Remains of the Day: Issue 12
New York, TikTok, and Dune
As a reminder, and you likely need one since my last newsletter came out last December, I’m Eugene Wei, a former product executive at companies like Amazon, Hulu, Flipboard, and Oculus, with a stint in film school in between. I’ve kept a personal blog Remains of the Day since 2001, offering what I describe as “Bespoke observations, 80% fat-free.” The perceived fat ratio will vary depending on your tastes in technology, media, and all the other random topics I cover.
After getting vaccinated earlier in 2021, I spent much of the year out in the analog world, away from my keyboard. I needed it. All those months of the pandemic, trudging down to hop on Zoom day after day, I kept thinking of that line from Intersetellar, “Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here.”
However, I miss corresponding with my newsletter readers. When I write in public, my readers write back, and it’s my favorite form of social media. So please drop me a line and let me know you’re all doing okay, and what’s on your mind. I’d like to do a mailbag issue soon.
Hello to All That
I spent the summer in New York City. I wasn’t alone. A lot of San Francisco friends migrated there for the summer. I’d be walking through Manhattan and hear someone call my name, only to realize it was a friend from San Francisco, one I hadn’t seen in San Francisco itself since the pandemic began.
On my flight out, I re-read Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” perhaps the most famous entry in that narrow genre of writers on loving and leaving New York City. Its opening line is still perfect:
It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.
I lived in Manhattan for two years after I left Amazon, from 2004 to 2006, until I, like Didion, left for Los Angeles. But unlike her, I hadn’t gotten my fill of New York. I left reluctantly, my two brothers and their families still there, feeling that I’d just decoded its various quirks, discovered its endless charms. Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi sketch always felt like a metaphor for NYC. So particular and demanding in some ways, perhaps unreasonably so, but if you acquiesced you’d be rewarded with magnificent soup.
Perhaps this is why anyone who has lived in New York City for even a few years treats it as their own. Some New Yorkers groused about all the out-of-towners treating their city as a summer getaway, and when I’d mention I spent time there this summer, New Yorkers would always refer to it as “my city” or “our city.” I remember, in the months before leaving New York City, feeling that same possessiveness.
I wanted to revisit Didion’s piece to hear someone else say when they had realized that they had overstayed their time in a city. After ten years in San Francisco, I know it is time for me to go.
I don’t mean in a post-pandemic getaway sense, though that was most of why I fled to New York this summer. Almost everyone I know who spent the pandemic cooped up in one place yearned to go somewhere, anywhere. Anywhere but here, where they’d spent over a year, sometimes with their kids, much of it staring at computer screens.
I am an introvert, but I enjoy the feeling of people around me. A year of Zooms did not fill that hole in my heart. Most of our digital social infrastructure, built around asynchronous feeds, felt more dystopic in a pandemic. It was the opposite of what I’d hoped. Like Kristen Stewart in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, I felt like I was communicating with ghosts.
New York City is the place to be if you want to feel cocooned by human bodies. People above you, to every side of you, and below you on the sidewalk, or beneath, in the subways. I arrived just as they lifted the curfew on bars and restaurants, and that first week I walked through the West Village, throngs of patrons spilling out of restaurants onto the sidewalks, drinking, talking, smoking. I kept walking through the always poorly lit Washington Square Park, with its ever-present smell of weed, the kids with skateboards, just milling about, a few police standing watch.
I’ve lived longer in other cities, but I’ve spent more time on foot walking the streets of New York City than any place on Earth. How you traverse a city matters. Our bodies have their own memories. To be outside, moving through New York’s streets, felt as much a return to life before the pandemic as I could have experienced anywhere.
It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city for only the very young.
For the very young, or those who want to feel young.
Didion wrote of a moment in New York City:
I remember once, one cold bright Devember evening in New York, suggesting to a friend who complained of having been around too long that he come with me to a party where there would be, I assured him with the bright resourcefulness of twenty-three, “new faces.” He laughed literally until he choked, and I had to roll down the taxi window and hit him on the back. “New faces,” he said finally, “don’t tell me about new faces.” It seemed that the last time he had gone to a party where he had been promised “new faces,” there had been fifteen people in the room, and he had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men. I laughed with him, but the first snow had just begun to fall and the big Christmas trees glittered yellow and white as far as I could see up Park Avenue and I had a new dress and it would be a long while before I would come to understand the particular moral of the story.
For me, it’s the lack of familiar faces that will pull me out of San Francisco. I’m at the age where friends have married and had kids and fled the city for the suburbs. The pandemic accelerated that migration.
I came back to San Francisco for a week and messaged everyone I knew to grab drinks. No one was left. Many were in Oakland or the Peninsula now, others Marin, Napa, Los Angeles, New York, Portland, Seattle, Austin, Montana, Florida, Hawaii, anywhere with a yard, more space to roam. With every company extending remote work into 2022, those with the means drifted away like so many untethered balloons. All my hearts left San Francisco.
I don’t even know where I’m going next, I just want the promise of movement in my future. As Didion noted:
Someone who lives always with a plane schedule in the drawer lives on a slightly different calendar.
Since the last issue of my newsletter, sent so long ago, I finished my trilogy of essays on TikTok:
Part 1: TikTok and the Sorting Hat
Part 2: Seeing Like an Algorithm
Part 3: American Idle
Though they are studies of how TikTok works, how it surged almost out of nowhere, or even worse, out of a reputation of cringe, to become a genuine cultural force, the three essays are also a study of how social apps are architected. What fascinates me about social is the complex interplay between the interface, the algorithms, and the users.
Like any complex adaptive system, social media can’t easily be explained by any single factor. I don’t know how many journalists and analysts have called me since my pieces came out to ask me what TikTok’s secret is. For a long time, people wanted to credit the algorithm. As if a single factor was the key to everything.
If TikTok’s success relied on one factor, Facebook or Instagram or YouTube or someone would have cloned it long ago. Social networks are nonlinear dynamic systems. Two of the core characteristics of such systems are sensitivity to initial conditions and path dependence. The road that TikTok traveled to get to where it is today matters, just as Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Twitter, and any social app carry traces of their birth and upbringing to this day.
In my latest piece “And You Will Know Us by the Company We Keep” I discuss one form of path dependence in social networks: graph design. On social media, the people we follow and the people who follow us have an outsized effect on our experience. This may seem self-evident, but contrast it with the contact book on your phone, which has little to no effect on how you experience most apps.
As talk of regulating companies like Facebook increases, my concerns over how little government officials understand social networks increases. It’s not that we shouldn’t keep a watchful eye on the impact of rewiring our nation’s communications. In many ways, social media has the dominant shared illusion of our society. When we speak of our fellow citizen, often we’re speaking of an idea of our fellow person as constructed through media. It was no different in the era of newspapers and broadcast television. Facebook, Instagram, an Twitter may be no more or less accurate a portrayal of society as that we saw in print or on the news in a previous century, but it is no less potent.
And when people who don’t understand a system start throwing random rules and regulations at it, the first order effects, let alone the second order ones, are rarely what are intended.
Speaking of TikTok, I was a guest on an episode of Reply All called “Gleeks and Gurgles” in which TikTok plays a supporting role. The broader lesson, as always, is that humans fall back on inductive reasoning by default, and because of that, we see mysterious patterns and forces in randomness. If you want to know why narrative is so powerful, one reason is that humans are prone to the types of pattern recognition that stories play to.
Inductive reasoning is powerful for its flexibility and ease of application, and given how many novel situations we encounter as humans, it’s not bad as a default operating system for navigating the world. The trick, of course, is what happens in an era where we are inundated with the most charismatic form of every argument—hand-chosen by algorithms operating off human feedback for maximal appeal—but missing a software upgrade to our skepticism and critical reasoning.
Elsewhere, I recently did an interview with Baiqu Gonkar of The Browser. We talked about all sorts of recommendations, but most of all I was happy to talk about movies with someone again. I was not raised religious, but the darkened theater is my nave, the silver screen the altar. Film festivals, at which I’ll spend six, eight, and sometimes ten hours a day in theaters, my phone off, just staring at giant projections of light, are the closest thing in my life to a meditative retreat. I can’t wait until I can return to them again.
I watched Chungking Express again after we chatted. I may have seen that movie more times than any other. It still holds up. It’s just so compulsively watchable. It had been a while since my last viewing, though, and while it never ceases to amaze me how many stylistic techniques Wong Kar Wai discovered in this period of his life (step printing, to pick just one), what stood out on this viewing is Faye Wong’s performance. Until then, she was known as a pop star. For a musician turned actor, this might be about the 99th percentile outcome of what a director would hope for in a performance. It’s not method acting, it’s not the pure guilelessness of an amateur, but something else entirely. It’s astonishing.
Movie of the Week: Dune
[My spoiler warning preface is a mild one. I don’t discuss key plot points, but I do talk about what portion of the book the movie covers. I mention a few images, all of which I’ve seen in the trailer. If you don’t even want to hear about either of those, and I respect you if you do, well, you’ve been warned.]
My friend took me to a screening of Dune in July in New York City at the Harbor Grand production company screening theater. On the way in, an attendant presented me with a bowl filled with what looked like plastic-wrapped candy. They were foam earplugs.
“What are these for?” I asked.
“Oh, it gets pretty loud,” he said.
I demured. I usually think movie theaters are too quiet. Let it rip.
I can say, as someone who has used a sound monitor to calibrate a home theater, that I have never attended a screening as deafening as this one. The subwoofers caused my seat to vibrate as if I was at one of those new theaters with those gimmicky motorized armchairs.
Dune was the first science fiction book that blew my mind. I read it as a freshman in high school along with three other kids for some independent study English seminar. I’ve since re-read it a few times, including once last year in anticipation of the new film adaptation by Denis Villeneuve.
Dune has long been one of the white whales (sandworms?) of film adaptation. Alejandro Jodorowsky tried but failed, and there’s an entire documentary on his attempt. Salvador Dali was set to play the Emperor. Jean “Moebius” Giraud produced storyboards. The production team even included H.R. Giger of future Alien fame.
One reason the film never got made was that Jodorowsky wanted a run time of 10 to 14 hours. Back then, studios considered that preposterous. Today, a streaming service would be glad to greenlight that as a miniseries as the next potential keystone franchise for their subscription offering.
David Lynch did manage to jam the entirety of the book into a single film of 137 minutes in 1984, but though I’m a Lynch stan and fond of the peculiar stylistic choices in parts, that adaptation also reveals the sheer challenge of making an entire’s universe worth of mythology and history comprehensible to those who haven’t read the book.
Villeneuve’s adaptation splits the difference. It is listed with a 2 hour 35 minute runtime, but the cut I saw was, I swear, nearly three hours long. Or maybe it’s just my bladder still upset with me for putting it through such an ordeal. Regardless, even at its length, this Dune adaptation only covers the first roughly 60% of the book. But this is also why I urge you to see the film. For the sequel to this film to be greenlit and then shot, the movie likely needs to clear some minimum box office. It’s likely to do so, but I’d rather not leave it to chance, even if the sequel is supposedly in pre-production.
And, my friends, after having seen Part One, as a title card refers to this Dune, I would like to see Part Two.
Lynch’s adaptation was, for all intents and purposes, like Lynch’s other work, an arthouse film. Villeneuve, as anyone who has seen his other films, like Blade Runner 2049, Arrival, Sicario, or Prisoners, doesn’t do arthouse. His movies look and feel expensive. In particular, his sound design, especially in Sicario, is something you feel from the inside out.
This is the Dune for every fan of any franchise who wants Hollywood to give their baby with the white-glove, big-budget treatment. You have a fan favorite of a director with some popular sci-fi work under his belt in Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. You have a star-studded cast, centered around the Chalamet, physically unimposing but perfectly suited to portray the inner turmoil of, let’s be frank, an emo protagonist in Paul Atreides. You have Hans Zimmer with a typically bombastic score. Ornithopters that look like giant dragonflies. And, yes, a gargantuan sandworm, as seen in the trailer, emerging from the sand like the desert’s large intestine, it’s mouth some primeval rectum hungry to reabsorb anything and everything back into the planet’s body.
I say all of this as someone with mixed emotions towards Villeneuve. Like Christopher Nolan, he’s a director who always works with his cast and crew to put out technically magnificent work. In an era overrun with cartoonish-looking CGI, Nolan and Villeneuve still favor practical effects whenever possible. Every dollar appears on screen.
On the other hand, Nolan has a more distinctive worldview that, love it or hate it, animates every one of his films. Villeneuve can feel like someone who wants to push the audience’s emotional buttons with reckless abandon, and paired with the wrong script, like that of Sicario or Prisoners, I come out feeling exploited or abused.
In his stronger work, like Arrival, the adapted material serves as a counter-balance to his urge for provocation. And Dune, the book, is as imposing a piece of source material as any with its four appendices, a glossary, and detailed maps. The worldbuilding burden alone is a phone book that hardcore fans can throw at any director bold enough to take on the challenge.
As a fan of the book, at least more than the average person, I’d say that Villeneuve and and his fellow screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth do about as well as one can when trying to compress 60% of that book and four appendices worth of mythology into two and a half hours. If the film does well, I’d expect to see a longer director’s cut on Blu-ray at some point, but even as in its current form, I didn’t miss any vital scenes from the book.
I don’t know if someone who hasn’t read the book will be able to follow every plot point, every term. Plenty of people who never read The Lord of the Rings enjoyed the films. Certainly those who’ve read Dune will be able to fill in much of the backstory in their heads, the way Game of Thrones readers did for the HBO series. They’ll feel the greater emotional heft in certain scenes. That’s the reward for devotion.
If Dune stans have any qualms, it might be that a mini-series a la Game of Thrones would’ve been the superior format to fulfill Dune’s world-building scale. It’s not off the table. If this movie does well and a part two is greenlit, we could well see a prequel series on HBO Max down the road. As I said earlier, four appendices!
But a film that elides all that detail has a quality all its own, a nimbleness that a 14 hour miniseries doesn’t. More than anything, Villeneuve’s Dune captures the mood of inevitable institutional decay and corruption when humans try to harness nature on a grand scale. The Spice Melange of Arrakis stands in well for oil, or silicon, or opium, or any precious resource you’d like. And when this much of a valuable natural treasure is in play, Dune seems to say, human greed cannot be contained.
Just as sandworms hurtle themselves at the slightest rhythmic vibrations on the sand, humans will let nothing stand in their way in a gold rush. Colonialism, murder, and decadence are intertwined with industrialization. The heavily shadowed cinematography within the brutalist structures in much of the film feels like the inky blackness in film noir. Is is the hidden evil in men’s hearts, the palace intrigue, the political subterfuge in motion but always just out of sight until it envelops you. At one point, the obese body of the Baron Harkonnen emerges from a thick black ooze, like a white carcass floating out of oil. It’s everything.
I’m a proponent of focusing every medium on what it does best. A book will always be more suited to a particular type of detailed worldbuilding that in a film must be compressed. Production design, costumes, and visual effects, among other departments, have to turn hundreds of pages into a few hours of sequential images. A picture is worth a thousand words never feels like more of a challenge.
But film has an unparalleled power to make you feel. And this film made my stomach rumble, both literally and otherwise. So take some melange, get to the biggest screen with the biggest sound system you know, and let the sandworm swallow you whole.