…found it.

16 December, 2008

After the big blow-out yesterday, I got home to find the thumbdrive still in the back of my laptop. I guess I’d been too tired to remember to take it out and put it in its proper place. This experience should teach me the importance of keeping to routines – I hope.

It must have fallen through a hole in my bag on the way to work. It had all my notes and detailed plan for my novel on it. Of course it’s backed up, but now anyone could steal my idea, or post it all on the internet. Fuck.

Nobody fucking cares.

*SPOILERS*

Thanks to a friend, I ended up seeing You Are [Not] Alone a couple of nights ago. It’s a good title, huh? It seems this may be an invention for the English-language release, as the Wikipedia page translates the original Japanese title as “Evangelion New Theatrical Version: The Beginning”.

I haven’t yet had a chance to revisit my DVDs of the previous releases, so I can only give a vague impression of what was different and what was the same. Others elsewhere may have posted more comprehensive comparisons, but this is for my own satisfaction, and, besides, will hopefully lack the adolescent pseudo-intellectual posturing that too often accompanies mention of NGE.

First, some have said that there are a few new shots added for the new film. Technically, I think it’s all new – to consistently match the high quality required by a modern cinema release, all cuts would have been newly generated and digitally edited and composited. So, in a way, the interesting question is: which shots did the director decide not to change? A detailed comparison will have to wait for a DVD release of the film, and a more patient reviewer than myself!

Generally, the film matched the look of the series closely. Explosions and other effects had the benefit of digital technology and big cinema sound, making the fights a lot more impressive than they had previously been. I noticed the use of a rainbow effect several times, and there was also a rainbow effect used on the text of the end credits, so it seems this will be a consistent motif through the new version.

New scenes: when Shinji runs away, there was a shot of him sleeping on the street, wrapped in cardboard, which I didn’t remember from the series. There was a shot of Rei’s blood on Shinji’s hand which I didn’t remember, though possibly it stood out this time because of its parallel with another “body fluid on hand” shot from End of Evangelion. A shot of Misato talking with blond whatsername on the escalator had an impressive CG structure scrolling behind them. In fact, the shots of subterranean transport were generally very detailed and atmospheric. The scene where Shinji opens Rei’s pod seemed more emotionally detailed than I remembered from previous; it seemed like both Rei and Shinji genuinely opened up, and a connection was formed. Hopefully this means the characters and relationships will be more realistic and developed than in previous versions.

A significant problem from the first version still persists: Shinji’s first fight with an angel still goes unexplained. Shinji is screaming, his EVA is disconnected from NERV operations, and then the EVA goes apeshit and kills the angel. What part Shinji played in that victory is never discussed or even referred to. Did he black out? Did he “merge” with his EVA? It’s bizarrely skipped over as though it’s not important, which is a shame, because I thought it was one point which could really benefit from revision.

I should mention here that I am not a huge fan of this series, nor of Hideaki Anno. Anno gets too much credit for NGE, which of course was created by a team, not by one man, but as Anno was already an iconic name, it was seen as entirely his creation. Doubtless he did have an important influence, but not always for the good. We can see his characteristic touches in the series His & Her Circumstances. The first half of this series is characterised by ever-lengthening episode recaps, long monologues, and animation more limited than any I’ve seen – most on-screen movement was in the huge reems of words scrolled upon the screen during the endless monologues. Anno was removed from the series halfway through, and, after an episode-and-a-half of recap to cover the transition period, the series continued in a much more conventional, and more watchable vein. This series is still often listed as one of Anno’s accomplishments, but the story and character elements that really save the show were carried across from the manga, and survived despite, not because of, Anno’s direction.

This talk of extremely limited animation, long monologues, and screens covered with text, will of course remind us of the controversial final episodes (25 and 26) of the original NGE series. The popularly accepted story is that Anno wanted to do something less obscure and more action-based for the finale, but was stymied by budget constraints. This is obviously untrue: (1) His & Her Circumstances was in the same style from the very beginning, and visual quality improved after he was taken off the project; (2) Shinji is constantly listening to tracks 25 and 26 on his tape player, supposedly a pointer to the final two episodes. They were obviously intended to be something other than a big physical conflict; (3) It would have been entirely possible to produce an acceptable action-based finale, by a combination of re-used shots, limited animation, visual effects, and hard work. The philosophical pontifications and pretentious symbolism of the finale episode were Anno’s choice, not something he was forced into. As far as his career goes, he made the right choice, as viewers were so mystified and intrigued that they were prepared to pay for another ending which made (only slightly) more sense, and now another version, which hopefully will explain the ending that was supposed to explain the previous ending.

Which is to slight what are NGE’s most interesting properties, its characters. Adolescents of all ages converge on the internet to discuss the virtues and foibles of Shinji, Asuka, and Rei. Part of the long-lasting appeal is that they are “unsolvable” characters; their personalities are rigid and unchanging, which is an intriguing conundrum, as we instinctively know that people do change, and do have more than one aspect to their personalities. My special peeve here is fans who praise Asuka as the best potential romantic partner for Shinji. If we judge these characters as real people, then, from what I know of people, Asuka and Shinji actually basically hate each other, mitigated in his case by burgeoning lust, and in Asuka’s by her desire to subjugate Shinji to her will. Yes, relationships like that happen in real life, but it’s hardly something fans should wish upon characters they are supposed to care about. As for Shinji and Rei, Rei is a clone of Shinji’s mother, so, er, no (shudder).

I should just mention two more points. The musical soundtrack was excellent, and I think my favourite parts of it were those that did not refer to the series music. I’m seriously contemplating getting the soundtrack CD when it comes out. Also, Pen-Pen the penguin is back. He wasn’t really used much in the original, and basically disappeared from the second half of the series, so I’m hoping he’ll have more of a role to play this time.

UPDATE 15/12/08:

I’ve gone back and watched the first half of the original TV series, and must say I am now even more impressed with the achievement of the film, in paring down the story, clarifying the emotions (especially when Shinji opens Rei’s pod), and improving the visuals. What I call the “blue diamond” angel is greatly improved, with its shifting CG-assisted geometry, and sudden crystalline growth when wounded.

I noticed a rainbow effect in the TV series, when Shinji ends up on top of Rei in her apartment – I wonder if there were other rainbows I missed?

Thought for the Day 10/12/08

11 December, 2008

Aaagh! Stuff costs money!

David Foster Wallace is dead.

And “fraud”, Mark Costello reminded the mourners at Amherst, “was one of the worst words in his personal vocabulary”.*

Arts & Letters Daily has linked to two hagiographies* on DFW (as he was known amongst his acolytes and those who dislike typing long pretentious noms de plume). Apparently he was a cult figure amongst the literati. He wrote two novels, including a very long one called Infinite Jest, plus a bunch of stories and articles. He has been placed in the contemporary canon beside Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, Dave Eggers, Martin Amis, Jonathan Franzen, et al.

The problem is that he wasn’t much of a writer, but he shouldn’t feel too bad, as he is in famous company (see above). Here is some of his prose:

On the stripped bed – neatly littered with papers and cards, my notecards, a decade of stenography to Lyndon – lay my lover, curled stiff on his side, a frozen skeleton X ray, impossibly thin, fuzzily bearded, his hand outstretched with dulled nails to cover, partly, the white face attached to the long form below the tight clean sheets, motionless, the bed flanked by two Servicemen who slumped, tired, red, green. Duverger’s spread cold hand partly covered the Presidential face as in an interrupted caress; it lay like a spider on the big pill of the man’s head, the bland, lined carnivore’s mouth, his glasses with clear frames, his nasal inhaler on the squat bedside table, the white Hot Line blinking, mutely active, yellow in a yellow light on Kennedy. Duverger’s hand was spread open over the face of the President. I saw the broad white cotton sheet, Duverger above and Johnson below, the sharp points of Johnson’s old man’s breasts against the sheet. the points barely moving, the chest hardly rising, the sheet pulsing, ever so faintly, like water at a great distance from its source.
Lyndon (short story)
from http://www.cosmoetica.com/B237-DES177.htm

Now, that’s a lot of words right there, and the thoughtless literatum is impressed by great length (everyone knows that one reason Finnegan’s Wake is better than Ulysses is that it’s longer – I mean, what would we think of it if it was shorter?). They’re not so good at criticising prose style, though, and how could they be, the generation to whom E. Annie Proulx is a great stylist? (Even her pen-name is clumsy.)

We might analyse more closely the astounding carelessless of his writing:

  • It is a “stripped bed”, but Lyndon is “below the tight clean sheets”. Which is true?
  • The bed is “neatly littered”, which I hope I don’t have to point out is oxymoronic.
  • The phrase “stenography to Lyndon”: stenography is not “to” anyone; if he meant to analogise stenographic notes to love-letters, he should have been clearer.
  • The phrase “my lover, curled stiff on his side”: was he stiff or curled? If both, it’ll take extra work to convince us of that image.
  • The phrase “a frozen skeleton X ray”: frozen? X-ray pictures don’t move. Or is it an X-ray of a frozen skeleton? The phrase is adolescently awkward, wordily over-precise but at the same time visually vague.
  • The phrase “his hand outstretched with dulled nails”: presumably not a crucificion reference but a description of his fingernails? “Outstretched with dull nails” is grammatically confused, as though the nails belong to the outstretching rather than to the hand.
  • The phrase “to cover, partly”: he gives the idea “to cover”, and then has to retract it, to make himself clearer, when “to partly cover” would have been easier to understand, and would have read more smoothly, too.
  • “the white face attached to the long form below the tight clean sheets, motionless”: how was the face “attached” – with staples? Or by some sort of ball-and-socket arrangement? His order of description is confused, going from the face to the “long form” (which we must think about before realising it’s the face’s body), which is then located beneath some “tight” sheets (did someone tuck him in after sex, for God’s sake?), and then finally a mention that he is motionless, as though this was some how mention-worthy (if it was, it should’ve come sooner in the sentence, or been more strongly emphasised).
  • “the bed flanked by two Servicemen who slumped, tired, red, green”: were they standing or sitting? On both sides of the bed or one? What was their attitude, apart from being “tired”? And how on Earth were they “red, green”? Are these colour supposed to be evocative or symbolic of something? Are they red with anger and green with nausea (or red with passion and green with envy)? Is one red and the other green? Or are they each a combination of the two?

Ye gods, I’m still on the first sentence! And I haven’t even got onto the flat unbelievability of his characters, his small ability to create a convincing scene or mood, and the utter vacuity of his alleged insights into popular culture. Frankly, I haven’t the patience to demolish this fellow sentence by sentence. And, sadly, it seems some readers are incapable of seeing through DFW without such a guide – but, as I said, when the above-named notables are studied as being the modern Greats, we shouldn’t expect a generation capable of even the most basic close criticism.

I can only hope that DFW died with some sort of honour – that he read some of his work whilst actually sober, realised what a fraud he was, and put an end to it.

 
(Apologies for such a heartless conclusion, but bad writing deserves no charity.)

Essential Anime Viewing

3 December, 2008

My definition of “essential” is “the best”. That is, not the series that the most people have seen, not even the ones recognised as widely influential, and certainly not the ones everyone loves because of nostalgia (I’m currently watching the Giant Robo OVA, which has brilliant production levels, but is pure nostalgic junk).

Keep in mind also that I’m a bit older than most anime fans, so have a bit less patience with the anime cliches.

To be fair (and get ahead of the critics), I’m going to mention the flaws that exist but I think fail to dent the shows’ intrinsic excellence. Except where specified, these shows have great character, story, graphic design, music, etc.

In NO particular order:

Fruits Basket – a reverse harem show that could’ve been trite, but had brilliant direction and wonderful OP/ED. Flaws: Gets a bit repetitive; ending doesn’t resolve the love triangle.
Azumanga Daioh – humour working on clever and dumb levels simultaneously; some great characters. Flaws: should’ve been longer.
Boogiepop Phantom – wonderfully grim and creepy; a horror anime that doesn’t resort to cliches (better than the book). Flaws: visually very dark; sometimes hard to tell characters apart.
Genshiken – yes, it’s set in an anime club, but this is brilliantly perceptive character-based comedy. Flaws: weak OP; waiting for the sequel.
Gunslinger Girl – from the premise, this could’ve been so bad, but the characters are detailed, convincing and touching, and you are carried along even though there’s not much of an “arc”. Flaws: ending feels inconclusive (I’m not counting the second series, which I haven’t seen).
Haibane Renmei – least pretentious of the ABe animes, because he directed himself. A great parable about life, set in a full-realised alt world. Flaws: None I can think of; maybe needed a punchier ending?
(Mobile Suit) Gundam Seed – brings together the best elements of the previous series, with fine modern graphics; a great space epic. Flaws: confusing in beginning if you don’t know the premise; padded in the middle; don’t remember how it ends.
(Super Dimensional Fortress) Macross – Still very original story. Fascinating characters. The last third, only produced due to unexpected popularity, really raises this series, showing the aftermath of war and how personalities and decisions affect destiny. Flaws: dated animation; takes a while to take off; OP/ED.
Wolf’s Rain – sustains a unique “end times” feel; good characters; plot well constructed; epic feel. Flaws: 4 recap episodes in a row due to strike?; art a bit drab; spoiler[everyone dies].
Planetes – creates a realistic future world, viewed from the bottom up. Terrific plot (takes a while to develop) that delivers at the end. Flaws: characters tend to stereotype; I didn’t think much of the OP/ED.

And I’ll sneak in a personal favourite at the end:
NieA_7 – a poignant comedy about a starving student in recession Japan, + there’s aliens. Fans of gentle nostalgic ambience will love. Flaws: OP singer; takes a while to get past the surface comedy.

There’s still a lot of anime to see, so this list is not exhaustive.

The Meaning of Music

1 December, 2008

Well, someone famously said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture, but we all talk about music, so it must be somewhat effective. Talk about music is ultimately informed by our emotional response to it. Indeed, without that emotional response there would be no need for anything like art; it would merely be pattern without function; it would be redundant.

As opposed to subtle arguments about whether music imitates, evokes, represents, communicates anything (I believe it can do all of these things), I am personally more interested in the difference between music and noise. I think John Cage raised interesting questions with his compositions, but ultimately the answer has to be that music is not random, and the parts of noise that appeal to us aesthetically do so because they produce relationships of tone and rhythm that we instinctively recognise as musical.

Now, to address something I should have addressed at the start, what do I mean by musical? I mean that tonal relationships, both horizontal (melodic) and vertical (harmonic), affect us emotionally. This seems to me to be an obvious, prima facie fact. Certain cool theoreticians say that it is a useless banality to say that a major chord seems “happy” and a minor chord seems “sad”. Well, banal it may be, but it is a banality with which all but the most autistic or perversely technocratic would agree.

If a major chord seems “happy” and a minor chord seems “sad” to the listener, we must presume that they also seem that way to the composer. All the other tonal relations that are variously poignant to us are also poignant to the composer. So what a composer does is arrange tones horizontally and vertically to produce a complex (vertical) and sustained (horizontal) emotional experience in the listener.

Beyond this function, music is complicated by (i) technical and (ii) social factors, as well as (iii) the desire for novelty:

(i) Music theory is a way of keeping music “tidy” as it increases in scale and complexity, by confining tonal relations and rhythms within certain mutually-agreed bounds (the mutual agreement is necessary so that we can recognise the matrix over which the tonal and rhythmical elements are developed). It also adds an appeal to mathematical instinct: the urge to count, and to identify patterns.*
(ii) Through precedent, music can evoke social memories, e.g. the “martial” strains of military music; see also violins evoking Gypsies, horns evoking hunts, trumpets evoking military bugle calls (I would classify imitation of natural sounds as a sub-set of this). Arguably, both (i) and (ii) are a kind of extra-musical decadence, but I think they are unavoidable.
(iii) Unless we are obsessive-compulsive, we don’t want to listen to the same music repeatedly. Thus we are interested in music containing novel elements. At the same time, there is a tension, because we naturally distrust the unfamiliar. We particularly distrust innovation arising from (i) and (ii), as these sophistications are already a step removed from “pure” tonal relationships. This is why avant guarde developments of the 20th Century remain cultish.

* I have not addressed the issue of rhythm in detail. I think the rhythmic and tonal elements of music must have developed simultaneously, but, despite Reich’s Drumming, rhythm has not developed to the extent that tonal music has, in terms of structural complexity (theoretical relationships of parts), and emotional potential.