July 2020 news

July 2020 gwern.net newsletter with links on the Uighurs, authoritarianism, negative emissions, AI overhang; 1 movie & 2 anime reviews.
2019-12-262020-09-16 finished certainty: log importance: 0

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  • (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.3 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.)
  • (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.)


  • (one of the more unique anime to come out, this sank largely without a trace. Originally a short online animation, this then got turned into a two-long-episode quasi-movie. I thought I was getting a Miyazaki-esque romp with the Pern-like concept of ‘dentists’ riding their dragons/fighters into battle after cleaning their teeth; instead, I got something much stranger: a more Anno/Tomino-esque meditation on how war is hell and on fate & free will & predestination through the route of ancient nigh-invincible aircraft-carrier dragons manipulated by, and manipulating humans, while apparently devouring human souls—‘dentists’ are selected to serve the dragon, candidates given a vision of when they will die fighting the dental corruption on a destined day, and applicants reticent to embrace their foretold death disappear to fates unknown. The protagonist is resurrected by the dragon for equally unknown purposes after being killed by his fellow-soldiers, becoming a dentist. His war continues as his former nation launches a cunning plan to disable his dragon. After many scenes that Miyazaki would never dare—as cute as the hijackers’ plane is, I don’t think the interior would ever be painted red quite the same way in Porco Rosso or Castle in the Sky—it escalates into the most End of Evangelion-like scenario I’ve seen since Kill la Kill. The question of free will is ultimately punted a bit: the dragon seems unable to foresee the betrayal of one dentist who allies with the cavities, and the protagonist’s purpose appears to be to stop the mastermind, a soldier who apparently defies probability, because guns fail when aimed at him & he casually walks through showers of bullets missed by every single one. One has the sense that the creator knew he would never have a second shot at making The Dragon Dentist and it was a miracle it even got the two-episode adaptation it did, and is frantically stuffing 15kg of plot & worldbuilding into a 5kg rucksack. Of Shinkai’s Voices, I noted that the film in the end left me wanting much more of its worldbuilding and much less of the plot or characters, which overstayed their welcome; Dragon Dentist was, if nothing else, a good guest which left me wanting more of all of it.)
  • (mediocre JRPG sekaikei anime; the worldbuilding is sketchy and internally incoherent—angels serve “Zeus”?—and far more care has been given to the poorly-integrated and flashy CG than to minor considerations like animating anything of interest, although even there I fear I overpraise the CG of things like its MacGuffin, Bahamut. I’m sure there must have been a reason I put this on my list but whatever it was, it failed.)



  1. The Uighur genocide is awful not just because it is far worse than anything happening in, say, , but because it is the Syrian & Spanish Civil War of our era—the testing grounds of techno-totalitarianism.↩︎

  2. For perspective, note that there are ~40 million children in the USA in 2020, and thus on the order of >40 American children per year, and presumably several times that worldwide, would have died in 2020 without any safety measures. Because of decreases in population growth rate, the number of children in the USA has remained remarkably constant since 1958, and so one could reasonably extrapolate that back as >62×, or >2,480 prevented deaths. Or to put it another way, for each of the subjects briefly distressed by the experiment, perhaps >12 other American childrens’ lives have been saved since by the overall success of the fridge safety movement.↩︎

  3. 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?↩︎