22.1.17

"There is no authentic human essence to be realised, no harmonious unity to be returned to, no unalienated humanity obscured by false mediations, no organic wholeness to be achieved. Alienation is a mode of enablement, and humanity is an incomplete vector of transformation. What we are and what we can become are open-ended projects to be constructed in the course of time [...] This is a project of self-realisation, but one without a pre-established endpoint. It is only through undergoing the process of revision and construction that humanity can come to know itself." - Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work

21.1.17

The Third Man

I saw this at the Prince Charles Cinema just now and it really does deserve to be seen on a big screen. Not only for the fantastic (in every sense of the word) location shots of Vienna in ruins, but also for the ornate set designs, and to feel the full impact of those Dutch angles. The film is a visual treat, but it's also fast paced and carefully written. Graham Greene makes the protagonist an American writer of pulp fiction, who is under no illusions about the extent of his talents. At one point he gets asked about his opinion of James Joyce and stream-of-consciousness, to which he cannot offer a meaningful reply. Some of that may be Greene reflecting on his own inadequacies as a writer. But he tries to redeem his hero nonetheless. His pulp fiction is all about brave men setting an example – something very difficult to do in the moral cesspit Vienna has become. The choice the protagonist has to make is between sticking up for his friend, or ensuring that he faces justice for his crimes. Both are honourable choices, and while he chooses the latter, the femme fatale he falls in love with chooses the former.

Why she remains loyal to Orson Welles's Harry Lime is difficult to answer. Welles gives little indication that his character is capable of love. He is the mercurial nihilist willing to put a price on poisoning children. But Anna is capable of loving such a monster. Perhaps she is simply hoodwinked, and wishes to preserve the false happy memories of her affair. The shattering of her illusions might explain the final scene, in which she ignores any further romantic entanglements and walks out of the film. She describes Harry Lime as a child caught up in a grown up world. That better describes the protagonist – who clings to boyish ideals of male heroism. Welles on the other hand has already learned to swim with the sharks.

16.1.17

You Can Count On Me

The BFI is showing all of Kenneth Lonergan's films at the moment, and given that Margaret is is an all time favourite of mine, I invited my mum along to see his debut feature. You Can Count On Me also focuses on a single mother (superbly played by Laura Linney), but the wayward child here is her younger brother – an awkward and volatile Mark Ruffalo. The siblings are orphaned at a young age, and each reacts in contrasting ways to their bereavement. Linney stays in her parents' house and tries to build a stable environment for her son. Ruffalo gets out as soon as he can, and ends up drifting around the United States.

The film is a compilation of scenes prodding at this dynamic. Like Margaret, you get the sense that a lot more material was shot, with the strongest sequences edited together. Sometimes the seams show through – occasionally you can tell that a scene has had bits sliced out of it. But that extra bit of shooting probably allowed the actors to spend more time inhabiting their characters – and we get to see several sides of them. Ruffalo has to become more responsible when living with his sister. And Linney reveals that she's more reckess than she at first appears.

The one big discordant note for me was when Lonergan appears in his own film as the village priest giving counsel to both Lilley and Ruffalo. The wise religious figure is a cliche anyway, and casting yourself as the authoritative font of wisdom feels a tad adolescent. The message itself is interesting however – and echoes some of the current debates around 'post-liberalism' in the UK. Ruffalo's rejection of religion is part of a general abjuration of the parochial community he grew up in. But leaving behind your roots makes you rootless – unable to navigate through relationships or jobs. The only reason Ruffalo survives is because he is anchored by his sister. He knows that wherever he he ends up, he can rely on her to be where she's always been.

In fact, this is Lilley's film to carry. Lonergan (as the dog-collared chief interpreter of his own film) is there to coax out Lilley's confession that the relationships with the men in her life are based on pity. She goes out of her way because she feels sorry for them. It's a revelatory admission. Lilley is more together than her brother, lover or boss. She wants to be able to count on them, but they all end up counting on her.

7.1.17

Favourite songs of 2016

As usual it's Kieron Gillen rules – one song per artist, with the rest of the body of work pushing things up the list. This saves me from doing a separate albums rundown, although interestingly this year most of the songs below have an album behind them. I'm not on trend – for a couple of years now it has been assumed that YouTube and Spotify (as well as a general pop culture shift away from rock music) will kill off the album. Perhaps that's still to come, but for now it looks like artists are still finding value in presenting their music in 30 to 50 minute suites – they still want to control the context in which an individual song is experienced. As someone to prefers to look at the intentions of creators rather than the way a work travels through the culture when it's released, this is welcome. I'm still suspicious of algorithms and playlists ordering music for me. It's better to trust the producers.

20. Martha - 11:45, Legless in Brandon

This just in, because I only heard of these guys a week ago. A pop-punk four piece from Durham – a bit like Los Campesinos! without the anguish, or blink-182 if they grew up with a sense of British irony. And like the latter in their prime, mostly singing about teenage love, which is more like a mixture of lust and idolatry. 'Legless in Brandon' is my current favourite from their album, because the hook is timeless: 'you’re good for my mind, but not my productivity'.

19. Kero Kero Bonito - Trampoline

Another future classic from these guys. This one a confidence boost, the trampoline as a metaphor for picking yourself up when you're down, and being able to jump higher next time. As with the best KKB, the seemingly silly and trivial becomes a manifesto for better living.

18. Kamaiyah - I'm On (prod. Drew Banga)

Another pick me up. Kamaiyah says her mother was absent and her father did drugs, and money was a constant source of stress growing up. Living debt free ('I don't have to finance') is therefore a source of celebration. And that celebration is inclusive – witness all those people singing along to Kamaiyah's performance in the video. And it's warm and inviting, thanks to the gentle swing of Drew Banga's production.

17. Britney Spears - Private Show (prod. Tramaine "Young Fyre" Winfrey)

One of the best things about Glory is the way Spears experiments with her voice throughout the album, nowhere more so than this song, which understandably proved divisive (a friend of mine thought it was 'horrid'). I think it's great, and betrays a sense of confidence and optimism after what has been a rough ride of a career. The gaucheness of her delivery in the pre-chorus ('wrrkit, wrrkit, boy watch me wrrkit') feels like a cheeky wink at the listener – daring them to accept the song in the way Spears wants to sing it.

16. Dinosaur Jr. - Goin Down

I'm just glad these guys are still around, 30 or so years after You're Living All Over Me, which many regard as their crowning achievement. 'Going Down' kicks off their new album with a monster riff and a blistering guitar solo, the heavy metal theatrics softened by J Mascis's unassuming, slightly flat vocal. It's a variation on the same formula, but that's OK by me. Long may they continue.

15. Katy B - Honey (prod. Kaytranada)

Katy B's latest album is a mixed bag, and doesn't quite work as a showcase for Rinse in the way On A Mission did. The most successful song is rightly put at the top. 'Honey' plays to Katy B's strengths – describing in microscopic detail the moment when a connection between lovers or dancers is made. The charged atmosphere finally erupts with Katy B's vocal overdubs in the final chorus. Slightly over the top, yes, but Kaytranada's hypnotically steady beat needs some kind of release. In that sense, it's a perfect evocation of female desire.

14. Junior Boys - Baby Give Up On It

Junior Boys's latest album works on similar principles to the Katy B song above – utilising the regular rhythms of house and techno to explore the workings of desire. Big Black Coat feels slightly older, and perhaps a bit sadder – Jeremy Greenspan describes how he took inspiration from lonely-looking guys walking around his town, who he imagined were frustrated by life and women. This track's lyrics reflect those concerns ('I don't want you anymore'), but sonically it still sounds like a come on. The ambiguity of a phrase like 'give up on it' encapsulates that tension perfectly. Whether the cut up vocals at the end signal a release from a fragmenting relationship, or its renewal, is impossible to work out.

13. Jammz - Just Eat (prod. Anz)

Jammz is usually all about serious issues, which is why having him sit back and tell a funny story is a good look for him. For sure, we still end up with a tirade, because Jammz is Jammz and his flow always conveys a sense of escalating stress-levels. That bottled up frustration is pure grime, but so is a sense of the quotidian and absurd (cf. D Double E in a cab below).

12. Levelz - Rowdy Badd

Much of the beginning of my 2016 was spent with the debut mixtape from Manchester rap and production supergroup Levelz, which served as a useful corrective to Mayoral hopeful Andy Burnham's laments about the state of the city's music scene.

11. Dej Loaf - Bitch Please (prod. DDS)

Imperial nonchalance on top of another sparkling production from DDS – so great Dej doesn't even bother with a chorus. She says she doesn't eat pie but wants you to bake it anyway. I'm not arguing.

10. Jeremih feat. Stefflon Don, Krept & Konan - London (prod. Soundz)

Obvious biases apply, but this is the best track on Jeremih's Late Nights Europe mixtape, mostly because you can actually dance to it. It's London by way of Jamaican dancehall, with a stellar performance from up and comer Stefflon Don.

9. The Hotelier - Piano Player

I found this year's followup to NoPlace a bit underwhelming, but given that NoPlace might be the best emo album since Cork Tree, perhaps that shouldn't be surprising. Goodness leaves behind the disintegration and despair, and reveals the band to be hippies at heart. 'Piano Player' employs a little bit more studio trickery, Holden sounds a little bit more like Michael Stipe, and the chorus drives through the imperative to 'sustain' by repeating the word over and over. And all of that propelled by an urgent drumbeat bashing all the way through the song's five and a half minutes.

8. Trim - Up to Speed (prod. Asa & Sorrow)

Asa & Sorrow's muscular production spurs Trim to get back on the warpath. This is high definition grime, with weighty bass squelches and horror film strings, and it adds authority to Trim's boasts of drowning out the competition. There is a nod to the insecurity that has permeated his work of late ('no matter how irrelevant I might have been'), but 'Up to Speed' is a needed reminder that Trim is at his strongest when fighting from a position of weakness.

7. Radwimps - Zenzenzense

This is another recent discovery, and a new departure for me, given that I listen to almost no music in a language other than English. Radwimps are a phenomenon in Japan, and this is taken from their excellent soundtrack to Your Name (my favourite film of 2016). The song is used to convey a sense of youthful, almost vertiginous, exuberance – where sensations and emotions pile up faster than your ability to process them.

6. Chance the Rapper feat. Saba - Angels (prod. Lido & The Social Experiment)

Chance sometimes feels like a latter day William Blake, chatting to angels in his back garden, sometimes like Walt Whitman, expounding on his own supreme excellence. No wonder the video for 'Angels' casts him as a superhero flying over the skies of Chicago, charged up with God's grace. With Saba's timpani backed pre-chorus leading into Chance's horn-fuelled chorus, the feeling of elevation is palpable.

5. Dawn Richard - Lazarus (prod. Machinedrum)

I'm still digesting Richard's final installment of her 'heart' trilogy of albums, which are as technically impressive and emotionally involving as anything put together by Radiohead. Redemption suggests a happy ending after the epic warfare of Goldenheart and the angst of Blackheart. 'Lazarus' suggests it, anyway, playing with images of ascension and appropriating traditionally male metaphors of the wolf's hunger and the king's ego. Every album review has picked up on this song's line: 'I didn't change, I became'. It's a highlight, in other words. And it might be what settling into your identity sounds like.

4. Ariana Grande - Into You (prod. Max Martin)

Dangerous Woman is a return to form after Grande's muddled sophomore effort, and it's biggest single is its most immediate entry-point. Max Martin can probably churn these out in his sleep by now, but the scale of this production's chorus is well matched by Grande's powerful voice. It's a deserved hit, and hearing it played on the radio and in shops around London goes to show that good pop can still find an audience.

3. Capo Lee feat. D Double E - Mud (JD. Reid Remix)

It's been Sir Spyro's year as far as grime's concerned. My 2015 favourite 'Topper Top' finally got a release, and his productions for Ghetts, Stormzy and P Money have all become anthems. This one for newcomer Capo Lee is my favourite, however, utilising the traditional grime technique of rhyming each bar with the same word and inflecting it with different meanings. Unfortunately for Spyro, I've fallen a little bit harder for JD. Reid's remix, which gives the ominous original a shiny makeover, and proves a better fit for D Double's cartoony rant at his cabdriver in the second verse.

2. Beyoncé feat. Jack White - Don't Hurt Yourself (prod. Derek Dixie)

I found the happily-married Beyoncé of the self-titled album strangely uninvolving. Tellingly, the most interesting song on that album for me was 'Jealous', which was the one that hinted at the double-standards and double-shift that still structures many marriages. So when Lemonade took that song and made an entire album out of it, I got right on board. Unlike 'Jealous', 'Don't Hurt Yourself' no longer redirects the rage at marital injustice inwards – it lashes out at the source: 'tonight I'm fucking up all your shit, boyyy'. That line, with the full force of Beyoncé's voice behind it, sends a shiver down the spine.

1. Johnny Foreigner - The Worst of Us

I liked the last album, but did wonder if the band were doubling down on a successful formula rather than trying to move beyond it. Turns out I needn't have worried. Mono No Aware is more adventurous with its song structures – melting together JF's pop punk influences into new forms. 'The Worst of Us' is a jagged thing, speeding up and juddering to a halt when you least expect it. It sounds like running down a series of dead ends – which is exactly what the song is about. The band sing about being trapped in grey cities, 'proxy the beach' and the sense of possibility that entails. Settling down like your parents means the world closing in around you, all escape routes shut off. But perhaps that's inevitable – 'I'm convinced I need you to stabalise'. Adventure entails risk – dropping out of your life is hard. 'The Worst of Us' is about finding that point of stability from which you can go and find those 'white mountains and silver seas'. I got married this year, and all of that rings very true. And it goes to show that JF are also a band to grow old with.

29.12.16

26 films in 2016

I haven't been to the cinema nearly enough to give a view on the films of the year. Below is just what I've managed to watch, ranked roughly in order of appreciation, and with links to the original blog posts. Just struck me that around three quarters of the films are not in the English language. Some of that's about me getting more interested in weird and esoteric material. But a little bit of it is also the fact that I watch films in terrible conditions (late at night and crouched in front of a computer), and subtitles mean I don't have to put the volume up too much and wake my family up.

New:

Matoko Shinkai - Your Name [link]
Ben Wheatley - High-Rise [link]
Hou Hsiao-Hsien - The Assassin [link]
Joe & Anthony Russo - Captain America: Civil War [link]
J.J. Abrams - Star Wars: The Force Awakens [link]
Scott Derrickson - Dr. Strange

Old:

Alain Robbe-Grillet - Successive Slidings of Pleasure [link]
David Chronenberg - Videodrome [link]
Diane Bertrand - The Ring Finger [link]
Satoshi Kon - Perfect Blue [link]
Ingmar Bergman - The Passion of Anna [link]
John Cameron Mitchell - Shortbus [link]
Bigas Luna - Jamón, Jamón (A Tale of Ham and Passion) [link]
Ingmar Bergman - Wild Strawberries [link]
Akira Kurosawa - Rashomon [link]
Wong Kar-Wai - Ashes of Time Redux [link]
Ingmar Bergman - Shame [link]
Bigas Luna - The Tit and the Moon [link]
Yasuzo Masumura - Manji [link]
Martin Brest - Beverly Hills Cop [link]
Shohei Imamura - The Insect Woman [link]
Paul Verhoeven - Turkish Delight [link]
Matoko Shinkai - 5 Centimeters Per Second [link]
Yoshiaki Kawajiri - Ninja Scroll [link]
Leos Carax - Holy Motors [link]
Bigas Luna - The Ages of Lulu [link]

28.12.16

Beverly Hills Cop

Saw this at the BFI as part of their 'Black Star' season. Although Eddie Murphy carries the film, was interesting that the role was once intended for Sylvester Stallone, and the script doesn't make many overt references to Murphy's blackness. Only occasionally does Murphy's character nod to it – when he accuses hotel staff of prejudice in order to get a room, and when he's shaming another black cop for playing at being white. In both situations, Murphy is playing mindgames with his mark in order to gain the upper hand. In fact, that's what he does throughout the film. His blackness is just another tool used to overcome the obstacles in his way.

It struck me that the film also contained a faintly homoerotic subtext. Murphy goes to California to avenge the murder of a childhood friend – someone who confesses he loves him before being killed. If it was sexual love, it was probably unrequited (Murphy flirts a bit with the only female character in the film, who becomes a damsel-in-distress at the end). But the relationship is strong enough to provide the motive for Murphy's actions throughout the film. Murphy does pretend to be gay in another scene in order to gain admittance to a private members club. And he has some memorable interactions with 'Serge', a camp employee at an art gallery. But the film's gayness, like its blackness, is understated. It's almost as if too many mentions of racism or AIDS would spoil the fun.

The other interesting thing about the film is its pacing. It kicks off with a very long-winded and expensive car chase, which apart from establishing Murphy's recklessness,i is entirely gratuitous. It goes to show that (like the intros of Bond films) frontloading action sequences is not a new phenomenon. That said, compared to modern action films, the pacing in Beverly Hills Cop turns out to be rather loose – the film lingers on not very important details, sometimes purposefully to frustrate the audience who want to find out what's happening elsewhere. It's hard to imagine getting away with that kind of thing in today's hyper-compressed blockbusters – where missing a stray bit of dialogue renders the plot incomprehensible. Instead Beverly Hills Cop is a film you can drift in and out of without losing your bearings, and it feels longer than its 105 minutes. It gives you a break. I for one found it a welcome reprieve.

27.12.16

46 books for 2016

My annual list of things I've read grows longer again this year, partly because I continue to abjure television and get my fill of visual storytelling through comics. The reason for the preference is mundane – I spend too much of my day in front of a screen and prefer to avoid it in my free time. I may well be missing out. Given the stranglehold superheroes have on the comics medium, and how everyone keeps talking about a golden age of television, my guess is that comics in aggregate may well be less innovative or interesting.

My comics consumption has been further encouraged by my agreeing to contribute columns to the London Graphic Novel Network, an initiative designed to get people to take advantage of the great selection of comics offered by London libraries. I owe my comics enthusiasm entirely to libraries (they are otherwise a very expensive form of entertainment), so this was a no-brainer for me. Links to my bits for the site are collected here.

I've also read quite a lot of Japanese fiction this year – my partner is Japanese, so it has been a way of getting to know the culture in which she grew up. It's a bit of a turnaround for me, as I'd previously avoided reading literature in translation, assuming that too much of the author's technique was lost in the process. I still think that's the case, but what you gain is still a pretty direct insight into a foreign society and history, which is hugely valuable in itself.

A lot of the non-fiction is drawn from recommendations at work (Haidt, Moretti), or following up things from the MA I did six years ago (Ryan, Tully, Geuss).

Ordered (sort of) by subject then preference. Links in the comics section go to things I've written (mostly for the LGGN), otherwise they are quotes I've posted here as I've been reading. I keep track of all this stuff on Goodreads here.

Richard Ellmann - James Joyce [link]
Alan Ryan - On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present [link] [link]
Jonathan Haidt - The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
Ian Buruma - The Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture
James Tully - An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts
Jared Diamond - Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
Richard Vinen - Thatcher's Britain: The politics and social upheaval of the 1980s
Enrico Moretti - The New Geography of Jobs
Gareth Stedman Jones - Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion
Michel Foucault - Interviews & Other Writings 1977-84 [link] [link]
Simon Parker - Taking Power Back: Putting people in charge of politics
Hugh Kennedy - The Great Arab Conquests [link]
Ben Thompson - Seven Years of Plenty: A Handbook of Irrefutable Pop Greatness, 1991-1998
J. Hoberman - Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?
Jessica Hopper - The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic
Raymond Geuss - History and Illusion in Politics [link]
James Joyce - A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Ryū Murakami - Almost Transparent Blue
Yasunari Kawabata - Thousand Cranes
Mari Akasaka - Vibrator
Jun'ichirō Tanizaki - Seven Japanese Tales
Ryū Murakami - Piercing
Jun'ichirō Tanizaki - Some Prefer Nettles [link]
Yōko Ogawa - Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales
Kieron Gillen / Jamie McKelvie - Phonogram [link]
Grant Morrison / Chris Weston / Gary Erskine - The Filth [link]
Warren Ellis / Jason Howard - Trees, Vol. 1: In Shadow [link]
Hayao Miyazaki - Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Greg Rucka / Michael Lark / Santi Arcas - Lazarus
Matt Fraction / Christian Ward - Ody-C vols. 1 & 2 [link]
Gail Simone / Walter Geovani - Red Sonja [link]
Kazuo Koike / Ryōichi Ikegami - Offered
Magnus - The 100 Pills
Paul Pope - 100% / Heavy Liquid [link]
Jonathan Hickman / Ryan Bodenheim - Red Mass for Mars
Jonathan Luna / Sarah Vaughn - Alex + Ada [link]
Kieron Gillen / Ryan Kelly / Jordie Bellaire - Three [link]
Matt Fraction / Howard Chaykin - Satellite Sam vols. 1 & 2 [link]
Ben Gijsemans - Hubert [link]
Kentaro Miura - Berserk vol. 1
Sean McKeever / Brian Fraim - The Waiting Place vol. 1
Kelly Sue DeConnick / Emma Ríos - Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike
Rick Remender / Wes Craig / Lee Loughridge - Deadly Class, Vol. 1: Reagan Youth
Mark Waid / Minck Oosterveer - The Unknown
Grant Morrison / Yanick Paquette / Nathan Fairbairn - Wonder Woman: Earth One
Bryan Lee O'Malley - Seconds

24.12.16

Beckett was addicted to silences, and so was Joyce; they engaged in conversations which consisted often of silences directed towards each other, both suffused with sadness, Beckett mostly for the world, Joyce mostly for himself. Joyce sat in his habitual posture, legs crossed, toe of the upper leg under the instep of the lower; Beckett, also tall and slender, fell into the same gesture. Joyce suddenly asked some such question as, 'How could the idealist Hume write a history?' Beckett replied, 'A history of representations.' Joyce said nothing, but some time afterwards he informed the young man, 'The only amateur philosopher of any value I know is Carducci.' Later, 'For me,' he said, 'there is only one alternative to scholasticism, scepticism.' - Richard Ellmann, James Joyce

2.12.16

Your Name

I've previously been a bit harsh on Matoko Shinkai. Your Name doesn't abandon the romantic longing of 5 Centimeters Per Second, but the angst is worn more lightly, and the characters feel less like ciphers. The animation is also more restrained – the night skies no longer look like Rainbow Road in Mario Kart, and there is a rather cool dream sequence which swaps crisp photorealism for a more flowing, sketched style.

The plot, as with many a time travel story, breaks apart the more you prod at it. But the conceit of two teenagers switching bodies is employed well. Shinkai has said that some of the town vs country stuff comes from his own experience of growing up. More important for me, however, is the way inhabiting another person's life becomes a metaphor for falling in love. Because being in a relationship is sort of like that. You gain access to memories of things you didn't experience at first hand. You learn about a childhood different from your own, with a new family and set of friends. You also get to know someone else's body in intimate detail (a source of some of the film's funniest moments). And by becoming comfortable in each other's skins, the two characters find that they cannot live happily without each other.

This is eked out a bit in the final part of the film, where Shinkai contrives to separate his heroes, and have them morosely wander around Tokyo searching for their other halves. But it serves to highlight how draining the loss of such a person might be, and it leads to a very satisfying finale.