Today we had a jolly Thanksgiving lunch at work, and tomorrow I'm going to try to compress a full work day, some initial Christmas shopping, and a trip to Nashville to see the family all into one day. I'd better hit the sack. Before I go, though, a few thoughts about the arts'n'entertainment on which I've been stewing.
I'm reading Richard Ford's short story collection "A Multitude of Sins." In many ways it's a kindred spirit with the work of two other authors I love, Carol Shields and Alice Munro. Yet I can't say I enjoy his work as much. I can't quite put my finger on it; maybe his prose is a little plainer. Maybe his characters are a little further from the type I enjoy reading about. There's a different kind of character evaluation going on in his work. It's got a brusqueness to it; I left the volume at work or I'd cite examples. But I think it's worth my while to finish the book. To paraphrase a recent Norman Mailer speech, great writing isn't just there to meet your immediate entertainment needs; it's there to live with you. Ford may not brighten my day the way Munro and Shields do, but he resonates with me on the same level they do, and that's the greater accomplishment. He knows how to explain and express some of the deeper elements of life and human relations, and I really feel like I learn a little with every story. I never finish a book out of a sense of bookworm obligation, but I'll finish it out of a sense of spiritual need.
I finished J. G. Ballard's The Drowned World last night; it's a sixties novel in which an environmental disaster causes global flooding and high temperatures. When Ballard writes about peoples' slow descent into what he terms a new psychology (a sort of sun worship that ties into an embryonic biochemical drive) I'm entranced. When he describes the choreography of the action as people navigate around a sunken London, I'm bewildered. He shifts tenses in ways that throw me right out of the story, leaving me wondering if he was a little weak on tenses or if he was really sophisticated and I'm the one who's weak. I don't have these problems with his later writings, so either he got better or he just clicked into a style I could follow. The novel is also chock full of primal negro savagery, although I imagine Mr. Ballard, who's unquestionably my intellectual superior, has become more enlightened since the sixties.
I watched the last episode of Rahxephon last night; Rahxephon is one of those Giant Robot animes. You know Neon Genesis Evangelion? A crash course for those who don't (And BTW there's a billion web sites where you can read about these shows, but presumably if you're reading this blog at all it's because you're interested in my take on things more than the subjects themselves...) Neon Genesis Evangelion was a Giant Robot cartoon series that was masterminded by Hideaki Anno, an animator who didn't want to make giant robot cartoons. He wanted to do a drama about the angst of life, but toy manufacturers don't sponsor shows like that. So he used the Giant Robot (or Mecha) genre as a Trojan horse (Trojan robot?) to get on the air at all. It was a hugely popular show (around the mid-nineties) that had two effects on popular anime, the first minor, the second major. It upgraded the Jungian aspect of the mecha anime (the giant robots the cute but troubled teen pilots use are basically symbols of puberty writ large) and it downloaded the concerns and techniques of nouvelle vague filmmaking into pop anime. Granted, it did the latter in an often clumsy and clunky way, but it created a demand for more challeging anime that has influenced anime for the better. A movie sequel (End of Evangelion) tidied up the fumbled, bungled or abandoned narrative threads and thematic elements of the show, but in an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink fashion. It was like they were afraid if they left an idea out of the film they'd never get another chance, so they threw a lot of stuff into it, resulting in a semi-brilliant semi-dopey mishmash. Still, with all its faults, Eva suggested, if not exemplified, some fresh approaches for anime.
Rahxephon is the show for people who think Eva was a great mecha show that screwed up by trying to be arty. It's largely a buff and wax on Eva; sometimes it seems like the makers had no intention of copying Eva; it's just that Eva was the only show they'd ever seen and they didn't have any other model for what a show could be. Other times it seem like if Eva had talking dogs, Rahxephon has whispering kittens. If Eva had clogging, Rah has techno-squaredancing. If Eva had Free Candy Day, Rah has Complementary Ice Cream Weekend.
But Rah's not a ripoff, somehow; despite a hundred overly-familiar elements it manages to create a bit of an individual identity. Its like the Monkees of Mecha. Unlike Eva, which eventually lets its improvised plot threads get snarled, only to treat that snarl like a Gordian Knot, Rahxephon has a carefully worked-out double acrostic plot scheme that pretty much works (although I'm the worst person for spotting plot holes, so don't trust me on that.) The final episode is like a reconsideration of Eva's final episode, which was basically Last EST Session at Marienbad with some Ranma spliced in. (Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi, another series from the makers of Eva, also has an improved Eva-style ending.)
But I prefer Eva. Even in its filler episodes there's the sensation that the folks behind the show are striving to give you your money's worth. Sometimes they fail you, but they never short you. Even when they fall on their faces it's because they were trying for something impressive. Rahxephon's a little too carefully worked out; in some episodes you can imagine the creators thinking "We're only scheduled to hit two plot points this episode, so we gotta do a lot of vamping this week." Really, there's a ton of padding. The best episodes can stand with the best Eva episodes, but a bad Eva episode still has some gonzo elements that make it interesting; the weaker episodes of Rahxephon are just... weak. Rahxephon is tidier than Eva, but Eva was the breakthrough.
Enough of that; you want to know about the Gormenghast Opera soundtrack, right? Well, I'm pretty ignorant about opera in general, so I really don't have much business evaluating this, but I really like it. I've been interested in musicals most of my life, and many of the songs on this album could work just fine with a more musical-comedy vocal approach. Still there's a power to operatic vocals that is unique. When I studied singing under the dear departed Andy Gainey I tried my hand at some arias. As I believe he told me, I'd never, ever get to the point where I could do these well, but I'd learn by doing. He was right. The melodies may sound pretty darn simple, but singing them with that full-bodied opera voice, with correct enuciation, is such a vocal workout... As for Gormenghast, the lyrics are in english, and are brilliant distillations of the novel's implications, without ever directly quoting Peake's prose. I intend to buy a few of librettist Duncan Fallowell's books. A sample lyric: "I swoon at the thought/of thighs swimming in port/or a quivering portion/of pallid abortion/because veal to be right/must be unborn and white/with veg round the edge/to assist the excreta/of this humble meat eater." I'll save any further notes for a later post (I also hope to comment on BBC's radio adaptation of Gormenghast soon) but I'll add that nothing's sexier than dueling coloraturas.