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Copy Rites: YouTube vs. Kevin B. Lee

When the history of intellectual property law is written,January 12, 2009should be marked as a decisive moment.

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Copy Rites: YouTube vs. Kevin B. Lee

When the history of intellectual property law is written, January 12, 2009 should be marked as a decisive moment. It was the day that my friend, fellow House Next Door contributor and sometime filmmaking partner Kevin B. Lee saw his entire archive of critical video essays deleted by YouTube on grounds that his work violated copyright.

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with Kevin’s work. He’s the New York-based publisher of Shooting Down Pictures, a film history and criticism website dedicated to watching and discussing each of the 1,000 feature films cited on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? For years now, Kevin has been writing about each and every film on the list, starting out with a personal, critical essay, then segueing into a compilation of excerpts from various works of history and criticism. His goal was to give his audience a sense of a film’s place in modern culture and collective memory.

Some of his entries were accompanied by freestanding video essays that used ripped scenes from DVDs and voice-over narration (by Kevin or a guest critic; I participated in two essays myself, on The Outlaw Josey Wales and They Died with Their Boots On). I can’t point you to those pieces because they’re gone. So is the rest of the approximately 300 minutes’ worth of work Kevin posted to YouTube, working solo or in collaboration with fellow critics, including Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chris Fujiwara, Mike D’Angelo, Richard Brody, and many House contributors.

Kevin’s trailblazing example inspired me to give up print journalism last year and concentrate on filmmaking, and make video essays—criticism with moving pictures—a key part of my new life. I’ve been privileged to work with Kevin on video essays for the Museum of the Moving Image, which believed in the critical relevance and legal sturdiness of the format and asked us to do series on the films of Oliver Stone and the opening credits of HBO’s The Wire. Many other critic-filmmakers have followed in Kevin’s footsteps, including Jim Emerson, publisher of Scanners, who dove into the pool with a wordless video essay tied into The House’s “Close-Up Blog-a-thon,” and who recently uploaded a ripped DVD clip from Warner Bros’ The Dark Knight to augment his recent series of articles attacking the film for narrative and visual sloppiness.

Can a critic argue without clips? Sure. Film criticism has largely done without external accompaniments for a century and can continue to do without them. But it’s important to note that clips and still frames have been a central part of cinema studies since its inception. Anyone who’s attended a film history or theory course knows how valuable they are. Clips often determine the difference between learning something and truly understanding it. They’re quotes from the source text deployed to make a case. Take them away, and you’re left with the critic saying, “Well, I can’t show you exactly what I mean, so I’ll describe it as best I can and hope you believe me.”

This, in a nutshell, is the defining difference between criticism pre- and post-millennium. For the first time ever, when someone says to a critic, “Show me the evidence,” the critic doesn’t need to unlock a film archive vault or even haul out a DVD player to produce it. He can call it up online anytime, anywhere, for anybody.

The implications are astounding. The technology’s potential has only begun to be tapped. And as you know, there’s more to it than classroom-style argumentation. Digital editing software and DVD-ripping technology permits anybody with filmmaking skill and the right tools—say, Handbrake to rip discs, MPEG Streamclip to convert them to edit-able format, and iMovie or Final Cut to put the pieces together—to manipulate commercial media in all sorts of ways, then post the result on the Internet. Suddenly mass entertainment became as malleable as paper or clay. The combination of editing software, DVD- and CD-ripping technology and YouTube led to a kind of creative Wild West, with non-professionals mining, sharing, re-editing and posting copyrighted content with impunity. Some of the efforts were clearly fresh and vital: Kevin’s pieces; cheeky mash-ups like Melbelinkie’s “40 Inspirational Speeches in 2 Minutes”; the exuberant work of Goldentusk, whose copyright-flouting theme-song spectaculars have given me more pleasure than any stage or screen musical I’ve seen recently.

But of course, the vast majority of the copyright-flouting stuff on YouTube was just plain theft: people figuring out they could get something for nothing, then sharing it with strangers. There are entire YouTube channels consisting of ripped DVDs or the contents of somebody’s record collection. There was so much of it, proliferating at such a terrifyingly rapid pace, that the Viacoms and Time-Warners of the world doubtless began to feel like store owners huddled behind a counter during a nonstop orgy of looting. Something had to be done.

And it finally was. As you read this, the west is about to be crisscrossed with fences and railroad tracks thanks to digital watermarking and steganography, processes that embed invisible codes in commercially reproduced audio and video. These practices allow copyright owners to detect when their products are reproduced and posted online (via automated software: nobody has the manpower or time to do it personally), then send emails to the publishing website demanding that the work be removed. The sites generally oblige, no questions asked, because (here we go again) there aren’t enough hours or people to examine each new posted work and decide if it adheres to the principles of fair use—and even if the sites were bold enough to attempt such judgment calls, the media companies and artists’ estates would sue the hell out of them until they relented and did as they were told. YouTube’s current definition of “The Right Thing” is, “Whatever makes life easiest.”

For DVD-rippers of all sorts, the start of 2009 feels like the beginning of the last act of The Godfather—the point when all family business gets settled at once, spectacularly and in public. In the past few weeks, I’ve seen a few of my rip-dependent video essays (most of which I believe I could defend as fair use-exempted work) taken off YouTube or denied publication in the first place. For the the most part, attempts to appeal the decision appeared to have been round-filed by the company. I’ve heard similar war stories from Kevin, Jim Emerson and House contributor Steven Boone, whose mash-ups started vanishing from YouTube a few weeks back.

If you believe you’ve got a legitimate objection to a takedown notice, good luck pursuing it. YouTube makes it as difficult as possible for individuals to make their case. The company offers Google’s main switchboard number as its only readily apparent public contact point (call it and you get a dead-end voicemail menu). When YouTube users try to dispute a takedown, the company typically responds with vague boilerplate emails that translate as, “Run along, kid, you bother me.”

Even filmmmaker/rights holder disputes that seem to end well have ominous undertones. This past Friday, for instance, I uploaded a wordless video essay to YouTube that employed clips from past and present musicals to show the visual signature and influence of director-choreographer Busby Berkeley. Within hours of processing, I got emails informing me that the piece had been disabled due to copyright claims from NBC Universal (owners of The Big Lebowski, one of several modern films quoted in the piece) and the owners of the song “I Only Have Eyes for You,” featured in the Berkeley-choreographed musical Dames. I disputed both claims. NBC Universal and the “Eyes” rights holders backed off, but only partway. The Berkeley piece was restored as of late last night, but the embedding function is currently disabled. My short documentary about the animator Bill Melendez (“A Little Love”) was likewise flagged by the owners of “Peanuts.” But rather than automatically block playback or disable the audio, the rights holders let it stay up (and be embedded elsewhere) while reserving the right to monitor viewing levels and add commercials later.

These seem like OK compromises until you consider the implications: the distributors of art and entertainment are, to greater or lesser degrees, being permitted to dictate the terms under which their products can be quoted, interpreted, parodied, examined or otherwise discussed.

Kevin has copies of all his work, and I’m sure it will show up again somewhere, sometime. But the obliteration of YouTube as a global platform for his voice is a crime of greater magnitude than anything he did to create the video essays in the first place. YouTube is the town square of the 21st century—rather like a gigantic virtual mall that is, technically speaking, a private space, but which operates as a public sphere: a gathering spot, a cultural and political crossroads. By scourging Kevin’s work from this crossroads and banning his video essays—and, potentially, all similar work—from YouTube, the company is allowing the powerful to muzzle the near-powerless. And it is endorsing the idea that in cases involving intellectual property law and the Internet, filmmakers can be deemed guilty, silenced, then made to plead for their right to speak.

There’s also an unspoken class bias at work here, a bully mentality that chooses its targets based on who’s likely to fight back and win. Consider commercial TV, which is filled with programs that routinely air copyrighted material without permission for purposes of journalism, satire or simple entertainment. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report don’t ask permission to air any of the news clips they slice and dice each night for yuks; they consider a network’s onscreen logo to be acknowledgment enough, and their assumption is almost never challenged. Talk shows don’t think twice about airing a rival network’s news footage or clips from a popular or notorious TV program in order to spark a discussion or anchor a satirical montage. Infotainment shows compile film clips for use in movie star obituaries—not just electronic presskit snippets meant for PR purposes, but clips from older movies that predate EPKs and that might have originally aired on some corporate competitor’s channel—and the movie’s copyright holders don’t object. The shows that feature such clips are routinely repurposed on the parent company’s websites, often with ads and sometimes with embedding functions that allow the clip to be reproduced by bloggers, and there are not currently, to the best of my knowledge, any lawsuits seeking to stop the practice. Kings wink at each other. Peasants get the axe.

Kevin B. Lee is not Napster; he’s not some guy uploading every frame of every Bette Davis movie for kicks; he’s not even Goldentusk. He’s a critic and scholar doing work that could be considered, at worst, compelling free ads for essential pop art. YouTube, by reflexively siding with whichever party has more money and power, has renounced its founding spirit.

There should be a way to distinguish between piracy-for-profit (or unauthorized, free redistribution) and creative, interpretive, critical or political work that happens to use copyrighted material. And there must be an alternative to unilateral takedowns. The issues aren’t just legal, they’re practical. History has demonstrated that there’s no copyright protection that can’t be defeated, no corporate edict that can’t be subverted. And given the technological sophistication that permits digital watermarking, there ought to be a way to make sampling of any sort, authorized or not, scaled to suit the filmmakers’ means, profitable for the rights holders, and as fully automated as the copyright-infringement-scouring that’s currently happening all over the Internet.

Whatever the solutions, they should be something other than one-size-fits-all. Digital watermarking abusers are engaged in an unwinnable war—one that, in its present state, will only produce collateral damage and make them increasingly unsympathetic, and therefore more likely to be demonized and resisted. The entertainment industry’s unwillingness to recognize the plain fact that people have complex, idiosyncratic and yes, possessive relationships to songs, films and TV shows—relationships that are qualitatively different from their relationships to cars, hats, shoes and beer—contributes to a culture of calcified mutual resentment, and a public mindset (manifested most vividly in generations that cannot remember life before the Internet) that sees big entertainment companies as lead-footed dopes—Elmer Fudd blasting every rabbit hole in sight hoping to hit Bugs Bunny.

The situation as it stands is immoral, untenable and, I believe, a violation of fundamental rights. Almost nobody taking part in the early phases of digital media has the money to fight the Googles and Viacoms of the world, and of course that’s what the takedown gremlins are counting on; injustice not resisted eventually becomes tradition. I fervently hope some brave, knowledgeable lawyer will see that there’s more at stake here than the ethics of ripping and posting scenes from movies, and make a test case of Kevin’s unconscionable treatment. The circumstances may seem mundane, but the implications are grim as can be. When individuals and governments permit corporations to dictate the terms by which their culture may be examined, the First Amendment becomes just another pile of words.

A Brooklyn-based film editor and a former critic for The New York Times, The Star-Ledger, and New York Press, Matt Zoller Seitz is the editor emeritus of The House Next Door. For now, at least, he posts videos on YouTube under the name InsomniacDad.

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Awards

2019 Oscar Nomination Predictions

How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways.

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Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways. The hastily introduced and unceremoniously tabled (for now) “best popular film” Oscar. The impending commercial-break ghettoization of such categories as best cinematography and best film editing, but most certainly not best song and best animated feature. The abortive attempts to unveil Kevin Hart as the host not once, but twice, stymied by the online backlash over years-old anti-gay Twitter jokes and leading AMPAS to opt for George Glass as this year’s master of ceremonies. The strong-arming of its own membership to deter rank-and-file superstars from attending competing precursor award shows. If these end up being the last Oscars ever, and it’s starting to feel as though it should be, what a way to go out, right? Like the floating island of plastic in the Pacific, the cultural and political detritus of Oscar season has spread far beyond any previous rational estimates and will almost certainly outlive our functional presence on this planet. And really, when you think about it, what’s worse: The extinction of mankind or Bohemian Rhapsody winning the best picture Oscar? In that spirit, we press on.

Picture

Vice

There will be plenty of time, too much time, to go deep on the many ways Green Book reveals the flawed soul of your average, aged white liberal in America circa 2019. For now, let’s just admit that it’s as sure a nominee as The Favourite, Roma, and A Star Is Born. (There’s snackable irony in the fact that a movie called The Front Runner became very much not an Oscar front runner in a year that doesn’t appear to have a solid front runner.) And even though few seem to be predicting it for an actual win here, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman has an almost spotless precursor track record, showing up almost across the board among the guilds. Predicting this category would’ve been easy enough when Oscar limited it to five films, but it’s strangely almost as easy this year to see where the line will cut off between five and 10. Adam McKay’s Vice may be without shame, but you don’t have to strain hard to see how people could mistake it for the film of the moment. Bohemian Rhapsody is certainly lacking in merit, but, much like our comrade in chief, Oscar has never been more desperate for people to like and respect him, and a hit is a hit. Except when it’s a Marvel movie, which is why Black Panther stands precariously on the category’s line of cutoff, despite the rabid enthusiasm from certain corners that will likely be enough to push it through.

Will Be Nominated: BlacKkKlansman, Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Green Book, Roma, A Star Is Born, and Vice

Closest Runners-Up: If Beale Street Could Talk and A Quiet Place

Should Be Nominated: BlacKkKlansman, Burning, First Reformed, Let the Sunshine In, and Zama

Best Director

Yorgos Lanthimos

Everyone can agree that Bohemian Rhapsody will be one of the best picture contenders that doesn’t get a corresponding best director nomination, but virtually all the other nominees we’re predicting have a shot. Including Peter-flashing Farrelly, whose predictably unsubtle work on Green Book (or, Don and Dumber) netted him a widely derided DGA nomination. The outrage over Farrelly’s presence there took some of the heat off Vice’s Adam McKay, but if any DGA contender is going to swap out in favor of Yorgos Lanthimos (for BAFTA favorite The Favourite), it seems likely to be McKay. As Mark Harris has pointed out, Green Book is cruising through this awards season in a lane of its own, a persistently well-liked, well-meaning, unchallenging throwback whose defiant fans are clearly in a fighting mood.

Will Be Nominated: Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born), Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), Peter Farrelly (Green Book), Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite), and Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman)

Closest Runners-Up: Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk), and Adam McKay (Vice)

Should Be Nominated: Lee Chang-dong (Burning), Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In), Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman), Lucrecia Martel (Zama), and Paul Schrader (First Reformed)

Best Actress

Yalitza Aparicio

Had Fox Searchlight reversed their category-fraud strategizing and flipped The Favourite’s Olivia Coleman into supporting and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone into lead, the five best actress slots would arguably have been locked down weeks, if not months, ago, unless Fox’s bet-hedging intuits some form of industry resistance to double female-led propositions. As it stands, there are four locks that hardly need mention and a slew of candidates on basically equal footing. Hereditary’s Toni Collette has become shrieking awards show junkies’ cause célèbre this year, though she actually has the critic awards haul to back them up, having won more of the regional prizes than anyone else. The same demographic backing Collette gave up hope long ago on Viola Davis being able to survive the Widows collapse, and yet there by the grace of BAFTA does she live on to fight another round. Elsie Fisher’s palpable awkwardness in Eighth Grade and winning awkwardness navigating the Hollywood circuit have earned her an almost protective backing. But we’re going out on a limb and calling it for the rapturously received Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio. Voters could, like us, find it not a particularly great performance and still parlay their good will for her into a nomination that’s there for the taking.

Will Be Nominated: Yalitza Aparicio (Roma), Glenn Close (The Wife), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born), and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Closest Runners-Up: Toni Collette (Hereditary), Viola Davis (Widows), and Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade)

Should Be Nominated: Juliette Binoche (Let the Sunshine In), Toni Collette (Hereditary), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Regina Hall (Support the Girls), and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Actor

John David Washington

Take Toni Collette’s trophies thus far in the competition and double them. And then add a few more. That’s the magnitude of endorsements backing First Reformed’s Ethan Hawke. And his trajectory has the clear markings of an almost overqualified performance that, like Naomi Watts’s in Mulholland Drive, cinephiles decades from now will wonder how Oscar snubbed. If Pastor Ernst Toller and Sasha Stone are right and God is indeed watching us all and cares what the Academy Awards do, Hawke’s nomination will come at the expense of John David Washington, whose strength in the precursors thus far (SAG and Globe-nominated) is maybe the most notable bellwether of BlacKkKlansman’s overall strength. Because, as with the best actress category, the other four slots are basically preordained. Unlike with best actress, the bench of also-rans appears to be one solitary soul. A fitting place for Paul Schrader’s man against the world.

Will Be Nominated: Christian Bale (Vice), Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born), Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), Viggo Mortensen (Green Book), and John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman)

Closest Runners-Up: Ethan Hawke (First Reformed)

Should Be Nominated: Yoo Ah-in (Burning), Ben Foster (Leave No Trace), Ethan Hawke (First Reformed), Meinhard Neumann (Western), and John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman)

Supporting Actress

Emily Blunt

Every Oscar prognosticator worth their bragging rights has spent the last couple weeks conspicuously rubbing their hands together about Regina King’s chances. The all-or-nothing volley that’s seen her sweep the critics’ awards and win the Golden Globe, and at the same time not even get nominations from within the industry—she was left off the ballot by both SAG and the BAFTAs—are narrative disruptions among a class that lives for narratives and dies of incorrect predictions. But despite the kvetching, King is as safe as anyone for a nomination in this category. It doesn’t hurt that, outside the pair of lead actresses from The Favourite, almost everyone else in the running this year feels like a 7th- or 8th-place also-ran. Except maybe Widows’s Elizabeth Debicki, whose fervent fans probably number just enough to land her…in 7th or 8th place. Vice’s Amy Adams is set to reach the Glenn Close club with her sixth Oscar nomination, and if she’d only managed to sustain the same loopy energy she brings to Lynne Cheney’s campaign-trail promise to keep her bra on, she’d deserve it. Which leaves a slot for supportive housewives Claire Foy, Nicole Kidman, and Emily Blunt. Even before the collapse of Mary Poppins Returns, we preferred Blunt’s chances in A Quiet Place.

Will Be Nominated: Amy Adams (Vice), Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Emma Stone (The Favourite), and Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

Closest Runners-Up: Claire Foy (First Man), Nicole Kidman (Boy Erased), and Margot Robbie (Mary, Queen of Scots)

Should Be Nominated: Sakura Ando (Shoplifters), Zoe Kazan (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Rachel McAdams (Disobedience), and Haley Lu Richardson (Support the Girls)

Supporting Actor

Timothée Chalamet

The same people who’re curiously doubting Regina King’s nomination chances seem awfully assured that Sam Elliott’s moist-eyed, clearly canonical backing-the-truck-up scene in A Star Is Born assures him not only a nomination but probably the win. Elliott missed nominations with both the Golden Globes and BAFTA, and it was hard not to notice just how enthusiasm for A Star Is Born seemed to be cooling during the same period Oscar ballots were in circulation. Right around the same time, it started becoming apparent that BlacKkKlansman is a stronger draw than anyone thought, which means Adam Driver (who everyone was already predicting for a nod) won’t have to suffer the representationally awkward fate of being the film’s only nominee. Otherwise, the category appears to favor previously awarded actors (Mahershala Ali and Sam Rockwell) or should have been previously awarded actors (Chalamet). Leaving Michael B. Jordan to remain a should have been previously nominated actor.

Will Be Nominated: Mahershala Ali (Green Book), Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy), Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman), Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), and Sam Rockwell (Vice)

Closest Runners-Up: Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born) and Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther)

Should Be Nominated: Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy), Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman), Hugh Grant (Paddington 2); Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), and Steven Yeun (Burning)

Adapted Screenplay

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Get beyond the best picture hopefuls BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk, which seem deservedly locked, and A Star Is Born, which is even more deservedly iffy, and you’ll see the screenwriters’ branch deciding just how seriously to take themselves this year, and whether they’re feeling like spiritually reliving the moments that found them nominating Bridesmaids and Logan. If so, then expect Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther to factor in here. If they most definitely don’t feel frisky, then maybe the foursquare First Man has a shot at reversing its overall downward trajectory. If they’re seeking that “just right” middle ground, then Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Death of Stalin are in.

Will Be Nominated: BlacKkKlansman, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, The Death of Stalin, If Beale Street Could Talk, and A Star Is Born

Closest Runners-Up: Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and First Man

Should Be Nominated: BlacKkKlansman, First Man, Leave No Trace, The Grief of Others, and We the Animals

Original Screenplay

First Reformed

It’s not unusual for some of the year’s most acclaimed movies whose strength isn’t necessarily in their scripts to get nominated only in the screenwriting categories. First Reformed, which even some of its fiercest defenders admit can sometimes feel a bit like Paul Schrader’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” greatest-hits package, stands to be another of them. But it’ll be a close call, given the number of other equally vanguard options they’ll be weighing it against, like Sorry to Bother You, which arguably feels more urgently in the moment in form, Eighth Grade, which is more empathetically post-#MeToo, and even Cold War, which had a surprisingly strong showing with BAFTA. Given the quartet of assured best picture contenders in the mix, First Reformed is going to have to hold off all of them.

Will Be Nominated: The Favourite, First Reformed, Green Book, Roma, and Vice

Closest Runners-Up: Cold War, Eighth Grade, and Sorry to Bother You

Should Be Nominated: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Bodied, First Reformed, Sorry to Bother You, and Western

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Reflections in a Quilt: John McPhee’s The Patch

There’s something uncommonly relaxing about many of McPhee’s patient elaborations of things known and unknown.

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Reflections in a Quilt: John McPhee’s The Patch

“But beyond the flaring headlines of the past year, few are aware of who Richard Burton really is, what he has done, and what he is throwing away by gulping down his past and then smashing the glass.” This is one of those quotes, which, through its sheer heft and style, threatens to turn any accompanying review into a redundancy. To find other lines that meet its towering standard, seek its source: The Patch by John McPhee. There’s no shortage of arresting remarks in this nicely heterogeneous collection of writing. One sinks into the book, riveted, but also races across it as its fascinations multiply.

The first section is called “The Sporting Scene.” Those typically uninterested in sports or sports writing, like myself, shouldn’t be deterred by the title. As I discovered through other recent encounters with McPhee’s ballyhooed writing, the author has a knack for inexorably moving readers beyond their biases. Two-part New Yorker articles like “Oranges,” “The Pine Barrens,” and “Basin and Range,” which were later turned into books, are studious and propulsive. Fine-grained matters of geology or citrus aren’t exactly simplified in these articles, but wading through the density becomes an irresistible prospect thanks to the author’s intelligibility, wit, enthusiasm, and atmospheric touches. For an example of the latter, consider McPhee’s focus on the “unnatural and all but unending silence” of the Floridian orange groves that he visited. What’s more, he often conveys a certain sense of respectful understanding, as when he mentions that he has “yet to meet anyone living in the Pine Barrens who has in any way indicated envy of people who live elsewhere.”

Similar virtues spruce up the “The Sporting Scene.” Its pieces include emphases on fishing, football, golf, and lacrosse. McPhee honors the athletic endeavor by carefully illuminating its particulars. He busily supplies facts, anecdotes, ideas, and biographical details. In “The Orange Trapper,” for instance, he discusses his hunt for errant golf balls. It’s an engaging topic. He has learned, among other things, what occurs when you take a saw to a golf ball. You find the world: “Core, mantle, crust—they are models of the very planet they are filling up at a rate worldwide approaching a billion a year.” Other jolts arrive through the often remarkable conclusions to his paragraphs and pieces. The ending of “The Orange Trapper” is an especial wonder—a thrilling mobilization of words that elicits laughter and awe.

There are also bears: “Direct Eye Contact” is a compact assortment of hopes and advisements concerning bears in New Jersey, and it concludes on a sweetly uxorious note. Indeed, one never knows where any of these pieces are going. In “Pioneer,” meanwhile, McPhee ponders Bill Tierney’s choice to begin coaching the University of Denver men’s lacrosse team. “How could he leave Princeton?” McPhee asks. “It can be done. And Tierney knew what he was doing.” Those lines showcase the occasionally pithy, pleasantly chiseled style of his prose. It’s a considered design that favors clarity, structures hairpin turns toward new discursive trails, and pairs well with punchlines. In “Phi Beta Football,” one of McPhee’s colleagues promises to deliver him “a nice piece of change” if he figures out a suitable title for his book. “I went away thinking,” McPhee tells us, and then adds, “mostly about the piece of change.”

The recounting of sporting events is likewise augmented by the author’s playfulness. “Pioneer” throws us this line: “But Syracuse exploded—one, two, three—and the game went into ‘sudden victory’ overtime, the politically uplifting form of sudden death.” So transporting and genial is McPhee’s writing that the specifics of any given match never weigh down the reading, nor do his more elaborate remarks. “It’s a Brueghelian scene against the North Sea,” he declares in “Linksland and Bottle,” his piece on the 2010 British Open, “with golfers everywhere across the canvas—putting here, driving there, chipping and blasting in syncopation.” What’s even better is his sensitivity, in the same paragraph, to the fine distinctions between the manner of Scottish and Californian galleries as they observe rounds of golf. Suddenly, his words become almost numinous, and no grace is lost.

The second section of The Patch is called “An Album Quilt” and it encompasses a dizzying mixture of short pieces. None are available in any of McPhee’s other books. In an introductory statement, the author compares these pieces to the dissimilar blocks of a quilt. He notes that he “didn’t aim to reprint the whole of anything”; he sought out “blocks to add to the quilt, and not without new touches, internal deletions, or changed tenses.” This section is quite distinct from “The Sporting Scene,” but no less extraordinary in its overall effect. A piece about Cary Grant starts things off. Boyhood encounters with Albert Einstein are up ahead.

There are more standouts than can be briefly mentioned here, including an evocative overview of the craftsmanship that McPhee discovered within the original Hershey’s Chocolate Factory. The author’s clipped expressions of wonder enliven that piece: “Gulfs of chocolate. Chocolate deeps. Mares’ tails on the deeps.” A little later, he mentions “granite millstones arranged in cascading tiers, from which flow falls of dark cordovan liquor.” One can imagine Don Draper reading through this with poignant interest. In another entry, a series of succinct blurbs about tennis luminaries, Rod Laver’s childhood is crisply set against his eventual stardom: “Had to wait his turn while his older brothers played. His turn would come.”

And so one just leaps from piece to piece, and, along the way, discovers scenes from different periods in McPhee’s life and career. An encounter with two New York City policemen—this likely occurred in the ‘60s or early ‘70s, given the “familiar green and black” on the cop car—is particularly memorable. It begins with the author’s recollection of locking his keys inside his car, which, he notes, had been parked “in a moted half-light that swiftly lost what little magic it had had, and turned to condensed gloom.” After that characteristically precise fusion of atmosphere and psychology, he describes scrounging around for wire so as to open the door. The sudden arrival of the policemen created a dilemma: Would they view McPhee, who had been wedging a coat hanger into the car, as a thief or the hapless owner? “The policemen got out of the patrol car,” McPhee tells us, “and one of them asked for the wire.” From there, the situation undulates a couple more times before concluding through a sparkling punchline that’s supplied by one of the officers. The story is over before you know it, but its brisk and detail-oriented pleasures are echoed throughout much of the book.

In the title piece, meanwhile, McPhee movingly writes about his father, but also about fishing a pickerel out of a patch of lily pads. Here and elsewhere, granular descriptions become byways into a range of enthusiasms, histories, and hearts. The author, of course, frequently registers himself through the infinitesimal details, and through the humor that he yokes to affection. “‘Fuck you, coach!’ Quote unquote” is a message that McPhee once emailed to Bill Tierney. Great warmth radiates below the mantle of those words.

This, among sundry other qualities, keeps one reading. There’s also something uncommonly relaxing about many of his patient elaborations of things known and unknown. And there is, both within the book’s individual pieces and across its varied totality, a sense of constant renewal and revelation. As McPhee notes down somewhere amid the blocks of his quilt, “I could suddenly see it, almost get into it—into another dimension of experience that I might otherwise have missed entirely.”

John McPhee’s The Patch is now available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

Our most-read articles of 2018 comprise pretty much everything we do best.

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018
Photo: Rockstar Games

Like last year, it wasn’t the most highly praised or viciously excoriated film, album, or TV show that garnered the most attention among Slant readers in 2018. It was a so-called “average” star rating of a video game that led to our most-read—or, rather, looked at—article of the year. More predictably, lists proved to be increasingly popular, particularly among cinephiles. Aside from a few pieces that didn’t make the cut—like our career-spanning interview with Jodie Foster and our five-star review of Synapse Films’s Blu-ray restoration of the original Suspiria—this list comprises pretty much everything we do best. Alexa Camp
 

The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

10. The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.” Budd Wilkins

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

9. Album Review: Mariah Carey’s Caution

At a mere 10 tracks, Caution is Mariah’s leanest album in 25 years. With the exception of the formulaic “With You,” which sounds like an outtake from E=MC2, the R&B and adult contemporary-style ballads that launched (and re-launched) her career have been largely replaced here by textured, midtempo grooves. Caution feels like the album Mariah has wanted to make all along: one that throws caution to the wind and sees her embracing her inner weirdo. And, ironically, it took her ending up back at Sony Music to do it. Sal Cinquemani

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

8. Game Review: Far Cry 5

With this entry, the Far Cry series has suddenly decided to crib story ideas from real American nightmares: the Ammon Bundy standoff, Jonestown, the Heaven’s Gate cult, Waco, the Westboro Baptist Church. It indulges a certain level of ejaculatory N.R.A. fantasy about a day when the Second Amendment saves the world, when all those guns hoarded by frightened men, all those survivalist bunkers, all that cynical preparation for the collapse of society proves useful. A regular supply item in this game is called a Prepper Pack. Major secrets are hidden in bunkers filled with canned food and ammo. These little hat tips toward the gun-toting survivalist sect might’ve been worthy of an eye roll had the game come out, say, prior to 2016. But at this particular moment in American life, those tips of the hat feel downright sinister. Justin Clark

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

7. All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindler’s List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

6. Film Review: Aquaman

The best point of comparison for Aquaman is Black Panther, another superhero movie about a king of a forgotten realm reclaiming his throne. But whereas Ryan Coogler’s surprisingly affecting superhero film restored weight to both the choreography and the drama of the genre, Aquaman remains adrift, so much fantasy flotsam and jetsam floating before our eyes. Pat Brown

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

5. The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time

When compiling this list, my colleagues and I elected to consider more than historical context. Greatness, to the individual, isn’t just about impact on some nebulous past. It’s as much about feeling, about the way a video game can capture the imagination regardless of genre or release date or canonical status. The titles on this list come from every corner of the medium—represented for the precision of their control or the beauty of their visuals or the emotion of their story. We’ve chosen to cast a wide net, so as to best represent the individual passions incited by saving planets, stomping on goombas, or simply conversing with vivid characters. Steven Scaife

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

4. Film Review: Avengers: Infinity War

What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, err, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. Keith Uhlich

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

3. TV Review: Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan

If Jack Ryan never gets around to offering its audience a definition of a swift transaction, that’s because all that matters to the series is that it’s a tool used by bad guys, whom only Jack Ryan can stop. Despite paying cursory service to humanizing its principal characters, Jack Ryan is mostly interested in a battle between broad notions of good and evil. It thrives on the tension of Jack’s chess match with bin Suleiman, reducing an entire nation’s efforts to combat terror to a personal beef between two archetypes. Michael Haigis

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

2. Every Pixar Movie Ranked from Worst to Best

If The Incredibles was essentially a superhero riff on male mid-life crisis, Incredibles 2 primarily concerns male anxiety about women taking over traditionally masculine roles. Brad Bird’s film also touches heavily on the uncertainty and doubt that many women feel about pursuing their dreams at the expense of spending time with their families. These are weighty topics to pursue in an animated action-comedy, and Bird, with a light tone and deft touch, manages to give them their due. This is a fleeter, funnier film than the original, and the director gets considerable comedic mileage out of Jack-Jack’s wild capriciousness, as evidenced by Incredibles 2‘s single most hilarious sequence, in which the baby uses its multifarious abilities—fire, lasers, multiplying, turning into a gremlin—to battle a feral raccoon just for the hell of it. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Keith Watson

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The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018

1. Game Review: Red Dead Redemption 2

For all of the significant improvements Red Dead Redemption 2 has made to an open-world template, however, it still maintains Rockstar’s bullish commitment to a clunky control scheme. Across what’s now four games and two console generations, the company’s characters have lumbered along in what’s meant to convey the weight of a real person in contrast to the light, effortless controls of so many other games. But the result is artificial rather than convincing. Studios like Naughty Dog have proven capable of giving characters a consequential sense of weight without making it a challenge to navigate around a table or requiring you to hold down buttons to move at acceptable speeds. Coupled with middling gunplay feedback and a few too many stealth segments, the chunky act of playing Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t feel good so much as it feels, eventually at least, tolerable. Scaife

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