Saturday, November 19, 2005

X-Men 214-221

Essential X-Men is only up to issues 213, so with this review I move onto material I've been reading in the original issues. I'd read some early New Mutants stuff and I remember the coloring being absolutely awful, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that the colors in these issues were actually pretty good, and added a lot to the book. While it would be easier to just read the Essential volumes, I don't really mind having to pick up the singles.

Anyway, in a lot of ways X-Men 213 and the Mutant Massacre are the end of the story begun when Claremont started the book. 214 is the last we see of Kitty, Nightcrawler and Colossus, as they're shipped off to Muir Island to heal and eventually pop up in Excalibur. However, since I'm not reading Excalibur, it's pretty much it for them. I've always thought that Kitty was Claremont's favorite character, and though she isn't that well known, she's one of my favorites too, the way he wrote her was great and she's clearly a huge influence on Joss Whedon's writing. And Nightcrawler is a great character too, it's tough to lose them, but mutant means change and in this next chunk of issues, the book definitely changes.

214 is sort of a coda for Mutant Massacre, and leaves our heroes in a really desolate state, questioning the very existence of the X-Men. I always love these 'all fall apart' type issues, when plots converge to destroy things for the characters. This issue brings back Dazzler, and adds her to the X-Men team. However, the real highlight in this issue is how Malice's attack messes with Wolverine, causing him to question his senses, and as a result really doubt how effective he can be as an X-Man. It's a great use of Malice as a device to mess with the status quo.

The next couple of issues have an arc that takes Wolverine and Storm out to the wilderness to duel with a group of retired superheroes who decide that they have to kill these mutants. I'm not a huge fan of the woods setting and contrived action setup, but thematically it works really well to show the ways that the X-Men have evolved from traditional humans, and from the traditional idea of the hero. These people are World War II vets who are out to kill a yuppie couple. Storm finds herself protecting a drug addled woman, even though protecting her may get both of them killed. It plays a lot with how Storm's moral code has developed, she's got no problem killing her enemies, and is even contemplating killing a civilian if it will protect her.

At the same time, Wolverine is reduced to savage status upon smelling the scent of Jean Grey at a crime scene. I like the way Claremont is able to use the ridiculous plot contrivance that brought back Jean Grey to his advantage, gradually teasing her eventual revelation to the X-Men.

The next couple of issues follow the new X-Men team that has been assembled after the Mutant Massacre. It's got Rogue, Psylocke, Longshot and Dazzler, all of whom are actually pretty interesting characters once they get their time in the spotlight. The way Claremont writes Dazzler reminds me a bit of Boy from The Invisibles, in that she's a reluctant hero, someone who seriously questions their place on the team and what she's doing there. Her power isn't as impressive as some of the other X-Men, and more importantly, she wants to be a musician, not a hero. So, she seems to be putting herself in danger by doing something she doesn't really believe in.

This is all addressed as she battles Juggernaut. I'm not a fan of Juggernaut, so it's not good that he continuously pops up in the book. There was a funny bit when Juggernaut is very sad when he thinks he's killed Dazzler because he's a fan of her music. This little story chunk is mainly about showing the new team bonding and it works well. By the end of things you get a sense of who the characters are. Longshot is pretty funny, and reminds me a lot of Anya from Buffy, with his humorous observations about our world from the point of view of an outsider, notably with the line about them eating "burned animal flesh and unborn baby birds" for breakfast. Longshot is also notable for boldly rocking a mullet.

The next issue sees another addition to the new team, Havok. Havok is another reluctant hero, dating way back to Claremont's first couple of issues, he's constantly been at odds with the X-Men, trying to live an isolated life as a mutant. However, he ventures to New York and finds the X-Men. This issue is most notable for the first appearance of a solution to the problem the X-Men are facing. My favorite thing about this era of the book is the sense of constant turmoil the characters face, this truly is a world that's out to get them, and there's nowhere they can escape from this world that's out to get them. They're outlaw heroes not fighting for good, just fighting to survive. That's what makes it such a strong book right now, all morals are compromised and people are just struggling to survive, this is most notable with Storm and Wolverine, both of whom are the senior members of the team, and most aware of what's been lost.

Next is another really strong issue with sees Storm journey to Forge's residence, and relive some of the events of LifeDeath from a new perspetive. Having read Lifedeath only a couple of months ago, I didn't really need the recap, but it was probably needed at the time because over three years had passed since the issue. I really like the fact that she seeks her powers because she feels she needs them to lead the X-Men, it's not about her own personal desire to fly again, though she clearly still has that desire.

The most recent issue I've read, 221 is a really strong one, picking up on one of my favorite plot threads of Claremont's run, the journey of Maddy Pryor. The sequence in 215 where she relives the plane crash and gets taken to the hospital is great. Here, we get the first appearance of Mister Sinister, a villain I was a big fan of as a kid, mostly because he was cool looking. I still have his action figure up in my room, so it's good to see him in the comic. I love the idea that Sinister has erased Maddy's indentity, it further emphasizes the us vs. them feeling of this segment of the book. The X-Men have to break the law to protect Maddy, and in the process make themselves even more estranged from society.

I think the reason I love the Maddy Pryor stuff is that she's so neglected in X-Men history, having been literally bumped out of the way by Jean Grey, abandoned by her husband. It's tragic stuff, and I sympathize with her more than I do with Scott. The idea of someone who falls through the cracks struggling to make her way is really interesting, who does Maddy have left now, she's almost completely alone, and I already know that things do not lead to a good place.

The other thread that comes to a head in this issue is the return of the Marauders, now led by Polaris. There's a lot of dramatic potential there, and there's not too much in this issue, it's mainly set up for the future. The marauders remain a constant threat on the characters, the primary thing keeping them always on the edge, and that's where these people should be. X-Men is a book that should never have a status quo, it should be constantly evolving, and that's why I'm glad to see Claremont taking the book in a new direction, even if it means losing Nightcrawler and Kitty.

I've now been reading this book since the summer, it's probably going to take until the end of the semester to finish Claremont's run, and I'm constantly surprised by just how good it is. He's writing one of the greatest longform works in comics history, consistently entertaining, with strong, consistent thematic and character development and long building plot threads over more than 125 issues. I'm rereading Watchmen for a paper now, while I wait for the next set of issues to arrive, but after that, the journey through X-history will continue.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Samaritan Girl

Samaritan Girl is a film from Kim Ki-Duk, one of the premier directors of the Korean New Wave. He dropped The Isle and 3 Iron earlier, and Samaritan Girl is his latest. I was actually supposed to see this film at the Asian Film Festival earlier this year, however I cut my finger and went to the hospital, so I missed that. But some months later I'm back and have seen the film, and it builds on the work that Kim has done before in a really interesting and challenging way.

The basic premise of Samaritan Girl is two teenage girls become prostitutes to finance a trip to Europe. So, in a typical telling of this story you'd start off with some scenes showing them in the act, building up to the one client who pushes things too far and hurts them, which leads them out of the life of prostitution and back into regular society. That's pretty much the arc of Mysterious Skin, which I watched a few days. It's not a bad story, but what Kim does is really different.


I think the thing I most admire about this film is the way it constantly defies your expectations. The film opens with the two girls already involved in their prostitution business. You would think most of the drama in the film would come from how they wind their way around to prostitution, and particularly in witnessing them crossing that initial barrier. However, this way actually makes more sense because if you're watching the film, you probably already know the basic premise, and that would render those moments irrelevant. That's one of the problems with a lot of movies, the trailer will tell you everything that takes the film twenty minutes or so to set up, so for those first minutes, you're just waiting for them to get to it already.

So, this film jumps right into their lives and through a couple of clients, we get an idea of their routine. There's something a bit disturbing about how carefree Jae-Young is in approaching prostitution. She sees no danger in what she's doing. We get no sense of her home life, so it's like she's a kid, but has the freedom of an adult, and she uses that freedom to sell herself, with no apparent consequence. The arrangement they have works and it's only Yeo-Jin who confronts the morality of what they're doing.

It's never made explicit, but there's a pretty clear implication that Yeo-Jin is on some level in love with Jae-Young and by helping her to these prostitution deals, it's like she experiences vicariously the sexual connection she can't bring herself to ask for. Even though it is not the two of them having sex, with each job, the emotional connection deepens. This is why Yeo-Jin is so angry when Jae-Young becomes emotionally connected with her clients. She can tolerate sexual betrayal, but wants Jae-Young to herself emotionally. This is reinforced in the bath house scenes where Yeo-Jin tries to cleanse Jae-Young of what she's done. The kiss the two of them share is further evidence that they are more than just friends.

There's definitely a film there, touching on issues of sexual jealousy and ultimately on a traditional one partner sexual paradigm Yeo-Jin would want versus the moral liberated sexuality of Jae-Young. However that is not the film that Kim chooses to make. Instead in an extremely shocking development, Jae-Young jumps out of a window to avoid the police and winds up severely injured. When she's up on the ledge, you really get the sense that she could jump and be safe, and that's largely due to the way Jae-Young has behaved throughout the film. She's been in so many potentially dangerous situations and escaped unscathed, why should this be any different? However, it is different and it's a shock to see her bloody on the ground. This was not a plot twist I saw coming at all, certainly not twenty minutes into the film.

At Jae-Young's request, Yeo-Jin goes to look for a musician that she had been with earlier, that is her last dying request. Upon finding him, she is unable to tear him away from his composition, the previously tender, nice man is cold to her. So, she agrees to have sex with him, offering up her own purity to save her friend. It's disturbing to see her make this concession, and is a testament to the extent that she loves Jae-Young. When they do get to the hospital, Jae-Young is already dead and in one of the most brutal scenes in the film, Yeo-Jin sobs while the musician takes a cell phone call in the background, completely oblivious, or not concerned, with Yeo-Jin's suffering. It's a great conceit to show how little the people she was with actually cared for Jae-Young. They saw her only as an object.

So, in a rather arbitrary twist, Yeo-Jin decides that she will have sex with all of Jae-Young's clients and return their money. This is motivated by a desire to purify Jae-Young, by having sex, then giving the money back she can undo the acts that doomed Jae-Young and absolve her of her sins. When she is approaching the men, she refers to herself as Jae-Young and impersonates her up until the actual meeting. This touches on a similar dynamic as the latter half of Mulholland Drive, where Diane simultaneously wants to be Camilla and wants to be with Camilla. Yeo-Jin plays Jae-Young for the men, and by having sex with them, she is vicariously getting closer to her friend, and sharing the intimacy that they were never able to share during her life.

Through her encounters, she does bring happiness to people. One middle aged guy she's with ends up calling his daughter and reconnecting with her after the happiness that she brings to him, and another is stunned when she not only refuses to take his money, but actually pays him. This transaction serves as the bridge to the second half of the film, in which Yeo-Jin's father sees his daughter prostituting herself and becomes obsessively driven to vengeance.

The first half of the film doesn't exactly condone what the girls are doing, but it's all consensual, and the men they're with really seem to enjoy it, so it would seem like no harm done, but here we realize that even if Yeo-Jin isn't hurting herself, what she's doing is destroying her father. His actions begin by asking one of her clients what he was doing, and how old she was, but it gradually escalates, leading to two incidents of extreme violence. This film, much like Kim's other work, relies on extremely violent acts as punctuation mark, the ultimate expression of a character's emotion. In his films, violence is frequently equated with love, as in The Isle, when the girl shoves fishhooks where they should not go to show her love for a man, or in 3 Iron when a golfball assault on her husband serves to free the woman from a domestic prison.

Here, Yeo-Jin allows herself to be violated to show her love for Jae-Young, while her father relies on violent action against her clients as a way to preserve his daughter's purity. One of the most disturbing scenes is when the father goes to one of the client's house during a family dinner. He chastises the man for sleeping with a girl younger than his daughter and proceeds to walk out, only to find that the client has killed himself. The blood seeping into the frame is a harrowing image and shows the power of the guilt these men carry over violating the societal taboo. This scene is a marked contrast from the earlier scene when a man's experience with Yeo-Jin causes him to reconnect with his family. The entire prostitution arrangement exists in a perilous fantasy world that can be easily broken by an outsider, such as the father. His story culminates when he beats one of the clients to death in a public restroom and goes home to take a shower and wash the blood from his clothes. It's a really powerful image, serving to show just how far this man has fallen, while at the same time bringing to the fore the fact that he is unable to actually confront his daughter on the issue. He seeks to punish the entire world because he is too afraid to really admit to himself what his daughter is doing. By seeking revenge against the clients, he makes her the victim of a wrong, when in fact, she is the one seeking them out.

This leads in to the third section, titled Sonata. Concurrent with her father's breakdown is Yeo-Jin's decision to throw away Jae-Young's diary and give up her quest to undo her friend's actions. She has moved on, and has realized that what she's doing is just bringing guilt upon herself. Father and daughter drive out to her mother's grave where they quietly reflect on what's happened. The waterfront setting is classic Kim, and for a while here, I felt like the film was not exactly dragging, but not quite up to what it had been. The senile old man is a decent character, but it felt more like a distraction. Things pick up with Yeo-Jin's cleansing out by the water, as she cries, the enormity of her actions finally catching up with her.

The final sequence of the film is brilliant, working on a bunch of symbolic layers. At a stop on their way home, Yeo-Jin is pretending to drive the car. Her father sees this and realizes that his daughter isn't a child anymore, he needs to let her grow up. So he decides to teach her to drive, and they drive out to the middle of a swamp, in a shallow body of water. This leads to the blue tinted sequence, in which her father buries Yeo-Jin in the mud. This sequence was disturbing, but all the while I was hoping it was a dream, because I didn't like the idea that her father would actually want to kill Yeo-Jin for what she'd done. After all she'd been through, he clearly still loved her. So, I was happy when she woke up and it was a dream. We cut from an image of total cruelty to one of selfless love, as Yeo-Jin looks out a driving course her father has made for her, out of hand painted yellow stones. Seeing the love he lavished on her, all represented in this one image is very powerful and great filmmaking. Everything we need to know is contained in this image of his labor.

This leads to her father letting Yeo-Jin drive on her own, without his guidance, and she struggles calling for him. However, he's taken away by a mysterious car, apparently the police picking him up for the murder he committed. He empowers her, acknowledges her status as an adult, then is forced to leave her to fend for herself. She struggles to reach him, but is not skilled enough to catch up with the other car and finds herself alone on the road. The sequence addresses the issue that every parent and child face, the inevitable moment of separation, when a parent realizes that they can't protect their child from the world, and the child then has to fend for themself. The father thought he could save his daughter, but in the end he realizes she has to make her own choices, he can show her how to drive, but she has to choose the road. The ending lacks the overt enigmas of Kim's other films, but it really resonates on an emotional level. The film has moved from an outre story of those outside the norm to a relatable theme that applies to everyone.

What's so strong about the film is the way it subverts your expectations, avoiding the traditional payoffs in favor of more subtle, and real moments. The emotional dynamics always feel right and the story takes you in a lot of unexpected places, gradually evolving with each step and skillfully juggling multiple characters.

I still think 3 Iron is Kim's best film, because it worked so strongly on an emotional level, but this is a close second, also drawing on emotions and going a bit further thematically. Kim's use of music is really interesting in both films, usually it's silent, but when he does use a piece, it's frequently repeated to add thematic value. There's some heartbreaking musical moments here, perfectly accenting the scenes they're placed in.

On the whole, this is a really powerful film and yet another testament to the great stuff coming out of Asia at the moment. I feel like Asia today is Europe in the 50s, pushing the medium forward through its genre reconstruction, with a dynamic level of filmmaking that most American films don't even touch.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Education: Part I

I was reading some posts on Barbelith, and there was a topic on what your ideal school curriculum would. I found the question really interesting. It's easy to complain about schools, everyone does and when I was in high school I certainly did, but it's a lot harder to come up with something that would actually work. But I'm going to give it a try, to find something that would work within the realities of student lifein high school.

The first thing to consider in assessing school is the fact that students are not going to want to do work. No one wants to be there, even if they do, it's basically required to feign disdain for even the least bit of work that is requested. So you're working with a problematic situation because the students' goal is to just pass the time as quickly and effortlessly as possible. That means if you give them the opportunity to 'explore freely,' they're likely to end up just doing nothing.

I think the biggest problem with school is that it puts you off learning. School is bad, you learn at school, therefore learning is bad. For a long time I held this belief too, the idea that analyzing a book, like we would in class, was reading too much into it. Frequently I'd hear people question an assertion by wondering whether that was the author's intention. Was something created as a symbol or was it just coincidence, and if the author didn't intend it, then why are we bothering to talk about it?

I think the biggest change for me was when I read Watchmen, and for the first time I saw a work that required using literary techniques to analyze it. You couldn't really understand the work without the understanding of foils, juxtaposition, metaphor, etc. It's a work that demands to be analyzed, to be deconstructed and unraveled. And so for the first time, I had to move from passive absorber mode to active explorer when it came to approaching a work of fiction, and that meant that I was doing the same things I did in class on my own time, and suddenly, doing them in class didn't seem so ridiculous. This was followed a couple of years later by The Invisibles, which broke me out of this idea that a symbol is only valid if the author consciously inserts it into the work, The Invisibles showed that the greatest books essentially write themselves, with the symbolism arising organically out of the work itself, rather than through specific choices by the author.

So, this experience I had forced me to reevaluate the kneejerk student reaction that whatever we're doing in class is stupid. That brings up the question, if people have to discover this themselves, how can we expect to teach them? I know a lot of people still refuse to engage with a film beyond the mere act of viewing it, and that likely stems from the fact that school experience makes people associate analysis with work, and in their free time, they don't want to work.

The other problem with English classes is the fact that so few people actually read the works that are discussed and written about in class. I always tried to read the whole book, but there were times when I'd do a skim and then take a look over the Cliff Notes to make sure I got the point. If you consider the fact that your average person might read a Shakespeare play and not understand it any better than they would if they looked through the Cliff Notes, it makes sense why people don't bother to read. But at the same time this means that the class becomes increasingly removed from the text itself and becomes more about repeating the same few ideas, an enaction of a tired ritual instead of a live engagement with a fresh text.

So, what would it take to make people actually read? I would suggest starting to mix in study of films with books in English classes, so that people would be able to write about something that they actually know about. You could give people a great book, but still some of them aren't going to read it because schooling creates an aversion to reading. That's a big problem for later in life, but putting that aside, people usually enjoy watching movies, so it would make sense to educate them through something they enjoy.

Some movies are shown in class, but it's usually the movie of a book you've already read, and then it gets evaluated in relation to the book, not as an art object in and of itself. Or a film is used to illustrate a historical event. This use of film reinforces the idea that the medium is somehow inferior, the only films worthwhile are ones that are based off something that is already acccepted into the academic canon.

I would move to a split books/films English class, where the films are challenging original works that have all the thematic complexity of the books that are read. Shakespeare's stuff was the popular fiction of his time, so there's no harm in having people learn from something they actually like. The problem then becomes, which films would you show? The initial leaning would be to go for something old, probably a European art film from the 50s, films that are inherently artistic, and also aren't popular fiction. This would be a way to avoid the complaints that would arise if you started showing people popular films. People would think the film has to be something you wouldn't want to see, or else it's not really learning.

The primary reason you read books in English classes is to provide the material to write about. I consider writing the most important skill you learn in high school, it's got the most real world relevance, and it's also the thing you're going to use most at college, regardless of what major you do. So, even though I'm a film major, most of my assignments are still writing essays, just about films instead of books. Even if you're a science major, you're still going to write stuff, so students need to learn how to write, and unfortunately, the fact that they don't actually read the books they're writing about means that composing essays is seen largely as 'bullshitting' enough to fill the page requirement. It's this association of the analytical process with 'bullshit' that's disturbing, and is something I see a lot in college students. There's the implication that reading deeply into something is inherently ridiculous, and that a work is primarily surface.

So, using films in the classroom and then having students analyze them in written assignments would hopefully be a way to get people comfortable with the process of analytical thought. There wouldn't be the issue of not reading the book because everyone would see the same film. What sort of films would I use? Because you're approaching from a narrative perspective, the actual film techniques used should primarily be those with literary antecedents. One film I'd consider ideal would be 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yes, there'd be a lot of chuckles about the drug association, and I'm sure a lot of people wouldn't understand it, but it's a film so symbolic that you have to read into it. So, assigning people to discuss the meaning of the film, as they see it would be an ideal chance for people to analyze a text in their own way.

Another film that would be great would be In the Mood for Love/2046, films rich with symbolism, parallels and literary technique. These would be films that would challenge people, but also hopefullly be enjoyable and give them a lifelong appreciation for qulaity films. Antoher great duo to analyze would be Before Sunrise/Before Sunset.

As I mentioned before, one of the biggest problems with having kids read in school is that it creates this lifelong association between books and school, leading people to view books as bad, or reading as something they 'should do,' not something they'd want to do. By the time you get to school, film is already ingrained as something entertaining, so in theory, these classes would make people take what they already do, but approach it from a more literary perspective.

Now, would this work in reality? You'd have to choose the films carefully, or else people would build up a wall between the films shown in class and the films they watch for entertainment, to the point that they would consider them almost seperate mediums and zone out from those films in the same way they do the books people already read in class. I think a good opening exercise would be to take a really popular, accessible film, perhaps even one chosen by the class, and then read into it, to show that the techniques used in class can be used on any film, any piece of fiction.

That's one of the keys in this revamp of schools. It is learning the act of analysis that's most important, not that what people are analyzing be within the accepted canon of literary material. In high school, I would enjoy writing essays when I could do it on a topic of my choice. So, I wrote about all my favorite stuff over the course of the four years: Star Wars, Batman Returns, Ghost World, Pink Floyd, Philip K. Dick, Tim Burton, Blade Runner, The Invisibles, Watchmen, Brazil and more. When I got a chance to do an essay on whatever I wanted, I put more effort in and took the time to really make it good, whereas an essay on a book I didn't really care about I'd just write quickly to get it done. On the AP English exam, I wrote an essay on The Invisibles and got a 5, so it's not what you write about, but how you make your point that matters.

So in theory, if you were to give students carte blanche to write on whatever they want, they'd put more effort into the essays. So, you could have people write about rap lyrics, videogames, whatever, as long as they put an effort into legitimately analyzing that which they choose to write about. In an urban school, are people really going to read Hamlet? No, but maybe use Tupac's poetry in the course and you'll get people more interested. Going down this path, you get into the problem of the middle aged teacher seemingly trying to act hip by teaching what 'the kids today' like, and also having to do additional reading to evaluate the quality of assignments.

So, that's the basic idea. In the next part I'll cover some of the issues, and also discuss how math/science fit into things.