Contemporary Contextualization: Mozart’s “Lacrymosa,” Part 1

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Contemporary Contextualization: Mozart’s Requiem in Pop Culture Television

Teen Wolf, Season 3a, Episode 8, “Visionary”

Teen Wolf is an MTV series that springboards from the eponymous 1985 film and incorporates European and Asian folklore with a personable and complex cast of characters and fast paced plots to build a momentous popular narrative with a passionate following and an exemplarily creative fanbase. Since its inception in 2011, it has garnered over a dozen Teen Choice Awards, and its actors have seen their careers take off in popularity: one third of the original main cast members have since secured roles in high-profiled movies.

The show began in 2011, and has gained an immense following of fans. Over 17 fanmade conventions (one of which is a hop, skip, and jump away in New Jersey, Howlercon) and very creative fanbase with over 50,000 works of fanfiction on Archive of our Own,  40,000  fanvids on Youtube, and 25,000 pieces of fanart on DeviantArt.

The show supports a demographically diverse audience by resonating on several levels and pulling from (and putting a creative spin on) familiar mythology. While themes of high school cliques, sports, and popularity taps into the primary YA demographic, subtexts and commentary on prejudice, gender, and homosexuality engages an adult audience as well. It is during the development of one of these “more mature” sub-themes that Lacrymosa is played: in a flashback episode, the audience is given information on the background of the Big Bad of the Season. The leader of a (friendly) werewolf pack agrees to meet with a hunter under the premise of discussion of a treaty. Said hunter uses the guise of peace to capture and blind the werewolf leader by the classical Greek method. The moment of the leader being blinded  triggers a spin into insanity and obsession with the acquisition of strength and power. This crystallizing moment cements both characters on a destructive path, and the choir beseeches “Dona eis requiem” in the background.

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Reconciling WWII Human Rights Violations through Art

Dark Pasts, Bright Futures: Reconciling WWII Human Rights Violations through Art  

 

“Art shows us who we think we were, who we are, and who we are on the brink of becoming.”

 

It is a common point of frustration and complaint among young American scholars in Germany that the Nazi regime is erased from public discourse and apparently public memory. I remember quite clearly, one day after a lecture in my DAF (Deutsche Als Fremdsprache) Twentieth Century German History course at Universität Stuttgart with other foreign exchange students, a diatribe among my colleagues as we walked back to the S-bahn. One of the young men was incensed by the way the professor had glazed over direct questions about the hateful, inhuman Nazis.

The rant is a familiar one to any American holding even a passing acquaintance with modern day German society. My mind drifted to a previous semester’s reading while still in the United States: Harald Welzer and several others had tackled this cognitive distancing with a book entitled “Opa war kein Nazi” or “Grandad wasn’t a Nazi” in 2003. My lingering impression of that work was the enormity of reconciling the image of your loving grandpa, who spoils you nonstop, with someone who may have committed atrocities or at least turned a blind eye to them.

Past hurts are often the deepest. How do we tend to them? 

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Memorial Day Sunday, May 25, 2014: Christ of the Hills Church, Hot Springs Village, AR

After applauding for the men and women who had served in the military, the congregation of this Methodist church began singing a patriotic hymn, and my eyes wander over the people around me as the familiar words tumble out of my mouth with rote certainty.

Some of these individuals were members of the G.I. Generation and fought in World War II. I had recently viewed The Railway Man in the theater, a film starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. Based on an autobiography, the protagonist Eric Lomax had suffered inhumane indenture and torture at a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The Japanese beat the prisoners. The Japanese treated the prisoners as slaves. A young Lomax was waterboarded on screen. His psyche was shattered by what he experienced in the War. Much of the frame of the story takes place in the years after the war as the survivors carry on with their lives. One of Lomax’s friends and fellow comrade from the FEPOW camp, described their common struggle with “battle fatigue.” (“Battle fatigue” is the antiquated term for the psychological difficulty soldiers have with reacclimating to civilian life after traumatic experience. We now refer to this as PTSD.)

 

When we surrendered, the Japs said we weren’t men. Real men would kill themselves or die of shame, but we said “No. We’ll live for revenge.” But we didn’t. No, we don’t live. We’re miming in the choir. We can’t love. We can’t sleep. We’re an army of ghosts.

Stellan Skarsgård as Finlay, The Railway Man

 

Hatred and revenge tear at the minds of the survivors of the war. They don’t escape the memory of the inhumanity of man. Tragically, this story is not unfamiliar to the American audience. While The Railway Man is a film based in autobiography, other permutations of the same story have come to the silver screen with a perhaps disturbing regularity.

In 1983, David Bowie (well known to my generation for handsomely daring a young girl to traverse “through dangers unknown” to protect her baby brother) and Ryuichi Sakamoto (well known to American Otaku for his breathtakingly beautiful orchestral compositions) starred in the Japanese-British film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Based on the novel The Seed and the Sower by Laurens van der Post, this film even-handedly shows the psychologically destructive force of war on both captor and captive in a WWII Japanese prisoner of war camp. In the film, all men are oppressed by the experience, reducing them to their basic emotions. Sex, shame, violence, hunger, grief, self righteousness, and survival are all touched upon in a disorienting pace. Once again, the white POWs struggle with the Japanese concept of honor and shame in the face of human rights violations: the trailer remarks, “They were all honorable men, but oh what deeds could be done in the name of honor.” This film once again showed the American audience atrocities committed by the Japanese on Allied forces, but it wasn’t the first major motion picture to do so.

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The Bridge On the River Kwai premiered in 1957, won seven Academy Awards, and is a considered classic in American film. Based on a novel of the same name by Frenchman Pierre Boulle, a white officer played by Alec Guinness pridefully bears starvation and entrapment in an enclosed cage as he refuses to give up the rights guaranteed to himself and his men in the Geneva Convention. The most fantastic and exaggerated telling of the goings-on in labor camps, the men prisoners arrive at the camp whistling a cheerful tune, and at the end of the movie, depart in the same manner. The captive Lieutenant Colonel bests the Japanese Camp Commandant through pure stubbornness in the face of darkness and death.

These three films, while the chronologically first two are based on novels and the third based on autobiography, are remarkably similar. All three are set in prisoner of war camps. The Railway Man is set in a construction camp for the Burma railway, which is the same railway to traverse the bridge over the river Kwai in that film. Despite the fact that Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence mostly takes place in the hospital wing of a labor camp, human rights violations are a reality for the captives.

These three films touch on our legacy of pain from World War II. Our past hurts are the deepest. Their scars invisible, hidden to the casual everyday observation, only to be drawn out in these works of art. The men who lived these circumstances survive still. How do we honor their sacrifices? How do we acknowledge their suffering with dignity? How do we show them respect, but by looking unflinchingly at what they have endured for our sakes? For our freedom? For our prosperity?

Photo credit: fictiondiversity.com

How do we rectify the horrors committed on us in the past? One answer to this unanswerable question is to acknowledge and remember the horrors we committed on others. In 2011, I first heard George Takei drumming up interest in his self-proclaimed “legacy project”–a musical reflecting his childhood in a Japanese internment camp in Arkansas. Growing up on the East side of the United States, I have no memory of learning about Japanese internment in my primary education. My first acquaintance with it was in a human rights course in college, and I gained more awareness from visiting museums in Oakland and San Francisco when I lived there shortly in the winter of 2005. The barbarity of our own government towards its citizens hovered in the periphery of my mind, but I was all too aware, then, of my peers’ ignorance of this truth.

 

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Now, Americans are much more familiar with this uncomfortable part of our past, and, thanks to Takei, interment is in our society’s consciousness. The latest, and perhaps largest, incorporation of internment into our popular culture was season 3B of MTV’s most popular young adult television show, Teen Wolf. Running January through March of 2014, this season’s story arc incorporates elements of Japanese culture and folklore into the previously established Western supernatural myth structure. A mainstream, young adult audience was presented with the world of oni (Japanese demons), kitsune (trickster fox spirits), yakuza (mobsters), and more. This introduction makes future stylistic or cultural influences from the land of the Rising Sun more accessible and familiar to them. Furthermore, the crux of the season hangs on events that occurred at a World War II Japanese internment camp in California. “The Fox and the Wolf” (episode twenty-one of season two) is an episode conducted almost entirely in flashback, showing the young viewers the hardships endured by displaced Japanese at the hands of often corrupt if not unnecessarily violent military personnel. At one point, the white captors steal much-needed medicine from the internment camp to sell on the black market. For the first time in American television, historical human rights violations by representatives of the US government are presented to a teenage audience. These young people will not only grow up with a more realistic image of our country but also more mature patriotism towards it.

Teen Wolf is not the only piece of popular culture that has ridden the wave of awareness of Japanese internment. On Independence day of this year (2014,) the edutainment giant TED released an article listing ten pop culture artworks reflecting this dark chapter of America’s past. Perhaps the most surprising entry is a song written by a former member of the band Linkin Park telling the story of a family being in an internment camp.

The main antagonist of the aforementioned season of Teen Wolf is an ancient evil spirit possessing a teenage boy. The spirit wreaks havoc on the community, and “draws its power from pain and tragedy, strife and chaos.” In several occasions, it goads characters to draw from past hurts and anger to break into violence. This spirit in many ways symbolizes the destructive force of hatred in societies. “Sometime the hating has to stop,” says Eric Lomax, as he pieces his life back together, confronting the revenants of his traumatic memories from World War II, emerging from the experience in friendship with the Japanese soldier who was his captor in the POW camp.

How do we address the horrors of the past? Reconciliation is the hardest part of conflict resolution. Honesty is not easy. It is not easy to remember the wrongs we have visited on others while someone perpetrates atrocity.  Dialogue is not easy. Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” The way to honor the pain of the past is to strive not to be inhumane in retaliation to inhumanity, but rather to seek the humanity in every person, no matter his/her actions.

 

What Makes Transnational Media Tick? Pt II

In high school English, my blessed teacher Dr. JT stressed literary criticism by inspecting the theme and technique of works. Simply, analyzing transnational media lies along these same lines: we must look at the content and casing to discern transnational merit of works.

When analyzing the dizzyingly broad spectrum of all media, content and casing remain rather nebulous concepts. Casing refers to the techniques used in the execution of a piece of art, while content refers to the underpinning theory or underlying theme it communicates. Another way of looking at this duality is that casing is the packaging or production (value) of a work, while its content is the message or moral portrayed. Casings envelop content: in Great Art, casings conduct and reinforce meaning (content), and in lesser works they act as distraction from it, creating dissonance in the cohesion of the work and detracting from the quality of the end product.

Content and casing are of equal import, but both are to be employed concisely and with economy. During the creation and conceptualization phase, if too much emphasis is placed on casing, the final product is formulaic and empty. Case in point: Superman: Man of Steel (2013) which has astronomical production value but no well-developed content. On the other end of the spectrum, any work that is all content with very little attention to casing or execution would be inaccessible and unmarketable to a large audience. Examples of such works remain obscure and are mostly found as crowd-published literary pieces penned by an author who lives in his own head, or video games designed by someone who only cares about their own enjoyment and not the player’s.

Casings are analyzed on an accessibility gradient ranging from overused cliche or trope, through the familiar, then to novel. Genres, structures, styles, and techniques (such as using tropes, well-known archetypal story arcs, or familiar non diegetic music in film) used within a work are more accessible the more familiar they are, and are harder to process if they are newer and unfamiliar.  If one were to assign numerical value along this spectrum, we would see that younger people on average respond more favorably to material found on the novel side of the scale, versus perhaps elderly, who would respond more strongly to more familiar casings and styles of execution, closer to the overused tropic area.

Contents are analyzed on what I have seen as resonance. Law and Order creator Rene Balcer also described this idea as “cultural pressure points” (In a talk at UPenn’s Kelly Writer’s House, October 30th, 2014.) For franchises and larger works of art, people want something they can sink their hearts into. One feels resonance when one empathizes strongly with a character, or a certain story touches one’s heart, or alternatively one experiences catharsis after watching a protagonist (or antagonist) struggle. Great Art is often qualified by the elicitation of this type of emotional response.  Resonance points, then, are traced from historical, political, economic and sociocultural events through population’s experiencing these episodes to nuggets of truth that deal with, comfort through, or explain these matters. Points of resonance echo in the heart of a people.

All this muddled theory makes more sense when applied to actual works. Let’s develop this further looking at two examples of popular American media previously introduced.

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Teen Wolf is housed in a high school genre, using the familiar young adult structure of absent parents and inept teachers. It also utilizes familiar folklore, specifically werewolves and, later, other fantastic anthropomorphic creatures. Its presentation of scenes both real and unreal blurs the lines of fantasy and reality, a common cinematographic ploy. The content of this series touches on several resonance points: In the story, the protagonist is bitten and turned into a werewolf without his consent, and his ability to exert self-control and even self-awareness is brought into question. This resonates with burning issue of consent in our society and popular discourse. The friendship and bonding of individuals who are very different in personality, temper, and background presented in the story resonates with our society in two ways: US society is founded on the idea of integrating and embracing diversity (i.e. the inclusion of differing individuals) and the increasing visibility and importance of found families. With the inclusion of several well-developed female characters, women’s agency resonates in the story. Family is a final resonance point as the role of family in the process of growing up is a recurring theme through the seasons.

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Supernatural operates within some of the same casings: absent or flawed adult role models, folklore becoming real and the lines of reality and fantasy are blurred. Additionally, this show cashes in on brotherhood. The content corresponds to these structures: morality is a large theme inspected as the male protagonists mature, move from reactive to proactive characters, and change their perspective from a black and white idea of good and evil to more shades of gray. Second to morality, another resonance point tapped is the struggle of balancing familial responsibilities with professional ambition. Using gender identity displacement, the tension of traditional versus non-traditional roles is presented especially in season five. The (male) protagonists are confronted by ancient and almost absolutely powerful adversaries, who compel Sam and Dean into proscribed, traditional paths, outright telling them at one point–in a brilliant ripping from Fox News talking heads–to “know your role.” This application of the burning issue of changing gender roles (especially in regards to women’s roles) is a point of resonance for many women from differing countries, making the show relevant to their lives and exportable across those borders.

The most salient works of Great Art marry casing with content. This is difficult when imagining a single audience, but grows trickier when the ingredient of internationalism is included. Internationally popular casings are fleeting and transient, and symbolism varies greatly (in variety and significance) from the East to the West. A look and feel (casing) of a work may be novel one place and overused somewhere else. Content must similarly differ, and we must suss out pervasive and extensive resonance points to be successful across borders.

 

What makes Transnational Media Tick? Pt 1

 

What makes some art transport profitably overseas and others not? This was the subject of a thesis I wrote while studying at Universite Paris VII Diderot: I used comparative analysis to create a list of commonalities of the successes of Edith Piaf and Daft Punk as artists who gained popularity both within France and the USA. These included: being influenced by diverse artists outside of their immediate cultural sphere, maintaining creative rights, ability to connect and maintain relationship with audiences, continuous transformative creativity while maintaining recognizable fundamental identity.  I posited that meeting these criteria would bolster the chance of  success in both countries.  

These qualities were in regards to particularly music and specifically France, but when dealing with the dissection transnational media, larger forces are at play. Japan and America already have a close, strong friendship with a stronger trade relationship between the two. Our positive relations are so strong, even other countries have taken note. Danish-produced webcomic Scandinavia and the World published a one-cell rendition of this mutual love in 2012 entitled “Fangirls.” SatW features the misadventures of humorous characters who are anthropomorphized nations. In this comic, a female Japan and a female America, each toting artifacts and accessories of the other’s culture, exclaim, “Oh my god!!! I’m your biggest fan!!!”

Our love of Japan is so strong it is frequently manifested in our popular culture. Outside of the internment awareness campaign of George Takei, elements of Japanese pop culture are often cultivated, integrated, or alluded to in our film and television media. In this year’s Hannibal, a highly critically acclaimed NBC miniseries featuring Hannibal Lecter and characters from Thomas Harris’s The Red Dragon, the second season is completely structured after traditional Japanese Kaiseki dinner, with episodes named after course dishes, including Sakizuke, Naka-choko, and Mizumono. American viewers are now aware and curious about this element of Japanese cuisine. Shortly after the season’s premiere, Kaiseki dinners were in high demand, resulting in many societies for the promotion of Japanese culture  and other groups affiliated with Japan to feature them during fundraising banquets.

Another American television series to integrate Japanese culture is the ten-year running Supernatural. It has featured several “monsters” based on Japanese folklore, including Buruburu and okami. Additionally, it has referenced Japanese films like Godzilla vs Mothra and Battle Royale, as well as the recurring mention of hentai by bad-boy protagonist Dean. Additionally, this spring MTV’s Teen Wolf featured a Japanese centric season (3B,) which employed elements of Japanese mythical yōkai creatures, kitsune (fox spirits) and oni (demons).

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Beyond television, American film elevates Japanese culture in increasing frequency by paying homage to Japan’s style and imagination. Pacific Rim (2013) and the Transformers film series (2007-2014) both borrow heavily if not directly from Japanese media. These homegrown pastiches and tributes to Japan edify and proliferate its “cool” public image.
Looking back at Japan’s exportation of media to America, we can break down successful works and franchises, taking them apart and seeing what makes them tick for the two peoples. (Continued in next blog post.)