Sunday Selection 2019-12-01

It’s that time of the year when it gets dark at 4pm where I live. Since it’s cloudy and dreary a lot I am tempted to spend a lot of time in bed curled under the cover. But at the same time, I actually like the snow and the cold and there are Things that must get done.

I spent a couple weeks in Greece at the end of October and into November, mostly away from computers, off my phone and not using the Internet much except for using Google Maps and occasionally checking email. It was good. And I’ve been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to replicate that feeling of effective disconnection, using the Internet only when necessary for purposes, rather than being used always for its (and by “it” I mean the various profit-maximizing corporations trying to lay claim to and monetize ever increasing portions of my experience and attention).

Today’s Sunday Selection is brought to you mostly by those thoughts.

Stab a Book, the Book Won’t Die

Craig Mod is one of my favorite writers, as he thinks deeply about a lot of things I am interested in: books, publishing, their relation to technology, and how to keep our heads screwed on straight in the face of the attention economy. This post is mostly about the first two things, but touches on the others. I also highly recommend signing up for his newsletters: Roden Explorers and Ridgeline.

Kahlil Gibran on Silence, Solitude, and the Courage to Know Yourself

Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings is another highly recommended reading (though her curatorial style of writing can be a little hard to follow). In any case, I am starting to think that an important step on the way to opting out of the attention economy is becoming comfortable with silence and solitude (the latter of which is particularly hard, as solitude borders so closely on loneliness). And as much as I like living in a Golden Age of Television (and readily available other videos, podcasts and music) it’s perhaps not surprising that being continually surrounded by noise (and always networked) is ultimately not good for the human mind or spirit.

Martin Scorsese: I said Marvel Movies aren’t Cinema. Let me explain.

I love stories about heroes. I love comic books, graphics novels, TV shows, movies, all of it. I went to New York Comicon once (didn’t dress up) and absolutely loved it. And though I will probably continue going to see the Marvel movies for the foreseeable future, the sameness is starting to get to me. Infinity War not withstanding, at the end of the day you know that everything will be (more or less) alright.

Aside: I watched Aquaman on the plane back. It was bad, so bad. Jason Momoa deserved better.

Rams

Rams is a new documentary out about Dieter Rams—creator of some of the most easily recognized consumer product designs of the 20th century. The documentary is brought to you by Gary Hustwit, who you might know from previous documentaries such as Helvetica, Urbanized and Objectified.

Rams is currently showing at special events and will be released digitally in December. Hustwit has also partnered with Field Notes to produce a limited edition 3-pack of notebooks that I think captures the Rams aesthetic quite nicely.

FN_Rams

Wakanda: Patrick Patterson explains the importance of Black Panther

Excellent piece by Patrick Patterson of Oklahoma City Thunder on growing up as a black kid watching movies and watching Black Panther.

This reminds me a lot of the first time I saw Sendhil Ramamurthy in Heroes — an Indian scientist in America, no powers, no riches, just trying to survive and figure things out with his wits and his skills.

Star Trek Beyond

Was very enjoyable. Spoilers follow.

The movie was a lot of fun, and managed to hit a good mix of serious and light-hearted. I liked it much more than I did Into Darkness, and it might just be my favorite of the the Abrams Star Trek movies.

As my favorite Star Trek blog calls it: it was a romp. It was a lot of fun and struck most of the themes that make Star Trek what it is—interesting characters, healthy optimism, underlying themes of unity, courage and friendship, and struggles both personal and epic. Take out the destruction of the Enterprise and squeeze it down to under an hour and the movie would have made a great TOS episode.

The visuals are of course simply beautiful (something true of the Abrams movies in general). The outfits, locales and effects in general are well done. The sequences of scenes showing life aboard the Enterprise and Starbase Yorktown are smooth, informative and impressive without being overwhelming. In fact, I would say that the scenes aboard Starbase Yorktown does one of the best jobs of showing off life in the Federation in any iteration of Star Trek.

Finally, the movie also does a good job of addressing Nimoy’s death (and the loss of the one of the main characters of both this, and previous iterations of the franchise). It’s not overly dramatic, but it is respectful, elegant and helps drive the rest of the story forward. And I absolutely love that one of the final shots of the movie is this photo of the original cast:

Star_Trek_V_The_Final_Frontier_Crew

The movie wasn’t perfect: the action seemed choppy, some of the humor was unnecessarily forced, and some of the science was suspect. But it was a damn good Star Trek movie and a good movie in general. Would watch again.

Strong Female Characters

I liked the new Avengers movie. It wasn’t the greatest movie, of course, and the plotline wasn’t all that creative. But as far as summer superhero flicks go it was quite solid, much better than most of its predecessors. One of the most interesting parts of the movie was Scarlett Johansson as Agent Romanoff (aka Black Widow).

Like all the other members of the Avengers she appeared in a previous movie — Iron Man 2 – but her part there was quite small. She had a good amount of screen time but was basically eye candy. Elegant and kick-ass eye candy perhaps, but eye candy nonetheless. It’s only in the last part of the movie do we see her true character and even then in a pretty small role. Her portrayal in Avengers is quite different. In less than five minutes she’s set up as being on top of her game – she’s a very capable agent with her own goals and motivations. Her first focus is her work and her duty, she’s not just a foil for one the “lead” heroes.

I found her relationship with Hawkeye particularly interesting and well done. They clearly have a shared (and bloody) past and it’s very clear there’s some romantic/sexual tension at play. But I was pleasantly surprised that both of them put their duty above it all. It’s exactly what you’d expect from members of a professional and elite military organization. I’m happy it didn’t get substituted for a run-of-the-mill romantic subplot. While characters like Iron Man and the Hulk are meant to be (and were) over the top and unbelievable I found Agent Romanoff refreshingly down-to-earth and believable.

As Morgan Hyde points out, she’s not the only female character in the movie. Agent Fury’s second-in-command is a woman and just like Romanoff is professional, focused and capable. She does her job, does it well and doesn’t need rescuing thank you very much.

Last night I went to see Snow White and the Huntsman. It’s a bad movie. Snow White’s character is confused, uninspiring and largely boring. Her defining quality is supposed to be her purity and innocence which I suppose is to be expected from a Snow White movie. She shows real potential when she cleverly escapes from the Queen’s castle. But for the rest of the movie sh’s content to be led around by her Huntsman savior (a self-proclaimed drunkard who was quite happy to turn her in for his own purposes), then the dwarves and finally her childhood sweatheart. Finally after being brought back to life she suddenly becomes all fiery and battle-heardened and gets around to stabbing the Queen straight through the heart. So much for being pure and innocent. Lot of potential completely squandered.

By comparison, Charlize Theron as the evil Queen is so much more interesting. Sure, she’s a psychopath, but she’s so good at it. She’s actually intelligent, she’s powerful, she’s scheming and she doesn’t take no for an answer. She has a background, a past and a purpose that she’s really fighting and risking all for (sure it involves dominion over all life on earth and eating Snow White’s heart, but that’s besides the point). Given all the other characters, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the movie’s actually about her, that it’s a sad tragedy about how some upstart brat ruins everything through basically sheer dumb luck.

Yes I did just spoil the whole movie for you. And you’re welcome.

I wrote a strong female character once (or at least I’d like to think that I did). Her name was Agent Nalini Mewar and she was an Indian princess working undercover in Nazi Germany. Why yes, I do have an overactive imagination. Now that I think about it, she was part Agent Romanoff, part Captain Katherine Janeway. I did not make her the main character (though perhaps I should have). The lead role was a dashing young RAF pilot caught behind enemy lines. No they did not fall madly in love. Yes, she has better things to do than go galavanting across Europe with a man she just met in a Nazi jail cell. There’s a war on damnit! (though to be fair, there’s is some of that, but it’s for a higher purpose)

If there’s a point to this, it’s that strong female characters in movies are hard to come by. Books are more interesting and varied, but then again, books generally are. It’s possible that this is related to the general dearth of original screenplays nowadays – if you’re just recycling old material then you’re recycling old stereotypes and ideas (and no, I don’t care how gritty your reboot is). But even a damn good screenplay (like Drive) is no promise of a decent female character. I’m very interested in seeing Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman. In the previous movies Rachel Daws was interesting and not entirely a damsel in distress. Hence I have some hopes.

I’m acutely aware that my selection above spans fantasy, action and science fiction mainly because that’s what I generally watch. I have a taste for impossible. If I’ve been missing out on strong female characters in other genres please do let me know in the comments. I’d like nothing more than to be pleasantly surprised.