Lessons Learned in 2009

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Cambridge after snow
Photo taken by me

The other day, I was speaking with my colleague and friend Angie Han about what kind of year this has been for me. I wasn't in a particularly good mood at the time, so the one word that I used to describe it was "Terrible." She wished me a better 2010, and asked me if I'd learned any lessons from 2009. For the life of me, I couldn't articulate any lessons I had learned, and that fact actually began to depress me even more.

It wasn't until the next morning while I was in the shower, I was struck with a bunch of lessons that I'd learned this year. And I realized that the reason they hadn't occurred to me is because even though I did learn a bunch of stuff, most of it isn't particularly helpful or applicable. It's just...stuff?

So here are my lessons of 2009, in no particular order:

The Films of the Coen Brothers Collectively Present a Compelling Worldview -
Money is not everything. The world is going to hell in a handbasket and there is nothing we can do to stop it. Only those who dare to be decent will be punished. The Dude abides. Accept the mystery.

The Vocal Minority - Let's say you do a podcast, or run a website, or write a blog: As a general matter, your critics will be much more vocals than your fans. This means that even though the ratio of people who like you to people who dislike you is 10:1, the ratio of positive comments to negative comments will be closer to 1:1. This will create the illusion that most people don't like your work and that your life's labor is meaningless. On a related matter....

Encouragement - There's the oft-repeated fact that it takes 43 muscles to frown and only 17 to smile, so we should all smile a hell of a lot more. Even though that "fact" is actually complete bull crap, it is actually a lot easier to provide encouragement than discouragement. If you're eating at a restaurant and your waitress/waiter is great, take a few minutes and tell their manager how you feel about them. I guarantee you it will make their day. If you read a blog post that moves you or makes you think, send an e-mail/twitter/IM and let the author know how much you appreciate it. Positive vibes are a lot easier to send people than negative ones, and everyone will feel better in the end if you focus more energy on the former.

I'm a Mac and a PC - PCs and Macs have significantly different advantages. Neither one is definitively "better" than the other, despite what many internet writers may claim.

Today - No matter what people say about how you can always turn things around, many decisions you make today will affect you for the rest of your life. Occasionally, these decisions can have profoundly negative effects that will change you forever.

Opportunities That Are There Today May Not Be There Tomorrow - Seize the day, and don't let go until you've drained out every last ounce of hope and possibility.

Proverbs 17:17 - "A friend loves at all times."

Respect - On a long enough timeline, the respect you have for people you greatly admire will approach zero.

Lea Michele - is a really good singer.

Stories - A well-told story can change someone's life in ways you cannot imagine.

Mistakes - It is possible to screw up so royally that you feel no more desire to exist. How you react to your mistakes dictates who you truly are.

Challenge - Finding something you are good at can be a lot different than finding something that challenges you. In the best of worlds, you can do something that is both.

Hope - It can keep someone alive.

Twitter and the online film community - No one seems to care about the fact that when people see us bickering like schoolchildren, it makes us all look bad. To be clear, I am referring to all of us collectively, including me, and no one specific. But on that note....

Calling People Out - If you're going to bother to do this on Twitter or anywhere else, do it by name. Don't wuss out. It just makes things confusing and unpleasant for everyone.

Survivors - In general, the ones that will prosper may not be the smartest or the best. They just have to be first, business-savvy, and "good enough."

Success - No amount of professional success can ever compensate for personal shortcomings.

***

I was talking with my friend Matt yesterday he said something that I hope will be prescient: "I sense great new things this decade, Dave. I sense this decade will be the decade of not giving up."

I hope he is right.

Is Film Criticism Really a Dying Art? (Part 1)

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Testing Lo-mob app: Tri-Black Filter, Mother helping daughter up stairs
Photo taken by me

The other day on the /Film podcast, we had on veteran film journalist Anne Thompson to chat about a variety of subjects, including Avatar and the state of film criticism. You can listen to that episode by clicking here, or hear it in your browser below:



Some of our discussion centered around a controversial article that Thompson wrote, in which she lamented film critic Scott Foundas' decision to take a job as a film programmer. She also asserted in the article that "film criticism is a dying art." Initially, I thought that Thompson was referring to film criticism as a well-paid profession that provides a living wage, but as our discussion went on, I realized that she was, in fact, referring to the concept of high-quality film criticism as a whole (fast forward to around 42:00 into the discussion to hear this). Anne laments the loss of the golden age of film critics:

...the professional film critics, who are paid to write film criticism full time, who have done it their whole lives...they're really good! You're not going to find that quality, really, among the so-called amateur film critics. That doesn't mean that I'm dismissing that or saying that it shouldn't exist. I'm decrying the end of the golden era.

Before I proceed, let me just say that the purpose of this blog post is not to single out Anne at all. Her willingness to participate on our show and to speak frankly about this topic makes her a class act in my book (most people who feel the same way she does would never even think of appearing on the /Filmcast). But I think Anne's viewpoint is reflective of the viewpoint of a lot of the film criticism establishment in the U.S. today. And it bothers me.

I understand Anne's reaction. Gone are the days when a handful of film critics could dictate the national discourse surrounding a particular film. Local newspapers are folding and those that aren't are firing film critics left and right. When you see people who have made a living off of writing about film (a task they've proven themselves worthy of) losing their jobs and having their popularity subsumed by young upstarts with little expertise or training, it can be a disorienting, infuriating, and saddening.

Does this mean that high-quality film writing is dying? Does this mean we'll never have it again? I have my own thoughts on this topic, so I'm going to postulate a few points in order. Bear with me, and see if you follow/agree with my line of reasoning:

1) There are people out there for whom good writing seems impossible, or at least, not foreseeably possible. They lack proper understanding of grammar/punctuation/spelling and seem incapable of generating original ideas or interesting sentence structure. This is a small, but significant percentage of the people who write seriously about movies (and when I say "seriously," I mean more seriously than just having a personal blog where they put a movie review once every few months). The question of how to turn an incompetent writer into a competent one is not one I will address right now, as that is beyond the purview of this blog post.

2) The vast majority of writers, for whom running a movie-related website or publication is a major part of their lives/income, is typically at least competent at what they do, and possessed of varying degrees of writing ability. Many of them are mediocre. A few of them are very good. Some are phenomenal, and I would compare them favorably to any newspaper film critic in the country.

3) Here's where I'm making an assertion on which I have no basis, but you can see how plausible this is to you: The really amazing writers, such as Scott Foundas, A.O. Scott, Roger Ebert, Kenneth Turan, etc....they weren't always that good. It's entirely possible that when they got their start, they weren't much better than a lot of "amateur" online writers today. What I think I can say for certain is that their writing has improved over time, as they've continued to work, to have their writing evaluated by others, and more importantly, as they've seen more and more movies.

So if all of these are true, the question becomes, is it possible for some of the "amateur" writers to become great writers? I think so. Anyone who writes a substantial amount in their lives will tell you finding your voice is always an iterative process. We all learn more about ourselves, everyday, in various ways, and we translate that sensibility into our output. As we read more, we absorb more of the mechanics for graceful, incisive, thoughtful writing.

Ultimately, then, whenever people like Anne Thompson (i.e. people who I respect greatly, whose opinions I value, and who are the most noteworthy and high-profile people in the film community) say something like "film criticism is a dying art" or that the age of good film criticism is dying, it says something to the rest of us, the hundreds and thousands of us who love movies and are constantly trying to refine our own abilities: Stop trying. You will never be good enough.

I am back in high school again, and my unrequited crush is telling me to stay away.

One of the things I respect the most about my boss, Peter Sciretta from /Film, is that he is always encouraging of anyone to put their opinions out there. I think he believes that when everyone can contribute to the conversation, we are all better-informed on some level. I'm not sure I always agree with Peter, but in my opinion, more participation opens up a space for those more experienced to give pointers to those who are new. And when people can help others and build an online community, everyone benefits.

Fragmentation is not death. And film criticism can still remain a respected form of cultural examination, far into the future. But it starts with a spirit of acceptance and magnanimity.

When those who have been doing this for a long time try to help those who haven't - instead of lamenting the current state of things - I think we'll all be better off. The older generation has so much wisdom and knowledge that could be passed on to those who might not know why films like Citizen Kane or Jules and Jim are so groundbreaking. Will their knowledge fade along with them? Or will they use their experience for the purposes to mentor and to edify?

How things play will play out remains to be seen (I am not optimistic). But despite my disagreements with her point, I think someone like Anne Thompson joining us for a discussion on a film geek podcast is a good first step.

I Guest-Host Filmspotting

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When I started podcasting about movies, I drew my inspiration from a few of my favorite gaming podcasts: The 1Up Your podcast hosted by Garnett Lee and the Hotspot podcast, which featured Jeff Gerstmann and Ryan Davis (who have since moved over to Giant Bomb). There were a also a few podcasts out there that set the gold standard for movie podcasts: Filmspotting, the Creative Screenwriting Podcast, and the Scene Unseen podcast.

This latter category helped to create the "market" for movie podcasts, paving the way for people like me, ever since iTunes first had a TV & Film podcast section. Their hosts are erudite, informed, and entertaining. Together, they offer a glimpse into the world of moviemaking and film criticism that is frequently unique to the podcasting format (although obviously, Filmspotting is broadcast on the radio on WBEZ in Chicago).

I was recently given the privilege of guest-hosting for Filmspotting, a task which I approached with awe and care. Filmspotting is one of the biggest movie podcasts on the internet, and in my opinion, they set the gold standard for movie podcasts. Granted, what we do on the /Filmcast is drastically different and our target audience isn't the same either, but I always feel like I'm learning something new, either about movies or about the process of talking about them, whenever I listen to Filmspotting.

As much of a thrill as it was to actually record the episode, the things that I geeked out about the most were the incredibly mundane elements of the show, such as hearing my voice come on over the Filmspotting intro music, or thanking Torey Malatia at the end of the show (something I've heard countless times done by radio luminaries such as Ira Glass). In general, when tasks this big seek to overwhelm me, I try to take pleasure in the small things.

I am grateful to Adam Kempenaar for the chance to guest-host. Assuming the feedback isn't bad, I hope to have the opportunity to do it again in the future.

You can download the episode here (right click and Save As) or listen to it in your browser below:



Skhizein

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Sometimes, my boss Peter Sciretta lets me make blog posts over at his considerably more popular blog, slashfilm.com. Today is one of those times: I wrote about an amazing short film I recently saw, Skhizein. Read my thoughts by clicking here.

Skhizein (Jérémy Clapin,2008)

The Joys of Friendship: To Matt and Jen

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How is it that people come to be friends? What is that elusive process whereby complete strangers start caring for one another?

I have been blessed with some pretty amazing friends in my life, but despite my decades on this earth, the mechanics of friend-acquisition still elude me. We interact with strangers in our classes, we pass by them on the street, we see them at work. Somehow, some of them become our friends and some of them do not.

It can start with a simple invitation to a movie screening, extended and accepted. But one simple social outing cannot predict the course of a friendship. Ultimately, I think, it's a convergence of compassion, selflessness, and luck that makes friendship in our lives possible.

This semester I started taking schools at a local Graduate School of Education and I had the privilege of meeting two wonderful people named Matt and Jen. They don't know it but they have been beacons of light to me during a dark time in my life. To know that they are around to talk with, ask for help, or just hang around with has helped to sustain me this past semester.

I know they will do great things. They already have.

Update: Here's me and Matt and Jen reading and sharing some poetry together:

Listen!

Listen!

Why Apple's Magic Mouse Is a Piece of Crap

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[Update: Welcome MacSurfer readers to this little place in the internet I call home. I'm honored that you've chosen to visit! One thing I feel compelled to update about this post: User "Gopyvision" points out in the comments, correctly, that at the time I wrote this post, I didn't understand how the "right-click" function on the mouse works. Essentially, if you have two fingers on the mouse surface, it does not matter where you press-down; the mouse will register it as a left-click, even if you are clicking on the right-most part of the mouse. I did not realize this before, but it definitely helps me to better use the mouse now. I do not, however, find this intuitive at all, and I find myself still longing for the solace of physical buttons....]

I started using my very first iMac about a month ago. There's a lot to love about the slickness of Apple's Snow Leopard operating system, not to mention the absolutely gorgeous, obnoxiously large 27" screen. And while I have to use my PC to record my podcasts and do my work (my office Word template no longer functions on Macs), the iMac will be a good computer companion for quite some time to come.

But there's one thing that I have to vent about: Apple's Magic Mouse. I've never used anything other than a 2-button mouse until now, but I since the Magic Mouse came with the computer, I've been giving it a shot for the past month. Initially, I was a fan. But several weeks of usage later, I've concluded that while I love the idea of zooming in instantaneously and advancing through webpages without having to click on "Back" in my browsers, there are a number of places this thing falls short:

Ergonomics - Sure, it looks gorgeous from a photo on a computer screen, but put your hand down on one of these things and you'll realize instantly that it does not conform to your hand, unlike virtually every other mouse designed by anyone. Moreover, you'll find that the hand position necessary to do the swipe (i.e. hold down the mouse with your thumb and ring, swipe with middle and index) is incredibly unnatural.

I have personally found that due to the awkward positioning required to do the gestures, this mouse is developing bad habits in my general mouse hand positioning. It is very hard to move the mouse around with your thumb and ring finger pinching it, since the mouse itself has very low clearance (your thumb and ring finger often scrape the mousepad underneath). Thus, after a few weeks of using this thing, I've started pivoting my hand around my wrist on occasion, rather than moving the entire mouse. Experts will tell you, this is a terrible thing to do and it will eventually destroy my wrist if left unchecked.

False clicks - Steve Jobs notoriously has a hatred of buttons (note the button-less shirts he wears when he delivers keynotes, or the new iPod shuffles complete lack of any buttons whatsoever). One of the biggest issues with this mouse is the fact that the top one-piece casing actually hides two buttons (or at least, two virtual buttons). Unfortunately, because the piece of plastic is a huge, single piece, you can often have false left-clicks. In other words, I'll be going to right-click on a link to copy it, or open it a new tab, or whatever, and find that since i'm pressing down on the mouse's topside, it doesn't register the right click and instead left-clicks on the actual link, taking me to someplace I never wanted to be. I hate you, Magic Mouse, for your lack of obedience, sophistication, and understanding.

Battery Life - I have been using this thing for the past three weeks and the included batteries crapped out today. Three weeks! So either they included some weak sauce batteries (I already spent $1000+ on the computer, so why shaft me there?) or this mouse eats up batteries faster than a mofo. Either way, I have to track down new or rechargeable batteries for this thing, a timesuck for a device that has already taken so, so much from me.

***

Conclusion: I'm going to try to sell this thing and pick up a Logitech. But enough about me, what have been your experiences with the Magic Mouse?

The Voice of an Angel: Suzie LeBlanc

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The Messiah was beautiful. AND I GOT TO MEET SUZIE LEBLANC!!!!

At a performance of Handel's "Messiah" tonight at Boston's Symphony Hall, I got to meet singer/soprano Suzie LeBlanc. This was a big deal for me. In fact, I traveled an hour on the T to see the Messiah specifically just to hear Suzie sing. It was worth it.

I bought Suzie's Portrait album awhile back, which, at the ridiculously low price of $6, I absolutely insist you buy right now. Suzie's voice is so beautiful that it is one of the few voices in the world that actually provokes physical reactions within me when I listen; I feel my chest shrinking and my heart melting when her dulcet tones dance over the notes of an Aria. I've embedded a couple of her pieces below. Take a listen and let me know what you think, but please, buy her album to get the high-fidelity experience. You will not regret it.