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Ruhks and Rooking Sep. 24th, 2016 @ 06:37 pm

It seems the Fifth Doctor had a harder time keeping his TARDIS together than the others. The entertaining 2008 audio play Time Reef involves much of the TARDIS interior being stolen and sold off by the Victorian street urchin Thomas Brewster, introduced in the earlier audio play The Haunting of Thomas Brewster. The Doctor is travelling only with Nyssa at this point, which places it well before the serial Frontios where the Fifth Doctor's TARDIS was torn to pieces and scattered underground.

Time Reef begins with Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) trying to cool the Doctor's (Peter Davison) temper at finding various little things out of place on the TARDIS after getting it back from Brewster (John Pickard) at the end of The Boy That Time Forgot. It turns out the Doctor has even better cause to be angry than he thinks when they're forced to land in some kind of trans-dimensional island where another crew is shipwrecked, a crew to whom Brewster had hawked whatever wasn't nailed down inside the TARDIS.

I liked that Brewster doesn't just turn out to be another good kid. It's what I always liked about Turlough, that there are things about him that are genuinely not nice. In this story, Nyssa talks about how her people on Traken make an effort to be reasonable with everyone and the story plays with the idea of how much unvarying pacifism can be practicable. This is another nice example, too, of the audio plays keeping Nyssa's character history in mind when writing for her.

Nyssa even reasons with a deadly Ruhk in Time Reef, its appearance as an antagonist to the shipwrecked crew of mercenaries making the story an entertaining reference to One Thousand and One Nights.

The events of Time Reef lead into a shorter audio play, A Perfect World, which is a funny little romance with a genuinely creepy, alternate, "perfect" version of 2008. Both stories were written by Marc Platt.

Twitter Sonnet #915

A travel bag betokens climes of sack.
Unknown the plateau spits the cacti pin.
Communed with ears leftover late of tack.
A social nine convened inside the den.
A vague dispatch concerned a vaulted dome.
In leather clouds announcements stuck to air.
The bicycle advanced through crops to home.
And then upon the desk there's just a pear.
Secreted in the drawer a cane abides.
Assisted walks revert to chairs and book.
A murder now to quiet cans the sides.
A country field affords a simple look.
Napoleon is knitting Satan's socks.
They're never short on time who've surfeit clocks.
Current Location: Part of the TARDIS
Current Mood: tiredtired
Current Music: "No One Knows I'm Gone" Tom Waits cover - Scarlett Johannson

Back Together Again Sep. 23rd, 2016 @ 05:43 pm

The reunification of Germany was like a family coming back together after a separation due to misunderstandings about philosophical differences. That's what 2003's Good Bye, Lenin! seems to be saying, at any rate, an enjoyable film heavily influenced by the tone of other art house films of the time and with a premise that seems to veer off from more satisfying explorations of the issues.

Daniel Bruhl plays Alex, a young man who grew up in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. His mother, Christiane (Katrin Sass), is a firm supporter of the country's socialist government. She also has a daughter, Ariane (Maria Simon), living with her and Alex but the father abruptly left home years ago for West Germany.

After witnessing Alex being arrested as part of an anti-government demonstration, Christiane has a heart attack and then remains in a coma before miraculously awakening after reunification. In order to avoid shocking her and risking another heart attack, Alex goes to elaborate efforts to make it seem to the bedridden Christiane that the old East German government is still operating. He scours shops and bins for old products and he carefully instructs people how to dress and behave when they visit Christiane.

There's a subplot about Alex's budding romance with Lara (Chulpan Khamatova), a Russian nurse, with whom he has a meet-cute at the demonstration. It's a simple story but I found it more interesting than Alex trying to hide reality from his mother which generally felt like it was pushing away from exploring anything. Still, the relationship between Alex's parents is obviously meant as an allegory for the two parts of Germany and it's hard to see how the film could end the deception of Christiane without spoiling its intentions.

It has a lot of the slightly magical coincidences I associate with early 2000s art house films, like Christiane seeing a flying statue of Lenin the one time she walks outside or Alex accidentally pulling out Christiane's IV drip while watching the nurse's legs, only for it to lead to him meeting Lara again. I was frequently reminded of Amelie even before I heard a piece of music in fact from the Amelie soundtrack and I later learned Yann Tiersen provided music for both films. I suspect the same music being in both films is why the Wikipedia entry is careful to note that Good Bye, Lenin! was "produced in 2001 and released in 2003."

Although I felt like the plot could have found better ways to explore the same ground, I did find the references to old East German products and culture fascinating.
Current Location: East, West
Current Mood: tiredtired
Current Music: "On a Slow Boat to China" - Dean Martin

Life in a Zero World Sep. 22nd, 2016 @ 02:06 pm

Re: Zero: Starting Life in Another World is like a long dream someone would have after staying up and playing Final Fantasy XIV and watching Neon Genesis Evangelion. Its plot is extraordinarily scattered and disconnected, filled with false starts, plot holes, and bizarrely extreme shifts in character. It lacks sufficient character building to support nearly everything that happens in the story between the characters. Yet I hesitate to call it a bad show. I guess I didn't like it but I didn't feel the way I normally do when I don't like a television show or movie. Normally a bad movie really annoys me, I don't like wasting my time. The implications behind the choices Re:Zero makes and the fact that it is very popular suggest fascinating things about the evolving nature of anime and its audience. The feeling I primarily had watching the show was pity.

I saw a YouTube comment for a new anime, I don't remember which anime, where someone pointed out it was similar to Neon Genesis Evangelion in some way. Someone replied to the comment by derisively referring to the person as an "anime master". And I suppose young anime fans must get sick of us older ones saying, "That's just like Evangelion". But the fact is, Evangelion's influence on anime remains profound, it almost seems like a religious obligation for a series to make some kind of nod to Evangelion at some point. Many young fans mistake it for a criticism to say one show or movie borrows something from an older one but this is simply how it's always been done. Artists always stand on the shoulders of the previous generation, are always creating art that reinterprets and digests the same themes and ideas from the artwork that inspired them to become artists in the first place. The creators of Re:Zero are not shy about acknowledging it--there are several conspicuous references to Evangelion, including a scene where Subaru, the male protagonist, wakes up in a strange bed and comments on the "unfamiliar ceiling" above him, a line directly from Evangelion.

Subaru wakes several times in this bed, it being his "save point" for his "return by death", this show's version of the Groundhog Day effect. When Subaru is killed, he wakes up at an earlier point in time and has a chance to do things differently. I mentioned in my last post about the show how much this effectively captured the experience of playing video games, the fact that Subaru's "save point" gradually moves up in time after completing tasks (and the fact that he calls it a save point) makes the video game inspiration even more clear.

At one point he wakes up and, just like Shinji in Evangelion, he finds Rei there waiting for him. Only in this series there are twin Reis with the similar names Rem and Ram. One has blue hair, like Rei, and one has pink hair. Of the harem of beautiful girls who inexplicably fall in love with Subaru, Rem has for some reason become the most popular which perhaps explains why the show comes to focus on her a great deal.

Like Rei, Rem initially seems emotionless and doll-like. Unlike Rei, she tries to kill the male protagonist at one point (though Rei could be pretty threatening, too). After this she becomes gratuitously infatuated with Subaru.

At least two female characters end up being thoroughly devoted to Subaru. Why? Who is Subaru? It's remarkable how little we learn about him. Unlike Shinji, we learn nothing about his parents, we don't know his relationship with them, we don't know if Subaru has or has had a job, how he's done in school, where he's lived before being transported to this world, whether he had an apartment or lived with his parents or someone else. At one point he reflects back to his life before coming to the other world and the show, absurdly, can only flash back to the first couple scenes when he's in a convenience store.

He expresses a lot of hatred for his own laziness and inability to measure up as a man, like Shinji, though in Subaru's case this isn't really supported by the events. Throughout the show, he always tries really hard to save the girl or kill the whale or do whatever it is he needs to do. He eventually fights some kind of priest wizards who refer to themselves by the names of sins, most notably one who is apparently Subaru's nemesis, Sloth. So maybe the idea is that Subaru's personality traits are externalised and the fights he engages in with them are a metaphor for an internal struggle. Thematically, this has the effect of rendering the struggle meaningless, and yet I can see how a young man who's continually told he's lazy might interpret the fight in this way if he doesn't understand how he's lazy. If he's unable to face his addiction to MMORPGs, for example, then he can only interpret a battle with sloth as something vague and impersonal.

One of the plot threads left dangling at the end of the series is the question as to why Subaru was given his return by death ability--we learn a powerful witch gave it to him but we never learn why or, for that matter, why he was transported to the world in the first place. He's not able to tell anyone about his return by death--when he does, ghostly hands grab his heart and threaten his life. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray's character is able to tell people that he's repeating the same day over and over but of course no-one believes him, so the story can maintain his emotional isolation. In the world of Re:Zero, where magic exists, if Subaru could tell Emilia or Rem about his return by death, there's a fair chance he'd be believed, thereby alleviating some of his isolation. The makers of Re:Zero felt it was important to maintain this isolation and it becomes easy to see why this would lead to a story that resonates with an otaku.

At one point, Subaru is slobbering and crying about how much Rem means to him and she has no idea what he's talking about, why he'd have this emotional attachment to her. It's because he's experiences several traumatic days with her which she can't remember. This is a nice mirror for the otaku who is obsessed with a particular anime character or idol. All the feelings are one sided--she means the world to him but she, at best, barely knows him. In most cases, she's not even aware of the same reality which he inhabits.

Sadomasochism is becoming increasingly prevalent in mainstream anime. Prison School is about as unabashed as it gets, featuring a high school where masochist boys are disciplined by a beautiful dominatrix faculty. Re:Zero is filled with scenes of Subaru being beaten by women, generally women he's attracted to. One woman even asks him to lick her foot and, when he tries to, she kicks him and insults him. The first time he's beaten by a male character, it's part of a humiliation in the eyes of Emilia who punishes him for trying to serve his own pride under the guise of helping her. This is part of a plot where several female candidates, including Emilia, are vying for a position as queen of the realm, a plot that's never resolved.

One of the other candidates, Crusch, helps Subaru at one point because he leads her to Moby Dick--called "the White Whale"--another new plot that comes out of nowhere but, unlike most of the others, is actually resolved, at which point Crusch inexplicably vanishes from the story though all her servants follow Subaru to Emilia's territory. They had agreed to fight the wizards threatening the area in exchange for Subaru showing them the location of the whale. One of their primary tasks is to evacuate the village, which is about an eighth the size of the mansion where Emilia lives.

When Subaru firsts wakes up at the mansion, he wants to be repaid for helping them in the first story arc by being given a job as a butler, which made me think the show was making a reference to Hayate no Gotoku. A parody series about a young man who becomes a "combat butler" for a pretty girl, the show is largely set in the girl's mansion which is ridiculously large, something that's obviously played for laughs when an exterior shot reveals it occupies a significant portion of Tokyo. The mansion where Emilia lives is about the same size but it's played straight. What is an unwalled, opulent manor doing in the middle of a mediaeval world, apparently presiding over a small village where everyone seems to be cool with living in comparatively meagre conditions? Well, the show isn't exactly strong on world building, much like it's not strong on character building. The interesting thing is how readily audiences accept this.

The mansion doesn't need an explanation because people have already seen mansions like it explained in other anime. Subaru doesn't need character development because other similar characters have already been developed in other anime. All this leads to a hazy, dreamlike show where girls sexually punish Subaru and then have expressive, rapturous, inexplicable affection. One episode has Rem really laying it on thick, talking about how much she adores Subaru, how much she admires him. She mentions again and again how amazing she thinks he is. Why does she feel this way? Because it's what the lonely, self-hating viewer needs her to feel and because we know so little about Subaru he's effectively as blank as a video game character, a cursor for the viewer to use as a proxy.

The final episode of the series is called "That's All This Story is About", which sounded to me like another way of saying, "We meant to do that." Given the abundance of meandering storylines and pointless threads, I'm not so sure about that. But the careful stroking of ego certainly seems quite intentional. In the end, there's a sad irony in its emulation of Evangelion. End of Evangelion in particular criticised the otaku who demands childlike, simple-minded beautiful women who only seem capable of adoration. Maybe Hideaki Anno didn't foresee how anime would turn this criticism into a ritualised masochism that the protagonist must pass in levels before achieving those same love dolls anyway.
Current Location: A badly drawn background
Current Mood: hungryhungry
Current Music: "Solitude" - Nina Simone

For the Love of a Beetle Sep. 21st, 2016 @ 05:47 pm

Lately I've been reading Richard Marsh's 1897 novel The Beetle and, rather appropriately, I caught these two Junebugs this morning having sex. I heard a loud buzzing after I'd stepped outside and saw these two outside my sister and brother-in-law's apartment, which is down the hall from mine.

As I was taking pictures, a third Junebug showed up, here flying directly between my camera and my subjects:

The pervert hung around to watch. Well, at least he wasn't taking pictures.

From the novel:

Slowly the eyes came on, with a strange slowness, and as they came they moved from side to side as if their owner walked unevenly. Nothing could have exceeded the horror with which I awaited their approach,—except my incapacity to escape them. Not for an instant did my glance pass from them,—I could not have shut my eyes for all the gold the world contains!—so that as they came closer I had to look right down to what seemed to be almost the level of my feet. And, at last, they reached my feet. They never paused. On a sudden I felt something on my boot, and, with a sense of shrinking, horror, nausea, rendering me momentarily more helpless, I realised that the creature was beginning to ascend my legs, to climb my body. Even then what it was I could not tell,—it mounted me, apparently, with as much ease as if I had been horizontal instead of perpendicular. It was as though it were some gigantic spider,—a spider of the nightmares; a monstrous conception of some dreadful vision. It pressed lightly against my clothing with what might, for all the world, have been spider's legs. There was an amazing host of them,—I felt the pressure of each separate one. They embraced me softly, stickily, as if the creature glued and unglued them, each time it moved.

Higher and higher! It had gained my loins. It was moving towards the pit of my stomach. The helplessness with which I suffered its invasion was not the least part of my agony,—it was that helplessness which we know in dreadful dreams. I understood, quite well, that if I did but give myself a hearty shake, the creature would fall off; but I had not a muscle at my command.

As the creature mounted its eyes began to play the part of two small lamps; they positively emitted rays of light. By their rays I began to perceive faint outlines of its body. It seemed larger than I had supposed. Either the body itself was slightly phosphorescent, or it was of a peculiar yellow hue. It gleamed in the darkness. What it was there was still nothing to positively show, but the impression grew upon me that it was some member of the spider family, some monstrous member, of the like of which I had never heard or read. It was heavy, so heavy indeed, that I wondered how, with so slight a pressure, it managed to retain its hold,—that it did so by the aid of some adhesive substance at the end of its legs I was sure,—I could feel it stick. Its weight increased as it ascended,—and it smelt! I had been for some time aware that it emitted an unpleasant, foetid odour; as it neared my face it became so intense as to be unbearable.

It was at my chest. I became more and more conscious of an uncomfortable wobbling motion, as if each time it breathed its body heaved. Its forelegs touched the bare skin about the base of my neck; they stuck to it,—shall I ever forget the feeling? I have it often in my dreams. While it hung on with those in front it seemed to draw its other legs up after it. It crawled up my neck, with hideous slowness, a quarter of an inch at a time, its weight compelling me to brace the muscles of my back. It reached my chin, it touched my lips,—and I stood still and bore it all, while it enveloped my face with its huge, slimy, evil-smelling body, and embraced me with its myriad legs. The horror of it made me mad. I shook myself like one stricken by the shaking ague. I shook the creature off. It squashed upon the floor. Shrieking like some lost spirit, turning, I dashed towards the window. As I went, my foot, catching in some obstacle, I fell headlong to the floor.

And did I mention the novel's set in June?

Published at the same time as Bram Stoker published Dracula, there are a remarkable number of similarities between the works--a villain who's foreign and sexual, the story is told in first person by several characters, and an expert comes in later in the novel as a saviour. Both books have unmistakable sexually transgressive qualities, the foreign menace leading its ordinary English citizens into strange lusts and pleasures, indulgences vaguely associated with the East in the Victorian imagination.

In a young scientist named Sydney Atherton, one of the heroes and narrators, the book seems to have a descendent of Dr. Frankenstein in his monstrous attempts to control and dominate nature in the name of progress. In one fascinating scene, he wields electricity in his laboratory to intimidate the villain who is awed by his control of the elements. The villain, referred to at this point as "the Arab", is a fascinating piece of gender exploration--people have trouble deciding if the Arab is a man or a woman and may in fact be both.

The subtext of this novel seems so obvious that it almost doesn't feel worthwhile interpreting it. And yet it must have been something its readers generally didn't pick up on consciously.

Another of the principle characters is a politician who is desperately trying to hide a past that involves the Arab in some way. It's very difficult not to read it as a homosexual affair that obviously would have been detrimental to his career.

I'm enjoying the book. The similarities to Dracula lead me to contemplate which I like better--I would say Dracula for its atmosphere and greater depth of detail for its villain. But The Beetle is quite good.

Twitter Sonnet #914

The horse retained the crop to sing at speed.
The clouds appear as spears against the sky.
The rain obscures the tracks of cohort steed.
In fossil bark rebounds the silent cry.
Compassion slides with lurking depths of salt.
Compiled tanks of air ascend to God.
A hairline traced the hopeless walking vault.
Discovered slips permit the feet unshod.
Dissolved in cleaning products ice relaxed.
Predictions dropped before the hat could fall.
A halibut abused the bottle tax.
In wooden ships the rings can tell it all.
A diet dwells in factories too big.
The growing head distorts the humble wig.
Current Location: A trellis
Current Mood: busybusy
Current Music: "Per un vecchio bambino" - Roberto Vecchioni

The World in a Small Metal Shell Sep. 20th, 2016 @ 08:10 pm

Nazi U-boat crews had a pretty tough time, especially towards the end of World War II, as 1981's Das Boot makes viscerally clear. How audacious, to make a movie where the protagonists are Nazis, though oddly their motives for fighting are never mentioned. The film is about perspective, about exploring a point of view by omitting details. The Nazi philosophy and the faces of their enemies are all absent, distilling the story to a vividly human struggle.

We mostly don't see women, either--I watched the director's cut so I don't know how the miniseries of theatrical cut might be different. But in the version I watched, we see a woman performing and all but making out with the rowdy U-boat crew before they're sent off and women, to their dismay, are absent. The crew makes up for it by writing letters to sweethearts and telling tales of sexual adventures to each other. At one point a crewman even dances dressed as Josephine Baker.

Through their harrowing engagements with British vessels, we never once get a shot of a British crew bustling about on deck of a destroyer, firing cannons, or speculating on the location of the U-boat. Instead, after sighting the enemy from a distance, we follow the crew inside the submarine where we watch as they tensely wait for the subtle sounds that indicate a torpedo they've launched hit the British or for the catastrophic effects of a British depth charge.

This I really loved. In this simple decision, so much of the experience is communicated to the viewer--the enemy as a mysterious blank, the horrible wait to see if water is suddenly going to explode through the bulkheads, shattering long silences where we watch so much of the fear being digested in the face of the captain played by Jurgen Prochnow.

I feel like it's kind of a cheat that the crew never once talks about why they're fighting. In British or American World War II films, it's not uncommon for the characters to mention why they've been called to lay down their lives--certainly it's something officers bring up time and again in speeches. The crew of a U-boat must have been dosed with volumes of Nazi propaganda, it would have been logical to hear them talking about it. I think it would have been a stronger film if the truly nightmarish plight of these seamen where coupled with an expression of their beliefs. Showing the troubles of soldiers who subscribe to an odious philosophy would make for a more complex tale. It's true, we all know what the Nazis believe, but sidestepping it still seems odd and feels like a false note.

But I certainly can't fault this film for effective sounds and visuals. The claustrophobic atmosphere in the sub, the performances, the invigorating music, are all impressive.
Current Location: Under the sea
Current Mood: busybusy
Current Music: "Why Can't I Be You?" - The Cure
Other entries
» Sherwood Justice

Star Trek: The Next Generation started out pretty well when it came to gender roles. It had a female chief of security and men wearing dresses. But then Denise Crosby left the show in the first season and afterwards the show was criticised for having its only principle female characters, Beverly Crusher and Deanna Troi, in caretaker roles. This was the case for years until the show introduced the recurring character Ensign Ro, a former resistance fighter played by Michelle Forbes, in the fifth season. There were plenty of guest female characters in between the first and fifth season who occupied more traditionally male roles as fighters and leaders (perhaps most notably Lt. Commander Shelby from "Best of Both Worlds") but at times the show could be downright regressive as I was reminded last night watching the fifth season episode, "Qpid".

Kids like Q (John de Lancie), I think, because he's very much like a child. And as an omnipotent being he gets to cut through all that boring adult stuff that usually happens on the show. By my twenties, I'd started to find Q annoying but in my thirties I started being mildly amused by him again. In this episode, he wants to pay Picard back for helping him when he briefly lost his powers in the superior third season episode "Deja Q" and he chooses to do so by helping mend fences--or place a permanent barrier between, it's unclear which--Picard and Vash.

Introduced in the also superior third season episode "Captain's Holiday" (I've always said the third season was the best season), Vash is a pretty exciting character, a sly hedonist tomb raider played by Jennifer Hetrick. When she visits the Enterprise for the first time in "Qpid" (breaking into Picard's quarters), she's a bit put out to discover that Picard hasn't told anyone about her, despite the fact that the two had been lovers as well as fellow adventurers.

It's a plot that infantilises everyone a little bit. Picard for being so flustered at introducing Vash to his friends and Vash for being so angry that she hasn't been mentioned. The captain of a Federation starship hasn't told his crew that he slept with a thief, and the thief is upset by the faux pas. Does Picard know about everyone Riker's slept with?

But both Hetrick and Patrick Stewart are very good in the episode. Hetrick's good at being genuinely charming and deceptive--she never gives any big winks to the camera; if we didn't know from story events that she's lying to certain people she's trying to seduce, we wouldn't know either. And I like her slightly delayed reaction when Beverly first tells her Picard hasn't mentioned her. Even better is Patrick Stewart who somehow makes it look plausible that in this matter the consummately mature captain can be blushing boy.

Q decides it would be a good idea to turn this into a Robin Hood story with Picard as Robin Hood and Vash as Maid Marian. Not that the themes in any way reflect the stories of Robin Hood.

Amusingly, Q is at a loss at first when Vash happily goes along with the idea of marrying Guy of Gisbourne but before long she's playing the damsel in distress he wants.

There's a big sword battle at the end where the men fight while Troi and Crusher awkwardly drop flower pots on people's heads. This already seemed cock-eyed to me, then I read on the episode's Memory Alpha Page:

Ironically, Marina Sirtis [Troi] and Gates McFadden [Crusher] were the only members of the cast that were trained in sword fighting, but only the men were allowed to use swords.

The entry has a quote from the episode's director, Cliff Bole;

I got a few letters about 'Qpid' that the women who wrote asked why weren't the ladies involved in a more modern way with the fighting. It was my feeling that we went back to the 12th century and we were doing the 12th century, and I can't change history.

Yes, like the historically accurate moment when Data takes some little breaker out of his arm and makes a bomb. Not to mention, with all the nods to the Errol Flynn movie, it's pretty clearly a fantasy version of the middle ages. Ugh.
» Dreams of Feast and Liqueur

It was nice to see some new material in this month's Sirenia Digest--two strange new pieces by Caitlin R. Kiernan, a wonderful short story called "Animals Pull the Night Around Their Shoulders" and the first part of a collection of vignettes called "THE CHARTREUSE ALPHABET".

An exploration of predatory instincts connected to sexuality is not new territory for Caitlin but it feels like it's been a while since she's developed it in a domestic setting like the one depicted in "Animals Pull the Night Around Their Shoulders". Caitlin is frequently compared to Shirley Jackson and certainly one can see something of Jackson's tone invoked ably here in a protagonist we're introduced to peering out her upstairs window at a package delivered to her porch which she won't retrieve for unexplained reasons. This is not to say her behaviour makes no sense, there's a real insight into human nature and the juxtaposition with the character's recollections regarding a sexual relationship bring a peculiar life to the piece as a whole. There seem to be some nods to the mythology from Threshold and her other novels from before her books The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl. The Lovecraftian supernatural elements from Caitlin's earlier works blend well with the more psychological quality of her more recent novels.

"THE CHARTREUSE ALPHABET" presents A through M of vignettes inspired by each letter of the alphabet, something she previously did for her "Crimson Alphabet". Vignettes for letters now include Ambergris for A and Fungi for F--my favourite of the lot, a vignette without speaking characters, just a narrative contemplation of a remote space, beautiful and alien. Caitlin took suggestions on Facebook for vignette titles for each letter and I was pleased she chose my suggestion of Morphine for M, and I was even happier that the resulting vignette was related to Dracula, a book I've found myself thinking of lately again.

The Digest also includes an issue of Caitlin's work on The Dreaming, a very nice comic series spin-off of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman which featured stories by several authors, Caitlin's being by far my favourite.

Twitter Sonnet #913

A screen inside the tube did not exist.
The steps we counted came to twenty feet.
Distance reworked rulers we won't resist.
The tape unrolled on the fake leather seat.
In bubbles glass asserts contorted edge.
A row of bricks can tell of chimneys lost.
A brittle hood advanced behind the hedge.
The turtle's sorting sand, each pebble's tossed.
A toe too close in bowls belonged to fish.
Adjourning to adventure jams the colt.
The candy stacked in wraps'll tap the dish.
Authority advanced the thought in bolt.
At range too close to furnish blanks we shot.
Dismay abuts delight along the lot.

» Worth More than Silver

The Cybermen on Doctor Who really haven't been menacing to me since the Second Doctor era. The black and white helped enhance the creep factor of their scary doll faces, though they were even better in The Tenth Planet when it was just a cloth mask. Just imagine how much creepier they'd be than in their current Power Rangers getup if their masks were a thin material barely concealing rotting flesh? Somehow vulnerability is scary, I suppose because it reflects mortality. Think of the Mummy or Dracula in his coffin. Or the lady in the bathtub in Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining.

That's partly why the 2002 audio play Spare Parts is one of the best Doctor Who stories, because it took the Cybermen back to their cold, walking dead surgery addict roots. As much as I did like the two part finale of Peter Capaldi's first season, I would have liked it so much better with the old Cybermen. Though the story did tap something of their old means of menace by focusing a great deal on the dead people inside the shell.

Last night I listened to the 2008 Seventh Doctor audio play Kingdom of Silver and its short follow-up Keepsake, the two stories again presenting an older model of Cybermen, with the distinctive sing-song voice. It's a nice, entertaining tale about the potential for technology to be used for good or evil ends.

It seems to be another one set between the 1989 end of the classic series and the 1996 TV movie--The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) is travelling without a companion and encounters two temporary companions for the story, a mysterious traveller named Temeter (Neil Roberts) and, later in the story, the woman Temeter loves, Sara (Kate Terence). They visit the planet Tasak where Cybermen technology has ironically been used to create peace between two nations. The story also involves artificial lifeforms separate from the Cybermen, complicating the organics versus technology idea further.

The little follow-up story, Keepsake, is a nice, rare instance where we see what happens when the Doctor encounters evidence of one of his older adventures and discovers things didn't quite work out as it seemed they were going to before he popped off in his TARDIS. A nice, bitter-sweet coda.
» Too Warm

It's strange how quickly an obviously good idea can turn into something very bad. Nikita Mikhalkov directed and starred in 1994's Burnt by the Sun, the story of a Red Army hero named Kotov and some of the effects of the new Soviet Union on his family. An entertaining film with charismatic stars in Mikhalkov and his adorable young daughter, the film is unabashedly anti-Soviet. In the end, it has just as much bias as Battleship Potemkin, but it weaves a more complicated story before showing who is the clear villain and the clear hero. Watching the characters and trying to figure out what they're trying to do and what their motives are is a pretty engrossing exercise.

A young man named Mitya (Oleg Menshikov), a friend of the family from childhood, shows up at the large house where Kotov lives with the large family of his wife, Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapkunaite). Mitya now behaves in an erratic, manic way and it's heavily hinted that he and Maroussia had a romantic relationship in the past which she wants to rekindle despite her better judgement. The movie subverts expectations, though, when we learn just how much this seemingly private drama is related to the Soviet government.

Burnt by the Sun was released just three years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Communist regime that throughout its history restricted the content of art that could be released. A period known as the Khrushchev Thaw began after the death of Stalin in 1953 that allowed for art to at least be more diverse, allowing a great filmmaker like Tarkovsky to develop his work in the country. But direct criticism of the Soviet government and unflattering depictions of its history were restricted, leading to Vasily Grossman's 1967 film Kommissar not being released for twenty years and its director barely avoiding arrest. Mikhalkov exercised a new freedom in depicting the negative aspects of the Soviet Union and presents the regime as being supported by people with good intentions but ultimately defenceless to corruption. The film's sequel, Burnt by the Sun 2, also directed by and starring Nikita Mikhalkov, is a much clearer propaganda film--it was endorsed and possibly funded by Putin--but the first film is much more subtle. Kotov for most of the first film presents an ideal aspect of the Soviet Union, telling his daughter (played by Mikhalkov's real life daughter Nadya) how the intention of the new government was to make sure no-one ever had to go without the basic needs for living.

Hints at the cultural differences between pre- and post-Communist Russia permeate the film. French is sometimes spoken by Maroussia's family, egged on by Mitya playing Offenbach on the piano, the language being the traditional language of the aristocracy and bourgeois of Tsarist Russia. Kotov naturally rankles at the sound of it. In telling Nadya a fairy tale, Mitya checks himself when he accidentally mentions the Philistines, biblical references now being prohibited as part of government restrictions on religion. Maroussia's grandmothers feverishly avoid the new government enforced safety drills during which they find themselves prodded disagreeably.

Mikhalkov also makes extensive references to Hamlet throughout the film, the play serving as a subtextual template which he subverts to evoke the sense of destabilisation in Soviet culture. Mitya directly refers to Hamlet in his conversation with Maroussia and at this point one would have great difficulty not spotting the similarities in plot. In Mitya's first scene, we see him courting suicide by playing Russian Roulette, a sort of physical manifestation of Hamlet's “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy. His erratic behaviour throughout the film recalls the famous question about whether Prince Hamlet is mad or only pretending to be mad. Mitya even stages a sort of play for the family that clearly reflects and rebukes the actions of several characters watching, just as Hamlet does in Shakespeare's play. Maroussia has also tried to kill herself but she explains to Mitya that slashing her wrists failed because she was not submerged in water—unlike Ophelia who succeeded in killing herself in water. But Maroussia is a combination of Ophelia and Hamlet's mother Gertrude since she's married to the Claudius of the film, Kotov. Hamlet is about the Prince wondering if he should revenge his murdered father by killing his new father figure, the murderer and new ruler, Claudius. With the imagery of paternal figures used throughout Soviet propaganda, the fact that Kotov is a father figure—demonstrated through his relationship with Nadya—and a war hero makes him an usurping father figure like Claudius, particularly since he's taken the woman Mitya saw as reserved for him. The end of the film turns all this completely on its head, though. In doing so, the film reflects the sense of instability and distrust that ran alongside familiarity and rhetoric that emphasised community and brotherhood in the Soviet Union. It was hard to know who to trust, the film demonstrates.
» Moving Down the Tracks

Here's a big beautiful grasshopper from the trolley station a few days ago. With my fingers for scale:

Nearby, some birds bathed in the dirt:

In addition to saving money on gasoline by taking the trolley, it's a much safer way to read and travel at the same time (not that I've tried reading and driving). Yesterday I finished reading Le Pere Goriot, an 1835 novel by Honore Balzac, part of a series by him called La Comedie Humaine. It's a novel both lovely and terribly insightful. I haven't read much French literature so I don't know how many trends it shared with Britain and the U.S. but the attitude of the novel seems much in line with the anti-romanticism of Poe or Melville while at the same time it has a great appreciation for aesthetic beauty.

During the day a glimpse into the garden is easily obtained through a wicket to which a bell is attached. On the opposite wall, at the further end of the gravelled walk, a green marble arch was painted once upon a time by a local artist, and in this semblance of a shrine a statue representing Cupid is installed; a Parisian Cupid, so blistered and disfigured that he looks like a candidate for one of the adjacent hospitals, and might suggest an allegory to lovers of symbolism.

Well, that's a sort of ugly beauty. The novel mostly follows a young law student named Rastingac who quickly abandons his career when knowledgeable people around him impress upon him the importance of moving up in society. Among the colourfully and insightfully described inhabitants of the boarding house where Rastingac stays is the Pere, or Father, Goriot of the title who, despite living in poverty, has two daughters who dwell in the high society of Bourbon Restoration Paris. Here Rastingac meets one of the daughters, who is a Countess by marriage:

Rastignac turned abruptly and saw her standing before him, coquettishly dressed in a loose white cashmere gown with knots of rose-coloured ribbon here and there; her hair was carelessly coiled about her head, as is the wont of Parisian women in the morning; there was a soft fragrance about her—doubtless she was fresh from a bath;—her graceful form seemed more flexible, her beauty more luxuriant. Her eyes glistened. A young man can see everything at a glance; he feels the radiant influence of woman as a plant discerns and absorbs its nutriment from the air; he did not need to touch her hands to feel their cool freshness. He saw faint rose tints through the cashmere of the dressing gown; it had fallen slightly open, giving glimpses of a bare throat, on which the student's eyes rested. The Countess had no need of the adventitious aid of corsets; her girdle defined the outlines of her slender waist; her throat was a challenge to love; her feet, thrust into slippers, were daintily small.

In here you see a combination of Balzac's tendency to carefully describe the beauty of Parisian fashion and his tendency to make assertions about human nature through character description. I can imagine this being an annoying tendency from anyone less insightful than Balzac. But generally when he says something like that I found myself saying, "Yes, he's right" or at the very least, "Maybe so." It's half novel and half psychological philosophy text. Here he talks about the landlady of the boarding house after she's discovered a man she was attracted to isn't quite the catch she thought:

Mme. Vauquer's aversion was naturally more energetic than her friendship, for her hatred was not in proportion to her love, but to her disappointed expectations. The human heart may find here and there a resting-place short of the highest height of affection, but we seldom stop in the steep, downward slope of hatred.

Balzac has his version of the Byronic or Satanic hero--or his embodiment of his criticisms of the Byronic hero--in a charming, ruthless gentleman named Vautrin. I couldn't help thinking of Paradise Lost when Balzac describes him as, "like a fallen archangel who is for war to the end."

Vautrin isn't quite the full fledged anti-Byronic hero like Captain Ahab--he's permitted some genuine insight and one realises he may simply be a more talented version of a very common individual in Parisian society. Vautrin becomes a contrasting father figure to Goriot whose unfaltering devotion and self-sacrifice to his daughters is more than once explicitly described as Christ-like. But increasingly, as the novel goes on, and so you almost don't notice it, the real god, money, exerts stronger and stronger influence until in the last portion of the novel no basic human consideration is sacred enough to forestall a trip to the pawnbroker. I kept thinking of Mikio Naruse's films and his characters who are always ensnared by a world that demands money at every turn and how Naruse said that whenever his characters try to move just a little bit they hit a wall.

Twitter Sonnet #912

A curving bow beneath the jaundiced throat;
The duster brows above the squinting smirk;
So he was known by cracking leather bloat,
Manured hay, his wig goes to its work.
Balloon he was above his own parade.
The eggy man appraised without his mind.
Like cells, the sugar clogs his lemonade.
He's but a clone from mouldy orange rind.
The secret sheen upon the blazer dripped.
In swinging thoughts, a dang'rous tunnel gnawed.
From green old copper cups his skin has sipped.
A script of barren sand lay in his awe.
His burger face jammed up the microscope:
Two raisins sank in rotten cantaloupe.

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