# March 2019 news

March 2019 gwern.net newsletter with 3 writeups; links on genetics, ads, poetry; and 1 anime review, 1 opera review, and 1 movie review.
created: 28 Feb 2019; modified: 12 Jun 2019; status: finished; confidence: log;

This is the March 2019 edition of the gwern.net newsletter; previous, February 2019 (archives). This is a summary of the revision-history RSS feed, overlapping with my Changelog & /r/gwern; brought to you by my donors on Patreon.

# Media

## Film/TV

Animated:

• One of the hit anime of 2017 & highly recommended by people like Geoff Greer, I added MiA to my list a while ago. Though it’s only a 1-cours show of barely 13 episodes and the next installment won’t be out until at least January 2020, unusually, the Made in Abyss compilation movies are receiving limited US theatrical releases; curious as to whether I might want to watch them in a proper theater, I broke my usual rule against in-progress shows and watched MiA.

I’d describe MiA as “Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky meets S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” The premise is not that complex, but the reward is in the execution. It offers a compelling adventure in a reasonably well-thought-through post-apocalyptic world rich with details (like the ‘vertical’ seats in the orphanage classroom—climbing, of course), descent through gorgeous backgrounds & environments (of the sort I can still barely believe is possible on a TV anime’s budget), a beautifully-matching soundtrack (recorded in a deliberately oversize soundstage for a more epic feel) , increasingly sinister secrets hinted at of the From the New World-style sufficiently-advanced-technology-indistinguishable-from-magic type as the power & danger of the Abyss increases with every layer, distinct characters (Nanachi is the funnest tsundere I’ve seen in ages) & deliciously creepy monsters (like the “corpse-weepers”), while respecting the world & viewer enough to not pull punches—one might say that in MiA, ‘man is wolf to man, but so are the wolves’.

I’m not even annoyed how short it is or how fast the episodes go as MiA pulls off an excellent pair of ending episodes, with one of the most elegant ending sequences since Cowboy Bebop & Gunslinger Girl. The rest may disappoint, but the first season will always be worth watching.

While not flawless (Ozen was, aside from taking up too many episodes, written & voiced too over the top; some of the shonen tropes used like the titles for the ‘White Whistles’ are best forgotten; the mercifully-few penis jokes are both unfunny & out of place), I suspect Made in Abyss will be the best anime I watch in 2019, and perhaps 2020 too.

Live-action:

• Wagner’s Die Walküre opera (Met):

Following up my attendance at a live broadcast of the NYC Met Opera’s performance of the opera Carmen last month, the next up was Die Walküre. This was awkward because I missed the first part of The Ring, Das Rheingold, which, confusingly, despite being performed in March and scheduled in April as well, appears to not be part of the “The Met: Live in HD” program at all! There’s no explanation on either the Met website or Fathom Events, so I guess I’m just going to have to miss out. In any case, I went.

Both the local & live audience differed from Carmen; my local audience was substantially smaller, somewhat over half the size but skewing younger (one guy showed up wearing Viking horns), while the live NYC audience was the opposite, easily twice as large while older and far whiter and less touristy. I don’t know what accounts for that. The format was largely the same, moved forward an hour to start at noon rather than 1PM because it is longer than Carmen, padded out somewhat by 2 intermissions, which I spent watching their little documentaries, particularly about “the Machine”, using the bathroom, and going back to my car for snacks. I was concerned about the length, but my snacks proved adequate, and if the time did not exactly fly the way it does in Carmen, it did not weigh overly heavy on my mind. Incidentally, I did finally find out how the live Met audience gets subtitles as I again failed to spot any subtitle displays; checking afterwards, turns out they simply have screens built into the backs of seats like airlines. (I wonder what they did before?)

The most striking part of Die Walküre was of course the Machine. The Machine is essentially a dozen or so enormous planks (flat on one side, beveled on the other) on a cylinder which can be raised to various heights & rotated; it looks like an executive desk toy, grown to demented size. The production is almost ostentatiously minimalist, using the Machine as an all-purpose setting—now it’s a crooked set of pillars evoking a snowy forest, now the vertical timbers of a cozy home, now a mountain crag for Freya to lecture Odin from atop, now a set of 8 horses, and so on. With 6 camera projectors beaming computer-mapped images onto it, the projections can be used while it moves because they are rock-solid, preserving the illusion (initially I assumed there were screens built into the ‘planks’ until an actor crossed in front). For all that it is apparently colossally expensive, a safety hazard (the number of references during interviews or videos to it being safe have the usual effect of undermining confidence in precisely that), was repeatedly embarrassing to the Met (crashing in years past and showing Windows logos in the middle of a performance), and is a bit of a sunk cost, I see why the Met might continue pursuing it: it is a more powerful system than I would’ve thought.

Did I enjoy it as much as Carmen? To relay an anecdote of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (by way of Borges) when asked how agreeable was Wagner’s company, “Sir, do you think the talk of Mount Etna is agreeable?” Carmen was surely much faster-paced, amusing, and entertaining, but Die Walküre surely aims at something else. To judge it on those grounds, it is far more successful than contemporary superhero films which so consciously imitate The Ring in trying to provide secularized mythic cycles to substitute for Christianity or progressive rock or Greek plays.

It stands alone fairly well, as we see the full arc of Siegmund/Sieglinde, and how it awakens Brünnhilde, transforming her from a personification of Odin’s will to a human, while encapsulating the grand scheme of The Ring in Odin’s monologue, explaining how he is empowered but trapped by his past choices and dependent on free agents to liberate him; through the rest, Odin remains a figure of dramatic irony—to what extent is he genuinely despairing or furious with Brünnhilde, and to what extent (like Morpheus in The Sandman) is this all in fact part of a Xanatos Roulette? Act 1–2 work particularly well as they compress a full tragedy, while Act 3 in retrospect strikes me as unfortunately extended, not able to support so little meaningful plot (I particularly noticed lines of dialogue being repeated illogically in Act 3). I particularly liked the performances of Siegmund/Sieglinde, Freya, and Brünnhilde; I enjoyed Odin (played in this performance by Solid Snake) but in retrospect think he might’ve played the role too seriously, without regard for the irony, as I don’t think any viewers innocent of the overall Ring plot or the monologue would be suspicious that he was anything other than he appeared. And reading reviews, Hunding was praised too but I found him absurdly diabolical (the actor made such weird faces for villainous sneers that the old woman next to me involuntarily laughed several times). So… maybe I enjoyed it. It was interesting, if nothing else.

• Stalker. Tarkovsky 1979:

Perhaps inevitably after watching Made in Abyss, I got around to watching Stalker, which I had already downloaded. Tarkovsky’s films have a reputation for being esoteric to a fault, which is true of the other Tarkovsky film I’ve seen, his earlier Solaris adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem novel, but I think that this reputation is unearned for Stalker which struck me as perfectly comprehensible—ironically, Tarkovsky’s Stalker (ostensibly an adaptation of the Strugatsky brothers’ novel) is in some ways more faithful to Stanislaw Lem than his actual Lem adaptation. Specifically, it reflects the spirit of His Master’s Voice, with shades of Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor”.

As I take it, the Zone, like the planet Solaris, is an alien intelligence creating an environment reflecting the humans exploring it; those who are flexible, responsive to the world, present in the moment, survive the Zone, avoiding traps, while the thoughtless and violent and inflexible are destroyed by the Zone reifying their mind. The ‘Room’ at the center of the Zone is a gift from the aliens (stand-ins for God) and does in fact reveal & grant visitors’ innermost wishes; but unfortunately, as the Writer deduces, the futility of knowledge is exposed by this: the gift of self-knowledge is, like freedom, a poisoned chalice for all the humans who drink it. The knowledge, like that of His Master’s Voice, is a mirror which reveals too much and is either useless or self-destructive. The Writer therefore refuses to enter. All humans are fallen, including the ‘louse’ of the Stalker protagonist, who though a louse is a Jesus-like figure sacrificing himself to guide humans to the Room in the hope that some human can prove to have the basic decency to withstand self-knowledge and benefit from their wish being granted; he therefore must refrain from entering. Finally, the Physicist sought to destroy the Room to prevent an evil person from being empowered by it or a good person destabilizing the world, but concludes that his mission was unnecessary, as evil people would be destroyed by the Room and there are no good people who might enter it, and discards the hidden atomic bomb; naturally, he does not enter either. At the end, the Stalker is left in despair: his mission to humanity is a failure, as the 2 great representatives of the Russian intelligentsia have both failed the test of the Room and not just that, like the Grand Inquisitor of Jesus, concluded there is not even any need to interfere with the Stalker or destroy the Room. (The connection to “The Grand Inquisitor”, curiously, doesn’t seem to have been made in English film studies, although inquiring, apparently it’s widely noted in Russian sources including by Tarkovsky himself.) The world is, as the Writer complains in his opening monologue, a boring bland tissue of lies, a world where UFOs or ESP do not and cannot exist, with the only exception being the walled-off Zone, an irruption of outside context into ‘normality’; the Stalker’s mission having failed, and having always been doomed, it seems that we are left with bleak nihilism—except that the Stalker’s daughter, mutated by severe birth defects in her legs, demonstrates in a closing scene a secret ability to telekinetically move objects. A ray of hope appears: the stasis may yet be broken by a (divine?) intervention.

The sets are disturbingly realistic, eerily portentous—how striking that final room of sand dunes—and one wonders how such an extraordinarily convincing environment, with so much filth & rubbish and decaying buildings and infrastructure could’ve been constructed by Tarkovsky for the 3 actors to splash and stumble their way through the waste, so reminiscent of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (I couldn’t help but notice how Stalker is bracketed by shots of nuclear-style cooling towers, though of course it could not be a Chernobyl reference as that did not happen for another 7 years & I doubt Tarkovsky would’ve been permitted much less funded if it had happened already); it is all the more disturbing when one recalls that this was filmed in the old USSR, which was one continuous country-wide environmental disaster zone. It turns out that the sets are so realistic because it was a chemical plant disaster zone and the ‘special effects’ like ‘snow’ were god-knows-what horrors, and many people involved, like Tarkovsky himself (at age 54 barely 7 years later), died young of cancers. While actors sometimes undergo considerable danger for their craft, it’s hard to think of examples as extreme as Stalker, and there is something eerily appropriate about that and the fact that the movie had to be filmed twice (a film lab destroyed the first version).

One’s overall assessment of Stalker will depend on how much one is willing to indulge Tarkovsky’s almost 3-hour running time, extremely slow pace (you’ll be staring at closeups of ears for what must be 10 minutes in the rail-car ride sequence into the Zone which particularly tried my patience), taste for ruin porn & all-too-real toxic sludge, and a cinematography-oriented way of expressing the plot & theme as I summarized it above.

Misc:

MLP: