Joy to You and Me

My mom could never get the name right of her favorite song. Its real title was “Joy to the World”, but she just called it “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog”. I would try to correct her and she would ignore me. She had many instances like this where, when confronted with the truth from me, she would balk as if I was the crazy person.

“The boys like those ray-man noodles,” she would say.

“It’s ramen, Mom.”

“Maybe that’s the way they say it out West.”

“No, Mom, this is not tomato and tomahto. This is like me pronouncing it house and you pronouncing it hise. One of us is right and the other one sounds like a well-meaning moron.”

“Stop being so ridiculous.”

Mom and I had outlooks on life that differed far beyond saying it tomato or tomahto. I was her artsy, sensitive daughter. She was my stoic, practical mother. I lived in the creative and symbolic. She acknowledged nothing but the most literal version of everyone.

Which brings me to the time we spent upwards of four hours planning the music for her funeral visitation.

You might not even realize this is a thing, but it is. Beyond just the funeral, there is usually one or two sessions where family and friends can come to the funeral home and pay respects to the dearly departed.

The whole pomp and circumstance generally runs 2-3 hours. During that period, which includes a lot of quiet time, music will play in the background. When my grandpa died a couple of years ago, the songs were strange elevator muzak versions of pop hits. I was so jarred hearing the Kenny G-esque version of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” I couldn’t even be all that sad he was gone. I was too busy being downright perplexed why my farmer, good ole boy grandpa would have a song about cartoon lions falling in love playing at his wake.

So when we went to the funeral home to plan Mom’s services before she died, I was quick to ask if we could bring our own playlist. Dolores had meticulously pre-planned every aspect of her funeral, but this hadn’t crossed her mind. Rather than be relieved there was one less thing about her own impending death she had to consider, my mom immediately grew concerned.

“Well I think you will need to run them by me first.”

“I know what kind of music you like. It’ll be Elvis and The Carpenters, it isn’t like I am going to pick Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.”

This was not sufficient for Dolores, who never met something she didn’t want to completely control every aspect of, so we came up with a musical selection process more intense than vetting potential freshmen at Ivy League colleges.

Mom’s hearing was not what it used to be thanks to the chemo, so the first step of the process was for me to read aloud the lyrics of a prospective song from beginning to end. When I say all the lyrics, I mean ALL of them.

For example, I had to say all 22 “ooh-oos” in “Ooh Child”. If I tried to say something like “get easier, get brighter, etc etc,” Mom would stop me.

“Ahem. What does it fully say?”

I don’t know if my mother thought I was trying to slip f-bombs in without her noticing, but even if I skipped them in the reading, they came to light during step two, which involved silently listening to the song in its entirety.

When the song was over, she would take anywhere from ten seconds to a couple of days to decide whether or not it was acceptable. The longest battle came when she specifically requested a Beach Boys song and I brought her “God Only Knows“.  She tried to veto it as soon as she realized the song started “I may not always love you,” which she deemed “a terrible sentiment,” but she listened to it and heard my argument that tens of thousands of funerals had previously used this song before she acquiesced a couple of days later.

Other songs were not so lucky. Some she would cut off right away, like “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. Mom and Dad both adored John Denver, so one of the first songs I set aside for the playlist was this pretty ditty about the beauty of going home to the country.

We started out successfully enough with “Almost heaven,” but as as soon as I got to “West Virginia”, she abruptly scoffed.

“West Virginia! Jessica, I am not from West Virginia! That does not make any sense. What’s next?”

I tried to rationalize with Dolores that her brothers, sisters, mother, nieces, and nephews would probably not mistakenly believe she is from a state she is not from, but she insisted it was just preposterous to try and make this song fit in at her visitation, so it was axed.

She suggested another Denver tune, “Sunshine on My Shoulders”, but I had to advise my mom a song with the sentiment, “If I had a day that I could give you, I’d give to you a day just like today,” was probably not going to be very comforting to her grieving relatives. Mom relented.

My persuasive skills helped convince her the ideal The Carpenters song for the occasion was “We’ve Only Just Begun“.

“I don’t know, Jessica,” she said uncertain after the song finished playing. She loved Karen Carpenter and the mood of the song was appropriate enough, but she had one concern.

“It sounds like it is about newlyweds just getting started.”

Mom believed in heaven. We all did, which helped Dad’s death in 1992 be a little easier. Knowing that and knowing how much what I was about to say was helping me be okay with things, I offered this insight:

“Won’t you just be beginning your eternal life together up their with Daddy though? You’ve waited a long time for it.”

She gave a little nod and what I swore might had been a small grin and it was on the list.

For some artists, like Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton, it fell to me to scour their catalogs even though they were her favorite artists. Parton just did not have many songs about death and Mom did not like the standard Elvis fare.

She decided of all Elvis songs to select “The Wonder of You“, a weirdly bombastic song of love about how great the woman Elvis sings about is. I think she wanted us to be reminded how great we found her while still remaining happy. Many songs made the list both because they were palliative and because they were chipper. In our initial pass, none pleased her more than Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera” for she hated the sentiment that things happened for a reason and because you could tap your foot to it. I lobbied for a more somber cover of the song, but she insisted we needed the peppier version.

Dolly Parton was a much more difficult task. I thought I had nailed it with “Coat of Many Colors”, a song about love, family, and the power of sewing. My mom grew up as a relatively poor farmer’s daughter and grew up to be a seamstress acclaimed by everyone who saw her work, so the song seemed a fitting reminder about how family is worth more than money.

Not according to Mom.

“Jessica, this song makes it sound like we were dirt poor. We weren’t dirt poor, this is embarrassing. Lord no.”

At this point, I became selfish. These songs were for me. I wanted to pick them so when I had to stand over her casket and say goodbye I could listen to something that reminded me of the feelings Mom brought to my life. As someone whose mood could be ruined or rescued by a song, I wanted to ensure there was a stream of lifelines playing throughout the night. Mom was more concerned with whether or not these were exact depictions of what her life looked like. I snapped.

“Christ on a cracker, Mom, what is it you think is going to happen at this visitation? You think strangers are just gonna wander in off the street in droves, sit silently in the back nibbling off the free cold sandwich plate you selected assessing who you were as a person based entirely on what music is playing? ‘Oh this is that ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ song that says ‘I don’t hear a word they’re saying’, she must’ve been deaf!”

She paused, then said, “I think we are done for the night.”

I skulked off and cried. Here was something I thought I could give her that she couldn’t give herself. Not being artistic, she lacked the creativity to think of songs that embodied her life and who she was and this was where I was supposed to step in and save the day. Instead we only had eight or nine songs and I would not be able to listen to them that day without thinking about how I had yet another argument with my mom because she is incapable of not taking everything at literal, face value and I couldn’t accept she was never, even in death, going to appreciate a song’s symbolism. Jeremiah was a frog and nothing else.

A few days later, I was running some errands in Mom’s car. The radio was programmed to the oldies station. I found myself bopping my head with the music, not really thinking about what I was listening to when I realized what the words were saying.

“By George, I think we’ve done it,” I yelled to myself, then immediately drove home.

My mom was visiting with my aunt and I interrupted their chat because it was that urgent.

“Mom. I have it. I have a song we are both gonna love. It makes me think of you and it is the most literal song about dying to ever exist.”

I cued up the song, which I am sure you’ve heard countless times before. The opening riffs of it have been used in no less than a dozen movies, usually over a montage of athletes preparing for a big game or soldiers headed into war. Sometimes it is the music of choice for movies about people heading out to ride their Harleys on the open road. I wanted it for my mother’s funeral.

You’ve likely not listened to the words much. They’re pretty simple. It is about a guy who was a good Christian and tight with Jesus during his time on Earth, so now he is off to “the place that’s the best.”

Mom’s face lit up and she smiled as she bobbed her head along.

“It’s perfect,” she told me.

My aunt stared at us, unsure of what was happening and I explained what we were looking for in songs. Expecting we would just pick Christian hymns, she was shocked enough we were using pop songs, let alone this rock gem of the 1970s.

“Well Dolores,” she said. “You sure do have a strange sense of humor.”

It wasn’t about being funny though. Mom wanted songs with concrete purposes. Songs to make us feel better, songs to make us happy about her, and songs like this to remind us that this may have seemed like a sad occasion, but it was ultimately a good thing. She couldn’t leave it up to interpretation, she had to be sure that it very, literally, and completely assured us things were going to be okay.

They weren’t okay. But everyone did comment on how fitting and appropriate the songs were. How much they reminded them of her. In that sense, I got what I wanted too, which was the reassurance I knew how to capture the not so obvious spirit of mom departing for the very tangible sky in her song.

I let out a deep exhale after the last song on the playlist started. Tears started to well knowing this thing, one of the last things about my mom I could look forward to, was almost over. They subsided as the song got to the chorus though.

The experience of making the playlist with my mom was a reminder of how stuck in her ways and stubborn she could be, but this last song reminded me of the side of my mom even her sister was shocked existed. A side only we knew about. One that could by hysterically predictable, but when it did surprise you, it was always best kind of surprise. So when she asked if she needed to include this last song, I was taken aback, but so overjoyed to oblige.

I smiled, then quietly sung along for a second, thinking about my bullfrog and how much I’d miss her.

“I never understood a single word he said, but I helped him drink his wine. And he always had some mighty fine wine.”


Oscar Outlook: Let’s Talk Best Picture Nominees Part 1

Long time, no blog, I know.

But y’all are in luck, as I am currently stranded in the Detroit airport and I have some thoughts on this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees I need to get off my chest.

First, I must admit I have not been very up on movies this year. It has been a time of transition for me and movies were generally relegated to the back burner. Not being all that excited about many movies did not help the cause.

Some, like La La Land, I rushed to see as soon as I could. Others, like Hell Or High Water, I learned of through distant word of mouth and was late to the party, but at least bothered to show up.

We are currently a little over two weeks away from Oscar night and I have managed to see five of the nine Best Picture nominees. Rather than devote a post to each, I thought I would rank them in order of preference and give some thoughts about each of them in a single post. Some (like my number one) probably won’t surprise you, but some caught me by surprise in a diverse year for filmmaking where a wide range of genres, people, and stories are represented.

  1. Hidden Figures

When I was a kid, there were what felt like several PG-rated movies I saw with my family that weren’t animated kids fare or something featuring a CGI chipmunk.

Dead Poets Society, E.T., Terms of Endearment, White Fang, My Girl, and Apollo 13 are all movies I remember both myself and my parents enjoying together. Nowadays when I take my youngest nephew to the movies, it is without exception to see cartoons. The steady stream of quality Disney live-action movies featuring spunky historical heroes with spunkier pets has run dry.

Hidden Figures gives me hope. Yes, like others, I am moved by its message about equality and pushing mankind to new limits both here on Earth and in space. But there are so many wonderful articles about that aspect of this movie.

What I want to talk about is how I hope the financial success of Hidden Figures and its triumph at the Oscars pushes movie studios to consider a couple of things:

  1. With the success of Hidden Figures and warm Oscar reception to Bridge of Spies last year, there is room in the film economy for old-fashioned movies. Just because they are old-fashioned doesn’t mean they can’t be good. Classical storytelling in the Hollywood mode can be exceptional, as it is here.
  2. A “serious” movie does not need to be rated R in order to be serious. I do not need a strong female character to be raped, beaten, transgender, in the mob, a prostitute, or a foul-mouthed sailor. There is nothing wrong with these things, but you have to think about how great the performances of Taraji P Henson, Janelle Monae, and the greatest scene stealer of them all, Octavia Spencer, must be if they can create such nuance and drama out of roles that doesn’t have these Oscar bait elements to it.
  3. Can we all just acknowledge we need an Oscar-caliber space movie every five years? I am not much of a space nerd, but there is not a historical NASA story I don’t thoroughly enjoy because, hell, it is the American way.

2. La La Land

I bet you thought this would be my number one, huh? Yeah, me too.

There are a ton of things to like about this movie. Emma Stone is going to deservedly win an Oscar for her exuberant portrayal of a type of person I encountered so frequently in my time in LA. I was kind of one of those people myself. A dreamer who ignored practicality to embrace a notion of a city I fell in love with through pop culture even though the real version of it bears no resemblance to my romantic idealization.

The pitch-perfect ode to musicals of the 1950s was exactly the kind of fodder old movie fiends like myself gobble up too. The “ballet” sequence at the end of the film where Mia and Sebastian envision an alternative reality of their love was cinematic perfection and might be even better than some of the more famous Gene Kelly ballets of yore.

But in between these spurts of life, the film does drag in spots as the two lovers repeat the same beats and same fights. The fact some of the songbook is not particularly strong (I am looking at you, City of Stars) does not help.

There are other movie musicals with this problem, but after repeated listening to the soundtrack, I find myself able to get over them. In this case, it hasn’t helped, in part because the sound mixing (which was inexplicably nominated for an Oscar) is really sub-par. The opening number “Another Day of Sun” is supposed to be a bombastic show-stopper, but the vocals can barely be heard over the escalating orchestra. It is a problem in several songs where director Damien Chazelle made the decision not to enhance the vocals (which I think is a nice touch) but the sound mixer does not compensate for the lack of a belting vocal by toning down the instrumentals so we can hear the emotion in their voices.

It is a nitpick, yes, but in a movie that is all about homage and art direction, I think the specific criticism is merited. This is a movie designed to appeal to insiders and more than one insider I follow has made the same comment.

2A. Moonlight

I truly can’t tell you the last time I have thought so much about a movie after I’ve seen it as I have since seeing Moonlight. It is wholly and completely different from La La Land, but I can’t really put one ahead of the other because each one approaches its story so differently.

While La La Land embraces classic Hollywood storytelling and genre to make points applicable to modern times, Moonlight rebuffs the cinematic language, opting instead to turn the rules on its head in order to create a fascinating character study.

Told in three chapters, the movie is not so much a linear narrative as variations on a theme. The theme being how we form our identity. In the case of Chiron, the young boy at the center of this movie, in his youth he looks to others to tell him how to be normal. In his teens, he tries to mimick those around him to fake being normal. In his adulthood, he completely rejects who we have come to know as Chiron and chooses an entirely new identity for himself. One that may not be genuine or natural, but one that can protect him after decades of hurt.

I am normally not compelled by character studies. I need plot. I need forward motion and character progression. But this movie very deftly propels Chiron through a gamut of emotions without beating us over the head with how hard it is for him. Because this movie handles the storytelling so subtly, you may think nothing is happening, but then you realize one glance is intended to be read into and there won’t be a musical cue or voice over to let you know that glance is important.

Because Moonlight challenged me so much as a viewer and rewarded with a story about how we determine who we are that feels completely foreign yet weirdly familiar, I can’t stop thinking about it. I don’t know anything about the experience of being raised by an addict in a bad neighborhood questioning my sexuality, so perhaps the visceral experience of being given a window into that world is what appeals to me?

But I think that answer does not give enough credit to director Barry Jenkins, whose choices in matters like casting (I could write a dissertation on why adult Chiron looks nothing like the young Chirons but exactly like the character player by Mahershela Ali) and cinematography (my one big criticism, too much handheld for my taste) are edgy and risky, but almost all pay off. It all doesn’t give enough credit to Monae, Ali, Naomie Harris, and the trio of actors playing Chiron. Sure, it is a look into a new world, but they all bring the world to life in a way I have not encountered in a movie in a long, long time.

4. Hell or High Water

Don’t worry, I don’t have a novel to write on each of these and this pone is one of the shorter blurbs I have got.

This is not some innovation. It doesn’t redefine cinema.

What it is is an extremely well-executed contemporary Western which uses a lot of the themes that continue to draw my rural working class family to the ouevre of John Wayne and gives them a modern bent.

I’ve talked at length about performances, but I would be remiss to not single out Jeff Bridges. I watched this movie with my sister and at least five times I turned to her and said, “it is like Jeff Bridges grew up with Mom and her siblings.”

Sam Elliot is the only other actor I can think of (h/t Amanda Powers) who comes even close to embodying what it is to be a country person to the core like Jeff Bridges does. The mannerisms, the delivery, the aura are all so quintessentially country that this Western pushes all my John Wayne-loving buttons.

5. Manchester By the Sea

So far, I have only hated one Best Picture nominee. I really did not expect to hate this movie either.

When I heard Manchester By the Sea is a study in grief by the celebrated director Kenneth Lonergan, I was in. When the raves about Casey Affleck deservedly poured in, I got even more excited. I was ready to go and cry my eyes out and have a transformative movie experience to help me cope with my own grief.

Then I saw the movie. My friends were right, it was very sad. Excessively sad, even. But I sat there unmoved and pretty bored.

I think this is an instance where the fault is less with the movie than with me though.

When Requiem for a Dream was released back in the day, the talk about the film centered around how nothing more accurately captured the feelings of being a drug addict. There wasn’t much story or character development, just a shocking look at what life dependent on drugs looks like. People praised it for helping them to better understand and sympathize with addicts. I did not think it was exceptional, but I saw what the hubbub was about.

Think of Manchester By the Sea as the Requiem for a Dream of extreme grief. We are not talking “oh, I am sad a month or two” grief, we are talking the life-changing, I can’t ever be truly happy again kind of grief. The kind of grief you are never going to “get over”, you just learn to live with.

I am not saying my grief is that crippling, but as someone who has lost both of their parents arguably before their time, I know what awful, incurable, lifelong grief looks like and feels like. So, as Affleck delivers a truly incredible performance in which he plays a guy who can’t shake his grief, I just sat there and nodded. “Yeah, it is awful Casey, I know.”

But with no message about grief, no parting thoughts beyond how it is more awful than some people realize, this movie did not give me anything to mull over.

You can argue I like Moonlight because of its Requiem for a Dream depiction of poverty and homosexuality, two things I don’t have much personal experience with. But that movie still has me thinking after I left the theater. This movie had me thinking in the theater…about when this movie would finally be over.