Bittersweet Victory — Plan 9 from Outer Space

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: Well, no film review website is complete without a review of this “gem”, so allow me to contribute one to the Silver Mirror.  Similar to my review of ‘Django’, there’s no point in reviewing this film seriously.  It’s cheap, it’s cliché, it’s meshing of gothic horror and science fiction feels awkward at best, and the story, if you’re determined enough to follow it, just doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Yes, ‘Plan 9’ is a horrible movie, and its director, Edward D. Wood Jr., was a bad director; but you miss the point if that’s all you see.

Even as we mock and ridicule him, there is something to remember about Ed Wood before completing writing him off — he lived the dream.  Whether you can stand to watch his films or not, they are the hard-earned treasures for a man who fought against the studios and “won” (I use that term loosely.)

James and I can attest to this through our work in S&T Pictures: Even now, in a world of digital cameras and editing software, it’s not easy making movies.  They require time, money and resources; and for the silver screen that almost always means having to appeal to a studio, even if it’s just a small one, for funding and support.  And that’s not easy.  Studios, after all, are at least as interested in making a profit as they are in telling a story — often times more — and if you aren’t a big name, or your story doesn’t have enough commercial viability, you’re out of luck.  Heck, even being a big name won’t help you sometimes.  George Lucas, the man who almost single handedly reinvented Hollywood, was turned down by major studios for his film, ‘Red Tails’.  That shows you how unwilling most studios are to take the slightest risk.

This was the situation of Ed Wood.  The studios, even the independents, wouldn’t touch him.  His 1953 endeavor, ‘Glen or Glenda’ — a film of his that actually did have a separate producer — is bold, uncompromising and completely unwatchable.  It seemed to forever earn him hatred and distrust from studio Hollywood.

What was a man like Ed Wood to do?  Self-finance.  Sometimes he had to stoop pretty low to get money, but he got it, and he made his films.  Even if they’re considered the worst ever made, he did make them.  This is the American Dream, folks.  It’s not all glittery and made of gold, but it’s there and it works.

Sort of.

This brings us to ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’, a film he supposedly made with funds from a church in Hollywood, promising them religious films with the profits from this one.*
The film’s premise of aliens resurrecting the earth’s dead (well, three people at least), combines sci-fi and horror mainly so that Ed Wood could continue to use actors he already knew and footage he had already shot.  Bela Lugosi of ‘Dracula’ fame, who had starred in two other Ed wood films, returns here as one of the resurrected dead, although this is really just pre-shot footage of him, done before his death in 1956 (three years prior to the film’s release).  Other actors include sexy television hostess Vampira, psychic Criswell and wrestler Tor Johnson.  It goes without saying, but none of these people, nor the “aliens” who look exactly like human beings, can act.  The footage of Lugosi, probably not amounting to more than three minutes (a double was used for the rest of the film), at least seems a little credible.  Lugosi had once been a good actor.

Should I talk about the effects?  It seems worth mentioning.  They are pretty bad, even by 1950’s standards.  Model spaceships fly on visible strings in front of obvious photos and paintings; the interiors of these space ships look like office buildings with giant radios sitting in the corner.  The graveyard set where the dead are resurrected is obviously fake, with plywood gravestones set on stands that are visible all too often.
The whole thing feels feigned and artificial, and believe me, it is bad.  But is it the worst? No.

Think about it: Ed Wood may have been a skilless director, but then again, his films were made on budgets of mere thousands and schedules of mere days.  He didn’t have the time for reshoots, nor the money for special effects. T hat he produced what he did given those limitations is actually sort of impressive.  Compare this to ‘The Room’, a film that far more deserves the title of worst movie ever made; if for no other reason than because Tommy Wiseau somehow sank six million dollars into it; and that movie didn’t even have any special effects.  Or compare ‘Plan 9’ to the latest ‘Transformers’ movie.  Can you honestly say that THAT movie makes any more sense than ‘Plan 9’ does?  That it’s any more watchable?  That it’s any less stupid, cliché?  And that movie had a budget of hundreds of millions.  Pound for pound, there are a good many movies that are better qualified to be called the worst ever.

Ed Wood was a man who was rejected by the system, fought back, and had something to show for it.  That he hung in there for as long as he did is commendable, even if his films are not.  Still, there’s a certain hilarious charm to them, and ‘Plan 9’ in particular.  So, if you can stomach it, you might just enjoy giving this one a go.

*The wondrous trust and gullibility of people before the Internet…

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Real Steel

Review: The first thing we hear in director Shawn Levy’s ‘Real Steel’ is an acoustic guitar being plucked sentimentally, the kind of music that tells you, before the first lyrics are sung, that it is about a man down on his luck, probably on the road, desperate for a second chance.  Which is, of course, exactly what we get.  Hugh Jackman is a former boxer eclipsed by the robot fighting craze, but he’s trying to stay in the game with his own machines.  He’s not doing particularly well.  He also has an eleven-year-old son he’s never met… and you can probably guess where this is going.  The boy doesn’t want him, he doesn’t want the boy, and the story is about bringing them together — while they take a unique fighting machine to international stardom.

With its diverse team of producers, a couple story-by credits and a usually terrifying partially-inspired-by credit, it’s clear that this is a movie that was made by committee.  It’s cheese, fluff, and big CGI robots beating the crud out of each other.  A story this thoroughly soaked in sentimentalism and the mush of recycled pop culture should be so rote and manufactured that it fails to achieve a modicum of emotional impact.

But that’s not the case; just because it is an exercise in efficient Hollywood money-making does not mean it is fundamentally wrong or, for that matter, ineffective.  Levy and company employ an army of clichés that prove their familiar power; there will be slow-motion, there will be last stands, there will be unlikely heroes, and somehow there will still be tears in the audience.  Hell, I cried, and I knew exactly what they were doing in a cool, objective way.  This is a film that blatantly mashes up giant robots with ‘Rocky’ and dares you to sneer at it.  It’s like a cinematic staring contest; whose eyes will get watery first?  Let this serve as an important reminder: originality is not King — truth is.  Well-worn clichés persist because of their inherent value, and when communicated through good performances and rousing sequences, they can reach the most cynical of viewers.

The fights are the heart and soul of this film, even more so than the dramatic beats in between.  They are tense, exciting, well-photographed, and always character driven.  There are no superfluous action sequences.  I will call them good, certainly, but I will not call them great.  Like so many other postmodern films, ‘Real Steel’ succumbs to an excess of cuts and angles, which results in frequent disorientation and intermittent suspense.  The cinematography and editing outshine most other contemporary action films, but are still hamstrung by an underlining impatience.  Quick editing is powerful in small doses, while in large amounts it is simply wearying.  Slow motion is not an acceptable respite, either, as in effect the pace only slows about two to four seconds per shot, and while it highlights emotion, it does not balance out the marathon tempo of a given scene.  Here’s a simple slice of cinematic theory: The longer the take, the longer the characters live and breathe in the frame, the suspense persists, and the action plays.  In short, more bang for your buck, all because you didn’t cut to camera B until another five to ten seconds had passed.  Say you’ve got your robot hero enduring punches thrown by his opponent, and you want to emphasize the assault’s punishing duration.  Don’t cut to a “more intense” angle or return to a reaction shot more than once or twice, the bare minimum necessary to set up an emotional relationship between your characters in the moment.  Stay focused.  We should endure the assault along with our hero, as long as it takes.  Therefore, when he finally ducks a blow and hits his opponent square in the jaw, the reversal’s impact is substantially heightened.  Save the quick cuts for the quick changes.  For example, say the robot combatants are tangling back and forth, only keeping the upper hand for split second intervals.  Use quick cuts to mirror the choppy nature of the battle.  A filmmaker who perfectly fits their visual progression to the story’s events (i.e., cause and effect from moment to moment) is a perfect filmmaker.

Lastly, I’d like to consider the ideas the exist in the film’s text and subtext.  I think, if ‘Real Steel’ is successful (and it deserves to be), there is room to explore these notions in a respectable sequel.  Centrally, the robots serve as avatars, helping humans achieve emotional catharsis through violence.  Both Jackman’s character, and his son, express themselves through the robot called Atom, who can learn any movement he sees performed by a human being.  This relationship is what makes the finale so powerful, and ultimately justifies ‘Real Steel’ to me.  Indeed, the last shot is of the machine mimicking the boy and his father simultaneously — he’s the synergistic bridge between the two, where their souls meet and act as one.  He may also be a self-aware A.I.; if he is, then that has terrific implications for the robot boxing enterprise.  If a boxing robot’s nature is that of an avatar, could it choose what person to represent?  What if a boxing robot wished only to represent itself?  I won’t suggest that the filmmakers should tread down the familiar path of the robot uprising.  ‘Real Steel’ should be limited to explorations of its peculiar territory, nothing more or less.

In conclusion, I can say that ‘Real Steel’ is a solid work of genre filmmaking for a wide audience.  It’s a movie that young boys will drag their parents to see, but I don’t think that anyone in attendance — provided they are not hopelessly jaded — will remain unaffected.  It’s not a film geared toward (snobbish) cinephiles such as myself, but I recognize that good, comfortable narratives like this are why many people go to the movies at all.  In IMAX, ‘Real Steel’ has all the rumble of a roller coaster, and it is in that spectacular format that I would recommend you to experience this sentimental, rousing, bubblegum, two-fisted, populist dreck.

I liked it.

The Adjustment Bureau

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A rare cerebral and hearty science fiction film with charm and thrills, though weakened by the demands of standard Hollywood plotting.

Review:  Here is a movie that works on levels usually rendered inaccessible by genre-specific direction.  It’s got brains, drama, thrills, and most refreshingly, heart.  Capraesque Americana, Kafkaesque paranoia and classic Hollywood romance blend together with surprising smoothness.  It reaches sci-fi conceptual heights, but remains accessible to a wide audience.  It’s heartwarming, entertaining, intriguing and memorable.

Its chief flaws are trade-offs due to this balancing act.  The paranoid elements gradually soften as the plot mechanics make the titular organization more familiar, and even somewhat friendly.  The Americana of its protagonist’s political ambitions fades out as he falls in love.  So while it lets down two parts in favor of the whole, the film still works because of the strong relationship at its center.  Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have great chemistry and elevate writer-director George Nolfi’s script, which is not bad on its own, into something more believable.  Because we can so easily sympathize with them, the Bureau’s effort to keep them apart — for reasons not unsympathetic on their end — creates real tension.  We may be torn between the Bureau’s point-of-view and our hope for the lovers, but we are never confused.  We know how we want this story to end, and Nolfi executes this dramatic dénouement quite well.  He picks the perfect moment to fade to black.

On top of everything, he manages to invoke an oft-derided (for good reason) but classic plot twist, the Deus Ex Machina, in just the right way.  Done badly, the Deus Ex Machina cheats us, but done well, it seals the story with mystery.  Consider ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and the wrath of God sequence — any other ending, including the one the filmmakers had originally planned, would lack punch and punctuation.

Philosophically, the film’s free will vs. determinism narrative presents a reasonable compromise.  It works as less of a dialog and more of a polemical allegory with obvious Judeo-Christian influences.  This is not necessarily a weakness, as this particular story begs for a conclusion, but there are films that handle the issues in a more compelling way.

Overall, the film is an above-average success.  What it lacks in subtlety and impact it makes up for in entertainment value.  This is sci-fi done right.

Not-So-Classic Review: The Village

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★☆☆

Summary: A film with the best intentions that, in the end, simply doesn’t deliver.

Review:  M. Night Shyamalan, once an acclaimed young filmmaker, has gradually become something of a joke in Hollywood, thanks to a string of subpar films that wrap themselves in a cloak of unfulfilling mystery.  It’s a shame too, as early on in his career, he was responsible for ‘The Sixth Sense’, ‘Unbreakable’, and ‘Signs’, which encompass a trinity of good, suspenseful filmmaking and are among my favorite films to watch.  By most accounts his problems began with his follow-up to ‘Signs’, a little film called ‘The Village’ which, while interesting, ultimately set itself up for disaster.

To reference something James once said, the ‘The Village’ isn’t half bad, it’s just a little under three-fourths good.  It suffers from two major issues. First, it was marketed as a strict horror movie.  I remember the commercials for this movie attempted to portray it in a shocking, frightening manner, comparing it to ‘Signs’ in much the same, unfair way that ‘Unbreakable’ was compared to ‘The Sixth Sense’ upon its release.  The truth is that, while there are elements of horror in ‘The Village’, its much more of slow-paced mystery than simple terror.  Those who went in expecting ‘Signs’ found themselves disappointed when they realized they were dealing with a very different animal.

For being a slow-paced mystery with a touch of terror, though, it isn’t badly done… at first.  The turn of the century town in which the film takes place is guarded on all sides by evil spirits in the surrounding forest, or so the elders say, and so the town folk can never leave, forced to remain locked in forever.  Of course, it wouldn’t be hard to guess that this film would have someone, that someone being a girl, daring to venture into the forest and the outside world, and therefore confronting these alleged demons.

All that is fine and dandy, but now we must get to the second problem.  ‘The Village’ banks on a plot twist that doesn’t really work.  I won’t tell you what it is, for the sake of seeing the film, but rest assured, it doesn’t help the story.  The issue is this; a plot twist, when used well, ought to really add something to the story.  It ought to show things in a new light and give new meaning and perspective to the events of the film.  It should give depth. This is the sort of twist M. Night Shyamalan gave us in ‘The Sixth Sense’.

In ‘The Village’ however, the plot twist that comes devalues a lot of the film’s previous moments.  The sense of mystery that worked well enough earlier seems pointless afterword.  It raises too many questions that the film vaguely answers at best, and it leaves the audience feeling empty inside.  Instead of some needed depth for the film, it makes it seem shallower.  As Roger Ebert put it (though he disliked this film much more than I did) it was little better than saying that everything that happened up to that point was a dream.

That all said, its obvious Shyamalan had a lot of faith in this story.  He does show strong direction in this film, and by that I mean he does a good job of setting things up early in the film.  He does spark our interest in what’s going on and we do care about what happens to the people of this town.  The initial ideas we are presented with are strong enough; they just get derailed and don’t wind up paying off.  An audience should feel challenged, but never alienated, and unfortunately there’s more of the latter than the former by the time the credits roll.

‘The Village’ was a box office success, though not to the degree its predecessors had been.  Critically it was mostly negative or, at best, mixed.  I think most people would agree that this is where M. Night Shyamalan began descending into the hole from which he has yet to stop digging.  Still, I have hope that he has good filmmaking left in him, provided he neither gives in to the demands of Hollywood nor his own established tropes (he really should stop putting plot twists in his films).  I happened to like the first half of ‘The Village’, and so I recommend this movie for one full watch.  Come to think of it, maybe less than a full watch — when you come to the part where the female protagonist decides to leave the village, you may just want to stop it there, avoid the plot twist, and leave well enough alone.

Classic Review: Eyes Wide Shut

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A Kafkaesque, terrifying exposé of sexual hypocrisy that stands with the best of Kubrick’s work.

Fair warning:  Because of the film’s disturbing subject, I will be handling mature sexual topics.  Be advised.

Review:  Stanley Kubrick’s acclaimed filmography is largely composed of intelligent, penetrating meditations on human nature.  Perhaps the most prominent subject is hypocrisy.  ‘The Shining’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ explored our hypocrisy of violence; famously and controversially, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ extended this critique to sexual violence in a disturbingly graphic fashion.  ‘Dr. Strangelove’ satirically blamed its nuclear holocaust on sexually dysfunctional leaders; ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ again attacks the American elite by way of a bizarre conspiracy of cloak-and-dagger sexual politics, and in the process levels a pointed accusation at humanity in general.  We like to think we’re above the basic instincts of our species, but Kubrick would have us know that we’re walking about with our eyes wide shut.  We are sexual creatures, and we’d better be honest about it.

Kubrick’s cinematic swan song is appropriately meta, to great effect.  The first step is to present audiences with an erotic thriller headlined by two attractive, bankable stars in a well-known relationship.  This draws folks in to see their fantasies realized in a carefully controlled environment.  The next step is to pull the rug out from under their feet, by refusing to show the leads having Hollywood sex with each other, and by forcing the viewer to share the protagonist’s confusion and frustration up to the last moment.  Just as ‘The Shining’ carefully condemns its gorehound audience, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ reminds viewers of their mental promiscuity and love of Hollywood exploitation.  The film’s loveless eroticism serves to put off viewers who are uninterested in this critique.  Instead of a sanitized, pleasant experience, the film’s orgy centerpiece is a flat-out terrifying, Kafkaesque nightmare — to me, it was scarier than ‘The Shining’ — so when the protagonist flees home to his wife, we’re right there with him.

‘Eyes Wide Shut’ defends monogamy, doubtless to the surprise of many self-appointed moral guardians, provided they could settle down for a few minutes to hear it out.  The carefully constructed sexual mythology of human society, and American culture in particular, squeezes the love and life out of monogamous relationships.  For reasons of class and religion, people lie about their most powerful undercurrent, and this results in mutually destructive hypocrisies.  The narrative hangs on two upscale parties held at mansions, the first masking its abusive sexual commerce in hollow pleasantries, the second reveling in open displays cloaked in ritual and threat — the point being, in a dream logic sense, they are the same event.  The multilayered narrative repeats images and themes in a lyrical way, uncovering the uncomfortable truth of each episode.  In the end, the couple has to come to terms with their desires to heal.  To experience true sexual union, stripping to the skin is not enough — they have to strip down to the heart.  Leave it to Kubrick to transform exploitative nudity into an artful statement of the human condition!

Kubrick is often labelled “cold”, but in truth he’s simply objective, standing apart from traditional Aristotelian storytelling because he refuses to digest a given film’s ideas into cheap, predictable, marketable patterns.  This is a film with a happy ending and a clear moral conclusion, but we have to go on an unusual journey to find it.  It was misunderstood in its theatrical release, but like most of Kubrick’s work from ‘2001’ on it has gradually won over critics and cinephiles.  For this reason, I call it a classic — a truly adult film.

NR: On Untitled Satires

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections!

One of my favorite writer/director teams of recent years is Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman (strike that, reverse it), responsible for ‘Being John Malkovich’ and ‘Adaptation’, thoughtful, poignant movies about creativity and other dreadful things.  Kaufman and Jonze, as explained in a SlashFilm article, are reuniting for an untitled satire (not the title, of course, but it tickles me to think that it could be).  Apparently it’s “about how world leaders gather to figure out all the seismic events that will take place in the worlds [sic, maybe?], from oil prices to wars that will be waged.” Which is a lovely concept.

Cover of "Adaptation (Shooting Scripts)"

Cover of Adaptation (Shooting Scripts)

Which is what I love about these guys: They don’t skimp on big ideas.

I see a disturbing sensibility in too many creatives; the lack of enthusiasm for really off-the-wall ideas, genre-bending or genre-less concepts that are so interesting in themselves that they buy the audience’s attention from the get-go.  As a cinephile, uniqueness is way at the top of my subconscious list of things to look for in a potential viewing experience.  I don’t go to very many films or watch too much television.  I’m James the Unmerciful, mediocre filmmakers beware.  In truth, I do try to look for the good things in film in general and in specific movies, even bad ones.  This is why my reviews typically are of cream-of-the-crop stuff.  I’m a picky eater.  I realize many folks are casual in their relationship with the cinematic arts, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to make films for the lowest common denominator.  Bad movies either fade or live in infamy, and when they achieve the latter they often define their creators’ reputations.  Not a place a creative wants to work in, unless you’re Tommy Wiseau.

It’s entirely possible to execute a great idea horribly, but it’s always better to start with the best ingredients, even if you bake the cake too long.  At least you (or someone else) can use the recipe later, and people might even forgive you for it.  In the business of screenwriting, I get it that producers like to buy stuff that duplicates the latest big thing in spirit, but there’s always the question, “How did that popular thing get made?”  Somebody has to take a risk, and it might as well be the writer.  If the writer takes big artistic risks but doesn’t skimp on excellence, and if they show tenacity, their work might get sold and the project’s distinctiveness could very well carry over through the process.  There’s never a guarantee of a big hit.  There’s that Hollywood aphorism that “Nobody knows anything”, and there’s some truth to that.  Nobody knows absolutely what will get a massive audience and a billion dollars.  If we knew, we’d be Harry Seldon.

I recently watched a documentary on the composer Philip Glass, and he said something along these lines: “If you don’t have to invent a new technique, chances are you don’t have anything new.” So instead of recycling the latest garbage, try for something absolutely insane.  If you get nervous or wise, you can always tone it down later.  Creativity is a gamble, but it pays to bet radically, let the chips fall where they may.  At least an attempt is made to rise above the mediocre.  The world needs more bizarre untitled satires, chronologically mismatched film noirs, movies based on dream logic with ambiguous endings, and something that only exists in your brain, or else I’d reference it here obliquely.  Big ideas stick with us, and they stick with their creators, and audiences get stuck on them in turn.  It all rolls into a giant ball of timelessness we like to call Classic Cinema.

Classic Review: The Trial (1962)

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A deep, brilliant classic and a potent humanistic antidote to exploitative horror films.


Review:  I have a bit of a beef with horror as a cinematic genre.  It’s typically immature at best and outright revolting at worst, with some blessed exceptions.  Like run-of-the-mill, thoughtless action films, there’s a noticeable separation between the filmmakers and the ethical subtleties of the material; it’s not so much about telling a story as it is about extravagance and extremes, which demands a pushed envelope with every new film.  The filmmakers shrug off concerns about content in favor of impact and, of course, money.  It’s why the standard Hollywood horror film of today continues to devolve into aptly named “torture porn“, the final expression of exploitative ethics.

Now what does this rant have to do with Orson Welles’ under-appreciated masterpiece ‘The Trial’?  In short, this adaptation of Franz Kafka‘s novel is the antithesis of torture porn.  What that degraded form of horror says about the human condition, ‘The Trial’ says the opposite.  And yes, ‘The Trial’ is fundamentally a horror picture, at least in my opinion.  It is surrealistic, nightmarish and psychologically potent.  I had a similar gut reaction when I saw ‘Night Of The Living Dead’.  It is unique, which is more than I can say for most films.  Even today, after over forty years of film history have gone by, it’s only aged like a fine wine, becoming a richer and more profound experience that’s quite difficult to replicate.  Orson Welles’ direction is superb, as per his rep, and it’s packed with fine performances, particularly that of Anthony Perkins in the lead role.

And now, to explore the film’s story, I’ll continue my initial critique.  So what is torture porn’s — and by extension most postmodern horror’s — philosophy?  It’s the withering of human dignity in the face of unspeakable evil, usually embodied in one or a few figures.  It’s utterly vampiric, destroying souls and bodies in the quest for pleasure by the monster at a given film’s center, vicariously experienced — and here’s the real horror — by the audience.  We’re taught to identify with the vicars of decay.  Now, in the other corner is the ‘The Trial’, combining Kafka’s and Welles’ ideas, and its philosophy is the exact opposite.  The lone figure with whom we identify in this universally human nightmare is Josef K., the man accused of an unknown crime, a man who may not be innocent but is sure he is not guilty.  He is an avatar of our consciousness in a lucid dream, running from monsters masked by the faces of lawyers and little girls.  ‘The Trial’ is our subconscious rebellion against the weight of an impersonal cosmic law that offers no explanations and no access to its logic.  Pointedly, the antagonist is the very Advocate assigned to defend Josef.

So in what direct way is ‘The Trial’ opposed to torture porn?  The roles reverse.  The unsympathetic Court, the many, torments Josef K., the one, but he resists them to the last with unapologetic, humanistic ferocity.  ‘The Trial’ is bleak, but instructive, giving meaning to our nightmares upon waking.  We know what the monsters are — original sin manifested — and it equips us with self-knowledge to destroy them.  Torture porn, however, seeks to empower us at the cost of our empathy.  There’s no instruction, no moment of waking from that nightmare.  The films dehumanize the many victims and moralize the one monster’s actions, making it possible for warped minds to sympathize with it.  Vicariously, we become the monster.

But of course, ‘The Trial’ is much more than horror, and deserving of review beyond this contrast.  ‘The Trial’ has much to say about religion, law, politics, sexuality, and cinema itself.  It begs for in-depth analysis.  I plan to give it just that in due time.

Reportedly, Orson Welles considered this the best of his whole celebrated filmography.  It’s a shame that it’s been so often ignored by cinephiles and the critical community.  It’s wonderful stuff.