Thursday, October 31, 2013

My List of Ten Halloween Scares


I had another post planned, but I doubt I could finish it before the night is out, so I thought I would just through together a handy-dandy list instead.  People love lists!

So, without further ado, my list of scary things related (sometimes marginally) to Halloween...

1.  Scariest Movie.  Oh boy, that's hard to narrow down.  I'm a highly susceptible person who gets spooked very easily.  I was one of the kids who was freaked out by Return to Oz.  Large Marge in Pee Wee's Big Adventure scared the fuck out of me.  Even Ghostbusters left me afraid to close my eyes.  So to this day, I have watched very few horror movies... yet somehow I really like reading synopses of horror movies.  Don't ask me why.  The Exorcist scared the crap out of me when I saw it, not because of pea soup head-spinning girl, but because of those random flashes of the devil (or whatever that was).  I could not stop thinking about them.  But I would say that the scariest movie I saw was the original The Omen.  It compelled me to leave the lights on for a week, even as I recognized how profoundly stupid it was.  For instance, I doubt even then, air travelers were permitted to sit with a bag of ceremonial knives in their lap.  But music can add so much to the atmosphere, and somehow the creepy chamber music just got inside my head.   
Not sure whether she's scarier before... or after.

2.  Scariest Television Show.  I remember thinking that watching The X-Files was like watching a light horror movie every week.  In some cases, it was actually scarier.  I can't really think of anything I've watched since that consistently delivered the scares.  For the most part, the things that tend to get under my skin are television scenarios that are all too real -- break-ins, rapes, murder, that sort of thing.

3.  Scariest Haunted House.  Ever tried the Great America Halloween Haunt?  The Great America theme park in Santa Clara gets made over into a nightmarish landscape populated by goblins, demons, and other baddies.  It features several attractions, including a haunted cornfield and a graveyard where you are chased by werewolves.  The attraction I found scariest was a haunted house containing an axe-wielding murderer.  You had to move through a narrow passageway where your vision was limited, while baddies roared, screamed, touched, and otherwise threatened you.  Yet I suspect that this attraction had nothing on the Nightmares Fear Factory in Canada.

4.  Scariest Costume.  One year I went to a law school Halloween party dressed up as a student loan debt collector.  Certainly scared the other guests!

5.  Scariest Candy.  Well there was that time I found all those razor blades in... but overall, I'd have to say anything with fruit.  Raisins.  Brrr.


Was there ever any truth to those stories about
razor blades in candy?
6.  Scariest Location.  Lordy, any dark street where no one else is walking about.  But otherwise, one place that really spooked me was the Blair Street Underground Vaults of Edinburgh.  I took a ghost tour back when I was in college, and it was just some bare rooms underground, but again, the mere suggestion by the tour guide had me constantly feeling the breath and prickles of "angry" ghosts.  That night in my Edinburgh hotel, I slept with the covers over my head.

7.  Scariest Situation.  Having to pass out candy to kids on Halloween.  The horror...

8.  Scariest Dream.  To the extent that I can remember my dreams, I would say any that involve me running from a stalker.  There was one dream where I shared an apartment with a friend I hadn't even seen in 10 years, and in the dream, I woke up to find a tall man in shadow standing at the foot of my bed staring down at me.  I woke up immediately after that, but had trouble falling back to sleep because it felt so real.

9.  Scariest Pumpkin.  A smashed one.  Damn things are so hard to clean.

10.  Scariest Person.  Anyone who wants money from me...

Happy Halloween!  'Til next year! 




The above images are either free to use, or are covered by the Fair Use Doctrine.   

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Sweeney Todd

Now I've done it.  It's bad enough that I put Mamma Mia! on the Right list, but a Burtonized Sweeney Todd?

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), directed by Tim Burton, was well-received upon its release, but has apparently received mixed reviews from fans of the stage musical.  The stage musical was written by the legendary Stephen Sondheim and premiered on Broadway in 1979, then in the West End in 1980.

Based on 19th Century legends, Sweeney Todd is the tale of a London barber who just finished serving a long sentence for a crime he did not commit.  He was sentenced by the corrupt Judge Turpin, who lusted after his pretty young wife.  After Todd -- then known as Benjamin Barker -- was shipped off, Turpin invited his wife, Lucy, to his home under false pretenses and then raped her.  Lucy took arsenic afterward, and the judge took her and Barker's young daughter, Johanna, as his ward.  Flash forward 15 years, and Todd returns to his old home to find Mrs. Lovett's "worst pies in London" shop in its place.  Turns out that she saved his barber blades for him, and Todd resurrects his old career with a new twist: he will use the blades to cut the throats of his enemies, including Judge Turpin.  The corpses then slide down a chute to the floor below, where Mrs. Lovett bakes them into pies.

Sondheim's score is at turns whimsical and haunting.  The singing flows at a fast clip, like a spirited conversation, and can be at times difficult to follow.  Much of this was preserved in the transition from stage to film, so let me address the biggest criticisms about the transition.

The movie is shorter than the stage musical (a version of which can be viewed here) by a good hour.  It has cut several songs, most notably "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" which bookends the musical (instead, the instrumental version plays over the opening credits), as well as the chorus, which add to much of the stage musical's dreary humor.  Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd) and Helena Bonham-Carter (Mrs. Lovett) do not have strong singing voices compared to stage performers in the roles, including Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton.  In fact, no one apart from Jamie Campbell Bower (Anthony) appears to have a trained singing voice.*

As much as I like "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," I don't think that Burton's choice to remove it and other songs hurt the movie.  Of course, it's easy for me to say, as I don't have a long-standing passion for the musical, and I'm not a huge Sondheim fan.  I can only judge the movie as a basic newcomer.  As someone new to Sweeney Todd, who viewed the stage musical only after I had seen the movie, I think the movie works very well.  In fact, it's one of the better recent movie musicals I've seen.

The Good

1.  The Sondheim Effect.  Much that is good about the movie can be traced directly to the source: the Stephen Sondheim score and lyrics.  Sondheim manages to mine all of the humor and pathos that one can mine from a story where people are killed and baked into pies.  His word choice and rhyme schemes are often quite clever:

There's a hole in the world like a great black pit
And the vermin of the world inhabit it
And its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit
And it goes by the name of London.

The songs range from buoyant duets to soulful ballads.  From listening to the soundtrack, I gather that Sondheim much preferred the former to the latter.  There are times when Sondheim's songs feel more like an extended dance than like self-contained songs that you remember in their entirety afterward, but it's a case of Your Mileage May Vary.  Even if most of the songs do not feel self-contained, there are plenty of lyrics that stick in your head hours later, such as the ones above, and:

There was another man who saw that she was beautiful
A pious vulture of the law
Who with a gesture of his claw
Removed the barber from his plate
Then there was nothing but to wait.

The music deserves as much credit as the lyrics -- Sondheim fills the score with eery inflections that remain in the brain even during lighter, more rousing scenes.  Despite the variety of the score (compare "Johanna" to "God, That's Good!" to "Epiphany"), it is the dark, haunting parts that seem to predominate, and resonate.           

2.  The Burton Effect.  Tim Burton has a basic black-gray scheme that he seems to fit to every film he directs.  In the case of Sweeney Todd, it feels entirely appropriate.  His 1846 London is black buildings scraping a foggy gray sky, where a pale moon strains to break through.  The cobblestones are always wet.  The people look like the "ghosts" and "vermin" that Todd speaks of early on.  The atmosphere manages to do the work of numerous songs in establishing the mood.

Even though Burton cut a lot of material, he did not scrimp on gore, nor back away from the macabre humor.  Who would have guessed that watching numerous people meet their doom could be so fun?




3.  Good Casting Choices.  Some have criticized Depp and Bonham Carter for being too young for their parts, but I don't really see it.  Yes, George Hearn was 48 during his 1982 portrayal, but Depp and Bonham Carter were in their 40s as well -- not exactly kids.  Yes, it gets a bit tiring that they are cast in every Tim Burton movie, but at least here they fit for the most part.  Depp is more toned down and somber than some of the stage Sweeney Todds, but still delivers maniacal energy when required.  Admittedly, he does look a bit like an aging Edward Scissorhands.  Bonham Carter is probably the weakest link musically, but she brings an oddball misfit quality that works for the character.  You could believe that this Mrs. Lovett would have no trouble embracing cannibalism.

The secondary characters are also well-cast for the most part, including Alan Rickman as the sinister Judge Turpin, and Timothy Spall as his slimy sidekick, Beadle Bamford.  The most inspired casting, though, might be Ed Sanders as Toby Ragg, the assistant of a disposed-of rival who views Mrs. Lovett as a mother figure.  Apparently the Toby character is normally played by adult men, and in the case of the 1982 version, the character was just... odd.  Here, he is just 10 years old, so it's easier to feel more pathos for the character -- mistreated by his master, thinks he's found a better situation, only nope.  Sanders is a strong actor with a grim face that works particularly well, especially toward the end.  





4.  Sometimes Less Is More.  As someone who tends to be very protective of every lyric of musicals she loves, I understand how fans of the stage musical could take umbrage at what was cut.  But I will say that in some instances, the cuts appear to be an improvement.  For instance, the devastating final scene is extended in the stage version, so that it loses some of its impact.

The Bad

1.  Hmm... Yeah, the Singing's Not So Good.  As mentioned, it sometimes feels like Sondheim sacrificed memorable songs for clever wordplay.  Your Mileage May Vary in terms of how much it bothers you, and it does bother me to an extent.  Ironically, the most memorable song of the musical, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," was sacrificed.  However, the general lack of memorability may have more to do with the singing than the songs themselves.  Depp could be described as an "adequate" singer, while Bonham-Carter is passable at best.  "The Worst Pies in London" is a pretty humorous song, but coming from Bonham-Carter, it sounds soft, monotone, and difficult to understand.  Likewise, if Depp had a stronger voice, "Epiphany" might be more of a show stopper.

2.  Some Characters Marginalized.  The shorter running time means that certain characters and relationships have less time to develop than in the stage musical.  For example, in the stage musical, we learn that Anthony got to know Todd after he saved his life during a shipwreck; whereas in the movie, we don't know what connection Anthony has to Todd other than that they were on the same ship.  Why does he keep showing up at Todd's shop?

Likewise, although Johanna is a central character, she feels oddly marginalized, as does her romance with Anthony.  Maybe it's not such a bad thing -- their romance is the most blandly conventional thing in this movie -- but still worth noting.    

Conclusion

Over the top, yet restrained, this is the best film that Tim Burton has directed in at least the past 10 years.  It is worth watching and enjoying for the atmosphere and music, and will hopefully serve to get more people interested in the full stage musical.




* Rumor was that Campbell Bower was the first to be offered the Enjolras role in the Les Miserables movie, but turned it down.  Don't know if there's any truth to it.  


Other Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Dreamgirls, Les Miserables, Chicago, Mamma Mia!

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, RENT, Across the Universe, Rock of Ages, Hairspray   

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Downton Abbey: Does Nostalgia for Our Own Country's Greatness Make It Popular in the United States?

While I sit here in the United States waiting for Downton Abbey's Series Four -- not at all reading episode spoilers or looking for places to download the episodes -- I have been thinking about the show's appeal to Americans.  Part of it is no doubt due to the fascination with British history, its aristocracy, and the pretty-pretty that comes with it.  But another reason could be the nostalgia for our country's past.

Not that everything was so great in the U.S. from 1912 to 1922.  After World War I, there were greater tendencies toward xenophobia and isolationism.  "Lost Generation" writers like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald rejected post-war American culture.  Life was still significantly worse for anyone who was not a white male of Anglo-Saxon descent.

Yet at the same time, the U.S. was taking center stage for the first time.  Woodrow Wilson introduced the idea of the League of Nations, which was unsuccessful, but paved the way for the United Nations.  The U.S. economy had already become the world's largest economy in 1880, thanks to a combination of natural resources and innovation.  On the social front, democracy was being expanded, with the passing of the Seventeenth Amendment (direct election of U.S. Senators), and the Nineteenth Amendment (women's right to vote).

While not everything was perfect, it is easy to look back and see the U.S. from the late 19th century through World War II as an up-and-comer, a rising power in the world, whose best days still lay ahead.  Its people started small, but through natural scrappiness and innovation, rose to the top.  While American money could be credited with saving decadent old institutions like the British aristocracy, Americans in no way absorbed their decaying values.

Look no further than Downton Abbey's treatment of Martha Levinson for this stereotype.  Sure Martha is stinking rich, but she's still a plain-spoken American who says what she thinks when she thinks it, and is more practical than social minded.  While the British may scorn her, she (or at least her money) really provides what they need.  There is the sense that if the Crawleys adopted a little more of Martha's attitude, they would be better off in the long run.

Never mind that the stereotype of the plain-spoken, scrappy American doesn't entirely hold up.  Edith Wharton's novels alone could tell you that Americans were just as capable of becoming decadent and narrow-minded as their European brethren.  In fact, if anything, "new money" families like the Levinsons might have been even gaudier and more wasteful in their effort to prove they belonged.

While Horacio Alger values were preached, the late 19th Century and early 20th Century saw a steep rise in inequality.  Families like the Vanderbilts and the Astors were hardly "just folks" as they built their palaces at Newport Beach and on Fifth Avenue.

At the same time, Americans can look at the greater arc of history and say, "Well yes, but the Progressive Era fixed that, and World War II..."  The overwhelming view of the U.S. back then is a young country a bit rough around the edges, but clearly on the upward swing.

Compare that with now.  Though less than 100 years older, the U.S. feels old, tired, and a bit overstretched.  There is widespread inequality, but seemingly no relief in sight.  The economy has been sluggish, and a right-wing faction in government refuses any attempt to stimulate it.  Once the "savior" who rolled in to the rescue in world conflicts, the U.S. faces complicated messes in the Middle East with no easy resolution.  Seemingly every week, new reports come out proclaiming which year China will have the world's biggest economy.

One can still look at the big picture and feel optimistic, but without knowing what comes next, it is difficult.  Whereas we can look back both smugly and with longing at the early 20th Century, glossing over its worst traits, classifying its harsh events and views as "quaint."  Just like the events in Downton Abbey -- real, divisive events come across like slightly frayed edges on an ornate tapestry.  Yes, equality matters, but not as much as which spoon goes with what dish, and whether to wear a white waist coat.

That is why we watch -- to feel nostalgic, and perhaps to feel reassured.  People back then thought that the world was ending, but we know that it didn't.  Both British and Americans -- even with their grandiose views of Empire and Manifest Destiny -- probably never thought that people would look back upon them fondly decades later.  As difficult as it is to believe, one day people may look back at our time, gloss over the government shut downs and the NSA spying, and see us as a golden era.

We can only hope.

The above photo is being used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

MTV's Daria: Did the Writers Send the Wrong Message?

Since I'm on this animation kick, I might as well get something off of my chest that I've been thinking about for a while: is it possible that the creators of MTV's Daria sent the wrong message in the end?

Daria premiered on MTV in 1997 as the rare portrayal of a social outcast.  Not someone who was an "outcast" while looking and acting like a fashion model, but a genuine introvert with no interest in wider social approval.  The first season established a pattern where Daria Morgendorffer and her friend, Jane Lane, stood off to one side and criticized the activities that people their age were taught to embrace.

At the same time, these episodes -- frequently referred to as "fish in a barrel" episodes -- started to feel a little stale.  Were Daria and Jane really the only two smart ones in the city of Lawndale?  Were other people really so stupid?  And even if they were, would they just stand by, grinning vacantly, while getting insulted?  The only episode in which a popular person offered any pushback was "The Misery Chick," where visiting jock Tommy Sherman told Daria: "You're one of those misery chicks, always moping about what a cruel world it is, making a big deal about it so people won't notice you're a loser."  Minutes later, he died.

Given the stale quality of the first season, I was all in favor of Daria learning that not everyone was a dartboard for her proverbial darts of wisdom.  Season Two delivered a nice balance of cynicism and rounding out of characters, particularly Jodie Landon, the student body vice president.

Then the show got extended a few more seasons, and the writers had to figure out how to keep it interesting.  Season Three found them experimenting with forced send-ups to Titanic and The X-Files while the characters remained static.  Season Four and Season Five got back on the character development bus, but in trying to make Daria "grow," they arguably sent her too far in the other direction.  Now her every negative comment was second-guessed by Jodie, her mother, Jane, and Tom Sloane -- the latter of whom I'll get to in a moment.  Now Daria's responses to problems were frequently presented as childish, stubborn, and narrow-minded.  Daria would regain some of her sharp mojo in the final movie of the series, Is It College Yet?, but it served to remind us how long it had been missing.

I was in favor of Daria growing and maturing beyond her black-and-white vision of things, but I wonder if the show didn't get it wrong.  Rather than mature Daria's sharp, cynical nature, the writers seemed to want Daria to shed it.  "Give people a chance" and "adjust to differences" were common themes, especially in Season Four.  There is nothing wrong with more tolerance, but it seemed as though these "lessons" left no room for Daria's cynicism to be valued.

Daria and Jodie in "Partner's Complaint"
One infamous example was in the Season Four premiere, "Partner's Complaint."  Daria and Jodie worked on a school project together that required getting a loan for their made-up business.  The first loan company treated Jodie poorly for being black, until she revealed that her father was a successful entrepreneur.  Afterward, she complained about being judged before the loan officer learned anything about her.  At the next loan company, Jodie immediately dropped her father's name, so the problem was avoided.  Daria later pointed out the hypocrisy, and Jodie jumped on her, berating her "black and white" view of ethics, before storming out.  Later, Daria's mother suggested that Jodie was "just a little more pragmatic" than Daria and didn't appreciate being criticized for it.  In the end, Daria swallowed the urge to mention this experience during the class presentation, and told Jodie that she (Daria) was wrong.

So Daria learned to be nonjudgemental... hooray?  It would probably be a nonissue if it were balanced out by episodes that showed Daria using her sharp cynicism in a more active way, such as by joining a newspaper or at least writing her own webzine.  Instead, this was just one of many episodes where Daria was discouraged from asserting her point of view.

Quinn wants to believe that Hallmark guardian angels exist?  No problem.  Why challenge her beliefs and possibly get into a constructive debate?  Debates are for rigid, judgmental people.

But one of the worst cases of Daria being discouraged from asserting herself, or even from trusting her judgment, was in Is It Fall Yet?.  Daria was on the outs with Jane after kissing Tom, Jane's boyfriend.  Soon after, Daria and Tom began officially dating, which of course only made her relationship with Jane colder.  The rift in their friendship clearly bothered Daria for much of the summer, but she never spoke up about it and Tom never acknowledged it.  When she defended Jane from Tom's rather snobbish assumptions, Tom accused Daria of trying to pick a fight with him because she was afraid to get close.

Yes, that must it.  Not because Jane was Daria's best friend and Daria knew that she was more than good enough for Tom's wealthy family.  Not because Daria was feeling guilty for hurting her friend by dating Tom.  And certainly not because Daria had valid reasons to feel uncomfortable dating someone from such a different background.  (At one point, Daria rather limply expressed discomfort with Tom's "privileged world," to which Tom retorted: "It's not privileged, and it's not my world."  His experience in Is It College Yet? said otherwise.)  Her feelings were barely acknowledged, and instead Daria adopted Tom's frame.  Her negativity was just fear of getting too close, of course.

Oh Tom, disliked for so many reasons...
Tom in Season Four was probably the worst at acknowledging Daria's views, but he was not alone.  I like Daria's mother, Helen, but she too had a tendency to brush off Daria's point of view.  Sure, she'd admit that Daria had one, and that it was all very well and good, but Daria needed to learn how to compromise out in the Real World.  She certainly never let Daria's judgment influence her in any way (unless Daria was validating her, as in "Psycho Therapy").  Yet both Tom and Helen were meant to be seen as positive forces in the later seasons.  Don't get me wrong -- in many ways they were.  However, between Tom, Helen, Jodie, and sometimes Jane, the message came through loud and clear: don't be yourself Daria, because it's not good enough.

Why does this bother me so much?  Because throughout the series, Daria showed classic introverted traits.  She valued authenticity over shallow small talk.  Social interactions drained her, and she preferred reading in her room to attending parties.  She liked to think deeply about things.  These weren't just clothes that she decided to wear -- this was who she was.  It was hard-wired into her from the moment sperm met egg.  Yet Daria was repeatedly asked to change herself, or else she would never make it in the Real World.

Which other character in the series has had such consistent pressure to change?  Not Jodie, who frequently lamented that she was overworked, but did nothing to ease her pressure.  Not Helen, who never sought to work in a saner law office, even though she clearly needed it.  Not Jane.  Not Trent.  Not Brittany, and certainly not Kevin.  Not even Quinn, who was occasionally taken to task for her shallow attitude, but never really pressured to change it, with the exception of one brilliant takedown in Is It Fall Yet?, done by someone who was not even a main character.  Yet other than that lone example, Quinn was left to decide on her own to take learning more seriously -- and even then, just kinda sorta.

Daria and Quinn: classic introvert/extrovert split 
Yes, the show is called Daria, which means the main character gets more attention.  But it would have been better if the pressure to change were at least a little more balanced.  Say not only was Daria pressured to change her attitude, but also Quinn and Helen.  Otherwise, the message that comes across, again, is Daria was mostly in the wrong.

I don't think the writers intended to play into the harsh stereotypes about introverted people, yet they did.  That's a problem, because introverts face much more social prejudice than extroverts.  They are constantly told to smile more, to get out more, to network more.  If they are naturally quiet, then they can never be good leaders (though data suggests otherwise).  Their skill sets are less valued than an extrovert's; they may be passed over for jobs and promotions.      

The message of Daria -- intended or not -- is that introverts must become more extroverted to be socially successful.  Maybe one reason Helen, Jodie, and Quinn faced less pressure is because, let's face it, their approach is more validated socially -- even Quinn at her most shallow.  As for Jane and Trent, they were too far out on the edge of society to be worthy of attention.  But Daria was a member of the striving, perpetually insecure upper-middle class.  She must be groomed for success!  She must be made to conform.  At least, that is how it appears.

Is that a good message to send to other introverted teenagers?  You're all right, except that you really aren't?  Why couldn't Daria have been validated for who she was, while also being encouraged to channel her cynicism into worthwhile pursuits?  Why was she so often treated like her point of view was invalid?  Even in cases where she actually did use her cynicism toward a worthy cause -- in the too-little, too-late Season Five episode, "Fizz Ed" -- Daria's quest to end the soda company's influence received virtually no encouragement from her friends and family, other than Jane.  It's enough to make an introvert burrow under the covers in frustration.

The writers for Daria do deserve a lot of credit for showcasing an introvert, a rare species on television, let alone in animation.  It's just unfortunate that they perpetuated as many negative stereotypes as they punctured.  Maybe somewhere out there, a 30-something Daria is at her job, realizing that as open-minded as she tries to be, she will always be treated negatively for being quieter and more serious.  She may be frustrated that no one warned her about this, that "giving people a chance" does not magically make life better.  And she may be wishing that a few extroverts had received the same lessons that she did -- that they should conform themselves to her needs, not just the other way around.




The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Serial Experiments Lain: Anime That Blows Your Mind

... Though being anime, that almost goes without saying.

I'm not a great devourer of anime.  There are some that I truly like, but I'm indifferent toward the rest.  Because my greatest exposure to anime occurred about 10 years ago, all of my favorites date from the 1990s and early 2000s... so apologies if some truly great anime series have premiered since then.  I enjoyed Neon Genesis EvangelionCowboy Bebop, and a quiet little series called Serial Experiments Lain.

While the other anime involved giant monsters and space travel, Lain was a 13-episode series about a lonely girl.  The setting was the present -- or the near future.  Or was it?  One of the intriguing things about Serial Experiments Lain was that it posed questions about human connection, what was and was not real, and this strange new thing called the "Internet."

Lain premiered in 1998, when the Internet as a public resource was still fairly new.  Remember how excited and nervous we were about the possibilities?  Would we ever need to leave our homes again?  Were our 'net friends as real as our real friends?

Plot... What There Is

Lain Iwakura is a 14-year old girl who lives with her parents and older sister in Tokyo.  Her age is important because at 14, you can still look as young as 11, or as old as 16.  In Lain's case, it's the former.

Lain has no friends, except for her well-meaning classmate, Alice.  Even her home life feels emotionally isolated, with her sister disdaining her and her mother ignoring her.  Only when Lain receives an email from a dead classmate, Chisa, does her life take an interesting turn.  Chisa committed suicide so that she could live freely inside "the Wired," where "everyone is connected" and bodies are unnecessary.  All of Lain's classmates received the emails and are understandably horrified, but Lain is intrigued.  After her father surprises her with a top-of-the-line "Navi" (Lain's version of a Mac), Lain uses it to communicate with Chisa.



From there, Lain develops into a computer prodigy, steadily adding servers and monitors until she has technology that could rival the CIA's.  She starts to lose interest in the "real" world in favor of virtual reality, much to Alice's concern.  More alarmingly, it turns out that there is another Lain that exists in the Wired -- that has always lived in the Wired -- with all of the brash confidence that the "real" Lain does not possess.  Is it just a bad joke, or could this Lain and the "real" one be the same?


And what about the elite group of hackers called the Knights of the Eastern Calculus?  They seem intent on dissolving the boundaries between the real world and the virtual one, until there is nothing to distinguish them.  Could it be that they are working for someone else?  Someone with grand plans for Lain?

So Anyway...

Without giving anything away, let me just say that Serial Experiments Lain is a giant mindfuck.  That's intentional, though maybe not as much as Lain's creators would have us believe.  So many random events happen that, even when you start at the end and work your way backward, you can't make sense of them all.  The only conclusion is that the creators had an end result in mind, and vague outlines of how to get there, and then just threw a bunch of shit at the wall and watched what stuck.

So much about Lain seems stylized, creepy, and cool purely for the sake of being stylized, creepy, and cool.  There's nothing wrong with that, but it means that Serial Experiments Lain is just a good anime, rather than some remarkable Da Vinci Code where everything connects and makes sense if only you decipher the clues.

Nonetheless Lain Is Still Pretty Awesome

Lain's animation is often quite limited, with characters standing motionless for long periods of time, only their mouths moving.  Ten years ago, I was just in awe of Lain's design and the realism of movement, so unlike anything in the United States.  But since then, American animation has premiered shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, which equal and surpass it in visual quality, if not mindfuckery.

Even so, Lain remains a lovely looking anime.  Three things stand out in particular:

1.  Character Design.  The characters are drawn simply, yet with a stunning amount of detail.  You can read Lain's thoughts in the shading of her eyes, and her distress in the lines on her face.  While Lain has some of the big-eyed quality of a Disney princess, it is far more restrained than in shows like Sailor Moon.  If anything, Lain emphasizes realism in its character design.



2.  Animation.  As I mentioned, Lain's animation is frequently inert, with just the characters' mouths moving.  However, when the characters move, their motion is completely realistic -- see the moments where Lain runs from the two "Men in Black."  But even more impressive is the way the animators captured the nuances of movement to signify emotion.  I mentioned the blood bending scenes in The Legend of Korra last week; while I focused on Tarrlok, the posture of those being blood bent also made me think of Lain.  The wide-open eyes, the rigidity, the faint trembling around the eyes -- it reminded me of the scene at the night club in Episode 2, when the terrified, disoriented club goer was under the effects of Accela.  I had never seen such attention to small details before Lain and its anime brethren.




And it's not just the character movement -- everything moves realistically.  Bottles jangle when a character opens the fridge door; the train car that Lain rides in shifts around like a real train would.  The realism of the animation just makes the unreality of the story hit you that much harder.

3.  Setting.  Lain is set in the present, or at least the near future.  Everything about it has a cyberspace/virtual vibe to it, even settings in the "real" world.  Lain and her classmates play with phones that seem like primitive versions of our iPhones, but were high tech and futuristic back in 1998.  Each episode begins with a computer voice reciting which "layer" the viewer is in, as if the characters were all just part of a sprawling computer game.

But it's not just those things that give Lain a unique, alienating quality.  It's also the use of heavy shadow juxtaposed against harsh light, as seen in images of the streets, in Lain's room, and on the subway train.  It's the sterility of her surroundings: in her bedroom pre-cyber explosion; in the secret room where she meets the Tachibana Labs executive; in the grim classroom where her classmates are hunched over in a uniform gray mass.  Everything in Lain's "real" world is cold.  Only Alice comes across as a real human being capable of emotion, making it obvious why Lain is drawn to her.



If not for Lain's painstaking renderings, I would probably be much less tolerant of its mindfuckery than I am.  It is Lain's art that makes it a cut above most other anime.

Does Lain Have a Purpose?

Good question.  If it does, it seems to be no more than the basic theme of "virtual reality is no substitute for real human connection."

But I'm not sure Lain intends even this message.  It seems more fascinated by the possibilities that await us in the virtual world, back then a very new experience.  How far can we take virtual human connection?  How easily or frequently can we remake ourselves?  How quickly can our mistakes spread not just across town, but across the globe (predicting the Facebook and Twitter era)?    

Conclusion and Speculation

I considered recapping all 13 episodes of Serial Experiments Lain, but that would be a fool's errand.  Lain is just too overwhelming to describe in a way that makes sense.  You really need to see it for yourself.  And then once you do, maybe you can answer these questions:       

Spoilers Ahead!

1.  If Lain's entire purpose was to destroy the boundaries between the real world and the Wired, then why have her first learn about the Wired from Chisa?  Why didn't her father just say "Hey!  I've got a new Navi for you!  Let's check it out!"?  Lain's natural interest in the Wired would have ignited right there.

2.  In fact, what was the point of people killing themselves?  What was the point of the crazy-shit girl phantom monster character that Lain saw on the train and in the school hallway, who showed up to scare us for two episodes and then never again?

3.  What was the point of Lain's sister essentially splitting in half, with one half stuck in the Wired?  If you study the episode carefully and try to determine how it happened and which one was which, it still makes no sense.  Even the sister's "dummy" self seems normal at first, only to lapse into a vacant shell in later episodes.

4.  Why even give Lain a "real" life at all?  It's not as though her "real" self existed to coax other real people onto the Wired.  Her only purpose was to dissolve the boundaries.  She could have done that from entirely within the Wired.  Not to mention having a "real" Lain is kind of pointless when the "Wired" Lain can also cross the border into reality, such as when she attends the night club.

5.  Why were so many people afraid of Lain?  Even for a near-deity, she looks so darn non-threatening.

Ah, I feel better now.


Present day.  Present time.  Hahahahahaha!