I harbor a lot of mistrust towards anything that purports to be “non-fiction.” If I know you’re lying to me, I can figure out what you’re trying to say. But if you say you’re telling me the truth, then I’m immediately suspicious.

I have a complex.

Thus, you’d expect that I wouldn’t go out of my way to catch a limited-release documentary – and you’d generally be right. However, we’re talking about Fred Rogers here, the closest America has ever come to producing a universally-acknowledged saint. The man has a reputation for being one of the kindest, most sincere individuals to ever rise to public prominence. I guess I was looking for a little kindness and sincerity.

I don’t have enough of a reference pool for documentaries to know if this one is a good one, so if you’re here for deep, insightful film criticism… I mean, I liked it. Of course I did. Go see it. See it twice. Take your dad. He misses you.

I didn’t come away from Won’t You Be My Neighbor? trying to figure out what it was trying to sell me on. I didn’t walk away looking for inconsistencies, or questioning whether everything I just saw actually happened, or if the subjects interviewed really believed what they said about Fred Rogers. I came away questioning MYSELF, more than anything. And I found myself wanting.

Fred Rogers had a ministry, a calling from God, to teach and support children. He vowed to help children cope with the difficulties of life so that they could grow into stronger, braver adults. He wanted (and I apologize for the cliché) to “make the world a better place.”

I’m not sure he ever felt like he succeeded in that ministry.

In one of the most striking moments of the film, Rogers questions whether the good he does is enough. In the wake of 9/11, he sees the immensity of evil in the world, and, for a moment, he feels defeated. Sure, he pulls together in the end and delivers a hopeful message, just as we all knew he would, but that doubt was there.

At the end of his life, Rogers questioned, “Am I a sheep?” Meaning, will I be saved, or will I, like the goats, go to hell? Was my ministry enough, or did I disappoint my creator?

I don’t know that I have ever related to a cultural icon more in my life. I know, objectively, that my little corner of the world is in better shape than it’s ever been before. However, I see so, so many problems, and I feel this great desire to try to do something about them, fix them. And it never, ever feels like its enough.

Thus, I feel like a failure. Like so many people do. Like Fred Rogers did, despite all his extraordinary success. What can you do?

Well, one thing you can do is maybe take to heart a little wisdom from the man himself: “…for all the rest of your days and nights, I hope you can remember that you never have to do anything sensational for people to love you.”

It seems apparent to me, reading this now, that I waited a few days after seeing Won’t You Be My Neighbor? before writing. Coming out of the theater, I felt cheery and uplifted. Today, however, I feel worn down, tired, and frustrated. And that’s shaped my perspective on the film more than a bit, I’m sure.

It’s true: you will never do enough good to outweigh the bad. It’s literally impossible. Hopefully, however, we don’t look at the enormity of the task and give up. Rather, we should take it as a challenge: “We can never do ‘enough’ good, so why should we ever stop?”

Do whatever good you can, wherever you can, however you can. Bolster the fearful. Comfort the mourner. Stand by your friends, and have patience with those you disagree with.

And, seriously, call your dad. Don’t make me ask you again.

In the Study

Oh, don’t worry. It’s only a drawing I’ve been working on for, like, a month. No biggie.

The more I use it, the less enamored I am with the screentone brush I currently have (you can see it in the cap and on the vest in the portrait). The pattern is really quite blatant on smaller canvases, and the area between to dots isn’t empty, but rather filled with a muddy gray. I’ll continue to look for a tone I’m happier with, but I’m starting to think I’ll get better results if I just fill in those spaces by hand.

Who Tells Your Story: My Hamil-thoughts

I’ve wanted to write this post for a couple of weeks now, but I haven’t quite figured out the best way to approach the subject. My girlfriend bought me a ticket to the touring production of Hamilton, which further demonstrates that she is just the best you guys! I left the theater with dozens of thoughts swirling around in my head, and I’ve been trying ever since to put them in a coherent, pseudo-intelligible order.

And this is why my blog post about Hamilton visiting Salt Lake City is going up well after Hamilton has moved on.

So what follows is a random jumbling of thoughts, with very little connecting them other than the source material. I wish I had something more profound to say about one of the most profoundly affecting productions I have ever watched, but I’m afraid I can’t be quite that insightful. Here we go:

When my cousin first told me that someone put together a hip-hopera about the life of Alexander Hamilton, I thought for sure we had reached peak Broadway self-parody.  I could easily see a Hamilton musical sliding neatly into Simpson’s episodes, right between that time they did a Planet of the Apes musical and Mark Hamill singing, “Luke, be a Jedi tonight!”

Still, I’m interested enough in both rap and history that I tuned in to a CBS special on the production and was immediately blown away. Snippets of particular songs caught my attention and imagination – bits of “Yorktown” and “You’ll Be Back,” in particular. It would be months before I heard anything more substantial about the show, and almost two full years before I finally heard the soundtrack in its entirety, but from almost the very beginning, Hamilton proved itself to be an earnest, moving, and relatable exploration of the life of one of the founding fathers of my nation.

Even more than the music, though, the bit from the above-linked special that got me was when musical author Lin-Manuel Miranda mentioned that the story of the founding fathers would be told by “America, now” – meaning a multi-racial cast would play the nearly all-white congresses and cabinets of the nascent U.S.A. I latched onto this idea and loved it from the very start. See, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the rest are part of the heritage of all American citizens, regardless of when they or their ancestors came here. So why shouldn’t all American citizens have the opportunity to play these founding fathers and honor their own heritage? It’s a lovely sentiment, and one I’m happy to support.

I am, unfortunately, one of those white boys who really likes to listen to hip-hop and rap. I love poetry, and I especially love complicated, clever rhymes. You just don’t get those sorts of rhymes outside of hip-hop anymore – and, frankly, you don’t get them often in mainstream hip-hop, either. Hamilton, though, is chock-full of deliciously clever rhymes and wordplay. Read this bit from “The Schuyler Sisters”:

I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine

So men say that I’m intense or I’m insane

You want a revolution? I want a revelation

So listen to my declaration:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident

That all men are created equal”

And when I meet Thomas Jefferson

I’mma compel him to include women in the sequel!

Work!

The first two lines in particular are loaded with internal rhyme – somehow, “so men say” winds up rhyming with BOTH “Common Sense” and “Thomas Paine.” And this is just one small section of one small song. The whole show is filled with moments like this.

The best moments, though, are probably not even the lengthy verses of intricate rhymes and masterful spitfire delivery. Rather, they’re these the little, almost incidental lines. Some are repeated leitmotifs – emotionally-charged statements that recur repeatedly throughout the show, each time with a slightly different meaning. Others are just one-off utterances that manage to land with the impact of a fist. Any one of these could easily be someone’s favorite line in the show:

  • “I am not throwing away my shot!”
  • “It must be nice to have Washington on your side.”
  • “In New York, you can be a new man.”
  • “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”
  • “History has its eyes on you.”
  • “Well, he’s never gon’ be president now.”
  • “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”

And my personal favorite:

  • “Immigrants: We get the job done.

I guaran-dang-tee that I missed somebody’s favorite in there.

If you haven’t seen the show or heard the soundtrack, these lines probably don’t mean much to you. If you have, though, you now have about a million great songs stuck in your head. And, for that, you’re welcome.

As a younger, more naive student of literature, I assumed that a lot of the themes and messages of great literature was accidental – that writers just composed stories they liked, and readers extrapolated themes from those stories based on their own experiences. Turns out that’s typically not true. Writers put an exceptional amount of effort into crafting themes and braiding motifs together, and you can see that clearly in the way Hamilton took shape.

The hip-hop conventions used throughout the show are more than a gimmick. Rather, the rap sections demonstrate actual, significant character development. Take, for example, the character Lafayette. The first time Lafayette appears on stage, he speaks uncertainly in English mixed with French. He has a heavy accent pauses to ask how to pronounce certain words. But then, when he appears again in the song “Guns and Ships,” he delivers a ridiculous line in three seconds:

“And I’m never gonna stop until I make ’em drop

And burn ’em up and scatter their remains.”

Eighteen words. Three seconds. All English.

Miranda confirmed that this machine-gun of a line was meant to demonstrate how Lafayette had mastered the English language since the start of the revolution. The way Lafayette matures into an eloquent polyglot is the apotheosis of “show don’t tell.”

Whenever an actor plays two roles in a single show, I perk up and pay attention. Usually, this decision is made due to a lack of available talent; however, smart directors and producers know that such casting can add a lot to the themes of a particular show. For example, most productions of Peter Pan cast the same actor in the role of Wendy’s father who later goes on to play Captain Hook, thus forcing one to consider that the villain in Peter Pan may actually symbolize adulthood as a concept, and not just a pirate who is literally afraid of the passage of time (oh wait…).

In essence, such casting practically begs for a slew of compare/contrast essays. And if there’s one thing that I, as a recovering English major, love, it’s a good compare/contrast essay.

Four of the main cast wind up playing two different parts. The actors who play Lafayette, Mulligan, Laurens, and Peggy in Act I come back in Act II as Jefferson, Madison, Phillip, and Maria Reynolds. Now, I’m no historian, but it seems to me that these pairings are at least a little deliberate.

In part, the dual-casting illustrates how Hamilton, during his rise, was defined by his friends (his fellow revolutionaries and his sister-in-law). However, during his decline, he was defined by his rivals (Jefferson and Madison) and the people who threatened to destroy his personal life (Maria).

The one outlier here is the dual casting of Laurens and Phillip. Laurens was, as far as I can tell, Hamilton’s closest friend during his formative years. Phillip, Hamilton’s son, was perhaps the person Hamilton loved most in the world, as evidenced by how excitedly he anticipates Phillip’s birth. Both, of course, are killed tragically, and way too young. In both rise and fall, Alexander Hamilton’s life revolved around tragedy.

There’s an interesting lyrical conceit employed in Hamilton. Certain motifs are drawn out and prolonged, only to be truncated a second later for emphasis. From “That Would Be Enough”:

HAMILTON:

Will you relish being a poor man’s wife

Unable to provide for your life?

ELIZA:

I relish being your wife.

Again, this works better with the accompanying score and with the performance of the cast.

It’s a neat trick, one that pops up in the hip-hop inspired numbers as well as the more melodic pieces, and it’s put to great effect in “It’s Quiet Uptown,” the song which might be the most under-rated piece in the whole show.

“It’s Quiet Uptown” immediately follows a long stretch of turmoil for Hamilton and Eliza. Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds drove a serious wedge between the two, and they have now relocated to mourn the death of their son, who died defending his father’s reputation in a duel. The grief these two experience is repeatedly referred to as “unimaginable” – and, indeed, it is.

It would be so, so easy for Eliza to make this the final straw that permanently drives her away from her husband. Instead, though, their mourning brings the two back together. Eliza acknowledging Hamilton is greeted with the chorus singing about forgiveness with the line, “Can you imagine?” This line uses the same rhythm and melody as accompanies the word “unimaginable” so many times in the song to that point, but the phrase is left incomplete, never resolving the tension created in the penultimate chord.

Normally, this tension would create a sense of unease or apprehension; however, in this song, the tension creates a sense of excitement and wonder at how Eliza was able to forgive her husband after all the things he had done to wrong her. He apologized in tears and pledged to make amends, but it’s Eliza’s willingness to forgive that is treated as the miracle, and it well might be.

After getting hooked on Hamilton, I went nearly two full years before listening to any of the songs past “Burn,” which means that my last impression of Eliza for the longest time was that she was someone who, in anger and with a broken heart, took herself “out of the narrative.” My girlfriend finally coerced me into listening to the rest of the soundtrack, including the finale, where Eliza inserts herself back into the narrative and carries on Hamilton’s work: she fundraisers for the Washington monument, she fights slavery, and she starts an orphanage. Her forgiveness empowers her to become a vital force for good, and that forgiveness takes place during “It’s Quiet Uptown.” Hamilton’s story is incomplete without the sizable contributions Eliza made, both during his life and after.

There’s so much more to be said about Hamilton – and not all of it is positive. It takes a lot of liberties with the history it portrays (it may actually go too easy on Aaron Burr, the chief antagonist). Despite how central race is to the conflict, the actual racism present at the founding of the U.S.A. is only addressed cursorily. And then there’s that looming accusation that, by choosing only to cast non-white performers in the most significant roles, Hamilton itself is racist. I have thoughts on each of these topics, not to mention dozens of little nitpicks and criticisms that accompany me to nearly every movie or play.

The thing is, though, I don’t want to get into any of that. Not yet, anyway.

The time will come to critically re-evaluate Hamilton. Better writers than I will have to tackle those subjects, though, because there’s very little about Hamilton that I want to pick apart. The show may not be perfect, but it’s perfectly inspirational in so many ways that the tiny griefs I usually focus on seem, more so than ever, to completely miss the point.

The seat I had in the nosebleeds cost about $90. I’ve been asked a couple of times if the ticket was really worth that price, and, if I’m answering honestly, I have to say, “Yes.” The experience of seeing Hamilton on stage was beyond wonderful. As crazy as it sounds to say – after all the accolades, all the attention and controversy, all the theater kids learning the Cabinet Meeting raps – despite all the hype, Hamilton may still actually be underrated.

Braddy Reads Klaus: How Santa Claus Began

Hey, remember that old Rankin Bass stop motion cartoon, Santa Claus is Coming to Town? Remember how that short went out of its way to explain every little aspect of Santa’s character, like why he wears red, or why he crawls down chimneys, or where Christmas trees come from?

Okay, so Klaus: How Santa Claus Began is basically that story, only with about a million times more thematic Batman.

This book’s a couple of years old now. It’s been in the back of my mind ever since, mainly because the writer, Grant Morrison, happens to be a favorite of mine. I’ve always loved his slightly-trippy superhero plots, whether he writes about that time Superman got cancer and decided to create the Earth:

…or that time that he wrote a comic book that threatened to kill you, the reader:

…or that other Superman story, where he sang so hard that he destroyed all evil:

…or that one time he turned Batman into a time-hopping caveman Puritan private-eye pirate:

…yeah. So turning Santa Claus into Batman doesn’t actually feel that weird in the context of the rest of Morrison’s work.

Matter of fact, for the first several chapters, I felt somewhat let down by how conventional Klaus felt. Morrison’s Klaus is a disgraced former guardsman, framed for a crime he didn’t commit and exiled. He’s never strayed far from the town where he used to serve, and he’s never forgotten the love of his life, Dagmar. Dagmar is now married to Klaus’s rival, the local baron, who oppresses his people with a cruel and joyless regime. It’s up to Klaus to save the day and bring back happiness to the etc.

Then we get to the part where a literal hell-demon refers to Santa’s sleigh as “a bright machine from the 8-cornered orb! Forged of the rarest thought-metals by the hated elders of my kind!” That felt like the Grant Morrison I like.

Of course, Morrison isn’t on this journey alone. The artwork from Dan Mora depicts a pretty believable buff Santa, younger with a brown beard and muscles like a professional wrestler. The action scenes are paced well. Mora’s got particularly good timing with one gag where Klaus tosses a snowball onto the roof of a building, where the snowball… umm… snowballs until it’s large enough to take out some pursuing soldiers. It’s the sort of move that wouldn’t feel out of place in any child’s Batman story, but it’s pretty darn well executed here.

All said, the conventionality of Klaus is probably a strength. Said conventionality makes this a far more accessible comic than it might be otherwise, and that’s a good thing, because this is a story most people who like comics should probably read. What Klaus lacks in Morrisonian weirdness it more than makes up for in that odd Morrisonian optimism I never get tired of.

See, Dagmar’s son, Jonas, is a petty and sniveling child. He’s been spoiled rotten by his father, and he’s… well, he’s pretty much the worst.

But, you know, Klaus is a Christmas story, and if there’s one thing a Christmas story should do, it should encourage naughty children to be nice. Jonas’s redemption arc begins with a simple act of kindness – his mother shares one of Klaus’s toys with him, and together they play out a story that takes a much kinder turn than Jonas’s stories usually take.

That’s probably the best thing I can say about Klaus: it manages to take the toy, the symbol of childish greed and selfishness, and turn it into a mechanism for positive change. A simple gift, sincerely given with love, can be the thing that transforms a person for good. It’s great, great stuff that manages to imbue Christmas with more meaning and goodwill than possibly anything outside of the Nativity itself. Worth the read, any time of year.

…and we’ll go with that being the reason I’m writing about this now and not, say, in December.

Field of Loss

I admit: when I first started drawing these little dino people, I drew them in robes because I didn’t want to figure out how their limbs worked. After drawing a few statues of non-robed critters, I have a much better understanding of what my li’l boys and gals actually look like.

Original plans for this drawing were a lot more ambitious, with ruined buildings and sunsets… but then I got tired.

March Madness: Disney Songs Bracket

Not much time for preamble today. If you spend any time on Twitter at all, you’ve probably seen a slew of different brackets making the rounds, usually pitting great movies or Internet boyfriends against each other. Yet of all the brackets, though, only one truly begged for completion:

ROUND ONE

Now, I imagine I would have seeded this a little differently, but we play with the memes we’re dealt. First round went pretty quickly. Wherever possible, the edge went to the iconic song over the merely nostalgic.

A few items of note:

  • The behemoth “Let It Go” lost in an early season upset to “Part of Your World.” Whether this demonstrates the strength of longing over empowerment, or whether the judge was simply some random thirtysomething unable to set aside his childhood, we may never know.
  • Classic dad-rockers Phil Collins, Billy Joel, and Elton John all survive into Round 2. Joel is probably the biggest surprise there, but even “Why Should I Worry” performed well against the cut-rate Prince ripoff from The Goofy Movie.
  • The defeat of “I See the Light” hurt far more than I expected. Although Tangled is one of my all-time favorite animated movies, “Part of Your World” is easily among the best Disney songs ever composed and readily curbstomped the competition.
  • On the other hand, “Go the Distance” and “How Far I’ll Go” aren’t even close to the same level. The Hercules song is fine enough, but, thematically, Moana just hangs together so much better, and “How Far I’ll Go” plays an indispensable part in that film’s execution.
  • “You’re Welcome” and “Friend Like Me” made for a tougher competition than I expected. The difference came down to performance. The Rock does well enough, but there’s no world at all where he out-sings Robin Williams.

ROUND TWO

Something really interesting happened this round: I realized just how much I esteem the songs of A Little Mermaid. I can’t discount the fact that Mermaid was one of the first movies I ever saw in the theater, but I also suspect that there’s something objectively timeless and classic in the songs from that film.

Some more notes:

  • Perhaps no song in Disneydom is more revered than the villain song, and “Hellfire” is among the best of those, easily trouncing the iconic “Beauty and the Beast.” Given a choice between love and damnation, leave it to me to make the… questionable choice.
  • This same tendency is on display again on the other side of the bracket, as “Poor Unfortunate Souls” wins out over “Remember Me.”
  • Of the dad rockers, only Elton John endures. Likely this is due to the relatively weak competition. “Heffalumps and Woozles” worms its way into your brain, but “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” managed to pull ahead, perhaps demonstrating some awareness that it alone remains to represent the best film of Disney’s second golden age.

ROUND 3

Let’s jump straight to the commentary:

  • The Little Mermaid continues to impress, sending two of its numbers to the Final Four. Its third representative, “Part of Your World,” loses its footing against “Hellfire,” but it goes home with its head held high, having made a good showing to this point.
  • “When You Wish Upon a Star” may carry a questionable message, but it’s undoubtedly classic. Not even Elton John stands a chance.

ROUND FOUR

At this point, there is nothing more I can do but be true to myself. When forced to pick between a pair of villain songs, one of the most charming and romantic Disney songs of all time, and a song that is arguably the MOST Disney song of all time… how I could I not pick the villain songs?

And now, we come to…

ROUND FIVE – THE FINAL ROUND

“Poor Unfortunate Souls” is a delightfully, unapologetically wicked number, easily among the best Disney songs ever composed. Its opponent, “Hellfire,” lacks the tongue-in-cheek fun of “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” but it makes up for it with deep feeling and pathos. So who wins in the battle between earnestness and camp? In the end, there was really no question: