Thursday, March 04, 2021

Merlin Knew

Lately I've been reading Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King on the train. Generally I think this book, published in volumes over decades in the 1800s, is a better way to read the main narrative of the Arthurian legends than the more often cited Le Morte d'Arthur. Tennyson is just a better poet than Malory--he's also not as repetitive.

To-day I read Merlin and Vivien, the story of the Lady of the Lake (one of several, according to Malory) who seduced and trapped Merlin. In Excalibur, the John Boorman movie, this job is given to Morgana/Morgan le Fay, a nice bit of story-telling economy.

Tennyson's version of the story is quite different to Malory's. Malory describes Merlin as being aware of his doom but being mysteriously unable or unwilling to avoid it.

Also he told King Arthur that he should miss him,—Yet had ye liefer than all your lands to have me again. Ah, said the king, since ye know of your adventure, purvey for it, and put away by your crafts that misadventure. Nay, said Merlin, it will not be; so he departed from the king.

After this, Malory tells us how Merlin took the Lady--called Nimue in this version--on his travels, constantly trying to talk her into losing her virginity with him. In Tennyson's version, Vivien is shamelessly trying to seduce Merlin to get him to teach her a powerful charm.

There lay she all her length and kissed his feet,
As if in deepest reverence and in love.
A twist of gold was round her hair; a robe
Of samite without price, that more exprest
Than hid her, clung about her lissome limbs,
In colour like the satin-shining palm
On sallows in the windy gleams of March

You won't see a description like that in Malory.

It's hinted that Merlin has some dim sense of foreboding but doesn't seem to identify Vivien as the agent of his downfall. He also doesn't seem much convinced by her gratuitous protestations of devotion, especially after she can't resist scornfully repeating every tale of deviance she can remember about Arthur's knights. Merlin's description of her to himself is pretty amazing and I'd say reminiscent of many people on the Internet:

And they, sweet soul, that most impute a crime
Are pronest to it, and impute themselves,
Wanting the mental range; or low desire
Not to feel lowest makes them level all;
Yea, they would pare the mountain to the plain,
To leave an equal baseness; and in this
Are harlots like the crowd, that if they find
Some stain or blemish in a name of note,
Not grieving that their greatest are so small,
Inflate themselves with some insane delight,
And judge all nature from her feet of clay,
Without the will to lift their eyes, and see
Her godlike head crowned with spiritual fire,
And touching other worlds. I am weary of her.

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Ferengi Magnetism

The first official delegation arrives from the Gamma Quadrant in "Move Along Home", a first season episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It's just Sisko and the crew's luck they turn out to be weirdos obsessed with games who want to go straight to Quark's.

Actually, they're really not that weird. Star Trek was always criticised for having not-very-alien aliens. It's pretty sad the first delegation from the mysterious Gamma Quadrant is just people with paint on their foreheads. But the production had budget problems, according to Memory Alpha.

It's not a terrible episode but I never got caught up in the main drama--Sisko (Avery Brooks), Bashir (Alexander Siddig), Dax (Terry Farrell), and Kira (Nana Visitor) getting caught as pawns in a game Quark (Armin Shimmerman) is forced to play. I must be a big Armin Shimmerman fan, come to think of it, as I just realised I'm watching through two shows he features on now--DS9 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I prefer him as Quark. One of the things I like about this episode is it has a moment where Sisko actually starts chatting comfortably with Quark, showing he can get off the moral high horse. There are some nice scenes between Sisko and his son, too. It seems like Avery Brooks was still experimenting a lot with Sisko and he has all these entertaining little gestures and facial ticks.

Brooks is like a stealth bomber, he seems to hardly move but then he cracks a smile and his whole aura seems to change.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is available all over the place. I watched it on Netflix.

Twitter Sonnet #1448

The maps of damaged rooms remain at hand.
Behind the eye, familiar roads revive.
The brain produced an ever present brand.
It can't the urgent ghost or grave contrive.
The clouds were wadded floss beneath the floor.
As winter thoughts retain a broken leaf or two.
The pond was frozen peace and shimmered war.
Above the board there danced a waxy shoe.
A tiny petal shades the metal door.
The dreaming trees arrived a little late.
The city poster showed but baldly poor.
A million liqueurs clog the rusty grate.
The lively jog occurs beneath the dome.
The spinning wheel escorts the hamster home.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Winds of Spring

Spring is definitely getting more aggressive around here. Not all the cherries are blossoming but many of them are--a bit earlier than usual from what I hear. Temperatures got up to 20 Celsius here in Kashihara, Japan, yesterday, and I can't believe I'm starting to think in Celsius.

There was a hard rain unexpectedly to-day with howling winds to go with it. I was in the middle of giving an interview test to a student when all the windows started rattling. I was on the top, fourth, floor of the big junior high school. I heard people rushing to close the windows followed by the sounds of teachers mopping floors. A half an hour later I saw two girls giggling, opening and closing a window to feel the wind like switching a giant fan on and off.

It sure does get windy around here. Every time, I still think, "Of course, it's the Kurosawa wind."

Monday, March 01, 2021

What Comes of Good (and Bad) Looks

The tale as old as time got told again in Disney's 1991 animated film, Beauty and the Beast. Loosely based on Jean-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's 1756 story, it also liberally borrows elements from Jean Cocteau's 1946 adaptation of the tale. Yet Disney's version definitely has its own voice and, as the first true follow-up to The Little Mermaid, definitely showed the studio had found a new winning formula. Unlike The Little Mermaid, though, it's not the female lead who stands out but the male. Beast and the Beauty may well be a better title.

Primarily it's a difference in animation. The Beast (Robby Benson) can be silly or scary, majestic or pathetic, but always believably the same character. Belle (Paide O'Hara) feels less consistent--her eyes change size often early in the film and much of her movement feels like a stiffer, more awkward version of Ariel. Watching the film again last night, I began to suspect whoever animated the Beast must have animated Ariel--and I was right. Both are the work of Glen Keane.

Belle's not a bad character, though. She's not the child from the original story but she's not the intelligent, graceful being from the Cocteau film, either. Her "I Want" song, called "Belle", is motivated by a desire for adventure and to escape her "provincial town" and she certainly gets what she wants. Though it's not nearly as effective as Ariel's "Part of Your World" partly because the difference between the world underwater and on land is much better established than the difference between Belle's provincial town and whatever exists outside. Interestingly, after decades of movies that periodically approached class issues, Beauty and the Beast is the film that most explicitly throws in its lot with the bourgeoisie--Belle wants to escape being poor and she does so by moving into a castle and marrying a prince. Arguably that's what Cinderella does but the story of Cinderella is more focused on the dynamics of governance--Cinderella being ruled by her stepmother, the mice being ruled by Cinderella, the pragmatism of her marriage to Prince Charming in order to stabilise the monarchy for another generation.

What's so bad about Belle's provincial life? Well, in a word, Gaston (Richard White).

Gaston himself is obnoxious but, worse than that, everyone in town inexplicably adores him. Obnoxious people can certainly maintain a following but there's a postmodern wink in so much of his antics--as when he agrees that thinking is a "dangerous habit" or when he uses a word like "expectorate" in a song after we already know his disdain for reading. He's not so much a character as a parody of a character--in fact, he's a parody of Brom Bones from the Sleepy Hollow segment of Ichabod and Mister Toad.

But if one considers Ichabod and Mister Toad, Brom Bones is a much more nuanced character. We almost sympathise with him as newcomer Ichabod consistently gains the upper hand with Katrina for some inspired slapstick. He's likewise not so clearly a villain in Washington Irving's original tale, just an adversary for Ichabod, one who reflects an aspect of the town's personality and heritage that happens to clash with the invading, if worthy, pedagogue. This makes him more interesting than Gaston--and so is Avenant, the character in the Jean Cocteau version who occupies the same position in the plot. In that film, he represents a legitimate possibility for Belle while Gaston, when he's not a joke, can only be a physical threat.

Visually, the film quotes from Ichabod as well but has plenty of its own splendour, particularly in the backgrounds. The computer colouring looks a little better than it did in The Rescuers Down Under but still not as good as the actual paint used in The Little Mermaid. And then, of course, there's the full on cgi.

That ballroom sure hasn't aged well. It looks like a bad video game now but I remember how everyone marvelled at it at the time. Luckily, the song sung by Angela Landsbury holds up just fine.

Employing once again Broadway composer Alan Menkin, Beauty and the Beast has even more of a Broadway feel than The Little Mermaid. He does great work but even more crucial for the film are the lyrics by Howard Ashman. The lyrics to "Beauty and the Beast" do a lot of heavy lifting, ably filling in blanks for the relationship between Belle and the Beast:

Barely even friends
Then somebody bends
Unexpectedly

This is a good response to someone who wonders why Belle would suddenly be sweet on him--sometimes chemistry is sudden, sometimes things change for seemingly tiny reasons, and that can be scary, as the next lines affirm:

Just a little change
Small to say the least
Both a little scared
Neither one prepared

Of course, the two have sexual chemistry--that's always there when you have a big brute managing to be a gentleman around a vulnerable young woman. Or a big brute being a sloppy, but chagrined, eater around her.

Again, most of the interest here is on the Beast's side. The Little Mermaid may be a little sexier but things are usually sexier when everyone's wet.

Beauty and the Beast is available on Disney+.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Navigating the Beasts About

Giles tells Buffy there are two kinds of monsters in his experience--those that can be redeemed and those who can't. A useful observation in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer filled with beasts in Buffy's social circle. Appropriately called "Beauty and the Beasts", it features Oz's monthly routine of turning into a werewolf, Angel still in a murderous stupor after returning from centuries in Hell, a new teenage demon "monster of the week", and arguably Faith is a monster in the making.

The idea behind Faith (Eliza Dushku) was said to be about exploring the darker side of slaying but I wonder if she wasn't more like Buffy, version two. What if Whedon took the lessons he learned from the quantum leap in writing quality from seasons one to two and asked himself what he would do if he was starting over? The idea of the helpless girl turning on her vampire attacker is a good start but not enough to fill out a character. Eliza Dushku was a better actress than Sarah Michelle Gellar and her character was immediately more complex--at once strong and vulnerable, easy-going and tightly wound. She feels much more like a teenager than Buffy, someone forced into situations where she has to make decisions far beyond her maturity level.

She's the subtlest beast in the episode, to be sure, though this one wasn't really about her. A few episodes earlier, the school counselor deduced Buffy had had a Boyfriend who'd changed and became abusive after she'd had sex with him. In this episode, that same counselor is killed by the monster of the week. The idea seems to be that the writers realised they needed to walk back the idea that Angel (David Boreanaz) and Buffy's relationship was a metaphor for an abusive one. So they set up a clear distinction between types of monsters--not the kind that can be redeemed or can't, as Giles says, but the kind that literally get taken over by a demon beyond their control and the kind that welcomes it.

Again, that's why Faith is more interesting than Oz (Seth Green) and Angel (at least at this point). She's dealing with issues, Oz and Angel are dealing with possession and most of the time they're innocent beefcakes. Well, Angel is a beefcake.

He has an easy time beating down the baddie while Oz had barely held his own in wolf form. Seriously, poor Oz must be one of the most pathetic werewolves in horror history.

I think he was meant to look like Dracula in wolf form from the Francis Ford Coppola movie but he looks more like the trolls from Ron Howard's Willow.

Twitter Sonnet #1447

The subtle breeze disturbs a paper leaf.
The worth of wooden pulp was bleached to bone.
Reflected suns suggest a solar grief.
Assembled clocks eschew the severed tone.
The kettle needed nothing more than steam.
A switching static pushed the screen away.
A thousand ducks converge to shake the stream.
To sink the night we must invite the day.
The tightened tube removed the chance of shows.
Repeating shirts divest the mall of life.
The willow fell without a score of blows.
The bridge was cut without the aid of knife.
Comparing beasts reveals the jumpy bear.
A circle stomach shines with plushy care.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Wanda's Old TV

A somewhat disappointing new WandaVision last night for those hoping for new revelations but kind of an interesting one for those of us who spend too much time thinking about TV and movies.

First we get a brief peek into the backstory of Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn) and I was reminded of how Peter Jackson expressed his dislike for wizards shooting electric bolts from their hands when he decided to make the fight between Gandalf and Saruman more telekinetic. And watching Agatha have an energy bolt fight with the witches who'd condemned her to die I thought, yeah, that is kind of boring. But I guess there wasn't much time to build up atmosphere and mood.

Most of the episode involves Agatha taking Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) on a tour of her past, including her childhood in the fictional Sokovia when she and her brother were played by typically lousy, weirdly manic American child actors.

I think it may be more of a problem with how they were directed, though. I don't think the director has spent much time watching children.

The family learns English by watching sitcoms. As an English language teacher myself, I couldn't fail to see the artifice in the scene--the fluent ease with which the whole family chats in English about learning English. Watching television is a good way to practice the language you're learning, especially if it's without subtitles, though it's better to use children's television before moving on to something as sophisticated as the fast paced, colloquial dialogue of sitcoms. But I guess that's a technical detail I shouldn't get too nitpicky about.

A more interesting point one may wonder about is whether or not Wanda compulsively turning to mediocre, particularly escapist television to deal with trauma is the reason she has few apparent compunctions about kidnapping a whole community to serve her emotional needs. The end of this episode reveals the reason the local Vision (Paul Bettany) seems to have an ingrained sitcom personality; he was never the real Vision but Wanda's spontaneously created version, a mixture of her impressions of the real Vision and maybe Dick Van Dyke. So when Kat Denning--and the rest of us at home--were adoring the great chemistry between the two, we were actually watching Wanda's masturbatory fantasy, not unlike Mulholland Drive. The show seems generally pro-sitcom, though, so I suspect the final episode will reveal Wanda had somehow recreated the real Vision and the one being resurrected by SWORD with science, sans infinity stone, is a monster. Which is a less interesting, and less humanist, ending, in my opinion. But maybe audiences have stopped feeling sympathy for Frankenstein's monster.

I liked the episode's more complex take on the SWORD director guy (Josh Stamberg) than previous episodes, though. He has a point when he tells Wanda they can't simply put an expensive and dangerous weapon like Vision in the ground just to satisfy her need for a funeral. It wasn't sensitive of him to show her Vision being dismantled without warning but autopsies aren't so strange.

Agatha takes credit for making Pietro not look like the one Wanda remembers. It would be disappointing to learn Evan Peters' casting has nothing to do with the Bryan Singer X-Men universe, hopefully there'll be another twist on that in the final episode.

WandaVision is available on Disney+.

Mike Hammer Doesn't Meet Columbo

Mickey Spillane guest starred as a victim in the 1974 Columbo episode "Publish or Perish". Like most victims on the show, he's not around for long, not like his starring role in The Girl Hunters more than a decade earlier. He didn't quit his day job as a pulp writer, which is probably for the best. He more or less comes off well playing a pulp writer on Columbo. Not writing detective stuff, as Spillane did in real life, but Vietnam war stuff.

The villains are two--a publisher (Jack Cassidy) and the explosives nut (John Chandler) he hires to kill Spillane. Chandler gives an effective, over the top performance, almost on the level of Frank Gorshin--he seems like a real maniac. He does the job for Cassidy in the hopes Cassidy will publish the book he's written on homemade bombs.

Cassidy is more of a deliciously cheesy '70s TV villain. Columbo's tactic for outsmarting him is clever and pretty satisfying for anyone who likes to analyse writing.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

What's a Slayer to Do?

Season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer starts with a strong episode written and directed by Joss Whedon followed by a decent but fundamentally wrong-headed episode written by Marti Noxon.

"Anne" is a classic for good reason. Following Buffy in her big city melancholy, now working as a waitress, it presents the aftermath of her departure from Sunnydale. She'd been expelled from school and her mother had thrown her out of the house just for being a vampire slayer. What else could she do but rebuild somewhere else?

Something quite different, I guess, which seems to be the ultimate point of "Dead Man's Party", the episode that immediately follows. Buffy comes back to town and is awkwardly welcomed by mother and friends who'd buried anger over the fact that she'd abandoned them. Everyone is all smiles but then, when Buffy and Willow arrange to meet up, Willow stands her up. Passive aggressive avoidance finally erupts in the middle of a party into a full on fight.

At the party, by the way, is seemingly the whole school who were invited to Buffy's house by Buffy's friends without notifying Buffy or her mother. And everyone acts like Buffy's unreasonable for being uncomfortable. There's finally a zombie attack but not before everyone berates Buffy, who's breaking down in tears, for having left town. Buffy does point out to her mother that she'd told Buffy not to come back but this doesn't seem to hold any water--Joyce accuses Buffy of not understanding that her mother wouldn't handle it well when she discovered her daughter is the Slayer.

The end of the episode implies that everyone was right and Buffy was wrong. It seems like Noxon wasn't happy with Whedon's writing in the season finale and wrote this one as a rebuttal. I have to give this round to Whedon, though.

Yes, it's inconsiderate not letting your friends know if you're dead or alive. But Buffy's considering a state of affairs where she has no home and no school. Setting aside the emotional impact on her for a moment, she might also be considering the practical burden she'd be to her friends--knowing they had their own lives to worry about and couldn't take care of her. And now let's look at the emotional impact--could they really blame her for wanting to start fresh?

"Anne"'s attention to homelessness in LA in the 1990s is interesting now especially because of how drastically the situation has worsened. Whedon shows a city where the homeless youths are runaways and addicts. Now they're outnumbered in California by people who simply can't afford homes. And, of course, it's astonishing that Buffy was able to pay for an apartment by waiting tables at a diner.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is on Amazon Prime in a lousy cropped format.

Twitter Sonnet #1446

To question phones is not to call a key.
Embarking late, the feather stitched a bird.
Wisconsin cheese seduced the noble bee.
Explicit songs contain a special word.
We crushed a bone to make a ramen bowl.
In safest dough, the dumpling draws a mouth.
What time we pitched the puck to golfer's hole.
And something half returned from wholly south.
Expensive chilli tells of cheesy tomes.
Without the beans, we spilled the knowing brain.
A string of pearls connects the crystal phones.
A candy moon could melt but never wane.
A beetle crossed a silver road to trade.
In crafted cans, refreshing tastes were made.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

But Who Rescues the Rescuers?

To save a little Australian boy with an unexplained American accent from an Australian kidnapper with an unexplained American accent, two tiny mice from New York are called upon in Disney's 1990 animated feature, The Rescuers Down Under Under. The first official sequel in Disney's animated canon (I guess The Three Caballeros doesn't count), it was a box office failure. With terrible writing and a return to the kind of premise that had failed for decades to bring success to the studio, one might well wonder why the film was greenlit after The Little Mermaid made a splash. It makes a little more sense when you consider 1977's The Rescuers had been the biggest box office success for the studio since The Aristocats. The Rescuers Down Under entered production long before The Little Mermaid was released and Disney saw which way the wind was blowing. So this film was a bit of a throwback but, at the same time, it was the first Disney animated film to be completely inked and coloured on computer. The difference shows, particularly in terms of shading, and I wouldn't call it an improvement.

Although the colours in The Little Mermaid were limited by the cost of paint and so they didn't always properly reflect shifts in lighting, the hard edged shading in The Rescuers Down Under, gratuitously applied, doesn't create an additional sense of depth as much as it looks cluttered and plastic.

The main problem is the film's writing, though, which primarily concerns Bernard and Bianca. Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor both return and both are completely wasted on a sitcomish plot about Bernard repeatedly failing to propose marriage to Bianca. Which is not to say the writing in the first film was first rate but it had the virtue of being closer to the original books. In both cases, the tragedy is in how completely the character of Bianca is divested of the psychological depth she had in the source novel. Being a point of view character whose hopes and anxieties we share, she becomes in the Disney films little more than a cheerful, unflappable object of Bernard's concern. The first film played this for laughs successfully a couple times, as in their flight through New York, but the sequel renders her totally devoid of personality.

The villain is far more interesting. Though not approaching the grotesque heights of Madame Medusa, Percival C. McLeach, voiced by George C. Scott, is a captivating caricature of his voice actor. A vicious poacher, he benefits greatly from Scott's comedic instincts. Scott knew how to play this kind of exaggerated character, he knew the importance of saying absurd lines absolutely straight.

John Candy is a welcome addition, replacing the deceased Jim Jordan as an albatross, brother of Jordan's character. Candy's introductory scene has him playing nicely off a fretting Bob Newhart with the kind of tone deaf disregard for danger and propriety Candy excelled at. Sadly, he gets sidelined in a tedious side plot about his injured back.

The best part of the film involves another bird, though--the astonishingly, and expensively, animated golden eagle whom the little boy rescues.

Watching the flight sequences in the beginning is breathtaking and inspire anticipation of something grand. Following this is a sequence of radio communication across the world as many mice relay news of the boy's distress from Australia to Hawaii to California and onwards to New York. The build up is great . . . and then it crashes with a scene of Bernard fumbling with his engagement ring. Wilbur the albatross couldn't have a worse landing. In a bit stolen from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the ring skitters across the restaurant and, just before Bernard can grab it, it's kicked by a passerby. The shot is framed exactly like Kate Capshaw chasing Lao Che's diamond.

A few scenes later, the film lifts the door knocking gag from C3PO in Return of the Jedi, making me wonder if the film was going to plunder everything from George Lucas.

It doesn't, though, and there are a few funny moments, the standout being a routine between McLeach and his pet iguana as the animal stealthily tries to swipe eggs from the man's lunchbox.

So The Rescuers Down Under isn't a complete waste of time. It has some good garnish around the edges. It's a shame about its saggy centre.

The Rescuers Down Under is available on Disney+.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Early Yoshino

Happy Birthday, Emperor Naruhito. For you, most people here in Japan had the day off from work. On impulse, I took the train down to Mount Yoshino.

It was a little silly for me to go now. Yoshino is a famous destination for tourists in autumn and spring, for red foliage in the former and cherry blossoms in the latter.

A few blossoms are just starting to show but mostly all the branches are still dead and grey.

It was late afternoon, though, so there were plenty of interesting shadows.

And not many people. I saw one mother trying to entertain her bored little boy next to the closed off ropeway car, telling him the operator must be enjoying the day off, too.

I got a few little souvenirs--a little wooden spoon for my loose leaf tea, some masking tape, and some azuki bean cakes. It was a pleasant afternoon.

Hey, there's the rabbit!