Summer 2020: Now What? Part 3/3

Today is effectively the last day of summer for me. I’m scheduled to work tomorrow and through the whole weekend, with classes starting the very next day on Monday. Thus, I bid farewell to a subsection of one of the weirdest yet informative times of my life.

Though classes are starting again, and I do have to physically be at one of them (wish me luck), quarantine is still the dominant norm with my family and social circle. Rightfully so: COVID 19 cases are rising along with the mortality rate, so I’m very fortunate that both my friends and family are taking this pandemic with the seriousness it warrants.

My last several posts will help illustrate the point I’m trying to make. This summer, hell, this year has been the weirdest I’ve ever lived through. We’re not even ¾ of the way through and the world seems to be falling deeper into its own insanity with each flip of the calendar. Despite my news diet consisting of mainly despair and reminding one’s self of life’s fragility, I’ve had some incredibly eye opening and enlightening experiences that I don’t think I would’ve had if not for quarantine.

To start somewhat on a trivial note, I’ve seen a lot of films and TV shows. Like, a lot. The at-the-time newfound free time saw me beginning each day with a new film, and ending that day with another. I had finally seen films that were gathering dust on my digital queue such as The Fighter, 127 Hours, Trainspotting, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

I also fell back in love with sports, namely basketball, through The Last Dance. I was a massive basketball/football fan back in grade school, losing interest around my early high school days. However, the documentary’s marriage of its endlessly fascinating subject and incredible nonfiction storytelling captivated me from its opening moments. I truly believe that you don’t have to be a basketball fan to enjoy The Last Dance. The stories told and lessons taught throughout the series go beyond a basketball court. These are people endlessly perfecting their craft, to be they very best player they can possibly be. Michael Jordan’s maniacal work ethic is the stuff of legend, and though it had been well documented before, the series’ production value and never-before-seen footage make for an incredible feat of documentary filmmaking.

Okay, tangent over.

I’ve also been more consistent with writing/posting here than in previous summers, which is a plus if I want writing to pay the bills. Some of my favorite work has been done over the course of the summer, namely the recent Disaster Artist and Blade Runner pieces. Even if I was critical with the former, writing and researching films help me appreciate the gargantuan process of making a movie, even the shitty ones.

The buildup to a new semester usually wraps me in a blanket of anxiety and irrational stress. Whether it was the high school worries of missing a bus, the community college scare of adjusting to a post-high school life, or a university plight of insufficient funds, a day like today is supposed to be a dreadful one. Oddly enough, I find my worries to be more, how you say, adult?

More than ever am I focusing on my own health, that being physical, mental, and emotional. Though I consistently lose the battle of checking my phone incessantly throughout the livelong day, I’ve begun to find the root to this years-long problem: I get hooked on doing one thing at a time. As a result, I try to occupy my time with things that are not phone based: writing, reading, meditating, checking the mail (yes, really) and listening to new music. So far it hasn’t been perfect, but my dopamine withdrawals are gradually lowering, all in the name of being a functioning human being.

Though this summer wasn’t defined by a trip planned long in advance, (prepare for pretentiousness), summer 2020 has shown me the importance of finding myself, or at least the pursuit of it. Attaining and achieving perfection is not possible, but there are so many things to be and to strive for than flawlessness. Messing up, falling on your face is the tried and true way to improve in life.

I have learned that not being happy all the time is okay and completely normal. To be in constant pursuit of that thing called happiness is an exhausting and often unfruitful endeavor. I grew up with a stigma that being unhappy or melancholic was seen as problematic. Sadness, dissatisfaction is the brain’s way of expressing that things can be better, not a death sentence. The idea of “achieving” anything has grown to be an arbitrary and disingenuous one, especially in the world of social media. Proclaiming one’s self as happy or satisfied is a declaration that never needed to be made. Dopamine and the feeling of unhappiness go hand in hand, ironically enough.

Alas, I quite enjoyed writing more stream-of-consciousness pieces over these last few weeks, and for the sake of consistency, they will be a staple in this blog. Writing brings a creative energy that I was lacking in years’ past, and entering a more consequential part of my degree plan, I need all the help I can get. This will continue to be unprecedented times as I go to physical class sessions for the first time since March. It is a bit daunting, but in the name of a change in aesthetic, I suppose I’ll go get an education.

The Disaster Artist: The Woes of Adaptation

A lot of my reading during this prolonged, indefinite period of quarantining happen to be works that have been adapted to other mediums. Adaptations are nothing new, so I was bound to consume media that first saw success in a different format. From reading the A Song of Ice and Fire books out of my love of Game of Thrones and disappointment of the later seasons, or reading the grisly Helter Skelter out of the intrigue Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood hinted at, my reading choices have been mainly laid on the foundation for film and television.

The Disaster Artist is no exception.

When released in theaters in the winter of 2017, the film quickly became my favorite among an incredibly strong roster of pictures released that year. The Room had become something of Hollywood legend, and to witness the making of the “Citizen Kane of bad movies” was an experience I couldn’t say no to. The film was my fourth favorite film that year, as I praised its subject matter, James Franco’s acting/directing abilities, and an inspirational message that could have easily fallen on its face if handled badly. However, like The Room, it was a rousing success, though one that was intended, unlike The Room.

Nearly three years later, I finally sat down and began to read the book that the film was based on: The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell. Like its cinematic counterpart, it chronicles the tumultuous production of The Room as well as the friendship between star/author Sestero (Mark in The Room) and writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau. As far as premises go, the film and book seem to go hand in hand, and rightfully so, the story told through both mediums does have to do with the making of a film and a friendship during the film’s production.

Image provided by AbeBooks

I completely understand when film adaptations modify or change things around from the source material. What works and soars in a film might hinder and halt a book’s momentum, and vice versa. Changes are always needed to be made especially when strictly adapting a book to a film with 100% faithfulness results in something more akin to a slow, meandering miniseries. If the soul of the original work is there, the adapted work has effectively done its job in transposing a story to a new medium. This is very much a tightrope act that we have seen work beautifully in the past with its fair share of shameless duds.

This is where I find myself conflicted about The Disaster Artist. I remember loving the film when it first came out, and though I still very much like it now, I can now say Franco and co. did not do the book justice. I hate the adage of “the book was better” schtick as much as the next person but hear me out.

My main gripe with the film adaptation isn’t so much of what it omits and adds, it’s how it omits and adds to its source material. If you only saw the film, you would think the crux of the story is the phenomenon that is The Room, and the beginnings of its unlikely legacy. The book touches on that, yes, but finds much more value on Sestero’s and Wiseau’s unlikely friendship and how they unexpectedly push each other to be better. Greg’s story is one of finding success in Hollywood, a haven for the has-been’s and could’ve-been’s and never-was’ with the occasional few who make it. Tommy’s tale is one of hardship, an underdog who (allegedly) knew great hardship and witnessed the ugly side of humanity, miraculously making something of himself as he seeks success and fame in America.

The film treats Greg’s career aspirations/progress as a way to establish character beats: his first time in an agency shows his lack of experience and wide eyed ambition, whereas his later excelling in the theater signifies his growth in talent well after The Room wrapped. In the scene where he reluctantly shaves his beard even if keeping it meant a role in Malcolm in the Middle, these actions are in service to The Room and Greg’s involvement. The book touches on the same situations, though the whole Malcolm thing is a fictional add on, but having it told through Greg’s perspective shows how his career and his relationships were impacted by his decision to help Tommy on his passion project. The book communicates how consequential and significant his time during The Room’s production was to his career and life, whereas the film opts to show it as this lightning in a bottle moment in history that would change cinema. It did just that, to a certain extent, but Greg’s detailing of events is far more personal and intimate, bringing new life and personality to the filmmaking process.

Why “The Room” Is a Better Movie Than James Franco's “The Disaster ...
Credit to the film: the reenactment of scenes from The Room has incredible attention to detail *image provided by The New Yorker*

I wouldn’t call Franco’s film a bad adaptation. It delivers on the same initial premise as its source material: a peek behind the curtain on how The Room was made. It’s hilarious, well-acted, and oddly inspirational. Tommy and Greg are depicted as underdogs trying to make it into an industry where there’s more self-loathing to go around than actual success. It is incredibly effective at that front.

The film is instead a misguided adaptation, failing to recognize Sestero’s and Bissell’s chief sentiment in the book. The making of The Room is the initial selling point, but Greg’s and Tommy’s pursuit for Hollywood glory, individually and as a collective, is what makes The Disaster Artist special. Perhaps this was never meant to made into a film, especially with its star power and A24’s prominence as a production company. To have James Franco, a Hollywood staple who has long enjoyed considerable success over his career, tell the story of two friends pursuing success in Hollywood is a damaging decision in hindsight. Though readers might feel burned after watching the film adaptation, it is no surprise that Franco is more attracted to the production side of things and opting to leave the friendship angle as a backdrop rather than the whole point of the story.

Again, The Disaster Artist, both book and film, is an incredibly fascinating and unlikely success story of how a terribly beloved film came to be. As two separate entities, however, one is sorely lacking the heart and endearing quality that made the other a must read. The woes of this adaptation are hardly about what was added and what was shelved to save time, but how one storyteller prioritized one aspect of the story that was never meant to take center stage. In a way, a misguided adaptation can hurt more than a bad adaptation. The film constantly flirts with the greatness found in the book that it is almost infuriating that The Disaster Artist’s heart and core never truly got its due.

You can almost say that it was tearing me apart (Lisa!).

Reading Books n’ Stuff

Update: I did go on a jog, though I can’t remember if it was on that day. Likewise, with the help of the “Balance” app, I have done a couple of meditation sessions, mostly focusing on breath control. Haven’t felt instant results, but I’m pretty sure the point of meditation is based upon consistency rather than the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

Now that I have more or less settled into the new house, I have am back to my regularly scheduled program of relentlessly checking social media with the thought of doing something productive constantly on the back of my mind. It’s been a struggle, but not without its small, important victories.

I finally finished A Storm of Swords, the third book of the A Song of Ice and Fire series. I don’t exactly remember when I started reading it, but I do know that it took me less time to complete than it did A Clash of Kings and slightly more time to finish A Game of Thrones. Both are considerably shorter reads, so to complete such a dense book in that team is a personal achievement I never even thought of a year ago.

I absolutely adored this book. Relative to Game of Thrones, it’s basically seasons 3 and 4, considered by many to be the show’s peak in quality, myself included. Not only was it Thrones at the height of its powers, offering the very best of its crowded ensemble, it’s also George R.R. Martin having a firm grasp of Westeros and its inhabitants. Having the story be told through the perspective of characters offers a subjective quality and emotion that is missing through the television medium. Don’t get me wrong, I love the show (past a certain season), but to get into the psyches of these beloved characters offered an experience that was familiar yet unpredictable. Just as the previous books and seasons, there are enough similarities and differences to make both iterations absolutely worthwhile. I intend on starting A Feast for Crows soon, but not before I cross a few off my non-Westeros list first…

The day after completing ASOS, I started re-reading Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck (uncensored as the author intends). I first read it back in 2017 still in community college and loved it then, though I felt there I had lived enough years to revisit the book with a more mature, sober, and even weary view of the world. This most recent read has been incredibly rewarding and fulfilling, with its cold hard truths coming off as less a mean spirited declaration and instead a more meditative, commanding approach to life. It is an absolute must read in a time where the overabundance of literally everything hampers our ways to prioritize what we can and should “give a fuck” about it in life.

Currently, I am doing another reread: Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance. I read this around the same period of time as Subtle Art and had the same reasons to justify a revisit. Having just past the first chapter, I instantly remember just how Aziz’s style of comedy is perfectly shown here. His writing voice effortlessly captures his high energy, practically being able to hear his voice while reading. Master of None is my all time favorite Netflix exclusive, so having Aziz explore love and relationships across history is an obvious match made in heaven (no romantic pun intended).

If anyone is interested, here is a list of books I mean to read before coming back to Westeros:

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Powers of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, PhD

Foe by Iain Reid

Cosmos by Carl Sagan

I have finally started watching films on a more consistent basis, crossing a few titles off my evergrowing list. I may or may not write about them since many of them have been ones that have been talked about, analyzed, discussed to death.

I am super pumped for the new Charlie Kaufman film I’m Thinking of Ending Things, based on the book of the same name by Iain Reid. Yes, the same Iain Reid you see on my reading list. I LOVED that book as it provided one of the longest, most intense, and engaging reading sessions I’ve ever had. Not only do I look forward to reading more of Reid’s work, I’m intrigued to see how Kaufman adapts the novel. Thinking about, its themes and subjects are tailor made for his style, one that is existentially self-aware and comedic, often veering into a horrifically depressing truth. Perhaps I’ll write about how the film and book compare since adaptations will never be a perfectly faithful play by play of the written word. Certain things work for films and those same things can be hindrances when reading a book. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Speaking of book/film adaptations, The Disaster Artist is an interesting case to study. I loved the film when it first released, but after having read the book, I feel… different. Alas, that is a different conversation for a different time.

-Kevin Andres Diaz

featured image by JoeyJazz

Summer 2020: Now What? Part 2/?

Before I started writing this, I googled “what I should write about” and the gist was to write how you feel. There were suggestions about writing about a moment where you learned a life changing lesson that still resonates with you to this very day. Since I haven’t started writing my autobiography (yet), I will save the valuable life lessons for such a project.

As I alluded to in my previous post, four months of quarantine is less than ideal way to spend your time, especially when those four months consist of taking super important college courses and your summer. I feel like I’ve been “on” for the last year of my life. Fall 2019 was my first semester in University (better late than never) and just the registration process brought its share of uncertainty and dread. Luckily, my counselors and academic advisors eased the transition from the familiar community college environment to the “big time”. I honestly imagined Uni as a long winded hypothetical that I had little intention to entertain. Once I decided to pursue journalism, however, a refreshing reality began to set in. The hypothetical materialized into something that I wasn’t dreading, but actively pursuing.

Long story short, the fall semester was the most successful term of my academic career, both on the academic and literary front. Though I’m proud of my grades, I genuinely felt like I improved as a writer, learning how to be more critical and observant of my work. For the first time, I considered the reader more than literary flashiness. Anyone can use big and flashy words, but if it veers into pretentiousness, what’s the point? Don’t worry, fellow reader, I’m aware how ridiculous this sounds coming from me.

I also fell back in love with reading. I spent the last day of the first week going to the campus library to check out A Game of Thrones since I was a huge fan of the show but was burned by the last season. It was a perfect book to read at for a lapsed reader since I was already familiar with its content. It had enough similarities and differences from its show counterpart to be an engaging and captivating read. I am currently on A Storm of Swords, loving every bit of it.

Longer story short, the winter break and Spring semester did not offer much in the way of a time to “stop”. Throw in financial anxieties and family tragedy to make a stew of uncertainty. Sprinkle that with the shit show that is 2020 and you’ve got yourselves a buffet of self-loathing that serves nothing but the freshest cuts of emotional vagueness (remember what I said about pretentiousness?).

I also moved into a new city that is a far cry to what I had been used to virtually my whole life. Any drive to anywhere now likely involves getting on the freeway, which is far to begin with. Gone is the convenience of having a grocery store and pizza place within walking distance. Because of this, I dread going out, in a pandemic no less.

Still, the upcoming semester is a month away, naturally bringing lots of uncertainty. I am not overly fond of online courses, especially the ones pertaining to my major. Also, I have no earthly idea how the one in-class course is gonna go. More than most states, Texas has had the worst luck trying to combat a pandemic in part to shrewd and thoughtless business decisions.

I find myself in an empty house, as I often have throughout this year. I don’t know what I’ll be doing after I finish writing this. Maybe I’ll go for that jog or complete a meditation session that I have been putting off for far too long. We’ll just have to wait and see.

-Kevin Andres Diaz

Summer 2020: Now What?

There is a short sequence in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread that has stuck with me for some reason. In the first few minutes of the picture, Daniel Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock is doing his morning routine consisting of washing his face, cleaning his shoes with fingertip precision, trimming his nose and ear hair, applying facial cream (or makeup, I know nothing of cosmetics), brushing his hair, and finally dressing up using a stool. To most, this 30 second sequence is little more than an introduction to a protagonist getting ready for the day ahead of him. On repeated viewings, however, this is a prologue to the OCD fueled madness that defines Woodcock as well as his relationship with Alma. It’s a brilliant start to a film that focuses on themes of routine and love’s undoing of anything conventional.

Don’t get me wrong, Phantom Thread makes it abundantly clear that this is an inherit flaw in Reynolds’ character. He is naturally controlling, commanding, and demanding to have his entire household the exact way he wants. No more, no less. 

As a 20-something who didn’t even know such a morning routine was possible, I was awestruck by Reynolds’ focus on activities that I view as “boring”. I know I’m not alone when I admit that my morning routine often includes waking up, hoping that I have enough time to sleep before my alarm goes off, check my usual roulette of social media apps for an unsettling amount of time before I finally decide to get out of bed after finding the perfect YouTube video to brush my teeth to. Depending whether I’m home alone or not, a single earbud will be used. After breakfast, I once again go on social media, knowing full well that I ought to make better use of my time before the inevitable shame I feel once the clock strikes noon. Reynolds Woodcock harnesses more discipline and composure in a single morning routine than I can even think of in an entire morning (sometimes a day).

We are around 4 months into quarantine. I stay home all day, apart from the occasional grocery store visit and ill-advised trip to a fast food drive thru. Habits are said to take 3 weeks to be developed. By now, I am a phone checking, feed refreshing champion. Nomophobia is the name of this tired game, and this period of home-bodying has enhanced its symptoms tenfold.

As I look across the window showcasing the entire neighborhood, I feel reluctance in providing anything resembling a solution to this issue. I made a similar post about phone addiction and poor time management about 3 years ago. I did not pose an answer to the always prevalent question of “how do I beat this?” and I still draw a blank now. It is past noon at the time of writing this, so I lost this round. Another day will come, as it always and reliably does. I will be dealt the same bill of goods and likely make the same choice as I have in days (or years) past. Knowing is half the battle, but what matters is what half I subscribe to.

The Existential Legacy of Blade Runner

I watch Blade Runner 2049 every few months. Like getting together with an old friend, rewatching a film you love offers the chance to learn about the subject that you didn’t before. The more you watch a film, the closer you feel how the filmmakers do. Every line of dialogue, choice of lighting, camera angle, inflection from the actors develop a life of its own, telling a story that enriches your experience and appreciation of the film.

2049 is the closest thing to a masterpiece that I’ve seen this decade. From a technical front, director Denis Villeneuve’s masterful filmmaking coupled with Roger Deakins’ immaculate cinematography is an achievement of sight and sound. I can hardly think of another film with a better marriage of visual effects and practical work. Couple that with the time of the film’s release: 2017 was yet another lucrative year for sequels, reboots and remakes. Films like The Last Jedi, Guardians Vol. 2, Beauty and the Beast, and even Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle have all become smash hits for their respective studios, reinforcing their insistence on pushing well known properties and betting less on original stories. Yes, 2017 was admittedly a fruitful year for originality, with Get Out, Baby Driver and Dunkirk all turning up a considerable profit on just name and filmmaker alone.

The success, or lack thereof, of the original Blade Runner is well documented. It failed to match the success of its sci fi contemporaries like Star Wars or E.T. It was also met with polarized reviews from audiences who likely expected something resembling those films, not an existential dream in a potentially realistic future. Harrison Ford wasn’t the quippy wise guy, instead playing a character who felt instead of reacting, seeing instead of watching. There is also the near comical number of versions the film has: the theatrical, the theatrical international, the director’s and the Final Cut. Sure, this finally gave Ridley Scott the chance to realize his vision, but probably left some viewers cold, especially those who loved the theatrical version as it was (ask David O’Russell).

Alas, the Final Cut is the definitive, most comprehensive version of Blade Runner. It’s use of symbolism, lack of narration and sudden yet fulfilling ending make for a hallmark of the science fiction genre.

Now, about that ending. Deckard and Rachel board the elevator, the screen cutting to black as it closes. Where do they go? Where can they go? The ambiguity of the ending is clearly intentional, as for once in his miserable existence, Rick Deckard made a decision for himself: not as a Blade Runner, or an errand boy, but as a free man. There was never a clear cut ending, those questions were never answered, just the fact those questions were being asked in the first place is the answer itself: he chose to run.

That’s why the idea of a sequel bothered me. The lack of true resolution was the point. To continue the Blade Runner story almost certainly meant the mystery was going to be solved, and any answer to those burning questions was never going to be good enough. How was revisiting Rick Deckard not going to wipe away the mystique of his decision to take his life into his own hands?

2049 answers some questions, yes, but, miraculously, retains the original’s ambiguity and even improves it at some points: focusing on Deckard, the revelation that his first meeting with Rachael was not only planned, but was purposely done to attract him to her, the first Replicant who can reproduce. That iconic moment in cinema, that fateful moment in Deckard’s life, once thought to be the prelude to his eventual liberation was actually another example of him being a pawn to an infinitely bigger game. Sure he was no longer a hired gun, but in place of a gun, it was love, love that would act as Tyrell’s next advancement in Replicant technology. He was never free, even with the person he loved most. It makes it all the more tragic when we finally do see Deckard. It’s lightyears away from Han Solo’s homecoming in The Force Awakens or the iconic silhouette of Ford’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull introduction. Here is a man who never wanted to be found, whose main claim to his supposed freedom was his absence, a refusal to be part of the bigger picture.

The subject of his humanity is sneakily brought up, with K asking if Deckard’s dog is real, with his follow-up being, “I don’t know, ask him”. It’s a quick exchange and viewers can easily miss its importance on first viewing when they’re expecting a grand build up to the biggest mystery of the Blade Runner mythos. Deckard’s dismissal of that question reveals more of his identity than “yes, he’s a Replicant” could ever do. It never mattered if he were human or replicant: the original showed the lust for life that were present in the rogue Replicants and were perpetually missing in the aimless humans of Los Angeles. They made more with their limited time than what humans could ever dream of. They were fully aware that they were on borrowed time, and in the search of prolonging their lives, they had more purpose and conviction than the lowly Blade Runner hired to retire them. The real question was never whether or not Deckard was a Replicant, it’s whether or not he actually lived at all.

In a way, Ryan Gosling’s K goes through a similar crisis in purpose. A Replicant Blade Runner made to retire all older models is the epitome of a lost identity. He justifies his killing because he sees the older models as runaways, criminals who purposely avoid punishment. His journey begins when Sapper Morton ridicules him and his life’s choices. “Because you’ve never seen a miracle”, he tells him, moments before meeting his end. That bit of dialogue sticks with K especially when the LAPD discovers the remains of an older model Replicant who had the ability to reproduce, a first in Replicant technology. He then recounts his childhood memories, acknowledging they’re not his own given his species. Assigned to find the identity of the Replicant child, his trip to an orphanage triggers those very memories, making him wonder if they were real. Once the memory is confirmed to be real by Replicant memory designer Ana Stelline, K is distraught, traumatized by the idea that he himself is the child.

Of course, it turns out to be false. He wasn’t Rachael’s or Deckard’s child. The idea of a “special” person has never been Blade Runner’s cup of tea. Deckard and K are protagonists, yes, but are vessels, biproducts of the world around them. It was only through virtual assistant Joi that K ever felt a sense of community. Achieving existential sobriety when he finally wises up that Joi said, did and was whatever he needed her to be. From Wallace Corporation’s view, he’s a satisfied customer. As a living being, only a delusion of grandeur gave him purpose. K rescues a kidnapped Deckard and stages his death, throwing off the scent of antagonist Niander Wallace as well as the Replicant Freedom Movement. He sacrifices himself so Deckard can finally and safely be a father to his daughter (earlier revealed to be Stelline). K genuinely achieves obtains the freedom of choice, while Deckard was given the chance to do more than choose, he can finally, truly, unconditionally love. They were never special, even when Deckard discovers the mere illusion of choice, and K confronting the possibility of his greater destiny. This exceptionalism just isn’t so.

 Perhaps that’s why 2049 was seemingly destined to commercially flop. For all the series’ fans and critics who deem either film as a masterpiece, it never adhered to the easy whims of nostalgia or fan service. It was never designed to be a gateway to more films in the series, a trend that is prevalent to this very day. Villeneuve committed the ultimate tight rope act in making a sequel to a film whose reputation and significance within cinema was arguably misguided. This was never going to have the same pomp and circumstance that a traditional sequelwould have. It was never going to be a walk down memory lane, because people hardly get nostalgic over their last existential crisis. When the opening text crawl fades and all that is left are the red letters of “Blade Runner”, it was never meant to be a sign of triumph or endearment: It was pity.  

Roma and Da 5 Bloods: Making a Memory

In a Hollywood Reporter roundtable for the 2018 awards season, Spike Lee asked Alfonso Cuaron how he did “that shot”. He was, of course, referring to Roma’s climactic, one shot sequence where protagonist Cleo saves two of the family’s children from getting caught in a strong current despite not knowing how to swim. The family embraces Cleo and expresses their love for her and her selflessness, before admitting a truth that makes it even sadder and more powerful. All of this is done through a single, uninterrupted take, scored only by the crashing waves and the aching authenticity of the dialogue.

Being notorious for his several feuds with fellow filmmakers, it’s something of an achievement to garner praise from Lee, unafraid to speak his mind whenever he deems necessary. Unsurprisingly, it was Cuaron’s Roma that elicited Lee’s wonder and appreciation of the craft. A semi-autobiographical tale of a housemaid in Mexico City, Roma is one of 2018’s finest gems, bringing life to 1970 Mexico in a way that was uncompromised by cinematic sweetening or rose tinted glasses. Cuaron was set on making a film from the recesses of his memory with as much detail and truth as possible. The end result is a masterwork of sight and sound that shows how cinema can emulate not just emotion, but life itself.

Enter Da 5 Bloods, the new Spike Lee Joint. Following up his Oscar winning effort in BlackKklansman, Spike focuses on 5 black Vietnam War vets who come back to ‘Nam to recover the remains of their fallen comrade as well as a ton of gold they hid away. At 2½ hours, he explores the morality of the war (before and after), how the Vietnamese view Americans, friendship, loyalty, PTSD, and memory.

The first thing that made me draw comparisons to Roma was the use of digital cameras. Despite being in black-and-white and taking place in the 70’s, Cuaron shot in crisp 4K resolution. He made this choice because he believes memories are never viewed with film grain, but the clarity provided by the human eye.

“I wanted it to be a film where you are in 1970, but shot in a more contemporary way,” Cuaron said in an interview. “It was about the moment and it was about trying to portray the intangible, like in life.”

Da 5 Bloods uses several aspect ratios and camera resolutions to distinguish one time period from the other. Scenes taking place during the War are shot in grainy 16mm film, Ultra HD 2.39:1 digital when the group is in the city, and expanding to 16:9 when they reach their journey in the jungle begins. While this differs with Roma’s singular resolution/aspect ratio, they are both deliberate artistic choices to set the mood for the stories. Cuaron shows the tragic beauty of everyday life, and Spike illustrates the horrific impact a single point in time can make.

Da 5 Bloods uses the same actors for all 3 shifts. Without the use of digital de-aging, the Vietnam War scenes show the entire group as they look in the present day, with Chadwick Boseman’s deceased comrade being the youthful standout. It easily plays into the themes of memory and especially PTSD, as if these characters look back at that time and only see their current selves, because that’s all they can see. Even though they have had nearly 5 decades worth of civilian life, there are many who can’t move on from what they experienced, perhaps ready and waiting for the next fight (Delroy Lindo’s Paul is the epitome of this).

Both films’ sound designs are what truly make them shine. Apart from being a visual masterclass, Roma implements Dolby Atmos sound to immerse the viewer towards not only what is seen, but what is being heard. A radio playing in the corner of the room, muffled conversation in the street, the passing of cars move past the screen along with the audio complementing everything that is happening inside and out of the frame. If you have access to a home theater system or some good headphones, the film becomes a haunting peek into Alfonso Cuaron’s memories as he tells his most personal story yet.

It’s not much of a stretch to say that Spike Lee was influenced by Roma’s sound design and how it can make a setting feel lived in and real to the audience. Da 5 Bloods incorporates much of the sound techniques found in Roma: utilizing the entire frame to the auditory experience almost symbiotic with the visuals. If wearing headphones, gunfire can be heard in the corner of a single side, gradually crescendo-ing to the other end as the camera moves that side. Background conversation is heard relative to a given character’s perspective. If Paul is by himself in the bar and overhears his friends in the other side of the room, so do we. Doing this adds towards character investment. The story of Da 5 Bloods is very much a journey, a group of soldiers trekking across the unknown that they’re all too familiar with. To hear what they hear and see what they see makes you feel like you’re there with them, having a front row seat to a life changing odyssey.

With filmographies as rich as these 2 filmmakers are, their respective most recent efforts open reveal an insight never before seen. The beauty of Roma’s look at everyday life is only made possible by Alfonso Cuaron’s handle on filmmaking and ability to paint a picture that can be seen and heard. Spike Lee could have only made Da 5 Bloods at this stage of his career. Being known as a filmmaker who can entertain yet reveal sobering realities that plague our country, he’s been honing his politically charged craft from Do The Right Thing and hasn’t stopped since. He’s had his ear on the streets ever since then, and his latest Joint shows a weariness yet urgency to a struggle that remains prevalent to this day.

Fear, Loathing, Life and Love in a Time of Coronavirus

*the following is a written assignment for a college course*

One week into quarantine, I came across a certain post from a high school friend on Instagram. The photo was of her and her family on her wedding day with the caption expressing her vulnerability and how staying at home for a longer period has taken a toll. This was one week.

More than 3 months have passed, and I can hardly imagine how she’s doing. I wonder if things have worsened despite her famous optimism, or if she managed to gain a mental second wind and managed to conquer those inner demons.

As I said in prior posts, I am an introvert who reluctantly goes out for things that are deemed important: gyms, libraries, coffee shops (to get work done away from home). These places are still either closed or operate under strict social restrictions to financially subsist. The change of routine, big or small, is enough of a monkey wrench to damage one’s sanity. I am currently no exception.

Despite making admirable adjustments mentioned in earlier pieces, there is still a ton to be desired. My bedroom has no windows, which might sound appealing to the angsty teenager of years’ past. However, this adult’s morning routine is almost always dampened when the nearest light source is a phone screen. No matter how great a night of sleep I had, being met with blinding sunlight when I step out of the room put in an all-nighter like haze.

That haze inevitably set the tone for the day, a grogginess that made itself routine. Even making eggs queued up a long, restless yawn. As I try to be as productive as possible, I feel a cloud of exhaustion hanging above me despite the perpetual Texas sun.

Oddly enough, such tiredness and mental purgatory can lead to a breakthrough. With my parents now working, I have the house to myself for the day. Alone time, restless or not, is an incredibly underappreciated virtue of life. To be at peace with one’s self, to be calm within the inner recesses of the mind is a victory I hope to achieve.

Amidst the mental insanity one goes through while in pandemic house arrest, one finds comfort in said insanity. Knowing that these times are indeed dour is freeing because you are aware that this is not normal.

Knowing is half the battle, so we just need to play with the hand we’re dealt. There’s strength in calling a spade a spade, not finding comfort in the warmth provided by the world being on fire. I hope my friend knows that.

*featured image from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)*

Life in a time of Coronavirus: Will life ever return to normal at UNT?

*The following is a written assignment for a college course*

Another day, another session of physical seclusion. It has been almost exactly 3 months since I last stepped it within the hallowed halls of UNT; 3 months of not having a quiet study session in Willis be completely squashed by the sounds of drills and metal clanging. It takes a lot to make this introvert to miss and long for the days of crowded classrooms and looking for an empty chair in the cafeteria, but here we are.

I know that I sound like a broken record when I say the transition to online classes had its bumps and may have been less than ideal. One look at the (unofficial) UNT subreddit easily paints the anxiety ridden portrait that can sum up that time in our lives. Grades suffered, emotions and tensions rose, leading to a pretty tumultuous spring semester.

Though I was able to adjust to those changes pretty well, I would have easily preferred the in class sessions over the makeshift online environments any day. No disrespect towards any of my professors: I understand how overwhelming juggling the ire of students while transposing the curriculum to a different format. In short, not a great time.

My worries over the preceding semesters are admittedly selfish. Taking 1 online class is enough, but to have an entire semester’s (and possibly years’) worth of school work dependent on a computer is a bit deflating. One of the biggest, if not the biggest, appeals of university life is physically being there, an environment that will define a very prime moment of our lives. There is only so much a computer environment can do to try and emulate what was before, but I feel it will never live up to actually being there (this, coming from someone who loathes (loathed?) crowds).

I trust the UNT faculty to make measured and informed decisions regarding the potential livelihoods of its students, so I just wonder about the extents of this pandemic. If the President  had it his way, the economy would have been fully up and running by Easter Sunday. For me, I can only go with the flow, adjust to every restriction/freedom that will be brought about from the pandemic. I am set to have a full time schedule this Fall, so in class sessions will be quite the experience (if they happen).

To those intending a year off, proceed with caution. The romantic in me encourages you to go where the wind blows and explore new things in that landless latitude you may go. The realist sees clouds in the horizon, and since these waters can make for huge, inescapable waves. Whatever you do, I can only say, “Godspeed”.

Featured image provided by the UNT website.

COVID-19: The New Normal in My Life

Note: this is a written assignment for a college course. Featured image provided by Getty Images, photo by Andrea Verdelli

For better or worse, one word can properly encapsulate the insanity of 2020: change. From a global front, the daily rhythm of our everyday lives have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, colloquially known as the coronavirus. The term “social distancing” has become a lifestyle trait for all of us, wearing protective masks is no longer seen as odd or a sign of paranoia, and perhaps more significantly, curbside pickup has become the new norm for our dietary needs.

Before the pandemic really took full force, I was what you could call a reluctant errand runner. I liked staying at home as much as possible, though I recognized the benefits of going to a gym or going to a library can bring. Going to the movies on a regular basis was also a pastime of mine (my wallet would agree). The moviegoing experience has always been the one part of my weekly routine that my introverted, homebody self would gladly make an exception for. I also enjoyed frequenting the mellow, laid back calm that coffee shops offer, a place where I would get most of my schoolwork done.

The last near three months have been quite the monkey wrench. I would never consider myself to be a gym guru, but the gym environment was always a welcome one, always reinvigorating my often-tired self without fail. Now that my gym has closed indefinitely, I have made home workouts a fill in for the weight room, and my neighborhood jogging trail taking the place of a treadmill. It’s not optimal, but it’s better than nothing, and jogging outside gives me the sunlight and fresh air I didn’t know I deprived myself of.

With the closing of movie theaters and lack of new releases, I have finally gone and cleared my Netflix queue up. Though I miss the theater environment, quarantining has offered me the chance to watch the films that I missed and have been meaning to watch for quite a while. On top of that, reading has become a regular part of my day, having read more books during this time than the entirety of my high school and college experiences. I am currently reading the Song of Ice and Fire series because I want to see how Game of Thrones really ends. So far, so, so good.

The main takeaway I’ve gotten from quarantine is the importance of “alone time”. Our lives are consistently filled with noise and inconsequential pleasures that masquerade as essential. This time of my life has brought out the brutally honest existentialist in me, confronting me with the important self-evaluations that I noisily avoided in favor of hapless pursuits. Now those distractions have either outstayed their welcome or are physically closed, often leaving me to my own devices to self-improve. Silence can be intimidating, terrifying even, but it’s an essential element to be comfortable with one’s self, warts and all.