Monthly Archives: July 2010

Tea With Chris: Feral Yet Friendly

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are our favourite things from the internet this week:

Carl: Sam Anderson’s massive investigation into just what the hell James Franco is up to these days: A classic of post-New-Journalism or an incredibly self-absorbed making of minutia into monuments? In places it’s reminiscent of the very funny chapter of Jennifer Egan’s recent novel A Visit from the Goon Squad that takes the form of a Vanity Fair article, in which a novelist manque turned celebrity profiler gets so deeply confused (by way of David Foster Wallace-esque footnotes) in the course of an interview with a young starlet, over the issue of who is serving who in their exchange, that he has a psychotic break and ends up confusedly assaulting her. But because I have a (thankfully unmentioned) walk-on role in the events depicted, I can’t help sharing Anderson’s fascination. At the least, it’s an extraordinary, Oliver Sachs-like case of celebrity (and/or extreme attractiveness) as a sort of neurological phenomenon that can produce unpredictable perceptual side effects. It’s as if Franco is going to bed (on the few nights he does go to bed) and reciting to himself the closing credits of his day: “… with special guest James Franco in the role of James Franco.” Capgras Syndrome in reverse.

Chris: Joe McCulloch reviews Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (the movie).

Anonymous Twitter sadist “Discographies” dispatches lifetimes of music with 140 characters each.

And all-female L.A. crew Pink Dollaz finally release their first mixtape.

Margaux: Lynn Crosbie asks a good question: “What if these maniacs form real friendships and start traveling in packs?”

I just found Agnès Varda’s Ydessa, the Bears, and etc. (Ydessa, les ours et etc…). http://mubi.com/films/25438, 2004, 44 Min, 3 dollars.

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Super Couture

by Chris Randle

Earlier this month, publisher/critic/gadfly Dan Nadel went on Comics Comics to rant about the costumes from Marvel Studios’ upcoming Thor movie, which are still trickling out in press releases and breathless exclusives. (The specific production still that set him off is above.) Vacillating between drab Tolkienism and Jack Kirby’s original “Norse gods as space aliens” aesthetic, they’ve only duplicated that house style of superhero adaptations, Generic Steel. The colossal weirdness of Stan Lee and Kirby’s source material seems shriveled; you’d never guess that Thor was a series where deities exclaim “Verily!” and “Forsooth!” mid-fight, or where the protagonist temporarily became a frog, or where a villain named Ego the Living Planet debuted. A leaked trailer suggests the filmmakers have added plenty of army men and black-ops intrigue, like so many other superhero movies, as if to stress the obvious butchness of a character first seen in winged helmets.

It’s disappointing, since Thor is one of the first Marvel adaptations made by the publisher itself, but unsurprising. The handful of superheroes that most North Americans would immediately recognize – Superman, Batman, Spider-man, perhaps a couple of others – have already been successfully licensed and franchised. Their iconic costumes were longstanding brands, so there was no commercial motive to alter any of them, especially with hordes of fanboys waiting to be outraged. But the typical characters spinning off from Marvel and DC Comics now are second-tier at best, faint outlines in the public consciousness and niche concerns even among nerds. For example, a Doctor Strange film is apparently in development, which means someone will be obliged to merchandise this:

I actually like that outfit. I’ve always thought there was a touch of Noel Coward in the Sorcerer Supreme; if he’s not searching for camply named artifacts or battling the Dread Dormammu on another plane, he should be chilling at his Greenwich Village pad in tights and a pointed cape. But I don’t see how it gets past a table of studio executives intact. Even more popular figures have been heavily made over for their film introductions – in next year’s Green Lantern movie the classic, clean-lined GL costume will be replaced by some sort of all-CGI, radioactive-looking bodysuit. Myriad cartooning aesthetics are being flattened out into a single cinematic one.

Occasionally, stylistic changes in an adaptation filter down to the comics themselves. (This happened more often in the days before the film industry hungrily farmed pamphlets for new intellectual properties, and before many cartoonists conceived entire works as pre-storyboarded Hollywood pitches.) When X-men ditched spandex for black leather ten long years ago, the characters did the same on paper. The forced convergence ended up fitting neatly. Writer Grant Morrison was taking charge of the X-books, and shifting their decades-old allegory of minority persecution (complete with an analogue of apartheid South Africa) to a story about human evolution and mutanthood as the ultimate modish subculture. He made the uniforms even more punkish and brutalist as part of his project. It was fitting in a cosmic sense too: the ’80s X-men, with Storm channeling Grace Jones, must be the most fashion-forward superhero comics ever. As Bryan Lee O’Malley once noted, they were au courant by decades. Style is a mutant power.

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Friday Pictures – Shary Boyle

 

Shary Boyle / To Colonize The Moon

 

Shary Boyle / 2002

 

Shary Boyle / Spring

 

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Le Bonheur (Happiness) – (1965) written & directed by Agnès Varda

By Margaux Williamson (mostly spoilers)

( I went to Suspect Video, the best video store in Toronto, to look for Agnès Varda’s 2004 “Ydessa and the Bears” but they didn’t have it. Though it is one of my favourite movies, I haven’t seen “Ydessa and the Bears” anywhere other than at a 2004 film festival. I think maybe it was never distributed. Instead, I rented Agnès Varda’s “Le Bonheur (Happiness)” because I had never seen it before and because it was in colour. I popped it in when I got home just to see the what the first 5 minutes was like. It was so weird and gorgeous that I didn’t turn it off.)




“Happiness” starts with a young family. Their joy with each other is obvious and they have a simple, pleasurable life. The husband then falls in love with a different woman whom he sees often in his work. The husband and the other woman begin an affair that is easy, happy and not so sordid. The husband reasons that what he has is simply a double happiness. When his wife points out, during a picnic in the country, that he seems doubly happy, the man looks suddenly troubled and confesses to his wife that he loves both her and another woman. The wife is initially hurt but then seems to quickly follow his reasoning and recover. What is best for the family is best for her. The husband and wife then have reconciliatory sex, there on the picnic blanket in the country. She wakes up before he does, leaves him and their two small children who are taking a nap close by, walks down to the lake, and drowns herself.

This is followed by alarm, an appropriate mourning period and then a gentle reconciliation of the two remaining lovers. At this reconciliation, they decide to be together. In the following scene, the woman walks to work the next day. Foreboding music only comes once in this movie, and it comes here. To me, the foreboding music sounds like a warning of moral judgment approaching. I peer around the woman in the movie’s frame as I watch her walk through the town, looking for reproach. It is a small town after all, and we are inside a fable.

But no stones are thrown. And there are no real bad intentions from anyone’s side. The foreboding music is for something more sinister: life moving on easily, happiness returning. We watch one human effortlessly replace another: in a marriage, at a family picnic, in the children’s bedrooms, with not a whimper of protest from the universe.

Behind the camera, Varda is a happy and curious God – as interested and amazing by a vase with flowers as she is in a family at dinner or in the strangeness of elbows as they move about during sex. I think when things comes naturally to one, one is often suspicious of those things. And here, it seems as though Varda the director is like the husband – each scene of the movie filled effortlessly with spaces and objects and people of incomparable value and importance but all taken in with equal attention and wonder. Varda would have been a very good painter.

The only review I could find for “Happiness” was a 1966 New York Times review from A.H.Weiler. Though Weiler praised Varda’s movie in some ways, he also says “Miss Varda’s dissection of amour, as French as any of Collette’s works, is strikingly adult and unembarrassed in its depiction of the variety of love, but it is as illogical as a child’s dream”.

I wonder if people said that about Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” (where a family’s main breadwinner, Gregor, wakes up one morning to discover that he is a monstrous verminous bug) which “Happiness” made me think of – particularly at its most sinister and truthful moment. This comes at the end, after the nightmarish alienation and slow death of the now repulsive and useless Gregor. After he dies, Gregor’s family leaves the house together in a state of tremendous relief and take a tram towards the country – towards fresh air. They are suddenly giddy with the future and with possibility. This is when the parents notice how their remaining child has become so beautiful, voluptuous and strong. We catch a tiny glimpse of the parents imagining a potentially prosperous new future through her. We see her in the instant before (we imagine), before she is ushered into the rotting shoes of the family bread winner.

Both fables make you feel sorry for humans – and also quite wary of them and their human natures. We all know what it’s like to feel like a cog in the system, but it is easy to forget that our homes and families are systems too. That even there, where our beauty and usefulness are often most greatly appreciated, we are so easily replaced.

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Little Boxes #6

(from “Blood of the Twilight Reign” in House of Mystery #276, by Mark Manhart (script) and Michael Netzer (art), 1979)

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Tea With Chris: Avian Time

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are our favourite things from the internet this week:

Chris: Two, three, many links. At his blog Sit Down Man, You’re a Bloody Tragedy, the young author/academic/Marxist Owen Hatherley often dwells on hopeless Blair-era architecture. Last weekend, in reviewing a book called Unbuilt Masterworks of the 21st Century, he regarded buildings that never were with the same scorn. The final sentence is like a shiv: “As a whole, Unbuilt Masterworks is one of the most damning indictments of the last decade – even its fantasies were banal.”

Someone’s writing 28 essays about Prince’s Purple Rain and for obvious reasons I am compelled to pass on the first one.

And finally, via Douglas Wolk, here’s Loretta Lynn.

Margaux: I just read a review of the 2010 Whitney Biennial that my friend Sheila Heti wrote. A really thoughtful view of a show that I never saw.

This is the first Youtube video link that my father has ever sent me. He sent it today. It’s about hummingbirds. The footage is slowed down in order to see in detail what the hummingbirds are doing. The whole videos is kind of slowed-down – with the people featured talking very slowly too. Makes me think of when time was slower and less hummingbird-like.

Carl: Let me add to Margaux’s dad’s discovery another study in avian time – but in this one, humans are accelerated to bird speed, and burst forth with song. If only this were what people mean when they say they’re going to “tweet.”

I just read a review of the 2010 Whitney Biennial that my friend Sheila Heti wrote – http://bysheilaheti.blogspot.com/2010/06/whitney-biennial.html. A really thoughtful view of a show that I never saw.

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Friday Pictures – Francisco Goya

 

Francisco Goya / disasters of war – they do not want to

 

Francisco Goya / Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zu ga

 

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Teach Me How to Boogie #2: “The Monkey Man”

by Chris Randle

“The Monkey Man,” a dance rap single by Lil Buck and Lil Deezy, became a minor local hit on Louisiana radio around the start of this year. I found out about it soon after – not from a Baton Rouge urban station, from the blog Cocaine Blunts. The signifiers here are, um, racially loaded, though probably without intent given that Lil Buck was born in 1997. And what interests me most isn’t the track per se but how it spread the meme of its signature dance, one reworked and expanded by the duo’s listeners.

I don’t know exactly when the song was first released; the video above is the earliest Youtube clip of it being performed. At this point it’s barely a dance at all: The only moves are a running-man-like step, that charming belly-rubbing motion and the occasional dip. The MCs seem both halting and nonchalant, which must be a common reaction from young teenage boys caught in the act of choreography. Awkwardness was so prevalent at the school dances I remember that it became far less mortifying than the rest of adolescence. But the routine mutated as it appeared on a few Louisianan playlists. Several weeks later the same Youtube account uploaded this clip:

The structure is more elaborate now – we’ve got some simian chest-beating and that weird falling-backwards trick. (I like how quickly the song itself switches between monkeys and gorillas.) Finally, a couple of months after that, “The Monkey Man” was formalized by what appear to be trained dancers. Their new slide-hop move is fun, but my favourite aspect of the clip is that little girl’s extreme seriousness:

In the first chapter of How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, a revisionist history of American pop music, Elijah Wald notes an obvious yet overlooked fact: Before recorded music became ubiquitous, and even for decades after that, hit songs were routinely and invisibly altered by the unknown players who transmitted them. This often-inadvertent process never disappeared – Wald mentions Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” as a later example. The spread of wax simply made it a rarity rather than the norm. I’ve seen it argued that this phenomenon is resurfacing online, but the internet mainly seems to facilitate comprehensive remixes (which are not quite the same thing) and exacting covers (quirkily smug or reverent novelties).

Perhaps dance is now the medium best suited to gradual folk development. It’s inexpensive, susceptible to small mistakes or improvisations by its performers, and still pursued en masse by amateurs in a way that music or painting no longer are. I chose “The Monkey Man” because the marginal, localized popularity made its evolution easier to track; there are far vaster examples of the same. Soulja Boy’s #1 hit “Crank That” inspired literally dozens of musical variations, let alone unwitting choreographic ones. The clearest continuity here forms a major theme in Wald’s book: Whether in 1910 or 2010, predominantly male, older music writers have rarely understood the modish dance crazes adopted by young women who dance.

NEXT TIME: Morris dancing! Probably.

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“Hawaiian Baby” by The Spinanes (1992)

by Carl Wilson

(The subtitle up top says, “Untimely talk,” so I thought, let’s go for it with an 18-year-old indie-rock single, obscure and yet still venerated enough in mixtape-type-cult circles not to be any special discovery. It was just on my mind this week. In the midst of doing it I learned it wasn’t as “untimely” as I’d thought, as Rebecca Gates is on the verge of finishing her first album in 9 years, partly recorded at Hotel2Tango in Montreal. Exciting.)

(By the way, this post is lengthy, but it will be a lot more worthwhile if you also listen to the embedded songs.)

What is this odd, enchanting tune by long-defunct Portland duo The Spinanes, from a time when “underground” was just turning into “indie rock,” as you almost hear happening here between chords? (In another song they had the line, “Have you given up punk for Lent?” This is how that might sound.) Is it a breakup song? A song about infidelity?

It’s surely somebody gumming up the works of love, willfully or by helpless reflex. But its viewpoint is so interior as to yield not much more than a hint at how the process the singer’s going through – perhaps that of going through a shoebox full of mementos – resolves. Or whether it does.

Rebecca Gates wrote, sang and played guitar on all Spinanes songs (she should be honored as a guitar hero who anticipated Sleater-Kinney and Marnie Stern); the only other member was drummer Scott Plouf, and by the third and final Spinanes album, the salty and soulful Arches and Aisles, he had left (to join Built to Spill). But this was long before that.

Plouf is vital to their harder-rocking songs but mostly in the background here. Is it coincidence the drums become prominent only when the singer’s most challenging and direct with her partner – the man (we’ll assume, from internal cues) who plays “you,” likewise mainly peripheral? This is less a duo than most Spinanes songs. It isn’t really the voice of one person to another. Maybe the chorus, with its full rock drumming, is the only thing she says aloud, and the rest is inner monologue, talking to “you” in her head.

The guy’s been on a trip and brought her back a kitschy, ’90s-sounding gift, a postcard of an out-of-place Santa Claus in sunny Hawaii, “with a baby.” We never know if she likes or hates it – funny? not funny? “please don’t mention babies to me right now”?

She stands in the “back screen door,” half-watching him do domestic things, while she’s mentally “writing love letters to others.” They move apartments. They go out for a family dinner and on the way she’s watching for a moment, and a mailbox, to send the transgressive note (more, I think, nudging the door of an affair than having really opened it yet?).

When she tries to explain to herself why – “just for kicks,” “just because it’s cool on [her] skin” – they seem like phrases she’s only trying out. They’re not-quite-right alibis for fleeing whatever is keeping her from genuine contact with “you,” for an intimacy breakdown (“can’t you hear me? … can’t you feel it?”) that seems to have struck like weather, like flu, an immune-deficiency inherent to passion even, rather than a particular grievance. The guitar sound gradually swells, distorts; chords test their harmonic boundaries; as if in a world growing bigger but also less controlled, more jagged.

Which is what makes this a song that, for all its specific and eccentric detail, everybody knows: It’s about the persistent mismatch of romantic love to everyday life. “It’s my heart, and it doesn’t fit yours” – it could be a blunt personal assessment. But all the displacement of feelings into and out of objects in the lyrics makes you ask what is this “it” that is the heart. Is the cause socially constructed, personal-psychological, biologically innate? Early-90s-preoccupying questions about gender/sex and essence/choice come to mind.

(So: Why a picture of a cowboy? Why is LOVE spelled in “letters scrawled across the bottom,” as if by a child?)

This brings us to the strangest turn, the one that makes this song especially worth talking about. Suddenly we’re out drinking and we’re not sure if any of the characters, even the narrator, is out with us. “Graeme’s down at the bar, teaching hardships…” And then the vocal doubles and someone sings, “Verlaines, Verlaines, Verlaines, Verlaines…” What is that doing there?

When I first heard “Hawaiian Baby” in the late ’90s, I took the reference to the French Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine to signify that Graeme (boyfriend, rival or third party) was a student type, tossing “Verlaines” around with masculine pretension, almost like a drug with his drink (valiums, valiums, valiums). But later, having caught up a bit on New Zealand rock, I realized it was an almost-direct quote (heard as if from a distance) from this song: The Verlaines‘ “Death and the Maiden” (a single from 1983).

It’s the band’s best-known song, and its anthem for obvious reasons. Gates has just pluralized “Verlaine” to “Verlaines” – a cute band-to-band tribute (Stephen Malkmus of Pavement in the same period lifted a cadence from “Maiden” for the verse of “Box Elder”), but again, what’s it doing in the middle of this emotionally precise song?

“Graeme” who’s “down” at the bar seems to be Graeme Downs, lead singer of The Verlaines. So maybe our narrator’s at a show, and the “teaching” is in song. While I don’t know the Verlaines’ repertoire well enough to detect further references (I was more into the Clean, 3Ds, Chills, Peter Jeffries, Chris Knox, of the NZ scene), the off-kilter syntax of “sex and cigarettes and slow-sad says he” points to “Slow Sad Love Song,” a wild gorgeous Downs composition from 1987’s Bird-Dog:

Am I wrong to hear traces in the main chord progression there (before it goes so beautifully off the rails) of the chords to “Hawaiian Baby”? Suddenly what we have seems less a breakup or cheating song than … an answer song.

The two Verlaines songs both come from trad literary-romantic POV’s (see Downs’ former Flying Nun labelmate Matthew Bannister’s extensive scholarly paper on Downs’ poète maudit persona and its dissonances): In “Maiden,” he’s kissing off a hoity-toity acquaintance who’s always dropping names and theories: “You’re just too obscure for me.” If he sticks around, “We’ll look like Death and the Maiden” – the dark vice-ridden rocker sucked dry by the duality of feminine clinging/feminine Eros – or she’ll “end up like Rimbaud, get shot by [his lover] Verlaine, Verlaine, Verlaine, Verlaine…” (Though since Downs is the real name-dropper here, and it’s his band name, you have to allow for irony.)

By contrast “Slow Sad” features a guy who’s been crushed by a girl who “had me well-read… beautifully put down,” and has flopped into his pitiful little bedsit to die.

They’re well-drawn portraits of the male side of a romantic split, with women getting blamed for holding too much power or too little, with at least mock-violent consequences.

“Hawaiian Baby” is a revision of that bohemo-vinist underground guff from the indie-feminist side of the looking glass. Yes, Gates’ protagonist will accept blame. She doesn’t justify herself, except with rationalizations that survive barely a few measures. (The worst we can charge her boyfriend with is tacky taste in postcards.) Sure, sure, it’s not you, it’s me. But unlike Downs’ women, her “me” is a three-dimensional perplexed person whose power is in several senses beyond her.

(On the other hand, I have no idea why the distant vocal also intones, “six days, six days” – any suggestions?) *Later: See comments!

One of the most generous pleasures of “Hawaiian Baby” is the girl-group “la la la” that enters on the chorus, but it also seems incongruous in its sweet conventionality of language and lilt. It makes me question this suddenly simplified “heart” talk – too Cosmo, too advice-column. As if to say, don’t confuse hard truths with easy outs.

Or perhaps to say it’s impossible not to resort finally, amid complexity, to cliché: Gates’ protagonist may be saying what she has to say to dig herself out of the mud hole, or to counter the mud one lover or another is now “slinging” at her. You could take the closer – “someone does it just because/ it’s not on their skin” – with its indeterminate pronoun, as “I do it because I can’t feel it” or “you do it because you can’t hear me,” or both: “It’s not you or me.”

Where this hole came from, the one that cannot find a heart to fit – that part’s a mystery. The song only knows it’s not solved by labeling villains and victims, or volunteering to play those parts: That’s just a picture someone brought here from somewhere.

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Wild Ocean (2008) – from GIANT SCREEN FILMS

by Margaux Williamson

(I went to two screenings this week. One was at Ontario Place (an artificial island of amusements jutting out over a small section of Toronto’s waterfront). There, on the island’s Cinesphere, I saw a section of “Wild Ocean”. The other screening was an evening of short works curated by Jon Davies (including scientific and novelty films and contemporary art videos). It was called “Animal Drag Kingdom” and was screened at night outside in a downtown Toronto courtyard.)

At the water park in Ontario Place, there are only three rides and really no place to swim (the fences keep you out of the lake). So after we went down all of the rides, my boyfriend and I walked around the made-for-human-amusement island. The island has beer stands and donut tents, an exhibit on cute animals and an extensive and confusingly obvious exhibit on “The Weather”. The attendants at the most promising amusement, the Cinesphere, at first didn’t let us in because we only had bathing suits on, but we wore them down.

We walked into the spherical theatre maybe 20 minutes in to “Wild Ocean”. The screen, filled up with the ocean, was enormous. It was a little disorienting to suddenly see dolphins, sharks, humans, penguins and sardines running wild. It was like the opposite of an aquarium. The movie’s narrative was about how the dolphins, sharks, humans and penguins were after the sardines.

I went alone to the “Animal Drag Kingdom” because I like animals. I sat in a folding chair 3 rows back from the free standing screen. There were about 9 videos. It was a really beautiful night.

Movies always involve seeing things through someone else’s eyes.. unless you make the movie yourself. It is very effective to see something through someone else’s eyes – even though it is always hard to tell how great or how little someone else’s eyes are connecting with your brain – or how successfully someone else’s brain is connecting with your eyes.

In “Animal Drag Kingdom”, we run through a lot of eyes very quickly. We move from being an animated pig in a bonnet mourning the random hit and run of our trench-coat clad neighbour chicken – that chicken went down as tragically as Meryl Streep would have, we think (Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis’ animation “When the Day Breaks”) / to looking at 1960s black and white film footage of families at zoos with our 1960s professor who is doing his best to find platonic meaning in the gestures of the universal family man. If you don’t know what the hell is going on, we think, you might as well start at the zoo (experimental anthroplogical lecture “Microcultural Incidents in Ten Zoos”) / to being the humorously clunky or painfully indifferent camera stuck in the woman-who-is-afraid-to-die’s apartment. We cannot run away when the cat vomits in front of us and the woman is talking to the psychic on the psychic hot-line because we have no legs (Kathy High’s “Everyday Problems of the Living”)/ to watching a family play-act a surgical procedure that turns their little girl into a cheetah. Then we are a little girl walking around her house with her new cheetah eyes. We think, things look different now that we are a little girl-cheetah waking up from play-acting surgery (Kristen Lucas’s “Smaller and Easier to Handle”) / to thinking we are watching an art video of a man filming himself and a crow, a crow that is tied to a tree branch, then realizing we are a director filming an animal trainer train a crow, then realizing we are watching a director train an animal trainer to train his crow, and finally realizing we are our ordinary selves and the crow is gone and there is only one man training another man, and we feel for the other man like we first felt for that crow. When the human gets the directions from his trainer wrong here, we think, we love that human’s nature as much as we love that animal’s nature (Guy Ben-Ner’s “Second Nature”).

The further we wade into shifting perspectives, appropriation and increasing instincts towards empathy, the more likely it is that we’ll get things amazingly wrong. We are sometimes warned away from an empathy that extends beyond the loyalty of our families and communities and radiates to foreign communities and onward towards animal kingdoms and plant kingdoms – and we are sometimes encouraged towards it. In any case, moving towards empathy and moving away from it is the thing that makes us most human.

And, in any case, I am bound to get a family member’s feelings as wrong as I would a dolphin’s, but that doesn’t mean that I should stop trying.

We didn’t stay for long in the Cinesphere (because we promised the attendants that we wouldn’t) but from my limited time and specific perspective, I think “Wild Ocean” was about freedom.

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