Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The 25: Part 18: Ghost In The Shell

(The twenty five is an examination of the twenty five films that made me a cinephile. These aren’t necessarily what I consider the best movies, nor are they necessarily my favorite. Though in some cases they are both. Instead these are the films that made the biggest most indenialable impression on me. Films that if they hadn’t hit a certain way at a certain time I would not be the same film goer that I am today. They’re the twenty five.)

“Incorrect I am not an AI. My code name is Project 62501. I am a living thinking entity who was created in the sea of information.”

-Ghost In The Shell-

I assure you that shit blew my mind back in the day.

Some movies stick in the mind just by virtue of getting there first. Had been I exposed to the idea’s of replication and the implications it has in terms of identity, particularly in the digital era, by William Gibson, Stanley Kubrick, Phillip K. Dick, Neal Stevenson, or hell even Steven Spielberg first, I may have not reacted so strongly. But the fact is that Ghost In The Shell DID get there first, and those ideas DID connect with me on a very primal level. Shaping not so much the way I view the world as the questions I wanted to ask about it.

But it didn’t just affect my ideas about life, but filmmaking and genre. Ghost In The Shell transcended the ideas of genre as thoroughly as Katsuragi and The Puppet Master transcended the ideas of consciousness. Ghost In The Shell taught me Genre has upon it only the limitations the creator’s of it, and you as a viewer set. You’re restricted only by the story you tell and the strength of the metaphor you create.

Ghost In The Shell tells the story of a government black operative who is caught up in a battle between dueling government agencies to control, contain or destroy an entity called The Puppet Master. A sapient being that spontaneously generated from “The Sea Of Information.”

What is truly amazing is how prescient and fresh Ghost In The Shell still feels fifteen years later . Both in style and ideas. Like William Gibson our world has simply caught up to it.

The film is in a sense built around two set pieces, a chase through and gun battle in, a crowded Farmer’s Market that creates a future world as vivid, believable, and immersive as any I’ve ever seen. A sprawl where people seem to actually live, rather then a simple Neon Depository. All this while delivering a running gun battle worthy of Woo at his very best, which makes good use of the rules and physics of the world it has established (note the metal roof crumpling under the weight of The Major's cybernetic body).

(I've always loved this insert shot of the assassin bracing himself with his foot before opening fire. Such a small detail but adds so much realism and danger)

The other involves a long dreamy montage at the center of the film. At the center of which comes this series of shots.

The above series of shots is engaging because we don’t know how literarily we are supposed to take it. Is the sight just a consequence of the heroine’s disconnected fugue state, or is this the ultimate result of the cheapening of identity that this film prophesied and the digital era promises. It’s worth noting that Joss Whedon won plenty of accolades for essentially copying this film’s technology and moral debates verbatim.

This is a more visual piece then I’m usually do, if only because the movie’s strength’s rest so strongly in them. And I’m not simply talking about empty style, but the communicativeness of the images. This pathetic lost look of dawning incomprehension, the look of the damned, on the ghost hacked would be assassin, as he realizes just how little he knows about “himself” is worth a thousand wordy monologues about how fragile a construct identity is.

And I happen to know this because Ghost In The Shell actually does contain a thousand wordy monologues on that subject.

And here lies the rub for a lot of people with this movie. Ghost In The Shell plays long for a movie that just barely cracks the eighty minute barrier with the help of two long credit sequences. Personally I mean that in a good way. It’s a hallmark of Mamoru Oshii as a filmmaker that he takes his damn sweet time when it comes to pace. And for me his meditative evocative montages are highly affecting. The above montage has a “sister” of sort late in the film just before the climax that focuses on what are basically the action sci fi equivalent of pillow shots accompanied by a low atonal guitar. A striking moment of quiet before the gruesome finale that I always find beautiful and haunting.

Unfortunately long didactic monologues are also a trademark of Oshii which means that the film is filled with shots of the characters staring directly into the screen, delivering paragraphs of dialogue that seem like the result of an epic night of brainstorming between Hideaki Anno and Lana Wakowski.

Speeches like this...

"There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries."

-Delivered in a single uninterrupted breath by an actor who only seem to vaguely comprehend what she’s saying cannot help but come off as Hokey. Some of the problem probably stems from me watching The American Dub (I’m normally a sub purist but considering that the dub was the version I watched and rewatched after taping it off of The Action Channel at fourteen it seems only fair) But all the blame can’t be put on the dubbing. A pedantic ranting monologue by any name…

It must also be admitted that narrative clarity has also never been Oshii’s strong suite. And Ghost In The Shell is no exception. Oshii is splendid at communicating his idea’s and action visually, but not his stories. True the task of condensing a long running manga series into seventy five minutes is never easy. But it might have been wise for Oshii to not place quite so much emphasis in the plot on the cloak and daggering of fictional bureaucracies whose function and relationship to each other are vague at best. It also carries with it (as those who have seen the above wildly unrepresentative poster that began the article) that special tang of gender confusion that only anime can have. The kind that makes The Major genuinely one of the most well rounded, capable, and interesting female characters in Science Fiction and yet has to strip down to her lovingly detailed skivvies whenever she wants to use her technology.

Still if the film is overly earnest in its ideas it is only because it is so obviously taken with them. The vibrancy of the world and the radicalness of its concepts and ambition won me over such petty flaws then, and they do anew each time I rewatch Ghost In The Shell.


le0pard13 said...

This is one of the all-time best sci-fi films, ever. I so agree with you as to how prescient it is (and likely remains). Thanks, Bryce.

Budd said...

Great movie, Ron Perlman should play the detective if, God forbid, they should ever do a live action version.

Biba Pickles said...

I remember watching this with my mom when I was like 7. Then we watched Akira. I was never the same again.

Bryce Wilson said...

@le0pard13: Thanks again for the kind words.

@Budd: Huh hadn't thought of that. That's a good choice. Then again I more or less feel Ron Perlman should play everything.

@ Biba: Explains alot ; )