One year after its release, Bo Burnham released a series of outtakes and unused songs during the filming of his latest special “Inside.”
“Inside” is the very definition of a time capsule, where its subject matter and very existence are a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Being filmed over the course of a little over a year, the special not only shows Burnham’s comedic and musical brilliance but portrays the emotional and mental toll brought about by the pandemic in a disturbingly effective way. One year later, when the world has seemingly come back to normal, “Inside” reminds us of the solitary bliss of staying indoors while showing its grim consequences.
Filmed entirely in Burnham’s guest house, “Inside” comprises of several songs, skits and comedic interludes that range from white women’s Instagram accounts, white savior syndrome, the tactical approaches to sexting, the nightmare of turning 30 years old and the “quiet comprehending of the ending of it all.”
Visually, “Inside” is a DIY marvel, where wires and other pieces of equipment are strewn all across the floor. It shows that for all of the special’s technical brilliance and slick editing, it wouldn’t be so without the tedium known as the filmmaking process. How Bo is able to use the confined space and still adequately express the spectrum of deep emotions found here is nothing short of spectacular.
My initial reaction to “Inside” a year ago was a mix of awe and envy: awe that someone was capable of musical and visual creativity. The special remains one of the most singularly creative and artistically pure pieces of “content” out there, and it has only gotten better with age.
The feeling of envy came about for the exact same reason: the technical side of the special is second to none. Not only is the editing natural and ingenious enough to effectively land a punchline, Bo uses long takes to near-perfection with the camera slowly zooming in and out to ensure visual momentum. He’s his own writer, director, musician, lyricist, editor and star, making “Inside” a product of his vision in the purest sense.
Now, about those outtakes…
“The Inside Outtakes” is exactly what it sounds like: an hour-long making-of video that shows how much work, frustration and tedium the filmmaking process reliably delivers. The video shows the special’s well-known songs in their infancy through alternate angles, lyrics and even musical octaves. Unreleased songs about dumplings and a chicken crossing the road show Bo’s comedic sharpness as well as his penchant for sincerity in the most absurd of situations. While they are genuinely good songs, they likely would’ve felt out of place had they been in the initial tracklist. What made “Inside” so effective is that no song or skit overstayed its welcome. It has a certain brevity that managed to be brisk in its tempo but all comprehensive in its presentation and attention to detail.
Releasing the unreleased songs along with the behind-the-scenes footage is a filmmaker’s dream, allowing the viewer to appreciate just how much work went into making a single song. It’s slowly becoming a thing of the past since the bulk of streaming services don’t provide special features or commentaries for their catalog, so the mere existence of “The Inside Outtakes” is a welcome throwback for people who care about how their favorite piece of media came to be.
If “Inside” is a showcase of singular creativity, its outtakes celebrate what that ingenuity consists of. Filmmaking is a slow-moving, tedious, frustrating, time-consuming, brain fogging, rewarding and fulfilling journey and the outtakes reflect that in such a refreshing way. We already know how talented Bo is, but to see how his latest masterwork takes shape is a testament to his commitment and unconditional love for what he does for a living. He clearly cares about his work, willing to make a piece that is as hilarious as it is disarming and painfully vulnerable. Whatever he does next, whether it be a film or another special in front of an audience, Bo Burnham’s talent reflects the patience and emotional awareness needed to realize an artist’s vision.
On a cold December afternoon, my dad, brother, and I did what we usually do when we weren’t at school or work: go to the movies. The movie in question? A 3:40 screening of “Django Unchained” at Studio Movie Grill’s Spring Valley location.
I’d never seen a Quentin Tarantino film before Django. Of course, I had heard of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds and the quotes that have since been ingrained in normal, everyday speech. I didn’t know what to expect, apart from a lotta violence, a lotta blood, and a hemorrhage-inducing amount of the n-word.
At that time, I had a pretty decent movie palette. Granted, I was 16 at the time so I wasn’t hunting down showtimes for Oscar-hopeful films like I do now. Still, I more or less had an idea of what I look for in the movies I watch. I’ve been watching movies all my life, having core memories revolve around the buzzing of a movie projector and the wonderland that once was known as Blockbuster.
Even then, with a probably above-average handle on the cinematic language for a 16-year-old, I wasn’t prepared for what awaited me that night at the cinemas.
Chapter 2 – Cinema Speculation
Tarantino has been going on a book tour to promote his new book Cinema Speculation. His second foray into book writing, this one differs wildly from his Once Upon a Time in Hollywood novelization. While that was a literary adaptation of his film (a damn good one I should say), Cinema Speculation is a collection of film essays. All of the films here were released in the 1970s, all of them Tarantino had seen when they were first released. Quentin was born in ’63, meaning he’d seen the likes of Taxi Driver and Deliverance when he was in middle school.
Though I haven’t finished reading the book at the time of writing (about ~90 pages away), I’m fairly certain my loves and misgivings of the book remain in the final stretch. They are as follows:
You’re likely reading Cinema Speculation if you’re a fan of Tarantino, meaning you’ll likely love how his characters longwindedly wax poetic about any which subject. That writing style remains intact here and shines during the more memoir-ish chapters.
The book is bookended by these chapters, where Quentin recounts his moviegoing experiences as a kid and teenager. He gives profiles on the people who shape those experiences — his mother, his mother’s boyfriends, his mother’s roommates, his stepfather, and a guy named Reggie, on whom the final chapter is focused.
He gives these “characters” the kind of care and attention he famously gives to his films’ characters. A Tarantino memoir written in Tarantino prose — you already know if you’re on board or not.
As for the film essays themselves, that’s where the book becomes a mixed bag. I’m not going to critique the book based on how few of the films here I’ve seen (I’ve only seen Taxi Driver). What I will say is Quentin does very little to contextualize whatever he’s referencing. The man has a dense cinematic vocabulary and he’ll name films and actors someone like me has never heard of.
Though I don’t expect Quentin to stop the narrative by explaining every little reference, the reader is likely left to draw their own conclusions as to what he’s referring to. This isn’t an isolated incident, however. Films like Pulp Fiction and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are fueled by pop culture references that you’d only know if you lived during those times.
It just works better in films because (1. You can infer what they’re talking about within the context of the conversation. (2. It’s not the narrative’s focus, whereas Cinema Speculation more or less depends on these references to get its point across.
Granted, there is a charm to Tarantino knowingly or unknowingly flexing his film knowledge with little regard. He’s a film geek through and through, a filmmaker’s filmmaker. Whether he’s writing or directing, his craftsmanship is shaped by what he’s seen, not by rigid academic theory.
In that regard, my biggest problem with the book can be seen as a likable quirk. For better or worse, it sure is a Quentin Tarantino book written exactly how you think it would be.
Part film essay collection and film memoir, Quentin Tarantino’s Cinematic Speculation is a fun and interesting read. At the very least, his analyses of the films here are thorough and, well, interesting compared to other written pieces.
Reading him analyze a filmmaker’s storytelling abilities also reveals how he tells stories. One line stands out when talking about the morality of a film’s characters:
“It takes a magnificent filmmaker to thoroughly corrupt an audience.”
Do I think Tarantino is calling himself a magnificent filmmaker? No, or at least not knowingly. He’s in full audience member mode here, appreciating how the best storytellers can enchant their audience with even the despicable of characters.
Chapter 3 – Austin, Texas: November 12, 2022
I’m sitting down at the upper middle level of the Paramount Theatre with my best friend Luca. I’d only heard that Tarantino was promoting his new book a week or so before the event. Ten years after I’d seen Django Unchained for the first time, I’ve now seen all of his films multiple times and can comfortably call him my favorite filmmaker. And here I was, about to see the man himself LIVE and in the flesh.
Anyone who’s seen a Tarantino interview knows how gregarious and animated he can be. It’s such a disorienting feeling to have some of the most violent and at-times mean spirited films to be created by a cheery, extroverted guy.
I was starstruck to see Tarantino with my own eyes. To physically see someone who you’ve only known through a television or film projector prior genuinely confused my brain.
The event goes at the typical pace of a book panel: the author talks about the book’s inception, the author gives anecdotes that are already found in the book before saying “but you gotta read the book to know the rest of the story.”
Side note: all ticketholders received a free copy of Cinema Speculation. It’s cool in concept, but if you don’t have a tote bag and want to walk around Austin nightlife afterward, you’ll be carrying that book with you looking like a salesman.
What struck me about the event was whenever Quentin talked about his writing process. He didn’t detail how he writes, but he did describe something all writers go through: struggling with half-baked ideas, turning in a piece that isn’t as strong as you know it can be, or not doing the amount of work you know you’re capable of.
It was incredibly eye-opening to hear a two-time Oscar-winning writer reflect on his struggles as a writer. Though Tarantino has a legendary body of work, he ceases to come off as pretentious or overly serious when talking about his craft. Filmmaking is work, and he knows it’s work. He just so happens to love it.
The event concluded with Quentin reading a chapter of the book, the last chapter of the book. Titled “*Floyd Footnote,” he tells the story of a man named Reggie, a Black man who his mom was dating at the time.
By this point of the book, it’s well established how his mother would have her boyfriend accompany little Quentin to the movie theaters. If you can hang with little Quentin (which is a tall order when it comes to movies), you’re alright in her book.
What makes Reggie a cut above (for little Quentin at least) her mom’s potential suitors is his impressive film knowledge. The book goes into little Quentin’s vetting process, which is both endearing and not-at-all surprising to know what that process consisted of.
Long story short, Reggie was an aspiring screenwriter. He’d even written a screenplay, which became the very first script little Quentin had ever read.
What was the screenplay about? A western starring a Black cowboy.
Epilogue – Dallas, Texas: December 26, 2012
I credit Django Unchained for making me see film through a different lens. Something clicked on that cold December night. I realized that a film could be so much more than a way to kill the time. With the right filmmaker, it could be an immersive, visceral, enlightening, and personal experience. It is a superb way for a filmmaker to express themselves with the unwieldy combination of sight and sound.
Django Unchained is a wildly creative, expressive, and at-times maniacal piece of filmmaking. Its writing, directing, performances, and soundtrack all blend together to make something wholly unique and entertaining. In parts hilarious, terrifying, disturbing, endearing, epic, and genuinely sweet, it’s a perfect example of a filmmaker seeing their creative vision through to the end.
Is it perfect? No. It’s not even my second or third favorite Tarantino film.
Is it a masterpiece? To me, yes.
Are the controversies and criticisms surrounding the film — particularly the use of the n-word — valid? In short, yes. *
Nevertheless, my film palette and my reason for loving film as an art form forever changed that night 10 years ago, and I genuinely believe that no one other than Quentin Tarantino could do that.
To hear that Django Unchained came from a deeply personal part of Quentin’s life, where he was basically given the blueprint on how to make movies, was heartwarming. My love for the film had little to do with his personal life and more with my own, the context of my life at the time.
I have a deeply personal connection to that film, which makes films so magical. We all watch the same film but get different things out of it, whether those opinions are shaped by our personal experiences, our moods, or even how we felt going into the theater.
I knew very little about Tarantino’s process in making Django Unchained compared to his other works. However, hearing him talk about how a seminal, bittersweet memory of his youth made me love the film even more.
He’ll never know how much it shaped my current love for film, nor does he have to. He made the film he wanted to make with unbridled passion and maybe even a touch of bittersweetness. The rest took care of itself.
*However, Quentin sees to it that all those slave owners and brutal bigots get their violent comeuppance in ultra-satisfying fashion. I don’t buy the argument that Quentin is racist or malicious with his writing (To me, Pulp Fiction has a more questionable use of the word than Django. And the scene in question involves the writer/director himself).
When I finally walked across that stage, fake diploma in my hand, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed by what was happening. I graduated high school, a 13-year marathon of awkward adolescence. For years it was built up as a grand conclusion to the first leg of my life. In many ways, it was an end: the rigid school schedule I’d known my whole life vanished in place of the more sparse but considerably more difficult layout of college life. Not having to wake up early in the morning sounds like the stuff of dreams for a high school student, but it wasn’t without its caveats.
There is a disguised beauty within a rigid schedule, especially when it comes to school. You make friends along the way who likely share your teen angst and dislike of waking up early. Like shitty retail jobs, you develop a bond through that baptism under fire. Some of my best friendships would never be if it weren’t for that old-fashioned, exhausting schedule.
This last week has put me in a reflective mood. I start my senior year of college tomorrow, something I didn’t think was possible a few years ago. Although much of my high school class have finished their leg of the race, I thankfully don’t feel like I’m lagging behind or wasted (too much) of my 20’s. I admit that I stayed in community college a few semesters too many, but if I didn’t take random classes like political science or history of film, I may have never thought to become a journalism major.
My time in Collin College, as scatterbrained as it often was, let me experiment and try classes out, not caring how they’d contribute to my degree plan. I realized that my favorite assignments, no matter the subject, were usually essays or research papers. I will never forget going to a theater production of the musical “First Date” and writing a review of one of my class assignments. The play itself was pretty basic, not trying to reinvent the wheel. However, it was superbly well done and the actors’ energy was contagiously enjoyable. I loved every minute because I was watching people do what they love and love what they do.
I wrote a glowing review of the production, complimenting the performances and how they elevated the material into something that felt fresh and unique. That’s the beauty of theatre and I will never not love that.
My theatre professor took me aside on the last day of class and told me how much she loved what I wrote. I never had a professor tell me anything like that and I could only manage to hastily give my thanks. She then asked me, with the utmost sincerity and even a bit of concern, whether not I knew I had a talent for writing. I will never forget that. Just writing this is making my eyes glisten. It was at that moment that I knew if I was going to seriously pursue a profession, it had to do something with writing.
I’ve been thinking about that moment and, save for a couple of needless detours between then and now, how that was the first time I had a roadmap for a career. Every bit of success I’ve had in college wouldn’t be so if I didn’t write about a play that I had no prior plans of watching.
I was overly hyped about my senior year in high school. The finality of it all made me want to make every day special and amazing. I still appreciate where I was coming from then. At that time, I felt like I was finally enjoying high school and wanted that final year to be as eventful and spectacular as possible.
The paradox in trying to make every moment, every day as its own special thing is that it ceases to be unique. Trying to replicate the “good times” is what’s known as spiritual addiction, a completely normal attempt to coordinate the present moment to echo the triumphs of yesterday. I had a healthy helping of spiritual addiction at that time and, long story short, I learned about it the hard way.
Our greatest memories do not come from an intent to “have a good time” or meet the objective of making this the best day ever. Those fleeting delights are brought up from mindfulness, to be fully present in that moment. Trying to orchestrate or micromanage our daily lives in an attempt to reach that high is a losing battle because we’re trying to make this moment what it isn’t. I was emotionally and physically burned out from running a needless race, cowering from social situations and reverting to norms that made me too comfortable.
And then I graduated. Even though I appreciated that I made it this far, I knew I would’ve had to make an asserted effort to not walk that stage. I finished the race, not out of my own volition, but because that’s how it worked. I didn’t feel like I earned it, even though people gave their congratulations to a nauseating degree.
Six years later, I find myself on the eve of another senior year, this time on my own terms. Though I feel anxious about the classes I’m taking, not to mention stepping foot in a classroom in nearly a year, I know these problems are good problems. They are a byproduct of taking the extra step, of betting on myself, of seeing things through.
The year that awaits me is likely going to be a stressful one, full of challenges and even doubts. Come what may, I hope to take things as they come and recognize them for what they are, not what they are not or what they should be. If I do that, if you do that, somewhere in the challenges and countless existential crises will there be moments of clarity, honesty and joy.
Today is effectively the last day of summer for me. I’m scheduled to work tomorrow and through the whole weekend, with classes starting the very next day on Monday. Thus, I bid farewell to a subsection of one of the weirdest yet informative times of my life.
Though classes are starting again, and I do have to physically be at one of them (wish me luck), quarantine is still the dominant norm with my family and social circle. Rightfully so: COVID 19 cases are rising along with the mortality rate, so I’m very fortunate that both my friends and family are taking this pandemic with the seriousness it warrants.
My last several posts will help illustrate the point I’m trying to make. This summer, hell, this year has been the weirdest I’ve ever lived through. We’re not even ¾ of the way through and the world seems to be falling deeper into its own insanity with each flip of the calendar. Despite my news diet consisting of mainly despair and reminding one’s self of life’s fragility, I’ve had some incredibly eye opening and enlightening experiences that I don’t think I would’ve had if not for quarantine.
To start somewhat on a trivial note, I’ve seen a lot of films and TV shows. Like, a lot. The at-the-time newfound free time saw me beginning each day with a new film, and ending that day with another. I had finally seen films that were gathering dust on my digital queue such as The Fighter, 127 Hours, Trainspotting, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
I also fell back in love with sports, namely basketball, through The Last Dance. I was a massive basketball/football fan back in grade school, losing interest around my early high school days. However, the documentary’s marriage of its endlessly fascinating subject and incredible nonfiction storytelling captivated me from its opening moments. I truly believe that you don’t have to be a basketball fan to enjoy The Last Dance. The stories told and lessons taught throughout the series go beyond a basketball court. These are people endlessly perfecting their craft, to be they very best player they can possibly be. Michael Jordan’s maniacal work ethic is the stuff of legend, and though it had been well documented before, the series’ production value and never-before-seen footage make for an incredible feat of documentary filmmaking.
Okay, tangent over.
I’ve also been more consistent with writing/posting here than in previous summers, which is a plus if I want writing to pay the bills. Some of my favorite work has been done over the course of the summer, namely the recent Disaster Artist and Blade Runner pieces. Even if I was critical with the former, writing and researching films help me appreciate the gargantuan process of making a movie, even the shitty ones.
The buildup to a new semester usually wraps me in a blanket of anxiety and irrational stress. Whether it was the high school worries of missing a bus, the community college scare of adjusting to a post-high school life, or a university plight of insufficient funds, a day like today is supposed to be a dreadful one. Oddly enough, I find my worries to be more, how you say, adult?
More than ever am I focusing on my own health, that being physical, mental, and emotional. Though I consistently lose the battle of checking my phone incessantly throughout the livelong day, I’ve begun to find the root to this years-long problem: I get hooked on doing one thing at a time. As a result, I try to occupy my time with things that are not phone based: writing, reading, meditating, checking the mail (yes, really) and listening to new music. So far it hasn’t been perfect, but my dopamine withdrawals are gradually lowering, all in the name of being a functioning human being.
Though this summer wasn’t defined by a trip planned long in advance, (prepare for pretentiousness), summer 2020 has shown me the importance of finding myself, or at least the pursuit of it. Attaining and achieving perfection is not possible, but there are so many things to be and to strive for than flawlessness. Messing up, falling on your face is the tried and true way to improve in life.
I have learned that not being happy all the time is okay and completely normal. To be in constant pursuit of that thing called happiness is an exhausting and often unfruitful endeavor. I grew up with a stigma that being unhappy or melancholic was seen as problematic. Sadness, dissatisfaction is the brain’s way of expressing that things can be better, not a death sentence. The idea of “achieving” anything has grown to be an arbitrary and disingenuous one, especially in the world of social media. Proclaiming one’s self as happy or satisfied is a declaration that never needed to be made. Dopamine and the feeling of unhappiness go hand in hand, ironically enough.
Alas, I quite enjoyed writing more stream-of-consciousness pieces over these last few weeks, and for the sake of consistency, they will be a staple in this blog. Writing brings a creative energy that I was lacking in years’ past, and entering a more consequential part of my degree plan, I need all the help I can get. This will continue to be unprecedented times as I go to physical class sessions for the first time since March. It is a bit daunting, but in the name of a change in aesthetic, I suppose I’ll go get an education.
A lot of my reading during this prolonged, indefinite period of quarantining happen to be works that have been adapted to other mediums. Adaptations are nothing new, so I was bound to consume media that first saw success in a different format. From reading the A Song of Ice and Fire books out of my love of Game of Thrones and disappointment of the later seasons, or reading the grisly Helter Skelter out of the intrigue Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood hinted at, my reading choices have been mainly laid on the foundation for film and television.
The Disaster Artist is no exception.
When released in theaters in the winter of 2017, the film quickly became my favorite among an incredibly strong roster of pictures released that year. The Room had become something of Hollywood legend, and to witness the making of the “Citizen Kane of bad movies” was an experience I couldn’t say no to. The film was my fourth favorite film that year, as I praised its subject matter, James Franco’s acting/directing abilities, and an inspirational message that could have easily fallen on its face if handled badly. However, like The Room, it was a rousing success, though one that was intended, unlike The Room.
Nearly three years later, I finally sat down and began to read the book that the film was based on: The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell. Like its cinematic counterpart, it chronicles the tumultuous production of The Room as well as the friendship between star/author Sestero (Mark in The Room) and writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau. As far as premises go, the film and book seem to go hand in hand, and rightfully so, the story told through both mediums does have to do with the making of a film and a friendship during the film’s production.
I completely understand when film adaptations modify or change things around from the source material. What works and soars in a film might hinder and halt a book’s momentum, and vice versa. Changes are always needed to be made especially when strictly adapting a book to a film with 100% faithfulness results in something more akin to a slow, meandering miniseries. If the soul of the original work is there, the adapted work has effectively done its job in transposing a story to a new medium. This is very much a tightrope act that we have seen work beautifully in the past with its fair share of shameless duds.
This is where I find myself conflicted about The Disaster Artist. I remember loving the film when it first came out, and though I still very much like it now, I can now say Franco and co. did not do the book justice. I hate the adage of “the book was better” schtick as much as the next person but hear me out.
My main gripe with the film adaptation isn’t so much of what it omits and adds, it’s how it omits and adds to its source material. If you only saw the film, you would think the crux of the story is the phenomenon that is The Room, and the beginnings of its unlikely legacy. The book touches on that, yes, but finds much more value on Sestero’s and Wiseau’s unlikely friendship and how they unexpectedly push each other to be better. Greg’s story is one of finding success in Hollywood, a haven for the has-been’s and could’ve-been’s and never-was’ with the occasional few who make it. Tommy’s tale is one of hardship, an underdog who (allegedly) knew great hardship and witnessed the ugly side of humanity, miraculously making something of himself as he seeks success and fame in America.
The film treats Greg’s career aspirations/progress as a way to establish character beats: his first time in an agency shows his lack of experience and wide eyed ambition, whereas his later excelling in the theater signifies his growth in talent well after The Room wrapped. In the scene where he reluctantly shaves his beard even if keeping it meant a role in Malcolm in the Middle, these actions are in service to The Room and Greg’s involvement. The book touches on the same situations, though the whole Malcolm thing is a fictional add on, but having it told through Greg’s perspective shows how his career and his relationships were impacted by his decision to help Tommy on his passion project. The book communicates how consequential and significant his time during The Room’s production was to his career and life, whereas the film opts to show it as this lightning in a bottle moment in history that would change cinema. It did just that, to a certain extent, but Greg’s detailing of events is far more personal and intimate, bringing new life and personality to the filmmaking process.
I wouldn’t call Franco’s film a bad adaptation. It delivers on the same initial premise as its source material: a peek behind the curtain on how The Room was made. It’s hilarious, well-acted, and oddly inspirational. Tommy and Greg are depicted as underdogs trying to make it into an industry where there’s more self-loathing to go around than actual success. It is incredibly effective at that front.
The film is instead a misguided adaptation, failing to recognize Sestero’s and Bissell’s chief sentiment in the book. The making of The Room is the initial selling point, but Greg’s and Tommy’s pursuit for Hollywood glory, individually and as a collective, is what makes The Disaster Artist special. Perhaps this was never meant to made into a film, especially with its star power and A24’s prominence as a production company. To have James Franco, a Hollywood staple who has long enjoyed considerable success over his career, tell the story of two friends pursuing success in Hollywood is a damaging decision in hindsight. Though readers might feel burned after watching the film adaptation, it is no surprise that Franco is more attracted to the production side of things and opting to leave the friendship angle as a backdrop rather than the whole point of the story.
Again, The Disaster Artist, both book and film, is an incredibly fascinating and unlikely success story of how a terribly beloved film came to be. As two separate entities, however, one is sorely lacking the heart and endearing quality that made the other a must read. The woes of this adaptation are hardly about what was added and what was shelved to save time, but how one storyteller prioritized one aspect of the story that was never meant to take center stage. In a way, a misguided adaptation can hurt more than a bad adaptation. The film constantly flirts with the greatness found in the book that it is almost infuriating that The Disaster Artist’s heart and core never truly got its due.
You can almost say that it was tearing me apart (Lisa!).
Update: I did go on a jog, though I can’t remember if it was on that day. Likewise, with the help of the “Balance” app, I have done a couple of meditation sessions, mostly focusing on breath control. Haven’t felt instant results, but I’m pretty sure the point of meditation is based upon consistency rather than the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
Now that I have more or less settled into the new house, I have am back to my regularly scheduled program of relentlessly checking social media with the thought of doing something productive constantly on the back of my mind. It’s been a struggle, but not without its small, important victories.
I finally finished A Storm of Swords, the third book of the A Song of Ice and Fire series. I don’t exactly remember when I started reading it, but I do know that it took me less time to complete than it did A Clash of Kings and slightly more time to finish A Game of Thrones. Both are considerably shorter reads, so to complete such a dense book in that team is a personal achievement I never even thought of a year ago.
I absolutely adored this book. Relative to Game of Thrones, it’s basically seasons 3 and 4, considered by many to be the show’s peak in quality, myself included. Not only was it Thrones at the height of its powers, offering the very best of its crowded ensemble, it’s also George R.R. Martin having a firm grasp of Westeros and its inhabitants. Having the story be told through the perspective of characters offers a subjective quality and emotion that is missing through the television medium. Don’t get me wrong, I love the show (past a certain season), but to get into the psyches of these beloved characters offered an experience that was familiar yet unpredictable. Just as the previous books and seasons, there are enough similarities and differences to make both iterations absolutely worthwhile. I intend on starting A Feast for Crows soon, but not before I cross a few off my non-Westeros list first…
The day after completing ASOS, I started re-reading Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck (uncensored as the author intends). I first read it back in 2017 still in community college and loved it then, though I felt there I had lived enough years to revisit the book with a more mature, sober, and even weary view of the world. This most recent read has been incredibly rewarding and fulfilling, with its cold hard truths coming off as less a mean spirited declaration and instead a more meditative, commanding approach to life. It is an absolute must read in a time where the overabundance of literally everything hampers our ways to prioritize what we can and should “give a fuck” about it in life.
Currently, I am doing another reread: Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance. I read this around the same period of time as Subtle Art and had the same reasons to justify a revisit. Having just past the first chapter, I instantly remember just how Aziz’s style of comedy is perfectly shown here. His writing voice effortlessly captures his high energy, practically being able to hear his voice while reading. Master of None is my all time favorite Netflix exclusive, so having Aziz explore love and relationships across history is an obvious match made in heaven (no romantic pun intended).
If anyone is interested, here is a list of books I mean to read before coming back to Westeros:
I have finally started watching films on a more consistent basis, crossing a few titles off my evergrowing list. I may or may not write about them since many of them have been ones that have been talked about, analyzed, discussed to death.
I am super pumped for the new Charlie Kaufman film I’m Thinking of Ending Things, based on the book of the same name by Iain Reid. Yes, the same Iain Reid you see on my reading list. I LOVED that book as it provided one of the longest, most intense, and engaging reading sessions I’ve ever had. Not only do I look forward to reading more of Reid’s work, I’m intrigued to see how Kaufman adapts the novel. Thinking about, its themes and subjects are tailor made for his style, one that is existentially self-aware and comedic, often veering into a horrifically depressing truth. Perhaps I’ll write about how the film and book compare since adaptations will never be a perfectly faithful play by play of the written word. Certain things work for films and those same things can be hindrances when reading a book. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Speaking of book/film adaptations, The Disaster Artist is an interesting case to study. I loved the film when it first released, but after having read the book, I feel… different. Alas, that is a different conversation for a different time.
Before I started writing this, I googled “what I should write about” and the gist was to write how you feel. There were suggestions about writing about a moment where you learned a life changing lesson that still resonates with you to this very day. Since I haven’t started writing my autobiography (yet), I will save the valuable life lessons for such a project.
As I alluded to in my previous post, four months of quarantine is less than ideal way to spend your time, especially when those four months consist of taking super important college courses and your summer. I feel like I’ve been “on” for the last year of my life. Fall 2019 was my first semester in University (better late than never) and just the registration process brought its share of uncertainty and dread. Luckily, my counselors and academic advisors eased the transition from the familiar community college environment to the “big time”. I honestly imagined Uni as a long winded hypothetical that I had little intention to entertain. Once I decided to pursue journalism, however, a refreshing reality began to set in. The hypothetical materialized into something that I wasn’t dreading, but actively pursuing.
Long story short, the fall semester was the most successful term of my academic career, both on the academic and literary front. Though I’m proud of my grades, I genuinely felt like I improved as a writer, learning how to be more critical and observant of my work. For the first time, I considered the reader more than literary flashiness. Anyone can use big and flashy words, but if it veers into pretentiousness, what’s the point? Don’t worry, fellow reader, I’m aware how ridiculous this sounds coming from me.
I also fell back in love with reading. I spent the last day of the first week going to the campus library to check out A Game of Thrones since I was a huge fan of the show but was burned by the last season. It was a perfect book to read at for a lapsed reader since I was already familiar with its content. It had enough similarities and differences from its show counterpart to be an engaging and captivating read. I am currently on A Storm of Swords, loving every bit of it.
Longer story short, the winter break and Spring semester did not offer much in the way of a time to “stop”. Throw in financial anxieties and family tragedy to make a stew of uncertainty. Sprinkle that with the shit show that is 2020 and you’ve got yourselves a buffet of self-loathing that serves nothing but the freshest cuts of emotional vagueness (remember what I said about pretentiousness?).
I also moved into a new city that is a far cry to what I had been used to virtually my whole life. Any drive to anywhere now likely involves getting on the freeway, which is far to begin with. Gone is the convenience of having a grocery store and pizza place within walking distance. Because of this, I dread going out, in a pandemic no less.
Still, the upcoming semester is a month away, naturally bringing lots of uncertainty. I am not overly fond of online courses, especially the ones pertaining to my major. Also, I have no earthly idea how the one in-class course is gonna go. More than most states, Texas has had the worst luck trying to combat a pandemic in part to shrewd and thoughtless business decisions.
I find myself in an empty house, as I often have throughout this year. I don’t know what I’ll be doing after I finish writing this. Maybe I’ll go for that jog or complete a meditation session that I have been putting off for far too long. We’ll just have to wait and see.
There is a short sequence in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread that has stuck with me for some reason. In the first few minutes of the picture, Daniel Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock is doing his morning routine consisting of washing his face, cleaning his shoes with fingertip precision, trimming his nose and ear hair, applying facial cream (or makeup, I know nothing of cosmetics), brushing his hair, and finally dressing up using a stool. To most, this 30 second sequence is little more than an introduction to a protagonist getting ready for the day ahead of him. On repeated viewings, however, this is a prologue to the OCD fueled madness that defines Woodcock as well as his relationship with Alma. It’s a brilliant start to a film that focuses on themes of routine and love’s undoing of anything conventional.
Don’t get me wrong, Phantom Thread makes it abundantly clear that this is an inherit flaw in Reynolds’ character. He is naturally controlling, commanding, and demanding to have his entire household the exact way he wants. No more, no less.
As a 20-something who didn’t even know such a morning routine was possible, I was awestruck by Reynolds’ focus on activities that I view as “boring”. I know I’m not alone when I admit that my morning routine often includes waking up, hoping that I have enough time to sleep before my alarm goes off, check my usual roulette of social media apps for an unsettling amount of time before I finally decide to get out of bed after finding the perfect YouTube video to brush my teeth to. Depending whether I’m home alone or not, a single earbud will be used. After breakfast, I once again go on social media, knowing full well that I ought to make better use of my time before the inevitable shame I feel once the clock strikes noon. Reynolds Woodcock harnesses more discipline and composure in a single morning routine than I can even think of in an entire morning (sometimes a day).
We are around 4 months into quarantine. I stay home all day, apart from the occasional grocery store visit and ill-advised trip to a fast food drive thru. Habits are said to take 3 weeks to be developed. By now, I am a phone checking, feed refreshing champion. Nomophobia is the name of this tired game, and this period of home-bodying has enhanced its symptoms tenfold.
As I look across the window showcasing the entire neighborhood, I feel reluctance in providing anything resembling a solution to this issue. I made a similar post about phone addiction and poor time management about 3 years ago. I did not pose an answer to the always prevalent question of “how do I beat this?” and I still draw a blank now. It is past noon at the time of writing this, so I lost this round. Another day will come, as it always and reliably does. I will be dealt the same bill of goods and likely make the same choice as I have in days (or years) past. Knowing is half the battle, but what matters is what half I subscribe to.
I watch Blade Runner 2049 every few months. Like getting together with an old friend, rewatching a film you love offers the chance to learn about the subject that you didn’t before. The more you watch a film, the closer you feel how the filmmakers do. Every line of dialogue, choice of lighting, camera angle, inflection from the actors develop a life of its own, telling a story that enriches your experience and appreciation of the film.
2049 is the closest thing to a masterpiece that I’ve seen this decade. From a technical front, director Denis Villeneuve’s masterful filmmaking coupled with Roger Deakins’ immaculate cinematography is an achievement of sight and sound. I can hardly think of another film with a better marriage of visual effects and practical work. Couple that with the time of the film’s release: 2017 was yet another lucrative year for sequels, reboots and remakes. Films like The Last Jedi, Guardians Vol. 2, Beauty and the Beast, and even Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle have all become smash hits for their respective studios, reinforcing their insistence on pushing well known properties and betting less on original stories. Yes, 2017 was admittedly a fruitful year for originality, with Get Out, Baby Driver and Dunkirk all turning up a considerable profit on just name and filmmaker alone.
The success, or lack thereof, of the original Blade Runner is well documented. It failed to match the success of its sci fi contemporaries like Star Wars or E.T. It was also met with polarized reviews from audiences who likely expected something resembling those films, not an existential dream in a potentially realistic future. Harrison Ford wasn’t the quippy wise guy, instead playing a character who felt instead of reacting, seeing instead of watching. There is also the near comical number of versions the film has: the theatrical, the theatrical international, the director’s and the Final Cut. Sure, this finally gave Ridley Scott the chance to realize his vision, but probably left some viewers cold, especially those who loved the theatrical version as it was (ask David O’Russell).
Alas, the Final Cut is the definitive, most comprehensive version of Blade Runner. It’s use of symbolism, lack of narration and sudden yet fulfilling ending make for a hallmark of the science fiction genre.
Now, about that ending. Deckard and Rachel board the elevator, the screen cutting to black as it closes. Where do they go? Where can they go? The ambiguity of the ending is clearly intentional, as for once in his miserable existence, Rick Deckard made a decision for himself: not as a Blade Runner, or an errand boy, but as a free man. There was never a clear cut ending, those questions were never answered, just the fact those questions were being asked in the first place is the answer itself: he chose to run.
That’s why the idea of a sequel bothered me. The lack of true resolution was the point. To continue the Blade Runner story almost certainly meant the mystery was going to be solved, and any answer to those burning questions was never going to be good enough. How was revisiting Rick Deckard not going to wipe away the mystique of his decision to take his life into his own hands?
2049 answers some questions, yes, but, miraculously, retains the original’s ambiguity and even improves it at some points: focusing on Deckard, the revelation that his first meeting with Rachael was not only planned, but was purposely done to attract him to her, the first Replicant who can reproduce. That iconic moment in cinema, that fateful moment in Deckard’s life, once thought to be the prelude to his eventual liberation was actually another example of him being a pawn to an infinitely bigger game. Sure he was no longer a hired gun, but in place of a gun, it was love, love that would act as Tyrell’s next advancement in Replicant technology. He was never free, even with the person he loved most. It makes it all the more tragic when we finally do see Deckard. It’s lightyears away from Han Solo’s homecoming in The Force Awakens or the iconic silhouette of Ford’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull introduction. Here is a man who never wanted to be found, whose main claim to his supposed freedom was his absence, a refusal to be part of the bigger picture.
The subject of his humanity is sneakily brought up, with K asking if Deckard’s dog is real, with his follow-up being, “I don’t know, ask him”. It’s a quick exchange and viewers can easily miss its importance on first viewing when they’re expecting a grand build up to the biggest mystery of the Blade Runner mythos. Deckard’s dismissal of that question reveals more of his identity than “yes, he’s a Replicant” could ever do. It never mattered if he were human or replicant: the original showed the lust for life that were present in the rogue Replicants and were perpetually missing in the aimless humans of Los Angeles. They made more with their limited time than what humans could ever dream of. They were fully aware that they were on borrowed time, and in the search of prolonging their lives, they had more purpose and conviction than the lowly Blade Runner hired to retire them. The real question was never whether or not Deckard was a Replicant, it’s whether or not he actually lived at all.
In a way, Ryan Gosling’s K goes through a similar crisis in purpose. A Replicant Blade Runner made to retire all older models is the epitome of a lost identity. He justifies his killing because he sees the older models as runaways, criminals who purposely avoid punishment. His journey begins when Sapper Morton ridicules him and his life’s choices. “Because you’ve never seen a miracle”, he tells him, moments before meeting his end. That bit of dialogue sticks with K especially when the LAPD discovers the remains of an older model Replicant who had the ability to reproduce, a first in Replicant technology. He then recounts his childhood memories, acknowledging they’re not his own given his species. Assigned to find the identity of the Replicant child, his trip to an orphanage triggers those very memories, making him wonder if they were real. Once the memory is confirmed to be real by Replicant memory designer Ana Stelline, K is distraught, traumatized by the idea that he himself is the child.
Of course, it turns out to be false. He wasn’t Rachael’s or Deckard’s child. The idea of a “special” person has never been Blade Runner’s cup of tea. Deckard and K are protagonists, yes, but are vessels, biproducts of the world around them. It was only through virtual assistant Joi that K ever felt a sense of community. Achieving existential sobriety when he finally wises up that Joi said, did and was whatever he needed her to be. From Wallace Corporation’s view, he’s a satisfied customer. As a living being, only a delusion of grandeur gave him purpose. K rescues a kidnapped Deckard and stages his death, throwing off the scent of antagonist Niander Wallace as well as the Replicant Freedom Movement. He sacrifices himself so Deckard can finally and safely be a father to his daughter (earlier revealed to be Stelline). K genuinely achieves obtains the freedom of choice, while Deckard was given the chance to do more than choose, he can finally, truly, unconditionally love. They were never special, even when Deckard discovers the mere illusion of choice, and K confronting the possibility of his greater destiny. This exceptionalism just isn’t so.
Perhaps that’s why 2049 was seemingly destined to commercially flop. For all the series’ fans and critics who deem either film as a masterpiece, it never adhered to the easy whims of nostalgia or fan service. It was never designed to be a gateway to more films in the series, a trend that is prevalent to this very day. Villeneuve committed the ultimate tight rope act in making a sequel to a film whose reputation and significance within cinema was arguably misguided. This was never going to have the same pomp and circumstance that a traditional sequelwould have. It was never going to be a walk down memory lane, because people hardly get nostalgic over their last existential crisis. When the opening text crawl fades and all that is left are the red letters of “Blade Runner”, it was never meant to be a sign of triumph or endearment: It was pity.
In a Hollywood Reporter roundtable for the 2018 awards season, Spike Lee asked Alfonso Cuaron how he did “that shot”. He was, of course, referring to Roma’s climactic, one shot sequence where protagonist Cleo saves two of the family’s children from getting caught in a strong current despite not knowing how to swim. The family embraces Cleo and expresses their love for her and her selflessness, before admitting a truth that makes it even sadder and more powerful. All of this is done through a single, uninterrupted take, scored only by the crashing waves and the aching authenticity of the dialogue.
Being notorious for his several feuds with fellow filmmakers, it’s something of an achievement to garner praise from Lee, unafraid to speak his mind whenever he deems necessary. Unsurprisingly, it was Cuaron’s Roma that elicited Lee’s wonder and appreciation of the craft. A semi-autobiographical tale of a housemaid in Mexico City, Roma is one of 2018’s finest gems, bringing life to 1970 Mexico in a way that was uncompromised by cinematic sweetening or rose tinted glasses. Cuaron was set on making a film from the recesses of his memory with as much detail and truth as possible. The end result is a masterwork of sight and sound that shows how cinema can emulate not just emotion, but life itself.
Enter Da 5 Bloods, the new Spike Lee Joint. Following up his Oscar winning effort in BlackKklansman, Spike focuses on 5 black Vietnam War vets who come back to ‘Nam to recover the remains of their fallen comrade as well as a ton of gold they hid away. At 2½ hours, he explores the morality of the war (before and after), how the Vietnamese view Americans, friendship, loyalty, PTSD, and memory.
The first thing that made me draw comparisons to Roma was the use of digital cameras. Despite being in black-and-white and taking place in the 70’s, Cuaron shot in crisp 4K resolution. He made this choice because he believes memories are never viewed with film grain, but the clarity provided by the human eye.
“I wanted it to be a film where you are in 1970, but shot in a more contemporary way,” Cuaron said in an interview. “It was about the moment and it was about trying to portray the intangible, like in life.”
Da 5 Bloods uses several aspect ratios and camera resolutions to distinguish one time period from the other. Scenes taking place during the War are shot in grainy 16mm film, Ultra HD 2.39:1 digital when the group is in the city, and expanding to 16:9 when they reach their journey in the jungle begins. While this differs with Roma’s singular resolution/aspect ratio, they are both deliberate artistic choices to set the mood for the stories. Cuaron shows the tragic beauty of everyday life, and Spike illustrates the horrific impact a single point in time can make.
Da 5 Bloods uses the same actors for all 3 shifts. Without the use of digital de-aging, the Vietnam War scenes show the entire group as they look in the present day, with Chadwick Boseman’s deceased comrade being the youthful standout. It easily plays into the themes of memory and especially PTSD, as if these characters look back at that time and only see their current selves, because that’s all they can see. Even though they have had nearly 5 decades worth of civilian life, there are many who can’t move on from what they experienced, perhaps ready and waiting for the next fight (Delroy Lindo’s Paul is the epitome of this).
Both films’ sound designs are what truly make them shine. Apart from being a visual masterclass, Roma implements Dolby Atmos sound to immerse the viewer towards not only what is seen, but what is being heard. A radio playing in the corner of the room, muffled conversation in the street, the passing of cars move past the screen along with the audio complementing everything that is happening inside and out of the frame. If you have access to a home theater system or some good headphones, the film becomes a haunting peek into Alfonso Cuaron’s memories as he tells his most personal story yet.
It’s not much of a stretch to say that Spike Lee was influenced by Roma’s sound design and how it can make a setting feel lived in and real to the audience. Da 5 Bloods incorporates much of the sound techniques found in Roma: utilizing the entire frame to the auditory experience almost symbiotic with the visuals. If wearing headphones, gunfire can be heard in the corner of a single side, gradually crescendo-ing to the other end as the camera moves that side. Background conversation is heard relative to a given character’s perspective. If Paul is by himself in the bar and overhears his friends in the other side of the room, so do we. Doing this adds towards character investment. The story of Da 5 Bloods is very much a journey, a group of soldiers trekking across the unknown that they’re all too familiar with. To hear what they hear and see what they see makes you feel like you’re there with them, having a front row seat to a life changing odyssey.
With filmographies as rich as these 2 filmmakers are, their respective most recent efforts open reveal an insight never before seen. The beauty of Roma’s look at everyday life is only made possible by Alfonso Cuaron’s handle on filmmaking and ability to paint a picture that can be seen and heard. Spike Lee could have only made Da 5 Bloods at this stage of his career. Being known as a filmmaker who can entertain yet reveal sobering realities that plague our country, he’s been honing his politically charged craft from Do The Right Thing and hasn’t stopped since. He’s had his ear on the streets ever since then, and his latest Joint shows a weariness yet urgency to a struggle that remains prevalent to this day.