What happened to Armond White

Stephen Kearse has written a great profile on film critic Armond White over at Hazlitt:

What tarnishes White’s appeal is how calcified his expertise has become. No longer even nominally engaged with larger discourses, he writes with an embittered detachment, scoffing at an anonymous conglomerate of lesser writers and thinkers. White was always adversarial, but in his old columns, his rivals were named: Stanley Crouch, Greg Tate, Robert Christgau, Ann Powers—virtually anyone who ever wrote for the Village Voice. His tone was just as sardonic as it is now, but there was an air of community to all these callouts, a sense that he, and all critics, were participating in a grand commitment to art that necessitated disagreement and dialogue. White’s current reviews have no sense of any conversations beyond the ones in his own head. “Hollywood movies have become television at just the point when media shills are spreading the fake news that we’re experiencing a ‘new golden age’ of TV,” he writes emptily in his review of Baywatch, the shills, the movies, and the television shows unnamed. “Kong: Skull Island and Contemporary Color coexist because Millennial culture is at odds with itself,” he writes of those two movies, citing a mysterious conflict within a demographic group that no one can accurately define. Critics are expected to make loaded comparisons and to use their own inclinations as a wellspring for new perspectives, but since his expulsion from the NYFCC, White’s oppositional writing style has struggled. He brings the gusto of his past work, but he writes against criticism that doesn’t actually appear to exist, the silliest resistance. […]

Ultimately, the world doesn’t need Armond White, but it’s a shame that he’s slipped away. He wasn’t initially a contrarian or a hack or a troll; he was a gay black man with the audacity to demand that movies not be condescending and escapist and patronizing to the people that loved them, that needed them. He believed in black art and art in general and fought, sometimes pettily, sometimes harshly, for it to be appreciated seriously. He sneered at goofy shit like consensus and Tomatometers and Stanley Crouch because they had nothing to do with criticism. Criticism was arguments, confrontation, politics, enlightenment, resistance. But that’s who he was, back when he had colleagues, back when he listened, back when the NYFCC was accountable to him, and he to it, back when he was a journalist and not a blowhard. Now he’s just a joke. And even worse, he’s the most unfunny kind: the kind that used to rock you to your core, but now just confounds you, broken synapses firing into the void.

This profile links to an interview I conducted with White after the NYFCC controversy. I was honored to have the opportunity to have White on the Slashfilm podcast multiple times, including our review of Inception (and its After Dark), our review of 12 Years a Slave, and our review of Real Steel.

We always got lots of flak for every one of these appearances. Here’s one example of such criticism, emailed in by one of our listeners after the 12 Years a Slave episode:

Armond White is a troll and I really did not enjoy listening to him on the latest episode of the podcast. Not only is he a troll, but a classic troll. When confronted with any of your arguments against his points, he almost always deflected the question and either changed the subject or nit picked at your question/choice of words.

Another tactic that grew wearisome was his referencing older films that he can assume you have not seen and therefore remain unable to engaged him in a conversation about. And calling Steve McQueen’s film an “art thing?” It’s just juvenile.

Also, by his definition, any film that shows characters to struggle or to face tough odds would be considered “tourture porn.” I wonder if he would consider All is Lost to be “tourture porn?”

When I was younger, folks like Armond used to infuriate me. “Who dares besmirch the perfect RottenTomatoes score of Toy Story 3! Clearly not someone who had any good taste!” my logic went.

But as I grew older, I started appreciating folks like Armond White more and more. In a sea of “yes,” he dared to be a “no.” What drove him? Was it just the desire to be a troll or did he legitimately buy what he was selling?

Ultimately the reason I invited White on the podcast was because I wanted to see if there was any “there” there. And for awhile, I believed in the purity of Armond White’s motives. When he insisted that he could break down a Michael Bay film and a Christopher Nolan film frame by frame and prove that Bay had better visual storytelling acumen than Nolan, I didn’t necessarily believe it but I believed that he believed it.

In a piece after the NYFCC controversy, Owen Glieberman explained his thoughts on Armond White in a way that matched how mine evolved:

Does Armond White simply have his own idiosyncratic opinions? Or is he a contrarian, a bomb thrower who’s deliberately out to rile people up? I would say that both are true, but for most people the contrarian label sums him up, and you often can’t tell where the fearless free-thinker leaves off and the bullying, didactic iconoclast begins. And that’s the problem with Armond’s criticism. He writes like he’s the last honest man in America, but contrarianism, by definition, isn’t completely honest. It’s self-hype, designed to provoke a reaction. I truly do believe that Armond White comes to the vast majority of his opinions honestly. He’s a gay African-American fundamentalist-Christian aesthete, and if that doesn’t make him an individual, I don’t know what would. But it seems to me that Armond, over the years, has become so invested in the idea of how different his gaze is from everyone else’s that he has turned individuality into a species of megalomania. The subtext of too many of Armond’s reviews is: Only I see the truth! And it’s that need to be the only truth-teller in the room that, too often, seems to be driving him. A lot of great critics have anger — it was there in Kael, and in Lester Bangs — but Armond’s blistering attacks reflect not just anger but rage. That’s a dangerous place to write from.

In other words, from the outside, White seemed as though he believed in his own hype. And that’s a shame because it clouded a lot of his legitimately interesting and provocative opinions.

All that said, when I look back on my conversations with White, I feel nothing but gratitude. Here was a man whose opinions were admired by some, hated by thousands of internet fanboys, but who nonetheless kept fighting for a truth he believed in. And even though White seems to despise internet fan blogs like Slashfilm.com, he generously spent time sharing his opinions with me and with our audience.

I’ll never know why he agreed to appear on the show. When I asked him about why he was willing to return to the podcast, he just seemed to cherish the spirit of our show’s open conversation. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance to chat with White again but for now, that’s how I’ll choose to remember him.

The New York Times’ disastrous piece on bubble tea

Earlier today, The New York Times published an article about bubble tea with the following headline:

Why was this article so widely critiqued by Asian folks? Because it describes bubble tea as some kind of exotic, bizarre delicacy that’s only now about to break into the mainstream. In fact, I personally have been drinking bubble tea from urban shops for over a decade.

And beyond the timing of bubble tea’s emergence, any Asian kid who’s ever brought in their lunch to school cafeteria intimately understands what it’s like to have their food described this way. It’s the language of those who fear and don’t understand what’s different. It’s language that tries to separate and divide. Ultimately, it’s language that’s beneath the stature of The New York Times.

As Splinter News points out, the article has been revised multiple times since its publication. The editors removed phrasing that described bubble tea as an “exotic concoction” and something that “washed ashore in the United States a few years back.”

The Times even published a separate mea culpa piece, in which they acknowledge their mistakes:

The reader complaints have merit. In retrospect, we wish we had approached the topic differently (if at all). There may be a story in the expansion of bubble tea businesses in the United States, but there is no denying the drink has been around for quite a while. And we regret the impression left by some of the original language in the article, which we have revised in light of the concerns.

We thank our readers for sharing their views.

I don’t know how many of our problems a diverse newsroom can solve, but I’m pretty sure any Asian editor could’ve singlehandedly prevented this entire backlash.

Why so many publications are “pivoting to video”

This morning, we learned that Mic is laying off 25 staffers and pivoting to video. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the same thing happened recently to MTV News, Vocativ, and many, many other publications.

So why are so many publications pivoting to video? Where is the demand for this video coming from? And why do the results of these pivots often fail to inspire confidence?

For some guidance, I’d recommend checking out this Twitter thread by Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall. I’ve embedded the first tweet and recommend that you follow Josh on Twitter. For the sake of readability, I’ve included the full text of his comments below.

With the news that yet another publication is “laying off staff to pivot to video”, I wanted to return to what is driving these moves. You may know me as a writer or pontificator. But what I know best is running digital media sites. No site is “pivoting to video” because of audience demand. Not even close. They are pivoting to video because the industry is in the midst of a monetization crisis.

Expectations for digital ad revenue were unrealistic. There was already an excess number of publications relative to ads. And then coming into that already difficult situation, the platform monopolies started scooping all the money. Most of the money invested in these sites did not anticipate this set of circumstances. That was a mistake because most but not all were visible years ago. In this difficult environment, there appears to be one pot of money available: ads on video. And there’s one potential source of audience: viral videos driven by social media platforms like Facebook. Facebook also wants access to the video ad pot of money.

So the investments were made on the flawed predictions. The money that was supposed to be there is not there. And the video money bucket is the only available option.

Now, my personal take is that the video money bucket is largely a mirage. Everything up to this point is a dead certainty. My prediction about the video money bucket is a prediction. Not certain. But my best guess. The point is that from a financial point of view the “pivot to video” makes sense in this context. It’s usually not presented very honestly because it’s presented as the amazingness of video which everyone is going to love. Really it is at best indifferent to consumers of news. But it’s still worth understanding what’s driving it. The real key is that the financial models are driving in a direction that has zero to do with readers. That won’t end well. Again, no publisher is “pivoting to video” because of anything to do with reader/audience demand. Not in the news and political news space. Not even close.

This is needless to say a disaster for a lot of journalists. And I expect more of it. I am happy and grateful to be able to say that nothing like this is in the offing at TPM. That is because we saw of this coming a few years ago and shifted our business model accordingly. We are putting our resources not into video nonsense but rather new content that will increase the value of our membership program.

The key issue, though, as I see it is that the business model too many of the pubs are premised on is flawed and it is in addition to being flawed it is (if not collapsing) then rapidly deteriorating and very importantly out of sync with audience interest and demand. Again, that won’t end well.

Let me end by thanking our audience. We have a dedicated audience which allows us to with any triumphal spirit. I say it simply to explain to people outside industry, the business side of the industry, why it’s happening.

Platforms like Facebook control the vast majority of ad money, and editorial content is following the money, even if the money is not necessarily aligned with the public interest or even reader’s interests.

What’s fascinating is how every single publication has gone through this has presented this as some kind of audience-centric decision in service of innovative storytelling. In reality, publications like Mic are subject to the whims of Facebook’s algorithm.

A different way to approach a controversial podcast episode

Nicholas Quah’s latest entry in his “Hot Pod” newsletter addresses Radiolab’s recent decision to pull a controversial episode:

[The episode’s lack of context] was an unambiguously explosive mistake for Radiolab to make, but I’m further perturbed by the team’s decision to take down the segment completely as a response to the pushback. In an environment where taking back something is every bit as political — and politically charged — as putting something out in the first place, this may well be a case where Radiolab’s effort to limit its contribution to a damaging situation is one that fuels it even further.

There may be some value to following in the footsteps of This American Life, when that team faced a retraction in 2012 with “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” which turned out to be the work of fabrication. You can still easily find the original radio story online, most prominently in the Internet Archive, and This American Life keeps the original episode’s transcript hosted on its website. There, the move was to re-report and re-contextualize, and to produce an entirely new episode around the correction. That move remains, to my mind, the gold standard to fixing an error in judgment in any form for two reasons: it does not shirk from ownership over the mistake, and it repurposes the breakdown into an even more valuable opportunity to more aggressively contain the damage while delivering a sense of justice where it can. That said, there are some potentially meaningful differences: most notably, where This American Life’s retraction was spurred by errors of fact, Radiolab’s segment removal was spurred by errors of framing. That’s a big difference that might not change very much about the proposed solution, but it’s a difference to consider nonetheless.

A great, nuanced take on this topic. The only thing I’d add is that perhaps one reason Radiolab didn’t take the This American Life approach is that errors in tone are much more challenging to explain than errors in fact. Certainly I’d imagine they are more difficult to fashion an entirely new episode out of.

[Full disclosure: I am name-checked in the article as a “prolific podcaster.” I’ll take it as a compliment!]

‘Charlottesville: Race and Terror’ by Vice News

Incredible reporting by Vice News that captures the intensity and horror of this past weekend’s events.

I think many folks I know were hoping Charlottesville would trigger some kind of turning point in the national psyche — an incident that would finally wake people up to the level of resistance necessary to stand up to the hate.

I don’t know if that’s coming. In fact, I suspect that we haven’t seen the end of these divisive figures, who are now more emboldened than ever. As one of the Neo-Nazi interview subjects in the documentary explains:

We’re starting to unveil a little bit of our power level. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Stephen Colbert interviews Anthony Scaramucci

I don’t know what Anthony Scaramucci was anticipating when he first booked this Late Show interview with Stephen Colbert, but I can’t imagine it was this. For nearly 15 minutes, Colbert relentlessly presses Scaramucci on questions he’s clearly uncomfortable to be answering, such as whether or not Steve Bannon is a white supremacist and what’s it really like working in this “dumpster fire” of an administration.

Colbert provides almost no quarter, even refusing an attempt by Scaramucci to turn Colbert into a “character witness.” It’s a stunning interview that puts to use intimidation tactics the likes of which The Mooch himself would probably have employed in a different situation.

Vulture names “A Cast of Kings” as one of the top 5 Game of Thrones podcasts

I’m honored that Vulture recently chose “A Cast of Kings” as one of the top 5 Game of Thrones podcasts:

Dave Chen is a prolific publisher of podcasts about film and TV going back years, perhaps most prominently as the co-host of the Slashfilmcast. Here, he partners with frequent collaborator Joanna Robinson, with whom he’s also done recap pods for Westworld and Twin Peaks. Chen is an interesting recapper, more technically driven in his approach than others, which pairs nicely with Joanna Robinson, who is one of the more prominent, engaging, and prolific Thrones recappers on the internet.

You can listen to our recaps of this season here.

Radiolab removes its ‘Truth Trolls’ episode from podcast feed

WNYC’s Radiolab is one of my favorite podcasts of all time. For years, the show has informed me, delighted me, and astonished me. I have even gone to see their live show in Seattle twice. But this week, they failed their listeners in a spectacular way.

Over the past few weeks, the show has been doing an extended meditation on truth, starting with a rather frightening episode about that new video technology that lets you make anyone say whatever you want them to. This exploration culminated this week with the release of a now-removed episode called “Truth Trolls.”

“Truth Trolls” documents the trials and tribulations of Shia LaBeouf’s “He Will Not Divide Us” art project. From that project’s official website:

Commencing at 9am on January 20, 2017, the day of the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, the public is invited to deliver the words “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US” into a camera mounted on a wall outside the Museum of the Moving Image, New York, repeating the phrase as many times, and for as long as they wish.

Open to all, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the participatory performance will be live-streamed continuously for four years, or the duration of the presidency. In this way, the mantra “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US” acts as a show of resistance or insistence, opposition or optimism, guided by the spirit of each individual participant and the community.

Of course, in today’s political environment, no good deed goes unpunished. Through multiple locations and permutations, trolls from online forums were able to locate the art installation and basically lay waste to it. “Truth Trolls” tracks one particularly inventive attempt to do so, in which online commenters used forensic evidence to track down the location of a “He Will Not Divide Us” flag being live-streamed.

On Saturday, Radiolab’s creator/producer Jad Abumrad announced that they would be pulling the episode. Abumrad made a post on Radiolab’s blog explaining the takedown:

Radiolab has decided to take down our episode called “Truth Trolls.” Some listeners called us out saying that in telling the capture the flag story in the way that we did, we essentially condoned some pretty despicable ideology and behavior. To all the listeners who felt that way, and to everyone else, please know that we hear you and that we take these criticisms to heart. I feel awful that the things we said could be interpreted that way. That’s on us. It was certainly not our intention, and we apologize.

I’ve listened to the episode and I agree with Abumrad’s decision. In fact, the episode never should have run in the first place.

“Truth Trolls” was almost a self-parody in how it attempted to apply Radiolab’s form of awestruck investigative journalism to a loaded political situation. The hosts portrayed the online trolls in an almost heroic fashion, and described their pursuit of truth (in this case, the truth of where the flag was located) as “comforting.”

Hearing the show’s hosts chuckle and banter light-heartedly when you’re talking about how sound waves work is one thing — it’s quite another when they’re talking about one of the most toxic forms of politics that’s out there right now.

Obviously, many other folks felt this way:

One of the commenters on Radiolab’s website purports to be Luke Turner, a creator behind the “He will not divide us” project:

This is truly abhorrent and irresponsible reporting from Radiolab, describing white supremacist vandalism and harassment here as “a really encouraging story” and “comforting.”

As the artists behind this project, we have been targeted incessantly, received death threats, been subjected to extreme racist, antisemitic, homophobic and misogynist abuse and harassment from these far-right groups.

Because of a political movement that received great support from the likes of those featured in “Truth Trolls,” lives have been ruined. And we’re at the end of a weekend where people have died trying to stand up against the nationalism and hatred that’s slowly sweeping the country.

I don’t think one bad episode can erase a decade’s worth of goodwill that Radiolab has built up. But it definitely made me question what exactly they were thinking when they ran this episode in a way that evinced almost no understanding of the broader implications of the subject matter.

Why did ‘Pickle Rick’ feature Susan Sarandon playing an Asian character?

I’m a huge fan of Rick and Morty and am watching it weekly as it enters its third season. Last week’s episode, “Pickle Rick,” was a great example of why the show is brilliant, deftly blending some outlandish sci-fi plotting and surprisingly incisive psychological observations. Film Crit Hulk has done a good job of breaking this down over at Birth Movies Death:

I watched “Pickle Rick” and then I had to go sit outside for awhile.

I just had to detach. And I took my time, too. I breathed in the cool night air. I looked at the handful of stars you can actually see through the glow of the Los Angeles sky. When your brain buzzes around a lot, sometimes you have to slow yourself down. And yes, my mind was racing, contemplating the sheer totality of what I had just seen. But more than that, it made me think deeply about my own limitations. For when you work in creative fields, you spend your whole life pursuing the notion of “a great idea.” No, that’s not just coming up with the raw nugget of cool ideas that are original or zeitgeisty, but more following through with developing them. Being sure that they capitalize on the tenets of drama, plotting, characterization, and ultimately tap into deep resonant meaning, all in the pursuit of making something truly great. And upon watching this latest episode of Rick & Morty, I was struck (as I often am with the show) with the pangs of helpless comparison. No, it is not a mere matter of jealousy, for that feeling only tends to come up when you fear that you offer no value and thus regularly exercise schadenfreude (cue the mass of writers who complain about other people’s deals, etc). Instead, the act of watching an episode like “Pickle Rick” is simply humbling.

As amazing as Pickle Rick was, it did leave me with one question: Why did Susan Sarandon play the Asian therapist, Dr. Wong, in the episode?

White actors playing minorities in animated TV shows is nothing new (See: The Simpsons, Bojack Horseman). But this instance stood out for me, both because I find Sarandon’s political viewpoints to be asinine, and because I don’t recall ever seeing an Asian character in Rick and Morty before. Why bother writing Dr. Wong as Asian if you’re just going to have her played by a white person? I was particularly curious about this since the episode is written by Jessica Gao, an Asian woman.

Turns out, there’s a decent explanation. In a YouTube Q&A after the show, Gao explains:

So when I wrote it, I specifically named her Dr. Wong because there haven’t been any Asian characters, and any time I can, I want to give an Asian actor who isn’t Kumail [Nanjiani] a job. So I wrote her as Dr. Wong, she’s drawn as Dr. Wong. We actually started auditioning the gamut of Asian actresses, and in the middle of auditioning these Asian actresses, we get word that Susan Sarandon wants to be on the show. She says she loves the show. The suspicion is, maybe her kid loves the show?

So we’re not going to say no to Susan Sarandon asking to be on the show. This was the very next meaty female role that was going to be on the show. Her voice is great. She’s wonderful, she’s great. But she’s not the Dr. Wong I pictured […] There were so many Asian women that could’ve done it.

All in all, an unfortunate situation. But I’m still glad folks like Gao are still trying to get those numbers up on behalf of all of us.

[Thanks to Twitter user Viereugen for bringing this video to my attention.]

The beauty of adoption

Rene Denfield has written a piece for The New York Times’ Modern Love column that really destroyed me, emotionally:

To be a parent is to step into a great unknown, a magical universe where we choose to love over and over. It is an act of courage no matter what.

“Didn’t you want your own?” people would ask.

“They are my own,” I would say, softly.

By adopting from foster care, I became the mother I had needed and rewrote my own story. I got to have a childhood all over again, the right one, filled with cuddles and perseverance, safety and love. If there is such a thing as a cycle of abuse, I broke it over the wheel of my own desire.

I got sick again

A few weeks ago, I got sick. Updates for the blog stopped, as I tried to balance my other life responsibilities with getting better. I thought I’d kicked it, but this past week it returned with a vengeance. Aches and pains. Chills. Endless, endless coughing that disrupted my sleep every night of the week.

I went to see a doctor (finally) and turns out I likely contracted a sinus infection that simply never went away. I’m on drugs now to help beat this thing but between this ongoing illness and this smoke in Seattle that hasn’t gone away in weeks, it’s been one of my most miserable summers in quite some time.

In any case, I’m hopeful the blog updates shall resume with full force soon.

Ten years later, how well has ‘I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry’ aged?

Kyle Turner has written a reflection of the Adam Sandler and Kevin James film, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, assessing how well it has aged 10 years after its initial release:

Yes, it’s a big deal when a piece of culture that’s queer-focused does its job and perhaps—and with Chuck & Larry, that’s a big “perhaps”—makes people less hateful. But this film was released well after the advent of widespread internet access, making it all the more inexcusable. It’s not that Chuck & Larry has aged so poorly because of its crude humor, or because our society is less tolerant of work that’s offensive to marginalized communities, but precisely because the meek efforts Chuck & Larry make in the name of “tolerance” now seem so transparent and one-dimensional. The idea that Adam Sandler even continues to have a career is insulting (and he, in turn, continues to insult). One shudders to think of the world that would have resulted had Sandler’s vision of LGBTQ “progress” come to fruition; one in which queer people are merely tolerated, and one in which our sexuality is sidelined in that way—just as it was by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or years of dehumanizing arguments made against the right of same-sex couples to marry. If anything, this film serves to remind us that it’s been ten long years of gains won and our right to exist in public brutally fought for. No thanks to Chuck, Larry, Sandler, James or the Hollywood industrial complex that continues to prop them up.

So far, there are two works released in 2017 that I think will age particularly poorly: Dave Chappelle’s newest comedy special, which has some transphobic jokes in it, and Split, which furthers negative stigma against Dissociative Identity Disorder. My guess is in a decade, folks will look back on those aspects of those works and wonder how we ever thought that way.

The worst movie I’ve ever seen in a theater

AV Club has a fun feature on the worst movies that people have seen in theaters. Here’s Sam Barsanti’s choice:

I’ve seen all of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies in the theaters, and in college I saw Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull on opening night, but I feel very confident in saying that Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is the worst movie I’ve ever seen in a theater. Even if you ignore stupid stuff like Gotham and Metropolis being practically right next to each other, the hoops the film has to jump through to get Superman and Batman to fight, and the whole “Martha” scene that ends the fighting in a heartbeat, the movie is still garbage for one specific reason: It turns Batman into a killer. I understand that he’s supposed to be a darker and more desperate version of the character, but no matter how you justify it, a Batman that puts machine guns on his jet and blows up criminals with his car isn’t Batman. He’s just the Punisher with better equipment and a different aesthetic.

Since this piece was published, I’ve reflected a bit on what my worst theatrical experience has been. I think I’d have to say it’s Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

I was still living in Boston when this film came out but had the chance to see it on an IMAX screen. I can still remember how excited I was — Bay had proven he could take this toy line and make it into an action-filled, visual effects extravaganza with the first film. Surely with a much bigger budget, a longer runtime, and probably more freedom to do what he wanted, Bay would deliver something that would blow us all away.

What we got instead was an incoherent mess of a plot, and a film loaded with some truly reprehensible material. Racist stereotypes. Robot testicles. Robot heaven. None of it made any sense. The only thing sadder than the hours of my life I wasted watching this film was the fact that Bay would go on to spend the better part of a decade devoted to creating more of these awful movies.

Part of me died that day in the theater: the part that would ever look forward to a Bay film ever again. (Pain and Gain was good though).

Inside SoundCloud’s implosion

Ryan Mac at Buzzfeed has a detailed story on how SoundCloud found itself in its current situation:

Today, SoundCloud appears stuck in no man’s land, according to former executives and employees. Though the company found validation with the major labels and launched a me-too subscription music service, former employees and music industry executives argue it bungled a great opportunity by losing sight of what made it unique: serving as a listening platform for non-label controlled content. Jake Udell, the CEO and founder of TH3RD BRAIN, a management company that represents artists like Gallant and Grace VanderWaal, said that SoundCloud used to be the first place he’d go to post music of his up-and-coming acts.

“Back then I would have to fight the labels to have songs on SoundCloud,” he said. “Now it’s not even part of the conversation.”

My takeaways from this story:

  • If you are a small scrappy startup going up against entrenched players (as SoundCloud was, going up against not only the music labels but also Apple Music and Spotify), your expectations and timeline for success need to be correctly calibrated and your execution needs to be flawless.
  • At a startup as small as SoundCloud, one person in power has the capability to do a tremendous amount of damage to the company and its workforce.
  • An absentee CEO can absolutely destroy morale.

What’s the point of life if the universe will one day end?

In David Lowery’s recent film, A Ghost Story, one of the characters goes on an extended soliloquy about the nature of humanity and how one could easily interpret the whole of human existence as a pointless of exercise. One day, everything as we know it will be gone — even, most likely, the universe. So what’s the point of it all? A24 released a short excerpt of the speech on YouTube above. (You can also watch my Periscope review of the film).

This week, the YouTube channel Kurzgesagt released a new video that tackles this very issue.

From the video:

If the universe ends in heat death, every humiliation you suffer in life will be forgotten. Every mistake will not matter in the end. Every bad thing will be voided. If our life is all we get to experience, then it’s the only thing that matters. If the universe has no principles, the only principles relevant are the ones we decide on. If the universe has no purpose, then we get to dictate what its purpose is.

Humans will most certainly cease to exist at some point. But before we do, we get to explore ourselves and the world around us. We get to experience feelings. We get to experience food, books, sunrises, and being with each other. The fact that we’re able to think about these things is already kind of incredible.

Obviously, there’s no one answer for this eternal question, but I appreciate them taking a shot at it.

In short: in the grand scheme of the universe, our time on earth is but a blink of an eye. We might as well enjoy it and try to help others enjoy it while we can.

For more ruminations on making the most of life, see Wait But Why’s post on Life in Weeks.

Dismantling the social safety net

Chilling piece by Jamelle Bouie for Slate on what’s going on in our government right now:

It would be one thing if voters were clamoring for a return to pre–Great Society, or even pre–New Deal, America. But that’s just not the case. In the abstract, at least, Americans want more assistance—more help from the federal government. Even for lawmakers on the right, that popular desire should influence their approach to public policy, as it suggests ordinary people want government to deliver (or facilitate) improvements to their daily lives.

But it doesn’t. And this disregard for public opinion—along with its corresponding indifference to independent analysis—augurs something ominous for the country. The Republican governing coalition in Washington—elected by a minority of Americans—is showing its willingness to transform American society with little deliberation or consensus. It has become so polarized that it will use whatever power it has to push a maximalist agenda through Congress, its representatives tearing through any norms or procedures that stand in their way to slash public assistance to the bone, and then some. The goal, should they reach it, will be a populace left to fend for itself.

A detailed stunt breakdown of ‘Atomic Blonde’

Wired has a super cool feature with Atomic Blonde stunt coordinator Sam Hargrave, who breaks down one of the film’s fight scenes in extreme detail.

I saw Atomic Blonde last night and was really impressed by the action (here are some brief, Periscoped thoughts). There’s one fight scene in the film that people will be talking about for decades (not the one covered above). Definitely worth the price of admission.

The Verge’s review of the Fuji X-T20

Vlad Savov has written a review of the Fuji X-T20 for The Verge that captures what I love about Fuji’s camera system.

It’s tough for me to decouple the pleasure of shooting with the X-T20 from its eventual results. The process of capturing images with this camera is more satisfying than any other I’ve known (except maybe Fujifilm’s own X-Pro2, which I’ve only flirted with). Smartphones feel impersonal and, if I’m honest, kind of half-assed, like I don’t really care about the photo I’m taking. Full-fat DSLRs, on the other hand, would suggest that I care too much […]

Fujifilm’s mirrorless cameras are simply better. Our reviews of these cameras tend to devolve into emotional expositions about passion for the art of photography, but ultimately Fujifilm just wins on all the practical fronts that matter. The X-T20 has the best viewfinder, best ergonomics, and best image quality in its price class. The Fujinon XF lens ecosystem is unrivaled. If there’s any problem for this camera, it’s in convincing people that it’s worth trying — because I’m confident that once they do, they’ll fall in love with it just as I did.

I have been banging the Fuji drum for years now. The Fuji X-T2 (the X-T20’s bigger and older brother) has totally reinvigorated my love of photography. I try to bring it with me almost everywhere.

As for the X-T20, I’m not as big a fan of the smaller form factor cameras (I also own an X-T10 but I need the extra grip in order to enjoy holding it and shooting with it). But the image-quality-to-price ratio cannot be beat on this camera.

Golden Gardens.

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Valerian’s financial failure is bad for the film industry

Deadline has a report on the dire outlook for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets:

EuropaCorp’s stock has dipped 9.4% in trading on the Paris stock exchange over the past two days which comes only a month after EuropaCorp took a $136M write-off. Remember: Fundamental — apart from their 28% and roughly $67M equity stake in EuropaCorp — is also on the hook for about $50M in equity in the picture.

Added another executive: “Everyone is going to lose money on this. It’s sad actually. This kind of failure actually hurts the business, not just the companies with a financial stake involved.”

This is a huge bummer. Luc Besson has stated that if Valerian does as well as Lucy’s $460MM international gross, then his investors would be fine, financially. But it now looks like $200MM internationally is a best case scenario. There’s a lot of blame to go around but my guess is one of the biggest miscalculations was pitting this against another event film like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Had Valerian opened in August, it might’ve had a little more breathing room to be a sleeper hit.

In our discussion of Valerian on this week’s /Filmcast, we praised its dazzling effects and its dense, bravura visual storytelling, even as we weren’t huge fans of the casting of its leads and the dialogue. Nonetheless, I wish filmmakers like Besson and the Wachowskis (Cloud Atlas) would be richly rewarded whenever they take chances on independently financed, bold sci-fi.

Unfortunately, based on current trajectories, Valerian will be forever destined to be that gem that people find in a VOD catalog one day, wondering what it might’ve looked like in 3D on a big screen.