Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Power & Fear

Whoops!  Time snuck up on me – the end of the semester will do that, as well as another project that I can't quite talk about just yet, but hope to soon! – and I’ve missed an entry here.  Let’s get back on track.

In the film class, students have presented their individual projects.  Themes ranged from “life in a post-apocalyptic world” to “bodily transformations” with others to boot.  Interesting, well-researched work was presented and students seemed to actually have a good time showing what they’d learned about how their theme was presented and developed in science fiction.  (Great movie clips, too!)

Then this week, we started our final theme – POWER!  Who has it, how did they get it, and what lengths will they go to in order to keep it are a few of the angles the class will examine by looking at our final two films.  This week was the classic Planet of the Apes which I find to be a very good starting point for this discussion, in part because humans are no longer at the top of the food chain.  We’re not used to being the subjugated ones, so this film forces viewers to look at issues of racism and environmental degradation from another viewpoint.  (And, c'mon - it just goes with my profile pic!)

Next week, we’ll compare it to a film in which humans are on top, but maybe shouldn’t be there.  District 9 takes a different look at racial superiority and, quite frankly, humans don’t come out all that well.  It also is a nice point to begin wrapping up the class, since it includes so much that we’ve discussed – the documentary feel of the film, a foreign point of view, technical aspects in the creation of the “Prawns,” color, and setting are all important elements of the film.

Meanwhile, things have not been quiet over at the Rewatch.  I missed posting on last week’s write-up, which is a shame.  Let me make up for it here.  Crissy Calhoun took on three episodes that can be viewed as the turning point for the final season of Buffy – the Big Bad is revealed and seriously – “Conversations with Dead People” is just a killer of an episode.  Read about it here. Power and fear are becoming very big issues in Sunnydale. 

Then this week, Jennifer Stuller heads up the recap as Season 7 continues to heat up.  Buffy has always been set apart from others by her identity as the Slayer and suddenly, she’s beset by a house full of Potentials.  Read about it here.

OK – I’m back on track!  Season 7 is going to get better and better (and tearier and tearier) and District 9 is going to (hopefully) both pull everything in the class together and blow expectations apart.  All in one week!  

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Double Dose!

This week, the film class viewed Joss Whedon's Serenity to set up a contrast to last week's viewing of Watanabe's Cowboy Bebop.  There are (of course) sound pedagogical reasons for the film to be included on the syllabus, but I'll admit that it's no hardship for me to sit through this one.  I've seen Serenity literally dozens of times and there are still moments that make me snort with half-concealed laughter, catch my breath at the beauty of the composition, and - yes - make me proud of what humans can accomplish.  (River's determined "My turn" is one of those moments, incidentally.)  I'll have to see what the students thought in their longer responses this week and in the final paper, but the viewing seems to have been a success; not only in "gee, I liked that one" but also in terms of "hmm, this science fiction stuff can have some heft to it."  One of the best moments for any teacher, regardless of the age and skill level of the students, has to be those all-too-rare flashes when you actually see it coming together for the pupil.

Yay, team!

Meanwhile, over at the Rewatch, Season Seven continues.  Nikki Stafford Her Own Bad Self is the poster this week and she gives some great backstory on the season itself, as well as discussing the three episodes up for analysis this week.  I had forgotten how heartbreaking "Help" (7.4) was.

Up next week - the film students present their individual projects (topics range from robots to time travel to life in a post-apocalyptic world - then I think a little Firefly might be in order.  (Or maybe, being the week before Thanksgiving, "Pangs" should be on the menu.  Hmmm.)

Also - Slayage 5 proposals are due by December 1.  I must finish that, along with making the corrections to the next draft of my contribution for The Joss Whedon Reader, in which I examine Whedon's Dollhouse in light of the cinematic theory of the male gaze and the myth of Echo and Narcissus.  Fear not - it's easier to read than it may first appear!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Are You Living in the Real World?

Watanabe's Cowboy Bebop would sign off each episode with a tagline in the lower right corner of the blackened screen at the end of the session credits.  The most usual one was "See You Space Cowboy," but there were others.  At the end of the movie, the tagline is a question - "Are You Living in the Real World?"  A deceptively simple question - Bebop is a show that explores Big Questions such as honor, family, responsibility, identity, and, yes, reality.  Do the shimmering golden butterflies mean that this world is the real one and that Beauty exists and matters or do they signify that the brain of the viewer has been compromised, that this world is merely a dream, and an awful one at that?

It's no secret that I like Bebop.  I think it's complex, richly nuanced and the vocal talents are spot-on.  (It also makes smoking look cool, but there it is.)  I'm using Bebop in the class to set up a discussion of space opera vs. space Western by having the students examine both Bebop and (next week) Serenity.  Common themes are woven throughout both but there are significant differences and departures as well, including the pacing.  Japanese films tend to be slower paced and to take more time to build than most American films - we like quick cuts and action, action, action!  (As an experiment, imagine Michael Bay being handed the script for Kurosawa's Ran, along with a budget of a hundred million dollars.  Now go put your head between your knees and breathe deeply - it never happened.  It'll all be okay.)

Over at the Rewatch, we've begun Season Seven.  Buffy discovers that Spike has a soul - the scene at the end of "Beneath You" is simply heartbreaking.  It was then and it remains so now.  Elizabeth Rambo explains it all - Buffy is a rich text, and it's well worth paying attention to what's being said by whom.  It's all connected.  Really.

Next week -  A double dose of Whedon as the film class takes on Serenity and the Rewatch continues with Season Seven.  See you in the real world, Space Cowboy!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Is Anything On TV?

This was a question I used to ask when the choices at my childhood home were very limited.  We didn't have cable while I was growing up and there were only the "Big Three" networks.  (I know, it sounds like I spent my childhood drawing pictures of a mastodon hunt on the walls of a cave.  I didn't.  The earth was still cooling and was too hot for organized hunting trips.)  Nowadays, there are many more choices.  More networks on "regular" broadcast television, plus "netlets" like the CW, plus basic and premium cable, plus DVR technology, as well as watching-on-demand streaming technology.  But there's still that basic question -

Is anything on?

Well, yes.

Over at the Rewatch, Season Six of Buffy ends with Buffy digging her way out of a grave - her second that season.  But the world she emerges into is one that has both radically changed and one she wants to actually live in.  An excellent write up to conclude what is often a dark and unfairly derided season.

The film class took a break from watching feature-length films to look at what television can do.  I wanted to mix things up, so I included a stand alone from a classic show ("The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" from Twilight Zone), an example of "what if we broadcast through the Internet instead of waiting for a green light from the suits?" (Whedon's Dr. Horrible which also sparks good discussions on role expectations and the use of sound, which is the focus for next week) and an episode from a longer narrative arc ("Ballad of Fallen Angels" from Cowboy Bebop).  This is a hard week to winnow down the viewing - in its infancy, television was viewed as stage and film's not-quite-up-to-snuff little brother, but I'd argue (along with others, such as New York Magazine's Emily Nussbaum) that certainly isn't the case nowadays.

Wait, you say.  There's a lot of trash out there.  Indeed.  And there always has been, whether the "out there" is TV facing your sofa or the widescreen at the local multiplex.  Here's a simple plan to work around that - if it's trash, either don't watch it, or watch it KNOWING that it's trash.  (I, myself, have occasionally gotten sucked into so-called "reality" TV featuring supremely starved and toned women who wear flip-flops that retail for more than my good china.  A little bad can be good for you - just don't think it's real.)

And look for the good.  I'm finally doing an organized watch of Straczynski's Babylon 5 which looks quite promising (despite the late 80s synth pop that will apparently come back in the future, along with shoulder pads) as it asks the Big Questions - "Who are you?"  "What do you want?"  Important questions to ask, and to answer, as you go along in life.

I'm also impressed with Ringer (although I'm behind in my watching of it) which I'm finding to be a fun show with some unexpected twists.  But the one I'm really hopeful for is Grimm.  The pilot episode sets up what seems to be a solid framework - there's at least one strong female character (who hopefully will pull through and be an ongoing force; fairy tales have too many passive women), some great comic relief, and a pervasive tone of darkness that really ought to be in fairy tales, which originally were (after all) cautionary tales for adults, not bedtime stories for sleepy children.

We'll see, but until then, don't leave the path!