‘Cursed Dreams’ by Matthew Spencer

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Spring has arrived in the Northern Hemisphere. The cherry trees have come into blossom, here in the Pacific Northwest, where I am writing, and in Japan, where the esteemed director Isao Takahata has died at the age of 82. In 1985, he cofounded Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki. Together they are responsible, they perhaps more than anyone else, for making anime a force in global popular culture.

It feels strange to me, news of Takahata’s death, having recently watched The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, the 2013 documentary on Studio Ghibli, filmed during the making of The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, the last feature made by each of the directors, Miyazaki and Takahata respectively.

The latter is portrayed as a somewhat shadowy figure, his presence more alluded to than shown. Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki constantly fret about their colleague, about whether he will complete his movie at all.

The documentary ends with Miyazaki announcing his retirement. The last scene shows him strolling along a leafy street, his work behind him. Nothing more is said about The Tale of Princess Kaguya or its director. It’s as if Takahata has vanished from the earth.

Thoughts of mortality often attend the death of public figures, but watching The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness also got me thinking about anime itself, about my own conflicted feelings toward the artform.

Continue reading “‘Cursed Dreams’ by Matthew Spencer”

‘A Film That is Sort of Like the Book: Review of Annihilation (2018)’ by Mike Kleine

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If you are somewhat familiar with Andrei Tarkovsky, you know that his films can be very long and very slow. A few critics have already compared ANNIHILATION to Tarkovsky—and in that regard, I would have to completely disagree. Like, 100%. While yes, there are a few moments (that in Hollywood time) might seem slow to the lay viewer, they are not slow to the point of actually being painful to watch. (Some Tarkovsky films contain scenes that are so long, I seriously believe he is doing this on purpose—to test the patience and endurance of the audience; and that’s great, but ANNHILLIATION is nothing like that). (On the flipside, a wonderful example of a film that is absolutely & truly insufferable is Wavelength by Michael Snow. I don’t think I can ever in my life watch the film again, ever; it is pure torture).

All in all, ANNIHILATION is a fair film. The direction is impressive enough and the soundtrack really is brilliant. At its core, it’s a science fiction film littered with moments of philosophical quandary and existential dread (just for good measure). It does get a bit reflexive at times (which is fine) but everything sort of comes full circle during the final twenty minutes. (If anything, stay until the final twenty minutes of the film—absolutely one hundred million times worth it). I read the book when it first came out and I loved it. I thought it was amazing. I’d never read anything else quite like it. I gave it a 5 out of 5. (I still would give it a 5 out of 5). The film is sort of like the book, in the sense that it’s about the same thing, but not in the same way. Or, let me put it this way: it feels like the director read the book when it first came out and then tried to make a film of the book, but only from memory. So there are a few similarities, but there are also a lot of differences. And this is okay. No, really, it is (I promise).

The book only made about 30% sense to me (and I loved that). The film made about 90% sense to me (and I also loved that). The film tries to explain the story more than the book, and with that, there comes a lot of deviation. At the end of the film, it tries to sort of explain why everything happened the way it happened and I did not necessarily like that—even the very last scene sort of hints at something that the book never even alluded to. But again, that’s fine. I don’t think a film adaptation should always be true to the book. As a matter of fact, I would say I encourage that films based off books be nothing like the books, only similar thematically. Another thing the book does that is so great; yes, the team is still made up entirely of women but none of them actually have real names (or, rather, we never learn their real names)! The characters are simply: biologist, psychologist, surveyor, etc—and this creates a great effect. In the film, they have names. And it makes sense to do that in a film (since it would totally alienate the average film viewer—if each character did not have a proper name. You gotta have someone you’re rooting for, right?).

I urge that you read the book tho, if you can, someday (just so you can understand how truly strange and unadaptable a thing like ANNIHILATION is). I have never truly felt anxiety-induced dread like I did while reading the book. The film is different, in that it creates a different sort of anxiety-induced dread. You truly never know what is about to happen next. The world of ANNIHILATION is never safe. And there are two sequences in particular that stood out to me (illustrating, perfectly, this sense of knowing that whatever you do, you can never truly be safe, anywhere, no matter what). One sequence takes place inside of a house and the other, within a lighthouse. (Notice how both occur indoors?).

In most films, the characters are able to anticipate what is about to take place or what is about to happen, based on where they are spatially, or, they use what they are seeing—what’s right in in front of them (usually paying attention to their surroundings)—as a way to prepare for the unknown. And since most of what these characters are going off of this is based on previous experience and a familiarity with the real world, the viewer also, is able to deduce what might happen next (based on how a bunch of other films may have handled, for instance, a similar situation. Like, a forest scene at night, for example). All of this is thrown out the window in ANNIHILATION. What happens, without ruining the film—the two sequences that stood out to me—when they take place, they force the viewer to keep asking, “Is what I am seeing right now really happening in real life or is it all in the characters’ heads?” And even that term, real life, in ANNIHILATION—it means absolutely nothing.

Early on, the team determines that the members from the previous expeditions probably went insane (at some point) and killed each other. And it is only after one has entered the shimmer that the craziness happens—and the shimmer, essentially, is a cloak around Area X that functions as a visual marker to denote how far the alien landscape has expanded onto our normal Earth. The thing that makes all of this so excellently creepy is the idea that everything in the film feels so eerily familiar, yet at the same time, there’s always something that feels off. I do want to say, I did have problems with the CGI. Some of it is stunning, other parts feel like we are back in 2007 (for instance, there’s these two antelope-like creatures that appear at one point and their movement is so unrealistic-looking, it completely took me out of the experience).

There’s a chance you haven’t heard too much about ANNIHILATION (from mainstream press) or even seen any or many previews (or know that it is based off a book). Hell, if you don’t live in the United States, you can’t even see the film yet (unless you live in Belgium, then you should, by now, already have access to the film—as of the printing of this review). Here’s the thing tho, ANNIHILATION is releasing via Netflix, exclusively (not that that’s a bad thing) but there’s a reason for that. ANNIHILATION is a film that actually takes a chance at doing something different and unique with the science fiction genre. And to the studios, this screams bad and scary and no money. Studios are afraid of new ideas (that aren’t sequels or reboots) because they think this means the movie is going to flop, especially when the average film viewer has no idea what they are paying to see—hence the Netflix international distribution, as opposed to attaching it to a bigger studio name, ergo: releasing in worldwide theatres.

Having read the book, I was super-excited to see how ANNIHILATION would translate to the big screen. NB: I want to emphasize, this is a film that is sort of like the book so not everything that’s in the book makes it to the film (interesting, also, to note that this is pretty much going to be a standalone film—there are no plans to expand and continue with the rest of the trilogy—yes, there’s two other books after ANNIHILATION). While a lot of material (from the book) was left out, for a film that doesn’t try too hard to be like the book, it definitely feels like it has purpose. There’s a heft & weight that carries the acting and moments of terror truly stand out as moments of terror. If anything, ANNIHILATION offers a glimpse into a very different type of science fiction film—one that is more interested in the haunting than the science and / or fiction.

Mike Kleine is a writer and film critic.

‘On Dissociation: An Anesthetic Aesthetic’ by Ethan Gathy

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Much has been made of the relation of certain writers and their affinities for drink or for various intoxications. Most often, besides liquor, one is likely to hear of a writer or philosopher partaking in opioids or in psychedelics. A vital strain, I aver however, that is missing in this discourse is that of the class of drugs known as “dissociatives”.

Dissociatives or “dissos” are a class of hallucinogen (the others being psychedelics and deliriants) characterized by antagonism of NMDA receptors. Drugs of this family include: ketamine, dextromethorphan, PCP, and nitrous. Their effects on humans include but are not limited to: a sense of confusion, lack of balance/proprioception, distortions of time and space, increased appreciation of music, closed eye visuals (including geometries as well as roving eye landscapes and immersive dramatic scenes). One has remarked that they feel like “it’s 72 degrees in your head all the time”. Dissos also are known to lack hangovers and instead supply afterglows and antidepressant properties. At higher doses they can induce “k-holes” or “holes” wherein one can lose one’s sense of place and have surreal ego death-like experiences.

The importance of these substances to the arts is perhaps not obvious immediately due to the dissociative family seeming relatively recent as far as drugs go, as well as seemingly never occurring naturally. This would make one think the disso is relegated to the niche, to being a weird class of “designer drugs”. We must remember, however, that LSD was a designer drug at one point.

The figure who looms largest over this legacy is undeniably John C Lilly, the scientist most famous for his development of the sensory deprivation tank and for his experiments on dolphin intelligence. After the illegalization of LSD, Lilly began experimenting with ketamine and later PCP. His work navigated everything from science to philosophy and spirituality and was often inspired by his entheogenic experiments. Tributes to Lilly can be found everywhere from the cult film, Altered States, to Serial Experiments Lain to Ecco the Dolphin.

Continue reading “‘On Dissociation: An Anesthetic Aesthetic’ by Ethan Gathy”

‘The Sacred Vomit of Martianus Capella’ by J.B. Usher

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A year ago, I wrote a brief essay where I reflected on creative ways to instruct and teach such as The Compleat Angler with its Socratic Dialogue on fishing or the injection of poems and anecdotes into David Arora’s mushroom identification handbook All that the Rain Promises and More. These peculiar alternatives that provide enlightening and entertaining ways to teach beyond rote memorization is what perked my interest when I came across a description of  De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii or “On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury” by fifth century writer Martianus Capella (translated by William Harris Stahl with E.L. Burge). As its title suggests, the book tells the story of the god Mercury marrying Philology, a mortal woman who ascends into godhood at the beginning, and the following marriage ceremony featuring the various members of the Greek pantheon in attendance. It’s in the ceremony where Capella’s intentions for this story are revealed; the narrative itself being a framing device to expound on the learning found in the seven liberal arts: grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and harmony. Each chapter introduces a personification of each art as a goddess attending the wedding who then gives a speech on their respective allegorical representation; i.e. the goddess Grammar gives a speech on the lessons of grammar. Such a creative pedagogical method enticed me to hunt down the complete text.

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‘Blood-Soaked Buddha/Hard Earth Pascal: The Finest Attitude Pamphlet’ by Toom Bucksaw

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Philosophical writing sucks, and reading it often feels like wading through a molasses of obscurantist bullshit from another planet. Which is why when Noah Cicero quotes the likes of Sartre and Nietzsche in his newest book, Blood-Soaked Budda/Hard Earth Pascal, I could hear a mental train that used to be running so smoothly come grinding to a halt.

Blood-Soaked Buddha is a Buddhism-flavored collection of philosophical musings by someone who is essentially an average Joe. Noah Cicero quotes and refers to several texts of Buddhist and Western origin, but a reader of philosophy doesn’t become a worthwhile philosopher because of how many books he’s read. Noah Cicero knows this. Blood-Soaked Buddha is a brief, physically unimposing, unpretentious and, most appealingly, self-conscious book.

“I am writing this for no reason.

I don’t know if I have a right to write this book, or if it’s even permissible.”

These are the first lines of this book. This is the perspective from which it is written. And it is our perspective.

Noah dispenses blasts of thoughts and insights whose occasional lack of novelty is always charming, never frustrating. The lack of conceit in his voice renders even his intellectual duds endearing rather than insulting. Blood-Soaked Buddha is the philosophical book we would write, if we had to. But could most of us deliver the most pedestrian of platitudes in such a way that it feels like a rejuvenating breath of cold air coming down from a mountain, as Noah does? I don’t think so.

Blood-Soaked Buddha isn’t an abstract book about bodies and spaces and the fundamental matter of human existence, at least not when it’s at its best. It’s an attitude pamphlet. It’s the voice of a friend who read a lot of interesting books and has a new mindset he’d like to share with you. Rarely do Noah’s findings cut deeper than learning to appreciate the world around you for what it is, while it is; allowing things to pass; and having respect for perspectives other than your own. But when it comes to these kinds of ideas, I can’t think of a better medium to absorb them through than a modest 4×6 book of 191 pages, written by a voice that strikes such an incredible balance between the knowledgeable and the humbly knowledgeless, the spiritual and the tangibly applicable.

Occasionally he gets lost in a rabbit hole of his own design, attempting to codify various cliques of people and set in stone their universal traits, attempting two proofs of God (though still with the disclaimer that he’s doing it “for fun”), or declaiming lengthy fables to illustrate easy-to-grasp human weaknesses. Can we blame him? These aren’t the failings of a professional philosopher, some lofty, powdery intellectual. These are the failings of one of us. I’m much more interested in watching one of us try and fail two proofs of God than I am in reading anything in any philosophical canon. Not every writer can skate by being light on revelation by publishing in pamphlet-size and downplaying their own significance in a prefatory note, but Noah Cicero has done it.

“What if you had to live for eternity with your current shitty attitude?”

This is the only thing it says on the back cover of Blood-Soaked Buddha, and the central question of one of its most compelling moments. What if you got to heaven and could only find things to complain about? What if you got to Hell and met a new friend?

A copy of Blood-Soaked Buddha in your bag is a good step on the road to becoming the person who meets a friend in Hell.

‘Smith’s First Book of Poems Too Good for Snappy Headlines’ by Ray McKenzie

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Has anyone ever told you a story that failed to impress? They probably tried to save face with something like, “you should’ve been there” or “you’d get it if you knew So-And-So”. Among the stories told in this collection, there is not one such failure. This book takes you there, makes it so you know So-And-So. This book is the barstool, low lighting, and neat whiskey that facilitates—nay, necessitates—good storytelling.

Unruly is a spirited introduction to Elysia Lucinda Smith, who she is, what it means to be her. It chronicles the halcyon days of youth, and juxtaposes them with the challenges that, upon reflection, make us who we are. In terms of VH1 programming from the 90s, this book is equal parts Unplugged and Behind the Music.

Unruly gets you familiar with Elysia in a transparent way. I wish more people I know would write books like this so that I could keep them on my shelf and give them a read through at my leisure. If I’m a creep for wanting to keep my friends on a shelf like one of those Christmas elves with the spindly limbs and the painted face, then so be it. If I share a few lines, maybe you’ll understand my obsession with Smith’s work.

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‘The New Rupi Kaur Book Has Good Parts’ by Toom Bucksaw

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When I started reading this book, I didn’t like Rupi Kaur any more than you do. I think anyone who’s reading this site probably has the same idea of her that I had, an idea that isn’t entirely inaccurate: that Rupi Kaur is a sham writer of trite, pithy poems that aren’t worth the mostly-blank paper they’re printed on. As I sat downloading a copy of her latest book, The Sun And Her Flowers, probably chuckling with self-satisfied irony, I had very low expectations, likely no greater than yours. I had no great awakening while reading this book – none of my troubles were danced away in a field of sunflowers – but this new Rupi Kaur book… it has good parts.

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