Stirring Shakespeare’s Tragedies: A Text Analysis Project

Introduction

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A ten word topic model represented in its full chaos from the Mandala browser

I wanted to try a new way of looking at texts that I already knew and the Mandala Browser looked like it was an interesting way to “stir the archive” so that these texts would become “weird” and perhaps show me a new way to read them. Once I learned that the browser came with Shakespeare’s tragedies built into it, I began to think of things that I could look for, connections that I already knew existed but which I might be able to prove were a bigger deal or a more wide-ranging phenomenon rather than a thing that English professors just tell their students about so that they can write papers with tenuous connections to the text. Specifically, I was looking for a correlation between the way nature acted and the state’s dysfunction which appears throughout Shakespeare’s tragedies. This involved setting up magnets with groups of words like “storm gale wind tempest” and “anger ire insanity insane angry” to see what overlap there was, but that didn’t prove as useful as I wanted it to be.

I then looked to a different way of finding related words and remembered that topic modeling was an interesting option. It would give me a list of words that were related which I could then input into the Mandala browser to see what those connections would be. This proved to be a fruitful endeavor which separated out my bias and allowed the texts to show for themselves what they were about. Some of the groups of words that I used were more obvious than others, but all provided at least a few interesting speeches that I would not have connected without a lot of time spent trying to match things in my head. This was an effective way to stir the archive and see texts in a new, colorfully connected way.

Methods and Materials

The two products used for this project were Mandala Browser and TopicModelingTool, both of which are free and open source. The Mandala Browser came with a built-in document that has all the speeches from Shakespeare’s tragedies separated and indexed for ease of use. When you create a magnet in the Mandala Browser, every speech which contains that word is pulled from the edge of the screen to orbit the magnet. When you create another magnet with a different word (or words) the same happens and a mini-magnet appears in between them around which orbits the speeches which contain both words (or sets of words). This allows you to see how the two words are used together in the texts. You can create as many magnets as you want and the program will show you how they are all connected with mini-magnets, but anything over 4 magnets quickly became unruly to work with.

Once I realized that wasn’t really doing anything with my initial method, I looked for a quick and easy topic modeling tool and lo, the creatively named TopicModelingTool, found on Alan Liu’s DH Toychest, was exactly what I was looking for. I had to create a .txt document of all the tragedies and strip out excess information from the Gutenberg Project and other sources. Once I had a file, I put it through the TopicModelingTool on the default settings (200 passes through the text, 10 topics with 10 words per topic) and got some interesting results. I tried putting each word of the first topic into Mandala with a different magnet for every word. 10 magnets, though, is too much and the Mandala window became a mess of lines and circles and colors.

So I went back to TopicModelingTool and gave it different parameters (1000 passes through the text, 20 topics, 3 words per topic). This produced much more manageable results and when I put each topic into Mandala in the same way and got a nice, easy to read and work with result. Each one that I tried produced connections from various plays and expanded beyond what I had previously thought about Shakespeare’s plays when I conceived of them as individual works rather than parts of a body of work. What this project provided me was not a deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s methods or writing style but rather an alternative way of reading his plays. The Mandala Browser makes each speech a separate “work” which it then mixes and matches based on the user’s input. What is shows is not groundbreaking new ways to understand a text, it is a way to deform and distort the texts so that the user can read them with new eyes.

Results: Some Case Studies

Good Night Friends

When I first saw this topic appear in the TopicModelingTool it seemed like such an obvious trio, especially in that order. It is no wonder that the words “good” and “night” and “friends” would appear near each other in Shakespeare’s texts because they appear so frequently in my own life. But when I entered them into the Mandala Browser, I found some surprising connections between them, or lack thereof.Good Night Friends

It turns out that while there are a good number of speeches where both “good” and “friends” appear (38 total) and even more where “good” and “night” share a space (89), only two speeches in the entirety of Shakespeare’s tragedies share all three words. The first is Hamlet’s in Scene 2.2:

“Very well. Follow that lord; and look you mock him not. My good friends, I’ll leave you till night: you are welcome to Elsinore.”

Here Hamlet dismisses his buddies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after setting their plan to have a play out his evil new dad’s murderous ways. It is a somewhat standard farewell and only the “good” modifier of friends gives any indication and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are more than just hangers on. The other speech comes from The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra as Antony asks his servants to tend to him one last time:

 Tend me to-night; May be it is the period of your duty: Haply you shall not see me more; or if, A mangled shadow: perchance to-morrow You’ll serve another master. I look on you As one that takes his leave. Mine honest friends, I turn you not away; but, like a master Married to your good service, stay till death: Tend me to-night two hours, I ask no more, And the gods yield you for’t! (4.2.24-33)

The “good” in this speech is related not to the quality of the friendship but to the standard of service that Antony’s reliable house servants have provided. And “friend” is modified by “honest,” an entirely different although no less heartfelt descriptor of what a friend might be. Finally, “night” seems to appear thanks to the hyphenated version of “tonight,” but I do not see that as a mistake, rather it is an evocation of a time and a melancholy that haunts the entire scene. It is soon Antony’s end, and he has few to spend his short remaining time with than those whose job it is to serve him. He still has genuine affection for them or he would not call them “honest friends,” but they are no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

This is one of the interesting outcomes in a topic model. Even with a relatively small sample size there are still patterns to see. A brief glance at the speeches which held both “good” and “night” in their length showed a roughly equal number of examples which paired the two together in their standard farewell meanings and those which scattered them among many more words, though they were often used more than once in a given speech if they were not connected directly. It is this kind of nebulous connection made more concrete that topic modeling visualized through the Mandala browser can provide. A topic need not be entirely connected by each element equally and wholly, but strong connections between each element individually will make for a stronger whole. With this topic we can see Shakespeare construct night-time gatherings of friends or people brought together by a common cause across plays.

Life Nature Death

This is the most interesting topic produced by the TopicModelingTool because it shows more of a strong core connection between all three words (7 instances of all three words appearing in one speech), each of which is a huge topic in its own right in Shakespeare’s tragedies, and which also demonstrates a glitch in the system which may yet prove meaningful.

Life Nature Death

Since this is not a giant research paper, I’ll only examine two of the speeches which contain all three topic words. The first comes from Act 2 Scene 2 of Macbeth as the title character tells his wife of his completed assassination:

“Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep’, the innocent sleep, Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care, The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature‘s second course, Chief nourisher in life‘s feast,–” (2.2.46-51).

Although the scene is entirely about life and death, and the nature of murder, this particular speech is actually about the quality of sleep which Macbeth imagines he has murdered along with his friend and king in his quest for the throne. And yet, all three words appear in the last line of the speech, the point where he extols the virtues of sleep and laments the way he has killed it for the foreseeable future. The topic words combine in a way both expected, all together and in the aftermath of an assassination, and unexpected, in reference to sleep.

I mentioned above that this topic did encounter a glitch, and it is due to the name of one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, The Life of Timon of Athens. I have not read this play and I have no real context for it, but the title’s use of the word “life” means that of the 7 speeches where all three words overlap, 3 come from this play. In all three cases, the only occurrence of “life” is in the title of the play, which counts for Mandala but not the TopicModelingTool. This is an instructive glitch, because it highlights the issues that may occur when going from one tool to another. There is no way of telling Mandala to ignore the title of a play when it searches for these speeches containing a word, even though the other tool does not “see” the title of the play. Perhaps this is also a nudge towards the real use of topic models, which is as a loosely defined and even more loosely connected set of words which may have some deeper meaning to them. Like I said earlier, it is not necessary to only examine the speeches where all three topic words appear and in fact, the number of speeches containing two of the topic words (78 in total for this topic) are probably the more fruitful areas of interest for a more in depth research project.

Discussion

There are two large takeaways from this project. The first is the efficacy and even necessity of using multiple tools in conjunction with each other. How one tool informs another is a relationship that cannot be fully understood until you just play around with them for a bit. Experimentation and serious playfulness will lead a researcher such as myself to connections that I might not have guessed at on my own and with a rudimentary understanding of how the tools work. It takes fiddling to fully grasp the potential of a tool, it takes breaking it by asking it to do something it cannot do and it takes asking it to do something strange that it ends up being great at to really discover the multitude of possibilities. And then it takes even more fiddling with the tools in relation to each other to discover how they might work together. Each tool is good for some things and not good for others. In this case, the TopicModelingTool is good at creating these topics but it is terrible at actually letting you read the texts or see how the topics are formed by their signifying words. That is where the Mandala browser enters the picture, as it both visualizes those connections and brings the researcher back to the original text. Each tool might serve its own small purpose in a research project, but it is only when they are used together that they become as powerful as they can be.

 

The other lesson learned is that it is ok and sometimes even necessary to throw out a research question if it is not working with the tools you are using in a data analysis project. I had this initial idea to look at the way nature interacts with the state of a character’s inner mind at the outset of this project. But that yielded no fruit. Instead, I found that the tools led the way, at least in this preliminary, exploratory setting. If I wanted to revisit that initial research question, I might try to find topics using the TopicModelingTool which coalesce around nature, and perhaps see what speeches contain those words and then investigate whether those speeches are in response to a change in a character’s being. I would have never known to do that, though, without this prework of discovering what the tools do separately and together, and how I might use their disparate abilities to answer that initial question. The scope of this project does not align with the scope of that question, but I am glad to have gotten the preliminary discovery work out of the way so that I might use these two tools in future projects, and so that I have a path to follow if I want to find out how other tools work.

A Computer and a Data Set of One’s Own: My DH Future

matrixWhen I wrote the first paper for my Digital Humanities class, I cheekily didn’t include the last bit of what my professors asked for because I didn’t really know what to write. They were looking for how I thought I might use DH ideas or methods in my own work now that I had learned what those were in a general sense. But I still didn’t really know what the field was or how it all came together, despite my four pages saying that I did. Now, at the end of the semester, I feel like I have a tighter grasp on the kind of work that digital humanists do and I can finally answer that question, so here’s the answer.


As for my own entry into the Digital Humanities, I’m not sure exactly what it will look like. Part of this comes from the fact that I have not yet settled on a specialty or field of my own, and so I cannot say with certainty what kinds of projects I would be interested in doing nor can I theorize what they might look like specifically because I do not know what the data set would be. But the great thing about Digital Humanities is that it is a flexible field. One needs only a computer and a data set of one’s own to do the majority of DH work. One of my projects in this class involved combining two data tools to find and illuminate thematic connections in Shakespeare’s tragedies that might not be readily apparent. Both programs ran in java and were relatively simple to understand, even if intuiting what purpose they served was not quite as obvious as their explicit functionality. That project taught me that tools do no a DH project make, at least not on their own. It took my own synthesis to bring out the best in either tool and to truly mine the data set for what it was worth. But it was also not beyond my means nor a reasonable expectation of time dedicated to figuring out what I was doing. The tinker’s mentality must be strong in a Digital Humanist, and I feel like I have that, so it will not be a barrier to entry for me.

Another project, Harlem Echoes, showcased an even more valuable mentality to have if you want to be a DH scholar: teamwork. There the entire class worked together to first create a properly formatted and error-proof version of Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows, a poetry collection from the Harlem Renaissance. After we had that framework, which was not easy, we came up with ideas for essays which would illuminate different aspects of the poetry and the poet’s life as well as develop some simple tools like a word cloud pulled from the thematic tags we each assigned to the poems we corrected. This was a complicated and drawn out process, but because we were working together towards a common goal it felt like less work and it really fostered a sense of community between us. We had some outside help for especially difficult WordPress things, so we even got to have some appreciation for the way that DH scholars often rely upon the expertise of others when it comes to more technical parts of the work. English students, especially grad students, often feel like lone wolves, out only for themselves and in search of singular achievements, but it was the collaboration that really formed the core of that experience and it is certainly a mindset that I would like to maintain throughout my work.

The final project we did were individual works of e-lit. I made mine using the Twine tool, and through a great deal of trial and error, I finally made something that I could be proud of. During the semester we had Harvard scholar and really awesome guy Vincent Brown visit our class to talk with us about his DH project, an interactive timeline and map of the slave revolt in Jamaica between 1760 and 1761. It is an amazing project and Brown spoke about how he wanted to use DH tools to tell the story of this revolt, a story mostly hidden in diaries and letters. He talked of the decisions he made in order to tell that story, and how they differed from his more traditional telling of the story in his upcoming book. This storytelling mentality really lit a spark in my brain and, when I do create DH projects in the future, it is that perspective that I will likely take. It meshes nicely with the Twine project that I worked on because doing something like that focuses the creator’s attention on the decision making process and the effect each decision will have on the reader’s experience in a way that traditional story writing had not done for me in the past. I quickly realized, for example, that I could not just throw my old work into this new medium and expect to get the same results. I instead had to re-write the entire thing and change what I was doing from the ground up in order to craft the experience I wanted the reader to have. The user experience is paramount in the way one presents DH work, and the creator must take a long look at everything they do in order to make sure that what they are saying is what they want to say. Johanna Drucker reminds us always that every choice means something, that people are not just dots on a map and that the world does not abide by our lines and separations. The conscious decision making process is one central to DH, especially when it comes to visualizing any data connections that I might find.

The last element of Digital Humanities work is the part that is both the most promising and the most likely to keep me from fully embracing it. The unfortunate truth is that nobody quite knows what to make of DH projects yet. Heck, even Vincent Brown asked us what DH is and if his project really fit into its parameters. Because DH is more rightly seen as a set of guiding principles rather than a set-in-stone philosophy or methodology, it is more open to experimentation and new ideas. That is the positive side, the thing that gets Digital Humanists excited to forge new paths and discover new ways of seeing. But the negative side is that the resulting projects then enter a nebulous world where they are often seen as holding less value than their more traditional scholarship counterparts hold when it comes to, say, evaluating whether or not a professor deserves tenure or even at the hiring stage before that. At Lehigh we are still working out how a DH project might count towards a dissertation or as part of a Master’s thesis, and what our school ends up deciding will be different from what every other school decides, so it may be that none of my work, if I were to include a DH section in either work, would mean much of anything to anybody else. That makes it very difficult to dedicate a lot of time and effort in a project that might ultimately be of little value. I suppose that the personal growth from doing such a project would be a benefit, but in the current academic world anything that does not improve your chances at achieving the next step might as well knock you back a few.

The reasons to engage in the Digital Humanities are numerous and varied. It asks you to think in ways that you are not trained to think, and that is always a good thing. It encourages you to work with people outside your small departmental bubble, which can only expand your field of vision beyond what it would normally be. And it encourages you to be thoughtful about your decisions, about the way that your present your findings, and about the effect your words or pictures or whatever have on your audience, these are never bad things to consider. But the perilous reception might cause me to keep away, at least at first, until I build some kind of reputation for myself. I will never rule out DH projects because they can be more exciting than traditional scholarship, but I will be sure to weigh the pros and cons in each particular situation so that I know what I might be giving up and what I might be adding to my work.

 

Turn and Face the Strange: How Digital Humanists Embrace a Culture of Adaptation

(This post was originally written as an assignment in my grad level DH class. Part of the assignment was to write about how I might use DH in my own work in the future, but when I wrote this I had very little idea of what was possible in the field. Now, in the process of revising and adding to the assignments to complete them for the portfolio, I have included an addendum post which covers that question in some detail.)


 

As will happen to any new entry onto a field of combatants, Digital Humanities has taken its dings here and there. Some seek to destroy it, claiming that it has no part – or no special part – in the field of humanities, while others are critical of its lack of standards and cultural awareness. These are not entirely wrongheaded arguments against DH, but they do miss some key elements of the field that are seeking to address the problems it finds itself in. Digital humanists are quite aware of what they’re going through, and because of the flexibility inherent in the digital realm they are able to turn themselves to face the issues present in their field with more ease than traditional sections of the humanities.

 

Perhaps one of the strongest attacks against the Digital Humanities comes from David Golumbia, who goes through some of the claims that Digital humanists make and demonstrates how destructive those ideas can be to the humanities as a whole in his essay, “Death of a Discipline.” Included in his wrath is the idea that Digital humanists who, “wish to participate in literary studies … need to express much more clearly their commitment to existing forms of scholarly practice and their arguments for rejecting them in their own practice” (158). This hostility comes from one of the areas where Digital humanists are trying to change the way their institutions work, specifically that of questioning the value of individual authorship when it comes to papers and projects. The Digital Humanities is an inherently cooperative field and the more open process of coming up with new scholarship in it is not an attack on the old way but rather a recognition that the old methodology just does not work within new paradigms of research. Their only want is to have the collaborative work they do count towards the standards of advancement within the academic sphere (Gold 148). Of course more traditional research will still be done, and Digital humanists are not opposed to the traditional just because it is traditional, but the new way of doing things must be held in equal value, not seen as a sub-field with correspondingly less value.

There are places, though, where Digital humanists are working to tear down old ideas. A major example is that of open publishing. Where the orthodoxy of the academy has always been about holding research as part of its intellectual property, Digital humanists often see the research they create, including the tools they create to do their work, as being part of the knowledge base of the internet. It adapts the internet’s language and ideals because it is immersed within it, so open source becomes a kind of primary directive, and the free sharing of the final results (along with the documentation of the process getting to those results) is encouraged. This is yet another example of the Digital Humanities seeing a problem, that of knowledge being kept from people who would get the most out of it, and solving it by facing it head on. There are some drawbacks to such an open publishing paradigm, including the potential lack of rigor that such freely published and quickly changeable texts might encourage, but those negatives are balanced by the wider and freer spread of information, at least in the eyes of many Digital humanists.

But the complaints about Digital Humanities are not just based on their participation in or destruction of traditional academic procedures, they also stem from the kind of work that Digital humanists do. Golumbia laments (again) the loss of an old way of doing something to DH’s new world order when he claims that, “DH recommends the demotion of interpretive close readings as the hallmark of literary study, especially in its widespread deployment of ‘distant reading’” (160). But again, while the majority of DH scholars may participate more often in “distant reading,” studying a large body of texts using statistical means among others, than they do interpretive close readings, they make no value judgements about their research over that of the standard English scholar, just as a Victorianist does not claim to be better or do better work than a Modernist. They are just interested in different areas of the same very wide field. That is, distant reading will not supplant close reading as the dominant means of understanding literature. But it might augment close readings of texts by providing an overarching understanding of a time period or genre or even individual body of work through which a traditional scholar can frame his work.

Golumbia is not the only critic of the Digital Humanities, either. Alan Liu asks a straightforward question in his essay, “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” It is a good question, because cultural criticism has become one of the major subgenres of the wider Humanities. Liu argues that, so far, the Digital Humanities has just been a servant to Humanities as a whole, and the only way he sees for Digital humanists to become full-fledged humanists is to start engaging in the dominant mode of conversation in the field, that of cultural criticism. He is just one in a sea of voices calling for increased participation from the Digital Humanities in the realms of conventional Humanities. Johanna Drucker is unhappy with the ways the digital part of Digital Humanities has overshadowed the humanities element. Specifically, she wonders in her essay “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship,” “Have the humanities had any impact on the digital environment? Can we create graphical interfaces and digital platforms from humanistic methods?” (1). She goes on to criticize the way Digital humanists have embraced tools like Google Maps to present information because it misrepresents location and movement between one spot and another as fixed elements where the reality would necessarily be more complex than that. Specifically, she presents the DH project, Mapping the Republic of Letters, as an exemplar of the spatial (and temporal) conflation that troubles her. It shows the journeys letters written in the 18th century took from sender to receiver but does so in straight lines rather than the decidedly more twisted and fraught journeys they must have taken in the real world. Both Drucker and Liu present this distance between the digital and the humanities as a problem, and it certainly is one, but Digital humanists have seen that this is the case and so are beginning to address it. That a project showing the correspondence journeys is even happening at all is a big step from the earlier work Digital humanists were doing, organizing and archiving all sorts of writing. This kind of constructive criticism is what propels a new field into its maturity.

Because seemingly all writings about DH must include a reference to its beginnings with Father Roberto Busa, let him serve as a model citizen in the DH community. Here was a man who saw a way for new technology to enhance his Index Thomisticus, a giant, searchable, collection of all of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s writings. He sought out people in the digital industries, specifically at IBM, to help him figure out what he was doing and how to do it. In creating punchcards for every word written by Aquinas, he was performing a mix of methods old and new, for it was a very old kind of thing he was making, a concordance, in a very new way. His work allows one to search for all the occurrences of a given word in Aquinas’s writing and that seems as helpful to a scholar studying Aquinas as it can be. The development cost of this kind of work must have been gigantic, but as of 2005, it is freely accessible on the internet for any and all to use. The Digital Humanities can be an essential part of the Humanities if it continues its pattern of changing itself in the face of criticism from within and without. Like Busa switched from punchcards to magnetic tape and later internet code, so too can the Digital Humanities adapt with the times and become more than just a servant at the table of the broader humanities.

 

Works Cited

Drucker, Johanna. “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Print Edition ed. U of Minnesota, 2012. Print.

Gold, Matthew. “Digital Humanities.” Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media (2014): 143-48. Print.

Golumbia, David. “Death of a Discipline.” differences 25.1 (2014): 156-176.

Review: Children of Men (2006)

Children of men duo

In 2006, I saw a trailer for a movie that looked pretty cool. It sold two things: a nearly-apocalyptic world and that world’s potential salvation in the form of a pregnant woman, the first in a 10 year period. Looking back, it also lays out basically the entire film and yet it gets at very little of what makes the movie a very special example of the artform. But let’s just pause on that for a second.

If you ask 10 relatively knowledgeable people to name one thing about Children of Men, you’ll probably get some kind of comment about the long takes it features so heavily. This was not a new trick for Alfonso Cuaron nor was it the last time he’d go to this well, given the spectacular opening 20 minute section of Gravity. It is, you might say, his gimmick. I was impressed with this gimmick the first few times I watched Children of Men because, well, gimmicks are impressive, especially those that take a heck of a lot of timing and talent to pull off. Later on, though, I began to think of them in the more colloquial sense of the term “gimmick”, i.e. with a negative connotation. What does the movie have outside these trick shots? Does it even count if the shots have been digitally blended together? Do these long takes in fact detract from the film’s fairly powerful story and instead focus the audience’s attention on “look at me” filmmaking? So I thought, and so I have argued here. I turned on Children of Men, which at one point probably held the title for most rewatched movie in my adult life right at the beginning of my budding deeper appreciation for film.

children of Men

I think that might have something to do with why I turned on the film, actually. This was one of my first ever-so-slightly outside the mainstream films (it wasn’t shown at my local multiplex, I had to go instead to the arthouse theater in my closest city to see it) and I made sure all of my friends knew how great it was. But then I began to look further into the arthouse, I dug deeper into the past and went further afield into foreign cinema. Could I rightly go back to one of the films that I saw only at the beginning of those travels? Certainly not. I try not to be snobby about my taste in movies as much as possible, but I still have a slight tendency to overestimate the strange and underestimate the very normal but very good. With the gimmick tag attached to Children of Men, it never stood a chance of remaining on my top 100 lists and instead fell to the wayside of “movies I grew out of”.

And so now with all of that preamble out of the way, was I right about the gimmicky nature of Children of Men‘s aesthetics and did it rightfully fall out of favor? Well, no. The long takes in Children of Men are fancy, they are attention-grabbing, but most of all they’re integral to the way Cuaron crafts the deep sense of despair that permeates every frame. Take the film’s opening scene for example. It is effectively two shots long. The first is a wide shot of the interior of a cafe packed with shocked onlookers as they watch the news footage which reports that Baby Diego, the youngest person to be born, died earlier that day. You can hear quiet sobs but in the middle of it all Clive Owen’s dejected Theo pushes his way up to the counter and buys a coffee and then leaves. There’s a shot or two of the tv everybody else is looking at but mostly it places Theo as a man apart from the rest of the population. Later we learn that it’s because he’s already suffered his own great loss and has enveloped himself in a cocoon of unfeeling sadness. This is what they call depression.

children_of_men_explosion

The second shot is an exterior one and unlike the first it is a handheld shot which doesn’t only follow Theo as he walks out of the store and adds his sugar a hundred or two feet away but also takes some time to pan around the area outside the shop. We see some signs of life that look relatively normal and some out of place futuristic things, but most importantly we can immediately sense that this is not the London we are used to. It is a depressed city, a little 1984-ish and a lot dirty. We already begin to feel just how far man has fallen before the bomb that was in the cafe explodes. It shakes Theo and the camera and it takes both of them a few seconds to get their feet back under them. And then the shot ends with a woman walking out of the smoke holding her dismembered arm in her other hand.

The rest of the film uses the many long takes (most are not quite as long as the car attack and the final battle which get so much of the press, but longer than normal for sure) it is made of for the same purposes as it uses those two: to build the world seemlessly and to ground the characters within it definitively. The camera isn’t always attached directly to Theo nor does it ever stray too far from him so we don’t run the risk of losing him in the gray and gritty world the film so adroitly creates and populates with the end of humanity. That’s what hit me the most this time around. It’s such an engaging and creatively crafted film that I couldn’t help but get pulled into its sad and fully realized universe.

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It is, then, a triumph when, at the end of the film, the fighting stops for a moment and everybody watches as Theo, Kee, and her baby escape the fighting in a refugee camp thanks to the crying coming from the baby. It is not to brag about my willingness to cry that I say I teared up at this scene but rather to poke a finger in my own chest. How could I have decried the film for being just a cheap gimmick when those long takes are what creates the emotional connection to the film, pulling me deeper and further in to its dark vision of the future only to show the light at the end of the tunnel, even if only for a moment? Have I ever been so wrong about a movie before?

Review: Inherent Vice (2014)

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You can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far, and then you’ve got to get back up onto the freeway again.

If you need a clue that Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, is a film noir, look no further than Johnny Greenwood’s wonderful score. Where his earlier collaboration with the director on There Will Be Blood was all strings and tension, this score is more laid back, low key, mournful, and full of horns. The soundtrack, on the other hand, often points in the other direction. When the movie wants to be upbeat and exciting as it sometimes does, Anderson will use a previously written pop song like Can’s “Vitamin C” to give the movie that edge. It’s no secret by now that Anderson is a master, one of the best directors working and probably of all time, and his ability to pick songs and collaborators which fit so perfectly with what he wants to do is just one more example of his brilliance. That being said, Inherent Vice is not your typical Paul Thomas Anderson movie.

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Many of Anderson’s previous films have been focused on a monomaniacal character whose fanatical pursuit of some cause or idea, whether it be riches via oil or fame via porn, leads to a terrible end for said character. No such thing happens here, though Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc sure does pursue his missing ex-girlfriend and her missing current boyfriend. If that sentence confuses you, prepare to be mired in a plot that aims to be confounding rather than clear. I followed it for a good while until one new name too many dropped in my lap and I just threw my hands up and went for the ride. I’m sure the plot is comprehensible if you see it an additional time or two, but with so many side characters who show up for a scene to impart some piece of information about another side character and then do some drugs, I don’t think it really matters too much. I think the convoluted plot is just another joke. With each new encounter the absurdity builds. This is a very funny movie. I’m not sure you could go through and pick out lines that were funny out of context, but within the world of the film the increasingly farcical situations really worked for me.

That isn’t to say, though, that this film is a comedy. It is sad as often as it is hilarious. The thesis, if you can call it that, is that Doc is a relic of the past. His hippie nature is already outdated as the sixties turn into the seventies. The forces of evil aren’t just The Man anymore, and free love means getting pulled over by a cop because there are more than three people in the car with hair past their ears. Even Doc can’t hold on to his outsider status as much as he would like to. There is a contrast there between him and his frennemy, an LAPD detective named Bigfoot, played wonderfully by Josh Brolin. Bigfoot used to be a hippie but sometime before the film starts he got a hair cut and learned of the power that comes from civil rights violations. In some ways he is a character to be pitied, especially in his final scene, and his inability to cope with becoming The Man and getting mixed up in drug trafficking from the other side of the law is in stark relief to Doc’s ability to go with the flow. In fact, this is the most I’ve liked Joaquin Phoenix in about a decade for exactly that reason. Under Anderson’s direction he abandons all sense of self-seriousness in favor of a cool detachment that really works for the character and for him. He’s delightful when interacting with prostitutes, musicians, FBI agents, real estate magnate’s wives and girlfriends, and hopped up dentists alike. Doc’s existence is not an enviable one, though I very much enjoyed my time visiting it.

Inherent Vice

I think the most remarkable element of the movie is, if I may steal some of its vernacular, the vibe Anderson creates in part through long tracking shots of a very different variety from those that made him famous in the late nineties as a technically exciting filmmaker. The movie is propulsive in a slow, mellow way that never feels the pressure to conform to typical scene constructions or even typical story progression. So those shots which start wide on Doc and the other minor character he’s sharing the scene with and move ever so slowly closer and closer until they end as a close up of the two are basically the movie in miniature. What starts as an expansive tale of corruption and misdeeds ends in loneliness and uncertainty of a very personal nature. There is much in the world that Doc can’t control and although he has been willing to let that ride, it does make for a harshed buzz.