All posts by basilmarinerchase

Have You Heard… Julie Byrne?

by Gabriel Valdez

“I’ve been called heartbreaker
For doing justice to my own.”

Sometimes a song can feel like getting lost in dappled light. It can lift time and make me feel the texture of the memories I most fear losing. These songs let us exist in two places at once, in two times.

The joy in this is the lightness of unpacking sensations from my past. The heartbreak is my inability to feel them fully again, as in presence. I sit with the sensation not of a moment, but of its memory. The windows into it are always shifting. I can’t climb into it fully, but I can feel the breeze come through, hear the echoes of it float in.

Sometimes a singer like Julie Byrne can take the heartbreak of being contained by the present in a way memory can’t be…and the joy of sensing all that memory floating free. In that moment, you’re sitting there with someone. You’re not alone in the joy or the heartbreak. Someone else is there with you, sharing the same conflicting longing and closure, aching and satisfaction, embarrassment and pride.

“I dreamt of the warmest days of love
Which knew not sorrow nor betrayal
When truth was will in the singing of the gale
But when I lay in a verdant field
None could stay my rising.”

It’s sunny there, and the wind will sway the branches, and if you can find stillness with the longing of your past, you can understand and appreciate it. You can see the elements of a memory, realize perspective you couldn’t in the moment.

Not all memories are good, either. Some are anxious, panicking, moments when someone made you lesser because that’s what kept you. Sometimes, you can reclaim the parts where you grew, without feeling like someone else has ownership or control of them. You don’t hear the echoes of doubt or fear that once were intertwined with the good things you learned about yourself.

You realize not being able to step back into those memories can be good. You didn’t fear losing them, you feared losing the elements that helped you grow to become who you are. You feared losing pain would risk losing the lessons learned from it, even when the lesson learned was to step away from pain.

“I’ve been sitting in the garden
Singing to the wind
Searching for an anchor
I’ve been seeking god within.”

We can hold on to the lessons of strength we each learn from rising back, without having to internalize the doubt or coercion that made us pen ourselves away in the first place. We can hold on to what we learned from pain and doubt, without having to hold on to the pain and doubt. We’re not what someone else tried to make us into out of the anxiety of what would happen if we didn’t reshape ourselves. We’re what overcame that fear and intimidation. But sometimes it takes a spark to think of it this way, to put it all together. Sometimes it takes a song, or sometimes a painting, or a movie, or a play, or conversation.

It takes a stillness in ourselves, imparted by something else to cease our restlessness and look at the memory in joy and heartbreak, in fear and strength, with the breath of panic that you thought you’d put behind you, and the calm to be able to accept that it no longer controls you. That’s what resilience is. It isn’t cold and calloused. It’s turning the panic of incomprehension into the calm of understanding. It takes a stillness to witness who you are and how you got there.

We come out the other side of it, without needing to get lost to anger and frustration. Maybe we even learn how not to get lost in panic and anxiety. We learn better how to get lost in our calmness. Julie Byrne offers a good place to slow the world down, like getting lost in dappled light.

If you like Julie Byrne, try: Dawn Landes for something lively and practical, Marissa Nadler for something darker and mysterious, Patty Griffin for the storytelling, or Joni Mitchell for the imagery.

Have You Heard… is a stream of song and band recommendations, many of which may be new to you. We hope it’s less concerned with celebrity and image, and more concerned with the music and what it evokes.

The feature image of Julie Byrne is from Brooklyn Vegan here.

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The Work That’s Never Witnessed — “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

by Gabriel Valdez

“So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

James 2:17

“Now, we are feeling what not having hope feels like.”

– Michelle Obama

After Donald Trump was elected, several people sought me out because of the work I’ve done in politics. They told me, “I’m willing to die opposing him.” I told them that attitude made them useless.

Show up to a march with the idea that you’re willing to die, and you’ll see everything that happens in that light. You’re so focused on the idea of a noble, meaningful, romantic act of sacrifice…that you won’t even think about protecting the person next to you. You become so obsessed with fighting something that you forget that you’re there to save something.

Who do you think builds something? The one there to nobly sacrifice themselves, or the one there who doles out water, who helps the elderly who grow tired, who communicates from the front of the march to the back what to look out for, or who is ready with first aid supplies in case of violence.

I don’t want someone willing to die. I want someone willing to make sure the person next to them lives.

Do you think the people who have died in marches wanted to? They wanted to live. They were scared for their lives. That’s what makes their sacrifices meaningful. They were there for a purpose. They were there to do work. They were there to hold each other up in an effort that would have been impossible on their own.

Resistance is not a romantic thing. It’s not built on some great act of sacrifice unique to you. It’s not an identity. In fact, it’s not about you. Resistance, and faith, and hope are all built from the same single thing: you show up day after day and you do the work of it.

That work is sometimes grueling and heartbreaking. It wears you down. It tests your spirit. It tests your boundaries. It can break you. There is often no witness for it, especially when the work is performed by women or people of color (or LGBTQ, or the disabled). There is often no reward.

You do the work and it joins with the work of all those around you, and maybe something terrible happens anyway. Was the work useless? Or did you prevent something even more terrible from happening? How do you measure it? How do you assess the amount of work every person did? Often, the only thing you know is that there’s more work to do.

You often feel penned into a corner. How does the universe keep going like this? What use are you? Are you even denting the things you seek to stop? Doesn’t matter. There’s more work, and that work helps people.

“The Last Jedi” is built around being worn thin. It’s built around desperation. It’s built on the back of a Rebellion that has dwindled, but keeps on doing the work.

Many of the heroes willing to sacrifice themselves keep trading on everyone else’s credit. They may come close to death, but as they escape it, it’s others who pay the consequences for their heroism.

“Star Wars” has always relied on building myths, and it’s built some good ones. “The Last Jedi” cares deeply about those myths. It also doesn’t feel beholden to them. It doesn’t feel as if those myths are sacred. In fact, it considers many of those myths downright dangerous.

Myths make us believe that our single heroic action can save the day. And our heroes? Well they’re our saviors. What’s the point of doing all that grueling work day after day if we can just tag a savior in? Hamilton electors, Jill Stein’s recount, Obama’s press conference, the Steele dossier, Mueller, impeachment, Susan Collins for a minute, Jeff Flake for two seconds, Bob Corker for half a breath, all of them saviors at some point since the election.

And yet…somehow we go unsaved.

It’s almost as if the work is up to us.

Some of these things have produced useful results, and some might yet, but only if we do the work that gives them the space to make a change. This is what “The Last Jedi” is about. It’s about persisting, about not putting all our hope in saviors, and not putting faith in our noble ideas of romantic sacrifice. It’s about enduring. There’s sacrifice here, but the only meaningful sacrifice is that which saves someone else. Otherwise, it’s not really a sacrifice, is it?

We find ourselves in the face of a moment that threatens to overwhelm us. As we grow tired, we grow separate, we lose our ability to trust – not just in each other, but that what we’re doing makes a difference. We rebel not just against them, but against each other. We do the work of breaking ourselves for them. And that’s the strategy of how they win, how they erase democracy. They do so by tiring us, by making us grow lonely and hopeless because each of us begins thinking we’re willing to die for something, instead of thinking we’re willing to keep on doing the work day after day.

If you came here for a review, “The Last Jedi” is superb. Writer-director Rian Johnson takes the style and filmic grammar of all the other “Star Wars” entries, even the prequels, and folds them into what feels like an entire trilogy’s worth of story. There are beautiful moments here that feel like still pieces of art, planets that feel built from impressions of emotion. There is a deep melancholy to the film, and a resilient hope.

Yet it acknowledges from the first seconds that “Star Wars” is silly, and that maybe by not adhering to the strict orthodoxy expected of it, it can still be a flexible, meaningful place to tell stories. It’s rare that a film can achieve bleak despair and steady silliness, a tragic reality and a determined irreverence.

It’s not a perfect film, but I think the perfect “Star Wars” film that it could be would be something far lesser.

“The Last Jedi” is a film that can feed a certain soul, one that’s doing the work and growing weary, and feeling more distant from all the other souls doing the work and growing weary.

More than anything else, “The Last Jedi” establishes what it feels like not to feel hope yet to create it, to have your expectations of saviors undermined and realize the power you loaned them is your own. It makes you feel vulnerable and uncomfortable and at risk because you always were, but now you’re doing something about it. It also reminds us that faith in saviors, if it does not have the works or the work behind it, is meaningless.

Go see this thing. Go persist and be resilient.

And remember you’re not alone. The work you do is a spark that carries, that we’re all trying to feed, and our little corner of the universe is in the mood for light.

The feature image of Daisy Ridley as Rey is from Cosmic Book News here.

Silent All These Years — The Accounting of a Woman

by Vanessa Tottle

She had a personality once. It cost her dearly because it didn’t include baking cookies. It cost her dearly because it didn’t include choosing drapery.

It included being a lawyer, going undercover to investigate racial integration in schools, offering legal aid to those who couldn’t afford it, having a career.

And the 1990s asked us how we could trust her if she wasn’t baking cookies.

So she baked you some fucking cookies in between declaring my rights are human rights, and getting health insurance for 11 million previously uninsured children through S-CHIP.

You don’t remember S-CHIP. You aren’t a child who lived because of it, or who avoided pain because of it. You proclaim her 1990s health care drive a failure.

You don’t remember when women’s rights weren’t human rights, or live where they still aren’t, or suffer because they closed your Planned Parenthood down. You proclaim Hillary Clinton a failure.

Then there are those who need her. There are the marginalized communities who supported her. Latinx voters like myself. Women voters like myself. And Black voters. And LGBTQ voters. And more. We all asked for your help. We all asked for your vote.

Did you give it?

She is the victim of a philandering husband, yet Bill is her fault. From the Right, she couldn’t satisfy him. From the Left, she couldn’t keep him leashed. Why didn’t she divorce him, you ask. Your news feed answers with Angelina Jolie and Amber Heard and Gwyneth Paltrow, a parade of men’s voices screaming hate and vitriol and threats for the simple act of leaving their men.

Now you tell her she has no personality, she’s cold, she can’t be trusted.

Let me tell you something: I have no personality. I am cold. I cannot be trusted.

When I was the best student in class and I was told my grade would be held down unless I sucked my professor’s dick, I took the lesser grade and brought it up to the administration. He kept his job. Nothing changed, except I lost a piece of what makes me a person.

When my passport was held at bay in a foreign country unless I slept with my host, I became warm and gracious and cloying, but that was all a lie. Inside, I was as cold as I have ever been. He didn’t get a thing, but I left behind the warmth of trust.

When I’ve been at a bar, and I’ve lied that I have a boyfriend, or that I’m married, or that I have an STD, or I spilled a hot toddy to get a hand off my arm but called it an accident, I couldn’t be trusted. There are a hundred environments where a woman is prepared to be untrustworthy just to survive, just to be listened to, just to be legitimate.

You contemplated your vote and saw that she has no personality, that she’s cold, that she can’t be trusted.

If your career is under threat, your goals are under threat, your legitimacy is under threat, you look back across your life and see the history that combination covers, the evolution from there to here of self-protection: the loss of personality, of warmth, of trust.

Many turn to us and tell us the act of voting for Hillary Clinton proved how little we know. But we look upon our experiences, and the pieces of us those experiences have wrought: the personality, and warmth, and trust it’s cost.

We wonder what a privilege it is to not recognize these losses in another because you have never lost them. You think these are simply traits of a woman’s personality, instead of badges women earn through time. They are marks of survival. They are deep scars. They are how I understood a warrior who held onto herself through it all; they are how you understood a whore, a nasty woman, a lack of character.

I saw a woman who offered me freedom from the scars I earn; you chanted, “Lock her up.”

The costs for a woman’s place at the table vary, but those costs are asked of us everywhere.

We finally saw a woman who could become president. She had paid some of these costs and refused to pay others, and she threatened to rewrite all of this ugly accounting that asks women to pay in the currency of our personalities, and warmth, and trust.

Your response was to tell us she lacked personality, and warmth, and trust.

How do we reply to you? With anger, with laughter, with tears? Or with a straight face because that is the practice this accounting asks of us? With ledgers in our eyes? With all the numbers in the red that we’ve accrued? With a history of costs and a map of the pieces left behind?

She just wasn’t trustworthy, you’ll explain. In the back of your mind, you’ll wonder why I don’t smile more. Shall I for you, after what you’ve done?

Yes. I think I’ll bare these teeth at last.

Dear Men: This is How Trump and Sexual Abusers Weaponize Our Silence

Donald Trump, Billy Bush, Arianne Zucker

by Gabriel Valdez

I see a lot of people wondering why Donald Trump bragging about groping women is the instance that breaks his presidential campaign. Republicans already knew who he was. The recording of Trump bragging to Billy Bush about sexually assaulting women is just as violent and misogynist as other things he’s said. So why are Conservatives only backing away from him now? Why not earlier?

A few weeks ago, before the first presidential debate, I was incredibly apprehensive about how it would go. I wrote this to a friend:

“I think Clinton may just win not because she acts human or suddenly becomes likeable to the masses, but because America will be deeply uncomfortable with a man beating up on a woman in that way…and not because America objects to the idea, but because America objects to acknowledging that it accepts the idea.”

Now, I already think Clinton acts human and is likeable, but I don’t think America perceives her that way. More to the point, the U.S….and much more to the point, men are too comfortable with the idea of other men boasting about assault.

The Republican party, the middle independents, the evangelical Right…they already knew who Trump was. This isn’t the objection of a Right wing that can’t accept what Trump said. This is the objection of a Right wing that doesn’t want to acknowledge how much it accepts every day what Trump said. Its Achilles heel is being forced to look in a mirror in front of the voting public.

But that’s how this operates. Billy Bush nervously laughed and added another few jokes for Trump to guffaw at. If Billy Bush had gotten off that bus with Trump and warned actress Arianne Zucker that Trump was contemplating sexually assaulting her, and done so in front of Trump, for all of his braggadocio, Trump might’ve thought twice the next time.

And if other men, over the years, had done that as a regular habit, for all his sociopathy and means, even Trump would have considered the environment hostile toward his groping and the multiple sexual assaults of which he’s been accused. It might not have changed who Trump was, but it might’ve changed the environment enough so that he didn’t feel he had others’ tacit approval when assaulting women. Maybe that means fewer women would have been assaulted.

But Billy Bush didn’t do those things because he doesn’t object to the idea or the act. He objects to acknowledging that he accepts the idea or the act. And if no one forces him to acknowledge that he accepts it, then he’s more comfortable endorsing it, and Trump and all the other sexually violent men who feel they are endorsed by the Billy Bushes of the world go on assaulting, knowing that they are protected by others being much more comfortable with endorsement than confrontation.

This thought has already been said elsewhere, but don’t be thankful you’re not Trump. Think of the times that you paused and chuckled nervously and gave tacit endorsement to someone who is like Trump. Because if you’re a man in the United States, there have been times when you’ve been Billy Bush. That’s because male society teaches us from youth to be quiet in those circumstances, to think of it simply as “the way men talk.”

We’ve all had moments in our lives when we’ve been quiet, or laughed, and not stood up. I’ve done it. Every man has done it at some point. Don’t excuse it and don’t say you haven’t, because you have. Look at that as a failure in your life. Don’t excuse it. Don’t say, “Well, I was younger.”

Look at that as a time when you did not rise to the occasion, when you justified in your own head being a coward because it was more comfortable. That’s how I look at those moments in myself. It’s all right to have failed. It’s not all right to keep failing, and as men, on the whole, we keep failing spectacularly.

We cannot teach others that, “No, I never failed in that way,” because that is just passing on the same endorsement. That is just teaching other men how to justify silence within their own minds. We cannot teach, “Here’s how I can still excuse the moments I chose to be silent in the past.” We can’t always have a reason why we didn’t stand up. We can’t always say, “Well, I didn’t know better.” Because it doesn’t change the fact that we know better now and that we can teach out of our mistakes rather than excusing them.

I’m a man. That means there are points in my past where I should have said something, but didn’t. Yes, I was young. That doesn’t matter. That doesn’t change the fact that I was a coward and I failed.

As men, we have to teach out of ourselves, out of our mistakes. We cannot keep translating to other men that we are incapable of mistakes because that is what they will learn, too, that is what we will endorse in them, and that makes silence in the face of those like Trump easy.

There were times in my life when I was a coward and failed. There were times in your life when you were a coward and failed. Acknowledge it, admit it, and recognize the high cost that this kind of failure can have. Admit to other men how painful that failure can be, so they will know not to sit there and nervously chuckle, and tacitly endorse because it feels safe.

Trump isn’t the scariest part of this. The scariest part of this is how many men will look at Billy Bush’s position in this and feel sorry for him, because they’ve been him and they feel sorry for themselves because they’ve never figured out how to stop being him.

If we as men constantly justify and excuse the position he took, rather than looking at it and calling it a failure, then we excuse those moments when we’ve endorsed the violent through our silence, and we teach other men that it is excusable and to keep on doing it.

There are times in our lives when we were cowards and we failed in this exact situation. That is what being a man is. It is still cowardly and it is still a failure if we cannot admit that, if all we can do is justify our past mistakes. If we can’t acknowledge our own silences, our own nervous laughs, our own failures, then we are not the generation with whom it stops, we are not the generation that truly objects to the social endorsement of sexual assault. If we can’t admit our own failures, we are just translating to the next generation of men the best practices to avoid acknowledging that they accept the idea, too.

I am a man, and because of that, there have been moments in my life when I was a coward and I failed. Comments like Trump’s aren’t unique. We’ve all heard them, and we’ve all had moments when we were silent before them, or nervously laughed before them, or even added to them with the thought that others might accept us better. And with our silences, the Trumps of the world have all the permission they need to injure.

We might think our silences were fleeting, our endorsements at most implied, but the injuries they fuel last a lifetime. As men, we need to take ownership of our failures, individually and as a whole. Without doing so, we’re just side-stepping the problem and pretending we’re solving it better than we are. Doing better starts with admitting to ourselves when we have contributed to doing worse. Period.

The 10 Best Albums of 2016 (So Far)

by Gabriel Valdez

It’s been a strange year for music, with the loss of legends and one essentially recording his own epitaph. Yet it’s also been a year of gifts – of rollicking country and an unexpected comeback from a band many had given up on, of Mayan hip-hop and gothic folk songs. My number one album of the year (so far) is from a woman whose heartbreaking work I feel stands at the juncture of Nirvana and Neutral Milk Hotel.

So let’s dive in:

10. Gag Order – Vainhein

Vainhein (roughly translating to “heinous vanity”) started off in the San Francisco drag scene as a lip-sync performer. In the last five years, he’s moved into producing original music as Vainhein (or Vain Hein). There’s not a lot out there, but you can listen to the debut album Gag Order on the Bandcamp page.

9. Collect – 18+

18+ maintained near-total anonymity for the first three years of the band’s existence. They’re difficult to describe – a band that takes the way love and relationships are portrayed in modern music and throws the formula out. They seduce in a manner that blends carelessness with deep feeling, through music that’s deconstructed to impressionism almost to the point of falling apart before it finds its way back.

8. Pawn Shop – Brothers Osborne

Yes, this is one of the most eclectic lists I’ve ever put together. It’s a testament to just how diverse 2016’s been in music. Brothers Osborne can push out anthemic country songs at the drop of a hat, but the best part of Pawn Shop is how often they drop the love song pretense on which country too often depends. The album is wickedly varied, stopping to comically sing the praises of the pawn shop or break down into a slow one-part bayou, one-part honky-tonk testament to rum. This is the kind of country I almost never go for, but this album’s just too good.

7. Freetown Sound – Blood Orange

Blood Orange has been carrying Prince’s musical torch for a few years now, so in the year when Prince died, it’s reassuring that Dev Hynes’s band continues to explore a similarly easygoing yet soul-baring musicality. Blood Orange has never found the kind of breakout hits that Prince did – they relent when it comes to that extra edge, that musical and social insistence that Prince brought – but that’s not exactly what Blood Orange is. They slant toward chilled out.

6. Strangers – Marissa Nadler

Strangers is a step back for Marissa Nadler, but a step back for the woman is still better than the vast majority of other music that’s out there. Her July was my choice for Album of the Year in 2014. It was so patiently stirring, a masterpiece of lamenting, gothic folk. Her music sounds like a message from another time, like black-and-white footage of old funeral processions. There’s sadness and importance, even celebration, but it all feels so beautifully removed, like watching (as in her 2014 music video “Dead City Emily”) the silhouettes of lovers dance out-of-focus from behind smudged, scratched glass. It’s always someone else’s sadness, someone else’s lament, and there’s a profound sorrow in not being able to share those pains.

Her music often evokes the frustration of empathy, of witnessing pain in another yet falling short of being able to truly understand and experience it, to heal it. It’s a rare evocation in any form of art: to have your empathy evoked and stilled, to witness yet be frozen, to stand on the shoulder of that passing funeral and yet not know it. The tragedy of people passing in and out of our lives is the tragedy of their moments – the experiences that let us step outside ourselves and into the connection of loving others – traveling further and further away. Yet there’s something to that disconnection that only makes us strain all the harder to step outside ourselves again and again. Nadler’s songs and albums and career are almanacs of connections made and treasured and lost, and so her music rests right against the bones like only nostalgia and closure can.

5. Blackstar – David Bowie

I’m weird when it comes to Bowie. My favorite period rests in his late 90s/early 00s experimentation combining industrial and jazz. Not all of it worked – in fact, some of it was downright bad – but it was supremely different to anything I’d heard before. Bowie’s Blackstar will always be remembered most for how it’s written to anticipate and guide Bowie through a death he knew was coming fast.

Blackstar picks up so many musical threads throughout Bowie’s career, so many stylistic endings left unfinished, yet among those endings, he also starts new ones. He seeks to process what’s come before, to conclude much of it, yes – but he doesn’t end there. He also pushes forward into new realms, starts new musical ideas he knows he’ll never finish. This is the way to go, he seems to say in Blackstar, by saying goodbye and wrapping things up not to conclude this life, but so he can say a fresh hello to whatever life is next.

4. A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead

Finally. Only the second album Radiohead’s released in nine years shows the time that went into it. For many, this is the first time Radiohead’s broken new ground in those nine years – while 2011’s The King of Limbs was good, it didn’t convey Radiohead’s irrepressible ambition. Maybe they fell off, we thought. Then five years passed. Maybe they disappeared. Then their site went offline. Their social media presence was pulled. Maybe that’s it, we thought. Just like that. And then A Moon Shaped Pool dropped, this whole new challenging, chaotic map of dreamlike and nightmarish places to tour.

3. Tributo a Los 20 Nawales – Balam Ajpu

This is a tribute to the 20 spirits that represent each day on the Mayan calendar. Balam Ajpu is a Guatemalan rap group that’s part of a growing movement of Mayan-language hip-hop. The verses on their album alternate between the Mayan dialect Tz’utujil and Spanish. In Guatemala, 60% of the population is Mayan, yet the country is rarely represented this way – both domestically and abroad. Hip-hop has been one way for the Mayan population to coalesce around surviving elements of Mayan culture.

Balam Ajpu combines hip-hop with a stunning number of styles and instruments. Salsa, reggae, and cumbia are all folded into the songs. The array of musical instruments and the talent behind them here is ridiculous. Guitar, cello, pan pipes, a host of drums, xylophone, and sounds from nature all underlie a patient album about spirituality and social change.

2. Not to Disappear – Daughter

Remember a moment when you failed to cope with the damn unfairness of it all. Now trap it in amber. That feeling of crashing against the shore, when you could barely hold your head up because the lump in your throat was so overwhelming. When you were numb and angry and your tears were the best act of vengeance you had against the universe. When your teeth grit and your lips quivered and your breath caught. When you sobbed and the time of day didn’t seem to matter. Daughter makes music of the moments trapped before catharsis. Thank God, because those moments could use some understanding of their own.

1. Puberty 2 – Mitski

She destroyed me in two-and-a-half minutes. Took me apart suddenly weeping. That was on track four, “Fireworks.” Then she did it again two songs later with “I Bet on Losing Dogs.” If it doesn’t share the same sound as Nirvana’s most plaintive moments, it shares the same character.

“I bet on losing dogs
I know they’re losing and I’ll pay for my place
By the ring
Where I’ll be looking in their eyes when they’re down
I’ll be there on their side
I’m losing by their side.”

Sometimes, it can be easy to feel like one of those losing dogs, still running because it’s what we know, because it’s the process – through repetition – for which we begin to believe we’ve been made. It can be the role we’ve been taught to play in relation to those around us, or the role we’ve been taught by a specific person. It can be hard to break out of being a losing dog, and to break out of the habit of betting on them. Is it an act of care to do so? Is it enabling? Can you create of someone else a losing dog?

These aren’t the questions directly posed to us, because Mitski isn’t a philosopher on her tracks. She’s the character, inhabiting every moment, and we witness every mistake, every want and need, every tiny victory and major defeat. Music often tells stories about experiences viewed through lenses, non-specifically emotive enough to be universal. That’s not what Mitski gives us. Her emotions are hers, her stories are deeply personal. It’s in the personal loss, in the impacts of defeat, in the hardening of herself to the world around, that we find connection. Her struggle to remain soft and loving despite it all is our struggle. Songs here aren’t wasted, they aren’t filled out any longer than is needed. This is an album of bare mental, emotional, and sometimes physical survival. It’s heartbreak as a way of practicing for mortality, and the resistance to heartbreak as a way of denying our mortality, the way each wears us down and builds us.

Marissa Nadler (whose Strangers I highlight above) is how I found out about Mitski. Nadler highlighted her favorite Mitski lyrics in article for The Talkhouse. This turned out to be from “Fireworks,” a melancholic take on…what, exactly? One’s own journey toward entropy? The desensitization of loss, both inside and outside oneself? That desensitization itself is a loss one must desensitize to? A lover’s simultaneous capability for support and inadequacy to heal?

“One morning this sadness will fossilize
And I will forget how to cry
I’ll keep going to work and he won’t see a change
Save perhaps a slight gray in my eye.

I will go jogging routinely
Calmly and rhythmically run
And when I find that a knife sticking out of my side
I’ll pull it out without questioning why.

And then one warm summer night
I’ll hear fireworks outside
And I’ll listen to the memories as they cry, cry, cry.

I will be married to silence
The gentleman won’t say a word
But you know, oh you know in the quiet he holds
Runs a river that’ll never find home.

And then one warm summer night
I’ll hear fireworks outside
And I’ll listen to the memories as they cry, cry, cry.”

Mitski Miyawaki sings about surviving through entropy, about becoming a bastion and falling apart, about betting on losing dogs, about being one. I once was told that Led Zeppelin didn’t make songs, they made musical monuments. Mitski does, too…but the focus is anxiety, using, being used, giving in, being unapologetic, forgetting how to apologize to yourself, settling on how you should be treated, remembering how to treat yourself. Here are monuments to the cycle of falling apart and constructing oneself never to fall apart again, and falling apart anew, and constructing anew, ad nauseum. It stops at some point, right? The album’s called Puberty 2, and it’s not named that because she recorded a Puberty 1.

Feature image comes from Impose Magazine.

“Sicario” — The Best Film of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

“Sicario” is a masterpiece of the inevitable, of the unavoidable, of the moment you know you’re leading to your entire life and dread facing, because you know you’ll be less coming away from it. And yet everyone involved must, because they are who they are.

The architecture of this is brilliant:

The visuals frame the dust hanging in the midday sun, the evening clouds, the ground underneath your feet, all as unfeeling and silent witnesses to what takes place before them. The textures of these interstitial moments are felt and given room to breathe even as the action takes place before them. It makes the story smaller, and in feeling smaller it becomes more personal. This is no epic. This is the ruination of a week in front of our eyes.

Lives are cast asunder. The music sometimes hunts you. You can hear it lurking around the bend. Voices yearn at something beautiful. The strings plunge deeper than you thought they could. The horns fret and cackle amongst themselves. The music is a vulture. The music is the sand, shifting yet immutable. The music is your thirst, some nostalgia for an ideal of a world that requires your willing ignorance to believe in. There’s a string you can cling to, high and disappearing.

We live our lives discovering who we are and why we are that way, of learning ourselves better than we did the day or week or month before. Of putting one foot in front of the other. Our hearts will break and heal, and break and heal, but they are rarely stolen out from our chests in ways that force us to relinquish our Who and our Why. “Sicario” takes that away. “Sicario” plunges a hand into one woman’s chest over the course of a film and takes away who she is, why she is.

“Sicario” is the husking of people, in a broad sense through the political games of the Drug War, and in a specific sense in the decimation of how one woman’s shaped herself over the course of her lifetime.

“Sicario” is conscious of this, and so it gives you breaks to breathe. Yet the horror is in the breathing, in those moments in between. It is a film of anticipations, of hearing the hunt around the bend. You look around and you see the dust in the air, the clouds in the sky, the ground beneath your feet. It makes your story smaller, it makes it more personal. It makes you wish you didn’t have that chance to breathe and recognize these things.

“Sicario” is a vulture. It picks the bones of people clean. It takes the best of us and shows her to be useless in the face of an unfeeling system that has its own agenda. It is a masterpiece of meeting your fate, and having no self left into which you can recede.

Sicario poster

Images are from Space and Jo Blo.

“Girlhood” — Best Films of 2015, Runner-Up

by Gabriel Valdez

“Girlhood” opens with a football game. Despite being a French-language film, it’s American football, not soccer. Both teams are composed entirely of women. It makes no sense within the context of the film’s story. It doesn’t seem that a disadvantaged school in France would feature a women’s football program. What’s really going on?

“Girlhood” doesn’t care about your expectations, that’s what’s going on. The film, about four young women growing up, cares about its characters and it will fiercely defend them. In a movie that feels as remarkably real as this, if a football game suddenly needs to happen, or the lights go out upon a first kiss, it doesn’t matter that it’s not real. It’s real to the characters. What’s remarkable about “Girlhood” is how protective director Celine Sciamma is of their experiences.

Everything in “Girlhood” is real, until a particular feeling requires that it stop being real. What else is more accurate to the world of a child? These moments may only happen a handful of times in “Girlhood,” and they are usually understated, but they are special.

“Girlhood” is a film about safe harbor – the lack of it at home, the ways we learn to stand up for ourselves and others, the moments we step into our lives utterly alone and scared because of it, how we learn to create our own safety amid the worst of life. It presents moments where fantasy doesn’t always take place, but characters somehow always strive for fantastic ideals anyway. Sometimes they do so blindly.

After that football game, we see the group of high school-aged women walk home at night. They split into groups, fewer and fewer as they each get closer to home. Bands of men wait for them, to leer, to harass. At first, the women talk so much you can’t make out a word…but when they near the men, they all fall silent. It seems a simple thing, but Sciamma handles it with a deft hand. It’s the silence and its nature that feel overwhelming. In the face of it, hearing so much you can’t keep track becomes a comfort.

The strength of “Girlhood” is that it’s a coming-of-age film that feels experiential. It puts you in every moment, lets you inhabit it alongside its characters. The moments in between major events mean as much as the moments when something crucial is happening; they reveal how a character understands and fits into her world.

The French title of “Girlhood” is more accurately translated as “band of girls.” It may’ve been translated the way it is to take advantage of the similarity to last year’s critical favorite “Boyhood.”

I had a problem with “Boyhood” that Alessia Palanti stated better than I knew how. She wrote in her review, “After so many years the final result is dotted with formulaic plot points, cliches, a number of feel-good heteronormative Americana stereotypes, and an uninteresting family…I can see why it would capture an audience’s attention, and how its middle class, familiar, life scenarios could forge mutual understanding between film and viewer. But is this what boyhood really is? And if so, should we really be so celebratory?”

The problem with “Boyhood” wasn’t just cultural. It was the nature of it. It was nostalgic, not experiential. It didn’t feel like life as it was lived, but rather life as it was remembered. “Girlhood” feels like life as it’s lived, and it mixes in the greater fears and hopes of everyday living because of it. This is my runner-up for film of the year.

Girlhood poster

Images are from Variety and PSU.