Sunday, June 9, 2019

The M.S. Stubnitz

One random weeknight Hannes noticed that the Stubnitz was in town and that the bands playing looked pretty interesting, so do I want to go to the show? 

Heck yeah!

What is the Stubnitz exactly? Well, you can read about it in detail here.

It is an actual ship, a vintage 1964 freeze and transport fishing vessel out of the GDR. Since 1993 its mission has been to act as a "Cultural Ark", a performing arts vessel that makes its way around coastal Europe - but especially to harbours like Hamburg, Bremen, Rostock, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen - hosting concerts and other events.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Love, Death, and Robots

The day this series was added I binged it in its entirety, totally transfixed. That should read "we binged", but Hannes fell asleep pretty quickly, as usual. He snored through most of it, but was very cozy, so that's also okay. I re-watched most of it with him the next day.

Can we talk for a second about how excellent Netflix's region- and area-specific targeted advertising is? And I describe it as such because, in Rostock for example, the Netflix ads strategically placed in high-traffic areas at this time were for an action flick about former military guys. Hamburg ads tend to be for cool hip alternative stuff.

I mean like, holy shit.

Spoilers ahoy.

A few of the best episodes were Three Robots - about sassy droids taking a postapocalyptic sightseeing vacation the way humans would, but in the ashy overgrown ruins of our civilisation - and When the Yogurt Took Over, another laugh-out-loud funny episode that, like Three Robots, nearly made me do a spit take. 
Actually, scratch that: Three Robots did make me do one for real. When the foul-mouthed female robot flat out told one of her companions, in her deadpan mechanical voice, to "stop being such a fucking pussy" I straight-up spat a tiny piece of chocolate across the room and never did find it. 

The Secret War, about a small, lonely group of Soviet soldiers in the inhospitable wilderness trying to head off an invasion of fast, horrifying, rapidly-multiplying, extremely deadly alien creatures during WWII, was also breathtaking. 
It's like the well-animated story sequences in recent video games: brief but with actual character development, intense dialogue, and hyperrealism down to things like individual pores, frost on facial hair, and fur collars blowing in the wind. Their hardy ponies, too, were a feat of digital artistry. The violence was extreme, a running motif that ties together even the very funny, cute, ridiculous shorts. Along with the character development miraculously injected into this short, fantastical sci-fi piece that exists mainly to be stunning visually, there is a minor plot twist at a crucial moment of self-sacrifice that made me feel real feelings. I did not want any of those men to die, and was sad and proud when they did.

For me at least, this is exactly the sort of thing blockbusters like Avatar are missing. They can have a watered-down story that explains itself at least once or twice to make sure everyone can keep up, or they can be visually stunning like a moving painting. Never both.

Hannes really hit the nail on the head when he said, after re-watching these with me the next day, that these mini-sodes, some less than ten minutes long, "are easily better than anything Hollywood has been putting out for years". 

For the most part, computer-generated graphics in films for both children and adults have stagnated and gotten lazy and cheap, and I've definitely complained about this before (see previous posts about beautiful Russian, Chinese, and Irish animation art). They're outsourced to Korea and Vietnam; this has become common practice even in Japan. Don't mistake my meaning, though: I'm sure pretty much every country is full of talented programmers, developers, animators, storyboard artists, and so on, it's just that there's not a lot you can do with poverty wages. Like in every other field, people can only expect so much when they're not willing to pay workers enough to survive on, much less enough to motivate them every day and keep them on the cutting edge of technological and creative development. It's all about profit. You'll find people who are willing to accept shit money to have a chance at doing what they love and to get a foot in the door. They'll be disappointed, maybe even despondent later, and eventually quit, but I mean, there will always be some guy or some girl 6 years their junior to start the whole process over again.

On top of all that, as anyone who has read this far must agree, most major Hollywood releases no longer even attempt to have anything resembling a meaningful plot or any character development. That was why I hated Avengers II: Age of UItron so much. 

The first one was fun! I really liked it! I overlooked the way the giant alien warship sea creature things blurred weirdly so that you couldn't distinguish anything anymore, because we've poured enough millions into this animation already, good enough, and whatever other relatively minor weaknesses it may have had. It's fine! It was very entertaining! Hulk smash!
I like when movies are fun and have explosions and look really cool! I also like looking at Tom Hiddleston when he's dark and damaged and drunk and kind of evil, and Ryan Gosling when he's the same way. Hand me that bottle of booze we snuck into the theatre on this carefree summer day, we're here to have us a good time.

But the second one? Well, it made no sense. It was like someone threw the concept and script and everything into a Slap Chop and made horrible confusing salsa out of it. 

Why are we in Korea again? Did anyone ever explain that? Why are we even bothering to use Joss Whedon, whose whole thing is witty dialogue and making you feel feels for even outrageous fantastical characters poking fun at themselves in campy silly situations, when we left time for exactly none of that? 
There are so many different characters zooming and flying and exploding around that each one got, like, 90 seconds of everything that didn't include those things listed above, such as being a person, or whatever. As much as possible, every scene or interaction or unnecessary cameo was an ad for another upcoming Marvel movie. 
And the coup de grâce: the flagrant sexism. Black Widow/Scarlett Johansson - who you probably know I hate in any role that is supposed to involve her acting and appearing to have feelings - is the only female Avenger, and has no superpowers. She's just a highly trained Russian assassin. Hmm.. Well, what can we do with her? She has neither feelings nor superpowers. Oh! Got it: put her in a romantic relationship with one of the male heroes, and then give her depth and conflict because she is unable to bear his offspring.

I am not even kidding. That is what fucking happened. I was absolutely livid and having a hard time sitting still in my seat through the whole thing.

Going back to Avatar, one of the best and simplest examples ever.. do I even need to explain anything? It's really pretty and entertaining, but god is it unoriginal and overrated. Perfectly humanoid aliens existing among perfectly Earthlike animals, except that everything is blue and has extra appendages. Corporatist military industrial complex come, oppress and kill blue people, take their land and resources. Greedy white men make money off suffering. Bad. Average guy realise trees good. Science lady also good. Fall in love. See people are equal, nature deserve respect. Good.

The one thing I have found to be overrated or a little questionable about any of the Love, Death, and Robots animated shorts, the only thing I would criticise a bit, three months later and with some perspective on the whole thing, is the seemingly universal popularity of Good Hunting.

This short also addresses social inequality, white colonialist oppression, misogyny, and even extreme sexual violence and predation, but it was very heavy-handed and overambitious, even among a neon sea of screaming monsters and overt sexuality. 
It was an anime-style short that also involved shapeshifting, Japanese mythology, dystopian retrofuturism, and steampunk. It was.. a bit much. Too many different popular tropes and themes were packed in, and it felt forced, and very orientalist. I kept seeing online that people were like, omg, I loved this one, SO amazingEh. Sorry. I basically liked it, but.. it was far from the best.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, it was not difficult for me to have an all-time favourite. 
One animated short was particularly profound, cerebral, and impactful, and I knew immediately after it was finished and my mind had been blown into space and my mouth was slightly ajar that it was the best one: it was Zima Blue.

I really wasn't sure how I felt about the animation style at first. Since I binged these it was so much stimulation so quickly, with no idea of what was coming my way next, you know? I actually said, "Oh," out loud, but quietly, since Hannes was already sleeping, when this ultra bold, sleek, simplistic woman with extra-long limbs appeared. It's by a British company called Passion Animation Studios.

This is fitting, because this is based on a short story by British science fiction author Alastair Reynolds. So is Beyond the Aquila Rift, actually. The collection of stories that includes these went on my reading list instantly.

But anyway, let me sum it up quickly: this woman is a journalist on her way to see an incredibly famous and renowned but reclusive artist, whose trademark is this shade of blue. It's not the colour of either the sea or the sky, not quite. 
She had been trying to nail down an interview with him for years, but he always turned her down, remaining ever enigmatic and blowing people away with his increasingly massive works and installations, while his background, meaning, and motives were always a mystery reduced to speculation and wild gossip. At this point it's been an extremely long time since he's spoken publicly and, for some reason, he has not only decided to make an announcement about his last-ever piece, but he's chosen to speak with her about it.

His murals were widely-loved and acclaimed, from the very beginning. 
Cosmic creation and destruction in large scale.

And then, to a chorus of audible gasps at its unveiling, this piece of blue appeared one day, in the dead center of one of them.

It stayed.

It keeps getting bigger, and more dominant. So do the murals. Notice the scale? Notice the silhouettes of the crowds? These things are the size of buildings.

One day, he unveils his most massive work yet, and to audible gasps once again, it is entirely zima blue. 

Oh, but wait. He's not done yet.

Holy shit.

But these giant flat panels, this format, he had taken it quite literally as far as structural engineering would allow. He expanded out into the cosmos..

.. to create glorious wonders of pure, ambient blue like this.

He is extremely, unnaturally tall. The journalist is nervous, but he welcomes her with a gentle yet completely confident voice to his home.

There are.. all kinds of rumours about why he looks like he does.

Illegal, back-alley body modification.

To his eyes, and to his skin, which is no longer human at all.

It allows him to tolerate extreme heat and cold with ease, like a machine. Physically, maybe he is more machine than man at this point. Other futuristic modifications that require some suspension of disbelief have allowed him to exist without breathing and processing oxygen. The point of all this?

A search for meaning.
A journey through the universe, but a solitary one. A journey of self-discovery.

He sees and experiences all there is to see in, as you may have guessed by now, an unnaturally long lifetime, and achieves a state of sort of ultimate self-realisation.

This is what he has come to explain to the journalist.

Once, a very long time ago, there was a very talented young robotics engineer.

She made all sorts of helpful little machines, as you can see, including a pool cleaner.

She added more appendages and censors so that it could clean better.

It became ever-more complex.

... And humanoid.

It was soon capable of many different tasks, and much like Robin Williams' character in Bicentennial Man, it was a servant, naturally outlived its creator, and changed owners however many times. It began to wonder why. It began to wonder of what it could be capable.

Now, we come to the unveiling of Zima Blue's final work: it is that swimming pool. He had it brought to his home, on that planet, piece by piece. Had it reinstalled there.

A massive crowd of celebrities and influencers and the wealthy and people from the art world all gather as the light of their smartphones and cameras illuminates their excited faces.

Zima Blue appears to uproarious applause, and under the intense gaze of these many thousands and millions of people, awaiting with bated breath his next mind-blowing creation, dives into the pool.

He begins to unmake himself.

While swimming graceful laps back and forth, his body literally comes apart. Panels, limbs, all of it breaks away. The crowd is confused, frightened, and their gasps are different this time.

Is this suicide? Is he publicly killing himself in front of all of these people?
Is it suicide if he's become more machine than man? 

No.. he never was a man. Or was he? He tells the journalist that he does not know when she steps back in shock at the revelation that he was the pool cleaner. He does not know exactly what he is, or why, but is comfortable with this. 

Everything breaks away, except for his original form, to which he has added just enough to enable what is left of his consciousness to appreciate his surroundings.

He returns to his peaceful existence of cleaning the pool and enjoying in a basic way its regular tiles and their lovely cool shade, his simple satisfying manual labour, because he has gone as far as he could go, achieved everything he could achieve, and realised everything there was to realise about himself as a highly-advanced, long-lived, intelligent, conscious being. The pool tiles are who he is.

And that's Zima Blue

I haven't read the book yet because I have a 2019 reading list I'm working my way through, but I'll let you know when I do. In the meantime, if you haven't watched this series, you're late to the party. It made me want to stand up and applaud.