Saturday, July 13, 2013

Transcendence, intimacy, flow: musings on Pacific Rim. Last Monday I saw Pacific Rim. It was a last-minute decision that I agonised about, because Roadshow in its wisdom had chosen to schedule the preview screening on the same night, at the same time, as an already announced screening of Sony's This Is the End, forcing reviewers to choose which film to see.

I wasn't that jazzed about the idea of 'monsters vs robots' – it seemed like more of the same cynical tentpole pandering to overgrown teenage boys. ("Some manchildren just want to watch the world 'splode." – Michael Caine) I even wrote on Facebook as I sat waiting for the film to start, "This better not make me wish I'd gone to This Is The End."

I shouldn't have worried. The film completely beguiled me. As I write in a review for Junkee, it was joyful and sincere, rather than grim and angsty like so many recent blockbusters featuring alienated men with knitted brows.

"I wear black on the outside 'cause black is how I feel on the inside…"

I emerged from the cinema barely able to keep a massive grin off my face. I smiled all the way home. This was a film about imagination and endeavour, connection and cooperation. It was romantic in the best way: full of heart; and it filled mine. And its breathtaking spectacle was grounded in a universe I wanted to explore further.

I've since read a lot of disparaging reviews, which I can understand and appreciate on an intellectual level but which have failed to sway me. Basically, my love for this film is too deeply felt to be dented by contrary opinions. And while there was some discussion that my review of it for Junkee should be framed as a rebuttal of negative reviews, I don't even feel the need to 'defend' it against 'haters'. I just shrug and go, "Guess they didn't feel it like I did."

As they say on Tumblr, I know that feel. Sometimes a film (or a book, or a TV show) just catches my imagination and dominates my thoughts. When I feel this way about something, I seek out everything I can find about it, from the soundtrack and interviews with the creative personnel to novelisations. (In this case there's a prequel comic, Pacific Rim: Tales from Year Zero.) I obsessively ponder the plot, character and themes. I dream about it.

I almost always keep these obsessions to myself – although they bubble through occasionally – and not simply because, as I mention in that Titanic Re-Obsession 2012 post, 'feelings' are often despised and deprofessionalised in a critical context because they're considered feminine, and I want to be taken seriously as a female critic.

Rather, as a critic I pride myself on the ability to articulate and contextualise my views, rather than just vomiting my emotions onto a page or a screen. There's a certain genre of reviewing, which I dislike and want to distance myself from (and, may I add, one dominated by young men), that puts the feelings first but doesn't examine them and presents them as self-evident truths about the text, spanning from "It was awesome!" to "It was shit!"

Glen Fuller has written a nice summary of Pacific Rim's intertexts, or as he puts it, the film's "geek grammar". In that spirit, I'd like to sketch the film's 'emotional grammar' – to understand its emotional impact on me through a separate set of intertexts that have also inspired these feelings in me.


When I was a kid, the shows I was obsessed with included Astro Boy, Kimba the White LionBattle of the Planets, Voltron and The Mysterious Cities of Gold.

I'm pretty sure Astro Boy set me on a path of fascination with the uncanny valley: robots, cyborgs, and the enhancement of human power through machine interfaces. I was also obsessed with The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, and the Cybermen were my most feared Doctor Who villains.

This robot obsession flourished with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, although my specific feeling as I trod down the steps from Hoyts Mid-City on that Saturday afternoon in 1991 was a sick feeling of dread. I really did worry about a coming nuclear holocaust on August 29, 1997. (On the actual day, I was in the second-year common room at uni, working on my Client-Based Project, and heard a triple j radio announcer making a joke about it.)

I'm surprised that Glen's article didn't mention Voltron and its inferior '90s retread Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. These shows feature human crews in colour-coded suits piloting giant mecha that come together thrillingly to form gestalt mecha. The particular iteration of Voltron I loved was Lion Force Voltron, in which the lions are garaged in various natural environments. At times of battle, the pilots access the lions via a series of elevators, chutes and tunnels.

There was always something jouissant about the ritual with which the lions came together to form Voltron.

The best moment was always, "…And I'll form the head!"

Pacific Rim understands the thrill of such preparatory gestures. The process of the Jaeger pilots being suited up, strapped into their cockpit, their instruments calibrated, their 'neural handshake' initiated (more on this shortly), the cockpit dropped into place as the head of the Jaeger, the Jaeger taking its first deliberate steps, and even its pre-battle flourishes and posing.

The thrill comes from transcendence: from using technology to become something bigger, better and more powerful than oneself. Battle of the Planets similarly understands this metamorphic thrill, and even gives it a ritualistic incantation: "transmute!"

Like Voltron, the five G-Force team members come together to form a weapon (the 'Whirlwind Pyramid'), have their own signature vehicles, and their ship, the Phoenix, 'transmutes' into a giant, indestructible blowtorch called the 'Fiery Phoenix'. I remember the avian shriek it emits after making this transformation. As kids, my cousins and I loved playing G-Force – we would run around shouting "Transmute! Transmute!"


The Mysterious Cities of Gold also had a flying avian ship, the Golden Condor, but I loved the idea that two of its protagonists, the Spaniard Esteban and the Incan Zia, both possess special gold medallions that turn out to be the keys to the Cities of Gold.

I've always loved any story that requires two keys to be turned simultaneously, or two separate pieces of a talismanic whole to be reunited – for instance, Raiders of the Lost Ark's headpiece and staff that work with the sun in the Well of Souls to pinpoint the location of the Ark of the Covenant.

In The Fifth Element, Leeloo is the McGuffin. All along we're told that she personifies the magical ability to combine a 'Divine Light' from four elemental stones to defeat a Great Evil. But the real fifth element is… intimacy. It's only when Korben Dallas kisses Leeloo and tells her he loves her that the world is saved.

This is the same romantic ideal that I loved about The Terminator: "I came across time for you, Sarah." The whole time-loop idea depends on Kyle Reese falling in love with Sarah Connor and impregnating her with John, who then grows up to give Kyle a picture of his mum… that was taken when she was thinking about Kyle… Let's not dwell on it. A person could go crazy thinking about this.

The ancient Greek ideal of soulmates comes from a myth about how the gods split the original, androgynous humans in half, so we will always yearn to find the missing part of ourselves in another person. From this we get corny lines such as, "You complete me." In Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, humans in a parallel world have daemons: constant animal companions that represent their souls. I've pondered this form of intimacy before.

The best thing about Pacific Rim is the idea that a Jaeger is motion-controlled simultaneously by two pilots joined by a 'neural handshake'. They get a hemisphere of the Jaeger's 'brain' each, and enter a state of shared consciousness the film calls 'the Drift'. Only people with a strong personal bond and a shared past are 'Drift compatible'.

We often associate this strong bond with twins. There are all sorts of kooky stories about how twins separated by geography somehow make the same decisions, and can 'feel' their sibling's pain and emotions. It's fodder for fiction, too.

I strongly recall the powerful impression made on me by either Escape to Witch Mountain or Return from Witch Mountain, which I watched at the Box Hill library in the early '80s. The film was about a pair of telepathic twins named Tony and Tia who shared a deep mental connection. Somehow, the most torturous aspect of being probed by evil scientists who want to weaponise their powers is the fact that each twin can experience the other's distress.

In Pacific Rim, Raleigh and Yancy Becket are brothers – not twins, but unnervingly alike. When Yancy is killed during a Drift, I imagine Raleigh's trauma is as terrible as that of the children subjected to violent 'intercision' in Pullman's Northern Lights. Being separated from one's daemon causes both physical and psychic pain.

Intriguingly, the film never suggests there's only ever one person you can Drift with. Instead, the system seems to rely on empathy: recognising and identifying with another person's personality and memories.

What I liked most about the intimacy built by Raleigh and his replacement co-pilot, Mako Mori, was its non-sexual (or, more cynically, proto-sexual) nature. I thought the film was very clever to identify their intimacy in a kendo duel, because martial arts are intimate. Like chess, they are not so much about physically dominating or outlasting an opponent as about anticipating her next move before it occurs to her.

Today, in these post-When Harry Met Sally times, we've learned to identify our feelings of being drawn to another person and bonding with them as sexual attraction, whether overt or latent. I have to confess I have a romantic fascination with the genre of story in which two unlikely people are thrown into an extreme situation (often they are 'on the run') and end up getting it on. (Prime example: The Bourne Identity.) And even the old kinds of homosocial romantic friendship have been retconned into same-sex attraction.

But I liked that Pacific Rim interprets the Drift as 'closeness' rather than necessarily 'lust'. Part of what makes the battle scenes thrilling is the absolute synchronicity of the co-pilots' movements that control the movements of the giant Jaegers – and the knowledge that we're not seeing simply mimicry or choreography but two brains working as one… and two hearts that beat as one.

The pilots transcend their individual selves just as they transcend the limitations of their bodies – but they abandon individuality for one another. That's where the intimacy lies.


Pacific Rim underlines that few people possess the physical and mental toughness required of Jaeger pilots. Controlling a skyscraper-sized mecha demands precision, stamina and on-the-fly problem-solving. In the prequel comic, the Jaeger Marshal, Stacker Pentecost, explains, "It's like trying to solve a Rubik's cube in the middle of a boxing match."

Even filming the sequences set in the Jaeger cockpit was gruelling for the actors, because they were attached to a working hydraulic rig the size of a VW Beetle, in a four-storey mechanical set that rocked in every direction to simulate blows inflicted by the Kaiju. Interviewed about the production, director Guillermo del Toro marvelled that Rinko Kikuchi, who plays Mako, was the only actor who never complained, never 'broke': "I asked Rinko her secret and she said, 'I think of gummi bears and flowers.'"

War has a funny way of identifying excellence in unusual places. (Think of the way that brilliant logical thinkers were recruited to the Bletchley Park codebreaking HQ in WWII by their ability to solve the Times crossword.) In voiceover, Raleigh observes early on that in peacetime, he and his brother Yancy would not have been considered special – they weren't especially sporty, for instance. But in this circumstance, for this task, they were precisely the right people.

Part of what's so beguiling about Pacific Rim is that it makes us ponder our own latent capabilities and our potential to excel under stress. Most of us sit at computers all day. Could we pilot a Jaeger?

Perhaps. On Saturday I was reading a fascinating Good Weekend article about the Holden car manufacturing plant in Elizabeth, South Australia. Gideon Haigh writes vividly about how the production line workers interface with technology:
Watch a while and it becomes exciting. Will they get it done? They never fail. It's even beautiful, in the physical precision and kinaesthetic awareness on display. "On production you learn skills you never thought you had," says Lucinda Gregory, a petite 33-year-old mother of two with 15 years at Holden, of her intricate choreography. "Using two hands at once; doing this while you're doing something else over here ... Each job has a flow. You start one job, and you flow to the next…"
Other workers marvel at the speed and accuracy they and their peers can achieve. But they aren't superheroes. They're ordinary Australians who have become very, very good at their jobs.

More importantly, these people have mastered the art of flow. It's that state of intense, focused concentration on a challenging task in which we lose self-consciousness and awareness of time, becoming completely at one with the task. Athletes call it 'in the zone'. Drummers call it 'in the groove'. Martial artists call it 'mushin'.

Flow is a positive, exhilarating, even addictive state. "The joy is real;" writes Haigh of working at Holden, "nor does it fade." Where do you want to die? Here – or in a HOLDEN JAEGER?

Last year I read an incredible Boston Magazine feature about an elite classical percussionist striving to get into the Boston Symphony, one of the world's top orchestras. He practises up to 20 hours a day, eats healthy power foods and even rehearses in his mind. His preparation is much like that of an elite athlete.

These high-pressure auditions are a test of flow: "If he squeezes his glockenspiel mallet too hard, choking the sound, or if he overthinks the dotted rhythm or fails to adjust to the BSO’s oddly scaled xylophone bars and misses a few notes, the whole thing will be over."

For me the heartbreaking part of the article is when journalist Jennie Dorris meets the percussionist who created this job opening because he lost his nerve, lost his flow, and failed to make tenure.
There’s an edge of panic and uncertainty to his voice, but for the most part he’s remaining calm. It’s when we start to talk about the audition committee that he quickly loses his composure and heads to the bathroom. I hear him crying.
He’s had six auditions since then, but during all of them, his focus has slipped and the negative voices have crept in. He’ll look down at his five-octave Yamaha marimba and not even see it. When he’s given three minutes of Bach to play at an audition, he pays attention not to the simple, beautiful chord changes, nor to the way the dark rosewood resonates so earthily on the low notes, but to the voices in his head: What if I mess up? What are they thinking? What am I thinking? Is this what they want to hear? Is this going well? What if I missed a note? Oh God, I’m lost. It just fell apart. I’m done.
I loved that Pacific Rim didn't shy from the trauma wrought by loss of flow. It's not merely the violent loss of loved ones that makes Raleigh and Mako damaged and self-doubting, but the disruption of their flow.

The film refers to getting lost in the Drift as going 'down the rabbit hole' – a reference to both Alice in Wonderland and The Matrix. (Inception calls this state 'limbo'.) When Mako enters the rabbit hole during her first Drift with Raleigh, she's succumbing to the same spiral of fear and self-doubt that plagues the failed percussionist.

By co-piloting the Jaeger Gipsy Danger, Raleigh and Mako aren't simply transcending their individual, vulnerable selves. And they're not simply two halves of a single soul reuniting. Their partnership is a dialogue. They trust, reassure and strengthen each other. They get their flow back.

Kimba the White Lion, which is burnished in my memory out of proportion to its actual clumsiness, is a story about overcoming the loss of home and family to become a peacemaker between warring humans and animals. Similarly, Pacific Rim is a fable of recovery and resilience, both personal and global, through joyful human cooperation.

As Sarah Connor would say, "The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves."

As Stacker Pentecost would say, "Today, we are cancelling the apocalypse!"

Saturday, July 06, 2013


MIFF films that will have a later release. Last year Cerise Howard provided a brilliant service to the Melbourne film review community – letting people know which Melbourne International Film Festival films have Australian distributors attached so you can 'keep your powder dry' and spend your time, festival dollars and pass slots on stuff that will be hard to track down later.

I don't know if Cerise is making a list again this year as she's overseas. So, once again, I've made one myself. The Thousands coverage is quite early, so I've already made notes of distributors and release dates, if I know them.

Last updated 6 July: this list will change as more dates are announced and distributors rejig the films currrently on their schedule. Please also note that some titles with no dates attached are likely to turn up on DVD or TV rather than in cinemas. Please let me know any films I might've missed and I'll update it.

A Band Called Death – Madman
The Act of Killing – Madman
A Field in England – Madman
A Hijacking – Madman
Aim High In Creation! – Antidote
Ain't Them Bodies Saints – Roadshow
Ain't Misbehavin' – IFM World Releasing
A Touch of Sin – Curious
The Attack – Transmission
A Werewolf Boy – Madman
Becoming Traviata – Potential
Bekas – Rialto
The Best Offer – 29 August, Transmission
Big Name No Blanket – Night Sky Films
Blackfish – Madman
Blancanieves – 15 August Rialto
Blue Ruin – Madman
The Broken Circle Breakdown – Hopscotch
Camille Claudel 1915 – 14 November, Rialto
Cheap Thrills – Madman
Child's Pose – Palace
Cosmic Psychos: Blokes You Can Trust – Umbrella
Dirty Wars – Madman
Downloaded – Madman
Drinking Buddies – Sony
The East – Fox
The End of Time – Palace
Exposed – Potential
For Those in Peril – Madman
Foxfire – Umbrella
Frances Ha – 15 August, Transmission
Fruitvale Station – Roadshow
Galore – Hopscotch
Ginger and Rosa – 21 November, Transmission
Gloria – Rialto
In Bloom – Palace
Ilo Ilo – Madman
John Dies at the End – Madman
Like Father, Like Son – Rialto
Lovelace – 26 September, Roadshow
Magic Magic – Studio Canal
Michael H. Profession: Director – Madman
The Missing Picture – Sharmill
Mood Indigo – Vendetta Films
The Moo Man – Rialto
Muscle Shoals – Madman
Mystery Road – 17 October, Dark Matter
Nowhere Boys – ABC3
Omar – Madman
Patrick – Umbrella
Paradise: Faith – Curious
Paradise: Hope – Curious
Paradise: Love – Curious
Passion – Transmission
The Patience Stone – 5 September, Rialto
Prince Avalanche – Madman
Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer – Madman
Red Obsession – Roadshow
Rhino Season – Madman
The Rocket – 29 August, Curious
The Selfish Giant – Rialto
Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's – Hopscotch
Shopping – Madman
The Spectacular Now – Disney
The Spirit of '45 – 5 December, Rialto
Stoker – 29 August, Fox
Stories We Tell – 26 September, Palace
Stranger By The Lake – Madman
The Sunnyboy – Jotz Productions
Tenderness – Palace
These Final Hours – Footprint
The Stone Roses: Made of Stone – Madman
This Ain't No Mouse Music! – Antidote
Tim Winton's The Turning – Madman
Twenty Feet from Stardom – 17 October, Transmission
Upstream Color – 22 August, Palace
V/H/S 2 – Roadshow
Wadjda – 19 September, Hopscotch
The Weight of Elephants – Transmission
What Maisie Knew – 22 August, Madman
What Richard Did – Madman
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