‘Black Panther’ gave us the best score of 2018

Marvel movie music sucks.

As a whole, the drab bombast exists as just another means of propping up the Iron Mans and Black Widows of the Cinematic Universe, dramatic enough to propel action sequences but anonymous enough to never distract from Tony Stark’s shiny “Hulkbuster” armor. (Look no further than Every Frame A Painting‘s viral takedown of MCU scores for some concrete analysis).

So color me surprised to say I haven’t stopped thinking about Black Panther‘s music since February. Composer Ludwig Göransson hasn’t just written the best score for any Marvel movie ever; he’s written the best film music of any movie this year.

As a film, Black Panther has a lot to say. The fictional kingdom of Wakanda and its new ruler, T’Challa, draw on questions of culture and legacy and conquest — all of which are complicated with the introduction of violent usurper Killmonger. And, mind you, this is one of those rare superhero joints where the baddie has a not-entirely-unreasonable perspective.

Ultimately, the biggest idea on director Ryan Coogler’s mind centers around how people can learn to honor the past while not repeating it. It’s why Coogler begins and ends with a Wakandan “bugatti” spaceship landing in the middle of the Oakland projects.

It’s also why Göransson’s music is genius. The longtime Coogler collaborator traveled to Senegal for a month to study its music, following, among other musicians, Baaba Maal and incorporating recorded selections into orchestral arrangements. In blending contemporary action scoring with traditional African music, Göransson textures Black Panther with culture and ingenuity; it’s about as symbolically “Wakandan” as you can get. Among the many standout examples:

Black Panther‘s opening sequence is tremendously efficient in introducing Wakanda’s tribal history and cutting-edge technology, and the narration hints at subsequent geopolitical stakes as a result. And all of it transpires under this babbling brook of talking drums:

One of the strongest elements in Göransson’s work is how his recurring themes rest somewhere in between triumph and tragedy. His introduction for T’Challa as the Black Panther announces the character’s importance while never championing his actions against a terroristic Nigerian caravan:

As for the introduction to Wakanda, Goransson recalls T’Challa’s triplet theme but not before using a ceremonial “outcall” that glides over the African countryside. The result is a majestic balance of the country’s fictional present and its traditional past:

My favorite theme serves as a familial one, first playing under T’Challa when he reunites with his father’s spirit in the Ancestral Place. The sequence features this figure prominently, with gorgeous strings playing in unison:

Goransson issues variations on this theme throughout the film, including a darker distillation for Killmonger, which serves as the exclamation point at the end of his raid on a British museum. Knowing the story behind his true identity, it’s as clever a bit of foreshadowing as it is an empathetic acknowledgement that this particular villain’s complex pain is neither nor foreign not unjustified:

The MCU’s primary objective is to make inoffensive content first and push ideas second (or even third). Because of that low bar, Marvel’s successes are graded on a curve. But Black Panther is a rare exception, a cinematic miracle for any number of reasons, from its positioning of actors of color to its massive box office take. Its music is essential in understanding its success, introducing a fictional world while paying respect to a real one.


The magic is gone

Amazon hasn’t had a very good November, which is weird to say, given that the world’s largest internet retailer is about to receive billions of dollars from American taxpayers.

Earlier this month, Amazon announced that the widely-speculated location for its second headquarters would actually be split between Queens, New York and Crystal City, Virginia. It’s a news story I’ve been following with great interest, in part because of how well its captured the zeitgeist. Look no further than Saturday Night Live’s lampooning of the announcement this past weekend:

The central joke is that the company’s HQ2 location was just a flex for Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, but the larger point might be Steve Carell’s introductory aside:

And everyone, except for the people who live [in New York and Virginia] and the people who live in all the places we didn’t choose, is thrilled.

Donal Trump notwithstanding, who is thrilled about this? Amazon is projected to receive several billion dollars in tax subsidies, so the question of ‘Cui bono?’ is a serious one here. At The Atlantic, Derek Thompson broke down why it’s bad economics for American cities to cut a check to domestic companies:

One recent study by Nathan Jensen, then an economist at George Washington University, found that these incentives “have no discernible impact on firm expansion, measured by job creation.” Companies often decide where they want to go and then find ways to get their dream city, or hometown, to pay them to do what they were going to do anyway. For example, Amazon is a multinational company with large media and advertising divisions. The drama of the past 13 months probably wasn’t crucial to its (probable) decision to expand to New York City, the unambiguous capital of media and advertising.

Leading up to this announcement, there was ample speculation that Amazon would actually build its second headquarters in a predominantly rural community, boosting an impoverished economy in Coal County or the Deep South. Over at The Guardian, Robert Reich argues that it was silly to ever expect that:

Yes, corporate rents and housing costs are soaring, as are the costs of sending kids to school (even many “public” schools are in effect private ones because nobody but the rich can afford to live in the school district). But the incomes and profits generated in these places more than make up for it. Which is largely why Amazon chose New York and metro Washington despite their high costs.

As money pours into these places, so do service jobs that cater to the new wealth – pricey lawyers, wealth managers and management consultants, as well as cooks, baristas and pilates instructors. Between 2010 and 2017, according to Brookings, nearly half of America’s employment growth centered in just 20 large metro areas that are now home to about a third of the US population.

Relative to these booming mega-cities, America’s heartland is becoming older, less educated and poorer. The so-called “tribal” divide in American politics, which Trump has exploited, is better understood in these economic and cultural terms: on one side, mega-urban clusters centered around technologies of the future; on the other, great expanses of relatively open space inhabited by people left behind.

For The New York Times, J. David Goodman reported on the politically fraught process New York’s politicians engaged in to seal the deal:

…according to the broad contours of the plan, the state and the city will bypass the City Council, which has the power to block rezoning and land-use measures. They will instead employ a state-level process previously used for large-scale development projects, such as Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn and Hudson Yards on the Far West Side of Manhattan.

The price tag in city and state tax breaks appeared to exceed those of other projects. “It has the potential to be a deeper subsidy for Amazon as a percentage of the total project cost than at either Hudson Yards or Atlantic Yards,” said George Sweeting, the deputy director of the city’s nonpartisan Independent Budget Office.

The benefits for here have the potential to go well beyond the company’s bottom line. State Scoop‘s Benjamin Freed reported on Twitter that Amazon could be getting a free pass from the government on public disclosures:

Regardless of the company’s announcement, Amazon’s been in the news for bad reasons for some time now. Back in September, The New York Times profiled jurist Lina Khan, who’s been arguing for an antitrust case against the trillion-dollar company for over a year:

Over 93 heavily footnoted pages, [Khan] presented the case that the company should not get a pass on anticompetitive behavior just because it makes customers happy. Once-robust monopoly laws have been marginalized, Ms. Khan wrote, and consequently Amazon is amassing structural power that lets it exert increasing control over many parts of the economy.

Amazon has so much data on so many customers, it is so willing to forgo profits, it is so aggressive and has so many advantages from its shipping and warehouse infrastructure that it exerts an influence much broader than its market share. It resembles the all-powerful railroads of the Progressive Era, Ms. Khan wrote: “The thousands of retailers and independent businesses that must ride Amazon’s rails to reach market are increasingly dependent on their biggest competitor.”

Amazon’s also eased up on its quality control as of late. The excellent podcast Reply All did a special report on how the “Magic Store’s” gotten “sketchier” with hawking its wares. Earlier this month, BuzzFeed‘s Leticia Miranda wrote about how the retailer was selling merchandise from a political extremist group.

It’s easy to think of Amazon’s announcement as nothing more than a corporate publicity stunt and that any ensuing coverage is both a waste of time for the media and its readership. I wholeheartedly disagree. It’s essential to scrutinize any organization with as much capital and influence as Amazon. Regardless of what the residents of New York and Virginia believe, I’m glad I’m not alone on that.

Streaming giveth, and streaming taketh away

I just finished watching The Other Side of the Wind on Netflix.

Again, I just finished watching The Other Side of the Wind on Netflix.

Only a week after WarnerMedia announced it would be shutting down its FilmStruck arthouse movie service, Netflix releasing Orson Welles’ final film feels like a sick joke. (And let’s not even consider what the late director would say about the streaming giant in general).

The movie itself is nothing short of thought-provoking, a mashed-together combination of a fictional movie and the birthday party of its fictional director. John Huston plays Jake Hannaford, a cigar-chomping, scotch-swilling Hollywood veteran in the middle of cutting together his latest picture: The Other Side of the Wind, a jazzy, wordless neo-noir that wants to be about everything and nothing all at once. Complicating matters is that the film’s male lead (Bob Random) has walked off the picture opposite his exotic femme fatale (Welles’ real-life partner, Oja Kodar). This might be because Hannaford’s a crude crank. Or it might be because he’s lost sight of what he’s doing; as we hear from the cutting room floor, Hannaford’s “just making it up as he goes along.”

Those familiar with Welles and his infamously inefficient productions already see the similarities. The Other Side of the Wind is a surprisingly damning self-portrait, mocking industry journalists’ obsessions over Hollywood palace intrigue while ultimately laying blame at the feet of the palace overlords’ themselves.

Yes, it’s messy, as only something posthumously approximated from hours of dailies could be, and your mileage rests on whether you consider this to even be an Orson Welles movie. On face value, this isn’t as enigmatic as F for Fake, Welles’ treatise on truthiness, and there’s little use in comparing it to Citizen Kane. That messiness is also there for good reason. Nobody talks with the machine-gun chatter of Hannaford’s birthday guests, and in the case of his picture-in-progress, nobody talks at all. They’re two sides of the impenetrable chaos we’re told about early on, a shield for the self-doubting man behind the most influential movie ever made. We’re offered up the canard that movies are nothing more than “great places and pretty people,” but we can see through the fakery. For as much bluster as Hannaford has, he’s only as compelling as we make him out to be, and as the evening wanes, so does his intrigue. The boozing and the grab-ass are just noise for a sad old man to hide behind.

That’s a dour note for one of the all-time greats to leave us on. Again, there are lots of fingerprints on this, many belonging to Netflix, whose involvement remains the biggest surprise in all of this. The company has made a number of high-profile series cancellations in the past few weeks. Luke Cage and Iron Fist, seemingly sure-fire comics-based successes, got the axe. Netflix also will not be renewing the excellent true crime mockumentary American Vandal. In case it wasn’t already clear, we are increasingly at the whims of a few services dictating what stays and what goes. There was little monetary incentive for Netflix to release a movie of limited recognition by a director of limited appeal, but they did it anyway. As to why they did it? That’s another head-scratcher all on its own.

Goliath v. Goliath

On Saturday, the Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the Milwaukee Brewers 5-1, winning 4 games out of 7, taking home baseball’s National League pennant, and advancing to the World Series. Among other storylines, the series rejuvenated the postseason narrative of the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, this generation’s greatest pitcher hamstrung by inconsistent playoff performances.

Closer to home for me, the NLCS was also broad exposure for Milwaukee’s club. Outfielder Christian Yelich showed why he’s this year’s presumptive MVP, and Brewers manager Craig Counsell opened minds to a more dynamic approach to his bullpen, pulling starting pitchers earlier than the FOX broadcast booth expected; in the case of Game 5, Counsell brought in long reliever Brandon Woodruff to replace Wade Miley after he faced just a single batter.

Woodruff, by the way, was already famous for going yard against this Generation’s Greatest Pitcher back in Game 1:

While the Milwaukee Brewers have yet to win their first World Series title, the 2018 playoffs were a national platform for a small market franchise. And that’s really remarkable.

Right now, the modern baseball franchise is stuck in a bit of an identity crisis. While the sport’s television deals and the league’s revenue-sharing proposals have introduced the game to unprecedented wads of cash, not every baseball front office is choosing to use that money for baseball. Despite their market size, last year’s World Champion Houston Astros opted for years of losing and stockpiling draft picks, netting an absurd roster of MVP-caliber talent under cheap, rookie contracts. The Atlanta Braves just finished holding Cobb County for ransom over a needless, publicly-funded stadium. Baseball’s biggest offenders, the Miami Marlins, have merely shuffled from one soulless ownership group to another. This year,  the Oakland Athletics seemingly had a winning season in spite of a cynical owner. And again, all of this is happening at a time when the money in the sport has never been better.

The 2018 Milwaukee Brewers went the other way. This past offseason, they went out and traded for one of the best players in the game. They signed a premium free agent outfielder for five years and inked a revamped pitcher for another two. During the middle of a pennant race with the Chicago Cubs, they shored up their infield and added another bullpen arm. In this age of “tanking to win,” that’s rare. When it happens in a state where, if we’re counting college sports, the franchise is arguably the third most popular team, it’s a miracle.

It shouldn’t be. It’s easy to bemoan the big market teams in this year’s World Series. Undoubtedly, more money has given the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox more room for error. But sports ownership isn’t an excuse, it’s a privilege. When that privilege is abused, you get teams whose product is directly at odds with its profits. When that happens, you get the Miami Tax Havens.

The Milwaukee Brewers could have copied the Cubs. They could have torn everything down, restocked the farm system, and altogether embarrassed themselves with below-average rosters for a few years before getting lucky for a month in October. Instead, the Brewers leaned in. Sure, they tried and they failed.

But more importantly, they tried.

‘The Soundtrack Show’ knows film music – and it gets it, too

I’ve been a fan of David Collins’ podcasting work since the days of the tremendous Star Wars Oxygen. In addition to broadening my appreciation of the music of John Williams, the show gave me food for thought on a series of Star Wars music columns I wrote back in 2015Oxygen was a perfect mix of accessible and informative content, making music theory and analysis as approachable as possible.

I say “was” because Star Wars Oxygen‘s parent show, Rebel Force Radio, came under fire for toxic comments about gender and fandom earlier this year. In addition to losing a panel hosting gig at the Star Wars Celebration convention, Rebel Force Radio lost a great deal of good will. All of this was compounded by the outlet’s indignant response to the collective discourse, which was reason enough for me to stop supporting their content.

The downside to the controversy was that Star Wars Oxygen effectively went dark. It should be noted that David Collins was never directly associated with the comments, and by all accounts he proceeded to distance himself from Rebel Force Radio. Nevertheless, I was very bummed out that one of my favorite podcasts probably wasn’t coming back.

So it was to my great surprise that Collins would return to podcasting, this time partnering with How Stuff Works on a solo format. Collins’ new show, The Soundtrack Show, does everything Star Wars Oxygen did: it provides historical context, theory, and analysis of the film scores it features, and while Collins would begin his run by distilling his Star Wars work into shorter digests, he soon branched out into other franchises and composers.

As of late, The Soundtrack Show has gotten into the spirit of the season, highlighting music from horror and other October-friendly films. An episode on the music of Halloween breaks down John Carpenter’s effective minimalism. The show’s primer on Universal Studios’ monster movies is a staggeringly concise piece of film music history, calling out the presence of Swan Lake in early films like Dracula and The Mummy and analyzing Franz Waxman’s precedent-setting work on Bride of Frankenstein.

Yesterday, I listened to Collins dive into Elmer Berstein’s score for Ghostbusters, how it blends together horrific and comedic motifs. In the first episode (yes, this show is that thorough), Collins illustrates how the Ghostbusters’ jaunty main riff can sound scary or upbeat depending on the arrangement. He also uses some quick theory to point out why the demonic theme for the film’s uber-demon Gozer terrified me as a kid.

What’s most impressive about The Soundtrack Show is its attention to scoring details. Early in the movie, Bill Murray stages a faux investigation of Sigourney Weaver’s apartment as a cheap pick-up attempt. In a spirited bit of improvisation, he jingles two keys on the piano. Bernstein takes a comedic aside from Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman, jokingly jingling piano keys, and turns that moment into its own motif in his score.

“They hate that” is a hilarious aside in the film, but Collins points out how Bernstein actually repurposes two-notes of bullshit into a miniature theme for Venkman. I’ve seen Ghostbusters dozens of times and never noticed that once. Details like that can still blow your hair back, especially in a classic movie that’s often renowned for its nothing-ness.

A major pet peeve of mine is analyzing film music without the context in which it’s featured, and had I only listened to Bernstein’s music in isolation, I never could have picked up on this aspect. The Soundtrack Show never forgets that the music it features is in service of something else. That element alone makes it worth listening. Its host’s pedigree and endless positivity are an added bonus.

“The most self-defeating 5 months of your life”

As my friend Sam put it to me last week, fantasy baseball is maybe “the most self-defeating 5 months of your life.”

He wasn’t just taking a dig at me either. Sam’s the league commissioner. Managing the draft and overseeing any trades throughout the year add to the absurdities in the life of a fantasy baseball manager. Crunching numbers, sorting statistics, reading blogs, etc. In their only similarity to the real thing, fantasy sports are a zero-sum game, and in the age of the internet, extra information comes at a premium. By one rough calculation, I spent over 40 hours on fantasy baseball this year.

Why would anyone do this to themselves? One thing I’ve learned about myself in recent years is that I have a noxious combination of a competitive streak and a habit of being a sore loser. So speaking personally, winning twenty-something weeks (plus a seeded playoff tournament) represents a weird, digital validation for the time spent fretting over whether to keep a struggling veteran outfielder or exchange him for a high-risk, high-reward pitcher.

In microcosm, small transactions like that seem ridiculous, but in the scope of a fantasy baseball season, the “game of streaks” takes shape. In April, I lost my starting shortstop to a torn ulnar collateral ligament and prior to the season’s midpoint, my first baseman was utterly lost at the plate. Later in the year, my third baseman was in and out of the lineup with shoulder problems. Oh, and that high-risk, high-reward pitcher? His stock plummeted when he was moved to the bullpen.

Of course, those are just the negatives. I also drafted a starting pitcher who would end up a Cy Young contender, and my lineup woes were (mostly) offset by two potential MVPs this year.

None of this really encapsulates the rollercoaster experience of checking progress week-by-week, let alone day-by-day. Our league uses a head-to-head categories system, where every week your team faces off with another in 10 statistics or “categories.” Expected categories like home runs, strikeouts, and stolen bases are all there, but our league also opts for the less conventional ones like On Base Percentage and Quality Pitching Starts. At the end of each week, your team’s results in those categories are compared to that week’s opponent, and “wins” and “losses” are assigned based on who did better in each one. So, if your players stole more bases but fared worse in every other category, your record that week would be 1-9-0 — because ties happen, too.

After securing the top playoff spot over a dominant summer in which I lost to an opponent just once in an eight-week stretch, my team imploded. My red-hot lineup had cooled down, and a once-dominant pitching staff of undervalued arms was now showing why so many league-mates had slept on them.

I ended up taking third place this year with a narrow 6-4 victory. For me, that’s a pretty big deal considering how much recent teams of the past had been plagued by regression and injury. That’s the other thing with fantasy sports: no matter whom you draft or which player you trade for, luck will always be your MVP. Had my final starting pitcher not pitched a complete game shutout on a Sunday afternoon, I’d have been toast.

Then again, it’s not really about winning. Dan Okrent, on of the Founding Fathers of Fantasy Sports, never won a season in his baseball league. Our fantasy baseball league has been around for nine years, and that’s really why I do it. That’s the real reason I subject my anxiety to a barrage of spreadsheets every year. Because it gives me a chance to, however tangentially, stay in touch with one these people. Performances fluctuate; the league is the constant.



Just a number

The year I turned 12, my parents told me “This is it.” We were okay to celebrate birthdays at home with my sister but after this year, there would be No More Parties. Given my hormonal changes at the time and general social awkwardness, let’s just say I wasn’t designed to handle this well. Regrettably, I spent most of my very last birthday party holed up in my bedroom, avoiding grandparents and cousins and neighbors, too scared to confront this final celebration of birth and also very ashamed of that fact.

The regret later that evening is what has stayed with me. I remember confessing to my mom, crying, that I wanted a do-over, that I was ready to really enjoy it the next year. It’s a silly reaction to have to a birthday, and birthday parties in general are something that I tend to hold little interest in. After all, age is just a number, albeit one that remains “a pretty good predictor of when you’ll die.”

My 12 year-old self was focused on learning the opening riff to “Dammit” and reading Redwall, not his own mortality.  Despite turning 30 this week, I’m not really sweating it either. In recent years, I realized that birthdays feel like bummers because of how I was valuing them. I would always focus on the age as big, fat number. A candle-lit mile marker reminding me that I just finished another lap. You’ve been here this long, what have you got to show? I would fixate on the days themselves instead of how to use them. I would joke that “There’s nothing to look forward to after turning 21” or ask “Now that I can rent a car, what’s left?” Then I’d get stuck in ruts and yes, sometimes those ruts would fall on a day in September.

Thinking about life in terms of years is pretty useless and for my money, only reinforces that feeling of “FOMO,” that sinking anxiety that I wasn’t doing enough with my time. You’ve been here this long, what have you got to show? It’s a vicious cycle I have, thankfully, learned to break. Using my time differently has played a big part. In the past year, I’ve doubled down on learning Spanish. I’ve gotten back into playing music and reading and photography, and I’ve found a new appreciation for the outdoors. I am more patient. Of course, I also know that my mentality has to change, too. That’s the important part.

To dodge a dozen cliches, I’ve learned to value the day itself rather than some number. And that fear of missing out on life doesn’t always feel so present. This year, it wasn’t there at all.