Monthly Archives: September 2012

Questions about Pokémon: Blue Version

  1. Do the different versions represent alternate universes? Are these Red and Blue versions only a sliver on the vast rainbow of existence?
    1. Does each version represent a reality in which urban development endangered the habitats of variable species?
    2. If so, are humans the true Pocket Monsters?
  2. How do Potions work? They just spray on your Pokémon and somehow heal burnt, cut and frost-bitten flesh? Do they sting?
    1. How does a move named “Guillotine” cause only fainting? Perhaps Pokémon necks are especially resilient.
  3. How do Pokémon die, anyway? They obviously do: there’s an entire memorial tower dedicated to Pokémon corpses.
    1. Does everything become a Ghastly? Do humans become Ghost Pokémon if they lead really shitty lives?
      1. There is obviously some set of spiritual beliefs held by the people of Kanto. What is it? How do skeptics feel about the apparently confirmed existence of the paranormal?
  4. If Pikachu is the Mouse Pokémon, does that imply the existence of regular animals in Kanto? How can Pokémon be named after animals from our reality if those same animals didn’t at one point exist? Are there a bunch of normal animals hanging out in Kanto that everyone just ignores because they don’t shoot lightning?
    1. Are Pokémon an invasive species that killed all the regular animals by shooting lightning at them, probably?
  5. How do TMs and HMs work? So they’re compact discs? Are they DVDs? Do they fit into a portable DVD player and play instructional videos on how to use Fire Blast? Who is making these discs (Silph Co., probably?)?
  6. How are Pokémon converted into digital media? What is their file type? Do they retain virtual awareness? How does time pass inside a PC? Is it like Narnia? Do Pokémon live entire lives inside of Bill’s PC?
    1. A common question: what goes on inside a Pokéball? How does that work? If certain Pokémon enjoy certain types of balls more than others, does that mean that a regular Pokéball is sort of like a low-rent apartment?
  7. Why are Pokémon trainers in Pewter City so much worse than trainers in Fuschia? Was it providence that you just so happened to begin your journey in the perfect place to accommodate an ideal difficulty curve?
  8. Why doesn’t Team Rocket just shoot you with a gun? Aren’t they criminals?
    1. Did the existence of lethal creatures discourage military development? Do guns even exist? War?
  9. Why did it take three years for the sun to set in Kanto? Did everyone just shuffle around in a sleep-deprived daze spouting instructional information before that? Is nighttime a technological innovation in the Pokémon world?
    1. How can there be a Pokémon Daycare if there’s no distinction between night and day in the first place?
  10. Why is Kanto’s infrastructure so shitty? City limits are marked by gigantic Duplo blocks, transportation is restricted by a hegemony of HMs (which seem to be in scarce quantity) and vital trade routes are completely shut down by obese Pokémon and obstinate security guards (whose thirsts, however mighty, should not impede public good).
    1. Did Kanto lift an Isolationist policy between the first and second set of games? Where did that passage to Johto come from?
      1. A lot of change occurred in Kanto between Pokemons Blue/Red and Gold/Silver. Industrial revolutions are usually spurred by an initial discovery or innovation. Was there an influx of technology inherited from Johto? The gulf in technological sophistication between Kanto and Johto is enough to fuel a study of its own.
  11. Is Oak omniscient? More likely, has he bugged your Pokédex? How does he know when you’re attempting to ride a bike indoors? Why is it any of his business where you ride your own damn bike?
    1. Where do you keep that bike? In your backpack?
  12. If the Pokédex is already pre-loaded with a complete catalog of information on every Pokémon, why is it even necessary to “catch ’em all”? Is Professor Oak pulling your dick?
    1. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the Pokédex is a highly sophisticated piece of technology that observes and instantly records data on a Pokémon the moment you catch it. That seems doubtful, though.
  13. Why were you ever friends with Gary?
    1. Is it possible that you did something to deserve his loathing? Think.
      1. It’s probably your fault.
  14. Why does the population of Kanto suffer from a severe combination of tunnel vision and nearsightedness?
    1. Maybe it’s an unforeseen effect of Potion waste in the water system?
    2. Alternatively, maybe strict social norms are in place which prohibit breaking one’s line of vision.
  15. How do I get Mew?

Nothings adds up: Kanto is a strangely composed, sparsely populated world in which the central phenomenon, the Pokémon themselves, is presented without question. It’s like convincing science fiction.

Ditto

Or perhaps it is science fiction.

From beginning to end, Pokémon  revisits one motif: virtual reality. After an interview with Professor Oak, the player shrinks into an avatar. It’s cute, but what if your new form is more than a simple aesthetic touch? The world outside Pallet Town seems as if it was designed around Red’s success; life’s obstacles fold magically as you sweep the Pokémon League (a feat which absurdly stands as the objectively greatest achievement known to Kantokind) and foil the country’s only criminals. The digital and the biological flirt in a nonsensical fog. Occasionally, however, you are made privy to your fantasy’s underpinnings:  you trade.

The room is clinical, white. You’re unsettled to notice a familiar face sitting opposite the Exchange Module. It’s your own. Suddenly, before you materializes a cable and something called a Game Boy and everything makes sense. Playing Pokémon is to play a game about a player playing a game. You trade Magmar for Electabuzz.

After returning to the lobby of the Pokémon Center, the virtual entity known as Nurse Joy is oblivious to your epiphany. She can’t know that she beholds God.

You fire a knowing glance and mount your bike.

OAK:  PLAYER! This isn’t the time to use that!

You pedal hard.

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Project Silverscreen: Satire Edition

This week, Project Silverscreen is inspired by the video release of Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods. The originally intended subject was Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, but instead of prattling on like I have an inkling of authority on the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction, this week I focus on satire. It’s pretentious!

“Society is binding,” stoner-philosopher Marty posits to his archetypal friends as their RV rolls toward the Cabin of the titular Woods. “It’s filling in the cracks with concrete.” Like so much of Joss Whedon’s future occult classic, Marty’s reflections double as cushioned jabs at the complacent horror genre. Marty, a soothsaying fool in the Shakespearean sense, is the film’s voice of reason; he’s exhausted by humanity’s tropes and wants to give someone else a shot: “Society needs to crumble. We’re all just too chicken shit to let it.”

Yeah, much of what The Cabin in the Woods has to say about the state of horror echoes the groundwork laid out by 1996’s ScreamCabin’s creators aren’t regurgitating the same reflexive study for a new generation, though: while The Cabin in the Woods is an affectionate celebration of horror’s history, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s loaded dialogue and blunt metaphors offer a bleak premonition of the genre’s future and present a counterpoint to Marty’s own prescription of complete paradigm shift. The cycle of blood has churned for centuries: interrupting its flow could bring dire consequence. For example, colossal, eldritch hands might erupt from an arcane fissure and seriously devalue your vacation home.

See, it’s about this cabin in the woods. There are teenagers. You should watch it?

There’s a lot to love about The Cabin in the Woods. Unfortunately, its major twist is also commercial poison. The subtext and sub-terrain that lurks beneath its teen slasher packaging doesn’t translate well to a mass market. Scream, in addition to belonging to a generation of pop culture that was ostensibly more eclectic, had a stylish, sexy aesthetic that practically oozed from its poster, the residue of which would fuel an explosion of video sales, successful sequels and Ghostface masks. The Cabin in the Woods, left to collect dust on the Lionsgate shelf after its wrap in 2009, never had the benefit of shrewd marketing. In addition, its invigorating mélange of ideas can’t be summarized conveniently in a trailer; commercials for the film could only make vague allusions to its depth. One theatrical poster depicts the film as a Rubik’s cube. The Cabin in the Woods has many mysterious cracks on its facade; like a Rubik’s cube, it wouldn’t function without them.

“Filling in the cracks” is also a good way to describe America’s current aversion toward satire. Classically, satire–the boring, words-on-a-page type stuff including Voltaire’s Candide and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, dating all the way back to Petronius’s Satyricon–presents a world of fantasy undermined by the truths of reality. It’s a genre of comedy that’s all about the gaps: what is said and what is meant; the vehicle and the tenor. The Cabin in the Woods is a fun slasher where horror tropes are bandied about like razor blades in a 1970s Halloween bucket; it’s also, like Scream, a study of the genre’s formulaic tendencies; it pecks at the cash-grabbing cynicism of production companies like Lionsgate; and yet, it warns against recklessly abandoning these tested waters, a meditation on the commercial and human ramifications of eschewing the genre’s primal appeal. A considerable portion of Cabin‘s audience will only appreciate the first interpretation; another chunk will write it off entirely and groan that it “isn’t even scary.” When I talk about America’s aversion to satire, it’s that last, prevailing group I’m concerned with. Yeah, I’m talking about stupid people.

But not you, esteemed reader. Them.

So, you shouldn’t take offense to anything I’m about to say. Stupid people are ruining everything I love, including satire, and these are the reasons why:

Stop being so genuine. Sure, you can take everything at face value, say what you mean, act how you want to be treated and be a generally decent dope for the rest of your dim life. I’ll be first in line to steal your wallet and spit in your latté and you can bet I won’t be the last, because humanity is inherently awful. You don’t want spit in your latté? Spit in their latté. You know: Them. Those fucking hipsters that probably drink lattés.

To reflect your new, intellectual lifestyle, you need a new, intellectual pop culture. What better way to simultaneously expose your freshly gnarled core and silence Them into reverent submission than by completely betraying your previous musical tastes in favor of something harder to enjoy? Here’s a quick guide:

  1. Avoid “hooks” or “choruses” or “melodies.”
  2. Do you know of anyone who likes this artist or album? Does this artist or album have the capacity to be liked? Avoid.
  3. Abstract and incoherent lyrics imply that the listener inhabits an elevated mental plane. Imagist Ezra Pound once advised young writers to “go in fear of abstractions;” Ezra Pound doesn’t get your music. Warning: never offer your own interpretation of a song without first receiving and ridiculing another’s.
  4. Practice these phrases and try them out at the next social gathering:
    1. “Their new album is shit.”
    2. “Their old albums were better.”
    3. “I loved [album title] when it was new.”

Once you’ve calculated your taste, start drafting a new “taste profile” for next week. Avoiding definition is crucial: you are only consistent in your scathing hate for everything else. Don’t worry about contradicting yourself; critical thinkers will be too busy admiring your distracting mustache!

So, you’re a misanthropist now. You’ve extended the same wild scrutiny to every facet of your life and you’re simply miserable. Life has assumed a hoary pallor, alienated friends stare past you in glazed trances and your last living grandparent shuffled into 5 o’clock traffic to end your most recent phone conversation. You wake up at one o’clock PM and start drinking at noon. You spend half your waking hours groping a stolen fabric sample while conversing with an old Hieronymus Bosch poster. You begin to wish you could live inside that world with the other demons, blue skidoo right into its sanguinary hellscape and begin your penitence. You watch season three of Blue’s Clues instead. You won’t stop until you breach the underworld.

Bosch has some interesting ideas about flute storage.

In the purgatory of cable (an endless procession of Kitchen Nightmares and Charmed)you see a trailer for a movie. It’s called The Odd Life of Timothy Green and it looks delightful.

Does it?

The film is about a plant boy who sprouts from the discarded dreams of his barren mother and father. His cherubic smile pierces through your 19-inch TV and cleanses your being of impurity.

No.

As His eyes train directly upon your soul, they twinkle with enough radiant sincerity to dissolve forty thousand civilizations into Nirvana. He whispers the antidote to suffering, but His eyes are deafening. You wonder how light can be so noisome.

The boy is not his own.

You squint. He is hollow. Inside his skull, blazing spiders weave into and out of the blackened husk of a wailing infant. The flames consume their flesh as they consume the infant. Their excrement coats the orphan in new flesh. You blink.

The TV screen’s snow frosts the walls of your apartment. As you rise to your feet, the crunch of a half-eaten churro invigorates. Like an old friend, your bristling cynicism has returned. Timothy Green is cloying bullshit, and everyone needs to know. Quickly wrapping your emaciated, Hanes-draped shape in the nearest Snuggie, you burst into daylight, truth seeping from the taut corners of your elated grin.

Yes, Timothy Green is cloying bullshit contrived by cynical bastards for the sole purpose of robbing a naïve audience desperate for life affirmation. You wouldn’t have it any other way.

Somewhere in California, a single tear navigates the tan crags of Dick’s cheek. The Disney executive exhales wistfully.

“You’re welcome.”

***

That brings me to my third point:

There is no problem.

Satire isn’t meant to be universally perceived. Historically, it’s a loophole created to express opinions that you’d never dare to shout from your soapbox. A work can’t be good satire if everyone can parse its meaning. When Mark Twain penned Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it was Huck’s “unsivilized” antics that captured the American audience (composed of both admiring children and disgusted adults), not Clemens’s sly commentary on race, religion, and Southern values. Gulliver’s Travels sailed off the shelves instantly after publication, but not for its critique of humanity: it was adventurous, silly and written as travel literature, a colossally popular genre. Although the savvy reader or viewer may pick up on a comedy’s satirical themes and allegories, most are in it for the poops and farts. Who’s to say which interpretation is more satisfying?

It’s sort of like the fictional country from that book, Utopia: life seems ginchy until you realize everything runs on slavery. A universe of uniformly cynical assholes would be insufferable and just as creatively oppressive as this realm’s infatuation with innocuous schlock like the Timothies Green and Troubles with the Curves. Satire is culture’s big in-joke; it’s okay if you or someone you know isn’t into it. A distaste for satire doesn’t make an individual stupid; in fact, they’re probably more in touch with reality and better equipped to feed and groom themselves. If you are a lover of satire, congratulations: expect to be routinely misunderstood. Don’t sweat it. Just sit back, dim the lights and fire up that Cabin in the Woods commentary track for the third time.

Society will take care of itself.

Art, Again: Revisiting the Bebop and Exploring the Value of Reacquaintance

In a previous post (alternatively, five posts ago; it’s a bit dated. Remember what you were wearing back then? Hilarious.), I touched lightly upon the importance of Cowboy Bebop in terms of its influence on my early, gestating taste in entertainment. After recently devouring Shinichiro Watanabe’s sophomore Samurai Champloo over an embarrassingly brief period, my id turned its ravenous gaze toward Bebop. Before it decked my super-ego, yoinked my debit card and hopped on Amazon to buy the box set, I had a moment of hesitation: did I really want to defile a childhood sanctuary? After all, excluding Cabin in the Woods and pizza, nothing is better the second time around. The diminishing return is a fact of life, so we might as well all tie off and assume the fetal position until death delivers our haggard husks to that big, ol’ Womb in the Sky, right? Should I have left Bebop in the same keepsake box where All That and Space Jam gather dust? Do I believe the Bebop can fly?

Come on and slam; if you want to jam. But do you really?

Yeah. It soars. It sputters somewhere short of the dizzying heights from my memory, but that in itself is an interesting avenue: how does our reverence for old favorites warp with time, and how can returning to a treasured piece enhance our appreciation in new ways?

If you’re unacquainted, the conceit of Cowboy Bebop is this: in the year 2071, space is a young frontier. Efficient space travel technology has enabled the human race to spread to every corner of the solar system. That means colonialism and capitalism tag along, too: the boundless mystique of Bebop’s universe is thanks to a vision of the future that’s never excessively futuristic. Building and vessel design can be conservative, rustic, cheap, traditional or even tacky, but it’s never sleek. While the year 2071 gets closer and closer and the innovation of the warp gate is still squarely in the realm of sci-fi, the plausibility of Bebop’s world is what keeps us invested when we discover that the protagonist’s name is Spike Spiegel, that his crew mate, Faye Valentine, like a sensual Doug Funny, really does wear that ridiculous outfit every episode or that the enigmatic antagonist is a man named Vicious who wields a katana and an imposing, black parakeet. Yeah, for every few moments of brilliance in Bebop, you’ll have to make a couple of concessions. This was Adult Swim’s flagship anime title when it launched in 2001: there is a deliberate injection of pulpy “whoa-dudery” to seal the deal on the 12 to 18 to 24 nerd demographic. That doesn’t mean it isn’t awesome, though.

Because leaning against walls is cool.

Plot-wise, our first meeting with the kernel of the Bebop crew, Spike and the comically-monikered pilot, Jet Black, blasts into action with little background information supplied to the viewer. It’s a true example of in medias res, starting the story after the story starts, and more than that: it’s smart writing. Like many anime dubs, Cowboy Bebop occasionally leans too heavy on expository dialogue (dialogue that plainly explains plot; telling rather than showing) when it comes to rolling out the microcosmic narratives of each stand-alone episode, but the histories and motives of Spike, Jet, Faye and Ed are handled with a minimalist touch. For example, the first episode, “Asteroid Blues,” winds up with a short, stylish mélange of monochrome images from Spike’s past: a poignant music box tune underlies flashes of gunfire. The tension between muted sensory input (sound, color) and violent action perfectly summarizes Cowboy Bebop’s style in a matter of seconds: this is a show unafraid to take Zen-like pauses between furious bouts of chaos, that trusts its viewer to assemble pieces that aren’t always connected or even provided. It’s a show that may seem superficial and often is, but consistently challenges the viewer to dig beneath its thick layer of “cool”: the show’s living embodiment of “cool,” Spike, may move and speak with the fluidity of water, but there is a gritty bed of history underneath his collected exterior that promises to surface; one day, that stream is going to dry completely.

Growing up, I only caught obscured glances at that riverbed. Mere intimations of Spike’s past combined with breakneck action and artful direction were enough to fascinate my adolescent (and admittedly, completely superficial) mind. Spike was the kind of empowerment fantasy I could get behind: he isn’t a musclebound hero, he doesn’t always triumph, but he’s wry and intelligent; he’s the sort of guy I probably hoped to become, as a nerdy kid full on A’s but low on athletic or social skills. That’s the appeal of Cowboy Bebop for many. It’s always cool and we usually aren’t.

In “Mushroom Samba,” even blaxploitation gets a send-up.

Fortunately for adult viewers, Cowboy Bebop isn’t satisfied with just being cool. After the breathless “Asteroid Blues,” I didn’t expect that the proceeding 25 episodes would be packed with significance. Genre pastiches, direct homages, potent social themes, loaded imagery, existential philosophy: Bebop deftly combines these subjects and more in a  performance that is constantly refreshing and feels, like the best jazz, miraculously improvised. “Toys in the Attic” takes cues from Alien, playing out its absurd situation with surprising suspense; the shootout in “Ballad of the Fallen Angels” lovingly mimics the choreography of a John Woo film; “Hard Luck Woman” finds orphan Ed abandoned once again by her absentee father; “Sympathy for the Devil” is haunted by the demons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; “Brain Scratch” draws a clear distinction between intellectual skepticism and bitter nihilism.

I didn’t understand, in 2002, that the story Jet tells to Spike in “The Real Folk Blues Part One” is actually “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” a short story by Ernest Hemingway. It’s a story concerned with reflection. In Hemingway’s story, a big game hunter in South Africa succumbs to gangrene and looks back on a life spent wandering. Despite his concise retelling, Jet admits he doesn’t care for the story, finding the idea that a man only thinks “about [his] past right before [his] death, as if [he is] searching frantically for proof [he is] alive,” ridiculous. Jet may have missed the mountain for the rocks here, but he has a point. We’re always reflecting; every time we seek to improve we are subconsciously evaluating the past. If art imitates life, we should display the same discernment with the pop culture we consume. Dig deep into art, excavate meaning and discard the meaningless. Sharpening your skill as a critic will only increase the joy you extract from worthwhile entertainment.

Broaden your interests. Never stop learning. Never be passive. Maybe watch Cowboy Bebop if you haven’t.

In the immortal words of R. Kelly: believe you can fly.

Bang.

Project Silverscreen: Chinatown

This week, Project Silverscreen tackles Chinatown, the 1974 Roman Polanski noir masterpiece starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. Well, “tackles” is a little inaccurate. Chinatown is barely scuffed.

I enjoyed Chinatown immensely. It’s a tightly-plotted, gritty, occasionally shocking piece of intrigue. I just don’t have much to say about it and I’m not interested in writing a conventional review. I could have compared it to a milder noir pioneer such as The Maltese Falcon or discussed the gutting twist ending, but instead I wrote some bad Jack Nicholson fan fiction. Enjoy:

“Ha,” Chinatown-era Jack Nicholson laughed mentally in his head as he gulped a big swig of his favorite alcohol and swallowed it, savoring every liquid drop. “This will cure my sobriety.”

The tiny drinking glass clinked like a solid object meeting another one that is just as solid; he had emptied it and placed it on the table. Along with the glass dropped his burden, although this did not cause a sound because it was metaphorical.

“I’m too old for this shit,” Jack growled grumpily and audibly. He was probably around 37 and had just finished shooting some of the hardest acting of his life. He felt the area of his face where his nose had been bandaged just hours ago: the application of the bandage had scared him; it was all too real and made him frightened for his nose. As he acted his character with the expertise of a chameleon, he felt Jack Nicholson begin to slip and this new soul, this oft-hatted fellow with the damaged proboscis, slip in the opposite direction. It slipped into his brain. Sometimes Jack would stare thoughtfully at various personal effects–pictures of children and dogs and wives–to regain his sanity. “I’m feeling pensive,” Jack explained loudly to no one, wanting only to hear his own voice and not the nasally one of this encroaching, bandaged persona. The pension was palpable.

Suddenly, a boom. It was a woody boom like that of a door being knocked upon. In a startled panic, he knocked his glass from the table and caused an even louder sound.

“Of course,  that’s just like me. Making loud noises.” Amused by this personal quirk, Jack accompanied another mental laugh with a visible grin.

Another boom: it dawned on him like the morning sun: that woody boom shared the exact tenor of his acting trailer’s own door!  Acting fast, he sailed o’er an obstacle and quickly reached the knob to that very door. Sweat collected on his knob-turning palm like a pool of growing anticipation. Without any input from his anxious hand, the knob began to turn and the door accordingly opened.

The man who figuratively greeted Jack on the other side seemed to hail from the land of fairies because he was thin. He dressed normally.

“Hello, Jack,” this very same man squealed, this time greeting him literally.

“Hi,” Jack responded colloquially.

The thin man smiled at the easygoing, casual nature of their rapport. “Do you know who I am, Jack?”

“Did Faye put you up to this?” Faye Dunaway was Jack’s costar in Chinatown. She enjoyed practical jokes. He did a mind chuckle again when he thought of her previous, entertaining hijinx. He imagined her naked.

“You are a dull boy, aren’t you?” the thin man humorously referenced The Shining. The reference was anachronistic. “Who is the one person in this world who knows intimately the extent of your misery? Who knows of your secret fear of acting too well? Of your penchant for making loud noises?”

“Jesus Christ,” Jack blasphemed. “You’re me.”

The thin man nodded: “From the future.” It was only then that Jack realized the familiarity of the enigmatic man’s squint. It was really uncanny and, in retrospect, pretty hard to miss. “I jog in the mornings, also,” the thin man added, explaining  his only defining trait.

“Why are you here?” Jack reasonably inquired, expecting exposition. The man chortled or snarled; Jack had never learned the distinction.

“What if I told you that your fears aren’t unfounded, Jackie? That you really are too good at acting; that your expert pretending actually fooled the fabric of reality into synthesizing an entirely new being? That this,” he paused to chortle again, “ungodly parasite knows your sleaziest growls, your narrowest squints, and seeks to employ them in your destruction? What if I continued to tell you that I’m here to deliver a crucial message?”

“This monster I’ve created: does he have a name?”

“Christian Slater.”

“And the message?” Jack bent down to pick up his glass from the trailer floor because it had fallen previously.

The envoy smirked coolly and produced sunglasses from his clothes. He put them on his face, obscuring his eyes. “I’m him.”

A series of metal bangs issued from Christian Slater’s rightmost hip. Bullets sailed forth into all of Jack’s vital organs. One of them blew off his nose, symbolically. “I guess I really am too good,” Jack grinned like a complete badass as he bled a lot. Christian Slater left and made Heathers and The Wizard.

As color drained from Jack’s face onto the white carpet, he lost himself in the prismatic depths of the overturned drinking glass and recognized the sunlit face of a beaming child.

Next week: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Project Silverscreen: Requiem for a Dream

According to Webster’s New World Dictionary (1976; the bicentennial edition):

Re•qui•em (rek′wê ∂m, râk’-, rêk’-) n. [ME. < L., acc. of requies, rest (see RE- & QUIET): first word of the Introit in the Latin Mass for the Dead] [also r-] 1. R.C.Ch. a) a Mass for the repose of the soul or souls of a dead person or persons b) a celebration of this c) a musical setting for this 2. any musical service, hymn, or dirge for the repose of the dead 3. a dirgelike song, chant, or poem

You know what it is! …is not the new slogan for Project Silverscreen, a sometimes belated weekly feature that takes a look at a classic film and vaguely nods, but not before displaying some words on your screen. Maybe read them, because someone in 2012 went to the effort of locating and transcribing a physical dictionary for the sake of authenticity.

Stop smiling, ma. It’s not that kind of movie.

No matter where Requiem for a Dream starts, you can be certain it won’t end up anywhere sunny and verdant. The title promises this much. In a twisted way, however, the whole damned ensemble of Darren Aronofsky’s seminal downer does fulfill their deepest wish. Just as last week’s film, The Graduate, ends on a long, pensive look at the ebbing adrenaline of its eloping couple, Requiem lingers on four similar, sequential images. After twenty, largely dialogue-free minutes of escalating horror, an overhead shot resolves each of the four primary characters’ narratives with one idea: at the nadir of their lives, these victims have achieved absolute anesthesia. If you’ll indulge some freshman-level psychoanalysis for a moment (it’s the kind I’m best at), Requiem for a Dream’s ending is a classic return to the womb.

One ideal–freedom from emotional pain and external oppression–is the sanctuary everyone seeks inside and beyond Aronofsky’s film. Sara Goldfarb hopes to find it by earning celebrity, a commodity that she fantasizes will nullify her son’s dismal life and her husband’s death. Harry Goldfarb, his girlfriend Marion and his partner Tyrone have less distance to fall: obligations flit from awareness as soon as they pass out of sight; their only concern is scrounging up the cash to accommodate the next trip. Infantilism, the way our recollection of infancy surfaces within our personality, is the name of the game for the dreamers: drugs are the “good mother” of Freudian theory, a constant embrace that protects them from harsh reality, the “bad mother” of responsibility and hardship, an amalgamation of all their discomfort. Much of Freud’s work has fallen out of favor, but the idea of the “splitting” of the mother, a consequence of traumatic mothering, still resonates. Considering how Freud’s criticism informs the ill motivations of Requiem for a Dream, it’s difficult not to imagine the addicts’ needle as a debilitating teat–maybe on a super cold day.

Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst not quite as famous but just as foundational, offers another understanding of infant psychology and, tangentially, the infantile adults of the picture. Lacan presents human development as a journey through several worlds. Lois Tyson, in Critical Theory Today, provides a succinct outline: we are inaugurated in fog, not perceiving where one’s self ends and the exterior world begins; after Lacan’s Mirror Stage (estimated at approximately six to eight months) we develop a sense of self as if examining our physical boundaries in a mirror and the fog begins to lift; the Mirror Stage begins our existence in Lacan’s second world, the Imaginary Order. Tyson describes the Imaginary Order as a “world of fullness,” a complete and satisfying union with the mother where the Desire of the Mother is the single determining factor, the last word in contentedness. The Imaginary Order is, as far as the infant can tell, a perfect existence. It’s our first benchmark for quality of life and, unfortunately, nothing afterward compares. We learn language, we develop meaning; we learn what it means to be separated from perfection forever. The Symbolic Order comes along, mucks everything up and forms the prison from which we’ll try to escape every day of our lives.

We were talking about a movie, right? There’s a whole lot of Lacan in Requiem for a Dream, some bits more blatant than others. Mom is everywhere: Tyrone gazes wistfully at a photograph of his own mother throughout the film; Harry and Marion futilely seek perfect companionship in each other; Sara, Harry’s own forgotten mother, grasps at old times and an old dress which is tinted with the rose color of nostalgia. It’s important to note that Sara also clings to a photo of Harry’s graduation that features Harry, departed husband Seymour, Sara and the red dress; although Sara presents the moment captured in this photograph as the height of her own happiness, the Harry in the photo isn’t smiling. From the moment we are initiated into the Symbolic Order, lack is a fact of life. We are never without that emptiness, even in our best moments.

Requiem for a Dream isn’t a cautionary tale warning against the dangers of drug addiction. Drugs are simply a convenient, universal, modern day substitute for Gatsby’s Daisy (or, more recently, Spike Spiegel of Cowboy Bebop and his Julia). They are the ensemble’s objet petit a, Lacan’s term for, as Tyson puts it, “anything that puts [them] with [their] repressed desire for [their] lost object” (that object being, of course, the mother of the Imaginary Order). The various drugs of Requiem for a Dream are used as opiates to distract from a bleak present and fading future.

Toward the end of Aronofsky’s film, Harry revisits a dream from earlier. He stands on a sunlit pier suspended over blue ocean. It is a rare scene in Requiem, one saturated with light and luscious colors; we know it can’t be real.  Harry casts his eyes toward the pier’s end where Marion waits with back turned. As she turns around, he stumbles back, engulfed in darkness. Marion, the pier, the ocean dissipates. That lack comes creeping back. As our fallen friends assume the fetal position, we get the feeling they have finally earned their permanent place in placebo paradise.

Next up: Chinatown