October/Schlocktober Letterboxd Roundup

I can’t deny this was a bit of an indulgent Schlocktober — not a lot of highbrow viewing, but definitely an enjoyable amount of campy horror. This doesn’t include Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities anthology, mostly because I feel like I have more to say about what that series shows about the state of modern horror, but I’ll need to stew on that for a bit.

John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness

I’m a huge fan of the other two films in Carpenter’s Apocalypse trilogy, but this one doesn’t really live up to the other two. The ideas are there, but the execution isn’t. The pacing feels off—there’s no ebb and flow to it, just a steady pulse established by the opening credits. Which could be interesting, as a way to create a feeling of relentlessness and inevitability, but it just feels choppy. There are no real conversations, no real moments, just fragments after fragment.

You can definitely see how it’s meant to be a culmination of themes and styles that Carpenter has explored, how the tension of Assault on Precinct 13 and the inner threat of The Thing and the Donald Pleasance grappling with physical manifestations of evil in Halloween are meant to fuse into something more profound. And I’m here for any film that’s grappling with the fundamental nature of reality—that heady blend of pop science and Christian mysticism and occultism and high strangeness is a place I’d love more movies to end up. But this one feels like it aimed higher than it can achieve—not the worst crime, but it lands with a bit of a thud.

Most effective moments:
The dream broadcasts
Insect-voiced “pray for death”
And Calder’s laughter was 100x more eerie than any special effect


The Blob (1988)

The practical effects in this are incredible; the optical effects a little less so but still pretty effective. The pacing is relentless, exactly what you want out of a popcorn flick, and even the half baked conspiracy plot can’t slow it down.

I know we’re supposed to be down on remakes, but between this, the Fly and the Thing, the ‘80s really showed how to do ’em right—apparently the key is rubber tentacles and biological acid.

The only thing it’s missing is the Bacharach theme.


Lair of the White Worm

Delightfully ridiculous. Amanda Donohoe commits far beyond what the movie deserves, and it pays off every time. Hugh Grant less so—he seems a little embarrassed to be involved—but Peter Capaldi playing bagpipes and pulling a hand grenade out of his kilt more than makes up for it.

Is any of the ridiculous Freudian “sub”text remotely successful? Not really. But I think the movie knows that—it seems pretty likely that Russell is poking fun at the clunkiness of the novel. Is it campy and fun and great late-night viewing? Absolutely.


Terror Train (1980)

An ok but fairly unmemorable slasher, distinguished by a more than reasonable amount of time spent speculating about the role of trains in America’s future intermodal freight systems, and an entirely reasonable amount of David Copperfield doing his thing.

The remake better still use Crime as the house band.


Popcorn

One of those VHS cases that was burned into my mind as a 10-year-old browsing the horror racks at my local video store, but I never got around to seeing it. The films-within-the-film are great in their low-budget campiness, but that same goofiness becomes more grating when it bleeds into the “real” world of the film, especially given the more sinister tone before the big reveal.

I would still 100% go to the gimick-horror marathon in that gorgeous old theatre. The film introduces it like it’s run-down and awful, then take the dust covers off and it’s basically immaculate.


Tales from the Darkside

The gargoyle segment was the only one I remembered from watching it way back when, and it’s also arguably the weakest segment (with the best payoff, those transformation effects are incredible). That’s not much of a criticism though, as this is impressively consistent for a horror anthology. Even the wraparound story is solidly entertaining. Goofy, fun spooky-season viewing.


Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight

Casting Dick Miller in anything is already a win, so Demon Knight didn’t need to do much to win me over. Billy Zane is clearly having a blast bouncing off a stacked cast. ’90s HBO does have a feel to it, doesn’t it.


Wendell & Wild

I’m not totally clear who this is aimed at? It has the general feel of a kids movie, but also on-screen murder, a plot that revolves around the for-profit prison industry, and a surprising amount of ska. Plus tardigrades, naive demons, origami theme parks, and proof of the cultural and economic importance of microbreweries. There are a lot of things happening with this movie, is what I’m saying, and as a geriatric millennial third-wave-ska-surviving stop-motion fan, by and large I enjoyed it.

Hyperextended cosmic blues: Weils – Fugue State

Weils’ brand of blues demands—and rewards—an almost excessive degree of patience. Their songs consist of minimal riffs expanded to the point of absurdity, sometimes stretching minutes between a single chord change. But where that should create sheer monotony, they’ve somehow managed to invert the formula, tapping into something supremely comforting and occasionally even transcendent. The shortest song here is 13 minutes, the longest clocking in at over double that, and while the old “no wasted minutes” trope doesn’t exactly apply, it’s hard to see how anything here would benefit from being more concise. The shimmering bridge of album-closer “Ode to Joy” wouldn’t have the same impact if it was stripped out of context, but it’s not just the contrast that comes when the repetitive structures are interrupted that makes Fugue State so engrossing. It’s the weight of that repetition, the chance to get lost in slow music that drifts along without any concern for expectation. These are sounds to be savoured, a glistening structure built from the gradual accretion of gentle tones.

Interview: Ann-Marie MacDonald on landscape, love, curiosity, and Victorian ghost stories

(A transcript of an interview on the Oct. 17 episode of The AM on CJSW)

Peter Hemminger Ann Marie MacDonald is an award-winning novelist, a playwright, actor and broadcast host who in 2019 was made an officer of the Order of Canada in recognition for contribution to the arts and her LGBTIQ2SI+ activism. Her writing for the stage includes the plays Goodnight, Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet, and this year’s Hamlet 911, while her novels include Fall on Your Knees, The Way the Crow Flies, Adult Onset and the brand new release Fayne, a tale of science, magic, love and identity set at the border of England and Scotland in the late 19th century.

She’s going to be joining WordFest on October 28th for a conversation there, but she is also joining us this morning for The AM. Ann-Marie MacDonald, thank you so much for calling in. 

Ann-Marie MacDonald Thank you, Peter. I’m delighted to be here, and I can’t wait to be in Calgary. 

PH Have you done a WordFest appearance before? 

AM Oh yeah, yeah. A few years back with Adult Onset, and I did, at that time I did what was called like the High Speed… Oh, hi something rodeo, what was that? 

PH Oh, the High Performance Rodio. With One Yellow Rabbit. 

AM Thank you—High Performance Rodeo, for which I was decorated with a medal. 

PH What was the medal they gave you for that? 

AM It was, I don’t know, with some kind of fun game show format thing and it was completely undeserved. Actually, I think I like someone broke a tie and it really belonged to Michael Crummey. But we’ve made-up since then. It’s OK between us. 

PH No long-lasting grudges from that. 

AM It felt really OK. And I know sometimes that’s how juries work, right? I was the recipient of that flawed process, and this time it went my way. 

PH So you’re going to be coming this just next week, I guess a little over two weeks to talk about your new novel Fayne, which—I know that it’s difficult to describe a 700 page work in a minute or two, but for folks who aren’t familiar with that it, can you give just the high-level summary? 

AM Sure, sure, sure. Remote, windswept, moor. Spooky, crumbling mansion. Mysterious widowed barron. Ultra-charming, brilliant young daughter upon whom he dotes. She has mysterious condition. There are secrets in the house and in the past, many of which are kind of pulsating in this great oil painting portrait that dominates the great sweeping marble staircase. So there is this portrait hangs on the landing and it’s of this gorgeous Irish American heiress, who was Charlotte’s mother, Charlotte being the brilliant 12-year-old. So that’s her gorgeous Irish American mother, who was really rich. And it also depicts Charlotte’s baby brother. And both of these people are dead of course, ’cause it’s a Victorian novel, so the portrait on the stairs has to feature gorgeous, important dead people. 

PH Of course. 

AM And then we find out what became of them and what will become of Charlotte. And there are major questions of identity. 

PH Yeah, and I’m only about five chapters into the work right now, but it very much has the feel of a classic Gothic novel. And you’re a writer who has worked in so many different mediums, written for so many different time periods, has played with metafiction. And I mean Hamlet 911—I didn’t have a chance to see it but the descriptions of that is a piece that plays with a play within a play and commentary on the festival that it’s taking part in—with that kind of breadth of areas that you’ve tackled, how did you land on this? What was it about the Gothic novel that appealed to you? 

AM Well, the Gothic novel is really, for me, foundational. It’s where I began to read as a kid, right?  

I was about 10 years old when I read Jane Eyre for the first time. I was also steeped in Bugs Bunny and The Beatles, and those continued to be like a triumvirate. Those are my triangular points of reference and everything, it can be kind of found within that. 

But I loved the size, and the sweep and the passion and the language. I loved that everything is ultimately connected. That no matter how vast and disperate this world seems to be, everything is intimately connected.  

And that really appeals to me also, I suppose, at a spiritual and political level and at an urgent environmental level. We are connected. All of us, animate and inanimate, right? I think they’re all part of earth and we’re all part of Earth’s consciousness, and that it matters. Everything we do matters. 

There’s also an urgent environmental cri de cœur running through the book, because of course, the moor, the supposedly useless barren moor upon which this story unfolds, is a peat bog, right? And now we understand that peat bogs really are the most important and critical carbon sink in the world as well. They harbor so much about life, and how life burgeons at the margins of the indefinable, soupy primordial margins.  

And that’s what these kinds of landscapes are full of. They’re full of stuff that we haven’t discovered. Stuff that people called magic not too long ago, which we call science now, which we might call magic again tomorrow, you know, and that intersection of—what is magic? What is science? What is spiritual, what is physical, and how are all these things simply a continuum, right? And I feel the same way about identity.  

And then that gets us into the other, you know, I call it my queerest book because it really does take on compulsory heteronormativity, gender, enforced gender norms, and the Victorian era. I mean that was the era of categorization and definition. We’re going to name every species and subspecies, and we’re going to define absolutely everything. And that’s when sex roles become really ironclad, and that’s when class, wealth and class has always been a factor, but certainly gender roles and sex roles become incredibly distinct around that time, too. 

PH One contrast, and I do want to talk about the gender roles that come into the novel, but even just still talking about the landscape that you talk about, that being the era of trying to classify everything, but there’s also been, if you look at the language that used to be used to describe the Moors, I think Robert McFarlane has talked about this wealth of landscape terms for incredibly tiny distinctions of different kinds of land that have been lost over the years and reduced to… I mean windswept moor is a great phrase, but it’s always “windswept moor.” There’s so much specificity that you come to in your language. When you were developing the language to speak about the land, does that affect the way that you’re seeing the world around you? 

AM Oh, absolutely. I mean, that sense of urgency has been with me, I can’t remember when it wasn’t with me, but now I feel it’s it in this book. It’s really impassioned. I feel like the Earth speaks. The Earth is a character. The mud, the very mud is a character in this book. And when I think of that landscape and especially when land turns liquid, almost imperceptibly, when does land become liquid? You know, when does one thing transform into another, and I think of it as a liquid library. You know. Just the richness and the generosity today of our Earth and how she is endlessly—how she-they-he as I make it in the book, which kind of ends with a prayer in that way, really, of gratitude to this entity which continually regenerates and continually escapes our attempts to pin it down. You know, and that’s why I think of it as a liquid library, that mud puddle, you know, we don’t even know what’s in there. Not really, actually. 

PH Yeah, I haven’t really thought of the land in those terms. But I feel like—again, I’m only about five chapters into this book—but there’s so many themes that are already tying together. It’s set in a manor house that exists on the border between England and Scotland, so it’s not really in either. It’s a between place, and the moors themselves are a between place. The time that it’s set in is the emergence of science from a more classical education in some cases, or more folklore based. At what point did you realize that you were writing a work that was set so much, that was so much to do with transitional periods or transitional spaces? 

AM Well, that’s really the key word, isn’t it, transitional? Transitional and transformative.  

I think I intuitively knew that from before the beginning. I wrote a play called Belle Moral back in the 90s, and I became obsessed with transitional species at that point. And then I apply that to everything else, right? Because I think that truth is found in dynamism. We are constantly changing, right? And there are many ways of describing that, whether it’s the second law of thermodynamics or God knows what else, right? But transition is our state. Dynamism is our state. Balance is anything but static. It’s the opposite of static, and that implies uncertainty. But uncertainty can make people feel. It can lead to fear, and fear, of course, is the enemy of thought, is the enemy of curiosity. It’s the enemy of life. It’s the opposite of love. And I think of, really, when I think of it, I think of love as being probably the greatest, most fearsome force that’s going on. Because that’s… Somewhere, Earth is regenerating, constantly, and I I choose to think of that as love. And incredibly powerful. 

PH That curiosity that you speak of… I’m going to bring it back now to talking about the character of Charlotte, and I think this is going to be the last bit that we have a chance to talk about, but she is such an insatiable learner, a person with this, not just a curiosity, I mean curiosity is absolutely what drives her, but this incredible memory as well. She’s well versed in Greek classics. She’s devouring the new cutting-edge science of the late 19th century. How do you keep up with that character’s curiosity as you’re writing them? 

AM Well that just was an excuse to immerse myself and learn. You know, I’m pretty passionate about learning as well, myself.  

She’s way smarter than I am. Luckily, all I had to do was capture and follow her thoughts and back them up with the research that I did, and then get them all together between the pages of a book where they can be on record and experienced by other people. But don’t ever ask me to speak like Charlotte, ’cause I just don’t have her intelligence. I don’t have her audiographic memory, which I really, really had so much fun with.  

I love her passion for learning. I love what kind of a geek she is in that she has to learn how to have a sense of humor, and just her joy and her insatiable curiosity. Yes, I share that, and I have gone very passionately into all the various questions from whether or not—and this is all in my quest to immerse the reader in a world that becomes theirs, such that they forget they’re reading, and they forget that anyone wrote this. That this belongs to them, but they know they’re going to be guided through this story.  

And I love Victorian tropes because we’re familiar with them. And yet they provide a structure for endless surprises, right? What is the mystery behind that big portrait on the stairs? Well, this is a Victorian novel. We know that’s going to be important. And moreover, you as the reader know that this book will fulfill your curiosity and take you somewhere, right? So for me, those are readerly delights. 

Those are the delights that the audience hopes for in the theater, and that’s also why I write. I love to welcome people into a story. I wanted to write the kind of book I would have fun reading, you know, so… And that turned out to be a pretty tall order because I did have to immerse myself into the time and place. But there’s enough that’s very recognizable, and then enough that’s very, very strange, I think, to keep people on the journey. 

PH I’m very much looking forward to taking that journey myself. And for listeners who are eager to learn more about the process of writing this book, there’s so much conversation that can be had around this, and that’s going to be taking place October 28th, 7:00 PM at Memorial Park Library thanks to WordFest, so anyone who wants to check that out can head to wordfest.com to find out the details. Ann-Marie, thank you so much for joining this morning. 

AM Thank you so much Peter. I look forward to it, and all best. 

Esoteric Exotica: Misha Panfilov – The Sea Will Outlive Us All & Momentum

A pair of contemplative releases from the prolific Panfilov, who has also released a Zamrock stomper, a library-groove collaboration with Shawn Lee, and an oddball short-film score over the past few months. The Sea Will Outlive Us All is pitched in a lower key than that trio, blending gentle surf and exotica with soft psychedelia; Momentum is a breezy set of light jazz melodies, more drifting than propulsive in spite of the title. Unlike his groovier releases from the first half of 2022, the focus in each of them is on mood rather than body-moving.

Sea is the darker of the two albums, occasionally treading darker terrain, embracing the existentialism of the album title and coming across like Pink Floyd stranded on a desert island, but by and large, it’s still quite balmy, a dose of seaside sunshine. Momentum hardly has a dark side at all; it’s a soundtrack to a pleasant stroll down winding roads, wandering without a care in the world. Both are excellent showcases for Panfilov’s effortless strain of library-groove jazz—appealing, accessible, and casually accomplished.

Calgary International Film Festival 2022 round-up

Eight films in 10 days isn’t much of a marathon, but it’s more in-cinema movie-watching than I’ve done in probably the last year combined. Via Letterboxd, here are some quick, capsule-style reviews of seven of them. The eighth was a screening of Murnau’s Nosferatu with a live score by Calgary’s Chad VanGaalen — a great experience but not one I was compelled to write about.

Presented in the order I saw them:

Broker

A very enjoyable watch, warm, funny, and maintaining Kore-ada’s knack for staying just on the right side of sentimentality. Writing this a week after watching it, though, not much of it has stuck with me. One thing that has is the shot of the police officer idly playing with a flower that’s stuck to her car window — such a lovely, spontaneous image.

Geographies of Solitude

In a way, it felt like there were three or four different films here, all of them interrelated and complementary. There’s the immersive nature documentary, shot with an eye for the transcendent; a character study revealed through action rather than interview; an experimental mixed media film, with cameraless animation and found sound compositions; and an environmental documentary illustrating our cultural wastefulness.

That last part was my least favourite, but it’s understandable and probably unavoidable that it would be included. The other three were all superb, though, and they combine into something much more experiential than your average doc.

A few stray thoughts:
• I love how much the film focuses on Lucas’ hands so much more often than her face. She seems to be a person defined by *doing* so it felt appropriate
• I’m glad they included the Cousteau footage with its sweeping helicopter shots of the island, but mostly because it highlights how different that approach to nature docs is from what Mills is doing here. Seeing things from a human vantage, with slow, deliberate movement and lingering on small details; it’s more about capturing the feeling of being there
• There’s an odd contrast between Lucas’ meticulous dissection and indexing of everything that happens on Sable Island, and her openness to Mills’ artistic impulses. Impressive that she seems comfortable in both of those worlds, but it really seems she’s held onto a sense of wonder
• The sound design is brilliant
• I appreciated how Mills and Lucas both found beauty in the whole of life, from birth to death. The film captured that well, even without the monologue at the end

Viking

If I’d seen Rehearsal I might call this the low-budget Franco-Canadian sci-fi version, but in all honesty I have no idea how accurate that is.

The tricky thing about a movie like this is that it needs to take its premise seriously to have any emotional depth, but the more seriously it takes it, the more obviously ridiculous the premise becomes. I won’t criticize a comedy for proposing an unrealistic means for managing group psychology on a mission to Mars, but the more the film wants to plumb drama from its setup, the harder it gets to ignore those issues.

Still, it’s a charmingly dry comedy with real nuance to its characterizations, sort of the definition of enjoyable mid-tier Canadian film fest fare. And Nana Mouskouri’s cover of “Feeling Groovy” on the end credits is delightful.

Decision to Leave

This might be the stifling heat in the theatre talking, but the final act felt unnecessary, or at least underdeveloped compared to the rest of the film. I appreciate the transition from surprisingly funny procedural to outright melodrama — an enticing mix of Hitchcock and Sirk — but after the methodical pacing of the rest of the film, the last act feels rushed, introducing a torrent of new elements that muddy an otherwise engaging story.

Smoking Causes Coughing

Of the three Dupieux movies I’ve seen (this plus Wrong and Rubber), this is easily the most consistently fun, even if it’s also the most straightforward. I wasn’t expecting it to essentially be an anthology film, but that structure suits Dupieux’s sensibility—and takes the pressure off any one story to stay engaging for more than a few minutes at a time.
It’s not very ambitious, but the brisk mix of gross-out gags, non-sequiturs and gentle nihilism (with a soundtrack dominated by Mort Garson’s chintzy synth daydreams) makes for pretty ideal late-night fare.

Something in the Dirt

A semi-satirical spin on paranormal investigation/conspiracy culture acts as a backdrop for an exploration of collaborative creation and the hollow desperation of Hollywood dreams. A difficult film to talk about, both in that it’s hard not to give things away, but also that it’s hard to be certain how to read any given scene, what with the metastructure introducing layers of unreliability into every part of the storytelling. But the half-baked research and pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo were (I think intentionally) laugh-out-loud funny at times, and the aura of unease makes it hard to look away.
Not what I was expecting it to be, that’s for sure, but it’s lingering with me.

Triangle of Sadness

In the first act, one of the main characters complains about how difficult it is to talk openly about money with people you care about. It’s such a loaded topic, with so much baggage around social status, gender norms, self-esteem, and on and on. That could’ve been a mission statement, but the film takes the easy way out instead—it gestures at ideas around money and class, but avoids any open, honest conversation.
Instead, it picks the easiest targets it can find, and does absolutely nothing to challenge your initial assumptions about any of the characters (or the segments of society they are meant to represent). Rich people are dumb, thoughtless, and useless. Working class people can catch fish with their bare hands and start a fire from scratch. Everyone is exactly what you expect, nothing more or less.
If I hadn’t gone into this with the baggage of knowing it was a Palm D’or winner, I might’ve enjoyed it more for what it is—a prestige gross-out comedy with some broad social commentary to add a patina of intellectualism to the poop and puke jokes. It’s beautifully made, and the theatre I saw it in reacted exactly the way the director intended, so it’s clearly effective in that regard. It just doesn’t have much to say. The characters may quote Marx and Chomsky, but the film’s critique doesn’t go much beyond “rich people are bad” and “power corrupts.”

Summer film roundup

Collecting some Letterboxd reviews from the past few months, some more obscure, some very much not so. I haven’t been watching as many films the past few months, but between the start of the Calgary International Film Festival and the looming winter, that’s bound to change—expect more of these roundups in the months to come.

The Northman

This is a strange thing to say about a bleak Viking revenge saga packed with bloodshed and laced with hallucinatory visions, but as much as I enjoyed the experience of The Northman, it’s missing the darkness of The VVitch and The Lighthouse. Maybe it’s in the relationship of their central characters to their worlds—Eggers’ first two films are about average people on the fringes of their societies, butting up against and succumbing to forces beyond their understanding. This is a hero’s journey, the toughest man alive receiving DMs from the fates themselves assuring him of his central role in a high drama of kings and conquerors. In some ways, it feels closer in tone to old Conan comics than to either of Eggers’ other films.

As an action spectacle, it’s impressive and enjoyable, and I’m glad the larger scale hasn’t diminished Eggers’ commitment to his historical worlds. I saw another review say what distinguishes his films is that they 100% believe in the mythology of their times, so you are seeing the world from within their reality—their histories are alien worlds, to some extent, and that really does seem to be the case. And I appreciate the seriousness of it, the acknowledgement that you can go big without having to bake in quippiness and meta-jokes. It’s a great action movie, one that holds on to a lot of what makes Eggers so unique—but not enough pair with his best.

The Velvet Underground

I adore the energy Jonathan Richman brings to his segments.

Haynes certainly does what he sets out to do, elevating his favourite band while also bringing them down to earth by spending so much time establishing their context. The pre-Velvets parts were maybe my favourite, the rest being a well-worn story and way too heavy on Warhol, who may be what made the Velvets’ career possible but isn’t what made them interesting.

What a band, though.

The Matrix Resurrections

In the first movie, “what is the Matrix” was a question about the nature of reality. In Resurrections, it kicks off a branding discussion. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie that so explicitly didn’t want to be made, that isn’t just aware that it is superfluous but that seems to want you to feel guilty for even being curious about it. Neo and Trinity are back because either Warner Media or the engagement algorithm that secretly drives the world have demanded it, and while the postscript grudgingly thanks the algorithm for the characters’ new life—and the opportunity to clarify a few ideas and shake up a few binaries—it never gets past the sense that this revisiting this story is more traumatic than cathartic for its creators.

Nope

Not trying to open up the genre debate because ultimately it’s just a label that doesn’t mean much, but this didn’t feel like a horror film to me. In that I didn’t feel the goal of the film was to scare me; it has more the feel of a pulp “men’s adventures” magazine, a tale designed to thrill more than to frighten. If Peele hadn’t already directed two horror films, I wonder if this would still be discussed in those terms.

Anyway, Nope doesn’t hold together as well as Get Out (that’s a high bar). It balances its theme and storytelling much better than Us, though, and the creature design is marvelous. Kaluuya is great in a mostly low-key and stoic role, “Antlers Holst” is a fantastic name, and all my criticisms are better suited to nitpicking over beers than essays on Letterboxd.

Inu-oh

Who even makes movies like this? Yuasa is one of the most unpredictable filmmakers working today, except inasmuch as everything he makes is worth watching. Which very much includes this 14th century Japanese mystical rock opera. Yes it’s a bit chaotic and inconsistent from the storytelling side of things, with uneven pacing and what feel like some fairly significant dropped threads.

But it more than makes up for it by force of imagination. The production value on the musical numbers is incredible, the animation is gorgeous throughout (even with a few jarring shifts in technique), and most importantly, it never once plays it safe.

How do you do this, The Night is Short Walk On Girl, Lu Over the Wall, Devilman Crybaby and more in a five-year span? It boggles the mind.

Three Thousand Years of Longing

So much of this film is so good. I’m a sucker for movies about storytelling and well-used narration and colourful world-building and genre-based tragic love stories, and apparently Miller is, too, because when he’s indulging in that side of things this film is so wonderfully alive.

The scale of those early stories is so ambitious that the more restrained back half can’t help but suffer in comparison—but it doesn’t help that it feels so rushed. Why raise a topic like bigotry and xenophobia, say, if you’re only going to give it one brief conversation and a cartoonishly simple resolution? There wasn’t enough room for the sweep of humanity that the script tries to engage with.

None of that changes the appeal of the first half, though. It reminds me a bit of The Brothers Bloom, although the content couldn’t be much more different, but that love for the very nature of storytelling, the embrace of bright colours, the playfulness and love of language will appeal to the same people.

Worth noting: it’s a very different film than the trailer had me expecting. Less chaotic, more constrained, very much not an adventure film. Hopefully that doesn’t hurt its reception.

Dozens of Norths

Somewhere between Seuss and Bosch—a journey through imagined landscapes full of people trapped in loops, stuck in traps, or engaged in endless work. Absurdist allegory that seems borderline nihilistic, although I’d be lying if I said I had a solid interpretation of it overall. Some of the metaphors were clear, but others sailed by me; the rough-hewn illustrations and the fantastic score and sound design were enough to pull me back in whenever I started to drift. The lack of dialogue in favour of title cards helps contextualize some of the more obtuse imagery while still keeping things wide open to poetic interpretation.

Certainly an imaginative film—if it’s even fair to call it a film, it doesn’t seem especially interested in cinematic language, pulling more from illustration and mixed media to create its mood. Animation doesn’t have to be filmmaking, after all, it is its own medium with the flexibility to pull from so many other visual traditions. But I guess that’s a whole other can of worms.

The Empty Man

An ambitious jumble of ideas and influences, some well thought out and others pretty half-baked, but executed with a whole lot of skill regardless. The (very) cold open and the scenes with Root are by far the most engaging; the procedural is a bit rote even with all the weirdness around it. Some of the images, though, especially the sequence at Elsewhere, flames tentacling into the night sky… I can see how this has attracted a cult.

Folks seem to be calling out the creepypasta elements like they’re inherently a bad thing, but I’d happily read the whole Pontifex Society wiki if it were posted somewhere. Candyman + Crowley + Creepypasta + Cults makes for an interesting blend.

The Timekeepers of Eternity

Certainly an interesting project. It’s a snappy edit, finding a solid Outer Limits episode in a much-reviled miniseries, and the unusual technique heightens the film’s themes, adding some interesting depth. Where I stumble is in whether it is its own film or something closer to a fan edit, or whether that matters.

If you go by sheer labour, then it isn’t hard to argue for it as a standalone artwork. If you go by originality of the narrative, it’s an edit. Is it transformative? Does it matter? The fact it prompts those questions is enough to make me glad I watched it.

Regardless, it’s easily the best film version of the Langoliers out there right now, so there’s that.

“Prompt hoarding” and the future of art

Maybe it’s just that I lean towards the verbal over the visual, but the tweet above from Adam Holwerda struck a chord with me. As much as I agree that having serious conversations around algorithmic appropriation of artistic styles and tech firms profiting off of the labour of emerging artists is essential if we want to understand the impact of computer-generated imagery—as someone without much artistic ability, I can’t deny the appeal of being able to come up with ideas for imagery and within seconds seeing how a machine-learning model can approximate my vague visual suggestions. It’s something different from the feeling I get from actual artistic creation, but it was, to put it crudely, neat.

Switch the medium from visual art to the written word, though, and the criticisms of AI hit closer to home for me. The idea that “future writers are hoarders of prompts” strikes me as deeply dystopian, an abdication of the creative impulse to something superficially related but profoundly different. Because it reduces art to strictly something to be consumed, ignoring the other, literally creative side of the creative process—which is a profound and deeply rooted human drive, with its own inherent value for the creator.

The art that machine-learning creates is, in a way, utilitarian. This isn’t to say it can’t also be beautiful, just that regardless of the intent of the prompter, the goal of the software isn’t expression, it is matching a set of specifications. Its decisions stem from some mix of subject and style that is specified in an initial prompt and likely refined through a series of iterations, the text returning an image that inspires tweaks to the prompt, which returns slightly different images, and so on until an image arrives that is either sufficiently close to the prompter’s original vision, or interesting enough in its own right to be chosen as an end point.

In this sense, creating AI art, at least with our current tools and models, is somewhere between a commission and a negotiation (which all commissions are, to some extent). This isn’t to be dismissive of commissioned pieces, which account for a significant portion of Western art’s canonical works—although notably the credit for those works goes to the artist who made it, not the patron who commissioned it. Some artists are creating fascinating and compelling works with AI tools already, and I’m sure those works will only get more sophisticated. But it strikes me as a very different process from what I’ll call “direct creation” for lack of a better term (acknowledging that all artistic creation is mediated and indirect to at least some extent).

Direct creation involves a different sort of negotiation—a constant self-negotiation, both conscious and unconscious, to refine the ideas you’re exploring. This is something I’m much more familiar with in terms of the written word, so I’ll focus on that here: the value of writing for me isn’t in having an idea and formalizing it in words, but in having an impulse and working it through in the process of writing. It can be slow and painful and full of revision; it can be wonderfully quick in rare instances; but however it happens, it’s a process that relies on reflection, self-knowledge, and some degree of personal growth, however small or indirect.

Getting a finished novel that matched your initial idea to a tee strikes me as almost a monkey’s paw situation. It eliminates the possibility for growth in the artistic process, replacing it with something closer to wish fulfilment. Even ignoring the fact that the algorithmic version of art is one that almost by definiton limits itself to styles and techniques that have already been created, archived, and tagged as art, this sort of creation taken to its extreme (and the tech isn’t there yet) is essentially stagnant. At the risk of romanticizing struggle, eliminating any friction between the creative impulse and its execution robs the artistic process of opportunities for personal growth. You’re no longer working through ideas if the idea leads immediately to the finished work.

All that said, I could see the publishing industry going the route of AI-generated novels, as Holwerda’s tweet imagines. If it went that way, I doubt authors and publishers would be involved at all. It’d more likely be algorithms all the way down, a mix of trending topics and deep personalization that wouldn’t need human interference to maximize engagement and profit. If writing novels can be handed over to the machines, generating ideas for those novels certainly could be, too, with other algorithms surfacing the content most likely to be consumed by each individual. The notion that prompt generation is somehow more immune to automation than any other artistic field strikes me as almost wilfully naive.

The impulse for people to tell stories isn’t going to go away, though. The personal value in hammering out specific wordings, developing metaphors, and working through your own contradictory thoughts is probably significant enough to outweigh the easier but relatively shallower process of creating written works from prompt-generation, at least for a significant subset of people who have the impulse to write.

Maybe what ultimately comes of this is the separation of content generation from artistic creation. When a version of every imaginable image or premise (or melody or whatever else) is available with a few second’s effort, the consumptive side of art, of getting exactly the niche content we want to see, will be as easy as clicking OK. But the need for the creative side of art will still remain. The need to make things—to work through thoughts, to fine-tune compositions, to put your fingers on an instrument and see what sounds you can coax out of it—that experience of creation will remain essential to a well-rounded life.

Our relationship to art has changed dramatically in the last century. Before recorded music was widespread, group singing was common. Recorded music led to professionalization and a percieved separation between performers and listeners that has contributed to the idea that making music is a rarified skill instead of a fundamental part of being human. We’ve become increasingly isolated from forms of expression that should be as natural as breathing.

The onset of AI art might make that worse. If algorithmic art can achieve the sublime, or even approximate it, the entertainment industry is in for a profound reckoning. It might be enough to scare off human creators from even trying to match machine-generated works. Or, it might be freeing. It’s a long shot, but the glut of content might be the reminder we need that the value of art is as at least as much in its creation as in its consumption. At the very least, it’s unlikely that the impulse to create the old fashioned way will ever totally disappear. Whether those more hand-made creations hold any economic value in an algorithmically generated mass entertainment complex, well, only time will tell.

Nate Milton + This American Life tackle fossil fuels

Drawing of a hand holding a lump of coal between its thumb and index finger in front of a clear sky and glowing sun

Animator Nate Milton’s Eli was a highlight of 2019, a personal and highly ambitious dive into the worlds of manic delusion, magical thinking and high strangeness. Although he’s released a few odds and ends since then, he held off until yesterday to share another ambitious project: a trio of short films on fossil fuels and climate change, created in collaboration with This American Life and broadcaster Robert Krulwich.

Krulwich’s folksy narration and Milton’s loose, hand-drawn animation complement each other marvellously, each of them alternating between gravitas and whimsy, though not always at the same time. The science Krulwich shares here is nothing groundbreaking, but it’s presented clearly and creatively, outlining the scale of human consumption and not mincing words about the potential consequences. Milton’s love of science and reverence for the natural world come through in spades, his knack for distilling complex emotions into singular images serving him well in the world of science communication.

The trilogy premiered on CBS Sunday Morning in June, and all three together take less than 20 minutes to watch. Not a bad way to add some educational content to your media diet.

Morgan Szymanski and Tommy Perman – Music for the Moon and the Trees

An unorthodox and engrossing set of electroacoustic compositions, Music for the Moon and the Trees is an intercontinental collaboration between Mexican classical guitarist Morgan Szymanski and Scottish multidisciplinary artist Tommy Perman. Recorded in and around a cottage in rural Scotland, with samples and field recordings pulled into the mix, it is an album deeply rooted in the place it was created and the relationship between the two artists.

The album opens with “Moonrise (Luna de la Rosa)”, a lilting waltz spotlighting Szymanski’s inviting sense of melody. From that seemingly straightforward beginning, the album coaxes you into its world, becoming more mysterious with each track. The sparse, percussive “The Road to the Cottage” follows, the inventiveness of Perman’s production and the fluidity of Szymanski’s guitar coming into focus over the song’s six-minute run. You can almost feel the fog gathering round your ankles in “Danza del Fuego,” or picture yourself wandering into a clearing for “Canción de la Luna (Homage to Debussy),” enraptured by glimpses of nameless stars. By the time you reach the steady thrum of “Sarabande for the Souls,” the music has moved fully into the mystical, the night coming to life in the space where waking and dreams collide.

Unlike many albums that explore isolated locales and musical improvisation, Music for the Moon and the Trees doesn’t fall back on tape hiss or other lo-fi production to create its atmosphere. Clarity is the keyword here, every percussive pluck of Szymanski’s guitar captured with a crisp precision, even if it ends up run through a haze of reverb. As the wind rustles through the trees on closer “Down by Paddy’s Burn,” birds chirping in the distance, Perman and Szymanski return us safely to the waking world—refreshed and renewed, and if we’re lucky, a little more open to the magic of the night.