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The Kill Team

What happens when soldiers kill for sport? The Kill Team is a documentary about a troop in Afghanistan that did just that:

Winfield’s role in the “kill team” is somewhere between whistleblower and accomplice. After his first encounter with Gibbs, Winfield spent months looking for a way to report what was happening. The film recreates heartbreaking Facebook chats between Winfield and his ex-marine father, in which they struggled against military bureaucracy before ultimately deciding there was nothing they could do. By then, Gibbs had talked to the group openly about killing Winfield to cover their tracks. To keep himself safe, Winfield participated in a kill. He says he fired at the ground, but can’t say for sure if he hit anyone. Facing a military court, his actions become a difficult thing to explain, a moral gray area that defines the rest of his life.

Navigating textual landscapes

Ferris Jabr on the differences between reading from paper and digital screens:

Understanding how reading on paper is different from reading on screens requires some explanation of how the brain interprets written language. We often think of reading as a cerebral activity concerned with the abstract — with thoughts and ideas, tone and themes, metaphors and motifs. As far as our brains are concerned, however, text is a tangible part of the physical world we inhabit. In fact, the brain essentially regards letters as physical objects because it does not really have another way of understanding them. As Wolf explains in her book Proust and the Squid, we are not born with brain circuits dedicated to reading. After all, we did not invent writing until relatively recently in our evolutionary history, around the fourth millennium B.C. So the human brain improvises a brand-new circuit for reading by weaving together various regions of neural tissue devoted to other abilities, such as spoken language, motor coordination and vision.

Bonus:

The brain literally goes through the motions of writing when reading, even if the hands are empty.

(via @tcarmody)

Telegraph

The Comedy

I watched The Comedy last night. It’s disturbing and quiet and good. Alternately: white guys being dicks.

Room 237

Room 237 is a documentary about subliminal meaning in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It is told through the voices of five Kubrick fanatics, each convinced his interpretation of the film is correct. Scenes from The Shining, and other Kubrick films, stand in for their faces; their faces are never seen. It is a film about patterns and meaning, the way the mind builds context. The movie has the potential to be really good, and in theory it is. It’s strength is the layering of certainty, no matter how contradictory, against another’s, a bird’s nest of interpretation. It’s weakness is it’s lack of polish and the faces never shown. Viewers attach meaning to a face the way each fan attaches meaning to the film. We want to see who we are judging.

The Safety of Politics: Veep, Boss, and House of Cards

In Farhad Safinia’s Boss, Kelsey Grammer plays Chicago Mayor Tom Kane. Within the first moments, we witness his diagnosis with a degenerative neurological disorder, and his artful narration of the history of his city: “Life, with all its cares and its terrors, is no such great thing after all.”

As Grammer observes in a producers’ analysis of Season One:

Most of the lead characters in the Shakespeare tragedies start out as sort of half-human beings. You could give a shit about whether they survive or not. But by the time they reach their demise, they are fully realized human beings.

That is the arc he and Safinia assert for Kane: the unraveling of the personal against the backdrop of the city, the way politics and personality intertwine. We see this imbalance in Frank Underwood, the House Majority Whip played by Kevin Spacey in the Netflix series House of Cards.

Whereas Grammer’s Kane is rigid and masterful, Spacey’s Underwood is dramatic and spiteful, both weaving the realities that surround them as far as their abilities will allow. To the contrary, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer, in the HBO series Veep, is micromanaged to the syllable. A speech she is set to deliver about Clean Jobs is, in her words, pencil-fucked, leaving nothing but hello and prepositions. As Executive Producer Simon Blackwell puts it:

The V.P., it’s a funny position, I think, because you have very little power, but you are a heartbeat away from being the most powerful person in the world.

Kane and Underwood yield power. Meyer observes it. But the net effect is the same: a political structure exists, whether inhabited or observed, as an embodiment of our assumptions. The calculus and cunning required to wield power is real, even if, in Meyer’s case, she has to wait.

That assumption is safe. It provides the illusion of intelligence at work on a larger scale, whether for good or for ill, at once meticulous and thorough. There is safety in that — a hope that patterns have meaning. And stories provide the meaning for patterns, even if the narratives that surround us often lack it.

One of the realities of Boss is that the politics of Chicago trumps the politics of the state. The mayor has more influence than the Governor. We can see that dynamic in New York, but Chicago’s working class roots, and rural surroundings, make that tension more profound. Kane isn’t just the city, he’s the city-state, head of a kingdom that transcends its location. It’s a rare dynamic in a country where the hierarchy of power traditionally moves from the federal down.

Frank Underwood’s Washington, on the other hand, must be negotiated simultaneously with the rural complexities of South Carolina’s 5th congressional district. He doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring the requirements of a population whose values aren’t reflected in the capital. He must negotiate those tensions constantly, without hesitation, a marker on two maps that don’t align.

Unlike Underwood or Kane, Meyer has no constituency to attend to other than her own ambition. She is an engine without a transmission, a hub without spokes. We see the shape of the system she wishes to inhabit by her orbit of it. On the other hand, her entourage, a microcosm of the larger networks of power, mirrors those that attend to both Underwood and Kane.

Regardless of how much authority is wielded, however, each of these stories relies on the notion that there is a cohesive system that can be known and manipulated. They operate on the same understanding of power that allows conspiracy theories to exist. If someone is smart enough and close enough to a system, it can be gamed. A person equal parts cunning, ambitious, and amoral can, at any moment, achieve a desired outcome.

Of course, the stage isn’t neutral. Stories mimic context. Vice President Meyer, a woman in power, is unusual in American politics, although her relative ineffectualness is, perhaps, more stinging because of it. She is the most powerful of any of the women in these shows by title, but is the least effective, reduced to a habit-trail, of sorts, in hopes that her motion will someday be harnessed.

In contrast, the first ladies of House of Cards and Boss are married to power, and leverage their authority against it. They execute — for themselves, and through their mates — effortlessly, sometimes behind the scenes, but always effectively. In a prudent world, they would be the faces of authority. In this, they both hide and amplify their will through the channels they have available to them. Which makes the power wielded by Zoe Barnes, a fledgling reporter in House of Cards, all the more tenuous.

But similarities in the struggles for power aside, Boss, House of Cards, and Veep are very different shows. What all three have in common is a reliance on an assumption of a political system grounded in tradition. One that can be navigated and understood, and by extension, gamed. The complexities of politics and culture as they exist, though, aren’t always willing to participate in that conceit, and it’s there that we are left to fend for ourselves against whims that can never be known.

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters

A documentary about photographer Gregory Crewdson:

To me, the most powerful moment in the whole process is when everything comes together, and for that instance, my life makes sense.

(via @gary_hustwit)

The World According to Dick Cheney

Airs March 15 on Showtime.

Duet

Michael Jordan Turning 50

Michael Jordan reflects on half a century:

“I like reminiscing. I do it more now watching basketball than anything. Man, I wish I was playing right now. I would give up everything now to go back and play the game of basketball.”

“How do you replace it?” he’s asked.

“You don’t. You learn to live with it.”

“How?”

“It’s a process,” he says.

The Man Who Killed Bin Laden

From the Esquire interview with the Navy SEAL who shot Bin Laden:

I was about five guys back on the stairway when I saw the point man holding up. He’d seen Khalid, bin Laden’s son. I heard him whisper, “Khalid… come here…” in Arabic, then in Pashto. He used his name. That confused Khalid. He’s probably thinking, “I just heard shitty Arabic and shitty Pashto. Who the fuck is this?” He leaned out, armed with an AK, and he got blasted by the point man. That call-out was one of the best combat moves I’ve ever seen. Khalid had on a white T-shirt and, like, white pajama pants. He was the last line of security.

My Desktop

mupan

Quotes

Eighteen guys did this and twelve descended further to find out that moon dust smells like gunsmoke.

People as productive as Gates should not be required to shake hands, and the same can be said for people less productive than Gates.

Koolhaas said:

Fast clocks make for slower passengers.

Anti-corporate indie was the new mainstream.

Ai Weiwei: According to What?

Jed Perl on the artistic merits of Ai Weiwei:

Artistic crudity knows no national borders, and while I would never discount the importance of the freedom to create whatever an artist wants, I would insist that art proceeds according to laws that politics can at times thwart or control but never fully contain or comprehend. It is tempting to say, in summing up “Ai Weiwei: According to What?,” that I admire the politics and am left cold by the art, but that lets the art off too easily. When Ai hangs an MRI on the wall or places thirty-eight tons of steel rebar on the floor, he fails to meet, much less to grapple with, the challenges of art. In this way, he creates his own kind of political kitsch. It is not the kind with muscular working men that Stalin and Mao preferred, but it is kitsch nonetheless — postmodern minimalist political kitsch, albeit in the name of a just cause.

Hmm.

(via Marginal Revolution)

Courier Prime

A history of Courier in the context of a newly designed version of the font:

The early results were Not Good.

(via Daring Fireball)