“Don’t look into a room that’s full of fire and say, ‘You can go in that room and you’ll be fine.’ Say instead, ‘There’s fire in the next room. We’re going to calmly figure out how to get out of here.'”
If it’s ever unclear where my fascination with the tools of creative constraint came from, this process overview video about my uncle John Andrew Dixon’s collage work en plein air should provide a strong clue.
The ceiling of the bridge on the Enterprise 1701-D has not, I feel, had sufficient love bestowed upon it. I am very fond of all the purplish-gray, padded-upholstery, conference-hotel interior design elements of TNG, but their relationship with the progress of aesthetic trends in this century has not been entirely amicable or graceful. But the ceiling I’m talking about doesn’t seem dated or even retro, perhaps because it started as retro: I’m no expert, but to me this design reads as pretty much straight Art Nouveau.
That’s actually from the rebuild they did for Generations (1994), but it’s the best view I can find from an actual photo. Most of what shows up in image searches now is from fan CGI recreations, but I think the quality of light and material you can see there are an important part of what I’m talking about. It’s of a piece with the rest of the set, but it also looks like something set apart. Here’s a partial perspective from an actual episode.
I noticed this angle while watching “Descent” with Kat, whose enjoyment of TNG is mild and reserved largely for the characters of Lore and Hugh. It was the first time I’d realized that the center of the ceiling is actually a porthole with stars in it. There’s a helpful writeup about the origins of the design on Forgotten Trek, but it focuses more on the production history than on concept artist Andrew Probert’s thought process.
It doesn’t address this either, but I suspect that the production function of the ceiling as a stage light was pretty helpful. While it looks like at least in the first season, they did set up lights for each individual shot the way one normally does on a soundstage, the show’s primary set also had a built-in hemispherical softbox! The crew could bounce flattering light on multiple sides of an actor’s face without having to do anything special or worry about lamp stands getting in the shot. Meanwhile, the science station alcoves in the back are shielded from that soft light by the overhang and can be lit by monitors, from underneath, for increased drama whenever Geordi tells the captain that teching the tech tech is worth a shot.
I really wonder if Ron Moore was thinking about the soft light of that design, two shows later, when they came up with the layout of the Battlestar Galactica CIC.
I say this with love: it is an inferior design, at least in terms of pure spatial reference. I watched every single episode and webisode of BSG, and I never had any idea what the horizontal axes of this room were supposed to be, or what most of the people on screen were doing. The nice thing about having all the chairs turned in the same direction as Picard when he points at his big tv-windshield and says “go” is that, as an audience member, you don’t have to guess whether that’s the front of the spaceship. Sure, maybe it makes military sense that the CIC would be buried in the deepest and most armored part of a battlestar, rather than having a big round window on top of it. But in effect it often felt more like they were sitting around somewhere underground, not charging into the fray or leaping through the fracking galaxy.
As pieces of functional stage go, though, the CIC poetically inverts the bridge in a way that works well. Its ceiling is a pit of darkness; almost every light on set faces upward or bounces off the floor, casting faces into shadow. Maximum drama at all times! In Star Trek, the captain can always look around and see the face of someone who’s going to give him a suggestion for the problem at hand. But in BSG, everyone keeps their eyes down, because they all know none of their answers are going to be good ones.
Last year I wrote about an Ars Technica article that appealed to technical experts for help perfecting every last possible system involved in emulating the Super Nintendo. I think it’s clear from that post that I felt a certain envy of the sense of purpose conveyed by its author, byuu, who also went by Near and by Dave. But I remember thinking, too, that their saying “I’m getting older, and I won’t be around forever” was a little surprising to read from someone deeply invested in a video game system from the 1990s. I’m getting older too, but not quite to the point of hurrying to put a capstone on my legacy yet.
Near was indeed not much older than me, but they meant what they said. This week, after years of organized and escalating cruelty directed at them and at their loved ones, they took their own life.
The purpose of a system is what it does. The purpose of the internet is in part to publish and distribute a unique and valuable life’s work. The purpose of the internet is also, in part, to torture people until they die. Sometimes it works.
Everybody I talked to in the course of reporting this story said some variation on “I hope Isabel is okay.” And she is. Sort of. In the months I’ve spent emailing Isabel Fall, she’s revealed herself to be witty and thoughtful and sardonic and wounded and angry and maybe a little paranoid. But who wouldn’t be all of those things? Yet I’m emailing with a ghost who exists only in this one email chain. The person who might have been Isabel has given up on actually building a life and career as Isabel Fall. And that is a kind of death.
Emily VanDerWerff, whose writing I have long enjoyed, has a piece of extraordinary nuance, precision and grace there. I’m grateful that Kat nudged me to read it. If you haven’t read it already, I would take it as a personal favor if you do.
As of yesterday we were supposed to be married.
I didn’t even want to wait that long, really. After I proposed, Kat pointed out that a standard year of engagement and planning would put us right back in a Chicago winter, which offers logistical difficulties; I said, okay then, why can’t we just go ahead and get married in the fall? But Kat’s season is really summer. We settled on what is, often though not always, the first nice weekend in spring. We knew it was a gamble on the weather, but we didn’t know quite what else the stakes comprised.
It’s very beautiful outside right now. That die came up lucky. But late in the summer of 2020, with no coherent leadership and no clear timeline for when it might be safe to see our loved ones again, we took a deep breath and told our ceremony venue, our reception venue, and our caterer to kick us down the road to March 2022 instead.
There are few things I have ever wanted as much and as long as I have wanted to be married to Kat. I really hope this year won’t be quite as long as the past one, but it won’t be short. I’ll be forty before my wedding instead of after. It’s an arbitrary number, but it still brings home, to me, the cost of a lost year of one’s life.
Last night we got dressed up for a delivery dinner of fancy mushroom buns and congee, and Kat brought me a bouquet of flowers, surprising me the way she does every single time. Today we sat in the sun six feet from two of our closest Chicago friends and raised plastic cups of champagne. I still don’t feel quite to the point where I can even start grieving our losses. But oh, God, despite our shaggy hair and hollow eyes and aching hearts, I feel the sheer luck by which we have stayed well and safe this long as a weight upon me too.
There was a span of about six hours after I posted my most recent entry where I used “former” in place of “latter” before I realized and edited it, and I’m still bothered about it. If you thought I was saying something weirder than usual last time, let’s just assume that was why.
The Man from Hong Kong (1975): Streamed via 36 Cinema with live commentary from returning champion Dan Halsted and this movie’s director, Brian Trenchard-Smith, who was considerably the more verbose of the two. Sammo Hung did the fight coordination (and appears as a character getting the crap kicked out of him by police) for this movie, its lead was a veteran Hong Kong superstar, and Trenchard-Smith clearly did his homework studying the Shaw Brothers canon. The fundamentals are all there: locked-down camera, wide angle to let the audience read the fights, respect for screen direction and the 180-degree rule, long shots with a tacit rhythm of impact, serious and committed stunt performances… but it doesn’t work. I can’t quite say why! Maybe because we’re not given much motivation for the action, and because the “hero” never pets a figurative dog. Or maybe there’s just an emergent magic in the mechanics of a good martial arts movie that is easier to notice when it’s missing than to parse out when it whisks you along.
It is interesting that this Australian production from 45 years ago gave the Chinese star in a majority-white cast the kind of violent and sexual agency usually reserved for white characters like James Bond. But I don’t like most James Bond movies either.
My Lucky Stars (1985): This was another 36 Cinema stream, and it was even more disappointing! I was pretty excited that this one had not only Sammo Hung but Jackie Frickin Chan, and that it featured commentator Scott Adkins, a stuntman turned filmmaker who action nerds love to nerd out about for sparking a direct-to-video action movie renaissance. Adkins clearly does know his stuff, and I liked the details of stunt work he pointed out; his fellow commentator Frank Djeng filled in a lot of cultural context for the movie, its origins, and its place in the stars’ careers, which was a good balance.
Unfortunately, the movie sucks, with all the stunts (and the entirety of Chan’s role) confined the intro and ending, while it spends the long middle section on broad comedy that features a lot of groping. Also, Adkins dropped an r-word joke which took my opinion of him right through the floor, and moderator Mustafa Shaikh failed to address it. Djeng was the only one who came off well.
- The Holiday (2006): A feature film in which noted actor Jack Black portrays the human manifestation of someone typing the word “*smile*” into an email.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018): I love James Baldwin, and I love Barry Jenkins, and it still took me two years to work up the courage to watch this.
Weathering with You (2019): Whiiiiich brings us to this movie about youth, pain, and climate change. It is also fifth in a series of “bittersweet, moving anime movies about adolescent feelings as crystallized through a speculative fiction device which I watched with Kat and her friends Courtney and Kailey, which activity has delivered some of my favorite moments in the last few months.” Sort of a sequel to Your Name. (2016), in the same way that 2046 (2004) is considered a sequel to In the Mood for Love (2000), in that I-get-it-but-my-personal-canon-reserves-final-judgment.
Your Name was striking for how well-balanced and commingled its bittersweetness was: both sides of that emotion arose from the same events. This movie has a bitter plot, and a sweet plot, and they are entwined, but that is different. There’s an anger running through it, as in “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” that demands its own space. I took Your Name. right on the chin, but this one goes for the gut.
Quality animation takes so much time and labor that when I think about cartoons that enact their story beats in the first way that comes to mind—or the second, or third—I don’t get it. When the rate of production is measured in days per second, not books per year, why would a writer take shortcuts? Why resort to cliche—a term that now makes me envision a pre-set line of type—when people are going to take your plan and turn it into calligraphy? One of the tendencies of Makoto Shinkai’s work that I respect most, so far, is that he likes to set you up for a plot point, and deliver it—but take a fourth route to get there, or skip right by it to the consequence and let you fill in the missing frames. It demonstrates trust in the audience without resorting to the oblique or cryptic.
I know (now) that Shinkai has been compared to Hayao Miyazaki, and has demurred about it, because he writes and directs popular animated features about young people with environmental messaging. That is a pretty small demographic to belong to, but their movies don’t look or sound very similar at all: they’re as different as they are alike on the surface. The directorial trait where they overlap most, to me, is that neither lingers on the downbeat of resolution that has already landed. They know how much each frame of the work costs, and when they need to stay with an emotion long enough for it to register, they tend to cut it close. They don’t seem to feel they have the luxury of grinding out their points; they just aim to pierce you.
A Goofy Movie (1995): I think Pocahontas (1995)—oh boy, speaking of cartoon scripts that resort to the trite—was the last Disney animated movie I saw in a theater until Frozen (2013). I never watched A Goofy Movie, because I never watched the Goof Troop TV series, and because of that in turn I didn’t remember that it actually came out two months before Pocahontas. This is a silly but sweet story about fathers and sons learning to listen to each other and express their love aloud, and that much holds up a lot better than…. you know, romanticized colonial violence. (Whether Max and Goofy are better read as Black characters or as minstrels is a debate I don’t think I can meaningfully contribute to.)
Moonlight (2016) and Medicine for Melancholy (2008), for all that they put me through many feelings, seemed to me to feel gently toward the viewer. The dreamlike colors and structures and the occasional ellipsis offered me just enough aesthetic distance to take in the sweetness of their stories along with the pain. If Beale Street Could Talk is if anything more elliptic, more dreamlike, but I couldn’t find any emotional distance from its story at all! Jenkins situates some of the crueler events from the book (which include multiple sexual assaults and a suicide) behind verbal and facial implication, which I think earned him criticism because others read that as excising them. But the choice didn’t make them land any softer on me. This movie made me feel like pine under a chisel.
And still, there’s nothing harsh about it. Jenkins makes beautiful people look halfway deific, and the skill with color, saturation and tone that you’d expect from him is all here. All the physical violence is kept offscreen–though there is one particular moment of violence deferred, when frustration leads Stephan James to smash a pack of hamburger against an alley wall, that feels like you could derive a full semester’s worth of film theory from it. The score by Nicholas Britell is tender, and has some of my favorite horns I’ve ever heard. It’s prominent, which I don’t always like, but in this case it’s almost used as a reassurance. Every time the narrative covers some cruelty and then jumps in time to a softer moment, the rising main melody is there to pick you up with it.
My theater professor Tony used to talk about the temperatures of different media, in terms of the emotional intensity they readily evoke in an audience; a novel is a cool medium, television and film are warmer (and—he liked to say—live performance is the hottest of all). This is one of the Baldwin books I haven’t read yet, and he has a great sense of play in his language even when he’s driving things home, which you can hear in the lines excerpted as Kiki Layne’s voiceover narration. All of that is to say I don’t know if reading the original work is as hard-hammering, or hammers in the same way. I think it’s possible that Jenkins got this story boarded, took its temperature, and then worked on dialing it down a few degrees—implicating, reassuring, limning with gold. But in 2020, with the world on fire, it seared me anyway.
I was surprised that the studio was able to put out two theatrical animated features in the same year at all, though, on top of their direct-to-video schedule. It turns out this one was kind of an experiment—while the main Disney studio in Burbank was focused on Pocahontas, they put a crew of a dozen Burbank storyboard and key animators on this one, and outsourced the rest of the work to subsidiary studios in Paris, Sydney and Toronto. Pocahontas, which I think stands up much better visually, had a $55 million budget; A Goofy Movie was made for $36 million, which it just barely recouped in box office. International exchange rates, cheap voice actors, and ten minutes’ difference in runtime can account for some of that budget gap, but the rest of it makes for a very visible absence. One scene here will have stylized water animation, another will have character shading, but neither gets both. Remote work was a lot harder in 1994! The final product is a pretty valiant paste job, but it doesn’t cover the seams. As Shinkai and Miyazaki would likely point out, the cost-per-frame of solid technical animation seems resistant to compression, which reinforces my previously stated admiration for lower-budget work like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006).
I wonder how many times Disney tried this kind of outsourcing model for theatrical features between the late 90s and their return to form for The Princess and the Frog (2009). That line of thinking made me poke around again in the interest of digging up buried documentary The Sweatbox (2002), and just as of July, it seems to have reappeared on youtube! I’ll see if I can review that before it gets taken down again.
- The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006): Second in a series of “bittersweet, moving anime movies about adolescent feelings as crystallized through a speculative fiction device which I watched with Kat and her friends Courtney and Kailey, which activity has delivered some of my favorite moments in the last few months.” Not quite the technical or emotional haymaker of Your Name. (2016), but why only compare it to the first movie in the series of “bittersweet, moving anime movies about adolescent feelings as crystallized through a speculative fiction device which I watched with Kat and her friends Courtney and Kailey, which activity has delivered some of my favorite moments in the last few months?” I wish I’d known about this movie a decade ago, when it became clear that the entire genre of Teen Movies had given way to the juggernaut of Young Adult Adaptations—two ways of telling a story with the same target audience but very different ways of getting there. I think this story draws a bridge between those approaches pretty well. The animation style is interesting: I’d bet it made heavy use of rotoscoping, there’s some frame-stretching every time they go to slow-mo, and the lighting on most of the characters is quite flat, all of which are ways to save money in production. But assuming that was a budget decision, I think it was a smart one, because it looks more stylized than cheap.
- A Whisker Away (2020): See this is what I was talking about with “a particular wistful, hazy-gold anime-style aesthetic” back in my review of Your Name. Third in a series of “bittersweet, moving anime movies about adolescent feelings as crystallized through a speculative fiction device which I watched with Kat and her friends Courtney and Kailey, which activity has delivered some of my favorite moments in the last few months” but also the one that skews youngest—more a middle grade story than a YA story, if that makes sense. It didn’t get me quite as much as the others, and I had some difficulty tracking the pace of events, but the plot threw me some good curveballs! I wish it had been distributed under a direct translation of its Japanese title, Wanting to Cry, I Pretend to Be a Cat.
- Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001): Same animation-watching crew, same country of origin, but quite different otherwise. Kat led me through the entirety of Cowboy Bebop: The Series back in the spring, a formative influence on her and on many of my friends which I’d never glanced at before. I liked it very much and I wish I’d watched it sooner, and yes, yes, Lisa et al, you were right to pester me about it. That said, I’m glad I got to watch this outside the context of its original release in September of 2001.
The movie amounts to an extra-long episode of the series with more money involved, and since it came out after the series ended—and was set partway through its chronology—it’s quite episodic. I was glad of the chance to hang out with all the characters again after the series conclusion, but that separation flattened its emotional impact. My least favorite TV trope is when the writers introduce their new OC, demand that we get emotionally involved in their story by having the whole recurring cast just react to them, and then heap pathos on whatever happens to them, from which we learn nothing about the main cast, and after which the guest is never mentioned again. It’s not exactly a Mary Sue—just a boring device that is invariably going to happen when you’re a writers’ room working on an episodic show. (This also happens a lot when you’re playing a tabletop RPG with the kind of DM who’s more interested in telling their own story than hearing yours.)
Anyway, this movie isn’t that, but its place in the canon means it can’t quite avoid touching the trope with one toe. But I had a great time watching it! The fight animation looks great, the backgrounds have a beautiful depth, and I got to hear Kat clap and cackle when Spike says “I love the kind of woman that can kick my ass.”
- To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995): Mmmaybe the first film focused on queer characters that I watched? Much like Paris is Burning (1990)—from which I’d bet it directly lifted its opening scene—it now seems clear that there is a missed opportunity here; RuPaul is the only actual drag queen with a (brief) speaking role. But I was glad to learn from this touching retrospective on how the film got made that its creation included and involved gay people, at least. And because of that I think it holds up pretty well. Mitch Kohn writes “the film itself may not have sparked much if any social change,” and indeed I don’t know about “sparked.” But it’s in part because of this movie that I grew up in small-town Kentucky perceiving drag as something fun and attractive, not menacing. I’m grateful for that, and fond of this.
- Notting Hill (1999): Caroline Siede’s AV Club series on romantic comedies, one per year, has been reliably great and insightful; after reading the linked article about Notting Hill I found myself nostalgic and talked Kat into watching it with me. She had never seen it; I remembered it fondly, but unlike To Wong Foo, the surface sheen is gone for me here.
During my most intense phase of teenage longing for heartache fiction, I was ready to project a lot of subtlety onto work that didn’t actually have much to offer. Even a few years later, I had figured out that ridiculous movies like In Love and War (1996) or Bed of Roses (1996) were not worth the feelings I had assigned to them—though While You Were Sleeping (1995) is still one for the ages. I don’t think WYWS is shot remarkably better than Notting Hill—though it does have a better score—and I don’t think Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts lack for chemistry and charm.
But one of a few things that has happened between my initial viewing of Notting Hill and the present day is that its writer, Richard Curtis, directed Love Actually (2003), which I have been made to watch several times and which I dislike more with each repetition. The similarities in stagy dialogue and artificial stakes are obvious now, and are more than enough to sink this movie for me. Its bravura long take introduced me to Bill Withers, though, once upon a time, and it is one bit that’s still worth watching.
- Shaolin and Wu Tang (1983): Man, it has been a very long time since I wrote about movies! One thing I started doing back in May is subscribing to a series of live-streamed movies through 36 Cinema, which is a spinoff from 36 Chambers, which as you might guess is a Wu-Tang production—specifically, one created by RZA and a startup marketing dude named Mustafa Shaikh. A link to the livestream costs ten bucks, but you’re not just watching the movie, you’re listening to live commentary from a couple of charming experts. For the first few, that was RZA himself, accompanied by Dan Halsted! You probably don’t know who that is, but he has made cameos in movie roundups of days past, because he’s the guy with the huge celluloid collection who programs and presents Kung Fu Movie Night at the Hollywood Theater in Portland.
I found this combination irresistible: two nerds who not only have decades of history with the genre, but have done a lot of work in their respective ways to honor it and introduce it to new audiences. They named appearances by veteran actors and talked about production history; Dan told stories about finding stacks of film reels in disused auditoriums and RZA pointed out different styles of kung fu in action. I learned a lot! Despite that, my full notes on the film read as follows: “this movie rules.”
- Shogun Assassin (1980): Same situation as above, except this time my notes read, in toto, “this movie rules so hard.” It actually comprises the opening of one Lone Wolf And Cub movie and the remainder of another in the same series, but it works really well! (And it was originally distributed by Roger Corman!) Because it’s a samurai movie, of course, not a kung fu movie, there’s lots of standing still while blood fountains out of people rather than intricately matching choreography. I never got into Lone Wolf or any of its various adaptations—I have a hard time with impassive, impenetrable protagonists, inasmuch as Ogami functions as a protagonist at all. But the use of film as a medium—composition, color grading, bold editing, even vignetting—is superb.
- March was mostly rewatches, and mostly for comfort. I got to show Kat Fargo (1996) and The Wind Rises (2013) for the first time, and The Matrix (1999) for her first time in decades. They helped. A little. But I don’t have much that is new to say about any of them.
- Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (2020): This was the one new movie we watched together, after much anticipation and delay—we had actually planned to see it in a theater in San Francisco the day we ended up scrambling out. Kat got me into Miss Fisher fandom years ago, and its gentle episodic nature and mildly puzzling setting have been a balm for many ails. The movie is clearly an indulgence for the cast, crew and fans: it does its job of seeing through some long-burning fuses and putting hundreds and hundreds of dollars of special effects up on the screen. But it is pretty much only an indulgence, I’m afraid! Trying to do Budget Indiana Jones while keeping focus on your white characters does not earn you catharsis in 2020.
- 2046 (2004): That was a lot of numbers in a row. When I heard that the sequel to In the Mood for Love (2000) was a science fiction movie, I was pretty excited, and I do like the way this story connected its genres with blurry lines and ambiguity—it feels like the kind of “slipstream” fiction that I associate with Kelly Link and Jonathan Lethem. But its effects and costumes seem chintzy to me in the futuristic sections, enough so that they’re jarring next to the rich, languid way Wong Kar-Wai dresses everyone and everything in his period drama. The rich, languid camerawork is still in welcome supply, though. And it’s a treat to see Zhang Ziyi doing better work than I’ve seen her allowed to do outside Crouching Tiger.
- Funny Girl (1968): Kat requested some Barbra Streisand musicals via my DVD Dot Com subscription, which made me realize that even though I really liked my mom’s Streisand albums at the peak of my theater-kid arc, I had never actually seen one of her movies. I didn’t even know that “People” or “Don’t Rain on My Parade” were from this. I also didn’t know it was long enough to require an actual, on-screen intermission. I enjoyed the simple, straightforward way the story was rooted in Fanny Brice’s Jewish identity, and it amused me how anachronistic Streisand’s costuming later in the film became, when she’s supposed to be glamming it up in the Jazz Age while wearing Day-Glo Mod dresses.
Your Name. aka Kimi no Na wa (2016): A couple years ago, when lo-fi chill hip-hop beats to relax study to 24/7 were starting to hit their stride, I began noticing a particular wistful, hazy-gold anime-style aesthetic emerge in the cover images my Youtube algorithm thought I should click. I took it for a trend in the zeitgeist from outside my usual sphere of awareness—I haven’t watched much anime, and it would have tied right in with the other strains of millennial nostalgia that have been making people lots of money for a few years now. I don’t think I was wrong on either count. But I do now think most of that visual influence came straight from this movie, which turns out to have beaten Spirited Away (2001) for the Japanese box office record. Its character design seemed very standard to me and its color palette is easy to copy, but the detail and effort in its animation are extraordinary, and a delight to watch.
I actually don’t want to tell you anything more than that, if you could see yourself watching it. I don’t usually care about spoilers, but I knew absolutely nothing about this going in and found myself thrilled with discovery as a result. It’s a story about youth in Japan, it’s bittersweet, and seriously, they took on a number of technical animation challenges and nailed them. Maybe I’m a sap for saying this, but on a first watch, this was instant all-time top ten material.
It’s possible there are people reading this blog from time to time who don’t really know me in person, so perhaps it will be nice to clarify something. The Kat person who comes up often in my writing these days, or sometimes without writing at all, the reason I moved back across the country, the light of my days, is the very same Kate who first popped up here a month shy of eight years ago. Did I have any idea back then that one day we’d be getting married and spending the rest of our lives together, you may ask rhetorically? And to that I can only say: yes, I did have that idea, in 2012. It was only an idea, but I had it, and then bit by bit and turn by turn the two of us made it steadily more real until it all came true.