Careers and Direction

What is aimlessness? A lack of direction? A lack of dreams? A response to poor decisions?

This is something I have struggled with recently. Throughout college, both undergraduate and graduate school, I sort of drifted. I chose degrees on a half-baked idea and now I am stuck with student debt and a skill set that qualifies me for jobs I cannot make myself excited about. I went to a  job interview where the position consisted of sitting in a fourth floor windowless cubicle moving data from one excel spreadsheet to another for 8 hours day. The company struggled to fill the position.

I am not writing this to complain. I find I understand myself better and the situations I find myself in if I write about my problems. Plus I doubt I am the only one with career regrets and problems.

When you went through college, what kinds of career advice or counseling did you receive? My program relied heavily on the unpaid internship model. I could not afford to work for free over the summers, which meant most employers in my degree field did not want me. No internship experience, no interview. The sole career advice I received in college was major in a STEM subject and you will get a job. No one made me sit down and actually think through my life and goals.

I know I could have worked harder or sought out more career advice, but I did not know where to look. Everyone has advice on what you should do, which generally is to just replicate their life choices. I think the current model of high school to college to cubicle is a broken system. Unless you are able to work for free or have a fully formed idea of what you want to do, college will not help you figure out what you want out of life. The whole system either pushes you towards graduate school or into whatever subject you get the highest grades in.

What career advice, or lack of advice, have you received? What did you wish you had done differently?

On Remakes and Redoes

Every year Hollywood comes out with a remake of either a classic film or a story that under performed the first time but built a cult following. Usually the filmmakers put a new spin on the story to justify the remake. Animated films become “live action” or an all-male ensemble film is reworked as a female led endeavor. The past couple of years have seen several high profile remakes debut and flame out at the box office. Examples include:

  • Ghostbusters (2016)
  • The Hustle (2019)
  • POSEIDON (2006)
  • Dumbo (2019)
  • Stepford Wives (2004)

Examples of successful remakes:

  • Ocean’s 8 (2018)
  • Cinderella (2015)
  • Beauty & the Beast (2017)
  • The Parent Trap (1998)
  • Freaky Friday (2003)

Why do some remakes work and others crash and burn?

Partly nostalgia and partly the quality of the story. A shot-for-shot remake will always come across as a lesser film due to a lack of originality. No one would want to see a shot-for-shot remake of Avengers: Endgame because it would feel like a parody of the original. Put a different spin on the story or introduce new characters and the remake may work.

Let’s examine Cinderella. The story of a poor peasant girl who meets a dashing prince. Popular films built on this narrative includes:

  • Cinderella (1950)
  • The Slipper and the Rose (1976)
  • Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1997)
  • Ever After (1998)
  • Into the Woods (2014)
  • Ella Enchanted (2004)
  • Cinderella (2015)
  • Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

All these films follow a basic plot: young woman is born into a middle class family. Her father remarries (or dies) and the step-mother (or future mother-in-law) treats her poorly. She meets a dashing, rich man. A misunderstanding occurs, they briefly break-up, and, after a short interlude, they beat the odds and rise above their petty disagreements. Each of these films builds upon the Cinderella fairy tale but put a different spin on the story. While all the films are “Cinderella” they approach the story in a manner that feels original. Hence, the remakes feel new. Disney’s 2015 Cinderella differs just enough from the 1950 film that it does not feel like a remake made only for monetary purposes.

Remakes fail when the filmmakers do not add in enough “new” narrative to justify the story. Switching out the gender of the leads, while maybe increasing representation, does not automatically make the remake a better film. The Hustle, the Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, fizzled at the box office because the script did not work. Even with two talented leads, if the script adds nothing new to the story line, then it will flop. Remake for the sake of remake leads to the world of poorly produced television films that play in a forever loop at 2 am.

Remakes that did work, like the Lindsay Lohan remake of the 1961 Hayley Mills vehicle The Parent Trap, either update the story for modern times or add a new twist. Technically one could argue that Toy Story 2, 3, & 4 function as remakes of Toy Story. Yet each film works because they do not recycle the original story, they just add onto the original premise of toys coming alive when humans leave the room. A simple premise that opens up a world of storytelling possibilities.

Finally, some film ideas that work as animated stories do not function well in “live action”. Dumbo the animated film, is a rather dark story that works because the elephants do not seem real. Just enough difference exists between the onscreen elephants and real elephants that audiences can enjoy the story without feeling bad. The recent remake failed because the hyper-realism takes you out of the movie and makes it hard to suppress reality. Plus the story worked great in the 1940’s, but not so much in 2019. The culture and the state of entertainment has changed drastically since the 1940’s and the narrative did not address this enough to make the story feel new. I think a Dumbo remake would have worked if the filmmakers had kept it animated.

Like all films, remakes of popular movies does not guarantee success. Audiences are fickle, especially when dealing with nostalgic films from childhood. I am of the opinion that if the director and screenwriter cannot find a unique spin on an existing story, than a remake should never happen.

What do you all think? What remakes have you enjoyed or hated and why?

 

 

Pride & Prejudice: Book vs Movie

  • Director: Joe Wright
  • Rating: PG
  • Starring: Keira Knightly, Matthew Macfadyen, Donald Sutherland,
  • Screenplay: Deborah Moggach & Emma Thompson
  • Based on the Novel by: Jane Austen
  • Music By: Dario Marianelli
  • Cinematography: Roman Osin
  • Running Time: 129 Minutes
  • Premiered: November 23, 2005
  • DVD Release Date: February 28, 2006
  • Pride and Prejudice, The Modern Library Classics, 2000, 9780679783268

Synopsis: Sparks fly when spirited Elizabeth Bennet meets single, rich, and proud Mr. Darcy. But Mr. Darcy reluctantly finds himself falling in love with a woman beneath his class. Can each overcome their own pride and prejudice? (Synopsis from IMDb)

Review: Jane Austen’s books are firmly established as the epitome of romantic narratives. Originally published in 1813, Pride and Prejudice is a novel of manners and deals with the issues of upbringing, morality, education, and marriage amongst the landed gentry of Regency Britain. While the narrative is set during the end of the 19th Century, the novel manages to hold generations of reader in a thrall. The book is one of the most popular English language novels, it has sold over 20 million copies. Even today the novel consistently ranks in list of “most loved books” and “best books”. Due to this continual popularity, Pride and Prejudice has been adapted for cinema numerous times, both as straight adaptions and modern updated versions.

Pride and Prejudice is the story of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s five unmarried daughters: Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia.  The story begins right after the eligible and wealthy bachelor Mr. Bingley rents the large estate in the area. Bingley brings his two sisters and his status-obsessed friend, Mr. Darcy, along with him. Austen uses these characters to explore five different types of relationships: Mr. Bingley and the idealistic Jane, the prideful Mr. Darcy and the prejudiced Elizabeth, the flighty Lydia and the conniving Wickham, the obsequious Mr. Collins and Charlotte, and the hysterical Mrs. Bennet and the caustic Mr. Bennet. All these relationships illustrate what a marriage should and should not look like.

Austen’s major theme is the importance of environment and upbringing on people’s character and morality. In this world, social standing and wealth are not necessarily advantageous. The theme is realized through Austen’s examination of the ineffectiveness of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s parenting. Lydia’s lack of morality is firmly laid at the feet of her parents. Kitty’s character only improves after Lydia leaves and she is forced to spend time in her other sisters’ superior company. Also, Darcy was raised to always act in a principled and honorable manner, but he comes across as proud and overbearing.  Charlotte Lucas’ behavior is motivated by economical and societal pressures. Her parents will not be around forever and an unmarried woman is a burden on the family’s resources.

I grew up watching the 1995 A&E mini-series adaption starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. The mini-series is a direct adaption of the novel, nearly all the dialogue come straight from the book. In 2005, director Joe Wright decided to bring Pride and Prejudice to the big screen. The last straight movie adaption was the 1940 version starring Greer Garson and Sir Laurence Olivier.  The 2005 version was adapted by Deborah Moggach and Emma Thompson did some un-credited edits on the dialogue. This resulted in the most abridged cinematic version ever produced.

Wright made several drastic changes that I vehemently dislike. This version is set in the late 18th century, when the novel takes place in the 19th century. While the clothing is more impressive in the 18th century, there was no need to change the time period. What aggravates me the most is the stark societal differences between the Bennet family and Darcy. In the book, the Bennet family is landed gentry with an entailed estate. They were not destitute. But in the movie the clothing, furnishing, and mannerisms of the Bennett clan border upon the peasant class. There was one scene where a pig runs through the kitchen, this would never occur in an aristocratic family’s household.  Also, Lady Catherine de Bourgh drops by in the dead of night and is greeted by the Bennet family in their sleepwear. Neither of these events would have occurred in 18th or 19th century Britain. The societal differences are so stark it is miraculous that Darcy married Elizabeth. Austen probably would have cringed at the first proposal scene where Darcy was a doe-eyed stuttering school boy.

Darcy was not the only character whose personality was re-written for the film. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s relationship is quite affectionate, in the book they were quite antagonistic. Mr. Bingley is comes across as a bumbling fool without a single original thought. Mr. Darcy would never befriend such an empty-headed individual. Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s role in the movie was expanded to the detriment of the narrative. Perhaps the gravest mistake was the portrayal of Elizabeth. This version of Elizabeth is pouty, rude, defiant, and flighty. There is a scene where Elizabeth and Darcy are out strolling in their nightclothes, which would never have happened during this time period. Furthermore, Elizabeth become slightly estranged from Jane and continually keeps secrets from her sisters. She also openly mocks her family, something the original Elizabeth would have never done. Overall, Elizabeth comes across as bold/impatient and resembles the book version of Lydia. This radical change completely ruins the point of the narrative.

The movie also puts all the characters in unbelievable situations. Mr. Bingley would never have visited Jane in her room while she was recovering, especially if a proper chaperone was not present. If Jane had been dressed and Elizabeth was in the room, then it might have verged on okay. But it is not even remotely acceptable that Bingley would visit Jane while she was in bed and in nightclothes. Also, Elizabeth would have never worn her hair down during while visiting Netherfield Park. In the book Elizabeth is aware of social rules and strives to uphold them at all times. Wearing her hair down out in public qualifies as “conceited independence”.

Lastly, Matthew Mcfayden spoke quickly and in a monotone the entire time. The absolute worst scene is where he declares his love to Elizabeth with a fake stutter. There is no emotion in his voice and the effect is about a romantic as mowing the lawn.  Wright justifies his changes because he wanted to focus on the “romance” between Darcy and Elizabeth. But this version only made the romance entirely unbelievable and radically downplayed the one event that caused Elizabeth to fall-in-love with Darcy. Wickham was barely mentioned and this really hurt the narrative. Watch the 1995 mini-series or read the book, avoid this version.

Intelligence versus Knowledge

A few months ago, I took part in a job interview. During said interview, the committee asked me a rather absurd question, i.e. “How would I feel interacting with people who are smarter than me?” The basic premise being the job required interacting with college faculty, who all had earned a PhD. As I only had a master’s degree, I therefore possessed less intelligence than the professors.

I did not receive a job offer, somewhat because I do not think a PhD makes someone smarter or more intelligent than anyone else. All a PhD signifies perseverance and an abundance of knowledge in one specific subject area. Knowledge and intelligence are not synonymous with one another.

According to Merriam-Webster, knowledge is “facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.” The ability to “know” a subject does not bestow intelligence. Yes, it requires a baseline level of brain power to comprehend knowledge, but knowing facts and figures does not make one intelligent.

Intelligence remains a difficult concept to measure. Despite the numerous IQ tests and measures that proliferate the market, measuring intelligence remains elusive. At the most basic definition, intelligence is “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.” Human intelligence differs from animal intelligence. Mankind can think, reason, make logical deductions, and learn from past failures. Animals rely on instinct. Furthermore, animals lack the capacity to acquire knowledge.

How precisely does intelligence and knowledge fit together? You need some level of intelligence to learn about the world. But acquiring knowledge does not make you intelligent. If you cannot comprehend the information or apply what you have learned, then you did not truly acquire any knowledge.

One misconception I have noticed is that people assume that because someone possesses a PhD, this somehow bestows upon them a higher level of intelligence. This opinion is flawed. Just because someone is specialized and talented in one specific subject matter does not mean they will thrive in another area. Doctors of Philosophy in Mathematics rarely teach comparative literature. Someone can accumulate an impressive list of academic achievements and credentials and still not know how to turn up to work on time or how to function in a non-academic society. Comparing intelligence with knowledge is like comparing apples and oranges, they mean different things.

Overall, do I think someone with a PhD is smarter than me? No. Do I concede that they possess a deeper knowledge base than me? Yes.

What do you all think? How would you respond to the question, “How do you feel about working with people who are smarter than you?”

Educated by Tara Westover

No one ever knows what goes on behind the closed doors of our neighbors’ houses. Beyond exchanging everyday pleasantries when doing yard work at the same time or occasional meetings on the sidewalk, do you even know your neighbors?
We all struggle with something. Finances, relationships, abuse, death, illiteracy, and so on, every family comes with baggage. However, some families tend to create more chaos and lasting damage than others.
 
Like Hillbilly Elegy in 2016, Educated peels back the curtain on another way of life and the devastating decisions of one family.
 
Tara Westover, a Cambridge educated historian, began life as the youngest of seven children in rural Clifton, Idaho. Her parents, Gene and Faye, belonged to the Church of Latter-Day Saints but were estranged from the broader community due to Gene’s extreme survivalist mentality. Survivalist mentalities, when combined with religious fervor, tends to give way to this extreme notion that the world will end in an undetermined period of time in the near future. While having a few months supply of food and supplies on hand in case of emergency is smart (especially in rural areas), the preparation discussed in this book verges on the extreme.
 
According to her memoir, Tara was born in 1986, but unlike most American residents, she did not have a birth certificate due to a home birth and her father’s obsession with government conspiracies. Her father owned a junkyard and scrapped metal for a living. Eventually he moved into the construction business. Faye, Tara’s mother, started out as a midwife and then moved into the essential oil business, both making and selling.
 
In my opinion, most memoirs should be read with a little skepticism. Life and family relationships come in varying shades of grey and everyone interprets events differently. Due to the fickleness of memory, no one ever recalls the same event in an identical manner. Our own misconceptions and preconceived notions color how we view and interpret what goes on around us.
That said, Educated paints a bleak picture of a family held in a vise by the rantings of a delusional maniac. Tara believes her father suffers from bipolar disorder, but due to a serious mistrust of doctors, never received a formal diagnosis.
 
I am not an expert on the finer points of Mormonism’s underlying philosophy, but a majority of Tara’s father’s rantings derive from a fundamentalist understanding of Mormon doctrine. Gene did nor believe in public education, modern medicine, modern literature, the study of history, or anything other than the Bible, the works of Mormonism’s prophets, and the words of America’s founding fathers. As a result, his children grew up without any form of formal education, little-to-no exposure to the wider American culture, and no understanding of American society outside of Clifton, Idaho. The world depicted in this book comes across as bleak and hopeless.
 
Tara experienced severe emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her older brother, Shawn. He particularly enjoyed using the term “Fish Eyes” to describe women, beautiful to look at but stupid like a fish. Several nasty head injuries exacerbated his predisposition towards cruelty and manipulation.
Of the seven children, three finished PhDs, two completed their GEDs, and the rest never graduated from high school or earned a GED. This created both a cultural and educational divide within the family.
 
The memoir is moving and well written. Tara overcame enormous societal, economical, and educational roadblocks to earn a PhD from Cambridge University. Truly a remarkable achievement. Her writing style is conversational and descriptive without verging into grotesque voyeurism.
The pain and hatred roll off certain passages in waves. Even if her father does not suffer from bipolar disorder, something clouded an otherwise rational mind. Mental illness? Extreme fundamentalism? No one will ever know.
 
We are all shaped by our childhoods, for both the better and the worse. Our parents’ values, religion, and lifestyle choices affect how we see the world and choose to conduct our own lives. Children raised in the same home, with the same parents, and in the same circumstances will all have different experiences and life outcomes. As depicted in Educated, the results can be mixed and heartbreaking.
 
Educated reads like a history textbook, unsurprising given Tara’s choice of profession. She meticulously depicts a rough childhood, even rougher young adulthood, and a brighter future. Despite the odds, she decided to forge a different path and pursue something beyond Clifton. You have to admire the determination it takes to go straight to college without ever graduating high school and ending up at Cambridge.
Apparently Tara’s parents are suing her over the contents of the book.
Themes Explored: autobiography, memoir, nonfiction, Idaho, rural America, Mormonism, survivalism, feminism, emotional manipulation, childhood abuse, education, medicine, herbalism, government conspiracies, family relationships.
Synopsis: Educated is a tale of fierce family loyalty and of the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes and the will to change it. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Educated: A MemoirRandom House, 2018, ISBN: 9780399590504

Million Pound Menu.

Despite the glamour of television chefs, inspiring Michelin star stories, and the rise of cooking shows, prepared food remains a cut throat industry. Between an abundance of options, rising mandatory minimum wages, and changes in consumer behavior, the profit margin in the restaurant industry remains slim.
 
Approximately 60% of new restaurants fail within the first year and 80% close before their 5th anniversary (from CNBC). Restaurants remain vulnerable due to high labor costs and, whenever the economy downturns, people stop eating out. High rents and the proliferation of online reviews can sink new ventures. I happen to know most of the successful restaurateurs in my area own their building.
 
In my own neighborhood, in the few years I have lived here, a new restaurant seems to open and close every week. Plus, how many times can someone dine out?
 
Enter the BBC/Netflix show Million Pound Menu. In this show, food entrepreneurs attempt to secure investment to either open a restaurant or food truck. Most of the investors look for brands with growth potential.
 
Every episode of Million Pound Menu opens with a group of well-known British restaurant investors sitting around a big table reviewing business plans from prospective restaurateurs. Think Top Chef meets Shark Tank.
 
Out of a group of three, one idea goes forward into a test run. The hopeful restaurateurs operate a pop-up space in Manchester for two days. They run a half-priced “soft opening” dinner and a full service lunch the next day for anyone who shows up. After this test concludes, the restaurateurs wait in their empty dining room hoping one of the investors walks in to make them an offer. Not everyone receives a happy ending or takes the offer.
 
What I appreciate is that the show does not sugarcoat the hardships of the restaurant world and the cost behind building a successful brand. Making food takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and other people’s money. Consumers are quite fickle and with so many options to choose from, not everyone will receive a chance to become the next Gordon Ramsey. The investors make decisions based upon overheard, labor costs, and the widespread appeal of the idea. Sometimes this requires moving out of London to a different city to succeed. People in Liverpool seek out different experiences than diners in London.
 
While the show received a second season, I do not know if it will debut a third time. Based upon other reviews, people do not seem to enjoy shows that discus the economics of food. We enjoy shows about food and the talented celebrity chefs we all admire. But behind every chef chopping away on television lies a field of hard working men and women trying to make their food truck the next big thing.
 
Million Pound Menu strips away the “sexiness” and glamour of high end food and shows the financial and economic factors behind every successful restaurant business.
 
Fast-casual and sustainable dining trends currently dominate the industry. Consumers want cheap, organic food with minimal food waste in the kitchen.
 
One interesting takeaway, the main reason a majority of the founders do not secure funding is lack of vision. A business plan lays out the brand, the goals of the company, market segmentation, closest competition, the target market, and the financials. Without a clear vision, an investor has nothing to go on. Lack of truthful financial projections also makes investing risky and unlikely. In an industry with razor thin margins, a strategic and well structured business plan becomes imperative. A majority of the people appearing on this show have passion and a great product but lack a strategic vision. Without this vision, no matter how good the product, the investors always shy away from entrusting money to the founders.
 
If you are at all curious about the business side of the restaurant world, this is an interesting show. Currently available on Netflix.
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Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Media shapes viewpoints and thoughts. What you watch, read, and listen to will impact both your thought patterns and worldviews.

In today’s 24/7 news culture, you can spend the entire day in a perpetual state of fear and apocalypse. Wars, famine, cultural upheaval, deaths, plagues, and other disasters occur somewhere every day. If you live in a peaceful country these events have little bearing on how you live your life. Between television and social media, these events dominate our news cycle every day. Not even the weekend brings a reprieve to the vast amounts of information hawked over the digital airwaves.

In his 1985 books, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that television turned news, critical thought, and education into show business. When did you last watch a news segment that actually provided an in-depth, commercial free, extensive look into a single topic for more than thirty seconds?

Traditional media revolve around commercial breaks.  A deep dive into a complex story becomes difficult when breaking for segments about Whoppers, upcoming award shows, and the newest erectile dysfunction cure every five minutes.

I recognize the irony of writing about a book detailing the dangers of pure entertainment on a communication medium Postman might find worse for intellectual development than the television. One can only imagine the derision and sadness with which Postman would view Snapchat, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, MySpace, and this blog.

Written in 1985, yet still relevant today, Postman contends that our nation’s future will resemble the civilization depicted in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World instead of the one predicted by George Orwell in 1984.While both stories represent a repressed future, they differ in the how society will arrive at a state of intellectual suppression.

In 1984, Orwell posits that a “Big Brother” style government will suppress speech and dictate social norms through misinformation, misdirection, and intentional distortion of information. Indeed, this future currently exists in China and the broken culture of Russia. Societies built around government, collectivism, and the “community good” are more likely to “progress” towards complete government control. As seen in the events currently unfolding in Hong Kong, Venezuela, and North Korea. Orwell’s future already exists, only not in western society.

When a population adopts ideas of individualism, limited government, and liberty, the binds of pure “Big Brother” control become harder to manifest. Yet a more sinister ideal can take root: death from amusement. Entertainment, by definition, seeks to provide a reprieve from the realities of existence. Compelling narratives packaged in 90 to a 130 minutes allows viewers to “experience” and “see” the world without ever having to leave home. We can even watch medical procedures on the television under the guise of “education”, but do you remember anything “educational”?

Even the realm of school revolves around screens nowadays. Parents send their children off to school with the latest in smartphone technology to spend all day sitting in front of a computer screen. Then kids come home and can amuse themselves by playing video games and watching something on YouTube, Tik Tok, the television, or Instagram. “White Collar” workers spend all day in front of computer screens to come home and “Netflix and Chill”. Families can sit together in the same room and never speak to one another.

You can spend an entire week in modern American Life without ever having to take a break from looking at a screen. Sleep becomes the last refuge from the dominance of the digital world. Entertainment exists everywhere all the time. Our current culture mimics the bleak world painted by Huxley in Brave New World, as argued by Postman.

Brave New World depicts a population completely enslaved to the idea of amusement, leisure, and laughter. Dark thoughts, philosophical arguments, linguistic gymnastics, and analytical discourse on various viewpoints cannot thrive in a culture obsessed with thirty second soundbites and manufactured celebrity “news”. Today’s population likely knows more about the inner workings of the Kardashian media empire than the history behind the assembly and division of power of the American form of government.

As Postman argued: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.” [Excerpted from Amusing Ourselves to Death, 20th Anniversary Edition]

Through the advent of visual media, politics, religion, news, athletics, education, commerce, and our own personal lives have become a never-ending form of show business. Everything must vacillate between the two extremes of pure happiness and a bleak apocalypse. The rather boring mundanity of “reality” amuses no one, which is why we post pictures of our “exotic” vacation to a far-flung destination but never share about our clogged kitchen sink (unless it erupted into a disgusting geyser that we happened to capture on our phone).

Postman contends that the medium of communication shapes the culture. Communication on the internet and television thrives on graphics and images, not words.

The television exists to supply a never-ending stream of entertainment.

An average length shot on network television lasts 3.5 seconds. This means the eye never rests and your brain does not have time to process information since something new always appears around the corner. By keeping information tidily packaged and changing, the viewer achieves instantaneous emotional gratification. Good news always follows bad news, and vice versa so your emotions never stay focused on one feeling for any serious amount of time. News Anchors and pundits deliver pre-scripted tidbits because the act of thinking does not make compelling viewing. We would rather watch people argue over each other in raised voices for five minute than watch someone admit to not knowing anything about a topic and needing to think about a proper response. Thinking does not translate well into performance.

Postman argues that the rise of television transformed the political arena into another form of entertainment. We no longer pick candidates based upon values and political philosophy, but on how they “look” while presenting an idea. Style trumps substance.

Overall, Amusing Ourselves to Death, presents an interesting thesis on how western culture, political discourse, and our modes of relating with one another changed with the invention of television and instantaneous news.

How do you think digital media impacts your life, for the better and the worse?

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 2005, Penguin Books, ISBN: 9780143036531

Themes Explored: nonfiction, sociology, media, communications, psychology, politics, culture, philosophy

Synopsis: Television has conditioned us to tolerate visually entertaining material measured out in spoonfuls of time, to the detriment of rational public discourse and reasoned public affairs. In this eloquent, persuasive book, Neil Postman alerts us to the real and present dangers of this state of affairs, and offers compelling suggestions as to how to withstand the media onslaught. Before we hand over politics, education, religion, and journalism to the show business demands of the television age, we must recognize the ways in which the media shape our lives and the ways we can, in turn, shape them to serve out highest goals. (From Goodreads)

Top 5 Movies I Regret Watching

  1. King Arthur (2004)–Directed by Antoine Fuqua

In this re-imagining of the King Arthur Legend, Arthur becomes a moralistic Roman Calvary officer. This film replaces the legendary elements and creates a grittier vision. The narrative depicts the time period directly after the Roman Empire withdrew from England. In my opinion, an Arthurian film needs Merlin, otherwise why bother? King Arthur still enthralls numerous people because of its mystical and fantastical elements. At the heart of the story lies a tale about a courageous warrior who rose up to defend his homeland and the outlandish characters he encounters along the way. Taking away all these elements renders the story pedestrian and boring. This “realistic” film contained mysteriously bloodless fighting sequences. Apparently ancient warriors never bled when slaughtered with swords. Perhaps the greatest injustice is the portrayal of Guinevere. The film tries to turn Guinevere into Xena Warrior princess, but at least Xena wore clothing. I highly doubt warrior princesses fought in just strategically placed leather straps.

  1. Apocalypse Now (1979) -Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

I read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in my college freshman literature class. Heart of Darkness tells Charles Marlow’s experiences as an ivory transporter along the Congo River. Explored themes include alienation, confusion, doubt about imperialism, heroism, and civilized versus “savage” societies. At its most abstract, the narrative attempts to understand an alien culture.  Within the context of  of the collapse of imperialism in the late 19th Century the narrative works. Apocalypse Now is an extremely loose adaption of the novella in that it borrows a majority of the themes and motifs. However, the movie is a bloated anti-war narrative set in the 1970s during the Vietnam War that borrow the themes of the novella and places it outside of the  historical context. Conrad’s novella is an excellent exploration into the difficulties of overcoming cultural arrogance. But it really does not translate well when the historical context is radically changed as it was in Apocalypse Now.

  1. Elf (2003)-Directed by Jon Favreau

I am probably in the minority but Will Ferrell’s brand of humor never appealed to me. In this movie Ferrell plays an elf named Buddy. Turns out Buddy is not an elf, he is a human who ended up in Santa’s sack as a baby. Adult Buddy no longer fits in with the elf community and sets out to find his biological father.  A grown man running around in tight leggings and acting like a twelve year old is not funny after the first three minutes. The script lacks subtlety, nuance, and polish. The only Will Ferrell film that I have found remotely funny was Anchorman. But Ferrell played the straight man and everyone else acted crazy. If Ferrell is playing the straight man then I think he is funny, but his off the wall situational humor is just painful to watch.

  1. Transformers (2007)– Directed by Michael Bay

Any film based off a line of action figures is going to be either tolerable or cringeworthy. The first film details the struggle between two Cybertronian (aka robotic) races who bring their struggle to Earth. Only a clueless teenage holds the power necessary to end the struggle once and for all. If you peel away all the special effects and fire, the narrative is so thin to render it transparent. Maybe I just needed to be a teenage guy in order to appreciate this film in all its Megan Fox and CGI glory. But, hey, as long as everyone is running from exploding giant robots the actual story and characterization seems inconsequential.

  1. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)-Directed by George Lucas

Actually Episodes I, II, & III are all films I regret watching. Part of the problem with this prequel trilogy is the relationship between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala. It was cute in the first film, but horrendous in the other two installments. Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman have zero chemistry. The prequel trilogy would have been stronger if it focused more on the relationship between Qui‑Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Both Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson are fantastic actors and Qui-Gon Jinn is extremely more interesting than Anakin Skywalker.  The most glaring problem lies in the screenplay. There are so many cliched and simplistic lines that the film is almost unwatchable. I think George Lucas possess amazing world building abilities and his original trilogy is an undeniable classic. But screenwriting is not Lucas’ forte and the results are painful.

The Mists of Avalon. Marion Zimmer Bradley

Themes Explored: Arthur Legend, magic, identity, fantasy, lore, witchcraft, historical fiction, mythology, romance, feminism, skepticism, incest, druidism, old ways, early Christianity, cultural identity, mysticism, loyalty, betrayal, kingship, masculinity

Synopsis: Here is the magical legend of King Arthur, vividly retold through the eyes and lives of the women who wielded power from behind the throne: the devout Gwenhwyfar, Arthur’s queen; Viviane, high priestess of Avalon and Lady of the Lake; above all, Morgaine, possessor of the Sight, the wise-woman fated to bring ruin on them all… (From Goodreads)

Review: The Mists of Avalon reimagines of the Arthur Legend from the perspective of the women behind the throne. These include Viviane, Gwenhwyfar, Morgaine, and Igraine, all the women instrumental in creating Camelot. When Bradley’s book debuted it caused a  shockwave. No one had written a novel about the Arthur legend through a feminine perspective.

 Another key subplot involves the tension between the fall of Druidism and the rise of Christianity in Medieval England. This tension underlies a majority of the drama and philosophical discussion in the narrative. As the women exhibit different moral beliefs than a majority of the men some interesting events occur do to this disconnect

Viviane is the Lady of the Lake, High Priestess of Avalon, and sister of the Lady Igraine. One day the Great Goddess grants Viviane a “vision” where she foresees Britain united under a high king. This high king will remain true to Avalon and champion the old religion over Christianity. To bring this vision about, Viviane chooses Igraine to birth this new king.

Morgaine, Igraine’s daughter, is trained to succeed Viviane as the next high priestess of Avalon. This plan go awry when Morgaine, a priestess-virgin, is chosen as the tribute to be deflowered by Arthur in his pagan coming-of-age ritual. Morgaine falls pregnant, which causes concern as Arthur is her half-brother. Neither one knew of this relation until afterwards. In a desperate fit of self-preservation, Morgaine flees Avalon, forsakes her High Priestess training, and sows the seeds for tragedy. From here on out the narrative follows the traditional Arthur Legend.

Gwenhwyfar, the Christian Queen, sets in motion the demise of Camelot. She becomes distraught over her infertility and lust over Lancelot. At her urging, Arthur flies the banner of the Cross and Virgin and uses the Goddess’s Holy Regalia in a Christian mass. They hope these actions will help Gwenhwyfar conceive an heir. This horrifies Viviane and triggers immense backlash throughout the realm. The Goddess takes revenge and scatters Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table on a quest for the elusive Holy Grail. This breaks apart Camelot and causes the decline of Arthur.

In most adaptations of the Arthur Legend, Mogan le Fay (Morgaine) is generally portrayed as a one-dimensional pagan witch. Bradley presents Morgaine as a woman with a unique gift in a time of political and spiritual upheaval. She defends her beliefs and matriarchal heritage in the face of a rapidly changing society. There are two sides to every story and Morgaine probably never saw herself as a villain, just underappreciated. Bradley chose to rewrite the legend by fully articulating the experiences of the women during times of cultural change and tensions about gender roles in society. King Arthur’s feuds, battles, quests, and prophecies round out the underlying subplots but are definitely secondary to the main narrative.

All the jousts and battles are included, along with the familiar lustful romance: Gwenhwyfar’s love for Lancelot and Arthur; Arthur’s love for Gwenhwyfar and lust for Morgaine; and Morgaine’s love for her son and Lancelot. The Goddess, apparently, has no prohibitions against incest or hemophilia.

Morgaine eventually learns that she is both the Goddess and the Fairy Queen. This actually pays homage to the 14th Century tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In that poem the ending reveals the Morgaine had schemed to test Gawain’s chastity and to dampen Arthur’s pride. In a sense The Mists of Avalon merely pulls the curtains off of Arthur’s Legend and shows all the players in the background pulling strings. The novel is long, but the pacing is great and the narrative never drags.  

The Mists of Avalon, Ballantine Books, 1984, ISBN  9780345350497

The Hunt is Cancelled.

The Hunt.

What a controversy.

The main drama about this movie revolves around the premise. “Elites” aka the “rich” take their frustrations with the world by hunting “poor” people at the Manor. While not explicitly stated, the film strongly suggests that the “poor” people are republicans and the “rich” are democrats. The original title was “Red State vs Blue State”. How subtle. 

Having watched the trailer, the film looked okay, nothing amazing but definitely unique. What most of the opinion pieces out on the movie seem to miss is the source material. The film is an updated version of Richard Connell’s 1924 short story, “The Most Dangerous Game” also published as “The Hounds of Zaroff”. 

Originally released on January 19, 1924, the short story follows a big-game hunter, Sanger Rainsford, from New York City who falls off a yacht and swims to a seemingly uninhabited Caribbean island. Turns out the island houses a rather eccentric Russian aristocrat named General Zaroff who hunts humans for sport.

Zaroff finds big game hunting unstimulating due to a lack of strategy. He moved to this island in order to capture shipwrecked sailors and hunt them. Every unfortunate soul receives the same deal: any captive who eludes Zaroff, Ivan, and a pack of hunting dogs for three days earns their freedom. So far, no one has survived. Rainsford reluctantly agrees to the terms. Considering this story is 95 years old, I have no compunction ruining the ending: Rainsford wins.

Richard Connell wrote this short story due to the popularity of big-game hunting safaris in Africa and South America. Many wealthy Americans in the 1920s traveled abroad to hunt exotic prey. The story inspired multiple radio, television, and film adaptations. Based upon the trailer, The Hunt seems to follow the basic premise, only there are multiple Rainsfords and Zaroffs with a strong political overtone tacked on.

Universal Pictures, the production company, announced earlier this week that they have decided to not release the film due to the mass shootings that occurred in El Paso and Dayton. According to the Hollywood Reporter today, the film did not perform well among test audiences. This sounds like Universal attempting to save face. If a film does poorly in test screenings, the production team usually reworks the film well before rolling out a trailer. Considering the movie stayed on the docket up until last week without any indication of a need for reshoots, Universal probably planned on releasing The Hunt as scheduled. So, who knows.

One point of interest is why Universal chose to make the movie in the first place, it cost over  $18 million. Given the divisive political climate, toning down or removing overtly partisan references would seem smart. Or the studio could have written and released an actual adaptation of the source material without the vitriol. Personally, the film does not look like something I would watch in theaters, I would probably wait for the Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, or DVD release. Yes, I prefer DVDs to streaming. I wear my luddite title proudly.

Controversy aside, I think this incident showcases two problems with modern film-making First, An over reliance on current political trends. In the past, message laden movies did not take on the current political rhetoric and instead focused on broader trends. Overtly political films do not age well and fall out of favor quickly.

Second, just adapt the original source material. The short story is well written, respected, and a great read. Why add in unnecessary political jargon? Especially since most of the political movies released in the past couple of years have gone nowhere. Want a successful non-Marvel film? Release a compelling non-politics driven movie. This should not pose such a problem, Hollywood used to do it all the time.

  • Director: Craig Zobel
  • Rating: R
  • Starring: Betty Gilpin, Emma Roberts, Hilary Swank
  • Screenplay: Nick Cuse, Damon Lindelof
  • Premiered: Never

Synopsis: Twelve strangers wake up in a clearing. They don’t know where they are, or how they got there. They don’t know they’ve been chosen – for a very specific purpose – The Hunt (From IMDb)

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On Running.

I am not an athlete.

From the age of two, I could ride a horse. Between the ages of 11 and 15, I learned both English and Western styles. Then we moved and the closest barn involved a two hour commute. This spelled the momentary end of my horseback riding career, something I will hopefully remedy. Horseback riding makes me feel alive. Galloping along the hills on top of a horse fills me with a strong sensation of freedom. Just me and my steed against the world. Nothing holding you back. It is an intoxicating feeling that I find myself craving. No other athletic activity quite comes close to this feeling of complete and utter freedom of horseback riding.

However, I recently discovered ultra-marathon running. I am not an ultra-marathon runner, I have yet to conquer a regular marathon. An ultra-marathon is a 100 mile, 24 hour long run. A regular marathon is 26.2 miles. I did complete a turkey trot, a 5k, last Thanksgiving.

As a casual runner, I do not totally enjoy running. Occasionally I have experienced the “runners high”, which comes close to replicating what I feel when riding. Not quite the same though. What I do not enjoy about running is the actual process of running. I did spin class until I got too strong for the bike. So I switched over to running for a change.

I may not enjoy running but I love to read about running. Current obsessions include:

The art of running exists in every culture and society. Throw on some shoes and go pound some pavement. Yet anyone who runs soon realizes that the human body actually does not function great at running, especially if you go from zero to 100 in three seconds. Take your time people. 

Ultra-marathon running is a fascinating case study in the durability of the human body. If you eat well, practice, stretch, and work hard, you can run 100+ miles without over straining. On one hand the human body sucks at running but gets better once you start training with intentionality. You cannot outrun a poor diet and bad training program.

Ultra-marathoners differ from normal marathoners in intensity and, sometimes, dedication. Running 100 miles takes a bit more intentionality than pounding out 26. It took me three years to go from barely running to pounding out six miles in an hour. I only improved after adding in a weight training regime involving lots of squats and lunges.

I find reading about people achieving great athletic achievements inspiring. If an average guy can take on a 100 mile run with no experience, I can knock out six. 

The human body needs to move. Personally, I know I fee better after moving The world becomes a little clearer and less cluttered. I doubt running will ever replace the wondrous freedom of horseback riding, but it comes a lot closer than spinning ever did. Even if you have never run, go for a walk every once in a while. It causes the world to slow down and become less busy.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). A modern fairy tale.

  • Director: Quentin Tarantino
  • Rating: R
  • Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
  • Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
  • Running Time: 161 Minutes
  • Premiered: July 28, 2015 (US Premier)

Synopsis: A faded television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles. (From IMDb)

I love movies. Everything about the process fascinates me.

The storytelling, the acting, the characters, the directing, and the cinematography all have to meld together just right to make movie magic. Bad movies and amazing movies require the same process of creation, but the margins between failure and success relies on all the components working perfectly.  If only one part of the movie process breaks down, the whole film goes from Oscar worthy to Lifetime prime time showing.

It takes just as much effort to make a bad film as it does to make a good one. 

Quentin Tarantino loves film making. You can see it in the meticulousness of his films. Each shot comes across as a love letter to cinema. Now a lot of times the attention to detail gets lost in the story, no one can ever claim that Tarantino shies away from violence. All the gore and violence can hide the excellent camera work behind each shot.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood strays away from Tarantino’s usual fare and reserves the violence for when you least expect it to appear.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood revolves around the fading career of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

In 1959, ten years before the main narrative, Dalton starred in a successful television show called Bounty Law. In 1969, no one seems to care about the career of a faded 1950s Western star. Floundering around, Dalton feels even more adrift once the hotshot director Roman Polanski and his young wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) move in next door. Literally new Hollywood moving in on “Old” Hollywood. Cliff feels the sting as well since his salary depends upon Dalton working. In this new decade, Cliff functions more as an all around handyman, chauffeur, and best friend than stunt double.

In 1969, Dalton lives in a Hollywood he no longer recognizes. Due to a series of bad decisions, Dalton left Bounty Law after three seasons to pursue a movie career. This transition did not work out and Dalton has struggled to find his place ever since. Unlike today, television stars rarely worked in movies and film stars almost never appeared on television in the 1960s.

A successful television show is the closest thing to a steady paycheck that actors come close to attaining. Giving up a stable television paycheck to pursue movie glory requires a lot of gumption and luck. Sadly, Dalton possesses loads of gumption but little luck. He and Cliff spend most of the 1960s drifting on the fringes as Dalton carves out a sad career playing the guest “heavy” on a string of television shows.

The movie feels like a series of vignettes about Hollywood in the 1969 versus a tight narrative. Dalton’s career in the film heavily mirrors Clint Eastwood’s trajectory. They both starred in successful western themed television shows, struggled to break into the mainstream movie world, and found redemption in Italy starring in popular spaghetti westerns.

Hollywood today does not resemble the Hollywood of 1969. Tarantino presents a reverential, rose colored, fairy tale view of Hollywood on the verge of the 1970s. Indeed, I finished the movie wishing the world presented in the film actually existed. The bad guys get what they deserve and the good guy rides off into the sunset on his horse ready to fight another day. Or in Dalton’s case gets invited over by Sharon and Roman. Almost the same thing.

I contend that Cliff Booth represents the heart of the film. He sticks by Dalton through thick and thin, is willing to do anything for his friend, and works hard to stay out of trouble. Cliff comes from a troubled background, served in the military, and may have murdered his wife (this is Tarantino after all). Yet he is fiercely loyal and sticks around to help Dalton survive a rough patch in their mutual careers. You cannot buy that kind of loyalty. Cliff sticks around because of friendship and mutual respect, not money. Plus Brad Pitt still looks amazing. You go man.

Rick Dalton survives alcoholism, depression, and terrible bit parts on sad television shows. If anything, his arc shows the downsides of fame. He hits the crest of an amazing wave of success that soon crashes down on him. Falling into despair, he loses touch with his work ethic until he meets a young child actress who reignites his passion for the craft. Fame alters reality and makes it hard to function when you go from dizzying success to working as a bit player. But Dalton perseveres and sees a resurgence once he puts his pride behind him and embraces Italian cinema.

Sharon Tate, the wife of Roman Polanski, actually existed. She was an American actress and model during the 1960s. During her short career, she played several small roles on television before appearing in films. She regularly appeared in fashion magazines as a model and cover girl. After receiving positive reviews for her acting, Tate became one of Hollywood’s most promising newcomers of the 1960s and seemed verged for stardom in the 1970s.

Tragically, on August 9, 1969, Tate and four others were murdered by members of the Manson Family at her home. At the time of her death, she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. Margot Robbie floats through this film like an ethereal vision. Tarantino treats Tate almost reverentially and presents her in the best light possible. But he also does not gloss over some of her person problems. I think Tarantino treated Tate quite well and honored her memory.

Tate serves as the direct comparison to Dalton, the shining star illuminating the falling meteor.

Charles Manson and his “family” briefly appear in the film. The actors do an excellent job capturing the creepiness and unnerving dedication of cult followers bent on evil. However, this film does not actually focus on Manson and his evil gang. Tarantino pulls them in more as a representation of the darkness that exists on the fringes of Hollywood. In this fairy tale, Manson is the villain but exists in the shadows until exploding into focus in the third act.

For a Tarantino narrative, the climax comes surprisingly late into the film. He treats Dalton and Cliff like old friends and gives them time to introduce themselves to the audience. When the payoff comes, it is short and gory in true Tarantino fashion.

As a fan of old movies, I really enjoyed this. Could the narrative have benefited from some tighter editing? Yes. But I thoroughly enjoyed the rambling, seemingly randomness of the story. Tarantino is not my favorite director but I appreciate the artistry of his films and he almost always comes up with something original. I recommend the film, but it is not for everyone.

 

Hobbies. Do You Have Any?

When did you last learn something?

I mean outside of school, intentional learning because you wanted to, not because you needed to pass a test. Among my friend group I noticed a lot of us do not have any hobbies. Or if we do, we do not devote a lot of time to them.

Most people come home from work and then relax in front of Netflix for several hours. Not that relaxing after a long day is wrong, but do you watch television every night?

Can you remember the last time you did something that truly excited you and that you would do for free? In my opinion, modern American life revolves solely around work. Walk into any room and all anyone will ask you is “what do you do for work”, or “ how was your work day?”. No one ever asks about what you do outside of the office. And I think that is sad. A person’s worth does not rely completely on some job tittle.  People used to have hobbies and actually enjoy talking about them and showing off the fruits of their labors.

A hobby reveals a lot about your character and interests. How you spend your free time is one of the most revealing characteristics about you. But I feel a lot of people have lost this unique part of their individuality. I ask people about hobbies and receive blank stares but everyone has an opinion on the latest television show or smartphone debut.

Yay, another phone that you will use for everything except calling people. 

Whenever I ride on public transportation or just walk around, everyone stares at their phones. Even out in nature looking at gorgeous vistas and everyone seems hooked on their phone screens. 

People leave school and lose interest in learning. Even though I find I actually learned faster outside of school because I could focus on what I wanted to know.

Currently I play the guitar, though I am frustrated with my progress. In my mind I should already be playing with the Rolling Stones. In reality, I might attract some squirrels onto my back porch. Not quite a thundering auditorium, but still. An audience is an audience. Acorns and all.

I wish more people would look up from their phones once in awhile and ask about things other than work.

One downside of adulthood is no one ever asks about hobbies or my favorite dinosaur.

KaylaAnn

Write, Drink Tea, Live Life, Repeat

Phillip McCollum

Author of Fantastic Fiction

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