Daniel Carlson

About movies, mostly.

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Turning Four

Four years ago my wife found a box of week-old kittens abandoned outside her office. They’d been left in a cardboard box with a bowl of water; it’s amazing none of them had drowned in it. She called me, frantic, as she was driving them to the vet to see what needed to be done. Or maybe she was driving home when she called, the rough outlines of a plan having already formed in her mind after talking to the doctor. I can’t remember any more. It’s one of those mercurial details that keeps sliding away. But ultimately what happened was she brought them home and we decided to foster them during their infancy until they were old enough to be adopted. We already had a dog, two cats, and a pair of finches,1 so adding five cats to that mix seemed absurd. But we didn’t want to turn them back into the world yet, either. They were too young for a shelter to take them, so we reasoned that we’d be able to find homes for them if we kept them healthy for a few weeks.

If you want to make God laugh, etc. The early stages of caring for the kittens were blurry and fearful. We prepared formula, fashioned a pen from a spare dog crate, bought them a heated stuffed animal with an electronic heart designed to mimic the presence of their absent mother; we nuzzled our mouths and jaws against the tops of their heads, a sign of comfort and love the vet told us would help them feel calm; we gently rubbed damp cotton swabs against their groins to teach them to urinate and defecate. We did not sleep much. Our guest room was given over to them entirely.

The vet didn’t want us to have any illusions about their life expectancy, telling us that, of the five, we’d be lucky if one survived. A few days after bringing the kittens home, the littlest one, a tiny scrapper we’d named Runty, began to slip away. His struggles were too great, and we had to put him to sleep. A few days after that, my wife went to check on them and found that one of the others — a bruiser we’d named Scooter, for his habit of scooting backward up our arms as we cradled him — had died in his sleep. The vet took care of him for us, too. We felt trapped and helpless by what was happening.

But then things got better. The three remaining cats — all girls — grew stronger and healthier. They’d been too weak to make any sound the day we found them; now they howled and clamored at meal time. We started taking more pictures. We rearranged the furniture in the guest so that they’d have space to wander around. They started eating solid food, and we felt more sure that the worst had passed. We entertained the notion of placing them in a good home, but we wanted them to stay together, and to be kept inside. A few people offered to take just one (usually the one with the white fur on her feet and face, like a mustache and socks), but it felt wrong. Time passed, and we grew attached. I grew attached. My wife and I had helped these little animals cling to life, and against unlikely odds, they’d survived. We talked less about finding homes for them, and we realized they’d been ours for a while.

I remember one day walking in to check on them and seeing that one of them had developed an eye infection: one eye was open and clear, the other was swollen and squinted shut. I was so worried about what would happen to her, but the vet said it was a common ailment in kittens. She gave us cream to apply to the eye twice a day, and I’d gently rub some around the little one’s eye as I fed her. We named her Squints. Some time later, she took to me. They all love us, of course. They play with us, climb on us, roll around happily. But Squints began to assert that kind of ownership that strikes pets seemingly of their own accord. She just likes me. As soon as I sit down, she climbs into my lap. She follows me around the house, waits for me outside the bedroom in the morning, scales my back to perch on my shoulders. I’m her human.

So now we have these grown cats, and every now and then my wife and I will look at each other and look back at them and realize that we have animals in our house, real animals, walking around and eating and pissing and everything, animals that give the house a sense of constant movement and habitation. A dog and five cats: we sometimes call our house “the menagerie.” But we’re bonded to them, and they to us.

  1. We eventually found a new home for the finches. A dog and two small birds is fine; add cats to that, and you’ve made a food chain.

An Eternal Flame That Gives No Heat

I woke up thinking about the maw. Web publishing — blogs, news outlets, magazines, etc. — is a numbers game, and the goal is only to make more to put in the machine. What’s most frustrating as a content creator is that it almost doesn’t matter what the content is. It just has to exist so people can see the image and headline, click Like/Share, and move on. It’s kind of a Catch-22, though: if the content is badly written filler, you’ll get dinged for gaming the system or trying to put one over on your readers, but if the content’s really good, no one will read it to know the difference. You’re just producing to produce, throwing meat into the maw.

This Slate piece digs into the way people click without reading, as if their only goal is to acknowledge that something was published before moving on:

When people land on a story, they very rarely make it all the way down the page. A lot of people don’t even make it halfway. Even more dispiriting is the relationship between scrolling and sharing. Schwartz’s data suggest that lots of people are tweeting out links to articles they haven’t fully read. If you see someone recommending a story online, you shouldn’t assume that he has read the thing he’s sharing.


The worst thing about Schwartz’s graph is the big spike at zero. About 5 percent of people who land on Slate pages and are engaged with the page in some way—that is, the page is in a foreground tab on their browser and they’re doing something on it, like perhaps moving the mouse pointer—never scroll at all. Now, do you know what you get on a typical Slate page if you never scroll? Bupkis. Depending on the size of the picture at the top of the page and the height of your browser window, you’ll get, at most, the first sentence or two. There’s a good chance you’ll see none of the article at all. And yet people are leaving without even starting. What’s wrong with them? Why’d they even click on the page?


As a writer, all this data annoys me. It may not be obvious—especially to you guys who’ve already left to watch Arrested Development—but I spend a lot of time and energy writing these stories. I’m even careful about the stuff at the very end; like right now, I’m wondering about what I should say next, and whether I should include these two other interesting graphs I got from Schwartz, or perhaps I should skip them because they would cause folks to tune out, and maybe it’s time to wrap things up anyway …

But what’s the point of all that? Schwartz tells me that on a typical Slate page, only 25 percent of readers make it past the 1,600th pixel of the page, and we’re way beyond that now. Sure, like every other writer on the Web, I want my articles to be widely read, which means I want you to Like and Tweet and email this piece to everyone you know. But if you had any inkling of doing that, you’d have done it already. You’d probably have done it just after reading the headline and seeing the picture at the top. Nothing I say at this point matters at all.

It’s getting harder and harder to make yourself heard. It’s also dispiriting that something you ache over and spend a lot of time trying to get just right will be tossed aside with the same lack of interest as a list of celebrity outfits or a list of news links. The democratization of online publishing isn’t that everyone can publish; it’s that everything starts to look the same, so there’s no effort made to sort the wheat from the chaff.

The ramifications of this for critics, journalists, and other writers are still shaking out. But it’s hard not to feel the machine taking over. Being a critic already means dealing with the studio/publicity engine that drives coverage. Studios want you to see a movie, give them a seven-word power blurb, then go to the next one, so you have to walk away and spend some time with the work to understand it. Actual criticism — seeking to understand and explore a work, and being honest about the way you bring yourself to it — always takes more time and nuance than the machine wants to allow. Now, though, many consumers of that written content are creating their own blind machine: they want only to see and click and skim, to wade through the stream and forget something the moment it passes. I can feel myself doing it with others’ work. I know it happens with mine, too. While I don’t agree with critic Charles McCarthy’s assessment of some of the films of 2013, I did find myself nodding at this:

Social media, moreover, have created a deafening echo chamber in which opinions are confirmed ad nauseam until a de facto truth has been established. Dissent from the status quo can be attention-grabbing for a time, but a limit is quickly reached at which point the dissenter becomes marginalized as a crank.

With so much editorial emphasis placed on readership numbers (hence all the award show overkill), there is the furtive temptation for critics to align themselves with marketing forces. A rave review will be widely circulated by the studio distributing the film or the theater producing the musical. The danger here isn’t so much conscious as unconscious collusion.

Popular sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, while useful to consumers, are detrimental to critics for two reasons: By tallying up the consensus of reviewers, they throw into relief the loneliness and vulnerability of the outlier position and by reducing criticism to a negative or positive assessment they are the enemy of nuance.

The decline in weekly and alternative publications of influence has endangered the long view perspective as has the demand for all journalistic outlets to keep pace with the 24/7 media cycle. There was a time when critics such as Stanley Kauffmann and Pauline Kael offered correctives to the haste of daily reviewers. What one of my editors calls “slow criticism” has long been banished to the quarterly fringe.

Creation and consumption are faster now, but not deeper. I don’t know what the next step would be to change that, or even if it can be changed, or if people would want it to. This could be a problem with no solution, or it could just be one of those things that doesn’t have any response. I just know that we’re throwing logs on the fire every day, and it never gets warmer.

“The man known for dressing up in an Elmo costume and harassing New York City tourists with anti-Semitic outbursts was sentenced in Manhattan Criminal Court on Wednesday to a year in jail after admitting he tried to extort $2 million from the Girl Scouts.”

The best sentence I think I’ve ever read in a newspaper.

(Full story.)

Maybe we do want too much. Maybe we do want it too soon. Maybe we do think too highly of ourselves. Maybe we think we should have it all. Maybe we think we shouldn’t have to work. Maybe we think struggle is for others. Maybe we believe our own press. Maybe we think the rules do not apply to us. Maybe we don’t know we think that. Maybe we’ve never known real struggle. Maybe we don’t know how to reconcile ourselves with the gulf between us and everyone who came before. Maybe we’re soft. Maybe we’re delusional. Maybe we’re selfish and small.

Maybe we don’t know how to fix any of this without waiting it out and seeing what happens.

But maybe we’re also tired. Maybe we also know what it’s like to watch a generation shuffle away with nothing in their eyes but the weary look of someone who did nothing but survive and is trying to tell themselves that’s all they had to do. Maybe we don’t know what we want to do, but we also know we don’t want to stop trying to find out. Maybe we realize on some level that nobody gets out alive. Maybe we understand that nobody on their deathbed ever looked back and wished they’d spent more time at the office. Maybe we don’t think that the job is the person. Maybe we don’t think the job is anything other than a necessary evil, a tool wielded only because of the things it lets you build. Maybe we know we’ll never change things, not in a big way, not really, and maybe we’re disappointed about that. Maybe we don’t want to sell ourselves short just because somebody before us never bothered to sell themselves at all. Maybe we don’t want to settle a bill we didn’t charge. Maybe we know that the grind is the grind, but that doing it doesn’t have to mean living it. Maybe we don’t want to wake up one day and realize it already happened. Maybe we’re going to blow the whole thing. Maybe we’re OK with that. Maybe we’ll change. Maybe we can’t. Maybe we can. Maybe we’re waiting for you to leave already. Maybe you should accept that.

One of the reasons I love subscribing to The Listserve is the opportunity it gives me to realize that everyone, everywhere, usually wants the same thing: to connect. Signing up at the site means getting a daily email penned by one of the subscribers, chosen via random lottery, so every day you and a few thousand other people get a note from someone you don’t know about a topic of their choosing. Most people write about life choices and crossroads and trying to sort their needs from their wants, but everyone’s story usually hinges on the idea of connection. We write and read these things in the hope that someone out there recognizes their weaknesses in ours, that they see in our struggles a hope that theirs might succeed. People’s personal emails aren’t used in the letters, yet so many of the writers still opt to include their contact information because they genuinely want responses, questions, comments, or just a chance to keep the conversation going. Some of the letters are better than others, and sometimes I’m not in the mood to read them, but that’s why they’re there. Every day, a reminder that we all spend our lives looking for ways to connect, and that finding those connections is often easier than we think.

“If we are not able to be alone, we’re only going to know how to be lonely.”

Review: Lovelace

Both real and fake, which is the point.

Both real and fake, which is the point.

Some good performances in a film ultimately as self-contradictory as its subject matter.

Click here for the review.

Feeding the Buzz

What does this even mean?

What does this even mean?

BuzzFeed is terrible. Probably not entirely; their tech section publishes interesting (if authorially bland) features, and they’ll also put out some worthwhile longform first-person stuff. For the most part, though, their content is defined by an endless of series of mindless lists predicated on the idea that remembering something is the same as having a feeling, and that pointing out a piece of trivia to a reader is the same as making an insight for them.

Recently, though, BuzzFeed relaunched their Community section, which allows users to create accounts and post articles that are identical to BuzzFeed-created content. This is a canny business move on their part, since it means they can pad their site with content they didn’t pay for but still reap benefits from traffic, ad impressions, and so on. (This is also another reason they are terrible.) Last week, something in me snapped and I decided to create a user account and upload my own BuzzFeed lists. I didn’t know what shape they’d take; I just knew that I wanted to do something to comment on how inane the site is.

So I did. I’d seen Joe Veix’s attack post and knew that BuzzFeed wasn’t wild about content that mocked their own empire (and Kaleb Horton’s amazing piece), but I just didn’t care. I wanted to see what it was like to post ridiculous, stupid content that went in a variety of directions. At first I posted some surreal, more mocking pieces (like 6 Rocks That Totally Rock!! and 7 Sure Signs You Grew Up in Texas), meant to highlight the total obviousness and emptiness of BuzzFeed’s lists. Their content relies on recognition and cheap nostalgia, and their goal is to trick you into believing that “I remember that thing” and “I am entertained” are the same emotion.

Then, weirdly, one of the posts got some traction. Not a lot; this was not something that was taking the Internet by storm. But it generated more traffic and referrals than the others. It was called 13 Benedict Cumberbatch GIFs That Are All The Same, and I wrote it to point out how easy it is to assemble .gif lists that rely on nothing more than familiarity with TV stars or pop culture. There’s zero insight required to make these. Zero. That’s the whole sad point. I was kind of stunned that it took off, especially when some of the comments reflected a split between people who got it and people who just really wanted to see pictures of Benedict Cumberbatch, context be damned.

I posted some more throughout the week. Some were weird and some were plain and some were sad, but all were designed to puncture the expectations people bring to BuzzFeed content. Also: You’ll be amazed what people will click on if you format the headline properly and attach it to a BuzzFeed URL. I could’ve done these lists on my own site or somewhere else and not brought in a fraction of the content. Yes, there’s the appeal of seeing an anti-BuzzFeed list actually published on BuzzFeed, but at this point, most people really are conditioned to just click and scroll. I’m no different.

I’ll probably post some more. The archive is here. I don’t really know how many I’ll wind up doing. It’s fun to put them together, to show just how empty the site is, but it’s also overwhelming to realize that these dozen posts are nothing next to the fire hose of mindless clickbait that BuzzFeed publishes every day. There’s no way to beat them, at least not with jokes like these. I think the only way is to just look for something else, and to try and be entertained in newer/older ways.

Review: The Way Way Back


Sam Rockwell, sadly not dancing

Hit and miss. Also, Sam Rockwell should be in more movies.

Click here for the review.

Review: White House Down


Charming Potato

Dumb and cheesy, but harmless.

Click here for the review.

Review: World War Z



Frustratingly bad.

Click here for the review.

Review: The Bling Ring


Like, kind of empty or something

Pretty but remote.

Click here for the review.

Review: The Great Gatsby


No, Baz. No. No.

Hit and miss.

Click here for the review.

Review: Oblivion


A little derivative, but still entertaining. It hangs together, and the ending totally works. This is my John Carter for this year: a solid if flawed sci-fi movie that I’ll defend more than I should have to.

Click here for the review.