Monthly Archives: August 2018

Hogwarts Housing

I’ve been on a bit of a Harry Potter kick lately. One reason is that LEGO revived the sets based on the movies so I’ve been seeing a lot of it at work. Another is that my girlfriend’s parents got us tickets to see Cursed Child (which is amazing) so there’s that too.

Having recalled that J.K. Rowling detailed a magic school based in the US — Ilvermorny — some time ago, and that she described the houses in that school into which students were sorted, I decided to look up what those houses were and what they represented. Frustratingly, they’re pretty simplistic; one is emblematic of the scholar, one the warrior, another the adventurer, the last the healer. They’re archetypes, but almost too much so.

The original four houses of Hogwarts are Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin. Each house is less archetypical and more a set of traits, each with their pros and cons. Gryffindors are courageous and brave, but can be foolish and brash. Those in Slytherin are known to be willy and cunning, even to the point of being manipulative. Belonging to a Hogwarts house is less about subscribing to an archetype (scholar vs healer, or even chaotic-good vs lawful-evil), but more a question about what traits do you see in yourself and value in others. To Rowling’s credit, no house is inherently bad (even if Gryffindor gets all the good press), they’re all different facets of human nature.

Sorting yourself into a house, whether it be by some handy online quiz or through your own self assessment, offers for a fun form of engagement with the Harry Potter books. No matter which house you’re in, the implication is that you’re still a student (or alumnus) of Hogwarts and thus someone with magical inclinations (and probably heroic). Within that, there is also a healthy sense of tribalism that comes from being part of a group. I’m a Gryffindor, I’m one of them, for better or worse. I’ve something of an identity there; I fit in.

It’s interesting that something as ‘basic’ as a which of these four houses you’re in could inspire such a spirited and personal sense of belonging (just take a look at all the house swag on Etsy). It’s not nearly as in-depth as, say, an MBTI which kinda puts a pin on your personality. If anything, it’s closer to a horoscope, but not nearly as vague and as all-inclusive as to apply to anyone born within a certain timeframe. It’s still specific, but not alienating.

I said before that I’m a Gryffindor (or, in the words of my girlfriend: “No, no; Gryffindor, definitely.” Which isn’t to say I’m not smart, or have the capacity for cunning, or a good friend; rather that some of my more obvious traits include my tendency to rush headlong into things without thinking them through, or an innate brashness that borders on cocksureness. Some people, upon hearing this, are content to nod and tell me that, yep, that makes perfect sense. Which is fun, because, like I said, I belong somewhere.

As people, we want to belong. We want to have some tribe, some home, some foundation for our identity. The fun thing about Hogwarts houses is that they offer one for you, one that’s as arbitrary as it is fictional — after all, Hogwarts doesn’t really exist and there is no real Sorting Hat to determine your friend group for your next seven books years of education. But having that House, that place of people Kinda Like You, adds to that sense of magic of the Harry Potter books. You know that if, if, that place was real, there’d be a spot for you. One which doesn’t limit you; Cedric was a loyal Hufflepuff, but also incredibly brave; Hermione a Gryffindor and still the smartest in the room. There’s still room to be yourself.

I checked recently what Pottermore told me my Ilvermorny house was. Apparently I’m a Thunderbird, that is, the house of Adventurers. Which, I’m okay with. Doesn’t sound quite as fun (or as rife with potential) as a Gryffindor, but hey, I can live with it.

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Artistic Stratification

So the Oscars announced a new category. Is it something like Best Stunt, to acknowledge some of the crazy cool things stuntpeople and Tom Cruise do? Could it be Best Choreography for beautiful fights or films where the blocking of camera and actors plays like a dance? Maybe it’s for Best Color Scheme, which sounds totally arbitrary but you’ve movies like (500) Days of Summer and Pacific Rim that use colors masterfully. The correct answer is none of the above, but rather a category that recognizes popular movies. As in what’s the best popular movie.

Like many people who purport to not really care about the Oscars, I have a lot of opinions about them, both the awards awarded and the whole thing as an institution. For starters, recognizing a movie as being ‘the best’ is incredibly difficult, as my own consternation over my annual Top Nine lists serve to remind me every year. There’s also the thing that ‘best’ is incredibly subjective; is a movie deemed better than another by its quality or by how much it entertains you? Isn’t whether or not it entertains you really the ultimate litmus test? Can you like bad movies? (Yes.)

For many recent years, the Oscars has, on a whole, come down on the side that there’s art and then there’s Art. Logan is a good movie, but it’s not a Good Movie like Birdman. So there’s been furor aplenty, especially amongst moviegoers who are more likely to be described as fans rather than critics, about the snubbing of more pulpy fare by the Oscars, with the inference that the Academy only considers ‘serious’ movies’ scripts, direction, and actors to be worthy of recognition. Sure, those visual effects and sound design are neat, but, honestly, The Last Jedi with its magical space knights isn’t really Oscar worthy. That’s the divide between art and Art that the Academy has typically enforced.

Creating a separate category to recognize ‘popular movies’ is really just more of the same. Sure, it looks good that Black Panther actually has a shot of winning an Oscar, but it’d be Best Popular Movie. It’s not Best Picture, it’s a movie that’s really good — for a popular one. It formalizes the notion that there should be different criteria for quality, that we’re willing to accept a movie as being good enough or one of its sort, rather than recognizing the art inherent in even, yes, ‘popular’ movies.

Because why on Earth shouldn’t Logan and Black Panther be viable candidates for Best Picture? There’s masterwork in both of them, not just in technical things like sound editing and effects, but in direction, storytelling, and acting. Both Hugh Jackson’s performance as Logan and Ryan Coogler’s vision of Wakanda and the story of an isolated king deserve recognition by the highest court of cinematic opinion.

No matter how much I don’t want them to, the Oscars do matter. Like it or not, they’re an established institution that have a great deal of import put on them. People care about who wins Best Picture and the decisions and taste of the awards tend to set the trend for the industry as a whole. My fear regarding the creation of a category for ‘popular’ movies is that it creates a ghetto for movies that are good, but thought not serious enough to be considered really good. It means that Black Panther could be nominated (and win!) that category and thus, technically, have all the recognition of an Oscar; there’s a space for blockbusters and offbeat films to be shunted off to so that Best Picture can still be those True Art movies.

I don’t think there should be a divide between one sort of movie and another. A movie that’s really good is really good, period. I lament a category like this, because it reinforces what’s already a current of thought, and rather than the establishment acknowledging pulpy fare as art, it lets those movies go off and play in the yard while keeping all their toys indoors.

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Of Movie Subscriptions

As I said last week, I have a real soft spot for not-great movies. I’ve also really enjoyed having a MoviePass in no small part because it alleviates me of some measure of financial responsibility for poor choices. The subscription nature of the service means that it’s not gonna cost more to watch a silly movie in addition to something I do really wanna see. And now with the service going sideways, I’m really gonna miss it.

It is an odd sorta idea. $10 a month gets you unlimited daily movies. Which is dope. Though it does raises questions as to how exactly it’s profitable. My theory’s that they’ve been selling my data to studios so they can analyze the viewing habits of a dude in his late-twenties in New York to better optimize the funding of potential movies. Which could be a whole ‘nother issue about studios making their stuff over-specific and edging out room for wonderfully weird fare that no one expects like Sorry To Bother You. But as it is now, it seems that MoviePass couldn’t  quite figure out a way to monetize it and now some movies aren’t eligible for the pass.

Unless MoviePass finds a way to turn its whole thing around, it’s starting to look more like its golden days are over (in the last few months the service stopped allowing repeat viewings, introduced a surcharge for certain showings, and now, after a series of outages, decided not to support some major blockbusters). I could be wrong and, hopefully, they’re able to bounce back and I can continue to watch movies with abandon, though it’s looking more unlikely.

All this does raise a question about movies and, along with it, my own willingness to spend money on, well, art. It’s easy to have reckless abandon with choosing a movie when you’ve already paid a flat fee. The bar for going to see a movie in theaters rises from being curious to having to actually be interested. Take the upcoming Crazy Rich Asians as an example. I’m certainly curious about the movie, what with it having an all-Asian cast and being set in my sometimes-home of Singapore, but I’m not terribly fond of the book and don’t really find the narrative to be one I’m super into. So whether or not I see it is certainly up in the air.

I can get a pass to buy a movie ticket for around $10. Which isn’t that bad, given that a regular ticket in New York runs around $16. And I like movies, so $10 is certainly worth it. The question that’s begged, however, is why don’t I think it’s worth it? Because the debate inherent in this rant essay is the semi-arbitrary demarcation of value produced by comparing a subscription based service with the standard model. Am I more entertained by, say, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom knowing that my viewing of said movie was effectively free, given that it was included in the same fee that allowed me to see Sorry To Bother You and Eighth Grade that same month? Is part of my enjoyment of ‘bad’ movies due to the lack of attachment that comes with the background knowledge that this movie isn’t affecting my budget in anyway?

In many ways, it’s a sunk cost fallacy in another form. If I’m paying x amount of money for something, it had darn well better be worth the money. Does the knowledge that some of my hard earned cash was paid for this movie in particular affect my enjoyment of it? Or, if art is inherently worthwhile because folks put time and effort into it, shouldn’t I respect that and be willing to pay the money since, well, I’m supporting creators?

I don’t really have a good answer to any of these questions. In many ways, this is me rambling and exploring my own attitudes towards entertainment. I don’t know where this self-introspection will lead. I don’t know if it even should lead anywhere. What I do know is that, should MoviePass go sideways, I’m really gonna miss the reckless abandon with which I’m available to enjoy movies right now.

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