CategorySumana Harihareswara

Insistence, Reverence

It’s possible there are people reading this blog from time to time who don’t really know me in person, so perhaps it will be nice to clarify something. The Kat person who comes up often in my writing these days, or sometimes without writing at all, the reason I moved back across the country, the light of my days, is the very same Kate who first popped up here a month shy of eight years ago. Did I have any idea back then that one day we’d be getting married and spending the rest of our lives together, you may ask rhetorically? And to that I can only say: yes, I did have that idea, in 2012. It was only an idea, but I had it, and then bit by bit and turn by turn the two of us made it steadily more real until it all came true.

If you are reading this, whether I know you or not, I’m glad that you are persisting. I hope, too, that you have the chance to persevere.

Here Are Some Movies I Watched In January

  • Like A Boss (2020): At a contractual-requirement-fulfilling 83 minutes, this film appears to take place inside a Good Place-style neighborhood, where all events and personas revolve around a critical test of the protagonists’ moral character, which I believe they failed.
  • Little Women (2019): I have no history at all with the story. This took two acts before it got me, but it got me! I think there’s an interesting comparison to make here against Burning (2018), another adaptation with glorious set dressing and costuming that takes a solid 80 minutes to pick up. I got antsy in the first part of this movie and not in that one, and I think it comes down to the fact that Burning gives you so much time to look at things in quiet, and LW has almost every minute heavily scored. Trust your actors’ faces a little more, composer Alexandre Desplat!

    That said, the movie does trust its cast in general to convey time jumps and ages without much assistance from CGI or even makeup. I found that interesting, but I admit it got a lot easier to parse the different periods once Saoirse Ronan got her hair cut. Gerwig, at a director Q&A with Mike Leigh, mentioned that they wanted to make the past a little glowy without going all the way into color-coded grading. And if the choices were teal and orange vs creepy de-aging CGI vs “ah fuck it,” then I will take option three.

    I found that Q&A by way of a path that started with Kat sending me this New Yorker article about the costuming in the film, which would, not long after that piece was published, win the movie’s sole Oscar. Learning that Gerwig is a huge Mike Leigh fan puts a pretty interesting lens on both Lady Bird (2017) and Frances Ha (2012).

  • Carol (2015): I’m going to write steampunk fanfic about this movie. I loved that it put its characters through hard things without sadism, and though the color and grain were pretty consciously presentational at times, finding out afterward about their roots in Saul Leiter’s photography made me feel very fond of it. I don’t know if Sofia Coppola was influenced by Leiter’s work for Lost in Translation (2003), my second-most-problematic fave, but they evoke the same feelings in me.
  • High School Musical 2 (2007): I’m told this is the best one.
  • Special mention: The Good Place (2016-2020): Hey Leonard and Sumana, do you want to have another phone call about this? I am very interested to discuss how your season-two predictions shook out.

May Movie Moundup

  • Blood of the Dragon (1971): Seen on 35mm at the Hollywood Theater, just before the reels were loaned to Quentin Tarantino. As promised, it had “some of the most interesting film damage” I had ever seen. Celluloid is a volatile material! Anyway the movie fit well within the bounds of the wuxia genre in a satisfying way, and I liked that it was directed by a woman.
  • Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989): Ian made me watch the sequel in 2002 or something, but I’d never actually seen this. What an earnest, sweet, stupid movie—so sweet, in fact, that the one random moment of requisite 20th-century homophobia jarred even more than usual. Nice to see them come correct on police violence, military recruitment and wealth inequality, though.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road aka Black & Chrome (2015): Technically a rewatch, except not, as this was the monochrome version. It was also the big screen version, at the Hollywood as a Planned Parenthood benefit. Even without color, and with visible pixels, it loses no impact. I tried to take note of things like cuts and composition and depth of field, and I failed! It’s hard to observe at a remove that to which you are riveted.
  • The Red Turtle (2016): By contrast, I did a lot of observing composition (and color, and texture) in this movie, which is beautiful but I think holds itself a little apart from you. Part of that is its constraints: no dialogue, no narration, no explanations at all, like a wordless picture book. The characters don’t even have names. For me, that blunted its emotional impact as well, but it was very beautiful to watch.

    They did pull out one particular and effective trick I haven’t really seen much in 2D animation. Usually, even when the 2D is all digital rather than cel painting, the “flatted” color areas are in fact flat, with maybe some highlights and shadows thrown in for depth; details are done with line work, and flatting is a separate process stage done quickly and by lower-level animators. If you see texture and detail within a colored space, it’s probably on something static like a background that only has to be drawn once. In this shot from Spirited Away (2001), Chihiro and the car were drawn by animators, where the idol and the trees were done by static painters. See the simple colors on her shirt compared to all the variation on the stone?

    Chihiro looks nervously at the stone idol beside her

    Instead, The Red Turtle takes advantage of its digital nature, attaching texture to everything and letting the computer do the work of keeping it consistent with movement. It’s like film grain, but you can see in this shot that it’s applied differently to various surfaces—the upper area of the turtle’s shell has less texture than the parts below the water.

    A man on a raft regards a large red turtle in the water

    They do some other fun stuff too: using the surface simulation usually applied to fabric or water in 3D animation for foliage here, for instance. There’s some cool ligne claire influence going on, and Lucy even pointed out a couple of nods to Moebius. Simple story, visual feast.

  • Ball of Fire (1941): Watched on Sumana’s recommendation. Man, this was great. That is to be expected from something cowritten by Billy Wilder and directed by Howard Hawks, but Sumana gave Barbara Stanwyck top billing, and she was correct. I’d never (remembered) seeing her in a movie before, and she carries the whole thing. Also, I’m going to start wearing a sweatshirt over a button-down in homage to the avuncular German professor. Easily my favorite pro-descriptivism jazzy screwball gangster comedy to feature Snow White and the seven dwarves.
  • You Were Never Really Here (2017): My second Lynne Ramsay movie, after a fifteen-year time jump in her career. I feel like if you have heard of this movie then you know it features a lot of violence, including violence against children, sexual and otherwise. It’s hard to put that in a genre story in the 21st century without seeming exploitative yourself, and I don’t know if this movie entirely avoids that.

    All that said, holy fucking shit, I understand better why people are so reverent about Ramsay now. Fleet without skimming, enigmatic without distancing, clever but not ostentatious, observant but not voyeuristic—or at least not catering to the voyeur in all the expected ways. The crew’s stylistic watchphrase was apparently “heavy camera,” and the implications there are carried through.

    Ramsay does this thing in common with Alexander Mackendrick that I might have mentioned before. This movie had sequences where a moving subject is obscured for most if not all of the shot, but I never felt confused or lost because my eye was guided along their path. I haven’t quite parsed it out yet, but I think it might be something like this: you catch the subject at the start of the shot at a rule-of-thirds line, as the point of focus, entering with movement; you keep the camera centered and focused on them as they move into obscurity, through a crowd of people or behind traffic; and you catch them out of it on the other side, at the opposite screen-third focal point, emerging into perfect focus and giving the audience a pleasing “aha” of facial recognition. You can convey depth of field, parallax, atmosphere, tension, and action all at once in a simple shot, but it only works if you have the technique really nailed down. Eventually I will find some clips that demonstrate what I’m talking about and then come back and compare them to see if this theory holds up.

A Timely Captain America Podcast

I really love Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but my fondness is as nothing compared to that of my friend Rachel, even though she’s actually more a fan of a work derived from—well, we’ll get to that. Sometimes we exhort each other about it on twitter. Our mutual friend Sumana (star of many recent entries here) has found this charming, and a while back she urged us to record some kind of longer discussion and put it on the Internet; we did so, but not without making her complicit.

This is a podcast! It’s about 53 minutes long and covers a broad range of topics, which I have tried to annotate below. It is centered around the reasoning behind our affection for the movie, and especially the treatment of sexuality, gender and kyriarchy therein. I have been lax in my duty as its producer and am posting it months late, but fortunately it is now in time for Chris Evans and his portrayal of Steve Rogers to reënter our consciousness in Avengers: Age of Innocence. I found this conversation valuable and was grateful to be a part of it; I hope you like it too.

2:30 – The fanfic in question, the object of Rachel’s true fandom, is “Your Blue-Eyed Boy” by Feather.

3:40 – Steve has wood.

4:00 – Sumana’s reference to difficulty reading about torture “today” refers to when we recorded the podcast, in early December of 2014.

7:10 – Rachel and Sumana both knew the origin of the term “Winter Soldier” (it was news to me! I am a failed American).

10:30 – “Mothering versus Contract” by Virginia Held is an amazing piece of work, which came to me by way of my friend Monica; it first appeared in Beyond Self-Interest in 1990, and you can read some of it via Google Books.

17:30 – Robert Redford and Chris Evans in Helmets

20:25 – Specifically, Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1940. The joke about the title of this post is that they created him for a publisher known, at the time, as Timely Comics.

28:15 – The issue I am fumbling to recall was Captain America #292, from 1984, and the character was not a raven but Black Crow.

36:00 – Chris Evans is very angry with a punching bag.

37:40 – Rachel here references Ursula K Le Guin’s classic short story (PDF): “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe
one more thing.

39:00 – The Strong Female Characters are a joint creation of Kate Beaton, Meredith Gran and Carly Monardo.

40:15 – I couldn’t find an easily viewable version of the full pilot, but here’s a few minutes of footage from Global Frequency.

42:55 – Sumana is a graduate of Hacker School, now the Recurse Center, in Manhattan.

44:15 – I left this bit in because it has good comic timing.

46:05 – Sexy Murder Walk owes its name at least in part to Charlize Theron.

46:50 – The actress Rachel mentions, playing Bucky’s date and later starring in Doctor Who, is Jenna Coleman.

47:30 – Much of the inspiration for this podcast came from Sumana Meets Doctor Who!

52:35 – As requested. Picard and Riker use phasers to explode whatshisface's head.

Sense Memory

In the spring of last year I was very ill. It got bad enough for long enough that I actually made and went to a doctor’s appointment, which found nothing wrong in any actionable way. Keep resting, drink fluids. As I lay wrung out on my couch, too sapped even to watch television, I stared at the tall ceiling above me and listened to the whining in my ears surge and fade, amplified by fever. For the first time, and at last, it occurred to me: I have had tinnitus my entire conscious life.

The next time I went to my doctor I asked about it, and she nodded. “Did you have a lot of ear infections as a kid?” she asked. I had. One of my earliest memories is of resting my head on the kitchen counter and feeling hot fluid drip out of my ear as my parents discussed what to do in low, worried tones. I ended up having surgery to implant temporary tubes in my eardrums. The infections stopped, but the damage lingered.

Tinnitus is usually called a “ringing” in one’s ears, but that makes me think of a bell or a telephone, which is why I never thought it described me. (Are you one of the people who can hear a persistent, faint eeeee when a CRT monitor or television turns on on? It’s like that, all the time.) The diagnosis explains a lot, actually—my preference for bass-heavy music, the way white noise helps me sleep, the staticky rush and roar I sometimes get in noisy crowds. My hearing is pretty good, considering, but the sound will be with me for the rest of my life, long after age takes that hearing from me. I’m listening to it right now, writing this. I will be as you read it. I will probably never experience silence. Yet I spent decades unaware, unable to distinguish this aspect of my life from that of everyone around me.

I am ashamed of much of what I’ve written here.

The consequence of publishing the things you think when you are twenty is that, later, people can read the things you thought when you were twenty. Most of these things were stupid. Some are toxic. Some are harmful. All were willfully deaf and blind to my own privilege. Several dear friends have turned up here in the last few years and started reading from the beginning, only to be embarrassed or repulsed by what they found. Despite the unbearable kindness of Sumana’s retrospective about this blog, I flinch to think of what it says about me.

All of this is a strong argument for the most obvious action, which is to delete nfd, or at least lock it: for the right to forget my previous self. I think I’m a better self than I used to be, and better at being human. But part of being better is honesty about everyone I’ve been. Ten years on, I still believe in transparency. To wipe this all away would be to brush out the trail marks I’ve left behind me, the stumbling footprint path from ignorance to… well, partial awareness of ignorance.

So I am letting the record stand. Maybe someone will read it and pick up a few of the things that cost me so much time and so much of others’ patience. Maybe you will read it, and grant me your own patience; or maybe you won’t. I wouldn’t blame you. I am flawed in every sense, but I will keep trying to learn to listen.

“I won’t find out all the ingredients till I’m dead.”

My friend Sumana is pretty spry for a retired newspaper columnist. For years she was MC Masala, syndicated in several papers all over the SF Bay, even after she had left it for the other side of the country. I loved the column and read every installment, and I was delighted to see that she recently resurrected its archives on her personal site, nearly a decade after she began that phase of her career. (As befits her growing skillset and shifting direction, she wrote the CMS for it herself!)

From the beginning, the column showed off her skill (and taste) in comedy, cosmopolitan interest in religion, and clever use of parables from both ancient texts and her own life. I still use this aphorism about books and sandwiches to remind myself how to engage with people at social gatherings. I stole quite a few ideas for tiny stories from her, sometimes immediately, sometimes much later; she delivered insights about the nature of attachment that would influence me for years to come.

Over its run, she let her readers in on landmarks in her life in a friendly, almost conspiratorial way: her move from San Francisco to New York, the concurrent shift from one career to another, her wedding—and even personal connections to events on a larger scale, like the end of glasnost.

She was way ahead of the curve, of course, on relaxing vice laws and marriage equality. She showed up early to the fight against manspreading (and manxiety). She preceded me in getting over Aaron Sorkin, and I took way, way too long to come around to her Brian K. Vaughn fandom. And she made some predictions about herself that were wrong in amazing ways: she does, in fact, now give many thousands of dollars to charity, and one branch of her current unpaid public service uses skills she is still developing, and increasing all the time.

Reading back through these, I felt smug and flattered all over again that I got to make a subtle appearance here and there.

Her final column makes me well up with feeling. I first started following Sumana’s blog sometime in 2001, so right now it falls around the halfway mark in the timeline of our friendship. It’s only gained more meaning to me since the first time I read it—I’d never even listened to the Mountain Goats back then!* To this day, she posts regular entries stuffed with insights and links to explore, whereas I didn’t write a damn thing here for all of 2014. I am so fortunate that I was able to make a connection with her back then, and to have followed her with aspiration ever since.

It’s been almost nine years, Sumana; where are you from now?

I shouted, “Congratulations!” She responded, fist raised, “Perseverance!”

Quill & Scroll

In December my friend Sumana came to visit me. I have a longer entry to write about her, but I want to publish this one first. One night as we were hanging out at my house, she asked if we could make something together. So we got out pencils and paper and we did!

What we made was zine, a sort of companion piece to a zine she worked on with a different friend about animals who run bookstores in the Bay area. This one is about an all-night animal bookstore in Astoria. Sumana wrote it and I drew the pictures, and—I must emphasize this—it is completely adorable.

You can download it and print it out yourself if you would like to. It’s in the “8-sided zine with one cut” format, no tape or staples necessary. Here is the Quill & Scroll PDF and another PDF with no margin, which may make for easier printing. And here it is as an image.

Quill & Scroll

This work is released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.

Monica and Sumana came to visit! In the same week! It was a very full week, but I am still very fortunate to have had both my pretend big sisters come see me. I got to meet a nontrivial fraction of the Geek Feminism crew and attend the Beard Team USA National Beard and Mustache Championships, of which, yes, pictures will forthcome. Now: to sleep until August.

One of my favorite things of the many, many I’ve stolen from Sumana is the notion that blogs get a “house style.” This, for the record, is the reason long works (novels, movies, etc) get capitalized but not italicized on NFD.

The dark side of self-exposure

Sumana called me out on my 2007 goal-announcement entry and asked what the follow-up was for 2010-2012. First, HOW IS IT 2010 ALREADY. Second, I thought I’d already done an update on how those goals went, but I can’t find it if I did, so here we go:

Accomplished

  • Get driver’s license

Failed

  • Everything else

Okay, so at 28 I have managed to just reach a 16-year-old’s level of basic competence. Right on track! I got accepted to Clarion but couldn’t afford it, and GSP gently declined my teaching application: this indicates an unsurprising trend of nonprofit programs being happier to take my money than to give me more. I stopped running not long after I posted that entry in 2007, but I struggled into reasonable shape last summer and might be able to get there again now that I own an inhaler.

So. Let’s try this again.

My goals for 2010 are to script a graphic novel and run a half-marathon.

My goals for 2011 are to write a novel and publish a computer game.

My goal for 2012 is to be out of non-student-loan debt.

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