Bisping: Documentary of the UFC Fighter

Bisping: The Michael Bisping Story is a documentary about a popular mixed martial arts fighter who became the UFC Middleweight champion. It’s an exciting look at a fast growing sport as well an engaging biography of an athlete who was determined to overcome all obstacles to achieve his dream.

I started out as a boxing fan and am only a rather casual and recent fan of mixed martial arts and the UFC (if you read comments on YouTube or forums, “casual” is one of the worst insults anyone can deliver), so I never knew about Michael Bisping until fairly recently when I discovered his YouTube channel.

Bisping looks at the fighter’s origins growing up in a working class area in England, where he frequently got into fights in the street and at pubs. He also started training in martial arts at an early age and began competing in tournaments. After a brief period in jail following a fight, Bisping resolved to turn his life around and began pursuing a martial arts career in earnest.

This documentary provides some great footage, not only of Bisping’s notable fights but also many other UFC stars with whom he fought or otherwise crossed paths. Featured in the film are his arch rival Luke Rockhold, Dana White, Joe Rogan, Micky Rourke, Rashad Evans, and even actor Vin Diesel, who was in a movie with Bisping.

The trajectory of Bisping’s career, which had many ups and downs, has the dramatic feel of a fictional movie. Some of the exciting matches covered in the film include Bisping vs. Luke Rockhold (twice), Anderson Silva, Dan Henderson, and George St. Pierre. One dramatic plot is how Bisping was injured and ended up losing an eye following a brutal knockout at the hands of Vitor Belfort, who, it turned out, was using steroids. Bisping continued to compete, hiding the fact that he was blind in one eye, and still managed to win the Middleweight championship.

Bisping is an inspiring story of one man’s journey to excel and overcome challenges. It’s a must see for UFC/MMA fans. It will also appeal to anyone who appreciates a real life “Rocky” story.

Bisping is currently available on Amazon and other streaming services. For more information see:

https://www.bispingdoc.com

You Can’t Kill The Meme

A documentary by Hayley Garrigus, You Can’t Kill The Meme explores the bizarre and controversial Pepe The Frog meme that became infamous during the 2016 election. Based loosely on the ancient Egyptian god Kek, the cartoon frog Pepe spread online, especially on 4Chan and many “alt-right” message boards.

If you search for Pepe The Frog, you’ll see that, somewhat absurdly for an innocuous-looking cartoon animal, it’s widely considered a “hate symbol.” With so much political controversy, mixed with mysticism and fairly obscure online subcultures, it’s hard to approach this topic with any kind of objectivity. Hayley Garrigus, however, manages to maintain a detached focus on the many unusual belief systems and eccentric characters she interviews. She herself stays in the background, barely appearing in front of the camera at all.

Garrigus isn’t so much concerned with Pepe The Frog itself, but the underlying ideas and movements that latched on or appropriated the symbol. She was inspired by the book Memetic Magic: Manipulation of the Root Social Matrix and the Fabric of Reality, by R. Kirk Packwood, a now out of print book. Packwood is interviewed and expresses an ambivalent attitude about the movement he unintentionally inspired.

Memes (including the word “meme”) Have a Life of Their Own

The terms meme magic and memetics go back to the original definition of meme rather than the more limited modern idea of memes as simply images shared on social media. Richard Dawkins coined the term as the cultural equivalent of a virus that spreads quickly through society. Of course, Dawkins is a rather dogmatic atheist and would most likely cringe at some of the ways the term has been used. But this is, somewhat ironically, the very way memes work: they evolve or mutate in unpredictable ways. Pepe The Frog is the perfect example.

If you want to follow the bizarre evolution of Pepe, you may be more interested in another doc called Feels Good Man, about Pepe’s actual creator, cartoonist Matt Furie who disowned his creation after it was appropriated by underground movements.

The ADL has labeled Pepe a hate symbol. Yet, the ADL website says, “In the fall of 2016, the ADL teamed with Pepe creator Matt Furie to form a #SavePepe campaign to reclaim the symbol from those who use it with hateful intentions.” So they are somewhat ambiguously calling it a hate symbol and trying to redeem it. The whole history of Pepe, including its creation and abandonment by Matt Furie, R. Kirk Packwood’s own distancing of his book on memetic magic all show how slippery memes can be and how they take on a life of their own.

Fortunately, Hayley Garrigus doesn’t get bogged down in the controversy of Pepe and the simplistic right vs. left conflict and gets into more esoteric territory. She interviews a self-described lightworker in Las Vegas named Carole Michaella as well as other eccentric magicians, including Billy Brujo, whose getup includes white face paint and a cross on his forehead. All of this seems practically designed to scare away “normies” to dismiss all this as woo-woo or the ravings of political extremists desperate for a way to feel empowered.

When memetic magicians (if that’s the correct term) claim they were responsible, not only for Trump winning the 2016 election but even for causing Hillary Clinton to collapse in the street, skepticism is understandable. However, Garrigus seems open to the ideas that are presented, however farfetched, or at least lets the characters express themselves without judgment (at least that she expresses). She seems more interested in the underlying possibilities of memes than in the particular idiosyncratic way certain characters have interpreted these memes. After all, versions of magic (or magick) have been around a lot longer than American politics.

I think some viewers and reviewers were frustrated by the film’s apparent lack of a clear message. If this topic was handled by, say, a network TV show such as 20/20, the focus might have been on exposing the characters as lunatics or dangerous extremists. On the other hand, I never had the sense that Garrigus blindly believes anything anyone says. Her detached style lets you judge for yourself and, if you’re so inclined, to do further research.

You Can’t Kill The Meme will probably be most appreciated by people who already have some knowledge of alternative belief systems, if not memetic magic itself. It at least helps to have an open mind. Our world is far richer and more complex than is portrayed by conventional institutions and this documentary sheds some light on one loosely defined subculture that is exploring certain aspects of human potential.

You Can’t Kill The Meme is not a movie for everyone, and it received more than its share of negative reviews. Most of these are from “normies,” people with either no background or interest in the occult and fringe movements who are often outright hostile to anything outside the mainstream. In this case, there’s additional pressure to distance oneself from a movement that’s been so closely associated with Trump and the “alt-right” (whatever that really means). However, Garrigus isn’t endorsing any political or cultural movements here but simply exploring a fascinating phenomenon. Memes are always with us and can have a profound, and often hidden, impact on society, whether we like them or not or whether we’re aware of them or not.

You Can’t Kill The Meme is currently streaming on Hulu.

Who You Think I Am: Catfishing French Style

Who You Think I Am (2019) is a French film directed by Safy Nebbou and starring Juliette Binoche, currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

The simple description of Who You Think I Am is that it’s a modern internet tale of catfishing. Binoche plays Claire, a professor in her 50s who takes on a new identity on social media, pretending to be much younger and romancing a young man. Claire already has a much younger boyfriend Ludovic (Guillaume Gouix) at the start of Who You Think I Am. However, he is extremely casual about their relationship and doesn’t even return her messages. This motivates her to create a fake profile. Claire isn’t simply trolling social media randomly. She targets Ludovic’s roommate Alex (François Civil) and the two quickly begin chatting and talking on the phone. Claire is doing full-on catfishing here as she uses a photo of a young woman and tells Alex that she’s 24.

The film is told largely in flashbacks as Claire recounts (not always reliably, as it turns out) her actions to her therapist Dr. Bormans (Nicole Garcia). Anyone who has seen the Catfish movie or TV show heard about (or perhaps even experienced) online deception knows that the biggest red flag is when the other person can never meet in person for complicated reasons. Alex does become frustrated and even suspicious as Claire (calling herself Clara) is never able to meet. She finally agrees to a meeting but only watches Alex from a distance; he, of course, doesn’t recognize her as he’s going by a fake photo. She then makes up a fake excuse, saying she lives with someone.

Who You Think I Am has several twists that I won’t reveal. Unlike the contrived twists that often occur in mysteries and thrillers, where the whole point is to fool the audience, the twists in this psychological drama are actually plausible. In any case, the film is more of a character study than a commentary on contemporary social media or even catfishing. Juliette Binoche, who has been an iconic presence in French cinema since the 1980s, does a brilliant job portraying a woman who is, at once, troubled, confused, and yet confident enough to pull off a grand deception.

Later in the film, things get a bit confusing as scenes not only move back and forth in time but also include bits of Claire’s imagination. Yet, for a character who is constructing an imaginary identity, it’s actually fitting that she moves seamlessly between fact and fantasy.

If this topic was covered in a typical American film, it would be either a cringe rom-com or a suspense thriller where someone was an obsessed stalker and at least one brutal murder. Fortunately, Who You Think I Am is a more complex and nuanced look at modern relationships as influenced by social media culture.

Nightmare Alley on Hulu

Nightmare Alley (2021), directed by Guillermo del Toro, is a remake of a 1947 film based on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham. It’s a long (2.5 hours), an ambitious period piece that evokes the atmosphere of old noir style movies.

Nightmare Alley stars Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, a drifter running from a crime who starts working for a traveling carnival. Nightmare Alley is full of strong character actors, which is fitting for a movie that’s largely set in a traveling carnival. There’s the unsavory owner Clem (William Dafoe), a fortuneteller named Zeena (Toni Collette) and her brilliant but alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), Bruno the strongman (Ron Perlman), and Molly (Rooney Mara), a girl who survives apparent electrocution night after night. The carnival also has a geek who eats live chickens, so the movie isn’t for the squeamish.

The early scenes of the carnival, which are left out of the 1947 film, simply serve as Stanton’s origin story. He takes up with Molly, convincing her that they are both capable of grander things, and they take their act to the big city (or Buffalo, anyway, which seems like a big city compared to the small towns Stanton and Molly are accustomed to). We next see them conning higher end marks in nightclubs.

Nightmare Alley is not only set in the 1930 and early 40s (the onset of America’s entry into World War 2 is a background story heard on news broadcasts) but the film’s style and sensibility recall movies of this era. Of course, as a remake, this isn’t really unexpected. However, del Toro could have chosen to reimagine Gresham’s tale through a more modern lens. Instead, he amplifies many old tropes, most notably the powerful figure of a beautiful but deadly femme fatale, perfectly cast with Cate Blanchett.

Nightmare Alley is an unapologetically old-fashioned film. The neat way the story cycles back on itself is reminiscent of not only movies from the black and white era but also shows like the original Twilight Zone, where characters get what’s coming to them. This, of course, can be traced back much further, such as to the Greek tragedies. However, sometime in the late 20th century, movies began to evolve (not necessarily implying improvement) in a more postmodern direction, and things didn’t have to make sense, destiny was uncertain, and you never know what might happen. Modern audiences may, therefore, find Nightmare Alley a bit hackneyed, which is fine as long as you understand that del Toro has not actually “post modernized” a tale from the old days of Hollywood, simply made it bigger, longer, and flashier.

The Lost Daughter: Enigmatic Character Study

The Lost Daughter, which premiered on Netflix right before the New Year, shows that Netflix aims at quite a diverse audience. The recent hit Don’t Look Up is a sendup of pop culture (with some heavy-handed messages); Cobra Kai attracts a mixture of older viewers nostalgic for The Karate Kid as well as younger, newer fans of the franchise. Meanwhile, The Lost Daughter is an ultra-indie offering based on an Italian novel. If you’re looking for action, sex or politics you won’t find it here. However, it is an interesting character study that also manages to be disturbing in its low-key way.

The Lost Daughter is the first film directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is also the co-writer along with the novel’s author Elena Ferrante. It stars Olivia Colman as Leda, a native of England who is currently a professor in Boston. Leda is on a solo vacation on a Greek island, where she, at first, seems to mainly want to be left alone.

Leda is a difficult character to understand or sympathize with. She is alternately aloof, hostile, and friendly to the people she meets such as her apartment’s caretaker Lyle (Ed Harris) and Will (Paul Mescal), a young Irish student working at the resort for the summer. Her solitude on the beach is interrupted by a large and loud American family. However, after a brief altercation over seating, she becomes interested in Nina (Dakota Johnson), one of the family who has a young daughter.

When Nina can’t find her daughter, everyone panics and searches the beach. Leda, however, finds the young girl and is at least temporarily embraced by the family. However, complications ensue when the daughter’s beloved doll is missing. Probably the closest thing to a spoiler I can reveal here I a film with no real action is that Leda has taken the doll because it apparently reminds her of a doll she used to have.Leda’s encounter with Nina and the child reminds her of the past and the film then slips in and out of flashbacks of Leda as a younger woman (played by Jessie Buckley) who has two young daughters of her own.

I haven’t read the novel, but a lot seems to hinge on Leda’s introspection. Apart from the flashbacks, however, it’s hard to understand her motivations. She is clearly troubled about the past, which seems to be mainly due to a period when she abandoned her husband and children. Perhaps she sees herself in Nina and her daughter, though she seems almost more obsessed with the doll than with the actual people.

The conclusion is a bit ambiguous and can be interpreted in multiple ways. If you’re a fan of quiet, introspective films that don’t offer simple explanations or resolutions, then The Lost Daughter is something worth checking out.

Squid Game and Dystopias: What are They Telling Us?

Squid Game, directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, is the latest dystopian thriller that recalls aspects of The Hunger Games as well as many Black Mirror episodes. For many fairly obvious reasons, audiences can relate to the idea of a dark present-near future where survival hinges on horrific actions and ethical choices.

This will be more analysis and speculation about Netflix’s huge hit than a review. I’m not going to recount the plot in detail and there will be spoilers, so it’s really meant for people who have already seen the miniseries.

It’s interesting that a Korean film dealing with economic hardship and class struggle, Parasite, won the Academy Award for Best Picture and now a mega-successful miniseries from the same country breaks Netflix records. Of course, Korea is certainly not the only country dealing with such issues or these works wouldn’t resonate in so many other places, including the United States.

I watched the entire miniseries and found it mostly compelling. It’s more depressing than enjoyable, but that’s by design of course. I can’t say I’m anxious to see the next season, assuming there is one. More than anything, I wonder what the intention of such works really are, beyond the obvious motives to entertain and, from the point of view of the creators, to make money.

I can think of three ways to interpret Squid Game: As purely escapist entertainment, as a metaphor of present-day life, and perhaps a warning of where we’re headed or as a tool to demoralize the audience.

Even nightmarish scenarios, such as horror films and dystopian tales are escapist. Perhaps they provide relief by presenting a world even grimmer than the real one.

As a warning and expose, in the vein of 1984 and Brave New World. The games are a fairly obvious metaphor for a ruthless capitalistic society that values only competition and winning.

Russell Brand weighs in on the second possibility, seeing Squid Game as an expose of capitalism. Like many YouTube video titles, his is a bit clickbaity, suggesting that his analysis is unique and unprecedented. While Brand is always entertaining and unusually articulate, I don’t think seeing Squid Games as a metaphor for contemporary life is much of a stretch (sadly).

The third and darkest possibility is that Squid Game, along with other dystopian movies, shows and novels, may actually be part of a plan to condition us for a bleak future. Indeed, there are conspiracy theories that books like Orwell’s 1984 were meant to demoralize readers and get them to accept the inevitable.

Since I can’t get into the heads of the creators, I prefer to consider the effects of works such as Squid Game rather than try to guess the intentions behind it.

Daniel Pinchbeck gives a thoughtful analysis of this perspective, seeing this type of work as nihilistic
neo-liberal pornography.” From this perspective, the grim choices faced by the contestants are there to prepare us for such a grim reality.

Is the world of Squid Game really one of pure brutality and hopelessness? There are traces of humanity, most notably displayed by the star, Seong Gi-hun, who plays Gi-Hun, a flawed character who joins the game due to gambling debts. Throughout the games, however, his empathy is revealed and, at one point, he refuses to kill an antagonist even though it meant winning the entire game.

Can’t Stop Playing the Game

The ending of Squid Game shows Gi-Hun, the winner (I told you there’d be spoilers), unsatisfied and unable to enjoy his newfound wealth. At the very end, he even decides to rejoin the game rather than visit his estranged daughter. Of course, the obvious reason for this is to set up a possible Season 2. However, it also raises questions about the nature of gambling, games, and life.

What are Gi-Hun’s motives? Presumably, he doesn’t care about winning more money as he hasn’t even enjoyed what he’s already won. Rather, he seems intent on infiltrating and perhaps exposing and destroying the game.

Where Does That Leave Us?

Putting aside the need to end the season on a cliffhanger, where does the ending leave the audience? The game is certainly evil, run by ruthless sociopaths. However, even this is not without ambiguity, as we learn that the old man, player Number 1 (Oh Yeong-su), is actually the creator. His motives are vague –he supposedly wanted to recreate games from his childhood -yet, why make them brutal life-or-death contests then?

The problem is, the people who volunteer to play are in a can’t-win situation. They choose to play because they have nothing waiting for them in the outside world and no way to improve their situation. So, even if a hero such as Gi-Hun were to dismantle the whole enterprise, would he really be helping society? Rather than risk a quick death, the players would just live out their lives in poverty and misery.

So, the world of Squid Game indeed presents us with a grim world where there is no apparent solution. The real world is hopeless for many people and their only chance is to play a game that will most likely mean death. This can be seen as an exaggerated version of poor and working class people relying on the lottery or some other form of gambling as their only salvation. Indeed, Gi-Hun is a gambler himself.

Squid Game may have subversive intentions or it may not. Either way, it doesn’t present a very hopeful vision of the future (or present). Rather, it portrays a scenario where the vast majority of people are helpless pawns in a vast, omnipotent system. It may be time to look beyond dystopian and post-apocalyptic visions. Utopias, which are out of fashion now anyway, don’t really help much either as they seem completely removed from our current reality. Perhaps we need a new genre, one that provides more of a roadmap from dystopia to a utopia or at least a tolerable world.

A Glitch In The Matrix: Documentary streaming on Hulu

Are we living in a computer simulation? Are alternate realities bleeding into our own, causing multiple interpretations of the same events, also known as the Mandela Effect? How can we even know what is real? If these sorts of questions fascinate you, A Glitch In The Matrix, a documentary currently streaming on Hulu might be for you.

Directed by Rodney Ascher, who also directed Room 237, which explored strange symbols and synchronicities associated with The Shining. While the unifying topic of Room 237 keeps it relatively reigned in, A Glitch In The Matrix is an unfocused romp through various loosely related topics concerning science fiction, philosophy, and technology.

Philip K. Dick provides the closest thing to an anchor for the film. Specifically, we see portions of a lecture he gave in Paris in 1977, where he refers to reality glitches and basically describes the popular idea of the Mandela Effect without naming it (obviously, as Nelson Mandela, in any timeline, was still alive back then). Beyond anything else, the doc establishes Dick as one of the founding influencers on modern simulation theory as well as The Mandela Effect.

As the title suggests, The Matrix is also a major theme. The Matrix films actually introduced an ancient concept into popular consciousness —the notion that the world we perceive isn’t the real reality, but some type of projection. Of course, it’s only in the digital age that we came up with the idea of a computer simulation.

Some of the documentary’s more interesting speculations remind us that philosophers from Plato to Descartes have examined these themes. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in particular, is an obvious influence on the Matrix.

The 17th century philosopher Descartes, posed the idea of a demon who fools everyone into believing in a false reality. This connects to his famous adage, “I think, therefore I am.” While self-identity is fairly persuasive most of the time (I don’t think Descartes was familiar with psychedelics), it doesn’t necessarily prove that the world around us is real.

The film doesn’t mention Gnosticism, an early Christian heresy, which was strongly influenced by Plato and various schools of ancient mysticism. Gnostics believe the world we see was created by the Demiurge, a kind of false god (who may also be the God of the Old Testament) and usurper. The goal of gnosis or knowledge is to find our way back to the true creator.

Buddhism and other Eastern religions also helped to set the stage for simulation theory. Of particular relevance is the concept of Maya, which can be translated as illusion or deceit. If we don’t perceive reality as it is, it’s not so farfetched to believe we’re inside a simulation.

When not focusing on Philip K. Dick and ancient philosophy, A Glitch In The Matrix features a group of seemingly random interviewees. These are all guys dressed in bizarre sci-fi outfits. I’m not sure if these costumes are from cosplay events, comic books, or computer games, but the effect doesn’t exactly add to the film’s credibility. To me, it has the effect of pigeon-holing the topic into the realm of sheer geekiness. To be sure, these are geeky, intellectual topics, but they didn’t have to go overboard to drive home this point.

I’m not sure if the interviewees wanted to remain anonymous or if they just thought it was cool or entertaining to have these get-ups. They sounded intelligent enough, but didn’t seem to have any special credentials apart from having some interesting anecdotes regarding synchronicities. I found some of these stories a bit underwhelming, at least as far as providing any real insights into simulation theory. Arguably, they could have better spent the time by delving more deeply into the history and philosophy of these ideas.

Aside from Philip K. Dick and the costumed characters, the film quotes various other opinions on simulation theory, including Elon Musk to Neil deGrasse Tyson, who both believe it’s likely we are indeed in a simulation. A couple of the talking heads bring up the statistical probability of this being true. Personally, I don’t find statistics convincing with this type of metaphysical argument. It’s either true or it isn’t.

A Glitch In The Matrix also reveals the potential dark side to simulation theory. In the 19th century, Dostoyevsky explored the idea of nihilism in novels such as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. A famous line from the latter novel, spoken by the atheist Ivan, states, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Of course, Dostoyevsky meant this in the worst possible way, meaning that people have no reason to follow any type of moral code. In the 21st century, simulation theory can be seen as posing a similar moral dilemma. A Glitch In The Matrix explores this in depth.

One character who gets lots of air time is Joshua Cooke, who came to be known as “The Matrix killer.” He also used The Matrix Defense in court, a variation on the insanity plea. We hear Cooke himself describing in detail how, after repeatedly watching the films (along with listening to various hardcore music soundtracks), he murdered his parents with a shotgun. This eerie and unnerving sequence reveals a dark side of simulation theory, the possibility that, if our lives aren’t even real, we don’t have to worry about the consequences of our actions.

On a similar note, they cover a case of someone who randomly decided to steal a plane because he’d done so in computer games. Before fatally crashing, he is heard over the airwaves saying that it’s just like a video game.

A Glitch In The Matrix is not the most coherent presentation of ideas such as the Simulation Hypothesis and the Mandela Effect. On the other hand, these topics are intrinsically confusing, paradoxical, and multidimensional, so a logical linear approach may not be ideal or even possible.

It’s not likely there will ever be a definitive study of this infinitely complex and unprovable theory (which is equally impossible to disprove). A Glitch In The Matrix, despite its unevenness and the distracting costumes, does contribute something of value to the discussion and certainly provokes further thought.

Bo Burnham: Inside on Netflix

Bo Burnham is one of the most innovative stand-up comics regularly featured on Netflix. As he related in this latest special, Bo Burnham: Inside, he just turned 30 (something he celebrates during the special in a strange and sad way), and has positioned himself as a leading spokesperson for the social media generation. His material clearly sets him apart from the old guard of comics, who still tend to fall back on familiar topics such as airports, bad drivers, the differences between men and women, and their kids’ wacky antics. Nothing wrong with covering familiar yet universal material but Burnham inhabits a different universe, one that’s ultra postmodern and self-conscious. He’s always been this way, but Inside takes it all to a new level.

Inside is groundbreaking while testing the patience of his audience. Filmed over many months in 2020, it features Burnham’s endless hours of self-reflection and self-doubt during months of confinement. Of course, it’s doubtful that he literally never left his house as the on-screen scenario implies, but we can grant him this fiction for the sake of the performance. Not everyone is so generous. A reviewer for Slate takes Burnham to task for exaggerating his isolation and mental state, apparently causing some naive viewers to worry about him.


Another way this performance differs from those in the past is the emphasis on musical numbers. While Burnham always includes a few of these, Inside consists mostly of bizarre ditties, such as Welcome to the Internet :

Welcome to the Internet! What would you prefer?
Would you like to fight for civil rights or tweet a racial slur?
Be happy! Be horny! Be bursting with rage!
We’ve got a million different ways to engage.

This may be my favorite part of the special, as he really does manage to encapsulate the absurdity of social media and the internet, which he sums up in the chorus:

Could I interest you in everything all the time?
A little bit of everything all the time?
Apathy’s a tragedy, and boredom is a crime?

Bo Burnham, even with his more typical performances, is big on self-reflection and meta analysis. Here, devoid of an audience and free to play with his video cameras and special effects, he takes these tactics to an extreme. There’s a sequence where he analyzes himself analyzing himself, ad infinitum until he quits in exasperation.

In another skit, which could be seen as a microcosm for the whole show, he critiques his own performance saying “It’s boring, but that’s the point.” That’s the weird thing about Inside; it’s brilliant and thought-provoking, even as it taxes your attention span. I confess I watched it in two sessions and even then it seemed a bit long. Burham is certainly aware of the challenge of presenting a show meant to shine the spotlight on claustrophobia and angst and keep people’s attention. At one point, he sang about not wanting to know if people were paying attention or looking at their phones.

Bo Burnham is an artist who provokes criticism as well as adoration. He’s constantly walking a razor’s edge that borders on narcissism, if not solipsism. His self-awareness on this very tendency only accentuates the point, as when he says “And I think that, ‘Oh, if I’m self-aware about being a douchebag, it’ll somehow make me less of a douchebag.'” By the way, to remember that quote I referred to the transcript of the show, which is available in case anyone actually wants to read it through.

The absurdity of Burnham’s self-absorption is a microcosm of the world that’s emerging all around us. He’s not merely an astute spokesperson for the social media generation, he’s a kind of prototype. Much in the way Quentin Tarantino raised himself on movies, Burnham raised himself on YouTube. If nothing else, he knows this world inside out, creating a weird kind of sensibility that’s both brilliantly creative and morbidly insular.

Bo Burnham is definitely worth watching, as his finger is on the pulse of so much of what’s happening now, for better and for worse. Aside from that, he’s one of the most original comics working today.

Nomadland: Film and Book

Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao and starring Frances Mcdormand, is a fictionalized rendering of a book by Jessica Bruder. The book is a nonfiction study of the emerging subculture of nomadic people who, mainly due to economic necessity, adopted the nomadic lifestyle of living in vans.

The movie focuses mainly on a woman named Fern (McDormand) who sets off in her van after her husband dies and the town in Nevada where they lived literally shuts down after losing a factory. The movie, while fictionalized, follows a documentary format. Indeed, it stars many actual nomads who are discussed in the book such as Bob Wells, who acts as a mentor for people new to the van lifestyle.

Since around the financial collapse of 2008, many people in late middle age and even older, became van-dwelling nomads. Some subsist on social security or savings but many work at a variety of temporary jobs all over the country. Amazon warehouses are a major employer of these folks, which is portrayed in the film and, much more comprehensively, in the book.

The movie was recently awarded a Golden Globes Award for Best Drama. While the acting (such as it is, as many characters are simply playing themselves) and cinematography are flawless. The lonely beauty of the American Southwest plays a major part in setting the mood. However, compared to the book, Nomadland tends to water down some important aspects of this lifestyle.

A Self-Reliant Loner

Frances McDormand expertly portrays low-key, earthy characters such as Fern. Her character here is still recovering from the heartbreak of losing her husband and home. The movie mainly depicts the challenges of life on the road and the creative ways nomads cope with everyday issues such as staying warm, going to the bathroom, and cooking.

The closest thing to a plot is that a fellow nomad is obviously interested in Fern and pursues her while she keeps him at a distance. There’s also a scene in which Fern visits her family and tensions from the past arise. These scenes all depict the conflict between the “normal” domestic way of life and the nomadic one. It suggests that living on the road for a long time makes one feel imprisoned by conventional life.

Led by Bob Wells, we see how the nomads form temporary yet close-knit communities. Many, like Fern, are fiercely independent loners who, nonetheless, take pleasure in one another’s company and who help each other out as much as possible.

Nomadland Downplays the Harsh Realities of Gig Work

In Jessica Bruder’s book, the modern nomadic lifestyle is explored as a kind of sociological study, with an emphasis on how economic hardship is forcing people to find new ways to survive. This is certainly obvious in the film as well. When Bob Wells makes his pitch to novice nomads, he preaches an ultra-individualistic philosophy of self-reliance and realizing that society isn’t going to take care of you.

The movie, though insightful about the motivations and personalities of its subjects, avoids looking too closely at what its subjects have to do to survive economically. This is most apparent when we see the nomads working in an Amazon warehouse. My first thought was, “Amazon actually let them film this?” The book, after all, pointed out how hard and exploitative these temporary gigs are, especially on older adults. Bruder describes, for example, how injuries on the floor are common.

In the film, however, we only see brief snippets of people working. And, significantly, the only words actually spoken about Amazon are positive, when Fern tells someone that the pay is good. The film, similarly shows a variety of mostly brief scenes of nomads working in different environments, such as a campground. In this manner, the film underplays one of the most significant facts about this lifestyle —it compels people to work very hard for relatively low wages and no benefits. In this manner, the living in van lifestyle of these contemporary nomads who rely on temp jobs can be seen as one branch of the emerging gig economy.

Vulture discusses this at length in an article, What Nomadland Gets Wrong About Gig Labor. Of course, it’s doubtful Amazon would have permitted filming in their facilities if it was portrayed in a less positive light. Or, perhaps, Zhao preferred not to focus on these issues, which would have made the film more political. As it is, the film is more about the expansive landscapes of the American West and the resourcefulness and community-mindedness of the nomads.

An Emerging Nation of Nomads?

Bruder’s book came out several years ago, and explains how many of the new breed of nomads were victims of the 2008 economic crisis. Today, many of the conditions of that decade have only worsened, made even more severe by businesses closed and jobs lost due to COVID. Even before the pandemic, issues such as homelessness and economic inequality have been steadily worsening. Thus, it’s likely that the lifestyle depicted in Nomadland will become more and more common.

Nomadland is currently streaming on Hulu. I recommend it, but you should definitely read the book to get a fuller picture.

My review of Nomadland on Goodreads

I also did a short podcast on Nomadland (the book).

The Social Dilemma

Social media dominates our lives more and more. The Social Dilemma is a persuasive documentary that looks at some of the ways sites such as Facebook may be manipulating us, even beyond what’s obvious. The doc features a panel of speakers, mostly tech industry insiders or ex-insiders.

The main point of The Social Dilemma isn’t really that controversial. The algorithms of sites such as Facebook are designed to target, influence, and reinforce certain patterns in users. While the most obvious example of this is retargeted advertising, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Retargeting, if you’re not familiar with the term, is when you click on a link, say for a product on Amazon, and then you suddenly start seeing ads for that product everywhere you go.

The retargeting principle also applies to things like YouTube videos as well as the types of posts you interact with on Facebook. In areas such as politics, this contributes to the so-called echo chamber effect. People get increasingly categorized and segregated into subcultures and see fewer and fewer alternative or opposing viewpoints. As the film points out, it’s actually profitable for these sites to do this, as people are creatures of habit. If you’re addicted to conspiracy videos, for example, it makes sense to encourage you to watch more of these. You’re also more likely to click on ads and just spend more time on the sites, which is part of the plan.

The Social Dilemma dramatizes the algorithm process by Anthropomorphising AI into actual people who scheme to manipulate an unstable teen into staying online, which leads to tragic results. The movie avoids getting overtly political, so there’s no tangible movement or group he joins. But the implication seems to be that social media sites may encourage people to join extremist groups and possibly turn into terrorists, school shooters, and such.

The main points made by The Social Dilemma are hard to dispute. At the same time, I’d advise watching this doc with a healthy degree of skepticism. For one thing, what we have here are powerful, influential people warning us about other powerful, influential people. In some cases, the two groups overlap quite a bit. The film’s narrow focus is on social media but some of the underlying issues apply equally to the mass media in general -which certainly includes Netflix.

If we’re talking about manipulation, the film itself uses a fair amount of it to make its points. The creators and the people they interview are clearly part of an elite intellectual class whose views are constantly heard in books, TED Talks, conferences, and docs like this one. Jaron Lanier, declared the “Founding Father of Virtual Reality” has become one of the official spokespeople for exposing the dangers of the digital age. Tristan Harris worked at Google, Jeff Seibert, at Twitter. Shoshana Zuboff is the author of the popular book, Surveillance Capitalism.

So what are the solutions they are proposing? While the movie isn’t putting forth an actual plan, the implication seems to be that we need more regulation and oversight. There’s also the option of unplugging, of course. Towards the end, it’s mentioned that several top executives of social media companies don’t let their own kids use these sites.

Slate published an interesting critique of The Social Dilemma by Pranav Malhotra, where he points out that the film overlooks many key issues such as privacy and how social media depends upon and contributes to economic inequality. He also points out that many scholars and other experts not directly affiliated with the tech industry don’t get a voice. There is a sense here that we’re supposed to trust these tech industry reformers to clean up the damage they’ve done.

With a documentary on social issues, you always need to consider the source as well as what’s being said between the lines. This is most certainly not something put together by an indie filmmaker. It’s a slick production, complete with a website that tells you how to organize, promote it, and take further action. Okay, nowadays, even a kid who made a $1500 doc would most likely have a website and links to more content. But, in this case, it’s Netflix, and the creators are well-connected with the corporate media. So it’s worth questioning their motives.

The Social Dilemma can be seen as a severe critique of the social media age but equally as a pre-emptive action to ensure that entrenched forces remain in control of the narrative.

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