Brief Thoughts on ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’

Léa Seydoux, who plays the Lady with the Blue Hair, is a marvel. Her performance, unlike that of Adèle Exarchopoulos, hints at a deeper backstory, one where she's spent much of her life attempting to cover up past emotional injuries. After three hours, it felt like I had only just gotten to know her.

That said, the movie could have easily been only two hours long. I actually sped up parts of the movie, particularly the ones where Adèle teaches children or stares off into the distance during parties, at double speed and did not miss anything. Turns out, watching a character do real life, every day tasks at normal, real life speed without any edits is pretty boring.

The narrow aspect ratio (2.40:1) is a missed opportunity. Director Abdellatif Kechiche and cinematographer Sofian El Fani love to to shoot their characters in extreme close-ups (ECUs). Traditionally, filmmakers tend to "save" ECUs for essential, movie-changing moments. Their overruse signals that the filmmakers may not have truly understood their story, since each moment is depicted as essential. There are great moments sprinkled throughout the movie, but I would have a difficult time pinpointing them because the ECUs inured me to their importance.

The sex scenes also feel like missed opportunities. They are long and sensual, for sure, but remember that this is Adèle's first sexual encounter with a woman. Wouldn't it have been compelling if she had to try to keep up with the older, more experienced Léa? With that approach, audiences would have better related to Adèle's experience. Instead, both women act like they are assured experts in bed, which is surprisingly boring to watch.

I agree with critics, such as Manohla Dargis, who argue that the sex is shot from the perspective of a straight man. The bedroom is lit brightly, so everything is visible, but it's not true to the intimate moment; the women moan loudly in the exact manner of porn performers faking moans. The two performers apparently felt very comfortable with each other on camera, so the errant approach to the sex scenes is all the more tragic and wasteful.

Thoughts on Pono

Let's move on from sad topics and delve into a new and superfluous bit of technology: the Pono Player.

Yes, it looks like a Toblerone. And something about the design harks back to the Game Boy Advance SP. The oversized "Plus" (aka, "volume increase") button looks so much like the Game Boy's D-Pad, I absentmindedly kept clicking different parts of the button, expecting my inputs to affect on-screen navigation.

But not to worry, the Pono Player has a touch screen—albeit an awful, pixelated, sluggish one that looks worse than an iPod Photo's.

On the plus side, the garish, Pikachu-yellow-colored silicon case feels surprisingly comfortable in hand. I imagine this is the type of material John Siracusa pines for in iPhones, which have a tendency to slide off armchairs because of their aluminum chassis.

My good friend Max[1] preordered a Pono Player during the surprisingly successful Kickstarter campaign.[2] Other Max is bullish on the device’s potential to increase people’s awareness of high-resolution audio. And if it makes my friend happy, then I’m happy for him.

But he also wanted to prove to me that it could and should also make me happy. What songs do you want to listen to, Other Max texts me the night before we’re to meet up. I suggest he have songs off Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Peter Gabriel’s So handy, because I’ve grown up listening to both albums.

It’s futile to impart my impressions of the device’s sound quality because there were too many variables in my “test.” The 24-bit version of So seemed to hold up better in busier sections, compared to the CD version I’m used to, while the drums on Rumours sounded muddy and flat. But I was listening to songs on Other Max’s noise-canceling Bose headphones, instead of my usual set-up: a pair of Sony headphones plugged into a MacBook Pro’s 1/8" audio port.

  1. No, not me.  ↩

  2. The device I photographed above and later listened to was a display model from The Audio Salon.  ↩

What role does the Pono Player actually serve? When describing the digital music explosion of the 2000s, audiophiles tend to take a fall of mankind approach. They feel that the vast majority of people were duped into buying low-fidelity songs that sacrificed quality for the convenience of portability.

And while there’s truth to that—particularly in the early days of DRM-ed, 128 kbps MP3s and AACs—people have a tough time distinguishing between lossless and lossy audio. (I highly recommend checking out Marco Arment’s thoughts on the real-life effectiveness of high-resolution audio.)

Neil Young, the founder of Pono, promises to take things a step further. His player is capable of playing back 24-bit audio files, not just 16-bit files that most consumer DACs[3] are limited to playing. In the current market, 24-bit-capable DACs cost over $1,000, while the Pono Player costs a mere $400.

But again, IRL, people can’t actually tell the difference between lossless and lossy audio files, no less 24-bit and 16-bit ones. By design, the Pono Player encourages listeners to use it on the go, a use-case where differences in encoding quality are largely irrelevant because of extraneous background noise and activity.

  1. Which, for most people, is the iPhone.  ↩

I’m far more worried about the recording and mastering of music itself than the quality of the digital package containing that music. I didn’t know why contemporary recordings sounded bad until I read Greg Milner’s fantastic book, Perfecting Sound Forever. Milner’s sobering chapters on the ongoing loudness war—which has resulted in songs that are literally painful to listen to—show how important it is for consumers to be discerning and proactive about the quality of music.

Does the Pono Player do anything to aid the good guys (i.e., audiophiles and music-lovers)[1] in this war? It’s a conversation starter, for sure. But in the end, it’s an expensive niche product with effectively no tangible benefits, held back by a number of first-generation issues, like software bugs and that godawful screen.

  1. Who isn’t?  ↩