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here i go again by Alan Z. '23

i have watched Mamma Mia! seven times this year

I: Just One Look and I Can Hear a Bell Ring

I live on a fairly musical wing of Next House, and every semester, we put up an extensive list of performances involving people from the wing on the whiteboard. We had a lot of events listed this semester— Next Act,01 more about Next Act coming (hopefully) soon :0 MIT Wind Ensemble concerts, MIT Symphony Orchestra concerts, the Video Game Orchestra concert, three separate acapella concerts, etc.

One day, amidst all these items, there appeared an item that said something like “Mamma Mia: Jonathan, May 7th @ Big Cold River.”

It turns out that one of the social members02 a 'social member' is someone who hangs out in a living community, but does not live there. of our wing, Jonathan H. ’25, wanted to replicate Austin Weber’s legendary video, aptly titled “THIS MAN FLEW TO JAPAN TO SING ABBA IN A BIG COLD RIVER.” The story, or so it goes,03 to be honest the story seems a little too convenient for me, but who cares. upon digging a little further the only thing I learned was that this man was also a Harvard undergraduate, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. is that this man had been planning to go to Japan with his girlfriend, but was dumped immediately before the trip, so he decided to go with his dad and record this video instead. Jonathan’s original plans also included replicating as many of these initial conditions as possible, although this part of the project was quickly scrapped, for hopefully obvious reasons.

This project, of course, was a fantastic idea that had to be encouraged. And, what better way to encourage this idea by watching Mamma Mia! (2008), the jukebox musical-turned-movie featuring Meryl Streep?

The wing group chat conversation went something like this:

Mar 4, 2022:

[5:37 PM] Nicole H. ’22: Are people down. To watch mamma Mia tn in main lounge.

[5:46 PM] Nicole H. ’22: 10 pm; ill make popcorn?

[5:54 PM] Derek Y. ’22: honestly sure probably maybe

[6:24 PM] Me: YES

I had seen Mamma Mia! before, and I remember not being particularly impressed by it the first time. I think I had watched it during a phase in my life where I truly believed that all art had to be serious, and I just found it uninteresting. This time, however, I was fully blown away by how aggressively the movie leaned into its own sense of the absurd.04 funnily enough, one could theoretically argue that the absurdity of <em>Mamma Mia!</em> ultimately traces its roots to the fundamental absurdity of opera. i will not be taking further questions at this time. I mean, how do you explain a dozen full-grown men emerging from the ocean with flippers on their feet and then riding away into the sunset on jet skis? You simply do not. You sit, and you accept it.

So, we did just that. We sat on the couch, sang along to the songs we knew, and we chatted and pointed out all the weird little bits about the film, such as when the movie suddenly cross-fades to a fantasy world where Meryl Streep is on a boat, or the truly excellent performance of “Does Your Mother Know?” by Christine Baranski, or any time Pierce Brosnan opens his mouth and attempts to sing. We had a lot of fun, managed to invent some new inside jokes05 nodders! for the wing along the way, and it was, all-in-all, an exceptional time.

II: One More Look and I Forget Everything

If you’ve made it this far into the blog post and you haven’t seen Mamma Mia!, you’re probably wondering: what is this film about? What could possibly make this film so amazing?

Well, I can give you a basic pitch. Mamma Mia! is a jukebox musical, meaning that it was constructed from pre-existing songs—in this case, ABBA songs. The basic plot is that Sophie, the child of a single mother and hotel owner, Donna, is about to get married. Sophie has never known who her father is, but, by reading her mother’s diary, she finds out that there are three potential candidates—Harry, Sam, and Bill. Without informing her fiancé or her mother, she invites all three men to the island based on the premise that “I will know my father when I see him.” Comedy and calamity ensue.

I would provide you more context, but, unfortunately, beyond this flimsy conceit, Mamma Mia! as a film does not make any sense. There is a scene where the bachelor party crashes the bachelorette party by swinging in from ropes that are seemingly anchored in the sky. The lyrics are campy, and the writers are completely constrained by the ABBA songs they have chosen. One particularly bad example is “Our Last Summer”, which, first of all, performs a horrible crime against the French language by having “Seine” (pronounced: sen) rhyme with “rain”, and then proceeds to describe Harry’s entire life story, up to and including his name.

It is a fantastic film on every level.

Following the first showing, the wing had caught a bit of a Mamma Mia! fever—or, at least, some of us did. The film gained some stalwart defenders in me and Nicole H. ’22, and the lyric refrains of the song, “Mamma Mia,” could be heard throughout the hallways of 4W. Just as in the film, shenanigans ensued. In perhaps the most unhinged moments of my undergraduate career thus far, Nicole and I started a tradition of turning off all the lights in the bathroom and singing along to “Mamma Mia” while brushing our teeth in the dark. That may just seem weird to you as an outside observer, but the comedic value of someone walking into the bathroom while this was occurring was immense. Besides, it was absurd. So was the film.

One of our wing members—Jeffery Y. ’22—had missed the first showing of Mamma Mia! In one conversation, he made the mistake of expressing some mild regret about not having seen the movie. To correct this unfortunate circumstance, just two weeks later:

Mar 18, 2022:

[8:17 PM] Me: we are watching mamma mia again

[8:17 PM] Me: if folks would like to see this insanity

We hadn’t even closed the tab with the movie from our first viewing, so we just rewound to the start of the movie and watched it again from the start. On my second watch through, I started paying more attention to the cinematography, which I managed to find similarly absurd. There’s, of course, the camera movement that occurs as Meryl Streep dances on a roof during the eponymous song, “Mamma Mia,” but there’s also smaller details, such as an extremely extra tracking shot which follows two characters exactly as they go “Oh. My. God.” and plop down onto a couch.

After the second viewing, we also watched the CinemaSins and evaluated whether or not each sin was justified. We concluded that most of them were, in fact, not. They had missed the point! The film was intended to be absurd. Surely, absurdity was not a crime.

III: Mamma Mia, Here I Go Again

As a fully converted acolyte of the church of Mamma Mia!, I ended up talking about how great the movie was at a blogger check-in. “It’s just a truly incredible piece of work.” Some people seemed to be amused by how excited I was. Others were mostly just bemused.

Fortunately, one of the people at this blogger check-in was Paolo, resident old and fellow musical appreciator. Paolo and I happened to be planning a pre-CPW event, where we would be watching something with a bunch of newly admitted students. Unfortunately, neither of us had any clue what we were actually going to watch, but, here, suddenly, was our answer. We would have to watch Mamma Mia!.

We needed to be thoroughly prepared before our event, so the only correct thing to do was, of course, to watch the movie again. We watched it in the Next House TFL,06 the George Hosker Memorial Tastefully Furnished Lounge, or, 'that big lounge on the first floor of Next House' on a relatively big screen, and were also eventually joined by Meghana V. ’22. Even on my third watch-through of the film, I continued to notice new things. For example, there’s an extremely ugly fish in the movie which appears in not one, not two, but three scenes. Despite the fact that the fish mostly functions as a throwaway gag in one scene, the filmmakers had somehow maintained its presence and continuity throughout the movie. The attention to detail in this fundamentally absurd film is, frankly, astounding.

Upon completing the film, Paolo and I very animatedly walked Meghana through all of the critical scenes and sequences which she had missed, leaning into the fantastic nature of the film. This was a lot of fun; the semester thus far had been rough for me, and getting to spend some time enjoying a purely absurd activity with friends was really nice. Perhaps more importantly, however, the viewing was also an excuse for Paolo, Meghana, and I to catch up with each other. We chatted for a long time after the film was over, talking about the semester, about future plans, and everything else in between.

IV: My, My, How Can I Resist You?

Of course, by the time Paolo and I actually ran our pre-CPW event, I knew almost every beat of the movie. We logged onto a Zoom call and streamed it, and got to hang out with a bunch of cool prefrosh, some of whom were already very into Mamma Mia!, some of whom were not but were excited to watch anyways, and some of whom were, understandably, confused about why Paolo and I had so much enthusiasm for this random 2008 jukebox musical.

During the call, we paused the movie at the break between the first and second day.07 the movie is adapted from the stage musical, which occurs in two acts. unfortunately, movies don't have intermissions, so they sort of just cut from the first day to the second day. Paolo shared some fun facts about the movie, and we got to know some of the prefrosh as well. It was a fun meet-and-greet, and though the movie was a lot of fun as always, it was particularly enjoyable to get to see it with a new set of people, and to laugh at or point out the same jokes with a different audience.

Later, during CPW, I was at a Rainbow Lounge event hanging out with some queer prefrosh for the sake of hanging out with more queer people, and one of the prefrosh asked me, very excitedly, whether I was the person who had ran the Mamma Mia! watch party. I very excitedly replied that was. In that moment, Mamma Mia! graduated from being a mere in-joke within my existing communities08 though, to be honest, i am not convinced brushing your teeth together in the dark to "Mamma Mia" can be described as a <em>mere</em> in-joke into being a small tether to a completely new community of folks. Yet again, this absurd film had become a means to connect with people.

V: Mamma Mia, Does It Show Again?

I took a little break from Mamma Mia! after showing number four. The first four viewings of the film had all occurred in a one-month period, and I was finally out of excuses to watch it again. Besides, the end of the semester was fast approaching, and things were ramping up. There was no time.

Eventually, however, the semester began drawing to a close, which also meant that acapella concerts were finally happening. This fact would be completely irrelevant, if it were not for the fact that my acapella group, the Asymptones, was doing an ABBA medley, and, additionally, was planning on running an end-of-semester social event afterwards, where we would be watching—you guessed it—Mamma Mia!.

For complicated reasons,09 okay, they're not that complicated, but the details are boring, so they have been relegated to this footnote. we had an end-of-semester logistical meeting in Building 2, and our social was being held in Simmons Hall, and these buildings are across campus from each other. we were walking across campus together on our way to this social, and along the way, we sang our ABBA medley, much to the chagrin of the random passersby around us. It was another reminder that I had found a community where we could simply make and enjoy making music together, and that it was nice to have friends who were just as happy to sing on the street as you were. We found our way to the TV lounge on the first floor of Simmons, unpacked some snacks, and started the movie.

By the fifth watching of Mamma Mia!, I was running out of new things to notice. I just sat and let the absurdity wash over me. We ate pizza and drank lemonade and enjoyed each other’s company as the movie ran on. After the movie, we cleaned up and sang our alumni song a couple of times in the hallway, before finally dispersing.

VI: My, My, Just How Much I’ve Missed You

My last watching of Mamma Mia! at MIT this semester occurred during senior week, when only a few people remained on campus: the seniors, commencement volunteers, and anybody living on campus for the summer. We were looking for something to do—and, to be honest, we were missing a lot of the younger members of our wing—so we watched it again. Once again, I turned my critical brain off; it was time to simply enjoy our time together. And so we did—our last hurrah at this inside joke which had carried us throughout an entire semester.

Our wing of Next House was granted permission to write on the walls and doors this semester, since they are being repainted over the summer. After the final viewing, Nicole chose to write up the lyrics to “Mamma Mia.”

VII: Yes, I’ve Been Brokenhearted; Blue Since the Day We Parted

I’ve been missing 4W and the Asymptones and all of our shenanigans this summer, and a local theatre company happened to be putting on a performance of the stage musical version of Mamma Mia!. I felt almost obligated to go—I mean, at this point, I had spent over 10 hours with the movie. I bought tickets and showed up, not knowing exactly what to expect. The movie and the stage musical are different in many ways, with subtle changes to the order of events and songs based on the constraints of each medium.10 to vastly oversimplify, in the stage musical, set changes are harder, and so often events occur in places where it seems a little awkward. in the movie, the length constraint is more strict, and so motivating events are sometimes cut. It was fun to notice the differences, as well as the lines which are shared verbatim between the two.

After the end of both the movie and the stage musical, the actors perform “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo” during the credits and bows respectively. When our performance of Mamma Mia! ended, the whole crowd was singing along to “Waterloo.” It felt like a communal celebration of the performance—which, even if didn’t make sense, was a lot of fun.

Why does this matter? Why does any of this matter?

The answer is that it doesn’t matter. In fact, the fact that it doesn’t matter is the point. The film is absurd. The musical is absurd. Neither of them make much sense whatsoever. Yet, in spite of all this, they are fun. That is, perhaps, the important thing. Sometimes, when something is fun, even if it is absurd or pointless, you have to lean into it.

Whether you’re watching the movie or the stage musical, the best part of Mamma Mia! is that it feels like every single person involved with the performance is having fun. You can almost hear the laughter in the writer’s room every time a joke lands on stage, and you can see how much fun the actors are having throughout the movie, up to the bitter end. Every extra in the movie is having the time of their life dancing on the boardwalk and jumping into the water while the man from ABBA plays piano on a boat. Even the cinematographers and film editors are having fun. When Harry introduces himself, the film does a close zoom into his sunglasses as he goes “Bright. Harry Bright,” a reference to all the James Bond films that Pierce Brosnan had been in up to that point. This is a joke that nobody will get unless they have watched the film something like seven times, but it doesn’t matter. If it was a fun joke to make, it was worth it.

It turns out that this is also the best part of being at MIT—not that “every single person…is having fun,” but rather that the people at MIT, if you find the right friend groups, will let you lean into whatever absurd obsession you happen to find yourself stuck in the midst of. You can find people to make music with in acapella groups; you can find people to watch and rewatch movies with in your living group; you can find people who will pay you to write a two-thousand-plus word blog post about whatever you want; you might even find someone who will sing “Mamma Mia” in the bathroom with you, in the dark, while confusing the hell out of everyone else around you.

That, it seems to me, is a form of love. It is leaning into the absurd, and having other people lean into the absurd with you. Sometimes, at MIT, “the absurd” is getting really deeply into puzzles or “Interconnected Embedded Systems.” Sometimes, it is watching Mamma Mia! seven times and knowing all the songs by heart. Both are good in their own unique ways, but they are also both good in the sense that sharing that joy with others will always be good, no matter how insignificant that source of joy ultimately is11 cf. <em><a href="https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/everything-everywhere-all-at-once/">Everything Everywhere All At Once</a> </em>(2022) in the grand scheme of things.

Oh, and that “Big Cold River” performance? We didn’t quite get around to it this semester, but Jonathan did end up singing “Mamma Mia” on the Harvard Bridge in the middle of a torrential downpour on the way back from a boba run, so we’ll call it a mixed success.

Maybe next semester.

  1. more about Next Act coming (hopefully) soon :0 back to text
  2. a 'social member' is someone who hangs out in a living community, but does not live there. back to text
  3. to be honest the story seems a little too convenient for me, but who cares. upon digging a little further the only thing I learned was that this man was also a Harvard undergraduate, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. back to text
  4. funnily enough, one could theoretically argue that the absurdity of Mamma Mia! ultimately traces its roots to the fundamental absurdity of opera. i will not be taking further questions at this time. back to text
  5. nodders! back to text
  6. the George Hosker Memorial Tastefully Furnished Lounge, or, 'that big lounge on the first floor of Next House back to text
  7. the movie is adapted from the stage musical, which occurs in two acts. unfortunately, movies don't have intermissions, so they sort of just cut from the first day to the second day. back to text
  8. though, to be honest, i am not convinced brushing your teeth together in the dark to "Mamma Mia" can be described as a mere in-joke back to text
  9. okay, they're not that complicated, but the details are boring, so they have been relegated to this footnote. we had an end-of-semester logistical meeting in Building 2, and our social was being held in Simmons Hall, and these buildings are across campus from each other. back to text
  10. to vastly oversimplify, in the stage musical, set changes are harder, and so often events occur in places where it seems a little awkward. in the movie, the length constraint is more strict, and so motivating events are sometimes cut. back to text
  11. cf. Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) back to text