Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Quick jottings

I liked this comic about the original Aeon Flux.

Another thing about that Girl group box: it consists mostly of forgotten songs that were never hits, most of which are better than four/fifths of the songs on the radio. It's a useful reminder of a truth we learned in high school: there's no direct relation between merit and popularity.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

One Kiss Can Lead To Another

In an unadvisable burst of reckless spending I have purchased the CD boxed set One Kiss Can Lead To Another, a collection of obscure and forgotten girl-group songs. It's pretty pricey but it works out to about a dollar a song, with a cool book and package to boot. I listened to the whole freaking thing today, and it was a blast. Never before have so many badass biker boyfriends gotten killed in motor vehicle accidents. Never before have so many boys treated girls' hearts like some kind of toy. Never before have so many instructions on how to do dances no one ever did been delivered (at least not since the Lambada.) Every third song unveils a singer who should be a star now, but isn't. Every fifth song has a gimmick so hokey that I'll listen to it again and again.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Thanksgiving and some links.

Thanksgiving was great! Seeing my family is always a pleasure (This was not always true when I lived with them, but 200 miles can really boost a relationship.) I ate a lot but didn't gorge myself, which is about the right balance for a happy holiday diet. Also we went to the Frist, a splendid Nashville art museum, and the results are in: I like the Impressionists better than the Hudson River School, although the HRS has its virtues. On the other hand it's indirectly responsible for Thomas Kinkaide. Ecch.

Instead of actual content I'm going to take the easy way out and post some links to amusing sites. Most of the following are not recommended for workplace viewing. None are porn sites or anything, but they are obvious wastes of time:

Seanbaby.com is a snarky humor site that derides cruddy pop culture artifacts of my generation's misspent youth. I haven't really looked at in in a while (I'm just scrolling down my bookmarks for this stuff, frankly) and I don't promise that it would make me hyperventilate with laughter the way it did back in 200- when I bookmarked it, but hey.

If you're not down with Perry Bible Fellowship then get smart! Admittedly this week's entry is a weak one, but most of them are at least cool looking.

Mattotti is an artist, illustrator and cartoonist who has often befuddled but never disappointed me. He's done work for the New Yorker, and some extraordinary comics.

Oblique Strategies Were created by celebrated musician Brian Eno and some other guy as a way to productively shake up the musicmaking process. They're just cards with odd pithy bits of advice for breaking out of creative ruts.

Mark Martin is a delightful cartoonist. Be sure to check his "Ditties" page for odd and occasionally good music.

Cool vintage european comics Odd and lovely stuff. Some of it's pretty spicy.

Readyourselfraw is a totally phat comics page. I come here regularly for info and recommendations. They've got interesting quote-packed lists of top comics pros' fave comics.

Sacred-texts is packed with interesting material. Check the Tolkien section for some fantasy classics online, including my high-school fave The Worm of Ouroboros.

Zombie Astronaut has old radio shows and such, mostly horror and SF. It doesn't update very often since Hurricane Katrina, but it's full of interesting stuff for the radio drama fan.

Old newspaper comics are better than what I imagine sex is like. YMMV.

Pokey the Penguin is from back in the DAY.

Comicsreporter.com may be of limited interest for people who aren't hardcore comics nerds, but Tom Spurgeon's reviews and commentary are often hilarious, and he's my fave comics reviewer.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

SCATOLOGY ORIGINAL FIGURE COLLECTION

I am sad. Why am I sad? Because SCATOLOGY ORIGINAL FIGURE COLLECTION is no longer available. This, for those of you who aren't in the know, was a series of anime figurines; you know, the pricey kitch statuettes of cute anime girls that you can buy at finer nerdcaves everywhere. Except these anime girls were dropping their drawers and pooping on the ground. I don't have or want whatever fetish inspired these, but I do have a fetish for the jaw-droppingly stupid, and this fit the bill. Amazingly they were actually really nice looking statuettes, poop aside; if the artist responsible had just made them hot girls instead of hot defecating girls he (I'm guessing about the "he" part, but it seems like a safe guess) might have moved more units. Sadly the old website is down; for some reason they just didn't sell, I guess. Don't think I wasn't tempted to buy one.

some stuff prior to stuffing.

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.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Raving, Lost

Remember Ravenloft? If you are or ever were a role-playing game nerd my age or older, you do. It was a Dungeons and Dragons module (A module being a prefabricated story setup on which to base a DND session) in which the premise was simple: Dracula-in-all-but-name has set up shop in a big old castle and you have to break, enter and dispatch. Most DND modules have similarly basic premises, but this module was different, and made a big splash at the time.

A few years back my old college role-playing group started a new campaign which alternated our DM's original adventures with old modules; it seemed like the perfect balance of fresh material (and our DM was very good) with nostalgic favorites. Only it turned out those old modules sucked; early role-playing was a real cottage industry, and the writers of those old modules were pretty much coasting on enthusiasm. A module should provide the basis for a really satisfying, unified experience of semi-improvised group storytelling but the early module designers basically knew nothing about storytelling, legend and lore, or medeval architecture, and it showed. All they knew was that they really dug hack fantasy. So we didn't really play these modules; we deconstructed them.

Not Ravenloft, though. It seemed to work on its own terms really well, and we played it on those terms. Perhaps Ravenloft was the first module designed by people who really knew how to make these things work as vehicles for truly satisfying role-playing sessions; if so, Ravenloft may be role-playing's D. W. Griffith moment; the moment someone fulfilled the form's implicit potential. Someone should, if someone hasn't, examine this in a scholarly way; what have been the key works in the development of role-playing games as a genuine artistic form?

It just recently occured to me that the tragedy of role-playing games is that from the beginning they were shackled to pedestrian, hack genre material. If Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had been as wide-ranging in their scope as Viola Spolin, RPGs may be a lot further down the road than they are. Or did RPGs need that genre connection as a selling point? Who can say. Something like Gurps, which allows for any genre but requires none, might have been a better way to start the RPG phenomenon.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Twists

Re: twist endings. This short film is by one of the judges of the latest Sidewalk Scramble. Talented young filmmaker J. K. cited it as the reason why he's glad this judge didn't care for J. K.'s Scramble entry. I have mixed feelings about the film-I think the visuals, while attractively photographed, are largely gratuitious; the film is essentially an audio story, and the narrator is awkward at best. But it got me thinking about twist endings. The best twist endings of O. Henry and Daphne Du Maurier weren't just surprising. They revealed something about the paradoxes of life. But it's all too easy to do twist endings which amount to little more than a shock. I think this film was striving for the kind of twist ending that comments on the ways life (and death) can pull the rug out from under us, but it was weakened by the vague nature of the twist. The climax seems like a post-it note reading "Insert lethal danger here." Ambiguity isn't the same as vagueness. The Du Maurier story "Escort" has a similarly surprising and ghoulish twist, but it is improved by the specificity of the menace and the way it directly undercuts the protaganists' expectations. I've been reading short stories by Alice Munro and Richard Ford lately, and they are particularly skillful at laying bare the ambiguity of life. They don't use twist endings exactly, but they demonstrate the paradoxical ways our goals, desires and assuptions get snarled. I think we need art that deals with the disparity between our agendas and our lives; twist endings can be useful tools toward that end, but they must reflect the paradoxes of life, not mere storyteller's cleverness, in order to do so.

On another subject, I listened to this radio show recently, and it got me thinking about the phenomenon of fanfiction in a more engaged and sympathetic way than I previously had. Heaven knows I don't want to read the stuff, but the guests talk about how fanfiction allowed women and other underrepresented voices to seize the means of production in a bootleg, DIY fashion in order to explore personal concerns within the context of established narrative formats. The host compares it to music; he cites classical composers reworking each others' motifs, and Coltrane's brilliant reworking of showtunes. I'd add punk and lowfi for its proudly unskilled appropriation of pop music, hiphop for sampling, folk for its community-centered interpretive approach... On the other hand a closer comparision can be made with filk songs, songs written by genre fans about genre subjects. Or karaoke, especially if you futz with the lyrics. (My friend "J'mza" once went karaoke-ing and did Alanis's "Thank you" with Pokemon characters- "Thank you Pikachu, Thank you Geodude...") And it's telling that the two fanfic writers on the show repeatedly refused to read any fanfiction aloud. They defended it as a cultural phenomenon but when pressed about the material as literature they hemmed and hawed around the unstated confession that even the best fanfic won't really survive scrutiny outside of a "hooray for us" circle of like-minded collage artists. This bashfulness was counterbalanced by the notion (which, to their credit, they merely cited rather than asserted) that fanficers are actually "purer" than the professionals who make the shows; after all the fans do it for love, while the pros do it for money and are therefore hacks. What a petulant way to deny one's dependence on those same pros, who, hacks or not, often deliver a better product than the fans... As a sometimes community theatre actor I certainly have a lot invested in "purely-for-love" artistic endevours, but I'm well aware that sometimes folks who do it for love aren't better equipped to do it well than the pros are. And my limited exposure to fanfic suggests that much of that fannish love is a solipsistic, selfish love. Would you rather watch the X-Files or read a story about me getting slapped around by a naked Agent Scully? I'd find it easier and more instantly gratifying to produce the latter than the former, but what good does that do anyone else?

One more thought on the subject before I go ponder that Scully scenario. While the guests refused to read any fanfiction, the show did have an actor reading an excerpt from an erotic but tasteful Star Trek slashfic that I actually found to be sweet. It dealt with body issues and tenderness in a way I found truly touching. Still, if I want to read substantial stories about human relations I can go to Carol Shields or Alice Munro and get the straight sauce... I'm also reading Dervish is Digital by Pat Cadigan; it's a delightful cyberpunk novel. As I listened to that show I thought: why is Pat Cadigan a professional cyberpunk novelist instead of a Neuromancer fanfic writer? Because she's really, really good.

On the other hand I'd rather listen to Beat Happening, with their barely-proficient playing, than pop bands with similar sensibilities but better chops. Why do I like the amateurish in music but dislike it in prose? It only just occured to me to ask that question, so I don't have any answers... Also: who am I, a blogger with a clunky prose style, to sneer at anyone else who engages in unprofessional solipsistic internet wordsmithing? Uh, well, I, uh... Lemmee go see if Mistress Scully has any answers.

P. S. Andrei Molotiu is a cartoonist-this comic of his really shook me up.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Ikkoku Again, Naturally

As long as I'm taking a wink-wink nudge-nudge approach to downloading boots of commercially unavailable material, here's
a low-quality but entertaining credits clip from Maison Ikkoku featuring the song "Alone Again, Naturally." Maison Ikkoku is a charming manga and a clunky anime, a romance that I fell in love with near the end of my college career. The clip includes direct visual quotes from some of the manga's cover illustrations. I'm quite taken with this clip because 1. it has a kind of animated graphic design approach that I enjoy (this approach reached its full flowering in the anime His and Her Circumstances) and 2. it's obvious the animators either didn't know or didn't care that the song is about suicidal depression. Anyway, I'm told the clip wasn't included in domestic releases of the Maison Ikkoku anime because of high licensing rights for the song, so in keeping with my dubious "bootlegging is a gray area if the material isn't for sale" ethic... check it out.

Peake Condition

Gwangi's Radio Review has links to MP3s of the BBC Radio Dramas of Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan and Gormenghast! If they'd sell it on CD I'd buy it, but until then these downloads will have to do. I haven't listened to them yet but that will soon change.

On top of that I found out today that there's a Gormenghast rock opera, composed by one of the guys from the great german band Can! I had a Can album in college that started with one of the most wonderfully distessing recordings ever made, Father Can't Yell. When the dorm neighbors got too loud I'd blast that item at top volume and they'd quickly concede defeat. As my then-roommate told me, they were nice guys who would have turned it down if I'd asked nicely, but asking nicely was too confrontational for a shrinking, wilting violet like me, so I used the passive-aggressive no-direct-contact approach instead.

Anyway I listened to the Amazon.com clip of a track from the album, and it was the perfect blend of opera vocals with techno instumentation. I ordered it at Laser's Edge, a fine local music shop, and soon I'll be posting a companion piece to my last look at Gormenghast, the books and the TV miniseries.

I've got a few musings on the subject of twist endings that I promised someone I'd make. But not tonight. Stay on my case, though. Don't let me punk out. I also wanna talk more about opera singing, but that too will have to wait until I'm not sleepy.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

What's the blather with Kansas?

So the Kansas school board has decided not only to allow Creationism-in-a-petri-dish in science classes, but to redefine science so that now your creation myth of choice is ScienceXtreme! Here's why it doesn't matter. If it weren't for Wizard of Oz, would you know there was such a thing as a Kansas? No you would not. I bet even the band Kansas named their band after the state only because of Dorothy Gale. I dunno, maybe they came from Kansas, but that's hardly a prerequisite for naming your band Kansas. Everybody in the band Asia came from Europe, so hey. Kansas gets more attention than it merits because it's mentioned in one of the all-time classic movie quotes, not because it has any significance in and of itself.

In the unlikely event that anyone from Kansas is reading this, lemmee just say that this is written in a jolly spirit; I'm from Alabama, so I know how it is to have one's state mocked. But Alabama's declined a bit in the great Hateful States competition; we used to do really horrible things out of bigotry and petulant pig-ignorance; now we just pretend Ex-Judge Roy Moore is a moral hero. It's a bit of a dropoff; we've gone from bigoted monsters to harmless figures of fun. And of course we have stickers on biology texts that point out that the contents are only theories (we could put a similar sticker on bibles, but we won't) so sure, we're really just as backwards as Kansas.

So why don't Alabamians and Kansians join together in mocking Oklasantorumhoma? Increase the peace, I say.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Persona

Sorry it's been a while since my last post, but hey, everything's been placid. I just watched Persona by Ingmar Bergman. I watched it in college and retained almost nothing from it. This time it made more of an impression: it speaks to my own sense of isolation, lack of volition, and impending death in a way that few films would want to approach. I'm trying to reconstruct the cognitive operating system I must have been using in college, but I'm glad I'm not so obtuse now. It reminds me of all the (mostly young) anime fans I've met who can't process shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain, shows which try to harness popular anime to the concerns and tactics of art film, with mixed but intriguing results. I wonder how many of those young fans will revisit the shows with fresh understanding, later in their lives?