Friday, May 31, 2019

Splitting Together

The crew of Moya contemplate leaving the ship in an episode of Farscape that sees the ensemble ultimately in a more solidified family unit. But the ship herself has to break into four parts in order to reach that point.

Season 1, Episode 17: Through the Looking Glass

It seems like every space opera series must make some kind of reference to the second of Lewis Carroll's Alice books at some point. Although this episode involves alternate dimensions, it has little to do with Through the Looking Glass except for one amusing line where Crichton (Ben Browder) combines the title with a famous line from Henry V--"Once more through the looking glass!"

Three alternate Moyas branch off from the main one after an accident in Starburst--Farscape's version of warp speed. There's a dimension for every primary colour--red, blue, and yellow--and crewmembers are stranded in different ones. And each one has different physical effects--the red one is bathed in a light that causes a nausea inducing headache, the blue one is filled with a deafening noise, and the yellow one causes people to laugh uncontrollably. This is where Rygel (Jonathan Hardy) is stranded and one of the more amusing parts of the episode has Crichton struggling to suppress his laughter at jokes the Dominar is normally not disposed to tell.

This is the first episode to integrate Chiana (Gigi Edgley) in the group since she essentially sat out "A Human Reaction". Though a running gag involves her asking, "Can I say something?" and multiple characters shouting, "No!" in unison. She's treated as a slightly bratty child, which is probably why she becomes natural allies with Rygel, their bond showing its first sign here when they both end up in the laughing dimension.

The red dimension had for some reason no effect on Chiana but in a nice bit of credible contradiction she refuses to be left alone there. This after she'd been more ready than anyone else to abandon ship once it looked like Moya's pregnancy was going to prevent the ship from Starbursting. It was the ship's anxiety at being abandoned that caused the situation in the first place and there are some nice moments in the episode where crewmembers console Pilot (Lani Tupu).

It's almost like Rebel Without a Cause when James Dean and his friends try to make a strange new form of family in the absence of a traditional one. Moya has become a mother to all of them--Pilot may be the father or a sort of priest of this biomechanical god, interpreting her will. It's a strange and effective dynamic that plays off the fundamental appeal of a ship in a sci-fi series whether it be the Millennium Falcon, the Enterprise, or Serenity, this kind of ship astutely parodied in Spaceballs as a mobile home. It's the strange, new form of family and home for the characters, and the viewer, that attempts to fill a void. Appropriately, the episode is bookended by two delightful communal meals where everyone samples everyone else's cooking.

. . .

This entry is part of a series I'm writing on Farscape for the show's 20th anniversary. My previous reviews can be found here (episodes are in the order intended by the show's creators rather than the broadcast order):

Episode 1: Pilot
Episode 2: I, E.T.
Episode 3: Exodus from Genesis
Episode 4: Throne for a Loss
Episode 5: Back and Back and Back to the Future
Episode 6: Thank God It's Friday Again
Episode 7: PK Tech Girl
Episode 8: That Old Black Magic
Episode 9: DNA Mad Scientist
Episode 10: They've Got a Secret
Episode 11: Till the Blood Runs Clear
Episode 12: Rhapsody in Blue
Episode 13: The Flax
Episode 14: Jeremiah Crichton
Episode 15: Durka Returns
Episode 16: A Human Reaction

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Your Terribly Friendly Vampire Neighbourhood

Living among vampires for any extended period must be disorientating. This is why it may only be partially accurate to call 1970's Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů) a surrealist film. Sure, a lot seems to be taking place on this girl's journey to sexual awakening that makes no literal sense. But it's all pieces of sense, as they might be rearranged by bored immortals. In any case, it's always fascinating and intensely beautiful.

Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerova) is the only inhabitant of a 19th century town who I'm pretty sure is not a vampire but nothing is perfectly clear or stable in this movie. This works out to be exhilarating for anyone used to interpreting symbolism who's willing to go along for a wild ride outside their comfort zone. There are plenty of symbols with meanings that seem clear to me--I like how Valerie is associated with green apples. As though to represent original sin but unripened due to her youth.

But there's always the appearance of teeth or white face paint to, in typical New Wave style given an in-story explanation, remind you that this is a show. When a priest (Jan Klusak) attempts to molest Valerie, the conventional critic will say, "Ah, an indictment of the church's sexual hypocrisy." But this "priest" has a strangely pale face. Is he in any sense really a priest? Is the priest molesting the girl just another game for the vampires, another arrangement of the musical chairs of superficial morality to provide some spice to sexual sport?

Somehow, amidst all these sinister shufflings of meaning, all these teasing exploitations of human culture and tradition, Valerie has to experience a perfectly innocent puberty. She doesn't seem all that frightened and only sometimes confused. Of course, a child might be amenable to all these games. And what's it to her if her father is a bishop who's also a polecat and a demon who's, like everyone else, trying to molest her and/or steal her earrings?

The movie would work well as a series of stills--every shot is so exquisitely composed, it's a consistent delight to behold. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is available on The Criterion Channel.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Some Cities Swallow Stories Whole

Venice sure is beautiful. And that's primarily what makes 1955's Summertime such a joy to watch. You couldn't ask for a better star than Katharine Hepburn and the concept of an older woman falling in love for the first time is certainly an extraordinary premise for the '50s but it's saddled with too much softball comedy business to be really great. Still, its Technicolor photography and director David Lean's persistent use of real locations make it a beautiful document of the famous city from over sixty years ago.

Even many scenes that would've been shot in studio as a matter of course, like dialogue scenes on a ferry or a balcony, are location shots. The depth of detail on Hepburn's hotel patio is breathtaking, and it's just a tame dialogue scene about being tourists.

Even interiors are often location shots, like this second encounter Hepburn has with her love interest played by Rossano Brazzi.

This shot is brilliantly lit. Technicolor cameras weren't very sensitive to light which made for notoriously hot sets as a result of the piles of extra sources of illumination required. This shot has low enough exposure you can still see details in the bright sunny day outside but you can also see both actors' faces inside the shop. And looks perfectly natural.

Hepburn is great, of course, as Jane Hudson, with her inimitable combination of vulnerability and strength she's absolutely perfect for this role. Brazzi's character, unfortunately, lacks any kind of depth and his performance is intensely bland. At the beginning of the film, Hepburn has a meet-cute on the train into Venice with an uncredited Andre Morell, my favourite Quatermass. How much better the film would've been had her romance been with him instead.

There are some lame, Hollywood-ish contrivances, like when Hepburn accidentally falls into a canal while trying to take a picture, a pointless piece of slapstick that apparently made the actress seriously ill. Those seeking a more thoughtful rumination on relationships shot on location in a beautiful Italian city would be better off with Journey to Italy from the previous year--or any number of Italian Neorealist and New Wave films, really. But Summertime has the distinction of being in beautiful colour. It's great to watch in HD and it's available in HD on The Criterion Channel.

Twitter Sonnet #1240

Repeated codes enliven phones for weeks.
Strategic flowers boost the grace of spring.
The winding cloth reveals but healthy peaks.
Each night reminds nocturnal birds to sing.
Continued texts delay the moon and bed.
A picture placed between the eyes still knows.
The printed word was coloured close to red.
But healthy spines were laced with silken bows.
A steady tree preserved the quiet pool.
In ev'ry second, ripples beat the bank.
The hours bring a day that's dark and cool.
To weekly rest the chains in sequence sank.
A mind reports the cake was frosted last.
But tongues report the cup is not surpassed.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

What's a Human?

Farscape is normally a show about things very far away from Earth--but then John Crichton finds himself shot back through a wormhole to his home planet in an episode that will have ramifications for the rest of the series.

Season 1, Episode 16: A Human Reaction

I suspect it wasn't always meant to be so important to the series' overall story. The key point, the knowledge of wormhole technology being inserted into Crichton's (Ben Browder) brain, isn't even seen in the episode itself but introduced in flashback later on. Instead, "A Human Reaction" feels more like a one-off, "What If?" style story, the first episode to ponder what would happen if Crichton ever did make it home and brought his new alien baggage with him.

He finds almost immediately that he's become an alien. Landing conveniently in Australia, a handy location for a show's production that's based in Australia, Crichton's taken into custody by the Australian government and the sinister Wilson (Philip Gordon). Only Crichton's father, Jack (Kent McCord), seems ready to believe his son is who he says he is.

Really, it's all a little too fast for plausibility. It seems like there would be more people just as bewildered as Crichton is by the extreme suspicion he's met with--locked in a cell and interrogated. Jack tells Crichton the wormhole he disappeared through is still open near Earth, indicating the potential for any alien craft to come through, and everyone's scared. I wanted to know how they figured out it was a wormhole and whether or not anyone considered sending a craft or probe through it in attempt to rescue Crichton. This episode seems like it might have played better as a two or three part episode. Some of the problems I had with it, though, seem like they were on the writers' minds when they wrote future episodes that took place on Earth.

What I really like about "A Human Reaction" is the end where Crichton figures out not all is what it seems to be. Especially since it begins with an inversion of the show's premise of misfits far from home--"A Human Reaction" finds Crichton is an alien among his own people now. But the episode concludes with him realising that every face he encounters is much too familiar.

I think this is the first episode where Crichton and Aeryn (Claudia Black) have sex though it's not entirely clear. In any case, Claudia Black is good in the episode--Aeryn is obviously very vulnerable in this situation, and we see that, but her resolve is believable. She never breaks down even when her friends are being dissected and she's forced to go on the run. There's a cute moment where she discovers this strange Earth phenomenon called "rain". You'd think she'd have encountered precipitation on other worlds, though. Too much time spent in the Prowler, I guess. I really like the dress she wears in the episode.

. . .

This entry is part of a series I'm writing on Farscape for the show's 20th anniversary. My previous reviews can be found here (episodes are in the order intended by the show's creators rather than the broadcast order):

Episode 1: Pilot
Episode 2: I, E.T.
Episode 3: Exodus from Genesis
Episode 4: Throne for a Loss
Episode 5: Back and Back and Back to the Future
Episode 6: Thank God It's Friday Again
Episode 7: PK Tech Girl
Episode 8: That Old Black Magic
Episode 9: DNA Mad Scientist
Episode 10: They've Got a Secret
Episode 11: Till the Blood Runs Clear
Episode 12: Rhapsody in Blue
Episode 13: The Flax
Episode 14: Jeremiah Crichton
Episode 15: Durka Returns

Monday, May 27, 2019

What's Film Noir?

I don't expect profundity from comments sections of online articles but I like to read them sometimes as a gauge of how people are thinking, or how compulsive internet denizens are thinking, at any rate. One thing I'd started seeing crop up repeatedly on articles about film noir in general or specific films noir is the unsolicited proclamation that noir is a genre that's all about misogyny. Usually beginning with something like "It's important to remember" these altruistic informers' comments maybe aren't so extraordinary in a time when the internet is densely populated with wouldbe citizen hero lecturers. But something about the recurrence of this particular comment made me wonder about its genesis. Partly it's because I'm a fan of film noir and hate to see an attempt to reduce it to one dismally simplistic and negative perspective, partly it's because I'm curious about how certain opinions regarded as information spread on the internet.

I've frequently observed the panic of a young person when discussing art, literature, or film when they realise I've gotten them into the kind of conversation they usually have on the internet where they can substitute hastily googled definitions and perspectives as their own knowledge or opinion. So I wondered what was the source of this particular little grassroots crusade. Was this a case where I could actually ferret out the first link in the chain of bullshit?

It's not the Wikipedia entry which seems fine, for the most part, offering a decent discussion of the term's first appearance and propagation, the films widely considered best representative of film noir, and a discussion of the debate over the term's definition and whether it can even be classified as a genre. The Wikipedia entry for Nino Frank, the French critic generally credited with introducing the term in a 1946 article, is a little fishier. Mention is made of Frank's discussion of "the American proclivity for 'criminal psychology and misogyny'" but the cited source for this is not Frank's actual article but a poorly written student paper only in part about Frank's article and the reference to Frank's discussion of misogyny is paraphrased. But Frank's original 1946 article, which you can read here, does discuss misogyny in the genre. But despite introducing the term, Frank's article doesn't do much to comment on the essential nature of film noir aside from praising an apparent emerging trend in American film away from plot driven narratives and towards a focus on character psychology. Frank's insight is certainly imperfect as, in the same article, he foresees the end of John Ford's career--years before Ford directed the films widely considered his greatest.

But I think I finally found the source I was looking for when I did a video search for "film noir". The first video to come up on google is this one by Jack's Movie Reviews:

Published in 2016 it has just over 100,000 views. Despite the commentator, presumably Jack, stating that the video is not his attempt to join the debate over what constitutes film noir but only to get "his thoughts out there", the video is presented in an authoritative tone and seems professionally edited. In an effort to make my own tiny contribution in the fight against misinformation, I'll go over the points Jack gets wrong about film noir in order.

1: "This is the most important part of film noir; the protagonist losing control of the situation, being forced down a road of moral ambiguity, before his eventual downfall . . . in the end, due to circumstances out of the protagonist's hand, they're in a worse place than when the film began."

This isn't the most important part of film noir, it's evidence that Jack fundamentally fails to grasp an element essential to noir that links it to the historical period in which it emerged--namely, existentialism. The horrific acts committed in World War II like Nazis massacring Jews or the use of atomic bombs by the U.S. were defended with arguments indicating an absence of choice--just "following orders" or deploying a display of terrible force to prevent future resistance and thus future conflict. Underlying these justifications is the idea that there is no choice. But according to existentialist thought, human beings always have free will, always have choices, and this is a terrible burden; life would seem to be easier if we bore no responsibility for the things we do or the things that happen to us. But knowing what choices to make, knowing what aspects of our own personalities lead us to fault, are not always clear. The torment lies in the ambiguity, of not knowing for sure how much control we had over any given situation, how much of our decisions were based on the motives we've sold to ourselves. Film noir plays this out. So, to take Jack's example of Sunset Boulevard, it's not a story about how William Holden's character has no choice. As far as his character is concerned, the movie's about his attempt to define his life in retrospect as a series of bad situations he was forced into, to absolve himself of responsibility. And at each point, he's right, from a certain perspective. He's a screenwriter whose career isn't going well and he blames his agent, whom Holden angrily confronts on a golf course. But how much of this is due to Holden's genuine cause for anger or due to his resenting his agent's apparently comfortable lifestyle isn't clear. Similarly, the rejection of one of his scripts is by no means the clear indicator that his career is going nowhere that he seems to think it is. As the film progresses and he accepts a commission, along with living quarters, from Gloria Swanson's character, the amount of responsibility he bears for staying with her in order to advance his own ambitions as opposed to her intentional manipulation of his psychological weaknesses is unclear. Film noir isn't about the difference between freedom and confinement, it's about a certain painful ambiguity between the two.

2: "Above all what causes the fall of the protagonist is generally a woman."

It's easy to demonstrate this is not true. There are plenty of films noir where women are benign influences, victims, or are themselves the protagonist whose downfall is caused by a man. Jack chooses a particularly absurd example to illustrate his point, Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, identifying Alex Sebastian's mother as an example. Jack himself admits there are several wrinkles in this example in that the femme fatale is manipulating both Ingrid Bergman's character and her own son, a Nazi, played by Claude Rains. Certainly it couldn't be argued that Mrs. Sebastian ever seduces Alicia, as Jack claims is an essential aspect of the femme fatale. His point might have been better illustrated with Jane Greer's character in Out of the Past but even then there are the fundamental ambiguities that make noir interesting. In any case, the idea that mostly the protagonist is led to downfall by a woman is unambiguously false in many classic films noir like The Live by Night, The Big Sleep, Laura (unless you regard the film's villain as a protagonist), Touch of Evil, Night and the City, The Asphalt Jungle, or Black Angel.

3: "Another defining feature of film noir is reflecting the time and place where the film was created."

This is just silly. In any genre or artform you'll find artists influenced by the time and their place of residence.

Anyway, I hope this entry is helpful. At the very least, maybe next time someone googles to find someone else's opinion to present as their own they'll appropriate mine instead of Jack's. Just send me 90% of any proceeds.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Eggs for Soufflé

After writing a couple weeks ago how I didn't like the 2011 Doctor Who Christmas special, it seemed worth saying I really like the episode that followed it, "Asylum of the Daleks", also written by Steven Moffat. After the show had been running out of steam for a long time with the Eleventh Doctor's first season companions, Amy and Rory, being introduced to the next companion, sort of, earlier than expected was a pleasant surprise delivered with very welcome and lively energy. And it manages to be pretty creepy and bittersweet, too.

We find the Ponds in their domestic life away from the Doctor (Matt Smith) are on the verge of divorce. Amy (Karen Gillan) now works as a fashion model. Not a very high end one judging from the ridiculous photo shoot she's taking part in at the beginning of the episode.

Likely it's supposed to look ridiculous, a reflection of her shallow, fast paced life away from Rory (Arthur Darvill). But, jeez, that makeup doesn't suit her. In the latter half of her run, Amy wears so many bad outfits and her makeup so frequently looks odd that sometimes I wonder if people on the show said to themselves, "Karen Gillan's so beautiful, we couldn't make her look bad if we tried!" and decided to test that theory.

Meanwhile, the Doctor has a meeting with a strange woman (Anamaria Marinca) in a ruined building on Skaro, the Dalek homeworld, which still hasn't gotten the renovations we see at the beginning of the Twelfth Doctor's second season. Presumably the devastation is a result of the Seventh Doctor's trick in Remembrance of the Daleks, causing Davros to destroy Skaro on accident. The damage looked much worse than what we see in "Asylum of the Daleks", I must say.

It's kind of funny how often times when the Daleks show up they seem to have a complete different system of hierarchy than the last time we saw them. Now the Doctor, captured by the woman who turns out to be a Dalek secret agent, finds himself, with Amy and Rory, in the middle of the "Dalek Parliament".

Which I don't think we ever see again. I've love to see the meeting of Daleks where one of them suggested, "I don't know, why don't we try having a parliament for a while?"

And, of course, the other new idea is the Asylum of the Daleks, a planet where the Daleks too crazy to submit to conditioning are stowed. Only all is not well--there's a girl named Oswin (Jenna Coleman) on the planet, hacking the systems and making soufflés.

What a great introduction. There's a really intriguing mystery; right from the beginning you suspect something isn't quite right about the rosy picture of the chipper girl keeping a humble home on one of the galaxy's creepiest planets. And it's built up to with a series of sensory deceptions—like the man (David Gyasi) who helps the Doctor and Amy when they arrive on the planet who turns out to be a Dalek zombie--and the revelation that Amy and the Doctor have misinterpreted his nature is revealed by his misapprehension of his crewmates, culminating in the subtly menacing line, "I'd forgotten about dying."

So much of Oswin/Clara's story throughout her run on the series involves conscious control of her own life being imperceptibly corrupted or stolen. It's an effective piece of tension that plays off an endlessly compelling question; is there a way to defeat death? That's where her loss of control inevitably leads, both in this episode and in her later ones; physical or mental death. And this is why her story holds up so well; the fundamental unjustness of what happens to her demands some kind of recompense but that wish-fulfilment always comes with dread, the knowledge at the back of the mind that it could be too good to be true.

Twitter Sonnet #1239

An ancient shine returns to shape the cheek.
To-morrow leaves beyond the glass will reach.
A sleepless eye through paper trees'll peek.
The apple fell enticing near the peach.
A quiet trip became a sinking street.
In time a boat conveys the glass to rooms.
In any colour games became defeat.
So Wonka made a bag of candy dooms.
Potato elves expand in salted bags.
A promised time delivered beans to seize.
In counting seeds the fields are sewn with rags.
The linking arms of stamen beckon bees.
A marble taps appointed bells to fight.
But flowers bloom between the cracks of light.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Old Songs Offer Another Glimpse Over the Treetops

We've reached a time when songs that were once innocuous or liberal now express views many would consider dangerous or far right. This is the argument quietly made by Morrissey's new cover album, California Son, released yesterday to much frothing of mouths and gnashing of teeth by some of the most virulent Morrissey haters. Reading the reviews for the album has been more fascinating, though, for the ones that describe being perplexed by Morrissey's choices that seem self-evidently incongruous. This gave me hope. This, more than anything, confirms that Morrissey has achieved his goal; he's forced people to think.

Even many of the out and out negative reviews praise Morrissey's voice and he does sound fantastic, matching Roy Orbison pitch-for-pitch in a cover of "It's Over". Predictably, the The Guardian's short and snippy review denies the album is good even on a technical level. How can anyone really say Morrissey's crazy to think there are journalists with a grudge against him?

But over and over, from positive to mixed to negative, critics express confusion. What can it mean that the man who supports For Britain would cover Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan? "Morrissey’s Covers LP ‘California Son’ Shows Off His Golden Voice, Perplexing Politics" is the title of the Rolling Stone review. The Guardian reviewer says, "Quite why Morrissey has decided to record an album of protest-adjacent covers at this point in his career is unclear," despite chiding the singer for having a predilection for trolling.

Then there's the conflicted review at A.V. Club which can't understand why this purportedly right winged monster would so beautifully cover Bob Dylan's "Only a Pawn in their Game", the most brilliant choice on the album in terms of making a political statement. Anyone who denies the relevance of the song's lyrics to to-day's political arena is in a deep ideological trance.

A South politician preaches to the poor white man
"You got more than the blacks, don't complain
You're better than them, you been born with white skin, " they explain
And the Negro's name
Is used, it is plain
For the politician's gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game

In these verses you can see shades of the right wing exploitation of poor whites in both the U.S. and Britain and you can see the left wing exploitation of identity politics. It's an extremely timely song, fitting in with a recurrent theme on the album, like in his cover of "Suffer the Little Children" by Buffie St. Marie, of socially systemic indoctrination.

The Bob Dylan song is about the assassination of the black civil rights activist Medgar Evers' by a racist white man. The Rolling Stone review even takes a swipe at Dylan's original, suggesting it "absolves the killer's racism". There's another point of view on how this song would make sense for Morrissey, though. For his views on halal animal killing and his support of For Britain he's been called anti-Islam despite his flat out denial of this and the fact that he's written songs like "I Will See You in Far Out Places" and "Asian Rut". Despite being closely associated with his home town of Manchester throughout his career, no-one seems to take into account how the 2017 suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester may have influenced his point of view. If you adapt the lyrics for the perspective of that assassin you can see that there are other ideologies that compel their human pawns to horrific acts. Which again fits with the album's theme of people misled by poorly reasoned philosophies but the point is that these killers are as human as anyone else. And if it was recorded by Morrissey with the Manchester killer in mind it's no more a criticism of Islam as a whole than the Dylan song was a criticism of Christianity or southern U.S. culture. Any listener who automatically draws the conclusion that it is reveals his or her own lazy thought processes.

And the album justifies the praise for its technical brilliance. Morrissey's voice is in top form.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Alien Pencil Dreams

An uneasy relationship exists between humanity and a race of blue giants in 1973's La Planète sauvage ("The Wild Planet", released in English as Fantastic Planet). A beautiful distillation of a 1970s dreamscape, its depiction of giant web structures and buildings and creatures with gracefully curved insect parts is rendered in a beautiful pencil sketch style. Every frame looks like a Maurice Sendak illustration.

The story wisely avoids being an allegory for any specific event in human history. The relationship between the gigantic Draags and the tiny humans, or Oms, they treat as animals resembles various instances of oppression throughout human history but the film is best when it's absolutely fantastic.

We meet the protagonist, Terr (Eric Baugin and Jean Valmot), as an infant whose mother is killed by Draag children. He's taken and kept as a pet by a kinder Draag, a teenage girl named Tiwa (Jennifer Drake). We start to learn a little about the Draags--the adults' obsession with meditation, their peculiar telepathic intercourses, and their strange conception of time.

When Terr escapes to live with a community of Om, he finds essentially a stone age culture. But the strangeness of what advanced culture means in this film, the culture of the Draags, might give some perspective as to how Roman culture may have seemed to the people they conquered. In this, the film isn't simply an attack on a strawman oppressor culture. Instead, the curious beauty of Draag practices compel the viewer to contemplate the particular beauty of a culture where aesthetic and philosophical ideas have become complex and weird. Not unlike the film itself.

I love the attention given to the wilderness, the strange plants or animals that appear briefly or only in the background, often having no meaningful interaction with the characters. There's a creature whose nose resembles tree branches that trick flying animals to alight on them--only so the animal can smash them into the ground. He makes no apparent attempt to eat the flying creatures but only laughs at them mockingly, as though this animal has evolved to sustain itself on sadism.

There's something amazing to see in every second of this film. La Planète sauvage is available on The Criterion Channel.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Inconsistent Voices

A young woman accidentally hears the voice of a killer over the phone. She tells the police but they never catch the man and she's left to live her life knowing a killer is on the loose, whose face she doesn't know, who might consider her a threat. This is a perfectly good setup for a suspense film but it's a concept that only fuels the first half of 1958's Voice without a Shadow (影なき声). One of Seijun Suzuki's earlier films, it has the kind of fast pace that suggests rapid changes during a quick production. This leads to a feeling of rootlessness and fractured point of view but Suzuki's persistent inventiveness is more than enough to captivate the viewer.

The film begins with Asako (Yoko Minamida) working as a telephone operator for a newspaper. When attempting to call a university professor she accidentally dials the number of a pawn shop where the phone is answered by one of the yakuza knocking the place over. The voice jokingly tells her that she hasn't reached a university but a crematory.

A lot is said about Asako's sensitive hearing, her job has conditioned her to distinctly recognise at least 300 voices. Time passes and she gets married to Kotani (Toshio Takahara) and we find her tormented by the sounds of Mahjong tiles because her husband starts bringing guys home from work every single night to play. Among the guys who come home with Kotani is a very young Joe Shishido, the actor with the peculiar cheek implants who'd become one of Nikkatsu's most recognisable stars.

He seems to pay an inordinate amount of attention to Asako, almost leering at her. Suzuki places us in Asako's point of view with close-ups of her ear and shots of her listening carefully on the other side of the wall while the men play. And of course there's the sound of those tiles played up on the soundtrack. The film also features a few hallucinations--in one scene, Asako seems to run into Shishido's character in every room, sitting cool and calm, playing with a cigarette lighter. Typical of Suzuki, particularly much later on, he wastes no time having anyone explain that these are hallucinations or dreams, he simply shows them as being physically impossible. This helps bring the viewer in to Asako's disorientation.

And then the film takes a sharp left turn and it becomes a different film entirely. The protagonist is Ishikawa (Hideaki Nitani) who worked for the newspaper where Asako was a phone operator. He's been in love with her since before she was married. Now her husband has been implicated in a murder and he has to unravel the truth. We meet the yakuza among whom, surprisingly, is a woman, Mari (Midori Ishizuka) a model as well as a gangster. We're introduced to her fantastic bare legs while she cackles over a comic book she's reading.

This second half of the film is mostly a procedural murder mystery and while Asako is still an important character she slips out of the point of view role. The movie still has very dreamlike moments but it's no longer her dream. It never quite gains the traction of some of Suzuki's best films but it's still a fascinating, delirious ride. Voice without a Shadow is available on Amazon Prime.

Twitter Sonnet #1238

The knots contrive a kind of corse of silk.
The extra limbs would strike the walls about.
For room the space prefers to thin the milk.
So creatures plan or scurry round the route.
The ink recalls belated pens to bed.
In sheets of paper bugs were warm to sleep.
What's written last in books was firstly said.
Or soda rumbled up from darkest deep.
A summer pumpkin softly rolls along.
Selections sink behind the squash at night.
At eight appeared an angel's mint sarong.
The moon illumes a face to ravish sight.
A sound but rarely casts a shadow shape.
A language flies when writ upon a cape.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Finally Chiana

It's not that Farscape was bad before Chiana finally shows up, fifteen episodes in, but it sure gets a whole lot better. The inimitable rebel alien girl takes the show to new levels in its exploration of ideas about sex and social roles. So far the show has been about characters trying to get home, trying to find a community where they're recognised as fitting into conceived cultural ideas of intelligent species, whether it be human, Luxan, or Delvian. Chiana, on the other hand, is trying to get very far away from her people, physically and conceptually.

Season 1, Episode 15: Durka Returns

The title of the episode, though, marks it as a follow-up to "PK Tech Girl" in which the captain of a Peacekeeper ship, Durka (David Wheeler), appeared to have met his demise. Now it appears he's still alive--an incredible fact, as Aeryn (Claudia Black) observes, even if he had escaped the defeated command ship. He'd be hundreds of cycles (years) old now, longer than the normal Sebacean lifespan.

And he'd spent several hundred years torturing another member of Moya's crew--the Hynerian Dominar, Rygel (Jonathan Hardy). As I discussed in my review for "PK Tech Girl", Rygel's need to assert himself and his identity runs deeper than anyone else on the ship can likely imagine considering he spent centuries being humiliated and broken down by Durka. Now Rygel, as afraid as he is of Durka when he first sees him board Moya, has an eventually cathartic chance to show him he hasn't been broken. Neither, it turns out, has Durka, though it turns out he has himself undergone a century of conditioning.

Enter Chiana (Gigi Edgley) and the Nebari as a species. We don't meet many Nebari over the course of Farscape's four seasons and in this episode we meet only two but it's enough to establish an idea of their civilisation. Built on an ideal of rigorous social engineering, all negative or "inappropriate" feelings and behaviour are carefully expunged from the personalities of its citizens through a mysterious and sinister process known as "cleansing". Salis (Tiriel Mora), Durka's new Nebari boss, is escorting Chiana as a prisoner when Moya collides with his craft, and, it being Nebari space, the crew feel obliged to put Chiana in a cell. Crichton (Ben Browder) inquires as to the nature of Chiana's crimes but receives only evasions from Salis and vague, broad answers from Chiana herself.

But she's young and desperate, not likely to have had time to rack up crimes on the level of Durka's. So in terms of an argument for institutional behavioural modification, we have two ends of the spectrum--a man guilty of true atrocities, and a girl who's apparently guilty of just having another point of view. In both cases, cleansing doesn't seem to be very helpful.

I met Gigi Edgley at Comic Con a couple years ago and had the pleasure of discussing her performance. I complimented her idea to adopt strange mannerisms and body language as Chiana and she told me how she had not wanted to simply play a human in makeup and costume, she wanted to create an alien character inside and out. Obviously this adds a level of worldbuilding but it also has the benefit of adding an intriguing layer to interactions between her and other characters.

You can always tell there's something else going on. The way she holds Crichton's gaze or the pacing of her laughter compel the viewer to watch her attentively along with Crichton as we try to figure out who she is and what makes her dangerous or if she even is dangerous. She's beautiful and the shock of blue-white makeup against black eyes and dark backgrounds further arrest the viewer's attention. When she escapes and Crichton's forced to pin her to the ground she seems to get an, shall we say, "inappropriate" thrill out of it. After all the incidental cuddling between Crichton and Aeryn in earlier episodes, it almost feels like Crichton's cheating and the fact that Chiana seems more aware of the meaning of physical proximity, and less ashamed of it, becomes an increasingly important part of the show's ongoing discussion of sexuality. For now, though, it's the unspoken but plain as day reality. One can easily imagine, without being told, how difficult it must have been for Chiana to live in a society that sought to ignore en masse an unmistakable physical reality.

. . .

This entry is part of a series I'm writing on Farscape for the show's 20th anniversary. My previous reviews can be found here (episodes are in the order intended by the show's creators rather than the broadcast order):

Episode 1: Pilot
Episode 2: I, E.T.
Episode 3: Exodus from Genesis
Episode 4: Throne for a Loss
Episode 5: Back and Back and Back to the Future
Episode 6: Thank God It's Friday Again
Episode 7: PK Tech Girl
Episode 8: That Old Black Magic
Episode 9: DNA Mad Scientist
Episode 10: They've Got a Secret
Episode 11: Till the Blood Runs Clear
Episode 12: Rhapsody in Blue
Episode 13: The Flax
Episode 14: Jeremiah Crichton