growth” mindset, the fixed mindset’s polar opposite that has nothing to prove but wants to keep learning, improving, that actually craves failure because it’s the only way to learn and improve.
Of course, the irony of learning about the fixed mindset is that those of us who have it will be prone to think, “Great, no wonder I fear failure with such intensity – I’m stuck with a fixed mindset!” Does developing a fixed mindset and spending most of your life with it mean that you’ll never be able to grow out of it, into a growth mindset? Not necessarily, according to Dweck – although what sets her “psychology of success” apart from the fortune-cookie platitudes of the Self-Help aisle and countless bad memes is the (data-supported) recognition that these mindsets are not just momentary anxieties but deeply ingrained philosophies of self, and as such they can’t be gotten over with a steady diet of daily
abstractions affirmations. Cultivating a growth mindset requires real work, a total brain-reprogramming that goes beyond working harder and summoning a stronger stomach for failure. It means teaching yourself to see failure in a completely different light, which for those of us far on the “fixed” side of the spectrum means a pretty hefty re-evaluation of life itself. (There’s a neat Talks at Google interview with Dweck here; I watched it during my morning exercises, because #growth.)
Deep Thoughts about Jimmy Buffett (weird brainpath)
We live close to a townie bar, so sometimes we unintentionally overhear the crappy cover bands that play there on the weekends. Think of your typical dad-rock dive bar experience, add just a dash of turn-of-the-century douchery, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s wafting through our apartment windows during our weekend sunsets. (“American Girl” goes without saying, but it might be followed up with Sister Hazel’s “All For You,” which is truly next-level toxic nostalgia.) Last weekend, it was Jimmy Buffett’s well-known piece of crap, “Margaritaville.” We rolled our eyes, thinking precious little of it.
Then yesterday morning I went to breakfast with my dad and my grandmother, and apparently my grandmother has a favorite waitress at her local Friendly’s, which has to be the most adorable thing I’ve ever learned about my sweet grandma. This Waitress looked to be in her late thirties, possibly a healthy early forties, and I mention this not to objectify random Friendly’s waitresses in the Northeast Philadelphia region, but because apparently the one thing my grandmother knows about This Waitress is that she’s a HUGE JIMMY BUFFETT FAN. Call me naive about the fanbase of that fabled bard of paradise, but I was heretofore certain that all Parrotheads were white men over sixty-five with sad, hairy legs. Now here’s this woman barely within babysitting age of yours truly and oh no she’s ONE OF THEM!!! It was a gross moment that almost made me scoff at my ranchero omelette.
But then I started thinking: So what if Jimmy Buffett is like the music version of bad breath? The only thing I know about him besides the aforementioned turdly tune is that the dude is almost pathologically chill. I mean here I am with my chronic anxiety, my chronic worry, my fear of pretty much everything from talking to cashiers to Jeff Sessions – and all the while Jimmy Buffett is feeling the kiss of a Caribbean sunset on his permanently windswept leg hair, 700-calorie adult beverage in hand, all the salt shakers a leisure empire can buy at his undoubtedly shaky fingertips. The life philosophy of the Parrotheads isn’t “don’t worry, be happy,” because the word “worry” isn’t in their lexicon. I will never like “Margaritaville,” and I will never actively seek out another Jimmy Buffett song title, but every time those New York Times notifications startle me back to the 24-hour blast furnace of reality, I now think to myself: Do Parrotheads get hung up on this shit?
Probably not…because they’re all white men over sixty-five with sad, hairy legs. Outlier waitresses notwithstanding.
OH, and super fun fact: In 2001, the Recording Industry Association of America polled teachers, elected officials, and music industry personnel to create an “educational” list of the 365 Songs of the [20th] Century. “Margaritaville” came in at #234. For context, the entire Bitches Brew album by Miles Davis was #235.
So, yeah, have a fucking great week.