The New Yorker


What to Stream This Weekend: Treasures of Independent Cinema

The New Yorker

These paired phenomena meet in the middle when actors who began in independent films become stars, and when established stars work with directors outside the industry's mainstream. Also, "Results" (iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and others), the most recent film by Andrew Bujalski--whose 2005 film "Funny Ha Ha" is one of the movement's seminal works--features a cast of notables that includes Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, Kevin Corrigan, and Giovanni Ribisi, and they thrive in the actorly freedom and straightforwardly practical tone that Bujalski cultivates. So is Frank V. Ross's "Audrey the Trainwreck" (Fandor, on Amazon); so, of course, is Lena Dunham's second feature, "Tiny Furniture" (iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and others); and so is Shane Carruth's vertiginously speculative science-fiction film "Upstream Color" (iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and others). The Rwandan filmmaker Kivu Ruhorahoza made his first feature, "Grey Matter" (Amazon Prime and Fandor), from 2011, independently, as well; it, too, is a metafiction of sharp political insight.


What to Stream This Weekend: War Movies for Memorial Day

The New Yorker

That's why, in compiling a group of war films, I've organized them by the war that they depict. For that matter, they don't all depict war directly; some depict the prelude to war or the aftermath of war, the emotional devastation that's wrought away from the battlefield, or the political and diplomatic maneuvering that go into war or, at best, prevent it. Because the Second World War still looms so large in political culture and, for that matter, culture at large, I've pulled together a batch of films that considers it from a varied range of perspectives. Zachary Treitz, "Men Go to Battle" (Amazon, iTunes, and others) John Ford, "The Lost Patrol" (Amazon, iTunes, and others) Yasujiro Ozu, "There Was a Father" (Criterion Channel)


"Alien: Covenant" Bursts with Pomposity

The New Yorker

Ridley Scott's extraterrestrial adventure "Alien: Covenant" is deadly serious about matters that he takes deadly seriously, and the only things that he derides with any irony--muffled and sardonic though it may be--are the movie's snippets of art greater than his own, by artists greater than himself--starting with Richard Wagner, whose "Entry of the Gods into Valhalla" is heard in the first and last scene. There are seven years left in the voyage, during which its crew and more than two thousand colonists--plus another thousand human embryos--are lodged in locked pods, asleep in an unaging suspended animation, as the ship is supervised by the android Walter (Fassbender), who is David's double but with an American accent. There, in isolation with Karine (Carmen Ejogo), Oram's wife, and another crew member, Maggie Faris (Amy Seimetz), his back bursts open and he gives birth to a slimy, boneless xenomorph. Scott's David is a stereotypical movie Nazi, from the air of refinement and the insinuating sexuality to the British accent; for that matter, with a tiny twist involving his misidentification of a poet, he's a walking reference to a Nazi villain in "Schindler's List."


A Brilliant Return for a Talking Heads Album

The New Yorker

Byrne and the other Talking Heads--the guitarist and keyboardist Jerry Harrison, the bassist Tina Weymouth, the drummer Chris Frantz--had spent several weeks jamming in recording studios, swapping instruments and bringing in other musicians, such as the guitarist Adrian Belew, who had played with David Bowie and Frank Zappa. The questions nearly broke up the band--and when Weymouth and Frantz's side project, Tom Tom Club, caught on with black listeners (more than "Remain in Light" did), it was seen by some people as sweet revenge. Thirty-seven years after Hendryx sang "Houses in Motion" in Central Park with Talking Heads, she sang it with Kidjo, and the sight and sound of these two women passing the lyrics back and forth gave fresh meaning to the notion of call and response--suggesting that this notion, better than the language of identity or influence, expresses the way musicians respond to the call of songs from other ages and other cultures, making their responses into calls to other musicians going forward. It was a one-world moment, and yet just as often Kidjo's band re-rooted Talking Heads songs in American vernacular music.


A Generational Shift in Independent Filmmaking, at the 2017 Maryland Film Festival

The New Yorker

She looks at Nessa and Blaise with an urgent intimacy that often bypasses facial expressions to isolate aspects of the body--including facial features, hand gestures, postures, or even tools and articles of clothing--that transmit emotions without declaring them. Sylvio works as a bill collector, making phone calls by way of a voice-generating computer on which he types, but he dreams of a career as a performer--as a puppeteer--and at home he performs with a bald-headed, mustachioed, middle-class-Everyman hand puppet and records his performances on video for his own pleasure. Where that older generation had the benefit of a shared sense of mission that was reflected in a shared sense of style, younger filmmakers following in their wake are venturing out alone and starting more tentatively--with short films--before hazarding a feature. The seeming family resemblance of the last decade's worth of innovative independent filmmaking--founded largely on improvisation based on situations close to the filmmakers' own and using performers they find in their own circles--is somewhat deceptive.


Seeing with Your Tongue

The New Yorker

Seated off to one side, with a slim gray plastic band wrapped around his brow, Erik Weihenmayer was warming up, too--by reading flash cards. The camera feed is reduced in resolution to a grid of four hundred gray-scale pixels, transmitted to his tongue via a corresponding grid of four hundred tiny electrodes on the lollipop. Bach-y-Rita had already begun tinkering with devices that substituted tactile sensation for vision, but, encouraged by this personal evidence of the brain's ability to adapt to loss, he completed his first prototype in 1969. The pins vibrated intensely for dark pixels and stayed still for light ones, enabling users to feel the picture pulsing on their backs.


Polar Expressed

The New Yorker

In February of 1880, the whaling ship Hope sailed north from Peterhead, Scotland, and headed for the Arctic. Shortly after returning from the north, and long before writing any of the stories that made him famous, Conan Doyle told two tales about the Arctic--one fictional, the other putatively true. Whatever it was, it lay six days north of England and one day south of what Pytheas described (per later Greek geographers; his own writings did not survive) as a frozen ocean, a place that man could "neither sail nor walk." Reproduced across continents and centuries, Mercator's map reached generations of cartographers, explorers, historians, statesmen, scholars, writers, and armchair travellers.


Margaret Atwood, the Prophet of Dystopia

The New Yorker

When Margaret Atwood was in her twenties, an aunt shared with her a family legend about a possible seventeenth-century forebear: Mary Webster, whose neighbors, in the Puritan town of Hadley, Massachusetts, had accused her of witchcraft. Atwood made the artist's pick: she chose the story. With the election of an American President whose campaign trafficked openly in the deprecation of women--and who, on his first working day in office, signed an executive order withdrawing federal funds from overseas women's-health organizations that offer abortion services--the novel that Atwood dedicated to Mary Webster has reappeared on best-seller lists. In a photograph taken the day after the Inauguration, at the Women's March on Washington, a protester held a sign bearing a slogan that spoke to the moment: "make margaret atwood fiction again."


Learning Arabic from Egypt's Revolution

The New Yorker

Sometimes I wondered about the strangeness of Tahrir-speak, and what my Arabic would have been like if I had arrived ten years earlier. One of our teachers, Rifaat Amin, prepared a five-page handout entitled "Arabic Expressions of Social Etiquette." This supplemented "Dardasha," which also featured some lessons about social traditions, including the evil eye, the belief that envy can cause misfortune. Occasionally an elderly person smiled at the toddlers and said, "Wehish, wehish"--"Beastly, beastly!"


Could Ms. Pac-Man Train the Next Generation of Military Drones?

The New Yorker

The Japanese-made game, in which players guide an auto-munching yellow head through a Daedalian maze, consuming a trail of pellets while fleeing four candy-tone ghosts, earned more than a billion dollars in quarters in its first year, surpassing the highest-grossing "Star Wars" film at the time. And according to Silvia Ferrari, the director of Cornell University's Laboratory for Intelligent Systems and Controls, the game is an especially ideal environment for training autonomous military machines. Pac-Man makes for an excellent benchmark for robots, autonomous systems, drones, and mobile sensors," she said. "In Ms. Pac-Man, there are opportunities to use prior experience and prior knowledge in a way that delivers more expectation for success than randomly wandering around," Traweek told me.