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

Friday (11/7/14) 3:01am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  <none>
Movies:  The Tale of Princess Kayuga [spoilers], An Unfinished Piece for Player Piano
TV:  Deadwood [1x10-1x13], Sleepy Hollow [1x07-1x13] [spoilers]

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya [spoilers]
This is the latest -- and, by all reports, last -- Studio Ghibli film, an adaptation of a 10th-century Japanese folk tale about a mysterious foundling who grows up to be a princess.

This movie is achingly, crushingly sad.  I was expecting it to be sad -- Japanese folk tales rarely end with every character getting cake and ice cream and living happily ever after -- but I'd overlooked that the director was Isao Takahata, who's best known for the emotionally shattering Grave of the Fireflies.  I figured it might be melancholy, but didn't expect to just cry & cry & cry.

This is a long film.  The running time is well over two hours.  And the scope of the film covers the princess's entire life on earth, from being found in the woods as an infant to her agonizing departure.  And this has to be part of its emotional wollop.  It's one thing if an action-movie extra dies from errant machine-gun fire.  It's another thing to meet a person, see her live her entire life, get to know her parents and her friends, see all her thwarted hopes and ambitions, and *then* see her die.

Yes, the princess doesn't die.  I know, she merely returns to the moon with all memories of her time on earth removed.  But that doesn't feel different.  It *feels* like a death.  And worse, it feels like a death that's protracted by everyone knowing for weeks (or months?) ahead of time that it's coming.  It's coming, and everyone knows exactly when it's coming, and there's nothing anyone can do.  There's no time for Princess Kaguya to do all the things she still wants to do, or express all the feelings she's wanted to express.  There isn't even the freedom for her to move back to the woods, and to die ("depart") on her own terms.  There's just the end, and everything cut short, and everyone left behind torn apart.

And the story teases us with how close happiness is for her.  It feels like a story plagued with "if only" -- if only Okima had just kept the family in the woods, where they were happy; if only Heian-era Japan allowed Kaguya (or any woman) any self-determination about her life; if only the moon people could have been called off.[1]  Not only are you watching a tragic story, but you're mentally contrasting it with the happier possibilities for Kaguya, the ones that would exist if only each of these bad breaks had gone differently.

It's a powerful story, well worth experiencing, but expect to cry a lot.

And I haven't even gotten started on the sound design or (especially) the animation -- a minimal style of ink strokes and watercolor washes that suggests ancient history while presenting one simple, beautiful image after another.  A couple of weeks after seeing The Book of Life and its "more is more" aesthetic, this is a very welcome change of pace.  And the hand-drawn brushstrokes convey energy in a way that even the best CGI flicks aren't doing.  If all your lines and colors are conveying a convincing object in 3d-space, then you can't, say, draw a forest as an angry jumble of lines as the protagonist whips through them.

Trust that it's different from animation you've seen before (unless you've seen Takahata's earlier My Neighbors the Yamatas), but it's very beautiful and worth your time.  And it has so much heart.  And it's so sad.[2]

Hell, I'll be surprised if I see a better animated movie in the next year or two.

An Unfinished Piece for Player Piano
This is a 1977 Russian film adaptation of Platonov, an early play by Anton Chekhov.

And it so very, very Chekhovian.  It takes place in a Russian country estate at the turn of the century, and quickly introduces a dozen characters with a thick web of interrelationships.  I was lost almost immediately -- "okay, that woman's married to that guy, who's an old friend of this other person, and -- wait, where'd that old, bearded colonel come from?"  I mostly just bobbed along with the mood of the place for the first 45 minutes or so, happy to see a wide variety of characters who all seemed to get along.

And, as expected, as the show gets to act three, the underlying tensions come to a head.  It was surprising to me how the sudden outbursts, which often seemed forced to me on the page, played in the movie as very... Russian-feeling.  Grown men and women would have bouts of shouting, or weeping, or inappropriate laughter -- beginning with shocking suddenness, and then almost as quickly receding back to quiet politeness.  I come from repressed English types, where this sort of thing just isn't done -- where, if you get to the point of shouting at somebody, it's a preface to never talking to them again -- but this culture just feels more emotionally expressive and dramatic.  (How I'll manage that in the Nothing and Everything run, I have no earthly idea.)

And it was neat to see the story coast to a denouement afterwards -- their world wasn't necessarily better, nor was there any palpable relief to having unleashed all the pent-up conflicts in act three.  If anything, the characters are just wiped out from all those events, and trying to settle back down into something familiar and comfortable.

Deadwood [1x10-1x12]
This batch of episodes closes out season one of David Milch's gritty Western about a new mining camp and its slow, inexorable march towards civilization.

The show feels more confident now -- or at least less like it's trying to impress me with how gritty, violent, and bleak it can be.  Mind you, it's still gritty, violent, and bleak, but those qualities are deployed more sparingly, and less in a "SEE I'M REBELLING AGAINST MAINSTREAM STANDARDS AND PRACTICES DAD" sort of way.  When Al euthanizes the dying preacher, it's violent and gritty, but it also means something to us beyond "omg he's suffocating a priest".

And again, the show continues its slow shift from "look at how lawless the Old West was" to "how will Deadwood be co-opted into the civilized world?"  I admit, I wasn't 100% able to follow all the machinations with the magistrate from Yankton, but I was still intrigued by the subject matter.

Structurally, the season ended in a logical place.  The inevitable things happened: Bullock and Alma got together, Bullock became sheriff of Deadwood, and Al made the Chicago warrant go away.[3]

It may be a while before I get back around to season two, but I'm still intrigued to see where this show goes.

Sleepy Hollow [1x07-1x13]  [spoilers]
This is the hourlong drama that re-imagines Ichabod Crane as a soldier from the Revolutionary War who is revived in modern-day Sleepy Hollow, where he teams up with a police officer to fight demons, supernatural threats, and the oncoming apocalypse.  This batch of episodes makes up the second half of its first season.

Sleepy Hollow continues to be the best three-star show I've seen in a long, long time.  Again, it's not re-inventing the wheel: every week, the hero faces a new monster.  Typically, that monster represents something that the heroes are working through emotionally.  Typically, in the process of defeating the monster, the characters make some emotional breakthrough or learn something new about themselves.

The structure seems dead simple when you put it like that, but it's not easy to do.[4]  It's hard to set up characters that are rich with internal conflicts and difficulties.  It's hard to make the external threats effective mirrors of the internal ones.  And it's something of a magic trick to make fighting the monster interlock with dealing with their own issues.  On a baseline level, Sleepy Hollow is very competently delivering these stories, which is damned impressive.

It helps that there is so much to draw on, emotionally, with these characters.  They expand out from the very solid backstories in the first half to give, for example, a really rich-but-simple setup for Irving: his daughter was paralyzed by a car accident, he threw himself into his work, it destroyed his marriage, now he is trying to start over in the quiet town of Sleepy Hollow.  That's easy to summarize, and it gives him so much to work with, especially since his growing involvement in Abby and Ichabod's struggle is feeling, to his family, like a replay of his work-obsession in the big city.

And that sound foundation means that, even though there's a heightened, almost soap-opera-like acting style to the show, it's all still coming from a genuine place.  Orlando Jones, in particular, is masterful at this, at somehow using this stilted and mannered style to convey the genuine emotions you might feel in his position.

As the first season comes to an end, again the show doesn't re-invent the wheel, but it does the simple stuff competently and well.  They reveal that their supernatural assistant is both (a) Ichabod's long-lost son, Jeremy, and (b) the incarnation of the Horseman of War, tying together several plot strands rather deftly.  Yes, they do the old plot move where the events of the first season are revealed to have all been part of the villain's Evil Plot.  That always strains credibility.  It feels less like "a villain was capable of really good planning" and more like "a screenwriter got bored and said, 'meh, all part of the Evil Plan.'"  Invariably I start walking back through the plan, thinking, "Nope, this was a stupid, stupid plan, one with way too many unknowns, that just happened to stumble into success.  Ergo, this villain is a lucky idiot."

But that gambit did lead to the one bit of innovation at the end of the season: they went the Empire Strikes Back route.  By the end of episode 13, Crane is trapped in a casket, Abby is trapped in purgatory, Irving is headed for jail, Jenny is unconscious and bleeding in a wrecked SUV, the Horseman of War has arrived, and the Horseman of Death has just kidnapped Katrina.  I can't quickly think of another show that's been willing to end a season in the "everyone is DOOMED" place (maybe the very end of Angel?), let alone its *first* season, and it's kind of amazing just how doomed our heroes are.  Everyone is absolutely screwed.  Now, sure, they did this because they had already gotten their season-two renewal, but again: I can't think of another show that's been so boldly bleak with its finale.

There are some drawbacks to the end of season one.  At this point, it's facing what I call "the Star Wars problem", where it feels like there are only four or five people in the whole universe.  The show has patiently gathered up all the outside forces and related them back to our protagonists.  The Headless Horseman is actually Ichabod's old friend.  The Horseman of Death is actually his son.  The witches are actually Katrina's old coven.  Eventually it feels claustrophobic -- doesn't this world have anything that *isn't* the result of our heroes' long, troubled past?  Hopefully in season two they start expanding out from this core of characters.

And the show doesn't seem to have any deeper significance or resonance, to me, beyond just being a fun lark.  And that's certainly okay -- the world has far too few fun, silly shows.  I feel like it has a lot of individual pieces that are affecting, but it doesn't all add up to some larger theme beyond, "Yeah, families can be pretty messed up."

But these are small quibbles.  It's still the best three-star show I've seen in a long, long time.

For next week: I'm going back to that meteorology course to see if I can follow it properly the second time through.  I've switched over to a rewatch of The Tick for my "watch while exercising" show.  I'm still reading SuperFreakonomics, as well as another book about Meteor.

[1] I feel really weird writing that last clause with such earnestness.
[2] I suppose I'm still a bundle of raw nerves when it comes to family and death.
[3] ... which apparently resolves that whole situation about being wanted for first-degree murder?  Odd.
[4] The rules of go are simple; that doesn't mean go is easy.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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