Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Frozen Imagination

I-ma-gi-na-tion, i-ma-gi-na-tion,
A dream can be a dream come true,
One little spark in me and you.
-          Dreamfinder and Figment’s “One Little Spark” song from Epcot’s Journey into Imagination ride.

At the beginning of this semester, I saw Escape from Tomorrow (2013).  The plot of the film involved a typical American family vacationing at Walt Disney World.  We join the family on their last day at the parks, where the father, Jim (Roy Abramsohn), finds out that he has been fired.  While Jim tries to put on a brave face as if nothing has happened, he slowly beings to unravel as the day goes on.  What follows is a study of the despair of the post-modern idea of fatherhood, with Jim fantasizing about two teenage French girls, having a fling with an older woman who is either a witch, cosplaying, or another skewed entity in Jim’s mind, and contracting the lethal cat flu.  While this is by no means a great film, nor does it paint the contemporary male in a very positive light, the film has a vision that it pursues which is unique.  It created some initial buzz because the director, Randy Moore, filmed the movie entirely within the Disney parks and did not inform Disney.  This is important because Disney controls its image fastidiously.  What happens in the film doesn’t really paint Disney in a negative light.  The thrust of the narrative is the moral and psychological failings of its protagonist.  What is interesting is that it places this problem in what is known as “The Happiest Place On Earth.”

In order to go forward, I must digress.  I grew up in two towns:  Altamonte Springs and Winter Springs.  Both are in Florida and are about an hour away from Disney World.  Disney World is not far away from the city of Orlando.  For decades now, Orlando has heavily marketed itself as THE vacation destination for not just the United States but the whole planet.  It also includes Sea World, is an hour away from a variety of East Coast beaches (most notably Cocoa Beach, Daytona Beach, and Port Canaveral, where the Kennedy Space Center is located), and when I was young, there was another entertainment park which went through two iterations:  Circus World (closed 1986) and Boardwalk and Baseball (closed 1990).  More recently, Universal Studios (opened 1990) and Islands of Adventure (opened 1999) were added.  There are other attractions, such as Wet ‘N Wild Waterpark, Gatorland, some weirdness called the Holy Land Experience (which reenacts Christ’s crucifixion daily … sounds like fun).  For a while, there was an odd little place called Splendid China, which was a miniature version of China, complete with wall, which opened in 1993 and closed in 2003 (I’m bummed I never got to see it, but I do know one of the architects who designed the place).  Then, there’s the Orlando Magic basketball team, lots of water sports, golf courses.  In short, there is a TON of things to do in Orlando.  Just go there.

The weirdness of how Orlando and the surrounding area has developed is that its industry is rather single-track:  it’s all about tourism.  There isn’t any real industry to speak of.  There is some citrus around the area, but that is nowhere as prominent as it was back in the 1960s and 70s.  So everything is service-based.  Even if you worked in a fast food restaurant (I worked at the Lake Buena Vista McDonald’s for a summer – my very first job) or gas station (as I did for a few years after high school before I left for Ohio), you needed to be smiley and friendly.  Orlando sells an image – happy happy happy.  It is difficult to explain how this skews your perception of reality in a world so rooted in make-believe and fantasy, but it does.  It can make you cynical way before you really should be.  It also fosters a bit of a Puck-ish sense of mischief that isn’t altogether healthy.  There’s a guy called Swoozie on YouTube that has some videos about his experiences working for The Mouse which can give you a bit more insight.  It’s rare to find people who are “from” Florida, but many people have “been” there, and there is a gulf of experience between the two.  Oh, forgot to mention, the area outside of this tourist paradise is where all the retirees are.  They possess a whole different set of issues.

So, I was intrigued that Moore went commando and shot his film in Disney World.  The setting resonated with me far more than if he had set the film in some other vacation locale.  Unfortunately, I don’t think he did enough to exploit this decision, mostly so that he wouldn’t run too afoul with Disney.  Free use dictates that he couldn’t try to duplicate a Disney “experience” with the film, like you could watch the film and have it be in place of visiting Disney World.  He even changed the song for the It’s a Small World ride so as not to infringe on copyright.  So, I get it but am still disappointed.  There is very little Disney in his Disney film.

I was surprised to see there was so much venom involved in the film.  A few reviewers were practically salivating to see if Moore poked fun at or denigrated the Disney machine.  Outside of some enforcers (which they do have for crowd control purposes), which could or could not be part of Jim’s devolving mind, Disney is treated rather antiseptically.  Indeed, Disney ended up not pursuing an injunction or suing Moore.  While the plot is seedy, the setting is innocuous.

But that is not why I’m writing this post.  I am writing this post because of something that I do find egregious with Disney and, by extension, American society (or maybe even the state of the first world, for that matter), and that is the decided lack of imagination I am seeing on parade.  It comes in two forms, both of which I got to experience this Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

The first is leveled at Disney directly.  Disney used to make GREAT films.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942).  They had heartwarming characters, laughter and tears, beautiful animations, and catchy songs.  However, somewhere along the way, Disney has lost its sense of imagination and has become the purveyor of the derivative.  I’m trying to nail down when this happened, and I would venture to say when the direct to video market started to take off, when sequels of theatrical releases went straight to video.  The first of these appears to be Beauty and the Beast:  Enchanted Christmas (1997).  From there, roughly half of their animation output is for video/DVD consumption.  Yeah, I know; who can blame them?  Especially in an era where minivans come with DVD players (more on that in a bit) and streaming video and a plethora of cable channels (especially Disney’s own) need content.  So yeah, crank out Cinderalla III (2007) and Little Mermaid III (2008).  Release another Tinker Bell adventure.  People will buy it.

What happens is that everything starts to repeat itself, so much so that when it comes to spitting out another theatrical release (which needs to happen around Christmastime and during the summer in order to maximize profit), the well is not just dry; they are fracking it.  It used to be that Disney liked to reinvent fairy tales and draw from folklore.  And they still sort of try to do that.  Take the completely forgettable Tangled (2010), which tries vainly to breathe new life into Rapunzel.  It was eye-rollingly tedious.  This year’s model is something called Frozen (2013), which I went to under protest.  It is the story of two sisters, Elsa and Anna (who are princesses, because this is Disney).  Elsa, the older sister, has some sort of magical power (the how and why of which are not explained, so who cares?) that causes her to create ice (because if she created fire, they’d have to call the movie Melted, which doesn’t have the same holiday connotations).  She accidentally injures Anna and is sequester away so she can’t hurt anybody ever again.  Tragically (gasp!), the king and queen die on a sea voyage, and the two daughters live out their youth, isolated from each other.  When Elsa comes of age for a coronation, the castle is opened, and Anna revels in the opportunity to finally get out of the house (why she hasn’t been able to leave, we don’t know – it is her sister that is under lock and key - but again, not explained, so who cares?).  She meets a charming prince and falls madly in love at first sight.  Elsa is against them marrying, and the ensuing argument sets off Elsa’s ice powers (you wouldn’t like her when she’s angry), and she freezes the kingdom and runs away to an architecturally interesting ice castle where she can finally be herself and not have to hide anymore.  Anna then sets off to seek out Elsa in the hopes that she will unfreeze the world and come back home and live happily ever after.  This sets up conflicts about Anna falling for the rugged Kristoff (even though she is supposedly engaged to the dreamy Hans, but he turns out to be evil later on, so who cares?), Elsa learning to control her ice power through love instead of fear, and sisterly love.  Everything about the plot is telegraphed by the trailers and relentless marketing (my niece and nephew had books of the movie before its release).  The characters are one-dimensional archetypes.  It’s … so … boring.  The only redeeming aspect is the requisite fun, sidekick-y character.  In this movie, it is Olaf, the snowman.  But even then, he reminded me a lot of the character Yes Man from Fallout New Vegas.  That overenthusiastic, innocent, happy character that says cute things.

I’ll admit I am probably being a trifle unfair to Frozen, as my nieces and nephew seemed to enjoy it.  But they haven’t really hit critical thinking yet (oldest is 9), so everything is good except a majority of vegetables.  But for me, my soul took a hit.  Is this the same studio that made little tears fall from my young eyes while watching The Fox and the Hound?  Is this the group responsible for the witty writing of The Emperor’s New Groove?  What happened?  Are all stories told?  Where’s the original thinking?  Oh yeah, I know.  That’s Pixar.  Toy Story, Ratatouille, Up.  Right.  So what did Disney do?  Buy Pixar.  Fuck you, John Lasseter.  No, that’s not fair either.  Lasseter had a big hand of getting the deal between Studio Ghibli and Disney and has always been a big promoter of Miyazaki.  Ok, a grumbling thanks to Lasseter.  But when there’s less competition in the market, what happens?  Stagnation.  And I’m sorry, but there’s nothing about Cars (2006) or Planes (2013) that makes me want to see those films (What’s next?  Boats?  Trains?).  The imagination factories that once made Disney inspire animation creation around the world with Mickey Mouse is now a cookie-cutter money maker (Frozen made over $67 million dollars Thanksgiving weekend – in its first seven days of release, it has made almost $94 million dollars – oh my god).

But perhaps I am placing the blame on the wrong group.  There were a lot of people who ponied up money (me included) for the privilege of having 108 minutes wasted, not spending quality time with relatives, watching Frozen.   It’s our big, dumb fault.  How did we all fail so miserably?  That brings me to my second point.  The capacity to imagine is being slowly drained from our minds.  I take that back – this is not slow regression.  It is taking place within a few generations.  Now I’m going to sound like an old, crotchety person, but the influx of technology is sapping our imaginative capacity.  No one is bored anymore.  They are glued to their iPhones, iPads, video games, Kindles and other entertainment devices.  Hanging around my nieces and nephew (and my two year old niece knows how to operate an iPad flawlessly), I can see them immersed in their own worlds of their choosing (their apps and games).  You may be saying that a similar argument was made when books were invented, the great leap forward we made with the printing press and literacy.  But that promoted imagination, not squelched it.  Reading is an active process, and you have to create the pictures and interpretations of the content internally.  What about radio?  That’s only voice.  Your brain still had to fill in the blanks.  The backwards slide, I hate to say it, is film.  Sure, you can watch a film actively, but most people don’t.  For the majority, it is dispensable entertainment that leaves you soon after you view it.  Television is the same as well.  There are no blanks or gaps, but there is interpretation.  If anything, playing a video game is more active (or reactive).  But this constant interaction with something that is designed to cater to your every whim is dangerous.  It gives the user the impression that they should never have to be without entertainment with something they find interesting.  It shortens attention spans and robs us of periods of time where our minds can wander.  What happens when you were a kid (or heck, even as an adult) where you’re on a road trip somewhere and you are staring out the window at the world and your mind drifts to daydreaming?  You are creating that world.  How can you create that world if you are watching a DVD or playing a Nintendo DS?  The more we allow others to provide us content so that in turn we provide none for ourselves by ourselves and our own agencies, the more we lose the capacity to imagine.  Those synapses won’t fire as frequently, while other synapses, the ones keyed into what’s in front of our faces, will strengthen.  What will this look like in 80 years?

I know this is sounding rather maudlin, and I’m sorry.  I’m pretty sick about it myself.  I sat at tables in restaurants and watched my niece and nephew buried in their phones.  When their father took the phones away and “forced” the children to interact, it seemed more like they were counting down the minutes before they could get back to what they wanted.  When my sister appeared upset with me that I went back to my mom’s house after dropping off the kids after a trip to Toys ‘R Us to buy them Christmas gifts, and my nephew promptly descended into the downstairs game room to play his new copy of Lego Marvel Super Heroes, that I wasn’t going to hang out and spend “quality time” with the kids, I couldn’t muster the requisite guilty feeling that I knew I was supposed to have.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Hideaki Anno, Please Leave Eva Alone

I’ve actually been crafting this rant for years, but it wasn’t until this summer that the buzzing wouldn’t cease, so I need to address it:

Hideaki Anno is either the biggest whore or horribly tortured by being out of ideas.  I cannot really see a third option.

Directors often have to make compromises when creating their works.  Screenplays go through rewrites, adjustments during production and post-production are made, editing creates issues.  Sometimes films are screened for producers and/or test audiences, and further modifications are made.  While it is their “vision,” that vision is sometimes negotiated.  Which is why we have directors’ cuts of films.  Directors can restore, re-edit, and reimagine their works to more closely reflect their intentions.

Let’s take, for example, Blade Runner (1982).  There are FIVE official versions of the film (I am not counting the San Diego Preview version or the broadcast version[which was done largely by the channel]): the 1982 work print version (which was used to show executives and test audiences, which prompted a lot of revisions), the theatrical version (which had the voice over and the “happy” ending), the international version (which has more violent action scenes), the1992 director’s cut (which is mostly the work print with some modifications and restoration), and the 2007 final cut (what Ridley Scott considers to be the definitive version).  Most of the differences in these versions deal with content related to violence, changes in score, different endings, Ford’s voice-over and technical aspects.  While any adjustment is important to the overall work, the major revisions for this, arguably, are the changes in ending and the removal of the voice-over.  Most everything else conceptual, thematic, character- and plot-related is retained.

A majority of film wonks will say that either the 1992 or 2007 version is the best.  I’ve never heard anyone take up the side of the theatrical version.  Criterion backed the international version, which was the version they released on laserdisc in 1987. The work print version is important, as it is the basis for the 1992 version and is 70mm.

Another notable work that went through different iterations is Brazil (1985), which had a studio (Universal) put in a “happy” ending.  Terry Gilliam later had the original version released.  Changing the ending of a film is a definite deviation from a director’s intent, so these attempts by the directors to restore their vision is essential.  I would never argue against that.  However, as I will endeavor to demonstrate, sometimes this attempt at revision goes way beyond what is neither wanted nor needed.

Neon Genesis Evangelion is an anime that came out on Japanese television from October 1995 to March 1996.  It is 26 episodes long.  Each episode is approximately 30 minutes.  Some (what looks to be two episodes) of the show aired on The Cartoon Network during “Giant Robot Week” in February 2003 and also was aired on Adult Swim from 2005 to 2007.

The company that produced the show is Gainax.  Gainax was originally founded in 1984 by, essentially, anime nerds.  One of the founding members was HideakiAnno.  He had worked on other projects with other companies, but he and his college buddies got together to produce an opening animation for a large anime convention (Daicon III), and that’s what got the ball rolling.  After his work on Royal Space Force:  Wings of Honneamise (1987), he directed Gunbuster (1988, a film) and Nadia:  The Secret of Blue Water (1990-1991, a 39-episode TV series), as well as continuing to animate Macross projects.  When a sequel project for Royal Space Force was cancelled, he was given a project to create something that had the theme of not running away.  To try to piece together all of the internal and external influences on Anno while he created Evangelion is difficult.  He wanted to bring in a new audience to anime, he wanted to exorcise his demons, he wanted to create a show about humans versus gods, there was a push to create a show that would allow for marketing a lot of toys (which giant robot shows are wont to do), he was in the middle of a four-year deep depression and was exploring psychology and psychoanalysis, he wanted to make a children’s show with adult themes to try to teach children about “harsh reality” (the fact that the show was originally aired during children’s programming slots is particularly eerie).  It is a combination of all of this.

In anime, I consider three shows the Holy Trinity, must-sees:  Trigun (1998), Cowboy Bebop (1998) and Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995).  Out of the three, NGE is the best.  Something that is true of the shows, as well as Trigun, is that it starts off more light-hearted but gets deadly serious as we get to towards the end.  They both take place in a post-apocalyptic landscape.  Yet NGE does show that there is a sort of normalcy, even though complete annihilation is waiting every second of the show to rear its head and destroy humanity (school continues to be taught, convenience stores are open).  Comparing that world to Bebop, which is set in the future in space, or Trigun, which is on another planet that has multiple suns and moons, makes NGE seem almost slice-of-life in the outset.  All three are brilliant.   But this post is not about that.

The end of the run of episodes for NGE takes a decided shift from the exterior war against the Angels to exploring the internal world of the show’s protagonist, Shinji Ikari.  There are varied real-world reasons for this.  One was that the budget for the show had been expended mostly on large robot battles (more difficult / expensive to animate), leaving the few ending episodes with almost no funds.  Two was that production scheduling was way behind.  Hidenori Matsubara, who was a key animator on the show, talked a lot about how chaotic making the show was at Anime USA 2002.  Everything was rushed, no one seemed to be in charge, episode directors were passing things on without checking them very carefully.  It was all about just getting the episodes together in time for airing the episode on television.

The above description may make the ending of the show sound like a total train wreck.  Fans are very split on how they feel about the end of the TV series.  Some find it to be completely unintelligible.  It is static shots, lots of voice-over, montage.  It is meant to represent what is happening inside Shinji’s mind.  The external world is ending around him, and Shinji is grappling with his identity and choosing whether to live or become part of the Human Instrumentality Project (this is pretty complicated, but it is essentially where all humans become one – a sort of evolution of the species).  It’s akin to Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” dilemma.  Human existence can be very painful (especially to Shinji, as his mother is dead, his father is a nightmare, and he’s going through adolescence – oh, and the world is ending and he’s supposed to be one of four people working to save it … no pressure).  Some fans see the ending from the perspective of what was happening at Gainax and think the ending is an unsatisfying rush-job.  I fall into the camp of fans that see the end as brilliant.  It takes a truly modernist show about human identity and attempting to connect to others in a rapidly changing world and crushes it into post-modern futility (no one will ever know anyone, perhaps even oneself, in the age of the possibility of the world ending due to man’s “triumph” over nature).  I find the ending deeply meaningful.  “Not in a bang but a whisper.”  That this originated from Japan makes it all the more postmodern.

But there was a lot of outcry from fans saying they hated the ending.  Some even sent Anno death threats.  But the popularity of the show exploded, making Gainax flush with money.  So flushed that they committed tax fraud, resulting in two of Gainax’s members being put in jail in 1999.  The amount of marketing tied to the show is ridiculous (from models to video games to ice trays to chopsticks to toilet paper to luggage to soccer balls to branded coffee to vibrators – there is no shame for Gainax).  But, it doesn’t end there for Eva.

How I saw the series originally was by watching VHS videotapes.  I had a friend who worked in the same mall as the movie theater I was working in, and since we had a few otaku running around (most notably Alex [Cujo], who let me borrow his Dragonball Z), we would trade tapes.  The VHS tapes were released in the US by a company called ADV Films, between August 1996 through July 1998.  I was watching in 2000.  For fans of anime today, please note how long it took for a 26-episode series to be distributed.  And, there were two episodes on each tape.  Go kiss your full series thinpaks now, or write Crunchyroll fan mail.

Laserdiscs came out very slowly and incompletely (eps 1-4 in May 1997 and 5-8 in May 1998).  Why a year in between?  Why not the whole series?  I don’t know.  These were also done by ADV.  Laserdisc as a medium really never quite took off in the US and was pretty much defunct by 1990, so that could be a reason.  The majority of video machines in the US went from VHS to DVD, most completely skipping LD.

DVDs of the show started coming out in 2000.  For those, like me, who started to collect the series, I bought (which was commonplace at the time) the first volume with the art box (see above).  The last volume (8) came out mid-2001, so a quicker release succession for the DVDs than the VHS tapes.  There really isn’t much difference from the VHS tapes to the DVDs.  However, here’s where things start to go awry.  After the entire series came out, in 2004, there were two new releases:  Resurrection and Genesis Reborn.  Resurrection was supposedly the director’s cut of episodes 21-23, and Genesis Reborn was the director’s cut of episodes 24-26.  Each, like the original volumes, was $30.  To quote Paul Fargo’s review for Anime News Network, “Adding about five to ten minutes to each episode'srunning time, the new footage doesn't provide any staggering revelations on itsown, but instead serves to emphasize and clarify points that weren't exploredto their fullest in the original television run of the series. Characterdevelopment is expanded, some of the more vital scenes are extended, and theshow is given a generally improved and streamlined feel. Alongside the newscenes, there are also several minutes of redone animation for existing scenes,which serves to cover up moments of previously off-model and poor quality work.Again, it's nothing Evangelion couldn't live without, but it certainly createsan improved viewing experience.  I, like a dutiful fan, bought both, but then sold them once I found out that they would be on the thinpak Perfect Collection.  I have since reacquired both.  Genesis Reborn is more egregious.  They only have the DC of episode 24.  There is no new information for 25-26.
So, the director’s cuts just adds some information.  They do not change the ending but more embellish what was already there with content that previously was part of the original Japanese TV broadcast.  In a sense, more complete.

So far, the only thing skewed is the timeline for US release.  The Japanese audience would have seen the original content anyway.  What then happened is the Japanese versions of episodes 25 and 26 were re-directed.  The redirection of those episodes is what becomes The End of Evangelion (1997, released in the US by Manga Video in 2002).  Also released at the same time is Death and Rebirth (again, 1997, released in the US by Manga Video in 2002).  To quote from EvaGeeks.org, “Evangelion: Death is a 70 minute long recap of the first 24 episodes of the Neon Genesis Evangelion TV Series, directed by Masayuki, in the format of a string quartet, each focusing on one of four characters: Shinji, Asuka, Rei, and Kaworu.”  There’s no new material here – it is just previous content re-edited and reordered.  Rebirth is “the first 25 minutes of The End of Evangelion. Originally planned to be the whole film but was incomplete.”  So, if you bought both together, since they were released within two months of each other in 2002, then you were buying something you pretty much already had if you bought the series and End of Evangelion.  Death and Rebirth is essentially a $30 rip off.

The End of Evangelion is something new for US audiences that did not see the Japanese reworks of episodes 25 and 26.  It is a completely different ending.  For those fans that had been clamoring for a knock-down, drag-out fight between the Angels and the Evas, this was what they wanted to see.  The internal workings of Shinji are discarded for all-out violence.  It appears as if Shinji and Asuka are the only two humans left, as the Human Instrumentality Project is realized by Rei melding with Adam and Lilith.  While this looks incredibly bleak, the ending of the series, with Shinji surrounded by everyone, clapping and saying “Congratulations,” is far more positive and uplifting.

The people who like the ending of the series tend not to like The End of Evangelion and vice versa, though it is possible to see them both complimenting each other (Shinji could still go through the internal conflict we see in the series in End, we just don’t see it), and the dream-like quality of the end of the series may just be a continuation of Shinji’s wish for the future, with the reality being on the beach with Asuka.  So, it is possible to like either or like both.  Anyone who likes neither … um, why are you bothering to watch anyway?  That’s a long road to travel if you don’t like the premise, characters and so on.

But now, there is yet another version of the same show.  It is called the Rebuild of Evangelion.  It is supposed to have four parts.  As of now, three have been completed and released:

·         Evangelion:  You Are (Not) Alone (2007)
·         Evangelion:  You Can (Not) Advance (2009)
·         Evangelion:  You Can (Not) Redo (2012)

The fourth is Evangelion:  Final and does not have a production or release date.  It is an “alternate retelling” of the original series.  The last film is supposed to be an “alternate ending,” supposedly to the storyline of the rebuild and not of the original series.

Even though I’m a fan, when I initially heard about this project, I was pessimistic.  There’s really no loose ends that need to be tied up.  There’s already two ending to the same story.  What is to be gained by revisiting?  Do we need an alternate version?  But seeing almost everyone from the original project returned seemed to indicate that there was enough interest from the creative team to take up the reins.  Maybe it would be good?

And when I saw the first one, I was won over, if only slightly.  The production value was very good.  Battle sequences were exciting and really popped.  What I couldn’t understand was what Mari was doing in the movie.  What did she add besides fan service, if even that?  A new series of models and figures to sell?  This is where I start to gravitate towards Anno being a whore.  There is also more of Kaworu in the rebuild.  Why?  Again, I don’t know.  Where he comes in during the original series makes sense.  Why he’s in from the beginning in the rebuild is puzzling.  Again, fan service?  So I can hear everyone squee when he’s on screen?  That’s irritating.  Overall, the first and second parts of the rebuild just looked glossier, shinier, and sounded louder.  Is that what a decade of all these creative people are bringing to the table?

It wasn’t until I saw the third part at Otakon 2013 that I started to feel pretty disenchanted.  Almost nothing that was happeneing at the end of 2.0 is in 3.0, and we’ve taken a jump 14 years into the future for some reason that completely escapes me.  NERV has split in two with Gendo, Fuyutsuki, Rei and Kaworu with the original NERV and Misato, Ritsuko, Asuka and Mari in something called Wille, and NERV and Wille are fighting each other.  Aside from fighting over I don’t know what anymore and a lot of procedural start and service sequences for the EVAs, there’s really nothing here to anchor to.  The humanity of the original series is completely drained.


What is the fucking point?  Why was this so necessary to be made?  There was a proposed sequel to Casablanca where Captain Renault and Rick go fight on the side of the resistance in Algeria or Libya, but they didn’t do it.  Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something.  I can see why we had End of Evangelion.  But why take these characters and exploit them like this?  If you wanted to tell a different story, then do it.  But don’t rape these characters and punish them just because a large number of people liked them.  Anno did some live action films (Cutie Honey [2004], Ritual [2000] and Love and Pop [1998]) and is the voice actor for the main character in Hayao Miyazaki’s final film The Wind Rises (2013).  It isn't like he has nothing else to do.  Gainax has Gurren Lagan and other shows.  Can't we just leave this one alone?

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Canyons (2013)

The greatest professor I ever had was Sebastian David Guy Knowles.  I had the distinct pleasure in taking three of his courses at the Ohio State University, as well as him being the faculty coordinator for the study abroad I did in England in 1996.  He’s absolutely brilliant.  One of the courses I took with him was an honors seminar called Time in the 20th Century, where we looked at how time factored into literature throughout the 1900s.  It was an awesome class (in fact, the three honors seminars I took at OSU were the best classes I ever took – nothing in graduate school came close).  For our final paper, I didn’t do an analysis so much as a synthesis, combining lyrics from 1980s pop songs, lines from Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, various news stories from the 1980s and quotes by characters from Bret Easton Ellis novels.  My thesis was that the 1980s were the world’s apocalypse, and we’ve been living in a post-apocalypse ever since.  Ellis was (and still is, to some degree) my favorite living author.  When I turned the paper in, Seb grimaced.  “How could someone as intelligent as you like someone like Bret Easton Ellis?!?” he seethed.  I was so utterly euphoric about him thinking I was intelligent that I missed the last part of the sentence until hours later.  To Seb, and honestly, quite a lot of people, Ellis is dreck.  There’s plenty of hatred and dismissal about his works.  Misogynistic, vapid (I’m seeing that word come up a lot in reviews of The Canyons), depraved, and a host of other derogatory adjectives are associated with Ellis.  He’s a social satirist.  I don’t think this is lost on many people, but it doesn’t seem to make Ellis any easier to swallow for everyone.  Everyone, that is, except for his fans.

Me & BEE at a book signing in DC 9/14/2005.

But I’m not totally ga-ga for him.  While I love his first four works (Less Than Zero, Rules of Attraction, American Psycho and The Informers, all of which have been adapted into films), I haven’t really liked his last three (Glamorama, Lunar Park and Imperial Bedrooms), although I like his social essays and tweets.  But enjoying his work does make one question oneself the same way one would for enjoying anything that is mostly considered socially unacceptable.  Why do I like him?  I think he has a certain strain of honesty about humans and what they are or can be capable of.  The characters that populate his stories are often very concerned with the way the world perceives them and on materialism (very 80s Reaganomics).  They frequently use each other or are used, mostly for hedonistic pleasure.  Characters drink, do drugs, engage in casual sex, and inflict pain in an attempt at pushing whatever perceived boundaries may be out there, sometimes to find that there really are no boundaries, no one or nothing to hem in their conduct.  This frequently leads to momentary despair, isolation, abandon.  But then, the characters consciously or unconsciously return to their lives, not making any adjustments.  It’s very like the end of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable.  “I can’t go on.  I’ll go on.”  There is a level of absurdity to Ellis that, like in Beckett, is tragicomic.  One of the other classes I took with Seb was a class entirely on Beckett.  I don’t think Seb gave Ellis a chance.

So when I heard that Ellis was working with Paul Schrader to make a film called The Canyons, I was giddy.  Schrader directed one of my all-time favorite films, Mishima:  A Life in Four Chapters, and then there was Ellis, who increasingly seemed, in his last three works, to take a very filmic approach to his writing (even so far as to include camera directions in Glamorama and Lunar Park and to have a meta-discussion of the film version of Less Than Zero in Imperial Bedrooms).  What was also new about this project was that it was to be funded mostly by Kickstarter, so that the filmmakers could function outside of Hollywood constraints and make the movie they wanted.  That’s very much in keeping with the sort of content Ellis writes.  The adaptation of LTZ, in my estimation, the WORST adaptation of all time, killed off a character and changed the ending in order to sanitize and present an anti-drug message.  AP’s adaptation, while good, really pushes the idea that Patrick didn’t do all the things we saw him do, which I really never felt came through in the novel (the mixing up of who people are and their relationships is something that is clear and an important part of the book).  I agree with Ellis that the best adaptationof his work was RoA, but the book, with its many narrators, was treated like a film and not just retelling a plot.  It’s great (watched it again last night).  I really like the way the film plays around with time (reversing the film, split screening).  But out of all of Ellis’s works, RoA is the most approachable.  TI has an impressive amount of star power but ultimately doesn’t gel (too much emphasis on connecting the stories together, which isn’t a big deal in the book).  Also, they left out what I think is the best short story in the book, about the vampires (weird, just tried to look up the table of contents on Amazon, and the book appears to be out of print?).  But, it’s difficult to try to reproduce Ellis in film form accurately.  So, going studio-free with Schrader sounded like a good plan.

WhileEllis said the article was exaggerated, it is a pretty good idea to read the New York Times article where a reporterwas allowed on the set to be a fly on the wall.  The biggest concern about TC was not the limited budget or the Ellis-generated material or even that the main character of the film, Christian (great choice of name) was to be the first non-porn film for James Deen (who has been in, I kid you not, over 1000films [IMDb him] – that’s a lot of porn, people).  The real fright was that the film would also star Lindsay Lohan, fresh from rehab.  She’s a bit of a train wreck and playing a character that seems to not stray too far from her real life.  Does she do a good job?  Yes.  Could any number of female actors have played the role as well, if not better?  Yes.  I guess the name here added to the salability or potential audience appeal, and as noted by both Ellis and Schrader, the film was completed on time and under budget, so it couldn’t have been too bad.

I would really like to see the film again before posting this, but I’ve been thinking about it often since only one viewing, and I don’t want to wait until the end of November for the DVD.  There are several great aspects to the film that I want to discuss.  It is by no means a great film, but it comes very close to getting several things right.

The first item, which I feel is the most important and biggest missed opportunity, is its commentary on the film industry today.  In the beginning of the film, the audience is shown a montage of defunct, dilapidated movie theaters (you can see some of this in the trailer above).  This just on the tails of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, StevenSoderbergh and other big name directors saying how film is dying.  The practice of going to a movie theater as a shared cultural experience is being traded in for watching movies on your iPhone.  Big budget box office superhero films dominating the landscape while smaller, story-driven films are harder to fund and distribute.  Oh, woe is they.  But there’s another side to the story.  Go to a website like Box Office Mojo and see that other than a few years (admittedly, the last two are part of it), ticket sales have been going up since 1980.  And to look at films that are being nominated for Oscars, they are still of the character and plot driven ilk.  The Avengers and Iron Man are not winning Best Picture any time soon.  Since the digital revolution of the late 1990s, it has become much easier to make a film on one’s own.  Anyone can upload to YouTube.  So, what is the reality?  Are movies on their way out or thriving?  I think that Ellis and Schrader making this statement early on in the film is brilliant, because it is a film about making films (Christian produces movies, Tara works in films, Ryan’s an actor in Christian’s film, Gina is Christian’s production assistant – all the main people in the film, aside from Christian’s psychiatrist, are in the film business).  There are also the hand-held video phone films Christian is making.  The film is drenched in film.  But, TC doesn’t take this idea far enough.  It is later revisited when Tara and Gina have lunch and Tara asks when was the last time Gina went and saw a film in a theater (not a premiere, but a film that she really wanted to see, on her own, sans professional obligation).  I think for the questions to be raised and dropped is disappointing, because the question is important and will continue to be addressed, especially within the next 10 years of movie-making.  And it’s a low-budget Kickstarter film that is both raising the question but also being nostalgic about it at the same time.  Schrader certainly can recall a time that Hollywood reigned supreme.  He’s part of the cultural elite, AFI-member critic-gone-filmmaker coming up from the late 1960s / early 1970s Hollywood that was the period of the auteur, until that fire engulfed itself in the early 1980s and control was pried away from directors and back to the studios (and more specifically, the big name stars in the 80s).  And there are so many references to film in the works of Ellis.  Are they sad or happy about the journey Hollywood is on (willingly or not)?  Poignant stuff, but not resolved.  Was that the point?  It doesn’t seem right.

Another thing that is wonderful is to see Ellis’s first real screenplay (not adaptation, but original screenplay) feel and sound so “Ellis.”  These characters sound and act like Ellis characters.  And the male actors, James Deen and Nolan Funk, do an excellent job of being male Ellis characters.  I guess to a certain degree, Lohan does a good job at being a female Ellis character, but other than Lauren in RoA, Ellis doesn’t do a very good job with female characters (Blair from LTZ and IB definitely doesn’t count).  The climax of the film, as Tara is leaving Christian, and Christian forces her to be his alibi, is classic Ellis form.  “Nod for me, baby.”  I got chills watching it.

And the film looks good.  It does not look cheaply made.  There are many films out there with much larger budgets that look like shit.  TC was made for $250,000.  The Room (2003), arguably one of the worst films ever made, had a budget of $6,000,000.  I wonder what Schrader could have done with six million.

As of August 29, 2013, TC has only made $50,000 (it’s only been released in nine theaters so far).  I do not know if this includes VOD (I don’t think it does, as that number is derived from box office figures).  I know I watched it on VOD.  If and when it gets international distribution and DVD / Blu ray / broadcast rights, it may have a shot of at least breaking even.  The press about the film has been mostly brutal, and reviews have pretty much panned it.  That’s really too bad, on all fronts.  It’s too bad that Schrader couldn’t make the comeback film he wanted (he hasn’t worked as a director since 2008’s Adam Resurrected – anyone seen that?).  It’s too bad that Ellis’s reputation will keep viewers from checking this out.  It’s too bad that the film doesn’t follow through on some great ideas.  If you check out the interviews from the Venice Film Festival on YouTube, you get the feeling that Schrader and Ellis are apprehensively pleased at what they accomplished, as am I.  I just wish it could have been more.

One thing, and I’m probably opening up a can of worms unnecessarily here, but this film is often labeled “erotic.”  I’m assuming this is because there are sex scenes in it.  Does that make something erotic, just by showing people having sex?  Humans obviously get turned on by a variety of things, and perhaps chiefly among the stimuli is watching other people.  I’m assuming this because of the rabid popularity, throughout all ages and eras, of pornography.  And I must admit, given that James Deen is such a porn star, I was wondering if I would get to see his dick in the movie (answer, yes).  But, and perhaps I’m an anomaly, but simply showing people, however many, copulating isn’t titillating.  There have been plenty of examples of on-screen meltdowns, especially during the Hayes Code, pre-1966, when filmmakers had to suggest but not show, and how oftentimes directors admitted to having to get creative.  Some of those scenes do far more to arouse than just watching a foursome go at it.  Maybe it is because imagination has to be involved, but one of the things discussed in my adaptation class is how when we read a work, we get to fill in all the blanks about characters, setting, etc. inside our minds.  Once someone takes that license out of our hands and directs us to their visions, then we lose our agency.  But I think it’s cheap to say something is erotic merely because it shows fornication.  And in this film, especially with the foursome that Schrader had to disrobe himself in order to get Lohan to agree to participate, it is not hot.