Twenty-seventeen media diet: movies & series

I watched fourty-seven movies released in Portugal throughout 2017, and this time I even took the time to make a ranked list over at Letterboxd, which you shouldn’t take very seriously — ranking apples alongside oranges is hard! Still, these are the films I would very much like to highlight and recommend, in no particular order:

The Nothing Factory

A Fábrica de Nada (The Nothing Factory) by Pedro Pinho. There is a story in there about a group of workers stopping their factory owners from removing equipment and relocating, and then proceeding to turn the factory into a co-op. But the movie is so much, much more as a powerful case-study on those left behind by the turbo-capitalist zeitgeist; and it is served well by being more interested in raising questions about what can be done in the 21st century (there is an exemplary scene where a few artist-burgeois discuss politics without actually getting anywhere) than providing 20th century answers. Stylistically, The Nothing Factory also blends the documentary with the lyrical (there’s even a musical sequence), making the film akin to a long episode in Miguel Gomes’ opus Arabian Nights. Were that the case, it would have been one of the very best.

The Square

The Square by Ruben Östlund. Do you ever wonder what it would be like if someone made a movie in which a character much like Mad Men’s Don Draper was the curator of a large museum, and terribly sucked at his job? Well, look no further! And the sad thing is, The Square does feel like a pretty accurate observation of how the institutional art world is run. The Square is perfect companion piece to Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, should you still believe in contemporary art.

Paterson

Should you despair too much at what ‘art’ became, I heartly recommend Paterson by the great Jim Jarmusch: a sober movie about how artmaking belongs anywhere and to everyone; and how making trumps showing.

20th Century Women

20th Century Women by Mike Mills and Song to Song by Terrence Malick are two movies that couldn’t perhaps be more different, but I consider them both sides to a coin: Mills’ shows growth and the strengthening of human relationships, while Malick’s chronicles their destruction. An yet, both are movies about longing, both are charming and hypnotizing, and both are balsam for a heart’s wounds.

Thor: Ragnarok

I would also highlight a few more movies that could just as easily be listed as my favourite should have I left my bed through the other side this morning: Aquarius, a great Brazilian movie about, for the lack of better words, resistance to the gentrification mafia; The Age of Shadows, an amazing Korean spy thriller set in World War II, echoing of J.-P. Melville’s French resistance classic Army of Shadows; Pablo Larrain’s Neruda, half an amazingly charming portrait of the Chilean poet, half a great political thriller about his escape from persecution; character studies in loneliness Moonlight; and also Lucky, played by the late great Harry Dean Stanton; James Gray’s venture into the unknown with The Lost City of Z; and finally, Thor: Ragnarok, which commanded the best laughs I gave at a theatre last year, and I praise Marvel and Taika Waititi for the change of tone and embrancing all the sillyness and psychedelia of superhero comics in a very crisp comedy. I am also firmly on the camp of those who really liked The Last Jedi — to paraphrase a friend, I was expecting Star Wars but got a good movie instead, and commend Rian Johnson for the way the movie made short work of turning expectations around.

A few words for movies I didn’t like at all. I admit I wasn’t expecting much from T2 Trainspotting, but I felt it consisted of little more than reminders of how the original felt cool in 1996, and was in the end as welcome as a tour from a second-rate britpop band. In the same vein, I felt whitewashed Ghost in the Shell was as mediocre as expected, but at least a little redeemed by casting Beat Takeshi with the weirdest haircut. Luc Besson’s promised return to The Fifth Element form was a big failure, but at least I think I won’t change channel should I ever come across Valerian on television, on aesthetic grounds alone (and the movie did have a great title sequence). I won’t have a reason to watch Blade Runner 2049 ever again, however. Jamie Zawinski’s analysis of 2049’s failures is pretty spot-on. As I said before of Arrival, Denis Villeneuve must have the best press agents working in Hollywood. Even Ridley Scott, surely a culprit in that he claims to have pitched ideas for 2049, felt bored watching it. As with movies such as Interstellar, where did this trend of equating movies about Serious Questions About Man’s Place in the Universe with logically unsound plots, stiff acting, lots of slow wide shots of landscapes, and Loud! Hans Zimmer scores come from?


Twin Peaks: The Return

Granting David Lynch’s wish that Twin Peaks: The Return been seen as a long movie, I would surely place it among my favourite of 2017, else it was one of my favourite series, even for all its Dougie-ing (I’m sure that’s a word now). It’s surely the ultimate showcase of David Lynch’s craft — he’s very good at creating characters, he’s very good at creating mood, he’s very good at world building, he’s very good at slapstick comedy, and situation comedy as well, he’s very good at horror (both gore and stupid), he’s very good at action!, and he’s very good at that which he’s best known for, creating painterly nightmares — of which Episode 8 is the ultimate example. David Lynch is very good.

Halt and Catch Fire

I didn’t watch that much series, but I’d highlight the final season of Halt and Catch Fire, and how a series that started as Difficult Man in the 80s Tech Industry grown over time, as it gave the lead to Donna and Cam (sorry, Joe!) to one of the best portraits of human relationships bound by the creative process. Computers not being the thing, but being “the thing that gets us to the thing” is a line that I’ll carry as the perfect description of why I like the Internet so much, even in a year I often felt the Internet should just close and begone. I will also highlight the great second season of Master of None, and a good return of Mr. Robot, less concerned with serving Fight Club-level twists and more focused at being a very good cypherpunk thriller.

A survey of my favourite reads of 2017 is coming soon!

Twenty-seventeen media diet: books & articles

I haven’t read as many books as I would have liked throughout 2017, and most of the times ended up entertaining myself with some sci-fi escapism (or not, given how I tend to go for the bleak stuff). Still, I would like to highlight a few books that left an impression:

Laurent Binet’s HHhH would be a very thrilling account of Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of high-ranking nazi Reinhard Heydrich by a czechoslovak commando during World War II. Even though it would be wrong to describe reading this book as a joy, given the book’s description of the rise of nazism and of nazi atrocities, it is true that I found HHhH unputdownable, mostly because of the book’s narration from the point of view of its author, researching the book as it is written — eg. finding a crucial detail in a museum in Prague while on holiday there, commenting on how an old film adaptation of the events gets a few things wrong, being constaly unsure of the color of the car Heydrich was in during the assassination, etc.

I really liked the worldbuilding on Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota books, of which I’m halfway through The Will to Battle, the third in what is expected to be a tetralogy. I’m still a little bit unsure about the premise (There’s going to be a war! Why? Because there’s going to be a war!), and the structure of the books tends to be a bit boring sometimes, specially in the second volume (a dialogue scene, then another dialogue scene, and another, and another), the utopian future world Palmer describes is very consistent and really stays with me, a marvel I would like to see like no other in earthly sci-fi. I see some hints in The Will to Battle that Ada Palmer may be improving at writing action, and if so I can’t hardly wait for the final chapter. And given the worldbuilding, the number of interesting characters, the operatic style, the blood and the constant menace, I hope HBO comes calling. That I would watch.

I’ve also given much thought to Cixin Liu’s bleak Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. While parts still feel very unsophisticated (such as the very weak writing of female characters), it’s very interesting to read hard sci-fi with a chinese point-of-view. And most of all (a spoiler for the second volume, The Dark Forest, follows), Liu offers one very interesting and extremely unsettling theory about why we haven’t yet found any other signs of life in the universe: every advanced civilization is hiding, as demonstrations of intelligent life are swifly met with extermination before they can grow to be a threat. Add the SETI project to our list of existential threats.

I haven’t watched the series, but did feel inclined to read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Despite being written in the 1980s, I agree that it is a dystopia that captures many anxieties of 2017, and for all the ways it may strike us implausible that something as Gilead may be implemented in the West, we should never forget it has happened multiple times before (eg. just look at how Afeghanistan devolved from an emerging developing country to Taliban rule in less than two decades). Therein lies the power of distopia. We may never agree on the utopia we want — Ada Palmer’s books shows how her multiple choice utopia breaks (and that one is only made possible because of free energy and a highly unplausible transport technology). However, we may agree on what we don’t. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum!


I’ve also read quite a few online articles, of which I recommend the following:

There is no alternative?


Sciences & philosophy


The decline of academia


When technology backfires


Art and media


Funny stuff

A pledge of autonomy

I recently read Parimal Satyal's essay Against an Increasingly User-Hostile Web, and realized how I could be doing much better. Indeed, Parimal's advice towards the end of the article is very important to web users and creators alike, and I here am I taking some of that advice.

For all of my sporadic talk about the Indie Web and nostalgia for the simpler days of Geocities, Web rings, and then Blogger and blogrolls, the fact remains that, like the proverbial frog, it's true one finds himself more and more dependent on the whims and formats imposed by a handful of media brands themselves under the control of no more than a couple of companies — Google and Facebook. It's a fact I've maintained this very website since I started it (at some other domain) in 1998, and always tried to make sure anything I posted in a, for the lack of better word, regulated platform was always backed up here or some other place under my control. (Besides, having nearly all of the posts, photos, etc. I share on the internet made public is a good way of not kidding myself about those platforms 'privacy' settings. Private stuff just doesn't go online.)

I want to offer a number of apologies to my readers here. I apologize for having had Facebook and Twitter share buttons, a naïve way of encouraging you to share whatever you found interesting here and to hopefully get more visitors to this website — in simpler words, for my egotism. And I also apologize for having run Google Analytics out of curiosity. I apologize for foolishly letting these companies spy on your visits to this website.

2nd International Conference on Micronations, photographed by Leo de Lafontaine

Therefore, I henceforth pledge to try to create and maintain my websites in autonomy, and to avoid having them making connections to companies that will use them as part of an advertising-surveillance apparatus.

So far, I've got my websites rid of connections to Facebook, Twitter and Google Analytics. Links to original sources remain, but should be harmless unless you enable prefetching (which I believe you shouldn't). I still maintain the use of Google Web Fonts because, well, I am incredibly anal about typography, but that's next on the list to go. I must also disclose that I have got a few domains managed through CloudFlare, including this site's HTTPS, which is something I have mixed feelings about, but still can live with. The share buttons at the end of each of article have also been replaced with a single permalink er... link, so you are, of course, free to copy and paste the URL and share my posts wherever you please. I sure share them on Facebook! :-)

As a web user, I also followed a few recommendations that did't require more than five minutes and don't disrupt my habits the least: I added HTTPS Everywhere to my browser extensions, alongside uBlock Origin, which I've used for quite a while. I also set my search engine to Start Page, which is basically a track-blocking condom around Google Search (which, I have to concede, I am quite used to). I am already a big Pinboard user and can't recommend it enough (besides, Maciej Ceglowski really seems to be one of the Web's Good Guys).

Over the last year I had the pleasure of coordinating the CreativeMornings chapter in Porto, coordinating an excellent group of volunteers in organizing an uninterrupted series of events touching multiple themes and creative areas. As I leave to further concentrate on my PhD research, I’d like to leave a note of thanks and gratitude to all the people I had the pleasure of meeting and working with during my tenure:

First of all, to the team of volunteers that helped in organizing the CreativeMornings events, especially the core team of Catarina David, Filipe Brandão, Luís Silva, Joel Faria, and Nicole Tsangaris, in addition to everyone who contributed with a bit of their time;

To Inês Viseu and Hugo Moura for their constant support and availability hosting the events at Espiga. Their help was crucial and inseparable from the events’ success;

To Gil Ribeiro and Sofia Herrera for initially inviting me, as well as for all the guidance they provided when I accepted the challenge of being an event coordinator, doing something hitherto way outside my comfort zone;

To all the speakers I had the pleasure of inviting and getting to know through the events;

And finally, to everyone who came share breakfast with us and attend the events we all put together.

I still don’t know who will be replacing me in coordinating CreativeMornings/Porto, but I’ll be glad to help with anything that might be needed. But I know for sure the event will be back soon!

Best of the Web Week

I had totally overlooked this, but for a full week in April Kottke.org guestblogger Tim Carmody made a serious of posts that, seriously, should be in a museum; or at least on everyone’s bookmark bar: An unrelentless positive account of Web goodness, against all the darkness the net seems to have unleashed in later years. Carmody’s posts include a fitting praise of Flickr, the best tweets (including, of course, @horse_ebooks which ‘wrote’ the bestest), a very useful list of very useful tools and websites, another list of funny stories, and another of hidden gems, and yet another of life-changing websites, and, to top it all off, a great tribute to Prince.

Carmody also proposes the notion of Digital Humanism as an expression of digital archivism, which I think might be a bit too narrow, despite the unarguably Great Works listed. I’d say that much in the same way the Renaissance humanists fought (often unconsciously) against theocentrism, digital humanists too bring the human to the fore while fighting that god of our age, Finance/corporatism. Archivism is a sure expression, but I’d say the Indie Web is the Greatest Work of digital humanists.

This audio-controlled Hockney Delayer sketch works much like the Directional Delayer I posted earlier: a buffer holds a number of video frames, as the screen is made out of a grid of cells, each selecting its bit from a frame in that buffer. How further back?, being mapped to the audio amplitude. (I also added a bit of ‘jitter’, moving and slightly enlarging the cells according to the same audio amplitude.)

My intention here was to translate something like David Hockney’s collages (earlier post) to video. I’m not sure it works. Here’s another example, splicing together different video files. Both share the same audio track, again hastly assembled from TB Arthur’s free sound library, by the way. You can check the code in my Processing 3.x Github repository.

I had a few Processing sketches that I’ve made and never took the trouble to document or record in some way lying around. So here we go: this is a short video with minimal editing that showcases what I called an Audio-controlled Directional Delayer. You can check the code in my Processing 3.x Github repository.

What it does is to render each frame as a set of rows or columns copied from a specific frame in a 150-frame buffer (or more, if you want). From how far back in that buffer will that row or column be retrieved is mapped to the audio input level. Sometimes a high amplitude will also trigger a mode change (horizontal/vertical).

Here’s another example, using a couple of videos I recorded at the local market. The audio track was hastly assembled from TB Arthur’s free sound library, by the way.

Twenty sixteen views

Pity film critics that dislike most movies they see, for I enjoyed most pictures I watched throughout 2016. Of course, watching movies in a theatre is one of the things I like best in life, and I have the benefit of choosing what I am likely to like, an attitude that may be criticized as unadventurous, or as choosing to inhabit a cinematic echo chamber, but well — life is too short and Cinema too big for my time to be spent on movies I’m not much sure I’d like. I won’t rank these few movies I particularly liked in 2016, for I think comparing works of art is often like comparing eagles to motorcycles — absurd.

Everybody Wants Some!!

Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! proved that the Texan director is American cinema’s master humanist. Whereas teenage movies often requires the protagonist to be an underdog and sports jocks to be one-dimensional antagonists, in this movie Linklater revels in an earnest admiration of jock-ness and the constant insecurities and competition that come with it. Of course, Adam McKay’s The Big Short, then, seems to throw jocks and underdogs together long after they graduated, presenting Big Finance’s excesses and Finance-jocks comeuppance as entertainment for the proles, but McKay’s film based in Michael Lewis’ investigation succeeds in explaining the 2008 Financial Crisis very very well, even if aided by blunt cinematic devices, which is no ordinary feat. That it didn’t have a political impact is shocking but unfortunately was quite expected.

La Loi du Marché

Of course, jocks’ community does approach meritocracy (that guy did manage to slice the baseball with an axe while others watched), but away from sports that meritocracy is but a practical joke the privileged under neoliberalism inflicted upon the proles. The sick consequences were eloquently presented in Cannes winner I, Daniel Blake, but I found Ken Loach’s film a little bit too straight and tidy. In the same vein I’d favor the messier La Loi du Marché / The Measure of a Man by Stéphane Brizé, which replaces Loach’s tale of martyrdom by a scarier tale of conformity, in which the protagonist ends up accepting a job as guard labor rather than keep on fighting for his rights to the bitter end. Which is worse? Both movies are masterpieces about neoliberal awfulness.

Hell or High Water

People sometimes push back though, by all means including violence, and David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water is probably among the finest examples of what might be a justified return of the Western, as the 21st century is shaping to be like the 19th. All the ingredients were there: ghost towns, bank robberies, concealed guns, moral ambiguity — people taking the side of the robbers rather than the banks’, confounding Jeff Bridges excellent sheriff character; only the horses were replaced by automobiles.

Knight of Cups

There was an oscillation between bleakness and levity in the movies I chose to watch in 2016. The Coens’ Hail, Caesar! was, along with Everybody Wants Some!! perhaps the most fun I had in a theatre all year, even if it relies too heavily in its viewers’ knowledge and fondness for 1950s film. But Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship was also a joy to watch, by the relentless pace and wit of his Jane Austen adaptation. Some movies did marry the bleakness and the levity, though — Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups was both grim and pleasurable, one of the most L.A. movies I remember watching, as if Malick took the entire Bojack Horseman series and made a two-hour movie. And nobody films like Terrence Malick.

Things to Come

A note also about Isabelle Huppert, who shined through 2016, not only starring and making Mia Hansen Love’s Things to Come, but also making Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, a probable masterpiece which I’m still deeply perplexed about.

The Last Picture Show

There was also a number of movies I now consider masterpieces I didn’t get to watch until 2016. Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show is an incredible picaresque set in an isolated town, whereas another picaresque, Whit Stillman’s Barcelona has that quality I admire so much about Stillman’s early work, which is that it feels like watching Peanuts comics with an adult cast. Then I also watched Orson Welles’ F for Fake for the first time, and can’t really believe how long it took. It’s the perfect movie for 2016, a year in which nothing was real, all was fraud, fakery, deceit, and rooms full of mirrors.

(That last one is from Lady from Shangai, actually.)


Bojack Horseman

I would also like to write a few lines about television: I’d say Bojack Horseman was the Best Show on Television (or at least on Netflix), an animated treatise on existentialism unmatched by much of what passes for Serious Cinema.

Halt and Catch Fire

Halt and Catch Fire has also been one of my very favorite shows after its second season put an end to its early Mad Men, but in the computer industry intentions and allowed it to become its own show — an incredible study of creativity and its conflicts. Mr. Robot, which had a peerless first season in 2015, may had had a very slow start to its second season, marred by the troubles of writing to audiences that, since watching Fight Club, know and expect too! damn! much!, but once the last few episodes get going, delivers what will be one of the greatest twists in television — one that once again sets the bar even higher for Mr. Robot’s next season. In the meantime, Louis C.K. made a break from his great namesake show to sell us his and Steve Buscemi’s Horace and Pete, well worth the price of admission, in what I hope is a new trend of high-quality indie television.

Black Mirror — San Junipero

And then there was Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. I can’t really say I was that fond of its third season, finding most episodes revisiting ideas better explored in earlier seasons. But there was Episode #4, San Junipero: with an unrelentless positive vibe, it presented a twist on Black Mirror itself, and it presented a twist on 2016. Overall, perhaps, my favorite moving image piece of the entire year.