Saturday, February 18, 2017

28 Creations

Since the present author recently turned the ghastly age of 28, and since the present author is stretched thin for ideas, what follows is a personal post detailing 28 creative media that have meant an enormous amount to me (the present author). The order is largely without attempt at any organization or flow.

Star Wars (collected works)

I could tell you about the time in 5th grade I stayed home sick from school and marathtoned Episode 1 six times in a row with nigh but bathroom breaks. I could tell you of the over 125 novels I've read, some as many as 6, 8, 10 times. I could tell you of the collectively 80+ times I've seen all the movies. I could tell you of late night movie debuts. I could tell you of the hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of hours I put in SWTOR. I could tell you of roleplaying, of Halloween costumes, of playground lightsaber duels. Of trading card games, of video games, of toys and action figures. But really, all I can tell you, ultimately, is that no fictional universe, no creation, has been with me for as long, for as much time, and with as much love, as Star Wars has. May the Force be with you, always.

Catch-22 (novel)

I have imitated many things I love in life. I've attempted my hand at writing postmodernism in the vein of Leynar or Murakami or FLCL, of cyberpunk in the vein of Stephenson or Blade Runner, of melancholy in the vein of Shinkai or Lost in Translation, even of fantasy in the vein of Tolkien or Salvatore. But I have never attempted to write something in the vein of Catch-22. Why? Simply because I can't. Simply because the greatest novel I have ever read is so multi-layered, so complex, so nuanced, and so, so relentlessly quotable and funny and tragic, that to even attempt to be 1/100th of it would end in folly. I will never create something this erudite, this profound, this enjoyable. And that's ok. I don't need to. Yossarian lives in us all the same.

Lord of the Rings (books and films)

Tolkien is not a good writer. At least, not in the traditional sense. His dialogue is stilted, and he struggles with pacing. But I guess to call the Lord of the Rings a character study would be folly. It is a worldbuilding study. It is a masterclass of building a universe and inserting characters into it and throwing them on an epic, perilous journey. By the end, when Frodo sets sail and the endnotes detail what happened to everyone else, you'll have to fight back tears. You feel exhausted, like you were with them every step of the way.

As an aside, the films are pretty damn impressive too.

The Place Promised in our Early Days (animated film)

"She always said she felt like she was losing something. At the time... I was in middle school, and couldn't understand what she meant. But... those words had a strange effect on me."

"Living alone, the nights seemed to last forever. When I couldn't pass the time effectively, I went to a nearby train station and pretended to wait for someone."

In the span of about 3 years in the mid aughts, I watched this around 10 times. It is hauntingly, achingly beautiful and melancholy. It is doused in transcendent beauty that Shinkai is known for; colours and details in animation that only Ghibli can match. Tenmon's soundtrack is legendary. It layers ideas of multiple universes and dream realities through a story as old as time itself; what would you do for the one you love? That it never falls into melodrama, and that it doesn't end in a clear cut tragedy or victory is perhaps its most accomplished achievement. It is my favourite animated work. Ever.

Blade Runner (film)

Released in 1982, little movies have the breadth and influence that Blade Runner has had. Since its release, no other movie has had its soundtrack sampled as often. It spawned an entire genre; without its existence, there is no Ghost in the Shell, no Deus Ex, no Matrix, no cyberpunk as we know it. Its visual style has influenced everything from Drive to Star Wars prequels and more. It is a profound statement of humanity, of choice, of dealing with the fatalistic reality of all things. And it features perhaps the single greatest monologue (heavily improvised) and one of the single greatest lines in movie history. On a personal note, tech noir and cyberpunk have become easily some of my two most beloved genres, and if I could somehow create a great book or movie in those genres, I would do so in a heartbeat.

Harmlessness (album)

Nostalgia, summer camps, growing up, regrets, aging, trying to smile at the world. No album captures these feelings as effectively and beautifully as Harmlessness, an album that goes from 2 minute songs to 8 minute songs with no effort, no rough transitions, and leaves you both ephemerally happy and despondently sad at how much of your life has passed by. The entire experience is summed up most accurately by the name of the band; The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die.

Good Riddance (Time of your Life) (song)

I mean, it's cliché. How many graduations, how many "In Memoriam" slideshows, how many times did we hear it? And yet, for a band so enamored with power-chords, false-punk, and juvenile politics, this was the most punk, most vulnerable, most hardcore thing they did. A simple song about a simple breakup about a not so simple life. From about 2003-2008 this song got more play than anything else I listened to. It occupied a special place of beach sunsets and dusk drives and teenage angst.

Cerulean Salt (album)

Somewhere between the aching acoustic simplicity of their first album and the fuzzy distorted guitars of their third, Waxahatchee managed to stumble upon emo-pop perfection.  Katie Crutchfield coos about breakups and the lows of traveling alone and alcoholism and domestic fights and gives them all a sense of humanism and familiarity, even to those unaccustomed. The albums blows it out of the water in its 3 track ending, from Swan Dive's perfection at describing a broken relationship, to You're Damaged perfectly describing a broken person. There's no wonder these songs are their most requested at their shows. They capture a certain interpersonal despondency like nothing else.

Posthumous Release (album)

It might be the most earnest pop album of the 21st century. It is elegant and simple and honest. It spends its time dwelling on lost love and lost time, but manages to sneak in some punchy, uplifting tunes about groovy women and fucking at the graveyard. Why not? Life is weird and people are weirder. This album manages to capture that perfectly.

Side note; Matthew Lee Cothran, the band's lead, will make another appearance on this list later on. Dude knows how to make music.

Invisible Planets (short story)

Hao Jingfang's short and sweet and lighthearted romp around planets and cultures, told from mother to daughter, manages to be both ethereal and permanent. It's travel made life affirming and diversity made celebratory. It's a mother's love displayed as the most powerful force in the galaxy. It is sci-fi at its best; imaginative, evocative, alien, and at its core, deeply, irrevocably, human.

Untitled (album)

Sigur Ros have always been odd. I guess that's what you get described as when you use an entirely made up language that makes no sense in your music. But unlike post-rock's habitual reliance on guitar, the band expands the genre's horizons with keys and synths and falsetto, lending an at times haunting, apocalyptic vibe to their music, and others, a sad and regretful one. They're one of the genre's best, continually creating music that says, linguistically, absolutely nothing, but musically, absolutely everything. This album remains their crowning achievement, an emotionally exhausting experience that is best enjoyed alone, at night, with nothing to disturb you.

His Dark Materials Trilogy (novels)

I can remember the exact moment, every bit of it. Lying on the floor, living room, parent's place in South Haven, pillow propped up against the base of the couch, dinner cooking, summer between 5th and 6th grade. I reached the end of The Amber Spyglass, the 3rd and final book in the trilogy, and died a bit. I was young. I didn't know about love stories and tragedy and being told some things in life simply aren't possible. And yet here I was experiencing it for the first time, and it hurt. Like nothing else. I flipped back about 30 pages and read it again. It still hurt. I begged and pleaded internally. There has to be an epilogue I am missing, right? There has to be! This is children's fantasy, not heartbreak city.

But that was it.

I read the book and the trilogy a half dozen more times over the next couple years.

It remains, to this day, a painful life lesson. Some things in life are tragic. Happy endings aren't the norm. Enjoy what you have while it lasts. It's over all too soon.

Snow Crash (novel)

"Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world."

So says narrator and protagonist Hiro Protagonist (hacker and samurai), the star of a book so kinetic and visual it is probably a crime against humanity that we are still waiting on a film. The scenes leap off the pages and the entire book is darkly humorous and absolutely bursting with attitude. It's the future, and America is entirely privatized and chaotic and is good at only 3 things; porn, software development, and pizza delivery. It's one of sci-fi's most prescient works, popularizing the word avatar (yes, the term we refer to are pictures on forums and social media of. It comes from this novel), and predicting internet culture and cyberspace and MMOs and a whole host of other things before most people even knew they existed. And in a world of profoundly disappointing white dudes, here was a white male author who wrote a story starring a black-Asian male and a white woman, with a native-American antagonist featured too. It's spunky, edgy (in a good way), and rip-roaringly fun. Cyberpunk at its best.

The Dark Knight Trilogy (films)

There are some absolutely mind numbing flaws in these Nolan films. Plot holes, bad acting, and rushed character development. But you know what? It's ok. Because this trilogy asks us all; rich or poor, physically gifted or not, old or young, and everyone in between, to simply do the right thing. It is a hero saga (not a superhero one), and a rallying cry to those who do what is right, even if it is not what is easy. That Bruce Wayne is a billionaire is neither here nor there, what matters is that within us there is a moral capacity to do good. That it features an impeccable performance by Heath Ledger, a supremely underrated Anne Hathaway, and Gary Oldman at his best is mere icing. Not all superheroes wear capes. It just so happens that the star of these movies did.

FLCL (tv)

I've talked a lot in this list so far about nuanced and multilayered works, but for my money, this might be the heaviest hitter on the list. And if I were to rank this entire endeavor, this would be near the very top. Where to begin? It is enormously creative and visually magnificent. The soundtrack is absolutely perfect. It is consistently, riotously funny. But beneath the veneer of phallic symbolism and sex jokes, there is a never-ending cascade of ideas to unpack. From the psychoanalytical splendor of episode 4, to the adult/child inner conflict that plagues protagonist Naota, to the familial conflicts, to the zen and the puberty and the superflat, postmodern nature of it all. FLCL is a rock-and-roll koan turned up to 11, constantly probing, exploring, and exulting in what it means to grow up and come of age. That it manages to end so perfectly and hearth-achingly, even after 6 episodes of barely controlled chaos, speaks volumes.

Lost in Translation (film)

The first six or so times I saw this movie, I did not particularly like it. It's racist. The middle drags. It has a veneer of "what white people like" draped over it.

But I had watched it six times. Something was bringing me back to it. And that something was what this movie did well. Nothing else comes close to portraying missed connections and short-term relationships (friendly or otherwise) like this film does. And two scenes in particular stand out. From the endearing bed scene where Bill Murray's character talks so truthfully about getting older - a scene whose ability to not leap to romance or cliché propels it - to the end; a subtle, uncluttered exultation of what-could-haves and what-should-haves. That I've seen it many more times since my somewhat painful first six speaks volumes. Nothing about this film is lost in translation. It captures missed connections like nothing else.

Drive (film)

If Snow Crash is attitude in text, Drive is attitude in film. Featuring one of the snappiest, sexiest openings ever, a killer soundtrack, and enough Christian symbolism to shake a stick at, Drive revels in violence and bloodshed and revenge and 80s synths and style. Refn's best work among many greats, Gosling's understated performance underlies a movie that thrills with action and yucks and gucks, and yet dwells on drawn out shots, double and triple rack focuses, and drapes itself in neon and tech noir colours. It's one of the best works to come out of the 21st century, endlessly rewatchable, and perpetually enjoyable.

World of Warcraft (video game)

The summer of 2007 was two things for me. Well, four things I guess, if you include crippling depression, and anxiety over college, but primarily, it was 40 hours a week at McDonalds, and 60 hours a week in WoW. After my 6am to 2pm shifts, it was WoW the rest of the day, well into the night. I don't know if any other game - and I've played a lot - has ever swallowed a portion of my life in such a condensed time that WoW did. In just a few months I went from lonely peon to guild leader to social paean. Like Blizzard games before and after, WoW was merely a collection of everything that worked in one genre, more intuitive and polished than anything before it, and absolutely enormous in scale.

Overwatch (video game)

For a game without an actual ingame story or campaign mode, for a game without an open world, for a game without roleplaying, Overwatch evokes more worthwhile humanist values than perhaps any video game before it. Like the aforementioned WoW, Overwatch isn't new insomuch as it is new in just how it brings so many disparate elements from the genre together and polishes the hell out of them. And while the game is astoundingly designed, from the subtle and ingenious audio and visual clues that pepper the game but never overwhelm, and the explicit attention to detail, the game shines most as a testament to diversity and heroism. In a world of cynical, ultraviolent and ultranationslist shooters, Overwatch has the guts to say everything without saying anything.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (album)

Oh Kanye. What happened? Before you came out in support of Bill Cosby and Donald Trump, before your total creative control meant that albums like Yeezus became too inconsistent and musically frayed, you had this, the best rap/hip-hop album of the 21st century. It is a masterclass of production and instrumentals and deeply honest storytelling. Kanye revels in his ego and his vulnerability, dwells on his contradictions, and still manages to rap eloquently about being black in America and being a black celebrity in America. All of the contributing artists, all of the heroically arching horns that permeate the early tracks, it all works. Every song on this album is memorable, and it's a shame in one sense that Power has become synonymous with it, if only because there's so much else to explore here. But I can't complain. It might be decades before another rap album hits this height. That we got it before Kanye jumped the shark is something to be thankful for.

Ambling Alp (song)

I hemmed and hawed about this entry. Not because it isn't worthy, but because the album it comes from is easily one of my all time favourites, and the band (Yeasayer) is on my shortlist too. But I had to give a specific shout out to single Ambling Alp, a tremendously uplifting and empowering track that manages to encourage us to hold our heads high, stand up for ourselves, and wear our scars with pride, without sounding contrived, corny, or radio-centric. It is enormously enjoyable, catchy, and exciting to listen to. And the kicker? Yeasayer asks in return one simple thing.

That we give fascists hell (warning: copious nudity in the video, but the Jodorowsky inspired visuals are worth the price of admission alone).

Your Hand In Mine (song)

My college experience consisted of a lot of things, but one thing in particular that stands out to me was my stubborn refusal to listen to a whole lot else as I walked to class besides Explosions in the Sky's most perfect song. There aren't really words to describe this and the emotional rollercoaster it is. That it managed to breach mainstream consciousness with its inclusion on the soundtrack to Friday Night Lights is a testament to its quality; post-rock isn't exactly the most accessible. It's breathtakingly sad and yet it ends with a rising note that suggests a glimmer of hope - that suggests that truly, The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place.

Amelie (film)

I wouldn't necessarily describe Amelie as my favourite movie, but I would describe it as one of my most influential. If quirkiness and romance and innate Frenchness were made into a film, this is unequivocally what would come out. I've tried my hand at writing a story or two that feels this romantic and uplifting and life-affirming. I've come up short every time. Still, I am eminently thankful for this film, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's best in a loaded collection, from the neat visual cues and quick cuts to the heartwarming humour; Amelie, in contrast to a lot of things I've placed on this list, screams at us to experience life as much as we can, because some times, everything does end happily.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (video game)

I had to make room for my favourite video game of all time, I suppose. I don't really know how to sum up this game. It has the most exquisitely designed open world and lorebuilding of just about any creation of any medium. It is surprisingly funny and heartfelt. I still remember playing it for the first time, stumbling out of the sewers, and seeing the sun blast me with light, the wind-swept grass splayed out before me, the foliage of towering trees straining against the breeze, and realizing that this entire world, this entire visual splendor, was now mine to explore as I saw fit. No other medium can quite create that feeling, because no other medium can give us that can control. There might never be an open world RPG, even by Bethesda themselves, that is as perfect as this was when it was released. And that it still holds up so well over a decade later is a testament to its attention to detail and sprawling beauty.

Burial on the Presidio Banks (song)

This Will Destroy You. No really. It will. That it also happens to be the name of the band is fitting. This song slowly builds with nothing but a single guitar and string on sadness and regretfulness, and then, over the course of nearly 8 minutes, crescendoes with soaring guitar rifts, a simple but effective drum refrain, and fantastic violin, asking us to not merely dwell on the lows, but also to reflect on the highs. It is life made music, or music made life.

5 Centimeters Per Second (animated film)

Makoto Shinkai is one of two people I had to include on this list twice (he also directed The Place Promised in our Early Days). This is his story about heartache stripped to its most bare; lacking any sci-fi elements and clocking in at a mere hour. The visuals are even more saturated and splendid, the soundtrack is crushing and beautiful, and the movie overwhelms the viewer in perfect encapsulations of the way time and distance do things to us. From our jobs, to our education, to simply getting older, as each year goes by, we're left reminiscing over more and more faded and lost connections, curious daydreams of what our long-lost school friends or lovers are now doing, sprayed out across the country and the world, and yet still all looking for the same things in life. And there is nothing, and I mean nothing, that can prepare you emotionally for the end of this film.

New Alhambra (album)

While order wasn't considered much in the making of this list, I did save the best for last. New Alhambra came out on May 12, 2015, and since then, no book, movie, game, or album has come even close to the hundreds upon hundreds of hours I have spent with this. It is an utterly perfect creation, an expression of sadness, failure, and self-doubt that transcends a specific individual's experience of such things. It is not exactly a pick-me-up listen, featuring lines like:

I've always been a fake
Waiting on a big break
That never comes


I just let the silence drift over my mind
Would you ease up on me?
I have failed at everything that I've ever tried
Would you ease up on me?

With dreamy synths, distorted narration, Delaney's angelic backup vocals, and short but sweet tunes painting a picture of depression and loneliness, it's easy to think this album is without positive redemption. But through it all, the ending track - my favourite song of all time and a simple acoustic guitar and solo track - lead singer Matthew Lee Cothran says that even after everything we've been through, all these heartaches, all this failure, all this monotony, love tells us there is, at the end of the tunnel, more to life.

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