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

Sunday (2/12/17) 9:35pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:   <none>
Movies:  Ocean Waves, The Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts Program
TV:  Veep [season 1]

Ocean Waves
This is the 1993 Studio Ghibli TV film about a high-school love triangle.

Is this some Japanese subgenre I'm unaware of?  Some kind of "guy looking back on high-school romance" thing that has, like, a zillion entries in Japanese prose fiction?  Because Ocean Waves feels eerily similar to Norwegian Wood, to an extent that makes me wonder if that's just A Thing in Japanese culture.

We could call it "wistful romance".

So: in a wistful romance, it's always a dude looking back on high school, usually while traveling.  The framing device lends a melancholy air to the whole story, because we know that whatever romance happens, it won't last until the present day.  It lends an air of wisdom to the proceedings because, no, this isn't just a soapy teen story, this is a memory from which the protagonist is drawing useful lessons about life.

Anyway, he's looking back on a story involving himself, his best bud, and this mysterious, aloof girl he (the protag) fell in love with.  The girl is always kind of combative.  His guy friend is successful, but maybe lacks the depth of sentiment we assume the protagonist has.  The protagonist himself is kind of shiftless and passive, drifting through the story and making, at best, desultory efforts at going after anything or anyone.  There's a love triangle -- in Ocean Waves, between him, his friend, and the girl; in Norwegian Wood, between him, the aloof girl, and another girl -- but the hero doesn't seem to have his heart in it.

The results are still engaging: Norwegian Wood is an interesting read, and Ocean Waves is pleasant-if-slight film.  But these wistful romances (if that's a thing) have a lot of qualities that distance me from the story.  I'm not feeling the story, I'm watching.  I'm sighing at the folly of high-school kids.  I'm watching the background scenery.  I'm drifting along.

And I don't think of myself as a go-go-go, story must have HUGE STAKES ALL THE TIME kind of viewer.[1]  So I suspect it's not the pace of the story, nor the passivity of the protagonist, that keeps me feeling distanced.

Maybe it's more that I can't relate to the characters -- with both this and Norwegian Wood, I found myself thinking that if any of these characters could communicate even a little, or were even a tiny bit honest with those closest to them, all the tension and pain in the story would vanish.  When I'm watching people acting stupid and hurting themselves, my gut instinct is to roll my eyes, fold my arms, and detach from the narrative -- it takes a lot to reel me back in to empathy.  With Ocean Waves, I often thought, "Ah.  They're shouting at each other because they're young and confused.  Well... okay then."

Its wisp of a story flits by: not much tension, not much impact.  The artwork is lovely -- it's not Ghibli's best work, but it's a keenly-observed take on contemporary (so: early-90s) Japan.  Oh, and, for a stretch, Hawaii.  It was fun recognizing lots of little details about both places.  The characters don't seem to have much of an arc, but they are well-drawn, and they are good company.  (I kind of wonder if Ocean Waves has a really strong hang-out TV comedy in its DNA somewhere.)

The show drifts through high-school reminiscences that play out in short scenes and vignettes.  They're pretty expository -- probably recapping long stretches of the source novel -- but the scenes work fine in and of themselves.  Eventually the story culminates in a character realizing "I was in love with you the whole time!"  There's really been no evidence of that in anyone's words, actions, or acting up to that point, but you let it pass.  (Wistful romances *should* end with the relationship failing, and failing rather undramatically, but this movie isn't ambitious enough for a downer ending.)

And then that's it for this wisp of a movie.  It fades from memory as you walk out of the theater.  So: definitely one of the least of Ghibli's efforts, but still a nice watch for all that.

The Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts Program
Every year, the Alamo shows a program of the Academy Award nominated animated shorts.  I figured I'd just mention that it was one of the bleakest of these compilations I've ever seen.  It starts with a kid accidentally shooting his father in the head and just kinda goes from there.  "Piper", the latest Pixar short, was the sole lighthearted piece in the collection.  "Blind Vaysha" plays almost like a parody of bleak eastern-European animation.  "Pearl" was probably my favorite, a simple story of a father-daughter relationship from the perspective of their car.  "Pear Brandy and Cigarettes" was a damn impressive piece of animation that felt reminiscent of Aardman's old animated takes on real-life interview audio.  It's rewarding, if you can get past the fact that it's about somebody dying of alcoholism, and there's usually only one way that story goes.

The show fills out the set with some not-quite-nominated shorts -- one of a woman fading away from dementia, one of a relationship quickly falling apart, and so on.  Lots of impressive and miserable work.

I guess it reflects how crappy we all felt in 2016.

Veep [season 1]
This is Armando Ianucci's single-camera comedy about Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as a particularly beleaguered Vice President.

Right before Veep, Mr. Ianucci was well-known for The Thick of It, a biting, cynical, vérité-style show about rough-and-tumble British politics, featuring Peter Capaldi as a political fixer who expertly snarled near-Deadwood-ian levels of profanity.  And Veep feels like an American take on The Thick of It -- and as the American take it feels a little calmer and nicer.  It seems to have undergone the same softening process that they put The Office through when they imported that show from the UK.

Of course, *now* this show seems almost halcyon.  Oh, they're arguing about bills?  They're worried about scandals?  They're bickering about promotions?  Oh-ho-ho, the cheery salad days of 2011.  Nobody's talking about mass protests, the basic breakdown of democratic institutions, and a clear and present danger of tipping into authoritarian rule?  Well, let's just serve up some mild tea and Pepperidge Farm cookies and settle in for a quiet night of harmless, 'aspirational' comedy.

And that's weird, because Veep clearly *wants* to have teeth.  But everyone feels, in retrospect, like they're fighting with kid gloves, and the absence of political parties gives the show a milquetoast point of view of "*shrug* I guess all politicians are equally bad, amirite?"  From beyond the looking glass in 2017, it feels more like "Friends, but with politicians".

All that said, it is very, very funny.  I mean, Jesus, when your supporting-cast bench includes Matt Walsh and Tony Hale, and your shooting style lets them improvise to some extent, you're going to get a phenomenal piece of comedy.  And Ianucci does a great job adapting his style of profane badinage to the speaking style he encountered in the US while researching In the Loop.  Plus, it's clearly drawing on how politics actually works, with the sort of back-room deals and back-stabbing squabbles that you'd expect in politics -- that is, in normal politics, when the whole system is *not* burning to the ground and inviting Nazis to the table.

And honestly, *all* of these factors work to its credit.  Watching a show about normal dysfunctional politics from this vantage point is fascinating, and reminds me just how funhouse-mirror and topsy-turvy our government has gotten.  Its cynicism, while dated, is still funny.  And the jokes are rock-solid.

So maybe it *does* deserve all those Emmys it's been getting?

For next week: I'll write about the government-surveillance audiocourse I've been listening to.  I'm still reading that book about the chemistry of cooking and I've started watching (and greatly enjoying) Keanu.  While exercising, I'm still watching season 10 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight.


[1] Though come to think of it, my favorite 80s movie is Die Hard, so maybe I misjudge myself.

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