The Secret Life of a Baby Literature Scholar
Here are three absurd places I’ve found myself in the past 48 hours.
I don’t think it’s an easy thing to express the absurd places one ends up when really committing oneself to the study of literature or the humanities in general. Regardless of discipline – English is my true love, but this pretty much applies to everything that once stirred with human inspiration and breath – we are all going to end up talking about Big Issues. This was not something I really understood I’d signed up for until quite recently, I guess, when I was hard at work on my latest novel-project and wanted to show my work to a few people. When you’re writing a novel, people are interested in asking a single question – What’s it about? At
“What’s it about?” is the question someone will always like to know when you are writing a novel. And maybe I panicked or something, but somewhere along my stuttering explanation, I attached on a phrase that went something like “and it’s an exploration of counter-masculinities along with all these very real issues, and I didn’t mean it to turn into that, but it did.”
Needless to say, I did not think I’d be here when I first started writing little adventure fics about twelve year olds that form telepathic bonds with woodland creatures, which was (I am willing to bet) one of the first genres I slid into as a child. But it’s something of a responsibility I think we literary analysts (or historical analysts or philosophical analysts or film analysts or whatever you identify as) have, to write about and think about and wonder about those bigger issues. Writing, particularly fiction writing, is a medium where almost anything can go. There’s freedom in that, and there’s opportunity in that, but there’s responsibility there, too. It’s no different from social media, if you think about it, or even just normal conversation, but it’s elevated, because writing is something we can spend a very long time thinking about before publishing.
So let’s talk about my three absurd situations and where they came from.
On the distress of sharing my controversial writings: I’m a writer, and I’m going to write about things that are happening in my world. Even as a fiction writer – wait, even as a fantasy writer – I am fascinated by the world and what’s happening in it and what’s not happening in it. Isn’t that where fiction comes from, trying to fill the gaps in the events we see?
On the random Saturday conversations about life: I’m a writer, and I’m going to encourage the people around me to think about what’s harping at them, too. You don’t have to be a critical thinker of all things literary to say something profound. And it doesn’t matter if it’s the middle of a seminar or the middle of lunch or the middle of the night – we should be eager to share in each other’s little profundities.
On my extremely weird English essay: I’m a writer, and…no, this one’s still absurd. If anyone has any explanations for why Milton decided to describe the ocean as a fertile womb, seriously, let me know, because the jury’s still out on why we do and write the things we do.
Written by Erika S.
If you ever experience the frustrating mindset that is writer’s block, you know how tough it is to get your fingers typing again. Here are a few of my favorite ways to break through the wall, and finish the paper.
Written by Emma E.
This is my season of stagnation. I don’t know what it is about the second-half of February that makes me feel so stale and uncreative, but I hit a mental roadblock around this time every year and sometimes it takes until April to get back into the swing of things. So this year, to shake off the late-winter blues, I have compiled a brief list of six great quotes for writers to remind me (and hopefully you as well) why we devote ourselves to this wild endeavor.
I carry these with me like good luck charms to ward off the insecurities that keep me from putting words on the page, and to remind me what a pleasure it is to live this life and be able to write about it every day. To that end, here’s one more quote that comforts me always as I move along in this mad, wonderful, endless quest to write.
“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” – Jack Kerouac
Written by Cara B.
Of course, the dazzling La La Land is a film that many of you have most likely already seen. Its array of beautiful colors and stellar acting by the spectacular Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, supplemented with a gorgeous soundtrack spawning a blend of classic jazz with contemporary notes make for an award-buzzing piece of art that has grossed over $232 million and won over the hearts of millions of people.
It’s important to note that La La Land has actually been in the works for nearly a decade now. Director Damien Chazelle’s strong affinity for musical films led him to write the screenplay for La La Land when he was a student at Harvard University in 2010. He wrote the script as his senior thesis and after graduating, moved to Los Angeles and continued writing and modifying the script. For years, no studio was willing to finance his film, claiming that it was not a “familiar” storyline and would not appeal to people. After Chizelle wrote the successful Whiplash in 2014, he finally attracted several studios and was able to start making the film, over five years after he wrote the script.
It’s interesting to note the resistance by studios to invest in this film, with the primary reason being that jazz musicals are too archaic for the youth – one theme explored in La La Land itself. The notion that past traditions do not appeal to modern generations is one that La La Land very much challenges: we haven’t seen a musical film in a long time, with the main assumption being that it’s just died out, but the very fact that it has been gone for so long is the catalyst for its popularity. La La Land draws from older films a nostalgic sense. It’s reminiscent of a different time that is real, making for a film that’s easy to lose ourselves in. The distinction, though, that sets La La Land apart from other films that adopt this same mechanism is while it incorporates older elements, it retains a modern feeling that keeps each scene fresh. The dance numbers aren’t flawlessly planned to perfection. Ryan and Emma’s voices are not Broadway-groomed and making our ears swoon. Their characters are flawed in numerous ways. They behave selfishly at times. This creates a much more real film, with the flaws and unpolished dance numbers creating a feeling of uniqueness.
Emma Stone plays Mia, a struggling actress working as a barista at a coffee shop in Los Angeles, serving lattes in between auditions. Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a jazz pianist making his living by playing cocktail party gigs with dreams of opening his own club. Two aspiring dreamers, full of passion yet so far have been unsuccessful. They meet. They’re attracted to each other’s ideal visions. They fall in love. It’s the ultimate love story. It’s the typical love story.
Yet, the movie defies the stereotypical clichés of a romantic plotline, and is in fact partly what constitutes its mass appeal. Their first interaction is Sebastian rudely pushing past Mia. When they seem to keep running into each other and Sebastian wonders if it means something, Mia states, “Probably not,” with them proceeding to sing about how they could never fall for each other. Their love story becomes more real, deeper, and more relatable to the audience.
The movie isn’t so much about their love story but more so about their artistic passion. Mia and Sebastian show how easy it is to get derailed from their dreams, and how sometimes it takes another person to push you back on the tracks to find it again. That’s what they do to each other. Mia has to remind Sebastian of his dream when he begins to play music he dislikes in a band, while Sebastian practically forces Mia to attend the audition. Ultimately, in their final scene together as a couple, Sebastian acknowledges that when Mia gets the audition, she will have to give it all she’s got. It’s his simple way of reflecting the harshness of reality: how pursuing your dreams requires sacrifice. Mia and Sebastian simply cannot be together for them to climb the ladders towards success. There have been dozens of films like this that try to capture the allure of Hollywood, yet cynically remark upon its cruel, harsh reality. However, Chazelle’s film is exceptional. He’s showing how getting plucked out of the crowd for a life-changing opportunity means that your life will chance and you will lose friends, loved ones, relationships, and other things that you hold dear. Yet he doesn’t try to criticize this. The film celebrates holding onto your convictions with rigidness, made clear in Mia’s audition song that pays homage to “the fools who dream, as foolish as they may seem.” This harsh reality is something we’ve all dealt with, which is what has caused so many to love La La Land because Chazelle doesn’t try to make us to feel bad about it. It’s simply the reality and we have to work with it.
The ending is jarring, seeing Mia with a husband and kid. Both have achieved their dreams, but the audience is met with shock and horror at the notion that Mia and Sebastian are not together. Ultimately, what sets the film even more apart is the beautiful epilogue that shows what life could have been like had Mia and Sebastian stayed together. I remember I found myself overcome with emotion, and quite frankly indignation. “Of course they could have stayed together! Mia should have filmed her movie and then come back and been with Sebastian. How could it not have worked out?” Yet the epilogue, I realize, is conveying something completely different. It’s not trying to show what could have happened. In fact, it’s not supposed to convey reality at all. There’s a reason the ending is so bright and colorful with uplifting, almost fantasy-like music. The ending is showing what would happen in an ideal world, a world in which everything works out perfectly: Mia and Sebastian attract everyone with their passions, land to success without an issue, have no fights, are able to live and work together in harmony.
The ending makes it clear: Although the couple spends most of the movie together, the movie never really belonged to their love story. La La Land is fashioned after Old Hollywood musicals, most of which pair guys and girls off in the perfect way. Often times in those movies, the couple doesn’t achieve their ambitions but what is important is that they are still together, making the audience happy. Yet La La Land underscores that the movie is not about Mia and Sebastian’s romance; rather, it’s about the shimmer of their dreams. The movie ending is in fact a happy one because they have accomplished their dreams. It’s fine that they don’t end up together, as made when they smile and nod at each other, having acknowledged each other’s success and happiness. The risky take of La La Land is that it asks its audience to understand that a happy ending doesn’t require its leads to still be in love. Sebastian and Mia live two parallel love stories: She has movies and he has jazz. They both end up with what they wanted in the end, ultimately with their own real loves. The movie lets the main characters essentially be selfish, but quietly. The movie tried to build up to this point, constantly hinting that they don’t belong together; they’re dazzling when they dance but not much else, often guilting each other into being more ambitious. The stunning epilogue in which Sebastian dreams his idealized life with Mia leaves his own life incomplete: he’s still without his jazz club, so the both of them could not have had it all together. It’s only in real life when Mia returns her taste in dark-haired, serious men (her husband looks awfully similar to the guy she was dating in the beginning - did anyone notice that?) that she can have everything she wants.
It’s questionable. Are they selfish? Should they have stayed together regardless of only achieving moderate success? Was their love really enough to overcome their own personal desires? The conclusion of La La Land seems sad, but it reflects people in real life and their real ambitions and dreams, and the compromises we have to make. Sebastian sums it up perfectly when describing jazz to Mia: “It’s conflict, and it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting.” That is essentially life, relationships, love - just about everything. The conclusion seems sad. But it’s real. And that’s what’s made this film so unique. It’s beautiful with a lovely soundtrack, great acting, and all the other traits of a fantastic film – but it’s ultimately its harrowing message of reality that people don’t like to hear that makes the film all the more rare and striking.
Written by Sarah Smati ('20)
For the nerdiest of us book lovers, having just books around isn't quite enough. Sometimes you need a little more to show your literary love. So, here are 10 fun and interesting things all book lovers need to bring their love for the literature to their homes in a meaningful way.
Suggestions by Ellie M.
James Turrell Skyspace: Vespertine Awakenings, as performed by Dušan Týnek Dance Theatre with composer Kurt Stallmann
Date: Saturday, February 25
Time: 6:00 PM
Location: Rice Moody Center for the Arts
Vespertine Awakenings has been choreographed specifically for the James Turrell Skyspace, and will be accompanied by original music featuring both live and recorded voices. The show will be performed at sunset. $20 for general admission, $10 for students. Get tickets at: https://buy.ticketstothecity.com/purchase.php?event_id=5142
TEDxRiceU: (Un)Common Knowledge
Date: Saturday, February 18
Time: 10:30 AM – 2 PM
Location: Duncan Hall
TEDxRiceU is hosting its 7th annual conference on uncommon, but intriguing topics. Alley Goodroad (who will be giving a talk titled “Revisiting Citizen Journalism & Agency”) and the Houston VIP National Poetry Slam Team are among the scheduled speakers. RSVP for free tickets at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/tedxriceu-uncommon-knowledge-tickets-31112637737.
Rice Art Gallery: Sol Lewitt’s “Glossy and Flat Black Squares (Wall Drawing #813)”
Date: Tuesday – Sunday
Time: 11 AM-5 PM on Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 AM-7 PM on Thursdays, 11:30 AM-5 PM on Sundays
Location: Rice Art Gallery
In 1997, Sol Lewitt, a minimalist who works with conceptual art, tailored this exhibition to Rice’s art gallery space. Now, Rice Gallery comes full circle by reinstalling “Glossy and Flat Black Squares” as its last exhibition. The installation, which opened on February 9th, will be available for viewing during normal gallery hours.
Rice Moody Center for the Arts: Grand Opening
Date: Friday, February 24 – Saturday, February 25
Time: 7:00-10:00 PM (grand opening celebration), 10:00 AM-5:00 PM (normal hours)
Location: Rice Moody Center for the Arts
The grand opening on February 24th will include exhibition viewing, live music by The Tontons, food trucks, and tours. This celebration is free and open to the public. The exhibition spaces will be open for the first full day of operations on February 25th.
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH): Ron Mueck Exhibition
Date: Sunday, February 26 to Sunday, August 13
Time: Check https://www.mfah.org/visit/hours-and-admissions/ for museum hours
Location: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Known for his hyperrealist work, Ron Mueck once said in an interview, “I never made life-size figures because it never seemed to be interesting. We meet life-size people every day. [Altering the scale] makes you take notice in a way that you wouldn’t do with something that’s just number.” The exhibit will showcase thirteen of Mueck’s sculptures. Read more about this exhibition at https://www.mfah.org/exhibitions/ronmueck.
Written by Evelyn Syau ('20)
As an independent film and lit junkie, I will be the first to rattle on about the exciting crossovers between books and cinema. That said, some directors do a better job than others of capturing narratives and developing characters in the same complex way that literature does. Enter, Mike Mills. Seriously, this man’s ability to meld autobiography, history and fiction into a seamless work of art will make skeptics sing his praises (ask my uncle). I would marry him were he not already married to another one of my favorite writers, Miranda July (can I ask to be their step-child)?
I was first introduced to Mike Mills through his film Beginners (2011), which is on Netflix right now (go watch it). Beginners, a semi-autobiographical work, traces two stories: the story of a struggling artist falling in love, and the story of a relationship between a dying father and son after the father comes out as gay. Mills’ own father came out as gay late in his life, and Mills saw this film as a way to better understand his father and to come to terms with his parents’ decision to marry. Like all good Indie movies, Beginners searches for intimate moments that capture both the difficultly of love and the promise of starting anew at any age. Oh, and there’s a dog that talks.
When I heard that Mills’ new film, 20th Century Women (2016), was generating Oscar buzz, I was thrilled. Rarely do Indie movies make it into the mainstream Hollywood scene, but Mills deserves it. Like Beginners, 20th Century Women is also autobiographical, but this time he paints a portrait of his mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), in a coming of age story set in 1979 in California. When Dorothea decides that young Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) needs the advice of young women to “help him become a man,” a funny, touching and occasionally gut-wrenching story ensures. The difficulty in knowing one’s parents, womanhood and feminism all feature alongside other fascinating characters played by Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig and Bill Crudup.
Now that Mike Mills has been catapulted onto the stage of mainstream Hollywood, I’m worried that his films will lose their credence and down-home charm. Part of what makes them so great is their loyalty to the small moments and interactions that make us who we are. They find the beauty and pain and never pretend to make ends need in the cloying way that these kind of slow movies sometimes do. In each of his works, one can see the touch of a artist trying to work through the material of his own life and, in doing so, discovering of stories that intimately connect us.
Written by Sophie N.