Mini Movie Review: “Somm” and “Somm: Into the Bottle”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m reviewing these two documentaries together because they’re a matched pair: same director, much of the same cast, and two sides of the same coin.

You should watch Somm first, because it was filmed first, and introduces you to people you’ll see in the next film. It’s not the better movie, though. Somm is the backstage look at a small group of men who are preparing to take the Court of Master Sommeliers “Master Sommelier” exam, a three-part test to award the title and prestige that comes with being a master somm. (It is very prestigious; there are only about 200 Court-certified masters in the world, and ascending to that level comes with cache, swagger, and immediate job offerings all over the world.)

The test is truly difficult. It’s subjective, and it’s broad-ranging. To be a master, you need the skills of a botanist and a historian, along with a sensitive nose and an excellent memory for tastes and smells. It takes a combination of genetics and dedication, then, along with the money and privilege necessary to access the variety of wines you’ll have to memorize before the exam. So, of course these guys are stressed, and not every one passes.

If you already care about the master test, or you are working as a sommelier, this behind-the-scenes look will probably interest you. I learned a few things, watching it.

But Somm: Into the Bottle is far more educational. It brings back the guys from Somm, now employed by various wineries and restaurants, and has them help explain the history and mysteries of wine production. There’s obviously a bigger budget, and the director manages to get into some rare European locations to speak with winemakers whose families have been making wine since before there was an “America”, before the existence of many of the countries we know in Europe today.

I’d have liked to learn more about South American and Asian wines, but they do cover Australia, Europe, and California pretty well. They go over the botany, genetics, and economic/political pressures which make up a wine’s lineage and flavor profile. (War! Infighting between small wineries! Drinking lots of expensive wine!)

I don’t drink much wine, mainly because I could never afford to learn anything about it. I know a couple of things I like (bring unto me your finest Riesling, if you want me to be happy with your wine selections) and a decent amount of history (because, art historian). But knowing wine at the level of masters means knowing everything.

The thing is, I like to know everything. And I don’t like the realization that there’s this whole field which impacts culture and is grounded in history… which I haven’t accessed.

I need to read a few more books.

And definitely drink more wine.

(Both films are currently available on Netflix.)

Movie Review: “I Am Not Your Negro”

#SFWAPro

This is the most moving documentary I’ve seen in years. The impact, if you open yourself up to what’s on the screen, is immediate, lasts throughout the relatively-short film, and follows you out onto the street afterward. I saw it a few weeks ago, but I can feel the echo of it around me still.

I was a little concerned, before I saw it, that the entire time James Baldwin’s words or images were on the screen, Samuel L. Jackson’s voice would hover over them. Nothing against Jackson, a great actor who I enjoy, but I went for the experience of Baldwin briefly-revived, and didn’t want that experience diluted. I didn’t have anything to worry about. Jackson did read Baldwin’s words, in places, but his softened his voice and cadence give us narration that was less “Nick Fury” and closer to Baldwin’s “delicate but precise New York writer”. Enough, anyway, that it worked.

Big chunks of the film are in Baldwin’s own voice, from interviews and lectures and if you haven’t seen that man lecture before, go now, go online, go to YouTube, and find him. (Thanks to the internet, he lives on, at least a little.)

The rest is photographs, old and new, and some small clips of Black Lives Matter groups protesting in the last few years.

But what it is, really, is James laid bare, reaching out, reaching forward, to remind us that racism is not gone, not in the past, not even that old. We’re not post-racial, here in America; we are the children and grandchildren of those angry white mothers and brash young white supremacist boys who spit on black children wanting nothing more than a seat in a schoolhouse so they could learn.

Some people reading this are old enough to have been there, clutching their purses which righteous indignation, carrying signs, screaming, spitting, throwing rocks, or worse. That’s not a condemnation of my readers. It’s just a fact — one this documentary reminds you of, softly, crisply, and clearly.

But it’s even more than that. It’s a history lesson. It’s a look at how black men and black men’s bodies were regulated, even as they turned a profit. It’s also a reminder to speak up, to be yourself regardless of the circumstances, to write boldly, to make a mark, to love, to live, before it’s too late. Because it’s always too late, eventually.

Go see it in the theater while you still can.

Watch the trailer on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNUYdgIyaPM

A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 2

“Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used “to tell” at all.” ― Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics

Did you read “A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 1“? In that post, I talked about the basics of what semiotics is, and a little about how it’s applied to writing. These links go to articles and sites that will explain further:

Foundational Work:

  • David Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners (1998) is online in its entirety here. This is a linguistics-based text that reads like college coursework from an old British professor, which some of you will hate and some of you will adore. It covers the history of the field and gives a foundation for later study to work from.
  • Arthur Asa Berger’s Cultural Criticism: Semiotics and Cultural Criticism is only available for sale at used bookstores but Dartmouth has one of the intro chapters up here. His Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics is also quite a good place to start, and is available on Amazon here.
  • The Encyclopedia of Semiotics, edited by Paul Bouissac, Oxford U Press (1998) is available online here.
  • A Theory of Semiotics (Advances in Semiotics), Umberto Eco (1976). My favorite! You can get it from Amazon here.
  • Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Umberto Eco (1984). The whole thing is available here as a PDF. Also excellent.

Semiotics and Writing:

… and Advertising:

… and Theater/Performance/Music:

  • Semiotics of the Theater“, The Academy
  • Musical Semiotics in the 1990s: The state of the art“, William Echard, SRB Review
  • The Semiotics of Theater and Drama, Keir Elam (1980). Full book online as a PDF here.
  • The Semiotics of Theater, Erika Fischer-Lichte, Indiana U Press (1992). Translated by Jeremy Gaines and Doris L. Jones. Available from Amazon here.
  • Theatre Semiotics: Text and Staging in Modern Theatre, Fernando de Toro, U of Toronto Press (1995). Translated from the Spanish by John Lewis. Available from Amazon here.
  • Performance Studies, Semiotics Encyclopedia

… and Film/Gaming:

… and Early Childhood Education

Further Reading:

  • SemiotiX – “A global information magazine. Its aim is to provide periodic snapshots of the situation of semiotic research in the world, with photos, editorials by, and profiles of, active semioticians, mini-reviews of books, state-of-the-arts at a glance, and selective publicizing of scholarly events.” Published by Semiotics Institute Online. They also offer online courses and an excellent archive of articles. They’re also working on an online semiotics encyclopedia here.
  • Signata – a scholarly journal put out by the Université de Liège. It’s not available to the public online, but if you’ve got JStor or other academic access, you should find it there.
  • Umberto Eco’s semiotics links page
  • Google’s list of scholarly articles on “semiotics and fiction” is here.

A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 1

I’m going to be chatting with Juliette Wade on Dive Into Worldbuilding this Wednesday, September 14, at 1 PM EST. This is a live online chat, and anyone can join in. It’ll be streaming on YouTube; check out Juliette’s other videos here.

I’ll be talking about two things: writing without a visual imagination, and semiotics, as it’s applied to writing. #SFWAPro

Semiotics (not semiology) is basically the study of what things mean. It examines how signs become stand-ins for meaning — why a shape scratched onto a rock becomes a symbol, becomes a letter, which is interpreted both as a specific sound and an effect on the other letters it’s placed next to, for example; it’s related to linguistics, without being confined to written or spoken language. Semiotics looks at everything as a symbol, and the display of those symbols as extra layers of meaning. Rather that only using the letters on a billboard for meaning, it also explores what effect the font choice, or colors, or size of the letters, has on the meaning of the message. The same words printed in Comic Sans will have a different meaning to a reader than if they’d seen it printed in all caps, using a heavy Impact font, right?

But wait, there’s more! Semiotics also looks at images as if they are components of language, imparting meaning. Traditionally, that’s meant that art historians will look at a painting, and they’ll interpret the color of the subject’s clothes to mean something specific. The objects and animals in a painting will also have an extra meaning. Here’s one example:

Fidelity has long been metaphorically portrayed in Western Art as certain women, a plant, or a dog. (“Fido” even means “trust” in Latin.) In van Eyck’s famous painting, Arnolfini and His Wife, the little dog between the two figures was therefore assumed by viewers at the time to be a reference to the faithfulness they’d enjoy during their marriage.

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Jan van Eyck Giovanni, Arnolfini and His Wife (1434)
The National Gallery, London

It’s important to note that I said “viewers at the time”. The Arnolfini Painting was created toward the beginning of the Flemish Primitives period, during the Northern Renaissance. Anyone who viewed it during the 15th century probably understood about the dog, and several dozen other symbolic references as well. They didn’t need it explained to them, because they were living in the culture that created this visual shorthand. The curtains on the bed were red, and left open, hinting at the consummation of the marriage, the future lovemaking they’d enjoy… which wasn’t any kind of a secret to the painting’s intended audience. The fruit on the windowsill implied both fertility (it’s ripe, round, and fresh) and wealth (those fruits were expensive to import) — which would have been obvious at the time. For outside, untrained, viewers, it doesn’t give the same impression.

Decoding semiotic clues becomes harder as you move away from the originating culture. This could be a movement in time — most of the interpretation was done in the 20th century — or place, which is why early archeologists got so very many things wrong when they applied their 19th-century British or German worldviews to Ancient Egyptian relics. (Or any other African finds, or Native American sites, or South American, or… pretty much any dig that uncovered anything, anywhere. White privilege in action!)

The study of semiotics looks to understand people, art, culture, and events through the lens of interpreting the things left unsaid. It’s also used to understand the written depiction of things outside of dialogue. You’ve been using it ever since you started reading, even if you didn’t know.

Writers often use this shorthand to enhance their writing, so readers are used to looking for and understanding that shorthand. It’s why you probably think of “Sherlock Holmes” when you see a deerstalker hat, or the image of man in a long beige trenchcoat, wearing a fedora, standing in the shadows, implies “early 20th century detective”. It’s why that same trench coat paired with a blue suit and Converse makes you think of the Doctor, instead. These things are the visual expression of “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” a phrase that means much more than the individual words suggests.

For some writers, putting in semiotic clues is a way to skimp on the writing. If you show us at the beginning that your main character looks and moves like Ronald Reagan, then you don’t have to work as hard to convince us that this person is charming, affable, and secretly suffering from memory loss or dementia. We’ll know that, because Reagan has become an archetype, and his presence means those things to many people now.

(There are some sub-genres that work well for this sort of writing: space adventure comedies, and Mythos stories, for example. But unless you’re careful, it’s too easy to rely on flat archetypes and facile writing, putting the work on your readers instead of yourself.)

I’m not saying that semiotics is only a cheat for lazy writers, though. It can be, sure. When done well, it also adds layers and layers of subtext to original stories. Think of the way the color red is used in The Sixth Sense or the lighting cues that Dean Cudney used in John Carpenter’s The Thing. The way Sandy changes into the black outfit in Grease and the boys instantly know what she’s trying to say about herself.

Everything has meaning, when you want it to.

(Part 2 will be published on Wednesday, September 14. Stay tuned!)

Mini Movie Review: Meet the Patels

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With the help of his sister (Geeta V. Patel – amateur cameraperson, roommate, and occasional voice of reason), actor Ravi Patel chronicles his journey to find a suitable wife in this documentary. It was picked up by a distributor after being entered in a few film festivals; it won the Audience Award in L.A. On a production level, it’s not great, though the shaky handcam is balanced out by crisp animation and slick packaging (clearly added by a later producer). The film’s insightful, though in a limited way: Ravi shows some of what an American-born Indian might go through to find a spouse, but during the process, he never really commits to finding someone new, since he’s already got someone in mind. Because it’s clear from the beginning that he would rather be with his ex, Audrey, there’s no dramatic tension, and no real possibility he’ll fall in love with anyone else.

The problem arises not from the difficulties of finding a suitable wife, but because Ravi doesn’t want to tell his Indian-born parents that Audrey is white. Instead, they break up, and she moves progressively farther and farther away from him while he’s simultaneously searching the Internet for a “proper” Indian wife who’ll appeal to his American taste.  If you aren’t familiar with the ways a Patel in the US can find a wife – arranged marriages, matchmakers, dating websites, family conventions, and biodata sheets passed around by the mothers of potential dates – that part of the film is interesting. I wish there was more of a focus on that part of Ravi’s search, but each snippet is brought back, time and again, to Ravi’s internal conflicts (Audrey vs. what he thinks his parents want, what he thinks he should want) and Ravi’s clear need to be honest with everyone involved.

In the end, Meet the Patels is less about Ravi’s family, and more a letter to his first love: “Here’s the process of me figuring out I was an idiot,” the movie seems to say. Once he’s decided to introduce them, his parents very quickly agree that having a white American girl for a wife is much better than no wife at all. None of his feared “drama” arises at her identity, and only a little at his deception (quickly forgiven), proving Ravi should have just told them in the first place.

That’s true of most conflicts, though, isn’t it?

Overall, it’s cute, somewhat informative, and buoyed by Ravi’s charming family. Worth watching, but you can safely do other things while it’s on.

3/5*

Watch it on Netflix.

Mini Movie Review: Inspired To Ride (2015)

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“It just kind of settles in that you got to realize you got to run your own race. And it’s between me and me you know, me and my thoughts. Me, how far I can push myself, and, um, I don’t think I’ve really reached that yet.” – Brian Steele (USA)

Inspired To Ride  follows a handful of people as they embark on the inaugural Trans Am Bike Race in 2014 – a 4200 mile race across 10 states, without support teams, stages, or stopping other than to sleep as little as possible*. The filmmakers focus on the male winner, Mike Hall, and the female winner, Juliana Buhring, an endurance writer, cult survivor, and author, who starts out the race by crashing over her handlebars, and ends it by coming in 26 days faster than the next woman to finish. Her story is incredible, but in truth, they all are, and the filmmakers treat them all the same, whether interviewing the lead racer, or a disabled veteran (not part of their race, but biking along the same road for a while) they happen to run into along the way. Everyone has something profound to share.

There’s a lot of similarities to writing and biking/running long distances, which is part of why that sort of physical effort appeals to me**. There will always be some who tear through the route like they’re on fire, racing ahead of the pack, who push themselves to be fastest, to be first. But the ones who go slower, who fight a battle not of physical prowess but mental determination, they still arrive at the same finish line. They still accomplish something that most people will never do: they set a nearly impossible goal, and they didn’t give up until they’d reached it. Writing is like that. There will always be people who write 4 books in a year or 10,000 words in a day; some days that may be you, and some days, you may feel like you won’t be able to write another 10,000 words in the next year. The ones who stop, eat, rest, stretch, and get back on the bike again – get back to the laptop and the pen – are the ones who have overcome the biggest obstacle any of us face: our own heads.

As they said in the movie, about the riders who’ll see it through until the end, “They give 110%, whatever their 110% is.”

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Joanna Abernathy, on her last ride

For me, the moment with the most impact was the 30 seconds they spent talking to Joanna Abernathy, a 53 year-old high school teacher from Australia, who was riding the same stretch of road on her own as a tribute to Martin Luther King, and the courage to face one’s fears. She gave up the life she felt anyone could have had, and set out for an adventure she wouldn’t be able to completely control, accepting that she would meet new people, try new things. Her trip would take her across the entire United States, almost three months of riding alone. (Sadly, she was struck by a car and killed, only 500 miles from the end of her journey.)

Joanna wasn’t a world-class athlete. She didn’t need to be born someone special in order to accomplish her goals. It wasn’t natural talent or privilege that propelled her forward – it was drive. She wanted something, though, trained for it, and did it, racing against no one else but herself.

We could all do that. Most people won’t, but I know that I will. I am. You should, too.

4/5*

Watch Inspired To Ride on Netflix or Amazon.

* It is not a stage race, the clock never stops from the moment the riders leave the start to the moment that they reach the finish, so it is a long individual time trial. Riders must therefore strategically choose how much time to devote to riding, resting, and refueling each day. Being self-supported or unsupported means that drafting is not allowed, receiving any form of support from other racers, friends, or family is not allowed; all food, accommodation, repairs, etc., must be purchased from commercial sources. – Wiki

** Did you see my review of The Barkley Marathons?

*** Oh, and Brian Steele? Yeah, he’s that actor.

Mini Movie Review: Hot Girls Wanted

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This certainly could have been better, but the Netflix Original documentary is a starter look at the world of amateur porn, for anyone who’s not familiar with how that industry works. It interviews a handful of teen porn “stars”, as well as a broker, a couple of male actors, and one girl’s family. What it does right is show the dirt behind the glam: girls who are young and thin (more important than pretty), who look younger than the 18 years old they’re legally required to be, can have unprotected sex – often degrading, sometimes dangerous – only to be forced out of the industry because they’ve done everything anyone cared to pay for, after only 2 or 3 months. Most of them have to spend so much money on rent and their broker’s percentage and living the “porn lifestyle” to get exposure that by the time they’re washed up, they don’t have anything to show for it except a lifetime of being known as that girl who’s naked online.

Oh, and if you ever watched porn thinking that some random encounter was captured on film, or that a happy, sex-positive couple uploaded their fun for the world to see – well, most times, that’s just what they want you to think.

According to Wikipedia, the film’s focus was changed during shooting, when the filmmakers discovered their original idea wasn’t as interesting; the movie was changed again after it showed at Sundance, to address issues the audience had, and again after viewers took to Twitter to complain. (Also, the broker and two of his performers complained afterward that the film was cut to show “worst case scenarios” instead of the truth.) It has a choppy, slightly lost feeling that could be blamed on all of the changes, or on the directors not having a clear idea of what they wanted to say. Either way, don’t watch it expecting to know everything about the pro-am porn scene. Hot Girls Wanted doesn’t cover the aspects of sex work that can be safe, positive, and fulfilling – and I’ve known enough people in the industry to know that’s possible. This is one perspective, though, so it’s somewhere to begin.

After watching it, the story I was most interested in was the one this movie doesn’t cover: one of the actresses gets into porn as a way to escape her small town and controlling parents, but ends up with a boyfriend who’s ashamed of her work, so she quits to go back to the same town, the same parents, with the added pressure of her boyfriend telling her what to do and who to be. The movie doesn’t explore at all why she felt this was the only way out for her, or what her life is like now, as a small-town waitress that everyone knows “did porn”. Being in porn didn’t make her life any better, but neither did being in this movie.

Definitely NSFW.

3/5*

Watch on Netflix.

Mini Review: “The Search for General Tso” (2014)

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If you live in America, you probably know about General’s Chicken, that breaded and fried chicken dish, coated in a spicy-sweet sauce, available at almost every Chinese food restaurant. Ian Cheney directed this search for the truth behind the ubiquitous meal, which starts out with a few theories before examining the history leading up to the proliferation of the dish, and how it has changed over the years.

Along the way, Cheney explores the advent of Chinese food for sale in the United States. General’s Chicken, which is known by several similar names all over the world, is a hugely popular dish, and the documentary looks at its importance as a “way in” for Asian-Americans, interviewing restaurant owners and chefs, who talk about the racism they found in the new communities they moved into, and the acceptance that food brought to the table.

In the end, they do discover the original dish, and its creator, but like other appropriations – anyone familiar with McDonald’s chicken nuggets in sweet & sour sauce will recognize the similarities, discussed in the movie – that first version was “borrowed” and revised, too. In the end, I was a little sad, a lot more informed, and (if I’m being honest), hungry.

4/5*

Available on Netflix and Amazon.

On a related note, has anyone read Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food? If not, I recommend it!

Mini Review: “World of Tomorrow” (2015)

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World of Tomorrow is only 16 minutes long. It’s been nominated for an Oscar, won more than 40 film festival awards, including the Grand Jury Prize for Short Film at Sundance Film Festival, and Best Animated Short at SXSW. I’d be surprised if it’s not at least nominated for some of our genre awards (I put it on my Hugo list, for example). Created entirely by Don Hertzfeld, it takes science fiction staples – cloning, time travel, space travel, singularity, robots, and aliens – as fact, and then uses that backdrop to tell a dark but loving story focused entirely on humanity. The shiny scifi bits exist but don’t matter nearly as much as one woman talking to one little girl about everything that gave her life meaning.

The animation has been called “avant-garde”, but though I liked it, it didn’t seem that far out of the realm of what’s been done before. It suits the story, which matters; the voice actors are also perfect, and in fact, Hertzfeld recorded his four-year-old niece while she was playing, and then edited her into the film as the main character’s younger self.

World of Tomorrow is excellent storytelling, and is a spot-on example of how I like my fiction: character-driven, a little bleak, a little frightening, fully aware of our own mortality, but hopeful, too. What is it to be alive? What makes you, you? Hope isn’t granted without working for it, and love isn’t free,  but if you live every day the best that you can, at the end, you’ll have had a full life.

5/5*

Watch it on Netflix or Vimeo.

 

Mini Review: “The Barkley Marathons” (2015)

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“If you’re selected, you get a letter of condolences: sorry to inform you, you’ve been selected to run the Barkley.” – THE BARKLEY MARATHONS: THE RACE THAT EATS ITS YOUNG

So begins a fascinating documentary on a race you’ve probably never heard of: a trail run so difficult that so far, only 14 people have actually finished it. Over 100 miles, in 5 loops, with 54,200 feet (16,500 m) of accumulated vertical climb, no aid stations, no GPS allowed, and a map you’re only allowed to see before you head out. To prove you ran the route correctly, you have to find paperback books scattered along the trail, and bring back pages that correspond to your race number. The entry fee is $1.60, a license plate from your home state or country, and what the race organizer needs that year: white socks, flannel shirts.

That’s not the weirdest part.

The course changes a little each year, and as one contestant said, to understand the directions you need to know the history of Cantrell’s directions for previous races. More than 30 people have given up before they even reached the end of the first two miles.

Co-Creator Gary Cantrell founded it after hearing about James Earl Ray’s prison break, but not as an homage to Ray; he heard Ray only got 8 miles after being in the woods for 55 hours, and thought he could do better. Each year, dozens of the world’s top ultramarathoners gather to prove themselves better than Ray too – to officially complete the race, all 100+ miles have to be finished in less than 60 hours.

It gets weirder, still.

You have to write an essay to even be considered.

I don’t want to give away all of the movie’s secrets, but it’s certainly worth watching, especially for fans of running, extreme sports, the depths of personal willpower, and anyone who’s ever planning to write a story in which a character has to escape through tough terrain. It made me feel like a slacker for not even trying to add a little running to my regular walking routine, so I’m doing that now – but on the other hand, since I’ve watched it, I feel like a hero whenever I get more than 2 miles.

I at least have the power to do that.

4/5*

Available on Netflix