By Nathan Smith
Since December of 2010, I have kept obsessive lists of every movie I’ve ever watched. I have a legal pad amongst my piles of stuff and a Microsoft Word document saved on my computer filled with the names of these films. I also have accounts on two separate websites (Letterboxd and icheckmovies) for this same purpose. For years I operated under the idea that I simply wanted to know what movies I had seen, but recently, I realized a different, unconscious motive existed. I want to remember every movie because when I remember a movie I watched, I can remember what I did that day. I think back to a few weeks ago when I watched Dazed and Confused and I can remember that I went to a nature preserve with one of my friends and on the way back we listened to “Rock and Roll All Nite” and it made me feel like watching Dazed and Confused. I think back to a few years ago when I watched Jacques Tati’s Trafic and I can remember school that day and how I made a crack about the musical Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, only to have one of my teachers overhear me and get upset with me because Spider-Man meant so much to him that the musical had made him cry. Once exposed, these memories do not seem like very much, but I think they do. I value every memory in the same way I try to value every person; even the ones that give me the most pain serve a purpose they may not yet understand.
Last year I listened to an interview with my favorite rapper, milo, in which he talked about the philosopher Emmanuel Kant’s idea of actions having an objective worth separate from their consequences. The idea didn’t make much sense to me at the time, but I’ve changed a lot since I first encountered it. I’d like to say that a philosophy course I took at the university I attend inspired these changes, or that I’ve lived a lot of life in the past few months, but really, that philosophy course mostly consisted of me saying that I had read more Kant than I actually had. I haven’t even lived more life than usual in the last few months. But I did attempt to interpret the little life I have been living. I did a lot of thinking. I did a lot of talking. I talked about what I was thinking and I thought about what I was saying. I think I found out a lot about people in the process.
Now as 2014 enters the middle of its short life, I realize that actions might indeed have an objective worth separate from their consequences. I think that contributing creatively, regardless of the results, means something good. And I think that by doing objectively good things, we can find our roles in life.
I do not think that life has one specific meaning or purpose, but I do believe that all our lives have meanings and purposes forged by our own experiences and backgrounds and places of birth. I think this might have been a thought I first had last semester while re-watching Martin Scorsese’s Hugo in a cinema studies course. Hugo’s character talks a lot about machines and the parts within those machines. I think that people are like the parts of one machine. If every part were the same, the machine could not function. But for the machine to properly work, we must understand our function and how it relates to the functions of those other parts around us. Once we understand ourselves, we can help the people around us find their purpose. Once we help the people around us find their purposes, we can better understand our own. We can have empathy. The creation of culture, an objectively good act, is a way to understand and communicate our function and the functions of others. While the things we say to one another through culture may get muddied and misinterpreted, the act matters most.
Over the past year, I’ve also thought a lot about why criticism appeals to me. The world isn’t kind to the man who earns a living off his own opinions, but for some reason, I still thirst to wear the critic’s hood. I’ve had two major realizations about this desire over the past year. The first realization I will save for another day, but the more recent realization I’d like to share. In our culture, “criticizing” and “criticism” have become synonymous. For me, the actual art of criticism has nothing to do with pointing out what may be “wrong” about what others like. It has everything to do with looking at what others like and understanding why they like it and then determining what impact their liking of it has on other people. Criticism is about understanding the machine we live in and our roles within it. Criticism is about empathy.
Every movie we make can communicate our purposes. Every song we sing can celebrate our roles. Every book, play, and television show can speak to an empathetic truth, even the most everyday, the most unexpected, the most average. And that is what finally brings me to the album Benji by Sun Kil Moon, for that’s where Benji’s brilliance lies- in the apotheosis of the average. It is brilliant in the same way as the suburban frustrations of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, or a song like Open Mike Eagle’s “Dishes.” Culture such as this has the ability to take the unimportant and imbue it with a sacred power beyond what our usual signifiers may tell us it is ordinarily worth.
A lot of darkness exists in the words and sounds of Benji, so much so that a lesser man might call it Cujo. Mark Kozelek, the musician behind Sun Kil Moon, said that “I have this light, nice memory of going to see the movie Benji, at a Los Angeles movie theatre when I was a little kid, visiting my grandparents. This record is filled with so much darkness, I wanted to give it a light title, for contrast. Benji is a great movie, one of my favorites.” I don’t relate to a whole lot of the darkness on this record, the cousin-killing trash fires, the ankle bracelets, the criminals. But I do relate to the level of specificity the album’s title denotes. Benji connects so many complex emotions and feelings to completely regular moments, to eating Domino’s pizza with your relatives, to watching The Song Remains The Same at the midnight movies with your friends, to getting your dad’s pal some food at Panera Bread. Tom Waits once said that his favorite songs give you a weather report and a bite to eat, but I think Sun Kil Moon goes a little further. His songs not only give you places and names and people, but a world of literal memories to live inside.
My favorite song of the album, which I listened to while writing this piece, would have to be the 10-minute opus “I Watched the Film The Song Remains The Same.” In the song, Kozelek talks about his memories of watching the Led Zeppelin concert film at a midnight movie theater in 1976. He then ties this into people he knew at that time and throughout his entire life, and finally brings it back to watching The Song Remains The Same at age 46 and having the same moments hit him as when he was a kid.
When I think about this song, I think about the friend I never met, Roger Ebert, and how he said La Dolce Vita remained one of his favorite films even though it changed as he grew older. I think about May of last year when I graduated high school and saw Ferris Bueller’s Day Off again and realized that for the first time I was now older than these characters even though I still felt the same as them. I think about how someone picked “When You Were Young” by the Killers when I was jokingly playing Guitar Hero 3 last January with my friends and how I struggled to communicate all the things that song said about my childhood, my personal beliefs, and everything I’ve ever felt. I think about hearing “Ants Marching” by the Dave Matthews Band on the season finale of Community and how it takes me back to when my dad told me at the Cotton Patch Café in College Station, Texas that we were moving away from my childhood home, and how I’m pretty sure that was the song playing when I went into the bathroom to cry.
By this time in my life, I think many of my friends accept that when they are around me and I hear a song or see a clip from a movie, I can usually recall many of the previous times I have heard that song or seen the same clip from that movie. After years of combating it, I have learned to embrace the specificity of my memory. I have learned to use it for empathy. I have learned to understand other people.
And that is why I like Sun Kil Moon so much. I think he understands me. We both seem to have that same very specific thing where rock documentaries and songs in the backgrounds of shopping malls and fast causal restaurants trigger very specific memories from years past and remind us of people we once knew and now know nothing about. Three nights ago I ate at a Wendy’s for the first time in two years, yesterday I drank milk for the first time in over a decade, and this morning I went to Panera Bread with my dad. Three nights ago I thought about the time I got a Frosty with my mom in Austin when my sister was starting college. Yesterday I thought about the times I tried to drink milk to make my bones stronger but just took lion-shaped calcium supplements instead. This morning I thought about the first meal I had in Knoxville, which was at Panera Bread.
In two years when I eat at another Wendy’s, or in over a decade when I have my next drink of milk, or tomorrow morning when I eat at Panera Bread again with my dad, I will think of the new memories I have made and those memories will hold hands with the old ones and lead me back to them.
My dad paid for the bagel. Someday I’ll pay him back.