Sunday, December 31, 2017

Top Ten Movies of 2017

1.   Bodied (2017, Joseph Kahn)
2.   The Beguiled (2017, Sofia Coppola)
3.   Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017, Luc Besson)
4.   Slack Bay (2016, Bruno Dumont)
5.   Wonder Wheel (2017, Woody Allen)
6.   Song to Song (2017, Terrence Malick)
7.   Suburbicon (2017, George Clooney)
8.   Alien: Covenant (2017, Ridley Scott)
9.   Detroit (2017, Kathryn Bigelow)
10.  Phantom Thread (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson)

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An Air of Quiet Death

When I was 20 and living at the Dustbin in Portland Magnolia (1999, Paul Thomas Anderson) was my favorite movie. But now that I'm so much older my PTA tastes have changed a lot. There Will Be Blood (2007, Anderson) is so much different from Anderson's early work, and so is The Master (2012, Anderson). These two richly characterized period pieces historically entrenched in twentieth century American industrialism remain profoundly dark and perfectly executed, to say nothing of the effects Jonny Greenwood's scores have had enhancing their viewings.

Phantom Thread (2017, Anderson) is a nuanced atypical love story brilliantly adorned in high fashion costumes and emotionally underscored ceaselessly by Jonny Greenwood's classically elegant music.

Daniel Day Lewis as REYNOLDS WOODCOCK is the movie. Phantom Thread feels like the final entry in a trilogy that could encompass There Will Be Blood and The Master, about dark obsession centered around a male central protagonist. And what could be as abysmally dark as oil, Scientology, and love, respectively?

Phantom Thread is a flawed film though, unlike There Will Be Blood and The Master. While Phantom Thread is magnificent in its rapturous May-December propulsion into the development of a romantic fantasy made reality by two relatable archetypal yet highly neurotic adults, there is little more that the film offers.

And while the film's beautifully and effectively realized core is provocative and truthful, the film's third act is uneven and falls miserably short. But hey, doesn't all romantic love? Another big problem with Phantom Thread is its cinematography. While there is no director of photography credited, Paul Thomas Anderson himself serves in this capacity. And the results are ravishing in some shots, but more often amateurish. So many scenes look like a bad student film because of spill. It's like he has something against flags. Or, in other words, it appears that many shots were filmed without using traditional photographic tools to block light by unwanted sources from contaminating the exposure. Maybe Anderson likes this effect? It's bewildering.

I must give praise to the craftsmanship and elegance of this intimate world along with the trio of characters who inhabit it. Phantom Thread possesses an exceptional command of portraying and pathologizing the intricacies of the elusive apparition that is true love.

Evidently Phantom Thread lacks the staggering tragedy that befalls the antiheroes of There Will Be Blood and The Master, yet suffering from poor cinematography and a stupid plot device supporting its third act, maybe said tragedy is exemplified through subtext? PTA being the victim? Now this is what makes for interesting art.

And I will say the vignette with BARBARA ROSE as an emotionally overwhelmed socialite stands out as a high point keeping me on the edge of my seat while generating such a surprisingly unexpected type of empathy, mixed with laughter, shame, identification and sorrow.

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Wonder Wheel Is the Closest Woody Allen's come to Nailing Ingmar Bergman

There's a poster of Face to Face (1976, Ingmar Bergman) at the Bleecker St cinema in Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen); Interiors (1978, Allen) is Woody Allen blatantly trying to imitate Bergman's cold claustrophobic theatre with South Hampton filling in for Fårö; in Manhattan (1979, Allen) the Diane Keaton character offends the Allen character by making an offhanded comment that Bergman is overrated; Another Woman (1988, Allen) borrows its plot directly from Wild Strawberries (1957, Bergman) and was shot by Bergman's DP, Sven Nykvist—who also shot Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989, Allen) and Celebrity (1998, Allen). But these are just a few coincidences.

Wonder Wheel (2017, Allen) is a period theatrical domestic melodrama about the failed attempts of finding happiness that a handful of characters, whose paths cross on Coney Island, inevitably confront.

Wonder Wheel is uncharacteristically stylized for Allen. From Vittorio Storaro, the lighting is expressionistic, with key moments that burn characters in the glow of fiery sunsets and transition into cold blue darkness before our eyes, underlining the sense of hope departing. The production design by Santo Loquasto adds to the unnatural quality of staging on a constructed set with its forced perspective amusement park backdrop forever contrasting the foreground interior depression of the dysfunctional homelife.

GINNY'S (Winslet) sex headaches, alcoholism, and neurotic lapses into detachment are mirrored by her son's obsession with starting fires and hate of school. Wonder Wheel may be as colorful as Thor: Ragnarok visually, but emotionally it's as dark as oblivion—a fitting contrasting companion piece to the nostalgic warmth of last year's Café Society (2016, Allen).

Jim Belushi is a delightful choice, Juno Temple gives life to CAROLINA, and it'd be a waste of time to say anymore about how well the acting comes off. To say as much would be redundant because it's always been Woody Allen's greatest talent. And along with Crimes and Misdemeanors and Melinda and Melinda (2004, Allen), Wonder Wheel's ending provides no respite, intentionally and profoundly ripping our hearts out with its embodiment of nihilistic existential malaise as the wheel keeps turning. Also the staging of Winslet in the foreground staring off into space is undoubtedly lifted from similar shots of Liv Ullman in Persona (1966, Bergman) and Cries & Whispers (1972, Bergman).

Finally a depressing movie this year!

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Saturday, November 25, 2017

MCU Stands for Medium Close Up Not Marvel Cinematic Universe

I have one sibling, my brother. He's three years younger than me. There have been times when I had wished I could banish him from this universe. But I also love him more than anyone else.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017, Taika Waititi) is a comicbook comedy serial with traditional morals about family and maybe Jews? Pardon me if I am being condescending or trite by saying this, but I don't watch a lot of comicbook movies. And Thor: Ragnarok is the first Marvel movie I've seen in a theatre since Spider-Man 2 (2004, Sam Raimi). For the most part my sole criteria for judging the quality of movies centers on rewatchability. However, an exception to this has occurred here due to viewing format. In an age of HD 65" LED screens having become commonplace in households, I had started to blur the line between theatre and home viewing, with the exception of 70mm's glorious resurgence; man The Hateful Eight (2015, Quentin Tarantino) righteously made clear that watching a movie on a home TV is a paltry substitute for the one and only true big screen. And even though I don't have any desire to rewatch Thor: Ragnarok, the experience I had seeing it in IMAX instantly captivated me and took me back to my youth and the excitement of seeing a movie larger than life. Also, I didn't go to one of those lame theatre-chain IMAX screens, I saw Thor: Ragnarok here in Austin at the Bob Bullock museum across the street from UT; at six stories high and 84' wide it's the biggest screen in Texas.

Still enduring as my favorite thing about the Thor series is the brother relationship between THOR and LOKI. The chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston is immensely true to life and enjoyable for me as a lens through which I'm able to remember how important my brother has been to my life. And not to get too weird or sentimental, but my only remaining family is my dad, my brother and I, and we just shared a Thanksgiving dinner a couple of days ago which was amazing. So, I also wanna add that Anthony Hopkins as ODIN their dad is surprisingly top-notch for a comicbook movie. Old man Hopkins is awesome white-bearded and serving as an exposition device full of class and wisdom, just like my old man.

But there's also Cate Blanchett. Some villains are just outright obnoxious at how one-dimensional their appetite for evil is to endure, but Blanchett's performance is fun to watch because she's so theatrical and somehow still likeable throughout the whole affair. And she's the sexiest I've ever seen her with black hair, tons of black eye-makeup and skin tight costumes out of Barbarella.

Yet the biggest treat for me was Mark Mothersbaugh's 80s New Wave Devo meets Daft Punk 8bit videogame synthpop kid high on sugar dance beats score throughout.

But now back to the plot. The setting of the junk planet feels too much like Idiocracy (2006, Mike Judge), especially with the gladiator arena looking identical to the staging of battles against BEEF SUPREME. Although I am able to overlook the similarities because these Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are obviously made for idiots. Why not? That's where the money is. At the screening I attended there were actually three 15 year old boys who decided to sit a few seats down for me and being that close to them was excruciating. Nothing in Thor: Ragnarok felt like it possessed pristine literary inspiration, but it can't and shouldn't. It felt like a comicbook. Crap. Something to kill time. And every once in a while I now understand the value of that in one's cinematic diet. Thor: Ragnarok was big, fun, funny, and had a tender family bonding core that to me was worth far more than the price of admission and 2 hours of my time I traded for it. It's also maybe the most colorful movie ever.

And while somehow it may have been the most enjoyable 2 hours I spent in a theatre for all of 2017, I am sure I will never ever feel like watching Thor: Ragnarok again. Some movies should only be viewed on the big screen. There's still a part of me that mourns the invention of the TV set. Also it's best that I don't say anything about watching movies on computers or smartphones, or this could get ugly.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Visceral, Ugly Beauty

Everyone I know who likes modern foreign arthouse films likes Yorgos Lanthimos. I'm embarrassed to say that I do not. It's like it negates my taste. I wanted to like Dogtooth (2009, Yorgos Lanthimos) and The Lobster (2015, Lanthimos), but they did little for me. I feel the same shame for not being crazy about, say Michael Haneke. In my defense though, why don't more of these people's conversations praise Bruno Dumont, huh? That's what I'd like to know.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017, Lanthimos) is a conceptual narrative involving a 16 year old named MARTIN (Barry Keoghan) who morally scrutinizes a surgeon (Colin Farrell) about ethics. Martin makes the movie unbearable. He's like an arthouse JIGSAW from the Saw franchise. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is nowhere near as frustrating and impossible as Knock Knock (2015, Eli Roth), but I was reminded of the use of a stifling claustrophobia brought on by the inescapable suffering enacted by a young, lower-class psychopath torturing an affluent career-man. And the spaghetti scene triggers a coded link to Gummo (1997, Harmony Korine) that disgustingly portrays white trash as people who completely lack table manners.

The film plays out like The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick) formally due to wide-angle Steadicam tracking shots following or leading characters through long corridors, slow zooms, and an off putting continual use of cacophonous Ligeti. The dialogue is always delivered monotonously and feels distractingly stylized, unlike Rainer Werner Fassbinder's films, where the same technique achieves an enjoyably Brechtian detachment.

However, I did find the mystery in The Killing of a Sacred Deer intriguing and in no way gratuitous.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2017

we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars

Todd Haynes has now directed 7 period features and Mildred Pierce (2011), thus maintaining my assertion that he is the only filmmaker who hasn't set any of his work in the present.

Wonderstruck (2017, Todd Haynes) is a PG rated period YA mystery that plays out concurrently through 2 separate narratives.

The first narrative takes place in Gunflint, MI beginning in 1977 and centers on BEN (Oakes Fegley), a boy in search of answers about his family; while the second starts in Hoboken, NJ in 1927 featuring ROSE (Millicent Simmonds) and her voyage to find out more about her family.

Wonderstruck is the first time Haynes has directed someone else's script. And while it may not feel entirely like a Todd Haynes film, it is entrenched in his personal style. Rose's story is filmed by Ed Lachman in black and white (Eastman Double-X 5222) and Millicent Simmonds steals the movie. (I didn't even know they still manufactured black and white film anymore.) Rose's film-within-a-film is my favorite part. It's legitimately a silent movie. And it's important to consider the time it takes place, 1927; the year The Jazz Singer was released by Warners; the first year of sound movies. The silent movie is also (along with the rest of the film) superbly scored by Carter Burwell and remains true to the era, complete with emotional underscoring and stingers supplied by an organ. It's as fun and moving as the black and white B-movie aesthetic Haynes went all out in recreating in the "Horror" thread from Poison (1991, Haynes). And it has Juliane Moore.

Wonderstruck feels slight at times, but as the mystery is revealed there is a device that goes all the way back to Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988, Haynes) that is used to tie everything together, which made me realize just how intricate and subtle Todd Haynes, who graduated in semiotics from Brown, carefully crafted this sweet, beautiful, innocent film that happens to be his most mature work to date.

With all the dark, arty, ugly, sensual, violent elements I typically enjoy in cinema, Wonderstruck has instantly become vital to me as an instance of possessing all of the complexity, angst, and familial turmoil, with impactful images and sound that I would never have expected to find in a kids movie.

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Monday, October 30, 2017

In Defense of Suburbicon (and Other Poorly Received Movies)

Among friends and colleagues there have been a few films that I've gotten flack for speaking highly of. And while I'll be the first to admit I can tend to resort to superlative praise maybe a little too often, it's exemplary of my taste in cinema--and taste is personal, subjective, and should be modified by the individual communicating it. Usually I know whether I'll love or hate a movie before I see it. Usually. I also believe in broadening one's sensibilities and trying out movies you may not expect to fit into the typical characteristics of your liking just to see what happens.

For several reasons I consider 2012 the date that marks my coming of age as having acquired a mature critical voice when speaking about movies. Examples of titles that fall into the category of which I am here attempting to describe include:
  • The Canyons (2013, Paul Schrader) 
  • The Counsellor (2013, Ridley Scott)
  • Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014, Scott)

Suburbicon (2017, George Clooney) is a period neo-noir that achieves pitch-perfection with its somber tone. (I intentionally chose to leave out adjectives like comedic, existential, and satirical because after calling it a film noir, those terms are redundant.)

Firstly, I'll start with my gripes concerning audience expectations and reactions. The critical climate around Suburbicon begins with people not realizing what a film noir is. Coincidentally, I've been reading Jim Thompson novels recently, and after last Saturday night when I visited the theatre to watch Suburbicon, I delved back into one to fall asleep to and found George Clooney to have nailed the genre aspects of his film.

Viewers who complain that Suburbicon is slow are failing to appreciate Clooney's stark crafting of a tone that expertly builds the suspense this genre piece exceeds in. Viewers who complain that Suburbicon misses the mark of what makes Coen Bros.' movies work so well are failing to understand that Clooney never implied that he was attempting to execute a style that pays homage to the Coens, and why should he?

I love that Clooney minimized his camera's movement to set his look apart from the Coens. And while I think perennial Coens' composer Carter Burwell is the most talented (intentional superlative praise) composer for contemporary films, to the degree that his melodies remain in my memory, hauntingly, relentlessly, they attain such prominence that comparatively I find Alexandre Desplat's original music for Suburbicon crucial to preserving the period feel and suburban setting of the diegesis, which works better because again, it points to a somber, emotionally dark void.

No, really, as I sat in the theatre one of my first thoughts through the first act was, "I love how serious this feels." So much is restrained: the camera, the music, the pacing. Whatever happened to less is more? To quote Bresson:
"Be sure of having used to the full all that is communicated by immobility and silence."
In defense of detractors who complain about Suburbicon's political misfires or irrelevance of the black family, THE MAYERS, it seems to be a case of a lack of placing the first-person point of view that the narrative establishes. The boy is trying to make sense of people, family, adults, and America; the black neighbors are just another ingredient in the mix. Suburbicon is primarily a hard-boiled crime tale so the sleazy townsfolk's oppressive conduct fits in with the stock characters the genre supplies.

Okay to take a break from my harangue, Suburbicon was shot on 35mm by Robert Elswit, ASC and the camera dept was led by gaffer Ian Kincaid along with key grip Chris Centrella. Ian and Chris are Robert Richardson's team and really nice guys in person. Suburbicon's look also benefits from playing out mostly in masters while when going into traditional coverage the subject is in profile or directly facing the lens, which is unusual, and looks great. Also classically adhering to the tenets of Hollywood noir of the 40s, Clooney frames graphic images like shadows defining the action or a struggle that plays out from a POV under the bed limited to black leather oxfords and bullets.

And yes, Suburbicon works as a superb comedy. It's different, that's for sure, but since when is that a bad thing? Matt Damon as GARDNER isn't as zany as he was in The Informant! (2009, Steven Soderbergh) or as over the top as typical Coen's protags when indulging in screwball, but this is another instance of just the right balance that cumulate in making Suburbicon work.

Maybe the reason I'm so defensive about all of this is because I'm still surprised initially when people in summation describe my taste in movies as "dark." Although I'm learning to accept it. After all, darkness isn't such a bad thing.


Saturday, October 14, 2017


I love the slasher genre of movies. I have watched a lot. Historically the genre took place between 1978-1986. For me it starts with Halloween (1978, John Carpenter) and ends when The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986, Tobe Hooper) decided to be a comedy. Okay also, I'm not saying that makes Chainsaw 2 a bad movie by the way, I love Bill Moseley as CHOP TOP, so many great one liners he has: "Dog will hunt," and "Naaaam flashback," spring to mind. Ironically the main reason I love slashers though is because they are really fun.

I've wondered why everyone says Black Christmas (1974, Bob Clark) is the first slasher, mainly because Blood and Black Lace (1964, Mario Bava) is about a masked killer murdering several beautiful young women in a fashion house. Why isn't that the first slasher? I've learned that it's probably because Black Christmas added the final girl device, and takes place on a holiday. Good enough for me. But since none of this is official, I still call Halloween the first slasher because of the final girl + masked killer + takes place on a holiday formula, but adds nudity and graphic violence, (with a cool synthesizer score).

To switch topics, Jason Blum's Blumhouse production co. has had a really good 2017 for horror movies, partnering with Universal releasing Split (2016, M. Night Shyamalan) and Get Out (2017, Jordan Peele).

And since it's October and I watch a lot of horror movies when this time of year comes around I couldn't resist going to the theatre yesterday on Friday the 13th.

Happy Death Day (2017, Christopher Landon) is a fun PG-13 post-slasher with a Hollywood life-affirming message built in. That title works.

I just wanted to report that I had a good time and found the whole endeavor emotionally effective. Happy Death Day takes place on a college campus and involves the insolent, witty teen milieu found in Heathers, Clueless, and Mean Girls, but in a sorority. From the first frames, as the poster tips off, the Universal logo resets itself several times to set the tone.

The craftsmanship of the narrative is well done and reminded me of my favorite teen genre-defying movie Detention (2011, Joseph Kahn) in ways; there's even a girl killed in a way as spectacularly designed as the murder of TAYLOR FISHER. And I have no complaints about the lack of explicit scenes of violence. Coincidentally I rewatched Blood and Black Lace the night before and was surprised at how little was actually shown on screen when its murders occurred. So what we get is Groundhog Day as a springboard into a deliriously exhaustive tale of final girl TREE on a mission to figure out how to escape her catastrophic time loop.

And lucky for me I resisted looking at my watch out of curiosity to know when it would end, because I got sucked in and was genuinely surprised at the development of the narrative. Another great thing about Happy Death Day is how many different places it goes and how fast, if that makes sense. I feel like most traditional movies often take place in only a few locations, during the span of a short period. Or at worst there are those 12 Angry Men types--mostly all in one place in near real time has never struck me as an impressive innovation. Happy Death Day covers a ton of ground and like at ADHD speed. And for me that's one of my favorite novelties found in some newer movies. Although it still doesn't hold a candle to Detention in this regard.

Happy Death Day isn't a masterpiece or anything. But it never sucked, and I took away a lot from its ambitious re-envisioning of the slasher. As far as it fits into the post-slasher canon, it's not as dark as Scream (1996, Wes Craven), but the Booji Boy-looking masked killer gave me some jumps.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

pen is in my hand

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the internet has been a net bad for humanity. By allowing glib, superficial access to largely decontextualized facts, it's created a vast army of people—mostly men—who, perniciously, believe both that there's nothing they don't understand and that understanding things requires no more than a cursory googling and quick skimming of somewhere under four web—usually just Wikipedia—pages. (There's also the brain-poisoning feedback loop wherein the most casual expressions of approval somehow displace and outweigh any/all other potential inputs, eventually, out of sheer volume, replacing the real world entirely. But that's a matter for another time.) But I cannot deny the few archipelagos of what I can only call Good Internet which remain. Mostly they're singular. What characterizes Good Internet is usually that it is and does One Thing. It expresses one sensibility, maybe, or, more reliably, it treats (of) only one topic. Good examples of Good Internet would include:
I'm sure we'll eventually cover all of these individually. But right now I want to talk about Pen Internet.
Pen Internet is good. Here are some examples, some people taking an interest in something and working to communicate that interest to whoever might be listening.

That was fun. Now I want to talk about pens. Mostly I want to talk about good pens. What can I say? Pen Internet is intoxicating, also inspiring.
Most of what I write personally (rather than professionally), I write by hand before typing it up in vim. Some years back, I learned, by watching Tinzeroes, that everything works better when I put everything into one notebook that is always carried with me and close to hand. That way, I always know where everything is. I never have to wonder where to put something. And different pieces can, just by brute juxtaposition, connect in unexpected ways. Writing in a notebook implies needing a pen—so:
I have a lot of Moleskine type notebooks. An underreported feature of those notebooks how poorly their paper takes so many kinds of ink. The right-hand pages have a slicker coating than the left; a lot of pens skip on the right, bleed on the left. Displeasing. Also I like to write a lot of postcards, which tend to have a coating that smears basically all inks...
This means a popular option doesn't work well for me, so, so sorry G-2, but you don't really make the cut. Other reasons: (1) I have had spills annihilate things I have written with this gel ink (making it bad for mail); (2) the rubber thing (a) is condescending and (b) gets loose on the shaft, which is distracting, or gets gummy, which is disgusting. Linewise, 05 is a little bit too thin (scratchy on soft or thick paper); 07 is a little bit too thick (makes it hard to write as small as I like to). Poor experience on coated paper, ill-advised hand feels, ubiquitous, cheap, allows fidgety clicking, adequate weight for debate spinning: 6/10; acceptable fallback option. Often have one to hand to loan out or write a check with.
Le Pen felt tip. Dirt cheap. Colorful! Beautifully designed, remarkably comfortable. Ink not at all waterproof. Too light to be debate-spun. Make a delightful scratch sound when used. Last a surprisingly long time, often given to me by my girlfriend. Can't write a check with it. 8/10; excellent option to be deployed in virtually any circumstance.
Those weird ones Noodles likes. Widely considered the gold standard for people who don't fetishize writing really really small. Good for writing checks with. Wonderful pens, but somehow don't work for me. Too fat, with too thick a line, maybe. Maybe just a vibe thing. 5.5/10; make me feel guilty, like I don't like chocolate or something.
"Artist pens." Magnificent writing experience, can be a little too cushy. Easily lost or stolen. Hyper fucking expensive. Can intimidate by giving writer the sense that the ink is too permanent for anything but a good thought well expressed, and can therefore inhibit getting things down on paper, which is the only important/useful thing about schlepping a fucking notebook around.
But what did you expect? When you pull Excalibur from the stone, you gain power, but you also inherit mad responsibility. 7/10; can't really be spun, no good for the checkbook, fairly good for postcards, other mail.
Papermate El Cheapos. Blobby ink, but last forever. Spin well with a cap on the butt. Acceptable choice, unless you have the option of:
Bic Crystal. Platonic ideal of the ball-point pen. Perfect design: looks good, looks potent, but accessible; fits the hand, accommodates any style. Ink is decent, and can be laid down on essentially anything: paper, denim, skin, walls, seats, Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars. As Robert Heinlein once said, "I feel the way about a Springfield that I do about a Gooney Bird; some pieces of machinery are ultimate perfection of their sort, the only possible improvement is a radical change in design." (Glory Road, p. 58) That's how I feel about the Bic Crystal. Also a good example of William Gibson's dictum "the street finds its own uses for things", in that the hexagonal barrel is the perfect size to stick into a cassette tape for manual fast-forwarding. Perfect for the checkbook, ideal for postcards and envelopes, superb for debate spinning. 9/10; as close to perfect as this world can offer.
Pilot V5. Can be debate-spun, but for whatever reason, I never do so. Not great for check carbons; perfect for envelopes, rarely bleeds; mixed bag for postcards, often smears. Beautiful thin line. Can write pretty small with it. Barrel the right size for my slim paws. Lined up like this, it's not wildly impressive. But...

Somewhere after high school, I spent a lot of my free time (read: fired by the movie theater, working a couple days a week at the gas station, before getting fired there, too) playing Wing Commander on somebody else's computer. It's a game where you fly around in space ships shooting down space ships flown by giant space cats, and it had a really good manual. One of the weapons was called the "Mass Driver" and, from memory, it was described in the following way: "No pilot ever made a mistake engaging the mass driver." (NOTE: I was pretty close! The basic fighter weapon - medium range, medium damage, nothing special. The mass driver cannon is reliable and accurate. Heat build-up and power drain are minimal. Though lasers and neutron guns are more effective in certain situations, no pilot ever went wrong activating a mass driver.)
That's how I feel about the Pilot V5. You never go wrong reaching for one. 8.8/10; lately, I leave the Crystal at work, and use the V5 for personal writing. Boundaries are important.

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Monday, October 09, 2017

More Notes on the Total Theory of the Messenger Bag: Defy Marketing (The Defy Strapped)

Sometimes, I am a complete sucker. This is the story of one of those times.

(The Defy Strapped, sejant.)

As should be clear, I do like to shop. And a man's craving for novelty can be real, and confounding. Thus it was that late in 2016, I took occasional respite from ... life, by browsing endless for that great passion of mine, the new messenger bag. Somewhere in there, a company called Defy arrived and began issuing pronouncements which intrigued:

  • Materials matter: we have an intriguing sourcing model and are using elements others aren't, from recycled bike innertubes for trim, to truck tarp for the bag body, and to seat-belt webbing for strapping and pocketing
  • Local, local, local: handmade in America (Chicago)
  • Design is king: let's use our neat materials in novel ways
  • It's expensive as all hell: so it must be good!

I should have understood what I was looking at. The company story—because isn't that what we're all interested in? the stories ... of companies?—was and is explicit: "I'm a marketer who has moved into making things." SPOILER: what the company is good at making is in fact marketing collateral; their bags are not great. Or at least the bag I bought is not great.

The main problem is the material. Defy—and other companies—are, reasonably enough, bored with the same old Cordura fabric that essentially every company uses to make messenger bags. To differentiate themselves, they try new stuff. Defy thought to try something they call "M35 Military Truck Tarpaulin Material". Here's what they say about it:

M35 Military truck tarpaulin vinyl/canvas is the same heavy duty tarpaulin used to protect US servicemembers in theater today. It's thick, matte, rubbery feel makes for an incredibly durable bag material which with use over time starts to soften & wear nicely taking on a different patina and character. While it's tougher than the vast majority of tarp material used by other bag companies with enough beating, use and life it can eventually show signs of wear. Those wear marks are a badge of honor! It's military tough as hell for sure, but nothing's indestructible even though it may look it!

If you don't want the material to crack and fray, don't, uh ... buy this bag.

The truth of course, is that the thick, matte, rubbery feel is extremely cool fresh out of the box. About a week later, the outside feels like plastic. (The inside still feels pretty cool.) "After enough abuse it will start to show wear" means that instantly the material will start to crease, and the bag's own hardware will immediately mar the fabric and leave visible scars. Anywhere the bag folds regularly will split and tear. In short, the material isn't strong enough to stand up to itself, much less significant "beating, use and life". To call it "incredibly durable" is at best puffery, at worst a lie. I had scarred it badly within five days of receiving it: it arrived on January 12; on January 17, I pinched the flap between the bottom of a seat at a movie theater and a bottle of wine I'd smuggled into the theater. Smuggling a bottle of wine into a movie theater is, to me, is basically the definition of "normal use", and five days of "normal use" should not permanently mark a bag. Using this material defies convention, to be sure, but no less does it defy usability.

Another major miss is the buckles. Defy is nutty for buckles. Their marketing consists mainly of impassioned praise of these crazy buckles they buy from Austria: supposedly they can hold 1,500 pounds or something, but, when the fabric they're sewn to couldn't possibly hold half of that, who gives a damn? And why would a person want to close their messenger bag that hard anyway? Anyway, all their bags feature these buckles, except for one, the one I bought, which is called the Strapped. First, it's Strapped because it heavily features seat-belt straps, as the shoulder strap, as reinforcing strapping, and as the business-card-and-pen holder. Second, it's for people who strapped for cash, because it's the same form factor as the more expensive Recon bag, but replaces the ridiculous buckles with buckles that are cheaper ... but still ridiculous.

(When the buckles are big.)

See, there is simply no reason to use two two-inch buckles to close a bike bag flap. It looks cool, but is pointless overkill. And, since they're simply difficult to use one-handed, they're less functional than they should be. The whole point of a messenger bag is easy access to the contents, balanced with being able to secure them quickly. This bag fails on both counts. On material and hardware, Defy allows visual appeal to outrank functionality.

This trend—good visuals, poor use—continues when we examine the pocketing and storage options. The slash pocket across the back of the bag does fit a slim laptop: my work Mac fits there, I think my old work Windows machine did as well, but my beautiful boat anchor from Zareason decidedly does NOT fit. (That most bags are designed for the smallest laptops on the market is a sad fact.)

The front pocket is okay. It's quite tall, though very shallow. A quick-access pocket like this is always going to have more of my stuff in it than is reasonable, so I can't blame it too much for not being thick enough, but it's worth noting that my glasses case alone is basically enough to make it bulge. (If I had one message to all bag makers, it would be: always include one pocket that fits a glasses case; there are people with prescriptions in this world, after all. My first Jandd had this, as did one of my Timbuk2 bags, and for my needs, this is, essentially, essential.) It's probably too flat/shallow, if I'm being fully critical, and arguably too tall, because small things are inevitably at the very bottom, under my glasses and earbuds, so it's tough to get my chapstick or whatever. But whatever, it's fine. It's fine.

(If the pockets you make are too short for a pocket notebook, the pockets you make are too short.)

The internal pockets, riding on the front of the back slash pocket, are a different story. It's not clear to me why they are the size they are. I.e., what the hell is supposed to go in them? They're too shallow for the Mac power brick they're a half-good fit for, and they're too short for a tablet or even a small-sized pocket notebook. What's up with these? In the event, I stuff them full, with my knife, my brush and comb, my little notebooks, and other crap I need to find more or less quickly. They're bulgy and everything in them scruffs out over the top unappealingly, but they're there, anyway, and you can (sort of) put (some) things in them.

The main compartment is intriguing, in that it is simultaneously too big (it's incredibly tall and quite wide, call it 13.5" tall and 15+" wide at the bottom, wider at the top) and too small (it's preposterously thin, something like 5.5" when it's sitting, thinner when lifted/carried). The general experience of using it involves the top 3 or 4 inches being filled with air, and whatever you want to pull out of it being underneath something else and difficult to get. This bag is wildly not meant to be used like an actual messenger bag—swung off the back to the front, the flexible flap pushed easily aside, the cargo quickly in hand and the bag just as quickly flapped closed and pushed back out of the way—the flap is too stiff, and the bag doesn't yield its treasures without some wrangling, because its top is narrow and a good couple inches higher than it needs to be. For office use, its obvious intended function, though, it's basically okay.

Keen-eyed observers will have noted that none of the pockets close in any way (except the main compartment), which is a sop to two purported failure points or annoyances: first, zippers are held to be fragile; second, velcro hook and loop fastener is held to be annoying. These are both more or less true. Things have slipped out of the internal patch pockets, probably because they're too short, but I don't think anything fell completely out of the bag at any point, and the absence of fasteners is something I came to find quite appealing.

Overall storage is not great. With most bags, you're buying a system as much as a bag, and here, there's just not much in the way of a system: no way to mount other carrying options, nor anything interesting in the way of internal bags to add. To organize my belongings, I ended up using a congeries of Jandd ditty bags and a few options Noodles, TWBGITW, has sewed together for me over the years. And since the Strapped's effective carrying capacity is so small, I started carrying a second bag for my lunch and leaving my dopp kit and spare clothes in the car, instead of being able to carry them with me. Probably good for my discipline, in that it helps teach me not to overpack, but inconvenient nonetheless.

Riding the front of the bag are my favorite features by far. By sewing a length of seat-belt strap to the wall, they are able to make a business card holder and three pen slots. The pen slots need a thicker pen, and one with a clip: my Le Pen (pictured) has been knocked through and gone missing several times, but it's just such a cool way to make a pen slot, I can't stay mad at the bag. Similarly cool is that little business card holder. The D-ring and the snap ring are also excellent, and that they're attached with scraps of recycled innertube is functional, thrifty, and unique. Across the front of the bag, in other words, is Defy at its absolute best: interesting materials used in unusual ways to good effect. If everything about the bag were designed and made this well, this would be the best bag on the market. Or anyway, would be a much better bag than it is.

The inner color, and this must be mentioned, is actually beautiful. My second-favorite feature most days (and my favorite, on the days the pen holder fails to hold my Le Pen). Sadly, this green material is even softer than the outside fabric, and can be scuffed or scarred even more easily. The bag's own hardware scratches it, and a USB stick plugged into a laptop did the same.

The shoulder strap is okay. It's wide and comfortable, but not grippy. When thrown over a shoulder, instead of cross-body, it's constantly causing worry that it's going to slip off. There is a grab handle. This seems like a small thing, but it's as easy to put one on as it is to leave one off, and the incremental convenience it adds, when compared to the cost/benefit of not having one, makes it a practical necessity.

In a very frustrating move, if you want to ride a bike with this bag, you're going to have to buy an extra strap, which is going to add something like 25% to the cost of the bag. This hidden cost is a really annoying way to do business.

Costs in general seem a little high, compared to the value received. While the bag does come in a lovely bespoke cardboard box sealed with Defy-branded tape, this isn't something that helps me fit my laptop, nor does it take the edge off the experience of watching the fabric disintegrate under normal use.

In the end, it's a decent bag sold as an outstanding one. If you saw it in the store, you might find it appealing and want to take it home. Its design is essentially identical to the Israeli Paratrooper bag (main compartment, slash pocket behind it, pouch pocket riding the front with mad pen slots, not much else), which presents a blend of more or less adequacy and more or less elegance. It does have a terrific look, and if it hadn't been so relentlessly oversold by Defy's marketing collateral, it might be an easy bag to love. But it was relentlessly oversold, so my experience with it was mostly a disappointing one. Failures of design—poor materials choice, pocketing decisions made according to appearance rather than function, ill-conceived hardware—overwhelm the Strapped's virtues, and that these failures so closely correspond to what the company claims as its strengths leaves the buyer feeling betrayed, or even cheated.

It's worth noting that Defy may have independently come to similar conclusions as mine: the Strapped is no longer available on the Defy site; the tarp material doesn't seem to figure as centrally in their messaging; the new version of the bag is less tall, and deeper. These are all positive moves. One hopes that their evolution continues to blend functional considerations into the mix that produced a Strapped that was overwhelmingly concerned with appearance.

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