The 1978 Project: Part IX

We’re finally in the endgame of the 1978 Project. For the past year and a half or so, I’ve been watching as many 1978 movies as possible. Because I felt like it, that’s why! When I started this project, I had seen about 30 movies made in that year. As of this moment, I’ve seen 87 movies made in 1978. It’s possible that I’ll catch up with something after this, but at this point, I’m going to start prepping the typical “year end” festivities like the movie awards and a top 10. Anywho, let’s take a look at the most recent 1978 project flicks that I’ve watched.


Straight Time – A career burglar is released from prison, tries and fails to go straight. It’s Recidivism: The Movie. To its credit, it spends a lot of time depicting the difficulties of reintegrating with a society that isn’t cutting you any slack. It’s also a tremendous acting showcase, particularly for Dustin Hoffman as the lead, but it’s got a strong roster of supporting actors, ranging from a seedy M. Emmet Walsh as the parole officer, the rare restrained Gary Busey performance as another former-con, the always great Harry Dean Stanton as a fellow burglar, young Kathy Bates, and Theresa Russell as the love interest (who isn’t given much to do, but is somehow still memorable thanks to her performance).

Straight Time - 1978 project

Unfortunately, this sort of character study and acting showcase often doesn’t strike a chord with me, and while this is a pretty good example of the style, it’s not enough to overcome my distaste for this sort of thing. I know we’re not supposed to strictly like Dustin Hoffman’s character, but the movie attempts to make him somewhat sympathetic when really, he’s just a scumbag. And not even a particularly competent scumbag. This is certainly a me problem – I can’t stand incompetent criminals. It’s not impossible to do a character study about an incompetent thief that I’ll like, it’s just a bar this movie couldn’t clear.

Indeed, a big part of my issues with this is that I kept thinking of better movies while watching it. In particular, the Coen brothers have a more farcical take on a similar story with Raising Arizona, and that movie just has so much more going for it than this one, both visually and thematically. It’s also hard to watch a movie about the criminal underworld of heists and not think about Michael Mann’s epics of the genre, like Thief or Heat. It’s still a solid movie and totally in line with that dark 70s aesthetic that so many people love. That said, it’s not something that did a lot for me. **1/2


The Meetings of Anna – Speaking of plotless character studies and performance showcases, this movie is about a lonely woman who travels through Western Europe and meets a bunch of people who, for some reason, just unload their emotional problems on her. It appears to be a semi-autobiographical work from writer/director Chantal Akerman, and to be sure, the film is visually beautiful and she pulls great performances out of the actors. That said, as mentioned above, this is pretty emphatically not my sort of thing. It’s over two hours of just wallowing in angst and ennui, and while it’s a well done example of that sort of thing, there’s not much actual story to grasp onto here. Like most episodic stories, some of the segments are better and more affecting than others, but they don’t really add up to a whole lot. There’s absolutely an audience for movies like this, I’m just not part of it. That said, I’m glad that stuff like the 1978 project forces my hand in watching things like this. **


The Biggest Battle – Italian WWII epic with a pretty great cast that is nonetheless mostly dismissed… probably for good reason. The cast is pretty great, though. Stacy Keach, Henry Fonda, John Huston, Helmut Berger, Samantha Eggar, Giuliano Gemma, Ray Lovelock, and Edwige Fenech? Narration by Orson Welles? Sign me up. Unfortunately the whole thing is deeply mediocre and almost completely unmemorable. Director Umberto Lenzi has made some great, high-energy horror and poliziotteschi flicks, but falls a bit flat here. Clocking in at 104 minutes, it moves pretty quickly and there’s some decent action I guess, but there’s a lot of plot threads that never really get enough time to connect, resulting in a movie filled with underwhelming war vignettes that will probably remind you of better movies. Indeed, we covered a much better Italian WWII flick earlier in the 1978 Project with The Inglorious Bastards. It’s not bad enough to laugh at, but neither is it good enough to recommend. *


Long Weekend – Australian horror flick about a couple who go camping on a remote beach, only to find that nature isn’t in an accommodating mood. What seems like it might be a schlocky “animals run amok” story reveals itself to be more of a slow descent into madness in a world that’s out of balance. There’s a deep environmental concern here, as our bickering couple engage in all sorts of disrespectful behavior. They spray pesticides, shoot at animals, litter, and so on, and nature kinda fights back. It’s all a bit ham-fisted and of course the two characters at the center of the film are deeply unlikable, even to each other. It’s a hard movie to like, but I guess the math adds up, it’s got a sort of odd energy that’s interesting, and I suspect that a lot of modern audiences would get a lot out of it. Personally, I tend to prefer something a little more subtle or, I don’t know, Herzogian. This never quite reaches the heights I think it was going for and it didn’t especially work for me, but it’s got some interesting stuff going on. **


Oof, I’m not usually this grumpy when it comes to this sort of thing, so maybe I’ve come to the end of my 1978 project explorations here. Stay tuned for the traditional (and more fun!) Movie Awards, Arbitrary Awards, and Top 10 for 1978, coming soon!

Link Dump

Just the usual spin through interesting links from the depths of ye olde internets:

  • How I Beat Boris Becker – Andre Agassi talks about how he spotted Boris Becker’s tell. It’s got a nice Detachment 2702 twist to it as well…
  • Carbon monoxide theory – Your house isn’t haunted, it’s just carbon monoxide poisoning:

Many haunted houses have been investigated and found to contain high levels of carbon monoxide or other poisons, which can cause hallucinations. The carbon monoxide theory explains why haunted houses are mostly older houses, which are more likely to contain aging and defective appliances, and why more hauntings are reported in the colder months. Carbon monoxide poisoning explains many of the occurrences in haunted houses, such as feelings of being watched, hearing footsteps or voices, seeing “ghosts”, headaches, dizziness, and sudden death or illness of people or pets, and also strange behavior in pets such as excessive barking or meowing. The carbon monoxide theory also explains why some ghosts don’t show up on photographs or videos (photographs that do show “ghosts” are usually caused by dust, insects, fingers or camera strap in front of the lens, and multiple exposures).

  • I’m Built Different – So there’s this tiktok where a ridiculously ripped guy says “I’m not going to say this again, I’m built different” and then he puts an egg in his elbow and cracks it by flexing his bicep (then, despite explicitly claiming he wouldn’t, he says he’s built different again). Anyway, it’s ridiculous, and there’ve been tons of parodies (I especially like the first one in the link above, where the girl does this whole Johnny Carson-esque gesture). That link is good, but there’s a couple of other great ones out there too.
  • A Brief History of ‘Looks Like Meat’s Back on the Menu, Boys!’ From ‘The Two Towers’ – It’s a line that has inspired an awful lot of discussion…

That line has confounded and delighted fans ever since the movie’s release, with a good number of tweets and Reddit comments centering on its seeming anachronisms. “Not only is it out of place, it doesn’t even make sense!” complained one confused commenter. “How do orcs even know what a menu is? Do they have fancy restaurants in Mordor? I guess they must.”

That’s all for now…

Weird Movie of the Week: The Astrologer

Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we covered a tender tale of voluptuous androids and space cops. This time, we’re going to watch the Citizen Kane of Astrologer movies.

When I was in college, one of my roommates had discovered this list of the weirdest (or maybe grossest) movies of all time on the internet. The details are fuzzy and I have never been able to track down that original list, but we had great fun making our way through it. It’s where we discovered things like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s particular brand of insanity like El Topo or Peter Jackson’s early splatter flicks like Meet the Feebles and Bad Taste. Thinking back on it, we were exceedingly lucky to have found copies of these films at all (mostly thanks to the now defunct TLA Video Stores in the Philadelphia area), but there were many films on that list that we were never able to track down.

I might be imagining things, but I believe The Astrologer was one of them. Of course, any attempt to find a home video version was probably doomed to failure. This is one of those movies where people find a 35mm copy in a vault in Brazil, then do a limited tour of film festivals and art-houses with the print. For decades, this was basically the only way to see this film.

A few weeks ago, some hero uploaded the film to YouTube (and it’s of a surprisingly good quality). If trash cinema is your jam, get thee over there now before it gets pulled. Some assorted thoughts below:

  • A plot summary can’t really capture the film’s bonkers nature, but I guess I should give it a shot. A carnie specializing in astrology and putting on a small-scale psychic act on the carnival circuit gets embroiled in a scheme to smuggle rubies out of Kenya. He somehow becomes the sole survivor of that ordeal, and he parlays the ill-gotten earnings into an astrological empire. Once on top of the world, he begins to meltdown.
  • The plot doesn’t really capture how strangely paced the movie is. Each part of the film feels like a sudden digression that lasts way too long, but somehow adds up. The first twenty minutes or so feel awfully conventional, such that you might be wondering why this film has such a batshit reputation. Then a sudden, jarring jump-cut to Kenya knocks you off balance, and I suspect you’ll never recover. Huge emotional swings, every filmmaking gimmick in the book, ridiculous editing, and not an ounce of shame from the egomaniac who made the film.
  • In case you can’t tell, this film is not for the faint of heart. I have no idea how I’d characterize this movie’s politics, but if you’re of the woke persuasion, you will probably find it appalling. Then again, the appalling nature of the film is its primary draw.
  • The reason for this film’s rarity has to do with rights issues. Usually, this sort of thing traces back to contracts that didn’t include music rights for home video, or the movie was lost in the assets of a giant corporation who can’t be bothered with such a small scale release. However, in this case, it’s because the writer/director/star Craig Denney simply inserted a bunch of Moody Blues tracks (amongst others) into the film without any permission whatsoever. Weirdly, the music is so perfectly integral to the film that you can’t just take it out and replace it.
  • Speaking of writer/director/star Craig Denney, one of the other mysterious things about the guy is that he seemingly disappeared decades ago. Rumors abound about mob ties and faking his own death and whatnot. The story behind this film is almost as interesting and weird as the film itself. The movie is generally portrayed as the first work of egotistical mania, a sorta precursor to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.
Craig Denney in The Astrologer
  • The comparison to The Room isn’t quite right, though. That movie is “so bad it’s good” and people love reveling in how bad it is. The Astrologer almost accidentally bumbles into genius territory.
  • As an example of the film’s accidental genius, take the dinner scene. It’s one of those scenes that’s completely driven by the stolen music, this time Procol Harum’s prog rock epic “Grand Hotel.” You can’t hear what anyone is saying, but you get that a couple is happy at the start and then start arguing until the sequence reaches a fever pitch. It incorporates slow motion, bizarre editing, and weirdly tracks with on-the-nose lyrics. It’s a bravura sequence that I’m pretty sure happened completely by accident, but does that really matter? There’s nothing this brilliant in The Room.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. The Astrologer is one for the ages, and something fans of schlocky cinema need to check out. It’s bound to be pulled from YouTube at some point, but the genie’s out of the bottle. It’ll probably be available via less reputable methods indefinitely.

Hugo Awards Season 2021

The 2021 Hugo Awards finalists were announced earlier this week, so it’s time for the requisite grumbles and bellyaches. I’ve largely fallen off the Hugo bandwagon and I’m probably not going to play along this year, but I still find the process interesting. Congrats to all the nominees!

Best Novel

The Best Novel ballot is a pretty good illustration of why I’m not reading/voting this year. This isn’t to say they’re bad novels or anything, but there’s this tendency in the Hugo awards where certain authors catch on and get nominated year after year. One of the reasons I followed along with the Hugos (even before actively participating) was that they introduced me to new or different work. They got me out of my comfort zone. But they go in waves, and if a set of authors you don’t care for gets hot, then interest fades.

This year’s nominees have mostly been nominated recently, if they haven’t won recently. Four have had finalists in the last few years. One of the others (Network Effect by Martha Wells) is new to the Best Novel ballot, but it’s a sequel to a series of novellas which have entries that have been nominated and won. For the record, that’s the only one I’ve already read, and I really enjoy that series, so it’s a well deserved nomination in my book. The other is the second novel by an author whose first novel won the award in 2005. That’s also one that I might actually get to someday, award or no award. If you expand name recognition to the other categories, it gets even worse.

I suspect in a couple years I’ll take a look and see a bunch of new folks, at which point I might join in again. The genre is much larger these days, with much more volume than in the earlier days of fandom, so you’d think that the tendency for repeat names would be more limited now, but I guess the awards are more representative of the voters than the genre itself. For now, I’ll continue to follow the news, but not read along…

Short Fiction

Even here, I see a lot of familiar names, and it’s also kinda funny that every nominated novella is published by Tor.com. Is no one else publishing novellas? In theory, I like the idea of reading a bunch of short fiction – it’s could be like a sampler platter of what’s going on in SF. But I’m almost invariably disappointed in these categories. I’m sure there’s some good stuff in there, but the bevy of familiar names don’t interest me that much.

Best Series

This award continues to baffle. In theory, it could be used to recognize series that have built up a readership over time and become more than the sum of its parts. Or something like that. In practice, it seems to be dominated by authors and series that also get best novel nominations. For instance, two of this year’s best series nominees also have an entry on the best novel ballot. On the other hand, there are some series here that do seem to fit the bill. Of course, there’s also the logistical challenge of this award. How can anyone have enough time to read all these series? I know this year’s voting period is much longer than normal (thanks Pandemic!), but it’s still got to be impossible to vote for this, unless you’ve already read most of the nominees (or if you only give each series a cursory read).

Best Dramatic Presentation

This award is always very strange, and it features this year’s weirdest finalist: what the hell is Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga doing on this list? The list is otherwise pretty decent, though there’s obviously lots of smaller fare that the voters never seem to go for. Pour one out for the likes of: Possessor, The Vast of Night, Color Out of Space, Archive, and The Wolf of Snow Hollow (as usual, some of these may have eligibility issues due to weird distribution dates, but still). Also, how did The Invisible Man not garner a nom? It’s so squarely within the voter’s usual wheelhouse…

Other Thoughts on the 2021 Hugo Awards

I’m perhaps being overly grumpy in this post. Congrats to all the nominees. I would still encourage folks to play along with the Hugo Awards at some point (2021 or not), as I’ve always found it interesting, even when I don’t love the books. That said, I know enough about this year’s crop to know that I probably won’t enjoy a lot of them, so I’m opting out. I’ll still be curious to see who wins and what the awards look like next year though.

Master of the Revels

In the English royal household, the Master of the Revels was responsible for overseeing royal festivities (aka revels) and stage censorship. An important role in the time of William Shakespeare, which turns out to be a key DTAP (Destination Time And Place) in Nicole Galland’s follow-up to The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., aptly titled Master of the Revels. Galland had collaborated with Neal Stephenson on the first book, but took this sequel on by herself. I’m always curious about how authors collaborate on books with shared authorship, but it seems like in the case of D.O.D.O., Galland had done the bulk of the writing, with Stephenson adding some technical flavor and overarching story bits. As such, this sequel retains the feel of the first book, while progressing the story forward.

Master of the Revels

The story picks up right where D.O.D.O. left off. Our small group of intrepid heros have set up a small operation to counter the nefarious Irish witch Gráinne, who intends to utilize D.O.D.O. time-travel resources to reverse the evolution of all modern technology (and thus allow magic to be more freely practiced in modern times). Her travels take us to Renaissance Italy, feudal Japan, and of course, Jacobean England. It’s kinda hard to talk about the plot here without giving some stuff away or explaining what was covered in the previous book, so I’ll just leave it at that.

The story is told in an epistolary format, with everything being after-action reports, chat transcripts, bureaucratic documentation with acronyms galore, and so on. Much of the sense of administrative humor is retained, and it’s basically just a lot of fun to be hanging out with these characters again. We also get a few new characters, including Robin Lyons, Tristan’s sister and noted Shakespeare nerd, who is naturally recruited to infiltrate the office of the Master of Revels. She fits right in, and makes good friends with the Shakespeare brothers (in particular Bill’s younger and less famous brother Ned, who is another great addition to the cast). Alas, some of the original characters, notably Tristan himself, are sidelined for the majority of the book, but it all works well enough.

As the title of the book indicates, this English bits comprises the bulk of the story, so any Shakespeare nerds would really enjoy this. Actually, history nerds in general will get a kick out of this series. Lots of historical figures are mentioned, including the actual Master of the Revels during Shakespeare’s time, Edmund Tilney, amongst other actors in the troupe. The other DTAPs are a little less detailed, though Leonardo Da Vinci is a key to one of them…

Gráinne makes for a fun villain, though I must admit that I don’t really get how her plan will work. The limitations of magic that have been set in the D.O.D.O. universe are such that her task seems impossible or at least, inadvisable. To be sure, the stakes are clear and our heroes’ actions to counter Gráinne make sense, it’s just the overarching strategy here that I’m not following. Such is the way with a lot of time-travel stories though, and this has the added complexity of quantum physics and multiverses too, which help make the hand-waving plot machinations successful (and which I maintain is a clever sort of explanation for the way magic works in this universe). To be sure, I’m still having a lot of fun with these books, even if they are a little too focused on more narrow episodes rather than any sorta grand plan.

As such, this story is resolved satisfactorily, but I don’t know that the series has progressed very much… and yet, I’m pretty excited to see where we go next, which is a good sign. As yet, I’m not sure if there actually will be a third book, but it seems likely and from interviews, the notion of a trilogy has been thrown out there, so I’m hoping we’ll get a third book at some point. In the meantime, if you enjoyed D.O.D.O., this will scratch that itch (and even though Stephenson’s involvement is minimal, it might tide you over until Termination Shock comes out).

Stephenson’s Termination Shock

This week saw the announcement of Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Termination Shock. It’s an Easter miracle! We’re big fans of Stephenson here at Kaedrin and any new books are treated as events. So what’s it about?

Neal Stephenson’s sweeping, prescient new novel transports readers to a near-future world where the greenhouse effect has inexorably resulted in a whirling-dervish troposphere of superstorms, rising sea levels, global flooding, merciless heat waves, and virulent, deadly pandemics.

One man has a Big Idea for reversing global warming, a master plan perhaps best described as “elemental.” But will it work? And just as important, what are the consequences for the planet and all of humanity should it be applied?

As only Stephenson can, Termination Shock sounds a clarion alarm, ponders potential solutions and dire risks, and wraps it all together in an exhilarating, witty, mind-expanding speculative adventure.

I must admit to a bit of trepidation about Stephenson going down such a well tread path (the amount of recent science fiction addressing climate change explicitly or implicitly is high, and often quite didactic), but I’m confident that he has the tools to pull it off in a way that is entertaining and interesting. Stephenson’s tackled the environmental angle before, and managed to wrap it up in an entertaining thriller structure (in fact, it’s probably his most accessible novel).

In physics, the Termination Shock is one of the outer boundaries of the sun’s influence in the solar system, which perhaps indicates that we’re in for some space travel that the marketing blurb doesn’t mention. There is also the scare quotes around “elemental” that point to more potential scientific avenues that this will explore. As usual, hopes are high. The novel comes out on November 16, 2021.

In other Stephenson-adjacent news, I just finished the sequel to The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. and quite enjoyed it. Look for a review coming soon!

The Empty Man

The Empty Man is one of those movies that slipped through the cracks (er, gargantuan crevasses) of 2020 releases. The reasons for this are legion: there’s the ever-present pandemic, the Fox/Disney deal meant less marketing and support from the studio, a derivative title that calls to mind dreck like Slender Man or The Bye Bye Man, and so on. That said, there appears to be a growing following. After finally learning of its existence and getting over the title, I watched the damn thing and really enjoyed it.

It’s certainly not perfect. Clocking in at well over 2 hours, it’s far too long and ponderous. And yet, I found myself transfixed for the majority of runtime. I’ve noticed that I’m less and less patient with this sort of thing as I get older, but I was able to overcome that hurdle with ease. The only other issue is that the rules of the supernatural force that drives the story are a little hand-wavy. On the other hand, it’s a horror movie about a private detective and secret cults and whatnot. Not sure if clarity would really help here.

The film opens with a 20 minute long prologue that starts off like a typical young-folk on a hike horror setup, but quickly evolves into something more intriguing. What’s more, while the film looks great, it’s not like it’s reliant on CGI pixel stew or something. The effect of a creepy, well designed statue is enough to carry the entire sequence. There are several other scenes throughout the movie that manage that sort of hypnotic effect without relying on anything other than simple photography and good production design. I hesitate to call them set-pieces, because they really aren’t that complicated. Sometimes all you need is Stephen Root giving an ominous monologue.

Stephen Root and James Badge Dale in The Empty Man

This is writer/director David Prior’s debut film. His past experience appears to be doing DVD/BD extras centered around David Fincher movies. Prior is clearly influenced by Fincher’s style and you can see that meticulous attention to detail all over this movie. It’s brooding and portentous without straying into indulgent or pretentious. Prior is able to blend the trashy thrills of an urban legend story with something more elegiac. It’s almost got a literary quality to it, even if it’s the sort of literary that would show up in Paperbacks From Hell rather than the New Yorker.

I’ve been deliberately vague about the plot of the movie. This is one of those things that would probably work best if you go into it blind. If you like horror flicks and don’t mind something a little more talky than your typical gore-fest, check this movie out. I suspect it will continue to gain an underground following over the next few years…

Notes on Leonardo Da Vinci

One of the more interesting books I’ve read during lockdown was Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. I have always done a good job keeping up with reviews of fiction (particularly science fiction), but I’m awful at following up on non-fiction. This despite non-fiction often covering more interesting ideas in more relevant, concrete ways. We’ll try to do Da Vinci justice here.

First up is probably the most significant takeaway from the book:

While at Windsor Castle looking at the swirling power of the “Deluge Drawings” that he made near the end of his life, I asked the curator, Martin Clayton, whether he thought Leonardo had done them as works of art or of science. Even as I spoke, I realized it was a dumb question. “I do not think that Leonardo would have made that distinction,” he replied.

Page 2

It’s worth noting that the notion of art has changed so dramatically since Da Vinci’s time that a lot of what he dealt with seems completely foreign today. His specific brand of naturalism is surely still a thing today, it’s just that it’s a much smaller proportion of art. This insight, that Da Vinci didn’t make a distinction between art and science, is one that recurs throughout the book. Take this:

…Leonardo’s injunction to begin any investigation by going to the source: “He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water-jar.”

Page 6

In these days of “out of context” journalism, going to the original source is as wise a piece of advice as ever. Over and over again, the need for immediate reporting and the bias of journalists lead us down false paths. Even once enough time has passed to figure out what really happened, the damage is done. No one reads the corrections.

Leonardo was human. The acuteness of his observational skill was not some superpower he possessed. Instead, it was a product of his own effort. That’s important, because it means that we can, if we wish, not just marvel at him but try to learn from him by pushing ourselves to look at things more curiously and intensely.

In his notebook, he described his method – almost like a trick – for closely observing a scene or object: look carefully and separately at each detail. He compared it to looking at the page of a book, which is meaningless when taken in as a whole and instead needs to be looked at word by word. Deep observation must be done in steps: “If you wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects, begin with the details of them, and do not go on to the second step until you have the first well fixed in memory.”

Page 179

Another lesson we’d do well to learn. These days, everyone wants to be an immediate expert. No one wants to put in the time to actually become the expert, they just jump to what is considered “the best” and avoid everything else. Something important is lost in the process. I’m reminded of the computer scientist Peter Norvig. Frustrated by the proliferation of books with titles like “Learn Java in 24 Hours”, he wrote a book called Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years. I think Da Vinci had a similar approach.

He was constantly peppering acquaintances with the type of questions we should all learn to pose more often. “Ask Benedetto Portinari how they walk on ice in Flanders,” reads one memorable and vivid entry on a to-do list. Over the years there were scores of others: “Ask Maestro Antonio how mortars are positioned on the bastions by day or night… Find a master of hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner… Ask Maestro Giovannino how the tower of Ferrara is walled without loopholes.”

Thus Leonardo became a disciple of both experience and received wisdom. More important, he came to see that the progress of science came from a dialogue between the two. That in turn helped him realize that knowledge also came from a related dialogue: that between experiment and theory.

Page 173

More lessons to learn from Leonardo, and the notion that experience and theory are both worth pursuing is an excellent one.

Leonardo… was interested in a part-by-part analysis of the transfer of motion. Rendering each of the moving parts-ratchets, springs, gears, levers, axles, and so on- was a method to help him understand their functions and engineering principles. He used drawing as a tool for thinking. He experimented on paper and evaluated concepts by visualizing them.

Page 190


His drawings served as visual thought experiments. By rendering the mechanisms in his notebooks rather than actually constructing them, he could envision how they would work and assess whether they would achieve perpetual motion. He eventually concluded, after looking at many different methods, that none of them would. In reasoning so, he showed that, as we go through life, there is a value in trying to do such tasks as designing a perpetual-motion machine: there are some problems that we will never be able to solve, and it’s useful to understand why.

Page 196

I like the concept of “drawing as a tool for thinking”, and I see this a lot in my day job. Not only does visualizing something help with understanding it, but it makes a huge difference in communicating it out to others. One example of this sort of thing, I’d been reporting on the benefits of an effort for a couple of months. I had stated one benefit in a text bullet point, but was able to get some actual data and changed it to a graph showing a before and after. I’d been reporting the exact same information for 2 months, but no one really noticed it until I made the graph.

It’s also interesting that Leonardo found value in unsolvable tasks like perpetual motion. Again, it speaks to the expertise problem mentioned above. People want to become immediate experts, but are unwilling to approach anything if it means they might fail. Many of the outlandish things that Leonardo speculated about did come to pass, eventually:

This inability to ground his fantasies in reality has generally been regarded as one of Leonardo’s major failings. Yet in order to be a true visionary, one has to be willing to overreach and to fail some of the time. Innovation requires a reality distortion field. The things he envisioned for the future often came to pass, even if it took a few centuries. Scuba gear, flying machines, and helicopters now exist. Suction pumps now drain swamps. Along the rout of the canal that Leonardo drew there is now a major highway. Sometimes fantasies are paths to reality.

Page 354

Of course, not all of these speculations had as much of an impact as they should:

These laws of friction, and in particular the realization that friction is independent of the contact surface area, were an important discovery, but Leonardo never published them. They had to be rediscovered almost two hundred years later by the French scientific instrument maker Guillaume Amontons.  … He also devised ways to use ball bearings and roller bearings, techniques that were not commonly used until the 1800s.

Page 197

He was mainly motivated by his own curiosity. … He was more interested in pursuing knowledge than in publishing it. And even though he was collegial in his life and work, he made little effort to share his findings.

This is true for all of his studies, not just his work on anatomy. The trove of treatises that he left unpublished testifies to the unusual nature of what motivated him. He wanted to accumulate knowledge for its own sake, and for his own personal joy, rather than out of a desire to make a public name for himself as a scholar or to be part of the progress of history. … As the Leonardo scholar Charles Hope has pointed out, “He had no real understanding of the way in which the growth of knowledge was a cumulative and collaborative process.” Although he would occasionally let visitors glimpse his work, he did not seem to realize or care that the importance of research comes from its dissemination.

Page 423

Here we find yet another lesson from Da Vinci. This time, though, it’s something he was bad at that can guide us. He was ahead of his time on many things and made important discoveries… but he never published them, so they had to be rediscovered later. Sometimes for hundreds of years. I suppose this could be seen as a consequence of his ravenous curiosity. He had so much on his mind at all times that he rarely finished any one thing. But he made tons of interesting observations. Some are seemingly trivial and weird, but when we dig deeper, we find something more:

Then comes my favorite item on any Leonardo list: “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.” This is not just a random entry. He mentioned the woodpecker’s tongue again on a later page, where he described and drew the human tongue. “Make the motions of the woodpecker,” he wrote. When I first saw his entry about the woodpecker, I regarded it, as most scholars have, as an entertaining oddity – an amuse-bouche, so to speak – evidence of the eccentric nature of Leonardo’s relentless curiosity. That it indeed is. But there is more, as I discovered after pushing myself to be more like Leonardo and drill down into random curiosities. Leonardo, I realized, had become fascinated by the muscles of the tongue. All the other muscles he studied acted by pulling rather than pushing a pody part, but the tongue seemed to be an exception. This was true in humans as in other animals. The most notable example is the tongue of the woodpecker. Nobody had drawn or fully written about it before, but Leonardo with his acute ability to observe objects in motion knew that there was something to be learned from it.

On the same list, Leonardo instructed himself to describe “the jaw of the crocodile.” Once again, if we follow his curiosity, rather than merely be amused by it, we can see that he was on to an important topic. A crocodile, unlike any mammal, has a second jaw joint, which spreads out force when it snaps shut its mouth. That gives the crocodile the most forceful bite of any animal.

Page 398

His notebooks feature tons of inventions and concepts that would not be rediscovered for centuries. Just conceiving the idea was often enough for him… but then, that’s a complicated process as well:

When Leonardo drew his Vitruvian Manhe had a lot of inter-related ideas dancing in his imagination. These included the mathematical challenge of squaring the circle, the analogy between the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of earth, the human proportions to be found through anatomical studies, the geometry of squares and circles in church architecture, the transformation of geometric shapes, and a concept combining math and art that was known as “the golden ratio” or “divine proportion.”

He developed his thoughts about these topics not just from his own experience and reading; they were formulated also through conversations with friends and colleagues. Conceiving ideas was for Leonardo, as it has been throughout history for most other cross-disciplinary thinkers, a collaborative endeavor. Unlike Michaelangelo and some other anguished artists, Leonardo enjoyed being surrounded by friends, companions, students, assistants, fellow courtiers, and thinkers. In his notebooks we find scores of people with whom he wanted to discuss ideas.

This process of bouncing around thoughts and jointly formulating ideas was facilitated by hanging around a Renaissance court like the one in Milan.

… Ideas are often generated in physical gathering places where people with diverse interests encounter one another serendipitously. That is why Steve Jobs liked his buildings to have a central atrium and why the young Benjamin Franklin founded a club where the most interesting people of Philadelphia would gather every Friday. At the court of Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo found friends who could spark new ideas by rubbing together their diverse passions.

Pages 158-159

The funny thing about Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man? It also wasn’t really published formally, it’s just a sketch in his notebook. And yet it’s one of the most famous pieces of art ever conceived. And it was a sorta collaboration, or perhaps competition would be more accurate. These days, when someone says Vitruvian Man, we immediately attribute it to Leonardo, but it’s actually a general idea that many artists tackled.

Given Leonardo’s tendency towards collaboration, I have to wonder how many things resulted that we have no idea were inspired by him. As it turns out, attribution is a particularly thorny topic for artists of this time period. They didn’t sign their paintings, so things get very complicated:

There is enough evidence, I think, to support an attribution, in whole or in part, to Leonardo: the use of a walnut panel similar in grain to that of Lady with an Ermine , the existence of some court sonnets that seem to refer to his painting such a work, and the fact that some aspects of the painting have a beauty worthy of the master. Perhaps it was a collaborative work of his studio, produced to fulfill a ducal commission, with some involvement from Leonardo’s brush but not his heart and soul.

Page 248

What is most interesting about the portrait is Silverman’s quest to prove that it was by Leonardo. Like most artists of his time, Leonardo never signed his works nor kept a record of them. So the question of authentication – figuring out which truly deserve to be called autograph works by Leonardo – becomes yet another fascinating aspect of grappling with his genius. In the case of the portrait that Silverman bought, the saga involved a combination of detective work, technical wizardry, historical research, and connoisseurship. The interdisciplinary effort, which wove together art and science, was worthy of Leonardo, who would have appreciated  the interplay between those who love the humanities and those who love technology.

Page 250

One of the veils blurring our knowledge of Leonardo is the mystery surrounding the authenticity and dates of some of his paintings, including ones we think are lost and others we think are finds. Like most artist-craftsmen of his era, he did not sign his work. Although he copiously documented trivial items in his notebooks, including the amount he spent on food and on Salai’s clothes, he did not record what he was painting, what he had completed, and where his works went. For some paintings we have detailed contracts and disputes to inform us; for others we have to rely on a snippet from the sometimes reliable Vasari or other early chronicles.

Page 325

… we need to look at copies done by his followers to envision works now lost, such as the Battle of Anghiari, and to analyze what were thought to be works by his followers to see if they might actually be autograph Leonardos. These endeavors can be frustrating, but even when they do not produce certainty, they can lead to a better understanding of Leonardo, as we saw in the case of La Bella Principessa.

Page 325

In 2011 a newly rediscovered painting by Leonardo surprised the art world. Each decade, a dozen or so pieces are proposed or pushed as having a reasonable claim to be previously unknown Leonardos, but only twice before in modern times had such assertions ended up generally accepted

Page 329

One of the striking things about Da Vinci is just how little work is actually attributed to him. And yet, two of his paintings (The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper) are arguably the most famous paintings ever made. There is, of course, lots more of interest in the book, but I’ll leave you with a concept that he invented, called Sfumato:

The term sfumato derives from the Italian word for “smoke,” or more precisely the dissipation and gradual vanishing of smoke into the air. “Your shadows and lights should be blended without lines or borders in the manner of smoke losing itself in the air,” he wrote in a series of maxims for young painters. From the eyes of his angel in Baptism of Christ to the smile of the Mona Lisa, the blurred and smoke-veiled edges allow a role for our own imagination. With no sharp lines, enigmatic glances and smiles can flicker mysteriously.

Page 41

Sfumato is not merely a technique for modeling reality more accurately in a painting. It is an analogy for the blurry distinction between the known and the mysterious, one of the core themes of Leonardo’s life. Just as he blurred the boundaries between art and science, he did so to the boundaries between reality and fantasy, between experience an mystery, between objects and their surroundings.

Page 270

Link Dump

The usual roundup of interesting links from the depths of ye olde internets:

The “sweater curse” or “curse of the love sweater” is a term used by knitters to describe the belief that if a knitter gives a hand-knit sweater to a significant other, it will lead to the recipient breaking up with the knitter. In an alternative formulation, the relationship will end before the sweater is even completed. The belief is widely discussed in knitting publications, and some knitters claim to have experienced it. In a 2005 poll, 15% of active knitters said that they had experienced the sweater curse firsthand, and 41% considered it a possibility that should be taken seriously.

One of the themes I’ve come back to many times in my writing is the idea that people mistake empirical claims (this is true about the world) with normative claims (this should be true about the world). Nowhere is this more clear than with “hate speech” and censorship. I think hate speech laws are politically and morally wrong, a normative claim, but more importantly they don’t work, an empirical claim – one which if true renders normative claims that hate speech laws are good irrelevant.

The debate about whether we should censor unpopular views such as hate speech is an important one, but also a strange one. In my experience, it operates wholly independent from any consideration of the restraints of reality.

  • SETI Optimism is Human Future Pessimism – Another meditation on the Fermi Paradox, but with more math and some new terminology. Not sure I love the “grabby civilization” phrase, but it captures a useful idea in the discussion.

That’s all for now…

The 1978 Project: Part VIII

After a few months of neglecting the 1978 Project in order to catch up with and recap 2020 films, we return to glory! Again. Yeah, so it’s been about a year and a half since this project began, but we are finally reaching the homestretch. If I do something like this again, I should try and make it time-bound (like I did for 50 Under 50).

For the uninitiated, I’m doing a deep dive into the cinema of the year of my birth (guess which year!) As of this writing, I’ve seen 83 films that were released in 1978. Not comprehensive, to be sure, but we’re getting respectable and we’ve only got maybe 5-10 more films I want to catch up with. The thing is, I keep finding new stuff I want to watch. This post covers a couple of doozies that I’d probably never have watched if it weren’t for this project, but which are impressive for movies encountered this late in the process.

I’ll say we’ll get to the traditional Movie Awards and Top 10 roundup sometime this spring, but who knows? I may end up watching 200 films from that year. In any case, it’s time to take a look at some of the1978 flicks I caught up with recently, so let’s hop to it…


Blue Collar – A group of assembly line workers at an auto plant, plagued by growing bills, a disinterested management, a corrupt union, and the ever-persistent IRS, conceive of a plan to rob their union. Naturally, things don’t go as planned. After making a name for himself by writing classic scripts like Taxi Driver and Rolling Thunder, Paul Schrader had built up enough credibility to direct his own scrip this time around. In case you can’t tell by the plot description or the other films he’s worked on, Schrader is a cynical guy, and this film is a stark condemnation of, well, everything.

It’s so grim that I wonder if Schrader’s non-directorial stuff tends to be more successful because some of his edge gets rounded out by collaboration. Of course, “success” isn’t necessarily the best arbiter of a film’s worth, and I will say that this movie, while bleak and uncompromising, is a story-first affair. Schrader himself has commented on how this film had to “operate in the area of entertainment”, even if he was saturating the film with political realities. The result isn’t exactly a fun watch, but it’s engrossing and insightful.

Blue Collar

It helps that Schrader cast a trio of ringers as the leads. Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto are all phenomenal as the down-on-their-luck workers seeking a big score, only to find themselves ensconced in a convoluted machine that they can’t escape. And that’s before the back-stabbing, corruption, and murder. Visually, Schrader presents the story with blunt realism, though he makes room for bitter irony, like the shot of a billboard ticker that tallies Chrysler’s production numbers. Petty union squabbles pitting “…the lifers against the new boys and the young against the old. The black against the white.” None of that matters to the numbers. Know your place in the scheme. Schrader’s incessant cynicism is often hit or miss with me, but for whatever reason, this one hits hard. It’s a difficult movie to recommend, but it’s quite good if you’ve got the stones for it. ***


Big Wednesday – You wouldn’t expect this meandering movie about the trials and tribulations of three surfers living through the 60s and 70s to come from a guy like John Milius (more famous for bombastic fare like Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn, not to mention some of the most iconic, badass lines in cinema history), but here we are. In some ways, it resembles films like American Graffiti (made by Milius’ pal George Lucas); a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Big Wednesday has a more focused core of characters though, and it covers a much larger swath of time. As a result, it does provide a little more insight and character depth. Again, this is helped by solid casting of the three surfing friends: Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, and Gary Busey. All three are doing surprisingly good work here, as they’re not exactly known for subtlety in their careers. Jan-Michael Vincent gives the best performance (in the movie and perhaps of his career) and displays the most range. It’s amusing to consider Busey in this movie and contrast with his later role in Point Break. Even bit players like Sam Melville as the surf board guru, Bear, puts in a career-best performance.

Big Wednesday

It’s maybe a tad long, and I can see why it wasn’t successful at the time, but it appears to have garnered a following amongst film nerds. Take, for example, Quentin Tarantino:

“I don’t like surfers. I grew up in a surfing community and I thought surfers were jerks. I love Big Wednesday so much. Surfers don’t deserve this movie.”

This sort of movie (light on plot, high on character), isn’t usually my thing, but like Tarantino overcoming his distaste for surfers to like this movie, I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. ***


Heroes of the East – A Chinese man is thrust into an arranged marriage with a Japanese woman. Cultures clash, and the man inadvertently challenges her entire family’s martial prowess. Thus he must prove that Chinese Kung Fu really is superior to Japanese martial arts through a series of duels. Yes, another in the seemingly endless reserve of Hong Kong martial arts flicks made in 1978 (and we’re not done yet!)

To be frank, I’m not really qualified to comment on the whole culture clash element of the story. I’m aware of enough Chinese/Japanese history to see why this rivalry could emerge, but again, not really qualified to engage in specifics. As an American who is constantly running up against other cultures (speaking generally here, not in terms of specific culture war topics that are so hot these days), the rather extreme response by both parties seems a bit overheated, but then, you know, you wouldn’t have a movie if everyone would act reasonably. Also, there’s that Chinese/Japanese history to contend with.

The main attraction of these films are the action set pieces anyway, and this one has them in spades. It’s not the best of 1978 nor is it one of the first I’d recommend, but it’s a perfectly cromulent entry in the genre and worth checking out for fans of this sort of thing. **1/2


The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting – Two narrators discuss the possible connections and controversies surrounding a series of paintings. This French arthouse film is literally about actual art, so it is incredibly pretentious. Luckily, there are some fascinating ideas at its core and it is blessedly short, which keeps things moving along well enough. The visual convention of one narrator walking through three-dimensional reproductions of each painting is a fantastic touch, and really helps illustrate the story behind the paintings (and the connections between paintings). The notion that you could obsessively study each painting and find enough connections between them to infer that there is a missing painting in the progression is quite engrossing… but it ultimately has nowhere to go.

Watching this, I was consistently reminded of Rembrandt’s J’accuse, a documentary about visual literacy and obsessively breaking down the story behind a famous painting. Both films are pompous and stilted, but they cover interesting topics and they do so in visually inventive ways. I’m really glad I caught up with this film though, and I would really love to watch it again if it ever gets a good release (there are DVDs, but to my knowledge, there has not been a Blu or 4k release). **1/2


Shaolin Mantis – Look, there’s a whole thing about the Qing dynasty sending a spy to infiltrate rebels and he falls in love with the rebel leader’s granddaughter and so on… But really this is a movie about how a defeated martial artist invents a new style by observing and imitating a praying mantis. Then he uses that to seek revenge. Yet another Hong Kong martial arts movie released in 1978.

At this point, I could probably do a top 10 Hong Kong martial arts movies of 1978 list (and still leave off, like, 20 movies). Would this list make that top 10? It’s possible, but it’d be towards the lower end of the list. This is more because there’s just so many really great entries in the genre though. Shaolin Mantis is entertaining and the action is great. As a story, it doesn’t quite hold together, but it’s functional enough and as already established, the story is really just an excuse to get to the action. Which, again, is copious and well done. I liked this a bit better than the aforementioned Heroes of the East, but I’d put it in the same territory of movies that aren’t essential, but which could be interesting for students of the genre. **1/2


Rich Little’s Christmas Carol – It’s Dickens’ classic story, with Rich Little playing basically every part himself. He plays each part as himself doing an impression of someone else playing the part. Does that make sense? So Rich Little is playing Marley by doing an impression of Nixon playing Marley. It’s an insane conceit and it makes the process of watching the movie more of a meta-exercise than an entertainment in itself. I mean, we all know A Christmas Carol and this isn’t a particularly good retelling of it, but I couldn’t help being transfixed by the sheer audacity of the thing.

It’s also a bit of a time capsule in that most of the impressions aren’t exactly timeless. W.C. Fields as Scrooge! Truman Capote as Tiny Tim! Many of these weren’t recognizable to me, and it’s also not like Little’s impressions are that good. Though I did kinda appreciate that the three ghosts of Christmas were all famous screen detectives. It adds an extra meta level to the proceedings. Rich Little impersonating Peter Falk playing Columbo as the Ghost of Christmas Past! Why famous screen detectives? Damned if I know, but I can’t help but watch . Not really recommended, except for people interested in this deeply weird gimmick. I think this sorta defies rating?


There are definitely a few more films I want to track down before I start in on the Movie Awards and Top 10 list, but I’m guessing we’re in the homestretch now, so it shouldn’t be too long. Because I know you’re all on the edge of your seat. Just keep calm, it’s coming.