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!
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".
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.
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 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.
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.
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."
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!
(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.
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.
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 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.
(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!
Fri Aug 14 2020 13:48 July Film Roundup:
As countries I don't live in get the coronavirus under control, National Theatre and the weird musical channel have both died down, so our household is back to watching movies. Also I've been real busy with work and the Situation Normal proofread, so this Roundup goes well into August. Any concerns? Let me direct you to this humorous painted-script sign I have hanging on my wall: "My Blog, My Rules!" Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go "Live, Laugh, Love!"
- Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999) - Back in May I said I regretted missing it the first time it was made available through Youtube, so all I can say now is the grass is always greener. Jesus Christ Superstar is way better. There are some good anachronistic gags here, but I think a lot of the enjoyment of this musical comes from nostalgic memories of the high school production where you played Asher and the butler.
- Amadeus (2017) - We loved this INCREDIBLY FICTIONALIZED story of someone with way more taste than talent. I gotta stress this is FICTIONALIZED, based on romantic myths about Mozart and his death, and apparently none of it happened this way. But what an archetype is created in this play. Great to watch.
Reading about this afterwards I'm glad I saw the play instead of the movie, because the movie introduces a bunch of additional plot elements that doesn't really matter. It won Best Picture, so I guess they know what they're doing?
- Psych 2: Lassie Come Home (2020): Fun for Psych fans, no reason to watch the movie otherwise. Except: let's say one of the actors in your ensemble cast suffers a stroke after the TV show has wrapped. The easy path would be to write them out of the made-for-streaming sequel movies, or else bring in someone else to play the character. Instead, Psych 2 is a film entirely about the character's stroke and its aftermath. This is another way in which Psych feels more like the product of a close-knit team than other shows. Another way is the constant in-joking and bringing back characters who died in season 4, which I'm kind of tired of.
- Christmas in Connecticut (1945): Apparently this film made boffo box office because it was released three days before V-J day. When everyone wanted to celebrate by going to the movies, this is the movie there was to see. Barbara Stanwyck is fun as always, and the scamtastic setup is fun, but the male lead is kinda Zeppo-ish and for the sake of variety I was rooting for the coded-gay architect who's just looking for a beard. (She picks Zeppo.) There was also a little subplot about hostility between different waves of American immigrants which I thought was interesting but didn't go anywhere.
This could definitely be remade as a Hallmark Christmas movie -- look at the super-white title! -- and in fact it was remade in 1992. Today it would be about an Instagram influencer, I guess.
- The Bride Walks Out (1936): Stanwyck-mania continues! Not a great film, although it kind of feels like a trial run for I Love Lucy: wacky neighbors, wife wants to work outside the home. Zeppo would be an improvement over the guy in this movie; he seems to actually dislike his wife and think of her as a burden. So why bother? Maybe it made more sense under Depression-era gender roles. Actually you know what this really reminds me of is Fig Leaves (1926), with the modelling wife and the misogynistic business partner.
Some good one-liners and a surprising amount of unnecessary vaudeville schtick. It's always fun to see a dramatization of the office in New York's City Hall where Sumana and I got our license.
- Door Ke Darshan (2020): An uninspiring Bollywood remake of one of our favorite films, Good Bye, Lenin! (2003) Not just another film with the same idea--they clearly copied some of the shots, reminding us of how powerful/funny those shots were in the original and how they're not those things here. The setup here is totally implausible, which primes us for comedy much wackier than is appropriate to the story. And we don't even get the wacky comedy! Despite the superior videography capabilities of 2019 India vis-a-vis 1989 East Germany, the characters in this movie are only able to muster one fake broadcast.
Rather than go on and on I'll present you with the result of our post-movie fix-it discussion: you can make an Indian version of Good Bye, Lenin!, but it needs to be set in 1947, with Mom a big booster of the Raj. Not in the cards for a low-budget picture like this.
During the fix-it discussion we were brainstorming other big world events that could provide the backdrop for a similar movie.
S: She could be in a coma through the Russian Revolution.
L: Yeah, call it Hello, Lenin!
I'm here all week! Because I can't go anywhere and there's nowhere to go!
(1) Fri Aug 21 2020 10:16 Presenting AT NASFiC:
Today at Columbus NASFiC 2020 I'm giving what is hopefully the definitive edition of my talk "How Game Titles Work". It had to wait until 2020, because the ultimate game title that proves all my crackpot theories wasn't released until last year. But now we should be good!
The talk starts at 2:00 PM Eastern time and you can watch it online for free. Because there's a lot of text on the slides, I'm making sure to put up a PDF of my slides before the talk, so you can follow along. After the talk I'll work on an HTML version with a transcript.
Later tonight, at 9:30 PM Eastern, I'll be giving a prerecorded reading of two unpublished flash pieces. Hope to see you there! (In the Discord.)
(2) Tue Aug 25 2020 23:07 Hundred Dollar Brain:
I just finished Len Deighton's 1966 computer-age thriller Billion Dollar Brain and unfortunately must report that it's much less computery than I'd hoped. Deighton wrote an excellent alt-history, SS-GB, so I'd been hoping for some retro SF or at least sciency fiction, but in this novel the titular Brain is naught but a minor piece of set dressing, to the extent that I kind of want to write the spy novel that seemed to be taking shape and which would have been really groundbreaking had Deighton gone there.
Basically, if you're using a computer with a telephonic voice interface to run a privately-funded spy ring in 1966, there's no guarantee the individual actions of your agents add up to what you're trying to do. You're incredibly vulnerable to the ELIZA effect. Someone else could be using your computer and your agents to run their own spy ring! (Again, this is not what happens in Billion Dollar Brain.)
I will reproduce the most technically sophisticated paragraph in the book, since it's clear Deighton at least talked to someone who knows computers and I like to see that rewarded:
"I don't want to bore you," Harvey said, "but you should understand that these heaps of wire can practically think — linear programming — which means that instead of going through all the alternatives they have a hunch which is the right one. What's more, almost none of them work by binary notation — the normal method for computers — because that's just yes/no stuff. (If you can only store yeses and noes it takes seven punch holes to record the number ninety-nine.) These machines use tiny chips of ceramic which store electricity. They store any amount from one to nine. That's why — for what it does — this whole set-up is so small.
No, please, bore me!
Sat Sep 05 2020 08:56 "August" Film Roundup:
Kind of a weird Roundup this month, made up of movies I forgot to review in earlier months and stuff we actually saw in September. That's because the "July" Roundup had a lot of overlap with August, and then instead of movies we spent the rest of August watching Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008), a really nice kids' show that paved the way for more sophisticated shows like Steven Universe, not to mention its own sequel, The Legend of Korra, which we saw in 2015 and are now rewatching. Time has lost its meaning and there might not be much to show next month, is what I'm saying.
- The Old Guard (2020): Nothing fancy, but a enjoyable action concept leads to a lot of scenes in the Deadpool mold where the heroes can soak up incredible amounts of damage and keep fighting. A conceit similar to the heavy use of tasers in PG-13 movies (and Korra) in that it lets you have more brutality than an audience would otherwise be comfortable with.
- The Rise and Fall of Nokia (2017): Smana wanted to watch this documentary because she was involved in Nokia's mobile-Linux projects of the early 2010s. I enjoyed the parts of the documentary that dealt with the invention of cell phones but I thought it presented the introduction of the iPhone as a fait accompli rather than going into why Nokia's (kinda disorganized) response was inadequate. Not the tone you want to take in a film made to celebrate the centenary of Finland's independence, I suppose.
- Nixon in China (2011): We streamed the Metropolitan Opera's performance for free when they put it up. I really love the libretto but neither of us were wild about the music. We don't really watch opera, so we don't have the reading conventions down. After an Act I which was pretty naturalistic and easy to read, we were totally befuddled by the weird fourth wall breaking in Act II. Act III was not naturalistic at all, but typical of what I think of as opera: people singing out their emotions, you know, like a Broadway musical.
But I keep going back to Act II, which features the Nixons watching another opera (The Red Detachment of Women). Their reactions to the plot lead them to interfere with the performance, but the opera-within-an-opera seems designed to accommodate and work with such audience interference, because of course it's all part of one big opera and the "audience" is just as much performers as the people they're interfering with. That was really interesting but I imagine that's a feature of Act II of Nixon in China and not something special you get from the art form of opera.
Sat Oct 03 2020 18:56 September Film Roundup:
Yeah, so, a couple items for the Television Spotlight. We're in the middle of our Legend of Korra rewatch, and it's is still fun. New fun for us this time around is catching what we now see are a ton of Avatar references.
I forgot to mention this at the time, but we watched Star Trek: Picard as it aired and enjoyed it a lot... but maybe my expectations were too high? Certain very powerful character themes (my favorite being Picard effectively choosing to become Locutus again) were handled so subtly compared to the un-subtle plotting that I question whether they were even there or whether I was writing a better version of the show in my head. Anyway, haven't seen Lower Decks yet but between it and Picard and The Orville it seems like TNG has finally displaced TOS as the official Trek throwback show. Truly, this is my time!
Sun Nov 01 2020 16:08 October Film Roundup:
Here we go! Take a break from your doomscrolling with some fun filmroundupscrolling. Remember, if you don't read the words, your scrolling has all been for naught.
- Stranger Than Fiction (2006): Thought the twist of this rom-com was going to be the fictional character falling in love with his neurotic creator, but that twist would be too creepy for this sweet story full of Will Farrell goofiness. A good time.
Sumana and I both liked the office set for Dustin Hoffman's literature-professor character. All that 1970s concrete and glass made me think of the offices at Cal State Bakersfield where I'd end up babysitting myself while my mom was getting her masters' degree.
Without implying that it affected my enjoyment of the movie, I want to mention that Karen Eiffel's novels seem pretty bad. There's always a reverse-Ishtar problem when one tries to depict great art using ordinary skill. Stranger than Fiction falls flat depicting both the novels themselves and the way critics think about fiction (as opposed to, say, screenplays).
Sometimes Sumana and I play a game where we figure out how early in human history a given story could have been set. We couldn't come up with any "fictional character comes to life" stories (as opposed to, like, "statue comes to life") older than the twentieth century, but I'd think it could have happened in medieval Japan, or in Europe any time after Tristam Shandy. However this particular setup seems best suited to the early 1960s—a mediocre highbrow writer who hasn't finished a book in ten years but is kept on contract with a big publisher for prestige.
- The Lady Eve (1941): I kind of thought I'd seen this one, but it turns out All About Eve (1950) merely has a misleading title. This was another fun rom-com, though made much earlier, at a time when Hollywood was still trying to figure out how to merge the "rom" with the "com". Barbara Stanwyck is always hilarious as the brassy dame who don't need no man, but once the man she don't need enters the picture it always loses a little. At least now they're pairing her with A-list hunks like Henry Fonda instead of that guy from Christmas in Connecticut.
We speculated that the classic A New Leaf (1973) might have started as a gender-swap of Fonda's ditzy rich scientist and Stanwyck's gold-digging schemer. Think about it!
- Betaville (1986): The Alphaville parody/sequel you didn't know you needed. Godard paid tribute to American genre fiction, and America responded with a no-budget short full of great gags that you can watch on Youtube. Big recommendation. Watching black-and-white French New Wave people wander around 1986 New York was a soothing balm for this guy who hasn't been in Manhattan for months.
In Television Spotlight news, we re-upped our CBS All Access account for the new Discovery season, and caught up with the first season of Lower Decks. We were initially very skeptical of the main character—a little "competent asshole" goes a long long way in this household—but the other characters are quite fun, and by the end we were on board and excited for season 2... which is about average for the first season of a Trek show. We loved the continuity deep cuts. My absolute favorite part was how the inhabitants of Beta III went right back to worshipping Landru the minute the Enterprise left and the Federation never followed up.
BTW, this is by no means a novel complaint, but the near-total (but not total!) lack of NCOs and enlisted beings in Starfleet really makes things weird for Lower Decks. All the schmoes and screwups in this show are Starfleet Academy graduates. Theoretically, any one of them could give orders to Chief O'Brien. But there aren't any O'Briens around to do the grunt work.
There is an explanation for the officer-heaviness of Starfleet vessels, which I learned in the "Is Starfleet Military?" episode of the Gimme That Star Trek podcast: it mirrors the structure of a bomber crew like the one Gene Roddenberry served in during WWII. It was great to learn an explanation for this, but when writing Situation Normal I tried to make things a little more realistic. In Trek's defense, I found it really tricky to keep the ranks consistent, and the exact ranks never mattered dramatically—only the distinction between commissioned officers and the rest.
Mon Nov 02 2020 22:03 Pandemic Reading Roundup:
While stuck at home over the past few months I've tried all sorts of things to keep occupied: eating food, sleeping, even working on a novel. But I've also made a lot of progress going through my backlog of books. I thought I'd give mention a few of these highlights.
- The Centauri Device (M. John Harrison, 1974): Reading this book was like discovering an uncle I didn't know I had. This is the origin of modern space opera, clearly a huge influence on Banks and (this is more of a guess) even Hitchhiker's Guide, and it's done as a takedown by someone who clearly thinks the whole thing is ridiculous. Spaceships with goofy names, meaningless space battles... The fact that it's incredibly depressing didn't bother me, because the author isn't taking it seriously so why should I?
- Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds (Greg Milner, 2016): Interesting history on the same level of technical detail as Milner's phenomenal Perfecting Sound Forever. Plenty of good military-industrial-complex gossip.
- Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About (Donald Knuth, 2001): A gift from a friend that got lost behind my bookshelf and stayed there for years. This was really nice to read, maybe because I'm not religious at all. I love Knuth's 3:16 project and it's great to hear him go into detail about his process and what he learned about the Bible while working on it.
- A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons (Ben Folds, 2019): My favorite kind of celebrity autobiography is where they just tell you a bunch of stories about their life. The best book in this genre will probably always be Peter Falk's Just One More Thing, but this one's pretty good. Feel free to suggest your favorites; always looking for more of these!
- Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons and Dragons (Michael Witwer, 2015): On the other hand, the lack of original research makes this biography read like a Wikipedia article, and there's also fictionalized dramatizations, like you'd get in a biopic. Two types of biography I find much less enjoyable than "celebrity tells stories", and furthermore two that pull the book in incompatible directions. However the subject matter is really interesting. I admit I was pulled in by the incredible cover art, something that basically never happens to me.
- Russian Spring (Norman Spinrad, 1991): An entertaining near-future sci-fi story that extends the Cold War into the 21st century, undone by one fatal error: it refers to UCLA as the home of the Trojans. The correct answer is, the Bruins. [taps note cards] The Bruins.
- Collision Course (Barrington Bayley, 1974): A brilliant concept (Earth as the focus of two timelines going in opposite directions) and a creepy setting can't make up for a cheesy plot. Mentioning this one solely for the, again, brilliant concept, and the alien with the mind-bending pronouns.
- Not quite done with A Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth, 1993), but I'm nearing the end and I don't think the last 150 pages are going to change my mind: this is a really, really fun book. Ever since I've known Sumana this has been one of her favorites, and it's good to be able to get her references. I've been moseying through it over the past... couple of years... but recently picked up the pace because once I finish it we can watch the BBC miniseries that just came out. Yes, they made a whole miniseries while I was reading the book. PS to Seth: you can finish A Suitable Girl! We believe in you!
(1) Fri Nov 27 2020 12:04 Situation Normal preorders now open!:
Preorders are opening up for my second novel, Situation Normal, which launches on December 14th! I'm just going to copy the meticulously assembled preorder links from Sumana's post on the same topic: you can read a preview that's long enough to introduce the main characters, and then order an ebook (Kobo, Nook, Chapters Indigo, Hive.co.uk, Kindle) or a paperback (Amazon,
Barnes & Noble). It's also now available thorugh bookshop.org, the site I personally have been using to buy paper books since the start of the pandemic.
You can of course jump right in to the story—it's a science fiction novel, it's full of exposition, you'll figure it out—but to give a proper introduction I've revised my 2012 story "Four Kinds of Cargo", the inspiration and direct prequel to Situation Normal. The "Retcon Edition" of 4KoC changes some names and characterizations, but leaves the plot unchanged; it introduces the Terran Outreach, the Fist of Joy, and the stupid, stupid war they're about to fight.
If you've read Constellation Games you should know that Situation Normal is set in a completely different universe with a different tone—the only constant is humor and lots of cool space aliens. To give an example, I worked to make Constellation Games a book with high drama but no character death; whereas an important character dies in the very first sentence of "Four Kinds of Cargo".
I've been writing up some author commentary essays for Situation Normal which I'll post periodically on this weblog after the book launch. I won't go chapter-by-chapter like I did with Constellation Games, because that took forever, but I've written some fun essays on the design of the aliens, deleted and rewritten scenes, how throwaway lines in "Four Kinds of Cargo" became essential novel worldbuilding, and so on. I've been working on this book for a long time and am really excited to share it with you!
Sun Nov 29 2020 16:17 Brutus and Cassius, at the close of the scene:
While you're waiting for Situation Normal to come out, you can enjoy the novel I just released as my NaNoGenMo project.
Brutus and Cassius, at the close of the scene is the first English novel written in the Tamarian language. The data comes from a bot I was working on when I decided a) this bot was going to be a ton of work for almost no reward; b) corollary, I'm kind of done making bots. Works great as a NaNoGenMo though! It's really fun to read.
Sat Dec 05 2020 14:03 November Film Roundup:
And we're back to Youtube presentations of plays that were once shown in theaters by Fathom Events. It seems like these days, I just can't Fathom Events, you know?
- "Being Shakespeare" (2011): Drama doesn't need a reason to exist, but it feels like this one-man show has a reason that I don't understand. This New York Times review says it's putting forth the case that Shakespeare authored his own damn plays, which, okay, but I already believed that. The biographical reconstruction was pretty interesting.
- "Macbeth" (2010): I remember seeing that Patrick Stewart was doing Macbeth on Broadway, and not going for it because the tickets were too expensive. Now, thanks to a global health disaster, he comes to my living room! We thought this was really solid and the staging gave it a real The Death of Stalin vibe.
BTW when you look up Patrick Stewart on IMDB, his top "Known For" item is Logan (2017). I give you this information to do with what you will. (Probably nothing)
- Happiest Season (2020): I don't watch many recent holiday rom-coms, and I will say this speaks more to today's issues than, say, Christmas in Connecticut, but I liked the "com" more than the "rom". Daniel Levy's comic relief was both welcome and massively oversold by his over-prominent presence in the opening credits.
For the first ten minutes of this movie I was really tense, because it opens almost exactly the same as Get Out. Maybe this is less a fact about Happiest Season and more a reflection on how effectively Get Out evoked the rom-com feeling before subverting it.
As the days get shorter we've gone back to one of our old online-video hobbies, a hobby that deserves (and will get) its own blog post. But I do have a Television Spotlight for you, albeit one I forgot to mention a couple months ago when we watched it: Raw Craft with Anthony Bourdain. It's the most blatant Sponsored Content ever, but it's got the late Anthony Bourdain interviewing and appreciating a lot of interesting craftspeople like Elizabeth Brim and Raul Ojeda.
(3) Sun Dec 06 2020 16:20 Music Video Roundup:
Since our concentration is sometimes fragmented these days, Sumana and I will sometimes watch old music videos instead of something more demanding like a movie. By mutual agreement, we've been focusing on the 1980s, especially pop and new wave music. It's amazing how accessible most of this stuff is these days; we've basically been going through the Billboard charts and almost all of it is on Youtube, gated only by geolocation gates and stupid commercials. (We did get some "not available in your country" for some of the British videos, so presumably mutatis mutandis elsewhere.)
Here are some of our favorites from the past few months, in an easy-to-click list format. Share your favorites in the comments!
- I believe this tradition started with Sumana showing me the 2001 Spike Jonze video for Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice". If you like this (and why wouldn't you), I've found an officially-posted clip of Christopher Walken's striptease from Pennies from Heaven (1981), twenty years before Weapon of Choice. I think there's a straight line between these two videos.
- "Sledgehammer" by Peter Gabriel, a video I'd heard of through MST3K references but... wow, it's amazing. Pretty much every Peter Gabriel video is inventive and fun, but the other really great one has to be "Big Time".
- "King of Wishful Thinking" by Go West, another great example of the "put everything in there" school of music video making. I also want to point out that these guys are surprisingly buff for pop musicians, who judging from other videos tend to be on the scrawny side.
- The Cars have a number of wacky videos, including "You Might Think" and the John Waters-directed sci-fi comedy "You Are The Girl", the video which proves that Ric Ocasek should have played a Vorta on DS9 alongside Iggy Pop.
- Huey Lewis and the News do a lot of fun rom-com music videos like "Stuck With You", but also things like the drumstick POV shots of "Hip to be Square" and the 2020 frontline-workers tribute "I Am There For You".
- Hall and Oates are a group I never really heard songs from or thought about, but "Possession Obsession" and "Method of Modern Love" are both really fun, and they have a number of other good songs that I'm not mentioning because they don't have great videos.
- "You Can Call Me Al" by Paul Simon, feat. Chevy Chase. My mom used to say that when she was single and living in LA in the 1970s, one of her friends had tried to set her up with Paul Simon. Assuming this actually happened (never a safe bet with my mother's stories), it would have been after his 1975 divorce. Simon went on to have relationships with Shelly Duval and Carrie Fisher, and Frances Whitney in 1975 would have fit that type, so who knows?
- Lionel Richie's glorious "Dancing on the Ceiling", which ends with a gratuitious '80s camero and led me to another great song I'd never heard before, "Nightshift" by Richie's former band The Commodores. The video for "Nightshift" isn't terribly memorable, so here's Richie's Technicolor West Side Story-esque video for "All Night Long". At the end of the video someone goes "through" a door and has to just stay behind the door, because it doesn't really lead anywhere and the door won't close! The music video equivalent of just singing softer and softer rather than fading out.
- Through this process we discovered British band ABC, who I only knew from "When Smokey Sings". They have a bunch of playful videos including "The Night You Murdered Love", in which the lead singer is hunted by a female assassin on a skateboard; and "Poison Arrow", in which the lead singer is hunted by a female assassin without a skateboard. They also made a fun animated video for "How To Be A Millionaire" which has a cool Batman: The Animated Series feel, but the only copy I could find on Youtube plays the video in reverse, presumably to avoid the eye of Content ID. This reverses the meaning of the video, showing the band members leading less extravagant lives and returning items to store shelves.
- Thomas Dolby, of science-blinded fame, is to me the archetypal "weird 80s music video" maker; see also his "Hyperactive".
- "Think" by Information Society... unlike the other links here, I don't like this song, but the music video is an incredible taste of the '90s. Anyone can rip off Brazil, but it takes a true Gilliam-phile to also collect Time Bandits.
- "Pop Musik" by M - Super-low-budget work that I feel was really influential in the language of music videos just from having come out so early (1979).
- Berlin's "Metro" has a similar look, as if Rainer Werner Fassbender directed it right after making Kamikaze '89.
- I'm not really into the Pet Shop Boys, but the second music video for Opportunities is great, and director Zbigniew Rybczyński has a solid body of work, including Rush's "Time Stand Still" video.
- Pat Benetar specialized in big female-empowerment action-movie videos, like the Sweet Charity-esque "Love is a Battlefield" and the Nazi-punching adventure "Shadows of the Night"
- Annie Lennox has a number of fun videos, my favorite being "Would I Lie To You?"
- Steve Winwood's "While You See A Chance" illustrates the dichotomy of the '80s pop video. Steve himself is well-dressed and presentable, playing the keyboard in a sound stage where two Suliban are crawling over a giant pyramid! What's going on? Never explained. Steve doesn't seem to mind. Did they go to high school together?
- Two great videos from Men At Work: "It's A Mistake" and "Who Can It Be Now?"
- Dire Straits's "Walk of Life" is a glimpse back into a time when you couldn't just see a bunch of sports bloopers whenever you wanted, it had to be a special thing. Also on Youtube is the Walk of Life Project, which shows the ending of various movies redone with "Walk of Life" as the closing song.
- "Jump" by the Pointer Sisters also includes sports highlights—plus potentially dangerous jumping in high heels.
- "I Can't Wait" by Nu Shooz is the perfect example of the appeal of this project to me. I've probably heard this song twenty times in my life without ever paying attention, and only remembered it because of the catchy hook. But it's got a wacky, surreal music video with corny 1986 CGI effects. The song is fun! It was a big hit! People put a lot of work into this video! But it's just been sitting around in the back of our collective cultural unconciousness, not giving us the enjoyment it could give in a new context.
- The Human League's video for "Don't You Want Me" is nice and metafictional.
- Scandal's "The Warrior" has learned the lessons of Cats. Relatedly, Hall and Oates's "Maneater" and Heart's "Nothing at All" both use a panther to represent the feminine. In fact I'm gonna assume it's the same panther; how many trained panthers are there who can stalk through a music video?
- "No One is to Blame" (melancholy) and "Everlasting Love" (cute) by Howard Jones.
- Calloway's "I Wanna Be Rich"
- Joe Jackson's "Stepping Out" and "Down to London", which is kind of the same video twice.
- Finally, some videos that make me homesick for Manhattan: Bananarama's "Cruel Summer", Glenn Frey's "You Belong To The City", and (again), "Possession Obsession"
Mon Dec 14 2020 13:33 Situation Normal:
Situation Normal is out! You can now buy DRM-free direct from the publisher, and we got purchase links galore on the book's webpage.
We got the first two chapters free to read in HTML or PDF. We got great reviews from Booklist ("A fast-paced romp"), Library Journal ("will have readers laughing one minute and wanting to cry the next"), and Cory Doctorow ("a novel so brilliantly conceived that it runs like precision clockwork"). We got a "The Big Idea" essay on John Scalzi's blog. We're going all out!
I've written my author commentary essays and after giving you a couple of weeks to read this huge book, I'll start posting them occasionally here, so stick around and subscribe to the RSS feed. Hope you enjoy the book!
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