Category: Film

What should I ask Ken Burns?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, here is the beginning of his rather formidable Wikipedia entry:

Kenneth Lauren Burns (born July 29, 1953) is an American filmmaker known for his documentary films and television series, many of which chronicle American history and culture. His work is often produced in association with WETA-TV and/or the National Endowment for the Humanities and distributed by PBS.

His widely known documentary series include The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Roosevelts (2014), The Vietnam War (2017), and Country Music (2019). He was also executive producer of both The West (1996), and Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies (2015). Burns’s documentaries have earned two Academy Award nominations (for 1981’s Brooklyn Bridge and 1985’s The Statue of Liberty) and have won several Emmy Awards, among other honors.

His forthcoming book is the lovely Our America: A Photographic History.  So what should I ask?

On the Internet Nobody Knows You Are a Dog

Bitcoin.com: A set of hackers managed to impersonate Binance chief communications officer (CCO) Patrick Hillmann in a series of video calls with several representatives of cryptocurrency projects. The attackers used what Hillman described as an AI hologram, a deepfake of his image for this objective, and managed to fool some representatives of these projects, making them think Hillmann was helping them get listed on the exchange.

It’s wild how good fake and synthetic video are becoming. Synthesia, for example, uses synthetic AI video instead of actors for training videos and similar–see the example below. Tyler and I could write econ scripts and then use AIs to create video–much cheaper and less time consuming than hiring a video director. Presumably, we could even create synthetic AIs in our own image.

Notice also that Synthesia reads text but could presumably also repeat text that it hears. Thus, the future of Zoom meetings is avatars. Fake faces on fake backgrounds. Choose your race, gender, age, species and so forth. No discrimination possible! Some people won’t be happy.

 

What to Watch

The Rehearsal (HBO): The new Nathan Fielder show has a strange premise. Fielder helps a real person rehearse an upcoming event that they are worried about. In the first episode, Kor has told a friend he has a MA when in fact he has a BA. The fib has tormented him for years. For the rehearsal, Fielder builds a life-sized replica of Kor’s favorite bar where the confession will take place and he stocks it with actors. The confession is run through multiple times, ala Groundhog Day. The rehearsal probably cost five hundred thousand or more. The enormous difference between the scale of the rehearsal and the fib is part of the point. Kor is an expert on the trivial. Fielder himself rehearses the rehearsal. It’s ridiculous but why don’t we do this more often? How about rehearsing a pandemic?

I confess that on first watching I missed that the ending was a rehearsal (like missing the gorrilla on the basketball court). Very meta. Strange but recommended. Tyler would like it and I don’t normally say that kind of thing.

The Old Man (HULU/FX): Jeff Bridges seems miscast as an action hero, even an aging action hero. Yet, the writers turn that to their advantage and make the action scenes slower, more realistic, and more brutal than is typical. The Old Man builds as it slows. Excellent performances from Bridges, John Lithgow and especially Amy Brenneman. A reverse Stockholm effect. The underlying story in which an Afghan warlord seems to control the US government at the very highest level is a bit absurd and there is an entirely unnecessary substory with another old man but the ending is superb, logical, meaningful, and deepening and changing everything that came before.

The Alpinist on Netflix. Recommend to me after I recommended 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible but I could only handle 10 minutes. Too scary. Too nuts. Like watching Roman gladiators battling to the death, it just felt wrong to watch. When I came to write this review, I was not surprised to find that Leclerc had perished.

Westworld S4 (HBO): Season One was one of the best seasons of television ever. S2-S4 are a waste of time. S4 I found incomprehensible.

My excellent Conversation with Matthew Ball

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Ball joined Tyler to discuss the eventual widespan transition of the population to the metaverse, the exciting implications of this interconnected network of 3D worlds for education, how the metaverse will improve dating and its impacts on sex, the happiness and career satisfaction of professional gamers, his predictions for Tyler’s most frequent uses of the metaverse, his favorite type of entrepreneur, why he has thousands of tabs open on his computer at any given moment, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: As I read your book, The Metaverse, which again, I’ll recommend highly, I have the impression you’re pretty optimistic about interoperability within the metaverse and an ultimate lack of market power. Now, if I look around the internet — I mean, most obviously, the Apple Store but also a lot of gaming platforms — you see 30 percent fees, or something in that neighborhood, all over the place. Will the metaverse have the equivalent of a 30 percent fee? Or is it a truly competitive market where everything gets competed down to marginal cost?

BALL: I think neither/nor. I wouldn’t say that market power diffuses. There’s currently this ethos, especially in the Web3 community, that decentralization needs to win and that decentralization can win.

It’s a question of where on the spectrum are we? The early internet was obviously held back by heavy decentralization. This is one of the reasons why AOL was, for so many people, the primary onboarding experience. It was easy, cohesive, visual, vertically integrated down to the software, the browser experience, and so forth. But we believe that the last 15 years has been too centralized.

At the end of the day, no matter how decentralized the underlying protocols of the metaverse are, no matter how popular blockchains are, there are multiple forms of centralization. Habit is powerful. Brand is powerful — the associated trust, intellectual property, the fundamental feedback loops of revenue and scale that drive better product investment for more engineers.

So I struggle to imagine the future isn’t some form of today, a handful of varyingly horizontal-vertical software and hardware-based platforms that have disproportionate share and even more influence. But that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be as powerful as today.

The 30 percent fee is definitely going to come by the wayside. We see this in the EU, whose legislation dropped yesterday. I have absolute certainty that that is going to go away. The question is the timeline. A lawyer joked yesterday, Apple is going to fight the EU until the heat death of the universe, and that’s probably likely. But Apple will find other ways to control and extract, as is their profit motive.

COWEN: Where is the most likely place for that partial market power or centralization to show up? Is it in the IP rights, in the payment system, the hardware provider, a cross-platform engine, somewhere else? What’s the most likely choke point?

BALL: There seem to be two different answers to that. Number one is software distribution. This is your classic discovery and distribution of virtual experiences. Steam does that. Roblox does that. Google does that, frankly, the search engine. That gateway to virtual experiences typically affords you the opportunity to be the dominant identity system, the dominant payment system, and so on and so forth.

The other option is hardware. We can think of the metaverse as a persistent network of experiences, but as with the internet, it may exist literally and in abstraction, but you can only access it through a device. Those device operators have an ever-growing network of APIs, experiences, technologies, technical requirements, and controls through which they can shape it.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

Peter Brook has passed away at age 97

Here is a NYT obituary, here is a Guardian appreciation.  Here is Brook’s Wikipedia page.  He was one of the very greatest talents of our time.  He was most of all a theatre director, and so most of his output I have never seen.  I can report that his filmed Mahabharata (5.5 hours on YouTube) is one of the great creations.  He and his co-workers spent eight years on the project.  I also give his King Lear, again on film, an A+.  At Lincoln Center I once saw his staging of The Magic Flute (in French!), again an A+.

RIP.

My Conversation with Barkha Dutt

Here is the link, and here is part of the CWT summary:

Barkha joined Tyler to discuss how Westerners can gain a more complete picture of India, the misogyny still embedded in Indian society, why family law should be agnostic of religious belief, the causes of declining fertility in India, why relations between Hindus and Muslims seem to be worsening, how caste has persisted so strongly in India, the success of India’s subsidized institutes of higher education, the best city for Indian food, the power of Amar Chitra Katha’s comics, the influence of her English liberal arts education, the future of Anglo-American liberalism in India, the best ways to use Twitter, and more.

And from the conversation:

COWEN: Many outsiders have the impression that relations between Hindus and Muslims and the aggregate in India have become worse over the last 10 to 15 years. If you put aside particular actions of particular political personalities, and you try to think of a structural reason why that might be true — because normally the intuition is, people grow richer, they’re more tolerant, there’s more commercial interaction, there’s more intermingling — what would be your structural account of why, in some ways, that problem has become worse?

DUTT: You just spoke of intermingling, Tyler. I think that one of the biggest reasons for the worsening relations, or the othering, as it were, of communities that are not your own is the ghettoization of how people live. For example, if there were neighborhoods where people live cheek by jowl — that still happens, of course, in many cities, but it also happens less than it used to, and that is true. We are seeing a Muslim quarter, to give an example, or a Christian quarter in a way that we wouldn’t have before our cities were so ghettoized.

I think that kind of intermingling, of living in the same housing societies or neighborhoods, participating in each other’s festivals as opposed to just tolerating them — those are the structural changes or shifts that we are witnessing. It’s also true that it is tougher for a person from a religious minority — in particular, an Indian Muslim — to get a house as easily as a non-Muslim. I think I would be lying if I did not acknowledge that. Also, the last point is interfaith marriages or interfaith love. This is a deeply politicized issue as well.

While I’m talking to you, in the last 24 hours in the Southern city of Hyderabad, one of our big technology hubs, we’ve had reports of a Muslim family that attacked a Hindu man for marrying a Muslim woman. In reverse, we see Muslim women also targeted all the time if they choose to marry Hindus. This is not helped by the fact that you’ve had several states now talking about what they call love jihad. That’s the phrase they use for marriages that are across religious communities, in particular between Hindus and Muslims.

The percentage of Indians marrying not just outside their religion but also outside their caste — which in Hinduism is a hierarchical system of traditional occupation that you’re born into — is woefully low. I don’t know if I remember my data correctly, but I think less than 5 percent of Indians actually marry outside of their own communities. I would need to go back to that number and check it, but that’s what I remember off the top of my head.

Those are the structural reasons: the fact that people don’t love or have relationships outside of their community, don’t live enough with people of diverse faiths, and don’t participate in each other’s lives.

We used to have this politically correct phrase called tolerance, which I actually just hate, and I keep nudging people towards the Indian military. The Indian military actually has a system of the commanding officer taking on the faith of his troops during religious prayers. The military has multireligious places of worship. It even has something called an MMG, which is not just a medium machine gun but a Mandir Masjid Gurdwara, which is all the different faiths praying together at the same place. We don’t see a lot of that kind of thing happening outside of the military.

Another survey done by Pew reinforced this when it spoke of Indians today being more like a thali than khichri. Let me just explain that. A thali is a silver tray where you get little balls of different food items. Pew found that Hindus and Muslims — when surveyed, both spoke of the need for religious diversity as being a cornerstone of India. They like the idea of India as a thali, where there were different little food items, but separate food items. The khichri is rice and lentils all mixed up and eaten with pickle. The khichri is that intermingling, the untidy overlapping.

We are just seeing less and less of that overlapping. In my opinion, that is tragic. Where there is social interdependence, where there is economic interdependence, where there is personal interdependence is when relationships thrive and flourish and get better. But when they remain ghettos, separations just tolerating each other — that, I think, remains in the realm of othering.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

My excellent Conversation with Marc Andreessen

I’ve been wanting to do this one for some while, and Marc did not disappoint.  Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  Here is the summary:

Marc joined Tyler to discuss his ever-growing appreciation for the humanities and more, including why he didn’t go to a better school, his contrarian take on Robert Heinlein, how Tom Wolfe helped Marc understand his own archetype, who he’d choose to be in Renaissance Florence, which books he’s reread the most, Twitter as an X-ray machine on public figures, where in the past he’d most like to time-travel, his favorite tech product that no longer exists, whether Web will improve podcasting, the civilization-level changes made possible by remote work, Peter Thiel’s secret to attracting talent, which data he thinks would be most helpful for finding good founders, how he’d organize his own bookstore, the kinds of people he admires most, and why Deadwood is equal to Shakespeare.

And the opening:

COWEN: Simple question: Have you always been like this?

ANDREESSEN: [laughs] Yes. I believe that my friends would say that I have.

COWEN: Let’s go back to the junior high school Marc Andreessen. At that time, what was your favorite book and why?

ANDREESSEN: That’s a really good question. I read a lot. Probably, like a lot of people like me, it was a lot of science fiction. I’m one of the few people I know who thinks that late Robert Heinlein was better than early Robert Heinlein. That had a really big effect on me. What else? I was omnivorous at an early age.

COWEN: Why is late Robert Heinlein better?

ANDREESSEN: To me, at least to young me — see if older me would agree with this — a sense of exploration and discovery and wonder and open-endedness. For me, it was as if he got more open-minded as he got older. I remember those books, in particular, being very inspiring — the universe is a place of possibilities.

COWEN: What’s the seminal television show for your intellectual development in, say, junior high school?

ANDREESSEN: Oh, junior high school — it’s hard to beat Knight Rider.

COWEN: Why Knight Rider?

ANDREESSEN: There was a wave of these near science fiction shows in the late ’70s, early ’80s that coincided with . . . Some of it was the aftermath of Star Wars, but it was the arrival of the personal computer and the arrival of computer technology in the lives of ordinary people for the first time. There was a massive wave of anxiety, but there was also a tremendous sense of possibility.

Recommended, excellent throughout.

James Joyce, entrepreneur

At the critical elevator pitch, Joyce whetted investors’ appetites with the opening gambit: Dublin, a European city of 350,000, had no cinema and two more cities in the same country, Cork and Belfast, were also without a cinema. (Joyce the hustler bumped up Dublin’s population to 500,000 for effect.) Ireland, with close to a million urban dwellers, was virgin trading soil ripe for far-sighted operators. For a man who was a better spender than saver who would experience money problems throughout his life, the contract Joyce negotiated reveals a canny financial operator, and a true salesman. He convinced the partners to give him 10 per cent of the equity and profits, although he didn’t invest a penny. He was also paid expenses and a wage. Hands were shaken, the deal was done, Joyce was off. The portrait of the artist as a young entrepreneur.

…the mind that wrote Ulysses was also the mind that opened Ireland’s first cinema.

Here is the full FT story.  By the way, this being the 100th year of Ulysses, you should read that book if you haven’t already.  It is one of the very best books!  And it really isn’t that difficult.  If you need to, just keep on going, don’t try to figure it all out…

The new *Top Gun* movie (no real spoilers)

I can’t say I loved it, though I found it sociologically interesting.  They are still drawing on George Lucas for influence and inspiration?  The movie is not so much anti-Woke as pre-Woke, with cliched ethnic characters and adoring women waiting for the heroic men to come back from mission.  Little offends me, but what was interesting here was how uninteresting and un-self-aware the treatment was.  There are bar scenes and mentor scenes where the same comment would apply.  The visuals and aero scenes were very good, but I thought not spectacular.  The ending should have been the opposite of what it was.  Perhaps most notably, Tom Cruise wears a Taiwanese flag on his jacket.  But it seems only for the Taiwanese release.

*Memoria*

This is the new film directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and starrting Tilda Swinton in a broader artistic collaboration.  Weerasethakul, in case you do not recognize the name, is director of Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives, arguably the best movie of the last twenty years.

I won’t try to summarize the plot of Memoria, only to tell you it is set in Colombia (the director’s first film outside of Thailand), mostly in Spanish, has A+ cinematography, and it concerns how the revelation of Buddhist Enlightenment might begin to spread through the world.  I’ve read a half dozen reviews of the movie, but none are very insightful and they barely mention the Buddhist angle (and Hinduist animism), central to understanding Weerasethakul’s films.

This movie is almost certainly the best of the year, or more.  And it will cement Weerasethakul’s reputation as the most important director of our time.

Fortunately, it is not available on streaming services for the stay at home small screen barbarians.  It is being rolled out in an unusual fashion, one city at a time (more or less), and currently it is playing for this week only at AFI in Silver Spring, Maryland.  The roll out is poorly organized and publicized.

Recommended, don’t miss it.

Surrogates

Surrogates is a 2009 science-fiction movie starring Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike and Ving Rhames. On Rotten Tomatoes it’s rated at a measly 37% (tomatometer) and 38% (audience). When I first saw it I thought it was underrated and a recent re-watch cemented that conclusion.

Surrogates is about a slightly future world in which people predominantly interact with one another through surrogates, i.e. humanoid robots controlled from home. The premise should be familiar today in the Zoom, Metaverse, avatar age in a way it wasn’t in 2009. Surrogates touches on trans issues (your surrogate can be a different gender), the meaning of identity, age, aging and youth, the advantages of surrogates for creating low crime and even eliminating infectious diseases (good prediction!) and the sense of anxiety and fear we feel when interacting in the real world after becoming comfortable with surrogates and the sense of unrealness of interacting with avatars.

The world of surrogates is threatened when for the first time ever a human operator is murdered by “killing” their surrogate. Willis and Mitchell are detectives trying to solve the mystery and track down the killer. The film noir aspect isn’t Chinatown but it follows the formula and follows it well. A luddite cult is involved.

Perhaps one of the reasons Surrogates didn’t do well is that it’s low-budget. At the same time as this world has advanced robotics the cars are purely circa 2009! The surrogates are played by the same actors as the operators with only makeup and hair pieces to indicate the differences but in fact the make-up and surrogate acting is very well done! The contrast between young, perfectly coiffed and flattened surrogate Bruce Willis and the old, bloody, beaten but expressive Bruce Willis is well done. The ending is excellent.

A masterpiece? No. But Surrogates is an underrated gem. It’s available now on HBO.

surrogates | Where to Stream and Watch | Decider

How to find good TV shows

Chris asks:

You’ve written a lot about your reading habits in the past, but I’m curious to know more about how you find and watch TV shows. You’ve mentioned before that you watch very little TV (in explaining your productivity), and yet you speak highly of the shows you do watch. Do you have any strategies to find good TV, how to watch television “well”,  how to avoid getting sucked in to mediocre TV, etc.? And, I’d be curious to know what specific shows you think are worth the time sink to watch.

All of this comes from my somewhat-conflicting desires 1.) To not waste time and 2.) To enjoy the best art there is, in all of its forms.

Here are my rather brutal answers, noting they probably are not helpful for most people:

1. Most TV shows are not good.  The key problems are that too much quality scripting is required, and that the incentives are to try to get the show extended for another season.  Plus too much of the audience “just wants something to watch.”

2. Most TV shows that your smart friends tell you to watch also are not good.  See #1.

3. You should almost always watch a movie rather than a TV show.  If you have to, watch the movie in hour or half-hour segments.  Movies are better and smarter, at least if you can figure out which are the quality films.  But that is not so hard, as standard critical opinion does OK there.

4. “The Golden Age of TV” doesn’t change any of this, though Hollywood movies have become worse, due to tent pole franchises and pressures for serialization, which give them some of the problems of television shows.  At the margin, almost everyone should be watching more foreign films.  Do you really know them all?  How well do you know the best of African cinema?  Iranian cinema?  And so on.

5. I will try a TV show if two people I know, in the very top tier of smarts, recommend it.  Even then I usually don’t like it.  I thus infer there is at least a single dimension where I differ strongly from just about all my friends.

6. Could I name twenty TV shows that I think are worth watching, relative to the best movies you haven’t seen and the best books you haven’t read?  Not sure.  Attention is that which is scarce.  But it shouldn’t be.  Just pay better attention and read that book or watch that movie.  There is also plenty on YouTube that beats TV shows, and if you are old you may not consume much YouTube content at all.

7. For sure, there are fifteen TV shows worth watching, but you really need to have very very strong filters.  Whatever your filters may be, make them stronger.  Don’t trust those friends of yours!

8. By this point, you are probably not very interested in knowing which are those fifteen shows.

Which Russians are getting cancelled?

The Russian filmmaker Kirill Sokolov has spent the past week distraught at the horror unfolding in Ukraine. Half his family is Ukrainian, he said in a telephone interview, and as a child he spent summers there, staying with his grandparents.

His maternal grandmother was still living in Kyiv, he said, “hiding from bombs in a bunker.”

Since Russia’s invasion began, Mr. Sokolov said he had signed two online petitions calling for an end to the war, an act that carries a risk in Russia, where thousands have been arrested for protesting the conflict, and some have reportedly lost their jobs.

Yet despite his antiwar stance, Mr. Sokolov on Monday learned that the Glasgow Film Festival in Scotland had dropped his latest movie, “No Looking Back.”

Here is more from Alex Marshall at the NYT.  Remind me again — why is this better than “simple racism”?  The Festival noted that the Russian government earlier had funded his film work.  Surely that could be grounds for cancelling anyone who went to public school in Russia?

*Atlantis*

Last night I watched this Ukrainian movie on AppleTV.  It was released in 2019 and is set in 2025, in the aftermath of a major war with Russia, which ended the year before.  Due to radiation and other post-conflict problems, the eastern half of Ukraine is essentially uninhabitable.  Ukraine, however, won the war because Russia underestimated Ukrainian guerrilla warfare, instead preparing for a war that the Ukrainians would fight with tanks (they didn’t).  The fundamental Ukrainian activity in this dystopian, apocalyptic postwar order is that of archaeology, uncovering wartime ruins and also corpses of Russian soldiers; I took that to be a stand-in for a broader understanding of Ukrainian history.

Originally this film had been marketed as “science fiction.”

Addendum: I thought the movie was excellent, though not for all tastes.  There are of course periodic visual references to Tarkovsky.  All the roles in the movie are played by military veterans and volunteers and paramedics, not professional actors.  Here is its Wikipedia page.  Here is the Variety review.