Thoughts on 'The Muppets'

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We had the opportunity to review The Muppets on the /Filmcast recently, and while I stand by that review, I've also been grateful to read a bunch more informed opinions in the past few days. One of the things that I found irritating about the response to our review (both on Twitter, in the comments, and via e-mail) has been the idea that I should've just "enjoyed the movie for what it was."

This reasoning annoys me for two reasons. First of all, it plays into the whole internet mentality that only one opinion about a film can be correct and that other opinions should be discounted or cowed into submission. We've seen this sentiment play out on numerous occasions in the past.

Secondly, it implicitly demands that this film, The Muppets, be less than excellent. Not every film can be an amazing work of art, but is it wrong to expect each one to at least be an exemplar of its category? I think not. Jason Segel (who co-wrote The Muppets screenplay) was handed a remarkable opportunity and substantial resources to work with a beloved property. I found the film to be delightful, a lightly polished piece of light, fluffy entertainment. But as a film, was it emotionally resonant? Did it evince quality, thoughtful storytelling? Did it pay homage to the muppets while bringing their sensibility into a new era? In my opinion, it did not (you can listen to my review for more details on this).

Other people have made this point far better than me. As always, I encourage you to check out the Extra Hot Great podcast's review, which adeptly strips away the nostalgia and evaluates this film with brutal honesty.

I'd strongly recommend Elizabeth Stevens' sprawling essay on the muppets, which is a loving exploration to the work of Henson. In one portion of the essay, Stevens questions why Kermit (once voiced by Jim Henson but now voiced by Steven Whitmire) needed to continue existing at all after Henson's death:

It would’ve made more artistic sense than what happened. Instead of an organic personnel shift, Whitmire became Kermit, which wasn't only a disservice to that character, but also a real disservice to Whitmire. There was no place for him to take the role. If he strays too far from Henson, embodying Kermit with the parts of his personality that weren’t in Henson, nostalgic fans will be disappointed. He can only attempt the same impression over and over. It’s not the kind of art Henson produced. It’s very un-Muppet.

I was reading Matt Gemmell's great essay the other day about why copying occurs so frequently in the tech industry and I couldn't help but think of Stevens remarks. One thing that both writers agree on: a copy can never be better than the original. By consigning Whitmire to imitating Kermit, it's a lose/lose for both Whitemire and for the character.

Stevens' essay was written before the film came out, but if she were to review the film, my guess is it would read a lot like Jason Bellamy's review of the film at Indiewire:

Make no mistake, watching the gang perform “Rainbow Connection” is lump-in-the-throat touching and realistic, too (not that the Muppets have ever been about realism), but it comes off like a concession – that the Muppets’ best days are behind them and the most magic we can hope for is an occasional performance of their greatest hits. Maybe that’s true. Maybe what Segel’s film shows us is that Henson and Frank Oz, the puppeteers extraordinaire who through their voices and hands gave so many of these characters their spirit, are irreplaceable.

Compare The Muppets to a film such as Abrams' Star Trek, which does honor to the original characters while striking out on its own (quite literally, using a brand new timeline). Despite that film's shortcomings, I truly believe it set the standard for how these film remake/adaptations should be done. I'll take Big-Hands-Kirk over endless, empty waves of nostalgia any day. At least the former is trying something new.

What I'm Thankful For (2011): The Year of Magical Thinking

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Another shot from this morning: Boats on the Water

My life changes so quickly that I frequently feel as though I'm breathlessly trying and failing to catch up. This year has been a year of change and of endings. If I could use one Youtube video to sum up and evoke my life, it would be that HBO promo of Tony Soprano, overlooking the ocean as he contemplates his entire existence coming to a head:



This year, jobs have ended. Relationships have ended. School has ended. Virtually every significant element of my life has undergone some irrevocable change. It has been a year of loss, and I face a future full of uncertainty.

Simultaneously, I've also had so many blessings this year:


It has been a year of amazing times, of great challenges, and of personal and professional growth. While many of the above things were done through sheer force of will, I would be lost without those who have supported me during this challenging time. Through late night phone conversations, relentless encouragement, and stunning self-sacrifice, my friends around me have helped me in immeasurable ways. You know who you are.

I am eternally grateful to those who have volunteered their time (and their posing) this year to help me become a better photographer. Together, I believe we've made some great art. Thanks for your patience and for your support.

But in addition to my "offline" friends, I continue to be thankful for my online colleagues, who have continued to stimulate my mind and support me in all that I do. You have heartened me so much and given me the strength to keep going.

And as usual, I remain grateful to you, the reader, listener, Tweeter, Facebooker, and enabler of all my online adventures. Thanks for your continued readership, listenership, and support. I certainly would not be where I am without you.

The future could not be less clear these days, and I am not sure where I will be one year from today. But today, right now, I'm grateful to be surrounded by the love of family and of friends. It is truly all I need.

A Plague On Both Your Film Houses

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I really loved Charles Taylor's new piece for Dissent magazine, in which he lambastes both online film critics and the print critics who hate them:

The rigorous division of websites into narrow interests, the attempts of Amazon and Netflix to steer your next purchase based on what you’ve already bought, the ability of Web users to never encounter anything outside of their established political or cultural preferences, and the way technology enables advertisers to identify each potential market and direct advertising to it, all represent the triumph of cultural segregation that is the negation of democracy. It’s the reassurance of never having to face anyone different from ourselves.

Maybe #FirstWorldProblems Aren't Really That First World After All...

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Alexis Madrigal points to Teju Cole's analysis of the #firstworldproblems hashtag on Twitter:

I don't like this expression "First World problems." It is false and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. Connectivity issues on your BlackBerry, cost of car repair, how to sync your iPad, what brand of noodles to buy: Third World problems. All the silly stuff of life doesn't disappear just because you're black and live in a poorer country. People in the richer nations need a more robust sense of the lives being lived in the darker nations. Here's a First World problem: the inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are.

Can the iPhone 4S Replace a High-End Camera?

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Ars Technica joins the discussion with this in-depth exploration, complete with comparison pics:

[P]hotographers accustomed to DSLR quality won't be trading their higher-end gear for a smartphone camera of any kind, iPhone 4S or not.

In the end, the iPhone 4S offers convenience—light weight, fits in pocket, simple controls—along with competitive, if not excellent, image quality. Unless you need or want full manual control or greater versatility in lens options, the iPhone 4S certainly makes a great photographic tool.

Troubling

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The above video of the UC Davis protests has been making its way around the internet. It is incredibly troubling in its depiction of police brutality against non-violent college-aged protesters. Brian Stelter at the NYTimes has a solid overall summary of the impact of this video in the media, and the current situation at UC Davis. James Fallows' words at The Atlantic ring true to me:

Let's stipulate that there are legitimate questions of how to balance the rights of peaceful protest against other people's rights to go about their normal lives, and the rights of institutions to have some control over their property and public spaces. Without knowing the whole background, I'll even assume for purposes of argument that the UC Davis authorities had legitimate reason to clear protestors from an area of campus -- and that if protestors wanted to stage a civil-disobedience resistance to that effort, they should have been prepared for the consequence of civil disobedience, which is arrest.

I can't see any legitimate basis for police action like what is shown here.

Finally, be sure to read Alexis Madrigal's analysis, as well as Digby's piece on the historical antecedents.

Thoughts on the First Tobolowsky Files Live

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Last week, Stephen Tobolowsky and I took to the stage of the Brattle Theatre for our first-ever staging of The Tobolowsky Files Live. By most measures, the shows were a success: hundreds of people showed up, most of whom appeared to enjoy themselves (based on the comments I got afterwards and the general "mood" of the room. See also this lovely review from Pajiba). More importantly, Stephen and I got to play around with how we are going to do this thing in Seattle in January, when our audience is estimated to be around 700 people. Subsequent shows are currently being discussed for New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and maybe even Boston again in a few months.

Photo: Tech Check at the Brattle (t-minus 2.5 hours till the show!)

The Brattle Theatre was an excellent host for us. Not only did they take a chance on what, at this point, is somewhat of an "unproven property," they also made a whole weekend out of it, honoring Stephen by playing many of his movies in the theater, and by making him the guest of honor at the annual Brattle Gala. Here's a video of them presenting a gift to Stephen at that gala:



As for my own personal experience, it was, by any measure, a thrill. Many people from the audience had never heard Stephen live, so it was great to be spreading the "Tobolowsky gospel." Moreover, I met tons of amazing fans, both of the /Filmcast and of the Tobolowsky Files. One couple had driven four hours just to see the show that night. It was humbling and inspiring to see. And it was heartening to know that I had helped to create something that brought people together in a way that I hope was powerful.

Beyond that, there is something magical about the art of live storytelling -- the idea that by uttering a few words, a person can change the entire mood of a room, can make you re-think your life, can move you and make you angry, sad, or joyful. Stephen Tobolowsky has this gift. To see him deploy it in an intimate theater with people whose hearts were open is an experience I shall never forget.

Some of my personal thoughts on Tobolowsky Live night #2 (mp3)


A few other snippets of media:

Here's a video I recorded of Stephen and I chatting before the very first show. I was pretty nervous. Stephen may have been too, but he remained a consummate professional:



I was able to place my iPhone in my front breast pocket before I walked out on stage the second night. The video is almost incomprehensible, as the camera is at an extremely weird angle, but I still think this gives you a sense of what the mood was like for the packed audience that night.



Lastly, here's a photograph I took of Stephen and Ann on their last day. Her support and encouragement helped to make last weekend possible.

Stephen and Anne

"We Need You, Michael Bloomberg"

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Keith Olbermann, on the troubling site of a billionaire mayor invoking the police to forcibly evict the Occupy Wall Street protestors from Zucotti Park:

Using God's Name in Vain

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Frederick Clarkson, on the increasingly prevalent phenomenon of politicians invoking God's name during political races:

While it is hard to top an endorsement from God, what if God has, as seems to be the case this time, several candidates in the same race? Maybe they were mistaken. Or perhaps God was up to something else.

Perhaps God wanted people to see the shameless way that pols invoke his name. Perhaps God wanted treat us to some spectacular displays of political sleazebaggery in the way pols will use and abuse God to achieve vainglorious ends.

A History of Flash

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Michael Mace has written an insightful history of Flash, and what led to its downfall:

If you look for root causes of the Flash failure, I think they go back many years to a fundamental misreading of the mobile market, and to short-term revenue goals that were more important than long-term strategy at both Macromedia and Adobe. In other words, Flash didn't just die. It was managed into oblivion.

Action and Inaction

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John Scalzi discusses the Penn State debacle, and explains how reality can be stranger than fiction sometimes.

See also Sarah D Bunting's piece on the matter (via MZS):

I would love to tell you that, coming upon a grownup raping a child, in the act, I would grab the nearest heavy object and brandish it and yell at the grownup to get away, and stuff the child into some clothing and drive him to the nearest police precinct. I would love to tell you that; we would all love to tell ourselves that. Everyone's cape flutters attractively in the breeze of the subjunctive.

What probably would happen instead is that I would back out of the room in horror. Flee, in fact, on tiptoe, to somewhere small and dark, to process the upside-down wrong thing I'd seen.

The Economics of the McRib

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Fascinating analysis by Willy Staley:

Fast food involves both hideously violent economies of scale and sad, sad end users who volunteer to be taken advantage of. What makes the McRib different from this everyday horror is that a) McDonald’s is huge to the point that it’s more useful to think of it as a company trading in commodities than it is to think of it as a chain of restaurants b) it is made of pork, which makes it a unique product in the QSR world and c) it is only available sometimes, but refuses to go away entirely.

Why Google+ Is Doomed

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Some good insight from Farhad Manjoo:

[A] social network isn’t a product; it’s a place. Like a bar or a club, a social network needs a critical mass of people to be successful—the more people it attracts, the more people it attracts. Google couldn’t have possibly built every one of Facebook’s features into its new service when it launched, but to make up for its deficits, it ought to have let users experiment more freely with the site.

[Update: Nick Bilton brings up a good point: Even if Google+ fails to compete, it is unlikely to die anytime soon]

Dance, My Esmeralda

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As I mentioned in my discussion of my new Beyerdynamic headphones, I've recently been diving back into my old music to re-experience it again under better circumstances. Here's something that I just unearthed:

One of the most significant things I got out of my high school education was getting introduced to the French musical Notre Dame De Paris (thanks Mme. Girondel!) . I don't think I fully appreciated at the time, but the production featured top-notch production values, spectacular choreography, and most importantly, beautiful music.

The musical concludes with Quasimodo crouching over his precious dead Esmeralda, imploring her to dance and sing once more, insisting that he'll join her once more in the after life. To me, the musical presents a stunning meditation on the whims of fate. The deformed Quasimodo is forced to watch as his love is destroyed by forces beyond his control. None of us get to choose the hands we're dealt and sometimes we can't even control how they're played. That's the ultimate tragedy.

The English translation just doesn't do this song justice. It's times like this when only the beauty of French can fully convey the splendor of emotion that is being felt here. Even back then, I grasped how achingly beautiful this song is. Give it a few whirls. Maybe you'll feel the same way.

If you're interested in checking out the musical, I would recommend this version of the MP3 album. Every song in this thing is spectacular.

The Beyerdynamic DT 880 Headphones - A Brief Review

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On the recommendation of Marco Arment, I decided to invest in Beyerdynamic DT 880 headphones. When I purchased them on Amazon, they cost $225. Prior to this week, I've never spent more than $30 on a pair of headphones. So why the extravagance?

More and more, I find myself spending a lot of my time listening to music that I buy online. But more importantly, I find myself wondering what I'm missing. A lot of work goes into producing any album, and by playing them back on cheap-o earbuds or crappy speakers, we're cheating ourselves out of the sonic fullness that we're paying good money for. So I made the decision to splurge on one good set of headphones, rather than opting for an endless supply of generics.

After one day of use, I can safely say that the Beyerdynamic DT 880 headphones will change the way I listen to music. Not only are they super comfortable, they make my music sound amazing and bring out nuances that I just don't hear through my speakers, and certainly not my earbuds. I was particularly impressed by how they render classical music, all of which sounds gorgeous. The day I got these, I spent more time listening to music than I had in the previous few weeks combined. My only regret is that some of my music from years ago was encoded at a lower MP3 bitrate than was optimal; time to go back into my old CD collection and do some ripping!

They are not meant to be used in a work-place as they are somewhat "open," meaning they are designed for sound to leak out the sides. Anecdotally, I can say that the sound leakage is negligible, but I still wouldn't use them in public. Instead, used strictly for private listening, these headphones will reveal things about your music you never thought possible.

Highly recommended.

The Quest for the Perfect Run

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The NYTimes, on the search for an injury-free way of running:

We were once the greatest endurance runners on earth. We didn’t have fangs, claws, strength or speed, but the springiness of our legs and our unrivaled ability to cool our bodies by sweating rather than panting enabled humans to chase prey until it dropped from heat exhaustion. Some speculate that collaboration on such hunts led to language, then shared technology. Running arguably made us the masters of the world.

So how did one of our greatest strengths become such a liability? “The data suggests up to 79 percent of all runners are injured every year,” says Stephen Messier, the director of the J. B. Snow Biomechanics Laboratory at Wake Forest University. “What’s more, those figures have been consistent since the 1970s.” Messier is currently 11 months into a study for the U.S. Army and estimates that 40 percent of his 200 subjects will be hurt within a year. “It’s become a serious public health crisis.”

Wedding Photography Is a Dangerous Game

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Maybe I don't want to get into this industry after all...

[O]ne groom, disappointed with his wedding photos, decided to sue. The photographers had missed the last dance and the bouquet toss, the groom, Todd J. Remis of Manhattan, said.

But what is striking, said the studio that took the pictures, is that Mr. Remis’s wedding took place in 2003 and he waited six years to sue. And not only has Mr. Remis demanded to be repaid the $4,100 cost of the photography, he also wants $48,000 to recreate the entire wedding and fly the principals to New York so the celebration can be re-shot by another photographer.

Dan and Priscilla's Wedding

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I just got back from a whirlwind trip to Los Angeles. While there, I worked with Stephen Tobolowsky to put the finishing touches on our upcoming live show. I also had the opportunity to photograph Dan Trachtenberg's wedding.

Dan and I have been friends for a couple years now (he's guested on the /Filmcast a few times, always to great effect). It was an honor to capture images from his big day with his bride Priscilla, who looked absolutely stunning in her wedding dress. The wedding took place at Marvimon in Los Angeles. Beautiful location, great food, amazing people. I could not have asked for a better wedding to shoot!

Here is a video I put together of the festivities. It is my first attempt at assembling a video slideshow out of my photos. Hope y'all enjoy it:

The Wedding of Dan Trachtenberg and Priscilla Hernandez from David Chen on Vimeo.