All the graduate students are settling in.  Now comes the swarm of undergrads. Assorted departmental events require my attentions.  Fortunately, I enjoy being back in the swing of things.

Writing projects are swarming around me.  I am finishing up an essay on the Fantastic in German cinema for the World Cinema Directory, an article for the Knutpunkt 2011 publication on film documentation about LARP, transcriptions of interviews for a colleague (they’re almost done, Jon!), an article about asexuality in Alan Moore film adaptations and a presentation about Gojko Mitic for the 2010 GSA in Oakland, which I am visiting in a month.  Still committing several hours to dissertation reading/research a day, as well.

Our role-playing life also looks quite fruitful this fall.  We are planning on playing a weekly swashbuckling game (system undecided: Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies, Lady Blackbird and Swords without Master are all tantalizing possibilities.) Then we just received offers to play Apocalypse World, as well as a Smallville game hack based on The Lost Years of Merlin, and there are several game days in our future for September and October. Great to have a torrent of RPG opportunities after the drought of Berlin!

Speaking of torrents, apparently Hurricane Earl lost its steam as it swarmed up the coast, though some places got hit a little.


Mao’s Last Dancer (Bruce Beresford, USA, 2009)

I knew nothing about this film before I saw it, but Fatih Akin’s Soul Kitchen (2009) – a great multicultural farce – was sold out just when we arrived, so in we went.  A ballet film about the life of a Chinese ballet dancer who manages to make it to capitalist America during the 1980s to become a star.  I was struck by how much the film directly references The 36th Chamber of the Shao-Lin (1978) during his boyhood training montage, and how the musical score articulates redundant emotional cues in the fashion of a melodrama.  This would have been a fantastic made-for-TV movie, but on the big screen it was slightly silly.  Nevertheless, the revolution-kitsch sequence where all the ballet dancers are given guns and are marching off toward the communist future was worth the ticket.

Firefly (Episodes “Trash” and “Shindig”, 2002)

I have noticed in re-watching old Firefly episodes that the tongue-in-cheek atmosphere from the show stems not only from the snappy dialog, “aw shucks” guitar-twangy soundtrack, or absurd plot pickles, but from the characters’ eyebrows.  That’s right – situations tend to revolve around an interplay between some scenic element and the raising and lowering of a prominently placed character eyebrow.  Let’s look at some examples:

The episode “Trash” opens with Captain Mal sitting in a desert, naked. A close-up of his face has him raise his eyebrow prominently in the sunlight before sardonically stating: “Well, that went well.”  The eyebrow raise heightens the contrast already posed by his statement and his situation.

Flashback to earlier: Mal meets up with an old friend. The man’s moustache is huge, but the eyebrows are what make him sympathetic and avuncular, rather than merely sketchy.  We trust him on behalf of his eyebrows, which he uses most expressively.

Here’s Mal’s eyebrow raise expressing extreme skepticism toward a proposal.  Yes, we as the viewers would turn that crazy offer down, too:  eyebrow raising as a means of building sympathies with characters’ worldviews.

Inara’s eyebrows are clearly the most impressive in the show, and are the primary reason for our attraction to her – the way they help frame her eyes, along with her long black hair.  Expressions of mystery, tranquility and innocence – the eyebrows of a domesticated vamp.

Kaylee has a great idea. And how do we know it’s great? By raising her eyebrows during a moment of creativity and confidence. Eyebrows as indicators of inspiration and “thinking outside the box,” perhaps of thought itself.

Here’s a good example of eyebrows as a suspense mechanism: Wash the pilot tries to keep his ship steady by raising it and lowering it, just as his eyebrows similarly raise and lower.  Eyebrows can function as a suspense mechanism, building inherent tension through the uncertainty of their fluttering.

Last, but not least, Jayne is immobilized on an operating table.  Only his face can move, exaggerating the series’ idiomatic reliance on facial cues for humor to the point of near-absurdity.  Jayne is imprisoned in his facial gesticulations, demonstrating them to be useless in persuading others’ of his point of view.  The scene re-affirms the eyebrow as humor mechanism while self-reflexively pointing out its inability to have a lasting impact on reality, unlike the eyebrow twitches found throughout the rest of the show.

Now I could be reading too much into eyebrow characteristics found in all television, but this episode somehow illustrated them most effectively.

SoulCalibur (Namco, 1999)

After firing up my Dreamcast from a year-long hiatus, I revisited an old classic: SoulCalibur, one of the best games for the console and prettiest fighting games ever made.  In light of present-day CG technologies, the game’s look stands up to the test of time.  Hues and contrast in the background still remind me of 19th Century landscape paintings, and the fight choreography still draws me in to emulate it.  Cursory research revealed that the game’s success as a fighting title (in contrast with Tekken and VirtuaFighter) can be owed to something called “lenient buffering,” which allows for easier execution of complicated moves to both beginners and experts alike.  This flexible valence on the learning-curve makes it a remarkably egalitarian game, as button-mashers can still take on pros (especially with Siegfried or Misturugi), whilst the latter can always find new combinations of attacks and defenses for certain scenarios.  Later versions of the game diminished this balance by adding too many chain combinations, juggling maneuvers and gimmicks in general to the mix, which makes it a slighly nicer looking version of most other fighting games.  In the meantime, I enjoy the lenient buffering of the original.




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