Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Spiral in Permanent Revolutions: Gurren Lagann via Gilles Deleuze

- Leeron Littner

At first glance, Gurren Lagann looks like a generic example of Shonen anime.  Its story is hackeneyed: young man starts into the world from his small town and quickly gathers a group of eclectic friends to face down a global-level threat. As it follows this basic format it is easy to mistake Gurren Lagann for an earnest tribute to its forerunners, counting such classics as Getter Robo, Mobile Suit Gundam, and Gundam Wing and other exemplars of the "Real Robo" and ,"Super Robo" genres as its wikipedia-obvious influences.  You could see it falling well in line with its better known, longer running contemporaries like One Piece or Naruto. But Gurren Lagann transcends the limits of its genre-siblings and forerunners by pushing the conventions of Shonen to the edge of absurdity in a single season-length statement.  This manic, concise, and ultimately critical spirit makes Gurren Lagann one of the most interesting anime I have come across.

The show affects its aesthetic and narrative feats by finding spirals at the heart of the genre and bringing them to the forefront. Watching this theme develop on-screen, you're surprised that you hadn't thought about it when viewing Gurren Lagann's act-alikes (assuming you hadn't); Shonen repeats the cycle of get stronger, beat boss, discover new threat.  It shares this narrative structure with video games, particularly early generation RPGs that were severely limited in gameplay diversity by virtue of their hardware and thus were forced to repeat variations on a theme.  But limited structure can sometimes make for the most inspiring art, and Gurren Lagann achieves baroque-pop greatness by taking this repetition and expanding it in a profoundly exuberant way. Far from being fanboy gushy about its influences, this expansion is accompanied by a surprising self-awareness that allows the show a critical reflection that is all too often missing from its fellows. This reflective stance transforms Gurren Lagann into a meditation on desire.

Already in this trailer you can see that Gurren Lagann does not shy from an overt traditional masculinity and a certain teenage puerility.  This may turn some off from the show; it certainly made me more wary when I started watching it (especially since some scenes are explicitly transphobic).  I think the show can be legitimately criticized for its shortcomings, but I also think that it embraces its kinks as part of the territory; when you're going to create the ultimate Shonen, you have to be willing to express its weaknesses just as much as its strengths.  This willingness to capture the entirety of the genre, flaws intact, defines the progression of the show.  It is "orgasmically" structured; each "circle" in the "spiral" of its narrative structure follows the aforementioned build-up, climax, recovery cycle.  And what's interesting is that the characters suffer the consequences.

Note: This next section will make a hell of a lot more sense if you have seen the series.  If you have not, hopefully I have piqued your curiosity enough that you'll go try it, maybe watch it, and come back.

Take, for example, the transition between the first and second major arcs of the series. Simone acts as a subject orbiting around an object of desire in both, the object of the first arc being Kamina and his desire to "break through the heavens," his desire for freedom, and the second being Nia and her desire to discover her purpose.  When Team Gurren has a center, it becomes what Deleuze calls "fascicular"; it spirals outward and echoes the power of its origin in an expansive and exploratory way.  For example, Team Gurren's escape through the ceiling of the hometown, the destruction of the four spiral generals, and the acquisition of Dai-Gurren act as echoes of Kamina's willingness to "drill" through the established order through sheer will in the first arc act as good examples of this echoing.  The more important note here is that in the interstitial period, when Team Gurren has no definite focal point, it flops.  Simone's depression and the establishment of the well-intentioned totalitarian world state after the second arc leap immediately to mind here.  It's easy to argue that the third and final act of the series is about Simone finding and expressing his conjugal desire for Nia.  But there are two interesting weaknesses to this third desiring relationship that beautifully illustrate the question that animates the series.

The first is that Simone's desire for Nia isn't strong enough.  When the Anti-Spiral traps Team Gurren in the alternate dimensions where they act as other selves, they stay stuck there.  It takes Kamina's reappearance and reactivation of Team Gurren's old desire, that is to say Kamina's desire, for freedom to jar them back into the fight. Trapped by their otherwise mediocre and everyday desires, they rely on Kamina's strength to galvanize them to their utmost potential.  Kamina here becomes more than an "individual" or a "symbol"; in this sequence, Kamina is a becoming.  Characters that are becoming-Kamina are each transformed in entirely different ways, each striving to reach their utmost expression.  Nowhere is this better captured than when Kamina explains that when he doesn't believe in himself, he relies on the him that Simone believes in, the becoming-Kamina in himself that defies his insecurities and transforms him into an expression rather than an individual.  This is further validated by the scene where Simone tells Kamina he'll "always be in his heart" and goes on to destroy the Anti-Spiral; Kamina has ceased being a person or a symbol, and become a freeing affect.

The second weakness of the central relationship of the third act is that after this final desire is consummated in the symbolic marriage of Simone and Nia, both characters are finished and the series is over.  It's easy to forget that Gurren Lagann ends on a cliffhanging, bittersweet note; the bulk of the characters take up becoming-Kamina again and presumably go on to challenge the spiral nemesis, but Simone ends up tired and comically impotent (skip to 21:56, unless you want to see the whole final episode and/or hear the Four Year Strong-esque end theme):

This is what I find truly fascinating about Gurren Lagann; every productive and strong force in the entire show relies on the drive to freedom of becoming-Kamina.  To me, becoming-Kamina is a perfect example of Deleuze's successful war-machine, the nomadic flow that continually escapes established boundaries on its own novel flight path.  When becoming-Kamina, Team Gurren creates, steals, and destroys with an anarchist glee; when forced to become sedentary, they lapse into a sometimes dangerous or aimless segmentation. The stand-out reference for this "reterritorialization" is Rossiu's world-state.  The series takes pains to make it explicit that his carefully planned order is born of his original religious resentment and is parasitic on the raw desire unlocked by Kamina; he tries to control, quantify it, and reduce it to its utility, but cannot fully contain its flow (as a perfect example, consider the Grapearls; mass produced based on Gurren Lagann's technology, they ultimately cannot come close to matching it).  Eventually the war-machine starts up again and the state relinquishes control when the Anti-Spirals shatter Rossiu's carefully constructed equilibrium.  Kamina and Team Gurren are a line of flight that breaks free from centered structures, including the identities of Kamina and Simone themselves.

Team Gurren is stuck vacillating between their self-sustaining collective desire and their centered, serial dependence on their cycle of become stronger, win the battle, and suffer refraction.  This assemblage is the basis of the startlingly interesting dynamic exploration that makes Gurren Lagann worth watching and worth thinking about.  At times, Team Gurren use their alliance and shared desire to act as a multitude straight out of Hardt and Negri's Empire.  At others, they fall into the "black hole" of hierarchy and complacency.  Their task (and perhaps ours) is either to find a practice of desiring that doesn't rely on a constantly collapsing structure of desired objects, but instead puts emphasis on sustained "plateaued" force (Trotsky, Deleuze/Guattari) or accept that the tragic structure is our lot and heroically embrace this fate (Camus, Zizek).  Or, to put it in appropriately melodramatic terms, are we up in the sky with Kamina, or stuck on the ground with Simone?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

What Ennui Hath Wrought, Part One

This is the first part of an ongoing series I'm writing about contemporary comedy films.

I don't know if there's a more widely damned stock character in cinema these days, at least in the parts of the blogosphere that discuss representations of women in movies, than the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. We all know her, right? Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, Natalie Portman in Garden State, Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer, etc. People condemn her so completely that it's amazing that she appears so often. She's held up as an example of everything bad about screenwriting these days: she's shallow, precious and ornamental, and she gives the sense that the writer believes that women basically exist to provide direction and guidance to brooding men. Despite all of this, though, she keeps cropping up, and she keeps cropping up even when she's not supposed to be able to. Even when the writer has obviously tried painstakingly to subvert every aspect of the stock character, as in Kate Winslet's character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, who was created specifically to quash the archetype (and even almost succeeds, in a couple of monologues), in the end she still feels like a Manic Pixie, like the persona is a demon that even the forces of Hollywood can't exorcise no matter how hard they try.

What that says to me is that there's nothing innate in these poor women that's causing them to transform into Manic Pixies; rather, it's probably something about the situations that screenwriting today creates for its characters that stick them with the Manic Pixie label. If character qualities alone aren't enough to form a definition of her, it would probably be more productive to analyze the role she inhabits in the plot . So rather than look at a list of personality traits (zaniness, lack of inhibition, fun dress sense etc.), let's look instead at how she functions and what she represents.

How she functions, I'd argue, is as a source of direction. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, regardless of whether she has blue hair or pink hair, whether she wears vintage sweaters or Doc Martens, is in the movie basically as a catalyst, a plot device to kickstart the main character's inert life. Her personal traits are totally irrelevant to this fact; she could be anything as long as she gets the catalysis done. A Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a cross between a messiah and a muse: she not only inspires, but she does it at a moment of dire need, when the protagonist is so stuck, professionally, and emotionally, that inspiration is basically interchangeable with salvation. All of which is to say that she can't exist in a movie that doesn't have a directionless protagonist, and that the Enemy in her movies—the force so evil and all-encompassing that only outside salvation can defeat it—is inertia itself. Not just unleaded plebeian inertia, either, but the high-octane moneyed twentysomething variety. Without inertia, she has no in. And the corollary of that is that if the movie is about inertia, she will appear. Any movie about educated twentysomethings that is fundamentally about one man's struggle with inertia, and has a major subplot that is romantic in the conventional sense, will tend to produce Manic Pixie Dream Girls. 

So now we have not only a definition but a way of predicting when a Manic Pixie will show up—and also, we're no longer just talking about this particular character archetype, but rather the whole style of screenwriting that created her—that is, screenwriting obsessed with inertia, awkwardness, and "finding yourself."

This sector of screenwriting is what gave us the careers of Judd Apatow, Noah Baumbach, Michael Cera, Jesse Eisenberg, Lena Dunham, and a lot of others, and it cleaves pretty closely to their general style. It's preoccupied with adolescence, ennui, arrested development, lingering family issues, and the utter inability to cope with the choices provided by privilege. None of this is new to screenwriting or narrative in general, though—John Hughes movies are often about these issues, The Graduate certainly is, and, of course, so are Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Augustine's Confessions. 

What differentiates this new kind of screenwriting is its obsessive focus on the minutiae of the lives of the characters it describes, the premium it places on realism. Movies like Greenberg, Superbad and Tiny Furniture are precise. They resist the standard Hollywood dialog style—nothing is ever glossed over by resorting to standard popcorn-movie diction, characters often speak with likes and whatevers intact, and nothing happens that could not happen in real life. (Notable exceptions like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are careful to present their fantastic elements as realistically as possible—the Lacuna Inc. set is as quotidian a dentist's office.) They reject the high-toned wit of classic comedies like My Man Godfrey, the "one word: plastics" satire of The Graduate, the outrageous sitcom tone of Ferris Bueller's Day Off and even the condescending sneer of Dazed and Confused in favor of a level-headed, sympathetic inspection of their misbegotten heroes exactly as they are. They are invariably about intelligent but listless middle-class people, people who have their heads on straight but are maybe a little selfish, maybe a little numb, and usually very socially inept.

Now, not all of these movies have Manic Pixie Dream Girls. There's none in Superbad, none in Tiny Furniture, none in The Squid and the Whale. But in the solo straight white male twentysomething genre—Greenberg, (500) Days of Summer, Garden State, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—she's inevitable.

These movies, the white-dude-living-alone ones, are also typically the ones that are most concerned with wallowing in carefully observed realist aimlessness. The style—disfluencies in dialog, realism in storyline—is so completely united with the subject matter, it comes to embody the aimlessness and ennui that the movies are about, and transcending that aimlessness is inextricable from transcending the style. So the plots require an instrument like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who wears sun dresses when everyone else is in t-shirts and jeans, who sings songs from children's television when everyone else is talking in monotone, and who does her own social thing when everyone else is trapped on the middle-class twentysomething treadmill. She's the only character who's allowed to break out of the obsessive, precise realism of the movies, just as she's the only character who's allowed to break out of the cynical realist conventions of the plot. Both in style and in subject, she's the one concession the movie makes to real fantasy, and this fantasy is what interrupts the main character's doldrums for long enough that he can learn to love again.

Her slightly outrageous behavior, cloying and precious as it is, is really the most parsimonious way to make the movie work. What's more, she reveals the fact that movies so ideologically fixated on minute realism require the implosion of that very minute realism to function; the type of screenwriting that produces the Manic Pixie Dream Girl produces her to destroy the realist style it's created, which is the only way it can resolve itself. She's a lazy, sexist character archetype, yes, but the movie needs her nonetheless. Rather than critique her in a vacuum, then, it's probably best to critique the environment that creates her, the sterile focus on verisimilitude and aimlessness that necessitates her. Browbeating writers into paranoia isn't going to make her go away; she'll just appear in ever more subtle and devious ways, because she's a consequence of movies about white dudes in their twenties with their own apartments. So shut up about the poor Pixie, O thou bloggers. It's not her fault. Society made her.