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Movie Reviews

A compilation of movie, television, and opera reviews since 2014.

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

See also my book & anime /   manga reviews⁠.


Project Nim

Project Nim:

Thorough documentary on a 1970s scientific project in raising a chimpanzee as a human to get it to sign true language. The project was 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 replication crisis 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 freakishly strong 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 Frans de Waal).

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 case of “Moe” 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 (audio); less harmful but equally perturbing is the case of Gua⁠, another linguistics experiment ended when the companion baby “began to copy Gua’s sounds” instead of talking.)

They Shall Not Grow Old

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

Free Solo (2018)

Free Solo is a documentary on Alex Honnold⁠, 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 El Capitan⁠. 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). One is amazed he didn’t die before the release.1

Free Solo is essentially much the same as the also excellent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi: an examination of monomania, excellence, and happiness. Free soloing, like cave diving or BASE jumping 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, and by definition, he will not.

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.

I can appreciate the esthetic appeal of climbing & bouldering—it’s no accident that so many programmers, including many of my acquaintances are climbers; and I can agree that, as in other areas like playing chess or mathematics that even if there is never any practical benefit, there is still a meaningful sense in which masters can achieve great things. Climbing El Cap as a free soloer 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? (The routes have always been climbed before, with the challenge being mostly perfect execution and ‘being enough of an idiot to try’; it is not even a spectator sport.) Honnold, or at least the filmmakers, all but invites us to psychologize and pathologize. 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 (such emotional deprivation appears in many cases of otherwise healthy individuals driven to great achievements), nothing in his daily life seems to give him much in the way of pleasure, or indeed affect him at all (alexithymia?). 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.

A scientific interlude puts Honnold into an fMRI machine to look at fear. Climbers are already different—one of the most interviewed climbers in the documentary, Tommy Caldwell⁠, 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

Apollo 11 (2019 documentary on the 1969 Apollo 11)

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 Cat Sense⁠, 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 Amy Winehouse⁠; 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 2006 song “Rehab” & 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 Dante’s description of Wuthering Heights: “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 Anthony Weiner⁠/​Huma Abedin as they try to resurrect his career by running for mayor in the 2013 NYC election 2 years after his Congressional career was derailed by his sexting scandal⁠. 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 Bill de Blasio (of interest to me primarily for his long-running efforts to destroy NYC’s magnet schools like Stuyvesant⁠/​Hunter 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 James Comey dropped an October surprise bombshell just days before Election Day by announcing the FBI had found further Hillary Clinton emails (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 John Edwards 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 [Thanatopsis] was written in 1817, when Bryant 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 nominative determinism⁠. I suspect that, like the Howard Dean yell or Richard Stallman or John Schnatter⁠, 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 Schelling point 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 Ross William Ulbricht), 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, hamartia sans anagnorisis⁠, 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.



Documentary about the Russian doping program’s (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, Grigory Rodchenkov⁠. 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

Pumping Iron

1977 propaganda-documentary about American bodybuilders; it follows a young Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 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 Conan (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 Charles Atlas 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. ‘Muscle Beach’ 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

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

The Great Happiness Space

Cinéma vérité-style documentary on Japanese “host clubs” in Osaka, the much more niche female counterpart to the better known hostess clubs⁠, 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 >$287.6$200.02006 cash on a special occasion may be justifiable, it’s different when one is spending easily $1,438.2$1,000.02006 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.


Elegant but self-limited. Rams (website): 2018 Hustwit documentary on ex-Braun German industrial designer Dieter Rams⁠; not generally available but recently streamed free⁠. The documentary is similar in approach to Hustwit’s famous Helvetica (on the universally-used font) 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 T3 pocket transistor radio (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 red Valentine Olivetti 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 Sea Ranch or tucked away in an IKEA or Muji 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 their in-construction HQ⁠, 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 10 design principles⁠. 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 intellectual & design challenges 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. Contemporary2 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.3 (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 “seeing through” 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 computer reminds one of Lon Chaney—it is the machine of a thousand faces.” 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.4

The challenge remains.

Listen To Me Marlon

Listen To Me Marlon

Documentary of audio tape recordings of confessional, oft Shakespearean, monologues by Marlon Brando 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, Cheyenne Brando⁠, 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 (YouTube version)

2017 documentary on AlphaGo (but note: not Master nor Zero); overall, OK; glossy and light on technical detail, it instead focuses on following around Demis Hassabis⁠, Fan Hui⁠, David Silver⁠, and Lee Sedol 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

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 vocal fry⁠.

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.



Carmen opera

First opera review. How does a Met HD live opera broadcast work? Extremely well! They are lavishly produced, with multiple cameras and live directing, subtitling, and bonus features like seeing backstage. The opera itself is wonderful: it makes a great impression to sing and play orchestral music the entire time through, and the character motivations are painfully realistic and believable. I understand now the description of opera as a totalizing Gesamtkunstwerk: it combines all the art forms in an extremely technically-demanding combination, brutally punishing any imprecision, for hours on end, overriding the lack of realism to produce an exaggerated effect overpowering the viewer’s emotions, rendering it the most prestigious art of its era. The opera was interestingly “red pill”-like in depicting Carmen as demanding ever more sacrifices and ultimately abandoning her lover, leading to the final murder-suicide. Watching Carmen made me a believer in the Met HD broadcasts, and I resolved to watch more.

I attended a live broadcast in my local movie theater of the NYC Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Carmen on 2019-02-02 in the Metropolitan Opera House (the titular role played by Clémentine Margaine with malignant splendor), which was part of their long-running “Metropolitan Opera Live in HD” broadcast series, one of a number of special screenings distributed through Fathom Events⁠.

While watching They Shall Not Grow Old 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 1PM–5PM 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.5

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, an obsession of intellectuals like Nietzsche, and a challenge to composers like Mozart: the opera form is indeed the Gesamtkunstwerk par excellance, in combining all the art forms into one. Consider an opera like Aida 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 highly-specialized 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 La Fenice burning down. All of these art forms must come together 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 Ring Cycle 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 La Fille du Régiment6⁠, the Bolshoi’s Swan Lake is sadly not being broadcast at my theater, but there is a broadcast at the end of March of Wagner’s Die Walküre I am excited about—I enjoyed reading The Ring 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 spend a decade waiting for tickets & travel halfway around the world only to get a heavy-handed environmental parable with copulating crocodiles).


Akhnaten (Philip Glass⁠; 2019 Met HD⁠; libretto)

The rise and fall of a prophet. Akhnaten 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 supreme god to dethrone Amun and a new city⁠, only for it all to melt back into the sands of Egypt, damnatio memoriae’d & forgotten for thousands of years.7 Even without the connection to Tutankhaten (better known by his later name Tutankhamun), Akhnaten draws the eye of anyone interested in monotheism or ancient Egypt (such as Sigmund Freud) 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 “Great Hymn to the Aten”—which Glass makes the centerpiece of Akhnaten—but was that even written by Akhnaten? And we have nothing at all for Nefertiti (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 Book of the Dead⁠/​Pyramid Texts), 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

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 coronavirus⁠, 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.

(I tried to rewatch Porgy & Bess in July 2021, when this performance was rebroadcast as part of the Met HD program rebooting post-coronavirus, but failed due to miserable theater service. The theater had, presumably in response to the labor supply shortage, merged its ticket & concession lines into a single long slow line, which meant that I had to wait >20 minutes just to buy my $22 ticket! When I realized that I would miss “Summertime”⁠/​“Roll Them Bones” and who knows how much of the first act, I walked out in disgust and emailed the theater a complaint.)

The Ring Cycle

Die Walküre

Wagner’s Die Walküre opera (Met)

Second opera review, after Carmen. Oddly, this is #2 of The Ring cycle but neither #1 nor #3 were broadcast. Not as enjoyable, but impressive in its own right. It works better at providing a mythic sense than contemporary efforts like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, at least.

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 The Ring⁠, Das Rheingold⁠, 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 horns8), 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 “electronic libretto”. (I wonder what they did before? Supertitles?)

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 Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (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 Morpheus in The Sandman) 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.


Das Rheingold⁠, Siegfried⁠, Götterdämmerung (Met, “Nightly Met Opera Streams”)

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 omnipresence in Hollywood like Apocalypse Now or Bugs Bunny. But where does one see the cycle? After I encountered Margaret Amour’s The Nibelungenlied (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 F2 hybrid of an Æsir/​human cross and then a sibling mating—a situation practically calculated to simultaneously maximize outbreeding depression & inbreeding depression⁠.

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 CO2 suffocation fear reflex is often intact⁠, 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 dies9⁠; 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 all the arts to transform him. So what does it mean?

I’m comforted to read in Wikipedia that Wagner appears to have been just as uncertain as I was, going through no less than 6 radically different versions of the ending: 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 Schopenhauerian version has Brünnhilde enlightened10 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 Guðrúnarkviða II⁠, “only in the background of the tale, a brief and terrible storm beginning in fire and ending in it”11⁠, 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 (Met HD opera; George Frideric Handel)

A surprisingly ribald & ironic comedy of Agrippina scheming to make Nero the Emperor Nero, drawing on Tacitus & Suetonius (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 Claudius has drowned, without formally naming an heir (Claudius’s other children, particularly Britannicus⁠, never come up), summons her son (from an earlier marriage) Nero. Nero, cross-played by Kate Lindsey⁠, 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 castrati⁠.) 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 (Narcissus & Pallas), 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, Ottone⁠, 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 Poppea: 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.


“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”

Review of Manon, a French opera about a beautiful countryside girl whose craving for the ‘good life’ leads her into the Parisian demimondaine as a courtesan.

Exemplifying Girardian mimesis, Manon wants what everyone else wants, and wants what she can’t have, like her spurned lover only once he has taken religious vows. She plays off suitors, who compete in negative-sum games for her favors, until eventually she goes too far and is imprisoned, destroying her health; cast down, she realizes that ‘living only for pleasure’ was not the ideal life.

This scenario seems to exemplify the extent to which polygynous competition can result in negative-sum games, making almost everyone worse off except a few winners (and those possibly only temporarily).

Manon opera Jules Massenet⁠; 2019 Met HD, 2019-10-26. Manon follows a naive & beautiful young French girl from the countryside to ascending the heights of the Parisian demimonde⁠, akin to but earlier than Moulin Rouge! & more contemporary to the Edo-period Japanese “floating world” (but still similar to contemporary night clubs & host / hostess bars).

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 to the degree of $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 Sunset Boulevard 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 all-pay auction⁠. 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 sumptuary laws) 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, Lichter et al 2019)? Why do polygamous societies seem rather worse off than monogamous ones (Henrich et al 2012) 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

Madama Butterfly (Puccini⁠; 2019 Met HD):

One of the most popular operas, relies heavily on beautiful visuals and interesting gimmicks like puppeteers, at the cost of establishing plausible psychology for either protagonist or justifying the tragedy. Beautifully staged, this is true “poster art”.

Picturesque, not plot or psychology. Madama Butterfly is one of the most popular operas, as the crowded theater (both locally & in NYC) testified. 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, almost Aristotelian: 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, Turandot & Manon: 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 kick a puppy and not a person. The suffering of a dog like Hachikō 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 kuroko 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 bunraku-style 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.


Fairy tale logic pageantry. Turandot opera (Puccini⁠; 2019 Met HD).

Fairy tale opera: a despotic Oriental princess chops off the heads of suitors if they cannot answer her riddle. A random prince happens to do so, sets her a counter-riddle, she fails, he tells her the answer, she falls in love with him for no reason, The End. Yeah, pretty dumb. Some amazing costumes and sets, though.

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. Dialogues des Carmélites opera (Met HD):

Dramatic opera on the martyrdom of a convent of nuns during the French Revolution. Starkly minimalist staging. Invokes many great themes, but does not really live up to them or explore them to any satisfying depth.

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 historical martyrdom in question is simple to describe: a convent of nuns was dispersed by the French Revolution’s Terror⁠, 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. The Magic Flute (Mozart⁠; Met ‘special holiday encore’⁠/​cast)

Rebroadcast of abridged 2006 performance (which demonstrates how much Met HD broadcasts have improved technically over the past decade). Gorgeous nonsense. With excellent music by Mozart, lyrics unusually in English, and eccentrically colorful costumes/​sets, but mostly unconvincing characters (not helped by abridgement), and a plot stuffed full of Masonic symbols but lacking any sense.

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.

Nathan Gunn’s 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 mystery play-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 Neon Genesis Evangelion 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 (Alban Berg⁠; NYT⁠, New Yorker).

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!


The Thing

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

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.


Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion

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 Mask of Sanity (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, WarGames⁠, 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 Hacker Manifesto⁠. 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

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 Blade Runner⁠. 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 Her & 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

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 Heaven’s Gate on Z Channel show, the producers of LA, in its ceaseless somnolent sprawl, are the unacknowledged legislators of the world—and the occasional Sunset Boulevard or Singin’ In The Rain or L.A. Confidential 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), Zippy the Pinhead 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

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

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

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 Magical Negro 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.



Tarkovsky 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 Solaris adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem 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 Strugatsky brothers’ novel) is in some ways more faithful to Stanislaw Lem than his actual Lem adaptation. Specifically, it reflects the spirit of His Master’s Voice⁠, with shades of Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor”⁠.

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 (acceptable SF 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 fallen 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 Stalker’s previous clients have failed the test of the Room, revealing themselves as fallen. The fallen include the ‘louse’ of the Stalker protagonist, who 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, but he remains a louse; he therefore must refrain from entering, and can only bring humanity’s elite to the Room. The Writer, knows himself all too well already as fallen, therefore refuses to enter. Finally, the Physicist did not wish to enter the Room, seeking instead to destroy the Room to prevent any 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 safely as all humans are fallen, 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, but like the Grand Inquisitor of Jesus, contemptuously concluded there is not even any need to kill 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 with a Russian, apparently it’s widely noted in Russian sources including 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, a primitive world populated by a race of frail or corrupt men doomed to sterility—except that in a closing scene, the Stalker’s daughter, previously noted as handicapped by mutations causing severe birth defects in her legs, demonstrates a secret ability to telekinetically move objects. A ray of hope appears: humanity’s stasis may yet be broken by a (divine?) intervention to create a human worth of the Zone.

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 Chernobyl Exclusion Zone? (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—to show it 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 open-air environmental disaster zone.

It turns out 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 (although Roar comes to mind), 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

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 & Capgras delusion⁠; when everything explodes and it becomes more of a zombie chase movie, it’s still rescued by an appropriately downer ending.

American Psycho

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 Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale) 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? The novel 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 Walter Mitty 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.12

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. It turns out 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

The Haunting (1963)

Frame Rated 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, Nicolas Cage as a burly lumberjack driven nigh unto insanity—I had no idea he had it in him. The titular Mandy, played by Andrea Riseborough⁠, 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.



See my review of Stories of Your Life and Others⁠, and discussion of what the short story actually meant⁠.

A Quiet Place

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 10 Cloverfield Lane⁠, which I liked13⁠, 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

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 Pumping Iron⁠, which shows Arnold Schwarzenegger not long before while still trying to transition from bodybuilding to film and his milieu⁠, 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

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

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

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 ‘burning of books and burying of scholars’). 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

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 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.

They Live

They Live (1988; John Carpenter film)

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

Entertainingly ironic backfire. TL expresses the American paranoid style 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 don’t work⁠, 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. (Ironically 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 we now take for granted: 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 black preacher⁠, 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 Foucault’s Pendulum or Unsong: the flexibility of the paranoid style in enabling extremists to accommodate both anti-Reaganism & anti-Semitism is not a merit but discredit (much as Rosenthal’s ability to find large effects everywhere 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 egalitarianism (pace Graeber’s 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

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

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

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.


See the 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 Quidditch⁠, 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 2015

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

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 Donovan 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

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 (2017)

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

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

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015; first movie in the Star Wars sequel trilogy)

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?; J.J. Abrams’s 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 Adam Driver 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 Rebuild of Evangelion 1.0: 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 2.0⁠. Perhaps the rest of the trilogy will redeem it?

Sadly, revisiting it in 2020 and looking at reviews of the sequels Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) & Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (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: “Somehow, Palpatine returned.” Top-notch job, J. J. Abrams. I see why they pay you the big bucks. (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 >$5.3$4.02012 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 Expanded Universe⁠, consisting of hundreds of novels, not to mention everything else, by many excellent writers. For example, Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy alone could have been adopted almost chapter by chapter, and would have been an enormous success, and Thrawn 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 Michael Stackpole’s Rogue Squadron novels?

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 Dark Empire 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 (Wedge’s Gamble), 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

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.



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

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

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.


The Wire

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 public choice: 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

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 Ross Ulbricht⁠, a white man who was a materials science graduate student before dropping to try being an entrepreneur and then launching Silk Road 1 & 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 didn’t last long). 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 public choice theory⁠, 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 Theodore Dalrymple): 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 poverty⁠, 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 & control anyone other than himself for his (often self-inflicted) failures as a researcher/​businessman, husband, father, and drug dealer. Some seek identity by tattoos⁠; White, by tyranny.

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. The makers of the 2020 documentary, The Alpinist, about the similarly impressive soloer Marc-André Leclerc⁠, would not be so lucky. Free solo articles often must add uncomfortable notes; the 2006 article “When You Fall Free Soloing … and Live: 5 Climbers Recall Their Lucky Grounders” notes 2⁄4 active soloers died within 3 years of the profile. (Some may be suicides⁠.)↩︎

  2. For a comparison, see the 1987 Apple HIG design standards manual describe Apple’s philosophy (then) of personal computing:

    The Apple Desktop Interface is based on the assumption that people are instinctively curious: they want to learn, and they learn best by active self-directed exploration of their environment. People strive to master their environment: they like to have a sense of control over what they are doing, to see and understand the results of their own actions. People are also skilled at manipulating symbolic representations: they love to communicate in verbal, visual, and gestural languages. Finally, people are both imaginative and artistic when they are provided with a comfortable context; they are most productive and effective when the environment in which they work and play is enjoyable and challenging.

  3. 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 GPT-2 music samples because Apple refuses to support Ogg 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…)↩︎

  4. 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 Hypercard 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’.”) Minecraft⁠,⁠, Roblox⁠, RPG Maker⁠, Runescape⁠, speedrunning streams, even TI-83 graphing calculators—anything but Apple!↩︎

  5. 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.↩︎

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

  7. Curiously, Glass himself seems to have described Akhnaten as a success: “Akhnaten had changed his (and our) world through the force of his ideas and not through the force of arms.”⁠. 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.↩︎

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

  9. 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.↩︎

  10. 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.

    Schopenhauer himself:

    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 Prajna—Paramita 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”.)
  11. As quoted by Christopher Tolkien, pg 55, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún⁠, 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.↩︎

  12. 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 kerning 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 small caps⁠, 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?↩︎

  13. 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.↩︎