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Shin Godzilla (2016) 👍

Equal parts of man versus monster and man versus bureaucracy in this low-budget high-quality remake. Though googly-eyed, the monster is more alien, more menacing, and more destructive than the recent American version. So is the Japanese bureaucracy, which is, in the end, a bigger threat to the country than Godzilla will ever be.

Against sarcasm

Everyone loves Ted Lasso, both the character and the show, in great part because he manages to be funny without being sarcastic. It reminds me of what made Frasier so good: that the writers never took the easy jokes. Smart humor is hard, smart humor without sarcasm is even harder.1

The past few years have made me sarcarsm-intolerant. I can still appreciate professionally done satire — Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report years comes to mind — but you, my Twitter friend, are no Stephen Colbert. Good satire takes some effort to create, but is easily understood. Casual sarcasm is the opposite: it is easy to say or write what you don’t mean, but recognizing sarcasm requires knowledge of the context, the author’s prior writings, the subject in question, and even then, often, it is missed. Queue the author’s indignation and musings on how the Twitter sheeple can’t recognize a joke, though sometimes the indignation itself can be self-consciously funny.

The exchange above was notable for erecting a barrier between people who some time ago would have considered themselves part of the same ingroup.2 If there is one thing sarcasm does well, it is to erect barriers between smaller and smaller groups until everyone is at a war of wits with everyone else. It turns a tool of communication capable of spreading great knowledge quickly into a French court-style spectacle for the masses, fueled by the algorithm.

Dropping sarcasm would not make the internet excruciatingly boring. Note @10kdiver of the Markov chain thread from the paragraph above, or @wrathofgnon, @Gwern, @craigmod, @BCiechaowski… all brilliant, not an ounce of sarcasm between them (half an ounce from Gwern, perhaps). There is in fact an infinite number of ways to be interesting online without being sarcastic, and sarcasm itself permeates the online life so much that it is, well, boring.

Offline, the distinction blurs between being sarcastic and having plausible deniability. Sarcasm may be the highest form of intellect in teenage years, where plausible deniability helps save face, but before the end of adolescence saving face quickly turns into gaslighting. Small wonder that the most sarcastic character on Friends was also the one to catfish a woman.3 So if there ever was a quick and easy litmus test, it is this: after the horrible year we’ve had, and a decade that was not much better, whom would you rather hang out with and who would you rather be: Ted Lasso or Chandler Bing.

  1. This is also why in the great Seinfeld versus Frasier debate I will always choose Frasier. Don’t @ me. 

  2. Yes, ingroups of days past still had factions and civil wars, but what used to be confined to the university cafeteria or the sparsely attended conference session is now right there for the world to see, and pile onto. Somewhat paradoxically, meatspace barriers are as ephemeral as an academic’s memory; online barriers, while not set in stone, are quite a bit more solid. The algorithm remembers. 

  3. This is also one of many reasons why Friends will never be in contention for the best of anything, except maybe the best show to reveal the 90s to be the backwards decade it truly was. 

The Year Earth Changed (2021) 👍

A soaring orchestral score. Drone shots of empty squares and promenades. Surveillance camera footage of animals running amok. Stuck onto this skeleton are a few soundbites of scientists explaining humanity’s inhumanity towards wildlife; redundant, but required to elevate this from a long Youtube video into a… long Youtube video with a Message.

Our towns (2021) 👍

Drone shots of oversaturated greenery zipping accross the screen to the rythm of athmospheric EDM” could describe almost any documentary made in the last decade, but “Our towns” has a note of localism that’s pleasing to my mind. The movie promises us stories of eight towns across the country that failed and/or bounced back. That is a tall order for a single town, life being complicated and things not falling neatly in line for a comprehensible narrative. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t even try to spin a story, giving us instead a few lessons: that local newspapers are important for the life of a community; that people want to live in neighborhoods from which they can walk to work, school, shops, and nature; that despite your best efforts, a decision from up above (to close a factory, move an interstate, etc) can ruin a town; and that small towns owe their prosperity — if they prosper at all — to the people who could have been anywhere else but chose to be there.

True, there is nothing there you wouldn’t know from reading Jane Jackobs, A Pattern Language, or even @WrathOfGnon tweets. But maybe just maybe this movie being on HBO and coming from a writer of The Atlantic means those ideas are seeping into circles that have so far preferred centralized planning.

Kong: Skull Island (2017) 👍

Like Godzilla but with a better story, better scenery, better acting, and, yes, better monsters. A thoroughly fun movie that The Guardian critic hated. What’s not to love?

Godzilla (2014) 👍

Having babies and toddlers in the house takes you out of the popular culture loop for a while, so I completely missed this challenger to the Marvel Cinematic Universe1 when it came out. But now that the fourth installment is available for streaming and one of the said toddlers is of age to watch a PG-13 movie (i.e. almost 9), HBO Max is finally paying itself off.

Most Japanese versions of Gojira/Godzilla are in their hearts cinéma bureaucratique — you come for the thrill of monsters destroying Tokyo, you stay for the drama of humans battling red tape. There is no deeper layer to this American version — you come for the monsters and stay for the monsters, and you skip all the dialogue unless you’re into cringing. If there is a subtext to the movie it is this: most of the protagonists are highly competent US marines who fail to prevent giant monsters from destroying the liberal mecca that is San Francisco.

The monster battles truly are fun, though.

  1. The MonsterVerse, apparently, which comes with its own official logo and everything. Surely there was also a slide deck full of charts pointing upwards 🚀 

The Tree of Life 👍

Samsara with a bit of a backstory and Jessica Chastain — perfect for the nights when you’re feeling pretentious1 but don’t have four hours to spend on the Snyder Cut.

Directed by Terrence Malick, 2011.

  1. Whereby I use “feeling pretentious” to mean more poetically inclined than usual, to the point of resembling a film student, liberal arts major or, God forbid, a creative writing professor, who for the most part don’t only have occasional bouts of pretentiousness but are, let’s be honest here, full-blown snobs. Indeed, the divisive reviews of this movie on IMDB map perfectly to the reviewer’s pretentiousness index on the day they viewed it (as in, if someone goes to see a Woody Allen movie and instead stumbles into The Tree of Life wouldn’t you expect them to leave a bad review, not being in the right mind set; also: of course the Cannes jury gave it their top award, since being in France AND going to a festival are both major pretentiousness boosters). 

What I learned on Twitter, week of 2/15/21

The Undoing 👎

A mini-series is usually the better format for a book adaptation than a movie. Not so with HBO’s The Undoing. The stretched-out plot and meaningless flashbacks just barely fill out the six hours allotted. Twenty years ago it would have been an enjoyable 100-minute psycho-drama, also staring Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant, and Donald Sutherland. With less Upper East Side lifestyle porn, perhaps, but also with fewer unnecessary scenes of violence.

It is difficult to understand why things didn’t work out, because the first episode — easily the best one of the show — had such promise. Squeeze the other five into Acts II and III, and you would get a much more engaging story. Sadly, it is only the three hundred million dollar flops that get do-overs these days.

What I learned on Twitter, week of 2/8/21

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