Happy Thanksgiving: What I'm Thankful For

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Sunset in Porter Square
[Photo taken by me]

[I started writing this post early on the day on Thanksgiving. I never stopped writing it. By half past midnight, Thanksgiving was already over I knew I had to hit publish or else I'd be here forever. If you believe you have been an important part of my life and find yourself left off of this list, please assume that it's because I'm a bad, negligent friend, and not that you haven't meant anything to me or something dumb like that. Thank you.]

There's been a whole lot more sadness than joy in my life during the past year or so, but I suppose that means that I just have to appreciate and hold closer to the remaining joys that I have. In no particular order, here is a list of things that I'm thankful for today:

For Peter Sciretta and slashfilm.com - As we're becoming more aware of every single day, making a living by writing about movies is a pretty freaking difficult task. I can't say that I make a living this way quite yet, but slashfilm.com has become an ever-growing part of my life, and has afforded me opportunities I could never have fathomed a few years ago. In the past few months alone, I've gotten to hear Rian Johnson read pornographic fan fiction about us on the air, chatted with the guy who wrote X2, and confronted director Richard Kelly with one interpretation of Donnie Darko. I also got to talk about 2012 with one of the people responsible for this. There's even the possibility that in a few weeks, I'll get to guest host for a great show on Chicago Public Radio. None of this would have ever been possible without slashfilm.com.

I am extremely grateful to Peter Sciretta for his partnership and for his patience with me. Most of you probably don't/can't know it, but Peter not only owns/runs one hell of a movie website, he's also a pretty terrific guy too. Daily, I wonder how out of all the people on the internet I could have ended up working for, I get the opportunity to collaborate with someone that also happens to be a great human being. Truly, I have won the lottery of life, or at least, of online writing.

Gratitude also goes out to all the people on /Film's staff; together, I hope we've created content that people have found interesting and valuable, and that we've had fun doing so. But I believe our best days are ahead...

The /Filmcast guys, together for the first time ever

For my /Filmcast Co-hosts, Devindra and Adam - No, we don't always agree. Occasionally, we disagree violently. But given that our personalities are so strong, and given our wildly disparate backgrounds, I'm shocked that we get along WAY more often than we don't. These guys have stood with me since the beginning and I'm so grateful for having gone through this crazy adventure with both them.

To all of the /Filmcast guests and listeners - The reason why I use audioboo, the reason why I podcast, is because on some level, I feel like when we are privy to the unadulterated conversations of others, it makes us feel a little bit less alone in the world. For everyone that has joined us on the show and everyone that has given us a chance and tuned in, you have helped us to create something that keeps thousand of people company on a weekly basis, whether they're spending eight hours in a projectionist booth, or driving a truck all night, or falling asleep in an army barracks in Iraq (All of which are actual professions that listeners have written in about, btw). Thanks for tuning in and keeping us on the air.

For Stephen Tobolowsky - I still remember watching Groundhog Day in theaters when I was just a wee little one. Even back then, I remember wanting to punch Ned Ryerson in the throat, so effectively did Stephen Tobolowsky portray that immortal character. What a hilarious guy he was, and still is!



If you had told me back then that I'd one day be hosting a podcast with Stephen Tobolowsky, I'd probably say, "What the hell is a podcast?" And if podcasts had existed back then, I'd probably say "Get the hell outta here!"

The fortuitous circumstances of our partnership have been mind-boggling, but what's important is that they've actually transpired. You see, I love a well-told story. Stories can be riveting, funny, profound, all at once. And to hear a well-told story is to inhabit a shared space with both the teller and the listener, and to partake in the creation in a special world that is particular to the oral tradition.

That's why I loved a small movie called Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party, in which Stephen tells a group of his friends some stories about his interesting life. Deep in my heart, I knew that Stephen had a ton of more interesting, profound stories locked away in the recesses of his brain. But without some venue or some project to get him to write about them or perform them, how would they ever be shared with the world? So I pitched him the idea to do a storytelling podcast with me. To my shock and awe and eternal delight, he agreed to do it.

In the past few weeks, Stephen and I have been rapidly recording and putting out episodes of a new podcast, The Tobolowsky Files. Recently, we put out episode 4 of the podcast, The Alchemist. More than most things I've ever done online, I am so incredibly proud of this episode and the response that it's produced in our listenership (if you haven't heard it yet and you're reading this, please do me a favor and listen to it now).

People have already written in (here's an example of a letter) saying that the show has changed their lives, that it's caused them to rethink their relationships with their family. Most importantly, people have told us that the show has caused them to recognize the importance of stories, and of writing down and telling stories.

The /Filmcast has been, and always will be, a blast and a joy. But with The Tobolowsky Files, I feel as though I'm helping to create something of lasting value...something that has and will continue to enrich people's lives in ways we can't even yet predict. I know that without Stephen, without me, and without our partnership together, it never would have happened in a million years. And I will forever be grateful that we've had the opportunity to create this thing, and that people have seen fit to give it a listen.

This new podcast has taken up more of my time and my life than I possibly could have predicted. But if we can't make major sacrifices for things that we truly believe to be worthwhile, then what exactly is left to make sacrifices for?

A big thanks to Stephen for all of his time, and for sharing himself with the world in the way he has. I can't wait to see what stories he comes up with next.

For Boston movie people - From all the amazing folks who run Independent Film Festival Boston, to the lovely and talented publicists from Allied and Terry Hines, to the film critics who give me their time and attention when I harass them about their opinion at press screenings: You guys have helped me to feel more at home, in a city that I've lived in for more than 20 years. If I ever leave Boston, the moviegoing experience will be the one thing that I will miss the most.

For all of you online peeps who I've chatted with and gotten to know - You are too countless to name (although several prominent ones spring to mind) but I've deeply valued all of our interactions. I look forward to many of them to come.

For my bosses at my day job - They probably aren't reading this, but in the event they are, their support and willingness to employ me has meant more to me than they could possibly imagine. I can only hope that at the end of our run together, they'll be pleased with the works that we've been able to create.

***

Now, time for a few personal ones....

Mike Chen

For my brother, Michael - If there's one thing the past year has shown me, it's that my brother and I are more similar than probably either of us would like. But in commonality, there is strength and unity. It's been a lot easier struggling through life knowing that there's someone out there who shares in my experiences, who knows what I'm feeling, and who helps to get me through the most difficult times.

For my friend, Chi - Nobody understands me like you do. Your advice is always both useful and profound. And even though an ocean separates us, there is more that brings us together than keeps us apart.

Testing Oldcamera app: Kallitype, my lovely friend Sara

For my friend, Sara - Your words of support and encouragement have meant more to me than you will know. Years later, I will look back on this time and know that you were one of the people that helped to get me through it.

For my friend, Wayne - One of the few people who has stood by me through thick and thin, who I know that I'll always be able to count on, no matter how much of a dickhole I become.

Testing CameraBag app - Colorcross: my beautiful friend Jennifer

Testing Oldcamera app: my brooding friend Matt
Matt and Jen

For Matt and Jennifer, two of my new friends at my new school - These guys are so ridiculously cool that they have actually earned a separate blog post by me, to be written at a later point in time. Look forward to it.

Listen!

For Terri Schwartz - Terri doesn't know this but her simple acts of friendship have gone a long way towards keeping me sane. I don't think she knows or understands how much her friendship has meant to me, but I'm okay with that. Above, one of many audioboos I've recorded with her.

For my family's continued survival during harsh economic times - When my father sold off the restaurant a few years ago, it was a bittersweet move. The future was unclear and, to a large extent, it still is. But there are four people in my immediate family: My mother, my father, my brother, and I. Each one of us still has a job, at least temporarily. On this measure, we are far more fortunate than many others. I can never forget this blessing.

My mom, on the anniversary of her birth. All of us bought her this cake and sang happy birthday

And, of course, to you - It's a difficult thing to drop words into the abyss of the internet, to speak into a vacuum. I am given the privilege of having a small audience, enough to keep my creative juices flowing, enough to keep me putting myself out there.

However you got to this blog post, it most likely means you're following my work in some form, whether on Twitter, Facebook, or at slashfilm.com. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be here. And for now at least, I am grateful to still be here.

The Terrible, Terrible Genius of Assigning a Wiki for Class

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It was a simple assignment, theoretically.

I'm currently taking an Education class on new technologies and their potential use in classroom. This past week, we were broken up into groups of five and tasked with working on a wiki. The final product of the wiki was supposed to be a 500-word editorial about the downsides of certain Web 2.0 tech (in our case, it was Twitter). Our professor only gave us one condition: You cannot divide the work into different sections and assign it to different people.

The purpose of this assignment, as I understood it, was to confront us with the benefits and challenges of using wikis. Many magazines and news publications write breathlessly of the promise that these types of emerging technologies hold, but once you try using these things in the real world, it usually results in a cold, hard, splash of reality to the face. If this was indeed the purpose of the assignment, then mission accomplished.

Before I proceed, let me just say that I have nothing but the deepest and utmost respect for all of the members who worked in my group with me. They are each incredibly intelligent and considerate, and nothing that this post says should in any way be taken as a slight against any of them. In short, they are awesome! Rather, my area of interest is in how assigning a wiki to a group of students is inherently maddening, frustrating, and therefore, genius.

There's a lot of appeal to using a wiki. Allowing everyone to contribute theoretically generates a better product than any one person could create by herself. The asynchronous nature of a wiki also permits people to work on it at several different times. But as one starts using a wiki, especially in the context of a class assignment, its limitations quickly become apparent.

Formatting - It is quite easy for people to disagree over what format the final product should take, and what structure the article should be in. Moreover, group members can disagree over the appropriate approach to the assignment itself. Typically, when group projects stretch out over the course of months and involve weekly meetings, these details tend to resolve themselves. But for an assignment such as this, where the primary interactions took place over e-mail or within the wiki itself over the course of one week, there was simply not enough time for these issues to be worked out. Thus, often disagreements and conflicts remained unresolved, or were resolved by whoever happened to have edited the wiki last.

The Pareto Principle - We've learned, time and time again, that most sites that rely on some utopian vision of crowdsourcing rarely end up succeeding in the way they'd originally imagined. On Wikipedia, we've seen that 74% of all edits are made by only 2% of the users. Or check out the social bookmarking site Digg, where a few years ago, the top 100 community members were responsible for over 40% of the stories that made the front page.

It's a fact of life: Whenever you get a bunch of people together in one place and assign them to do a task, some people are going to do more work than others. This can happen for a myriad of reasons, many of them legitimate: Some people may have more expertise than others in the specific topic. Some people may not have time enough time to contribute due to external factors. Some people just might not enjoy the process of contributing. An assignment like this lends itself to seeing this principle in action.

As I reflect on the possibilities of how things could have gone, I can conjure up a number of ways the assigned editorial could be constructed. Here are a few potential workflows:

1) The work could be divided evenly into different sections. This option was forbidden by the constraints of the assignment.

2) One person could write out most of the editorial and lay the groundwork, while the others could all chip in and refine the initial person's work.

3) The article could be constructed very piecemeal, where each person contributes a sentence or a paragraph to build the final product.

Option 1 was forbidden, and I'd argue that options #2 and #3 both have pretty significant flaws. For Option #2, you have one person clearly doing more work than the others (This is particularly salient, given that on some level we were evaluated for our contributions as part of our grade), while for Option #3, you end up producing a piece that might not be as coherent or unified as you might otherwise have. I would argue that these difficulties, while they do exist, are not as pronounced in a setting such as Wikipedia, where articles are constructed over the course of years, and not seven days. In any case, given the relatively few options to create the final product, this assignment almost inherently leads to a suboptimal outcome.

No Regard for Expertise - I once went to a leadership conference where as an icebreaker, I was told to stand side-by-side with someone else, but facing in opposite directions (along with everyone else in the room). I was then told to grasp the hand of the person next to me and then, in the span of 30 seconds, touch his hand to my hip as many times as possible. I quickly negotiated a deal with my partner: If he let me rapidly move our hands quickly between our hips, we would achieve the more touches than if we just tried to fight against each other. We won the game handily and learned a valuable object lesson in the process.

One of the most liberating things about Web 2.0 is that it is the great equalizer. Everyone on Twitter and on Wikipedia has a voice, and the same status as the next person. But this obviously has its downsides too; without any respect or regard for expertise, you can end up with a final product that might not reflect the best qualities of your cohort. Oftentimes in reality, you can achieve a superior outcome by letting people just do their thing. I'm sure we've all experienced that this happens all the time for any type of school project. When you value the act of contributing itself more than the quality of the contribution, you can end up, again, with a suboptimal outcome.

Typically, when people end up doing more work than others, this results in a few bitter behind-the-back conversations and maybe a smidgen of resentment, but that's where it ends. This sort of tension is amplified, however, in a wiki assignment for the simple reason that group member contributions are easily trackable. Thus, the professor will always know how much you've contributed, a fact that might compel you to contribute more than you otherwise would/should.

The Neverending Story - Wiki assignments are like Will Wright games: They never end. Like that paper that you finished last week but haven't handed in yet, the final product can always be bettered. But even in that situation, you are ultimately the arbiter of what you end up handing in. In our situation, since nobody is specifically assigned to have the "final cut," this led to everyone having ownership of the project, which, of course, led to no one having ownership of the project. For us, as I'm sure for many other groups, the final 12 hours of the project saw a flurry of edits on the wiki. Thus, the final product ends up not a result of deliberation and intention, but of the vagaries of the assignment due date.

**

Wikis are ideal for aggregating the expertise of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people from disparate places, and creating a baseline of their collective knowledge on a specific topic. Applying them to a situation where all the wiki members knew each other and communicated regularly seemed like an interesting gambit.

In the end, I'm truly grateful for the illuminating experience of having worked on a wiki for class. But the time constraints of the project, coupled by the restriction that everyone contributes equally to each section, augmented the artificial elements of an already-artificial situation (i.e. working on wikis in general). In short, it heightened the positive and negative elements (mostly the negative) of working on wikis rather expertly. But it also raises the question: Is it possible to assign the same thing the next time around, without making it quite as maddening to participate in?

Mistakes Were Made

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I've previously discussed the virtues of Breaking Bad, but in short, I believe it's one of the best shows on TV right now, and one of the best TV shows of all time. Time and time again, we've seen that when talented TV people are given the opportunity to become showrunner on cable networks, what they produce can often be astonishing (Damages, The Shield, Mad Men) and this show is no exception. Here's hoping that Vince Gilligan has a long career ahead of him after this show, which, as brilliant as it is, admittedly feels like it won't last forever (Gilligan has previously stated it'll probably last around five seasons or so).

[Spoilers for Season 2 of Breaking Bad ahead]

While Bryan Cranston's Emmy-winning turn as Walter White is riveting and deserving of all its accolades, I've also been very impressed with Aaron Paul as Jesse, the drug-dealing f*ck up who ends up aiding and abetting Walt in his quest to become the most notorious drug lord in the Southwest. The show started with a relatively relatable premise: Walt is dying from cancer and must do anything, including cooking and selling drugs, to make enough money to ensure the survival of his family. But as Walt's cancer has gone into remission and Walt has become more and more ruthless, it's Jesse that ends up carrying the emotional weight of the story. He's the one that you empathize with. He has become the human in this partnership, while Walt has become the monster.

In Season 2's penultimate scene, Walt is blackmailed by Jesse's girlfriend, Jane, into giving up Jesse's portion of their profits. But Jane is also a negative influence in other ways, enabling Jesse's downward spiral into drug addiction and self-destruction. So after a pep talk (unwittingly given at a bar by Jane's father), Walt goes over to Jesse's house to work things out with Jesse, only to find Jesse and Jane sleeping side by side. Walt tries to wake him up but ends up knocking Jane onto her back, where she begins to vomit and choke. In a chilling scene, Walt watches her slowly die, convinced that he's doing the right thing for himself, but also for Jesse.

In the finale, Jesse wakes up to discover that Jane is dead, and believes that he was the one that caused it. This, of course, has the opposite effect of what Walt intended; rather than spurring Jesse to pull himself together, Jesse regresses further, seeking drugs and company in the suburban equivalent of a red light district.

Walt, still feeling responsible in some way, seeks him out. In this powerful scene, Walt finds Jesse drugged out beyond his mind, sprawled on a filthy mattress in a crackhouse:



Jesse doesn't know that Walt is to blame, and takes the responsibility upon himself. "I killed her. It was me...I loved her. I loved her more than anything." It's tragic and heartbreaking, and it gets at that universal element of the human condition: When we destroy something we love, when we take an active part in our own undoing, nothing else is important. Nothing else matters. The future becomes a desolate wasteland, from which we have no escape

In one of the season's final shots, Jesse has checked into a rehabilitation clinic in a completely catatonic state. As viewers, we understand that he might physically get better, but mentally and emotionally, he is devastated. There is no way he will ever recover from this, the knowledge that he has snuffed out that thing which meant the most to him.

A mistake of that magnitude deserve nothing but a punishment of that magnitude. When you have nothing else to live for, why go on living?

From the Archives: 50 Minutes of Peter Jackson and James Cameron Talking About 3-D and Filmmaking

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At San Diego Comic-Con in July 2009, I sat in on a panel in which James Cameron and Peter Jackson shared the stage and chatted about their filmmaking process. At the time, my iPhone 3GS was still new to me so I tested out its voice memo feature by recording some of the panels I was at. The audio from this panel has stayed on my iPhone 3GS ever since. I release it here for your listening pleasure.

The audio is terrible quality; it was recorded from my seat 1,000 feet away from the stage, using sound from Hall H's speakers. It's incomplete; it only contains 50 minutes of what I think was a 75 minute-long panel. And one other thing: The moderator for this panel, while he delivered a great intro, was probably the worst moderator for any panel I attended at Comic Con this year.

Thus, I left halfway through. But if you're into film and you have never heard this conversation yet, it might contain some interesting nuggets for you.

Part 1: Download it now or play in browser:











Part 2: Download it now or play in browser:








Some Quick Thoughts About Audioboo

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If there's one thing I've been blessed with in this life, it's being surrounded by incredibly interesting, articulate people. Often, I feel the urge to capture the conversations I have with people so that others can listen in and get a sense of their insight and humor. Consequently, I am becoming addicted to using audio blogging services like AudioBoo and Cinch (in fact, I may soon fashion my thoughts into an extensive comparison article between the two services). These services allow you to use your iPhone as a recording device, capture a brief exchange, then upload it to the internet where it can be instantenously and automatically published on services like Twitter, Facebook, etc.

I have tried to reach out to Audioboo before on their forums and on Twitter, but have never gotten a response from them to any of my concerns. Recently, they apologized for not responding to me and asked me what my problem(s) with the service was. Rather than trying to reply to them via Twitter, which is incredibly restrictive with its 140-character limit, I'm going to provide some of my thoughts on the service below.

**

So, Audioboo here are my concerns with your service, and why Cinch may soon overtake you as my audio blogging platform of choice:

1) The 5-minute time-limit - This limit is restrictive and while I'm sure the bandwidth to maintain your site is already astronomical, the current time limit simply will not allow you to compete with a site like Cinch, which has no time limit. It's a hell of a lot easier to record a conversation (which, let's admit, is already a fairly daunting task) without having to check the timer every 10 seconds.

2) Your community support is nonexistent/terrible - When I created my first Cinchcast, I was inundated with comments and Twitter messages from Cinch's community manager and the founder of the service (who also created BlogTalkRadio). I created another Cinchcast a few nights later, and the founder of the service took time to comment on that one too. It was incredibly encouraging. I felt like my use of this service was creating content that could be valuable and thought-provoking. That is, after all, part of the way to fulfill the potential of these audio blogging sites, I imagine.

My assumption is that a new startup web service such as Audioboo would want to reach out to its most active users in some way. I have spent many countless hours creating content for AudioBoo, which essentially amounts to tons of free advertising for your site. I consider several of these conversations to be interesting/entertaining, although you may certainly disagree. Either way, the number of messages/comments I've gotten from Audiboo employees (other than your Tweet reaching out to me): Zero.

3) The profile options on your website are abysmal - Seriously, this is absolutely embarrassing: A huge part of the reason people use your site is to put their Audioboos on Twitter. But when I go to a person's profile page, there's no easy way for me to find a person's Twitter username. In fact, there are basically no display options for ANY personal information whatsoever! Moreover, there's no way to contact someone if I like a boo (other than leaving a comment, but that's usually where the conversation ends by necessity). How can you possibly hope to build a community of users this way if you don't have even the most basic social features on your site, other than commenting? Or maybe you don't expect to...but if not, then why the hell not?

4) No easily-accessible counter for hits - Content-creation services like Youtube and Vimeo have an easy way for me to see how many views my videos have received. Presumably, you know how many times an Audioboo has been clicked, but you don't have any easy way for me to access this information. Thankfully, you provide a Google Analytics option, but is it so hard to have a hit counter? Seeing which boos are more popular than others helps me to refine the content I produce for any site, and I consider it an essential part of my creative process.

There are many things you do better than Cinch, Audioboo, but the purpose of this post is to enumerate the things that could use improvement on your site. So, what say you? Are these concerns valid? Are my expectations unrealistic? Please let me know.

Hope in Children of Men

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Whether I'm writing about movies or talking about them, I readily admit that I tend to state things that most other people find blindingly obvious. Nonetheless, I enjoy dwelling on these points, even if other people have already grasped them and have moved on long ago, because I think that messages in movies have the potential to change the way we think about life.

Tonight, I turn my attention, briefly, to Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men. Children of Men imagines a future where every single woman on the planet has lost her fertility, and mankind's last generation is on the verge of snuffing itself out. The film masterfully depicts a chaotic, anarchic, post-apocalyptic world where the British government has virtually reverted to fascism, and the general populace has been imbued with some combination of mass hysteria and suicidal depression.

The film doesn't do any hand-holding. There's no extensive chronologically-appropriate newsreel footage to guide you through the events of the previous decade (see Surrogates). As the viewer, you're dropped into the situation with a bang (literally) and the pacing never really lets up. The film offers brief, tantalizing glimpses of the future that you've never known, and you're forced to put all the pieces together. All of this is to the film's credit.

In fact, it took me awhile to actually grasp precisely what exactly it is about infertility that would lead to a global apocalypse. My simplistic mind thought at the time, "I know plenty of people/couples who aren't having kids, and they're not bombing coffee shops or leading rebellions against the government." But recently, due to events in my life, it's become ever more clear to me what visceral emotions are at work in the picture of humanity that we see in the film.

When you take away the idea that man will continue to exist, you remove the ever-fleeting idea that his actions have consequence. You remove the hope that he will leave something that will outlast him. You destroy his desire to achieve, his need to create, and ultimately, his will to live. I recently had the opportunity to re-read this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

A world without a future humanity is a world in which these measures of success aren't even possible. When a person realizes that their future is gone, they become like a captured animal, flailing about in some kind of primal rage, full of the horrible understanding that the end is near and simultaneously desperately seeking escape.

In other words, hope is what we need to keep going and get through the day. And when you take that away from someone, that person will cling to anything, and do whatever they have to in order to survive. Alternatively, they just might accept the peaceful surrender of death rather than continue a version of existence that can only be described as barely living.