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 Kyr­gyzs­tan 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$2002006 cash on a spe­cial oc­ca­sion may be jus­ti­fi­able, it’s differ­ent when one is spend­ing eas­ily $1,363$10002006 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 (Get­ting away with it per­haps as much through the aes­thet­ic-us­abil­ity effect de­signed to look pretty in Ap­ple stores as through any gen­uine ex­cel­lence in us­abil­ity or tech­nol­o­gy…)

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; his cal­cu­la­tor 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.2

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.3

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 4, 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.5 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.

The Ring Cycle

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 horns6), 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.

Rheingold/Siegfried/Götterdämmerung

, , (Met, )

Last year I could only watch Die Walküre, miss­ing out on the full Ring cy­cle. This was un­for­tu­nate. The Ring is the Red Army of An­glo­phone cul­ture: it is con­stantly lurk­ing on the fringes, oc­ca­sion­ally mak­ing its pres­ence known. Whether it’s The Lord of the Rings (so pro­foundly pop­u­lar, and some­thing that may be the most last­ing work of 20th cen­tury pop cul­ture), or its like Apoc­a­lypse Now or Bugs Bun­ny. But where does one see the cy­cle? After I en­coun­tered Mar­garet Amour’s (in its hand­some green 1961 Her­itage Press hard­cover edi­tion), I read my way through the Ed­das, the Vol­sung Saga, sev­eral of the other sagas, Heaney’s Be­owulf and so on up to The Ring, at which point I halt­ed. It is not some­thing you see at your lo­cal high school or movie the­ater. The famed Bayreuth the­ater might as well have been on the other side of the planet for all the good it did me (which it is). My li­brary had no VHSes or DVDs of it; you can check the li­bretto out from your li­brary, and I did as a kid, but that turns out to be laugh­ably use­less: you might as well read the Wikipedia sum­maries. (Not that it ex­isted then.) If I had known that Met the­ater broad­casts ex­ist­ed—but then, I did­n’t know the NYC Met opera even ex­ist­ed. It is for­tu­nate then that the Met streams in­cluded all of them and I could fi­nally watch the Ring cy­cle in its en­tire­ty, as di­min­ished as it may be on a com­puter screen.

Das Rhein­gold proves to be largely pro­logue and set up. Aside from re­peat­edly rais­ing the puz­zle of what Lok­i’s mo­tives are (a puz­zle that Loki takes with him and is never dealt with in the sub­se­quent op­eras), I have lit­tle to say about it.

Mov­ing on to Siegfried & Göt­ter­däm­merung: Siegfried, we learn, is con­gen­i­tally im­mune to fear and un­able to un­der­stand even what it is. Such dis­abil­i­ties are not un­heard of, and are typ­i­cally due to brain dam­age, such as ge­netic mu­ta­tions or pre­na­tal trau­ma. In Siegfried’s case, while his pre­na­tal care was shock­ingly lack­ing and his de­liv­ery cir­cum­stances in a dark for­est were prim­i­tive at best, a ge­netic eti­ol­ogy from a ho­mozy­gous mu­ta­tion ap­pears more likely given his sta­tus as an of an Æsir/hu­man cross and then a sib­ling mat­ing—a sit­u­a­tion prac­ti­cally cal­cu­lated to si­mul­ta­ne­ously max­i­mize & .

His dwarf care­taker Mime is un­able to teach Siegfried fear with his crude be­hav­ioral in­ter­ven­tions such as telling him to fight a fright­en­ing dragon (although we can note that in such cas­es, the sep­a­rate fear re­flex , so Siegfried likely could have been able to learn fear by stran­gling rather slay­ing). Un­sur­pris­ing­ly, like most such cases of in­di­vid­u­als lack­ing key adap­tive dri­ves like fear or pain, Siegfried is poorly equipped for the real world, and not long after leav­ing the high­ly-con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment & over­sight of his le­gal guardian Mime, Siegfried is the vic­tim of a street fight and dies with a net in­clu­sive fit­ness of 0, hav­ing been un­able to pru­dently nav­i­gate the hu­man so­cial dy­nam­ics of his lo­cal gang hi­er­ar­chy.

The death of Siegfried may seem trag­ic, but we should note the broader per­spec­tive that this is how nat­ural se­lec­tion re­moves such se­verely dis­abling mu­ta­tions from the gene pool, and in lieu of mod­ern med­ical in­ter­ven­tions & any un­der­stand­ing of ge­net­ics, this was per­haps the best that could be done un­der the me­dieval cir­cum­stances. I ap­plaud Wag­ner for il­lus­trat­ing the sub­tle mech­a­nisms through which se­lec­tion op­er­ates and how even ap­par­ent banes like fear & cow­ardice are in fact boons.

Jok­ing aside, the end­ing opera Göt­ter­däm­merung is eas­ier to de­scribe by who sur­vives than who dies7; some of the hu­mans sur­vive, the Rhine Maid­ens re­ceive their gold back, and pretty much every­one else is dead or im­plied to die when Loki, at Brünnhilde’s charge, pre­sum­ably sets Val­halla on fire (Odin hav­ing help­fully heaped up fire­wood around it). Fur­ther, the flood­ing of the Rhine wipes the slate clean, the hoard of the Ni­belungs is lost in the drag­on’s cave, Val­halla is rub­ble, Odin’s treaties are all ab­ro­gat­ed. It is a Göt­ter­däm­merung, but cu­ri­ous­ly, it is not the one de­scribed at all in the Ed­das (there is no hint of res­ur­rec­tion, or the gods wak­ing up and dis­cov­er­ing, mys­te­ri­ous­ly, their old chess set lay­ing on the ground). For all his tex­tual re­search to cre­ate a palimpsest, Wag­ner re­sorts to this as an end­ing. There is no nar­ra­tion; no char­ac­ter like Erda tells us what to think; nei­ther Siegfried nor Brünnhilde as­cend to heaven in a re­deem­ing Chris­tian­iz­ing gloss as we might ex­pect of the cre­ator of Par­si­fal, The Fly­ing Dutch­man, Tannhäuser, or Lo­hen­grin. De­spite the many hours we have now in­vested lis­ten­ing to char­ac­ter ex­plain things at often enor­mous length, we are left alone. Every­thing fades out to me­an­der­ing, quiet mu­sic that passes away.

What does it mean? What does all this mu­sic amount to? Surely Wag­ner did not mean his mag­num opus to be merely a show­case for his mu­sic and opera singers (or a stand­ing chal­lenge to opera houses to be able to per­form the cy­cle). The Bayreuth Fes­ti­val was sup­posed to be a sec­u­lar sacra­ment for the mod­ern Ger­man man, an­nu­ally com­bin­ing his na­tional mytho­log­i­cal her­itage with to trans­form him. So what does it mean?

I’m com­forted to that Wag­ner ap­pears to have been just as un­cer­tain as I was, go­ing through no less than : Odin’s plan suc­ceeds as the Ring is re­turned, the Ni­belungs lib­er­at­ed, and the happy pair as­cend to Val­hal­la, re­deem­ing the gods’ sin and end­ing the cy­cle of theft/in­her­i­tance. Or, they as­cend, but the gods now de­part, pow­er­less and re­placed by their moral su­pe­ri­or, Siegfried. Or, all must per­ish in fire, and hu­mans rule thence­forth, seek­ing not power but only love. Or, the ver­sion has Brünnhilde en­light­ened8 by her suffer­ings, and lib­er­ated from the wheel of rein­car­na­tion, leav­ing be­hind only the ashes of the old or­der. Or, fi­nal­ly, her speech is dropped, as is the pres­ence of any other char­ac­ter, and there is only the mu­sic. Which is the truest? If we trust Wikipedia, the end­ing has a de­fin­i­tive mean­ing:

Al­though Wag­ner never set ei­ther the Schopen­hauer­ian or the Feuer­bachian lines, he did in­clude them as foot­notes in the fi­nal printed edi­tion of the text, to­gether with a note to the effect that while he pre­ferred the Schopen­hauer­ian lines, he de­clined to set them be­cause their mean­ing was bet­ter ex­pressed by the mu­sic alone.

Her part of the tale is el­e­vated from, as Tolkien re­marked of , “only in the back­ground of the tale, a brief and ter­ri­ble storm be­gin­ning in fire and end­ing in it”9, to the skele­ton key for the cy­cle: she lit­er­ally ends the cy­cle (of cor­rup­tion, strug­gle, and be­tray­al) with her en­light­en­ment.

Like Taka­hata’s fi­nal anime The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the Ring warns us of the self­-de­feat­ing na­ture of de­sire: taken too far, what is virtue be­comes vice; what should be a bless­ing, is a bane.

Gold is beau­ti­ful, and Das Rhein­gold opens with rhap­sodies about its beau­ty, but this beauty causes far greater ug­li­ness. Wag­n­er’s Odin worked for the sake of pow­er, for build­ing Val­halla and bind­ing the world with his treaties and im­ped­ing po­ten­tial ri­vals who might abuse the Rhi­negeld’s pow­er; it is ad­mirable to strive for great­ness, to de­fend one­self and one’s own, and to build things for the ages, but what did Odin sac­ri­fice to do so? Odin did­n’t sac­ri­fice quite like Al­brecht, but he sac­ri­ficed his hon­or, then his re­la­tion­ship with his wife, then his chil­dren & grand­chil­dren. The re­sult of all his work was fu­ga­cious, a pinch­beck glo­ry: be­tray­al, in­cest, mis­ery, fire, de­struc­tion of his works, and death for all. The sins of the fa­thers are passed down to the sons, like Al­berich’s son Ha­gan, whose “Ha­gen’s Watch” is un­like al­most any other scene: cursed by the bur­den of car­ry­ing for­ward his fa­ther’s quest for re­venge & the Ring, he be­comes like “but­ter scraped over too much bread” and can find no joy in liv­ing. Lesser char­ac­ters like­wise throw away some­thing by lust­ing for more, to re­ceive, in the end, the noth­ing of death.

Only the fi­nal in­her­i­tor of the Ring, Brünnhilde—who acts out of com­pas­sion by tak­ing pity on the suffer­ing, re­fus­ing com­plic­ity in cru­el­ty—escapes the lure of the Ring, and the (seem­ing­ly) end­less cy­cle of schemes and re­venge, vengeance, greed, be­tray­al, etc. The Ring cy­cle il­lus­trates the harm­ful con­se­quences of crav­ing (par­tic­u­larly for pow­er), the need for com­pas­sion in the face of the im­per­ma­nence of all things, and how to es­cape suffer­ing through ac­cep­tance. Not a Christ fig­ure (like so many Wag­ner­ian wom­en), re­deem­ing sin and en­sur­ing Heav­en, but a Bud­dha, end­ing the karmic chain of cause-and-effect aris­ing from de­sires and crav­ings, and achiev­ing en­light­en­ment, lib­er­a­tion from the wheel of suffer­ing. “Gone, gone, gone be­yond, gone al­to­gether be­yond. O what an awak­en­ing! All hail!”

An apoc­a­lypse puts every­thing in per­spec­tive. The thun­der rages and the light­ning burns, but the mut­ter­ing storm too shall fade and pass away: all things, even the death­less gods, come to an end. The earth is cleansed, a new day be­gins, the gods dis­cover their old chess pieces lay­ing in the fresh green grass, and the viewer walks out of the the­ater in the sud­den­ly-bright sun­light, feel­ing, some­how, wiser and younger.


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.

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.

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?

Singin’ In The Rain

Thor­oughly en­ter­tain­ing and a joy to watch which lives up to its rep­u­ta­tion as one of the great­est mu­si­cals ever made (why don’t we do mu­si­cals like that any more?); all three leads are stand­outs, es­pe­cially the naive Deb­bie Reynolds, where art im­i­tated life. When I vis­ited Los An­ge­les re­cent­ly, I was struck by how it lived up to its stereo­type of be­ing mid­dle-class, mid­dle-brow, nar­cis­sis­tic, and vain; it re­mains the only place I have seen a store for 3D-print­ing dolls of your­self.

It is in­ter­est­ing how often Hol­ly­wood self­-mythol­o­gizes it­self, and re­turns to the end of the silent film er­a—be­fore video killed the ra­dio star, talkies killed the movie star. What could be more Hol­ly­wood than a Hol­ly­wood film about Hol­ly­wood? But then, as ex­am­ples like the res­ur­rec­tion of on show, the pro­duc­ers of LA, in its cease­less som­no­lent sprawl, are the un­ac­knowl­edged leg­is­la­tors of the world—and the oc­ca­sional or Singin’ In The Rain or is no less than its due.

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 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.

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.

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.10

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 liked11, 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, an ob­scure piece of tech­nol­ogy 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$42012 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. One ques­tion one can ask: “where do pro­gram­mers come from?” In 20 years, one can­not imag­ine the iPhone in­spir­ing a gen­er­a­tion of pro­gram­mers the way that the orig­i­nal Macs or did. (“When I was in mid­dle school, my par­ents got an iPhone, but the lock screen stopped me from get­ting in; I wanted to add a new game but learned I had to get into this thing called the ‘App Store’ which re­quired more money than I’d seen in my en­tire life­time. That’s when light­ning struck and I knew I wanted to grow up to be a ‘pro­gram­mer’.”) , , , , , speedrun­ning streams, even graph­ing cal­cu­la­tors—any­thing but Ap­ple!↩︎

  3. 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.↩︎

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

  5. 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.↩︎

  6. 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.↩︎

  7. Odd­ly, ap­par­ently Al­berich sur­vives. I find this un­tidy, and I pre­fer to imag­ine (given his gen­eral ab­sence from the phys­i­cal ac­tion & spec­tral ap­pear­ance dur­ing his lec­ture to his son, in “Ha­gen’s Watch”) that he died of old age or long­ing some­time be­fore.↩︎

  8. The Schopen­hauer-end­ing speech:

    Were I no more to fare to Val­hal­la’s fortress, do you know whither I fare? I de­part from the home of de­sire, I flee for­ever the home of delu­sion; the open gates of eter­nal be­com­ing I close be­hind me now: To the holi­est cho­sen land, free from de­sire and delu­sion, the goal of the world’s mi­gra­tion, re­deemed from in­car­na­tion, the en­light­ened woman now goes. The blessed end of all things eter­nal, do you know how I at­tained it? Griev­ing love’s pro­found­est suffer­ing opened my eyes for me: I saw the world end.

    :

    But if we turn our glance from our own needy and em­bar­rassed con­di­tion to those who have over­come the world, in whom the will, hav­ing at­tained to per­fect self­-knowl­edge, found it­self again in all, and then freely de­nied it­self, and who then merely wait to see the last trace of it van­ish with the body which it an­i­mates; then, in­stead of the rest­less striv­ing and effort, in­stead of the con­stant tran­si­tion from wish to fruition, and from joy to sor­row, in­stead of the nev­er-sat­is­fied and nev­er-dy­ing hope which con­sti­tutes the life of the man who wills, we shall see that peace which is above all rea­son, that per­fect calm of the spir­it, that deep rest, that in­vi­o­lable con­fi­dence and seren­i­ty, the mere re­flec­tion of which in the coun­te­nance, as Raphael and Cor­reg­gio have rep­re­sented it, is an en­tire and cer­tain gospel; only knowl­edge re­mains, the will has van­ished. We look with deep and painful long­ing upon this state, be­side which the mis­ery and wretched­ness of our own is brought out clearly by the con­trast. Yet this is the only con­sid­er­a­tion which can afford us last­ing con­so­la­tion, when, on the one hand, we have recog­nised in­cur­able suffer­ing and end­less mis­ery as es­sen­tial to the man­i­fes­ta­tion of will, the world; and, on the other hand, see the world pass away with the abo­li­tion of will, and re­tain be­fore us only empty noth­ing­ness. Thus, in this way, by con­tem­pla­tion of the life and con­duct of saints, whom it is cer­tainly rarely granted us to meet with in our own ex­pe­ri­ence, but who are brought be­fore our eyes by their writ­ten his­to­ry, and, with the stamp of in­ner truth, by art, we must ban­ish the dark im­pres­sion of that noth­ing­ness which we dis­cern be­hind all virtue and ho­li­ness as their fi­nal goal, and which we fear as chil­dren fear the dark; we must not even evade it like the In­di­ans, through myths and mean­ing­less words, such as re­ab­sorp­tion in Brahma or the Nir­vana of the Bud­dhists. Rather do we freely ac­knowl­edge that what re­mains after the en­tire abo­li­tion of will is for all those who are still full of will cer­tainly noth­ing; but, con­verse­ly, to those in whom the will has turned and has de­nied it­self, this our world, which is so re­al, with all its suns and milky-ways—is noth­ing92.

    1. This is also just the of the Bud­dhists, the “be­yond all knowl­edge,” i.e., the point at which sub­ject and ob­ject are no more. (Cf. J. J. Schmidt, “Ue­ber das Ma­ha­jana und Pratschna-Paramita”.)
    ↩︎
  9. As quoted by Christo­pher Tolkien, pg 55, , J.R.R. Tolkien 2012. Christo­pher sources it to “Ox­ford lec­tures”; all In­ter­net quotes of it seem to post­date 2012 and stem from it, so those lec­tures ap­pear un­pub­lished.↩︎

  10. 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?↩︎

  11. 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.↩︎