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September 20, 2017

Book Notes - Scott Esposito "The Doubles"

The Doubles

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Scott Esposito's The Doubles brilliantly blends memoir with film criticism.

Alvaro Enrigue wrote of the book:

"Scott Esposito is a true American cosmopolitan—full of ideas and void of pretensions. His way of seeing—inquisitive and gentle—his way of writing—honest and charismatic—are a life-line out of our self congratulatory provincialism.”"

In his own words, here is Scott Esposito's Book Notes music playlist for his book The Doubles:

I'm first and foremost a book person, but I'm also someone with an intense love of film, so this has led to some very conflicted feelings. There's no doubt that film is the major artistic medium of the modern era (sorry novels, your reign ended a while ago), but there's also no doubt that a lot of what makes books indispensable will never, ever be possible in a movie.

The Doubles comes out of that tension. It's a book about 14 movies that made me. As I explore how these 14 films helped make me what I am, I look at how film has made all of us. Retelling 1 film per essay—in essence translating 14 films into 14 works of words—I use creative nonfiction that combine what's spectacular about cinema with what's necessary about literature. These 14 films collectively cover some 20 years of my life between 1996 and 2016.

The result is part memoir-through-film, part investigation into how art affects our lives, part philosophy of art and life.

So for Largehearted Boy's Book Notes feature, I decided to put together a playlist of 14 different tracks that each embody something important to me about these 14 films. If you read The Doubles, I think this playlist will add a dimension to the book. And if you don't read The Doubles, I think this is still a pretty epic playlist. If you doubt that, just read on and see what's in it.

Cosmic Background Radiation Ambient Noise — The Universe

Yes, I'm beginning this playlist with 12 hours of ambient noise—12 hours of ambient noise like none other in the universe. A Brief History of Time is Errol Morris's film adaptation of Stephen Hawking's book of the same name, which sums up everything this one-of-a-kind genius had figured out about black holes, the beginning of time, the cosmos, and reality. And when I think about the impact this movie had on me some 20 years ago, I go right to this noise, which comes from the beginning of all existence. As you listen to these sounds, they might sound like your white noise machine, or your air conditioner, or being in the cabin of a jetliner at cruising altitude, but they're actually none of those things: this noise is being generated by the energy that was released by the Big Bang, which is still with us some 14 billion years later. It's essentially the remnants of the most freakishly gigantic explosion ever. So far as we know, it was the beginning of the very reality we all live in. So listen to this and think about the fact that that the noise you're hearing started at the beginning of time and has been traveling through our universe ever since.

Eminem — Amityville

Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange gave us Alex, the utterly despicable character at the heart of this very transgressive movie. He's a singular creation, one that has inspired a lot of controversy, and it's hard to watch this film with a lot of mixed feelings. Yes, Alex is a compelling, even charismatic character, but he's also purely disgusting. To me, this track of Eminem's is basically the hip-hop version of Alex. This is a nasty, angry, perverse song that exults in its own horror. This is basically Eminem at his worst, one of the most screwed-up cuts off of the most screwed-up album he ever made. And yet, there's a part of me that really responds to this music, which really troubles me and makes me think. Which is kind of like what I'm saying as regards Alex and this movie in the essay on A Clockwork Orange.

2001, SUZHOU RIVER, LOU YE (2000)
Summer Rain — Carl Thomas

I listened to this song so much the summer I met my partner. And not long after we fell in love, we watched the Chinese movie Suzhou River together. For me, Suzhou River was all about a moment in my life when I was discovering the true parameters and dimensions of love. This is also a deep theme of the story told in Suzhou River, which is about how hard it is to stay in love. Anyone can fall in love, but to remain in love you need to have a quantity of idealism, an ability to embrace fantasies, which not everybody has. Listening to this song always takes me back to those falling-in-love moments and gives me back a little of that idealism that we all need.

Sinking of the Titanic — Gavin Bryars

Russian Ark is a 99-minute film that occurs over just one take—a momentous tracking shot that goes on for miles through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. It's a really weird film without much of a plot, the kind of film that you just have to embrace, just let it wash over you and take what you can from it, not hoping to derive a single plotline or come to some sort of a conclusion. It's kind of like ambient film, so that's why I'm choosing one of the most famous (and beautiful) ambient music tracks in recent memory. In the weird mixture of genres of sound, and in its relentless ongoingness, Sinking of the Titanic achieves something that reminds me of a aural version of Russian Ark.

You Know My Steez — Gang Starr

Sometimes when you put two things together, the result is a lot more than the sum of their parts. That's one of the ideas behind The Doubles—a lot of the movies in it are fueled by pairs, be it pairs of people, of ideas, etc, and these two things tend to spur one another on into greater things than would have been possible alone. And that's also definitely the theory behind The Five Obstructions, in which Lars von Trier puts mind-fucking obstacles in the way of Jørgen Leth, hoping to inspire creativity and self-discovery in him. Things end up going in really weird directions, to the good of this film. So, to musically embody this, I'm picking one of the best tracks from what is quite possibly hip-hop's greatest duo ever: Guru and DJ Premier. These two had a very special chemistry, and neither one of them is ever quite this good on their own.

The Rite of Spring — Stravinsky

Koyaanisqatsi is all about what technology has done to the modern world, about trying to find a cinematic language to begin putting all of this into perspective. So, I thought it was fitting to include music whose premiere is often regarded as the moment that modernism started. To me, Stravinsky's ballet feels like letting some genie out of the bottle, which is apropos, because that's exactly what Stravinsky did, and also what modernism has done. Koyaanisqatsi is all about reckoning with the world that freed genie made. In addition, the charge of Stravinsky's music really captures how the visuals of this film feel to my eyes—all the movement, the frenzy, the sudden changes, the moods. And I hope the essay I created out of this movie—which was the hardest of all 14 to write—captures a little of the relentless energy and ceaseless invention of Stravinsky's work.

Henryk Górecki - Symphony No. 3: movement 1

The plot of The Double Life of Véronique is built around an incredibly beautiful symphony featuring a transcendent soprano. Unfortunately, the symphony in the film is unfinished, so we can only hear a little bit of the first movement—which is reall too bad, because it's absolutely incredible music. Whenever I think of what that music would have been if it had been completed, I think of Górecki's Third Symphony. There are very few—if any—things that you will hear that are this stunningly beautiful as Górecki's Third. It always puts me right in mind of that beautiful quality Kieslowski managed to capture with this one-on-a-kind movie. And, it's very fitting that Górecki is a Pole just like Kieslowski, and of the same generation. And also, I discovered this symphony almost exactly when I discovered Véronique. Enjoy!

Shostakovich — Symphony 15

Capturing the Friedmans is a really challenging movie that takes you into some of the darkest parts of our world. It's about a pedophile, and pedophilia is one of those supremely awful crimes, something that's so taboo that it still has the power to evoke a real sense of transgression in our society. If you combine such these emotions with the authority of the law, the system of justice, and the obligations and bonds of family, then you have an extremely potent mixture. And that's just what Capturing the Friedmans is. So I'm including here Shostakovich's Symphony 15, the great composer's last, which is also a mixture of diverse elements—from childhood to old age, plus Soviet terror, world war, and a long, compromised life—that produces supremely challenging, strange music. There's a reason that David Lynch listened to this symphony nonstop as he made Blue Velvet—it's weird, intoxicating stuff.

2009, 3 WOMEN, ROBERT ALTMAN (1977)
Alban Berg — Piano Sonata, Opus 1

God is this music creepy. And complex. And just plain inexhaustibly deep. Which is basically exactly how I feel about 3 Women, too. In my pantheon of cinematic gods, Robert Altman gets a special place, and 3 Women may be my very favorite of all Altman's works. It's a movie that packs so much in, and that makes everything you think you understand about the world feel creepy and foreign. Most of all, it's about people and their identities, and how weird it is that we're split into different genders. Alban Berg's perfect piano sonata feels very close to this film to me, and it was great music to listen to as I wrote this film into an essay.

On the Transmigration of Souls — John Adams

Meek's Cutoff is, in my opinion, probably the most profound response to 9/11 made by an American filmmaker. Even though it's set in 1845 and has very little to ostensibly link it to the atrocities of September 11, 2001, the movie is clearly all about that day and its results—you just have to look at it the right way. So I thought I would include this music, which is also a very remarkable response to 9/11, also made by an American artist of the first rank. My essay on this movie is all about how that day felt for me, and what happened to me and my country in the years after. If we're going to understand what happened on that day and what's been happening since, we need our artists to step up with this kind of work. And the rest of us need to reflect deeply on that work and start talking publicly about what it means to us.

Allure — Jay-Z

The Seventh Continent is a movie about people who decide to kill themselves—if anything, this movie makes you understand what a horror that is. Not just that suicide itself is absolutely repulsive, but the world that would make people choose suicide is also repulsive. It takes a whole lot to extinguish the will to live in a person, you really have to work to drain away those things that fill life with mystery, and hope, and discovery, and passion. So I've got to put this song of Jay-Z's here, which is basically him romanticizing that part of life that makes it worth living. That surge of electricity you feel throbbing through you when you know you're really alive. I think that feeling is absent from these people's lives; and, by association, I would say that Haneke is arguing that contemporary society doesn't allow for enough of this feeling in our world.

Run the Jewels — All Due Respect

The great thing about Run the Jewels is they can do it all—deep, introspective stuff, battle raps, political anthems, and also pure malicious mayhem. This right here is the pure mayhem. In case you didn't guess, the title is absolutely ironic, as basically every word that comes out of the mouths of El-P and Killer Mike in this track is completely disrespectful of all authority. And this is perfect for Exit Through the Gift Shop, because this is how I imagine the mindset of people heading out for the night to paint illegal graffiti. This music is just thrilling and frenetic and very fuck-the-world, all things that fit into my image of street art bombing runs in the wee hours of the morning—which is what Banksy's movie Exit Through the Gift Shop is all about. My essay tries to capture some of that energy and understand the complexity of the identity of "street artist." Oh, and in closing, if people aren't making graffiti to this track, they should be.

For Philip Guston — Morton Feldman

Boyhood is a film that plays with duration in a very strange way: it was filmed over 12 years, and as the characters age in real life, they concurrently age in the film. It's "slow filmmaking"—there was no way you could rush this movie. So, in the spirit of playing with duration and taking it as slow as necessary, here is Morton Feldman's nearly 5-hour-long piece, "For Philip Guston." Like this music and Linklater's movie, the essay on Boyhood is also the longest essay in the book, and it took a long time to get it just right. And lastly, I just want to point out that the first comment on this video over at YouTube (when I looked at it tonight as I wrote this) was strangely appropriate to Boyhood's material, and also just perfect: "This was the only song we had played at our high school prom which was themed Minimalism and Moonlight."

Ab-Soul — Nibiru

This is prophesy right here. The thing I love most about Ab-Soul is that he's rap's crazy prophet. This is one of Ab-Soul's oldest tracks, and it's still one of his best—this is basically Soulo rapping from the perspective of a rogue planet that's destined to hurtle into the Earth. True to form, he's invoking Ancient Sumerian deities, Atlantis, the Mayan 2012 prophesy . . . oh my god, that's just the first verse! Anyway, Voyage of Time is based 100% on science, not a whole bunch of paranoid conspiracy theories, but I put these two together because they've both got that cosmic feel, basically that sense that there's a whole lot to this world that we don't know, and we're probably never going to know it. They both put me into this space of cosmic wonder, whose presence in my life is one of the most longstanding and important aspects of me being an artistic person. I tried to embody all that in the essay for this movie and go out in a big, big way.

Scott Esposito and The Doubles links:

the author's website

CCM interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for The Surrender

also at Largehearted Boy:

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