Friday, July 20, 2018

Predator of Comic Con

The first panel I saw in Hall H yesterday was for Shane Black's upcoming Predator movie, which distinguishes itself with the word "the" at the beginning. I had zero interest in the movie before yesterday but after the panel I kind of want to see it. Looks like the panel as a promotional tactic paid off this time. Primarily it's because of the cast--something the trailers never gave me a sense of in quite the way I got yesterday from one of the clips and from the chemistry of the actors just bantering on the panel. I'm barely acquainted with the work of most of these performers. I've always been kind of lukewarm on Olivia Munn, I loved Thomas Jane on The Expanse, and Keegan Michael Key I tend to enjoy about 15% of the time. He has a tendency to make a funny joke and then carry the premise very quickly past the breaking point. But all together, this group had a real chemistry with an honesty about it that made their individual faults likeable. Black talked about the fact that he had the actors rehearse a lot before filming, implying this was an unusual practice, but maybe it shouldn't be if it's responsible for the real sense of camaraderie I saw. Black said he was inspired by the ensemble chemistry in the original Predator.

The only awkward moment was when Olivia Munn called it a "micro-aggression" that women in movies generally didn't know how to use guns. So she said she insisted her character, a biologist, should at least have a basic idea of what to do when picking one up. The word "micro-aggression" always reminds me of Micro Machines. But otherwise everyone seemed to have a good time busting each others' chops. Sterling K. Brown and Keegan Michael Kay joked about trying to get Blaxploitation references into the film and Thomas Jane came off kind like Ringo Starr in A Hard Day's Night, the oddly glum member just slightly on a different wavelength from everyone else. Brown insisted Jane show the crowd his feet which Jane did, revealing he was barefoot. Apparently this is a lifestyle choice of Jane's. "It sounds like a joke but it's not," Brown explained to the laughing audience. Jane said with absolutely flawless glum sincerity, "I like to touch things with my feet." He apparently once belonged to a Barefoot Society but got kicked out. Munn said she didn't want him to be in this society which I guess doesn't count as a micro-aggression.

The moderator, Grae Drake from Rotten Tomatoes, wasn't bad though not the best I've seen. She took a selfie with the cast at the end and joked, "Someone's grabbing my ass!" but then seemed to remember the political pall currently cast over the industry and awkwardly added, "It's great!" Everyone in the audience received a Predator gift bag which included a card with concept art and, bizarrely, hand sanitizer. The whole panel's on YouTube here:

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Bees of Comic Con

I got up really early to get into Hall H this morning but I needn't have bothered. Hall H never filled up. I had almost a whole row of seats to myself during the Doctor Who panel. There's a moment in the panel where the panelists asked all the cosplayers to raise their hands and I think four hands went up in the crowd--I saw four people dressed as the Thirteenth Doctor, two people dressed as the Eleventh, and one as the Fourth. It was the most lacklustre vibe I've ever seen for a Doctor Who panel. There were definitely a few very enthusiastic fans but generally the feeling I had is few people are feeling Doctor Who-ish right now. I certainly don't blame Jodie Whittaker, she seemed wonderful and I think I might enjoy her take on the Doctor. As for her companions--she seemed to have a good rapport with Tosin Cole, who exhibited some quick wit, but Mandip Gil came off as a complete drip.

I think giving Thirteen three companions to start with will prove a mistake. Whenever the Doctor has more than one companion, it usually cancels out any subtle sexual chemistry--that's why Five is usually thought of as the "Older Brother" Doctor and of course Eleven only had chemistry with his companions before Rory joined him and after Rory left when Eleven had chemistry with Clara (I know it's controversial to say this but I don't think he ever had chemistry with River Song). I think the show risks putting off both old and new fans--old fans who don't like the idea of a female Doctor and new fans who watched for the heat between Doctor and companion. Mind you, I don't think either one is a bad thing myself--I enjoyed the Fifth Doctor's diluted sexuality and I love the idea of a female Doctor. But I think it's going to be a hard sell for audiences. Whittaker's rapport with Cole was good enough they could've gotten something going--but who knows? Maybe they will. Not that you'd know from the not-so-exclusive Comic Con trailer which even the milquetoast moderator joked gave away an extraordinarily scanty amount of information.

I'll be posting more detailed posts on the Con when I have time. For now, here are the bees that terrorised the Hall H queue this morning.

Someone came by in a beekeeper suit, presumably not a cosplayer. I hope he didn't gas them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Face of the Comic Con

Dig my new exclusive Comic Con lapel pin! Yeah, that's right, it's . . . a guy. I guess it's Superman from the cowlick. It comes with the ever useful Comic Con bag which is also covered with Warner Brothers/DC advertising. I love those bags, don't get me wrong, I've accumulated a good pile of them and they're real handy when you're moving house. There are twelve exclusive pins, each with a different DC here, it was my good fortune to get one of the least identifiable.

To-night's Preview Night and, as usual, I didn't feel like watching any of the TV episodes being shown to-day so I just availed myself of the opportunity to pick up the printed schedule, souvenir book, and printed schedule. There aren't very many panels I want to see this year. I might try getting into the Doctor Who panel to-morrow but my heart won't be broken if I don't make it in--the whole thing will probably be on YouTube before I get home anyway.

I'll offer some advice now to anyone reading who's attending Comic Con this year. I'm a San Diego resident and I've been going to the Con for over twenty years. One of the things that's changed in the past couple years is Horton Plaza, the shopping mall in the middle of downtown. Its owners, Westfield, have been deliberately letting it die, letting leases expire--the rumour is they want to turn it into apartments. This is relevant to Con goers who, in past years, always had the option of forgoing the ten hour wait for a hundred dollar slice of rubber and instead going to a normal mall food court and getting an average priced slice of pizza. That food court is gone, even the Taco Bell closed. It's just a bunch of sad empty stores up there now. There is an overpriced supermarket on the bottom floor, though, called Jimbo's, which is sort of like Whole Foods with less of a selection. The Ralph's across the street is still there, too.

For my money, the best place to get lunch, if you have time and energy to walk ten blocks, is Pokez on 10th and E. But I've found the best option for years is to simply pack a lunch. The key to waiting in the queues is to accept the reality of Being In the Queue. Don't think about getting to the end of it, just Be In It. And prepare yourself to Be In It. A path is formed by laying one stone at a time, as the giant said on Twin Peaks.

Anyway, I'll be at the Con most of the time from to-morrow morning 'til Sunday night, posts here will probably be short, then I'll write longer Con reports next week.

Twitter Sonnet #1135

A lifted veil reveals a varied mug.
Toupees of lacquered wrath revoke the skull.
A tapered cloudy sky could sink the tug.
The talent whale replaced the iron hull.
Repeated boulders pushed the 'lectric eye.
A noise ignored became a heap of sand.
The microphone records a buzzing fly.
All sense of tune deserts the only band.
A magic sword conferred appraised the dawn.
The silent roads of hauntings mark the space.
An early soul deduced the ghosts've gone.
The shredded bundle yet could haunt the place.
The numbers back decreed the gen'ral hunch.
The common loaded die determined lunch.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Sea, Feet, and Boards Between

It's summertime, folks, so it's time once again to ponder the unfathomable mystery of teenagers on the beach. 1963's Beach Party introduced movie goers to the patron deities of the beach in the guises of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. At first foregrounded as though intended to be the main characters, they quickly recede to just beyond the grasp of the film's true protagonist, the unrelentingly idiosyncratic Professor Sutwell (Bob Cummings). The adult filmmakers invite teenagers to enjoy the goofy yet impossibly skilled grownup who is fascinated by their every move in this entertaining musical.

The only halfway memorable song is also the only one Avalon and Funicello peform together, in the film's opening, "Beach Party To-night", as their characters Frankie and Dolores drive to the beach. He's hoping to be alone with her but becomes somewhat alarmingly enraged when he finds she's invited the whole gang to stay with them at the beach house.

This begins a drama that continues throughout the film where he tries to make her jealous by giving his attentions to Marilyn Monroe look-alike Eve Six and Dolores meanwhile makes time with Professor Sutwell (Bob Cummings).

Sutwell, in his cabin, watches the kids through telescopes and records their conversations with special equipment. His beard and glasses, which prompt constant mockery, are accompanied by carefully calculated bizarre wardrobe.

He's supposed to be ridiculous and yet his totally out there dogi was given to him by the chief of the Tokyo fire department. He's been all over the world, he can fly a plane, he almost instantly becomes an expert surfer, and he's able, with a light touch of a finger, to paralyse a greaser who was trying to molest Dolores.

This greaser (Harvey Lembeck), the leader of a gang, is dressed like Brando but spends the movie doing a Lou Costello impression. And, unlike Sutwell, he's a complete failure at everything he attempts. Really, kids, every one of your subcultures just can't measure up to your elders. But any teen girl with her heart set on Sutwell would have to compete with his assistant played by Dorothy Malone who could've used more screen time in this film. For her brief moments she's a delightfully sharp foil.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Blindness and Water

The eighth episode of Cowboy Bebop focuses on Spike Spiegel's martial arts style. In so doing it offers a broader comment on how he survives and fits into a world based on seemingly constant, seemingly chaotic change: Spike becomes like water.

Session Eight: Waltz for Venus

The first scene is an amusing and exciting vignette that showcases again Cowboy Bebop's creative and complex background details. On a passenger ship, a brief shot shows a Tom and Jerry knock-off cartoon and then other brief shots show assortments of passengers, including a woman holding a baby up to a window.

Then a hijacking occurs. We never learn the hijackers' objective, whether they were terrorists or sought to ransom the passengers for profit. They never get the chance to make their demands before they're spectacularly thwarted by Spike (Koichi Yamadera) and Faye (Megumi Hayashibara). Spike absurdly manages to beat two of them by pretending to be a sleepy, disoriented passenger whose every stretch and scratch of the head just happens to inflict a devastating blow.

It's an extreme example of the oddly relaxed martial arts style Spike has already exhibited throughout the series. In the process he earns the admiration of a desperate young man, Rocco (Takamura Nakao), who also happens to be aboard the ship. When he finally convinces Spike to give him some tips later, Spike gives Rocco a speech that closely paraphrases a famous interview with Bruce Lee.

But it reminds me of something else, too, a popular quote from Salmon Rushdie often invoked by people discussing post-modernism.

He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each colored strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.

This comes from Rushdie's 1990 book Haroun and the Sea of Stories (a larger excerpt containing the quote can be found here). As the previous seven episodes have rigorously shown us, the future solar system depicted by Cowboy Bebop is one where stories and identity have become almost unrecognisably mixed in the wake of an accident that alters the appearance of the Earth itself. Spike's philosophy seems well suited to the situation, allowing him to adapt to whatever comes, though perhaps it's this prioritising flexibility over assertiveness that prompted Vicious to label him a beast.

Being a bounty hunter, as a profession, is certainly a much more flexible one than Spike's previous career with a syndicate. We never find out what the hijackers want and Spike probably never does, either. His job isn't motivated by ideology or loyalty, only money, but we see again and again that his sense of honour does influence his actions, as it does in this episode.

It turns out Rocco has a bounty on his head but when Spike finds out the guy has stolen an incredibly rare plant with the objective of healing his sister's blindness he seems to feel no hesitation when deciding to help Rocco instead of turning him in.

A story where a man gets himself in trouble by trying to cure the blindness of a woman he cares about is a well-worn device. It's not unlike the plot of Magnificent Obsession which I reviewed last week (in fact, thinking about how it's used in Cowboy Bebop has led me to reconsider its implications in Magnificent Obsession). In this case, it's also significant because it follows the hints from a couple episodes earlier that Spike has an artificial eye. Once again, we have the idea of someone's perceptions being changed by the world--Rocco's sister is blinded by some airborne phenomenon on terraformed Venus to which most people are immune. The young woman could not adapt the way most people could and this is partly why she seems so innocent.

So it's appropriate that the episode ends with that ever potent symbol of sin--Spike eating an apple--as he watches spores floating down from the sky. Spike has adapted--consumed, even--this world and so he thrives. The young woman's blindness, we're told, is cured through the use of that plant, perhaps her own version of the apple.

...

This entry is part of a series of entries I'm writing on Cowboy Bebop for its 20th anniversary. I'm reviewing each episode individually. My previous episode reviews can be found here:

Session One
Session Two
Session Three
Session Four
Session Five
Session Six
Session Seven

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Many Windows with Many Women

I recently watched 1944's The Woman in the Window again and then I was surprised to see another movie by that name is currently in development starring Amy Adams and directed by Joe Wright. I assume it has some connexion to the 1944 film--the Wright film features a woman who stays in a lot and watches classic movies, I assume one of them being the old film noir. Though the concept of Wright's movie sounds much closer to Rear Window as it features Adams spying on neighbours and eventually witnessing some kind of crime.

The original Woman in the Window seems like it was tailor made for theorists to analyse decades later. It's about a middle aged, mild mannered psychology professor played by Edward G. Robinson who is captivated by a portrait of a woman in a window whom he eventually meets, this meeting having disastrous consequences.

There are many potential routes for discussion on art within art, the difference between fantasy and reality, and the ambiguous levels of responsibility the protagonist bears for what occurs. It's all fertile ground for talking about existentialism, gender, class, all the goodies.

It's also fascinating for being both the very model of a film noir and for being also the anti-model. It has a femme fatale played by Joan Bennett who's not really a femme fatale. It has a crime that's not really a crime--it has one of the most innocent and clumsy protagonists of any noir I've seen.

Robinson's Professor Wanley is first introduced lecturing a class on the difference between killing in self-defence and killing out of malice, explaining how the law distinguishes between the two and doesn't punish the former like the latter. But when he actually finds himself in a situation where he's killed someone in self-defence he feels compelled to hide the body. After all, if it comes out that he, a married man, was discovered in the apartment of a beautiful young woman, his reputation and probably his career would be ruined.

The film blends the dichotomy of fantasy and reality--the portrait of Bennett's character and the actual woman--with the dichotomy of theory and practice--what the law says about a situation and how that situation might play out in reality.

At the same time, though, everything about the "real" situation is dreamlike. Why would Joan Bennett, seeing Edward G. Robinson drooling over her portrait, invite him back to her apartment? Cary Grant he's not. How likely is it that Wanley could've killed the guy attacking him with a little pair of scissors? The film's "it was all a dream" ending was added by director Fritz Lang to conform to the demands of the censors but the film is actually credibly like a dream. Despite Wanley's education, I can kind of believe he's a total klutz when it comes to hiding a body. How many mistakes does he make? Trying to speed past the toll booth, tossing a dime to the guy, but actually stopping to talk when the guy can't find the dime; cutting his arm on barbed wire where he dumped the body; giving constant verbal cues to the police detective investigating the murder, whom Wanley just happens to know. Wanley may be an expert but he's not a field expert--an expert on Vikings isn't necessarily ready to jump in a long boat and raid the coast of England. But he has such bad luck it seems exceedingly improbably and the fact that he doesn't get caught almost immediately is incredibly improbable. Every step seems designed more as a torment for him than anything else.

It's a world tailored to his anxieties, to punish him for going home with a pretty woman while his wife and kids are out of town. Part of me actually likes the ending, the movie would almost be over the top without it. But if it's Wanley's dream, how do we account for the sequences where he's not present? The scenes shot from Joan Bennett's perspective when the murder victim's body guard, played by Dan Duryea, tries to extort her, first for cash, then for sex? Not only does she stop being a femme fatale, she becomes the protagonist--it's as though Wanley becomes her.

This is emphasised by the fact that every single trick Bennett tries to play on Duryea is immediately seen through by Duryea, no matter how unlikely it is that he could. When she says she only has 2500 dollars, he's absolutely confident she has the full 5000. Every attempt she makes to distract him immediately leads to him going directly for what she was afraid he'd find. Is Wanley transgender? Or is it a comment on the nature of the viewer's relationship with a work of art? The feelings inspired by a great work might be so personal that in a sense we are what we see.

Twitter Sonnet #1134

A calling club for diamonds lists a jack.
A knave repaid the bill before the deuce.
A diff'rent card replaced the Hoyle pack.
To cut the deck's to hack an elder spruce.
Surprising empty cards emerged to hand.
Were hearts discerned behind the paper mist?
A flush announced became a triple band.
A royal hides beside a waiting wrist.
A poker game became a Solitaire.
Or Patience--takes the night in ghostly round.
But dreams of player shapes were thinnest air.
The whisper slap of cards the only sound.
The dust recycles digits for the suits.
A sleepy light illumines numbered roots.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Return of the Dog

There's always a chance the oppressed will become the oppressors. The Soviets would've done well to remember that when they sent dogs into space in the 2013 Doctor Who audio play 1963: The Space Race. This slightly more amusing, more Cold War oriented, version of Planet of the Apes concept is also one of the gorier audio plays, making it perhaps appropriate that it is a Sixth Doctor story.

The Space Race is based on the true story of Laika, the stray dog sent by the Soviets to space in 1957. The real Laika died in the rocket but in this audio she returns six years later having somehow gained the power of speech and human intelligence. Voiced by Samantha Beart, she's at first mistaken for a missing cosmonaut by the Doctor (Colin Baker) and the staff of the Soviet space programme when they hear her voice transmitting from a rocket that had been stuck on the dark side of the moon. Laika only seems to want water and freedom until Peri (Nicola Bryant) helps her at which point Laika's motives become decidedly less sympathetic.

But, perhaps in reference to the Cold War setting, the Doctor and Peri are never quite sure who to trust. They themselves are posing as spies posing as scientists, an extra layer of subterfuge added to the Power of the Daleks concept. But the bloody and inhumane methods apparently involved in giving animals the ability to talk ethically simplifies things quite a bit.

The Six Doctor's run on television was distinguished by some exceptionally grim stories, most notably the proto-Hunger Games story Vengeance On Varos. Though Six is also an appropriate Doctor for this story because it was in the Sixth and Second Doctor story, The Two Doctors, where the Doctor became a vegetarian courtesy of writer Robert Holmes (who was himself a vegetarian). The Ninth Doctor would later be seen eating meat in the television story "Boom Town"; there's apparently no canon account of when or why the Doctor decided to start eating meat again (though apparently there was a Sixth Doctor comic that addressed the subject). The events of The Two Doctors are never mentioned in Space Race though vegetarianism does come up, understandably. Though, considering how much meat winds up being involved in this story, I'm not sure Robert Holmes would approve.

The writer of The Space Race, Jonathan Morris, has a lot of fun turning the rhetoric of uprising and revolution against the Soviets as Laika begins to organise her comrades. There's a minor romance subplot between Peri and a Soviet military sergeant (Stuart Denman) that reminded me of the flirtation between Ace and the Soviet officer in Curse of Fenric. It was an interesting contrast between how the Soviets were portrayed on Doctor Who in the 80s and how they were portrayed in 2013. The Eleventh Doctor story "Cold War" aired that same year but in the general rush of the one hour episode there's not as much time for conceptual contemplation. The Curse of Fenric, like The Happiness Patrol, might have been part of a general anti-Margaret Thatcher feeling in expressing sympathy for Communists. But it always struck me more as part of a recurring message in fiction of the 80s--not unlike Star Trek VI--to promote the idea of the shared humanity (or let's say sentience) between the parties of opposing sides. I might have liked a little more of that in The Space Race but it's an enjoyable audio play.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Too Many Peaks for the World

A lot of people have written about the shocking exclusion of Twin Peaks: The Return from the Emmy nominees. Except it wasn't excluded--among many other categories, it's nominated for Directing and Writing. One might reasonably ask why a Limited Series that potentially has the best writing and directing might not potentially be the best Limited Series. It is kind of par for the course for Lynch, though, who's been nominated three times for Best Director at the Oscars (for The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive) but only once for Best Picture (The Elephant Man). If television is replacing movies, there's some fitting continuity in this. I predict he'll win, too, because I suspect even the voters who didn't bother to watch the show would feel stupid not voting for him. Well, I shouldn't talk, I haven't seen any of the series nominated for Best Limited Series. I can quote The Guardian article about Twin Peaks being snubbed: "Patrick Melrose was nominated, and The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and both are fine shows. But Godless was also nominated. Remember Godless? It was that nothingy Netflix cowboy show that squeaked out towards the end of last year, buoyed by a Next Big Thing buzz that couldn’t sustain itself once everyone realised what a colossal snooze it was." I suspect that's how a lot of people would describe Twin Peaks: The Return. I would argue this signifies a lack of a willingness from an audience to engage a TV show as a serious work of art. I remember one article that came out when the season was airing where the writer mentioned a colleague who was frustrated by Twin Peaks because it was the one show they couldn't multitask--they actually had to stop everything else they were doing and give it their undivided attention. Lynch himself recommended watching the show on a large screen in a dark room with headphones. This may be the place where TV's claim to being the new cinema fails--it may occupy the place in people's lives movies once did, but something's going to be lost in the transition.

Lynch's movies, even among movies, were always especially demanding of the viewer to engage with the sensory experience. The first third of Lost Highway basically asks the audience to enjoy the tension of eerie silence. Personally, I love that, and I love Lost Highway, but I can see that being a hard sell for general audiences. Now people might watch the splashier bits on YouTube and assume all those people who implied the context of the sensation was a crucial part of the experience of the work were just kooky, crazy elitists. But since Lynch's films were never really mainstream, maybe the world's not so different in this respect.

Except why are people talking like Twin Peaks was completely snubbed? That same Guardian article says, "Twin Peaks: The Return was stuck with just technical recognition." True, people don't tend to think of directors when they talk about television now. They do tend to talk about writers, who are usually the "showrunner", a relatively new sort of overlord role one used to associate more with the director. Though apparently Twin Peaks' writing nomination is "just technical recognition".

I didn't think Twin Peaks was nominated for anything at all based on the first article I read on the nominations at Dark Horizons which omitted the Directing and Writing categories in favour of an incredible number of acting categories--I count sixteen. Twin Peaks isn't nominated for any of them, surprising since acting has been the category where the show has fared best on other awards shows so far--even David Lynch himself won for Best Guest Performance at the Saturn Awards. Though I don't think anyone but Kyle MacLachlan had more screentime than Lynch during the season. Lynch wrote, directed, starred in, composed some of the music for, did sound design for, and built some of the furniture for the show and gods know what else. That in itself seems like it deserves some kind of recognition.

Why the emphasis on acting categories? Do people generally just not care about writers and directors? Maybe we'll get to the point one day where people generally assume the actors are improvising everything in front of camera drones.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Elusive and Weird Repentance

The foundation of morality in 1954's Magnificent Obsession is kind of terrifying if you think about it for more than two seconds. A man whose guilt over inadvertently causing another man's death transforms that into a sexual obsession with the widow, an intensely dull woman otherwise. Weird plot devices are marshalled to make this seem reasonable and it's difficult to take the story seriously, though I imagine for some it's a perfectly innocent, if decadent, indulgence. Contemplating the implications of its absurdities could lead to some interesting conclusions but mainly I kept watching because of the coldly beautiful cinematography.

Technicolour, among its detractors, had a reputation at the time for being distractingly lurid. Maybe this is why director Douglas Sirk and cinematographer Russell Metty seemingly chose to import the virtues of black and white photography.

The film is filled with black shadows and sets and costumes are often pale neutral colours. But there are also strikingly bold colour accents, particularly reds, pinks, and magentas.

Jane Wyman plays the widow, Helen Phillips, of the saintly Doctor Phillips. We never get to see him--the film opens with daredevil millionaire Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) having an accident in his experimental speedboat, necessitating the use of a nearby resuscitator belonging to Doctor Phillips. Because it's being used on Bob, it's not available to Phillips who consequently dies of a heart attack.

This is bad luck, not fantastic bad luck, I could imagine it happening, it doesn't push the film into melodrama quite yet. But then Bob, deeming himself fit enough to be released despite what his doctors think, sneaks out of the hospital on foot and is picked up on the road by none other than the widow Phillips.

He starts to flirt with her right away, before knowing who she is. When he finds out, he asks to be let out, at which point he immediately collapses and she takes him back to the hospital where she's also now administrator since her husband's death.

Bob's guilt over his responsibility for Dr. Phillips death could've been worked into a real point of noir-ish tension, not unlike Toshiro Mifune's stolen gun in Stray Dog. But so much weird melodrama is heaped onto the film it becomes more of a conceptual spectacle. The weirdest thing is probably Dr. Phillips' magic powers, which constitute the magnificent obsession the title refers to (certainly it's not Helen). Dr. Phillips gave assistance to anyone who needed it and always kept it a secret--as a consequence, he was blessed with good luck and a fulfilling career. Presumably his good deeds were separate from his normal duties as a doctor in the hospital which weren't carried out in secrecy.

So Bob starts employing this philosophy after hearing about it from Dr. Phillips' equally saintly painter friend (Otto Kruger). But Bob immediately screws it up after spilling the beans on his first good deed to Helen while he chases her into a cab. She exhibits no interest in him whatsoever while his guilt related to her is apparently a big aphrodisiac for him. Either as divine punishment for not keeping his deed a secret or just the machinations of melodrama, Helen ends up blind and Bob starts pretending to be a guy named Rob whom she starts to fall in love with.

One could ask whether Bob ever actually learns humility in this film or just learns to play a very different, very weird game. There's something about this story that taps into the danger of arrogance in the American myth and the Puritan obsession with virtue based on tangled reasoning. But I found these problems to be teased out much better in Sirk and Metty's later melodrama collaborations, Written on the Wind and All that Heaven Allows.

Twitter Sonnet #1133

The cattle lined along the rail to space.
A plot became a sun before the rise.
In nature's ev'ry table hid an ace.
The bulky trees were cracking good disguise.
The cards in columns list for Solitaire.
Forgotten eyes yet view machines enthroned.
The frozen foods usurped the Frigidaire.
The voice of frost a summer curse intoned.
The creaky trees divided walking arms.
In greying space the forks began to hum.
Entire peoples turned from ploughs to farms.
A swaying barque conveys a mouldy sum.
A dusty board retracts the keys to flat.
A foil world contains a metal cat.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Space Trucking

Anime is a genre known for formula--even some of the best anime series employ stock characters and plots. Which is one of the things that makes Cowboy Bebop so special and in this series of abnormalities the seventh episode is one of the most unusual.

Session Seven: Heavy Metal Queen

How many anime series have an episode that pays homage to the American trucker craze of the 70s? How many anime series would, without a trace of irony, have as its one off truck driver protagonist a butch middle aged woman? I'm pretty sure Cowboy Bebop is the only series to tick any of those boxes, let alone all of them.

V.T. (Tomie Kataoka) fits into the series' larger thematic framework in that she presents a different standard for gender signifiers. She doesn't seem to care for makeup and her clothes are more traditionally masculine. Her cat is also another example of a peculiarly intelligent animal--anyone who's spent any amount of time with a cat would raise their eyebrows at how easily V.T. can get the animal to follow her and obey commands.

But the cat does indulge in a well-worn plot device when it takes a liking to Spike (Koichi Yamadera) despite V.T.'s evident dislike for him. This isn't the most dignified episode for Spike whom we first see with his pants down sitting on a toilet.

Before the episode is over, we'll see him with egg yolk on his lap and later sitting in his underwear impatiently next to a dryer. Even his beloved ship is vandalised. Why does this episode go to such pains to humiliate him? Maybe to indicate again that the world is trying to make him a beast. Maybe to emphasise V.T.'s stability. Once again, the show directly references music, in this case V.T.'s love for heavy metal--another new cocktail. 70s truck drivers aren't typically associated with metal anymore than cowboys are with bebop.

Although her ship is damaged, Faye (Megumi Hayashibara) fares a lot better than Spike in this episode. For once, she's never tied up though she does misidentify their bounty. She uses her charms on the big muscle guy when she should have been looking at the Woody Allen guy.

Why the show's creators chose to poke fun at Woody Allen here--tellingly found in a children's restaurant called "Woody's"--I have no idea. So far I don't think anyone's made allegations about Woody Allen smuggling truckloads of liquid explosives.

I love the personalised details on the trucks of the other drivers when V.T. enlists their aid in tracking down the target. It's such a 70s trucker movie. It's like something from Convoy or Smokey and the Bandit. How many viewers in Japan even got these references?

The episode ends with Spike winning a game that had apparently gone on for some time--people betting dollars they can guess what "V.T." stands for. The moment continues the conversation about symbols and what they mean or don't mean--in this case, V.T.'s name, which ends up meaning quite a lot. When Spike doesn't take all the money that has amassed from other people playing the game, it's the reversal on the humiliations he'd suffered throughout out the episode. He gets his cool back. He still has his sense of honour and fair play, the slapstick hasn't changed him.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Another Ominous Colour for Water

Is conquest necessary for civilisation? Is it an essential human need? 1948's Red River mythologises the expansion of the U.S. but it doesn't sanitise it. In the conflict between pioneering cattle rancher, Thomas Dunson, and his adopted son, Matt Garth, is great character drama that at the same time illustrates broader issues of coexistence in a country that contains such radically different ways of seeing the world. With incredible performances, and keen storytelling from director Howard Hawks, this is one of the greatest Westerns ever made.

The first shot of a wagon train making its way to California in the mid 19th century establishes the sense of wonder in the endeavour. For the U.S. population in 1948, agriculture and ties to land was a bigger part of the cultural identity so it's not surprising audiences loved this kind of glorious dream of the past. But any revisionism in the movie has nothing to do with hypocrisy. When John Wayne, in one of his iconic roles, breaks off from the wagon train headed to California to stake his own claim in Texas, he encounters a couple of Mexican men who tell him the land already belongs to their employer. "You mean he took it away from whoever was here before. Indians, maybe," says Dunson. "Maybe. So?" one of the men replies. "Well, I'm taking it away from him," says Dunson.

Strained smiles follow before Dunson shoots and kills one of the men as he was drawing his own pistol. Dunson tells the other to go tell his employer what happened. And that, folks, is how the West was won, more or less. Fourteen years pass and Dunson has turned one bull and a cow into cattle numbering in the thousands. He can't sell any beef after the Civil War so, with the same boldness with which he staked his claim initially, he decides he's going to leave his land and move all the cattle north where there's a market.

His second in command and essentially adopted son is Matt Garth played by Montgomery Clift in one of those revelatory performances that shows how method actors were shaking up Hollywood in the late 40s and 50s. We first meet Matt as a boy played by another actor (Mickey Kuhn) who has the average stilted delivery of an average 40s supporting player. So when the film cuts to older Matt even his natural reactions in casual conversation are amazing.

The place Matt occupies in Dunson's heart is complicated and feeds into the essential mythology of the story. When Dunson left that wagon train at the beginning of the film he left behind the woman who loved him, Fen (Coleen Gray). In the film's first scene the two part, she begging to go with him to settle in Texas, he telling her it's too dangerous. She starts talking to him not like an individual woman but like an emissary for womankind. When he says the life he's set out for would be "too much for a woman" she replies, "Too much for a woman? Put your arms around me, Tom. Hold me. Feel me in your arms. Do I feel weak, Tom? I don't, do I? Oh, you'll need me. You'll need a woman. You need what a woman can give you to do what you have to do. Oh, listen to me, Tom, listen with your head and your heart too. The sun only shines half the time, Tom, the other half is night."

This mirror dichotomy of man/woman, sun/night will be echoed later after Dunson and Matt's relationship ruptures on the journey north. Matt is tied to Fen because Matt is the only survivor of the wagon train at the beginning of the film--he escapes with a single cow after the train is attacked by Indians. That Dunson makes his great herd from his bull mating with Matt's cow emphasises Matt as a symbol for the female half necessary for Genesis which Dunson neglected.

So as the journey north becomes more and more fraught with difficulty, it makes sense the conflict that arises between Dunson and Matt is one between a philosophy of force and a philosophy of compassion. When men want to desert, Dunson's methods of dealing with the deserters become increasingly brutal and Matt has to find gradually more direct ways in countermanding Dunson.

A woman doesn't come back into the film until the final act--an example of the famous "Hawksian Woman", in this case played by Joanne Dru. Her introduction is certainly impressive. When Matt joins her and a group of gamblers and prostitutes in the middle of circled wagons fending off Indian Comanche attackers she starts flirting with him. When she takes an arrow in the shoulder--it seems Dru was actually shot in the shoulder with an arrow, presumably she had padding under her blouse--she doesn't even change her tone of voice while he's focused on shooting.

The phallic arrow and her taking it so easily is one of the less direct of several ways that the film implies she's a prostitute. It also implies her independent spirit and ability to make decisions and take actions that don't necessarily suit her immediate physical needs or comfort. It makes sense that a woman with traditionally masculine attributes would potentially bridge the gap in the conflict between Dunson and Matt. But while it's an effective route for the personal conflict of the characters, it's questionable whether it resolves the larger thematic tension which would continue to be fertile ground for Westerns for years to come.