Toons

It’s Time to Blow The City/ Get Everybody and The Stuff Together

Once upon a time, a decade and a half ago, to be precise, I was introduced to the work of composer Yoko Kanno, and spent endless hours swimming in her music. The soundtrack to Cowboy Bebop was one of the foundational albums of my life. It became not only as my favorite anime OST album of all time, but was high on the list of genre-bending musical works that have inspired me to keep looking for, and appreciating, new music. (Other names in that list, you ask? The OST of Kill Bill. Gangs of Wasseypur. Dev-D. Susheela Raman’s Love Trap.) Oh, lookit, I used to rave about her music so much, back in the day.

Yoko Kanno’s music never really faded from my life, but like other artistes I enjoy and have heard in depth, I would return to the fountain of her album with delicate steps, drinking lightly, trying not to let the taste get too over-familiar. There is a joy to traversing half-forgotten pathways in your brain, when you find yourself being able to anticipate the harkat in an instrumental solo milliseconds before the fact, or when your body tenses at the aneurysm-inducing chorus that is about to hit. It also helped that her music, specifically the Cowboy Bebop OST was not on Spotify, my music application of choice.

That changed in July this year, when all the Seatbelts’ (which is the name of the band that Kanno got together to produce the Bebop OST) work was finally up on Spotify. Here are the complete albums, all seven of them in a single playlist.

But the intersection of Cowboy Bebop and 2020 began before that, with the Seatbelts getting together on Youtube to produce a set of live virtual sessions for charity, called the Starduck Sessions. Yoko Kanno makes special appearances in them, a dancing shadow on ‘Tank’, person sleeping in bathtub on ‘Lion Sleeping’, helmet-wearing pianist in ‘Space Lion’. A particular favorite is the smoky, intimate version of ‘Real Folk Blues’ by Mai Yamane, stripped down to voice, guitar, and bass. All eight videos are here. I swear I blinked back tears at ‘Space Lion’, all over again.

But that was not just it. You see, during the pandemic, a bunch of musicians, with the blessing of Sunrise, the original producers of Cowboy Bebop, and Funimation, the US distributors, produced a virtual session of “The Real Folk Blues”.

The musicians really take it to the next level, especially the combination of singers Shihori and Uyanga Bold, along with guest vocalists Raj Ramayya (one of the voices on both the Bebop movie and OST). The list of musicians is staggering, as is the production quality. The main vocalists do their thing with the original Japanese lyrics, alternating lines among themselves, while the chorus goes into overdrive with a bunch of backing vocalists. Listen to how Uyanga jams with the saxophone at 2:56.

The fun begins when the original song ends. That’s when three rappers get in and add their layers of poetry as the music continues. While the performance in and of itself was enough to get my nerd juices flowing, it’s the appearance of the original Seatbelts line-up in this final part that got me teary-eyed again. Look, there’s Ms Kanno too, being weird and cute and so full of all the coolness. Mai Yamane says hello too.

The full lineup of musicians, from the Youtube description.

Mix / Additional Guitar: Masahiro Aoki (Legendary former composer at Capcom with credits on Megaman, Street Fighter V, Astral Chain, and more)

Organ: Robbie Benson (Band leader, Super Soul Bros)

Keys: Ed Goldfarb (Series Composer, Pokémon: The Animated Series)

Guitar: David McLean (Guitarist on Beyblade Burst, One Minute Melee, host of Animyze)

Synth/Additional Sound Design: Jason Walsh (Senior composer and sound designer at Hexany Audio with recent credits including Overwatch Contenders, PUBG Mobile, and League of Legends)

Bass: Matthew Hines (Touring bassist with recent gigs including the Jonas Brothers, Ledisi, Summer Walker, Kiana Lede, Bazzi, and more)

Drums: Kevin Brown (Touring drummer with recent gigs including Jason Hawk Harris, the Southern California Brass Consortium, and more)

Saxophone: Zac Zinger (Composer and woodwind player for Street Fighter V, Jump Force, Mobile Suit Gundam: Side stories, and more)

Flute: Kevin Penkin (Series composer, Made in Abyss, Rising of the Shield Hero, more)

Lead Vox 1: Shihori (J-pop singer and song-writer on shows like Fairy Tail, Macross Frontier, Irregular at Magic Highschool, and more.)

Lead Vox 2: Úyanga Bold (Lead vocals on things like Mulan (2020), League of Legends, and multiple projects with Hans Zimmer/Pinar Toprak etc.)

Lead Vox 3: Raj Ramayya (Lead vocals on Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, Wolf’s Rain, Made in Abyss, and more)

Backing Vox 1: Dale North (Composer for Dreamscaper, Wizard of Legend, Sparklight, Nintendo Minute, and more)

Backing Vox 2: Dawn M. Bennett (Voice actress for anime and game series like Dragon Ball Super, Fairy Tail, RWBY, Borderlands 3, and more)

Backing Vox 3: Kaitlyn Fae (Filipino-American singer, actor, writer, director, co-host on the nerd video podcast, PanGeekery)

Rap 1: Substantial (Legendary jazz-hop rapper, Nujabes’ collaborator, with dozens of major placements and projects)

Rap 2: Mega Ran (Critically-acclaimed nerdcore legend)

Rap 3: Red Rapper AKA Zaid Tabani (Rapper with credits on Street Fighter, the EVO worldwide fighting tournament’s main theme, and Rooster Teeth’s Red VS. Blue)

Poem: D.B. Cooper (Voice Actress and director on Hearthstone, Bioshock 2, The Amazing Spiderman 2, Ghostbusters (2016), DC Universe Online, and more)

Spoken word: Beau Billingslea (Voice actor from Cowboy Bebop – Jet Black)

Ending Tag: Steve Blum (Voice actor from Cowboy Bebop – Spike Spiegel)

String Director/String Arranger/Orchestrator/Disco slide king: Lance Treviño (Film composer for titles like Beyblade Burst God, Hanazuki, Chef’s Table, and more!)

String Copyist/Orchestrator/String Mockup: Dallas Crane (Multimedia composer and personal assistant to Austin Wintory)

Strings: Our string section is composed of brilliant artists whose individual credits include grammy nominations, tours with artists like Eminem, Sting, and Hans Zimmer, and recordings for soundtracks like Steven Universe, God of War, The Lion King (2019), and many, many more.

Violins – Molly Rogers, David Morales Boroff, Felicia Rojas, Jeff Ball

Violas – Joe Chen, Molly Rogers, Isaac Schutz, Jeff Ball

Cellos – Andrew Dunn, David Tangney

Upright Bass – Travis Kindred

After all the tears had fallen, it was time for me to go back to basics, and re-watch the series and the movie. 20 episodes in, and I can’t get over how timeless Cowboy Bebop remains. ‘Asteroid Blues’ is the episode I must have seen at least 20 times in 3 years, giving friends the initial hit of the show. ‘Jamming With Edward’ and ‘Mushroom Samba’ still get me laughing hysterically. The poignant episodes with Faye and Jet still hit that perfect note of melancholy and wonder. The boy from seventeen years ago would approve, I think.

Footnotes

  • Guess what, The Yoko Kanno Project is still online, a rarity in a world of rapidly decaying links from two decades ago.
  • I never knew that the character of Ed was based on Kanno herself, according to director Shinichiro Watanabe. I found that out a few days ago.
  • Of course, it’s but natural that after watching Bebop, I will be jumping on Samurai Champloo, followed by Kids on the Slope, both of which I have seen before. It’s Watanabe’s newer ouevre that I haven’t seen, including Terror In Resonance and Carole and Tuesday. To be remedied soon.
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Books, Comic Art, Movies

A Scott Pilgrim 10th Anniversary Appreciation Post

Today morning, this came up on my YouTube Feed.

While the placeholder image on the video says “Full Interview”, it’s actually the reading of the complete movie Scott Pilgrim vs The World, with narration, digital effects, soundtrack, and a whole lot of fun. I know the movie well enough to figure out which bits were chopped (no 3-second song, no other-Scott, Wallace, and Scott sandwich on the futon). Some members of the cast couldn’t make it so others filled in for their roles (Anna Kendrick launches into Envy’s role with panache, and Satya Bhabha does a mean Young Neil). Other observations:

  • Aubrey Plaza continues to cement her status as Batshit Insane Diva, with stellar use of props, loudness, and timing
  • Chris Evans’ eyebrows deserve an Academy Award
  • Michael Cera actually sings and plays the guitar on camera
  • And Brandon Routh plays the bass (lolwut)
  • Not sure who deadpans better – Mary E Winstead and Alison Pill
  • Bryan Lee O’Malley live draws key characters at different points of the reading, the man can fuckin’ draw
  • Belly-laughing for one and a half hours is an excellent way to begin a work-week

This movie is a modern-day miracle. It was a failure in theaters when it came out, and yet ten years later, it is a movie that refuses to disappear from public memory. People come across it in different platforms and in different ways. A midnight screening, a streaming platform, an animated gif or a quote that lead them to find out about the movie. And they fall in love with it, and proceed to share the love with others. The result has been a film that has gained an ever-expanding circle of fans over the last decade. Obviously it also helps that the graphic novel is still as relevant, and the release of a recolored version has but added to its appeal.

The cast of the film have all gone on to do bigger and better things, and it’s a wonder how the makers got this talent package to come together in this one lightning-in-a-bottle production. I mean, just look at the roster — Michael Cera, Mary E Winstead, Anna Kendrick, Alison Pill, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Brie Larson, Jason Schwartzmann, Bill Hader (the Voice), Aubrey Plaza, Mae Whitman, Johnny Simmons, Ellen Wong. The only other ensemble cast I can think of that has gone to somewhat-equivalent cumulative stardom would be the TV show Freaks and Geeks. And for the record, even that was cancelled after one perfect season.

As a comic-book movie, Scott Pilgrim is positioned in a rarefied overlap of faithfulness to the source material with a visionary onscreen interpretation. This was 2010, where comics had not yet taken over the world, and the Marvel machine was in its infancy. There was still the two schools of adaptations, the first being those that slavishly translated from page-to-screen with visual effects cranked all the way up to 11, with examples like 300, Sin City, or Watchmen. The other end of the spectrum was complete directorial independence, leading to either excellent examples like The Dark Knight trilogy by Chris Nolan, creative disasters like The Green Hornet by Michel Gondry, or sound and fury blockbusters with no substance, like Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Edgar Wright took the essence of the books — its romance-meets-action comedy zaniness, the video game and indie music references, the bildungsroman tropes, and proceeded to sizzle it all together using Wrighteous alchemy. You know, the stuff that makes him a film-maker par excellence. The quirky cuts, zoom shots and montages, the use of music and score to incredible effect, the painstaking attention to detail and the use of intensive story-boarding to break down scenes. Edgar went the distance, and made his actors do the same. One example, referenced in the video above, was about him preventing the cast from blinking during the scenes to make it more like a comic-book. The end result is a movie where the actors revel in the sheer outrageousness of the proceedings and deliver lines with both flawless timing and improvisational tics, visual and text effects bounce across the screen in perfect synchrony, and we the audience are whisked away to find ourselves completely immersed in the strange and mysterious land of Toronto, Canada.

Here’s another wonderful thing about being released in 2010. If this was to be adapted in 2020, it would probably become a multi-season TV show, or at least a film trilogy. There was no way a studio would let such a mass of content be squandered on a single two-hour movie. It is our good fortune that Wright was around to pick it up at exactly the right moment and do right by it, making a perfect product of its time.

Two of my favorite Scott Pilgrim stories are from the commentary track on the bluray, with director Edgar Wright, writer Michael Bacall and creator/graphic novelist Bryan Lee O’Malley. Wright of course kept O’Malley in the loop throughout the making of the film, using his input even as the creator was working to finish his series. The original ending of the film therefore was written by Bacall and Wright differently from the books, with Scott finally ending up with Knives instead of with Ramona. O’Malley asked for the ending to be changed to that of the book, since that was what he intended the story to be all along, about Scott and Ramona trying to work out their relationship and give it a fresh go. Wright agreed. The alternate ending can be seen here.

My second favorite Scott Pilgrim story is to do with Twitter and sweet vindication. So the week the movie released, it came in fifth at the box office. Fifth! All the way behind Expendables, Eat Pray Love, The Other Guys, and Inception. Seth MacFarlane, he of the cerebral Ted fame, decided to rub it in on Twitter, saying “Scott Pilgrim 0, the World 2“. This was Wright’s response to that tweet.

 I was like, f*ck you. And I lay in wait until 8 Million Ways to Die in the West came out, or whatever it was called, and I rubbed my hands with glee. I didn’t tweet anything because I’m not a total monster. But Monday morning Michael Moses sent an email with three words. It was one of the sweetest emails I’ve ever gotten from anybody in the industry. It said, “Years, not days.”

Nobody, obviously, is doing a ten year anniversary celebration of Expendables or Eat Pray Love. I wasn’t able to remember who the lead actors of The Other Guys were. On the other hand, I have lost count of the number of times I have re-watched Scott Pilgrim vs The World. I got my blu-ray copy signed by Edgar Wright at Amoeba a few years ago, and of course, by this time I can basically quote the movie beginning to end. Envy Adams’ “Oh yeah? Oh YEAH!” call echoes in my head every time I am about to write code, or do something challenging. “Your BF’s about to get F-ed in the B” is a line I used one day and promptly exploded into laughter before finishing it. I had a grin when I walked into the Toronto Public Library last year. A couple of years ago, I would bump into Bryan Lee O’Malley in random movie screenings around Los Angeles. Which has nothing to do with the movie but is a cool Los Angeles perk that I thought I would throw out there.

One of the things that I want to verify someday, and I am not sure how that is possible, is my thesis that the original trailer to Scott Pilgrim vs The World is maybe the first to use this now-popular trend of cutting action scene effects to the rhythm of the background music. Check out the part of the trailer where the Prodigy’s ‘Invaders Must Die’ kicks in, around 1:45. Wright would go on to use this in Baby Driver tremendous effect, and nowadays trailers have overused this to the point of cliche. But in 2010, this was the bomb.

Here is a tale of regret and self-loathing. In 2012, Bryan Lee O’Malley visited San Diego Comic Con. I was there. I waited in line to get my books autographed by him, and bought the slipcase and poster that came along with it. I asked him if he had any original art. He said yes, and showed me this.

Dear reader, it haunts me to this day that I did not buy this page immediately. I bought two pages from Eddie Campbell instead, and a couple of other items. What stopped me was that I had a dream image in mind, of owning a Pilgrim page that included all or most of the cast. Just owning this would not have fit the bill.

It was only when I came back home and opened up my copy of Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, the first volume of the series, that I realized that this was the very first image of Scott in the book. Other than the cover, this would be most iconic image. It was also the image sort of used in the film poster, if you squint real hard. It was even used as a Mondo print two years later, which made me groan even more.

However, instead of ending the post on a bum note, let me show you the Scott Pilgrim original that I actually got. It fulfilled the mental criteria I had for the piece. It was even published as a print, too, thereby lowering my bar for envy at loss of the earlier piece, and what makes it even more special is that it’s a riff on a classic game poster, Puzzle Fighter, pictured below. When I bought it from Bryan’s art rep, the wonderful Felix Lu, he also mentioned that this was the biggest physical piece of art that Bryan had ever produced, at a whopping 16 by 24 inches.

P.S The table reading was done as a charity event for Water For People. You can donate here: https://www.waterforpeople.org/pilgrim/

Also read: The AV Club discussion about Scott Pilgrim.

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Movies

An animated discussion

For the sake of my sanity, I avoid being emotionally invested in the Oscars every year, and use it primarily as a checklist of movies that escape my radar every year. Los Angeles also brings it with it an incredible selection of free screenings during Oscar season, most of which are accompanied by interviews with the director or the cast. Of specific note, these past few years, has been the Best Animated Films nominations. The award has, with the exception of last year, been won by a title backed by a powerful studio – usually the predictable, family-friendly crowd pleasers. But the nominations for the category prove to be fertile hunting ground for titles that I wouldn’t have noticed.

In 2016, for example, I saw The Red Turtle. It’s one of the few movies I bought digitally, at full price — and trust me, that’s a big deal for me. A Belgian production that was distributed internationally by Studio Ghibli, the film lost to Zootopia. I don’t think the winning title was all that bad, but placing a work as emotionally hard-hitting as Red Turtle on the same platform as that unsubtle, pun-ridden roller-coaster was a travesty.

Coco won in 2017, beating the visually spectacular Loving Vincent. To be honest, I love Coco, it was one of the few animated movies that made me bawl. It was also Pixar making a two-punch comeback, along with Inside Out, after years of mediocre offerings and half-hearted sequels. But the sheer visual chutzpah of Loving Vincent sets it apart. More than 100 artists painted individual frames in Vincent Van Gogh’s style to animate the story, 43000 paintings in all. The Aero in Santa Monica screened the film with the directors present for a Q&A afterwards, and the passion with they approached their project, which ended up taking 9 years to go from an animated short to a full-fledged feature film, gave me goosebumps.

(Also, looking at the previous award years, Wallace and Gromit beat out Howl’s Moving Castle? Big Hero 6 beat Song of the Sea? Fucking Rango got the nod over Chico and Rita and A Cat in Paris! Frozen beat The Wind Rises. If I was a little more delicate, I would be calling for smelling salts right now)

This year, I saw the passion project that will probably not win, but is a spectacular offering in the category — the French animated film I Lost My Body, with a story adapted from a novel called Happy Hand, by Guillaume Laurant (who wrote the original book on which Amelie was based). It is, on the surface, a surreal journey of a disembodied hand that tries to find its owner across the city, an epic adventure filmed at angles and perspectives one does not encounter in conventional animation. It is the story of Naoufel, a broken young man, and about how he comes to terms with loss, in more ways than one. The film talks about destiny and choice, of connections, to one’s past, to humanity. It also has, surprisingly, a romantic subplot, one that begins with ten minutes of conversation via an apartment security system. Tread carefully, though, because Jeremy Clapin has a tendency to unsettle.

I Lost My Body is that rare film that goes in completely unexpected directions, and as the non-linear narrative comes together, a spiral of flashbacks and foreshadowing that culminates in a fifteen minute climax, you will find yourself holding your breath until the screen fades to black. And then maybe you find your eyes wet, or that could just be me.

Oh, and turns out the mesmerizing soundtrack, with its haunting recorder melody backed with orchestral strings and repeating synth patterns, was composed by Dan Levy. Dan is the ‘D’ in the band The Dø , one of my favorite French outfits and one whose next album I’ve been waiting for 5 years. It was fascinating to hear Jeremy talk about how Dan refused to look at the visuals and ‘audition’ for the role of composer, when asked. He instead composed 20 minutes of music based on the brief story narration Jeremy gave him, to give an idea of the mood he was going for. That worked perfectly with Clapin’s sensibilities, and fit the narrative in a way that traditional scoring wouldn’t, imbuing the story with a pathos and a grandeur that is nothing short of extraordinary. Small wonder then that I have been listening to it on repeat the last two days.

The contenders this year, other than I Lost My Body, are Toy Story 4, How To Train Your Dragon: Some Vapid Sub-heading, Klaus, and Missing Link. I would dismiss Dragon and Missing Link outright. Toy Story 4 is running on Pixar goodwill fumes and may be the one to win. Klaus is the interesting one — it is also a Netflix exclusive, like Body, and has been winning awards in the same circuits as the latter. Both won at the Annies, with Body winning the best Indie Animated feature, while Klaus walked away with the overall best animated feature. But on the other hand, Body won the Nespresso Grand Prize at Cannes (the first animated film to ever win this). My gut feeling is that Klaus may win just because it’s the more family-friendly of the two, and that follows the historical trend. We’ll see in a week.

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Books, Movies

A Book, a film

Two things caught me by surprise last week. The first was a book called The Devourers, by a writer named Indra Das. The second was a film called Laal Kaptaan, directed by Navdeep Singh and starring Saif Ali Khan. The two are completely unrelated, but I found them in them examples of the kind of historical fiction I want to read, or at least the kind of treatment that makes me not want to bang my head against a wall.

The Devourers falls squarely in the speculative fiction genre; talking about it is difficult because of the nature of the beast (pun intended). A professor in Kolkata meets a stranger one night, one who claims to be a half-werewolf and consequently, immortal. The stranger piques his interest by telling him a story set in Shahjahanabad, on the banks of the Yamuna, during the time of the reign of the Great Mughals, and then assigns him a responsibility. The story then becomes a retelling of three different individuals’ life stories, and an act of violence that weaves these stories together.

One of the reasons I picked up Devourers was the blurb by Mike Carey, he of Lucifer and Girl With All the Gifts fame. The other is the phenomenal cover by Chris Panatier, the kind of illustration you do not see on an Indian publication. The work is in pen and ink and watercolor, and wraps around the book. It captures both the soul of the writing as well as a very specific mood, reminiscent of both illustrators like James Jean and the imagery of great tattoo inkers.

But it was the writing that stayed with me. Das grounds his characters and the locale exceptionally well, bringing to life the mangroves of the Sunderbans and the marketplaces of Shahjahanabad; the moments of tension and terror are narrated with inevitability and poetry. And he grinds together myths and folklore of different cultures to produce the most vivid imagery one can associate with creatures of the supernatural.

The beast was like no animal I’d ever seen on this earth. Glowing red in the flickering light of rain-swathed fires, with its war paint of blood and tattered flesh, which hung like ragged pennants off its spines and slicked fur, it was rakshasa of the Hindus, it was asura, lord among their demons. It was glowing, infernal ifreet of the djinn, it was Iblis made incarnate, rising from cold wet earth instead of the arid sand of the desert. It was a towering impostor god of Europe resurrected in this empty stretch of Shah Jahan’s empire and worshipped with fire and violence.

Indra Das – The Devourers

How can I describe what came to my senses, in that silence? Even the birds stopped their screaming, the insects their singing. The smell of it was overpowering. It smelled like birth, the birth of god or demon, raw and animal and steaming in the morning air. Sweet and musk, like frankincense and myrrh; heavy and pungent, like the juice of living things, blood and piss, sweat and spit; rancid and fecund, like waste, shit, and earth. It stank of both life and death, both so intoxicating I found myself flushed with my own blood, my heart aching. I could hear it, feel it breathing, the rumbling of a mountain slumbering through centuries slivered to seconds. It walked to me, twigs snapping sharp under its great hands and feet, soil squelching under its enormous, impossible weight. It was on all fours, or so its steps told me, and yet I could feel its boiling breath, a hot and humid wind on my face as it approached. Even crouched, it was as tall as me.

Indra Das – The Devourers

Usually, when reading a book like this, my worry is that it will end with a set-up to a sequel and an inevitable franchise, the bane of every work in this genre. Thankfully, Das does not fall into that trap. The conclusion involves a transformation, an end that reminds me of the best that outre literature has offered.

The Devourers is a work about change and acceptance; Laal Kaptaan, on the other hand is a story of revenge, pursuit, and ultimately, destiny. It is a film by a creator whose work I have followed with interest over the years. Navdeep Singh sauntered onto the Indian alternative film scene in 2007 with a local remake of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, set in rural Rajasthan and starring Abhay Deol (remember Abhay Deol? The guy was the poster-child of great Indian cinema in the 2000s, until he crashed and burned his way out of the industry). His sophomore effort NH10, a slow-burn socially conscious thriller, released eight years later in 2015, to considerable more acclaim and box office success. Laal Kaptaan, which released in 2019, alas, failed to find its audience. Possibly because the historical thriller comes at a time when Indian cinema is rewriting history to the tune of Hindutva. The past is sexy only when there is opulence and patriotic fervor kneaded into clear them/us narratives that spoon-feed how great everything was in the past.

Singh obviously does not take this route. Set in the late 1700s (1789, to be precise, if we look at the Battle of Buxar as the narrative lynch-pin), the film follows a Naga ascetic (Saif Ali Khan) on a hunt for a man named Rehmat (played by Manav Vij, who I last saw in Andhadhun last year), with whom he has — to quote Beatrix Kiddo — “unfinished business”. The story takes us through some incredible sequences set in the arid landscapes of the Chambal valley, a place already seared in our collective consciousness as a hell-scape where terrible things happen to everyone, good or bad. Saif Ali’s character is named Gossain, which I understand is just short-hand for “holy man”, so until the end of the movie, he is truly a man with no name. Over the course of his journey, he encounters a mishmash of characters, including a cheroot-smoking bounty hunter accompanied by two hounds, who can literally smell his prey; a veiled prostitute who attempts to hire the protagonist to exact her own revenge, but on finding him unwilling to take up her cause for money, shows him her mutilated face to sway him to her cause; a vertically-challenged Maratha chieftain leading some wayward Pindari warriors, a pack of undisciplined riffraff that refuse to follow orders and pounce like scavengers on corpses lying by the roadside; and Afghan warriors who track the gossain because — I kid you not — “you killed my master, prepare to die”.

In case you haven’t figured it out already, the movie is a genre-lover’s wet dream. It also helps that Singh and co-writer Deepak Venkateshan get their historical details just right. Everything — from weapons to costumes, language to customs — feels authentic and grounded in both era and locale. The characters are splendid — Khan and Vij make for excellent, balanced antagonists when they share the screen; the supporting characters shine regardless of screen time, the lonely widow played by Zoya Hussain, Deepak Dobriyal channeling a bit of Toshiro Mifune, Madan Deodhar as the hapless Maratha captain trying to bring his no-good men under control. My favorite moments are the ones that bring the nonsensical theatrics of neo-historical potboilers into sharp contrast, like the short dance performance in the Maratha tent, or the pragmatic outlook of the characters regarding the British. Or even the grounded notion that this land, in the eighteenth-century, was a complicated place where soldiers bickered and back-stabbed each other, with no grandiose thread of nationalism weaving through it all.

However, much like Dibakar Bannerjee’s 2015 Byomkesh Bakshi, all the attention to style and historical detail cannot take away the fact that Laal Kaptaan suffers dreadfully from Sergio Leone syndrome. One wishes the story being told was a little tighter, the pace a little more balanced than the steady canter it sinks into, even in its moments of action. We find our attention divided by too many perspectives; the reveals, including a betrayal in the middle of the story, do not bear the impact that they should. Overall, the film takes too long to weave all its threads together, and it suffers for all that.

The year’s best-of lists in Indian film have gone on record saying that 2019 was not as fertile for Indian cinema. I had high hopes about this particular film, based on the trailer, and my overall optimism regarding Singh’s storytelling skills. It does feels gratifying that something like Laal Kaptaan gets a theatrical release and at least a degree of star-power behind it. It is the kind of film that I like to recommend to friends, the ones that fall under the radar and can still evoke discussion. Hopefully, a filmmaker like Singh continues to push genre boundaries with his works. Hmm, maybe someone should point him to this werewolf story that is set in Mughal times, by this writer named Indra Das…

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Comics, Movies

Thoughts on Batman

bvsquad2

Batman vs Superman is out this week, and here are a couple of disorganized thoughts on the State of the Superhero.

I dislike Batman. It’s funny that I should say that about a fictional character, especially one that has brought me such joy while growing up. You guys are well aware of how much I have been into the character, and there is this element of hypocrisy that looms large over a statement like this one. But I have problems with the character, and more specifically, what has become of the the storytelling engine behind Batman.

History Lesson

This lineage of Batman “troubled man who dresses up to exorcise his demons” obviously begins with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Year One in the mid-1980s. But these books were one of a kind — DKR was an interpretation, not a definition of who Batman was — and it took a long time before Miller’s rage-and-angst-fueled ingredients seeped into the character’s engines. You had the pure joy of Mike Barr and Alan Davis’s short run, which ran in tandem with Year One, funnily enough; Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s vulnerable yet foreboding Batman; Doug Moench and Kelly Jones’ surreal Goth-meets-art deco incarnation; even the group-think endeavors like Knightfall and Prodigal and No Man’s Land, the messy products of their time that they were: all of these retained some amount of humanity that made you like the character likable, even relate to him, maybe, because Batman always did the right thing. But yes, elements of Miller’s work were creeping in slowly — Jason Todd, Robin #2 died at the Joker’s hands, something that Dark Knight Returns had alluded to. Making that book prescient almost made it seem like that dark future was in store for Batman, but we weren’t there yet.

bvs

It was Grant Morrison who is to blame, when you think about it. Morrison, fresh from a  career of revamping DC’s fringe characters such as Animal Man and Doom Patrol, found himself in charge of the Justice League of America in the late 90s. The JLA had their share of troubled history in that decade – editorial diktats mandated the use of second-tier characters in the team because the Big Guys were involved in soap operas of their own 1. Morrison insisted on using the main characters, and among the changes he made to the JLA status quo, the major one was this:

Batman, despite having no superpowers, was the most dangerous man alive.

Batman has it all covered.

He can take down anybody. He is the embodiment of human perfection. He has a contingency plan for everything — seriously, everything. If the universe was about to be destroyed, Batman could pull a universe-undestroying glove from his utility belt and punch the universe into being whole again.

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This particular concept found much favor among fans, myself included. Unfortunately, when combined with the climactic scene of Miller’s seminal work, people — writers, fans, the ecosystem at large — began to extrapolate the facts in a very strange way. What was a one-off sequence involving careful planning and execution suddenly became a trope in itself. Batman can beat Superman anytime, they said. There was a proliferation of stories where indeed, Batman was not only rescuing the JLA from problems that stymied all of them, he was also beating Superman almost on a yearly basis. Miller’s 2001 sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, begins with a showdown where Batman, now even older, drops a pile of rocks on an angry Kal-El, punches him with a pair of special gloves and says “Get out of my cave”. In Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s Hush, in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s newest incarnation of the Batman, in tales of alternate realities and stray one-shots, the message remains the same: Batman can take Superman. Any time.

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And all of that brings us to Batfleck taking on hairline-receding Superman on the screen.

End History Lesson

At the heart of it all, along with his seeming ability to go toe-to-toe against super-humans, Batman is still Bruce Wayne, a middle-aged rich guy who uses his money to dress up and go out and punch criminals. He says “My City” without a trace of irony. He is always right. He is rude and insensitive to people around him, and over the years, this assholish behavior has been amped up to stupendous levels. He will be part of a team, but everything and everybody has to play by his rules. He has an extended family, recruiting a bunch of boys and girls, men and women as part of his war on crime, but he also insists on being a loner, incapable of having a normal human relationship with anyone around him. His intensity has been stretched to such an incredulous length that Batman the character has become a self-parody. Batman is a scary reminder of what happens when Big Money meets Mental Illness meets Misguided Intentions meets Non-scalable Implementation.Somehow, “Batman does not kill” has become an excuse to make the character as unlikable and smarmy as possible. 2

But wait, you say, isn’t punching criminals the focal point of every superhero story?

Yes, you are right. At the end of the day, superhero stories are still about grown men — and women — punching each other into submission. But hey, it has been 75 years since we have had a man putting on a suit and heading out late at night to deal with the trauma of his parents being killed in front of his eyes. You could say that problem with Batman is emblematic of my problems with superhero stories in general. To be more precise, the mainstream superhero scene, these characters that have plodded through decades of reinvention, retelling and occasional resurgence. With a character like Batman, there can only be an attempt to retell the story with a fresh angle, to rearrange the familiar pieces and give them weight depending on which pieces we are focused on. Every now and then, someone figures it’s a great idea to add another piece 3 but all it does is add chaos to an already teetering structure. Add to it the fact that DC/Marvel comics, since the 80s, have been stuck in this confusing identity crisis (pun intended) where they are unsure about whether they are a children’s medium or aimed at adults. You point out flaws in the machine, and they want you to take a deep breath and lighten up, because superheroes are for kids. At the same time, the themes they handle try to be mature, the Comics Code Authority was thrown out the door a long time ago, and any attempt at wholesomeness stopped when anal rape became a plot point 10 years ago. 4

There are of course attempts to upend the structure every now and then: by what is referred to as a reboot. Scott Snyder, who I mentioned above, is the writer working on the new Batman. It is the first time in years that the origin story has attempted to break free of the long shadow cast by Year One. Snyder calls his version Year Zero, and rather than the shadows and grime that Miller brought into his version, Year Zero has psychedelic colors and an out-there, sci-fi vibe to it that I dug quite a bit. But the 75-year old legacy cannot help but creep into the pieces that a creator adds to this new structure, and it takes very little time for the building to collapse yet again. By the time the Joker is added to the mix, in a story called ‘Death of the Family’, we have — deep breath — the Joker in Arkham Asylum with a villain called the Dollmaker “who surgically removes Joker’s face at his request and then pins it to Joker’s cell wall as a sign of his rebirth”. By the time the Joker shows up again, in “Endgame”, he has become a scientist who has come up with a new chemical isotope (called, er, ‘Ha’), and the story also “implies that he is immortal, having existed for centuries, and has developed a means to regenerate from mortal injuries…(the story also) restores the Joker’s face, and also reveals that he knows Batman’s secret identity”. Umm, okay.

Add to it the fact that Batman’s story never does have an ending. 5 He has gone from being a lone vigilante killing people as he sees fit, to a good guy working with the law, to someone who is an urban legend. Look at the origin story: Where once it was Joe Chill and Lew Moxon, one retelling made Ra’s Al Ghul serve as a catalyst; in another, it was a person named Jack Napier; yet another has the Court of Owls. What I am getting at is that: the entire enterprise of keeping a superhero’s motivations and methods relevant in our world seems to be an effort that sucks in writers and makes them spew out fan-fiction that grates against my expectations and knowledge as a rational reader. More so in terms of Batman, because writers tend to latch onto their inner anger, that part of them that wishes that they could respond to the world around them by dressing up at night and getting out to break a couple of jaws and kneecaps. 6And the worst part of it all? Nothing changes. Bruce Wayne will always go out at night and beat criminals up. Maybe he will disappear for a while, maybe there will be a new costume, maybe an unknown adversary of the past will suddenly come back in his life and upend Everything That You have Ever Known. The common storytelling engine to all superhero tales seems to be a treadmill: a tiresome, frustrating journey that goes nowhere and yet tires you out.

It therefore becomes easy for me to say that Batman — or superheroes, in general — are not for me any more. Which is a valid point, but goes against my innate approach to popular culture, which is that New is always good, and that creators in any field are getting better at what they do because they learn from the past, and can pick and choose elements that work wonderfully, and discard the things that do not make sense. But it is a problem when the past weighs so heavily on your appreciation of any future work; when in order to explain who a character is, you have to go read Wikipedia. It’s a shame when to explain or make sense of what is going on, you have to suspend your reading to understand that what you are reading may or may not be a part of the story; and that there was a story and it’s not valid any more, and what you are reading can be replaced by a completely different story.

If you are not convinced, and are framing your apologist fanboy arguments about why Batman is awesome, here’s a question for you: how many Robins have there been? What happened to them? Let me get my popcorn while you scramble for the answer.

Notes:

  1. Superman died, and came back again. Batman had his spine broken, and then it was healed. Wonder Woman was replaced, and then she came back. Green Lantern went crazy, and another Green Lantern took his place.
  2. Donald Drumpf however sounds more like a Marvel alias, right?
  3. The character of Hush is an attempt, as is the Court of Owls.
  4. For those who do not know, Identity Crisis.
  5. Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns as the last Batman story, and that went on to get its sequel 15 years later, and there is a third part out now. Neil Gaiman wrote a story called ‘Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader’, which was Gaiman interpreting every supporting character in Batman as erudite people that knew exactly the right thing to say, just like bad fan-fiction.
  6. Not to kill anyone, of course, because Batman does not kill. But it’s perfectly fine to break a wrist and maybe an elbow too, if a guy just pointed a gun at you, or flashed a knife, or maybe a crowbar. Hmm, maybe if he even looked wrong at you, or cut you in line, or honked at your car when you were merging into his lane.
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