The Piximon Cometh (Digimon Adventure Episode 18)

(Part 17 HERE. Part 1 HERE)

Three crests down, four more to go. The Digidestined seem to be progressing smoothly through this third arc in Digimon Digital Monsters and they manage to keep giving Etemon and his lackeys the slip. The only problem, they still don’t know how to reach the next level of Digivolution and since their encounter with Devimon on File Island, Tokomon still hasn’t been able to Digivolve back to his rookie form Patamon, let alone his champion form Angemon.

After collecting the third crest, Mimi’s Crest of Sincerity, the gang are once again travelling through Server’s desert, musing about their destinies and how they can Digivolve further. It seems that most of the group believe they will be able to Digivolve once again when all of the crests have been collected (which is in line with the whole one episode, one move toward arc-completion motif).

While they are travelling along, a mass of black wires (Etemon’s mode of corrupting Digimon as opposed to Devimon’s black gears) surface from below the sands, bringing an infected Kuwagumon with them. This time Kuwagumon is much more powerful and larger than the one they fought at the series’s beginning. Kuwagumon captures Tai and Agumon who are both too afraid to Digivolve for fear of unleashing Skullgreymon’s nihilistic, destructive power once more. Luckily for them, they have a guardian angel in the form of the diminutive ultimate-level Digimon Piximon, who appears and defeats Kuwagumon.

Piximon berates the gang for being unlike the Digidestined he had imagined. They aren’t acting too courageous, and often, it is the children who protect their Digimon instead of the other way around like it’s supposed to be. He brings them to his hideout to train with him and the gang is relieved to find his home in a space-warp hidden from Etemon. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a tropical jungle either (they’ve been sojourning much too long in the desert). Piximon gives the Digidestined menial chores to do while Tai and Agumon must find their way out of a pitch-black cave of memory.

Whilst therein, Izzy and Matt go searching for their crests, alone, and at night, without their Digimon. While on the way to the crests, Matt asks Izzy why he wants to get the crest. He replies that he is intrigued to see Kabuterimon’s next Digivolved form. Matt replies that he himself wants to Digivolve, but not literally. He reflects on his desire to learn more about himself and he wants to become stronger and more courageous. These words will, I believe, be important in the development of Matt’s arc, but also in the realization of how to Digivolve to the next level for the whole team. Not only must the Digimon grow more courageous and learn to trust in one another more, but the Digidestined must do so as well for everyone to reach the next level and defeat Etemon.

Later, when Matt and Izzy find themselves down a well that holds their crests, they manage to get themselves in trouble too as the well is outside of Piximon’s safe domain. Etemon picks up on their trail and sends Tyrannomon to engage the two in combat. The others, minus Agumon and Tai, come to rescue but are unable to overwhelm Tyrannomon. Too weak to fight back, the Digidestined hide behind Piximon’s protective shield and wait for Tai and Agumon to return from their journey into the Heart of Darkness to face their fears head on.

In the cave, Tai and Agumon awaken to find themselves in a small boat upon a river Styx between reality and memory. Tai recognizes a bridge from his youth in Highton View Terrace and engages with the memory. He and Agumon find a young Tai falling off of his bicycle and stating, “I’m never gonna learn to ride my bike.” He is afraid of falling and hurting himself. Tai and Agumon guide him along and push the bike until little Tai has gained enough speed to take over on his own. This vignette has helped Tai and Agumon to realize that their impotence in the face of Kuwagumon was due to their fear of losing control. They now know that working together and believing in one another is the key to overcoming their fear. They escape the cave, face Tyrannomon squarely, Digivolve to Greymon and leave Piximon’s domain, both of them now stronger and more self-assured than before.

As for the English title of this episode, it is a reference to Eugene O’Neill’s play, The Iceman Cometh. But I see no real parallels between the two narratives. Probably just some odd choice on the part of a producer. That book is about lost souls living their lives at the bottom of bottles of whiskey while on skid-row. They create deceptions for themselves and pipe dreams that give them meaning in their lives, even though they know these to be fictions. Seems more akin to the story of my own life than to the lives of our Digidestined. Bummer.

 

Till next time,

The Digidestined Cody

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The Masque of Red Death

(To check out my previous Roger Corman essay in this October Horror essay series, click HERE)

What to say about Roger Corman’s 1964 film The Masque of Red Death? Hmm. It’s one of his cycle of films inspired by or adapted from the works of Edgar Allen Poe, that moody master of the macabre. In the film, he works with one of his favorite collaborators, Vincent Price. Like all of his Poe pictures, this film is less of a horror film per se and more akin to a Gothic film where dramatic materials occasionally meet ethereal, other-worldly antagonists. This time, the metaphysical spectre of Death embodied and robed, traversing medieval Europe and wreaking havoc with the help of his brothers. The film is not quite a commercial picture either. It is aimed pretty directly for the art-house circuit with its Shakespearean pretensions, its literary basis, its atmospheric cinematography (for exteriors as in most Corman Gothic pictures), and its often abstruse or commercially unpalatable themes.

Just as in Premature Burial, two years prior, this film begins with a coda steeped in darkness and shadow, with beautiful greys and blues. The camera operator uses some pretty gutsy Dutch angles and expressionistic techniques, while the lighting sets the mood as one of mystery not unlike the wabisabi aesthetic of many Japanese high-art products (Think Kwaidan or Harakiri). The shot follows an old woman collecting sticks in the fog. She meets a man in a red robe under a tree, studying tarot cards and generally looking the part of supernatural force of nature. Much of this opening scene hearkens back (at least to my mind) those images of Antonius Bloch meeting Death personified on the beach in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film, The Seventh Seal. With Corman’s art-house sensibilities in this period of Gothic pictures, one can reasonably assume he had seen the picture, and that it may have influenced him somewhat.

Later, we find that this woman has contracted a plague known as Red Death. The skin on her body has turned red and the blood vessels have burst shooting red sprays of vital fluids through the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and, one can imagine, other more private orifices as well. She dies, but not before delivering to her village a white rose that the spectre of death has turned red. He left her with a message, “The day of their (the village people’s) deliverance is at hand.”

With this message, the townsfolk take heart and become querulous with their feudal lord, one Prince Prospero (Price).  He takes the two most outspoken, a father and a young man, along with their daughter and young lover, respectively, (I haven’t lost you have I?) back to his castle where he attempts to force the two men to fight each other to the death, while breaking the will of the fair young maiden.

We find out that Prospero believes God to be dead. His character is a product of the post-Nietzschian world in this sense, except that he believes more than this. Not only is God dead in the lives of people in the world (the young maiden Francesca is the only truly faithful one he has ever met), but he has died a real death as well. Now, Satan is the one true god, the God of reality. In Prospero’s Black Room, he worships his deity, performs satanic rites, and attempts to become closer to “the lord of flies, the fallen angel, the devil.”

As the tale unfolds, we find that the Red Death has been making its way through the countryside, destroying many a village’s population. Prospero thinks his palace the only safe place left and invites a number of barons and aristocrats to stay with him. When Red Death comes knocking in his anthropomorphic form, Prospero is holding a Masquerade ball, a Masque. The party-goers become infected and bloodied. they perform a Dance of Death until they die of exhaustion (an artfully done scene mirroring the final scenes of Herk Harvey’s 1962 independent art-house horror film Carnival of Souls, which Corman may also have been familiar with).

Red Death appears and threatens to take the life of Prospero, who can’t believe the circumstances. He believes Red Death to be his own master, Satan. But he is sorely mistaken as Death serves no master but fate and time. The film ends on a coda-epilogue mirroring the style and mise-en-scene of the first scene’s prologue-coda. Except now, Red Death caresses the hair of a young child, one of the few souls left unharmed by his plague. His brothers, the Black Death, Yellow Fever, and others join him and the group proceed offscene and downhill to continue their deeds and administer the gruesome fates of their next victims.

All in all, the film is a little more abstract and more metaphysical than Premature Burial whose plot can be described without any recourse to true supernatural entities or forces. In this sense, The Masque of Red Death is more Gothic than its precursor. It seems to borrow more elements from previous art-house triumphs and gains a bit in the way of gravitas-presence in its characterization of Red Death. But it feels a bit more campy than that earlier film. I prefer Premature Burial and believe that Corman created a more taut thriller in that film, but for fans of true horror and of Gothic fictions, I would highly recommend this film.

 

Your Truly,

Cody Ward

The Crest of Sincerity (Digimon Adventure Episode 17)

(If you missed it, check out Skullgreymon’s appearance HERE. To go back to to beginning click HERE)

The Digidestined are again travelling through the desert. I feel it’s necessary at this point to try and dissect why this is so. In more than half of the episodes in this series so far, it seems like the Digidestined wander through the scorching, empty Digital deserts of either File Island or the continent of Server. A few times they have encountered the beach, the jungle, and the tundra, but the desert seems their constant oppressor. In Robert Heinlein’s classic sci-fi novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, the book’s protagonist is a native martian who comes to earth as a young man and must acclimate to his new surroundings. In Digimon Adventure, the children are spirited away to a new world totally different from their human world. This is done in a manner coincident with Alice in Wonderland as their new surroundings lack the logic of their former world. However, Alice doesn’t stay long enough to ever become truly comfortable with these surroundings. The Digidestined seem to do so, but with intense difficulty, and just like the stranger in a strange land, they are alien to their new world totally. And what’s more, for a group of Japanese children, the desert is the one ecosystem more alien than any other.

Now back to the main narrative. While in the desert, they meet their first mirage: a giant cactus they hope will provide them some much needed shade. While mulling around and complaining about the cactus’ unreality, Gennai’s hologram appears and gives the Digidestined some more cryptic information about their current situation. He relates that the tags and crests “will work together to help you create total harmony.” I don’t yet understand this phrase fully, as this episode is the point at which I can’t remember any more of the episodes I watched as a child. Gennai then chides the Digidestined for not caring for their Digimon partners properly and instructs them to learn patience. He then disappears again, leaving the gang with more unanswered questions than they had before he appeared. Leave it to Gennai to muck things up.

A little familiarity with these episodes should tell you a lot about what is going to happen next. In every episode, some odd artifact appears that is a reproduction of human culture. Then, an evil Digimon (the mon of the week if you will) appears to fight them and they defeat it using trust in one another or teamwork. In the first arc, the Digimon all Digivolved to their Champion forms one by one and level by level. In the second arc, each Digidestined found a way to turn around their drifting islands back toward Devimon on File Island to defeat him. During this arc, their strength of character and connections with their Digimon grew exponentially each episode. In this third arc, it seems that they will work together to fight off an evil Digimon, discover a tablet with a crest inscription, and one more Digidestined-Digimon pair is then equipped to Digivolve to the Ultimate level when the time comes.

As such, in this episode, a giant ocean liner appears in the desert after ‘swimming’ across the rough and sandy terrain. The Digidestined are fooled into boarding. A big chicken Digimon, Kokatorimon, who works for Etemon attacks them and tries to contact Etemon (whose dark network is experiencing technical difficulties- typical nincompoop he is) but to no avail. He turns all of the Digimon into stone using his Petrifier attack, except for Biyomon and Palmon. Then a little bit of girl power takes him out.

But not for good. He recoups (hehe) his energy and tries to run them down with the ocean liner. This time a real giant cactus saves the day by blocking the ship from hitting the children and flinging the ship far off into the distance. The cactus blooms and reveals Mimi’s Crest of Sincerity. She then realizes what her main purpose and role in the group is meant to be, that of a straight-talker who brings the rest of the group down to earth and away from troubling and occasionally dangerous philosophical musings.

 

Till next time,

The Digidestined Cody

(Next up the gang encounter Piximon and Tai and Agumon begin to overcome their fears! HERE)

The Arrival of Skullgreymon (Digimon Adventure Episode 16)

(If you missed it, part 15 is HERE. And the beginning of this series is HERE.)

Last time, the Digidestined found Tai’s Crest of Courage in a tunnel near the Koromon village. The crest teleported them to safety somewhere in the mountains. However, this next episode begins with the Digidestined again walking through the desert. Continuity error or do they just never get a break? I’m not sure.

Anyhoo. As they travel through the desert, Tai has been commandeering all of the gang’s food to feed to Agumon. Because Tai is the only one of the group with a crest, it stands to reason that his Digimon partner, Agumon, is the only one who can currently Digivolve to a high enough level to defeat Etemon. But Tai’s pushiness will have the opposite effect he hopes for when they really need Agumon’s strength.

Later, the Digidestined find a digital reproduction of the Roman Coliseum in the desert and decide to investigate it when Joe’s tag begins to glow and pull him toward the Coliseum’s direction. Inside, they find that the massive stadium has a giant screen television as well as soccer goals and a soccer ball. Again, we find our young heroes in an inexplicable situation. From technology to architecture, reproductions of real-world aspects of human civilization are abundant in the digital world, but we still have no concrete ideas about what made them appear there in the first place.

Unbeknownst to the Digidestined, they have been followed by one of Etemon’s henchman who promptly alerts the Elvis wannabe to their presence. He is currently too far away from the Digidestined, as the Monochromon  that pulls his semi-truck lair is taking a short rest. Etemon attacks by proxy with a black-gear controlled Greymon who happens to be in the Digidestined’ vicinity and he traps the Digidestined and all the Digimon, except for Agumon, under an electrified soccer goal. Agumon Digivolves to Greymon and is unable to defeat the black gear Greymon on account of the fact that Tai made him overeat and he is now too sluggish. Once the others escape from their net, the situation is no better, for some reason teamwork does not seem to be working.

Tai runs into harms way and distracts the black gear Greymon, thereby forcing his Greymon to Digivolve. The Digivice begins to glow, then turns slowly to a deep black that emanates outward and sends dark energy into Greymon who Digivolves into Skullgreymon and destroys the black gear Greymon, attempts to attack his own Digidestined and Digimon friends, and tears up the Coliseum.

Because of this episode and the mistakes that Tai made therein, we now know ta lot more about how Digivolution works. Not only must a Digimon have energy to Digivolve, but if they have eaten too much they may be sluggish and ineffective once they do (as was Greymon because of all the food Tai made him eat before he Digivolved). We know that it takes more than a little bit of danger to get a Digimon to Digivolve from Champion to Ultimate. We also know that one cannot put oneself in danger purposefully to get their Digimon partner to Digivolve, because this is an act in bad faith that will only channel dark energy into the Digimon who will then rampage and potentially harm their own Digidestined partner. It also seems that after an Ultimate level Digivolution, a Digimon reverts back to its in-training form as did Skullgreymon who turned into Koromon instead of Agumon. However, this may have only occurred because of the illicit circumstances under which the Digivolution took place.

Further, we know that the tags and crests have a unique ability to appear in helpful situations that get the Digidestined out of a bind. During the last episode, Tai’s crest of courage appeared at the end of tunnel where they were trapped. Once activated by his Digivice and Tag, the crest emblem transformed into a crest and transported them to a safer location. In this episode, Joe’s crest is located under the soccer goal they become trapped underneath. Once activated, the crest emblem transforms and they fall downward into a series of underground passages under the Coliseum that ultimately lead them back above-ground and toward safety. This will be an interesting theme to follow in coming episodes.

In this episode of Digimon Digital Monsters, Tai learns that being too gung-ho and forgetting to work together and share resources with his fellow Digidestined and their Digimon can lead to serious consequences.  He learns that being too courageous errs on the side of stupidity and foolhardiness and that there is a golden mean that guides appropriate action. What he and the rest of his friends did not learn, however, was how to Digivolve to the next level. And although they have managed to escape the lackeys of Etemon this time around, next time they may not be so lucky.

 

Ciao,

The Digidestined Cody

(To be continued HERE)

Premature Burial

(For the last installment of this October Horror essay series click HERE)

Roger Corman’s 1962 adaptation of an Edgar Allen Poe tale is pretty standard thriller fare and doesn’t really stand out in his oeuvre as a masterpiece. However, despite the limitations of the film, there are some very interesting elements of the mise-en-scene, acting, and music score that make this film noteworthy.

In the film’s opening sequence, Eastman Color was used to great effect by transferring to the viewer some beautiful blues and greys that mix with the fog, barren trees, and fluid camera moves to make quite an atmospheric shot. These elements will be used throughout the film on exteriors while a more subdued and conventional approach to the cinematography will be used in the mansion’s interiors. This coda establishes a certain feeling unique to art-house and horror films that evokes mystery and ambiguity, memory and dream, fear and awe, and is a perfect fit for this film whose focus is on the inscrutability and indeterminacy of dream, horror, psychosis, and reality.

Ray Milland, the oft-described existential Cary Grant, delivers lines with a dramatic quality quite appropriate to the scenario, but grounded in a certain realism. His character, Guy, has had his father excavated from his coffin and found blood marks on the coffin’s lid. His father seemingly had a rare condition, catalepsy, that made it appear as if he had a heart attack. All the while, he could not move, but was conscious. He was buried alive and the fear of being buried alive the paranoid obsession that will consume Guy, cause him to build an ornate tomb from which the inhabitant can escape with relative ease, and constantly muse on death.

In one of his greatest soliloquies, Milland states, “For years I have lived in dread of being buried alive.” He imagines suffocation within an enclosed tomb, the smell of damp earth surrounding his nearly-inescapable fate, the rigidity of the coffin, and “the blackness of absolute night.” But above all else he fears the total silence “like an overwhelming sea” and the worms that crawl so near, ready and waiting to consume their next carcass. Heavy stuff with tinges of poetic stylings and potent morbidity all assumed with the paranoia so synchronous with Cold War sensibilities and delivered in a high Shakespearean manner with the new cinema realism.

Throughout the film, he hears the musical theme whistled by the gravediggers that fateful night when they excavated his father’s remains. He hears it coming from the woods, from deep within the bowels of his estate, and in the post-wedding reception piano played by his beautiful and seemingly caring, but ultimately conniving and maleficent young bride. He sees the figures of the gravediggers and usually passes out in shock at their appearance.

The question at the core of the film until its resolution, is how much is Guy imagining and how much is real. We know that he is somewhat delusional, because his own sister who was at the excavation states that there was no sign that their father was buried alive and tried to escape his coffin. Guy has a neurotic obsession that this event took place based on his belief that he heard his father’s voice crying out at night on the night after his death. We are also led to believe that he has bouts of forgetfulness and trance where he commits actions without consciously doing so. When he hears voices and sees the gravediggers, no one else seems to be around, and on the few occasions that they are, they feign ignorance. Is he experiencing a mental breakdown or something far more sinister and other-worldly. Even his doctor, Miles, is unsure.

Later, Guy has a dream that all the precautions he took in his tomb failed on the even of his being interred there whilst still alive. He cannot escape using his system of ropes and pulleys, which have been gnawed at by mice. His alert bells has had its pulley destroyed as well. The mice have consumed all the food he needed to survive in the even he might have to wait a while before being detected by a friend. Even his final solution, a goblet of poison to end his suffering quickly, has been drained by worms. The dream seems so totally real to him that it takes time for him to shake it and he becomes more paranoid than ever before after having had it.

Milland paints a portrait of the suffering of the dead while working on his supposedly full-proof tomb. In it, Baphomet is seated in hell amongst the tortures of dozens of damned souls. He imagines this as his ultimate fate. And just as all his predecessors before him have died terrible deaths (or so he believes), he too must succumb to this fate himself.

 

Cody Ward

[Next up, The Masque of Red Death!]

The Dark Network of Etemon (Digimon Adventure Episode 15)

(Previous essay HERE. To go back to the beginning click HERE)

Last time on Digimon Digital Monsters, the gang had retrieved their crests from an undersea cavern and the episode was filled with homages to Walt Disney animation. Now, they are travelling with Whamon to the continent of Server to defeat more of the dark forces plaguing the Digital World and wreaking havoc in the real one.

When they arrive to Server, the coast looks forested and generally better to traverse than the deserts and tundra of File Island previously. But to no avail. Just beyond the treeline is another desert. They wander through it and find a Koromon village inexplicably inhabited by prankster Pagumon. Unknown to the Digidestined, is their affiliation to this region’s Dark Lord, Etemon. The Pagumon have forcibly removed the Koromon from their village, with the help of a few scheming Gazimon, and put them in cages behind a hidden waterfall. When the Pagumon do the same to Tokomon, the in-training form of T.K.s Digimon, Poyomon, the gang suspects mischief, searches out and saves Tokomon, and attempts to battle Etemon.

Too many new mons?

Etemon is a self-styled musician, singer and demagogue of his region on Server. He refers to himself as “the monarch of rock and roll.” And in the dub, which is what I’ve been using for this series (no offense to the sub version, I just have an attachment to the voice actors), his voice is an Elvis Presley impersonator’s. He seems pretty inept as his job was to locate and destroy the Digidestined, but he was unaware of their presence on the island until his lackeys informed him.

Despite this incompetence, his Dark Network Concert Crush attack de-digivolves the Digidestined’s Digimon, destroys the Koromon village, and traps the group inside of a cave. But the wrong cave. This cave is a safe place for the Koromon in times of distress and the back wall sports the image of Tai’s Digidestined crest. This is interesting as it means that the Koromon who are the in-training forms of Agumon, Tai’s Digimon partner, were fated or drawn to live near the crest. Tai’s tag responds to the image and the Digidestined, plus the Koromon, are teleported out of the cave and to safety somewhere in the mountains. The inscription of the crest has turned into the real crest and now Tai and Agumon presumably have the ability to Digivolve to the ultimate level in future episodes. But not without their fair share of difficulties in doing so, as we shall soon see in the next episode of Digimon Adventures.

Overall, this episode introduces the new big bad, who is neither very big (aside from his hologram form used to scare the Digidestined) or very bad (he just seems incompetent). Is this the banality of evil? Stupid people just doing their jobs like Hannah Arendt describes Adolph Eichmann at the Nuremberg Trials? Or am I drawing this potential parallel too far? Maybe the whole postmodern sincerity motif is too far as well. Well, ah well, oh well, whoo knows (other than the show’s creators).

At any rate, the other motif I find somewhat interesting in this episode is fairly minor but carries on a theme of earlier episodes. That is to say, more inexplicable objects. In the Koromon village, they have huge palatial towers with silken curtains and hot saunas. But the Koromon have no arms? They couldn’t have built it, so again we find an inscrutable real-world object in an out of place situation. Later, the Gazimon search out Etemon to alert him to the presence of the Digidestined. They find him on a beach with upturned boats that contain computer modems and hard-drives. He inhabits his trusty semi-truck, with an opening on its side that shows a provisional musical stage inside. Weird.

I’m not sure what to think about this whole thing anymore after seeing this episode and I hope that the thematic complexity of some of the earlier episodes makes a swift return (I thrive on it). Because this Etemon character is really starting to get on my nerves. And I love The King. So that’s saying something.

 

Til next time,

The Digidestined Cody

(Next Up, Episode 16)

Blade Runner 2049: Set Design

In keeping with my previous Blade Runner essay, and in the spirit of Denis Villeneuve’s call not to spoil the film for people who have yet to see it, I’m focusing on an element of the film that caught my attention but reveals little to nothing plot: the sets.

Through dozens of interviews and watching the film’s credits a few times, I’ve gathered that as much practical effects tech was used as possible in the making of this film. Most of the buildings in future Los Angeles, in the San Diego waste dump, and in Las Vegas (the areas with the largest proliferation of buildings) were models. For the horizons of these cities, where buildings and rubble would extend farther than fiscally feasible for the model department (I think WETA made these, the spinners, and the handgun props), they used three methods.

One, The Hades Landscape example. In the original film’s opening sequence a spinner flies above the dystopian, dark, ambient LA sky while fire rises from smokestacks and smog and darkness obscures the horizon. In 2049, these same smoke and smog effects were used in LA’s night scenes. In San Diego, a grey-white horizon was used to obscure the horizon of the shots. And in Las Vegas, the city is irradiated and has been retaken by the desert, leaving an orange-brown particulate matter forever hovering in the air and obscuring vision beyond a few hundred feet.

Second, the Syd Mead and Matt Yurichich method: Matte paintings. In the original Blade Runner, all cityscape backgrounds were created as matte paintings directly onto the frames of the film (Again, je pense). Mead would paint the concept artwork and Yurichich would repaint the scenes onto the celluloid, but in an interesting manner. The colors had to be painted backwards because once transferred to film negative, they switched colors to their polar opposites. Matt Yurichich had to paint the painting in the opposite colors he meant them to be seen and he did so to great effect. In the 2049 film credits, we find a credit for a few matte painters and as such, know they used this process to create a few background elements in the film. I just don’t know which ones or where they appear in the film as of yet.

Third, CGI. The CGI essentially serves the same purpose as the matte painting did in the original film, but they can be manipulated and changed more readily from frame to frame to make the cityscape more kinetic (some of the original matte paintings become painfully obvious as paintings once you realize they’re there, not moving). The CGI in Blade Runner is used sparsely, tastefully and is either invisible or contextually correct (such as JOI’s emanator on-off sequences, which would be CGI in real life in such technologies as well).

The exterior sets include people who dress similarly to those in the original film who represent a very wide variety of styles, but keep to the general theme of multiple layers, grime, and occasional fashion forward pieces. The streets contain impressive, artful ad placements for both real and imagined companies that directly parallels the first film (hopefully most of the companies going out of business through the Blade Runner advertising curse does not parallel the first film). Exteriors of buildings are covered in electronics and other creative ways of fixing and upgrading living and social spaces. Overall, the effect of these details is to create a world in homage of the original film that also helps create a sense of being in a real world that one could imagine living and moving through.

Interiors of buildings, like the LAPD headquarters and Officer K’s apartment feel lived in through the intense proliferation of objects and unique design concepts used within. Again, this is an homage to the original film and to Ridley Scott’s method of building interior filmic spaces that lends itself well to world-building and the creation of a celluloid place where we can imagine ourselves inhabiting (which then lends more realism and emotional identification of the viewer with the characters in the story).

The main three props of the film extend the theme of homage and upgrade that the rest of these elements adhere to. The new spinners are self-driving, come with their own drones that can provide defense from robbers or offense against others, and computers that can link one to the net as well as other people while on the road. Plus, they are more streamlined and overall, pretty cool. The new standard issue blaster pistol uses some of the same design elements of the original blaster pistol prop. However, the new gun is burst fire and has a few interesting moving parts that were absent in the original pistol. Finally, the voigt-kampf machine used to test the blush response and emotional responses of subjects to identify their status as replicants or as humans, has been upgraded to a post-traumatic baseline test for standard replicant Blade Runner baseline tests. This new tool makes sure that no emotional disturbances are present in the Blade Runners after potentially traumatic encounters on the job and ensures that all Blade Runners are emotionally and psychologically fit to do their jobs and to obey their human counterparts.

Overall, the set designs, props, and effects used in this film impress me highly in both their respect for and homage to the original Blade Runner, as well as their unique and relatively invisible use of modern, non-practical techniques to heighten the reality of the film and the beauty of the film. Blade Runner 2049 is a perfect example of how world-building should be in a film.

 

Cody Ward

Drive: The Scorpion and the Frog

In Orson Welles 1955 film, Mr. Arkadin, he relates a variation of on an ancient tale (but a modern Welles rewrite) about the inscrutability and unchangeability of character, of one’s nature. The Russian count Arkadin hosts a party where he tells his guest about the scorpion and the frog.

A scorpion has sojourned along the desert and reaches a stream. If he attempts to cross the stream, he will drown as the water is too deep. He finds a frog who he asks to carry him across. The frog demures and voices his distrust of the scorpion who may sting him if he gets too close. The scorpion calls upon the frog’s sense of logic and states that if he stings the frog while he is crossing the stream, then the scorpion will drown. The frog decides to carry him across the stream and about halfway into the trip, he feels a sharp pain in his back. “Why have you done this scorpion?” “I am a scorpion, it is in my character.”

Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 masterpiece, Drive, takes this parable as its central theme. Ryan Gosling plays a mechanic who works as a stunt driver in Hollywood part time. At night, he rushes through the neon and shadows of a Blade Runner-esque, but pre-dystopian, Los Angeles, carrying criminals from their marks and into safety (This role is probably the reason Gosling was cast as Officer K in Blade Runner 2049). After one of the tightest, most atmospheric opening sequences of any action film I’ve ever seen, the narrative focuses on the development of his relationship with single mother, Irene, whose absent husband, Standard, is in prison. Driver (Gosling) finds himself in an odd situation when Standard succeeds in an appeals court and returns home, criminal baggage in tow.

Driver will find himself trying to defend Irene and her son from the mob activities that have followed Standard. A local mob henchman is blackmailing Standard and wants him to do a robbery job for them in return for their protection while he was prison. Driver offers his help to make the situation go smoothly, but everything turns out wrong, Standard is killed, Driver is hunted down and forced to fight for his life, and he now has a bag with a million dollars, property of a local mob boss Nino (Ron Perlman).

Driver has no past. He seems to act on instinct alone until he meets Irene and a new motivation, regard, finds him unwittingly. His attempts to shed his cold exterior fail time and again. Nino’s lackeys track him and in a bold, slow-motion, and extremely moving and brutal scene, he kisses Irene for the first time and then commences to beat to death and crush the skull of a mobster sharing the elevator with them.

One by one, he tracks down bigger and bigger mobsters until he drowns Nino in the sea and reaches the top of Los Angeles’ largest criminal organization, Bernie (Albert Brooks). The camera glides across a parking lot and the cityscape of LA as Driver talks with Bernie. He asks Bernie if he has ever heard the story of the Scorpion and the Frog, and relates that Nino didn’t make it across the river. Driver picks up his jacket and heads out to meet Bernie to settle the score for good. There is a large, yellow scorpion on the back of the jacket.

Even when the scorpion attempts to keep its head low, to stay out of trouble, trouble follows him.

The Driver meets Bernie and a bit of ultraviolence ensues. The Driver escapes alive, but just breathing. No longer on the lam, score settled, but unable to return. Irene knows what Driver is now and he has realized fully the inevitability of impossibility of connection between himself and another. His nature precludes all safety and comfort. And he rides off into the sunset with Kavinsky synths swelling in the background.

 

Cody Ward

My Neighbor Totoro: A Slice of Fantasy Life

(Catch the most recent essay in this Ghibli series HERE. To go to the beginning click HERE.)

Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki’s fourth feature film, My Neighbor Totoro, is an anime classic. The 1988 film’s titular character, the large grey bear-like Totoro, is an enigmatic and popular character who is to Japan what Winnie the Pooh is the Great Britain or Mickey Mouse is to the U.S.A. His image is probably known to you whether or not you’ve seen the film by virtue of his ubiquity in merchandise like t-shirts and plushes. This guy is everywhere today, from the Studio Ghibli logo, to a cameo in Toy Story 3, to the shelves of every big-chain bookstore, media store, and alternative mall store in America.

Much has been made of this film’s Shinto themes (Shinto being the native religion of Japan where all things have an animating spiritual force and can manifest themselves at particularly important times). When the film’s young protagonists, Mei and Satsuki, move to the countryside with their father Professor Kusakabe, in order to be closer to their ailing mother Yasuko, they find a seemingly enchanted Utopian paradise. The people are all friendly and on a first-name basis. They work the fields for their food and are quick to help one another, like Granny who babysits the children while their father is away or the townspeople who search for Mei when she goes missing. The scenery is beautiful with its wide-open blue skies, perfect rice-fields, giant camphor trees, and relatively undisturbed forests.

Further, there is real magic in the air as the children find their own home infested with susuwatari, or soot-sprites, liminal Shinto yokai (created by Miyazaki) who live in the darkness of old, abandoned homes, and can disappear from the earthly realm, vanishing into that more ethereal realm, at will. The girls find small, badger or bear-like creatures, who wander their yard and the adjacent woods. They gather acorns for sustenance, can make plants grow at abnormal rates, can become invisible and hide within the giant camphor trees with Shinto zig-zag markers (the sign that a deity has ascended to the spot or that a miracle was witnessed there at one time or another in the past).

The large Totoro, who is the focus of the title, sleeps deep within the camphor trees and comes out at night to ride the wind upon a spinning top or lurk about old shrines and bus stops. In one particularly iconic scene, he waits by a bus stop for his own ethereal, Shinto bus that takes the form of a cat (another particularly iconic image from the film). It can run atop telephone wires and along the ground at ridiculous speeds, and its very invisible presence seems to generate gusts of wind.

Many reviewers focus on the kawaii, or cute, aspects of the film. The iconography if you will. Others like to write about how beautiful the film’s cinematography and hand-drawn animation styles are. Some focus on the Shinto aspects of the film’s story and how its various characters liminality is made apparent in each scene. Some extend this to the liminal Alice in Wonderland narrative at the film’s core. One can even spin the story to evoke powerful ecological themes and philosophical notions of being-there with nature and community. And all of these are relevant and interesting and beaten to death.

But Miyazaki himself has said that the film’s protagonist is not a spirit or some Shinto deity. As Miyazaki is certainly the auteur of this film, we should take him seriously and wonder aloud at what implications this has for the critical literature and its essayists.

Totoro is a large bear-like being who inhabits the woods. He is a sentient creature, not unlike human beings but very similar to our conception of Bigfoot, who resides in the forest and protects it. He has the ability to become visible and invisible at will, as do the other seemingly other-worldly creatures of the film. Can we be sure that any of the Totoro’s, the cat-bus, or the soot-sprites are not real creatures invested with similar abilities? Are they merely using some form of camouflage?

If we assume that all creatures in the film are naturally-occurring, we find almost no real problems. The cat-bus could have run along the telephone wires and produced wind while running at great speeds, the little Totoro’s and soot-sprites would find it necessary to hide from Mei and Satsuki because if they did not they could be harmed, and their ability to make plants grow quickly was really just a dream. The camphor tree opening up its root system to show a huge, underground area was just the produce of Mei’s overactive imagination. Totoro may be able to fly on a spinning top, but this may have only been part of the dream as well.

Instead of a liminal Alice in Wonderland narrative, we are left with two girls in an odd world with overactive imaginations, at times that is. We find that the story is not a Shinto tale, but only derives influence from Shinto to create an alternate reality with little to no indicated religious or metaphysical assumptions (ie. we can watch this in an atheistic mode where metaphysics are null). The ecological analyses are still stretching themselves, just a great deal more so now that the film’s interior world has no metaphysics backing an ecological message and no overt messages in that direction (beyond them living in an idyllic setting close to nature? but where children can become lost more easily and potentially come to harm?). The philosophy of the film is an interpretation or reading of the film not based on any metaphysical basis any longer and with no overt dialogue or actions in the voices or bodies of the film’s characters to support such a conclusion.

So what are we left with? Cute characters in a fantasy setting that highlights the imagination and folly of youth while setting up the elder sister, Satsuki, on an interesting coming of age and responsibility tale in an idyllic, imagined Japanese past. Under this new lens, the film loses much of its subtext, if not all of it, and becomes a commonplace slice of life (one of the genres I find most detestable for its usual lack of brain-power). One might be tempted to discount Miyazaki’s comments about the character of Totoro as a real animal invested with some odd powers. But once we choose to liberate texts from their authorial intent, we only begin to impose our own biases and backgrounds and educations on those texts and open them up to any well-reasoned interpretation. To put this in another perspective, I think that only George Lucas should be able to tell us if Rei is Luke Skywalker’s daughter. Anyone else’s theory is only their opinion. Lucas’- and in the case of My Neighbor Totoro Miyazaki’s- opinion is the only one that matters.

 

どうもありがとうございました,
Cody Ward

Vacation’s Where I Wanna Be

Hey, my workplace is closed for this week, so i’ll be taking that short break from the blog while I go on a road trip and will return with more content shortly! Thanks for all the support!

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