The Choice: Shakespeare Or Soma [A Brave New World]

In part 1 of this three-part series, I addressed how 1984, the defacto king of predicting our dystopian present, may fall short of the mark when assessing the reasons for our current state of ignorance and political control. 

You can read that post here, but the TL/DR is that 1984 argues a top-down governmental overhaul, of what we read through big brother monitoring and propaganda, thus preventing citizens from fulfilling their role as an educated electorate that holds political officials accountable- a statement that has gotten trickier in recent weeks, but maybe another example of why 1984 falls short.

I wrote part 1 of this three parter before there was an insurrection on our Capitol. I am writing this one after, and it serves as an all-too real lynchpin for the ways 1984 got our present wrong and how another dystopian novel from the past, A Brave New World, is rightfully growing in acclaim for its aptness and prescience. 

A Brave New World presents a world where literacy was not eschewed through government oversight and propaganda, but through choice. The world was presented with the option of reading Shakespeare or imbibing of a happiness-drug called Soma, the citizenry chose ‘happiness.’ Through this choice, away from literacy and deep thinking towards personal pleasure, they became a decadent society that found peace and removed inconveniences like childbearing and disease, and allowed themselves room to bring close that which brings pleasure and push away that which makes them uncomfortable.

And make no mistake, knowledge is uncomfortable. Michael Lewis says it better than anyone in his book The Fifth Risk, as he addresses why the Trump transition team took so little interest in understanding what the departments of the White House actually did, “There is an upside to ignorance, and a downside to knowledge. Knowledge makes life messier. It makes it a bit more difficult for a person who wishes to shrink the world to a worldview.”

And I would argue, when presented with an opportunity to choose ignorance or knowledge, we chose ignorance. It was not forced on us by an overbearing government like many who are decrying censorship on Facebook and Twitter, it was self-imposed through choices we made long before anything needed removing from Twitter and before Parler got de-platformed. 

The Brave New World was based on a choice. One that was delightfully broken down into a dichotomy that reflects this whole paradigm, Shakespeare or Soma. And those people chose Soma. I think we did too.

Our Soma now takes many forms, cell phones, social media pages, drug use, and pornography are a few easy examples of the ‘drugs’ we consume to induce happiness. Take cell phones for instance. Most studies show adults average just under 3 hours a day on their cell phone, which is a lot. But when looking at teens, that number is higher, some studies, like one from Common Sense Media, put teens at an average of just under 8 hours a day of screen time. 

According to Statista, close to two and a half of those hours are on social media of some kind among all internet users, again, this number is higher for young people (And once again… these people are only reading, on average, four books a year). A good rule of thumb is that a person is probably spending 30% of their screen time on social media, which puts a decent sized damper on anyone hoping those 3-8 hours of phone time were being used for something productive. 

You could say only 30% of that time is on social media, but that means we are splitting the rest of that 70% among other phone activities like texting, playing phone games, checking the weather, listening to music, downloading apps, and all the other minor or semi-minor activities that our phones beckon us to accomplish. Then we can take the remaining time and spread it out amongst Google searching and news ingesting, the quality of those endeavors notwithstanding.

If we took 10% of our average phone times… just ten… we would average nine pages of reading a day, let’s round that up to ten, because only sociopaths stop reading at nine pages and don’t finish the tenth. If we did that, we would average 3,650 pages in a year. Considering books average to around 350 pages, we would average, per person, around ten books per year, which is well over double what we currently do. All of that with just one tenth of the time we spend on phones.

Then take two other mainstream means of instant gratification. There are many ways to approach modern day drug use and prove its prevalence. In fact, I probably don’t even need to support the assertion that America has a drug problem, but I will, and the study I find most powerful was done by Pew, saying that almost half of Americans have a family member or close friend who has been addicted to drugs. I am not old, but I am old enough to remember when the question of the day at drug talks was how many people knew someone who has used drugs. No longer.

As for porn, and the increase of nudes being sent from screen to screen, I also go to Pew, where it says that 41% of Americans agree with the statement that “nude pictures and X-rated videos on the internet provide harmless entertainment for those who enjoy it.” Pornography isn’t a prevalence issue, it’s a normalization issue.

But so what? America has its vices, its Soma… is this just a Puritanical invective for virtue and against vice? Maybe… I do have that in me, but it’s not what I am going for right now.

The point is, we weren’t forced into ignorance by an overbearing government, we embraced it in our own free will. We don’t read because of a lack of time, we just don’t value it. We don’t succumb to fake news and suggestive media because of its persuasiveness, we are just so used to bringing close that which we want and gives us pleasure that we also do it with ‘information.’ 

To be more specific, those who stormed the Capitol did not do so because of a lack of information, but because they selected specific information, and more importantly, deselected a heck of a lot more information. And Twitter is being ‘censured’ not because of big brother, but because of the prevalence of lies that only find breathing room because of a lack of intelligence on those receiving it that is predicated on a choice about what they would consume.

As we spend more time on social media and less time in respectable information outlets like newspapers and books (in fact as we argue against the value of those things), it is not surprising that our thoughts and values are dictated by these new media. In 2019, Pew released a study that showed 55% of adults now get their news from social media ‘often’ or ‘sometimes.’ 

Might I suggest, that that number could quite possibly correlate with those who are also not reading by choice?

This is not the world of 1984. It is A Brave New World where those who read and seek knowledge are considered barbarians, and those who normalize every sin and vice are considered enlightened. In our world, those outlets that remove lies and provocations to violence are ‘big brother’ and those who fit the world into a prescribed worldview using whatever fallacies are most convenient are enlightened, where a shadowy figure named Q holds more weight for an entire group of people than any book or credentialed journalist. They made their choice as we all have made choices for ourselves this last year. But more importantly, we had a choice.

And the consequences of what we chose go much further than individual regression. There are much greater ramifications. And as the world argues over why the Capitol storming happened and who should be held responsible, I think a third dystopian novel helps us answer both those questions… But that’s for next time.

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[Tenet] Questions

As written by fate, I finally got around to watching Tenet. And because it took me so long, I had been warned by the future. I knew it would be confusing. I knew I would have to watch it twice. I knew I would have to be on my story intaking A-game.

So I turned on the subtitles. I waited until my wife was not home. I ignored my attention seeking cat, and I locked in. 

Halfway through the movie, I was in love, ingesting Nolan imagery and storytelling at its finest. This was going to be my favorite Nolan film. Those who didn’t understand it or had to watch it twice (pathetic) were not on my comprehension level.

After I finished the movie… maybe not so much.

I am not special or unique, and I am not going to pretend to be special for the sake of my ego, this blog, and/or my perceived role of writing a comprehensive review. So I will not pretend like I understood it all, and I have not watched it enough times to understand it all. Instead, I want to write about some questions I have in the wake of my first viewing, questions I hope to get answered in subsequent re-watches.

If you want to answer my questions in a temporal pincer move, go right ahead and hit up the comments.

Did the inverted machinery ever really play a factor?

The inversion technique I felt I grasped the best the quickest was the bullets- and other machinery- that were inverted and thus reloaded a weapon rather than discharge it or went into your hand rather than drop onto the table. But after it was introduced, did it ever show up again? Once people got inverted, did we ever deal with inverted machinery other than the ones those people handled?

I think if I went back and re-watched the opening opera scene, I would see the Protagonist saving his own life with an inverted bullet, but is that true? And if it is, is that the extent of it? 

And on a smaller note, how did the bullets end up in the wall in the shooting range? Did they find that stone slab that way from the future? Those were the type of questions I thought we were going to deal with later.

It was such a cool concept, and we assumed it was important, with inverted guns and nuclear weapons enough of a conflict to carry a storyline, but then… I am not sure where that plot line went.

What are the finer points of inversion in that last scene (which was actually the first scene because it happened before everything else… oh man it’s happening again)?

So, here is what I do understand. When you are inverted you move backwards but you look like you are moving forwards and everything else is moving backwards.

And when you are not inverted, someone who is inverted operates backwards (as seen in that cool fight scene between the Protagonist and his inverted self and the backwards driving car).

And when you are inverted you also have autonomy to interact with the non-inverted world as it moves forward, benefitting from the hindsight of knowing what was going to happen.

This all culminates in the final scene in a temporal pincer move where…

One group inverts, goes back in time, and reverts to invade the base moving forward. 

They are aided by an inverted group who invades the base backwards, who end their fight at the beginning of the invasion, and therefore tell the non-inverted group what happens.

So I guess I get confused about the imagery… who is moving backwards and forwards and when? When the crates are dropped by the helicopters and release backwards moving people, that is the inverted group having just finished their mission. But didn’t they already finish and give intel to the noninverted group? I guess that would make sense because after they invert-fight their battle, they are able to tell the non-inverted group what happened because they are moving away from the battle as the other group moves towards it.

Then I guess what is left is small moments where an inverted group interacts with scenery that helps the non-inverted group or vice versa. And I suppose that is Nolan enticing me to watch it all again knowing what to look for, but that’s a tough ask. I am not sure I can keep all that in my brain at once to be able to enjoy those finer points a re-watch would offer as reward… 

What is Priya’s role?

I felt like I understood her role the entire film as some important arms dealer, until the end, where it felt like I was supposed to perceive her as something else. Like I think there was a twist, but I didn’t catch it. She was working for the Protagonist… but what does that mean for the entire story that went before? And why was she going to kill Sator’s wife at the end of the movie? I don’t think I could clearly articulate this.

Why did they need to be so precise with Sator’s death?

I also thought I knew what was going on with Sator’s death happening simultaneous to the capturing of the nine capsules. But then there was an element of precision they were going for… killing him only after it was definitely captured, and at times it felt down to the second, that made me question myself. If the reason they needed to kill Sator after they capture the nine capsules is so that he doesn’t go back and affect the past, then it seems like they have a lot more room for error. 

If they failed or seemed likely to fail to capture the capsules it doesn’t matter much either way. So at the point where they are either going to fail or are so close they are going to get it, it feels like they can green light Sator’s assassination, right? 

How many characters are alive in one timeline at once?

Like are their seven Sator’s running around as the movie’s timeline plays out, and like five Neils, and twenty-six Protaganists?

Clearly these guys are inverting and reverting a lot more than we thought when we first starting watching, and then have to play out the future after they go back into the past, so I am under the assumption there are a bunch of these characters interacting all the time. I don’t know if that’s right though.

Should movies be made that have to be watched twice to be understood?

As did everyone, I heard a lot of people tell me before I watched Tenet, that I would have to watch it twice. It always struck me as a bit funny. Should that ever be the narrative after leaving a movie? Or does that mean it is a bad movie?

A cynic might say that making a movie that needs multiple viewings to understand is a money grab, and maybe another explanation for Nolan’s Herculean attempt to get Tenet to play in theaters during a worldwide pandemic. But I am not feeling especially cynical today.

Instead, I wonder if a storyline that is internally consistent but borderline incomprehensible unless with extraordinary time on task is a sign of bad storytelling, or a grand vision? 

And before our hackles raise while pointing to movies like The Prestige and Inception which asked for re-watches the moment they end, with twists that paint the movie with new color, I don’t see these as examples like Tenet, that normalize the confusion, as much as counterpoints against Tenet’s style. The Prestige and Inception made me want to re-watch them because I realized what the movies now meant. Tenet made me want to re-watch so I could understand what happened. And I guess I just don’t know where that leaves me.

I think that’s the gist of my overarching questions. Some I may have figured out through writing this, but others… not so much.

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The Filter Of [The Flight Attendant]

The Flight Attendant is maddeningly picturesque. Every shot seems filtered for Instagram, every outfit from the closet of an influencer, every backdrop felt like a destination worth travelling to see. The effect was to create a façade fit for the 21st century, one reliant on looks and glamour and how well a life can be sold on the merits of a few moments, photos, and images. If we could reduce a person’s experience to their apartment, wardrobe, and a quick blurb about how they live, then everyone in The Flight Attendant is worth the highest degree of our internet-induced envy.

But anyone who has a life knows that even in our most picturesque moments, where our wardrobe coalesces with a setting worth documenting during a story worth telling, the interior rarely matches the exterior. And this is the case for those in The Flight Attendant as well. The perfectly manicured wardrobes and glitzy destinations for glamorous flight attendants and high-powered lawyers hide nefarious secrets- feeling trapped in a family that doesn’t see you, deep-rooted fears of worth, childhood trauma from parents, work for the CIA, and alcoholism. 

And in this way, The Flight Attendant is the perfect mini-series for this decade. The first episode grabs your attention with fast paced plot, beautiful shots of partying in Bangkok, meeting rich men who take beautiful women to wherever they want to go and to do whatever they want to do. The show feels like an Instagram story come to life. But by the end, that filter is destroyed by a physical and metaphorical dead body in the bed. And as Cassie, the main character, wakes up from one hell of a bender in Bangkok to see that dead body and reflect on how far she has fallen, her carefully manicured façade comes crumbling down, like a photo without a filter or an influencer without makeup or a bikini photo without dehydrating yourself for 24 hours or a vacation Instagram story without researching the best places to visit and finding the best angles for your backdrop or… well, I think you get it.

And as that façade slowly crumbles, we see just how much it masks who Cassie, and her co-characters, really are. Each episode follows a deeper spiral into Cassie’s issues guided by that talking dead body in her mind, the one she found in her bed, to which she owes the beginning of the end of her running from who she is. Her partying seems less enviable and more sad and her drinking seems less like ‘girls being girls’ and more cringey and, eventually, like self-harm through alcoholism. Her flitting from country to country on a plane doesn’t look like a glamorous young woman living her best life, but like a high functioning alcoholic unable to settle down and come to grips with the harsh realities of her life. And as she tries to unravel the mystery of this dead man it exaggerates all these issues and makes her unable to maintain the lie any longer. Those wonderful wardrobes become simpler, going from dresses and layers of expensive clothes, to jeans and sweaters, her makeup fades, her wrinkles show, the settings become less picturesque, and normality sets in… sweet, blessed normality.

Because of this, most of this story is told visually, through these wardrobe and image choices by the directors and some terrific acting from Kaley Cuoco, who I severely underestimated going into this, she was beyond excellent and so was just about the entire cast- special shout out to Zosia Mamet and Griffin Matthews. But the plot was also incredibly engaging in a thriller storyline fit for an Elmore Leonard novel. And it carried well through three quarters of the series, but as Cassie unraveled and the lives of all she touched along with her, so does the plot. It makes less sense, gets looser, and ultimately limps home in the end. It all makes sense… kind of… but as so often happens in horror and thriller- the payoff didn’t do the buildup justice. But by the time the questions of plot holes and stability arose, I already realized the plot was secondary, or maybe even tertiary, to Cassie’s internal conflict, and the story being told visually of how we all nowadays are way better at telling the story of our lives than actually living them.

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[Midnight Sky] Is Very Mediocre, So Lay off

Before watching Midnight Sky, there were the criticisms on Twitter, which do not hold enough weight to make me not watch a movie that seems intriguing, but they are enough to temper my expectations. And maybe it was these tempered expectations that allowed me to enjoy the movie, but enjoy it I did.

Midnight Sky the kind of movie I grew up loving, one I could watch at the theater with friends when we had nowhere else to go or on a lazy Saturday at home after it has made its TV debut, intermittently getting up to pee or grab a snack or a drink at the too-frequent commercial breaks. 

And if movies like Midnight Sky, with all its flaws, are the future norm for Netflix original movies- considering their campaign for a movie a week for all of 2021- I am excited to watch a lot of films this year. 

I miss theaters, and I will continue to miss theaters until they reopen, but I also have found space in my life, for casually watching a film on my own time on my own time without paying $13.75 for a popcorn and a drink. I wouldn’t say it is better, but it has its advantages. And I think one of those advantages, is that it reopens a space that was diminishing in the movie world- for mediocre to bad movies to be watched and enjoyed. 

Theaters create a metric- the box office dollar sign- that stamps movies as good or bad before people are able to decide for themselves by actually watching the movie. After all, it takes a much bigger commitment, physically and financially, to watch a movie at a theater, so therefore the information I can gather before I make that commitment becomes more important. The title ‘box office flop,’ which Midnight Sky probably would have attained, could have been enough to keep me away from it. That coupled with tweets decrying its worst attributes, definitely would have. 

I would even take that further and say once stamped as ‘a movie I do not want to go see’ or as ‘a box office flop,’ a film takes those titles with them. A proverbial scarlet letter that stymies its afterlife on Netlfix or Hulu or Amazon Prime. After all, I made up my mind not to see that movie in theaters, why would I hit play now? 

I’ll give you a real example. Before COVID shut down the world and theaters I went to see The Call of the Wild, not because I wanted to- it looked cheesy, I had heard it was bad, and it wasn’t making a lot of money- but because my dad did. And I loved it. I was super invested in that silly animated dog (which I wrote about here).  It makes me wonder if The Call of the Wild would have been better as a Netflix release, available with less commitment of time, money, and energy.

Midnight Sky seems to fit into that crowd. It was super okay. A very mediocre movie overall. It is not going to make it onto anyone’s favorite movie list. However, that is a high bar, albeit the bar we keep holding movies up against as we decide whether they are worth watching.

I guess I have lower expectations, or my needs are met by a lower standard of film. Midnight Sky had a good acting performance from George Clooney, an interesting take on how to tell a story surrounding climate change (an, as of now, unsolved problem), an attempt at intrigue with a twist at the end, and an appropriate tone of sentimentality and hope to fit the theme of the movie. 

More specifically, I enjoyed Clooney’s character and the child, Iris, as he discovered her and they interacted in their solitude. I enjoyed their journey to the other station, and Clooney’s character’s internal struggle mirrored in that journey, and those elements gave me enough to make the investment feel worthwhile.

However, I did not connect with the story enough to know Clooney’s character as anything other than Clooney’s character, and on top of that, his storyline was only about sixty percent of the film. Concurrent, to this storyline was a vaguer storyline of some ship coming back from some other planet that humans could possibly inhabit. It felt like a cool idea, but we don’t really learn what happened to all the other ships that are presumably doing the same thing, nor do we learn exactly what happened to Earth in the meantime or about any of the humans other than Clooney’s character and where they were planning to go and what they were trying to do. I guess this is fine, but these gaps created a disconnect with this secondary story that was hinged upon the conflicts of that reality.

But the spaceship was cool. The ‘walk through space’ was well done and the disaster that followed its wake. The tension of a two-year journey and all it entailed came through via some awesome acting (shoutout to Kyle Chandler who always brings the heat) and some solid conflict for those characters to explore.

But again, there was a cloudy vagueness over these characters that prevented, when the two storylines finally converged, the emotional payoff that seemed befitting Clooney’s acting and storyline.

But it was all there. And it was enjoyable. And I appreciate that these movies will have their day because it seemed like, through film-elitism and the nature of going to movie theaters, they were being phased out of existence. If it wasn’t cheap, going to make a lot of money, or going to win awards, don’t make it. Now, because of streaming services that are less dependent on those factors, there seems to be some more wiggle room for movies of all kind. I wouldn’t have seen Midnight Sky a year ago, but it is a new year, and I am glad I did. 

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Are We Living In An Orwellian State? [1984]

This post is the first of a three-part series about dystopian novels and our illiterate present.

There is an interesting subset of fiction, starting in the 30s, predicting dystopian futures where books will no longer be read, and people will be dumb and susceptible to every suggestion by their government and vice of society. That conversation is even more prevalent today, not about the future, but as the society for which those books of bygone decades were written. Have we become a group who has eschewed reading and literacy for more easier methods of ‘entertainment’ and less troublesome ways to view our world?

The heavyweight champion of this conversation is 1984 by George Orwell. A political dystopia where reading and true knowledge is banned by a big brother government that keeps its citizens in a state of subservience and illiteracy through methods of control and disinformation. In schools, it was the most read book of this type, and therefore has become the most popular name drop as people decry the illiteracy of youth and the susceptibility of our citizenry to every whim and suggestion by a government that is becoming more and more comfortable with fancier outlandish lies. 

Indeed, we have seen an increase in the use of ‘Orwellian’ to describe our nation this past week. In the midst of widespread lies about election results that large swaths of the American voting public believe (According to a poll taken in November, half of Republicans believe the election was rigged), a fight with a global pandemic that we (arguably) lost due to misinformation and a fear of government, which was ironically encouraged and spread by…the government, and a culminating storming of the Capitol based on a culmination of these lies and anxieties, it is hard not to see an Orwellian thumbprint stamped into the center of the United States of America.

But, unfortunately, Orwell’s prediction of government overtaking its citizenry through disinformation, control, and manipulation, is too kind to our citizen’s and too harsh on our government. After all, no information is being banned (although, also due to the implications of this conversation, this statement is in dispute), no books are off-limits, there is no Ministry of Truth- only the farthest on the fringes believe that certain truths are now banned, and that Twitter is now some ersatz Department of a deep state big brother. 

Maybe there are some correlations- some systems created from the top down may control the information people consume and create feedback loops that move me and many others into one set of thoughts that are blind to actual truth and make us believe enlightenment when we are actually locked in Plato’s cave staring at shadows. However, if this is true it would portray the government as the culprit, and in our current predicament, where the propaganda and structures of misinformation are created by a Republican government (election rigging and pandemic abuse) this would disagree with the very people who would most likely claim top-down Orwellian control- Republicans. And this would become some bizarre instance of looking at what a party has done wrong as evidence of what a party is fighting against. 

But the go-to example now of ‘Orwellian’ modernity is not governmental control, but control of the government shown by Apple, Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Amazon, as they silence Trump and destroy Parler- a forum for conservative voices of the most extreme variety. But to try and synchronize this with Orwell’s vision of a big brother government is backwards. Be scared of the power of our tech industry, it’s frightening, but this is the inverse of what Orwell predicted. Michelle Goldberg put it well in her NYTimes article, ‘The Scary Power of the Companies that Finally Shut Trump Up,’ “Trump’s social media exile represents, in some ways, a libertarian dream of a wholly privatized public sphere, in which corporations, not government, get to define the bounds of permissible speech.”

And this is not trying to pick a political fight (although if it does-so be it) but to point out that when played out to a sufficient degree, Orwell’s prediction, although present in some forms, is not a sufficient explanation of what we see today.

What we see today is a willful lack of receiving information- a choice. We have a plethora of options and choose ignorance, an overabundance of reading materials, and we choose none. We claim election rigging not based on a skewed opinion based on repressed and curated information by the government, but because of suggestion about what seems possible, a confirmation of what we want to be true that come down from the top, but was made possible through a disengaging from serious intellectual curiosity. 

In 2019 Pew Research asked the question Who doesn’t read books in America? And the simplest answer is that 27% of adults haven’t read a book, in whole or in part, in the past year at the time the poll was conducted. 

I might end up making this research say too much, so forgive me if my commentary on it becomes too far-reaching, but I am startled by the fact that when I walk outside 1 out of every 4 people I meet do not even attempt to read a book in a year, which could probably mean, they don’t really ever plan on reading. The poll asks the question at its lowest bar, did you even in part read any book in a year, and 1-in-4 were like, ‘Nah, can’t say I have.’

I don’t think anyone can argue that that is problematic, even if not surprising, but they may argue the degree to which it is problematic. For instance, it would be easy to ask what this has to do with dystopian futures of illiteracy and government control? How can 1-in-4 people not reading, impact a society in such an appreciable way?

Well, the implications go further and so does the data. According to the same survey done by Pew in 2016, the average person read 4 books in a year, including those who read none at all. Just four… Not even one a month, not even one every two months. And I would bet some people hear that number and go, “Good for us… four isn’t that bad.” But don’t let us off the hook… it is bad.

Let’s perform a quick thought experiment. Think of two or three ‘readers’ in your life (if you can’t think of any, point made… let’s move on). How many books do they read? I know about ten of my friends read around one book a month to keep reading as a part of their life. Fantastic- that is three times the national average, and I am not sure if any of them would even consider themselves ‘readers.’ My dad has been a learner his whole life and read over 30 books this last year- amazing- he just made up for 8 Americans who read nothing to meet our national average. I read 95 books this year and was just talking to someone who’s sister also read exactly 95- a rare convergence to be sure- and her and I just made up for 47 Americans who read nothing at all in order to meet our national average. 

My point is this… those who read, don’t just read four books, they are reading many times the national average. So what we have right now, based on our survey data, is a small group of people who read and make up for a majority of people who do not. Yes, only 27% of people didn’t read anything at all, didn’t even make an attempt at reading in 2019, a number that stays pretty consistent year after year, but how many started just one book and didn’t finish it, or read one book because they were made to by their business, or read one book they were interested in over a span of four months? 

I know a lot of these people, and I hesitate to call them readers or to rest my hopes in a literate America on them. So what is the percentage of Americans who do not read? Who read one book, or a book in part, or were forced to skim through a couple books for the business they work for? Is it strange to assume that number is 50%… 75%? Doesn’t feel like it to me.

Maybe this is all too harsh, or maybe it’s perfectly fair, maybe we are so far past this being an insult that nobody cares when they are called non-readers or illiterate, or when called out for their lack of reading… I don’t really know, which is why my next posts will propose that 1984 has been de-throned as the book that predicts our illiterate dystopian present, and that there are two new contenders for the title.

Part 2: The Choice: Shakespeare Or Soma [A Brave New World]

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If you liked this, you may also like:
Personal Top 50 Fiction Book List (Ranked)
A Very American Reading List
Empathy Through Reading: Recommendations During Racial Unrest
Nonfiction Authors Worth Reading
End Of Year Media Round-Up [2020]

The Movie That Made Me Cry [Creed II]

I don’t really cry at movies. In fact, it was only in the last year that I ever cried during a film, and it happened twice. The second time was during Schindler’s List, which makes total sense. I was home alone during a pandemic, watching one of the most heart wrenching movies of all time, and then Itzhak gives Schindler that damn ring (deep breath)… and Schindler realizes how much more he could have done (in an admittedly hammy display of grief), and I laid on my couch and cried for humanity.

But that was the second time, after the dam of tears was burst from an initial cry at a much stranger movie to cry at, Creed II. I kind of wish it had been reversed, and Schindler’s List had been my first movie-cry and that Creed II was a secondary cry after I had already established an ability to cry from watching a good flick.

But no. Creed II was the movie that sparked my tears.

I’ve always loved Rocky movies. Ever since I was a kid, I would plant myself in front of the TV for Rocky movie marathons, enraptured by the training and the fighting and the external conflict that was rooted in something so much deeper and human. Those choreographed fights mimicked so perfectly Rocky’s journey from a bum on the streets, to a somebody, to needing to prove himself and validate his journey, to seeking retribution for his friends and/or country. 

Sports have always been a vehicle to tell stories of conflict in a visual way, and it feels the purest in boxing. One man versus another, swinging their way out of their circumstances. Those ropes box in their entire world and all of its present trouble, and the person in the other corner becomes the human embodiment of their problems. 

And it doesn’t just work in Rocky films. I love The Fighter and Million Dollar Baby. And the arc is rooted in classics like On the Waterfront and Raging Bull. We even apply these ideas to the real world with classic books like The Sweet Science and biopics like Ali, as well as the way Muhammad Ali’s life was portrayed by news and media. Boxing has always served as a symbol of something greater- a simple embodiment of man’s struggle.

So when the Creed movies came along, I should have known they would sucker punch me into loving them. But, just as with Rocky Balboa, I assumed it would be a fan service money grab. Which it was, but all three of them are also great movies because they understand what they are, and because the relationship between man and boxing, and the way movies tell that story now has well-established parameters from a rich history of storytelling.

Then, when I finally got around to streaming Creed II, expecting to like it because of my love of Rocky, but also expecting to find it a bit cheesy and played out (they brought back Drago after all, which was the ultimate nod to just trying to make money), I was blown away by how genuine the story felt. It did not suffer from any contrivance from the previous story, but became a natural offshoot of Adonis’ journey, just like all the additions to Rocky’s life (except for Rocky V, but we don’t talk about Rocky V) felt like a natural extension of his journey. 

But because of a variety of factors- Michael B. Jordan, the modernization of the story, the music, the conflict of trying to be a good husband and father in a messed up and confusing world- this movie shadow boxed my emotions more than any of its predecessors.

I was emotional the entire movie. But let’s fast-forward to his final fight with Drago. 

Adonis’ is a champion only in name, everyone knows he should have lost the last fight, and he should lose this one too. He doesn’t know how to be a father- after all, he grew up without one- and is scared at the very idea of it. And now he must fight the man everyone thinks is greater than him, the offspring of the man who denied Adonis’ his right to a father. And this young Drago becomes Adonis’ fear of parenting, becomes Adonis’ fear that everything he had was merely given to him because of the last name he so loves and hates. And he is afraid of Drago. Adonis was abuse in the last fight, face smashed, ribs broken, beaten into a limping, disfigured version of his former self. And now he must stand in that ring and face it all. And he must fight, with Bianca and Rocky in his corner, and his child waiting for him at home. 

And more so than any previous Rocky installment, this culminating fight does not go smoothly. At points, it does not even feel equal. Drago, bludgeons Creed, knocks him down, incarnates everything Adonis’ feared might happen, making him feel unequal to the task set before him, even more than he already did. Drago gave him every reason to quit. But just as Creed rose up from the pavement in the desert, he rose off of the mat in the ring, Rocky’s music played, Adonis gave that look, through a bloody and battered face, that only Michael B. Jordan can give. And I wept…

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If you liked this, you may also like:
Is Ivan Drago Overhyped? [Rocky IV]
Workout Montages [Rocky, Creed]
Top 50 Favorite Movies List
End Of Year Media Round-Up [2020]
Netflix And The New Made-For-TV Movies
Rewatching TV And Movies

Sometimes we’re all hypocrites. [The Sopranos] (Season 2) Part 2

Click Here for the first part of this two part Long Overdue Recap of Season 2 of The Sopranos.

Season 2 of The Sopranos is awash with a plethora of top tier major storylines. In lesser hands, they may fight against each other for control of the series. But The Sopranos makes it work. It may be too much to say they coalesce into one comprehensive storyline, but they do hold together. And they do so through the defacto boss, Tony. Around him, revolve three characters who join the scene at the beginning of this season (kind of), Janice, Ritchie, and Pussy (who is not new but reappeared after disappearing in season 1).

It is impossible to decipher which character of the three is the most disruptive and anxiety inducing. Ritchie refuses to respect the wishes of our fearless leader, looking the gift horse di-fucking-rectly in the mouth. Janice embodies some of the most annoying traits of Tony’s mother, deflecting blame, meddling where she doesn’t belong, and bullying Tony in a way he would never let another man do. And then there’s Pussy. He is likeable, he makes viewers want him to get away, but he also is hard to respect- A. For what he is doing and B. For the wishy-washy way he tries to be half in and half out of both organizations, crime and federal.

These characters and their stories all converge at one point- Tony’s rage. Each character affects it in a unique way, but all of the stress they create builds to a magnificent culmination in the final two episodes albeit in incredibly different ways.

Janice and Ritchie begin as very separate affectations. Janice as a family beggar, wanting to suckle at the teat of her mother’s assets and disguising those questionable desires as familial duty. But everyone can see through the façade. Janice has built a life around bailing on family for greener grass, and this instance is no exception. Tony at first takes a pleasantly distant approach to Janice, keeping her and his anger towards her at bay. But Janice wheedles her way into his life through those closest to him like Carmella (who allows her to move in), his mother (so she can get her house and the funding to take care of her), and eventually Ritchie.

Ritchie walks out of prison and his first step is right onto Tony’s toes as he smashes Beansy over the head with a coffee pot and then rolls over him with a car. Ritchie wants the respect, money, and deals he had ten years ago pre-prison, and he wants them now. But Tony runs a different type of family, in some ways smarter, in all ways more modern, and Tony values time on task and loyalty more than seniority and street cred (which is why the jacket was a nonstarter for Tony and Ritchie’s relationship, although I still think Tony should have seen an opportunity to amend their relationship through that hideous jacket). Eventually Ritchie reunites with Janice, and it is hard to decipher whether it was because of his love for her or his hate for Tony. What better way to raise his standing with the man keeping him down while also needling him in a way impossible to ignore?

It is hard to say for sure which was more of a motivator, but in the second to last episode of the season, Ritchie pops Janice in the mouth out of his anger and frustration at what Tony has done to him. He hits a Soprano, even though it is not the one he actually wants to hit, and in doing so, he reveals a lot about where his motivations lie.

Because of this fated punch, these two issues of Tony’s take care of each other. Janice kills Ritchie, taking him out of Tony’s life in the most real sense, and then must get out of dodge herself. This was a fitting and smart way to keep storylines fresh, rather than every season ending with a whack and an aspirin. 

This episode could have easily served as the finale, but wait, there’s more. And the actual final episode is a masterpiece.

Janice and Ritchie had occupied most of Tony’s negative attention while they were in his life (with a bit reserved for his extra-marital affair and his psycho-therapeutic one as well). He smashed telephones, had anxiety attacks, lost money, and was generally stressed out of his mind because of these two. And when they were gone, when they were no longer occupying the majority of his mental space (and a lot of his other issues as well- Chrissy was healed, Bevilaqua was dead, he had cut it off with his gumar, and things were as good as they could be with Carmella), and in the midst of fever dreams spurred on by food poisoning, Tony’s intuition kicks in, and he realizes, with the help of a fish on ice, that Pussy was working with the feds.

There is something delightfully anti-climactic about Pussy’s ending, not the scene where he was killed, which is excellent, but the build up to it. After episode 12, and the eleven episodes that precede it, we are lulled into not even thinking about what might become of Pussy. It seemed like a problem for another time. Tony wasn’t worrying about it, so we weren’t worrying about it. 

But Tony always knew. He always did. He just didn’t want to admit it and deal with it. He preferred to think Jimmy was the only rat and that he was passing Pussy up for promotion because of how Pussy bailed, not the seed of mistrust that had bloomed into a massive oak. 

Playing it back, I wonder how much of his anger, which bloomed ever since season one, where his subconscious knowledge of Pussy’s betrayal was planted, was due to things not sitting quite right with him. He knew all was not well in his family, and he knew it with his gut. And eventually, his gut is what spoke to him, through some ‘big ones’ as AJ put it, and a lot of vomit. I don’t think it was Artie’s mussels or the Indian food. Tony was finally confronted with the certainty that had settled in his belly, not his brain, and he was only able to see it after his other oppositions were out of sight, out of mind. 

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If you liked this, you may also like:
It’s business. We are soldiers. [The Sopranos] (Season 2) Part 1
Long Overdue Recap Of Season 1 [The Sopranos]
The Meaning Of ‘Those Goddamn Ducks’ [The Sopranos]
Dictionary of Malapropisms [Sopranos]
Top Ten TV Shows
Rewatching TV And Movies

It’s business. We are soldiers. [The Sopranos] (Season 2) Part 1

Season 2 of The Sopranos is considered one of the greatest single seasons of television of all time, and for good reason. After a first season that overperforms while poking and prodding at greatness, season 2 is the becoming. In order to recap it in posts of reasonable length, I am dedicating two blog posts to the task. This one will largely focus on some of the smaller (less pervasive?) storylines. Although that is a tough way to view it considering how impactful The Sopranos makes even the smallest elements of its plot.

The Sopranos is not for the impatient, take this season as proof. Every storyline is a slow play, unravelling and intertwining until its big payoff in the end. And the end, in the form of two season ending episodes, is well worth the wait for those who find themselves engrossed in these slow burning storylines.

The precursor to the main meal of this season revolves around a Christopher storyline that carries the workload for the front half of the season and then takes a back seat in the back half. Christopher is manifesting as a first-class drug addict, and it creates a volatile homelife with Adrianna and an unsteady relationship with his writing career and with Tony. Then those worlds meet. The precariousness of his situation is incarnated in Matthew Bevilaqua and his croney Sean Gismonte who take to Christopher, but due to Christopher’s neglect due to his infatuation with the film biz, eventually try to take his life to rise faster in the ranks of the mafia. The attempted hit cools down the Christopher storyline just in time to see other facets of Tony’s life ramp up.

The other intriguing, smaller storyline that pokes its head up for air throughout the season, is from Meadow’s friend’s dad, Dave ‘Davey’ Scatino. The storyline is interesting enough, he gets in deep in a card game and the sharks descend on him to pay back what he owes, destroying his life in the process. But its portrayal of Tony in comparison to the everyman provides essays of analysis. Tony warned Davey that he couldn’t afford the game but let him play anyway. And one of the best moments in the season, is when Davey, aware of how much he owes, washing his face in the hotel bathroom, tries to talk to Tony as his friend, but Tony makes it painfully clear that he is now talking to Tony the mob boss. The switch from friend to gangster is startling, one of many quick changes Tony makes throughout the series.

Later on, Tony admits he let Davey into the game, despite knowing what would happen, because he wanted his store. He didn’t just ruin Davey’s life, he strategically planned its demise. And his thoughts on Davey and his degenerate gambling create interesting insights into Tony’s worldview. He despises the ‘happy wanderer,’ who smiles as he traipses through life, with no fucking clue how bad it can truly be. But Tony knows how bad it can be, in fact he lives in that world even though he pretends to be Tony the friend, the father, the husband. By extension, we can assume Tony finds some joy in revealing to Davey- the happy wanderer- and his family, who represent the idyllic suburban life, how bad the world truly is. 

Tony makes very clear that he sees the darker side of life, it is probably the source of his depression, ‘the big nothing’ of life, that is so much more real when lives are ruined and ended in the span of days in Tony’s life. And he also makes it clear that he wants other people to know, especially those who judge him for what he does, that they don’t know the half of it. It’s why he gave Meadow her friend’s repoed car that Davey used as payment on his vig. Meadow has been one of the only people ballsy enough to critique the way Tony earns a living, if not in so many words. What better way for Tony to shatter her illusions of what a more ‘normal’ life might be, than by showing her how bad other fathers are? In fact, her life is made on the sins of other men, men more accepted in society than Tony. Who is really the bad guy?

This storyline also inspires what may be my favorite therapy scene in the whole show (it is at least the one I remember the most) when Tony explains why he doesn’t deserve to go to hell because hell is for the Paul Potts and the actual bad guys. Tony and his crew are soldiers, and the men they kill all agreed to fight in the same war. It’s simple, its elegant in that way only Tony can be, not overly complex, but logically daunting. 

These smaller storylines outline the makings of a belief system for Tony. The Sopranos flirts with religion throughout all its seasons, with its cast of Catholics who do or accept horrible acts in their lives, while trying to make sense of a life that confronts its harshest realities. Tony believes in heaven and hell and a god of some kind, maybe not in the same way as Carmella- who takes Chrissy’s dream of descending to hell after he was shot very seriously, praying for his soul and Tony’s- but he definitely believes in a higher order, a greater morality, a giant ledger by which the good done gets weighed against the evils perpetuated. And he believes in a moral code on this earth, not the ten commandments or some path to enlightenment, but a tacit code of understanding that he believes all humans agree to, a mixture of the pursuit of happiness and manifest destiny. And it becomes clear through his interactions with Dr. Melfi, his decision to shoot Bevilaqua himself, his conversations with Carmella about religion, the way he views Davey and other pathetic men like him, and what he tries to impress upon Meadow (and succeeds in doing as she admits in the final episode of this season). This is the season that paints the portrait of Tony’s morality, anger, and depression and why he does what he does. And that’s not even the best part of this season…

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For more posts like this, like, comment, or follow, or check us out on Twitter @BlankDid.

If you liked this, you may also like:
Sometimes we’re all hypocrites. [The Sopranos] (Season 2) Part 2
Long Overdue Recap Of Season 1 [The Sopranos]
The Meaning Of ‘Those Goddamn Ducks’ [The Sopranos]
Dictionary of Malapropisms [Sopranos]
Top Ten TV Shows
Rewatching TV And Movies
Father Of The Year: TV Drama’s Bad Dads

Cli-Fi Literature [The Ministry For The Future by Kim Stanley Robinson]

So I read my first cli-fi novel, and I’m pretty stoked to be able to say that. It is not too often that a longtime dedicated reader gets introduced to a new genre, or sub-genre I guess, of literature. But here I sit, having just read The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, and I am having the delightful issue of struggling to evaluate the novel amidst a lack of understanding of the genre to which it belongs.

Some of this naivety is due to my lack of deep reading in science fiction in general. And that bias comes from my lack of love for what I was exposed to early on. Instead, in my teenage years, I chose the less intellectual realm of the mythical and magical that fantasy offered rather than the hypothetical realities of science fiction. 

I guess I fell prey to the harmful side of the double-edged sword that is science fiction. As far as I can ascertain, the genre’s greatness and weakness is that science and fiction do not blend easily. One reads fiction to learn about reality through that which is not, and science strives to limit what we accept as reality based on what we are able to experience. Blend them together and we have an unwieldy beast.

To be more specific, I struggle with science fiction in the moments where the science takes over. A science fiction book introduces characters, setting, plot- everything a fiction book needs- and then it will, oftentimes without great transition or segue, break into the theoretical technicalities of how humans might, say… mine diamonds from asteroids… and I’m lost.

I am recounting this from the first person because I know this is a ‘me’ thing. I know many people who love this genre, and it is easy for me to comprehend that love, but as for me… I’m kinda okay with the plot just having people mining diamonds on asteroids. Or better yet, I am okay with the vague and often scientifically unsatisfactory explanations that purely fiction novels offer. They work for me, but I can also see how they would be maddening, or worse, harmful to the verisimilitude of the novel for the more science-minded reader.

I am not science minded. It was my worst ACT section. So I don’t mind. And in fact, the blending of fiction and scientific writing often sounds to me like one of the sins of composition that William Zinsser outlines in his must-read book on writing, On Writing. In his chapter on ‘Unity,’ he discusses selecting a form for your writing, one form, and that an author’s work suffers if there are more than one form present. He uses the example of a tourist manual to elucidate. A tourist manual is equal parts narrative of some Dick and Jane as they tour Vienna, as well as helpful how-to-guide about how Dick and Jane should prepare or where they may want to go, and it is because of this mashing of forms that the writing is intolerable.

I prefer using the example of Dan Brown novels to explain (especially the later ones, Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code manage to blend the writing style’s fairly well). They are equal parts thriller novels and history textbook. The story will build to a climax at the discovery or solving of some enigmatic clue when, all of a sudden, we are reading about some ancient civilization and how they fell into decline in relation to the rise of the Roman Empire… and the magic is lost…

Where was I? Oh yeah… cli-fi… The Ministry for the Future. I selected this novel because I was reading a lot of nonfiction about climate change (The Uninhabitable Earth, The World Without Us, The Great Derangement, and the New York Magazines three-parter on the subject) when Ezra Klein interviewed Kim Stanley Robinson on his podcast (The Ezra Klein Show) about the book. I thought it would be a wonderful addition to my reading. And it was! I just don’t know if I liked it.

The book was written from approximately…. 37 different points-of-view, which was actually pretty engaging. Each chapter took on a new narrator, and a lot of the narrators took on multiple chapters, some only showed up once- like photons, carbon, and the block chain (yeah, they all narrated a chapter).

This set-up serves multiple functions. One is to overcome the much-discussed problem of finding a structure that adequately addresses climate change. The Great Derangement is largely a book about how we struggle to fit climate change into our thought patterns, and by extension our literature (although that is oversimplifying The Great Derangement by quite a bit). And Robinson is able to overcome this challenge by changing points of view from the macro to the micro and everything in-between. From my limited perspective, it worked really well. It felt grand and heartfelt, broad and specific.

By extension, Robinson also introduces us to a multiplicity of writing forms. There are chapters that are interviews, minutes from a meeting, eye-witness testimony, and personified portions of our world. And this may not be a function of his structure as much as a necessity, but this makes the potentially jarring nature of switching points-of-view so frequently much more welcoming. It also creates the paradoxically broad and narrow view necessary to adequately write about climate change, which is both dauntingly massive and uncomfortably personal.

But out of this solution is borne my struggle with the novel, and it has to do with my issues (mentioned above) with science fiction in general. Some of those chapters were written as what I can best surmise were articles in science and/or economy magazines, based on my very limited reading of science and economy magazines.

And this had to happen, this is cli-fi, which if you haven’t figured out yet is a sub-genre of sci-fi, so the realistic explanations of climate change and what might happen to the economy if X or Y happened were prerequisites. And I enjoyed a lot of those explanations, but also, at a certain point, I wondered if the impact of that information could not have been better conveyed in the fiction half of the science fiction genre. If the personal could not have also informed the universal. 

But again, this is the problem and the greatness of science fiction. How can one blend two opposing genres? 

And as for The Ministry for the Future… I think I liked it, but I think it got so caught up in what it wanted to say, that it buried what it was saying. You know what I’m saying?

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If you liked this, you may also like:
Personal Top 50 Fiction Book List (Ranked)
End Of Year Media Round-Up [2020]
Movies Inspired by [Neuromancer]
Shadow Tongue: A Pseudo-Language [The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth]
Books About Writing

End Of Year Media Round-Up [2020]

2020 is coming to an end, and with it, my first year of blogging. I compiled a list of my favorite movies, books, and TV shows that I consumed this year.

This is a list of the top (10 or 5) media I discovered this year, which means they may have been released a long time ago, but it took me a while to get to them, and they made up the high points of what I watched, saw, and read in 2020, alphabetized by name or author.

They may have made the list because of their excellence, or because they were memorable moments, or for other reasons. Regardless, these are the media that made my year.

I also included any posts I wrote about that media, if I wrote one.

Movies- Top 50 Favorite Movies List

1917

Call of the Wild
Animated Dogs…Who Knew? [The Call of the Wild]

Creed II
Workout Montages [Rocky, Creed]

JoJo Rabbit
I Got Hitler On My Mind [Jojo Rabbit]

Manchester by the Sea
I Can’t Beat It [Manchester By The Sea]

Old Guard
[Old Guard] New Action

Palm Springs
The Not-so Repetitive, Repetitive Approach Of [Palm Springs]

Parasite

Prisoners
The Setting Of [Prisoners]

Uncut Gems
This Is How I Win [Uncut Gems]

Television- Top Ten TV Shows

Downtown Abbey

Fleabag
Simply Bullshit [Fleabag] (Season 1)
Looking Into The Lens [Fleabag] (Season 2)

The Outsider

Queen’s Gambit
Addiction And Obsession: The Ending Of [The Queen’s Gambit]

Tiger King

Fiction- Personal Top 50 Fiction Book List (Ranked)

Ready Player One
by Ernest Cline

A Pale View of Hills
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Reticence and Memory, a Beautiful Duo [Kazuo Ishiguro]

Tree of Smoke
by Denis Johnson

The Wake
by Paul Kingsnorth
Shadow Tongue: A Pseudo-Language [The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth]

The Fortress of Solitude
by Jonathan Lethem
The Ring Thing [The Fortress of Solitude]

Gilead
by Marilynne Robinson

Normal People
by Sally Rooney

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John

Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest
by John Updike
If Rabbit Was Alive Today [The Rabbit Angstrom Series by John Updike]

The Nickel Boys
by Colson Whitehead

Nonfiction- Nonfiction Authors Worth Reading

Friday Night Lights
by H.G. Bissinger
The Glare Of The [Friday Night Lights]

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
by John Carreyrou
I Don’t Like Elizabeth Holmes [Bad Blood by John Carreyrou]

No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram
by Sarah Frier

The End of White Christian America
by Robert P. Jones

Why We’re Polarized
by Ezra Klein

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
by Erik Larson

The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Epsionage Story of the Cold War
by Ben Macintyre

Movies (And Other Things)
by Shea Serrano

Too Close to Call: The Thirty-Six-Day Battle to Decide the 2000 Election
by Jeffrey Toobin
The 2000 And 2020 Presidential Election [Recount][Too Close To Call]

A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President
by Jeffrey Toobin

Did you like this post? Click here for Did You blank It? homepage.

For more posts like this, like, comment, or follow, or check us out on Twitter @BlankDid.

If you liked this, you may also like:
Netflix And The New Made-For-TV Movies
Noteworthy Book-Movie Adaptations
Books About Writing
Movies Inspired by [Neuromancer]
Is [Die Hard] A Christmas Movie?