Revisiting the Doctorate

When I first floated the idea of going to graduate school, I was a third year in college, visiting one of my teaching assistants at his office hours. His office was literally the size of a broom closet, and he had to pull chairs out into the corridor for us to have space to chat. I felt a bit embarrassed for him. Anyhow, we got to talking, and he asked about my post-graduation plans. I hadn’t thought about it much, so I threw out some generic answers, including graduate school – almost on a lark. His reaction was swift. Grad school, he all but admonished, was not to be taken lightly. I had to be passionate about the subject, the field. It was, he impressed upon me, not a casual option.

Looking back, the encounter was a microcosm of the graduate school experience: a myth about the purity of research and pedagogy, characterized too often by an inflated sense of importance and very real flagellation, hierarchical to its own detriment. These were traits perpetuated across the whole of the enterprise. Academe’s worst qualities seemed to manifest especially in the social sciences, comprised of far too many self-righteous individuals who had something to say about every aspect of society while lacking the basic social skills to actually exist in it.*

*I was once subject to a chain of emails in which graduate students struggled to get past the pedantry of naming a union (let alone forming one), because the word “union” had connotations to be argued over, just as “collective” did, or “association,” or every other word in the world.

I lived, as you might surmise, a normal existence even as a graduate student. Of course I had stressful days and weeks, especially as deadlines loomed. But I never felt snowed under the way many of my colleagues seemed to, my life far from the manner in which they presented their existence, as Sisyphus perpetually pushing the boulder uphill. I don’t know whether I was balanced or apathetic; perhaps both. But I progressed through the program, passion be damned. I managed to watch an obscene amount of movies, hold season tickets to my baseball team, take extended summer road trips. It was just more school.

I did attend conferences, managed to publish once or twice, but unsurprisingly, I never was the model academic. I did not network at these conferences, did not succumb to the ‘publish or perish’ mentality. I secured a couple of external fellowships, but never did transition neatly into a tenure-track position at a research university – despite what my adviser so clearly hoped and inelegantly (even unprofessionally) pushed for. I resisted. Even now, I continue to find myself, seemingly further and further from academia. My ability to finish the degree seemed to be a victory for normal people.

It’s difficult to overstate how little difference the doctorate makes in my life on a daily basis. On rare occasion, I might chat with someone and learn they had begun the process and moved onto something else, or are just now considering going down that route. I might encounter people who look at it with a sense of reverence; this includes a supervisor who had a obvious chip on his shoulder about not having the degree himself. In such circumstances, I find myself asking what the degree means to me. I think about whether I would recommend the pursuit to others, and – ultimately – whether I regret that seven and a half years.

I find it difficult to believe that an individual with newfound knowledge would have no second thought about their actions in almost any circumstance – a conversation, a relationship, a career choice. But regret is a strong word. I wonder whether having regret entails envisioning a completely altered existence, a la Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors, or whether it represents a lone item of change that can be isolated from a life otherwise left untouched. I make that distinction because I need it. I do not regret pursuing my doctorate, but I would never do it if I had known then what I know now.

I do not regret because I grew up in graduate school. After a miserable four years in college, it was as a graduate student that I found my self-worth again. I became comfortable with who I was, even found some people who liked that person. I gleaned a genuine sense of accomplishment from the work, through shallow measures like departmental and school recognition, but also through regular interactions with students and colleagues and professors. I finished on my own terms, as I mentioned above – a balanced individual. And I have been able to shift from that pursuit to where I am now.

But I would never do it knowing then what I know now. I might have pursued a masters, and nothing more, knowing that the difference between it and a doctorate is all but negligible outside academia, easily overcome by real-world experience. I would forgo a degree that leads to a career path that promises no job security let alone a job, that ignores geographic preference, that bleeds over the notion of balance. I would turn away from a degree that means so much only to such a narrow community, driven by those who are all too eager to feed into its esoteric and self-sustaining nature.

In retrospect, my teaching assistant had it almost right. Passion about the subject, the field, might really be necessary – but not for graduate school per say. Clearly I’ve proven him wrong on that front. But I think it helps in the long run, in academia. It sustains people as they trudge on, through a game that never ends, a ladder that keeps climbing. There’s delusion in that passion, for sure, righteousness too, maybe pure survival sprinkled in. But there’s also genuine belief, the kind I never had. Whatever it is, it’s something to hold onto as the environment – anachronistic and unwilling to change – envelops their lives.

I have my degree. I have no regret. But I would not do it knowing what I know now. It makes me wonder whether I was simply not smart enough then to fail.

(Photo by GregsWikidContributions, CC BY-SA 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Most Watchable Movie Ever Made

And now, for something completely meaningless…

In May 2015, news came out that Warner Bros. had greenlit a new version of the 1993 action-thriller The Fugitive. There was scant detail provided – whether the project would be a sequel or reboot or remake, if Harrison Ford or Tommy Lee Jones would be involved, and so forth – and that remains the case to this day. The only piece of information I could find concerns the involvement of screenwriter Christina Hodson, credited with 2016’s Shut In (owner of a sparkling 3% on Rotten Tomatoes).

There are no original ideas in Hollywood, of course. Books, television shows, video games, board games, toys, and even phone apps have made the leap to the silver screen in recent years. Everything that has been proven to sell once, in any medium, has been recycled to sell again, time and time again. By one count, there will be 43 sequels, reboots, and remakes in 2017. This includes Universal trying to refranchise The Mummy into their monsterverse, and Kenneth Branagh revisiting the 1974 classic Murder on the Orient Express (based on the Agatha Christie novel), for starters.

However, there is something about the idea of touching The Fugitive I find especially egregious. As I glance at entertainment news almost two years later, I find myself even now dreading the inevitable update that lists the director or actors involved in the project. I realize that The Fugitive itself originated on television in the 1960s, and inspired another short-lived television reboot in the early 2000s – the property is hardly an “original.” But my problem with a movie redo is simple. The Fugitive is perfect. It is immensely watchable and rewatchable. It holds up in every aspect.

For starters, the script of The Fugitive is expertly crafted. The prologue establishes its premise in mere minutes. The wife of Dr. Richard Kimble (Ford) is murdered, he accused and found guilty of the crime. Flashbacks trace the couple’s last night together, spent at a fundraising event. The scenes are casual, seemingly nonchalant, but, unbeknownst to us at this point, hints. For now though, we simply follow Kimble – to the emergency surgery he is called in to perform, then back home where he finds his dead wife, and her killer, the one-armed man. We know Kimble is innocent. But we also know how it looks.

Kimble escapes, of course, in a sensational bus-train crash sequence as memorable an action setpiece as any in cinematic history. That’s when the movie truly begins. We have Kimble on the run, desperate to buy time both to clear his name and to uncover the truth behind his wife’s murder. And we have Deputy Samuel Gerard (Jones) and his team of US Marshals, tasked with finding an escaped murderer and bringing him to justice. “I’m not trying to solve a puzzle here,” Gerard says. “Well, I am,” Kimble responds.

It is precisely the puzzle that separates The Fugitive from any number of chase thrillers, providing the narrative much depth. While the entire first act is about Kimble wrestling to stay free in the immediate aftermath of his escape (including a highway chase scene), the movie evolves deftly and begins to ebb and flow with the puzzle rather than the chase. It’s an effective shift, one necessary to maintaining the integrity of Kimble’s character. Yes, Kimble is a smart man – probably smarter than his pursuers – but it is because of his mission that he puts himself at risk of capture.

The refocus on the murder also frees the movie from any sort of monotony with the extended cat-and-mouse between Gerard and Kimble. Indeed, the script feels well-balanced throughout. Following the iconic encounter at the dam that ends the first act (“I didn’t kill my wife!” “I don’t care.”), we have a break in the chase, as Kimble returns to Chicago and formulates his plan, while the marshals move to capture the other fugitive from the escape. These scenes work to remind us of the characters’ underlying motivations, in the process contributing to their development.

Even without the physical presence of the marshals, Kimble’s predicament lends urgency to every scene. The drug sting and arrest of his landlady’s son is a heartpounding sequence that captures the walls seemingly caving in on Kimble – in the aftermath, Ford conveys this perfect mixture of relief and exhaustion and downright terror. The hospital sequence is no less tense, as we are reminded of the threat he faces even from a suspicious lab technician or a doctor. That he is making progress in his search for the one-armed man only underlines the stakes for our protagonist.

By the time we reach the end of the second act then, it seems almost an inevitability that the two sides will circle back on one another again. That the scene takes place in the wolf’s den – as Kimble visits a jail to see if an armed robber now behind bars is his one-armed man – only ratchets up the tension tenfold (there is a fantastic visual of Kimble shrinking in the back of an elevator filled with cops). This is a purposeful encounter for the narrative. Even if they cross paths purely by accident – with Gerard looking into the one-armed man himself – we are reminded of the precariousness of Kimble’s situation, the relentlessness of the man on his tail.

It is with the subsequent fall of the first big chess piece – when Kimble identifies Fredrick Sykes (Andreas Katsulas) as the one-armed man – that the movie shifts once more. The strands hinted at in the prologue, and pursued in the second act, start to come together as the movie barrels towards its conclusion. The separate worlds inhabited by the main characters merge almost fully now as Kimble clues the marshals in on his investigation (while necessarily keeping them at arm’s length). They’re not quite on the same side, but at least now they’re asking the same questions.

As Kimble and Gerard work individually to unravel the puzzle, Sykes comes to the forefront – dragging with him from the shadows the individuals who orchestrated the murder. The movie does this naturally, effectively: we have moved from the question of who killed Kimble’s wife to why Kimble’s wife was killed. And as Kimble finally pieces everything together, we do too, culminating in a series of onscreen showdowns. Kimble with the one-armed man, then with the mastermind, then with Gerard. It is an immensely satisfying finale.

There is not a wasted scene or line to be found in The Fugitive. Every thread comes back around, big and small. For instance, the push-and-pull over jurisdiction is a recurring theme, with the marshals clashing with local authorities from the outset (leading to Jones’ famous “warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse” line). Thus, late in the movie, when Sykes’ murder of a cop is blamed on Kimble, there are consequences for the marshals too. “Chicago PD will eat him alive!” They’re chomping at the bit to kill a man that the marshals want captured. It adds another realistic dimension to the final confrontation.

Indeed, the film oozes of authenticity. Some of it is almost forgettable: the throwaway line that references prank calls from people pretending to be Kimble on the hotline, the internal monologue of a nurse as she attends to an elderly patient. There are small human moments: the old guard who saves himself from the bus-train crash and then tells a white lie about the circumstances of Kimble’s escape. Then there are the constants: the easy banter among the marshals that reveal their camaraderie, the doctor who cannot turn his back on the hippocratic oath even on the lam. All of it works in service of more fully-realized characters, of a more fully-realized world.

There are too many reasons why The Fugitive works as well as it does. The movie takes a situation already imbued with urgency and adds a mystery on top. It sets up the highest of stakes, with the truth encompassing not only vindication in the face of execution but vengeance as well. It paces itself, balancing its disparate elements and worlds, with three crescendos that find the main characters at very different places in their respective missions. It is rich in dialogue, and propelled further by the power of the performances. The Fugitive is as smart, thrilling, and fun a movie as you will ever see.

And it is utterly timeless.

The Enveloping Darkness

It is impossible to get away from it.

The guide for my bike tour brings it up, unprompted, in the context of the upcoming Dutch elections. “We have a Dutch Trump,” he says with a sigh of resignation. We nod sullenly.

At the museum, the turbaned security guard almost lights up when he finds out I’m from the U.S. “It’s scary over there,” he exclaims as he peruses my small backpack. “And it’s only been two weeks.” I concur.

I hear chatter every single day from my hallway at work, mostly the American colleagues as they recap in excruciating detail the latest items on the newswire. From a couple of doors down, it sounds like a circlejerk of righteousness, of outrage – a genuine echo chamber.

I’m fatigued, personally. I don’t really feel the need to talk about it anymore, at least not for now, not aloud. How many ways can one express anger anyhow? Or frustration or despair or concern. How many times can one be affirmed by like-minded friends or colleagues, even strangers, without actually moving forward?

I’m already too deep in as it stands*. I clutch for my phone in bed, refreshing Twitter or the New York Times or Reddit at 1 am to see if the President has done anything further to destroy the country I loved, far too blindly, before I go to sleep. I do the same in the morning, sometimes in the middle of the night when I cannot sleep. That seems to happen more these days.

*I’m writing about the topic again, for starters.

I don’t think I can do this for four years. To think this way, to feel this way. To wake up with a sense of dread and despair. I tell myself it will not last four years. But who knows, really? What if it’s eight?

There are other aspects of it I’ve been thinking more recently. Maybe it’s a stages of grief thing. Maybe I’m just compelled by a need to make more sense of it all, to not lose sight of the forest for the trees.

It says something us as a country – about me as an individual – that it took this to squelch our collective apathy. There, after all, exists an ironic undercurrent in our outrage: of ethnocentrism, of nationalism, of an affirmation of the kind of American exceptionalism that the rest of the world finds fanciful if not altogether repugnant.

I cannot help but see that it is only in the recognition of the fragility of our progress and our institutions that most of us finally seem to understand the fragility of all progress and all institutions. It is only in our despair that most of us are compelled to movement. Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter how or when we got here but only that we are here now.

This whole environment is strange. It feels wrong to be selfish in times like this. To be concerned for instance about impending professional uncertainty, to dwell upon intense personal emotion, to muster care over any number of matters, some more frivolous than others. There are far more important things going on.

Then again, there always have been.

I don’t know. I think that’s what it comes down to. I just don’t know. The spectrum of possibility is vast. The possibility for disaster ever-present.

I ponder when people talk about the banality of evil someday if this will be an example that they cite. If there is or will be a line crossed that all of us will only recognize in hindsight. If there will be enough pieces of America left for the next administration to pick up and try to make whole again.

Like I said, it is impossible to get away from it.

It is ubiquitous, all-encompassing, penetrating. Not confined to newspaper stories or small talk or social media posts. No, it is a part of life now – of the way we think and see and feel, almost every second of every day.

So I wonder. In these trying times, I wonder if maintaining a sense of perspective will come at the cost of losing myself in the process, of invalidating everything to do with the immediacy of my own life.

It seems like a selfish thought. It is. But maybe I need to feel selfish again too. To feel just a twinge of normalcy amidst this most abnormal time. To have a center from which I have again a sense of footing, and can try to make sense of the environment that surrounds us all.

(Photo by C. E. Price [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The First Week of the End of the World

Every day, it’s something.

My friend started a Google Doc to chronicle it all. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s to remind us that this isn’t normal. Or it might be something we’ll look back on ruefully when things get worse. Whatever the reason, I am adding to it.

A week. Has it only been seven days?

I wake up every day feeling despondent about my country, about the world. Hope exists, of course. The Women’s March on Washington was heartening, and so too was the news that another massive rally is coming April 15th. Scientists are putting one of their own together too. Across the country, there are flames: those who gatherered to protest outside a GOP retreat in Philly, New Yorkers responding spur of the moment to executive orders on immigration. A fiery state of the state address from the California governor.

But these people and others – my kindred spirits – are in the unenviable position of reacting, and as such, of being acted upon first. The media is chastised for daring to challenge so-called “alternative facts,” for asking follow-ups that might expose the emperor’s new clothes. Democratic senators raise alarms at the frightening lack of qualifications with numerous nominees, yet they stand helpless to prevent confirmation on their own. All of us sit, forced to wait until the bombast solidifies, forced to wait until rhetoric develops into law, before we can figure out how exactly to fight back.

Talk about liberal bubbles might not be completely off-base, but to engage in introspection now seems self-defeating as the other side proceeds gleefully with the cowardice of their conviction. A homogeneous group of white men smile and congratulate each other for moving to strip healthcare from nearly 30 million people without backup. The propaganda team in place has no qualms about spreading falsehoods, shouting down dissenters, controlling scientific research. Somehow, they have decided to prioritize the re-litigation of established law like Roe v. Wade and established reality like human-induced climate change.

Their hypocrisy is surprising only in its nakedness, and perhaps not even then. The Speaker of the House from the party of fiscal responsibility willingly fronts $8-14 billion for a wall against a threat that does not exist. The Senate Majority Leader complains about obstruction when he has held a vacant Supreme Court Justice spot hostage for nearly a year. While not illegal, the senior staff of the administration uses, yes, a private email server with no trace of irony, and the president himself represents a moving security risk with the unsecured Android he uses to spew his bile.

The overall lack of subtlety is a blessing and a curse, as the contours of the path towards the ominous future is revealed. Unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud will be the foundation for a voter suppression campaign more extensive than the one the GOP has already undertaken. Bans on refugees from countries deemed terrorist threats are the first move towards a comprehensive system of racial and religious profiling. The publication of a weekly list of criminal action committed by immigrants is the spark to undo everything this country stands for, to unlearn everything World War II taught us.

He has been everything we expected. He has been everything he promised. A beneficiary of foreign agents, an enabler of white supremacists, and a man likely beholden to business interests. A man-child, would-be king, and again, because somehow this wasn’t disqualifying in it of itself, a perpetrator of sexual assault – if you take his word for it. So this is where we stand. Today, tomorrow, and for as many as four years. Our institutions are being tested. Our principles, our very way of life.

Week one.

(Photo by Ted Eytan from Washington, DC, CC BY-SA 2.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Top 10 Movies of 2016

As in the case of the past few years, living abroad has limited my access to arthouse films in general (even if I’m not a particularly arthouse-y person). For the record, the final cuts were Midnight Special and Pete’s Dragon.

1. Arrival

Arrival is a character study at its core. It is a slow burn of a character study that manages to be cerebral and emotional and gripping from minute one. There’s a twist that reveals itself in the climactic last scenes, but it doesn’t play out as such. Instead, this turn comes naturally – a completed puzzle that you weren’t aware was even being put together. It represents a triumphant culmination of the narrative, one with Louise Banks (Amy Adams) as its steady heart and soul. And because of her, Arrival is more deeply affecting than could have been anticipated.

Denis Villeneuve utilizes all his tools to keep Adams’ performance as the anchor. We don’t see the spacecraft until Louise does, for instance. We stay with her, with a literal over-the-shoulder perspective, as she deals with sensory overload in act one. As the story develops, the movie remains effectively patient – with a labor-intensive second act in which the foundation for communication with the aliens is built, brick by brick. Meanwhile, gentle voiceovers and distinct visuals accentuate the burden of her memories. As Louise learns more, we do too – about the aliens, her purpose, and eventually, her purpose. Adams is extraordinary. Arrival is beautiful. It is my favorite movie of the year.

2. Hell or High Water

There’s purpose behind Hell or High Water. Messages about economic injustice, corporate greed, treatment of veterans. But the movie doesn’t shout about the swaths of people left behind. Instead, its themes come as part of the scenery: oil wells on the side of the road, highway billboards about debt relief, towns that have seen better days. It begins in the midst of the action: a bank robbery by brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and the volatile Tanner (Ben Foster). And as their backstory is filled in, as the bigger messages become apparent, it is their relationship and their motivations that continues to center the movie.

Running parallel to the story of the brothers is that of their pursuers, two Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham). What could have been a cliche – with Bridges as a character nearing retirement – instead adds poignancy and, surprisingly, much levity to the proceedings. The characters on both sides of the manhunt are rich, memorable, grounded, and the confidence of the script allows the story to breathe on its way to an inevitable showdown. Even the denouement is somehow as tense and absorbing. Hell or High Water is the quintessential modern western. It feels both timely and timeless.

3. La La Land

After La La Land’s rousing opening number (“Another Day of Sun”), I braced myself for something unabashedly wide-eyed and joyous, akin to The Muppet Movie (“Life’s a Happy Song”). Instead, it moves to deconstruct the idealistic vision of Hollywood set forth in that sequence. The movie lays bare the idea of the pursuit of stardom, kicks it around some – but does this without mockery or hostility. In fact, the ultimate fate of the characters is in many ways a deference to that convention. But by daring to walk the tightrope, La La Land ends up in a very different place from where it starts. In the process, it adds depth both to its world and to the central romance that is a microcosm of that world.

Certainly, La La Land stands as another of Hollywood’s love letters to itself. Sharing the wonder of Hugo and the playfulness of The Artist, to name some recent entries, it comes off at times as both sweet and sweetly naive. But despite its reverence for the industry, and its romanticism for the city, it nurtures a far more melancholy tone than those examples. The truly happy ending for Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (a sensational Emma Stone) is not necessarily the one that they get, the one in which their professional dreams have come true. Instead, they – and we – are left to wonder whether the achievement of the very ambitions that connected them was worth what it cost. I kind of loved that.

4. Eye in the Sky

An innocent child wanders inside the blast zone of an imminent drone strike on terrorists. The scenario seems cheap. It is cheap. But what elevates Eye in the Sky is not the Sophie’s choice itself, but the surrounding discussion along its various strands. A Cabinet Office Briefing Room debates how much collateral damage could be sold to the British public. A British Army Colonel (Helen Mirren) plays with simulations to alter the blast radius, seeking a degree of plausible deniability. An American drone pilot (Aaron Paul) finds loopholes in the chain of command in order to delay taking the unimaginable action. The situation is the backdrop. The substance is the politics.

Eye in the Sky is an incredibly tense, smart, thought-provoking thriller that confronts head on the moral grayness of modern warfare. It is one of the best-written war movies to come along in a while, with its boardroom discussions effectively interspersed with scenes on the ground – centered on an undercover agent (Barkhad Abdi) – that help to ramp up the tension of the central scenario in key moments. The performances, including one of the last from Alan Rickman, are all-around fantastic. And the script pulls no punches with an ending that reinforces the impossible choices that those involved in war are forced to confront.

5. Don’t Think Twice

At a certain age, we begin to assess our lives relative to those of others, particularly to those of friends. They experience a milestone, personal or professional, and we can’t help but take a step back and consider our own achievements, our own progress and shortcomings. This natural tendency is vividly captured in Don’t Think Twice, which centers on an improv troupe in which one of its members (Keegan-Michael Key) ascends to a Saturday Night Live-esque spotlight. And for all the unique specifics of the situation – with the depicted social circle chasing the same dreams of stardom as the couple in La La Land – the movie resonates by being about friendship at its core.

As with Mike Birbiglia’s previous directorial and writing effort (Sleepwalk with Me, which made my 2012 list), Don’t Think Twice is quietly exceptional in its treatment of characters and relationships. Everyone in the troupe feels real, human and imperfect, and it is in one small moment after another – some cringe-worthy – that each confronts his or her unique mixture of aspiration and desperation, selflessness and selfishness. The dynamics of the group as a whole are particularly interesting, leading to a confrontation that exposes the inherent contradictions of a team in which every member seeks something more for himself or herself as priority.

6. Kubo and the Two Strings

The first scenes of Kubo and the Two Strings, with Kubo’s mother helpless against a thunderous ocean, then Kubo telling origami stories to the village children, set the tone for the film: the sequences are captivating, full of drama and tension, while its stop-motion animation is jaw-dropping. They help to build a mythos immediately, providing a gravitas that elevates Kubo to a place of seriousness. As the movie continues, it constructs an immersive world that expertly balances multiple elements, developing its family drama and coming-of-age tale, seamlessly interweaving supernatural elements, and offering respite with big laughs (largely in the character of Beetle, with Matthew McConaughey channeling Patrick Warburton). It’s fun, it’s engaging, it’s touching. As a full product, Kubo is remarkable.

7. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

You fall in love with the characters in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It’s a movie that easily could have collapsed in cliches, with the rebellious child (Julian Dennison), the kind foster mother (Rima Te Wiata), her reluctant partner (Sam Neill), and the no-nonsense social worker (Rachel House). But from the very first scene, from the very first interaction, Hunt feels unique. There’s an authenticity that is not betrayed by the colorfulness of its characters or its setting. The relationships at the center of the movie never feel too precocious, too maudlin, too easy or too much. No, it’s quite perfectly well-rounded, with a ton of heart. And far more laughs than I could have imagined.

8. Weiner

There is a scene in Weiner – one that is prominently and smartly featured in the trailers – when the titular subject, disgraced former congressman and now mayoral candidate, on his way out of a Jewish bakery, hears a man call him a “scumbag.” Anthony Weiner, with just a moment’s hesitation, responds. He walks back to the doorway and gets into a verbal confrontation with that man. It’s tense. Later, after the scene has dispersed, a rabbi asks the cameraman, almost chuckling, “Why didn’t he just walk away?” And that’s what this documentary is about. A man who cannot get out of his own fucking way. It’s a fascinating movie, tragic and comedic and captivating, one that has come to take on even more layers after the recent presidential campaign because of the way it depicts his marriage with top Clinton aide Huma Abedin.

9. Blood Father

Examining familiar themes – estrangement, isolation, salvation – with sharpness and nuance, Blood Father rises well above the conventions of the standard action-thriller. The performances are strong, especially with Mel Gibson playing Link as a wearied man who comes to recognize he has little to offer his daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty) beyond violence upon her pursuers, with skills from a life he has long renounced. The supporting cast (William Macy, among others) enrich the film with hints of Link’s lives, new and old, liven it as Lydia’s circumstances close in around the two of them. Replete with tense confrontations and taut action sequences, Blood Father essentially out-Takens Taken.

10. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Popstar throws a ton out there, and so much of it sticks. It sharply satirizes the music industry and celebrity culture. It squeezes unique gags out of the well-treaded mockumentary format. It – in the tradition of The Lonely Island – contains a soundtrack filled with songs both immensely listenable and absolutely hilarious (“Equal Rights” being the standout). It utilizes a ton of non-sequiturs and one-liners and cameos to great effect. And it has several memorable comedic set pieces, including the best prolonged full frontal gag since Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Like that film, one of the overlooked comedies of the past decade, Popstar works because it treats all of its absurdity seriously. Everyone commits. As a result, Popstar is hilarious start to finish.

And my most disliked movies of the year.

Florence Foster Jenkins

It is rather difficult to muster any sympathy for a woman – even one played by Meryl Streep – whose singing career appears to be little more than a vanity project, and whose husband and closest confidants act as enablers to her narcissism, for reasons the screenplay fails to convey. Florence Foster Jenkins tries to depict its titular character as a study in courage and poignancy, but the ridiculous central conceit of the movie (even if based on real events) is one that I found impossible to get over. It seems apt that Hollywood – too often self-important, self-congratulatory, and obliviously elitist – would herald this woman who just seems completely ridiculous to the rest of us.

X-Men: Apocalypse

For all the flaws of the vastly overrated X-Men: First Class, both it and the excellent Days of Future Past successfully centered their narratives on ideological conflict. Apocalypse has none of that cerebral debate: it’s schlock about global domination, bad shlock at that. There’s no effort to explain the villain: why he needs horsemen, the boundaries of his powers. The movie is sloppily directed and edited, looks like garbage, wastes its acting talent, and partakes in stupid fan service. Even the few parts that work – Michael Fassbender’s Magneto – quickly lose gravity. Meanwhile, the laughable last scene attempts to reimpose the status quo, but in the process renders all the developments of this movie completely meaningless.

The Whole Wide World

In the midst of my grandmother’s final days, I couldn’t help but think about how different her life had been from mine, how everything she had been through had made things possible for me, my sister, our cousins. I received the news of her passing in Porto, on New Year’s Day. It pained me to be on the other side of the world, away from family in both the US and Hong Kong, away from friends even. Yet at the same time, I thought about how far we had come, as a family, that I was able to be there, a spur of the moment trip to Portugal over my holiday.

My grandmother never left China, never left Hong Kong really. Growing up, even after my family moved to the States, our vacations were rare, and quite modest. A few road trips to Las Vegas, a couple up to San Francisco, once over to Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. Our big getaway was out to New York and DC – to deal with immigration paperwork. That was the extent of it. My parents always provided for us, and I never was left wanting of anything. But luxury was unknown to us: we rented instead of owned, moved around a bunch to save. And we rarely traveled.

I was at a museum in Paris when I received what turned out to be my last call from my grandmother. I was spending the holidays there with my best friend – she a half-Spanish French native whom I had met in Tokyo. About a week later, I reflected on the moment, the trip, and I thought too about my last couple of months working in Geneva. I had been to Brussels and Rome, spent a weekend with a good friend over in Barcelona. I didn’t think about this in a self-indulgent way. Rather, I thought about the fact that I was able to see so much, and experience so much, on behalf of my grandmother, on behalf of my parents.

I never once took for granted what I had gained because of my family’s move to the US. Still, I don’t know that I ever envisioned what my life was going to be like when I grew up. Until the point of graduate school, I never really thought about what my life could be. Even as my personal travel expanded, it never quite seemed like real life. Things only felt different, I think, when it was my studies – my work – that opened up the world. Conferences in Chicago and New Orleans, in Seoul and Berlin. Field work in New York, Geneva, and Vienna. The world simultaneously became bigger and smaller, less bounded but more accessible.

I have admittedly struggled with expat life at times, as has been well documented on these pages. These recent weeks in particular have provided plenty of triggers. Missing the holidays, the milestones, the passings. Just watching La La Land this past weekend, seeing the spirit, the hope and beauty, the melancholy of the city I grew up in, captured onscreen – it made me yearn for life back “home,” for the experience of being there. But I don’t think I would prefer that alternative, don’t think that I would be happier being in LA, or even the US. In fact, at this stage of my life (however long it may last), I can say resoundingly that this is not the case.

Perhaps it has to do with my tendency to settle, to be comfortable. Even in Japan, in a shoebox apartment with a modest fellowship stipend, with no hope for professional progress and almost no love life, I was a little too content. So maybe the inherent discomfort of being an expat is the very thing I need. A friend once suggested that expats are generally people who are in search of something, who lack something in their lives. I suppose I’m still there, searching. But what I’ve found so far has propelled me a bit in my life, has challenged me in ways I could never have conceived.

The people I’ve met – they’re the core of it. I have learned so much, even from one-off dates and from fleeting encounters, but especially from the kindred souls I will forever hold close to my heart. I have a friend in Hong Kong who still tells me regularly she misses our days as graduate fellows in Boston. A Japanese friend in Singapore who checked in every time he was in Tokyo, even if he had to meet with luggage in tow. The couple who I spent a full week with in a studio in Paris, nonstop, on their holiday; the aforementioned best friend who took me to all her family functions. They are in my life because of a confluence of coincidence*, but also fundamentally because I moved from comfort.

*”Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world”

When I told my mom about my trip to Rome, she asked how long the flight was from Geneva. She asked a few more questions about Italy  – something my sister and I both picked up on. They, along with my brother-in-law, were to visit me in Switzerland later this year. After the conversation, my sister arranged to put Rome and Venice on their itinerary too. I think about that. I think about the hundreds of places my sister has been to in her life. I think about my mom, a homemaker until we moved to the States, who then – and to this day – would have to wake up before the crack of dawn for her blue-collar job six days a week. And I think about her being able to see Italy and Switzerland and France and Japan. I think about my grandmother.

Leaving Los Angeles was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Being an expat continues to be the privilege of my life. I know it. I just have to remind myself of it sometimes.

(Photo by bm.iphone, uploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Be Good

By the time I was three or four, I only had one surviving grandparent – my dad’s mother. I have pictures of our family visits, though my memories of those are quite spotty.

When I was six, my family immigrated to the United States. My grandmother – along with many aunts and uncles and cousins – stayed behind. A few eventually came to visit us in the US, but the trip was too much of a strain for my grandmother. Our relationship was confined to the sporadic greetings we would exchange over the phone to the other side of the world.

For a myriad of reasons – personal and financial – my family didn’t visit Hong Kong for many years after the move. Not until I was 19. The trip was surreal. I still remember the warmth with which we (my mom, my sister, and I) were received, by faces and personalities that seemed to me both vaguely familiar and yet so very faraway.

My parents had divorced by this time, and not in an amicable fashion. So during that trip, my sister and I went to visit my dad’s side of the family by ourselves. My sister always had warmer relations with our dad, and so she spent more time with our aunt and with our grandmother. I was in the background – quiet, polite, secondary. I don’t remember too much about the interaction.

With my Cantonese limited, and my memories few, Hong Kong never did quite call to me. Even as I shifted to adulthood, with the relative freedom of a graduate school schedule, I didn’t make the effort to go back and visit relatives. My sister was much better about this, about family stuff. It wasn’t until when I was 30, and had just finished my degree, that I made another trip back, with her and her now-husband.

My grandmother was happy to see us. She didn’t have an exuberant personality, but that much was obvious. She was particularly tickled to interact with my now-brother-in-law (who spoke only the few words of Cantonese that my sister had taught him). We had missed the occasion of her 90th birthday, but she saw our visit as a second celebration. And it was; I even saw my great-aunt for the first time since I was six. Everyone spoke about how much more talkative I had become, how much my personality had developed.

I ended up moving to Japan later in 2013, and visited Hong Kong two more times. Once that same Christmas, and once for the New Year in 2016. I stayed with my aunt and my grandmother both times. My grandmother suffered a fall in between, and so the latter visit was tougher, more solemn. She spoke of her physical pain, about the frustrations of her limitations. We made small talk, mostly. It was the first real quality time I could remember spending with my grandmother.

In early December, I learned that my grandmother’s health had taken a turn. She had been diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer and had months to live – at most. I ended up arranging a video call on Christmas Day. She was in the hospital, tubes attached, looking terrible. I was not prepared for the sight. It was hard to keep up a cheerful front. The connection was spotty, and so the conversation was short. She told me to be good.

The next day though, while I was at a museum in Paris, my cousin texted – as my grandmother was apparently in better spirits. I ended up sitting on the floor somewhere, away from the crowds, in order to connect. She did look more energetic. Still, the conversation was short. Again, she told me to be good. I told her I would be. I said that she didn’t have to worry about me or my sister anymore. I started choking up. It felt like goodbye.

I didn’t feel like partying New Year’s Day 2017. I was in Porto at the time, but the crowds were just a turn off. I ended up returning to my Airbnb early, watching a movie or two.

Twenty minutes after midnight, I received the text that my grandmother had passed.

I was not a good grandson, never was. I did not put in the effort to forge a real relationship with her – I was too young and immature, too impatient and too easily dissuaded by the language barrier. I don’t even remember her real name; I only ever called her “a mā” (grandma in Cantonese). I’m only pretty sure she was 94, and I know she grew up in deep poverty – having to literally beg in her youth. I don’t know much else.

Still, I know my grandmother was loved. My aunt lived with her for over 20 years. My father went back to Hong Kong to spend time with her, frequently. My oldest cousin had purchased a minivan expressly to drive her out once in a while, and another cousin made it a point to take her to tea almost every weekend. After her fall, my sister bought her a better stroller to move around in; they chatted on the phone with regularity.

And I know that my grandmother loved. I know she was terribly sad when her best friend had to move to a nursing home about a year or two ago. I know she still cared about my mom: she would make it a point to ask about her in my recent visits. I know she enjoyed flipping through the photobooks my sister and I had sent over. Mostly, I know she was proud of all of us, especially my sister and I, and all that we had accomplished.

She still worried, as grandparents are prone to do. But like I said, she didn’t need to anymore. I’ll be good.

(Photo by Typhoonchaser, CC-BY-SA-3.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons)

Trying to get my shit together, forever and for always.

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