A plodding anti-religion parable set on an alien planet, Kaena: The Prophecy’s flaws seem to justify its “nobody’s heard of it” status. Despite some inspired ideas (and an intriguing erotic-techno-biophilic setting), it’s watchable mainly as a study of wasted potential. If a ever fire burned in this film, it went out long ago.

It’s a French CGI film from 2003, created by Chris Delaporte and Patrick Daher, and produced by Xilam on a budget of $26 million. It grossed just $2,173 on its opening weekend. You’d have made more money in March 2020 with an educational film titled How To Lick Every Surface At Your Local Pub.

Kaena was released on DVD, where it theoretically could have recouped its losses. Considering the DVD’s 87 Amazon reviews, far fewer than heavy-hitters like Morbius (3,488 reviews) or Mars Needs Moms (1,151 reviews), I’m reasonably certain that Kaena: The Prophecy did not Kaena: A Profit See.

I will attempt to describe Kaena’s story. My ability to do so is hindered by the reality that it’s confusing and I don’t care.

A spaceship crash-lands on an alien planet. Its crew is massacred by the natives (vicious blobs of sap called Selenites), but the ship’s sentient core survives, sprouting into a gigantic tree called Axis that extends a hundred miles into space. We then jump ahead six hundred years. A primitive humanlike race of creatures now lives beneath the branches of Axis, high above clouds that (from their upside down perspective) they regard as the sky. They slave tirelessly to harvest sap for the ground-based Selenites, who have tricked them into thinking they’re gods. Until one day, a girl named Kaena grows curious about what’s really beneath the sky.

The setup’s there, but the delivery isn’t. Kaena’s lore-heavy setting (with several races, superintelligent AIs, and two species of genetically engineered worms) is more complicated than you want in a movie where the villain is a blob of sap. The story also has an incomplete, threadbare quality, as though you’re playing a videogame with half the cutscenes erased from the disk, and it’s often hard to understand what’s happening, or how event B connects to event A.

My guess is that important scenes were written and storyboarded, and then cut due to financial constraints. I don’t know if that’s true, yet it often felt that Kaena’s writers expected me to know facts without having troubled themselves to explain them to me.

The villain’s entire motive is that she wants to avoid “fusion”, which apparently is how the Selenites reproduce. (The vizier gently tells the queen that she must think of her species’ future. The queen scornfully retorts “You are the last male! You crave fusion with me!” She’s got us males figured out, I guess.) I don’t understand what fusion entails, or why she doesn’t want to do it, so her behavior is incomprehensible. If the Selenites depend on sap from Axis’s trunk to survive, why are they trying to destroy the ship’s computer, which is obviously the source of the tree? And the tree didn’t exist until the ship arrived, so where were they getting sap from before?

The film has a lot of “coupon shots”: my term for a money shots that is ruined by the fact that you don’t understand or care about the big reveal. In the third act, the character Opaz reveals a secret about Axis’s true nature. It’s played up as a big moment. Kaena reacts in awe. I reacted with “so what?” I couldn’t see how it affected anything.

The film seems to piously insist that it has a brilliant concept, and that this should excuse its every shortcoming. A tree in space! A race that lives upside down! They stare up at heaven…and it’s the Earth! Isn’t that profund? Heaven is on Earth!

But movies do not exist in their outlines. I cannot watch concepts. Kaena’s plot isn’t compelling in the slightest. It’s “Noble savages with a magic tree are enslaved by a technologically superior race who are posing as gods, then a rebellious teenage girl with mystic visions goes on a hero’s journey to save them”. In other words, dead husk-like fragments of FernGully, Pocahontas, Princess Mononoke, The Prince of Egypt, Starchaser: The Legend of Orin, and A Bug’s Life, coated in obscurantist Franco-glaze. You may as well watch James Cameron’s Avatar, which adapts about 75% of this movie’s plot without even realizing it, and at least makes the tree-worshipping cat people sparkly blue instead of poop-brown.

On that note…how does the the film look?

Kaena herself is superbly bouncy and appealing. She’s constantly in motion: leaping and falling and tumbling and getting ragdolled around by physics. She’s ruthlessly designed to strike one chord in teenage girls, and a different, louder one in teenage boys.

Other parts of the movie look awful. As in, “Welcome to 1994, we are now watching Re:Boot outtakes and the animators are on drugs” awful. I do not support abortion, but if I saw someone slinging this child’s coathanger-riddled corpse into a Planned Parenthood dumpster, I would not tell a soul. Some things are for the greater good.

The rest of Kaena’s tribe look nondescript, in a featureless “NPC in a cheap videogame” way. The eye stares straight past them.

2000-2004 was “the best of times, and the worst of times” for CGI. The technology could look incredible, but it was still novel (and expensive) enough that objectively horrible shit was regularly defecated into theaters.

Kaena embodies this cinematic weltanschauung: here you get incredible and horrible, in one movie! There’s a huge unevenness in how the film looks, as if it was made not just by different people but by different studios.

The making-of documentary behind Kaena is informative. The film was worked on piecemeal by various people, many of whom had no business making a movie at all. I was not surprised to learn that Kaena was originally meant to be a videogame. It began almost a decade earlier at Eric Chahi’s Amazing Studios (Out of this World has a faint but recognizable influence on Kaena‘s style). 1995 was an era of multimedia-heavy games that blurred the line between cinema and videogaming, and after Toy Story‘s success (and some encouraging feedback from Lucas and Spielberg), Delaporte and Daher left Amazing and began work on a “cinematic” game called Gaina.

Gaina was soon re-imagined as TV movie called Axis, and then rebuilt again as an animated feature. Delaporte and Daher were game developers, and they made a movie that doesn’t feel like one. They animated it with commercial 3D software of the sort used by videogame developers, such as Discrete’s Character Studio. Certain details—like the hands of characters—aren’t as detailed as they would be in a Pixar film. After all, you don’t have detailed hands in a game.

The project bumped along for years, held back by outdated tools, an inexperienced team, and the eventual bankruptcy of Delaporte’s studio. Kaena was bought by Xilam Animation (of Oggy and the Cockroaches fame), and hauled over the finish line, after rehiring most of the original team.

I’ll say this: some of the animators and character designers knew what they were doing. Kaena herself is great, and so are the Selenites, who have a creative HR Giger-inspired design. Their environment is cleverly conceived: a vile, chiaroscuro’d hellhole that seems made of congealed maple syrup.

Kaena definitely could have used more money, but writing is cheap, and that’s the part where it falls apart.

The villains are puzzling in their motives. Opaz is has been doing nothing for six hundred years. The worms are Timon and Pumba style comic relief characters that can fuck off. Kaena, the cynosure at the film’s center, lacks any sort of characterization at all. She’s just a plucky young teenager who is saintly and good and always ready to stand up to authority.

The human village is ruled by a grating one-note character, clearly meant as a stand-in for organized religion. His every line of dialog is some version of “The gods are testing us!” and “The gods are demanding another harvest of sap!” He turns into a droning irritating presence, without any depth or nuance. At times the movie becomes an atheist screed, three years before that was popular. But the film’s “think for yourself” bona-fides are questionable, since Kaena’s basically a mystic herself, motivated by dreams.

2003 was probably a bit late to make a movie like Kaena. It wants to be a vaguely edgy movie aimed at teens. Treasure Planet and Titan AE had already tried that, and flopped. I think the world just saw another unmarketable foreign movie, and passed.

Many such cases. In 2003, CGI was still regarded as a groundbreaking new art form instead of a movie-ruining plague, and we had a whole trend of lavish CGI “films” that were actually more like hundred-million-dollar Maya showcases (think Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and The Polar Express). The Hollywood press would reliably hype them with breathless technobabble about 360 degree mocap and realistic light specularity and characters with 60,000 individually animated strands of hair, along with speculation that human actors would soon be obsolete.

It was a bubble. Most of these films failed, losing their studio tens of millions of dollars and sometimes bankrupting them in the process. In reality, only Pixar and Dreamworks could reliably score a chunky 3-5x return on a CGI film, and nearly everyone else was left holding a bag (usually one with poorly-animated cloth physics). Even Disney got burned a bunch of times before figuring out a formula. With a few exceptions (Ice Age made a bunch of money, somehow), there wasn’t a CGI boom, there was a Pixarworks boom.

(We see a similar trend today with superhero franchises. People regard them as this omnipresent thing that can’t fail, but actually, the only studio making it work is Marvel. DC’s Extended Universe failed, and Universal’s Dark Universe sputtered out after one movie. The plates are kept spinning by Kevin Feige’s diabolical touch. When he dies or leaves the company, who knows what will happen?)

Kaena got caught right as the industry bubble burst. (A new one, of course, started with 3D, and Avatar). But even if had come out in 2001, it has severe problems. It’s dark and confused and slow. It’s loaded with rampant fanservice that would probably repulse parents and female viewers. The action scenes come and go. The animation is literally the horse drawing meme for ninety minutes, swapping competence for incompetence at random moments. The fluid physics and realistic hair are paired with characters that look like they’re from a shitty TV show or web series. There’s exposition instead of action. The movie’s modal scene is “dollar-store Ent philosophizes about the nature of being to a girl wearing clothes so fetishistically tight you could diagnose a uterine cancer in her pelvis”. If you want that sort of thing, check out Aeon Flux.

Kaena is a rough movie to love. It’s more of an archeological dig than a film: I’m disinterested in what the movie is, but fascinated by what it was originally trying to do. Almost all bad movies have a murdered good movie hiding in the frame, and that’s definitely true in this one’s case.

No Comments »

The Book of Lieh Tzŭ has a parable called “The Foolish Old Man Who Moved The Mountains”. A nonagenarian begins hauling away the mighty T’ai-hsing and Wang-wu mountains, one bucket of rocks at a time. A bystander laughs at this futile task, but the Foolish Old Man Chides him. It’s not futile. His children will continue digging when he’s gone, and so will their children. God hears the Foolish Man’s words, and is moved by his faith. He sends two angels to carry the mountains away on their backs.

It’s symbolic and isn’t meant as a psychological portrait, but I wonder what the Foolish Old Man’s children thought of the idea. Shackled to the dream of an old man; knowing that even after their father has died, they’ll still be be there, slaving at the mountainface, watching it subside with torturous slowness, before they die in turn and their children continued their fate.

And what would they do when they finished? Hundreds of years from now, will their descendents lift the last flake of rhyolite, granite, or chert from a flat plain…and go utterly mad with realization? Understand at once, with the force of a crashing wave, that this was for nothing? “The man we did this for is dead. He died long ago. He knew he’d never live to see his task fulfilled. It was never about the mountains. It was about making us suffer.”

Whiplash is an intense and terrifying film a young jazz drummer and his abusive bandleader. The kid tries to rationalize their relationship as something more than it is. A stepping stone on the road to greatness. A struggle to overcome. In the end, though, there’s no point except pain.

Technically, Whiplash is phenomenal, with fantastic filming, acting, and editing. Shots are almost blood-freezing in their brilliance—JK Simmons raises a hand to deliver a count-in, and the camera orbits it in a slow arc, allowing that raised hand to become the center of the universe. The presence of “Caravan” on the score inspired me to dig out my old Duke Ellington charts and re-learn part of it on bass.

But in the end, Whiplash’s technical merits recede from memory, leaving a raw, stark, and sad story about a kid trapped by the prison bars of a drumset, unable to leave.

Andrew Neiman is a young drummer at the fictional Schaffer Academy. He’s hand-picked to join the band of Terence Fletcher: a band leader who has the rep of demanding perfection from his students. Neiman sees this as a way to fast-track his career, and earn the respect of his parents. But Fletcher turns out to be a cruel, sadistic monster. He intersperses tirades and bullying with insincere little pep talks (“Listen, the key is to just relax. You’re here for a reason!”). He pushes kids to the breaking point, and then doles out just enough fatherly kindness to stop them from quitting.

Neiman is a naive, tragic figure. He’s wandered into the jaws of a monstrous, oblique game, against a man who is very good at playing it. Throughout the film, he resists the realization that Fletcher’s an enemy, not a mentor. Even at the end (when he’s won a victory of sorts), we sense he might get sucked back in by Fletcher’s glib charm. I found this believable. Only sinners and fools go to hell, so Neiman has to believe he’s secretly in heaven.

I’ve heard Whiplash described as a study of futility, like Werner Herzog’s “Conquest of the Useless“. But in this case, it’s worse than there simply being no point. Fletcher has a clear goal: to make Neiman and others cry and feel helpless and maybe commit suicide. Some people enjoy taking all the pains of the world, and other people enjoy giving them.

Fletcher’s excuses for his behavior—he’s pushing kids to achieve greatness, like how Jo Jones made Charlie Parker great!—is so thin you could use it to paper the head of Neiman’s snare drum. He has no actual interest in music or art. On at least one (and maybe two?) occasions, we see him knowingly sabotage a performance in front of a live audience to embarrass a musician. He likes hurting kids. That seems to be his thing.

Oddly, that’s how the movie works, too. Writer-director Damien Chazelle wrote the film based on a negative experience he had in a high school jazz band. But Whiplash isn’t really about collegiate jazz, or even music. Adam Neely, in a review of the film, observes that it’s actually a sports movie. Every plot point and character arc (Fletcher as the gruff coach, Neiman as the talented rookie, the competition at Lincoln Center as “the big game”) would make more sense for, say, NCAA Football. It features stylistic tropes that don’t really make sense. Like having extra musicians sitting around, turning the pages, hoping they’ll get a turn to play. This is because the movie needs an analog for “being on the bench”.

But there’s also a weird king of logic to it. Once Neiman is in Fletcher’s kingdom, the world starts to change. The rules become blurry. Is he playing too fast or too slow? Is he counting 215 beats per minute? He doesn’t know. Too late, he realizes it doesn’t matter at all what he’s doing wrong: Fletcher is hazing him. The rules are weird, arbitrary, and completely divorced from any sort of ground truth.

But reality has a way of coming back to you. We see Fletcher near the end of the film, and he’s reduced to a diminished, pathetic shadow of himself. We see him tinkling some lame cod-jazz on a piano at a shitty West End bar, and he finally stands revealed as what he is: a talentless hack, pushing students to achieve something he could never do himself.

He talks to Neiman (this time, as equals, not as master and student), and defends his teaching methods as a necessary evil. Students need tough love, because otherwise we get more “Starbucks jazz” albums. Which is bitterly ironic: the music we just heard him play was the epitome of “Starbucks jazz”. Fletcher, in a way, is running from his own shadow. Neiman is haunted by the idea that he might be a failure waiting to happen. For Fletcher, it’s worse. There’s no “waiting to happen” for him, he knows he’s a failure. This isn’t to say we ever feel sympathy for Fletcher. But his character does gain a certain depth.

JK Simmons plays Fletcher really hard. Too hard? It’s hard to believe that a teacher at a prestigious college would fling metal chairs at students’ faces, call them faggots, call a Jewish student a “hymie”, etc, etc.

Is the Schaffer Academy is publically funded? Asking a female student if she got her chair because she’s cute sounds like a great way to get the school buttfucked by a hundred-thousand-dollar Title XI decision. Nobody could afford to hire Terence Fletcher in real life, no matter how talented he is. He would bankrupt any school he worked for.

(My own band leader teaches high school. I asked him what the current climate is, regarding teachers touching students. His response was “Are you kidding me? We’re not even allowed to pat our students’ bodies on the back to say ‘well done'”.)

But the story is tightly constructed, and has a tendency to coil back on itself in interesting ways. The legendary “rushing or dragging” scene, where Neiman has to decide whether he was too slow or too fast (with Fletcher slapping him in the face), and finally admits he was rushing. This lines up with metronomic precision with a later scene, where Neiman rushes, and pays dearly for it.

Yet the world of the film has a slight gauzy unreality to it, as if it’s stuck halfway in the birth canal of Chazelle’s imagination. Characters don’t always behave how real people would behave. But it points to something true. Of the many lies told to children, one of the worst is “It’s for your own good”. No, often it’s for their own good. Many parents pressure their children to become a lawyer—a miserable career path, with some of the lowest rates of reported happiness of any profession. Why? Well, having a child as a lawyer makes them look like successes as parents. It has nothing to do with the child’s happiness at all, only their own. Neiman is caught in this parental trap. He grasps a dream, finds it has sharp edges, and keeps gripping until his hands come to pieces.

No Comments »

One of surrealism’s last masterpieces, The Hearing Trumpet anchors its story in confinement—an old woman is sent away to an institution—and then sets her free in a metaphorical and literal apocalypse of pagan-inspired imagery. It’s a stealth-story about witchcraft; so stealthy that not even the witch knows she’s inside one.

The beginning’s great fun. 92-year-old Marian Leatherby is gifted a hearing trumpet by her friend Carmella. The first thing she hears through it is her family, plotting against her in the next room.

“The government provides institutions for the aged and infirm,” snapped Muriel. ” She ought to have been put away long ago.”

“We are not in England,” said Galahad. “Institutions here are not fit for human beings.”

“Grandmother, ” said Robert, “can hardly be classified as a human being. She’s a drooling sack of decomposing flesh.”

“Robert,” said Galahad without conviction, “really, Robert.”

“Well I’ve had enough,” said Robert. ” Inviting people here for a normal chat and a drink and in walks the monster of Glamis, gibbering at us in broad daylight until I have to throw her out. Gently of course.”

“Remember Galahad,” added Muriel, “these old people do not have feelings like you or I.”

Marian ends up shunted away to an institution called Lightsome Hall (“very efficiently organized and reasonably inexpensive”), run by the publicity-obsessed Dr Gambit. It’s a queer place, full of nonsensical rules and idiotic people. The food portions are very small. The staff are fond of saying things like “Humility is the fountain of light. Pride is a disease of the soul.”

Clearly, Marian’s family expects her to die there, and to be relieved when it happens.

But Marian has quite a lot of spirit for a “drooling sack of decomposing flesh”. On a wall, she notices a portrait of an 18th century abbess, Dona Rosalinda, Abbess of the Convent of Saint Barbara of Tartarus—an abbess who, long ago, was on a quest to recover the Holy Grail and return it to its proper owner, the goddess Venus. Dona Rosalinda never succeeded, but with the help of some octogenarian inmates, Marian might have better luck.

The book’s halves play with and against each other. Contrasts are set up and explored: Christianity vs Paganism, imprisonment vs liberty, masculinity vs feminity, technology vs primitivism. The book spans a Apollonian/Nietszchiean divide: stultifying rules and de-facto imprisonment, so that Marian’s final transformation (she gets a cauldron, but doesn’t do the expected thing with it!) hits you all the harder.

While reading about neuroscience, I learned about lateral inhibition. It’s where a neuron undergoing an activation spike will inhibit the action potentials of neighbouring neurons. This is perceived as contrast, which makes it easier to notice things. I’d already known from mixing music that the best way to emphasise a given frequency isn’t to make it louder (which creates a “loudness war” scenario where everything is fighting everything for volume) but to cut the frequencies on either side. Waves seem bigger when the sea is flat. The Hearing Trumpet works in the same way.

The book has a lot of depth, if you’re prepared to read between the lines (and above and below and beside them, too). Lightsome House is a parody, not of organized religion, but of mysticism, and Dr Gambit is a pastiche of notorious mystic George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (Gambit’s portentious references to some ill-explained thing called “the Work” give the game away). If you gave me a blind test between Gambit and Gurdjieff quotes I’m not sure I could reliably tell you which was which.

Everything in the book has an absurdist edge. The bizarre design of the institution (buildings are shaped like birthday cakes, shoes, and igloos) could be out of a Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton book. The fact that the Institute is owned by a cereal company, and that people have names like “Galahad” in Mexico, hints that it’s a book with a complicated relationship with reality. The closest comparison to The Hearing Trumpet isn’t surrealist touchstones like Breton or Kafka, but childrens’ literature.

A battle surrealist literature faces is to stop the reader from analyzing every detail as having encoded meaning. This battle is usually a lost one, but in Carrington’s case, the small details really do seem to mean a lot.

Like the hearing trumpet. It “announces” a kind of apocalypse for Marian, just as a trumpet does when blown in the book of Revelation. And the bees (which exist everywhere at the Institution) are an obvious pagan symbol, but they also provide some psychological depth into Gambit (meaning, Gurdjieff). Bees are females, you see. Ones incapable of breeding, ones that he can possess and control, just like the women at the Institute. To be sure, Gurdjieff had a slightly sinister amount of control over his female acolytes. His relationship with them would have produced closer scrutiny had he lived today.

“Gambit is a kind of Sanctified Psychologist,” said Georgina. “The result is Holy Reason, like Freudian table turning . Quite frightful and as phoney as Hell. If one could only get out of this dump he would cease to be important, being the only male around, you know. It is really too crashingly awful all these women. The place creeps with ovaries until one wants to scream. We might as well be living in a bee hive.”

…but that gets twisted, when a colossal queen bee arrives, wearing “a tall iron crown studded with rock crystals, the stars of the underworld.” A symbol of female power.

Despite its lunacy, the story’s a fairly personal one. Carrington’s childhood was marked by rebellion, and institutions of various forms. The staff of a Spanish sanitorium had to repeatedly stop her from climbing onto the roof, to be nearer to the stars. So you see a lot of that coming through in the book. A desire for freedom. The idea that escaping your circumstances might be as simple as locating the right painting on a wall.

Needless to say, Carrington was raised Catholic. I’ve heard it said that if you want your daughter to become a whore, name her “Chastity”, and maybe a strict Catholic upbringing is the perfect one for a nascent surrealist, too. Anais Nin was raised Catholic too, come to think of it…

Like Nin’s Delta of Venus, the world The Hearing Trumpet was written for wasn’t the same one that actually read it. Finished in 1950, it remained unpublished until 1977. It does feel adrift in time. Everything is a little bit quaint and stuffy and old-fashioned. The motif of a hearing trumpet—instead of, say, a cochlear implant—marks it as a book out of its time. And all kinds of little details are “off”, not because of any surrealist intent, but simply because the world had moved on.

Some fifty or sixty years ago I bought a practical tin trunk in the Jewish quarter in New York.

“Fifty or sixty years” before 1950 was the late 19th century. Only a few tens of thousands of Jews lived in New York back then, mostly in the Lower East Side. Obviously, the timeline doesn’t make sense when moved to 1974. There wasn’t a “Jewish quarter” in 1920s New York: well over a million Jews lived there by that point and it was one of the city’s biggest demographics by that time.

Marian Leatherby had to wait nearly a century before her moment came, and I suppose we’re lucky that The Hearing Trumpet only had to wait 25 years. Fascinating, unique book. It established a weird, ossified world of ritual and control, so that the final rapturous explosion has way more effect than it otherwise would. The chains are strong but can still be broken, but that makes it even more impactful when they explode into a thousand shards. Carrington’s book is a restatement of the fundamental point of surrealism. The world is confinement, so find the edge and fall off.

No Comments »