Sunday, December 27, 2009

Periodic album review

What's the poison for the last few weeks? Let's see...

The xx, "xx" (Young Turks Records, 2009)

The first album by The xx, an English indie rock band.  I was recommended the album by a friend.  It is quite impressive.  At once ethereal, at once exciting.  At once calm, at once frenetic.  It is a pensive album that appears to play into the legacy created for it by dream pop, while at the same time moving it both closer to mainstream and, paradoxically, also in a new, inspiring direction.  Worth your valuable dollars.

Florence and the Machine, "Lungs" (Island, 2009)

Another British indies album.  This is Indie pop at its best.  Florence Welch has an amazing voice, and it is well-complemented by these catchy tracks which feel unexpectedly exciting.  Putting aside the tracks that have garnered them mainstream success, I enjoy in particular their second single, "Dog Days Are Over" (T1) and "Cosmic Love" (T9).  I'm curious as to where they will go after this.  Worth your valuable dollars.


This is DAISHI DANCE's first album in two years, after doing the famous "the Ghibli set" album and a string of remixes, particularly for Nakashima Mika, whose collaboration track "Memory" is probably the cornerstone of this album (also having been featured in a prominent commercial for the Kanebo cosmetic line "KATE" this year.).  The album continues DAISHI DANCE's trademark piano-based house style, this time mixing it with more famous vocals such as COLDFEET and Kinbara Chieko, as well as instrumental collaborations with the shamisen players the Yoshida brothers.  It's a very solid album, but it doesn't seem quite to match the "punch" that their last original album, 2007's "MELODIES MELODIES," had.  Still, some of the tracks are quite standout, and it's nice to see DAISHI DANCE experimenting with how to integrate their unique sound in new ways.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Periodic album review

Gareth Gates, “What My Heart Wants to Say” (SonyBMG, 2002)

After letting this one sit on my shelf since it was released, I finally got around to listening to it this week in procrastinating bliss. Gates is the runner-up in the first round of Pop Idol, the British show that produced Will Young, as well as its more renowned American spin-off American Idol and the trend of the musical reality show. Overall, the album is well-balanced and very much intended for Gates’ voice. “Unchained Melody” and “What My Heart Wants to Say” are the stand-out tracks of the album, but listening to it in light of all the Idol winners and runner-ups that have released CDs since then, the album really shows how time has altered the franchise. The album is mainly songs that would be sung by a singer on the show, rehashes of “classic” songs with classy band accompaniments. Good, neither outstanding nor disappointing.

Aoyama Thelma 青山テルマ, “Emotions” (Universal Music LLC, 2009)

Thelma’s first album, “Diary,” was surprisingly balanced and well-crafted for someone who was in danger of being a one-hit wonder with the hit number “Soba ni iru ne,” an answer song to the earlier “Koko ni iru yo” featuring SoulJa (who has not fared as well in the music world). This second album continues to hone the R&B sound created in the first album, and without a stand-out song to draw attention from the album as a whole, the pieces appear to fit together even better than before. The only “bad” song on the album is “WANNA COME AGAIN,” inspired by m-flo’s “come again,” which is a jarring disruption from the mellow beats of the album, but which stands well on its own. Worth your valuable dollars.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Amalfi Megami no Hoshu

After a great day in Shinjuku, mostly spent watching an Okinawan festival that was taking place, I thought what better way to wrap up the day than seeing a film. I ended up seeing Amalfi Megami no hoshu (Amalfi: The Goddess' Toll). This film (hereafter Amalfi) is supposed to be FujiTV's 50th anniversary work. The network opened in 1959 and is one of the major networks in Japan. Furthermore, they've diversified their production into films as well, based mostly on the success of their drama division.

If we're thinking about what 50 years of FujiTV is supposed to really mean, what FujiTV is really celebrating with Amalfi (and probably will celebrate again in a few more years or so) is the success of their drama division, which probably really only encompasses about 30 or so years of the network's dominance. Although certainly FujiTV was very successful with variety shows and such, I think that their big successes came in the 80s and the ramp-up in production of television dramas (dorama). FujiTV really made their name during this time, especially when they gained dominance over the Monday, 9 p.m. hour, now referred to merely as the "gekku" block (gek comes from getsu for Monday, ku from the number nine) with a series of hit trendy dramas in the early 90s such as Tokyo Love Story (1991), 101-kai me no propose (The 101st Proposal, 1991), Long Vacation (1996) and so on.

My insistence on this celebration of FujiTV really being one of their drama prowess is more apparent if you look at the cast and staff in the film. The original proposal for the film was to start with star Oda Yuji and build a cast and story around him. It's actually quite relevant to center a film around Oda: he made his drama debut on FujiTV in the late 80s, he was the star of one of Fuji's earliest successes, Tokyo Love Story, and he is also the person responsible for much of the network's later successes and dominance. To older folks, Oda's probably well known for his star turn in Tokyo Love Story, but to the next generation, he's probably most famous for his appearance in the Odoru Daisosassen (Bayside Shakedown) series. Based on the incredible popularity of this series, which became quite a large franchise, with cinematic, direct-to-video and (in recent years) online installments, it is clear that it is this version of Oda Yuji that they're playing on, rather than the love-struck 20 year old he played in Tokyo Love Story. This is further supported by the appearance of much of the staff from the series and even some of the cast, as is to be expected by their success with the Odoru Daisosassen franchise.

It's also relevant that the film does also share some similarities with that franchise, both having elements of suspense and mystery (particularly the Odoru Daisosassen films). What Amalfi does not share with its predecessor (despite being strongly advertised as being in line with the series and films) is the everyman humor and joviality that is more played up there. Amalfi is definitely intended to be a serious, intense film from start to finish. In this way, it succeeds more or less, in conveying a sense of intensity and foreboding.

I have been speaking of FujiTV in regards to its larger history, but more immediately, FujiTV is also coming off a great year in 2008. They produced one of the top films of that year, Yogisha X no Kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X, 2008), another adaptation from a drama franchise, this time the Galileo franchise starring Fukuyama Masaharu and Shibasaki Kou. Furthermore, FujiTV's production partner, Toho Studios, dominated 2008 in terms of films produced and box office gross. It is actually the director of Yogisha X no Kenshin, Nishitani Hiroshi, who is in charge of Amalfi (Coincidentally, Yogisha X no Kenshin also underwent a loss of humor in its transition from drama to film). The cast, as explained before, starts with Oda Yuji and is quite star-studded, filled with names who are famous through their appearances in dramas and who have all done a good deal of work with FujiTV. In particular, Oda shares the stage with Amami Yuki (Hashi no Ame (The Rain on the Bridge, 1996), Top Caster (2006); I am only noting FujiTV dramas here), Toda Erika (Houkago (After School, 2004), Engine (2006)) and Sato Koichi (Shinai naru mono he (To the One I Love the Most, 1992), Pride (2004)), with an odd and sadly underused cameo by Fukuyama Masaharu, who played one of the protagonists in Yogisha X no Kenshin. The film follows Oda Yuji, a bureaucrat newly posted to the Japanese consulate in Italy, when he becomes embroiled in a kidnapping incident and must negotiate for the release of a young girl while at the same time developing feelings for the girl's mother (Amami Yuki). Amalfi can also boast (if it really wants to) that it is FujiTV's largest budget film yet, featuring all on-location shooting in Italy (except, apparently, for one scene that had to be reshot on Toho stages), and even features an appearance by Sarah Brightman.

Actually, Sarah Brightman is a good way to start getting into Amalfi and trying to explain it. When one thinks of Italy, one definitely does not think of Sarah Brightman. I actually tried to spend a little bit of time trying to fathom a direct connection. In fact, the connection has to be made through mediation of Japan, as Sarah Brightman's song "Time to Say Goodbye ~ Con te partiro" has actually been quite popular in Japan in 2008 and she enjoys a good amount of celebrity in Japan as well. It's difficult to think of an Italian female vocalist of similar fame in Japan. That is to say, this film may purport to focus on Italy, but ultimately Italy serves merely as a locale for a film in which both investigators and perpetrators are all Japanese, and the film is, as a consequence, depicted very much using the codes of Japanese narrative storytelling, despite attempting very much to use a so-called "Western" "blockbuster" cinematic style that has been developed in popular Hollywood cinema over the last few years..

This disjoint between storytelling and cinematic style is part of the problem of this film: Amalfi never quite figures out what it wants to be, and definitely is unable to escape the dominance of a specifically American type of cinematic presence. Overall, Amalfi is a good version of the director of Yogisha X no Kenshin (we're going to temporarily put aside the fact that the only other real film Nishitani directed, besides his tons of television dramas, was the supermarket drama Kencho no Hoshi, which, coincidentally, also starred Oda Yuji), directing the star of Odoru Daisosassen in doing his best impression of the Da Vinci Code series (or, worse and perhaps more appropriate, The Interpreter). The climactic scene is a mishmash of Japanese, Italian and English, but once the major revelations of the film have to be made, it's interesting to note that, despite being set in Italy and making it clear that Oda, Sato and Sato's three accomplices all understand Italian during this scene, the pivotal conversations take place in English. Of course, to a Japanese person, it shouldn't matter whether it's Italian or English, as there still appear subtitles at the bottom of the screen.

Or does it? Amalfi is a film that, ironically for FujiTV's 50th anniversary production, is very much invested in being as "foreign" as possible. While the nature of this "foreignness" appears to be overtly Italian, however, in terms of the methods of production and planning going into the film, it's distinctly American, or at least bound strongly in the notion of English and English-speaking culture. It is this rhetoric within which Amalfi is trying to react. Sometimes, the film's actions manifest as a type of resistance, such as the film's use of Italian and Italy as locale. At others, it is a form of complicit subjugation, caused by using English in pivotal scenes and bringing in Sarah Brightman, singing in Italian, in a kind of nudge-nudge-wink-wink to Japanese audiences. While Amalfi may be an exaltation of the romantic Italy, in reality it's definitely an Italy that is filtered through not only Japanese eyes but also the American/Hollywood codes and cultural presence which dominate cinema today.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Juryoku Piero

I've been spending the summer in Japan. As a result, I've gotten the chance to catch up with films that I've wanted to see, both in theaters and on DVD. I hope to discuss some of these films that I have been seeing and offer my vague, disembodied thoughts on them.

In my previous entry, I discussed MW and the ways that it attempts to use the spectacle to distract the audience from the morally flawed self-righteousness of one of its protagonist. In that entry, I discussed the film Juryoku Piero (Gravity's Clowns) as a similar film that dealt with that same type of morality. In fact, while Juryoku Piero does operate within the context of a similarly flawed ethical system, at the same time it operates on a much more personal level than MW. Whether this makes the questions regarding the actions of the film's characters any more or less relevant is for the audience to decide.

Juryoku Piero stars Okada Masaki (Tennen kokekko (A Gentle Breeze in the Village, 2008), Harufuuei (Halfway, 2008)) and Kase Ryo (Soredemo boku wa yattenai (But I Just Didn't Do It, 2007), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)) as two brothers whose mother was raped, raised the child borne out of that rape and tragically died in a car accident. The child of their mother's rape is Okada Masaki's character, Haru, who is the younger brother to Kase Ryo's character, Izumi. Izumi grows up and becomes a college student studying biology; Haru becomes a graffiti remover. A series of arson cases break out in their hometown, all connected to graffiti art that appears to signal the arson. As the two investigate this series of arson cases, a disturbing pattern emerges that connects the two to the man who raped their mother.

It almost seems like it should be a crime to adapt Isaka Kotaro novels for the screen. It's never that the adaptations are bad, but more that Isaka's writing style is extremely cinematic. He often attempts to describe scenes in painstaking detail, and the events of his novels flow very well, to the point that it is sometimes as if a film is playing out in one's head. That being said, it means that his novels appear to lend themselves very easily to film adaptation, as is particularly apparent based on the increasing number of film adaptations that have been occurring as of late. Even right now, two films, this and Rasshu raifu (Lush Life), another based on an Isaka novel, are both in theaters at the same time. The only thing that the film doesn't adapt from the novel that is noticeable is Isaka's trademark tongue-in-cheek humor, which seems appropriate given the dark tone of the subject matter.

That being said, Juryoku Piero flows quite well, and the pace of the film develops at a very good pace. It might not be a longshot to state that the film, actually, is quite conventional in its method of storytelling. One noticeable thing that stands out, as some reviewers pointed out, is the age difference between Kase Ryo (who is 34) and Okada Masaki (who is 19). Since the brothers are theoretically only two years apart, the real difference in their age seems rather noticeable here. Other than that, the two actors work quite well together, and they are supported by Kohinata Fumiyo as their father (subtly permuting his usual happy-go-lucky character role), as well as Suzuki Kyoka as their mother. Suzuki in particular does a good job with the few scenes that she is given. Despite being somewhat standard in camera technique, the film does its job and does it well, mostly thanks to director Mori Junichi, who also directed Laundry, which I rather enjoyed.

While I doubt this was intended to be the ultimate message of the film, I was disturbed by the message of the film. To spoil the film and make its long story short, Haru ends up killing the man who raped his father. At the same time, this crime, while recognized as wrong within the diegesis of the film, is forgiven because it is "justified," as the rapist was a serial rapist and is overall depicted as scum in the film. Ultimately, the film purports to be about notions of nature or nurture and the influence that genetics has on the way that people develop and mature. This is expressed in the ambiguity that leads to Haru's incidents of violence and his decision to murder the rapist, brought in line with Izumi's own parallel plans to do the same (it is particularly interesting that Haru's plans to kill the rapist involve fire, while Izumi's plans involve water). While the film uses these elements and others to delineate the issues surrounding the debate and effectively juxtapose Haru and Izumi against one another in the process, the film falls flat in the end. Haru is not held responsible for his actions, and instead it appears that his actions are justified in the fact that the rapist committed many crimes and made many people's lives miserable.

To mask this, once again, spectacle is used. Instead of the hollywood-style spectacle that characterizes a film like MW, instead this film relies on a sentimentality of imagery that recalls a certain sensational response bound up in nature. This kind of trope is most apparent in the first and last scenes: the first shot amidst falling cherry blossoms, and the second at the boys' wooden home in a forest-like setting, utilizing slow motion and a piano soundtrack to enhance the sentimentality. This is the charm of the Mori Junichi film, which is his ability to give poignance and meaning to trivial scenes that are often meaningless in real life. However, unlike Laundry, which appears to convey messages of redemption and forgiveness, Juryoku Piero instead sends a dangerous message that, not only should certain crimes never be forgiven and certain criminals never be redeemed, but also that the escape from criminal consequences is a vicious cycle. The rapist may not wish redemption, but the only way for him to be held accountable for his crime and escape its specter is for the rapist to be killed by Haru. In turn, Haru is able to escape accountability for his actions, both in the diegesis and in the exegesis, which escapes the explanation of culpability to the audience by ending the film in slow-motion sentimentality. Thus, the film ends with the onus resting solely on the audience, who end up holding the criminal guilt that has flowed through the film, and who must decide what to take away from the film by receiving that guilt.

Monday, July 13, 2009


Tonight, I got a late night call from a friend who wanted to go see MW. MW, for those who don't know, is a film based on the manga series of the same name (published in 1976-1978) by the famed creator Tezuka Osamu. The film tells the story of two characters: Garai Yutaro, a priest who is played by Yamada Takayuki (Densha Otoko (Train Man, 2005), the Crows ZERO series), and Yuki Michio, a terrorist played by Tamaki Hiroshi, (Nodame Cantabile (2006 TV Drama)). The film traces the relationship between Garai and Yuki, survivors of a military massacre which acted as an attempted cover-up of an incident involving the release of a nerve gas called MW on their home island, Okinomabunejima. The two escape to the main island of Japan, where Garai becomes a priest and Yuki a banker. Yuki uses his status and connections to seek out the instigators of the MW incident and kill them, forcing and eventually blackmailing Garai to help as an unwilling accomplice. The film is directed by Iwamoto Hitoshi, marking his second major film since Ashita ga aru sa THE MOVIE (There's Always Tomorrow The Movie, 2002) and first foray into dramatic film.

Note the subtitle: Tezuka Osamu's Forbidden Problematic Work
I have not read the original work by Tezuka Osamu, but I can at least attempt to generally discuss a few points where the film appears to deviate from the manga. For example, MW dispenses with the homosexual relationship that is shared between Yuki and Garai, instead reducing it to suggestive scenes in which innuendo does not exist in the narrative, but is rather suggested by camera work. Apparently, in the manga, this homosexual relationship forms the backbone of the Garai's guilt which Yuki exploits to gain his assitance. Thus, it would appear that the elimination of this element destabilizes the foundation of the film. Speculatively, it is perhaps for this element that MW is so well-known, as such unabashed display of homosexual relationships in manga at this time was unheard of. Furthermore, it is ironic that despite denying such elements in the script of the film, MW still exploits them for marketing purposes. In particular, the promotional campaign for the films utilizes large posters which display Yamada and Tamaki lying close to one another and looking suggestively at the camera.

MW is also well known because it marks a major shift in Tezuka Osamu's oeuvre. Up until MW, Tezuka's work is characterized by its cartoon-like drawing style; during the 70s, the gekiga movement, which emphasized a drawing style that exalted in gritty, dramatic realism, began to displace this cartoonish style as the dominant manga form. In the manga version of MW, Tezuka can be seen as adapting elements of the gekiga style, while at the same time attempting to create his own unique style through the synthesis of elements from both styles of manga. Since Tezuka is perhaps more well-remembered for his earlier works such as Tetsuwan Atomu (Atom Boy, 1952-1981) and Metoroporisu (Metropolis, 1949), with even contemporaneous works like Black Jack (1973-1983) manifesting this earlier style, MW can be perhaps considered a transitional work for Tezuka. Between this status and the aforementioned heavily-censored homosexual relationship, it's rather surprising that it was this work that was chosen, not only to be made into a film, but also, as the opening credits note, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Tezuka's birth (although to be fair, every year is an anniversary of something when you're marketing your product nowadays).

Putting the short excursion into Tezuka Osamu aside, although the film has probably been moving money well enough due to the popularity of the stars behind it and the Tezuka link, it is honestly a mess on many levels. To begin with, the script of the film, co-written by Oishi Tetsuya and Kimura Haruo, is pretty unbalanced. This is actually quite a surprise coming from particularly Oishi, who was also a writer on the two Death Note films (2006), which I felt were both well adapted from the manga and also well balanced. In the case of MW, for obvious reasons the adaptation is not faithful to the original, but beyond that, the film just rushes by in a blur, preventing the audience from getting into the world of the film and the premises that motivate it. The film neglects character development and glosses over answers to simple questions such as why Garai and Yuki feel the way they do about both each other and the incident that brought them together, as well as why the secondary characters that enter the film are drawn to take the actions that they do. Instead, MW instead attempts to fly by with intense action sequences, which are played up to keep the audience's focus in a film driven by a shallow and overall weak script. Approximately the first quarter of the film is spent on a terrorist incident carried out by Yuki in Bangkok, one that intends to establish the character, his relation to Garai and his relation to a cop who is chasing him. This event serves a purpose, but could have been cut into half and still conveyed the relevant information needed to understand what is going on. Because of the weight of this initial event, the rest of the film has to rush to recover its sense of direction. Ultimately, however, rather than serve to feed the rest of the film with its momentum, this first sequence of the film acts instead to deflate the remainder of the film.

Furthermore, the film feels too artificial in its construction. While certainly the sets built were elaborate enough and the special effects were sufficient, a lot of the camera work was poorly done. MW employs a permutation of the shaky camera technique that detracted from films such as the Bourne series and the most recent James Bond film, Quantum of Solace (2008), but beyond that, it augments the camera by using computer graphics to filter and manipulate many shots. This is often used for dramatic effect or to emphasize relevant plot devices for the audience. While this is understandable, at the same time it's not, and actually in fact is precisely the problem with this film. MW takes what is already a poorly defined premise (due to the poor script work) and slams the audience over the head with that premise through overdone film work that obfuscates the story to the point that the entire film reeks of overcompensation. Much like the cover-up of the MW incident on Okinomabunejima, MW's film work attempts to cover up the problems of the film, but ultimately those survivors that make it to the end are forced to consider ways of warning off other potential viewers.

That being said, the film was able to deploy some situations quite well, and removed from the context of the larger narrative of the film, the action moments are very well done in terms of interior pacing and set-up.

On another note, the story that MW tells is also interesting to think about because of the way it deals with modern-day Tokyo. Contextualized in relation to Tezuka's original manga, which tells a distinctly postwar story, MW the film attempts to construct a narrative focused on, as the script states, a post-Aum world. However, on a larger scale, it is a film that attempts to deal with a post-postwar moment and a sort of narrative euphoria in disaster, one that might be compared to a pre-9/11 American film moment and one that is purposefully bound in the forgetting of the postwar and atomic disaster, the setting for Tezuka's original MW. That is to say, there is a certain joy in telling the story of Yuki and his misguided self-righteous campaign to expose MW, both literally and figuratively, to the world. This jouissance appears to be bound in the oft-utilized notion of morality as a justification for ironically morally-questionable actions. At the same time, unlike the manga version of MW, as well as other disaster films going back as far as Gojira (Godzilla), this certainty of moral fortitude is not bound in the specter of the postwar and Japan's victimized consciousness. As Garai says in the film, Yuki has just "become a monster," but the monster that he has become is not the result of the atomic consciousness that hit Japan at the end of World War II (although the film blames the American military for the original incident), but rather because of the lack of such a historical context: it is the result of MW itself. As the basis for MW becomes disembodied from the postwar context, it removes a layer of morality that might further justify Yuki's actions. This lack of historical context influences the ethics of the other characters of the film: the cop who chases Yuki is bound by his determination and personal vendetta. Even Garai, the character who in the film (unlike in the manga) is supposed to serve as a type of reluctant moral center, is not empowered enough to handle that position. On the one hand, this is because the character is extremely scaled down in the film; on the other, it is because the context of Christianity and religion in general is completely displaced from its context here (although thankfully, the film does not play it up for campy value, even though it might come close every now and then). Yuki becomes morally right not because of a larger cultural context, but because of images of shock and disaster based on an isolated incident that is not situated within any history and purposefully propagated to the audience by the filmmakers. Yuki becomes "right" through sensational imagery and shock value, and the audience, swayed by that sensationalism, is able to follow Yuki's actions and understand them (even though the film ultimately does not side with him) without questioning their larger ramifications (a similar internal logic works through another summer release in Japan, Juryoku Piero (Gravity's Clown, 2009)). Thus, it can be argued that while Yuki might be driven by trauma, the trauma is personal and not bound up in a national consciousness, as is clear when, in his endgame, he is ready to deploy MW and disperse it throughout Tokyo to harm innocent people, rather than to directly use MW to strike back at his oppressors.

What can also be seen in MW is a new sense of cosmopolitanism in a transnational context. The film, which contains a "subplot" (using the term extremely loosely) involving a dedicated cop chasing after Yuki, can perhaps help contextualize the film within the context of Asian cinema, particularly Hong Kong urban cinema. At the same time, this cosmopolitanism is deployed through the film's use of various settings in decidedly "non-Japanese" locales. In the beginning sequence of the film in Bangkok, the film shows a fully articulated city, which does not only contain the back alleys and dingy areas which characterize previous depictions of Bangkok as other, but also Bangkok as its own urban metropolis. Even the American base in this film is surprisingly high-tech, no longer simply shots of soldiers standing around on fields and airplane hangars that might characterize older films (although they do a bit of that here, too), but instead a military that is well put-together and coordinated in times of crisis through the use of computer technology. It is these images of an all-around cosmopolitanism and technological modernism that makes way for images of what can be termed a new Tokyo. In depicting this new Tokyo, it's interesting to note that MW specifically chooses "new" sites within the metropolis. Rather than focus on urban centers which have been a firmament in the imagining of Tokyo both in Japanese and "Western" films, such as Shibuya and Shinjuku, MW fixates on a newly-gentrified Akihabara. Furthermore, while evoking the financial Marunouchi district at several points in the film, MW chooses to look less at the older sites of the area and instead focuses on the much newer Marunouchi OAZO building, which opened in 2004. In this way, by showing the new sites of Tokyo situated within the context of the equally modernizing presences of both Asia and the West, MW can be thought of as illustrating the new role that Japan plays as a mediator between both parties.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


First off, I have to apologize for my extended hiatus away from writing. Unfortunately, real world affairs intervened. There was a funnier joke there, but it seems to elude me right now.

I decided to write a brief entry particularly because I am interested in thinking a bit about last night's episode of Dollhouse, "Haunted." I'm starting to wonder if I should just rename this blog to "Espensonwatch," since last night's episode was co-written by Jane Espenson. To disclaim, the decision to write about this episode is in no way influenced by that, although I'm starting to see that there is often a good bit of academic work that can be done with these episodes.

In terms of the larger structure of the show, after the deconstructional turns of the last few episodes, this episode admittedly feels a little dull. "Haunted" is quite good, but I wonder if this is the problem of doing the construction/deconstruction of the series premise within a short amount of time: inevitably, the juice runs out, and the premise must be reestablished so that it may eventually be torn down again in surprising fashion. That isn't to say, however, that a reset button has been pushed on the show. Certainly, both the characters and the premise are in different places now, and the episode is written to reflect that in subtle ways.

One of the large complaints addressed to the show is that with its main character, Echo (played by Eliza Dushku) playing someone different every episode, it is difficult to get attached to the show. I both agree and disagree with this. I believe that while Echo is the main character of the show, she is not the "star" of the show, per se. Rather, it is the dollhouse itself that is the star of the show; as "Dollhouse" runs the course of its first season, what we appear to learn is that the dollhouse is a real entity, and the people that exist in it, even those who are not Actives, are all dolls. The actions that they take not only build up the mythos of the dollhouse but also inscribe the dollhouse as a dynamic entity whose presence and purpose permute as the series continues. In this sense, although Eliza Dushku is the star for purposes of ads, ratings, and the fact that her character Echo appears to play a "special purpose" within the Dollhouse hierarchy, at least for the first season, we should hesitate to assign her the role of "star" as we would conventionally imagine it, as a vessel for the audience to insert their subjectivity. I'm sure that as the show develops (if it is hopefully allowed to do so), Echo will become a more conventional "star" character; however, for right now, we can only see the hints of that presence in the sequences that depict the unimprinted Echo. This may be either to the benefit or the detriment of "Dollhouse" itself.

In this episode, though, Echo assumes the identity of a woman who has died, and who decides to solve her own murder. Unlike past episodes, where Echo's identity is purportedly a mish-mash of various character traits and skills, this time her identity is that of a real person. This added layer of identity has the effect of further estranging the audience from the character for this episode. Since it is assumed that this character is fully formed, having had an entire life rather than being made up of assembled components, it is more difficult than usual for the audience to enter the character than usual. I think that this is why the episode takes pains to establish the character's strong relationship with Adelle. However, this seems uncharacteristic of Adelle, which I will discuss later, and the effect feels almost purposefully shoehorned as a way to create an opening for the audience.

That being said, despite the dominance of the A-story for the majority of the episode (especially in light of the structurally interesting previous episode), I believe that the further estrangement of Echo from the audience in this episode is because the real developments of the episode take place in the B-stories. They are markedly shorter than usual, but I feel that we might think of the A-story as a heavyhanded red herring, one that emphasizes the character development of these small subplots by presenting an interesting story yet denying the audience full entry into the narrative space of that story. In "Haunted," the subplots appear to continue on the theme of the main story, which is the notion of "coming to terms." The most disturbing of these subplots is Paul Ballard's resignment to the fact that Mellie is a doll, and moreover to the notion that, perhaps indirectly, he too is a customer of the dollhouse, one that he realizes both mentally and physically. We also see Boyd's adjustment to becoming the new head of security at the dollhouse and the consequences that it has for his ability to protect Echo.

Perhaps the largest character moments are reserved, as they should be, for Adelle. In the last episode, it is revealed that Adelle used the Dollhouse herself to cope with loneliness, and in the end she decides that she will stop using it. The consequences of this decision play out throughout the episode. For example, the entire Topher subplot, which might at first appear to be a development of the Topher character. Topher programs Sierra for a "diagnostic test," only to turn her into his fantasy woman. This subplot certainly develops the character for the audience, but it is important to realize that inherently, the character himself does not change. Topher has been carrying on these tests "once a year," perhaps on his birthday, and this has been an activity that has always been going on. The Sierra imprint is not a way for Topher to achieve great revelations regarding his existence or his purpose. What is particularly telling, however, is the last scene involving Topher and Sierra, where it is revealed that Adelle has been watching the two of them from her office. Her commentary on the characters, about how loneliness leads to detachment and sometimes those who most need to reach out are the ones who can't, not just applies to Topher, but also herself as well. It reflects her personal revelations from the last episode and also continue to develop them, noting a problem that seems to plague all the staff of the dollhouse, but particularly herself, since she is in charge and must deal with the loneliness that her position brings. Joss Whedon once wrote about Buffy, the main character of his other show, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," that his plan every season was to strip everything away from her over the course of that season in order to show how she could overcome and emerge into power and responsibility. In a sense, this can be paralleled onto Adelle's character even more than it can be onto someone like Echo (whose life is naturally spent in this state). However, the message that Adelle appears to be sending is much different than the one that Buffy sends, so it will be interesting to see what happens as the rest of the episodes play out.

Another area where Adelle's concerns regarding the dollhouse centers on her interactions with Echo in this episode, and they lead to issues of memory and subjectivity which were of particular interest to me this time around. Once again, we see Adelle acting naturally with another personality, although this time, rather than just a programmed Active, it is with Echo, who carries the personality of her dead friend. As I've stated before, I found this interaction uncharacteristic: I'm not sure that Adelle would have become friends, more than casually, with a woman who is a dollhouse client, and one who it is made explicit that she met only in that capacity. I'm pretty certain that the friendship was shoehorned in, but nevertheless, I think it is a commentary on Adelle's own loneliness and the difficulties she has escaping the dollhouse herself.

Adelle's interactions with the Echo character, this time a wealthy woman named Margaret, are particularly interesting because they appear to point to a blind spot the episode has in regards to its premise, but one that is pivotal in the premise behind the entire show. What does it mean to imprint an actual person's body of memory onto an Active? What defines subjectivity? To Adelle, it would appear that Echo, whose Margaret imprint is defined by being a collection of all her memories, might ostensibly make Echo Margaret for all intents and purposes. However, and I think the episode either attempts to make this message too subtly or it is missing entirely from the episode altogether, the events of the episode may be read as an attempt to destabilize this notion. As much as the Echo imprint may have all the memories of Margaret, she is not the Margaret who died. There is something missing, something undefinable. It manifests in certain character moments, such as when the Margaret imprint gazes at herself during the funeral, or the final scenes of the episode where her husband talks about loving her, not the Margaret imprint, but the actual Margaret person. Arguably, I believe that it is this revelation, not the resolution of the mystery of the A-story, that is the impetus that brings Echo back to the dollhouse. A person may be defined to others in terms of the way that they act, or what they can remember, but what causes subjectivity to identify itself? Are memories enough to constitute the self, or do they serve only to create a ghost image, one that can only haunt, but can never truly be the same? I wish that the episode had raised this question more overtly, as I believe that this is one of the central premises of "Dollhouse," and I feel like it was lost on viewers this episode.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Some quick comments:

I don't have a lot of time to watch television nowadays, but one show I always make sure to keep up with regularly is Battlestar Galactica.  Yes, me and everyone else in the country, I'm sure.  I've really enjoyed the show, and it's going to be sad to see it end.

However, it's not to say that the show is without problems.  One such problem was last night's episode (hint: I'm going to spoil parts of it below).

Now, generally, I give the BSG people credit when they do things that defy logic for me.  The suicide bombing portions of the third season, especially upon rereading the interviews with the show's main writers, may have been interesting at the time, but now they reek of attempting to bring in controversial material rather than to fully explore a storyline.  Also, as much as I applaud cinema that refuses to overexplain for the sake of its audience, at the same time, BSG underexplains to the point that I believe I understand certain plot points more from interviews with cast and crew rather than from the show proper.  Furthermore, I continue to think about all the bizarre decision-makings forced on the Adama father-son pair in particular over the past few seasons that seem to fly in the face of normal logic, almost as if purposefully placed to veer the show off into some tangential direction.  Such issues have been documented elsewhere, but now, in the tail end of the final season of the show, they appear to allude to the fact that unless they approve the show for another season (overlooking the prequel sequel Caprica that is in the works), this series finale may be one of the most unsatisfying ones yet.

But last night's episode, "Deadlock," got me down for more transparent, yet more crucial reasons.  I really feel that, when juxtaposed to the previous week's episode, "No Exit," and the past continuity of the series, this episode was a direct indication of the type of schizophrenia that haunts the production of Battlestar Galactica as a whole.

Jane Espenson is one of my favorite writers.  I find her funny, witty and intelligent, both when she's writing other people's words and when she's writing her own.  I think that she is one of the few writers that can balance both comedy and drama very well in her writing.  One of the blessings or curses for her is that she's strongly associated with Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and the currently-running but possibly soon-to-be-cancelled Dollhouse (sigh).  I think that, as a result, one very Whedon-esque characteristic that she picks up is a certain type of pacing in situations that can be classified as reminiscent of "comedy writing," but is more specifically "Whedon writing."  Two such moments in last night's episode come to mind: the first is when Baltar is giving out rations, and his joyous exaltations that there is no one around attempting to violently take rations from him are cut short when, well, violent people who want his rations appear.  The second moment is in the Cylon scene in sickbay where the Six and Eight are attempting to convince the Final Five to go to the baseship and jump away, all while Ellen is trying to overcome her anger at Tigh for having sex with and impregnating Caprica Six.  I find the interweaving of serious issues with a personal issue to be a very Joss Whedon trait, and actually, it's something that I'm glad Espenson brings to the table.

I say that, because I think if I were to point fingers and say where this episode went wrong, I think the blame falls not on Espenson, or even the actors, but in the director and the producers in particular.  This episode was directed by Robert M. Young, who, if I recall correctly, directed "Unfinished Business," a third season episode where the crew of Galactica decide to hold boxing matches against each other to relieve stress.  I don't think that the plot was Young's idea at all, but perhaps the nature of that episode, which had a much darker subcurrent running underneath the overt plot, was more appropriate to Young's direction.  I can't say definitively that all the blame lies with Young, though.

If presented with the script for "Deadlock" on its own, I think that any reader would find it a lighter episode in tone (if, indeed, any episodes of BSG at this point can be "lighter"), and in particular those moments that I pointed to earlier would read like touches of light comedy, attempts to lighten the mood.  In essence, "Deadlock" might even read like an episode of a show like Angel, which was dark but at the same time had certain moments which saved the show from the brooding cesspool of self-flagellation that it fell into on occasion.  Instead, on the screen, this episode feels inconsistent, unable to know what its role is within the larger scope of the season, and on the smaller scope of not what the story is, but how the story is being told.  Both of the moments that I mentioned above are glossed over: the scene with Baltar turns into a moment of despondent stupidity on Baltar's part (and not even the funny kind of stupidity), and the sickbay scene devolves into the worst case of directing I've seen in, well, ever.  Ellen's mumbling is barely coherent, and the reaction shots of the others off Ellen make it clear that someone interpreted this scene to add a serious contemplation of whether Ellen has just gone nuts-psycho, rather than the humorous play-off that it should have been in the original script (great examples of this can be seen in Angel and Firefly.  "You think I'm fat?").  Now that I think about it, any scene with Ellen and Tigh in sickbay in this episode was played similarly.  It's as if someone in the production line was unable to interpret any scene in this show with more that a sense of dire inevitability.

One of the reasons that I feel like I can't blame the actors is just because of how hard I've seen them work in the past.  Ellen Tigh was definitely one of those characters, like Callie, that I was happy to have gone and didn't really care to see again.  However, "No Exit" really changed my mind and showed me how incredible Kate Vernon's acting chops are.  If there's anything that I should blame Espenson for (and I'm not even sure she's deserving of this blame), it's that I was hoping that Ellen would continue her rational philosophic viewpoint from "No Exit"; here, it seems like she has just returned to the person she always was before, just slightly more lucid.  Perhaps it's a reflection of how, to the Cylons, she is like a god, whereas among humans, she's just another one of them.  I hope in future episodes, she continues to be more tranquil; it seems unfair that she wouldn't have learned something from, you know, getting all her memories back.

Since what I've been talking about is my interpretation of what I view as an interpretation gone wrong, I wonder about a few matters.  I think it goes without saying that my interpretation of last night's episode is based on Espenson and my knowledge of her past working on other shows.  Others may view this episode from the point of view of the show itself, or the backgrounds of the directors, producers, even the SciFi channel.  There are many different ways that we approach the show.  However, in light of my own viewpoint, I wonder if my depictions of certain scenes as being driven by a sense of "dire inevitability," in the eyes of the staff of the show, can be an indication of my exclusion from a certain mode of reading within which other people are imbricated?

I guess my question is, is there such a thing as a Battlestar Galactica mode of reading? To me, that would make a lot of sense.  It's possible that people who watched the show last night saw those scenes that I felt were deficient and laughed, or howled.  When everything is grim, does that mean that the "grim" recalibrates itself on a new scale, so now moments that do not seem funny because of the atmosphere of the show seem extremely funny because people have gotten used to learning how to view the show?  If anything, I hope that's the case, because if not, I have some real concerns about Caprica, which Espenson is supposed to be running.  While it's important to maintain a certain "voice" for the show that remains consistent throughout its run, at the same time, it's also important to realize that even within the limits of that voice, it's possible to have light moments, happy moments, and all the stuff in between.  I only hope that, at the times when those moments emerge, they aren't smothered by the pressure of that fervent attempt to maintain a voice.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Book Bind.

Everyone has to make sacrifices in light of the financial crisis.  Even me.

Instead of resorting to borrowing leisurely reading from the library, which would be the logical and practical option, I've been using the next best thing: Amazon Marketplace.  Rather than pay full price for a book that's delivered to me shrinkwrapped in such a way that the book is inevitably damaged (will Amazon ever ship me a paperback that doesn't have corner damage? I'm not anal-retentive, I promise!), I pay a significantly lower price for a book that often defies the multi-tiered evaluation system that the marketplace lists.

When I say "defies," it definitely goes both ways.  My most recent two purchases are examples of this problem.  They both came today.  One was a hardcover book that I paid $20.00 for (around $8.00 below Amazon's price).  The other was another hardcover that put me out around $5.00 ($30.00 below price).  The $20.00 book was listed as "Used--Like New."  The $5.00 book was listed as "Used--Fair."

Well, my $25.00 total bought me a $20.00 book with rips all over the dust jacket and highlighting insde, as well as $5.00 hardcover in pristine condition.  I double-checked the orders just to make sure.  It was as if I had entered a Twilight Zone of book purchasing.  How is that even possible? I think that the worst thing is that with Amazon, a feedback system doesn't do a whole lot, especially with books.  I suppose if a CD or a DVD is damaged, the seller can offer to send you a replacement case.  But even that rarely works out: I remember being bribed by a DVD seller with a replacement case that never came for a DVD that came without half a case, all for a positive review (Of course I gave the review, though.  I know, I know, I'm part of the problem.).  Literally.  With a book, though, it's almost as if there's no recourse available.

I wish that there was a better way to measure book quality on Amazon Marketplace, but I guess that such a practice would discourage sellers from listing their books, and the whole system would suffer as a whole, dwindling to almost eBay levels.  I guess that the two cliched lessons to learn from these experiences are "one man's trash is another man's treasure."

Also, caveat emptor.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


So apparently I'm totally sucking at this blog things.  I know it's probably a more common occurrence than one might imagine; there are probably hundreds of blogs out there that last no longer than one entry.  Hey, I made it to two!

It's been about a month since work started again.  This year I've felt haunted by the feeling that last year never ended, and instead it's continued to follow me around.  If I remember, isn't this the kind of sentiment that was expressed at the end of Jibjab's 2008 Year in Review?  Essentially, for me it means that the work that I was unable to deal with last year ended up continuing into this year.  Now a month has passed, and it seems like my work will finally be finished by the end of this weekend.

I find the last sentence interesting.  Perhaps this is the result of being overloaded by work: I seem to have taken a step back and distanced myself from the situation.  I used to have a mantra when it came to work: no matter what, the work always gets done.  I've been trying to change it after a friend pointed out that "I" is totally absent from that phrase.  The work always gets done, but at the same time, because I am not actively involved in the work getting done, the mantra begins to act as an excuse for me to put work off until later.  As a result, I find it interesting that after all this "hard work" to change my outlook, I am once again trusting that somehow all the work I need to finish will get finished by some work of magic.

I guess that I take a bit of solace from the fact that I am not the only person that feels these emotions.  I hear from friends that they are just as much under the stress of the new year that I feel.  It's reassuring, but at the same time, I wonder why the new year continues to feel disturbingly like the old.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Hi, how's it going? Thanks for visiting.

I read books for a living.  Well, I guess that's a flippant way of talking about it.  Part of what I do is to look at a book and to find its story.  What kind of a story does the book tell? How does it tell the story? Why is it bothering to tell us a story? These are questions that I think about every day.

Reading books day-in and day-out is both a blessing and a curse.  Through books, I've experienced things that I would never dream of experiencing for myself.  I travel to far off places.  I assume a multitude of jobs.  I find a wealth of new friends.  I enter worlds limited by the capacity of the author's vision and the extent of my imagination.

The curse, however, is that as my life changes from an existence of book-to-book, rather than day-to-day, I find that I start to lose hold of my own story.  What seemed to clear and straightforward before has now become hazy and convoluted.  I live my story every day, but for some reason, I am no longer aware of that story as it unfolds in front of my eyes.

That's why I wanted to create this website: to tell little stories.  The stories of my life.  The people I meet and the books I read and the sounds I hear and the things I see; these are the things I hope to capture.  Hopefully, as I tell these stories, they will help me find again my own story.  Maybe along the way, some stories won't work out.  Some will find their happy ending, some won't, and perhaps some won't end at all.  But as I tell these stories, I hope that in their telling they will make me aware of the stories taking place around me, and influence the many stories that are yet to come.

Thanks for reading.