CategoryAngst

“In a tree’s rings you can see the years of drought.”

Sumana’s been on a pretty amazing run of posts, and this one struck me right through:

“We come together every once in a while to refill on trust and camaraderie and a shared understanding of what we’re trying to do and who we’re trying to do it for; I assume that, for some folks, those wells have now run dry.”

Eight years ago, I was already feeling a kind of nostalgia for my own version of con season, even though I was right there in the thick of it. A long summer is one thing, but a drought is another. I feel the ache for my friends as if it’s a loss, even though, by impossible fortune, I don’t think I have lost anyone yet. But the time we could have spent together is life we won’t get back.

Reverse Anniversary

As of yesterday we were supposed to be married.

I didn’t even want to wait that long, really. After I proposed, Kat pointed out that a standard year of engagement and planning would put us right back in a Chicago winter, which offers logistical difficulties; I said, okay then, why can’t we just go ahead and get married in the fall? But Kat’s season is really summer. We settled on what is, often though not always, the first nice weekend in spring. We knew it was a gamble on the weather, but we didn’t know quite what else the stakes comprised.

It’s very beautiful outside right now. That die came up lucky. But late in the summer of 2020, with no coherent leadership and no clear timeline for when it might be safe to see our loved ones again, we took a deep breath and told our ceremony venue, our reception venue, and our caterer to kick us down the road to March 2022 instead.

There are few things I have ever wanted as much and as long as I have wanted to be married to Kat. I really hope this year won’t be quite as long as the past one, but it won’t be short. I’ll be forty before my wedding instead of after. It’s an arbitrary number, but it still brings home, to me, the cost of a lost year of one’s life.

Last night we got dressed up for a delivery dinner of fancy mushroom buns and congee, and Kat brought me a bouquet of flowers, surprising me the way she does every single time. Today we sat in the sun six feet from two of our closest Chicago friends and raised plastic cups of champagne. I still don’t feel quite to the point where I can even start grieving our losses. But oh, God, despite our shaggy hair and hollow eyes and aching hearts, I feel the sheer luck by which we have stayed well and safe this long as a weight upon me too.

Love Me

I would assume that if you are reading this you don’t need to be told that BMI is a garbage metric

But longtime nfd favorite Emily Nagoski comes out swinging with the data in a way that makes for straightforward citation.

There are always more than enough takes to go around, on days like today

So I just want to talk about a Wikipedia article that I think about all the time.

There was this guy named Louis Slotin, who worked on the Manhattan Project and then continued atomic research at Los Alamos. This story doesn’t end well for him. He particularly liked to demonstrate an “experiment” in near-criticality that involved opening and closing the two hemispheres of a beryllium shell around a solid core of plutonium. There was a safety protocol for this experiment; Slotin decided not to use it. Instead of the standard shims that kept the shell from closing and thereby causing the core to go supercritical, he liked to wiggle it open and closed with a screwdriver. While wearing cowboy boots.

Smarter people said that this was a dangerous practice; Richard Feynman’s remark led to them calling Slotin’s demo “tickling the dragon’s tail.” But saying things was all they did. And when Slotin’s screwdriver slipped one day, the immediate burst of radiation killed him, and only his body partially shielding the others in the room from the blast saved their lives. Some of them died of leukemia or the complications of thyroid failure, too young.

Slotin was considered a hero by the US government for quickly flipping the shell back open and ending the reaction, and for dying, I guess. I differ on this matter. Slotin wasn’t learning anything or gathering data that day; he was showing off, angling for stature, flirting with death for the dozenth time and finally succeeding in his overtures. Tickle the dragon’s tail long enough and the dragon is going to do something about it.

I wonder if the men in that room wanted to make history. I wonder if this was how. And I wish this particular point in history were more widely understood.

After the Slotin incident, which followed an earlier near-disaster when physicist Harry Daghlian died by dropping a tungsten carbide brick on that same plug of plutonium, the scientists at Los Alamos redesigned their protocols and stopped doing hands-on experiments. But they also changed the nickname of the plutonium from “Rufus” to “the demon core.” These trained physicists—these men—reviewed the fatal interaction between one of their colleagues and an inanimate object, and they could not find it in themselves to put the blame on him.

To pinch the tip of today’s allegory, the core was allowed to cool off, then divided up and incorporated into other sources. Plutonium has a very long half-life. Its atoms are either still in use or polluting our atmosphere. This is the law of conservation of one’s demons: they can be summoned but not destroyed.

Here are some movies we watched in August

There was a span of about six hours after I posted my most recent entry where I used “former” in place of “latter” before I realized and edited it, and I’m still bothered about it. If you thought I was saying something weirder than usual last time, let’s just assume that was why.

  • The Man from Hong Kong (1975): Streamed via 36 Cinema with live commentary from returning champion Dan Halsted and this movie’s director, Brian Trenchard-Smith, who was considerably the more verbose of the two. Sammo Hung did the fight coordination (and appears as a character getting the crap kicked out of him by police) for this movie, its lead was a veteran Hong Kong superstar, and Trenchard-Smith clearly did his homework studying the Shaw Brothers canon. The fundamentals are all there: locked-down camera, wide angle to let the audience read the fights, respect for screen direction and the 180-degree rule, long shots with a tacit rhythm of impact, serious and committed stunt performances… but it doesn’t work. I can’t quite say why! Maybe because we’re not given much motivation for the action, and because the “hero” never pets a figurative dog. Or maybe there’s just an emergent magic in the mechanics of a good martial arts movie that is easier to notice when it’s missing than to parse out when it whisks you along.

    It is interesting that this Australian production from 45 years ago gave the Chinese star in a majority-white cast the kind of violent and sexual agency usually reserved for white characters like James Bond. But I don’t like most James Bond movies either.

  • My Lucky Stars (1985): This was another 36 Cinema stream, and it was even more disappointing! I was pretty excited that this one had not only Sammo Hung but Jackie Frickin Chan, and that it featured commentator Scott Adkins, a stuntman turned filmmaker who action nerds love to nerd out about for sparking a direct-to-video action movie renaissance. Adkins clearly does know his stuff, and I liked the details of stunt work he pointed out; his fellow commentator Frank Djeng filled in a lot of cultural context for the movie, its origins, and its place in the stars’ careers, which was a good balance.

    Unfortunately, the movie sucks, with all the stunts (and the entirety of Chan’s role) confined the intro and ending, while it spends the long middle section on broad comedy that features a lot of groping. Also, Adkins dropped an r-word joke which took my opinion of him right through the floor, and moderator Mustafa Shaikh failed to address it. Djeng was the only one who came off well.

  • The Holiday (2006): A feature film in which noted actor Jack Black portrays the human manifestation of someone typing the word “*smile*” into an email.
  • If Beale Street Could Talk (2018): I love James Baldwin, and I love Barry Jenkins, and it still took me two years to work up the courage to watch this.

  • Moonlight (2016) and Medicine for Melancholy (2008), for all that they put me through many feelings, seemed to me to feel gently toward the viewer. The dreamlike colors and structures and the occasional ellipsis offered me just enough aesthetic distance to take in the sweetness of their stories along with the pain. If Beale Street Could Talk is if anything more elliptic, more dreamlike, but I couldn’t find any emotional distance from its story at all! Jenkins situates some of the crueler events from the book (which include multiple sexual assaults and a suicide) behind verbal and facial implication, which I think earned him criticism because others read that as excising them. But the choice didn’t make them land any softer on me. This movie made me feel like pine under a chisel.

    And still, there’s nothing harsh about it. Jenkins makes beautiful people look halfway deific, and the skill with color, saturation and tone that you’d expect from him is all here. All the physical violence is kept offscreen–though there is one particular moment of violence deferred, when frustration leads Stephan James to smash a pack of hamburger against an alley wall, that feels like you could derive a full semester’s worth of film theory from it. The score by Nicholas Britell is tender, and has some of my favorite horns I’ve ever heard. It’s prominent, which I don’t always like, but in this case it’s almost used as a reassurance. Every time the narrative covers some cruelty and then jumps in time to a softer moment, the rising main melody is there to pick you up with it.

    My theater professor Tony used to talk about the temperatures of different media, in terms of the emotional intensity they readily evoke in an audience; a novel is a cool medium, television and film are warmer (and—he liked to say—live performance is the hottest of all). This is one of the Baldwin books I haven’t read yet, and he has a great sense of play in his language even when he’s driving things home, which you can hear in the lines excerpted as Kiki Layne’s voiceover narration. All of that is to say I don’t know if reading the original work is as hard-hammering, or hammers in the same way. I think it’s possible that Jenkins got this story boarded, took its temperature, and then worked on dialing it down a few degrees—implicating, reassuring, limning with gold. But in 2020, with the world on fire, it seared me anyway.

  • Weathering with You (2019): Whiiiiich brings us to this movie about youth, pain, and climate change. It is also fifth in a series of “bittersweet, moving anime movies about adolescent feelings as crystallized through a speculative fiction device which I watched with Kat and her friends Courtney and Kailey, which activity has delivered some of my favorite moments in the last few months.” Sort of a sequel to Your Name. (2016), in the same way that 2046 (2004) is considered a sequel to In the Mood for Love (2000), in that I-get-it-but-my-personal-canon-reserves-final-judgment.

    Your Name was striking for how well-balanced and commingled its bittersweetness was: both sides of that emotion arose from the same events. This movie has a bitter plot, and a sweet plot, and they are entwined, but that is different. There’s an anger running through it, as in “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” that demands its own space. I took Your Name. right on the chin, but this one goes for the gut.

    Quality animation takes so much time and labor that when I think about cartoons that enact their story beats in the first way that comes to mind—or the second, or third—I don’t get it. When the rate of production is measured in days per second, not books per year, why would a writer take shortcuts? Why resort to cliche—a term that now makes me envision a pre-set line of type—when people are going to take your plan and turn it into calligraphy? One of the tendencies of Makoto Shinkai’s work that I respect most, so far, is that he likes to set you up for a plot point, and deliver it—but take a fourth route to get there, or skip right by it to the consequence and let you fill in the missing frames. It demonstrates trust in the audience without resorting to the oblique or cryptic.

    I know (now) that Shinkai has been compared to Hayao Miyazaki, and has demurred about it, because he writes and directs popular animated features about young people with environmental messaging. That is a pretty small demographic to belong to, but their movies don’t look or sound very similar at all: they’re as different as they are alike on the surface. The directorial trait where they overlap most, to me, is that neither lingers on the downbeat of resolution that has already landed. They know how much each frame of the work costs, and when they need to stay with an emotion long enough for it to register, they tend to cut it close. They don’t seem to feel they have the luxury of grinding out their points; they just aim to pierce you.

  • A Goofy Movie (1995): I think Pocahontas (1995)—oh boy, speaking of cartoon scripts that resort to the trite—was the last Disney animated movie I saw in a theater until Frozen (2013). I never watched A Goofy Movie, because I never watched the Goof Troop TV series, and because of that in turn I didn’t remember that it actually came out two months before Pocahontas. This is a silly but sweet story about fathers and sons learning to listen to each other and express their love aloud, and that much holds up a lot better than…. you know, romanticized colonial violence. (Whether Max and Goofy are better read as Black characters or as minstrels is a debate I don’t think I can meaningfully contribute to.)

  • I was surprised that the studio was able to put out two theatrical animated features in the same year at all, though, on top of their direct-to-video schedule. It turns out this one was kind of an experiment—while the main Disney studio in Burbank was focused on Pocahontas, they put a crew of a dozen Burbank storyboard and key animators on this one, and outsourced the rest of the work to subsidiary studios in Paris, Sydney and Toronto. Pocahontas, which I think stands up much better visually, had a $55 million budget; A Goofy Movie was made for $36 million, which it just barely recouped in box office. International exchange rates, cheap voice actors, and ten minutes’ difference in runtime can account for some of that budget gap, but the rest of it makes for a very visible absence. One scene here will have stylized water animation, another will have character shading, but neither gets both. Remote work was a lot harder in 1994! The final product is a pretty valiant paste job, but it doesn’t cover the seams. As Shinkai and Miyazaki would likely point out, the cost-per-frame of solid technical animation seems resistant to compression, which reinforces my previously stated admiration for lower-budget work like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006).

    I wonder how many times Disney tried this kind of outsourcing model for theatrical features between the late 90s and their return to form for The Princess and the Frog (2009). That line of thinking made me poke around again in the interest of digging up buried documentary The Sweatbox (2002), and just as of July, it seems to have reappeared on youtube! I’ll see if I can review that before it gets taken down again.

I promise I have movie reviews half-done in a draft somewhere

In my younger, clear-eyed, empty-headed days, I was fond of saying things on this blog in a format that usually ends “… I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

That hasn’t been my position in some time, and oh boy, do I still have anxiety about people digging through my archives to weaponize my naiveté. But if I could speak to my past self—once the initial salvos of profanity concluded—I’d ask him to take a good hard look at the clause above. “The death,” it says. Why, young Brendan, is that an article rather than a pronoun?

Notes from the New Normish

Hi, we’re alive and fine. My privilege is as evident as ever, as my daily routine of isolation with Kat resembles what Maria called “an extended snow day,” mostly but not entirely without snow. I hurt for the sick and grieving; I worry for the essential and vulnerable; I watch Bon Appetit and experiment with vegan baking; I do my internet job and I watch out my window and wait. Here are some things that have held my interest in the last little while.

  1. As mentioned in asides, I read too much about menswear online and off these days. My favorite habit is to bargain-hunt for clothes from Japan on eBay, prance around the living room in them to aggravate Kat, and then secret them away so I can buy more. But the emergent result is that I’ve learned a lot about things I might have disdained ten years ago. I don’t have any special interest in James Bond, for instance, but Matt Spaiser’s blog about the tailoring of the films has taught me a ton about men’s fashion in the last sixty years. His post on how Cary Grant’s suit in North by Northwest (1959) went on to influence Bond’s costuming is a great example of the dry clarity of his writing.
  2. It seems like I’ve never written about Porpentine Charity Heartscape here before, which is strange, as her work has loomed large in my view and admiration for… seven years? Eight? Her work in writing and game design blends the sweet, the filthy, the transgender and transhuman, the pure and the skin-crawlingly cute in a way I find singular in every sense. If that sentence doesn’t hint at some content warnings, then I hope this one does. But that boundary is very much worth braving if you are so emotionally equipped. Her recent story “Dirty Wi-Fi” on Strange Horizons is a good introduction to her prose and perspective.
  3. Despite my limited dabbling in microelectronics, I can’t follow many of the technical specifics in this review of process and call for aid on a final, perfect Super Nintendo emulator. But the SNES was a system that still informs my design and aesthetic sensibilities, twenty-seven years later, and I respect the author’s work very much. The most striking quote to me:

    “I can tell you why this is important to me: it’s my life’s work, and I don’t want to have to say I came this close to finishing without getting the last piece of it right. I’m getting older, and I won’t be around forever. I want this final piece solved.”

    What an extraordinary thing it seems, to me, to know what your life’s work is. I hope one day I do.

Here are some movies I watched in February

Movies! Remember them? Sometimes, you’d go into a big room and watch them be huge in the dark.

  • Three Days of the Condor (1975): Talking about this movie before I’d finished it, on the phone with Leonard and Sumana, they mentioned it as worth comparing to Mikey and Nicky (1975). That one was a high-profile 70s movie directed by a woman, and this is a high-profile 70s movie directed by a man. They were right: the difference is distinct. I didn’t exactly enjoy Mikey, but it was unflinching. This movie is clever, but its view of human nature is occluded by certain ideas about Men and Heroism, and its camera direction didn’t seem to show much imagination to me. The costuming was really good, though. A lot of fun coats.
  • Bound (1996): It’s a bit goofy in its atmosphere, but this movie (which I’d never seen before) has so much more visual imagination than almost anything else out there. Even other well-regarded noir! Having viewed The Matrix (1999) through a new (queer) lens also gives me double vision about this one, and not just because a lot of this is clearly practice for that: monochrome wardrobes, overhead pan shots, even some of the exact score cues. It still has the texture of a 90s movie, though, where The Matrix was the first thing I watched that really anticipated the look of the next century. And helped create it, for that matter.

    Kat had the insight that if you looked at this film as something created by two men, it must have seemed voyeuristic; knowing that it’s a movie made by two trans lesbian women, its cinematic gaze seems much more like a form of longing.

  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019): Speaking of longing! And visual imagination! I thought this movie was extraordinary, in part because it hit me right at the level of “my very expensive college education has prepared me to interpret this art,” but mostly because it’s just fucking great. I thought the trailer had betrayed its entire plot and was delighted to learn I was wrong. Céline Sciamma demonstrates great command of a lot of particular things that I’ve learned to appreciate in the last year and change. It’s sparing in its use of music (three instances, all diegetic), and its silent long takes aren’t showy, they’re there to give you and the actor the chance to stay with the moment and register its emotion. It uses voiceover only twice, in a way that makes sense, and sets the expectation for its use early so that when it returns it doesn’t kick you out of your immersion. Even its color grading is deft, including some use of the infamous orange and teal that works because this is a movie about fire and the sea.

    Kat and I watched this on a double date with friends Morgan and Hannah, and all four of us chatted excitedly over each other on the ride home, trading things we noticed about its stance on absent men and wavering class divisions and its apparent concept of a (white) feminist utopia. It even has a tacit, subtle comment on what it means for someone’s clothes to have pockets. Portrait isn’t perfect, but it’s going to take a lot for anything else to knock it out of the top slot in my movies of the year.

“What is the most amazing thing in the universe?”

On Thursday, amid rising feelings of unease, Kat and I traveled to San Francisco for a wedding; by Friday we knew it was a mistake, but there we were. It was good to see her family, not least because we finally got to talk wedding plans in person. But we’d planned to fly back Tuesday night after some time touring the Santa Cruz boardwalk and a movie premiere with friends in SF. Instead, we scrambled out on Monday at lunchtime, just ahead of a shelter-in-place recommendation. We both feel fine, though there’s no way to know what damage we have silently transmitted. We’re trying to limit it, going forward, by ceasing social contact for the next two weeks.

The weekend was, as Sumana says, an inflection point, at least in the perception of much of the country and the information we consume. Anyone at ease made me jumpy, and anyone jumpy made me… also jumpy. On Monday, as we tried to fill up our returning rental car, the pump behind us started gushing gasoline onto the concrete. As I ran inside to tell the clerk to shut it off, I expected the world to shrink its shutter angle and go full shakycam. It didn’t; some people yelled at each other and then they cleaned up the mess. We were all fine, but no one was easy. By April I don’t know how much the pace of change will continue to inflect, or how much this will have already settled as an uneasy new normal. Last Thursday my view of the world was different, and Lemon, it’s not even Wednesday.

As long as I’m doing the “remember that I have a blog” thing this year

I’m writing here about something that happened last fall; at the time my feelings about it were varied and fraught. In the early days of this web site, when no one read it, I would write about events in my romantic life in a very granular way. As this web site approaches middle age, when no one reads it, I have learned by example to be reluctant about sharing the specific and intimate with a world where search engines are used to destroy human beings. But this feels worth recording.

I am in love with my partner Kat, and we’ve been together for over three years. We live in different cities and we date other people sometimes. Kat has a girlfriend named Sophie, a wonderful writer who wrote a wonderful book about dating people other than the (wonderful) person she married. As part of promoting the book, Sophie submitted a column about falling for Kat to Modern Love, and that is how I ended up with a cameo in the New York Times.

Kat and I were actually in New Orleans for Sophie and Luke’s wedding when the American paper of record published details about my relationship that would be readily identifiable to anyone who knows either of us. The wedding was beautiful, and reading the column the morning after was surreal. I was simultaneously very elated and very worried that unforeseen consequences of the publication would come back to hurt me or the people I love.

Such consequences have not yet come to pass. No one has shunned or shamed or exposed me, and my fear has receded, leaving the elation behind. I’m the happiest I have been in any relationship and, despite my worries about the world’s future, I’m excited about our future. And if I was going to pop up in the Sunday NYT somehow, this is pretty much the best way I can imagine that turning out.

© 2021 not falling down

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑