Monday, July 14, 2008

Soulful Culture

I like other things besides music:

A good book: The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert. This is the true story of Eustace Conway, a naturalist and authentic badass. When Conway was still in high school (in the '80s), he decided he liked living outside better than indoors and literally moved out. He graduated from his state college with honors, living in a teepee the entire time. A little while ago he rode across the U.S. on a horse. You'd have to read the book to get the full picture, but this guy is like some kind of philosopher wildman, building and skinning and taming things, but also advocating his ideals and falling in love and writing about it all. This was originally a piece that Gilbert published in GQ, which she later adapted into the full book, and it retains a magazine feature's energy and light tone but with the added depth a book can bring. It stokes all of my fantasies of living off the grid, but with none of the promise of ruined utopia through drugs or carelessness that usually accompanies those experiments. I'm nearly done with this and I'm going to be sad when it's over.

A good movie: WALL-E. I took my daughter to see this last week and I was more excited about it than she was. Pixar makes me happy. I love when really talented people are allowed to function in the mainstream and given unlimited resources and I imagine the people working for Pixar wake up happy every day to go to work - my ideal. I think someday we'll look back on the movies Pixar is making now as a kind of golden age - the way the early Disney classics like Snow White and Pinochio look now. Their craft is unstoppable. Pixar films aren't just eye candy or pandering pop culture, they're really well-told stories, and are drawn, paced and choreographed beautifully with an classiness that doesn't diminish their power. WALL-E is a strange mixture of nostalgia and the next-level. The first half is basically a silent film, the second a barrage of energy and visual information. While WALL-E is definitely the most visually advanced computer animated film made to date in terms of photorealism, it's also gorgeous in a sci-fi romantic kind of way and the story is really cute and surprisingly emotional. I'm not going to lie, I got goosebumps a few times.

A good television show: Mad Men. At first I thought this was just an impeccably made period piece set in the late '50s/early '60s about New York ad execs - lots of smoking, suits, sexism and hair oil. But a few episodes in it starts to take itself seriously and I realized that its about old-fashioned existentialism. Whenever I use that word I feel silly, mostly because for a long time I would ask the people who used it what it meant (sincerely wanting to know) and would get answers like "It's about freedom." I finally came up with my own existentialism soundbite: existence is a choose-your-own-adventure story; if you look too closely at it, it has no meaning - so make your own. Don Draper is a successful ad man who has created his own version of himself (complete with a name change), who believes that his profession is basically sophistry. And he's fine with that, until it starts to eat at him. He cheats on his wife with strong women - one a half-beatnik, the other a wealthy owner of a department store chain - and even though they're both soulful people, he's unable to find solace in those relationships, or to fully absorb the ways in which is dutiful wife is quietly both just as strong and unfulfilled. In showing how much has changed, Mad Men does a surprisingly good job at showing how little has changed and plays deeply with a couple of themes - gender power struggles and the futility of consumerism as a source of meaning. Plus it's really funny.

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