My review of “Whole Earth” and “We Are As Gods”

I reviewed the new biography and documentary about Stewart Brand. The best part of both is where they dive into the tension between Brand’s techno-utopianism and environmentalism (even though I tend to side with Brand that the two can and should co-exist).

You can read the whole thing at The Economist, here’s an excerpt:

Mr Brand’s technophilia helped shape Silicon Valley. But it drove a wedge between him and his ecologically minded friends. He had always been an outlier, enjoying Ayn Rand’s libertarian books at university. His fascination with humans settling in space—he financed the subject’s first major conference in 1974—widened the divide. In 2009 Mr Brand distanced himself from his fellow environmentalists, advocating for genetically modified organisms and nuclear power. As for the eco-warriors, he labelled them “irrational, anti-scientific and very harmful”. In response George Monbiot, an activist, suggested that Mr Brand was a spokesperson for the fossil-fuel industry. The criticism echoed Mr Kesey’s remark decades earlier: “Stewart recognises power. And cleaves to it.” 


More good things (books, films, restaurants)

Books

The Planet Remade by Oliver Morton — I’ll write more on this soon, but it is a very good, wide-ranging and surprisingly poetic book.

Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand by John Markoff — will also have more on this soon, but if you’re interested in Brand (and you should be), this is worth reading.

From Satori to Silicon Valley by Theodore Roszak — a short and very readable overview of the links between Silicon Valley and the ’60s counterculture.

Various Batman graphic novels — Year One was the highlight for me, though The Dark Knight Returns and Hush are good too. Neither are as good as The Long Halloween, Arkham Asylum or The Killing Joke, though. I also read The Black Mirror and The Court of Owls, neither of which impressed me very much.

Films

That comic binge was brought on by anticipation for The Batman, which was much better than I expected. It’s probably my favourite Batman film, though The Dark Knight is arguably a better film in and of itself. (I also watched a few animated films, and would recommend both Under the Red Hood and Mask of the Phantasm if you liked The Batman.)

We Are As Gods is a very good documentary about Stewart Brand, and by extension about the ’60s, de-extinction, and techno-utopianism.

I also watched Dune for the fourth time, this time at home, which confirmed my suspicions that it derives a lot of its power from the big screen (particularly IMAX). Still good, though.

Restaurants

Bake Street has started doing biryani on Sundays, and if the first batch was anything to go by this is now one of London’s best meals. Everything else there is still fantastic too, obviously. I’m very excited that Feroz is opening a new outlet in the promising-looking Arcade Food Hall.

Towpath reopened the other week, and a sunny lunch of taramasalata, carrot-top fritters and peas was pretty much perfect.

A lunch at Dosa Express was particularly memorable for the snacks — pani puri, samosa chaat, dhai vada. The dosas were good too, particularly the crispy rava ones.

The Black Axe Mangal x St John meal kit was worth it just for the t-shirt; the excellent food was the icing on the cake.

Music

I’ve been listening to a lot of Acid Arab, Michael Giacchino’s The Batman soundtrack, Floating Points’ new single, and Music from Saharan Cellphones.

fabric at the Opera was a very clever and fun event, which I hope they do a lot more of. Rival Consoles and Frank Wiedemann stole the show.

Some recommended things from the last month

Book: Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino. This is one of the best food books I’ve read. It’s both very poetic and information-dense: I suspect I am significantly more pro-capitalism than the author and I view the Green Revolution as an unambiguously good thing, but Saladino’s writing does make me mourn the diversity we’ve lost and want to help save it as best I can. (Happily, doing so involves buying delicious ingredients.)

Film: Dune in 1.43:1 IMAX. I’d already seen this twice in cinemas, including once in 1.9:1 IMAX. Watching it in full IMAX (at London’s Science Museum) was still breathtaking — the extra height makes a huge difference in conveying the scale of the world. Showings are few and far between but I highly recommend trying to find one.

Restaurant: Brat x Climpson’s Arch. Beautiful tomatoes and cod’s roe on toast; divine burnt cheesecake.

Play: A Number at the Old Vic. More plays should be this short and more actors should be this good.

Best films of 2021

2021 releases, in rough order of my favourites:

Dune

A fairly revelatory experience for me: I was blown away by every aspect, with the music and production design particular highlights. I’m very glad I got to see this in IMAX: it felt like being in another world.

Boiling Point

Unbelievably tense, hyper-realistic, and an astonishing feat of filmmaking: an actual single-take film set in a fast-moving kitchen. Genuinely faultless.

Red Rocket

There is absolutely no question that Simon Rex’s character in this is a gigantic piece of shit, yet he is so charismatic that you still (kind of) like him. Cemented Sean Baker as one of the best directors alive, in my mind.

C’mon C’mon

Sentimental in all the best ways, led by excellent performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman (the latter is one of the best child actors I’ve ever seen).

Benedetta

A very beautiful and very funny film that still manages to be emotionally affecting. Virginie Efira is an excellent psychopath.

Older films I happened to watch and enjoy this year, in no particular order:

  • Akira
  • Persona
  • Dr Strangelove
  • Spring Blossom
  • Minari
  • Deerskin

Honourable mentions: The Power of the Dog; Licorice Pizza; Memoria; The Green Knight.

Waste of time and money: Promising Young Woman; The Afterlight; The French Dispatch; Belfast.

Seven Samurai

I watched Seven Samurai yesterday, and really did not like it. I was surprised, because I saw it in what I assumed were the perfect conditions: at the BFI IMAX (one of my favourite cinemas) in the middle of the day so I wasn’t tired. But even that couldn’t save it for me.

I can understand that it has been very influential. The whole “putting the crew together” act was the spitting image of Ocean’s 11. The way the action sequences are shot is almost identical to The Lord of the Rings. But the trouble is, those later movies do it better. Seven Samurai is slow, with either bad or poorly translated dialogue, mediocre actors, and underwhelming cinematography. The characters are caricatures with very little development; it is very hard to care when they die. The jokes are not funny, though maybe that’s due to changing comedic tastes. And the movie is about 2 hours too long.

Too often, we confuse something that is innovative with something that is good. The reality is that it’s very hard to simultaneously invent something new and perfect it. Instead, someone like Kurosawa comes along and introduces new ideas, and later directors figure out how to use those ideas more effectively. This state of affairs, where things get better over time, is exactly what’s supposed to happen! But for whatever reason, prestige unfairly accrues to the originators.

This isn’t to write Kurosawa off entirely — I enjoyed Rashomon, though even that isn’t as good as people make it out to be.