The week of upheaval

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Programming note: This update comes a bit late this week. I’m still trying to find the correct balance between waiting until I have time to write a substantive update, vs. being as timely as possible. Thanks for sticking with me as I figure it out.

The Oscars happened this week! I know, it feels like a few years ago already, but as we pass this moment, I wanted to pause and take a moment to reflect on how historic the 91st Academy Awards were. Lots of talented people of color took home awards, including:

  • Ruth E. Carter, who became the first African-American woman to win Best Costume Design (for Black Panther). Her colleague, Hannah Beachler, was the first African-American to take home the prize for Best Production Design.
  • Mahershala Ali, who became the first African-American actor to win for Best Supporting Actor twice.
  • Rami Malek, who became the first Egyptian-American to win Best Actor
  • Asian-Americans Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who won Best Documentary for Free Solo (and were nominated alongside Bing Liu for the excellent Minding the Gap).
    • I was also personally gratified that Domee Shi won an Oscar for her work on Pixar’s animated short, Bao.

And then Green Book won Best Picture.

Green Book’s journey to the Oscars has been a rocky one. The real-life family of one of its protagonists called the film a “symphony of lies.” Its writer was discovered to have made a Trump-supporting anti-Muslim tweet. Yet Green Book soldiered on

And that’s all without even discussing the quality of the film itself. To my mind, Mark Harris wrote the definitive explanation of what’s wrong with the film: 

Green Book is a but also movie, a both sides movie, and in that, it extends a 50-year-plus tradition of movies that tell a story about American racism that has always been irresistibly appealing, on and offscreen, to that portion of white Americans who see themselves as mediators. They’re the reasonable, non-racist people poised halfway between unrepentant, ineducable racists on one side and, on the other, black people who, in this version of the American narrative, almost always have something to learn themselves. The trope was first, most famously and most effectively, deployed in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, in which the redneck cop played by Rod Steiger has much to learn from the intellectually superior Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), but also something to teach him about not letting anger or a desire for vengeance cloud his judgment. Norman Jewison, that film’s director, knew that that brief comeuppance for Poitier was the spoonful of sugar that would make the medicine of an authoritative black man onscreen palatable to an audience that had almost never seen one depicted before. Fifty years ago, the film was a galvanizing moment in Hollywood history in part because it played wildly differently to black and white, to southern and northern, and to older and younger moviegoers. But while crowds cheered Poitier fighting back, Hollywood gave Steiger the Oscar; for the Academy, it was the white character’s journey, and his humanity, in which the stakes of the film resided.

I found Green Book to be a competently made film, but as Harris indicates, it is depressingly retrograde in its treatment of race and, as a result, feels like it was made for a different era. In a year that saw the release of films like BlackkKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, and Black Panther, we’ve seen that tackling racial issues and politics can result in interesting and brilliant work when approached from a unique perspective. Green Book keeps its feet planted firmly in the familiar past.

That’s why Green Book’s win is such a disappointment. It feels like Academy voters grasping for a past that no longer exists and probably never did. In fact, according to a troubling NYTimes piece, Green Book’s evocation of nostalgia is why some people voted for it:

One voter, a studio executive in his 50s, admitted that his support for “Green Book” was rooted in rage. He said he was tired of being told what movies to like and not like. (Much of the public debate about “Green Book” has turned on its handling of racial issues, which some see as woefully retrograde and borderline bigoted.)

There’s no need for me to write a takedown of Green Book because Justin Chang already did for the LA Times, calling it the worst Best Picture winner since Crash:

“Green Book,” a slick crowd-pleaser set in the Deep South in 1962, strains to put you in a good mood. Its victory is appalling but far from shocking: From the moment it won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, the first of several key precursors it would pick up en route to Sunday’s Oscars ceremony, the movie was clearly a much more palatable brand of godawful. In telling the story of the brilliant, erudite jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who is chauffeured on his Southern concert tour by a rough-edged Italian-American bouncer named Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), “Green Book” serves up bald-faced clichés and stereotypes with a drollery that almost qualifies as disarming.[…]

I can tell I’ve already annoyed some of you, though if you take more offense at what I’ve written than you do at “Green Book,” there may not be much more to say. Differences in taste are nothing new, but there is something about the anger and defensiveness provoked by this particular picture that makes reasonable disagreement unusually difficult. Maybe “Green Book” really is the movie of the year after all — not the best movie, but the one that best captures the polarization that arises whenever the conversation shifts toward matters of race, privilege and the all-important question of who gets to tell whose story.

There’s very little I disagree with in this piece, but it’s so brutal that it almost made me feel bad for Green Book?

A few more links to consider as we come to the end of a memorable awards season:


A political addendum: We live in extraordinary times. This week, Michael Cohen testified in front of Congress and laid out numerous acts of wrongdoing that the President of the United States has instigated and covered up. The Cohen testimony was gripping television — Shakespearean in its machinations, powerful in its final manifestation — but the one moment that stuck out to me was when Cohen identified his GOP questioners as being on the same dark road that he went down already:

After a relentless battering from Republican lawmakers over his established dishonesty, including lying to Congress, Cohen called them out for carrying President Trump’s water. He pointed to a poster board that a Republican lawmaker had put up with the words “LIAR LIAR PANTS ON FIRE!” next to a supersize photo of Cohen.

“It’s that sort of behavior that I’m responsible for. I’m responsible for your silliness because I did the same thing that you’re doing now for 10 years,” he told the Republican committee members. “I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years.”

Then he warned, more ominously, “The more people that follow Mr. Trump as I did blindly are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.”

The dynamic was striking: a former lackey, trying to warn the present lackeys that they will one day come to regret their decisions. An image of past and present together on one national stage. Sadly, I don’t think the message got through.

A few more things to consider:


And finally, some other odds and ends from the week:

Big Bezos Energy

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Last week, the CEO of my employer, Jeff Bezos, published a lengthy blog post in which he described and offered proof of an apparent extortion attempt by American Media Inc. (AMI) whose aim was to cow him into silence. AMI claimed to have compromising photos of him and threatened to release them if Bezos didn’t make false statements about AMI’s motivations for its coverage of Bezos’s affair:

Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can? (On that point, numerous people have contacted our investigation team about their similar experiences with AMI, and how they needed to capitulate because, for example, their livelihoods were at stake.)

In the AMI letters I’m making public, you will see the precise details of their extortionate proposal: They will publish the personal photos unless Gavin de Becker and I make the specific false public statement to the press that we “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”

If we do not agree to affirmatively publicize that specific lie, they say they’ll publish the photos, and quickly. And there’s an associated threat: They’ll keep the photos on hand and publish them in the future if we ever deviate from that lie.

For obvious reasons, I won’t comment much more on the post except to say that it’s worth reading in its entirety. It’s an excellent piece of writing that has reshaped the narrative on this story and dramatically opened up the scope of what’s happening here. It also portends bad things for AMI going forward [As usual, although I’m an employee of Amazon, all opinions expressed on this blog are my own and don’t represent my company].

There’s also a few supplementary pieces that helped me further understand this story. Bloomberg has a piece describing the history of AMI’s lawyer (he used to work for Amazon). The Daily Beast explains how blackmail has been part of AMI’s business model for awhile now. And finally, Scott Galloway has a smart (and surprisingly poignant) take on a bonus podcast episode of Pivot.


New York magazine did a cover story on The Matrix this week with tons of articles, many of which are worth reading:

But my favorite piece is the interview by Bilge Ebiri with Chad Stahelski, where they talk about The Matrix’s influence on action films. Here’s Stahelski on filming that lobby sequence:

I remember my first time on camera was in the government lobby sequence, when Carrie-Anne does her wall-up. We had rehearsed it a million times. We had squibs that had to go off. It was all practical effects, so you couldn’t have a cell phone within 300 feet of the stage, because at the time, the frequency of cell phones could set off the electronic squibs. They had over a thousand squibs, and they’re blowing off, and we’re seeing them and just going, “Oh my God.” I had to do a thing where I cartwheel over to an M16 rifle, pick it up with one hand, and then Keanu shoots and goes into the fight or whatever. I remember the setup was a day turnover, so you get one take, and it takes a day to reset, and then you do the second take. I had barely met anybody on set at this point. I’m in the getup, and I’m getting ready to go, and I remember producer Joel Silver walking over to me — I had never met the man before in my life — looking me right in the eye and saying, “Don’t fuck this up.” Basically, don’t miss. And he gave me that little stare. He’s a very intense person. And I was like, Okay. Don’t miss gun. They said there’d be a lot of debris, so I just practiced doing the flip with my eyes closed. And I swear to you, as soon as they yelled action, the first squib went off, and I couldn’t see shit. I just threw myself in there and magically found the gun and grabbed it. I was only 25 and I was like, Don’t miss gun. Don’t miss gun. Don’t miss gun. But after that scene finished, I remember calling everybody back in the States and just going, “Yeah, this is gonna be something different. This is real stuff.”

Amazing stuff that makes you remember why this film still retains such immense power.


If you keep up with the news in the podcasting world, you might have heard that Spotify is acquiring Gimlet Media for $230 million! While I’m happy for all the folks at Gimlet who have labored hard for years producing hundreds of hours of entertainment to get to this point, I’m apprehensive about what it means for the state of podcasting. As usual, Nicholas Quah has a smart take on what all of it means:

[T]he major assumption I’ve been seeing around this deal is that in Gimlet, Spotify is primarily getting a show portfolio to use as the cornerstone of their “original podcast programming,” with which they could push more of its users towards consuming podcasts on its platform. That push may or may not take the form of Gimlet’s shows becoming Spotify exclusives, but I’m pretty comfortable betting it will.

But I also think Gimlet Creative, the company’s advertising division, is another key piece to appraise here. Consider that Spotify’s core competency isn’t content, but distribution, engagement, and monetization — and that monetization, in particular, is both a podcast problem a good deal of people are fixated on and the one that established media platforms (like Spotify, but also Pandora) fancy themselves well-positioned to solve with their existing assets.

For decades now, podcasting has been a meritocratic open standard. Essentially, podcasts are just RSS feeds pointing to hosted mp3 files. Anyone with a podcast could rise from a complete unknown to someone with a minimally popular movie podcast (*ahem*). Podcasts could also monetize at will and take a large portion of the profits.

With massive companies like Spotify getting into the content game, absorbing more profits, and pushing more and more for exclusives on its own platform, I see choppy waters up ahead for the wonderful, open world of podcasts. We’ll see how things play out.


I almost quit watching Netflix’s Russian Doll after two episodes, finding it to be an unpleasant warmed over rehash of the “Repeat Your Day” trope. But after a bunch of people urged me to keep going, I finished the series and was richly rewarded. It’s an incredible work, and seems destined to become one of the great shows of 2019.

While Russian Doll owes a lot to Groundhog Day and No Exit, the piece of work that it most closely resembles for me is Makoto Shinkai’s recent film Your Name, which is about two people connected by apparently-supernatural circumstances that help and teach each other what it means to be a better version of themselves (Your Name was one of my favorite films of 2017).

While I’m hoping to make a video essay about the show’s ending in the near future, I did want to point to Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece about the series at Vulture. He has written what I think is the most thorough reading of the film that I can find so far:

What makes this series stand apart from its predecessors is the way it blends parable, psychodrama, and science fiction while maintaining plausible deniability, so that the story doesn’t fall too neatly or obviously into any of those three categories.

Alan Sepinwall also has an interesting interview with Natasha Lyonne about the series. And Jackson McHenry interviewed the production designer who helped make Nadia’s bathroom “reset point” a reality.


That’s it for this week! There was so much news that happened that I tried a different format where I commented a bit more on each story, rather than focus on one main one. As always, feel free to share your feedback in the comments below.

What is clickbait, anyway?

Over the weekend, a Twitter user named Dakota Lopez posted a list of the websites that were most frequently called out by a Twitter account called FilmClickbait:

FilmClickbait quote tweets out headlines from film news websites and blogs, usually revealing the information that is teased. Here’s an example:

I have some thoughts on all this, but here are a few caveats before I proceed:

    Coming in sixth on that list is slashfilm.com, a site I used to write for regularly and that I currently still host a weekly podcast for.
    I have not verified Lopez’s methodology or his final counts, but nothing about the list strikes me as implausible.
    I can’t comment on whether there’s anything “disproportionately malicious” happening, but it seems possible that the sites that rank highest simply traffic more frequently in what FilmClickbait deems clickbait.

Here is the problem with FilmClickbait’s entire modus operandi: There is no widely understood definition of clickbait, and if there is one, it’s not one that seems to match FilmClickbait’s.

In 2014, Ben Smith wrote a piece for Buzzfeed (a site that would know or thing or two about clickbait) explaining why the site no longer used “clickbait.” In it, he defines clickbait as headlines that fundamentally mislead the reader about what the article is about. When Buzzfeed used to do this, they’d generate short term engagement, but they’d destroy user trust. So they stopped:

If your goal — as is ours at BuzzFeed — is to deliver the reader something so new, funny, revelatory, or delightful that they feel compelled to share it, you have to do work that delivers on the headline’s promise, and more. This is a very high bar. It’s one thing to enjoy reading something, and quite another to make the active choice to share it with your friends. This is a core fact of sharing and the social web of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and other platforms.

The best way to ensure your readers won’t choose to share a story or a post is to trick them. Anyone who has spent the last 20 years online knows the specific disgust that comes with a headline that doesn’t deliver on its promise. It’s the kind of taste you get in your mouth from a glistening but spoiled peach. The publisher got the page view, and ComScore doesn’t record your flash of anger. But you’re hardly going to subject your friends to this experience. (Maybe your enemies.)

Smith even went on to provide tips on how to write good headlines:

Great headlines, meanwhile, tell you a lot about what you’re going to read, and persuade you to click because you know you’ll find a story that will satisfy your interest. The lists that BuzzFeed has long been known for are, as list titles tend to be, extremely direct; “31 Genius Hacks For Your Elementary School Art Class” is just that. As my colleague Ryan Broderick puts it, the goal is often, in fact, to “blow away the curiosity gap.” One of his recent headlines: “A 5-Year-Old Girl Raised Enough Money To Take Her Father Who Has Terminal Cancer To Disney World.”

When you look over Filmclickbait’s targets, there are certainly pieces that fall within the standard definition of clickbait. But there are at least as many pieces that simply don’t adhere to Filmclickbait’s version of a good headline.

Take today as an example. Many websites are writing about Game of Thrones final season premiere date:

Nothing in the headline that is being linked to is misleading. It simply doesn’t include the most crucial piece of information that is teased. And while some (many?) might find it annoying to click through to the actual article, it’s important to ask other questions beyond whether that info is in the tweet/headline itself: Does the article provide important context? Does it provide insights and information that you might not otherwise have known?

If no, then eventually readers will decide on their own that your website is not worth reading or sharing, and the laws of Darwin will eliminate the publication from the pool of going concerns. But if yes, then value is still being delivered to the reader. I don’t understand how that could be called clickbait, or if it can be, I don’t understand why that distinction is important because literally every publication does it.

Here’s a screenshot from today’s New York Times about U.S. tensions with Iran. It reads: “Pentagon Officials Fear Bolton’s Actions Increase Risk of Clash with Iran”

It would be ludicrous for a clickbait-like account to simply quote tweet this article and flippantly write, “He asked for military options to strike Iran!” Why? Because the article itself might contain other information that is important to know about! Simply because the headline doesn’t contain all the relevant information doesn’t make it a bad or clickbait-y headline. And sure, pop culture ephemera doesn’t have the weighty importance of national security, but the same concept applies.

I wholeheartedly believe that there are websites that act in bad faith. But by refusing to distinguish between actively misleading headlines and headlines that simply don’t (can’t?) include all the possible relevant information, FilmClickbait throws the baby out with the bathwater. It provides a skewed perspective on what “clickbait” and bad headline writing even is. That’s arguably an equal disservice to the fan community as the prevalence of actual clickbait.


A few interesting things from the web recently:

Alan Scherstuhl’s do’s and don’ts of film writing

Film writer Alan Scherstuhl has published his writing advice for film reviewers. I don’t necessarily advocate for every single thing here, but it’s all valuable and it’s all worth considering. With Alan’s permission, I’ve reproduced his entire list below. My favorite bit:

Do not forget that some 14 year-old version of you might happen into reading your piece, and that that 14 year-old wants to be invited into the world of culture and ideas, not shamed away from it for not knowing who Jafar Panahi is, so when you mention Jafar Panahi provide some enthusiastic context that might make that 14 year old look Panahi up rather than think “Fuck off, you snob.”

Always good to remember where you came from and how you got started.

Alan is one of the smartest, most astute film writers I know. Follow him on Twitter and check out his wrap up of 2018 in movies. And one last thing that Alan wanted me to share: a good writer can break any of these rules at any time. 

***

My advice on reviews is simple. First, the don’ts:

Do not open with plot summary

Do not write a paragraph of plot summary

Do not ever write this sentence: “CHARACTER’s NAME (ACTOR’S NAME) is an L.A. architect suffering from ennui in the years since her professional chef husband CHARACTER’S NAME (ACTOR’S NAME) had to close his dream restaurant and bury their child CHARACTER’S NAME (ACTOR’S NAME, adorable in sad flashbacks to a happier time)”

Do not forget that it is your job to highlight what is important and memorable and unique, whether good or bad, and to dash the rest to the rocks

Do not only characterize performances in parentheses

Do not laundry list, meaning don’t give us a paragraph of intro, one on the story, one on the actors, one on the direction, and then one of opinion

Do not just rely on adjectives to characterize a performance or a scene or a feeling. Instead, draw upon every bit of descriptive power within you to capture exactly you are attempting to capture. Summon up the moment itself rather than just how you feel about the moment.

Do not despair that the above is hard.

Do not put scare quotes around “wacky” or “zany” or other words. That asks the reader to guess what you think the word usually means and then what you intend it to mean this time and whether you’re putting it in someone else’s mouth.

Do not presume that your understanding of/tolerance for wackiness or zaniness or pretension is the universal standard. These words mean little on their own and demand you clearly characterize whatever strikes you as wacky/zany/pretentious rather than trust that tossing the word in there is enough.

Do not be all, “I don’t know, there were some decent action scenes.”

Do not rely on adverbs that merely add emphasis: “very” or “really” or “wonderfully” in front of an adjective characterize that adjective only in degree, not in character, and more than anything else they suggest that the adjective you’ve chosen is inexact and needs some help. “Stunningly” is just “very” with its eyes bugged out; “profoundly” is just “really” with a beard and its voice lowered an octave.

Do not use “titular” or “myriad” or “gleefully” or “iconic” or any of those godawful Variety terms like “actioner” or “laugher.”

Do not write sentences where the reader could start skimming halfway through and still know what you were going to say.

Do not ignore the real world and the film’s social/political context

Even if you’re exercised about that context, do not ignore the formal choices the filmmakers have made
— how is this film shot and edited, and why? Is it effective? If someone reading your review had never heard of the movie, would it be clear from the review that this was, in fact, a movie and not a play or a TV show?

Do not tut down at regular folks who might not ever see the challenging movie you’re savoring.

Do not write, “In a perfect world, [INSERT MOVIE YOU LOVE HERE] would be a huge hit.” You’re not the Commissariat of Enlightened Taste. Argue for what you love — don’t whine that it’s not as loved as you’d like it to be.

Do not assume that people who do not love what you are championing – or who love what you’re panning – are doing so in bad faith.

Do not forget that some 14 year-old version of you might happen into reading your piece, and that that 14 year-old wants to be invited into the world of culture and ideas, not shamed away from it for not knowing who Jafar Panahi is, so when you mention Jafar Panahi provide some engaging context that might make that 14 year old look Panahi up.

Do not think of your review as just one of the many reviews this film will get, as just a datapoint for the Tomatometer, as just some piece of consumer advice only likely to interest people already engaged with whatever you’re reviewing. Instead, think of your review as an event itself, as something that needs to win people over and get them to care.

Do not think that reviewing simply means setting down your subjective opinion. Key to it is to marshal as much objective evidence and memorable detail as you can to a) make your case, b) give readers a feeling of the experience of actually watching this movie, c) participate in the art yourself, as recording what you witnessed is immortalizing the work in another medium, and d) prevent you from spinning your wheels with dull-ass plot summary.

Again: DON’T WRITE PLOT SUMMARIES ANY LONGER THAN A LINE OR TWO. If you would skim it in other people’s reviews, they’re sure as hell gonna skim it in yours.

Do not worry much of what other critics have said except in the rare revisionist piece where you are proving everybody else wrong a month or so later.

Do not forget that Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael panned 2001. Their reviews of it are persuasive.

And here’s a do:

Engage with the art, open yourself to the art, process the art, and respond to the art. If you ever sit down to watch something and think “Jesus, I don’t want to do this” the same way so many of those sad bastards we all see in the screening rooms seem to, ask me to re-assign because, seriously, there’s someone else who *does* want to do it.

And a Word on Profiles and Interviews:
I prefer our pieces be about how we “get” someone — as in offer rare context and insight — rather than how we “got” someone, as in put some famous person in the paper.

And here’s words I will always cut from reviews so don’t try to sneak them in:
titular, palpable, triptych, myriad, “pokes fun at”, groan- or chuckle-worthy, astonishing, stunning, iconic, painterly, veritable, fever dream, gleefully, plethora, laugher, actioner, most uses of “very,” and the very idea of the setting as a character which it just isn’t, ever. (Note the acceptable use of “very” in the preceding line, rather than the usual “very pretty” or “very funny,” where “very” is less a descriptor
than it is an admission that the adjective it’s paired with is insufficient.)