Friday, April 16, 2021

The Unlikely Vampire in the Mirror

It can be liberating meeting your doppelganger, at least it is for Willow in "Doppelgangland", a third season episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Written and directed by Joss Whedon, it's a showcase for Alyson Hannigan who confirms her status as the best actress on the series with this episode.

Evil vampire Willow (Hannigan) was introduced a few episodes back when Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) was transported to an alternate dimension when she carelessly wished to a vengeance demon that Buffy'd never come to Sunnydale. Now that same demon, Anya (Emma Caufield), trying to regain her powers with the help of Willow Prime, accidentally just brings over Willow Bad.

Willow Prime is especially nerdy in this episode. I like a graceless snort she has when making a dumb joke about how "Buff" is buff. And her outfit looks genuinely out of touch with hip--it's all safe and friendly, contrasting with Willow Bad's leather and cleavage.

The episode doesn't pass up the opportunity to have the two swap wardrobes and Willow Prime comments on her elevated bosom with authentic innocence, "Oh, hey, look at those."

The difference between how Hannigan plays the two really does show her skill. Willow Prime always seems like she's second guessing what she says before, during, and after she says it while Willow Bad is content to level a long glare at Cordelia.

I remember liking this evil Willow much more than the season when Willow Prime actually turned villain. But it was over ten years ago the last time I watched this series, I'm not sure my feelings will be the same.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Locals on the Move

Turtles and fish were milling about in confusion yesterday. This was in the river near the school I just started working in. This is the fourth junior high school I've worked in so far. The school year begins in April in Japan so there are brand new first year students who still look like elementary school kids. Less than a month ago, I attended a graduation ceremony for outgoing third year students, fifteen years old and looking like young adults. I feel pretty lucky to have ended up teaching junior high in Japan and being able to watch so many kids in this period of transition.

I wish I could have said goodbye to more of the graduating students. Fortunately, I have run into some of them around town. I ran into a group of three girls at the mall, each one wearing her new school uniform--and each uniform was different. They're all going to different high schools. One of them is going to a school in Tenri, a good distance from Kashihara, so this may have been their last time hanging out.

I had to talk to them in Japanese because they either retained no English or they were just delighting in forcing me to speak Japanese. I sure hope it's the latter.

This morning at the crowded Kashiharajingumae station, one high school girl in a crowd moving in the opposite direction to mine called out my name and waved. I waved back though I didn't have time to recognise her.

Twitter Sonnet #1442

The perfect tea appears with time and leaves.
The wayward page was turned by thumb and left.
The pants were weak beside the mighty greaves.
The worthy phones have supple shape and heft.
As wires clamp the nose, the questions form.
But any nose was named the same for streets.
For running cards who paint the yoghurt warm.
And bleach the priceless plot of ruby beets.
A heavy lid could never stop the tea.
A viper locks the case of captain cards.
Between the wasps there crouched a bolder bee.
The hardened honey broke in crystal shards.
Convenience grinds the lunch to plastic pulp.
A battle nears to find the biggest gulp.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

This Film Ain't Big Enough for One Hunchback

The familiar formula of the Disney Renaissance was pushed past its breaking point with 1996's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Source material incompatible with the current Disney morality was in any case far beyond their capacity to adapt--they bit off much more than they could chew. The result is an unfocused film heavy with the fatigue of trying to reinvent and move beyond The Little Mermaid.

Certainly the film doesn't seem to be fondly remembered. When I ask people about it here in Japan, no-one seems to have heard of it. The central concept is a hard sell for a typical Disney audience--normally Disney animated films invite the viewer to join a beautiful or cute character on an adventure. In this case, the film's protagonist isn't only deliberately ugly, the story implies that you should feel guilty for not being attracted to him. That's a bold step outside the box for Disney and, like the preachiness in Pocahontas, an obnoxious one. It's also unlike previous versions of the story. In the original novel, published in 1831, even the sweet and innocent Esmeralda has to fight against instinctive disgust when she talks to Quasimodo. In Disney's film, despite initially mistaking his bare face for a mask, she exhibits no discomfort in close physical proximity to him.

She's altogether a less interesting character--a bit of a firebrand, like Maureen O'Hara's take in the 1939 film, she's a lofty paragon of virtue who would never think of having desires for anything beyond justice. She's not looking for her parents or desperately pursuing Phoebus, as she is in the book. Disney's film is definitely centred on Quasimodo, even though some have called Esmeralda the protagonist of the original book. She's an important character, important enough that the opera adaptation of the book, with a libretto by Hugo, was called La Esmeralda. But the original book, called in French simply Notre-Dame de Paris, doesn't really centre on any one character. Hugo's project was to dramatise the cathedral itself, as a means to encourage its preservation. There are long passages in the book, like Tolstoy's essay tangents about war in War and Peace or Melville's tangents on whales and seagoing in Moby Dick, that are just Hugo going on about architecture and its place in civilisation. The story is a kind of illustration of the building's impact on people, in ways both literal (Notre Dame as sanctuary and gathering place) and poetic (the home of a strange hunchback and a strange power over the minds and souls of Paris). Hugo talks about people from all walks of life and isn't kind to most but portrays the disenfranchised in a more favourable light. The reason for this, in early 19th century France, would be clear if you consider how spectacularly the rabble had done violence to the upperclasses in the preceding decades. If Notre-Dame was going to be preserved, it would be from the perennially revolutionary forces who'd shown a penchant for tearing things down.

A few years ago, Lindsay Ellis recorded a video on Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame in which she asserts the endeavour to preserve Notre-Dame is no longer relevant. Less than two years after she released the video, Notre-Dame caught fire and, afterwards, proposals to replace it with something ugly and modern, or tear it down, began to gain serious traction (fortunately a bill was passed into law requiring that its reconstruction honour its original aesthetic). These forces didn't emerge out of nowhere so it's more likely ignorance of French politics than a failure to predict the future that have caused Ellis' video to age so badly. Of course, violent incidents involving a conflict for the cultural future of France have become increasingly visible in global media. So once again, those political forces who like to tear down the past are at work, and the time to defend the glories of the past is at hand.

Victor Hugo sought to make Notre Dame relevant to Parisian inhabitants of all kinds, from the beggars to the merchants, from the artists to the immigrants. "Churches were guarded by their sanctity" he wrote in a section about the lack of proper police forces in medieval Europe. Notre-Dame could once have counted on some protection on account of being sacred--it's hard to imagine such protection to-day.

The story Hugo wrote around the cathedral is hardly one that flatters the city's inhabitants, in fact it's been described as misanthropic. I wouldn't say that myself. Although it portrays people behaving in consistently, and sometimes egregiously, selfish ways--rendering the few incidents of selflessness the more potent--it's more of a story about tragic misunderstanding. Esmeralda mistakes Phoebus for the love of her life, Gringoire mistakes himself for a great playwright (or audiences mistake him for a bad one), Quasimodo mistakes the beggars for Esmeralda's enemies, and Claude Frollo suffers in an institution that's mistaken about human nature.

If any one character could be called the novel's protagonist, it would be Claude Frollo. It's through Frollo's point of view that most of the story is told. Since his actions harm characters who are innocent or defenceless, he would best be described as an anti-hero. Originally created as the Archdeacon of Notre-Dame, Hugo was forced to remove references to Frollo as a clergyman when writing the opera and most film adaptations have been obliged to remove Frollo's connexion to the church or shift all his villainous actions to his brother. This was always done to avoid the disapproval of the Catholic Church and Disney's film followed suit. Some might be surprised that Hugo would have originally vilified a member of the church in a book designed to encourage preservation of a cathedral. Perhaps his idea was to show that the cathedral had an importance to the people of France that was apart from or beyond the institution.

Changing Frollo from an archdeacon to a judge changes the nature of his obsession with Esmeralda. He's taken no vow of celibacy, so there's no consideration of how his institution may have played a part in shaping his sexually repressed personality. A significant part of Frollo's ruminations that we're privy to are his thoughts on how the church has caused his natural passions to fester.

Frollo's impressive, sepulchral voice is provided by Tony Jay in the film and he at least cuts an impressively villainous figure. But his internal conflict is barely broached in the film, even if it is with the best musical number (the bar is low, mind you).

Phoebus is another character drastically changed from the source material. He's not the scoundrel he is in the book which means Esmeralda's faith in him isn't tragic. Kevin Kline is very charming in the role, though, and one can see how a film centred on him and Esmeralda might have been a nice romantic adventure. At least, if Disney's take on Esmeralda weren't a mess.

Here's another tragedy. With Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Little Mermaid, Disney learned that audiences responded to sexy characters. Esmeralda is clearly intended to be sexy--even in Hugo's original novel--but her animation, supervised by Tony Fucile, is strangely clunky and the film's directors, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, have too short attention spans. Rapid editing undercuts the drama in many scenes and robs Esmeralda's dance sequence of all enchantment. There are also none of the creative lighting and camera angles Jessica Rabbit had--Esmeralda is shown head to toe, centre frame with the horizon behind her, in even daylight.

An attempt to give a silky shimmer to her gown makes it look like a 3D effect viewed without 3D glasses, potentially headache-inducing.

Demi Moore's performance isn't bad but it's part of a general effort to make the character more mature than she is in the source material. It's times like this I think of the original lyrics to "Sweet Jane";

And there's even some evil mothers
Well, they're gonna tell you that everything is just dirt
You know that women never really faint
And that villains always blink their eyes, ooh
And that, ya know, children are the only ones who blush
And that life is just to die

Not every girl is a smartass or a guerilla. Innocent, credulous girls exist and our fiction should reflect it occasionally.

It contributes to a strong scene in the novel. Frollo, hidden in a corner, watches as Phoebus seduces Esmeralda. She's willing to give the scoundrel anything he wants because she believes he loves her. Meanwhile, he just wants to fuck her and toss her aside. This would be a good time for a priest to intervene but not in the way Frollo does. The scene effectively demonstrates the need for responsible, empowered authorities but shows how the wrong people in the roles can lead to terrible consequences.

Obviously, there's no such scene in Disney's film. Instead, we have a comparatively muddled tale, one predominately meant to be about Quasimodo's liberation but with so many vestigial features from the book, and pointless additions by Disney, the central idea fails to take root. In the book, Quasimodo begins as Frollo's henchman but then turns against him on the matter of Esmeralda. The film gives Quasimodo a yearning to participate in normal Parisian life that isn't present in the book, leading to the traditional "I Want" song.

And you can sense just how sick of writing these songs Alan Menken was at this point. The melody lurches along under lifeless lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Compare Quasimodo's "Out There" with the original "I Want" song, Ariel's "Part of Your World". It's not just Ariel's looks that make "Part of Your World" superior. The concept of someone wanting liberation from the sea is more interesting, and leads to more pleasing lyrical innovation, than someone wanting to go outside of Notre Dame. Belle's "I Want" song from Beauty and the Beast was already less interesting than Ariel's, Quasimodo's suffers from being fifth on the assembly line.

And then, of course, there are the annoying gargoyles, who, if they're supposed to be manifestations of Quasimodo's psyche, do nothing to endear him to the audience. The movie lacks the great scene from the book, the one where suddenly Quasimodo becomes the only person in a crowd who does the obviously decent thing and so takes on a genuinely impressive grace. Disney's film instead endlessly exhorts us to pity him. That's not your job, Disney. Even the beautiful princesses have more to them than beauty--or if they don't (like Snow White) they're not even the true main characters of their own films (it's the dwarfs in Snow White). The Hunchback of Notre Dame shows the limits of the Disney studio's ability to tell stories. Maybe if they'd had a better writer or director, or if Disney's notoriously intrusive management had kept their hands to themselves, it could have been the start of a new era for the studio. As it is, it's basically The Black Cauldron 2, an attempt to go darker and weirder that completely collapses.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is available on Disney+.


This is part of a series of posts I'm writing on the Disney animated canon.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Saludos Amigos
The Three Caballeros
Make Mine Music
Fun and Fancy Free
Melody Time
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
Alice in Wonderland
Peter Pan
Lady and the Tramp
Sleeping Beauty
101 Dalmatians
The Sword in the Stone
The Jungle Book
The Aristocats
Robin Hood
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
The Rescuers
The Fox and the Hound
The Black Cauldron
The Great Mouse Detective
Oliver & Company
The Little Mermaid
The Rescuers Down Under
Beauty and the Beast
The Lion King

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

When Bad Faith was Good

Faith must be on a few lists of great characters introduced in third seasons who dominate a show. The drama in the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer certainly revolves around her. I just finished "Bad Girls" and "Consequences", two episodes which see Buffy starting to go over to Faith's reckless, lone gun attitude only to be terrified when Faith accidentally murders a human.

The writing and Eliza Dushku's performance both work well. As entertainment, the tension in watching her inner struggle is great but it also feels credible. Of course she would have built up defence mechanisms to help her to deal with guilt and trauma, ways to force herself to adopt a less painful "truth". One wonders if she actually believes it herself when she finally tries to pin the crime on Buffy.

I was reminded of these episodes when I read a review of The Nevers in Vulture. The Nevers is a new series created by Joss Whedon that was originally to be run by him until he abruptly left the series, perhaps a result of the punitive action following Warners' internal investigation. The review in Vulture criticises Whedon for frequently portraying female characters whose empowerment comes out from past trauma. It reminded me of people complaining about his comment about Batgirl when he was attached to direct a feature film for DC--he wanted to know "What's her damage?"

Is it naive of me even to entertain the idea these are heartfelt criticisms and not just another wedge in the continuing campaign against Joss Whedon? I'm not sure which would be worse. The idea that the actions and identities of superheroes are based on trauma that has psychologically changed them is certainly not something Whedon invented--Batman is the obvious example here--in fact it's hard to think of many superheroes whose journey to their super identity didn't begin with trauma of some kind, either directly related to their identities or occurring simultaneously to the catalyst. Certainly that makes for a more interesting story--the idea of adopting such a strange role, like fighting vampires, has a better poetic resonance if it's a sort of abstract illustration of psychology.

There's another side, too, to the idea that such stories are intrinsically bad somehow--that it suggests one can't make use of having had bad experiences. It seems like the kind of thing that would encourage behaviour not unlike Faith's--a tendency to ignore trauma in the belief that there's nothing to learn or gain from it.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Aging with Japan

My birthday yesterday turned out to be pretty great for unanticipated reasons. An elementary school teacher I'd met a few days earlier invited me to join him, his daughter, and his friend for lunch. We ended up in the Imai area of Kashihara which dates back to the 1500s.

My new friend introduced me to the proprietors of shops where sake, soy sauce, and pickled vegetables are made (I bought a bottle of soy sauce). Here's an ancient sake brewing counter:

Outside the shop, plants are hung to advertise the age of the current batch of sake.

If this plant had been green, it would have meant the sake was very new.

We stopped at a Shinto shrine where they taught me the proper way to enter and exit through the torii gate and how to ring the bell and bow.

Afterwards, we stopped at an incongruously chic smoothie bar and had "art smoothies".

I said the place seemed very much like L.A.

Before going to the Imai area, we stopped at a curry restaurant and a pizza restaurant. The pizza place had a great atmosphere and an enormous brick oven. The pizza crust was fantastic. We also had some great steamed bamboo.

The owner of the restaurant invited us to pick our own herbs from his garden. My friend and his daughter chose some sansho leaves:

All in all, a pretty good birthday for me--and I didn't even tell them it was my birthday until the end of it. Sometimes you just get lucky.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Rule 42

I'm forty-two years old to-day. That's the answer to the ultimate question of life the universe and everything, according to Douglas Adams. As much as I love his work, I prefer to think of the trial scene from Alice in Wonderland to-day, and the "Rule 42".

At this moment the King, who had been for some time busily writing in his note-book, cackled out “Silence!” and read out from his book, “Rule Forty-two. All persons more than a mile high to leave the court.”

Everybody looked at Alice.

I'm not a mile high,” said Alice.

“You are,” said the King.

“Nearly two miles high,” added the Queen.

“Well, I shan’t go, at any rate,” said Alice: “besides, that’s not a regular rule: you invented it just now.”

“It’s the oldest rule in the book,” said the King.

“Then it ought to be Number One,” said Alice.

The King turned pale, and shut his note-book hastily.

Twitter Sonnet #1441

A friendly puppet cooked a felt souffle.
The kitchen grease could feed a tile gut.
We bought the bread to soak the whole cafe.
The dozen prawns had left the wat'ry rut.
The speckled sky reports on cookie sheets.
The crowded oven spilled lasagne sauce.
The healthy shapes adopt the forms of meats.
A question posed creates the query boss.
The face of stone became a shiny ham.
The triple suit approved a jolly sight.
The syrup stacked the cake before the jam.
A fluffy egg completes the pan delight.
Another pastry graced the gooey hill.
The talking stomach eats with happy will.

Friday, April 09, 2021

A Super Soldier's Place in the World

Themes about government and military were touched upon in an action heavy new episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier last night. The fourth episode of the series, "The Whole World is Watching" is the second from John Wick creator Derek Kolstad and was a big improvement on his previous episode.

It seems Bucky's (Sebastian Stan) first impression of Karli (Erin Kellyman) wasn't so wrong after all. He first assumed she was an innocent hostage on the basis of her physical appearance--a young girl with a perpetually worried expression. Now, Sam (Anthony Mackie) gets an interview with her and she turns out to be a young girl who doesn't have a clear idea of what she's doing and why. She knows there are big, powerful forces she sees as her enemy but she doesn't really have a good idea of how to fight them effectively so she uses violence.

I just realised Erin Kellyman also played a leader of ragtag renegades in Solo: A Star Wars Story, too. She only briefly appears in that movie and her eyebrows help quickly establish her as a troubled, innocent soul. Meanwhile, Wyatt Russell as John Walker has a perpetual grimace/smirk. The two have resting hero and villain faces. They also mirror each other--John Walker also chooses violence as a solution because he can't see any rational way forward. The difference is that John is older than Karli and should know better.

One wonders if there was any psychological testing before the U.S. chose its new Captain America. There must have been and it mustn't have been terribly competent. The chip on John's shoulder isn't just the frustration he and Lemar (Cle Bennett) felt about being unable to save more lives in Afghanistan. When the Dora Milaje quickly beat him, he bitterly observes that they weren't even super soldiers. If he'd been thinking rationally, he'd have realised that he was one man fighting against a team of Wakada's elite military. Of course he was going to lose.

I like how he talks about being Captain America as the first thing that's actually felt good. The frustration he feels about not being able to solve problems is more than just lives he can't save, it's his inability to breathe life into a symbol he believes in. Ironically, the episode ends with him tarnishing that symbol when he beats to death one of the terrorists. Once again, I was reminded of Dark of the Sun and without getting into spoilers for that movie, plot points in this episode closely mirror the climax of that film.

Ultimately, the message of the episode is that might only makes right if the person wielding it knows what they're doing. Once again, Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is shown to be the most effective player because he understands his own goals and he understands people. Only he thinks to talk to the kids--and he knows how to talk to them--and his decision to execute Karli is much swifter than John's because he knows that the power of creating super soldiers is too dangerous to take any chances on the caprices of volatile people, something John demonstrates all too clearly.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is available on Disney+.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Clothes Make the Size

How's a working class girl supposed to get ahead in the cutthroat world of business? In 1988's Working Girl, the answer is elaborate deception, which is also apparently pretty standard anyway. It's an entertaining romantic comedy, too, and Melanie Griffith is very sweet as the star.

She plays Tess, an office worker who got a BA at night school. Her best friend is played by Joan Cusack and I'd swear their wardrobe was inspired by Jean Marais in La Belle et la Bete.

I don't remember people dressing so big in the '80s whose names weren't David Byrne. But maybe it was a working class New York thing.

She gets a job working for Sigourney Weaver who turns out to be the film's villain. A lesser actress would've suited the film just fine but I love how Weaver makes Katharine subtle. When she tells Tess she honours her ideas and wants to help her get ahead, the viewer is as unsure as Tess is whether or not Katharine is being genuine or patronising. Then, of course, Tess discovers Katharine was planning to steal Tess' idea about acquiring a radio station for a big company.

After Katharine breaks her leg skiing and asks Tess to manage things for her, Tess decides to pretend she's at Katharine's level in the company. This leads to her partnering professionally and romantically with Harrison Ford.

He has an interesting line when he picks her up at a bar--"You're the first woman I've seen at one of these damned things that dresses like a woman, not like a woman thinks a man would dress if he was a woman." That's a lot of thought put into her simple little black dress, even if that dress was revealed to have cost six thousand dollars in an earlier, amusing scene where she and Joan Cusack pilfered it from Katharine's wardrobe ("And it's not even leather!" says Cusack). But what does it mean? He's a man, so how would he know what a woman would choose? Though, since the film's costume designer is a woman, a woman presumably did choose it. I think it's a long way of saying it doesn't look slutty, the presumption being that if a man were suddenly in a woman's body, he'd dress to be seen by himself. This all sounds like a Male Gaze discussion and incurs many of the logical problems inevitable if anyone thinks too deeply about it. Though it becomes more interesting when Tess meets Ford's character again at a board room meeting.

And I thought, my God, she's the spitting image of Kim Novak in Vertigo.

And I thought further--she's a working class girl dressing as an upper class woman and attracts a man in the process. And there's even a scene where he carries her home unconscious, undresses her, and puts her in his bed and treats the event like it was totally innocent. It makes me wonder if there was a stage in which this movie was meant to go in another direction.

The second half of the film isn't as intriguingly weird as the first. There's a big boardroom showdown that's a bit silly but also pretty satisfying.

Working Girl is available on Disney+ in most countries (not the U.S. or Japan).

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Limited Petals

A turtle stoically endures a rain of sakura petals.

The crowds of turtles are starting to reappear in the rivers. This one is the biggest I've seen yet:

It's hard to get a sense of scale but he was about the size of a small cat. A little smaller than this suspicious fellow I saw yesterday:

He was watching this big crow who seemed a bit overcome by the beauty of spring.

Most of the cherry trees are no longer big fluffy pink things, they're already mixtures of pink and green.

I feel like they stayed pink further into April last year.

Here's something I've been working on lately:

My mother gave me this little mermaid when I was a kid back in the '80s. I'd had it packed in a box with books and DVDs--I have about 16 boxes of books which I really miss back in the U.S. I left three boxes with my grandmother in Tennessee and a couple weeks ago she sent me one for my birthday. The postal service labelled the box "books" which apparently makes packages move cheaply and quickly. Unfortunately, no-one knew this box marked "books" also had this little porcelain mermaid in it so when it arrived it was completely shattered. But since most of her vital parts were still in tact I went to work with some glue I bought for my boot soles. I glued her arms back on and worked out the jigsaw puzzle of her stone and coral base. There's still a big piece missing from the back that must have fallen out of the box but she looks good enough on my shelf, now with a few character building scars.

Twitter Sonnet #1440

The arm was numb so dropped the plastic cup.
But bev'rage spilled was well ignored in mind.
The dancing thoughts won't deign on bread to sup.
A heavy rain would clunk against the rind.
Reminding snakes of boxes, lawns evolve.
Propeller beams construct the rainy roof.
Before the candle hardened jams dissolve.
The stately dog proclaims a heavy "woof".
A border shift creates a new repast.
A dime was looking far beyond a cent.
The big imposter clerk was soon recast.
The strongest breath surpassed the need for mint.
The stoic turtles swarm the recent green.
Potential trees displace the healthy bean.