Network (1976)

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Someone decided to take all the literature by Neil Postman and Jerry Mender and make a film out of it. Countless of films and works about technology are praised for ‘staying relevant’. It’s a vague statement. A lot of works remain relevant because many themes are universal. Network is still relevant because it doesn’t actually criticize television, but viral content.

Content becomes viral when it gets people talking. Viral content has built-in emotional appeal. It’s immediate, doesn’t demand too much of us and is escapist. It makes us either mad as hell, or forget that we should be mad as hell.

There was a story about a girl who became an ‘advice animal’, and how this disabled person was exploited for cheap laughs. It’s no different than what the network, or even the world does to Howard Beale. People get their entertainment and their release, so they don’t care that the person on TV clearly needs some help. Sometimes the person has to exploit themselves on TV in order to get ahead. Budd Dywer exploited the viral nature of suicide on TV for his own gain.

Some viral content may seem like it has a noble purpose, but it is all just emotional manipulation. Beale rants and raves about a deal with the CCA. Sure, it got the people to send telegrams to the white house but it did more harm than good. That’s because the people didn’t care about learning or understanding. Viral charities give us a simple cause – an evil corporation, a terrible disease – and encourage us to do something simple to solve it. Problems aren’t just solved by pouring ice on ourselves, and spamming the government with uninformed telegrams only leads them the wrong way.

Of course, there’s great irony in the fact this is a film that criticizes television. A book called Nation of Rebels deals with this situation. Often, ideas are co-opted by the same groups the idea fights against. Television destroys or makes presidents, but both are good for them. Criticizing television can also make for great TV, because every idea can be oversimplified.

This is what’s so scary about the medium and why Jerry Mender doesn’t sound so irrational in his book. No idea is too pure that it can’t be simplified, commodified and stripped of its depth. Both fear and sedation make for great television. Beale hates television, but the institution is so strong that it swallowed him. Instead of fighting television, he made it stronger by criticizing it on television. Instead of people turning off their sets like Beale tells them so, they keep watching to hear his rants against television.

It’s the format that simplifies those ideas. When watching TV, a video of terrorist shooting up the place is more attention-grabbing than their background. These various types of content – terrorists, funny videos, weather are all smashed together with no rhyme or reason. Neil Postman pointed out the absurdity of this, how news is more entertainment than informative.

The information is supplied by beautiful or charismatic people. The presenters choose the content based on what will grab the most attention. The show jumps from one topic to the next with no connection, complete with cool transitions.

While the film doesn’t elaborate too much on the nature of profit (besides a slightly cheesy monologue), it does presents how it harms the news. The purpose of news may be to inform people about the world, but the network needs money. News shows are in competition with all other shows. The only way to compete is create viral content. Diana cares more about viral content for that reason, a story that will grab people’s attention rather than inform them.

It’s a dark film, but not a grimdark one. What makes it so dark aren’t the people but the ideas. Jensen’s monologue is a perfect example of that. It should’ve been a weakness since it lays out an idea, rather than show it. However, it’s both written well and helps the film focus on its purpose. It’s not a story of cruel people being cruel to innocent ones. Rather, it’s how certain ideas – profit, viral content – are so tempting, and make us into cruel people. As Schumacher criticizes Diana, he points out the specific thing that turns her into a profit-chaser. Beale is just as guilty as everyone in the network, since he goes along with his exploitation.

The darkness of the film isn’t like real news. Its purpose isn’t to shock the audience but make them understand. Diana’s main role is to warn us of the appeal of viral news. If it’s hard to watch, it’s only because we see ourselves in Diana. Such a film isn’t misanthropic. It’s concerned about humanity and its nature, so it tries to show us its flaws in-depth rather than just make us hate them.

It does suffer from being very obvious. It has a clear mission statement and never for a second it pretends it’s realistic. People give off long, meanigful monologues that only happen in online communication. The balance is a little off, since it often wants to be and then satirical and then dramatic. Eventually though it settles on being exaggerated instead of realism. This way the writers take advantage of their skill. Even if the monologues are obvious, they’re beautifully written. Jensen’s monologue doesn’t make us hate him, but persuades us.

Network is a brilliant film. It may not have a stylistic quirk to make it viral, but then again the purpose is exist is to criticize the nature of viral content. The only hooks it has are satirical and a few good jokes. It’s a well-written, thrilling film that’s emotionally engrossing and explores its subject matter to the limit. People who think entertainment and thoughtfulness are mutually exclusive clearly haven’t watched this. Besides being a little obvious in places, it’s a brilliant film.

4.5 messages out of 5 mediums

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Kill la Kill

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Kill la Kill is an exercise in absurdity. Forget everything you heard. Don’t try to analyze symbols that exist only to be cool. Kill la Kill is an anime with an absurd premise that seeks only to make things more absurd. At some point, people fight using rulebooks and shooting bills.

Randomness has been a common feature of comedy. Use it too much, and it stops being random. After all, if anything can happen then nothing is surprising. Kill la Kill isn’t random. Rather, it operates from a set of symbols and keeps finding ways to take them further.

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In fact, it’s because it has a set of symbols that it’s so unique. Originality is connecting two distant things. Kill la Kill was born when the director noticed how similar ‘fashion’ and ‘fascism’ were. The whole thing relies on connecting clothing to dictators who laugh maniacally and want to dominate the world.

It should’ve been obvious for us now. After all, uniforms are a big deal in militaries which are dictatorships. No one did it before, not like this. It’s true that it’s not explored very deeply. The main villain wants to take over the world mostly because it gives Ryuuko something to fight, but it works.

The series is absurd because it has its own style, and keeps finding ways to add more to it. That’s why Nui Harime is so surprising and at the same time is so fitting. She fits with the series’ obsession of clothing, but until then we haven’t seen a cute fashion girl.

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The heart of the series, though, is in the characters. For all of the pictures of Ryuuko scowling, Kill la Kill is a hilarious comedy. Good comedy comes from funny characters, not funny punchlines. By making sure every character is a joke, they manage to make every situation funny even when they’re ridiculous.

It’s a difficult approach. Your characters can easily become one-note. They can become a joke or even a punchline that simply repeats itself. But the characters aren’t embodiment of jokes. They are ideas pushed to the extreme. The joke of Gamagoori isn’t that he screams a lot, but his ridculous devotion to discipline. Again, the show uses ideas as an inspiration point that affects everything

There are also a lot of them, and so there is a lot of room for varied interaction. The ideas these characters represent constantly bounce off each other and clash. They’re also pushed to the extreme in a way that makes them all close-minded. So the interaction never changes anyone. Rather, we two buffoons completely sure of themselves refusing to admit they’re wrong.

The series also has no filler interaction. There isn’t a single line of generic dialogue. Everything the characters do and say is modified by their personality. It’s not even a case of voice actors putting a lot of effort. The writing itself makes sure you can recognizee the speaker. This is why the characters feel so alive and real, even though they got blasted with missiles and don’t die.

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They’re not psychological portraits, of course. They’re mythic, embodying some ideas with grandeur. Yet, for all its lack of realism it feels more real than most anime. That’s because in real life, people react to things in ways that are uniquely them. So no matter how much you exaggerate, having this trait is the most important.

Since the characters feel so alive, the anime actually has effective drama. It’s shocking at first, but the serious moments are touching. They’re also pushed to the extreme, of course. Mako’s eyes become a faucet but it doesn’t make them any less effective. The series establishes that these are living beings. Since they feel real, so is their drama. After all, a rock falling from the sky isn’t emotionally engrossing. A living person falling is tragic. When it’s someone we know, it’s even more.

The variety and pure nonsense of this cast actually becomes an integral part of the plot later on. While the story of conformity vs. uniqueness is shallow, it uses the right symbols to bring it to life. It might be divorced from reality, but a story of a bunch of crazies fighting to keep their silly personality intact is relatable. It’s easier to believe it when the people fighting for uniqueness are as unique.

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The irony is that the only character who goes through a major change is Satsuki. She’s at first a symbol of conformity and The System, later to reveal she has different intentions and then to admit her methods were wrong. I’m not sure whether it was meant to shed more light on the ideas. It’s a little too disconnected. Still, it’s a good example of how flexible it is.

The visuals are also a big deal. The amount of sexual fanservice has been blown out of proportions. The art style is closer to the Western caricature than traditional anime. Characters are often blobby and in weird shapes. The women have figures, but they’re mostly just there. Shots that emphasize their sexy build are rare. Many bodies are only vaguely female.

Besides transformation sequences and a few suggestive shots, the series ignores nudity. It’s there. Some people sport their abs and you can get a decent idea of Ryuko’s figure but that’s it. Anyone looking for hot shots to screenshot will be disappointed.

Everything else about the art style is brilliant. The expressive character design is a given. It’s the environment and action scenes that are more unique. Nothing is literal in this world. Every environment expresses the atmosphere, but is never meant to be taken literally.

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This may some like a problem for those who care about precise details. If you care about precise details, read history. Fiction isn’t reality but an expression of human thought. The scenery of Kill la Kill is physically impossible, but is important for the immersion. That’s because humans don’t take in precise details. We take in certain cues that make perceive our environment in some way.

The action is the same. It’s rarely a case of tactics. It’s cool people swinging their weapons and uniform while color flashes. It’s a lot of fun but I’m surprised the Porygon effect didn’t surface. Besides the lump of exposition around the middle, it’s the only weak spot. Sometimes it’s too much, the colors flash and move and things explode and the only result is a headache. Kill la Kill is mostly good at controlling its nonsense (which is why it’s so impressive). A few action scenes are the only ones where its style works against it, doing more harm than good. It’s a small case.

The anime also sometimes feel a little too long and overloaded. It’s never enough to ruin it, but by the final battle the series has less steam than before. As good and epic as it is, it’s not enough. The series pushed things to the edge so much that they didn’t have much for the end but a huge lump of fibers.

Still, the flaws are tiny and barely worth talking about. Kill la Kill is the essential anime about beating people up and saving the world. There’s no reason to watch long shounen anime that never end when you have this. Even One Punch Man, which was a lot of fun looks tame and silly by comparison. It’s a series worthy of the hype, and I hope the fandom will keep it popular for a long time.

4.5 glorious Mako speeches out of 5

 

 

Marilynne Robinson – Housekeeping

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There was a time I labeled myself a non-conformist. It was a short time, or at least I want to believe so. Like your typical socially inept nerd, I could not fit the norms and weren’t interested in them. There was supposed to be some vague ‘alternative’ or ‘underground’, but the impression I got is that it was just another herd. Whether you’re following a small or a big herd, you’re still following a herd.

Then the whole idea of ‘following a herd’ started to not seem so bad. It turned out that the popular kids got a few things right, and that trying to fit in has its benefits. I ‘found myself’ not by discarding everything else – I didn’t define myself by lack – but by taking pieces of this and of that, whatever fit. Being different on purpose is just limiting yourself. When I no longer cared about being different or fitting in, things became so much easier. I also became weirder and harder to digest, if my friends’ comments are anything to go by.

You rarely find this narrative in art. Our parents, schools and sport guys tell us to conform. Weirdos are bad because they’re weird, and being weird is bad because it’s weird. It may have something to do with weirdness meaning automatic sexual unattractiveness, or that it leads to ‘failure’. Music, books and movies tell us to stand up. The mainstream is stupid. We should put a fist up, do the opposite of what they tel us and buy Rage Against the Machine records. Art’s narrative gives you an enemy to rebel against, and everything that’s associated with it is immidiately bad. How many embarassing political songs there are about ‘America’, where if you put the word ‘you’ instead of ‘America’ you get a generic break-up song?

Housekeeping offers a truly different (oh!) narrative. Its narrative touches a lot of things, and some of them will surface only after re-reading. Like other capital L Literature, like The Assistant, it’s a book that’s very profound when it shows life and incoherent when it attempts a philosophical essay. It does more the former than the latter. Robinson’s language is as beautiful as everyone says it is, but the style is different.

Housekeeping is called ‘descriptive’ when, in fact, it’s very minimalist. It doesn’t take long before Carver name pops in the mind. It was released around the same era. Robinson reaches the same intimacy Carver’s writing has but in the different way. Carver’s writing is rough and hard. It just stands there, hoping the emotions will surface on their own. Robinson reaches out for them, tries to make it clear.

It’s funny to describe the novel this way when the protagonist is so inactive, but what can you expect from it? This is how novels about grief and tragedy should be written. What’s interesting about death is less that it happens, but how people cope with it. Tragedy is only as meaningful as the characters’ reaction and means of coping with it. Paul Auster made a whole career out of it.

Ruth’s behavior is reminiscent of Holden Caulfied. Both of them spent too much time in their youth with death, and you get this PTSD-like behavior. Ruth is passive not just because Robinson’s characrization is a bit underwhelming, but because she can’t think of anything else other than death. Death is everywhere. She lives in a house where she last saw her mother, who comitted suicide in the lake where their grandfather died.

There is no escaping death, or forgetting it a little. They’re isolated from the town. The lake is always there and the train is always audible. They are a reminder of lost family members. Just like how Caulfield kept thinking about his dead brother, Ruth can’t help not think about her dead family members. She finds no way of coping with it.

Lucille is the alternative. Lucille is in the same spot as Ruth, but she wants to move on. ‘Escape’ isn’t the right word. After a certain point, there is little more you can learn from death, other than that it gets you eventually. Lucille doesn’t ‘conform’ because she’s bad, or because she’s not unique enough or anything so silly. Her ‘conforming’ is a way of moving on. She conforms out of her own will, because eventually there is nothing to learn about that lake, other than that people died there.

This is where Housekeeping‘s story of nonconformity takes a unique route. Our conformist ‘conforms’ out of her own will, and it does her good. The problem is not that there is a ‘norm’, but that it’s enforced. Ruth’s and Sylvie’s situation worsen when society opens its eye on them, and tries to ‘set them’ on the right path.

There is no attempt to understand them, why Sylvie is such an eccentric and Ruth is so passive. They try to use brute force, as the problem is that Ruth doesn’t go to school and not something deeper. It reminds me of what Marilyn Manson said about the Columbine kids: “I wouldn’t say anything to them. I’d hear what they have to say”. All this brute force did, in fact, push them in the opposite direction. It doesn’t matter what kind of norm society stands for – there is mention about a strict religious attitude, but it’s not developed. All that matters is that it thinks forcing the ‘weirdos’ to conform will somehow make everything better.

Robinson expresses these ideas by showing the behavior of the characters, and she does it welll. So why are the philosophical ramblings? In a novel that’s all about letting you figure out its meaning, what spelling out will do? It’s funny to see such talented authors resort to this trope. Talented people are indeed unaware of their talents. To Robinson’s credit, she has a knack for crafting a beautiful sentence even if its meaning is opaque. She’s closer to McEwan than Malamud. Her sentence have a nice, easy to read rhythm. It’s a langauge beautiful enough to be enjoyable without being meaningful, but the novel is too good for this.

Robinson also can’t get over realism’s biggest obstacle. In an attempt to make ‘realistic’ characters, they make their characters dull. They don’t include enough odd details that inform us who these people are. Sylvie and the aunts get some development, but their quirkiness is contrasted with Lucille and Ruth. Lucille and Ruth feel almost empty. The writing and pacing feels real enough, so instead of coming unrealistic or undeveloped, it just reads like Robinson held a lot of information back. What the novel needed was a few moments that will show us how these sisters are like when there are together.

For a novel about two sisters who lived their whole youth together, there are barely any moments to show it to us. They are young teenagers. Isn’t it that time when clothes and boys are starting to be interesting? Isn’t it the time when you start to doubt that adults had everything figured out? It’s the time when personality develops, but there is perhaps one or two fights. That’s it. People’s lives don’t revolve just on whether to conform or not, but Ruth and Lucille’s relationship does. Maybe adding this means adding an extra 60 pages, but I wouldn’t mind. Robinson isn’t terrible when the pen gets away from her, so writing a bit of what she does best can’t do harm.

It’s a beautiful novel though, one that deserves its place in the canon. Even if it fails in the same way most realists do, Robinson keeps the intimacy. She never builds a wall of words that separates us from the charactes, like Updike or Malamud. She rarely takes her eyes off the characters, and what’s left in the end is not the philosophical ramblings but the feelings that we really were there. This is what realism is all about.

3.5 lakes out of 5