On Friday I had a go at an example of an extremely poorly thought-out “AI” business. We’re going to see a lot more of this kind of nonsense.
We’re going to see a lot more irrational business ventures in AI over the next few years. Channel 1 is going to last a long, long time. They had the sense of starting early in the bubble. They have enough contacts to get deals with established names. (Remember Theranos got a sweetheart deal with Walgreens.) They will probably raise enough money to last them several years, even with an inflated “look Ma, I’m a tech executive, I have a lambo!” dick-waving salary.
Read more at Bad Business AI: Channel 1
There’s been a spate of declarations from the usual suspects along the lines that, actually, it’s the lazy criticisms of “AI” that are a problem, not the hype.
I’m not going to dignify these statements with links, but I’ve seen them pop up a number of times over the past few weeks.
“Nobody takes AI criticism seriously because it’s all lazy and badly thought out!”
I and others tried the whole “let’s criticise this based on science, research and thoughtful arguments” and the response was just a fire-hose of diarrhoea nonsense wrapped up in a bow of mock-scientific theatrics and disingenuous falsehoods.
Every single person—every single one of them—who is complaining about the ‘quality’ of AI criticism spent months of outright ignoring thoughtful AI critique.
There are still plenty of thoughtful criticisms of “AI” even though I’ve given up on it:
- Abeba Birhane, PhD
- Dr. Damien P. Williams
- Professor Melanie Mitchell
- Meredith Whittaker, President of The Signal Foundation
- Professor Emily M. Bender
- Timnit Gebru, PhD
And that’s just not even remotely an exhaustive list. There is a wealth of research and writing on the problems inherent in generative models and the current “AI” bubble.
That criticism just gets ignored by every single person who is now bemoaning the low quality of AI criticism.
What this all looks like from the perspective of somebody who tried to do sober analysis of the pros and cons of generative models:
- Critics spend months, some years, highlighting studies and data that show these models are much less functional than claimed, that many of the effects might be psychological or statistical illusions, and that even when functional, the output is inherently biased in very problematic ways.
- Critics get ignored.
- After months of seeing unscientific marketing nonsense taken more seriously than the work of academics in the field, the critics react emotionally to the sheer tonnage of nonsense on display.
- Fans of generative models finally listen, shake their heads soberly and lament how dangerous it is that AI criticism is overwhelmingly ‘emotional’ and ‘irrational’.
I’m honestly too old to indulge in this nonsense. It’s disingenuous and insincere and engaging with the people performing these theatrics is a waste of time.
- "inessential: On Mastodon Support in NetNewsWire". IMO the only sensible conclusion.
- "MongoDB issues weekend warning of breach - The Register". Breaking the trend, this is not a case of a company becoming dysfunctional through lay-offs. MongoDB has always been dysfunctional. IIRC this is the third compromise of some sort in five years?
- "Rebuilding emoji-picker-element on a custom framework | Read the Tea Leaves"
- "Just Stop Oil activist jailed for six months for taking part in slow march | Environmental activism". If these laws had been in place back in the 2000s, I’d almost certainly have a criminal record, after having been arrested at an anti-war or pro-refugee protest. Most of those protests would be illegal in the UK today, but were perfectly legal back then.
- "Baseline Does Not Really Cover Baseline Support — Adrian Roselli".
- "The birth & death of search engine optimization - Xe Iaso".
- "The Trouble with European Green Electricity Certificates - Industry Decarbonization Newsletter". This system is so utterly fucking stupid. This is what we’re doing to fight the climate crisis? Sheesh.
- "A (more) Modern CSS Reset - Piccalilli". This is a very reasonable set of defaults. I disagree the list-style thing. Safari decision was based on what they heard from their users and I don’t think I have a strong enough case for my preference to override it. The rest is great, though.
- "Etsy lays off 225 workers after ‘essentially flat’ sales, says CEO". Shrinking your profitable company—sabotaging its ability to function—to make it grow faster is obviously dumb, even without the tons of research and case studies that show it doesn’t work.
- "Who Needs This Blog? Robin Ince on why we create".
- "The Largest Money-Printing UI Element Ever Made - Jim Nielsen’s Blog".
- "Google Promises Unlimited Cloud Storage; Then Cancels Plan; Then Tells Journalist His Life’s Work Will Be Deleted Without Enough Time To Transfer The Data | Techdirt". Nice to see this properly written up.
- "Apparently … … the thing I call TDD might not quite be TDD. Also some speculation, and some other speculation.“.
- 'Adactio: Journal—button invoketarget=“share”‘. Considering that basic support for using invokers to drive popups and custom events is already on its way in all three major browser engines, this has a better than usual chance of happening.
- "Puppeteer Support for the Cross-Browser WebDriver BiDi Standard - Mozilla Hacks - the Web developer blog". This is good news.
Queer Holiday-themed Romance Movies
Romance and Horror have a few narrative and economic characteristics that set it apart from other corners of our storytelling cultures.
They both largely embrace a narrow set of formulas and conventions as a framework for commentary and people-gazing.
Crime also does this to some extent but what sets Romance and Horror apart is that much of the genre conventions are internal: they are more concerned with a character’s psychological and emotional changes than with external events.
The horror formula is, with some simplification:
- Something uncanny or monstrous appears that does not conform to the protagonist’s understanding of how the world works, disrupting the status quo.
- The uncanny progressively threatens more of the protagonist’s reality until both their sanity and physical well-being is at stake.
- Either the monster is killed or exiled or the protagonist is destroyed. A new status quo is established that accommodates the events of the story in a new understanding of reality.
Most of these requirements are internal to the protagonist. That’s why Of Unknown Origin, The Quatermass Xperiment, and My Bloody Valentine are all squarely in the horror genre despite having vastly different external genres.
Romance has similar requirements:
- The two protagonists meet or have a meaningful interaction early in the story and there is immediate tension. That tension can be romantic, humorous, or even adverse – what matters is that it’s established that these two people have a different relationship with each other than they do with anybody else in the story.
- There needs to be an internal, emotional or psychological, obstacle preventing at least one of the leads from committing to a relationship.
- An external obstacle is often useful for heightening the tension and drama of the story, but there are plenty of romance stories where the conflict is entirely internal.
- The obstacles are all resolved The couple can commit to a happy relationship for the foreseeable future. Traditionally that had to be a literal Happy-Ever-After (HEA) but these days authors have more leeway to go for a Happy-For-Now ending instead, although it needs to be earned.
Like Horror, the fact that these requirements are mostly internal to the character means that the genre can accommodate a multitude of external genres. The emotional safety of the framework gives the author enormous scope for exploring whatever issues or interests they might desire. As long as they follow the framework.
This has economic advantages, not just in publishing, but also in other media, such as film. Horror movies continue to be a mainstay of cinema, TV, and streaming, being one of the few movie genres that has the potential to deliver high rewards on lower-cost productions.
Meanwhile, live-action romance has become a fixture in TV and streaming scheduling. A romance movie set in modern or near-modern times is a budget-friendly genre – you can shoot on existing sets, backlots, and locations with existing costumes. Again as with Horror, much of it is unambitious and by-the-numbers but even a non-threatening, low-stakes, predictable Romance has value to its audience, and occasionally you do find movies in either genre that are genuinely doing something interesting.
Different people read or watch romance for different reasons. As a genre it accommodates both affirmations of fundamentalist Christian zealotry and polyamorous werewolf triads with equal ease. But, for many, romance offers the chance of processing stress and trauma within the confines of a protective framework.
Jane Austen’s Persuasion, for example, is all about processing and working through both regret and the psychological prison of being locked in a relationship with narcissistic relatives. Without the certainty of a happy ending, somebody who recognises the environment and claustrophobic confinement of Anne’s relationship with her narcissistic father and sister would find the story impossible to read.
(The 1995 BBC version does a good job of delivering on this dynamic.)
The popularity of holiday-themed romance movies shouldn’t come as a surprise. Holidays are a major source of anxiety and stress for many and these stories help people process that anxiety and turn it into something positive.
Affordable production and a clear, almost inexhaustible demand are together the reason why you get over one hundred new Christmas-themed romance movies every year in the US alone.
There seems to be a Holiday-themed romance movie for every interest and demographic.
Except, until recently, queer audiences.
This has been changing, largely because of the economics. Queer audiences have generally had to grade their movies on a curve, so to speak.
Production values have always been low because funding was scarce and because many services used by the film industry were often unavailable. Acting has often been uneven because many professionally trained actors considered it to be career suicide. Supporting casts and extras had to be filled with volunteers from the community. Movies like Go Fish, Sebastiane, or even the fun-but-cheesy The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love share a certain roughness in production despite being quite different on the surface.
Queer audiences will also often go to more lengths to acquire movies that reflect their experiences.
Together, these qualities mean that queer-oriented holiday-themed romance movies are driven further than many other forms of queer culture purely by virtue of their favourable economics.
So, finally, queer audiences have options when it comes to a genre.
Not that many options. But still better than in many other genres.
This overview is non-exhaustive. Some of these have been harder to find outside the US. Some are just too new to be in the streaming service licensing circulation. Some of them are interesting experiments. Some pull it off. Some are genuinely formulaic tripe.
But they all share one thing:
They are fun.
Movies that follow the romantic arcs of an ensemble were a little bit quicker than the rest to incorporate queer romances. When your movie follows a number of different couples coming together, making one of them a queer relationship is a way to appeal to that audience in a non-threatening way.
Doesn’t mean much in the big picture.
Netflix’s Let It Snow is one such movie. About as forgettable as it’s enjoyable, one of the couples thrown into the mix is a pair of teenage women who have to overcome some highschool caste bullshit to get together. It’s a decently-structured movie with a surprising level of narrative polish (probably because it’s based on a novel) and production values, but neither does enough to make it memorable. You’ll enjoy watching it but will be unlikely to remember its plot or even its title a year from now.
Much more interesting is Tello Films’ lesbian-focused Season of Love which bears all the marks of coming straight out of the queer community: spotty production values, uneven acting, but delivers on emotional and social authenticity in spades. Tremendously enjoyable with Dominique Provost-Chalkley delivering a standout performance. It’s a whole lot of fun and a movie whose success has led Tello Films and Christin Baker to continue to make several more holiday-themed lesbian romance movies.
Save the ranch/local landmark
A common external plot (as opposed to the internal romantic/emotional plot) in romance is the threatened local landmark. This can be a literal landmark such as the old train station in Lifetime’s The Christmas Setup featuring a gay couple or a local tree such as… well, Lifetime’s other queer romance movie Under the Christmas Tree which features a lesbian couple.
Both are harmless, low-stakes romance movies that are easy to watch, if a bit forgettable.
A subgenre is the “save the farm” or “save the ranch” story, which is also a romance staple. One of the protagonists has an important big city job but is forced to reconnect with their roots when they visit the family back at the ranch (or farm) and romantic sparks fly with one of the farm or ranch hands.
Dashing in December delivers this standard with a gay male couple and Tello Films' Christmas at the Ranch delivers it with a lesbian couple. The production values are a bit spottier in the Tello Films production but both are endearing enough to be enjoyable. Dashing in December’s major strength is the always amazing Andie MacDowell.
(If we lived in a just world, we’d have had the rom-com equivalent of an Expendables-style movie. Just put together an ensemble romantic comedy with Andie McDowell, Julia Roberts, Emma Thompson, Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, and Tom Hanks, give it a holiday theme and make half the couples same-sex. Guaranteed massive press coverage, nostalgia viewing, hate viewings, and ticket sales. But I digress…)
Fake relationship turns real
Another romance trope is when circumstances create a usually quite contrived situation where one character has to get the other to pretend to be in a relationship with them.
That relationship then becomes a little bit too real and shenanigans ensue.
Alexandra Swarens' Looking For Her does a decent job of delivering this particular plot convention with a lesbian couple – actually accomplishes this with a remarkable amount of sincerity. One of the leads feels the need to present a perfect front to the family, because of their history of rejecting her homosexuality, and hires an actor to play the part of the perfect girlfriend.
Netflix’s Single All The Way does the same for a gay couple. One of the characters asks his best friend to pose as his boyfriend for reasons. Netflix obviously provides higher production values than an indie production from the queer community, but both movies deliver on their premise quite well.
The inverted It’s a Wonderful Life
My biggest surprise was A New York Christmas Wedding which I thought was genuinely touching.
As usual, you have the uneven acting. You pretty much can’t have a queer movie without at least one character consisting entirely of stilted line delivery driven mostly by enthusiasm. But the leads do a great job, all things considered.
The movie is, essentially, an inversion of It’s a Wonderful Life, which is a movie that hasn’t always landed with the same force among queer audiences. Too many LGBTQ people know too many people who would be genuinely enthused to see them land in the same kind of financial misfortune that drove George to contemplate suicide. And they definitely know too many people who think the world would be improved if they had drowned as a child.
A New York Christmas Wedding takes an approach that is much more relatable: hiding who you are is a horrible life choice, look at how happier you would have been if you’d been true to yourself earlier. It’s entirely about working through regret and building up the courage to understand what matters. It could have done with a little bit more polish on the script and, as I noted above, some of the supporting cast are “uneven” but I genuinely enjoyed it as a whole and, honestly, will probably watch again next year.
Meet the family and work through issues
This is quite possibly the core genre of the holiday-themed romance movie. Everybody travels to meet their families during the holidays, romances are kindled (or rekindled) and old hangups are dragged into the light and finally resolved.
City of Trees (that’s a Youtube link where the entire movie is available), made by the same Alexandra Swarens that did Looking For Her, does the only sensible thing and fully embraces the lofi aesthetic of the zero-budget film. (Dogme 95 really did a lot of filmmakers the favour by legitimising this style in the eyes of many critics and audiences.)
A photographer heads home for the Holidays and works through her unresolved issues concerning her home town and high-school while falling for a woman who used to be in the popular clique at school.
It’s very rough in terms of production quality, but if you can get past that it is endearing and relatable.
My favourite in this particular subgenre couples it with a particularly queer-oriented emotional issue: coming out.
The Happiest Season is just a very nice holiday-themed romance. The casting is great – Mackenzie Davis, Kristen Stewart, Daniel Levy, Alison Brie, and Aubrey Plaza – the plot is relatable and the shenanigans are believable. It doesn’t win any points for originality (not one) but it does exactly what it aims to accomplish. I’ve watched this movie every year since it first came out.
It’s a part of my standard Christmas rotation.
And, honestly, isn’t that the only kind of recommendation for a Christmas movie that really matters?
I do enjoy the low-light photos the iPhone takes even without all of the super-heavy computational stuff. But then again I’ve always liked grainy black and white pictures 🙂