Peter (hujhax) wrote,

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... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  How to View and Appreciate Great Movies (audiocourse), The Rules of Contagion, Understanding Modern Electronics (audiocourse)
Movies:  <none>
TV:  Community (season 4), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

How to View and Appreciate Great Movies by Prof. Eric Williams (audiocourse)
This is the Teaching Company's 2018 course about film literacy.

If that sounds a little vague, well... the course is a little odd.

I don't really know who this course is *for*.

If you're somebody who likes movies, and wants to understand them more deeply, and maybe expand your viewing horizons in an enjoyable way... then there's a certain kind of course you'd want.  You'd want to learn a lot about the history of the medium — what are movies from different eras trying to do?  How has technology advanced, and what unique advantages to older things like black-and-white film have to offer?  How do different nationalities of cinema vary from each other?  What have various directors, and different studios, contributed to the art form?

I'm spitballing here (obviously), but you'd want a course that explores topics like that — material that sets you up to be a more informed, wide-ranging fan of the genre.

This course is not that.

Okay.  Well, maybe instead you'd like a course about *making* movies.  Some general overview that gives you a little hint of how to put together production deals, write a screenplay, direct a feature, light a set, hit your mark and say your lines, and so on.  It couldn't prepare you for a moviemaking career, but it'd get you a better picture of how movies are made.

This course is not that, either.

What you get instead, I can best summarize as "one film prof's perspective on how films function as entertainment".

Remember in high school English class, when your teacher patiently told you there were only four types of conflict: "man versus man", "man versus himself", "man versus society", "man versus nature"?¹  And then you'd have an exercise where you had to categorize this book into one of those bins.  And... it's certainly a *take* on fiction.  But I've never figured out for the life of me why knowing that list might be useful.  Many stories won't fit into just one of those categories.  Many stories are so out there that fitting it into even one is a stretch.  And once you've made your categorization... what does it really get you? anything?

As far as I can tell, it's just there because (1) it's an easy thing to teach and to test, and (2) it gets the student to think about conflict in stories, which is a useful thing to notice.  But in and of itself, it's just... odd and useless.

Much of the material in this movie course feels like that fiction lesson.  Professor Williams is fond of his systems of categorization — the eleven genres, the ten steps of the heroes' journey, the four quadrants of themes² — and they're useful, in that they get you to attend to aspects like genre, plot, and theme, but beyond that they seem like a sort of useless arbitrary quasi-Linnaean classification.

Is this showing you how to better enjoy movies?  Not quite.  Is it telling you how to make a movie?  Not really.  It's not even giving you a vocabulary for movies that you'd likely share with critics or filmmakers.  Instead it's, again, one cineaste's idiosyncratic perspective on what makes a good movie, along with a set of pet terms.  It's giving you aspects of a film to notice, and categories in which to sort them.

As such, I suppose *I*, personally, am the target audience for this course.  I know a smattering about how films are assembled.  I know a little bit about how to appreciate proper films.  And I'm at a point where hearing a unique perspective on what elements make up a good movie is interesting to me.

And there are moments in the course that are genuinely fascinating.  He draws up the usual picture of three-act structure with rising and falling tension, and then asks, "What *is* tension?"  That was a fun brain-breaky moment for me — 'tension' is something we all talk about, but never define, and it's rewarding to explore what it really *is*.  He also has a fun theory about Chigurh's hotel disappearance in No Country for Old Men.

That said, the course is hampered by its low budget — or more precisely, its low budget and its copyright restrictions.  It can't use footage from any movie that isn't in the public domain.  They do a cute job of recreating "screenshots" from movies — like, say, a confrontation in Good Will Hunting — using creepy CGI mockups.  But they can't do anything like the lovely work in, say, "Every Frame a Painting", where they can painstakingly dissect real footage of popular films to revelatory effect.

And it's very much a 'film dude on twitter' perspective of movies.  Yes, he's going to explain to you why Titanic is not a good movie, actually.  Yes, there's a lot of Quentin Tarantino hagiography.  Yes, there's a lot of heteronormative examples.  And apparently "crime movies" are a real genre and "romantic comedies" are not.

I had a perfectly decent time with this course, but I can't recommend it.  Fortunately, it's a golden age for so-called "YouTube Film School", with dozens of creators opening your eyes to aspects of the nuts and bolts moviemaking that you'd never considered.  And there are dozens more folks like Lindsay Ellis, bringing what I'd call a more literary-analysis-style, but equally eye-opening, perspective on cinema.

Go check them out instead.

Understanding Modern Electronics by Professor Richard Wolfson (audiocourse)
This is the Great Courses' 2014 primer on how circuits work.

Some subjects just don't work via audio, and electronics might be the not-work-y-est.  First off, you just need to *see* what's going on.  To know how a circuit is set up, you need to see the circuit.  If you want to see how a voltage changes over time, you need to see the oscilloscope display.  If you want to see how a component response changes over voltage, you need to see that on a chart.

But then, even if you've got the video, *watching* a lecture is not a good way to learn the subject.  I'm convinced you can't learn this stuff passively.  You have to actually have a breadboard and a pile of components, or at least a computer simulation, and fry a bunch of circuits while you're trying to get an LED to light up.

To the course's credit, they do introduce a project you can work through with every lecture.  I could not bring myself to do homework for this audiocourse, though.  Honestly, I've never had a strong interest in electrical engineering in the first place — it was the only part of my computer science degree that I absolutely hated.  I was listening to/watching this out of idle curiosity — did I miss something interesting by not studying this field?

But again, I didn't do any homework.  So Understanding Modern Electronics would introduce some new topic, and I'd follow it for about twenty minutes, and then I'd get lost.  The remaining material would kind of wash past me, mostly just incomprehensible jargon.  Only my stubborn completionist bent got me through the course.

All this makes it hard for me to assess whether this is a good course.  The course does provide what seems like a nice overview of the field.  He builds up from lectures about (say) resistors in series or parallel at the beginning to full-on integrated circuits and complicated digital signaling at the end.

Still, the presentation was not the best.  To his credit, Professor Wolfson, an astrophysics professor and devoted electronics hobbyist, clearly knows his subject and likes his subject, and that enthusiasm does come through.

But he presents his material like an improvisor who fears silence.  You start to get vicariously nervous for him as he keeps coughing up one phrase after another.  You wish he would use frequent and confident pauses to organize his thoughts and make it feel less stream-of-consciousness.

And you hit a lot of cases where he presents material as a story instead of as an essay, and it feels like the wrong choice.  For instance, he'll show you a mystery circuit, ask "what does this do?", and then start following what the currents do in it until the answer is revealed.  And this is good for maintaining audience attention — we like a good mystery — but it's bad for getting the information across.  Why?  Because for the first 90% of the presentation, we're watching this story of electrons going this way and that with *no idea* what we're looking at.  That means the information we get has no context.  And that, in turn, means it's very hard to retain.  I wish the descriptions were more analogous to essays: say what it does, go into detail about how it does it, say what it did.

And weirdly, I come away from this course not convinced it was a useful thing to study.  I totally see the irony here, given that I often make fun of these courses for spending all of lecture one trying to sell you on why you should listen to this course that you've likely already bought.  But with basic electronics, it feels like my old job at National Instruments was all about computers "eating" this field of study.  And now: do you want to build something that processes a signal in some particular way?  Go spend $20 on an arduino board, program it to do what you want, and you're done.  Building from scratch is solely of academic interest.

Plus, no "here's why this subject is important" means there's no through-line for the course, no theme, no overall *thing* for it to be about.  I never really knew what the overall takeaway was for the course — it was more just "here's a list of how various components work".  And so, instead of an over-arching point that will stick with me, I have just random bits of data that will quickly fade from my brain.

In the end, I can't recommend this course.  I did come away from it thinking that electronics may well be an interesting field — "oh, it's sort of like programming with real-world objects" — but one that you have to learn from a book and a breadboard, not a set of video lectures.

P.S. If you're curious about how electronics work in your everyday life, I can heartily recommend the Teaching Company's excellent Everyday Engineering course, one of my favorites from the entire catalog.

The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread — And Why They Stop by Adam Kucharski
This is a 2020 nonfiction book about how things spread.

Though weirdly, this isn't just about pandemics.  It does a fine job, early on, of covering how diseases spread.  It also recounts how we *learned* how diseases spread — recall that, at the start, we didn't even have the germ theory of disease, let alone the notion that you could "catch" diseases.  And even once that was in place, we eventually had a lot of graphs showing (say) malaria cases over time, and showing in particular the same S-shaped graph over and over again, but we didn't understand any of the math or the mechanisms that drove that behavior.  We had to slowly build all that up over a century or so.

But then, the book moves on from disease.  Because the same math — we have a population, some of them are susceptible to X, some of them have X, and some of them have recovered — doesn't just describe diseases.  It can describe how memes spread: I haven't seen this hilarious meme, you have seen it and think it's great, and our mutual friend is already over it.  It can describe how financial panics spread: Lehman Brothers is taken down by the subprime mortgage crisis, and suddenly every bank they're connected to is getting dragged down into the muck.  There are strong signs it could even describe how gun violence spreads, but the American government won't fund further investigation of that, because it might make a voter feel a sad about owning guns.

And this is really a brilliant thing to write a book about: "Here are principles we've discovered while studying diseases, and here's how we're starting to apply them to seemingly-disconnected fields of study where things spread."  That's novel and interesting.

But by the time the book discusses how memes spread online, it feels a little bit out over its skis.  The connection to the book's through-line — "epidemiology applies to lots of things in daily life" — feels tenuous.  The material itself feels more familiar and less surprising — we all know, more or less, how the Internet works.  And the results and research that Professor Kucharski discusses feels vaguer and less conclusive — which makes sense, since we've been studying diseases longer than we've been studying troll-farm memes.

The professor's specialty is analyzing tropical-disease outbreaks, and the further the book gets from that topic, the less clear and authoritative it feels.

I suppose, too, that while we're dealing with COVID, I personally am more interested in just learning as much as I can about epidemiology, rather than novel applications of epidemiology to, say, marketing.  I remember feeling surprised and disappointed when the book finished its précis about epidemics to move on to other fields.

All in all, it's a good book, with an excellent summary about how diseases spread, and some fascinating things to say about how those principles are more universal.  Professor Kucharski writes solid prose, and does especially well with the usual pop-sci problem of "how do you write about mathematical ideas without using math formulas, which terrify ignorant people?"

Mostly, though, it feels like a good subject to come back to later — sometime when we're not mid-pandemic, and research in these parallel fields has progressed a little further.

Community (season 4)
This is the 2013 season of Dan Harmon's sitcom about a group of students at the fictional Greendale Community College.  Notably, this is the season where Mr. Harmon himself was fired and replaced with David Guarascio and Moses Port.

I am going to say nice things about season four.

Imagine it: you and your producing partner are put in charge of Community.  Your biggest credit is producing Just Shoot Me! fourteen years ago.  This is a great opportunity — hell, Community might be the last vaguely-traditional sitcom that the critical community ever gives a shit about.

But good christ, imagine the size of this job.  It's from one of the best sitcom showrunners working.³  More precisely: it's the magnum opus from one of the best sitcom showrunners working.  And the showrunner is gone.  The studio is giving him a credit, and paying him a salary, as (effectively) a consultant, and he's just refusing to take anyone's calls.  The big powerhouse writers from the show, like Chris McKenna, have gone with him.  The Russo Brothers, who directed the pilot and many of its most notable episodes, are now off doing MCU movies.

The fans hate you instantly.  You're probably already getting death threats from the more unhinged ones.  The cast, and the remaining writers — i.e., the ones who didn't quit when Dan Harmon left — all kind of resent you too.  Chevy Chase, on the other hand, hates *everyone* and is threatening to quit the show.  The studio execs like you well enough, but they have clear notes about how they want this show to be more "accessible".

Somehow you've got to pick up the ball — pick up one of the most brilliant, fast-paced, idiosyncratic sitcoms ever made — and make it work.

Obviously, this is the worst season of Community.

But what a miracle that they managed to make it at all.

You see the new team tap-dance as fast as they can to keep the thing afloat.  They burn through story fuel that was set up in earlier seasons.  What, Jeff Winger finally tracked down his dad?  Okay, okay, we can use that, let's burn off one episode with Jeff meeting his dad.  They play with references to earlier material.  There's an Inspector Spacetime show we keep referencing?  Fine, uh... they go to an Inspector Spacetime convention!  Right?  Okay, that's two episodes.  They try doing the same story moves that earlier seasons did.  What, they did genre pastiche thingies, right?  Okay, let's do a haunted house horror movie!  Great, great: *three* episodes.  Ooh, and another musical would be cool, right?

Meanwhile, Chevy Chase hates every minute of his job, and finally walks off the set mid-shoot, mid-season, mid-episode.  And he's out.  And now, okay, they have to frantically sort that out, doing desperate last-minute rewrites to excise Pierce Hawthorne out of story plots and still keep some semblance of a story.

They managed to keep the lights on for a year.  And by the end of the season, they were even showing some promise.  No, they would never be able to reach the heights of the first three seasons, but they were learning to work within their limitations.

For instance, they were never going to be as good as Mr. Harmon was at using pop culture nods and parodies to get at personal stories.  You can see this in the very first episode of season four: we see "Abed TV", a view of Abed's TV-inflected view of his reality.  It plays as a traditional sitcom.

A fun question to ask: what *year* is that sitcom from?

As you try to answer that, you can already see season four falling short.  Its "sitcom" take uses some signifiers of sitcoms — a laugh track, applause as someone enters, simple and low-effort punch lines — but it has no specificity.  It's not any particular year.  It's not any particular sitcom.  It's not any particular *subgenre* of sitcoms, even.  It's not shot in any noticeably different way.

And the most telling thing: even if it's vague, it's not written as a *good* sitcom.  The jokes are obvious and tedious.  It's clear that this genre take is written by a writers' room that doesn't love the genre, and isn't playing to the top of its intelligence.

With the first three seasons, you got the sense that Dan Harmon used the genre pastiches as launching-off points because he just loved these genres so much.  Part of it was feeling such a thrill to be able to do, say, a Leone-style spaghetti western — but part of it too was loving the genres on such a deep level that they were a way to sneak around and get at what he wanted to say with the characters and their stories, getting across ideas he wouldn't feel comfortable stating directly.

But this does circle, perhaps unexpectedly, towards a compliment for the show: over time, season four backs off from its genre pastiches.  Yes, they do their haunted-house episode.  (And you can ask the same question: what sort of haunted-house movie are they doing?  The show doesn't know.)  They do a Hunger Games reference that really does nothing beyond "Hey, you remember The Hunger Games?  Huh?"  But eventually, mercifully, they stop — which is good, since their hearts were never really in it.

The show isn't nearly as dark in this fourth season.  And that definitely starts out as a weakness.  You never get the sense that the characters are in as bad a place as they were in previous seasons, and that diminishes the stakes.  Then the show forces some warm, feel-good endings, and it feels mawkish and unearned.

But I think, over time, they start figuring out how to make this work.  They accept that this version of Community is going to be a little more muted, and that's okay.  The characters aren't quite on the edge of ruin.  The wins become smaller, warm moments.  And they find a way to live comfortably in that smaller scale.  "Basic Human Anatomy", for example, has a poignant breakup scene that I don't think they could have done in seasons one through three.  It's just... less-heightened people, being ordinarily sad, and possibly recovering from it quicker than makes sense.

Again, this is not a *better* version of Community — literally no one would say that — but it is inspiring to watch these desperately overmatched showrunners start to find their own voice within the show.

I felt this especially with my favorite moment in season four.  "Intro to Felt Surrogacy" starts with thirty-four seconds of the core cast (minus Pierce) sitting around the study-room table, tensely and silently refusing to make eye contact.  And that's it.  Smash cut to the cheery title song.

It's not a great joke, but it's a solidly good one.  More importantly, it's a breath of fresh air: the new showrunners are willing to do something a bit format-breaking and weird.  And it jags in a direction that Dan Harmon would not have done — as wildly creative as he is, silent comedy was not his thing on this show, nor did he like to leave the audience confused about the format.  ("Wait... *that* was the cold open?")

Again, bit by bit (so to speak) the "guest showrunners" were finding a way to do their version of Community, instead of trying and failing to imitate the original.

And "Heroic Origins", the penultimate episode of season four, was a genuinely good episode of the show.  Sure, it's not a specific genre parody, but it's not trying to be — it's having fun with flashbacks to the core cast's time before Greendale, but it doesn't mention (say) LOST once.  It gives up on any involvement for Pierce — by this point, Chevy Chase was off the show.  The feel-good ending is... unambitious, in a good way.  They don't go for a giant emotional payoff.  It's just a nice, small, warm moment to go out on.

Like I keep saying, I don't want to over-praise this season. 

Case in point: something weird happened with my netflix account, and I assumed "Origins" was the *last* (not the next-to-last episode of season four.  And it works great as a finale — it's a modest, simple story that says, "isn't it good that these people found each other?"  Which is a great final statement for the show.  (They can't have been expecting a renewal, right?)  But no, season four goes on and does "Advanced Introduction to Finality", which is back to desperately mining old material and forcing a too-heavy feel-good ending.  I stand by the claim that the path to a good, if different, version of Community was there, but who knows if the showrunners would have committed to it.

On balance, season four is less distinctive, less funny, less creative, and less emotional than the previous three.  Season four doesn't introduce much of anything new — I can't imagine season five 'paying off' anything set up in season four, or having fun with any of its instantly-forgotten new characters or tentative and vague bits of world-building.  And the season does badly with story arcs.  These two factors combine in the ill-fated "Changnesia" arc, where they grab Chang, an extant character who has no reason to still be in the show — because, well, the new showrunners can't create new and interesting characters — and force him through a simple, predictable season arc.

Something else I noticed: for the first few seasons, Dan Harmon had put together a gender-balanced writers' room.  For season four, that shifted — by my tally, it became 8 men, 3 women.  And I think I could *feel* that difference in the show, and not in a good way — not exactly in the content, but in the show's attitude towards its content.

For instance, the show says Professor Cornwallis was booted out of Oxford for having sex with a female student.  That plot move could have happened in the earlier seasons, but I don't think the reveal would have felt so harmless and tee-hee-silly back then.  Likewise, when Jeff tells Annie to "get over there and shake something" to try to coax a better grade out of that prof — again, I could see that happening earlier on, but I would imagine the show would have an opinion about that, instead of tacitly implying that Jeff was being a sensible adult there.

This season-four version of Community was never going to be great.  But it managed to settle down to being solidly okay.  And that is a miracle.  And it kept the lights on, which is what got us a fifth and sixth season with Dan Harmon back on the job.

Nicely done, season four.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)
This is the 1979 BBC miniseries about a retired spy brought back in to track down a high-level mole in British intelligence.  It's based on the John Le Carré novel of the same name.

I have never in my life felt so betrayed by a lack of closed-captioning.  I watched this on a set of DVDs from 2011, which had made no effort to remaster any of the video or add any useful features.  It was also, it turns out, a copy of the US broadcast of the show, which trimmed the original 7-episode BBC adaptation to a 6-episode version, by "shortening scenes and altering the narrative sequence."

All of this added up to, I didn't know what was going on for the vast majority of this show.  Sometimes I just couldn't hear the dialog.  Sometimes I could hear the dialog, but I couldn't puzzle through the veddy veddy high-register British accents.  Sometimes I could sort out the accents, but the show tends to drop you, The Wire-like, into the quick jargon of 1970s spycraft and geopolitics.  And even when I could keep up with all of that, I sense the trimmed and accelerated six-episode version of the story was beyond my capacity to follow.

And that is maddening.  I could follow it well enough: George Smiley (played by Sir Alec Guinness, for god's sake) is a retired spy.  He's hired to investigate British intelligence, because of a strong suspicion that one of their top men is feeding intel to the Russians.  This is after a shakeup in upper management that left the old department head dead and Smiley himself out of a job.

That's a perfect setup for a story.  And it plays out exactly the way I would want it to: with long, thorny conversations in dim, almost oppressively realistic settings in late-70s England, as George Smiley carefully outthinks everyone who's lying to him, and sets meticulous traps to catch people out.  The series a perfect counterpoint to modern spy stories, which can be great, but tend more towards "action movie with occasional spycraft".

And — I can't find any different way to say this: I just couldn't follow it.  I could sit back, I could savor its tone, I could watch the delicate, measured way Guinness portrays the lead, I could enjoy it as a time capsule of late-70s Britain... but I had no idea how it might end, because I likewise had no idea how it began or was middling.

So there isn't really much else I can say about it.  I know its reputation is amazing — it's Le Carré's favorite adaptation, full stop.  It had existed, in my mind, as the paragon of the sort of spy story I liked best.

Ah well.  Maybe I'll try the film version sometime.

For next week: even now, I still have a bit of a backlog to write about, with the second season of Adam Ruins Everything, the 2014 Paddington film, and a compilation of sci-fi short-stories by writers of color finished and due for reviews.  I'm currently watching a season of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, reading Like Water for Chocolate (in Spanish) and listening to an audiocourse about psychology.

¹ I was in grade school so long ago, they still used gender-specific framing.  Hopefully your mileage varies.
² He co-wrote an entire
"taxonomy of movies".
³ I'd put Mike Schur above Dan Harmon in this ad hoc pantheon of current traditional-sitcom showrunners, but I don't know offhand who else would absolutely rank above him.  (Suggestions welcome, though.)
⁴ To be clear, the firing absolutely makes sense.  He was drunk, he was on drugs, he was abusive, and he committed the cardinal sin of showrunning: he delivered material late.  Remember, studios are fine with abuse, both of substances and personnel, so long as you're reliably meeting your deadlines.
Tags: media update, weekly
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