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Making Memes in the Time of Coronavirus: A Note on Process

Introduction:

A week or so ago, an idea hit me: why not re-write the lyrics of Peter Gabriel’s “I Have The Touch” to make them be about social distancing? Peter Gabriel’s early solo work is littered with songs of paranoia, isolation, panic, and fear. One could easily play with this material to reflect the current conditions of the coronavirus pandemic. So I set out to do so.

I turned a song about the desire for contact and repurposed it to reflect the lack of contact occurring during social distancing. This blog post charts all the work it took to make this happen, from the initial idea, to producing a fully realized piece of media. We’ll begin with a chronological look at my workflow, and finish with some reflections on what I learned throughout the process.

Timeline:

Friday, March 21st: The idea first springs to mind. Instead of “Shake those hands” in the chorus of “I Have The Touch,” I record a version saying “Wash those hands”? I came up with a few ideas for lyrics.

But where to find an instrumental track of the song? Thus begins a long rabbit hole regarding a piece of lost media –  an 80s direct to video VHS about the famous Japanese puppeteer Tsujimura Jusaburo that uses instrumental versions of Peter Gabriel songs. Titled Jusaburo, this strange piece of media will be the subject of a future blog post.

Regardless, I secure an instrumental version of the song thanks to the clever searching of my friends Evelyn and Zoë – follow them on Twitter! The track cuts off halfway through the song, but seeing as it’s the only instrumental track available, it will have to do.

Tuesday, March 24th: This is the first day I actually get serious about production. I finalize all the lyrics, and begin recording the vocal track in my recently cleaned and emptied living room. I use QuickTime Player to record the audio, trying the built-in microphones of both my 2011 MacBook Pro microphone and my Sony MDR-ZX310 headphones. My Mac’s recording was tinny and caught too much of the ambient room sounds, while my headphones produced a warmer sound, if a touch muffled. I consult with my friends, and they agree to go with the headphones. I record 8 versions of my newly re-written lyrics with my headphones, changing the lyrics part-way through to add a line about flattening the curve of coronavirus.

Once satisfied with the audio recording, it was time to start mixing and editing. I knew that this would have to take place in video form (video is key to virality), so I needed some sort of software to work with.

The first of many issues began here. Ideally, I should just use iMovie, the free Apple software that came bundled with my 2011 MacBook Pro, right? Well, I had removed that software years ago to make room on my hard drive. I try to download it again from the App Store, only to find my computer specs were too outdated to download the software.

Thus begins the search for editing software. I download Davinci Resolve, a free and respected software, only to find that the software could not find any opencl capable gpus. In other words, there was an issue I could not comprehend or fix, so I uninstall.

I then download Open Shot Video Editor, and I could actually get it to work. Better yet, I could actually open the software! But it is too simplistic and unable to edit in fine detail. Uninstall.

Finally, there is AVID Media Composer. I was actually trained on AVID in undergrad in my only media production class. I sign up for a 30 day free trial. It takes over an hour to download. I take a nap.

I also download GarageBand (another application I had discarded years ago to make space on my hard drive), thinking I could use it to mix the audio I recorded. Unfortunately, in order to use it, I would have to record the audio through the program, which would have meant more recording sessions I didn’t care to do again.

Wednesday, March 25th: Post production begins. I use the Photoshop-like application Pixelmator (something I’m actually decently proficient in) to edit the album art of Peter Gabriel’s Security to add my twitter handle. I then use QuickTime Player of the edited image to produce a screen capture as my “footage.” I want to jump into editing, but need to relearn everything I was taught in 2012. I watch a five-part series on how to “Get Started Fast with AVID Media Composer.” It takes up time and delays my progress, but it was necessary for using the software going forward.

Thursday, March 26th: I try to begin editing today, but AVID isn’t working. What could it be? I download Open Shot again in mild panic and frustration, hate it again, and uninstall it again. I then realize that I didn’t have my external hard drive plugged in (where a lot of the AVID files are being stored). I plug it it, and AVID opens without a hitch.

Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 8.49.09 PMWell, that’s not entirely true. AVID always warns me that I don’t have the required 8GB of RAM to run, but I proceed anyway. This makes the entire editing process like pulling teeth: playback of my edits often halt after a few seconds, the software slows my computer, but I press on. I have a meme to make.

Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 9.28.31 PM

A screenshot of the editing process

Thus begins hours of editing. I slowly relearn the system as I edit the instrumental track, my vocals, and the edited album art footage, with the original song serving as a guide to synchronize everything together. Throughout the editing process, I finally figure out:

  • how to get waveforms to show on my audio tracks
  • how to split up tracks, and trim
  • how to fade in and out of the footage and audio
  • and more!

Once I finish the edit, I feel incredibly accomplished. Then I realize I still need to add the captions. What use is a lyrics-based joke video if there aren’t any captions? I get back to work. After figuring out how to add the text, I work to figure out how to export it. I began this project with a terribly low-quality image of the album art (which is low-res to begin with), so this constrains the video quality and final output.

I celebrate with my friends on a job almost done. Zoë reminds me that I need a clever title image if this is going to get any traction. I sigh, return to my room, and open up Pixelmator. I add a facemask to an iconic image of Peter Gabriel (from his So album era). It looks so good I regret not making this the main image for the entire video, but doing so will require more work, and it feels too late now.

I upload the final video YouTube and Twitter. I try to upload to Instagram, but the app does not take .MOV files. I download Wondershare UniConverter to convert .mov to mp4. But the software requires purchase if you want to convert your full video. I uninstall in frustration. I google search again for .mov to .mp4, find a simple website, and convert the footage. I still have trouble uploaded to instagram as a standalone post, but I am able to add it as a story. I go to bed.

Concluding remarks:

You may be wondering why I went through this production process with such meticulous detail. I wrote this because I wanted to illustrate that the actual production process (especially for someone half-trained in media production at best) is often full of dead-ends, frustrating break downs in production, and limitations in hardware and software that significantly shape the production process and final output. If only I could use the lab equipment at my university! Now that I’ve tried my hand at media production, I feel much less timid, and am much more eager to try producing more things.

A list of applications and other equipment used to produce a video

A list of everything used or tried in the process of making this video.

What did I learn from this? AVID is a bitch, for one, but works quite well once you know how to actually use it. I also learned its best to plan out everything you will need to use in advance. This sounds obvious, and anyone training in media production knows this, but this relates to people who want to make quality memes as well. Think about the space, equipment, software, hardware, and other things you will need (time, energy, etc.). Knowing what I know now, I would have done things differently. But that’s always going to be the case, so really the point is to constantly try new things. Every step is going to improve your quality of work if you take the time to reflect on the production process.

Looking at my video, I know I could go back and edit in my high-quality image of Peter Gabriel with the face mask to make the image a little more palatable. I could buy a decent microphone and record the audio in GarageBand, and add some much needed reverb to my vocals. I could do a lot of things to make the video even better. But this would take more time and possibly money, and if I’ve learned anything from this production process, it’s that I also need to know when to stop and say “good enough.”

Five Anime To Watch After Steven Universe: Future

Steven Universe Asteriod in Love Land of the Lustrous

Steven Universe ends tonight with its final episodes of its sequel limited series, Steven Universe: Future. The series as a whole is going down as a landmark series in animation, queer representation, and just overall good storytelling. It’s a beloved series that’s going to leave an indelible mark on its fans, many of whom will likely be looking for similar television shows to consume its conclusion.

Before rewatching Steven Universe again, consider these five anime series to help fill your content needs. Why anime in particular? Anime’s influence on Steven Universe has certainly been written about in a few places. But I feel attention to this interesting influence has waned in recent years, so I want to 1) bring back some critical attention to a few particular anime series that influenced the development of Steven Universe, and 2) encourage North American-based consumers to stretch themselves a bit more and watch more transnational animation content. Without further ado, here is the list!

1. Land of the Lustrous (Hoseki No Kuni, 2017)

Phos Shattered in Land of the Lustrous

Phos shattered in Land of the Lustrous

If you loved: Cute female gems envisioning alternative forms of life

Where to Watch/Buy: Stream on Amazon Prime/ Buy at RightStuf

This is perhaps the most obvious recommendation: it’s a series about queer, non-binary fighting gems! How more Steven Universe can you get? Michelle Villanueva has written an excellent run-down of the series and how it compares to Steven Universe here,  but I want to draw attention to what’s been less discussed: how this series envisions forms of non-human life through animation.

Both Steven Universe and Land of the Lustrous animate decidedly non-human figures (in each case, gem/jewel beings), and their life in a post-apocalyptic world. While Steven Universe takes place thousands of years after the Diamonds ravage Earth (and all Gem life) with their Corrupting Light, producing a radically different geography, Land of the Lustrous is set in a far, distant future where the Earth had been struck six times by meteorites, reducing all land to a single coast, with new life emerging as immortal jewels. What intrigues me is how each series are radically similar (post-apocalyptic world, radically transformed Earth, gem people), and how each series envisions forms of non-human life through animation. Animation as an art form has the ability to produce any kind of world, be it the quirky Hollywoo of Bojack Horseman (2014-2020), the stark simplicity of Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow (2015), or the historical materialist environments of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997). Animation’s world-building ability produces new opportunities to envision alternative forms of life, and produce new bonds between ourselves and our environment. Land of the Lustrous does just this, through non-human life, post-apocalyptic world-buidling, and innovative 3D animation.

Another similar recommended series: Flip Flappers (2016)

2. Revolutionary Girl Utena (Shōjo Kakumei Utena, 1997)

Utena protects Anthy in revolutionary Girl Utena

Utena protects Anthy in Revolutionary Girl Utena

If you loved: Magical girls surrounded by rituals and symbolism

Where to Watch/Buy: Stream on YouTube/ Buy at RightStuf

Revolutionary Girl Utena is ultimately about teenage quest for freedom and and a queer future. Director Kunihiko Ikuhara’s Revolutionary Girl Utena is the most well known influence on Steven Universe, mostly due to the clear references made towards the series. If you loved Steven Universe‘s layers of symbolism, metaphor, and foreshadowing, as well as its magical girl genre-bending, this series is a must watch.

I’ve written a book chapter where I argue that Steven Universe‘s queer representation is specifically influenced by Ikuhara. This emerges in a few ways, but I’ll focus on one here: weapons and the materiality of bodies. In Steven Universe, gems drawn their weapons. Each weapon is unique to their gem type, and reflects their personality. For example, Amethyst has a whip, which reflects her wild and spontaneous nature. This comes straight from the second arc of Utena, where characters draw swords from each other, whose design subtly reflect each characters’ personality. This kind of fluid materiality is, again, something the animation as an art form is uniquely able to articulate. Furthermore, each series uses animation to envision bodies are not static things, but fluid and changing, giving form to queer theoretical interventions that question the traditional binary categorization and static assumptions surrounding bodies.

Another similar recommended series: Revue Starlight (2018)

3. Princess Tutu (Purinsesu Chuchu, 2002-2003)

Princess tutu logo.jpg

From left to right: Rue, Mytho, and titular Princess Tutu

If you loved: A young magical child protagonist brimming with emotional honesty

Where to Watch/Buy: Stream on Hulu; Amazon Prime/ Buy on RightStuf

This is a lesser known influence on Steven Universe, perhaps because it’s a series more directly aimed at children, but its influence on Steven Universe is quite strong. Compiling numerous fairytales, operas, and ballets, this series follows a duck named, well, Duck, whose given magical girl powers to transform into the mythical ballerina Princess Tutu. The story follows her as she tries to save the shattered heart of Prince Mytho. Drama and meta-level layers of storytelling ensue.

This is where Steven Universe‘s bleeding heart comes from. It certainly does not come from Utena, where characters rarely say what they mean, and cloak themselves in metaphor. While Princess Tutu certainly has some similarities to Utena, its approach to magical girl storytelling is subversive in a different way.  While Utena is a deconstructionist masterpiece, Princess Tutu deconstructs storytelling itself by getting meta, prompting the (presumably young) audience to think about the purposes and affects of storytelling, question the aims and motives of who is writing the stories, and encourages the audience to write their own.

Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar mentions that she watched the series in Steven Universe: Art and Origins (2017), and its influence on Steven Universe is quite clear through the character of Steven. Like Duck (or Ahiru /「あひる」 in Japanese), Steven wins battles not through violence, but through emotional intuition, compassion, and love.

Princess Tutu‘s influence is also seen through Steven Universe’s focus on dance as forms of expression and embodiment. In Princess Tutu, the titular Princess Tutu will ballet dance with a troubled soul, work out their coiled emotions, and help them come to a resolution through graceful movement and emotional honesty. Dancing is envisioned as a means of emotional and embodied connection. Fusion in Steven Universe works in the same way.

Princess Tutu‘s graceful, emotional honesty, paired with its rather astonishing meta-level storytelling, makes for a compelling series that I heartily recommend to everyone.

Another similar recommended series: Mahou Shoujo Madoka★Magica (2011)

4. Asteroid in Love (Koisuru Asuteroido, 2020)

(269)

Ao and Mira gaze at the stars in Asteroid in Love

If you loved: Geology, space, and lesbians

Where to Watch: Stream on Crunchyroll

This is the most recent series on the list, and just debuted its final episode today! It’s a wonderful yuri (a genre involving lesbian or female homoerotic relationships) anime with similar aesthetic sensibilities of softness that Steven Universe is known for.

I want to take a bit of time here to discuss the political power embedded in said aesthetics of softness. As describes in her piece “The Cultural Politics of Softness” for GUTS Magazine, radical softness is “a general orientation to the world that foregrounds vulnerability, emotionality, and earnestness.” Steven Universe certainly embodies this approach, exploring emotional honesty and vulnerability through its characters. Yuri anime does this as well, generally animating its world and characters through a quality of softness, both in emotion and aesthetics.

This kind of aesthetic softness in yuri (and moe) anime is usually typified by a number of aesthetic choices: gentle music (unless it swells in an important emotional moment), soft sound effects, quiet atmosphere (unless there is bombastic humour), cute characters, and uncomplicated storytelling that lays bare all emotions. This kind of affect also opens us space for queerness.

Asteroid in Love begins its plot with a queer moment. As a young girl, Mira meets a boy named Ao, they bond over their love of space, and make a commitment together to discover an asteroid. Years later, Mira meets Ao at her high school’s earth sciences club, only to find that Ao is actually a girl. The rest of the anime follows Mira and Ao as they reconnect, while the club as a whole attempts to discover an asteroid. Asteroid in Love, like Steven Universe, uses softness to open up queer spaces of emotional vulnerability, while engaging with the wonders of space and geology.

Another similar recommended series: A Place Further than the Universe (2018)

5. Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir (2015—)

Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir screencap

Marinette as Ladybug in Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir

If you loved: Magical girls shenanigans and cool powers

Where to Watch: Stream on Netflix

In keeping with this list’s desire for greater transnational consumption of anime, this co-production between studios in Japan, France, Italy, South Korea, India, and Brazil will round out this list. A straightforward magical girl tale, this story revolves around two teenagers in Paris, Marinette and Adrien, who, when trouble arises, transform into Ladybug and Cat Noir, respectively.

The series 3D animation is occasionally playfully adventurous in its moving camera angles and composition , which is welcome in the contemporary massive array of 3D animation, which is often competent but rarely adventurous. Much like Steven Universe‘s first season, the series is episodic, which means you can jump in pretty much anywhere.

Another similar recommended series: Bee and PuppyCat (2013—)

And that’s it for the list! Let me know in the comments if you have any other recommendations to share.

Terrible Fantasy Adaptations Double Feature: Dungeons & Dragons (2000) and Eragon (2005)

Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons 

Post-2000, Jeremy Irons’ output falls into a couple of distinctive genres. Euro-trash, boring biopics, bad pop culture adaptations, are just some of the categories we’ll cover soon in on this blog. Certainly, sprinkled between are the outliers to look forward to, such as the well-made indie darling High Rise (2015) or the old-fashioned Western throwback Appaloosa (2008). By comparison, today’s entry is on the genre/category I’m calling bad fantasy adaptations, because, well, they’re bad.

Dungeons & Dragons (2000) and Eragon (2005) are lesser entries in the Jeremy Irons catalogue. Coincidently, they focus a lot on dragons. Not as coincidentally, they also rip off Star Wars. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

An adaptation of the titular, iconic role-playing game, the film Dungeons & Dragons (henceforth referred to as D&D) was a flop upon release, but has some cache in certain circles (we’ll get to that). The plot is not worth going into much detail, as it is rather ramshackle and relies on a series of fetch quests. In sum: The scheming villain Profion (Jeremy Irons) wants the MacGuffin (a red sceptre that controls red dragons) so he can attain enough power to dethrone Empress Savina (an incredibly stiff Thora Birch) of the Izmir Empire. Our band of outsiders (a pair of thieves, a mage librarian, a dwarf that lives in the sewers) take it upon themselves to seek out the sceptre to save the Empire, despite (or rather because of) the class divides between Mage and non-Mage citizens.

Most scenes can be described as perfunctory. Scenes just appear to happen; characters often state their line as if it was their first read (they probably were). The script arbitrarily isolates our….”protagonist” thief Ridley to solve fetch quests twice in the film, with the flimsy excuse of “magic dictates it so.” A similar excuse is rendered in the very end of the film, a piss poor decision that is one of the film’s delights. There’s a preponderance of garish CGI elements that will make you wish you were watching other fantasy films like Labyrinth (1986), or worse, like Dragonheart (1996).

Jeremy Irons Dungeons and Dragons 2000 facepalm

Jeremy Irons reacting to the critical and commercial response to Dungeons & Dragons

D&D is not a movie you watch because it is good — far from it. It is a film you watch because it is a rather decent entry into the pantheon of “so-bad-its-good” movies. Its joys come from its eccentricities. A poor script and poor director leaves the actors floundering. Whereas her role in American Beauty (1999) as a sulking teen made good use of her deadpan nature, Thora Bitch is hilariously wooden in the film. And on the other end of the acting spectrum is Jeremy Irons, chewing up the scenery left and right.

Right in the very first scene, Irons delivers a masterfully camp performance. It is helpful here to turn to Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” (1964) to understand the camp elements of his performance. As she writes:

“One must distinguish between naive and deliberate Camp. Pure camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying. The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious.”

Indeed, there is no knowing winking in Irons’ performance throughout the film. He is serious. He ushers us into the film with open arms, as he wrings every emotion in his body to deliver a performance for the ages.

I’ve come to believe Jeremy Irons is a good actor. He’s great, nay, masterful, in Brideshead Revisited, Dead Ringers, and Reversal of Fortune. I wouldn’t have dedicated a whole running series on his films if I didn’t like his work on some level.

This movie made me question whether Jeremy Irons is a good actor. Why is his performance so over-the-top? I think the reason lies in the clumsily integration of visual effects. In most of Irons’ scenes, he is supposed to be reacting to or interacting with CGI elements to be added in post-production: whether it be casting lightning spells or fighting dragons. These especially ostentatious moments have the effect of wide gestures to open air, and Irons seems to make up for the space with his scene-swallowing performance.

By contrast, his performance is more grounded (and may even have an element of knowing fun) when he acts with real people, such as the council scenes where he attempts to undermine the Empress’ rule.

Irons’ performance isn’t the only hilarious element to the film, though it is certainly the highlight of the film. While the film has a number of annoying elements (Marlon Wayans as the thief Snails comes to mind), what follows are a few of my favourite moments from the film that establish its “so-bad-its-good” nature, in no particular order:

1) Profion’s right hand guy, Damodar (Bruce Payne), kills Snails via stabbing (Snails’ death is more a relief to the audience by this point), then YEETS his body off a castle.

2) Ridley’s reaction to Snail’s death:

My career!

“My career!”

3) The dwarf. He does nothing in the film, yet seems to have the most shenanigans. He tries to escape Damodar’s guards in a bar by literally yelling “Bar fight!” He also breaks the fourth wall partway through the film for a terrible joke, and discusses how dwarf women are great for sex because you can use their beards to hold onto and help you thrust. Ew.

4) I have written in my notes: “bad haircuts.” I think I found this equally both humorous and aggravating.

5) Ridley’s out of place biker/punk (?!?!) look at the very end of the film:

cyberpunk

6) Irons’ and Payne’s scenes together. Irons is overwrought and gushing, while Payne quietly sputters out his lines with some sort of evil pseudo-regality. A demonstration of camp in contrasts.

ahem

I’ll leave it up to your imagination to what’s happening here.

While I’ve made a clear case for D&D‘s status as a so-bad-its-good film (indeed, Irons’ scenes are worth watching at the very least), the same cannot be said for Eragon. 

Eragon is not a good movie. Whereas D&D has a preponderance of camp moments next to boring as dirt generic moments, Eragon is mostly comprised of the latter. The plot’s pretty simple: Boy meets dragon. They bond. They save the empire in the final battle.

Eragon isn’t worth delving much deeper because it’s mostly boring. John Malkovich (another master of the camp performance) hams it up as the film’s villain, but he is barely in the film, mostly confined to a dark chamber and gesturing to maps. The film is notable for being another attempt by Hollywood to get into the YA fantasy adaptation market and catch the post-Harry Potter boom. It’s also notable for being a terrible novel, and a Star Wars ripoff, but with dragons and magic instead of spaceships and the force. There was an active community of anti-Eragon critics of the original novel, and the film by extension.

While Ed Speleers plays the titular chosen hero Eragon, Irons plays Brom, Eragon’s father figure and trainer throughout the film. He’s probably the best thing in the film; while his lines and role are generic, he lends a sort of gravitas in his posture and tone that makes him at least mildly watchable. While there is little to be said about Eragon proper, both films together make for an interesting contrast. Whereas Profion preens in regal white linens, Brom sulks in dark blue and brown garments; whereas Profion is ostentatiously campy, Brom is tepidly understated. While Brom is the the far more muted character, I cannot say whether it is the better acted character. Brom is Obi-Wan from A New Hope: seemingly wise with little backstory, who sacrifices himself partway through the film to save the hero.

While Eragon is known for being a Star Wars ripoff, I found D&D seemingly swiping elements from The Phantom Menace, which came out one year before it. The Empress is Padme; Profion, Palpatine. They fight ideologically over power before chamber of aristocratic councillors, which eerily reminds me of the Galactic Senate.

i am the senate

The Empress (Thora Birch), before the… Galactic Senate?

What can we surmise from these two films? Both D&D and Eragon are largely forgettable, save for Irons’ performance in the former. D&D is perhaps Irons’ most conventionally terrible performance, or at least the most obliviously campy. While it certainly mars Irons’ track record of good performances, his campy contribution to so-bad-its-good cinema (which really is just camp cinema) is a genuine treasure.

Nijinsky

Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons 

I had originally skipped Nijinsky (1980) for 1) being too hard to find as a semi-obscure art house feature, and 2) for also being a minor footnote in Jeremy Irons’ career. But I encountered a DVD copy of the film tonight, and I couldn’t resist.

Sadly, the film will remain a footnote, as its not all too good, though it has its moments. The film details Vaslav Nijinsky (George de la Peña) and his relationships with ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev (Alan Bates). On a plot level there isn’t too much to detail. Nijinsky is Diaghilev’s favourite, no matter how much he tries to sweet talk his tempestuous choreographer Mikhail Fokine (Jeremy Irons). There’s drama, and misunderstandings, and Diaghilev and Nijinsky break up. Professionally of course…..but also romantically. Nijinsky marries Romola de Pulsky (Leslie Browne) in a fit of heartbreak and madness, and soon succumbs to mental illness. Like many Euro-trash art house features, Nijinsky reveals itself to be a soap opera.

A profile of the film’s creation in the New York Times promises that “there will be no ducking of the homosexual relationship between Nijinsky and Diaghilev.” There will be no fucking for that matter as well, as while the film makes clear there is a homosexual relationship at play, the film prefers to treat gay desire in the abstract. The film can only reach the homoerotic through implications. Aside from the beginning scene of Diaghilev comforting Nijinsky in bed (a kiss on the cheek, but through a handkerchief, leaving the audience an out to believe that he’s not gay, just… European), the film refuses the embrace, the touch, the tactile sensations of queer desire. Part of this arises from the films’s pretentious to art house (this film has some good Euro-trash moments), but it also arises from the film’s consistent portrayal as an innocent, naive man enslaved by passions he cannot control. When asked why he ended his performance of L’Après-midi d’un faune by making masturbatory gestures on stage, Nijinsky merely replies that “it was the faun,” not him. Nijinsky asks Diaghilev about sex with the innocence of a child. When approached by a young man while distraught with his relationship with Diaghilev, Nijinsky, instead of having a romp with him all his own, brings the young man to Diaghilev as a means to satiate his appetites. Diaghilev refuses, saying, essentially, that he only wants to fuck for love, even going as far to finally admit that he loves Nijinsky. But this is too much for Nijinsky, the film says, as Diaghilev is not just positioned (or rather, implied) to be a lover, but even more so, a father figure. Such a power relationship (the naive ingenue and the older possessive queen) just can’t quite shake out in the end. This is a film that doesn’t understand queer desire, and it suffers for it.

A brief word about Nijinsky’s wife, Romola. She doesn’t come fully into play until the last third of the film, as Nijinsky suffers a mental breakdown from Diaghilev’s seeming apathy. As she sweeps into his life to pick up the pieces, she does literally embody, quite humorously, the heterosexual agenda. The film asserts, at least in part, that its false heterosexuality pushed by his marriage to Romola & breakup with Diaghilev that pushes him into madness. Romola regrets her actions (essentially capitalizing on a man’s fragile mental state to finally get the man she pined for all this time), ultimately telling Diaghilev that she “tried to make him what he can’t be.” And what he can’t be is straight.

nijinsky

When you realize you’ve fallen for the heterosexual agenda

Onto lighter things, Jeremy Irons’ performance! This is Irons’ first film, coming out a year before his breakout performance in Brideshead Revisited, and his character is exactly what you’d expect from him in an arthouse film. He plays a choreographer, defensive of his work, with tense body language to mirror is tense demeanour.

jeremy irons nijinsky 2

When Fokine leaves in a fit after essentially being let go from Diaghilev, he encounters Nijinsky, calls him a “pederast whore,” and huffs away. This brief encounters can’t help but feel is a prediction onto what Irons’ filmography would become, as Irons’ whole career is filled with perversity. I’ll write about this in more depth another time, but Irons tends to play two roles: perverts or priests. One are figures of perversion, the other figures that uphold the law against perversion (but are often found to be perverse anyway). Fokine is the opposite of Nijinsky in some ways. While Nijinsky is wild and expressive, Fokine is wound tight and closed off emotionally. Until, of course, he has his outbursts.

jeremy irons nijinsky

I found myself comparing this film a bit to Brideshead Revisited, as both are early 80s works that vacillate between subtext and text around heterosexual desire. But at least Brideshead Revisited, we see Charles and Sebastian hang out, get drunk, have fun, live life, together. Nijinsky, sadly, is not so gay.

How Guy Maddin Makes a Philosophy of History Out of Frozen Horses

This is a wonderful post on thinking through history and animation. A few thoughts come to mind that I would like to add:

One thing that came to mind was Andre Bazin, the patron saint of the indexical, and how notes how film (or more specifically, photography) ’embalms time.’ I can’t help but find resonance between this piece and Bazin’s writing here. This also helps explain why, by contrast, Basin’s theories don’t make room for animation.

Another idea I took from this piece is how it demonstrates that how animation and its use in documentaries can help us understand how history is active and still working.

Finally, I was thinking about the film Waltz with Bashir, and how it’s ending is an affirmation of the ‘truth’ through photographic verifiers. But I also think we can read the film’s ending sequence as the linkages between live action photography and death, and how death is immutable, static, literally the loss of animus.

Evvycology

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My Winnipeg is an audio film before it’s a visual experience. Its skeleton is oral poetry, mythology, the voice of Guy Maddin that manifests the pictures around it. Animation is just one medium that this documentary-fantastic poetry evokes like an incantation, freely jumping from archival footage, new footage, reenactment, colour, black-and-white film, and the illusory images of the poem’s fantasies.

I want to highlight the way the poetry of the film and its visual manifestations conjure up a kind of philosophy of history. Namely: the film’s use of animation, its creation of a “critical cartography” of space (and, I’ll argue, time), demonstrates the power of history gone intimate and non-linear.

The narrator of the film describes a scene where, on a frigid night in Winnipeg, a squirrel electrocutes itself on a power line and starts a fire with its body that spreads to the stables of the nearby horse track…

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Summer Anime Recommendations

Well, it summer — time to stay indoors and watch anime! But not just any anime: here are a couple recommendations that capture in some way the spirit of summer. All of these series, you can watch on Crunchyroll.

Recommendation 1: Tsuritama 

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Tsuritama is a lovely series about friendship with a plot involving fishing and aliens. Taking place in a beach town, it perfectly captures many of the joys of summer. Also, there is dancing!

Recommendation 2: Harukana Receive

harukana receive.jpgHarukana Recieve is a new show for the summer season about girls playing beach volleyball. I liked the first episode and want to see more – its seems worth while!

Recommendation 3: Free! Iwatomi Swim Club

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Swimming is love, swimming is life. Free! Iwatomi Swim Club understands this. Any of Free! is good for some good swimming summer vibes, and there is even a new season starting this summer!

Recommendation 4: Non Non Biyori

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Non non Biyori is about the quiet life in the Japanese countryside, and captures the best kind of chill vibes you can get in the summer. If you need something even more relaxing for this season, this anime is a great experience for that.
All of these series get at some essential aspect of summer and are all definitely worth checking out!

Duckman Review

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I finished the series Duckman a few months ago, and it was certainly worth the watch. Based on a short lived Dark Horse comic by Everett Peck, the animated series ran for three season from 1994-1997 on the USA Network. The premise of the show is that Duckman (voiced by Seinfeld actor Jason Alexander) is a private detective with his partner pig Cornfed (Gregg Berger) whose has a colourful home life with his sister-in-law Bernice (Nancy Travis), and son Ajax (Dweezil Zappa) and conjoined genius twins Charles (voiced by Dana Hill and later Pat Musick) and Mambo (voiced by E. G. Daily).

While the premise is Duckman as terrible P.I., the series becomes less and less about private detective work, and more about “let’s throw these characters into a wacky situation.” The show changes the dynamic enough to keep thing interesting, supplementing and then outright replacing Bernice’s harsh candour with the long lost sister Beverly and caring and concerned demeanour.

And the show is funny. Like other mile-a-minute writing like Daria (1997-2002), I can’t quite envision a show like this today, save perhaps Rick and Morty. Duckman’s references can range form the esoteric, to the mainstream (well, the mainstream of 20 years ago.) Catching references can be a delight, and may require specialized knowledge. The show itself makes clever homages, from the Marx Bros., to Star Trek, Bridges of Madison County, and everywhere in between. It’s a good show for the pop culture connoisseur. I only understood references to Tony Randall and Jayne Mansfield, for instance, because i watched Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). The series also peppers in jokes of high culture, and tips its hat when it does. (“Their called books, kids,” Cornfed utters in the last episode).

Duckman’s selfish nature can sometimes be irritatingly predictable, and the series could dip more into why he has such craven lust as a response to his crippling loneliness and inadequacies. But when the series does get into those complicated issues, it can be compelling material. His cravenness meshes well with the texture of the series, an almost gritty animation style from 90s animation powerhouse producer Klasky Csupo.

Nothing looks like the series anymore, and the series’ brazen exploration of any kind of episode premise (from a musical episode, to a pitch-perfect film noir send up) makes the series a delight to watch. The entire series is on Youtube, so there is literally nothing to lose. Watch it!

The Redemption of Sufjan

When Call Me By Your Name (2017) came out, I reconnected with a figure I had discarded: indie music icon Sufjan Stevens. This might come as a shock, namely, why I would have discarded Sufjan in the first place. He has multiple masterpiece albums to his name. He’s practically a saint in the music world! But for me, Sufjan was an icon for a side of my life I have long grappled with: my connection to Christianity. I soon realized that my relationship to Sufjan significantly mirrored my relationship to the Christian faith and its culture.

It started out well enough. While I wasn’t really devout growing up, I ended up where many of my high school friends ended up: a private, liberal arts, Christian college. In attending Calvin College, the cousin institution of Sufjan’s alma mater, Hope College, I became quite familiar with West Michigan Christian culture that Sufjan grew up with. Overwhelmingly Dutch heritage entangled with a staunch protestant work ethic, Calvin, and the people who surrounded it, supported a niche culture that tends to suck in everyone who enters. Such a culture also included an inviting worldview around art and culture.

When I first attended, I was relieved. This is how it can be done!, I thought. This is how we can reconcile pop culture and Christianity, by putting pop culture in subservience to God. And Sufjan was held up as the peak example (well, him and U2) as an artist beautifully fusing faith and music together. Sufjan singing about John Wayne Gacy Jr.? He’s reflecting on the brokenness of the world, and how it needs God’s redemption! Sufjan singing about homoerotic encounters? Well, surely he’s just talking about God!

This is how my life continued for a while, until junior year. I began to get radicalized, from watching avant-garde film, studying 60s counterculture, and pushing the envelope with screenings of films like A Clockwork Orange on campus.

And while I listened to The Age of Adz on repeat most of my senior year, what Sufjan used to stand for slowly drifted away. Is all art truly supposed to connect back to God in some way? The idea never truly sat quite right with me, and I realized I didn’t actually need to accept it any longer.

After I graduated, I started attending a church with a pastor who probably didn’t even believe in God. Soon, I stopped attending church all together. Sufjan drifted out from my music library. When Carrie and Lowell came out, my partner wrote a negative review, having arrived at a similar place as I had. Why doesn’t he get better? Why must he always be sad? Why, in all of this, is he still Christian? I felt possessive, angry, because I saw so much of myself in him. Sufjan had become an emblem for everything wrong at Calvin: the suppressing, tasteful respectability of the place the smothers those who don’t conform.

And so as a queer woman, I rejected him.

***

Soon it was 2017, and Sufjan’s name was uttered again. He was contributing songs to a gay film, and speculations of Sufjan’s sexuality arose again. Sufjan has never been public about his sexuality, which is fine, but it’s significant to note how his music reflects male homoeroticism. “The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!” stands as one of the most prominent examples of Sufjan’s gay lyrics.

“Touching his back with my hand I kiss him…
I can’t explain the state that I’m in
The state of my heart, he was my best friend…”

He’s Gay! I scream inside. He’s gay and yet he still tethers himself to Christianity!

But by 2017, something changed. The time away from Calvin, from Sufjan, from Christianity, had given me time to heal. I want to listen to him again, despite this tension. Sufjan’s just too smart an artist to leave behind. And watching his performance at the Oscars, I could only think of how excited I was, and how I wanted him to succeed.

All the frustrations I had found with Sufjan, in hindsight, were not fair judgements to make. The sadness, the melancholy, I know now that these are not easy things to be rid of.

I did see Sufjan on his Carrie and Lowell tour in 2015. It was probably one of the best concerts in my life. Later in the same tour, he covered Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” which, of course he did, he is an expert in melancholic hook ups. Shine on you crazy diamond.

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Three Themes

Some musings on three themes in Rian Johnson’s latest entry into the Star Wars franchise; themes with clarity and execution that illustrates him as the superior filmmaker to J.J. Abrams, who, pardon the cliche, is all flash and no substance.

1: Who runs the world? Girls. The film adds more female characters in significant roles, and demonstrate how women work behind the scenes to keep the Resistance going, often to little or no fanfare.

This is a film that undermines the mythos of the cock-sure male fighter, the man who bets it all to be rewarded in the end. Yes, Poe’s gamble at the beginning of the film succeeds, but at the cost of many lives.

In contrast, there’s General Leia Organa and Admiral Holdo, whose steady leadership holds quiet wisdom that doesn’t call attention to itself. When first meeting Holdo, Poe almost can’t believe it. This is the great leader of many a battle? But of course, The Last Jedi demonstrates throughout the film that a war is not won through a few choice battles, but constant upkeep, steady leadership, and finally, a spark of hope. The film introduces us early on to Rose, who works down bellow by the escape pods, preventing people form abandoning ship. Such tasks are often overlooked in such grand space operas, but Johnson brings them to the fore to demonstrate how women of all levels of leadership are at the forefront of the battle, even if they are physically located in the back.

And speaking of Rose…

2: Myths are both a source of hope, and something that needs to be destroyed. Both Kylo Ren and Rey grapple with the old mythical figures (the Jedi, Luke Skywalker, Snoake, etc), to both uncover the past and in some ways, leave it behind to build something anew. Like Luke says, the old Jedi order needs to be destroyed. However, this does not mean there will be no more Jedi, but that the flaws of the Jedi (elitism, the fact that they can’t have sex…) need to be left behind to forge a new future. Likewise, Kylo Ren discards old forms of power to try and build a new order for himself.

Rose is another character where myths are critiqued. Rose first meets Finn, knowing of his heroic turn against the Last Order. Finn brushes off such comments of course. But in the final instance, when Finn tries to commit a heroic suicidal mission, Rose stops him, risking her own life.  Rose, the person working in the depths of the ship, barely known, ends up being more heroic.

The need for a story, a hero, a villain, a struggle. It animates us all, just like it inspires the child stable helpers at the casino. But we are not beholden to them; we can change them. and we should abandon them when they are ultimately destructive. And this is what The Last Jedi does. In moments of confrontation, Kylo Ren asks Rey who her parents really are, and the answer is: no one. At least, no one important. She does not come from a space lineage family. She is not beholden to a myth. And in grappling with that, and overcoming it, she becomes the Jedi the Resistance needs.

3: In the midst of war, the environment will adapt and survive. There are a number of new creatures established in this film: beautiful Vultpex (crystal foxes), strange seals, the horselike fathier, and, last but not least, Porgs.

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#PorgNation

Porgs are more than just a cute new creature to the franchise. Much like how the Vultpex find a path through the ancient catacombs to escape a battle scene, Porgs demonstrate animals adapting an living to new environments of chaos cerated in war. One of the best shots in the film is a Porg nesting with its small child in the Millennium Falcon, and it illustrates so much about the film as a whole. The Falcon is a place of refuge for most everyone in the Star Wars franchise, serving as the last shuttle away from battle in this film. But it also serves as a new nesting place for these creatures, and become a new mascot of sorts for the Resistance.

In fact, the animals of this film are very much symbols of the new Resistance. Vultpex lead the way for the last of the Resistance to escape. The Fathier disrupt and destroy parts of the Casino city, one city built from the wealth of weapons dealers, escaping their captors back to the wilderness. And porgs? Well, porgs are perhaps more symbolic of the will to live, the ability to adapt and move on with the battle.

 

 

Clickbait culture conspiracy videos and you!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the proliferation of channels on YouTube devoted to unpacking pop culture through obsessively detailed textual analysis, usually in unproductive ways. Shows like Cartoon Conspiracy and the entirety of MatPat’s output go into almost ridiculous detail in pop culture to uncover “hidden meanings” within the text.

In regards to these videos, we should ask the question: what does these readings produce? Or rather, are these productive readings of these texts? Sometimes there can be the occasional productive reading, such as MatPat’s analysis of Youtube shift towards amount of time streamed instead of amount of clicks. But usually they are insular that aren’t actually productive in understanding a text in a new or innovative way.

 These readings ignore various modes of production, typically with an overemphasis on specific modes of consumption, namely obsessively detailed theorizing that often fails to achieve much of anything. A great example occurred quote recently on Cartoon Conspiracy theorizing that instead of flying away with a flock of pigeons, Pigeon Man, a character on Hey Arnold!, committed suicide in front of Arnold. Reasons supporting this theory include:

  • a flock of pigeons can’t actually lift a man (this claim ignores the possibilities of the fiction world as distinct from the real)
  • Pigeon Man’s last words to Arnold sound finite (that’s a stretch of interpretation)
  • Pigeon Man appears to fly into the sun, which forms a similar pattern to Kamikaze sun pattern from WWII Japanese military flags (?!?!)

To be clear, there is no textual support for these claims. In this example, as in many others, the divide between the real world and the fictional world in the text is erased, leading to that often throws logic in support of the claim. What’s great about this cartoon conspiracy is the creator of Hey Arnold! (i.e. the author of the text) comes in at the end a directly refutes the claim, noting that such theorizations ignore the actual modes of production in the creation of such texts. People want to find dark, hidden secrets of pop culture, usually eschewing the modes of production, or asserting faulty claims, that the author’s vision was hampered by the studio/the censors/etc. However, these claims are usually largely unfounded, and have no basis in reality, like mush of these kinds of videos.

I can appreciate such theorizing when engaging with media that is specifically designed as a puzzle, a riddle, a mystery. Mat Pat’s theorizations are pretty good with Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared and Five Nights at Freddy’s (except this trifle video that speculates how much force the bite of ’83 would require – again, a lack of boundaries between the real world and the fictional one). But most pop culture is not designed this way, making these kinds of conspiratorial readings rather unproductive productive, as they end up with faculty understandings of texts.

(As a side note, clearer definitions of what it means to read a text vis-a-vis our relationship to media objects can help with these issues of interpretation, but this is outside the scope of this post.)

In identifying this new wave of YouTube interpretive communities, I stumbled back upon PBS Idea Channel once again, and realized that some of their output also fell into this vein. I rewatched their video on Jurassic Park as a Commentary on Capitalism, and realized that it fell into some of the same problems. excavating why helps illustrate the needs of sustainable criticism.

While I already wrote a blog post about some of the limitations of the video, what’s more apparent to me now is that the video attempts the same kind of “hidden meaning” approach that is ultimately unproductive. While the video asserts that the film is a cirque of capitalism, there is no clear positionally in the text.

While the video names Jurassic Park (specifically the film, because books are boring amirite?) as a ‘commentary on capitalism’, we cannot call such a reading even that, as there is no positionally. How can we truly claim capitalism is critiqued in the film? Looking at the text form various angles, there are no productive routes towards such a conclusion. From a standpoint of political economy, that is, one that engages in the modes of allocation, production, distribution, and consumption of texts, the making of the film lies within traditional capitalist filmmaking. After all, many films that attempt to critique capitalism are made by alternative film collectives that avoid the Hollywood division of labour. And while there are plenty of anti-capitalist films made in Hollywood, Jurassic Park is, frankly, not one of them. So from a political economic approach, there are no clear paths towards a critique of capitalism.

What about textual pathways towards such a critique? Well, this would have us ask the question: just what is Jurassic Park about anyway? It’s about the vulnerability of large scale systems, in which capitalism is a sub-category. Hence the books illustrations fo fractal systems and engagement with chaos theory. Dr. Ian Malcolm’s trick with the water droplets is not only a scene of him hitting on the paleobotanist Ellie Sattler. It is this of course, but also illustrates the nature of chaos (his specialty), while also adding another aspect of the film’s water imagery (water is connected throughout the film as a symbol of uncontrollable nature).

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Fractals serve as a visual illustration throughout the book.

There are other forms of criticism one could use to approach the text, but none lead to the bold conclusions of PBS Ideal Channel. In lieu of this, a more productive reading would be an ecological approach, where Jurassic Park functions as a critique of humans trying to extract value from nature. This is a much more productive vein, partially because it falls in line with the series’ underlying fascination with system theory, as well as resonating with conceptions of nature and humanity’s relationship with it.

In short, culture conspiracy videos are attempts at textual criticism that usually fall short and are not only unproductive, but potentially have negative effects on the standards of textual criticism. After all, if people really want to get at the darkness hidden within pop culture, it’s not hard. One merely needs to engage with literature that recognizes the multitudes of problems in pop culture, from capitalist exploitation, to racist appropriation, and more.

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