February 2023 in media


Everything I've read & watched this month. Highlights mark the really good stuff. Enjoy!

Film

C = cinema, W = watched for work, R = rewatch.
More here.

  • The Game (1997, dir David Fincher) (R)
  • EO (2022, dir Jerzy Skolimowski) (C)
  • L'Atalante (1934, dir Jean Vigo) (C)
  • The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920, dir Robert Wiene) (C)
  • Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019, dir J. J. Abrams) (R)
  • Dick Tracy Special: Tracy Zooms In (2023, dir Warren Beatty & Chris Merrill)
  • Summer of Sam (1999, dir Spike Lee) (C)
  • Saint Omer (2022, dir Alice Diop) (C)
  • Exotica (1994, dir Atom Egoyan)
  • Trainspotting (1996, dir Danny Boyle) (R)
  • Magic Mike’s Last Dance (2023, dir Steven Soderbergh) (C)
  • The Beach (2000, dir Danny Boyle)
  • Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016, dir Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone) (C, R)
  • The Fast and the Furious (2001, dir Rob Cohen)
  • Strange Days (1995, dir Kathryn Bigelow)
  • Marnie (1964, dir Alfred Hitchcock)
  • Creed (2015, dir Ryan Coogler)
  • Creed III (2023, dir Michael B. Jordan) (C, W)

TV

  • Poker Face S1
  • The Last of Us S1
  • Santa Clarita Diet S2-3
  • Lost S4-6

Music

Articles

The Internet is Broken. Can We Fix It? – A Review of Ben Tarnoff’s “Internet for the People” by Z.M.L. for LibrarianShipwreck

The Dirt on Pig-Pen by Elif Batuman for Astra

It isn’t the lines by Bee Wilson for London Review of Books

In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson complains that the young Newman was more ‘mannered’ than Brando. ‘He seems to me an uneasy, self-regarding personality, as if handsomeness had left him guilty.’ The impression given by the memoir is that handsomeness caused him not guilt but shame. The prettier he was, the more he was the creature his narcissistic mother wanted him to be, which was something he both strived for and rejected.

One of their daughters, Lissy, told Hawke that Woodward ‘knew that her husband, who was really famous, deeply believed that she was a better actor than he was’. But being a ‘better actor’ doesn’t always equate to being a movie star, someone whose smile or frown can do strange things to us as we sit watching them in the dark. Vidal said that Newman was like Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda: ‘They are so good no one knows they are any good.’

The question that agonises Newman in the memoir is that of authentic emotion, what he calls his ‘core’. He told Stern that for years no one else was real to him, not even Woodward and his children. He agonised over the difference between the interior and exterior person, and worried that ‘the light that people are looking at is not the same light that you think you are emanating.’ How strange it must have felt to be inside those blue eyes. He was the one person in the world who would never know the sheer thrill of catching sight of Paul Newman, the film star. ‘When we’ve been walking down a street,’ Stern said,

one of the things I’ve often said to Paul is how unfortunate it is that he won’t look back at people who are looking at him. I get a glow by the time we’ve gone two blocks, and find myself smiling simply because of the pleasure in people’s faces at seeing him. And it’s something Paul won’t see because he won’t look.

Off His Royal Tits by Andrew O’Hagan for London Review of Books

In a world of royal enchantment, competitive PR, national myth-making and pure lies, the truth – if played loud enough – can seem like a human right eclipsing all others, and Harry has worked himself up to the point where truth is life and life is truth. (He’s been in California for a while. He’ll get over it when the tax bill arrives.)

He’s still trying to prove himself before the world, wielding the wooden sword, being patriotic, sticking up for the queen and his ‘Mother Country’, but the truths unfurled in his book can only reveal the spurious nature of these things. The royal family’s complicity with the press is not temporary and it is not accidental; it means there can be no family, only pairs, or individuals, coiled around courtiers. To think of it as a family is to ignore the poison that courses through the whole thing. Harry wants them to be angrier at the press, to stand up for him and Meghan against it, but he fails to see that his needs, and his wife’s, make his brother and his father dislike him, and so British journalism is left to embody all his feelings of being hunted and isolated, giving the press a force it would not otherwise have had.

There’s an unresolved childishness at play here. He wants to be drinking Smirnoff Ice with his mates, going on the Tube, taking coke, snogging his girlfriend in Soho House, but he also wants the other stuff – the life of the royal, the titles for his kids – and his need for all that threatens to drag his more serious concerns into the shallows. When he was about to introduce Meghan to his dad, he asked her to wear her hair down, because ‘Pa likes it when women wear their hair down.’ She should also avoid wearing too much make-up because ‘Pa didn’t approve of women who wear a lot.’ If you’re Harry, it takes genius to be ordinary, and he’s only halfway there, still agitating for approval. In his account of the years of his trauma, he mentions nothing about what was actually happening in Britain, noticing not one thing about the conditions under which people live. The book makes it clear that Harry has been treated badly, but it also makes clear he thinks about nothing else.

Maybe So, Sir, but Not Today: The Fragile Humanity of Top Gun: Maverick by Tom Ralston for Bright Wall/Dark Room

From the moment Tom Cruise’s titular Maverick enters the film, Kosinski frames him as fragile, small. We see him from a distance, dwarfed by a plane in the foreground—and then by his motorcycle. We peer at his older body, out of focus in frame, as our attention is directed to old photographs in which he was young, unblemished, unwrinkled. He is carefully, deliberately introduced as inseparable from the giant forces and objects his body is in thrall to: the military, oversized metal vessels, vehicles that offer no protection of the flesh from the impact of the road, the inexorable march of years. In the exhilarating opening sequence where Maverick attempts to achieve—and then surpass—Mach 10 (a speed that no human alive has ever come close to traveling), the camera pulls out from his POV to a surprisingly quiet, universal one: the plane passing softly across the globe’s surface. Maverick is the fastest man alive, but he’s still tiny when viewed from the stars.

As we age, moments we can’t move past begin to accumulate in odd corners, dust bunnies of resignation and panic, resistant to any broom. Perhaps I am not saying anything new here; but that, too, is its own sign of aging—the tendency to repeat what you realize you have already become notoriously boring for repeating. Top Gun: Maverick could feel predictable and clichéd in the hands of lesser actors, a lesser crew; it would have been all too easy to roll your eyes and dismiss it as throwback American military propaganda (as some have done). And yet. The imagery unfolding onscreen seems, to me, not less patriotic, but scarier, smaller, sadder: the waning potential of the complex and burdened human in a sea of clean, mechanical, bureaucratized procedure.

At times during the final 30 minutes, I found myself wondering if Maverick would die. It would be a controversial move, but one I thought the film had earned. What better way to honor this immortal character than by sealing him permanently in the spectacular living mausoleum that is a film? (I think of Shakespeare, cheekily noting in Sonnet 18’s final couplet that by writing a poem about his loved one’s beauty, he has preserved that beauty eternally in the lines of the poem.) But, of course, it’s not death itself that Maverick’s emotional arc mandates—it’s the willingness to die for someone else. To bring closure to the cycle of grief and guilt.

Puzzled Puss by John Lahr for London Review of Books

Keaton had been on the stage longest, risen the highest, fallen the furthest, and, thanks to the medium of film which preserved his artistry, left the most indelible legacy. ‘He was,’ Orson Welles said, ‘as we’re now beginning to realise, the greatest of all the clowns in the history of the cinema.’

The motion picture camera turned the world into Keaton’s playpen. ‘The camera allowed you to show your audience the real thing,’ he said, ‘real trains, horses and wagons, snowstorms, floods. Nothing you could stand on, feel, or see was beyond the range of the camera.’ For Keaton, a film location was a field day: ‘You only had to turn me loose on the set and I’d have material in two minutes, because I’d been doing it all my life. I turned out to be Arbuckle’s whole writing staff for gags.’

‘I used to daydream an awful lot,’ he said. ‘I’ve done that so often in pictures. I could get carried away and visualise all the fairylands in the world.’ The comedies have the surreal logic of being in a dream awake. Keaton mined the world around him for laughs, including the means of his own production. ‘He began by calling direct attention to the camera – to its lens, to its frame, to the flat screen on which its images would be projected,’ Walter Kerr wrote. Even in his first starring two-reeler, One Week, Keaton made film itself part of the joke. As Buster’s new bride reaches out of the bath in their zany DIY house, a hand is suddenly put over the camera’s intrusive artificial eye to preserve her ‘privacy’. The laugh is about tact; but the design and the timing of the gag is another kind of tact, the fancy footwork of Keaton’s clowning delivering the knockout punch.

Harrison Ford: “I Know Who the F*** I Am” by James Hibberd for The Hollywood Reporter

Your fans online have done some armchair diagnosis, looking at things you’ve said about being shy in social situations and some of your talk show appearances. Some assume you’ve wrestled with social anxiety disorder. Are they onto something?

Shit. That sounds like something a psychiatrist would say, not a casual observer. No. I don’t have a social anxiety disorder. I have an abhorrence of boring situations. I was shy when I first went onstage — I wasn’t shy, I was fucking terrified. My knees would shake so badly, you could see it from the back of the theater. But that’s not social anxiety. That’s being unfamiliar with the territory. I was able to talk myself through that and then enjoy the experience of being onstage and telling a story with collaborators.

There’s this thing called “match the hatch.” It’s when there’s a natural bug in the air the fish are eating and you use an artificial fly that’s the same color. I have a protective coloration. I try to blend in. That’s what I do. When I’m getting dressed, if people are going to be wearing a suit, I wear a suit. If people are wearing blue jeans, I’m wearing blue jeans. I’m comfortable in all kinds of company. If they’re serious, I’m serious. They’re not serious, I’m not serious. And if they’re too fucking serious, I’m not serious. (Laughs.) I don’t know why people have an expectation of me. I come in all colors. I don’t know who’s going to show up. But it’s usually me and it looks familiar.

The Last of Us Is Not a Video-Game Adaptation by Andrea Long Chu for Vulture

But the question was never whether The Last of Us would make for compelling television, since anyone who had played it could tell you it basically already was that. The real question, buried in the praise, was why a story with such cinematic ambitions had bothered being a video game to begin with.

The mistake here, common enough even among those literate in video games, is the breezy conflation of interactivity with control, as if the simple fact of player choice were any surer guarantee of efficacy than the existence of choice in real life. It’s true you can’t alter the content of a television show just by watching it, but too great an emphasis on this will obscure the fact that the same is true of many video games. The Last of Us has sometimes been called an “interactive movie” by fans and detractors alike — a faintly damning term that implies, ironically, a dearth of consequential interaction between players and the game. And it’s true: As a game about difficult moral choices, it gives the player none. There are no plot decisions, no dialogue options; there is no open world. The weight of choice is felt instead during the mundane task of inventory management, where every bullet and clean rag is precious. Meanwhile, Joel is Joel, violent and gentle, and players cannot overrule his decisions short of turning off the game and going outside to play.

Fifty Years On, A Hard Day’s Night Is Still Revelatory by Stephanie Zacherak for Village Voice

One of those girls, a blonde with a round, heartbreakingly readable face, touched Lester deeply. He would later refer to her as the “white rabbit,” and the camera finds its way back to her over and over, because it just can’t stay away. Her face is tear streaked; she can’t believe what she’s seeing, she can’t stand it even just one more moment, but she wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world. She mouths George’s name, a mute prayer.

I know nothing about this girl, who, I presume and hope, grew up to be a woman. But I can’t help superimposing her experience of this moment, of this band, onto mine. Did we get the life the Beatles promised us—at no small cost to themselves — of love and despair, heartbreak and elation, disappointment and exuberance? I want to ask her, as I ask myself, now on the far side of the beginning of everything, Was it all you hoped it would be? No. Absolutely not. And yes, a thousand times over.

ChatGPT Is a Blurry JPEG of the Web by Ted Chiang for The New Yorker

This is what ChatGPT does when it’s prompted to describe, say, losing a sock in the dryer using the style of the Declaration of Independence: it is taking two points in “lexical space” and generating the text that would occupy the location between them. (“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one to separate his garments from their mates, in order to maintain the cleanliness and order thereof. . . .”) ChatGPT is so good at this form of interpolation that people find it entertaining: they’ve discovered a “blur” tool for paragraphs instead of photos, and are having a blast playing with it.

Most of the correct answers that GPT-3 gives are not found on the Web—there aren’t many Web pages that contain the text “245 + 821,” for example—so it’s not engaged in simple memorization. But, despite ingesting a vast amount of information, it hasn’t been able to derive the principles of arithmetic, either. A close examination of GPT-3’s incorrect answers suggests that it doesn’t carry the “1” when performing arithmetic. The Web certainly contains explanations of carrying the “1,” but GPT-3 isn’t able to incorporate those explanations. GPT-3’s statistical analysis of examples of arithmetic enables it to produce a superficial approximation of the real thing, but no more than that.

I think there’s a simpler explanation. Imagine what it would look like if ChatGPT were a lossless algorithm. If that were the case, it would always answer questions by providing a verbatim quote from a relevant Web page. We would probably regard the software as only a slight improvement over a conventional search engine, and be less impressed by it. The fact that ChatGPT rephrases material from the Web instead of quoting it word for word makes it seem like a student expressing ideas in her own words, rather than simply regurgitating what she’s read; it creates the illusion that ChatGPT understands the material. In human students, rote memorization isn’t an indicator of genuine learning, so ChatGPT’s inability to produce exact quotes from Web pages is precisely what makes us think that it has learned something. When we’re dealing with sequences of words, lossy compression looks smarter than lossless compression.

What advertising does to TV. by Emily Nussbaum for The New Yorker

Books

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

I liked my apartment because all of the windows were at street level. In the summer, I could see people’s shoes, and in the winter, snow. Once, as I lay in bed, a bright red sun appeared in the window. It bounced from side to side, then became a ball.

My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.

Of course, I thought of the drunkard boy in New Orleans, the one I loved best. Each night at the old sailors’ bar, I’d peel the labels off his bottles and try to entice him homeward. But he wouldn’t come. Not until light came through the window.

That one was so beautiful I used to watch him sleep. If I had to sum up what he did to me, I’d say it was this: he made me sing along to all the bad songs on the radio. Both when he loved me and when he didn’t.

You called me. I called you. Come over, come over, we said.

I learned you were fearless about the weather. You wanted to walk around the city, come rain come snow come sleet, recording things. I bought a warmer coat with many ingenious pockets. You put your hands in all of them.

The Manicheans believed the world was filled with imprisoned light, fragments of a God who destroyed himself because he no longer wished to exist. This light could be found trapped inside man and animals and plants, and the Manichean mission was to try to release it. Because of this, they abstained from sex, viewing babies as fresh prisons of entrapped light.

My husband reads the book to her every night, including very very slowly the entire copyright page.

Of course it is difficult. You are creating a creature with a soul, my friend says.

I had this idea in the middle of the night that maybe I could stop working for the almost astronaut and get a job writing fortune cookies instead. I could try to write really American ones. Already, I’ve jotted down a few of them.

Objects create happiness.
The animals are pleased to be of use.
Your cities will shine forever.
Death will not touch you.

I send my fortunes to the philosopher. He writes back immediately. I am interested in bankrolling you. But I only have $27 in checking.

“Do you know why I love you?” my daughter asks me. She is floating in the bathwater, her head lathered white. “Why?” I say. “Because I am your mother,” she tells me.

I decide to make my class read creation myths. The idea is to go back to the beginning. In some, God is portrayed as a father, in others, as a mother. When God is a father, he is said to be elsewhere. When God is a mother, she is said to be everywhere.

It’s different, of course, with the art monsters. They are always elsewhere.

It was quite difficult to reach Rilke. He had no house, no address where one could find him, no steady lodging or office. He was always on his way through the world and no one, not even he himself, knew in advance which direction it would take.

Hard to believe I used to think love was such a fragile business. Once when he was still young, I saw a bit of his scalp showing through his hair and I was afraid. But it was just a cowlick. Now sometimes it shows through for real, but I feel only tenderness.

The following is a quote from Ann Druyan talking about the creation of the Voyager Golden Record:

In the course of my daunting search for the single most worthy piece of Chinese music, I phoned Carl and left a message at his hotel in Tucson … An hour later the phone rang in my apartment in Manhattan. I picked it up and heard a voice say: “I got back to my room and found a message that said Annie called. And I asked myself, why didn’t you leave me that message ten years ago?”

Bluffing, joking, I responded lightheartedly. “Well, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, Carl.” And then, more soberly, “Do you mean for keeps?"

“Yes, for keeps,” he said tenderly. “Let’s get married.”

“Yes,” I said, and that moment we felt we knew what it must be like to discover a new law of nature.

She talks instead about how she went into a laboratory just two days after that phone call. She was hooked up to a computer and began to meditate. All the data from her brain and heart was turned into sound for the Golden Record.

To the best of my abilities I tried to think about the history of ideas and human social organization. I thought about the predicament that our civilization finds itself in and about the violence and poverty that make this planet a hell for so many of its inhabitants. Toward the end I permitted myself a personal statement of what it was like to fall in love.

How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.

The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind. (Fun fact.)


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