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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, & opera reviews⁠.

Documentaries

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.

Perhaps surprisingly, the crew and Honnold’s attractive & normal girlfriend are more concerned with the topic 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?” But neither of them answers the question: well, what did you expect? You knew everything necessary to know about free soloing (deadly) and the fatality rate (high) 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—while 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? (These routes have always been climbed before, with the challenge being mostly-perfect execution and ‘being enough of an idiot to try’; and 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, depressed, 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, we already know, are 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 apparently 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 the filmmakers show Honnold seeming 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, as 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

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

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

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.

Icarus

Icarus

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 >$280.2$200.02006 cash on a special occasion may be justifiable, it’s different when one is spending easily $1,401.0$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.

Rams

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

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

Short2013 documentary on the Beijing Genomics Institute and the research on IQ; as of 2022, 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 next-generation DNA sequencers to try to break free of the Illumina sequencer quasi-monopoly (leaving behind bitterness); the documentary is fatally compromised by the lack of any actual discussion of genetics, instead settling for occasional ominous music, wandering BGI’s (admittedly impressive) facilities, and occasional idiosyncratic scenes of dating or family life.

Opera

Opera reviews

Movies

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.

Suspicion

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

Hackers (1995)

So ’90s I felt the munchies for Pop-tarts, wondering where I could get a copy of Mondo2000, 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

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

Marty (1955)

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

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

Stalker

Stalker

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.5

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

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.

Arrival

Arrival

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 liked6⁠, 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

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.

Shin-Godzilla

See the anime reviews⁠.

Rollerball

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

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

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 >$5.2$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.

RED

RED

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

Lady Jane

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.

TV

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, Repl.it⁠, Roblox⁠, RPG Maker⁠, Runescape⁠, speedrunning streams, even TI-83 graphing calculators—anything but Apple!↩︎

  5. 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?↩︎

  6. 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.↩︎

Further Reading

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