Sunday, March 17, 2019

Coffee Caste 


"In this rare image of a 17th-century coffee-house, wigged men sit on benches with newspapers and cups of coffee, while a maid serves behind the bar." the British Library.

On a sunny, refreshingly crisp Saturday morning when I had just successfully completed a simple bit of grown-up financial business, I decided to treat myself to a milky coffee and maybe a sweet pastry. I stopped at a pleasant Starbucks on the corner which had a great window seat for people watching. Thanks to Thorstein Veblen I began to wonder if I was implicated in a plague of societal inequity. Thanks Thorstein.

There’s a strange class politics to coffee that everyone recognizes but no one talks about. I guess that’s because no one has to. We all know and understand this market driven social experiment. I like to think I’m a wonderful magnanimous egalitarian who always only thinks the best of his fellow man. If you’re laughing right know, then you obviously know me well. Of course I’m not that person. I don’t feel too bad about it. Not even Ghandi was that kind of person.
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Monday, March 11, 2019

Seen in February… 


Remembering a divorce from the animated short Weekends. Image via Gigazine

The shortest month apparently also yielded the shortest list of films. I think I spent more time napping and rewatching old comforts to make note of here (for instance, bingeing on all eight of the Harry Potter series). Here is what I did see.

Oscar Shorts: Live Action

This collection of live action short films that had been nominated for the Academy Awards were all uniquely frightening and veered heavily towards endangered children as an unconscious theme. Two French Canadian films were nominated and while one was a thoughtful piece about lost and unrequited love (Marguerite), the other (Fauve) gave us two bored young boys playing lazily around an industrial site until something goes wrong. A Spanish film (Mother) plays out entirely in a small apartment over a few minutes of a phone call from a lost child on a faraway beach that would be the panic of anybody.The British nominee (Detainment) re-enacts the harrowing transcripts of two boys who led an infant from a local shopping mall to the train tracks where, inexplicably, they murder the tot. This film, though short was almost unbearable to watch and the young actors who portrayed the boys were incredible. The winning short, Skin, from the USA was an ugly look into the family life of a racist but whenever I outlined the plot to anyone they guessed the outcome because the story had all the subtlety of MAGA hat.


A mom loves her little dumpling in Bao. Image via The Movie DB

Oscar Shorts: Animation

This was another collection of Academy nominated shorts where Canada was well represented with three nominees. The winning Pixar film, Bao, was set in the Toronto home of an aging Chinese mother who imagines a dumpling comes to life but is in fact a metaphor for losing her own son who has recently left home. It has all the trademarks of a Pixar film including an impressively large crew. Late Afternoon, from an Irish filmmaker is a more personal story of a elderly woman with dementia ebbing in and out of her disjointed memories and her relationship with her care taker. Animal Behaviour is another Canadian nominee from the creators of Bob's Birthday and is a simple set up of a support group of animals being helped through their anxieties by a canine therapist (a therapy dog? Oh I just got that). The third Canadian nominee (also a Pixar employee), Weekends is a quiet and atmospheric memory of a kid shuttling between his divorced parents' homes. It's really a beautiful and impressionistic (and painterly) rumination of how a child experiences a divorce and how an adult remembers that time. Unfortunately it didn't really have a plot or narrative which worked against it. An American nominee, One Small Step is a super cute story of a young Chinese-American girl dreaming of becoming an astronaut. One aspect of a lot of short films is how many times they are wordless or without dialogue. It seems to make the stories seem more universal but maybe also lean on stereotypes or clichéd tropes. Still, who isn't moved by a little girl realizing her dreams which are bittersweet because the father who encouraged her had passed away before she had achieved her goals. I'm getting choked up just thinking about it.



Molly Bloom contemplates her future in Molly's Game. Image via The Movie DB

Molly’s Game

This film is based on the true story of Molly Bloom, an aspiring Olympic skier who after a career-ending injury takes a year off before starting law school only to start running a very high end and exclusive underground poker game. I wasn't planning on watching this but Jessica Chastain plays against type in this film and drew me in. She plays a very smart and confident woman who realizes, against her better judgement, that men be coddled by an attractive woman in a very tight dress. Chastain plays Bloom as the smartest person in the room who keeps making bad decisions - but she makes them very well. Why didn't she stop as the stakes of her quasi-legal gambling business start to spiral? Perhaps it was her insanely competitive spirit to win everything driven by her compulsively harsh father, played by Kevin Costner or was it that she couldn't stomach disappointing her father while at the same time getting involved in a criminal act just to spite him? There's some kind of Freudian crap going on and it is an Aaron Sorkin film so of course there is plenty of clever banter even as it lacks emotion (another Sorkin trait). Either way it's a very compelling story even if its ending seems too Hollywood to be believed. One of the more salacious parts of the story was that an actor who was an accomplished card player, used his celebrity to bring wealthy players to the table and when he was unhappy with his cut he pulled the plug on the operation in what could only be described as a "jerk move". That actor? Apparently it was the unassuming star of three Spider-man films, Tobey Maguire.


It turns out the kids are surprisingly alright in Netflix's The End of the F***ing World. Image via The Movie DB

The End of the F***ing World

This Netflix series about a teen-age British Bonnie and Clyde is based on a comic book and as you can tell by the title, not a kid's comic book. James is most likely, possibly, definitely a psychopath in the making while Alyssa is probably only a sociopath. The funny thing is, they're good for each other and better together than apart. Over the 8 episodes, the pair wreck a car, berate a pedophile, break into abandoned homes, encounter a possible serial killer, commit their own sordid crime, rob a gas station and find an estranged parent. Kids will be kids. This is a surprisingly funny though dark series with a weirdly feel-good ending. Even more surprising, despite a seemingly definite end to a main character, a second season was just announced.


You probably won't like this road trip as much as Del Toro and Depp did in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Image via The Movie DB

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Whew boy. This has always been on my "should see" list, due to its cult popularity and well known performances by Johnny Depp as a partially fictional version of Hunter S. Thompson and Benicio Del Toro as his drug dealing lawyer. Based on the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson and fatally directed by Terry Gilliam this film should be a hard pass. I'd almost like to hear exactly what fans of this film like about it just so I could spit-take in their face. It is terrible. Del Toro is suitably unhinged but now I know what inspired Jim Carey's Grinch performance: Depp's inimitable and I suppose "dedicated" embodiment of Thompson. The only really good thing about this film is the poster and DVD cover art by British artist Ralph Steadman.

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Friday, February 22, 2019

Maxim Transfiguration 



As guiding design principles go, it’s hard to beat Vitruvius. In his treatise on architecture, Vitruvius stated three qualities of good architecture:
Firmatis
Utilitas
Venustatis

Usually translated as:
Durability
Utility
Beauty

Often conveyed as:
Commodity
Utility
Delight

I’m not sure when “Beauty” became “Delight” but there is something more personal or emotional about the word “delight” isn’t there? Maybe because it doesn’t sound as serious or portentous as “beauty”. As a designer whose work is compelled by usability (what’s the point of a functionality or a feature if no one can figure out how to use it), I like to think of it as:
Useful
Usable
Delightful
But that's because I like the cadence of it.

But maybe it should be:
Durable
Usable
Delightful

After all, if something has utility, it should have inherent commodity and value but that doesn’t make it durable. Additionally I prefer the adjective form rather than the noun (eg. "Delightful" versus "Delight"). In software we say a finicky program that fails often “is brittle” or that it “breaks easily". If a solution is too customized and can’t be reproduced on a larger scale it isn’t "scalable" because we're in the business of manufacturing and reproducibility which architecture and Vitruvius wouldn't consider. Perhaps good software, like good industrial design should really be:
Durable
Scalable
Usable
Delightful

I like that. It may seem crass and wordy compared to:
Commodity
Utility
Delight

Which itself is a distillation of the original:
Firmatis
Utilitas
Venustatis

But hey,
Que sera sera
Whatever shall be, shall be, right?

It’s the spirit of it that counts, because that’s where the truth lies. Like they say:
In vino verdi, in aqua sante
In wine, truth, in water, health
Put another way, a drunken man’s words, are a sober man’s thoughts.

Or as Caesar put it:
Veni, vidi, vici
I came, I saw, I conquered.

Then again as Dizzy Gillespie said of Louis Armstrong:
No he. No me.

You get it. I don’t have to explain it to you et cetera et cetera, and so on and so on, blah, blah, blah, yadda yadda yadda.

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Thursday, February 14, 2019

Seen in January… 


Sophie Fiennes and Slavoj Zizek on one of the many sets and locations for The Pervert's Guide to Ideology. Image via The Movie DB.

This is becoming a bad habit of mine - posting the previous month’s list when the following month is almost done. It hardly matters as the first half of January was lost to me. I had a cold that was relentless. During that time I sought out mostly movies I had seen and knew would comfort me (also it wouldn't matter if I fell asleep while watching). This is what I did see peering from behind a dune of used tissues.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

Slavoj Zizek and Sophie Fiennes have created another in their series of collaborations which are more like cinematic essays or lectures that apply a Freudian lens to many classic films. Zizek is professor of philosophy and a cinephile and Fiennes the director. In this documentary, there's a slight reversal in that Zizek uses film to explain ideology. Not just the ideology of Capitalists versus Marxists or Reagan or Stalin but also how we form our own ideology, especially in the context of the society within which we live. This approach makes the content much more engaging and memorable. One of the surprising insights is how someone like Stalin's personality and personal ideology helped formed the ideology of the Soviet Union and how the survival of Capitalism makes sense because it is inherently self destroying and constantly reforming and aligning itself however it needs to (more like a viral infection than any organizational principles). In that light, Capitalism doesn't need an individual to guide it, but it is much closer to nature's own survival. There are some mind expanding revelations if you're open to it.



A photo by Mark Hogancamp from Marwencol Image via Artsy

Marwencol

The documentary of a man who created his own therapy through his art and is the basis for the latest Robert Zemeckis film Welcome to Marwen (presumably they didn't get the permission of the "Colleen" who makes up the "col" part of the name). I will not see that film because I do not like Robert Zemeckis films and I'm pretty sure you won't really find out much about the real Mark Hogancamp who the story is based on. Mark Hogancamp was at a bar in his upstate New York town when he was jumped by a group of men who very nearly beat him to death. Why? He may have mentioned it wasn't so weird to wear women's clothing. The men were arrested, charged and jailed but that didn't heal Hogancamp. He spent months in physical therapy relearning how to walk and when the insurance money ran out, teaching himself to read and write again. Damaged and reeling from a brain injury Hogancamp withdrew into a world of storytelling where he was the rescuer and rescued hero of his own devising. In some respects the brain injury was a reset. Hogancamp's previous life included a successful marriage until alcoholism tore that apart. After the injury he had no interest in drinking at all. To keep himself occupied he began to build a model town set in World War II era Belgium. He populated this town with his G.I. Joe scaled dolls depicting friends, many female, who were based on those people around him thus the name he gave the town, "Marwencol", an amalgam of Mark-Wendy-Colleen. He didn't just build the town, but created a storyline for it as an evolving place that he recorded through simple but striking photography. When a photographer met Mark on one of his many walks he saw the potential of the work, contacted a small art magazine publisher and gallery owner. That's how his work and story came to national attention. By the end of the documentary we see Hogancamp realizing this next stage of his life in a new version of Marwencol. In this new version, the action figure of himself is not a WWII hero but an artist photographing a scaled down version of his original creation. Retelling his reality in an alternate nested reality is a sort of physical manifestation of how we relate our memories when we repeat our own stories to ourselves and others. Picture yourself telling a table full of friends how one time you found a cat in a tree. Now imagine you created a scaled version of yourself sitting at a table of doll sized depictions of those same friends and on the table you have created a scaled diorama of yourself rescuing a cat from a tree. That's what this would be like. Come to think of it, it would be interesting to view this with Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York which is about creating something as a stand-in for another thing (sort of).
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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Seen in… December 

December is the Season for cranking up the heat until sauna conditions are reached. Yet it’s also the time when I seek comfort in watching old favourites or seeking sentimental seasonal flicks. Call it seasonal cinematic disorder.


Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens. Image from The Movie DB

The Man Who Invented Christmas

A new spin on Dickens' A Christmas Carol, with Christopher Plummer as Scrooge and Dan Stevens as Dickens. We meet Charles Dickens returning from a successful American tour only to find his recent books are failures, his debts are piling up, his wife is struggling to make a home in their new (expensive) London house while his ne’er-do-well father shows up with hands out hustling for an income by selling his son’s autographed letters. Dickens knows he needs a hit and has struck upon an idea inspired by his young Irish housekeeper for a Christmas story. His publishers are skeptical, even wondering who even cares about Christmas, and unsure of being able to print a book in time for the holiday never mind write one. Frustrated, Dickens fronts the money for the illustrations, the printing plates and the elaborate, ornate binding he envisions. Of course this only adds to his stress. We see the story come together as Dickens struggles with writer’s block while arguing with the imaginary cast of characters that will be so well known to us in the story that will become A Christmas Carol. Plummer is a perfect Ebenezer Scrooge and a wonderful foil to Dan Stevens as Dickens.


Zinedine Zindane in his natural environment.

Zindane: a 21st Century Portrait

Listed as a documentary, this film should not be confused with anything other than an unique art film that explores the idea of portraiture through movement, audio and a kind of video collage - so yeah, not your average documentary. Seventeen cameras follow French soccer icon Zinedine Zindane during a Real Madrid vs. Villareal match from April 23, 2005. With music from the band Mogwai as the score, it's not a particularly thrilling match but it is a mesmerizing montage of modern sport.



That's Miles Morales as Spider-man. Image from The Movie DB

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse

Dazzling. For the young at heart but definitely not for anyone who isn't up to contemporary cinema's fast paced editing style. There is also a unique style of animation here that merges the graphic vernacular of comics with computer generated effects and a sort of, American Anime. For me a problem of the Marvel live action films is how a character like Spider-man, as computer generated puppet appears to defy the gravity of the real world. In animation however, the squash, stretch and spring of the character comes to life in a stylishly unrealistic way that is very satisfying. The animation sets the characters free to be as exciting on screen as they are on the page. This Spider-man is torn from Marvel’s multi-universe interpretation in which many different people in many different variations become Spider-man and Spider-women. In this universe, a confident and daring Spider-man dies while trying to stop his nemesis the Kingpin from using an electron collider to open a parallel universe (see, even science can be set free in an animated world). The consequences of this device are that Spider-people from various alternative universes begin to show up in New York like Gwen Stacey or a Japanese school girl, or a talking pig or a young bi-racial Brooklyn teen named Miles Morales who becomes his own version of Spider-man and discovers new abilities that the previous Peter Parker never had. Miles is tutored and encouraged by our universe's Peter Parker, who has become somewhat of a disappointment to his friends, family and himself. Divorced, broke, out of shape, our Peter Parker seems too far gone to save anyway, including himself but of course you’ll have to see the movie to know how that turns out.
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