Film Review: The Red Violin

From my preteen years through my late twenties, I made a practice of reading tarot cards. My practice was homespun; I didn’t use official or historical card meanings, and I didn’t lay the cards down in patterns (the term used by practitioners is a “spread”) prescribed by a book or some high priestess (see it’s funny because one of the Major Arcana cards is The High Priestess! See what I did there?) Instead, I based my interpretations of the cards on what I had been taught by a relative who at one time also practiced Neopaganism, and on the illustrations present in my deck. I wrote reminders to myself on those cards. In a fit of revisionism, I painted over the card labeled Judgment to use less Christian imagery. I thought I knew what I was doing, and I cared about what I did.

It all changed for me one Halloween/Samhuine night, when I read the cards for a young woman who lived in my apartment building. She took the cards much more seriously than I was prepared for. I had always thought of the cards as providing a chance to reconsider events and situations from a different perspective, to be forced to look at elements that one had not been previously been focusing on. I used the cards to widen my interpretation of life. But this woman… the reading I gave frightened her. I did my best to calm her down – “These cards do not take away your free will!” – but she could not be consoled. The reading I had given her was, in accordance with tarot’s generalizing nature, really just a handful of platitudes and truisms. But those platitudes and truisms took away her peace of mind, in a way that the other platitudes and truisms I had to offer, could not redeem. I was troubled, and while I did a handful of other readings after that one, it was never the same experience that it had been and when I realized that atheism and the spirit of rational inquiry held an answer for me that I had been lacking, I abandoned my practice.

I bring this piece of my personal history to bear on this review because the guiding structure of The Red Violin is a tarot reading, done by a servant for the pregnant wife of a violin builder in 1683. Each card that the servant flips over (I never did a five-card spread but I suppose it’s possible) is supposed to represent a significant owner of the violin over the course of the centuries that separate it from 1997, the year in which the film was created. The Red Violin is therefore another example of a film in which several narratives are told that are connected in some way. I have previously discussed in this blog my feelings about this film phenomenon. The Red Violin does it better than most I have seen.

The presence of tarot cards in films still triggers an emotional reaction of curiosity and pride in me. Curiosity to see what meaning gets ascribed to the cards employed; pride because I almost always come to the conclusion that the meaning has been stretched, sometimes past the point of breaking, for the sake of drama or the narrative, and that if I were the reader of the cards in question, I would come to a much better and more useful conclusion. Why I still have such strong feelings when I see those cards, familiar shapes being put to unexpected ends, I really can’t say. I guess I could compare it to someone recovering from a substance abuse problem getting confronted with images of the substance and people getting high.

Subtitles

Do you watch with subtitles?
Do you watch with subtitles?

What a difference subtitles can make!

I never thought I would be making a point of talking about the subtitling of a film in one of these reviews, but only a few minutes into The Red Violin I knew I would be talking about what had happened. You see, The Red Violin contains dialogue in several different languages: Italian, German, French, and Chinese in addition to English. Whoever set up the subtitles for the edition I was watching only provided 2 options: English for (almost) the entire film, or Spanish for (I can only assume also almost) the entire film. There was no option to translate the Italian, German, French and Chinese, and leave the English without subtitles. While I am very glad that the subtitling would have been useful to a hearing impaired viewer, I also understood for the first time why some people would rather watch Japanese cinema with dubbing instead of subtitles. I had always preferred the subtitled experience but the presence of subtitles on the screen for the English dialogue did distract me. It was necessary though, as the shifts between languages were frequent and at times quite abrupt.

Note my use of the qualifier “almost” in the previous paragraph. There was some material in the segment of the violin’s story that was set in China that was only given the description “singing in Chinese”. This greatly irritated me. The singing accompanied a children’s performance of Maoist propaganda and I was very curious as to its actual words. I maintain that this choice on the part of whomever was in charge of subtitling, whether conscious or unconscious, serves to alienate the presumably Western viewer from the Chinese and makes them seem more exotic. Irritating.

Music

Just how well is this guy really playing, anyway?
Just how well is this guy really playing, anyway?

A review I read a long time ago is relevant to this section. Someone who critiqued the Samuel L. Jackson (who also plays an important character in The Red Violin and does well with the material) vehicle The Caveman’s Valentine once pointed out that the main character is supposed to be a musical genius but his piano compositions lack any type of subtlety and refinement and mostly consist of pounding on the keys for emphasis. “Not since The Piano has supposedly wonderful piano music sounded so bad,” the reviewer crowed.

I bring this up because one of the elements that separates a film from other forms of narrative is the audio component of the experience. A book version of The Red Violin could simply describe Frederick Pope’s compositions as “brilliant”, or it could go into lengthy, loving description of Pope’s eccentric performance, but the actual sound of Pope playing the violin would be left to the imagination of the viewer. In the film version, those who are not hearing impaired expect to hear what Pope actually sounds like. To what extent can the film’s creative team create an actual violin solo that the viewer will label brilliant, instead of just referring to the solo as “brilliant” in the text and relying on the reader’s trust of the perspective of the text’s narrator? I ask this because, as a viewer, I was not sold on Pope’s performance, or even that of the young, talented Austrian orphan, Kaspar Weiss. Both of these violinists were able to play violin solos very quickly. But tempo is only one dimension of musical performance. Their solos did not move me the same way as the performance of the violin’s player in Shanghai, who clearly was not meant to be interpreted by the viewer as being the best violinist of the bunch.

Themes (warning: this section contains spoilers)

Art inspires passion inspires crazy actions.
Art inspires passion inspires crazy actions.

All of the five stories told in The Red Violin hinge on the awe-inspiring power of passion. The violin’s maker goes to macabre extremes to express his grief in a way that connects it to his creation. Kaspar Weiss pushes himself to fatal fervor in an attempt to become famous. Xiang Pei risks her livelihood and possibly her life to preserve art that her people despise. Morritz breaks the law to hold onto perfection. The dangers and depths of passion are most evident in the ridiculous tale of Frederick Pope, his spurious smoking of opium which contrary to artistic depiction was not really a common practice in England in the Victorian Era (look it up on Wikipedia if you don’t believe me) and his authoress lover Victoria, who break each others hearts in the name of their respective arts. All of these stories are about the lengths, breadths, and heights people will go to in order to express emotions: the acts that most people would consider to define us as people.

Like the art of tarot, The Red Violin feels good, but does not really hold up well under the microscope of rational scrutiny. Don’t pick this one up expecting to be challenged. Don’t pick this one up looking for rigorous explanation of thought-provoking questions. Pop yourself some popcorn and enjoy the drama. This one will tug at your heartstrings as surely as the bow sets the strings of the red violin a-humming. Is that enough for you?

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5.

Television Series Review: Firefly

As far as I am concerned, Joss Whedon is the walking definition of a big fish in a small pond. Many of the people of the U.S. who do not self-identify as geeks don’t even know his name, but among members of the geek subculture he inspires diehard fanaticism like few other artists. I’ve heard a Whedon fan toss out the phrase “In Joss We Trust” into casual conversation, comparing Whedon to God without a second thought.

After watching Firefly, I finally understand why my friend would talk like that.

I’ve seen other Whedon material – a little Buffy, a little Angel, his recent work on comic book blockbusters. I liked what I saw, it was good, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fervor of the fandom for it. It seemed to me like Whedon cashed in on tropes too often. It seemed to me like he was pandering. To me, that made it good, but not great.

But someone finally persuaded me to watch Firefly all the way to its premature end. And now I too say In Joss We Trust. When he worked on Firefly Whedon made the choice to stop turning to the easy answers and feel-good formulas. He showed his audience what he was capable of. He produced something true to an artistic vision, a world in which the microcosm reflects the macrocosm. To lift a lyric from another favorite artist of mine, he took us where the drop contains the sea. For that, I owe him a debt of thanks as an artist, and a roll of the eyes to those who decided Whedon’s vision was not profitable enough to pursue to denouement. I look forward to watching whatever resolution the film Serenity provides – no spoilers, please!

Let’s explore why Firefly lifts Whedon from the realm of the good to the realm of the great.

Authenticity of Setting

Alliance officials take heed: the Resistance is here already.
Alliance officials take heed: the Resistance is here already.

When I created “authenticity of setting” as a review point tag, I had period pieces in mind. This is the review point to use to evaluate how well a period piece displays internal consistency with historical fact, vs. the extent to which it relies on anachronism. When DiCaprio’s character uses the work “malarkey”, which was not coined until the 20th century, in the film Django Unchained, set in the 1850s, we see Tarantino displaying a lack of authenticity of setting.

And yet I am now using this review point for a science fiction series set 500 years in the future. There is a measure of irony in this, I think, but I’m using it anyway, because one of Firefly‘s biggest selling points for me will always be the internal consistency it displays with (its self-created) history. Firefly blends elements of historical fiction found in classic Westerns such as True Grit with futuristic technology to explore the question of what is truly timeless. This pastiche of chronological elements is expressed perfectly in the closing image of the series’ title sequence, in which the flight of a spaceship scares a herd of horses. The reason Firefly feels so authentic is the work that was put into keeping this blend of elements in balance. Some episodes lean a bit more towards the Western genre while others would be absolutely impossible from a plot perspective without the futuristic side of the show, but really Whedon establishes the balance in the first episode and sticks with the ratios initially laid out, on the whole. By maintaining his balance so carefully and consistently, Whedon makes his story more believable. Because the show is about the degree to which “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” as long as Firefly‘s characters keep behaving like human beings, the audience continues to identify with their struggles, and the magic just builds as the scale of the show gets bigger and the characters shuttle from frontier planet to frontier planet.

Characters

Note the sheen on Inara's dress (far left).  That gal knows her fabrics!
Note the sheen on Inara’s dress (far left). That gal knows her fabrics!

Speaking of characters behaving like human beings. The crew of Serenity are people. Full and multi-dimensional. The show’s villains don’t get explored in as much detail, because there simply isn’t time (although Saffron is given a repeat performance, to my irritation – I would much have preferred more time be spent on an Alliance officer, to give a face to the hated entity, like we are given the characters of Servalan and Travis in Blake’s 7, to which I suspect Firefly deserves a nod). Whedon made the artistic choice to thoroughly establish and ground the characters of the crew in Firefly‘s first season, and it was a great choice. Mal doesn’t want to admit what type of honor he has. His best friend, Zoe, has a story to tell, hinted at in flashbacks and re-tellings of how stone-faced she used to be – somehow she fell for a jester – Wash, who I can’t watch on screen anymore without seeing my husband’s face, that’s how lovable he is. They’ve hired a mercenary, Jayne, who names his guns and loves his mother enough to wear her knitted hat. They’ve hired a female mechanic, Kaylee, who can’t decide how comfortably the tomboy role fits. They transport a “Companion” – a prostitute given honored social status by membership in a guild, the closest parallel I have been able to think of from history being a geisha – Inara, whose name I suspect to be a reference to Inanna, another name for the ancient love goddess Ishtar, though how I would go about proving the reference I’m not sure. And they transport a “Shepherd”, a missionary priest named Book (once again Whedon demonstrates his love for naming characters obvious references to concepts from the real world – I think back to Angel, Harmony/Harm, Willow, and Spike from Buffy days) with a past that never gets explored but referenced enough to clearly be a doozy. And then there are the star passengers – Dr. Simon, and his sister River, whose unusual mind and behavior hit a little close to home for me as someone who has experienced altered states of reality as a result of mental illness.

(Potential viewers should take note of this, River’s behavior and dialogue in episode 14, “Objects in Space”, were particularly disturbing to me and triggered a very strong reaction of hurt, guilt, and recognition. Viewers with a history of mental illness, especially if that history includes psychosis, should be warned that this material has the potential to be disturbing, and should recognize that there is no shame in employing the “pause” button to take a breather if they find their reaction becoming intense.)

While Mal is the show’s protagonist, Firefly employs ensemble cast techniques very elegantly. The only time that I noticed a character was missing was episode 11, “Trash” – the next time I sat down to watch, I asked my husband what had happened to Book in the previous episode. The sensation I had when I realized Book had not been present was that the writers had pulled a fast one on me, and I didn’t like it. Like a single dissonant note during a masterful piano performance, it stuck out all the more because the other episodes had employed the suite of characters so skillfully. Everyone’s likeable – even Jayne, which amazed me because he is clearly sadistic and I normally severely dislike sadistic characters. It is possible that Jayne is likeable due to a phenomenon I once heard a pastor refer to as the reason why Forrest Gump gained such popularity in the 1990s: “redemptive stupidity”. Of course, Gump is clearly labeled in his film as intellectually disabled, whereas Jayne would slit someone from nave to chops if they called him such.

Themes

Burn the land, and boil the sea - you can't take the sky from me.
Burn the land, and boil the sea – you can’t take the sky from me.

So what’s eternal?

If Firefly is to be believed, the struggle for freedom against oppression is eternal.

Mal and Zoe lost a war with fronts against an oppressive government, the Alliance. So now they fight a war without a front, a very private, very guerrilla war. But they’re still fighting, and no matter what Mal says about Serenity being willing to take any job, their primary mission is still to free people from oppression. Sometimes the oppressor isn’t a political one; Whedon’s extremely laudable personal quest to explore gender oppression and the strength of character frequently demonstrated by women who don’t necessarily have combat ability is given ample play in Firefly. But sometimes it is. To what extent does Mal harbor River and Dr. Simon because he cares about them? To what extent does he harbor them simply to make an object lesson for the Alliance, still the enemy, always the enemy? Again, no time to explain. In the 14 episodes of Firefly‘s run, the can of worms is opened and dumped on the table. There’s enough time to get a good look at the worms and to see that they are alive and moving around. There is not, however, enough time to find the bigger can. And that is the biggest drawback to watching it and liking it. The only dramatic resolution fans are going to find is the resolution they can create for themselves. They are forced to create their own trajectory for the story’s arc. They are forced to decide for themselves where the bullet hits, even though they never fired it.

The show’s title is taken from the class of spaceship to which Serenity belongs. But that class was named after an insect that most of the show’s viewing base would be familiar with from personal experience. A creature that has been a source of ephemeral wonder from our childhoods til today. The firefly appears at dusk and leaves evidence of its existence for only a few hours of night, for only one season of the year. For its fragility, we value its glow all the more. Would Firefly have finished as strong as it started, if it had lived a full narrative life? Yeah, I think it would have. In Joss I trust.

Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

How Lyn Writes Poetry:”September, Illinois, 21st Century”

It’s time to change wardrobe again.
Put the shorts, the tank tops, the sun-dresses in a box
put the box in the closet
Put the long pants, the sweaters, the dresses that hang
in the drawers and on the hangers
Tell yourself it’s still worth it to hold on to the cloth
you dutifully packed away in April
even though it didn’t fit then
even though it doesn’t fit now
it will fit someday.
You are a woman of the Midwest.
You carry these clothes like a donkey carries its master:
spitefully.

It’s time to change trees again.
Put the green leaves and the late blossoms in a box
put the box in your memories
Put the red leaves, the orange leaves, the yellow leaves
on the branches that hate their brown fate
Tell yourself it’s still worth it to hold on to the bodies
that wither, that fade, that will always die
as long as matter cycles
as long as energy flows
you will die, too, someday.
You are a woman of the Midwest.
You love these trees like a mother loves her children:
bittersweetly.

It’s time to change time again.
Put the sun that beats like your heart in a box
put the box in a universe
Put the understanding, the rhythm, the sense
into your little handful of the great ocean
Tell yourself it’s still worth it to look for meaning
when you know it’s beyond arbitrary
when no meter is metric
when your brain is the only standard for WHEN
when sanity is as fragile as stained glass, filtering the light.
You are a woman of the Midwest.
You know these truths like a philosopher knew them, long before you breathed:
skeptically.

Commentary

I decided earlier today that I wanted to write a poem about September. I wanted to try to capture the spirit of this particular time of year, which is probably known best in most of the US for being the first full month of school. It’s also known for being autumn. But as soon as I thought about that, there rose the concomitant thought that what I know as autumn might be a completely different experience in a different climate. I have spent virtually my entire life in the broadleaf forest and prairie regions of the Midwest. My time in other climates has been limited to the spans of vacations. And the more I thought about how my experience of autumn has been influenced by the climate I know from personal experience, the more I started thinking about how my experience of autumn has been drastically influenced by living in the Information Age of Western civilization, in the most prosperous nation of the world. Sure, if I want to be poetic, I can think of September as the start of harvest season – but I’ve never actually participated in a harvest bigger than my mother’s vegetable patch when I was growing up (and even that she mostly did herself).

My thoughts turned from the question of What can I write about September? to What does September mean TO ME? I instantly retitled the poem in my head, which had initially been called something as generic as “Summer’s End”. I decided to challenge myself to capture the essence of September as I personally had known it. To do what I could to avoid abstract generalities.

In trying to face this challenge, I remembered very quickly that I think in generalities much of the time. I think it’s a consequence of being an “N” personality type in the Myers-Briggs system. My default preference is to take a top-down approach and explore how what I consider to be basic principles or fundamental truths apply to a situation (as opposed to a bottom-up or deductive approach where the observer starts with the details and tries to figure out the principles from there). So I modified my challenge to myself, and rather than attempting to avoid generalities, I tried to give my personal slant on them. Instead of trying to express a truth for all of humanity, I tried to express a truth as I saw it.

I knew as I was writing that I was going to use a three-stanza structure and that the first two stanzas were going to be about how September impacts me personally: I have to change out my summer clothes with my winter clothes, and the trees that I see as I drive down the road are different colors than they were in summertime. I didn’t realize until I started writing the second stanza that I would want to repeat the structure of the first one so strictly. That happened mostly because I originally wanted to draw a parallel between a woman changing her wardrobe and the figure of “Mother Nature” changing what trees look like… but halfway through the stanza I decided it would be more fun to use the poetic conceit of the same person who starred in the first stanza having active control over the cycles of nature. And it was this conceit that allowed me to figure out what the third stanza should be about. In addition to the wardrobe (the personal) and the trees (the world), to me, September is most clearly identified as a time of change, period (the cosmos). It’s about the phenomenon of transition. I decided to telescope out as high as I could go – with the knowledge that I will always have a limit to my understanding, even if that limit is the sky.

Specific lines worth commenting on: surprisingly, there aren’t any lines that really stand out to me in this one. I don’t think any of them display significantly more advanced vocabulary or are used more skillfully than any other. I wanted to use common language and to find beauty in the mundane with this one. I guess maybe the fact that no line strikes me as particularly remarkable signifies that (in my mind at least) they work together well as a whole?

Film Review: Princess Mononoke

Can anyone explain to me why Princess Mononoke is titled “Princess Mononoke”? She’s not the protagonist of its story, she’s not even a very memorable character, and most of the time she is referred to by her mother wolf’s nickname for her, “San”, not “Mononoke” and definitely not “Princess”. What, precisely, is the deal here?

OK, now that I have gotten that out of my system, maybe I can write a better critique.

Princess Mononoke was released in 1997. By the end of my high school years (1999, I don’t mind dating myself) it had made its way to the shelves of my local video store, right next to Akira and the Ghost in the Shell movie. It will therefore be ever marked in my mind as one of those anime features used by mainstream culture to desperately assert that mainstream culture is hip, relevant, and “in the know” about geekdom. “I like anime! I’ve watched Princess Mononoke!” No, sorry, it doesn’t work that way. That would be like me trying to assert that I’m good with computers just because a long time ago an ex-boyfriend gave me a laptop with Linux on it and I used it for awhile. Except that analogy breaks down when you consider that Linux is a worthwhile operating system, whereas Princess Mononoke is not a worthwhile film.

Gasp! Did I just actually type that? But… but… it was put out by Studio Ghibli! And in 2004 a documentary was released called Princess Mononoke: Making of a Masterpiece, so it’s gotta be a masterpiece! Right?

Not a worthwhile film, my friends. Remember, Studio Ghibli connects back to Disney. When I want talking animals and heavy-handed morality, I can always watch Lion King or Pocahantas, and also have fun with some rousing musical numbers. I don’t need to pretend I’m earning geek cred. Princess Mononoke is paint-by-numbers. Allow me to explain in detail…

Plot (warning: this section contains spoilers)

San and Eboshi go womano a womano.
San and Eboshi go womano a womano.

As I watched Princess Mononoke with adult eyes, it was clear to me that in creating its plot, the writers had cribbed from Joseph Campbell’s work on myths and had structured the film to follow the Hero’s Journey, complete with all twelve stages, almost completely by the book. The only element they fiddled with was the film’s denouement. The Hero’s Journey traditionally ends with a return to the “ordinary world” explored in the first stage, the one that the Hero is forced to leave. The Hero of Princess Mononoke is definitely Prince Ashitaka, and he never goes home to his village after completing his quest and receiving the deer god’s blessing to lift Nago’s curse, instead opting to live near to San’s forest with the humans who are already making plans to repopulate the decimated ironworks. The artistic choice to end the story this way troubled me, and I commented on it to my husband as we were watching it: “Why would he stick around there? The curse has been lifted, why doesn’t he go home?” My husband responded, “Presumably so he can see her,” referring to San/Princess Mononoke. And my response was that she was not worth it, he could find a partner back at his home village who would be much better for him.

The Hero’s Journey is a narrative structure that has stood the test of time. It has been used in many films that are honored treasures of Western cinema, such as The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. But the fact that Princess Mononoke‘s writers knew how to read and were capable of structuring their work around Campbell’s bullet points does not automatically make what they came up with a masterpiece. It is possible to have every single important element of visual design memorized, compose a still life so that all of those elements are employed in excellent proportions, and still come up with a crappy painting if you don’t have mastery of technique.

Another way of putting this is to point out that a poorly-written story about nuclear war can leave your audience cold, where a well-written story about failing a spelling test can leave them weeping.

Characters

It's sad when the characters you care about most in a film are an elk that doesn't talk and slightly creepy spirits with clicking, rotating heads that also don't talk.
It’s sad when the characters you care about most in a film are an elk that doesn’t talk and slightly creepy spirits with clicking, rotating heads that also don’t talk.

I did not care about the characters in Princess Mononoke.

Let me repeat for emphasis: I DID NOT CARE ABOUT THE CHARACTERS IN THIS FILM.

Don’t get me wrong, Prince Ashitaka was a decent guy. I liked how he did his best to solve problems with words instead of violence; it was cool that he tried to reason with a demon that looked like it was made of Thread from the Dragonriders of Pern books, and it was also cool that Ashitaka was deeply affected when his cursed right arm caused the deaths of enemy redshirts, instead of writing them off as acceptable casualties. But Ashitaka is almost too good of a person to be cared about. He comes across as a cardboard cutout. It’s the same reason that the heroine of Gone With the Wind is Scarlett, not Melanie; the same reason that the heroine of Little Women is Jo, not Beth. When the protagonist displays foibles and weakness, the audience cares about them more.

As for the other characters… San irritated me as the Noble Savage. I didn’t understand why Ashitaka fell for her; he claims she’s beautiful, but the brothel women at the ironworks looked more beautiful to me. Speaking of the brothel women, their idol worship of Eboshi, as well as that of the lepers, also irritated me. Eboshi was obviously capitalizing on their marginalized position in society to put them in her debt so that they would not dispute being put to ethically questionable ends. If Eboshi really wanted to help them, she could have fought to improve their standing in society in many different ways without exploiting them. It kind of reminds me of arguing that the Hoarders TV show is doing something good because it helps its subjects get treatment afterwards. If you really want to help hoarders, don’t put their condition on display as entertainment to the mainstream while you’re doing it.

Eboshi also irritated me as a one-dimensional villain. For about two seconds during the denouement it seemed she might have learned something from how her story played out, but literally the next sentence to come out of her mouth crushed that hope. And Jigo, the Emperor’s emissary, doesn’t even display those two seconds of potential. The talking wolves, apes, and boars were all right as characters, I suppose, except for the fact that I couldn’t get over the fact that they were talking in the same language as the humans they claimed to hate. I wanted them to either stay silent or communicate in a spirit language that would have sounded dramatically different from Japanese. And that didn’t happen. So really the only characters that didn’t irritate me were Ashitaka, whom I still didn’t care about for reasons elucidated in the last paragraph, and the animal characters that did not talk (Yakul the faithful red elk, and the slightly creepy kodama that twist their heads on their necks to make clicking sounds). Hardly the makings of a masterpiece.

Themes

Don't mess with the deer god.
Don’t mess with the deer god.

The central theme of Princess Mononoke is a question that is posed by Ashitaka more than once, in conversation with different characters: Is there a way for humans to live in harmony with nature? Ashitaka never gets a straight answer when he asks this question. Either the scene cuts away immediately after he asks it, or his conversation partner moves on to another conversation point as if he never asked it. Since the script writers chose not to give an explicit answer to the question in dialogue, the audience is left to search for implicit answers in the narrative and artistic choices. The overwhelming answer provided by these implicit means is No. There is only one character in the entire story who tries to create harmony between the humans and the forest spirits that personify nature: Ashitaka himself, and the village elders who send him on his quest at the start of the film acknowledge that he is the last hope of their dying people. The forest spirits and humans in conflict that Ashitaka encounters on his quest and attempts to mediate between end the film just as locked in that struggle as they were when Ashitaka found them. San, the character that the audience instinctively turns to in order to complete Ashitaka’s attempts to form a bridge, wants no part in the role of peacemaker. The human who represents the Big Picture interacting with the film’s events, Jigo, is not touched by those events in any way, and gives every indication of being ready to perpetuate the war against nature in other forums. No harmony to be found.

What a depressing theme! I’m reminded of the small boy in The Princess Bride who asks his grandfather, when given reason to believe that the villain of the book is going to win, “Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this for?” The best way to have avoided this phenomenon would have been to structure the story so that San returned to Ashitaka’s original village with him, replete with knowledge on how to revitalize the village so that its people could continue to pass on the reasoned and balanced approach that Ashitaka learned there. To do this there might have needed to be a flash forward to a later stage of the denouement, because San would probably not have been willing to leave her forest initially, but I think eventually she could have come around. Giving the viewer a little hope goes a long way.

In conclusion, I don’t think Princess Mononoke deserves classic status and I wonder if the main reason it has gotten the attention that it has, was having a good publicity campaign and plenty of hype when it was released. Enough hype to get it into the collections of every mainstream movie rental company that needed to have something to fling in the direction of anime-hungry geeks, to keep them at bay. You want good anime? Check out some of the series that are out there, like Speed Grapher, Basilisk or Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.

Overall Rating: 2.0 out of 5.

Film Review: Art School Confidential

I have a confession to make. I once watched the directors’ commentary for Scary Movie 3. I don’t have much to say in my defense for this act. I was mystified as to why I enjoy that movie so much (come to think of it, I still am) and I was hoping the directors might have something to say that would clue me in as to why a person like me would want to watch Scary Movie 3 over and over again. Because I did. As a matter of fact I’ve had a hankering to re-watch it recently, there may be a review of that one in the near future. Anyway. The directors’ commentary didn’t really help me in my personal quest for self-knowledge, but in the commentary for the deleted scenes, one of the directors made an observation about humor that I found quite pithy. The director was pointing out how much of the deleted material was a parody of one of the Incredible Hulk movies. That material hadn’t gone over well with the test audience; they’d had to scrap it and write an entirely different ending. What the director observed was that people only enjoy parody of material they already like. That particular Hulk movie had bombed at the box office and because people didn’t like the original movie, the parody just wasn’t going to fly.

Why am I baring my critic’s soul regarding this particular anecdote? Because it’s completely relevant to my experience of Art School Confidential, a comedy that parodies art school culture. Within the first few minutes, I was starting to roll my eyes at jokes that I’m sure would be hilarious to someone who had actually gone to art school, but were simply not relevant to my life. I mean, half of my Bachelor’s degree is in Theatre Arts… but it was acquired at a Big Ten university, not an art school. There’s a difference in mentality that this film simply does not try to meet an outsider to art school culture even halfway on, let alone genuinely bridge. If it weren’t for the fact that I acquired the other half of that Bachelor’s degree in English with the hope of writing novels, and therefore could relate to the film’s protagonist regarding other challenges faced by creators of art whether it be textual or visual, I don’t know that I would have found very much of this film worth paying attention to.

Plot

Beware professors that offer to help you experiment with different lifestyles!
Beware professors that offer to help you experiment with different lifestyles!

Art School Confidential follows art college freshman Jerome, who has been investing time and energy into learning classic drawing techniques throughout his previous school years, and who has at least a measure of talent as well as technique. Jerome meets a variety of walking art school cliches as he attempts to woo Audrey, a beautiful model who has, in addition to a beautiful body, a famous artist for a father and many contacts in the New York City art scene. Jerome is thwarted in his wooing by Audrey’s interest in Jonah, a conventionally handsome man whose contributions to Jerome’s classes seem immensely amateurish to him and display little technique, but which cause Jerome’s other classmates (not to mention his professor, played capably by John Malkovich) to go ga-ga for Jonah. Meanwhile, the rough, tough neighborhood that houses the art school (Strathmore Institute) is stalked by a murderous criminal called the “Strathmore Strangler.” Desperate for attention, Jerome attempts to incorporate the local crimes into the material he presents for his final project. The results are either tragic or wonderful for Jerome – it’s all in the interpretation…

In case you couldn’t tell from the preceding paragraph, Art School Confidential skimps on plot. The plot exists only to carry the audience from cliche to private joke to in-reference to cliche again, and is highly implausible, particularly in the way it handles the identity of Jonah. I will give the film’s creators props on one score – they do a good job of keeping the identity of the Strathmore Strangler in the dark for as long as it is appropriate to the plot for it to be kept in the dark. Apart from that, their job on this aspect of the film is unremarkable.

Characters

This cliche gets a lot of play in the film.
This cliche gets a lot of play in the film.
This guy, not so much, but his few lines are memorable.
This guy, not so much, but his few lines are memorable.

Art School Confidential really banks on its audience finding its portrayals of the type of people who like to go to art school to be hilarious. But if your reaction to these stereotypes is, like mine, something along the lines of “Meh, I guess there are people like that in the world… I don’t spend much time with them but they have some valuable stuff to say…” you really aren’t going to get much out of the portrayal of the characters. I mean, I would have enjoyed Art School Confidential a lot more if it had spent more time going over the content of Jerome’s classes and less time lampooning his classmates. I found the tension between Professor Sandiford’s nuanced understanding of how art works and his mediocre paintings of modern-art triangles way more fun to watch than “Beatnik Girl” cycling in rapid succession between crying, screaming, and giggling. I wanted more attention paid to artistic techniques and the value of criticism, and way less focus on Jerome’s quest to get laid.

Themes

Take it off, Audrey!
Take it off, Audrey!

But I guess it makes sense that Art School Confidential would devote such, ahem, loving attention to Jerome’s sex life. I mean, even at a Big Ten university, I devoted way more energy in my undergraduate years to finding a romantic partner than I devoted to my classes, and so much is made of the interplay between art and passion (culturally speaking), I would think that at a school with concentrated artistry, there would be concentrated passion as well. However, I’m now at a point in my life where stories that have as their plot conceit the question of “Will these two characters hook up?” have limited value. That time in my life is over and watching someone else caught in its throes is tedious for me now. Fortunately, there were brief interludes that dealt with challenges other than romantic angst. Most of these interludes involved Malkovich as Professor Sandiford trying to network with fellow faculty or figures in the local art scene, and failing miserably. I wanted more of that subplot. I also wanted more screen time to be spent on the actual art. One thing that Art School Confidential did as a film that it could not have done as a text narrative such as a novella was to provide visual examples of the art that its characters were referring to. It was fun to actually see the drawing that Jerome’s classmates were holding up as displaying “humanity” and contrasting with his more technically proficient drawing which they claimed looked like it “could have been done by a machine”. But Art School Confidential did not really explore its full capacity to do this. An art school isn’t just a collection of students – it’s also a collection of art. This film assumed that its audience would be more interested in the students than in what they produced. When it came to this particular audience member, that was a big mistake.

Watch Art School Confidential if you went to art school. Then again, if you went to art school, you’ve probably seen this film long before reading this review. If you never went to art school, you might like this one if you always wanted to go, or if you’ve always had a curiosity about what going to art school would be like. Otherwise, you can probably skip this one. Might I suggest you rent Scary Movie 3 instead? Not 1 or 2. Just 3.

Overall Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Lyn’s Essays: On Marriage (Year 1)

(Ya gotta have a song when you’re with somebody.)

I think I finally understand the difference between being in a romantic relationship, and being in a marriage. It took me a while and I had to bomb at marriage once first, but now I get it. It’s easy to say the difference is commitment, but that’s not true, at least not in any society where divorce is a thing (and since for me it’s pretty hard to talk about marriage without talking about divorce, more on that later). The difference lies in what you share with each other. When you’re in a romantic relationship, you agree to share love. When you’re in a marriage, you agree to share life. Love is a component of life; it’s the best component of life, it’s the one that’s most fun. Who wouldn’t want to share that? But life also has a lot of… other stuff in it. When two people get married, they trust that it’s worth it to share the other stuff too. That somehow, through the weird magical alchemical process we call “understanding”, the lightening of their own personal burden will be greater in magnitude than the weight of the other person’s burden that they will take on. Sometimes by full orders of magnitude. It takes a lot of trust, and sometimes that trust is misplaced. When Joel and I chose one year ago to trust each other and our own sense of what we needed from life, we made the right choice.

rainbow 3

    Here are three things I have learned in the past year about how to make marriage work:

  1. Be willing to go to bed angry. This has been a hard lesson for me to learn. In fact there have been times not so long ago in which I have been tempted to forget it. It flies in the face of conventional wisdom and the personal experience I gained through more than a decade of romantic relationships. But it’s true, and it comes down to that fundamental difference between a romantic relationship and a marriage. Anger is an emotion, and so is love. When that’s the primary axis a connection is based on, it makes sense that if that connection is something you want to maintain, you have to tend to problems on that axis right away. If two people are in a romantic relationship and they go to bed angry, that could be an emergency for the relationship. But marriage isn’t operating solely on the love axis. Marriage has other components, other… dimensions, if you will. And sometimes to make a marriage work you have to take a step back and evaluate what’s going on in other parts of the grid. Anger isn’t always conveniently timed. I might get angry with Joel at 9:58 on a night when Joel has to be going to bed at 10:00 to get up on time for work. “Sleep” is part of the “bodily maintenance” part of life’s grid, and “work” is part of the “economic maintenance” part. If I let my desire to manage my emotions take precedent consistently over everything else, the day is going to come when Joel will lose his job because he has overslept and been late for work too many times because he was up at 2 in the morning soothing my anger when he needed to get sleep. And if Joel loses his job, I’m going to end up experiencing a lot more negative emotions than I would have if I’d just managed my anger on my own and let him get his shuteye – especially when you consider the fact that I’m perfectly capable of writing down what made me angry so that it can be revisited in conversation later, like when we see each other after that work shift is complete. So be willing to go to bed angry – be able to prioritize, and re-prioritize, different areas of life’s grid. Emotions don’t always come first in life.
  2. Play to each other’s strengths. When I want to spend money on something besides groceries or bills, I almost always run it past Joel first. When Joel needed to apply for a waiver regarding past overpayment of Supplemental Security Income, I filled out the form. This sort of thing doesn’t happen because I need Joel’s permission to make purchases, or because Joel’s time is more valuable than mine; it happens because we both know that our budget is tight and Joel is better at keeping budget in mind and not buying on impulse, whereas I have more patience for bureaucracy and a better gift for using the magic words to get past red tape (I worked in state bureaucracy for two years and was raised by lawyers, it comes with the territory). When two people get married, they become team players in the game of life, pitted against the same social forces they have known and hated for decades. The objective is not to get into the hall of fame, although the hall of fame exists, is definitely a thing, and is a possibility down the line. The objective is to win the game. So you put the player who’s good at offense in an offense position, the player who’s good at defense in a defense position, and when you have downtime you strategize for the next round and if there’s enough time and you’re not too exhausted, you train each other to buff your stats and shore up your weaknesses.
  3. Have the same (or at least similar) value system. Recently I was musing about the fact that Joel and I are such different people and yet we love each other so deeply. I asked Joel what his three most deeply-held values were. “Integrity, devotion, and determination,” he replied. This enchanted me, because I had already decided that mine were integrity, responsibility, and determination – and in my opinion, the difference between devotion and responsibility is chiefly one of motivation. Behaviorally they look pretty much the same, it’s just that devotion is motivated by love whereas responsibility is motivated by Doing What’s Right. And if love is what’s right to do, that means they amount to the same thing. So despite some significant differences in style – how we like to spend our time, what we appreciate aesthetically, who we choose to be friends with – and in life philosophy – Joel is an existentialist, and I’m an atheist whose spirituality is strongly influenced by Buddhism – Joel and I have always been able to respect each other ethically and morally, and that’s the foundation our relationship was built on before we decided to share life.

people 3

    Two can play the learning game. This morning as I drove Joel to work, I asked him to tell me three things he learned about marriage in the past year. This is what he had to say:

  1. “Arguing is a thing.” This was no surprise to me, given that this is my second marriage, but Joel was caught a bit unawares by the degree to which our marriage has involved the explicit negotiation of boundaries, sometimes heatedly. His parents did not argue much in front of him while he was growing up. This might be due to the possibility that they had already been married for several years when Joel was born, so they had already worked through the kinks; or it might be due to the possibility that they never really needed or wanted to do so the way Joel and I do, because they’re different people; or it might be due to the possibility that (like my parents) they opted to do their arguing while Joel was not around, and to instead present a ‘unified front’. Or some combination of more than one of these possibilities. Whatever the reason, Joel is not used to arguing being present in the home the way it’s present in ours. But he’s doing better these days at not withdrawing, at facing the negotiation, than he was doing when we started. And we both have confidence that when the argument is over, we will hold each other and our love will be unchanged.
  2. “…changing a hawk to a little white dove…” When Joel said this, I knew he was quoting a favorite pop ballad of ours, “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & the News. “You didn’t know about that before we got married?” I asked Joel, a smile on my face. His tone was serious when he replied, “It’s one thing to know it, another to experience it.” Sometimes I forget that Joel and I have very different relationship histories. Since our values are so similar and we understand each other so well, the details of our backstories don’t seem to matter as much as they once did, but when Joel said this quote, I remembered the difference in our experience levels. Joel is a late bloomer. Before we met and began dating, he had only had one romantic relationship, and that relationship lacked intimacy in many ways because his ex-girlfriend wanted to keep distance between the two of them. Despite this difference in desire for intimacy, Joel had maintained that relationship for two years. By contrast, I had been in several relationships that had involved a high degree of intimacy, but in all but one case those relationships had lasted for a year or shorter. That one case had been the relationship that ended in divorce, and that had lasted for three years. I guess you could say that when we were first getting to know each other, I was better at getting a ball rolling, but Joel was better at keeping the momentum going. As our marriage matures, I look forward to learning from Joel’s example on how to follow through on our shared value of responsibility/devotion.
  3. “One relationship can be enough.” In the early stages of our relationship, Joel and I discussed more than once the possibility of having an open relationship. It was something that I had done for awhile in my college years and that Joel had thought would be a good path for him to take. Since I was the one who had reservations about it for both emotional and practical reasons (I have learned the hard way that while love may be infinite, time is not), I wrote up a document that we referred to as “the contract”, which spelled out exactly what security I needed in place to allow Joel the freedom to explore other relationships. But Joel never put that contract to the test. At first, he made the decision to be with me exclusively because he was worried about hurting me (though the lengths I was willing to go to in order to ensure he had a freedom I did not plan to exercise myself impressed him), and now, he has come to the conclusion that he doesn’t need anything more. The last time we talked about it at length, he explained that his conclusion that he needed more than one relationship was probably based on having such little experience with intimacy. Now that he knows from experience what one relationship is capable of providing, he feels sated.

rings

Speaking of contracts. In addition to the sharing of life and playing on the same team, marriage is also a contract. If you prefer terminology that is sacred rather than secular, call it a covenant; I prefer to talk about it as a contract, because as an institution, it has always been a legal one first and a religious one second (we’re talking ancient Egypt here, people). The vows you take on your wedding day are the terms of the contract. When Alan and I got married, we wrote our own vows, we wrote different vows, and we didn’t talk about the vows we were writing before we were saying them at the ceremony. The combination of these three things was a big mistake (not any one of them alone would be sufficient, but all three together… when their powers combine…). Big mistake, a very telling mistake, and I think this mistake sums up neatly why we ended up divorcing. For my vows, I wrote something that was a paragraph long, explaining in detail how I was going to treat Alan. His vows were about two lines worth of improv, more than half of which consisted of him explaining that he was improvising, but the final few words talked about how he would be willing to fall apart to preserve me. I separated from Alan a little more than a year later when he did something that crossed a line in my mind. We tried marital counseling after the separation, and it came out in our counseling session that he had justified doing it by telling himself that I had done something that had crossed a line in his mind.

Who really broke the contract?

Without getting too much into gory details, the problem lay in the fact that what Alan had done violated the terms I had set up in my vows for myself – I would never have done it to him – and what I had done violated the terms he had set up in his vows for himself – he would never have done it to me – but we had never established what we expected from each other. We were on wildly different pages about what was acceptable behavior in a marriage, and both of us assumed that we were on the same page because we hadn’t taken the time to question our own contexts and assumptions about what was normal and OK. We argued… a lot… of course, but our arguments were not like the arguments I have now with Joel, where really all we’re doing is negotiating boundaries. Alan and I were never on the same team. I know why I chose to marry him – I met Alan while I was in the process of healing after being touched by a personal tragedy and I thought of myself as tainted goods, so I assumed I should be grateful that anyone would want to be with me and I took the first thing I was offered. I asked him to marry me after we’d been dating for 4 months and after a year of engagement, I knew the relationship was very flawed, but I didn’t want to back out on my promise – once we became engaged, in my mind we were married already. To this day, I’m not sure why Alan married me. He had been married once before, and I wonder if perhaps he missed the state of being married the same way I did during the years between our divorce and when Joel and I married last September. There is a feeling of confidence that comes with marriage. I’ve described it before as “feeling like, no matter what happens, someone’s got your back.” Theoretically one could get that feeling from one’s parents, but it’s different because (in this culture at least) marriage is a chosen bond. Your parents may have your back only because the cultural imperative to support one’s child is strong (and appears especially strong between Baby Boomers and Generation Y). Your spouse has your back because they think it’s worth protecting.

Joel and I have many private jokes. One of them is that he’s a spider (creepy and misunderstood) and that I’m a bee (way too serious and working all the time). I guess if we ever get around to having a child, that child is going to end up looking something like this:
spiderbee
We still don’t know if that day is ever going to come. We want to be able to economically support our child without turning to TANF, and right now that would not be possible. But if we ever manage to make it happen… look out, world! Ain’t nothin’ our spiderbee can’t do!