Category: Pulverbatch

Monster Pulse

I’ve been a fan of Magnolia Porter Siddell for a long time. Today she posted the last page of Monster Pulse, making it one of the only webcomics I have ever seen tell a cohesive, consistent, and conclusively satisfying story via the steady mechanism of Monday-Wednesday-Friday updates over the course of years. Ten years! That’s an extraordinary achievement, even apart from the sheer wonder and grace of her storytelling, and I think it’s one of the great success stories of the medium in the 2010s. Porter Siddell pursued evolution and risk in her art, stayed true to her inspirations while exploring far beyond their boundaries, and never let her readers down. I can’t wait to buy the print editions all over again. Re-read Monster Pulse!

Toward Translucency

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Last week I did something I’ve been putting off for six years: I went back through this entire blog, one page at at time, and locked away a few hundred of its two thousand entries. Most of those, but not all, were from the very early days of this millennium, when I still regularly listened to dialup noise before I could put a text file through a transfer protocol to publish things here. Some friends and I would eventually guess a few things right about the future of the internet. But I did not anticipate the future of Brendan. That’s in part because I didn’t know who Brendan was.

Reading through my public diary in full, for the first time in a long time, the feeling that emerged for me was… well, a bit less chagrin and resentment than has been there in the past. (Therapy!) In the past that feeling has obscured the text, preventing me from looking clearly at my own writing. What I saw this time was that through years of trying on different voices, whether projecting unearned assurance or closely imitating people whose assurance I envied, I was aching for an identity I had not found.

A lot of the things I would end up wincing at were attempts to write out ideas I didn’t even really support, just to practice thinking through them—things I then left to stand in the record while I moved on inside my own head. Many more were attempts to summon a Brendan who could achieve validation and love from the internet, the validation and love he didn’t know how to show himself, if he just put the right words in the right order. The blunt term for both cases, I think, is “sophistry.” But I’ve done enough excoriation over that. What I saw this time was that I had a lot of years of stumbling to do before I stubbed my toe on something that looked like self-knowledge. Starting to unearth it took years beyond that.

I think at least once a week, if not once a day, about the Web we lost. Right now I’m having complex and tangled feelings about the Web in which I started this thing. It was gentler, in some ways, than the milieu in which I’m writing this now—one where the idea of sudden attention makes me feel more fear than excitement. It was also exclusionary. The only reason I was able to start writing here, half my life ago, was my place at the pinnacle of privilege. That privilege has also extended me tremendous benefit of the doubt from all the people who have read this stuff and still decided to be my friends. I don’t plan to take either for granted anymore.

Deprecating a moment of pique I typed out about someone I dated for two weeks, which I then left on the whole internet for anyone in the world to read for twenty years, is not going to hide the search, the work, or the ache to figure out who I was. I’m not trying to polish my image here, or make it appear that I never held opinions I now reject. (I did! Lots of them! They might still be on the Wayback Machine!) What I’m trying to do instead is forgive the old Brendan for all the things he left for future Brendan to regret. And forgiveness means letting some of those things go to rest.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

Again, Juvies

  • Spider-Man: Far From: Home (20:19): You can probably skip down to Yojimbo (1961), this part is a nerd trap and I’m still caught in it. Also it’s full of spoilers, if you care about that.

    This purports to be a movie about the consequences of Tony Stark’s death, but even more present are the ghosts Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, who created Spider-Man together and both died in 2018. Whatever any given audience thinks of Lee, the people behind the Marvel Spider-Man movies were clearly big fans; the license plate and wrestling poster Easter eggs alone are indication of that, and the big hallucinatory illusion sequence in the second act is a big ol’ fanvid drawn straight from the Lee/Romita on-page experiments of the early 70s. I think it does Doctor Strange, another Lee/Ditko creation, better than Doctor Strange (2016) did. Sooo when you include a subplot about disgruntled people whose work was subsumed or absorbed to promote one man’s self-made aura of genius, it’s hard not to see another side of that too. There might be a movie out there that can sell me on the idea that the correspondence was deliberate, but as much as I enjoyed it, Far From Home is not that.

    There’s a lot going on in the movie thematically and none of it quite gels. Is this a movie about people needing to move on? That topic keeps coming up but never gets an emotional climax. Is it a movie about how drones are bad? It’s certainly not the first Marvel film to express that unease, but why does it go unremarked that Tony Stark apparently built a global pinpoint-assassination system just like the one Steve Rogers was willing to die to destroy in The Winter Soldier (2014)? Is it a movie about whether Peter Parker—who, in current comics canon, operates a multinational tech corp in very Starkian fashion—is meant to step into his dead mentor’s role? Kind of, but that shouldn’t even be a question the MCU has to ask, because the MCU already has an established born leader and tech wunderkind for its next phase of superheroes. Their names are T’Challa and Shuri!

    Is it a teen road movie? No, it backgrounds all of that in favor of very expensive-looking effects sequences. Is it a love story? Almost, almost. Tom Holland and Zendaya have about three scenes together, and they’re electric! Those two people are very good at acting! You have to have something special to actually sell me on a Peter/MJ romance in two thousand damn nineteen, and they did, but in true Sirius Black fashion, we barely get to glimpse the good stuff before it’s gone. A big flaw in the movie is how it continues the timeworn MCU tradition of failing to foreground its women; it needs not only more Zendaya, but more Cobie Smulders, and any at all of Jennifer Connelly, and more Marisa Tomei. How are you going to make a movie set in Venice with Marisa Tomei and ghost Robert Downey Junior in it and not even throw in a sly reference to Only You (1994)?

    Anyway, since I started drafting this post the movie made a billion dollars, so Marvel/Columbia/Sony are probably pretty happy with Jon Watts and his directorial choices overall. I just liked Homecoming so much, and thought this showed such potential to be a movie specifically suited to my tastes, that I have a hard time not wrestling with the things it wasted and missed. NERD TRAP OVER.

  • Yojimbo (1961): Man, just look at this.

    Some Yojimbos.

    There are eight people in this shot, where one of the contenders for town boss is receiving Toshiro Mifune’s ronin and wheedling for his services. I didn’t do anything special to grab this frame—I just paused my player and took a photo of the TV with my phone, like a monster.

    For the majority of people, color is a critical component of the way we separate shapes from each other, figure out what to pay attention to, and—like it or not—assess others. This image has no color dimension. But because its costume design is brilliant, my eyes immediately parse each person in the shot, and it’s even easy to grasp their ranks: the boss and his wife have the most ornate clothing, the ronin wears simple solids, and the background lieutenants each get a distinguishable but undistracting pattern. Because it’s blocked well, I know right away that Mifune is the center of the scene, with everyone else’s attitude cheated toward him. I happened to catch a frame where most of the lieutenants are looking down as they settle in, but the three principal characters always have their faces in full view or profile, so your brain can follow the conversation between them without the need to reverse between close-ups.

    It’s fun to be able to break that out after the fact, and it’s even more fun to get picked up and carried along by it in motion. There’s all kinds of STUFF in Kurosawa movies: moving weather, moving fabric, bold expressions and exaggerated gestures and all kinds of people on the screen. Heck with minimalism! It’s great when the frame is busy, as long you can do it in a way that works for the viewer instead of against them. Anyway this movie is good and cool.

  • The Old Man and the Gun (2018): I guess it could just be the Robert Redford fan in me speaking, but I certainly enjoyed this Robert Redford movie about movie star Robert Redford. It’s full of winks, but I was surprised to learn that casting Sissy Spacek opposite him was not one of them. They’d never been in a movie together before! They have wonderful chemistry, and I would have liked more of that instead of Casey Affleck’s dogged-mopey subplot, although his family was cute. When in doubt, always replace Casey Affleck with Sissy Spacek. Call that “the ek-eck rule.”
  • Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010): This is a movie against which one critic’s epithet of “Uncle Bong Hit” can be… fairly applied. Also I really enjoyed it. The first shot in which the camera moves at all is fifty minutes in, and I’m not sure there was a single shot that lasted less than ten seconds in the whole thing; the median edit seemed somewhere around two minutes. It probably goes without saying that the only music is diegetic. Imagine those being your constraints. Imagine having that much confidence in your composition!
  • Happy-Go-Lucky (2008): After talking a big game about my admiration for Sally Hawkins I decided I had to back it up by watching her breakout role, which is also my first Mike Leigh movie. Hawkins is extraordinary as expected. I knew that Leigh’s process of rehearse-improvise-rehearse-THEN write-THEN film was a whole unique thing; I did not know that the rehearsal process for this movie would have been happening while I lived in London in 2007. (I recognized zero locations aside from Hyde Park, but London is big and I lived south of the Thames.) This movie takes its time to get going, and anyone less charming than Hawkins in the lead could have grated a bit, but it’s lovely. Who else is going to make a movie that amounts to “a kind person politely and successfully asserts boundaries against hostile men, the end?”
  • The Iron Monkey (1977): There are about forty movies called Iron Monkey and this is not the one directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, it’s one that was alternately titled Monkey Fist Vs. Eagle Claw and screened for the Hollywood’s monthly Kung Fu Theater night. Aside from the part where it shows a CHILD GETTING STRANGLED ON SCREEN in the first act, it’s pretty much what you’re there for.
  • Predator (1987): I love Alien (1979) and that franchise has long been a point of comparison against this one, so I decided to watch this. I didn’t like it. All right, John McTiernan, I hear your latter-day argument that this movie has some satirical intent behind it: the scene in which the bulging shout-men clear-cut an acre of rainforest using infinite bullets actually does trample right past power fantasy into grand display of impotence. It is goofy, but what does it end up saying by the end? That when the mechanized instruments of murder fail you, you must turn to… less mechanized instruments of murder? That beneath the ugly mask of sport hunting is… a face that is also ugly? I don’t buy it! This movie wants to stab its cake and shoot it too.

    My favorite part was the special effects, which I think have now crossed a line from “dated” into “gloriously retro.” I spent most of the runtime thinking about the ways in which the Predator is shown to be a peerless hunter of men, to wit:

    • outnumbered and outgunned at all times
    • water-soluble camouflage
    • glowing blood for convenient tracking
    • slow-moving, light-up bullets for easy location in a firefight
    • tall-ish?
    • bound by strict rules of chivalry
    • cannot chew food
    • legally blind
    • frequently sleepy

    Damn, Arnold, you really skinned your teeth on that one.

  • Point Break (1991): See, with this one I can give credence to a certain archness of regard! Among Kathryn Bigelow’s other movies, I have only seen The Hurt Locker (2008), but that alone gave me reason to think she had a more nuanced understanding of masculinity than the other John McTiernan movie I have seen (Die Hard [1988]).

    Contemporaneous reviews of this movie seem to have missed the homoerotic frisson that overlays the entire thing, not to mention the way the film keeps rolling its eyes at the incompetence of the FBI characters and the surfer gang’s bullshit philosophy. This is a movie shot by someone who had already watched many men’s eyes glaze over as they stopped listening because they believed they had something more important to say. The silent camera, in fact, plays with everyone here like a superior dance partner, and that’s one thing the reviews did notice—technically, the surfing and skydiving and chase sequences must have been fucking hard to shoot! There was no bullshitting with CGI in 1991, and no infinite digital storage either. For every perfect curl we get to see someone riding through in slow motion, someone else was doing the same thing, holding a camera, with a limited amount of celluloid film in a canister, backwards.

    I loved this movie even though it had almost zero women in it. And having watched it, I’m now convinced that Bigelow invented the so-called Sorkin walk and talk!

  • Perfect Blue (1997): It’s 1:30 in the morning and I really want to finish this roundup because it’s also almost September! This movie has sexual violence in it. It is really interesting to compare to Paprika (2006), not only for to see how far Satoshi Kon and Madhouse came as animators in ten years, but to see Kon developing what between them amounts to a career-length treatise on the Kuleshov Effect.
  • High Flying Bird (2019): This movie was aaalmost ruined for me by an airbnb TV with motion smoothing turned on that I could not disable. It’s also one of two movies I watched this month that were shot on iPhones, and despite the fact that I love this cast (André Holland! Zazie Beats! Melvin Gregg from American Vandal!!) and this playwright (Tarell Alvin McCraney!!!) and of course this director, it was not the one I preferred. I enjoyed its subtle conceit about the long work of revolution, and its performances, but the decision to shoot everything in extreme wide angle with a single anamorphic lens is hard to handle. You can strap a telephoto onto an iPhone too, Steven! I really think at this point in his career that Soderbergh enjoys being able to execute what he wants very, very fast—they self-funded and shot a feature film on location in something like thirty days—and the result is not sloppy, but its spontaneity in form is a little at odds with its deliberate function.
  • Tangerine (2015): See, now, this is how you shoot a movie on a phone. Grainy, artificially warm, hectic, rife with bad decisions, full of characters who see the world through this exact same lens, and fun as hell. There is homophobia in this movie and use of the n-word by white people, but it is not sexually violent, which was a relief to me. It’s on Hulu! Text me if you want my password.