The Internet's Own Boy,
and a few more films

#222  [archive]
NOV. 21, 2023

The Internet's Own Boy (2014)

Aaron Swartz was a tech prodigy who, at 14, helped develop RSS (Really Simple Syndication). Over a too-brief career he wrote the technical platform for Creative Commons (CC), and he was a co-founder of Reddit, which used to be my favorite site for arguments with anonymous strangers. He wrote the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, arguing that articles written as scientific research shouldn't be held behind paywalls. 

He did a lot more than that, and seems to have been a very rare sort of fellow — brilliant at technical stuff, and also politically driven to help little people against the corporate giants.

Swartz was a key player in the internet uprising that helped stop police- and big-money-backed legislation which could've forced 'offensive' or 'infringing' sites off-line, and required search engines to block access to such sites, without the traditional requirement for proof of lawbreaking before such punishment would be doled out.

After that success, though, came trouble.

Swartz was enrolled at MIT, one of very few places where students had free access to articles from JSTOR's enormous archive of academic journals. Using that access got Swartz indicted for a blizzard of crimes against the internet, but I've never been convinced that he broke a law, and if he did it's an asinine law.

What he did was, he used computers to access JSTOR files, and downloaded them — absolutely allowed as a student at MIT. His neat trick was writing software that allowed him to download enormous chunks of those databases, instead of downloading one file at a time.

You can see how JSTOR might not like what he did, but accessing and downloading files you're allowed to access and download wasn't a crime, and shouldn't be. Sharing or publishing those files might've been a crime, but Swartz never did that, never threatened to do that.

And yet, he was charged with 13 felonies, threatened with 35 years in prison and a million-dollar fine. He turned down plea bargains, because he didn't think he'd done anything wrong, but the looming litigation made his life unbearable, and Swartz killed himself.

The moviemakers waste no time attempting to offer balance — a wise choice, since there's no "other side of the story." Swartz was railroaded unjustly, his death was and remains an injustice, and this film is on his side. 

You can't watch it without getting angry, and it enraged me so much I had to make it a two-parter, turning it off and watching the rest of it the next night. 

This is a rave review, but I'll file my standard complaint: The movie has a musical score, telling you when to be sad or angry, but that's a manipulative nudge nobody needs.

The music simply gets in the way. Early on, for example, we're shown home movies of Swartz at three or four years old, talking like a little kid, so you need to listen closely — but music has been added in the background, which makes it even harder to understand what he's saying.

All through the movie, there's a tinkle tinkle tinkle piano score while people are talking. Won't somebody please shoot the piano player?

Other than that, this is one hell of a flick documenting one hell of an outrage. 

"I'm still angry. I'm still angry that you can try your best with these people to do the right thing, and they will turn everything against you. They will hurt you with anything they can."

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Night Life (1989) 

Here's a teen comedy/thriller with no laughs, no thrills. It's about an annoying high school boy who works part-time at his uncle's mortuary. Soon there are zombies, but despite all the walking dead it just sits there.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦

Romper Stomper (1992)

I saw this at the Strand Theater in San Francisco long, long ago, and liked it. All I remembered was Russell Crowe, extreme violence, a race riot in Melbourne, and enjoying the action scenes. What an idiot I must've been.

Now I'm twice as old, and rewatching the film, it's simply repulsive. Nazi skinheads are the protagonists, and anyone Asian in Australia is a likely target.

Being Australian instead of American, the violence is dealt out with fists, chains, kicks in the nuts instead of guns, but the most original idea here is — let's make a movie about killer skinheads, without anyone trying to stop them, or any of the Nazis having a moment's hesitation along the way.

There's dialogue explaining the wonders and achievements of the white race, and screaming punk anthems with lyrics about who to hate and why, and it soon becomes too stupefyingly stupid to endure.

Your humble critic paused the film, and clicked around through what remained, looking for a moment of sanity, but didn't find it.

Being already aware that monstrous people exist, watching an hour and a half of monstrous people being monstrous seems unnecessary.

Verdict: NO.


• • • Coming attractions • • •

Room Service (1938)
Who Farted? (2019)

... plus occasional 
schlock and surprises 

• • • But wait, there's more  • • •

Alexander Nevsky (1938)
Brainwaves (1983)
Cellular (2004) 
The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985)
The Day My Parents Became Cool (2009)
The Decline of Western Civilization (1980)
Downsizing (2017)
Frankenhooker (1990)
Hugo (2011)
The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)
Love Happy (1950)
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
The Man with Nine Lives (1940)
Phone Booth (2002)
PickAxe (1999)
Poison (1990)
Revelations (1993)
Same Kind of Different as Me (2017)
Saved! (2004)
Scared to Death (1947)
Secret Weapons (1985)
The Shooting (1966)
The Soloist (2009)
The Train (1964)
Welcome to New Orleans (2006)
Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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