R.I.P. Gen Pop

This month, Gen Pop — my pop culture podcast with Joanna Robinson — will come to an end.

Sometimes I’ll create a podcast that lasts 10 years (and counting). Other times, a show will last 6 months. Unfortunately, Gen Pop was one of the latter.

Out of all my podcasts, Gen Pop was probably the show that I worked the hardest on and stretched myself the most on. And while it didn’t have the largest audience, it had a really impassioned fan base. I’m so grateful to people who donated to the show and who supported us every step of the way.

The folks at Nerdophiles wrote up this lovely retrospective on the podcast, and it’s awesome:

I’m sad to see Gen Pop go, but happy for the other opportunities to catch Joanna and David still podcasting. Gen Pop truly was one of my favorite podcasts that really had its finger on the pulse of pop culture. It delivered a weekly interesting conversation that was topical and well-informed, often times giving me new insight and perspective.

I’m glad that people got something out of the show. It makes me feel like all the work we put into it was not ill-spent.

You can listen to the entire back catalog of Gen Pop here.

My favorite music from the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ films

With the forthcoming release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (see my video reaction to the film here), I’ve been thinking about all the great music that this series has given us over the years. These scores not only help create the world of the films, but they help imbue it with a whimsy and a poignancy that would otherwise be totally missing — especially the more incoherent films like At World’s End and Dead Man’s Chest. Below are some of my favorite tracks, and a few thoughts on each one.

Note: Geoff Zanelli does the music for the new film, replacing Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt. His work is fine, but he mostly re-uses memorable themes from the previous movies (think Don Davis in Jurassic Park III and you have a good idea of what the score is like).

He’s a Pirate – Written by Klaus Badelt for the original Pirates of the Caribbean, this track is oft-imitated, never equaled. It combines modern, bombastic action film sensibilities with a heavy emphasis on strings that make it one of the most memorable themes of all time.

Angelica – For On Stranger Tides, Zimmer collaborated with my favorite band in the world right now, guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. One of the results was this tango that features some beautiful riffs.

Jack Sparrow – The composers of the Jack Sparrow theme found a way to express his personality using a cello solo. It’s beautiful, silly, and grand.

Up Is Down – One thing the Pirates films are great at is crafting inventive visuals. In a memorable scene in At World’s End, Jack Sparrow uses the weight of his crew to flip his entire ship underwater. This fun track captures some of the whimsy and challenge of that task.

I Don’t Think Now Is The Best Time – This track is an extremely intricate one that plays at the end of At World’s End. As the climactic battle is coming to a head and all hell is breaking loose, Elizabeth and Will declare their love for each other. Almost every single theme in the Pirates movies shows up for a moment in this thing, but my favorite aspect of this track is how it manages to combine them, often layering one on top of the other, all while still managing to match the action on screen. It’s probably the track I’ve listened to more than any other.

For more reading, see my review of Hans Zimmer’s live tour.

The state of film criticism in Seattle

I was delighted to participate in this panel at the Seattle International Film Festival with fellow Seattle film critics Charles Mudede, Sara Michelle Fetters, and Zosha Millman. Brendan Harris moderated a discussion about the economics of film criticism, the role a film critic plays as an advocate of films and consumers, and past opinions we’ve regretted.

You can watch the entire panel here on Periscope.

I’m joining Amazon

I am exceptionally excited to announce that I will be joining Amazon in June.

Amazon is one of the few companies that is shaping how humans interact with technology and the world, and it’s full of ridiculously smart people that I’m looking forward to learning from.

The path to this next step in my professional career has been a long one. I’m so grateful for all the Seattle folks who helped me to make it to this point. I couldn’t have done it without them. 

The new season of ‘Twin Peaks’ is going to blow everyone’s mind

Matt Zoller Seitz, writing for Vulture, about the new Twin Peaks:

We tell ourselves we’re all right with shows like Twin Peaks and artists like Lynch because hating everything that’s not a meat-and-potatoes linear narrative with traditional bits of foreshadowing and callbacks and payoffs is square, and nobody wants to be a square, daddy-o.

But the truth is, whenever any otherwise compelling popular TV artist throws us a truly startling curveball — as the creators of The Sopranos, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica did — the tendency is to proclaim that it was pretty good until it “jumped the shark” or “shat the bed” or otherwise stopped being good.

And when it becomes clear that a series isn’t terribly interested in narrative housekeeping, and in fact has to remind itself to give a damn about that kind of thing, the popular audience tends to run the other way, because they don’t know how to process it. Even now, shows tend to be a lot neater and clearer and less intuitive than Twin Peaks […] Neither the culture nor the media that covers the culture are equipped to deal with mainstream work that feels genuinely new.

I am so amped for the new Twin Peaks after reading this essay. Lynch gives not a care in the world about narrative convention, satisfying storytelling, or adherence to genre conventions. If Lynch’s past decade of work has been any indication, audiences (including myself) will struggle mightily to figure out what the heck they are watching. The titanic online industry that dissects and recaps television shows is about to hit a Lynch iceberg and the results will be glorious.

I can’t wait to witness it/be a part of it.

The podcasts I fall asleep to

I often have difficulty falling asleep at night without the assistance of podcasts. Left to my own devices while lying in bed, I’ll start planning my next day, thinking about the future, or worse, pondering every terrible decision I’ve ever made.

So I listen to podcasts to lull me into a peaceful slumber. But not just any podcast will do. These “falling asleep” podcasts need to have certain characteristics:

  • They must be interesting. It can’t be a boring podcast, or I will get irritated by how boring it is and that irritation will keep me awake.
  • The hosts must have soothing voices. I’m trying to fall asleep here, folks. The hosts can’t have extremely grating or piercing voices, lest I’m jostled awake while I’m drifitng off.
  • The subject matter must be inessential. I don’t mean “inessential” to be a slight here. Pretty much all of the podcasts I host (with the possible exception of “The Tobolowsky Files”) I consider to be “inessential.” All I mean is that I can’t listen to important news about the world presented in a straightforward fashion, since that will likely upset me and prevent me from sleeping.
  • It’s a conversation between people, vs. a highly produced show. I don’t go for the long-form, intense storytelling podcasts while I’m falling asleep, because I want to listen to these shows while I’m awake. In the past, when I’ve tried listening to shows like Planet Money or Radiolab while in bed, I will fall asleep during it, then get annoyed later when I need to wake up and re-listen to the entire thing again.

So with all that said, what are the shows that I fall asleep to? Before I list them, I want to make clear: Just because I listen to these podcasts in this fashion, it doesn’t mean that I think any of these podcasts are “boring” in any way. They simply fulfill all of the curious and extremely specific characteristics I listed above.

Here they are:

Battleship Pretension — Tyler Smith and David Bax have been hosting this podcast for longer than I’ve been hosting the /Filmcast. They are extremely well-informed, articulate movie geeks, but they also speak with a lovely, calming cadence that I find ideal for provoking thought and also falling asleep to.

The Flop House — Elliott Kalan, Dan McCoy, and Stuart Wellington discuss films that are critical and commercial failures in an engaging and funny way.

The Accidental Tech Podcast — Marco Arment, John Siracusa, and Casey Liss cover weekly tech news from the perspective of those who are power users and skilled reviewers. My favorite component of this show: Siracusa’s and Arment’s extended rants.

The Bugle — Hosted by Andy Zaltzman and a rotating list of co-hosts, this podcast covers the week’s political news with a sense of humor that is drier than the Mojave. The show isn’t quite the same after John Oliver left to host Last Week Tonight, but Zaltzman himself is still a great talent.

**

I realize that many people listen to the above podcasts without falling asleep to them. I’d encourage this! But for me, they fulfill a very specific purpose in my life and I’m grateful for that.

The rise and fall of American Apparel

I’ve been catching up on a lot of old podcasts recently and finally had a chance to listen to the StartUp podcast’s 7-episode arc on American Apparel (originally broadcast in late 2016).

It begins as a profile of Dov Charney, the founder and former CEO of American Apparel, who is trying to launch a new clothing business. But as it dives deeper and deeper into Charney’s history, it provides a level of detail and insight that goes beyond the headlines. Charney comes off as enterprising, sharp and hard-working, but also completely self-delusional and self-destructive.

There is some tape in this series that blew me away — several gut punches that I did not see coming. It was riveting. I think I enjoyed this series more than I did S-Town, which is widely regarded as a game-changer in terms of long-form podcast storytelling.

Producer and host Lisa Chow should be proud of what she accomplished here. I’ve linked to all 7 parts below.

Listen to Part 1 here. 

Listen to Part 2 here.

Listen to Part 3 here.

Listen to Part 4 here.

Listen to Part 5 here.

Listen to Part 6 here.

Listen to Part 7 here.

You can also subscribe to the StartUp podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Has Pixar lost its way?

Christopher Orr, writing for The Atlantic:

A well-regarded hollywood insider recently suggested that sequels can represent “a sort of creative bankruptcy.” He was discussing Pixar, the legendary animation studio, and its avowed distaste for cheap spin-offs. More pointedly, he argued that if Pixar were only to make sequels, it would “wither and die.” Now, all kinds of industry experts say all kinds of things. But it is surely relevant that these observations were made by Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar, in his best-selling 2014 business-leadership book.

Yet here comes Cars 3, rolling into a theater near you this month. You may recall that the original Cars, released back in 2006, was widely judged to be the studio’s worst film to date. Cars 2, which followed five years later, was panned as even worse. And if Cars 3 isn’t disheartening enough, two of the three Pixar films in line after it are also sequels: The Incredibles 2 and (say it isn’t so!) Toy Story 4.

The painful verdict is all but indisputable: The golden era of Pixar is over. It was a 15-year run of unmatched commercial and creative excellence, beginning with Toy Story in 1995 and culminating with the extraordinary trifecta of wall-e in 2008, Up in 2009, and Toy Story 3 (yes, a sequel, but a great one) in 2010. Since then, other animation studios have made consistently better films. The stop-motion magicians at Laika have supplied such gems as Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings. And, in a stunning reversal, Walt Disney Animation Studios—adrift at the time of its 2006 acquisition of the then-untouchable Pixar—has rebounded with such successes as Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6. One need only look at this year’s Oscars: Two Disney movies, Zootopia and Moana, were nominated for Best Animated Feature, and Zootopia won. Pixar’s Finding Dory was shut out altogether.

TL;DR: Pixar has lost its way artistically because it is now making a ton of sequels, and some of its recent movies haven’t been great.

I don’t really buy this argument for a few reasons. Firstly, the article itself acknowledges that Pixar has frequently figured out ways to make excellent sequels, best exemplified in the Toy Story series. Sure, Finding Dory and Monsters University were mediocre, but the concept of sequels is not inherently creatively bankrupt. Yes, the idea of Toy Story 4 fills me with dread, but I’m willing to take a wait and see approach to that film in the hopes that Pixar will find a good angle for it.

And secondly: Inside Out. That movie came out less than two years ago and is, by many accounts (including mine), a masterpiece. Any animation studio that can produce a film like that in its recent past still has something remarkable going for it.

I say let’s give it a few years and see how Coco turns out before we start making judgments.

Summer 2017 will be brutal at the box office

Ryan Faughnder, writing for The LA Times:

Last summer, sequels to “Star Trek,” “X-Men,” “Independence Day,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Alice in Wonderland” all performed worse than their predecessors.

Now, even though they could be poised for a repeat of that scenario, Hollywood studios are sticking with the same strategy. Why? At a time when the risks of failure in the movie business have become more costly, studios are still focusing their efforts on films that are perceived as safe bets, especially with overseas audiences that increasingly drive profits. Additionally, the movie business is notoriously slow to change course because of the time it takes to make big films. So, in some cases, it may be too late for studios to pull the plug on movies that already appear doomed long before they hit theaters.

“Man, this is depressing,” one prominent producer, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect studio relationships, said of the summer lineup. “It is just entirely sequels and franchises, and something’s got to give.”

The damage? An estimated 5-10% fewer ticket sales for the period between May and Labor Day, leading to possibly the worst sales revenue of the decade.

What’s fascinating to me are the institutional factors that continue to lead us into this era of non-stop comic book movies and franchises. No studio executive will ever get fired for greenlighting another Pirates film — the Pirates franchise has generated over $3.7 billion worldwide.

Valerian on the other hand…

Brief thoughts on ‘Alien: Covenant’

I had a chance to see Ridley Scott’s new film, Alien: Covenant, last night and I wanted to share a few thoughts on the film:

  • Overall, I am very torn about it. On the one hand, all the complaints that people had about scientists/crew members behaving stupidly in Prometheus are back with a vengeance. On numerous occasions, a character says “I’m just going to wander off by myself in this extremely dangerous location, but I’ll be right back!” Did these people learn nothing from Wes Craven’s Scream? The fact that it’s 20 years later and filmmakers like Ridley Scott are still using the same tropes of people acting super dumb is a disappointment.
  • On the other hand, I think this movie is one of the best prequels/requels/sidequels/sequels/whatevers ever made, in the sense that it not only improves upon previous films like Prometheus, but actually makes them more thematically resonant. The story, the plot, the ideas are really strong in this film — the characters are not.
  • Fassbender’s performance in Covenant is one of its highlights. Putting aside his blockbuster fare, Fassbender continues to choose roles that are artistically challenging, and his role in this film is no different.
  • There are Xenomorphs in this movie and they mostly look pretty weird because they are mostly CG creations. Remember when you first saw Attack of the Clones and there were a gajillion storm troopers that didn’t look quite right (because they were all CG and not practical)? That’s what it kind of feels like to see Xenomorphs move and behave in ways completely free from the constraints of their filmic predecessors.
  • DEFINITELY watch Prometheus before you see this film, if you want to be slightly less lost about WTF is giong on.

I think Covenant is definitely strong enough to recommend it. I just wish its profound ideas were in a better film. I discuss my thoughts further in this Periscope broadcast.

Decksposition

Forrest Wickman, writing for Slate, on the recent trend of supervillains using elaborate PowerPoint presentations to explain their plans:

But lately many supervillains have been taking things to a whole new level. Like wannabe entrepreneurs, they’ve begun preparing their own pitch decks, complete with slides and videos and futuristic holograms. If Game of Thrones has “sexposition” (in which the show uses nudity to hold the viewer’s attention while delivering dry plot exposition), superhero movies have what I’d call “decksposition.” It’s no less shameless, and a lot more dull, because decks are a lot less sexy than sex […]

But it’s Marvel Studios that’s combined these threads to make the holographic infodump a summer-movie staple. It started with the Iron Man movies, where, given Tony Stark’s entrepreneurial streak, it at least felt more natural to the territory. It’s plausible that a huckster like Stark might recap the night of his parents’ death via a hologram presentation at an MIT Alumni Honors event, as he does in his co-starring role in Captain America: Civil War.

The hologram technology Stark uses (which in the real world is still at least a few years off), is a regular feature of the Iron Man franchise. But by Iron Man 3, the series’ villains had started delivering their own evil TED Talks. In that 2013 movie, Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian explains the fictional technology he will use to try to take over the country, via a holographic livestream of his brain.

A few points. I think that due to the rise of superhero films, we are in the midst of a “supervillain arms race,” whereby the villains in these movies need to have plans of increasing complexity.

It follows that filmmakers would want to liven up the exposition a little bit. I’m not sure what a good solution is to this problem — just have less complex plans? Or make the telling of them less visually interesting? It’s a tough issue.

Also, Wickman was prompted to write this piece due to a similar scene in the new Guardians of the Galaxy, where the main villain uses a multimedia presentation to explain his plans.  As I tried to argue in our review of that film, the villain at least a character-based motivation for doing that.

The human cost of conspiracy theories

Hadley Freeman, writing for The Guardian, about Leonard Pozner, a father who lost his son Noah in the Sandy Hook massacre:

Pozner says that, if he hadn’t lost Noah, he might well have believed the pizzagate conspiracy: “I would not have been as immediately dismissive of it, that’s for sure. History books will refer to this period as a time of mass delusion. We weren’t prepared for the internet. We thought the internet would bring all these wonderful things, such as research, medicine, science, an accelerated society of good. But all we did was hold up a mirror to society and we saw how angry, sick and hateful humans can be.”

So what can we do, I ask, now that more of us are realising we can’t just ignore these people?

“It’s too late, and things have gone too far. The whole Amazon is on fire. When I was dealing with these people in 2014 and 15, you could utilise their stories and turn them around. I don’t know if you can even do that now,” he says. “Lawmakers don’t know how to deal with this. Police don’t know how to police the internet, they haven’t been trained, they just tell you to turn off the computer. And people who do police the internet, they are looking for credit card scams worth millions of dollars. For 4Chan trolls, this is their playground.”

He pauses for a moment: “I used to be able to change the channel when stories about these kinds of people were on. I now don’t have the luxury to do that, and when I lost Noah, I woke up and realised that people who spread these stories are more interested in propagating fear than getting at the truth. And the human cost of that is phenomenal.”

I can’t imagine the horror of losing a child, but the idea that Pozner is is now taunted for it and accused of “faking it” is even further beyond comprehension.

/Film’s 2017 Summer Movie Wager

Every year on /Film, we choose our top 10 films of the summer by domestic box office gross. It’s always a fun time full of trash talking and week-by-week nailbiting results. Check out the episode here.

My picks are below:

  1. Despicable Me 3
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
  3. Spider-Man: Homecoming
  4. Wonder Woman
  5. Transformers 5
  6. War for the Planet of the Apes
  7. Cars 3
  8. Dunkirk
  9. Pirates of the Caribbean 5
  10. The Mummy (2017)
Darkhorses:
  • Alien: Covenant
  • Baywatch
  • Captain Underpants

My biggest uncertainties? Putting Pirates so low, putting Despicable Me 3 at #1, and not having Captain Underpants in the top 10 at all.

The best meal I’ve ever had in my entire life

To get to the best restaurant in Washington State, and one of the best restaurants in the country, you first need to drive two hours north of Seattle and take a 10-minute ferry ride to get to Lummi Island (population: about 600). On the far side of the island is Willows Inn, run by Chef Blaine Wetzel. Wetzel is barely 30 years old, but in 2014, the James Beard Foundation named him Rising Star Chef of the Year and in 2015, he was awarded Best Chef Northwest.

The Willows Inn restaurant only operates for 3-4 nights per week. At capacity, the restaurant seats 34 people. There is one seating per night at 6 PM. The meal lasts three hours. Each person’s meal cost $200 with a mandatory gratuity.

Accede to these conditions and you will possibly have the best meal of your entire life. The setting is homey and welcoming. The service is friendly and informative. The food is exquisite and unique. Many of the ingredients are caught from the surrounding water, or harvested from surrounding vegetation and gardens. It feels like you are eating straight from the earth — in a good way.

Several of our fellow diners were here from out of state. They made the pilgrimage and they were well-rewarded. So, my advice: if you’ve never been, add this to the bucket list!

I was able to take some photos of the meal below, using a Fuji X-T2. Here are the dishes that were photographed:

toasted kale leaves
clams and scallops
oysters and wilcress
black cod and currant leaves
dungeness crab soaked in pinenuts
herb tostada
smoked mussels
reefnet caught smoked sockeye
lightly cured rockfish in a broth of grilled bones
steamed bok choy

A post shared by David Chen (@davechensky) on

Losing a generation of movies and TV

Over at IEEE, Marty Perlmutter has written a sobering assessment of the current state of digital preservation efforts at major studios:

Digital technology has also radically altered the way that movies are preserved for posterity, but here the effect has been far less salutary. These days, the major studios and film archives largely rely on a magnetic tape storage technology known as LTO, or linear tape-open, to preserve motion pictures. When the format first emerged in the late 1990s, it seemed like a great solution. The first generation of cartridges held an impressive 100 gigabytes of uncompressed data; the latest, LTO-7, can hold 6 terabytes uncompressed and 15 TB compressed. Housed properly, the tapes can have a shelf life of 30 to 50 years. While LTO is not as long-lived as polyester film stock, which can last for a century or more in a cold, dry environment, it’s still pretty good.

The problem with LTO is obsolescence. Since the beginning, the technology has been on a Moore’s Law–like march that has resulted in a doubling in tape storage densities every 18 to 24 months. As each new generation of LTO comes to market, an older generation of LTO becomes obsolete. LTO manufacturers guarantee at most two generations of backward compatibility. What that means for film archivists with perhaps tens of thousands of LTO tapes on hand is that every few years they must invest millions of dollars in the latest format of tapes and drives and then migrate all the data on their older tapes—or risk losing access to the information altogether.

That costly, self-perpetuating cycle of data migration is why Dino Everett, film archivist for the University of Southern California, calls LTO “archive heroin—the first taste doesn’t cost much, but once you start, you can’t stop. And the habit is expensive.” As a result, Everett adds, a great deal of film and TV content that was “born digital,” even work that is only a few years old, now faces rapid extinction and, in the worst case, oblivion.

Until a solution that is better than costly, quickly obsoleted LTO tapes is found, original versions of all of the cultural work we value is in danger of being lost forever.

The “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope

YouTube user Pop Culture Detective has created a fairly comprehensive, insightful essay about the film trope “born sexy yesterday,” in which grown (and frequently sexualized) women have the minds of children. From the essay:

“Born Sexy Yesterday” is about an unbalanced relationship. But it’s also very much connected to masculinity. The subtext of the trope is rooted in a deep-seated insecurity about sex and sexuality. The crux of the trope is a fixation on male superiority. A fixation with holding power over an innocent girl. But in order to make that socially acceptable, science fiction is employed to put the mind of that girl into a sexualized adult woman’s body.

It’s a fantasy based on fear — fear of women who are equal in sexual experience and romantic history, and fear of losing the intellectual upper hand to women.

Seeing all the examples laid out like this makes clear how ubiquitous and pernicious this trope really is.

The memes of Trump’s presidency (so far)

Kaitlyn Tiffany has written up an indispensable guide for The Verge:

In The New Republic, two weeks after the inauguration, Jeet Heer outlined the broader case for making jokes about the Trump administration: “Jokes, even political jokes, aren’t about persuasion, but rather psychological comfort in the face of difficult or painful situations.”

 100 days into Trump’s presidency, it looks like he’s right. We’ve already got enough memorable, pervasive memes to fill the world’s scariest children’s book. Each one was born from something horrible — cruel or grossly stupid — and each one was a tiny, dumb, tasteless victory against despair.

 

Does Travis Kalanick actually have the second-highest Wii Tennis score?

In a recent New York Times profile of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, the writers point out that Kalanick “once held the world’s second-highest score for the Nintendo Wii Tennis video game.” This factoid about Kalanick has actually appeared in the media many times before — I first learned about it on an episode of the StartUp podcast.

But according to Ars Technica writer Kyle Orland, this stat is non-sensical. Why?

The line baffled me for a number of reasons, not least of which was that the concept of a “high score” in “Wii Tennis” didn’t make much sense. Claiming the “world’s second-highest score” in Wii Sports tennis is like claiming the second-highest score in Pong based on nothing but playing against the computer and your friends. Absent some sort of sanctioned tournament or logical third-party ranking system, the claim just doesn’t parse.

And yet, the boast is oddly specific. Kalanick hadn’t earned the best “Wii Tennis” score in the world according to TheNew York Times. He achieved the second best. If this was just a fabulist boast, why limit yourself to number two? And if it wasn’t just puffery, who was number one?

What’s more, the paper of record doesn’t hedge its declaration with a “he said” or “he claimed.” Kalanick’s “Wii Tennis” high score is stated as a fact, and one that piece author Mike Isaac said on Twitter was “triple sourced.” (Isaac didn’t respond to further request for comment on his basis for the line.)

I’ve spent an admittedly ridiculous amount of time looking into this one sentence over the past few days. As it turns out, getting to the bottom of Kalanick’s Wii Sports skill requires delving into the vagaries of human memory, reverse engineered asymptotic leveling systems, and the semantic meaning of video game achievement itself.

Orland’s investigation is delightful and worth reading in its entirety. It’s a testament to sweating the details and getting the facts right whenever possible.

Radiolab’s “Nukes” episode

During my recent drive down to Las Vegas, I had a chance to catch up with dozens of podcasts. Radiolab in particular has been on a tear, with some of their most important and powerful work coming out in the past few weeks. Among these: their “Nukes” episode, which I’d recommend for anyone who cares about the fate of the world.

TL;DR – It’s as bad as we all think it is; there are essentially no checks on the U.S. President’s power to launch nukes; the decision can be unilateral; and no easy path exists to change that. Enjoy.

How most people misinterpret Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’

Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” is one of the most popular poems of the 20th century. Here it is in its entirety:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Despite its popularity, it is also one of the most widely misinterpreted poems. Here’s David Orr, writing about “The Road Not Taken” for The Paris Review in 2015:

This is the most remarkable thing about “The Road Not Taken”—not its immense popularity (which is remarkable enough), but the fact that it is popular for what seem to be the wrong reasons. It’s worth pausing here to underscore a truth so obvious that it is often taken for granted: Most widely celebrated artistic projects are known for being essentially what they purport to be. […]

Frost’s poem turns this expectation on its head. Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (“I took the one less traveled by”), but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem’s speaker tells us he “shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.

According to this reading, then, the speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives. “The Road Not Taken” may be, as the critic Frank Lentricchia memorably put it, “the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But we could go further: It may be the best example in all of American culture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

I remember reading this poem in high school and, at a surface level, believing it represented all the best parts about American individualism. What a delightfully meta realization to understand in adulthood that I was wrong all along.