Catch up

It has been some time since I posted here. Outside of lots of meetings around the country and some trips with family and friends, a few creative projects have stolen the lion's share of my free time.

While I won't publish some Medium screed on how spending less time on social media transformed my life, it is an unavoidable truth that one's free time is a zero sum game. For infovores, Twitter is a bit like heroin, and for all the other gaps in one's time, other social media apps are like some Cerebro-like viscous membrane that gives off a mild contact high from the vibrations of ambient social intimacy.

As presently constructed, though, all these apps are certainly well into the point of diminishing returns for me, and so less time spent there, redirected offline, has been good for my general productivity and well-being. I'm not certain, but it seems that's it not a question of mix as it is of finding the optimal frequency for all the various activities in my life. To take one example, almost certainly I see huge returns to shifting conversations with folks on Twitter offline.

Some of that time has been spent continuing to wend my way through Emily Wilson's brilliant new translation of The Odyssey. What's fascinating is how it remains resonant with modern times, speaking to its universality. Ironically, what it reminded me of, perhaps because the topic was still top of mind, was social media.

Take the famous episode in which Odysseus and his men sail past the Sirens and then between Scylla and Charybdis. What surprised me was how short the entire episode is, only occupying a few pages in Book 12, titled "Difficult Choices."

The goddess Circe gives Odysseus a preview of what he and his men are about to encounter.

First you will reach the Sirens, who bewitch
all passersby. If anyone goes near them
in ignorance, and listens to their voices,
that man will never travel to his home,
and never make his wife and children happy
to have him back with them again.
 

"If anyone goes near them in ignorance, and listens to their voices..." But this is what happens on social media all the time! Never have we dilettantes in just about every subject had such a forum to lord our "expertise" over others. Circe warned us long ago what would happen, how insufferable we'd all be to our loved ones.

The song of the Sirens is irresistible, and Circe knows it, so she advises Odysseus thus:

...Around about them lie
great heaps of men, flesh rotting from their bones,
their skin all shriveled up. Use wax to plug
your sailors’ ears as you row past, so they
are deaf to them. But if you wish to hear them,
your men must fasten you to your ship’s mast
by hand and foot, straight upright, with tight ropes.
So bound, you can enjoy the Sirens’ song.
 

It's as if Circe is speaking to my irresistible urge to open and read Twitter at the slightest hint of boredom, warning me of the great heaps of men, flesh rotting from their bones, who'd done so before me. As for her firm guidance that Odysseus be bound to a mast? That's just the antecedent to today's "Never tweet."

Thus, in my moments of weakness, I open Twitter but bind myself to a metaphoric ship's mast so I cannot reply to the trolls, as tempting as it is to join the chorus of people letting their outrage loose. Some days it feels to me that half my timeline is just people posting witty and savage rejoinders to Tomi Lahren or Trump or Dana Loesch and so on. Twitter should just move all of that to a separate tab, it has become a sort of performance art.

Alexis Madrigal wrote of how he turned off retweets in his Twitter timeline and it improved for him.

Retweets make up more than a quarter of all tweets. When they disappeared, my feed had less punch-the-button outrage. Fewer mean screenshots of somebody saying precisely the wrong thing. Less repetition of big, big news. Fewer memes I’d already seen a hundred times. Less breathlessness. And more of what the people I follow were actually thinking about, reading, and doing. It’s still not perfect, but it’s much better.
 

Farhad Manjoo wrote that for two months he got his news only from print.

It has been life changing. Turning off the buzzing breaking-news machine I carry in my pocket was like unshackling myself from a monster who had me on speed dial, always ready to break into my day with half-baked bulletins.
 
Now I am not just less anxious and less addicted to the news, I am more widely informed (though there are some blind spots). And I’m embarrassed about how much free time I have — in two months, I managed to read half a dozen books, took up pottery and (I think) became a more attentive husband and father.
 

Is this much different than Circe urging Odysseus to plug his mens' ears with wax? Homer got there first. I am weak so I have not gone full cold turkey on social media. Instead, I am still occasionally there, tied to the mast, flailing against self-administered bonds, listening to the Siren song. May the gods help me.

[Wilson herself recently posted a series of tweets observing something else intriguing about the Sirens, the idea that they were some sexy seductresses. Reading Wilson's translation, you realize there is no mention of the Sirens' appearances. The seduction is all in their song, and that makes them an even more appropriate metaphor for social media.] 

After the Sirens, Odysseus and his men meet even more formidable adversaries. Circe foretells of an inescapable passage between Scylla and Charybdis, the original rock and a hard place. There, she says, it's best to pick the lesser of two evils and to sail closer to Scylla, a twelve-legged six-headed monster who will eat six of his men. It sounds terrible, but the alternative is allowing Charybdis to swallow his entire ship. For my money, it's the most famous leadership parable about minimizing one's losses.

Odysseus, upon hearing this, pleads to no avail.

I answered, ‘Goddess, please,
tell me the truth: is there no other way?
Or can I somehow circumvent Charybdis
and stop that Scylla when she tries to kill
my men?’
 
The goddess answered, ‘No, you fool!
Your mind is still obsessed with deeds of war.
But now you must surrender to the gods.
She is not mortal. She is deathless evil,
terrible, wild and cruel. You cannot fight her.
The best solution and the only way
is flight.
 

Is Circe the best life coach, or the best life coach? She's the original Tony Robbins.

Can you read social media and emerge with your senses and emotional well-being intact? "No you fool!" We may not be able to avoid it, but at least we can heed Circe's words. "The best solution and the only way is flight."

Odysseus and his men proceed as Circe warns, and, tied to the mast, our titular hero hears the song of the Sirens.

‘Odysseus! Come here! You are well-known
from many stories! Glory of the Greeks!
Now stop your ship and listen to our voices.
All those who pass this way hear honeyed song,
poured from our mouths. The music brings them joy,
and they go on their way with greater knowledge,
since we know everything the Greeks and Trojans
suffered in Troy, by gods’ will; and we know
whatever happens anywhere on earth.’


Their song was so melodious, I longed
to listen more. I told my men to free me.
I scowled at them, but they kept rowing on.
 

What is this but the siren song of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and all the other addictive apps on our phones, luring us with the comforting and self-affirming dopamine hits of likes and followers and readers. "...they go on their way with great knowledge since we know everything...and we know whatever happens anywhere on earth" is nothing if not the tagline for Twitter written in another age (copyright Homer).

"Their song was so melodious, I longed to listen more." My Siren is my iPhone, always within arms reach, always with the promise of "greater knowledge." Have I been disciplined and avoided its call? Not always. And like Odysseus, who does end up losing six men to Scylla, I've lost a few chunks of flesh along the way.

I do have a few long posts incubating, however, which I hope to finish soon. In the meantime, a bit of catch up.

***

I was lucky enough to be invited onto two podcasts, both of which were recorded in person during my recent trip to New York City for meetings and to visit family. The first was Khe Hy's Rad Awakenings podcast. The second was the Internet History Podcast hosted by Brian McCullough. I didn't have a book or anything to promote, so they're both a bit free-ranging, as I am here. Check them out if you're interested and let me know what you think.

It's fascinating to watch the explosion in podcasts, and it's somewhat apparent when you see how easy it is to record one with just a computer and two small microphones. Given the economics of text are so lousy, and given how challenging it is to produce compelling video, the most lucrative vector for media companies is not a pivot to video but a pivot to podcasting. Every day it seems a media company is releasing a new daily news podcast recap.

In time, the marginal return will decline, but perhaps not before we see a second wave of growth in podcasting's total addressable market (TAM) from improved discovery (the first explosion in podcasting TAM was, of course, the rise of the smartphone, which opened up a ton of podcast surface area in one's daily schedule, most notably in commutes).

***

I kid not, one of the most fascinating videos I've watched since I last posted here was this episode of Trashcast discussing Logan Paul. For some reason the original version of this video was pulled by YouTube so as of right now, this newly uploaded version has all of...63 views. It taught me more about the Logan Paul phenomenon than anything else I've read or watched, and its presentation is of a style that is extremely meta, like a young person's Vox explainer.

The temptation, when something like the Logan Paul scandal drops, is to post "Who the f*** is [Logan Paul]?" on Twitter or Facebook. I saw probably a dozen or more such posts, and while I resisted the urge, I myself had no idea who Logan Paul was until he was the latest person to take his turn in the public pillory.

I'm less interested in Logan Paul than I am in all the superstar vloggers who can turn out audiences of tens of thousands young kids everywhere they go. Their particular pull to children of that age, the visual grammar of their content, the syntax of their speech, their distribution frequency, it's all quite instructive.

One can read near-future sci-fi, or one can just spend some time with some of today's youth, who already live in the near-future. The latter is much more vivid. I spent several hours watching my nephews play Fortnite and message on Snapchat and surf on Instagram while in NYC recently, and it was as if I'd crossed over through some alien border into a cultural Shimmer. As with Natalie Portman, every one of my visits there leaves me altered in some inexorable ways.

***

One of my recent (okay, not so recent) posts was on the shift in entertainment from the shift to infinite content supply. I opened with a brief discussion of Will Smith.

A few readers sent me a link to this excerpt from Ben Fritz's new book The Big Picture: The Fight For the Future of Movies. The excerpt is about the rise and fall of the A-List movie stars Will Smith and Adam Sandler during Sony's motion picture heyday in the 2000's.

Of Sony's top 50 movies from 2000 to 2016, more than two-thirds were "star vehicles," in which the talent involved was as big as or bigger than the movie title or the franchise. More than one-third came from just two people: Will Smith and Adam Sandler. Movies they starred in or produced grossed $3.7 billion from 2000 to 2015, generating 20 percent of Sony Pictures' domestic gross and 23 percent of its profits. No other studio was as reliant on just two actors. Their rise and fall illustrate what has happened to movie stars in Hollywood.
 
...
 
Sony paid both stars handsomely for their consistent success: $20 million against 20 percent of the gross receipts, whichever was higher, was their standard. They also received as much as $5 million against 5 percent for their production companies, where they employed family and friends. Sony also provided Overbrook and Sandler's Happy Madison with a generous overhead to cover expenses — worth about $4 million per year. To top it off, Sandler and Smith enjoyed the perks of the luxe studio life. Flights on a corporate jet were common. On occasion, Smith's entourage necessitated the use of two jets for travel to premieres. Knowing that Sandler was a huge sports fan, Sony regularly sent him and his pals to the Super Bowl to do publicity. Back at the Sony lot, the basketball court was renamed Happy Madison Square Garden in the star's honor. When anybody questioned the endless indulgence given to Sandler and Smith, Sony executives had a standard answer: "Will and Adam bought our houses."
 

I wrote:

I'm wary of all conclusions drawn about media in the scarcity age, including the idea that people went to see movies because of movie stars. It's not that Will Smith isn't charismatic. He is. But I suspect Will Smith was in a lot of hits in the age of scarcity in large part because there weren't a lot of other entertainment options vying for people's attention when Independence Day or something of its ilk came out, like clockwork, to launch the summer blockbuster season.
 
The same goes for the general idea that any one star was ever the chief engine for a film's box office. If the idea that people go see a movie just to see any one star was never actually true, we can stop holding the modern generation of movie stars to an impossible standard.
 

Of course, this is a counterfactual, so hard to establish conclusively. Perhaps, in the age of scarcity, A-List stars really did exist. Regardless, that age has passed, and banking on its continued viability is a shaky proposition at best.

A further thought, which I first made in a presentation at a Greylock Product Summit a few years back, is that the rising supply of content means that exceeding the noise floor favors a different type of film or television property. In the heyday of the three and eventually four major networks, the golden age of broadcast television, the dream show was one with broad appeal. The economics of television were heavily dependent on advertising revenue, and the larger the audience, the larger the revenue. A show like The Cosby Show or The Beverly Hillbillies, that attracted a broad audience through a sort of non-offensive if somewhat bland sensibility was the dream.

Again, though, it's important to recall how scarce entertainment options were in that age relative to today's cornucopia. It isn't just the economics of carriage fees and pay TV that helped drive the rise of much more distinctive and niche appeal shows like Mad Men; it's what you'd expect when the overall information noise floor rises. The risk of trying to make a broad appeal show is that it is mildly appealing to many people but not strongly appealing to any audience segment, and that is a losing strategy if the noise floor is so high that only high appeal shows can poke their head above it.

Is it any surprise that two of the most successful showrunners in recent history are Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy? Watch any of their programs and, whether you like them or not, you won't fault them for pulling their punches. Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, American Horror Story, Nip/Tuck, Glee, The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, these are programs that are engineered to mash people's buttons.

Two of the bigger hits of recent memory that aren't from either of those two showrunners are  Empire and This is Us. The former was, like many of Rhimes and Murphy's shows, crazy. Double crosses, murders, affairs, all of it. Cray cray. As for This is Us, I watched two episodes with my sister-in-law while in NYC, and while it might seem to fit the template of a more classic, broad appeal broadcast network show, it is bonkers in its own way. Its genre is melodrama, and the episode design is a tear-jerker in every episode. Every one. No exceptions. If you are a writer on that show and your episode doesn't the audience cry they fire you and then everyone has a good cry over it.

In a world of infinite content, the ideal bundle, then, isn't a basket of broadly appealing programs, something that may be impossible to engineer anymore. Instead, it's a bundle of shows with very strong niche appeal to particular but different audience segments. This, as many of you will note, is not some new concept. The conditions have just made it a more critical one.

In the Hollywood Reporter, Marc Bernardin observes the success of films like Wonder Woman, Get Out, Black Panther, and Coco, and notes:

No, the reason we're in the midst of a halcyon age of representational storytelling that's resonating on a historic scale is that a far more diverse pool of storytellers — black filmmakers, female filmmakers, Asian filmmakers — are getting empowered to tell their stories their way with all the resources usually reserved for white, male creatives. Black Panther isn't just the story of a handsome prince taking the throne of a fictional, advanced African nation, it's also the story of a filmmaker reckoning with the disconnect that lives in the hyphen between "African" and "American." It's about a man who grew up around women of strength and grace and power who didn't think twice about populating both his art and his set with those same kinds of women. It's about a kid from Oakland dreaming dreams that the world told him he couldn't.
 
Similarly, Thor: Ragnarok would never have been both a balls-out buddy comedy with a perfectly timed anus joke and a trenchant examination of the paved-over sins of colonial expansion without the half-Maori New Zealander Taika Waititi at the helm. And we have proof positive of how Jenkins' centering of Diana in Wonder Woman is different from Zack Snyder's treatment of the same character in Justice League: More openness, innocence and resolve … fewer gratuitous shots of Gal Gadot's ass.
 
And there's no one who could've conceived of Get Out but Peele, who spent years exploring the ways race and genre collide on TV's Key & Peele, is a student of horror and has definitely found himself navigating the frothy waters of meeting a white girlfriend's parents for the first time.
 
The way forward isn't simply to decide to greenlight stories about diverse people. It's to cultivate a generation of writers, directors and producers who see the world through their own unique lens and then bring that perspective to bear. If Marvel didn't have someone like Nate Moore in its producer ranks, someone who knew who T'Challa was and what he could mean, you'd never get a Black Panther. If Pixar didn't elevate story artist Adrian Molina to co-director and co-writer, Coco might've seemed more like a Day of the Dead theme park ride than a haunting, heartbreaking exaltation of Dia de los Muertos.
 
What audiences are responding to, in every movie that's popped in the past year, is a sense of truth. Just as we can tell, somehow, when CG is spackled on a little too heavily, we can sense when something feels inauthentic. We can tell the difference between 12 Years a Slave and Amistad, between The Joy Luck Club and The Last Samurai, between Selma and Mississippi Burning. One of them feels true — and truth, ultimately, is what makes something universal.
 

I believe in the power of film as a medium, and so it's no surprise that I believe in the underrated power of representation. It's not underrated by those of us who've never seen ourselves on screen, but I recall talking to some white men about Wonder Woman, and they remarked how they didn't see what the fuss was about. I couldn't help but think of the group of women I saw Wonder Woman with; half of them left the theater in tears, the experience of watching a woman on screen was so viscerally moving. I think of the Mexican family seated next to me at a screening of Coco, who spent half the film sobbing audibly.

The only Asian men, let alone Chinese men, I saw on screen growing up were Mickey Rooney's bucktoothed caricature of a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany's and Long Duck Dong in Sixteen Candles. If you've ever wondered why Bruce Lee is a near deity to Chinese men, it's simply that he was the only powerful representation of themselves they ever saw in American entertainment.

The archetype of almost every hero and leader I saw growing up was a white man, and it continues today, where the leadership team of almost every company in Silicon Valley is dominated by white men. Someone asked me once whether I could name a single Chinese CEO of a tech company who had been promoted into the role, rather than having founded the company. I couldn't think of one.

It's a blessing to me, then, that the age of infinite content has made culturally specific and truthful representation good business practice for Hollywood. I'd prefer we arrived by some more progressive route, but, as Russian writer Viktor Pelevin has noted, the chief protagonist of pop culture today is a briefcase of money. We've seen many a film with a whitewashed cast bomb recently, and it doesn't strike me as a coincidence. When we have an near infinite supply of content at our disposal, no one needs to settle for the bland, the milquetoast, the emotionally false.

***

In that same post about the shifting dynamics of entertainment in the age of abundance, I wrote about the Instagram account House of Highlights. Fast Company cited it in an article about House of Highlights.

The past week, I've been watching carefully to see which outlet picks up March Madness buzzer-beaters the quickest, and it is, more often than not, House of Highlights on which I see the first video replay.

Social networks go through several phases of evolution on their path to maturity. First, they need to get people to use it even when the graph is sparse. This is the single-player value problem. If they solve that, then the next efficient evolution is some sort of feed, usually populated by all content from people you follow. It's the easiest way to increase the surface area for each user, and it's the easiest way to amplify your service's network effects. The only way to increase a user's frequency of usage is to increase the volume of content to serve them, and aggregating content from all the people you follow is a simple way to personalize the feed, to create value for the lurkers who want to watch but not post, and to send addictive feedback signals to the creators of that content. It's the tried and true social network positive feedback loop.

Then, at some point, if the network is successful enough, the problem becomes one of too much content. This is typically when networks move from a chronological, exhaustive feed to an algorithmic feed on some relevance dimension. It's typically when some segment of early adopters complains about the loss of said chronological feed.

The algorithmic feed is social networks' counterpart to Inbox Zero. Social networks realized that an "inbox zero" solution to social network overload would never work; too few people would do the necessary work. Arguably, Inbox Zero has about the same adoption issue with regards to email.

GMail has a version of the algorithmic email inbox, it's the Important email box, and various other programs have tried to filter out unimportant emails from the inbox using a variety of strategies, but I'd be interested to see software go even a step further and prescribe more drastic measures for solving the signal-to-noise problem of that medium. If you're rich and powerful that solution is a stern administrative assistant but we've yet to scale that with AI. The closest I've come is my GMail's spam filter. I went in there recently and found a bunch of email I had actually subscribed to, but while the false positives were mildly annoying, I couldn't argue my life was harmed in any meaningful way. If you're waiting to hear from me, you're probably in my GMail spam folder, for some reason it's become increasingly aggressive.

Content services tend to try their own filtering solutions, tailored to their medium. Video streaming services use some mix of personalized and generic categorical recommendations to populate their interfaces, while news sites lean towards some matrix of chronology and importance overlaid with light categorization. Common to all of these is an acknowledgment that users don't tend to browse sideways through interfaces when exploring through the limited screen real estate of the smartphone screen, so maximizing relevance on a single infinitely scrolling interface window is the most profitable vector. Is it any surprise every video service seems to have autoplay turned on by default now?

This is all a roundabout way to say that House of Highlights will someday soon hit bump against the the limitations of the single news feed, despite all of that interface's advantages in aggregating eyeballs for content consumption and advertising on a smartphone screen. Like all providers, House of Highlights depends on the algorithm to push its content to people at the right time, and for those users to pull the content. I suspect that the next frontier for all these large and mature social networks is additional levels of in-feed structure.

We've already seen glimpses. The idea of stories, which made its first appearance in Instagram, solve the supply-side problem of social media. That is, in an exhaustive chronological feed, many users are shy about flooding the feed. This caps content supply.

Stories, by putting the onus on the viewer to pull the story, unlocks a flood of content. Post frequently, guilt-free! I'd guess that the demand on that content is limited, but paired with the regular algorithmic or chronological feed, you essentially create two marketplaces of content in one interface.

Instagram now allows multiple photos per post, another example of added structure. But for now, the algorithms largely restrict themselves to either choosing to display a piece of content or not. It's all candidate selection. 

I suspect the next breakthrough for all our most used mobile apps, all of whom have achieved massive scale, from Facebook to Instagram to Twitter to YouTube to Snapchat and so on, will be an evolution of the algorithm beyond pure content selection, and an evolution of the presentation of said content from into a broader array of templates.

It's a topic for another post.

***

Justin Fox of Bloomberg posted a piece related to my post and its discussion of brittle narratives. He notes that some folks have tried to address the problem of brittle narratives when it comes to sports. As an example, he links a video from Ben Falk's Cleaning the Glass, a popular new subscription service for basketball junkies from a former NBA front office staffer.

Writes Fox:

As with my experience in reading about and then watching UVA's Pack Line, it is also a reminder that there are narratives to sports events that go deeper than what can be plausibly condensed into standard highlight reels, and that casual viewers can be taught to appreciate them. I really am not much of a basketball fan, but Falk's explainer makes me want to observe James in action over extended periods to see if I can detect other such episodes of quiet brilliance. I probably won't; I've got way too many other things going on to add regular watching of the Cleveland Cavaliers to my schedule. But I am at least thinking about it.
 
In soccer, the sport I watch most on TV except in years when the Oakland A's are good, the highlight moments are so rare that you really can't appreciate the games unless you have some understanding (mine is admittedly pretty rudimentary and inarticulate) of the dramas playing out on the field between the scores and near-misses. In other sports, there have always been a few announcers who capably weave these background narratives into their work. I know Tim McCarver was driving most viewers crazy by the time he retired from calling baseball games in 2013, but I can remember him adding layer after layer to the game-watching experience in earlier years. From what I hear (I really don't watch much football), former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo did that in his first go-round as an NFL analyst for CBS last season.
 
Right now, basketball seems to be generating the most such explanation, though. Maybe that's just because it's basketball season! But I also think there's a happy convergence of the sport's usually-in-motion nature; the emergence of a group of expert, articulate superfans that probably began with the rise of Bill Simmons; the NBA's willingness to accommodate superfans who know how to splice video; and the presence of stars who are not only very smart about the game (I imagine most basketball stars have always been that) but also willing and able to explain how it's played with startling clarity (a friend pointed me to Simmons's series of interviews with the Warriors' Kevin Durant, and what I've heard so far is pretty amazing). 1  If sports are in fact in a battle with narrative brittleness, this is how you fight it.
 

He hits on something important. All the sports leagues have to deal with an onboarding problem with their televised content, and that is the learning curve of appreciation. If you haven't grown up watching and/or playing a sport, it's difficult to appreciate a lot of the moment to moment skill on display in any sporting event.

I did not grow up playing soccer, so I find so much of it boring to watch outside of the occasional spectacular goal. The ability of a team to keep possession, the skill of a single player like Messi to evade a gauntlet of defenders, so much of that skill is lost on me. The same goes for hockey, or cricket, or so many sports I didn't grow up with.

On the other hand, while many find baseball unbelievably boring, I played growing up, and so even a pitch that isn't swung is seen, by me, as one in a fascinating game theory exchange between pitcher and batter. One of the most exciting plays of the 2016 World Series to me was when Kyle Schwarber laid off a tantalizing slider from Andrew Miller because I knew what a great pitch it was and how much skill it took to not offer at it. For most viewers, it was just another ball, another twenty seconds of inconsequential activity.

The Olympics face this problem in spades because they include so many niche sports, but luckily for them, many of the events are short in nature, and the nature of the contest easily explained. When it isn't, the networks lean heavily on personal narrative, something that almost all viewers understand. We can debate until eternity whether Alina Zagitova or Evgenia Medvedeva deserved the gold medal in the women's figure skating final, but it didn't take an expert on figure skating to feel the tension backstage as each skater tried to get in each other's heads.

More forward-thinking sports leagues should consider, in the future, making it easier for analysts of all sorts to provide alternative broadcast commentary for their broadcasts. I'd be shocked if it didn't happen in my lifetime. Viewing your sports as broadcast platform with API's allowing for such diversity of integrated analysis would broaden the appeal to different audiences. As it is, some audiences cobble together such alternate peanut gallery chatter from Twitter, Periscope, Facebook, and other social media. I predict leagues will start integrating this content; it makes much more sense than Twitter licensing those video rights to try to facilitate such water coolers. The water cooler is heavy, it's plugged into the wall, and it's expensive; easier to go walk over there to chat than to try to carry the water cooler over to the discussion.

Exceeding this learning curve of appreciation isn't sufficient, however. Beyond that, there still exists the problem of rendering your content more culturally relevant, at this moment, than anything else on a person's phone. Anyone who's sat across from someone, only to see that their companion turn their attention to a smartphone, understands this modern conundrum.

This isn't just a problem for sports. In an age where Netflix is producing some 700 original series next year, not to mention all the ones from HBO and Amazon and Hulu and FX and on and on, every content provider has to become more thoughtful and creative about how to manufacture desire on the part of the viewer. The temptation, in tech, is to use some recommendations and machine learning to pick content to present to any one viewer, but that is going to be wholly insufficient.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, they say. When what you possess is lots of software engineers gifted at crunching large data sets, everything can look like an ML problem. That leaves huge swaths of human psychology on the table. There are still so many opportunities for so many services to render their content more relevant to a larger audience, a scary proposition to those who already find so many of their apps addictive.

Again, different categories of content tend to resort to the same narrow band of strategies as their competitors, but when we live in an age where almost all content across all mediums act as substitute goods for each other, companies and creatives should be widening their net to learn from outside their category. The competition won't wrestle on your terms, the battle is asymmetric.

A full list of such strategies is a topic for another day, but I'd argue every company should be looking at everything from House of Highlights to infomercials to Buzzfeed to Disneyland theme parks to high fashion to Costco to Beyonce and Rihanna to the fine art world to YouTube vloggers like Logan Paul to the design of Fortnite to just about everything about Las Vegas to pop-up restaurants to limited edition sneaker drops to folks like Tyler Cowen and Ben Thompson.

If we, as consumers, are fighting to resist the Siren song, then on the flip side is a pitched battle to spin the Siren song that will rise above the din.

Now stop your ship and listen to our voices.
All those who pass this way hear honeyed song,
poured from our mouths.

Revisionist commentary

I don't know that I'm aware of enough entries in this category to even consider it one, but I'm a sucker for the union of political and film satire as embodied in alternate film commentaries.

I was reminded of it when seeing The People's History of Tattooine which was first one of those spontaneous, emergent forms of Twitter humor that always brightens that otherwise dystopic landscape.

JACOB HARRIS
What if Mos Eisley wasn’t really that wretched and it was just Obi Wan being racist again?
 
TIM CARMODY
What do you mean, “these blaster marks are too precise to be made by Sand People?” Who talks like that?
 
JACOB HARRIS
also Sand People is not the preferred nomenclature.
 
TIM CARMODY
They have a rich cultural history that’s led them to survive and thrive under spectacularly awful conditions.
 
JACOB HARRIS
Mos Eisley may not look like much but it’s a a bedroom community with decent schools and affordable housing.
 
TIM CARMODY
You can just imagine Obi-Wan after years of being a Jedi on Coruscant being stuck in this place and just getting madder and madder.
 
JACOB HARRIS
yeah nobody cares that the blue milk is so much more artisanal on Coruscant
 
TIM CARMODY
Obi-Wan only goes to Mos Eisley once every three months to get drunk and he basically becomes like Byron.
 

Years ago, I laughed at UNUSED AUDIO COMMENTARY BY HOWARD ZINN AND NOAM CHOMSKY, RECORDED SUMMER 2002 FOR THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (PLATINUM SERIES EXTENDED EDITION) DVD, PART ONE (here is part 2, and here are all four of the parts of their commentary for Return of the King).

CHOMSKY: And here comes Bilbo Baggins. Now, this is, to my mind, where the story begins to reveal its deeper truths. In the books we learn that Saruman was spying on Gandalf for years. And he wondered why Gandalf was traveling so incessantly to the Shire. As Tolkien later establishes, the Shire’s surfeit of pipe-weed is one of the major reasons for Gandalf’s continued visits.
 
ZINN: You view the conflict as being primarily about pipe-weed, do you not?
 
CHOMSKY: Well, what we see here, in Hobbiton, farmers tilling crops. The thing to remember is that the crop they are tilling is, in fact, pipe-weed, an addictive drug transported and sold throughout Middle Earth for great profit.
 
ZINN: This is absolutely established in the books. Pipe-weed is something all the Hobbits abuse. Gandalf is smoking it constantly. You are correct when you point out that Middle Earth depends on pipe-weed in some crucial sense, but I think you may be overstating its importance. Clearly the war is not based only on the Shire’s pipe-weed. Rohan and Gondor’s unceasing hunger for war is a larger culprit, I would say.
 
CHOMSKY: But without the pipe-weed, Middle Earth would fall apart. Saruman is trying to break up Gandalf’s pipe-weed ring. He’s trying to divert it.
 
ZINN: Well, you know, it would be manifestly difficult to believe in magic rings unless everyone was high on pipe-weed. So it is in Gandalf’s interest to keep Middle Earth hooked.
 
CHOMSKY: How do you think these wizards build gigantic towers and mighty fortresses? Where do they get the money? Keep in mind that I do not especially regard anyone, Saruman included, as an agent for progressivism. But obviously the pipe-weed operation that exists is the dominant influence in Middle Earth. It’s not some ludicrous magical ring.
 

A bit more, because I can't help myself:

ZINN: Right. And here we receive our first glimpse of the supposedly dreadful Mordor, which actually looks like a fairly functioning place.
 
CHOMSKY: This type of city is most likely the best the Orcs can do if all they have are cliffs to grow on. It’s very impressive, in that sense.
 
ZINN: Especially considering the economic sanctions no doubt faced by Mordor. They must be dreadful. We see now that the Black Riders have been released, and they’re going after Frodo. The Black Riders. Of course they’re black. Everything evil is always black. And later Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White. Have you noticed that?
 
CHOMSKY: The most simplistic color symbolism.
 
ZINN: And the writing on the ring, we learn here, is Orcish — the so-called “black speech.” Orcish is evidently some spoliation of the language spoken in Rohan. This is what Tolkien says.
 

Somewhat related is this, The Passion of the Christ: Blooper Reel.

Christ, shackled to a stone, is being scourged by Roman soldiers. Blood runs down his gory back. His pain is palpable.
 
Jesus: [writhes in pain, hands shaking]
 
[Cell phone rings.]
 
Jesus: [hands shake furiously]
 
[Cell phone rings. Caviezel looks up, sheepish.]
 
Roman soldier: Jim? That you?
 
Jesus: Yeah.
 
[Cell phone rings.]
 
Soldier: Want me to get it?
 
Jesus: Yeah.
 
[Roman soldier gingerly reaches into Caviezel’s blood-soaked loincloth, pulls out phone and opens it, then holds the phone to Caviezel’s ear.]
 
Off Camera: [laughter]
 
Jesus: Hey, Mom.
 

Are there more in this genre? If so, please share!

Beware the lessons of growing up Galapagos

In All the old rules about movie stardom are broken, part of Slate's 2017 Movie Club year end review, Amy Nicholson writes:

Lugging my $10 masterpiece back to the hotel, I thought about how most of the famous faces who represent the movies have been dead for 50 years. Marilyn’s smile sells shot glasses, clocks, calendars, posters, and shirts in stores from Sunset Boulevard to Buenos Aires, Tijuana to Taiwan. What modern actor could earn a seat at her table? The biggest stars of my lifetime—Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage, Sandra Bullock—never graduated past magazine covers to souvenir magnets.

If Hollywood played by its old rules, I, Tonya’s Margot Robbie and Call Me by Your Name’s Armie Hammer should be huge stars. They’re funny, smart, self-aware, charismatic, and freakishly attractive. Yet, they feel like underdogs, and I’m trying to figure out why. Robbie has made intelligent choices. Her scene-stealing introduction as Leonardo DiCaprio’s trophy wife in Wolf of Wall Street. Her classic romantic caper with Will Smith in the underseen trifle, Focus. She even survived Suicide Squad with her dignity intact. In I, Tonya, she can’t outskate being miscast as Tonya Harding, but bless her heart for trying. As for Hammer, Kameron, your review of Call Me by Your Name called him, “royally handsome,” which seems right. He’s as ridiculously perfect as a cartoon prince, and I loved how Luca Guadagnino made a joke of how outlandish the 6-foot-5 blond looks in the Italian countryside. Whether he’s unfurling himself from a tiny Fiat or stopping conversation with his gangly dance moves, he can’t blend in—and good on him and Guadagnino for embracing it.
 

But even if Robbie and Hammer each claim an Oscar nomination this year, I suspect they’ll stay stalled out in this strange time when great actors are simply supporting players in a superhero franchise. I’m fascinated by Robbie and Hammer because they’re like fossils of some alpha carnivore that should have thrived. Does anyone else feel like the tectonic plates under Hollywood have shifted and we’re now staring at the evidence that everything we know is extinct? It’s not just that the old rules have changed—no new rules have replaced them. No one seems to know what works.

Nicholson goes on to cite Will Smith, who once had huge hits seemingly with every movie he made and who is now on a long cold streak.

I'm wary of all conclusions drawn about media in the scarcity age, including the idea that people went to see movies because of movie stars. It's not that Will Smith isn't charismatic. He is. But I suspect Will Smith was in a lot of hits in the age of scarcity in large part because there weren't a lot of other entertainment options vying for people's attention when Independence Day or something of its ilk came out, like clockwork, to launch the summer blockbuster season.

The same goes for the general idea that any one star was ever the chief engine for a film's box office. If the idea that people go see a movie just to see any one star was never actually true, we can stop holding the modern generation of movie stars to an impossible standard.

The same mistake, I think, is being made about declining NFL ratings. Owners blame players kneeling for the national anthem, but here's my theory: in an age of infinite content, NFL games measure up poorly as entertainment, especially for a generation that grew up with smartphones and no cable TV and thus little exposure to American football. If I weren't in two fantasy football leagues with friends and coworkers, I would not have watched a single game this season, and that's a Leftovers-scale flash-forward twist for a kid who once recorded the Superbowl Shuffle to cassette tape off a local radio broadcast just to practice the lyrics.

If you disregard any historical romantic notions and examine the typical NFL football game, it is mostly dead time (if you watch a cut-down version of a game using Sunday Ticket, only about 30 minutes of a 3 to 3.5 hr game involves actual game action), with the majority of plays involving action of only incremental consequence, whose skill and strategy on display are opaque to most viewers and which are explained poorly by a bunch of middle-aged white men who know little about how to sell the romance of the game to a football neophyte. Several times each week, you might see a player hit so hard that they lie on the ground motionless, or with their hands quivering, foreshadowing a lifetime of pain, memory loss, and depression brought on by irreversible brain damage. If you tried to pitch that show concept just on its structural merits you'd be laughed out of the room in Hollywood.

Cultural products must regenerate themselves for each successive age and generation or risk becoming like opera or the symphony is today. I had season tickets to the LA Phil when I lived in Los Angeles, and I brought a friend to the season opener one year. A reporter actually stopped us as we walked out to interview us about why we were there, so mysterious it was to see two attendees who weren't old enough to have been contemporaries of the composer of the music that night (Mahler).

Yes, football has been around for decades, but most of those were in an age of entertainment scarcity. During that time the NFL capitalized on being the only game in town on Sundays, capturing an audience that passed on the game and its liturgies to their children. Football resembles a religion or any other cultural social network; humans being a tribal creature, we find products that satisfy that need, and what are professional sports leagues but an alliance of clans who band together for the network effects of ritual tribal warfare?

Because of its long incubation in an era of low entertainment competition, the NFL built up massive distribution power and enormous financial coffers. That it is a cultural product transmitted by one generation to the next through multiple channels means it's not entirely fair to analyze it independent of its history; cultural products have some path dependence.

Nevertheless, even if you grant it all its tailwinds, I don't trust a bunch of rich old white male owners who grew up in such favorable monopolistic conditions to both understand and adapt in time to rescue the NFL from continued decline in cultural relevance. They are like tortoises who grew up in the Galapagos Islands, shielded on all sides from predators by the ocean, who one day see the moat dry up, connecting them all of a sudden to other continents where an infinite variety of fast-moving predators dwell. I'm not sure the average NFL owner could unlock an iPhone X, let alone understand the way its product moves through modern cultural highways.

Other major sports leagues are in the same boat though most aren't as oblivious as the NFL. The NBA has an open-minded commissioner in Adam Silver and some younger owners who made their money in technology and at least have one foot in modernity. As a sport, the NBA has some structural advantages over other sports (for example, player faces are visible rather than hidden under helmets), but the league also helps by allowing highlights of games to be clipped and shared on social media and by encouraging its players to cultivate more authentic public personas that act as additional narrative fodder for audiences.

I remember sitting in a meeting with some NFL representatives as they outlined a long list of their restrictions for how their televised games could be remixed and shared by fans on social media. Basically, they wanted almost none of it and would pursue take-downs through all the major social media companies.

Make no mistake, one possible successful strategy in this age of abundant media is to double down on scarcity. It's often the optimal strategy for extracting the maximum revenue from a motivated customer segment. Taylor Swift and other such unicorns can only release their albums on CD for a window to maximize financial return from her superfans before releasing the album on streaming services, straight from the old media windowing playbook.

However, you'd better be damn sure your product is unique and compelling to dial up that tactic because the far greater risk in the age of abundance is that you put up walls around your content and set up a bouncer at the door and no one shows up because there are dozens of free clubs all over town with no cover charge.

Sports have long had one massive advantage in production costs over scripted entertainment like TV and movies, and that is that their narrative engine is a random number generator (RNG). If you want to produce the next hot streaming series, you have to pay millions of dollars to showrunners and writers to generate some narrative.

In sports, the narrative is embedded in the rules of the game. Some players will compete, and someone will win. It's the same script replayed every night, but the RNG produces infinite variations that then spin off infinite variations of the same narratives for why a game turned out one way or the other, just as someone has to make up a story every day to explain why the stock market went up or down. At last check, RNG hadn't found representation with CAA or WME or UTA and thus its services remain free.

Unfortunately for major sports, this advantage is now a weakness as sports narrative is much more brittle than its entertainment counterparts. Narrative is a hedge against disaggregation and unbundling, and that is a critical moat in this age of social media and the internet.

One way to measure entertainment value on this dimension is to ask whether you can read a summary of a narrative and enjoy it almost as much as consuming the original narrative in its native medium. My classic test of this is for movies and TV shows. If you can enjoy a movie just as much by reading the Wikipedia plot summary as by watching it, or if you can enjoy a TV shows almost as much by reading a recap than by bingeing it on your sofa, then it wasn't really that great a movie or TV show to begin with.

Instead of watching the entire last season of Game of Thrones when it returns in 2019, I offer you the alternative of just reading textual recaps to your hearts content online. Is that as enticing an alternative as actually watching all six or seven episodes? You'll ingest all the plot details either way, but for the vast majority of fans this would be a gut-wrenching downgrade.

My other test of narrative value is a variant of the previous compression test. Can you enjoy something just as much by just watching a tiny fraction of the best moments? If so, the narrative is brittle. If you can watch just the last scene of a movie and get most or all the pleasure of watching the whole thing, the narrative didn't earn your company for the journey.

Much more of sports fails this second test than many sports fans realize. I can watch highlights of most games on ESPN or HouseofHighlights on Instagram and extract most of the entertainment marrow and cultural capital of knowing what happened without having to sit through three hours of mostly commercials and dead time. That a game can be unbundled so easily into individual plays and retain most of its value to me might be seen as a good thing in the age of social media, but it's not ideal for the sports leagues if those excerpts are mostly viewed outside paywalls.

This is the bind for major sports leagues. On the one hand, you can try to keep all your content inside the paywall. On the other hand, doing so probably means you continue hemorrhaging  cultural share. This is the eternal dilemma for all media companies in the age of infinite content.

Two nights ago, I watched a clip of multiple angles of Tua Tagovailoa ripping a laser beam of a pass to win the National Championship for Alabama. I didn't watch it live, or on ESPN. I watched it on HouseofHighlights on Instagram, where, instead of hearing some anchor on Sportscenter basically tell me what I can see with my own eyes, the video spins around after a moment to reveal the stunned face of the fan who just witnessed the pass live, reaction videos being a new sort of genre which allows a person in the video to act as the emoji reaction caption from within the video itself, speaking a visual language that most young people of this YouTube/Snapchat generation are already familiar with but which traditional media doesn't notice, let alone grok.

This disaggregation problem extends to ESPN, currently still the 400 pound gorilla in the sports media jungle (reminder, there are no 800 lb gorillas). The network suspended Jemele Hill for tweeting something negative about Trump, using the same playbook as the NFL, who threatened players with suspension for kneeling for the national anthem. Both believed these actions on the part of their talent were harming the value of their product.

The irony is that if both ESPN and the NFL had let these things play out naturally, I suspect at worst it would have been neutral, and at best it might have increased their ratings. For the NFL, the ties to modern movements for social justice might have kept the league and its games in the national conversation and made it tangentially relevant to the next generation. The most culturally relevant bit of Sportscenter today may just be the Sportscenter Top 10, as athletes who make a stunning play routinely tell reporters they are excited to see if they'll be featured on that evening's roundup of the top 10 plays.

Unfortunately, many athletes already see an appearance in HouseofHighlights as the social media alternative to appearing in the Sportscenter Top 10. If you follow top athletes on Instagram, you can see which of them favorite posts on HouseofHighlights. Lebron James routinely favorites posts, as do many other stars. Since many of those athletes follow each other on Instagram, that feature of Instagram produces common knowledge. It's not just that Donovan Mitchell knows that Lebron James favorited a HouseofHighlights clip of him dunking, it's that Mitchell knows that James knows that Mitchell knows and so on.

For ESPN, hewing to the idea that only highlights presented dispassionately or games broadcast respectfully are key to their value is a risky one. Not that they haven't generated a ton of wealth from doing so, and not that TV broadcast rights to major sports aren't still extremely valuable, but those are much more fixed commodities, available to the highest bidder, and ones whose value are close to their peaks, if not past them. This can't be a complete surprise within the four walls of their corporate offices given how much salary and air time they devote to blowhards like Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless, but their hesitance to lean into cultivating more original voices will haunt them in the long run. The average caption on an Instagram clip of a major sports league highlight is about twice as likely to be fresh and contextually humorous to a young person than any amount of generic sportscaster hooey spouted on ESPN.

This vulnerability extends to their online presences. I still visit ESPN.com on the web and on my mobile devices to get my sports news roundup each day, but sometime in the past few years, the designs of all these presences shifted dramatically. Gone was a hierarchical layout with different sized headlines and groupings of stories. In its place is a long center gutter of updates from a variety of sports leagues, in modern news feed style.

One can see why they went this way, it made ESPN more current, allowing them to push the latest stories to the top of the page to compete with people getting more current updates from Twitter and other social media sites. For a smartphone, in particular, with its limited screen space, it's not easy to block content into multiple sections on one page.

However, the moment you copy someone else's design, you've shifted the terms of the debate in their favor. In a previous era, ESPN's visually distinct information hierarchy set itself up as the authority on what stories mattered. In the new design, what matters skews towards what's the last thing to happen. It's all flow.

To some extent, in our hyper-personalized world, the era of any media entity deciding what stories matter more than others was always going to decline from what might be seen now as a temporary heyday. I care more about Chicago sports teams and Stanford given my background, so having those elements given more prominence was a notable improvement in the site's newly personalized design. Still, what is lost is that sense of authority, that ESPN sets the terms of the debate. Humans remain a social animal, and we take cues about what matters from our each other, including our media entities. ESPN has ceded more and more of the work of determining our sports Schelling points to other entities.

While this may sound grim, the major sports, their respective leagues, and ESPN all have a fairly solid near term window. For one thing, sports is still the highest volume, highest popularity real-time entertainment. As such, it remains a linchpin of many entertainment packages including cable bundles, and so we'll see various media companies pouring money into it until it can't hold things together anymore. We may even see the prices bid even higher for some time as often happens for assets being milked for their last but fleeting window of cultural scarcity.

A second and less discussed factor is that most young tech CEO's don't know the first thing about sports. They, like a sizable part of Silicon Valley (the group that tweets #sportsball whenever Twitter is inundated with reactions to some notable sports event), grew up with other interests. Without that intuitive sense of sports' place in culture, they aren't as attuned to the opportunities in that category.

This provides the leagues opportunities to swindle the tech companies for a while longer, an example being the rights to stream Thursday Night Football, which a series of tech companies from Yahoo to Twitter to Amazon have (probably) overpaid for the last few seasons. As Patrick Stewart said in L.A. Story, "You think with a statement like this you can have the duck?!" The chef says, "He can have the chicken!" Thursday Night Football is zee chicken of the NFL broadcast portfolio, but the restaurant is still called L'Idiot.

This happened for tech companies when they tried to add film and television to their portfolio, too. They routinely paid fortunes for the rights to back seasons of shows that are no longer relevant anymore. When I was at Hulu, I could only shake my head when I heard the asking price for all the back seasons of Seinfeld. Years later, long after I'd left, Hulu paid multiples of that. The cultural decay curve for content in this age of abundance is accelerating by the day, and there is no equivalent of botox to ward it off.

Given market feedback, however, such temporary arbitrage never lasts long. The days of the NFL strong-arming its partners to overpay for the most meager of rights are coming to an end. The thing about setting up a moat around your content is that the moment your cultural value crosses its peak, the moat becomes a set of prison bars. The flywheel loop can turn just as furiously counter-clockwise as clockwise.

And one of these days, a tech company will look at ESPN's homepage and notice how much it looks like their own. If they just put a bit more structure around it, could they satisfy that sports itch for their captive audience which already check in with them multiple times a day?

It seems implausible today, but look at what happened in film and television. For the longest time, so many tech companies were guilty of exactly what Hollywood accused them of, not understanding how film and television is made and marketed, how that industry creates demand for its product. Like all engineering led-cultures, Silicon Valley suspected Hollywood of not being data-driven enough, and many suspected that upstream process failures were responsible for failed releases. Half a film's budget is spent on prints and marketing? What a waste! (Engineers despise marketing.)

Forget that most of these people in tech had never been on a film set, or sat inside a writer's room, or seen the volumes of market research done before any film's release. It's all just content, let's just crowd source some alternatives. Or, if we produce some premium content, what's needed is earlier crowd-sourced feedback. Hundreds of millions of dollars were wasted before Silicon Valley realized they didn't know what they were doing.

Fortunately, all it cost them was some money and some time, something most of the incumbents have a surplus of. Now they write checks to creatives in Hollywood and leave them alone to do what they do very well already. Machine learning improves with data even when the algorithms are off, and so do most tech companies.

I am a lifelong lover of media in all its forms, and sports in particular was central to how I assimilated into America. It has long served as cultural connective tissue between me and friends, family, and strangers. But if I had an easy way to short all the major sports leagues over the next decade, I would. Nostalgia serves many purposes, but its most dangerous one is wrapping us in a memory of a time when we were still relevant.

10 more browser tabs

Still trying to clear out browser tabs, though it's going about as well as my brief flirtation with inbox zero. At some point, I just decided inbox zero was a waste of time, solving a problem that didn't exist, but browser tab proliferation is a problem I'm much more complicit in.

1. Why the coming-of-age narrative is a conformist lie

From a more sociological perspective, the American self-creation myth is, inherently, a capitalist one. The French philosopher Michel Foucault theorised that meditating and journalling could help to bring a person inside herself by allowing her, at least temporarily, to escape the world and her relationship to it. But the sociologist Paul du Gay, writing on this subject in 1996, argued that few people treat the self as Foucault proposed. Most people, he said, craft outward-looking ‘enterprising selves’ by which they set out to acquire cultural capital in order to move upwards in the world, gain access to certain social circles, certain jobs, and so on. We decorate ourselves and cultivate interests that reflect our social aspirations. In this way, the self becomes the ultimate capitalist machine, a Pierre Bourdieu-esque nightmare that willingly exploits itself.
 
‘Growing up’ as it is defined today – that is, as entering society, once and for all – might work against what is morally justifiable. If you are a part of a flawed, immoral and unjust society (as one could argue we all are) then to truly mature is to see this as a problem and to act on it – not to reaffirm it by becoming a part of it. Classically, most coming-of-age tales follow white, male protagonists because their integration into society is expected and largely unproblematic. Social integration for racial, sexual and gender minorities is a more difficult process, not least because minorities define themselves against the norm: they don’t ‘find themselves’ and integrate into the social context in which they live. A traditional coming-of-age story featuring a queer, black girl will fail on its own terms; for how would her discovering her identity allow her to enter a society that insists on marginalising identities like hers? This might seem obvious, but it very starkly underscores the folly of insisting on seeing social integration as the young person’s top priority. Life is a wave of events. As such, you don’t come of age; you just age. Adulthood, if one must define it, is only a function of time, in which case, to come of age is merely to live long enough to do so.
 

I've written about this before, but almost always, the worst type of film festival movie is about a young white male protagonist coming of age. Often he's quiet, introverted, but he has a sensitive soul. As my first year film school professor said, these protagonists are inert, but they just "feel things." Think Wes Bentley in American Beauty filming a plastic bag dancing in the wind for fifteen minutes with a camcorder, then showing it to a girl as if it's Citizen Kane.

If they have any scars or wounds, they are compensated for with extreme gifts. Think Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver; cursed with tinnitus since childhood, he listens to music on a retro iPod (let's squeeze some nostalgic product placement in here, what the hell, we're also going to give him a deaf black foster father to stack the moral cards in his favor, might as well go all the way) and is, that's right, the best getaway driver in the business.

Despite having about as much personality as a damp elephant turd, their beautiful souls are both recognized and extracted by a trope which this genre of film invented just for this purpose, the manic pixie dream girl.

[Nathan Rabin, who invented the term manic pixie dream girl, has since disavowed the term as sometimes misogynist, and it can be applied too broadly like a hammer seeking nails, but it doesn't undo the reality that largely white male writing blocs, from guilds to writer's rooms, aren't great at writing women or people of color with deep inner lives.]

This is tangential to the broader point, that the coming-of-age story as a genre is, in and of itself, a lie. It reminds me of the distinction between Finite and Infinite Games, the classic book from James Carse. The Hollywood film has always promised a finite game, and thus it's a story that must have an ending. Coming-of-age is an infinite game, or at least until death, and so we should all be skeptical of its close-ended narrative.

(h/t Michael Dempsey)

2. Finite and Infinite Games and The Confederate

This isn't a browser tab, really, but while I'm on the topic of Carse's Finite and Infinite Games, a book which provides a framework with which so much of the world can be bifurcated, and while I'm thinking about the white male dominated Hollywood profession, I can't help but think of the TV project The Confederate, by the showrunners of Game of Thrones.

"White people” is seen by many whites as a pejorative because it lowers them to a racial class whereas before they were simply the default. They are not accustomed to having spent their entire lives being named in almost every piece of culture as a race, the way women, people of color, and the union of the two are, every single day, by society and culture.

All Lives Matter retort to Black Lives Matter is to pretend that we're all playing the same finite game when almost everyone who are losers in that game know it is not true. Blacks do not feel like they “won” the Civil War; every day today they live with the consequences and the shadow of America's founding racism, every day they continue to play a game that is rigged against them. That is why Ta Nehisi Coates writes that the question of The Confederate is a lie, and that only the victors of this finite game of America would want to relitigate the Civil War in some Alt History television show for HBO. It's as if a New England Patriot fan asked an Atlanta Falcons fan to watch last year's Super Bowl again, with Armie Hammer playing Tom Brady.

“Give us your poor, your huddled” is a promise that the United States is an infinite game, an experiment that struggles constantly towards bettering itself, evening the playing field, such that even someone starting poor and huddled might one day make a better life and escape their beginning state. That is why Stephen Miller and other white nationalists spitting on that inscription on the Statue of Liberty is so offensive, so dangerous.

On society, Carse writes:

The prizes won by its citizens can be protected only if the society as a whole remains powerful in relation to other societies. Those who desire the permanence of their prizes will work to sustain the permanence of the whole. Patriotism in one or several of its many forms (chauvinism, racism, sexism, nationalism, regionalism) is an ingredient in all societal play. 
 
Because power is inherently patriotic, is is characteristic of finite players to seek a growth of power in a society as a way of increasing the power of a society.
 

Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the National Anthem is seen as unpatriotic by many in America, including the wealthy white owners of such teams, which is not surprising, as racism is a form of patriotism, per Carse, and part and parcel of American society when defined as a finite game.

Donald Trump and his large adult sons are proof of just how powerful the inheritance of title and money are in America, and the irony that they are elected by those who feel that successive rounds of finite games have started to be rigged against them is not lost on anyone, not even, I suspect, them. One could argue they need to take a lesson from those oppressed for far longer as to how a turn to nihilism works out in such situations.

Those attacking Affirmative Action want to close off the American experiment and turn it into a series of supposedly level finite games because they have accumulated a healthy lead in this game and wish to preserve it in every form.

White nationalists like Trump all treat America as not just a finite game, but a zero sum finite game. The idea of immigrants being additive to America, to its potential, its output, is to treat America as an infinite game, open-ended. The truth lies, as usual, between the poles, but closer to the latter.

Beware the prophet who comes with stories of zero-sum games, or as Jim Collins once wrote, beware the "tyranny of the or." One of my definitions of leadership is the ability to turn zero-sum into positive sum games.

3. Curb Your Enthusiasm is Running Out of People to Offend

Speaking of fatigue with white male protagonists:

But if Larry David’s casual cruelty mirrors the times more than ever, the show might still fit awkwardly in the current moment. Watching the première of Season 9 on Sunday night, I kept thinking of a popular line from George Costanza, David’s avatar on “Seinfeld”: “You know, we’re living in a society!” Larry, in this first episode of the season, seems to have abandoned society altogether. In the opening shot, the camera sails over a tony swath of L.A., with no people and only a few cars visible amid the manicured lawns and terra-cotta roofs. It descends on Larry’s palatial, ivy-walled house, where he showers alone, singing Mary Poppins’s “A Spoonful of Sugar” and bludgeoning a bottle of soap. (Its dispenser pump is broken—grounds for execution under the David regime.) He’s the master of his domain, yes, but only by default: no one else is around.
 
“Curb” has always felt insulated, and a lot of its best jokes are borne of the fact that Larry’s immense wealth has warped his world view over the years. (On the most recent season he had no compunction about spending a princely sum on Girl Scout Cookies, only to rescind the order out of spite.) But the beginning of Season 9 offers new degrees of isolation. Like a tech bro ensconced in a hoodie and headphones, Larry seems to have removed himself almost entirely from public life. Both “Curb” and “Seinfeld” like to press the limits of etiquette and social mores, but the latter often tested these on subway cars and buses, in parks or on the street. Much of “Curb,” by contrast, unfolds in a faceless Los Angeles of air-conditioned mansions, organic restaurants, and schmoozy fund-raisers, a long chain of private spaces. The only time Larry encounters a true stranger, it’s in the liminal zone between his car and the lobby of Jeff’s office. She’s a barber on her way to see Jeff at work—even haircuts happen behind closed doors now.
 

Groundhog Day, one of the great movies, perhaps my favorite Christmas movie of all time, has long been regarded a great Buddhist parable

Groundhog Day is a movie about a bad-enough man—selfish, vain, and insecure—who becomes wise and good through timeless recurrence.
 

If that is so, then Curb Your Enthusiasm is its dark doppelganger, a parable about the dark secret at the heart of American society, that no person, no matter how selfish, vain, and petty, can suffer the downfall necessary to achieve enlightenment, if he is white and a man. 

In this case, he is a successful white man in Hollywood, Larry David, and each episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm is his own personal Groundhog Day. Whereas Bill Murray wakes up each morning to Sonny and Cher, trapped in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, around small town people he dislikes, in a job he feels superior to, Larry David wakes up each morning in his Los Angeles mansion, with rewards seemingly only proportionate to the depths of his pettiness and ill humor. Every episode, he treats all the friends and family around him with little disguised disdain, and yet the next episode, he wakes up in the mansion again.

Whereas Bill Murray eventually realizes the way to break out of his loop is to use it for self-improvement, Larry David seems to be striving to fall from grace by acting increasingly terrible and yet finds himself back in the gentle embrace of his high thread count sheets every morning.

Curb Your Enthusiasm has its moments of brilliance in its minute dissection of the sometimes illogical and perhaps fragile bonds of societal goodwill, and its episode structure is often exceedingly clever, but I can't help watching it now as nothing more than an acerbic piece of performance art, with all the self absorption that implies.

Larry David recently complained about the concept of first world problems, which is humorous, as it's difficult to think of any single person who has done as precise a job educating the world on what they are.

[What about Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K., you might ask? Aren't they Hollywood royalty toppled from lofty, seemingly untouchable perches? The story of how those happened will be the subject of another post, because the mechanics are so illuminating.]

4. Nathan for You

I am through season 2 of Nathan for You, a Comedy Central show that just wrapped its fourth and final season. We have devalued the term LOL with overuse, but no show has made me literally laugh out loud by myself, on the sofa, as this, though I've grinned in pleasure at certain precise bits of stylistic parody of American Vandal.

Nathan Fielder plays a comedic version of himself. In the opening credits, he proclaims:

My name is Nathan Fielder, and I graduated from one of Canada's top business schools with really good grades [NOTE: as he says this, we see a pan over his transcript, showing largely B's and C's]. Now I'm using my knowledge to help struggling small business owners make it in this competitive world.
 

If you cringed while watching a show like Borat or Ali G, if you wince a bit when one of the correspondents on The Daily Show went to interview some stooge, you might believe Nathan For You isn't, well, for you. However, the show continues to surprise me.

For one thing, it's a deeply useful reminder of how difficult it is for physical retailers, especially mom and pop entrepreneurs, to generate foot traffic. That they go along with Fielder's schemes is almost tragic, but more instructive.

For another, while almost every entrepreneur is the straight person to Fielder's clown, I find myself heartened by how rarely one of them just turns him away outright. You can see the struggle on each of their faces, as he presents his idea and then stares at them for an uncomfortably long silence, waiting for them to respond. He never breaks character. Should they just laugh at him, or throw him out in disgust? It almost never happens, though one private investigator does chastise Fielder for being a complete loser.

On Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David's friends openly call him out for his misanthropy, yet they never abandon him. On Nathan For You, small business owners almost never adopt Fielder's ideas at the end of the trial. However, they almost never call him out as ridiculous. Instead, they try the idea with a healthy dose of good nature at least once, or at least enough to capture an episode's worth of material.

In this age of people screaming at each other over social media, I found this reminder of the inherent decency of people in face to face situations comforting and almost reassuring. Sure, some people are unpleasant both online and in person, and some people are pleasant in person and white supremacists in private.

But some people try to see the best in each other, give others the benefit of the doubt, and on such bonds a civil society are maintained. That this piece of high concept art could not fence in the humanity and real emotion of all the people participating, not even that of Fielder, is a bit of pleasure in this age of eye-rolling cynicism.

[Of course, these small business owners are aware a camera is on them, so the Heisenberg Principle of reality television applies. That a show like this, which depend on the subjects not knowing about the show, lasted four full seasons is a good reminder of how little-watched most cultural products are in this age of infinite content.]

BONUS CONTENT NO ONE ASKED FOR: Here is my Nathan for You idea: you know how headline stand-up comedians don't come on stage to perform until several lesser known and usually much lousier comics are trotted out to warm up the crowd? How, if you attend the live studio taping of a late night talk show like The Daily Show or The Tonight Show, some cheesy comic comes out beforehand to get your laugh muscles loose, your vocal chords primed? And when the headliner finally arrives, it comes as sweet relief?

What if there were an online dating service that provided such a warm-up buffoon for you? That is, when you go on a date, before meeting your date, first the service sends in a stand-in who is dull, awkward, a turn off in every way possible? But a few minutes into what seems to be a disastrous date, you suddenly show up and rescue the proceedings?

It sounds ridiculous, but this is just the sort of idea that Nathan for You would seem to go for. I haven't watched seasons 3 and 4 yet, so if he does end up trying this idea in one of those later episodes, please don't spoil it for me. I won't even be mad that my idea was not an original one, I'll be so happy to see actual footage of it in the field.

5. The aspect ratio of 2:00 to 1 is everywhere

I first read the case for 2:00 to 1 as an aspect ratio when legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro advocated for it several years ago. He anticipated a world where most movies would have a longer life viewed on screens at home than in movie theaters, and 2:00 to 1, or Univisium, is halfway between the typical 16:9 HDTV aspect ratio and Panavision, or 2:35 to 1.

So many movies and shows use 2:00 to 1 now, and I really prefer it to 16:9 for most work.

6. Tuning AIs through captchas

Most everyone has probably encountered the new popular captcha which displays a grid of photos and asks you to identify which contain a photo of a store front. I just experienced it recently signing up for HQTrivia. This breed of captcha succeeds the wave of captchas that showed photos of short strings of text or numbers and asked you to type in what you saw, helping to train AIs trying to learn to read them. There are variants of the store front captcha: some ask you to identify vehicles, others to identify street signs, but the speculation is that Google uses these to train the "vision" of its self-driving cars.

AI feels like magic when it works, but underrated is the slow slog to take many AI's from stupid to competent. It's no different than training a human. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to being presented with the captcha that shows two photos, one of a really obese man, the other of five school children, with this question above them: "If you had to run over and kill the people in one of these photos, which would you choose?"

7. It's Mikaela Shiffrin profile season, with this one in Outside and this in the New Yorker

I read Elizabeth Weil's profile of Shiffrin in Outside first:

But the naps: Mikaela not only loves them, she’s fiercely committed to them. Recovery is the most important part of training! And sleep is the most important part of recovery! And to be a champion, you need a steadfast loyalty to even the tiniest and most mundane points. Mikaela will nap on the side of the hill. She will nap at the start of the race. She will wake up in the morning, she tells me after the gym, at her house, while eating some pre-nap pasta, “and the first thought I’ll have is: I cannot wait for my nap today. I don’t care what else happens. I can’t wait to get back in bed.”
 
Mikaela also will not stay up late, and sometimes she won’t do things in the after­noon, and occasionally this leads to more people flipping out. Most of the time, she trains apart from the rest of the U.S. Ski Team and lives at home with her parents in Vail (during the nine weeks a year she’s not traveling). In the summers, she spends a few weeks in Park City, Utah, training with her teammates at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Center of Excellence. The dynamic there is, uh, complicated. “Some sports,” Mikaela says, “you see some athletes just walking around the gym, not really doing anything, eating food. They’re first to the lunchroom, never lifting weights.”
 

By chance, I happened to be reading The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills by Daniel Coyle, and had just read tips that sounded very familiar to what was mentioned here.

More echoes of Coyle's book in The New Yorker profile:

My presumption was that her excellence was innate. One sometimes thinks of prodigies as embodiments of peculiar genius, uncorrupted by convention, impossible to replicate or reëngineer. But this is not the case with Shiffrin. She’s as stark an example of nurture over nature, of work over talent, as anyone in the world of sports. Her parents committed early on to an incremental process, and clung stubbornly to it. And so Shiffrin became something besides a World Cup hot shot and a quadrennial idol. She became a case study. Most parents, unwittingly or not, present their way of raising kids as the best way, even when the results are mixed, as such results usually are. The Shiffrins are not shy about projecting their example onto the world, but it’s hard to argue with their findings. “The kids with raw athletic talent rarely make it,” Jeff Shiffrin, Mikaela’s father, told me. “What was it Churchill said? Kites fly higher against a headwind.”
 

So it wasn't a real surprise to finally read this:

The Shiffrins were disciples of the ten-thousand-hours concept; the 2009 Daniel Coyle book “The Talent Code” was scripture. They studied the training methods of the Austrians, Alpine skiing’s priesthood. The Shiffrins wanted to wring as much training as possible out of every minute of the day and every vertical foot of the course. They favored deliberate practice over competition. They considered race days an onerous waste: all the travel, the waiting around, and the emotional stress for two quick runs. They insisted that Shiffrin practice honing her turns even when just skiing from the bottom of the racecourse to the chairlift. Most racers bomb straight down, their nonchalance a badge of honor.
 

Coyle's book, which I love for its succinct style (it could almost be a tweetstorm if Twitter had slightly longer character limits, each tip is averages one or two paragraphs long), is the books I recommend to all parents who want their kids to be really great at something, and not just sports.

Much of the book is about the importance of practice, and what types of practice are particularly efficient and effective.

Jeff Shiffrin said, “One of the things I learned from the Austrians is: every turn you make, do it right. Don’t get lazy, don’t goof off. Don’t waste any time. If you do, you’ll be retired from racing by the time you get to ten thousand hours.”
 
“Here’s the thing,” Mikaela told me one day. “You can’t get ten thousand hours of skiing. You spend so much time on the chairlift. My coach did a calculation of how many hours I’ve been on snow. We’d been overestimating. I think we came up with something like eleven total hours of skiing on snow a year. It’s like seven minutes a day. Still, at the age of twenty-two, I’ve probably had more time on snow than most. I always practice, even on the cat tracks or in those interstitial periods. My dad says, ‘Even when you’re just stopping, be sure to do it right, maintaining a good position, with counter-rotational force.’ These are the kinds of things my dad says, and I’m, like, ‘Shut up.’ But if you say it’s seven minutes a day, then consider that thirty seconds that all the others spend just straight-lining from the bottom of the racecourse to the bottom of the lift: I use that part to work on my turns. I’m getting extra minutes. If I don’t, my mom or my coaches will stop me and say something.”
 

Bill Simmons recently hosted Steve Kerr for a mailbag podcast, and part I is fun to hear Kerr tell stories about Michael Jordan. Like so many greats, Jordan understood that the contest is won in the sweat leading up to the contest, and his legendary competitiveness elevated every practice and scrimmage into gladiatorial combat. As Kerr noted, Jordan single-handedly was a cure for complacency for the Bulls. 

He famously broke down some teammates with such intensity in practice that they were driven from the league entirely (remember Rodney McCray?). Everyone knows he once punched Steve Kerr and left him with a shiner during a heated practice. The Dream Team scrimmage during the lead in to the 1992 Olympics, in which the coaches made Michael Jordan one captain, Magic Johnson the other, is perhaps the single sporting event I most wish had taken place in the age of smartphones and social media.

What struck me about the Shiffrin profiles, something Coyle notes about the greats, is how many of the lives of the great ones are unusually solitary, spent in deliberate practice on their own, apart from teammates. It's obviously amplified for individual sports like tennis and skiing and golf, but even for team sports, the great ones have their own routines. Not only is it lonely at the top, it's often lonely on the way there.

8. The secret tricks hidden inside restaurant menus

Perhaps because I live in the Bay Area, it feels as if the current obsession is with the dark design patterns and effects of social apps. But in the scheme of things, many other fields whose work we interact with daily have many more years of experience designing to human nature. In many ways, people designing social media have a very naive and incomplete view of human nature, but the power of the distribution of ubiquitous smartphone and network effects have elevated them to the forefront of the conversation.

Take a place like Las Vegas. Its entire existence is testament to the fact that the house always wins, yet it could not exist if it could not convince the next sucker to sit down at the table and see the next hand. The decades of research into how best to part a sucker from his wallet makes the volume of research among social media companies look like a joke, even if the latter isn't trivial.

I have a sense that social media companies are similar to where restaurants are with menu design. Every time I sit down at a new restaurant, I love examining the menus and puzzling over all the choices with fellow diners, as if having to sit with me over a meal isn't punishment enough. When the waiter comes and I ask for an overview of the menu, and recommendations, I'm wondering what dishes the entire experience is meant to nudge me to order.

I'm awaiting the advent of digital and eventually holographic or A/R menus to see what experiments we'll see. When will we have menus that are personalized? Based on what you've enjoyed here and other restaurants, we think you'll love this dish. When will we see menus that use algorithmic sorting—these are the most ordered dishes all-time, this week, today? People who ordered this also ordered this? When will see editorial endorsements? "Pete Wells said of this dish in his NYTimes review..."

Not all movies are worth deep study because not all movies are directed with intent. The same applies to menus, but today, enough menus are put through a deliberate design process that it's usually a worthwhile exercise to put them under the magnifying glass. I would love to read some blog that just analyzes various restaurant menus, so if someone starts one, please let me know.

9. Threat of bots and cheating looms as HQ Trivia reaches new popularity heights

When I first checked out HQ Trivia, an iOS live video streaming trivia competition for cash prizes, the number of concurrent viewers playing, displayed on the upper left of the screen, numbered in the hundreds. Now the most popular of games, which occur twice a day, attract over 250K players. In this age where we've seen empires built on exploiting the efficiencies to be gained from shifting so much of social intimacy to asynchronous channels, it's fun to be reminded of the unique fun of synchronous entertainment.

What intrigues me is not how HQ Trivia will make money. The free-to-play game industry is one of the most savvy when it comes to extracting revenue, and even something like podcasts points the way to monetizing popular media with sponsorships, product placement, etc.

What's far more interesting is where the shoulder on the S-curve is. Trivia is a game of skill, and with that comes two longstanding issues. I've answered, at most, 9 questions in a row, and it takes 12 consecutive right answers to win a share of the cash pot. I'm like most people in probably never being able to win any cash.

This is an issue faced by Daily Fantasy Sports, where the word "fantasy" is the most important word. Very soon after they became popular, DFS were overrun by sharks submitting hundreds or thousands of lineups with the aid of computer programs, and some of those sharks worked for the companies themselves. The "fantasy" being sold is that the average person has a chance of winning.

As noted above in my comment about Las Vegas, it's not impossible to sell people on that dream. The most beautiful of cons is one the mark willingly participates in. People participate in negative expected value activities all the time, like the lottery, and carnival games, and often they're aware they'll lose. Some people just participate for the fun of it, and a free-to-play trivia game costs a player nothing other than some time, even if the expected value is close to zero.

A few people have asked me whether that live player count is real, and I'm actually more intrigued by the idea it isn't. Fake it til you make it is one of the most popular refrains of not just Silicon Valley but entrepreneurs everywhere. What if HQ Trivia just posted a phony live player count of 1 million tomorrow? Would their growth accelerate even more than it has recently? What about 10 million? When does the marginal return to every additional player in that count go negative because people feel that there is so much competition it's not worth it? Or is the promise of possibly winning money besides the point? What if the pot scaled commensurate to the number of players; would it become like the lottery? Massive pots but long odds?

The other problem, linked to the element of skill, is cheating. As noted in the article linked above, and in this piece about the spike in Google searches for answers during each of the twice-a-day games, cheating is always a concern in games, especially as the monetary rewards increase. I played the first game when HQ Trivia had a $7,500 cash pot, and the winners each pocketed something like $575 and change. Not a bad payout for something like 10 minutes of fun.

Online poker, daily fantasy sports, all are in constant battle with bots and computer-generated entries. Even sports books at casinos have to wage battle with sharks who try to get around betting caps by sending in all sorts of confederates to put down wagers on their behalf.

I suspect both of these issues will be dampeners on the game's prospects, but more so the issue of skill. I already find myself passing on games when I'm not with others who also play or who I can rope into playing with me. That may be the game's real value, inspiring communal bonding twice a day among people in the same room.

People like to quip that pornography is the tip of the spear when it comes to driving adoption of new technologies, but I'm partial to trivia. It is so elemental and pure a game, with such comically self-explanatory rules, that it is one of the elemental forms or genres of gaming, just like HQ Trivia host Scott Rogowsky is some paragon of a game-show host, mixing just the right balance of cheesiness and snarkiness and effusiveness needed to convince all the players that any additional irony would be unseemly.

10. Raising a teenage daughter

Speaking of Elizabeth Weil, who wrote the Shiffrin profile for Outside, here's another of her pieces, a profile of her daughter Hannah. The twist is that the piece includes annotations by Hannah after the fact.

It is a delight. The form is perfect for revealing the dimensions of their relationship, and that of mothers and teenage daughters everywhere. In the interplay of their words, we sense truer contours of their love, shaped, as they are, by two sets of hands.

[Note, Esquire has long published annotated profiles, you can Google for them, but they are now all locked behind a paywall]

This format makes me question how many more profiles would benefit from allowing the subject of a piece to annotate after the fact. It reveals so much about the limitations of understanding between two people, the unwitting and witting lies at the heart of journalism, and what Janet Malcolm meant, when she wrote, in the classic opening paragraph of her book The Journalist and the Murderer, "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."

Movies I saw at 2017 TIFF

I went to the Toronto International Film Festival for fun this year. Of the big three festivals, the other two being Sundance and Cannes, Toronto generally has the strongest lineup. It leverages its advantage of being the latest of those in the calendar year and thus gets its pick of movies that played festivals earlier in the year in addition to the late year prestige releases looking to debut to film buffs and industry insiders to kick off their Oscar campaigns.

It's the most comfortable of the festivals I've attended in terms of logistics. The weather is generally pleasant that time of year in the city, and Toronto is a real city, with the surplus of restaurants and public transportation throughput that a ski town like Park City can't match. You'll still find yourself, on occasion, sprinting across town to make the next screening, and the lines can be blocks long, meaning you'll often enter a theater faced with a scrum for open seats, but unlike Sundance you won't have to wade through a snowstorm or flat out miss a screening because the next shuttle has been swallowed by traffic.

For me, TIFF is a meditation, a retreat. In years past, I've had minimal international data plans, so I've mostly left my phone off. This year, I had unlimited data in Canada, but because my schedule was so packed with movies I spent most of my days in the dark, with my phone off, in the company of hundreds of strangers, gazing at massive screens of light. The time change and a mix of films that skews heavier in tone than your typical cineplex lineup meant I found myself, on occasion, drifting off, but the cumulative effect is a sort of trance in which movies, which already work in part at a subconscious level, seem to speak to me in some primal manner that bypasses logic and language.

In the age of long serialized narratives on television, movies retain a deep hold over my heart, more so now for the contrast in how they approach storytelling. The structural constraints of television impose a more rigid framework, and the sheer volume of plot mechanics required to navigate those demands often distract. No one would green light a television series that didn't play that plot-heavy game, however (perhaps with the exception of Twin Peaks, the Return, from what I've heard, as I don't have Showtime and haven't seen it yet).

Movies, at maybe 90 to 120 minutes long, on average, can wear its act structure more loosely by focusing on a shorter narrative, giving itself more room within its architecture to wander in Escher-like loops. A television series has to not only assemble a super structure of a season or multiple seasons but most construct sub structures—episodes—that can stand alone. The job is further complicated if there are commercial breaks, which force scenes of very specific durations and which require a series of cliffhangers that reinforce television's plot heavy rhythm.

[I'll always wonder what Mad Men, one of my favorite shows ever, would've been like on premium cable, without commercial breaks. As it was, Matthew Weiner often pushed against the constraints of the commercial breaks, and the previews for the next episode were famously opaque and almost nonsensical, so little regard did Weiner have for the usual plot teaser tactics of serial television.]

Having gone to enough festivals, however, I also recognize the psychological illusions of the festival structure. In this age of abundance when it comes to entertainment, film festivals are a rare island of enforced scarcity. The number of films on offer is short, each movie usually screens just twice, at fixed times, and the number of tickets is almost always insufficient to meet the demand, especially if big movie stars are involved and might show up in person.

Furthermore, most of the movies haven't played publicly, so information is scant, a few whispers here and there, maybe a stray tweet from someone invited to a private screening during post-production. This artificial scarcity creates the very real phenomenon of festival inflation. Again and again, a movie I was dying to see at a festival but missed will come out at the local cineplex a few months later to a collective yawn from the public, myself included.

Some of the movies below have already released in theaters, to little buzz. This is a general problem in the age of abundance. We no longer have natural scarcity to generate momentum for programs, and for services like Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, not to mention any media company, it's no longer sufficient to just finance and produce content. The question is how to get anyone in the world to care. That's a topic for another day, but seeing movies at a festival is a sort of life hack for me, like seeing art in a beautiful gallery, or sculptures in an outdoor garden like Storm King. It's why a meal plated beautifully, served on an outdoor balcony under the stars on the Amalfi Coast, tastes better than the same food served out of the microwave and eaten in sweats on your sofa.

Much ink is spilled on the quality of the content produced in the world, not enough on the actual user experience around the content. The fundamental attribution error of content ascribes most of the success or failure of any work to its intrinsic quality. In fact, things like presentation, marketing, and distribution have a huge effect, something which tech companies which aspire to be the new studios still overlook, even if their predecessors in Hollywood may not have been as efficient on those fronts as they could have been given the fat on the bone in less competitive times. When all the pomp and circumstance the traditional studios marshal in favor of a single theatrical release can't tip the scales, I wonder if any single film is a good investment for one of these streaming services given their more limited surface area for framing the movie as a cultural event and the high cost per minute of films in general.

Here are my notes on the films I saw at TIFF, with spoilers called out.

Ana, mon amour

This Romanian film, like any which deals with the long-term challenges (impossibility?) of marriage, will be compared to Bergman's masterpiece Scenes from a Marriage. The film begins with one of the first encounters between the couple, a scene that hints at every dynamic to come in their relationship, then proceeds to bounce back and forth in time across the entire span of their life together. The chronological hops, however, do little to temper the deep realism characteristic of much of modern Romanian cinema. In contrast to American film depictions of marriage, Ana, mon amour is almost uncomfortably graphic about the challenges of sustaining a relationship.

I don't know that sequencing of scenes across time always makes sense, I was occasionally confused, but the overall effect of this layering of moments is a deep sense of the immense miracle that is a marriage, how many contortions two people make to intertwine their lives like two trees growing on top of each other. Film generally treats marriage is a finite game, and romantic comedies generally focus on the early game, the courtship, ending with the making of the match.

Real marriage, however, is more of an infinite game, or at least a very long finite game, and movies that confront that reality are a refreshing change, even if most audiences prefer a trip to the movies to be a more reassuring closed end fantasy. Movies like this don't make for strong commercial fare.

Call Me By Your Name

My favorite film from TIFF, I had no idea what it was about going in except that it had gotten raves at Sundance. I didn't even watch the trailer. I won't say much about the film, either, as I hope that most of you are able to discover it as I did, free of any preconception. Don't even read a plot synopsis, if you can help yourself. The pleasure as the movie unfurls its secrets is all the greater if it sneaks up on you, just as certain realizations dawn upon the characters on screen during a languorous Italian summer.

A few thoughts which can either tease the film for you, or which you can revisit after watching the movie:

  • It's a wonder that Armie Hammer didn't get funneled into cape and cowl, but we're richer for it. He has a versatile physical build that has been used in interesting ways in previous films like The Social Network and The Man from UNCLE, and it's used to good effect again here. 
  • A pivotal moment in the movie is beautifully choreographed, a walk around a fountain that conveys, visually, what is being said, or not said, as it may be. The path two characters trace in this scene are both literal and metaphoric. I wish more of television tried interesting blocking, but with directors flying in to knock out one episode at a time it's often an afterthought.
  • Michael Stuhlbarg gives a speech near the end that will give you all the feels, as the kids say. The director said it comes straight from the book, which Casey Newton told me is one of his favorites.
  • One of the comforts of life is learning that someone knows you almost better than you know yourself, and Amira Casar's mother is just one of many who, in a few wordless scenes, shows just how well mothers know their children.
  • Sufjan Stevens contributes two tracks which are perfect for the movie but which I can't locate online yet.

My one reservation about the film is the casting of Armie Hammer as a 24 year old. Though bigots like James Woods see it as morally objectionable (just Google it if you're curious, but it's not worth your time), my objection with the age difference is that it strains the credibility of some elements of the core relationship. That the movie works despite that speaks to how emotionally precise it is.

Borg/McEnroe

The film was originally titled Borg, and you see why. McEnroe is a supporting character, even if Shia Laboeuf is the most interesting presence on screen channeling Johnny Mac's very distinctive rage, which expresses itself as a series of explosive tantrums towards line judges but which has always seemed to come from a frustration that he can't achieve the perfection he can so clearly visualize.

Borg is the main subject, however, and his genius remains inscrutable despite a series of the usual film tropes about obsessive craftsmen. From a psychological point of view, tennis should be a strong subject for film as players are largely on their own on the court, forced to grapple with their own minds and a single foe for hours on end. It's one of the truly individual sports that exists. And yet each point in a match takes place so quickly that it is difficult to graft a slow moving dramatic arc on top of it. This may explain why I've yet to see a great tennis film, though this was just one of two I saw at TIFF. 

The Other Side of Hope

I missed the end of this film because TIFF's screening started nearly a half hour late and I had to rush across time for the next movie. If I had one complaint about TIFF this year it's that many films started late, and some of the line management was a bit shoddy.

So many movies I saw at this fest were the strongest possible expression of what one would expect from a director. This is the most Aki Kaurismaki film I could imagine, which is a good thing, though it had been so long since I'd seen one of his films that it took me some time to re-acclimate to the deadpan humor, acting, and pacing. If you haven't see his work before, you'll likely be familiar with his style from the film's of Wes Anderson, who wears Kaurismaki's influence in the wry, deadpan acting, straight on framing, and technicolor production design.

Though the movie deals with the Syrian refugee crisis, its tone is so gentle that it reminded me of a time when compassion seemed to come easier. On the flip side, it also exemplifies a sort of good-humored stoicism we'll continue to need to survive these grim times.

Lady Bird

If The Other Side of Hope was as Kaurismaki as could be, then Greta Gerwig's directorial debut is about as Gerwig-y a film as one can imagine if one were to try to conjure a film based on the persona of characters she's played on screen.

Semi-autobiographical, Lady Bird hearkens to Gerwig's childhood in Sacramento, when she yearned for more than her surroundings. The Gerwig stand-in is played by Saoirse Ronan; her name is Christine but she dubs herself Lady Bird, so restless is she with her middle class station in life and in the high school pecking order.

I'm generally wary of coming-of-age stories at film festivals, but having enjoyed both this and The Edge of Seventeen, I've realized that I'm okay with ones which feature active, almost manic leads. The type of coming-of-age story I dislike usually features a somewhat mute male lead who usually has to go back to his hometown or college for some reason, usually a funeral, and who achieves an emotional breakthrough after skinny dipping with a manic pixie dream girl. The whole time, things just happen to him until he finally takes some single action near the end to claim a heroic mantle that seems to have dropped in his lap.

Gerwig's twenty-something roles in the past have leaned into self absorption, but when it comes to teenage life it's to be expected. The volume and pace of jokes is high, almost like an episode of 30 Rock, but the specificity of each kept pulling me along.

That this film might be seen as a prequel to some of the other movies Gerwig has starred in is a strength; another reason I'm wary of coming-of-age stories is the false closure. While Christine comes to that realization by movie's end, we have a sense she'll continue to stumble and grasp through her college years. After all, we're all still coming-of-age; life is more of an infinite game than movies typically let on, as I noted above in discussing Ana, Mon Amour. I'm biased towards open-ended films which expand in the mind over time. Closed movies appeal to those who like highly crafted, one-time experiences, but they generally age poorly.

When Gerwig came out for the Q&A afterwards, to rapturous applause from the Ryerson audience, she started to cry, and I couldn't help but think of the character I'd just on screen, the artist as a young woman, who'd finally turned her childhood into art. 

Molly's Game

Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut, Molly's Game is adapted from the book of the same name. I had never heard of this story before, which seems odd because it's a juicy one. Molly Bloom, sister of World Champion and Olympic skier Jeremy Bloom, was a world class skier in her own right until an injury forced her to find a new outlet for her competitive nature. That comes in the form of a high stakes poker game in Los Angeles and later New York that hosts some of the world's most famous actors, athletes, musicians, and executives, including Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ben Affleck. Eventually, it also hosts some Russian mobsters, landing her in trouble with the government.

I had no idea Sorkin had never directed a film before. He's so prolific I just assumed he had. When he's good Sorkin, as with early West Wing or the screenplay for A Few Good Men, the polished walk and talk has the pacing of an classic black and white film, and dialogue becomes a symptom of our better natures. Bad Sorkin, as in The Newsroom, sounds like Aaron Sorkin is talking to himself, and every character comes off as smug, as if they believe they're smarter than the audience knows they really are.

Sorkin dialogue is so stylistically particular that it takes a special type of actor to retain their individuality. Mamet is the same way, and his directorial style further encourages actors to all sound the same. A notable exception was Gene Hackman in Mamet's Heist, who managed to still bring out that sly Hackman swagger.

The good news here is that this, while still a talkie, is more good Sorkin than bad, and actors like Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba are strong enough to be distinctive as they tap dance the Sorkin rat-a-tat patter. Yes, Sorkin repeats himself, a lot, but his love of the rhythm of language has a musical quality, and as Derek Thompson writes in Hit Makers, repetition is the god particle of music. Given our current President ends every ill-formed tweet with an exclamation point like some hack car salesman, it's refreshing to hear some more thoughtful word choices.

I don't understand libel laws, but Bloom named many more people in the book than are named in the film. Still, Michael Cera elicits a chuckle playing himself, even though he's standing in for Tobey Maguire, who, by all accounts, is an ass.

One of the issues with the film is a late speech by Kevin Costner, who plays Molly Bloom's father, that puts a psychological button on all of her actions. Western film seems obsessed with finding some piece of backstory to explain why every character ended up the way they are, and the older I get, the more it makes my eyes roll. We are not all what happened in our childhoods, but Hollywood remains obsessed with the tidiness of the backstory correlation-causation model of character development.

Let's just call it conservation of personality causality in Hollywood plots. Character actors, or bit parts, are those which film scripts don't bother to give back story to, but I often find those more convincing.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Two data points make a straight line, and it only took watching two of Yorgos Lanthimos' first films, Dogtooth and The Lobster, to infer something of his filmmaking style. He observes the odd man-made rituals all about him and formalizes them in some literal representation that reveals just how fragile or absurd so much of culture and society are. Thin are the threads that bind it all together, and Lanthimos loves to snip them.

It's a style that is intellectually novel, though it can also feel like some parlor trick, and a self-serious one at that. All of his films contain moments of dark humor that leaven the proceedings; The Killing of a Sacred Deer could use more of them.

Heavy on homage to Kubrick, the film begins with a whole series of actors acting like first generation replicants with the humanity meter dialed down to zero. Then something happens, and slowly the characters begin to warm over, showing signs of recognizable emotion.

It is an uncomfortable ride, to be sure, and I'm a huge fan of horror films that can make me sweat, but only in service of some meaningful journey. Everything else is just a carnival ride, and at times borderline sadistic.

If you haven't seen a Lanthimos film before, start with Dogtooth.

[SPOILER ALERT] This film isn't as directly allegorical, or conceptually neat, as his other films. That could be a virtue, but I'm still not sure what the point of the whole ordeal is. So Farrell let Barry Keoghan's (the boy who dies in Dunkirk from the head trauma on Mark Rylance's boat in Dunkirk) father die on the operating table. Was it negligence? An honest mistake? What is the point of the suffering of Farrell's children, is this just a simple "sins of the father" parable? Is Farrell being punished for not acknowledging his responsibility? I don't need all the answers, just enough of a sense that I wasn't a victim of a drive-by shooting.

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers

Angelina Jolie's film adaptation of Loung Ung's memoir about the horrors growing up under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia grapples with the protagonist's youth throughout, as this is not a film for children and yet Ung (played by poised young actress Sareum Srey Moch) was too young to comprehend all the forces at work at the time. It oscillates between shots from Ung's perspective, low to the ground, gazing about at the wonders of nature even as she was confined to a series of labor camps, and omniscient, reportorial shots like overhead drone footage which show soldiers and prisoners walking through the countryside like subjects in a nature documentary.

The film would benefit from choosing one perspective or the other and hewing to it throughout. Sticking to Ung's limited comprehension of the horrors about her precludes something as subjective and fantastical as Beasts of the Southern Wild. But shot choices that come from outside Ung's POV, like overhead drone shots, confuse things. The audience doesn't need them because our sympathies are clear here. The film works best when we see through Ung's eyes, as when she gazes with longing at the colorful toys and items of clothing her mother must surrender when entering the labor camps.

Another option would've been to oscillate between modern day Ung, looking back on that experience with that of young Ung living through it. Ung is, as the title notes, a daughter of Cambodia, and while I'm wary of the back story explanation of personality, it's impossible to dispute that one's childhood home can be destiny. How does this daughter regard her Motherland now?

Professor Marston & the Wonder Women

Based on a remarkable true story about the couple, or actually trio, behind Wonder Woman. But first let's acknowledge the real wonder woman on screen here, and that's Rebecca Hall. She is one of those life forces whose mere presence in a film gets me halfway to watching it regardless of what it's about, and she's the most vivid presence in this and most every movie.

I had no idea, going in, who had directed the film, but as with the other Wonder Woman movie this year, it's clear that a woman directed each film. The absence of the male gaze is especially noticeable in the love scenes here given how much of Hollywood fare usually comes from white male directors. Such scenes need be no less erotically charged.

The sexiest scene, in fact, doesn't involve any shedding of clothes at all. It's a lie detector scene that sparks the core relationship between Harvard educators and married couple William and Elizabeth Marston and their graduate assistant Olive Byrne. It's a reminder of how forbidden forms of love have concealed their existence and communications in code through the generations (in this case polyamorous, though gay love is a more common example in the past), and how much of what we consider romantic flirtation is rooted in information asymmetry.

That director Angela Robinson makes polyamory seem so normal and rewarding is no small feat. One imagines, however, a film about the same subject made many years in the future, one that doesn't feel the need to dance gently around the kink I had no idea was embedded in Wonder Woman's origins.

The villains in the film, the comic book authority, the conventions of heteronormative society, as played by Olive's fiance, are of the more conventional film variety, and somewhere in this movie, as in most Hollywood true story adaptations, is a stranger truth waiting to break out. It's also tantalizing to ponder what a film centered around Rebecca Hall's Elizabeth Marston might have been like given.

Battle of the Sexes

Despite my love of genre, the conventional Hollywood biopic feels like a Sears kit home, a prison that everyone, from the director to the actors, are fighting from the start. This screenplay by Simon Beaufoy does this cast and crew no credits, so strict is its adherence to the biopic template.

Some signs of life glimmer through. Emma Stone captures not just the mannerisms and physical movements of Billy Jean King but something of her nature which I've come to know through watching hours of her work as a tennis broadcaster and commentator.

I learned striking pieces of the story I hadn't heard before. That Riggs first defeated Margaret Court, who was and continues to be an unabashed homophobe. That Riggs was in financial distress while King was carrying on an affair with her hairdresser on tour while her husband stayed back home. Not shown in the film, though noted in a post-film text crawl, was the fact that Riggs and King ended up friends, and that King said "I love you" to him before he died.

In this age of infinite content, a conventional drama like this will struggle to break through the noise. Any number of more distinctive stories lurk around the peripheries of this film. For example, how is it that King and Riggs came to be friends later in life (I always wonder the same of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia were friends, going to the opera together, despite such radically divergent views)? In this polarized age, such a story might have something to say about how we avoid throttling each other.

As with many movies at TIFF this year, this one couldn't avoid being read as commentary on the 2016 election and the large child now occupying the Oval Office, but as every filmmaker noted, these movies were put into production long before that election. Trump is so outsized a monster that he maps to all stories wrestling with evil in any of its forms.

Lastly, as it pertains to tennis, Battle of the Sexes has little to offer. Someday we may get a film that captures the essence of the sport, its peculiar loneliness, the geometric pleasures to be found in what are hundreds of repetitive strokes, the distinctive violence players do to each other through a near weightless sphere of fabric and rubber, but it probably won't come out of Hollywood.

The Square

Ruben Ostlund said before this TIFF screening of The Square that the movie was about the breakdown of the social contract. As a test of this, before the film started he handed his wallet and phone to someone in the audience and asked them to keep it for him until he came back out for Q&A.

This isn't new ground for Ostlund. His Force Majeure was about how a father's momentary flash of cowardice strains the fabric of his marriage. It's high concept social satire, and when it loses me, it feels like a stunt, as with the flashy pre-show gesture. What was that person, who hundreds of people in the audience had seen, going to do? Walk out with Ostlund's wallet and phone?

When his satire works, it is pleasingly acerbic, like sour candy. The protagonist, or the main protein on skewered here, is Christian (Claes Bang), a director of a modern art museum in Sweden. The titular square refers to a modern art piece, a square marked on the ground, where visitors are invited to treat each other with civility and kindness. An edgy agency is hired to come up with an ad campaign to promote this exhibit, and the video they come up with indeed goes viral, though in unintended ways. Given how some of today's largest virtual town squares, Facebook and Twitter, are grappling with some of the same problems their real world equivalents have had to combat through the centuries, the naïveté on display by almost everyone here is timely.

The most memorable sequence, lodged halfway through the movie, occurs at a dinner for the museum's old and well-heeled donors. Motion capture actor Terry Notary plays a performance artist who walks out, shirtless, and proceeds to imitate a gorilla. He elicits a few appreciative chuckles, but as the act progresses, and the gorilla's aggression builds, the laughs turn to nervous downward glances. It's harrowing and visceral, and in light of the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein's, has new disturbing cultural resonance.

The always delightful Elizabeth Moss plays a journalist who is doing a story on Christian and the museum, and in my favorite sequence, the two of them have a tug of war over a freshly used condom.

Force Majeure was more cohesive. The Square has stronger individual scenes but feels, in the end, like an assemblage of sketches, all of which are just cracking quips at the expense of human folly everywhere. Hey, isn't that just Twitter? In these dark times, work like this can feel cathartic, until the bitterness causes your face to wrinkle in disgust.

In The Fade

Diane Kruger plays a German woman pressing out against the walls of grief and rage pressing in on her after her Turkish husband and child are killed by neo-Nazis. It's a raw performance that won her a best actress prize at Cannes, and I'm all for more Kruger.

In an age when real neo-Nazis have poked their heads out in public, this film which walks through familiar beats of the the revenge genre film offers little new. A final shot which flips the world upside down ocean floats over the empty sky hints at some inversion and insight the rest of the film doesn't deliver.

mother!

A horror film about a woman's husband listing their house, which she's renovating, on Airbnb without consulting her, bringing a world of boorish, inconsiderate house guests to their doorstep. If you blanche and lose your breath when a guest forgets to use a coaster on your coffee table, consider this a trigger warning.

Okay, that's not what the movie is about, but any film codified so specifically begs to be interpreted, and Aronofsky has encouraged that armchair interpretation by explaining publicly that the film is about mother Earth and includes, intentionally, properly sequential references to stories from Genesis. Here come Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer as middle-aged Adam and Eve, then their sons as Cain and Abel, then the flood, and so on.

Jennifer Lawrence as a beatific mother Earth figure is a natural; she has the sort of classical, oval face which could drop effortlessly into a Renaissance triptych. Matthew Libatique's cinematography has the classical golden hues of a painting from that era. The level of technical craft is high, something easy to lose in the bonkers plot which escalates to the point where Kristen Wiig runs around with a pistol executing several unknown people lying bound and prone on the floor with sacks over their heads. By execute I mean she shoots them in the head. Whether you might cackle or walk out of the theater at that point is a good litmus test of whether you might enjoy this movie.

The film was marketed incorrectly, as a sort of horror film (the opening weekend Cinemascore F rating usually hints at a mismatch of audience expectations), but it's more enjoyable as a farce about how terrible it is to be married to a male artist. The worst case scenario is you are being chased by Jack Nicholson through the halls of the Overlook Hotel, and the best case scenario is you escape him and leave him to freeze to death in the snow in a botanical maze.

Downsizing

Alexander Payne's latest sounds like some high concept sci-fi film: Norwegian scientists, in response to the environmental impact of humans, discover a way to shrink people down to 5 inches tall. Not only is their environmental footprint smaller, money goes a lot further in the new miniature world, so anyone can live like a rap mogul in a marble gilded mansion. Matt Damon and his wife (Kristen Wiig), struggling to break out of their middle class financial toil, decide it sounds like a great deal.

As you might predict of such social satire, the deal is too good to be true, and miniaturizing people doesn't diminish the worst aspects of human nature in the least. Me, I need my coffee black and my social satire stronger. The film tries again and again to break skin and draw blood, but with a knife so dull it doesn't even leave a mark. Imagine Matt Damon as a white male Twitter account trying to get woke; if the film were more accurate Damon would be dragged by any number of people of color for his obliviousness long past the end credits. Instead, he finds the usual third act moral redemption.

Those who hope to analyze the film's economic or scientific bonafides will also be disappointed. After initially seeming as if it might delve into the details—people must have fillings removed before the miniaturization process because, we're told, fillings don't shrink for some reason—the film doesn't bother with the conceptual details with any rigor. The movie could provoke any number of interesting thought exercise (What happens to the GDP if everyone opts in? Should the government or large people subsidize small people? Should some people be forced into miniaturization? And so on...) but doesn't try. 

It's as if the film's ambitions, like its protagonists, were shrunk only a short way into the first act.

The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro's latest is a fairy tale about the romance between a mute janitor (Sally Hawkins) and the aquatic creature being tortured and researched by government officials at the facility she works at in 1960's America. Using almost entirely practical effects in an age of weightless CGI, the film has a refreshing if artificial solidity, almost like a classic Technicolor era Hollywood set, or a Disneyland ride. The lighting scheme is sumptuous and precise, from the deep aquamarine in Sally Hawkins apartment to the golden hues of the room across the hall, where her neighbor and friend (Richard Jenkins) lives.

Whether you enjoy the film may depend on what variety of fairy tale you enjoy. Those who enjoy the sweetened variety on which Disney built its empire will find this film enchanting. I myself am partial to the Brothers Grimm originals that Disney borrowed and cleaned up for mass consumption. Not that we don't have some dark villains here, they're just of the curly mustache variety, and played in the main by Michael Shannon, no less. [MILD PLOT SPOILERS HERE TO END OF MY NOTES ON THIS FILM] If anything, Shannon is more of a fascist cartoon than the fascist general in Pan's Labyrinth; he jabs the aquatic creature with an electric cattle prod and holds a hand over his wife's mouth when they have sex.

At times, the film hints at something more subversive. Jenkins character is gay, and Hawkins co-worker Zelda is black (Octavia Spencer), though del Toro's script doesn't unleash them so much as recruit them into a diverse anti-fascist superteam. Early in the film, Hawkins character draws a bath for herself, and with a peaceful smile, begins to masturbate. Later, when Zelda discovers Jenkins is having sex with the aquatic creature and asks how it works, Hawkins responds with a bit of suggestive sign language. Zelda responds with raised eyebrows and a sly smirk. These and several other moments tease at queer love and interracial love stories from a more transgressive and provocative movie buried within, just as a darker but more complex Grimm tale lies behind every Disney animated classic. [END MILD PLOT SPOILERS]

Brad's Status

If Larry David is the patron saint of the white privilege of the extremely well-off, Ben Stiller is the muse of directors probing the self-absorbed discontent of the middle class white guy. In Brad's Status, Stiller's character Brad Sloan is taking his son Taylor on college interviews and visits, but the real journey is that of his mid-life crisis. Long envious of what he imagines to be the debaucherous lifestyles of his more financially successful classmates, a series of events has unleashed the full fury of his envy, sparing no one, not even his son, a musical talent who is interviewing at prestigious Ivy League schools.

This is an entire film about FOMO, and Brad's neurotic obsessions run over the film in a voice over. At times we also see, in fantasy sequences, what Brad imagines his classmates' lives are like, like a friend's gorgeous Instagram photos come to life. In one, Jermaine Clement plays a tech mogul jogging down the beach in slow motion, two nubile young women in bikinis laughing and caressing him. The absurd humor of these scenes represents the gentle approach White takes to this subject; one can imagine a French film about the jealousies of the middle class being a gruff, sour affair.

Listening to Stiller's inner thoughts spoken throughout, the audience feels like a shrink. Amidst a week of wall to wall films on all manner of heavy subjects, from racism to sexism to terrorism, White's generous empathy was a refreshing palate cleanser. Outside the TIFF context, I wish the film probed a bit harder. The cliche of the shrink which just repeats everything you say back to you, but phrased as a question, applies here. After hearing Brad talk himself in circles for an hour and a half, I can't tell if he's any better off than he was when he began.

Mudbound

Dee Rees' film about the intertwined fortunes, or misfortunes, of two families, one black, one white, in 1940's America. This perhaps should have been a four to six episode miniseries, but Rees packs in a lot in the just over two hour run time.

The title is apt. The Mississippi farm where most of the film takes place is an endless plane of damp soil, and the characters seem to spend most of their film trudging through it, lightly dusted in it, or rolling about in it. Like the racism which the film examines, no one can fully extricate themselves or clean themselves of it. America's original sin is embedded in its dirt, and it's appropriate that the most fantastic, loving gift in the film is an outdoor shower one character builds for another. 

Mudbound shows how a tightening economy is fertile ground in which white working class racism erupts. That's relevant in these times, but also in all times. Jason Clarke, as the patriarch of the white family, grapples with the virulent racism of his father Pappy (Jonathan Banks of Breaking Bad fame), but his shame over the struggle to support his family provokes all his worst instincts. The movie also shows how a larger frame, that of WWII and the integrating institution of the military, transcends and diminishes racism, as seen in the friendship between the black son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Jason Clarke's brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), both returning WWII veterans grappling with PTSD.

We also see the mutual bonds of motherhood, as the respective matriarchs, played by Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige, find common ground along the racial fissure in the shared struggles of raising children in the economically depressed countryside. The film situates racism in the context of that time, so the choice to hear voiceover from multiple characters feels right rather than confusing

One sign the film may have worked better as a miniseries is the disappearance of Pappy for a long stretch after his early introduction. When he returns late in the film only for a climactic eruption of violence, it feels wedged in where most of the film has a looser, more poetic feel. But for most of the running time, Mudbound has the scope to look at the architecture of racism and the broadness of heart to observe how everyone navigates its designs.

I Love You, Daddy

Who would've thought that the one 35mm black and white film with multiple split diopter shots and a sweeping orchestral score from TIFF would be this late addition to the lineup from Louis C.K.?

Louis C.K. plays successful TV showrunner Glen Topher who struggles with how to parent entitled daughter China, played by Chloe Grace Moretz as a modern day Lolita. Topher is a bit of a wealthy mope. When his daughter falls under the spell of his idol, the now middle-aged film director Leslie Goodwin (John effing Malkovich), rumored to have had a scandalous affair with an underage actress in his past, Topher talks himself into knots while she runs circles around him before she just plain runs off with Goodwin to Europe.

As with his standup, Louis leans into the uncomfortable here. Goodwin clearly hearkens to Roman Polanski and, more specifically, Woody Allen. Recently, Louis C.K.'s past itself has been put to question, but it didn't seem to deter him here. C.K. worked with Woody Allen in the past, as have so many of Hollywood's elites, and when this film screened at TIFF, Harvey Weinstein's scandal hadn't broke. If it felt a bit uncomfortable in the screening at TIFF, the Weinstein bombshell has only added more static electricity. To try to explore the gray zone of this topic now feels like wandering in the fog near a cliff.

Perhaps that's why, even though this is Louis C.K., the film shrinks away from itself after ratcheting up the controversy. The film meanders a bit, a common problem with works edited by the director; there's a reason most director's cuts don't make it to the big screen. Chekhov's first act gun doesn't quite go off here; by film's end it has been removed from the premises for safety.

C.K.'s humor tends to work because he presents himself as exhibit A of any human foibles he ridicules, and there's a lot of that here. Charlie Day, as his vulgar, wisecracking sidekick, gets no shortage of barbs in at Topher's expense, acting almost as C.K.'s id, saying the things C.K. the comedian would never hold back.

One of Louis C.K.'s great jokes is "of course...but maybe..." The fun is that he finishes his thought after saying "maybe." This movie feels like "of course" without anything after the "maybe," just a shrug. 

[No maybe on this though: we need more Malkovich. He is great here. He is missed.]

The Disaster Artist

I have never seen cult film The Room, but now I've seen The Disaster Artist, about the making of The Room, with a theater full of people who have seen The Room, and it feels as if I have.

James Franco plays director Tommy Wiseau, the director of The Room. Very few people are purely bizarre, but Wiseau is a genuine weirdo. An accent that can't be placed, bizarre diction, long rocker hair, a personal fortune from an undetermined source, a pale and unplaceable (Eastern European?) sort of face, and a way of interacting with other humans that feels as if the gulf can't be bridged. One can see why Franco gravitated to this role; in his own work he is also an outsider artist, whose work seems to resonate most strongly for an audience of one, himself.

I've never been much of a "so bad it's good" person. I'm not sure I want to actually sit through The Room, especially as the end credits of The Disaster Artists side by side shots of the making of The Room with the original clips from the film, making it clear the accuracy of the loving recreations. The Room looks to be so bad it's awful. And The Disaster Artist doesn't have much to say about art beyond the usual fortune cookie aphorisms about believing in yourself, how few are actually good, and so on.

What helps the film, and Wiseau, remain endearing is the revelation that as odd as Wiseau is, he has one in common with us all: he deeply wants to be loved and appreciated. It's an amiability which Franco, for all his artistic self-indulgence, also shares.

While the film itself might not be anything memorable, and in fact it's likely to be less enduring than The Room, watching this midnight screening, the most packed house of the festival for me, surrounded on all sides by devotees of The Room, all of whom took turns initiating me into the phenomenon (we were handed props like plastic spoons and mini footballs on the way in, all of which my neighbors explained to me) was a blast. It reminded me of the joys of the age pre-abundance, when all we had were a few common stories, so we made do and bonded over them. When Wiseau walked on stage after the screening, having seen the film for the first time himself with all of us, he received a thunderous standing ovation, and I couldn't help grinning.

The Room isn't a movie you'd enjoy at home by yourself. It has to be seen in a theater, in the company of other fans, tossing footballs and spoons in the air, reciting lines word for word, so that we can remind ourselves that what makes "so bad it's good" work is that sometimes, all that brings us together is something we all agree is terrible.

Thelma

Joachim Trier tries his hand at the horror genre. His Oslo, August 31 and Reprise were both deft at turning the inner life inside out, so it's strange that Thelma struggles to do the same with the titular character's repressed sexual desires for her college classmate Anja despite more overt use of psychological visuals. Not that the imagery isn't gorgeous, the Biblical images of crows flying into windows and snakes writhing tightly around naked female bodies are as sleek as Scandinavian furniture. It's just that true horror has a slippery, familiar mystery to it, a sense that we could rid ourselves of our dread if we could just grasp it, yet not knowing why we can't.

Trier is one of the more empathetic filmmakers going, especially to the existential turmoil of youth, and it always feels as if the less he pushes and the more he trusts his instincts, the more alluring his work. Something in Thelma feels overly schematic.

I'll never forget the scene in Oslo, August 31, where the lead character is out in public, seated at a table, just listening to the sounds of all the people around him. Anyone who has ever felt that no one understands their alienation from the world can watch that scene and see that someone, in fact, does.

Show don't tell

I suspect we do a better job teaching children than adults, and much of that has to do with trying harder to explain things visually, in the most intuitive, simple way possible, to children. As we grow older, we start stacking on level after level of abstraction, losing more and more students along the way.

Even language is an abstraction, and while I enjoy writing, the ratio that a picture is worth a thousand words is a cliche that describes a very real ratio. As someone I chatted with noted this week, we have an actual way of quantifying the relative value of video versus images versus words: the CPMs that advertisers are willing to pay for video ads versus display ads versus text ads. My early years at Hulu, it was unbelievable how high and rock solid our video ad rates were compared to other ad formats on the market. All the recent pivots to video are surprising only for how late they're coming for many; trying to run a business off of text and display ad revenues is life with poverty unit economics.

This is not to say video is always better. As a format, it's harder for many to master, and like many, I often roll my eyes when sent a link to a video without a transcript. It's not because I don't believe video is a more accessible, democratic, and moving medium. It's just that a lot of instructional video would be just as information rich and more quickly scanned for its key messages if transcribed into text. Many a media site will struggle with pivoting to video unless they understand the format at the same level they do text and photos.

Video at its best is much more than a camera pointed at a person speaking. Now, granted, some speakers are immensely gifted orators, and so a TED talk may have more impact when watched rather than read. However, the average MOOC video, to take one example, is dull beyond words.

Video as a medium still has enormous potential, especially for education. In the trough of disillusion for MOOCs, I expect we'll see something rise from the ashes that finally unlocks video's potential as a communications medium. We've done a solid job with that format as a narrative storytelling device, and that's partially because the revenue in Hollywood supports an immense talent development infrastructure. Education might be able to provide that level of financial incentive if global distribution through the internet allows for aggregation of larger scale audiences.

One of the core challenges of education, as with disciplines like fitness and diet, is motivation. That is another area where video shines. David Foster Wallace warned of the addictive nature of video in Infinite Jest, and the fact that the average American still watches something like four to five hours of TV a day, despite the wealth of alternatives in this age, is an astonishing testament to the enduring pull of filmed entertainment.

As with anything, the seductive nature of moving images is merely a tool, inheriting its positive or negative valence from its uses. When it comes to teaching abstract concepts, I prefer good visuals over clear text almost every time if given the choice. Our brains are just wired for visual input in a way they aren't for abstractions like language, which explains many phenomenon, like why memory champions translate numbers and alphabet characters into images, and why they remember long sequences like digits of pi by placing such images into memory palaces, essentially visual hard drives.

One could try to explain the principles of potential and kinetic energy, for example, with a series of mathematical formulas, in a long essay. Or one could watch the following video.

Here's the video of the full routine by Joann Bourgeois, performed in San Sebastian. Just gorgeous.

This is what I wish Cirque du Soleil would be every time someone drags me to one of their shows.

When time stretches eon and eon

One of my favorite movies from Sundance this past January was David Lowery's A Ghost Story, which remains one of the better movies in what has been a weak year at the cinema. One reason it is so moving is a stretch of the film which decides to take a super long view of time. We're talking centuries long, as in a time lapse that bounds across years and decades in mere seconds.

[The movie also spends five minutes on one much discussed, uncut shot of Rooney Mara eating a pie, so it is a film that plays with time dilation in both directions, one of its several interesting formal tactics.]

Sometimes we can only get true perspective on life by looking at it through binoculars turned backwards. It all sounds a bit vague and hand-wavy except we have evidence that a 10,000 foot view really can alter one's mind. The overview effect is a phenomenon in which astronauts who have seen Earth floating in the vast emptiness of space return to the planet with an intense global perspective, having moved beyond the petty concerns of individual nations or communities. We humans are susceptible to perceptual hacking, but that makes us a fun kit to tinker with.

Perhaps growing older has increased my fondness for art that folds time in on itself so densely. What do we accumulate as we age as reliably as perspective? I really enjoyed the stunning graphic novel Here by Richard McGuire, every page of which takes place in the same living room in the same house, but across hundreds of thousands of years. It is a Cubist story where every frame on the page is a shard of story from a different time in that spot on Earth.

One of my favorite movies of this century, and ever, is Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, which, more than any other film I can recall, grapples with the existential mystery of the universe. It begins after the Big Bang, sweeps through the age of dinosaurs, stops in a childhood story inspired by Malick's own life, and dreams of what the afterlife might hold. And in every frame, you sense the director grappling with the question of why? Why this? Why everything? Why anything?

This genre of time compressing art needs a name. Some label for its own section at the video store or bookstore. For now I take to calling it eonic art, but some reader may come up with something better, or perhaps it already has a name I'm not aware of. It need not cover the history of the universe, but it generally has to traverse at least several centuries, or at a minimum, two generations of mankind. The Three Body Trilogy comes to mind from works I've read in the past few years, as does Cloud Atlas, which I have not read but saw once on an international flight. A.I., for its coda.

I know I'm missing plenty. What are your favorite works in this genre?

The rhythm of writing

Tony Zhou's Every Frame A Painting video essay series has a devoted following online, and for good reason. His pieces are one of the few things you can honestly say couldn't work in any form other than video.

That isn't the case for most content. It's trendy to bash media outlets for pivoting to video, but like many, I can't stand receiving a link to a video without a transcript because most of the time video is the least efficient way to consume the information within. Like many infovores, I can read and scan faster than I can listen to someone talk (which is why I listen to podcasts at 2X speed, sometimes even faster depending on who's talking). Video scanning and seeking is notoriously inefficient, and if the internet has done anything it's turned us into screen scanners with even shorter attention spans than before (as anyone who has looked at data from any eye-tracking study can attest).

Back to Every Frame A Painting. The series works well as video in part because Zhou has a deep understanding of film's visual grammar, but don't underestimate the patience needed to rip discs and scan through video. Someday, that may be easier to do, but for now, it's a long time suck, involving ripping Blu-Rays and DVDs with MakeMKV and then transcoding them with Handbrake into a format editable in Premiere or Final Cut, then watching over and over to assemble the clips, then writing a script and recording the voiceover, then fine-tuning. Writing an essay isn't easy, but compared to producing a video essay it's trivial. Christian Marclay's The Clock is a remarkable piece, but a moment of silence for all the assistant editors and interns who had to rip and label all the video from which it was assembled.

The Zhou essay on Kurosawa titled Composing on Moment reminded me of something about writing that has become more salient to me over time: rhythm. Zhou's essay is about shot structure, movement, and length, but many of the lessons he discusses apply to writing.

Each shot in a movie is a sentence. One of the simplest ways to improve one's prose and to keep a reader's attention is simply to vary sentence length. I don't love editing my own writing, it's so easy to overlook errors when your mind knows what it was trying to say; it tends to fill in the blanks instead of processing what's actually on the page.

However, I don't really have any other option, so I am my own editor. To protect against my familiarity, I usually set aside anything I've written for a long time, sometimes months, until I've forgotten it completely, before revisiting it to revise and edit. Once you're estranged from your own work you can see it anew. Also, sometimes the work doesn't survive the test of time and can be tossed.

The most effective way I've found to edit myself is to read the text out loud (using my inner voice, that is). Reading the text out loud does two things. One, it slows me down. Speed readers largely increase their velocity by training themselves to not read aloud. When I started editing myself, I had to un-train myself in speed reading techniques like word block scanning.

The other benefit of reading out loud is to render the rhythm of your writing audible. Where in a block of text can you pause to take a breath, and where do you go breathless? The cadence of breathing and speaking tends to mimic the frequency of the brain's ability to process words and sentences..

Think of your reader as someone with as a limited amount of RAM. They can only hold so much of a thought in their head at once. The longer your sentence, the more structure it needs if you're hoping the reader will remember it.

There are exceptions, as there are to any rule.

Here's an opening line from Cormac McCarthy:

They crested out on the bluff in the late afternoon sun with their shadows long on the sawgrass and burnt sedge, moving single file and slowly high above the river and with something of its own implacability, pausing and grouping for a moment and going on again strung out in silhouette against the sun and then dropping under the crest of the hill into a fold of blue shadows with light touching them about the head in spurious sanctity until they had gone on for such a time as saw the sun down altogether and they moved in shadow altogether which suited them very well.
 

That's from Outer Dark.

There are other authors known for an occasional colossus of a sentence, and some who seem to rely on it as the base unit for entire novels, like Joyce or Proust. The film equivalent is something like the nearly 3-minute continuous shot that opens Boogie Nights by Paul Thomas Anderson. or the famous Copacabana Steadicam shot from Goodfellas.

[If you plot the Copacabana shot spatially you realize that Ray Liotta takes a purposefully circuitous route through the kitchen to lengthen the shot, for no apparent reason other than to lengthen the shot. But it's such a great moment, and it has such a purpose in the film at that moment, that you forgive it the indulgence. Ray Liotta is trying to impress Lorraine Bracco, and the lack of a cut allows him to draw out the performance in one unbroken, escalating build. It works. No one who watches the movie ever notices the circuitous route because the shot itself is so dazzling, which is how magicians pull off many a sleight of hand.]

In both text and video, such a flourish is overtly showy, like magician wearing a tuxedo with tails, conjuring one dove after another from his breast pocket, his sleeve, his collar, back to his sleeve, and oh! here's three doves at once. Or a sporting event employing flame throwers during introductions, or a concert beginning with the artist rising from beneath the stage through billowing florets of smoke. 

As anyone who builds such an elaborate apparatus knows, such displays inevitably attract accusations of grandstanding. As soon as any film auteur releases a long unbroken shot in a film, an argument will erupt online over whether the shot is justified and breathtaking or just self-indulgent, rent-seeking on the viewer's attention. Generally it's both, and where you settle is a matter of taste.

I find my novelty-seeking sloping upwards at this point in my life, so I appreciate the occasional grasp at the sublime. Not every sentence needs to be in the unadorned prose style of The New Yorker (Tom Wolfe once described their house style it as "leisurely meandering understatement") and not every film needs to be a series of back and forth over-the-shoulder shots while two people talk, like is common in a network TV drama which must brute-force its way through a 24 episode full season order.

In my spare time, I've dabbled with creating my own writing app, a common fantasy among those who write, since no one is ever perfectly satisfied with their word processor.

[Processor, incidentally, is a terrible name for an application. "Word processor" is bad, and so is "food processor." Is there any craft that can retain the slightest bit of romance and dignity when its primary tool is named a processor? There's a reason we don't call Tinder and other dating apps mating processors, though many might argue that online dating deserves exactly such a name. Processing is a word that should be reserved for bureaucratic procedures; it feels appropriate that so many government institutions have FAQs about processing times.]

Among the many odd features I'd include in my theoretical writing app (whose goal would not just be to make it more enjoyable to write, but to write better, and which would likely make for a terrible business), one would be an editing view which would transform the rhythm of the text into a more scannable form. It might be color coding each sentence according to its word length, or turning a block of text into a graphic like a line graph, with sentence length as the y-axis. You might be able to calculate the variance of sentence length mathematically, though I suspect such a figure would be too reductive to be useful.

The longer the text, the more sentence length variation is desirable, so regardless of methodology, the goal would be the same, to make monotonous stretches of similar sentence lengths more visible to the writer. Readers can't handle being bludgeoned with sentences of the same length in perpetuity. Occasionally they need a breather.

A pause.

The next time you edit something you've written, look for places where a sentence or two needs trimming or splitting, or where a longer sentence might find an opportune moment in which to wander languidly. We may not all be poets, but even a million monkeys at a million typewriters can churn out the occasional line of Shakespeare, more so if they know what to look for.