Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Why Do We Love The Walking Dead?

The show is very good. I'm not the only one who thinks so. The story has struck a resounding chord in the popular culture psyche.

Disclaimer: The thoughts in this article evolved over the course of watching the series through Season 3 Episode 8. The only plot references are fairly inconsequential from Season 1. Consider it spoiler free. 

So what is it that we find so captivating about The Walking Dead?

I originally had the shows popularity pegged as some form of inverted escapism; reminding us that our lives really aren't that bad after all. The Housing Bubble, the Great Recession, The Fiscal Cliff; catch phrases that amount to dashed dreams and lost opportunities for most Americans. Young adults living at home. Non-existent career opportunities. Disappearing retirement funds. After watching an episode of The Walking Dead you can't help but sit back in your cozy couch or warm bed and let out a heavy sigh of relief.

But the more I reflected on my enthusiastic conversations about the show, the more this theory fell flat. As time passed I perceived not repulsion, but excitement. A yearning.

I searched deeper, asking what could possibly be attracting me to the world of The Walking Dead.

In the end I realized, The Walking Dead is our familiar old friend Escapism after all.

Yes, the characters have lost the most basic needs that we daily take for granted. But, they have gained much which seems hopelessly out of grasp from our modern lives.

Glenn's story is a straightforward example: Before the outbreak he was a pizza delivery guy. Now he is a man; confident in his abilities and his identity, he has purpose, and is part of a community that depends on him and who he trusts in return. There is the thrill of an adventure and also a sense of direct control of his destiny. The challenge that confronts him is large, but it is also simple and tangible. His mission - the survival of humanity - gives glory to his daily life.

It's as if Maslows Hiearchy of Needs has been flipped on it's head.

Modern society has spent an immense amount of energy securing physiological and safety needs. With these stripped away The Walking Dead, naturally we watch with a sense of horror and fear.

But modern society seems lost when it comes to securing belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. But the world of The Walking Dead seems predisposed to make these needs readily available to the survivors. Which begins to reveal how the show is an escape from:
  • complex problems that have no solution. 
  • a destiny determined by factors out of our control.
  • a vague and hallow sense of identity.
  • boring routines of a banal existence.
  • a small and disconnected purpose.
  • shallow and peripheral relationships.
  • an absence of adventure.
All of which amounts to the mind and soul numbing paralysis of modern life.

So while I can understand an initial repulsion to thought of living in the world of The Walking Dead, this is quickly overwhelmed by an excitement for a fulfilling life.

The scale, complexity, and distractions of modern life make it hard to define the challenge of a fulfilled life; setting achievable goals, understanding ones role, and maintaining meaningful connections. And once you've begun to define it, you realize the hardest part is finding the discipline and focus to pursue it.

In The Walking Dead the challenge is simple and the "luxury" of choosing to pursue it is removed.

If only modern life were so simple.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing is currently my favorite Shakespeare play. A fun story of joy, guilt, love, quarrels, forgiveness, sorrow, and redemption. But at the same time a masterful and timeless combination of low and high humor.

And the 1993 rendition by Kenneth Branagh is phenomenal. Watch it.

I have watched this closing scene a couple dozen times and it still draws a giant grin on my face every time:
*Sorry, for some reasons YouTube requires you to watch this clip on their site

If you were paying close attention you would have spotted 3 of the 4 quotes that Mumford and Sons use in the title track of their album Sigh No More.

Did you spot them all?

"For man is a giddy thing" (~3:14) and "Live unbruised..." (~3:41) are the easy ones. But there's another one hidden in there.

 It's in the lyrics of Patrick Doyle's "Strike up Pipers"1

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh nor more;
Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never;
Then sigh not so,
But let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny;
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into. Hey nonny, nonny.

Sing no more ditties, sing no more,
For dumps so dull and heavy;
The fraud of men was ever so,
Since summer first was leavy.
Then sigh not so,
But let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into. Hey, nonny, nonny.

While it's obvious Mumford and Sons are making an allusion to the play in Sigh No More, more and more I'm convinced they must have been watching this exact scene in the movie when they penned the lines for the finale in the album, After The Storm.
"With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair."
With the full context of the play, and understanding the full context of the album; the celebration that begins at 4:50 in the clip, and that line of the song represent one in the same things to me. Together they stir one of the most uplifting emotions I have ever experienced.

1 Those lyrics are a direct quote from earlier in the play, a song that Balthazar sings in Act II Scene III (~line 34). This is my favorite soundtrack by Patrick Doyle. He even played Balthazar in the movie.

Interesting to note that Patrick also scored Sense and Sensibility and Henry V. All 3 of these movies starring Emma Thompson, with Kenneth Branagh also starring in Henry V.

If you love following the spiderweb of how talent collaborates across many projects, you really should be using (if you don't already) the powerful "common search" feature on IMDB.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Testing vs. Instinct

Another arresting quote in the letter penned by Head of Disney Studios in 1991:
Just as marketing can be overemphasized, so can another tool -- testing. In fact, it can be dangerous, because it can lead us to trust the test rather than trusting our instincts.

How often has a film tested “off the charts” and failed to do well at the box office? One of the weaknesses of testing appears to be that inoffensively pleasant films can test misleadingly high. People enjoy the films. They write down positive responses. We get excited… and then they fail to perform to our inflated expectations.

Testing has the aura of science about it. And there is nothing scientific about the movie business.  [Emphasis in original] - Jeffrey Katzenberg
I would humbly abstract that last line to "there is nothing scientific about art".

Surely there are plenty aspects of the film industry that can be reduced to a functional science; the technology that capture video and audio, the marvels of post-production editing, the methods of content delivery, even the role of film in society can be reduced to a functional science (indeed, all things Katzenberg addresses elsewhere in his letter).

What I want to tease out from Katzenberg's quote is: Designing for functionality (which can be scientifically tested) is nothing without art (which cannot be tested).

Ferdinand A. Porsche, achieved legendary status as designer of the 9111, saw the design trajectory as:
"Design must be functional, and functionality must be translated into visual aesthetics..."
A designer creates for a functional purpose elevated to an artistic plane.

But because good art is offensive, you must trust the instinct of the designer (assuming they have reason to be trusted2). We know good art inspires, transports, incites, propels, challenges, even unseats the audience. A design that is functionally equivalent, but is inoffensively pleasant art tailored to the lowest common denominator does none of this.

We see this theme of artistic offensiveness in design repeat itself across industries. Jonathan Ives, Apple Design Chief, said:
“We don't do focus groups. They just ensure that you don't offend anyone, and produce bland inoffensive products.”
I mourn the fact that focus groups are largely to blame for decades of depressingly underwhelming art from Detroit3. Chris Bangle, best known as the Chief of Design at BMW, laments the result of designers who resist being offensive:
"Probably the thing that irks me the most [in car design] is when I see this repetition of the known, because it shows people have comfort zones that are too tight to themselves and they’re really afraid to walk out of those. And then somebody comes up with a new idea, and then everybody follows that because their comfort zone has been expanded. The work that we’ve done in the last ten years has been about expanding those comfort zones"
Every movie, every car, every piece of software, every object is designed; a metamorphoses of functionality to art.4

1 It's worth noting that the Porsche 911 is the longest running nameplate that has only seen evolutionary design changes since it's inception in 1963

2 Steve Jobs brashly stated:
"A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them. That's why a lot of people at Apple get paid a lot of money, because they're supposed to be on top of these things" [emphasis added]
3 By the way, if your skeptical or curious about the subject of "cars as art", listen to this TED Talk by Bangle.

4 If any of this strikes your fancy, watch Objectified:
... [A documentary] about our complex relationship with manufactured objects and, by extension, the people who design them. It’s a look at the creativity at work behind everything from toothbrushes to tech gadgets. It’s about the designers who re-examine, re-evaluate and re-invent our manufactured environment on a daily basis. It’s about personal expression, identity, consumerism, and sustainability.
You'll see more exclusive interviews with Ives, Bangles, and my personal favorite designer, Dieter Ram.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Making Movies to Impact the World

The idea may be king and high concepts may be powerful, but the crucial step is translating them into compelling stories.

It is the story that people remember. It is the story that gives the movie business its extraordinary power to impact the world.
- Jeffrey Katzenberg, Head of Disney Studies (1991)
This letter is full of stimulating thoughts on the industry, the film making process, and what makes a good movie. 

The quote above touches on the weight and the scope of the full letter.

At 28 pages, it is a long read (relative to what we are used to reading online - seriously, I read it in chunks over the course of 5 days). But also a must read for anyone who doesn't only enjoy watching a good movie, but also enjoys analyzing and reflecting on a good movie.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sherlock and Downton Abbey Intro Theme

I've always enjoyed the intro theme for the excellent new BBC Sherlock series:

Music by David Arnold & Michael Price.

Well, recently we decided to give Downton Abbey a shot. But that intro theme sure does sound familiar:

As far as I can tell the intro theme from Downton Abbey is written by John Lunn.

The Downton Abbey theme sounds like an acoustic version of the Sherlock Holmes theme.

And yes, we are now hooked on Downton Abbey as well.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Bingeing on Classical Music

The last few weeks, no less than 4 hours of classical music a day. 

Enjoy the eclectic beginnings of my favorite classical music list:

If this doesn't arouse your spirit, nothing will. Exuberant. Spontaneous. Playful.
Arturo Márquez - Conga del Fuego:

Let it be know, this song shall be played at my funeral. Epic. Sorrowful. Apocalyptic. 
Patrick Cassidy - Funeral March:

Hang in there through the 1 minute prelude; you will not regret it. Magical. Hopeful. Noble.
Bedřich Smetana - The Moldau:

I have (re)discovered Portland's very own

Besides awesome classical music 24/7, The Score is an excellent weekly show highlighting "the music that makes good movies great!". I rarely catch it live, but you can catch the most recent two weeks "On Demand" through their web based player.

Monday, January 16, 2012

2011 Blogging in Review

It's still January. Not too late to post the annual review of my blog.
  1. The most popular post of 2011 was not even a contest, with 4 times more page views than second place. I am quite satisfied with this, because the content of the post was also one of the defining moments of the year for me. Tree of Life: Nature vs. Grace was a reflection after watching the trailer 6 months before the movie was released.
  2. The Church is a Whore but She's my Mother has consistently driven traffic over the years. In fact, it easily took the crown for the most page views of the last decade.
  3. Third most popular post was from a series I began in 2010; an analysis of Mumford and Sons album Sigh No More. It quickly rose the ranks in page views for 2010 , and has continued to consistently drive traffic a year later. The most popular song analysis in the series is I Gave You All ("I gave you all meaning" is the single most common search phrase driving traffic to my blog)
  4. It was closely followed by another Mumford and Sons analysis, The Cave (Any landing I have in the series has a below average bounce rate. Translation: They drive a lot of traffic to each other.)
  5. My reflection after seeing Tree of Life.
  6. Still glad I found this tool two years ago, and still glad to help others find it! 
  7. Amygdala and Aha Moments was one of the more stimulating blog posts for me to write in 2011 because it involved a lot of introspection about the way that I learn. 
  8. 10 Principles of Good Design by Dieter Ram. Ponder these points and it will add a whole new layer of meaning, appreciation, and maybe dissatisfaction with objects in the world around you. 
  9. and 10. Two more Mumford and Sons posts round out the top 10; Sigh No More and Timshel. As a whole, the series easily takes second, but still doesn't come close to hits for Tree of Life, which goes to show just how much traffic was driven by that one post.
While it is rewarding to see some of my most meaningful blog posts driving so much traffic, I definitely don't write this blog for satisfaction in stats (or I would have stopped years ago).

I have a few personal favorites that only ever see a trickle of traffic, but were extremely rewarding to write (which really gets at why I do write this blog):

Friday, January 06, 2012

Irenaeus on The Tree of Life

It was January 2011 when the trailer for Tree of Life crashed in to my life. I couldn't stop pondering the meaning of the line "Nature vs Grace".

I anxiously waited 6 long months until June, when we were finally able to see the movie. I began the long and rewarding journey of processing the films meaning.

The film continued to resound within me as I processed deeper. I began to understand it's meaning with greater clarity.

It is now 2012 and this film has not ceased changing me.

Last week I was at a gathering with Roger Newell. When he read the following Irenaeus quote the total weight of The Tree of Life hit me:
"Wherefore also He drove him out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of life, not because he envied him the tree of life, as some venture to assert, but because He pitied him, [and did not desire] that he should continue a sinner forever, nor that the sin which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil interminable and irremediable. But he set a bound to his state of sin, by interposing death, and thus causing sin to cease, putting an end to it by the dissolution of the flesh, which should take place in the earth so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God. " - Irenaeus (Against Heresies; Book 3, Chapter 23, Paragraph 6
There you have it. The meaning of the film The Tree of Life in just two, though quite heavy, sentences.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Writing on the Window - Citizen Kane and The Social Network

The Social Network and Citizen Kane both follow the whirl-wind ascent of two driven individuals.

Both Kane and Zuckerberg see the potential of their respective media (print and digital), innovate existing technology, creating new ways for people to connect, and manage to make a fortune along the way.

As much as the films are about creating and making, the stories are also about breaking and losing. Both films explore the hero's brokenness and frailty. Both start their ascent with a close network of friends, but their rapid power and pride wrecks havoc on their relationships.

For me, the following shots were the catalyst to connect the two films. At the foundation of their ascent...

Citizen Kane - Writing the "Declaration of Principles" on the window:
The Social Network - Writing the "Elo Rating System" algorithm on the window:
There is significant symbolism of the window scene at that particular moment in both films. What is written on the window acts as the catalyst for the protagonist and the viewer. Simply put, it's the window into the protagonist's future success.

But the Social Network puts an interesting spin on the scene. Having Eduardo write the equation foreshadows the main tension of the story. That is, Zuckerbergs repeated use of Eduardo (his network and money) as the means to achieve his own future success.