Archives for category: personal

When it comes to practicing the martial arts, gravel changes everything… it really does.

Our martial arts school, Renaissance Martial Arts, recently moved to a new location in Rochester’s Neighborhood of the Arts. Though I knew it was coming for a while, aspects of the move have been tough. Our previous space, 34 Elton Street, was our program’s “home,” even if it wasn’t technically our first space.

Renaissance Martial Arts officially started1 in 1999 in the backroom of a Karate school in Henrietta. We moved to Elton in 2002. When we got there the space, which had last been used for some sort of electronics work, was completely run down. Our first three months were spent renovating — removing a drop ceiling, building changing rooms, refinishing the floor after first digging out all of the little pieces of wire and sodder embedded in it. We literally built the school ourselves.

Times change, and accepting hard realities, we change with them. A core tenant of our approach to the martial arts is the concept of “adaptive flow.” And adapting always involves movement — sometimes even literally moving to a new home.

And that gets me to our new home at 46 Sager Drive and gravel.

[An arial view of our new home, and the alley along side of it]

Though the size of the (traditional) training floor is smaller than at Elton Street, 46 Sager Drive offers a staggering range of “supplemental” training spaces. For example, a few weeks ago, Sifu Mark (Sifu being the title for “instructor” in the Chinese martial arts) helped us understand what it means to work our backs “to the wall” by holding a number of classes in the narrow hallway that runs alongside the school. Yesterday he held class for the first time in another of our supplemental spaces — the alley directly to the right of our building (picture courtesy of Google Maps).

Martial Artists often talk about the dangerous environment of “the street” — hard pavement, gravel, broken glass (some, tongue-​firmly-​in-​cheek add “lava” to the list). We all accept that it’s bad news. But I suspect that only a few have had the experience of actually practicing in that environment.

Gravel changes everything. The same can be said for brick walls, chain linked fences, dumpsters, telephone poles, and a ton of other environmental elements.

It changes one’s willingness to “take a fall.” I’m a teaching assistant — in the martial arts that’s a euphemism for punching dummy — and one of my responsibilities is to be the one that things are demonstrated on. In other words, I get thrown around a lot on a lot of different surfaces — mats, grass, indoor tracks, astro-​turf, hardwood floors, and even smooth cement. But in that alley, standing on rough pavement and gravel, when faced with the idea of taking any sort of breakfall my body and mind responded with a resounding “hell no.”2

Gravel changes the way one stands and moves. I can’t count the number of times I slipped and skidded. This usually happened while working a partner drill, meaning that in many cases this was happening at the “worst possible time” — i.e. when I was trying to get out of path of an attack. And as bad as the momentary lose of physical stability was, what was worse was the loss of mental stability. In that “oh crap, I’m slipping on gravel moment” my mind all too often focused on me slipping versus the person trying to punch me in the face.

Brick walls change things too.

One of the exercises we worked dealt with getting backed into a wall. The challenge was to “accept” (for the purposes of the drill) that you are so focused on the person who is threatening you that you unintentionally back yourself into the wall. The goal here is not so much to hit the wall, as to learn what to do when you do “hit”, or at least bump into, the unexpected barrier. Try as I might, I could not make myself unknowingly back into that all too real wall behind me when there was a “threat” in front of me.3 Like the breakfall, this is the type of thing I’d have no problem doing inside the “safe” environment of a traditional classroom.

Gravel changes everything.

But it also changes nothing.

It changes nothing, because, at the end of the day, we were still thinking, working, and practicing the same ideas and techniques we worked in the normal classroom. Despite harder and, at times, slipperier surfaces, punches were still punches, kicks were still kicks, and the human bodies involved still all had one head, two arms, and two legs, all connected by and to a central spine. Because everyone, new and old student alike, used those concepts that have been driven into us through countless repetitions on our usual, traditional, training floor, we all transitioned with relative ease to the uncomfortable brick and gravel of that alley.

We’re all looking forward to going back to train there soon (not to mention bragging to the people who missed class that we — and not them — got the chance to train in the alley. That’s what happens when you miss class).

I’ll always miss our old home, but experiences like last night’s show me how much there is to love about our new one. More importantly, they serve as a reminder that who we are — the fundamentals of our practice and our school, even each of us as students of the martial arts — don’t change just because our environment does. If they had then they wouldn’t be fundamentals.

  1. I say officially because prior to that we trained in a traditional “underground” way, having no name, gaining students through word of mouth, and making our home in basements and backyards. []
  2. The response, a physical versus a verbal one, from the Sifu was a simply “yes, you will” was delivered by gently depositing me to the hard pavement at the end of a demonstration. You can’t always get what you want… but you find sometimes you get what you need []
  3. Instead, I’d take a few “natural” steps backward and then shift into a more “tactical” way of backing up while gaging how much space I had. Note that from an application point of view, this is a good thing. But from a training point-​of-​view, my inability to control myself didn’t allow me to practice the drill as intended. That’s a not-​so-​good-​thing.

    That inability to control myself also displayed, well, an inability to control, or rather regulate, myself — to actively be in the moment rather than letting habits drive me. Again, in push-​comes-​to-​shove application, not a bad thing, but to learn and progress you need to be able to put even good habits aside at times. []

Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion
as we know how they are made.
~ John Godfrey Saxe (2 June 1816 – 31 March 1887)

This past Saturday, those of us who were on Twitter, following news of the Tuscon Shooting, quite literally, got to see the “journalism sausage” being made. While public displays of journalism have been tweeted before, I’m not sure that they’ve been quite so “public” or “visible”.1 I suspect that the first 12 hours of reportage on the shooting are going to be looked back upon, for various reasons and different aims, as an important moment in the ongoing transformation of journalism within the US.

One thing that backs up that belief is how a foundational figure in modern American Journalism, Walter Cronkite, has been invoked to help frame and understand how the coverage unfolded.

More than a year ago, techcrunch writer MG Siegler made the claim that “In the age of realtime, Twitter is Walter Cronkite” arguing that, as tools that allow for realtime reporting increase, we will increasingly turn to these networked information channels for news as it breaks:

[R]ight now, Twitter, the brand, is the winning channel for this new type of news consumption. It’s the Walter Cronkite for realtime information. And when the next major event happens, an increasing number of us will be huddled around our computer screens, watching. And even more the time after that…

Following Siegler’s prediction, when news of the shooting hit, people did turn to Twitter to get updates and to discuss/​debate the event as it unfolded. The result was a flurry of chaotic activity, simultaneously full of brilliance, outrage, worry, and sympathy, accurate and inaccurate information.

On Sunday, concerned with the amount of incorrect information that was reported, circulated, sourced, and amplified off of Twitter2, Chad Catacchio, posted a rebuttal to Siegler. Catacchio argues that “Twitter isn’t the new Cronkite – it needs the new Cronkite(s)” that, in the face of uncertainty, some restraint needs to be practiced, and that the reports need to be sorted through some means that promotes/​amplifies/​delivers the most accurate information.3

In reflecting on what I observed on Saturday, I can’t help but wonder if this search for Cronkite (much likeof waiting for Godot) is a futile action, and misses the scope of what was playing out on Twitter.

In 1963, what America saw via broadcast media, was the end product of journalism: Cronkite interpreting of information from various sources announces that Kennedy had been shot.

Two days ago, those of us on Twitter saw far more than that. We saw all (or at least something close to all) aspects of journalism being conducted; we saw the sausage being made in realtime.

By my count, at least five things were happening all at once on Twitter:

  1. Reporting — Same as Cronkite, information was shared about what people understood to be true.
  2. Amplification — Retweeting. People were sharing information with their networks, often trying to draw attention to specific facts, questions, and ideas that they felt were the most important to the unfolding situation.
  3. Commentary and Discussion — At the same time, people were actively discussing/​disputing the facts of the shooting (often working to weave the shooting to various, grander socio-​political narratives) and expressing concern for parties involved.

Ok, so far, nothing particularly out of the ordinary. This isn’t the first time these activities have occurred around a breaking event on Twitter (and for that matter on blogs prior to the advent of Twitter). It’s the final two categories that I think are particularly of note:

  1. Acts of Journalism” — Twitter was used to publicly interview people in real time, crowdsource information and confirmation. In these cases, we (the non-​journalism public) got to see the actual process of journalism enacted, not just the results (à la Cronkite bringing us the news). Note, that these acts are not necessarily performed by traditional “reporters.”
  2. Meta-​Commentary and Meta-​Discussion — Along all of this, we also saw a number of people involved with journalism publicly commenting, via Twitter, on how the coverage of the event was unfolding both on Twitter and across the other forms of reportage going on.

In future posts that follow, I’m going to try and trace out categories four and five, showing how examples of each unfolded. For the moment though, in trying avoid TLDR4, I just want consider why I think attention has to be paid to these last two categories of action.

For Cronkite, the medium (one-​to-​many broadcast) and the conventions of what he was doing (news anchor), meant that his voice was the only immediately present in the broadcast. These factors also gave him the luxury of having time to sort, decide, and reflect.

What we saw on Saturday was an example of, following Joshua Meyrowitz’s arguments in No Sense of Place, how, at least on Twitter, the medium not only encourages realtime reporting, but greatly increase the parts of the process that we, the public-​at-​large see (and participate in) — traditionally hidden backstage work (investigation, checking sources, editing, writing) was folded into the traditionally public frontstage performance (reporting of information).

On Twitter, for structural/​programmatic reasons, acts of journalism cannot be concealed in traditional ways. You can’t have a private conversation on Twitter unless both people are following each other. So, for example, when Caitie Parker (@caitieparker) revealed via Twitter that she had known the shooter in High School, the only way she could be contacted on twitter was via the use of the public “mention” (@) protocol.5 Thus, the initial interview conducted with Parker happened on Twitter, in public, in real time. And, in addition to being amplified via retweets and mentions within other media, the interview was also immediate parsed on a “meta-​level” by individuals looking to politically frame both Parker’s answers about Loughner and and the questions of her interviewer, Anthony De Rosa (@antderosa).((Of the course of a few hours De Rosa would be simultaneously accused of both liberal and conservative bias by those who came directly across his feed or retweets from it)) All of this, interview, reporting, amplification, debate, and meta-​debate took place publicly, in real time (and is also archived as part of Twitter’s public record).6.

Returning to the debate between Siegler and Catacchio about Twitter and Cronkite, it seems that the real question is not if Twitter is Cronkite, or if we need Cronkites on Twitter. Rather, I think it is the case that on platforms like Twitter, where a specific notion/​value of “ immediate publicness” is hard-​coded into the functionality, the possibility of the practice of Cronkitesque journalism/​authority has been all but eliminated. I suspect that it impossible to use Twitter to cover an unfolding event without exposing the sausage making process. And, as Saxe points out in the above quote, that act of exposure undermines traditional ideas of authority.

The hopes of finding/​creating a new Cronkite seems to contain within them the hope that at some point, individuals involved with journalism can reestablish (demarcate) public/​private boundaries for their practice. The question I wonder is when/​if the platforms that are being used to conduct journalism will stabilize enough to allow such a boundary to be erected. And if not, then who might become the new ideal?

  1. This has more to do with the nature of the story being covered. This event was/​is a sort of socio-​cultural “perfect storm”, if you will (something I hope to write about later). []
  2. For an excellent curated view of incorrect information reported by major media outlets see Regret the Error’s Craig Silverman’s exhaustive compilation of misstatements. []
  3. See Dan Gillmore’s Salon essay, Arizona shootings: Take a slow-​news approach, for another good take on the need for reflection in the realtime coverage of events. []
  4. Too long, didn't read[]
  5. For additional background on this see, NYC The Blog’s curation of various media outlet’s public requests via Twitter for interviews with Parker. []
  6. It’s my hope to “deep dive” into De Rosa’s acts of journalism, and in particular this interview, in a future post []

As part of my talk at this year’s Books in Browser’s conference hosted at the Internet Archive, I discussed the creative possibilities of a Canon. Over the last few months, I’ve unscientifically, and completely biased-​ly approached a number of smart people involved in publishing and the hacking of books to make suggestions about titles to include.

Here’s the current big list as it stands. Where possible, I’ve included a link to the file to read (and a ‘gray’ copies of some of the shorter texts).

Have a suggestion? Add it as a comment to this post and I’ll add it. Then, on December 1st, I’ll be opening the list up to an (unscientific) polling process to see if we can whittle down the list to a smaller core selection of works.

So without adieu.

Proposed works to include in a Canon of Publishing

Business & Law

  • Anderson, Chris. 2004. “The long tail” in Wired Magazine. New York: Hyperion. (external link)
  • Christensen, Clayton M. 2003. The innovator’s dilemma: the revolutionary book that will changed the way you do business. New York: HarperCollins.
  • Lessig, Lawrence. 2004. Free culture: how big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity. New York: Penguin Press. (external link to download)
  • Levitt, Ted. 1960. “Marketing Myopia” in the Harvard Business Review. (pdf)
  • Simon, Herbert. 1971. “Designing Organizations for an Information-​Rich World” inComputer, Communications and the Public Interest, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Design

  • Gill, Eric. 1936. An essay on typography. London: Sheed & Ward.
  • McCloud, Scott. 1994. Understanding comics: the invisible art. New York: HarperPerennial.
  • Warde, Beatrice. 1955. The Crystal Goblet. (pdf)

Fiction

  • Bradbury, Ray. 1953. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Balzac, Honore´ de. 1901. Lost illusions. London: Privately printed for members of the Society of English Bibliophilists. (Ellen Marriage, Translator) (external link)
  • Borges, Jorge Luis. 1964. Labyrinths; selected stories & other writings. New York: New Directions Pub. Corp.
  • Cortazar, Julio. 1963. Hopscotch. Dewey. (Gregory Rabassa, translator)
  • Doctorow, Cory. 2006. Printcrime. (external link)
  • Miller, Walter M. 1975. A Canticle for Leibowitz. Boston: Gregg Press.
  • Sloan, Robin. 2009. Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-​Four-​Hour Book Store. (external link)
  • Stephenson, Neal. 1995. The Diamond Age, or, Young lady’s illustrated primer. New York: Bantam Books.
  • Vinge, Vernor. 2006. Rainbows end. New York: Tor.

Film

Web and New Media Publications

Media, Reading, & Writing

  • Adams, Lisa, and John Heath. 2007. Why we read what we read: a delightfully opinionated journey through contemporary bestsellers. Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks.
  • Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. 1991. Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.
  • Benjamin, Walter. 1923. Task of the Translator. (Harry Zohn, Translator) (pdf)
  • Benjamin, Walter. 1931. Unpacking my Library. (Harry Zohn, Translator) (pdf)
  • Benjamin, Walter. 1936. Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. (Harry Zohn, Translator) (pdf)
  • Bolter, J. David. 1991. Writing space: the computer, hypertext, and the history of writing. Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.
  • Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. 2006. The anxiety of obsolescence: the American novel in the age of television. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
  • Illich, Ivan, and Barry Sanders. 1988. ABC: the alphabetization of the popular mind. San Francisco: North Point Press.
  • Innis, Harrold. 1949. The bias of communication. Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 15(4), 457 – 476. University of Toronto Press. (pdf)
  • Lanham, Richard A. 2007. The economics of attention: style and substance in the age of information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lethem, Jonathan. Feb 2007. “The Ecstasy of Influence” in Harper’s Magazine. New York. Vol. 314, Iss. 1881; p. 59. (pdf)
  • Levy, Steven. November 26, 2007. “The Future of Reading” in Newsweek. (external link)
  • McArthur, Tom. 1986. Worlds of reference: lexicography, learning, and language from the clay tablet to the computer. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Cambridge University Press.
  • McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. Understanding media; the extensions of man. New York: McGraw-​Hill.
  • Meyrowitz, Joshua. 1985. No sense of place: the impact of electronic media on social behavior. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Ong, Walter J. 1982. Orality and literacy: the technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.
  • Popper, Karl R. 1972. Objective knowledge; an evolutionary approach. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Publishing and Printing

  • Arnold, Bruce. 1992. The scandal of Ulysses: the sensational life of a twentieth-​century masterpiece. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  • Bennett, Paul A. 1963. Books and printing; a treasury for typophiles. Cleveland: World Pub. Co.
  • Chappell, Warren, and Robert Bringhurst. 1999. A short history of the printed word. Point Roberts, WA: Hartley & Marks Publishers.
  • Cerf, Bennett. 2002. At Random: the reminiscences of Bennett Cerf. New York: Random House.
  • Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. 1983. The printing revolution in early modern Europe. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Cambridge University Press.
  • Epstein, Jason. March 1, 1990. “The Decline and Rise of Publishing” in the New York Review of Books. (pdf)
  • Epstein, Jason. April 27, 2000. “The Rattle of Pebbles” in the New York Review of Books. (pdf)
  • Epstein, Jason. 2001. Book business: publishing past, present, and future. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Febvre, Lucien Paul Victor, and Henri-​Jean Martin. 1976. The coming of the book: the impact of printing 1450 – 1800. The foundations of history library. London: N.L.B.
  • Greco, Albert N., Clara E. Rodriguez, and Robert M. Wharton. 2007. The culture and commerce of publishing in the 21st century. Stanford, Calif: Stanford Business Books.
  • Miller, Russell. 1998. Magnum: fifty years at the front line of history. New York: Grove Press.
  • Owen, David. 2004. Copies in seconds: how a lone inventor and an unknown company created the biggest communication breakthrough since Gutenberg : Chester Carlson and the birth of the Xerox machine. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Potter, Clarkson N. 1990. Who does what and why in book publishing. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Pub. Group.
  • Ransom, Will. 1929. Private presses and their books. New York: R.R. Bowker company.
  • Rogers, W. G. 1965. Wise men fish here: the story of Frances Steloff and the Gotham Book Mart. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.
  • Silverman, Al. 2008. The time of their lives: the golden age of great American book publishers, their editors, and authors. New York: Truman Talley Books.
  • Shatzkin, Leonard. 1982. In cold type: overcoming the book crisis. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Striphas, Theodore G. 2009. The late age of print: everyday book culture from consumerism to control. New York: Columbia University Press. (external link to download)
  • Thompson, John B. 2010. Merchants of culture: the publishing business in the twenty-​first century. Cambridge: Polity.
  • Unwin, Sir Stanley. 1946. The truth about publishing. London: G. Allen & Unwin Ltd. (internet archive)

Technology

On Friday, August 6, Techcrunch reported that Nicholas Negroponte, chairman emeritus of MIT’s Media Lab and founder of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) association, proclaimed that the physical book would be dead in five years. A short article that I wrote in response to the subject is now live at Internet Evolution. Normally I’d mirror it here, but since there’s a lively discussion going on there, I’, just going to link to it instead. Give it a read and join the conversation!

I’m also happy to announce that our panel “Virtuality, Simulation, and Social Life” got accepted for this year’s American Anthropological Association Conference! Even more exciting, one of my discussants is an “anthro hero” of mine: Lucy Suchman! How cool is that!

Thats about it! School starts next week and I’m heading down to Ithaca this weekend.

[Scott Pilgrim Preview Tickets]

Yesterday was Scott Pilgrim day for me. No only did Dre and I catch a sneak preview of the film (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), but, prior to that, I got to read the final chapter of the Scott Pilgrim comic (#6 aka Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour).

Short, spoiler free, recommendation:

Both rock. If you’re in your teens/​twenties/​thirties and part of the “video games, comics, music, arrested development1 , culture industrial complex ” the film is a must see (in the theater, preferably one with a good sound system) and you should track down copies of the books.

On the Movie: The movie is a “valentine” to modern music, video games, and comics, and perhaps the best comic-​to-​movie translation yet (one that takes full advantage of the medium of film). The performances are great. Its biggest issue is that the secondary characters, in particularly the female ones, suffer from cuts made to tell the story in a single film (more on that below). But that shouldn’t keep you from seeing it.

On the Book: An excellent wrap up to a great series, adding depth an meaning to events that took place in the previous books. Also, it’s a surprisingly mature take on the move not just to adult relationships, but “adult” living (if you will). It really kicks things up a notch and then some.

Much longer, mostly spoiler free, reflection:

I came to Scott Pilgrim relatively late. I’d known about it for a while, but only started reading it around Book 4 (aka Scott Pilgrim Gets it Together). Up until that point the only “slice of magical, musical realism life” comic I had been following was Blue Monday, a comic I blogged about way back in 2002. Published by Oni Press, the same indy company that brings us Scott Pilgrim, Blue Monday was John Hughes 2.0 — focused on an impossible high school experience, heavily influenced by music, manga, and pop culture. While there was a sort of continuity to the comics, it was much more about the ride than the destination for both the readers and the characters in the book.

It was director of the film, Edgar Wright, that really got me interested in the property. While at the University of Chicago, I got to see a few bootleged episodes of Spaced, a BBC tele series he co-​created with Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes2, and was completely blown away with how much it got, and more importantly translated, the experience of those of us caught between Gen X & Y. My interest in Wright was further peaked by Shaun of the Dead. So when I learned that he was developing/​directing the Scott Pilgrim (SP from here on in) film, I knew it would be a must see for me as I knew what ever he produced would be engaging.

Up until that point, while I’d seen some SP pages online, I’d never actually read any of the books. My interest piqued by news of the film, I decided to dive into the comics. My reaction was: ok, so this is like Blue Monday, but with some added Canadian (it takes place in Toronto), video game, and comic references. The SP characters might have more “complete” development arcs, but it was seemed largely a quick-​read, hipster coming of age story with more style than substance — perfect for adaptation to a film (especially with Edgar Wright at the helm). But that was about it.

And that was my opinion until yesterday, when I read the final issue of the comic.

I’m not suggesting that the final issue transforms the series into high literature. However, in tying up the loose ends of the story of a Canadian Rocker coming to terms with adulthood while fighting his new girlfriend’s seven evil ex’s, series creator Bryan Lee O’Malley reveals to the reader that a lot more has been going on in the books than the fun but superficial tale that it initially appears to be. There are no real twists — though at least one character turns out to have taken a very different (and much more satisfying) course of action that the reader is initially led to believe — or surprise endings. What is revealed is a metaphorical depth and maturity to the story that I had completely missed. What’s especially great about this is that it sparks a desire to revisit the previous books in order to see how much of this was in the story from the beginning (the answer, btw, is most of it was there from the beginning). This is all the more impressive considering it’s taken O’Malley more than six years to complete his story.

Bottom line: to my pleasant surprise, I discovered that, in the end, there was a lot more the SP the Comic than I gave it credit for. And that elevates it to a must read for those interested in this type of comic/​story.

Then I saw the move, which delivered on being an “Epic of Epic Epicness.” And it was great. And it was and wasn’t the comic. And that was both good and less good.

Lemme ‘splain:

The good/​great about the movie

First, it is a definite must see. Right from the start — literally starting with the “Universal Pictures” intro — it completely captures the vibe of the comics in a way that no adaptation that I’ve seen before has ever done. While Sin City (and other comic based movies) look just like the comic, but are emotionally empty, everything about SP full of life. À la Walter Benjamin, SP the film isn’t reproducing the comic on the screen, its extending it and finding new things within it. And everyone is having fun while doing it.

It nicely captures the video game aesthetic, which, isn’t the biggest translation as video games are already a moving image (if not out-​and-​out cinematic) medium. Where it truly shines is in how it uses comic metaphors to represent sound. In fact, I think it’s a groundbreaking film when it comes to showing music.

A quick bit of semantics to explain that last point — where as the best concert films, like Stop Making Sense, are about showing the production of music, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is about showing the music itself (if I remember correctly, everyone is lip syncing/​faking playing music recorded by other people). To accomplish this Wright takes the comic metaphor of the written sound effect and creates something amazingly visual and dynamic (the Bass battle that takes place in the middle of the film is perhaps the best example of this). His approach is also big — by that I mean cinematic, conceived and executed for a movie theater (as opposed to a home theater) sized screen. If O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the Cohen Brother’s valentine to bluegrass, then SP is Wright’s valentine to modern music.

And, across the board, the actors are all great. While many may be accused of playing themselves (Michael Cera and Jason Schwartzman in particular), I think that critique misses the boat. While no one is stretching their acting range within the movie, what’s clear is that they all “get it” and are very intentionally delivering the performances needed to make the story work.

So with all this praise so far…

… What about the less good?

The movie and the comics are intentionally different. In part, that’s because the movie went into production before the final two books were completed. Wright worked with O’Malley to include ideas and themes from the later books, but things diverge quite a bit in the two stories after the encounter with The Clash at Demonhead((see the movie or read the books and then this reference makes sense)). The divergence isn’t by itself a bad thing. And a number of the changes are necessary, but what’s lost in the divergence is unfortunate.

Another reason for the differences is the length of the materials. The problem that Wright faced is that there was way too much material for a single film and not enough to justify multiple films (in alternate universe somewhere MTV bought the rights and opted to make SP into a miniseries and storywise, it worked a little better.). The movie is a little too long. So, pacing wise, the film ends just as its starting to drag.

And though the cuts and divergences work in terms of creating a satisfying film, they also hurt the characters that populate the story in two ways.

First is that the supporting characters all suffer. What makes this especially rough is that many of the supporting characters are well written women (something that set SP apart from most other comics). In particular, Kim Pine (one of Scott’s exes and a the drummer in his band) ends up getting flattened from a complex character in the comics to a generic “bitter bitch” role in the film. Also, to build to a concise climax in the film, Scotts two love interests (Knives Chau and Romona Flowers) also lose a lot of their characterization, and in many respects become weaker for it — in particular Romona. To go further into this would take me into the territory of major spoilers, something I want to avoid. Suffice to say, part of the strength of the comics were the female characters in it. Ultimately that isn’t as much the case with the film.

Which brings me to the second problem. To keep the story simple and the film length down, the movie becomes more of a “heroic love story” than a “growing up story.” While Scott still has to mature in terms of his relationships and gain some self knowledge in the movie, the comic (in particular the final book) handles this is a much truer way. The comic is as much about Romona maturing and changing as it is about Scott’s journey. That, just doesn’t play out as well in the film, again weaking the Romona character.

Bottom line about the film

These two critiques should not stop you from seeing the film. See it when it opens next week! And see it in a theater (preferably a filled one). It’s worth it!

Hopefully, the critiques will lead you to reading the books3 in order to get an equally (if not more) satisfying take on the same characters.

  1. The phenomena, not necessarily the excellent TV show which features at least two of the actors from this film. []
  2. Nick Frost was also involved []
  3. available in most comic shops and book stores []