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Led Zeppelin in August

A few years ago, I found I liked listening to Led Zeppelin in August.

Today, I caught this feeling of listening to Led Zeppelin again as I drove around in the late afternoon after work.

North Carolina’s August. That time when it’s like summer can’t take any more of itself. The active, joyful months of June and July are done, and the heat and humidity builds while the sunlight starts to slant. There is a feeling of falling and growing darkness. And rot and decay.

For me, the work of summer is often not done by August, but I don’t have the natural impetus for it anymore. But from the best years that I remember, I wonder if August is when the beauty of summer, if you have risen up to it and worked for it, rewards you.

Listening to Led Zeppelin’s lyricism in the heat of August is amazing.

But that’s not really fair to a band, is it? Who says that a band can only be listened to during one month out of a year?

Led Zeppelin is not a band that’s one of my favorite. But I’ve known people who loved them like that. I’m thinking of them this year.

Such people must be sensually deeper or sensually bigger. They can hold so much more than me.

Artist profile: Ginna Earl and her creative journey after Vespertine

Ginna Earl greets me at her house in Sanford, some miles south of Pittsboro. It’s dusk, the sun sets behind the house, giving it a nice glow, and Earl comes out gently, to welcome me on the winding path that leads to her front door. Inside, a picture of Oscar Wilde hangs by the door, a painting in the Art Nouveau style hangs across the way, and then you see paintings by her mom, artworks she found on Etsy over the years, and many other patterns, colors, fabrics, plants, and all the tools and equipment of an artist. On her dining table is a book she’s reading: “Waterlog,” about the adventures of a man who swims throughout the British Isles.

It’s fitting that an interview with Earl occurs in the early hours of the evening. “Vespertine” means exactly that – flourishing in the evening, like a star.

Sitting down at her dining table, Earl talks about what led to the closing of Vespertine, the store in Carrboro that she owned and operated 2011 to 2017, as well as her artistic process, her thoughts on retail, and her plans for the future.

Will she reopen Vespertine? At the moment, the answer is no.

“Right now, I just want to be in nature,” Earl said.

Ever since Vespertine closed, Earl has been focused on healing, and much of that, through spending a lot of time in nature. When she works, unlike the name she chose for her store, she often works in the morning, “when it’s still fresh,” she says.

This need to heal has to do with events that go back to 2015. In the fall of 2015, one of her friends committed suicide. That alone would have been difficult enough to deal with, but her business also suffered setbacks the following year. Although 2016 was Vespertine’s most financially successful year, both of her employees quit. The first suffered a breakdown during Mother’s Day weekend in 2016, while she and Earl were both working in the store helping customers. The second left a couple months after that incident.

As Earl recounts what happened, the shock and anxiety – the trauma of it – still reverberates through her body.

“The thought of trying to find someone new was overwhelming,” she said. “It just was really demoralizing to think of hiring someone else.”

From the summer of 2016, for the next year, through the election of 2016 and the first months of Trump’s presidency, Earl mostly worked alone. All of that became too much, and Earl decided to close in the second half of 2017. After Vespertine closed, This & That next door expanded into the space. And Vespertine, her cherished store filled with Flyleaf T-shirts, button rings and bobby pins, cards of plants, moons and stars, and Earl’s own North Carolina necklaces and ginkgo and cherry blossom earrings, was no more.

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After that, Earl went back to Pittsboro and wanted to refocus on her craft. When she owned Vespertine, it was difficult to get in time to do her own work, she said.

She’s working to diversify her income. Her North Carolina necklaces are mainstays and sell well, and Earl has been doing more enamel jewelry, and branched out into embroidery and fabric.

The delicateness of Earl’s work and her calm, soft manners hide an underlying strength and focus. When she talks about her work and when she demonstrates her work, she makes it sound easy, like it’s just play.

She likes to travel and has made jewelry inspired from her travels, like the intricate Pere Lachaise Pomegranate necklaces created after a trip to Paris.

“I try to get these done in one go,” Earl says and laughs in her soft way, and holds up a bowl full of perfect remains of the pendant, the jeweler’s equivalent of peeling an apple in one long strip – except it’s not an apple, it’s sawing pieces of silver.

Her instinct for strength and endurance cannot help but come out even when she is trying to heal.

As part of her healing process, Earl has been doing the “Maryland Challenge.”

“A friend of mine asked if I had heard about it. I said, ‘No, but I’m in!’”

“And she said, ‘I think you should Google it,’” Earl laughed.

The Maryland Challenge came about from hikers doing the Appalachian Trail who wanted to push through all of Maryland in one day. That’s about 45 miles in 24 hours, with end points at the Mason-Dixon line and West Virginia.

Earl’s “long distance walking,” as she calls it, began in 2015. By last summer, she was doing the “Maryland Challenge” on the American Tobacco Trail. She hiked through the entire trail with two friends, 22 miles in one day. “Your body starts doing weird things after the 20th mile,” Earl said.

“But after you’re done, the showers you take are the best showers you’ll ever take,” she said.

Earl’s goal is to be able to do the real Maryland Challenge by next summer.

In the meantime, Earl’s time in nature and work from her home in Sanford does not mean she has completely stopped creating. In her studio are new earrings in large gold designs. Much of the art that was sold at Vespertine went to This & That, and Earl also sells her work there now.

Inspired by her Maryland Challenges, Earl has also created jewelry for marathoners. But still, another setback happened last summer. While fulfilling a large order from a company, Earl suffered major burnout. So another way Earl is keeping herself grounded is by working in her father’s machine shop, doing assembly and shipping.

“It’s satisfying,” she said. “It’s neat being in the machine shop, thinking of all the possibilities. You can build anything.”

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River Takada-Capel, a Carrboro-based artist, has selling her works in Carrboro for more than a decade and is currently at This & That. Along with Vespertine, Takada-Capel also has sold at Roulette Vintage, the vintage clothing boutique that used to be where 2nd Wind is now, and North Carolina Crafts Gallery.

Her compliments on Earl came out in one long, uninterrupted flow. “I didn’t even have to think about it,” she said afterward.

“I think she’s super talented and really just playful. That’s what I always loved about her work, that it’s super delicate, playful, with great attention to detail. And she’s always evolving. I think I can really tell from her work that she takes a lot of time to learn about something and implement her delicate designs to her work and carry it through all the crafts that she does,” Takada-Capel said. “One of my favorite things (at the store) was the origami paper flowers. It was her sense of color and sense of pattern, and just the crisp precision of her craft was so pleasing. I would see a paper flower and feel like I have to buy this thing. And I feel like this is also what she curated in (Vespertine), which was a lot of people who were extremely good and extremely talented, and had perfected their work.”

Raleigh-based jewelry maker Sonya Rook, of Metamorphosis Metals, had similar compliments on Earl. But on Vespertine’s closing, she said she was not completely surprised. “I know other people who have owned stores who have decided to close. That happens a lot in Raleigh because the rents are going up in the downtown area or they’re not getting the traffic,” Rook said.

Earl notes all the business closings with sadness and weariness. Cameron’s in Carrboro, all the stores and coffeeshops in Pittsboro.

With a front row view of Carrboro’s business happenings since 2011, she said foot traffic was definitely a problem. Although the town gave new businesses that opened in the Hampton Inn building support, existing local businesses did not get support.

And the 2016 election did not help matters. The day after President Donald Trump was elected, “Carrboro felt like it was in mourning,” Earl says. Foot traffic was nonexistent. To combat the dreariness of that day, Earl and another artist put out a painting he had done of Rev. William Barber, of the North Carolina NAACP. “That holiday season was so surreal,” Earl says. “People just did not really come in.”

In general, Earl says of retail in Carrboro: “Too little butter spread over too much bread, is how it feels.”

Talking to Earl and reading her blog on Vespertine – last post was in May 2016 – it’s clear how much toll the years of working the store and working on her own craft at the same time have taken on her creative spirit. Or, to be more accurate, how exhausting and draining it has been to do so while responding to the changes in the world and in her own life.

Earl first opened Vespertine in Pittsboro in 2010, and took over the Nested space in Carrboro in early 2011. In the first years, her Vespertine store blog brimmed over with excitement and passion.

In a March 2011 post, she wrote, “Having a shop in Carrboro has been quite the experience, for many many reasons.  My favorite though, is that I feel such potential here…”

When the General Store Café in Pittsboro closed in January 2012, Earl wrote passionately about her memories of the store and the need to support small businesses. “I really hope that we can all collectively pause now and think about what is happening with Pittsboro. How can we better support our businesses? How can we make this a positive and thriving place to live?” she wrote. “We can use the Mainstreet Program as a great place to start envisioning our future and figuring out what we need to make it become a reality.”

Additionally, not having a storefront makes Earl feel like she’s not as able to be creatively spontaneous. “I can’t just make something and put it in the store and have people see it,” she laments.

But Earl is still continuing to work, and she is getting back to putting her work out there. She’s doing a craft show today, her first since before Vespertine opened, at the Triangle Pop-Up show in Raleigh.

“I’ve always been drawing or making. My mom was always creative. My dad is an inventor,” she said. “It’s just how we are.”

Let’s eat! “A Bite of China”

There are moments in “A Bite of China” that stay with you long after you watch the show.
A mother and daughter walking together at dawn, digging for mushrooms in the mountains of Yunnan. They easily push their sticks in the dirt to gently push up a mushroom. Inside a ger in Inner Mongolia, in the early hours, a woman dips a ladle in milk to get breakfast for the man who will herd their sheep on the grassy plain. Fermented tofu nuggets are laid out on baskets on a balcony before they are hauled out to a busy sidewalk and sold. The most simple yet amazing street food.

More than technique and skill, “A Bite of China” is about taste and heritage, habit, livelihoods, the knowledge and skill that comes from working with food all your life, as well as the pride and appreciation of people working in food, really getting their hands in, and knowing the natural, subtle chemistry of food. The show is kind of about a national love of food, with the expansiveness of a National Geographic documentary.

The show first debuted in China in 2011 and embodies a peak appreciation of food culture, and peak cultural pride. Every episode is full of stories from disparate corners of China. The first episode itself is so full, telling stories from digging for mushrooms in Yunnan Province in southwest China to communal ice fishing in Jilin Province in the Northeast.

In some ways, the show is not representative of actual food culture in China at all. The dirtiness of food markets, the over abundance of food in China this decade as well as the over consumption. Both the tedium and the magic that comes from cooking for your family every day.

But it does get other things exactly right. The man bouncing on a large bamboo to roll out dough for noodles, in a restaurant where people from the street can look in, be curious and want to come in. Families sitting together near a well to roll dough. The rap song about spicy pork noodle soup.

In episode 2, there is a segment where a girl goes home to the Shaanxi province, and helps her family prepare kimchi.

There is something about that that’s in the Chinese national memory.

That familiar countryside courtyard, the peppers that are hung from the entrance, the water, the large container that the kimchi is put in. The window through which the girl says hello to a worker. Everything about it is so familiar and reflected in every aspect of Chinese life. Are there chickens in the courtyard? There must be.

Look at that kimchi. I feel like I can taste it.

Here is “A Bite of China,” episode 1, “The story of nature.”

Book review: “Fed Up” by Danielle DiMartino Booth

At one point in Danielle DiMartino Booth’s book about her experiences as an analyst at the Federal Reserve during the panicked days of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, she quotes verbatim a meeting at the Federal Open Market Committee, then operating under Chairman Ben Bernanke.

It was March 2008. Bear Stearns had just collapsed. The FOMC was debating how to craft its official statement to lower the risk of inflation.

“On inflation expectations, because they haven’t risen very much, I agree with President Geithner,” said District Governor Donald Kohn. “I like the fact that we tell people we are aware, but we could say ‘have edged higher’ or something like that instead of ‘risen.’”

“We could use my ‘smidgen’ word, but ‘edged higher’ is better,” chimed in Frederic Mishkin, another district governor. “Went up a smidge,” Kohn responded. “Have risen somewhat?” Mishkin said. “Brian, do you have a thought on ‘risen’ versus ‘risen somewhat’ versus taking it out?” Bernanke said.

This discussion goes on for a couple dozen more lines.

“I might have run screaming from the room,” Booth writes.

Amazingly, this was actually one of the most real moments at the Fed in Booth’s recounting. The rest of the book, titled “Fed Up: An insider’s take on why the Federal Reserve is bad for America,” reveals a Fed that is extremely insular. It is overladen with personalities at the top, and throughout the top and among its thousands of analysts employed, displays an unwillingness to allow its vast intellectualism be put to use in responding to changes in the real world. Furthermore, in Booth’s subsequent interviews and as can be seen in current business news, the Fed even seems in danger of tipping over into becoming an outright political institution.

Booth had front row seats and was an active player in two sides of the economy, as an analyst on Wall Street, and as a preferred researcher to Richard Fisher, governor of the Dallas Fed. The book is a chronology of her experiences leading up to and during the financial crisis.

“Fed Up” is a book that is best read along with other financial information. “An Insider’s Take,” just as its title states. The book assumes that you already know who the major players are, such as Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke.

Then, through Booth’s experiences, the book takes you through other major players in charge of this country’s economy who are not as visible to the general public, such as Harvey Rosenblum, the Fed’s director of research who initially disapproved of Booth but eventually came around and asked her to collaborate with him on papers, and Janet Yellen, who succeeded Bernanke to become the first woman in charge of the Fed. In 2015, Yellen started the Fed’s current trend of raising rates back to the levels they were at before the crisis.

Booth’s insider status is never more obvious than when she’s recounting the days after Lehman Bros. was bailed out. Rather than shock and dismay, she expressed a more blasé attitude about the extent of the “too big to fail” approach, skimming over the event.

Throughout Booth’s book, there is a claustrophobic, forced, headache-inducing quality to the Fed that’s not observed very well just through the media.

Ultimately, the book and Booth’s subsequent interviews reveals a Fed that’s not only still ruled by personalities but in danger of becoming overtly political. In an interview with Seeking Alpha, Booth revealed that one of the Fed’s current board members had donated to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

That was Lael Brainard, who was the Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs under Barack Obama and counselor to then Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Brainard has been a board member at the Fed since 2014.

“So she would have been Treasury Secretary under Hillary Clinton,” Booth said in that interview. “I find to be a very questionable behavior from being a former Fed insider myself, to publicly donate to a presidential campaign.”

Seen in this light, when Donald Trump nominated his appointees to the Fed, like Herman Cain, although they were political appointments, would they have injected some much-needed fresh perspective into the leadership of the Fed? Or would they have exacerbated the existing problem?

And when Trump urged the Fed in early May to cut interest rates by as much as one percent – “The economy would go through the roof!” he tweeted – how right was the Fed to refuse? Would making the Fed responsive to any pressure right now tip the balance to it becoming a much more political institution? Was it the right moment to open up the Fed, make it less insular?

Through Booth’s eyes, you also see the players for their backgrounds, not just the economic philosophies that underlie their work. Janet Yellen is the granddaughter of Yiddish-speaking Polish immigrants in New York, a physician father who suffered a life-altering accident just as he was starting his practice, and whose husband is another economist, also a Keynesian. And there was Richard Fisher, who had an Australian businessman father and a South African-Norwegian model for a mother, comes across as more of a Thomas Crown-like, world adventurer type, than his inflation hawk stance would suggest.

Booth’s writing flows best when she’s recounting her days on Wall Street and her early days at the Fed, and becomes bogged down with the politics of the Fed once the financial crisis gets underway. (At several points, she alludes to research she had done on her own or with other people, but does not get into the details. What was that research paper? You end up wondering. What did the numbers say about what was going on?)

Of her time on Wall Street in the late ‘90s, she describes walking onto the trading floor “to be slapped in the face by cacophony.” “And the aroma,” she writes. “It smelled, literally, like red meat. For lunch, traders ordered steak from Smith & Wollensky and ate at their desks. Leaving your chair for a meal during the trading day meant you weren’t serious about your job.”

The scene was very different at the Dallas Fed. At that bank that occupies six acres of office space, work was taken at a more casual pace. Days were started first with working out, showering and breakfast, then followed by discussions over long lunches. “One of the few times there was hustle and bustle: 5 p.m. on the nose,” Booth writes with humor.

Booth also includes trivia about how the Fed works that’s fascinating to think of in terms of how this country’s financial system works. The Fed has 12 district banks, each tasked with a particular function. The Atlanta Fed, for instance, processes electronic checks. The New York Fed holds a half million bars of gold. The Dallas Fed holds up to 2,800 steel carts that can be sent out containing up to $30 million in cash to area banks. (North Carolina banks are overseen by the Richmond Fed.)

Booth’s prescriptions for straightening out the Fed target ways that, in her opinion, would make the Fed more responsive to the real world – make the Fed more realistic. She proposes limiting the number of academic Ph.D.s at the Fed, and granting all the District Bank presidents, not just New York’s, a permanent vote on the FOMC.

She also proposes one change to the core of the Fed’s purpose since it was created in 1913. Booth says the Fed’s dual mandate of maximizing employment and fighting inflation should be reduced to just one – inflation.

“A singular focus on maintaining price stability will place the duty of maximizing employment back into the hands of politicians, making them responsible for shaping fiscal policy… ,” she writes.

Booth cut to the heart of the issue for herself. Her father had been an investment advisor. But although he was good at handling other people’s money, he burdened his own family with a never-ending mountain of debt. “As a teenager, I learned not to answer the phone for fear it would be a bill collector,” she poignantly recounts. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, as of the book’s printing in 2015, Booth points out that monetary policy still had not returned to a place that supports the healthy habits of the average consumer.

By lowering the interest rates in the aftermath of the financial crisis and keeping them low for so long, Booth says, the Fed has contributed to a culture that has “outlawed saving.”

“Most seniors pine for a return to the beginning of this century when they could get a five-year jumbo CD with a 5 percent APR, offset by inflation somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 percent. Traditionally, 2 to 3 percentage points above inflation is where that old relic, the fed funds rate, traded. The math worked.

Under (the Zero Interest Rate Policy), only fools save for a rainy day. The floor on overnight rates must be permanently raised to at least 2 percent and Fed officials should pledge to never again breach that floor. Not only will it preserve the functionality of the banking system, it will remind people that saving is good, indeed a virtue. And that debt always has a price.”

Bohemian Rhapsody: Lightning bolt

I saw Bohemian Rhapsody on a cold, rainy night at the Wynnsong Theater in Durham. I had rushed over on a spontaneous whim that night. Walking through the lobby, I looked around and expected the movie to be more of an event movie and to have more promotion. Life-sized cardboard cutout of Malek in a disco outfit, anyone? But there wasn’t much at all. During 2018, when it seemed like everywhere you went, you would see decline.

I had been looking forward to this movie for years. The early film image of Malek in a lone spotlight, looking so much like Freddie Mercury, was thrilling. It looked like art. Finally, some art! The movie delivered. It was entertaining and comfortable, and one of the best movies of the second half of this decade. However, it did not deliver on the potential that was promised in that first image. Instead of a bold exploration of Mercury’s life, his artistry and the band’s decades-long journey, it pandered to Millennial memories and caved to 2018 realities.

Fall 2018: Dusty, dirty, dark. Overheated, collapsing sensuality. Hurricanes and fires. Politics was too loud and vehement, and it always felt like mass shootings and bombings were happening, and you were kept off-kilter and twisted around, always by your instinct feeling like a health or environmental disaster is just around the corner.

In the midst of this was Bohemian Rhapsody, which opened just a few days before the mid-term elections, capturing the intense mood of the country – and especially I think the mood on college campuses. The movie brilliantly used the 1970s and 1980s as backdrops to relate to what was happening in 2018. And there was Malek, dancing in front of that overwhelming, sweaty crowd as Mercury – Was it as Mercury? Or was it as himself? In the terrifying rush of Fall 2018, it was hard to tell.

From the opening sequence of Malek walking slowly through the Mercury apartment cut with scenes of the set up of Queen’s Live Aid performance, you could tell the movie was special. “Somebody to Love” plays as the camera follows Malek’s back, cut with images of lighting technicians, suitcases, a picture of Marlene Dietrich on the wall. This is a familiar, real life scenery. And this movie is special in the way some movies are, that you feel how much it was cherished by the people working on it. Like the pan up to Jake Gyllenhaal lying on a highway in Donnie Darko, how meaningful the camera movement is. This is how Bohemian Rhapsody felt from the first moments, which is rare in these years.

And then there was Malek, who was thrilling to watch as he moves just like Freddie Mercury, with that physicality that had such sense of humor, openness and strength. Wearing those recognizable white tank top and white pants, his arms pumping as he walks. The world is a dusty, hot mess. AIDS is around the corner. In this moment, the artist ascends the stage.

Although I have been looking forward to the movie and was rapt with the opening sequence, I was still cautious about this movie. I was afraid it would be wrecked, and wreck my fragile hopes along with it. I also had a knot in my body that would not unwind. Fall 2018 was a – I think the word is “mean” – not just angry but a mean time. I don’t think I was alone in feeling that, since the other people in the theater seemed as frustrated and uninterested in the trailers and advertisements as I was. It took me sometime to unwind the tension in my body so I could enjoy the movie. After I came home that night, I wrote out the skeleton for this review, but felt nauseous, and so I hesitated. Was this the right perspective? Was there something more to it I need to let settle about before putting it out there?

The love interest and relationship in the first half hour of the movie felt one-dimensional, and looked too contemporary. Lucy Boynton, who played Mary Austin, Freddie Mercury’s long-term love, looked too much like she’s a girl in college right now.

Then, the movie smoothed itself out. The knot in my body relaxed and I was carried along with a story in a familiar Hollywood style, a bit rushed in parts but comfortable and enjoyable. The dynamic between the band members was funny and relatable. And the movie was pleasurable in that you basically get an unfolding two-hour show of Queen songs and you’re reminded of how amazing it is that the same band wrote both “Killer Queen” and “We Are the Champions.”

(The one Queen song that was not used the right way was “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” which for some reason was played over a late night party scene with a completely different tone. Other than that, the music fit the movie perfectly.)

Queen always felt like a very contained band to me. In my memory, Freddie Mercury was this swirling, dancing man under a lone spotlight, who died from AIDS, and the band seemed to hold so much of the darkness of that time after the lyricism of Led Zeppelin, after disco, but before the energy and internationalism of pop music. The other artists who I associate with that time are Prince, David Bowie.

Why did a movie about Freddie Mercury feel so relevant last fall? It’s because Queen was so much about singing.

There is so much going on right now that is not being said or is buried. It’s thrilling to think of a man singing and having a voice, and who isn’t weighed down by trying to look cool on stage and by conventions. Who is a bit strange and is bold in his strangeness.

And this is the only movie with a young person in the lead right now that feels true. We’re passing through a time during which young people are not just stressed, not just stretched to the limits, but in a fight for our futures and it’s a fight that older people who went through the ‘70s and ‘80s simply do not understand. Can older people not feel it? Sometimes, as I drive around this area, I can feel the collapse of parts of this community and I wonder just how much talent and potential has been completely ruined. For people to grow and to learn, we have to be able to do and say. We have to be able to express. We need to be able to move the way we want to. We need to be able to sing.

This was my biggest disappointment with this movie.

Queen was so much about just singing. Sing anyway. Crank up Bohemian Rhapsody in the car, in the shower, head-bang, jump around the couch. Make a fool out of yourself. You have full permission to sing.

Last fall was a time when we really needed some singing. These years are a time that desperately need joy, hope and inspiration, truth.

Does Rami Malek actually sing in the movie? Unfortunately, he does not. Malek revealed early on for the movie’s promotion that it’s an “amalgamation of a few voices” – a Mercury-blend, or Mercury-mush, which makes me itch with anger. I would have preferred only Mercury’s voice himself, or just one other singer. I would rather have one voice that soars, that’s flawed but real, than many voices that don’t sound like anything at all.

Then again, the lack of real singing probably protected Malek as a performer when, days after the movie was released, a gunman shot at a crowd in Thousand Oaks, Calif. These years are also a time when any opening for truth and relating is quickly overtaken by violence.

The movie also has been criticized by reviewers for being inaccurate, and that’s just a part of the movie’s core problem, which is that in many ways, it doesn’t seem to be about Queen at all. The band in the movie doesn’t have nearly enough fun. Queen is 1970s and 1980s rock gods, after all. But the guys in the movie are so intense and stressed out — Hey, just like Millennial college students! From that first image of Malek as Mercury, I wanted an exploration of his sexuality. I wanted to see him writing music, the mystery of that creativity. I wanted him to be out in the world of disco, pop, rock, meeting Michael Jackson.

I wanted to see a richer depiction of the band that produced albums like A Night at the Opera, the album I listened to as a teen. In between teen angst and freedom in college, there was Queen for me, keeping everything elevated. “Why be so miserable? There is art, and there is life.” A Night at the Opera goes from Seaside Rendezvous like they picked up some sheet music from the 1910s, to The Prophet’s Song, with “Listen to the mad listen to the mad listen to the mad maaaaaan!” to “Love of My Life.” If you listen to a full album, you also hear how different it is from listening to them on the radio. On the radio, you hear their hits and feel energized. In the album, you hear a bigger story. A wandering sadness, and the knowledge of how the years go on and we have to carry on, one of the lessons about life that Queen’s music holds safely for listeners so we can go about our business doing other things.

The band is releasing a soundtrack for Bohemian Rhapsody, of course, and it is full of their biggest hits. Before that though, the last compilation album they released was in 2014, and the first track was “Let Me Be in Your Heart Again,” by lead guitarist Brian May. In the Vulture story about how the movie was developed, they noted that Sacha Baron Cohen was originally going to be Mercury, but dropped out after a conversation with an unnamed member of Queen.

I go, ‘What happens in the middle of the movie?’” Cohen said. “He goes, ‘Freddie dies.’ I go, ‘So wait a minute. What happens in the second half of the movie?’ And he said, ‘Well, we see how the band carries on from strength to strength.’ And I said, ‘Listen, not one person is going to see a movie where the lead character dies from AIDS and then you carry on to see the band.’”

You have to wonder how Cohen’s remarks were taken. Mercury died in 1991, and the rest of the band have been carrying on since then. May and drummer Roger Taylor were the executive music producers on Bohemian Rhapsody, and control the rights to the band’s music.

In the same Vulture article, producer Graham King was quoted as saying, “The reason this took so long to get made is, [Mercury] had a very complicated life.” Really? It was complicated, but it wasn’t that complicated. It should not have been difficult to have some scenes of his loneliness and existential angst, and how he dealt with them. For adult audiences, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to have some scenes of debauchery and nudity like Sacha Baron Cohen wanted. Seeing what Malek did with the material, you wonder how he would have handled a more in-depth exploration of Mercury’s life.

In the weeks after the movie came out, you did feel a shift in the world. Some intellect and some verve and movement came back. And then it was gone again.

A lightning bolt on a rainy night.

Sometimes, during these years, it feels like art is all we have. And this movie was it.

The problem with Annihilation is it’s not intellectual enough

By Monica Chen

When I first heard in 2015 that Annihilation was being developed into a movie by Alex Garland, with Natalie Portman as the lead, I was excited and had high hopes. It sounded full of possibilities, ideas that were full of potential waiting to be fleshed out.

But two and a half years later, Annihilation turned out to be a huge disappointment. It was even nauseating to watch, and worse, the reviews that accompanied it were just as nauseating. “Complex,” “thought-provoking,” were among the praises heaped on this very passion-less, claustrophobic movie, and it was even defended for its poor ticket sales for being “too intellectual.”

Actually, the movie was not intellectual enough. This often happens with book-to-movie adaptations, but unfortunately, the book wasn’t as intellectual as it was sold either.

I had been looking forward to Annihilation because it had such a great premise, one that I thought would reflect and expand on all the questions percolating in the culture. From the book’s back cover: “Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; the second expedition ended in mass suicide… In Annihilation, the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, we join the twelfth expedition. The group is made up of four women… .”

This synopsis was full of tantalizing mystery and potential. What is Area X? Was it formed because of environmental devastation? Is “Area X” a spiritual space, a stand-in for that part of ourselves that engages with nature and wilderness? Is it about how humanity used to have “Eden” but lost it, and is this book about how we keep going back to that place, full of fear but also full of potential, and try to recover it? Having four women in the expedition was also interesting since women have had different ways of relating to nature from men. How would women, with our often coalescing, connecting body chemistries, interact with nature in that kind of environment? Is “Annihilation” about the human potential to destroy our own planet, and ourselves, our self-annihilation?

A little more background:

For the years leading up to this movie, for mostly this entire decade, there has been a growing knowledge about nature and growing nature spirituality in the culture. Photos of plants and animals, videos of wild animals interacting with people, quotes from Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, observations from scientists, are abundant online. There has been so much wonderment and curiosity about nature: joy in learning about animals, the delight in flowers in the wild or growing just down the street, and inspiration and expansiveness that come from work in science and technology.

Annihilation did not capture or reflect any of that. Neither the book nor the movie fleshed out any of the questions I had. And neither the writer Jeff VanderMeer nor the director Alex Garland, who directed Ex Machina and wrote The Beach, tapped into what was already in the culture. Actually, I think the movie did something really awful. Because of the timing of its release in winter 2017-2018, which was such a chaotic, dark time, it threatened to distort the fragile, delicate inspirations about nature that have been happening in the culture that needed to be expressed, reflected, and protected, not talked over. Instead of expanding outward from the book to become a potentially daring, exploratory storytelling, the movie went further into a claustrophobic corner, with Alex Garland seemingly adamant about drawing the viewer into a dysfunctional way of seeing both nature and human nature.

In Garland’s Annihilation, nature has no wonder or mystery. It’s just an oily mess. It’s a radioactive beam of light or monstrous mutations of plant and animals. Instead of “Area X,” an expansive imaginary space full of questioning, Garland minimized it into a place called “The Shimmer,” which is like a fish bowl separated from the rest of the world by a curtain of oily-looking rainbow light. There is absolutely no delight or beauty, or much intellectual curiosity. Everything in this world, even the sunlight, is toxic and can’t be trusted. The characters are also flat, lack real motivations, and trust neither each other or themselves. Somehow, Garland had Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who are charming, vibrant actresses, wander around vacantly in this fish bowl, and all they do is get scared and say very cliched lines, mostly behaving more like caricatures of videogame characters than real human beings.

Spoiler alert: Here’s the most awful, frustrating thing that happened with Portman’s character, Lena, “the biologist,” who has no motivation other than advancing the plot at the whim of Garland. She joins the expedition to go into “the Shimmer” because her husband, played by Oscar Isaac, comes back from his mission injured and sick. “I owe him,” is the only explanation she gives. Does she not want to stay and care for him? Does she not have family and friends she’ll miss? A cat she’ll worry about feeding? Apparently not. Lena eventually discovers the version of her husband that came back was a clone, and that gives her motivation to fight for her own life and resist the effects of “the Shimmer.” But at the end of the movie, she embraces the clone, because she also is mutating into an alien. It’s all so meaningless, it’s just laughable.

What happened that this movie was such a mess? You get the feeling Garland basically re-made his book, The Beach, which was also a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio, but chose the worst option for every change he made. Instead of characters having more fleshed out, expansive motivations, they had smaller perspectives and were devoid of real passion. Instead of nature being more deeply felt and related to, he made it more abstract and objectified.

Some good things about the movie: The cinematography blankets everything with close up, hazy shots, much like Gypsy, the Netflix show with Naomi Watts. It’s a very head-in-the-clouds, yet sensually aware world. A world of psychological possibilities. It does capture how the real world has felt and reflects how people have behaved at times this decade.

As for the book, it is too literal. The book is also overpraised, way overpraised. It’s clumsily written. The narrator never sounds like a real woman. A lot of the book also sounds cobbled together from just-learned bits and pieces about nature, science and how to go camping. The “bizarreness” of nature, in both the book and the movie, is used as a substitute for emotional depth. The plot takes a turn that’s very different from the mysteries and potential the synopsis hints at. (Major spoiler: “Annihilation” is just the word spoken by one character to kill the others. Talk about ruining the imaginative potential of the story!) Reading Annihilation, you have to wonder if VanderMeer meant to tell a story that’s completely different from what he wrote, one set in the real world, about real political fights between people.

In the end, for me, Annihilation was a book and movie that emphasized – amplified – the worst parts of what was happening in the world and in nature, without expressing or expanding any of the real intellectual currents that had been underway for years. So why the overpraise?

I’m guessing, as I see the movies planned for the next few years, that Annihilation was the first of some movies that want to be emotionally instructive to young people – Centennials, the generation after the Millennials, who are in their formative teen years right now. And maybe not emotionally instructive, but spiritually instructive.

The giveaway was when the characters started talking about the destruction coded into our genes. “Almost none of us commit suicide, and almost all of us self-destruct. In some way, in some part of our lives. We drink, or we smoke, we destabilize the good job and a happy marriage. These aren’t decisions, they’re impulses,” says Leigh’s Dr. Ventress to Lena. “Isn’t self-destruction coded into us? Programmed into each cell.” This is dialogue that sounds deeper than it actually is. This movie is strangely hung up on aging, as if it’s dying, and on imperfection, or life itself, as if it’s self-destruction.

And in winter 2017-2018, Millennials were much more concerned about survival as the country was tearing itself apart, worried about actual destruction, not ruminating on “self-destruction.” And anyway, can a movie be emotionally instructive to young people if it can’t even reflect what’s actually going on with adults?

So I don’t think Annihilation was for young people. It’s clear too that the movie, which didn’t do very well at the box office, was rejected by audiences of all ages. So then, who was it actually for?

I still have an image of the movie that could have been, based on the promising things about it I read in 2015. I had pictured the movie as more of a meditative psychological horror. A gray landscape, maybe foggy, maybe windy, with “the tower” as a black monolith in the distance and a hidden staircase. A landscape abundant in nature and full of hidden fears and hidden magic. We see the biologist played by Portman as she crouches over the ground, painstakingly recording her observations.

The narration begins. “Area X. Day one…”