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

Sunday (1/22/17) 11:55pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:   An Economic History of the World since 1400, Invisible Planets

Movies:  Moana
TV:  <none>

An Economic History of the World since 1400 by Donald J. Harreld [audiocourse]
This is a Great Courses audiocourse about the history of the modern world, as viewed through an economic lens.

I've forgotten to write about this one for a month or two, so regrettably I won't have much to say.  I do recall that this course was at its best when it was covering unfamiliar material.  For example, it goes into a surprising amount of detail about the *world* economy in the Late Middle Ages -- covering not just feudal Europe, but the other great economic empires in the world, especially China and India.  And even in its coverage of Europe, it was at its best when it got away from the "dates and battles" history I trudged through in high school to cover more about how economics worked in everyday life -- what did you use for money?  How did you get into a guild?  Material like that.

It was at its worst towards the end of the course.  When Professor Harreld approaches modern history, it veers towards the familiar dates-and-battles stuff, doing little to put it into an interesting economic context.  As he dug into the twentieth century, I found myself wanting him to have a point of view about it, even if any claims about the modern economy would be necessarily political.  (Though I see in some amazon reviews, lots of folks lambaste the book and recommend their favorite wingnutty Randian/libertarian treatises instead.)

In between the fascinating/unfamiliar material and the ho-hum dates-and-battles, the middle ground was pretty rough going.  Those stretches were dry and abstruse, full of references to economic ideas that, yes, he'd mentioned earlier in the course, but you got the sense that the material was intended for listeners who were already well familiar with them.

On balance, I can't generally recommend the audiocourse -- which is a shame, because I find this to be a very auspicious subject.  I feel like economics kind of dictates history -- we can learn the dates and the battles and the leaders, but all of them move on the waves of the economy.  And if this does seem like your cup of tea, it's worth the listen just for the more novel material you might learn -- but even then, I might leave off the course before the last few hours.

Invisible Planets, translated by Ken Liu
This is Ken Liu's translation of thirteen recent Chinese sci-fi stories.

It's hard to review a sci-fi short-story anthology, especially if it, as this does, collates work from a variety of authors.  And the introduction says, and I'm inclined to agree, that you can't really pinpoint qualities that make "Chinese sci-fi" a distinct genre, beyond "they were written by people in China".  So it's hard for me to say much beyond "there are a bunch of short stories, and they're all really good."

I can say that they're inventive.  Sure, we say that *all* sci-fi is inventive, but c'mon.  Between us, we all know that most sci-fi falls into comfortable tropes and patterns, to the point that we can shorthand subgenres like "space opera" or "dystopian YA".  But these are stories that don't have obvious subgenres.  What do I do with the adventure story set in "Folding Beijing", where the whole megalopolis puts its population in deep sleep and folds neatly into a little box, so that the *other* Beijing can deploy over the same area, and so on, alternating in shifts?  Or the story about the old robot dragon that's awakened long after the death (disappearance?) of humanity and goes on a sort of vision quest through its mysterious ruins?  Sure, one of them is a dystopian story that rhymes nicely with 1984, but for most of them, I genuinely thought, "I haven't seen this before, or anything like it."

I could also feel a powerful undercurrent of melancholy to many of them.  And melancholy is not a note you hear often in sci-fi.  You could argue that modern sci-fi has its roots in the gosh-wow optimism of 20s, when electrification was promising an exciting future (kind of like the Internet, back in the 90s).  And then you can look at the sort of grimdark strain of sci-fi reacting to that, its moody dystopias and brutal corruption feeling a bit like a moody teenager telling you that "everything SUCKS" and kicking a can, edgily.  But I rarely see melancholy.  You don't see, for example, a sci-fi story muse that someday, you, and I, and everyone we know, will die, and isn't that sad?[1]

So I highly recommend Invisible Planets -- of its dozen or so stories, I think there were only one or two I didn't like.  It's also beautifully translated, easy to read while still evocative and specific.

Yeah, I need to read more sci-fi.

This is the 2016 Disney CGI musical about a Polynesian islander who strikes out on an adevnture to fight an ancient evil.

I liked this movie.

And that puts me in the awkward position of merely *liking* a movie that most of my friends unequivocally love.  I like Moana fine.  I am incredibly happy with Disney's current "CGI musical" phase, and it pleases me to no end that Disney is making good musicals again (there was a long drought for a while there).  Still, of Tangled, Frozen, and Moana, Tangled is the only one I really love, and none of these films are up there with the classic Disney renaissance pictures.[2]

I absolutely love the film's reverent depiction of Polynesian culture.  Disney has caught flak from Polynesians complaining about both cultural appropriation and perceived errors in how they are portrayed.  I'm guessing they're catching flak, too, from right-wingers who insist that checking in with dozens of different Polynesian representatives is some kind of "political correctness gone mad". 

But viewing the film on its own terms, I feel like their research and their respect for the culture has let them build a world for their story, a kind of weighted average of many different island cultures, that is fascinating, beautiful, and (for a kids' musical) staggering in its depth.  Without this kind of world-building (or more precisely "world researching"), you get Bee Movie -- bland, incosistent, and wholly without surprises.  Even Tangled and Frozen, which are in many ways superior movies, don't give as strong and coherent a feeling of "this is a place, and this is its culture".  Instead, Moana is full of little details like reckoning the crook of your hand against the night sky -- who would invent that?

Another quick example: one production story I liked was that Maui, in early character designs, was bald -- he was a big bald guy who presumably more closely resembled Dwayne Johnson, who voiced him.  Then, they checked in with their cultural experts, and learned it would be more appropriate for their demigod to have hair.  No, more hair.  More hair than that.  Seriously, give Maui *all the hair*.  And so, in this one little way, respecting the culture they were depicting moved them away from a facile decision -- "just make him look like the Rock" -- and towards something that was more interesting, a design that captured some aspects of the voice actor, but was much more its own thing.

The flip side of this: I often talk about how a film has "creativity capital".  Over and over again, it's like a film has some limited supply of creativity, of originality, of breaking-the-mold, that it can spend.  If it spends it all on a bizarre lead character, there's nothing left for an original setting.  If it spends it all on a byzantine nonserial narrative structure, it will ease up on defying genre conventions.[3] 

And so it is with Moana.  The film goes all in on its setting -- and $DEITY bless it for that -- and that doesn't leave much else in the cupboard.  The storyline is well-worn and familiar: supernatural threat to the homeland, going off on a quest, yada yada yada.  Compare that to Tangled, which was more like a dizzying commentary on heroic quests, or Frozen, which used a quest as a perfunctory background for character work and family conflict.  The heroine is kind of a cipher -- a nice and inspiring figure for the young girls watching the film, but personality-wise, there's just not a lot there.  She often gets blown off the screen by Maui, or by Hei-Hei the chicken -- which is a shame, because the voice actress kicks ass.

And then, the places where it *does* diverge from standard-issue "determined Strong Female Character goes to fight supernatural evil" feel... odd.  Apparently this movie had many writers and many directors, and I think you can feel that in the storyline: there's no strong singular voice holding this story together.  It's not like The Incredibles, where, yes, a million people put in work on the picture, but it still feels like Brad Bird had a take on the superhero genre, and everything in the film served that vision.  Here, the movie feels like it has the detritus of earlier rewrites kicking around, ideas that seemed neat in earlier versions, and then were minimized so they couldn't mess with the hero narrative.

For example: the ocean is Moana's friend.  Moana has to take her One Ring equivalent to the Mount Doom equivalent.  In practical terms, why doesn't the ocean just take her there?  Maui does ask this very question, but hanging a lampshade on the question doesn't answer it.  And yes, you can say "then there would be no movie", but that answer is kind of bullshit.

Also, they wind up pairing their heroine with a powerful demigod.  And then they realize, "oh, crap, we have a Gandalf problem" (i.e., why not just make the all-powerful dude take care of all these problems?), and you watch the rest of the movie deftly sidestep this problem they've set themselves.  Uh, the hook is injured!  And it'll only do one more transformation!  And hup, now Maui's gotta leave for a while!  For... reasons!

(There's an echo of this to the grandmother's spirit, who shows up and has... some useful powers?  And then is shuffled off before she can interfere further with the plot.)

On a weird, meta level it was actually *more* entertaining, watching the writers duct-tape everything together, forcing the story to give Moana things to do, positioning the crab David Bowie number to seem like it vaguely belongs in the movie, making the Mad Max homage seem somehow meaningful, and on and on.  But on a movie level, that cobbled-together quality -- holding on to a dozen-odd ideas from earlier passes through the material -- lessened its impact.  They still had many good ideas -- the Miyazaki-esque twist to the villain at the end was a bit confusing, but a perfect complement to the world we had seen -- but overall, it felt less like the movie had something to say, and more like it was plate-spinning to keep its story intact.

The songs were good.  I liked the songs.  Again, this puts me at odds with many, many friends who've had the soundtrack on repeat and can happily sing "How Far I'll Go" from memory.  I am so, so glad that they hired on Lin-Manuel Miranda -- to my mind, Disney's best genuine musical-theater songwriter since Ashman[4] -- and had him team up with a Polynesian musician.  I'm so happy to hear songs that feel, to me, more like musical theater than like random pop songs.  And I think "We Know the Way" is a hell of a song.  (But, again, it hints at that cobbled-together quality of things if your best song features no characters from your movie.)  The rest of the soundtrack is similarly solid -- I wasn't humming the songs afterwards, but in the moment they did what they were supposed to do, and I suspect with a few more listens they'd stick in my head.

I also appreciated "You're Welcome".  It's not a *great* song, but as far as I can tell, they very carefully tailored it to Dwayne Johnson's skillset.  It didn't demand anything of his voice that it couldn't do -- but, it still made full use of the voice they had available.  And that was something I saw generally to how they wrote the character.  They played up the charismatic bravado that the Rock can do effortlessly -- seriously few actors could match him for that (maybe Nathan Fillion?).  And sure, he's not a trained Method actor or anything, so they wrote his character arc in such a way that he didn't *need* to be.  Most of that character's inner journey is told to us explicitly -- Moana pretty much explain-a-logs Maui's inner, sad hunger for approval -- but that's fine here.  It means that, for example, the Rock can say "you're welcome" earnestly at the end, and he doesn't have to put much spin on the ball, line-delivery-wise, for it to 'land'.  We've had enough exposition about his character and enough plot for his character for us to see a meaningful story resolved there.

In my heart of hearts, I hope that this isn't the last we see of Moana.  They've created a fascinating world here, and they can tell more stories in it.  In fact, the kind of shaggy, cobbled-together storytelling *helps* with that -- this is not a lean, mean storytelling machine, but a story with lots of loose threads and random tendrils that later properties could explore further.

An effort this solid deserves that.

For next week: so, so much to catch up on: Rogue One, La La Land, and Love & Friendship, for starters.  Right now I'm reading an interesting book about computer science as applied to everyday life and one about the chemistry of cooking.  I'm also (finally) watching season one of Veep.  While exercising, I'm still watching season 10 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight.


[1] A notable exception:
"Edward Bear and the Very Long Walk", an old favorite of mine.
[2] But I suppose few things are.
[3] Seriously, you can watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with a stopwatch and see it hit every plot point of a typical romantic comedy at the timecode you'd expect it to.
[4] You can make a case for Randy Newman, what with his production of Faust.  You can also make a case for Elton John, but I will not take that case seriously.[4b]
[4b] And yes, I know the Lopezes won a Tony, but I was seriously unimpressed by the songwriting in The Book of Mormon.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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