the candler blog

The Tragedy of American Hatred

Thoughts

Yesterday hurt. Bad.

My heart weeps for the victims of the shooting at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh, for their families and the entire community affected by this terrible act. Know that you are not alone, that we will make a blessing of the memories of those we lost.

Sadly, we as a nation have crossed another horrific rubicon. Josh Nathan-Kazis reports for The Forward (emphasis mine):

The shooting at the Squirrel Hill synagogues is only the second shooting at a synagogue in U.S. history, and the first that appears to have been motivated by anti-Semitic animus.

Americans live in fear of being gunned down in a public space, be it a school, a movie theater, or even a house of worship. The gun problem here is profligate. So is hate.

In the past few years, American hatred has gone unchecked. Xenophobic fears have been whipped up for political points. Jews remain the most persecuted religious group in this country. Hate is on the rise, including not just the bald-faced racism against immigrants, but anti-Semitic conspiracy theories supported by national politicians.

The Pittsburgh shooter, as we now know, ascribed to one of these theories. He took his anger, grabbed his guns and went out to slaughter Jews. His hatred was always there, but the anger seems to have emboldened him to commit this most horrific act.

I, personally, have been terrified this day would come. Sadly, I know history well enough to be shocked, but not surprised. The day after the 2016 election, I wrote the following:

The lesson passed down to me after a century of unspeakable horror was one of vigilance. Pay attention. Engage. Question. And never, ever forget.

It’s not paranoia that has me feeling this way. It’s experience.

The hatred in America is palpable. Jews have long taken precautions against violent acts. During the High Holidays, it is now common to have a police presence at synagogues across the country, having your tallis bag or purse inspected before entering the building. As large and successful as the American Jewish community is, we know better than to let our guard down. Yesterday was a stark reminder of why.

The story of the American twentieth century and the story of the American Jewish community are intertwined. We came to this country fleeing persecution from all corners of the earth. We have flourished all across this nation. There have been dark days, but none darker than yesterday. All Americans must pause and consider what it means that anti-Semitism could get this bad here. Here.

The tragedy of America today is that too many have become blinded to the hate-filled rhetoric that permeates our discourse. The divisions in this country run so deep, people can’t seem to see the dangers lurking right out in the open. Anti-Semitism, sadly, has a long and documented history. Jewish communities the world over have been attacked as a by-product of anxieties, economic and otherwise, for centuries. But we have the benefit of history; we know how this story unfolds. And we can prevent it.

In Judaism, we have a concept that defines the terrible events that have befallen us: Sinat Hinam, or baseless hatred. Hate without cause has followed us for centuries and decimated us. The anti-dote, it is taught, is Ahavat Hinam, baseless love. To bring love and happiness into the world for no reason is a core Jewish precept. It is no simple task in a world of such darkness. But what is the point of a world without love?

I believe America can be better than this. It starts with education. Reach out to members of your Jewish community. Grieve with us, come learn with us. Celebrate with us. Crucially, when we speak of anti-Semitism, listen to us; hear us. Teach the next generation that hatred will not define America. The stakes are too high. Our lives are on the line.

Horrific Stories From the Border

Link, News

Jason Kottke does the hard work of distilling a sprawling national crisis into its most basic parts:

No use sugar-coating it: the federal government of the United States of America now has a policy of taking children away from their families when they attempt to enter the US to request political asylum from violence & hardship in their native countries. These children and their parents are placed into concentration camps.

Read his whole post, which goes through a series of news stories documenting the horrors from the border. Anyone who can hear these stories and feel nothing is beyond saving. It is important we bear witness to this evil. In my lifetime, in my state, the government has thrown children into cages, deliberately and without remorse. This will not be forgotten, and I don’t know how it can possibly be forgiven.

Halide, Darkroom and Rekindling Photography as a Hobby

Photography, Technology

A few years ago, my photography workflow broke. I can’t remember exactly when, but there was a sort of cascading effect once it became clear Apple didn’t want to support Aperture anymore.1 From there I stopped bringing my Nikon D90 around with me, and my photo collection began to wither.

When Apple first showed off the iPhone 7 Plus with the dual-lens camera and Portrait Mode, it blew me away. I wanted it to become my new, everyday camera. It has been, but until recently was using it exactly as I had all my other iPhones; it didn’t feel like a camera. Two apps, Halide and Darkroom, have changed that for me. I’m having a total blast taking photos again.

The key feature of deluxe camera app Halide, for me, is speed. When you take a photo, you feel a little haptic feedback. The screen doesn’t blink or freeze frame. On to the next shot. It feels almost like shooting with a Leica or other rangefinder. You compose the shot, set focus and exposure, then move on.

If you’ve never shot with a rangefinder, this may seem a bit abstract. With an SLR, you can see what the shot will look like when you compose it; with a rangefinder, you can’t (exactly).2 The result is that you end up training your eye to see what your next photo will look like without looking through an eyepiece. Halide has basically gotten me into that sort of thinking. I’m more dexterous with it than I ever was in Apple’s built in Camera app.

Of course, Halide has a bevy of other features. It can shoot RAW, has manual controls like ISO and shutter speed, and it even has its own take on Portrait Mode, called Depth. I’ve used a number of beefed up camera apps over the years, and Halide is easily the most intuitive to use.

The main feature that blew me away was shooting RAW. Halide’s designer, Sebastiaan de With, has an excellent series on the topic, but here’s a quick example that made me want to shoot everything RAW. Halide allows you to shoot both RAW and JPG, the latter of which will have all the noise reduction and color correction the built in Camera app offers. This is a 100% crop of a photo I took as a JPG.

Now here’s the same photo in RAW.

In this example, the RAW version retains a lot of information that the JPG does away with. Sure, there’s noise, but beneath that noise is a ton of detail. The boats look sharper and each of the cables on the bridge are more distinct in the RAW version. Here’s the whole shot, as edited in Darkroom.

Darkroom is a fantastic photo editing app that just released a huge update. Besides the photo adjustment tools the app has been honing over the years, they’ve added the ability to adjust the depth map on Portrait Mode photos. This means you can increase or decrease the amount of blur behind your subject. They’ve taken it a step further, allowing you to adjust the edges of what is in the foreground and in the background. And you can even do things like adjust the saturation, brightness and contrast of the foreground and background separately.

I’ve been using the beta for a little while, and this makes Portrait photos a ton more fun to play with. I find that, more often than not, I’m reducing the amount of blur. Portrait mode tends to treat most photos as if they were taken with an 85 or 105mm lens, which is appropriate as these are often referred to as “portrait” lenses (get it?!). But Sometimes I frame a photo that feels a lot more like a 50 or even a 35mm lens. Pulling the blur back allows for a subtler effect mimicking a wider array of lenses. Here’s an example.

The blur adds just enough separation between the subject and the background. This feels a lot more like a photo taken with a street lens, to me at least. It’s more blur than I would get with the lenses on their own, but less than what Apple’s algorithms tend to ask for.

One more portrait photo, taken amid the cacophony of a red carpet before the premiere of Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs at SXSW.

I felt like I was pushing my phone to the limits, and didn’t think any depth information would show up at the distance I was standing. But somehow it does its little magic and grabs a fairly clean shot. I took some photos with my SLR as well; they’re much nicer, although since I was shooting into lights there was a lot of glare streaking over the subjects. The tiny iPhone lenses didn’t seem as phased by that. But honestly it was just fun to try to get a shot like this on my phone.

There are loads of other features in both of these apps. If you want to read more on them, I suggest Federico Viticci’s recent Halide walkthrough or Darkroom’s own blog. Though made by different companies, they go hand in hand. Each even has the ability to jump to the other app with a single tap.

I still love taking photos with my Nikon D90, but there’s no question that my iPhone is now my main camera. Halide has reinvigorated my little hobby, and Darkroom has made it so I can turn my snapshots into something beautiful right from my phone. I’m excited to see what they add next.

Halide is $4.99 and Darkroom is free with in-app purchases up to $7.99 (you’re going to want to just buy every feature). Go get them and take some great photos.

  1. Which, in what has become true Apple “pro” fashion, was well before they actually killed the application off.

  2. This isn’t a 1:1 analogy. Halide allows you to preview focus live, which a rangefinder would not, and switching to the telephoto lens shows you the telephoto preview. On a rangefinder the frame lines would simply shrink in your eyepiece. Like I said, this is more an abstract feeling than an exact comparison.

Ready Player One is a Relevant Spectacle With Little to Say

Movies, Reviews, SXSW 2018

Scene from Ready Player One

Looking back on my own notes, it seems I enjoyed reading Ernest Cline’s novel, Ready Player One, more than I remember. Over time, it has hardened into a something I don’t particularly like. Beloved for its voluminous pop cultural references, I always found the crutch of stroking nostalgia got in the way of an otherwise straightforward story.

Enter Steven Spielberg, one of the great visual storytellers of our time. His filmed version, which I caught at its SXSW world premiere, cuts through the cruft and puts characters front and center. Fans need not worry, though, this is a faithful adaptation that only improves upon the original. If you wanted to wrap yourself in Cline’s universe, it just got a lot bigger.

The story, written for the screen by Zak Penn along with Cline, takes place in the year 2045. Seemingly all commerce revolves around the OASIS, a virtual reality game world that functions as a social outlet. People pick an avatar and live their lives inside of the game. Wade Watts, our hero played by Tye Sheridan, lives in “The Stacks,” a squalid makeshift slum so-named because it consists of RVs, trailers and cars stacked atop one another. Since the world has gone virtual, people seem to have adapted to living in less space.

Watts wanders around the OASIS trying to solve a puzzle hidden by James Halliday, the deceased creator of this digital universe, played by the incomparable Mark Rylance. This seems to be the focus of most OASIS users, the most dedicated of whom are called “gunters,” short for “easter egg hunters.” You see, Halliday’s game revolves around his own childish obsessions, coming of age in the 1980s as he did. The prize, total control of the OASIS, is so great that amateurs like Watts aren’t the only ones on the trail. A company called Innovative Online Industries, or IOI, has hordes of virtual mercenaries and indentured servants scouring the digital realm for clues.

This is the setup; it’s a lot to take in at once. Penn and Cline’s script stumbles along trying to bring you into this world, opening with an extended voice over imparting about as much as I just did. Cline’s universe has the potential to be rich, but he, as its creator, can’t help but get in his own way, trying to make sure you see how reverent he is to the past.

The result is a film that is fun to watch, leads nowhere and has little to say. Which is strange because it feels like, today, in 2018, we are at a technological inflection point, one that makes the future of Ready Player One feel rich with relevance. Cline’s 2045 is a hellscape, one in which humanity has given itself over not only to the whims of a few technological oligarchs, but to the corrosive force of nostalgia. I’ve long wondered what happens when a generation raised on “28 Things Only 90s Kids Will Understand” listicles edges into middle age and tries to look back. The result is something like this film: a world where no culture seems to have been created for a generation; everyone was too busy looking back.

Steven Spielberg is a unique figure to take on a project that deals so heavily in memory and the future. Not only has his work provided indelible portraits of our past, as in Saving Private Ryan, he also entered this century providing a template for the future with Minority Report. For that film, the director famously convened a symposium of technologists in order to learn what technologies might actually be around in our lifetime. No such care seems to have been taken with Ready Player One, which seems to be all about hopping on a ride and never letting go. Weirdly, it fights against being a dystopic vision of the near future, despite the darkness right below the surface.

If Cline can’t help his indulgences toward fandom, Spielberg can’t help but compose incredible visuals. There are many scenes that cut back and forth between worlds real and virtual; his virtuoso eye for spatial details comes in quite handy here. The way armies of VR players are shown in multiple spaces will keep you thrilled, and certainly elevates the film to something stunning.

The film’s best set piece, which I won’t reveal but you’ll know it when you see it, is the closest Spielberg comes to having something to say about memory and nostalgia. We enter a well-trod universe that will not only reward those familiar with it, but may rewire the minds of those who haven’t experienced it yet. Once the film has been out for a bit, and perhaps after at least one more viewing, I will have plenty more to say on this.

Steven Spielberg is a director who can close up shop tomorrow and be remembered as one of the great directors of all time. And yet it is something of a gift to see him stretch out his creative muscles in this period of his career. He is clearly enjoying himself. He made the first Disney film of his career in 2016 with The BFG, and work is starting on a new West Side Story, which will mark a huge milestone in the director’s career (he has reportedly always wanted to make a musical). Something has changed in his approach to the projects he takes on. These years may well turn out to be his most fertile and active of his career.

Ready Player One is at times thrilling, but it’s unfortunate it doesn’t have more to say. The stakes of the quest are completely out of whack, and the film’s resolution (and closing shot) feel incredibly weak given the scale of the world we imagine the OASIS to be. Spielberg, however, remains one of my favorite directors to watch from film to film. There are techniques at play here that I hope come up again in his other films. If nothing else it is fun, popcorn fodder. Perhaps that’s all we need to chew on right now.

Isle of Dogs is About More Than Four-Legged Friends

Movies, Reviews, SXSW 2018

The style and substance of Wes Anderson’s work is well established at this point. His films are colorful and symmetrical, each frame packed edge to edge with a reverential graphic aesthetic, a design language built atop modernist furnishings and drapery; he works with a revolving murderer’s row of comic powerhouses, his own little repertory of collaborators; and there will always be a great adventure, one where dangers abound and the wounds will cut just deep enough.

Yes, Isle of Dogs, which had its North American premiere this past weekend at SXSW, fits unmistakably in the Anderson canon; if you like his films you’ll continue to do so here. What is surprising, though, is that built atop the recognizable aesthetic is something I did not expect to find: a political message. In this sense, though perhaps not the most satisfying of Anderson’s work, the film may be his most exciting. Watching a filmmaker build on everything he knows and then step out of that comfort zone to say more than you may have expected provides a unique thrill.

The film takes place in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki. It is ruled with an iron fist by a plutocratic, cat-loving mayor, Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, who also co-wrote the film’s story with Anderson, Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola), who whips the citizens into a frenzy over an outbreak of dog flu. Ignoring his opponents, doctors representing the Science Party, he banishes all dogs to Trash Island, a literal dump that has been polluted by various Kobayashi enterprises. We learn later that the mayor’s plotting has more to do with enriching himself than any ideological bent.

On Trash Island, we meet Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray) and King (Bob Balaban), a pack of dogs that roam the refuse, searching for food scraps, longing for a purpose. Adventure presents itself when a young pilot, Atari (Koyu Rankin), crash lands on the isle, looking for his lost dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). The pups are (mostly) game to help the young boy find his dog.

While most of Megasaki’s residents seem to have made peace with the expulsion of the dogs, there is a resistance movement afoot, led by a young foreign exchange student, Tracy (Greta Gerwig). Working for her school newspaper, she pulls at the thread of corruption that has led to the mass dog deportation. Tracy’s journalism quickly morphs into activism once she sees that adults around her have grown complacent. She springs into action, leading up to what has now become a classic Anderson fireworks display of a climax.

Politics has become, perhaps irrevocably, a dominant aspect of American daily life. It is fashionable to know the ever-growing cast of characters in the world of the political; opinions, however ill-informed, have become the coin of the realm. Personally, I am so inundated by news that I can’t tell if I’m merely impressing my own mental state, one awash in names and details and tick-tock reportage, upon this filn. I don’t think so, though. Isle of Dogs feels like a warning of where authoritarianism leads (and how to fight it).1

While many evils are timeless and make for great cinema, Kobayashi feels like a unique villain for our era. Take your pick of kleptocrat, at home or abroad, and you’ll begin to see the similarities. He is made all the more difficult to defeat by the fact that he rose to power not despite the will of the people, but because of it. Only the children of Megasaki have the fortitude to stand up to such a foe. Such may be the case in real life as well.

As I’ve mentioned, the Anderson hallmarks are all there. The film’s plot burns nice and slow as we learn more about what makes each character (and there are many!) tick. Everything occurs in its rightful order, which is to say not always chronologically, for the biggest emotional impact. The result is a film sprinkled with perfectly executed moments of laughter, cheers and tears. It’s an all ages2 escapade that will leave you with plenty to talk about when the lights come up.

Wes Anderson’s filmmaking journey is certainly never dull. One can always rely on him for a visual feast set to musical deep cuts (there’s plenty of vinyl, as well as what sounds like a new, or at least less heard, rendition of Sergei Prokofiev’s first film score) with moments of raw emotional revelation. That palette has become so second nature to the director, he can now imbue his stories with vital and current considerations. That may be the most impressive aspect of this latest outing. I, for one, am excited to see where he goes next.

  1. One can also discern a message of protecting the planet, though, weirdly, for a film set on a place called Trash Island, that seems to be somewhat secondary.

  2. Perhaps now is a good place to mention that the film is not entirely in English. Every character speaks his or her native tongue, which means most humans speak Japanese. One should trust Mr. Anderson on this: English speakers will not be in the dark. There are no subtitles, but everything is made clear through some form of translation. Younger viewers, I would guess, likely won’t even notice the film feels foreign to any degree.

Review: Pass Over

Movies, Reviews, SXSW 2018

Spike Lee’s Pass Over is a beautifully filmed version of a powerful play. At times it feels like a concert film. The audience is a central character, and not just in the theater. The film opens with scenes of young audience members preparing to get on busses to head to The Steppenwolf Theatre to see the play. We see as they get ready and we hear their laughter, their gasps, their concern.

Antoinette Nwandu’s play (directed for the stage by Danya Taymor) is about two young black men, Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker), forever stuck on a Chicago block. Their existential threat is police violence. Almost everyone they know has been killed, so they stay on their block, passing the time talking about what they’ll do in the “promised land.”

The two have cooked up a sort of biblical mythos about life outside of the block. Old testament references abound (it is, after all, a play called “Pass Over” with a main character named Moses), but the concerns are immediate. Here, the promised land is a state of mind, a place where the threat of being gunned down doesn’t lurk around the corner. It’s also a place where you can order champagne on ice from room service. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Moses and Kitch aren’t the only characters on the block. There are two white men who come in and out of their lives. The first, Mister (played by Ryan Hallahan) is wealthy and aloof, decked out in full seersucker and hat, carrying a comically oversized picnic basket. He claims to be lost on the way to his mother’s house, and offers the bounty in his basket to the men. They are mistrustful, but they spend time with him, enjoying the food. He has all their favorites, after all.

The second is Ossifer (here played by Blake DeLong; on stage both parts were portrayed by Hallahan), a police officer who checks in on Moses and Kitch to keep them in their place. He is an unchecked racist, finding glee in using racial epithets and ensuring the men never leave the block.

The power of the film comes from the oscillations of racism between Mister and Ossifer. One is obvious, while the other is dangerous. Moses and Kitch come to learn that the threat of gun violence may be the least of their worries in this life. Maybe there is no promised land for two black men so long as the Misters of the world are out there, enjoying their picnic baskets.

Adding footage of the audience before the show is a disarming and brilliant conceit. It reminds the viewer that this performance is not just for them, but for a different audience, one that is mostly young, black and living through struggles similar to Moses and Kitch. There is much of the film that is extremely current (direct reference is made to Colin Kaepernick’s protests) and may not stand the test of time, but seeing the audience experience the play adds a timeless weight to the story.

The most important thing one can do when leaving Pass Over is discuss it. There is a great deal to unpack, and some conclusions may not be as obvious as one thinks. The real gift of Lee’s film is bringing this story to audiences around the world. See it when it’s available to you.

Amazon and the $50 Million Film

Movies

Jeffrey Dastin and Jessica Toonkel, reporting for Reuters:

Amazon expects to go after films with budgets in the $50 million range at the expense of indie projects costing around $5 million, one person familiar with the plans said on the condition of anonymity.

Already this news is garnering some jeers, but I welcome it. I hope Amazon doesn’t totally get out of the $5 million and under film game, but projects in that budget range are pretty well served today.

The $50 million film, on the other hand, is the diciest bet in the business. Audiences keep proving that the more you spend on a film, the more likely you are to see a healthy return. This is why there are so many tentpoles with budgets in the stratosphere. In fact, of the top ten highest grossing films1 of 2017, only one came in at or under the $50 million mark: Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of It, with an estimated budget of $35 million. The expensive films tend to be a sure thing.2

Amazon has proven itself an adept and energetic studio. I particularly like that they haven’t cynically written off theatrical runs for their projects (ahem, Netflix). Studios don’t really takes risks in this budget range. Steven Spielberg’s The Post cost an estimated $50 million to make, for example, but a Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep film with one of the most successful filmmakers of all time at the helm isn’t exactly a risk.

Amazon can afford to take the chance on the bigger films we aren’t seeing. I’m excited to see what filmmakers can do with larger budgets on projects that won’t sink a studio if they fail.

Update: Deadline got a statement from Jason Ropell at Amazon, confirming the part of this I like and denying the part I don’t.

Said Ropell, who is en route to Sundance, for the purpose of watching and possibly buying films here: “We are not abandoning the indie space, we are increasing the potential size of the audience for our films; that in some cases involves higher budgets, but in others not. It’s about the potential for the film not the cost.”

Will definitely be interesting to see what comes out of this new push.

  1. All sequels or reboots, naturally.

  2. Credit where it’s due: IMDb claims Despicable Me 3 had a budget of $80 million and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle cost some $90 million. I’m shocked either was made for under $100 million. And for what it’s worth, there’s no estimated budget for Star Wars: The Last Jedi but it’s safe to assume it cost…a lot.

A Decade Ago on the Internet

Technology, Writing

For the first time in forever I visited the popular links page over on Pinboard, where the site’s most bookmarked URLs are displayed for public perusal. A few dozen users bubbled a recent Tim Bray article, “Google Memory Loss,” up near the top and it hit a soft spot in me. Here’s the thesis:

I think Google has stopped indexing the older parts of the Web.

Bray goes on to prove it and offer alternatives, namely DuckDuckGo (my preferred search engine) and Bing. Anecdotally, this comports with my own experience online and reminded me of a defunct little project I’ve been thinking about lately.

For three brief installments in 2013, I had a look-back column here called Hindsight. The idea was to read year-old stories and find at least one article on the web at least a decade old. It was an attempt to step away from the daily firehose of current events (already a problem back then; today, a national crisis) and learn something new. Far and away, the most interesting part of this short-lived exercise was finding really old stuff on the web.

I had a few little tricks to discover aging content back then, including using Google’s date range search tool. Trying to use the same tool again this week brings up precious few useful results. From the outside looking in, it feels as though Google is discarding the early web. Which is strange given the company’s supposed raison d’être of organizing the world’s content.

But all is not lost! In search of what was happening this week on the web ten years ago, I started visiting older blogs whose owners have been responsible stewards of their archive. First up was Kottke.org. Imagine my surprise when I saw that Jason had taken the third week of January 2008 off and handed the site over to…Awl co-founder Choire Sicha! The Awl shuttered yesterday, as did sister site The Hairpin.1 It’s a blow to independent publishing, but also a straight-up bummer to anyone who’s been reading online for more than a few years. We’ve already had to live without a Gawker, now this?

Oh, back to ten years ago this week.

Sicha spent the better part of January 17, 2008, sharing stories of New York City during the early 1990s, apparently research for something I haven’t quite been able to figure out. The wildest, I think, was a 1991 New York Times article on East Village apartment owners desperately trying to sell their abodes (in one case to the tune of a $100,000 loss) with no takers.

The topics bob and weave all over the map throughout the week. There are two posts that ponder whether it was too soon for Cloverfield after 9/11 (and a third that considers the same topic as it relates to a Laurie Anderson live album). He alerts readers to Apple’s introduction of iTunes movie rentals and complains about the lack of copy-paste on iPhone.

In a strange confluence of my own recent interests, Sicha points to news of work on a musical version of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. I had never heard of Maupin until a few weeks ago, when PBS aired The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin (still waiting for me in my DVR queue) and I grabbed the first volume of Tales from the library. (I’ve started out my year with an interest in serialized fiction.) Anyway, the musical ended up premiering in 2011, called by SFGate theater critic Robert Hurwitt “a blithe, comic and pleasantly tuneful celebration of sex, drugs and all kinds of coming out in freewheeling, pre-AIDS San Francisco circa 1976.”

The web has changed dramatically in the decade since Sicha’s week on Kottke.org. It’s a blogging style (furious, scattershot, immediate) the modern reader may not even recognize. And if Google really has stopped indexing the older bits of the web, it’s a style the future reader may not have the chance to consider.

I guess it’s incumbent upon the rest of us to keep that corpus relevant. The Internet Archive does the hard work of preserving the web as it was2 and, as Bray mentioned in his article, other search engines are doing much better than Google. But an archive is nothing if it’s not gone through every once in awhile, just as an unused library serves merely as a warehouse.

I know I learned a great deal from looking at just one site as it was a decade ago. I’m curious to hear if others find this interesting as well. As I mentioned above, I’ve been thinking about the Hindsight column that I never really pursued. If I started it again today, I would probably focus only on stories published at least ten years ago. I’d like to be a bit more deliberate about it this time around, and it would help to hear if people would want to read something like this regularly. Would you want to read it here? A new site? In the oh-so-of-the-moment newsletter form? Let me know what you think in the comments or on twitter or drop me a line. Or just come back again soon to see where this goes.

  1. The Awl’s final post was also a popular Pinboard pin!

  2. I don’t recall what Kottke.org looked like in 2008, but here’s a 2009 grab of one of this week’s decade-old articles.

Is it Worth Watching a Cropped Movie?

Movies

This A.V. Club story on a Patrick (H) Willems YouTube video about aspect ratios scratches at an itch I’ve been having lately: why on earth does HBO in particular crop most films to 16:9?

I think Willems goes a bit too far in his video, starting with the title, “HBO is Ruining Movies.” Cinema tends to be more than the sum of its parts, so if someone watches a film in a different aspect ratio than it was shot for, they still watched the movie. Stories are able to break through whatever impediments get thrown in their way. So HBO isn’t ruining, say, the Harry Potter franchise by cropping the sides of the film off, but it certainly isn’t offering up the ideal viewing experience either.

A great, concise explanation of how cropping can change a film comes by way of a 1990 “At the Movies” discussion between Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel (uploaded and brought to light again by Todd Vaziri). They use the example of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, projected originally at 2.39:1, being re-edited to fit on 4:3 home video screens. It’s a damning breakdown of how a director’s vision being muddied by studios out to move some VHS tapes.

In the era of 4:3 screens I can see why studios made the call to release films cropped. Most homes didn’t have a very large set, and the resolution was so low to begin with, most viewers would be upset to see their film scaled down at all.

But those days are gone. Not only are almost all TV sets now 16:9, but they’re pretty darn big too. Even cropping all the way down to 2.39:1 would still leave a pretty huge image side-to-side.

So why does HBO persist in cropping? Maybe people want every pixel of their widescreen TVs filled up or they feel they’re not getting their money’s worth? Does HBO have research/polling on this? Or maybe studios deliberately offer up the cropped versions to cable streamers so they can milk extra bucks off rentals and purchases. You want the full picture? Pay up.

Why not solve this by offering both options on streaming services? Why not build a setting in that says you always prefer a full, widescreen picture at the original aspect ratio? On a phone you can easily zoom an image to fill the screen if you prefer not to see any letter-/pillar-boxing. Shouldn’t this be available on TV sets as well?

Willems mentions in his video that anytime he goes to watch a film, he first visits the “Technical Specs” heading on IMDb to check if the version he’s watching is in the correct aspect. If it’s not, he’ll stop watching. I used to do this, but I’ve loosened up. I recommend others do, too.

I grew up in the VHS era. The only time I ever saw letterboxing on films was if my father stopped at TLA Video (sadly, now defunct) in center city Philadelphia for a hard to find film. Almost every film I watched at home was cropped. And yet, my love of movies persists. I can still remember wearing out 4:3 cropped tapes of widescreen films, memorizing lines and falling in love with the story all over again. At this point, it’s silly that HBO and others are putting up cropped versions of films, but I’d rather watch something than nothing at all.

2017 in Film

Movies

I had an idea for a story in college. Terrorists blow up the Academy Awards, killing off a generation of filmmakers. (The “In Memoriam” the following year would be three hours long, I so brilliantly quipped.) Our story picks up in the aftermath, following the son of a famous filmmaker who is asked to helm a large project in hopes of getting the movie business back on track. In my view, this could be a comedy, but I couldn’t figure out how to keep things light knowing that the deaths of a few hundred or thousand people move our plot forward, so it went abandoned.1

Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about this story a great deal. Harvey Weinstein was the bomb that went off inside Hollywood. His transgressions and crimes have touched the entire industry. I’m no scholar of Hollywood history but this moment feels like nothing that has ever touched the industry.

The story I wrote in college, however morbid, was about making a space in the business for the voice of a young filmmaker. The Weinstein revelations are making that space. The movies are being forced to change, to infuse new voices. The show, inevitably, goes on. There is no easy fix for decades of harassment and abuse. There is no telling on how much work we’ve been deprived of because those with the pursestrings were preoccupied with abusive behavior. Hopefully we will finally get more original stories from the far flung corners of our own creative communities.

Every year we hope that Hollywood will recognize that it needn’t look far to find that infusion of talent from long held back communities. With all corners of the business running from scandal and the receipts2 to prove audiences want to hear from new voices, perhaps this is the time for real change. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

With that, here are my favorite films of 2017. I saw far too few new releases this year for this to be comprehensive to any degree. Last year I set a goal for myself to watch 50 new releases. I fell short, clocking in at only 29 and some of those are murky thanks to the strange ways films are released these days. As an example, that number includes Joe Swanberg’s Win it All, a film I saw in a crowded theater at SXSW but went straight to Netflix without a theatrical run. That number also includes Errol Morris’ Wormwood, a television series released in New York as a four hour film. I don’t quite understand how to parse that out, but since I have always gone by Mike D’Angelo’s invaluable NYC release list (which now includes streaming only lists), I’ll just include them in my year end consideration.

Enough chit-chat. Onto the movies.

Person to Person

As a fan of director Dustin Guy Defa’s 2011 debut, Bad Fever, my expectations were relatively high for the filmmaker’s second feature, the delightful Person to Person. As I said in my review, Defa’s New York City collage “approaches the scope of Robert Altman and the depth of Todd Solondz.” It features some of the best performances I’ve seen this year, with the standout being Bene Coopersmith as a record collector getting close to a big score. My love for this movie was instant, and I’m sure it will stick with me for years to come.

Lady Bird

Anyone who has ever seen a Greta Gerwig performance knows that the heart of a writer-director beats within her. On screen she exudes an energy that almost shimmers; there is no ounce of her that isn’t committed the story she occupies. It is no surprise, then, that her debut directorial effort, Lady Bird, is one of the year’s great films.

And yet Lady Bird is a film that surprises nonetheless. Saoirse Ronan possesses a similar luminance to a Gerwig portrayal, controlling the screen wherever she goes while remaining aloof to the power she holds over the screen, its inhabitants and its audience. That this story is one of a woman coming to grips with the force of her own being requires such a presence. Ronan’s foil, Laurie Metcalf, wrecked me as Lady Bird’s mother, a woman discovering the exact opposite: that her power has waned enough that the she must learn to let go. Smart and affecting, funny and beautifully filmed, I hope this is a mere beginning to Gerwig’s directing days. Of course, selfishly, I hope it doesn’t keep her from stepping in front of the camera as well.

Columbus

The form of the video essay has long both attracted and repelled me. My fear with any essay is that it provides a mere surface understanding of a film, a textual analysis devoid of whatever spark of life exists between the frames. The essays by kogonada have always allayed those fears. Instead of playing mortician, his have always breathed new life into the films he picks apart. Working with the films of others, it was clear he had a voice all his own and plenty to say. Columbus, kogonada’s first feature, is a lush coming of age tale that hews closely to the style of his favorite director, Yasujirō Ozu. Yet just as kogonada’s essays bring out his voice among the pieces of others, this film is much more than a surface-level homage.

I have seen precious little Ozu, but kogonada seems to have struck upon a rather useful confluence: that American independent cinema of the last decade and a half or so share a great deal with Ozu’s most well known stories. Namely they are tales of family life told simply but unsparingly, plumbing the emotional depths of their characters while, crucially, allowing that one’s surroundings are an extension of themselves. Columbus is a film about modernist architecture, but it is also about what modernism has wrought.

Haley Lu Richardson provides the standout performance here as Casey, a young woman who is skipping college to work in a library and help keep her mother sober. The role feels impossible. She is often in total control but wants to break free of herself. She skipped over teenage angst but longs for it. The performance, and the film itself, at times feels disjointed, which is part of what draws me in further. The film sometimes becomes too clean, too perfect and manicured like the landscaping amid the primly kept buildings; it is when it flails around for its footing that it becomes something more.

Wonder Woman

Most of my favorite films this year come from the indie arthouse world. I do not know if Wonder Woman would make the cut were it not for the voluminous baggage that comes with being a DC Comics film. Almost everything I like about this film must be put in context, and I’m not sure if I will still like it in five years or even next year. But for now: it floored me.

I can boil it down to one word: empathy. I can’t recall an empathetic superhero film since, probably, Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie. The paradigm lately has been that of the sympathetic hero (if at all). The difference is simple: we feel for the sympathetic hero while the empathetic hero feels for, well, if not us than for something.

Wonder Woman’s centerpiece moment in “No Man’s Land” works not (just) because of the music and the reveal of Diana’s costume and the significant buildup to seeing something extraordinary; it works because our hero has the revelation that people are in trouble and she can do something about it. It is a selfless, heroic act committed in a world of cynics. This empathy oozes off the screen and it is a delight to watch.

The Big Sick

There are laughs in The Big Sick that come from places I can barely understand. Even when there is nothing funny happening, the laughs keep coming. I only watched it once and it had me laughing through tears. I’ll need to revisit again soon and write proper thoughts about the way it affects me.

Porto

It was my great pleasure to see a 35mm print of Gabe Klinger’s Porto at SXSW. It is a beautiful little novella of a film, and an unintentional elegy for its star, Anton Yelchin. He plays Jake, a loner wandering the streets of Porto, Portugal who meets Mati, played by Lucie Lucas. Revisiting my notes, I scribbled that Jake almost feels like Travis Bickle; Yelchin delivers a performance on that same level.

Porto’s run time is short, a mere 76 minutes, but it is a deep meditation on the concepts of lust and love. Its narrative is expertly crafted, and it makes the pain of losing Yelchin feel all the worse. Seek it out.

Suntan

I was very happy to see Argyris Papadimitropoulos’ Suntan get a US release this year. It’s of a genre I call “fucked up Greek stuff” along the lines of Yorgos Lanthimos’ work, though on a much more accessible end of the spectrum. The film follows Kostis, a doctor with a dark past who moves to a beach town. He becomes something of an aged mascot to a youthful group, but he thinks much more of the relationships he has forged than his counterparts.

What I loved about watching this film is I never knew where it was going to take me. There is a sense of violence beneath the surface of every scene, but you are strung along always wondering what will come next. The mysteriousness does not feel like a gimmick; more like a sort of raw power that pumps the story forward. By the end you will rethink what you have been feeling throughout.

The Rest

Star Wars: The Last Jedi was enjoyable enough. I will remember it mostly for the bunk coverage of fan vs. critic reactions. Can we please once and for all never have another story based around Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic or whatever else scores? Another highlight along this storyline: the Tomatometer killed Baywatch or something.

I loved Get Out, which may well be one of the most written about films of the year. I can’t add much to the chorus, but I will say this: it’s been a delight to see both Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael Key break into movies since the end of their Comedy Central show. Key’s acting is always a wonderful addition to anything he’s been in, particularly Don’t Think Twice. And Peele has turned out to be the voice of a new generation of filmmakers. I’m very glad he’s not sticking to fare more akin to Keanu, which he co-wrote.

James Franco’s The Disaster Artist is a fun backstage comedy. I wrote about it back in March. One thing I forgot to mention is the cameo by Judd Apatow, who plays against type as a believable asshole. Acting!

mother! is insane and nowhere near as smart as it believes itself to be, but worthwhile viewing nonetheless. It’s the sort of film that belongs, perhaps, on a midnight movie circuit. If you can stomach it, it makes great conversation fodder. I wouldn’t be surprised if I revisit it in years to come and have completely new and different feelings about it. A surprise was Kristen Wiig’s role, which manages to eek out a bit of levity amid unrelenting cacophony.

A few negative thoughts: I did not understand the love affair everyone else seemed to have with Baby Driver. The opening car chase was thrilling and then nothing after approached its inventiveness. Narratively everything starts to fall apart towards the end when our bad guy turns out to be the wrong person. (And an adversary suddenly flips for no reason?) It didn’t do much for me.

I am not a huge fan of Christopher Nolan to begin with, but Dunkirk feels sterile and stunted. In trying to tell three stories well it feels as though we don’t even have a full thread to follow. Though the photography is impressive, it doesn’t all come together for me like the Swiss watch the film’s score would have you believe you it is. For my money, the tale of Mark Rylance at sea should have been the whole film.

Blade Runner 2049 felt like two movies, one of which I really enjoyed! The other, not so much. The photography is, naturally, stellar. Roger Deakins deserves all the awards, but perhaps he’ll get skipped over as is the annual tradition.

I think that covers just about everything I have to say about the movies this year. Next year will bring a new set of stories and, hopefully, a new class of storytellers. I’m looking forward to see what the future holds.

  1. Yes, this is also the plot of Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult.

  2. Receipts from films like Get Out and Wonder Woman.