Love, Actually: To Win Some or Learn Some

Netflix Suggested Viewing: Christmas Edition

To me, all the emotions that come along with being in love are like a buffet. The pictures and advertisements are enticing, the variety is amazing, and the price seems more than worth it but the reality is something else entirely. It’s all hot lamps and pissed off cooks, it’s strangers picking through piles of entrees, breathing and sneezing and coughing and poking at piles of rehydrated foodstuffs in the hopes of somehow rearranging its molecular make up into something approaching appetizing. In the end, you just grab a slice or two of what pizza is left after some prickish teenager has snatched up the pieces with the most pepperoni. And you end up regretting the trip entirely, because, ultimately, you went to a damn buffet expecting some kind of Arthurian feast from the staff at Luby’s. Maybe I’ve gotten off topic. The point is, it’s a confusing, convoluted mess with absolutely great intentions and now I can’t remember if I’m talking about the movie anymore. 

I resent the idea that romantic comedies are only for women. Maybe I’m an idealist but I’d like to meet and spend my life with someone who is more than just sexually attractive and tolerant of my vices, I really think there is more to it than that. There is an argument that because there are six billion people on the planet it is stupid to think that there is just one person out there for everyone. I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. There are absolutely going to be a few that are close enough, that are compatible enough that there is no discernible difference between soulmate and good match. But, in reality, no one is going to meet all six billion people. You’re going to meet a few thousand, give or take, and that’s the population that counts in your particular story. It’s a movie like Love, Actually that takes a swing at a buffet, a variety of different experiences with love in order to describe something that is for all intents and purposes, indescribable. Not because it is nebulous and undefinable, but because it is a unique experience to each and every person that encounters it. It is certainly possible to relate and find commonality and, if anything, it’s absolutely one of the most important qualities a person can possess but I flinch at the phrase ‘I know exactly what you’re going through’. You don’t, but you can have an idea.

The result, in this film anyway, is emotional fast food. Sweet, savory, cloying, satisfying in the moment, but with no real nutritional value. If anything, it’s deceptive and misleading to tell a story where everything works out and that the hardest thing about love is finding it. It’s not only about finding it or failing it or falling into it. It’s also about the day to day, the texts, the gestures, the accommodations made for that one person, and all the ways that someone else, some crazy stranger who likes the way you smell and enjoys the boring stories about your day, can make life into something else entirely, something that is more than the sum of its parts.

My constant experience with Christmas is as a guest in spite of the best efforts of the fine people in my life. This and bars. So suffice it to say I take both a cynical and unrealistically romanticized notion into the experience. Everyone has something to complain about around the holidays, I feel like it’s almost part of the tradition but as an accustomed outsider, all I can think is that it really can’t be that bad. Inconvenient, expensive, exhausting, certainly but the alternative is something else entirely, a feeling that is hard to describe. Being a source of both joy and misery, Christmas makes a pleasant backdrop for an ensemble romantic comedy, it’s a nice excuse for characters to make grand gestures and be extraordinarily sentimental. This really can be a magical time of the year if you are very lucky and have someone to share it with. It deserves to be redeemed after the mystery and wonder of childhood evaporates into a cynical mass marketed exercise in Capitalism, into a lemming-like perfunctory reaction to lights and snow that says spend while throwing you non-stop reruns of A Christmas Story. That’s the cynicism talking.

I do have a romantic notion of Christmas, based on the times I’ve spent it in the company of loved ones. Which is what it is all about, really. Love and family. The truth is, I’ve spent some holidays by myself not because I was really alone but because I chose to be. Because I have an unrealistic expectation of how the holiday should be spent. Because I watch movies like Love, Actually. But the good thing about family is that you’re not allowed to make that choice to be alone and that’s a nice thing, life is too short and these people will not be around forever. And that’s the great thing about falling in love: it’s all about creating family where there wasn’t one before. So this is a fun movie, I’m glad I watched it, even though it left me a little nauseous afterward, like a rich dessert or a poorly made martini. I laughed pretty often, teared up once or twice. Or three times. And I did some thinking, which, according to the late Jimmy V, is what a good day is all about (sports reference, manliness REDEEMED). Maybe it’s not a perfect movie, maybe it’s only ever going to be the type of movie that women want to experience and maybe Love, Actually is a little bit stupid from time to time. But, then again, so is the real thing on occasion.

I hope everyone gets home safe, I hope everyone sees the one they need to see, I hope the holidays are as unrealistically amazing as they ought to be. I hope everyone gets a little something, even if it’s an unexpected but badly needed pairs of socks (I am grateful, brother) . All on the night after what was apparently the longest, darkest night in half a millenia, it’s all brighter from here on out. Cheers.

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Friday Night Lights: These Are The Days That Bind You

It is hard to know where to begin when writing about Friday Night Lights. The book, the film, and the television show are all unique interpretations of the same idea, each with it’s own unique tone and focus. The book itself is a piece of journalism, a non-fiction biography of Permian High School in 1988 and is equal parts disturbing and hypnotic. The fanatical Booster Club, the larger-than-life personalities, the casual, off-hand racism are all part of day to day life in this small frequently failed oil town in West Texas. The economy and history are explored alongside the team and their families. It’s equal parts shark tank and sports commune. The film takes its cues from the book and turns in some excellent performances from everyone involved, including a staggering portrayal by Tim McGraw as an obsessive, emotionally abusive father desperately pushing his son onward towards the glory he once reached. The effect is powerful and accessible to both sports fans and casual audiences.

The book and the show are different animals entirely but share a common background and a passion for the sport that makes for a fascinating study in character and values. In both, the primary antagonists are as often rival teams as they are towns people themselves who are so consumed with the concept of winning, of being champions, that there is no regard for how Pyrrhic that victory may be. Both are about adults living through their children, in some ways robbing them of their youth and in other ways imbuing them with the kind of drive and ethics that can destroy or enrich depending on strength of character, on the purity of the lessons themselves. It’s emotional and troubling and beautiful when it is viewed from an outsider’s perspective but to the personalities involved it’s home. It’s a way of life. The idea that football is a metaphor for life seems obvious but to the initiated this is only a sentiment. To the inhabitants of those places football is life and there is no further need to wax poetic.

One of the things that makes the show Friday Night Lights so brilliant is how fully realized every character is. Although, for the sake of entertainment, the largely teenage cast gets away with some unusually adult behavior, this all makes sense in the context of the demands and expectations that are set upon them. In the film and the show there is a palpable sense that the coaches, players, and their friends are in very apparent ways mildly terrified of the adult community around them. The surrounding fervor and adulation affect each of them in different ways and they all struggle with a sense of loss. The feeling of enjoying the game, of enjoying a win have given way to the fear of losing, of failing to live up to expectation, and the joy of playing the game is long gone. Their parents and teachers cry out at them that they are immortal superheroes while at the same time barely masking the knowledge that it’s all going to go away one day very soon. This is realized succinctly and with brilliant clarity in the film itself. While being interviewed by a recruiter one of them suddenly asks Mike Winchell, “Do you still like to play football? It’s supposed to be a game. Do you still have fun?” Mike answers, after a beat, “Yessir, I love to play football.” And he’s lying through his teeth.

The television show takes a wider look at the game and the town itself and introduces more complex relationships. It finds a lot to talk about in contemporary Texas and although my experiences are limited I found myself in love with the people before I ever got here. I could talk at length about the city of Austin, where it was filmed, but I really don’t need to, the show makes the case for me. Although native Austinites wail and gnash their teeth about how metropolitan the city is becoming, the soul of the place itself is what makes it so inviting. Not every experience here is inspiring, but if you spend enough time in the right place with the right people, it fosters a sense of belonging. A sense of being in the right place at the right time. It’s a feeling that should be spread as often and as much as possible and this is a sensibility that the show captures throughout. That feeling is what it’s like living in Texas, surrounded by Texans. This may not seem like a desirable state of existence to anyone who has not spent time here, but it is possible, if one does, to understand the pride and contentment that comes with being native born, with being in love with what is in some ways still the American Frontier in certain hearts and minds.

I associate a lot of music with Austin, it’s impossible not to with as much diversity and culture as there is, but the one band that epitomizes the feeling of sitting up late after a long day and listening to the city sleep, it’s Explosions In The Sky. The post-rock movement didn’t do much for me but there is something about this band in particular, with no vocals or lead singer, that captures the feeling of being alive in Austin. There could not be a better way of describing the sense of Shut Up and Be Here Now. It’s a brilliant stroke to use their music in the film and an imitation of it in the show itself. To me, their music is the feeling of being alone but loved, of feeling small in a big world but important all the same. And its expansive but traditional arrangements, to me, are like the open expanse of Texas itself. Simple, plain, but unspeakably beautiful if you’re looking with the right kind of eyes.

Eric and Tammi Taylor are the lynchpin of the fictional story of the fictional town of Dillon but they might be the most important on-screen couple in modern television because they are true adults. They are the way we imagine parents to be as kids, flawed and difficult but right because they believe in each other without any fear or insecurity whatsoever. They are impossibly perfect for each other while at the same time being completely realized human beings on their own, with dreams and goals, who exist alongside each other to their mutual benefit. I’ll never forget the moment I realized that this was something special. To give away a minor plot point, Eric is under extreme pressure with his coaching job and with finances as anyone is at one time or another and Tammi is extremely apprehensive about telling him she is pregnant. There is this expectation that this moment will be divisive and traumatic and when she finally tells him on the eve of a pivotal game Eric’s reaction is riveting. He’s overjoyed. Utterly and completely. Because at the end of the day, regardless of what else is happening in the world, their love is supremely and obviously the only thing that really matters. Everything else can fall by the wayside. And I found myself thinking, That’s the kind of man I want to be.

So this is an endorsement of the film and the show, both of which are available on Netflix, but it’s more than that. Although the show had its missteps before it really finds it’s rhythm, the end result is, as close as I can describe it, life-affirming and I mean this in a different way than the term is usually applied. It doesn’t inform the value of life itself, rather, it affirms the value of the things and people we share life with. It takes a stark and honest look at poor, white, black, rich, Latino, entitled, Christian, popular, geeky, old, disabled, any and everyone that makes up a community of people working towards the thing, place, or love that stands a chance of making them happy, with the real successes and failings that result when hopes and dreams meet reality. And in Friday Night Lights, all the while, we’re reminded that we should be keeping to the fact that through all the trials and tribulations, all the heartache and confusion, that these are the things that bind us together forever.