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Emerging

By Tom Harrison

May 15, 2020

We know that movies are a dramatized, condensed, simplified and often hollowed-out version of our experienced or imagined reality. The dramatic arts use a toolbox of devices to translate experiences that take place over weeks and months and years into a cohesive visual and audio narrative that can hold our relatively short attention spans for 30-120 minutes (Quibi’s business model assumes our attention spans are far less).

I think that is why, over the last two months, we have found ourselves saying out loud, “This is like a movie.” It’s why I call my grocery store trips “supply runs.” It’s why the sight of masked faces in public fills me with a combination of dread (“The Purge”) and resolve to fight to save humanity (pick any dystopian thriller about an environmentally-decayed future). When I heard my elected officials talk about reopening, another set of movies started flashing in my brain.

We’ve all seen them. A group of survivors-- haggard, battered, and fear-stricken-- huddle together in some form of makeshift shelter (e.g., underground cave, abandoned building, or old bunker). Outside a storm rages. Perhaps man-made, environmental, or alien. After a prolonged period of flashing lights and explosive sounds, the sound of the world shaking apart, everything goes silent. After the survivors wait in silence, they unclench, open their eyes, and stand up. They walk slowly towards the closed door. It frames a beautiful, yellow-white light. Our survivors slowly walk towards the light and . . .

. . . emerge.

In communities around the country, stay at home orders are being relaxed or lifted entirely, and replaced by “phased re-openings”. We are being told it will be safe to leave our shelters and return to some of our routines-- shopping, exercise, grooming. But it will be different. We must circulate with faces half covered. I will still wear latex gloves, carry disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer (and hand lotion) in my car. We will engage with one another from a distance. As an African-American male, I can’t help but notice a strange connection. We have to treat each other as the thing too many of us have been conditioned to universally fear in this country-- a black man in a hoodie. Everyone is Treyvon Martin now.

I don’t know which set of movies will come next, though. Will we return to banal dramas? Will we have to band together to save ourselves from the tyrannical forces that rise after an apocalypse? Or will it be worse? Will we be forced to wander an ungoverned wasteland with our surviving family members just trying to scavenge and survive in a world where everyone is a threat? Will our lives really play out like a Cormac McCarthy novel? Or will we be forced to turn our homes into impenetrable bunkers against unseen and visible foes, only to ultimately have them penetrated (“It Comes At Night”)?

I think the ending is up to us, not the ones speaking from our screens. If we want to emerge into the beginning of a cool franchise, then we need to keep our masks on, take care of each other, and prepare for the hard work of rebuilding the world. I love films with truly dark and bleak endings. But I don’t want to live that movie.

Photo by Tommy Kessel for Unsplash

Sorry, Disney. The Empire Strikes Back Will Always Be The Best Star Wars Movie.

by Tom Harrison

Four decades ago, the sequel to Star Wars arrived in theaters. We had no idea how the story would continue after the destruction of the Death Star. This chapter of the ultimately 9 film Skywalker saga remains the best. Rather than battling new versions of the Death Star (seriously, 5 movies centered on either the actual Death Star, its Version 2, or another planet-killing weapon), the central characters embarked on epic journeys that later converged in a cloud city against their shared nemesis, Darth Vader. It introduced the now canonical characters Yoda, Lando Calrissian, and Boba Fett. It showed us the real Force powers (moving objects– yes; super speed– yes; blaster-proof shield– yes; teleportation– nope; healing–nope). But the reason ESB is unsurpassed by any other Star Wars film is its ending. For the first time, the heroes of a franchise movie fought to a stalemate at great personal cost. Our favorite anti-hero frozen and kidnapped by the coolest bounty hunter ever; Luke survives his fight against Darth Vader but loses a hand. And, of course, there is the reveal of all reveals. The shocking confession that no one saw coming because no one suspected that Obi-Wan lied to young Luke. Darth Vader is Luke’s father, former Jedi master Anakin Skywalker. Those two unsettling and unprecedented cliffhangers (can Han be rescued, and can Luke face and defeat his own father) hung in the air for 3 years until the next film arrived. 

What We're Watching

What We're Watching

Weeks of March 23-29, March 30-April 5

Tom Harrison

I am learning a truth about being human– being social is an activity. And yet before this pandemic, far too much of my time was spent in ‘passivity’. Watch something, go to the next movie or episode. Even social media use had become passive. Scroll the feed and click a few buttons as you go. I’m experiencing a fundamental shift in my view of the value entertainment holds in my life. I’m viewing it through a social scale and find most of it rates low.

For example, before the need for social distancing, I thought my entertainment was highly social– head downtown, have a rushed conversation over drinks in a crowded brewery, head to a show (music or movie), sit or stand in rows facing in one direction to take in something from a stage or screen. Then head home. I called that a good night, accepting as essential the cold transactional nature of the overall experience. Often, I fooled myself into believing I was truly socializing by creating human connections at each transactional checkpoint– saying hello at the ticket window, making awkward conversation as I got my hand stamped, and of course, the long-standing faux-social tradition of the bartender conversation.

Now that the bars are closed, music venues are shuttered, and the cafes are only serving to-go, I’ve discovered what socializing truly is. It involves an awareness of what you really look like. Without the atmosphere, it involves facing the reality of awkwardness that can no longer be smoothed over by the clinking of glasses and the natural pauses of ordering, receiving, and re-ordering drinks. Without that screen or stage to put my attention on, I have to engage with myself and the people around me. That is being social.

It seems that performers, particularly musicians, are becoming aware of the manufactured nature of the barrier between audience and performer. The at-first tentative livestream concerts from living rooms, bedrooms and offices, have now become a weekly rhythm. I’m discovering artists, some of my favs and some new, deconstructing the performance with its transactional walls and reconstructing it as a truly social experience. Instead of performing as “Artists”, they are coming to us as humans that create. The following are a few highlights from livestreams over the past two weeks.

1. The War and Treaty. This husband and wife duo, Michael and Tanya, took the Americana and folk world by storm last year with the debut full-length album “The Healing Tide”. They blend soul, gospel, and folk into songs that lift, wrap, hug, and heal listeners with love. They are active on Instagram. In preparation for a livestream benefit concert, they started a live video to rehearse and play around with their fans. Without a stage, livestream brings you within inches of the artists. It was a beautiful thing to experience their achingly gorgeous harmonies from their living room, and see their adoring faces turned to each other.

Then terrible news hit the next day. From a video, Tanya informed us all that she tested positive for COVID-19 and as a result, the planned concert was cancelled. This new intimacy between artist and fan means we feel not only the joy and beauty directly, but also the pain and loss. I thought about Tanya all week.

A curious thing happened a few days later. Late on a Saturday night, The War & Treaty started a livestream. Michael was having trouble sleeping so he just wanted to connect with people. As many of you have discovered on Instagram live, you can allow people into the chat. The screen splits and you can talk directly to the streamer while your video feed is beamed to the full live audience.
Michael invited folks to chat with him. I pressed the button and let him know I lived in Denver.

Suddenly, my face and the backdrop of my kitchen were connected to him and seemingly the world. For a few precious minutes, we connected as friends, asking about each other and our families. Tanya was fortunately through the worst of the virus and recovering. We even laughed and shared a Sanford & Son joke.
For the next 20 minutes, he connected with more people, just chatting and sharing stories. I really appreciated his sharing with a fellow veteran.

After the stream, I was full inside, a reminder of how necessary daily connection and fellowship is. In this age of #Netflixandchill and willingly being influenced by people posting quasi-expertise on Youtube, the experience showed how empty the one-way connection of most of our entertainment feels. We binge watch episodes not because of the richness of the content, but rather because our souls crave active connection and this type of on-screen entertainment is the equivalent of diet soda for our souls. As human beings, we need moments of active connection– no scripts, just feelings, words, and faces.

2. Julia of the glitter-punk band The Foxies. While stuck in her house with her family, Julia’s taken to going live on Insta whenever she feels like it. The first time I tuned in, it was mostly a giggle-fest as she tried to figure out things to play. From a performance perspective, it wasn’t productive. The second time wasn’t any better. From a connection perspective, though, it’s fantastic. I giggled with her as she dropped f-bombs and wrestled with chords and guitar tuning. Three weeks in and these sessions were like phone calls, except instead of mindless conversation, she shared songs. I put out a request during one session while I was in the car. She saw it and let fly a beautiful acoustic version of “Dreaming.” For those minutes, she was right there in the passenger seat singing to me.

In her livestreams, she has reminded me where song comes from. In her stops and starts, questions to people on and off-stream (“Could you look up the chords?”), and fits of giggles, I flashed back to the bathtub as a young boy. While our skin pruned in the tub, my brother and I splashed and sang made-up songs about our lives (mostly about toys and cartoons). That’s the root of good song– pure play first, then work. I loved one of Julia’s livestreams last week. She was goofing around with quarantine-themed songs. Then her brother hit a good riff on the guitar that vibrated with the lyric she was singing at that moment. I watched her face light up. “I’ve got to go and voice memo this,” she said, then clicked off to work on her forthcoming quarantine masterpiece.

3. Maggie Rose. The name itself evolves a country song. This Nashville artist is so much more than country though. She could have used her clear tone, amazing range, and virtuosic control to catapult her to Carrie Underwood-style country stardom. But Maggie Rose has followed the music in her soul, and there’s more than straight country inside. Her songs burst with passion, soul, and heart. Ballads like “It’s You” and “Pull You Through”, jams like “Smooth”, and catchy grooves like “Change the Whole Thing” express ALL of Tennessee, both sides of the river, from delta to field.

For the past few weeks, she has been blessing her fans with Friday night virtual concerts. The first was a rocking basement party with her full band. The second was a laid-back, acoustic, socially-distanced set from her backyard. Last Friday was an intimate set with her and a second guitar. She is proving that you can deliver fun and professional entertainment through the internet.

4. Cecile McLorin Salvant. A couple weeks ago, the Grammy award-winning jazz vocalist streamed a concert from her apartment. Her voice is Ella Fitzgerald clear, Sarah Vaughn versatile, and Betty Carter playful. Accompanied by pianist Sullivan Fortner, she delivered a full 2 hours of evening entertainment. She gave us her signature interpretations of standards like “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” as well as her expressive and witty originals.

She interspersed her songs by answering viewer questions and also opening video chats. In doing so, she transformed the livestream into a variety show reminiscent of “The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show”. We were treated to beaming exchanges with artists and fans around the country. And though a technical glitch prevented the iconic Diane Reeves from joining the program, that livestream showed the fun that can happen when you fully dissolve the wall between performer and audience. Let’s hope Ms. Salvant is empowered to do another one or even make it a regular thing.

When the pandemic passes, I will continue the lessons I have learned about human connection. By making entertainment social, I now believe it can protect us from complacency when adversity strikes. Perhaps by appreciating the realness of being live and making authentic human connection, we will be a little proactive and actually prepare ourselves for the uncertainty that is the future.

 

4/6/20

pop lessons on viral outbreaks

A Few Pop Culture Lessons on Viral Outbreaks

The big difference between the COVID-19 threat and any viral threat depicted on-screen has to do with the stakes. In movies and TV shows, the threat has to be immediate and personal to hold our attention.

The global COVID-19 pandemic is a dangerous, deadly threat to the very young, the elderly and those with compromised respiratory or immune systems due to illness, disease, physical condition, or current medical treatment. By the numbers, the mortality rate stands at around 3%. So, for the majority of the planet’s population, this isn’t about avoiding a Thanos-like finger-snap. That makes most of us on the planet the hero of the movie, not the potential victim. By washing our hands and imposing social distancing and self-isolation, we are actively fighting to save hundreds of millions of people. These are people like our infant children, asthmatics like myself, friends in the midst of cancer treatment, and our parents and grandparents.

If you need some additional inspiration to be a hero, below are lessons from a few pop culture sources.

Lesson #1. Don’t touch your face. Contagion (2011). Nine years ago, Steven Soderberg and an A-list cast including Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, and Jude Law presented a pandemic’s spread in the U.S. in the most realistic terms possible. It was plausible at the time and highly entertaining. Now, it’s a roadmap of our country’s worst-case scenario (which, as of last week, we seemed to be on a fast march towards). Check out this eerie exchange between Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) and Dave (Larry Clarke).

Dave : My wife makes me take off my clothes in the garage. Then she leaves out a bucket of warm water and some soap. And then she douses everything in hand sanitizer after I leave. I mean, she's overreacting, right?

Dr. Erin Mears : Not really. And stop touching your face, Dave.

Lesson #2. Treat everyone as if they’re infected. The Thing (1980). John Carpenter’s terrifying remake of the 1951 classic “The Thing from Another World” ends (spoiler alert) on the bleakest note I’ve seen in film. Two characters in the Arctic are forced to wait outside of their destroyed research base and freeze to death because they can’t trust that neither one of them is the shape-shifting monster. In “The Thing”, the safety protocol is the exact opposite of our pandemic. The only way to ensure that no one is a murderous alien is to stay together at all times. Here, we need to keep our distance. But the underlying paranoid perspective is the same. When the threat is unseen and indiscriminate, the only thing to do is treat everyone as a threat. You don’t need a blowtorch, though, to stay safe; just 6 feet of distance and access to soap and water.

Lesson #3. The real threat is us. The Walking Dead (2010 - ). The big reveal in Season 1 of The Walking Dead is that all humans have a passive version of the zombie virus. If anyone dies, they will become a “walker.” The cool twist on the zombie canon should have added a more interesting twist to this Simpsons-of-Zombies show. To stop the spread, people should be doing the utmost to keep everyone alive. Instead, the zombies became the equivalent of a childhood game where the floor is lava; they are just the dangerous backdrop. The show takes the view that survival turns people into murderous, selfish psychopaths. I’d like to believe that is not the case, but the hoard purchasing of TP, paper towels, and sanitizer by the masses lends a level of truth to the fatalistic perspective.

BONUS Lesson: Total containment is not the goal. Zone One by Colson Whitehead (2011). In this slow-burn zombie novel, Whitehead presents a very convincing argument-- if you put all of your effort into keeping the threat out so you can create a safe zone, then your effort will fail spectacularly. It’s a brilliant novel with an ending that will haunt you forever. Fortunately, our policy-makers have not taken this route. The moment your governor or mayor announces the construction of a giant wall, however, is your signal to pack your bags.

By Tom Harrison, 3/17/20

Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

What We're Listening To

Week of March 3-8, 2020

1999 [2 Disc Deluxe Ed.] - Prince

My God, this is an amazing album. At the time it first dropped, nearly 4 decade ago, we digested music mostly through the airwaves and MTV music videos. We didn’t start listening to Prince on cassette until “Purple Rain”. So, all this time we missed out on these fantastic B-sides. We never heard power ballad “Free”, the pop ditty “Lady Cab Driver,” or even knew that “How Come You Don’t Call Me?” was a Prince song, let alone that it was basically a throw-away B-side. As usual, the songs fill us with sadness. As is our habit, we rotate anything new with his entire career of work, through “Art Official Age” and both “HitNRun” albums. Prince never peaked. His sound modernized and evolved, but he remained a strong and unique pop songwriting voice right up until it was cut short.

We also love to listen to Prince as a playlist mixed with the music of his many disciples. This week, we chose Van Hunt’s “The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets” (2015), Janelle Monae’s “Dirty Computer” (2018) and Bilal’s “A Love Surreal” (2013) and “In Another Life” (2015). As usual, hearing these artists in the context of their biggest influence lifts up their work.

Van Hunt picked up the funk torch from Prince and Monae is all about his dance and pop prowess (sprinkled with his social awareness). Of the 3 disciples we chose this week, Bilal is our favorite. He took up the most challenging part of Prince’s legacy, his jam-based, jazz thread. Bilal records and performs with a live band. He keeps the arrangements fluid and loose, allowing for very dynamic songs, with shifting tempos, drum lines that hold back and then attack, and infectious grooves (we can’t get enough of “I Really Don’t Care”).

For us, the continuing work of these artists and his other disciples are a ghostly extension of Prince himself.

Photo by Pinho . on Unsplash

What We're Watching

(TV Recaps with Mild Spoilers) Week of March 2-8, 2020

The Witcher, Season 1, Ep. 5 - Bottled Appetites & Ep. 6 - Rare Species

The romance seemed rushed. But then we find out Yen and Geralt have a longer history, that’s she’s been creeping into his bed for awhile, and leaving him with her fading scent as a dream-like memory. Henry Cavill and Anya Chalotra give these two a palpable, powerhouse chemistry.

We love the twists in each episode. Each one surprises. Unlike other Netflix original series like “The [Terrible] I-sland”, the dialogue is well-written.

The enigmatic bad guy, Cahir (Eamon Farren), gets fleshed out. We learn there’s a purpose driving his murderous march. The best villains are always the ones with a purpose, who believe they are fulfilling something that is right.

Let’s hope we get some Witcher Pops soon. These would make great McFarlane Toys action figures, too.

Altered Carbon, Season 2, Ep. 3 - Nightmare Alley

Season 2 is really strong, but it’s hard to pinpoint the why. The plot is coalescing into a conflict between Takeshi Kovacs (Anthony Mackie) and an old friend now foe, Yaeger (Torben Liebrecht). The conflict between the two, though, is weak. We’re supposed to believe that, basically, daddy never got over Kovacs leaving the Protectorate and joining up with Quellcrist Falconer (Renne Elise Goldsberry). For that, he wants to capture him and torture him for a few centuries.

The action is still first-rate. Simone Messick (playing bounty hunter Trepp) is single-handedly holding up the weak and uneven plotting. She’s the Samuel Jackson of the show. The political intrigue is falling flat. The Governer, Danica Harlan (Lela Loren), doesn’t like Harlan’s World’s co-founder. Who cares?

Photo by Mahkeo on Unsplash

Why "MyMy"?

When he was 2¹/₂, my wife and I enrolled our son Michael in a once-a-week Mandarin language class. Every Sunday, I sacrificed watching a NFL game to drive 30 minutes south to a high school in Highlands Ranch. There, the Great Wall Chinese Academy transformed the empty halls and classrooms of the public high school into a Chinese elementary and middle school. 

From his desk, Michael’s feet couldn’t touch the floor. Even so, he sat still for the first hour of class, talked and played with the other kids during the snack break, and sat still again for the second hour of instruction. Over those 8 months of classes, I remember him speaking only a handful of Mandarin words (though he did enjoy writing characters). After the last class of the year, it was clear to me that Michael would not be a multi-linguist.

A month into the summer, my son looked up and asked one day, “When are we going back to the school?” He asked that same question every day until he returned to the Chinese academy in the fall. 

The following fall, he started kindergarten at a language immersion school, learning Mandarin full-time. It was there that he learned his Mandarin name, “Mei-Mei.” It seemed to perfectly fit this boy who was always brimming with cuteness.

When I began the toy store, I wanted to incorporate my son’s name in the business, since it sprang from the thousands of dollars spent on toys for him and the thousands of hours we spent playing with them. Millennium Michael’s Toys is still the formal company name, the product of an intense company meeting in the car (“No, Michael, we can’t call ourselves ‘Dragon Fire Toys’.”) When I needed to shorten the company name to one word, I thought of Michael’s Mandarin name. A quick mutation in English and MyMyToyStore was born.

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