5 Good Things — 1/29/2017

January 29, 2017

Every couple of weeks I’ll share a few things that I found interesting, enjoyable, or otherwise worth sharing.

It seems like everyone is going to a protest on a daily basis nowadays. Take a break from witty sign-on-a-stick crafting and feeling depressed about the world and check out these good things:

1. Excellent One-Pot Braised Chicken


There’s nothing better than a quick and simple one-pot recipe that actually tastes good. I’m always on the hunt for these and while most of the recipes I try are good, this one was truly excellent. There’s nothing fancy here, just proper cooking principles (don’t make crispy skin soggy) and amazing flavor combinations (cabbage and apple cider vinegar). This recipe is one I will definitely return to.

2. Obituaries For Teenage Girls If They Actually Died When They Say They’re Dying

What it says in the title. For no apparent reason I found this uproariously hilarious.

3. Unicorn Governance

An excellent analysis of a problem I, as libertarian-inclined, encounter all the time in political discussions. Particularly if you are not libertarian, I honestly think this deserves careful consideration. It’s not an attempt to convert you or anything, just to help you see political and social problems from my perspective. A couple of additional thoughts:

1. I think the optimistic perspective on the Trump administration is that perhaps it will lead to a renewed interest in separation of powers and limited government principles. Allowing the expansion of state power seems all well and good when your party is in charge, but when the opposition wins, they wield the same power. That reality should always be on the forefront of our mind.

2. I think the article also illustrates the importance of what some call the ‘economic way of thinking’, particularly being acutely aware of the existence of opportunity costs and trade-offs. I see this most abused with left-leaning arguments about there being a contradiction between not supporting federal welfare programs and the commands to care for the poor. It assumes that the alternative to federal welfare programs is no care for the poor whatsoever, whereas a typical conservative/libertarian position is that the alternatives are, in fact, better for the poor. The argument from the left assumes that such a position doesn’t even exist, which is ridiculous. Whether the alternative is, in fact, better than federal programs is where the debate should exist. I see this fallacy all the time and it drives me batty.

3. An additional consideration often neglected in these kinds of political discussions is whether or not a given policy can remain uncorrupted from normal politics. A regulation may be good, but will it open the door to regulatory capture. An assistance program may be good, but will its administrative bureaucracy bloat to the point where it’s not cost-effective?

4. Why Netrunner Matters

This article is frequently hyperbolic, to the point of frustration, but it also captures many of the characteristics that make Netrunner such a masterpiece of game design and theming. Highlights:

“[T]he largest synchronicity between Netrunner and the world in which we play it is its very asymmetry. Clark (the designer, not the author) noted that, unlike something like chess, in which the playing field is artificially identical, Netrunner acknowledges that in the real-world there aren’t equals; everyone we encounter in life is, in some manner, an “other,” rather than a hypothetical, perfectly matched peer. Competitive games are normally predicated upon the notion of an equal playing field, but we don’t see fair fights take place in real meeting rooms, on real asphalt, in real chatrooms. We see two “others.” […] [W]here Monopoly envisioned capitalism as a game of one absolute winner surrounded by losers, Netrunner’s asymmetry wrests some control back to the have-not. Monopoly was a game with an equal playing field about a world that was not one; Netrunner is a game with an unequal playing field about the world’s attempt to balance the scales.”

My review of Netrunner that I’ll eventually publish on my upcoming board game website tries to get into some of these sociological themes in the game, but I don’t think I get to the meat of it to the extent of this author.

5. Music Obsession: Sufjan Steven’s “Carrie and Lowell”

I’ve listened to this album about 50 times in the last month. The first couple of times I listened to it I wasn’t a huge fan, but it massively grew on me. It’s quiet, subtle, almost maddeningly restrained. But when he finally lets go, just a bit, in the last third of the album it’s heart-wrenching.

The album is a reaction to the death of Sufjan’s mother. It winds through themes of guilt, depression, and loneliness. It’s intensely personal, like we’re secretly peering into Sufjan’s diary. It’s full of memories (particularly about time in the pacific northwest), and sometimes it seems Sufjan is simultaneously clinging onto those memories and trying to block them out of his mind.

The album climaxes with two incredible songs of desperation. “John My Beloved” has grown to be my favorite; it concludes with this beautiful cry for help:

So can we contend, peacefully
Before my history ends?
Jesus I need you, be near me, come shield me
From fossils that fall on my head
There’s only a shadow of me; in a manner of speaking I’m dead

I know for many of you this album will be old news as it’s nearly 2 years old. I’m terrible at keeping up with music, so it’s new to me. If you didn’t listen to it before, I highly recommend it now.


Charlie in Mean Streets lives in the world of the Italian gangster, but is not part of it. He creates rules for himself that set him apart from his peers, rules fed by his guilt and self-loathing.

The most famous shot of Mean Streets happens only a couple of minutes in: Charlie, after praying, holds his finger over a flame in an act of sorrowful self-harm. He tests his muster against the flames of hell, and flinches quickly away. I was reminded of a scene from one of my all time favorite movies, All The President’s Men, where Deep Throat tells a story about Gordon Liddy

Charlie is constantly plagued by Robert de Niro’s Johnny Boy, a slimy, pitiful opportunist and general piece of trash. Johnny owes money to seemingly everyone, and relies on others to bail him out. He’s the kind of character who will assault a stranger on the sidewalk who bumps into him and then pound his chest in defiance, daring the world to object. He’s a playground bully.

For some reason Charlie sees some aspect of his redemption in Johnny. Against all sense he maintains a devotion to helping Johnny out, hoping that perhaps he can do some good in the world through his loyalty.

Scorcese films this fool’s errand relentlessly. The movie takes place over multiple days, but you never get the sense that time is passing. Every scene runs into the next headlong, nearly all of it bathed in a sickly red light. It’s a claustrophobic film, both visually and sonically. The music is loud and persistent, colliding into itself as Charlie’s spiral down continues and continues and continues.

I don’t know if Scorcese ever uses a single establishing shot in this film. The pace is so relentless, manic, and aggressive that there’s no time to pause or breathe. Even the scenes that take place in the daytime seem dimmed, and the entire picture seems to take place in a perpetual purgatorial twilight.

All of this makes the movie simultaneously exhausting and compelling. Mean Streets is as aggressive in style as anything I’ve ever seen from Scorcese, with bold handheld camera movements, long tracking shots, muscular compositions, and even a brilliant scene played out with the camera strapped to the front of Harvey Keitel as he stumbles drunkenly through a party gone wrong.

The world of Mean Streets is full of capital-m Men, posturing and preening, dressing up in nice suits and treating every conversation like a gladiatorial battle. Charlie does all of this, but you can feel he is not comfortable with any of it. Keitel’s performance here is remarkable–the tension and anxiety in his face as he tries to maintain control of his situation is harrowing.

Trying to pull him away is his girlfriend Teresa, who tells him that she loves him twice. The first time he intentionally ignores her. The second time he begs her to stop saying it. As he pleads, he leans in and the light reflecting off of her shirt once again bathes his face in red.

Mean Street ends appropriately, with a baptism of water and blood. I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, and it’s great to see Scorcese a bit less edited than in his later works. The energy and aggression in the film is extraordinary, and a very fitting start to a further exploration of Scorcese’s films.

Matt’s thoughts:

My biggest question as we start through Scorsese’s early movies is whether I can relate to the settings he uses. I hear that he likes to deal with issues of “Catholic guilt”, but will I respond to questions of faith when the setting is the New York City underground?

Like in The Departed (one of the Scorsese films I remember), almost all of characters in Mean Streets are loathsome – a loan shark, a strip club owner, a mob uncle. The only character that seems to have any moral compass is Charlie, but can he atone for his sins by sacrificing his time and reputation for good for nothing Johnny Boy? I’m not certain what Scorsese’s answer is, but things don’t work out well for anyone in this story.

The acting in Mean Streets is great – Harvey Keitel as Charlie and Robert De Niro as Jonny Boy make quite the contrasting duo. I couldn’t help but feel for Charlie and both loath and pity Jonny Boy. The movie is relentless, as Scorsese makes a week of events feel like one long, continuing chain of events, and there are some impressive shots along the way.

I think we’re off to a good start with Mean Streets – Charlie’s struggle isn’t exactly my struggle, but I think Scorsese has something to say to me from Mobsterville.

Truth is Misery

January 26, 2017

The response I’ve seen since Trump has taken office is worrying. From the left you get a blend of legitimate worry, virtue signaling, and overreaction. From the Trump-supporting right I’ve seen mostly gloating. The media is loving all of the attention and I can’t help but be weary of it all.

Maybe I’m spending too much time on facebook (I certainly am), and while part of me suspects I should be glad that I have a social media contact base that is generally knowledgeable and passionate about politics, I’m not.

Warning: I’m going to sound extremely pessimistic and negative in this post. I think I’m right, though. Prove me wrong.

When it comes to politics, cultural issues, etc. we can hope that everyone is trying to at least marginally pursue truth, goodness, and otherwise virtuous paths . Obviously this is not true, as there are many out there who use politics entirely as a means to a selfish end (see: people who create websites designed to spread lies to make a quick buck) but maybe I can think it is for the people who will read this post. There’s a starting ground we should be able to agree on: truth and goodness are good.

Ok now for some ostensibly disparate arguments that my sleep deprived mind can’t properly organize. Hopefully it comes together in the end.

  1. Even just and wise policies are necessitated by evil

One of the most striking passages from Augustine’s City of God, that I think about frequently, is about the wise judge (Book XIX, Chapter 6).

“What shall I say of these judgments which men pronounce on men, and which are necessary in communities, whatever outward peace they enjoy? Melancholy and lamentable judgments they are, since the judges are men who cannot discern the consciences of those at their bar, and are therefore frequently compelled to put innocent witnesses to the torture to ascertain the truth regarding the crimes of other men.”

Ignore the torture part, and think about the general principle. Even my anarcho-capitalist friends presumably believe in some kind of system of justice, even if it’s not part of a government, persay. Even in such a theoretical voluntarily-joined court system, there are significant opportunity costs–the time and money that must be devoted to the system itself, and most importantly, the existence of human error:

“And what is still more unendurable—a thing, indeed, to be bewailed, and, if that were possible, watered with fountains of tears—is this, that when the judge puts the accused to the question, that he may not unwittingly put an innocent man to death, the result of this lamentable ignorance is that this very person, whom he tortured that he might not condemn him if innocent, is condemned to death both tortured and innocent.”

I suppose the pragmatic person might say that while even a great system of justice can’t be perfect, we can still have hope in that it could be worse. I sympathize more with Augustine’s feelings on the matter:

“These numerous and important evils he does not consider sins; for the wise judge does these things, not with any intention of doing harm, but because his ignorance compels him, and because human society claims him as a judge. But though we therefore acquit the judge of malice, we must none the less condemn human life as miserable. And if he is compelled to torture and punish the innocent because his office and his ignorance constrain him, is he a happy as well as a guiltless man? Surely it were proof of more profound considerateness and finer feeling were he to recognize the misery of these necessities, and shrink from his own implication in that misery; and had he any piety about him, he would cry to God ‘From my necessities deliver Thou me.’

  1. War and conflict are inherently lamentable

In the following chapter Augustine discusses even larger conflicts: the wars and violence between and within nations. I think there’s a particularly (but not exclusively) American application to be found here, insofar as we as a country enjoy glorifying the heroics of war and violence; it’s part of our national identity. Again, we see that the goodness to be found in the just war, the just response to violence and hostility is a relative and hollow goodness:

“For though there have never been wanting, nor are yet wanting, hostile nations beyond the empire, against whom wars have been and are waged, yet, supposing there were no such nations, the very extent of the empire itself has produced wars of a more obnoxious description—social and civil wars—and with these the whole race has been agitated, either by the actual conflict or the fear of a renewed outbreak. If I attempted to give an adequate description of these manifold disasters, these stern and lasting necessities, though I am quite unequal to the task, what limit could I set? But, say they, the wise man will wage just wars. As if he would not all the rather lament the necessity of just wars, if he remembers that he is a man; for if they were not just he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars. For it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars; and this wrong-doing, even though it gave rise to no war, would still be matter of grief to man because it is man’s wrong-doing. Let every one, then, who thinks with pain on all these great evils, so horrible, so ruthless, acknowledge that this is misery. And if any one either endures or thinks of them without mental pain, this is a more miserable plight still, for he thinks himself happy because he has lost human feeling.”

  1. Navigating the complexities of our existence on this flawed world is hard

I’m not talking about the inherent physical and emotional pains of existence here, but the mental existence we have of people trying to find the goodness and truth potentially within our grasp. This is hard, hard work that I almost always fail at. Discussion and debate, something I value tremendously, still fall prey to the problem of Augustine’s just war. Even a mutually beneficial discussion between two people is necessitated by the relative lack of knowledge pre-discussion. We are all frequently wrong, ignorant, and blinded by our own hubris and biases. Confirmation bias is an extremely powerful psychological force, and we must be vigilant to combat it at every corner. In this sense we are at war against our own minds.

All of this necessitates a profound level of humility and doubt. The best we can hope to achieve here is but a glimpse of the truth. Growing up in the Church I heard the word “conviction” a lot, and I always hated it. Those who were “convicted” of a belief or a course of action wielded the word like a shield against criticism or humility; they seemed to corrupt a good thing. Even so, to be convicted towards goodness–think those who fight slavery or other evils in this world–is undoubtedly noble. But again, these noble convictions only exist because of the horrible evil they fight against. This is all so humbling.

  1. I am intensely lazy

I’ve spoken against virtue signaling a couple of times already, but I have to admit that I cannot deny that writing this is that very act. On the other hand, I genuinely think that I am sharing, if even in the most minute and insignificant way, some semblance of truth here, even if tainted by my medically-diagnosed depressed mind. Of course, saying this might also be virtue-signaling.

To the point–the only thing in my life I have been even remotely successful at has been debate. I think I can accurately say that I have a quicker mind than most. I also enjoy mental pursuits quite a bit. On the other hand I am an incredibly lazy person, and I battle with that every day of my life. I try to write more often, to do more productive things with my life, but it’s extremely difficult. One area where I have some success in overcoming that laziness is in my attempts to have a disciplined mind. By that I mean that I try very very hard to understand my own biases, areas of pride, ignorances, etc. and I attempt to shape the way I speak and interact with people with all of that information in mind.

I fail constantly, but sometimes I succeed, which is more than I can say for many other areas of my life.

The point here is that I hope very much that this is actually a strength of mine that is valuable to others. That’s the justification I’ve given to myself for this post.

  1. Hope is not absent, it’s somber

I think Augustine is accurate when he talks about the pains and miseries in the ‘City of Man’. In his uniquely Neo-Platonian way he understands the limitations of this world–as something good, but deeply corrupted. What do we hope for in this world? A sliver of light. And even that is a gift. What do we ultimately hope for? Redemption and deliverance. Again I think I display my oddities here, but I never understood the way many people feel joy when faced with the truth of the gospel. I have never experienced the emotion as one of pure happiness and positivity. I feel it deep in my gut, as a punch to my pride and a recognition of my failures. Despite those things, I am loved. Despite.

I’m not saying this is the way Jesus’ sacrifice ought to be felt or experienced, it’s merely my experience, but I think (I hope) it’s based in, a very small way, some kind of truth about our sins and God’s great salvation. I hope it helps illustrate what I find so compelling in the Augustine passages.

How do I wrap these thoughts up into something coherent? Let’s see if I can:

-The world is deeply corrupted, and much of the good we can hope to achieve is only because of that corruption.

-If the way you react to political/social issues in the world makes you feel good, vindictive, or angry in that kind of “oh yeah I’ve got some righteous anger here to spew” way, you should probably take a deep internal look at your motives and your commitment to truth and impacting the people around you positively.

-I am a failure at all of this, but I hope to improve.

-The City of Man will never satisfy us, but there is hope.

“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

-1 Corinthians 13: 9-12

5 Good Things – 1/9/17

January 9, 2017

Every couple of weeks I’ll share a few things that I found interesting, enjoyable, or otherwise worth sharing.

1. The News Is Wrong Again

In order to be a reasonable person who wants to be informed about the world, you cannot trust any given news source to report accurately. Slate Star Codex elaborates on a NY Times piece that completely mangles the results of a poll of economists in order to spin it to support the author’s argument.

If you’re thinking “of course, that’s the NY Times! They’re biased”, you’re missing the point. No news source should be trusted completely. Verify what you read and look at original reports/studies/documents as much as possible. From my personal experience, and from the experience of people I have spoken with, any story based on a study, poll, or report should be particularly scrutinized.

2. Lapsang Souchong Tea

I’m a big fan of Chinese tea, and after a long hiatus from drinking tea (for no apparent reason–I just stopped), I decided to try something new. I’d had a bag of this for over a year and never bothered to open it. As soon as I opened the package, the intense scent of single-malt Scotch hit me. I’ve never smelled anything quite like this from a tea before. I have an Oolong tea that produces a strong malt flavor, but nothing quite so similar to Scotch as this.

It tasted as it smelled, and it was delightful. After some researched I found out that it’s actually a black tea that is smoked, which is how it gets that unique malty/campfire scent. I’m a huge fan.

I’m also a huge fan of Music City Tea, which is where I buy pretty much all of my tea. Back when I was really getting into tea a few years ago I discovered them as a source of high-quality loose-leaf Chinese teas. They have a good selection of all of the major tea types (though not as large as some other retailers), but what really stands out are their prices. I still haven’t been able to find any other tea seller online that can beat them.

Example: Dragonwell Green Tea. This is a very common, solid green tea. For 2 oz:

$12 from Music City

$15 from Teavana

$17 from Red Blossom

Granted, there might be small differences in the quality, year, or harvest times between those three (e.g. Red Blossom specifies theirs as a “pre-rain” Dragonwell. I don’t know if the others are, if this just a marketing ploy and all Dragonwells are harvested at this time, etc), but I don’t think you would be able to taste much of a difference unless you’re an aficionado.

Red Blossom is another company I buy from occasionally. Their website is a fantastic resource about proper infusion methods and the centuries-long traditions the Chinese have with their tea. They also sell fantastic and rarer teas, just at a much higher price compared to Music City.

Continuing with food…

3. The Best Bolognese Recipe

I am a huge fan of bolognese. It’s been one of my favorite things to make for years. But this recipe is absurdly good. I would have never thought to use gelatin in this way, but it makes the sauce incredibly luxurious. When I made it I was not able to procure chicken livers. I also did not include celery and only had a fraction of the specified panchetta on hand.

Next time I make this I want to do it by the book, particularly since I love chicken liver, and I think I’ll make pasta for it as well instead of using dried pasta. It’s that good. One of the best meals I’ve ever made.

4. Trump And The Batman Effect

Another gem from Slate Star Codex highlighting the marketing strategy Trump is likely to use as president. A couple of thoughts:

  1. I think the “jobs saved” rhetoric might be one of the most damaging and harmful aspects of modern American politics. It’s an infallible assumption that saving jobs is a good thing. First of all, it’s super easy to manufacture jobs numbers. A lot of it comes down to assuming the intent of the company who is supposedly changing their mind to create more jobs in America. Second, it values jobs in America over not only jobs in other countries, but overall economic and quality of life improvements. It’s a nationalistic perspective. Third, it’s the classic case of the seen vs the unseen. Hazlitt wrote about this in Economics in One Lesson many years ago, and it’s one of the fundamental principles of thinking rationally not only in economic matters, but with everything..
  2. Because this seems to be Trump’s go-to PR move, it becomes very easy for a company to co-op this for their own benefit. All they need to do is “plan” to build a facility overseas, chat with Trump, then “change their mind”. Trump then gets to brag about how he saved jobs, and the company gets free advertisement. Incentives matter. This is classic crony capitalism.

On crony capitalism, I think people focus too much on entirely the wrong types of crony-ism. They see it as politicians cutting backdoor deals to enrich themselves, when really there are so many problems more inherent in the regulatory institutions themselves. Three concepts you should educate yourself about:

1. Rent-Seeking Behavior

2. Regulatory Capture

3. Regime Uncertainty

Now, more about Batman in a less depressing way:

5. Batman and “Bent” Narratives

I don’t know if I have much to say about this one, other than that it got me thinking about the assumptions and rules of the game we presume about the narratives we like, and how thin that line could be between the narratives we do like and the ones we think are preposterous. More about this maybe at a later date.







Starbucks gives me an odd feeling every time I enter it. Before I always assumed this was because of the corporate-ness of the entire franchise–the marketing-by-bureaucracy feel endemic to large chain stores. But I don’t think that’s it. I don’t get the same feeling by McDonald’s, Target, or Taco Bell, even though they all have their own branded aesthetics.

Furthermore, I don’t have any particular value case against corporate branding. While I don’t love it, I also see how it’s necessary. Even ignoring the pragmatics that it probably works well (or so many successful companies wouldn’t do it), I understand how hard it must be to keep any kind of quality assurance in a multinational chain of businesses.

Maybe it’s the specifics. But the specific details of Starbucks are all fine too. The lighting is soft and warm, the pleasant smell of coffee emanates throughout, the drinks satisfy that milk/sugar/coffee flavor urge I occasionally have, and some kind of soft acoustic music is always playing in the background.

Okay, the specifics aren’t perfect. The drinks are mostly dessert disguised as beverage, they probably sell them at a massive profit margin, and the fact that the music playing in the background is for sale near the counter is certainly hokey. But this doesn’t bother me that much. The music thing I ignore, and I actually like the drinks, even as I recognize that they’re certainly not fine dining.

What causes the odd feeling I get every time I enter Starbucks? First let’s back up a bit.

This post is an attempt to think through a debate that has been going on in my head for a very long time. I like to enjoy things at a high level. That is, when I delve into something new, be it movies, tea, board games, etc, I like to find out what people consider to be the best of that thing, experience it, and figure out why it’s considered the best. I like the entire process of it. Typically I also tend to begin enjoying the “best” things, too, even if I didn’t at first.

Of course the problem is when I begin to appreciate the best things in their class, I stop appreciating the entry level/lower/worse things as much. This always seems like an acceptable trade-off, because the quality of my enjoyment of this category of things has increased. At least that’s what I tell myself. In some cases it’s merely a matter of scale. While I’d love to drink fancy Belgian beers every day, I buy Yuengling and enjoy it quite a bit, just not as much as the theoretical Belgian. In other cases it seems to be a more sharp divide. I very much enjoy Chinese whole-leaf tea. I cannot stand the bagged stuff, no matter how much I try to enjoy it.

But why is my enjoyment of aged Pu-erh better than the enjoyment the person who drinks Lipton every day gets from their brew? There are a couple of effects at play here that I think contribute:

1. Because I spent time, research, and relatively more money acquiring my aged Pu-erh, I have a psychological debt to it that tricks me into liking it more than I would otherwise. This is, as far as I understand, undoubtedly something that happens psychologically. It’s been studied with wine tasting1 when people rate wine more highly when it’s given a more expensive (false) price tag. More anecdotally I see it with board games that were produced through Kickstarter. The ratings for those games tend to start off extremely high when backers get their first-wave copies, and then taper down as people who didn’t pre-order play it.2 In this case, the cause of my enjoyment is somewhat of a placebo. But if a placebo works, shouldn’t it be treated the same as other “types” of enjoyment? Honestly, I have no idea. It certainly doesn’t feel like an equally good kind of enjoyment, but I also don’t know how much of my enjoyment of this tea is caused by this. Maybe being aware of it negates it.

2. Related to point one, maybe some of my enjoyment is due to me feeling better than people who haven’t discovered it, or don’t like it. Again, like point one I am aware of this and try to negate it. I would love if everyone drank great tea, because it would be easier to find. Or would I like that? I hope so. It’s hard to self-analyze the extent of psychological effects like this. Regardless, this kind of enjoyment seems bad because it’s at the expense of other people.

3. There could be something objectively better about the tea leaves themselves. For example, someone could enjoy owning a conflict-free diamond because of the fact that it’s conflict-free. With tea, I tell myself I prefer whole leaf because it maintains the delicate nature of the tea, which prevents bitterness. (Ever get that bitter, fuzzy feeling in your mouth when drinking green tea? That’s because it’s either chopped up, brewed too long, or at too high of a temperature–or all three.) But maybe I get some kind of naturalistic enjoyment over the fact that it’s whole leaf, like it’s more pure or dignified or something. Doesn’t sound like me, but it’s possible.

4. Finally, there could be something about the flavor that is demonstrably better than Lipton tea. This is what I have always told myself. The tea I drink is less bitter, more complex, and has a more interesting variety of flavors. The problem is while it’s easy to say words like “complex” and “interesting”, it’s hard to justify them as either existing or being a positive attribute. Now I find complex and less bitter tea to be better, but is that because complicated beverages are somehow more enjoyable on a general physiological level, or is it because I, specifically, find them more enjoyable. And if it’s me, specifically, is it because I’ve been somehow pre-wired that way, or is it because of the influence of reasons 1 and 2, above, which I have already determined to be not actually good reasons?

I think I have more to say here, but I can’t articulate it without tying myself into knots. Maybe I’ll elaborate more in the future if I can get my thoughts together.

Anyways, my solution to this dilemma has been to push it to the back of my mind and resolve to try to get as much enjoyment out of these recreational things as possible. This means understanding the cognitive barriers that might be at play, and trying to mitigate them. I never want to be the snob who looks down on people who enjoy “lesser” things. I want to be the evangelist who tries to generate excitement for the things I like, and communicate why I like them so much, so as to share the enjoyment with others. I also what to be open to that kind of evangelism from others.

But when it comes to movies, I find myself becoming more and more picky about them. I absolutely adore a great movie experience. I long for those films that surprise me, out-think me, and delight me with their cleverness and beauty. The problem is that I find it harder and harder to have those experiences. So many movies, even when I do enjoy them and have a good time viewing them, seem so hollow. I suppose the Marvel franchise has heightened this feeling, since it so consistently pushes out perfectly fine movies. But I find myself wanting to see them less and less. Even the ones I enjoy more than average (Avengers 1, Captain America: Civil War), I enjoy them almost despite of themselves. I can feel the tension between the formula/design by committee, and whatever interesting idea the director is desperately trying to squeeze in the cracks. But I find myself getting jealous of the people who see these movies and have a great time–who come out of the theater smiling and consider these films the highlights of their cinematic experiences. I find myself wanting to get that out of more movies.

The trade-off, as I said before, is that my experience of great movies should be so great as to exceed the joy I’d get in ignorance. I don’t know. I just find myself doubting the veracity of that trade-off more and more.

Anyways, Rogue One is the Starbucks of movies.

The main criticism levied against The Force Awakens was that it was far to derivative of its own source material. This criticism is well-taken, although I can see the reasoning behind treating that film as a sort of reboot of the franchise. The fact that they apparently needed to compare appendages by creating an even bigger and more death-y death star is ridiculous and has been rightly mocked. I found it an easy flaw to ignore, particularly given how great the characters were. After the movie I wanted to jump right into the next adventures of Rey, Finn, and Kylo.

The Force Awakens also had some great small touches that went beyond the fan service and callbacks that comprised most of the run time. The shot of the landspeeder crossing in front of the star destroyer wreckage, the scrap-for-food economy of Jakku, Finn flirting with a no-nonsense Rey, the Apocalypse Now visual quote, the fantastic quick zoom on the Falcon as it flees enemies–all of these moments stay with me still. My single favorite bit is Kylo Ren frenetically beating his abdominal wound as if to squeeze out more pain he can channel into his dark force powers.3

If I remember any part of Rogue One with the same fondness, it’s going to be Donnie Yen’s monk-like character. The idea that civilians (for actual Jedi have been purged) have tried to protect the temple with a devotion to the force they only obliquely understand is a great addition to the lore. On top of that, Donnie Yen is a legitimate martial arts master4 and I’m glad his main fight scene was mostly untarnished by sloppy quick-cut editing.

Speaking of which, have there ever been so many handheld camera shots and close-ups in a Star Wars movie? I might have to go back to see if Lucas compromised in the prequels, but I don’t think he did. I bet Rogue One has more handheld shots than the entire other 7 Star Wars films combined. Star Wars was inspired by a very classical style of filmmaking. I know these side-films are supposed to be unique, and I love the idea in theory5, but going with the bad visual style du jour reeks of laziness. The visual style was incredibly uninteresting.

So were most of the characters. They seemed much more interesting in the trailers. The only characters that were remotely interesting to me were Donnie Yen’s, which I’ve already mentioned and Forest Whitaker’s kooky rebellion rebel. The wisecracking droid gave a couple chuckles but isn’t nearly as memorable as CP3O. The two leads were rote and boring. Mads Mikkelsen is a great actor but isn’t given very much to do in the film.

The plot hits all of the same notes we come to expect in an action adventure film. You can see exactly where it’s going to go every single step of the way. It culminates in a promising action sequence that takes up the latter third of the movie that is better in theory than it is in execution. Everything felt very expected and rushed. As soon as something interesting happened–quick! Move along to the next thing. Most infuriating to me was a beautiful shot of star destroyers colliding, echoing a similar moment from the original trilogy, that is about 1 second long, when it should have lingered for much longer. Finally something wonderfully framed, highlighted with a fantastic musical shift, and quick! On to the next thing.

Sometimes what might be called “efficient” editing makes a movie significantly longer and more dull than it would have been if there were another 10 minutes in there to let the audience breathe and appreciate a composition. Rogue One is one of those cases. Instead of telling a story, it was telling a collection of plot points.

Maybe I’ve been too harsh. I did enjoy the movie. It was fine. I smiled multiple times while watching it. I’d probably give it a 6/10. But I don’t see myself thinking back to it at all. I don’t see myself viewing it again.

Strangely, though, it gave me that odd Starbucks feeling. And I think I know what that feeling is now. It’s not the corporate, designed by committee feel. Or at least not just that. It’s the feeling that the product was intentionally made very specifically for the kind of person I am. In both cases, I am the target demographic–20-something, somewhat educated, middle-class. It’s a feeling of expectation, of over-expectation, of a product its designers are displaying with a large “LIKE THIS” sign on them, specifically for the kind of person I am. And of me not getting it. I don’t get the enthusiasm at all. Starbucks and Rogue One are fine.

I suppose the feeling’s a kind of loneliness.

1. Even though I recognize that there’s valid information to get from these types of tests, the way they are presented via social media/news sites as “expensive wine is no better than cheap wine” is complete bullshit. Don’t even get me started. Actually, I’m going to note that down as a potential topic for another post.

2. Reasonably, games are going to get higher ratings from people who were inclined to preorder them, because their interest in the theme/previews was high enough to warrant backing it in the first place. But I’d be willing to bet that this effect is more pronounced for Kickstarted games.

3. I don’t actually know if this is the reason he’s doing it, according to the script. But I refuse to research it because I want to believe my interpretation is true.

4. Check out Ip Man!

5. Speaking of unique Star Wars movies, all I want in life is a film noir in Coruscant.

(This review contains some spoilers. If you want a fully-virgin experience, watch the film before reading this review. Watch it after reading the review anyway, because next week I am going to really spoil it.)

Harry Caul works at syncing three different incomplete audio recordings in a ground-breaking surveillance job.

One of the most difficult tasks a movie can attempt to do is bring the viewer truly inside the mind of a character. Of course, at some level all films try this. But what sets Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” apart is that is succeeds. Through Coppola’s patient, but precise direction, the brilliant sound editing, and Gene Hackman’s inspired acting, we are fully brought into the mind of professional surveillance expert Harry Caul.

And what a mind it is. Harry is the “best wiretapper on the west coast”, but will not let himself enjoy the honor. As we gradually find out, he may have been responsible for the deaths of two innocent people from a job a few years back. He was not responsible, he says, because he was only doing an assignment, and he is not responsible for the repercussions of his jobs. The immense guilt he feels suggests he does not believe it. Now, he is increasingly paranoid the results of his most recent eavesdropping masterpiece will cause more bloodshed.

The film opens with an amazing shot of a crowded city square that brings us into the sonic world of surveillance. For the first few seconds we are left wondering what is happening, and our eyes try to find the subject of the shot. Then the audio shifts to specific sounds of the scene below: a person talking, a band playing, sounds of movement. We find out two people in particular are being recorded, and the details of their conversation propel the plot forward. Indeed, the entire film revolves around the way a particular line is enunciated.

Harry Caul is, as we learn, great as his job. While modern viewers will not be able to understand how advanced the techniques he uses were at the time, there is much noise made about how difficult the job in the opening scene was to pull off. At the same time Harry is terrible at managing his personal life. He finds a birthday present in his room and panics. The landlord tells him she left it using the spare key. He tells her to get rid of the key. It does not matter if his apartment burns down, he says, because his only important possessions are his keys.

The soundtrack to the film is peculiar. Someone as rigid and formulaic as Harry would not be expected to play jazz on the saxophone, but I suspect he does it to try to calm his mind. People with minds constantly running need an escape, and the saxophone is Harry’s escape. The piano theme tries to be lively but falls into isolation, much like Harry himself.

Social settings allow us to observe Harry at his most uncomfortable. He cannot have a normal romantic relationship due to his paranoia, and his desire to be proud of his work among colleagues stands in tension with his inability to let go of the past.

Guilt pulls Harry into desperation.

In the third act Coppola shifts the perspective of the film. We have been observing Harry all along, and all of the action revolves around him. But in the end we are transported fully into the paranoia and see the tragic end through his eyes. The subtle way in which Coppola transitions into this perspective is truly masterful. Notice how the sounds in Harry’s mind mirror the surveillance noises we are introduced to in the first shot. The last two scenes cause us to question the reality of the rest of the movie. How much in the hotel was only in the mind of Harry?

Finally, we are treated to a concluding shot worthy of being bookended with the opening shot. Just like the rest of the movie, we have to wait a bit to understand its meaning. But that is what makes this film such a masterpiece. Coppola doesn’t fall into the trap of many modern directors in trying to keep up the pace for an impatient audience. Shots actually mean something in this film, and if you pay attention you will be rewarded. It’s not a quick journey travelling into someone’s mind, after all.

There is no running from one's own mind.

The Tree of Life, even a month after my last viewing, has lingered on my mind in a most delightful way like few movies have. Throughout the day snatches of the film invade my thoughts and distract my attention. The movie has aged incredibly well in my mind, better than nearly every movie I have ever seen. This makes sense, not only because it is an incredible film that affected me deeply, but because it was filmed to portray impressions—to display memories the way we remember them.

The most common question I have seen regarding the film is, “what is it about?” This is a difficult question to answer, as I am sure those who have seen the movie can testify. The only way I can think to quickly describe it is as a prayer. Unfortunately, this only makes sense if you have already seen the movie. So, for everyone else, I am going to attempt to describe it here.

The Tree of Life is about life. Not the ever-tedious moments which pass for the modern lifestyle, but life as something that is actually living. It is about the small moments that prompt the biggest, life altering questions. It is about the inability to lift your head and the blur that corrupts your vision in times of immense trial. It is about the moments where you see a truly honest face, if only for a split second. It is about the real prayers that pass through your mind as you verbalize the fake ones.

The Tree of Life is about asking why, and seeing the answer both nowhere and everywhere. It is about the curiosity of a child who believes himself to be invincible. It is about contexts and constants: nature and God. It believes in the wonder of looking to the heavens during moments of joy—even if that view is incomplete and obscured. It feels uncomfortable in places of modernity; the steel structures of the city are cold and static. In nature it is alive—ever longing to see something more, something through what is.

The Tree of Life is about the enormity of the universe, and the enormity of a child’s mind. It is about the memories of childhood. Excitement, adventure, new responsibilities, and the creeping, terrifying curiosity of seeing something and knowing it is not right. It is about the power of music, rushing water, and the smile of a joyful mother.

The Tree of Life is about the moments that add up to create life, and the realization that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is about realizing that fact and pleading, begging to know why.

It is about looking past the trivialities and knowing in the stillness something great lurks. The beginning and the end. The Truth.

What is the Point?

July 20, 2011

If you know me you know that I often engage in self-reflection. I am constantly engaging in introspection about my actions and the motives behind those actions. So when I started this blog I made sure there was a decent reason behind it. After all, the internet is full of people who think they are brilliant while spouting nonsense. Initially the reason behind this project was simply to practice my writing; I need to work on this particular skill and forcing myself to write weekly updates would give me an incentive to do so. I also have to admit there is an inkling of a hope that more than my few friends will read this. But after pondering this last night, I realized that the real reason I want to do this is to help others enjoy movies like I do.

Film is art, just like music, painting, theatre, or literature. The difference is that movies combine all of those media into something unique and special. It is a different perspective that can illuminate the beauty around us in a profound way. Philosophy, history, culture, and real human issues can be addressed and analyzed. While the written word is better for rational argument and music may present eternal themes gloriously, movies work with both images and sound to create an unmatched emotional connection.

The problem, of course, is that people often do not watch movies well. Because of this, poor movies are demanded by the population, and poor movies are often headlined at theaters. People see film not as art, but as a distraction or entertainment in the most trivial sense. The theater is not a place you go to think, I am told, but to be mindlessly entertained. I reject this idea because I see the potential for something greater: movies that actually teach us something, that allow us to examine ourselves and our world with greater understanding. Movies that actually mean something.

Of course, there is much that happens in a great movie that people often do not notice. Camera movement, editing, sound mixing, etc. all contribute to the art. Maybe it’s good that people don’t notice these technical things, so long as they gain from the film. But I like to think it’s beneficial to study the theory and meaning behind what happens on-screen to gain a greater understanding. I am not an expert, just a hobbyist. Do I have any claim of authority to speak about these things? Probably not. But there is something about a good movie that grabs me, that affects me in a completely unique way so as to change my view of real life. It seems most people don’t experience the medium in such a profound way. This blog is to encourage such an experience. Am I being overly romantic and idealistic about the power of film? Perhaps. But hey, isn’t that what the movies are all about?

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