Film

The Bebop Sessions 03: Ballad of Fallen Angels

I would have given up on Bebop if it weren’t for Ballad of Fallen Angels. I changed my mind the moment the church organ blared across the purple sunset above a crumbling gothic cathedral. The beginning of the third act finds Spike, hands stuffed in his large overcoats pockets, walking up the cobblestone street to the lyrics of Yoko Kanno’s ‘Rain’. A woman sings.

I don’t feel a thing
and I stopped remembering.
The days are just like moments turned to hours.

Rain’s vocals are provided by Kanno-collaborator Mai Yamane. Yamane’s voice fills the air over a scene intercut with the silhouette of a silver-haired figure resting on one of the cathedrals broken stone pillars, a katana leaning against his shoulder.

Mother used to say
If you want you’ll find a way.
But mother never danced through fire showers.

As he approaches the entrance, Spike’s footsteps echo into the high ceilings. They betray his presence to the man sitting in wait. Spike is walking back into his past.

Walk in the rain, in the rain, in the rain
I walk in the rain, in the rain
Is it right or is it wrong?
And is it here that I belong?

The bounty hunter stops in the vestibule at the beginning of the rows of pews. Footsteps echo around him and the camera points down the stairs leading to the altar cast in black below. A demon ascends from hell. The scene is so stylish, so beautifully directed that you might not notice that not a single drop of water has fallen from the sky.

Bebop’s fifth episode opens as Mao Yenrai, capo of the Red Dragons, is betrayed moments after signing a peace treaty with the head of a rival syndicate. Their contract, sworn in blood, was rendered void as the new allies ship exploded on takeoff and Yenrai’s own guard lies in pools of their own blood. The silver haired man steps over their corpses. Yenrai pleads with him that the violence has to end for the syndicate to survive. His pleas end as the blade slides from under his chin and his blood hits the floor. Yenrai gasps ‘If Spike were here, you would never have done this.’ An impossibly large smile breaks across the silver haired man’s face.

Ballad of Fallen Angels may not be the heaviest story in the series, but it is certainly more serious than the ones that preceded it.

A 28M woolong bounty on Mao Yenrai for killing the head of the rival syndicate catches the attention of the Bebop crew. For the first time in the series, there’s disagreement about pursuing the money, and Jet’s hesitance conflicts with his usual stoicism. Of course, the stack of credits cloud Faye’s judgment and she leaves, looking to collect.

A performance of Ave Maria foreshadows the events that will transpire at the cathedral. Ushered to a private box at the theater, Faye meets Mao’s pale corpse and a whisper in the ear. Turning wide-eyed, she comes face to face with the silver-haired man staring at the performance on stage. He gives his name: Vicious. If is name is supposed to represent who we are, that one’s a bullseye.

MysteryManlargeSpike’s return to the past puts him in the newsstand with the motherly Annie, a photo of her revealing ties to Mao. She arms him and he toasts to Yenrai’s name. There’s a third man in the photo that we see one time, with a familiar long face and grey hair.

As important as this episode is to me, I have to admit that the chunking up in the second act brings it down. The attempt to balance the burden of each scene as they introduce the backstory and characters ends up spreading few story points over too long a time.

With the reveal of Spike’s past, his partnership with The Black Dog becomes exponentially more interesting. Spiegel pulls ammo and grenades from throughout the ship as Jet chides him for getting sucked back in. A call from Faye brings friction between the two.

And so Rain falls. Spike stands across Vicious in the old church.

VICIOUS

When angels are forced out of heaven, they become demons. You agree, don’t you Spike?

SPIKE

I’m just watching a bad dream I never wake up from.

VICIOUS

I’ll wake you up. Right now.

The exchange is one of the most lyrically beautiful I can recall this side of a Dashiell Hammet novel, and Spike’s opening line alludes to the existential motif that runs throughout Bebop.

The direction in this scene is powerful, as Spike draws his pistol to find Faye held as gunpoint. The music rises as we stare at a shot of Spike sighting down the barrel, his eye square above it. This one angle communicates everything we need to know about what Spike’s doing, but also shows his dispassioned, determined mental state. Rain’s church organ crescendos and Spike pulls the trigger.

Then all fucking hell breaks loose. Consider the expert composition of the unfolding scene. Suddenly, men pop up from under the benches, from behind columns, and on top of balconies. The music gone, all we have is the staccato of gunfire emptying clips and the concussive blast of the grenades. The animation is fast, fluid and expressive and the church is ripped to shreds.

A massive stained glass window frames a stalemate at the end of the battle, a heart-gripping shot of the barrel of Spikes gun against Vicious shoulder, the tip of his own sword against Spiegel’s. The two men staring into each other’s eyes, there’s a look approaching happiness painted on their faces.

VICIOUS

(calm)

You should see yourself. Do you have any idea what you look like right at this moment, Spike?

SPIKE

What?

VICIOUS

A ravenous beast. The same blood runs through both of us. The blood of a beast who wanders, hunting for the blood of others.

SPIKE

I’ve bled all that kind of blood away.

VICIOUS

(yelling)

Then why are you still alive?

Vicious stabs. Spike fires. It’s slick. Vicious lives up to his name by grabbing Spike by his face, cracking a smile bigger than his mouth and throwing him through the stained glass window.

The next minute is a complete tonal shift. Green Bird, a piano lullaby set to hollow, ephemeral vocals, stitches together a quick-cutting scene that alternates between Spike’s fall and his past reflected in his red iris. Each shot is stylish, exaggerated by the color filters and the minimalism of the onscreen actions.

COWBOY BEBOP SPIKE SIGHTWhat we see is Spike, Vicious and a tall, strong and confident blonde woman. We also see clips of the firefight that had opened the series’ first episode: the rain, the flashing muzzles, the bloody tear, the torn letter and the rose, all washed in cold blue. But we’re given more. Spike and Vicious fighting back to back, Vicious and the woman at a poolhall, a small clean apartment and a gun pointed at a blonde head all cast in a warm orange hue. The color palette differentiates the two flashbacks- when things were good in Spike’s life and after drama turned the lives of all three. The sequence ends with an injured Spike stumbling through the night streets and her walking from a building. He collapses on his face and wakes in her care and to her song. She looks him over and he says through his bandages “Just like that. Sing for me, please.” She smiles.

Spike wakes from his dream, wrapped head to toe in bandages back on the Bebop to a familiar humming. Faye reads next to him. She looks curiously over him and says he should be grateful to her for staying with him the last two days. He motions her over and manages a few words through the pain: “You sing off key.” Her face contorts in anger. Parallels between the two main women in Spike Spiegel’s life have been connected, his priorities to one have been made explicit.

There’s another version of Rain, identical save for one fact. It’s sung by Steve Conte. The two renditions speak to themselves in the moment, to each other across space.

Walk in the rain, in the rain, in the rain.
I walk in the rain, in the rain.
Why do I feel so alone?
For some reason I think of home.

See you space Cowboy…

Part 02- Freestylin’

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Fiction

The Chromatic Graft Part 2

a continuing Ariel Moxie EP

Ariel Moxie jolted awake in a fit of rage. Her heart jackhammered against her rib cage and her nails dug into her palms. It had been months since her last attack and she wasn’t expecting one now, not with the peace she’d felt the last few days.

Desperation shot her hand to her right ear lobe. She clicked in the back of the speaker in her plug and ‘Rumble’ blasted in the small room. After spinning the dial on the underside to turn down the volume, she held her left lobe for three seconds until the harps played. Salvation was close because ‘Maelstrom’s Lullaby’ played. Her thumb found the right volume.

The two channels of the song played separately at the outer edges of her mind. Deep breaths, she told herself. She filled her diaphragm and slowly blew it out her nose, focusing on the music and trying to calm herself. Deep breaths. Too bad she couldn’t deal with the rage like she dealt with pain. It held on, wouldn’t let her just shake it off. The sounds moved in space, came together at the center of her brain and brought her mind into focus. Now that she had regained control, Ariel’s heartbeat slowed, harmonizing to the music. She released her mind, let it search deeper for the calm in the storm on its own. It brought her down further, thankfully to a happy thought. The Bassline had been drifting on the open water, the waves lightly bobbing the stern up and down. They had stopped to catch lunch. A fish was on the onboard grill sprinkled with capers. Ariel and Nick danced in the warm sunlight.

‘Freestyle’ played. They were several feet apart. Nick was shuffling his feet but soon he was hop-steppin’ to the left and to the right. Ariel opened her large mouth and laughed, clapping her hands to spur him on. He bopped his head forwards and back, pivoted around in circles, making his way towards her. She wrapped her hands around his neck, her fingers interlocking at the scruff of his hair. His hands went to her hips. They shimmied back and forth, their eyes smiling into the others. He pulled her close and raspberry’d her cheek.

Ariel giggled at the time and heard it echo in her room now.

She pushed off his chest. Nick grabbed her hand, held it over her head and pirouetted her away. She turned on her music and found her selection. The transmitters in their plugs shook hands, sending data back and forth. The two sets of speakers pulsed and the tracks fused together. The composition combined into ‘Freestyle Rumble’. The electronic system Ariel had created combined with Nick’s musical compositions allowed them to anticipate the other; that was a crucial product of its design. Nick knew Ariel’s moves and Ariel knew Nick’s. They were in sync. Ariel weaved in and out, moving her arms to the rhythm. Nick skated backwards, opening his palm to her in acknowledgement. Ariel danced. Nick grooved. The sun shone. The fish burned.

Gradually, the memory and then the melody receded from Ariel’s mind. She fell asleep with Lullaby hanging in the room and didn’t notice the slight constricting sensation running down her arms.

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Fiction

The Chromatic Graft Part 1

a Nick Beat EP

Nick Beat lounged on the edge of the second story fire escape, his black wing-tipped shoe dangling into the space above the small alley, lost in the embrace of the music. The guitars of ‘The Piston Falcons’ bounced off the low-rent industrial Japanese buildings, letting their geometry create a chaotically reflected soundtrack to the electricity in the night air. The skylanes above were buzzing with flyers, the running lights on their undercarriage streaking a pastiche of neon blues and yellows across the sky. All his weight propped up by his left arm, he started flicking his foot when the guitars burst into drums. ‘Falcons’ was executing on one of the functions Nick had designed it for: he was getting pumped for the task ahead.

From his place on the darkened rail, Nick had a clear angle through the window of the small office across the alley, his eyes solely on the cabinet prominently in its frame. A balding man sat at a tidy desk and Nick watched him slip a large wad of money into a bank deposit bag and put it and a stack of paper in a briefcase he lifted from the floor. Checking his watch, the man stood, singled out a key on the ring, grabbed the case and his coat, and walked out the door.

When it shut, Nick started tapping his finger, each beat landing exactly one second apart. Thirty eight taps later, another door at the base of the building opened and the moneyman stepped through. He passed a pile of black shiny trash bags on his way out to the street.

Nick hopped over the railing and slid down the drain running to the ground. He gathered the trash bags underneath the window and wedged the pistol he’d been keeping at his beltline underneath.

Beat was ready. He walked around to the entrance as ‘The Piston Falcons’ entered its last period, his steps hitting bap bap bap babap bap, bap bap bap babap bap, bap bap bap babap bap and rapped on the unmarked metal door with the back of his knuckle clack clack clack clacklack clack. He stood there a second before realizing what he’d done. He clicked the back of the plug in his right earlobe and the music from the speaker in the front cut. For the first time since Nick Beat strut in, silence settled over the alley.

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Film

Loss Prevention Private Investigator

A short piece I wrote for the Media Arts Center San Diego’s three part workshop on producing short films, under the supervision of the very talented Nate Riedel.

I have to say I’m really impressed by what the team was able to create in only a few three hour classes. It’s got a noir style and playfulness of tone that I imagined as I was writing but expressed better than I had. The choice to shoot in black and white solidified the concept.

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Film

The Priceless Canvas Called Fujiko Mine

 

When Fujiko Mine first stepped onto the scene in Lupin III’s ‘Mystery Woman’, she knocked the master thief on his ass. She used her wits to best his plans, see through his disguises and utilized her ample feminine virtues to charm the arrogant womanizer into giving her everything she wanted. To celebrate the anniversary of Monkey Punch’s manga, ‘Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine’ reimagines and updates the classic from her violent, sexy perspective, adding life to the series in ways unseen since the original hand drawn pages. Like the machine gun blonde beauty, the show is a healthy, vibrant form on a 40 year old body.

Cease what you are doing and gaze at me. Stop everything save for the throwing of your heart.

Much has happened in the decades since Lupin was first put into print and after hundreds of stories, numerous series and dozens of theatrical films, our rogue’s red coat was starting to fray at the hem. Many of Lupin’s adventures featured the unabashed nudity found in M. Punch’s work but few could capture its tawdry, dirty sexuality and Lupin’s borderline sexual predator proclivities. Part of that can be chalked up to the changing of The Times. What was passable in the seventies wasn’t in the nineties and is even more dangerous now. So the tiger was defanged, and turned into a kitten batting at string. The solution was to come at it from a different angle.

Fujiko is a stellar choice. The first Lupin release to be headed by a woman, director Sayo Yamamoto’s sophomore burlesque ran a colorful brush down the curves of our Lady Looter’s brash and confident canvas to paint the most sensual and feminine character portrait this side of Leiji Matsumoto. Ms. Mine will think nothing of disrobing to seduce a weak man or use her lips to poison a strong one.

In The Woman Called Fujiko, sex is free and alive one moment and manipulative and depraved in the next. There’s a frank openness here, a striking layer of honesty under a mound of dirt that doesn’t often pull its punches. Check out the sexually charged, surprisingly dark episode ‘Prison of Love’ to see how far this shows willing to go and what it’s willing to do to get there.

Reimagining meant reintroduction. By acting as the central force that brings the cunning Lupin together with the stoic gunslinger Daisuke Jigen and the honorable samurai Goemon Ishikawa as they elude Interpol’s Inspector Zenigata, Fujiko is witness to the relationships that developed between each and the versatility of content their archetypes bring to the table. Equally fascinating is the ways in which their individual personalities have been expanded out. I mean crap, Zenigata’s no longer the defacto heel but a smart, slightly bent cop more obsessed with capturing Lupin than administering justice.

From the severe shadows to thick lined pencilwork, the entire production is rendered with stylistic flair that impossibly captures the original illustrative panel work. The compositions are fresh and new while realizing the slick and lurid voice that’s been missing from the series since its hand drawn pages. I’m not sure if it’s the shading lines or the intentional choppy frames or the occasional hyper accentuated details but the animations look like they fell out of a worm hole from the nineteen seventies. This is where I say it’s probably all those elements. It’s beautiful and sketchy and harsh and clean and abstract. The art design goes a long way to communicating the twisted fantasy version of real life in which it’s set but no ordinary people exist.

LUPIN THE THIRD- THE WOMAN CALLED FUJIKO MINEIt’s a fantasy birthed from European espionage films and French cartoons. Its aesthetic texturing allows the thirteen episodes to wildly differ from one to the next while retaining an integrity of tone. It easily jumps from Cold War paranoia to eastern mysticism to fine arts to science fiction to political drama without dropping a beat. It’s got lost treasure and megalomaniacal villainy and doped-up cults and masked phantoms and a Che Guevara stand-in. All that’s missing are the space westerns.

Yamamoto’s direction is top notch. Aside from a few moments that seem sloppy in comparison, the imagery always properly communicates the action and dramatizes the visual cues. It’s Cowboy Bebop via Fooly Cooly. It’s a bombastic and electric visual expression that only anime has ever achieved and that chaos cinema can aspire to but will never realize.

It’s not surprising given a legacy so long reaching that even Bebop, inarguably the pinnacle of human creation, was more than a little influenced by it. That Bebop’s creative backbone, Shinichiro Watanabe, is credited as Music Producer is the universe clearing its debts. Lupin’s music is great: it’s varied, appropriate for the context and playfully composed. Watanabe is joined by Takeshi Koike as character designer and head animator, whose Redline is a sensory Big Bang. The shows got chops and I’m not talking about the ones tacked onto Senor Tres’ face.

If there’s anything disappointing about The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, it’s in the episodes that bookend its progression. While never bad, the first ventures into the absurd when Lupin rides a giant narcotics statue strapped to rockets. The progression also chunks up in the final third when it focuses its narrative on a central thread and every episode starts blurring into the next, expecting you to remember specific details from the beginning that seemed innocuous at the time. As a friend observed, it changes from being a show into a film. But that sweet spot in the middle? So so good.

But it deserves credit for how it distills her relationship with the men in her life to their basic compounds. The bandit looking to steal her, the sharpshooter trying to keep her at arm’s length, the samurai who wants to earn her and the inspector who thinks he already has. The series also introduces the young Oscar as Zenigata’s loyal lieutenant. He doesn’t perfectly blend into the cast, but Oscar’s well defined and his animosity towards our heroine properly balances the ensembles dynamic. The Lupin/Fujiko chemistry is easily the most interesting of the lot; a master thief who steals for the thrill and the Femme Fatale who would gladly drape herself in nothing but jewels. One is the pleasure of getting, the other the pleasure of having.

Little boy there is nothing more I can steal from you. You’ve long been an empty shell, just as I have.

Though men dominate the cast, Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is ultimately a story about women through a woman’s eyes. It knows that they can be beautiful, they can be ugly, they can be caring and hateful. Clad in gold, guns and heels Fujiko Mine is a woman who knows who she is and what she wants and won’t let Man, Woman or God keep her from it.

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