Like Kuorsawa I make mad films, okay I don’t make films, but if I did they’d have a samurai…

So one huge thing that came out of my recent trip to New York is a renewed interest in the sound design/auraltrack in the films of Akira Kurosawa.  My initial research came in the Fall 2008 semester for my Asian Aesthetics paper, then I later presented a revised version of that paper at a local AMS meeting, and then revised it again and submitted it to an academic writing competition within the College of Music and won.  In other words, I’ve gotten some good mileage from the paper.  I’ve toyed around with the idea of it as a dissertation topic, but just one among many.  After NYC and the panel on sound design I went to (read more here at The Temp Track), I got started thinking more about it.  On my last full day in New York, I wandered into a bookstore and picked up four books on Kurosawa (three of which I had used in my paper), and I’ve already read two of them (including his wonderful autobiography Something Like an Autobiography).  These books have only increased my interest.  I’ve also watched five more Kurosawa films since I’ve returned, and I could say something on each one of them in terms of sound design.

Kurosawa is so meticulous in crafting how sound and music are used, and unlike most Hollywood productions, he did the bulk of the work himself (something he learned how to do in his days working as an assistant director).  I hope to have viewed all his films by the end of the summer (something which is largely possible, but his four early films made towards the tail end of WWII might prove a bit troublesome to track down, everything else I either own or can be had in the school’s library or ordered from another library in our lending system), so I will know more about his work as a whole.

Just some quick thoughts that are on my mind.

NYC and Me

I have a love hate relationship with New York City. On the one hand, I love the convenience, how close everything is, the public transit – a definite advantage for one with a driving record like mine. On the other hand, I hate the crowds.

I’m in New York attending a conference on film music at New York University, which is located by Washington Square Park which is right around Greenwich Village. It’s an amazing part of the city, and the park is a wonderful place, beautiful fountain (appealing to a boy from Kansas City, MO), an American version of the Arc de Triomphe (the Washington Square Arch), vendors, musicians, old men playing chess, everything you see in the movies and episodes of Law and Order (actually, on Friday, they were filming something in park, wouldn’t be surprised if it was some episode of Law and Order and someone playing the role of Corpse #2).

Anyway, Saturday morning I come in for the morning session starting at 9:30 and there is almost no one around, it’s very quiet and peaceful, and I think to myself, “Ya, I could get used to this. It’s nice.” But around noon, there is a huge street festival going on, and by the end of the evening sessions at 6, the place is packed, and all I can think of is, “I’ve got to get out of here!”

If you know me well, you’ll know that I don’t handle crowds at all. Case in point is this conference; I didn’t go to the opening reception thing because I didn’t know anyone, and all I would’ve done is stand around and not talk to anyone. Well now imagine thousands of people, and my anxiety multiplied. I wouldn’t exactly say I have agoraphobia, I don’t really suffer from full on panic attacks (okay, maybe once I had one…but only once), but if there is a mild form, then that is how I might describe it. I just don’t handle large crowds, I don’t deal well with new people all that well, I don’t mingle well at parties with people I don’t know, and I don’t really go up to people and start conversations (though a couple times at the conference I will talk to people who have presented and say how I liked there paper and so on).

I need the wide open spaces of the plains, where the population density is lower, where the world has a chance to breath. Yes, the city is exciting, and walking through the park, or standing in the subway, surrounded by the sounds of people, musicians, the rhythmic clanking of the subways as they pull into and out of the stations…and the unearthly quiet when there are no trains, and you realize that almost no one is talking…it is intoxicating to the aural senses. Sitting here in my friends place writing, I can hear the sound of a block party going on, Latin music playing, people talking, the DJ talking over the music, the soundtrack to our existence. And the car horns! Oh my god, the car horns. On my way back to my friend’s place in Brooklyn, I walk through the intersection of 4th and 6th, and tonight it was really busy. One person honks, than another, and another, and before you know it, everyone is honking but not a single car is moving! How we humans strive against the futile.

The other thing is that riding the subway, walking around, it really does give me appreciation to the unspoken social contract under which society, and civilization, operates. In some ways, it is truly amazing how humanity survives and organizes itself. We have laws and rules, yes, but those are merely manifestations for that social contract: you don’t mess with me, I don’t mess with you. And you realize just how fragile the whole construct is. The genre of science fiction is filled with ruminations of what might happen if something exposes or upsets that construct (be it war, famine, disease, etc.). And we have examinations on both sides, either society actually comes together or it falls apart completely – or the variant where it falls apart or almost does and some totalitarian regime steps in and takes over.

And how many times in sci-fi have we seen these collapses of society represented by shots of empty streets or abandoned cars in New York? Well, to go from the City that Never Sleeps to one of eternal slumber is among the most striking images available to science fiction. But I’ve seemed to have strayed from my topic: NYC and Me.

Sitting here in my friend’s apartment in Brooklyn (and I’m sorry, but every time I think or say that word, I just hear Spot Conlon in Newsies scream “Brooklyn!” or say, “Never fear, Brooklyn is here.”), listening to the sounds of the city, I just can’t help but wonder about our society. I have this romantic notion of some apocalypse that’ll leave most of the cities intact, and either some distant future intelligent race that evolves – or aliens, who knows – will find them and wonder just who we were, what happened to us. Maybe it’s growing up with too much sci-fi, but these are the things I think about.

Is this the real life?

There are some things that stick with you from a young age.


Growing up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, there are episodes and ideas and concepts that have lingered on in my memory and thoughts which have helped to form my conception of the world.  One of those episodes is “Tapestry” in which Captain Picard relives a pivotal time in his life that he still had regrets about and sees how things would have proceeded had he done things differently.  Another episode is “Frame of Mind,” an episode that I remembered parts of, but I had forgotten much of the actual plot, but the over arching question of the fragileness of our perception of reality and how our own memories is something that has stuck with me.  And is also something that is very present in my mind given my recent research into Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon.


I just reviewed this episode tonight for what might be the first time since its airing back in 1993 when I was thirteen.


In this episode Commander Riker is experiencing hallucinations and going back and forth between a mental hospital and the Enterprise.  The entire experience, though, is transitioned through a play he is performing on ship, ‘Frame of Mind,’ in which he plays a patient in a mental hospital.  So he begins to question which is actually real, the hospital or the ship.  There is a sort of sub plot with Riker about to go on an undercover mission to a planet in order to locate a missing Federation research team, but that is really secondary (though it turns out to be part of the key to the mystery) to the real questions, if both realities seem equally real while you are there, how is one to tell the difference?


This is really a question with which we all must struggle with at some point – that is if we actually think deeply about our lives and existence.


Descartes famously stated, “Cogito ergo sum” as the simple answer to our existence.  I think therefore I am, but really…isn’t that just proof of your immediate existence?  What of the world around you?


In this episode, Riker’s existence is never at stake, it is his reality.  And that is the more chilling question.  Because if your reality is illusory, what of your personality, your identity?  And if that is truly called into question, what does that say about who you are? 


If the foundation of our existence is “Cogito ergo sum” then the next step is “Gnōthi seauton,” know thyself.  And if we cannot trust our reality, then how are we to know ourselves?


Now imagine a 13-year-old self seeing this episode and trying to come to terms with the basic question of reality.  Maybe I was unique as a child growing up to be wondering about the basic tenants of our existence and reality, but part of me thinks not – though it definitely doesn’t seem like a normal thing to do.


Back to the episode, Riker eventually breaks through the layers of illusion via various destructive means, each time, making the connection of the common links, until he arrives at reality.  He had been kidnapped and drugged in an attempt to extract information from him.  Interesting to note here is that one of the cues that really sets off the fact that we have arrived at reality is an aural one.  As soon as the last mental barrier is shattered (in a cool effect that is what I had remembered most of the episode), we hear a sound familiar to the Trek universe:  the deep hum of energy or power or something (what I usually took as the sound of the Enterprise engines).  This sound aurally sets apart this reality because once we hear it we realize that it wasn’t there just a moment ago.  In this way, it is very much like Kurosawa’s use of sound to indicate reality in Rashomon.  For more on that, check out my Temp Track blog, I’ll be posting my paper on this in the next few days.


This is not a unique question to be posed in science fiction, and actually it is one that I think has been explored to more chilling effect by others: namely in the Buffy, the Vampire Slayer episode “Normal Again,” the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episodes “Far Beyond the Stars” and  “Shadows and Symbols,” and the Lost episode “Dave.”  What I really like about these is that they really do leave the question of reality open in the end – did our heroes really find their way back to reality, or did they accept the more exciting or comfortable or reassuring “reality” as opposed to their life in the asylum.  And while it is a bit much to go as far as to say that these episodes indicate that the shows themselves are actually the insane constructs of mental patients, it is at least an interesting question to pose.  But they are just TV shows in the end.


But, while “Frame of Mind” seems to pretty securely establish that Riker is back in reality, there is a moment at the end where the door does seemed to be cracked open to the possibility that he is actually still a mental patient.  As Riker is being debriefed by the Captain, Picard says to Riker, “Go to bed, get some rest, we’ll talk more in the morning.”  This line echoes much of the advice given to Riker in both the false Enterprise and the false hospital, and even in the play.  Doctors and Counselors telling him to get some sleep, or that “we’ll talk more in our next session.”  Had the director, editors, writers, whoever, had merely taken an extra beat, have Riker give Picard an askew look, the door would have been solidly jammed open.  The fact that the line is there seems to indicate that it was on the mind of at least someone in the writer’s room.


And knowing that Ronald D. Moore – of Battlestar Galactica fame – was in that writers room, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out some day that that was the original intention behind the line and that the ending was changed in editing to give us a more conclusive wrap up.


So I ask, “Is this the real life?  Is this just fantasy?”

Seizure Inducing or Avant-Garde? The case of ‘Speed Racer’

I recently picked up Michael Giacchino’s score to the Wachowski’s Brothers feature film Speed Racer (yes, based on the 60s Japanese Anime).  This film had the misfortune of opening the week after Iron Man and, along with having to compete with the Robert Downey, Jr. superhero pic, was also, with few exceptions, panned in the critical press.  Listening to the score made me want to see the film and that is exactly what I did last night.


As I see it, there is really only one thing wrong with the film, and it’s not actually the film’s fault…well maybe it is, but…well, let me explain.  The problem is that the film is not what the studios (probably) wanted, and it is not what they marketed it as.  Yes, the bright colors, cartoon stylized CGI, and fast cars all make it seem like it should be a children/family movie, but it isn’t.  One of the few positive reviews came from Glenn Kenny from Premiere Magazine, who calls it either, “the most headache inducing kid’s movie of them all [or]…the most expensive avant-garde film ever made.”  The main source of this avant-garde track is how the story is told in multiple layers of flashbacks that, if unprepared, can make the plot nigh un-followable.  The opening race/flashbacks tell the story of how obsessed with racing a young Speed is, and his relationship with his older brother Rex, while also revealing, in the so-called present, a young adult Speed literally racing the ghost of Rex and almost breaking his record at the local track.  But on a third level, we also have Rex’s race, and using slick transitions, we move back and forth in between the two races…and also back to Speed’s childhood.


And on top of this time-bending storytelling (which smoothes out for the most part after the opening) is some of the slickest CGI I’ve ever seen.  Forget Gollum and the Ring or the “hyper-reality” of 300, what the artists for Speed Racer achieved can only be described as pop art for the big screen.  The colors burst off the screen as the cars hurtle around tracks that not only laugh at and spit on, but also break in submission the laws of physics.  And the racing set pieces?  Exhilarating.  One reviewer said how there was never any true sense of danger in the races, but for me, that didn’t make them any less exciting.


The CGI and colors of the film are what made it transcend from simple remake of an old anime cartoon into a film that…well…I’m not truly sure what it is yet.  But it’s not a kids film, even if that is where I found it in Best Buy.  It’s a film that revels in the camp of the old anime, but also has an emotional heart to it, as it is the tale of the Racer family (brilliantly played by John Goodman and Susan Sarandon, and annoying, yet endearing, younger brother Spritle played by Paulie Litt, while Speed is played by an understated Emile Hirsch).  The two fight sequences (the first, of course, with ninjas, and the second with a gaggle of Mafioso rejects) also heighten the anime camp, taking cues from Tarentino and Kill Bill it seems like – but without the gushing blood.


It is a pastiche of anime on the one side, but on the other a brilliantly edited and rendered work.  And on the other hand, it is an emotional family tale of the little guy against the big-bad corporation.  Many reviews also latched onto the contradiction of a summer kids movie that was obviously meant to have multiple merchandising tie-ins being one with an anti-corporate message.  But a simple Wikipedia browsing will point to the fact that the corporate vs. independent as a plot point in the original anime series.  Here, though, it takes on the added layer of race fixing conspiracies and corporate takeovers.  In our cynical world where point shaving schemes, charges of the NBA being rigged, and the New York Yankees are everyday, the idea of the corporations who sponsor the leagues fixing the outcomes don’t seem so farfetched.


But to expect kids to understand all of this?  I doubt my young cousins could understand all of this.  Hell, I doubt my older cousins could.  I’m not even sure I understood all of it!


A few quick words about the score to wrap things up.  I’ve already done a brief review over at my other blog (Edit 2013: read the review here), but now that I’ve seen the film, I have a few more observations.  As I mention in my review, Giacchino interweaves the classic “Go Speed Racer Go” theme song into the score.  What I can now say is that the moments he chooses to are masterfully chosen.  At the moments of highest tension in the race scenes, just a snippet of the old theme will come in as Speed pulls off some stunt move to slide past his opponents or elude a devilish cheater.  The one non-race moment when theme comes in is during the obligatory montage right before the big race.  In this case, the racer family has to build a new car for the Grand Prix in less than two days, and the building montage has snippets of “Go Speed Racer Go” in it.  What Giacchino also does here is that he has taken the whole hook (you know, “Go Speed Racer, Go Speed Racer, Go Speed Racer Go-oo!”) and brakes it up into smaller segments and they float in and out of the musical score.  And the only time we really hear that whole hook is at the very end of the film.


So seizure inducing kids film or brilliantly subversive avant-garde cinema?  I’m not sure I’m prepared to announce it as more ripe for academic consideration than the Wachowski’s previous efforts (The Matrix and V for Vendetta), but I also know for certain that this is no kids movie.  My recommendation, though, is that you should go out and rent or buy it while you still can.  Even with DVD sales the film STILL has yet to earn back its budget, so who knows when the studio will just give up on it.  Strong 4.5/5.

Orson Scott Card, The Ender Novels, and the author’s voice?

Among my many projects over the past year has been reading through a few book series.  Last semester—yes, semester, I am still a graduate student so I think in semesters—it was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, all seven books.  This semester is reading Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game novels.  First, if you don’t know the books, there around, as of right now, nine books and a short novella plus assorted short stories (some of which have been worked into the latest novel and novella).  The original four books (Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind) make up so-called ‘Ender Quartet’ because they focus on the main character of Ender Wiggin.  In the late 1990s Card wrote Ender’s Shadow as a parallel novel to Ender’s Game, and basically tells the story of the original book from the perspective of the character of Bean.  From there he wrote Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, and Shadow of the Giant.  These four books are called the ‘Bean/Shadow Quartet’ and actually take place in between the first two books of the Ender Quartet.  Card’s latest novel of the series, Ender in Exile, takes place during the last three books of the Shadow Quartet, and even largely between the last two chapters of Ender’s Game, and the novella, A War of Gifts, also takes place during Game.


Yes, it’s all very confusing if you don’t know the books and how relativistic space travel accounts for so much of the lost time.  I won’t go into too much of the details because you can read all about them on Wikipedia and what not.  There is even a handy flow chart of how all the books and stories relate.


For my reading, I decided to ready the books in the chronological order of events as best I can.  So that order was:


Ender’s Game

Ender’s Shadow

A War of Gifts

Shadow of the Hegemon

Shadow Puppets

Shadow of the Giant

Ender in Exile

Speaker for the Dead


Children of the Mind


Part of the reason I did that is that I have, in large part, already read the Ender Quartet, though it was long ago and I never finished Children of the Mind.  As of right now, I have finished Ender in Exile.  What I want to talk about now, though, it how I almost stopped reading the books about half-way through Shadow Puppets and how it relates to some modern fiction.


In Shadow Puppets two of our main characters are Julian ‘Bean’ Delphiki and Petra Arkanian, both friends of Ender’s from his days in Battle School.  Bean suffers from a condition that allows his brain to continue growing, hence his amazing intellect, but has the side effect of his continuing growth past puberty and his early death due to his body not being able to sustain his increasing growth.  Petra was always a possible love interest for many characters, being one of the few female characters, but her tough, no-nonsense, acerbic wit and attitude always made her somewhat of a tough nut to crack emotionally.  She obviously had feelings for Ender, but most of it was more paternal and looking after the youngest kid there.


What almost stopped my reading dead in its tracks, though, was a drastic shift in Petra’s character.  She went from the tough girl who takes shit from no one to a whiny teenager who wants nothing more than to marry Bean and have his babies.  For the first half of the book, any scene between the two of them were either long internal narratives of how she wanted to have his babies (and yes, Card almost always used the word ‘babies’) despite the risk that they would inherit Bean’s condition, or dialogue of her pestering him to marry her so that his legacy can live on.  It got to be maddening, but I suffered through it and luckily the book got back on track to the larger geo-political story that had made the pervious book so compelling.  There were also long dialogues between Petra/Bean and other characters on how a life is not fulfilled until one is married and has children, how it gives one life meaning.  Those obvious moments where an author’s personal views are very thinly veiled.


When I was reading this, though, I was struck by how this reminded me of what a friend had described to me about the first Twilight novel (she stopped after the first one because of how annoying she found the characters in the first). She described how Bella had also essentially badgered the male lead (whose name escapes me) in his relationship with her, how he didn’t want to pursue one due to the complications that may arise.  But both female leads wanted their relationships with their respective male counterpoints (reluctant due to their respective conditions) and hounded them until they gave in.


In the back of my mind, the thought arose of the authors religious affiliations and how they have seemingly impacted their writing.  Both Card and Stephanie Meyer are members of the Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormons), and while I have no problems with religion or Mormons in the particular, I wonder if the views of the church has influenced their view.  A hallmark of the Mormon family is it to be large (much like the Catholics), and that meaning can be found in future generations.  Not to mention the fact that Meyer cites Card as a writer who has influenced her.


But despite what I realized was Card’s own religion seeping into his writing, I wouldn’t not have been so clearly annoyed, I think , if it hadn’t been for the complete reversal in what I had found to be the very compelling character of Petra.  Apologists could say that she was being just as head strong as she previously had been, that her pursuit of Bean was driven by the same impulses that had led her to be so determined and her wit so biting previously.  But I text, as I read it, does not bear this apology out.


Petra became whiney, her constant pleading with Bean to marry her, not to mention her constant doubting about how she had been the first of Ender’s commanders to break under stress during the final battle with the Formics (the alien enemy that they had been fighting).  She had gone from a strong female lead to one that seemed to depend on Bean’s approval and acceptance of her as his wife.  Not to mention the other characters whose views pushed Bean into the marriage and subsequent children.


I’m not sure if this same theme will be present in the rest of the Ender Quartet (I don’t seem to remember it being), but its presence in the Shadow Quartet does echo what I’ve read about his writing having taken a turn that is more in line with his religious views in the latter part of the 90s.  Like I’ve said, I’m not trying to say anything about his religion per se, just how his views came to dominant so completely the first half Shadow Puppets.  I did finish the book, and have continued reading the series and enjoyed them immensely, and I’m looking forward to finishing the series. Not to mention looking forward to his final novel of the entire Ender series that is supposedly in the planning stages.  I’m just reporting my reactions to this and how they seem to line up with similar criticism reported to me by others.

The Last Frakkin’ Word on the BSG Finale

Over the past few days, I’ve read a lot positive and negative comments about the finale of Battlestar Galactica.  As one of the few who were seemingly completely satisfied with the ending, I feel the need to discuss my thoughts in an open forum, and it doesn’t get much more open than the internets (use the Google to find me…God, I hope bashing Bush never gets old)

Anyway, as I’ve said many times over the past year (to anyone who would listen), Ron Moore and David Eick seemed to be following a plan with BSG that took the major plot points of the one season of the classic Battlestar as a template for the new show.  Those major points, and their analogous new episodes I shall list here:

-Fall of the Twelve Colonies: Classic ‘Saga of a Star World,’ New ‘Miniseries’
-Finding Kobol: Classic ‘Lost Planet of the Gods,’ New ‘Kobol’s Last Gleaming, Part I’ through ‘Home, Part II’
-Discovery by Pegasus and Adm. Cain: Classic ‘The Living Legend,’ New ‘Pegasus’ through ‘Resurrection Ship, Part II’
-Ship of Lights/Count Iblis: Classic ‘War of the Gods,’ New…the entire series?

It is the last one that is most closely tied in with the finale of ‘Daybreak’ (both parts).  As it is revealed that the Six that Baltar would talk to that only he could see and hear (like Al from Quantum Leap), and that the Baltar vision both he and Caprica Six would have, are actually some sort of beings who have been helping them and the fleet along, hoping to guide them towards a better future.  And also that Starbuck, after she seemingly died, was brought back for a specific purpose.  I’ll come back to these points in just a moment, because first I want to address what seems to be one of the biggest sticking points:  the decision of the Colonials to renounce their technologies and settle down on our Earth and blend in with the natives.

I think this was a perfectly logical way to end the Colonial’s journey for a few reasons.  I think it does make sense from a pure storytelling perspective and from a practical one.  In context of the story, the entire point of the series has been “All this has happened before, and will happen again” and trying to break out of the cycle.  The final five were revealed to be people from the original 13th colony who had traveled to the 12 Colonies in hopes that they could prevent the terrible destruction that had visited their world (the original Earth), but they were too late.  And in trying to prevent a future war, accidently set in motion the events that would destroy the Colonies.  As Lee Adama makes clear in his little speech on why they should give up the technology, if they were to keep the technology and take over the planet, it would most likely just continue the cycle.  If they were to give it all up, they would give everyone the chance to start again, and hopefully when the civilization once again reached the point of the “Singularity,” the point when true Artificial Intelligence is reached and the systems can learn and evolve on their own (look it up), we will all be in a better position to avert the apocalypse (this anxiety is present in much of our science fiction, look no further than The Matrix and The Terminator films).

So in the context of the story, it makes perfect sense.  From a practical standpoint, let’s play what if.  What if instead of reaching Earth in the distant past, they reach Earth (our Earth) and it’s more recent, or even present day or even near future?  Essentially you would leave open the door for future series in some alternate reality in which the Galactica reaches Earth…then you just have the disaster that was Galactica 1980 all over again.  Instead, the way Moore and Eick ended it, you have a morality tale that squares with our own human history (but what about wreckage of the Raptor that Adama had, etc…I’ll get to that).  As for people who ask the question I just parentheticalled, well, I just say you’re over thinking it, and if you really want an answer, well Adama set the autopilot and crashed it into the Sun like the rest of the fleet.  But again, I think you’re missing the forest for the trees if you get that nitpicky.


So with that now settled, I would like to turn my attention to the previously mentioned point, that of the revelation of the true natures of, what had been referred to as, “Head Six” and “Head Baltar.”  Call them angels, spirits, or whatever, it becomes clear that they were operating for some source, power, whatever that had instructed them to do what they did.  And playing against them in this game was the original Cavil cylon, who we had learned earlier, was behind the mind wipes of the final five, planting them in the fleet and many other devious things.  He wanted to wipe out humanity so the Cylons could be ascendant.


This does mesh well with the general tone of the original series’ “War of the Gods” two part episode.  On the one hand there is Count Iblis who is our devil/Cavil figure (originally there had been a scene of him with cloven hoofs, but it was pulled from the aired episode), and he is warring against the beings of the ‘Ship of Lights,’ who are beings who have ascended to a higher plane of existence (if you are familiar with Stargate SG-1 think of the Ancients).  They hope to guide humanity to a better existence.


Also like the episode “War of the Gods,” is the obtaining of the location of Earth.  The return of Starbuck at the end of Season 3 leads to this…twice.  First the original Earth, destroyed by conflict of man against machine, and then to the new Earth, our Earth.  Also of similarity is that Starbuck returns in a pristine, shiny viper.  When, in the original series, the pilots who had been taken by the “Beings of Light” return to Galactica, their vipers are in similar condition.


From this, it can be seen that Ron Moore, when writing out this ending, had these episodes in mind.  And that all along, he was following the large plot structure of the one season of the original series.  But rather than the rather obvious, in your face, religious angels that we had in the original, we have the rather enigmatic, obtuse, and not always ‘good’ angles of “Head Six” and “Head Baltar.”  In the payoff of the Opera House visions, we do see that all along it was to protect the future of humanity, Hera, who would lay the seeds of our modern humanity (as seen in the tag of the near future and the discovery of our most recent ancestor).


But an ending with such religious overtones?  That seems to be a sticking point for some.  In a science fiction show that prided itself on realism, a metaphysical ending?  I didn’t have any problems because the entire show had religious themes.  From the Colonial’s pantheon of Gods, to Roslin’s faith and Moses-like figure, to the Cylon’s one true God, the series is littered with the religious.  The only lingering question for me is: with all of the strong allegory of religious conflict, and parallels to 9/11 and Arab/Judeo-Christian conflict, what, if anything, can we read into this ending?  My initial thoughts are that by the refutation of the name “God” at the end, it is a message of pantheism (if I’m using that term correctly).  That religion is putting a specific name on something which doesn’t want or need to be named (though anthropomorphizing it in such a way contradicts such pantheistic readings seemingly).


I’m not an expert in such matters, but a reading of the ending that encourages unity rather than division seems to be perfectly in line with the shows message as a whole.  In the end, in order to survive, didn’t humanity and cylon have to come together?  Wasn’t that the whole point of Hera?  Exactly.


So, those are my thoughts.  Yours?

Stop the Planet of the Apes! I Want to Get Off!

  For those of you ignorant of The Simpsons, the subject is a reference to the musical version of The Planet of the Apes starring Troy McClure…as the human (the part he was born to play!).  But I’m not going to write about the classic song “You’ll Never Make a Monkey Out of Me (I Hate Every Ape I See)” or “Dr. Zaius.”  Rather, I’m going to speak about the movie franchise.  Using it to elaborate on some subjects talked about in my previous post, “Science Fiction.”

The original Apes film, and to a lesser extent its sequels, are a perfect example of what Sci-Fi can do so well.  It takes touchy social/political subjects and wraps them in the cloth of science fiction to make them more palatable for the viewing public.  Planet of the Apes addressed such topics as: 1) Social inequality based on race, 2) Science versus Faith (i.e. evolution), and 3) Nuclear Warfare.  Oddly enough, even though the film is 40 years old this year, all these things are still very much a part of our civilization.  Maybe man doesn’t evolve, we just find more clever ways to cover up our flaws.

  So what we do have here is a perfect example of what might be normally taboo, or at least touchy, topics to be addressed in such a public way, Apes tackles them head.  And does it for FIVE FILMS!  Yes, the four sequels are not nearly as creative or subtle as the first, but how does one really beat the Monkey Trial Redux?  I mean, really?  The classic scene of the original film where intelligent Apes evolving from Man is debated and the judges do all they can to deny the evidence is simply brilliant (not to mention the comical moment where the three Ape judges imitate the See No, Speak No, Hear No Evil bit).  “Objection!” “Sustained!”

  The second film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, while not nearly as subtle, I believe has new found relevance in our modern society.  It deals with an overly adventurous and aggressive military general forcing an unnecessary and ultimately disastrous campaign against what turns out to be the mutant human descendants of humanity who live in a bombed out NYC and worship the almighty bomb…and the holy fallout.  The general, Ursus, has the classic, and chilling, line while addressing a council of, “The only thing that counts in the end is power!  Naked, merciless force!”

  Remind anyone of another chilling absolute recently uttered?  Perhaps, “You are either with us or you are with the terrorists.”  Maybe?

  Of course I would not be the first to compare the current Commander in Chief, aka “The Commander Guy,” aka “The Decider,” with an ape.

  Granted, that film was made at the height of Viet Nam and also deals with pacifism, a war protest, and the eventual destruction of the planet.  Surely not things we have to worry about now, right?  Wait a second, didn’t Russia just invade someone?  Is this 2008 or the 1950s?

  The remaining films deal with how the Earth got to be the planet of the Apes, of which the best installment is Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.  It deals with the Ape revolution against their oppressive human slave masters, and is quite far and away the darkest installment.  The changed, more positive, ending that the studio demanded really kind of ruins the whole thing.  Caesar, the leader of the resistance, gives a speech on how Apes shall no longer tolerate their slavery, talks about the world burning in the fires of revolution, really great imagery, and original the human governor of the city was to be beaten to death…but instead the studio demanded that he be spared.

  It’s not that I’m opposed to the change, it’s just that it was such a bad hack job and is so obvious that it just ruins the whole ending.

  A few words on Tim Burton’s 2001 remake should be made.  Mainly on why it just does not measure up to the original.  It comes down to the fact that it doesn’t have any of the social commentary that made the 1968 film such a classic.  Instead, we get a two hour sci-fi action adventure.  Not that sci-fi action is necessarily bad, it’s that when that is everything it is, the obvious silliness of the concept overwhelms the story.  In the ’68 version, and Pierre Boulle’s novel, the Ape oppressing human story is a device to explore society, and both do it well.  Burton’s remake doesn’t really do it.  It focuses entirely on the human’s capture and escape.  Also, these humans can speak and do so.  Part of what made the original so devastating was Taylor’s palpable frustration at the situation of the humans not being intelligent and the Apes insistence that his intelligence was all a learned trick.

  Simply, there were no scenes in the 2001 version that screamed “classic” like the courtroom scene, or Heston’s classic, “Get your stinkin’ paws off me you damned dirty apes,” and definitely not the ending shot of the Statue of Liberty.  Burton’s end just left the view saying, “huh?”  Granted, he was intending to remake more of the films, and perhaps the “Ape Lincoln” at the end might have been explained.

  Instead we’re left with a mess of a remake.

  What I’m saying is that the films actual hold up better than most people give them credit for.  I would recommend the original to anyone I know, and for any fan of science fiction, the whole series really is a must see.

Science Fiction

I love science fiction, have since I was a kid.  I used to dream about going into space, inventing warp drives, and other such flights of fancy.  Alot of my love stems from my parents, growing up Star Wars and Star Trek were in heavy rotation for viewing in my house.  My parents themselves as teens and young adults read the works of Asimov and others and once I was old enough, I too read many of those works.  A quick glance at my bookshelf I see works of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and Orson Scott Card.  But as I’ve grown older, and I’ve tried to explore science fiction in both literary and visual media, I have grown to appreciate just what is so wonderful about the genre.

It’s that in my opinion it’s not a genre.  At least not in the sense of “drama,” “action,” “comedy,” and other such labels you find at the local video store, though there is always a “sci-fi” section (many times lumped in with “horror”).  Or even in a bookstore, you have the “literature” section, then sub sections for “romance,” “mystery,” and “science-fiction/fantasy.”  In my opinion science fiction is a genre that transcends genre.  It’s a setting that can be anything it wants.  It can be action, drama, romance, comedy, horror, mystery.  It’s a genre that is so rich and varied.  Not to mention an underdog that has been looked down upon since its early days, and still is for the most part.  When was the last time a sci-fi film was up for Best Picture?  Maybe Star Wars?  

But despite the snubbing of many of the intelligentsia (or intellinistas as I like to call them…hey I’m one too), it is a “genre” that has flourished and has become so rich and varied that many people have a hard time knowing if to call something science fiction unless it blatantly involves robots, aliens, space travel, or preferably all three!  Many people say the TV show Lost is science fiction, but is it?  There is definitely something unknown and strange at work, weird scientific experiments and such.  But unless the last two seasons have some really strange twists (which I don’t really put anything past J.J. Abrams), there will not be any aliens or robots or space travel.  Though they did just move the entire island, which was pretty cool.

But look at how science fiction is action and drama and comedy.  What science fiction funny?  Read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy lately?  Action? Drama?  Star Wars is both in one, as is Trek.  If you want just action, look no further than The Matrix or Total Recall or The Terminator movies or Aliens.  Horror?  How about original Alien, or the more recent Sunshine (which is more 2001 drama until the last act when it turns horror). Pure drama?  How about some 2001?  Too slow or cerebral?  Well maybe Dark City, which is also cerebral, but also a good film noir too, along with a little drama and romance.  Or if you want so really good long form “space opera,” then check out the new Battlestar Galactica.  That should be dramatic enough for anyone.  Hell, it’s practically a soap opera in space.  The only thing it’s lacking is a coma patient pregnant with Admiral Adama’s love child.  But maybe we’ll get that in the last half of season four.

I guess my favorite thing about science fiction, though, is its ability to make us think.  The good science fiction challenges us and makes us think.  But changing the setting from what is known about our world, tweaking it, making changes to force us to ask questions.  Questions about humanity, what makes us who we are.  Questions about reality, what is real, could we tell the difference between reality and a completely convincing illusion?  Or what if we ourselves are the illusion?  It can force us to look at our own reality and see the absurd in how we act to each other.  As in the classic original Star Trek episode “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield.”  You know the one with the race of people that are half white/half black, and dependent on which side of your body is which you’re either slave or master.

Rodenberry was never exactly subtle with his points, but they were effective none the less.  Science Fiction is in many ways like the jester of Shakespeare.  I know, I know I’ve used the reference many times before, even in the previous post, but it is such a classic literary device.  Anyway, because Science Fiction is not dealing with the “real world” it can get away with more, just like the jester could comment on the king through comedy.  Since people didn’t take it seriously, we could dream of a better world, comment on just how terrible our current times are.  Or ask the really hard questions about our human nature.

  There is a great episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where Captain Sisko has a hallucination about being a science fiction writer back in the 1950s, “Far Beyond the Stars.”  He dreams up the entire DS9 universe complete with a black captain, which of course sparks a huge debate on whether to publish the story.  It captures much of what is great about the genre, not to mention why it had such a hard time gaining even the respect it has today.

  I guess what I’m trying to say is that Science Fiction has so many of the qualities that make other genres great, but it does them in such a way that it transcends those genres.  It’s more than just a genre.  What is a genre really?  I know there is great debate in academic communities on this very question, but I would ask if Science Fiction fits many of these qualities.  It has both drama and comedy, and aren’t those the two most basic genres?  Science Fiction can challenge us to make a better future and make a better self.  And this, among many other reasons, is why I love it so much.

  And space ships are wicked cool.

The Dark Knight (Updated and Edited)

Note:  This post does contain some spoilers of both the movie and the comic The Killing Joke, from which many aspects of the Joker in the film are taken.  You have been warned!

So of course, Friday night, I went and saw the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight.  Big surprise there, eh?  Even my new found miserly ways could not keep me from seeing what might be the most anticipated film of the year.  And the quick review?  It truly is all that and a bag of chips.  The long review, well, that’s what I’m about to write now, of course.

So the most talked about aspect of this film in all the advance reviews was Heath Ledger’s performance of ‘The Joker,’ and while I’m not completely sold on all the Oscar talk, I will say that he has created one of the most memorable on screen villains of recent memory.  His portrayal of the Joker is chilling, freighting, and psychotic.  Now before I go any further, I must give credit where credit is due.  If it were not for the excellent script by director Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan (wow, a family working together!), Ledger would not have had the material to work from that gave rise to his wonderful performance.  Anyway, the Joker of this film is one that is miles away from the one of the ’60s TV series, and a few padded cells down from Nicholson’s 1989 Joker.  Whereas Jack played the Joker with more comedy then true psychosis, Ledger gives himself wholly over to the psychotic nature of the character.

And there is nothing wrong with either interpretation.  The character has been written both ways in the comics, and even in Batman: The Animated Series, we see both aspects.

And here is the rub, Nicholson’s Joker would not work in the world created by Nolan.  Tim Burton’s Gotham was a more fantastical place, with Gothic spires and Gargoyles on every roof top.  It was dark and nightmarish in a demented sort of way, but was far enough removed from reality, that a more comedic, over-the-top Joker was called for.  Nolan’s Gotham is a much more real place.  Shooting on the streets of Chicago, we feel like it is not so far removed from our world, thus calling for a more realistic Joker.  Even the way Nolan set up the Batman in the first movie makes him feel like a more plausible character.  Yes, we can never truly believe that Batman and the Joker could ever be real, but it is so hard to imagine that a truly criminally insane person, like a serial killer, might adopt such an identity before going on their crime spree?  No.  The existence of such criminals as “Jack the Ripper,” the “Zodiac Killer,” and Charles Manson and his cult gives grounding to the Joker.  And Ledger performs him as such an insane person, or as he calls himself, an “Agent of Chaos.”

Which brings me to the strongest aspect of the Joker in this movie, and that is as a foil to Batman.  In the comics, the Joker has always been the best foil of Batman among his rouges gallery.  Batman seeks to bring the people of Gotham order.  He wants take back the streets from the criminals, and give power back to the good people of Gotham.  The Joker wants nothing more than to throw it into chaos.  He’s never sought power like so many other villains, it holds no appeal for him, what he seeks is merely anarchy.  Take Alan Moore’s seminal The Killing Joke, for example (something I believe was an inspiration for Nolan and Nolan).  In it, the Joker escapes from Arkham (again!), and seeks to prove that sanity is just a thin facade, and even the supposedly sanest person can be forced into insanity.  To that end, the Joker kidnaps Commissioner Gordon, and in the process shoots and paralyzes his daughter Barbara from the waist down.  He then subjects Gordon to psychological torture, stripping him naked and parading him around a carnival.  Torture fit for Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay!  He then shows him images of his still bleeding daughter stripped naked.  All trying to break him and prove that anyone can be driven insane, though Gordon never breaks.  The whole story is bookended by Batman talking to the Joker, asking if there is anyway they can stop their endless dance that can only lead to one of them killing the other.

Ledger’s delivery, the body language, everything he does physically brings out this psychotic nature and makes you truly fear the character.  He feels real, truly psychotic.  And the end, in his upside down monologue to Batman after his “social experiment” with the two ferries has failed (re. Killing Joke experiment with Gordon), we get to hear just what it is that he wants, to be nothing more than an Agent of Chaos, to reveal the truth of society underneath our politesse.  In this aspect, we see a much deeper aspect of the Joker, one that truly earns him his name.  One aspect of the Joker/Pierrot/Jester of the Commedia dell’Arte/Shakespearean tradition is that of social commentator.  He alone sees the truth of society, it’s follies and foibles, and thanks to his place as a Jester/Comedian of the court (in the Shakespeare), he can comment directly on it without fear of reprisal from the King.  In this, we see that sense of the Joker, but to us, he is proven wrong.  His view is warped by his own psychosis…but is he so wrong?  That is the question.

Now, I would be remiss to discuss one further aspect of the Joker in this film, and that is the musical aspect and its relationship to the idea of foil to Batman.  The score for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is one that doesn’t really have character “themes” in the traditional Romantic sense, like Wagner or the scores of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.  But, it does have some ideas and gestures that can be called motifs of sorts.  The one most associated with Batman has two parts: first is a two note repeated motor rhythm played in the strings (in someways I think this is a sideways homage to the original T.V. Batmantheme, but I could be wrong), and second is a two chord progression that moves upwards.  The chords themselves has a decidedly minor/dark quality, but the upwards motion is a very recognizable heroic topic.  In this sense, we get the nature of Batman represented, his dark/fear inducing quality mixed with his want to do good.  In Dark Knight, the score gives us a similar two-part motif most associated with the Joker, but it changes the elements to make it a musical foil to the Batman motif.  First, the two-note rhythm, now played by an electric guitar (I think), is mostly one repeated notes with accents to give it a more off-kilter feel, it doesn’t settle into regularity and is very uneasy, like the Joker’s mental state.  The second aspect, the chords, now move downwards, and for the second chord is goes to a deep pedal note, musically it is the bottom dropping out.  And the downward motion, of course, is the opposite of the upward heroic topic.

These are just some thoughts.  There is much more I could go into:  the amazing effects for Harvey Dent’s Two-Face persona (truly chilling), the death of (SPOLIER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOLIER ALERT!!!!!) Rachel Dawes (now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) and how it clears the decks for the possible introduction of a new love interest (i.e. Talia al Ghul or Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman) in the next movie, or the very end and the implications for the next movie.  But this has gone on long enough and I really should go do some work…since I am at work.

Addendum:  Okay, I’ve edited the many, many spelling errors!  Also, my friend and film scorer B (name withheld to protect the innocent) pointed out that in the Joker’s motif, it is not electric guitar playing the rhythm, but most likely an electrically altered (distortion) cello.  This, though, fits well with the foil idea because for the Batman motif, the rhythmic aspect is played by groups of cellos.  So the same base instruments (no pun intended), but the Joker’s are distorted.  Also, he corrected me that also, for the Joker, there are not chords, but open octaves that move downwards.  Again, I feel that these differences only strengthen the concept of foil nature that the Joker plays for Batman.  Aural skills have never been my strong point.

Furthermore, something else B said sparked a further semiotic relationship in the Batman motif in my mind.  He reminded me that Batman, especially in the second film, does not consider himself a hero.  In fact he makes a point of saying that in Dark Knight.  As I said above, even though the Batman motif employs a heroic topic in the upward motion of the chords, there is a darkness in the qualities.  A hero, but a dark hero, a reluctant hero (which brings to mind Luke’s mournful, plaintive theme from the original Star Wars as he looks at the dual sunset on Tatooine).

A last idea that occurred on the bus ride home tonight.  I’m not sure if this carries throughout the both movies, but I think that, for the most part, it is Hans Zimmer scoring the music for Batman and James Newton Howard who does the music for the tragic aspects of Bruce Wayne.  Having two composers with such different styles on the film was, I always thought, an odd choice.  But, when I thought about this aspect, how the two composers might be scoring different aspects of the lead character, and how that difference, the Bruce Wayne/Batman dichotomy, is at the heart of the entire mythos, it all of a sudden made a whole lot of sense.  I’m not completely sure if my theory is true in, it would take more familiarity with both composers’ styles and a careful watching/listening of both films…but I could be right…or not.

Alright, enough on this topic…at least until I go see Dark Knight a second time.

Music and Ritual

As some may know, one of my papers last semester dealt with describing film as a ritual activity and analyzing scores in that context.  My ideas are still very much a work in progress, but here are some thoughts I’ve been jotting down the last few days.

Music, Western music, especially classical music, used to be consumed in a primarily ritualized manner, i.e. the concert.  Recording technology changed that, but the process of listening to classical music at home still had ritualized tendencies.  Then along came the pop explosion, and more importantly, radio airplay.  The digestion of short, disposable songs made the music less valuable because much of the ritual was taken out of it.  It was less about the journey of the music, the piece moving the listener with it, then about the commercial viability of the single.
Album-oriented rock held onto some of the ritual elements.  The listener, to gain the full impact, had to sit, listen, digest.  It was about a ritual journey again.  Now once again, with iTunes and other similar services, we are again faced with a focus less on the whole and more with the catchy and disposable.

But will music as a listening ritual every really die?  The marketplace will always have it’s “pop.”  Folk music, lieder, etc. down through the centuries is a testament to the fact that for every mass, opera cycle, symphony there has always been the motet, madrigal, piano prelude, and Billie Jean.  But as long as individuals keep listening, and artists keep writing with the album as a conceptual whole, the ritual of listening will be around.  Whether in your car, your iPod on the bus, or on your favorite home stereo, people still treat these things as rituals.

But these are examples of ritual activity in which music is the focal point of the ritual.  What about rituals in which music is just a component?  What effect does music play?  How does it inform the ritual?  More to the point, how can film, television, video games fit within the scope of ritual activity and how does the musical score effect it?  Alter our perceptions?  And most importantly, why is seeing it within the context of the ritual process useful?

My primary thought is that, to my satisfaction, the question of why music is associated with such visual storytelling mediums has never been answered.  I believe that such an analysis through the ritual process can illuminate this question.