April 20, 2014

2014 Oscar Preview

So usually I go on and on and on about these things, but this year I’m only going to make predictions in the major categories. And cinematography.

Best Cinematography

The Grandmaster
Inside Llewyn Davis

Will Win: Gravity

Should Win: Gravity

American Cinematographers Society, BAFTA, Critics Choice, and 15 critics circles agree. Also, it’s pretty obvious that good cinematography had something to do with making this movie work.

This is the first film I’ve seen that justifies 3D, in large part because, as Alyssa Rosenberg observes, it understands that the role of 3-D is to pull you in, not push things out at you. Validating 3D is no small feat, much less with camera movement that has to account for all three dimensions being fair game not just for the camera, but for the subjects as well.

(By the way, part of me wants Prisoners to win because, seriously, who has Roger Deakins gotta blow to get a win up in here? This is his 12th nomination!!!)

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Before Midnight
Captain Phillips
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street 

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave

Should Win: 12 Years a Slave

A critical darling and, had it been eligible for a Writer’s Guild Award, a strong contender, but we’ll never know. Oddsmakers like it, too, with Philomena as an outside spoiler.

I’m tempted to go with Before Midnight here but given the improvisatory nature of much of the dialogue this feels like a weird award to give it over say, Most Fucking Amazing Actor awards for the leads. And adapting what could be an unforgiving narrative in the wrong hands into material that actually moves while still giving the characters room to breathe is an astounding feat.

Writing (Original Screenplay)

American Hustle
Blue Jasmine
Dallas Buyers Club

Will Win: Her

Should Win: Her

Critics Choice, Golden Globe, WGA, and another 12 critics circle wins to boot make this a favorite. Watch out for American Hustle, though, which got some BAFTA love.

As my second favorite film of the year I’d be hard pressed to give it to anyone else. I’ll have 10,000 words or so later on just how awesome Her is, but it manages to get the technology and the human relationships right, which is almost unparalleled in cinema.

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins—Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence—American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o—12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts—August: Osage County
June Squibb—Nebraska

Will Win: Lupita Nyong’o

Should Win: Lupita Nyong’o

There’s a fairly decent fight here between Lawrence and Nyong’o, with the former boasting a BAFTA and a Golden Globe and the latter boasting a metric fuckton of critics circle awards and a SAG win. Oddsmakers put Nyong’o over the top, but it’s hard to imagine Hustle will walk away empty handed.

I’ll be honest. I’ve only seen Nyong’o and Lawrence’s performances here, and they’re both fantastic. But Nyong’o digs deeper (kind of has to) and leaves a more lasting impression.

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi—Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper—American Hustle
Michael Fassbender—12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill—The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto—Dallas Buyers Club

Will Win: Jared Leto

Should Win: Jonah Hill

BAFTAs tried to make this interesting by handing a win to Abdi, but Leto’s got the lock with a Globe, Critics Choice, SAG, and countless circles.

I know I’m supposed to say Fassbender here, and he does give an amazing performance, but I was really impressed with Hill. It felt like a career-defining performance. A Joe Pesci in Goodfellas kind of performance. Then again, I liked Wolf more than most, so I’m prepared to be alone on this one.

Best Actress

Amy Adams—American Hustle
Cate Blanchett—Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock—Gravity
Judi Dench—Philomena
Meryl Streep—August: Osage County

Will Win: Cate Blanchett

Should Win: Brie Larson

The only win that’s more of a lock than Leto is Blanchett. Pick the award, she’s won it. And no, the controversy will not sway the Academy.

That having been said, the controversy was enough to make me uncomfortable enough to not actually get around to watching Blue Jasmine, so I can’t speak authoritatively. I can say that Brie Larson gives one of the most overlooked performances of the year (along with Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station) and this seems as good a place as any to complain about it.

Best Actor

Christian Bale—American Hustle
Bruce Dern—Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio—The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor—12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey—Dallas Buyers Club 

Will Win: Matthew McConaughey

Should Win: Chiwetel Ejiofor

As the awards season unfolded, it really seemed like Ejiofor was the early favorite, but then McConaughey started racking up win after win, garnering a Globe, Critics Choice, and SAG award with only home team BAFTA’s showing Ejiofor the major awards love. Even the oddsmakers consider DiCaprio the next most likely win (possibly based on his Globe win), but I’d like to think of Ejiofor as a spoiler regardless.

McConaughey had an amazing year. An amazing two years, actually. Consider Magic Mike and Bernie last year and Mud, Dallas Buyers Club, and The Wolf of Wall Street this year (and 2014 is off to a good start as well with him absolutely killing it on True Detective). All that having been said, Ejiofor gives an incendiary performance that carries the most satisfyingly difficult film of the year. He has to flex pretty much every muscle an actor has to take Northup through his paces. It’s hard to imagine a more demanding role, and he inhabits it fearlessly.

Best Director

David O. Russell—American Hustle
Alfonso Cuaron—Gravity
Alexander Payne—Nebraska
Steve McQueen—12 Years a Slave
Martin Scorsese—The Wolf of Wall Street 

Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron

Should Win: Steve McQueen

Cuaron has dominated all of the things, but the most notable is the super-predictive (like 90 plus percent) Director’s Guild Award.

Cuaron does an amazing job with Gravity, taking the visual fluidity he experimented with in Children of Men and taking it to a whole new level. I’m convinced he’ll make the next, and probably the best, feature film to be told in a single, continuous shot. But all of the things that make McQueen an amazing director, on display in Hunger and Shame, come to fruition here. This is a film that demands to be seen, and McQueen takes that almost literally, using the long, held shots he refined in his first two films to powerful effect, unflinching in the face of horror but also in the face of hope.

Best Picture

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street 

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave

Should Win: 12 Years a Slave

The Producers Guild Award really threw a wrench into this one. The first tie in their history. Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. And those are our top contenders. In the end, Slave has racked up more awards. A BAFTA, Critics Choice, and a Globe, not to mention far more circle awards. But that half-win from the PGA ain’t nothing, and neither is Cuaron’s likely directing win (Picture/Director splits are less rare now, but still not the norm). But in the end, and maybe it’s just magical thinking on my part, the oddsmakers are siding with Slave, and that’s good enough for me. But be prepared for Gravity to sneak in here if the Academy decides to go all Color Purple on this one.

12 Years a Slave was my favorite film of the year. Here’s why, but to sum up, we haven’t had any films about slavery from black directors, and this film is why it’s important that we finally did.

Top Ten TV Shows of 2013

10. Archer

Starting the season off with a Best. Crossover. Ever. (with another of my favorite shows) Archer delivered yet again with rapid fire hilarity and some standout episodes including wonderful guest stints from Timothy Olyphant, Anthony Bourdain, and Jon Hamm.

9. The Walking Dead

End of Season Three? Amazing. Completely delivering on the promise of the indelible performance by David Morrisey as The Governer. Where to go from there? Well, the worst possible things that could happen under the circumstances, of course. We’re thrown completely out of the comfort zone established at the end of Season Three from the word go in Season Four, and it never lets up.

8. The Venture Bros.

The wait was far too long (3 years!!!!) but once it was back it was like it had never left. With such standout episodes as “Spanikopita!” (which I haven’t stopped saying since), “O.S.I. Love You”, and a wonderful super-sized season opener with guest stints from Aziz Ansari and Wyatt Cenac, Season 5 delivered. It may just be my pop culture DNA, but any show with an explicit FX2 shout-out is a winner in my book.

7. Orphan Black

This is probably the only action or sci-fi series to nail the Bechdel Test with every episode. On top of that, it contains one of the best performances on television. Tatiana Maslany takes multiple characters through their paces over the course of a season, and these aren’t just variations on a theme, these are completely different people with different looks and different personalities in spite of being, you know, clones. Include sharp writing and one of the best supporting performances on television by Jordan Gavaris and you’ve got a series as addictive as it is groundbreaking.

6. Key & Peele

Black Ice” and “Sex with Black Guys” are just two unforgettable segments from this standout season. Still some of the smartest comedy on television, picking up where Chappelle’s Show left off in terms of biting social dialogue that’s funny as hell.

5. Brooklyn Nine Nine

It should not be a surprise that a comedy from Parks and Recreation co-creator Michael Schur would be full of awesome. Andre Brauer reinvents his stoic persona with some of the best dry readings I’ve ever heard. Terry Crews continues to emerge as an acute comic talent, first evidenced as one of the few really good things about The Newsroom but on full display here. It is, in fact, probably the second best comedic ensemble on television (we’ll get to the best in position number four) which has the added benefit of being one of the most diverse (or, more to the point geographically accurate). Oh, and not for nothing, but one of the best portrayals of a gay character on television, mostly because it’s almost never brought up.

4. Parks and Recreation

This show just refuses to suck. It still gets me verklempt, even after four years. But what really puts it over the top this year is…

3. Game of Thrones

Three words. The Red Wedding. Four words. “Chaos is a ladder.” These two moments alone are worth the number three spot, but the rest of the season was pretty awesome and/or devastating, as well.

2. Broadchurch

There’s no two ways about it. This is a dark, depressing show. It focuses on the murder of a child and the ensuing investigation. But it is perfectly crafted, with nuanced performances from a talented cast included David Tennant and Olivia Colman. But it’s not just about misery, though it is about mourning, and understanding how a small town reacts, for better or worse, to a crisis. It’s very easy for a story like this to go terribly wrong, or, more likely, be completely mediocre, but there’s not one false note in the entire ten episode run. It’s gripping, sometimes difficult. But it’s also some of the most flawless television I’ve ever seen.

1. Breaking Bad

Many television series came to an end this year; Fringe, The Office, 30 Rock, Futurama, Nikita, and Dexter among them. And some had decent endings. But none stuck the landing quite as well after so long a near-perfect run. None completed an artistic project of such scope with such consistency. None felt like history. No one has pulled off a TV project such as this before. And I hope many more will.

Top Ten Movies of 2013

10. How to Make Money Selling Drugs

“If the American Dream broke its promise to you, don’t worry. We have an answer.”

Matthew Cooke’s snickering, smart, sardonic take on the drug war comes wrapped in a highly entertaining yet sobering package. Taking its structure from leveling up in a video game via an instructional video, it talks to the real life cops and robbers who feed the machine. I would love to see a similar approach taken to health care.

9. The World’s End

“What the fuck does WTF mean?”

A fitting climax to the Cornetto Trilogy that began with Shaun of the Dead and continued with Hot Fuzz, The World’s End hews less to a pure genre play but rather flips on a dime to mix genres to best serve its narrative of a group of sad-sack adults trying to reclaim their glory days in a sleepy English town. Nick Frost in particular gets to play against the slob/dunce type established in the first two films to show he’s got just as much range as Simon Pegg, who gets to dig about as deep as any of the previous efforts. The mix of drama, comedy, kung-fu, and sci-fi horror comes off as dexterity rather than cacophany, climaxing in one of the best stand offs in recent memory. While I’ll miss the trilogy, the power of its finale proves the talent involved has far more to offer going forward.

8. The Wolf of Wall Street

“Let me tell you something. There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been a poor man, and I’ve been a rich man. And I choose rich every fucking time.”

Indulgent is probably an appropriate word for the three hour opus from Martin Scorsese chronicling the sex-drug-and-money-capades of real life swindler Jordan Belfort. But, given the indulgent nature of its protagonist, the approach seems fitting. It also affords Scorsese the opportunity to opine about the 21st century vision of the American Dream, namely “solve your problems by getting rich,” a mantra that has put us in the economic clusterfuck we currently inhabit.

And not for nothing, but Jonah Hill, already showing promise in Moneyball, gives a career-defining performance as Belfort’s confidant Donnie Azoff.

7. The Kings of Summer

“You’re right, it’s a classic kidnapping. They took our children and the canned goods and pasta.”

I have to thank Glen Weldon and the cast of Pop Culture Happy Hour for constantly recommending this gem until I sought it out. In a year with many strong coming of age stories—The Way Way Back and (I’m told) The Spectacular Now among them—The Kings of Summer shines with a unique perspective and truly, truly funny dialogue and characterizations. It doesn’t hurt that the supporting cast is a who’s who of sharp comedians like Nick Offerman, Allison Brie, Megan Mullally, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Tony Hale, Hannibal Buress, and more. But outshining them all is a what should have been a shoo-in Best Supporting Actor nod performance from Moises Arias as the leads’ utterly bizarre but utterly believable hanger on.

6. Fruitvale Station

“They fucking shot him! They shot him in the fucking back for no reason, man!”

I avoided this film like the plague. Mostly because of how angry I expected it to make me. But, in the end, this poignant, warts-and-all portrayal of a man’s last day on earth just made me sad, even for the murderers involved. Ryan Coogler’s assured, unflinching direction and Michael B. Jordan’s “my God how was he not even nominated!?” performance paint a stark picture of a man who found a wrong place and a wrong time that shouldn’t have existed in the first place.

Also, one of the few films with the good sense to know exactly when to cut to black.

5. Gravity

“You just point the damned thing at Earth. It’s not rocket science.”

The first, and perhaps only, film to truly be worth seeing in 3D, in part because it, as Alyssa Rosenberg says,

…feels like the first movie to understand that 3D should pull you into the screen, not merely toss things out at you from it…

That understanding makes Gravity one of the most daring, exciting, and unique action films I’ve seen. Essentially a disaster movie in space (and a nice contrast to Europa Report, if you have the opportunity), the film pays off on the promise Alfonso Cuaron showed in Children of Men, with bravura sequences that raised the bar for what a tracking shot could accomplish. Becuase the film relies so much on the physics of zero gravity, in which all three dimensions are suddenly fair game, 3D as a visual paradigm suddenly has new significance, and Cuaron makes the most of it.

4. American Hustle

“She was the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.”

With enough kinetic energy to power a city, American Hustle tells the story of the Abscam operation with special attention to themes of ambition and self-delusion that power the inner lives of the principals, played with laser precision by the best cast he’s assembled to date (basically a combo of his The Fighter—Amy Adams and Christian Bale—and Silver Linings Playbook—Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence—all-stars, with Jeremy Renner thrown in for good measure, not to mention fantastic turns from Louis CK and Michael Pena). If you know how much I love Three Kings, for me to call this my new favorite David O. Russell film means a lot.

3. Before Midnight

“If you want love, then this is it. This is real life. It’s not perfect but it’s real.”

Every time Richard Linklater released yet another addition to his perfect gem of a movie, Before Sunrise, it seemed fraught to be an exercise in self-indulgent, unnecessary pablum, but in the case of Before Sunset and now this latest gem, it now seems part of a master plan for a masterpiece trilogy. Indeed, watching them all together (which I more or less did) especially being a person of my generation (roughly the same age as the leads during each iteration) you can see this as more of a Up Series approach to storytelling, capturing a couple at very distinct moments in their maturation. Midnight is no less revealing and is perhaps the most devastatingly honest about what it means to know someone and be with someone for so long for better and worse. And Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke deserve some kind of special edition Oscar for portraying these characters with such aplomb over such a protracted arc.

2. Her

“We are only here briefly, and in this moment I want to allow myself joy.”

Some movies get the technology right but the human relationships wrong. Some movies get the human relationships right but get the technology wrong. Few if any get them both right, but Her does and, in fact, it’s kind of crucial for the story to work that it does. It understands, and pays very close attention to, how we interact with technology and how that influences how we interact with each other. It understands in a way that few pieces of art do that it’s not an either/or scenario, but a complicated dance that evolves over time, now more quickly than ever.

It’s also fearless about where its basic conceit—man falls in love with sentient operating system—might go. It’s also very smart (and this is writer/director Spike Jonze’s masterstroke) about how to visually depict a story that is 90% conversation with thin air. There’s a lot of just showing what Joaquin Phoenix (in a yet another brilliant performance) is seeing in the moment, which lends both immediacy and authenticity to what otherwise might seem an utterly wacky premise. And the amount Scarlett Johannson is able to accomplish with her voice alone is astounding.

1. 12 Years a Slave

“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”

A while back, I lamented and postulated about the dearth of slavery films directed by black directors, and this film is exactly why. A film directed from the point of view of the slave with no easy outs for the privileged viewer (especially since the slave himself comes from privilege—one of the film’s most devastating scenes flashes back to a moment where our hero is perfectly safe and turns a blind eye to the plight of a slave).

Although not American (we still have yet to find a slavery film directed by an African-American), director Steve McQueen was in many ways the perfect director for this material. His previous efforts, Hunger and Shame, are literally unflinching with plentiful held camera shots over disturbing images. This approach pays off repeatedly in Slave, where McQueen lets the camera linger over an instance of human cruelty, most effectively when it’s the cruelty of neglect, the workings of a plantation going on despite a punishment being meted out for hours in plain sight.

McQueen understands the power of a held image, but he also understands the difference between depicting cruelty and fetishizing it. I think that’s why, ultimately, Slave ends up being an easier film to watch than you might expect. I found Hunger, for example, to be far more difficult to watch because, in addition to just involving far more graphic depictions of pretty much every bodily fluid known to man, it’s the story of someone slowly dying a horrible death versus the story of someone slowly living a horrible life—but refusing to not live.

Honorable Mentions:

First off, sad that Iron Man 3 just couldn’t make the cut because Shane Black making a comic book movie is just perfect on so many levels.

The others…

Side Effects – Soderbergh makes an outstanding thriller.

Mud – Another great coming of age film and another great McConaughey performance in a year full of them.

The Act of Killing – An utterly unique and unforgettable documentary about guilt, memory, and state-sanctioned slaughter.

Prisoners – Another outstanding thriller, this one from Incendies director Denis Villeneuve.

Don Jon – An auspicious directorial debut from quickly-becoming-one-of-my-favorite-humans Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Thor: The Dark World – A fun, creative improvement over the original.

You’re Next – A fiendishly clever home invasion horror flick with an excellent 80′s style slasher score that kicks in towards the end.

Europa Report – The photo negative of Gravity, a slowly paced thriller that celebrates scientific discovery instead of shredding it with space debris.

The Conjuring – Old school horror with truly magnificent camerawork from James Wan and John R. Leonetti.

The Heat – Old school buddy cop fun with riotous chemistry between Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy.

Content as a Service

My talk about the future of content, Content as a Service: Artificial Scarcity and the Post-Ownership Economy, is up now. Watch it.

Synopsis: We’ve become so used to treating digital content like physical goods that we’ve forgotten how different the two really are and how unsustainable that business model really is. In this Barcamp Philly 2013 talk, content strategist and Developing Philly co-creator David Dylan Thomas suggests new directions for content consumption and compensation that respect the fundamental nature of content today.

Better Commenting Through Design

While I completely get Popular Science’s decision last year to shut down comments, it depresses me to think that this is the end of the conversation. To think that our conclusion is that comments just don’t work. That it is impossible to have a good conversation online.

I believe there is a better way.

First, we have to start modeling good behavior online. We have to celebrate good comments and good online discussions. Can you name the last one you saw? I think there should be a web experience devoted to celebrating good online discussion. The best comments of the day. People will compete to not suck.

Secondly, we need to take seriously the theories put forth years ago by Derek Powazek in his mind-blowing talk, Design for the Wisdom of Crowds (audio, slides), that lays, in some small (or not so small) part, the blame for shitty comments at design’s door. (Here’s some more writing he’s done on the topic.)

Highlights from the talk, but be sure to listen to the whole thing.

If we can begin to elevate and design for better online conversations, we might see a change. At least, I feel, it’s a better alternative to just giving up.

Why We Can’t Share Good Things

Annalee Newitz (who’s been killing it over at i09, not for nothing) has a really interesting piece up over why some compelling, thought-provoking posts don’t get any social media traction and why more superficial, or less ambiguous pieces do. Her article (and accompanying back-o’-the-napkin art) describe an uncanny valley of ambiguity where a piece of writing might raise questions and depict complexity in a way that intimidates a reader out of sharing of it for fear of being misinterpreted or appearing to be—shudder—too open-minded.

Her essay is not, thankfully, an “everybody is stupid and the web is just making that clearer” lament. It’s an enlightened, insightful look at online behavior. It reminded me of research that’s been done on online sharing that might illuminate this issue further. In his book, Contagious, Jonah Berger discusses research into what items get shared what items do not and one of the factors seem to be what are called “arousal emotions”. These are emotions that arouse certain physiological reactions, specifically ones that heighten physiological activity. For example, anger gets your heart rate up. So does excitement, or awe. There is a correlation between articles that spur these heightened states and articles that get shared more often. Alternately, articles that lower physionomy by inducing states related to, say, depression (e.g. slower heart rate), get shared less often.

Where the research Berger references gets really interesting in is the idea that it doesn’t even matter where the heightened state comes from. It doesn’t have to be an emotion. There was an experiment where two sets of subjects read content and then had the opportunity to share it or not. The difference was one group spent some time exercising first. The ones who read articles just after exercising were more likely to share that content regardless of the nature of that content than the ones who just sat there for a while before reading. It’s really the heightened state that seems to matter.

This brings us back to articles that challenge us either with their complexity or their ambiguity. Perhaps, and I haven’t hooked anyone up to an EEG while they read deep shit so this is just a guess, ambiguity doesn’t raise your heart rate. Neither does introspection or complexity or deep thought. This is nothing against those attributes, but they just don’t lend themselves to sharing. This may be another reason that the types of articles Newitz describes are at a disadvantage to happy cats or definitive truths.

And this sort of makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, right? Messages like “There’s a tiger over there!” get spread a lot more quickly than “What is a tiger, really?” So we have an evolutionary mandate to spread messages that evoke arousal emotions. Not so much the introspection or the ambiguity.

What’s more troubling is her assertion that the reason this lack of shareability endangers work that challenges is that advertisers rate the success of an article by just how viral it is. And here, I feel, is the flaw. Not in Newitz’s logic, but in the system. It may seem like “virality” (a flawed term in and of itself) is a good measure of the value of an article, but given the limitations around what actually gets spread it seems like a fundamentally flawed one. So if we have a system that rewards an article (or, more precisely, financially compensates content creators) based solely on virality, then there’s something wrong with the system, because it’s going to defund challenging work.

I actually like work that challenges me, and share it when I can; but I probably would have been eaten by the tiger.

Komodo Dragons Will Totally Kill the Crap Out of You and Everyone You Love

This summer, I visited London. While there, I visited the London Zoo. Little did I know, they keep Komodo dragons there.

Komodo dragons are the world’s largest living lizards and, as such, are kind of the closest thing we have to dinosaurs. I’ve always been kind of fascinated by them, but I had no idea just how lethal they actually are.

Incidentally, one of the two they had on display was in Skyfall.

So here are a few of the ways in which Komodo dragons can totally kill the shit out of you (and just be plain cruel and unstoppable to boot).

  1. They could bite you. This may not sound like much but (a) the way they bite is to dig in and shake from side to side which will pretty much rip up any muscle you have so you ain’t going nowhere (b) if that doesn’t work, they have a venom in their saliva that acts as an anti-coagulant meaning that you’ll bleed out eventually and they’ll just come along and collect you later, which should be a snap because…
  2. They’re faster than you. Much faster. Don’t try to outrun them. It’ll be embarassing. And then you’ll die.
  3. If you thought “Maybe I’ll climb a tree,” don’t bother. Komodo dragons learn to climb trees at a very young age. Know why? To avoid their parents who are trying to eat them. (As to why the parents, who clearly know how to climb trees, don’t come after them, maybe that’s their version of parental love.)
  4. This part is truly disturbing: Komodo dragons deliberately track pregnant animals. When the animal gives birth, the Komodo dragon swoops in and eats the baby. Because they’re fucking assholes.
  5. Komodo dragons have a sick-ass sense of smell. They can smell things, like, four miles away. For those of you in Philly, it’d be like one was hanging out at the art museum and could pick out a burger cooking at the aquarium in in Camden, NJ.
  6. Let’s say you want to play the long game, and wait for an entire population of Komodo dragons to die out. Well, I’ve got some bad news for you. Let’s say they were down to just a few females and no males. You’re thinking, game over. Last generation. No more babies. Not so fast. It has just been established, based on the female Komodo dragon in that very London zoo, that they are capable of parthenogenesis. Which is fancy talk for the female can impregnate herself! Yeah. That just happened. They can only have males but, if you think about it, under those circumstances, what else do you need?

Here’s some video of one from the zoo. It’s much deadlier than it looks, apparently.

And here is an otter playing with a pebble, just to balance things out.

Of course, now it turns out otters are assholes, too.

The Immersion Paradox

Many of the technologies that movie theaters are employing to win in the competition for eyeballs are meant to create a more immersive experience. 3D is, of course, the most obvious of these but others are coming down the pike.

While these technologies are very interesting and hold a lot of creative potential (I just saw the first movie that I think really justifies 3D), the point isn’t, in my opinion, to make movies more immersive, because the more immersive you make them, the less you make them like movies.

This is on a spectrum, to be sure, but most of the technologies that are meant to “solve” the problem of movies really just turn movies into games. You want the audience to be able to decide the outcome? That’s a game. You want to surround them 360˚ in the world of a film? That’s a game experience. All of the things you can do to a movie to make it more immersive, if successful, make it more like a game, and games have already got the whole immersive thing covered, thank you very much.

And even when you talk about games, there’s a limit to how immersive one wants the experience to be. There are UX problems around motion control and gesture-based gaming that come from the sheer exhaustion of going through the motion of reloading your invisible gun and pointing and shooting versus just using a hand controller when you scale that out over 16 hours.

And there are immersion problems with certain types of narrative as well. I don’t want to be immersed, for example, inside the world of Do the Right Thing or Mississippi Burning. That would be very scary. I want to see a depiction of a thing. I don’t want to live the thing. There’s power in things feeling visceral, but there is an uncanny valley the closer you get to it feeling real. And that visceral feeling in those cases is coming from a connection to character which, while mediated by technology (even without 3D, film is a technology), is driven by performance and story. (In fact, if you want to look consider a quantified approach to “immersion”, check out neurocinematics, which charts Hitchcock, without the aid of 3D or even CGI, as being the most immersive storyteller.)

Which is not to say I don’t want to lose myself in a movie, but it’s not because of the technology. The first medium we really talked about losing ourself in was books, and there’s no 3D there. No color or sound for that matter. Any storytelling technology, in fact, uses the tools of its trade to be compelling. To take the audience on a journey. But not by making the medium something it is not. As soon as you begin to alter your mechanism for the sole purpose of draining market share, you risk diluting the experience.

That having been said, some of the most wonderful innovations in filmmaking have come from that very struggle. Color. Cinemascope. All attempts to compete with television. And maybe in the end the market will correct itself and all competitive advantages that have true storytelling potential will out, but I get the sense that the driver behind some of these is wrong-headed, and the focus on theatrical should really be about making the movie-going experience better, which has more to do with customer service than technology. The Alamo Draft House is one of the best movie-going experiences I’ve had and, if anything, it’s less immersive because the food and drink delivered to you risk taking you out of the movie.

All of which is to say, I would love to see a true Human Centered Design approach to movie-going. Any takers?

The Real Reason a Female Doctor Who Would Be Groundbreaking

In less than 24 hours, we’ll know whom the next Doctor will be. As is always the case when a new Doctor is announced, speculation runs rampant that this time it will be a female Doctor and along with that come the arguments as to why that should or should not be the case.

But the one pro argument I haven’t heard yet, and that I think would really move the needle in terms of gender representation in sci-fi (or television in general) is the dynamic that would be created by a female doctor and a female companion. Assuming Clara Oswin Oswald remains as the new Doctor’s companion (as there’s every reason to believe) you would have a female Doctor battling evil with her female companion. How often do we get to see two female characters relating to each other on this level under these circumstances? The few examples that come to mind are Xena and Gabrielle, Cagney and Lacey, and Rizzoli and Isles. Not a lot. Oh, and if we extend to movies, Ashburn and Mullins.

This is an important dynamic to consider because it shows us a side of female interaction that exists fairly independent of male interaction. It shows us that women can have identities and relationships, in life-or-death problem-solving circumstances, that aren’t defined by male frames of reference. Two men relating to each other in the context of a high stakes situation (the Daleks are attacking, a body has been found) is, to our television viewing eyes, normal. Two women relating to each other in the context of a similar situation, not so much.

This is why the Bechdel Test exists. And a Doctor Who with two female leads would, presumably, pass it every single time. (As it is now, it almost never does.)

While we’re speculating, I’ll put in my votes for Ruth Wilson, Helen Mirren, and Parminder Nagra.

How to Build an Agile Government


A while ago, I wrote about what I thought agile democracy might look like. We’re already starting to see, in Britain, an approach toward agile government, at least. What’s exciting about this is it seems to be taking its cue from human-centered design, with the audacious goal of creating services “so good that people prefer to use them.” Imagine if the DMV’s motto was “Build services so good that people prefer to use them.”

I love that we’re now using terms like “service design” to describe how a government might serve its people. And where government refuses to adopt this attitude, it’s role will be usurped  (whenever possible) by those who will.

This isn’t exactly the same thing, but we’re beginning to see in my country (in Philly even, woo-hoo!), a small experiment towards human-centered design for health care. They’re not calling it that, but when you go to where the people are, and try to build solutions around their lifestyles, habits, and needs, as opposed to making them conform to yours, guess what your’e doing.