31.8.14

"I feel as if I were a painting already. Or a statue. I looked down at my own body like some object, some impersonal object" - Anaïs Nin, 'Artists and Models, Delta of Venus

27.8.14

La Belle Noiseuse

I watched the four hours over two days (more films should have intermissions) and enjoyed almost every second. Exhaustive is probably the right word to use for this study of the creative process, in that there is no one process being depicted, no one reading you could apply to the characters and relationships presented. Instead the artist and model set-up serves as a springboard for multiple elliptical essays on the subject.

Unsurprisingly, the one that struck me most is the confrontation at the end of the first half. Frenhofer becomes dominating, forcing the (always naked) Marianne into increasingly twisted poses. He talks of breaking her bones, and there are uncomfortable sexual undertones coursing through his mania. But then he starts talking about her flesh as a portal to galaxies and black holes. He is attempting to stamp his authority not only on women's bodies but reality itself. Everything must become an object under the control of his paintbrush.

Marianne at one point recoils at being treated like a doll, but submits immediately afterwards and apologies. Why does she go through with it? Shortly after Frenhofer's existentialist rant, she laughs in his face, and he storms out. But she forces him to continue. The extraordinary beginning of the film (one of the best opening sequences I have watched) introduces her as a consummate mask-wearer. Maybe she's partly seduced by Frenhofer's talk of truth in art, a window into her self that she can't look through on her own. Or maybe as a writer she using him for material as much as he is using her. After all, the film begins and ends with her voiceover – she more than anyone is its author. Perhaps she is the trouble-maker, the nutcase, that spins everyone around her fingers for the diversion of a (foreign, ignorant) audience – just like the English tourists the film opens with.

But then it turns out the painting is a masterpiece. In Frenhofer's definition: it captures a lifetime in a single image. Frenhofer's wife Liz marks the back with a cross, and its composition does feel like a kind of crucifixion. And like Christ, it has to be walled up in a tomb. The idea of it emerges in wings of crimson from the blue nude Frenhofer fobs off to the public – streaks of blood cracking open the human shell. Just three characters (a trinity?) see the miracle unveiled, we only glimpse a bit of it. The Balzac short story the film is based on apparently haunted Cézanne and Picasso. Here it's Marianne more than anyone that haunts the film, denying us answers, but teasing us with the possibility of miracles.

25.8.14

Fun Home

The latest edition of the London Graphic Novel Network is now up. I've written about Fun Home ages ago, and I don't say a lot of new things, but the other reactions are worth reading. My bit below:

It's telling that Bechdel explains explicitly why [the literary allusions] are used:

"I employ these allusions not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms. And perhaps my cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the arctic climate of our family than any particular literary comparison"

I say "telling" because each allusion Bechdel uses is ALSO explicitly explained. Fun Home isn't like rounds of Radio 4's Quote Unquote where you are quizzed on your literary knowledge. It's not a game of spot the reference, because Bechdel always does the work for you and gives you all the answers. Which is why some ppl can read it and not even be fazed by its uber-literate stylo. And her attitude is the opposite of haughty. Instead she describes the habit almost as a tic - and the reasons behind it are actually (when you read the above) q sad.

I almost get the sense that the references are involuntary - an abnormal, almost pathological way to engage with the world. I like to draw a link with the obsessive compulsive disorder Bechdel develops and then overcomes when she's 10. There is a sense in Fun Home that literature becomes about asserting control of a reality that is in fact ~beyond~ your control. Developing links and patterns to your experiences is a way to digest and understand them, and there is a comfort and satisfaction to that very similar to counting things and coming to an even number.

That for me is the central insight in the book, and why I think it's so brilliant.

23.8.14

Orphan Black

The only TV commentary I read comes from the folks at ILX, and this rings particularly true: every explanation to date has less been an explanation and more a reveal of something else that requires explanation. The writers blog each episode, and it seems that the show-runners tend to throw in random scenarios which the room then has to fold into the narrative. This leads to very noticeable lurches where a character or plot-line is wrenched away from one location to the next, all in the service of thrills and spills. No doubt the velocity of the story is captivating, but when you step away from the vortex you're left with more questions than answers.

And as great as Maslany is, she can't make a character like Rachel breathe without the writers giving her a motivation to run with. An obsession with motherhood feels incongruous buried within a ruthless corporate clone: are all female leaders (the hated boss bitch) just sublimating their maternal instincts? The show as a whole is vague about the conflict it sets up between religious nuts and science freaks. Ostensibly, the heroes are fighting for a middle way between these extremes, defending their family against the assaults of ideologies that seeks to destroy it. But 'family' is also an ideology and subject to change in the face of social and technological change. This is ripe territory for the show to explore.

As an example: how will the mechanisation of childbirth transform motherhood? How will women feel towards their children when they are freed from constraints men have never had to bear (the process of pregnancy, birth, postpartum). The show steps back from such a future. Instead both Rachel and Helena (and the organisations that raised them) are obsessed with children and jealous of Sarah for having a daughter. Clones are facinating and valuable for still unarticulated reasons. Two seasons in, that's disappointing.

10.8.14

Guardians of the Galaxy

Before watching the film a colleague told me that there were certain gender problems with it, so I was on my guard. And true enough, at the very end there's a deeply creepy moment in which the love interest character (played by Zoe Saldana) is overtly identified with the dead mother of the male hero (played by Chris Pratt). The brazen way the film restates the notion that girlfriends are replacement mothers is almost impressive. But actually, that's all there is to Saldana's character. Chris Pratt is the lovable rogue who treats women abominably and who we are nevertheless encouraged to identify with. Reports that the film has a large female audience makes this all the more depressing.

The film itself is moderately enjoyable, but perhaps less funny than it thinks it is. The visuals are spectacular, but slightly deadened by the 3D (I foolishly didn't check before buying my tickets). Marvel's genius for picking people to helm their film projects does not extend to James Gunn (or Alan Taylor for that matter). The studio has built up plenty of good will with Avengers Assemble, which may explain why people are still coming out to see related films. And let's not forget the Transformers rule whereby spending enough money inevitably delivers a box office hit regardless of quality. Nonetheless, I'm starting to doubt how far this golden run will last.

3.8.14

Fanny & Alexander

I watched the 180 minute theatrical cut, not the five hour TV series, and it still felt a bit too long to me. The bagginess is front-loaded in a very detailed depiction of Christmas where the different characters are introduced. The actual first scene is intriguing: Alexander's imagination is activated while he's wandering around the empty house looking for his family. He calls out the names in a way that echoes the bedtime prayers he and his sister recite every night. But in the silence which greets his calls, he fantasises that a statue moves instead. At the end of the film, Alexander's God is revealed to be a monstrous puppet. Collective religious myths are replaced by individual inspiration.

I just wish we jumped a bit more quickly to the standout scenes. Some of the flab (particularly the scenes shot on location with extras) could definitely have been cut away. But there is a lot to treasure here: Alexander's father gives an extraordinary speech at the beginning (echoed by his uncle at the end) summing up Bergman's views on the purpose of art - a way to explore or escape from suffering, both aims being of equal worth. Helena's account of performance sounds like Bergman's final statement on the way we change masks through our lives, like actors do. The great scene between the Bishop and Emelie where she reveals why she loves him - the emptiness of the theatrical life leaving a yearning for the certainties and strictures of a religious one. The climactic phantasmagorical sequence in which Alexander's stories merge with that of the film. And the final gut punch where the ghost of Alexander's stepfather introduces himself.

1.8.14

The Invisibles

I just checked and it's been five years since I read the first volume of The Invisibles. I picked up the rest of the series recently and started without going back to the beginning, and relaxed into it a lot easier this time around. It's a book you learn how to read, and I mostly did so by learning to let go of the need to make sense of everything. Having finished the series, I only have a vague idea of how the plot all fits together, and more importantly, no great desire to expend the mental energy to work it out. Warren Ellis, in his blurb for the final book, describes the series as like pop music: "about everything and nothing". The meaning is in the moment, and doesn't last much beyond it.

The series is built on an everlasting battle between order and chaos, and its evident which side Grant Morrison is on. Not being the impressionable undergrad the series is (overtly, judging by the end of the penultimate issue) aiming for, I found the anarchist politics in the book unmoving. To borrow John Gray borrowing Isaiah Berlin, liberty and security (more mundane terms for chaos and order) are both precious but also both incommensurable. They clash frequently, and the balance between them is the job of politics (rather than philosophy) to resolve. None of that subtlety is present in The Invisibles, but then Morrison's anarchy is less about the political and more about the personal.

The series champions individualism more than anything – the ability to author your sense of self, frequently against the prevailing culture you find yourself in. Conformity is a burden to be liberated from. The evil Archons are "only all the things you left outside when you were building your little house called me". This line could refer to the social norms cast off as you construct your subjectivity, but the representation of the Archons as Lovecraftian monsters adds a more interesting gloss. A self made without reference to the world around you ("don't believe nothing you hear, trust what you know") is in some way ungrounded, a void. And reality can come to bite you as a result.

These ambiguities are rarely dwelt on throughout the series. One of the most interesting developments is King Mob's growing discomfort with the way his strong character can dominate over others, undermining his anarchist principles. This is ripe territory for a book about anarchism to explore, since one of the basic criticisms of the idea is that human beings create informal hierarchies even when formal ones are stripped away – so that even radically equal communities often end up with the more vocal and assertive out on top. However, King Mob's struggles with this dilemma (and his dependence on violence) are only briefly dealt with.

Likewise, Ragged Robin's anarchist ideals are also shaken by her masochistic sexuality – the discovery that she enjoys being dominated by King Mob in bed. Again, this would have been fascinating to delve into. Is such a sexuality socially constructed by a patriarchal society and therefore to be repudiated, or is such repression incompatible with a liberated spirit? Can a moral defence of BDSM be developed (that it's about trust rather than power, for example) or is that unnecessary? Morrison chooses to deal with Robin's conflict through metaphor (a telepathic war with Mr Quimper) where much of the nuance of the issue is lost.

Morrison states at the end a conviction that "we made gods and jailers because we felt small and ashamed and alone". The line rings truer for gods than for jailers, which underlines the way Morrison's liberty is personal rather than political. As an aside, good luck trying to explain the origin of justice with reference to human psychology, I think you'll always get different answers. Adam Smith for example thought it was linked to a sense of resentment. David Hume probably had the right idea all along in seeing justice as established by convention and as a result of its utility.

But if Morrison commits to renouncing the moral and political institutions that structure our lives as members of society, he also cleverly undercuts himself with the final pun on "sentence". His book is another exhortation, another imposition on the reader's sense of self. And the reader is free to spurn its sentence.

Which is exactly what I plan to do.

28.7.14

In the Mood for Love

As the previous post attests, I'm a firm believer in the importance of titles, and this one felt like a stinker while I was watching. Wong apparently arrived at it by chance after being dissuaded against Age of Bloom (a song in the film and of the period) and Secrets (which sums up the film's themes). Both are superior choices. A good title is like the cherry on top of the icing of the cake (to borrow a metaphor from conversations with Joel, keeper of the peace at the LGNN). It's a way into and a summation of what the film is all about.

The pop song's reference to blossoms is an evocation of spring, youth and the beautiful. Its deployment is partly ironic, as by the time we meet our central couple they are already trapped in loveless marriages which prevent them from being together. Nonetheless, like the pop music of youth, both look back to this time together as their true first young love.

Secrets is rather bluntly explained by Tony Leung in a bar to his wastrel friend, but that and the callback to it at the end is less interesting than the environment of secrecy that pervades the relationships in the film. Maggie Cheung has to field calls from her employer's wife and mistress. Her husband is having an affair with Leung's wife. Their fine eye for details (the same tie, the same handbag) uncovers the secret. They themselves have to be mindful in case the always present neighbours start asking questions. This is a time where you could still be told off by your landlady if she thinks you're spending too many evenings out when your husband is away.

In a society where infidelity is ever-present but rigorously policed, Leung and Cheung choose the moral high ground, even though they are falling in love. All of which made me want them to throw off the soiled principles they insist on clinging to. In fact, the film leaves that open – and I sometimes like to think that Leung is the father to Cheung's son who is revealed at the end, and that little secret was what ended her marriage. But then why would she want to raise the boy without Leung? I suspect Wong had other intentions – conspiring to separate the couple and end the film on a note of yearning for the love, and the specific time, that had passed.

25.7.14

Boyhood

For me, the most interesting thing about the film isn't the way it was made or the universal acclaim it has received. Rather, it's the way it navigates between documentary and drama. While Linklater's dialogue may feel extempore to some, for me there's no doubt that his scripts are quite tight. Even if Mason's character tracks the life of the actor playing him quite closely, the shorts filmed each year have a shape and purpose imposed by the filmmaker. The point is: although Boyhood sometimes suggests the looseness of documentary, actually this is deceptive. An authorial voice is present throughout.

So what is the film trying to say? While many reviewers have warmed to the universal bildungsroman scope of the film, what struck me was how particular Mason's story is. The protagonist is not an everyman. In fact, Linklater has him grow up to be a typical Linklaterian hero – almost an Ethan Hawke Mini-Me. And his development is presented with recourse to very American tropes and symbols (aspiration, independence, the possibility of the open road). My girlfriend is Japanese, and when discussing the film with her Japanese colleague, she told me that the scenarios portrayed felt foreign to her. This made it difficult to fully identify with the characters and the experiences they go through, and more broadly, to embrace the film in the way that it has been by Anglo-Saxon critics and audiences.

This chimes with my own reaction to the film. Mason isn't perfect, but he's intelligent, creative and has amazing hair. He grows up in a white, middle class family, has cute girlfriends, and goes to university. This is not an universal experience (trust me – I share more than a bit with Mason's character). Linklater makes some concessions on this by shoehorning a sub-plot about a Latino builder profiting from the American Dream, which I found very moving despite its clumsiness. That doesn't detract from the overwhelming feeling that Linklater is whispering consoling stories to an audience that looks very much like him.

The original title of the film was supposed to be 12 Years – it was changed last minute because the recently released 12 Years a Slave would have caused confusion (or a tougher job for the marketing department). But the working title at least emphasised that this was a particular story portrayed in a particular way – one kid from one place filmed once a year. Having Boyhood as the title suggests that the story somehow reaches beyond that. My ambivalence toward the film comes down to doubts about how much it really does so.