Anno Dominus

October 1995 saw the appearance of what may yet turn out to be the defining work of 21st Century science fiction.

Written and directed by Hideaki Anno 新世紀エヴァンゲリオ is an animated TV series that ran for 26 episodes and birthed one of the most enduring and successful franchises in the history of anime. Released in the west under the nebulously evocative title of Neon Genesis Evangelion, the series’ original title can be literally translated as “Gospel of a New Century”.

Gospels are useful things to bear in mind when approaching the Evangelion franchise as Eva is not just a TV series but a series of more-or-less consistent works that more-or-less rework the events and themes contained within the original TV series. Given that Eva is a hugely commercially and massively commoditised trans-media franchise, it is tempting to view these later films in the same way as we might view the similar properties that have emerged from Hollywood over the last ten years. Concepts like ‘remake’, ‘reboot’ and ‘reimagining’ might be useful in trying to understand the relationship between different Batman  and Star Trek films but the Eva properties are far more personal and so the relationship between them is a lot closer to that between the various Christian gospels.

While the gospels may share a setting, a cast of characters, and a message to convey, they do not necessarily line up in terms of narrative and character detail. For example, the book of Matthew claims that the Resurrection was reported by women while the book of Mark suggests that they kept the fact to themselves. More substantially, the book of Mark presents Jesus as a conduit for information about the world to come while the book of John treats Jesus as a spiritual teacher whose example we are expected to follow. Theologians may well argue that the various gospels are consistent as long as you squint a bit and deliberately misinterpret things but another way of accounting for the inconsistencies is to view the different gospels as different and more-or-less successful attempts to articulate a single divinely-inspired vision. Anno’s desire to articulate his vision has taken over twenty years and resulted in four broadly different iterations of the same basic story.

It is tempting to explore the differences between the various iterations of the Evangelion story but that would require me to write a much longer article. Suffice it to say that people who are interested in getting to grips with Eva are advised to start with the most recent run of films. The original TV series and Evangelion: Death and Rebirth are also worth checking out but they are considerably harder to find and End of Evangelion is really just an expanded and reworked version of the events described in Rebirth meaning that it will make little sense to anyone not already familiar with the themes and characters.

I’ve not written anything about Eva before but the recent UK release of Evangelion: 3.33 struck me as an interesting place to start as the current iteration of the story — the so-called Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy — is now several years behind schedule and growing ever-more opaque with each additional volume. In fact, the development problems are so severe that Western home releases of the film were delayed by two whole years amidst rumours of demanded re-translations and re-dubbings. At time of writing, it is not clear to me that Rebuild of Evangelion will be any more successful or definitive than previous articulations of Anno’s vision but the incomplete vision we have is already more arresting and mind-blowing than any Western science fiction film in recent memory.

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Top of the Lake (2014) – #NoDads #NoMums #NoDrama

Funded by the BBC and directed by the only woman to win a Cannes Palme D’Or in the modern era, Jane Campion’s miniseries Top of the Lake is a complete dramatic failure. Beautiful to look at thanks to its New Zealand location, the series follows a detective’s attempts to locate a 12-year-old girl who goes missing after it is discovered that she is five months pregnant.

What makes this series a failure is foreground stuff like plot and character; things which we are encouraged to see as being the entire point of film and TV dramas. The plot does not work as it is poorly written and poorly paced. Having introduced us to the figure of a young girl who has manifestly been raped, the series forgets her existence for two or three episodes before suddenly remembering that finding the girl and revealing the identity of her rapist is the over-arching narrative that is supposed to provide this baggy and ill-disciplined mess with the illusion of structure. Having placed their main plot on the back burner, the writers set about weighting down the characters with an overabundance of backstory that serves only to let the writers off the hook when they decide to write themselves out of trouble by having one of their characters behave in an entirely irrational and uncharacteristic fashion: Need a ruthless patriarch and criminal mastermind to get outwitted by a terrified child? Well… it turns out that he has mummy issues and family-related plot point X caused him to have a convenient mental breakdown. Need an incredibly professional police officer to randomly shoot someone? Well… it turns out that she’s not only a rape survivor but also someone dealing with the aftermath of grief and other incest-related problems.

The novelist E.M. Forster distinguished between flat and rounded characters on the basis that rounded characters are intrinsically knowable. They seem real to us because the author shows how one event triggers an internal change that results in different behaviour patterns. According to Forster, we cannot ever really understand real people but we can understand a rounded character and see not only the different aspects of their personality but also how those different aspects interact and propel the character along a particular course of action. The characters in Top of the Lake are like planets in that they are so painstakingly rounded that they appear completely flat. Campion and her co-writer Gerard Lee provide their characters with so much traumatic backstory that they become unknowable; their melodramatic irrationality so pronounced that they are just as likely to save the day, as they are to put guns in their mouths. Unknowable and unaccountable, they are pools of unreasoning expediency that flow wherever the plot demands. Even with the best will in the world, it is impossible to relate to such creations… they are too convenient to be real.

While the main plotline of Top of the Lake may be dull and its main characters completely devoid of interest, the series does take place in an absolutely fascinating world, one that highlights the problematic aspects of gender and our perpetual need for some notional adult to come along and sort out our problems. Though Top of the Lake may not work as a police procedural, it does stumble across some fascinating ideas.

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REVIEW – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

TDoSFilmJuice have my review of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, a film that rivals Iron Man 2 and Man of Steel for the title of Worst Film Ever Made.

Peter Jackson is a terrible loss to the special effects profession and a terrible addition to that of professional film direction. Right from the start, his films have been filled with technical excellence and entirely devoid of artistic merit. The flaw in Jackson’s approach to direction is most evident when you consider his adaptations of existing works:Regardless of whether we are talking about Lord of the Rings, King Kong or The Lovely Bones, the involvement of Peter Jackson means that the resulting film will invariably be worse than the source material.

  • King Kong took a very simple and elegant story and expanded it into a 187 minute-long monstrosity in which the elegance and drama of the original were entirely lost.
  • Lord of the Rings bent over backwards to put as much of the books on screen as possible but whenever Jackson was called upon to make an interpretative leap, his interpretations were invariably less interesting and more prosaic than those of conventional understanding.
  • The Lovely Bones made the most of Jackson’s mastery of visual effects to create an impressive vision of the afterlife but Jackson’s interpretation of the book mislaid the original horror and settled instead for a jarring combination of brutal violence and horrific sentimentality.

Jackson’s interpretation of The Hobbit is plagued by these exact same mistakes:

  • A short children’s book has been expanded into three over-long films thanks to tedious CGI action sequences that unbalance the plot and submerge the original drama.
  • Every time that Jackson is called upon to make an interpretative leap, his interpretations tend to be less interesting, more prosaic and prone to moving the film into the realm of fantasy cliche.
  • Having decided to transform a whimsical children’s story into a portentous epic, Jackson struggles with tone and so veers between horrific violence, grinding sentimentality and childish comedy.

My review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug focuses on two particular areas: The paucity of the writing and the intense ugliness of the visuals.

Of the writing I say:

Given that The Desolation of Smaug contains much less of The Hobbit than its predecessor, the joins between source and additional materials are far less noticeable. However, while this frees us from the first film’s bizarre tone changes, it does mean that the film comes to be dominated by an array of characters and sub-plots who owe a good deal less to Tolkien’s brilliance than they do to Peter Jackson’s fondness for fantasy clichés. The additional plotlines are not only thin and crippled with incredibly cheesy dialogue, they also feature a grand total of three lank-haired white dudes with soulful eyes, tragic backgrounds and a need for redemption when even one would have been too many. With so many unconnected characters and plotlines to follow, the film haemorrhages thematic focus and dramatic energy and so keeps relying on orc attacks to jump-start the plot and keep things moving.

Of the look of the film I say:

The root of the problem lies in the first film’s revelation that traditional sets, effects and make-up tend to look absolutely terrible when shot at 48 frames-per-second. In an effort to stop his film from looking like something shot between takes with an old-fashioned camcorder, Jackson has taken to replacing sets and actors with CGI backgrounds and figures. When a scene cannot be done entirely in CGI, Jackson limits himself to superimposing CGI over the sets and actors in an effort to make them look less real and so provide a more even distribution of unreality. What this means in practice is that all the actors wind up with enormous bulbous noses but at least it doesn’t look like they’re being interviewed on the set. The real problem occurs when Jackson switches entirely to CGI and creates the kinds of figures and landscapes that only exist in videogames. Lacking the weight and reality of actors and practical effects, the CGI character bounce around the screen in a manner all to reminiscent of the Legolas sequences in the original trilogy and the monster fights in Jackson’s laughable remake of King Kong. Taken on their own and in small doses, these digital inserts are technically impressive and reasonably well choreographed but, taken in the context of an extremely long film where they are allowed to continue for upwards of twenty minutes, their cartoonish lack of realism rapidly devolves from unintentionally funny to downright excruciating.

The reason why I consider The Desolation of Smaug to be one of the worst films ever made is that I believe in grading on a curve: Whenever people talking about the WORST. FILM. EVAH. their minds turn to Ed Wood and Uwe Boll despite the fact that both men were operating with comparatively small budgets and incredibly tiny pools of talent. How many great technicians and actors would answer the call if Uwe Boll approached them about working on his latest adaptation of a shitty video game? Now how many actors and technicians would answer the call if Peter Jackson asked them to fly to New Zealand and work on an incredibly expensive production of much-beloved and hugely successful books? Works like The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 2 and The Man of Steel operate with virtually unlimited budgets, unlimited good will and immediate access to the best writers, actors and technicians operating in contemporary cinema. To take all of those resources and turn them into a tedious mess like Desolation of Smaug is not only an obscene waste of money, it is also a sign of true directorial incompetence.

REVIEW – Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

phantom posterFilmJuice have my review of Brian De Palma’s rock opera Phantom of the Paradise. I was not impressed.

Made in the coke-bloat years of prog rock, this musical mashes up Faust and Phantom of the Opera to produce a weirdy-beardy story about a composer who is lured into cooperating with a sinister record producer only for the sinister record producer to betray him, steal his music, get him thrown in jail and eventually try to wall him up in a room in his enormous house. Visually, the film is extraordinary as De Palma makes great use of then-emerging video editing technologies to produce all kinds of split-screen and other effects. My problem was with every other aspect of the film:

Originally a dutiful student of the French New Wave, Brian De Palma soon migrated towards populist films with a hint of artificiality: Carrie and The Fury mused over psychic powers while thrillers such as Body Double and Dressed to Kill obsessed over the appearance of female bodies before hacking them to pieces. Best known for his gangster epics Scarface, The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way, De Palma instinctively understood the swaggering pretence of the American hoodlum and how sharp suits and theatrical yelling are a neat way of masking a predator’s scent. Indeed, no film better encapsulates Brian De Palma’s strengths and weaknesses than his much-underrated reboot of the Mission: Impossible franchise: Expensive, slick and entirely populated by people pretending to be someone else, M:I is far more interested in the elegant imitation of humanity than humanity itself. True to form, De Palma’s early rock opera Phantom of the Paradise is obsessed with masks, illusions and pastiches but offers nothing in the way of emotional reality.

As a satire of the music industry, this is pretty toothless stuff not least because while De Palma is quick to point fingers at the excesses of the prog rock era, his proposed solution to the excess is an operatic rock ‘cantata’ based on the legend of Faust. As I said in my review, this is precisely the kind of portentous rubbish that punk set out to destroy and it’s very difficult for a satire to function when the ‘disease’ and ‘cure’ seem equally bad.

The more pressing problem is that the music is almost entirely hideous. Written and mostly performed by the jowly-voiced Paul Williams (of Bugsy Malone fame) this supposed ‘rock opera’ is neither musically complex enough to be operatic nor raw enough to be rock. In effect, this is pompous music theatre with additional cod-pieces. The pastiches are mildly interesting as they do sound quite a bit like the bands they’re supposed to be pastiches of but the songs themselves are neither satirical nor particularly memorable meaning that this vicious attack on soulless nostalgia is itself nothing more an exercise in soulless nostalgia. Watching this, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Dead Kennedys’s “M.T.V. – Get off the air”.

This film has evidently acquired something of a cult following as the re-release comes with a selection of interviews and extras that seems wildly out of proportion with a flabby and emotionally hollow rock opera from the 1970s. However, as is often the case in these types of situations, the interviews unwittingly reveal quite a bit about the flaws in the production process as much like the Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa DVD revealed Steve Coogan’s willingness to work without a finished script and openly countermand the wishes of the director, the interviews included on the DVD reveal Paul Williams to be just as egomaniacal and unsettling as his onscreen counterpart.

REVIEW – Ender’s Game (2013)

endsgameVideovista has my review of Gavin Hood’s cinematic adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s sinister science fiction novel Ender’s Game.

Quite possibly the single most commercially successful science fiction novel of all time, Ender’s Game tells the story of a gifted child who is groomed, recruited and trained to become the military commander who will defend Earth against an imminent and unavoidable attack by a race of inscrutable ant-like aliens known as the Formics (the novel’s ambiguously homophobic term ‘buggers’ having been dropped from the film due to the negative press surrounding Card’s activities as an anti-LGBT spokesperson and activist). Having now watched the film and re-read the novel, I am struck by the fact that Ender’s Game sits rather uncomfortably between two different stools:

On the one hand, the story (originally published as a novella in Analog) is a throwback to the golden age of science fiction where genocidal space captains were not seen as particularly problematic characters. This aspect of the novel sits squarely in the foreground and is obvious from the fact that much of the novel’s enduring appeal lies in the fact that it is one enormous Geek power fantasy about a super-smart kid who beats the shit out of his bullies, gets all the cool friends and saves the day despite being misunderstood and persecuted.

On the other hand, the story is painfully aware of the literary turn of 1960s science fiction and so tries to reflect the fact that you can no longer get away with writing a novel about a genocidal space commander without acknowledging the fact that genocide is bad (Mm’kay?) and that characters need to be well-rounded individuals with internal conflicts to resolve. This aspect of the novel is evident not only in Ender’s undirected and largely uncritical angst but also in the way that the book tries to have its cake and eat it too by building towards a climactic battle only to then suggest that climactic battles aren’t necessarily a good idea.

The tension between these sets of literary values not only explains why the more recent Ender’s Shadow (a retelling of the book from the perspective of Ender’s psychopathic and entirely angst-free sidekick Bean) is a far superior novel, it also explains why Ender’s Game is such a deeply problematic work of fiction. Had Ender’s Game embraced its golden age roots and been about a heroic kiddy space captain then it would have been nothing more than your standard piece of reactionary escapist SF fluff and had Ender’s Game been about the morally problematic aspects of military service then it would have been a pretty good revisionist MilSF novel comparable to Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. However, by trying to write within two politically incompatible literary traditions, Card effectively wound up creating a novel that emphasises all the worst aspects of traditional science fiction.

I don’t like the politics of Ender’s Game and I don’t like the politics of this film:

The problem is not that Ender’s Game is a power fantasy wrapped in a persecution complex and fired into the faces of unsuspecting children, the problem is that this film sends a message that the only rational and intelligent response to feelings of alienation, betrayal and confusion is to conform to the demands of the institutions that caused those negative feelings in the first place. Ender’s Game is not content with telling us that there is no alternative to a life of selfish brutality, it goes out of its way to present that life as sane, heroic and oh so very clever. Gavin Hood’s film is well made and elegant to look at, as beautiful as a $110 million advert for fascism could ever hope to be.

I’m not the first person to have this reaction:

  • Elaine Radford wrote an essay entitled “Ender and Hitler: Sympathy for the Superman” in which she points out a number of moral and biographical similarities between the two genocides.
  • John Kessel wrote an essay entitled “Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender’s Game, Intention and Morality” in which he points out the problematic nature of Card’s moral system.

But I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else point out that the book is not only fascistic but also incredibly derivative as it is essentially a re-skinning of Tom Godwin’s short story “The Cold Equations”. I outline the similarities between the two texts at some length in my review but the similarities are even more striking when you read the original “Ender’s Game” novelette, which was published in 1977 in the same magazine that originally published “The Cold Equations”.

PS Not long after uploading this, I came across a recent Cory Doctorow column from Locus magazine that essentially makes the exact same point about the artificiality of TINA and how Godwin creates a particular moral scenario and then expunges all blame and concepts of moral responsibility by willfully confusing the political laws governing the pilot’s society with the laws of nature. Given that it’s written by Cory Doctorow, the piece is significantly better written than mine and makes the connection I somehow missed with the concept of moral hazard:

The parameters of ‘‘The Cold Equations’’ are not the inescapable laws of physics. Zoom out beyond the page’s edges and you’ll find the author’s hands carefully arranging the scenery so that the plague, the world, the fuel, the girl and the pilot are all poised to inevitably lead to her execution. The author, not the girl, decided that there was no autopilot that could land the ship without the pilot. The author decided that the plague was fatal to all concerned, and that the vaccine needed to be delivered within a timeframe that could only be attained through the execution of the stowaway.

It is, then, a contrivance. A circumstance engineered for a justifiable murder. An elaborate shell game that makes the poor pilot – and the company he serves – into victims every bit as much as the dead girl is a victim, forced by circumstance and girlish naïveté to stain their souls with murder.

Moral hazard is the economist’s term for a rule that encourages people to behave badly. For example, a rule that says that you’re not liable for your factory’s pollution if you don’t know about it encourages factory owners to totally ignore their effluent pipes – it turns willful ignorance into a profitable strategy.

He then goes on to talk about the moral horrors of a Robert Heinlein story and I am reminded, yet again of that author’s toxic influence on the history of science fiction.

REVIEW – The Killers (1964)

The-Killers-Blu-rayFilmJuice have my review of Don Siegel’s The Killers, an awesome character-based crime thriller starring Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes and Ronald Reagan.

Based on a short story by Ernest Hemmingway and originally made for American television, The Killers poses the question as to why someone would refuse to run when confronted by two men who had been sent to kill him. Unlike the original short story (which is minimalist to the point of being nothing but negative conceptual space), Don Siegel’s adaptation functions as a kind of therapeutic process that buries into the past of a murder victim and tries to make sense of the decisions that lead him all the way to that refusal to run.

It is difficult to watch The Killers without becoming a tiny bit obsessed with Marvin’s performance. A former marine and infamous drunk, Marvin spent the 1960s carving out a reputation as a cinematic tough guy. What made him so special is that, unlike most of his contemporaries who depicted violence as an unpleasant but occasionally necessary part of a heroic vocation, Marvin let the spirit of violence seep into his bones and tried to depict it with as much realism as possible. Fifty years on and Marvin’s interrogation of the blind receptionist is still incredibly difficult to watch… it is too real and too unapologetically sadistic. Brilliantly, Siegel embraces the visceral character of the opening scene and uses it to set the tone for the entire film; The Killers is not just about hooking up with the wrong woman, it is also about the huge psychological cost of violence and how the threat of violence can grind you down, wear you out and drive you to acts of madness in a bid to escape. The solution to Hemmingway’s question is contained in the look of terror on that blind receptionist’s face.

In the few weeks since I wrote the review, the thing that has remained with me is the threat of violence. Most thrillers wear their violence and law-breaking on their sleeves and derive most of their tension from the idea that violence and law-breaking might be deployed unsuccessfully: Will the heist fail? Will the hero walk away from the gun-fight? The Killers is very different in this respect as all of the film’s tension comes from the threat of violence. Though much of this threat is down to the film’s astonishing opening sequence, I have now come to realise that Marvin’s presence in the film would not have been half as effective if it hadn’t been juxtaposed against that of the wonderfully nervy and unconstrained Cassavetes. Done up in pitch-black shades and a steely-grey suit, Marvin broadcasts the same violent nihilism that followed him from film to film and made his career. Cassavetes, on the other hand, hides absolutely nothing: When he’s a race-winning driver, he swaggers. When he’s in love, he floats. When he’s afraid, he can’t keep still. The Killers is an incredibly tense film because we can see the fear of violence in every move Cassavetes makes. Brilliant.

Aesthetic Authenticity and Not Being a Good Cultural Citizen

To say that humans are fond of self-delusion would be something of an understatement. Lacking the sort of all-encompassing social meta-narrative that delivers us a pre-packaged sense of place and identity, many of us choose to define ourselves through what we do. Some of us sing, some of us paint, some of us write and some of us have anonymous sex with multiple partners. We define ourselves not merely by doing these things but through a process of emotional investment whereby how well we are doing as individuals becomes intimately tied to how well we are doing at a particular activity.  This process of emotional investment offers us some respite from the postmodern condition but it is also a minefield of self-delusion.

The more commonly travelled path to self-delusion involves becoming so emotionally invested in your undertakings that you become blind to your own inadequacies. This generally results in a hideous Catch-22 whereby people are doomed to mediocrity by their unwillingness to recognise the areas that would benefit from more work. The more areas of human undertaking I rub up against, the more I become convinced that this sort of thinking is endemic to the human condition. We all like to think of ourselves as special snowflakes and snowflakes tend not to fare too well in the baking heat of self-doubt. This, however, is not the sort of self-delusion that I want to write about today.  I want to write about the need to be a good cultural citizen and to, as Dan Kois put it in a piece for the New York Times, “Eat Your Cultural Vegetables”.

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