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September Cinema Soundoff

  • Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019): Watched with Kat under certain influences, which was not a bad way to do it. I do not recommend this movie if matters like “the scale and logic of these events and creatures makes no sense” will bother you, but it has fun with itself, and in all honesty, I thought it executed on its premise with some similar notes but better than A Wrinkle in Time (2018).
  • Duck Butter (2018): Also watched with Kat, who avowed that it was a decent depiction of lesbian dating on fast forward. It’s a very sexy (and also frank-to-the-point-of-unsexy) movie, and I enjoyed it! I got a little tired of the handheld camera and lens flare, a very pretty aesthetic that I prefer in measured doses. It’s always a treat to see Alia Shawkat and Mae Whitman hanging out, though. In what was either a goof or a very goofy in-joke, Kumail Nanjiani has a tiny role as an actor listed in the credits as “Jake” who… I think in the movie… then played a character named Kumail?
  • Magic Mike XXL (2015): Rewatch, and in a proper ecstatic group setting, for this is holy writ.
  • Bringing Up Baby (1938): Another movie I cannot recommend if “the logic of these creatures and events” etc etc, and I found it hard to buy any real chemistry between noted iconic beautiful bisexual people Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Also there’s a scene between an actual terrier and an actual leopard that I cannot imagine the forerunners of the ASPCA were happy about. Not my favorite screwball or my favorite Grant, though I did enjoy how much he looked like a 21st-century avant-garde fashion icon in the scene where he’s running around in jodhpurs and tails.
  • Mikey and Nicky (1976): Now, see, THERE is the darkness I could feel trying to creep in the seams of A New Leaf (1971). I can’t say I enjoyed watching a number of these scenes—the sexual coercion, physical abuse and race-baiting by the title characters is a hell of a choice to make—but then, this is a movie whose tagline was “don’t expect to like ’em.” Indeed I did not, tagline! But I did like seeing that May’s technical directing had advanced to a striking degree in the years between her first film and her third. The mini-doc on its creation on the Criterion disc stressed again and again that despite the fluid, improvised feeling of the rapport between John Cassavetes and Peter Falk (and May’s own background in improv), every line between them was in May’s script, and even their spontaneous interactions were under her direction. That is impressive, and almost as impressive is the story about how May got fired from her own movie but (saith Wikipedia) “succeeded in getting herself rehired by hiding two reels of the negative until the studio gave in.” I have no desire to watch this movie again, but if I had to choose between it and the following entry, I’d take this one.
  • Being There (1979): Man, this movie. It’s beautifully photographed and well acted and it’s not for me. I posted on Peach (yes, Peach) after I watched it that it seemed like the most old-school Republican movie I had ever seen, and got immediately questioned on that by my movie-watching friends. I will concede that director Hal Ashby and star Peter Sellers were by no means conservative voters. I didn’t miss the satire of the political and media classes woven through it, which I am certain would later influence Armando Iannucci: the shallow characters’ hunger for a novel face and twistable platitudes, and their projection of political guile or sexual prowess onto the blank canvas of a simple man.

    But the shape of the actual narrative is at odds with that intent. The protagonist—well, the focus character, this movie has no protagonist—is simultaneously a naif and a cypher who spends exactly one day outside the lap of megawealth in his life. But he’s not an antihero, and the camera loves him. A lot of the plot is taken up with mourning the passing of Melvyn Douglas’s titan of industry, and the mourning is impossible for me not to read as genuine! I think that in 1979, before Reagan, this movie would have carried a lot of nostalgia for an era of bipartisan harmony between rich white men. I placed it next to the preceding movie because I think “don’t expect to like ’em” applies again for me here. The suits Sellers wears here have aged beautifully, but that central takeaway has not.

  • Enter the Dragon (1973): Rewatch, as the conclusion to the Portland Intermittent Hong Kong Kung Fu Movie Club. When I last watched it in 2012, I was struck by how directly some of my old favorite nineties movies had lifted its scenes or sequences; this time I was struck by what a joy seems present behind the frame, despite the grim attitude of its story and its central character. In this case, neither all of the movie’s scenes nor all of its suits have aged well, but the sense that they knew they were making something special here persists.
  • Burning (2018): This is an adaptation of a Murakami short story, and I’m not particularly a Murakami fan; it is also a thriller that takes a solid eighty minutes—the length of some entire feature films—before the plot gets going. The full movie is 148 minutes long! But I was interested enough in the costuming and set dressing, which are meticulous and subtle, to stick with it and enjoy it. The core cast is fantastic, particularly Steven Yeun, and I was very glad that the frequently absent score kept from hammering home any of its ambiguous points.

    For another take on Murakami that I really enjoyed, which does use music but lets you interpret the visuals, I recommend LeVar Burton reading “The Second Bakery Attack.”

  • A Room with a View (1985): I’m pretty sure this is the first Merchant Ivory production I’ve watched, and I only sort of liked it. I have seen few movies about such a trivial and silly cast of characters, which is maybe part of the point, but I appreciated Maggie Smith and Judi Dench and Daniel Day-Lewis bringing some deft and unspoken dimension to their stock types. I was going to say “understated” there but then I backspaced over it because, you know, Daniel Day-Lewis. This movie has great costumes and some of the shots are just gorgeously composed, especially in the first act! But as far as rich people having flings in Italy go, I prefer The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). I don’t know why I’m imagining being forced to choose between movies so many times in this roundup. Maybe because I’m writing this during my last week of opportunity to get things from Movie Madness?
  • North by Northwest (1959): I don’t know if you’ve heard of this movie, but it’s pretty good. I didn’t enjoy Mad Men very much, but I think if I’d been familiar with Cary Grant’s character here, I might have felt a little more fondness for it. The thrill of a grasped reference goes both ways, too: when Hitchcock lingered on a long shot of Grant blinking down an empty stretch of road, I got to hammer my thigh and go “plane! plane! plane!” with great glee.

Speaking of a long journey that involves both Mount Rushmore and Chicago, this is the last roundup I will begin drafting in Portland! I am on track to get pretty few movies on the list in October, but I am hoping to follow this with at least one entry like those from my original road trip out west eleven and a half absurd years ago.

Kat sent me an article that bothered me, so I wrote a post for my employer’s blog about some of my favorite hobbyhorses. (I like my job; let me know if you want to work here.)

Filmbruary Circular

As I start to draft this post, I am basking in the confirmation bias that informs me that I am in fact good and smart for having watched almost none of the movies that were nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, because obviously what do they know. (Green Book was not one of the movies I saw.) I did see Black Panther and Into the Spider-Verse, like all right-thinking humans, and I already knew they were wonderful! Who needs the Academy! Get outta here!

  • The Sweet Smell of Success (1957): In January I watched The Bad Sleep Well because of a brief Every Frame a Painting essay about one shot in it, and then shortly thereafter I went and got this from Movie Madness because that essay has a quick bit about it in the intro, and now I want to see everything Alexander Mackendrick ever made.

    This is not a movie about good people, and is honest about the way selfish men treat women; I say that as context for this clip from early in the first act, as the protagonist is starting to reveal the nature of his character. It’s one of those little scenes—almost all in a single unassuming shot—where you can turn the dialogue off and still read all the emotional beats, but it’s also visually interesting in a way that I am learning to parse out. The whole thing is an exposition dump, but my eyes never get bored! The camera’s point of focus, the actors’ blocking and business, the swing back and forth in composition between crowd scene and private scene as Sidney’s attention wavers and resolves, and the parallax and bokeh happening along the longest axis of the room—all of that works together to make it fluid, interesting and alive, even if you never notice any given element.

    The story is great too, contained within a very specific situation and time that are well-explained even fifty years later, and the love I have borne for Tony Curtis ever since Some Like It Hot is rekindled. There’s a whole chapter in Mackendrick’s book On Film-Making where he just breaks down how the script for one particular scene changed between two writers, and it’s illuminating.

  • Better Off Dead… (1985): Watched on a date to help fill out my Cusack filmography. Not a classic. It might have been if it were a little more self-aware: it’s sort of a refined concentrate of all the ingredients in a “throw it at the wall and see” 1980s mid-budget comedy. I did like the part where the demonic newspaper boy does a chase scene on a BMX fitted with skis, which… you see what I mean about the concentrate.
  • Mission: Impossible::Fallout: (2018): My brother has never forgiven this franchise for its first outing, but I have in time come to like them. This one is very capable and polished, but it’s also the first one in the series written/directed by someone who has directed one before, and it suffers for that! I have some cockamamie theories about the elements of creative works that drive them to popularity in fanfiction, but one of them is that a given book or movie, to get people really invested, has to leave gaps. People love to fill those in, and reveal exciting new connective tissue between disparate points. Sometimes that impulse is fine. Other times, it leads to internet articles about “fan theories,” which is not fine. But worst of all is when it leads a creator to perform… SELF-FANFIC. This is not quite the same thing as self-insert fanfic, and in fact might be worse. Get outta here, self-fanfic! Anyway, that’s what this movie is too, but the part where Henry Cavill cocks his fists is good.
  • The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001): This movie made by Joel and Ethan Coen in the style of a noir from the 50s is a lot like a noir from the 50s made in the style of Ethan and Joel Coen. I found it really interesting to watch so soon after The Sweet Smell of Success, which is about a driven fast-talker on the make and has its own propulsive forward energy, contained in a single long night. This movie is about a man who is impassive and silent to a tragic fault, and it seems to stretch out over about a year. But they share the same fundamental law: thou shalt not try to step outside one’s station, even one freaking time. This also earned a rare exemption from my own fundamental law (“thou shalt not use voiceover narration”).
  • Dogtooth (2009): Hoo boy. I saw The Lobster a couple of years ago and so had some hint of what I was in for, but the darkness of The Lobster is often funny, and gains some aesthetic distance from its magical-realist setting. No one seems to be able to agree about whether Dogtooth is a black comedy or a drama, but I didn’t laugh at it, and despite the absurdist false-vocabulary central device, it felt very close to real stories of captivity and abuse. All the long takes achieve the tension they aim for, and some are even beautiful, but the camera still feels like a blunt instrument.
  • The Parallax View (1974): I rented this movie because I vaguely thought it was a Cold War spy-chess-game thing. I don’t know what I was thinking of, because this is actually a meandering, paranoiac conspiracy thriller with a Sprockets video in the middle. I didn’t like it.

    The most interesting part is how it attempts to evoke generational fears that are different from my own. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that, by my count, every living political candidate in the United States gets murdered by lone gunmen in this movie. (Don’t worry, there aren’t any well-drawn villains with comprehensible motivations behind that.) Meanwhile, in a scene that stunned me, Warren Beatty walks directly onto a tarmac from his parked car, gets on a plane, and then buys his ticket from a flight attendant while already airborne. And it’s not like the threat of hijacking didn’t exist already! The plane gets grounded by a bomb threat! But the configuration of our panic buttons has changed.

  • The Emperor’s New Groove (2000): Rewatch. Reading a little about the background of the movie made me want very much to watch The Sweatbox, and learning that its in-flight course change was “hey what if we just made a Chuck Jones cartoon?” repositioned it in my estimation. It’s still a middling to fine movie with bright spots (Eartha Kitt), but it’s also the only time we will ever what the see 90s Disney animation corps makes of a feature-length Looney Tune! I’m glad it exists for that reason.
  • How to Train Your Dragon (2010):

And with that, I will temporarily leave you, because I need to post this already and I watched FIFTEEN MOVIES in February. That trend will not continue, but now I do want to see if I can get through a hundred this year. I will write about the other seven later on, but for now… “get outta here!!” ;D

I often consider locking all the older entries on this blog

But that would prevent me from making deep cuts like this: Mitch McConnell spoke at my college graduation. I was very young and very tired when I wrote that entry, and McConnell, though well into his career, was not quite the architect of enormity he has since become. Elaine Chao spoke too, and it’s amusing to me now that I called her a “fervent liberal.” I wonder what I’ll have to laugh at fifteen years from now.

This came to mind because earlier this week, McConnell got harangued at a restaurant in Louisville, and because when I read the story I realized it was a restaurant I know. I feel compelled to explain why I find this amusing as well: the Bristol is maybe the worst place you could pick to eat on all of Bardstown Road.

It’s an iceberg-salad, sirloin-well-done kind of place, where everything costs about twice and tastes about half what it ought to. It’s also right in the middle of some of the best food in the city, and for that matter in the state. McConnell is among the most powerful living humans and a multimillionaire; he could afford to eat every night at Jack Fry’s, 80-odd years old and still killing it, or get the farm-to-table prix-fixe menu at Lilly’s, both within a few blocks of the Bristol. Those were once-a-year treats when I was digging myself a debt hole there back in grad school. McConnell could have thrown a stone and hit someone’s baked brie or lamb burger at Ramsi’s Cafe on the World, or turned the other way for a thick, crispy Louisville-style pizza at Impellizzeri’s, which still has an hour wait every night. He could have had the most delicate fish I’ve ever tasted at Seviche. He could have gotten his teeth stuck on the candied short ribs at North End Cafe. For fuck’s sake, he could have gotten better food at Burritos As Big As Your Head.

But he went to the Bristol, possibly because none of those other places would lower themselves to seat him. And he got overcharged for probably a tasteless beer and a milquetoast burger that would recoil from the notion of spice. Forgive me if I hope someone spat in it.

This post is mostly an excuse to make myself hungry thinking about how good it smells just to walk past open doors on that street, and how fond my heart is of that place and time. Lynn’s Paradise Cafe isn’t there anymore, or Nio’s 917, or Twice Told, and neither are most of the friends I used to sit down to dinner with. But Louisville is still home to much of my family and to a lot of restaurants that punch way above their weight. You have to really love something to make it that good, in a small city. If food is a way of feeling, then I think taste is a way of caring, and in at least those little ways, our little lives are better than his.

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.

Peer to Peer

I worked for the Centre College IT department during my senior year. It was 2002. BitTorrent hadn’t reached critical mass yet, and the filescape was fragmented: finding music or software cracks meant risking your boot sector on Kazaa or Limewire or eMule, and I spent weeks cleaning malware off the computers of those who tried. Even so, I knew I had it easy. Just a couple years beforehand, IT had been dealing with Napster.

I had been part of the problem myself, then. Music is so ubiquitous now, from so many services, that it’s hard to remember when it only came in physical form. I only brought a couple dozen CDs with me to college; they, and what my friends would loan me, were all the music I could listen to. Then I downloaded this piece of software, and—while the network creaked and shuddered—my Dell became a boundless playground.

There was so much weird stuff out there, and so many obscene delights: old TV themes, rap skits, Prince B-sides, that wildly misattributed cover of “Gin and Juice.” Oh, also every song I’d ever wanted. Before the advent of decent portable MP3 players, we burned teetering stacks of sharpied CDs, or stuffed them into fat binders; we blew out car stereos and hijacked theater sound boards. Most people go through some kind of music epiphany in college, but I’ll never be able to separate my own from the opening floodgates of P2P distribution. It couldn’t last.

The courts didn’t really kill Napster: money did. I’m afraid for Twitter.

Twitter has to start making money. They’ve decided to make money via advertising. Faruk Ateş can explain why that’s a bad idea, both in selling one’s users and in stifling innovation. I wish I could just pay Twitter to let me keep posting from my third-party client and stop serving ads.

Yet I regret intensely paying to join app.net. Everything I love about Twitter comes from the fact that it’s free, anonymous, open and inclusive: my broke friends won’t be on app.net, nor will the horse books or identity thieves or psychotropic stumble-spelling genius joke poets. But will they be on Twitter? Or will Twitter fuck this up and commit suicide by cash?

It’s mindlessly easy to get music now: free if you want it, fast if you pay. But there’s no playground. The weird is dead. I have no doubt that we will retain the ability to type out 140-character sentences in any number of places for some time to come, and I know that the (vast, vast) bulk of those sentences are throwaways. But some of them are the best sentences we have yet made in English, and they can only exist in the atmosphere of Twitter, the alacrity and transience and irony and fierce, fleeting joy.

Right now, I can carry 281 people I love in my pocket, and pull them up whenever I need to learn something new. Twitter is how I talk to the world. I know this isn’t entirely healthy, but intoxication rarely is. For the second time in my life, I’m high on sharing, and I don’t want it to end.

Story Hacks: Tenth in a Series

Did you know that when you describe something in terms of a color, you are also describing it in terms of symbolically? It’s true! Here are the many things that colors can represent in fiction.

  • Black: awesome death stuff, bad people, whores
  • Red: blood, bad people, whores
  • White: nonwhores (don’t overdo this)

That’s all! You can go home now.

Today’s Hack in a Nutshell: WHAT other colors

A year ago today I threatened to write a 20-page explicitly homoerotic fanfic prequel that would explain all the interesting parts of Inception, a movie whose plot you likely only somewhat recalled even as you left the theater.

I wasn’t fucking joking.

THE WARSAW JOB

Story Hacks: Ninth in a Series

Bear with me, because this S is about to get C, but there are times when—by sheer demographic necessity, or just to be different—you may want to write about a female protagonist. “What?” I hear you say. “But then how will I make my readers care about anything that happens to her?” I know it seems impossible! But there is a simple solution to this problem: Sexism.

It seems hilarious now, but in the misty past of yore, Sexists ruled the land and would frequently make girls feel bad for not being as good as men. To subtly indicate that this controversy will be your subject matter, have a man smack your protagonist on purpose in her butt area, then join his friends for a group smirk over cigarettes. I bet your spunky chick blows her hair out of her face and looks mad to show that she didn’t like it! This is classic Sexisy, one of the three unforgivable narrative sins. (The other two are kicking a dog and saying the “f-word”) (“fat”)

Now that we know who the bad guys are—the Sexisms—and who the good guy is—the girl—have her secretly practice being just as good as a man at something only men are good at. She wants to show everyone what she can do, of course, but how can she? She has too many female emotions!

Fortunately she will meet her savior: a bad boy with a good man inside him, who can learn that women are people too once she beats him at archery or boxing or whatever. Then, when the evil sexist goes crazy but not exactly because of our heroine because she’s really not a troublemaker, she and her new boyfriend can team up to defeat the metaphor once and for all! Now your audience has learned that females can solve almost all their problems, with help from men. No more sexistry ever! GIRL POWER!

Did I mention that she should be super hot but in a kind of tomboy-y way? That’s important.

For bonus points, make the villain a mean lady, to show that really the whole problem is chick-on-chick violence. Now that you’ve solved sex, you can do the same thing with racism! Instead of a heroine, just substitute a hero who is not white, then whoops I am being thrown from a moving car at freeway speed

Today’s Hack in a Nutshell: UNGH thudthudthudthud thud thud scraaaaape, CRACK

whoooshhh

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Technoir

Matthew is running a cyberpunk story game called Technoir for Harry, Alex and myself. It’s very good, and I’m not just saying that because it cites Brick in its inspirations. Here’s part of the mechanic for healing damage: when your character has been tagged with something that describes permanent physical, emotional or social harm to them, you have to get surgery to implant a piece of cybertech that “replaces what has been lost.”

Left implied is that of course it fucking doesn’t, nothing does, that’s not how loss works. But it is how cyberpunk works, in one elegant sentence that happens to be a functional rule. That is brilliant game design. Well done, Jeremy Keller.

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