August 2019 gwern.net newsletter with 2 short essays, a major new site features, and links on AI, progress, and technology; 1 short book review, and 2 long movie reviews on 'Gone with the Wind' and 'Shin Godzilla'.
2019-07-21–2020-09-13 finished certainty: log importance: 0
This is the August 2019 edition of the
gwern.net newsletter; previous, July 2019 (archives). This is a summary of the revision-history RSS feed, overlapping with my Changelog & /r/gwern; brought to you by my donors on Patreon.
popups.js: a new JS library which reads link annotations and displays them in a popup (eg WP displays title/summary, and papers display title/author/date/abstract); works on mobile; generalizes & obsoletes
popups.jsreads static annotations, removing the runtime spam, and importantly, annotations are now cached at compile-time, so additional sources can be included. It currently provides link annotations for Arxiv, bioRxiv, Pubmed Central, PLOS, Crossref,
gwern.net, and hand-written annotations, in-popup YouTube video support, with a fallback to Chrome/Ghostscript-generated screenshot previews for all other URLs
- added more custom-SVG/text link icons for link icons (custom: arXiv/BioRxiv (unofficial), Google Scholar, Pubmed, Internet Archive, Guardian, NYT, New Yorker, Washington Post, DeepMind, OpenAI, MIRI, Erowid)
- Curves and Angles, Brad Leithauser (2006 poetry anthology; the standout of this anthology is definitely his “A science fiction writer of the Fifties”, but honorable mentions to “Son”, “Nightfall”, “Four From The Forest Floor”, “Equatorial Triptych”, “An Icelandic New Year’s Day”, “Good List”. Leithauser is a poet I can tolerate because he resists the diseases of modern poetry, and embraces the freedom of formality; nor does he buy into that other fatal error, the belief that poetry is not fiction but should only be alliterative autobiography or journalism with a jingle, and will versify on things remote from the commonplace, like insects—who come up surprisingly often in Curves and Angles, incidentally—and which he defends well in “A science fiction writer of the Fifties”: “He wrote boys’ books and intuitively / Recognized that the real / Realist isn’t the one who details / Lowdown heartland factories and farms / As if they would last, but the one who affirms, / From the other end of the galaxy, / Ours is the age of perilous miracles.”)
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: how does a simpering selfish Southern belle like Scarlett O’Hara (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 Vivien Leigh 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 Rhett Butler, 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 Margaret Mitchell, 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, Ashley Wilkes; 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.
Shin Godzilla (2016)
Anno must have fulfilled one of his life dreams when he was tapped to direct the next Godzilla movie while procrastinating on Evangelion 4.0: now he has been Ultraman, founded two animation studios, has voiced the lead character in a Miyazaki movie, and directed his own movie in the granddaddy of all kaiju franchises. The result bears such an Anno style and is so reminiscent of Evangelion as to border on parody: the final frozen Godzilla looks of course like the petrified Evangelions at the end of the manga & End of Evangelion, there are more trains and power-lines than one could shake a stick at, the battles in Tokyo echo those in Tokyo-3 against Angels (going beyond the mere fact that the Angels are just a kind of kaiju themselves and so bear a resemblance), a plucky unconventional government team is held back by a stodgy central government, Godzilla’s beam breath looks like the famous Nausicaa God-Warrior beam attack that Anno animated, the final attack on Godzilla resembles Operation Yashima and so on.
A Godzilla movie will, of course, feature Godzilla wrecking a metropolis. What Shin Godzilla notably adds is returning to the roots of the original, adding in social commentary rather than pure action & SFX. I enjoyed the original, but the much-remarked-on politics of Shin Godzilla connecting it to Fukushima & the tsunami are, I think, not actually that interesting or good. So Anno criticizes the Japanese central government as hidebound, inefficient, prizing bureaucratic procedure over effectiveness, while portraying the JSDF as super-competent saints—wow, so novel, so daring, so brave! Surely no one has ever criticized governments as inefficient before, or fantasized that militaries were superior.
What one should remember is to not give Anno too much credit or read too much into this all: Anno isn’t an intellectual or political junkie or philosopher or psychologist—he is a hyper-visual thinker. He doesn’t have deeply-researched beliefs or knowledge about topics outside of anime. Instead, the question is how stuff looks on screen. (A mistake made, and still made, by legions of Evangelion interpreters, who chase after allusions literally plucked from dictionaries or the Japanese equivalent of Idiot’s Guides, while they should instead be poring over screenshots to understand how Anno says everything through cinematography & color.)
If Godzilla repeatedly evolves while politicians dither & hope it goes away & disbelieve it can get worse, that says more about the fun of having not just one Godzilla to direct but 3 or 4 Godzillas than it does about parallels to Fukushima. If the JSDF is treated with kid gloves and can do no wrong in Shin Godzilla, that probably says less about any conditions that the JSDF imposed in exchange for assisting filming (a universal practice of the American military in cooperating with Hollywood) or Prime Minister Abe or amending the Japanese constitution than about the fact that Anno is a military hardware fanboy and thinks military hardware is really cool—indeed, one of Anno’s most obscure works is a 1999 documentary film about the JSDF navy. And if Gainaxers are described as having right-wing nationalistic politics with imperialist dog-whistles1, the impression I’ve always gotten in compiling NGE-related material like the The Notenki Memoirs or “The Conscience of the Otaking” or Anno talking about his love of the movie The Battle of Okinawa is that this greatly oversells the depth of their convictions: really, it is just that such topics and the imperial military esthetic allow for lots of battles and look really cool. While Anno indulges in some of the casual anti-Americanism which he also displays in works like his interviews with high school kids (research for His and Her Circumstances), Shin is not that harsh, for who has cooler toys than the US military?
The cardinal sin of a successful Don Quijote liberal democracy is that it is so boring, a boredom only occasionally relieved by a natural disaster. This is a perennial problem with the Nazis too: they look too cool, but while liking the Nazis too much is dangerous in the West where they have become the definition of evil, post-war Japan never rejected pre-war Japan (a failure of reckoning assisted by creating a cult of victimhood around the atomic bombings—particularly relevant given that we’re talking about Godzilla here…), so it works fine for Gainax. As it happens, this casual mix of populist anti-Americanism & victimhood appears particularly appealing to the Japanese public now, both in 2016 and in the ongoing bizarrely self-destructive feud between the South Korean & Japanese governments where mutual narratives of victimhood have resurged at a bad time (truly, tertius gaudens). You might wonder how the Japanese could feel victimized by South Korea, given the relevant history, but they’ll manage it anyway. This, I think, accounts for why Shin Godzilla was such a success in Japan, but has met a lukewarm reception overseas. (If so, Shin Godzilla’s reputation will fade over time as Fukushima & the tsunami fade.)
My own reception is lukewarm as well. Hideaki Anno is, on paper, the perfect director. Yet, if you don’t eat up the politics, Shin Godzilla… isn’t all that entertaining? The Godzilla scenes are good as far as they go, but make up a surprisingly small fraction of the movie. Most of it is just about paper-shuffling and following some bureaucrats around. For an apocalypse, there is a surprising lack of gravity: for an existential threat to Tokyo and Japan, and eventually the entire world, there are no vivid repercussions or illustrations of the many consequences of a true natural disaster or a society strained to the limit or a government on the verge of loss of legitimacy and about to collapse. Even the extras milling around Tokyo do not appear panicked (much less existentially terrified), so much as slightly irritated. The result is a surprisingly bland Godzilla movie, and a disappointment.