Movie Reviews

A compilation of movie, television, and opera reviews since 2014.
personal, criticism, fiction, reviews, opera, NN
2014-05-012020-10-23 in progress certainty: log importance: 3


This is a com­pi­la­tion of my film/television/theater reviews; it is com­piled from my . Reviews are sorted by rat­ing in descend­ing order.

See also my & .

Documentaries

Project Nim

:

Thor­ough doc­u­men­tary on a 1970s sci­en­tific project in rais­ing a as a human to get it to sign true lan­guage. The project was very well doc­u­mented with pho­tographs and footage, so with all the archival footage and ret­ro­spec­tive inter­views, we get a vivid sense of Nim and the peo­ple around him.

Specifi­cal­ly, we get a vivid sense of every­one involved as hav­ing absolutely ter­ri­ble judg­ment and the peo­ple involved as fanat­i­cal blank-s­late nur­tur­ists of the type at the core of the sim­i­lar to Robert Rosen­thal or John Cal­houn—why on earth would any­one expect such a thing to work? Why would chim­panzees have evolved true lan­guage when they never use that in the wild, and why would you expect any sort of objec­tiv­ity from the involved per­son­nel? Early on, the daugh­ter of the fos­ter-mother com­ments that “It was the ’70s!”; which does explain a lot.

It goes about as ter­ri­bly as one expects: there is bit­ter infight­ing over who are Nim’s ‘real’ par­ents, the footage of Nim ‘sign­ing’ is quite weak (I know a lit­tle ASL myself, and I was deeply unim­pressed by what we see Nim do—the teach­ers’ claims about Nim com­mu­ni­cat­ing seem to be a hefty heap­ing of anthro­por­mor­phiz­ing, read­ing into ran­dom ges­tures, and wish­ful think­ing; a nice exam­ple of which is how one male teacher com­ments how Nim loved to play with cats and would “quiver” with excite­ment hold­ing it, while later on, we see this ‘quiv­er­ing’ is actu­ally Nim try­ing to dry-hump the cats, and the cats are even­tu­ally taken away lest he kill them). As Nim gets big­ger, it’s less that he became human than his care­tak­ers became chim­panzee: the orig­i­nal fos­ter-mother and the new female teacher com­pete for who can play with & sup­pli­cate Nim the most in mater­nal instincts gone into over­drive, and Nim suc­cess­fully dom­i­nates the two men involved while the women applaud & enjoy the dom­i­nance con­tests. (The project lead, Ter­race, com­ments at one point that most of the staff turned out to be women.) The film-mak­ers seem to try to draw a par­al­lel by not­ing that Ter­race slept with the first fos­ter-mother before the project started and with one teacher dur­ing the pro­ject, but it does­n’t work too well since Nim clearly won their hearts long-term. Unre­strained, with no other males to keep him in check, it pre­dictably starts going all wrong—the female teacher in ques­tion recounts how Nim put ~100 stitches into her (I counted her enu­mer­a­tion of the batch­es), and then the project shuts down after he tears open her face. Chim­panzees, as every­one involved seemed to for­get, are com­pared to humans, and per­fectly capa­ble of bit­ing off your nuts with their impres­sive teeth and leav­ing you to die of blood loss (to cite one exam­ple from ).

After which, of course, he goes back to the pri­mate colony. The doc­u­men­tary & peo­ple lay it on thick how Nim is being ter­ri­bly treated in this, but they’re so com­pro­mised that it’s impos­si­ble to take them seri­ous­ly; I was baffled when they described him being sedat­ed, to trans­port him safely back to the colony in a plane as quickly as pos­si­ble, as being “a nasty thing to do. Very deceit­ful.” Seri­ous­ly‽ A grow­ing male chim­panzee nearly killed his clos­est care­taker and that is your reac­tion to an entirely sen­si­ble mea­sure, a com­pletely irrel­e­vant con­cern about deceit­ful­ness, as if Nim were some sort of ath­lete whose com­peti­tor cheat­ed? Sim­i­lar­ly, a big deal is made of the locked col­lars on the chim­panzees at the colony… which turn out to be on the chimps so if one starts try­ing to chew your face off, you have a chance to defend your­self by grab­bing the col­lar and hold­ing them off! (Rais­ing a chim­panzee is dan­ger­ous, but as it turns out, going to a chim­panzee facil­ity can be just as dan­ger­ous, as the demon­strates.)

While at the pri­mate colony, Nim’s min­i­mal sign­ing skills seemed to degrade even fur­ther and the pri­mates even­tu­ally start being used in med­ical exper­i­ments; rather than take it seri­ously and ask whether the med­ical exper­i­ments were sci­en­tifi­cally & med­ically use­ful, the doc­u­men­tar­i­ans choose to sim­ply show decon­tex­tu­al­ized injec­tions. (With an approach like that, rou­tine oper­a­tions in a hos­pi­tal would look like ghoul­ish crimes against human­i­ty…)

Final­ly, Nim winds up at a horse-res­cue farm, where as a reminder of why Project Nim had to be ter­mi­nat­ed, we’re told how he casu­ally killed a dog one day and how, when the orig­i­nal fos­ter-mother vis­ited she, appar­ently still under many illu­sions, enters the cage to visit him and is attacked—one inter­vie­wee com­ment­ing, “The fact that he did­n’t kill her meant a lot, ’cause he could have.” Oh. I see. (See also the case of Travis the chim­panzee; less harm­ful but equally per­turb­ing is the case of , another lin­guis­tics exper­i­ment ended when the com­pan­ion baby “began to copy Gua’s sounds” instead of talk­ing.)

They Shall Not Grow Old

(2018)

WWI doc­u­men­tary by Peter Jack­son: the descrip­tion was irre­sistible to me—a rig­or­ously all-o­rig­i­nal-footage doc­u­men­tary using dig­i­tal retim­ing & clean­ing & enhance­ment, col­oriza­tion, lipread­ing, and re-e­n­acted sound effects, with nar­ra­tion & com­men­tary solely by WWI vet­er­ans. The release was weird: only on 2 days, and only 1 show­ing each day? But I made it to the first one.

The doc­u­men­tary is book-ended by Peter Jack­son talk­ing for a bit about the movie, with the post-end­ing seg­ment being lengthy, per­haps 20 min­utes, going into more detail by show­ing them accu­mu­lat­ing WWI uni­forms to get the col­oriz­ing right (in­signia could vary, and the khaki of the British sol­diers and the light gray-blue of the Ger­mans were both night­mares to get just right), record­ing sound effects from replica artillery, and accom­pa­ny­ing the NZ army on live-fire exer­cis­es. The doc­u­men­tary itself fol­lows a straight­for­ward flow of the start of WWI & British recruit­ment, boot camp/training, trav­el­ing to the front in France, reach­ing the front, deal­ing with shelling and sur­viv­ing daily life in the trench­es, respite when briefly rotated to the rear, ‘going over the top’, tak­ing pris­on­ers of war, and return­ing.

Regard­less, the expe­ri­ence makes for more inter­est­ing watch­ing. For exam­ple, it’s impos­si­ble to not notice just how bad the state of den­tal health was in WWI Eng­land and how scrawny and runty and short so many enlis­tees are, per­haps because of the lousy food (jam on toast being a major food group rather than an occa­sional snack or dessert), which was also dire in the boot camp. And yet, one of the vet­er­ans states that enlis­tees gained >6kg between the food & exer­cise! This would sound implau­si­ble except you just saw them march­ing and how short many of them were, and I’m reminded of sim­i­lar com­ments about enlist­ing in the US Army in Viet­nam, which was at a much later & wealth­ier time. Per­haps that’s one rea­son that teenagers found it so easy to lie about their age—who could tell that you weren’t sim­ply on the lower end of things for 18 or 21 years old? Nor are the few women to appear all that well-fa­vored phys­i­cal­ly, another reminder.

The more per­spec­tive we get on WWI, the more hor­ri­fy­ing a mis­take & crime it becomes, and They Shall Not Grow Old only empha­sizes this for me. The footage is ample to show all this, and includes many inter­est­ing bits like sol­diers stum­bling or freez­ing up when they see the cam­era­man, sol­diers fool­ing around or com­pet­ing, and groups & horses being hit by artillery. (Eng­lish wom­en, of course, were far from guilt­less in WWI, and the vet­er­ans recount their zeal to shame and hen­peck men and even under­age chil­dren into vol­un­teer­ing to die.)

The dig­i­tal sta­bi­liza­tion and zoom­ing in for man­u­fac­tur­ing ‘track­ing shots’ allow for clear and mod­ern-style tracking/panning, giv­ing it all a dynamic doc­u­men­tary feel that the orig­i­nal video cam­eras were not capa­ble, and the dig­i­tal restora­tion & col­oriza­tion are dra­matic improve­ments over the orig­i­nal and truly do bring all the peo­ple to life. In one part where an offi­cer reads a let­ter out to his men, they were able to iden­tify the spe­cific let­ter being read in the archives by cross-ref­er­enc­ing the date with the unit archives & lipread­ing to match it up!

The enhance­ment struck me as far infe­rior to what I expect­ed—in­di­vid­ual chunks vis­i­bly flow and flick­er, par­tic­u­larly in faces, which should be an easy opti­cal flow prob­lem to fix. But then I reflected that if they’d been work­ing on it for 4+ years, their soft­ware would be even old­er, and it would be unrea­son­able to com­pare to the 2018 NN SOTAs in image superresolution/interpolation/colorization. Per­haps we can look for­ward to much more upscaled & col­orized his­tor­i­cal footage? Even what I saw in They Shall Not Grow Old was more than enough to con­vince me that the expe­ri­ence is far supe­rior to the orig­i­nal degraded jit­tery mono­chrome fixed-shot footage.

Free Solo

(2018)

Free Solo is a doc­u­men­tary on , a rock climber who spe­cial­izes in the most fatal kind of climb­ing, with­out any safety gear what­so­ev­er—if you fall, you die. (And free solo­ers do.) A film crew fol­lows him over 2 years as he trav­els in his van, liv­ing a monas­tic life (he is even veg­e­tar­i­an) as he seeks to set a record by climb­ing the most dan­ger­ous cliff face of . The footage, much shot by drone and able to fol­low Hon­nold from what feels like mere meters away, is lit­er­ally gut-churn­ing & breath-tak­ing, and I felt slightly ill at points (de­spite not being par­tic­u­larly afraid of heights and enjoy­ing the occa­sional gym climb).

Free Solo is essen­tially much the same as the also excel­lent doc­u­men­tary : an exam­i­na­tion of mono­ma­nia, excel­lence, and hap­pi­ness. Free solo­ing, like or is extremely dan­ger­ous, and one of Hon­nold’s acquain­tances dies dur­ing the film­ing—merely the lat­est in a long line of free solo fatal­i­ties. Inevitably, the ethics of free solo­ing come up. The crew and Hon­nold’s attrac­tive & nor­mal girl­friend are more con­cerned than he is. They, after all, will have to live with it for decades to come.

Hon­nold blows the topic off; for him, it is merely a few sec­onds of unpleas­ant­ness and then it’s over, and if they are wor­ried about it, then they should shove off. They can’t, of course, as they are too drawn to Hon­nold. His girl­friend out­ragedly echoes another climber’s girl­friend who was asked, “well, what did you expect?” Nei­ther of them answers the ques­tion: well, what did you expect? You knew every­thing nec­es­sary to know about free solo­ing and the fatal­ity rate before you decided to date them. What did you expect? Their response is inau­then­tic. In the case of Hon­nold’s girl­friend, she dated him solely because he was a famous free solo climber and she went to his talk & left her phone num­ber after hardly talk­ing to him. She is happy to enjoy the perks like the big new house in Las Vegas or the groupies or the invited talks or the doc­u­men­tary crew and, in short, the over­all social pres­tige & high sta­tus of Hon­nold—even while con­stantly pres­sur­ing Hon­nold to stop doing the very thing that attracted her in the first place! The inter­view­er, it seems, never presses her on this con­tra­dic­tion.

What of Hon­nold him­self? Hon­nold jus­ti­fies it once:

For Sanni the point of life is like hap­pi­ness. To be with peo­ple that make you feel ful­filled and to have a good time. For me it’s all about per­for­mance. Any­body can be happy and cozy. Noth­ing good hap­pens in the world by being happy and cozy. Nobody achieves any­thing great because they’re happy and cozy.

Climb­ing El Cap is a diffi­cult, dan­ger­ous, and unprece­dented thing to do; I hes­i­tate to say that it is a great thing, how­ev­er. Why would some­one devote their life to accom­plish some­thing as utterly use­less as climb­ing moun­tains with­out ropes again and again until they die? (It is not even a spec­ta­tor sport.) Hon­nold comes off as clearly on the autism spec­trum as ever I have seen some­one, intel­li­gent & well-in­ten­tioned but vaguely unhappy and with a remark­ably flat affect. After an iso­lated child­hood with a dis­tant father & dri­ving moth­er, noth­ing in his daily life seems to give him much in the way of plea­sure, or indeed affect him at all (?). Heart­stop­ping moments like mak­ing a jump at a crit­i­cal spot on El Cap­i­tan and falling off dur­ing prac­tice, which would be fatal in the final ascent, are treated the same as fry­ing up some kale in his van.

puts Hon­nold into an fMRI machine to look at fear. Climbers are already differ­en­t—one of the most inter­viewed climbers in the doc­u­men­tary, , went hik­ing in Kaza­khstan with his girl­friend, was cap­tured by jihadis, and escaped by push­ing one off a cliff, but this is too bor­ing to men­tion—yet Hon­nold is even more extreme, with essen­tially zero amyg­dala acti­va­tion: “The pho­tographs, even the ‘grue­some burn­ing chil­dren and stuff’ struck him as dated and jad­ed.” Fur­ther, Hon­nold’s brain also shows near-zero acti­va­tion dur­ing a gam­bling task offer­ing rewards. It is strik­ing that in the entirety of Free Solo, the only time that Hon­nold seems gen­uinely moved, gen­uinely smil­ing and hap­py, is when he reaches the top of El Cap­i­tan. One is left with the impres­sion that the real rea­son for Hon­nold’s mono­ma­nia is that only hours spent in the clos­est pos­si­ble prox­im­ity to death suc­cess­fully solv­ing an intri­cate puz­zle with a world-record as pay­off can break through his gray every­day world and finally make him feel alive and feel joy. But like many drugs, tol­er­ance builds up, and it requires more and more extreme stim­uli to pro­vide the same pay­off.

One would not want to watch a group of heroin addicts com­pete to see who can ‘free main­line’ the largest doses of heroin with­out a nalox­one kit handy, a s diffi­cult & dan­ger­ous as that may indeed be; but what, in the end, is the differ­ence between that and Hon­nold?

Apollo 11

(2019 doc­u­men­tary on the 1969 )

Apollo 11 revis­its the NASA archives and, in an exer­cise some­what sim­i­lar to They Shall Not Grow Old etc in mak­ing the old shock­ingly new, extracts nev­er-be­fore-seen clean high­-res color footage to stitch together into a sin­gle con­tin­u­ous con­tem­po­rary doc­u­men­tary with­out any later props or talk­ing-heads or inter­views, using instead con­tem­po­rary news commentary/narration. The Apollo pro­gram ben­e­fited from the knowl­edge they were mak­ing his­to­ry, and could afford mul­ti­ple rov­ing cam­era crews with high­-end film cam­eras; there are so many that they can show scenes in par­al­lel, like dur­ing the launch where each con­troller group appar­ently had its own cam­era­man. (The rapid back­-and-forths also empha­size the degree to which NASA approx­i­mated a giant open-air com­puter and how orga­ni­za­tions back then had to use a lot of humans & bureau­cracy to con­trol processes which we would now imple­ment in soft­ware. I am pretty sure nei­ther NASA nor SpaceX need such crowded con­trol rooms or enor­mous con­tin­gents of nerds these days.) The sheer num­ber of peo­ple and checks involved reminds one of the immense care and ded­i­ca­tion to think­ing through plans, test­ing, prepar­ing, and sci­enc­ing the shit out of things it takes to auda­ciously let 3 mon­keys in a can walk on the Moon and come back on the first try. (As ide­olo­gies go, West­ern sci­ence is a pretty good one.)

Because we’re not used to see­ing (non-fic­tion) footage from the 1960s which is so high­-qual­ity and tend to for­get that the Apollo pro­gram did­n’t just ‘hap­pen’ but was care­fully stage-man­aged and the best avail­able equip­ment used, the footage of inti­mate details and nar­ra­tion is too good and pro­duces a feel­ing of hyper­re­al­i­ty—it was hard to shake the feel­ing that I was watch­ing a large-bud­get Hol­ly­wood movie rather than the real thing. (“Such ded­i­ca­tion to get­ting the hand­held cam­eras & snacks for the spec­ta­tors right! Props to the props depart­ment! And their hair, it’s so 1960s!” I thought inane­ly.)

Sim­i­lar­ly, who knew that the Apollo crew had so much time to mess around with cam­eras inside their space cap­sule, or that the lunar descent had been filmed so thor­ough­ly? It is one thing to read about the last-minute error and Neil Arm­strong earn­ing his place by nav­i­gat­ing the dust to land with just sec­onds of fuel left, and quite another thing to expe­ri­ence it.

Strongly rec­om­mended for any­one with an inter­est in space, great­ness, or real­i­ty.

Kedi

(2016)

Kedi, or “cat”, is a doc­u­men­tary about Turk­ish street cats in Istan­bul. Thor­oughly enjoy­able, stuffed with beau­ti­ful shots of Istan­bul and cats, with par­tic­u­larly clever ankle-level track­ing shots fol­low­ing the semi­-feral cats around. Apro­pos of , it’s inter­est­ing to see how well cats seem to live in the tra­di­tional walk­a­ble urban parts of Istan­bul, tak­ing hand­outs but still fol­low­ing their nature while liv­ing long enough, often, to die of can­cer. The need to get along with other cats and humans seems to keep them domes­ti­cat­ed.

Amy

(2015)

Amy is a documentary/biopic on singer ; while I was almost totally igno­rant of Wine­house beside know­ing she was some sort of singer who died of a drug over­dose a few years ago, this was highly rated as a doc­u­men­tary, with the major attrac­tion of Wine­house hav­ing been filmed in long home videos for years long before she ever became famous. Since for famous peo­ple, the most inter­est­ing part of their life is often their obscure begin­nings, which for exactly that rea­son is also the most poorly doc­u­mented part of their lives, this makes the doc­u­men­tary much more inter­est­ing than usu­al.

So, Wine­house. I assumed from the bizarre makeup and tat­toos I’d seen in occa­sional pho­tos that she was some sort of south­ern Amer­i­can red­neck; turns out she was actu­ally British and more or less a chav (de­spite being Jew­ish?), inher­it­ing all the patholo­gies of the lower class­es. A proper review of this could only be writ­ten by Theodore Dal­rym­ple but the sum­mary is short: fame often makes peo­ple more than them­selves, and Wine­house was bro­ken from early on & lived with bro­ken peo­ple, from her dubi­ously sup­port­ive friends to her use­less par­a­site boyfriends/husbands to her neg­li­gent, selfish, exploita­tive father to the record indus­try to the fans who bought her & funded the paparazzi. Per­haps she might have grown out of it into a bet­ter self, but the accel­er­ants of fame & money spread the fire too fast.

The doc­u­men­tary tries to sug­gest that Wine­house’s prob­lems were all Freudian and based on her par­en­t’s divorce around while she was start­ing puber­ty, but this is unlikely as it is a bit of a post hoc (im­pul­siv­ity and behav­ioral prob­lems would tend to sur­face around that time regard­less), most peo­ple sur­vive a divorce with­out becom­ing drug addicts, and prob­lems of var­i­ous sorts appear to run in the fam­ily (“every­thing is her­i­ta­ble”/“every­thing is cor­re­lated”). The gen­e­sis of “Rehab” really says it all—a quip boast­ing about not get­ting treat­ment for the poly drug abuse (in­clud­ing, but not lim­ited to, tobac­co, mar­i­jua­na, hero­in, & alco­hol) which was quite vis­i­bly killing her—watch­ing the videos progress over the film, she already looks half-dead by 2006 as she destroyed her­self with drugs, tat­toos, and ever more bizarre make­up—is greeted by her col­lab­o­ra­tor not as a cri­sis but a hook for a catchy new song, and by the rest of the world as a rev­e­la­tion. (To quote ’s descrip­tion of : “The action is laid in Hel­l,—only it seems places and peo­ple have Eng­lish names there.” Pre­sum­ably, the second/third cir­cle, the realm of hun­gry ghost­s.) The sur­pris­ing thing is not that Wine­house died young but that she sur­vived so long. So it is a hor­ror movie. As far as that goes, it is quite good and greatly ben­e­fits from the home videos.

The major flaw of Amy is that it does a ter­ri­ble job of show­ing why Wine­house & her music were so pop­u­lar. The music is pre­sented mostly as snip­pets, and I am left not under­stand­ing what was good about it. This leads to some eye­brow-rais­ing scenes like early on where a music exec­u­tive praises the young teen Wine­house as “a force of nature” in her first label audi­tion as she plays on a gui­tar strain­ing to sing some lyrics which sound like, well, a young teenage girl had writ­ten them in a diary dec­o­rated with draw­ings of lit­tle hearts. ‘One does not care to rec­ol­lect the mis­takes of youth’, but the direc­tor is hardly doing a good job of show­ing what musi­cal tal­ent she had to deserve such world fame and Gram­mies. I should not have to go out­side the text to under­stand some­thing as fun­da­men­tal to a musi­cian’s life as their music.

Over­all, required view­ing for any Wine­house fan and of gen­eral psy­chi­atric inter­est; pos­si­bly too painful to watch for oth­ers.

Weiner

(2016)

Fly­-on-the-wall doc­u­men­tary fol­low­ing hus­band-and-wife / as they try to res­ur­rect his career by run­ning for mayor in the 2 years after his Con­gres­sional career was derailed by his . Like Amy, Icarus, and The King of Kong, the doc­u­men­tar­i­ans have incred­i­ble access and footage by sheer luck, by get­ting access and film­ing before the key events, enabling a god’s-eye view.

Spoil­ers: the sex­ting scan­dals weren’t over yet. Despite being the fron­t-run­ner in the Demo­c­ra­tic pri­maries (and thus by exten­sion the future may­or), more pho­tos & women popped out of the wood­work to tor­pedo his run, and he fin­ished effec­tively last, hand­ing the may­or­ship to the cur­rent (of inter­est to me pri­mar­ily for his long-run­ning efforts to destroy NYC’s mag­net schools like / in mis­guided appli­ca­tion of egal­i­tar­i­an­ism and give­aways to the African-Amer­i­can Demo­c­ra­tic base). Per­verse­ly, even then Wein­er’s sex­ting scan­dal was­n’t done—­many a soul like myself was jarred to recall that Anthony Weiner existed after his sex­ting scan­dal man­aged to inter­fere with the 2016 US Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion when, because of Weiner sex­ting with a 15yo girl, FBI direc­tor dropped an Octo­ber sur­prise bomb­shell just days before Elec­tion Day by announc­ing the FBI had found (from/to Huma Abe­d­in, who made her career as an aide & advi­sor to Clin­ton). That the emails turned out to be com­pletely irrel­e­vant did­n’t mat­ter. It’s diffi­cult to know if the emails caused the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump, but it cer­tainly did­n’t help.

It is a com­ment on the vagaries and con­tin­gency of his­tory that a Con­gress­man using Twit­ter incor­rectly in 2011 could lead direct­ly, with a remark­ably short causal chain, to the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump and the lat­est onslaught against the NYC mag­net high schools. How did that hap­pen?

Weiner can shed only a lit­tle light on that. What it can do is human­ize a walk­ing punch­line. Watch­ing it, I can hardly believe how triv­ial and absurd the orig­i­nal casus belli was—a photo of box­ers with a bul­ge, less racy and sexy than the under­wear model pho­tographs you see on pack­ages of briefs walk­ing through the Wal­mart under­wear aisle. For this the media lost its mind and Weiner his career? (At least actu­ally slept with a woman not his wife.)

Falling for such a rea­son on such a pre­text hardly seems like a good way to run polit­i­cal life. Real­ly, in 2011, any­one could even pre­tend to be appalled and out­raged? Give me a break! Is what I’d like to say… Except the Weiner story goes on. (One is reminded of one of the great lit­er­ary insults: “It [] was writ­ten in 1817, when was 23. Had he died then, the world would have thought it had lost a great poet. But he lived on.”)

Weiner destroyed his career with sex­ting. This is an under­stand­able and for­giv­able mis­take. Abe­din appears to have for­given him the first batch, and he swore to his sup­port­ers and all and sundry he’d changed, and began the 2013 race and call­ing in favors—ex­cept that even as he was destroy­ing his career, he began sex­ting some more. And not just with one per­son, or once, but (at least) 3. Who, pre­dictably, came out dur­ing his race for may­or. The first wom­an, one ‘Syd­ney Leathers’ (I still have diffi­culty believ­ing that is a real name), comes off as thor­oughly loath­some: it takes two to text, yet she man­ages to be morally sanc­ti­mo­nious about her whistle­blow­ing even as she attempts to exploit the scan­dal to launch a (appar­ently suc­cess­ful) career in pornog­ra­phy with stunts like hound­ing Weiner & Abe­din at the post-de­feat cam­paign par­ty. (Leather­s’s self­-right­eous cru­elty make her appear to be a char­ac­ter out of an Ayn Rand nov­el: from what she says, and how she says it, her real griev­ance appears to be sim­ply that Weiner had accom­plished or stood for any­thing in his life and she is delight­ing in tear­ing him down.) Despite all this, Abe­din stays with Wein­er, even as the come­back crash­es, and both must know that Weiner is done for good—Amer­i­cans may believe in sec­ond chances, but few believe in third chances. Which makes it all the more incred­i­ble when you con­sider that Weiner does­n’t even cover the third sex­ting scan­dal post-2013, the one with a minor, which lands Weiner in jail (for almost two years! He was only recently released) and finally makes Abe­din divorce him. It offers a sharp, detailed depic­tion, with some ret­ro­spec­tive inter­views with Wein­er, of just the sec­ond scan­dal. So much for the how. But why did that hap­pen?

It’s hard not to won­der, as Weiner does, if it would have been such a scan­dal if he had not pos­sessed that most cursèd of last names, a name and scan­dal with which to cow unbe­liev­ers in . I sus­pect that, like the or or , it has far less to do with the grav­ity of the offense (so absurdly triv­ial, so eagerly pros­e­cuted by those who had surely com­mit­ted saucier sin­s), than it does with pro­vid­ing a for inter­nal ene­mies & exter­nal crit­ics: Weiner is your stereo­typ­i­cal New York City Jew, in every point, sharp-el­bowed and delight­ing in pop­ulist grand­stand­ing in Con­gress & social media, aggres­sively appeal­ing to his base. Mak­ing a lot of ene­mies can be an effec­tive strat­egy and was work­ing well for Wein­er, but of course, then you’ve also made a lot of ene­mies. Given a chance & coor­di­na­tion, they can all pile onto you. Which is pre­cisely what hap­pened to Wein­er. ‘Live by the (so­cial) media, die by the (so­cial) media.’

A pile-on can explain the first scan­dal, but not the sec­ond or third. Any nor­mal per­son would be so pro­foundly burned by hav­ing tor­pe­doed a bril­liant career (and one it is easy to imag­ine lead­ing to the White House, as doubt­less Weiner & Abe­din per­mit­ted them­selves to secretly fan­ta­size about), that they would never so much as take a dubi­ous pho­to­graph or per­mit them­selves the most slightly off-color jest ever again. Instead, Weiner does it again and again and again. Why? To call him a ‘sex addict’ is to explain every­thing & answer noth­ing.

The rep­e­ti­tion also raises fur­ther ques­tions. Know­ing the penalties, Weiner did it any­way. “It is worse than a crime—it is a mis­take.” Per­haps the first sex­ting was indeed triv­ial, but the more impor­tant thing is that he knew it would be a scan­dal and did it any­way. What does that imply about a man? Per­haps it implies he is unfit for any posi­tion of trust, because there is some­thing wrong with Weiner that he can­not avoid stum­bling into scan­dal. The incon­se­quen­tial­ity of sex­ting is a fea­ture, not a bug; the slighter, the bet­ter, as a shib­bo­leth & costly sig­nal.

Abe­din main­tains a pro­fes­sional veneer through­out, con­scious of the cam­era, but Weiner (so straight­for­ward, so sten­to­ri­an) is silent when it comes to the sex­ting. “Why are you let­ting us film this?”, the cam­era­man is finally forced break his silence and ask. Weiner wearily shakes his head. Why? This is the ques­tion Weiner won’t, or can’t, answer. Wein­er, it seems (like Wal­ter White or ), won’t change, can’t change, and like Oedi­pus, is bur­dened by him­self. (“…That we are capa­ble only of being what we are remains our unfor­giv­able sin…”)

Weiner takes the form of a Greek tragedy, sans , the hero whose fall ruins those he loved & who loved him; the action is laid in Hell, but the char­ac­ter­s—I don’t know why—all have Amer­i­can names.

Icarus

Doc­u­men­tary about the (tem­po­rary) down­fall; the film­maker Bryan Fogel ben­e­fits from the incred­i­ble luck of hav­ing decided to dab­ble in dop­ing (EPO+testosterone) for bicy­cle rac­ing to demon­strate how the anti-dop­ing test pro­grams can be defeat­ed, with some assis­tance from the direc­tor of the Russ­ian anti-dop­ing lab­o­ra­to­ry, . They hit it off and he has interviews/conversation from before and dur­ing the expo­sure, assists Grig­ory in escap­ing from Rus­sia and avoid­ing an unex­pected heart attack like his col­league, and whistle­blow­ing to the FBI & NYT. The first ~15 min­utes includes some­what graphic nee­dle use. The fly­-on-the-wall aspect is com­pelling the same way The King of Kong is, but down­plays the big pic­ture in favor of a close focus on Grig­ory as a char­ac­ter study of an aging ath­let­ics nerd: what are his real motives? Did he really want to expose the truth and reveal the Russ­ian cheat­ing, or is he more of a Sam­son, pulling down the tem­ple walls on him­self & his ene­mies and destroy­ing his own life­work by expos­ing the total bank­ruptcy of the anti-dop­ing pro­gram as ordered by the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment from the top down? For all the film of his daily rou­tine and play­ing with the film­mak­er’s dog and Skype inter­views with his fam­i­ly—in­ci­den­tal­ly, hacked snip­pets of which were appar­ently used on Russ­ian TV to try to dis­credit him, which says inter­est­ing things about Microsoft’s stew­ard­ship of Skype—and rather heavy-handed invo­ca­tions of Orwell’s 1984, he ulti­mately remains some­thing of a cipher.

Pumping Iron

1977 pro­pa­gan­da-doc­u­men­tary about Amer­i­can body­builders; it fol­lows a young last com­pe­ti­tion and some rivals.

It’s inter­est­ing to watch Schwarzeneg­ger before he became really famous, the insou­ciance with which he treats every­one & basks in admi­ra­tion & blows off any slightly oner­ous oblig­a­tions like his father’s funeral and cal­cu­lat­ing choices sab­o­tag­ing his rivals & self­-pro­mot­ing, as he pre­pares to jump ship to an act­ing career start­ing with (review), for which his only appar­ent qual­i­fi­ca­tion is the vol­ume of his mus­cles. (I should note that the Wikipedia arti­cle for PI notes that it’s a bit con­tro­ver­sial whether or not the skip­ping-the-fu­neral thing hap­pened, but nev­er­the­less, Schwarzeneg­ger is clearly try­ing to build an image.) I’m not famil­iar with body­builders but they come off dur­ing the com­pe­ti­tion as freak­ish: so mus­cu­lar that they often pass into the repul­sive and I stared fas­ci­nated at the flex­ing meat on dis­play.

Of course, PI is a very suc­cess­ful puff piece aimed at glam­or­iz­ing body­build­ing—­does­n’t go any­where near any ques­tions of health issues or the steroid abuse although every­one is of course juic­ing like crazy, or into any details about how body­builders can get so large or what moti­vates them to do this, aside from one inter­view seg­ment touch­ing on child­hood bul­ly­ing, which had an almost vibe.

One of the most inter­est­ing obser­va­tions in ret­ro­spect is real­iz­ing how tiny a niche powerlifting/bodybuilding was back then. Gyms with weightlift­ing equip­ment were so rare that peo­ple like Schwarzeneg­ger would relo­cate to the best ones. was a thing because all other beaches were non-mus­cle­-beach­es. Ath­letes lift­ing weights was largely unheard of, or a hobby at best. Now, of course, there is no one in, say, the NFL who does­n’t lift weights, because weightlift­ing pro­vides such an ath­letic per­for­mance boost. Once you notice this, it becomes all the more strik­ing to look at pho­tos of past ath­letes, such as famous box­ers, and notice how scrawny they are. It’s an inter­est­ing “small group” effect where a small weirdo group found $100 bills lying on the side­walk that many decades of com­pe­ti­tion had not noticed.

The King of Kong

Fas­ci­nat­ing in part because the stakes are so low, and the skull­dug­gery so cal­cu­lat­ed; the access of the film­mak­ers to key play­ers is so thor­ough that at times you’re given a god’s-eye point of view and it feels fic­tional (eg like in Apollo, when you watch both sides of a tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion hap­pen, it feels too good to be true). It was not too sur­pris­ing to me in 2018 that Mitchel­l’s records were voided for cheat­ing, along with sev­eral oth­ers that Twin Galax­ies had been in denial about for years.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

See the anime reviews.

The Great Happiness Space

Cinéma vérité-style doc­u­men­tary on Japan­ese “host clubs” in Osaka, the much more niche female coun­ter­part to the bet­ter known , based entirely on inter­views of the “hosts” and their female cus­tomers. Like host­ess clubs, the busi­ness model is nightly companionship/partying in exchange for buy­ing large amounts of over­priced alco­holic bev­er­ages; sex is some­times involved. There appar­ently are only a few host clubs of the type doc­u­ment­ed, I believe ~25 is quoted at one point, which is very small com­pared to the usual East Asian sex worker sec­tors. The female cus­tomers inter­viewed and pro­filed are not, as one might expect, older or unat­trac­tive wom­en, but often young and attrac­tive to the degree that the hosts them­selves are not. (It struck me as odd that the hosts them­selves are so phys­i­cally unre­mark­able, even unat­trac­tive, with bizarre fash­ion choices and hair­styles, but I think the right inter­pre­ta­tion here is that it’s more about being a “cos­tume” and pos­si­bly con­nected with PUA’s ‘pea­cock­ing’.) The quoted expen­di­tures are even more eye­brow-rais­ing, as while blow­ing >$273 cash on a spe­cial occa­sion may be jus­ti­fi­able, it’s differ­ent when one is spend­ing eas­ily $1,363 mul­ti­ple times a week or high­er. Even for young women with no respon­si­bil­i­ties & much dis­pos­able income who might oth­er­wise be col­lect­ing Prada hand­bags, it’s hard to see how these sums are pos­si­ble. And what do their boyfriends or fam­i­lies think?

The doc­u­men­tary lets these ques­tions linger and then halfway through flips the tables: the main female cus­tomer­s—per­haps 70%, one host esti­mates—are pros­ti­tutes! They are going to the host clubs for the emo­tional con­nec­tions so sev­ered in their daily work, and of course, it’s pos­si­ble to raise large sums of cash on a reg­u­lar basis (at least, for a few years…) to spend on their host club. And for all their protes­ta­tions of being in love with the hosts, the hosts note that many of the cus­tomers fre­quent mul­ti­ple host clubs simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, play­ing at being in love in each one. Nat­u­ral­ly, hav­ing blown their income on such ephemeral plea­sures, they’ll find it that much harder to find any alter­na­tive career. So the few Osaka host clubs turn out to be par­a­sitic on the larger ecosys­tem of host­ess clubs/“water trade” in Osaka, fos­ter­ing a toxic co-de­pen­dency between hosts and the cus­tomers. Osaka may be some­what extreme as Japan­ese cities go due to its sheer size, com­mer­cial cul­ture, and sex indus­try pres­ence (eg Tobita Shinchi); nev­er­the­less.

No one inter­viewed appears unaware of the ques­tion­able ethics of work­ing at a host club, lend­ing a cer­tain furtive­ness to dis­cus­sion of skills in han­dling cus­tomers & extract­ing mon­ey, and exhort­ing each other to push hard­er. But they also defend it too—a par­tic­u­larly mov­ing defense is saved for the end, by one short chubby host who, almost cry­ing, defends the host club insti­tu­tion for pro­vid­ing, if only for a short time, an escape, for pro­vid­ing human con­nec­tions, for these lonely peo­ple in the big city. I even bought it… for a short time.

Rams

Ele­gant but self­-lim­it­ed. (): 2018 doc­u­men­tary on ex- Ger­man ; not gen­er­ally avail­able but recently . The doc­u­men­tary is sim­i­lar in approach to Hus­twit’s famous (on the ) in tak­ing a slow-paced visu­al­ly-ori­ented approach to its equally esthetic topic at the expense of tech­ni­cal depth.

Asian/minimalist museum pieces. Ram­s’s designs, even if you have never heard of him, are iconic to the point of stereo­type: his famous (aside from being a nice rubri­ca­tion exam­ple) antic­i­pates the iPod by half a cen­tu­ry, and his black leather chairs would appear styl­ish any­time in the 20th cen­tu­ry. Rams him­self is a walk­ing stereo­type, with his glasses and his home office where he types on a hip type­writer sur­rounded by white walls and fur­ni­ture and his old record play­ers (which are still fully func­tional as we can see when he puts on old jazz to dance to)—and of course his own house, where he has lived for that entire time, which has a Japan­ese-style gar­den and would­n’t look out of place at or tucked away in an IKEA or cat­a­logue. The doc­u­men­tary fol­lows him through pan­els on him, the open­ing of a per­ma­nent museum exhibit, a tem­po­rary museum ret­ro­spec­tive, a visit to his Vitsœ fur­ni­ture com­pany in Eng­land to look at designs & tour , inter­leav­ing his his­tory with Braun (he joined as an archi­tect only to be seduced by the chal­lenge of design­ing small but beau­ti­ful & func­tional objects) and his . The doc­u­men­tary moves freely through time because, as one per­son notes, Rams has never fun­da­men­tally changed his approach, and merely per­fected it.

A start—but only a start. How should one eval­u­ate Rams? While Ram­s’s approach may strike one as finicky and bland, when com­pared to the alter­na­tive hor­rors one encoun­ters dai­ly, it’s clear that the world has never overindulged in Ram­s-like design: we hardly strug­gle through bleak­ly-mono­chro­matic dystopian land­scapes pop­u­lated solely with stark white cubes and taste­ful­ly-arranged Japan­ese gar­dens, curs­ing the per­fect­ly-in­tu­itive design of every object in reach while furtively pur­chas­ing glit­ter glue & videos of pop­up-ads on the black mar­ket. Per­haps the best crit­i­cism is that Rams does­n’t go far enough: the most strik­ing impres­sion the film gives is the extent to which Rams is indeed a museum piece, a fos­sil well-p­re­served from the 1960s; say­ing he has per­fected his approach over time may be only a polite way of say­ing he has for­got­ten noth­ing & learned noth­ing. This sta­sis leads to the most glar­ing omis­sion: Ram­s’s shirk­ing of pos­si­bly the great­est in the his­tory of human­i­ty—­com­put­ers, soft­ware, the Inter­net, & AI.

How would Rams design an OS? Rams him­self does not stint on crit­i­cism in his eval­u­a­tions. Apple in par­tic­u­lar comes in for implicit cri­tique—one sus­pects Rams is pained by all the lauda­tory descrip­tions of Apple’s design as “inspired by Rams”, as he cur­mud­geonly com­plains (in a Miyaza­k­i-esque way) about all the peo­ple in Lon­don star­ing into their smart­phones and look­ing faintly dis­gusted as he browses an Apple store, or, in his talk, about weak shoddy unafford­able goods. (The doc­u­men­tary shows great visual wit dur­ing this talk by hav­ing the cam­era­man focus on a stu­dent in the audi­ence gin­gerly using her Apple iPhone; she appar­ently can­not afford a replace­ment, inas­much as her iPhone’s screen is shat­tered in the lower right cor­ner and taped-up on the upper left cor­ner, recall­ing the infa­mous iPhone “death grip”.) Rams is happy to design & use tran­sis­tor radios and record play­ers and elec­tric razors, but (“tech­nol­ogy is any­thing that was invented after you were born”) Rams appears to have noth­ing to say other than to dis­dain­fully reject com­put­ers, smart­phones, and soft­ware in toto—even doing his word pro­cess­ing on a type­writer half a cen­tury old! Despite Apple being the pre-em­i­nent prac­ti­tioner of Ram­s-like design, influ­enc­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ples’ lives on a scale & to a depth that Rams could never hope to, he has noth­ing to say about them other than veiled com­plaints about the phys­i­cal objects (in­creas­ingly the least impor­tant part). It is not as if there is noth­ing to be said, either. Apple’s design approach emu­lates the sur­face of Rams, but eschews the heart.1

Form over func­tion. Nor do his prin­ci­ples ‘just apply’. Rams (also like Apple) seeks to remove choice and power at every oppor­tu­ni­ty. (Prin­ci­ple #4: “Good design makes a prod­uct under­stand­able.”) Rams design prizes objects: med­i­tat­ing on them until they are reduced to trans­par­ent abstrac­tions which can be embod­ied to do exactly one thing—nei­ther more nor less. His tran­sis­tor radio is self­-ex­plana­to­ry, and the record player uses a then-cut­ting-edge Plex­i­glas cover to make clear how to use it; offers just a few func­tions, all clearly labeled, and it is cer­tainly not pro­gram­ma­ble. Such sin­gle-pur­pose objects can be given sin­gle-minded (in­deed, sim­ple-mind­ed) inter­faces. Yet the entire point of the com­puter is that it is not sin­gle-pur­pose but omni-pur­pose: The default behav­ior of a designer like Apple is to default & declare intel­lec­tual bank­ruptcy by pin­ning the pro­tean in place to show only one face—a 🙂 face.

The chal­lenge remains.

Listen To Me Marlon

Doc­u­men­tary of audio tape record­ings of con­fes­sion­al, oft Shake­speare­an, mono­logues by spliced together with reams of archival snip­pets from TV, movies, and pho­tographs; like Amy, this doc­u­men­tary promises an inti­mate look into a famous per­former’s psy­che using a unique trove of doc­u­ments. The doc­u­men­tary is as slick as could be, and skill­fully struc­tured like a guided self­-hyp­no­sis med­i­ta­tion which mir­rors the arc of Bran­do’s life. It is strik­ing to yet again see how Brando inhab­ited so many dis­tinct char­ac­ters: who would think the God­fa­ther was the young Stan­ley Kowal­ski or Colonel Kurtz?

But… the longer one lis­tens, the less one believes any of it. It’s not the ridicu­lous things that Brando some­times says, like his fetishiz­ing of Tahi­tians & the dark side of sex­ual abuse there or his Freudian blam­ing of his psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems on his alco­holic mother/skirt-chasing trav­el­ing sales­man father and his father’s prob­lems on his grand­mother leav­ing (fla­grantly ignor­ing genet­ics and the per­fect adop­tion study of his own daugh­ter, , who grew up on Tahiti with min­i­mal con­tact with him or the West he hated so much but devel­oped schiz­o­phre­nia & com­mit­ted sui­cide any­way). One expects a Hol­ly­wood star to earnestly gush forth balder­dash like that, and is grate­ful if it is at least not out­right harm­ful like anti-vaxxer pro­pa­gan­da. (It also fur­nishes another exam­ple of the appar­ent con­nec­tion between great accom­plish­ment and child­hood emo­tion­al—but not extreme phys­i­cal—abuse which I’ve noticed in many biogra­phies, although whether this is causal or just a proxy for inher­ited psy­chopathol­ogy dri­ving high vari­ance out­comes & nov­elty remains a mys­tery.)

Rather, it’s the sus­pi­cion that the inti­macy is fake. Unlike Amy, where most of the footage was shot before any­one knew Amy Wine­house would be a star, the record­ings all come from long after Brando became famous, and he expected them to be heard. They are not con­fes­sions but a final posthu­mous per­for­mance, a last strik­ing of a pose—no more truly felt, one sus­pects, than his stunts like send­ing an Amer­i­can Indian to reject an Oscar or pos­ing with Black Pan­thers. No won­der he pre­ferred places like Tahi­ti, less cursed with self­-con­scious­ness and free­dom. There is a strik­ing early scene where he dis­cusses his habit of star­ing at strangers, try­ing to under­stand how they could stand to be them­selves, and putting on roles to try to be some­one, any­one, else other than Mar­lon Bran­do. (It reminded me of David Fos­ter Wal­lace—who sim­i­larly suffered from an overly sen­si­tive self­-con­scious­ness—in “E unibus plu­ram: tele­vi­sion and U.S. fic­tion”.) But the movie ends and then he has to go back to being just Bran­do, jet­ting from place to place, fill­ing the min­utes with the sim­ple plea­sures of eat­ing or sex, regard­less of the dam­age to him­self. Did Brando utter a sin­gle hon­est sen­tence in his life which did not serve to hide him­self? Per­haps that’s what made him such a con­sum­mate actor: Brando was hol­low inside.

AlphaGo

AlphaGo

2017 doc­u­men­tary on (but note: not Mas­ter nor Zero); over­all, OK; glossy and light on tech­ni­cal detail, it instead focuses on fol­low­ing around , , , and start­ing roughly from when Fan Hui was invited in to play the AG1 pro­to­type & lost.

Hav­ing read the AG papers repeat­edly and watched some of the matches & com­men­tary live, there was­n’t much new but it was some­what inter­est­ing to see behind the scenes. The screen­shots of DM work­sta­tions are acci­den­tally a bit reveal­ing: AG1 was indeed Torch-based, and enough of the code is shown that a DRL expert could prob­a­bly deduce the entire AG1 archi­tec­ture—the vari­ables, direc­to­ries, and NN lay­ers clearly point at an imi­ta­tion-trained CNN with some sort of pol­icy gra­di­ent fine­tun­ing.

Per­haps the most inter­est­ing behind-the-scenes aspect is the wor­ries about “delu­sions”, as Sil­ver calls them in the doc­u­men­tary and then in the Zero AmA. As badly as AG1 crushed Sedol, the delu­sions made it a closer-run thing than sim­ply com­par­ing move strength implies. The dis­cus­sion is also reveal­ing: at one point they debate whether to use ver­sion 18 or ver­sion 19, which was still train­ing; 19 is vetoed, because the train­ing and test suite would take dan­ger­ously long. This clearly implies train­ing from scratch, and keep­ing in mind that a sin­gle AG1 is esti­mated at 3+ GPU-years, demon­strates just how much com­put­ing power Deep­Mind can pour into a project and also demon­strates the “hard­ware over­hang” of NNs—Zero may run on only 4 TPUs and train in a day of wall­clock, and could fea­si­bly be trained on 2010 or ear­lier GPUs, but how do you learn what exact archi­tec­ture to train with­out extremely costly iter­a­tion? And that esti­mate of 19 AG1s trained before Lee Sedol may not include the many failed attempts at pure self­-play AGs Sil­ver alludes to in the AmA.

With NNs, the typ­i­cal pat­tern appears to be extremely costly R&D iter­a­tions even­tu­ally pro­duc­ing a slow sub­-hu­man proof-of-con­cept, fol­lowed by mas­sive fine­tun­ing & opti­miza­tion increas­ing the abil­ity and reduc­ing size/compute require­ments by OOMs. Image clas­si­fi­ca­tion, style trans­fer, Go, chess… I wish the Zero papers would go into way more detail about how the expert iter­a­tion solves delu­sions & fixes the infa­mous sta­bil­ity of deep self­-play. In any case, the core of the movie is the inter­views & close­ups of Sedol los­ing the match; one is unable to not sym­pa­thize with him, and his lone vic­tory is much more mov­ing with the human­iz­ing lens of the doc­u­men­tar­ian as opposed to on the YouTube livestream.

It does pre­dictably end try­ing to extract a moral of “AIs will empower humans, not replace them”; unfor­tu­nate­ly, chess cen­taurs have already been sent to the knack­er’s to be turned into glue, and Go play­ers won’t have even that short after-life, judg­ing by the Mas­ter tour­na­men­t’s var­i­ous for­mats & Zero’s mar­gin of supe­ri­or­i­ty. Not that it will mat­ter to the Go play­ers. Nei­ther chess nor Go are about opti­mal play of chess or Go, but viewer enter­tain­ment. Other things, how­ev­er, actu­ally are about those things…

A Beautiful Planet

Watched in the Smith­son­ian Air & Space Museum IMAX the­ater: glo­ri­ous long shots pan­ning over the Earth from the ISS pre­sented in IMAX 3D. Wall­pa­pers can­not com­pare, and 3D for once serves its pur­pose of cre­at­ing pres­ence & mak­ing one feel like one is in the cramped sub­marine-like con­fines of the ISS. The ISS unavoid­ably feels fake in nor­mal pho­tos and videos, but tak­ing a 3D cam­er­a-rig’s per­spec­tive and float­ing slowly through the ISS mod­ules or on space­walks, I finally felt like it was a real place. The biggest flaw is the nar­ra­tion by Jen­nifer Lawrence, who in attempt­ing grav­i­tas, comes off as almost histri­onic & incom­pre­hen­si­ble due to sheer lev­els of obnox­ious .

DNA Dreams

DNA Dreams

Short 2013 doc­u­men­tary on Bei­jing Genomics Insti­tute and the research on IQ; as of 2020, the results still haven’t come out, hav­ing been pre-empted by Rietveld et al 2013 find­ing the first IQ hits, sub­se­quent GWASes’ demon­stra­tion that the BGI bet on rare vari­ants was wrong, and report­edly inter­nal BGI dis­ar­ray due to a dis­as­trous bet on in-house devel­op­ment of DNA sequencers to try to break free of the Illu­mina sequencer qua­si­-monopoly; the doc­u­men­tary is fatally com­pro­mised by the lack of any actual dis­cus­sion of genet­ics, instead set­tling for occa­sional omi­nous music, wan­der­ing BGI’s (ad­mit­tedly impres­sive) facil­i­ties, and occa­sional idio­syn­cratic scenes of dat­ing or fam­ily life.

Opera

Carmen

I attended a live broad­cast in my local movie the­ater of the per­for­mance of Car­men on 2019-02-02 in the (the tit­u­lar role played by with malig­nant splen­dor), which was part of their long-run­ning broad­cast series, one of a num­ber of spe­cial screen­ings dis­trib­uted through Fathom Events.

While watch­ing in Decem­ber 2018, I noticed it was done through a “Fathom Events” rather than the usual movie dis­trib­u­tors, and made a note to look that up after­wards. I did and real­ized it was actu­ally some­thing I had intended to look more into almost a decade ago, way back in 2008, when I noticed that the local uni­ver­sity the­ater had live opera broad­casts. Opera, while more of a topic for par­ody these days than any­thing else (even among urban elites), is nev­er­the­less one of the major West­ern art forms and a major influ­ence (or at least, assumed com­mon knowl­edge) on so many impor­tant West­ern­ers like Friedrich Niet­zsche, and I’d always felt the lack of see­ing one. Even if I did not like them, I still ought to see at least one to know what they are like. But actu­ally going into NYC to the Met would be an all-day trip on the train, quite expen­sive, and requir­ing advance plan­ning. (I was not both­ered by the need for sub­ti­tles, as I have always needed & pre­ferred them.) The broad­casts were a bet­ter approach, but I still needed to fig­ure out when exactly any of them aired, how one gets tick­ets for them, which ones I might want to see, and so on, and unsur­pris­ing­ly, I never did wind up going & soon enough for­got entirely about the Met broad­casts. Once in a while I might think about find­ing a filmed ver­sion, but watch­ing one on a TV or com­puter screen seems unfaith­ful enough to the orig­i­nal & suffi­ciently diminished/unrepresentative to hardly be worth­while. So when I saw them on the Fathom Events web­site, I resolved to not let it slip this time, and for­tu­nately for me, the first opera was Car­men, which I knew to be one of the most pop­u­lar & excit­ing operas, and an excel­lent first choice, and sched­uled a reminder to go.

Day of, I showed up, and behind a crowd of elderly peo­ple, bought my $22 tick­et. (Ex­pen­sive, but it is not your ordi­nary movie, and much longer as well: 3h40m nom­i­nal­ly.) I was sur­prised how large the audi­ence was: I counted at least 120 peo­ple in the audi­to­ri­um. I was not the youngest per­son there, but I was not far off.

The broad­cast began some­time before I showed up as a live feed of the audi­ence in the Met Opera House, switch­ing between mul­ti­ple angles and parts of the audi­ence; mod­ern oper­a-go­ing audi­ences appear to not dress up much, and selfies were much in evi­dence. The live audi­ence was far younger than my remote audi­ence, and I sus­pect most of them were tourists, ben­e­fit­ing from a tourist-friendly 1PM5PM Sat­ur­day sched­ul­ing to see big city opera. It was quickly clear that this was no cut-rate broad­cast with one or two fixed per­spec­tives zoomed back to cover the whole stage being aired at low res­o­lu­tion and jit­tery stream­ing, but one with a full com­ple­ment of cam­eras & crew and dynamic movie-style direct­ing yield­ing a rock­-solid high­-res video stream. The broad­cast switched over to some intro­duc­tions with our host set back­stage among the tech­ni­cal crew like the sound engi­neers. (Hunched in front of their giant con­soles with all the knobs and wid­gets, they reminded me of the air traffic con­trollers in the NY TRACON, or sailors in con­trol room­s.) Then the opera began in earnest.

The opera was amaz­ing. How could one get up? It’s such a vivid tragedy, watch­ing Mar­gaine’s Car­men casu­ally seduce another wom­an’s man for the chal­lenge and then, grow­ing bored after forc­ing him to sac­ri­fice every­thing, dis­card­ing him, doom­ing them both. The direct­ing of the cam­eras was skill­fully han­dled, and the sub­ti­tles (doubt­less drawn up in advance) threaded the fine line between dis­tract­ingly trans­lat­ing every last spo­ken frag­ment or repeated cho­rus & trans­lat­ing so lit­tle one became con­fused. The time flew by to the inter­mis­sion, where the broad­cast again went above & beyond—where the live audi­ence sees the cur­tain fall and pre­sum­ably must kill time by wan­der­ing off to the bath­room or idling on their phones, the broad­cast audi­ence instead goes behind the cur­tain again, to watch the Met Opera House’s famous tech­ni­cal fea­tures in action as the stages and sets rotate, pieces descend on wires to fit in place, sets get trot­ted in piece by piece by a small army, ner­vous actors assem­ble in their place and do lit­tle rou­tines to psych them­selves up, and a few of the actors or staffers get inter­viewed (like the child actors, 11–13yo, whose inter­view may not have shed tremen­dous light on any­thing, but they cer­tainly han­dled it bet­ter than I would’ve at their age & they did seem to be hav­ing fun scam­per­ing around on stage). I always like see­ing behind the sce­nes, so I did­n’t even get up for the inter­mis­sion.

The cease­less assault of music, singing, chore­og­ra­phy and sets, while not nec­es­sar­ily supe­rior in every point of detail (there are musi­cals whose best songs or lyrics are bet­ter than Car­men’s best songs or lyrics, bal­lets or dances whose best danc­ing is bet­ter, dra­mas whose best writ­ing is bet­ter, sym­phonies whose best music is bet­ter etc), adds up to more than their sum. At first glance, it seems strange to have such long scenes which con­sist of a few lines sung over and over again, and to have such extreme shifts in char­ac­ters, like falling in love at first sight or becom­ing mur­der­ous in an instant; no play or movie or nov­el, even ones which aren’t try­ing to be real­is­tic, would dare such rapid shifts. Even source mate­r­ial for operas like Shake­speare’s Romeo and Juliet, which do have rapid devel­op­ment of changes which nor­mally would require decades, or at least months, have lengthy speeches detail­ing char­ac­ter evo­lu­tions to make them believ­able. Per­haps the evo­lu­tion is cut short and char­ac­ters change largely by fiat, and repeat lines so much, because it’s extremely hard to write 3+ hours of good music cor­re­spond­ing to a com­pa­ra­ble amount of text as a reg­u­lar play; it is diffi­cult enough to write great music which is just a few min­utes long and can be on any top­ic, and it must be even harder to write 3 hours of tran­scen­dent music cov­er­ing things like Juliet bick­er­ing with her nurse. The opera, how­ev­er, is like a wak­ing dream: just as a dream com­presses cen­turies of epic drama into a few min­utes of REM sleep, because our crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties are shut down by sleep and we will accept any illogic and go along with what it meant, an opera com­bines the singing and music to power through the plot and cre­ate the nec­es­sary effects in the audi­ence. We can accept that the hero­ine has fallen madly in love with the hero for no rea­son other than a let­ter, because the com­bined effect of her singing with the orches­tra rein­forc­ing her in the midst of the on-stage pageantry over­whelms us with her emo­tions and forces us to believe (while read­ing the libretto would leave us rolling our eye­s). Tak­ing any breaks for play-style dia­logue or attempt­ing to be more real­is­tic risks break­ing the spell by slack­en­ing the inten­si­ty.2

Watch­ing Car­men brings home to me why opera sur­vives, and why it was for so many cen­turies the pin­na­cle of Euro­pean art, a sacred sacra­ment at Bayreuth, a fix­a­tion of intel­lec­tu­als like Niet­zsche, and a chal­lenge to com­posers like Mozart: the opera form is indeed the par excel­lance, in com­bin­ing all the art forms into one. Con­sider an opera like dur­ing the vic­tory march scene, and what it requires: mas­sive Egypt­ian sets, which must be changed every act, con­structed and oper­ated by scores of stage­hands, using mech­a­nized stages and rig­ging to allow ascents & descents & rota­tions; a spe­cial­ized stage with an orches­tra pit in a large opera build­ing located cen­trally in a major city (the only places an opera can be sup­port­ed); a full orches­tra full of >70 (or 120 for Wag­n­er!) pro­fes­sional musi­cians capa­ble of play­ing the most tech­ni­cally demand­ing music for at least 2 hours in con­cert with the singers on stage, with expen­sive instru­ments and fine­ly-type­set musi­cal scores; a dozen equally opera singers for the major roles, who must mem­o­rize and sing hours of lyrics, and then typ­i­cally scores of extras singing in cho­rus (for a Met pro­duc­tion of Aida, at one point I counted over 100 peo­ple on stage singing before I gave up); finan­cial sup­port for all of this dur­ing months of rehearsals which will yield a hand­ful of per­for­mances dur­ing the opera sea­son, after which the opera house will shut down for months, and much of the work must be redone for the next pro­duc­tion. Just the scenery and infra­struc­ture is highly demand­ing—it’s no acci­dent that one keeps read­ing about opera houses like the apt­ly-named burn­ing down. All of these art forms must in a seam­less unity and main­tained at the high­est pitch of per­fec­tion for sev­eral hours, and any fail­ure will be screech­ingly obvi­ous. Per­form­ing an opera like the is an esthetic Man­hat­tan Pro­ject. It tasks the entire artis­tic estab­lish­ment of a nation, and putting on a suc­cess­ful opera must have func­tioned for devel­op­ing coun­tries some­what like build­ing a par­ti­cle accel­er­a­tor or launch­ing a rocket or hold­ing an Olympics does now: proof of wealth, com­pe­tence, and the abil­ity to coor­di­nate and com­bine many dis­parate tech­ni­cal­ly-de­mand­ing task.

I stum­bled out impressed and regret­ful I had­n’t fol­lowed through a decade ago. Am I an opera fan? I don’t know, but I’m giv­ing it another go.

I imme­di­ately checked for the next broad­casts on Fathom Events, but was not too inter­ested by the descrip­tion of 3, the is sadly not being broad­cast at my the­ater, but there is a broad­cast at the end of March of Wag­n­er’s I am excited about—I enjoyed read­ing as a kid, so how much bet­ter should it be to see an actual pro­duc­tion of it? (It may not be Bayreuth, but at least I don’t have to & travel halfway around the world only to get a heavy-handed envi­ron­men­tal para­ble with cop­u­lat­ing croc­o­diles).

Akhnaten

(; 2019 ; libretto)

The rise and fall of a prophet. is one of the shoot­ing stars of his­to­ry: a bril­liant fig­ure whose short career spans the world wreathed in flames and end­ing in ago­nies, like Alexan­der or Emperor Julian the Apos­tate or Napoleon. Pos­ter­ity claims them for its own as their con­tem­po­raries could not. Akhnaten comes out of nowhere, declar­ing a new to dethrone Amun and , only for it all to melt back into the sands of Egypt, damna­tio memo­riae’d & for­got­ten for thou­sands of years.4 Even with­out the con­nec­tion to (bet­ter known by his later name Tutankhamun), Akhnaten draws the eye of any­one inter­ested in monothe­ism or ancient Egypt (such as ) for how sin­gu­lar he is—how could such a monothe­ist (even if per­haps he was really just a henothe­ist) emerge in ancient Egypt, Egypt of the eter­nal cycles? Why did he wor­ship the sun? Why did he seem to even­tu­ally turn on and per­se­cute the old gods? How did he fall? What did he make of it all?

No inte­rior sources. Glass, wise­ly, does not attempt to answer this. We have no accounts from com­pan­ions like Alexan­der, or chron­i­clers like Julian, or scores of vol­umes of let­ters & diaries like Napoleon. Egyp­tol­ogy strug­gles to infer the most basic facts about Akhnaten, like whether he fathered Tutankhamen or whether he co-ruled with his own father or when he per­se­cuted the old gods. We have the strik­ing —which Glass makes the cen­ter­piece of Akhnaten—but was that even writ­ten by Akhnaten? And we have noth­ing at all for (who may or may not have ruled after Akhnaten). With such scanty mate­ri­als, the task is insur­mount­able.

Akhnaten evokes in us Akhnaten’s reli­gious awe. Instead, Glass aims at evok­ing a mood of Ægypt, as it were. Every scene is a cer­e­mony (draw­ing on the /), and move­ment is rit­u­al­ized and slow, weighted with solem­ni­ty; the visual imagery, like Akhnaten’s ascent in front of a giant sun while singing his hymn, hits like a ham­mer. (Wag­ner would be jeal­ous.) The music repeats with vari­a­tion. In a par­tic­u­lar stroke of pro­duc­tion genius, a troupe of jug­glers appears through­out as ser­vants and sol­diers etc; while ini­tially a lit­tle per­plex­ing, I soon real­ized that jug­gling was per­fect, because the balls become sym­bolic of the heav­ens as they travel in orbits, always return­ing to the same point. (This was a risky choice because the jug­gling makes it diffi­cult for the actors to move around safe­ly, and even pro­fes­sional jug­glers may drop balls over the course of sev­eral hours—as in fact they did sev­eral times. I do not blame them because while I liked Glass’s music, I’d find it stag­ger­ingly diffi­cult to main­tain my con­cen­tra­tion & jug­gle in sync with the music for hours with­out an error.) The cos­tumes are psy­che­del­i­cally weird: silk robes sweep blood­-red across the stage dur­ing an osten­si­bly-ro­man­tic duet, and the idea to make Akhnaten’s royal robes out of gilded faces from baby dolls is inspired (although per­haps dae­mon­i­cal­ly). Dis­lo­cat­ing­ly, the Met HD chooses to pro­vide sub­ti­tles for nei­ther the spo­ken Eng­lish nar­ra­tion (com­men­tary from Akhnaten’s deceased father Amen­hotep III, the phys­i­cally over­pow­er­ing Zachary James, reduced to a pas­sive observer) nor sung Eng­lish (“Great Hymn to the Aten”) nor the var­i­ous other lan­guages.

The net effect of the light­ing, jug­gling, cos­tum­ing, singing, and music is an altered state of con­scious­ness and a reli­gious awe. The sun ris­es, the sun sets; and there is always another mete­or.

Porgy and Bess

(Met HD opera; Gersh­win)

Another unusu­ally recent opera, Porgy and Bess is famous for not just focus­ing on African-Amer­i­cans but legally dis­crim­i­nat­ing against non-African-Amer­i­cans in its cast­ing (WP describes the white Gersh­win stip­u­lat­ing this because “he believed that Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera staff singers could never mas­ter the jazz idiom, which could instead only be sung by a black cast”), yet, received as den­i­grat­ing and insult­ing early on and its rep­u­ta­tion ris­ing as a beau­ti­ful por­trayal of a mar­ginal and long-gone com­mu­ni­ty. (In its recep­tion, it reminds me of Freaks, which sim­i­larly fea­tured a main­stream creator/director spend­ing time with a stig­ma­tized and obscure group and try­ing to pre­serve them, only to be accused of exploit­ing them for pub­lic mock­ery.) The cir­cum­stances were sur­pris­ingly polit­i­cal too: the Met man­ager took to the stage to announce that while the lead Porgy was ill, he would still be per­form­ing, allud­ing to the ‘dark times’ we were expe­ri­enc­ing in which spir­its needed lift­ing (he was not refer­ring to , which was still being pooh-poohed as a purely Chi­nese mat­ter); lat­er, dur­ing the extras, an actress brought in to adver­tise Agrip­pina much later in Feb­ru­ary, noted its por­trayal of lies in the search of the supreme exec­u­tive power was sadly all too con­tem­po­rary. Two such naked ref­er­ences to Trump, where I had seen none in all the Met HD opera broad­casts pre­vi­ous­ly, makes me think peo­ple in NYC were tak­ing Trump’s impend­ing inevitable acquit­tal rather hard—they must truly had been con­victed he would be con­vict­ed, and to see it whim­per out, how­ever utterly pre­dictably, must be painful. For­tu­nate­ly, the HD debut was dam­aged by nei­ther dis­ease nor dis­ap­point­ment.

The plot is osten­si­bly like Manon, in which the beau­ti­ful but aging drug addict Bess, who has been enjoy­ing the high life with her thug­gish para­mour (and pim­p?) Crown, is aban­doned when he impul­sively mur­ders another man after drink­ing & gam­bling at the end of the work­ing day when all the employed men return and becomes a fugi­tive. She is scorned by the com­mu­ni­ty, but taken in by the lonely crip­pled beg­gar Por­gy, who dis­cov­ers how much he needed to love and be loved. A third man, “Sport­in’ Life”, slith­ers about the stage tempt­ing peo­ple into buy­ing drugs (co­caine), or just hang­ing about, wait­ing for an oppor­tu­nity to take Bess off to the Big City and pros­ti­tute her out for a few years to make some real mon­ey, instead of ped­dling out in the sticks to poor fish­er­men.

The mur­dered man is not for­got­ten, and his funeral pro­ceeds (de­spite a lack of money for the under­tak­er), and Bess is accepted when she says she has become an hon­est woman and tries to make amends. The women try to knit things back together and keep the men on the straight & nar­row (bour­geois) path, but are con­stantly set back by men like Sport­in’ Life, extrav­a­gances like gam­bling (the funeral short­fall is sim­i­lar to the amount we saw lost gam­bling), men tak­ing unnec­es­sary risks (like fish­ing in a stor­m), and female defec­tors like Bess or Manon.

Crown, in hid­ing on an island, reap­pears dur­ing a pic­nic, and Bess is unable to resist his mas­culin­ity and alpha ways. He returns to claim her for good in the mid­dle of a dev­as­tat­ing hur­ri­cane, boast­ing of defeat­ing God, and vaunt­ing his strength with vul­gar song. Another woman runs out into the storm, fear­ful for her hard­work­ing (but now drowned) hus­band, and Crown leaves to show off fur­ther by assist­ing her. He sur­vives but she does not, leav­ing her child an orphan (and per­pet­u­at­ing the cycle of pover­ty). Crown returns again that night, but Porgy chokes him to death. Porgy is arrested for Crown’s mur­der, but the com­mu­nity is reflex­ively silent (as it was for the orig­i­nal mur­der) and he is even­tu­ally released for lack of evi­dence. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Sport­in’ Life has struck, and con­vinced Bess that Porgy would be locked up for life, and in despair she relapses into her expen­sive drug addic­tion, and they leave for the city. Porgy learns this, and hav­ing lit­tle choice, enslaved by his love, departs from his home for a dis­tant city with no place for him; as noble as love may be, one feels that his love has doomed Porgy to years of mis­ery, at best, before pos­si­bly a faded Bess returns to him (as­sum­ing she does not die of dis­ease, drugs, or delin­quents dur­ing).

While osten­si­bly about Porgy & Bess from start to fin­ish, it quickly becomes appar­ent that the opera is really about the com­mu­ni­ty: the dam­age done by gam­bling, drink­ing, and extreme events like mur­der; the diffi­culty of sur­viv­ing the ele­ments in dan­ger­ous sub­sis­tence occu­pa­tions; prob­lems caused by well-in­ten­tioned but destruc­tive intru­sions from the out­side, like the jus­tice sys­tem; and falling back on reli­gion as a crutch for weak willpower and defense against social patholo­gies. What is built over decades is demol­ished in an instan­t—a sin­gle stab bick­er­ing over noth­ing, a choice to fish in hur­ri­cane sea­son, and leav­ing to fol­low a no-ac­count woman.

Agrippina

( opera; )

A sur­pris­ingly rib­ald & ironic com­edy of schem­ing to make the Emperor Nero, draw­ing on & (tak­ing many lib­er­ties with char­ac­ters, par­tic­u­larly Poppea/Ottone). I and the audi­ence laughed reg­u­larly at the broad phys­i­cal com­e­dy. Spoil­ers: she suc­ceeds.

This pro­duc­tion sets the drama in a vague­ly-1980s Man­hat­tan (but with smart­phones), and leans in to the com­edy and sex­ual manip­u­la­tion. The MILF empress Agrip­pina, hav­ing secretly learned her hus­band Emperor has drowned, with­out for­mally nam­ing an heir (Claudius’s other chil­dren, par­tic­u­larly , never come up), sum­mons her son (from an ear­lier mar­riage) Nero. Nero, cross-played by , is a heav­i­ly-tat­tooed club rat, a coke fiend, some­thing of a break-dancer (Lind­sey is given gym­nas­tic chore­og­ra­phy, includ­ing an aria while plank­ing, which is just plain show­ing off), and a sociopath who hungers for the throne to bet­ter sate his desires, includ­ing his Oedi­pal ones. (The cross-play is not as arbi­trary as it seems: Han­del wrote the role for .) Agrip­pina reveals the truth, and sends him out into the streets to bribe the masses and show his phil­an­thropy for the cam­eras. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, she rushes to recruit Claudius’s two pri­mary sup­port­ers ( & ), both of whom lust after her, and promises each of them her exclu­sive affec­tions should Nero ascend; meta-fic­tion­al­ly, she meets the sec­ond at the opera, where the pam­phlet helps cover up a hand­job she admin­is­ters to seal the deal. (For­tu­nate­ly, she brought hand san­i­tizer in her purse.)

The plot suc­ceeds, and Nero is being acclaimed—when Claudius returns alive. He had been saved from drown­ing by a heroic offi­cer, , and has decided to des­ig­nate Ottone his suc­ces­sor. Agrip­pina’s scheme foiled, she lucks out when the guile­less Ottone con­fides in her that he wishes only to marry the beau­ti­ful : who is the tar­get of Ottone, Claudius and Nero. Agrip­pina seizes the oppor­tu­nity of this love poly­gon, and tells the gullible Pop­pea that Ottone has betrayed her for the throne, and she should get revenge by telling the horny Claudius that Ottone was deny­ing him her affec­tions. Enraged, Pop­pea plays along. Claudius, played by the blink­ered bear-like Matthew Rose (who plays the lech­er­ous old man com­e­dy-bits well, includ­ing the attempts at sexy pos­es), falls for it. Despite her suc­cess, Pop­pea is crushed by the betrayal of her love, rip­ping up old love let­ters and stuffing her face with a box of Valen­tine choco­lates.

The next day, instead of anoint­ing Ottone, degrades him, pro­claim­ing him a trai­tor with­out fur­ther expla­na­tion. All and sundry desert him, Agrip­pina slap­ping him on her way out. Alone in his despair, Ottone gets the longest seg­ment of the opera. Nero finally gets named the heir, and Agrip­pina appears to have won. To tidy up loose ends, she orders the two sup­port­ers to mur­der each oth­er.

Drunk at a bar, Pop­pea laments Ottone’s betray­al, falling asleep. In an extended inter­lude, the barflies snap selfies with the drunk Pop­pea, and con­tinue drink­ing and admir­ing the bar­tender’s jug­gling and danc­ing (to a harp­si­chord instead of a jazz pianist) when who should Ottone walk in and over­hear her mum­blings? He con­vinces her to hear him out, and Pop­pea real­izes how Agrip­pina deceived her. Instead of unmask­ing Agrip­pina, she plots her own revenge, by telling both Claudius and Nero to come to her pent­house at the same time. She hides Nero in a closet (with Ottone in anoth­er—no won­der women need so many clos­et­s), and when Claudius comes, reveals she ‘really’ meant Nero was the one obstruct­ing him, and as proof of how Nero was harass­ing her, pulls him out of the clos­et. Claudius is infu­ri­ated at Nero’s low morals, and expels him.

The two sup­port­ers, hav­ing decided that try­ing to mur­der each other is not that appeal­ing after all, throw them­selves on Claudius’s mer­cy, reveal­ing the orig­i­nal plot to put Nero on the throne. Claudius sum­mons every­one, and enquires into what exactly is going on. Agrip­pina per­suades him her inten­tions were benign and pre­served the throne for him in his absence, and he decrees that—as in any proper com­e­dy—ev­ery­one will get what they want, and there will be a mar­riage, with Ottone and Pop­pea wed­ding while Nero will ascend the throne.

All’s well that ends well, happy music plays, and the cur­tain descends, as Claudius’s but­ler, who has killed time in between arrang­ing arraign­ments by read­ing a copy of Tac­i­tus, turns to the end and starts laugh­ing. The End.

The comic end­ing, of course, is iron­ic, as any viewer in 1709, steeped in the clas­sics like Tac­i­tus & Sue­to­nius, would be well aware, because this is actu­ally a tragedy, a tragedy of how Claudius failed in the vital mat­ter of the suc­ces­sion: far from hav­ing cleared every­thing up and ensured a happy end­ing, Claudius set the stage for dis­as­ter—­Claudius & both sup­port­ers were likely mur­dered by Agrip­pina after he began con­sid­er­ing a differ­ent heir than Nero, Nero would then mur­der Agrip­pina and become one of the worst Roman Emper­ors ever, which would dis­may the noble Ottone who thought only of the empire’s good and the love of Pop­pea, and who would be ban­ished by Nero (ul­ti­mately com­mit­ting sui­cide after his own bid for emper­or­ship fell through post-Nero), a divorce forced, and Pop­pea taken for his own, only to be beaten into mis­car­riage by Nero. Nero him­self did­n’t exactly die in his sleep, either. The slap­stick and sex­ual com­edy empha­sizes this by the con­trast; as they pur­sue their petty lusts and schemes, they set in motion dis­as­ter on a vast scale.

Com­pared to other later actions, it is strik­ing how uni­vo­calic and straight­for­ward the action is: every scene is dom­i­nated by the sin­gle voice of the char­ac­ter pur­su­ing the action, and deceiv­ing the other char­ac­ters, often alter­nat­ing between their spo­ken decep­tive ‘dia­logue’ and truth­ful mono­logue asides. Agrip­pina in par­tic­u­lar always has a plan and is exe­cut­ing it, with­out a shred of remorse; it’s not so much that she’s evil as she is aimed solely at the goal of enthron­ing Nero, and noth­ing else enters into her amoral con­sid­er­a­tions (like Nero being a sociopath), as she dances to her own music with cel­e­bra­tory booze. (It is some­thing of a uniquely female role: Agrip­pina is utterly invested in Nero, as she can have no more chil­dren; it’s harder to see a man quite the same, as they always have other options, and to be pur­su­ing other intrin­sic dri­ves like con­quest and pres­tige.)

Enter­tain­ing, fun­ny, and beau­ti­ful, Agrip­pina is worth a watch.

Manon

“Indi­vid­ual organ­isms are best thought of as adap­ta­tion-ex­e­cuters rather than as fit­ness-max­i­miz­ers. Nat­ural selec­tion can­not directly ‘see’ an indi­vid­ual organ­ism in a spe­cific sit­u­a­tion and cause behav­ior to be adap­tively tai­lored to the func­tional require­ments imposed by that sit­u­a­tion.”

Tooby & Cos­mides 1992, “The Psy­cho­log­i­cal Foun­da­tions of Cul­ture”

; 2019 Met HD, 2019-10-26. Manon fol­lows a naive & beau­ti­ful young French girl from the coun­try­side to ascend­ing the heights of the Parisian , akin to but ear­lier than & more con­tem­po­rary to the Edo-pe­riod Japan­ese .

While being shut­tled to a con­vent for stor­age, pre­sum­ably before an arranged mar­riage, Manon is propo­si­tioned by a rich lecher, and then meets a young aris­to­crat who falls in love on sight and con­vinces her to run away with her; excited by her glimpses of a wider world, she does. His father is opposed, and arranges for him to be kid­napped away from their love-nest, while Manon is seduced away by promises of great wealth, that her para­mour could never offer her after being dis­owned. She is an enor­mous suc­cess as a cour­te­san, becom­ing a queen-bee, twist­ing rich men around her fin­ger (and inci­den­tally spurn­ing the rich lecher despite his best effort­s)—un­til she hears that her old lover, embit­tered by her infi­deli­ty, has shaken off the dust of the float­ing world and cut his hair to become a (Catholic) priest, vow­ing to renounce the world, and women specifi­cal­ly. Nat­u­ral­ly, she imme­di­ately rushes there to seduce him back and suc­ceeds. Alas, she still lusts after a high­-class lifestyle, and how is he to provide? Well, he can risk his good name & credit by high­-s­takes gam­bling, par­tic­u­larly against the rich lecher who sees an oppor­tu­nity to finally take Manon; sur­pris­ing­ly, he is not ruined by bad luck or cheat­ing, but wins enor­mous­ly, so enor­mously that the rich lecher calls the police in for revenge. Both are even­tu­ally released, but Manon’s health has been ruined by pris­on, and she dies in his arms.

The set­tings and cos­tume are bland, espe­cially com­pared to Turan­dot, but I liked the music over­all more, and the plot/characters are far bet­ter and inter­est­ing to con­sid­er. For exam­ple, Manon says repeat­edly how “won­der­ful” it would be to live only for “a life of plea­sure”—but what ‘plea­sure’, exact­ly? There are so many kinds, and it is worth inter­ro­gat­ing this fur­ther.

In the first scene, when look­ing in at the rich man din­ing with his cour­te­sans (on an equally rich din­ner of many courses described ear­lier to the audi­ence), Manon does not ever men­tion the food, nor the fine wine, nor the con­ver­sa­tion; she men­tions only how beau­ti­ful the cour­te­sans look with their “gold” jew­el­ry. Lat­er, queen of cour­te­sans her­self, where does Manon take her plea­sure? She demands her lord bring the bal­let opera to her hotel (but what aes­thete would demand such a thing, com­pro­mis­ing the per­for­mance?); she prom­e­nades dur­ing a drink­ing par­ty, but never drinks her­self; we can safely assume that she was deflow­ered by her cheva­lier while liv­ing in sin together but this is only implied, and every­thing is con­sis­tent with her not even pros­ti­tut­ing her­self (which might sound improb­a­ble but in other milieus like con­tem­po­rary escorts or super­mod­els or the Japan­ese plea­sure quar­ters, the high­est rank­ing women prided them­selves on rarely or never hav­ing sex with clients, much less in any kind of explicit quid pro quo, unlike com­mon har­lot­s); she does­n’t engage in any vis­i­ble fine din­ing, either, lets her men do the gam­bling and merely col­lects the win­nings, and cer­tainly there is no dab­bling in high­-level busi­ness or pol­i­tics or such sor­did recre­ations as drug use. Manon’s one vis­i­ble plea­sure is that of dress­ing up to the nines and accom­pa­ny­ing rich pow­er­ful men in pub­lic, singing the praises of (giv­ing her) “gold” and plea­sure.

What ‘plea­sure’ seems to mean pri­mar­ily to Manon is the plea­sure of pres­tige and social sta­tus climb­ing—of being seen by all and sundry as the most desir­able woman in the room, and know­ing that she is being seen as such, and is the “queen”, with per­pet­ual proof pro­vided by the male atten­tion & gifts of costly trib­utes. The fact that the cour­te­sans at the begin­ning were wear­ing a rel­a­tively shiny yel­low metal or eat­ing deli­cious food was of no impor­tance; the impor­tance was mimet­ic, that gold is a costly sig­nal, proof that a rich man had cho­sen them out of all their com­peti­tors, and every­one could see the gold & fancy clothes and be impressed (even if they would oth­er­wise be con­temp­tu­ous of cour­te­san­s). What Manon craved was social sta­tus, and her fall in the intro­duc­tion is learn­ing that she by sheer luck and sim­ply look­ing pret­ty, can seize high social sta­tus by manip­u­lat­ing men. (The atten­tion from the rich man and the Cheva­lier, while ‘sex­ual harass­ment’, pro­vide her with the exter­nal assess­ments that her coun­try life & shel­tered upbring­ing had—de­lib­er­ate­ly?—de­prived her of.) By exploit­ing her beau­ty, Manon, an obscure coun­try girl with no par­tic­u­lar tal­ents or con­nec­tions, can vault straight to the top of Parisian life (and thus, France). And her alter­na­tive, going to the con­vent, would be a “liv­ing tomb” not because of its archi­tec­ture or because reli­gious life is worth­less, but because the social order of a nun­nery is designed to crush a peck­ing order based on beau­ty: nuns would have to shave their heads, wear habits, iso­late them­selves com­pletely from men, and a new peck­ing order based on senior­ity would be ruth­lessly enforced, putting Manon, as a novice with uppity opin­ions of her­self, at the low­est pos­si­ble lev­el. This is a com­pelling moti­va­tion. Pres­tige is a high more addic­tive than any drug, and men will cer­tainly fight & die for a piece of rib­bon; how much more so wom­en?

The price, of course, is that her short­cut to the top means her time at the top will be short. Like fine art, the objects of desire are desir­able not for their traits them­selves, but for the fact that oth­ers want them, with a dis­tant weak anchor­ing in some objec­tive, and in her case, highly per­ish­able, qual­i­ty. (No­body actu­ally enjoys any piece of fine art $500 mil­lion, much less a tenth or a hun­dredth of that; fine art is expen­sive because it is expen­sive, just a bub­ble that does­n’t pop. Being a beau­ti­ful piece of art is merely a start­ing point, and often an unnec­es­sary one.) Just as Manon wants gold and dresses because other women want them and so get­ting them becomes a costly sig­nal, men want Manon because other men want Manon. Her beauty is insuffi­cient; as Manon the coun­try girl, she attracts notice, but no one in the open­ing scene is going to kill them­selves over a girl off the train, how­ever cute she may be. But, after trad­ing in her beau­ty, and accu­mu­lat­ing social proof, and boot­strap­ping her way up through a suc­ces­sion of pro­gres­sively more elite men by rais­ing her stan­dards ever higher and demand­ing more and more (like Car­men, Manon does­n’t want any man she can have), she becomes Manon the cour­te­san, scourge of cheva­lier and chef alike, accom­pa­nied by lords and sought by the rich­est of men, and now she is worth dying for. The equi­lib­ri­um, how­ev­er, is frag­ile, as Manon’s fad­ing beauty must inevitably inter­sect with a young new thing boot­strap­ping her way up, and unlike fine art, her bub­ble can pop—an epi­demic of unde­sir­abil­ity can erupt, and sud­denly there is no one who wishes to bestow gifts of hun­dreds of francs on Manon for the plea­sure of her com­pany in pub­lic in order to be seen with her (“Manon who?”). All that is left is a ter­ri­fy­ingly high burn rate to ‘main­tain appear­ances’ in the hopes of a dead cat bounce, no long-term rela­tion­ships (hav­ing repeat­edly burnt bridges to trade up), revul­sion from respectable men & wom­en, and no career or sal­able skills. Such a sto­ry, like or count­less aris­to­cratic fam­i­lies, may ter­mi­nate in home­less­ness or dire pover­ty, with the pro­tag­o­nist liv­ing off fumes from the faded mem­o­ries of hav­ing once been high sta­tus (more addic­tive than any drug…).

This may not sound like it is all that great a choice. But it’s not that great for the men either. Pay­ing for cour­te­sans tends to be an older man’s game, because younger men are still build­ing a career and have not amassed the resources nec­es­sary to com­pete. They must throw away the best decades of their lives, and risk their lives, to even have a chance to com­pete. Since there is a lim­ited num­ber of such elite cour­te­sans, who are well-known enough to be ‘desired because they are desired’, they are short­-lived monop­o­lies, and can extort the max­i­mum pos­si­ble from their suit­ors, who are sub­ject to the win­ner’s curse: the man who most over­pays is most likely to win. There are no refunds of gifts or ges­tures, so it con­sti­tutes an . Because things like dia­monds or fine wines are in fixed sup­ply, their cost can increase with­out bound, cre­at­ing ruinous neg­a­tive-sum com­pe­ti­tions. And because these prices are com­pletely unre­lated to any intrin­sic qual­ity and said qual­i­ties are sub­ject to steeply dimin­ish­ing returns and low resale val­ue, enor­mous value can be destroyed. (Pay­ing 10,000 francs for a large dia­mond to give to Manon does not pro­vide 10 times the aes­thetic beauty of a 1,000 franc dia­mond, induces waste­ful dia­mond min­ing and retail­ing, and Manon can­not even sell it for 10,000 francs so it is a ter­ri­ble way to trans­fer value as well. Tru­ly, ter­tius gau­dens.) And should they blow so much money as to win Manon (rather than con­cen­trat­ing on find­ing a good wife, harm­ing prospec­tive wives as well as them­selves), she may soon leave them for a higher bid­der, and even if she does not, within a few years, she will likely no longer be ‘Manon’ any­way and merely a pretty woman past her prime. The men would be far bet­ter off if they could instead orga­nize a car­tel and sup­press run­away com­pe­ti­tion; it would still be an improve­ment if they could set­tle mat­ters with a sec­ond-price auc­tion and at least then only the win­ner has to pay; it would even be an improve­ment if they could instead lit­er­ally light bon­fires of cash to com­pete (as that would not waste resources on low value but costly sig­nals and would sim­ply redis­trib­ute their wealth to the rest of the pop­u­la­tion via defla­tion).

Seen from a far enough dis­tance, the demi­monde (past the basic tier of straight­for­ward entertainment/prostitution) looks like a coor­di­na­tion prob­lem: it is an infer­nal machine for man­u­fac­tur­ing inequal­ity while also immis­er­at­ing soci­ety as a whole. Social norms (such as intra­sex­ual com­pe­ti­tion or ) typ­i­cally sup­press both the buy­ing & sell­ing of sex & pres­tige, chan­nel­ing ener­gies into monog­a­mous mar­riages while young with rel­a­tively small sunk costs (eg dowries rather than lav­ish events or costly sig­nal­s), but a few defec­tors (male & female) can ini­ti­ate a differ­ent ecosys­tem: females can aim at the top of the social hier­ar­chy rather than set­tling for more mod­est mid­dle or low­er-class sta­tuses in a sta­ble long-term rela­tion­ship, while the most elite males can hope to main­tain polyg­a­mous rela­tion­ships with the most beau­ti­ful and desired wom­en, with bub­ble-like dynam­ics. If you’re one of the lucky ones, the highs are high; but the lows are low indeed: all of this comes at the cost of destroy­ing long-term prospects, cre­at­ing run­away neg­a­tive-sum com­pe­ti­tions, and remov­ing indi­vid­u­als from the mar­riage mar­ket (since the sex ratio is 50:50, how does a rich man have many con­cu­bines or cour­te­sans with­out depriv­ing less-wealthy men of wom­en?).

I am reminded of con­tem­po­rary online/mobile dat­ing. It has been a break­through in logis­tics, allow­ing (espe­cially urban) users to find each other out of mil­lions of peo­ple, con­ve­niently and quick­ly. Why then does every­one seem to hate it, and point at OKCupid or Hinge or Tin­der data? Why are there com­plaints that young peo­ple are not hav­ing sex or that there appears to be a short­age of ‘good’ men/women (eg Bruch & New­man 2018/2019, )? Why do polyg­a­mous soci­eties seem rather worse off than monog­a­mous ones () when such dynam­ics appear to be what women grav­i­tate towards given the oppor­tu­nity by cir­cum­stances or tech­nol­ogy?

Manon offers food for thought on all of the­se, despite being set cen­turies ago in Paris. In this regard, Manon is infi­nitely more sat­is­fy­ing intel­lec­tu­ally than Turan­dot. There’s poten­tially some­thing to the dynam­ics in Turan­dot but it’s so far­ci­cal and the psy­cholo­gies so hol­low that what­ever truth there is to Turan­dot’s scheme is lost. Manon’s and her suit­ors’ choices are, on the other hand, all too under­stand­able and well-mo­ti­vated and inter­est­ing to watch.

Madama Butterfly

(; 2019 Met HD):

Pic­turesque, not plot or psy­chol­o­gy. Madama But­ter­fly is one of the most pop­u­lar operas, and the crowded the­ater (both locally & in NYC) reflected it. The plot is triv­ial to sum­ma­rize: in Act 1, But­ter­fly shows up and is mar­ried and bed­ded by a cad­dish Amer­i­can naval offi­cer who bluntly admits he intends to aban­don her; in Act 2, she denies that she has been aban­doned and awaits her hus­band; in Act 3, she com­mits sui­cide upon real­iz­ing she has been aban­doned. Even com­pared to some operas, this is remark­ably sim­ple: a hand­ful of char­ac­ters, a sin­gle set­ting, and scenes set on just 3 days.

Roman­tic sins of com­mis­sion vs omis­sion. It’s inter­est­ing to con­trast it to the two operas I watched last month, & : all 3 share the same theme of a female pro­tag­o­nist who risks ruin in love, but the ruin is differ­ent each time—in Turan­dot, Turan­dot ruins count­less men by refus­ing all of them in a par­tic­u­larly vicious way and nearly dooms her­self to spin­ster­hood, and in Manon, Manon is ruined because she accepts a wor­thy man but spurns him for a brief but glo­ri­ous life as a cour­te­san only to real­ize too late that she made the wrong choice, while in Madama But­ter­fly, But­ter­fly is ruined because she accepts an unwor­thy man but refuses to spurn him when she finally real­izes her mis­take. (To make this list exhaus­tive, we’d need an opera in which a woman accepted a wor­thy man and was then faith­ful to him as they lived hap­pily ever after. But what fun would that be?)

Uncon­vinc­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly. Turan­dot was unsat­is­fac­tory in exam­in­ing Turan­dot’s psy­chol­ogy and moti­va­tion, but Madama But­ter­fly is more unsat­is­fac­to­ry, because its length gives it less excuse for pro­vid­ing less. Why is But­ter­fly so in love with a cad? What causes such fideli­ty? For that mat­ter, why is the cad such a cad? He rather cheer­fully plans his exploita­tion of But­ter­fly, and only in Act 3 expe­ri­ences any remorse (far too late of course), and is too much of a cow­ard to even see But­ter­fly again, depriv­ing the opera of a poten­tially insight­ful scene. (Com­pare, say, Car­men, where the char­ac­ters are almost too believ­able.) The char­ac­ters are as thin as the paper of a shōji wall. Cer­tain­ly, But­ter­fly is trag­ic, but it is the tragedy of watch­ing a car­toon vil­lain and not a per­son. The suffer­ing of a dog like is par­tic­u­larly pure, but if Puc­cini wished to com­pose an opera on that the­me, he should’ve done so on Hachikō.

But beau­ti­fully staged. And also like Turan­dot, it seems Madama But­ter­fly rises on the strength of its music and scenery rather than plot or psy­cho­log­i­cal insight or real­ism. Here it is excel­lent. A mir­ror across the roof of the stage empha­sized dra­matic sin­gle-color light­ing and char­ac­ters mount­ing up steps to come onto stage, or hang­ing rope cur­tains of cherry blos­soms. The pro­duc­tion makes strik­ing use of black­-clad stage­hands & pup­peteers on stage to slide shōji walls to rearrange the stage and assist entrances/exits, or to carry paper globes or cranes, or to manip­u­late a pup­pet (used for But­ter­fly’s son in Act 2–3, and a dream sequence). As strange as it sounds to have 3 men clad in black hunched over a pup­pet of a lit­tle boy with a per­ma­nently sur­prised expres­sion dressed in a sailor out­fit as a major char­ac­ter, the pup­pet & But­ter­fly are entirely cred­i­ble a pair—per­haps more so than But­ter­fly and her cad (the lat­ter played by a last-minute sub­sti­tu­tion per­form­ing for the first time, inter­est­ing­ly). The 3 acts all end on visual high notes: sur­rounded by stars, kneel­ing into the sun­set, and at the cen­ter of a cross of red silk. (I did notice that the Met HD pro­duc­tion peo­ple screwed up the cam­era place­ments a few times, obstruct­ing the view of one cam­era with anoth­er, which was odd given how sim­ple this opera is.)

If opera is “poster art”, then Madama But­ter­fly suc­ceeds splen­didly and deserves its pop­u­lar­i­ty.

Turandot

Fairy tale logic pageantry. (; 2019 ).

Turan­dot largely stands on the strength of its pageantry, as the plot and char­ac­ters fol­low a fairy-tale log­ic: an exotic princess demands princely suit­ors answer her rid­dles or for­feit their heads. She is, appar­ent­ly, revolted by the fact that some other princess cen­turies ago did­n’t get to marry for love, although the real rea­son seems to be sim­ply being so stuck­-up that no man could pos­si­bly be good enough for her. A dis­guised prince does answer her rid­dles (they are not good rid­dles), and chal­lenges her to find out his name overnight (his coun­ter-rid­dle is even worse); she fails, despite dri­ving their loyal ser­vant to sui­cide to safe­guard the secret from Turan­dot’s tor­tur­ers, and he tells her any­way (as a show of strength, pre­sum­ably); she then (some­how) falls in love and decides to lose on pur­pose. The End.

The plot is thor­oughly ridicu­lous and Turan­dot is worse: I don’t expect a detailed geopo­lit­i­cal expo­si­tion of how she could exe­cute dozens of princes with­out start­ing a war, but her rea­son is flimsy and there is not a trace of remorse from her or con­cern by any­one else after­wards about behav­ior more rem­i­nis­cent of a ser­ial killer than a sov­er­eign. And why should she fall in love with the prince at all? What redeems it as an expe­ri­ence is the pageantry: the exe­cu­tion­er’s ini­tial scene is mag­nifi­cent spec­ta­cle, and the Met must be proud of how absurdly over-dec­o­rated the throne room & every­one’s cos­tumes are for the impe­r­ial scenes.

Dialogues des Carmélites

Attrac­tively staged and a com­pelling premise, but mean­ing falls flat. opera (Met HD): An unusual mod­ern opera (1950s), based on a screen­play inspired by the play pro­duc­tion of a novella (which led to an ugly legal dis­pute), by some unfa­mil­iar names; I ini­tially was going to give this a pass but the local opera group’s brochure praised it and I liked the visu­als of the Met’s pre­view.

The in ques­tion is sim­ple to describe: a con­vent of nuns was dis­persed by the French Rev­o­lu­tion’s , but con­tin­ued reli­gious activ­i­ties, were caught, and were guil­lotined; for oper­a’s pur­pos­es, they earned immor­tal­ity by col­lec­tively singing a hymn on the way to the guil­lo­tine (amus­ing­ly, WP says there is con­sid­er­able dis­agree­ment on what was sung, which one would think would be diffi­cult to dis­agree on). The opera does­n’t par­tic­u­larly elab­o­rate on this, pro­ceed­ing lin­early from the pro­tag­o­nist enter­ing as a novice, to death of the clois­ter’s mother supe­rior with omi­nous pre­mo­ni­tions, the expul­sion of the nuns by sol­diers of the French state, and finally their reap­pear­ance in a prison cell prior to the mass exe­cu­tion, which the stil­l-free pro­tag­o­nist wit­nesses and vol­un­tar­ily joins at the last sec­ond, dying with them.

Eschew­ing the lav­ish cos­tum­ing of Car­men for its cast of nuns and the var­ied scenes of Ring for almost a sin­gle stage set­ting (a large cross-shaped stone-paved area in the cen­ter of the stage), D embraces an intensely aus­tere approach: with sharp stage-light­ing on the cross and total dark­ness every­where else, the black­-white habits of the nuns means they appear by magic when they turn toward the audi­ence and the white flash­es, while they van­ish into dark­ness the instant they step off the cross. The cross area, stand­ing in for all loca­tions in the clois­ter and times in the play (how much time pass­es? it must be years given the chronol­ogy of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, but there’s no way to tel­l), reg­u­larly cre­ates uncer­tain­ty, and com­bined with the con­stant dis­ap­pear­ing acts, there is a phan­tas­magoric feel which empha­sizes the mono­logues and dia­logues.

The singing struck me as over­all being much less inter­est­ing, suffer­ing from a lack of drama (‘dia­logues’ admit­tedly tells you to not expect as much as, say, Wag­n­er), and I was sur­prised at how appar­ently lit­tle inspi­ra­tion it takes from tra­di­tional Catholic music (which must be one of the rich­est veins of reli­gious music in exis­tence, par­tic­u­larly for West­ern music). I can remem­ber the mother supe­ri­or’s death scene and of course the final march to the guil­lotine, but I draw a blank on the rest.

I was left less dis­ap­pointed than puz­zled, feel­ing I was miss­ing a lot, as if the whole opera were sim­ply incom­plete. Many sub­plots which appeared impor­tant were dropped with­out a word (the fugi­tive priest, the informer black­smith, the fate of the pro­tag­o­nist’s broth­er), and char­ac­ters are badly under­de­vel­oped. The pro­tag­o­nist Blanche ini­tially comes off as so neu­rotic that one feels she needs less a pri­oress than a psy­chi­a­trist, and is seek­ing refuge in the Carmelites for entirely inap­pro­pri­ate rea­sons, with no seri­ous dis­cus­sion of her per­sonal growth or avo­ca­tion. The mother supe­ri­or’s scenes take up much of the oper­a’s run­ning time, and while they are impres­sive (it can’t be easy to sing opera like that while lying crip­pled on top of a bunch of sack­s), the upshot seems to be that her death was a diffi­cult one and her decades of faith & virtue & med­i­ta­tion upon death all proved entirely use­less, and she had failed to fore­see & pro­tect her sis­ters. Her final act is to order one of her nuns to watch over Blanche and see to her spir­i­tual growth. It is unclear how her death or the over­see­ing ties into any­thing else (aside from a vague spec­u­la­tion that her ‘good death’ was karmi­cally trans­ferred to Blanche some­how), and I was fur­ther per­plexed by how the nuns are depicted as inde­cently eager and thrilled to mar­tyr them­selves, being blocked only by the new mother supe­ri­or’s strict orders, and finally suc­ceed­ing when her back is turned—which (like Blanche’s orig­i­nal moti­va­tion for enter­ing reli­gious orders) smacks of satire rather than sacred­ness. Final­ly, Blanche’s char­ac­ter shows hardly any devel­op­ment, and we ulti­mately have no idea of why she sud­denly changes her mind and vol­un­tar­ily joins her impris­oned sis­ters to be mar­tyred.

As much as it invokes the great themes of the reli­gious life and tak­ing orders, reli­gious per­se­cu­tion, the ter­ror of death, and the con­flict between liv­ing & dying for one’s faith, I find that its name is mis­lead­ing as it actu­ally says lit­tle about any of these themes.

The Magic Flute

Gor­geous non­sense. (; Met ‘spe­cial hol­i­day encore’/cast)

This is a re-broad­cast of an abridged per­for­mance broad­cast through Met HD in Decem­ber 2006, which appar­ently was the first ever Met HD broad­cast. It demon­strates the improve­ments in Met HD broad­casts over the years, as it is dis­tinctly low­er-res­o­lu­tion than cur­rent Met HD broad­casts, and lacks all the fea­turettes that enliven the inter­mis­sions. The abridge­ment of The Magic Flute appears rel­a­tively min­i­mal, drop­ping a few slow scenes such as Pam­ina alone in a gar­den, but noth­ing major; the real change is that it’s an Eng­lish adap­ta­tion instead of using the orig­i­nal Ger­man. I had not been expect­ing that, and I am not sure I appre­ci­ate it either, because they dropped all the closed-cap­tion­s—­mak­ing it harder for me to under­stand than the Ger­man would’ve been.

Papageno bird-catcher char­ac­ter is a par­tic­u­lar high­light as he ath­let­i­cally crawls or cavorts around the stage, and he seems to be hav­ing by far the most fun of any­one on stage. The stage set­tings and cos­tumes lean heav­ily into sur­re­al­ism: the Queen of the Night’s female ser­vants have heads mounted a meter above their blacked-out faces, con­trolled by sticks, for no par­tic­u­lar rea­son other than it looks cool & they can, and one almost expects the cheer­ful­ly-ma­lig­nant vul­ture char­ac­ter Mono­statos, played by quite a chubby actor, to draw eyes on his chest and a mouth on his belly and make fat jokes. The music is excel­lent, of course, and the Queen of the Night’s aria is justly famous—one can scarcely believe that any human singer is capa­ble of hit­ting such high notes, and so loud­ly, for so long.

Its flaw is that, aside from Papageno & Mono­statos, the char­ac­ters are unin­ter­est­ing and the plot is bizarrely schematic and com­pletely reliant on lazy deus ex machina & nar­ra­tive con­ve­nience. Fur­ther, it can’t quite seem to make up its mind if it’s sup­posed to be a farce, or ulti­mately a seri­ous mean­ing­ful dra­ma. I char­i­ta­bly assumed while watch­ing that per­haps the opera had been bru­tally cut down in the adap­ta­tion process.

It is easy to see why peo­ple reach for Masonic inter­pre­ta­tions: surely all these heavy-handed sym­bols and out­-of-the-blue twists and card­board char­ac­ters mean it must be some sort of con­tem­po­rary -like alle­go­ry, and there is an eso­teric inter­pre­ta­tion that ren­ders it a sat­is­fy­ing artis­tic work as opposed to a series of musi­cal set pieces strung together by a thread­bare excuse for a plot? But unless Wikipedia greatly mis­leads me, no, it’s as absurd as it looks. So Mozart’s The Magic Flute is the of operas—it sounds even bet­ter than it looks, throws around a lot of por­ten­tous sym­bol­ism, but does­n’t make sense so peo­ple keep resort­ing to a West­ern occult tra­di­tion to make it make sense…

I don’t think I will want to watch The Magic Flute again the way I do other operas like Car­men.

The Ring

Die Walküre

opera (Met)

Fol­low­ing up my atten­dance at a live broad­cast of the NYC Met Oper­a’s per­for­mance of the opera Car­men the pre­vi­ous month, the next up was Die Walküre. This was awk­ward because I missed the first part of , , which, con­fus­ing­ly, despite being per­formed in March and sched­uled in April as well, appears to not be part of the “The Met: Live in HD” pro­gram at all! There’s no expla­na­tion on either the Met web­site or Fathom Events, so I guess I’m just going to have to miss out. In any case, I went.

Both the local & live audi­ence differed from Car­men; my local audi­ence was sub­stan­tially small­er, some­what over half the size but skew­ing younger (one guy showed up wear­ing Viking horns5), while the live NYC audi­ence was the oppo­site, eas­ily twice as large while older and far whiter and less touristy. I don’t know what accounts for that. The for­mat was largely the same, moved for­ward an hour to start at noon rather than 1PM because it is longer than Car­men, padded out some­what by 2 inter­mis­sions, which I spent watch­ing their lit­tle doc­u­men­taries, par­tic­u­larly about “the Machine”, using the bath­room, and going back to my car for snacks. I was con­cerned about the length, but my snacks proved ade­quate, and if the time did not exactly fly the way it does in Car­men, it did not weigh overly heavy on my mind. Inci­den­tal­ly, I did finally find out how the live Met audi­ence gets sub­ti­tles as I again failed to spot any sub­ti­tle dis­plays; check­ing after­wards, turns out they sim­ply have screens built into the backs of seats like air­li­nes, which is called an “”. (I won­der what they did before? )

The most strik­ing part of Die Walküre was of course the Machine. The Machine is essen­tially a dozen or so enor­mous planks (flat on one side, beveled on the oth­er) on a cylin­der which can be raised to var­i­ous heights & rotat­ed; it looks like an exec­u­tive desk toy, grown to demented size. The pro­duc­tion is almost osten­ta­tiously min­i­mal­ist, using the Machine as an all-pur­pose set­ting—now it’s a crooked set of pil­lars evok­ing a snowy forest, now the ver­ti­cal tim­bers of a cozy home, now a moun­tain crag for Freya to lec­ture Odin from atop, now a set of 8 hors­es, and so on. With 6 cam­era pro­jec­tors beam­ing com­put­er-mapped images onto it, the pro­jec­tions can be used while it moves because they are rock­-solid, pre­serv­ing the illu­sion (ini­tially I assumed there were screens built into the ‘planks’ until an actor crossed in fron­t). For all that it is appar­ently colos­sally expen­sive, a safety haz­ard (the num­ber of ref­er­ences dur­ing inter­views or videos to it being safe have the usual effect of under­min­ing con­fi­dence in pre­cisely that), was repeat­edly embar­rass­ing to the Met (crash­ing in years past and show­ing Win­dows logos in the mid­dle of a per­for­mance), and is a bit of a sunk cost, I see why the Met might con­tinue pur­su­ing it: it is a more pow­er­ful sys­tem than I would’ve thought.

Did I enjoy it as much as Car­men? To relay an anec­dote of (by way of Borges) when asked how agree­able was Wag­n­er’s com­pa­ny, “Sir, do you think the talk of Mount Etna is agree­able?” Car­men was surely much faster-paced, amus­ing, and enter­tain­ing, but Die Walküre surely aims at some­thing else. To judge it on those grounds, it is far more suc­cess­ful than con­tem­po­rary super­hero films which so con­sciously imi­tate The Ring in try­ing to pro­vide sec­u­lar­ized mythic cycles to sub­sti­tute for Chris­tian­ity or pro­gres­sive rock or Greek plays.

It stands alone fairly well, as we see the full arc of Siegmund/Sieglinde, and how it awak­ens Brünnhilde, trans­form­ing her from a per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of Odin’s will to a human, while encap­su­lat­ing the grand scheme of The Ring in Odin’s mono­logue, explain­ing how he is empow­ered but trapped by his past choices and depen­dent on free agents to lib­er­ate him; through the rest, Odin remains a fig­ure of dra­matic irony—to what extent is he gen­uinely despair­ing or furi­ous with Brünnhilde, and to what extent (like in ) is this all in fact part of a Xanatos Roulet­te? Act 1–2 work par­tic­u­larly well as they com­press a full tragedy, while Act 3 in ret­ro­spect strikes me as unfor­tu­nately extend­ed, not able to sup­port so lit­tle mean­ing­ful plot (I par­tic­u­larly noticed lines of dia­logue being repeated illog­i­cally in Act 3). I par­tic­u­larly liked the per­for­mances of Siegmund/Sieglinde, Freya, and Brünnhilde; I enjoyed Odin (played in this per­for­mance by Solid Snake) but in ret­ro­spect think he might’ve played the role too seri­ous­ly, with­out regard for the irony, as I don’t think any view­ers inno­cent of the over­all Ring plot or the mono­logue would be sus­pi­cious that he was any­thing other than he appeared. And read­ing reviews, Hund­ing was praised too but I found him absurdly dia­bol­i­cal (the actor made such weird faces for vil­lain­ous sneers that the old woman next to me invol­un­tar­ily laughed sev­eral times). So… maybe I enjoyed it. It was inter­est­ing, if noth­ing else.

Wozzeck

(; , ).

Failed anti-war opera. A relent­less crash­ing bore and a third-rate Car­men being crammed into an anti-war mold. I was left wish­ing it was either much shorter or much longer. The pro­duc­tion absolutely ham­mers in the WWI kitsch the­me, and the reviews praise its ‘search­ing crit­i­cism of mil­i­tarism’ or what­ever in dri­ving the tit­u­lar Wozzeck to mad­ness and mur­der—ex­cept the text and events don’t sup­port that in the least. It’s unclear if Wozzeck has so much as even been to a war, much less it had any­thing to do with his prob­lems; the ‘sadis­tic’ (in Wikipedi­a’s descrip­tion) towns­peo­ple act quite nor­mal­ly, Wozzeck’s cap­tain comes off as a quite nice chap, and even the mad doc­tor run­ning med­ical exper­i­ments on Wozzeck wants to do noth­ing worse than diet exper­i­ments which entail stuffing him full of beans & mut­ton. Marie is hardly threat­ened by star­va­tion as she shows off her new gold ear­rings (shades of Manon), Wozzeck him­self seems well off, with so few offi­cial duties he can do all these part-time jobs, and as he lives in the bar­racks and pre­sum­ably the Army feeds him, he is hardly in any dan­ger of star­va­tion or home­less­ness. Wozzeck does­n’t seem tragic or noble so much as a rather dimwit­ted Char­lie Brown unable to under­stand his prob­lems, such as what looks like schiz­o­phre­nia, but still try­ing to live up to var­i­ous oblig­a­tions he (en­tirely unnec­es­sar­i­ly) took on. If Wozzeck had gone for more of a Catch-22 or Agrip­pina approach, per­haps it could’ve worked, but then it ends in a grim-dark der­p-se­ri­ous end­ing.

The pro­duc­tion relies heav­ily on gim­micks. Dress­ing every­one up as crip­ples or in gas masks is cute the first time, as are the eccen­tric Monty Python-style clip­shows—ex­cept they are done again and again and again, with­out any rhyme or rea­son. The video clip­show is beamed onto the stage end­less­ly, and could be use­ful, sim­i­lar to the pro­jec­tions used in The Ring, except it never seems to con­nect with the action! What does any of this have to do with mil­i­tarism, or WWI, or any­thing? A sim­i­lar point can be made for the choice to close with Wozzeck’s bas­tard being played by a pup­pet with a gas mask head, much like the bas­tard in Madama But­ter­fly, except while there using a pup­pet instead of a child actor was inter­est­ing and cool for how well the pup­peteers inter­acted with But­ter­fly, here it is just point­less. The pro­duc­tion seems par­tic­u­larly dumb when, check­ing Wikipedi­a’s plot sum­ma­ry, I see that it just hacked out var­i­ous con­nec­tive tis­sues, like why he drowned him­self (para­noia in try­ing to retrieve the mur­der weapon), or that the captain/doctor were sup­posed to see him drown­ing while the pro­duc­tion just has them wan­der by won­der­ing about an odd sound and anti-cli­mat­i­cally leav­ing.

Relent­lessly crash­ingly dumb, with no good parts, and the worst Met opera I’ve seen so far—this was the first Met HD broad­cast I was seri­ously tempted to get up and walk out ear­ly, even after telling myself it was only about an hour and a half. The Magic Flute, Turan­dot, and Dia­logues des Car­mélites all had some weak­ness­es, but also had their strengths, and I never thought of leav­ing ear­ly. I don’t know if Wozzeck is nor­mally this bad, but this pro­duc­tion cer­tainly was bad in its cru­dity and illog­ic. On the bright side, the 2020 operas can only go up from here!

Movies

The Thing

Fol­low­ing up on the Peter Watts short story—I enjoyed this a great deal. The spe­cial effects hold up well, I liked the sus­pense & para­noia espe­cially since I had no idea how the plot goes and really was unsure who would be assim­i­lat­ed, and the char­ac­ters don’t act too stu­pidly for most of the movie.

All About Eve

Excel­lent character-study/drama about the price of fame, the sin­cer­est forms of flat­tery, and a lit­tle meta-fic­tion­al­ly, the psy­chol­ogy of the the­atre and Broad­way being usurped by Hol­ly­wood; like Hitch­cock’s Sus­pi­cion, the dri­ving force is detect­ing decep­tion or the lack there­of. Fea­tures an unex­pected (but the­mat­i­cally appro­pri­ate) appear­ance by Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe.

Suspicion

Alfred Hitch­cock’s

A movie whose plot begs to be described in Red Pill terms: a shy over-e­d­u­cated young heiress finds her jim­mies rus­tled by a bad boy alpha male Johnny (played by the stil­l-fa­mous Cary Grant) and, ignor­ing her par­ents, all com­mon sense, and the beta floaters around her, elopes with him, only to dis­cover to her dis­may that she’s mar­ried a man who could have come straight out of the pages of Cleck­ley’s 1941 (the resem­blance is so exact that I was sur­prised to see that the orig­i­nal novel was writ­ten in 1932 and the Sus­pi­cion screen­play ~1939)—a glib bank­rupt unem­ployed macho gam­bler who steals, embez­zles, and lies extrav­a­gantly with­out the slight­est shred of remorse or shame or any care about how it might hurt oth­ers or any plan beyond the instant. The sus­pi­cion is raised by a suc­ces­sion of cir­cum­stances indica­tive of killing the pro­tag­o­nist by poi­son for her life insur­ance.

The end­ing (to give away a bit of a spoil­er) is that she mis­in­ter­preted them and really he did love her and he had been con­tem­plat­ing sui­cide, but now chooses to take respon­si­bil­ity for his actions and go to jail hon­or­ably. This end­ing is so laugh­ably incon­sis­tent with his char­ac­ter, and such a mis­step for Hitch­cock, I thought that there must be more to this end­ing and that I should not have been sur­prised that Hol­ly­wood would refuse to show Cary Grant play­ing a ser­ial mur­der­er; sure enough, when I checked WP, the orig­i­nal novel had the right end­ing and Hitch­cock is on record com­plain­ing about being forced to change the end. The bogus end­ing aside, it is well-done and a bit sus­pense­ful (at least once they get mar­ried and the real plot; the pro­logue sce­nario being so pre­dictable that I was bored) with some note­wor­thy bits like the final gor­geous sequence of Johnny ascend­ing the stairs with the poi­soned milk.

Hackers

(1995)

So ’90s I felt the munchies for Pop-tarts, won­der­ing where I could get a copy of Mondo 2000, and nos­tal­gic for the AOL dial tone. Hack­ers was prob­a­bly intended to be rel­a­tively seri­ous despite its absurd plot, like one of the other great hacker movies, , but the glam­or­iza­tion & Hol­ly­wood fan­tasy hack­ing & ’90s tropes like rollerblad­ing & chunky tiny lap­tops make it hys­ter­i­cal to watch in 2017, and occa­sion­ally uncom­fort­able—we’re a long way from The Men­tor’s . Yet, for all the scenes like some­one skate­board­ing into a main­frame with 3D holo­grams & giant glass key­boards, Hack­ers is also one of the most real­is­tic hack­ing depic­tions around, from blue boxes to social engi­neer­ing to the color books to lit­eral hack­ing of Gib­sons.

Cool Hand Luke

Girar­dian mime­sis and the sociopath spec­trum: while use­ful in war, Luke is a fish out of water in peace­time, and becomes a scape­goat for the oth­ers, act­ing out the desires they are too cow­ardly to express, and ulti­mately pay­ing the price. The major flaw I would note is that the Man With Glasses speaks once; he should never speak.

Blade Runner 2049

one of the best movies I’ve seen all year, well worth pay­ing to see on the big screen, and a great sequel to . It man­ages to avoid the crack­-co­caine-like pac­ing of most big Hol­ly­wood block­busters, is visu­ally stun­ning and a match for Blade Run­ner’s visual flair, bor­rows inter­est­ing ele­ments from & the Star Wars sequels, and the story is excel­lent to boot—a sub­tle med­i­ta­tion on love and par­ent­hood. Is the love of a dog or AI or (sev­er­al) repli­cants any less mean­ing­ful for being designed?

The Bridge over the River Kwai

One of the great war movies; the theme of the futil­ity & destruc­tive­ness of war can never be empha­sized enough. The colonel’s descent into col­lab­o­ra­tionism is all too eas­ily under­stood, as is, to a lesser extent, the mur­der­ous & death-seek­ing behav­ior of the com­mando offi­cer. The major flaws I would con­sider to be the Japan­ese depicted entirely too pos­i­tively (the first plot arc of the colonel’s resis­tance, while uplift­ing, broke a bit of sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief because in real­ity he would prob­a­bly have sim­ply been exe­cuted within the day), the end­ing is a bit too heavy-handed (did any viewer actu­ally need the doc­tor to repeat “mad­ness!” 4 or 5 times to get the mes­sage?), and too much of the 161 min­utes run­ning time is occu­pied with the resis­tance arc and then later with the com­mando squad cut­ting its way through the jun­gle.

Freaks

(1932)

I was curi­ous where the “one of us, one of us” chant comes from, and it’s this cult film. Freaks, as the name sug­gests, does in fact pos­sess a cast of some of the finest freaks avail­able—‘cir­cus freaks’, to be speci­fic, the bod­ily deformed, such as Siamese twins, in a trav­el­ing freak show. The main plot, a cir­cus per­former seduc­ing a midget to kill him for his inher­i­tance, is slow & clunky, and the real fas­ci­na­tion of Freaks lies in the doc­u­men­tary of the freaks.

For exam­ple, Freaks inspired the (lousy, IMO), comics (the micro­cephal­ics really do look like that, inci­den­tal­ly). I was par­tic­u­larly impressed by one long slow sequence of a limb­less black man swad­dled up as a mummy with a cigar in his mouth who opens a match­box with his mouth, takes out a match, lights it, puts it down, lights his cig­ar, blows out the match, and enjoys his cigar while skep­ti­cally regard­ing another freak who has been boast­ing about their tal­ents. Aside from the ‘slice of life’ sce­nes, the final con­fronta­tion is down­right unset­tling hor­ror. Some scenes are simul­ta­ne­ously intim­i­dat­ing & hys­ter­i­cal: hav­ing been, caught in the act of try­ing to poi­son her midget hus­band, the vil­lain­ess refuses to hand the bot­tle of poi­son over. The other midget, in his lit­tle flat cap, flicks out a switch blade, licks it, and starts cut­ting some fruit; the leg­less guy, who wears just the top half of a tuxe­do, pulls out a Luger pis­tol and admires it; and the final midget con­tin­ues play­ing a sin­is­ter tune on a flute.

It is deeply unfor­tu­nate that a com­pletely super­flu­ous end­ing was tacked on & so much of the movie was appar­ently destroyed by the stu­dio in edit­ing, and that the recep­tion to it was so hos­tile that it ended the direc­tor’s career & the movie was banned in places; it seems that many view­ers com­pletely failed to see that Freaks was all about human­iz­ing the freaks by show­ing how they live their lives and are not all solely help­less vic­tims but a close-knit tribe who can defend them­selves and even take revenge, should that be nec­es­sary. As Rot­ten Toma­toes says: “Time has been kind to this hor­ror leg­end: Freaks man­ages to fright­en, shock, and even touch view­ers in ways that con­tem­po­rary view­ers missed.” Indeed.

The Shining

I watched it because it was a famous clas­sic; it’s very slow-mov­ing movie which has the pac­ing prob­lem of spend­ing what seems like half the movie estab­lish­ing the basic premise and then short­-changes the descent into mad­ness, which comes off as abrupt and uncon­vinc­ing. The spe­cial effects are now tame enough that they’re more amus­ing than fright­en­ing (the blood­-hall­way did­n’t inspire any unease in me, just some won­der­ing how they did it—a minia­ture set which they could flood at will?) except for the rot­ting woman. I also could­n’t get over how strange Shel­ley Duvall looks, and was a lit­tle off­put by the char­ac­ter. Still, the hotel is a great set­ting and the end­ing works nice­ly, so I’d call it a good film.

Marty

(1955)

While extra­or­di­nar­ily lauded at the time, and, ran­dom triv­ia, one of the first Amer­i­can films to be per­mit­ted to be shown in the USSR post-WWII, I had never heard of Marty. It is a sur­pris­ingly sym­pa­thetic por­trait of an arche­type which usu­ally is exco­ri­ated and made the butt of all jokes in movies, the omega male—a socially awk­ward and unmar­ried los­er. It also gives a strong sense of time, loca­tion, and com­mu­nity in mak­ing the main char­ac­ters 1950s Ital­ian-Amer­i­cans in NYC’s The Bronx.

The plot is sim­plic­i­ty: the awk­ward Marty is repeat­edly hec­tored into social­iz­ing until by chance he encoun­ters a shy woman who he gets along with, only for his friends & fam­ily to recon­sider how Mar­ty’s suc­cess would harm them, and Marty over­comes their oppo­si­tion and his own fears to con­tinue the rela­tion­ship. The point is more to watch Ernest Borg­nine and Betsy Blair act their way through it in an enjoy­able fash­ion, although I think much of the humor is too dated to amuse now.

Stalker

1979. Per­haps inevitably after watch­ing Made in Abyss, I got around to watch­ing Stalker, which I had already down­loaded. Tarkovsky’s films have a rep­u­ta­tion for being eso­teric to a fault, which is true of the other Tarkovsky film I’ve seen, his ear­lier adap­ta­tion of a nov­el, but I think that this rep­u­ta­tion is unearned for Stalker which struck me as per­fectly com­pre­hen­si­ble—iron­i­cal­ly, Tarkovsky’s Stalker (osten­si­bly an adap­ta­tion of the ) is in some ways more faith­ful to Stanis­law Lem than his actual Lem adap­ta­tion. Specifi­cal­ly, it reflects the spirit of , with shades of Dos­to­evsky’s .

As I take it, the Zone, like the planet Solar­is, is an alien intel­li­gence cre­at­ing an envi­ron­ment reflect­ing the humans explor­ing it; those who are flex­i­ble, respon­sive to the world, present in the moment, sur­vive the Zone, avoid­ing traps, while the thought­less and vio­lent and inflex­i­ble are destroyed by the Zone reify­ing their mind. The ‘Room’ at the cen­ter of the Zone is a gift from the aliens (stand-ins for God) and does in fact reveal & grant vis­i­tors’ inner­most wish­es; but unfor­tu­nate­ly, as the Writer deduces, the futil­ity of knowl­edge is exposed by this: the gift of self­-knowl­edge is, like free­dom, a poi­soned chal­ice for all the humans who drink it. The knowl­edge, like that of His Mas­ter’s Voice, is a mir­ror which reveals too much and is either use­less or self­-de­struc­tive. The Writer there­fore refuses to enter. All humans are fal­l­en, includ­ing the ‘louse’ of the Stalker pro­tag­o­nist, who though a louse is a Jesus-like fig­ure sac­ri­fic­ing him­self to guide humans to the Room in the hope that some human can prove to have the basic decency to with­stand self­-knowl­edge and ben­e­fit from their wish being grant­ed; he there­fore must refrain from enter­ing. Final­ly, the Physi­cist sought to destroy the Room to pre­vent an evil per­son from being empow­ered by it or a good per­son desta­bi­liz­ing the world, but con­cludes that his mis­sion was unnec­es­sary, as evil peo­ple would be destroyed by the Room and there are no good peo­ple who might enter it, and dis­cards the hid­den atomic bomb; nat­u­ral­ly, he does not enter either. At the end, the Stalker is left in despair: his mis­sion to human­ity is a fail­ure, as the 2 great rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Russ­ian intel­li­gentsia have both failed the test of the Room and not just that, like the Grand Inquisi­tor of Jesus, con­cluded there is not even any need to inter­fere with the Stalker or destroy the Room. (The con­nec­tion to “The Grand Inquisi­tor”, curi­ous­ly, does­n’t seem to have been made in Eng­lish film stud­ies, although inquir­ing, appar­ently it’s widely noted in Russ­ian sources includ­ing by Tarkovsky him­self.) The world is, as the Writer com­plains in his open­ing mono­logue, a bor­ing bland tis­sue of lies, a world where UFOs or ESP do not and can­not exist, with the only excep­tion being the walled-off Zone, an irrup­tion of out­side con­text into ‘nor­mal­ity’; the Stalk­er’s mis­sion hav­ing failed, and hav­ing always been doomed, it seems that we are left with bleak nihilis­m—ex­cept that the Stalk­er’s daugh­ter, mutated by severe birth defects in her legs, demon­strates in a clos­ing scene a secret abil­ity to tele­ki­net­i­cally move objects. A ray of hope appears: the sta­sis may yet be bro­ken by a (di­vine?) inter­ven­tion.

The sets are dis­turbingly real­is­tic, eerily por­ten­tous—how strik­ing that final room of sand dunes—and one won­ders how such an extra­or­di­nar­ily con­vinc­ing envi­ron­ment, with so much filth & rub­bish and decay­ing build­ings and infra­struc­ture could’ve been con­structed by Tarkovsky for the 3 actors to splash and stum­ble their way through the waste, so rem­i­nis­cent of the (I could­n’t help but notice how Stalker is brack­eted by shots of nuclear-style cool­ing tow­ers, though of course it could not be a Cher­nobyl ref­er­ence as that did not hap­pen for another 7 years & I doubt Tarkovsky would’ve been per­mit­ted much less funded if it had hap­pened already); it is all the more dis­turb­ing when one recalls that this was filmed in the old USSR, which was one con­tin­u­ous coun­try-wide envi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter zone. that the sets are so real­is­tic because it was a chem­i­cal plant dis­as­ter zone and the ‘spe­cial effects’ like ‘snow’ were god-knows-what hor­rors, and many peo­ple involved, like Tarkovsky him­self (at age 54 barely 7 years lat­er), died young of can­cers. While actors some­times undergo con­sid­er­able dan­ger for their craft, it’s hard to think of exam­ples as extreme as Stalker, and there is some­thing eerily appro­pri­ate about that and the fact that the movie had to be filmed twice (a film lab destroyed the first ver­sion).

One’s over­all assess­ment of Stalker will depend on how much one is will­ing to indulge Tarkovsky’s almost 3-hour run­ning time, extremely slow pace (you’ll be star­ing at close­ups of ears for what must be 10 min­utes in the rail-car ride sequence into the Zone which par­tic­u­larly tried my patience), taste for ruin porn & all-too-real toxic sludge, and a cin­e­matog­ra­phy-ori­ented way of express­ing the plot & theme as I sum­ma­rized it above.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

(1978)

I down­loaded the wrong one—who knew there were two?—but I think this one is prob­a­bly bet­ter. A noir psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller set in SF—of course! As the direc­tor asks, “Could it hap­pen in the city I love the most? The city with the most advanced, pro­gres­sive ther­a­pies, pol­i­tics and so forth? What would hap­pen in a place like that if the pods landed there and that ele­ment of ‘pod­di­ness’ was spread?” Well… The pod peo­ple jus­tify their geno­cide as envi­ron­men­tal­ism, inci­den­tal­ly. In a slow burn, the pro­tag­o­nists undergo one of the most effec­tive drama­ti­za­tions of a slow­ly-build­ing para­noid schiz­o­phre­nia & ; when every­thing explodes and it becomes more of a zom­bie chase movie, it’s still res­cued by an appro­pri­ately downer end­ing.

American Psycho

After watch­ing the famous busi­ness card scene, which is surely one of the most dra­matic & hilar­i­ous scenes about typog­ra­phy in all of Hol­ly­wood, I finally got around to Amer­i­can Psy­cho. The pro­tag­o­nist (played by ) fan­cies him­self a Rea­gan-era mas­ter of the uni­verse, a Gor­don Gekko of finance, who preys with impunity on his infe­ri­ors; but is he a psy­chopath—or just psy­cho? appar­ently treads the line care­fully to main­tain ambi­gu­i­ty, but film is cruel to unre­li­able nar­ra­tor tropes, forc­ing either frame gim­micks or risk­ing shat­ter­ing sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief by too much ‘treach­ery of images’.

The film exper­i­ments with seam­lessly weav­ing in fan­tasies to leave the viewer in doubt what actu­ally tran­spired; how­ev­er, by the time that Bate­man is blow­ing up police cars with a pis­tol, it’s long since become clear that the pro­tag­o­nist is a fan­ta­sist & none of his crimes real. Signs of this are sprin­kled through­out: the viewer need not be a typog­ra­phy expert to note that the pro­tag­o­nist’s fancy busi­ness card is actu­ally rather poorly type­set.6

Indeed, the pro­tag­o­nist appears to be noth­ing but a nepo­tis­tic hire shuffled to a cor­ner office to do noth­ing all day long. His life is based on imi­ta­tion and fan­tasies about liv­ing, entirely emp­ty, and even low­er, in a way, than the life of a mur­der­er. How­ev­er, the film’s loss is Chris­t­ian Bale’s gain, as play­ing the role of a ser­ial killer is far less inter­est­ing than play­ing a psy­cho who thinks he’s a psy­chopath who is at war with the world & play­ing deadly cat-and-mouse games with detec­tives.

There is some fas­ci­nat­ing film­mak­ing going on there, like Bale strug­gling to sup­press his British accent, but the best is the scene in the restau­rant where Bate­man is inter­ro­gated by the detec­tive about a miss­ing coworker and fears he’s been caught: some­thing about it is deeply uncanny and dis­turb­ing to watch about Bale’s expres­sions oscil­lat­ing. that they shot mul­ti­ple ver­sions of the scene, switch­ing between the detec­tive being con­vinced he was guilty and being con­vinced he was inno­cent, and edited them all togeth­er! It a dra­matic tes­ta­ment to the sub­tlety of facial expres­sions, dia­logue, and act­ing, and impos­si­ble in a nov­el. Bale is an actor’s actor as he pulls off play­ing a char­ac­ter who is attempt­ing to act nor­mally while being nor­mal & actu­ally play­ing an actor in their own mind.

The Haunting

(1963)

wrote an inter­est­ing arti­cle on how The Haunt­ing used cin­e­mato­graphic tech­niques to build up creepi­ness and a feel­ing of fore­bod­ing while avoid­ing any resort to spe­cial effects: the house­—­sup­pos­edly gen­uinely thought to be haunt­ed—is always care­fully framed to be ‘star­ing’ at the view­er, the direc­tor obtained a unique wide-an­gle lenses which sub­tly dis­torts the image (some­times shot on infrared film!), the rooms were delib­er­ately built to be slightly off-k­il­ter in var­i­ous ways which was exploited in the unusu­ally long slow track­ing shots whose cuts then scram­ble any sense of the inter­nal lay­out of the house, and the actors them­selves began to suc­cumb to depres­sion & con­flict dur­ing the film­ing. It is all ele­gantly effec­tive and a good watch at night.

Mandy

(2018)

Psy­che­delic hor­ror revenge on a stereo­typ­i­cal 1960s ‘evil cult’ by way of a 1980s slasher splat­ter­fest fea­tur­ing, of all peo­ple, as a burly lum­ber­jack dri­ven nigh unto insan­i­ty—I had no idea he had it in him. The tit­u­lar Mandy, played by , is unset­tling as well, but more for how she is made up to look like a dead fish or zom­bie from the begin­ning, and car­ries few scenes. The film goes to every excess in score, cin­e­matog­ra­phy, and color to cre­ate its mood, and it’s a remark­able watch if one has the patience, if only for the epic chain­saw duel.

Arrival

See my review of Sto­ries of Your Life and Oth­ers, and .

A Quiet Place

When I heard it fea­tured a hear­ing-im­paired char­ac­ter, I had to see it. In style & approach, it’s near-i­den­ti­cal to , which I liked7, espe­cially in its mer­ci­ful free­dom from hyper­-ac­tive cuts and med­i­ta­tive fil­mog­ra­phy, akin to Blade Run­ner. Iron­i­cally given its the­me, AQP still has an over­bear­ing Hol­ly­wood sound­track­—ap­par­ently the direc­tor felt he had to make that con­ces­sion to main­stream audi­ences. As a dra­ma, it’s excel­lent. As a high­-con­cept SF movie, it suffers from a lack of thought and occa­sional con­ve­nient­ly-in­com­pe­tent char­ac­ters: as Peter Watts points out, the alien mon­sters are simul­ta­ne­ously far too pow­er­ful and far too weak—they can hear a spoon drop from an acre away but can’t hear a human breath­ing or heart pound­ing in the same room? And I thought the twist was pre­dictable, but inter­est­ing­ly, the reviews I read praised the twist, so per­haps my own hear­ing aids give me a (dis­)ad­van­tage in that respect. Over­all, AQP makes me think it was over­rated and 10 Clover­field Lane was under­rat­ed, although I will always have a soft spot for the rare movie fea­tur­ing hear­ing aids and deaf­ness.

Conan the Barbarian

Got around to watch­ing after read­ing an amus­ing tweet sum­mary:

“An under­ap­pre­ci­ated thing about the Conan the Bar­bar­ian movie is how low-key informed it is by 1970s Cal­i­for­nia beach cul­ture. It’s basi­cally about a Mus­cle Beach body­builder & his hapa surfer buddy doing drugs, hav­ing casual sex & bat­tling a cult that exploits rich hip­pies.”

Hav­ing already watched , which shows Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger not long before while still try­ing to tran­si­tion from body­build­ing to film and his , I was intrigued by the com­par­i­son. And Stentz’s sum­mary is… dead on. It’s so easy to see them as Cal­i­forn­ian body­builders bum­bling around, hav­ing a good time, smok­ing what is clearly weed togeth­er, until they are dis­tracted by a hip­pie Cal­i­forn­ian Asian/human-potential cult which brain­washes a rich man’s daugh­ter, who hires depro­gram­mers, I mean, bar­bar­ians to save her—­com­plete with long­haired acolytes twirling flow­ers and med­i­tat­ing, and hilar­i­ously homo­erotic dia­logue, which as “The Power and the Gory” takes pains to remind us, was a big part of the body­build­ing scene as even straight body­builders would whore them­selves out to gay men for money or con­trolled steroids/drugs. There’s no way this was unin­ten­tion­al.

I was fur­ther sur­prised by how slow-mov­ing and mild it is—it repeat­edly pulls punches and takes more peace­ful ways out than its bloody rep­u­ta­tion would sug­gest (even the Seven Samu­rai-homage set-piece fea­tures pos­si­bly less blood­shed than the orig­i­nal), right up to the cli­max. Of course Thulsa Doom is going to trans­form into his giant ser­pent form and fight Conan, right? We’ve been wait­ing for that the whole movie—nope! And then all the cultists just qui­etly dis­perse. The End.

Pirates of Silicon Valley

Bit of a ’90s nos­tal­gia trip. Awk­ward frame nar­ra­tion aside, this is one of the par­a­dig­matic inter­pre­ta­tion of Bill Gates & Steve Jobs from before they entered their sec­ond or third act­s—Jobs when Jobs had ruined Apple but not yet saved it, Gates when Gates was widely vil­i­fied as a monot­one psy­chopath nerd and was not yet can­on­ized Saint Gates for devot­ing his for­tune to Third-Worlders. Watch­ing it, I find myself aston­ished yet again how Microsoft became so dom­i­nant and Bill Gates the rich­est man in his­to­ry. How did it hap­pen? It just does­n’t seem pos­si­ble, even after you read event by event descrip­tions. How could it be that Gates could go to IBM offer­ing them a sim­ple oper­at­ing sys­tem, a thing that was always before then, and we can see is even now with Android and Linux and Apple, some­thing that was rel­a­tively unim­por­tant com­pared to the hard­ware and eas­ily copied or sur­passed, and build its empire on this? It makes no sense. But it hap­pened any­way.

This Is Spinal Tap

(1984)

I had expect­ed, for some rea­son, a much hard­er-edged bit­ter satire on the sex/drugs/rock-and-roll lifestyle, but This Is Spinal Tap turns out to be a much fun­nier, gen­tler, absur­dist British/Pythonic com­edy on the music indus­try, aging rock stars, and the British tra­di­tion of pro­gres­sive and glam rock, and mer­its its rep­u­ta­tion.

Tokyo Drifter

A true art-house film, Tokyo Drifter tests your patience with awk­ward pac­ing, appar­ent for­get­ful­ness, and action scenes that would be con­sid­er­ably more inter­est­ing if you could keep track of what was going on: it does­n’t so much drift from Western/noir set piece to set piece as lurch unpre­dictably, briefly set­tling every­where from a samu­rai man­sion in the falling snow to a Yan­kee cow­boy bar filled with brawl­ing US Navy sailors to the final Bon­desque show­down in a starkly white (all the bet­ter to high­light the blood and suits) empty mod­ernist box of an audi­to­ri­um, orig­i­nally moti­vated by some real estate trans­ac­tion or other that the viewer for­gets as eas­ily as the char­ac­ters. The con­ceit of a man loyal to the old ideals which give his life mean­ing in a new prag­matic age with no need for such men is hardly new and the over­all pack­age is ungain­ly, but the set pieces are self­-rec­om­mend­ing.

Hero

(2002)

I orig­i­nally watched this in 2005 and was curi­ous how much I recalled—­turns out effec­tively none of it. I enjoyed it both times but this time, I think, I could­n’t help but notice the for­mal weak­ness of Hero in com­par­i­son to more rig­or­ous films like Rashomon: the famous use of color to theme the scenes is slap­dash, with no par­tic­u­lar sym­me­try I could see, where a more skill­ful direc­tor would have used the color as more than dec­o­ra­tion but to con­vey the epis­temic sta­tus of scenes (eg blue for the first ver­sion which is a lie, yel­low for the sec­ond ver­sion inferred by the Qin emper­or, and green for the truth), and the plot is flab­by, with entirely unnec­es­sary ele­ments like reveal­ing that the pro­tag­o­nist merely fakes the death of his co-con­spir­a­tors, which under­cuts their sac­ri­fice and leaves char­ac­ters wan­der­ing around at the end, need­ing to engage in rather forced mur­der-sui­cide or just left at loose end­s—­like the first con­spir­a­tor, Sky, who never shows up again, and I sup­pose we’re sup­posed to just imag­ine him like Fort­in­bras turn­ing up at the end of the play won­der­ing why every­one is dead and what hap­pened. The impres­sion one gets is that the melo­drama is not thought through and the direc­tor wanted to use 2 stars again, so has them turn up again at the end thanks to the con­ve­nient faked-death plot device, only so they could then kill each other again like they already did in the fake sto­ry, at which point tragedy has become farce.

I was per­haps most sur­prised how blunt an apol­ogy for total­i­tar­ian dic­ta­tor­ship Hero is; I’d cer­tainly appre­ci­ated that sub­text the first time, but the sec­ond time I real­ized it’s not sub­text but just text. The movie from start to fin­ish is an apol­ogy for the Qin dic­ta­tor­ship and thus, inevitably, for the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Par­ty. The pro­tag­o­nist is ‘Name­less’ as a belated vic­tim of the Qin state, only real­iz­ing it long after being adopt­ed; in this respect, he is like the Chi­nese peo­ple in gen­er­al. As T. Greer puts it, “Ye Fu’s chal­lenge—and in many respects all of Chi­na’s—was not hon­estly fac­ing his past, but sim­ply find­ing it…­for Ye Fu those ditches are not those of the name­less mil­lions. These were ditches dug by his father and filled by his grand­fa­ther. The tragedies of the 20th cen­tury are his tragedies. He was born from the ditch­es–though he would not dis­cover this grue­some truth until he was a grown man.” The Qin state is por­trayed bluntly as a mon­strous mil­i­tary machine made of men, indus­tri­al­ized, dark, with the court reg­u­lated and sub­di­vided to the nth degree, full of cow­ardly sol­diers & dehu­man­ized courtiers, spread­ing suffer­ing wher­ever it goes, casu­ally butcher­ing entire cities of civil­ians. The hero of Hero is a hero because after hear­ing a pro­pa­ganda slo­gan ‘our land’ and talk­ing to the Qin emperor & hear­ing his inter­pre­ta­tion of some cal­lig­ra­phy, he gives up his suc­cess­ful assas­si­na­tion attempt and fur­ther, allows Qin to com­mit fur­ther injus­tice by exe­cut­ing him to uphold Qin law. The rather uncom­pelling argu­ment being that national unity is more impor­tant than any­thing else, and one should sac­ri­fice any­thing for it, for the most tri­fling of rea­sons, and any­one like Name­less or Ye Fu, who has been wronged, should sim­ply shut up about it for the good of the Par­ty. A puz­zling mes­sage par­tic­u­larly given that while the Qin did unify that region and restore the unity of Zhou, their empire almost imme­di­ately col­lapsed and then had to be put back together by the Han. One would think the Com­mu­nist Party would want to avoid such a com­par­ison, par­tic­u­larly given fur­ther uncom­fort­able par­al­lels between the Qin and Com­mu­nist Party (eg their exten­sive cen­sor­ship & influ­ence oper­a­tions and the ‘’). But there it is.

I sus­pect, given the global loss of com­pla­cency about China under Xi Jin­ping, if Hero were released today, it would have a harder time reach­ing #1 at the Amer­i­can box office.

Gone With The Wind

(1939)

It’s hard to believe that an almost 4-hour-long movie could be pos­si­bly the best-selling movie ever and a beloved clas­sic; even skip­ping the orches­tra­tion & inter­mis­sions, it’s still astound­ingly long, with an intro­duc­tion that takes for­ever to get any­where. It may be a clas­sic and the source of any num­ber of catch­phras­es, but why watch it here & now?

The best way to approach it is as a supervil­lain ori­gin story (or per­haps Niet­zschean, like Ring­ing Bell): how does a sim­per­ing selfish South­ern belle like (who we see in a long intro­duc­tion flounc­ing around in ball gowns on a plan­ta­tion estate at par­ties and wind­ing rich over­ly-earnest eli­gi­ble young bach­e­lors around her pinkie) snap out of her self­-de­cep­tion to sud­denly become a supervil­lain, will­ing to work, kill, lie, cheat, and run a suc­cess­ful busi­ness (in descend­ing order by South­ern moral­i­ty, amus­ing­ly) to pur­sue her self­-in­ter­est in a new South? The film is most inter­est­ing in depict­ing this, and does an extra­or­di­nary act­ing job in fol­low­ing Scar­lett through the entire gamut of human emo­tion and decep­tion.

It loses its momen­tum when Scar­lett reaches her apogee and finally mar­ries the now-mil­lion­aire , and it turns into a turgid­ly-paced melo­dra­matic tragedy—I laughed when Scar­lett fell down the stairs & had a mis­car­riage imme­di­ately after But­ler sug­gest she might have an ‘acci­dent’, or when their daugh­ter kills her­self falling a meter off her pony, because even a day­time soap opera would blush. If the movie were cut at her mar­riage, would it not be an immense improve­ment?

The prob­lem, I think, is that the intro—which I hoped was par­o­d­ic—was entirely sin­cere: it becomes increas­ingly clear over the course of the film that Gone with the Wind is entirely sin­cere about the ‘Lost Cause’ and the ‘honor’ of South­ern gen­tle­men and how slav­ery was­n’t so bad and the Ku Klux Klan kept pub­lic order to pro­tect the honor of white women and the Yan­kees & car­pet­bag­gers are the real vil­lains and how the Ante­bel­lum South was a beau­ti­ful place that crassly com­mer­cial Yan­kees such as myself will never appre­ci­ate. Author , I sus­pect, did not see Scar­let­t’s strength or trans­for­ma­tion as a good thing, and reads Scar­let­t’s over­all arc entirely the oppo­site of how I did.

In Mitchel­l’s ver­sion, Scar­lett does­n’t ascend into bour­geoisie virtue but falls along with the South: instead of being a rich woman mar­ry­ing off her chil­dren advan­ta­geously & pur­su­ing an ele­gant life of leisure on the backs of grate­ful slaves while her hus­band han­dles any minor money mat­ters as God intend­ed, she takes life into her own hands, defends her­self rather than rely­ing on a hus­band, goes out in pub­lic with­out a chap­er­one, and, worst of all, does­n’t leech off the labor of oth­ers but works hard & makes her­self use­ful to other peo­ple who vol­un­tar­ily pay her money for her ser­vices in a free mar­ket thereby mak­ing both par­ties bet­ter off & the world a bet­ter place. (Ac­tu­al­ly, there may be a worse sin than engag­ing in hon­est work: in one scene, she hires prison labor for her busi­ness and is exco­ri­ated for it. Why is hir­ing a bunch of white con­victs who can make amends for their crimes & cost of impris­on­ment such a mor­tal sin? Because, you see, they might not be treated well by the fore­man—why, they might even be whipped!)

Mitchel­l’s tragedy then, is that Scar­lett is not an entire­ly-fallen New Wom­an, but still yearns for the nobler things as rep­re­sented by her long-frus­trated love inter­est, ; this inter­nal con­flict sab­o­tages her rela­tion­ship with But­ler, and dooms her to unhap­pi­ness—she can never marry Wilkes, but car­ry­ing a torch for him destroys any chance for hap­pi­ness with her true equal, the cyn­i­cal but proud Rhett But­ler. Scar­lett knows too much of the bet­ter (South­ern) things in life to truly tran­si­tion to the muck of Yan­kee­dom. (Read­ing through Mitchel­l’s Wikipedia arti­cle after form­ing this impres­sion, this lines up with much of her biog­ra­phy.)

Nat­u­ral­ly, the mod­ern watcher, while not­ing the con­flict, may have a differ­ent opin­ion on which side was nobler and more moral and more desir­able… It was not Mitchel­l’s inten­tion, but this con­trast of visions keeps Gone with the Wind inter­est­ing and still worth watch­ing.

They Live

(1988; film)

I enjoyed The Thing, and They Live was the nex­t-most famous Car­pen­ter movie.

Enter­tain­ingly ironic back­fire. TL expresses the in a pack­age justly made iconic by its thrifty but effec­tive use of spe­cial effects: the pro­tag­o­nist flips between social con­sen­sus and a mono­chrome Art Deco-esque real­ity reveal­ing 1984-like slo­gans painted every­where by the secret alien mas­ters of the world, which brain­wash every­one (even though such prim­ing ads , it at least makes a great metaphor). The pace is per­haps unnec­es­sar­ily slow, and I had to won­der why a fist fight implau­si­bly takes up sev­eral min­utes—it’s a great fight, but it has lit­tle to do with the rest of the movie and requires the char­ac­ters to act stu­pid­ly. The over­all plot is rea­son­ably straight­for­ward and does­n’t need to invoke too much plot armor to explain how the aliens are defeat­ed. I would not say it was as good as The Thing, but few movies are, and this was rea­son­ably enter­tain­ing. TL did give me some food for thought, how­ev­er.

TL takes pains to make clear its lib­eral cre­den­tials: if you some­how missed how Rea­gan­ism was respon­si­ble for every­thing bad in Amer­ica and grow­ing slums and home­less­ness, it shows an alien on TV giv­ing Rea­ganesque speech­es. ( for Car­pen­ter’s hamar­ti­ol­o­gy, it puts heavy stress on home­less­ness as crit­i­cism, and yet, where is home­less­ness the worst now in the USA? Those places Rea­gan is most hat­ed, like the Bay Area. Another irony is that in depict­ing the 1980s, it reminded me chiefly of how poor 1980s Amer­ica was in com­par­i­son to now, which can be seen in how crude and lim­ited are many of the things then : it’s not just the aliens sport­ing advanced wrist­watches which are lit­tle more than two-way radios, but also the shab­bi­ness of cars, the ter­ri­ble TVs every­where, the lim­ited selec­tion in the upscale gro­cery store he con­fronts the aliens in…)

But there’s some­thing about this that began to bug me. Con­sider this 100% accu­rate descrip­tion of TL’s world-build­ing:

“Amer­i­ca, and the world as you know it, is not con­trolled by peo­ple like you—but by an alien race of invaders, par­a­sites from far away, who have secretly wormed their way into our soci­ety and taken it over rel­a­tively recent­ly. They hunger only for mon­ey, and have lit­tle gen­uine cul­ture of their own, assim­i­lat­ing into yours to pass as one of us, despite their dis­tinctly differ­ent (and often repul­sive) facial appear­ance. They are few, but they are well-co­or­di­nat­ed, highly intel­li­gent, & tech­ni­cally adept and they occupy the heights of busi­ness, finance, pol­i­tics, and media, from which they con­stantly beam out pro­pa­ganda to delude the masses that threaten them, and which allows the par­a­sites to exe­cute their glob­al­ist free-trade agen­da: to accel­er­ate eco­nomic growth, homog­e­nize the world under one gov­ern­ment, drain us dry, dis­card the empty husk, and move on. Given enough strength of mind, some indi­vid­u­als can over­come the brain­wash­ing, or they can use advanced new tech­nol­ogy to learn the truth and see the world with moral clar­ity in black and white, for what it really is, and the coded com­mands from the aliens. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, those of us who dis­cover the truth, alerted by a , are either bought off by money & power (the aliens assume we are just as craven as they are, and are all too often right), sup­pressed as evil crazy ‘con­spir­acy the­o­rists’ when our late-night broad­casts some­times get through uncen­sored, or if they take action and try to defend us against the invaders, exe­cuted as ‘ter­ror­ists’. Orga­ni­za­tions which resist are crushed, and infil­trated with trai­tors in the pay of the aliens. Their weak­ness is, how­ev­er, they are cow­ard­ly, phys­i­cally weak com­pared to our strap­ping work­ing-class sol­diers, and vastly out­num­bered by the rest of us. If we can recruit enough ‘strong men’ and awaken the mass­es, we work together to defeat them and restore Amer­ica to its for­mer glo­ry, and send the aliens back whence they came—the planet Zion!”

OK, OK, I made one change there: Car­pen­ter does­n’t name any alien plan­ets. But every­thing else sounds straight out of far-right fan­ta­sy: there’s even black sun­glasses as the ini­ti­a­tion instead of red pills. (Per­haps the sequel can use fedo­ras.) I thought per­haps I was being sil­ly, until I looked at the Wikipedia arti­cle and found that this is such a com­mon inter­pre­ta­tion of TL & so pop­u­lar among neo-Nazis that Car­pen­ter has angrily denied it!

Now, of course, I believe Car­pen­ter when he says he did­n’t have that in mind and only intended a cri­tique of Rea­gan­ism. But the more inter­est­ing ques­tions here would be: how could Car­pen­ter make a film which is so nat­u­rally and so eas­ily mis­read in neo-Nazi tropes to the point of mak­ing one won­der if Car­pen­ter drunk­enly dic­tated the screen­play while clutch­ing a copy of The Pro­to­cols of the Elders of Zion in one hand & Mein Kampf in the oth­er, with­out ever real­iz­ing it? And what does this blind­ness mean?

It looks to me like an exam­ple of ‘horse­shoe the­ory’: the rea­son Car­pen­ter’s TL can be so mis­read is because extrem­ists on both ends of the spec­trum are more alike than they are differ­en­t—em­brac­ing a para­noid con­spir­acy the­ory expla­na­tion of the world, merely play­ing Mad Libs with the labels. They Live, acci­den­tally rather than delib­er­ate­ly, demon­strates the same thing as or : the flex­i­bil­ity of the para­noid style in enabling extrem­ists to accom­mo­date both anti-Rea­gan­ism & anti-Semitism is not a merit but dis­credit (much as dis­cred­its him).

Extrem­ists are like tribes­men out of an anthro­pol­ogy ethnog­ra­phy: every­thing bad that hap­pens is due to “witch­craft”; peo­ple never get sick because of chance or because some pork went bad, and if some are health­ier or sick, richer or poor­er, it defi­nitely has noth­ing to do with indi­vid­ual differ­ences, but malign traffick­ing with the ruinous pow­ers. Once you pos­tu­late that all exist­ing social ills can be explained by witch­craft, you will go look­ing for witch­es, prefer­ably fel­low trib­als who aren’t as equal as oth­ers and should be taken down a notch in the inter­ests of hard­wired (pace 2004 Frag­ments of an Anar­chist Anthro­pol­ogy), and whether those witches are Jews or cap­i­tal­ists or cishet white men, witches must be found and found witches will be. To fill the hole in the extrem­ist world­view, by work­ing back­wards to ‘save the appear­ances’, they must have cer­tain pow­ers, they must be numer­i­cally minori­ties, they must be moti­vated by lurid impure things like money (surely we have more sacred val­ues), and so on. And the result is that you try to cre­ate a cri­tique of Rea­gan­ism, by depict­ing your para­noid world­view where Rea­gan­ites are the witch­es, but your witch­es’ alle­gor­i­cal coat­ing hap­pen to super­fi­cially resem­ble a differ­ent set of witches and hey presto, you acci­den­tally cre­ated neo-Nazis’ favorite alle­gor­i­cal movie. Oops.

The prob­lem here, such as it is, comes well before any spe­cific choices by Car­pen­ter to por­tray the aliens as ugly or as rich cor­po­rate exec­u­tives…

The Great Gatsby

Another glossy big-bud­get Hol­ly­wood adap­ta­tion; marred by the, thank­fully brief, frame story in which Tobey Maguire ascends to hereto­fore unseen lev­els of schmarm and schmaltz as the nar­ra­tor.

The novel is so short that it’s almost a scene by scene adap­ta­tion, and the main direc­to­r­ial choice seems to be to put a heavy empha­sis on it hap­pen­ing to be set dur­ing the ‘Roar­ing Twen­ties’, so every scene or party is punched up as much as fea­si­ble. The nar­ra­tor does­n’t encounter Gatsby when the two are calmly sit­ting down at a par­ty, but encoun­ters him in the crush of a giant uproar­i­ously drunk crowd back­lit by fire­works; the nar­ra­tor can­not lunch with Gatsby at a dusty obscure road­side cafe, but they must lunch in a giant speakeasy with strippers/chorus-line dancers; in spend­ing an after­noon with Tom’s mis­tress & friends, he does not get tipsy on whiskey but he gets falling-down drunk with the half-naked women & pop­ping up cham­pagne bot­tles to bath in; women are not prop­erly 20’s flat-ch­ested but all bare cleav­age with pushup bras; Gatsby is not shot off­screen, but rather onscreen shortly after part­ing from the nar­ra­tor while rush­ing to a phonecall he thinks is from Daisy; and so on.

This dam­ages the orig­i­nal atmos­phere of the book, which con­veys the sense of dusty dog days of sum­mer on rural LI in a way the movie does not at all, but I don’t think it’s a loss; the book is still the book, and it’s fine for a movie adap­ta­tion to make more of a spec­ta­cle of itself and revel in audio­vi­su­als. The party scene makes full use of its lat­i­tude. What is more annoy­ing, or per­haps amus­ing, is not­ing the ham­fisted touches of moder­ni­ty. For exam­ple, the movie chooses to keep the part of the din­ner where Tom alludes to Lothrop Stod­dard; Fitzger­ald brings this up not for being racist, but as part of his char­ac­ter study show­ing Tom to be pitiable as his ath­letic career is over & he’s start­ing to real­ize his lack of worth, and the movie omits any hint of this in order to sim­plify things by cast­ing Tom as The Bad Guy, since of course a bad guy must be racist—an edit which reflects the cru­dity & nar­row­ness of the writ­ers and also really does do harm to the lit­er­ary qual­i­ties of the movie. A less sig­nifi­cant, but much more amus­ing, exam­ple would be the attempt to white­wash the Mey­ers Wolf­sheim char­ac­ter; never mind that he is repeat­edly iden­ti­fied as Jew­ish, and that Jews at the time were deeply involved in NY orga­nized crime & the num­bers racket and the Wolf­sheim char­ac­ter pretty much has to be Jew­ish or Ital­ian, no, the movie deter­minedly edits out all uses of the word ‘Jew­ish’ from dia­logue and goes so far as to cast Wolf­sheim using an Indian actor! (Be­cause appar­ently there are no Jew­ish actors in Hol­ly­wood they could use…?)

Ready Player One

Orig­i­nal novel review; a stream­lined & more tense retelling with most of the ’80s pop cul­ture replaced by ’90s/’00s, pre­sum­ably because licens­ing was eas­ier (even Spiel­berg can­not defy “copy­right is why we can’t have nice things”). In some respects the movie plot is supe­rior to the book as it trims much of the fat, adds a few clever gim­micks, and more dra­ma, thus avoid­ing the rel­a­tively slack book finale where the heroes are safely ensconced in a pri­vate man­sion, but worse in other respects like the cheesy anti-VR mes­sage tacked on Hol­ly­wood-style at the end (ap­par­ently Spiel­berg thinks the best argu­ment that can be made for the real world over VR is that you can’t have sex in VR, only in the real world? which is both an insult­ingly crass & impov­er­ished view of human nature and also a thin empir­i­cal reed to rest a defense on espe­cially as it’s already quite ques­tion­able given all the VR porn & sex toys). It is excel­lent to watch on a big screen in 3D despite how silly it ulti­mately is, so I’m not sur­prised it’s been suc­cess­ful. I expect it’ll increase inter­est in VR over the next few years, espe­cially because in some ways the VR tech already feels like the future past (mak­ing the real thing less of a let­down): years out of date, big and heavy and requir­ing wires and clunky hap­tic suits, com­pared to cur­rent head­sets and things on the roadmap for the next decade like vestibu­lar stim­u­la­tion. Con­tent will remain a chal­lenge; Ready Player One can make each game/scene/world look like, well, a cus­tom action-ad­ven­ture CGI movie because it is one but real VR games will strug­gle to invest in the cre­ation of the enor­mous graph­ics assets nec­es­sary… Futur­ol­o­gy-wise, it empha­sises my orig­i­nal obser­va­tion that VR is a ter­ri­ble metaphor for gen­eral com­puter use and it would be mis­er­able to use a Metaverse/Oasis par­a­digm for every­thing—eg spend­ing sev­eral min­utes walking/flying to a library, bick­er­ing with a per­son­i­fied inter­face, to run a sin­gle key­word search on a set of videos which could be done in <5s with a key­board short­cut, is some­thing that is tol­er­a­ble only once, as part of a sto­ry.

Doctor Strange

Mar­vel action movie fea­tur­ing Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch. Cum­ber­batch is always great fun to watch be supe­rior to other peo­ple. Much of the plot is fairly per­func­tory like the stan­dard kung-fu-train­ing-in-Ti­bet + Hol­ly­wood Bud­dhism trope, and the real fun is not the awk­ward mar­tial arts but the space-warp­ing mechanic employed in most of the fight­ing: it is a fas­ci­nat­ing spe­cial effect, used much more exten­sively than the ‘city warp­ing’ in Incep­tion, and I really enjoyed watch­ing those scenes. The finale offers an equally mem­o­rable use of a time-rewind­ing effect and a nice if some­what sim­ple res­o­lu­tion using time loops. Odd­ly, Arrival also relies on time loops for its res­o­lu­tion, so both movies I watched in Novem­ber used that plot device. Doc­tor Strange does­n’t take time manip­u­la­tion to nearly the heights of Braid or Primer, and only stands out in mem­ory for the cityscape warp­ing, but I was able to enjoy the movie for what it was.

Shin-Godzilla

See anime reviews.

Rollerball

(1975)

A humor­ous-sound­ing cult film, Roller­ball is deadly seri­ous about its dystopian set­ting. Fol­low­ing a qua­si-Brave New World tact of a pro­tag­o­nist wak­ing up to a post-free­dom cor­po­rate-gov­ern­ment dic­ta­tor­ship with a pop­u­la­tion dis­tracted by drugs and cir­cus­es, with an Ender’s Game/Hunger Games/Bat­tle Royale twist of the pro­tag­o­nist being an ath­lete whose suc­cess at the game causes oth­ers to try to use the game to destroy him.

The roller­ball sport itself is done with impres­sive ded­i­ca­tion, and one can see why the Wikipedia entry men­tions peo­ple being inter­ested in ‘life imi­tat­ing art’—cer­tainly roller­ball makes more sense than , and as much sense as foot­ball, to me, although admit­tedly the equipment/rink require­ments are chal­leng­ing.

The film breaks off before depict­ing the expected cul­mi­na­tion in a rev­o­lu­tion. Despite the length, not much actu­ally hap­pens due to a remark­ably leisurely pac­ing: we see the pro­tag­o­nist’s home quite often, and not much of the world or his sup­posed effects on the mass­es. This puts Roller­ball in an awk­ward place: it’s not camp or fun­ny, but it also spends too much time on largely wasted moody scene-set­ting in between roller­ball games so the world-build­ing is uncon­vinc­ing despite a few pointed scenes that work well (such as the senile world com­puter which is unable to answer any ques­tions, or an elite party devolv­ing into hys­ter­i­cal vio­lence in blow­ing up trees).

Cinderella

This was more inter­est­ing than I had expect­ed. What it seems to be aim­ing at is a pol­ished, straight/non-revisionist telling of the clas­sic Cin­derella story (with­out the nar­cis­sism of Frozen and its instant­ly-dated tone-deaf snark), but with a min­i­mal­ist approach to magic and com­edy (the ani­mals are only minor ele­ments) with all the roman­ti­cism and exal­ta­tion of tra­di­tion­ally fem­i­nine virtues implied, and a low-key but con­sis­tent effort at ratio­nal­iz­ing and embed­ding the fairy-tale into a plau­si­ble world (a sort of 1700s England/Italy/France-hybrid small king­dom). For exam­ple, the wicked step­mother is indeed wicked and enjoys her small cru­elties, but has motives beyond pure malev­o­lence for the mis­treat­ment (aware of her daugh­ters’ feck­less­ness, that, if she does­n’t find them a match, they’re doomed); or while Cin­derella is escap­ing from the palace, the prince plau­si­bly orders a pur­suit and the coach­men trip a portcullis on their way out to block pur­suit, resolv­ing a com­mon objec­tion. The rest of the movie is exe­cuted as com­pe­tently as one expects of a top-tier Dis­ney live-ac­tion film: the dresses are nat­u­rally almost hyper­re­al, the set­tings are over­stuffed pas­toral of almost Thomas Kinkade-cal­iber, and Cate Blanchett & Lily James hold down their parts well (the for­mer to sim­mer and emote, and the lat­ter to be brain­less & beau­ti­ful—although I will never under­stand why they did not dye her eye­brows blond as well, a con­trast which dis­tracted me in almost every scene). All in all, pretty good and has prob­a­bly cemented Cin­derel­la’s sta­tus as a major part of the Dis­ney princess-in­dus­try for another gen­er­a­tion.

Bridge of Spies

Overly earnest—­painfully and iron­i­cally so given the War on Ter­ror—­Cold War Spiel­berg film about a lawyer defend­ing a spy; becomes much bet­ter and tense when the pri­mary plot begins and must care­fully play off the East Ger­mans and Sovi­ets while not blow­ing the whole deal. Stan­dard Hol­ly­wood pol­ish, per­haps a bit too heavy on the delib­er­ate sym­bol­ism like the cold passed from Abel to Dono­van onwards or the train/fence pair­ings and the con­trast between the film imply­ing Abel would be treated as a trai­tor by the USSR com­pared to Pow­ers, which was the depar­ture from his­tory I found most objec­tion­able.

The Theory of Everything

2014 biopic movie of Stephen Hawk­ing, focus­ing on his first mar­riage to Jane Wilde as a stu­dent until the divorce. Flaws include the stan­dard Hol­ly­wood por­trayal of geeks and some lam­en­ta­bly missed oppor­tu­ni­ties for explain­ing the ideas involved in Hawk­ing’s life-work—­for exam­ple, in explain­ing Hawk­ing radi­a­tion, which is prob­a­bly one of the eas­i­est and most inter­est­ing pos­si­ble ideas in 20th cen­tury cos­mol­ogy to explain in a few sec­onds for lay­men, the direc­tor instead decides to cut back and forth between Hawk­ing’s lec­ture and an inco­her­ent pub dis­cus­sion of same. I also have to won­der if debates about God were really as cen­tral to their lives as the movie made them, as they felt shoe-horned in; physi­cists tend to only bring up God in a Noble Lie way, for fund­ing. What is good—per­haps even great—about the movie, is (a) the remark­able job Eddie Red­mayne does in act­ing out the phys­i­cal dete­ri­o­ra­tion of Hawk­ing, so uncan­nily well that my sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief became absolute and I totally for­got that he was not really Hawk­ing him­self, and (b) the decay of the Hawk­ings’ mar­riage and even­tual divorce, which is an unex­pected topic to focus on but made sense once I learned it was based on Jane Wilde’s mem­oirs. I was not sure it was worth watch­ing in the early part show­ing the romance, but once Hawk­ing’s ALS enters the plot, then it became grip­ping for me.

Dunkirk

An aggres­sive mish-mash of action scenes with one of the most exces­sive Hol­ly­wood sound­track, exhaust­ingly dron­ing & thud­ding through­out the movie, I’ve ever heard. The spe­cial effects in the action scenes are, as usu­al, per­fect, but oddly com­pro­mised by a lack of scale—while Dunkirk involved hun­dreds of thou­sands of men, some­how the effects con­spire to cre­ate not a sense of cat­a­stro­phe & cri­sis but a sense of con­spic­u­ous cramped­ness, as if only a few hun­dred men and a few dozen boats were ever involved rather than entire armies. The gritty & hor­ri­fy­ing set pieces depicted with such cin­e­mato­graphic care ought to add up to more than they do.

The Black Cat

1934

A hor­ror film which falls straight into camp. I can for­give the poorer spe­cial effects like the ‘embalmed corpses’ who you can see breath­ing and mov­ing slight­ly, or how the hero­ine faints at the drop of a hat but when car­ried remains rigid and posed instead of let­ting her­self flop like an uncon­scious woman would, but the whole movie is so over the top: the house has no win­dows, we jump to the vil­lain in bed read­ing a book lit­er­ally titled “The Rites of Lucifer” and sleep­ing with his step­daugh­ter, it’s diffi­cult to accept Lugosi as a hero because his role as Drac­ula is so indeli­bly imprinted on him, and themes & Chekhov’s guns are intro­duced reck­lessly and never fol­lowed up on—a long dis­cus­sion of how the ‘black cat’ is immor­tal and the sym­bol of evil and may’ve infected the hero­ine is imme­di­ately dropped along with Lugosi’s ail­uro­pho­bia never to be men­tioned again, the chess game with life & death wagered on it has no par­tic­u­lar mean­ing other than to let the vil­lain do as he planned all along, and the Satanic black mass is exactly as silly as expect­ed. That said, Karloff and Lugosi make an extremely strik­ing pair on-screen, and even if one is never sur­prised, much less hor­ri­fied, one is never all that bored, and the reck­less­ness of the plot at least means it’s some­what unpre­dictable.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

(2015; first movie in the )

Enjoy­able while you’re watch­ing it, but dis­sat­is­fac­tion starts as the cred­its end and the sugar high wears off. I largely agree with Har­ri­son Sear­les’s review. Prob­lems: remake of A New Hope which refuses to admit it’s a remake but pre­tends to be a sequel under­cuts pre­vi­ous tril­o­gy, is non­sen­si­cal, and lacks any sus­pense—who did­n’t see Han Solo being killed off like 20 min­utes before he died, because his par­al­lel with Obi-wan Kenobi was so unsub­tle?; style of movie-mak­ing is unbear­ably light and facile, to the point where blow­ing up mul­ti­ple plan­ets does­n’t even reg­is­ter emo­tion­al­ly—and how did that par­tic­u­lar scene even make sense? does this whole movie take place in a sin­gle solar sys­tem or some­thing?—on top of the absurdly fast cut­ting which means you’ve for­got­ten half the movie before you’ve fin­ished walk­ing out of the the­ater; pro­tag­o­nist is a Mary Sue; the antag­o­nist is ris­i­ble—ap­par­ently the true power of the Dark Side is not anger & aggres­sion but pomade & petu­lance, and I cer­tainly can­not imag­ine being intim­i­dated by whin­ing “if only you knew the pouter of the Dark Side” since he looks like he should be more con­cerned about acne & dates than agents & droids (re­mark­ably, Dri­ver is actu­ally 32 years old); spe­cial effects are overly dom­i­nant except where they exhibit a bizarre lack of imagination/ambition, as no space bat­tle in it is remotely as awe-in­spir­ing as Return’s Endor fleet bat­tle or Revenge’s open­ing Cor­us­cant fleet bat­tle, and even the lightsaber bat­tles are a major let­down; no dia­logue is par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable, and the mish-mash of scenes bor­rowed from the ear­lier films winds up destroy­ing any kind of mythic effect or dra­ma. Was BB-8 the only orig­i­nal and gen­uinely good part of the movie? Entirely pos­si­ble.

In the end, it is just another Abrams movie: slick, SFX-heavy, and as sub­stan­tial & sat­is­fy­ing as movie the­ater pop­corn (which is to say, briefly, until one feels a lit­tle sick eat­ing it, and then not at all after leav­ing the the­ater). In a way, it makes me long for the pre­quel tril­o­gy; as barmy as open­ing a movie with tax dis­putes was or includ­ing J.J. Binks, Lucas at least tried for more than medi­oc­rity & rep­e­ti­tion. Let us hope that this is anal­o­gous to : a movie made dull & uno­rig­i­nal because the new finan­cial backer is wor­ried about los­ing the invest­ment, but as it made so much mon­ey, they could afford to be more inter­est­ing in . Per­haps the rest of the tril­ogy will redeem it?

Sad­ly, revis­it­ing it in 2020 and look­ing at reviews of the sequels (2017) & (2019), it is clear that the rest of the tril­ogy was, if any­thing, worse. The sheer incon­sis­tency and thought­less­ness of the tril­ogy comes through clearly in reviews—di­rec­tors appear to have been at war with each other and with Dis­ney, and noth­ing makes sense. (No won­der it bombed in places like China where nos­tal­gia is not enough to drive ticket sales and audi­ences have come to expect bet­ter.) All the money and tal­ent and IP in the world, for… this?

What baffles me most is that Dis­ney paid >$5 bil­lion for Star Wars, and the movies them­selves are, of course, among the most expen­sive movies ever made; Dis­ney is one of the largest film pro­duc­ers in the world, prac­ti­cally a cen­tury old. If any­one had the means, motive, and oppor­tu­nity to think through some sort of plan, it is Dis­ney. You do not throw bil­lions of dol­lars away with­out a plan—do you? Look­ing at the results and the leaks and direc­tor com­ments, the sim­ple fact of the mat­ter appears to be—Dis­ney did. They had ample leisure to plan a tril­ogy and hire the best writ­ers in the world, who would have com­peted for the priv­i­lege! But they did­n’t.

It’s all the more mind­bog­gling that at the out­set, they threw away the entire , con­sist­ing of hun­dreds of nov­els, not to men­tion every­thing else, by many excel­lent writ­ers. For exam­ple, alone could have been adopted almost chap­ter by chap­ter, and would have been an enor­mous suc­cess, and could’ve been the best Hol­ly­wood vil­lain since Han­ni­bal Lecter, with a sat­is­fy­ing tril­o­gy-long char­ac­ter arc (“The Tragedy of Grand Admi­ral Thrawn”). And who would ever pre­fer the Wedge & Rogue Squadron of the offi­cial movies to ?

What makes this espe­cially infu­ri­at­ing is that they wind up steal­ing (lack­ing any good ideas of their own, pre­sum­ably) from the Expanded Uni­verse any­way, except every­thing they take winds up being colos­sally dumb. I did­n’t know it was pos­si­ble to steal Byss & Pal­pa­tine clones from and make it dumb, but Abrams man­ages it. I did­n’t know it was pos­si­ble to ren­der the Emperor bury­ing a Super Star Destroyer on Cor­us­cant as an escape route, brain­wash­ing mil­lions of peo­ple and using it as a secret prison (), any­thing less than frig­ging awe­some, but The Rise of Sky­walker man­ages to steal it and by turn­ing it into thou­sands of buried Star Destroy­ers (with Death Star lasers! and shark­s!), ren­der it fatu­ous. And so on. Incred­i­ble.

It Follows

(2014)

An unfor­tu­nate entry into the long list of hor­ror films that would be creepy… if they weren’t so irre­deemably dumb and utterly depen­dent on all char­ac­ters involved act­ing in the worst pos­si­ble way. Par­tic­u­larly strik­ing in this case because it fea­tures a mon­ster even lamer than ‘slow zom­bies’ as it can be evaded by a leisurely stroll, giv­ing the most ample scope pos­si­ble for sit­ting for 5 sec­onds and think­ing about what to do. It Fol­lows still man­ages to evoke enough of an atmos­phere, espe­cially before the rules have been laid down, to be a decent watch.

RED

Bruce Willis action movie; too inco­her­ent and unimag­i­na­tive to be worth watch­ing as an action-movie, too seri­ous and too grim to work as a par­o­dy. (For the for­mer: in the intro scene where Willis is attacked by a hit squad late at night, he walks into a kitchen to get a drink, and they bust in; then he starts killing them from behind, hav­ing some­how learned about them and tele­ported behind them. Appar­ently he’s psy­chic.) As far as the lat­ter goes, the movie is only funny per­haps once every 30 min­utes as its var­i­ous rape innu­en­dos turn out to not be hilar­i­ous at all, and it only truly embraces the satire at the very end as an epi­logue, which is far too lit­tle far too late. It’s com­pletely mediocre an action-movie, so nat­u­ral­ly, there are two sequels. Would­n’t you rather rewatch Die Hard?

Lady Jane

A cos­tume drama romance which tries to cast the 9-day pup­pet as a Protes­tant mar­tyr-heroine doomed by her utopian reformist ten­den­cies and trag­i­cally forced to be exe­cuted when her father leads a revolt to try to restore her to the throne. Need­less to say, you’ve never heard of Queen Jane the Reformer because there was no such thing: while she was maneu­vered onto the throne some­what as described, she did seem to have gen­uinely loved her hus­band, and Queen Mary did try to spare her life, almost the rest of it is a tis­sue of roman­tic absur­di­ty. Her hus­band was a fine young man, not a dreamer dri­ven to drink by the injus­tices of Hen­ry’s expro­pri­a­tion of the monas­ter­ies; the debas­ing of the coinage was not the work of some unspec­i­fied malign and cor­rupt politi­cians but dri­ven by Eng­lish exi­gen­cies and global eco­nomic forces whose solu­tion is not so sim­ple-minded as ‘order the Mint to make coins with higher sil­ver con­tent’ and was hardly a con­cern of Jane’s at the time and for that mat­ter, the two of them were well-e­d­u­cated enough that it’s impos­si­ble to believe for even a sec­ond that they did­n’t know what was going on, which the movie tries to make into a huge dra­matic arc in set­ting them up to elope into exile right before she is crowned; her father’s revolt did con­tribute to her death but I’m not clear it was intended to put her back on the throne; etc. The anachro­nis­tic pos­tur­ing is so over the top that I expected by the end to hear Jane advo­cate for sep­a­ra­tion of church & state and for rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy. Even Cap­tain Picard can’t res­cue this movie. Toward the end, our main amuse­ment was debat­ing whether the actor play­ing Dud­ley was the same one who played Wes­ley in The Princess Bride since from some angles, he looked the same, but he oth­er­wise looked chub­bier and had a fat­ter face and fluffier hair; turned out he was.

Woman in Gold

A mess: the dia­logue and dra­matic arc are so hammy and forced, and the depic­tion is so totally one-sided that you feel like you are watch­ing a dull pro­pa­ganda film rather than a doc­u­men­tary; it’s not afraid to explic­itly cast con­tem­po­rary Aus­tri­ans as Nazis, some­times mak­ing up Nazi con­nec­tions like the friendly jour­nal­ist’s father, and even the Supreme Court jus­tices are depicted as kindly and lis­ten­ing to the pro­tag­o­nist’s speechi­fy­ing rather than being the sharp-tongued cyn­ics they really come off as in tran­scripts. And it’s diffi­cult to sym­pa­thize like you’re sup­posed to because ulti­mately you’re being asked to root for a rich heiress suing some paint­ings back from a pub­lic museum in order to imme­di­ately sell them to a pri­vate col­lec­tor, out of revenge or some­thing; is she venal or vicious? You’d never know from the movie—where a meet­ing with the art dealer whom the paint­ings were sold to in real life is spun as being all about show­ing sup­port for her lawyer, rather than set­tling on prices and pos­si­bly explain­ing where fund­ing for the law­suits came from. The movie rather bald­facedly sug­gests that she wants the paint­ings back as mem­o­ries of her child­hood, which is at least under­stand­able, but then at the end—in tiny 2 sec­ond telops so low-res­o­lu­tion that we had to freeze-frame them and sound out each word to see what they said on our TV—re­veals that she sold them the instant she could for hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars. Yes, she donated (most of?) the funds to char­i­ty, but the kinds of char­ity she picked showed that she was sim­ply buy­ing social sta­tus and pres­tige. Every­one involved in this hagiog­ra­phy ought to be embar­rassed to have worked on and done such a bad job of it.

TV

The Wire

Lives up to its fame (as long as you watch with sub­ti­tles), more than 12 years lat­er. Sat­is­fy­ingly intri­cate and intel­li­gent police drama delv­ing into the War on Drugs from a real­is­tic point of view not blinded by ide­al­ism or unfounded con­fi­dence in police, courts, or gov­ern­ments like so many other shows which are based more on what writ­ers think the audi­ence wants to be true. Bet­ter than any other cop show I’ve watched. The film­ing on loca­tion in Bal­ti­more helps real­ism for me, since I’ve wan­dered around Bal­ti­more more than once. The down­side is that the ~60 hours demands to be marathoned, and ate my month.

The first sea­son is per­fect in its taut nar­ra­tive from start to fin­ish and illus­trat­ing the theme of The Wire: it’s the incen­tives, stu­pid.

There’s a lot of dis­cus­sion of The Wire and praise for how it deals with racial themes, but this misses the mark—race is almost entirely irrel­e­vant in the series, except occa­sion­ally as some­thing fools are blinded by and can be manip­u­lated with (such as how Clay Davis gulls vot­ers and jury­men with racial rhetoric). What is impor­tant is how, black or white, male or female, every­one faces pres­sure from the sys­tem & real­ity to max­i­mize pur­suit of their assigned objec­tives, not the under­ly­ing latent goals.

Every­one is ‘juk­ing the stats’ and respond­ing to incen­tives to the extent that the series is prac­ti­cally a primer on : the police respond to over­time increases and pres­sure to fake the crime sta­tis­tics; poorer peo­ple respond to demand from junkies to make easy risky money sell­ing drugs; politi­cians respond to the pres­sure from myopic vot­ers and their ambi­tion for re-elec­tion or elec­tion to higher office to do what looks good rather than what is good; news­pa­pers tol­er­ate faked news for the poten­tial awards; and every­one faces coor­di­na­tion prob­lems posed by incen­tives. Stringer Bell & Avon Barks­dale sell each other out, result­ing in their death & incar­cer­a­tion respec­tive­ly; two pris­on­ers remain silent but one is tricked into think­ing the other is talk­ing and then defects; a stickup boy is tor­tured to death, not because any­one really wants to but to main­tain deter­rence; a young boy talks to police, but an error results in his defec­tion being detected and pun­ished; the mayor fran­ti­cally argues with his advis­ers to main­tain a suc­cess­ful drug legal­iza­tion pol­icy but his police chief inter­prets the delay as indi­cat­ing the mayor is prepar­ing to pin all the blame on him and defects to the news­pa­pers, con­tribut­ing to the may­or’s elec­toral defeat; the next mayor asks for FBI help with a clus­ter of mur­ders but that’s out­side the FBI’s ter­ror­ism mis­sion (FBI employ­ees are not rewarded for mak­ing Amer­i­cans safer but fight­ing ‘the War on Ter­ror’) and he refuses the polit­i­cal sac­ri­fice which would give them cover to help. Incen­tives pop up from the grand pol­i­tics to the low inter­per­sonal rela­tion­ships: the polit­i­cal con­sul­tant won’t sleep with the mayor when he’s only a lowly coun­cil­man but the instant he’s elect­ed? Jumps on him the first moment they’re alone.

And this is all sys­temic, so it’s not clear how it could ever be fixed. Any­one who claims to be a reformer may well decide to ‘sell out’ and respond to the incen­tives, as the sea­son 3–5 may­oral arc illus­trates (Carcetti seems to start off a gen­uine believ­er, but weak from the start), or their morals revealed to be irrel­e­vant (Omar says “a man got to have a code” and prides him­self on never tar­get­ing inno­cents, but inno­cents die any­way as a direct & pre­dictable result of his gang­ster lifestyle and as Bunk points out to him, Omar is part of the can­cer which destroyed the neigh­bor­hood they grew up in). Real-world events since then have illus­trated this: one of the sad­dest things about The Wire is that there’s only one thing in the Wire world which actu­ally seems to be done right and moral­ly: the epony­mous wire­taps. They have to show prob­a­ble cause, they get it for lim­ited times and pur­pos­es, barely abuse it at all, and have to fight to have it at all. When they do abuse it, it’s in the ser­vice of a good cause, the abuse is dis­cov­ered, and the cul­prits are pun­ished more than most char­ac­ters. And now here we are in 2014 with smart­phones and Face­book and the end­less Snow­den rev­e­la­tions, and it all does­n’t mean shit any more. All it took was one ter­ror­ist attack, and that was that. The politi­cians responded to the incen­tives.

One of the things I like most is that almost none of this is spoon­fed you: sea­son 3 does­n’t ever explic­itly point out the par­al­lel plots are Pris­on­er’s Dilem­mas in which both groups wind up defect­ing and reach­ing the worst out­come for most mem­bers, it expects you to infer this; sim­i­lar­ly, when the white junkie kid ODs, it does­n’t ham­mer his death in, just does a quick ~10 sec­ond bit of his body being found and you barely see his face; or when you see the police major at a gay bar, explain­ing why he has no fam­ily and is such a para­noid careerist, he’s just a face in the back­ground; or it estab­lishes char­ac­ters in bits which are almost invis­i­ble, such as in sea­son 4 when the cam­era pans in on the ex-con­vic­t’s box­ing gym past a poster of Avon’s photo up on the wall with the leg­end ‘plat­inum club’—ref­er­enc­ing the orig­i­nal photo in sea­son 1 of Avon, and also requir­ing us to remem­ber that Avon did­n’t want his spon­sor­ship known because he was free but that he’s back in jail now in this sea­son and this is a com­ment on the box­er’s loy­al­ty. Tim­ing can be estab­lished sim­i­lar­ly, in the unre­marked-upon upgrade of kids play­ing Halo on Xbox to play­ing it on Xbox 360.

There are some mis­steps. I dis­agree with the Pollyan­na-ish approach to inner-c­ity school prob­lems; the kids are pretty bad at play­ing Halo—the SMGs are use­less against close-in Elites, they should’ve been melee­ing them; Stringer Bell mis­uses the con­cept of elas­tic­i­ty, con­fus­ing it with competitiveness/market-power; the Brother Muzon char­ac­ter was a bad idea, com­ing off like a shonen or comic book mon­ster-of-the-week char­ac­ter (‘the nerd gun­fight­er!’); in con­trast to the oth­ers, the gang boss Marlo is too opaque and it’s unclear what moti­vates him besides sheer lust for power and an ani­mal­is­tic taste for con­flict; sea­son 2 wastes time on the Ziggy char­ac­ter who winds up con­tribut­ing noth­ing; and I’m unsure the may­oral arc of sea­son 3–5 really needed to last that long.

Breaking Bad

is a com­pelling exam­i­na­tion of one man’s slip­pery slope into evil, dri­ven by his fatal flaw of insa­tiable pride into destroy­ing his fam­i­ly, his life, and all of his asso­ciates

In ret­ro­spect, I’m sur­prised I took so long to watch this—after the arrest of , a white man who was a mate­ri­als sci­ence grad­u­ate stu­dent before drop­ping to try being an entre­pre­neur and then launch­ing & becom­ing a drug king­pin who ordered 2 hits, the Break­ing Bad jokes were end­less and a later dark­net mar­ket even tried them­ing itself based on BB (it ). I’m glad I finally did, despite the intim­i­dat­ing length: BB is indeed awe­some.

BB forms a dark coun­ter­point to that other great sprawl­ing Amer­i­can TV series on drugs & crime, The Wire. Where The Wire is a qua­si­-Marx­ist exam­i­na­tion of how the inter­lock­ing sys­tems of power in an Amer­i­can soci­ety under­mine any attempt to do good by the well-in­ten­tioned & usu­ally inher­ently good peo­ple by adding fric­tion to the good choices & pos­ing coor­di­na­tion prob­lems from , BB is a more per­son­-cen­tric char­ac­ter drama empha­siz­ing the irre­ducible choice, the ele­ment of free will, that goes into social pathol­ogy (as empha­sized by writ­ers like ): it’s not solely “soci­ety’s fault”—while bad things do hap­pen, every­body always has choic­es, there is always a path to the good out­come, most peo­ple choose the right thing, and it is almost never the case that some­one is truly forced into drug deal­ing or armed rob­bery or fraud rather than starve to death. The sub­sis­tence wage in the USA is far above star­va­tion, and this is because peo­ple have expec­ta­tions and demand cer­tain things, cer­tain stan­dards of liv­ing, which give them sta­tus, and they will kill or die rather than live below it.

Peo­ple in Amer­ica die of deficits not of calo­ries, but of pride.

BB is an extended exam­i­na­tion of pride as a deadly sin—in­deed, the deadly sin, occu­py­ing pride of place in the stan­dard list of the 7 deadly sins, and iden­ti­fied as the first sin, Lucifer­’s. The first episode is a mas­ter­ful cin­e­matic depic­tion of what I could only con­sider at the time Trump­ism and ‘elite over­pro­duc­tion’: our pro­tag­o­nist Wal­ter White, squeezed out of research at a national lab­o­ra­tory (as a plaque on the wall com­mem­o­rat­ing the cre­ation of a new ele­ment tells us), under­em­ployed as a high school chem­istry teacher, is sys­tem­at­i­cally degraded by every­one he meets, from the arro­gant immi­grant to the rich chil­dren of con­nected insid­ers to even his wife (who pays more atten­tion to her eBay auc­tion than giv­ing him a hand­job). Despite the lack of any inter­nal nar­ra­tives or mono­logu­ing, it is always clear what White is think­ing and feel­ing, in a great credit to Bryan Cranston’s act­ing and the strik­ing cin­e­matog­ra­phy (such as flash­for­wards that don’t resolve for mul­ti­ple episodes or the teddy bear/Gus Fring).

Why is pride so ter­ri­ble and a mor­tal sin, when it seems so much more harm­less than the oth­ers like wrath or glut­tony or envy? Is it so bad to be ambi­tious or arro­gant com­pared to an anger that could move one to mur­der, or envy eat­ing one’s heart away? It is because the sloth­ful or wrath­ful can acknowl­edge their flaws and hope to do bet­ter, and even the lust­ful & greedy & envi­ous can be briefly sat­is­fied or rest from their sins. But pride has no lim­it­s—there will never be enough mon­ey, enough drugs, or enough power for White—and its inher­ent nature is to be incor­ri­gi­ble: White can never truly lis­ten to oth­ers, trust in them, accept their help, or change his mind. The pride­ful know no respite: long as White is alive, he loves no one, can take sat­is­fac­tion in noth­ing, and must blame any­one other than him­self for his (often self­-in­flict­ed) fail­ures as a researcher/businessman, hus­band, father, and drug deal­er.

Here the par­al­lels to Ross Ulbricht are strik­ing, as Ulbricht too, in his jour­nal entries, recorded his delu­sional plans for Silk Road 1 expan­sions to things like credit cards, and grow­ing com­fort with order­ing hits, evinced a loss of per­spec­tive and a grow­ing hubris lead­ing him to ignore clang­ing alarm bells about SR1’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties (like a visit from fed­eral agents about fake IDs he’d ordered!) and indulge in dis­as­trous secu­rity prac­tices—­some appar­ently moti­vated by the idea of even­tu­ally writ­ing an auto­bi­og­ra­phy—that led nowhere but to a life sen­tence. Some of the par­al­lels between BB and SR1 verge on the eery: Ulbricht’s first hit involved a faked pho­to­graph by Mark Force of arrested turn­coat Cur­tis Green lying dead on the floor with Chee­rios as fake vomit (a fatal mis­take that killed any chances of parole or pub­lic sym­pa­thy), while at the end of BB, White’s fatal mis­take is prompted by a faked photo of the turn­coat Jesse lay­ing on the floor with his brains splat­tered next to him. Art antic­i­pates life.

Which is not to say BB is per­fect. I would have to rate The Wire as bet­ter than it over­all. BB has the prob­lem of any great work, that flaws that would go unmen­tioned in a lesser work become all the more glar­ing when set aside all the things it does well. The fun­da­men­tal prob­lem with BB is that the entire series is deranged by the pres­ence of side­kick Jesse Pinkman; his end­less incom­pe­tence, weak­ness, vac­il­la­tion, and often delib­er­ately sui­ci­dal sab­o­tage ren­der entire plot arcs idi­otic, par­tic­u­larly in sea­son 3 and after­wards. It destroys all the inter­nal logic of the series, oth­er­wise so care­fully con­structed and believ­able, that Pinkman sur­vives any of the things he does. Every scene with Pinkman becomes a pain to watch to try to endure the lat­est moronic ‘twist’ or the inept attempts to explain why or how White would care any more about Pinkman than he would a bug—in­fi­nitely more believ­able is the first sea­son where Pinkman’s role is to be mocked and under­cut by White to sup­port his pride & self­-es­teem. (WP says the direc­tor ini­tially planned to kill off Pinkman at the end of sea­son 1; if only!) Par­tic­u­larly dis­turb­ing is the slack­ness and flab­bi­ness of sea­son 5, which is a bad idea from start to fin­ish, as it reca­pit­u­lates poorly the empire-build­ing process while intro­duc­ing a bus load of char­ac­ters for no pur­pose other than to kill them off; one senses that sea­son 5 was never sup­posed to exist and the writ­ers are rather embarass­edly try­ing to patch around all the prob­lems and come up with some sort of half-hearted redemp­tion end­ing which would at least try to jus­tify Pinkman’s exis­tence.

Per­son­al­ly, I pre­fer to remem­ber BB as end­ing with sea­son 4, where after repeated esca­la­tions rather than walk­ing away, Wal­ter finally suc­ceeds in killing Gus Fring & destroy­ing the lab, announc­ing “I won”—hav­ing only ensured that he can never retire and will live in fear of reprisals or suc­ces­sors as he keeps expand­ing his meth empire until he dies one way or anoth­er, damned.

There is no need for the viewer to con­demn Wal­ter White: he is already in Hell.

Blue Blazes

See the anime reviews.


  1. Apple’s pri­or­i­ties are

    1. its pock­et­book
    2. beau­ti­ful demos & pho­tographs;
    3. users;
    4. devel­op­ers;
    5. human­ity

    And as the say­ing goes, if you have n pri­or­i­ties, you actu­ally have 2 pri­or­i­ties. (Ap­ple rou­tinely chooses to harm its users, as I dis­cov­ered most recently when I learned Apple users could not lis­ten to my because Apple refuses to sup­port files—and why should they, it’s merely a roy­al­ty-free, paten­t-free, tech­ni­cal­ly-su­pe­rior open-source for­mat which is 20 years old & one of the most com­mon file for­mats in the world…)↩︎

  2. How then do Broad­way-style musi­cal­s—which usu­ally inter­sperse long play-like seg­ments in between the musi­cal num­ber­s—still work? I think they may work by con­cen­trat­ing all the musi­cal effort into mak­ing the musi­cal num­bers even more catchy than the music in an opera, which must fill time.↩︎

  3. I would watch some of it in March 2020 and was­n’t impressed.↩︎

  4. Curi­ous­ly, Glass him­self seems to have described Akhnaten as a suc­cess: . Shalom Gold­man also men­tions that Glass was inter­ested in Freud’s Moses and Monothe­ism, which (con­tro­ver­sially and almost surely incor­rect­ly) claims that Akhnaten’s ideas were pre­served and ulti­mately cre­ated Moses & Judaism, so per­haps that is how Glass inter­prets Akhnaten as a suc­cess.↩︎

  5. Would Wag­ner have approved? Surely most atten­dees who come to watch, Viking horns or no, would be unable to appre­ci­ate his accom­plish­ment, from the to his musi­cal motifs (I know I strug­gle to hear them)—but still, they come.↩︎

  6. The Amer­i­can Psy­cho busi­ness cards are famous enough you can find print­ers who offer replica ver­sions; I was amused to see one apolo­get­i­cally note that their Bate­man card is not an exact replica of the movie one, but an improved ver­sion—I guess they have their pride. Specifi­cal­ly: the num­bers are vis­i­bly screwed up and asym­met­ri­cal, due to the use of old-style instead of tab­u­lar fig­ures; the bot­tom is clut­tered; and the in the com­pany name “Pierce & Pierce” is so bad that one won­ders if the film-mak­ers delib­er­ately screwed it up. Bate­man’s busi­ness card is sub­tly wrong: it imi­tates the fea­tures of fancy busi­ness cards, like the use of , but does­n’t quite get it right (show­ing his lack of taste). I won­der if factcheck­ing Bate­man’s lec­tures about pop songs would also reveal sub­tle errors I did­n’t hap­pen to notice?↩︎

  7. I was for­tu­nate enough to for­get entirely what 10 Clover­field Lane was about in between down­load­ing & watch­ing, and it kept me in sus­pense and sur­prised me, par­tic­u­larly with the end­ing. I appre­ci­ated the gen­re-savvy and com­pe­tent female lead. A good psy­cho­log­i­cal suspense/horror movie.↩︎