Paris as a way of seeing

Here is the view of the shop across the street from our flat in Paris’ Le Marais district early this morning, the day before Christmas, when I was the first one up and could watch the city come to life with a cup of coffee in one hand and my iPad-provided New York Times in the other:

LeMaraisMorning

As the white-uniformed chef or assistant arranges food on a tray in the background, the woman on the ladder scrapes dirt and grime from the windows and ledge above the shop.

A commitment to aesthetics — and how that commitment draws a special form of attention from the viewer — defines my experience of Paris this trip.

Summertime, back home in Oregon we have friendly, yummy Farmer’s Markets with sumptuous fruits and foods, and if you go to buy tangerines you’ll see overflowing boxes of them at every stand.

Here, at a market near the Eiffel Tower that emerged clanging and thumping during our first night at a nearby hotel (before we moved to Le Marais), the December fruits were ripe and wet, the fish was fresh, the breads warm and the cheeses— oh, the cheeses!… but it was the display that moved my heart above my rumbling stomach.

Instead of a random box of tangerines, we saw delicate pyramids. The meats were laid out with loving and artistic precision.

The high incidence of casual beauty in Paris amazes me: the only other place I’ve seen this is Tokyo. 

(Note: this is not to say that Americans are bad at aesthetics: we aren’t. But function and efficiency trump aesthetics in our priorities most of the time.)

For W (my nine-year old son) it’s his first trip to Paris. Yesterday the four of us went to Versailles. W and I talked a lot about aesthetics, as well as how Versailles was a remarkably conceited compliment that the French kings paid to themselves, enforcing a way of seeing their power. We haven’t had that conversation in the US, or in Vancouver, or in Bergen, or in Amsterdam, or in Krakow.

Paris invites aesthetic attention, almost demands it.

A few years back the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom wrote a remarkable book called “How Pleasure Works,” where he showed that how we approach experiences defines our ability to take pleasure in them.

Bloom deploys Gene Weingarten’s famous story about how violinist Joshua Bell didn’t get a lot of tips when he performed anonymously in the DC Metro — in contrast to his sold out performances at great concert halls — to show how cognitive frames make pleasure possible.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet anticipated this four centuries ago when he said, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Paris is one big cognitive frame that flips my aesthetic contemplation switch to the “on” position and keeps it there.

Next stop, taking the children to the Louvre after brunch.

P.S. You can see a TED talk by Paul Bloom about how pleasure works here.

Notes from Bergen

Our two most precious currencies are time and attention.  Money, our more conventional currency, helps to focus attention and to make us chary of how we spend our time.

I write this sitting in Chaos Coffee, perched at the edge of the University of Bergen campus and a block from Nygård Skole where W, my 9-year-old son, is in a Norwegian-language immersion program.  Tuesday, the school lets out at noon, so I’ve made Chaos my hangout: they have plentiful wifi and don’t mind if I nurse a drink for a couple of hours while typing at a quiet table between a shelf of books on my right and the bright yellow door that leads into the back kitchen on my left.

ChaosCoffee

Buying my second latte is a reckless extravagance.  Then I throw all fiduciary sanity over my shoulder and add a small piece of dark chocolate cake.

It tastes better than it deserves.  I wouldn’t pay attention if this were happening at a Peet’s in America, but in Norway the cake and latte cost 60 Kroner.  Ten dollars!  And I already spent nearly that on my first latte and an apple.

The cake feels ropy between my tongue and the roof of my mouth, then the chocolate lights up the taste buds at the sides of my tongue as that first mouthful heads south towards my esophagus.

Cognitive dissonance at play: regardless of the cause I’m experiencing this as mighty fine chocolate cake.  The latte’s not bad either.

It’s just us boys for the next couple of days.  Kathi, my wife, is at a conference in Oslo for Fulbright winners.  H, our 13-year-old daughter, and J, our visiting 23-year-old nanny/niece/auxiliary kid, are on the train to join Kathi for the night.  W & I plan to watch “X-Men First Class” on the laptop later, and there is talk of a post-school surgical strike to acquire some McDonald’s fries (a rare treat).

Today is my 13th day in Bergen and my second Tuesday morning at Chaos. Liat, who comes to Bergen from Tel Aviv, runs the café on these days.

Liat

She manages the music with a disk jockey’s care, pouncing on the stereo to manage sound levels and selecting a range of easy listening, orchestral, classic U.S. rock (Springsteen, Tracy Chapman), a smattering of current music (Passenger), Norwegian lounge music and more.  At first, I was the only one here and she mentioned that “Vamp” was a famous Norwegian pop group.  I’ll check them out on Spotify later.

Back to focused attention.  I only vaguely recognize the Passenger tune “Let Her Go” and want to identify it, so I grab my iPhone and hit Shazam, then wince as I feel precious data trickle away.  Oh no!  What have I done?  Until Kathi gets her Norwegian identity card (and, perhaps much later, we get ours) we can’t get bank accounts or mobile phone accounts, so we’re on pay-as-you go SIM cards.  We are non-people living in a cash economy.  Not a big deal in the long term, but I’m used to all-you-can eat data back home in the U.S.

Indeed, I only bought the pay-as-you-go SIM cards yesterday when I realized that the girls would be in different parts of Oslo and would have no way of reaching each other (or me) without them.  The cost-per-TXT is .69 Kroner (about 11 cents), so we all use Skype for real-time communications.

I don’t miss having chronic mobile access and regret having it back now.  Without the magic mirror in my pocket I pay more attention to my Norwegian surroundings, although the millisecond I find myself in a pocket of wifi (stand outside any Burger King and you can log on even without buying something, I learned) I grab the iPhone and peer into my digital other life.  My info addiction is not subtle.

Now, with a SIM card, Skype bleeps whenever family and friends in the U.S. want my attention.  It doesn’t happen often with the time difference (9 hours from the west coast), but I quickly have become accustomed to experiencing only local interruptions.  In the same way that I’ve shed a few stubborn pounds because now I’m a pedestrian I had shed a few distractions by not having a smart phone.  Now they are creeping back, forcing me to choose mindfully to turn off data or resist the urge to Google something, whereas yesterday geography made that choice for me.

Second meetings seem important in Norway.  Liat and I had a pleasant interaction a week ago, but today I learn more about her.  She is Israeli, married and still mourns the loss of her gigantic English mastiff a year ago.

Liat calls me to the front of the store to meet Marlis Bühler, who has just published a beautiful, poetic photography book of people with dolphins called “Dolphin Love.”  Marlis, I think, is leaving Bergen tonight.  She has come to Chaos to give Liat a copy of her book and say goodbye.  That says a lot about the kind of coffee shop this is.  Liat introduces me as “my new customer” to Marlis, which I find a unexpected and welcome compliment.

Right now, my time is chopped up seeing to the kids and the house and maintaining contact with various people and projects back in the U.S., so face-to-face human contact is at a premium.

It’s even harder for H, my daughter.  Norwegian secondary schools are on strike and have been for nine weeks.  The union and the administrators seem to get more sclerotic in their positions with each passing day, so I don’t know when the strike will end.  So while W happily greets his buddies in the schoolyard at Nygård each morning, H doesn’t have a peer group.

Last Sunday, a colleague of Kathi’s with L, his 12-year-old daughter (and two 9-year-old boys for W) came to visit.  Heaven.  H lit up to have another girl to chat with, and they were quickly comparing notes on books, TV shows (who knew that “Gravity Falls” was an international hit?), YouTube videos, Instagram and more.

The moment I knew the visit had gone well came towards the end when we’d all gone out for an evening walk. As we approached our new friends’ car, L announced that she had to go back to our house because she had left her beloved iPad Mini there.  We turned towards the house and I spied L quietly opening her coat to H in a “first one’s free” gesture that revealed the iPad in her pocket.  L didn’t want to leave just yet.  The two girls caught me catching them.  We shared a conspiratorial smile.

We’ll find more girls for her to hang out with while we wait for school to start.

Less than two weeks into our 10-month stay here in Bergen it’s just thinkable for me to write about it.  Until now, I’ve been too busy, too close, able to stick the occasional photo onto Facebook, but not able to do real thinking.

Bergen is a medieval city with a third millennial overlay.  If Oslo, the business capital, is New York then Bergen is San Francisco or Boston.  There is no Los Angeles equivalent in Norway: it isn’t sunny enough.  Modern day hustle bustle squeezes through narrow, crooked and meticulously cobble-stoned streets.  An ancient castle complete with dungeon sits next to a Radisson Blu mini hotel.  There are more hair salons per capita than there are heads, which is odd because it’s not like this is a city of terrific haircuts.  Everything is so expensive here that if I bother doing the Kroner-to-Dollars equation I’m frozen in place: how much for a pack of gum?

And with that, ‘tis time to get the boy from school.

UP, UP and away… How a wearable computer changed my brain

Yikes_wrist_photo_smOld dogs can learn new tricks.  So can people young and old.  Behavior is metamorphic, although we seldom recognize that plasticity in the moment.  Instead, we think the world changes while we stay the same, that our children are less responsible than we were at their age but that we threw crazier parties.  We think TV today isn’t as good as the programs we watched when we were younger, forgetting how many nights we spent on “Night Court.”

Sometimes, though, the planets align and we see our own behavior as it changes in the moment.

Here is one such story.

The Jawbone UP has decorated my wrist and recorded my physical activity since mid-March of 2013, but I did not reckon with how I depended on its steady flow of information and quiet alerts until it stopped working.  Ironically, this happened last week when I was guiding tours for Story-Tech at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, where wearable computers were a key technology with massive year-over-year growth, and I could no longer demonstrate how it worked to my tourists.

But the real impact of my UP’s absence didn’t hit until both my wife Kathi and I returned home from overlapping business trips, mine to CES and hers to the Modern Language Association.

Kathi is a night owl working late and I’m an early bird (it’s a mixed marriage), so the unheralded killer feature of the Jawbone UP and its kindred gadgets (Nike FuelBand, Fitbit Force) is the silent alarm that vibrates on my wrist when I get up before dawn to work while the world is silent and all the thoughts are mine to think.

Before the UP, a clock radio or smart phone would chime, blare or buzz, disturbing Kathi and sometimes failing to wake me (the first five or six times).  It took time getting used to sleeping with a bracelet, but I came to depend on that quiet buzz to get me up and let me lurch from the bedroom and pad towards the coffee machine like a sneaky zombie.

The UP’s death didn’t much affect me in Vegas because the Aria let me program the windows to open and the TV to pop on at a designated time.  Before Kathi got back from the MLA I simply used my old nightstand clock radio to wake myself.  But since her return I find myself waking up every couple of hours because I am so anxious about my iPhone’s coming bleep.

So I haven’t slept well, feel my stress level rising, and await the arrival of a replacement UP with less than graceful patience.  This is now the third time I’ve had to write to Jawbone for a replacement in less than one year, and so I find myself wondering if I should give the Fitbit Force a try just because I don’t want to go through this again.

This put me in mind of a fascinating article in December’s Scientific American: “How Google is Changing Your Brain” (preview link here but subscription required and recommended).  The internet’s infinite laundry pen memory has eroded our need to rely on other people to remember things and erodes the difference between information we store in our heads and the information we know is waiting in the cloud.

We’ve always perceived of our possessions as parts of ourselves.  The comic book visionary Scott McCloud observed in his brilliant book “Understanding Comics” that when another car bumps your car from behind we don’t cry out “his car hit my car!” but “hey! he hit me!” The difference is that with computers and particularly with wearables the devices on our bodies talk back to us in new ways.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I have outsourced most of my remembering tasks to Evernote and Instapaper, but my morning wakeup routine isn’t information— it’s action.  And so it’s only a minor exaggeration to say that the UP band has become a part of myself, so much so that when it’s gone I have to adjust in surprising ways.

“Never trust anybody over 30,” a cliché of the mid-1960s free speech movement, mistook an perceived mental inflexibility in the generation of the protesters’ parents with an age-related unwillingness to think and behave in new ways.  This is a common mistake and we make it in both directions, substituting life stage behaviors for generational ones and vice versa.

So, the pundits who claim that Millennials will never care about their privacy and will always overshare on Facebook are wrong: the Millennials just didn’t need to think about why not to overshare until they were on the job market and had to cleanse their profiles of the sexy selfies with the bong in the background.  Behaviors can change.

As a youth I would not have expected my behaviors to change so quickly when I had hit middle age, but they did with the UP band.

According to the UPS tracker my replacement UP should arrive today.  If it doesn’t, I think I’m buying the Fitbit Force.

[Cross-posted with Medium.]

On Medium: Season 2 of “The Newsroom”

Just published a short piece on Season 2 of HBO’s “The Newsroom” over on Medium.com –“’Newsroom’ Season 2 Delivers: The problems of S1 turn into triumphs in S2.”

Here are the first few paragraphs:

I was crankily devoted to the first season on HBO of Aaron Sorkin’s latest intense one-hour drama featuring geniuses who have memorized entire statistical manuals, are unstoppably right at work and terminally dysfunctional in their personal lives.

“Crankily” because, as I’ve written elsewhere, the smug knowitallness of the characters rendered them irksome, and the two-year head start that Sorkin gave them by setting the show in the recent, memorable past amplified the smugness because of course they always got everything right— they were talking about things that just happened.

My friend Gary Saul Morson in his magnificent 1996 book “Narrative and Freedom: the Shadows of Time” calls this sort of thing “backshadowing,” which “turns the past into a well-plotted story” and removes from the past the hazy contingency, moment-to-moment panic and uncertainty and sheer improvisation of how we tactically moved in and out of the what we chose to focus on and the decisions we made at the time.

Read the whole piece at Medium…

Two new posts on Medium.com, plus thoughts on platform proliferation

The past week or so I’ve enjoyed writing on Medium.com. I mentioned a post about Tina Fey’s “Bossypants as Startup Bible” here before, and since then I’ve written two more:

eBay’s Sublime Terror: Staring down the precipice while hunting Babylon 5 DVDs

and

Barnes & Noble’s real problem: In praise of chunky scale

Medium.com is a wonderful, collaborative, clean, well-lighted place to write, and it’s fantastic to have the comments juxtaposed next to particular paragraphs rather than as floppy addenda at the end of a post.

I also love the curation, the community, and was  tickled to be listed in the Editor’s Picks.

On the downside, why can’t it be easier to have what I write there cross-posted over here, to my own website?  Surely it should be easy enough for them to create a “share this post on wordpress” button at the bottom of the page right next to the “share this post on Twitter” and “share this post on Facebook” buttons?

Convergence, the dream of the first wave internet pioneers before the dotpocalypse of 2000, is still just a dream.

Along these lines, I’m taking Rebelmouse for a test drive to see if it’s a good aggregator of my stuff online, as well as, perhaps, a replacement for iGoogle before it goes away in November.

A Modest Proposal: just do away with “marriage” as a legal concept altogether

I support gay marriage unequivocally.  There is no however.  Gay and lesbian couples should have all the same rights as my wife and I do, and it’s a shame on the United States that this still hasn’t happened.

Right now, the Supreme Court is dancing on the head of a needle with two different cases that relate to gay marriage, and since the New York Times has done a good job of reporting this I don’t need to go into those details.

But I wonder why we don’t simply eliminate “marriage” as a legal concept altogether in favor of domestic partnership for all, regardless of who has what plumbing?  (This is much the system in France and Francophone cultures today.)

Civil Rights taught us that separate but equal doesn’t work, so we shouldn’t create a separate “domestic partnership” legal entity that has the rights of marriage but not the name.  Instead, we should eliminate marriage altogether as a legal entity.

Most of the arguments against gay marriage are religious ones– and we have freedom of religion in the country.  So let’s just transform the notion of marriage into an exclusively religious concept on only one side of the Church & State divide, leaving both heterosexual and homosexual couples as domestic partners in the eyes of the law.

My wife Kathi would become my domestic partner — she has no problem with this idea, by the way, I asked — and I’d be hers, but socially we could still refer to each other as husband and wife.  And this would hold for our gay and lesbian friends as well.

Same-sex couples who want a religious ceremony of marriage would find a friendly religious institution, as would different-sex couples– but all parties would trot down to the courthouse to get a “domestic partner license” rather than a “marriage license.”

We can avoid some of the legal wrangling by turning marriage into something akin to a religious confirmation or a Bar/Bat Mitzvah and render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s on both sides of the brouhaha.

I’ll end where I began: I support gay marriage unequivocally.  I’ll vote for it.  I have signed petitions, spoken about it, changed my Facebook picture, the works.  And if for gay marriage to work all marriage must go away — including mine — I’m fine with that too.

There is more than one way to reach equality.

Everybody’s a Muggle in Rowling’s “A Casual Vacancy”

As I type these words I have reached page 160 of J. K. Rowling’s new novel, “A Casual Vacancy,” so I’m about one third done and have made enough progress to know that I’ll finish the book and that I can draw early conclusions.

Note: there are no plot spoilers here past the first five or so pages of the book, but you’ll get the sensibility.

It’s impossible to read this novel without Harry Potter in mind—nor would the “A Casual Vacancy” be so inescapably present in bookstores, airports and Costco without the Boy who Lived. It’s particularly true for me at the moment as my seven year old son is obsessed with Harry Potter, my eleven year old daughter is in the middle of reading the final book, and our idea of a great Saturday night is a bowl of home made popcorn and one of the Harry Potter movies—“Goblet of Fire” is on deck for my 45th birthday family celebration tomorrow night. We’re all in with Harry.

But Harry Potter is also a great way into what’s interesting about “A Casual Vacancy.”

If you take that series of novels and subtract the magic, you get a painful, grey story set in a British boarding school during one of the world wars. It’s “Dead Poets Society” sans Robin Williams or a British version of John Knowles “A Separate Peace.”  Bleak is an understatement.

Take away the boarding school and you have a novel set on Privet Drive starring Vernon and Petunia Dursley and their disappointing brute of a son and ingrate, possibly psychotic, nephew.

And that’s the sensibility of “Casual Vacancy.”

The novel begins with the death by cerebral hemorrhage of Barry Fairbrother, a  banker and town council leader in the picturesque British town of Pagford. We’re only in Barry’s head for a few pages before he strokes out, but in that time he comes across as dull– a caring but detached man, put upon by his wife Mary’s expectations and resentfully doing things because he ought to rather than because he wants to do them.

By any reasonable account Barry is a nebbish, which makes it all the more surprising when his death sweeps Pagford like an emotional earthquake, throwing relationships into conflict, destabilizing the Town Council, and wreaking havoc with the local high school.

The reader quickly learns that Barry was the best person in Pagford. He was a drab saint that the town is not ready to do without.  This much is obvious 50 pages in, and by 160 – where I am now – Rowling’s deft ability to jump deep inside a character’s pain has me hooked.  Unlike seven books in Harry’s head, we flit from character to character in free indirect discourse that is compelling and alarming. I don’t know where this is going, and I’m not sure that the sturm und drang about Barry’s open council seat will be enough of a spine for the book, but I’ll see it through.

But it’s hard to like any of these characters, as it was hard to like Harry in the fifth book, “The Order of the Phoenix” when he spent the entire 870 page book in an adolescent snit.

It’s almost as if “A Casual Vacancy” were a novelistic equivalent of those intolerably cruel yet can’t-stop-watching British television comedies like “Peep Show” or the original versions of “The Office” or “Shameless.” The closest American equivalent is “Arrested Development,” where there is nobody to root for.

The difference between a novel and a TV show, though, is that actors are charming. The charm of the performers in those shows cuts the cruelty like baby powder cutting cocaine.  “Rain Man” was another famous example: director Steven Spielberg convinced screenwriter Ron Bass to make Raymond autistic instead of retarded because Dustin Hoffman was so charming that the audience wouldn’t be able to stop themselves from loving him, but if he’d been retarded there would have been no conflict.

In “A Casual Vacancy” we mainline the meanness as we read.  There is no cushion of humanity.

The writer that “A Casual Vacancy” most reminds me of isn’t the Rowling of Harry Potter.  It’s Graham Greene, the master of quietly embarrassing detail, pasty human skin layered on squishy human bodies, small worlds from which escape isn’t so much impossible as unthinkable.

In “Romeo and Juliet” a banished Romeo says with horror, “there is no world without Verona walls, but purgatory, torture, hell itself. Hence, banished is banished from the world, and world’s exile is death.”

That’s Pagford.

“A Casual Vacancy” is compelling, dirty, middle-aged and painful.  But so far it’s worth it.

Postscript: A fine account of the Rain Man story can be found here.

 

Short Post: “Newsroom” Annoyances

  • Compulsively watchable?  Check.
  • Smug as hell?  Check.
  • Probably not able to hold up in the long run?  Check.

But here are things about the new HBO Aaron Sorkin drama “The Newsroom” that are annoying me today:

Why are Jim & Maggie the junior varsity version of Will and MacKenzie?  What is that parallel buying the viewers? And why is it that men and women can’t be friends on so many TV shows?  Could they just be interested in each other as people, without all the romantic tension?

Why are the names of all the characters so boring with the truly peculiar exception of Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn)?  Will, Mac, Jim, Maggie, Don, Charlie… even the Indian guy is “Neal.” Why?

We never get a hint at Charlie Skinner’s motivation for disrupting things at the show.  It feels like we’re setting up the character to reveal that he has terminal cancer at the end of Season 1, which would be a sentimental cop out.

Will Sorkin ever give Will McAvoy a worthy adversary either on the show or off?  Any debate that he loses, or that even makes him break a sweat?

Why Avengers ROCKS + Top 5 Superhero Movies

Yesterday my almost-seven-year-old son and I took in a 3D matinee of “The Avengers” and had a blast. We loved it so much that we plan to see it again in iMax.

The movie has everything—Joss Whedon directing off a terrific screenplay he co-authored, a huge budget with huge stars, and, startlingly for a popcorn movie, emotional arcs for several of the main characters.

However, what has sent Avengers directly into my top 5 list of all time best superhero movies is how it culminates the previous four Paramount Pictures movies—Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor & Captain America.

Each of those movies seeded hints about this movies that followed and about Avengers, and fans like me stuck around all the way through the credits on each film to see the parting hints.

You don’t have to have seen any of the previous movies to thoroughly enjoy Avengers, but if you have seen any or all of the earlier movies your pleasure will be amplified by your memories of the earlier movies.

Avengers’ optional relationship to its predecessors makes this series different than, for example, The Matrix series where by the third movie nothing much made sense if you hadn’t seen the first two, played the video game and read the comic book (Henry Jenkins wonderfully describes all this in his book Convergence Culture.)

This amplification is the topic that I spent eight years of my life researching in a different context—Shakespeare’s audience. (See the top video on this blog or the summary of my doctoral dissertation under “Writing” for more.)

It’s a complicated trick to smuggle extra experience into a movie to thrill the fans that won’t distract the uninitiated. Similar to but different than pop cultural throwaways like — @CNNLADavid’s favorite line, “Better clench up, Legolas.” Said to Hawkeye by Iron Man as they zoom roof ward, it’s a one-second tribute to The Lord of the Rings’ elven archer from another fan-fave movie cycle.

What’s different about in-series amplification is that it lasts: 100 years from now a viewer of The Avengers who has seen the previous movies will have the amplified experience, whereas the Legolas throwaway is contingent on different knowledge.

For those of you (anyone? anyone?) who care about good old-fashioned aesthetics, this phenomenon is the cinematic version of what Stephen Pepper described as “funding” in his classic book “The Basis of Criticism in the Arts” (1949), only he was writing about painting and how the second time (T2) you see the Mona Lisa you are actually viewing both the painting itself and your earlier experience (T1), and the third time it’s T3 + T2 + T1, and so on.  (I’ve written about this here before: click the “Cognitive Funding” tab to the right to find those posts.)

Moving on to my top 5 list of super hero movies and why

Mystery Men (1999): Hysterical and brilliantly cast exploration of every comic book cliché and why they’re still powerful even though cliché. A passion project for everyone involved, it was probably the only superhero team movie to work well before Avengers.

Superman 2 (1980): Like “Empire Strikes Back” in the Star Wars series, and Spider-Man 2, the second movie with Christopher Reeve surpassed #1 in this series by light years when it came to the story. Although the first Superman had the inspiring flight sequences and John William’s magnificent score, it was in essence a two hour preview for Superman 2, which still blows me away.

Iron Man (2008): The movie so effectively deployed star Robert Downey Jr.’s real-life brilliant, charismatic bad boy persona into the Tony Stark protagonist that it took my breath away, and having both Downey and Jeff Bridges square off in the movie was like the Foreman vs. Ali “Rumble in the Jungle” back in 1974—two titans.

Dark Knight (2008): Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker was so intense that it killed him. Unlike earlier portrayals across all media, Christopher Nolan’s movie didn’t try to explain The Joker or to resolve his paradoxes—each time the Joker explained how he came to be the story failed to match the earlier version. It’s a brilliant exercise in Keatsian “Negative Capability.” That paradox was the engine that drove the movie, poised in perfect tension with the equally powerful engine of Batman’s motivation to fight the evil that killed his parents. Batman is the only superhero whose origin story and motivation are identical, and it’s an inexhaustible supply of narrative.

Avengers (2012): See the first half of this post: it’s not just one movie—it’s five blockbusters tied together.

What movies are on your list? Please share in comments.