The bright side

There are people who ponder about their friends’ shortcomings: there’s nothing to be gained by that. I have always been on the lookout for the merits of my opponents, and this has been rewarding.

— Goethe

Making a clean break

Nothing built today must be mistakable for anything built 100 or more years ago. The rupture between our era and those of the past is absolute, and this unbridgeable gap must be made visible and manifest through the things we build. And since things were lovely in the past, they must, of necessity, be ugly now.

Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture

Creativity

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

— Ira Glass

Networks

Is it a fact — or have I dreamt it — that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?

— Nathaniel Hawthorne

It is a principle aspect of the electric age that it establishes a global network that has much of the character of our central nervous system. Our central nervous system is not merely an electric network, but it constitutes a single unified field of experience.

— Marshall McLuhan

Zeitgeist

From now on, it can be said that plague was the concern of all of us. Hitherto, surprised as he may have been by the strange things happening around him, each individual citizen had gone about his business as usual, so far as this was possible. And no doubt he would have continued doing so. But once the town gates were shut, every one of us realized that all, the narrator included, were, so to speak, in the same boat, and each would have to adapt himself to the new conditions of life. Thus, for example, a feeling normally as individual as the ache of separation from those one loves suddenly became a feeling in which all shared alike and — together with fear — the greatest affliction of the long period of exile that lay ahead.

Camus

The Fall of Rome

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast

— Auden

Last two stanzas.

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, XI

September, 2019

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Rewatched Miller’s Crossing (1990), a Coen Brothers movie about Gabriel Byrne running a scheme between the Irish and Italian mobs during Prohibition. The scheme is impossible to follow, but in the end I think he wins? The gold medal goes to Turturro for his performance as a sneaky little weasel, edging out Jon Polito by inches. The fact that they filmed the hats as though they were symbolic is enough: what the hat symbolizes, if anything, isn’t important. The cat in Inside Llewyn Davis was meaningless too. I forgot how good that Danny Boy action sequence is. People make note of the "Barton Arms" hotel as a nod to Barton Fink, but I didn’t see anybody point out that there’s a Mike Fink comic prominently featured as well. I give it 3.5 high hats out of a possible 5 high hats.

Manhunter (1986)

Watched Manhunter (1986), Michael Mann’s adaptation of Red Dragon, with Brian Cox instead of Anthony Hopkins and William Peterson instead of whoever else was in that movie. I watched the director’s cut, which added nothing of value: you knew which scenes were edited back in because they hadn’t really been processed, and looked like city council meetings from the public access channel. It feels like a Michael Mann movie in its themes and preoccupation with expressionist urban landscapes, but it did not have enough tactical movement in my opinion. The Frankenstein (1818) interlude where the monster goes on a date with a blind lady was awkward and came out of nowhere to dominate the last act. The climax felt like they made it in a hurry, and sure enough it seems they ran out of money right before filming it. I guess the poster IS the wall? I wish I knew a veterinarian who would let me pet a tiger after hours. I give it 3.75 turtle shelters out of a possible 5 turtle shelters.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

Rewatched The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), John McTiernan’s fantasy art heist movie set in a pre-9/11 mindset. In this movie, Rene Russo investigates and falls in love with zillionaire thief Pierce Brosnan. McTiernan’s instinct to lighten the mood in comparison to the original film was dead on. Even though crimes are being committed in this movie, they’re victimless, and everybody involved is just having a great time being rich, or looking at rich people. Everybody, that is, except feckless NYPD detective Dennis Leary, who sucks anyway, and even he comes around by the end. Was it the over-saturation of upbeat jazz music that changed his mind? Or was it just that in 1999 nothing seemed consequential? Frankie Faison is in this movie. What is Thomas Crown’s yearly briefcase budget? In 2019 they would at least nod to having him do something with his money besides leave performance yachts, gliders, and Shelby mustangs lying around: something charitable, redemptive, or apologetic. Next time you watch this movie, pay attention to all the different pencil holders! I give it 4 green apples out of a possible 5 green apples.

The Wrong Guy (1997)

Watched The Wrong Guy (1997), in which a cowardly buffoon (Dave Foley) believes he is a fugitive from the law after discovering his boss has been murdered. A direct and self-acknowledging parody of North by Northwest (1959), it also feels an awful lot like The Jerk (1979) in comic tone. Meg/Jennifer Tilly plays a narcoleptic love interest, the daughter of a poor banker who is (in a storyline that almost pays off) about to be foreclosed on by an evil, rich farmer. There were also a couple probable references to The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), such as the boardroom scene, and the sleeve-ripping scene. The bits are strung together, and many are very funny. Through triangulation you get a clearer sense what Foley’s voice contributed to The Kids in the Hall. Kevin McDonald has a cameo, as does Mark McKinney. The opening sequence is excellent. I give it 3.75 tainted hams out of a possible 5 tainted hams.

Out of Sight (1998)

Rewatched Out of Sight (1998), Steven Soderbergh’s first movie with studio money. George Clooney is a bank robber, and Jennifer Lopez is a U.S. Marshal out to catch him but, oops, they fall in love. From an Elmore Leonard novel, and though I didn’t know it the first time around, now it’s unmistakable. This is the high point of Lopez and Ving Rhames’ acting careers, for me; probably Clooney’s, too. So many great performances in this movie: Don Cheadle, Dennis Farina, Luis Guzman, Steve Zahn, Albert Brooks. Cameos by Michael Keaton (as his character from Jackie Brown (1997)) and Samuel L. Jackson. I thought the editing was classic Soderbergh, but it turns out Anne V. Coates edited it, so it’s possible some of the things I think of as classic Soderbergh are actually classic Coates. I give it 4 big steaks out of a possible 5 big steaks.

Porco Rosso (1992)

Watched Porco Rosso (1992), an animated love letter to 1) planes and 2) Italy. Porco Rosso plays himself, but this time as an lonely former WWI pilot, haunted by his past, who hunts seaplane bandits in the Adriatic. He crosses paths with an American flying ace against whom he must square off, with the help of a plucky girl. The ratio of machine guns fired to anybody getting hurt is 5000 to 0. There aren’t any real threats in the movie, just a lot of great background paintings. I think it’s great that Porco Rosso doesn’t turn back into a human at the end of the movie, and it’s never explained how he became a pig man, and almost nobody asks about it. It struck me that this movie borrowed a lot from Talespin (1990), but then I discovered it was probably based on Miyazaki’s own manga from 1989. Still, two animators coming up with strikingly similar ideas at about the same time: pretty odd! I give it 4 trenchcoats out of a possible 5 trenchcoats.

The Social Network (2010)

Watched The Social Network (2010), an apocalypse movie chronicling the invention of Tom from MySpace. Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay, which was amazing but evidently didn’t care about history at all. David Fincher is the Mark Zuckerberg of directors. This movie threaded the needle to tell a story in which nobody is likable, or worth rooting for. Nobody real that is: Rooney Mara’s character, and Rashida Jones’ characters seem nice, but they are just composites, as unreal as the second Armie Hammer. Jesse Eisenberg just made a weird face the entire movie. N*Sync did a good job as Napster. I give it 3.5 Red Vines out of a possible 5 Red Vines.

Kaili Blues (2015)

Watched Kaili Blues (2015), a film by Bi Gan, about a doctor in China traveling to another city to retrieve his nephew. To understand the experience of watching the film, try putting a question mark after every word in that description, and add in the concept that the present, past, and future are flattened together and that the whole thing could be a dream. And yet it’s not an incoherent puzzle box, it makes sense and every elusive image gets paid off with something later (or earlier) on. Often compared to Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), I liked and respected this film a lot more. It’s also post-apocalyptic, in a way, with all we see of the city of Kaili being either demolished or under construction. The most famous thing about it is the documentary-style 41-minute tracking shot, which I am a sucker for. The first half of the movie is great as well, and shows you how to unload an excavator from a trailer. Why did she take the ferry across the river and then walk right back across the bridge? I give it 4.25 disco balls out of a possible 5 disco balls.

Mr. Arkadin

Watched Mr. Arkadin (1955), Orson Welles’ mashup of Citizen Kane and The Third Man. Robert Arden plays a small-time crook hired by mysterious billionaire Gregory Arkadin to investigate Arkadin’s own dark past. Welles called this movie a disaster, because he lost creative control during editing and hated the theatrical release, but as far as I can tell that is true of most Orson Welles movies. In all there were 3 different edits of this movie; I watched the Criterion Collection’s "Complete" edition. The high-definition transfer reveals the glue on his magnificent hairpiece and beard. On the plus side: moody photography, jet-set noir, and Welles’ theatrical baritone voice made the film worth watching. On the minus side, I didn’t care about the plot at all. There’s a scene where a refrigerator is wearing a sombrero. I give it 3 goose livers out of a possible 5 goose livers.

Between Two Ferns: The Movie (2019)

Watched Between Two Ferns: The Movie (2019), a framing device for a series of short episodes of the web series. There are something like 12 Between Two Ferns interviews, and then everything else is pretty thin. I don’t think they go more than about 7 minutes between showing interviews with celebrities. They got a really good lineup. He asks Keanu Reeves "on a scale of 1 to 100, how many words do you know?" and that’s maybe the funniest slam ever. You can see how hard they work to cut around everyone laughing. Some of the interstitial plot, about Zach Gallifianakis traveling the country to earn a network talk show, is funny, but not as funny as the other stuff. A lot of LA comedians get shoehorned into cameo roles; too many to name. I give it 2.5 razor scooters out of a possible 5 razor scooters.