Thursday, August 21, 2008

New X-Men: 'Imperial' (122-126)

‘Imperial’ is a storyline that has a few significant problems, most notably the heavy emphasis on the Shiar, and the rushed, sloppy art of Igor Kordey. But, it’s also got some really great moments, particularly the final issue, which closes out the year long Cassandra Nova story and sets the stage for exciting new developments.

What I love so much about Grant’s X-Men is the groundedness of the whole thing. He’s talked about superhero comics as a model for human evolution, an idea that was never as spot on as it was with NXM. Works like Seven Soldiers or JLA are largely about exploring what it would be like to live in the DC Universe. This doesn’t mean they’re not emotionally or conceptually relevant, it’s just that there’s a distance between their world and our world. Think of Animal Man, it’s a brilliant book, but are any of us likely to find out that we live in a fictional universe?

Perhaps, but I think it’s more likely we’d find out we’re in a world where evolution has created a new human species, and the culture is changing as a result. What NXM is about is dealing with that new world, trying to find out how the social structures of traditional humanity can weather change. There’s that discussion of mutant vs. human justice at the end of this story, a key summation of the series’ themes. Everything is evolving, how can we deal with it?

Particularly in the grounded universe of New X-Men, the sci-fi elements of the Shiar stand out as rather implausible. I don’t think they’ve ever really worked as a part of the X-Men mythos, obviously the Phoenix stories are great, but it’s the character work that makes those a success, not the space craziness of the Shiar. Grant writes good cosmic action at the start of #122, and Quitely draws it well, but it feels incongruous in the universe he’s created.

So, it’s nice to literally zoom down to Earth for Emma’s discussion about redesigning their curriculum to move away from the human paradigm and create something new. The series debuted less than a year after The Invisibles ended, and a lot of the concepts of The Invisibles turn up here. You could easily imagine Jack teaching a class like this after his appearance in 3.2. At this point, it’s not a question of human vs. mutant, humans will soon be extinct, and it’s up to mutants to build whatever kind of new world they want to build. Xavier’s is the lab in which they will experiment and create that world. As Emma says, “The whole world is watching us now. We must be nothing less than fabulous.”

The scene with Scott and Jean reinforces the changing paradigm. Scott is afraid of disrupting the status quo, he doesn’t want to risk the wrath of mainstream society by changing the way Xavier’s runs. He’s essentially worried that the X-Men are turning into Magneto, valuing mutant culture above all and leaving humans to die. The fact that humanity will become extinct has changed the paradigm of the entire series, now it’s the humans who are scared, the mutants who hold the power. There’s two killer lines in this scene which sum up so much of what is great about Morrison’s run on the book. One is Jean saying “We can’t afford to be ashamed any more. We can’t strap down our wings or hide our strange eyes and brilliant minds.”

The other is “We have more important things to do than worry about whether our glowing eyes frighten the Republicans!” That’s a quote that I wish more Democratic politicians would take to heart. The best way to advance humanity isn’t to worry about those who are scared of change, it’s to create a new world all around them, until they’re forced to catch up. That’s essentially the argument Scott and Jean are having, should they build a new world now, or should they give humanity time to catch up. Much like The Invisibles in Volume III, Jean is already living in that new world, she’s done with the us vs. them rhetoric, done with the war. It’s time to live like they’ve already won.

From there, it’s a bunch of background on Cassanda, setting up the threat that she poses to the school. One of the reasons I generally prefer the later pieces of Morrison’s run to the first year is that I’m not a huge fan of Cassandra as a villain. I think she’s great in the opening arc, but after that, she just does the cackling evil routine for a while, until the X-Men defeat her. Particularly when she’s up with the Shiar, it’s just the same beats over and over again for a few issues. It’s not until she gets back to Earth in the last issue that we get some interesting stuff again.

Closing out the first issue is the wonderful moment where Smasher relays his message about the fate of humanity…to a bunch of cows. It’s a great gag, and a nice play on the way aliens might view the world we live in. For all they now, cows are just as important as humans.

The next issue brings Emma and the Stepford Cuckoos to the fore for their most prominent role in the series to date. Her interactions with them are always a highlight of the series, and her dialogue is infinitely quotable. The whole plot with Esme and the alien Stuff foreshadows what we’ll see later in the series, when the Cuckoos break apart and get involved with Magneto and his new Brotherhood of Evil. But, on a basic level, I like the story because it spins the way first love feels through the cosmic story Morrison is telling. The obvious predecessor is the Angelus transformation in Buffy season two.

Jean’s speech to the media is a highlight of the arc, a summation of the school’s new mission, and a vision of an evolved humanity that’s just as relevant for our world as it is for the Marvel Universe. The book is all about the conflict between old and new ideas, in this case, that’s represented through the divide between mutant and human, but it could just as easily be the divide between progressives and conservatives. It’s about building a new world rather than being pulled back down to Earth by fear. Morrison draws on one of his favorite concepts, comparing mutants and humans to branches on the same tree, fingers on the same hand. That’s the core of his Invisibles cosmology, the notion that division is an illusion, we’re all part of the same organism. That’s why it’s absurd to fight against each other. I like that he’s able to place these concepts so prominently in one of the most popular comic books out there, he’s seeding the ideas so people will be prepared when they pick up The Invisibles. Ultimately, Jean’s speech is a wonderful, positive vision of a better future.

From there, we’re on to two issues of the worst of Igor Kordey. This art is really lacking, and that hurts the story as a whole. In a lot of ways, you’ve just got to appreciate these issues for what they are, and be thankful that Quitely returned to wrap up the arc. Compounding the problem is the heavy emphasis on fighting the Imperial Guard for that old standby of a misunderstanding. Sure, there’s an attempt to show that they’ve been manipulated by Cassandra into believing all mutants are a threat, but that’s pushing credibility a bit. You’d think they’d ask the X-Men about it first.

Again the highlights of this issue are the scenes with the Stepford Cuckoos. Reunited, they now see Stuff as the “perfect boyfriend,” one who can programmed to their will. They’ve learned well from Miss Frost. The scene where they team up with Beak to rescue Emma is a highlight as well. I like the way Morrison sidelines the main heroes, and lets the kids step up as the “resistance.”

But, it’s basically all fighting and Act II battle stuff before Quitely shows up. Jean at this point is holding all of Xavier’s consciousness in her mind, and becoming increasingly schizophrenic. Conceptually, the presence of telepaths necessitates a divide between the mind and the body. Does this prove the existence of a soul? With Xavier’s mind in her, Jean at times becomes Charles. It echoes a bit of what we saw with Cliff and his robot body back in Doom Patrol, the whole dying brain thing here is just an evolution of the brain in peril concept from the classic Brain and Monsieur Mallah story. Either way, I love the way Jean looks, dripping mascara as war paint, she’s totally in charge of everything.

Typically, X-Men comics have portrayed Scott as Xavier’s deputy, the take charge leader who would be coordinating things in a situation like this. Morrison’s approach with Scott is more interesting, to portray him as the by the book guy in a world where the book doesn’t matter anymore. Jean is more easily able to evolve and change with the new paradigm, and that’s why she’s able to come up with a solution like extracting Charles’ mind from his body. Her powers are on a vastly different scale than Scott’s, and I think a large part of his distance from Jean comes from him not being able to keep up with her. He fears her becoming the Phoenix again because it could mean going evil, but it would also mean she moves beyond him. As the Phoenix, she doesn’t need him, and he can’t deal with that. Really, Scott is more in love with the Jean he first met than the Jean he knows now. This is the fear that Cassandra plays on when she confronts him on the Shiar ship.

Particularly effective during Jean’s psychic possession of Charles is her description of evaporating memories. Imbued with so much psychic power, her mind is bursting and moments slip away. Luckily, Scott and Xorn show up just in time to destroy the nanosentinels and save the day. My favorite line here is Jean saying “Scott. You’re my favorite superhero.”

I like the scene where Morrison has Wolverine deliberately switch into beserker rage mode as a calculated battle tactic. The Morrison Wolverine fits more with how Claremont portrayed him in the latter days of his run, the battle hardened wiseman on the team. He’s the reluctant leader, never wanting to take charge, but willing to do so if he needs to. Here, he’s telling Angel not to be such a hardass, but is still able to roar and charge with the best of them.

Still, it’s ultimately the very concept of the X-Men themselves that saves the day. Jean notes that Cassandra may be incredibly powerful, but she’s all alone. She splinters Charles’ mind into the consciousness of all his students, a wonderful metaphor for the way that his teachings have worked. The Xavier here is more interesting than the typical presentation because he’s largely about ideas. This Xavier is the most forward thinking man in the world, the architect of a new reality, he has infused his ideas into all of his students, and it is that network that is now able to reconstitute him into his body.

Emma tricks Cassandra back into her body, which leads to a trippy scene where Cassandra gets re-educated. Psychic analogues of Xavier and Jean will be able to rewrite Cassandra Nova’s mind. Interestingly, there’s a picture of the US electoral map on the wall, a visual representation of the red state/blue state divide. Though the colors are reversed here, it works well as a reminder of the progressive/conservative divide in the US. I think it’s a bit reductive to say that the red state/blue state thing can be easily reduced to future/past, but it’s the kind of short hand that’s sometimes necessary. There are two sets of values in American politics, and the X-Men are decidedly on the side of the future.

Imperial has some amazing moments, and some lacking ones. The Kordey issues drag things down, and the lengthy fights with the Imperial Guard end up not really going anywhere. They don’t play at all into the actual climax of the arc, which thankfully returns to the X-Men and their students, the core of the book’s mission. Morrison continues to develop the new world for the X-Men over the course of the arc, it’s filled with a lot of great ideas, and a bunch of exhilarating pop moments. It’s not the best arc in the run, but it’s a great climax for the first year’s storylines.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The End of Evangelion: In Depth

I just finished my second viewing of The End of Evangelion this week. While rewatching the series, I was most looking forward to seeing End of Eva again, and trying to piece together exactly what it was saying. My first viewing of the film left me pretty baffled. I loved what I had seen, but I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on at times. The emotional core stuck, but the narrative side of things was a bit hazy.

Watching the film again, I saw a work that does pretty much everything I want a film to do. It’s astounding in its simultaneous global scope and individual focus. The film makes it clear that in the grand scheme of things, our individual struggles are just as important as global wars and conflicts, that perhaps they’re actually the same thing. Shinji’s personal trauma makes him a standin for all of humanity, when he’s forced to choose whether to continue instrumentality or return to the way things are.

Watching it a second time, I felt like the film and the series’ ending were diametrically opposed. But, much of that is the tone. The literal breakthrough, followed by applause and a smile to end the series leaves you with this feeling of such happiness. Shinji is aware of the love the others have for him, and is, for once, at peace. The film ends in a radically different way, Shinji crying over Asuka in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. But, the brutality of that scene obscures the fact that both endings reach the same basic conclusion. In each case, Shinji actualizes himself, gains agency and is no longer bound by the rules of those above him. Throughout the series, we’ve seen him serve others, pilot the EVA to make them happy, so he won’t be abandoned again. He’s constantly wanted to run away, but when he’s given the opportunity for the ultimate run, the ultimate easy happiness, he passes and embraces the world in all its painful and beautiful reality.

But, let me track back a bit and discuss the film all the way through. One thing that really struck me on both viewings is just how fast the film goes by. Because the series took care of all the exposition, this movie is essentially a 90 minute climax, and as such, it just flies by. I was shocked to see that we were already halfway through the movie when Shinji got into Unit 01, it felt like 25 minutes at most, not 45. And, the backhalf of the film flows incredibly well. It just zips by, this may be the quickest 90 minute film to watch even.

The first half of the film has a few particularly notable elements. In my first review of the film, I discussed the boldness of the opening scene. Watching it again, it still makes me think. The goal of the first half is to reduce Shinji to his absolute lowest point. He has feelings for Asuka, but no way to express them, and winds up doing one of the sleaziest things possible. She is lying there helpless, utterly broken, and he sees her only as a sex object. It adds to the feeling of guilt he’s got for the rest of the film, and is one of the touchstones for trying to understand the oh so ambiguous final scene.

One thing that this viewing of the series and film clarified for me was the Ritsuko/Gendo Ikari relationship. The first time through, I got the impression that Ritsuko was supposed to have feelings for Misato, which is supported by a loose reading of the narrative, but knowing that she was meant to be in love with Gendo, everything makes more sense. So much of the series is about cycles, children unwittingly becoming their parents, and the relationship makes sense in that context. It felt like an out of left field development the first time I saw the show, but it’s clear that Ritsuko is trying to match up to her mother. She’s chosen the same job, and the same man. Much like Misato, she has followed her parent’s path, despite hating her mother on some level.

The turning point for Ritsuko is when Gendo chooses to send her before SEELE instead of Rei. It’s an echo of Gendo choosing Yui, and the cloned Rei, over Naoko. When that happens, Ritsuko realizes how much she’s messed things up with her life, and decies to turn on Gendo. However, in the end she’s betrayed by the ‘woman’ part of her mother, Casper in the Magi, at which point Gendo shoots her. It’s a pretty horrible series of events that happen to her over the course of the series. She poured her whole life into this project, and winds up betrayed by the person she loved most.

Why would she commence this relationship with Gendo? At least Naoko had the excuse that he was a different person before Yui died. The obvious, and most notable, reason is her attempt to emulate her mother, as well as a general self loathing. Perhaps she sought love from Gendo to replace the parental love she didn’t get from her mother. It seems that she was always a loner, Misato was her only real friend, and she oft lost Misato to Kaji. Perhaps Gendo initiated things, she does make reference to wanting him to take her like an animal in Episode 24. He uses her when he likes, and she doesn’t mind, because her self esteem is just that low. She masks it with sarcasm, but she doubts whether anyone could ever love her. Like all the characters on the show, she’s so alone, seeking comfort from anyone.

If I have one complaint about the film, it’s that too much time is spent with the three tech characters. They were there throughout the series, but weren’t particularly central. I think it works as a way to humanize the invasion of NERV. We get the sense that shit really is going down, people are dying and nothing can be done. It makes the impending apocalypse believable, but those scenes are less emotionally charged than the rest of the film. And, it pays off during the ‘Come, Sweet Death’ sequence later in the movie.

Misato dies relatively early in the film, but not before some strong action sequences. I love the shaky cam shot of her rushing down the hall, spraying bullets at the soldiers accosting Shinji. Her relationship with Shinji compounds a lot of the issues from the series into something a little heavier. In some ways, you could view the entire film as the process of disconnection from parents, moving beyond mother love to a larger world. In that context, it makes sense that Shinji wind up with Asuka, the only woman he interacts with in the series who isn’t either his mother or playing mother for him.

It’s a very confusing world for Shinji, and Misato doesn’t make it any easier with her mixed signals. She forms a family unit with him and Asuka, where she is placed in the role of mother. But, particularly early in the series, she is the irresponsible one. It’s Shinji who cooks and cleans up the house, she just drinks and makes a mess. Ritsuko questions Misato on this, her motives in housing Shinji. I think it’s primarily that Misato doesn’t want to be alone. This is a girl who was abandoned by her father and wouldn’t speak for two years. There’s deep, deep damage, and she tries to protect herself by not being alone again, by living with others and being outgoing and personable. In a lot of ways, it’s the opposite of Asuka. Asuka was abandoned and chose to become independent, to reject others. Misato embraces them as a way of keeping herself sane, but it’s a somewhat selfish process.

She has her own Elektra complex to deal with. She wants to get back to her father, and a large part of her attraction to Kaji is because he reminds her of her father. So, she probably just assumes that Shinji would want to blur the role of mother and lover. She doesn’t really understand parent/child relationships, not that any of these characters do, and that’s why she constantly walks the boundary between sexual object and mother. I think she really proves herself in the film, when she drags Shinji along and helps him to get back in the Eva. But, she also confuses things more with the ‘adult’ kiss.

It’s understandable that she’d try that, since nothing else is getting through to Shinji. Does it cross a boundary? Probably, for one, he is still underage. But, I think it’s also an example of her trying to give Shinji what she would have wanted at that age. She sees so much of herself in Shinji, she knows what it was like to be alone, and she thinks that it’s that kind of kiss that would get him going. It makes Shinji cry even more, but at least it gets him standing up on his own.

Speaking of bizarre mother relationships, the material with Asuka is easily the highlight of the first half. Asuka is my favorite character from the series. I find powerful female characters interesting for a number of reasons, partially because you don’t see that many. Typically the arrogance and striving of a character like Asuka would be male characteristics, while the uncertainty and timidity of Shinji would be female. But, in real life, I’ve seen more women like Asuka, who are powerful and totally committed to being the best. In romantic comedies, we often see this kind of woman cut down, told that she should really prioritize love over her career. Asuka’s arc goes in a more interesting direction, her purpose cut out when she is no longer the best.

It’s deeply tragic to watch her pushed so low by the end of the series, until she’s huddled in the Eva, bombs going off around her, totally comatose. Never before in the series has the connection between Eva and mother made clearer. She’s in the fetal position, floating in this womb like liquid, not wanting to face the world. She is scared that she’s been abandoned by her mother, that to go out in the world means going out alone and dying. This culminates in the fantastic moment where she repeats “I don’t want to die,” gradually growing from whisper to shout, and at the moment her incantation reaches its peak, she meets her mother in a hazy dreamworld.

Much like Shinji’s encounter with his mother in the series, the scene remains rather vague. The narrative explanation is that the Evas have embodied with the souls of humans, the pilots’ mothers. I don’t think that makes much sense on a narrative or logical level, but on a metaphorical emotional one, it’s brilliant. In the Eva, Asuka realizes that she is not alone, her mother has been with her, will always been with her. The knowledge that that love is there empowers to go back out and shed the umbilical cable. It empowers her to fight again. The synch ratio discussed during the series is actually the fusion of mother and child within the Eva. After the Angel attack on her mind, Asuka lost touch with her mother, her mind was clouded. Now, it’s back and she can go on a rampage.

The Asuka fight scene here is easily the best Eva fight scene of the entire series. Particularly later in the series, the fights became little more than place fillers, or excuses to engage in psychological interrogation. Only a few from the series stand out as exciting, but nothing matches this, the kineticism and raw emotional power at play. I love the way Asuka smiles as she soars through the sky, tearing the other Evas apart. It’s nicely presented as the opposite of her ‘defiling’ experience. Here, she shoots up a huge cross instead of being penetrated by a beam of light, and is united with her mother rather than divided.

And, the scene plays as a preview of what Shinji will go through at the end of the film. After her triumphant resurgence to reality, she comes down quickly. The power on the Eva runs out and the Evas brutally tear her apart. Few things are sadder than watching her pump away at the Eva controls, getting no response. She is once again abandoned, and left to die. But, the shots of her soaring through the sky, and whipping the Eva around still linger.

Then, after the movie is nearly half over, our ‘hero’ finally gets in the Eva and does something. I love that this movie was a huge release in Japan because it violates virtually ever rule of traditional film storytelling. The main character is an utter failure at almost every turn, most of the characters are dead by the halfway point, and linear narrative is totally abandoned in the second half for something much more interesting. When I make films, I frequently take a similar approach as Eva, using the trappings of genre to tell a story about a character’s psychological makeup. The combination of action and subjective psychological abstraction is very appealing for me. I’d like to see more films that got this into their characters’ heads, and stopped worrying about having everything make sense. Of course, there’s few people who can do this as well as Anno, he just makes it look easy.

The second half begins with the instigation of The Third Impact. For whatever reason, Shinji is chosen as the representative of all humanity, the one who will choose between instrumentality and the world as it was. He is given this mission because he is the pilot of Unit 01. The Evas always had a role in the instigation of Third Impact, and since Unit 01 is the only one left, it stands to reason that it would be the central figure in this drama.

Either way, everything kicks off when Rei turns on Gendo and merges with Lilith. Rei herself remains something of a mystery to me. What exactly is her motivation in the series? She wants to know who she is, she wonders what it is to feel human even as she becomes more and more emotionally connected to the world. A major turning point is her ‘death’ in Episode 23, and subsequent rebirth. She’d been in the Rei II persona for so long, she became more imprinted with humanity, more attached to Shinji. That’s why she sacrifices herself, and it’s also the reason she gives for abandoning Gendo.

Her meeting with Kaworu also plays a part in awakening her to her true destiny. She is derived from Lilith, she is the same as him, and here, she finally returns to what she was and awakens her true destiny. She is a fusion of Yui and Lilith, and in the end, she chooses her son over her husband. That’s an interpretation that fits with what we see, but her arc at this point transcends simple narrative logic. It works on visual and emotional logic, was Rei always designed to merge with Lilith? Perhaps, it doesn’t really follow up on what we saw from her earlier in the series. It may simply be that, as a cloned being, she’s the first and easiest to merge with the oneness of all things. She serves as a face for Lilith, the angel of death who appears to everyone as they pass into instrumentality.

I think the whole Giant Rei thing was motivated more by a visual intuition than a specific narrative reason. It works wonderfully as a way to visually represent the process of instrumentality. I liked the abstract psychology of the TV ending, but it can’t match the visual spectacle of the Evas forming the Tree of Life and Shinji confronting the giant Rei.

The structure of the second half is genius for me because it’s basically everything I like smashed up against each other. The arrival of Third Impact and Instrumentality is essentially a filmic depiction of humanity’s passage into the supercontext as described in The Invisibles. It’s a piece of cosmic experience, with visuals rendered wonderfully by Anno’s team. This is mashed up against intense character development, some of the finest work by Anno in the entire series. It’s pop avant garde. I want to make a movie this good one day.

There’s a series of confounding scenes with Shinji over the course of the second half. The sandbox scene that opens Instrumentality has a lot of notable elements. Again, we see a mother just out of reach, leaving young Shinji to prove himself by erecting the NERV pyramid in sand. The surrealism of the scene is enhanced by the pendulum like swing and the presence of film lights just outside of frame.

This bleeds into one of my favorite scenes in the entire film, the confrontation between Asuka and Shinji in Misato’s apartment. It’s a mashup of two previous scenes, the Shinji/Asuka kiss in Episode 15 and the scene where Shinji tells Asuka that Kaji has died in Episode 24. The kiss scene, along with the “Mama” sleep scene earlier is where we first start to really understand Asuka. She likes Shinji, but isn’t sure how to express it. What was subtextual there is made explicit here, as they argue about how cruel she was to him, and how unsupportive he was for her. Much of the psychological sequences in the film are about making what is typically kept inside and making it external. This is what Shinji could never tell the real Asuka, and it’s also the Asuka in his head preying on his worst fears.

A particularly notable line is when Asuka says that he’s asking her for help because he’s scared of Misato and the First Child. On one level, this is true, but they’re also each mother figures. Asuka is the only character who’s not a mother to him, and it represents growth that he’d seek help from her rather than retreat into the arms of someone who will always accept him.

I’ve often wondered about the true nature of Shinji and Asuka’s relationship. Does he really love her, does she love him? This scene, and the ending would lead us to believe that they do love each other, and are ‘meant for each other.’ But, both of them have so much internal damage, it’s virtually impossible to connect with each other. I love the intercutting of Asuka approaching for the kiss with their argument, a mishmash of memories and subconscious hallucinations all colliding against each other.

The scene builds to Shinji lashing out at her and himself in a display of rage unlike anything else we’ve seen from him. And then, in a shocking moment, he grabs her by the neck and chokes her. What follows is one of the most audacious music cues of all time, as the camera spirals around him crushing the life out of her, a soft rock piano starts up and we segue into one of the greatest cinematic sequences of all time. It might be hyperbole, still holding the high of experiencing the film, but right now I could make a strong argument that the “Come Sweet Death” sequence of this film is the single greatest sequence in any film of all time. The fusion of music, visual, emotion, character, everything is going at full blast, the world collapsing into Instrumentality.

The sequence begins by breaking down the image itself, much as the TV ending did. There’s children’s drawings, which segue for some reason into a quick flash of all the TV episode title screens. Notably, you can see the titles for TV Episodes 25 and 26, implying that they can co-exist with this film. It’s all part of the same story.

This leads into various characters’ experience of the passage into instrumentality. This stuff hits me on a subconscious level, it’s exactly the kind of thing I want to see in film. There’s something so beautiful about the Reis floating in and giving everyone exactly what they want to see before leaving this world, in a sudden bursting head explosion. It’s so sudden, the death, but it feels right. I love Yui floating in to Fuyutski, and Ritsuko appearing to Maya.

But, the best scene here is undoubtedly the Gendo Ikari confession. After all this awful, awful shit he’s put Shinji through, he reflects on the fact that he felt it was better to stay out of his life, that he’d only hurt Shinji if he was with him. As Asuka would say, “Are you stupid?!” Ikari thought he was doing what was best for Shinji by keeping him at a distance, but in reality, that’s where all his problems came from. If Ikari had been a more attentive father, and actually shown Shinji some affection, perhaps Shinji wouldn’t have been so messed up. And, perhaps Gendo would not have spent his whole life on a quest to be reunited with his dead wife. Maybe he’d realize that there was something to appreciate in the world that we live in now. I love the scene so much because it puts everything in perspective. We’ve seen Gendo as this unassailable villain for the whole series, but he thought he was doing what was best for Shinji.

Things continue with the various Evas impaling themselves with lances, in a way that turns the whole thing into something like a Busby Berkley musical. Concurrently, Rei is instigating the spread of instrumentality across the world, in a beautiful rise of green crosses.

The combination of these images and the music is sublime. The song starts off as a Carpenters like soft rock song, then segues into something that reminded me of ‘Hey Jude.’ Particularly with the review of episode titles, the sequence has the feeling of summation, of everything wrapping up and looking back with nostalgia on what’s come before. It’s ironic that this should immediately follow perhaps the cruelest act in the series, but it just works. At this point, the film is running on pure subconscious energy, and you’ve just got to roll with it. The song ends over a succession of increasingly frantic cuts, compounding moments of the series on top of each other. It’s hard to describe, but the whole thing is astonishing. It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.

From there, we continue the journey into abstraction, via the cryptic live action sequence. It was made a bit less cryptic when I found the original, deleted sequence online. On first impression, it’s just a bunch of random images of reality cobbled together, juxtaposed with a voiceover from Shinji interrogating the nature of dreams and reality. To be honest, even after seeing the film three times, I find it hard to concentrate and really investigate the meaning of the dialogue that runs over the end of the film. I get the essence of it, but it works more as just another layer, like music, than anything that has essential meaning for the series as a whole.

My takeaway on the live action sequence is that it’s meant to parallel the sequence in the last episode of the TV series, where Shinji imagines an alternate world where he’s not an Eva pilot, where he’s actually just a regular kid and everyone from the series is in his dream. As they say there, there are many worlds, many possibilities. He may be an Eva pilot in this world, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There can be a world where he doesn’t even exist.

Watching the deleted scene, the substance of this becomes clearer. In the live action world, all the characters are still there, but they play different roles. Asuka and Misato are neighbors, somewhat antagonistic. Asuka’s relationship with Toji prompts Misato to speak with Ritsuko about the trouble of forming connections between men and women. Like in Episode 26, pieces of the characters survive in the alternate world, but they are also radically different. Here, Misato is jealous of Asuka’s love, so she knocks it, saying it’s fleeting physical pleasure, nothing really meaningful. As in the series, she and Ritsuko are both lonely, and cynical as a result.

Much of their discussion centers on the way that what men really want is a mother they can have sex with, and women are happy to be this role because it gives them security. It’s a cynical, Freudian interpretation of things, and somewhat ironic coming from two women who sleep with the closest thing they can find to a father figure in the series. But, it definitely ties into the themes we see at the end of the film, when Shinji finally leaves his mother behind and embraces the harsh new world of adulthood.

I think the deleted live action sequence is interesting, and I think with some trimming, it could have worked well as a supplement to what’s already in the film. The wonderful use of classical music in both cases would have worked nicely to bridge the gap between the abstract shots and the more character based stuff.

As is, the live action sequence is notable primarily for adding another layer of trippy craziness on top of what’s come before. What could top the visual splendor of Giant Rei remaking the world, well how about going from animation to live action? The ‘real’ world feels so alien seen from the characters’ perspective. I’d have to watch it again and pay closer attention to what’s said, but there’s a lot of discussion about the interplay of dream and reality. Our world seems to represent a colder, harsher reality than the more malleable world than Shinji lives in. There’s a meta comment inherent, Shinji exists as an idea in our world, he is not real, he is closer to a dream. Dreams live in reality, where does reality exist? That’s asked at one point in the film, and the best answer is it exists all around us. Dreams exist all around us, this is just one of many possible worlds.

This leads us back to animation, and the question of instrumentality. Shinji has fused wth Rei, quite literally, and now has to choose whether humanity should remain in instrumentality or whether things should return to how they were. In the context of the series, the AT Fields have been broken down, Shinji has to design whether he wants to rebuild them. The AT Field is a beautiful metaphor because it taps into something very real. We all put up walls around our emotions, it’s the only way to guard yourself from the hurt out there in the world. You have to steel yourself to survive in a world where people aren’t always nice, and don’t always care what you feel.

When you’re put in an emotionally raw situation, the AT Field is worn down, and seems to break. Think of Asuka in the Eva, being defiled by the light beam. There, her AT Field is penetrated and she can no longer look away the bad things all around her. The AT Field is what lets us go about, but it’s also what locks us away emotionally from others. It’s the Hedgehog’s Dilemma, discussed earlier in the series. The more you let down your AT Field, the more you can get hurt, but the more others can get in. The characters in this series generally err on the side of keeping their AT Fields up, and being lonely as a result.

So, you’d think instrumentality would be what they all want. But, in the film, it’s equated with the running away dilemma Shinji’s been dealing with for the whole run. Twice, we saw him walk away from his responsibilities with the Eva and choose to go out on his own. He abandoned his responsibility, and people were hurt as a result. What he’s realized is that his burdens exist for a reason, he sometimes has to suffer himself so that others can be helped. To embrace instrumentality would be an easy way out, but it would also be running away. To exist in a world blissfully free of problems means never being able to grow or change, it means never getting better. It’s a static existence.

My initial interpretation was heavily colored by The Invisibles and John From Cincinnati. Both of those series viewed the fusion of all humanity into a single organism as the ultimate evolutionary goal, the endgame of the species. The end of the series offered that as a possible interpretation, and I jumped on it. Part of what frustrated me about the film was that it rejected that option and instead condemned Shinji to a world outside of the singular existence, it put everybody in the supercontext, then tore them out again.

But, in the context of the film, it seems that instrumentality is not necessarily a good thing. It was engineered by SEELE and Gendo to accelerate human evolution, but it was an artificial acceleration, perhaps not what should have been done. The film implies that to escape all your problems in this reality is just another fantasy, it’s running away. So much of the series is about Shinji struggling with whether he wants to be alone, struggling to deal with others, so in a lot of ways, it’s an incredibly optimistic ending when he says, yes, I want to feel the pain, I want to live in the world and be with others, no matter the cost. That’s what he reaffirms to Kaworu, a massive shift in perspective from the way he was feeling earlier in the film, being dragged along by Misato, unable to move.

It’s notable that his experience of instrumentality is quite literally being inside his mother. Rei has the body of Yui, and in instrumentality, we see him fused with her, having sex with her. So much of his experience in the series is about trying to get to his mother, to rediscover her. In the Eva, he feels at home because it is her womb, he spends 30 days in there at one point, not wanting to face the world outside. It’s easier to escape back into the womb and shut everyone else out, to float in this endless sea of connection. In the womb, you’re never alone, your mother is always there and you’re safe. The instrumentality that Shinji finds himself in resembles that, the red liquid all around, it is an in uterine state.

Shinji’s decision at the end isn’t so much about leaving instrumentality, it’s about leaving his mother behind and being born into the world again. This is made clear when Shinji literally says “Goodbye mother” at one point near the end of the film. This all instigates another spectacular visual sequence, as an orchestral score swells, Unit 01 crawls out of Rei’s vaginal looking eye, and she starts to fall apart.

This leads to a flashback to Yui and Fuyutski talking about how the Eva will live on forever in space. That speech raised some questions for me, how does Shinji get from Unit 01 back to Earth, etc. But, that doesn’t really matter. Shinji has left his mother, and his role as savior of the Earth, behind. His work there is done, and now he can be born again.

Episode 26 proper ends on a pretty up note. There’s not that much of a difference between this sequence and the TV series ending. My initial impression of the TV was that Shinji had chosen to become part of instrumentality and merge with everyone, but you could just as easily read it as Shinji breaking through his self hatred and embracing the world around him. He moves out of the psychological world of the stage and into the larger world, where everyone around congratulates him. This conflicts with the titles, which claim that the episode chronicles one person’s experience of instrumentality, but perhaps the experience humanity has of instrumentality is to reject it. Of course, the notion of Shinji’s story as just one story among many conflicts with what we see in the film, where Shinji is making the choice about whether to proceed with instrumentality or not for the whole of humanity.

How can one reconcicle these conflicts? I think it’s hard to do so on a narrative level without a lot of fan wank. But, on an emotional level. Shinji’s climb out of Rei’s eye could be equated with the shattering of the stage and his emergence onto the globe. In the episode, Ritsuko says that “Pleasant things happen on rainy days,” the kind of logic that would be playing in his mind when he decides that the bad stuff is worth it. After all, in an instrumental world, there would be no rainy days, so why would Shinji have to worry about them at all. The way I see it right now, both the TV series and the film ending chronicle not Shinji’s embrace of instrumentality, rather they show his embrace of the world he lives in, flaws and all. He will not run from problems and pain, he will accept them as part of the human condition.

This is a beautiful moment, and it’s echoed in a beautiful narration about the Eva staying in space as a record of human achievement look after the sun, moon and stars have burned up. Everyone’s happy, the world is good, humanity will return and anything’s possible. But wait, there’s one more thing, and that’s where a lot of my difficulty interpreting the finale comes in. The film does a lot of juxtaposing of joy and pain, be it in the dour lyrics and happy music of ‘Come Sweet Death,’ or most notably in the emotion of the Episode 26 ending and the pervading mood of ‘One More Final,’ a closing scene that rivals Tony Soprano’s onion ring dinner for endless debatability.

Here’s one reading, what I’m feeling now. Shinji emerges from his rebirth experience in a lake of red water. Next, we see him on the postapocalyptic beach, lying next to a seemingly comatose Asuka. He’s made a monument for Misato, Rei’s giant head lies in the distance. The implication is that everything we saw in the film happened, things are still horribly messed up, and the people who died are, for all we know, still dead. So, why is Asuka back? It may tie into the fact that she experienced a similar enlightenment as Shinji earlier in the film. She met her mother, like Shinji did, and was subsequently empowered to go out and attack the Eva series. She does not need instrumentality because she knows that her mother was there all along.

So, maybe the end of the show was right, everyone did have their own instrumentality experience, they all were faced with the question of merging with the singular being or returning to the world. They say that Shinji is the only one who can make the choice, but if everyone else is inside Rei, perhaps they all have their own psychological trials, like we see in the series. Having piloted Eva, Shinji and Asuka are used to living an instrumental style existence, and are also aware of the false security and purpose it provides. They each want to get out of the ‘womb’ they existed in and return to the world as a whole.

But, why would Asuka want to do this? She’s been through so much awful stuff in the series, what is her motivation for returning to reality? Perhaps it’s simply the fire that’s driven her before. She doesn’t want to give up, she wouldn’t want Shinji to return to reality and show her up. So, she chooses to return to the beach, she knows that her mother’s spirit is out there, but she has broken the umbilical cord and doesn’t need to return.

This leaves me with a couple of major questions. One is why does Asuka have those bandages? Why are they like the ones that Rei wore during her first appearance on the series? One reading could be that this Asuka is a ‘clone’ in the same way that the new Reis were, that the original Asuka died, but a new body emerged, from the Lilith matter. You could also read it as Shinji bandaged her up when he found her, and he’s been sitting there waiting a long time for her to come back to life. He had time to make that monument to Misato and has been sitting in the world alone.

That interpretation would also make it a bit clearer why he chokes her. Their relationship has always been based on violence. It was usually Asuka’s verbal assaults on him, but as we saw in his mind, he fantasized about choking her, about really asserting his masculinity and showing her that he wasn’t the stupid coward she ridiculed him as. And, in the world he’s chosen, violence as dialogue remains a sad necessity. He can’t cut through the AT Field, he’s got to deal with it.

And, because they’ve probably been there a while, he’s finally worked up the courage to do what he fantasized about doing for a while. Perhaps he still feels guilty about masturbating over her earlier. In choking her, he’s trying to get out some of his guilt. And, maybe it’s playing into the mess of sexual fantasies in his head, the Asuka in his mind says she knows about his jerkoff fantasies and would be happy to watch him if that’s what he wants. Rather than do that, he gives into his fantasy about choking her, and showing her he’s a man through violence. Maybe that’s the only way he can get through to her.

Of course, when he does go to do this, she reaches out and caresses his face. This is the moment when he moves out of the fantasy world he’s spent most of the film in. There, he’s hard enough to choke her and she doesn’t respond. In reality, he is not that strong, not that mean. She just laughs at his attempt to be tough. This breaks Shinji, all the guilt and feeling that went away during Instrumentality comes flooding back and he’s left with the reality of the choice he’s made. He’s still the same Shinji, and she’s still the same Asuka. This is the world he’s chosen, it’s full of pain, but it’s also real. Asuka and Shinji may communicate in unconventional ways, but him crying and her saying “Disgusting” is about as close as they’ll ever get to “I love you.” In the end, this is the way things are, the world continues, and though Shinji would be the first to acknowledge how messed up he is, he’d rather be messed up in a real world, an adult world, than live forever in a regressive womb existence.

That’s what the film is ultimately about, Shinji’s choice to grow up and leave his mother behind. Things are tougher with Asuka than they are with any of the mother figures he encounters, but that’s the way it is in the world. He chokes her, she makes fun of him, that is our world, that is adult reality. Shinji has grown up, he’s not scared of his father anymore, he’s not subject to the whims of NERV. For the first time, he hasn’t just done what people told him to do, he’s made his own choice. He may be crying about it, but at least he’s crying because of what he wanted to do. The entire series is about growing up, and in the final scene, we see the conflicted feelings that come when one actually does grow up. It’s hard to reach out to people, it’s hard to live on your own, but we have to do it. It’s the cycle of life. As one world ends, another beigns.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Mad Men: 'Three Sundays' (2x04)

Yesterday’s Mad Men increased the series’ focus on domestic issues this season, a welcome development since I consider that the more interesting side of things. The ad business on this show functions like the mafia storylines on The Sopranos, it’s the hook for viewers, a way to distinguish the characters and set up the values of their world. But, it’s the personal stories where the real drama lies, and this season has been hitting wonderfully subtle, real notes with ease.

The Don/Betty tension has been brewing all season, and kind of comes to a head here. She doesn’t want to just be the mother of Don’s children, and is increasingly frustrated with Don’s inability to be the ‘man of the house.’ She says that Don is a child, but last season, he was told that Betty had the mind of a child. It’s a troubled house, as exemplified by their daughter’s turn to the bottle in this episode. Betty’s anger at Bobby is largely redirected anger at Don. She wants to punish Don for his bad behavior, but can’t outright do so, and instead emasculates him in front of his children.

Don’s attempt to be the man she seems to want backfires when his violence shocks her. Ultimately, the way to win back her affections was to play the victim, emphasize his childhood trauma, and make it so that he needed her affection, rather than the other way around. It’s a complex mess of essentially irresolvable issues. As much as the Bobby story is actually about her punishing Don, it also raises a lot of questions about what role a father should play in disciplining children, and jealousy that Don always gets to be the ‘good guy’ with the kids.

It’s a very real argument, and thankfully divorced from typical TV melodrama. The genius of the show is largely its ability to say so much subtextually. There are the surface events, and a whole surging churn of emotions underneath. In the Peggy storyline, her sister goes to confession solely to get back at Peggy, to sour her image in the eyes of the priest. It’s never stated that that’s what she’s doing, but once she starts talking in the confessional, it becomes totally clear, and I was marveling at her devious little plan.

One of the major problems I have with watching a lot of mainstream Hollywood films, or even indie movies, is that the stories are so telegraphed, and the emotions so on the nose. In real life, people very rarely confess their feelings in eloquent ways, they let them simmer under the surface, expressed only in wordless frustration or cutting passive aggressive comments. My favorite kind of film is one that can show us the inner world of a person as much as the surface. This can take the form of the psychological psychedelia of Neon Genesis Evangelion, or it can be a lingering closeup of Don Draper here, where the weight of everything he’s done compounds and presses on him.

I’ve seen some people criticizing this season, saying that nothing is happening, things like that. Much like people criticizing the late seasons of The Sopranos, that misses the point of what the show is trying to do. It’s a character piece, and there’s a ton of development happening in the relationships. There aren’t really any ‘plots’ per se to the series, things happen, but it’s the internal events that really matter. And, this episode is full of internal turmoil.