Thursday, August 12, 2021

Back to the Movies

A funny thing happened when COVID encouraged us to be at home through most of 2020. I didn’t watch many movies at home and saw none in a theater after last year’s True/False Film Festival. The latter is probably no great surprise--did going to the movies seem like a desirable or smart thing to do?--but the former would be deemed unusual based on my previous viewing patterns. And then a funny thing happened after I got the second dose of the vaccination in April 2021. I was in no rush to go back to the movies. 

Before the pandemic uprooted some of my habits and routines, I could be counted on to go to the movies a lot. Seeing three or four films per week in theaters was fairly common, especially with an AMC A-List membership that tempted me to get the most bang for my buck. My attendance suffered mildly when I started a new job in late 2019, primarily because I had less time and energy, but even if I were “only” seeing one or two a week, such a pace would surely put me among the top percentiles of moviegoers. At the start of a largely homebound life last year I just wasn’t in the mood to watch movies and may not have had a suitable attention span for much of that time.

So why wasn’t I eager to go back to movie theaters once it was seemingly “safe” for me to do so? Fundamentally I still felt (and continue to feel) that I’d prefer to be cautious. I wanted to see Christian Petzold’s Undine, but I checked the seating chart for the one small auditorium where it was playing in town and decided that I wasn’t enthused to see it in such close quarters, especially when I could rent an HD stream for less than the price of a ticket. I don’t think my hesitancy can be chalked up purely to guarding my health, though. I just didn’t feel like I had to go.

I pushed myself to return and saw In the Heights in mid-June, nearly two months after I was vaccinated. Still, I purchased my ticket with a plan, choosing to see it in what I thought was (and previously had been) a Dolby Cinema theater--meaning it was about as big of a room as exists in Columbus--and at an off-peak time with as few people as possible present. Success! Only one other person shared the theater with me. I wore a mask throughout and expected to have the experience remind me of why I have been such a dedicated theatrical viewer. But that didn’t happen. Maybe it was the film, which I thought was fine but didn’t wow me, or maybe it was the uneasiness of being out in public like this for an extended time, even though I nearly had the screening to myself. 

The next two weeks I ventured out to see The Sparks Brothers and A Quiet Place Part II. Edgar Wright’s rock doc unspooled, or whatever the equivalent term is for a digitally projected file, before me alone. To my chagrin there were maybe seven or so people at A Quiet Place Part II but I could deal with that. Neither the films nor the experiences renewed my previously voracious appetite for going to the movies.

AMC paused all A-List memberships when the pandemic hit, but as talk of things returning to normal picked up (even if they really haven’t), they resumed billing in July. If I am going to pay for it, I am going to use it, although making three per the weekly maximum allowed might be pushing it. Nevertheless, I took in ten features for the month, which surprises me in retrospect. Raya and the Last Dragon and Escape Room: Tournament of Champions were effectively private screenings. Zola nearly was, as only one other person bought a ticket when I saw it. Summer of Soul (...Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), Black Widow, and Space Jam: A New Legacy were pretty sparsely attended and also played in a massive auditorium. F9: The Fast Saga, Pig, and The Forever Purge were in smaller rooms but not packed at all. The most I pressed my luck was an opening weekend Saturday night screening of Old, but the crowd was at most half the size of what it would have been the previous evening. I suppose my curiosity, coupled with not wanting everything to be revealed on Twitter before I got to it, got the best of me that night.

So far in August I’ve viewed The Green Knight, Jungle Cruise, Annette, The Suicide Squad, Nine Days, and Cruella. While the quantity of films I’m seeing might seem like I’m more or less back to normal, I can’t say that it feels like I am. The films I’ve liked I can judge as being fine, and those I’ve not liked have ranged from so-so to somewhat irritating. Whether good or not, they haven’t been particularly sustaining, just pleasant (or not) diversions. It’s been nice to get out of my apartment and do something, but that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. 

The closest anything has come to eliciting that blown-away reaction is Leos Carax’s weird, art-damaged musical Annette. Unlike most of the other films I’ve seen in theaters in the last two months, a strong artistic vision is stamped all over it. Even though it can be pretty aggressive in trying to alienate the audience, at least in some stretches, Annette feels vital in a way that a lot of the studio products don’t, even the good films. (Now seems like the time to chime in to say I’m not a fan of Zola, which annoyed me and may be a type of provocation where I tend to break from critical consensus. The Green Knight has a lot going for it, but I’d feel more enthusiastic about it if I had read a primer or the epic poem it’s based on before seeing it. I know Pig has its strong supporters, and while I liked it, I wasn’t dazzled.) 

So again, is it the movies, or is it me? I suspect it’s both. Many of the franchise films (or films in the franchise mold) feel made-by-committee, just this year’s model, sometimes with quirkiness added to give the patina of individual spirit in the work or the auteur smuggling in something more personal to the corporate widget. I had a good enough time with the family adventure film Jungle Cruise, but the climax has zero emotional credibility. How fitting that it is based on a ride because it was satisfying enough for the time being and hasn’t occupied my mind since it concluded. I  thought The Suicide Squad was put together reasonably well, but while I wasn’t bored with it, I never engaged with it either. In comparison, Old, which I would not describe as great or rank among M. Night Shyamalan’s best, takes some big swings. Although the end result doesn’t fulfill all of Shyamalan’s ambitions, I prefer seeing something that feels like it is its own thing, not just another waystation from one film to the next.

I expect I’ve changed too. How could I not with everything in the last year and half? I’ve developed new interests and revisited older ones for which time wasn’t available with all those trips to the movie theater. I probably was seeing more than was advisable, so if I’m no longer omnivorous (or as close as is realistically possible) when it comes to new releases, that’s not a bad thing. Fifteen months without going to the movies demonstrated that something I previously did multiple times a week wasn’t as missed as I might have once thought. (To reiterate, though, I saw ten films in theaters in July. This hardly qualifies as abstention.) And to be fair, these are still strange times to be in. I haven’t worked in an office since March 2020 and, per current expectations, won’t return to one until October. That’s probably going to be feel different as well. 

This is all really just some throat-clearing--or what people think of as blogging in general, right?--than the wind-up to some big announcement at the end. I have found rewarding viewing this year, like the online Elia Suleiman retrospective and working my way through all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films via Blu-ray, and I’m sure there is more to be done with a mental list of films I want to watch. I look forward to being able to return to film festivals. I hope more films I see in the theater will impress me to a greater degree than what I have been seeing. The Filmbound podcast is not kaput. I’ve just been stuck in not having the motivation to edit the recorded episodes in the can, which will then allow for making new ones. But for now things are how they are, and the perspective gained in getting here isn’t such a bad thing to acquire.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Palestine Lived in and Observed: The Films of Elia Suleiman

Director Elia Suleiman at the Toronto International Film Festival
 screening of It Must Be Heaven - 9/14/19 - Photo by Mark Pfeiffer

A year ago if one would have asked me what I know about Palestine, I probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with much. As I suspect is true for most Americans, I have been aware of the longtime tensions in the Middle East, but the best I could have likely mustered for an answer would have amounted to stumbling through some general statements defining Palestine in terms of the conflict with Israel. Frankly, I don’t know that I’d fare much better now if put on the spot, although I have been reading up on things more, particularly after the events of the last couple weeks. I’m certainly not anyone who could be characterized as possessing any deep understanding of the issues but I’m learning.

Why? I could say it’s to be a better citizen of the world, but it comes down to wanting to be a better friend. At work I made a terrific friend, and as we’ve come to know one another better,  I’ve enjoyed what she’s shared with me about her Palestinian heritage and culture. Assuming COVID-related obstacles or other unknown issues didn’t interfere, my hopes and intentions have been to attend her wedding in the West Bank this summer. I’ve never traveled outside of North America, so in anticipation of making such a trip, I’ve been acquainting myself with practical matters for visiting this region. Then the incidents at the Al-Aqsa mosque and Sheikh Jarrah happened, followed by Hamas firing rockets at Jerusalem and Israel bombing Gaza for days. My concerns surged for my friend, her family, and her cousin, who I’ve also befriended and who flew to Palestine this week. I’m ashamed it took having personal connections, that worrying about people I care for and how they are affected, is what pushed me to become better educated. And where do I even begin? 

Talking with my friends and keeping a closer eye on the news are certainly important, but art can also be a valuable lens for broadening understanding. My familiarity with Palestinian films, or ones that foreground the Palestinian perspective,is pretty limited, though. I saw Paradise Now, which I liked, and Miral, which I didn’t, but remember little about either since watching them during their theatrical runs. At last year’s True/False Film Festival I was quite impressed with Mayor, a documentary about the mayor of Ramallah. The Viewing Booth, another film I saw at the 2020 True/False, has lingered with me the last year-plus as it questions the limits of active, critical viewing and the power of images to persuade. In it a perceived ideal viewer, someone whose beliefs would seem open to change, is shown Israeli occupation YouTube videos, and yet director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz seems to land at the discouraging conclusion that media literacy isn’t a cure-all in the Information Age. It may prove to be an essential document of this particular point in time.

If I associate anyone with Palestinian cinema, it is the Nazareth-born filmmaker Elia Suleiman. I saw Divine Intervention in Columbus and, unless my memory is faulty, recall protesters at 15th and High Street outside the Wexner Center when it screened. I saw his most recent feature, It Must Be Heaven, at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival with him in attendance. I liked both of those films, so when a retrospective of his four features, plus a virtual Q&A, were made available for pay-what-you-want streaming on demand from May 21-May 30 by the Arab American National Museum, Arab Film and Media Institute, and ArteEast, in partnership with Doha Film Institute, I felt compelled to dive in.  (Viewers in the United States, Canada, and Palestine can watch through May 30.)

In considering these works, I want to make it clear upfront that I don’t know what I don’t know. These films surely contain nuances that slip by me. I can say for certain that there are parts in the films I had seen previously that I missed and that, in being marginally better informed, I understand better now. 

Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996)

Suleiman begins and ends his first feature with a shot of his father sleeping while sitting up. To me the film is one rooted in resignation, and those images reinforce the notion that rest is not something engaged in to energize and restore but rather something submitted to, the weary capitulation to the state of being. 

Suleiman’s style uses a series of vignettes, rather than a traditional narrative, to create the sense of the people and place that mean so much to him. The technique is perhaps most poignant in this of all his features because it can seem more documentary-like, at least in the opening personal diary section. Suleiman plays “himself,” the non-speaking ES, and he uses family members and other non-actors to portray the daily life that feels like it is vanishing for Arabs amid Israel’s dominance in the land. While Chronicle of a Disappearance bears no similarity in form to Martin Scorsese’s Italianamerican--Robert Bresson’s inspiration seems more apt in creative choices--both capture tales and images that are fading or will eventually disappear. Suleiman’s film is more mournful, even as it is laced with caustic humor, and it leaves one feeling the weight of decades of a people’s erasure.

Having watched Suleiman’s four feature films in less than twenty-four hours, I think there are benefits to viewing them in chronological order. This is not a Boyhood-like experiment, but each film builds on the last. In using real people from one film to the next and telling their stories, most notably those dealing with his parents, he taps into an emotional power from observing the effects on people aging and dying while the struggle suspends them in stasis. Chronicle of a Disappearance is the one that feels like it has the most I’m unable to pick up on, but revisiting this after completing the retrospective could also help to unlock it more.

Divine Intervention (Yadon ilaheyya) (2002)

Where Chronicle of a Disappearance felt suffused with sadness of what has been lost and is in the process of going away, Divine Intervention, subtitled A Chronicle of Love and Pain, is marked by defiance. The recurring characters of Suleiman’s ES and a woman played by Manal Khader are lovers divided and kept apart by the districts where they live in the West Bank. The only way for them to meet is for each to park at the Al-Ram checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Their one opportunity to go away together comes when ES inflates a red balloon adorned with the face of Yasser Arafat and sets it on a path toward the guard tower, which initiates panicked calls from soldiers about how to engage and allows them to slip by without notice.

That balloon floats all the way to the Dome of the Rock before coming to rest. Divine Intervention employs other loaded images to provoke. The film begins with children chasing a man dressed as Santa up a hill, and we come to find that he has a knife plunged into his chest. In the most memorable scene, a shooting range uses a cutout featuring a Palestinian woman as a target for Israelis to aim at and hit. Unlike his more grounded previous film, Suleiman indulges in fantasy in a few other spots and here, as the woman on that target manifests as a Palestinian ninja wielding a shield in the shape of the West Bank, using it as a boomerang to fell a helicopter, and rearranging the bullets fired at her into a a halo.

As the images are often charged, the humor is similarly blunt. A man throws his garbage into his neighbor’s yard. The neighbor throws it back, and the man complains about the mess she has made. You don’t need to be a scholar on the region to get the underlying message. That’s comparatively light against some other scenes. A long shot shows men cursing and beating something with a stick as a crowd watches. Eventually another man brings a gun and shoots to kill. It’s horrific based on what we expect is happening, with the nervous laughter and relief coming upon discovering they were smashing a snake. A scene with a tourist asking an Israeli policeman for directions to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre lands its punches with the clueless officer bringing a blindfolded Palestinian prisoner out of the back of the wagon to provide the assistance he cannot. While more overtly political, Suleiman’s dry sense of humor is reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch’s films, and the disenfranchised Palestinians he gives prominence share an affinity with the stuck, existentially frustrated protagonists in the Ohio-born filmmaker’s works. To winning comedic effect he even inserts the song “I Put a Spell On You,” which is strongly associated with Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, and cues it up again in It Must Be Heaven.

Suleiman’s style feels more refined here in linking the pieces, and the expressive boldness of this film provides a bracing counter to how the Palestinian experience is often depicted, if it is at all, in American media. The emotional journey from sadness and resignation in Chronicle of a Disappearance to anger and defiance in Divine Intervention makes sense. Divine Intervention ends with ES and his mother watching a pressure cooker and her saying, “That’s enough. Stop it now.” One wishes the simple, direct sentiment were easy to honor.

The Time That Remains (2009)

Again, if I’m to make a case for watching these chronologically, there is an emotional logic that reflection and grief are next in the flow. The Time That Remains has scenes set the earliest in any of Suleiman’s four features and unfolds the most like a regular story. He looks back to the 1948 creation of the state of Israel and how his family has been affected in the sixty years since. Subtitled Chronicle of a Present Absentee, as he would become an expatriate as a young man, the history is conveyed with a cutting wit and recognition of the common tragedies endured in this occupation. 

If you’re turning to this for a history lesson, you’re looking in the wrong place. This is history as familial and personal experience than as textbook recitations of events. If I were to concoct a straw man argument for a dissenter unmoved by Suleiman’s work, perhaps this one in particular, my imagined opponent might declare these films to be emotionally detached. Suleiman constructs his history of pain and loss as a slow, steady accretion rather than as a series of significant happenings that can be memorialized on a calendar, even if a couple dates do stand out in The Time That Remains. Instead of relying on big swells and dips in emotions, he attunes us to the steady hum of what this kind of existence is like. The emotions are instinctively felt. They’re like breathing rather than like riding waves.

Suleiman as a screen performer invites comparisons to Buster Keaton, in part because he is not demonstrative in reacting. Those less inclined to give him credit as an actor might attribute Suleiman’s success to the Kuleshov effect. I’m not suggesting he’s Keaton’s equal, as he certainly is not at all that kind of physical performer, but by underplaying how his character responds, he invites us to see through his eyes. Except for a few words uttered in It Must Be Heaven, he doesn’t speak on camera, and it doesn’t reduce our ability to comprehend what he’s thinking.

Toward the end Suleiman includes more absurdist touches, like a tank’s main gun following a man at point blank range as he takes out the trash and paces back and forth while talking on the phone. This exaggerated and blistering commentary on military presence and excessive force seems like a hard shift from what has preceded, but it gets to the point that the intervening years have made such actions common to the point where the Palestinian unfortunately knows this to be the status quo and tries to carry on.

It Must Be Heaven (2019)

Suleiman’s most recent feature finds his protagonist ES in Nazareth, Paris, and New York City and makes him a more central character than he has been in the other films. I’ve seen Jacques Tati referenced in regard to Suleiman, which applies superficially to ES as a basically nonverbal character and justifiably as someone navigating the modern world (and as a director placing emphasis on movement through space). If I’m to make an assumption--and I’ll leave it to my friends to set me straight if I’m wrong--a major issue for Palestinians is restriction of movement within--or even into--their homeland. So Tati is a natural fit when it comes to being mindful of where people can go and how the physical environment limits them.

It Must Be Heaven is steeped in amused alienation and even cautious optimism. The unspoken reason for his return to Palestine--but one that can be assumed, particularly from seeing the three prior films--is his mother’s death. While he retains his parents’ home, one senses how the meaning of it has changed as he has lived abroad, and he may have lost some connections by being away. His neighbor has a better idea how to tend to his lemon trees than he does.

Yet Suleiman suggests that if some of his links have diminished, he remains firmly Palestinian in worldview. He can spot the clear differences between what tanks on the streets of Paris mean to those who see them versus tanks rolling around downtown Ramallah. Military jet flyovers and fireworks viewed from a distance in Nazareth at the end of The Time That Remains are not cause for celebration, but in Paris they connote something less fearsome, although perhaps still carrying a stigma for those with other experiences in their homelands. Suleiman wrly assesses the American obsession with guns and what type of protest merits strong police response and grants us the ability to think how those things must look to an outsider.

This plays as the lightest of the four films in the retrospective because hope is alive. The reasons for that aren’t clear, but the man who made Chronicle of a Disappearance, released twenty-three years earlier, strikes me as believing in Palestine’s future, whenever that may be fully realized. Maybe it’s all one can do to keep from collapsing in a depression after the last sixty-plus years of history, or perhaps it’s a reflection of when this was made. Whatever the case, guarded confidence at least reserves room for a potential solution.

It Must Be Heaven has yet to receive commercial distribution in the United States, and based on scenes of him struggling to find funding for the film in the film itself, I wonder if he expected it for the reason he puts in a French producer’s mouth. ES is told his film isn’t Palestinian enough, and while the production company is sympathetic to the plight of the people and doesn’t expect the film to make money, they’re looking for something that fits into a preconceived notion of art emanating from the occupied territories. It Must Be Heaven definitely spends the least of any of his in Palestine, although the literate viewer would be foolish to think the lens changes because the settings vary. 

I also think that scene attacks the notion of how art should represent certain parts of the world, something Suleiman’s films have resisted. It is easy, and perhaps comforting, to wallow in miserabilism or engage in cinematic poverty tourism by seeing depictions of suffering largely unimaginable to those of us viewers wealthy by global standards even if we are not by our own country’s. That despairing imagery can yield strong reactions, but it tends to remain foreign and can ultimately be held at a distance as not anything that touches us. Suleiman isn’t showing us refugees in Gaza or the worst abuses of police power. Instead he welcomes us to see people we may know--the sharp-tongued gossiping aunt, the diabetic elderly mother sneaking ice cream from the refrigerator at night, the buddies we can silently hang out with--and the people we are. Then he has us consider their humanity amid the conditions they live in that are different from ours and empathize with them. 

My compressed time with these films won’t fill in the large gaps in my knowledge, and it would be imprudent of me to suggest that what I’ve taken away from Suleiman’s work is representative of the experiences of my friends who have spent time in Palestine and are there now. I’m also not looking for any sort of credit from them or with anyone else for attempting to raise my consciousness. Who knows how many times I’ve put my foot in my mouth across these nearly 2900 words? I’m not even really sure if there was much point in grinding out all of this other than to get it out of my head. But I’m glad I spent time with these films, two of which were new to me and gave me lots to ponder and two of which I had seen and hit me harder this time. It Must Be Heaven holds hope for a free Palestine but not necessarily in our lifetime. I pray that such hope can help bring it about as soon as possible.

Friday, January 01, 2021

Social Distancing Journal: Wrapping 2020

2020 has reached its end--and none too quickly, as common sentiment might snarkily interject with a hard nudge to the ribs--but if I’m being honest, it was a good year for me personally. Sure, there have been hard times, particularly that point in March when everything was upended and kicked off what has been the homebound status quo for the remainder of the year. The fear and uncertainty I felt then isn’t something I hope to repeat. The stress of the Presidential election and the collective tension in the country, whether that was justifiable anger over civil injustices or the ridiculous resistance to mask-wearing (as if doing so is an affront to individual liberty), wore on me. Overall, though, I feel like I came through 2020 in a better place. For the first time in nearly three years I have regained professional stability, or at least as much as I can presume to have when continuous employment rests with the will of those above me in the organizational hierarchy, and can enjoy the benefits of a “permanent” job. I’ve made new friends who have provided invaluable support through the pandemic. I’ve found new interests that expand my learning. I don’t think there’s any question that I’m happier than I’ve been in quite some time.

I suppose I feel somewhat apologetic for feeling this way, as if it’s indecent to find joy during what is a difficult time for many. Of course, this is a silly way of looking at things, but having been through a lengthy patch when each day brought worries for not knowing what was ahead, I acknowledge that I wasn’t in the mood to hear someone else be appreciative about the positive things they were experiencing. So consider this my disclaimer for recognizing that my lived reality in 2020 is mine alone. I worked hard. I caught some breaks. I got to know some people who have made my life better. The balance of the last twelve months tipped in a positive direction for me, even as I’ve been mostly isolated in my apartment. If there’s hope for others to find in my 2020, perhaps it is that I didn’t see it coming. The lesson for me is that although I will be blindsided by bad news, I can also be caught unsuspecting by blessings too, at least if I’m open to seeing them.


When I started the weekly social distancing entries, I hoped to keep up with them. Then I intended to catch up. And then I was going to summarize up to a certain point, consider them current, and pick up again. Clearly that didn’t happen. I have some partial drafts that maybe I’ll get around to finishing. The more likely outcome is either that I’ll pull out what still seems relevant and tack that up in a backdated post or just leave them alone unseen by anyone but me. Nevertheless, I do feel compelled to put some kind of cap on 2020.

I had in my head that I would make a list of my top things of 2020, something like my friend Donna would do each year when she was regularly blogging. I started out attempting that, but frankly it just seemed like too much work to rack my brain for everything that might flesh out a long, respectable list. But why let the perfect be the enemy of the good or, as far as I’m concerned in this case, the adequate? I could really pour the time into refining this so it somewhat resembles whatever fuzzy, platonic ideal I hold in my brain, but maybe I’m better off just getting this done and having something to show for it.

So what follows are things that helped make 2020 a good year for me. Suffice it to say that things that would be commonly considered as givens--family, health, etc.--don’t need to be stated on something like this. This alphabetical list is for the meaningful and the frivolous. I’ve included these things if I valued them in some way (and remembered). All right, enough table-setting...

-AirPods Pro

I bought these with the intention of renewing a commitment to exercise and making it easier to listen to music or podcasts while doing so. The exercise aspirations mostly fell flat--using shared gym equipment didn’t seem like such a great idea--but this purchase turned out to pay off as a vital tool for video meetings for work and not having the cord in the way when going for walks or doing things around my place.

-Animal Crossing: New Horizons and the Nintendo Switch

This list isn’t just going to be a rundown of consumer acquisitions, but this game and console provided needed relaxation when my stress levels were at or near their highest in the spring. I’m sure my Animal Crossing residents are not pleased that recent months have featured my negligence in maintaining the island. They’ll just have to deal with it. There are only so many hours in the day and way too many things I want to do. I certainly sunk a lot of hours into hanging out in this virtual space when there were fewer demands on my free time. Even as my time with Animal Crossing has dropped off, I’ve continued to use the Switch to play something about every day, even if it’s for shorter sessions. Lately I’ve been hooked on Super Mario Bros. 35 since signing up for Nintendo Switch Online to distract me on Election Day.


I baked a lot in 2020 and mostly for others rather than myself. I can probably thank the unnecessary but useful cookie dough scoop for bringing more consistency to every batch I put in the oven. Chewy molasses cookies and intense chocolate brownies were big hits, although I did whip up other baked goods as the year went along. I know I felt better making something for friends, dropping it in the mail, and anticipating them receiving it. Who knows how much I might be able to keep this up outside of a pandemic, but I’d like to continue putting these care packages together as it was a nice way to stay connected.

-Christmas lights

I bought a dwarf Alberta spruce to make my place more festive for the holidays, so of course I needed some lights for the tree. Either I wasn’t paying attention to the length of the first string of LED lights I purchased or I badly miscalculated what the tree could hold. I ended up finding something just right, but I couldn’t let that first string go to waste. I draped them around and over the sliding door to my patio. I won’t be winning any interior design awards for how I decorated, but having the colorful lights shining through the day and night pleases me. I think I’ll keep them in place for awhile. They emit more light than I would have expected, so if I’m watching a movie, it’s been enjoyable to turn off the regular lights and leave those on. In its own way, it can make my place feel a little more like a movie theater.

-Dayton Flyers men’s basketball

To my dismay, the pandemic killed the opportunity to see what kind of historic run my favorite college team might put together in the NCAA Tournament, but I still had so much fun watching the best squad I’ve ever seen play for the university. I knew the 2019-2020 team had something special, so I’m glad I was able to get to a few big games and enjoy the others on television. Unless you root for the dominant teams that win championships on a regular basis, being a sports fan means absorbing a lot of losing. While it hurt for the chance to see the Flyers try to do the unthinkable as a mid-major program get yanked away, the 31 games they played in the 2019-2020 were a blast.

-Emeritus status

Receiving emeritus status at my former place of employment had been in the works for some time, but it was still gratifying for this recognition to come through. While I’m unclear exactly what comes with it, hopefully the honor will be useful to have on my resumé. I think emeritus status is mostly given to those retiring from the university, so I’ve received it at a far younger age than when it is usually bestowed. Nevertheless, as a signal that the departure was on good terms (even if, you know, I would prefer not to have been unemployed) and acknowledgement of my contributions, it has value.

-Fulltime employment

Wait, I thought I wasn’t going to include givens, right? Considering the time it took to secure this, I wouldn’t characterize it as a given. I found out I was losing my longtime job in October 2017, and it ended in May 2018. I started a job as a contractor in October 2019 and was hired on as a fulltime employee with benefits at the end of September 2020. At the start of work-from-home, I definitely worried if enough work would remain to hang on as a contractor. As the volume of work exploded, it became clear that we wouldn’t run out of things to do, although I still had concerns about meeting performance standards with a demanding workload. To wrap up the last quarter of the year with regained stability has been a massive relief.


File under activities I would not have expected to take up. This never would have happened if I weren’t home nearly all the time for the majority of 2020. There I was, though, planting flowers and figuring out how to keep them alive. (Let it be known that I was not always successful.) I expanded to getting a few indoor plants and attempted to grow some herbs and vegetables in pots. The indoor plants have mostly done OK--RIP my first dragon tree, though--while what I tried to grow from seeds produced false positive sprouts from the soil. I have neither the space nor the knowledge to go bigger next year, but as the annuals in my garden have withered and the perennials suffered from damage inflicted by roofers and, I suspect, squirrels digging around them, I’m ready to refresh that little patch again.

-Grandad’s Pizza

While I have preferred spots to get pizza, I will keep an eye out for others to add to the rotation. Food from this place was ordered and delivered to the office when that was still a thing, and I eventually found that one location is relatively nearby that driving to pick it up is convenient. 


I revived my knitting hobby to make some items for friends, whether just because or in a trade for a painting. As with baking, I feel good being able to produce something that I can give away, and the activity itself helps to reduce anxiety. I also think I understand how to do it better or to read the knitting. With one scarf I saw a mistake and, to my vexation, knew that I probably ought to rip out several rows to fix it. Taking an in-progress project off the needle, undoing a bunch of work, and then getting the stitches back onto a needle correctly had me like an action movie star attempting the delicate work of defusing a bomb. But I succeeded! Not that I want to do that sort of thing with any regularity, but repairing the knitting provided a confidence boost. 

-Mardi Gras Homemade Ice Cream

This area has a couple heavy hitters when it comes to ice cream, but this local, independent shop is my preferred spot. (It  is currently closed for the season.) Their international flavors are a big differentiator, and I found myself gravitating to and working my way through them during the summer and fall.

-New friends

New friends echo through a lot of these list items and for good reason. While this isn’t a ranked list, they would come in at a clear #1. They offer help and support at work, and the best of these new friends also check in with me and stay in touch outside of work. Such friendship is always valuable, but for this unusual year in particular, these connections have been really meaningful and provide some normalcy and continuity to daily life. They’ve made me feel lucky, inspired, and deeply grateful. 2020 could have been a difficult year being as isolated as I’ve been, but my new friends did a lot so that I will think of this time with fondness for all they’ve done for me. 


As with gardening, this is not something I would have predicted I would start doing, but a friend suggested participating with this group. I’m certainly no master, nor do I expect to ever reach that level, but I’ve enjoyed doing something creative that always seemed beyond my capability.

-True/False Film Fest

As shocking as it might sound based on how often I typically go to the movies, I didn’t miss movie theaters despite not being in a public space to see a film after attending this festival in Columbia, Missouri in early March. For that matter, I didn’t watch many movies after this. Maybe it’s because I prematurely ended my theatrical moviegoing in 2020 with a really fun time taking in a well-curated selection over four days. The event happened on the edge of everything changing in public life in 2020, so while there were signs of what was on the horizon, they weren’t fully understood. Hand sanitizer was plentiful at venues while attendance was noticeably lower. I was just glad to have a few days to catch my breath away from work after putting in an intense stretch heavy on overtime and little time off. It remains a good memory that has sustained me through a time when I’ve been less immersed in films.

-UGG men’s ascot slippers

Working from home definitely means dressing for comfort. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have shelled out as much for a pair of slippers, but these met the specifications of what I was looking for. Plus, I figured they would get a lot of use. No regrets.


For the better part of the year I worked a lot of overtime. I also didn’t have a desire to watch a lot and don’t think I had the focus to read. I did have more time for listening to music, although weirdly the amount of that I did diminished later in the year. Who knows why? 


If memory serves, I only finished three books in 2020, so I guess if I’m to name one, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (David Grann, 2017) would be it. I enjoyed re-reading Agatha Christie’s 1939 mystery And Then There Were None, which I think I last read when I was in junior high. I didn’t care for I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness (Austin Channing Brown, 2018), a memoir that struck me as axe-grinding more than anything. I’m still working on Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (Erik Larson, 1999).


Ordinarily I’d have a couple hundred new films to sift through to come up with a best of the year list. That is definitely not the case for 2020. While I will still try to cobble together a list for critics group voting and podcast purposes, as of this moment such a list doesn’t exist. What I’m enumerating is at best a rough draft and is loaded up with documentaries seen at True/False.

Boys State (Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, 2020)

City So Real (Steve James, 2020) (festival version)

Collective (Colectiv) (Alexander Nanau, 2019)

Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, 2020)

Emma. (Autumn de Wilde, 2020)

Mayor (David Osit, 2020)

Soul (Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, 2020)

Tesla (Michael Almereyda, 2020)

The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson, 2019)

Two older films new-to-me that stood out:

Phantom of the Paradise (Brian De Palma, 1974)

Police Story (Ging chaat goo si) (Jackie Chan and Chen Chi-Hwa, 1985)

And one I’d seen before but really enjoyed revisiting:

Chungking Express (Chung Hing sam lam) (Wong Kar-Wai, 1994)


I usually listened to podcasts when going on walks or driving somewhere while music dominated when I listened to anything while working or doing other things. Nearly half this list is dance pop released in 2020. The genre isn’t something that makes up the bulk of my collection, although its appeal has grown on me in recent years. If I were to guess, the big sounds, upbeat tempos, and overall catchiness created the kind of escapist atmosphere I wanted in a year where the physical space I occupied was small. Sorry Radiohead, love your albums, but bleak, futuristic despair wasn’t really what I was in the mood for in music in 2020. I’ll take a closer listen to Taylor Swift’s quarantine albums eventually, but autumnal, introspective music wasn’t really on the menu either. (Ignore what I just said when seeing that Fleet Foxes album listed, though. It is a balm.)

The Scottish indie pop/rock band Belle and Sebastian ranks among my favorites, yet I don’t know that I’d given their seventh studio album, Write About Love, or their three-EP compilation How To Solve Our Human Problems as many listens as their earlier work when they were shrouded in mystery and existed more of a word-of-mouth phenomenon. Maybe I latched onto these two albums because they are more buoyant. As with any band that manages to last--Tigermilk came out in 1996--consistency over time means later work gets taken for granted, so it’s been nice to grow more familiar with Write About Love, a stronger album than I recall it being, and HTSOHP, a listening casualty of the more recent phenomenon of new music having mayfly life spans in the cultural discourse.

David Bowie’s Scary Monsters may be here by virtue of being at the top of my Recently Added from the last time I could get music from iTunes on my computer transferred to my phone. Regardless, I found it highly relistenable. Billy Joel has been a longtime favorite, which probably comes with the territory when you start playing piano in second grade like I did. He’s not someone I’ve listened to a lot in recent years, but it was comforting to return to his music and its pop sensibilities rooted in early rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t recall Turnstiles ranking among my favorites or being as heralded--it isn’t as loaded with radio-dominated hits--so it was a pleasure to rediscover. Sloan’s discography is remarkably consistent, but I kept returning to Navy Blues perhaps because I saw them play it in full for their first set at the A&R Music Bar in early March and because it may have their strongest single collection of songs.

Annie Dark Hearts (2020)

David Bowie Scary Monsters (1980)

Belle and Sebastian How to Solve Our Human Problems (2018) and Write About Love (2010)

Dua Lipa Future Nostalgia (2020)

Fleet Foxes Shore (2020)

Carly Rae Jepsen Dedicated Side B (2020)

Billy Joel Turnstiles (1976)

Kylie MInogue DISCO (2020)

Sloan Navy Blues (1998)


I know 2020 will have a negative connotation for many, but hopefully this explains in some small but long-winded way why it won’t for me and what helped me get through it. May 2021 improve those things that didn’t go well as well as enhancing and expanding the joys from the previous year.