Mon Feb 18 2019 12:00 The Art of Python:
For a couple years Sumana has been mixing up the tech conference experience by adding aspects of performance and dramaturgy to her talks (see e.g. Python Grab Bag and Code Review, Forwards and Back). Now she's scaling it up by running an arts festival at this year's PyCon North America: "The Art of Python". You can submit proposals until the end of the month — music, dramatic performance, visual art, and so on.
I would love to see this became a regular feature of technical conferences. Many aspects of programming can't be expressed in traditional talks (xkcd does a lot of this), and it's also just fun to talk about programming in ways other than lectures—I like to do it in fiction, for instance. If you're interested, check out the CFP!
Sat Feb 02 2019 18:41 January Film Roundup:
Howdy-doo. I've completed my collection of Coen Brothers movies and I'm ready to pass judgement on the oeuvre as a whole. Also saw some disappointing Bollywood epics with Sumana. Let's get started!
- Raising Arizona (1987): This one's on the 'goofy' side, and it's fun. IMDB trivia says this was made to be as different from Blood Simple as possible, and those two movies do span the early Coen dramatic range.
I initially assumed that Gale and Evelle were a gay couple and was disappointed when it turned out they were brothers.
- Barton Fink (1991): I saw this in, like 1998, and then I saw it again with Sumana in July 2012, just before I started Film Roundup as a regular series. So I almost Film Rounduped it last time, but not quite. A little frustrating. But Barton Fink is a great arthouse movie, and it's fun to watch up to three times. The first time you're going in cold. The second time you know the trajectory and you catch all the foreshadowing and symbolism on the way. The third time you know what you're going to catch and there's a kind of second-order pleasure in seeing it all come together.
Don't get me wrong: I'd rather be watching it for the second time or even the first. But Barton Fink remains a real pleasure. The Buscemi/Goodman/Turturro triumvirate is in full flower, and it's great.
- Inside Llewyn Davis (2013): I love the period-ness but I can't stand the main character. Like if the Dude just complained in the bowling alley instead of trying to get his rug back. This guy's got a bunch of friends he doesn't deserve and he mistreats 'em all, but not in an innovative way, just regular entitled jerkiness. And I'm not into the music. This is a movie that shows you the ending first because that's the only part with any action, and doesn't even make it clear it's a flash-forward—seems like a decision made in the editing room.
John Goodman as Roland Turner steals what little of the show he's in. A weird side note: Turner's henchman is named Johnny Five, an anachronistic, irrelevant reference to another movie that I don't think even Thomas Pynchon would try. It's just inexplicable. If I'm ever at a Q&A with the Coens I should make this my Q.
- A Serious Man (2009): The project finale! Another period piece, more enjoyable overall than Llewyn Davis. Takes a while to get going and the main character is another sad sack, but at least he's trying. Or maybe it's not even that he's "trying" but that bad things really are happening to him.
- Main Hoon Na (2004): a.k.a. "I'm Always Here." A Bollywood classic that blatantly mixes Tom Clancy-type thriller and goofy college romcom. It... is okay, but if I'm going to sit through a three-hour movie I want more than "okay". Sumana and I had more fun riffing than watching the movie itself. There is a really good part during the closing credits, where the crew gets to be on-camera goofing off. The producer signs a big novelty check, etc.
Fun, spoileriffic fact: the main villain in this movie dies the same way as the main villain in Raising Arizona.
- Manikarnika: The Queen of Jansi (2019): This movie's got an undercurrent of Hindu nationalism that's kind of disturbing. Sort of reminded me of Ken (1964), but it's a live grenade instead of a museum piece. The action scenes are not all that was promised; we expected more aunties with swords. Also the British accents were all over the place, which was very distracting. During the movie I thought they'd cast a group of Eastern European backpackers as the British officers. But from what I can tell, those parts went to American and Australian actors living in India. Not that my British accent is great. I'm not volunteering.
And now, the conclusion. For the first time in Film Roundup history I'm giving rough numeric scores to movies, just so I can compare my overall opinion of the Coens' works against the IMDB consensus:
Survey says the Coens consistently produce above-average work but had a slight dip in the 2000s. What I learned from this project is how much value I put on the 1990s Coens in particular. The six movies from 1991 (Barton Fink) to 2001 (The Man Who Wasn't There) are my favorites by far, and include some of my favorite movies of all time. But apart from that ten-year stretch they're not really making movies for me. I don't think these movies are "bad" necessarily, but I like specific things and there was a magical period where the Coens were really into those same things.
For the record, here's my ranking, with my faves at the top:
- The Big Lebowski (1998)
- Fargo (1996)
- The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
- Barton Fink (1991)
- The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
- Blood Simple (1984)
- O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
- Hail, Caesar! (2016)
- Raising Arizona (1987)
- Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
- No Country For Old Men (2007)
- Burn After Reading (2008)
- The Ladykillers (2004)
- A Serious Man (2009)
- Miller’s Crossing (1990)
- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
- Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
- True Grit (2010)
Some miscellaneous notes on the films as a whole:
- There's a stock character who I really like whenever they show up: the highly eloquent, super-polite character. Buster Scruggs, Professor Dorr, Ulysses Everett McGill, Charlie Meadows and Maude Lebowski to some extent. Maybe there's a character like that in The Hudsucker Proxy, it's been a while. Most of the time this character is a villain, but Troy Nelson is my favorite thing about Inside Llewyn Davis—just a really nice square with his head screwed on straight. Which I guess makes him the villain in that topsy-turvy movie.
- In the moral calculus of Coen Brothers movies, the worst thing you can do is leave someone to die. It doesn't come up every single movie, but I believe there's a consistent pattern. This is how you find out Buster Scruggs is a bad guy. Llewelyn Moss leaves someone to die in No Country for Old Men and it's the only thing that makes him feel bad in the whole movie. The only non-self-centered thing Llewyn Davis does in his whole movie is check on Roland Turner when he ODs. Arguably "leaving someone to die" is what kicks off all the problems in A Serious Man, if you're determined to make the prologue have something to do with the movie.
In real life, actively killing someone is worse then leaving them to die, but in Coen movies homicide doesn't usually have a moral dimension—it's the "shit" in "shit happens". Most of the body count is accidental, or else caused by Bad People like Anton Chigurh, characters who we know won't have any moral growth. The morality play happens afterwards, in how the survivors deal with it. The leaving-for-dead scenario is a good way to give big dilemmas to characters who would never realistically kill someone.
Sun Jan 20 2019 10:05 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2018, Part Two:
Again, taking this post as an opportunity to discuss some things that maybe should have had their own entries, but let's take what we can get, huh?
Audio - Two recently discovered podcasts are worth your time. Farm to Taber, which focuses on the nuts and bolts of sustainable agriculture, and Gimme That Star Trek.
There are a ton of Star Trek podcasts that go episode-by-episode, but who has the time? In fact, I record an episode-by-episode Star Trek podcast and don't even release it, that's how much respect I have for your time. (If you do have the time, try Treks and the City.) "Gimme That Star Trek" mainly talks about the larger themes of Trek and ancillary material like the comics. Try "Is Starfleet Military?" and see if it grabs you.
Games - The Crummy.com Game of the Year is "Slay the Spire", which delivers my favorite part of roguelikes—emergent properties coming from random combinations of a large set of items. Honorable mention to "Dead Cells", which doesn't have much combo going on but is a fun feat of procedural generation.
I got a Switch in 2018 and haven't done anything super unusual with it but I have had a good time with the first-party games, especially "Breath of the Wild". I know I swore off Zelda games but the huge open world and side quests of Breath of the Wild made it easy to swallow the main arc, where a kid goes to four dungeons. "Nintendo games are fun" is an accurate but boring thing to say, so I'll say it but not dwell on it.
On my phone, I had a great time playing a game called Freeways, which I think will appeal to people who like Mini Metro. To me the darkness, the lonely desert, the directions identified only by highway numbers, brings back the nighttime Central California landscape I drove as a teenager. Honorable mention to Holedown. Dishonorable mention to another game that I won't name, which is a really good game but turns into gacha hell if you dare try to complete the main storyline.
Personal accomplishments - I finished a draft of Mine but it needs some serious work and I don't want to think about it right now, so moving on... I started putting my short fiction out there again and sold a story! ("Only g62 Kids Will Remember These Five Moments" from back in 2016.) Presumably will be published this year. Wrote five stories in 2018: "The Blanket Thief", "Why You Deserved to Die", "The Universe Pump", "The Wheel of Chores", and "The Procedure Sign". Got a good feeling about three of those, at least.
I'm coming up on the five-year mark of the Library Simplified project. It's an uphill battle, and 2018 didn't bring the breakthroughs I was hoping for, but we are making progress and there's no technical reason why this thing can't work, so I'm still hopeful.
The year in bots: I was mainly focused on other things, but I was inspired by the Internet Archive's holdings and API to create four new bots: Junk Mail Bot, Yorebooks, Podcast Roulette, and Almanac for New Yorkers, which premièred on January 1.
"Almanac for New Yorkers" is a replaying of an "urban almanac" for 1938 by the Federal Writers' Project. Advice on when to plant soybeans is replaced by info on what's playing at Carnegie Hall, and it's all written with that dry midcentury American wit that is better-known today from the WWII Army field guides these people would be writing in a couple years. There are two more of these -- 1939 for New York and 1938 for San Francisco -- so if the Almanac proves popular this year, I'll queue up another chunk for 2020.
Okay, I think that covers everything. If not... I'll just write another blog post! See you around!
Sun Jan 13 2019 19:33 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2018, Part One:
Hey, how are you doing? I've been putting off writing this post because there's books and plays and etc. from 2018 I'd been meaning to write about, and I never did. Now I've got to get it out by way of explaining why these things I've never mentioned before are on my best-of-the-year list. So I'm just going to put the little essays I was going to write in here. It'll be a good time. Let's start with the easy one, where I already have detailed records on my consumption:
Film - There's nineteen new films on Film Roundup Roundup, but only films I hadn't seen before are eligible for the best-of awards, so no The Apartment or Fargo. Here's my top seven for 2018:
- The Court Jester (1955)
- Big Business (1988)
- The Death of Stalin (2017)
- your name. (2017)
- Sorry to Bother You (2018)
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
- Lots of Kids, a Monkey, and a Castle (2017)
Kind of a surprising result for me; I remember reading the screenplay for The Court Jester back in the BBS days and thinking it wasn't funny at all. Even now, if you look at the IMDB quotes page it doesn't seem like a terribly funny movie. But what they filmed is funny as hell. The "flagon with the dragon" bit is a good example. It's a famous movie line that I find tiring in and of itself, but that line isn't the main joke; the jokes focus on the folly of using an annoying tongue twister as a mnemonic.
Theater - Sumana and I saw a few shows in 2018, and the one I liked the best was "The Play that Goes Wrong", which we saw on Broadway. Like Big Business in the Film section, this play shows a mastery of different types of comedy—verbal, physical, character, meta... It's constantly switching things up, setting up and claiming callbacks, and exploring every variant of its simple premise. Hits all my comedy buttons, basically.
Books - Two books I read recently that really stand out for me are And There I Stood With my Piccolo and But He Doesn't Know the Territory by Meredith Willson. Willson's main claim to fame is that he composed "The Music Man", and NYCB readers know how much I love that musical. After we watched The Apartment, Sumana said: "You know, the saddest part is he didn't get to use those 'Music Man' tickets."
Territory is an inspirational book about the incredibly frustrating eight-year process of writing and producing "The Music Man". It's really nice to read as someone who's trying to work on large long-term projects. But nearly as inspirational is Piccolo, a book Willson wrote and published in 1948, almost a decade before releasing the project he's remembered for today. At this point Willson is close to nobody in show biz, just a guy who works in radio, mostly behind the scenes. But he puts out this book of hilarious stories and hot takes anyway, because who cares? The work speaks for itself. Both of these are outstanding books full of great anecdotes.
In similar "funny person makes random observations" territory I really enjoyed the second volume of Mark Twain's autobiography. I read the first volume as a huge hardcover book and it was a big chore, but reading it as an ebook is a much better experience, especially since there's lots of good stuff in the end notes. Volume 2 has lots of Twain's thoughts on copyright, and his not exactly Mr. Rogers-esque experience of giving Congressional testimony on the topic. I was saving volume 3 for the new year, but guess what—this is the new year!
In 2018 I started reading Vikram Seth's Indian epic A Suitable Boy. Sumana is a huge fan, and this gives us a fun topic to discuss while she waits for the serially-delayed sequel, A Suitable Girl. It's really funny! I'm a couple hundred pages in and finally getting comfortable with all the characters and their relationships. But they keep adding more characters! BTW A Suitable Boy is one of those late-twentieth-century works where there just isn't an ebook available. It's pretty common, but not usually a big deal unless the book is both well-known and really long. The Power Broker is another example—I haven't read that one because it isn't physically compatible with the way I read now.
Other great books I read in 2018 include Hemmingway's A Moveable Feast, Picking Up by Robin Nagle, Broad Band by Claire L. Evans, Wartime by Paul Fussell, and Lying For Money by Daniel Davies.
On that cheery note, I'll see you... in the future! Right now I'm going to go eat some food.
(1) Mon Dec 31 2018 17:30 December Movie Roundup:
Happy New Year! I've updated Film Roundup Roundup and it's now current up to the end of this particular installment of Film Roundup, with nineteen new highly-recommended films I saw in 2018.
I saw a lot of movies this month in particular, partly due to a project I embarked upon, which you'll see near the end. You, my loyal reader, are the beneficiary. As for you, my unloyal reader—have at you! You betrayed me to that scoundrel Richelieu!
- The Apartment (1960): I. Love. This. Movie. This is a rewatch after fifteen years, which is about as much time as I like to go between viewings of a great movie. I remember basically what happened, but every scene is a treat. Sumana and I saw it at Metrograph—a new restoration, I think—and it really benefits from the big screen treatment. This movie looks great, it's hilarious, it combines total cynicism with genuine emotion. It's the kind of movie where the 'comic relief' shows up not to provide relief but to change the type of comedy, like the alternating layers of chocolate and wafer in a Kit Kat. (I was eating a Kit Kat during the showing.) And it's a Christmas movie! What more could you want?
- Supermen of Malegaon (2008): A fun documentary about can-do low-budget filmmaking. At one point the handheld camera being used to shoot the film is broken and it's a huge setback, causing delays and jeopardizing the entire project. But there's a whole film crew right here, making the documentary, with equipment much more sophisticated than the equipment being used to make the feature. If it was me I would have helped them out. I guess I'm just not a tired general.
According to the presenter, this documentary was originally made for Singapore state television, but never aired there. I didn't know Singapore was so interested in what happened in India. Though I guess once they found out what was happening, they lost a lot of interest.
- Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982): Who better to introduce me to the work of Robert Altman than Cher?
This had some great acting, but it's clearly a filmed play, which is most notable when some pretty horrible things are happening plot-wise but the characters just keep introspecting and monologuing. I guess I feel better about it if I think of this as the missing ending from The Last Picture Show—you come back to the lousy little town you left, and you've changed but all the ghosts are still there.
Sudie Bond in this movie is a dead ringer for my late grandma Rosalie, which was nice to see.
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018): Fabulous. Looks amazing, feels fun, good use of New York as a story mechanic. The plot is cookie-cutter, but it's just more evidence for my theory that you can't change more than one variable at a time when you make a movie. They leaned on the 'visual style' lever and they changed that variable.
- Hercules (1997): This movie should have stayed in the vault. Disney always plays fast and loose with the source material, but this one's especially egregious. For some reason it really rankled me seeing Zeus and Hera as this lovey-dovey couple, and Hercules as... their legitimate son? The one Disney hero from an unbroken nuclear family and it's Hercules?
This sounds like I care a lot, but I don't! I barely care about this at all! I know very little about Greek mythology! But other Hercules movies make you feel smart for recognizing little bits of the stories they're mangling, and this one felt like some other story with the serial numbers filed off. I'm not a big fan of the songs, either. Best I can say is that there are some good sight gags.
Sumana and I will sometimes place bets while we're watching something. Here, I bet that the famous Labors of Hercules would show up as a plot point and be dealt with in the course of a single musical number. Sumana bet that the Labors wouldn't show up at all. What we got was individual Labors, and references to them, showing up haphazardly throughout the movie, in musical numbers and otherwise. That's not satisfying. Anyway, the final ruling was that neither of us won the bet.
- Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990): I finally got Sumana to watch this, possibly out of guilt for her having suggested Hercules. This was my favorite film when I was a kid, and the favorite-filmness is still in there, but here's a film where they should have changed more than once variable.
IMO it doesn't get started until the famous "Gremlin nitpicking" scene halfway through. After that scene, it's like a Marx Brothers movie where Harpo and Chico are trying to kill everybody. All the stuff in that Key and Peele sketch happens in the second half of that movie. (We re-watched the sketch after the movie. Sumana: "They weren't kidding!") The interview with Brainy Gremlin is one of my all-time favorite movie scenes. In terms of worldbuilding, character development, and verbal comedy, it's top-notch.
But before the "nitpicking" scene, the film is way too slow and not terribly funny. Watching this film navigate the Gremlins rules, which gave a lot of tension to the first movie, is like watching someone try to parallel park a really big car. A mixed bag, is what I'm saying. Or perhaps... a mixed Gremlin? No, 'bag' makes more sense. A Gremlin was a kind of car, maybe I could do something with that... oh, I'm out of time? Last thought: the "nitpicking" scene is where it is because the Gremlins emerged in the previous scene, rendering the stupid rules irrelevant. No coincidence that's also where the movie kicks into gear.
- The Witches of Eastwick (1987): A combination of gal-pal wish fulfillment and fantasy violence that probably didn't go down well at the time, but I'd say the idea has aged pretty well. What hasn't aged well is this movie's 1980s John Updike feminism. It kinda works because Jack Nicholson provides such a sleazy contrast. But everything George Miller wanted to say in this movie, he did much better in Mad Max: Fury Road. Susan Sarandon is great.
- Practical Magic (1988): Sumana's review of The Witches of Eastwick was basically "Have you seen Practical Magic?", and we watched it right after coming back from the museum, as a cross-venue double feature. It's a disorganized jumble of different movies in different styles, but there's a lot of fun stuff in the buffet. In particular there's a few minutes where it's a supernatural version of 9 to 5; I wish they'd stuck with that. The casual sister relationship was very realistic and put me in mind of Celine and Julie go Boating.
If you want to see what an IMDB rating histogram looks like when it has a hard-core group of fans, Practical Magic is your movie. I can see what the fans see in it, but ultimately I side with the weighted average.
- The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992): A friend of a friend watches this movie every year as part of the holidays. I saw it a couple years ago at Susanna's house and forgot to review it, so... I watched it again and here's my review: it's really fun! Michael Caine is a great Scrooge. Would Dickens approve? Who cares? Public domain, baby!
- Miller's Crossing (1990): After seeing a bunch of Coen brothers movies last month, I realized that I was within striking distance of having seen their entire feature-film output, which would put them in such rarified Film Roundup company as Elaine May, and... that's probably it. Sumana was out of town for a while so I made a spreadsheet with the goal of not only seeing all the Coen movies I haven't seen, but rewatching the ones I had seen in the pre-Film Roundup era.
I'm not quite done yet, but I'll probably finish it up next month. In the meantime, Miller's Crossing (1990)! I thought this was basically popcorn noir. There's one cool little twist that gets un-cooled. Steve Buscemi only has one scene. I liked Blood Simple a lot, but this didn't have the same level of twistiness. I did like the soundtrack, something I don't usually notice.
- O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000): Watched with Kirk who was in town for the day. Overall this was really fun, but there's one big caveat which is that this movie has blackface. Seriously, George Clooney, in blackface, in the year 2000. It's not like Holiday Inn bad, it's well into ironic "we were doing something else and it served the same purpose as blackface" territory, but that's a stupid excuse for doing something that could have... just not been done.
Anyway, apart from that GLARING PROBLEM, which sours the milk near the end of the movie, this is really fun. I saw this in the early 2000s and having watched Sullivan's Travels in the interim really improved my experience, so watch that one too—also, it's a better movie overall.
- The Ladykillers (2004): This was pretty fun but it turns out it doesn't need to exist. I also wish I'd made the 1955 version of The Ladykillers, but I wasn't alive then, so I work on other projects. You might say "it's time to update the riotous humor for a new generation", and that's a reasonable argument, but then you gotta look at the outcomes. This is the lowest-rated Coens movie on IMDB (6.2, which if Tom Moertel's measurement is still accurate, is perfectly average), and it doesn't exactly have a Practical Magic histogram.
So, if you like what my cousin Camilla said about the 1955 version—"I had never before seen quiet, pious, proper good triumph over violent evil."—you'll get the same thing out of this one. That's pretty rare in a movie, but it's about to happen again, because next up we got...
- Fargo (1996): I was apprehensive about this rewatch because I've been using this movie on Film Roundup Roundup as an example of a movie I've seen but never reviewed. But also, what if the movie isn't as good as I remember?
Well, no need to worry because this movie is amazing. A big reason for its amazingness is it's structured like a Columbo episode. You see the crime; then you see the cop; then you see the nice, polite, competent person take down the horrible fast-talking liar. But unlike in most Columbo episodes, while this is happening the crime is escalating and metastasizing, continually raising the stakes. (Also, in a Columbo episode, the villain would be the rich father-in-law, not the car salesman.)
The Coens' movies are full of characters who are flawed and weak, and problems that can't be solved, were self-caused, or aren't even real problems. Some of the characters have good intentions, and a lot of the time that's all you're going to get. Fargo is the one where a) there is a real problem, b) one of the characters has good intentions, c) that person is able to stop the problem from getting worse. As a bonus, the Steve Buscemi level is very high (certified NISBS).
- The Man Who Wasn't There (2001): Sumana and I saw this movie at a special UC Berkeley showing on one of our early dates. I thought it was all right (and we still have a souvenir barber's comb from the showing, which we still use—durable plastic) but I remembered the plot in pretty good detail and wasn't really looking forward to rewatching what I assumed would be a Miller's Crossing type popcorn noir.
Well, turns out this movie is way above popcorn. It captures what IMO is the essence of noir: not just a general hopelessness but the specific hopelessness of being an ordinary, weak human being whose life is ruined because they tried one freaking time to do something extraordinary. Basically, the feeling of being Jerry Lundegaard.
This is also the film where the Coens' interest in extinct genre stories really pays off. The implicit biases of those old stories shaped Hail, Caesar! and Buster Scruggs in a way that got them a lot of deserved grief, and maybe it also motivated the bad blackface decision in O Brother, but here the investment pays off big. Of all the films I've seen in this mini-project so far, this is the only one that really surprised me.