The End of Serial

The final episode of Serial is out, marking the end of a series that has single-handedly revived the podcast as a cutting-edge medium, with over 20m downloads. For the past two months, the world has been gripped by the case of Adnan Syed, who was convicted in 1999 for the murder of his high-school sweetheart, Hae Min Lee, in Baltimore County. The show has been produced by This American Life, a weekly staple at NPR which has told a self-contained story in an hour, presented for the past twenty years by Ira Glass, who has also been involved in Serial. BBC Radio 4 Extra has just picked it up for broadcast in the UK. However, it has gained its huge following primarily through word of mouth.

Over the past two months, I have heard countless versions of the following conversation:

“Have you been listening to Serial?”

The listener tends to look baffled at this point, as if they have been asked whether they eavesdrop on their breakfast.

“Serial with an S.”

Oh, like serial killer.”

The way that the show’s producer and narrator Sarah Koenig tells it, the idea was to tell one story over a number of episodes, unpacking it gradually and building up a detailed picture of each aspect of the story. “We’ll follow the plot and characters wherever they take us and we won’t know what happens at the end of the story until we get there, not long before you get there with us,” she said on the Serial website. But it’s certainly not the only meaning that the word ‘serial’ evokes, and although the producers were keen to emphasise responsible reporting, true crime has an uneasy relationship with its subjects, profiting from and publicising a crime while simultaneously claiming to stand apart from it as a neutral investigator of truth. As the podcast gained in popularity, online speculation proliferated on sites like Slate and Reddit, of the kind one might expect of a fictional series like True Detective, with some listeners trying to contact the people involved against their wishes.

Koenig has found herself reporting details of the private lives of those relevant to the case (“I’ve had to ask about teenagers’ sex lives – where, how often, with whom?—about notes they passed in class, their drug habits, their relationships with their parents”), and although she has occasionally expressed discomfort with this role, there is a real public interest, because each episode has explored the very real possibility that Adnan is innocent. It turns out that several pieces of the prosecution’s evidence are incoherent and Adnan’s lawyer didn’t use his best alibi (which is significant enough that the Maryland court of special appeals has now shown an interest).

In later episodes, Koenig has been receiving new information from people following the podcasts – people who say they knew what Adnan’s alleged accomplice, Jay, was really like, or that there wasn’t a phone booth where the prosecution claims Adnan made a call. It turns out that there was, in fact, a phone booth there, which raises questions about who might have been calling in, and what their own motivations are. Perhaps the podcast is the best way to call for further witnesses; perhaps it is an open invitation for third parties to manipulate the case by offering false evidence.

Koenig herself has been remarkably restrained. As she points out in the first episode, “I’m not a detective or a private investigator. I’m not even a crime reporter.” She doesn’t presume innocence, as one does in a court case, nor, crucially, does she presume guilt as we do in cop shows, because of the inevitability of their resolution. She found out about the case a year ago from Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer who knows Adnan, and, agreeing with her that the prosecutor’s case had some important inconsistencies, has investigated every piece of evidence with an attitude of cool agnosticism. Koenig has obsessed over its minutiae, spending longer than many lawyers or prosecutors could afford to spend on a seemingly shut case in the quest for a piece of evidence that would reveal what really happened on the day of the murder. But she has also kept a relentless focus on the problems with trusting witness accounts, the difficulty of remembering and accounting for one’s time, the fallibility of any apparent proof, reinventing rules of true crime that have remained largely unchallenged since Truman Capote.

Adnan has now requested a DNA test, which for some reason was never taken by prosecutors at the time of trial, and agreed to participate in Koenig’s series, which does seem to suggest that there’s a chance he may be acquitted. Perhaps having one’s life framed as entertainment, sponsored by MailChimp, Audible, Squarespace and Trunk Club, is the price that the innocent have to pay to interest the world in an old case.

It will be interesting to see what Koenig and her team pick for their second Serial. It could be another murder case, but it doesn’t have to be: it could be a missing person; a lost artefact; a purported art forgery. Her listeners have been fascinated by the case, but not because its details were especially grisly or salacious – rather, it is a testament to her storytelling ability, to have introduced complexity into the story so gradually, guiding the reader through the evidence with so many twists which overturn our assumptions and keep us guessing. (Or, as Adnan puts it to Koenig in a rare loss of composure, after she asks him about stealing money from his mosque as a teenager, “You go from my saviour to my executioner just, like… flip flop, flip flop, like Mitt Romney.”)

The next series will engage a ready-made audience of millions, and whether she likes it or not, that will have a bearing on the lives of her subjects. They are real lives, and that is why we have been gripped, why the stakes are higher, why it’s so important to be responsible. “We don’t know yet what the story will be,” she said in her call for donations, “but whatever it is, we’ll make it good.”

p.s. Any lovers of the Serial theme by Nick Thorburn should check out fafu’s mashup with Notorious BIG on Soundcloud.

Miyazaki’s final vision

The animator-auteur Hayao Miyazaki has announced his retirement many times before, most famously after the success of Princess Mononoke (1997). Unlike most retired people, he has continued to make films, winning an Oscar for Spirited Away (2001) and receiving a nomination for Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). He has claimed that his latest, The Wind Rises (out in the UK on 9th May), really will be his last. “This time I am quite serious,” Miyazaki told theAssociated Press last year. By some counts, this is his seventh retirement.

Since that interview, his friend and co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata, has hinted that Miyazaki may find another project. He will be forgiven if he does decide to break his promise again—Miyazaki is no self-promoting cynic. His films are about people who are trying to do the right thing: to prevent disaster or to save a loved one. His female characters, young and old, are more human than almost anything Hollywood serves up. Even his villains are not as bad as they seem—they often end up getting on pretty well with the other characters.

This sounds worthy, and a recipe for commercial disaster. Yet Miyazaki’s animations are not only hugely popular, they are regarded as some of the greatest films ever made. Part of the appeal is the observational detail that he brings to every scene. The critic Roger Ebert once noted the “gratuitous motion” in his films, which Miyazaki likens to the Japanese concept of ma or emptiness—those little reflective pauses in which we notice an animal shaking itself free of water, or a colleague straightening his waistcoat. These moments create a kind of visual poetry, a celebration of the beauty in the everyday, like the graphic novellas of John McNaught. Miyazaki is a master of these moments. His films would rather make each moment beautiful than cut to the chase, and Miyazaki has no one to curtail his vision: he writes the scripts, designs the storyboards and draws thousands of key frames himself.

The Wind Rises is ostensibly the biography of Jiro Horikoshi, a pioneering aeronautical engineer who was responsible for designing the Mitsubishi A6M Zero Fighter used by the Japanese Navy throughout the Second World War. Although a real historical figure, Miyazaki presents Jiro as a Harry Potterish everyman and tweaks his life story to accommodate his own preoccupations.

When Miyazaki was a child in the 1940s, his father and uncle owned an aviation company that made parts for the Zeros, ensuring that no one in the family was conscripted to fight. Planes appear everywhere in Miyazaki’s work: the ominous shadows passing over the city in Howl’s Moving Castle before an air raid; the possessed paper planes inSpirited Away; the young neighbour’s toy plane in My Neighbour Totoro. And then there’s Porco Rosso, which is about a pig who is a bounty hunter and pilot. There are almost as many planes in that film as there are people.

The Wind Rises begins with a plane. We first meet Jiro as a sleeping child. In his dream, he climbs up onto the roof of his house and gets into a plane with feather-tipped wings, rising up vertically with perfect dream logic. But up there, in the sky, are monsters, loitering on bombs like the shadowy pilots in Howl’s Moving Castle. Jiro falls and lands… in reality.

He has woken up. The mosquito netting around him is blurred. He puts on his glasses and the room comes into focus. Here we are introduced to one of the most surprising elements of Miyazaki’s final film: it is set in the real world. His final challenge to himself has been to create a film without strange creatures or transformative curses. This world is governed by normal physics, so much so that the (animated, fictitious) camera has a depth of field and is susceptible to lens flare. Many of Jiro’s conversations concern the precise aerodynamics of the plane he’s designing. We see drawing board diagrams and designs in other Miyazaki films such as Porco Rosso and Totoro, yet in The Wind Risesthere is a new attention to physical reality. We watch over Jiro’s shoulder, like a supervisor, as he notes down the calculations on his slide-rule.

Jiro is an underdog, determined to make a plane to rival the industrial powerhouses to the West, despite Japan’s poor resources. Through his nightly dreams, and days of hard work at his desk, he renders a whole new reality. It couldn’t be a more literal analogy for Miyazaki’s work. Later, the engineer marries a painter—another fitting metaphor. The film is full of painterly skies and sunlit fields, sea and mountains. We see a cherry tree blossoming, moths gathering around lamps, the smoke from a cigarette or a cold breath curling into the air. We watch dappled light move over Jiro’s body on a woodland walk, and even see the shadows of objects offscreen, the silhouette of an unseen tree running across the floor and up the side of a building.

There are no serious antagonists in The Wind Rises. The most important relationship in the film is the love affair between Jiro and Naoko. When she was a child, Jiro saved her and her nanny from the chaos of an earthquake, carrying them from a railroad as burning detritus blew overhead from the city. Now she is a beautiful woman, Claude Monet’s Woman with a Parasol come to life, and she has found him—but, like the mother in My Neighbour Totoro, she has tuberculosis. Jiro and Naoko love each other devotedly, and decide to marry despite her being almost bed-bound, and his being wanted by the interior ministry. It would be hard not to smile at their courtship, watching them throw paper planes onto each other’s balcony, or make youthful declarations to one another.

The central conflict in the film comes from the plane itself. It is the perfect meeting point of the opposing forces that shape Miyazaki’s attitude towards technology: freedom and destruction, one sometimes necessitating the other. In Princess Mononoke, which echoes the earlier film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Ashitaka fights against a human society obsessed with building ever more efficient guns. Miyazaki is always careful to show how technology consumes. The candle that powers the steam boat in Ponyo runs outand there is a constant stream of coal in Kamaji’s boiler room in Spirited Away. Technology can also, sometimes, provide us with a seemingly limitless freedom, captured so well by his vehicles: the magic Cheshire Cat bus in My Neighbour Totoro, which bounds across landscapes in an instant, or the famous moving castle whose doors open onto different cities. In The Wind Rises, the plane embodies all of these qualities at once, belching exhaust fumes, describing perfect ellipses in the sky. It can kill even as it fulfils one of humanity’s great dreams, to fly among the clouds.

Some critics, both in Japan and in America, have criticised the film for supposedly glorifying Horikoshi’s contribution to the war. In fact, Jiro suggests during a design briefing that they remove the guns and, at one point, even finds himself strolling through the wreckages of crashed Zero fighters. If the film had come on any stronger with its anti-war message, it would have been patronising. Perhaps the criticism stems from the claim by Jiro’s role model, Caproni, that “aeroplanes are beautiful dreams.” The criticism is presumably that we mustn’t gloss over the brutal devastation of war; that every film set during a war should strive to imitate Schindler’s List. But in Miyazaki’s work, no one sets out to do evil, even if the result creates conflict. In Princess Mononoke, the humans are not making guns because they are malicious, but to protect the vulnerable and their livelihood. Every character is simply trying to further their own cause, or to perfect what they already do well. If only Jiro would play the villain, we could all condemn him, refuse to understand why he lived the way he did, and learn nothing.

Jiro is certainly not perfect, and his dogged quest to produce something beautiful puts a strain on his relationships with those around him. Caproni understands this impulse perfectly. He has been a kind of spirit guide through the film for Jiro, and ends by reassuring him that his work is over, and that “artists are only creative for ten years.” All that remains is to be grateful for the time that he had.

Miyazaki has been making films for far longer, of course, and his most recent have been among his best. It seems hard to believe that he will retire now. He is getting older, of course, and his artistic process is immensely demanding. But the real clue as to why Miyazaki has declared The Wind Rises his last film may lie in his childhood.

In 1945, when Miyazaki was four, the city where he lived with his father the aeroplane engineer, was bombed. The family was evacuated to a railway bridge. The sky was pink with flame. They got hold of a truck and, as they escaped the city, a woman and a child asked for a lift. But Miyazaki’s family drove on without stopping. It was an apparent failure of kindness, and he wondered later if it could have happened differently. Soon after the war ended, his mother contracted spinal tuberculosis, and underwent treatment for the next eight years.

Watching The Wind Rises, it feels as though this is the story Miyazaki has been coming round to all these years—the final, realist vision to resolve all those recurring images of planes, burning skies, the woman and child in need, the debilitating tuberculosis of a loved one. Over three decades, this raw material has provided fuel for his gorgeous fantasy. Now, at last, it has been transformed back into reality.

Departing from reality

A year or two ago I had a brief affair with early film. In a marked and productive change from watching YouTube videos containing words like “fail” and “vs,” I started to look up silent films. I was amazed by Buster Keaton’s famous train scene in The General, which is not only a virtuosic performance but, with its dangerous stunts, could have been his last. As I clicked back through history, I discovered that the train was already cemented in film tradition at that early stage: one of the first pieces of footage ever shown to the public showed a train—that great Victorian symbol of the future—approaching from the distance. The first audiences screamed as the image rushed past the camera, unable to separate film from reality.

Soon, people were quite used to the apparitions projected by the likes of the Lumière brothers, depicting workers leaving a factory, and other similar scenes of which the best that can be said is that they were true to life. Cinema had already promised something better, a vicarious thrill, a way of putting the spectator in the apparent path of a train without the risk, of visiting extremes without leaving your seat.

And so, even in its inception, cinema was a departure from reality, a proving ground for the imagination akin to dreaming. George Méliès’s famous Voyage Dans La Lune imagined a spaceship landing on the moon (or rather, in his eye), while HG Wells’s visual, proto-cinematic writing explored the same issues of temporal and spatial contraction that were being ironed out in this new medium. Science fiction (SF) and film were born in the same moment, and you can’t tell the story of one without the other.

Projecting Tomorrow: Science Fiction and Popular Cinema (IB Tauris, £14.99), the new book by James Chapman and Nicholas Gill, takes pointedly against the “fashionable cult of Deleuze,” and opts for a historical reading of some of the key SF films. The authors reject “voguish trends in cultural theory,” arguing that the imagined future of each film sheds light on the anxieties of the times in which they were created. This may be a truism, but it is still a fascinating lens through which to look at 12 of the genre’s best-loved films—some global successes, others simply interesting examples of the genre. In each of the book’s essays, they look at the production history of a film with reference to the commercial successes and failures of the time, and the implications of the inevitable big studio chess moves. They tell the story of each collaboration leading up to the filming and release, and enjoy teasing out the implications of a promotional logline.

2001: A Space Odyssey marks a watershed, for the authors, as the first SF film to become a blockbuster, and to bring the genre into the mainstream. I first watched it a couple of years ago on holiday in a Welsh cottage. All I knew was that this was the film in which a computer called Hal tried to kill everyone. Neither I nor my girlfriend was prepared for what we saw. Particularly challenging was the part after Hal was shut down and the plot ended, but the film carried on. My girlfriend got up to “make tea” and didn’t return.

Reading Projecting Tomorrow, I finally know why I was so baffled by that final section. I had very much enjoyed the cat-and-mouse game with Hal, and yet I had absolutely no idea how the last section could have been allowed to exist, particularly by a director whose other films were obviously the work of a genius.

For a start, the authors point out that “there was never a definitive shooting script.” They track Stanley Kubrick’s collaboration with Arthur C Clarke closely, digging up variances between script drafts and quoting from correspondence to reconstruct their often differing opinions on how the project should progress. Kubrick was more preoccupied with “formal properties” than Clarke, who was concerned about “narrative comprehension.” Clarke had wanted a relatively clear ending where the main character, Bowman, meets aliens and brings some of their wisdom back to earth. Instead, Kubrick decided to end with a sort of weird LSD trip, landing abruptly in a floorlit Louis XVI-style apartment with an old man eating some carrots and that massive domino thing from the opening. The fatal cable from Kubrick to Clarke came in November 1967: “As more film cut together it became apparent that narration was not needed.”

The disagreements between Kubrick and Clarke are, like many other moments in the book, evidence for the authors of “the essential difference between SF literature, concerned as it [is] with ideas and philosophy, and SF cinema, in which visual spectacle is paramount.”

In changing some of the fundamental rules of the fictional world, filmmakers had to take some things for granted—you can’t be radical about everything at once—and one of the genre’s historical failings, discussed without much depth by the authors, was its presentation of women as sex objects. In SF musical caper Just Imagine, Mars looks much like a tropical hotel lobby full of scantily clad show girls who try to undress the heroes; far more pleasant than their Earth, where by their own admission they “hate these modern women.” In Forbidden Planet, the main female character Alta serves no purpose beyond providing a focus for sexual desire. At one point the Captain chides her outright for her short skirt, which is likely to provoke a sexual assault from one of his randy crew, if he doesn’t get there first (he does). Later, in Logan’s Run, the eponymous character is utterly baffled when, wearing a sleazy kimono, he materialises a woman in his flat, says “let’s have sex,” and is refused (don’t worry, she does end up having sex with him, and also getting spontaneously nude in an ice cave). After decades of SF films pandering to male fantasy, I was pleased to see the authors note the appearance of Princess Leia in 1977 with thoughts and actions all of her own, though they see her relative lack of sexualisation as being “repressed: a breach with tradition in the genre… Star Wars was scant female liberation.” I’d say it’s worth considering what came before.

The book fares much better with issues of race representation, pointing out the disconcertingly Aryan population of Logan’s Run, though omitting to mention how much the Carrousel ceremony looks like the Ku Klux Klan Winter Olympics. The authors even beat me at spot-the-minority in Just Imagine; their winning hand reveals a lone Japanese-looking man in a crowd scene. They also draw interesting parallels between the caste system of Planet of the Apes and the American Civil Rights Movement. In an early draft of the script, an underclass of baboons had been protesting with placards saying “Down With Discrimination.” Perhaps even more interesting is Charlton Heston’s chilling observation of the extras on location:

At lunch, the ape actors lunched separately, since their makeups limited them to liquid foods taken through a straw. But beyond that, they self-segregated by species: gorillas at one table, chimps at another, and orangutans at still a third.

It’s in these moments that the value and attraction of historical research outweighs theory.

The authors run through a kaleidoscope of influences on Star Wars, drawn from a huge array of different cultures. George Lucas lamented the lost mystique of the Orient, with its promises of an exotic other. He originally considered casting a Eurasian Princess Leia, an African American Han Solo, and even using an entirely Japanese cast. His debt to Japan was clear, and many other cultures went into constructing the world around them: a keen ethnographer might notice that the Jawas spoke Zulu and Swahili played in double-time. The human characters in the first film were all white, however, and “the only African-American in the piece was the voice of pure evil.” There was a so-called “black-lash” after its release, though the first person to point out the lack of ethnic mix only noticed after he’d paid to see the film four times.

Through dedicated research, Chapman and Gill chart many other themes: the relationship between the British and American film industries; the primacy of grand visuals over ideas in SF films; the rise of the SF blockbuster. In doing so, they have compiled a book that will satisfy the curiosity of the film student about the little islands of history that bore the final reels. More than that, it’s a surprisingly accessible gold mine of trivia and wry anecdotes, essential reading for the pub quiz master and a reliable reference for SF fans hoping to settle an argument.

The book gives you the plots and twists from the first page, but then almost every SF film I’ve watched has been spoiled in advance. If Planet of the Apes came up in conversation, we’d end up talking about the twist at the end: the buried Statue of Liberty. Until I was 24 I’d never watched the original Star Wars films, but of course I had heard several hundred bad Darth Vader impressions, always croaking, “Luke: I am your father,” like emphysema patients. No one ruined Robocop for me, but no one cares how Robocop ends.

So if this article has spoiled any of these films for you, I’m not sorry. For profit and for society, they aimed to start conversations. They are often more eloquent about the preoccupations of their times than any film directly accountable to the constraints of here and now. They don’t show us the future as a prediction, but as a warning: we are all making the world we will have to live in.