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The Sky Crawlers

“The time that we kill keeps us alive.”

Jeremy Levett is here to explain why we should all be watching Mamoru Oshii's The Sky Crawlers (2008)

Mamoru Oshii says that the most important part of a film is the visuals, after which comes storyline, with characters least important. He is not alone in this – such an approach can be seen in, oh, almost every CG-reliant film since the re-re-re-mastered Star Warses – but almost alone in outright stating it as a rule to work by. And The Sky Crawlers, latest in a long line of acclaimed animated creations, exemplifies this: it’s heart-stoppingly beautiful, meandering and thin on plot, and populated by a cast of emotionless two-dimensional* ciphers.

Yuichi Kannami is a fighter pilot. He’s a child, although given that vague agelessness this style of animation gives characters this isn’t as obvious as it should have been. He arrives at an aerodrome which feels like a lazy summer holiday on a fighter base in July 1940. Along with normal-seeming adult groundcrew, it’s populated by a number of other underage pilots. They smoke, drink and visit brothels, all with complete detachment and lack of emotion. Occasionally, they get into their fighters and kill people. But mostly, they do nothing. That, more or less, is the film.

There is an invincible pilot called The Teacher on the other side, who nobody has ever defeated; there are back and forth bombing raids and scrambles, a massive operation which the squadron take part in, and most interestingly of all, the whole war seems to be publicly broadcast entertainment acted out by warring megacorps; but the cast don’t care about the outcome of the ops or the war, just as they don’t care that their comrades are dying around them, or care that their youth is due to them being biologically immortal, something the film mentions as casually and inconsequentially as I just did now.

The Sky Crawlers is about detachment. Saying the film has no plot is unfair; there is a plot, replete with drama, emotion and intriguing set pieces, but the characters themselves aren’t terribly interested in it. You can (and people have) draw analogies to the disaffected yoof o’today, for whom reality cannot live up to entertainment; escapism – in this case, very real combat - gives a level of stimulus, a thrill that the rest of life can’t match up to. Kannami and his comrades sit around and wait for the next murderous dogfight, fumbling half-heartedly through awkward conversations and meaningless sex. They say little to each other and mean even less. Twists, turns, deaths and shocking reveals – which you can find out for yourself – are all met with the same blank-faced acceptance.

This is a film which is only really rewarding if you’re willing to read your own meanings into it, because it gives you damn-all to go by on its own. Taking the old “show don’t tell” line to its logical extreme, the film tells you nothing. It’s definitely not for everyone; in creating a commentary on bleakness and ennui Oshii has given us a bit of escapism that is, at the surface, astoundingly boring.** Those looking for sharp dialogue or a fast-paced story should look elsewhere. But it is still an immensely satisfying film.

The visuals - apart from a truly awful and unreal-looking coastline at the end which almost ruins the closing scene – are, as you would expect – fantastic. There’s an obvious distinction between the flat, simply shaded characters and the gorgeous, photorealistic CG battle scenes,*** but while in most animation that would be a result of all the money going to the fight scenes, in this film be you get the feeling that it’s intentional; the budget was clearly there to make everything look perfect. The pilots speak their own Japanese on the ground, but switch to (accented) English when they go to war. The ground is a softly shaded, contemplative set of traditionally drawn backdrops, and only when they’re flying – only when they’re killing - is the world in three dimensions.

Watch it in the original Japanese, and don’t turn it off until after the credits.

* hurrrr
** There are perhaps ten minutes of combat in a two-hour movie. If that’s all you want, it’s on Youtube.
*** A moment about the machines, which deserve their own mention; the setting is one in which the jet engine was never invented, and the fighters and bombers look like WW2 piston designs taken to their ultimate extreme. Contra-rotating propellers abound. The protagonist and his fellows mostly fly a souped-up evolution of the J7W Shinden, a prototype put forward by Japanese designers about two minutes before they lost the war, while the Teacher (the evil bastard in the silver plane) flies something that has all the best aspects of the FW190, Sea Fury and Corsair in its lines, plus a turbocharger off a P-38 and a gigantic X-engine. There are also twin-engined fighters, night fighters and heavy bombers, all looking like things that didn’t quite make it into My Tank Is Fight. It’s glorious. War nerd out.

The Tate starts to Grate.

In the summer of 1982 I went up to London all on my own for the first time on a sort of pilgrimage to see the Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the Tate Gallery, and very grown-up and artistic I felt too.  I made many more visits to the Tate in the years that followed, as a sixth-former and then as an art student, but then work, changing interests, and a move to Devon intervened, and I'd not been back for ages until last Wednesday, when I found myself near Millbank with a few hours to spare and decided to go and see how the old place had changed.

Well, not that much, it turns out.  It's been rebranded - it's now called 'Tate Britain' - and a lot of the free-expression & fingerpainting stuff has been shipped down-river to new premises at Tate Modern on the south bank.  There's a new entrance too, which I think occupies the basement space where a collection of Rossetti's brilliant little watercolours was on display on my first visit.  In common with a lot of public architecture at the moment (the new atrium in the British Museum, for instance, or the whole of the Tate Gallery at St Ives) this new bit is a huge, airy, impressive space with nothing much in it, which seems a shame; I like my galleries and museums stuffed with objects (maybe we've had to sell them all?)  But not to worry; once you ascend to the old gallery all is much as it ever was; big, cool rooms full of big, cool paintings; just the place to while away a few hours on a sticky London afternoon.  There were John Martin's vast, loopy spectacles of Heaven and the Apocalypse ('The Great Day of His Wrath' (above right) is the predecessor of a thousand action movies, and was what I was aiming for at the end of Mortal Engines.  Come to think of it, I should call an airship that...)  John Singer Sargent's society portraits have never appealed to me, what with being society portraits and all, but crikey, could he paint! Samuel Palmer and co produced pictures which seem to glow from within, like fishtanks in a darkened aquarium.  The Pre-Raphs (whom I revered as a teenager in much the same way that some of my friends revered Joy Division or The Clash) are always worth a visit for old times' sake, and this time I found a little Dartmoor scene by Inchbold which I've never noticed before - the Dewer Stone at twilight, with a strange, lilting twist of lilac cloud strung across the sky (above left).

As always in an art gallery, though, it's best to avoid looking at the captions they stick up beside each painting.  I don't know what these are like in other countries, but in the UK they tend to be specious slabs of cant, often written by someone who inhaled a heady dose of Marxism on a liberal arts course in the seventies and still hasn't come to their senses.  The ones in 'Tate Britain' were mostly OK, but it all goes horribly wrong in Room 7, which is devoted to rural scenes by the likes of Stubbs and Gainsborough.  This display is called 'Nature and Landscape', and alarm bells started to ring as soon as I read the big introductory panel.  I don't mean actual alarm bells - I hadn't inadvertently pocketed a Van Dyck or anything - these were the metaphorical alarm bells which go ting-a-ling-ling whenever I sense that somebody considerably more privileged than me is about to start lecturing me on social inequality like a mad old left-wing nanny.

For it seems that you would have to be both an idiot and an Enemy of the People to simply enjoy these paintings as pretty pictures of the English countryside.  "British landscape paintings were prized for their expressive qualities and apparent truthfulness," we are told.  "However, they often ignored the economic realities of modern country life, in favour of a sense of idyllic nostalgia which has endured to the present day."

Well, I'm sure this is true.  Almost all art (at least, all art from much before the dawn of Twentieth Century, and quite a lot since) is idealised in some way, and you don't have to be a curator at the Tate to work out that most paintings of the Eighteenth Century were paid for by wealthy people who didn't want pictures of starving peasants all over their walls.  But when we pick up a novel by Jane Austen we don't expect it to be garlanded with sanctimonious warnings that she concentrates only on a tiny, well-heeled portion of society's upper crust.  That's a fact worth knowing, but we don't deem it essential to an enjoyment of her books, nor do we criticise her for failing to mention the vast majority of people who were having a beastly time.  In the view of the Tate, however, the only value of these paintings seems to be as relics of the bad old days; we must be helped to recognise them as symptoms of a disease for which the cure has now been found.  So George Stubbs's beautiful, frieze-like picture of agricultural labourers,  'The Reapers', "...perhaps... robs these workers of their individuality and denies the harsh realities of work for sentimental effect".   A  picture of three upper-class lads playing up a tree is apparently designed to show how at home they are in the landscape that they will grow up to own.

This reductionist drivel reaches its apotheosis in the caption beside John Constable's painting 'The Ferry', in which we are told: "Constable's paintings focused intensively on the Suffolk landscape, and suggested a deep emotional involvement with nature.  However, his father owned nearby Flatford Mill, and it was his Middle Class background which allowed him to pursue such an independent and innovative career as an artist."  I've read that through quite a few times and, as far as I can see, that 'however' is saying that Constable was basically faking it; he seems to have a deep emotional involvement with nature, however he couldn't have, because he was Middle Class.  (Presumably only the workers can really feel emotionally involved with nature.)

I came away with the distinct feeling that the people who run Tate Britain are a bit embarrassed at having to find wallspace for these outmoded, undemocratic, politically dubious works of art, and would be far happier downstream at Tate Modern, where the videos 'n' installations crowd never do anything that could disturb the cosy Arts hivemind.  It also made me realise that most pictures are much better off without captions.  (If the Tate needs to save money, I'd nominate the caption-writing department as one place where the axe might usefully fall.)  Unless you're particularly interested in Constable as an artist and want to find out more about his life and influences (in which case you need a good monograph or biography, not 100 words on a glorified post-it note) all you need to know about 'The Ferry' is its title, the date it was painted, the artist's name, and perhaps his dates of birth and death.  The picture, like all good pictures, speaks for itself.

New Who

Back at Eastertide when we started watching the latest series of Dr Who I did a little write-up of it on my other blog, so now that it's finished I thought it might be worth revisiting and seeing if the two-and-a-half grudging cheers I gave the first episode were justified.

 As I explained in that piece, I'm not really a Dr Who fan.  I enjoyed the ones I watched back when Tom Baker was proprietor of the TARDIS, and I remember reading some of the old Target Dr Who novels which I suppose must have been based on earlier programmes, but I'm not really up to speed with the show's mythology, and I barely saw any of the David Tennant episodes, so I came to this new series with a fairly open mind.  (If you'd like to read fair and entertaining episode-by-episode reviews of the whole series written by someone who knows his Who through and through, you need only to click on the HeroPress link in the Bee's side-bar, which will deliver you into the capable hands of of leading Geek philosopher Tim Knight.)

Anyway, I said at Easter that on the whole I was looking forward to the new Who, and on the whole I wasn't disappointed.  There are lots and lots of very irritating things about the show, as Terry Pratchett has pointed out, but it remains hard to dislike, especially if you watch it in the company of saucer-eyed eight-year-olds, to whom it is simply The Most Exciting Thing Ever.  I was relieved that there wasn't anything too scary in this series, which seemed to aim for an atmosphere of fantasy adventure rather than really setting out to horrify.  And I'm very glad that I was wrong about Annette Crosbie, whose appearance in the opening episode I expected to be repeated on an almost weekly basis.  (Not that I have anything against Annette Crosbie, who is, of course, a National Treasure: I was just worried that we were in for more of the soap opera plotting which had led me to lose interest so totally in the new Dr Who before.)  This series, which has a different producer to the previous ones, had a much more science-fiction-y structure, culminating in an ingenious final episode which linked together elements from the preceding episodes with all manner of time-travel-y goings on.

On the downside, there was a tendency for alien menaces to be easily defeated by the Power of LURVE, which got a bit tedious, and then there was the Weekly Sniffle.  This is a moment, usually about five minutes before the end of each episode, when the music goes a bit Hearts and Flowers and something or other makes one of the characters (usually Amy) get a bit weepy and need a good hug.  I suspect the programme makers think  pictures of people crying = emotionally engaging TV drama.  (It's probably something they learned on a media studies course. )  Actually pictures of people crying tends to = lazy, manipulative formula schmalz, and I do wish they'd just pull themselves together and get a grip.

I also found a lot of the stories a bit rushed.  The two-parters, in which there was time for set-up, resolution, and a good bit of running-about-in-corridors in between, were all far better than the stand-alone fifty minute ones, which had no sooner set out their ideas than it was time to wheel on some creaky Deus Ex Machina, have a good cry, and roll the closing credits.  The promising-looking Daleks-in-World-War-2 episode suffered particularly badly from this, and for my money was the worst episode in the series, though the one set on the big space-whale powered starship ran it a close second.  The only single-episode story which didn't fizzle out was the one about Vincent Van Gogh.  This included the one truly frightening moment in the series (when the words, 'Written by Richard Curtis' came up on the screen) but, despite being the writer of many of The Worst Films Ever, Mr C managed to turn in quite a nice little story about art, madness, time-travel etc; it had a rubbish monster, but Vincent's tears at the end were the only ones in the series which didn't look as if they'd just been applied with an eye-dropper by a lady from Make-Up.

(To be fair, Sam far preferred the stand-alone stories.  Having to wait a whole week to find out what happened next was, apparently, almost unbearable.)

On the plus side, there was a nice look to most of the episodes, some very good jokes, and even the weaker stories had some good ideas and strong performances.  Matt Smith, who seemed far too young to play the Doctor at first, quickly convinced us with his skewed good-looks and manic energy.  I think he's probably the best Dr Who since Tom Baker, with whom he shares a kind of gleeful, funny-portentous, mad uncle quality.  Sam thinks he's the coolest person ever, and doesn't mind me wearing tweed jackets any more (why couldn't they screen it in winter time?).  So in the end, while it's not a programme I'd probably bother to watch on my own, as Family Entertainment it seems pretty unbeatable.  Saturday tea-times won't be the same without it.  What on earth shall we watch instead?  (Don't say "Merlin".)

Of Krakens and Chrysalids

The first grown-up science fiction writer I read was H G Wells; the second was John Wyndham.  The reason for that was simple; like Wells, Wyndham was respectable. There were no lurid paintings of bug-eyed monsters or space-princesses in boilerplate bikinis on the jackets of his novels; they were sober, orange-and-white Penguins, which sat comfortably on my parents' bookshelves alongside the works of writers like Eric Ambler and Hammond Innes.

Brian Aldiss, writing at the height of 'New Wave' sci-fi in the '60s, referred to novels like The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes as 'cosy catastrophes', and  there is something oddly reassuring about  the way Wyndham's heroes navigate the collapse of civilization with stiff upper lips, old fashioned British pluck, and a brave girl at their sides.  But 'cosy' is a hardly a word that I would apply to his coolly athiestic books, which explore how precarious humanity's perch at the pinnacle of evolution is, and how easily we might be displaced by new forms of life.  The double-disaster format of Triffids always seemed slightly contrived to me (the man-eating plants of the title can only be a serious threat if everybody suddenly goes blind...) but that didn't stop me turning the pages.  As for The Kraken Wakes, in which the menace is not so much the alien invasion as society's complete unwillingness to come to terms with it, it seems just as relevant to the age of global warming as it must have done in the Cold War.  (I still remember that passage where the 'sea-tanks' make their first appearance as one of the great spine-chilling moments of my childhood reading.)  And there is surely nothing remotely cosy about The Midwich Cuckoos, Wyndham's eerie story of an English village in thrall to a batch of mutant children who may be the spearhead of an extraterrestrial take-over.  

A similarly chilly vision underlies The Chrysalids, which I think may be my favourite John Wyndham book.  It is unusual among Wyndham's major works in that it takes place not in the England of the 1950s but in a far future Novia Scotia, in a superstitious farming community which resembles the New England of the 17th Century, complete with witch hunters.  For although the characters in the book have only a vague understanding of the 'Tribulation' which destroyed our civilization, it is clear to the reader that this a world recovering from Atomic war; large parts of it are still uninhabitable, glowing wastelands, and genetic mutations are frequent, to be ruthlessly stamped out whether they occur in plants, animals or human beings.  The hero is a boy who gradually comes to understand that he is himself a mutant; although he seems outwardly normal he is capable of telepathic communication with a small group of neighbouring children.  A few sympathetic adults try to help and shelter them, but as they grow up, and their otherness becomes harder to conceal, they are forced to flee for their lives from their own family and friends.  In some ways the story is an alternative Midwich Cuckoos, this time told from the point of view of the children.  Its ending is actually every bit as unsettling.

I think I first read The Chrysalids when I was about eleven, and all that I remembered of it was the heroine's russet dress*.  At least, that's all I consciously remembered, but when I re-read the book this year I realised that the world of Mortal Engines owes much to John Wyndham's descriptions of a low-tech future in which own own society is just a dim and confused memory.  There must be any number of books which take a similar approach, but I suspect that this was one of the first, and is still one of the finest.  It was certainly the first that I encountered.

Reading it for a second time, I was impressed by Wyndham's lean prose and the swift pace at which the story moves.  It's not a big book, but it deals with big ideas.  The young protagonists are sympathetic,  but the fears of their persecutors are understandable.  The children's fate is in the balance right to the end.  It's not a YA novel - there was no such animal in 1955, when The Chrysalids was published - but it's just the sort of adult book which can be enjoyed by reasonably confident younger readers too.  I wish I had rediscovered it sooner.  I certainly won't let another 33 years go by before I read it again.

* I was a romantic child, and I hoped that a tall girl with a russet dress would play a part in my own teenage years.  (She never did show up.)

A Musical Interlude - The Bad Shepherds

The Bad Shepherds are based in Chagford, quite close to the Bee, and are the brainchild of Adrian Edmondson, who will be familiar to anyone over forty from The Young Ones.  They specialise in folk cover versions of punk classics by the Clash, the Undertones etc, and also do a very nice rendition of Kraftwerk's The Model which makes you realise that it was actually a folk song all along.  Here, for your listening pleasure, is their version of Once in a Lifetime...

Russell Crowe, Russell Crowe, Ridin' Through The Glen...

By Jeremy Levett, Our Man in the Odeon with a Bucket of Popcorn.

While I’m by no means a Robin Hood aficionado, there’s a fairly simple checklist of Robinish Hoodish tropes that I might reasonably expect to see in any iteration of the long-running collaborative fanfic that centres around England’s most commonly mistaken-for-real folk hero.

Let’s see how well Ridley Scott’s 2010 offering ticks the boxes...

[  ] Swashing
[  ] Buckling
[  ] Living in woods
[  ] Wearing of green
[X] Tax
[X] Nottingham
[  ] Sherriff of-
[  ] Robbing from rich
[  ] Giving to poor
[  ] Archery contest
[  ] Other display of amazing bowmanship
[X] Someone getting shot with something resembling an arrow
[X] D-Day  (Wait...  What?)

The film opens with captions in a wannabe-medieval font accompanied by dramatic narration, sounding like a far-right redneck caricature who believes all governments are inherently tyrannical (immediate thoughts: "grab my SKS longbow, go inna woods"). Voiceovers and captions of this sort are inherently Bad Things and signs of lazy filmmakers, but the rhetoric made me briefly wonder if I’d accidentally stumbled onto some sort of sophisticated medieval satire.

This was immediately put to rest by an assault on a castle in France, which is all very manly and impractical and involves napalm (like every film battle ever seemingly has to; echoes of the napalm-lobbing Pictish trebuchets in 2004’s godawful King Arthur). Richard the Lionheart, some heavy-handed narrative device or other tells us, is leading his men back to England from the Crusades, the fastest route apparently being through a French castle. Then he gets shot. In the throat. And dies. At the start of the film. How's that for shaking the legend up?

Meet our hero, Robin Longstride, an archer in the service of the punctured ex-king, the brooding silent type Russell Crowe is in every movie he’s ever been. Suddenly, this Upstanding Englishman (who character-defining moments quickly establish as a petty crook and brawler as well as a mercenary) is caught in a web of intrigue involving a dead man named Locksley! Through a shower of arrows and plot points he heads back to England. He is backed up by some men of a merry persuasion: “Will”, “John” and a bearded singing type I'm guessing is Alan. These characters are, throughout the movie, fantastic; they fill their archetypes perfectly but remain interesting, and are highly entertaining without stealing the scene.

King John was by far the most interesting character, his somewhat jarring Guatemalan (!) good looks notwithstanding; a clever, conflicted, conniving bastard, living in the shadow (and more importantly, the debt) of his warmongering brother. This was something that could have been played up more, but I'm very glad they did note that the fearless, peerless Coeur de Leon, the hero of the Hood legend, paragon and exemplar of all true English heroism, pretty much forced John's "evil taxes" by spending all the country's money swanning off to the Middle East and killing people. (Insert heavy-handed contemporary symbolism.  We get it.)  They could also have mentioned that he couldn't speak English, resided in the British Isles for about two years total and spent most of those massacring Jews for kicks, but given what they do to Robin I think there's probably about enough iconoclasm going on in this film already.

Without going into much more detail (intrigue, impersonation and Frenchmen being bastards, it's nothing you haven't seen before) the first two thirds really weren't bad: well executed plots, decent characters, good casting (Cate Blanchett as an old, steely Marion), nice camerawork and apparent historical authenticity. The only niggling point is that so far it doesn’t seem to be a Robin Hood film. There is no robbing, no living in forests, nobody is even wearing green.  (Actually they steal grain once.  From the church.)

Then, in the third act:
There is a generic and rather poor medieval battle scene;
It turns out Robin Hood’s father wrote the Magna Carta;
Robin the grubby mercenary archer is suddenly a heroic figure, which is to say he jabbers about liberty with all the passion and self-awareness of a 21st century right-wing strawman;
There is a much bigger, much more generic and much worse medieval battle scene, when the French stage D-Day;
No, really; the French landing craft assault on the Cliffs of Dover* is beaten back by the army of England, led by Our Heroes. Maid Marion and Friar Tuck pull horses, armour and weapons out of nowhere and are suddenly amazingly good at using them, and a ragtag band of feral Sherwood children with sticks rain greenwood hate on the frog.
There is some tax-related, King John-related dickery;
The named cast grab their 
rifles and American flags WOLVERIIIIIINES longbows and go inna woods;
Close with, once more, narration and "AND SO THE LEGEND BEGINS". Seriously? Did I just watch a Robin Hood origin story?

Robin Hood (2010): two acts of a moderately good low fantasy film in a weird alternate universe, followed by a string of reaction-image-provoking stupidity. Why on earth? Did they think that Hollywood really needs another example of "sticks name of beloved and well-known story on completely unrelated and incoherent directorial outpourings"?

Brace for The Eagle of the Ninth, starring Loch Lomond, a computer and an American with a truly stupid name...

* THE LANDING CRAFT GODDAMNIT WHAT?! Are they just the new visual shorthand for a beach attack? Do Hollywood think audiences won't understand an amphibious assault without them? They had Orcs using similar devices in the Return of the King film, but that was a) for a single, short river crossing b) actually a pretty nice example of the Evil Orcish Ingenuity of the books c) fantasy. Asterix did pretty much the same scene, with the Romans attacking Dover in wooden landing craft, but there it was funny; Asterix is not pretending to be realistic, and never lets historical accuracy get in the way of a good visual joke or a terrible verbal one. 
But Robin "ostensibly realistic" Hood? In the year 1200 people did not have FLAT-BOTTOMED LANDING BOATS WITH ASSAULT RAMPS. I was half expecting them to start suppressing the English pillboxes with mounted Oerlikons, or for French woodpunk duplex drive tanks to roll out of the waves. The moment I saw them I knew there was going to be a shot taken underwater with kicking legs, splashing and arrows slicing streams of bubbles through the surf. I called it. Fifteen seconds later it happened. I suppose I should be grateful we didn't see someone firing a longbow from horseback. 

In the Lands of the North...

I've written elsewhere of the brilliance of Postgate & Firmin, and of Noggin the Nog in particular, but that was before I worked out how to embed videos, so I hope you enjoy this clip from the first episode.  Sadly it cuts off in the middle of a sentence, but if you want to know what happens next, or just hear more of Oliver Postgate's voice and Vernon Elliot's beautiful music you should RUN not walk to the Dragons' Friendly Society, where a variety of Smallfilms books and DVDs are available.   I highly recommend them.  I think Peter Jackson should do The Hobbit this way.