5.29.2013

rating the world


I recently visited the Pacific Northwest and have decided to review it, because.

Seattle = A-

Seattle is second only to the astoundingly fascinating Atlantic City as my favorite city in America.  I have been there once before, years ago, to see Ryan Adams and Oasis play in concert, and this return visit has only reaffirmed by admiration.  The waterfront is beautiful, each area of the city has something of interest to offer (from the spectacular International District to the Locks in Ballard to Fremont's Gas Works Parks and antique mall to even Capitol Hill's indie shops), and even the touristy areas such as the Pike Place Market are tolerable.  What makes everything particularly special is how it's hung onto a vintage aura of its World's Fair past much more visibly than Chicago and New York.  The only downside that I encountered was the needlessly confusing public transportation.

Food is what largely motivates my city explorations.  The clear winner in Seattle, found at the pinball-filled bar Shorty's, was the Number 3 - a hot dog with cream cheese, tomatoes, and peppers which is the most delicious goddamn hot dog I might ever have eaten, rivaled only by the chicago-style dog at Hot Doug's.  Other exemplary finds were the meatloaf sandwich at the tiny basement deli Bakemans, the giant porchetta sandwich at Salumi, and the dessert offerings at High 5 Pies.  This was the location where I finally had my first slice of cherry pie, which was quite fitting considering this is Twin Peaks country.  My one big miss was the bourbon butterscotch pie at A La Mode Pies, whose path I unfortunately was not able to cross.

Also of note were some nice gas station selections.  Though nothing could compare to the one and only chocodile of my life which I discovered on my last trip, I did come across RC cherry cola, Mexican Pepsi, and Australian licorice in the regional flavor of marionberry, which was a nice touch.

On a final note, the city includes a nice array of indie theaters including the Cinerama (one of only three in the world, I believe) and the historic 7 Gables and Harvard Exit Theaters.  I have never encountered cinemas quite like those, as both are holed up in what resemble big old houses.  Hard to explain, but some of the best ambiance I've experienced in a movie theater.

Portland = C-

I am probably being too harsh on this city, as it does have some wonderful things to offer.  The gargantuan Powell's City of Books, for instance, where I finally attained a copy of The Glove of Darth Vader.  And that collectable store down the street which had packaged Dino Riders figurines.  And yes, there is also the impressive Ground Kontrol arcade, the ice cream heaven that is Salt & Straw, and a vast array of food carts - the Grilled Cheese Grill offered my favorite item, a grilled cream cheese, nutella, and banana sandwich.  Praise can also be heaved upon the fried chicken at the Screen Door and the breakfast options at the Byways Cafe.  And then I guess there are the bridges, which are pretty pretty.

But then there is the combination of dreadful public transportation and massive overflow of traveling punk kids.  Every moment I thought I was starting to enjoy Portland, I would just need to attempt to travel a short distance to dip back into my pit of rage.  Whereas I received nothing but kindness in Seattle (save for, strangely, the staff at the Egyptian Theater), I dreaded any amount of interaction here.

There are indeed cities that I would visit Portland over if forced into the opportunity - Vancouver and Washington D.C. come to mind - but that is because those other cities are boring.  Portland offers a few bright spots, but is also perhaps the only city which actively makes me angry.

These thoughts have led me to evaluate my current place of living, which amounts to -

Minneapolis = B+

I most certainly gave this city an A- upon moving here in 2004, but the loss of Rock & Roll Ray, the Uptown Bar, and the pre-renovation Uptown Theatre have left their marks.  Regardless, we still have the best repertory film scene that I have encountered (even over New York, but that might be because I wasn't paying enough attention), with the Heights and the Trylon in particular being able to stand alongside the very best theaters in the world.  The art museums are nice, the food scene is pretty great, the Mall of America is the Mall of America, and the public transportation isn't so mediocre once you consider that it runs a hell of a lot later than Portland's.  A big downside is the terrible filmmaking community at large, but who knows, maybe every city is this bad on average.

I like Minneapolis.

The only cities which I would hand out an A to would be Kobe, Tokyo, and Atlantic City.  I am also quite fond of Shenzhen, Osaka, St. Paul, Chicago and my stupid hometown of Wausau due to my stupid nostalgia (maybe it would be better to substitute it with Green Bay/Appleton, but whatever).
(2015 Update: scratch those two & add in Florence and San Francisco to round out a Top Ten)

As long as I'm reviewing things . . . ice cream played a big role in this Pacific Northwest journey, and I realized at one point that I had tasted ten different flavors why not a ranking?

1. Strawberry Honey Balsamic (Salt & Straw, Portland)
2. Whiskey (Kiss Cafe, Seattle)
3. Honey Lavender (Mandy Moons, Seattle)
4. Rhubarb Crumble (Salt & Straw)
5. Sea Salt & Caramel (Salt & Straw)
6. Olive Oil (Salt & Straw)
7. Coffee & Bourbon (Salt & Straw)
8. Pear & Bleu Cleese (Salt & Straw)
9. Vanilla (Byways Cafe, Portland - it came with a delicious Strawberry Rhubarb pie)
10. Strawberry (Mandy Moons, ranked last because it was supposed to be Strawberry Balsamic)

5.16.2013

business trip



My favorite episode of sitcom television is season 5, episode 8 of The Office, "Business Trip."

There are others that perhaps come close.  Some BBC Office episodes, the early years of Roseanne,  or season 2, episode 22 of Parks & Recreation, "Telethon."

But no, it is "Business Trip," an episode that I find myself watching the most when boredom strikes which exemplifies all that is good about this particular show, mainly wonderful character dynamics and a lack of fear regarding poignant dramatic moments.

Every story in "Business Trip" is a delight.  The cold opening features Meredith's spectacular line reading of "Hello," Ryan and Kelly get back together as Daryl saunters off into the sunset, Pam returns from New York, and Oscar and Andy join Michael on a business trip to Canada.  Perhaps it is my love of hotels, but that one really takes the delicious cake.  On one hand, there are the interactions between Andy and Oscar which turned the latter into my favorite character for the remainder of the series.  On the other hand, there is Michael and the hotel concierge, which leads to a phone call with David Wallace that stands as my favorite moment of the show. In an instant the episode slips from hilarity to heartbreak, showcasing what made it stand out from the pack over the last decade of television.

A story: I abandoned television for six years following the disappointment that was the 8th season of the X-Files.  I finally returned in late 2006, thanks in part to The Office.  On November 9, 2006, I offhandedly watched the 7th episode of season 3, "Branch Closing," whose cold opening concerning Future Dwight remains my favorite of the series.  There was no turning back.  It became one of the few shows that I viewed on a weekly basis, and I caught up by watching the second season on Netflix (backwards though, for no particular reason).  Repeat episodes on late night TV and online have become the equivalent of my comfort food.  And now, the final episode airs tonight.

Here is a list of what I remember to be my favorite episodes of The Office, after briefly glancing at wikipedia episode synopses.

Season 2, Episode 7 - "The Client"
Season 2, Episode 11 - "Booze Cruise"
Season 2, Episode 12 - "The Injury"
Season 3, Episode 7 - "Branch Closing"
Season 3, Episode 17 - "Business School"
Season 4, Episode 12 - "The Deposition"
Season 4, Episode 13 - "Dinner Party"
Season 5, Episode 8 - "Business Trip"
Season 5, Episode 25 - "Broke"
Season 8, Episode 16 - "After Hours"

Also, that opening Creed segment in Season 7, Episode 25's "Search Committee."

I thought I would have something more to say.

5.10.2013

a personal history of anime


I recently traced back and discovered what the very first anime is that I consciously remember watching. Macross Plus in 1998, at GenCon in Milwaukee, WI.  I always thought that my first anime was Galaxy Express 999, but I would' ve caught this on Sci-Fi Channel's wonderful Saturday Anime block, consisting of a plethora of works from the 80s and early 90s.  However, this doesn't add up, as my family did not get cable until the summer of 1998.  I had gotten my mom hooked on X-Files and she wanted to see the 5th season finale before the film came out.  I don't believe I discovered the anime block until months later, but that GenCon would've occurred in August.  So there you go.

I also discovered that I came into anime fandom right when the new 'golden age' had just begun to fall apart.  Throughout the 80s and 90s, more anime appeared on OVAs - Original Video Animations made direct-to-video - than TV series'.  Much like the live-action Japanese counterparts where filmmakers such as Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa got their start, these OVAs allowed for greater creative freedom and variations from established formulas.

This all changed in 1995 with Neon Genesis: Evangelion.  A mammoth phenomenon, it not only reinvented how both mecha and psychological issues would be dealt with in the medium, but also how basic narrative arcs would play out (except for those last two episodes).  While TV anime at the time continued to showcase a wide variety of styles (Lain and Escaflowne, for instance), this was the beginning of its slow decline.

1998 not only marked my entry into anime, but was also the first year that the number of TV series outweighed OVAs - and by quite a significant number.  This is also reflected in their live-action cinema counterparts, as the OVA market in Japan saw a massive decline as the 2000s began (which would lead to far less quality in Japanese cinema, as still seen today).  And with this brought problems.  With TV studios now in charge, basic successful formulas would soon be relied on again and again, phasing out radical shifts in narrative and style in favor of what was known to be bankable.  To make another comparison, one could look at modern Hollywood.  Filmmaking is a business, and this is what happens time and again.  So it goes.

I did not anticipate this at the time.  In 1998, thanks to cable, I was exposed to the wonder of Sci-Fi Channel's Saturday anime and Kiki's Delivery Service on the Disney Channel.  In 1999, I knew someone who worked at a Blockbuster who nabbed a VHS copy of Princess Mononoke before it hit shelves.  But it was in 2001 when my love truly blossomed, as I began to see more of old high school friends that exposed me to (in chronological order) Dual, Trigun, Escaflowne, and Lain.  Later that year, Cowboy Bebop would be aired as part of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim line-up, which began the massive influx of anime on American TV.  I did not care for the first two episodes, returning for episode 5 only because a website I don't remember called it one of the greatest episode of anime in existence.  It was pretty much right.

It should be noted that 2000 also saw the release of Love Hina, which was the template for what all anime comedies would follow from there on out.  It in itself took from Tenchi Muyo, but there was an 8-year difference between the two so this new series could be attributed to the modern boom.

2002 exposed me to the familial ties that an otaku culture, at its best, is capable of creating.  My friends had a habit of purchasing one anime and sharing it with the whole group, thus cutting down costs for everyone.  I joined the fray with Boogiepop Phantom, which I knew nothing about, and boy was I ever lucky.  I followed it up with Now & Then, Here & There, which continued the luck, and Soultaker, which ended my tiny streak. Anime could be bad and boring, I discovered.

2002 was also when I began to regularly attend anime conventions, which were more fun (only in my head, perhaps) back in the day.  That year was before anyone really cared about official licensing, so the newest bootleg anime could be screened without a moral quandary.  I remember watching RahXephon, Azumanga Daioh, and .Hack//Sign at that year's GenCon.  It was glorious, and I fell right into the close-knit community feel of these events.

2003 would mark the beginning of a massive downward spiral.  Not only did Naruto premiere, that never-ending anime which brought on a new, young, abrasive generation of fan, but also Fullmetal Alchemist.  The anime in itself is not bad, but its narrative and stylistic formula - passed down a bit from Evangelion - would begin to stick to most releases onward.  I was still oblivious, however, admiring bootlegs of Voices of a Distant Star and finally appreciating Mamoru Oshii through his life action film collection.  When I moved to Minneapolis in 2004, I brought with me a stack of bootlegs to keep me busy.  X, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Agent, Paranoia Agent.  But there was also the onset of worry.  In Noir, Last Exile, and Scrapped Princess, I recognized a very similar narrative formula, and this led to lesser enjoyment.

And then 2005, where it all went to hell.  Not only did I attend an abhorrent anime convention in - Ohio? I forget - where I was filming a documentary on cosplaying that first began to turn me off of the new otaku fanbase, but Air! was released in Japan.  Created by Tatsuya Ishihara and KyoAni, it was the first to establish a super-cute - kawaii, as the kids say - style of drama that would be the template for all dramas to follow.  On the other hand, 2006 saw the release of Code Geass, whose sleek style and action formula remains in my head as what everything else looks and feels like ever since.  These were both massive hits, so replication of such became the first order of business.

I spent 2005 still enjoying Beck, Monster, and Honey & Clover, but also saw disappointment in Speed Grapher, Basilisk, and Trinity Blood.  These three titles were picked up by FUNimation, and I was able to have a conversation with their vice president at the time who hinted at this acquisition.  It was a joy, being kind of in the know, but it only led to disappointment.  These offered nothing new.

It was all downhill from there.  Less and less anime felt interesting and unique, while the fanbase grew younger and younger.  2006 had Bartender, 2007 had Bokurano.  2008 even had Kaiba, a series I never got into but at least admired its spectacularly original vision.  But that was it.  In 2008, Ghost Hound was the final anime series (to this day) which I wholly enjoyed.  I did continue to attend the occasional anime convention for a while, though it always led to a vague sense of loss and disappointment.  2009 then saw the collapse of ADV, the once-behemoth of American anime distribution.  The modern golden age of anime was surely long over.

It is not that anime back then is better than the anime of today, though I believe that to be true.  It is that the intentions behind the creation and marketing of anime has shifted, and in doing so, so has the basic construction of the medium.  Anime is now a brand, something to uphold and keep unchanged because this is what the people know and love.  It happens in every entertainment medium, at one point or another.  I'm sure it happened with anime in the past, long before I was a fan.  And anyway, at least the anime film industry continues to produce stellar work.

All of this does not make me any less melancholy.

August will be my 15th anniversary of seeing Macross Plus.

Cheers.

5.01.2013

VCR in the corner


There is a Hitachi VT-M273A VCR in my apartment hallway.

It was placed there close to two months ago, alongside a small television, a silver briefcase, and a blender with a sign exclaiming, 'free.'

The VCR is all that remains.

It was originally placed against the wall next to the back exit of the building.  However, it now rests against a wall on a landing down a small set of stairs, halfway to the laundry room.  I am unsure how it got there.

I fear that this VCR will remain there for the forseeable future.  I myself would save it, except that I own 2 perfectly functional VCRs already.  There must exist a trip to a Goodwill at some point down the line, and I suppose it can travel with me to be donated.  Still.  Nobody in my building desires it.

A history of the decline of VHS.  The last film put out on the medium by a Hollywood studio was The History of Violence in 2005.  On December 31, 2008, the final load of VHS in America were shipped out by Distribution Video Audio.  The last VCR-only unit was produced on October 28, 2008.  I have heard rumors of VHS/Blu-Ray combo units, though the only one I can locate is the Panasonic DMP-BD70V that is currently selling on Amazon for $3199.99.

However.  VHS have still appeared, now and again.  Hayazo Miyazaki's Ponyo was released on VHS in Japan, as was Paranormal Activity in the Netherlands.  House of the Devil and Trash Humpers made it to the format, and other independent horror films have followed suit, many through the Mondo division of the Alamo Drafthouse.  There also seem to be VHS conventions and fests in such places as Stroudsburg, PA and Syracuse, NY.

None of this information helps the VCR propped up in a corner of my apartment building.