My New Column: “Tooth And Nail” at Cosmoetica!

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Besides my essays for IDEAS ON IDEAS, I will now be writing a column called “Tooth And Nail” for Cosmoetica, thus taking the place of Len Holman’s brilliant several-year run. If you haven’t read his essays yet — 15 million hits, and counting! — they are witty, concise 800-900 word pieces on all things politics, and more. Len is combative, opinionated, and, most importantly, an excellent writer: qualities that I will replicate in similar articles to give you guys (and myself!) a respite from the monstrous 10,000+ word essays on this website.

In short, writers get FAR too comfortable simply being ‘one thing,’ whether it’s novel-writing, poetry, essays on this or that topic, or what have you. Yet as art grows out of its juvenile little phase, artists will take on new challenges as well as new responsibilities. These include diversity of skill and vision, greater consistency, and a better understanding of what art is, and, yes, what art isn’t.

This column is my way of going towards this direction, that I don’t ossify into merely ‘one thing’ and get fat and sassy in the process. In this spirit, the topics will cover everything from art to politics, to cultural musings, and small ‘o’ observations. Do it all, baby — and do it well!

Essay #1: Pundits On Drugs, and what drug legalization should really mean.

Bye!… Continue reading →

Review: Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Still Walking” (2008)

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Still Walking Hiroshi Abe Yui Natsukawa Koreeda

It’s often thought that the best way to create a film — or any work of art, really — is really to write drama: to craft a conflict, first, and then deal with its natural outgrowths. In most cases, however, this is quite backwards, for true ‘adult’ drama begins not with the energies immanent to it, but to their architects: that is, people, and all the little details, the sums and parts, that help make such energies real. In this way, drama is not a thing that merely happens, but is demanded by the specifics of character, and feels almost inevitable. Few films have shown this better than Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking, a work that begins and terminates with its characters, whose whims, personal beliefs, quirks, and mannerisms not only build their conflict, but come to justify it as well.

The film’s narrative follows a day in the Yokoyama family, a (subtly) needling clan not privy to the extent of their own destructiveness, and their shared mistakes. It opens with vistas of an anonymous town as a couple of guitars play (from Japan’s GONTITI) and domestic scenes unfold. These include food preparations — less for a meinichi, we’ll come to learn, than a bitter, self-serving ritual that simply recapitulates their own problems — small-talk between the aging mother, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), and her daughter, You (Chinami Kataoka), that lulls that viewer into a sense of complacency that will soon be dispersed; and, most interesting of all, shots of Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), the film’s doctor and patriarch, seen in one of the film’s only tender moments as he laughs with a patient. Now, it may be impossible to tell just yet, but this is a clue that he’s not so much aloof as he is aloof from his own family, for reasons we’ll come to know and others never stated.

Kyohei’s role in this dynamic is evident early on, in one the film’s most arresting shots. One sees the parents’ son, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), his wife, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), Yukari’s son, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), You, and her husband, talking to one another as Kyohei enters, unseen by the viewer, but clearly there given the family’s sudden — perhaps even fearful — reaction. It is a great acting moment and one that encapsulates the talent of pretty much everyone involved, subtly taking cues from each other and responding to them. The group immediately moves to bow, yet Ryota merely looks on with an aloofness that Kyohei returns. This is not really spiteful, merely proof that the relationship is at its end, with the rest of the film focused not so much on how it unravels — for it’s already quite unraveled, in interactions we do not see but can guess at — but on new insights into the same basic conflicts that must have trended through their lives for much too long.

Thus, there are no massive revelations, no melodramatic secrets that are uncovered to help the … Continue reading →

Woody Allen’s Women: How He Got Them, Kept Them, & Got Some More

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Woody Allen's Women Diane Keaton Mia Farrow Mariel Hemingway Mia Sorvino Samantha Morton Scarlett Johansson Winona Ryder
Let us pretend, for a second, that Woody Allen’s worst feminist detractors are right. Let’s pretend that he’s written too many manipulative women, too many heart-breakers, and too many ditzes to ever be comfortably on ‘their’ side. What then? What does this say of Allen’s oeuvre as a whole, and Allen as the progenitor of such? And, more importantly, is there any evidence of these things to begin with?

Well, there is, partly because one can find almost anything in a complex film if one searches hard enough, and partly because — as Dan Schneider argues — there is an odd tinge of “loathing” underneath it all, wherein Woody Allen’s women fight, cheat, steal, or even lust after a man too old and too manipulative to ever be fair game. At times, this is even played off for comic effect, although the irony is, of course, that there is always someone (even if not Allen) imagining himself in such a position, and tries to be precisely that. Yet assertions without numbers are a hard sell, and have gotten many a critic into trouble with such ‘frills’ as evidence. So, how does one gauge how true the claims are? How does one even measure how good or bad a female Allen character really is? The latter is easily answered: with one’s eyes. Allen’s characters all have motivations and behaviors, for good or ill, and it is up to the viewer — and not a film book, or a theorist — to untangle them. As for the numbers? Let us merely take, for the sake of this thought-experiment, a tally of those who might be OK’d by a feminist reading, and those that will simply never be.

Woody Allen's Women Diane Keaton Annie Hall

Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, perhaps the most famous of Woody Allen’s women.

Allen’s early films are none-too-fertile ground for such an analysis since they are, without question, more gag-driven than character dependent. Yet even here, one sees Allen’s desire to invert Hollywood tropes, and even play rough with gender stereotypes. Many of these women, for instance, simply reject Woody’s advances, or otherwise poke fun at him. Nancy (Louise Lasser) from Bananas wants nothing to do with a rote, passionless ‘weakling’ like Fielding Mellish; Louise (Janet Margolin) from Take the Money and Run is almost beyond analysis, given how steadfast she is, and without reason; and the Diane Keaton/Allen ‘troika’ of SleeperPlay It Again, Sam, and Love and Death has the male lead chasing her, and often losing her. Sure, one sees Boris (Love and Death) already bed a woman well beyond his means, but one also sees some interesting inversions in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*, especially the last sketch, wherein the woman is the aggressor, and a priest represents male “Catholic guilt”, to balance out some of the less flattering depictions of women. One cannot, at any rate, get what’s necessary here — at least not for our purposes.

Allen’s first glimpse … Continue reading →

Neon Genesis Evangelion: A Response To Tumblr’s Ritsumaya

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Neon Genesis Evangelion Beautiful Screenshots
Now, it was not lost upon me that an essay —  any essay, really! — on Neon Genesis Evangelion would draw out mis-readings, obsession, and all-around ignorance, especially since a good chunk of said essay is a critique. Nor would it matter that most of the essay is a defense, since, well, it’s not a defense in toto, and, by definition, nothing that’s sacred is ever ‘allowed’ to be criticized in the first place. And make no mistake about it: Evangelion is quite sacred, and too often boosted by the sort of people who end up subtly disparaging the show, even as they think they are somehow fighting for it.

Want proof? Enter Ritsumaya’s post, which went up just a couple of days after my own. It mis-reads me, mis-reads the show, claims things opposite of what I claim, and has an emotional edge from the get-go (my article apparently “infuriated” her — and I will assume it’s a ‘her’) that nicely mirrors the startling lack of genuine analysis, within. I won’t dwell too long on this, but hope to show how utterly childish and vapid the world of anime criticism usually is, oscillating, as it does, between poorly written academic jargon (a la Thomas Lamarre’s The Anime Machine), on the one side, and pretty much all non-professional bullshit on the other.

Ritsumaya is, alas, in the ‘other’ camp, and begins her critique with the following précis:

I googled it and found a pretty lengthy essay written in that infuriating “if I use big words I must be correct” style; as much as the author derides Evangelion’s pretention, he engages in plenty himself.

I mean, I chuckled. ‘Pretention’ — does she mean pretense? Or pretension? This is, I’ll assume, one of the ‘big words’ Ritsumaya is confused by, for which I think I am sorry. But she errs in claiming that I deride Evangelion’s pretense. In fact, one of the chief arguments of my essay is in how novel the show’s use of pretense really is, even favorably comparing it to Ingmar Bergman’s great 1966 film, Persona. This is not called ‘derision,’ but ‘praise’ — two other words whose definitions Ritsumaya must be unfamiliar with.

Yet she presses on:

He has a few good points throughout the essay, which I’ll come to shortly, but he makes the mistake of many who watch Evangelion: He walked in expecting philosophy 101 and received a bunch of mentally ill people realising that it’s okay to be alive.

Well, actually, the term ‘Philosophy 101’ implies a fairly banal introduction to some fairly basic ideas, hence the designation 101. And, by often being precisely that, this is really where Evangelion comes off its wheels, with ‘a bunch of mentally ill people realising that it’s okay to be alive’ in fact being one of its better parts, as I point out, over and over again. How Ritsumaya misses this, when I explicitly state that … Continue reading →

“Neon Genesis Evangelion” And Its Place In Animation

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Neon Genesis Evangelion Screenshots Misato Shinji Tokyo

“To render it in my own terms, the ‘idealistic age’ is the period when grand narrative functioned alone while the ‘fictional age’ is the period when grand narrative functioned only as a fake.” – Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

“…it also appears that the culture of imagination, a longtime province of Japan’s male youth, is reaching a certain end point. It is as though imagination is no longer expanding toward an aspirational time and place but is instead fixed in the here and now, capable of only expanding internally and heralding a kind of era of obsessiveness.” – Izumi Tsuji, “Why Study Train Otaku? A Social History Of Imagination”

“It is said that the camera cannot lie, but rarely do we allow it to do anything else, since the camera sees what you point it at: the camera sees what you want it to see.” – James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work

 

Introduction:

One Theory Of Anime

In the spirit of this essay’s central posit — or one of them, anyway — I’ve started out with 3 divergent, even duplicitous epigraphs. Prior to going any further, I suggest you re-read them, carefully, as 2 of 3 are, word by word, in whole or in part, total bullshit: red herrings that always seem to slink their way into conversations on the arts that they really have no place in, thus crowding out what’s relevant, and what needs discussion. The other quote, by contrast, brilliantly suggests why a work of art can be so polarizing, even as that work is an objective ‘thing’ with properties immanent to it, and does not simply change with the percipient’s whims. I won’t tell you which one’s which — not yet, at least — for the best answer is somewhere in the art, itself, which you and I will try to see anew.

Yes, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a polarizing work. Although essentially a ‘teen’ or young adult anime, it’s been derided by critics for its ending (“cheating,” “meaningless,” “stupid,” mere “veneer”), its faux Christian symbolism, the way it seems to obviate its own narrative spine midway through the series, as well as director Hideaki Anno’s decision to leave a number of rote questions more or less unanswered. I did not, therefore, approach this work with any real expectations. It was, after all, too popular with the ‘pop’ crowd, too loved by the notoriously dense philosopher-types as a work of art (red flag!), and too badly hammered by those who seemed to know what they were talking about. As for me? I was a cinephile who, years ago, was about to enter into my very first anime, and, given all that I’d known of otaku culture, expected dull writing straining to be ‘deep,’ immature characters, plot-driven (as opposed to narrative-driven) stories, and video game-level fluff admixed — I do not know why — into something that was, for lack of a better word, interesting.

I will detail the reasons for my curiosity … Continue reading →