A step backward for Sophia

Hagia Sophia is one of my favorite structures in the world. A chunky, imposing cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-public-museum, flanked with four rocket-like minarets, a bulky beacon doused in faded hues of pink and salmon, the famous building shares the same lush Istanbul peninsula as the nearly-as-glorious Blue Mosque. Almost amazingly, the edifices sit directly across a palm-lined park from each other, a spiritual and architectural bonanza. 

So it’s with slack-jawed dismay that I read this about the treasure in today’s newspaper:

“President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree ordering Hagia Sophia to be opened for Muslim prayers, an action likely to provoke international furor around a World Heritage Site cherished by Christians and Muslims alike for its religious significance, stunning structure and as a symbol of conquest.

“The presidential decree came minutes after a Turkish court announced that it had revoked Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum, which for the last 80 years had made it a monument of relative harmony and a symbol of the secularism that was part of the foundation of the modern Turkish state.”

Erdogan, on an Islamist tear, is, like another aspiring authoritarian, a crackpot. And today’s move on Hagia Sophia is culturally criminal. 

More from the article:

“Built in the sixth century as a cathedral, Hagia Sophia stands as the greatest example of Byzantine Christian architecture in the world. But it has been a source of Christian-Muslim rivalry, having stood at the center of Christendom for nearly a millennium and then, after being conquered, of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, when it was last used as a mosque.”

Below are some of my photographic memories of the holy site, aka Ayasofya, where you can see the exotic marriage of Islam and Christianity, including walls of crumbled majesty, their layers peeled back to reveal vibrant Christian frescoes and mosaics from 537 AD, as well as gigantic round panels emblazoned with Arabic script perched from atop the basilica. For years, it was the world’s largest interior space. It is spellbinding. 

Reckless randomness in scary times

Like many of you, we are grumblingly housebound during the seismic spread of the coronavirus, aka the Trump Pandemic, a little scared, a lot curious, shuffling clenched and downcast in a novel world of social paralyzation and dystopian edicts, woozy with the surreal and unthinkable. Enter: takeout, Amazon, streaming movies, books we should have read eons ago, board games, bottomless web surfing, asphyxiating boredom, idle nose picking, staring contests, etc.

The end is nigh. 

Or not. 

Yes, bars, restaurants and even Starbucks are shuttering, and it’s a cataclysmic cluster-boink. I can’t even get a haircut now, so by July I’m going to look like Weird Al Yankovic.

But if you have the gall, guts and lunacy, there are ways out. Like zooming to far-off lands that may well be (yes, they will be) infected. Peek yearningly at PlanMoreTrips, a new site that promises, with a pinch of perversity, to “Find the Best Corona Virus Flight Deals,” like: a $137 roundtrip from New York to Lima, Peru; a $43 roundtrip from Dallas to Las Vegas; or a $231 roundtrip from New York to Barcelona.

960x0-1.jpg
Lima, Peru

All of that makes me want to travel badly; I strain at my leash. But it’s a global crap-storm out there. I don’t want to go to Paris when the D’Orsay and the Louvre and Frenchie restaurant and my three favorite cinemas in the Latin Quarter are closed. (Though I still kinda really do.) And of course I don’t want to get ill or make anyone else sick. So we sit. We stew. We play Scrabble. Shit.

Now for some random, corona-free stuff (just what you were waiting for) … 

—  Cubby the hirsute hound finally got a haircut. In puppy parlance, he was groomed. While his body is shorn and tiny now, almost tubular, like a Pringles can, the Baron Munchausen beard and mustache remain, rather regally. And all that hair removal revealed something we always suspected was there, but never saw: a bright pink butthole. Sorry, but it’s true. And it’s strangely alarming, yet delightful too. He’s got one! He’s even less freakish than we thought! Good boy.  

  Spring dispirits for many reasons. Besides sunshine and heat and bugs and pollen, and everybody chirping about such delirious wonderfulness (they’re all wack), there are insane allergies some of us contend with. Actually, I combat them daily, through all climes, so I can’t blame the new season, as much as I detest it. (Did I mention swimming pools, barbecues and shorts?) Thing is, my allergy meds barely work, if at all. Runny nose, watery eyes are my main symptoms, and they could not vex me more. I’ve tried an array of meds. This week I’m moving on to Flonase. Can anyone vouch for this pricey nasal spray? (Gross, right?) 

  Timely thought: “Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely.” — Sam Harris, author of “The End of Faith”

—  Serious film fans know Werner Herzog — prolific auteur of mind-tweaking features (“Fitzcarraldo,” “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”) and consciousness-rattling documentaries (“Grizzly Man,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”) — as a brilliant iconoclast, Germanic chaser of “ecstatic truth,” and venerated pop culture polymath (he’s voiced himself on “The Simpsons” and plays a villain in the “Star Wars” series “The Mandalorian”). This week, he’s interviewed in a New York Times Magazine Q&A under the unsurprisingly prickly headline “Werner Herzog has never thought a dog was cute.”It’s typically profound and brain-expanding. “How do we give meaning to our lives?” Herzog says. “That question has been lingering over my work and life. That’s what I’ve been pursuing for a very long time.” And from there, he’s off.29mag-talk-jumbo

—  The other day, Yahoo!, the oddly antiquated web server, rapped my knuckles with a stern warning to be a nice boy. An admonitory email landed in my rarely used Yahoo! mailbox, part of which reads: 

“It has come to our attention that you may have violated the terms of service on Yahoo! Please reread the terms and cease any use of your account that may violate them. If your use of your account is brought to our attention again, we may terminate it without further notice.” 

I’m shaking in my sneakers, big bad Yahoo! (Thank you for providing the exclamation point I otherwise would have furnished in that sentence.) My crime: replying to a couple of comments on a Trumpian news story on the site, which unaccountably attracts a large, semi-literate, far-right readership. The comments, dumb as dirt, borderline racist, the usual vile cant, set off my volcanically anti-Trump triggers and, helplessly, I typed some half-baked responses, teeth grit, smoke poofing from orifices.

Perhaps stooping to the commenters’ level, I called them ignorant hillbillies who should skitter back down the holes they crawled out of — or some such balderdash of which I am not proud. I used no curse words (wait, isn’t “hillbilly” an expletive?) and hardly drew outside the lines. Yahoo! is having none of it. I broke the rules. I upset some Neanderthals and a corporate legal department. To the corner I go. Such a bunch of … yahoos.

maxresdefault.jpg

Sin City vs. Sin City

Let me say, between America’s two premier party towns, New Orleans kicks Las Vegas’ gilded, ersatz ass, that Emerald City conjured from desert pixie dust into a flashing mirage of gambling, chintz and sloshing oceans of open containers. 

Scripturally do I believe this: New Orleans, jewel of the Deep South, stomps Vegas, that spendthrift voluptuary of the West. I’ve been to both cities and can vouch for the Big Easy’s superior party bona fides, its inebriating beauty, gnarled history and lavish multiculturalism. On all counts, Vegas is bereft, a kind of gimcrack DisneyWorld to NOLA’s organic abundance, its French-kissed joie de vivre and bon viveurs, its patina of worldly class.

It’s mossy swamps vs. desert scrub. Beads, boobs and Bourbon Street vs. chips, glitz and the Strip. Indelible musical heritage (blues, jazz, zydeco) and culinary complexity vs. karaoke and Guy Fieri. It’s the rich mythology of Mardi Gras and voodoo vs. the dancing Fountains of Bellagio and hokum-pocus of Criss Angel.

big-drinks.jpg

Neither’s perfect. Both burghs are powerful magnets for slavering douche-baggery, cruising sidewalks nursing two-foot-tall girly drinks. (The rank cluelessness of these swaggering alpha males is adorable.) Both often display the collective mentality of a pimply 17-year-old boy (repeat: boobs) or a tequila-tottering bachelorette queen. Liquor rules. And there are no rules.

Having just returned from Vegas — where I won a whopping 50 cents at an airport slot machine and walked away with a spring in my step (I beat ‘em, by gosh!) — I can attest to the town’s vacant neon soul. It’s plastic, garish and grubby. It’s all facade, robbed of emotion — unless Christopher Cross, recently serenading the Strip with cloying power ballads, warms the cockles of your heart.   

And yet, like millions before and after me, I liked it. Truly, if not excessively. The booze, the vulgar resorts, the cacophonous casinos, a solid comedy show, my slick yet cheap hotel, some world-class meals that rival New Orleans’, fine weather and endless people-watching by turns transfixing and obnoxious. 

It was my second time in Vegas, and on this trip I learned how to enjoy myself by doing a little research and a lot of relaxing. Not poolside relaxing, but a mental, non-judgmental kicking-off of the shoes. I let Vegas do its Vegas thing.

Which is quite different than the similarly storied New Orleans thing. I’ve been there twice, on my 21st birthday and a hasty two-night stay during a Southern road trip about 15 years ago. I typically prefer a different kind of city — Chicago, Kyoto, Istanbul, Florence — but NOLA exudes a neat Big Little City vibe, like Charleston, South Carolina, or Austin, Texas. 

It’s southern to the core, twangy, tangy, congenitally ecstatic, weird and wonderful and proud of it. It’s one of those towns that always wants to get it on. (Though I’m not fond of strolling, badgering brass bands that strain to suck you into their high-stepping, hand-clapping, nightmarish street parties.) 

photo-1568693059993-a239b9cd4957.jpeg

Here’s where I say I’m heading to New Orleans for a few days next month, a week after the big, beady, booby bash that is Mardi Gras. (There’s more to it than that, of course, but it looks like a psychedelic bad trip from here, never mind all the deep-dish tradition. Explains journalist Chris Rose: “Mardi Gras is the love of life. It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living. All at once.”)

I have plans, none of them fantastically original. While I’m strenuously avoiding Pat O’Brien’s and its barfy Hurricane cocktail (been there, done that) and skipping the gorgeous green gatory goo of the swamps (done that, too), I will get lost in the pastel, fern-festooned, bar-clogged French Quarter, cruise the murky Mississippi on a Twain-ish paddlewheel steamboat and stroll famed cemeteries, those crumbly cities of the dead. 

shutterstock_426101227_copy.1528821762.jpg

My bad, but I’m eschewing the heralded art and World War II museums for the morbidly unhinged Museum of Death, and I will duck the city’s voodoo jive, most of which is about authentic as the eye-rolling “ghost tours” haunting the area with the spookiness of a ghoul out of  “Scooby-Doo.” 

the-scrumptious-louisiana.jpg

One of the nation’s finest food capitals, crackling with heritage, race, culture and love, New Orleans is synonymous with smorgasbord, from beignets to Po’ Boys, crawfish to jambalaya. Here’s where I’m going, to name a few: Peche (seafood inspired by the Gulf, Spain and South America), Cochon (Cajun and Southern cooking), Gris-Gris (Southern eats) and NOLA (a fusion of Creole, Acadian and Southern cuisine with global influences by local legend Emeril Lagasse).

For music and drink there’s the obvious, like world-famous Tipitina’s. I’ll skip it for the hip Bacchanal Wine, a laidback music-food-vino joint in the Ninth Ward that some regard the best bar in the city, if not the world. I also plan to hit popular jazz club The Spotted Cat, a cramped, sweaty spot where those damn brass bands, blaring with cheeks ballooned, may get to me yet. 

13220634_10154148345724820_3503016145107323727_o.jpg

“America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

 Tennessee Williams

Japan-tastic

As I sit here, speeding through Tokyo on the bullet train (or shinkansen), I gobble an egg salad sandwich, as simple as it sounds, bought at a ubiquitous FamilyMart  convenience store. I have no idea why the abundant convenience stores here — be it 7-Eleven or Lawson — make such famously tasty little sandwiches, so humble and dainty even the crust is removed. America, lick and learn. 

Day Five in electrifying Tokyo, I’m now on the train to this jovially mad city’s near polar opposite, ancient, placid Kyoto, a major urban center flavored with temples, shrines, gardens and the fading tradition of the rosy-cheeked geisha. I envision relative quietude, and mounds of soba noodles and many yakitori skewers. (For now, I’ve had my fill of sushi, though more is assured later. In fact, once in Kyoto, I was quick to mark a conveyor-belt sushi joint next to my hotel.)

Tokyo, as American kids would say, is lit. And lit (well, lighted, blindingly) it is, vibrating with a friendly freneticism, thrumming with courteous, controlled chaos. It lacks New York’s pavement-pounding determinism and San Francisco’s self-satisfied beauty and bohemianism. Order reigns and rules are followed — you’ll never see a jaywalker and there is absolutely no litter, not even a stray cigarette butt, bizarre for a city totally bereft of sidewalk garbage bins — but it’s not the slightest iota oppressive or authoritarian.

Far from it. This is a city filled with laughter, a robust nightlife (several nightlifes, as the many neighborhoods, from Roppongi to Shibuya, boast their own partying personalities) and a staggering overall kindness and politesse. The locals are approachable and often approaching, just to see where you’re from or if you need anything, and also to practice their English. They are unfailingly accommodating and vigorously helpful. People don’t yell, don’t argue in public, hoot or holler. Truly, the only vocal noise to break the sound barrier I’ve experienced is laughter.  

Now, a couple days later in Kyoto, I find, unsurprisingly, the same congeniality and penchant to oblige, but in a far more compact if still bustling setting. As with Turkey, it’s the people who make the deepest impression here. I’ve been pegged a misanthrope (who me?), a bit inaccurately, but whatever. People just make me nervous. I blame my own ample timidity, baseless anxieties, feeble fears that rattle the mind and inflame the stomach. The point is I find the people here wonderful, even wondrous, comforting; cool, models of affable composure to be emulated.  

There’s lots to write about this trip — the food, the drink, the stores, the temples, the shrines, all that electric overkill — but I’m vacating, so I’ll let pictures do the blabbing.

IMG_1658.jpg

IMG_1567.jpg

IMG_1633.jpeg

IMG_1549.jpeg

IMG_1587.jpeg

IMG_1529.jpeg

IMG_1688.jpg

IMG_1629.jpeg

IMG_1681.jpg

IMG_1612.jpg

IMG_1665.jpg

IMG_1650.jpg

IMG_1659.jpg

IMG_1638.jpg

IMG_1523.jpeg

Oh my god(lessness)

So I’m watching the Democratic primary debate last night on CNN, and amid the candidates’ kerfuffles and catty crossfire, a moment of clarity sprung up during a commercial break. In a 30-second ad, a pouchy-eyed man, self-possessed and wearing the teensiest smirk, spoke animatedly to the camera. The man happens to be President Ronald Reagan’s son, Ron Reagan, and this, in its entirety, is what he said:

“Hi, I’m Ron Reagan, an unabashed atheist, and I’m alarmed at the intrusions of religion into our secular government. That’s why I’m asking you to support the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation’s largest and most effective association of atheists and agnostics, working to keep church and state separate, just like our Founding Fathers intended. Please support the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I’m Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”

This remarkable bulletin at first registers as a jape, a mock commercial on “SNL,” especially with that wonderfully puckish parting shot. (Watch the ad HERE.)

1FFRF_Staff-2017_600x580px.jpg

But, thank heaven, it’s no joke. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is an honest to god (ha) society devoted to “promoting non-theism and defending the constitutional separation between religion and government,” says its website. “With more than 30,000 members, FFRF, a non-prophet non-profit, works as an effective state/church watchdog and voice for free thought (atheism, agnosticism, skepticism).”

Refused by ABC during the Sept. 12 Democratic debate, the ad last night was a hit. “Ron Reagan” was the top trending Google search after it aired. Twitter twits tweetle-deed with abandon. Though Reagan “wasn’t among the 12 candidates on the stage in Ohio, his appearance in a commercial promoting atheism clearly caught folks off guard,” said one news outlet. It was his sign-off about not fearing “burning in hell” that had people reeling, or, like me, laughing.

Speaking of hell, it’s the devil-may-care defiance, brazen irreverence and arch humor of the godless (heathens! pagans!) that endears them to skeptics and agnostics. Their highly evolved strain of enlightenment certainly doesn’t hurt the cause. These are savvy individuals who’ve weighed their stance with logic, philosophy, empirical evidence and bullet-proof common sense. Biblical fairy tales have only sowed their doubt and disgust. 

90
Satanic Temple protesters

There are myriad groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation — the muscular American Atheists and the mischievous Satanic Temple, profiled in the provocative new documentary “Hail, Satan,” come to mind — and FFRF is one of the largest. I appreciate what they’re doing, these Constitutionally correct freedom fighters. And if this brief blog post sounds like one big ad for them, well, that’s all right by me. Perhaps I am going to hell. I kind of don’t care.

darrow_large.jpg

A sacred place. Even for heathens.

I last visited Notre-Dame just over three years ago, in fall 2015. When in Paris, I invariably duck into the grand Gothic cathedral several times, because it’s there, because it’s beautiful, because its draw is irresistible. It is Paris splendor epitomized.

I’ve been to Paris on five occasions, which means I’ve been to Notre-Dame at least 15 times. It never gets old. Rather, each visit rewards with something new and startling. Sometimes I just hang out on the plaza in front of Our Lady — the sprawling Place Jean-Paul II Square — sipping coffee, people-watching, marveling at the twin bell-tower facade and those maniacal, sniggering gargoyles perched way up high. 

A Catholic apostate and mid-level opponent of organized religion, I don’t worship in Notre-Dame, which went up in flames yesterday, mostly surviving the catastrophic blaze that had the world aghast. (Maybe there is a God.)

merlin_153563949_4a583841-241c-47fd-acff-a7c8dff47f89-superJumbo.jpg
Notre-Dame Cathedral in flames Monday in Paris

I don’t go for the holy experience, but the wholly experience — a soothing spiritual state of serenity and rumination, reflection and introspection, inspired by the vaulting, dimly lit sanctuary’s artwork, architecture, luminescent stained-glass and twinkling constellations of prayer candles. And that’s just the interior. 

Agnostic natives are with me, according to a piece in today’s NY Times: “France is one of the least religious countries in Europe. Urbane, intellectual Parisians often dismiss religion as archaic and unenlightened.”

IMG_0736.jpeg
Notre-Dame facade, fall 2015

But like other transporting religious structures around the world — from the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi to the Wat Arun Buddhist temple in Bangkok — Notre-Dame is staggering to even this peevish secular humanist, with its gilded grandeur and gravity-defying architecture that toils so magnificently to transcend crude corporeality and reach for the heavens. In all her glory, Our Lady, I think, tickles the firmament.

(This goes for scores of religious sanctums I’ve traveled long and far to be dazzled by: the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, St. Peter’s in Rome, Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and on and on. All instill dizzy awe, even if I’m not always buying what they’re peddling.) 

Even without the slightest religious propensity, I bewail the damage to Notre-Dame. Like most, I was sickened watching flames devour the cathedral, my old friend, on the news. More is there than a quaint, history-encrusted, 850-year-old church. It is the ineffable, the mystical, the irrefutably sacred.

img_0690.jpeg
Standing tall, fall 2015.

The cathedral, with a wingspan from Joan of Arc to Victor Hugo to Disney, “is universal, Western, religious, literary and cultural, and that’s what makes it different from any other object,” says a French analyst in the Times. “It’s the whole spectrum from the trivial to the transcendent, the sacred to the profane.”

In other words, it is stubbornly irreplaceable. Its survival, by a hairbreadth, an act of God, divine intervention, is something I am loath to believe in: a naked miracle.

Whatever saved it, I think it was more the skill, action plans and water hoses of the Parisian fire fighters than, say, the conquest of virtue vs. evil. But it doesn’t matter. Notre-Dame didn’t collapse or burn to cinders. It is, they declare, structurally sound. No lives were lost. And for that, all of us should sigh a collective amen.

But do note, those devilish gargoyles survived the flames, and they are still sneering.

gargoylesnotredame.jpg

God or godless. Either way, you’re wrong

Though I’ve only made a wee dent in the book I got today — “Seven Types of Atheism” by philosopher John Gray — I am already bitten and beguiled. On page 33 of the 170-page manifesto, I find myself putting it down often to copy a tart line or provocative passage.

Gray, without airs but with erudition, places in his crosshairs the arm wrestle between religion and atheism, that eternal, irreconcilable chasm of belief, God and godlessness. He is acridly and relentlessly critical of both.

Dense but light on its feet, slim but chubby with fact, philosophy and opinion, the book reveals a bracing entertainer who hardly balks at taking intellectual swipes at celebrity atheists slash rational humanists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and other crusaders. 

Gray, says The Guardian, “is a card-carrying misanthrope for whom human life has no unique importance, and for whom history has been little more than the sound of hacking and gouging.”

That’s my kind of guy, though Gray takes things a little further than I do when it comes to faith, history and humanism. Still, his book, from 2018, is studded with eyebrow-cocking history lessons, slashing judgments and pleasing iconoclasm. A few nuggets from my early reading:

41LcPf9aHaL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

“There is no such thing as ‘the atheist worldview.’ Atheism simply excludes the idea that the world is the work of a creator-god, which is not found in most religions. … Nowhere does Buddhism speak of a Supreme Being, and it is in fact an atheist religion.”

“Many versions of Jesus and his life can be supported on the basis of existing evidence. Among the least plausible are those that have been presented as fact by Christian churches.”

“Christian thinkers have interpreted the rise of their religion as a sign of Jesus’ divine nature. Among the many prophets teaching at the time, why should he alone have inspired a religion that spread to the last corner of the earth? Unless you think that human events unfold under some sort of divine guidance, the metamorphosis of Jesus’ teaching into a universal faith can only have been the result of a succession of accidents. … The Christian religion is a creation of chance.”

“A free-thinking atheism would begin by questioning its prevailing faith in humanity. But there is little prospect of contemporary atheists giving up their reverence for this phantom. Without the faith that they stand at the head of an advancing species, they could hardly go on. Only by immersing themselves in such nonsense can they make sense of their lives. Without it, they face panic and despair.”

The pictures, and pull, of Istanbul (Turkey Part I)

Like regular human ardor, a love affair with a city is complicated — prickly, passionate, vexing, ineffable. We adore our favorite cities, which are not breathing creatures but quasi-animate entities that are unquestionably alive, pulsing and forever mutable.

When pressed, the two cities I enjoy the most intense romances with are Paris and Istanbul. Paris is my baby, but sometimes I think I love them equally. (Sorry, ma chérie.)

I fell in love with Istanbul in the spring and fall of 2008, two trips comprising some of my very peak travel experiences. There were times when I actually lost myself, and, this is spectacularly unusual, crawled out of my muzzy head, breathed a little and existed, if momentarily, in a vacuum of Edenic placidity, even contentment. I flew.

Ten years on, the country has hurtled into political tumult: multiple terrorist attacks, violent anti-government protests, an attempted coup and the burn marks of President Erdogan’s tightening authoritarian chokehold. The guidelines of a culinary walking tour in Istanbul actually state: “We are not responsible for acts beyond our control, including but not limited to …  acts of war, or other unrest caused by state or non-state actors.” Terrific.

I could boycott Turkey, but that’d be my loss. I miss the generosity of the people, the grandeur of Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, the majesty of the sun-twinkling Bosporus, the exquisite food, the dazzling cultural and religious breadth of East meets West. So I am returning this fall, with a two-day excursion amid the fairytale moonscapes of Cappadocia in Central Anatolia. (See them here. Ignore the festering hot-air balloons.)

These shots of Istanbul, snapped on my long-ago journeys, remind why I’m going back.

P1020703.jpg

P1020982.jpg

P1020932.jpg

P1020622.jpg

P1020728.jpg

P1020629.jpg

P1020604.jpg

P1020909.jpg

P1020769.jpg

P1030582_1.jpg

P1020947.jpg

P1030243_1.jpg

P1020632.jpg

P1020504.jpg

P1020732.jpg

P1020980.jpg

P1020572.jpg

Four of the finest movies this year so far

It’s one of the highest rated movies of the year — people love this thing — but I wasn’t enamored with Marvel’s “Black Panther,” a slick, savvy vehicle that got predictably bogged down in mythical mumbo-jumbo, comic-book convolutions and contrivances that I hadn’t the energy to follow or care about.

I’m pretty sure my Marvel/DC movie days are behind me. The films are tedious, head-rattling, kind of stupid and rarely fun. That said, I crushed on last year’s tough-minded “Logan” and relished the smart-alecky wit writer-director Taika Waititi smuggled into the whomping cacophony of “Thor: Ragnarok.” (If that movie amused, see Waititi’s whip-smart “What We Do in the Shadows,” a hilariously deadpan vampire mockumentary whose cult-classic status continues to swell.)

what-we-do-in-the-shadows-3
Brilliant spoof “What We Do in the Shadows”

So even skirting the lumbering, stumbling franchises — sorry “Solo” — I’m still behind on this year’s movies. I haven’t even seen Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” which I expect to be a mild amusement, more cracked smiles than snorts and giggles. I will see it, more because I like dogs than I like Anderson. 

I also haven’t seen these films atop my list: “A Quiet Place,” “Loveless,” “The Incredibles 2,” “Leave No Trace” and a slew of other gushed-over indie titles, from “Let the Sunshine In” to “Lean on Pete.” And I’m keenly looking forward to Bo Burnham’s dramedy “Eighth Grade,” coming July 13.

What I have seen of note are four features that regaled with smarts and originality. To wit:

Mister Rogers was a badass. Twinkly television host, child advocate, public broadcasting pioneer, musician, writer, Presbyterian minister, seat-of-the-pants puppeteer, colorful cardigan fetishist and all-around super fella, Fred McFeely Rogers (McFeely!) held a special passport into fledgling hearts and minds to become a noble pied piper of cheering children across the land. 

He worked his educational magic with a voice of honey and silk, a lilting, cooing instrument so soothing it could place you in a spontaneous coma, and a dapper dependability that made him seem like the safest person in the world. He was made of gumdrops and hugs, and soaring imagination. 

Not a scintilla of this hagiographic portrait is tarred in the straightforward, illuminating and touching documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” a critical and audience smash that follows the self-styled teacher of tots as he crafts his TV programs, mainly the paste-and-plastic “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which ran from 1968 to 2001 on PBS.  

Morgan-Neville-on-Mr.-Rogers-and-‘Won_t-You-Be-My-Neighbor_-–-Variety
Henrietta Pussycat and Mister Rogers, a sweet couple in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

It’s an adoring snapshot, a trippy bit of time-travel effusive with nostalgia and bolted together by Rogers’ nearly A.I. perfection. His virtuosity almost cloys: he was a wonderful husband and father (no! Not gay!), and his Midas touch with preschoolers was no fool’s gold. In the sphere of pedagogy, his sainthood is locked.

You slip behind the scenes of the papier-mâché realm of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and meet the show’s gallery of ragged thrift-shop puppets (the meow-meowy Henrietta Pussycat looks like a relic of the Victorian age), actors and crew, with lots of laughter and nary a wisp of negativity. Showered in praise, Rogers’ native humility pops open like a big umbrella.

It’s all here, all fascinating, all squeaky-clean. The movie’s about the imperishable legacy of Mister Rogers, who died in 2003, that’s cheery, oozing empathy and strenuously loving till the very last huggy squeeze.

Rogers was a smiling, sugar-dusted Presbyterian minister — a whole other animal than Ethan Hawke’s furrowed, profoundly conflicted Protestant minister in Paul Schrader’s searing spiritual drama “First Reformed,” one more knockout picture of the season.

Hawke.jpg
Ethan Hawke has burning questions in “First Reformed.”

The underrated Hawke, in his most hoarse, laser-beam performance, plays Rev. Ernst Toller, a plainly clinically depressed man of enforced solitude who is too enmeshed in overwhelming epistemological questions for all that mainstream life stuff. He lives on the margins. He lives for God. He lives to save others, if not himself.

Schrader taps into his unshakable lodestar — Bergman and Bresson’s transcendental cinema of existential turmoil, spiritual struggle and personal despair — and fashions a dire universe for Toller, one consumed by crises of faith, guilt and penitence. Toller drinks too much. He suffers ominous stomach pains. He keeps a troubled diary. He meets a woman.

Eco-terrorism, love and redemption crash his cloistered life, which Schrader portrays with verbal maximalism and visual minimalism. And he leaves you with an ending that invites either bewilderment or overdue catharsis.

Like Toller, viewers will find themselves entangled in the film’s philosophical and theological brambles. Austere, glacial and bruised, “First Reformed” is not an easy picture. But it feels like a necessary one.

Pain is also a prevailing theme in another of the year’s best, “The Rider,” but it’s physical rather than psychic pain, the kind inflicted when the hoof of a bucking bronco jackhammers into your skull.

That’s the case for young Brady (played by non-actor Brady Jandreau with heart-pulping sensitivity), a one-time rodeo hero whose injury in the ring has sidelined him for good. Lost, his story is one of recovery and rediscovery, of a stubborn cowboy trying to compromise in a desolate, hardscrabble environment that’s unforgiving that way.

The-Rider-Movie.jpg
Brady Jandreau and Apollo in “The Rider.”

Easily the most moving film of the year — I rhapsodized about how affecting this people-scale drama is here — “The Rider” is pure distilled emotion, beautifully shot on the Dakota prairie by writer-director Chloé Zhao. It’s probably my favorite movie of the year.

Staying in cowboy country but in an artificial version compared with the unflinching realism of “The Rider” is “Damsel” by the reliably off-kilter Zellner brothers, whose mischievous m.o. is to rock your equilibrium, and their own storytelling, with assertive peculiarity. 

Braiding the movie with trusty tropes of old-timey westerns — grit, guns, horsies and hangings — and that ineffable Zellner zing, the result is a lumpy kinda-comedy, kinda-drama in which both elements could have been amplified for the sake of coherence. 

A spirited Robert Pattinson, with a twang and one gray tooth, plays the heartsick pioneer Samuel who’s in search of his lost love, Penelope, played by a spunky Mia Wasikowska. He tows behind him a darling miniature horse named Butterscotch (an aimless visual gag) that he plans to give to her as a wedding present. Risking his life, he finally locates Penelope. Things get very messy from there. 

Damsel-Robert-Pattinson-e1527013127902.jpg
Robert Pattinson and Butterscotch in the comic-western “Damsel.”

Its erratic pacing, pesky dead spots and jokes that don’t land hold “Damsel” from crackpot classic. It’s slapstick and slapdash, and keeps you watching if only to make sure lil’ Butterscotch fares well.  

If I didn’t love “Damsel” I appreciated it and its sometimes squiggly logic. It could be a lot funnier, but as it is — a shaggy road movie not fully sure what it wants to be — it’s an oddball original. Keep an ear peeled for the snazzy period-inspired score by whirlingly inventive The Octopus Project. And Adam Stone’s photography — you can’t miss it — is beyond lovely. It’s often ecstatic.

The dog’s search for meaning

It’s hot outside and the dog gallops up the stairs to the very warm attic, panting with a slashing smile, tongue flapping, teeth bared, eyes wide and wild, tail wagging. He looks “on,” like he’s just hit the stage to burst into a blazing showtune, or just won the lottery. He’s so very jazzed to be here. 

Realizing he’s just exerted that much energy only to run into me at the top, me, ordinary me, who has no food for him, just pets and pats for the good doggie, he quickly calms and collapses on the floor, seals his salivating maw, exhales one huffy breath through his nostrils and resigns himself to the humdruminess of life. Rip-off, he’s certainly thinking.

The dog is not alone in his deflation. The heat rises to the cozy attic and no fan, no matter its wattage, can disperse the vapors. But it’s an existential heat, too, one we all know at some point, here and there. The dog is in the throes of it, stretched out in languid dismay.

IMG_0829
The dog, gazing at me, pondering his existential predicament.

And so am I, to an extent, though I am not physically sprawled out, that would be ridiculous. Still, the dog and I are in moody concert, encased in ennui, a kind of life weariness, if just for this time. Trying to write, I turned to reading my book, “NW” by Zadie Smith, when the dog jogged up to say hello and discovered the groin-punch of nothingness.

Right now, his glass — or his water bowl — is half-empty, to borrow the old metaphorical measure of the optimist vs. the pessimist. He is slowly realizing that life isn’t a continuous (tennis) ball, that letdowns lurk, that existence precedes essence, that not all chew toys are created equal. These are things I learned years ago, that we make our own happiness, shape our own lives, that free will, not divine intervention, reigns, and that disappointments and satisfactions are divvied up about 65/35. The dog doesn’t know all this yet. He is a troubled soul.

In anthropomorphic terms, he’s displaying a glint of neuroses. Somewhere Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre are high-fiving over the notion that psychological and existential angst can be traced in a furry quadruped.

The dog seeks the meaning of life, this is plain from his searching brown eyes, furrowed brows and the alarming way he drags his butt across the carpet. Freud’s pleasure principle manifests itself in his frequent calls for belly rubs. Sartre’s theory, which states that our individual responsibility in defining our own lives is almost debilitating in its enormity, has the dog a little down. Knowledge of his own mortality is something of a buzz kill.

At times like this, a good, jaunty walk won’t cut it. Scooby snacks — nope. A ride in the car? He snickers. But the dog is resilient, and getting his tail wagging is not a demanding task. As with me, these moods of brooding despair and overthinking are intermittent. He’d rather eat a good meal or harass the cats than dwell on the insane, undeniable meaninglessness of his puny little life.

And the next time he does, I plan to start reading to him from Sartre’s daunting opus “Being and Nothingness” or Freud’s “The Future of an Illusion.” And when I myself plummet to pondering the philosophical conundrums, the dog can read to me from — this is an actual book — “Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Dog.”

Life’s too short for sulking. I know this. However, the dog, whose years are on the seven-year scale, meaning he’s about 21 to 28 in human years, resides on a shorter leash. But this canine savant is swiftly learning one of the essentials, no matter how fur-raising:

Self-realization — it’s a bitch.