4.7.14

Dream Country

The latest edition of the London Graphic Novel Network's coverage of The Sandman is now up, and it may well be the best yet. Lots of people piling in on a range of questions, some of which are only tangentally related to Gaiman's work. As usual, I did my fair bit of arguing, a small bit of which is below. Worth reading through the whole thing though.

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Tend to agree with the Shakespeare Shakespeare Shakespeare reservations, tho am disposed to be a bit kinder than Mazin on the question of whether Gaiman misses the point of Shakespeare. Seems to me Mazin is equating 'stories' with plots, when actually Gaiman may mean something a bit broader. The constituent parts of 'stories' could include plot, character, themes, language, and maybe other things as well. If anything, Gaiman's error is to ascribe a certain archetypal content and mythological force to the plays - which isn't what makes them distinctive in my view. Instead, I would flip Mazin's top two Shakespeare talents and suggest he is most innovative when it comes to character - particularly creating personalities that are open to an almost limitless variety of interpretation. His felicity w/ language is a key part of that, but I think there is a reason why he is remembered as a playwright, rather than a poet, first.

Shakespeare's competing loyalties to creativity and family strike me as less of an insight into the historical Shakespeare and more as an insight into Gaiman himself. My sense is that while Gaiman is a prodigious story-generating machine, there is always a kind of detachment to his writing - his characters are often quite flat, manipulated into the paths he sets out for them rather than having the vitality to knock the author off-track (e.g. as Falstaff did Shakespeare). I would go so far as to presume that Gaiman sometimes would find the ephemeral amalgamations of past stories he rattles off so easily ~more~ interesting (or maybe less threatening) than real people. That sounds mean, but actually I think it's a brave thing to admit, and is a tendency we're all capable of.

Dream sums up the point of the Shakespeare issue as follows: "things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot". This sound like bullshit, except the "dust and ashes" gloss on "facts" suggests he is talking about the way stories outlive people, rather than nature or the universe. Fair enough, but then we get to Facade: "mythologies take longer to die than people believe. They linger on in a kind of dream country that affects all of you". The sun turns out to be a mask hiding the stories which structure our sense of the world. The protagonist's apotheosis is triggered by the surfacing of those 'shadow-truths' behind the world of empirically-determined facts. Is Dream's country becoming Plato's realm of the forms - the hidden structure behind our changable world? Is Gaiman granting myths a kind of metaphysical power over our lives? Or is it just an internal, psychological switch in perspective that somehow physiologically unlocks the ability to commit suicide. I am more comfortable with the latter reading, tho neither is particularly satisfying. Gaiman is always more comfortable dwelling on the awesome power stories have over us, rather than why we tell them or what they might be for.

22.6.14

Avengers vs X-Men

Quite a lot of the fashionable thinking around equality since the financial crisis has tried to shift the debate from the old opportunity / outcome dichotomy to focus on concentrations of power – perhaps a recognition that the focus on opportunity hasn't ended exorbitant bailouts and bonuses (the redistribution through the tax system implied by aiming for outcome obviously remains beyond the pale). Some of this new rhetoric draws on the republican idea of liberty excavated by Quentin Skinner. I've attended some of Skinner's lectures and have read his work, so it's exciting to see it influencing contemporary debate. The basic idea is that freedom should not be defined as the absence of constraint, a Hobbesian notion that allows for an authoritarian state. Instead it should widened include the absence of the ability of others to constrain you, i.e. freedom from domination by the powerful – a radically republican (as in anti-royalist) idea.

I bring all this up because the idea of concentrations of power is at the heart of Marvel's AvX crossover from a couple of years ago. The Phoenix force is coming back to empower a single mutant X-Man seen by many to be a messiah, with all the apocalyptic implications that would entail. The Avengers manage to cook up an countermeasure that splits the Phoenix force between five X-Men. Sharing this power between them, the Phoenix Five build a "Pax Utopia" on Earth. But power corrupts, and as one of the Five falls, the Phoenix force gets shared between those that remain. And as power becomes more concentrated, those that wield it become ever more authoritarian.

The mini-series ends with the chosen messiah deciding to give up the Phoenix force. Instead it gets shared out. The Phoenix evaporates and re-introduces the X-gene into Earth's population, gone since the events of House of M. This redistribution of power levels the playing field and eliminates the authoritarian Cyclops and his gang.

Funnily enough, this idea of redistribution is also applied to the making of the comic – while two artists handle the pencils throughout, scripting has been divided between Brian Michael Bendis, Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, Jason Aaron and Jonathan Hickman. The Bendis issues at the start sag quite a bit (the guy has needed a bit of a break for a good long while now), but the rest of the group are some of the hottest properties in comics right now, and the series really picks up steam when they take over and especially when the Phoenix Five are introduced by Hickman.

It's de rigeur to sneer at crossover event comics, and while this by no means reinvents the wheel (echoes of House of M and Civil War abound) I think it's admirable that Marvel still try to pin the pile-up of action set-pieces to a theme that can support the mini-series itself (while of course providing a set-up that can reverberate through the other titles). Bendis's Siege did this quite badly, while Fraction's Fear Itself was a lot more focused. Avengers vs. X-Men continues that good run. A bit like with each consecutive Marvel superhero film, it's still, just, worth investing in what the company are planning for next time.

21.6.14

Spring Breakers

Remember when P.T. Anderson wanted to make an Adam Sandler movie into an art film? Harmony Korine seems to have similar ambitions for the teen road trip movie. Spring Breakers was marketed as exploitation, but Korine is going for "impressionistic" "hypnotic" "fever dream" (all his words). The controversy comes when you consider whether anything is meant by this at all. In some respects, no. Korine is forthright that this is a film about surfaces – all that candy-coloured neon lighting is supposed to emphasise this. He also admits that the genesis of the movie was in images and footage that inspired paintings and other fine art – 'sculptural' (again, his word) constructions of sexy trashy co-ed porn and Florida party footage. The visuals came first, and it's about the feelings they evoke. Even the voiceover is talked about in the context of the aim to mimic some of the effects of EDM and drugs – loop-based music with repeating vocal samples that generate more significance the more they recur. In these respects, the film is very immediate and unassuming.

But I think there is more going on here. Korine isn't just making this because he is fascinated by these images, sounds and sensations – he is not just a fetishist. He understands the horror at the heart of the fever dreams he is conjuring. The film is a dream, mashing up cartoons, video games, gangster films, EDM, rap, weed, coke and alcohol. The girls are explicitly inspired by these things when they rob a fast food restaurant. At several moments, Korine's characters refer to this mix of bacchanalia and violence as the American Dream – a kind of unlimited individualism, a frontier spirit looking for transcendence. There is something about the iconography of spring break that goes to the heart of the myths America is built on. The evangelical religious foundations of this urge for rapture is explored through Selena Gomez's character, who reaches a point at which she starts getting uncomfortable with the dreams of her friends. Racism is also subtly present – Gomez wants to go home as soon as she finds herself in a black area. Korine has targets here – he is trying to say something. Perhaps the P.T. Anderson quip is a bit wide – more than anything Spring Breakers feels to me like an update of Terrence Malick's Badlands, a complicit look at the way we worship sex, violence, youth and freedom. And Korine has enough distance to understand that the characters, and the audience, eventually have to wake up.

15.6.14

The Book of Human Insects

The heroine of this short noir tale from manga godfather Osamu Tezuka is "far from a feminist role model" according to the blurb, and there's a fair amount of sexism in the book. Toshiko Tomura is described as a type of insect that impersonates other creatures in order to survive, and throughout her adventures she 'absorbs' the talents of her male admires (or outright steals their work) in order to achieve her ends. That she is able to do so "shows you what is so damn wrong with present-day civilization". And it's true that the world Tezuka creates is one where humans have become monsters – a society of insects in which the only way for women to survive is to become femme fatales. Interestingly, Tezuka doesn't have the patriarchy reassert dominance over these insect women. Instead, sympathetic characters are crushed, and Tomura triumphs over her assailants.

Tezuka's revenge on his predatory parasitic female creation is more subtle. After each adventure, Tomura retreats to a remote house in which she strips away the personas she inhabits and regresses to a baby – naked, pacifier in her mouth – succumbing to the fundamental emptiness at the core of her being. One of her former lovers has escaped her clutches, nobly kills a brutal gangster and hands himself over to the police. Tomura wants him, perhaps as the only man she was unable to corrupt and traduce, but he is lost to her. She confesses at the end of the book that she is lonely, and feels like she could be get "swept away", like trash. Despite her callous ambition, she still feels the need to love, or at least be attached to, someone. Without a host (male, talented) she is nothing.

The misogyny on display is something that needs to be acknowledged and faced up to. No excuses should be made. Nonetheless, there is a a mischievous glee to Tezuka's portrayal that is winning – despite the condescension (and moral condemnation) Tomura receives at the hand of her creator, the human insects she dupes and destroys are far more reprehensible. We still root for her, even more that the noble male hero who evades her. Her vitality trumps Tezuka's attempts to suppress it – I think she gets the last laugh after all, and I can well imagine her getting over a momentary thirst for dissolution and continuing her escapades in Europe.

14.6.14

The End of Summer

More reflections on Ozu's very particular style after watching the follow-up to Late Autumn. The End of Summer has its fair share of brilliantly framed compositions, which are accentuated by the static camera. The film really is photography with voices sometimes. There are more 'pillow shots' as well – not just used to establish a new scene but to indicate the passing of time or to add space and extend a dramatic moment (frequently using music to do so). Only once is a jump cut used to highlight a contrasting change of tone.

I may have been wrong to describe the actors as looking 'beyond' the camera, and in this film very often Ozu establishes where characters are sitting, and then has them directly address the viewer, with the actors definitely looking at the camera. This should place the audience within the scene, but paradoxically it doesn't. Maybe this is due to the placing of the camera at naval height rather than at eye level (elevating the characters in the process). But also there is something weirdly fourth-wall breaking about a direct address to camera. Ozu's style (perhaps accidentally) creates this intermediate space whereby the audience is continually aware of a world being portrayed, and their fleeting, intercutting presence in it.

Which is a good place to start thinking about the themes of the film. The title's appeal to nature's rhythms is a gloss over the intimate portraits of parents and children and how one generation replaces the next. The End of Summer is about the death of a patriarch, an "incorrigible sinner", an overgrown boy always on his summer holidays. Likewise Late Autumn is about Setsuko Hara approaching middle age, and the choices she has to make as a result. The audience, rather than identifying with particular characters or following a plot, take the part of serene observers of these natural rhythms to human life.

11.6.14

The Doll's House

The London Graphic Novel Network is going from strength to strength, the discussion on the second Sandman book is now up here. As before, I've pinched my bits to put below, but you should read the whole thing for a clearer view of the back and forth:

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Hob's conclusion that people don't change is (in context) about his own inability to tire of life, and by extension the fixity of an individual's character. The repetition of the overheard bar-room conversations at the end of the issue widens this conclusion - human beings haven't changed in the last 500 years. Sidebar: true enough, in that for the past 3,000 years of recorded human history the species manifestly hasn't changed - evolution works on much longer time-frames. Roman emperors and medieval peasants are just as smart (and stupid) as we are.

This same point is made more overtly at the end of Cages – a comic by Dave McKean (frequent Gaiman collaborator and responsible for Sandman's amazing covers). In that book, McKean suggests that as you grow older and experiences pile up, the patterns of life become more apparent (as above: people don't change, so as they become more familiar their capacity to surprise you is reduced). That realisation (and the completion of their life project) is what lead McKean's characters to accept death with equanimity.

Gaiman's treatment of this idea is less pointy and more suggestive – the concluding note of Hob's story is the rather corny one that friendship is what makes life worth living. But on the whole I think it's a more satisfying issue than 'The Sound of Her Wings'. Which may be another way of saying that I understand its themes and agree with them.

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The beginnings of the Corinthian's speech suggest Gaiman's underlying reading of all the psychopathic behaviour he looks at through this (very long) issue. Serial killing in the US has become associated with stories of "gladiators", "swashbucklers" and "heroes" (the Bonnie & Clyde myth and its various permutations in film might be a good way of looking at this – Malick's Badlands perhaps most of all). The collectors kill out of hubris and an infatuation with themselves as the "maltreated heroes" of their own stories. Barry strips this away and reveals how unheroic ("how LITTLE") they are – the implication being that without these myths to sustain them, the collectors' urges will be hollowed out and they will finally (privately) face the implications of their actions. How sophisticated this reading is, I'll leave up to you, but the dots do sort of connect.

Dream's intentions regarding the Corinthian are far harder to join up. Ostensibly, this masterpiece nightmare is supposed to "be the darkness and the fear of darkness", a reflection of what humanity "will not confront". Instead of this, he has been "something else for people to be scared of", and has "told them that there are bad people out there, and they've known that all along". Now: the gaps between these two outcomes are pretty difficult to parse. If anything, the Corinthian hasn't failed in being scary, it is rather that people have been better able to confront "the darkness" than Dream had expected. And In fairness, Dream admits that he is the one to blame for the Corinthian's flaws – an admission that feels less magnanimous the more one thinks about it.

8.6.14

Tangents

A 1995 comic album by Miguelanxo Prado, comprising of 4-5 page shorts exploring bourgeois sexual encounters that are inevitably unfulfilling. The weakest stories revolve around the notion that the rich and powerful cannot recapture the true, pure love of more innocent times. The sacrifices they make on the altar of capital rob them of an ability to connect (and the ability to sound like real human beings). The delusions and hypocrisies of the rich and famous can be a rich seam to mine, but Prado's portrayals mostly feel like ressentiment-fuelled caricatures.

Better are the stories that dig into characters' sense of themselves as actors in a story, or as stage-managers of their own fantasies. This allows Prado to evoke the way sexual desire blends with, and is shaped by, other desires. But it also leads to the finest moments in the book, where the objects being directed around the porn set step out of their roles and bring reality crashing down on the protagonists.

4.6.14

Favourite songs from the first half of 2014

It's funny the way logistics influences consumption. At the beginning of the year both my PC and MP3 player started malfunctioning within a week of each other, and because I am a slave to inertia I have yet to do anything about it. MP3s are the primary way I listen to music, so suddenly I stopped doing so almost entirely. A couple of music free weeks was pretty weird (I had become so used to moving around with earbuds that it almost felt extraordinary not to have a permanent self-selected soundtrack for my life). I eventually succumbed of course, but with my PC still down I reverted to my laptop and started streaming from youtube and soundcloud instead of downloading. The latter came to be the source of most of my favourite songs so far this year.

Top 5:

1. Meridian Dan feat. Big H & JME - German Whip

Still one of those saddos that can't get over the bursting of the grime bubble and the (correct) prediction that the genre might throw up a couple of barnstormers a year, but have nothing like the pace and hyperactivity of the 03-05 golden age. German Whip joins those other hits (Next Hype, Slang Like This, Spartan Remix) spinning out in the afterglow of the big bang.

2. Tinashe feat. ScHoolBoy Q - 2 On

Muzzard made good on the promise of his Ketchup mixtape from last year. A masterful confection of clicking fingers, strings, twinkles, and warm billows of bass wafting in on the chorus. And Tinashe poured over the whole thing like melting ice cream. ScHoolboy Q's presence is unwelcome, but mercifully brief.

3. Wen feat. Riko - Play Your Corner

Will forever be thankful to Wen for inspiring this unintentionally hilarious Quietus review of his debut album. More sober heads correctly concluded that much of it felt a bit grey without vocalists. I found that the best tracks were the ones that sounded most like they could fit onto Wen's Commotion EP from last year, "In" being the best of the bunch. Apart from the one with Riko obv – a grime legend that is unfortunately most often requested to add yardie menace to broody instrumentals even though his range is much broader than that (the guy can be as hilarious as Wiley when he wants to be). Some of that comes out here as well. In his own words: on point like a rassclat compass.

4. DJ Q feat. Louise Williams - Let The Music Play

Some sympathy with Tom Lea's side-eye at the various purveyors of chart-bound garage/house as he prepared to unleash Q's debut album – a bassline survivor and garage obsessive so steeped in this stuff that he can rightly be expected to show the whelps how it should be done. The album has three link-ups with Louise Williams, two of which were understandably released last year as singles. The third came out this year and triumphs over all of them. In a just world Williams would go on to become the next Katy B – another UK funky vocalist with classics under her belt (she worked with MVP and Funkystepz) and who enlivens everything she sings on.

5. Hannah Wants & Chris Lorenzo - Breathe

I find a lot of 'electroline' dull when it's not actively annoying, so it makes sense that I would fall for a track that's cleaned up and released on Shadow Child's label. Swung drums, deep bass stabs, prevalent pads and a shimmer at the edge of the vocal sample. Like a gust of fresh air gently rocking your hammock as you recline on a yacht bound for exotic climes.

The rest:

Fatima Al Qadiri - Szechuan

Tirzah - No Romance

LV & Joshua Idehen - Imminent

Bok Bok feat. Kelela - Melba's Call

TRC vs Murlo feat. Ruth - You & Me

All About She - Remedy

Palace - Touch Me

Xtrah feat. Mikal - Directive

Jamie xx - Sleep Sound

Shanti Celeste - Days Like This

Small Black feat. Frankie Rose - Lines of Latitude

Johnny Foreigner - In Capitals

Throwing Shade - Sweet Tooth

26.5.14

Late Autumn

My first time watching an Ozu film, and I started with one of his final ones where his style is the most pared down and 'pure', following the recommendation of the Guardian's John Patterson. And it's all there: the camera placed a little below waist-height rather than at eye-level (so we are always looking slightly up), the characters in mid-shot almost but not quite facing the audience, the deep focus compositions of frames within frames. And of course, the camera never moves. Ever.

The combined effect of this extremely particular style is worth thinking about. The tilt up from waist-height puts the audience in a humble position, close to the ground, reverential. The mid-shot portraits feel weirdly artificial – we're almost behind the eyes of the person being addressed, but the actors always look slightly beyond the camera. It's as if the audience slides literally in between the conversation (how the actors worked with a camera placed this way is really difficult to imagine). The layered depth of field isn't distractingly stage-y, but does enforce a sense of spaces sliding open and closed between the characters, invisible barriers only occasionally being lifted. The score is more conventional – accentuating moments of comedy but also supercharging melodramatic scenes.

While the plot and concerns of the film are minute – marriage, family and manners – the style in which they are presented does much to elevate them in the audiences eyes (Patterson's comparison with Jane Austen is a great way of thinking about it, and rubbishes the notion that these films are impenetrably Japanese). Ozu is supremely sensitive to the heroic sacrifices generations of women make, and the callousness of powerful men who meddle in women's lives for their own amusement. Throughout the film, Setsuko Hara grins maniacally, and a little bit scarily, through conversations with the male matchmakers. It ends with her alone, deprived of her daughter, but with a genuine smile on her face. The film is all about the conflict between public conformity and private happiness – all of which is captured in that sad smile.