I have never been so convinced that reviewers have missed the central theme of a film than in the case of “Phantom Thread,” the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson starring Daniel Day-Lewis. It is not about a man driven to aesthetic perfection more than money and power, whatever A.O. Scott seems to think. Nor is it, as he puts it, “The wrenching tale of a woman’s love for a man and a man’s love for his work.” Nor is it about breakfast, as Anthony Lane suggests in The New Yorker, although that is a more interesting possibility, and it is true that breakfast is an important setting for the major moments in the film. Like Lane, I thought of Hitchcock in watching the film, and specifically of “Rebecca,” but the film is in the end, more of a love story, than a horror story, which is perhaps its central surprise.
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So apparently listing all of the Black Mirror Episodes in the order from best to worst is now a thing. So I’m getting on it. For me best to worst does not mean I don’t like the episodes on the bottom of the list, I just mean, in terms of Black Mirror episodes, they were not as good as the ones ahead of them.
I was trying to think about what my ranking criteria are. One element is how believable it is, not in terms of the technology, but the ethical dilemmas and decisions people find themselves facing as a result of the technology or the aspects of the human condition the technology reveals. The more those dilemmas seemed to capture the truth of humanity in this moment in time the better I thought the episode was. But I also coupled that with how interesting the technology / world created by the technology was. So while I thought Shut Up and Dance captured the truth of humanity, the technology seemed pretty much already possible so the episode didn’t seem that imaginative to me. Read more
I saw Darren Aronofsky’s film Mother! when it first came out and I’ve been mulling over it for awhile. I was hesitant to see it because of reports that it was a horror film, but I didn’t think it was difficult to watch in the same way a horror film is. It is unrelenting in the Second Act, but the unrelenting nature is purposeful. Marc Maron had a just awful reading of it on his podcast after he interviewed Aronofsky, but mostly, astute viewers saw the allegory to Christianity and to the price the artist exacts from his material. What I’ve been mulling over are the ways that the film is a critique of Christianity–of God as the artist and of Christianity as a practice of consuming the creations of the artist.
In what is to my mind the central scene of the film, Jennifer Lawrence’s character realizes that The Poet who represents God is trying to take the newborn baby from her. So she holds the baby to protect it. Eventually she falls asleep, and while she is sleeping, The Poet / God takes the baby and presents it to the people who tear the baby to pieces and liturgically eat the pieces of the baby guided by a priest in a clear depiction of Communion. Read more
I am the kind of person who watches Black Mirror out of duty and not out of enjoyment. I have to gird myself to sit down for an episode and can usually only watch one episode at a time, mostly because of the dark capacities of human existence that I think the show explores. Leigh Johnson is right about a lot of things and one of them is that the show is not fundamentally about technology. I think it is important to see the show as investigating how technology can open up or put to work some of our baser instincts, rather than suggesting that the technology is the cause of them. I just finished the fourth season, which Johnson maintains is worse for seeming to be more about the technology than about the human condition.
I am not entirely sure that it is more about technology, but I think there is something to the notion that the more it seems to be about the anxieties or problems that the technology produces rather than the human depravity the technology enables or reveals the less compelling the show is. Still in Season 4, I think Hang the DJ is about the darker side of the eternal return of the same and that Arkangel is about how the very things we think will allow us to control the disorder and unpredictability of life and relationships end up bringing disorder and chaos to those relationships. I was disappointed by Metalhead because the basic plot device seemed completely unmotivated.
But I found Black Museum particularly interesting. One thing I like about Black Mirror episodes is that they stand up to further reflection and rumination. While I was watching Black Museum the episode seemed self-satisfyingly self-referential in a way that made it seem was a series of short BM episodes squeezed into one. But at the end of the episode, I started to wonder whether the show is in fact raising questions about watching Black Mirror itself. (SPOILERS) The episode is set up as a tour through a museum of Black Mirror-like technologies that lead people to treat others badly. One involves the endless torture of a cookie in a sketch that is a mix of White Bear, White Christmas and USS Callister. Another involves a woman in a coma whose consciousness is placed in a teddy bear. At the end of the episode, the woman on the tour who turns out to be the daughter of the man whose cookie is being endlessly tortured destroys the tour guide by turning him into a cookie who is being endlessly tortured. The annoyance of the self-reference made me wonder if the episode is talking about Black Mirror. The show, like the guide, has taken a sort of pleasure in presenting us with macabre possibilities of humanity and technology, in an episode that shows quite explicitly how people just did not think through the implications of the technology they created, which led to their demise, including to the demise of the tour guide. This turn of events made me wonder whether the show is reflecting on how the show itself might have unintended consequences, how it might get out of their hands, as the technology always seems to do. Or rather, the technology shows itself to have never been fully in their hands in the first place.
The end of the episode involves torching the “Black Museum,” the monument to these destructive technologies. So I’ve been wondering whether it is a kind of call for viewers to torch it and what that would involve. And more, why might it be something the creators want to warn us about or suggest we do? Of course, the makers of Black Mirror have not made new destructive technologies as much as worked within already existing technologies to imagine new ones. Is the possible suggestion that even the old technologies can be destructive and we need to get on thinking and reflecting about that instead of fixating on what is to to come? I think Johnson is right to warn against coming up with a moral for each episode. But this one struck me as saying something was not good, doubly and perhaps triply. The tour guide describes how the technologies went wrong. The tourist punishes him for being the purveyor of these technologies. And she destroys the museum, as if keeping the memorials was just as much a problem. This last point is what makes me think the makers of Black Mirror are asking for reflection in relation to the show itself. Even though each episode does not have a moral, I do think the show in general is asking for thoughtfulness around technological advances that far outpace our thinking about what they mean for being human and how they might make being human mean something else.
You should see La La Land. You should see it on the big screen. As soon as the credits rolled, I said aloud, that film was better than I thought it was going to be. The reason you should see it is not because it is a musical. The reviews I have read or heard, like Anthony Lane’s in the New Yorker and the discussion of the movie on Slate’s Culture Podcast, talk about the movie as if it’s sole contribution is in being a musical. I would say the musical element is both central to the film’s themes and incidental to what makes the film worth seeing. Read more
When I was in high school I read John Irving’s novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany. The OA has the same structure of a story as that novel. The structure of the story is the spoiler of the whole thing so really if you don’t want to be spoiled on the novel or The OA, do not read any further. Read more
In January, I was blogging regularly about what is required to motivate change, a move from inaction to action, from one view to another, from not caring to caring. I pointed out then that just telling someone their position is contradictory rarely moves them to change their position.
Today, I heard yet another podcast (see this one too) discuss Samantha Bee’s new show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. On this podcast, Stephen Metcalf of Slate says:
I may have reached my limit for “let them eat satire.” The debasement of as culture, especially political culture, as raw material for the late night shows, and this is the kind of comedy placebo that I swallow on a nightly basis to wake up as a functionally sane human being. I’ve kind of reached the end of it in a weird way, I’ve kind of, I want, I want rage and political action. I don’t want to laugh, however on point the satire is.
Last night I saw the film Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Taylor Sheridan. All I knew about it was that it starred Josh Brolin, Benecio Del Toro and Emily Blunt. This film is the rare example of a film that you don’t really know what it is about until the last half hour, because you don’t really know what is motivating various decisions and what the goals of the various characters are. I mean you do kinda, but you don’t. You know it is about the American government’s effort to fight the drug cartels whose violence has spread into the United States. You know that they are trying to track down a particular head of a drug cartel. (Some spoilers ahead.) Read more
I’ve been watching the Making of a Murderer. I’m on Episode 4. If you haven’t started it yet, don’t worry, there are no spoilers here. I think this is an unspoilable series because, well, you know everything when you start watching. Not everything, but the gist, and that’s why you start watching. The gist is that a man in Wisconsin was falsely convicted of sexual assault, spent 18 years in prison, was exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence, and then, was possibly framed by police when he sued the police department for wrongful conviction. It was that last bit that motivated me to watch. Read more
Last weekend, I finally watched Divergent. Last semester, I kept telling students in my Plato’s Republic seminar that someone needed to get on the film version of the dialogue. It just seems so cinematically rich. I mean, I know people have made films that are treatments of the cave analogy, but I want the thriller that is the dialogue as a whole.
Halfway through the semester a student told me I needed to see Divergent because it depicted Plato’s Republic. Let’s just bracket that this film fails as a depiction because any successful film of the dialogue would have to find a way to perform the narrative encapsulation of the dialogue–Socrates narrating the story of the conversation that follows, the argumentative set up to the city in light of the question of whether justice is advantageous. If Divergent depicts the Republic, it does so because it depicts a community in which people are divided into classes on the basis of their natures and these classes do the different tasks needed for the city to flourish. Erudite seeks knowledge, Dauntless defends the city, Amity farm peacefully at the outskirts of the city, Candor speaks the truth, and Abnegation feed the poor and rule the city. The film, which is based on the novel of the same name by Veronica Roth, gets traction from the problem that not everyone easily fits into one category, because you know, they’re divergent! Like Hunger Games, a story that sets itself up as a revolutionary tale of resistance against oppression, Divergent ends up serving the same neoliberal practically Ayn-Randian celebration of individualism against collective action. In this film, the collective becomes a problem because it attempts to limit and narrowly define individuals, while individuals succeed only when they work independently of the collective in order to resist it. Read more