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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Why You Want to Fuck Christopher Hitchens – Celebrity, Consumerism and the Search for Online Identity


I’d like to open with a kind of history. This history takes many forms and surfaces in many different places with the names of the actors sometimes replaced. Occasionally, the role of the nation-state is assumed by religion and at other times it is the gods of classical antiquity who take the lead. Regardless of which iteration of this history you have heard, its narrative will be familiar to you for it is a narrative of loss.

Once upon a time, people lived in tribes. These tribes were small social entities made up of a number of different family groups that pooled their resources. Members of tribes lived together, worked together and died together and this permanent state of communion with others made their lives meaningful. Of course, human nature being what it is, tribes could not peacefully co-exist and the tribes soon began conquering each other until their dominion extended over millions of people and thousands of miles of territory. Because these abstract tribal groupings were a lot harder to manage than a couple of families that had been living and working together for generations, tribal elders began reinventing themselves as governments who began to rule over abstract political entities known as kingdoms and principalities then as nations and states. Of course, nation states were never anything more than a way of referring to the territory under the control of one particular government but they stuck around for long enough that people began to forget their tribal loyalties and began to see their nationality as a fundamental fact about themselves, a fact no different to their sex, their gender, their sexuality or their race, a fact that took the form of a noun.

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Prometheus (2012) – Calvinball Mythology and the Void of Meaning

0. We Crave Mythologies, Not Stories

Humanity has always told and listened to stories. Given that these stories sometimes provide the backbone for an entire culture or mode of being, it is only natural that stories should evolve to suit the needs of the cultures that tell them. Western culture has changed a lot over the last fifty years and one of the ways in which our culture has changed is that we have acquired a taste for longer and longer stories. Once upon a time, we watched films, read novels and enjoyed TV shows that could be watched in almost any order. Now, we read series of novels, watch trilogies of films and feel cheated if our TV series do not end by paying off storylines that span multiple seasons and dozens of episodes. As a culture, Westerners no longer crave stories… they crave mythologies.

While explanations for this trend towards narrative expansiveness may lie beyond the scope of a single blog post, I would suggest that we crave fictional mythologies because the religious mythologies we inherited have lost all credibility and the market has stepped in to fill the gap. Though we may not believe in the mythologies of Marvel comics in the same way that our parents believed in God, the experience of engaging with escapist literature is very similar to that of engaging with religious text.  As J.R.R. Tolkien once put it:

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having peculiar quality.

This ‘turn’ comes in the form of the moment when we suddenly lose ourselves in a fictional world and cheer inwardly when the narrative logic of that world asserts itself upon the events of the plot. When a hero finally wins the day or the tragic queen finally dies, we feel a sense of consolation that is entirely lacking from the ‘real world’ we inhabit for much of our waking lives. This desire to feel that the world abides by the rules of a story and that everything in the world happens for a reason is central to the religious impulse. Even a staunch Catholic like Tolkien recognised that the sense of fulfilment we gain from a good piece of escapist literature offers a faint echo of the sense of fulfilment that can be gained from having Faith in the Christian story.

As Westerners have come to demand more and more from their escapist media, creators have responded by not only satisfying those desires but by encouraging them whenever possible. These days, one cannot have a successful film without a franchise and one cannot have a franchise without a suite of media tie-ins including novels, games, TV series and comics. Each of these spin-offs adds complexity to the franchise and allows for the creation of yet more products whose worlds intersect that of the core franchise. The talent, manpower and money poured into the construction of these trans-media megatexts would be horrifying were it not so historically familiar… The truth is that our culture builds media franchises for the same reason that the Ancient Egyptians built pyramids and Medieval Christians built cathedrals: We are taking the fantastical and making it concrete so as to make the fantasy feel more like reality.

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Tree of Life (2011) – Cheese is Bad for You

Tree of Life begins with both a question and a tentative answer.  The question comes from the Book of Job:

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

The context of this line is slightly peculiar but, for the moment, we can interpret it as being existential in nature: It is a demand for explanation. Where were you? Where am I? Who am I? Teasingly, Malick provides an initial answer in the form of a voice-over.  There are, we are told, two paths in life: a path of Grace and a path of Nature. The path of Grace, the voice-over explains, is fearless, rewarding and free from self-doubt and self-awareness.  It is a path that one walks seemingly without being aware that one is walking a path. Tellingly, Malick neither tightens his question nor the concept of Grace that he offers as a potential solution.  Nor does he ever bother to explain what the path of Nature might entail. One way of reading this hand-waving is by assuming that Malick is challenging his audience: What is Grace? What is Nature? How do you walk these paths? How does walking these paths answer the fundamental existential questions of being? All will be revealed in the film that follows. However, I will argue that Malick’s evasiveness is the entire point of the film. In life, answers are fleeting and all attempts to seek clear answers are doomed to end merely in more questions. Tree of Life suggests that no matter which type of cheese (be it ‘happiness’, ‘enlightenment’, ‘Grace’ or ‘union with the Godhead’) we seek, life will always be a maze.

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Some Thoughts On… The Princess of Montpensier (2010)

Based on a novel by Madame de la Fayette, Bertrand Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier tells a story of love, betrayal, jealousy and intrigue set against a vicious 16th Century French civil war that saw Protestants square off against Catholics.

On initial viewing, there is little to distinguish The Princess of Montpensier from the growing backlog of pleasingly cynical romances that have come to dominate French period drama over the last couple of decades. For example, if you liked the swashbuckling aspects of Philippe de Broca’s Le Bossu (1997) or the acute social commentary of Patrice Leconte’s Ridicule (1997) then you will find in Tavernier’s film elements of both. However, look beyond the masked balls and the buckled swashes and you will also find a film that is refreshingly literary in its approach to storytelling.

Many films are formulaic creations content to tell and retell the same stories that people have been telling to each other since fire met side and beer met lips.  In these ancient narratives, character only ever serves as ballast as the issue is never what a particular character will do but which of his character traits will force him down the rabbit hole of conventional narrative form: is the young hero motivated by passion or by a desire to prove himself? Is his quest for truth, for himself or for love? An approach to narrative that prizes effectiveness of plot over respect for character and complexity is a fixture of genre and there’s a genre for everything these days.  Thankfully, some works take a different approach in so far as they place the impetus not upon the plot but upon the characters.  The plot, in such forms of writing, comes from the characters and not from some procrustean notion of what constitutes a story.  This approach to plotting is particularly evident in the televisual writings of David Milch, whose Deadwood and John from Cincinatti both featured narratives that emerged organically as a result of having a bunch of well-drawn characters shoved into a confined space in which they are forced to interact.

The Princess of Montpensier is a film that is written very much in the Milchian tradition.  It begins by introducing us to a series of characters and then waits patiently as these characters’ personality traits force them into conflict with each other.  The characters in question are:

  • Marie (Melanie Thierry): The beautiful and intelligent daughter of a wealthy but guileless nobleman.
  • De Chabannes (Lambert Wilson): The accomplished scholar, courtier and warrior whose disaffection with violence has resulted in banishment from court and a job as Marie’s tutor in the courtly arts.
  • Philippe (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet): The son of an ambitious nobleman whose character and skills never quite live up to his aspirations.
  • De Guise (Gaspard Ulliel): The impossibly skilled and glamorous scion of the wealthiest family in the realm.
  • Anjou (Raphael Personnaz): Son of the Queen and General of the Catholic armies.

For nearly two and a half hours, The Princess of Montpensier shows us what happens when some of the most accomplished, powerful and greedy men in France fall in love with the same woman. Some love her because others love her, some love her for who she is and some love her because she is theirs by right or by love.  Regardless of their motivations and Marie’s attitude towards them, these men are all willing to stake everything they have in order to get what they want. The film’s plot flows naturally from the ensuing conflicts as disagreements, jealousies and insecurities pile on top of each other as irrational desires surge and spiral out of control. This treatment of irrational passion makes the film an interesting companion piece to Patrice Chereau’s Dumas-inspired La Reine Margot (1994), which features many of the same historical characters and settings.

La Reine Margot explains the French Wars of Religion by presenting Early Modern France as a bubbling cauldron of sexual, religious and political passions, passions that inevitably bubbled over into mass hysteria resulting in the demented carnage of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.  Chereau depicts Paris as a sweltering, flea-infested place that is so overcrowded and full of drink and hatred that the massacre could just as easily have been caused by a fight over a barmaid as by the desire to control the spiritual fate of the nation. Religious violence, for Chereau, is just an expression of humanity’s inherent psychological instability.

Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier opts for a slightly different approach by presenting 16th Century France as an eminently reasonable place in which people go about their business without being overly worried by matters of religion or love. Indeed, given that the plot involves only Catholic nobles, the Huguenots are absent from the bulk of the film excepting one brilliant scene in which their black-clad countenances are warped and rendered monstrous and ethereal by an imperfect pane of glass. By presenting the irrational conflict over Marie as an uncharacteristic moment of madness, Tavernier is presenting Marie as a sort of thematic placeholder for the high ground of French political life, whether it is secular or religious. By showing us how a number of powerful and accomplished men can destroy themselves for the sake of a woman, Tavernier is suggesting how the Wars of Religion might have come to pass, namely that it is a small step from a life of sanity to an orgy of blood and self-destructive violence.

Grounded in some beautifully drawn and wonderfully performed characters and boasting some neat sword-fights and battle sequences, The Princess of Montpensier is a timely reminder not only of the cynical wonders of French period drama but also of the astonishing richness of French history. The French Wars of Religion saw the French body politic tear itself to shreds as the desire for compromise and peace was driven out by a murderous need for purity and blood. By setting a tragic romance against this backdrop, Tavernier is warning us that human nature is so unstable that there is no telling when such moments of madness might grip us again.

The Offence (1972) – I am not your Godhead, I am just a Paedophile

I get the impression that for many, a trip to the cinema is a religious experience.  Note that I say ‘religious’ and not ‘mystical’. People commonly reach for transcendental terminology when groping for fresh panegyrics with which to adorn some film or another;  said film is not merely good, watching it is comparable to what a medieval peasant might have experienced upon visiting a cathedral or what a fakir might experience after twenty years crouching upon nails in the sub-continental wilderness.  This is not what I mean by religious experience.  What I mean instead is that people go to the cinema (or read a book) in order to have their moral compasses reset.  They go to see a romantic comedy in order to re-connect with what it is to be really in love.  They go to see Pixar’s Up (2009) in order to know what it means to grow old with someone.  They go to see a navel-gazing drama that deals in matters of identity and alienation in order to get some insight into who and what they are.  People use films in the same way as they once used the Sunday sermon : As a form of guidance.  Simple moral and psychological truths made accessible and easily digested along with pop-corn and diet Coke.  Is it then any wonder that we treat successful actors as living gods?  These people are not merely entertainers, they are the prophets of a secular age.  Our need to constantly tell stories about ourselves drives our desire to consume the stories of others.

Most films are happy to play their role in this relationship.  Modern romantic comedies have their relationship advice, Godard had his attempts at spreading Maoism and even nihilistic film-makers such as Noe are happy to sell their audiences on the horrors of existence, a belief which, in its own way, is no less consolatory than the more up-beat alternatives such as Sam Mendes’ bile-raising “sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it”.  However, some film-makers seem instinctively aware of their positions as moral teachers and reject the role.  Directors such as Hanneke and Von Trier assume accusatory and playfully obtuse attitudes towards their audience in order to avoid it.  Sidney Lumet’s The Offence, based upon the play This Story of Yours by John Hopkins is a film that seems to deconstruct this relationship, turning it into something unhealthy and disturbing.

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The Virgin Spring (1960) – Trembling Before God

Horror giant Wes Craven reportedly claimed that the violence of his debut feature The Last House On The Left (1969) is a reaction by his generation to the horrors of the Vietnam war.  While this justification seems a trifle pretentious and self-serving, it does raise the issue of why it is that depictions of violence in film need to be justified at all.

Why is it that Richard Curtis never feels compelled to speak about how the goings on in Darfur dictate that he must produce sentimental comedies involving smug upper class people?  Is the production of a third Ice Age film a direct reaction to the death of Baby P?  Were it not for the death of Princess Margaret, would Woody Allen ever have made Vicky Christina Barcelona?

A lot of the time, the way in which we justify things is only as interesting as the fact that we feel obliged to justify them at all.  This is the issue that Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) seeks to address.

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