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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (10/4/10) 7:05pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Ponyo
TV:  Doctor Who [1x11-1x13] [spoilers], Glee [1x18-1x20]
Books:  Footnotes in Gaza, Predictably Irrational

I have surprisingly little to say about Miyazaki's latest, just because I watched it in the wee hours of the morning.  Yes, the art is still gorgeous and inventive.  Yes, it's obvious that Studio Ghibli care more about their characters than possibly any other feature-film animation house (yes, including Pixar).  But I don't really want to talk about that.

What impressed me here was how willing Miyazaki is to use magical realism as a shortcut.  This wasn't a case where the world had certain finite set of magical rules, and we see how they play out.  This was a case where the Miyazaki invents the rules as he goes along, introducing whatever the story needs at that time.  "Oh, at this point Sosuke needs to prove to the queen of the sea that he truly loves Ponyo.  Well, okay then."

It's a practice I've criticized in other things I've watched -- consider the number of times I've complained that Glee sloppily introduces story elements out of nowhere -- so I'm kind of perplexed that it works here.  Maybe I'm just biased in favor of Miyazaki?

But I think there are some qualities of Ponyo's arbitrary story elements that make them a lot more palatable.  First off, they don't use complicated magic-o-babble to *initiate* the story.  No, the story starts with Ponyo escaping to the seaside, which is magical, yes, but simple.  A lesser story invents all sorts of crazy, arbitrary 'rules of magic' to kick *off* the story, which always feels like a bit of a cheat.

Second, the arbitrary stuff that shows up later on only makes things more difficult for the hero.  So it may *feel* like a deus ex machina, but it's really not -- in the "prove you love" case I mentioned before, it's not a sudden bit of magic whatsit that makes everything turn out all right.  Instead, it's a challenge, a test for the hero, and the stakes turn out to be very high.  Basically, the rules feel right for the story because they're invariably the rules that make things more difficult.

Third, they don't seem to dwell on the rules of magic in this universe.  Instead, there's a confidence to it:  Miyazaki tells us, "This is the way things work here," and he's done with it, and he moves on.  Lesser stories get hamstrung in the first place with arbitrary magic that doesn't feel right for the story, and so they pile on these nervous explanations.  "No no the magic really has to work like this 'cos of this long-winded explanation and see the characters believe it and so does that smart guy so it's okay."

Meanwhile, the audience is thinking, "I didn't pay for explain-a-thons -- get to the next cool thing!"

Doctor Who [1x11-1x13] [spoilers]
The last disc of season one[1] of Doctor Who includes the episodes "Boom Town", "Bad Wolf", and "The Parting of the Ways".

No, I still don't like Doctor Who nearly enough.  I've finished out this season with the same shrugging attitude of "Yes, that was pleasant enough.  But it really has a devoted fandom?"

I liked that it was experimenting.  "Boom Town" tried to do a quiet, philosophical episode largely concerned with whether The Doctor had the right to kill off the Monster of the Week.  It never quite got me to feel its moral questioning ("She's trying to destroy the Earth.  Please to be killing her now."), and the resolution was a bit of deus ex machina techno-magic ("She's an egg now!  Nobody had to make a hard choice at all!"), but I strongly respected the effort.  At least they *tried* to make that quiet, thoughtful episode.

Likewise, Bad Wolf gets points for audacity.  It might not have been the most trenchant view of reality television, but putting The Doctor, Rose, and Captain Jack on Big Brother, The Weakest Link, and What Not to Wear was definitely not what I expected.

Finally, they do a great job of bringing on an end-of-the-series threat, with the massed army of Daleks.  Or rather, it's a great threat -- the means of bringing them on was less 'great' and more 'arbitrary'.  Aha!  It turns out one Dalek survived! and built an army! and we just happen to be preparing our attack right now!  Well, okay then.  Far be it for me to suggest using story elements you've already introduced.

And again, this leads to an interesting left turn into a domestic drama, as Rose anguishes about whether she can just sit idly by in Cardiff while the human race is about to get annihilated hundreds of thousands of years in the future.  Meanwhile (for some value of 'meanwhile'), a nice bit of arbitrary techno-magic means that The Doctor has to sacrifice himself, and most of humanity, to kill of the Dalek army.

And then... um... Rose turns into a magical fairy and everything turns out fine.  How do they kill the Daleks?  Magical fairy.  What did the "Bad Wolf" thing mean?  The fairy done it.  How does Jack survive?  Fairy raising-from-the-dead.  Why did the Doctor have to regenerate at the end?  Fairy magic.

Well, okay, then.  I guess in the end I shouldn't judge the show on whether its stories are elegantly-constructed.  Instead, I should assess whether it brings me interesting bits of sci-fi fun, and meaningful character moments.  But even on that score, I can only say, "kind of".  The lead performances are lovely, but in the end the threats were generally too big in scope ("A bajillion aliens are about to destroy the entire human race!") for me to *feel*.  Sometimes The Doctor and Rose would share a look and draw me in; most times I just watched the plotty plot meander along.

(Side note:  also, I strongly disliked the soundtrack, which felt very MIDI-ish and cheap to me.  Yes, I've been spoiled by Bear McCreary and Michael Giacchino.  Still, at least it wasn't John-Dickson bad.)

Glee [1x18-1x20]
This latest disc of Glee includes "Laryngitis", "Dream On", and "Theatricality".

Let's start with the things that are the same as always.

Yes, they're still starting character romances with all the sensibility of a small child mushing dolls and action figures together into compromising situations.  "Laryngitis" gives us Puck deciding to pursue Mercedes, because... eh, there was some reason listed.  I suppose they have nine-choose-two permutations to get through, so maybe it was just Puckcedes' turn.  (Same goes for Kurtanny.)

Other plotlines start up just as arbitrarily.  Oh, some of the characters have been faking their singing.  Really?  Okay.  It doesn't really pay off anything that's been happening in the season, but... okay.

Other plotlines repeat.  "Laryngitis" gives us yet another iteration of "Kurt can't possibly let his dad know how gay and fey he is."  Okay, fine.  Let's watch that exact same story for the... third? fourth? time, only this time with a Mellencamp song.  And hey! Dad re-accepts him at the end... but how long will it last?  (Dun dun dun.)

Storylines just sort of stop instead of ending.  The entire kerfuffle about "OMG Tina is a vampire!" ends with Tina threatening Principal Figgins in vampire-wear.  Okay, here's a word to the wise about screenwriting:  if you could take your A-story, gut the whole middle of it, keep only the first and last scenes, and still have a story that makes perfect sense, there's something wrong there.  What you want is a story where, at the end, the hero wins, and it's only *because* of everything that's happened along the way.  I'm in no way convinced that Tina needed a whole bunch of Lady Gaga numbers to get to that point where she could prank Principal Figgins with fake vampire teeth and an attitude.

And they do another "episode devoted to artist <x>" episode -- Lady Gaga this time -- and they include the usual clumsy exposition to the effect of "OMG, artist <x> is AWESOME AWESOME AWESOME!"

On the other hand:  Neil Patrick Harris!

And not just NPH, but the whole of "Dream On" had a lot to like.  First off, it felt like it was *about* something, something that felt like it was always right there under the surface of the show.  Generally speaking, nobody ever makes it in showbiz.  What you see there on the screen?  That's rounding error.  So Bryan Ryan's point -- that Will is setting these kids off on dreams at which they will almost certainly fail -- is valid, and it was there under the surface all along.  So when Bryan threatens to cut the program, it feels like a payoff to something that was already established, instead of something arbitrarily shoehorned in.

The other storylines are more arbitrary.  Did Rachel ever say that she was desperate to learn the identity of her mother?  No?  Well, she is now.  And did Artie ever point out that he's crushed at knowing he'll never be able to dance?  No?  Well, he feels like that now.  As usual, anything can happen.

That said, it's satisfying that Shelby serves some other purpose than "the head of the competing Glee Club".  We'd seen that 'ooh, it's the untrustworthy rival glee-club coach' storylines before, with the Jane Addams Academy Glee Club in the first half of the season.  The "she is secretly Rachel's *mother*" storyline is nearly Dickensian in its improbability, but it's a new place for the season to go, and it creates a story with some heavy emotional stakes.

By this point, any viewer has to accept that Glee is what it is.  In each episode, random, arbitrary stuff happens to create a melodramatic storyline.  And typically, random arbitrary stuff will show up at the end to tie off that same storyline and keep it from having consequences on future episodes.  In between, the stories will meander randomly.

Somewhere in there, you'll see the music videos that are the thing you showed up for in the first place.

Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco
This is Joe Sacco's graphic-novel reportage about a brutal mass shooting in Rafah in 1956.  We follow Sacco around Gaza as he tries to piece the story together from scant U. N. records, Israeli military stories, and the recollections of now-ancient Palestinians.

It's an interesting process, especially because a lot of the records disagree.  And it's certainly compelling, what Sacco slowly reconstructs, with dozens and dozens of men in Rafah shot or beaten to death in an arbitrary round-up.

But what really interested me was how the graphic novel gives you a feel for what it's like to live in present-day Palestine.  There is a ton of news coverage of the region, but news efforts try to show the most compelling bits of footage.  So you end up thinking, "Ah.  Life there is a lot of shouting, a lot of explosions, and sometimes you wave around automatic weapons.  So... pretty much a nonstop Michael Bay movie then."  It gives you no picture of day-to-day life.

The book shows you a living city.  Some people there think a two-state solution could work.  Others have sworn to fight Israel to their dying breath.  Some live in relative comfort.  Others feel hopeless and scared.  Sometimes the cities feel alien, with claustrophobic crowds living under the shadows of Israeli gun towers.  Sometimes it just feels like it's a city, and in some ways, all cities are fundamentally the same.

It feels incredibly shallow, my overlooking the historical tragedy and treating the book more as a travelogue, but I guess that's how I experienced it.

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
This is a collection of essays by behavioral economist Dan Ariely about the ways human behavior doesn't align with the classic models of traditional economics.

Here's a simple example (one that was also in his TED Talk).  Say you're given a choice between a great trip to Rome, and a great trip to Paris.  Maybe people choose 50-50 on that.  Now, say there are three choices:  Rome with free breakfast, Paris with *no* free breakfast, and Paris *with* free breakfast.  Suddenly, a ton of people choose Paris -- specifically, option three, with the free breakfast.  There is no neo-classical-economic reason why this should happen.  But it does.

Most of the essays feel fairly intuitive.  Yes, we overreact when some product is FREE! and overvalue getting the FREE! thing.  Yes, we overvalue the things we own, because they are ours and therefore precious.[2]  It was mostly interesting to see these suspicions borne out in scientific inquiry, and it was neat to see how they set up experiments to test, say, how sexual arousal affected one's moral compass.

I don't think I learned anything useful.  In fact, the book repeatedly emphasizes that you're going to keep making these weird, economically-nonsensical judgments, and the best you can do is to avoid scenarios where you're going to be stupid.  But it was still entertaining.  Plus, it gives me even more facts to harass free-market libertarians with.  Honestly, it feels like the last hundred years of economics have been about demonstrating how classical supply-and-demand just doesn't happen in the real world, and yet so many of us stay so convinced that it can work just fine without regulation.

For next time, I'm watching In the Loop, some surprisingly-improved episodes of Burn Notice, and the end of the first season of Glee.  I'm still listening to American Psycho on audiobook, and I might start reading First Impressions:  What You Don't Know About How Others See You.

[1] ... or rather, season one of the reboot.  Assuming I can call it a reboot.  Anyway, it's the season with Christopher Eccleston as The Doctor.

[2] "It's just a thing, it's just a possession."  "Yeah, but it's MINE!" -- Red Dwarf, "Marooned"

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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (10/4/10) 8:07pm
It amuses me that you've actualy managed to nail two of the things that irritated me the most about the RTD era of Doctor Who: the fact that Davies never met a deus ex machine he didn't like (I get the feeling he frequently gets to a point with his stories where he simply can't find any other way out of the corner he's painted himself into), and Murray Goddamn Gold. Who is still composing music for the show and making me wonder who he has compromising photos of.
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (10/5/10) 8:30am
Well, that's something of a relief.  I always feel bad, saying bad things about Doctor Who eps.

And yeah, Murray Goddamn Gold.  Though I'm still convinced that John Dickson would have a slight edge in a suck-off.  Or -- wait, that came out wrong -- eh, you know what I mean.
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (10/5/10) 8:50am
I suspect that you may end up liking Steven Moffat's stories better. Actually, if you liked the two-parter "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances" --- there you go. I think Moffat is less prone to writing himself into a corner and having to Tinkerbell Jesus his way out of it. Davies has a strong tendency to get really wrapped up in the emotion of the thing and in so doing get himself into a bind.

(That, incidentally, is a reference to the dénouement of New Series Season 3, a scene which frankly embarrasses me as a fan, especially since the rest of the story that came before it was pretty good up to that point.)

I tolerated Murray Gold for the most part, and even liked some of the music he composed for Season 4, but he blew all goodwill I had toward him to bits with the re-orchestration of the theme for Season 5, which is horrible, horrible, horrible. Bombastic, and overblown, and it completely muffles the sinister bassline that is the true secret weapon of the Doctor Who theme. Now admittedly I am something of a crank who would like nothing more than for them to use the classic Delia Derbyshire original ... but I think my argument stands. I'll send you a link to the original (I'd post one here, but I'm typing this on my iPad and that's awkward.)

As far as devotion to the series goes ... for me, a big part of it is the fact that I really did kind of grow up on it, and the Doctor and his companions and their approach to the universe has a profound emotional appeal to the Way I Think Things Ought To Be. And the new series stories that I've liked best are, to be honest, the ones that hark back to that ethos. Some do that better than others. It's hard for me to speak about the appeal for newcomers to the series, because it's been a part of my fannish life for so long.
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