Monday, November 17, 2008

The RM 225 Report of the Diclonius Project: A Criticism of Elfen Lied

The first seven minutes of the anime series "Elfen Lied" revolve around a woman escaping from a secret government facility with calculated, deadly precision. Using only her mind, she stops bullets, lops off limbs, hurls sharp objects through flesh and decapitates helpless guards and staff members, all while she is naked, I might add. I sat back with rather piqued interest. I had heard the praise and accolades for this show as the premiere horror anime and I was ready to be astounded.

"Elfen Lied" tells the story of a young girl named Lucy (Kira Vincent-Davis). She is a Diclonius, an evolved form of human that have horns on their heads and mental vectors with the shapes of arms and hands that can do their bidding. When Lucy escapes from the government facility where she is being held, she gets hit in the head by a rouge bullet and develops another personality. This second personality is named Nyū (also voiced by Vincent-Davis), a childlike girl who doesn't have a huge vocabulary, does have an infinite curiosity of the world around her and possesses no knowledge of what she's really capable of. Nyū is found by a young man named Kohta (Adam Conlon) and his cousin Yuka (Nancy Novotny), who proceed to lodge her in Kohta's newly acquired, spacious house (it was formerly a restaurant).

I was looking forward to finding this anime a powerful and emotional experience. What ultimately transpired was one of the most disheartening and dejecting experiences I've ever had watching the visual medium. Now I've heard most of the negative complaints about the show, most of which aren't very drawn out. So I feel that I must get my two cents in, for the sake of my own sanity and to give a proper voice for the dissenters of the series.


I feel most film and TV is a two way conversation. The art presents a story which has certain elements which invoke certain things in me. That in turn allows me to interpret the story in my own way using elements of my own life and the world around me as inspiration. There are some cases where the conversation is one-sided, but it's left in the hands of the viewers. A good example of this is Robert Bresson's 1966 film "Au Hasard, Balthazar," which tells the story of a donkey with numerous owners in its lifetime, some good and some evil; but the film itself refuses the luxury of having the characters emote. This leaves the viewer to fill in the emotional blanks themselves, making it a much more difficult but more personal viewing experience.

The worst type of stories are those where the conversation is one-sided but it's led by the story, brandishing a shotgun and forcing you to go a certain way. This is one of the main problems of "Elfen Lied." The story and atmosphere of the show are diametrically designed to make you feel sorry for the Diclonius, hate the bad guys and admire Kohta and Yuka for taking Lucy and the rest of her kind in his (Kohta's) house.

The most prominent way this feeling is achieved in the show is by portraying humanity in a very negative light. The Diclonius themselves are not generally known by the public since they're being bred in secret, but whenever a Diclonius interacts with a typical human being, they either get berated, whispered about or treated snottily. When a younger Lucy falls down to the ground, she is yelled at to stand up because she is blocking the road. When Nana (Sasha Paysinger), another Diclonius, is trying to figure out how to buy some food, she's treated with very little respect just because she doesn't really know what to do. While she walks away, two girls whisper about how dirty and unclean she looks. These facts wouldn't bother me so much, since humans are not necessarily the nicest of species, if it didn't pertain to almost every single normal human on the show. Sadly, it does just that.

This is further compounded by the fact that most of the men on the show are either jerks, misogynists, moral deviants, sexual deviants or any combination of those traits. Besides this fact offending me emotionally, this offended me as a man. Consider the operative character, Bando (Jason Douglas). In the first scene you meet him, he's pleased at the prospect of being able to just kill someone without question and knocks the lights out of a poor woman who was just walking behind him, calling her a bitch. The magna, the source material from where the show is based, has a supposedly more three-dimensional treatment of him, but I guess the creators of the show thought it was a bad idea to make him nothing more than pure, angry testosterone.

This is also true of many of the more knowledgeably capable people on the show, including many of the scientists. One of whom has a scene where he has Nyū naked and chained with intenstion to rape her, with full knowledge that she is also Lucy. This leaves the "good guys" without very many natural resources, thus leading them to become slaves to the plot. Things happen to them, they don't implement.

Another story to consider is the backstory of Mayu (Cynthia Martinez), a young runaway who lives in a storage area on the beach outside of town. Once again, it should be noted that I don't hate tragic backstories. If you count how many times an anime character's parents have kicked the bucket, you're going to need more fingers and toes. When they showed how she was molested by her stepfather, however, I felt sick. Not just because of the idea of molestation, which is sick in itself, but how explicitly they portray her getting violated. They literally have a young naked girl, with her head down and on all fours. It just reeks of desperation and exploitation.

The greatest straw breaking moment is one that many fans and non-fans talk about a lot -- the puppy. Yes, the puppy. During a flashback we see Lucy befriend a puppy as her only friend since she isn't really liked at her orphanage. Unfortunately, her fellow orphans (her tormentors) find out about the puppy and proceed to beat it to death in front of her (offscreen, but still) for their amusement.

The root problem with the emotional core of the series is that it doesn't seem to trust my emotional intelligence. When I start watching something, I'm ready to empathize and care about the characters onscreen. When you start feeling like you're being directed to feel a certain way at every moment however, it stops becoming an organic emotional experience and starts becoming a dirge.


Suspension of disbelief is an aesthetic of art where the audience believes elements of a plot to be true even though they are outlandish or impossible; I, myself, practice this theory a lot. Not everyone is that willing however. Take my Dad. He has one of the sharpest disbelief sensors I know and he will openly criticize any piece of work when it jumps the gun. The biggest rule of his is if the story is taking place in the real world, you accept a certain fantastical fact at the start of the story and see if the plot stays true to both the real world and the fantastical fact.

Another huge flaw in "Elfen Lied" is that the environment surrounding the series doesn't pertain to how normal human beings would react. When the series started I could understand the idea of a government holding a special laboratory to create new human-based weaponry (a great example is from the film, "The Manchurian Candidate"). I could also understand the local police department being paid off to make sure that the town doesn't know that crazy government dealings were being done not too far from their homes. This whole setup comes crashing down when Lucy escapes. After that happens, I started wondering why there were no characters of any sort who were curious about the recent acts of violence.

What I would have liked to have seen was a cop who is wondering why his department doesn't seem to care about why his own force has been so busy and secretive. Either that or a newspaper reporter who realizes the correlation between the events now and the events eight years before the Diclonius Project started. Or how about a government liaison who starts wondering why this project he doesn't know about seems to be having problems in its area of location?

Why doesn't this series even allow for simple human curiousity to bring an outside perspective into the game? Once again, this lack of general logic purposefully casts humanity negatively and controls the viewer's feelings by marionette strings.


Both the overcompensating emotion and intermittent logic of the show ultimitely converge to the singular biggest problem of the entire story: the Diclonius themselves.

Their "dilemma" reminds me of Fritz Lang's 1931 masterpiece, "M," which tells the story of a man named Hans Beckert, played by Peter Lorre, who wanders the streets and kills innocent children. For most of the movie we are very convinced that he is guilty, but then a strange thing happens near the end. Hans explains to a group of angry criminals about how he's driven by an uncontrolled mental compulsion until he kills again. Now this doesn't make him any less guilty, but it paints a more complex emotional landscape. It starts raising questions: Is he pure evil or criminally insane? Is he mentally ill or directly motivated? These questions are part of the complex scope of humanity.

With the Diclonius however, their violent nature is ingrained in them. They understand perfectly well that they have vectors and will not be afraid to fight or kill whenever necessary or unnecessary. This includes the emotionally calmer Nana, whenever she battles Lucy to try and bring her back to the facility.

I've heard that the Diclonius represent the struggle between nature vs. nurture, but even that argument is flawed. I personally believe that we are capable of any emotion we can set our minds to, because the entire emotional spectrum is innate within us; that is our nature. What happens then, is how we consciously or subconsciously process the events of our own lives. This translates into how we act. Some have the power to change, some can't, but the most important aspect is that we almost always have the choice to ourselves.

Once you remove the choice, you ruin the moral complexity of the dilemma. When Lucy starts killing at the young age she does, it's activated by a mindset already inherent within her. It was bound to happen sooner or later. It can't be changed. It makes me think of those people who believe that Autism is a disease that can be cured...

Let me explain something: Autism is not a disease, it's a disorder. It can be stabilized, not cured with a shot like a virus.

Also the main violent vendetta placed by the Diclonius to kill the human race is logically unsound. The main issue is that once all humans are extinct and they still have that violent tendency, who's left to kill? Each other. The Diclonius are forever in a vicious cycle leading towards their own self-destruction.

With this knowledge, the series seems to make a point, whether intentionally or not, that the Diclonius would be dangerous to be left alive and should be killed. Now, I can already hear the word hypocrite being shouted at me for being in similarly mistreated group of individuals. Autistics have had their share of troubles including centuries of little understanding of mental disability to them being thrown in asylums and given LSD for experimental purposes during the 1960's. (Since when is giving hallucinogenic drugs to neurologically unstable children ever a good idea?)

So why should I defend one group of sufferers but criticize another? Well, there are two main differences. Firstly, no autistics are trying to take over the world and it would be quite hard for us to attempt since 75% of us are mentally retarded (I am one of the lucky few who is not). Secondly, we and many others have crusaded peacefully for our existence leading to studies, treatments, laws, education programs and international exposure; all because people can actually care about others, which is something "Elfen Lied" has a hard time grasping.

Ultimately the series made me feel used and manipulated, both mentally and emotionally. If that's what it was going for, then yay for you, but I'd rather leave with some shred of human dignity first.


After reading my more rational criticism, this is my revenge...

P.S. Any flaming regarding this video would be redundant since what you would like to do to me is represented at the end of the video.

Friday, November 14, 2008

View of a Fallen Father

A father of my local church passed away today. It's a shame, but it was a long time coming. He had been diagnosed with ALS since April 2007 and it's been leading his body to a path of self-destruction which finally ended.

Now, I'm not a particularly religious man. Though, what I admired the most about him is that for a year and a half, he kept presiding over Masses. Which he himself described as "a joy" in my local paper. I mean, he could have stopped presiding in May of '07 and declared himself a martyr. But no, he loved being a pastor that much. Even when he started slurring his speech and was confined to an electric wheelchair he still fought for his conviction to preach. When he announced a month ago that he was relinquishing some of his administrative duties, I felt a sense of caution. When you start surrendering your will for some rest, then you've fought long enough. He has passed on, but not before proving that he was still worth something to himself.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Small & Personal Note About the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election

I promise to be brief.

Well, Barack Obama won the election. That's the reality now and we must deal with that. Now, I know politicians are not perfect in keeping promises (i.e. "Read My Lips...") but Obama in particular, has a lot to live up to. All I would just like to say is that I hope he is everything that the people want him to be and that he delivers on his promises. Otherwise, he's going to have a lot to answer for, because messiahs can be deceiving.

So... we're ready when you are.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Battle: A Story of Wind

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!
-Percy Bysshe Shelley (Ode to the West Wind)

I love the wind. It's the only phenomena in nature that I respond to. There is just this sense of power and calm when you feel the wind in your face, whether it be a gust or a breeze. Just to stand outside and let the intensity of it run through your clothes and skin, to me, is the most exhilarating feeling ever given to us on this green Earth.

That doesn't mean that nature is always nice and formal. With the effects of Hurricane Ike still being tallied we can never underestimate what this crazy planet can do. The hurricane even gave a little hit to my hometown on September 14. By the time it reached us, the hurricane calmed down a lot since Galveston, but the wind still had the strength of a stubborn lower level hurricane (somewhere in the 20 mph range). At around 2 pm our power got knocked out by the wind along with 680,000 others around us. I didn't mind it initially, just because I always found the wind so fascinating, even if it did knock branches off trees and shingles from rooftops. After two spells of standing in the middle of the street and just enjoying it, I decided to to call the wind out.

You see, when God gave the Earth to us humans, he basically stated that this was our domain to be watched over. So over the entire course of history, the human race has continued its dominance over its domain with ingenuity, intellect and ever-changing technology. My favorite author, Ayn Rand, points out how every new advancement and skill we come up with as individual beings is a glorious statement to the power of humanity's spirit. So with that in mind, I decided to have a mental battle: the wind against me.

Armed with my iPod, I headed outside towards the gusting winds while blaring "Tales of a Scorched Earth" by the Smashing Pumpkins. When the lyrics blasted (So fuck it all cause I don't care/So what somehow somewhere we dared/To try to dare to dare for a little more), this sense of empowerment started rising in me. I was pacing up the street and yelling at the wind as if to say, "Yeah, come on! Is that the best you got?" It got better when I played U2's "The Electric Co." I started running, doing windmill air guitar moves and jumping around like a goon, with nothing in my way (except for the presence of our fellow neighbors who were checking out their respective damage).

Finally, I decided to go all out. Opening my shirt, I began listening to The Who's rendition of "Young Man Blues" from their famous gig at Leeds. With a band like The Who, you feel like you can take on the world and win. This thought was the most potent during the line (Well, you know in the old days/When a young man was a strong man/All the people they stepped back/When a young man walked by). During this line I held out my arm as if I was going to stop the wind with my bare hands as it flapped in the folds of my shirt. I kept running and jumping all the way through the song and by the end of it, I felt I won.

As I was rebuttoning my shirt and heading back inside, a small drizzle began, perhaps as a cop out, but the match was over. Before 7 pm our power came back and the house was back to normal; but I knew I had fought the fight, and humanity won... again.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

On the Wings of Angels, Part III: Help from Nearby, Part II (Fruits Basket)

(Clockwise from Bottom: Tohru Honda (holding Kyo's and Yuki's animal forms), Kyo Sohma, Shigure Sohma & Yuki Sohma)

"Fruits Basket" is an anime that tells the story of a teenage girl of 16 named Tohru Honda (Laura Bailey), who becomes a tenant and housekeeper at the home of three brothers of the Sohma family: the calm and collected Yuki (Eric Vale), the angry and volatile Kyo (Jerry Jewell) and the mannered but juvenile Shigure (John Burgmeier). She then learns of an ancient curse placed on the family where each member is turned into an animal from the zodiac if they are under heavy physical stress or embraced by a member of the opposite sex. Most of the time when people learn about the curse, their knowledge of such is erased, but Tohru is trusted with the secret. So, Tohru spends her new life learning and understanding the Sohmas.

There's a fascinating dexterity in the relationship between the Sohmas and Tohru. On one hand, you have a group of very different personalities consistently crashing into each other; in most cases, multiple times in the same day. Kyo and Yuki are constantly at each others throats, while Shigure sits calmly in the back commenting on the situation. Sometimes he even fans the flames, just to amuse himself. Except for when the doors of the house need to be rebuilt because of their tendency to be broken during these arguments. (This happens quite a lot, actually). That's not even counting the rest of the Sohmas, who are each intensely emotional in their own way. Considering that Tohru herself is not a very socially adept person, she tries to diffuse various situations but usually fails. So there's a great amount of high comedy as we watch vicariously in the same position as Tohru; wishing we could resolve these clashes, but not knowing how. The very premise of the show itself is very much a type of sitcom premise: a normal person moving into a house of crazies. (That never means it can't be original though). Above all, despite their constant butting heads, they are, in fact, a family.

On the other hand, there is a really sad undertone running through the series. Because of the fact that the Sohmas have this curse, they tend be very closely guarded people, often to each other. Every Sohma family member has a deep pang of disappointment in their history of relating to others, ranging from over-protection, outright rejection, or trauma on the receiving side.

Kyo in particular has the curse of the cat, whereby he is forced to be an animal that is not even part of the zodiac; this includes a demonic cat form (which, by the way, looks like a cousin of Frank the Rabbit from "Donnie Darko.") Therefore he is treated like an outsider in his own home. Along with this, Kyo uses his anger to keep people at a distance because he feels that no one will ever accept him as he is, not even his own family. Like many teenagers, he looks out for number one. To contrast, Yuki is a very shy introvert. He is indeed popular at school, where he is called Prince Yuki. Through it all though, he finds the popularity overwhelming. His classmates are in love with the ideal, not the person. Believe me, I know how that feels. He also has a very edgy relationship with his own brother Ayama (Chris Sabat) and was psychologically stunted by the abuse of Akito (Chad Cline), the head of the main house.

Considering the fact that Yuki and Kyo are the rat and the cat, respectively, they have been in a lifelong battle against one another since childhood. Kyo hopes the day will come when he can beat "that damn rat." Yuki shrugs it off nonchalantly, knowing that he would best him easily if they did compete against one another. Kyo believes that when he beats Yuki, he will have proven himself to his family. Yuki, conversely, is somewhat envious of Kyo. Even though Kyo is hostile, he is actually one of the more naturally extroverted members of the Sohmas. So when Kyo gets in a group, he usually eases in pretty quickly despite some protest. This peculiar envy of Yuki is contrasted by Kyo's own envy of wishing to belong in the more closed off realm of the family.

With all my talk about the Sohmas, I haven't even gotten to Tohru. She reminds me of the idea that sometimes a person with the sweetest smile on his or her face is actually one of the saddest people around. Let's elaborate: her dad died of pneumonia, her mom died in a car accident and she's treated rudely by her extended family. (Only her grandfather gives her any respect). At the start of the series itself, she's living in a tent in the woods because her grandfather's house is getting renovated and she doesn't want to be a burden on her protective and caring best friends, Arisa Uotani (Parisa Fakhri) and Saki Hanajima (Daphne Gere). Shortly after meeting the three Sohma brothers, her tent is buried in a landslide, so she relents and takes the offer to stay at the house.

Despite this heavy tragedy, part of what makes this series great is Tohru's hopeful personality. Her constant optimism in the face of adversity is like a beacon of light in a really dark room. She refuses to give up on accepting the Sohmas for who they are and is emotionally open to each family member's baggage. Most of this mindset comes from her mother, who taught her many lessons about people and life before she died. These lessons often appear spoken through Tohru or in simple flashback stills. Aside from all that, we as an audience would not empathize with Tohru unless she was performed exactly right and she is. Laura Bailey plays Tohru with sensitivity, grace and care. Personally, I find this sort of surprising since the only other role I've seen her play was Lust from "Fullmetal Alchemist." What a switch!

Ultimately, the series is about people relearning to be people, where the characters let their emotional guards down so they can finally complete one another, for their own sake.


The events in the final two episodes of the series involve Tohru finally seeing Kyo's demon cat form, which marks the most difficult test of acceptance in the show. Inspired by the events in those episodes, I've created a short film (expression, soul poem, AMV, whatever you want to name it...) using the song "Angels Too Tied to the Ground" by U2. The piece is entitled "Pain Toward Healing (Acceptance)."

Hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Concert Memories: Radiohead (August 3, 2008)

(Thom Yorke and Colin Greenwood of Radiohead performing)

Any study of modern rock music will eventually come across Radiohead. This English quintet has become one of the most critically acclaimed bands by doing essentially what a good band should do: carve its own path. After their 1993 hit "Creep," the band refused to be pigeonholed creatively. With 1995's "The Bends" and 1997's "OK Computer" they made other alternative music sound tired and flat. After that, they pulled a 180 and released their techno landscaped "Kid A" in 2000, which proved they could change up their game, without sacrificing excellence. In addition to all of this, their seventh and most recent record, 2007's "In Rainbows," was released via the internet where listeners pay for the amount of the album their own way. This is unheard of in this day and age of music piracy and iTunes domination.

Personally, I have an immense fondness for this band. Listening to an album of theirs is lucid dreaming on record, even more than Pink Floyd sometimes. That doesn't mean I worship at the alter of everything they do. About half their records are not as high on my list of acclaim, but that's okay; you can't win 'em all. So after years of waiting, I finally got to see these guys live. Usually, they are placed high on lists of the best live acts ever and the footage of them on YouTube has always intrigued me, highlighting their prowess and confidence.

Sure enough, they simply walk out on stage, bow and immediately start into the twitchy opener, "15 Step" with the same kind of confidence as I see in those videos. Still, during the first two songs, guitarist Ed O'Brien kept fiddling with his deck. Poor guy. It probably still was acting up from Lollapolooza or something. After that though, they didn't slow down. Not for a bit. Even when guitarist and mad scientist Johnny Greenwood and vocalist Thom Yorke were trying to figure out starting chords, they didn't take forever, it was almost systematic.

The main way you can tell when a band is having fun onstage is one of two ways. Either, they're smiling and really enjoying the energy around them; or, they are in intense concentration, giving the feeling that nothing else matters at this moment except the music. Radiohead has always been a band in the latter category. Not even rowdy crowd members, flashing lights or loud amps can stop these guys. The best example is Johnny Greenwood, whose face you never see, only his black hair being visible. His head is always down to his instruments in deep focus. The only way you could possibly get his attention is if you smacked him on the back of the head and insulted him, but I'm not sure if even that would work. You could also say the same for drummer Phil Selway, whose eyes are either continually forward to the drums or closed in diligent calm. He takes keeping the band in time together very seriously and you never get a sense of wear and tear from him. He just keeps plowing away with vigor.

Now this doesn't mean that the band is serious all the time. As I watch Thom Yorke move his head around and dance, I always get the feeling that the music is continually playing in his head and he must get it out, or else. He concentrates, but almost in a trance-like way. The music is his muse and he must follow it. The bassist Colin Greenwood however, is the only member who outwardly looks like he is having fun all the time. You see him smile, bob his head in rhythm and put his arms in the air to get the crowd going. This makes for a cool contrast between him and Phil, giving the rhythm section a fiery energy. The one member I couldn't read as well was Ed O'Brien, but he seemed to be sort of ticked off the entire time. Probably because of his deck acting up, throwing off his groove.

The stage was set with a back row of screens and several rows of rod lights which set an appropriate tone with each song, including some bright back lights for effect. Even if those rod lights were eco-friendly, they certainly lit up the night beautifully. I turned back a couple of times and saw a crowd beneath the cover of radiant colored light. The screens themselves showed off each band member, but with a kind of voyeuristic feel. You never see their faces directly often, as you would a regular concert. Usually, they're shown in very arcane angles, keeping with the setup they established in both "Thumbs Down" and "Scotch Mist" video podcasts; both shot during the promotion of "In Rainbows." It's a great continuation of the idea established in U2's groundbreaking ZOO TV Tour where you use video screens to obscure rather than enhance the action onstage. Although that didn't stop Thom from gooning in front of the camera during "You and Whose Army?"

But even if you have the lights and attitude, if you don't have a good performance, it's all for naught. Thankfully, that was never an issue. Apparently their four weeks of rehearsing 70 songs paid off in full. The band played with precision and tact with each member switching to different tasks and instruments, not unlike the way The Band used to do. The set list was varied, both in date and musicality, even picking good songs from "Amnesiac" and "Hail to the Thief," albums I don't care for as much. It also impressed me that they played "In Rainbows" in full throughout the show, whereas most bands favor the tired old hits for their gigs. Even when they went back to earlier material, the band picked many hidden gems, including two of my personal all-time favorite Radiohead songs: the haunting "How to Disappear Completely" and the elegiac "Exit Music (For a Film)." They didn't ignore their hits entirely though, they ran through awesome renditions of "There There," "Pyramid Song," "Karma Police" and the poetic show closer, "Street Spirit (Fade Out)."

Overall, they have gained a higher esteem in my mind from this outing. I do hope that they continue setting their own vibe; otherwise they'll be just as innocuous as most of their peers.

As a final note, the opening act was independent act Grizzly Bear, which I didn't have the privilege to see because of tardiness on my part.

Main Setlist:
1. "15 Step"
2. "Bodysnatchers"
3. "There There"
4. "All I Need"
5. "Pyramid Song"
6. "Nude"
7. "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi"
8. "The Gloaming"
9. "Climbing Up the Walls"
10. "Faust Arp"
11. "Videotape"
12. "Morning Bell"
13. "Idioteque"
14. "Reckoner"
15. "Everything in its Right Place"
16. "Just"
17. "How to Disappear Completely"

First Encore:
18. "You and Whose Army?"
19. "Bangers and Mash"
20. "Exit Music (For a Film)"
21. "Jigsaw Falling Into Place"
22. "Karma Police"

Second Encore:
23. "House of Cards"
24. "The National Anthem"
25. "Street Spirit (Fade Out)"

Sunday, August 3, 2008

On the Wings of Angels, Part III: Help from Nearby, Part I (Haibane Renmei)

(Rakka from "Haibane Renmei")

Let's face it: It's common in fiction to have the main character be the person who needs his or her friends to face a problem. That doesn't mean that supporting characters in a story aren't allowed to have problems of their own or allowed to be three-dimensional. It's just that most storytelling revolves around how our hero is in a pickle and how the others have to get him or her out. But isn't it interesting when a story decides to have the main character's problems be the basis of helping someone else with a much worse problem?

"Haibane Renmei" tells the story of a young girl named Rakka (Carrie Savage) who starts her new life born as a Haibane, which means "Charcoal Feather," in a place called "Old Home" headed up by Reki (Erika Weinstein) along with her fellow "older" Haibane, Nemu (Kristy Pape), Hikari (Hunter MacKenzie Austin), Kana (Zarah Little) & Kuu (J-Ray Hochfield). The Haibane themselves are mystical humanoids who have wings and halos but are not angels, so go figure that one out. They live in a walled-off town named Gile where every Haibane works in the community for the appreciative majority human populous. That is until their "day of flight" comes and they are allowed to leave the town and its walls.

When I look at Gile, it reminds me of Judgment City from Albert Brooks' 1991 film, "Defending Your Life" for a couple reasons. Gile, in itself, is not a nasty urban town where everybody's rude and stupid. The town and its inhabitants are mostly really friendly and accepting of the Haibane. Haibane don't even have to pay cash to the townspeople; instead, they inventory each transaction in a little book given to them by the Toga (the guardians of the town). Some Haibane don't get along as well between each other, but that's really the extent of the nastiness of that community.

Like Judgment City, Gile seems to function as a sort of Purgatory. Only the Toga are allowed to enter and leave the town at will and if a Haibane tries to leave the town before their "day of flight," they get punished. Rakka, herself, gets a hardcore fever at one point for just even touching the walls (the walls are really cold).

Also, like Purgatory, every Haibane has a personal and metaphysical quest they must follow based on a dream they have before they are born. When they understand the dream, they can understand an important part of themselves. Unfortunately, if you become lost in your quest and become spiritually despondent, you become sin-bound, and if you remain so past your "day of flight" you are never allowed to leave Gile. It reminds me of the idea presented in Richard Matheson's "What Dreams May Come," where you create your own heaven or hell in your mind and it follows you into the afterlife.

In the case of Rakka, her pain extends from deep feelings of worthlessness. After a fellow Haibane and good friend, Kuu, takes her "day of flight," Rakka takes it really hard. It pushes her insecurities back into the limelight with a vengeance. She begins to wonder if she was ever really important in another person's life, both in Gile and in her previous life which she cannot remember too well. Eventually her wings start blackening and she becomes sin-bound.

Personally, I know exactly what Rakka was going through. I spent an entire year of my life confronting that particular demon. Sure, I was appreciated and liked, but would it really matter if I just disappeared off the face of the earth? I would be lying if I didn't actually say no to that question when I was fighting my mental strife. It almost consumed me sometimes.

When all seems lost though, the dream starts piecing together in Rakka's mind. In the dream, which is the first scene in the anime, she is falling from the sky with a crow. While the crow tries to pull her back up, Rakka shakes her head and says to the bird: "I know... you can't, but thank you anyway." It showed her that even something as abstract as a bird can represent someone or something always trying to reach out to help you; even in the most isolated of places. Sometimes you can save someone, sometimes you can't, but you always have to try. In my case it was four somethings (all works of art) that saved me from true despair: François Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," Green Day's "American Idiot," and the Season Four Raven Arc from "Teen Titans." Though it's a demon that confronts me still, it isn't as draining and intense as it once was.

This discovery from Rakka is not the end of the story, however. Rakka's exact problem is actually a much more deeply rooted problem in Reki. Despite her pleasant attitude lies a very broken woman. Reki feels her own sense of worthlessness after when her original caregiver dies and her failed attempt to escape the walls with a fellow Haibane, Hyohko, results with the two of them never being allowed to come near one another again. Not only that, she has spent years and countless sleepless nights trying to figure out her dream through painting, but it always fails. Even when she saw Rakka start on her path to being sin-bound, Reki knew exactly how to treat Rakka's blackened wings, because she lives with it every day.

It all comes to a head when Reki's own "day of flight" is coming and she is still in her own private hell, refusing to forgive herself and letting someone help her. Rakka then realizes that the crow in the dream is her and she must save Reki from herself. The most emotionally powerful moment in the series is when Reki is about to disappear into that hell for good with her demons holding Rakka back when Rakka yells in desperation: "Just call my name! Please! Say that you need me!" Quietly afraid, Reki finally says softly, "Rakka... please help me." At that moment, Reki's demon finally breaks and Rakka saves her from the hell tearing her asunder.

Reflecting back, I'm reminded of U2's song "One." The song is usually misunderstood as a simple love song. In actuality, the song is a prayer for spiritual unity despite difference. As The Edge stated in "U2 by U2:"

"But on another level there's the idea that we get to carry each other. 'Get to' is the key. 'Got to' would be too obvious and platitudinous. 'Get to' suggests it is our privilege to carry one another. It puts everything in a different perspective and introduces the idea of grace."

Rakka and Reki both realize that they are never alone; if there's just one person that truly cares about you, when you need help, they will reach out to you. It proves that despite how strong we appear, we should never be afraid to ask for help.

On a personal side-note, I'd like to give special thanks to Arinahime for recommending this anime to me and I am very grateful.

Friday, July 11, 2008

An Open Letter to Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw

Dear Ben... no that's too obvious...

Yahtzee, you god-like excelsior,

As we near the one-year anniversary of you posting Zero Punctuation on both YouTube and The Escapist, I would just like to thank you for causing a mini-revolution in gaming criticism and entertaining the heck out of me and many others.

I'll admit it now, I'm not a regular gamer, (I'm mostly into music and film), nor do I actually have a system of my own (unless you consider PC a game system, which you do). My best friend, however, is a very ardent and passionate gamer and he introduced me to your videos through your "Grand Theft Auto IV" review which I watched on Memorial Day 2008. I've been a fan ever since, and I've even helped some of my family and friends to become fans of yours as well.

How did I become a fan if I'm not a true gamer? Well, let's figure it out. For starters, I love the visual style of your pieces. Your little avatar figures, including yourself (with your awesome, pimpin' hat) and your little cat-like imp creature run around the screen with inspired anarchy. They've flown helicopters, brandished chainsaws, gone to prison and blown up, just to name a few of their adventures. You use so much of your unadorned blue and yellow backgrounds with just simple graphics and text that it never becomes visual radio. There's always something going on and it comes so fast and furiously that you could watch it multiple times and still find something you never noticed the last time.

Besides the visuals, I love your voice, darn it! As an American, British voices are always really fascinating. Even words that I've heard my entire life are more lively when you say them, most notably "stupid." Also, considering that you talk really fast it gives me a more interesting challenge to memorize what you are saying. For you see, I love memorizing quotes and yours have been some of the most fun to memorize and speak. Both the visuals and your voice appeal to that eternal kid in me that will never die. Much like that kid part in you that still loves finding fun in video games.

Aside from the videos themselves, I really admire your style of criticism. You remind me of the late Pauline Kael, who was a respected film critic for many years. She was a tough cookie who was not easily impressed and was not afraid to call a film out to the mat. She was in a minority with her negativity towards such films as "West Side Story," the Holocaust-themed documentary "Shoah," and one of film's sacred cows, "It's a Wonderful Life." She also didn't lie down from a fight; she fought with other respected critics like Andrew Sarris and filmmaker/author Peter Bogdonovich. What distances me from her is that she's a bit too cruel and serious, even though I've read how she was a nice person in regular life. You on the other hand, even though you can be just as cruel, you have a sense of humor. Even when you're ragging on about "Halo," "Zelda" or gaming webcomics, people will still got a kick out of your methodology. In fact, every form of criticism needs people like you and Pauline Kael, because otherwise you have people blindly loving everything that's given to them (something I have been known to do). Someone has to be the voice of stubborn reason. Also, since you are a game designer as well as a critic, no one can call you out on never having actually created a game, so you aren't entitled to review them.

I really admire your belief that games can be an art form as well. I think any form of entertainment can become an art form if people truly believe it can be one. Unfortunately, there isn't that much academia on games unlike fellow modern entertainments like books, music, movies and TV. The problem may be that there are either people who mostly put out games for the lowest common amusement or you have people like Clive Barker, Richard Garriott or Hideo Kojima who do believe in the art form of gaming but don't know how to balance between true story intelligence and smart intuitive interactive gameplay. If we can do that, we can have more games like (as you state them) "Painkiller" and "Psychonauts."

When the time comes when you feel accomplished your mission don't be afraid to end like Bill Watterson did with "Calvin and Hobbes" and I will understand. Until that day comes, I'll always be a proud and loyal fan of yours and I hope you continue to enjoy what you do. I certainly enjoy it.

Recliner Man
"Arts Through the Autistic Mind"

P.S. In all honesty, is "Fantasy World Dizzy" the best game ever made? My own personal opinion is that the best game ever is "You Don't Know Jack," period!


The "Grand Theft Auto IV" review:

(To eliminate the annoying banner ad, fullscreen the video (the bottom right button) and exit the ad from there.)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Cinematic Powderkeg: Views on "The Birth of a Nation"

Sigh... I knew I had a tough time ahead of me when I approached D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation." Not only is it three hours long, which I divided into two parts, but the film is forever condemned for one of the most blatant demonstrations of racism in the history of American Cinema.

Now this doesn't mean that the film isn't influential. The Civil War battle scenes, the portrayal of Abraham Lincoln's assassination and the final showdown at the cabin would all become archetypes for scenes of many other films to come. Roger Ebert wrote this in his essay for "The Birth of a Nation" in "The Great Movies II":

"He did not create the language of cinema so much as codify and demonstrate it, so that after him it became conventional for directors to tell a scene by cutting between wide (or 'establishing') shots and various medium shots, close-ups, and inserts of details. ... Griffith made them and other kinds of shots indispensable for telling a story."

The story in this case is about two families: the Camerons from the South and the Stonemans from the North. Both of their families' offspring have a long history of friendship between each other despite different lifestyles. The sprawling narrative covers the details of the War era through Reconstruction. Personal stories such as the romance between Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) and Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) are depicted as well. Ultimately, however, the film's seminal importance in film history is overshadowed by its heroic depiction of the formation of the Ku Klux Klan.

Beyond the shameful bigoted mindset of this movie, a lesson can still come through when you watch it. When the Civil War ended and Lincoln was killed, Reconstruction allowed full freedom to Blacks right off the bat. The problem ended up being that the government was being overcompensating to a group of people who didn't know how to be Americans. They were never taught. Most Blacks at the time were either uneducated transients owned by Southerners or born into bondage; that was their whole existence. Now with immediate free reign, unknowing masses turned into full-on anarchy, ripe for exploitation by an intelligent evil. That's why the Klan felt they were right, because they were trying to quell the situation by bringing the system back to the way it was, by way of fascism.

Why did the people who designed the Reconstruction never learn that it takes a while to build a broken society back from the ground up? Take when America began, for example. After when we were liberated from England in 1781, we began to form our own system of government which took the form of the Articles of Confederation. This turned out to be a disaster. So they regrouped five years later and came up with the Virginia Plan, which formed the basis for our Constitution, which became ratified a year later in 1787. As well as adding the Bill of Rights four years after that. From the Declaration of Independence to the Bill of Rights, it took us 15 years to get America in a functioning order, and even though not perfect, the system still works.

As a result of Lincoln's assassination, history never saw, "With malice toward none and charity for all..." By hurrying up the process of getting the Blacks up to speed with the rest of the Union and the unwillingness of evil men to accept their new place in society, they were denied their full citizenship in America for another century; until the Civil Rights movement finally gave something back. See how the mistakes of a few people can affect the whole ball of wax? It's just as sad as the racism in this film.

Monday, May 26, 2008

An Ode to Voice Acting

One puzzling question about a voice, or sound is general, is why do we respond to it so deeply? Is it the way a person talks, the way they hold a note, the way they enunciate the words they say? I find it one of the coolest mysteries of life and we have yet to figure it out. But that won't stop me from wondering.

Let me start with a simple example: I don't watch the anime "Bleach." I don't know much about it at all really, aside from the fact that it's one of the most popular and critically acclaimed animes around right now. But through happenstance and general internet hopping, I watched a portion of the episode "Ichigo Dies!" which has had me a bit emotionally drained. What transfixed me was the female protagonist, Rukia. She exuded such a beautiful, sonorous and hurt presence; it had an instantaneous impact on me. Why, you ask, when I know little to nothing about this show? It was the performance of actress Michelle Ruff. The honest and emotional clarity in her voice shattered my soul in that moment and still does whenever I re-watch it.

When I watch things like this, I can't help but think of how underrated a profession voice acting really is. I mean, sure, there are the conventions where the buffs, including myself, know about these people and how vast and wide their range is. But sadly, most people don't. Unless a star people know is attached to an animated film, people don't give two bits about who is playing what in these works of paint and paper. To me, voice acting is akin to singing. It's about putting your entire soul in your voice and being able to touch someone without even showing your face.

Consider this: We can make animation with only sound effects, music and visuals. But part of what adds to the experience is how a character's speech makes you feel invested. Sure, you can show Goofy being silly, but that yell of his, by either Pinto Colvig or Bill Farmer, just makes you smile right away. You can show Bugs Bunny hating on Elmer Fudd, but what would it be without putting him down in that smart-aleck Brooklyn accent of his by Mel Blanc. You could even show Homer Simpson screwing up, but it can only be followed up by a very angry "D'oh!" from Dan Castellaneta.

But it's much more complex than that. In the Teen Titans episode "The End, Part 3," there is a read by Scott Menville as Robin that I find so beautiful that the line is imprinted in my brain. You see, anyone can recite the words: "Yeah. It's the end of the world. But so what? We're still here-still fighting. Still friends." But it's about the way he delivers it and how much he means it. Even if you closed your eyes to the image on screen you could feel in your heart everything he was saying. I'm also reminded of a powerful scene played in the final episode of Cowboy Bebop by Steve Blum and Wendee Lee as Spike and Faye. In the scene, you watch as a woman's entire emotional shield and veneer come slowly crashing down as she explains how there is nothing left for her as the man decides to head to his death. It's not that they were in love with each other; they were both just really lonely, and they never acknowledged that to each other until that moment. By the end though, it was too late.

So when I hear that pain in Rukia's voice as she's forced to scold and abandon Ichigo to save him (even if it means accepting her death sentence), my heart tears a little. It reminds me how the sound of a voice, even in a foreign tongue, can make me feel so open to Art and more importantly, to myself.

(The aforementioned episode of "Bleach"; Watch it all if you wish, but the scene I singled out in this piece doesn't begin until 8:47)


A Note to ari: Thanks for the info on those animes. I'll check those out.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Coming Home: The Mind at War

I've decided this years ago: I never want to be a soldier in a war... ever. The only time I'll ever fight is when my life truly depends on it; other than that, war can't do anything but warp my already fragile mind. More than any psychotic R-rated film ever will. But this isn't just me, war affects the core of any being who fights in one or is close to one who has fought in a war. These two films help clarify that belief.

(A Solemn Moment: Charlize Theron & Tommy Lee Jones in "In the Valley of Elah")

Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah" tells the story of Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones; in a brilliant performance) who goes to look for his son, Mike, after he has returned home from Iraq. Mike is classified as AWOL to Hank, so Hank decides to go down to the base to find him. A few days later, Mike's body is found in a field, cut up and charred to the bone. When Hank isn't convinced of the explanation given to him about Mike's death, he begins his own investigation into the death; inlisting the help of Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron; in another brilliant performance).

Slowly, he begins to see a darker side to his son. See, before he left, Mike was a proud soldier, ready, as one character puts it, "to get the bad guys." As he begins to ask around about the events of the night of Mike's murder, a changed picture begins to emerge. He is described by strangers as a drunk, rude harasser who fought his fellow soldiers in a parking lot outside the club that had thrown Mike and his fellow men out. Through the videos left by Mike on his cell phone, it also shows that he willingly tortured a blindfolded and wounded Jihad posing as a doctor. Thus, how he got his nickname, "Doc."

Learning all this information increases a torturous apprehension in Hank. A former Vietnam vet himself, a feeling grows that he pushed his sons into being this way. Hank had already lost his oldest son in a helicopter crash while in the air infantry, and his youngest, Mike, is shown as a monster. The mother of the two, Joan (Susan Sarandon), screams in pain to Hank, "Couldn't you have left me one?" Eventually, the truth of Mike is fully revealed and his killers are found, but not without the fact that his emotional soul was destroyed during the war. You don't know how he would have lived after what he's done to himself. What saddens you the most is that some of the actions that led to his eventual mental demise could have been avoided had he kept his humanity in check.

I admire Paul Haggis in the way he understands human pain and restlessness as he's explored in his other films which includes Best Picture winner "Crash" and his penned screenplays "Million Dollar Baby," "Flags of Our Fathers" and co-story writing "Letters from Iwo Jima." But I feel the final frame of the film sends the wrong message about the future of our vets. There has got to be a better one...

---(Together Again: (l-r) Harold Russell, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Hoagy Carmichael, Fredric March in "The Best Years of Our Lives")

William Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives" may be the most important film about veterans ever made. It tells the story of three WWII veterans (Fredric March, Dana Andrews & Harold Russell) returning to their home town of Boone City. As they attempt to readjust to their lives, it slowly dawns on each of them that their lives will never return to the "normal" each of them had envisioned.

Al Stephenson (Fredric March) returns to his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), and two children, Peggy & Rob (Teresa Wright & Michael Hall). But what he finds is that his children have essentially grown up without him. They've become mature and self-reliant with Rob still in school and Peggy a graduate in domestic science. Al returns to his promoted job as the vice-president of small loans to former GIs, but his bosses feel he might be risking too much by approving loans to those who have no collateral. Al makes a personal decision, which is headlined in a great monologue delivered at a work banquet, held in honor of the bank and of him, that the bank can't afford to be stingy about giving loans to downtrodden veterans. For they themselves are the future of the country.

Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) returns to find that his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo), had moved out of his parent's home to an apartment and had gotten a job as a night club waitress. As he spends the rest of the day searching for Marie, he meets up with the two fellow acquaintances at Butch's Place (a place mentioned earlier by Harold Russell's character) and spends a tortured and hungover night at the Stephensons. Fred finds Marie the next day and proceeds to try getting a job, but due to his lack of educational training, he essentially has to return to his pre-war job as a soda jerk with a manager title at the drugstore. Through this, Marie starts becoming despondent and loses faith that her husband could be anything than a "drugstore cowboy," while Fred himself is beginning to fall in love with Peggy. An intelligent move of this story is how it shows how lovers will truly act when things are in a bind. What happens... well... like I'm gonna tell you!

Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) returns to his family and his girl-next-door sweetheart, but has the most difficulty of all three of the veterans to readjustment. See, his hands are gone. Gone. Like, they got charred off gone. He now has hooks instead. Although he has been trained throughly as to how to use the hooks, he's treated differently. He notes to his uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael) that his father looked guilty for cleaning his pipes with his hands, even though he's seen him do it many times before. He even gets angry at his younger sister and her friends for looking at him through the window as he's practicing shooting. All of this makes him distant from truly expressing his sadness, but everything's not lost. There's an awesome scene between him and Butch where they play a piano side to side and act like they've been doing it forever.

Though the most affecting scene in the entire film is between Homer and his sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell). She's encouraged by her family to go live with her relatives to get her mind off Homer, but decides to ask him straight about how he feels. It is then he decides to show her how he lives with his newfound disability. After he finishes, he says with finality, "I'm as dependent as a baby that doesn't know how to get anything except to cry for it... I guess you don't know what to say." All with the notion that she will go away in shock and silence. But something beautiful happens: her commitment to him becomes stronger when she says, "I know what to say, Homer. I love you and I'm never going to leave you... never." When the scene ended, I said to myself, "The most beautiful people in the world are those who accept and love unconditionally."

I would also like to mention how Harold Russell performance was a major factor in a newfound acceptance of disability in Hollywood with his performance, earning him two Academy Awards (supporting actor and an honorary Oscar.) With this benchmark, you could potray disability without being melodramatic or insincere. This led to more examinations in the next 60 years of physical, neurological, mental or emotional disability; which allowed brilliant performances and more exposure to those who live valiantly with the scars.

At the final scene where everyone attends Homer and Wilma's wedding, you don't know what's going to happen to these people. But you leave with a sense of hope, that things might end up OK. Something that "In the Valley of Elah" doesn't achieve.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

On the Wings of Angels, Part II: In Praise of Eureka

Concurrent with watching "Wings of Desire," I was viewing the fine anime series, "Eureka Seven." Through that, I've developed a special bond with one of the characters. Her name is Eureka.

Eureka is the female protagonist of the show who is not who she seems. Watching the show you learn she is a humanoid Coralian sent by the Scub Coral (sentient alien beings who became based in the land of the Earth) as a tabula rasa (blank slate); to learn about humans and give info to the Scubs as to whether they could coexist with humans. She does not, however, know the purpose given to her. Although the concept of alternative humanoid beings learning what it means to be human have been explored before (notably on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" with Data), what separates Eureka from the others in my mind is her innocence.

When you first meet her, she seems very enigmatic and distant with a belief in very few things. That's when she meets the male protagonist, young and willing Renton Thurston, who develops a deep and pure attraction to Eureka. Through their growing relationship to each other, Eureka begins to explore who she is and what she means to others.

Slowly she reveals that she has the heart of a child. This was first indicated in her relationship to the Nirvash (the mecha she pilots); she treats Nirvash not as a machine but as a spirit with thoughts and feelings. She approaches human emotions and concepts with awe, fascination, fright or any combination of the three. From the deep guilt she feels for being a member of the SOF, with which she participated in killing the parents of her adopted children (Maurice, Maeter & Linck); to the overwhelming rapture she feels when Renton continues to love her through everything that changes about her and what he learns about her. Part of the success of conveying this character's beautiful nature lies within the brilliant performance of the magnificent Stephanie Sheh. Through her voice, she brings a certain type of openness and separation from life that I relate to perfectly.

The difficulty I had when I was growing up was not only relating to who I was but how I related to myself through the prism of autism. Growing up for anyone is always tough, that much I know, but coming from such a mild background of autism I could simultaneously see both sides of the spectrum at once. What I see in Eureka is another standing on that same line where I stood. I wanted to understand the world and live joyously in it, but I was also scared to death of the world I longed for.

The fear mostly came out of wondering if I would be truly accepted as myself. I've discovered, the hard way, when you get older, your world becomes a smaller place in the world's eyes. This was trouble for me because my world was continually at the forefront of my mind. So, with baby steps, I had to adapt a compromise between myself and the world... a gray area. It was never easy and at several points I wanted to give up in the worst possible way. Eventually, I emerged from that difficult chrysalis to being an autistic adult (though mind you, I'm still learning).

When I watch Eureka, I see that part of me. Struggling to accept who she is while trying to adapt herself into the world she longs to be in with Renton and the kids. Sometimes art has the startling ability to adapt a piece of your soul so fully without even asking. In that sense, I see Eureka as an angel; stemming from a still wounded place in me to give me comfort as I do the same for her.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

On the Wings of Angels, Part I: "Wings of Desire" and the Holy Moment

(Bruno Ganz in "Wings of Desire")

Wim Wenders' 1987 film, "Wings of Desire" is quickly ascending on my list of favorite films of all time. Not necessarily because the movie is beautiful, which it truly is. My estimation of it grows with how much the film assisted me in my quest to understand myself.

It tells the story of Damiel (Bruno Ganz), an unseen angel who silently observes the hearts and minds of the people in West Berlin. He spends his days giving comfort to those whose are in pain and making notes on the beauty of normal human nature, which he discusses with his spiritual brother, Cassiel (Otto Sander). Damiel is completely fascinated by humanity but knows he can't become a human himself without taking away his immortality. Then he quietly and serendipitously meets a lonely and despondent trapeze artist named Marion (the beautiful and dearly departed Solveig Dommartin) whom he falls in love with. With that, he begins to ruminate whether or not to take the plunge and become human to meet her and hopefully, be with her.

The true facet of this movie that continually runs in my brain is how the angels view humanity from the outside in. They've lived an eternal life watching people and seeing their actions. They know what people are doing, but don't understand why they do it. After the movie, it was pointed out to me that I behave in a similar way. As an autistic, I describe seeing life as through a prism. Normality is difficult to comprehend. When you live in a world of your own (as I do), understanding other peoples' worlds is difficult.

(David Jewell & Caveh Zahedi in "Waking Life")

Another element of "Wings of Desire" that helped me with my theory of the "Holy Moment." This concept comes from the movie "Waking Life" in a scene between director Caveh Zahedi and writer David Jewell. In Caveh's reading of critic André Bazin's book "What is Cinema?" he comes to the notion of how great film is born out of moments that are pure and open -- a "Holy Moment."

Ever since that scene, I've been searching to expand on what that entails, but some of that answer was found in "Wings of Desire." The angels cannot interfere with the actions that humans may take, but they do give a feeling of someone there when there is no one to be found. With films, we the viewers, can only stand by watching a scene (like the angels); there is no interference. And yet at times, the barrier between film and viewer is removed and we become part of it. I purposefully go to a different space and time -- it becomes vital to me. There are scenes in some films that make me feel that I'm just as much a part of the film as what I'm watching, even if I'm only listening intently in silence (again, like the angels). I become part of what I'm seeing. Art is something that keeps me alive. I participate in the "life" of a film (particularly when there is a "Holy Moment"); when in reality, "real life" is something that overwhelms and frightens me.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Primer on Myself and Humanity: Part I

(The Dance of the Dead from "The Seventh Seal")

Not too long ago, I watched "The Seventh Seal" by Ingmar Bergman for the first time. I've never seen a Bergman film before, but I was glad to finally know what all of the adulation was about. It tells the story of Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), a knight who has come back to his disease-plagued homeland after years of fighting and challenges Death (Bengt Ekerot) to a chess game for his life. During which time the knight wanders his homeland in search of answers for what will await him in the afterlife.

What I've heard characterized about Bergman films is how God is silent. His characters, including Antonius, continually seek out answers to questions that cannot possibly answered by another human being. It kind of makes sense to me as we were severed from our true communication from God after we were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Ever since then, humanity has had this eternal desire to try and get that counsel back, but we can't. So you have various religions trying to make heads or tails of what could happen. Some commit to praise, some commit to manipulation, some commit to submission (as seen by the occult in the film), some commit to violence (like the current insurgents of any religion) and some commit to the ultimate evil (as seen by the condemned to death "witch" in the film).

I've always felt that religion is a flawed concept, like any ideal belief. It can be twisted and arranged for personal gain, whether it be for one person or an entire country. I don't doubt that God exists, but what upsets me is how people can use their own moral compass and knowledge to cause pain and sadness all over the world. All because God "told them so..."

In the end, Antonius is just scared, just like we all are. We are scared because we don't know. We don't know what even life holds for us. Does that make me scared about what awaits my future? You bet it does. I prefer living in the moment and put off thinking about it as much as possible. It's not that I'm existential or nihilistic, I just get very scared thinking about what's ahead of me. Normally, I like having a steady mental ground under me and when life shifts sharply and unexpectedly, I start feeling like my world is coming down on me and become more and more overwhelmed. Strong change without warning reduces me to a frightened child. So it helps when changes are talked out and understood by me beforehand. They make transitions much easier.


I also had the pleasure of watching "Blade Runner" for the first time as well. The Final Cut mind you, which I personally waited for. The movie does not display the smooth talking, nicely suited and elegant world of noir. Instead we get a moody, atmospheric, dank and bleak world of future Los Angeles, 2019. In this world, replicants (human-like machines) are being hunted down and killed by blade runners, notably Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), to prevent revolts and murders.

Although you could debate forever on the state of Deckard's mind and whether he's a replicant or not (I believe he isn't), the most intriguing element of the film came from the lead female, Rachel (Sean Young; pictured left). I have no doubt in my mind that she's a replicant, but I'm fascinated by the idea of these machines being "more human than human." If that's the case, I was absorbed by how reserved and emotionally introverted she was. Beneath her mechanics beats the heart of a broken woman. She is a representation of suppressed and unfelt emotion.

Why is that? As a person who usually expresses what he feels openly, it strikes me somewhat unusually that so many people live as if they never feel anything at all. Sure, there's a lot of hardships that we must endure, but should that stop us from expressing the wonder of being alive. I mean, I even just get a kick out of listening to a great song on my iPod. It makes me dance, play air instruments, sing and roleplay. Living in the moment, even if it's in your imagination, is what life's about, son.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Experiment: Swing Time

Swing Time (1936)
Director: George Stevens

"When you see anyone -- an athlete, a musician, a dancer, a craftsperson -- doing something difficult and making it look easy and a joy, you feel enhanced. It is a victory for the human side, over the enemies of clumsiness, timidity, and exhaustion." - Roger Ebert

My favorite critic, Roger Ebert, wrote this is his Great Movies essay on "Swing Time," and he is definitively correct in that statement. When you watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance in this movie, it's like watching two titans go at it. Their faces are not full of intense focus and determination, but a sense of exhilaration, as if it just came to them in a moment of passion. That's the true reason to watch Astaire/Rogers films.

See for yourself:

P.S. The "Bojangles of Harlem" number with the dancing shadow reflections are worth the price of admission alone.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Experiment: Red River

Red River (1948)
Director: Howard Hawks

What will be our mark on this world?

As I watched this film, I kept wondering of what the mindset of John Wayne's character, Tom Dunson, truly was. It felt to me as if he wanted to prove himself more than his surrogate son, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) did. Here was a man who never had a true biological heir because his sweetheart was killed in an Indian raid, he's broke and his ranch is failing due to the aftermath of the Civil War. So this cattle drive of aggressive proportion is actually his final stab at proving his life was worth something. Even if he was only proving himself or to God (as he was reading the Bible so much). That's why he becomes dictatorial and cruel toward everyone. And when his herd was taken away by Matt (the more sensible one), two big blows were dealt. His chance was stolen from him by his "son" and the "son" never truly embraced Tom's mindset. So he became vengeful and wanted to kill him. But thankfully, Matt's rational yet driven nature ends up making the cattle drive a success.

For all the epic western sweep, the movie just shows two people who finally prove something to each other. I think in the end we all want to prove something to someone before we leave this earth.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The "U2 3D" Experience (Mind Officially Blown)

There's a moment that I'll never forget as I was watching this film. As the opening for the song "One" started, Bono began singing, "Oh... shine a light." Slowly, little digital lights from cell phones all across the massive stadium began lighting up. As he keeps singing that simple phrase, the crowd became a sea of illumination -- an entire group of people who had come together, if just for this time and space. At I sat there, I felt something that rarely comes to me. Serenity. I felt at peace with the universe and myself. I had been lifted higher. It had been a while since that has occurred, the last time being when I was watching the film "Spirited Away." But that divine moment, like an angel, came back to hold me in its arms.

That's what "U2 3D" is like. This is not a concert film, this is a holy rock and roll experience. You ethereally float around the stage and stadium and watch everyone with pure elation. The detailed 3D itself does not inhibit the performance, but enhances it greatly. The intense bouncing of the enthusiastic South American crowd during "Where the Streets Have No Name" makes you feel energized, while the effect of the words flying toward you in "The Fly" makes you feel like you're in the Star Gate in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

The film also gives a very appreciated display for each band member who individually show their own passion for the music that they play as a whole. These men have a fire when they play these songs, even when they are more calming, including the personal "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" or the gently operatic "Miss Sarajevo." Most importantly, the film showcases U2's desire to reach out to an audience, like a restless spirit trying to get to you and only you. No moment shows that more than when Bono asks you to "wipe your tears away" during "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and extends his arm for yours. At that second you want to take his hand and hold on to him forever.

I have to tell you. Besides that, it would be an epic essay to accurately describe what I felt about the film. I will say this, though:

In the Cinematical article "The Exhibitionist: You Too Need to See 'U2 3D'," the author, Christopher Campbell, mentions how the film could have the same effect on HD Digital 3D as "The Jazz Singer" had for sound. Personally, I hope it does come to pass.

(The Edge, Bono and Adam Clayton rockin' out)

Monday, January 21, 2008

"Cloverfield" and Character

I saw “Cloverfield” on Friday. I thought I should see it, just because it looked very interesting as well as pacify my wait for another film, which I will be posting on in a few days.

What I think is fascinating about the film is how influenced it is by the work of great docu-drama. The movie puts you into a situation where the entire scope of the events are fully explained to you. We never see any presidents on TV, worried relatives outside the situation or military officials behaving like chickens with their heads cut off. Even when they have a scene with military, they don’t know everything about what’s going on either. The only official outside words given on the situation are only heard in brief glimpses of the news on TV or snatches of transmissions from army radios. This type of narrative is not akin to most sci-fi/monster films, and frankly, I find it refreshing and exciting.

Instead, all the movie wants to focus on is on this small group of people who are trying to survive the attack from the monster. What impresses me about J.J. Abrams (producer) as a storyteller is how, above everything else, he wants you to care for the characters that you see in front of you. Even if it’s for a short period of 84 minutes. Some of the movie’s most affecting scenes are when the action pauses and the characters were allowed to ease each other’s shattered psyches. The most prime example is after Rob (Michael Stahl-David) had to tell his mother that his brother, Jason (Mike Vogel) was killed, Rob and Jason’s devoted girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas) take quiet comfort in each other’s grief. While the camera operator Hud (T.J. Miller) talks to Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) about what they could’ve done or couldn’t do. It’s a simply played scene like this that I look for in a film, a gentle expression of emotion.

Overall, the film is an impressively entertaining one. What more could you want?


The movie also illustrates one of my ultimate theories about film and TV. One of the most important things to me when I watch anything is character. Character, character, character. If I have at least some emotional connection with one character, even one I hate, then I don’t get a feeling of borrowed interest. Even when I’m watching something with a plot I don’t fully understand, there is still a mystifying bond with the person on the screen that keeps me transfixed.

We are forever drawn to the mystery of who we are…

Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Formal Introduction

Hi, my name is Sam and I'm an autistic arts lover; though what I just said is kind of contradictory. In a lot of ways, I shouldn't be a arts lover. I become uneasy during long continuous stimulation, I'm impatient, my thoughts drift, my mind goes a thousand miles a minute and I don't like to go out unless I feel like it. But, I'm bonded deeply with the art of film and music because they (as well as TV in a smaller way) have literally saved my life.

When I was young, many experts thought that I would not be able to communicate properly outside my own world, like many autistics. But I was also blessed with an innate sense of memory and imitation. Through the films that I watched and the music that I listened to, I began to build a knowledge of phrasing. Miraculously, I found that I could use quotes and song lyrics to communicate how I felt or thought. Also, films and songs gave me a window to the typical world, a world I couldn't grasp. Then, using quotes and lyrics as a basis, I began forming my own style of speech and connection. Which all lead me to where I am today; I'm a sound, happy and proud cinephile and audiophile.

Now, I may not see or listen to everything that comes my way, which may alienate some people. But as I said earlier, I can't handle continuous mounting stimulation, so I will miss out on some cool things until much later. Though I assure you this passion I have means the world to me and it never diminishes for any reason, including myself.

I hope you all enjoy my blog and continue reading my thought on the things I care about.