The other day I watched Summer in Andalusia, an anime gem from 2003. It’s by studio Madhouse, but you would be forgiven for thinking it’s a Ghibli venture, since director Kitarou Kousaka worked on films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Nasu: Summer in Andalusia follows a Spanish cyclist, Pepe Benegeli, over one day in the Vuelta a España road race. The movie is less than 50 minutes, and it’s tempting to call it fizzy, a diversion, a cool drink to go with a vacation to an exotic place. But it’s more like the meal that grounds the story and connects the characters: pickled eggplant and red wine. That is to say: unfussy but rich and heavy with tradition. I imagine some people have watched Summer in Andalusia and found it pleasant but slim. I found it to be a beautiful and restrained window into legacy, family, roots, and talent.
It’s a sweltering day in the Spanish summer, but it’s the day where the Vuelta’s stage happens to run through Pepe Benegeli’s hometown. Pepe is a domestique for his Belgian beer-sponsored team (the logo for which is clearly a Delerium Tremens reference). This means that his job is to support the athletes who actually stand to win the entire race. The star he’s supporting, Gilmore, as well as his sponsors and most of his competitors, are not Spanish. This movie reminded me that I am part Spanish, specifically Andalusian, but I did not have an accurate picture of the landscape in my mind. The idyllic-to-my-ears title Summer in Andalusia and its cover image of three young people on a bike conjured up something a little more Call Me by Your Nameish, with tranquil pools and lazy days spent under fruit trees. Andalusia is more desert than lush paradise, though, and all the cyclists are suffering.(more…)
Here are the books I read in 2021 that have stuck with me the most. They didn’t have to come out in 2021, just be read by me in 2021.
Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans
Apollo’s Angels, by former dancer Jennifer Homans, is a dazzling achievement. It’s fascinating, comprehensive, and pretty much the only book of its kind. If you are looking for an in-depth history and exploration of ballet, you will mostly find memoirs, guides, and glossaries aside from this beautiful and heavy book. I bought it to use as a resource for an essay I was writing on my regret over quitting dance as a teenager, but I’m so glad I own it and can pour over it for years to come. Homans traces ballet’s history from the Renaissance, through the court of Louis XIV, its associations with sex work in later centuries, and much more. It will keep anyone with an academic, aesthetic, or historical interest in ballet busy for a long, long time. Homans also poses difficult questions about the role ballet and its classical aspirations towards the heavenly can play in contemporary society. She writes, “Today we no longer believe in ballet’s ideals. We are skeptical of elitism and skill, which seem to us exclusionary and divisive… We want to expand and include: we are all dancers now.” It’s something I think about a lot. It seems taboo to point out that ballet hinges on so many things that are at odds with each other: ephemerality, pain, fragility, strength – a combination of traits and talent that very few people possess. Can there be an inclusive ballet? Maybe the better question is can we live with its exclusionary nature.
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
It’s a little embarrassing to be putting a Sally Rooney book on this list, as a person who is the exact target demographic for a Sally Rooney book. I do not think Beautiful World, Where Are You is as great as Normal People, but there are things about it that won’t leave my head months later. And the sex scenes are very, very good. The story is simple. Four characters (two couples) confront the idea that in the face of the many defeats of modern life, living small and caring about each other might be the only important thing. Half of the book is told in third person and half is told through e-mails between the two female protagonists, Alice and Eileen. It’s the e-mails that stuck with me (well, other than the sex scenes). In one exchance, Eileen articulates the slog of online discourse, in a moment when I was collapsing under it in my own life:
I looked at the internet for too long today and started feeling depressed. The worst thing is that I actually think people on there are generally well meaning and the impulses are right, but our political vocabulary has decayed so deeply and rapidly since the twentieth century that most attempts to make sense of our present historical moment turn out to be essentially gibberish. Everyone is understandably attached to particular identity categories, but at the same time largely unwilling to articulate what those categories consist of, how they came about, and what purposes they serve. The only apparent schema is that for every victim group (people born into poor families, women, people of colour) there is an oppressor group (people born into rich families, men, white people). But in this framework, relations between victim and oppressor are not historical so much as theological, in that the victims are transcendently good and the oppressors are personally evil. For this reason, an individual’s membership of a particular identity group is a question of unsurpassed ethical significance, and a great amount of our discourse is devoted to sorting individuals into their proper groups, which is to say, giving them their proper moral reckoning.
Some readers find this kind of thing tiring with Rooney, and with millennial writers in general. And I sort of see the criticism. Beautiful World in particular does not transport me. It grounds me in the world I already live in and reflects my own anxieties back. Reading only things that accomplished that would be impoverished, but sometimes, it’s nice to see something you’ve been feeling put down in a concise and eloquent way.(more…)
I was working on a post about a character type I’m increasingly drawn to but I turned in a lot of grad school work and I’m tired, so this is something frothier. I am insanely, vertiginously into Christmas. I can’t even talk about how into Christmas I am. Like, all of it. There is nothing subversive or “a twist on” about how I enjoy Christmas. The closer to a picture print by Currier & Ives I can get, the happier I am. The other day “Silver Bells” came on in the grocery store and I almost cried because of “it’s Christmastime in the City.” The pictures in I Spy Christmas get me fucked up for reasons I can’t fully explain, and they did so as a kid too. Is this hauntological? Is every iteration of the Nativity scene an ekphrasis? Is ABC Family’s 25 Days of Christmas my friend? The type of character I was going to write about appears in my favorite Christmas movie so I thought hey, just empty your brain by listing those. I am always conflicted about whether to call things like this “favorite” or “best,” because I don’t think there’s much of a difference. People should have the strength of their convictions to think their favorites are the best.
I liked this movie as a child because I would watch any old musical with good dance numbers. As an adult, I have a very embarrassing reaction to it which is basically:
At Christmas, it’s nearly impossible to not feel sad about pasts I didn’t experience. The idyllic images of Christmas most of us grew up with were not of things we actually grew up with. And like I imagine almost every person in my age bracket does, I have very thorny feelings about the country I live in. I know that the America of the 40s and 50s was pretty bad. What we think lies behind the foundational elements of Americana as an aesthetic never existed. But still I find myself occasionally envious of people old enough to have lived through a time when being patriotic felt as uncomplicatedly good as it could (as a comfortable white person, that is). White Christmas, made in 1954, is smack in the middle of a prime era for post-war patriotism, but I think there are deeper things happening even within that theme. I like stories about reconstruction, returning a changed person, and whether or not one can really go home again.
Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, the male leads of the movie, start the story as soldiers, but that’s not what they’ve always been. Crosby’s Bob Wallace was an entertainer and Kaye’s Phil Davis an aspiring performer. Whatever they do after the war, their lives won’t be on quite the same track. Their careers as a successful musical comedy duo will always be forged and colored by their experiences as veterans. White Christmas is, in a way, a blueprint for so many Lifetime and Hallmark movies’ “save the small town establishment” plot. Wallace and Davis meet sisters Betty and Judy Wayne (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen) and after hijinks and comedies of error, end up traveling with them to a small inn in Vermont. The inn happens to be run by the men’s former army major, now an aging man running the business with his wife and granddaughter. That the conflict of the film is that there is no snow in Vermont at Christmas is at once funny, quaint, and too depressing to think about in our era of climate distress. That the lack of snow is endangering a beloved mentor’s livelihood makes it all personal for the characters. They put a Broadway worthy show on to save the inn, but the big finale is just as much or more about making their Major General feel seen and valued in a world he no longer fits in straightforwardly. The music, the matchmaking plot, the love stories are all well done and breezy in that way that makes old musicals so delightful, but the touching holiday spirit is most evident in the story about people going to great lengths, more than any one person deserves, to make someone they love feel special.
Any time I go into a department store in New York during the holidays, I think to myself, “maybe I’ll buy some gloves.” That of course is because of the Kate Beckinsale/John Cusack movie Serendipity. I loved this movie the first time I watched it, which was probably in pre-teenhood, and have stubbornly decided to keep liking it ever since. Nobody I’ve shown it to outside my own family enjoys it that much. Granted it is kind of dumb. It’s a Christmas movie only in that the beginning and end take place during the holidays. The rest is the story of two people who decided they would be together if it was fate, and years and partners later, they have stubbornly decided to keep holding out for that. Kate Beckinsale writing her phone number in a used copy of Love in the Time of Cholera, John Cusack scouring every bookstore for it, only to be gifted it before his wedding to ANOTHER WOMAN! It’s also a strange movie because the script and Cusack’s dour guy presence give it a perhaps unearned gravitas. One of my favorite kinds of gravitas!(more…)