Wednesday, 28 July 2010

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Inter-Inception It appears as if my wife and I are the only two people on the face of the planet who hated Inception. She walked out about an hour and change into it—immediately before the tedious exposition that made the rest of the film thuddingly predictable—and I followed shortly thereafter. Spoilers follow under the fold. As soon as the ersatz Ra's Al Ghul from Batman Begins got shot the film screamed its circularity. Once the rules about dying in one dream level were explained, the mechanism of that circularity became obvious, as did the fact that the "cliffhanger" would consist of whether or not Cobb was really in the really real world or just in another dream. Which is pot-logic; by which I mean, the sort of thing you say when you're listening to Floyd in your dorm and everyone has their own bowl and is abusing it. "Man, but what if this was all, like, a dream?" "I know, dude, but what if it's not even a person's? What if we're all, like, in a dog's dream?" "And the moment it wakes up to lick its balls? We like cease to exist?" "That is deep, dude." "Totally." It's an infuriatingly stupid conceit, and asking the audience to accept it in order to make a film work is insulting.* I'll admit that film was finely composed: the plot circled back perfectly, i.e. the timing of the van versus the timing at the hotel versus the timing at the fortress and then Limbo. Limbo. What to say about that? The less more likely the better. Instead, I'll just note that psychological complexity in this film was figured like a wedding cake: "depth" literally entailed layers stacked one atop the other, such that the "deeper" one went, the "deeper" one was. Which is deep, dude. But the perfect circularity of the plot had another unintended consequence: the film felt like an exercise in empty formalism. I'm sorry, I misspoke: the film "felt" like nothing, because it generated sympathy for neither the characters nor the corporation at whose behest they toiled. When Nolan did attempt to make viewers care about the characters, he did so in the most grossly manipulative of manners: he killed a wife and quasi-orphaned some children. Only who cared? They weren't people so much as necessary elements of his orderly plotting, without whom he couldn't have knocked over that first domino. "Dominoes" aren't the operative metaphor here, though. Inception was the equivalent of watching a grandmaster play an uninspired game against the village idiot. There's brilliance there, certainly, but it's pointless and wasted. *My personal theory is that no one had the gumption to tell Nolan this because The Dark Knight was the highest grossing film of all time.
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Creating Critical Distance; or, on Teaching Avatar: The Last Airbender As I noted earlier, I decided to teach an episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender in my "American Manga" class even though only half that title applies. (It's technically "American anime.") I chose the penultimate episode, "The Ember Island Players," because it 1) requires almost no knowledge of the series to understand and 2) it performs the show's fraught relation to its Japanese forebears. I'll tackle the first item today, the second tomorrow. Before I continue, I'll add the same caveat I have to all these analyses designed for freshmen-level composition courses: they're designed for freshmen-level composition courses.* I'm attempting to model engaged cultural criticism for students who consider culture something to be passively consumed, i.e. I provide the tools then teach them how to construct a persuasive rhetorical argument.** On with the show: "The Ember Island Players" requires little knowledge of the series because it consists of the main characters watching a play that recapitulates it. All I need to tell the two students who haven't already seen every episode is that the kids are about to go to war with the Fire Nation, and that this play (as the title of the episode indicates) is being produced by a Fire Nation theater troupe. As soon as Sokka—the Zeppo of this crew—discovers the poster, the difference between the kids: And their on-stage equivalents becomes clear: Sokka and his sister, Katara, are being played by adults, and Aang, the titular Airbender, by a woman. The episode is as committed to verisimilitude (or a realistic representation the series' established aesthetic) as the average Elizabethean drama in which the women were portrayed by young boys and the young boys were portrayed by old men. Just as with all theater—and by extension, all animated representations of it—the act of suspending disbelief is a wilfull one, a fact which "The Ember Island Players" takes pains to foreground. To wit: That would be curtain rising in the theater to reveal a highly stylized (ahem) representation of the first event in the series: Sokka and Katara on the verge of discovering Aang frozen in a block of ice. Note that the backdrop is clearly attached to a batten (its top is visible even when staring the stage straight on) and that the lighting above is purely functional (intended merely to illuminate the scene in a way that "suggests" the time of day). The stage is framed like a television, calling attention to the unreality of the events depicted on it; but it's framed like a television on a television, which should (but often doesn't) call attention to the unreality of the events depicted on it. (Especially when they're animated.) Director Giancarlo Volpe has created a complex narrative situation that is simple enough for a child to decode. (Which is partly the point of recapitulating the narrative arc of a complex show aimed at children whose memory for nuances may yet be underdeveloped.) Not only is the viewer constantly aware that the on-stage narrative is constructed, Volpe...

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