Sunday, September 11, 2022

The Founder (hint: it's class)

  "The Founder" is possibly the movie most about America I have ever seen.


For one, it's about the creation and rise of McDonald's, which is arguably the "most American" institution this country has given the world. Michael Keaton's Ray Kroc even gives a speech saying that the golden arches should rise to join the church steeple cross and the city hall tower as the iconic spires of American towns. (It's also a movie that mostly takes place in suburbs, highways, and small towns - neither big city downtowns nor rural landscapes feature much in the movie.)

But this "biographical drama" is much more layered than that. It's full of ambiguities and nuances that hit closer to our history than cynical speeches.

The movie follows Ray Kroc, and it shows him as a desperate failure, trying to convince drive-in restaurants to embrace automation, and failing badly. We have sympathy for him (especially as we see how long he has to wait for his food when he does order.) But he's not Willie Lowman who has to do this because otherwise his family will starve - we see he has enough money for a comfortable lifestyle already. He's just too ambitious, he wants more and isn't ashamed that he'll never be satisfied with simply any finite ceiling.

We then meet the hapless McDonald's brothers, who have turned their San Bernadino restaurant into a wonder of efficiency. The idea of 15 cent burgers given to you hot and fresh 30 seconds after you ordered them is portrayed as a miracle.

... one view over the course of the film is to see this restaurant design as genius gee-whiz inventiveness, while Kroc's future mass-production franchising of the design as soul-killing mechanization. But they're both part and parcel of the same arrow - the McDonalds turned food into the "legible" nightmare of "Seeing Like a State", and Kroc brought it to its ultimate fruition. The McDonalds were already, even if only in one restaurant, making chefs into employees who do nothing but flip burgers and serving only 3 menu items because that's what 85% of people order anyway, and killing any variety because that would introduce inefficiency.

One of the all-American points that the characters bring up here, is that drive-thru dine-ins had adult employees serving teenagers who loitered around, and how distasteful that was to them. Whereas the fast-food innovation returns us to the "proper" hierarchy of teenagers serving adults.

At the other end of the movie, there's a nice bit of ethnic-cultural commentary too. One of the original brothers asks Kroc why he didn't just copy the idea and mass produce it without them. And Ray going on an elegiac tear about how "McDonalds" is such a wholesome, all-American name whereas who would want to eat at a place called "Kroc's"?

Keaton is fascinating as the uber-ambitious, class-ambivalent, charming-like-a-wolf Ray Kroc. He is early on drawn to the world of the rich because they can buy his franchises and finance his restaurant. But his pure drive for efficient food production is so incorruptible that he turns on his rich golf friends because they sell fried chicken and biscuits at their restaurants, and do not personally sweep up the trash in front of restaurants when it gets out of hand (which Kroc does.) The best scene in the movie is him angrily yelling on the golf course about a badly done burger (in his hand.) We love his demonic singular drive then.

But the point is that the idle rich can not grow American's dream. Ray then goes looking for the rising middle class, to find men-and-wives with ambition to run a restaurant to the exact specifications he demands. He goes to VFW halls (this is in the 50's, when the age there is much younger) instead of country clubs. He hires Jewish Bible salesmen because they must be really driven. He's all about breaking traditional barriers to exalt the virtues of the middle class - conformity, hard-working, cleanliness. (And at the same time he falls out of love with his socialite wife, for a woman who has as much mercenary passion for business and mass production as him.)

But the things that we love him for, become the things that we hate him for in the second half. The initial inspiration for the McDonalds design, and the iron clad contract guaranteeing no deviation from that design, hold him back as the world presents new ideas for how to make restaurants even faster, more efficient, and cheaper. But the perfectionism of the original owners denies the changes he wants.

So Ray graduates to legal and financial chicanery, to steal the business out from under the hapless original founders. It is, indeed, very American that way. And we wouldn't even fault Ray for wanting to launch his brand independent of them, except for him being so egotistical that he can't just buy them off, he has to claim every idea of theirs as his own. He steals their name, he declares himself the Founder and his first franchised copy as "restaurant number one", and drives them out of business by setting up a McD's across the street from them. Can't have a real story of America without a Big Steal.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Enter Sandman

 


Long and short of it:

If you've read the comics, skip the series as it's a bad adaptation that adds very little.

If you haven't read the comics, this is probably the best television all year because you've never seen writing like this. Watch it.

Spoilers and many thoughts below the cut:

Thursday, July 28, 2022

NOPE

Just got out of Jordan Peele's NOPE and am jotting down this quick review. Before I get to any spoilers, let me say: yes it's good and you should watch it. You should especially watch it in the theaters because it is full of beautiful, eerie shots that deserve your total immersion. My one regret (in all of life) is that I did not watch it on IMAX. See an IMAX version of this if you possibly can.



Since the plot of the movie is so swaddled in mystery, basically any further discussion of it is spoilers (beyond, there's obviously UFO imagery.) So, caveat emptor for reading beyond this line:

Friday, July 1, 2022

The Stageplay to Anime Spectrum

 [Note: I feel there should already be a term for this and pre-existing writing on this spectrum. But I can't find it, so I am inventing the concepts straight from the dome. If you can point me towards where this is already talked about, I'd appreciate that.]

Reading a review of Amazon's "Outer Range" I was struck by this quote: https://twiststreet.tumblr.com/post/683478412345720832

I think the thing I like about this Outer Range show is how much you can tell the writers come from writing plays.  All the dialogue– you can just hear it in the dialogue, that there are playwrights in the mix on the show.  It’s the kind of thing you don’t even have to be told– it would not be a hard guess.  I feel like that’s the appeal of the show for me more than the more grab-y outlandish fantasy elements that probably got the show sold: I just want to hear Will Patton talk about his love of hentai, or for James Brolin to explain the origin of the universe in 30 seconds, or whatever else.  Show’s got a voice going…

Emphasis mine. Sadly I can't find the aforementioned speech of Wayne Patton describing the naked ladies he puts on his walls, but it's in Episode 2 and pretty great.

And that made me thinking about difficulty I have been having watching anime lately. 

Anime obviously has dialogue. But very frequently the dialogue is a minimalist point, used to serve contrast to the visuals. We may get a shout of reaction, or one word said over a landscape of quiet melancholy, or one sinister statement emphasizing the pure evil of the villain. Very often we get a "jumps onto the scene" line showing just how badass or determined a character is. An absurdly high percentage of anime dialogue is someone calling out another character's name, and nothing else, and how much of anime (and Hideo Kojima) "interrobang echolalia" - repeating back the last two words of what someone said but with an exclamation and confusion?

Much less often do we get beautifully written monologues or flowing dialogues of a writer showing off both their erudition and the ability of the actor to express these words. If there is a heartfelt monologue in a show like this, it's a voiceover as we watch scenes of others play out visually.

This isn't a matter of translation, since 1. not all anime is like this, 2. fluent speakers would be quick to point out the difference, and 3. American comics are like this too. Some comics have epic monologues of course, but the page design for them is always a little bit awkward... a close in of their face as half the page is filled up with text. No, for comics we much prefer rather than Ozymandias's long monologues, just his moment of saying "I did it 35 minutes ago" as he poses like a ruler over a throne room. It's pointed.

I'm not even talking about all anime, or anime adjacent products, or animated series. Arcane and Avatar the Last Airbender love showing off lengthy dialogue and the performance of the character delivering it. Think of Jinx's tea party or Zuko imitating Iroh.

It's just there is a set of visual media that is not "writerly" when it comes to dialogue. It uses minimalism, repetition, and contrast to create a "mood" for the visuals which are the real emphasis of the work. This includes most anime, many action movies, and a whole lot of avant-garde European cinema. One would even say mega-artist David Lynch falls into this brand. This takes skill and craftstmanship to do well, and many people really like it.

Look at any youtube video of "top 20 best anime scenes" and tell me what they have in common.

On the other end, you have actors who wish they were in a Shakespeare play and writers who wish they were Shakespeare, giving you scenes that are shared as paragraph long quotes or three minute youtube videos. Babylon 5, Outer Range, the OA, Deep Space Nine, and dear god Fargo or anything made by the Coen brothers.

Someone said to call this end "writerly", but there isn't a good definition of that (other than "like a writer") and I am calling as much attention to the delivery by the actor as to the actual text.

It's impossible to say either of these is "better" than the other, since there's a very wide range of quality within each. Spirited Away (anime) is hella better than Season 4 BSG (stageplay), while Knives Out (stageplay) blows out of the water something like Rise of Skywalker (anime.) There's no reason to even advocate a "happy middle" between the ends, since their audiences specifically love the style that show is best representing and want more of it.

It is possible to say what our preference is, and a large part of my recent journey has been realizing how much I prefer the stageplay end of the spectrum. 

Monday, April 18, 2022

everythingeverywhereallatonce

There is so much to say about this movie, it's hard to know where to start.

The filmmaking team of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert go simply by "Daniels" and have been making weird, intense, maximalist videos that blend down-to-earth emotions and larger than life metaphors. A great example is "Interesting Ball" which you can watch here.


... youtube sure chose an interesting screengrab for that embedding.

Anyway.

EEAAO is exactly the film you would expect if you gave these guys an eight figure budget, two and a half hours of runtime, and superstars like Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis. Like if you enjoyed the above short, just go out and see the movie now.

From here on out, there will be spoilers.

***

A tremendous amount of discourse about this movie has been the Asian representation. It has Asian stars, and the emotional story is about a mother who was an immigrant reconnecting with the daughter she disapproved of.

I find the praise very weird, because it certainly isn't the first movie with Asian representation. Yes it stars Michelle Yeoh but she is already a star, it's not like she was lacking public presence before. Why be excited that this random indy A24 movie has Asian actors and relevant themes?

The traditional answer is "because it's a big budget blockbuster that studios invested a ton of money in, a ton of advertising, and will be in every theater in America." Except it's not. It opened on like, 100 theaters, and had next to no advertising. This is not in anyway "Hollywood opening up."

Why get excited then that yet another indy film features this inclusion, when hundreds of other films have been this inclusive.

Because it's really really good.

People are excited that a phenomenally good and ground breaking work of art was also featuring a culture that usually does not get center stage. If people are discussing this twenty years from now as one of the most influential hundred films, they will have to be talking about a movie that is not all white.

***

The word is "possibility."

The concept that connects this entire work, and all their works so far, is possibility. It's even the name of their earlier short, where they follow one lover's argument through different branching paths.

Possibility is... that what you could do at any moment is much larger than you think. In the middle of a fight with your greatest enemy you could get up and kiss him... or comb his hair, or rip off your shirt and stomp on it, or climb the bookcase, or eat your pocket change, or go out the door and leave and... go home, or get hit by a car, or run back in and take a surprise attack on your enemy.

The way people jump to different universes is by using this magic. They do something "weird" that is 100% physically possible, but completely out of expectation. (And the movie has a very pointed speech on what you "can't do" versus what "you're not allowed to do.") If they are weird enough, they set themselves on a different lifepath, and that gives them the skills that path would have in this universe.

Humor is so often the apt use of unexpected possibilities, and EEAAO takes every chance for this type of humor, surprising you while also calling back to earlier elements.

But possibility also means all the closed doors in our past. We had to make so many choices about who to be, that necessitated who we would not be, as well.  The movie is about the way the shadows of those other life paths still live with us.

Possibility is also a metaphor for ADHD. When we have so many possibilities that we can not focus on a single one. Evelyn demonstrates this undiagnosed ADHD early in the movie, and the despair of choice-overload becomes a major theme at the end of the movie. (And becomes a metaphor for teenage depression.)

And lastly, possibility implies just such a big world. Can you actually hold in your mind all the possibility inherent in everything? Trying to do so will drive a tiny human brain mad.

And I don't just mean in the Everything Bagel sense that is the delightful metaphor in the film. But the film itself is... everything everywhere all at once. From the opening shot, every scene is cluttered and has too much going on. The pace never fucking stops, and in fact only accelerates constantly. The maximalism is a carefully crafted style.

(And you can tell the maximalism is intentional from the points where they contrast it, like the white curtained world where Jobu is building her bagel, or the long scene of two rocks just looking out over an austere landscape.)

***

Everything else I have to say is minor, and probably obvious to people who have seen it anyway? The movie crisply takes metaphors - like the ADHD - showcases how the metaphor works, and then moves on without rubbing it down to dust.

I did appreciate how deftly it dealt with the uber-themes of chaos versus order. A meta-narrative we see in so many stories is the forces of harmony and order staving off the collapse and destruction of the system. We can call this the conservative narrative. And the alphaverse characters early on show just this justification - since Jobu Topaki, your children don't listen to you and your institutions are crumbling and your coffee tastes wrong. To preserve the harmonious order you need to kill the Outsider. And if that means killing your own children, it's because the Outsider has "infected" your children and is now a monster that lives in them. (This perspective of course, is represented by the older generation.)

All of that is bunk, but of course, many many stories tell that tale (Thor, Transformers, almost every Disney movie) and I wasn't going to be too upset if EEAAO told this narrative as well.

But no, they utterly smash that narrative. The chaos is not "in" your daughter, it is your daughter. You can not and should not kill the chaos, you need to love and embrace the chaos. You need to become the primordial chaos. (This narrative is also fairly common to be clear - remember Captain Marvel? - but this movie did an excellent representation of it, from the moment Jobu stepped off the freight elevator and showed her fighting style.)

There's so much more to say. Every character you see is revealed to have a private story of their own going on with different universes once you pay attention to them (while paying attention to everything else on the screen.) Quotidian items are littered throughout the beginning - phone calls, circular mirrors, bagels, a karaoke machine, spinning circles - that acquire heavy meaning the longer the film goes on. You will laugh and cry at the same time.

***

Media this movie either references, or is so similar that if you loved that you should watch this: the Matrix, Wong Kar-Wai, Homestuck, Ratatouille, the OA, Turning Red, Crouching Tiger, James Acaster, Rick and Morty, Azathoth, Egirls, everything everywhere.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The Batmans

 A riddle: What is and is not a Batman movie? The Batman, apparently.

Yes. There will be spoilers.

In some ways it's very easy to say this isn't Batman - or rather, it's a dark crime thriller with various stock tropes, that someone decided to stick a label on as Batman characters. You have an autistic alt-right serial killer. Let's call him the Riddler. You have a morally gray badass woman who swims in the world of sex and drug trafficking and is looking for revenge for her mother and kidnapped friend. Let's call her Catwoman. And of course you have the emo trust fund protagonist who wears too much eyeshadow and journals to himself, looking intensely vulnerable. That's our Batman. He fails to save the city from a disaster that kills thousands, but at least he finds himself. You can imagine a lot die-hard fans would complain about in this movie.

And yet, there was so much about this epic that felt reminiscent of previous Batman outings. The strings and sort of art-deco depiction of Gotham as a full character on its own, reminded me a great deal of the Tim Burton movies (Batman '89 and Batman Returns), especially with scenes like "Bruce Wayne goes to a funeral of a high profile victim, and it gets crashed by the supervillain." The corruption stories were like the ones that drove the plot of Dark Knight, but even deeper and darker. And of course the explosive finale was very similar to the world-shaking twist in Dark Knight Rises.

Is it good? Yes. Did it really need the three hour runtime? Well none of it is wasted at least. Stuff is always happening that couldn't be easily cut without changing the whole story.

But move beyond that two thumbs up or down emptiness, what is the movie saying? 

On the most obvious level, it's a morality play about corruption and current politics. The rich, from the Mayor to Thomas Wayne, have failed to shepherd this city and even their good gestures (like a philanthropy project called Renewal) are cynically used to entrench criminal power. There are two responses to this: the atavistic rebellion of put upon white men, from the Riddler to Bruce Wayne, who just want to punch back at who hurt them and nothing more. Renewal is impossible, so instead let's let in the violent tides of change (literally) and see what's left after everything is swept aside.

(QAnon style conspiracy theorists are less dismissible when there really is an underground sex-trafficking club that all the politicians go to. Of course it's only been a recent thing that believing the government is run by a cabal of satanic pedophiles is specifically right-coded.)

And the other side is two Black women trying to fix things in a reasonable manner. Bella Real is running for mayor, and while in any true noir the candidate of hope would ALSO be in hock to the crime lords, she seems the real deal. And Selina Kyle is the only one getting vengeance for the sex-trafficked innocent woman, while the cops and Bat focus on rich and powerful (and guilty) politicians who have been murdered. 

Selina gives the most fascinating scene of the movie, where she wears contact lenses and ear pieces for Batman to investigate a sex club, so he has to do his job through the eyes and abilities of a woman. Yes, she can look at any man (to get a solid ID) but if she does so the man may look at her and she'll have to play along - instead of just aloofly leaving and using his intimidating physical presence. She can find out a lot of information he can't, but at a real cost in opportunities. It's clear this Batman had never considered the perspective he is forced to deal with.

But what's the lesson here? Don't just go along with The System. But also don't try to burn it to the ground. Wait for some hero to come along, vote the bums out, and trust everything will get better? This seems like a message from 2008 not 2022.

Away from the plot, there are two more abstract things that stuck with me:

1. Sound. This movie has a dominating score and sound editing, and those aspects are definitely part of the experience. I can't talk about sound engineering well, I can only say pay attention to this one. When I saw it I sat right next to the speaker in a Dolby cinema and so the sound overwhelmed me frequently, shaking my eardrums uncomfortably. But that unpleasantness was certainly thematic to the moments.

2. Strength. Superhero movies are often about very dexterous acrobatics, where the skilled assassin dodges all attacks and delivers one killing blow. Or if the movie is saying a hero is strong, then a bullet or other major attack bounces right off them with no effect. We are rarely shown what it means to be "strong" in the sense of your punch mattering more, but also not being an unstoppable force.

The two examples I think of for strength in cape movies are the subway station fight in Matrix 1 (with those after-image fists slamming into concrete and bellies) and Daredevil('s ability to take a punch and keep going.)

This Batman was raw and brutal and strong. He beat criminal's heads in (well after they were defenseless.) The Batmobile, in its one overly long chase scene, roars with an jet engine that is barely restrained, and pushes cars and trucks off the road. Everything in the fight and car scenes is designed to give you the feel of thrumming power under the seat, where justice will be achieved but punching for it hard enough.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

A Post-Post-Modern Defense of Analysis

 Scott Alexander wrote a review of Don’t Look Up, and then tongue-in-cheek defended it with:

Look, there’s a weird game called “movie criticism”, where you take a movie as a jumping-off point to have thoughts on Society or the Human Condition. In the real world, people watch movies because they’re funny, or they have cool action sequences, or because the lead actress is really hot. But the rules of the “movie criticism” game say you have to ignore this stuff and treat them as deep commentary. I agree this game is not as fun as, say, Civilization IV: Fall From Heaven. But I have deliberately limited the amount of time I play that game for the sake of my sanity and my career, which means I need to play other games, and the “movie criticism” game seems okay.

Which is funny because Scott is funny. But also I’m one of the people clearly skewered in this explanation. (Also my wife is playing Civ VI right now, so I guess that makes a new gender dichotomy - are you the spouse who writes to a movie blog or the spouse who plays Civ VI?)

So, really, why write abstruse analyses of movies? Is it just apophenia? Can we actually defend this from first principles? Is there anything we are *actually figuring out* or are we just having entirely subjective fun here?

Especially when we talk about themes. Someone says a movie is really about recovering from grief, or the unbearable weight of responsibility, or how we change ourselves for capitalism and -- maybe it's supported by the text but who cares. You might as well collect the first letter of each page of a novel and talk about what message can be read into that random noise.

What makes art good is a question that can't really give an objective answer to. No matter what you say, someone else can say "well I don't think that's good" and what can you say then?

What makes art powerful though? What makes it popular and impact the culture and people talk about it years from now?

... I could say "what makes money?" That somewhat is a solved problem. The advertising budget for a movie + the prior reputation of its inputs (franchise, actors, maybe director) can predict box office numbers really well. And even if MCU films for adults are only 90% formulaic, the CGI cartoon movies for kids that make half a billion dollars (Secret Life of Pets, etc) *are* 100% formulaic. So we're not talking about just money.

Sure, "cultural relevance" and psychological impact are vague quantities we can argue over, but hopefully we can agree they have *some* objective existence. If we are saying Shakespeare and Jaws and Miyazaki *mattered*, I'm not wholly incapable of defending the claim.

(We could go the entirely symbolic-social cynical route and say all of them are only widely appreciated because the existing order told them to exalt them but... I have enough dignity to not believe that. There was something *good* there that had an impact in the Real we could not ignore anymore than the Soviet politburo could ignore Chernobyl.)

We make thousands of movies every year. And dozens of them have actors and writers and directors and technical artists who can claim to be among the best on Earth. Plenty of skill and quality go into these dozens. But which ones will *stick*? Which ones will the audience love and have "long legs" as the box office analysts say and will be in memes next year and in best of lists next decade and studied by schoolchildren in a century? What will be Avatar the Last Airbender versus... James Cameron's Avatar?

So there, we have a question about objective qualities that is difficult and deep and we can look into.

Here's a follow-up: why do we watch more than one movie?

If all you want is say, witty actors and flashy swordfights and swelling music and good jokes, why haven't you just found your favorite example of this, and watched it over and over?

We do this with many of life's pleasures. The best sushi we find... we keep going back to. Porn has repeat value, for sure. You probably have a song you've listened to more than a hundred times.

But there are some forms of art where our joy declines precipitously the more we've already seen it. Videogames, books, movies. Sure there are some beloved examples we visit again every so often, but nothing ever matches the excitement of the first time we saw it.

Let's just fiat that our brains need something new for a reason we can't explain. Okay, but then how new?

If I just took the plot of Die Hard, and had actors of the same rough charisma as young(er) Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, and wrote the same style of jokes but slightly different punchlines, and shoot the action scenes again... would that satisfy our cravings? Why would it matter that critics would say it's just Die Hard again? We liked Die Hard! Why do we need new plots and new twists and new characters?

(Sometimes we don't, but more often we do? Even remakes have an entire meta-structure of how much needs to be changed for the remake to be "fresh.")

So now we have two serious questions: what makes a work "powerful", and what unites all the art we personally like even as we want it to be eternally different?

Well one theory is themes. 

What is the underlying theme of a work? How much clarity does that theme have? How much does the artistry support that theme?

The great hypothesis of reviewing is that the above three questions determine a lot both about the lasting power of a work, and whether individuals who are attached to those themes will like this work?

It might be true. It might not. There's some correlation we can make, but it's loose and it never really proves causation anyway. But, for the sake of this particular form of art, let's accept it as true. 

(What would Die Hard be without the subplot about his collapsing marriage and the cop who couldn't use a gun? 95% the same, or would its heart be ripped out?)

So first we can analyze the acknowledged great works on these metrics. What are there themes, and how much does the artistry support them?

From that we can ponder: what themes resonate with audiences (even the audience of I), and what film-making skills support them?

The next leap is to say: what art will be successful? Using the hypotheses we've come up with about which themes are resonant and what supports them, can we look at two movies by famous actresses and say "this one will be remembered, and this one forgotten?"

(You can even say "this movie that was forgotten just never got seen by people and if more people knew about it, then it would stick in memories and impact the culture." A not practically verifiable hypothesis, but still theoretically about something objective.)

And now the whole door is open. You argue about what theme a movie really has, for the purpose of determining if it will impact the culture, and as evidence you can say how much it resonated with you personally if you also care about that theme.