Settle in for a long one. I’ve got a lot to share.
About a week ago, I dropped into a bit of a funk. It happens from time to time. Sometimes it lasts hours, sometimes it lasts months. Part of the human equation is that sometimes we have to fight our demons. Mine tend to be boredom and depression. I’ll spare you details. I’ve got plenty of weapons in the fight, and more importantly some very good friends, but ultimately I stand alone in the dark and face myself. No friends, no allies, no weapons. When I come back out again, essentially all that’s happened is I’ve reset the clock until the next time it happens. But at least I know that I’m functional again for the time being.
One of the ways I combat my demons is by flinging myself at various walls and see how hard I can bounce off them. I mean that proverbially, of course. My walls are lined with bookshelves, swords, and toys. I have no desire to break them or me. Suffice it to say, I’ve had my fingers in a lot of pies this week, some of which may or may not be of interest to those of you who follow this blog for whatever reason. Just a side note, that number keeps going up, and while I can’t for the life of me figure out why, I’m flattered that so many have taken an interest. The lot of you are weird, but awesome all the same.
So… what the freak have I been doing? I mapped this out, and I’m trying to figure out how spacetime folded itself to allow all of this. Best not to think about it.
On the book front… all the things! I started with a biography of Charlemagne that recently got translated to English. I think this is where the burnout might have started, simply coming straight onto this from the 4th volume of The Story of Civilization.
I didn’t get very far into it, and I cannot blame the book. It’s well-presented and quite interesting so far, though the caveat here is that we know so very little of Charlemagne himself that historians have to extrapolate who he was by the condition of the world before, during, and after him. No small undertaking. This one’s on the backburner for a short time, and you’ll understand why in short order.
I have four paper books in the works that I’ve been nibbling at in the evenings and over the last weekend, and again, I can’t blame any of the books in question. This is just part of the reading funk. The first two of these deal with music, because when I get bored with the world, it’s usually music that brings me back. I listen while I read to enhance the experience. I’ve been working through Gustave Reese’s Music in the Renaissance, the companion work to his book on the Middle Ages. Not exactly easy, but so very worth it.
The other music related book I’ve been flipping through is Kenneth LaFave’s Experiencing Film Music. This one came out just this year, and it looks to be an introductory book for those who want to dip their toes into the world of film scores. It’s by no means comprehensive, but it looks to be an excellent place to start for the enthusiast with a desire to learn.
I stumbled across a book called The Medusa Reader. This one’s a compilation of excerpts, poems, literary analyses, psychological treatises, and so on revolving around mythology’s favorite Gorgon. It’s presented in chronological order, the object being to give the reader a sense of how this character has evolved through the centuries and how her place in our collective understanding has likewise evolved. I like what I see so far. I haven’t looked yet, but I’m kind of curious to know if other such books exist.
Back in my college heyday, I was that guy who’d go to the comic shop every week and pick up a six inch stack of titles. How I accomplished this feat, I’ll never know, but I could really use that sort of financial wizardry in my life right now. Getting to the point, if you dig into the history of comics, eventually you’ll find a name of infamy: Dr. Fredric Wertham. To the world at large, this guy is a defender of freedom and liberal ideals. To the world of comic books, he’s considered to be one of the great deluded archfiends. It’s a story you come to learn about sooner or later, especially if you get sucked into DC Comics and try to see the parallels between their continuity and the real world. Back in the day, Wertham wrote a book that became so influential, it did real and lasting damage. Comic books, their characters, and their creators were called into Congress to defend themselves against claims of varying kinds of indecency, degeneracy, and outright malicious intent to rot the minds and morals of a nation’s youth from the inside out. To avoid government censorship, the comics industry turned on itself and created the Comics Code Authority, a guarantee to the public that anything bearing this stamp was “kid friendly.” This is where the notion that comics were for kids came from. Pay no attention to the fact that most of the readers a decade earlier were soldiers putting their lives on the line. It’s easy to point fingers and laugh, especially when it’s the likes of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman on trial in the years following World War II. It’s even easier to point at the 1st Amendment and say these characters are protected by Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press. The 1950s were a time not unlike right now, where people feared for their freedoms because of factions from within, and the scaremongering ran rampant. So as a point of curiosity, I’ve always wanted to read Wertham’s book and see for myself what his arguments were, beyond the superficial things I’d always heard about dismissively in magazine articles or blogs. Well, I tracked it down.
I at least have a working overview of this monster now, and… well, you know that phrase about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions? This book is part of the pavement. It represents the first serious look at the comic book industry, the effects of which would spill over into films, TV, music, and all manner of pop culture. Why did Rock and Roll become popular? Because when everything else bent to the stigma this book caused, the music flipped it the bird and rebelled.
And that brings me to the final book, which dropped this morning. I’ve been chomping at the bit for this one, and thanks to Audible, I started listening already. Ladies and gents, the funk is officially over, and I’m pleased to say I’ll be reviewing this book before the end of the week. What book? The Templars by Dan Jones.
I’m a fan of Jones. His books on The Plantagenets and The Wars of the Roses are, in my humble estimation, two of the very best narrative histories on the market, and easily among the best books on these subjects anyone could ask. Complex topics made as friendly to outsiders and enthusiasts as can be. And we all know how much I love reading about the Middle Ages and knights. This book was a priority. I’ve read a great many book on the Knights Templar and the Crusades. Most of them are either really difficult due to the nature of the beast, or they flake off into more romantic and, I’ll just say it outright, bullshit theories that have little or nothing to do with the historical Templars. Don’t get me wrong, those are fun stories in moderation. Who doesn’t like a good “what if?” But the cottage industry that’s risen around that nonsense needs to be capped like Old Yeller at this point. It’s part of the problem as to why people still think the Priory of Scion is a real thing, even though the guy that perpetuated it admitted it was a hoax before he died. And don’t even get me started on Dan Brown and Leonardo da Vinci. The man doesn’t know the first thing about the maestro’s art. *ahem* Ah, the echo chamber of the internet knows no bounds. Anyway… Jones’ book is keeping the romantic fallout of the Templars to his epilogue, focusing on the historical events that are every bit as exciting and incredible as anything pop culture or fiction can put forth, and it’s written not for other historians, but for those who’d simply like to understand. So far, I’m loving what I’ve encountered here so far. I’ll also be curious to see how what’s in this book translates to the upcoming TV series Knightfall, which my understanding is that Jones is a consultant, and sometimes the showrunners even listened to him.
You’d think that’d be enough for a week, but the nature of a reading funk is that you put books down and do something else. Retro gaming is still a thing in my world right now. Aside from the Atari 2600 back in the day, I missed most of the gaming boats between then and now. These days, I’ve got a handful of cartridges for the Super Nintendo, but my focus is primarily on The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
I suck at video games. I really do. You’d think between actually knowing how to swordfight and having enough history under my belt, I’d be a natural born Indiana Jones on some level. But no. And that’s part of why I can justify shelling out some money for one of these. What keeps most people occupied for a week will probably not be solved by me anytime in the next decade. I’ve taken to calling this game my digital hamster wheel because I keep going in circles. Sure, I could hit YouTube and learn all the secrets to beat the game, but where would be the fun in that? In the words of a great screen villain:
As you might imagine, going in circles only drives one temporarily insane and does nothing to alleviate boredom, so that leads me into TV. I’ve been revisiting a couple of old favorites this week, The Tudors and Darkwing Duck.
What can I tell you? I seek variety!
And that brings me finally to music, because this is ultimately where my head’s been the last few days in terms of entertainment. I’ve already mentioned about the Renaissance music and film music that I’ve been listening to as mood music for the accompanying books. But there’s been one album in particular that has come to the forefront for me the last few days.
One of my current favorite podcasts is called Underscore. These guys are film score musicians in their own right, so they know what they’re talking about. For someone like me who has none of the formal education but plenty of enthusiasm for the subject matter, it’s filling a niche out there and doing a public service. They deserve to be heard. When they cover a film in detail, they’ll do four episodes. The first will cover the main theme, the second will be over additional themes, the third is a spotting session, and the fourth is a full commentary to accompany the film so as to discuss the score in context. The latest four episodes have been on E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial, considered by and large to be John Williams’ masterpiece. It’s not my favorite of his, but it’s hard to argue the perfection of this score. It’s been a lot of years since I watched this film. How long? Let’s just say it was first run in the theaters at the time. Like so many movies of that era, this one lingers with me, but I’ve never gone back and rewatched. I can’t tell you why that is. But I can tell you the experience of it is one of those classically-perfect memories that I can call up any time I listen to the soundtrack. It’s not so much a memory of time and place… I mean it is that, but it’s also a sense of emotional wonder. This is one I’ve not really analyzed or appreciated the way I have, say, Star Wars or Indiana Jones. Underscore provided a first rate look inside this score, and with it, all the memories came rushing back. The score for this film is a fountain of youth.
So what’s so special about E. T.? It’s one of those oddball rarities in the history of film music. Everyone understands the basic concept: music is scored to film, to service the film, to provide background tapestry and emotion. What if I told you that Steven Spielberg told John Williams to keep the music he’d scored intact and edited the movie around the score? Messes with your head a little? Yeah. It’s virtually unheard of for that sort of thing to happen, and the result is pure cinema magic on a scale that echoes through the ages for all the right reasons. In the hands of pretty much any other director or composer, that entire concept would have fallen apart in a blaze of hubris. This little gem shines on.
At the same time this podcast was doing its thing, one of my favorite film score websites announced… E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial 35th Anniversary Edition.
There’s no money in the fund for anything resembling decent food, but I had my copy of the album preordered within minutes of the site going live with it. Of course I did. How could I not? In the meantime, I’ve still got my original version of the score, and it’s gotten more play recently than at any time since I’ve first heard it. To have this expanded, remastered edition is going to be incredible. The album ships in a few days from now. Yes, I’m still that guy who buys CDs. And listen to them too. I also rip them at far higher quality than any streaming service will provide because my superhearing can discern what’s otherwise missing and hear digital artifacting that you don’t hear on a CD. All part of the wonder that is Sensory Perception Disorder. The world may kill me, but I can savor the music on a level few around me will ever experience.
The experience with E. T. made me realize something important. I pride myself on active listening when it comes to music. Likewise, I pride myself on a great variety of genres and ages. But how many pieces of music have I really, truly listened to on this level? I can point to pretty good pile of such works, but compared to the whole… well, much like with my reading habits, I’m starting to think I need to refocus less on breadth and more on depth. It’s like there’s a signal in my brain telling me to slow down and savor. At this stage in my life, I’m inclined to heed that advice.
So, that’s where I’m at right now. The funk is over, my head is reeling with things both new and revisited, and somewhere in the midst of it I even got some sleep. By that, I mean I was unconscious for a large part of Sunday. I’m just as surprised as you are.
How are you?