Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

2023: A Year in Film

Continuing from last year, I am again composing a top ten list of films (a week later than intended). Some readers will know that I have reduced my day job to four days a week, which has given me more time to watch and review films this year. That led to a considerable increase with 114 new QuickViews this year, of which 64 were new releases in the UK (that is the qualifying criterion for this list, although QuickViews identify films by year of first release worldwide). There are a few omissions, most notably Killers of the Flower Moon, but at almost three and a half hours long it is clear that Scorcese no longer cares whether people see his films in the cinema rather than streaming — and if he doesn’t care, why should I? Other potential contenders which I have yet to see include Fallen Leaves, R.M.N., and Godzilla Minus One. Last year compiling the list was straightforward: it consisted of all the films I had rated 9 or 10, with a single 8 in the #10 spot. 2023 has seen a noticeable decline in quality at the top end, in part due to various releases being delayed to 2024 as a result of the strikes in Hollywood. However, the overall average has remained at 6.8, suggesting a general tendency toward the middle. The year’s worst was body switching catastrophe Family Switch, followed closely by Rebel Moon, Luther: Fallen Son, Mindcage and Ghosted. That gives Netflix an ignominious three spots in the bottom five as its content quality continues to flounder in favour of quantity.

On to the good stuff. I will link each of the Top 10 to their respective QuickView, but with some additional comments. This year’s list is again dominated by writer-directors, that level of control tending to allow the most auteur creativity. If I were to identify a single theme running through most of this year’s list, it would ambiguity, in both truth and relationships.

10. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Although I was aware of Nan Goldin as a photographer, I was not familiar with her work going into this documentary. Whilst documentaries about artists can provide important background to understand the individual, it is rare that they provide a fresh lens through which to view their art. Laura Poitras achieves this by exploring Goldin’s childhood and her embrace of the LGBT community and sex workers in response to it, all which informed her photographic series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. By contrast the coverage of her protest activism against the Sackler family becomes repetitive even though it was the film’s primary selling point. This is a documentary for the art lover, not the protester.

9. The Creator

I enjoyed Gareth Edwards’ latest sci-fi excursion more than most, primarily for its world-building. It is always a delight to experience a well-realised new sci-fi world and Edwards’ eye for grounded visual detail is always sublime. Stories about AI uprisings are nothing new but — by comparison with Zack Snyder’s mere sci-fi pastiche of other works in Rebel Moon — Edwards provides novel context through humanity’s politically divided approach, the looming physical presence of the West’s orbital strike platform a colonial threat of violence to enforce their view on eradication of AI. The Creator was undermined by its clumsy, exposition-laden script, but its world will stay with me.

8. Return to Seoul

Having just reviewed it, I don’t have a great deal to add about Davy Chou’s film about an adoptee’s search for identity in the country of her birth. Notably this was Park Ji-min’s first acting role — in some ways that may have benefited the performance in Freddie’s disconnection with the culture and people of Korea. The result is raw and effective without the artificiality that can come from an overly considered performance that seeks to evoke a specific reaction from the viewer.

7. How To Have Sex

This is truly a breakout year for Molly Manning Walker with her excellent directorial debut alongside being the cinematographer on the well-received Scrapper. Her own film is really how not to have sex — a coming-of-age, loss-of-virginity story that stands apart through its female perspective. It allows the viewer to understand why Tara’s insecurity manifests in passivity, and how that leads to bad outcomes. How To Have Sex should be a breakout role for Mia McKenna Bruce too, her performance wordlessly communicating vulnerability and shame.

6. Oppenheimer

“Barbenheimer” was the year’s biggest (and most unexpected) mainstream cinematic event — the kind of viral concept that could only arise organically, much as marketers spent the rest of the year trying to find the next one (I don’t think many people did “Saw Patrol”). I enjoyed Barbie but found Oppenheimer to be cinematically superior, though it was not without issues — primarily its structure, which made its last hour feel repetitive and overlong. However, it also demonstrated the kind of creative flourishes that make Nolan’s work stand apart, like the disconcerting drumming roar that seemed to envelop Oppenheimer’s concerns about The Manhatten Project, a sound that is only later revealed to be the stamping of feet as Americans celebrate the successful test. Oppenheimer is suitably haunting about the danger of destructive invention, even if I wish it had been more direct in dismantling American propaganda about the need for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

5. Anatomy of a Fall

Some of the best French films of late reveal an obsession with the idea of uncertainty over past events, demonstrated by The Accusation, The Night of the 12th, and now Anatomy of a Fall. Justine Triet’s script is the most meticulous of the three: it is half investigation, half courtroom drama, unfolding largely from the perspective of the accused, but without providing the audience with a definitive sense of her innocence or guilt. It directly addresses the unreliability of witness evidence through the changing story of her son. As our understanding of memory advances, this is becoming an increasing issue within the legal system in general.

4. Tár

Todd Field’s third feature-length film — his first in 15 years after a string of unrealised projects — is a magnificent examination of power and its abuse. I still find its “cancel culture” labelling to be reductive, since it tackles identity as well as the conflict between power and public perception. Cate Blanchet is on top form as the embattled conductor Lydia Tár (a very different performance to Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Leonard Bernstein). Field also deliberately distances his film from the #MeToo movement by making both perpetrator and victim women, though Lydia is undoubtedly coded with sterotypically masculine characteristics.

3. Close

Lukas Dhont’s second feature might be the year’s most heartbreaking. Newcomers Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele are as impressive as Frankie Corio in last year’s #1, with no awkwardness to their warm and tactile friendship. It is peers rather than parents who disrupt their relationship and I defy viewers not to be moved by Dambrine’s wide-eyed looks of guilt. Its rural vistas are beautiful, but it is the simplicity and focus of Close — free of extraneous sublots — that renders what is on screen so memorable.

2. Spider-Man: Across The Spider-verse

As the relentless superhero movie juggernaut of the past 15 years continues to collapse, Across The Spider-verse serves as a reminder to studios that audiences are still excited by artistic creativity and human storytelling. Into The Spider-verse featured a loose animation style that deliberately broke rules, like animating Miles with half the number of keyframes than his spider-brethren, creating a barely perceptible sluggishness until he comes into his own in the climax. Across The Spider-verse expands this playfully with the anarchic Spider-Punk, who appears to be cut out from print and with stilted animation on every third frame leaving him deliberately out of sync with the rest of the characters. I mention this as just one example of the attention to detail that is crammed into this joyous work of art which might not be registered consciously but which elevate its impact. Across The Spider-verse was not just the best animated or superhero movie of the year, but one of the year’s very best films.

1. Past Lives

Like last year, the standout by some margin is a debut from a female writer-director. Celine Song’s Past Lives is an inversion of Return to Seoul, a woman who was similarly plucked out of Korea as a child but finds her past catching up with her in New York rather than travelling back to Korea. If Aftersun captured the sense of a fading memory, Past Lives captures the longing for a moment which never occurred. I said at the time that “Unrequited love is a common theme for cinema but rare is the greater agony of requited love left unrealised”, a haunting, heady concoction that I have not tasted so potently distilled in the two decades since In The Mood For Love.

Christmas 2023

Merry Christmas

When propaganda overreaches

Despite the UK Government’s rhetoric (Suella Braverman was not alone, merely the worst), I cannot think of a more appropriate event on Armistice Day than a march for peace. In London an estimated 300,000 people took the streets to call for a ceasefire in Gaza in a protest organised by Stop The War. The sheer numbers are telling in a city that is itself no stranger to terrorism and whose immediate sympathies lie with the victims of such attacks. It suggests that the Israeli PR strategy, which for decades has sought to present itself as a victim despite its ongoing occupation of Palestine, is finally failing.

Palestine Peace Protest

The very day after the Hamas attacks in Israel, I saw paid adverts on social media platforms like Tik Tok denouncing the attack and extolling Israel’s resilience. There was nothing wrong with this message but — as a Londoner who has seen (and even written) similar messages after terrorist attacks — I found it strange for two reasons: firstly, the speed with which they had been produced; and secondly, in age of target advertising, these were clearly seeking an overseas audience, not the population directly affected. This deliberate propaganda response became clearer over the coming week with a deluge of adverts on platforms like YouTube which listed the number of dead, injured and missing civilians. They ignored, of course, that within just a few days of carpet bombing those numbers were dwarfed by Palestinian casualties. Strangely, not all of my friends seemed to receive this propaganda blitz. That is the problem with algorithms that control our viewing diet based on “engagement” as — even if we inhabit the same platforms — we truly have no way of seeing what our neighbours do. It is not a case of simply reading multiple news sources. We do, to a material extent, now inhabit different realities.

Hasbara (Hebrew: הַסְבָּרָה) — Hasbara has no direct English translation, but roughly means “explaining”. It is a communicative strategy that seeks to explain actions, whether or not they are justified.

Propaganda during conflict is nothing new, though Israel’s hasbara is a particularly acute form in the digital age, a broad information warfare strategy to bolster domestic belief, maintain support from allies and delegitimise critics. It has been incredibly successful, convincing Western allies to overlook repeated breaches of international law for decades by exploiting Western Islamophobic sentiment whilst accusing critics of anti-Semitism. In reality, it is not anti-Semitic so much as anti-semantics, objecting to Israel’s description of apartheid regime and colonian occupation as “self defence”. As Israel hides behind the Jewish community (many of whom joined Saturday’s protest) its actions make them less safe.

Perhaps it was complacency from past success that led to a lie about babies being beheaded during the Hamas attacks, walked back almost immediately by Israeli ministers — those lies continued to circulate in the USA and there seemed to be little ramification for peddling falsehood in a post-truth world. The trouble is that is that once such blatant lies were exposed, there was no reason at all for the rest of the world to believe the IDF’s purported exculpatory analysis of the Gaza hospital explosion. Even US ministers must be cautious having been embarrassed by unquestioningly parroting the first lie.

Western mainstream media continues to be slanted in favour of Israel but in the UK the extent appears to be waning as biases become increasingly obvious to viewers (if not Britain’s responsibility for creating these circumstances in the first place) and mercurial presenters like Piers Morgan detect the shifting tide of public sentiment. In the UK and US political support remains strong but the reasons are increasingly transparent: a video resurfaced of Biden in 1986 declaring Israel America’s “best $3 billion investment” to protect its interests in the Middle East, and the financial incentives are similarly clear — just two weeks ago, Israel granted 12 gas exploration licences off the coast of Gaza to giants like BP and Eni. Platforms like Twitter and Tik Tok allow this information to circulate more widely, whilst Palestinian citizen journalists document attacks in real-time, and users can respond and dismantle the messages fed by hasbara. Support for Palestine is less stark than social media may suggest, though that reinforces the idea that younger people may be the ones shifting away from historic Western support for Israel whilst the older generations remain unswayed.

Palestine Peace Protest
Watermelon became a symbol of Palestinian solidarity as the emoji (which shares its colours with the Palestinian flag) is used to circumvent censorship on some social media platforms.

Hasbara evidently remains effective within the global Zionist community, with many returning to the IDF ahead of its ground offensive, and even moreso within Israel (though of course not all support the war). It is horrifying to hear some Israelis describe Palestinians as “animals”, parroting the dehumanising language of their right wing politicians, the same dehumanising language that allows them to justify the incarceration of generations of Palestinians in the inhumane conditions of Gaza and the West Bank, the same dehumanising language that finally led to Suella Braverman’s sacking, and the same dehumanising language that Israelis ought to remember all to well was previously levelled at the Jewish population in Nazi propaganda. When the powerful phrase “never again” is being weaponised to justify genocide, it should be clear to all that hasbara has overreached.

Authorship and Ownership

The recent literary furore over new versions of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s books has fascinated me because I think it misses a larger point about our modern relationship with stories themselves. For those unaware, the Dahl estate decided to reprint his stories with edited text that makes frequent small changes to alter descriptions like “fat”, “ugly” and “crazy”. Media coverage of the changes (which was not entirely acccurate) prompted widespread cricitism. However, the issue strikes me not as a matter of language but of ownership and immutability of the printed word.

Roald Dahl books

Humans, as we are frequently told, are storytelling creatures. It is how we understand our relationship with the world and each other, how we reconstruct our memories on a daily basis and how we interpret our histories. Until the last few hundred years, almost all of those stories endured through oral tradition which made them inherently malleable. On each retelling the stories would change, being adapted to fit the sensibilities of the time, the orator and the audience.

It was really the printing press which led to the mass adoption of a single version of a story, stamped with its author’s name, which could survive beyond the author’s lifetime. That, together with the concept of copyright, resulted in the monopolistic ownership of a story by its author which now effectively prohibits any unauthorised retelling until (under UK law) 70 years after their death. Literary criticism identified the artificiality of this ownership in Barthes’ essay The Death of the Author, opining that the author commands no definitive interpretive control over the text once it has been published.

“Don’t gobblefunk around with words.”

Roald Dahl, The BFG

The changes to Dahl’s books are not the result of censorship but of capitalism: the estate plainly saw the opportunity to sell more copies of the books by making these changes, as evidenced by their rapid decision to keep reprinting the original text as well when it became clear that some would refuse to buy the edited versions. That is not the reversal of a principled decision but a series of pragmatic adjustments to fit the market.

Ascribing new words to a dead writer makes me inherently uncomfortable — this blog will turn 20 later this year, and even in that time I imagine I would cringe at some things I may previously have said, but it would be galling for anyone but me to change those words. I would much rather that Dahl’s choice of words be used to educate about societal changes and why we no longer ridicule people for being “fat” or “ugly” or “crazy” (from my own childhood, I recall my dad explaining the problematic existence of golliwogs in Enid Blyton’s Noddy books, which is when I began to understand how racism could be normalised within a society). I consider the high water mark for acknowledging the issues with past artistic works to be the Warner Brothers warning plate which precedes recent releases of old cartoons.

Warner Brothers content warning
The text reads: The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. While the following does not represent the Warner Bros. view of today’s society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.

The better way to excise content entirely is to retell the story. The estate could have selected an author to do so, but they are invested in Dahl’s name as much as the stories themselves. As a society we continue to maintain the close link between the author and their creations but it is something that warrants consideration. I have written previously about the way that comicbook superheroes can be killed and reinvented to reflect the values of each decade in manner more similar to the oral myths of old. This is made possible due to lack of authorial ownership, meaning that multiple authors can provide a variety of perspectives. To be clear, publisher ownership is not a solution, having its own issues in exploitation of creators and gatekeeping of new works. However, there is a longer term decision that society needs to make as to whether we are being best served by the current system of story ownership, rooted in capitalism, or denied a cultural tradition that was once fundamental to our species.

2022: A Year in Film (Part 2)

Continuing from part 1, this concludes the Top 10 films of the year.

5. The Northman

When an artistic director known for creating tightly constrained, evocative films on a small scale suddenly finds themselves in possession of a Hollywood budget, it can often spell disaster. It was with some trepidation, then, that I approached Robert Eggers’ viking epic with a budget estimated to be almost ten times that of The Lighthouse — a film that essentially featured two actors and one location. Eggers’ overriding attention to detail on this new scale must have been a monumental undertaking, drawing from both Norse history and their ritual practices. Continuing to collaborate with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, the pair capture the wild fury of the untamed landscape against which small villages seem an almost futile refuge. It may have been relentlessly grim, but The Northman was the most gripping cinema of the year.

4. The Banshees of Inisherin

Having rated Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 10/10, there was a weight of expectation on Martin McDonaugh’s follow-up, The Banshees of Inisherin. Happily, reuiniting with In Bruges leads Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson made things feel immediately convivial and familiar, that is until a rift opens between the lifelong friends they play. It seems strange to have such a humourous, exaggerated tale unfold on an island that seems weighed down by despair, but perhaps no more than setting a tale of guilt and violence in a picturesque fairytale town like Bruges. Having demonstrated that Seven Psychopaths was an isolated misstep in an otherwise faultless filmography, McDonaugh has cemented his position amongst the best directors working today.

3. The Worst Person in the World

A late contender (I saw it only a few days ago after shortlisting films I had missed in order to cross them off before the end of the year), this Norwegian romantic comedy drama left me with the most fully-formed impression and understanding of a character from any film this year. Renate Reinsve deserves the recognition she is receiving for bringing Julie to life as more than an archetype. She is deeply flawed but the title is more about self-perception and how our subjective reality can influence behaviour: we will most often attempt to act like the person we believe ourselves to be. Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt’s script shares my view that the most effective way to allow people to become better versions of themselves is to show them that that is the way we see them.

2. Everything Everywhere All At Once

A sign of how weak a year it has been for Marvel is that a film called The Multiverse of Madness wasn’t even the best multiverse movie of the year. Clunkily-named directing duo “Daniels” unleashed a frenzy of creativity that coalesced into a sublime action comedy drama filled with talent but ultimately resting on Michelle Yeoh, who slides between genres with ease. Daniels have improved leaps and bounds from their debut Swiss Army Man, which was certainly original but mired in puerile humour that undercut any risk of emotional impact. Yes, their world-building is still utterly absurd, but the very grounded relationships between parents and children imbue the proceedings with genuine emotional stakes. It remains a film best experienced for the first time with as little foreknowledge as possible, but it is such a whirlwind that it almost demands further viewing.

1. Aftersun

When I started reviewing films on a 10-point scale, I viewed 9 as the benchmark for the best handful of films each year with 10 reserved for those that affected me profoundly in a personal way, that rare and magical experience that cinema can offer outside of mere objective competency. My expectation was that there might be one film a year that received a 10. In fact, it has been three years since the last one. What I find most astonishing about Aftersun is not that it is a debut from both its director and one of its lead actors, but an intangible quality it has achieved in capturing the ephemeral sense of memory within the fundamentally transient medium of film. It does this in obvious ways like the use of camcorder footage being recorded and watched, but through subtler means too ⁠— the way the camera lingers to suggest curiosity or regret, and the void between scenes as time seems compressed into short windows of recollection. There is a darkness that hangs over much of Aftersun that eventually speaks to a particularly personal concern, but the film had ensnared me long before. And in the months since, it has only embedded itself further as a holiday that I too now recall, a memory that never occurred. That is a new experience, and worthy of a 10.

2022: A Year in Film (Part 1)

For the first time (as far as I can recall), I am composing a top ten list as this is the first year in which I feel that have seen almost all the films likely to compete for a spot. I have seen and reviewed a total of 82 new films this year, of which 49 were released in the UK this year (that being the qualification criterion, although QuickViews identify films by the year of first release worldwide). The notable omissions are She Said and Smile; I am also due to see an advance screening of The Whale tomorrow, though it would not qualify since its general release is not until February 2023. Ratings for 2022 ranged between 2 and 10, although the average score was a respectable 6.8, bearing in mind that generally I am selecting films I expect to enjoy. The year’s worst was Moonfall, though it only narrowly beat Russell Crowe’s Poker Face to that ignominious victory.

On to the good stuff. I will link each of the Top 10 to their respective QuickView, but with some additional comments. This post will cover the honourable mentions and #10-6, with the top 5 to follow tomorrow.

Honourable mentions

This year’s best animation was Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion Pinnochio, which outstripped Pixar’s middling offerings of late. There were a number of pleasantly surprising actions films, including a colourful and creative adaptation of the Japense novel Bullet Train, a reimagining of Prey that transported the sci-fi franchise back 300 years to a Comanche Tribe, and the heartfelt and poignant Top Gun: Maverick. There were also several horror standouts with X (which introduced me to Jenna Ortega before her excellent incarnation of Wednesday) and the high concept Hatching from Finland, which just missed out on a top 10 spot.

10. Living

My opinion of Living has only improved in the months since its release, through discussing it with others and through the way Nighy’s quiet performance retains such potence. I still consider Ikiru to be the superior film, but I may have been unfair to Kazuo Ishiguro in describing his adaptation as “slavishly faithful” since he has injected something of his own style into the material as well. Its message about living life meaningfully also has a personal significance to me this year (and indeed to this post), as I have transitioned to a four-day working week. That change is what has afforded me greater time in the second half of the year to spend in darkened cinemas and writing these reviews.

9. The Batman

Not a single Marvel film made the top ten list as Phase 4 of the MCU continued to underwhelm, but a DC comicbook movie outshone them all. The Batman fell outside of the divisive “Snyderverse” and before James Gunn took the reins in a shake up of DC’s cinematic future, which allowed Matt Reeves to carve out his own style for the Dark Knight unburdened by wider franchise concerns. Admittedly to my eye much of that style came from The Crow, but the result was the most compelling incarnation of Gotham since Tim Burton’s take on the city. Robert Pattinson has already ably proved his acting credentials but I was still pleasantly surprised by his turn in the cowl. Whatever DC’s future plans, I hope this world will not be sacrificed.

8. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Rian Johnson reportedly hates the “Knives Out” tagline being attached to Glass Onion as he wants them to be seen as standalone mysteries like Agatha Christie’s novels. I described Knives Out as feeling theatrical with its constrained setting and by contrast the island resort of Glass Onion feels cinematic in scope, though as a mystery it is equally tightly controlled. It stands well above the other whodunits released this year, largely as Johnson continues to play with the form rather than simply replicating it. And let us not forget it also provided the Christmas gift of a delightfully idiotic Ben Shapiro twitter rant complaining that a mystery film “misdirected” him in the first half!

7. Belfast

I was almost a year late to Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s ode to his youth. With a US release in 2021, it already scooped a writing Oscar at the start of the year for Branagh, whose well-observed family drama within a coming-of-age tale is understated yet compelling. As an unabashed crowdpleaser, it treats the Troubles (to this day a masterpiece of British understatement) as a backdrop rather than its focus, which could certainly be viewed as an overly nostalgic take on a dark period in Northern Ireland’s history. However it does accurately reflect the naive childhood perspective that it seeks to portray.

6. RRR

The year’s biggest Bollywood release is a rousing revolutionary fantasy which delivers its message against colonialism but has been deservedly scrutinised in its reinforcement of an oppressive caste framework. It is nevertheless one of the most creative action films of the year, and one of the most entertaining. It also reminds me that — whilst I enjoy and advocate for world cinema — I do have a tendency to overlook cinema from the South Asian subcontinent despite my own heritage. It is something I intend to rectify next year, particularly as streaming services make many of those films more accessible than ever. Readers are encouraged to hold me to account (or provide recommendations in a less aggressive manner!).

Christmas 2022

An Interview with ChatGPT

Mak and I were discussing OpenAI’s recently unveiled ChatGPT chatbot, an impressively creative and naturalistic generative model that has garnered some viral press in the past few days. It is based on their GPT-3 model released in June 2020. He suggested it might make for an interesting blog post, jokingly suggesting that I could have the AI write it. I do have an OpenAI account and, whilst I am not quite ready to hand over the reins of the site to an AI, I wondered whether I could interview it in such a way that it covered the topics I would address in an article, particularly in respect of the limitations of what this model is designed to do which make headlines like “Google is done” wildly inaccurate.

My intention here was to generate useful content rather than asking it trick questions or exploring its esoteric knowledge (it had no trouble reeling off a list of the Valar from the Silmarillion and their respective duties). One important caveat to note is that whilst ChatGPT was able to communicate its limitations, it obviously does not understand those limitations, so it cannot assess its own responses.

Here is how the interview went.

How would you describe your development process?

As a language model trained by OpenAI, I don’t have a development process in the same way that a human or a software program might. I was trained using a machine learning technique called deep learning, which involved feeding a large amount of data to a neural network and allowing it to learn from the data by adjusting the connections between its many nodes. This process can take a long time, depending on the amount of data and the complexity of the model.

Are there risks in using this method?

There are always risks associated with using any machine learning technique, including deep learning. One potential risk is that the model might not perform well on unseen data, either because it has not been trained on enough data or because it has learned the wrong features from the data. This can lead to incorrect or unpredictable results. Another potential risk is that the model might learn to make decisions based on biased or discriminatory data, which could lead to unfair or harmful outcomes.

Historically chatbots have tried to mimic human conversation. It seems like you are designed to create longer form content. Is that accurate?

Yes, that’s accurate. While some chatbots are designed to mimic human conversation, I’m not one of them. I’m a large language model trained by OpenAI, and my main purpose is to generate human-like text based on the input I receive. I can generate long-form text on a wide range of topics, and I’m not limited to the kind of brief, conversational responses that many chatbots are capable of.

Do you analyse data when responding or do you rely on training data where the analysis has already been conducted?

As a large language model, I do not have the ability to analyze data or access any external information. I am only able to respond based on the training data that I have been given. This training data consists of vast amounts of text that has been fed into my system, allowing me to generate human-like responses based on the patterns and associations I have learned from that data. I do not have the ability to conduct any kind of analysis or access external information.

Does that training data include factual knowledge? For example, do you know the current population of the Netherlands?

As a language model, my training data consists primarily of text and does not include factual knowledge such as population statistics. I do not have the ability to access any external information, so I am not able to provide specific factual knowledge like the current population of the Netherlands. I can provide general information and answer questions to the best of my ability based on the patterns and associations I have learned from my training data, but I do not have access to factual knowledge like population statistics.

What kind of new training data do you think would be useful for improving your abilities?

As a language model, I am designed to generate human-like responses based on the patterns and associations I have learned from my training data. Because of this, the most effective way to improve my abilities is to provide me with additional training data that is diverse and representative of the types of conversations and queries I may encounter. This could include a wide range of text from different sources, such as books, articles, and conversations, to help me learn the nuances of language and improve my ability to generate natural and appropriate responses. Additionally, providing me with training data that covers a wide range of topics and subjects would be beneficial, as this would allow me to better understand the context of a given conversation and provide more accurate and useful responses.

Can you be more specific about where the gaps might be at the moment?

As a large language model, I am not able to assess my own abilities or identify any potential gaps in my knowledge. My training data consists of vast amounts of text that has been fed into my system, allowing me to generate human-like responses based on the patterns and associations I have learned from that data. However, I do not have the ability to evaluate my own performance or identify any potential areas for improvement. My goal is to provide helpful and accurate responses to the best of my ability based on the information that I have been given.

Do your conversations with people provide reinforcing feedback? Are there risks inherent to that?

As a language model, I do not have the ability to engage in conversations with people or receive feedback on my responses. I am only able to generate responses based on the patterns and associations I have learned from my training data. I do not have the ability to learn or adapt based on feedback or interactions with people.

Because I am a machine learning model, there are always risks associated with relying on my responses. I am designed to provide helpful and accurate answers to the best of my ability based on the information I have been given, but there is no guarantee that my answers will always be correct or complete. It is important to use your own judgment and critical thinking skills when evaluating my responses and seeking information from other sources as well.

This has been very illuminating. Thank you for your time.

You’re welcome! I’m glad I could help.

Netflix and Ciao!

Deliberately or otherwise, Netflix’s recent public statements show they do not understand their customers. Part of me feels sorry for them, as they predicted the future trends of media consumption with clarity and adapted with alacrity. Their original business of mailing out DVDs by post is a dim memory as they recognised the importance of streaming early enough that they became the de facto streaming platform worldwide, reaching 222 million subscriptions. They also correctly realised the biggest threat to their dominance would be the greed of studios not wanting to share profits with a delivery platform, meaning that original content would be key to a viable future. Despite this, in chasing capitalism’s dragon of endless growth, Netflix’s price has been escalating rapidly and after their latest hike in June — having been a subscriber ever since they revived Arrested Development in 2013 — I’m out, at least for a while. As they warn their shareholders of tumbling subscriber numbers, it seems I am not alone.

Are you not content?

There was a time when “Netflix Original” was a badge of quality — two of their first three shows were Orange is the New Black and House of Cards. As they grew the library, there was a clear shift toward quantity over quality, particularly with the desire to expand to a mainstream audience who may be less attracted by high quality drama. The plus side for creatives is that Netflix was willing to greenlight a lot of projects with very little oversight. But the money for this untargeted spending had to come from somewhere and it has meant repeated price hikes without any clear increase in the value proposition to subscribers. Why would I want to pay more year on year for service when: (a) I have the same finite time to spend watching TV; and (b) I have no interested in huge swathes of the programming they were now funding?

As recently as 2018 Netflix acquired distribution rights for Alfonso Cuáron’s beautiful Roma, which won three Oscars. Yet it is Apple TV+ that procured the first Best Picture win for a streaming service’s film with CODA. Netflix’s metrics-driven approach appears to reward films with big name actors regardless of quality, since those are most likely to attract viewers’ attention. Indeed, it’s easy for excellent films to get lost entirely through Netflix’s algorithm-driven promotion.

Now Apple Originals bear the distinction of quality that Netflix Originals once had, with a small but highly curated set of shows like Ted Lasso, Mythic Quest, and Severance. Meanwhile Disney’s well-timed acquisition of 20th Century Studios has granted them a deep library of content beyond their family fare, even as the desire to push new content to Disney+ has arguably undermined Phase 4 of the MCU.

It all ends in tiers

There is more to it than just increased competition. I have tried subscriptions to NowTV, Prime Video, Apple TV+, Disney+ and Dropout, so I have a broad view of the market. A “standard” Netflix subscription is priced at around double what its competitors costs and, unlike several of them, it doesn’t include 4K UHD video at that price.

As Netflix takes steps to prevent account sharing, it highlights my biggest problem with the company’s subscription tiers: tying together quality and simultaneous streams. As someone who lives alone, I have no need ever to stream to multiple devices at once. Yet, to receive the best image quality, I am required to pay for the option to stream to four devices simultaneously. That might be good value for a family but it’s terrible for an individual. No wonder, then, that some people are inclined to share accounts in order to make use of the multiple streams that they are obliged to pay for.

Knives In

I receive increasingly bizarre emails from Netflix asking me to rejoin: “We’re ready when you are.” / “Let’s reunite.” / “Spend on experiences not things. Make time for rest, relaxation and some Netflix.” Their latest puts £6.99 in the subject line, again entirely misunderstanding the reason I left if they are pitching me the price for a below-HD quality stream. For the same reason, I don’t think a reduced price ad-supported tier is going to resolve their current woes (a free ad-supported tier might attract those who just want to watch a few Netflix shows, but I doubt that is sustainable).

I would like to see Netflix remain competitive but to do that their starting point has to be consumer needs rather than investor expectations. Having a great technology back-end means nothing if you are pricing users away from making use of its higher quality. Attacking users for making use of the multi-stream packages you are forcing them to buy is even worse.

There remains plenty of good content on Netflix and I will certainly subscribe at some point to catch up on The Witcher, Stranger Things, Arcane, Better Call Saul, and The Umbrella Academy. However, it is no longer the essential subscription it once was and, for now, it falls into the tumble of subscriptions that I’ll shift between every few months.

Leezy Does It

Since my radio consumption is now exclusively via podcasts and I don’t tend to use music streaming services, exposure to new music has become much harder. In fact, the primary routes through which I currently discover new artists are film and TV soundtracks, and — believe it or not — Tik Tok. Whilst Tik Tok tends to package trending sounds into comodified memes, there are also a number of great musicians using Tik Tok videos and live streams to propel their music out into the world. A recent discovery has been American singer-songwriter Leezy.

Content note: addiction

Mama says you can’t reach the dreams in the
Little cloud that leaks from your pipe but
Every time I light up it seems that I don’t know how
No, I don’t know how to be alone.

Leezy, Bathtub Blues

Lately, Leezy has become the soundtrack to my broken sleep, often tuning into her live streams from the US at 3am in London. Musical comparisons to Lana del Rey and Mazzy Star are common in the chat, but a British ear will recognise some of her older influences like the fragility of Portishead, and the delicate simplicity of Massive Attack.

Despite her youth, there is a poetic depth to Leezy’s lyrics. During her live streams she speaks openly about her battle with addiction to drugs and alcohol as teenager, having now been sober for three years. That lived experience permeates her songwriting. Her last single, Sierra, is named after the residential treatment facility at which she recovered.

Leezy illustration

Look at all the pretty faces
Come to heal from different places
You give it all away in hope of a better day
And I promised you that I’ll get well

Leezy, Sierra

Leezy is self-aware about her affluent upbringing and the privilege it afforded her, particularly when it came to turning her life around. But what her music captures is that affluence does not provide protection from emotional pain, which she delivers in a minimalist style that is both raw and beautiful. The bisexual confusion of Girls Like You is provocative social commentary both lyrically (“So then why’d she kiss me last Friday night? / Just cause she thought it was something the boys might like”) and through the increasingly less subtle euphemistic sapphic imagery of its music video.

He said my lips felt warm when we were kissing
But only after he’d made me cry
And he said, “baby, I didn’t mean it this time”
And stargazer lillies don’t make up for everything
But I always go back to hear him sing

Leezy, Stargazer

I was initially won over by several songs on her 2019 Dear Diary EP. After requesting a song during one live stream, we discussed how she now has to transpose those songs to perform them because her voice has changed from the time they were recorded when she was smoking daily. I am glad that she does not find talking or singing about those periods to be a trigger. Indeed, her next single — due for imminent release on 29th July — is bluntly titled Cocaine Kisses and is, in her own words, about the romanticisation of drug use, the seduction of addiction and the illusion of connection. As someone whose views on addiction were shaped by Johann Hari’s TED Talk about the link between addiction and isolation or disconnection, to me this combination of themes seems entirely on point and I can’t wait to hear it.

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"Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2023 Priyan Meewella

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