Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Hunger

I saw the 1983 movie “The Hunger” over the weekend, and I enjoyed it. The plot was simple and fell apart near the end, but the atmosphere made it good, and more importantly, it got me back in touch with the possibilities that vampires offered.

“The Hunger” is about an immortal vampire, Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) that takes lovers, lets them live long, but eventually this stops, and the lovers rapidly whither into a mummy-like state and a coma of un-death, to then be stacked up in coffins in her basement.

Blaylock sees it happen to her lover, John (David Bowie), and becomes interested in Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), the scientist John sought out when his degeneration began. She seduces and turns Roberts, but Roberts eventually kills her.

I’ve never been overly concerned with the romanticization of vampires. First, it’s ridiculous to impose a rigid standard on a stock movie monster that must by necessity exist in different forms to remain viable. Second, a lot of the criticisms of vampire romanticization stink of hating vampires for being feminized, which straints their credibility.

The problem is not when vampires are associated with beauty and decadence and sexual attraction, but when being a vampire is treated as wish fulfillment, something to legitimately desire without any nasty surprises. It’s “cool” to be a vampire: you’re a beautiful immortal with tiny pretty fangs, and end up elegant and stinking rich. Treating vampires this way removes a source of conflict from the story; now being the monster is something to be desired.

“The Hunger” reminded me that the image of the decadent vampire can be used to serve another purpose besides simple titillation: to heighten the “truth” of a vampire, by providing a contrast to it. That despite all their finery and drapery, they are predators without conscience, that must destroy others to live. Sometimes they are alien creatures (Blaylock is implied to be of a different species), other times they are humans who are, in essence, diseased.

Because we see the elegant Blaylock stack lovers in a crypt like kindling, and drool over a torn body, we understand that there’s actually nothing alluring about a vampire’s true self. When she claims, “I love you all!” we know she is lying.

Perhaps the elegance and beauty of vampires is the same as an anglerfish lure, or the worm-like tongue of a snapping turtle. It’s not meant to have an ultimate substance, any actual thing a viewer would want to be, but simply a way for the vampire to lure more prey.

This is a common view of vampires, but something about “The Hunger”, despite its thin plot, made that cliche “real” to me again, so much that I’m reconsidering whether I really want to write non-sentient vampires or not.

Where the film falls apart is that’s difficult to believe that just falling off a balcony would cause Marianne’s sudden degeneration and decay, though she should have died in some fashion.

And the studio ending, depicting Roberts as having survived and begun the sexual cycle all over again, made no sense and felt as tacked-on as it actually was. If there is a climax, you must follow through with it. Roberts wanted her own death, and should have been shown committing suicide.

Despite this, I did enjoy the film. It reminded me that vampires could be figures of horror, and “spoke” to me in a way that a piece of vampire media hasn’t in a long time. Maybe the film lacks substance, but it does have style.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sym-Bionic Titan Series in Review

I've finally gotten around to seeing another cartoon series I’ve been meaning to watch for years, and my final verdict is that Sym-Bionic Titan is a good show, but no so good I’d desperately campaign for it to be renewed.

Sym-Bionic Titan is directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, of Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, and the first Star Wars: The Clone Wars series. I’ve always admired his directing style, which manages to take stylized, simple designs and give them gravitas. His name, as well as the presence of giant robots, was what drew me to the series.

Watching Tartakovsky’s style in action is doubtless the best part of Sym-Bionic Titan. The greatest scenes feel cinematic, have a grandeur that is unexpected for a flat, “simple”-looking cartoon. The other aspects of the show are not... bad, but they’re usually formulaic and predictable. There are exceptions, there aren’t enough to ensure the series didn’t fade from my mind after I watched it.

Sym-Bionic Titan is about three heroes fleeing their war-torn (human alien-type) planet for Earth, where they are pursued by a new monster for every episode. The heroes are Ilana (Tara Strong), princess of Galaluna, her bodyguard Lance (Kevin Thoms), and a robot, Octus (Brian Posehn). They take a house in the suburbs and assume the identities of high school students, with Octus acting as their classmate and their father in two different holographic guises. Ilana and Lance can both summon mecha suits from their watches, and merge with Octus to form a gigantic robot, in order to fight enormous monsters sent by a traitor to their kingdom and his alien allies.

Sym-Bionic Titan is a mostly smooth fusion of anime homage and American high school stories. The “anime” part depends to a large degree on the robot shows of past decades (defining which shows, I’ll leave to the experts), in which giant robots are treated like superheroes, and battle enemy robots and giant monsters. However, Tartakovsky has also cited other anime as his inspirations.

High school settings in anime are also extremely common, but the high school side of Sym-Bionic Titan is very American, with dumb jocks, moody goths, nasal nerds, and bitchy cheerleaders (though we find out that one isn’t so bad). The high school stuff is serviceable, competently produced but not groundbreaking.

There is a little continuity between episodes. G3, a mysterious government organization, as well as a trigger-happy general are both hungry to find out more about this Titan, but episodes can go by without seeing them. Octus, as the teenage “Newton” (who looks shockingly like Peter Griffin) gets into a romantic relationship with Kimmy the cheerleader, and his apparent death forms the major conflict for the final episodes.

A lot of the episode plots are conventional for TV cartoons, such as the cute but dangerous creature, the transformation/assimilation of one of the heroes, the whole-episode flashback to the past, the monster that can regrow from a single fragment, etc. It puts a few interesting twists on these formulas, like the grotesqueness of the possession episode, but again, it’s not rocking my world.

The series does play with conventions in a few places. While Lance is normally quiet and intense, he has moments of genuine joy and enthusiasm. Octus acts very human, but is blase about it. Ilana is proactive and enthusiastic about aiding people, and feels like a true figure of authority rather than a generic “princess”, one who suffers because she cannot help her citizens. (And her mecha suit Corus even has some offensive capability, which is more than I was expecting). The Titan crew also ends up working with G3, despite how sinister the organization first seemed. But these breaks aren’t common, and usually you can follow the beats of the series easily.

Octus and Kimmy’s romance is, at this point in popular culture, completely conventional. It’s not badly written, just predictable. And yes, it’s also the source of the infamous “booty dance” scene, where Kimmy turns up the radio and shakes it, trying to convince Octus to do her homework rather than be her tutor. Sym-Bionic Titan does manage to push the envelope at times, and is good for that.

For the most part, Sym-Bionic Titan is an earnest show, putting forth everything straight as an arrow without irony or parody. The assumption that current popular culture has lost earnestness is a load of noise, but it’s still engaging to see a series being approached with such heart. It can get quite dark and serious, but like Tartakovsky’s other action series, there are moments of light comedy.

Thankfully, the typical Tarakovsky-show designs are fused with homages to the stereotypical Super Robot style, giving the series a distinct rather than imitative look. The robot and monster designs are all very cool, and combined with the Tartakovsky touch, it’s clear that this is a series that uses anime as just one of its many influences, in the same way that Avatar: TLA does, rather than slavishly trying to imitate anime and coming off as artificial.

Overall, I enjoyed Sym-Bionic Titan, but I was just expecting it to be better than it was. I was hoping, at least, for its visual quality to be able to transcend how by-the-numbers it was. Instead, the directing quality helped spice up the series, but didn’t make it as mind-blowing as I hoped. Cliches produced with loving conviction are still cliches, and sometimes that particular hurdle can’t be overcome for a viewer. I liked the series, but I wanted to like it more.