Metacritically yours

Metacritic.com has the potential to be my favorite new site on the net. So what is it? The founders speak:

Metacritic.com was founded in 1999 by three movie fans who like to read movie reviews. In fact, we like to read a good cross-section of reviews for each movie to get a better idea of the critical consensus for each release. (You know, it’s a hobby.) Although at the time the web offered a wealth of reviews and other movie information, there was no easy way to track down all of the various pages without spending a lot of time and effort searching. Thus, Metacritic was born.

We envisioned Metacritic.com as a place where movie fans like us could easily find the most important reviews for each new movie at a glance. Thus, in addition to quotes from reviews from major critics on each movie page on our site, you will find links to each of the full reviews. We also wanted to design a system for comparing reviews between critics and between movies. To accomplish this goal, we developed our Metascore formula. Each movie is assigned a Metascore, which is a weighted average of each of the individual reviews for that film. This number, on a 0-100 scale, lets you know at a glance how each movie is reviewed.

Of course this is not groundbreaking– rags like EW have long provided reviewer scoreboards– but Metacritic seems to bring this approach to perfection online. I particularly appreciate the videogame reviews; I am too much of a newbie to know all the magazines and sites that could steer me towards quality.

Now all that needs to happen is a grafting of the “Just Like You” engine from Amazon onto the site. Then the need for personal opinion can be abrogated entirely.

Analyze this?

Slate has been running for several seasons a Monday-morning dissection of The Sopranos by a team of relatively articulate shrinks. This week’s is especially satisfying.

Several of the commentators are “declinists,” i.e., “The show used to be so much better.” (Pete can be a declinist, and is, whereas I cannot as this is my first season.) Glen Gabbard, one of the participants, has this defense about this episode and the season as a whole:

We expect the characters to follow “arcs” that are programmed in our brains from years of television, film, and theater, and the writers repeatedly defy these expectations. In a New York Times interview, David Chase made the point that he attempted to create an atmosphere that resembled the way people actually interact: They talk past each other; they don’t listen to one another; conflicts are not resolved; forces of inertia and entropy triumph over our desire to tie up loose plot ends. The fourth season has been stellar, for the most part, far better than anything else we have seen or probably ever will see on television. The marriage held together, like many marriages, through a concerted effort at self-deception on the part of both spouses. The final episode was about the ultimate fate of that form of self-deception.

This struck me as interesting. David and I recently disagreed about the merits of Alias Betty, the highly regarded recent French film by Claude Miller. I found the no-loose-knots perfection of its redemption/rescue narrative amazingly satisfying, while David found it hopelessly contrived. Juxtaposing this against my appreciation of Chase’s approach as described above convinces me that I am actually fairly knot-neutral– I can take my drama artificially tidy or or every bit as messily entropic as life.

But that neutrality has its limits. While our choir of shrinks seems to fear an untidy ending for the final Sopranos season, I should hope it ends up a mess. I for one don’t want to know with any certainty what haphazard arcs our beloved New Jersey mobsters take after the camera cuts off. I don’t know what happened to Jupiter after the fall of Rome, either, but that doesn’t rob the mythology of any of its power. If I knew that he and Juno had patched things up and were living in Pompano Beach, well, that would be another story.

Revisionist History on the Web

I love reading stories on the Web. One of my favourites is the one about the guy who cashed a fake promotional direct-mail cheque for $95,000. To his surprise, the cheque cashed, and the mad dash by the bank to get the money back is a great story.

I was looking for this link in my bookmarks to post here, and I couldn’t find it. Not surprising, since I first read the story in the mid-late 90’s, and my bookmarks don’t always survive the transition from country to country and system to system. (For side-discussion: is a person’s bookmark list the the modern equivalent of a CD collection as a discriminant of personality?) So searched for it on the web, and after a while, came up with the link above.

Funny thing is, the story differs in several details from what I remember. From when I read it the first time, the broad details are the same: man banks fake cheque, much hilarity ensues. But I distinctly recall the guy did it deliberately as a joke (and for curiosity), but now claims he was going to the ATM anyway to bank some other cheques, and slipped this one in on a whim. He was a student as I read it last; now he claims he had a burgeoning speaking career at the time. The newspaper coverage detailed in the current story had no mention in the older version. I suspect that either: there’s been some Soviet-style revisionism over the years to make the story more palatable (and he seem less culpable); or it’s not even the same guy, and a story has been appropriated for his own use. In any case, it’s a good example of how objective truth morphs subjectively over time.

gay judo

I haven’t gone to this site, because now with my new office space making my computer even more highly visible than before, I have no idea what will pop up on my screen to the benefit of the entire room, but I definitely thought this might be of interest, and include my friend’s entire description (she is a third-degree black belt in seido karate):

www.matbattle.com

This is a site by several gay guys on judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ),
and gay sex. Or rather, how they get off on playing judo with hot guys.

I admit, the blue gi (uniform) is really cool, and wouldn’t get as dirty as
our white ones…

They even have fiction pages based on, I assume, fictional accounts of real
judo guys’ lives. Takes RPS to a new level. They have personals, advice
column, Cosmo-type quizzes.

Who knew?

(and back to me: RPS stands for Real Person Slash. This is a type of fan writing wherein real people are “characters” in fan stories (fanfic), and in this case, slash fic. Slash, for the uninitiated, is hard to describe because it means many things, but mostly it’s same-sex relationship stories based on characters from TV shows or movies or books, wherein fans see the subtext in things like buddy cop shows as overtly romantic, and write them that way. RP slash and RP fiction are, however, frequently violently opposed in many fan communities because of their violation of privacy and just personal issues in general.)

“Obsessing About Obsession”

Spike Jonze’s new film Adaptation is getting an awful lot of attention, including this breathless review by the NYT’s A.O. Scott. It goes beyond standard pomo self-referentiality to a world where author, subject, and fictional selves seem hopelessly jumbled.

This all sounds interesting, but it is hardly new territory. Few writers have explored this territory more expertly than my personal literary goddess, Joan Didion. She figures, to vertiginous effect, as a character in her 1984 novel Democracy. As I wrote in my 1995 senior essay,

Mary McCarthy reportedly spent many unsettled hours with Who’s Who trying in vain to discover whom Didion was really discussing. Responses like McCarthy’s were common. The American Spectator printed a scathing review, including this statement on Didion’s postmodern presence:

Democracy is, by the author’s admission, a failure. It got written when Didion detoured from the novel she intended to write about Inez’s family in Hawaii…. This is fair enough, but why an author who was in the past written with ethical brilliance about cutting one’s losses and burying one’s dead chooses to advertise her failure in this awful old-hat nouveau way is mysterious and sad. Didion even decorates the failure with her own supposed presence in her character’s lives…. There’s a sort of desperation to the device, and as this unholy marriage of author’s biography and the characters’ non-lives proceeds, the reader winces, and, finally, wearies.

A central narrative refrain of Democracy is “This is a hard book to write.” It is, however, an easy novel to read, as Didion’s gorgeous prose, brilliant eye for detail, and elegant plotting move the reader through a book that operates as both family drama and political thriller. She covers this ground again in 1997’s The Last Thing He Wanted, and appears as both narrator and friend of the protagonist. The effect is less shocking, because by the time of the novel’s late ’80s setting, this kind of boundary-crossing had become commonplace.

So a technique that was once groundbreaking in its mere conception can now dazzle only in scale and scope. Jonze’s easy postmodern mindbending (in Being John Malkovitch and now, apparently, in Adaptation) is satisfying not because it is new but because it is (among a certain audience) expected. French literary theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard (whose theories comport amazingly with Didion’s literary practice) put it this way:

If the painter and novelist do not want to be, in their turn, apologists for what exists (and minor ones at that), they must… question the rules of the art of painting and narration as learned and received from their predecessors…. An unprecedented split occurs in both painting and literature. Those who refuse to examine the rules of art will make careers in mass conformism, using “correct rules” to bring the endemic desire for reality into communication with objects and situations capable of satisfying it. Pornography is the use of photographs and film to this end. It becomes a general model for those pictoral and narrative arts that have not risen to the challenge of the mass media.

As for artists and writers who agree to question the rules of the plastic and narrative arts… they are destined to lack credibility in the eyes of devoted adherents of reality and identity, to find themselves without a guaranteed audience.

So in 1984, Didion was attacked for her active authorial presence in novel. By 2002, Jonze is lauded for making a movie about a screenwriter who can’t get himself out of his screenplay. I’m interested in seeing the movie, and I’m completely open to the prospect of enjoying it as much as I enjoyed Being John Malkovitch. But I won’t confuse his popularization for true pioneering, and I will wonder if his chief success is not as a pomo pornographer for the masses.

Microsoft, Java, Nancy Kerrigan and my poor little knee

Sun’s rather whiny antitrust case against Microsoft got a lot more fun yesterday as Federal Judge Frederick Motz compared Microsoft’s business tactics to the kneecap-busting antics of Tonya Harding‘s posse. This NYT article includes a rather spirited quote from Motz:

The judge likened Java to Nancy Kerrigan, who was clubbed in the knee while practicing for the United States figure skating championships in 1994. Ms. Harding’s supporters “kneecapped Nancy Kerrigan’s knee,” the judge said. “Nancy Kerrigan is deprived of the opportunity to compete on two good knees.”

I must say that this line of analogy really brings the case home to me– an athlete who has also recently been deprived of the opportunity to compete on two good knees. But while Kerrigan was attacked by only two assailants, I was mauled by no less than five players from the San Francisco Fog RFC. Where’s my media circus? Where’s my antitrust case?

I mean, fine, they didn’t mean to hurt me that bad, and didn’t use a tire iron, but still. I’m all bitter about it again because yesterday’s appointment with my surgeon revealed that my knee is still too swollen to even consider surgery. I’m due back in six weeks for reevaluation– by which point I hope the MS-Sun case is over.

“My TiVo Thinks I’m Gay”

David mentioned seeing this on slashdot a while back, but I just got around to tracking it down– and I’m ever so glad I did. We’ve all had the experience, I’d imagine, of being frustrated by the weird recommendations Amazon or Netflix sometimes turns up– but TiVo kind of takes it to a new level by randomly displaying its perceptions of you to whomever happens to flip channels.

As the WSJ points out in this article (paid registration required, otherwise use this link), having your TV serve up “personalized” content is a different thing altogether.

Suggesting programs is just the first step for this technology. The advertising industry is beginning to understand that such profiling will allow them to segment the market far more effectively than ever, allowing them to promise clients that their ads will be seen only by certain narrowly defined demographic/psycholgraphic groups. What’s more, TiVo data may reveal the existence of obscure segments that nobody would have though to target before– for instance, high-income lesbian republicans who enjoy watching westerns.

The best part of the WSJ article is at the end, when a hairdresser tells how quickly TiVo figured out that he and his partner ARE in fact gay, despite their attempts to trick it. “Mr. Leon believes the box was giving them a message: ‘You’re definitely gay. And you’re watching too much TV.'”

I have spent a fair amount of time cleaning up my Amazon recommendations– for instance, removing from my list things I bought as gifts, and rating the things it recommends that I bought elsewhere. Having done that, the “Just Like You” feature has gotten both interesting and creepy. Based on my suggestions, it finds another customer with similar ratings and then tells me what that person likes that I haven’t rated yet. The really creepy part is that I DO own about half of the stuff listed. So it turns out my supposedly eclectic tastes are a little less unique than I had hoped. If it ever shows me another person whose list includes Pedro the Lion, rugby books, Joan Didion, and the KitchenAid KT2651X Epicurean 475 Watt 6-Quart Stand Mixer in Cobalt Blue, the very foundation of my identity as a complicated consumer will be shaken.

As if just being New Jersey wasn’t strange enough

By now, pretty much my whole world knows that I am a Jersey Girl and proud of it. If my rabid Bruce Springsteen fanaticism wasn’t clue enough, perhaps my fascination with boardwalks, the Sopranos, and all-night diners clued some of you in. Jersey is a great place to be from, if not necessarily to live in, and it provokes in those of us who hail from the great Garden State all kinds of nostalgia for our misspent youths hanging out in the parking lot in front of Wawa’s and kicking out of summer jobs early enough to spend a few hours at Great Adventure.
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Dastardly Disney Deeds

Apparently the dismal opening weekend box office of Disney’s Treasure Planet has caused the company to restate its quarterly results, amidst news of an SEC probe. Poor Mickey.

But he’s not as bad off as the dead white male responsible for the beloved original whence the dreadful derivative was drained. The Guardian, in its biting roundup of US Thanksgiving releases, compares the experience of watching the film to “watching Robert Louis Stevenson being sodomised by Michael Eisner in front of a class of 10-year-olds.” Luckily, the Guardian liked Solaris— I’d hate to hear what they might have said about George Clooney’s ass otherwise.

A nod to the excellent Media Unspun newsletter for relaying this pithy quote. Unfortunately, it is dying a second death next Friday– the first came last year when parent mag Industry Standard folded. Apparently too many appreciators (myself included) failed to shell out $50 to get the newsletter daily.

Taken, but ever so slowly

In case you missed the advertising blitz, the Sci Fi Channel has taken a massive gamble with its new miniseries Taken, the full title of which is apparently “Steven Spielberg Presents Taken.” It is the geek-centric network’s bid to be taken more seriously by viewers, critics, and of course advertisers. IBM’s sponsorship of the series bodes well for that effort– though I must say David and I found the newest batch of ebusiness spots to be the highlight of Monday’s episode. This is surprising, given my rather rabid personal interest in the subject of alien abduction.
Continue reading “Taken, but ever so slowly”