From the archives: June 2004

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Marvel superheroes of Asia

Thursday, 24 June 2004 — 10:27am | Comics, Film, Full reviews

There are two separate items I want to discuss in this post, and the way they relate to each other will be quite immediately evident. The first is, of the two, the more direct example of cross-pollination between the mythologies of America and Asia. The second, and altogether lengthier subject about which I will write the usual thousand-worder about the “storytelling potential of the cinematic medium” and related jargon, concerns a cultural legend of Japan that sports a new look and is worth a trip to the silver screen.

This article on Comic Book Resources speaks for itself:

Eastern Swing: Sharad Devarajan Talks Indian Spider-Man

What’s the hottest comic book topic right now?

If you said Spider-Man, you’d only be half right.

As officially announced by various East Indian newspapers last week and confirmed online this week, the South Asian comics distribution company “Gotham Entertainment” has reached a historic deal with Marvel Comics to publish a new version of Spider-Man in an upcoming four issue mini-series. No, it isn’t just a new continuity: Spider-Man is now an East Indian by the name of Pavitr Prabhakar and the Green Goblin is tied to Hindu mythology. To tell CBR News and its readers a bit more about the project, Gotham’s President & CEO Sharad Devarajan spoke with CBR News.

“Though we will remain true to the underlining mythos of Spider-Man, which is epitomized in the phrase ‘With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility,’ the character will be reinvented so his powers, problems and costume are more integrated with Indian culture. Unlike the US origin, which is deeply rooted in science, the Indian version is more rooted in magic and mythology. This version of Spider-Man will gain his powers from ancient mystic in order to combat the evil threat of the Green Goblin, who will also be reinvented as a modern day Indian demon from myth.”

Yes, the article has pictures – and yes, an English-translated American edition will also come at some point, though of course, that will lose some of the authenticity. Now, forget for a moment the irony of a company called Gotham doing a Marvel title, and take a minute to let the genius of this idea sink in. I will not claim to be anything less than generally oblivious to Indian mythology, but this sounds like a brilliantly-conceived take on the universality of mythical heroes, which I mention in case I’m not the only one currently reading too much Joseph Campbell for his own good.

Oh, and “Pavitr Prabhakar”? Gold.

Now let’s move on to the more easterly nation of Japan, a country about which I am somewhat less qualified to speak than say, Adam Pauls. I venture a guess that the vast majority of my readership is not too familiar with the Japanese television and film character Zatoichi. If that is the case, go catch up on your readings, and I’ll see you next class. The capsule summary runs thus: Zatoichi is a blind man, a masseuse by day, with a distinctive sword sheathed in a cane, and the sharpened senses to use it. Sounds very much like a certain man without fear, if you ask me. The extent of intentional mutual influence between Daredevil and Zatoichi is unclear; the former first appeared in 1964, the latter in 1962.

The reason I bring him up now is because of ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano’s update of the character in the film Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman, wherein he both directs and stars. The new Zatoichi is now making the rounds in Canada, having played at the Uptown Stage and Screen in Calgary this week, and currently at South Common for you Edmontonians. It draws Marvel comparisons right off the bat, having initially hit the festival circuit last year on the heels of Ben Affleck bringing Matt Murdock into the mainstream consciousness, but also because Zatoichi’s cane sword in the film is a blood-red cylinder, which is apparently something new – understandable, given that the Zatoichi films of old were in monochrome. But beyond the shared basis of a blind superhero with a cane, and the aforementioned bit about the universality of heroes or whatever, the similarities are few.

Nowadays you see people take the word “postmodern” and spread it like margarine everywhere they go, but the new Zatoichi is where it actually applies. For the most part, it is a throwback to an older age in filmmaking, one of patient, stationary but conscientious shots, and minimal scoring in the musical department. Kitano’s stark blond hair aside, the majority of the film would not look out of place in the sixties. It’s a refreshing break from the over-edited muddle of Matrix imitators that are so excessive in cutting and camera movement that the action is impossible to follow, but casual audiences will find it to plod for stretches between the swift and gory swordfights. It feels like a movie with a sense of first-hand cultural authenticity, unlike the recent crop of American samurai movies, such as Quentin Tarantino’s unabashedly reverent Kill Bill and the faux importance of The Last Samurai.

Occasionally, though, Kitano’s approach is one of experimentation. Early on in the film there is a brief scene of farmers tilling a field, cut in such a way that the sounds develop into almost a techno beat – never mind the tap-dancing festival at the conclusion that stops just short of The Matrix Reloaded, to everyone’s relief. It is almost as if he is asking us to listen to the sounds associated with the images in the same manner a blind man would, without ever bringing us into pitch darkness or superhero sonar-vision. Watching Kitano perform the lead role himself is a delight; he alternates between staggering gambling addict and legendary blademaster with comfort and conviction.

The fights are remarkable given how short they are, forsaking extended clashes of katana-on-katana for a brief swell of anticipation-resolution as the participants strategize, then execute. After all, Zatoichi would hardly be a master swordsman if he took his time slicing and dicing the local goons. If you contrast this with the likes of Hong Kong cinema and its own folk heroes like the martial arts master Wong Fei-Hung (in more films than any character in history, and played by Jet Li in the now-classic Once Upon A Time In China), the difference in style is very representative of how Japanese and Chinese martial arts traditions diverged in their own developmental paths. Hong Kong cinema has the ten-minute fights with fancier flourishes of cloth and blade; Japanese cinema demonstrates the gutting of enemies with a stroke or two apiece.

Now, I do not claim to be too well-versed in Zatoichi lore myself, but where the film is a little lacking is focus; not in the visual sense, but in its focus on the main character. To put it briefly, a lot of time is spent elsewhere. Those of you who have trouble discerning names and faces right off the bat will have a doozy following the tangled web of concealed identities in the plot, which concerns two geisha assassins exacting revenge on the gang bosses who murdered their parents. It does make sense by the time the credits roll, but not so much until then. As I mentioned earlier, Zatoichi is also what one would apologetically call patient, and may not hold the attention of those weaned on the speed of the standard twenty-first century Hollywood action movie. Nor does it ever tread on the literary seriousness of the average arthouse foreign film. In a category-defying self-contradiction, it is both conventional and avant-garde, but thankfully succeeds at both.

On a final note, time to break professionalism and be a complete geek. I just about flipped out when I saw the end credits – specifically, the name associated with the music in the film: Keiichi Suzuki. This is the same Keiichi Suzuki who composed for one of the greatest RPGs in the short history of video games, namely, EarthBound for the Super Nintendo. His versatile soundtrack for that game featured everything from weepy melodies on tinny piano evoking the sentiment of homesickness, to the Blues Brothers stylings of the Runaway Five, to the harmonic distortions of enemies from outer space. While his work for Zatoichi is minimal, it is significant, and just as diverse, covering everything from traditional Japanese folk music to the pseudo-techno breakbeats I mentioned earlier.

But never mind the score for Zatoichi – there is just something inherently cool about seeing a name from a phenomenal element of the Nintendo experience appear onscreen. If only somebody could get Nobuo Uematsu on a movie, we’re set.

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Sixteen, going on seventeen

Wednesday, 23 June 2004 — 7:47pm | Television

That’s how many consecutive wins Jeopardy! sensation Ken Jennings is sitting at as of tonight, doubling the previous record of eight. Given that this is still within the first year of the decision to scrap the victory cap, one only wonders how far people will go in the future. Having to go up against a super-genius is not exactly the luckiest thing, from the perspective of the other contestants who made it all the way past the rigorous audition and screening process only to be mowed down by this guy, but limitless record-setting certainly has a certain degree of audience appeal, as we wait and see who will finally bump him off. It’s like the old days in video arcades where lines would form behind the joystick titans of Street Fighter II, some going at it for longer than most would bear to stay and watch in one sitting, if it were not for the fact that they were seeing a legend in action, and knew it, too.

Jeopardy! – otherwise known as one of the single-digit number of programmes I would order if television services worked under a show-by-show on-demand model, which they do not – is remarkable in that it does exactly what a good game show is supposed to do: make the audience feel alternatingly smart and stupid. Everybody can sit down with a given episode and clean house with half the categories and draw blanks with the rest; the contestants, however, face them all – and under both time and camera pressure, which even board game players could tell you is a very difficult adjustment. Today’s television programming exploits a fascination with the everyman, with a so-called “reality”, but the answer-and-question mainstay of broadcast trivia that has been with us since 1964 still boasts the most admirable real-life heroes on the airwaves.

Incidentally, Jennings is a software engineer. Maybe they aren’t so bad after all.

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One giant leap for private citizenry

Tuesday, 22 June 2004 — 10:36am | Science, Television

First of all, hats off to the many minds behind SpaceShipOne for being the ones to finally do something that is, in many ways, decades overdue – and outdoing NASA in the process. To that end I refer to the launch system, which for a change, did not require dumping a Saturn V in the ocean. NASA has been talking about a rocket-free, reusable launch system for decades – I am personally in possession of a colouring book that predicted a target date of 1997 – but funding cuts and massive organizational problems have left the NASA-driven development of manned spaceflight completely stagnant for the past twenty years. We should be nothing short of ashamed that we are four years into the once-heralded and ever so futuristic-sounding “twenty-first century”, and we don’t even have moon colonies. It’s about time we saw the results of some actual initiative, and my, are they ever results. has some excellent coverage, including a thorough feature debating the implications of this monumental event.

What does this mean for humanity? Well, aside from the fact that one of the biggest obstacles to the proliferation of manned spaceflight is a government trapped by the reluctance of taxpayers to act as financiers, it means that we may be hurtling towards a different future than the one envisioned by the likes of Gene Roddenberry. It always struck me as odd that space traffic was under such tight governmental control after the formation of the United Federation of Planets. Now, before anybody brings up the counterexample of how Zefram Cochrane’s landmark warp flight in 2061 was a private initiative, or how socio-political factors like a war against an external common enemy (in this case, the Romulan Empire) tends to bring everybody under a single flag, my point here is that under the Federation, private spaceflight all but disappeared. One would think that the private citizens of Earth would have more than just the occasional cargo freighter to call their own.

So maybe even the Paul Allens of the world can’t quite afford a Galaxy-class NCC-1701-D, but Cochrane demonstrated that warp-capable spacecraft were more than achievable – and similar to the method of SpaceShipOne’s launch, it actually beat the government to doing it first. Either the commercial crafts and routes are sparse to non-existent, or we just never see them. Of course, given the little we know about Trekonomics – what, with Federation credits as some sort of abstract currency replacement – I suspect the former is closer to the truth, as far as truth goes in works of fiction. This is not to say that big government is not a solution once the human race reaches a point where a UFP equivalent is possible, but it is certainly not how we’ll get there.

Enterprise, by the way, is a surprisingly good show. I’m a little behind, having not followed it very regularly since the first season (it is now entering its fourth), but it is the only television drama of any interest this day and age. The fact that television generally sucks is a matter worthy of separate examination, and has to do with yucky political stuff like what to do with the CBC. Look forward to it.

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Here’s looking at you, Dad

Sunday, 20 June 2004 — 10:27pm | Casablanca, Film, Star Wars

Virtually all character dynamics in the movies, it can be said, are covered to one extent or another in Casablanca, which Robert McKee (screenwriting instructor, author of Story and butt of many a joke in Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay to Adaptation) rightly acknowledges as being the paragon of all cinema as far as writing is concerned. You have the more obvious themes of love lost, forbidden and rediscovered between Rick and Ilsa, the love inspired by romantic heroism in the case of Victor Laszlo, and a resulting triangle that is so prototypical as to be Pythagorean; these are constantly emulated, though often unconsciously, and regularly with only the merest trace of the same emotional complexity.

Yet while Casablanca is among movies the undisputed king of the portrayal of love in its romantic forms, often overlooked are its more understated pairings, and how they are seen time and again in even the best of the films in the decades that followed. Take no less than Raiders of the Lost Ark, for instance, and notice René Belloq’s subservience to the Nazis, one that he independently but weakly denies: “All in good time,” he replies, when Indiana Jones asks him what will become of his prize upon delivery to the Fuhrer. Belloq is a striking villain, but we trace him back to that other allegory of occupied France, Captain Renault. Louis, of course, has quite a different fate than Indy’s archaelogical rival. Between him and Rick, we see “the beginning of a beautiful friendship” in a manner where both shirk their supposed allegiances or lack thereof, certainly at their own peril, but with consolation in each other. The great conflicted partnerships follow a similar pattern, be it T.E. Lawrence and Sherif Ali, Blondie and Tuco, or heck, even Shrek and Donkey.

This is not to say that all films are necessarily Casablanca‘s sons and daughters – such a claim, at least as it would pertain to conscious intent or chronological order of production, would be a stretch – but try and name one other piece that brings together so many degrees of character interaction.

That said, the films that most emphasize the relationships not found in Casablanca and do it well are the ones that we recognize as being similarly exceptional in their own right. Think, here, of the unrequited charity of friendship Melanie offers Scarlett, or to use a recent example, the unspoken bond between Bob and Charlotte in Lost In Translation that should make one consider yet again the cleverness of its title. But perhaps the most prominent absence in the Bogart classic is the relationship between father and son, a staple of world mythology both ancient and contemporary.

That brings me to what I would like to examine today: the films that model the many aspects of the father-son relationship, much in the way that Casablanca tackles pretty much everything else.

I speculate that a lot of people, when asked to name the definitive movie about fathers and sons, will quite justifiably make a very strong case in favour of The Empire Strikes Back. Loath as I am to divide a sweeping congruous saga into its parts when it is greater than the proverbial sum, I would actually point to Return of the Jedi.

If we look at dramatic narratives as driven not by individual characters, but instead the tangled bonds between them, the final redemption of Anakin Skywalker is an event of monumental literary consideration. Star Wars is, on a basic level, a tale about slavery. In The Phantom Menace, we see Anakin enslaved in a literal sense, though it is not altogether that uncomfortable nor physically demanding so much as it is he is treated as an asset to buy and sell, and a matter of pride in the eyes of his owner. He is freed under the promise of high adventure across the stars, but we see in Attack of the Clones that he becomes a Jedi only to be, in his eyes, enslaved to a code of conduct that forces a lid onto his rampant emotions and severs his forbidden attachments, albeit finally in vain. Although there is that chasm of ambiguity to be filled next May with the release of Episode III, we are aware of his fate: somehow, in his efforts to be the free spirit he is at heart, he winds up under the most tragic enslavement of all: he finds his very spirit dominated by the Emperor and moreover, the Dark Side of the Force.

So what we see is a cyclical process whereby at every turn, Anakin’s freedom from one form of slavery only leads to another even greater. Star Wars, then, revolves around the search for a force (pardon the pun) powerful enough to trump the seemingly irrevocable corruption of the Dark Side. The key decision point is in that moment in the Death Star Throne Room when Vader looks back and forth between his master and his son, the former with lightning shooting out his fingers, the latter crying for mercy. The pleas for paternal intervention ultimately win out, and the bond between father and child trumps that which has held so long, the connection between master and apprentice. It is a poetic turn of events, given how Anakin himself never knew a father, but only one master after another.

It is also ironic, considering that the very fact that Luke even knows the identity of the man-machine behind the mask is due to the latter’s voluntary revelation of the facts in the bowels of Cloud City at the end of Empire. Vader chooses to divulge the information of his fatherhood, by all appearances to try and convince Luke that it is his destiny to fall to the Dark Side; he acts as an agent of the Dark Side, beckoning for the continuation of the cycle of slavery. At the end of all things, Luke’s knowledge of the truth is what draws the saga to its fitting conclusion.

Luke’s journey through Jedi is itself notable. After the scenes on Dagobah where his two mentors verify Vader’s claim, he accepts the truth, but never does he accept that his father is at heart an evil man. It can be argued that in screenwriting terms, the strongest scene in the entire saga is Luke and Vader talking on the plank where an Imperial Walker is docked, the former having just surrendered himself; that is a whole other discussion, but notice what happens. “So, you have accepted the truth,” says Vader, when his son calls him Father. Luke’s reply speaks volumes: “I’ve accepted the truth that you were once Anakin Skywalker, my father.” And it is that knowledge that drives Luke to put everything on the line just to prove that somewhere in that mechanized suit, humanity remains. In doing so he defies the word of everyone before him, every assertion that upon a fall to the Dark Side, there is no redemption.

The Empire Strikes Back is an incredible film on all counts, but its role in the development of the father-son connection is minimal in comparison. Sure, you have the most thoroughly spoofed scene in the movies, the revelation that is now such a part of the cultural consciousness at large that it is known to those who have never even had the pleasure of seeing a Star Wars instalment. You have Vader’s quest in that movie’s own plot arc, the obsessive hunt for the boy who sent his TIE Fighter spinning out of control. Still, it is Return of the Jedi that takes this setup and runs with it, and features the concept of fatherhood as a focal point with respect to both the plot and the final stage of development of the overarching themes in that galaxy far, far away.

That is why Return of the Jedi is as definitive a father-son film as one can find, one that clings to the mythic tradition unlike any other film. Of course, it is hardly lonely at the summit of its subgenre. The Godfather is a piece to consider, though it is more about the sons themselves than their relationship to Don Corleone: Sonny as the devoted son, stopped short by a few hundred bullets, give or take; Tom, the good son, but subtly removed and restrained by his status as an adopted child; Michael, the son who initially abandons his father’s legacy the most, only to become its inheritor; and Fredo… well, the less said about Fredo, the better. Road To Perdition is more overtly about fatherhood, focusing on the ideas of neglect, disapproval, sibling rivalry, and the following of paternal footsteps. The two Henry Joneses in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade are a more comical pair, but no less serious about fatherly neglect and idolatry. One hopes to see more of the strained, disapproving relationship between Denethor and Faramir in the Extended Edition of The Return of the King; the trinity of the Steward of Gondor and his two sons is a literary highlight insofar as fathers and sons are concerned, and the added scenes in Osgiliath in the Extended The Two Towers was already a valuable addition.

If my desert-island selection of father-son films were limited to two, though, count on the second as being Finding Nemo. One of the many reasons Nemo is indisputably the best animated film in recent years is the complexity of its character dynamics, which one will notice are outside Casablanca territory as often as possible. This is the definitive movie that we see told from the unblinking eyes of the father, and there is no other piece that expresses anywhere near the same level of fatherly devotion. The way Marlin braves underwater minefields, sharks in denial, the docks of Sydney, and the darkest depths of the ocean floor, all in the name of an impossible rescue, is one of the most compelling adventures in recent cinema. Look at the way he tries to escape the highly symbolic belly of the whale, hurling himself at the barrier of baleen, with nothing more on his mind than a determination that no matter what the obstacles, he must tell his son that a hundred and fifty is young for a sea turtle. As overprotective as he is, Marlin is the greatest dad in any movie, period.

I’d like to move on to legendary movie moms while I’m on a roll, but the essay on Almost Famous will have to wait until next May. Go read Sophocles or Freud or something. Oh, and Happy Father’s Day.

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Flames in eight? – a postmortem

Friday, 18 June 2004 — 8:02am

It has been a week and a half since the Flames snuffed themselves out in the first forty minutes of a rather disappointing Game 7 prior to a brief and hopeful rekindling in what Stompin’ Tom calls the “third period – last game of the playoffs, too.” As much as it would be my pleasure to discuss whether or not Flames culture has at all subsided in Calgary, an empirical observation is hardly possible from my current vantage point, which – as one of the case studies demonstrating the success of British imperialism – is swept up in the fury of a sporting event consisting of a 2-1 upset of a somewhat different nature. Replace Fedotenko with Zidane and you’ve got it, only one match was recoverable and the other is not.

I’ll say this much, though: despite the lack of the Stanley Cup victory we all thought we saw coming by the time Calgary coasted right by San José – we, a people spoiled by the archetypes of Cinderella stories only to forget that our dear girl in the glass slippers, too, fell victim to a most unwelcome stroke of midnight – the hometown team deserves some thanks, and this here writer deserves a slap on the wrist for making fun of them for not being a real team all these years. The 2004 Calgary Flames experience was a cultural phenomenon that showed up no less than the Heritage Classic as the once-in-a-lifetime moment for a generation of hockey fans. Several years from now, if the Flames or any other Canadian team does this well or even takes home Lord Stanley’s prize itself, it would be a difficult proposition to replicate the kind of mania that swept Calgary from April to June.

The new red-background home jerseys flew off the racks at shopping malls in every corner of the city. Schools displayed a “Go Flames Go” on their boards next to announcements for graduation events that many students were known to skip on account of having game tickets. A daily commute to and from a nearby workplace revealed Flames flags to number in the hundreds – most on cars, some on houses, others on flagpoles. Schools displayed a “Go Flames Go” on their boards next to announcements for graduation events that many students were known to skip on account of having game tickets. Advertisers and sponsors from across the country changed or replaced radio and television commercials to cheer on the team. In rival city Edmonton itself, one saw not only the occasional car flag, but an Anglican church declaring: “Jesus said we should pray for our enemies. Go Flames Go.” The Flames arrived home to a congratulatory celebration that filled a one-block radius around Olympic Plaza with an attendance rivaling the parades in Tampa.

These past two months did more than unite hockey fans. It made them. If the Flames emulate the pattern they set in 1986 and take the Cup in a dramatic rematch three years from now, there will be the euphoria of victory, but not the novelty and relief of finally getting everything right after an eight-to-fourteen-year drought that disillusioned all but the most faithful. Well, everything except the game that matters to the almanac editors.

Thank you, Calgary Flames. You did our city proud.

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