Sensory Enthnography Lab

First heard about what was going on at this place from this Vulture article:

The most exciting documentary films being made today come not from a brand-name auteur or even some up-and-coming, Sundance-anointed visionary. Rather, they come from a place called the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, which sounds more like somewhere an ophthalmologist might send you than a source of great filmmaking.

Less a lab and more a collection of like-minded individuals, the Sensory Ethnography Lab’s (SEL) first widely distributed release was the experimental documentary Sweetgrass, an observational, immersive, quietly lyrical portrait of a 150-mile journey involving a group of Montana cowboys and a massive herd of sheep, directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash. The film didn’t contextualize; it didn’t feature talking heads; it didn’t try to inform, as so many nonfiction films try to do. Rather, it just let us soak in the experience of this grueling, majestic journey.

Reading The Boston Globe while back home, all the movie critics included Manakamana on their top tens:

On the one hand, grateful they called my attention to this movie.  On the other: kind of bullshit to get me excited about a movie that it’s not exactly easy to see.  Serves me right I guess for not following the ethnographic documentary scene a little more closely.  Maybe I never shudda left Cambridge at all.

Stumbling in the direction of a solution


Inspector Timothy Dowd, right, at work in July 1977, told reporters that his job as the leader of the special task force hunting the Son of Sam serial killer was “to prepare to be lucky.” Credit Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times

NY Times obituary of Timothy Dowd, the detective in charge of finding Son Of Sam:

Ms. Begg said in an in­ter­view on Mon­day that her fa­ther had dis­dained tele­vi­sion dra­mas about the po­lice be­cause they were un­re­al­is­tic about po­lice work — all ex­cept one, she said: “Colum­bo.” That se­ries, es­pe­cial­ly pop­u­lar in the 1970s, starred Pe­ter Falk as an un­tidy, seem­ing­ly dis­tract­ed de­tec­tive in Los An­ge­les who solved cas­es by pok­ing around in a prac­ticed but ran­dom fash­ion and stum­bling in the di­rec­tion of a so­lu­tion.

“That’s how it’s done,” she said her fa­ther ex­plained to her.

In the biggest case of his ca­reer, when he fi­nal­ly came face to face with the killer, In­spec­tor Dowd said he knew he would be able to dis­cuss the crimes with him.

“I told him we had nev­er abused him or crit­i­cized him in the press, and he agreed,” In­spec­tor Dowd said at the time.

And Mr. Berkowitz’s first words to him?

“In­spec­tor, you fi­nal­ly got me. I guess this is the end of the trail.”


Who was it who recommended this to me?  Hayes?  Thanks!  It’s on Netflix Instant.

Heyerdahl’s third wife was Miss France 1954:


Charlie Starkweather

Kids in the midwest only get to see even modest levels of glamour if they happen to be on school trips to one or another of the midwestern cities: K.C., Omaha, St. Louis, the Twin Cities.  In some, clearly, this lack of glamour festers.  Charles Starkweather, in speaking about his motive for killing all those people, had this to say: “I never ate in a high-class restaurant, I never seen the New York Yankees play, I never been to Los Angeles…”



Roads by Larry McMurtry


I can’t get enough of these Larry McMurtry non-fiction books, as I’ve discussed before and another time and one other time.  In this book, McMurtry drives American highways, writing down anything that occurs to him or seems interesting:

The most interesting thing that ever happened to me in southern Oklahoma happened when I was a boy.  My backwoods uncle Jeff Dobbs took me deep in the woods, to the cabin of an aged Choctaw preacher, an old man said to have the power to draw out tumors.  In his small cabin there were long rows of Mason jars, each containing a tumor that had been drown out.  It was dim in the cabin.  I couldn’t see what was in the jars very clearly, but it definitely wasn’t string beans or pickled peaches.  I was very impressed and not a little frightened.  Uncle Jeff knew a few words of Choctaw — listening to him talk to the old man was when I first realized there were languages other than English.

More than fifty years after I peered at them in the gloom of the old preacher’s cabin, the shelves of tumors reappeared in Pretty Boy Floyd, the first of two novels I wrote with Diana Ossana.  This time “the cancers,” as they are referred to, appear as decoration in a backwoods honky-tonk.

He muses on how the great travel writers tend be into only one type of landscape (McMurtry’s is the plains):

Charles Doughty lived almost his whole life in a wet country but wrote his great book about the desert – the same deserts would later draw the best out of Wilfred Thesiger, St. John Philby, T. E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, and Freya Stark.  Aurel Stein, Sven Hedin, Charles Marvin, Mildred Cable and Francesca French (the nuns of the Gobi), Curzon, and Ney Elias returned again and again to central Asia.  Humboldt, Alfred Russell Wallace, and Henry Bates took their genius to the Amazon; while Mr. Darwin looked hard wherever he went.  Certainly, when it came to those finches in the Galapagos, he looked every bit as hard as Picasso looked at Matisse.

Charles Doughty

But even the ocean interests McMurtry, an epic reader:

My drives across the American land had taken me far enough that I had begun to feel a vague urge to try a different mode of travel.  For the past month or so I had been reading the leisurely, tolerant travel books of the English zoologist F. D. Ommanney, a man who knows a lot about fish, and a lot, also, about the world’s oceans and the people who live beside them – particularly the island peoples of the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific.  F. D. Ommanney was a fish finder, a man who, in the years after World War II, puttered around in remote oceans attempting to estimate whether a given stretch of ocean contained fish enough to make commercial fishing profitable.  I think, though, that what he cared about was the sea, not the fishing.  In books such as A Draught of Fishes, The Shoals of Capricorn, Eastern Windows, and South Latitude, he describes his journeys through the seas and islands so appealingly that a landlocked person such as myself begins to feel that he has really been missing something: that is, the world’s oceans, along whose trade routes – invisible highways – the great ships proceed.

The appeal of F. D. Ommanney’s books – fairly popular in the 1950s but mostly forgotten now – is their intimacy with the sea and its ways, and also with the ways of people whose lives are bound to the sea.  Conrad and Melville wrote powerfully of the oceans, but their works don’t exactly bring one into an intimacy with the world of waters.  In Conrad and also in Melville the sea is too powerful, too often the environment of crisis, to be merely appealing.  Though these great writers see the ocean’s beauty they rarely allow the reader to be unaware that this beauty comes with a threat, moral or physical or both.

Ommanney is not a novelist – he is just a man with a deep interest in the natural world, particularly with the world of the ocean; through many travels he preserves a fond curiosity about the lives of peoples of the islands, people who can scarcely imagine a life apart from the sea.

Fragrant Harbour

While driving in Arizona, this occurs to McMurtry:

Near Wilcox there’s a famous tourist stop advertising THE THING – in fact an Anasazi mummy.

(actually this article seems to suggest it’s a fake made by a well-known maker of sideshow artifacts)

The Thing

McMurtry gets going on the Plains Indians wars, and Ranald Mackenzie:

Mackenzie was a highly effective officer, one of the most skilled and determined to fight on the plains frontier.  But he was not a happy man.  Juste before he was to marry, in 1883, he went crazy and spent the remaining six years of his life in an insane asylum in New York State.  Ranald Mackenzie’s insanity is one of the strange, haunting mysteries thrown up by the frontier conflicts.  Many pioneer women went crazy, and it was not hard to see why; the women were not necessarily overdelicate, either.  The living conditions were just too bleak, too isolating.  But the insanity of Ranald Mackenzie, one of the most disciplined and succesful officers to participate in the campaigns of the plains frontier, is evidence that the price of winning the west was not simple and not low, even for the winners, not when one considers that Ranald Mackenzie, the soldier who took the surrender of Quanah Parker and the Kwahadi Comanches, ended his days in a nuthouse, in 1889, not long before the massacre at Wounded Knee.

Wikipedi tells us: “He bought a Texas ranch and was engaged to be married; however, he began to demonstrate odd behavior which was attributed to a fall from a wagon at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in which he injured his head. Showing signs of mental instability, he was retired from the Army on March 24, 1884 for “general paresis of the insane”.[5]”

Driving in LA, some reflections on the movie biz:

The studio executives I would go and talk to about one project or another were seldom even half my age.  Now they were only a little more than a third my age.  I was in my sixties, the were in their twenties.  SOme of them seemed puzzled that an older person would still be writing screenplays.  If I happened to mention, by way of illustration, a movie made as long ago as the 1950s – twenty years before any of them were born – they looked blank and, in some cases, a little disdainful.  I might as well have been talking about the Dead Sea scrolls.  There is always a listener (the executive) and a note taker at these meetings.  If I mentioned Touch of Evil or Roman Holiday the note taker would dutifully take a note.

I don’t know why this age gap surprised me.  Hollywood, as I said, has always been about beauty and desire, neither of which is entirely comfortable with age.  Garbo was not wrong to retire.

Near Acoma, New Mexico:

Coronado came past these pueblos as he sought the cities of gold, which means that the Indians of this region have experienced an unusually long colonial oppresion.  Acoma, the sky city built on top of a 365-foot bluff, revolted in 1599 and killed a party of tax collectors sent by Governor Juan de Onate, who proved to be a revengeful man.  He overwhelmed the Acomas, took several hundred prisoners, and cut one foot off any male over twenty years old, probably raking in a lot of seventeen- and eighteen-year old feet in the process…

I’ve been to Acoma many times, where the concessionaires are – to put it mildly – not friendly; and I’ve visited, at one time or another, most of the pueblos near Albuquerque.  I’m not comfortable there and am even less comfortable in the communities north of Santa Fe.  These are all places where the troubles are old and the troubles are deep.  The plains below the Sangre de Christo may be supremely attractive visually, as they were to Miss O’Keefe, but socially they are very uncomfortable – the result of that long oppression.  North of Santa Fe is where the toughest of the Indians and of the Spaniards survived.  It’s not a good place to have a car break down – not if you’re an Anglo.

Merry Christmas

Esther [Judy Garland] finally gets to meet John properly when he is a guest at the Smiths’ house party, although her chances of romancing him don’t go to plan when, after all the guests are gone and he is helping her turn off the gas lamps throughout the house, he tells her she uses the same perfume as his grandmother and that she has “a mighty strong grip for a girl”…

At the ball, Esther fills up a visiting girl’s (Lucille Ballard, played by June Lockhart) dance card with losers because she thinks Lucille is a rival of Rose’s. But when Lucille turns out to be interested in Lon, Esther switches her dance card with Lucille’s and instead dances herself with the clumsy and awkward partners. After being rescued by Grandpa, she is overwhelmed when John unexpectedly turns up after somehow managing to obtain a tuxedo, and the pair dance together for the rest of the evening. Later on, John proposes to Esther and she accepts.

Esther returns home to an upset Tootie. She is soothed by the poignant “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Tootie, however, becomes more upset at the prospect of the family’s move and runs downstairs, out into the cold to destroy the snowmen they have made. Mr. Smith sees his daughter’s upsetting outburst from an upstairs window.

Remember to let your kids smoke a cigarette.

Stand up for The Interview (as a movie)

There’s a strain I’ve noticed in pieces about The Interview of offhandedly dismissing the movie itself.

Here’s Ross Douthat, for example:

But if you care about the movies, then what’s happened to Seth Rogen and James Franco’s comedy is also related to the depressing story that Harris has to tell. Not because a coarse comedy about two idiot celebrities assassinating the North Korean dictator represents some kind of brilliant alternative to the sameness of sequels, but because its fate will become (already has become, in fact) a cautionary tale in an industry that’s already so risk-averse, so fearful of political controversy, so determined to make movies that sell equally well in every overseas market, that the North Koreans themselves were one the last available real-world villains for its blockbusters.

Or Clooney:

This was a dumb comedy that was about to come out. With the First Amendment, you’re never protecting Jefferson; it’s usually protecting some guy who’s burning a flag or doing something stupid. This is a silly comedy, but the truth is, what it now says about us is a whole lot.

I already took this fight to Twitter, vs. The National Review Online’s AJ Delgado:


(source is Box Office Mojo)

I don’t get it.

I have a clear bias here: I have never met but like Franco and Rogen and I like people involved in The Interview.  But I don’t think that’s what got me steamed.

The Interview, to me, seems like a bold, interesting movie starring two actors who’ve been making cool, interesting choices for over a decade.

Yeah, it’s easy to make fun of James Franco’s pretentiousness (and what were you like at 22?). But you know what? a) he’s done it better than you and b) fuck you. Here’s a dude who’s using his fame to explore whatever art or avenue engages his curiosity. What do you want from the guy? He’s spending his time and energy experimenting, exploring, and improving himself.

And Rogen? Here is a consistently positive, jolly presence in American public life who’s sharp and self-effacing and honest. Watch him speak bluntly to Letterman about smoking weed:

Are you as open about your habits, crutches, and pleasures?

These guys are both terrific actors, they are smart, and they are entrepreneurial.

They made a bold, risky movie. Yeah, it’s got dumb jokes in it. All successful movie comedies have dumb jokes in them. All comedy that’s worth anything risks being silly.

But these guys are making what they love. Franco and Rogen are unabashed about their love of dumb fun laughs. Along the way, the movie they made also appears to be about fame, global politics, the intersection of news and entertainment, friendship, male insecurity — how many A list actors with the clout to make stuff are consistently picking projects as inventive as these guys?

Look, I haven’t seen the movie. Maybe it’s terrible. Maybe it’s amazing. Probably, like 90% of movies, it’s in between. But I don’t like a knee jerk critical reaction that it’s dumb. (I don’t really like critics at all, to be honest.) If you think The Interview sucks, then you star in one of the best TV shows ever, go on to make cool, fun, talked-about and also wildly profitable comedies, or win an Oscar for single handedly carrying a pretty experimental movie that not only was a huge hit but also cinematically daring and innovative, and build the clout to create your own $44 million projects on the strength of your talent and very perceptive grasp of what stories an audience of millions wants to see.

(I guess Clooney has done all that.  OK, Clooney gets a pass.)

But of course, you can’t think The Interview sucks because you haven’t gotten to see it!

What cheesed me off, of course, is that I think all this shows a snobbish, lazy, kneejerk, snarky lack of respect for comedy, and how hard it is to make comedy.

In these distressing times, we should be honoring our comedians.  Even if they do make a lot of dick jokes.