Posts tagged me

I’ve been hard at work as developer at my Master’s thesis project, which I’m sharing with a colleague. I’m not at liberty yet to discuss many details, but I can disclose it’ll be a Reality-based social network. And even though it still looks far from impressive at this stage (alpha milestone 1), it feels like a fucking masterpiece for someone like me, with near zero formal training as a programmer, learning as I go. I love it.

And we’ll be open-sourcing the software once the project goes live. It’ll be good.

Pan sonic

Nearly ten years ago I got a Fuji MX-2700 as a birthday present. Despite its 2.3 megapixels and its fixed zoom lens it was as expensive back then as a decent laptop computer or a lower-midrange DSLR are now, not even accounting for inflation. Basically it was the most expensive present someone ever gave me, so I really made the most of it — the lackluster electrical appliance was my camera of choice for the next five years, despite my affairs with analog Yashicas and Nikons bought on eBay. Late 2005 I finally decided to give the Fuji a rest from being utterly crap, as in the meantime I was starting to get fed up with getting beter results from a BenQ toy camera that didn’t even have a viewfinder. So I got a somewhat better BenQ (how I love thy cheap electronics) for about 100 euros, and a couple years later, while at Fnac browsing a crate of items that have previously been on display at the store (therefore likely to have been abused by overeager button-pushers), got one of the worst and ugliest cameras Canon ever made for 50 euros, so I could go and hack it.

So anyway, last week I finally decided I should buy a proper digital camera. I can’t afford a good DSLR (say, a 5D Mark II?), and if I’m buying a DSLR nothing less than a fullframe sensor makes sense — anything less is a camera for wearing on weekends, impressing the clueless hipsters in the downtown cafés while making a fool of yourself in front of anyone who actually knows his optics (the people you really intended to impress). But I digress: If I can’t buy a fullframe sensor, at least I should do myself a favor and buy a lighter, smaller camera, so I thank my friend Ivo for pointing me the kind of small point-and-shoot camera a real photographer would buy: the Panasonic LX-3. Nevermind this camera is the Leica D-Lux 4 minus the logo and 300 euros. He had me sold with the f2.0 lens.

An in fact the camera feels like Quality. It has the size it should have for its abilities, unlike the junk SLRs you can get for the same price. And the way the lens is so well thought out sets it apart, a symptom of why the LX-3 is great: it can’t zoom past 60mm (35mm equiv.), but in a camera this small and (relatively) cheap, why would you want a tele (and the inherent loss of aperture, bigger body)? Are you a chromatic aberration nut? Good thinking by the Panasonic engineers there.

In a nutshell, the Panasonic is a good solid photographers’ camera. And I only wonder why are there so many crappy point-and-shoots being sold by the same 330 or so euros. Oh, because those come in pink. But nevermind those: the LX-3 is definitely highly recommended.

Lessons

Having turned thirty last April, that would seem like a logical good time to look back at my life in the past ten years. Instead, I’m glad I waited until the end of 2009, for there were still very important lessons to be learned in the last eight months of the decade.

The end of a decade

It’s a terrible cliché to say I’m not the same person I was ten years ago. In fact, I’m pretty much the same person, to an irritating degree. Self-improvement only takes you so far, and the quirks, habits and little vices are hard to get rid of. I may have become less and less and less naïve about things, more and more cynical. Considering the worldwide hopefulness of the end of the 1990s (technology will save us all! long live The New Economy!), it’s not hard to come to the conclusion weltschmerz played a role in my life in the 2000s. Not that I spent the decade watching far too much CNN or reading far too much about, say, peak oil (perhaps I did), but because of the everyday manifestation of said weltschmerz: precarity.

The 2000s were a time of disillusionment because a lot of people found out they had bought into a scam: the whole thing about finishing college, getting a decent job, marrying and having kids. Here in Portugal, what people got instead was a job market that treats creative experts as hands for hire, in which a salary is a luxury as many of your ex-classmates are willing to work for free in the vague hope of getting paid, someday. Most can’t wait for that someday. Of the twenty-something Film Studies colleagues I graduated with, only a handful got some degree of involvement with actual video production. All others had to find something else. Being a ‘veteran’ of the 2000 dotcom collapse, I couldn’t say I was surprised at my narrow prospects upon finishing my college degree. I was very lucky to get a teaching job, but my going back to Multimedia for my Master’s is my way of moving on in dire times.

At twenty, I would have never expected that ten years on I’d still be living with my mother or driving the same car. That’s what I can manage with a (low) fixed income for only a college semester out of every year. Many of my generation trick themselves into believing they’re adults via a parent-sponsored faux-independence, something I’m in no position to enjoy or have any desire to. Many others have had the good fortune of being able to move on. But many others still are caught in a jam, half-adult, half-adolescent, working on ways of getting Fortune to show herself, unable to pay rent every month until then.

My freelancing never quite taken off. Not in the years before college, not after. Despite holding myself to being good at what I do. Perhaps I’m not very good with people: something the 2000s made quite clear is that the medical/psychological community is set into diagnosing everyone with syndromes I may or may not have, as if there was this perfect and immaculate template of ‘normality’, with no room for differences among people, among personalities. Yes, I am too verbal-minded and sometimes oblivious to non-verbal cues. Also I didn’t look at people in the eye much, but when I realized this, I didn’t go after some pityable explanation and started taking some meds. Instead, I made an effort to look at you in the eye.

The decade also held a lot of lessons about friendship and behaviour. I discovered the most vague, meaningless and still dangerous word there is: ‘values’. It’s not exclusive of right-wing demagogues. It is, if not in the mouths, at least in the minds of people who are willing to meddle in the affairs of others, to judge others in a bad light. Friends don’t judge. Never ever. A friend is someone who’s There. Ten years later, many of my best friends, which I love, would be people with no values, as defined by ex-friends and enemies. I’ve learned to be intolerant of one thing and one thing only: people being inconsiderate.

Finally, here’s a lesson most people don’t take to heart, wonderfully metaphorized in that crazy May 26th 2004. Just minutes after FC Porto, the club I had supported since a kid, had won the most important trophy in club football, I attended the first ever proper screening of one of my films, a documentary called O Zero. That was a poignant reminder one shouldn’t live through the superficial, or worse, through the achievements of others. One only lives through oneself. I was proud that day. Prouder than most in the celebrating masses.

...and the rest of my favorites

Yesterday I indulged myself into writing my longest post ever, about my favorite films of the decade. Re-reading it, I see I left out of lot of things I should have talked about. I completely negleted non-portuguese and non-american movies (I should have mentioned Cidade de Deus, Rois et Reine, The Beat My Heart Skipped, In the Mood for Love, to say just a few — perhaps someday, when I write a rigorous appreciation of 00s film). And I also forgot to mention the return, around mid-decade, of 1970s-style political/paranoia thrillers (think Syriana or Michael Clayton), perhaps because unfortunately no timeless classic is to be found among the many good films of the genre. It’s telling that the best film so far about the Iraq War (and by a large margin) is the aggressively apolitical The Hurt Locker.

But still I haven’t shut up about film. That’s not only because of my film studies. It’s harder to properly evaluate the decade’s other arts in the last day of the 2000s. I’ve read a lot, but mostly stuff written much longer ago. By taking a quick glance at my shelves, I’d be tempted to nominate Douglas Coupland’s JPod or The Gum Thief as books that capture the decade’s cynicism and disillusionment pretty well, except they are not that great as works of literature. I’d mention Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves post-modern mindfunkiness as a classic waiting to be discovered, but published in 2000 it is essentially informed by a breakdown of the 1990s slacker way of life. Then there’s also Neal Stephenson’s 2400-page novel Baroque Cycle, which chronicles the period coincident with the lifetime of Isaac Newton with a sci-fi sensibility, resulting in the most interesting literary Heavy Meal of the decade (page-wise). A shame it was followed up by Anathem, which I have no doubt in calling Disappointment of the Decade.

What about music? At the end of every year I’d make pretty weak jokes, mentioning, say, my favourite records of 1995 as my favourite records of 2005. What happened was that during the 2000s I completely ceased to care about music, not going to that many live gigs too. Or perhaps I still care about music, but not with the kind of neuroticism I had in the 1990s. Still, I think this was the decade music was finally overwhelmed by postmodernism, resulting in no new styles to speak of, perhaps because the new toys of the 1980s and 1990s (we’re talking digital) are the same old toys by now — so accessible to the point Auto-Tune became a recurring joke. But thankfully there was more to the decade that now ends besides the pitch-corrected vocals: The White Stripes, M.I.A., LCD Soundsystem and TV on the Radio became regulars on my playlists, and Radiohead, Portishead and Boards of Canada continued there with their new releases. Perhaps I listened to far too much Beirut, and Nouvelle Vague made the journey from pleasant to over-ubiquous musak, but was a nice constant in my playlists for a brief moment.

A Naifa — Canções Subterrâneas

A very special mention to the portuguese act A Naifa (video). Their album Canções Subterrâneas was a perfect revision of traditional fado, incorporating electronic instruments and lyrics about being unhappy despite recycling, using public transportation and not watching television. How more contemporary can you get?

Happy New Year!

My favorite films of the decade

So those were my favourite films of 2009. But what about my favourite film of the 2000s? My answer is as obvious (if you have been paying attention to this blog) as it is surprising:

David Simon’s The Wire (2002-2008). That’s right, my favourite film (or should I say my favourite work of moving image art to be more accurate) of the decade was a TV show, despite the fact I went to a movie theatre some seven hundred times in the last ten years, and obviously that means a lot more films if I count the stuff I caught on video or television. Hardcore cinema critics and pseudo-buffs are no doubt readying their torches and pitchforks after reading this, because they don’t understand the following: The Wire is a sixty hour movie. Not a single part of a single episode in any of its five seasons is skippable, and the overall story arc is so flawless it must be treated as a single work of art. It’s the film equivalent of the twelve hundred page novel. A bit too much to fit in an usual two hour screening, so you get to see it in small parts on television, although I’d be more than happy to pay to attend a marathon screening. The Wire defines and makes sense of the 2000s, of how turbo-capitalism conquered all — including hearts and minds — thus stripping people of their worth. What to do then? How do we cope? The Wire’s finale shows us the way character is reincarnated, what’ve seen is one among seemingly endless loops of human condition. If we change in some way — or even die —, someone will step into our shoes. People will be the same everywhere.

The value of blogging for such a long time is that I can read the my favourite film lists for 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002 and 2001. I love going out to watch a film in a dark room, despite all the convenient gadgets that appeared during the last decade — HDTV sets, streaming set-top boxes, Internet downloads, etc. — and my love of going to the movies makes me enjoy most of the movies I watch (I think those film critics that rarely rate anything over two stars must secretly hate their jobs). So the following is a highly subjective view of film in the 2000s, and often the context played as strong a role in my appreciation as the film itself.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind first and foremost. I went to see it three times in a row! Who else but this frenchman to deliver a drama that blends campy sci-fi concepts and lots of film nerd trickery into coherent and naturalistic love story? And I disagree with everyone who says this is a sad movie, I’ve seen it in a period of personal distress and in fact it did help me recover.

Ghost World, The Royal Tenenbaums, Punch-Drunk Love. Terry Zwigoff, Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson’s films all had a vibrant indie quirkyness that made you feel like the coolest person in the neighbourhood for watching (P. T. Anderson later directed There Will Be Blood, which I found one of the most brilliant movies ever on an intellectual level, but that’s another story). The first half of the decade was actually a great time for American independents — the brief moment in which market forces gave these authors, grown out of the 90s great age of independent film, all the resources they needed — but still before the damaging moment ’indie’ became a marketing category (probably around the time of Little Miss Sunshine’s Oscar campaign), leading to uncritically acclaimed crap such as Juno, the Benedict XVI-approved anti-abortion pamphlet disguised in Ghost World clothing. In 2006 there was, however, one quirky American indie film that stood out:

Me and You and Everyone We Know

That was Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. There are few things hardly as great as entering a movie theatre knowing nothing about the film you’re about to watch (there are no known actors, no known director, having seen no trailers, read no reviews), and two hours later leaving the theatre knowing you’ve just seen one of the great films of the decade. Miranda July’s is not primarily a filmmaker, so I felt none of that carreer-defining urgency you often get from independent directors. It’s a quirky little American indie film, but it’s also fearless and careless. I like that.

And what happens when you get a veteran director to do an indie-style flick? Probably a bad idea, but Jonathan Demme was more than up to the task. A couple of days ago I praised Rachel Getting Married, but what I didn’t tell you then is that movie was also watched in a context. Like Jonathan Levine’s The Wackness which I had watched a few months before, it provided eerie moments of identification, and among the most amusing post-film discussions I ever had with a friend. But to delve into that would be something for my novel…

Aaltra

And what can I say about Benoît Delépine and Gustave de Kerverne’s Aaltra? Comedy of the Decade, perhaps, despite being surely Most Inappropriate Film of the Decade too. Aaltra blends the offbeat with the darkest humour imaginable, and you’ll often find yourself embarrassed to be laughing (and you will) at the wheelchair-bound travelers.

Genre film, then. I’ll deal primarily with the only genre I have a degree of affinity with — science fiction. The 2000s was not a great decade for that, as everyone was busying themselves with Lord of the Rings-type fantasy and superhero adaptations. Some true science-fiction tentpoles were shockingly bad (I, Robot or Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which I won’t even bother linking), and the only good recent one - Avatar - is itself a marriage between fantasy and science-fiction, more of the former in fact than the latter. But there were a few bright spots in the bleak landscape of sci-fi nowadays (a statement I would also extend to books): Steven Spielberg did score a hit before that spectacular miss with Minority Report. Danny Boyle’s Sunshine missed the chance at becoming a great classic of the genre with that horror/slasher ending, but did deliver some of the greatest sci-fi images of the decade. Moon, directed by David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones looks and feels like a science fiction film of the 1970s — in a great way. And then, the only timeless classic the decade brought us — a Soylent Green for the 21st century:

Children of Men

Alfonso Cuarón Children of Men. Not only it updates, at long last, our collective vision of futuristic nightmare, it does so in a frighteningly realistic way: of course we do not expect the implausible event of worldwide sterilty being the catalyst for doom as it is in this film, but we can too well imagine things such as raging climate change or energy crisis leading to a year 2027 pretty similar to Cuarón’s depiction. Perhaps this one too is one of the great films of the decade. All of the films I listed here so far — like the quirky indie one — are deliriously and deliciously avoidant (and I like them), but Children of Men, like The Wire, defines the noughts in a way others don’t. The Wire might be a very long essay on turbo-capitalism. Children of Men is by contrast a small cautionary tale about the Bush/Blair doctine of international relations.

This was also an interesting decade for Portuguese film. As always, the institutions are reacting very slowly to technological innovation and to a generation change, so the great Portuguese films I enjoyed watching are probably not those seen with great interest at the Film Institute or by our film critics who generally have such a narrow-minded view of authorship and le cinema they become cannibalistic fetishists, hating (not a strong enough word) far more movies than the few put out by the authors they love. And yet, these films I’m talking about have a merely incidental commercial appeal (ostensible efforts at commercially successful films in Portugal always have ended up in total artistic disaster). Therefore they somehow slipped through the cracks of the system.

Alice

João Canijo’s Noite Escura, perhaps the most academically acceptable of the lot, set a Greek tragedy in a roadside brothel. But more insteresting is the fact this was one of the first portuguese films I had ever seen that was perfectly acceptable from a technical standpoint. No more faded film stock, no more unperceptible dialogues — shit that needlessly drives people away. All of a sudden low-budgeted Portuguese films looked and sounded… okay (here’s a sigh of relief). That was 2004. The following year, Marco Martins’ Alice became an unexpected hit, and all of a sudden it seemed as if we portuguese could crank out decent, watchable films if we just learn to ignore the old cranks and their apostles, and dismiss the sleazes in for a quick buck in the film production business. Even Miguel Gomes, out of the film criticism heart of darkness that lead to pretty bad short films, cranked out a surprisingly good movie in 2008 called Aquele Querido Mês de Agosto. And I’d also highlight Tiago Guedes and Frederico Serra’s Entre os Dedos, or this year’s 4 Copas by Manuel Mozos. We even had a science fiction film in this decade, and a good one! Solveig Nordlund’s Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude, an adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s Low Flying Aircraft.

What about moments in movies? There were perhaps too many to be interesting, but I would definitely highlight Bill Murray singing More than This in Lost in Translation, which placed Roxy Music’s song in top of my personal list of Top Songs that Are So Depressing It’s Funny. There was also another very funny moment, halfway David Lynch’s Inland Empire. Jeremy Irons’ character, a film director, is seen in a seemingly endless monologue trying to instruct his gaffer to place a light just right. I burst out laughing like a maniac during that scene, the only person laughing in a packed room full of bored people. I had spent the previous days working in Corações Plásticos. My job? Getting the gaffer to place the lights just right.

It’s true that my romantic life has produced some humorous anecdotes, but good stories seldom come from happy experiences.

Tim Kreidler — The Referendum. There are so many quotable sentences in this article, I just picked one. I may be still thirty, but totally identify with the writer — and the fact that Portugal is still a conservative society doesn’t help either. (via Kottke)

Maria, which I have known for what feels like my entire life and is the coolest friend in the Universe, turns twenty-five today. Happy B’day girl!

The tumblelog conundrum

Yesterday Tumblr rolled out yet another improvement to their free ‘tumblelogging’ service — the ability to read ‘tag channels’ in your Dashboard, which you can filter by popularity in realtime. I immediately said ‘Wow!’ and found it very cool from a software development standpoint (an aesthetic appreciation my recently academic studies has been sharpening). But still, there was that old part of me that just said:

“Hey, whoa! Wait a minute!”

There’s much to be loved about Tumblr. I happily jumped onboard two-and-a-half years ago, right at the launch. I’ve seen this webservice grow, adding a ton of features in the meantime without losing focus. One of the reasons I like it so much probably doesn’t make much sense: Tumblr is made in New York, not in California, so somehow something has passed into its design and software engineering that I find more appealing to my European sensibility than similar services from the Far West. But there’s another, double-edged reason. When recommending Tumblr to people (which I do, a lot), I tell them “in a nutshell, it’s blogging for lazy people”. I’m lazy, so that’s a great reason. I don’t blog much, and would blog even less if there were no ‘bookmarklets’ or whatever you call them. So in way, the greatest reason for my enthusiasm about Tumblr is the bookmarklet.

If you are one of the two persons who visited If Then Else a few years ago and still do, you know that shortly after I signed up for my Tumblr account my blogging style changed dramatically. It may have taken a couple of years for me to get everything smoothy integrated, but essentially since 2007 If Then Else was ‘possessed’ by my ‘tumblelogging’, and what used to be a text-heavy blog became something quite different, a somewhat random collection of text, yes, but also photos, links, quotes and videos (I never had much care for chats and audio posts), not a web-journal anymore but some cross between a certain 1990s ideal of what an ‘e-zine’ should be and a chaotic Robot Wisdom-esque mess updated for the broadband age (mind you, when I started If Then Else in 2001 it was still costumary for a webdesigner to ensure a webpage’s ‘weight’ was below 50KB — or else people would get fed up with the loading time). In effect, If Then Else became a clone — diligently mirrored by a cronjob I put on its server — of my Found Objects tumblelog.

While If Then Else sports different visuals, a six years deeper archive, a photologue (itself a similar clone of my Fotologue account — I never liked Flickr, so I went Far East rather than West), a pretty pristine hand-coded comment system and some of the other knick-knacks old weblogs usually have, Found Objects ‘follows’ and is ‘followed’, and there are ‘notes’ (that is, ‘likes’ and ‘reblogs’) instead of comments. If Then Else won’t get out much, its best feature is perhaps the RSS feed, which allows people to read it without ever visiting the sorry-ass website a second time. But the party never stops in Tumblelogueland, where people like posts and posts get liked, where reblogs are conduits throughout which content gets pushed and memes gets traced. It’s Web 1.0 versus Web 2.0, my host versus their server.

This is the great trend of the late noughts Internet: centralization. Unless you are an A-lister, your own private, hand-or-Dreamweaver-coded website means squat. Sure you can put a portfolio online on your own host — and you should, as a courtesy for those who google you or so that you can have your vanity address written on the back of your business card —, but all the action’s at Behance, and that’s the place where you should put your stuff. In a sense, we’re back in the old BBS days, and the early Web was a crazy anarchic phenomenon that wasn’t fit to last. Why should I bother building my own spaces if nobody visits them, and people get their dose of whatever Ed is up to in the places everybody lists what they are up to?

I guess the answer lies at the beginning of this rant. While the means to filter huge amounts of information like the ‘tag channels’ are undeniably cool, and somehow meet the romantic promises of early information futurisms such as Vannevar Bush’s Memex, the flipside to the content-sharing cultures of places like Tumblr and Facebook is that nobody’s actually creating anymore. A ‘reblog’, while interesting as a meme-tracing construct, gives us an illusion of production through consumption, and in the end many weblogs and tumblelogs, in their quest for ‘new’ content every day hour become someone else’s parrot so they can improve their ‘tumblarity’ — a Tumblr feature I really dislike, as it introduces a competitiveness that encourages mindless reblogging as original posts are harder to do.

This is why I believe keeping your own, let’s say ‘Web 1.5’, site is still important: It’s your space, so you keep it neat and clean.