What went wrong with ‘Downsizing’

I’m not usually one to take shots at ambitious films by well-respected directors — especially ones that bombed at the box office. But Alexander Payne’s Downsizing presents an irresistible case because it’s such an interesting failure.

Nitpix has put together a detailed essay explaining why Downsizing is one of the worst “smol” movies ever (i.e. a movie in which the protagonist is shrunk down to a smaller size):

  • It seems to completely abandon its sci-fi premise almost immediately, despite introducing it twice.
  • It raises many interesting social and political issues that it fails to explore meaningfully.
  • The plot’s structure is a mess and the film sputters to an end.
  • Matt Damon’s character is a big nothingburger and completely uninteresting and unsympathetic.

There’s probably only a few people that even care about this film, but I’ll admit: it definitely stuck in my craw. See also: Walter Chaw’s takedown of the film.

‘Gravity’ is about depression and rebirth

[This post will contain spoilers for Gravity.]

I didn’t respect Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity enough when it was first released. In my initial assessment (podcast review here) I found it to be a technical marvel and a masterpiece of suspenseful sci-fi filmmaking. But I felt let down by the paper-thin characters and the usage of well-worn sci-fi tropes, like George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski needing to explain basic scientific concepts to Sandra Bullock’s inexperienced astronaut Ryan Stone.

I revisited Gravity in 3D yesterday at the Seattle Cinerama (currently in the process of hosting a trilogy of impressive film festivals) and my respect for the film has grown immensely in the intervening years. I’m still mildly bothered by some of the film’s scientific inaccuracies, but the Ryan Stone character’s journey really worked for me this time. Bullock is in every shot of this film and gives it her all as a grieving mother who has lost the will to go on. The scene when she mistakenly decides she has no chance of making it back home alive and makes peace with her own inevitable death is heartbreaking. During Bullock’s superlative performance (seemingly all performed in a single take), the camera focuses on her tears floating in the air, yet another in a long list of signs that the universe can be indifferent to humanity’s suffering.

It’s a somewhat common trope films when characters lose the will to live, then are reinvigorated when faced with the prospect of death. Gravity is special because, even as it succeeds as a sci-fi thriller, the entire film can be read as an allegory for depression. One Redditor has actually done a good job of fleshing out the metaphor in its entirety.

I’m not sure the metaphor needs to be that literal for me, but on this viewing I was struck by Kowalski’s imagined speech to Stone late in the film:

I get it, it’s nice up here. You can just shut down all the systems, turn out all the lights… and just close your eyes and tune out everybody. There’s nobody up here that can hurt you. It’s safe. I mean, what’s the point of going on? What’s the point of living? Your kid died. Doesn’t get any rougher than that. But still, it’s a matter of what you do now. If you decide to go, then you gotta just get on with it. Sit back, enjoy the ride. You gotta plant both your feet on the ground and start livin’ life. […] Hey, Ryan? It’s time to go home.

The movie does a great job capturing the duality of space, which overall feels terrifying and uninhabitable. But space is also at an intoxicating and peaceful remove from the concerns of life on Earth. Emerging from the depths of space becomes Stone’s rebirth in the film.

In interviews, Cuaron has also nodded to the idea that the film is about rebirth:

We have a character that is drifting metaphorical and literally, drifting towards the void. A victim of their own inertia. Getting farther and farther away from Earth where life and human connections are. And probably she was like that when she was on planet Earth, before leaving for the mission. It’s a character who lives in her own bubble. And she has to shred that skin to start learning at the end. This is a character who we stick in the ground, again, and learns how to walk. Space already lends itself to all these metaphorical possibilities. I think rebirth in many ways is part of the journey for everybody, not only every human in Earth, but it’s also the journey of great characters. Great characters in literature or in cinema they go through the stages of rebirth and of a new understanding.

It’s amazing that the film is able to convey all this emotion without the audience ever having the chance to meet Stone’s child — she’s only ever spoken about as an offscreen character. Yet another one of the movie’s many triumphs (it also won 7 Oscars).

One last thing: Seeing this movie in Dolby Atmos using a 4K laser projector capable of 60,000 lumens really destroyed me. It gave me an awe of our planet and of our universe that only a medium like cinema is capable of. If you have the chance to revisit Gravity theatrically, do it.

Here are some interesting things I’ve been reading this week:

Five things I’ve learned from podcasting for over 10 years

There are only a handful of movie podcasts that have been going concerns for more than 10 years, and Filmspotting is one of them. Not only are they one of the longest running, they are also one of the best. I remember when I first started podcasting, I held them up as the gold standard in my mind. I’ve always looked up to their eloquence, their slick production, and their ability to build community around moviegoing.

So it was an absolute delight when they invited me on this week to discuss two of my favorite topics: Crazy Rich Asians and podcasting. We all reflected back on 10+ years of doing this, and how it’s changed our view of the world. I hope you can check out the episode.

As part of the show, we each shared the top five things we’ve learned from podcasting (Filmspotting host Adam Kempenaar has been doing this for 13 years, Josh for 6, me for 10). Adam decided to give his list in the form of movie quotes, so I joined in on the fun. Below is my list in written form.

5. “Well, whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it? In your head. You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person.” -Tom Ripley, The Talented Mr. Ripley

Everyone is just out here trying to do their best and be a good person. But one thing I’ve noticed is that when people are enjoying your work over a long period of time, they tend not to vocalize their enjoyment to you on a regular basis, whereas people who don’t enjoy it tend to vocalize it frequently. This is intuitive and reasonable; most people who love TV shows, podcasts, advice columns, or other regular publications don’t write to them regularly to express their appreciation. When you’ve enjoyed something for a long time, you tend to start taking it for granted as a part of your life.

But as a creator, this can lead to a skewed perspective of whether/how people are actually enjoying your work. On a long enough timeline, negative messages can come in with a significant frequency in relation to positive messages. It’s important to remember that the vast majority of people consuming your work are the silent majority, still enjoying and valuing what you do. Typically, looking at things like download numbers and other forms of engagement will bear this out.

4. “I mean, I got everything I need right here with me. I got air in my lungs, a few blank sheets of paper. I mean, I love waking up in the morning not knowing what’s gonna happen or, who I’m gonna meet, where I’m gonna wind up. Just the other night I was sleeping under a bridge and now here I am on the grandest ship in the world having champagne with you fine people.” -Jack Dawson, Titanic.

This quote illustrates two points for me. Firstly, podcasting has been a huge blessing to my life. It’s allowed me to meet interesting filmmakers and fascinating people. It’s let me interview my heroes. In some ways, it was an entry point into my professional career. When you create something that people find valuable, you can never predict what the next steps in your life will hold.

The other notion this quote brings to mind is how in Titanic, there were many different classes of people on the same boat. Likewise, there are many different levels of success for podcasting. Most people probably think of the wildly successful ones (e.g. Adam Carolla, Marc Maron, etc.), or conjure more simple images of a few friends podcasting on a laptop for an audience of a dozen or so (AKA how I got my start). But there is a vast “middle class” of podcasters. These are podcasts are too large to quit, but too small to make a living off of. It can be challenging for people to wrap their head around this.

3. “I wish I knew how to quit you.” – Jack Twist, Brokeback Mountain.

Many podcasts are extremely delicate creations and survive only because they are labors of love. The ones that aren’t created by a media company or journalistic in nature (i.e. the ones that are podcasts like the ones I do) depend on two or more people being interested in a specific topic, and being willing to talk about that topic regularly and thoughtfully over the course of many years.

Typically these people have strong opinions and large personalities — otherwise the podcast wouldn’t be super interesting. And it can be difficult for strong personalities to continue wanting to interact with each other over a long period of time. Furthermore, minor things can disrupt this balance: a change in life circumstance, a move across the country, a new job, having a child.

When you hear a podcast that sounds professionally done, it can be tempting to assume that the people on it are professionals who earn a huge portion of their income from podcasting. More often than not, this isn’t the case, and an extremely specific set of circumstances is what allows the podcast to exist. Too many podcasts I’ve loved have vanished overnight (RIP Filmspotting SVU).

Podcasts are delicate things. Treasure them for as long as they’re around.

2. “Kelsey, in this terrifying world, all we have are the connections that we make.” -Bojack Horseman, Bojack Horseman.

The internet can be a fetid cesspool, but it’s also allowed me to make meaningful connections that I still treasure. Through my podcast work, I’ve met listeners who have become close friends, important collaborators, and just folks whose work brings value to my life. Many of these are relationships that will last me the foreseeable future. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

1. “Neither the flower nor the insect will ever understand the significance of their lovemaking. I mean, how could they know that because of their little dance the world lives? But it does. By simply doing what they’re designed to do, something large and magnificent happens.” -Jon Laroche, Adaptation.

In the past few weeks, I’ve received extremely moving emails from some of my listeners. I’ve heard from Andrew in Canada about how the podcast helped him through Stage 4 cancer. I’ve heard from Hiren who fought an auto-immune disease and found the podcast helped him stayed connected to the world of movies. And there’ve been many more over the course of the last decade.

None of this is what I could’ve possibly expected when I started the podcast. All of it is gratifying and humbling.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned from podcasting: Things you do that may have little to moderate significance for you may have enormous significance for other people. I don’t have any illusions about what I do when I podcast; it’s mostly just messing around on Skype with some really interesting folks who have great opinions about movies. But what has become clear is that even though it’s just a weekly quasi-obligation for me, other people can find a lot of value in it.

You can extend this lesson to other aspects of your own life. The things you do may not mean that much to you but can impact others in big ways. A kind word said to someone having a difficult day. An expression of gratitude for someone who’s done you a favor. A moment of silent sympathy for a friend in need. People value things in different ways. It’s incumbent upon us to respect that. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned over all these years.

  • Since I quit Twitter, I’ve been really interested in how large social platforms moderate their content. This week saw two blockbuster pieces that covered just that. Radiolab did a fascinating episode about how Facebook wrote its code for moderation. Motherboard also had a written piece on the topic. Both show that Facebook is struggling with an impossible task. But at least it’s struggling with it.
  • Thanks for reading this week’s blog posts and for replying to them via my email list! One piece of feedback I’ve received is that emails don’t allow for the level of interaction that platforms like Twitter do. So, one thing I can offer from now on is if you reply or email me at davechen(AT)davechen(DOT)net with your questions, I’ll try to make one weekly email/blog post dedicated (or partially dedicated) to publishing your replies and my responses to them.

A movie that can represent us

It’s a weird thing to be an Asian American that’s tangentially involved in the media. I spend a lot of time commenting on art, but I see very little art that reflects my understanding or perspective of the world. Even worse is the feeling that when I have seen Asians or Asian Americans on screen, I’ve felt as though each one bears an immense (and unfair) burden of representing a whole group of people to its audience.

I’ve winced when Asian characters speak in broken English for comedic effect. I’ve cringed when Asians are exoticized and “othered.” I’ve died a little every time Asian men are presented exclusively as goofy and sexless.

I feel the desire to grab the audience, to shake them and explain, “We’re not all like that! This piece of art that’s shaping your perception of my people is incomplete!” It’s comical to say all of this but it’s also a comment on how little art there is out there that features Asians prominently (This list provides a solid overview of how Asians and Asian Americans have appeared in film over the course of the past century).

Then a movie like Crazy Rich Asians comes out. The characters on screen are beautiful and charming. The plot deals with aspects of immigrant life that feel deeply authentic. I’ve seen the film with audiences who have laughed and cried. There are many Asian characters on screen and they are silly and funny and elegant and stern and luminous. The Asian male characters are sexy and desirable. And for the first time in long while, I feel like there’s a movie out in theaters that can represent us.

Not gonna take it

This New York Times piece by Kelly Marie Tran is truly something. A must-read for anyone who doubts that Asian Americans also experience profound marginalization:

Their words reinforced a narrative I had heard my whole life: that I was “other,” that I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t good enough, simply because I wasn’t like them. And that feeling, I realize now, was, and is, shame, a shame for the things that made me different, a shame for the culture from which I came from. And to me, the most disappointing thing was that I felt it at all.

Because the same society that taught some people they were heroes, saviors, inheritors of the Manifest Destiny ideal, taught me I existed only in the background of their stories, doing their nails, diagnosing their illnesses, supporting their love interests — and perhaps the most damaging — waiting for them to rescue me. […]

I am not the first person to have grown up this way. This is what it is to grow up as a person of color in a white-dominated world. This is what it is to be a woman in a society that has taught its daughters that we are worthy of love only if we are deemed attractive by its sons. This is the world I grew up in, but not the world I want to leave behind.

Tran deleted her Instagram account after being harassed, but we definitely haven’t heard the last of her.

The best movie moments of 2017

I love thinking through the best movie moments in a given year. More than any other aspect, the individual moments of grandeur and spectacle in films stay with me long after I’ve watched them.

That’s why I was glad to contribute to /Film’s “56 Best movie moments of 2017” piece. There are some great moments on here, assembled by the entire staff. Here’s what I had to say about the ending of The Killing of a Sacred Deer:

My longstanding belief about conspiracy theories is that they’re popular because deep down, humans prefer to believe there’s a higher power at work. It’s terrifying to contemplate the possibility that every occurrence is completely random. Much more reassuring to think that someone is pulling all the strings, even if that someone is malevolent. The Killing of a Sacred Deer turns this notion on its head. Here, surgeon Steve Murphy (Colin Farrell) becomes increasingly certain that teenager Martin (played chillingly by Barry Keoghan) exerts an other-worldly power over his family, causing them to become sick. The only thing that will cause it to stop is if Murphy takes one of his family member’s lives – retribution for Murphy errantly taking the life of Martin’s father in a botched surgery. After agonizing over how to proceed, Farrell decides that introducing randomness into the equation is the only solution. He ties up his family in the living room and spins around randomly, firing a rifle until one of them is dead. It’s a brutal, heartbreaking scene with an unspeakable outcome, demonstrating that sometimes, chance is only outcome we can live with.

The Definitive Takedown of ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’

MovieBob (AKA Bob Chipman) has created a series of video essays totaling 4 hours (!) discussing everything wrong with Zach Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is one of the most comprehensive analyses of any film that I’ve ever watched — Chipman covers everything from the film’s aesthetics and structure, to why Snyder’s overall attitude towards superheroes might’ve made him the wrong director for this film.

Most importantly, I think Chipman hits the nail on the head by calling Batman v Superman an act of cultural vandalism. It takes characters who are beloved, revered, and admired, and it completely defaces everything we know about them. That is not inherently a bad idea. Great pieces of art often subvert, deconstruct, and satirize. But in this case, the end result does not make it feel worthwhile.

Batman v Superman was a disaster of a film, but what remains tragic to me is how it has essentially ruined these characters for a generation. If I had a child, I would not take them to go see the film and if I’d seen it when was a kid, I can’t imagine admiring or wanting to be either of these characters. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman created this psychic void of heroism and integrity that these characters used to fill. Watching these video essays helped me reckon with that loss.

This set of videos isn’t without its own flaws — some of Chipman’s points are self-admittedly minor nitpicks, the aesthetics of the videos might not be up to everyone’s standards, and there is a significant amount of repetition — but if a YouTube video essays can be said to be a genre, then this is one of the best entries in that genre that I’ve ever seen. Highly recommended for any film fan.