Some notes and thoughts from a Typical Saturday:
I spent the day making lesson plans and supplemental materials and wish lists of all the books I want to read but will take months to get to*, talking with good friends about the fixation that students (people?) have on Sadness these days, and shuffling between the new albums from Aimee Mann, Kendrick, and Future Islands (not to mention that old standby, Pinegrove’s Elsewhere).
I’ve seen a lot of shows lately, what with Big Ears three weeks ago and Radiohead two and various small, local ones throughout the past couple of months, so it’s no surprise that I’ve been a bit more reflective re: music, community, and, given the time of the year, spirituality.
I recently saw Terrence Malick’s newest film, Song to Song, and it too has been on my mind: Malick essentially places the Adam and Eve narrative – Paradise Created then Lost then Regained – within the setting of the Austin music scene, complete with Patti Smith as the film’s patron saint. Like all of Malick’s films, but most particularly his last four, Christianity – i.e. religion, i.e. spirituality – is at the heart of Song to Song or, rather, is the heart of Song to Song, and its portrayal of longing and joy struck me as primal (thinking here of Fassbender’s demented simian-esque performance) and Biblical (thinking here of the joy exuded by Mara and Gosling that is very much in keeping with the spirit, if not the content, of Song of Songs).**
Longing and joy. Perhaps that would be a better title for this.
As various music sites noted, Song to Song isn’t really a film about music but one that uses the Austin music scene as mere setting. (What these sites or writers expected is unclear to me; I’m not sure anyone who truly knows Malick went in expecting a film about music, although the fact that Malick’s films still ruffle people’s feathers makes me happy in a deep way.) Like almost all of his movies, Song to Song certainly feels musical though, something like the cinematic equivalent of the “Sirens” episode from Joyce’s Ulysses. And while it certainly leaves a lot to be desired re: the Austin music scene, it certainly feels keyed in, at times, to the joy that comes from music and how life’s ebbs and flows can feel musical in their own way.
And so all of this – the connection between the spiritual and the musical, the longing and joy of existence, the abiding comfort that comes from routine and conversation with good friends and meeting new people at shows and simply driving around listening to new music from your favorite artists – has been on my mind this past week, circling around inside without cohering into any sort of epiphany, like a character from Joyce or Saunders or O’Connor (not that anyone would really want to be like that last one). Indeed, I wouldn’t expect whatever this piece is to cohere into anything of the sort.
That said, I suppose what struck me today, and why I even started writing this in the first place is that connection between the spiritual and the musical. I’ve long been drawn to the typical “Jaded Christian 20-something” genre. (Bazan is a minor deity in my personal pantheon.) Those artists, and you know the ones, have long expressed the paradox of unwavering doubt and steadfast faith that I myself have felt for so long. I have also been drawn to remarkably sad music, something I’ve puzzled over, particularly in these last few years. I am, as many friends and students would attest, a relentlessly optimistic person, but I still hold – and indulge – a core of melancholy that seems to have been with me for a great portion of my life. (Once I figured out what an existentialist was***, I think I finally had a name for that feeling.) Why I find, at times, such great comfort in sadness, I’m not sure, except I know that I find it very beautiful in its own way, although I’ve become aware over time that such beauty can also be deceptive. (Sirens seem to keep popping up here, don’t they?)
Truth is, I haven’t been to church lately, despite feeling something real and worthwhile for the first time in a while after attending a local Episcopalian church. The reasons are typical, cliché even. One gets tired of the trying, particularly when one’s other options feel as satisfying – or more so – in the same regards. And they do. I have increasingly felt closer to God and in closer touch with my own awareness of the human condition when I am reading Toni Morrison or listening to Pinegrove, as silly as this may sound. Yet such artists express that longing and joy and, yes, grace that I feel deeply, day-to-day, in the trenches of the classroom or in my conversations with others or in simple reflection. I know that when I am faced with the prospect of entering that Southern Baptist Megachurch tomorrow morning, I will not feel these same things, despite how much I want to be swept away by the cheerfulness I will see crossing everyone else’s face. It all feels so surface-level, and if there is one thing that I have learned from my own passions, it is that I do not want merely the surface with anything or anyone. This is an incredibly hard thing to do. I am consistently trying to stay mindful. Mindful feels like the exact right word to use, indicative of both the problem and the solution . . .
I feel, to close this, like the people that populate Song to Song: searching but filled with grace, sometimes, and able to find Truth in moments of solitary stillness and the raucous community of concerts and conversation. I suppose I, like everyone else, am searching for more of that. I hope to find it.
* For the curious: Helen Dewitt’s The Last Samurai, Katie Kitamura’s A Separation, a rereading of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (an all-time favorite), and James Baldwin’s Collected Essays (a constant on these lists).
**For further thoughts on Malick’s most recent films and their importance as a truly idiosyncratic and, in my opinion, treasured exploration of Christianity, read this.
***My first introduction to existentialism was, and I kid you not, Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, senior year of high school. There’s a story there.