Friday, September 30, 2016

A Fix

Is the U.S. a community or a business? 2012's Killing Them Softly is a small story about trouble between a few gangsters in New Jersey but it quite bluntly sets itself up as a commentary on the U.S. by setting the story in 2008 and featuring footage from Obama's presidential campaign and the old televised fumbling of George W. Bush. The film doesn't stay entirely on point, which was okay with me, because what it drifts into is some peculiar and fascinatingly sensuous noir visual and audio storytelling.

The sound design on this film is almost too good, finding new ways to make the sounds of punching really tear through and gunshots to reverberate. It's so carefully constructed it calls too much attention to itself at times. But good is good.

The soundtrack is also really good, featuring The Velvet Underground and Nico among other excellent choices. The usual spectre of Goodfellas that inevitably hangs over any modern gangster film is especially palpable, especially since Ray Liotta's in the movie, playing a guy not all that different from Henry Hill.

He plays a guy named Markie who runs card games for the mob. The first part of the film follows the point of view of two young men, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), who rob Markie's game, then the latter portion of the film stars Brad Pitt as Jackie who's in charge of cleaning up the mess created by the robbery, most notably by tracking down and killing the people involved and the people that are widely believed to be involved. Because, since reputation is so important for the mob, as Jackie explains, if someone is widely believed to have robbed them, it's as good as if they did.

The scenes between Frankie and Russell are funny, the kinds of scenes that exploit these dopey scumbags for their endlessly ornery dialogue and bullshit posturing. The Brad Pitt segment is slower and not as funny, especially when Mickey, played by James Gandolfini, comes onto the scene.

He tells a story that clearly parallels one told by Russell to Frankie about meeting a beautiful woman. Both Russell and Mickey talk about having a boner immediately on meeting the woman though with Russell one isn't sure whether it's just a bullshit yarn he's spinning. Mickey is so drained of any sort of drive to prove himself one suspects he's telling the truth. The juxtaposition suggests that Mickey is what Russell would eventually become.

Gandolfini is very good in the film and director Andrew Dominik spends a lot of time with him where the plot doesn't appear to be moving forward, just watching Mickey reminiscent and verbally abuse his prostitute. When Jackie observes that, for a man who's been getting prostitutes and booze for days, Mickey's sure doing a lot of complaining, Mickey explains he paid money so he has a right to complain. He misses the point entirely of Jackie's comment; instead of observing that he's failing to enjoy the pleasures of life, he focuses on his rights, based on what he paid. This scene ends up being thematically rather crucial in the conflict between the definition of the U.S. as a community versus business which Jackie makes explicit at the end.

Of course, it's a central theme to most gangster films, from The Godfather to Scarface--how cosa nostra, this supposed extended family that's supposed to be more about heart than the cold, bureaucratic government, inevitably ends up falling prey to greater cynicism, and how the people who seek power this way lose sight of their humanity.

Twitter Sonnet #917

Misplaced in kitchen pots the cat opines.
Arranged in order made by medal men,
On stoops of mushless sleds reclines
The scary floating Macy's poker pin.
A blue embossed represented mirror
Affixed to yellow fleur-de-lis at dawn
Returns the sacrifice made in furore
And cooked in pasta sauce and parmesan.
A blur of pages crossed the water south
Along the delta, turning to the rocks
A crumbling glove on ghostly hand, the mouth
Of salmon pulled into the river docks.
A millipede impressed a salty mine.
In cheer, the veins are sweating silver brine.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Shifting Ghost

What is real freedom? It is simultaneously impossible and inevitable, or so I would say after viewing Luis Bunuel's 1974 film The Phantom of Liberty (Le Fantôme de la liberté). It's a brilliant depiction of the existential idea of humans being doomed to free will colliding with the endlessly unpredictable forces of chance and complexity.

In the middle of the film, a professor tries to teach a class of military personnel about Margaret Mead and cultural relativism, how everyone is someone else's barbarian. He tries to tell them how order is a cultural construct but he's constantly interrupted by pranks played by the students and by orders calling students away from the classroom. It's amusing how the situation illustrates his lesson while showing the limits of its usefulness.

The film has a lot of characters in brief, connected vignettes, many of them finding humorous ways of illustrating how we're constrained by social custom. In one scene, a group of people sit down on toilets together and one man excuses himself to eat in a private room, nicely making the point that it's due to an ancient social hangup that one thing is considered private and the other something that can be done communally.

A more haunting, as well as funny, episode has two parents trying to find their missing daughter, accompanied by the missing daughter. "I'm here," says the child to the mother when the parents come to the classroom where they've been told the child was first noticed missing. The mother shushes the child because the adults are engaged in the important business of how the teachers' negligence has caused them to misplace the daughter. They go to the police station to report the child missing and the inspector thanks them for bringing the child along because "it makes things easier" for the police when getting a description of the child to distribute among the police carrying out the search.

The parents are apparently unwitting in their complicity in the wheels of law and custom, forcing them to go through a completely useless exercise, and yet they must be absolutely free in order to carry on in spite of the child's obvious presence.

There's also chance, bluntly illustrated by a sniper randomly shooting people from a tall building. And Bunuel is playing with the basic mechanics of storytelling, particularly in a brilliant sequence involving a police commissioner and his dead sister. It's a sequence that relies on inevitable audience presumptions that demonstrates how well our brains are fixed on certain tracks.

There's a beauty in the film's dreamlike, elegantly simple illustration of the human experience. It's strange because with such a thoroughly surreal language one might expect the overall work to be cold even if it was funny. But there's a humanist grace in the way it lays bare the vulnerability of human beings to themselves and to nature.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Tell Me, Electricity

This was my dashboard on Monday. Ah, that crisp autumn weather. It'd been getting down into the 70s on Friday and to-day it was mostly in the 80s, so at least the heat's not as consistent as last year. Though, honestly, I'd prefer it to be since the sudden shift gave me a massive headache over the weekend.

Normally when I post a photo showing off a ridiculous temperature the readout also displays the music I'm listening to. A few days ago, I think my iPod finally crapped out on me for good. I'm hesitant to say for sure because it's miraculously come back to life before.

"Uh oh," you may be saying. "He should have proofread this entry; he wrote 'iPod' instead of 'iPad'." Actually, years before the iPad people used these things called iPods which didn't do much more than store and play music. It didn't even talk to clouds. If I do have to replace it, I sure hope it doesn't have to be something that forces me to Connect.

I feel the world is growing impatient with my old, solitary technology, though. I went into the Amazon store a couple weeks ago with my friend Tim, a few days after it opened. I was excited there'd be a bookstore in the mall again. The place was disappointingly small but more disappointing was the fact that none of the books had prices on their labels. Only bar codes.

"How do you like the store?" asked a young woman who'd been employed to talk the place up.

"I like how the books don't have prices," I said. "I like having the challenge."

"I like that you like that!" she said as she tried to figure how to respond while keeping everything positive. She couldn't stop a bit of smugness from creeping into her voice when she said, "Actually you just need to tap it with your phone."

"Oh, really?" I said, taking my old flip phone out of my pocket.

"I see what you did there!" she said as though it had all been my elaborately arranged prank.

"That's classism right there," I said to Tim as we left. Of course, the Amazon store is at University Town Centre, which has always been one of the more upscale malls in the county, located in La Jolla, one of the most expensive places to live in the country. UTC has always had an ice skating rink, at least as far as I can remember. It says something that on Monday I could have gone ice skating there in 116 Fahrenheit weather.

So I've been listening to CDs again. I had The Crow soundtrack in--the first four tracks alone make it one of the great soundtracks of the 90s--"Burn" by The Cure, "Golgotha Tenement Blues" by Machines of Loving Grace, "Big Empty" by The Stone Temple Pilots, and Nine Inch Nails' amped up cover of Joy Division's "Dead Souls". Then there's "Darkness", a song by Rage Against the Machine that hasn't aged well. But, then again, I always skipped it. I tried it on again on Monday to see if I'd changed my mind and when I got to the line, "AIDS is killing the entire African Nation," I groaned and hit skip. It sounded like something Donald Trump would say when he's trying to be sensitive. "Colour Me Once" by Violent Femmes follows which is pretty good and then everything sucks for four tracks, beginning with Henry Rollins' "Ghostrider", which is apparently a cover. Henry Rollins remains a huge mystery to me. It always seemed boneheaded to me that he had a lousy song about Ghostrider on The Crow soundtrack even before I read his crappy sentimental poetry or heard him basically call Robin Williams a wimp for committing suicide (ironically the name of the band who wrote "Ghostrider" is Suicide).

"After the Flesh" by My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult I used to think was just okay and that's basically how I still feel about it--"Snakedriver" by The Jesus and Mary Chain I like but not nearly as much as some of that band's other works. I still really like "Time Baby III" by Medicine, a nice noisy groove--I especially like the line about hands coming up to touch the singer's thigh.

Jane Siberry's "It Can't Rain All the Time" is a song I still can't stand and really feel bad about it because so many people I've known seem to have a massive emotional attachment to it. Well, maybe in another five years I'll try again.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Only a Sith Speaks in Gibberish

Like many people, I watched the big television event last night, the season three premiere of Star Wars: Rebels. Okay, I watched the debate, too, but how can I dig a hole any deeper than Trump has already dug for himself? Egad. I hope he takes the opportunity to rave more about what a great temperament he has. How could someone that old have the self-awareness of a thirteen year old? To say nothing of being a contender for president.


The premiere of Star Wars: Rebels wasn't extremely bad, like the season finale of season two. They seem to be working hard to make Ezra into Anakin, he even has a scar now. Regardless of whether or not he fully turns to the Dark Side, they're clearly mining the same tension of someone turning bad that made Anakin an interesting character in Clone Wars and Revenge of the Sith. Once again, for all the supposed lack of interest in the prequels, Disney seems to find it necessary to go right back to that well. And despite immediately jettisoning the old Expanding Universe, they've decided to bring in another element from it in the person of Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Thrawn, the master strategist who learns about his enemy by studying them, a contrast to Vader's scorched earth tactics, could be an interesting character. In this episode, he deduces the Rebels' plan due to the cell mate of the pirate they rescue at the beginning of the episode, which is cleverer than the especially stupid Imperials have been on the show so far. So maybe this will be the moment where the show can actually make the enemy seem threatening without actually having to pay James Earl Jones to guest star as Darth Vader.

There was one great voice actor in this episode. Tom Baker guest stars as some kind of alien yak, a neutral Force user called the Bendu. He doesn't do much but give some advice to Kanaan it seems like Kanaan ought to've figured out on his own but Baker's delivery is really good. Of course. I might forgive the show for the constant stunt casting if it became just casting--remove all the current main characters and just have Tom Baker, James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams, Frank Oz, Gina Torres, Paul Reubens, and every other big name they had in the first two seasons, come together to be the actual stars of the show. That would be great. How would it go?

The bounty hunter voiced by Gina Torres decides to hijack a Star Tours vessel piloted by Reubens' droid. The ship crash lands in the Bendu's backyard when they learn Darth Vader's in orbit looking for the Force Yak. Bendu contacts Yoda who hires Lando Calrission to take him on a desperate rescue mission . . . Well, it would mess up continuity, I guess.

Twitter Sonnet #916

The orders came from poisoned fetish cups.
A horn adorned beleaguered Jove at dusk.
As clouds begin to look like Cer'bus pups.
The ribs encase the light in organ husk.
The apple tree ascends into the bomb.
Alone, the seed suspends the mission root.
A peanut pockets plans to make with Crom.
Plantains are fingers made to mess a suit.
A wriggling sun demands a triple watch.
A corp'rate copper sacks a fountain's clock.
The withered staff withstood another notch.
In houses held by flying gates, we talk.
In moving cups a bean lassos its dust.
Myst'ry soups are too often a bust.

Monday, September 26, 2016

On Another Run

The most extraordinary effects shot in 1949's Twelve O'Clock High comes near the beginning of the film when a stunt pilot actually crash lands a B-17 bomber for the film. Starting with what many movies would save for a climax isn't the only way this fascinating World War II film uses an unconventional structure to great effect.

Gregory Peck stars as General Frank Savage but he doesn't actually show up until nearly twenty minutes into the film. The first segment of the film seems to have a full cast already, focusing on a U.S. air force base in England commanded by Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) and Ben Gately (Hugh Marlowe). That crashing bomber, in the story, had dead and injured men on board, as well as the severed arm of a man who'd been left behind in France. Davenport sounds oddly exasperated when he observes that he can actually see the brains of a man on a stretcher. The arm and the exposed brains aren't shown to the audience but it's clear enough why Davenport is, as an empathetic commanding officer, at the end of his rope.

Paul Stewart as Kaiser, the flight surgeon, agonises with Davenport over the ambiguity in regulations as to the psychological state that would exempt a pilot from further flights. It's hard to ask the men to go out after all the horrors they've seen--they both agree that it's not that the men are cowards, it's just that they've had enough.

The movie in posing things from Davenport's point of view, centring on him like he's the star, makes Peck's introduction to the plot as Savage all the more effective. An old friend of Davenport's, he nonetheless feels sure the man's no longer qualified to run the squadron, particularly after he makes excuses for a man who missed spotting a checkpoint on a run that ended up costing other men their lives.

So Savage takes over and condemns Hugh Marlowe's character to piloting a bomber named "Leper Colony" to which Savage assigns all the "dead beats". Gregory's great charisma and ability to show humanity prevent him coming off as simply a tyrant, resulting in a real credible portrayal of two competing human needs--the need to avoid terrible and deadly violence and the need to prevent the greater horror should the other side be allowed to dominate the world.

There are no models used for the bombers--aircraft were actually flown for the film and actual aerial wartime footage is used for dogfight scenes. On the ground, the film is no less impressive for Leon Shamroy's stunningly Expressionistic cinematography.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Stay On the Bike

In the big sweet dream of open American roads there lurk assholes ready to kill you for having long hair. 1969's Easy Rider mostly reflects its title quite well, its protagonists leisurely barrelling across great landscapes with a mostly fantastic soundtrack. Its villains come with little apparent reason for brief, violent moments in the film, giving the feeling that just minding your own business is a transgression. The movie doesn't really make an argument, it presents a point of view, and it does it with effective mood.

The closest the movie gets to actually constructing an argument is with Jack Nicolson's character, George Hanson, who suddenly becomes profound once he's had his first joint. He talks about an alien race who have constructed a perfect civilisation in space. And he explains to the two central protagonists, Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) that all the snarling hayseeds they keep running into hate them for their freedom.

There's probably some truth to this, though one has too look outside the film to see it. Supposedly the United States is all about freedom but everyone normally keeps their heads down, gets the same haircuts, drives the same cars, and says, "Yes, sir," to the customer. So from this, one can see what George is talking about and we can see why Billy's vulnerable just for having long hair.

Dennis Hopper directed the film and he did a very nice job. The great cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs creates the sense of the long journey without being tedious, finding new ways to shoot the two men on their bikes and showcasing the landscape. A scene later in the film where Captain America and Billy have an acid trip with two prostitutes benefits from Kovacs' talent and, I suspect, Hopper's experience.

The music is great, too, featuring songs by The Band and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, much of the movie works like an exceptionally nice music video.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Ruhks and Rooking

It seems the Fifth Doctor had a harder time keeping his TARDIS together than the others. The entertaining 2008 audio play Time Reef involves much of the TARDIS interior being stolen and sold off by the Victorian street urchin Thomas Brewster, introduced in the earlier audio play The Haunting of Thomas Brewster. The Doctor is travelling only with Nyssa at this point, which places it well before the serial Frontios where the Fifth Doctor's TARDIS was torn to pieces and scattered underground.

Time Reef begins with Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) trying to cool the Doctor's (Peter Davison) temper at finding various little things out of place on the TARDIS after getting it back from Brewster (John Pickard) at the end of The Boy That Time Forgot. It turns out the Doctor has even better cause to be angry than he thinks when they're forced to land in some kind of trans-dimensional island where another crew is shipwrecked, a crew to whom Brewster had hawked whatever wasn't nailed down inside the TARDIS.

I liked that Brewster doesn't just turn out to be another good kid. It's what I always liked about Turlough, that there are things about him that are genuinely not nice. In this story, Nyssa talks about how her people on Traken make an effort to be reasonable with everyone and the story plays with the idea of how much unvarying pacifism can be practicable. This is another nice example, too, of the audio plays keeping Nyssa's character history in mind when writing for her.

Nyssa even reasons with a deadly Ruhk in Time Reef, its appearance as an antagonist to the shipwrecked crew of mercenaries making the story an entertaining reference to One Thousand and One Nights.

The events of Time Reef lead into a shorter audio play, A Perfect World, which is a funny little romance with a genuinely creepy, alternate, "perfect" version of 2008. Both stories were written by Marc Platt.

Twitter Sonnet #915

A travel bag betokens climes of sack.
Unknown the plateau spits the cacti pin.
Communed with ears leftover late of tack.
A social nine convened inside the den.
A vague dispatch concerned a vaulted dome.
In leather clouds announcements stuck to air.
The bicycle advanced through crops to home.
And then upon the desk there's just a pear.
Secreted in the drawer a cane abides.
Assisted walks revert to chairs and book.
A murder now to quiet cans the sides.
A country field affords a simple look.
Napoleon is knitting Satan's socks.
They're never short on time who've surfeit clocks.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Back Together Again

The reunification of Germany was like a family coming back together after a separation due to misunderstandings about philosophical differences. That's what 2003's Good Bye, Lenin! seems to be saying, at any rate, an enjoyable film heavily influenced by the tone of other art house films of the time and with a premise that seems to veer off from more satisfying explorations of the issues.

Daniel Bruhl plays Alex, a young man who grew up in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. His mother, Christiane (Katrin Sass), is a firm supporter of the country's socialist government. She also has a daughter, Ariane (Maria Simon), living with her and Alex but the father abruptly left home years ago for West Germany.

After witnessing Alex being arrested as part of an anti-government demonstration, Christiane has a heart attack and then remains in a coma before miraculously awakening after reunification. In order to avoid shocking her and risking another heart attack, Alex goes to elaborate efforts to make it seem to the bedridden Christiane that the old East German government is still operating. He scours shops and bins for old products and he carefully instructs people how to dress and behave when they visit Christiane.

There's a subplot about Alex's budding romance with Lara (Chulpan Khamatova), a Russian nurse, with whom he has a meet-cute at the demonstration. It's a simple story but I found it more interesting than Alex trying to hide reality from his mother which generally felt like it was pushing away from exploring anything. Still, the relationship between Alex's parents is obviously meant as an allegory for the two parts of Germany and it's hard to see how the film could end the deception of Christiane without spoiling its intentions.

It has a lot of the slightly magical coincidences I associate with early 2000s art house films, like Christiane seeing a flying statue of Lenin the one time she walks outside or Alex accidentally pulling out Christiane's IV drip while watching the nurse's legs, only for it to lead to him meeting Lara again. I was frequently reminded of Amelie even before I heard a piece of music in fact from the Amelie soundtrack and I later learned Yann Tiersen provided music for both films. I suspect the same music being in both films is why the Wikipedia entry is careful to note that Good Bye, Lenin! was "produced in 2001 and released in 2003."

Although I felt like the plot could have found better ways to explore the same ground, I did find the references to old East German products and culture fascinating.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Life in a Zero World

Re: Zero: Starting Life in Another World is like a long dream someone would have after staying up and playing Final Fantasy XIV and watching Neon Genesis Evangelion. Its plot is extraordinarily scattered and disconnected, filled with false starts, plot holes, and bizarrely extreme shifts in character. It lacks sufficient character building to support nearly everything that happens in the story between the characters. Yet I hesitate to call it a bad show. I guess I didn't like it but I didn't feel the way I normally do when I don't like a television show or movie. Normally a bad movie really annoys me, I don't like wasting my time. The implications behind the choices Re:Zero makes and the fact that it is very popular suggest fascinating things about the evolving nature of anime and its audience. The feeling I primarily had watching the show was pity.

I saw a YouTube comment for a new anime, I don't remember which anime, where someone pointed out it was similar to Neon Genesis Evangelion in some way. Someone replied to the comment by derisively referring to the person as an "anime master". And I suppose young anime fans must get sick of us older ones saying, "That's just like Evangelion". But the fact is, Evangelion's influence on anime remains profound, it almost seems like a religious obligation for a series to make some kind of nod to Evangelion at some point. Many young fans mistake it for a criticism to say one show or movie borrows something from an older one but this is simply how it's always been done. Artists always stand on the shoulders of the previous generation, are always creating art that reinterprets and digests the same themes and ideas from the artwork that inspired them to become artists in the first place. The creators of Re:Zero are not shy about acknowledging it--there are several conspicuous references to Evangelion, including a scene where Subaru, the male protagonist, wakes up in a strange bed and comments on the "unfamiliar ceiling" above him, a line directly from Evangelion.

Subaru wakes several times in this bed, it being his "save point" for his "return by death", this show's version of the Groundhog Day effect. When Subaru is killed, he wakes up at an earlier point in time and has a chance to do things differently. I mentioned in my last post about the show how much this effectively captured the experience of playing video games, the fact that Subaru's "save point" gradually moves up in time after completing tasks (and the fact that he calls it a save point) makes the video game inspiration even more clear.

At one point he wakes up and, just like Shinji in Evangelion, he finds Rei there waiting for him. Only in this series there are twin Reis with the similar names Rem and Ram. One has blue hair, like Rei, and one has pink hair. Of the harem of beautiful girls who inexplicably fall in love with Subaru, Rem has for some reason become the most popular which perhaps explains why the show comes to focus on her a great deal.

Like Rei, Rem initially seems emotionless and doll-like. Unlike Rei, she tries to kill the male protagonist at one point (though Rei could be pretty threatening, too). After this she becomes gratuitously infatuated with Subaru.

At least two female characters end up being thoroughly devoted to Subaru. Why? Who is Subaru? It's remarkable how little we learn about him. Unlike Shinji, we learn nothing about his parents, we don't know his relationship with them, we don't know if Subaru has or has had a job, how he's done in school, where he's lived before being transported to this world, whether he had an apartment or lived with his parents or someone else. At one point he reflects back to his life before coming to the other world and the show, absurdly, can only flash back to the first couple scenes when he's in a convenience store.

He expresses a lot of hatred for his own laziness and inability to measure up as a man, like Shinji, though in Subaru's case this isn't really supported by the events. Throughout the show, he always tries really hard to save the girl or kill the whale or do whatever it is he needs to do. He eventually fights some kind of priest wizards who refer to themselves by the names of sins, most notably one who is apparently Subaru's nemesis, Sloth. So maybe the idea is that Subaru's personality traits are externalised and the fights he engages in with them are a metaphor for an internal struggle. Thematically, this has the effect of rendering the struggle meaningless, and yet I can see how a young man who's continually told he's lazy might interpret the fight in this way if he doesn't understand how he's lazy. If he's unable to face his addiction to MMORPGs, for example, then he can only interpret a battle with sloth as something vague and impersonal.

One of the plot threads left dangling at the end of the series is the question as to why Subaru was given his return by death ability--we learn a powerful witch gave it to him but we never learn why or, for that matter, why he was transported to the world in the first place. He's not able to tell anyone about his return by death--when he does, ghostly hands grab his heart and threaten his life. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray's character is able to tell people that he's repeating the same day over and over but of course no-one believes him, so the story can maintain his emotional isolation. In the world of Re:Zero, where magic exists, if Subaru could tell Emilia or Rem about his return by death, there's a fair chance he'd be believed, thereby alleviating some of his isolation. The makers of Re:Zero felt it was important to maintain this isolation and it becomes easy to see why this would lead to a story that resonates with an otaku.

At one point, Subaru is slobbering and crying about how much Rem means to him and she has no idea what he's talking about, why he'd have this emotional attachment to her. It's because he's experiences several traumatic days with her which she can't remember. This is a nice mirror for the otaku who is obsessed with a particular anime character or idol. All the feelings are one sided--she means the world to him but she, at best, barely knows him. In most cases, she's not even aware of the same reality which he inhabits.

Sadomasochism is becoming increasingly prevalent in mainstream anime. Prison School is about as unabashed as it gets, featuring a high school where masochist boys are disciplined by a beautiful dominatrix faculty. Re:Zero is filled with scenes of Subaru being beaten by women, generally women he's attracted to. One woman even asks him to lick her foot and, when he tries to, she kicks him and insults him. The first time he's beaten by a male character, it's part of a humiliation in the eyes of Emilia who punishes him for trying to serve his own pride under the guise of helping her. This is part of a plot where several female candidates, including Emilia, are vying for a position as queen of the realm, a plot that's never resolved.

One of the other candidates, Crusch, helps Subaru at one point because he leads her to Moby Dick--called "the White Whale"--another new plot that comes out of nowhere but, unlike most of the others, is actually resolved, at which point Crusch inexplicably vanishes from the story though all her servants follow Subaru to Emilia's territory. They had agreed to fight the wizards threatening the area in exchange for Subaru showing them the location of the whale. One of their primary tasks is to evacuate the village, which is about an eighth the size of the mansion where Emilia lives.

When Subaru firsts wakes up at the mansion, he wants to be repaid for helping them in the first story arc by being given a job as a butler, which made me think the show was making a reference to Hayate no Gotoku. A parody series about a young man who becomes a "combat butler" for a pretty girl, the show is largely set in the girl's mansion which is ridiculously large, something that's obviously played for laughs when an exterior shot reveals it occupies a significant portion of Tokyo. The mansion where Emilia lives is about the same size but it's played straight. What is an unwalled, opulent manor doing in the middle of a mediaeval world, apparently presiding over a small village where everyone seems to be cool with living in comparatively meagre conditions? Well, the show isn't exactly strong on world building, much like it's not strong on character building. The interesting thing is how readily audiences accept this.

The mansion doesn't need an explanation because people have already seen mansions like it explained in other anime. Subaru doesn't need character development because other similar characters have already been developed in other anime. All this leads to a hazy, dreamlike show where girls sexually punish Subaru and then have expressive, rapturous, inexplicable affection. One episode has Rem really laying it on thick, talking about how much she adores Subaru, how much she admires him. She mentions again and again how amazing she thinks he is. Why does she feel this way? Because it's what the lonely, self-hating viewer needs her to feel and because we know so little about Subaru he's effectively as blank as a video game character, a cursor for the viewer to use as a proxy.

The final episode of the series is called "That's All This Story is About", which sounded to me like another way of saying, "We meant to do that." Given the abundance of meandering storylines and pointless threads, I'm not so sure about that. But the careful stroking of ego certainly seems quite intentional. In the end, there's a sad irony in its emulation of Evangelion. End of Evangelion in particular criticised the otaku who demands childlike, simple-minded beautiful women who only seem capable of adoration. Maybe Hideaki Anno didn't foresee how anime would turn this criticism into a ritualised masochism that the protagonist must pass in levels before achieving those same love dolls anyway.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

For the Love of a Beetle

Lately I've been reading Richard Marsh's 1897 novel The Beetle and, rather appropriately, I caught these two Junebugs this morning having sex. I heard a loud buzzing after I'd stepped outside and saw these two outside my sister and brother-in-law's apartment, which is down the hall from mine.

As I was taking pictures, a third Junebug showed up, here flying directly between my camera and my subjects:

The pervert hung around to watch. Well, at least he wasn't taking pictures.

From the novel:

Slowly the eyes came on, with a strange slowness, and as they came they moved from side to side as if their owner walked unevenly. Nothing could have exceeded the horror with which I awaited their approach,—except my incapacity to escape them. Not for an instant did my glance pass from them,—I could not have shut my eyes for all the gold the world contains!—so that as they came closer I had to look right down to what seemed to be almost the level of my feet. And, at last, they reached my feet. They never paused. On a sudden I felt something on my boot, and, with a sense of shrinking, horror, nausea, rendering me momentarily more helpless, I realised that the creature was beginning to ascend my legs, to climb my body. Even then what it was I could not tell,—it mounted me, apparently, with as much ease as if I had been horizontal instead of perpendicular. It was as though it were some gigantic spider,—a spider of the nightmares; a monstrous conception of some dreadful vision. It pressed lightly against my clothing with what might, for all the world, have been spider's legs. There was an amazing host of them,—I felt the pressure of each separate one. They embraced me softly, stickily, as if the creature glued and unglued them, each time it moved.

Higher and higher! It had gained my loins. It was moving towards the pit of my stomach. The helplessness with which I suffered its invasion was not the least part of my agony,—it was that helplessness which we know in dreadful dreams. I understood, quite well, that if I did but give myself a hearty shake, the creature would fall off; but I had not a muscle at my command.

As the creature mounted its eyes began to play the part of two small lamps; they positively emitted rays of light. By their rays I began to perceive faint outlines of its body. It seemed larger than I had supposed. Either the body itself was slightly phosphorescent, or it was of a peculiar yellow hue. It gleamed in the darkness. What it was there was still nothing to positively show, but the impression grew upon me that it was some member of the spider family, some monstrous member, of the like of which I had never heard or read. It was heavy, so heavy indeed, that I wondered how, with so slight a pressure, it managed to retain its hold,—that it did so by the aid of some adhesive substance at the end of its legs I was sure,—I could feel it stick. Its weight increased as it ascended,—and it smelt! I had been for some time aware that it emitted an unpleasant, foetid odour; as it neared my face it became so intense as to be unbearable.

It was at my chest. I became more and more conscious of an uncomfortable wobbling motion, as if each time it breathed its body heaved. Its forelegs touched the bare skin about the base of my neck; they stuck to it,—shall I ever forget the feeling? I have it often in my dreams. While it hung on with those in front it seemed to draw its other legs up after it. It crawled up my neck, with hideous slowness, a quarter of an inch at a time, its weight compelling me to brace the muscles of my back. It reached my chin, it touched my lips,—and I stood still and bore it all, while it enveloped my face with its huge, slimy, evil-smelling body, and embraced me with its myriad legs. The horror of it made me mad. I shook myself like one stricken by the shaking ague. I shook the creature off. It squashed upon the floor. Shrieking like some lost spirit, turning, I dashed towards the window. As I went, my foot, catching in some obstacle, I fell headlong to the floor.

And did I mention the novel's set in June?

Published at the same time as Bram Stoker published Dracula, there are a remarkable number of similarities between the works--a villain who's foreign and sexual, the story is told in first person by several characters, and an expert comes in later in the novel as a saviour. Both books have unmistakable sexually transgressive qualities, the foreign menace leading its ordinary English citizens into strange lusts and pleasures, indulgences vaguely associated with the East in the Victorian imagination.

In a young scientist named Sydney Atherton, one of the heroes and narrators, the book seems to have a descendent of Dr. Frankenstein in his monstrous attempts to control and dominate nature in the name of progress. In one fascinating scene, he wields electricity in his laboratory to intimidate the villain who is awed by his control of the elements. The villain, referred to at this point as "the Arab", is a fascinating piece of gender exploration--people have trouble deciding if the Arab is a man or a woman and may in fact be both.

The subtext of this novel seems so obvious that it almost doesn't feel worthwhile interpreting it. And yet it must have been something its readers generally didn't pick up on consciously.

Another of the principle characters is a politician who is desperately trying to hide a past that involves the Arab in some way. It's very difficult not to read it as a homosexual affair that obviously would have been detrimental to his career.

I'm enjoying the book. The similarities to Dracula lead me to contemplate which I like better--I would say Dracula for its atmosphere and greater depth of detail for its villain. But The Beetle is quite good.

Twitter Sonnet #914

The horse retained the crop to sing at speed.
The clouds appear as spears against the sky.
The rain obscures the tracks of cohort steed.
In fossil bark rebounds the silent cry.
Compassion slides with lurking depths of salt.
Compiled tanks of air ascend to God.
A hairline traced the hopeless walking vault.
Discovered slips permit the feet unshod.
Dissolved in cleaning products ice relaxed.
Predictions dropped before the hat could fall.
A halibut abused the bottle tax.
In wooden ships the rings can tell it all.
A diet dwells in factories too big.
The growing head distorts the humble wig.