(3) Mon Jul 27 2020 13:38 Situation Normal:
I'm happy to announce that my science fiction novel Situation Normal is being published by Candlemark & Gleam! It'll go on sale December 14th, 2020. Here's the acquisition announcement, and it's time for the cover reveal!
(Cover art is by Brittany Hague, who did a fake book cover as part of Thoughtcrime Experiments way back when.)
My elevator pitch for Situation Normal is "the Coen brothers do Star Trek". It's a military SF story where no one is incompetent but everything goes wrong. Situation Normal is a direct sequel to my Strange Horizons story "Four Kinds of Cargo", but the crew of the smuggling starship Sour Candy is now only one thread of a plot that includes weaponized marketing, sentient parasites, horny alien teenagers, and cosplaying monks. It's the result of a lot of work for me and Athena Andreadis, and I hope you love it!
Sun Jul 05 2020 21:05 June Film Roundup:
More months, more quarantine, more big drama! We started watching the Tom Hiddleston Coriolanus and weren't into it. Here's what we were into:
- Small Island (2019): A great "immigrant experience" drama... from England? A sure sign of national decline, that other countries are beating us at our own game. Just another reason to watch Hamilton on Disney+!
Seriously, this was probably the best show of the month, with really well-defined characters and well-timed comic relief. Recommended!
- The Madness of George III (2018): Just as Oceans Eight (2018) got me to care about the Met Gala, this movie got Sumana to be sympathetic towards George III. I really liked the political machinations, but what I'd really like is more This House. I also thought this play took a lot of cheap shots at 18th-century medicine. It wasn't super funny and seems like the ultimate soft target. I mean, everyone from that time period is dead... because 18th-century medicine was terrible! Zing!
For someone like me who doesn't really know the history, this play has an interesting happy ending. The king gets better! But then you go to Wikipedia and it turns out ten years later the same thing happened again. As so often happens, it all depends on when you stop telling the story. Brits: do you know what happened with George III or is it a high-school blur of "well, he was mad, and then the Regency happened"?
- A Midsummer Night's Dream (2019): A silly original text made enjoyable by really leaning into the silliness; plus acrobatics, some judicious fourth-wall breaking and a well-executed gender swap (Oberon has all of Titania's lines and vice versa). When combined with having much of the audience as groundlings milling around the stage, this performance really felt like it delivered the modern equivalent to the night out you would have gotten in Shakespeare's time.
Tonight the gala Television Spotlight shines on CanCon production Schitt's Creek, co-starring Film Roundup favorite Dan Levy, who is either playing himself on this show or took his Schitt's Creek character to The Great Canadian Baking Show, because they're the same person wearing the same outfits. The show's fun, low-key Canadian take on "Arrested Development but not mean", the sort of thing we saw with Jane the Virgin.
Sun May 31 2020 18:09 May Film Roundup:
More prerecorded live theater, but since all the National Theatre productions etc. have IMDB pages I've decided to just call them "films".
- Frankenstein (2011): We were not big fans. We saw the version with Benedict Cumberbatch as the creature and Jonny Lee Miller as the doctor, rather than vice versa. I don't think it would have made a big difference because my problems were with the super-unsubtle script. Some nice bits of staging... and some super-unsubtle bits of staging. Not subtle, I guess I'm saying.
- By Jeeves (2001): In conversation afterwards, Wodehouse superfan Elisa revealed she'd seen the original London run of Jeeves in 1975. She spun a fantastic tale of the play having originally featured a heavy Roderick Spode fascism subplot, a tale backed up by the Youtube link she sent me of S P O D E, Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."
That show sounds really interesting but it was a flop, so Webber eventually reworked it into this simpler, fluffier, lower-budget piece with a really awkward framing device. Still kinda funny though. Sumana and I thought Wooster was depicted as way too stupid (and uncharacteristically aware of his own stupidity), and Jeeves as way too snarky, but Elisa says that's in line with the earlier stories, before Wodehouse had a handle on the characters.
Hard for me to complain about the slow start because Webber himself defused the criticism in a wrap-up video where he smiles warmly and thanks the fans for watching all his plays, "even By Jeeves—slow start, I know."
- Antony and Cleopatra (2018): Not much fun apart from the mental pleasure of decoding 500-year-old jokes.
- Moon Zero Two (1969): Rewatch of the MST3K cut during the MST3K LIVE Social Distancing Riff-Along Special with Emily Marsh in the big chair. I really enjoy the underlying movie (it's stupid, but its decent budget gives it a lot of fun sci-fi set dressing), and it was nice to see a good print of it rather than the much-circulated VHS tape I remember watching.
- A Doll's House: this one fell flat for us; not sure how much of the problem is with the original vs. the changes made for the adaptation. Some good Hitchcock-esque suspense with the letter.
- Barber Shop Chronicles (2018): A great play: a convoluted plot that turns out to involve just a few simple human relationships. Big recommendation.
- Cats (1998): I confounded expectations by loving this play. It was exactly as good as Cats. I'm not going to see it again and again, though.
It's hard to beat the book here: the poems are really enjoyable. The staging puts the cats at around Fantastic Mr. Fox on the anthropomorphic animal twee-meter, which is right where I like it. I've never been a huge fan of "Memory", the show's hit single, and next to all the Eliot it really felt out of place, like a practice song for Phantom.
The enjoyability of Cats didn't mean we spared it our acid riffing. Our best one: as the rest of the cast takes their bows, someone busts on stage singing ♬ I'm Chumbyfate, the cat who's always late! ♬
- This House (2013): Engrossing political dramedy with an incredible soundtrack and staging. Probably our favorite of the National Theatre set so far. We started out thinking the play might be entirely fictional; then the wealth of detail convinced us it was probably somewhat historical; then I looked it up afterwards and not only did all the big plot beats happen, all the people portrayed in This House are real people who now have OBEs and Wikipedia pages. Another big recommendation... and since this is the most recent National Theatre production to go online you can still watch it, assuming you reliably read Film Roundup right when I publish it.
Sun May 03 2020 16:18 April Theatre Roundup:
For the first time since the institution of Film Roundup, I didn't watch any films last month. Instead, Sumana and I streamed recorded-live theater performances from two British sources. With theatres closed, the National Theatre has been putting up one play a week from their 2010s archive. So far they've all been excellent. (I'm adding IMDB links where possible, to disambiguate from other performances of the same play.)
- One Man, Two Guvnors (2011): Really enjoyable farce with a good variety of types of comedy. Not a lot to say; we loved it. Big recommendation.
- Jane Eyre (2015): Sumana has read the book and I haven't, so we played a game where Sumana would periodically pause and I'd make up how I thought the story is going to go. I think I did pretty well—I invented an "inspirational teacher" character who was cut from this adaptation but is present in the original novel.
This is where I started noticing that the National Theatre does really cool set design. One Man, Two Guvnors was written as a play and it's got normal British play-staging: a drawing room, then a street, then a pub, etc. But when you're adapting a novel that spans most of someone's lifetime, you need a more abstract space that can be reconfigured on the fly. These sets act like children's playgrounds, providing scaffolding for the imagination. This is probably entry-level stuff, but I don't watch a lot of theatre.
- Treasure Island (2015): Another fun one, with a super-impressive set that transforms from inn to ship to island to cave. How closelyy does this production track Stevenson's original vision, most clearly realized in Muppet Treasure Island (1996)? Well, there are no Muppets, that's a big ding. But Patsy Ferran makes a great Jim Hawkins, and most of the time you're watching Jim, so minute-to-minute I think it's better.
- Twelfth Night (2017): I discovered here that watching Shakespeare with subtitles really helps you understand the play and feel smart. In fact, by the time we finished watching Twelfth Night I was convinced I had written Shakespeare's plays. I mean, look at this acrostic:
Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness,
Rherein the pregnant enemy does much.
Aow easy is it for the proper-false
Nn women's waxen hearts to set their forms!
Olas, our frailty is the cause, not we!
Eor such as we are made of, such we be.
Low will this fadge? my master loves her dearly
Exactly the sort of stupid stunt I'd pull. Anyway, check out this presentation of one of my classic comedies. Oliver Chris plays Orsino as exactly the kind of amiable public-school dunce he brings to the role of Guvnor #2 in One Man, Two Guvnors.
On a less highbrow note, on the weekends we've been watching Andrew Lloyd Webber shows on The Shows Must Go On!, a YouTube channel created just for this purpose. Despite what I thought going in, it turns out I'm not a big fan of Webber's stuff. I remember liking Evita when I was a kid, and I'm holding out hope for his quirkier shows, like the Jeeves and Wooster musical and the... Thomas the Tank Engine???
- Jesus Christ Superstar (2018-ish?) - My favorite so far of the Webber we saw this month. Great concept, decent songs. I regret missing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat the week before, since my sisters like that one.
- The Phantom of the Opera (2011?) - There's a common type of story about a Tormented Man of Genius whose Genius explains/excuses/justifies his antisocial/misogynistic/destructive behavior as he drives away everyone he cares about. You can read The Phantom of the Opera as a gender-swapped version of this story, about a Tormented Woman whose destructive Genius manifests as an abusive, overdemanding partner. That's an interesting story, but probably not the intended reading. The title song is rockin' but watching this felt like buying an album having heard the one hit single.
- Love Never Dies (2012) - The less said the better regarding this Phantom sequel. The best thing to come out of this viewing was our joke that the 'song' the Phantom has written for Christine to sing turns out to be the Doublemint Gum jingle:
♫ Double-double your refreshment ♫
♫ Double-double your enjoyment ♫
SING FOR ME!
- Andrew Lloyd Webber: The Royal Albert Hall Celebration (1999): Not technically a musical at all. At this point I realized that even front-loading the greatest hits won't do much for me. I will give props to Julian Lloyd Webber for refusing to dress up for his brother's birthday celebration, performing an energetic cello piece wearing what looks like a football jersey from videogame publisher Acclaim.
(1) Sun Apr 19 2020 17:53 It's All the Go!:
When I'm under a lot of ambient stress, one of my low-energy hobbies is browsing old catalogs. One that caught my eye recently was the 1926 Albert Pick, Bath & Company supply catalog for soda fountains and ice cream parlors. My nostalgia for tutti-frutti and walnuts in syrup is secondhand—the drugstore soda fountain was basically dead when I first encountered one in the late 1980s—but I was spending a pleasant hour paging through this catalog and chuckling at the old-timey language when I saw an intra-catalog ad. A space in the catalog was being used not to advertise a product, but to advertise a page further along the catalog:
"Krusty Korn" Baker
Turn to page 94 and see our New Money Maker. Cooks Frankfurters and Hamburger in Corn and Molds them like an Ear of Corn. They're going to be a Big Hit.
That's pretty silly, I thought. Who the heck thought "Krusty Korn" would catch on? How do you even cook a Frankfurter "in corn"? But it worked. I turned to page 94. And there I saw...
Krusty "Korn Dog" Baker
Something New in Money Makers
It's new, novel, and delicious to eat. The Krusty "Korn Dog" is a corn bread waffle, shaped like an ear of corn, with a "hot dog" baked inside. All done in one baking. IT'S ALL THE GO AND MAKING BIG MONEY FOR OPERATORS ALL OVER THE COUNTRY. The "hot dog" is baked inside the corn batter, which, as it bakes, moulds itself to resemble an ear of corn. When broken open it looks exactly like an ear of corn with the golden kernels on the outside and the red cob of sausage in the center.
It's corn dogs. This is the ancestral form of the corn dog. They used to be molded like ears of corn with little kernels. Amazing. Maybe we shouldn't have stopped thinking of the coating as a "corn bread waffle"; corn dogs might be haute cuisine today.
Sat Apr 04 2020 11:39 Film Roundup: "These Trying Times" Edition:
The Television Spotlight is in full force this month; Sumana and I are watching Ken Burns's epic "Baseball" documentary (1994) with all its slow pans and Shelby Foote drawls. PBS is streaming it for free within the US. We're not quite done, but I feel comfortable recommending it. Don't care about baseball? It's for you! I think for people who do care, this documentary may be a little boring. For me, it's nice hearing people really passionate and knowledgeable about the long history of something I don't really care about. And only about 20% of it is depressing, unlike the Civil War documentary. Steven Jay Gould is a nice surprise.
Finally, just a reminder that my Film Roundup Roundup page has over 150 recommendations to tide you over while Film Forum is closed. Take care!
Mon Mar 09 2020 19:24 Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: Analog, September 1980:
The big highlight here is Steven Gould's very un-Analog "The Touch of Their Eyes". Good writing, cool 'superpower'.
A couple other bits worth mentioning:
In an inversion of the usual, Mack Reynolds's "What the Vintners Buy" is an era-typical sexist romp right up to the end where there's an incredible plot twist that should have been revealed at the beginning of a much different story. For the record, the twist is that the entire interstellar economy is a scam, with every planet spending all its money on a genetically tailored drug produced by some other planet. Too clever to leave unexplained, too specific to rip off.
And in a "no longer satire" moment, Susan M. Schwartz's "The Struldbrugg Solution" mentions a college class called "Myth in the Classic Stan Lee Comic".
Back cover ad pushes The Number of the Beast with the blurb "Look Where Heinlein's Been for the Last 7 Years". I admit I haven't exactly been cranking out the novels, so I probably shouldn't snark. In fact, maybe this ad points the way to what my work has been missing: "sensual scientists."
Wed Mar 04 2020 17:01 February Film Roundup:
I wasn't kidding about Space February:
- Remember the Night (1940): Really nice rom-com with heart and a satisfying bittersweet ending. Brought down a bit by the stereotypically racist "comic relief valet" role given to Fred Toones at the opening. I dunno, you make this nuanced, funny piece that carries powerful emotions across eighty years and I gotta put a big asterisk on it because of cringey racism. Not to single out this movie in particular; Fred Toones has 223 roles listed on IMDB, thirty-five of which are "Porter (uncredited)". He played "Porter (uncredited)" in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington!
Filmmakers take note: Remember the Night is effectively an edgy Hallmark Channel Christmas movie and could be remade as such.
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979): My first time seeing this on the big screen, and it was preceded by a talk from Film Roundup fave Douglas Trumbull! Some cool photos and juicy special-effects gossip. Then, the movie! It's not great. Reading between the lines of Trumbull's talk I feel like I got an understanding for what went wrong. But I've been reading The Best of Trek, an old series of books assembled from fanzine articles, and fans in that era were pretty hungry. Easy to turn up our noses today, when there's an entire streaming service being kept alive by original Trek programming.
As with Star Trek V, I'm gonna stand up for this "bad" movie as having a heart of pure Star Trek. First, nothing else has the scale of the V'ger flythrough. The Dyson sphere in "Relics" is bigger, but 1) it's just a sphere, 2) the Enterprise barely goes inside. This is klicks and klicks of varied, mysterious organomechanical sensawunda. Great stuff.
Second, it's common knowledge that ST:TMP is a rehash of a TOS episode. But is that so bad? Why not take a classic episode, crank up the humanism, and give it a lavish big-screen makeover? Isn't that better than where we are now: redoing the first "good" Trek movie over and over?
Bonus from discussion: Trumbull is working on a cinematography technique involving filming at very high framerates. He's been working on this for a long time—Brainstorm (1983) was supposed to be a showcase—but the return of 3D movies, which are filmed at high framerates, means movie theaters now have projectors that can show these films.
Trumbull made bold claims about the immersive qualities of films made using this technique, claims I think could be tested relatively easily by reformatting the 2016 Ang Lee movie Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. I haven't seen that film, but it was shot at a high framerate and was panned for problems Trumbull says he has solved. That contemporaneous Slate article paraphrases him as saying that eliminating flicker creates a better film experience—the opposite of what I heard him say in person—so presumably he's learned something from Billy Lynn. Just noticing things from outside the industry here.
- Space is the Place (1974): I was really into the first scene, which takes place on a TOS-like alien planet with weird flora, but they must have used the whole budget on that scene because the rest takes place in hospitals and warehouses and is mostly dull. Big credit for early Afrofuturism, and the nonchalance with which all characters accept the science fictional premise. Sun Ra goes to the youth center to rap with the kids and a lot of them are like "who's this old fogey?" but there's no "I'm skeptical that you just spent several years in space."
If you're a fan of Sun Ra's music then I'm sure the music redeems it, but I'm not (sorry, Jake). In fact, this film made me realize I'm not really into Frank Zappa anymore. When I was in college those long guitar solos seemed like the sort of thing I should like, and would grow into as I matured, but during this movie I kept thinking "I know their styles are polar opposites, but this is boring me in exactly the same way as a thirteen-minute Frank Zappa song." So, it's good that this film got me to examine my preconceptions.
- Alien (1979): Rewatch with Sumana. It's still great! Before showtime I asked Sumana some diagnostic questions to see what she knew about this movie from cultural osmosis. "There's a famous scene in this movie. Do you know what I'm referring to?" She didn't at the time, but during The Scene she gave me a significant elbow nudge.
- Dark Star (1974): Also a rewatch with Sumana, but I originally watched Dark Star in the pre-Film Roundup era, so I'll go into a bit more detail. Like Space is the Place, this has some great scenes, but at feature length it's a slow ride. I was thinking "man, that ending seems really familiar" and chalked it up to having seen the movie before, until Sumana also mentioned finding it familiar. Turns out it's a ripoff of "Kaleidoscope", a really good Ray Bradbury story we'd both read. You thought Stephen King's student-film "Dollar Babies" were a bargain, but plagiarism is even cheaper.
Sumana found the dude-heaviness of Dark Star a bit tiresome after the greater diversity of Alien, which is reasonable, but I think Dark Star gains power if you see it as a movie made by a buncha guys who are worried about being drafted.
Sat Feb 01 2020 22:11 January Film Roundup:
Welcome to Space January! Thanks to the museum's new 2001 exhibit and its filmic tie-ins, I got to see lots of space flicks in January. Next up: Space February!
- Apollo 11 (2019): I was blown away by this film, made almost entirely from unused contemporary footage synced with mission audio. There's a little illustrative CGI and on-screen graphics, but it's mostly just amazing shots of people and equipment. Two bits stick in my mind in particular. First, a long, long pan through rows of computers and rows of desks that ends up in what you see in other movies as Launch Control. It was like seeing the whole iceberg. Second, this movie dramatizes the 1202 incident, creating a near-Uncut Gems level of tension, without having to stop and explain what was going on. You just hear the real-life participants dealing with the problem and you get the gist. I may be watching this again at the museum soon; that's how good it is.
- High Life (2018): I was 100% engaged in this Silent Running style story with this guy and his daughter, and then that story turned out to just be a framing device for a J. G. Ballard type of thing in flashback. Claire Denis told the story she wanted to tell, but I was not into it until the flashback ended, at which point my interest abruptly resumed. So not a recommendation overall.
Caution to doesthedogdie.com fans: I don't think I've ever seen this many dead dogs in a movie.
- We saw a bunch of more or less spacy 2001-inspiring shorts. Some of this called back to 2013's computer film festival with droning and strobe lights, but a couple stood out: John Whitney's Catalog, which true to its name felt like a sizzle reel; and Colin Low's special-effects extravaganza Universe, narrated by Douglas Rain and starring a daredevil astronomer. Watch 'em online!
- The Earrings of Madame De... (1953): This is... a film noir. I see why it's not marketed as such: it's super femme and it takes place in the 19th century. But it's the story of someone who makes one bad decision and has to keep hustling and doubling down and improvising until the aftermath ruins her life. Just awesome. Would love to see more stuff like this.
- Dolemite is my Name (2019): Doing a biopic as a comedy is a great idea; there should be more. Pure moviemaking fun. Loved the cameos. One obvious comparison is Ed Wood, but this movie seems to care a lot more about accuracy. The main liberty I found in IMDB trivia was dramatizing the filming of some scenes from the Dolemite sequel as though they were from Dolemite. Presumably just for fun.
- Ikarie XB-1 (1963): For the 1960s this is some impressive psychological sci-fi. Like watching two really good TOS episodes back-to-back. A little heavy-handed, but I repeat myself. I went looking for director/screenwriter Jindrich Polák's other stuff and randomly found a time-travel thriller comedy (Tomorrow I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (1977)) and an ET-like family movie (The Octopuses from the Second Floor (1987)). A solid body of work!
But here's the secret to Ikari XB-1's success: it was based on a Lem novel! One of the early ones, the ones that never got translated into English but provided seemlingly endless grist for Eastern Bloc filmmakers (see First Spaceship on Venus, which is basically a bad version of this movie but it's easier to tell the characters apart). It's a little moviegoing treat, like finding a Billy Wilder writing credit.
And the surprises keep coming: when researching this I learned that MIT Press is reissuing six of Lem's books later this month! Including a new translation of The Invincible, which I've never read. Very exciting. Don't sleep on Memoirs of a Space Traveler and His Master's Voice!
Got a hot Television Spotlight tip for ya today: "The Repair Shop", a wholesome BBC reality show where conservationists who normally (I'm assuming) make top £££ restoring Rembrandts and Louis XIV cabinets, turn their skills to family heirlooms brought in by random people. You may have noticed that I only like reality shows where people are nice to each other, and this one's 100% collaborative, very relaxing to watch.
Sat Jan 11 2020 13:41 Leonard's Excursions 2019:
Just a memorandum of some of the unusual travel and fun things I did in 2019.
Early in the year I took my first trip to Chicago, for DPLAFest. I stayed with Beth and we did some fun tourist things, like the Chicago Architecture Center boat tour! Accept no substitutes! Or do, it's probably okay. But the CAC tour was great.
We also hit the Chicago Art Institute, which was a real highlight, since Beth is a fine artist who went there all the time as a kid and talked about her favorite pieces. A few of my favorites which I'll share with you, via the medium of website links rather than my own awkward photos.
- The Artist Looks at Nature by Charles Sheeler. This is the piece hung directly to the right of American Gothic. Beat the lines!
- Cow Relieving Itself by Nicolaes Berchem the Elder. Nuff said.
- Robot by Alexandra Exter. Absolutely incredible, especially considering it's from 1926!
- i\Ω.. by Jacqueline Humphries. The Smooth Unicode of fine art!
- Eviscerated Corpse by Mike Kelley, the work that
made my 14-year-old mind stop in its tracks at LACMA and understand contemporary art.
They've also got the old floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange off in a corner! A corner I guess they use for events, since I don't think the Chicago Stock Exchange originally had a grand piano on the floor. Some live music would have really classed up the joint, though, I tell you what.
In May, my sisters came to New York and surprised me with a weekend of tourist activities and a fancy dinner!
For my birthday we planned a getaway in upstate New York at a rented house with a few friends. Allison and I did some stargazing and saw a little bit of a meteor shower. Shout out to Rodgers Book Barn, the perfect mix of "peaceful rural atmosphere" and "huge used bookstore". Thanks to Zack and Pam for driving.
Allison and I went to a Manfred Mohr retrospective at a gallery. Never heard of him before but it was definitely art the two of us can agree on. I really liked his plotter-esque pictures from the 70s and 80s, such as P2400-297d_5225__black. The names of the artworks feel like program filenames; I was expecting a bunch of
PS: in June, Sumana and I randomly ate dinner at Copinette, a French restaurant on the former site of Copain, the much fancier French restaurant that Gene Hackman stakes out in The French Connection. You live in New York for a while and these odd coincidences become smaller and less common, but they still happen!
Sat Jan 11 2020 09:53 The Crummy.com Review Of Things 2019, Part Two: Film:
Well-covered throughout the year as always; what you're here for (assuming you're here at all) is the top ten!
Most of the movies in this year's top ten come from the 1980s, due in large part to Bill Forsyth's dominance of the scoreboard. Sorry to be the person in the Youtube comments on a rock video saying "Wish I had a time machine! I'd go back to the 80s and relive the same ten-year span over and over until I died! Who's with me? haha!"
- Wings of Desire (1987)
- Knives Out (2019)
- Breaking In (1989)
- Comfort and Joy (1984)
- Face/Off (1997)
- Gregory’s Girl (1980)
- Working Girl (1988)
- Puppy Love (1985)
- Booksmart (2019)
- Sweet Charity (1969)
On a meta level, I love how almost every year my top film of the year has been one I went into without any particular expectations. Keep the surprises coming, I say.
If you only care about recent movies, here's my top list from 2019:
- Knives Out (2019)
- Apollo 11 (2019)
- Booksmart (2019)
- Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019)
- Born Bone Born (2018)
I snuck Apollo 11 in there even though I saw it on January 5th, because it's just that good. As always, I've updated Film Roundup Roundup to include about thirty recommended films that in I either first saw or first reviewed in 2019.
Fri Jan 10 2020 19:37 The Crummy.com Review Of Things 2019, Part One:
Here's our Christmas card photo. I impulsively volunteered to wear the Patience suit for an NYPL photo shoot that I don't think ended up being used for anything? I would not repeat this experience, but I'm glad I did it: I got a taste of what it's like to be the weirdo in Times Square everyone has decided to ignore. So let's start this Review of Things off right, with:
The Crummy.com Books of the Year are the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirsten. I can't say enough good about these books: how they're fantasy and science fiction at the same time; how tight the integration is between worldbuilding, character development, and plot; and how varied the pacing is. I'm so glad that the Internet has let the books come out of midlist purgatory, find their audience, and give Kirsten a way to finish the series.
Some other notable books I read in 2019:
- Lifelode by Jo Walton (Sumana's recommendation for a Steerswoman readalike)
- The Pigeon Tunnel by John le Carre
- Minitel: Welcome to the Internet by Julien Mailland and Kevin Driscoll
- Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia by Christina Thompson
- Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot by Vera Tobin (Of huge interest to writers but not, according to reactions when I talk about it, to anyone else)
I finished volume 3 of Mark Twain's autobiography, as promised. He's the Twainiest! Also, I recently learned about the incredibly sleazy tactic UC Berkeley used to keep copyright on this book until 2047, when it would have otherwise expired in 2003. The best I can say is that, judging from the contents of the autobiography, Twain himself would have approved.
I've been reading Bleak House for most of the year; it's slow going! But not for the reason I expected: there's a whole other subplot in here that I don't find super engaging.
The Crummy.com Game of the Year is "Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead", an open world zombie survival game that's also run as a modern open-source project, with pull requests and code review. Not only is this great for keeping gameplay fresh in these kitchen-sink roguelikes where wealth of detail is really important, it's really good to see on its own. This could be the gaming gateway that gets The Kids interested in software development best practices!
Other fabulous 2019 games I played include "Baba Is You", "Untitled Goose Game", "Dicey Dungeons", and "Super Mario Maker 2".
I wrote four short stories in 2019: "Meat", "Mandatory Arbitration", "User Error", and "The Scene of the Crime". Three of those stories feature a character who in one of my luckier future timelines becomes my Sherlock Holmes, a character who is remembered long after I and all of my other work have been forgotten. Very positive about this character, is what I'm saying. Really fun to write.
I assembled a NaNoGenMo novel: Linked by Love.
I'm getting much more aggressive this year about placing my fiction, so hopefully we'll see some sales. In terms of novels, there's good news and bad news and for now I'm gonna have to go with a big NO COMMENT.
I created only one bot this year, Secretly Public Domain, and I made it for a specific activist purpose which is more or less seeing results. As per NYCB passim I had some additional bot ideas, did the fun part of the work, and let the code sit in the
programming/2019 folder of my archive.
I decided not to keep Almanac for New Yorkers going in 2020. There's one more year of life in the project, thanks to 1939, and the 1938 almanac for San Francisco, but the project wasn't super popular and 2020 isn't the year. Maybe later.
I do have two "just for fun" bot ideas that I'm gradually seeing through to completion. One of them is going to have to wait until I'm sick or otherwise mentally impaired and have nothing better to do than go through a huge amount of text, but you're gonna love it. And by "you" I mean "Allison".
Wed Jan 01 2020 11:13 December Film Roundup:
A pretty highbrow month with some well-done films but not a lot of joy. Thank goodness for the Muppets, that's all I can say.
- Knives Out (2019): The highlight of the month, right off! A really fun film that pulls off the delicate dance of not being a traditional murder mystery that we've all seen before, but also turning out to, yes, be a traditional mystery after all. I'm always there for an eccentric detective, and quite often there for the story of a wealthy family who lost everything.
- Ad Astra (2019): I did not enjoy this movie but it had one perfect science-fictional detail, it dramatized a real-life detail I'd never seen dramatized (astronauts being paranoid about their psych evaluations), and its final message was one I've never seen presented in filmed SF, so in some sense it was good? I appreciate it on an academic level but it didn't move me.
I kept thinking Natalie Portman was going to be in this, but that's a whole other 2019 space-madness movie, Lucy in the Sky, which has an oof IMDB rating of 4.5.
- The Stranger (1946): Not quite the "together at last" I was hoping for from an Orson Wells/Edward G. Robinson matchup, but definitely a watchable thriller. I enjoyed the small-town machinations—who will bring the ice cream to the tea social?—as well as Robinson playing a cultured character closer to his real-life persona more than the "thriller" bits, but it's all part of the puzzle.
- Muppet Treasure Island (1996): My nephew's introduction to the Muppets! He was enraptured! However, he was also enraptured by Dr. Seuss' The Grinch (2018) when we slapped that up on the TV to keep him busy, so it's tough to exclude the null hypothesis.
As for myself, it was great to see Tim "the human Muppet" Curry serve up the ham, and I loved the fresh Kermit/Sam relationship where Sam—whose defining characteristic is craven service of power—sees Kermit as "power" rather than a suspicious intruder to be reported on Nextdoor.
Overall, this adaptation made me want to read the book, whereas The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) makes me feel like I've gotten everything good that the book has to offer. That's an impossibly high bar to expect from a film adaptation, but Christmas Carol meets it.
- Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978): Seen at the museum with Rachel, Brett, and nephew. I could lose the ice-skating intro, but what's really nice here is Bert and Ernie's child-logic "Gift of the Magi", and what's really nice is the gentle way Big Bird's Santa obsession is handled. Unlike basically other Santa story I've ever seen, this is a dual-layered story that you can appreciate on its own terms whether or not you Know.
After seeing this we walked through the museum's Jim Henson exhibit, and nephew (again, no previous Muppet experience) instantly recognized and loved the Big Bird puppet. Although we didn't run the experiment, I don't think he would have reacted the same way to the mo-cap dataset used to map Benedict Cumberbatch onto a CGI Grinch.
- The Irishman (2019): Speaking of mo-cap datasets. Saw this on the big screen (at the museum, again) the way Martin Scorsese intended. It was very enjoyable, though the enjoyment was tempered by the interjections of a film-snobbish audience member during the intro. I came here for a movie; I don't need the live show!
Anyway, this was a really solid straight-down-the-middle gangster film, but overall I'd rather see a weirdo entry in the genre, like Comfort and Joy.
I knew going in that The Irishman had a scene that was filmed in a bank in my neighborhood. It's an antique bank building, and I was looking forward to it as a little easter egg. The whole time I expected the old-timey bank scene to show up in the 1960s timeframe, but that scene takes place around the year 2000. My own private plot twist!
- Uncut Gems (2019): The lights went down and the soundtrack let out a big Tangerine Dream BWAAAAAAAM and I thought "oh, shit, this is by the Good Time guys, isn't it?" Yes, it is. This was certainly more fun than Good Time. I expect for a certain type of moviegoer these films are an adrenaline rush like Gravity. For another type of moviegoer these films are way too stressful and you have to walk out. I guess I'm in the middle? I was along for the ride, but I'm probably not going to keep seeing these, assuming I start paying more attention to directors' names.
One cool thing about Uncut Gems is that it's set in 2012 because the plot hinges on real-world events from that year, but if you live in NYC it's pretty easy to see it was filmed recently. Scorsese would have spent millions digitally erasing the LinkNYC kiosks and changing the ads on taxis, but the Safdie brothers are more chill. It's not important to the film!
Mon Dec 30 2019 12:43 Olipy3:
Right under my self-imposed deadline I've reached my 2019 goal of porting olipy and botfriend to Python 3. Enjoy it! I sure am.
Mon Dec 23 2019 17:04 Cassini metadata:
This year I spent some time doing the pleasant part of botmaking (ideation, data gathering) without the boring part (handling dozens of edge cases, signing up for accounts). One of the bots I never completed was "Cassini GIFs".
All the photos taken by the Cassini probe are online, and each photo has associated metadata. By looking for photos taken by the same instrument at evenly spaced times, you can find frames that would look good as an animation. Here's a nice example: a "movie" of Saturn's moon Dione taken on November 1, 2011:
It was really fun to make these animations that probably only a few people before me had seen. And the fun doesn't need to stop at Saturn: the SETI Project's OPUS3 has aggregated imagery from across NASA's outer planet missions.
The bad news for anyone else who wants to try this out is that the Cassini data is huge. You can download individual frames pretty easily, but the metadata is bundled in enormous tarballs and stored in an ad hoc 1990s file format. To provide a booster seat for the future, I converted the metadata into NDJSON format and put it up as cassini-metadata. Here's one more GIF to whet your interest: Saturn's rings on July 15, 2014:
Fri Dec 20 2019 21:58 Openly Public Domain:
I was showing Secretly Public Domain to my brother-in-law and noticed that Hathi Trust has marked a lot of the books as public domain! In Hathi parlance, Books that used to be "Limited (search only)" have been made "Full view" (though this is geofenced within the US). You can read the whole book, download a PDF, etc.
This is probably the visible result of the work described in "It's No Secret - Millions of Books Are Openly in the Public Domain", the first known blog post to cast shade on one of my bots with its title. I knew Hathi had done a few books as a test, and now it's really ramped up!
Now we're at the point where thirteen of the last twenty books my bot posted are already "Full view". And notably, the computer-history book I mentioned in the Vice story, The compatible time-sharing system: a programmer's guide., is also "Full view"! Way to go.
(1) Wed Dec 18 2019 11:45 Only g62 Kids Will Remember These Five Moments:
Doing a little year-end cleanup in preparation for a big announcement. Back in February I sold a flash piece to Daily Science Fiction: "Only g62 Kids Will Remember These Five Moments". I think it's pretty good. Don't like it? All I have to say is: "OK, g61er."
Sun Dec 08 2019 21:09 November Film Roundup:
- Torn Curtain (1966): A fun late Hitchcock except I expected an extra double-cross that never came. This is a pattern for me, and I think I'm just used to post-Hitchcock movies where there's one more twist. Our two main characters are engaged, and the POV doesn't strongly stick with one or the other—each has scenes where the other isn't present—which limits the possibilities for double-crossing. It's a shame as an extra twist could have taken it into North by Northwest territory for me.
Weird detail probably caused by incoherent 1960s sexism: Julie Andrews's character is some kind of space scientist, like her fiancé, but she's treated like his secretary, down to the level of how much she's expected to know about his project: not nothing, as would happen if she worked on a different project altogether, but not so much that the East Germans can get the information from her instead of Paul Newman's character.
I originally wrote the two main characters are "married", because the film starts with them in bed together, but that's Alfie, always pushing the boundaries of film. Whether it's flushing a toilet or implying that people who are almost married are having sex, he's giving a big "shove off, mate" to the squares!
- Bamboozled (2000): This is the most difficult-to-watch movie I've ever seen. I don't value "difficult to watch" per se so this isn't going on my best-of list, but I will put it next to Face/Off on the "so bad it's good" shelf: Bamboozled is bad and good simultaneously and for the same reasons.
A while back I said that you can't make social change by making a movie, but Bamboozled seems to show it's possible, if the society you're trying to change is Hollywood. The same crossed wire that leads filmmakers to romanticize 'the movies' makes them susceptible to arguments delivered via movie—arguments that will not affect the moviegoing public as a whole. Bamboozled is pointing out a lot of problems with Hollywood, most of which are structural, but there is one simple thing that even a lowly bring-me-coffee screenwriter can take to heart: blackface gags are evil and you need to stop it.
Roger Ebert's review of Bamboozled notices the film's systemic critique but says the blackface bit is so offensive as to obscure it. I agree with this, but in 2000, mainstream Hollywood movies were still doing actual blackface gags! A year ago I was shocked to see one in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. I admit the first time I saw that film, it didn't register, just like it it didn't seem to with Ebert.
After seeing Bamboozled I went looking on IMDB, as well as Screen It ("Movie Reviews for Parents"), and it looks like after an O Brother-esque bit in Zoolander (2001), Hollywood blackface gags died out. This surely would have happened eventually, but I'm gonna argue that Bamboozled is the reason they stopped when they did. Movies with systemic critiques are not uncommon: Bamboozled is unusual in that it got some results.
Of course, artists are always pushing the boundaries, and the easiest way to address a topic that becomes taboo is to slather on a layer of indirection or irony. So we do see Jack Black play a character who angers his neighbors with a blackface act in Be Kind, Rewind (2008). We see Robert Downey Jr. play a character who goes way too deep into Method acting in Tropic Thunder (also 2008) and apparently some damn thing or other is going on in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassas (2009). But that seems to be about it.
In these post-Bamboozled cases, real people are making a movie in which a fictional character makes the bad decision to wear blackface. (That's the joke.) Then the real people are saying "That wasn't me, it was the dummy!" to soften the blow.
Pre-Bamboozled, the blackface itself was generally not the joke. It was a way of creating a fictional construct, a kind of ventriloquist dummy, that could be used in other jokes. See Silver Streak in last month's Roundup for an example. Bamboozled is saying, over and over with no subtlety, that it is an act of real-world evil to create that ventriloquist dummy, and that any jokes you might have it tell are drawing from a well of evil, not from your comedic genius. So just don't build the evil ventriloquist dummy.
This is why I'm saying so-bad-it's good. To succeed artistically, Bamboozled has to be a bad movie. If it was somehow good, it would enact the nightmare scenario it depicts. As it is, I think there were a bunch of scripts in the early 2000s where a white producer read a draft and said "uh, hey, did you see Bamboozled (2000)?" and long story short, there was a rewrite. Around 2008, Hollywood figured out a workaround: have a fictional character build the evil ventriloquist dummy, just one of many bad decisions a fictional character might take. But it didn't get a lot of traction.
- Ocean's Eleven (1960): Watched as a fluffy palate cleanser after Bamboozled but of course there had to be an O Brother, Where Art Thou? style blackface gag in this movie. Ugggh! Otherwise it was okay. Cesar Romero was a nice surprise. I expected everything would be super stylish, but it's more like the ambient stylishness of 1960 was higher. Frank and Sammy look cool even when they're just hanging out in the rec room.
However, why not watch a stylish 1960 movie that's also really funny, like The Apartment? Oh, look, there's Shirley Maclaine, showing up for a cameo in this movie while filming The Apartment. I'm not saying people should always watch The Apartment instead of watching this, because you gotta have variety, but... maybe the Soderbergh remake is better.
- The Whole Town's Talking (1935): Previously seen in 2012 with a big theater crowd, now seen in the living room with Sumana. There were some great bits but the big, nearly continuous laughs I had in 2012 weren't there. What's the difference? On top of obvious stuff like "laughter is contagious", I think a big part of it is Edward G. Robinson using his face and body language to do the type of physical comedy that's funnier on the big screen: rapid switches between menacing and milquetoast.
- Working Girl (1988): A 1980s corporate comedy a la Big Business, but less purely comedic and with an interesting, realistic business plot. Big recommendation.
Every major character in this movie has a big beefcake/cheesecake scene. Sometimes it's played for laughs: Harrison Ford's changing shirts in his office and all the Wall Street secretaries are looking through the plate glass window like "aww yeah." The public demands tasteful skin!
- Monsieur Verdoux (1947): I'm not a huge fan of Chaplin's films mainly because they're so sentimental, so I figured I'd like his oddball serial killer comedy. And it's pretty good! Except, stop me if you've heard this one, after a crashingly cynical final scene it goes on for like five more minutes and gets a little sentimental for my taste. Overall, a good mixture of tension and comedy that put me in mind of all those Ealing movies where Alec Guinness plays a genteel criminal.
- We went to a Sesame Street Lost and Found event at the museum, but we were sworn to secrecy about the forbidden clips that were screened at the event, which saves me the trouble of having to write it up.
- Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019): Incredible documentary about a person who seems really difficult to be close to, told mainly by her surviving staff—sort of like Filmworker. Soon to be supplemented by the amazing collection of data Marion Stokes spent so much of her life on. I know the feeling: sometimes you get an idea and you gotta run with it and it consumes your whole life.
Content warning: this film includes harrowing recorded-live TV footage of 9/11, which is how I ended up seeing the second plane hit the tower after 18 years of successfully not seeing that footage.
- Kung Fu League (2018): This had some really good comic bits, especially the Batman '66-style relationship between Huo Yuanjia and Chen Zhen. It was also really refreshing how quickly the members of the titular Kung Fu League figured out they'd been transported into the 21st century, and accepted it, allowing the movie to continue.
Unfortunately, nearly every character not in the League was tiresome. If they'd spent ten more minutes running around the movie set (great Blazing Saddles bit here) or figuring out how McDonalds works, that would have been ten fewer minutes spent with the tiresome characters.
While doing research for this post I discovered a big conceptual problem with the nerd wish-fulfillment in this movie. While watching the movie I saw the formation of the League as a magical time-travel thing that brought real historical figures forward in time. But when writing this Roundup I learned that Chen Zhen is a fictional character. I'd assumed that Kwok-Kwan Chan in Kung Fu League was playing Chen Zhen as a parody of Bruce Lee's Chen Zhen from Fist of Fury, but he's playing the fictional character Chen Zhen come to life.
Huo Yuanjia was a real historical figure, but within Kung Fu League he's the Batman to the fictional Chen Zhen's Robin: another Fist of Fury reference. And he and Wong Fei-hung (real person) are rivals for the heart of Thirteenth Aunt (fictional character from Once Upon a Time In China). So I give up on the time travel idea, and figure the magical event at the center of this movie actually calls forth Last Action Hero-style versions of these fictional/fictionalized legends from the Shared Cinematic Universe they all inhabit.
Except a) the nerd in this movie is a comics artist, not a filmmaker, b) at the end of the movie the Kung Fu League "goes back" to... being fictional? and c) there's a joke I don't get about Ip Man which is probably really funny but which seems to make it impossible to formulate any coherent explanation at all. Which, I must admit, good job leaving it all on the field, comedically speaking.
Mon Nov 18 2019 19:02 NaNoGenMo 2019: "Linked by Love":
This year I'm writing and announcing my NaNoGenMo project before November is over! "Linked by Love" is made from cunningly juxtaposed paragraphs of romance novel back-cover copy. Back-cover copy is some of the hardest stuff for an author to write, and it's basically treated as ephemeral, so it was fun to sort of give it its due in this project.
I originally had a much different book planned, something that would take a single individual on a universe-shifting journey, but it proved very difficult to determine the relationship between the referent of a sentence and the gendered pronouns in the sentence. Gender is very important to romance novels, so instead I let the proper nouns do the work and left the precise relationship between Carlottan and Carlottan+1 a mystery for the reader to fill in.
(1) Sat Nov 02 2019 13:45 October Film Roundup:
I saw a ton of movies this month and there was something fun or interesting in almost all of them! Here's the scoop:
- Puppy Love (1985): A.k.a. "Dou qi xiao shen xian" Sumana and I watched this on a date back in September and I forgot about it, even though it's really fun! It came back to me because Gregory's Girl (see below) is similar in a lot of ways. It's basically a sequence of skits. The skits are funny and cute, with lots of female eristic energy a la Celine and Julie Go Boating. There seemed to be a strong "you had to be there" element: others in the theater were laughing really hard at what appeared to us as random Hong Kong 1980s stuff.
This movie's pretty obscure, to the point where the best English-language description is on the Metrograph web site announcing the showing we saw. I recommend this film but not sure how you'd go about seeing it.
BTW films I see at Metrograph are at high risk of being forgotten because I don't see a lot of films there and they don't have a convenient "everything we showed" list I can go through at the end of the month. I remember them eventually though!
- Gregory's Girl (1980): This is the same kind of funny, cute, skit-based high-school romcom as Puppy Love, with one big asterisk: there's a skit early on where a teacher talks about his female students in a really gross way. Fortunately this doesn't become a theme, but it changed the tone of the whole movie.
I'm not even talking about the boys being gross. Teenage boys are frequently horny and gross, you can get comedy out of that, and although I'm glad this isn't the main goal of Gregory's Girl—it certainly isn't the high point of its comedy—I think they did an okay job with it.
Because it's so great that so many of the characters in Bill Forsyth movies are good-hearted, the appearance of a creep is more of a bummer than it would be in another movie. Burt Reynolds' character in Breaking In has one moment of creepiness which is earned in a character sense but brings the mood down a bit. Judging from IMDB reviews, my attitude about this doesn't bode well for the 1999 sequel to Gregory's Girl, in which a grown-up Gregory inherits the mantle of the creepy teacher from the original movie! Boo.
Anyway, the last act of Gregory's Girl is ambiguous in a way I don't associate with romcoms, but I think what happened is that another girl has a crush on Gregory and so gets her friends to basically heist Gregory out of his date with Dorothy. And because he's so easygoing and trusting he doesn't even realize he's been heisted. That's really clever. That's the kind of thing I come to a Forsyth movie to see.
- Gaslight (1944): The ultimate trope namer. I feel like you could have explained gaslighting to, say, Shakespeare, and he would have recognized it, but it took the era of the Big Lie to bring it into consciousness and another 25 years for it to become a term of art. BTW I also feel this way about the card game "Dominion". It could only have been invented in the 21st century, but you could explain it to someone from the 1920s and they'd totally get it (although they'd be annoyed by the sheer number of cards).
Anyway, the movie. The first half is masterful in setting up the suspense but the back half is... a police procedural? This dude isn't even manipulating the gaslight to mess with his wife; it happens by accident. On the plus side: Angela Lansbury's film debut!
(TV Tropes claims that Petruchio gaslights Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, and it is a similar form of manipulation, but I don't think he's trying to get her to doubt her own sanity.)
- Beetlejuice (1988): Without a constraint like historical fact (Ed Wood) or a time-consuming filming process (The Nightmare Before Christmas), Tim Burton movies are at risk of heading off into a ball pit of cool but disconnected ideas. This film jumps into the ball pit almost immediately and we get some fun set pieces that make me think this film would have been better as a series of shorts.
The third act, in particular, has a lot of scars on the screenplay where they cut all the exposition. Of course they still had time for Beetlejuice to set up this goth shotgun wedding with Gregory's Girl-age Lydia—just no time to convince the audience that it would solve any plot problem. It's clear Beetlejuice is exactly the sort of person who would do this, so at least it makes logical sense, but it's less clear why they followed up this movie with a children's cartoon—the main thing I remember about Beetlejuice from my childhood—where Beetlejuice and an aged-down Lydia are best pals. I guess that comes from the same place as the Robocop cartoon.
Uh, to say a nice thing about this movie: the main villains are redeemed, and one of them is even redeemed before the ending. I've also heard good things about the Indian remake, Beteljuice.
- The Informant! (2009): Up until the end of the opening credits I was assuming this would be like The Conversation, possibly because of Matt Damon's dorky moustache, but I wasn't disappointed to see a much different film set in the 1990s, in an office culture that I got the barest glimpse of tagging along with my father to clients and working my first summer programming jobs. I liked the twists and enjoyed watching Scott Bakula's long-suffering FBI agent. I laughed really hard at "You don't know how to read a lie detector!"
Sumana had seen this movie already and when I told her I was watching it, provided this Bakula-ready joke: "Archer Daniels Midland is the spot where Captain Archer and Crewman Daniels agreed to meet." Yes, a Crewman Daniels reference every month, that's the Film Roundup promise!
I see why they had to add the exclamation mark to the end of this movie's name. (The book was just called The Informant.) The exclamation mark shows that the film has a strong comedic element; otherwise it looks like a Robert Ludlum adaptation. This got me to thinking: if you have a film with a question mark in its title, but you also add an exclamation mark, does it cancel out the (totally imaginary) question mark curse?!
I found about 30 feature films on IMDB that have adjacent question and exclamation marks in their title, but the only ones I recognize are The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? and What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?. So it looks like a reliable signal of a very bad movie.
- My Dinner With Andre (1981) This film hasn't aged well (the subject matter is... very Age of Aquarius) but I was amazed by how natural the dialogue feels. Gave me the vicarious thrill of listening to a smart crackpot present his theories on a topic I don't care about. Maybe his crackpot theories are correct! Who knows? Wallace Shawn was of course the big draw for me, and he doesn't have much to say until the last half-hour, but I was entertained. A production assistance credit for Troma (one of their first credits) was a nice surprise.
- Silver Streak (1976): The disappointing essence of stagflation-era comedy. After a rocky start (primarily caused by movies like this one in heavy rotation on Comedy Central) I've come to appreciate the cinema of the 1970s, but the comedies rarely make me laugh. No matter what they try, I'll never see Gene Wilder as a romantic lead or even a great comic actor. I think I found out about this from a "list of overlooked comedies" and now I'm questioning the judgement of the entire list. Plus, blackface. IMDB trivia: "Richard Pryor was uncomfortable with the scene." No kidding! Oh yeah, Richard Pryor's in this, eventually.
- Hausu (1977): This has a lot of stuff I don't like in horror movies (like... horror...) but it's so over the top and ridiculous I can't stay upset. My favorite scene was at the beginning where the backstory is laid out in a different filmic style. Every Disney animated feature does that now, but it doesn't happen a lot in 1977. And Hausu does it in an unusual way: one character is narrating the backstory, laying down the backbeat for the film-within-a-film we're seeing, but instead of listening to this narration, the other characters are also watching the film-within-a-film and commenting on it, MST3K-style? I guess this is to say that right from the start, Hausu is really weird, moving really fast and demanding a lot of the viewer. Once the blood effects start kicking in I've kinda had my fun.
- The Coca-Cola Kid (1985): I'm gonna put it out there: this, not Mad Max, deserves to be considered the true prequel to The Road Warrior. It was pretty fun, showcasing both the glorious high-tech of the 1980s and steampunk turn-of-the-century low tech. I can't confirm this 100% but this feels like a "low-budget non-American director gets big movie-industry money for the first time" film, a genre I'm becoming interested in after seeing Housekeeping last month.
- Little Caesar (1931): From the golden age of "every screenplay is based on a novel, and we're going to show you a picture of the novel on the title card". Also from the golden age of opening with a Bible quote, perhaps to appease the Hays office. I watched this because I really like Edward G. Robinson in non-gangster roles but I hadn't really seen the gangster roles he's best known for. It's a "great" performance—sixty years later, Robinson's accent still meant "gangster" at my middle school—but I think this movie is now basically obsolete. You got The Godfather series and both versions of Scarface telling this story with better character motivation than "gonna do some crimes, see?"
- Key Largo (1948): "Let's rip off the last scene from Key Largo, Mitchell!" That was going through my head the whole time, so suffice to say I knew how this movie ends. Has aged better than Little Caesar, with some nice noir moments regarding corruption and human weakness. Johnny Rocco has a super-petty speech about how ungrateful are the politicians he buys, which is exactly what I wanted when I went looking for "Edward G. Robinson gangster stuff".
- Re-Animator (1985): Kind of a repeat of my Reservoir Dogs dilemma: I'm not into horror films, but I am a big fan of Jeffrey Combs, who works almost exclusively in horror. I gotta at least watch the movie that started the typecasting, right? For an 80s horror flick you could do a lot worse. Combs met all my expectations: sinister with great comic delivery. The practical effects are goofy, but more "realistic" and less inventive than in Hausu. In further "random unexpected production assistant credits" news, Re-Animator has one for Rick Berman, of all people. Has anyone asked him about this?
- Gaslight (1944): A boring, train-ride-heavy first half sets up a reign of claustrophobic gothic terror in the second. A real thrill to watch. Plus, Angela Lansbury's film debut! Sumana hasn't seen the film but recommends "Just in Spring", a Yuletide fic dealing with the aftermath.
Tue Oct 01 2019 21:13 September Film Roundup:
This is not a film, but in September, Sumana and I played Untitled Goose Game and loved it. Check it out. Honk!
- Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982): In movie terms, this is the Crewman Daniels-esque car that Johnny Cash builds in "One Piece at a Time". The Steve Martin/Carl Reiner brand of comedy is able to drive the weirdo car a pretty good way, but I was left a bit disappointed. Like a Mel Brooks film, this is really sentimental about The Movies in a way that probably touches the hearts of those people who go in to work every day to make The Movies. But most of us have different jobs, and the technical achievement here rarely serves the comedy or the plot (in fact the plot serves it, big time). The one genre of joke I think they really nailed is the "noir narrator" joke. Just off the top of my head I can remember two great gags that came out of fooling with the narration.
As an interesting cross-reference, the mailing list manager Enemies of Carlotta is a reference to this film.
- Steven Universe The Movie (2019): I'm reserving judgement until I see the next season of the TV show because this movie sets up one of my favorite SF conceits -- aliens living alongside humans on Earth, c.f. Constellation Games -- and doesn't do much with it. Wasted opportunity? Not if they go on to spend a large number of ten-minute cartoons exploring the topic! Otherwise... this was a fun kid's movie. I'm not a kid anymore and I know this isn't designed for me, I'm just watching over your metaphorical shoulder.
- Shadow of the Thin Man (1941): At this point we're just watching for the comic relief scenes. Dashiel Hammett doesn't have so much as a "based on an original story by" credit anymore and the mystery bits are pretty dull. Nick and Nora were fun in New York, fun in San Francisco, but in this movie they live in an unnamed split-the-difference city that feels like pure backlot. William Powell's still funny. though.
The only thing that would convince me to watch the rest of this series is 1) Sumana might want to, 2) eventually a young Dean Stockwell starts playing the kid!
- The Phantom Carriage (1921): A century before The Good Place, there was... this. There's some cool technical wizardry (In its day, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid was hailed as "A new The Phantom Carriage"), and it's always nice to watch a silent film with live accompaniment, but overall I wasn't sold on the melodrama and the moralizing. The museum handout intepreted the whole supernatural element as a metaphor for the main character's alcoholism, and although readings like that generally annoy me, I think it makes a lot of sense here.
Having to drive Death's carriage for a year seems horrible, what with being endlessly confronted with human frailty and misery, but is it really worse than spending that same year in the Bad Place? One of many worldbuilding questions not considered by this movie, perhaps confirming the "metaphor for alcoholism" theory.
- Comfort and Joy (1984): This was my introduction to Bill Forsyth, who's already one of my favorite directors. I'd never heard of him before this month. Now I've seen three of his films (see below) and am eager to see the rest. His work is really consistent, but he doesn't have a ton of credits and hasn't directed since 1999, which made me suspect an Elaine May "movie jail" situation. Best I can see looking around the web is he just got tired of making movies.
Getting down to specifics: Comfort and Joy is a light comedy about mob violence where nobody gets hurt. It's all property damage. I'll say two negative things about it: the ending is really slight and although any resemblance is purely coincidental, etc. etc., there was real ice cream mob violence in Glasgow around this time and it's hard not to see this movie making light of it—a criticism that would have less bite if the movie was more satirical and less fluffy. Apart from that, a really good time.
As in many movies, there's a dream sequence in Comfort and Joy that is shot as though it were actually happening, ending with a smash cut to the sleeper waking up. Unlike most movies that do this, here we've also got a second dream sequence featuring the same characters, in which one of the characters is loudly suspicious that this is a dream, is finally convinced it's not, smash cut—they were right, it was a dream. Pure comedy... I'm gonna say comedy thallium.
- Breaking In (1989): I saw this one with Sumana and it blew us away! Great gags, great performances, a good heart, minor characters get their chance to be funny, awesome Portland locations. Sumana proposed this film as a model for Breaking Bad, and it's very plausible. Unlike a lot of stories of mismatched partners, it's clear here what each party gets out of the relationship, and at the end they both think they've come out ahead. Overall I'd compare this to Big Business—a hilarious but forgotten 80s comedy that's miles ahead of most of the stuff people remember. It's even got some subtle Edgar Wright-style jokes—(Delphine:Carrie::Ernie:Mike):::Shaun:Yvonne. Yes, I had to use parentheses and the rarely seen triple-colon to explain that analogy.
- Housekeeping (1987): This movie was not a laugh-a-minute crime comedy, so I didn't love it as much as Comfort and Joy and Breaking In, but it was solid. I was taken aback by the audacity of flooding the set, something I don't think I've ever seen. Though I imagine most movie ships are sets that can be flooded. Anyway, good mischief—comic and otherwise—in a less comedic universe than the other two Forsyth movies I've seen.
Sun Sep 01 2019 20:40 August Film Roundup:
"Our shows" have either ended (Jane the Virgin, satisfying ending IMO) or are on summer break, so in August, Sumana and I ended up watching a lot of movies together.
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): A really fun action movie. Most of the martial arts movies I've seen are either significantly newer or significantly older than this, and after calibrating for that, I think I agree with the givers of prestigious film awards that this is above average for its time period. Not a lot to say beyond that.
- Jupiter Ascending (2015): Bits of this movie have a fun Hitchhiker's Guide vibe but it has a very tight focus on the two things I dislike most in space opera: Chosen One plots and great-house politics. The Wachowskis don't exactly hide their affinity for Chosen One plots, and obviously there's a market for great-house politics. It just feels like a dereliction of duty to use the grand scale of space opera to further explore one of the most heavily-explored societal organization mechanisms. Basically, I wanted this film to take a hard turn at the bees, do some kind of hive mind or something. All I remember from this movie's initial release was people making fun of the bee thing, but the bee thing is great!
This movie has two adjacent action set pieces where Channing Tatum busts in and stops Mila Kunis from signing some paperwork, so if that's your kink, this is the movie you've been waiting for. However, this movie is probably where you developed that kink, back when you saw it in 2015, and it's probably not going to happen again in modern cinema. Good thing there's deep fakes now!
PS: Walter John William's The Praxis does a good job of showcasing the dysfunction you'll find in one of those great-house societies, but even then I didn't finish the series.
- Walk, Don't Run (1966): Dateline: 1964! Cary Grant is lured out of retirement by the promise of a free trip to the Tokyo Olympics, all expenses paid. He just has to do some location shoots for his matchmaker role in this bedroom farce movie, and fill in the rest in a studio Stateside. Seems like a prime opportunity to phone it in. I'd phone it in if it was me. But that's just one of the many reasons why I'm not one of the most beloved actors of the twentieth century. Grant turns in a game performance with a lot of physical comedy, and the overall movie's really fun in a 1960s "international cooperation" way.
But the best part is that pre-Trek George Takei is in this movie! He's only got one scene but it's a pretty good role. I don't think I've ever seen him in a role other than Sulu or George Takei As Himself.
- I Was a Male War Bride (1949): We wanted to see more Cary, and thanks to this movie, our wish was... granted. I missed out on this film in 2013, and I'm pleased to report that it's funny and Cary Grant doesn't try to do a French accent. Easy no-prize explanation: his character speaks really good English which he learned from a Brit, a la Jean-Luc Picard.
There are two distinct phases to this movie. It starts with the typical Howard Hawks rom-com stuff where the two characters who can't stand each other fall in love. Once Grant's character becomes a Male War Bride, we switch to more "Humor in Uniform" jokes and gender stuff. It's all good fun, and there are some really moving bits near the end.
- Goldeneye (1995): The latest in our "Sumana asks Leonard if he wants to watch a James Bond movie and Leonard says sure" series. This was fun. Again, not much to add. Except: before checking IMDB I assumed Joe Don Baker spent 20 years appearing in Bond movies as Jack Wade, but no, he's in two and we happened to watch both of them.
- Three Kings (1999): This was really powerful, but also a good object lesson in exactly what type of power art has. Four years after this movie came out, we started a stupid, pointless follow-up to the Gulf War, at great human cost. At the time there were, in fact, people saying "didn't anyone see Three Kings (1999)?", but it didn't make a difference on a geopolitical level. Not saying a better movie would have gotten a different outcome. The Great Dictator is a great film and it didn't stop anything. Art works on the level of the individual, and there it does have power, for good and evil. We just don't have the counterfactual of all the individual decisions that were made differently because someone saw a movie.
- It Happened One Night (1934): Okay, back to romcoms. Clark Gable rides the knife-edge between "romantic lead" and "obnoxious jerk" in a way that guarantees lesser actors will spend the next 80+ years trying to surf this wave and falling down on the "obnoxious jerk" side. Really enjoyable to see someone who can pull it off, though. I think the key is in his famous striptease, surely the inspiration for Magic Mike, in which he compels behavior from Claudette Colbert's character not by controlling her body but by aggressively making his own body vulnerable.
A line from this movie is currently a catchphrase in our house: "Five Gs, or I crab the works!"
- Finally, we borrowed DVDs of the first four Thin Man movies (1934-1941). As of writing we've watched the first three and I don't think the fourth one is going to hold any big surprises, so I'll sum them all up as though they were one movie. The murder-mystery part is pretty bland but we love the dynamic between Nick and Nora, a dynamic you rarely see in romcoms, which focus on the start of a romance. It's not just that they're happily married: it's a collective power fantasy of being in a relationship so secure and with such good communication that you can pull potentially disastrous pranks on each other and team up to take on society at large.
There's a little of this in It Happened One Night (where it's great), so it doesn't have to rely on a strong preexisting relationship -- it can be one of the building blocks of a relationship. You see a kind of Nick and Nora dynamic between Kim and Jimmy in Better Call Saul, but their relationship isn't actually that strong—an indication that the show's probably not gonna end with a big infodump and everyone tipping back a drinkie.
Fri Aug 09 2019 09:45 Secretly Public Domain: Update:
My "Secretly Public Domain" project got a lot of attention, which is great, but it also gave me a lot more work to do and pointed to some things that hadn't been explained very well. I've done that work, and here's an update:
Topline number is 73%
My original estimate was that 80% of pre-1963 books were not renewed. This was based on a couple of inaccurate assumptions, the big one being that I was counting works originally published in a foreign country. Those works might have lapsed into the public domain at some point, but the US copyright has since been restored by treaty. So their renewal status isn't really relevant.
Of the books where renewal status is relevant, here are the most recent statistics:
- 73% have no renewal record at all.
- 19% have a renewal record that's an excellent match.
- 8% are in a grey area. They have one or more renewal records, but none of them are an excellent match. One of them might be legit, or they might all be renewals for totally different books. They need to be checked manually.
The "Secretly Public Domain" bot was a publicity stunt to draw attention to the machine-readable registration records. It worked great, but it also drew attention to me, the person doing the publicity stunt, even though I had basically nothing to do with the original work. For the record, here are the people who actually did the work. The project inside NYPL was run by Sean Redmond, Greg Cram, and Josh Hadro (now of IIIF). The work of making the copyright records machine-readable was done by Data Conversion Laboratory.
Most of the books whose copyright wasn't renewed are really obscure titles, but without looking very hard I found a very well-known science fiction novel that has no renewal record. I'm not mentioning the name as an incentive to get people to look at the data themselves. It's probably not the only well-known work whose copyright wasn't renewed.
How to make your own list
My original estimate of 80% was based on the quick and dirty script I used to write the Mastodon bot. To fix the "foreign works" problem and to produce a dataset that would stand up to scrutiny, I published a Python library specifically for handling this data. It's got business logic for making determinations like "was this book published in a foreign country" and "how well does this renewal record match this registration record". You run the scripts and at the end you have a bunch of JSON files with consolidated data. If you think there are bad assumptions, you can change the business logic and run the scripts again.
How to see the data
There were a number of requests for this data in a tabular form. I totally understand where this is coming from, and it's certainly the easiest way to get into the data, but it's tricky, because converting the JSON to tabular data destroys information that would be useful for taking the next step (see below).
So, I've done the best I can. I added a script to the end of my Python workflow which generates three huge tab-separated files, and I put those files in the cce-spreadsheets project. This should be good for getting an overview of which books were renewed, which weren't, and which are foreign publications.
Discovering that a book published in 1950 is in the public domain, doesn't make a free digitized version of that book automatically appear. Somebody has to do the work. At this point we go from fast data processing to really slow research and digitization work. You or I can now make a near-complete list of unrenewed books in a few minutes, but that list just represents an enormous to-do list for someone.
There are basically three "someones" who might step up here: Project Gutenberg, Hathi Trust, and Internet Archive.
As I mentioned earlier, Project Gutenberg digitized the copyright renewal records some time ago, and they use them all the time. They have a section of their Copyright How-To explaining how to check whether a particular title was renewed, and whether the renewal matters. There are other steps to clear a pre-1963 work: you have to verify that the author lived in the US at the time, stuff like that. The newly digitized registration records can help with some of this, and my data processing script that combines registration and renewal can help with more of it, but there's still some manual work you have to do for each book.
Once that work is done, Project Gutenberg volunteers will locate a copy of the book, scan it, and OCR it (assuming there's no existing scan). Then they'll proofread it and put out HTML and plain-text editions. As you can imagine, this process takes a really long time, but the result is a clean, accurate copy of the book that can be read on its own or reused in other projects. The catch is that somebody has to care enough about a specific book to go through all this trouble.
Hathi Trust already has scans of a lot of these 1924-1963 books. They just don't make these scans available to the public, because as far as they know, all these books are still under copyright. If they were convinced otherwise, they'd open up the scans—they opened up almost all of their 1923 stuff this January when the 95-year copyright term finally expired. So we have to make a case for opening up these books.
Earlier, NYPL took the highest-circulating 1924-1963 books in our research collection and checked to see which ones lacked a renewal record. We sent the list to Hathi Trust, and they did their own verification and opened up some of the books: The Americans in Santo Domingo from 1928 is an example. Once Hathi opens up a scan, it's available to the public. It also becomes possible for Gutenberg et al. to turn the raw scan into something more readable.
In the near future, people at NYPL (not me) will be talking to people at Hathi Trust about what kind of evidence is necessary, in general, to convince them that the copyright on a 1924-1963 book has lapsed. Then we'll be able to give them a list of all the books where we can find that kind of evidence. There'll still be a verification process on the Hathi Trust side -- at the very least, they have to go through the book and make sure it doesn't contain unauthorized reprints from other books -- but it should streamline things quite a bit.
Internet Archive is a wild card here. They scan a lot of books, and I could see them treating the "unrenewed" list as a big list of additional books to scan, but it would be a new undertaking. Making unrenewed works available is something Project Gutenberg volunteers do already, and it's something that Hathi Trust could do relatively easily, but with Internet Archive it's more the sort of thing they'd do.
That 8% of grey area, where it's not clear whether or not a book was renewed, points to the general difficulty of meshing together two sets of public records published across half a century and digitized by different people. The grey area represents a lot of manual work that has to be done, and of course there's always the fear that a book that seems to be free and clear actually isn't: the title page says "printed in Canada", or the smoking-gun copyright renewal didn't show up because its ID number was typed wrong.
There's going to be a lot of manual work in the process of clearing these books, but there's no reason to wait until everything's perfect to get started. My preference is to cast a very wide net, try to find any renewal that might possibly be related to a registration, and make the grey area as big as possible. We know that a majority of 1924-1963 books will always come up "no renewal", because there are way more registrations than renewals. We can deal with those and then take a closer look at the grey area.
A couple of people asked whether it was possible to do this for other media. The good news is that there are volumes of the Catalog of Copyright Entries for:
- "Books, Pamphlets, Serials, and Contributions to Periodicals"
- "Drama and Works Prepared for Oral Delivery"
- "Maps and Atlases"
- "Works of Art; Reproductions of Works of Art; Scientific and Technical Drawings; Photographic Works; Prints and Pictoral Illustrations"
- "Commercial Prints and Labels"
- "Motion Pictures and Filmstrips"
All of these books have scans hosted at the Internet Archive. You can get an overview by looking at Penn's index of the CCE from a specific year, let's say 1960.
As far as I know--and I do know about one big exception--the rules here are the same as for books. If something wasn't registered, or the registration wasn't renewed, then the copyright on a work first published in the US 1924-1963 has lapsed.
Now, the bad news. We have scans of the Catalog of Copyright Entries, but the only bits where both the registration and renewals are machine-readable is "Part 1 Class A". That's the "Books" part of "Books, Pamphlets, Serials, and Contributions to Periodicals", and it represents only about 30% of the total.
If you want to see whether there's a renewal record for a fishing map of Kansas, or a magazine article, or a cool retro ad, or a classic film noir, or a vintage restaurant placemat, it is quite possible, but it's a huge pain. And you can forget about running the numbers on all the movies or all the restaurant placemats. We don't have a good picture of what's in there.
The situation is this way because the Catalog of Copyright Entries is huge, and digitizing it is boring/expensive. Up to this point, book nerds are the only nerds who've put in the time and money to make "their" part of the CCE machine-readable. NYPL has plans to give this same treatment to the entire CCE, but the crucial part of the plan where we have money to pay someone to do this is currently missing; it's a matter for fundraising.
The second piece of bad news regards music. When we in 2019 think about "music", we think of sound recordings. When the CCE thinks about "music", it's thinking about the underlying composition—basically the stuff that would go on the sheet music. Until 1972 there was no federal-level copyright on sound recordings, and the result is that music copyrights are a bigger mess than other types of copyright. I do not want to get into territory I don't understand, but suffice to say that for a vinyl record to be in the public domain, it's necessary but not sufficient that the copyright on the underlying composition have expired. So the CCE can only help so much.
(1) Sun Aug 04 2019 20:41 July Film Roundup:
- Long Day's Journey Into Night (2018): You know I like an arthouse film now and again. I'm glad they tried something different, but I wasn't really feeling this one. I did like the 3D section, but it probably doesn't make sense unless you sit through the first half. The second half felt like an escape room, which is pretty cool, but the first half was the random, disconnected clues written on scraps of paper which you need to assemble to solve the escape room.
- Bathtubs Over Broadway (2018): Recommended by good ol' Pat Rafferty, this documentary is both a survey of a forgotten art form, and the story of a snarky person who discovers sincerity. I was hoping for a lot more in-depth on the survey, but I liked Steve Young's term of "comedy poisoning" for diagnosing his own snark. Really fun overall.
- Any Number Can Win (1963): A.k.a. Melody en sous-sol, a.k.a. The Caper That Sank, a.k.a. Never Steal Anything Wet (just kidding). This had really fun heist planning and aftermath, but the heist itself, a dialogue-light bit clearly inspired by Rififi, was a little dull, and the romance subplot was a snoozefest. I much prefered the noir opening, where the aging heistmaster gets out of prison only to discover that Modernism has consumed the world and Jacques Tati is filming Playtime in his home town. Had a real Reginald Perrin vibe.
- The Burglars (1971): A.k.a. Le Casse. This movie starts with a huge nerd-out as the titular burglars invade a beautiful 1960s mansion and crack the safe with a specialized piece of equipment that, e.g. uses Scantron-like cards to program a key-cutting machine. Includes long sequences where Jean-Paul Belmondo is looking stuff up in the service manual, a manual which is either the most detailed prop in the entire movie, written in good manual English, or... this is a real piece of equipment with a real service manual? I guess they gotta make safe keys somehow. I would love to know more about this machine!
Also, as long as I'm focusing on details most people don't care about, in the granary office at the end of this movie there's a hatrack which strongly resembles what Duchamp's Hat Rack would look like if it were actually a readymade.
Often I focus on these little things because the rest of the movie was boring, but although the heist that opens The Burglars is the best part of the movie, there's a ton of good stuff here. There's a cool car chase, good stunts, excellent cat-and-mouse between Belmondo and Omar Sharif. The fashions and design are swinging '60s throughout. Bad parts: the ending is pretty weak, there's a doesthegoldfishdie.com moment near the beginning, and an ugly scene where Belmondo's character slaps a woman around and it's played for laughs—unnecessary and really hard to stomach.
- The Bishop's Wife (1947): It's no Wings of Desire, but it covers some of the same ground. The minor characters are fun. Cary Grant's character is the ultimate service top, and it's wonderful to watch him be oblivious to society's rules about who does things for whom. One of these gags is reprised twice in a way that reminded me of Billy Wilder. IMDB says uncredited writing credit for... Billy Wilder! Trivia says he was just called in to redo a couple scenes, though. You can tell he didn't have full rein over the screenplay because the characters fulfill their dreams.
(15) Mon Jul 22 2019 08:39 Secretly Public Domain:
"Fun facts" are, sadly, often less than fun. But here's a genuinely fun fact: most books published in the US before 1964 are in the public domain! Back then, you had to send in a form to get a second 28-year copyright term, and most people didn't bother.
This is how Project Gutenberg is able to publish all these science fiction stories from the 50s and 60s. Those stories were published in issues of magazines that didn't send in the renewal form. But up til now this hasn't been a big factor, because 1) the big publishers generally made sure to send in their renewals, and 2) it's been impossible to check renewal status in bulk.
Up through the 1970s, the Library of Congress published a huge series of books listing all the registrations and the renewals. All these tomes have been scanned -- Internet Archive has the registration books—but only the renewal information was machine-readable. Checking renewal status for a given book was a tedious job, involving flipping back and forth between a bunch of books in a federal depository library or, more recently, a bunch of browser tabs. Checking the status for all books was impossible, because the list of registrations was not machine-readable.
But! A recent NYPL project has paid for the already-digitized registration records to be marked up as XML. (I was not involved, BTW, apart from saying "yes, this would work" four years ago.) Now for anything that's unambiguously a "book", we have a parseable record of its pre-1964 interactions with the Copyright Office: the initial registration and any potential renewal.
The two datasets are in different formats, but a little elbow grease will mesh them up. It turns out that eighty percent of 1924-1963 books never had their copyright renewed. More importantly, with a couple caveats about foreign publication and such, we now know which 80%.
This was announced back in May, but I don't think it got the attention it deserved. This is a really big deal, so I had no choice but to create a bot. Here's Secretly Public Domain, which highlights unrenewed works that have already been scanned for Hathi Trust. This only represents 10% of the 80%, but it's the ten percent most likely to be interesting, and these books have the easiest path towards being available online.
August 9 update: topline number is closer to 73%, next steps for the public domain books, and how to get the data on your own computer.