30.12.09

Film of the decade: honourable mention

I want to talk some more about stuff I like. Why not? Here are some more films made this decade that were important to me and some other people.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy - Peter Jackson (co-writer/director)

Basically the Star Wars of my generation. Kids in the 80s had their minds blown by lightsabers and stormtroopers. I had my mind blown by... well, where do you begin? The visual spectacle presented by The Lord of the Rings was a quantum leap in the cinematic experience. The innovations are many: crowd AI, bigatures, a stopmotion/animated character that worked, that looked real next to real people, that wound up giving the best fucking performance in the whole of The Two Towers. Gollum's schizo scene has to go down in movie making history. Thrilling, funny, touching, profound. From a guy created by computers! No one had seen that before.

I can talk some more about the peerless design work, the fine acting from a well-picked cast, the sure-handed, punchy directing, the marvelous score*, the surprisingly (really, wow) intelligent, skillful and compassionate writing. But we all know this already. Standing back, it really does look like Peter Jackson and co. have given us the definitive Lord of the Rings adaptation. And I'm pretty confident it will stand up in 30 years time just as well (no, better!) than Star Wars does now.

*Now would be the time to confess that The Return of the King makes me tear up on five separate occasions, and Howard Shore's music is the major reason why the emotion hits me the way it does.

Garden State - Zach Braff (writer/director)

Basically the Annie Hall/Graduate of my generation. The quirky, indie, romcom that caught the moment, found the audience, and set the trend for quirky, indie romcoms for the rest of the decade. However, nothing that came afterwards had as much soul as Zach Braff's creation. He was laying himself completely open. That earnestness holds a charm and a poignancy that stays with you. I saw the film quite randomly in the cinema when I was 15, and I walked out thinking that's the film I wanted to make. It was exactly the thing I needed, at exactly the right time. Everyone will have this experience when they are growing up, and this was mine. It was for quite a few other people as well.

That said, two of my best friends hate it and give me mad shit for loving it so much. So the whole 'Garden State is the voice of a generation' angle might be a little off. Then again, maybe my two friends are just cold-hearted, soulless robots! Take your pick.

Serenity - Joss Whedon (writer/director)

Another film I go on about endlessly, and another film those same two best friends delight in disparaging. To which I say, as well as being unable to feel, they seem to be unable to enjoy themselves. Serenity is fun. in the same way that Pirates and Star Trek and Die Hard 4 are fun. But it's also clever. So much cleverer than people expect. Much cleverer than the dirge-fable Children of Men, or the flashy pyrotechnics of Sunshine, or other sci-fi contenders this decade. This is the little budget blockbuster that could. More people need to see it. More people need to love it.

The New World - Terrence Malick (writer/director)

Yes, yes it is his best film. My position on The New World is pretty much the polar opposite of my film critic guru Mark Kermode, who found it long, boring and with a hippy treehugger vibe that irritated more than it inspired. Kermode could look past those problems in The Thin Red Line because he though the film said something about nature's aloofness to humanity's presence, and particularly to war. However, he thought The New World may lead to re-evaluations of Malick's solid gold critical approval.

I had exactly the opposite experience with the two films. I came to The Thin Red Line with high expectations, and will concede that it was beautiful to look at. But I couldn't come to grips with the voiceover, which spewed nothing but meaningless, wooly, pretentious nonsense. I can't remember any of it. It was just a constant stream of words doing nothing. Most importantly, I couldn't believe that any of the soldiers would actually think any of the things being said. Soldiers are not hippies. Soldiers HATE hippies.

I didn't have this problem with The New World. Perhaps because it was set further in the past, or amongst a more alien society, I could accept the pretentious voiceover. I could believe John Smith and Pocahontas were thinking the things I was hearing. I could participate in that relationship. This meant I could ease myself into the other elements of the film -- Malick's rosy-eyed view of primitive cultures, his obsession with the bankruptcy and unnatural condition of western civilization, the overwhelming love of the natural world, in its grandness and its little details. I got it. The film became magnificent. Malick was doing something no one else could do, or had done before. As David Thompson says, that's what the movies are all about.

In Bruges - Martin McDonagh (writer/director)

Other end-of-decade lists have been extraordinarily kind to Tarantino, which I find rather baffling. His work in the 00s comes no where close to the three films he made in the 90s. But this does. It goes further than any other Quentin copy because it's not a Quentin copy. It's sensibilities are very different. The love of pulp is there, but so is a prevalent Irish Catholic background. In fact, the more I watch it, the more I think the film is narrating a kind of conversion experience. But anyway, there's no other filmmaker I'm more exited about as we step into the 10s, so that's were I'll end my list.

(Mulholland Drive, A History of Violence, There Will Be Blood and The Departed also belong here, but everyone else has written about them, and Lynch, Cronenberg, Anderson and Scorsese hardly need any more blogger love.)

27.12.09

Film of the decade

The decade round-up continues, having gained an objective air that fits uneasily with the argument in my first post in the series. Yet another example of my endless hypocrisy, friends! The reason for the shift is straightforward. I feel comfortable when my ideas, reactions, obsessions, loves, are shared by people cleverer than me, so I advance them more forcefully. If other people think this, then I'm allowed to make maximalist claims about it. The Wire is the greatest television show ever, partly (mainly? only?) because everyone thinks it is the greatest television show ever. There is no such consensus behind Silent Alarm. Why I don't know. I think it's better than Is This It? or Turn On The Bright Lights, but can I trust that feeling? Bloc Party came after the Strokes and Interpol, but for me they were the game-changers. For the clever people writing those best-of-decade lists, it was the other way around. Maybe that's all it comes down to. Anyway, I felt isolated, so that's why I had to shoehorn some autobiographical justifications for my choice. Just so you know.

Anyway. My pick for best film has a consensus behind it. If by consensus you mean resident BBC film critic, and most adorable middle-aged fanboy in the universe, Mark Kermode. He says this film is the new Citizen Kane, so I'm pretty happy giving it my top spot. Drumroll...

Pan's Labyrinth - Guillermo del Toro (writer/director)

A fellow Wire fanatic and I once spent a good three minutes actively trying to pinpoint some aspect of the series that didn't work. We could only engage with the challenge on the level of pedantic nitpickery -- that line could have been delivered better, that shot could have been more interesting. All the major, structural building blocks -- the characters, the themes, the plotting, the look, were faultless. Perfect.

The last time I watched Pan's Labyrinth I set myself the same challenge. The only thing that stuck with me was a single crane shot sweeping up above the forest canopy to the sky, which I thought was colour-timed too blue. That was it. A NOTHING of a criticism! Laughable in its absurdity!

Pan's Labyrinth is quite literally a perfect film. Its definite, fully-formed shape reminds me of the control Alan Moore exerted over Watchmen. Del Toro's vision is crystal. He knows exactly what he's doing. Nothing you see or hear in Pan's Labyrinth is an accident. Every frame is a symbol. The windows, the furniture, the shape of the trees, are all imbued with meaning.

And it's a feast of a film. Every shot swoops you up from underneath and throws you headlong into the fantastic, gothic, tense, creepy, surreal world of Franco's Spain. The camera is almost singing a lullaby to you, casting you adrift, floating you through the fairy-tale. And the colours are hyperreal, bright golds and reds, and mysterious blues and violets, depending on the world you're currently exploring. And the monsters: knobbly, slimy, fleshy, physical. And meticulously designed. The Armchair Critic has come up with some convincing interpretations of the symbolic significance of the three tasks Ofelia has to face.

But what ultimately clinches Del Toro the top spot isn't the much talked about individual details, but the big picture. Pan's Labyrinth sets up two parallel avenues of interpretation, the secular and the fantastic, and keeps them open throughout the film. In using this structure, the film explores the link between a frightened girl's imagined fairy tales, and the origin of religion. Del Toro's lapsed Catholicism is all over Ofelia's return to her father's golden kingdom. The paternal God, the maternal Mary, the sacrificed child. And below, the goat-legged tempter (though the faun is more of a Old Testament Satan -- not a malevolent devil, but a good-natured trickster). The film shows how these bedtime stories, myths, fables, grow out of a real historical setting. It celebrates the transformative power of our imagination.

But it does more than that. Ofelia performs her secret missions in a Spain torn apart by civil war. The two sides are drawn with a fitting childlike fairy-tale simplicity -- the ruling, oppressive, bloodthirsty fascists, and the downtrodden, selfless, brave socialists. Anti-authoritarianism is the film's most obvious and powerful theme. Even religious authority is suspect -- the village priest shares Captain Vidal's table. In mirroring Ofelia's trials with the struggles of the resistance, Del Toro is stressing that all authority is a work of imagination. It is a lie that comforts us, but is ultimately a pretext for oppression. Our imaginings are seductive and dangerous. They can imprison people. Pan's Labyrinth draws up a manifesto for a new anti-authoritarian imaginative project, where everyone is free to build a religion of their own.

26.12.09

Liveblog of the RSC's Hamlet

(...demonstrating the unfortunate way my brain works. Touched up here and there)

Hamlet makes a distinction between external indications of mourning and internal feelings. His uncle observes only the former.

Both Claudius and Polonius send men to spy on their sons. With deception you discover truth.

Both conspire to spy on their offspring, to see if they are in love. Deception to discover truth.

Hamlet's exposure to Ophelia: a genuine outpouring of internal feelings, inspired by her brush-off? Or calculated ploy to put distance between them?

Wants Ophelia to go off to a nunnery, away from Elsinore. Away from the deceptions of (male) political life. Free from sin. Wants to save her from the fate he has to bear.

Ophelia believes Hamlet to be the paragon of manly virtue. Exactly what Hamlet has grown to despise.

Avenge your father's murder. Do evil to stop evil. The political life.

The Ghost has his sins burned off in purgatory. The ways of state. Teaching these sins to his son. Son has to do his duty, but he doesn't like what that means.

To be or not to be: fight against injustice or endure it silently. Which one is the moral choice?

The dreams that come after death are more horrible than the pain of existence. We don't know what death will bring, which is why we bear with what life gives us. Consciousness makes us cowards. Thought (and the possibility of its end) denies us resolution and action.

There is method in the madness. Applies to Polonius as much as Hamlet.

Art can cut through the bullshit. Confront us with truths we do not want to face. And yet the actors are themselves lying!

Hamlet uses art to discover the truth. Claudius and Polonius use other people.

Claudius: justice on earth is imperfect. Only in heaven is it stripped of all falseness. He believes himself damned.

Hamlet: prayer can remit even the most grievous sins. Even murderers can cheat their way into heaven. A cop-out?

Is Gertrude complicit? We will never know. She loves both Hamlet and Claudius. Torn apart by them.

Madness = honesty, virtue, freedom.

Ophelia's councilors are all gone. There's no one to tell her what to think.

She remains virginal and "pure", but is thoroughly wasted by Elsinore regardless. Hamlet didn't save her, he ruined her.

Laerties unflinchingly seeks to revenge his father's death. A true politician.

Fortinbras unflinchingly seeks to revenge his father's death. A true politician.

Fortinbras provides the example. No hesitation.

Yorick's skull: no heaven any longer. Only bones and dust.

Ophelia a maenad in death. Lusty, vibrant, free. Burns out just like Hamlet.

Can Hamlet distinguish truth and falsehood any longer? Thinks Laertes's sorrow is an act. Everyone in Elsinore is faking it. Comes to his senses later.

Hamlet only wants his story told. The only thing that is worth anything.

Notez on the production itself: stagey, which isn't surprising, but the incredible acting managed to hold your attention anyway. The CCTV stuff was dropped halfway through, which was weird. Also, not necessary. Liked the Habsburg decadence vibe. And Tennant's muscleman t-shirt. Also: don't watch Dr. Who, but now offish a fan.

Ideas and power

Some notes on the 5th century Christological controversy:

Pagan Romans viewed the world as being permeated by a whole host of supernatural beings -- malovalent deamons and benevolent gods. Material and spiritual success depended upon performing very visible rites correctly, and getting the local spirits on your side.

Constantine's 'imperial' Christianity inverted this local, immediate spirituality. Local spirits were all branded as malovalent daemons, and were set against a distant High God who made his commands known through a series of priviliged representatives of his will, of which Christ had been the greatest and Constantine the most recent. God is a remote monarch, whose agents were different from himself. The Emperor (like Christ) was sacred by association, not sacred himself. You can clearly see the way Christianity was shaped to suit the needs of those promoting it.

This 'Arian' view becomes challenged in the 5th century by assertive church leaders, who wanted to bring God down to the level of their congregations. They emphasise that God himself came down to the earth, was tempted, suffered and died. God knew about the daily trials of humanity, because He had experienced and overcome them. Father and Son were of one nature. Monophysite -- monos, single and physis, nature. Cult of the Virgin Mary: like every human being, God had a mother. The Virgin Mary could intercede on your behalf by reminding God of his bond with humanity. God cared about everyone. Jesus can be called upon at every moment as a source of comfort and inspiration. He wasn't a distant presence, filtered down through the judgements and laws of the mighty. He was active in the hearts and minds of every local congregation. You can clearly see the way Christianity is shaped to suit the needs of those promoting it.

The Emperor Marcian convenes the Council of Chalcedon in 451 to resolve this dispute. The greatest such council ever assembled, over 600 bishops present. Invites the bishop of Rome to provide a compromise agreement. An appeal to an outside Latin authority that would not rile the two sides. Pope Leo gives due weight to both the human and divine elements in the person of Christ -- a completely uncontroversial statement in the West. It is close to the 'imperial' Christianity of Constantine. The Emperor choses the side most beneficial to him, but presents it as a compromise. The Monophysites are horrified. Refer to Chalcedon as 'the Great Prevarication'.

Throughout, you can see the way political power-struggles infuse spiritual debates. The Emperor wants to maintain his authority over a unified Church. Eastern bishops want the opposite -- independence from Constantinople. In the west, there is no Emperor and the pope is little more than a bishop in Rome. The Christological controversy is a purely intellectual conundrum, and is not particularly divisive.

21.12.09

Song of the decade

Choosing one song to embody a decade should be more difficult than this, surely? I didn't even have to think about it for more than a minute, it was so obvious. Drumroll...

'Idioteque' - Radiohead

The structure of Kid A is built around two giant perfectly carved black obsidian pillars at the beginning and at the end. The opener, 'Everything In Its Right Place', with its soothing melody and quietly insisting vocal, suggests an appeal for order, calm, simplicity. There are two colours in my head. Black and white. Everything has boundaries. It's defined. And it's in the RIGHT PLACE. But then there are these weird glitches and spasms and gibbers and howls that invade and fuck up this ordered picture. There is tension here. I woke up sucking a lemon. What was that you tried to say? Wait. FUCK!

By the fading swirls of 'In Limbo', Radiohead have thrown every kind of madness at us. Except those crashing, metallic beatz. NOTHING is in its right place. Everything is ALL THE TIME.

pmp-TSS pmTSS pmpm-TSSm pm-TSS. The beatz are laser-cut to provoke body movement. To my undying shame I am unable to dance. My feet cannot keep a rhythm no matter how hard I concentrate. And yet whenever I hear 'Idioteque', I HAVE to move. It's imperative. The song commands. I can't have it playing as I write this. My torso rocks too much. My arms leave the keyboard and jab the air.

I laugh until my head comes off. I swallow until I burst. We can't stop. Neither can we sate our endless appetite for food, clothes, entertainment. I haven't seen enough. I need to see more. Oh, what's that? Ice age coming. Don't worry. Keep dancing. Let me hear both sides! Who are they? Throw them in the fire. Take the money and run. Oh God, this is really happening. Oh God...

Just keep dancing. Dance as the world burns.

I love this. When I was a little younger, one of my major gripes with the house music that was taking over Bulgaria was this blindness to exactly what Radiohead are talking about. The DJs were focused on building this communal sense of love, freedom and euphoria in the club. And yet alongside this utopianism there is a heavy stress on conspicuous consumption: looking good, making money, having fun. I thought the two things were totally paradoxical. Why I prefer dancing to 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' and other crummy indie night favourites is that, yes you move and have fun with your friends, but through it all you are singing bleak lyrics about the endtimes. There is no illusion or false promises. We dance the crushing pain of existence away.

And Radiohead have made the ultimate anti-dance dance track. But it's bigger than that. Around the 3:10 mark the beatz stop, the song lurches, and this weird echoy wailing starts up. The beatz quickly return and ride over this background clamour: the pistons of human progress -- unfeeling, unaware -- trampling over the earth's screams. But they cut out at the end, quickly splutter and die, and only the screams remain.

Is there any other song that embodies the 21st century so well? The seven tracks that came on top in Pitchfork's poll can't touch what Radiohead have put together. Have a listen and see what you think.

The Bourne Ultimatum

Was the plot of this film planned when they shot the last scene of Supremacy? I sorta hope not, because it only adds to the awesome achievement of the final volume in the trilogy. Goddamn is it a wild ride. And the fisticuffs in Morocco -- best fight scene ever? Kinda yeah.

If I was feeling really picky, I would slam the 'I picture the faces of the people I've killed, but I don't know their names' scene as a tired cliche. But the film does something clever, intercutting the monologue with Pam Landy reading the actual names of the people he's killed. So a scene about remorse becomes a scene about the balance of power between the rogue agent and his former masters, about abuse and exploitation.

Dubya's War On Terror is written all over this film. I do find the CIA's limitless resources in Ultimatum a little ludicrous when we know what we know now. (Burn After Reading is probably closer to the truth). But the idea that the intelligence services create as many enemies as they fight is interesting, and conveyed well.

And there's Julia Stiles. I love Julia Stiles, in 10 Things and Save The Last Dance and anything else she chooses to appear in. She is on love interest duties here, but what's great is how silent and tentative that relationship is. There is no relationship. There can't be while Bourne is still waging war on the CIA. But the final moment of the film is beautiful in its suggestiveness. Both characters are still alive, and now free (the final image of Damon swimming through water is a nice symbol of rebirth). The film makes the connection between them, and then leaves it hanging. The audience can continue that story in their heads if they want (and I do want), but it's only ever a sideshow to the main business of the film -- Bourne's origin -- which is now over. The most respectful and stylish romance in an action film ever? Kinda yeah.

19.12.09

Blade Runner - The Final Cut

Watched the film for the first time tonight on the BBC. I know, what took me so long, right? Some thoughts. The film was gorgeous from start to finish. It had a wonderful score. It used sex dolls to say some interesting things about false consciousness and patriarchy (or is my brain just smearing Dollhouse all over it?). The Jesus/dove stuff at the end was interesting, although the bit where the replicant leader kills his maker for not making him properly (why are we evil! why do we die!) was more interesting. HOWEVS.

All the moody, lingering shots were pretty an' all. But wasn't Harrison Ford just the flattest, emptiest hero of a sci-fi epic ever. There was no character there. Charisma can only go so far, people. I swear he only said about five lines in the whole film. This made it very difficult to root for him in the final showdown. I didn't care. I know we're supposed to feel uncomfortable with him being the hero, and we are supposed to realise that the villainesque replicant leader is the true hero. But if I don't know either of them at all, the whole exercise becomes a little ponderous, difficult, unmoving. Apparently, the first bastardized cut was supposed to solve this deficiency, but went too far. My feeling? The studio sorta had a point...

In all: give me The Fifth Element any day.

17.12.09

Scalped

The first trade I read ages ago, and didn't make much of an impression. But Ed Brubaker wrote a glowing introduction to the one called Gravel In Your Guts, so I had to pick it up. Good decision.

Scalped is noir at its purest. It's triple distilled evil and hopelessness in funnybook form. The Rez -- the setting of the series -- is as near to the state of nature as modern America can get. It's a prehistoric, eternal place. It's what society would be like with all the society taken out -- all you have are individuals in a free-for-all fight for survival. There's no mercy here. No redemption or salvation. No. Way. Out.

Jason Aaron's genius is in capturing the way people react to this hellish situation. In the trade's first story, we have two lovers who have had their 'sociability', or humanity, almost entirely eroded away. They can't deal with being together, because they have forgotten how to deal with people. Their lives are only made bearable through numbing drugs and passionate, cathartic sex. The final scene in their story is heartbreaking. The two sit on the edge of the mattress, naked, one showing the other how to smoke heroin. The panel presents them with their backs to us, small, surrounded by a mess of a room, in a mess of a world. They almost look like innocent children playing some secret game, becoming best friends. They are learning how to be around each other for the first time. But smoking heroin. Like I said: heartbreaking.

The next story is all about the compromises you make to survive, and how you justify them to others and yourself. The portrait of Red Crow, the Godfather-like figure in the Rez, is powerful and moving. The only misfire I would point out is the way one of the characters' aspiration is expressed through his 'dream of being an astronaut', which was corny and unnessesary. Then again, I didn't grow up in America, nor have I lived there, so astronauts aren't a particularly important or emotive idea for me. So, you know, maybe let that pass...

Back to the point: Scalped is great! All I really wanted to say.

13.12.09

How I love Peter Milligan...

'Are you really this tough and scary, Stella? Or is it all an act?'

'It's like this, Agent Chivers. I'm a reasonably young woman with pert breasts and a passing resemblance to Winona Ryder, who has absolutely no intention of sleeping her way to the top in a very macho industry. So it doesn't matter if it's an act or for real, as long as I keep people guessing.'

"Y-you're right. You do kinda look like Winona Ryder.'

(BTW: Love the colours in this comic. And the lack of place/time signatures keeping everything messy and confusing. And, of course, the dialogue.)

11.12.09

Viriconium Knights

A young man enters into the service of an oppressive authoritarian queen, and (inevitably) is betrayed into the hands of her enemies. During his flight from the city, he is confronted with visions of alternate selves, other choices, better worlds he could have made. He cannot stand it. In his despair and rage, he resorts to his old grasping ways, but is wounded almost unto death. Wandering, hunted, haunted, he comes across the body of a dead knight, a relic that reminds him of what could have been. He inherits the fallen's mantle and sword, and continues. In the distance, the city he saw in his visions rises before him. His brutal life is transformed and his dreams become reality. And engaging with art (and history?) is the catalyst for this process.

Or at least, that's what I got from the story. M. John Harrison's imaginings are rich and evocative, and you can engage with them in many ways. I was reminded of something Guillermo del Toro said in his commentary for Pan's Labyrinth: that the genius of symbols is their ambiguity -- how they suggest a spectrum of meanings where the individual picks out the ones particularly pertinent for them. A symbol that only has one meaning is a cypher, inert and powerless, intriguing only for those who like crossword puzzles.

I've realised that my approach to art is kinda like that. It's a historian's approach, where your material is a source and your task is to unravel what went on in the brain of the person who created it. I've been looking for objectivity in a place where the goal is the opposite. I've slowly been realizing, as I've been writing this blog, that the ideas I've ascribed to creators are probably better understood as my own ideas. Or at least, ideas that float somewhere between the creator and me. When I'm reading (or watching, or listening), I've been engaging in a dialogue with persons unknown, through the shifting, ambiguous, materials they have left behind.

8.12.09

Wanted

Haven't seen the film, but reports I've heard have generally dismissed it as stupid CGI chewing gum for adolescent eye-balls. The comic is written by Mark Millar and drawn by J.G. Jones -- superstars in the field -- so I was hoping it would be a little more interesting.

Jones is an incredible artist, let's get that out of the way. The Mark Miller angle is more problematic. For someone with such a massive profile, there are some very basic deficiencies in his writing. One is a tendency to overwrite. Random example:

'The final battle took place in 1986. It lasted almost three months and we lost a great many friends during that encounter, but we beat them in the end.'

The 'during that encounter' is completely unnecessary for the sentence to work, and it makes it feel ungainly and unbalanced. When you hear the voice saying the line in your mind, it sounds wrong. It's not the way an actual person would talk.

Second, there's Millar's stab at witty comedy:

'It looks more like my chance to get fucked up the ass and found in a trash can with my throat slit, Professor.'

The love for Ellis/Ennis is evident, but again Millar's sentence is unwieldy. It doesn't zing. I like swearing as much as anyone, but it does not a funny line make. Ellis and Ennis do it right because they pay attention to the sound of the language, and they're inventive with it. It looks like Millar just throws stuff that sounds cool together, and hopes that it will stick. More effort please.

To be fair, the rate of clumsy lines goes down as the comic progresses. And our first-person narrator does rise to the occasion at the show-stopping final battle in the fifth issue. Still, you would expect something better from a writer of such stature.

Enough nit-picking. Let's look at the big picture. Does Millar have anything to say? Perhaps because of the lackluster dialogue, I've found his characters difficult to engage with in the past. His Fantastic Four and Ultimates were very flat, though the comics were saved by some out-there ideas and Brian Hitch's widescreen artwork. Civil War, being a crossover, had little time for characters, and the central idealism vs. pragmatism concept wasn't used for much more than to set-up massive team deathmatches. That said, a friend of mine who went through the entire Civil War saga says that the idea had legs in the individual series, so we shouldn't be too harsh.

But Wanted is something different. Millar puts himself out there. He wants to say something. To confront you. The final two pages are worth the six-issue slog through stupid villains and uninvolving plot twists. It should also be said that the portrait of Wesley Grayson at the beginning is done with sympathy and feeling, and I was won over. Millar can do characters, it seems. Or at least, one character -- who may resemble himself more than anything.

So. Recap. A good beginning and a good ending, with the bad writing in the middle partly redeemed by kick-ass art. Not bad. But not really good enough either.

(Admin note: Hey! What happened?? The design of the Hot-Doll pages has been rejigged, with the aim of make them a little easier to read. Hope that helps!)

7.12.09

Sleeper

...has been re-released in two massive 'season' trades. I read the first one recently. Have loved this series a whole lot for a long time. Just want to note a couple of things.

It's a slow build. You can really see Brubaker and Philips learning their craft as the series progresses. By the second half, everything is very tight. The sense of cliche you get at certain points in the first couple of issues is completely absent.

The series is not decompressed. Every issue works on its own, has a satisfying complete-ness to it. Very good comics, in other words.

Miss Misery's origin -- doing bad things (according to society) makes you strong -- pretty much summarises every supervillain origin ever. Clever idea.

Which is picked up and developed in the standout twelth issue. Tau's origin is a succinct, and very powerful, encapsulation of human evil. It's is what makes Sleeper something more than just good noir/spy/action pulp. And then we get Tau's offer to Carver of a chance 'to be more than a pawn in some morality play'. Irony, because Carver is exactly that. Brubaker (I think) is on record describing superhero stories as morality plays, and this scene brings out the central binary such stories revolve around -- thoughts and actions, belief and self interest, ideas and reality.

Finally, Carver. The character really gains a pathos towards the end, where he is utterly broken down, manipulated beyond endurance, and compelled to fully go over to the dark side. The strength of this character is ultimately why Sleeper works as well as it does. And from what I remember, it gets even better from here.

6.12.09

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace

'Everywhere I went I felt like they were watching me. Fish-white flesh puckered by the highland breeze. Tight eyes peering out for fresh meat. Screechy booze-soaked voices hollering for a taxi to take them half-way up the road to the next all-night watering hole. A shatter of glass. A round of applause. A 16-year-old mother of three vomiting in an open sewer. Bairns looking on, chewing on potato cakes. I ain't never goin back. Not never...'

Could almost be in a Constantine comic. And that's the genius of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. It knows its genre trash so well that, take a few pisstakes away, it could be real genre trash.

Personal favourite voiceover line, for sheer ludicrousness:

'On a nearby rooftop, a bird took flight, but not even that could spoil this beautiful moment, as rosy-fingered dawn cupped Romford in its hands and thumbed open the new day's crack.'

1.12.09

The Dreamers

Not a perfect film, for sure. It doesn’t quite know what to make of Theo and Isa’s incestuous relationship. Nor is it particularly lucid on the student uprising of 1968. But you kind of stop caring. Look at the title, dammit. This doesn’t have to make sense. We are entering a dream. Characters lose their solidity. Things get childish and playful. Things get sexy and confused. The films and music you’ve internalized start invading your experience of reality. Everything blurs.

What you get from this smear of sensations and images is a feel for what the 1960s were like. You start to understand why those times were considered special by the generation that lived through them, and why they are so fondly remembered now. But there is a melancholy that comes with this perspective. Matthew starts telling Isa and Theo to grow up – that dreams aren’t everything. When their debauchery is uncovered, Isa is horrified enough to try and kill them all. Reality intrudes, and Isa doesn’t want to go there. She’ll make a perfect monument to idealistic youth instead. But the streets of Paris offer a better option – force your dreams onto an unwilling reality. Turn the world into that messy apartment. Isa and Theo get swept up in the revolutionary fervor, and Matthew has to leave them. He has already learned that reality will not treat dreamers kindly. You have to keep your dreams to yourself, and try and be as faithful to them as you can as you go live your life.

30.11.09

Jennifer's Body

'Nice hardware, Ace' says Megan Fox, after pulling down the cute emo boy's trousers. She then vamps out and proceeds to dismember him. Welcome to Diablo Cody's follow up to quirky indie highschool rom-com Juno.

Which is scary and sexy in equal measures. Also, funny. Also, clever. That's pretty much my life fulfilled right there. But did I mention clever? Yes. Not your typical 'girls are evil and we need to torture them' porno-horror provided by the Hollywood cineplexes. Hey! You know why girls are evil? Because us guys make them evil.

Yes. Us guys, with our souless quest for riches, status and teenage fanclubs. Adam Brody (who prompted multiple ejaculations of glee from your correspondent in the cinema) and his pathetic indie band rape Jennifer's body in order to placate their will-to-power. But whoops! She's not the powerless, virginal innocent they thought. Jenny's been round the block, she knows the score, and now she's out for vengeance.

Except that her vengeance tears the life right out of the town. To its immeasurable credit the film never lets us forget the human cost of the rampage. And we start to see that while the demon was unleashed by monsters, Jennifer was always a bit of a monster herself. She is a girl-Jock, happy with sex and status and objectifying those around her. And yet we pity her in a way we can't pity the strawmen evil indie band. Her attitude grows out of insecurities fostered by a culture that makes her an object. If she's only a piece of meat to you, then she'll make mincemeat out of you. Serves you right, right?

Wrong. Fighting fire with fire will only burn the only bar in town down. And yet you need a little bit of that fire in you, as our heroine finds out. She's gonna use it to take out the real bad guys.

Also, funny. Did I mention funny? Juno prompted a ridiculous debate about Cody's 'unrealistic', 'self-conciously quirky', 'too clever' dialogue, largely fueled by a particularly vicious Time Out review. I stand firmly behind Mark Kermode when he says THIS IS CINEMA, NOT REAL LIFE! You are allowed to write unrealistic, clever dialogue. If you found Cody's quirkiness forced or annoying, that's fair enough. I found it charming. Also, and I've probably mentioned this before, funny.

24.11.09

Lust, Caution

The first words Ang Lee says in the documentary on the DVD are pretty much the key into this film -- the courage to reveal yourself to someone else. And he places these moments of exposure in a deeply secretive, oppressive environment. Both lovers risk death if they let one brief spark of who they are out from underneath.

Are they in love? I don’t see their relationship as particularly loving. Love is about exposure, baring your all to someone else. When they fuck, these two want to hurt one another -- have their partner’s head shot off upon reaching climax -- lust used as a weapon of rage. And yet, and yet... the singing scene in the Japanese brothel. Singing can be seen as an exposure of yourself in an indirect way, through art. And Tony Leung’s character reacts with an exposure of his own. He has become comfortable revealing himself and his secrets to his new mistress. So much so that she cannot bear to deceive him any longer. She slips out, and betrays her mission. But her lover isn’t brave enough to follow her example. He destroys her, and retreats to the shadows he has made for himself. Both characters are being pulled by libidinal lust and rational caution, Tang Wei's character choses the former and Tony Leung's the latter. I am only very slightly peeved that these gender conventions weren’t challenged. I guess this wasn’t the film for it...

Ang Lee obviously has an interest in relationships in extremely hostile environments, and I want to watch Brokeback Mountain again with this in mind (the first time round I was pretty unmoved). Another point to be aware of: there’s the interesting conclusion to Ang Lee’s opening words -- that the courage to reveal your inner self to another is what constitutes true art. Beneath the tortured love stories, it seems, Lee is ultimately exploring the way he feels about his craft.

23.11.09

Battlestar Galactica

...season 4. Short season, isn't it? Only ten episodes. The writers' strike had something to do with it, apparently.

The previous note's conclusion that the show's weak writing is saved by magnificent actors, directors and CGI still broadly holds true. On the commentary for the (excellent) Razor film, the writer and exec. producer said they often threw in things that didn't make sense because of the cool factor. I think that's lazy, and I get seriously enraged when Battlestar treats me like an idiot. Or maybe I should follow the writer's advice, relax, and enjoy the robots and spaceships and war, war, war!

On the plus side, season four is by far the most consistent season so far, which is certainly down to the small number of episodes (previous seasons get flabby 3/4 of the way in). The first two episodes were slow, but by the third we were on a roll. Noticed that Buffy alumnus Jane Espenson was on the team. Not biased or anything, but her episodes were pretty much the best.

One of my major gripes with the series has been addressed. Season four began to deal with religion with a modicum of intelligence, by exploring Baltar's (at first very silly) transformation into cult leader for the Cylon God. The way guilt is displaced and human fallibility sanctified is a really interesting (and believable) comment on the way religious inspiration works. Such a solution fits Baltar perfectly -- he is just the most delightfully conceited and self-serving character on television.

That said, my worry that the final season will resolve all the lingering questions through spiritual deus ex machina bullshit is growing. The twists are just getting waaaay too implausible, and they have piled up. I think doing science fiction (all fiction) in this way is lazy and stupid, and it will get me angry. The explosions in the final series have to be mind-shatteringly awesome for me to be able to stomach the coming cop-out.

21.11.09

The NME

..which listed its 50 albums of the decade this week, along with some write-ups on pop, indie, television, and the internet. I should say from the start that I’m recounting their articles from memory, and so may be hideously distorting what has actually been printed. Ah well...

The essay on pop music was the most provocative, suggesting that the developments there (Timberland, the Neptunes, Girls Aloud, Lily Allen) have been more radical than what the backwards-looking garage rock and post-punk revivalists (the Strokes, the Libertines, Arctic Monkeys) have offered. Since the NME has spent the last ten years obsessively focused on the latter, this looked to me like a welcome breath of fresh thinking. However. The previous article on indie was actually an an article on the influence of the Strokes -- how they swept away the Travises and Starsailors of the 2001 pop landscape and ushered forth a new dawn in independent rock music. Most annoyingly, it argued that the overly-wrought, intellectual music of today’s indie scene (Merriweather Post Pavilion was used as the example) lacked the rock ‘n’ roll wastrel spirit of Is This It?. The article expressed a earning for another one of those bands to appear in the 2010s, a band that will make rock music cool and exciting again.

And that’s the thing about the NME. On the one hand, it is interested in sonic innovation and a variety of genres. We mustn’t forget, the people writing it are music fans. On the other hand, the magazine remains fascinated with a very vintage conception of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle -- getting pissed and passing out in a bin at the back of the club. Going to house parties and taking drugs. Vague disillusionment with society and the establishment. That’s why it lionizes the deadbeats, the slackers, the brawlers, the fucked up, the ‘authentic’ -- Morrisey, Kurt Cobain, Pete Doherty, Liam and Noel. That’s why it’s uncomfortable with the ‘musos’ going to ATP. Why it disparages Los Campesinos!, who are the best band in the UK right now. The NME is for the proles, not the bourgeois. It’s for the heart, not the head. It’s for the gigs, not the bedrooms, (perhaps for the blokes, not the birds?)

The thing is, if you’re gonna stick to rockist music journalism (authenticity, the underclass etc.) covering contemporary indie music is gonna be a tad disingenuous. The Strokes were not really making the music of the oppressed. Jay-Z was. Right now, drum & base, dubstep and grime is the music of the oppressed. Covering black street music with rockist criteria (as Simon Reynolds does) is a perfect fit. Doing so for white hip rock is more difficult, especially with the middle-class, Radiohead and/or Belle & Sebastian-loving indie bands coming over from the USA.

I would advise the editor of the NME to put rockism, with all the difficulties it brings, to one side. Stop glorifying the Skins young-and-immortal-but-confused lifestyle. Focus on the music. All kinds of music. Sometimes the magazine can do that. Their list of the top 50 albums of the 2000s put the Strokes first (of course), but there were nods in the direction of the Knife, M.I.A. and Outkast. More covers in this vein may yet deter the NME readership from jumping ship and diving into the dizzyingly diverse waters of the internet.

I’ve already done so. It’s Pitchfork all the way for me...

17.11.09

Infinite Crisis

Just to mention how much I loved this. Had a point. Had a conclusion. Had weight. The bad guys were the good guys -- tortured idealists willing to go to any lenghts to achieve a perfect world. Also, great moments: Diana talking to Diana, Batman pointing a gun at Alex's head, Alex being taken out by the one thing you cannot plan for -- the insanity of the Joker. Also, the event gives you all the heroic deaths and inspiring fellowship you could want. Gotta say, House of M dealt with similar themes, but not as well as this. For one, I'm completely clueless about the DCU, and yet the story was written in a way that was accessable to newbies. I don't think Marvel crossovers are as welcoming.

And to top it all off, Phil Jimenez kicks the shit out of the book. So much awesome compacted into so few pages. I'm grinning at the memory of it.

Who says superheroes are dead?

16.11.09

Inferno

The comic book, not the poem. I read Dante's Inferno when I was 17 -- loved the allegories in the first canto, and the awesome frozen landscape at the very end. But there was too much of Dante settling old scores in the middle for me to get really interested. Also, Dante's hell was a bit too physical (or not psychological enough) for me to want to start getting lost in it. It was just a bit dull.

Now. I'm not gonna argue that Mike Carey and Michael Gaydos's creation kicks Dante's ass in the grand measurements of imaginative achievment. I am gonna say I enjoyed it a whole lot more.

I should qualify. I don't think Inferno is a particularly profound meditation on religion, identity, power, love, whatever. A lot of it is just amazing comics. Carey can do all that D&D talk very well -- enchanted armour, flying demons, scrying spells, crystal balls, decapitated talking heads, magic crossbows etc. etc. But he's inventive with it. There are loads of cool ideas in these five issues, making them a cut above most derivative dark fantasy D&D-type comics. And the names sound suitably weird without being ridiculous (no one seems to gets that right).

But let's talk a little bit more about Michael Gaydos. I know him from the wonderful scruffy, grimy, blotched, stained, smeared, souped noir he did for Bendis's Alias. But did you know he could also do Mike Mignola? Not a rip-off, you understand. Gaydos's fantasy looks slightly spikier, slightly punkier. His hell city is rough, claustrophobic, deformed, crazed, like taking Brian Wood's DMZ and turning it medieval. Feral. It reminded me of what Viriconium would look like. More comics need to remind me of Viriconium! Basically, what I am trying to say is that Michael Gaydos makes this book. Please, Mr. Carey, may we have some more?

12.11.09

How I love Grant Morrison...

'Ed, you're gonna have to stop drinking vodka from a baby bottle and tell me what this has to do with me and my personal problems!' -- Jake Jordan

Bright Star

Beautiful film. Throws you in love and breaks your heart with exquisite ease. If you do not weep when Fanny learns of Keats’s death, you are not human.

If I have to have a problem with the film, it will be that the Keats I read in the poetry isn’t the one I saw on screen. Bright Star’s Keats is a bit too melancholy, too quiet and thoughtful. My Keats is loud, energetic, boisterous, passionate. He doesn’t think so much as feel. The words in his letters pour out of him with no care for grammar, syntax, even sense. He should be moving, exclaiming, oscillating rapidly between a full spectrum of wild emotions -- rage, despair, obsessive love, jealousy, grief.

There’s also an element of Keats that is a little presumptuous, a little proud. Most of his poetry, on a baseline level, is about him trying to write good poetry -- creating something that will stand up against the works of his heroes. There is something rather self-involved, even arrogant, about Keats. La Belle Dame Sans Merci isn’t really about his love for Fanny, as the film makes out. Even Bright Star, which is, begins with the usual quest for a metaphysical Beauty-beyond-death. But rather than the expected sink into dejection at the chances of achieving such a feat, Keats changed the ending of the sonnet so that he discovers eternity in the immediate. His love for Fanny fulfills the poetic quest for Beauty, at least for one perfect moment. Even so, there is little of Fanny in all this. Keats was much more interested in himself.

My Keats is a lot closer to the film’s Charles Brown. Not the same, for Brown is a bit of a monster. But the film does leave you guessing as to why an outwardly cerebral, courteous and talented poet should hang out with such a gruff, self-important, talentless Scotsman. Maybe the director chose to omit the less romantic (although more Romantic) side of Keats. That’s fair enough, Imo. The film isn’t really about Keats, or his poetry. It’s about Fanny Brawne.

A cliche beginning for a Keats biopic would have begun with delicate close-ups of a quill scratching verses on scraps of paper. Pull out to a mid-shot of Keats with furrowed brow, bent over a desk. Add a cello. You can do the rest. Bright Star, on the other hand, begins with delicate close-ups of Fanny sewing a dress. The film makes an overt connection between Fanny’s needlework and Keats’s versifying. Both are aesthetes, wanting to make something new and beautiful. This is what attracts one to the other. The difficulty is that artistic fields of activity at the time were heavily gendered. Fanny is confined to making dresses, and she feels she has to learn poetry. In fact, she doesn’t need to learn anything. She immediately understands Keats’s desire for escape and fulfillment. She shares it. His poetry, and later his love, can be seen to provide her that escape and fulfillment. She has found something eternal and beautiful. Even after Keats’s death, she has his poetry to sustain her. Walking away from the film, I did feel slightly dissatisfied that she could not get there in her own way. Perhaps that was the point. She had to find perfection in her lover’s work, rather than her own.

Also: Tots is just the cutest thing EVERR!

3.11.09

Kill Your Boyfriend

Looks like I have to return to the wreckage of the Grant Morrison Season, try and pick up the pieces and get it moving again. Not only have I found a copy of the impossible-to-find graphic novella Kill Your Boyfriend, the subject of this here post, but my library have bought all four trades of Seven Soldiers Of Victory, which may also prove blog-worthy. Apparently it's one of the best things Morrison has done.

Anyway. Concerning Kill Your Boyfriend, a couple of things I want to pick out. First, and perhaps most importantly. This Philip Bond guy is a beautiful human being who draws beautiful human beings. This comic is gorgeous. Everyone is sharp, young, smooth, sexy. Perfect. The balance between over-the-top romanticized demi-gods and real, down-to-earth kitchen-sink people is masterfully constructed.

The balance is important, because it ties in with the transformation our protagonist goes through. She leaves her old self behind and becomes a figment of Paul's imagination -- a fictional character. Again with the meta commentary on writing imaginative literature. How liberating it must feel to realize that you are caught up in someone else's reality, where you are no longer responsible, where you can do anything. Morrison is Paul, freeing his creation from her class / family / moral constraints and allowing her to do whatever the hell she wants.

It's a deeply seductive fantasy. But Morrison doesn't lose his grip on reality in the process. Like The Invisibles and The Filth, Kill Your Boyfriend is very equivocal about the anarchist revolution it appears to propose. It doesn't shy away from the horrific human cost of liberty without limits. The titular boyfriend who is killed isn't especially sympathetic, but he's not evil. The murder is both cathartic and shocking. It distills both our desire to go beyond the rules that govern our grey lives, and how terrible that desire can be.

The comic is brilliant at exponentially building the craziness. But the final scene reverses everything. Our heroine goes back to the dull life mapped out for her. Almost. The comic ends, as we all do, on a compromise between reality and our desire to transcend it.

One final thing to note: Morrison's ideas on pornography having a numbing effect on the phyche. It provides a way of containing socially disruptive sexual energy. We siphon away our perversions, and continue with our boring day-to-day lives.

26.10.09

Faker

What does university teach you about people? That we barely care about what happens to others. That self-gratification is always our primary concern. That we lie to each other all the time. Most importantly: that we lie to ourselves constantly -- the projected veneer of who we think we are is there to mask the true horror of who we really are. At least, this is what Faker suggests university is about. Sad to say, but my own experience isn't a million miles off from the picture Mike Carey and Jock present.

What's interesting about the comic, however, is that it forges ahead from this reductive starting point. There is a striking resurrection panel, which is half birth of Venus and half crucifixion of Christ. At the climax of the book, a character sacrifices himself in order to deliver his friends (and mankind?) from the all-pervasive (Satanic?) industrial-military complex. He is identified as a sacrificial lamb who will 'wash clean' the 'fucked up lives and times' of humanity. Maybe Carey is suggesting that above and beyond the fakery that comprises our daily lives is a higher truth -- that of Christian love, charity, selflessness.

Or maybe not. Because the 'Angel's Kiss' substance that kick-starts all the madness is not entirely benevolent. It only gives physical form to our dreams and nightmares. It can boost empathy and bring us closer together, but it can also bring our worst fears to life. Crucially, it can be used as a weapon. Faker is very conscious of both the value and the dangers of religion. The final page perfectly captures this ambiguity.

25.10.09

Murder Me Dead

Young Liars is pretty much the best comics around at the moment. While I wait for the final trade to come out, I got a little David Lapham booster fix reading Murder Me Dead, his 'first full-length comic novel' (as the back cover puts it).

While Young Liars adds pop music, fantasy dreamscapes and suicidal tendencies to its noir underpinnings, Murder Me Dead is Lapham doing classic noir. His introduction namechecks crime films from the 30s, 40s and 50s as primary inspiration, and he's brilliantly successful at bringing these old tropes (where less is definitely more) to a modern context. In short: Murder Me Dead is a perfect noir yarn. That said, the book lacks the crazy energy and invention of Young Liars -- where literally anything can happen. Bound by genre conventions, Murder Me Dead remains more subdued, and so less edge-of-your-seat thrilling.

Interesting to note the close similarities between the two works' protagonists. Both get caught up in the machinations of others. Both are relatively straight-laced. Both are completely besotted with out-of-control, dangerous femmes, and get dragged through seven shades of shit as a result. They even look the same.

One wonders whether these hopeless, obsessive, self-deceiving romantics are what primarily attract Lapham to the noir genre...

21.10.09

TV show of the decade

There's only really one answer. This one is so easy. Drumroll...

The Wire - David Simon (creator)

And is there anything more to be said? I mean, the show's towering superiority over everything else made this decade becomes evident to anyone who starts watching it. There's no real need for justifications. It is just impossible to deny.

My feelings upon completing season one remain unchanged at the end of season three. In the absence of original things to offer, I'll content myself with restating things the makers of the show have themselves emphasized. A lot of this comes from the commentaries and interviews on the season three discs, which are worth a watch.

Sidebar: No, I haven't seen the last two seasons. But even if there is a drastic falloff (and I'm assured there isn't) the achievement of the first three are enough to knock all rivals off the top spot. So I stand by my choice.

First. The Wire requires even closer attention than I first realized. The bewildering world you are thrown in, trying to make sense of it, occupies a lot of your brainpower the first time round. You end up using the overall season-spanning theme to reach some understanding of what you have been watching. Season one set up the ground rules: making close comparisons between a legitimate and a clandestine organization at odds with one other. Season two stretched out to include goings on in the port, in order to address America's betrayal of the working class. Season three pushed further into the political realm, and offered myriad plot-strands structured around the idea of reform.

But what you miss (at least, what I missed) watching the show on DVD is the way an individual episode builds its own internal patterns and symbols. In part, this is revealed through the quotes presented after the credits sequence: snatches of everyday dialogue that take on an added significance when placed at the head of the episode. The other indicator is the title of the episode, at first glance purely descriptive, but in fact offering fitting metaphors for the developments in that episode. The only example I can recall at present is the season three finale, named 'Mission Accomplished', with the epigraph '...we fight on that lie' as its banner. In the context of the episode, these two headings offer a bleak appraisal of America's War on Drugs. But they also go beyond this, linking the never-ending War on Drugs with the never-ending War on Terror. The failure to think outside the box domestically (end prohibition) is tied with the brain-dead shoot-from-the-hip reaction to 9/11. The season finale is a bad example, as it comments on the whole season (as does the season premier), but a quick glance at wikipedia shows me that all the episodes in themselves offer a rich seam of interpretation to pick apart.

Second. Not enough has been said about the show's visual achievements. The thing to note is the way it strikes a balance between realism and genre, gritty and mythic, low-key and operatic. There is no epic score, shoot-outs aren't glamourous, titty-bars aren't sexy. All the characters look real, rather than plastic. And yet those long crane shots over the corners, the sweeping pans, the slow pull-ins, the graceful lingering beats. This is no docu-style camera work. The Wire is artificial, a construct that takes real elements of Baltimore city life and puts them together to make statements the city can't make for itself. It's not fact, but fiction -- artifice -- art.

Third. We need to celebrate the subscription broadcasting business model which made The Wire possible. No commercial network would touch something so difficult and dark, and the creators knew this. It was HBO or nothing. The corporation doesn't need to worry about viewing figures, but the quality of its product. Its shows aren't dumbed down in order to be accessible, their brained up to be exclusive -- something different to the competition. Creators are given space and freedom to push the audience, rather than be pushed by it. Consumers don't always know best. Sometimes artists know better. This is why they need to be subsidized in a way that isn't always subject to the short-term, impulsive workings of the free market.

Honorable mention:
My two favourite television shows -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The West Wing -- both tailed off at the beginning of the 2000s, but I feel like too much of their identity is tied up with the 90s to qualify for the title. The Wire is, on the other hand, firmly a product of the last ten years.

14.10.09

Human Diastrophism

Who is the better Hernandez? On the basis of this graphic novel, I'm going with Gilbert. Sure, the artwork isn't as sleek and sexy as Jamie's, but the cartoony imperfections work for the idiosyncratic characters of Palomar. And as for the storytelling, well...

What I like about Human Diastrophism is that it's a full blown graphic novel, with themes and everything, but through it all Beto prefers to stick with his characters, and tell their story, without trying to corral them into making some overall point. The interweaving soap opera involves an enormous cast, and it's to Beto's credit that we're not lost amidst the crowd. And we get some of the most engaging, affecting developments yet. Luba (perhaps Palomar's most intriguing and mysterious character) is here broken down to bare essentials. She has outwardly been cast as a semi-ridiculous male sexual fantasy, a stick-thin shaggy-haired babe with enormous breasts, and a nymphomaniac to boot. But in this tale we truly appreciate the human costs of her condition -- her disgust with her aging body, the resentment she feels towards her beautiful children, the unfulfilled life she lives in this dead-end village. So having her regain composure and grace at the end is a real winning moment. There are many more: Maricela and Riri pining for Tonantzin, Guadalupe discovering who her father is, and being accepted by the fierce Carmen, Humberto being shown the great masterpieces of western art. All wonderfully touching pieces of tragi-comic human drama.

This is all much more important to Beto than the thrust of a particular unifying idea that will wrap the whole thing together. Then again, this being an epic, a graphic novel no less, Beto inserts into his story some weighty and potent images and patterns, which remain deliciously equivocal. A building crew comes to Palomar. The village is being introduced to outside civilization. The invasion of chittering black demon chimps appear to be a comment on this. They steal books, trash and set fire to houses, spurring the villagers to retaliate with a brutality of their own. The 'civilization = evil' formula may also serve to enlighten one of the opening images of the story, of a half-submerged corpse in a lake, with the twinkling lights of a city seen above in the distance.

Then there's the significance of seeing the serial killer Tomaso walking past Geraldo Mejia in his cell, while he's praying. Both are religious men. Tomaso's murder spree seems motivated by a warped Christian belief. It seems like we can amend our formula to 'religion = civilization = evil'. But there's more, because before Mejia turned to God he was a socialist, and his letters ultimately lead to Tonantzin committing suicide for some hopeless good cause. Not just religion, but all ideologies, are presented as destructive. I think this is contrasted with the simple tales told in Palomar: of falling in love, having a family, children playing, petty jealousies, people falling out and getting back together. This is what's important, Beto appears to be saying. Humanity. And humanity gets deformed, dangerous, inhuman, when they get seduced by the 'ideology = civilization' axis.

The final image, of the ash of apocalypse descending on Palomar, is beautifully elusive. Was Tonantzin right all along? Shouldn't we have fought to avoid this from happening? Then again, Tonantzin's sacrifice was useless. Maybe it's better to stay in Palomar, where humanity remains undistorted, true. Maybe here the fires burning up the rest of the world won't be able to find quick purchase.

The scene right before that, where Howard Miller is comforting his girlfriend Cathy, may be expressing the artist's own thoughts on the story he tells. There's deep felt compassion for Tonantzin's sacrifice: 'it takes real love to want to go that far in hopes of making some kind of serious change for the better'. But while Cathy continues to feel horror and sadness, Howard quickly moves on to the everyday, the job, his life. Tonantzin isn't dismissed as foolish, in fact she ends up as the most inspiring character of all. But there's danger in her example. Maybe Howard's hardened, almost-but-no-quite callous reaction is the best way to deal with the story Beto presents to us.

11.10.09

Culture and Barbarism

An essay by Terry Eagleton over here, of which the last paragraph is the most illuminating:

'The distinction between Hitchens or Dawkins and those like myself comes down in the end to one between liberal humanism and tragic humanism. There are those who hold that if we can only shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition, we can be free. Such a hope in my own view is itself a myth, though a generous-spirited one. Tragic humanism shares liberal humanism’s vision of the free flourishing of humanity, but holds that attaining it is possible only by confronting the very worst. The only affirmation of humanity ultimately worth having is one that, like the disillusioned post-Restoration Milton, seriously wonders whether humanity is worth saving in the first place, and understands Swift’s king of Brobdingnag with his vision of the human species as an odious race of vermin. Tragic humanism, whether in its socialist, Christian, or psychoanalytic varieties, holds that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own. There are no guarantees that such a transfigured future will ever be born. But it might arrive a little earlier if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals got out of its way.'

I've beefed with Eagleton before, just so you know.

I'm slightly less angry this time round, because I think I share Eagleton's 'tragic humanism' and the desire to 'radically remake' oneself (see post here). However, for me there is no gap between a 'vision of the human species as an odious race of vermin' and the belief that we must 'shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition'. By Eagleton's reckoning, I'm both a liberal and a tragic humanist.

How does that work? Well, Eagleton paints liberal humanists as those who believe that reason's conquest of superstition will solve the world's problems. I think this misrepresents what Dawkins and Hitchens actually think. Superstition is only one aspect of an infinite array of methods humanity uses to lie to itself. Destroying it will prevent certain evils from occurring. It won't lead to freedom.

As Eagleton says, the only thing that will lead to freedom is a thorough remaking of humanity. He argues that understanding and assimilating religious or socialist beliefs, even if they are irrational, will bring us closer to this 'transfigured future'. I respectfully disagree. Plato thought in similar ways, and so I shall repeat the misgivings I voiced in my recap of the Republic: TWO THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AND HUMANITY IS STILL WAITING FOR YOUR IDEAL CITY!

Let's be clear. I agree with Eagleton that an intimate awareness of our essentially venal natures is imperative in motivating us to be better people. We are little more than animals, and knowing that will make us strive very hard to be something more than animals. BUT! We also have to be realistic. We will never adequately conquer our natures to the extent that we'll be able to usher in a utopia. Three thousand years of recorded human history and people are still just as evil as they were before. Religion, or any ideology, hasn't changed this state of affairs. Ideologies are human creations that cater to human needs. They do not transform the essential character of humanity, and they never will.

I'm not trying to be defeatist. I'm just acknowledging two basic principles. One: that humanity will always be inspired by the possibility of transcending the drudgery of our life on earth. Two: that no matter how much an individual may be inspired in this way, humanity as a whole won't be able to escape itself. Now. Do you put your faith for a better world in irrational imaginings, or hardened realpolitik? I would soften the two alternatives, and have them working side by side. Let's have rational values to inspire us -- protecting and advancing basic human rights will be a start. As for achieving this, transforming humanity will be put on the back-burner, and we'll rely on pragmatic utilitarianism -- weighing up one interest against another, and balancing them in such a way as to minimize the evil we do to one another.

Apologies for stuffing my dogmatic doctrinaire liberal intellectualism down your throats. I need to get an outlet for these things...

10.10.09

Johnny Foreigner / Tellison / Japanese Voyeurs

What? I can do gig reviews. Leave me alone.

I walked in just as Japanese Voyeurs started tearing up the poo. They delivered punk/metal/hardcore-type goodness, which set the tone of the evening very nicely. Lead singer looked a little dejected, however. Hope she's OK...

A little wait. Sipped Guinness. Spotted members of JoFo wandering up to the bar and back. No drinks backstage? Wanted to wish them luck, but had zero nerve. Waited some more. Sipped Guinness.

Tellison got going. Sound, surprisingly enough, a bit like Johnny Foreigner. The guy on the far left plays keys, sax and guitar, though not at the same time. I'm in love with the lead guitar guy next to him. Frontman says 'awesome' a lot, but I forgive him, because he's awesome. Might have to go looking for Tellison songs on the internet tomorrow.

The girl one from JoFo stands 3 meters away from me during the set. I realize that last sentence makes me sound like a stalker. I totally didn't smell her hair or anything...

Another wait. Finish Guinness. Trip to bathroom. Maneuver closer to the stage, despite knowing I'll be pushed back by mini-moshers as soon as the headliners get going. Old habits and all that. Like the bands before them, JoFo do their own prep. Much too down-to-earth for a rock and roll band, surely? Alex's haircut looks even more ridiculous in real life. I mention this only because I'm insanely jealous of Alex's haircut.

'Hot girls know the words to our songs' and we're off. Summer single 'Feels Like Summer' (clue in the title har har) follows up, then 'Eyes Wide Terrified', although memory could be playing tricks on me. 'Your life is a song' comes out of every throat in the room. The girl one screams, everything explodes, and I go mental. Lovely.

Apparently, 'Sometimes In The Bullring' is an old favourite that doesn't get played much anymore. They play it. I do embarrassing 'Worrd' sign and headbang politely. Would have preferred 'Yes! You Talk Too Fast', but everyone's a DJ...

'Salt, Pepper and Spindarella' remains Johnny Foreigner's finest song. Live, it sounds incredible. The night's best moment.

New songs are difficult to judge properly. What makes the band special is that they do pop, but the pop they do skuzzy and frantic and packed full of stuff. It's overwhelming and disorientating at first listen. You need to spend time with the songs, learn the way they work, and then you can go batshit crazy when they come on. If this sounds like a raw deal, know that Johnny Foreigner make this journey worth it.

A little disappointed that personal favorites 'Lea Room', 'Cranes' and 'The End And Everything After' didn't get an airing. The first half of Waited Up Til It Was Light is amazing. Definitely needed more of that this evening.

Final song, they do the play-every-instrument-you-can-find thing. I could be snarky about that, except that it sounded fucking awesome.

You can't help feeling a little let down at how short the set was. The lack of encore elicited some booing. But after seconds of ruminating, I have deemed this unfair. Few bands play with the energy that JoFo bring to the stage. I'm impressed they lasted as long as they did.

Catch the bus. Mutter JoFo songs under my breath. Come home and write this. Good night.

7.10.09

Album of the decade

Seems like the decade roundups are beginning already, so I'm jumping on the bandwagon. Now, you shouldn't expect a considered, bird's eye view of the changes in the pop landscape in what follows. Ten years ago I was eleven, and my pop music literacy extended to a few Will Smith records. It has only been in the last couple of years, with access to Pitchfork and illegal downloading, that I've started to get my head around all the great stuff there is out there. So no, this isn't about me combing through everything released in the past ten years to choose the 'best' record. This is about the record that had the most profound impact on me during these crucial years of my life. That it came 156th on Pitchfork's list is a bonus. So. Drumroll, please. The winner is...

Silent Alarm - Bloc Party

No, I didn't know who Gang Of Four were. Or Wire. Or Interpol. When I first listened to this it sounded like nothing I had heard before. I mean, those guitars really screeched! And that wasn't singing. It was... yelping. It didn't sound good, man. I recoiled. I put the album away and didn't listen to it for a long while.

Why did I buy the thing in the first place? Well, just about that time I was starting to get into what I still term 'music with guitars in'. Before that, my history was strictly R&B. Before that Eminem. And the Spice Girls during the 90s. But all the kids at my new school were going on about Oasis and the Strokes and Franz Ferdinand. No lie, the first time I heard about the latter, I thought they were a football player that had just signed to the local club. Shows how much I knew. But all this was intriguing. I felt left out of the conversation. What was this stuff? I had to know more. I started to read the music press at my local library. I started listening to the Xfm drive-time show when I got home from school. And what did I discover? Hype about this new band called Bloc Party. In one interview, these haughty upstarts from north London described themselves as having little to do with the garage/indie rock of the time, saying their music had much more in common with the pop and R&B in the charts. All-RIGHT! This was something I could get behind! I bought their debut album on the week it came out.

And, as you've heard, disappointment followed, and the CD was shelved. Still, I continued to listen to Xfm, having developed a passionate obsession with the sound of Lauren Laverne's voice. One day, she played the Bloc Party single 'So Here We Are'. Hold on. This wasn't angular and noisy and possessed by evil demons. This was a ballad. I knew ballads! I understood ballads! But this was a weird ballad. Kele was crooning alright, but the drums were behaving strangely, and the melody consisted of these hypnotizing chimes on a loop. I was entranced, even before I reached that euphoric 'I figured it out! I could see it again!' moment.

Those lyrics proved scarily providential. Because the rest of the album, refracted through 'So Here We Are', finally made sense to me. This was pop music. But it was pop music that was quirky and interesting and spoke to you in a way generic mainstream pop didn't. The album refused to leave my CD player for a long time. When it eventually made an exit, it was replaced with Feeder's Comfort In Sound. A few years later, We Have The Facts, Inverted World and Separation Sunday were doing the rounds. And that was the proverbial that.

Listening back to Silent Alarm now, I'm immediately transported back to when I was fifteen. There's a despondency to this record that fitted perfectly with where my brain was at in those days. Just look at that freezing, isolated cover. Listen to how the vocal sounds echoed and lost underneath the swirling, disorientating music. Silent Alarm was cold. It was depressed. It was hell. Even a song about fucking ('Banquet') sounds heartless and numb. The angry political number ('Helicopter') is devoid of any glimmer of hope -- even a miracle isn't enough. The brightest, most shimmering cut ('Pioneers') gets dissolved in irony and cynicism: 'we promised the world we'd tame it, what were we hoping for?'. The most triumphant moment -- 'we're gonna win this!' in 'Price Of Gas' -- is marred by martial grunting and elusive talk of nothing ever coming for free. And 'Compliments' rounds off the package perfectly. It gets even colder, even more isolated, as Kele mumbles about the loneliness of old age and our body's decay.

It's in the simple beauty of 'So Here We Are' where you find a draught of relief from all the despair. And you're gonna need it, because by then you've already gone through Silent Alarm's icy core: 'This Modern Love'. The song starts off innocently enough, with lines divided into left and right call-and-response: 'don't get offended... if I seem absent-minded', 'baby you've got to... be more demanding'. It's a conversation, a relationship, where only one person is speaking. Layers of sounded are added, the music builds, and Kele gets more desperate: 'what are you... holding out for/ what's always... in the way/ why so damn... absent minded/ why so scared... of romance'. This modern love is numb -- hamstrung by uncertainty and inertia. By the chorus, Kele can only wimper about how it 'breaks' and 'wastes' him. An impassioned, chaotic bridge follows, reaching a climax and then subsiding. Kele gathers himself together, becomes aloof and nonchalant, and asks his girl: 'do you wanna come over... and kill some time?' But the facade breaks, and the song ends on a pathetic plea: 'throw your arms around... me'.

The song, and the album as a whole, captured the spirit of my age (I think it was fifteen). It soundtracked my days feeling ostracized from all those other cool people, who seemed unfeeling in their cynicism and their constant resort to irony. Where did all the idealism go? Why so scared of romance? But the album also captured the hypocrisy of those feelings. I was just as ready to succumb to the twisted, cutting, self-destructive pleasures of cynical irony. I could be just as numb and unfeeling. Silent Alarm captures that contrast between surface calm, and violent internal emotions. In fact, it links the two together. We are lonely and depressed because we are unable to show our true selves. Alarms are ringing in our minds and hearts, but to the world outside we are silent.

6.10.09

Dollhouse Season 2

Why should I bother writing about Dollhouse season 2, when, yet again, Tiger Beatdown has already said everything there is to say about it? Go read.

Although, once again, I'm probably not gonna be able to resist adding my own commentary...

Ultra: Seven Days

Are the Luna Brothers the Great White American Hope for the comic-book industry? Probably not. But the fact that my brain has even cobbled together this idea says something about the work these guys are producing.

Ultra is their first mini-series, and already they display storytelling ability of some sophistication. Cliffhanger pages that rival anything Brian K. Vaughan can come up with. Dialogue that doesn't quite zing with Whedon wit, but engages all the same. More importantly, Joshua Luna is a master at crafting those awkward social moments that are a regular recurring feature of my life. He totally nails it, and I should know. He also has the rare ability to build conversations up into striking moments of epiphany. The last two issues in this collection are particularly brilliant examples of this. They take little details of everyday life and put them together in such a way as to transform them into something eternal and beautiful. It's a mesmerizing feat.

From storytelling on to theme. Ultra isn't really about superheroes. It uses superheroes to talk about celebrity. The fun it pokes at magazines and adverts isn't anything original, but it does elicit several laughs. More important is the conversation between our protagonist and a fellow friend in the superhero business:

'They don't see the real us, they only see a face on a magazine, a pair of tits on a billboard -- abstractions. We're like... Rorschach inkblots, open to every dumbass interpretation.'

All very well and good as a comment on celebrity culture. But what makes these words especially significant is that they are spoken by a fictional superhero. Are the Luna Brothers providing a sneaky comment about the way we read fiction, particularly superhero fiction? Are they pointing out the disconnect between what a reader sees in a particular work, and what the creator puts into it?

Or maybe I just need to get Grant Morrison out of my head...

4.10.09

Welcome to Hoxford

There's something really strange going on with Ben Templesmith's artwork in this horror miniseries. Under the linework, but over the colours, there are these faint crooked squares faded in. It's like you're watching the action through a brick wall which you can somehow see through.

Which is really great, because it totally fits with the werewolves-set-loose-in-a-prison idea. Not only are you constantly aware of the closed, confined atmosphere of the setting, but the weird there/not there visual layer adds to the feeling of unease -- the lurking presence of the supernatural.

Templesmith is rightly lauded as an artist. But what is he like as a writer? Pretty good, I would say, judging from this comic. Sure, there are some clunky lines, most of them coming from the creepy warden doing cliche creepy. Other than that, however, all the characters' voices are believable and engaging -- from Ray spouting phantasmagoria to the educated, earnest tones of Dr. Ainley.

Not only that, but Templesmith actually has something to say. Werewolves can only really be about one thing -- man's beastly nature. Setting the action in a prison is a brilliant way to highlight the point.

And then, of course, we have the last girl standing. The psychiatrist so angelic she actually gives a damn about this collection of murderers and rapists. She tries to cure Ray, but the only way he can survive in a world full of beasts is to become one himself. In a final act of kindness, he spares Ainley, telling her to run. The compassionate impulse is banished, and Ray settles down with his new werewolf friends.

The Republic II: Thrasymachus Strikes Back

[The following is an imagined dialogue between Plato’s Socrates and a re-modeled, modern Thrasymachus. The latter has lost none of his bloated arrogance and spiteful anger. But in this sequel, he is no longer an idiot. He pursues Glaucon’s challenge to Socrates fully, and exposes both the logical discrepancies and real world dangers of the Republic’s argument. As far as possible, I’ve allowed Socrates to speak in his own words. Quotes are marked.]

Socrates and Thrasymachus attend another gathering a couple of weeks later. Thrasymachus is considerably more sober this time. They meet, exchange pleasantries, and resolve to continue the discussion they had before.

Thrasymachus: Right! Let us remind ourselves of the challenge that inspired your rambling dialogue on morality and politics. I confess that your associates Glaucon and Adeimantus defended my position with much greater nuance and sophistication than I could manage. Shall we look at what they said?

Socrates: Let’s.

Thrasymachus: Your friend Glaucon posited that the origin of morality is a kind of social contract: ‘once people have experienced both committing wrong and being at the receiving end of it, they see that the disadvantages are unavoidable and the benefits are unattainable; so they decide that the most profitable course is for them to enter into a contract with one another, guaranteeing that no wrong will be committed or received’. The contract ‘is a compromise between the ideal of doing wrong without having to pay for it, and the worst situation, which is having wrong done to one while lacking the means of extracting compensation’.

This theory is predicated on the view that ‘people do wrong whenever they think they can, so they act morally only if they’re forced to, because they regard morality as something which isn’t good for one personally’. To sum up: ‘everyone thinks the rewards of immorality far outweigh those of morality – and they are right’.

A cynical view, to be sure. But a realistic one. And there is value in such realism, as I hope to show. Instead, your associates desired you to overthrow this social contract theory, and ‘show how morality is worth while in and of itself for anyone who possesses it and how immorality harms him’. A foolhardy task! Many brave men have tried and failed to answer this question. But you were undaunted. Can you remind me of how you began your counter-argument?

Socrates: I would be delighted to. I immediately suggested a comparison which would make the workings of morality easier to identify and understand. I argued that ‘morality can be a property of whole communities as well as individuals’. It can ‘exist on a larger scale in the larger entity and be easier to discern’. Once we did that, we would ‘examine individuals too, to see if the larger entity is reflected in the features of the smaller entity’. My friend Adeimantus thought it ‘an excellent idea’.

Thrasymachus: More fool he! The comparison you suggested is utter CLAPTRAP! Do you honestly think that morality in a community is THE SAME THING as morality in an individual’s soul? Surely you are aware that using a particular word in two different contexts can change its meaning? The thing that makes a community ‘moral’ doesn’t necessarily have to be the same thing that makes an individual ‘moral’. So you see? The entire framework of your argument is predicated on a FALSE COMPARISON.

But let us leave that to one side, and examine your ideal community in more detail.

Socrates: Alright. The key principle of a perfect city must be specialization. Consider: ‘different people are inherently suitable for different activities, since people are not particularly similar to one another, but have a wide variety of natures’. So it follows that ‘productivity is increased, the quality of the products is improved, and the process is simplified when an individual sets aside his other pursuits, does the one thing for which he is naturally suited, and does it at the opportune moment’.

Thrasymachus: I believe this logic to be sound. Proceed.

Socrates: Thank you. The same applies to the military and government; it’s another area of expertise. The guardians of our community must be courageous and passionate (and so ‘perceptive, quick on their feet and strong’), but must also ‘behave with civilized gentleness towards their friends’. Balancing these opposite impulses requires a ‘philosopher’s love of knowledge’, so that they are able to determine friend from enemy, and good and bad.

Thrasymachus: And how are we to achieve such perfectly balanced individuals?

Socrates: We start at the beginning, when a person ‘absorbs every impression that anyone wants to stamp upon it’. You see, human nature can be MOULDED, and immorality OVERCOME. To do this, we establish a suitable mythology, culture and education system, designed to instill good values in the community. Let’s break this down:

Poems, plays and songs that undermine self-discipline and morality will be banned. Moral poems, plays and songs are always more beautiful anyway, so it will be no great loss.

A religion is fabricated to promote the idea that the citizens’ country is ‘their mother and their nurse’, and so must be defended at all costs. Thus, the military will give their lives to protect their community.

Religion and education will buttress the government/military/worker class system, to make sure that each order sticks to their allotted task. However, it will maintain that a ‘copper’ child can be born of ‘gold’ parents, and vice versa. Thus, the class system can be penetrated by children with the right natural abilities, and the principle of specialization will be preserved. (There is an element of social mobility here, based on genes. Aristotle’s ideal city, built on the backs of slaves, is more rigid.)

Religion and education will also persuade the elite to treat their subjects as ‘earth-born brothers’, and so prevent the military-wing behaving ‘like brutal despots’. Practical arrangements will enforce this view. Guardians won’t have private property, they will live communally and be given just enough resources to sustain their lives. They will be rewarded only with honour, buried in great tombs and worshipped as gods.

All this indoctrination will engender people of good character. There is no need for me to spell out the specific legislation that will regulate this community, because those that rule it will be good and will know what to do. The important thing is to ensure that the integrity of the education system which produces these good men isn’t compromised.

Thrasymachus: I see. You certainly have an optimistic view of man’s perfectibility! I would counter that NO amount of education will be able to overcome a human being’s inherent immorality. In your ideal community, the powerful won’t enjoy the same material pleasures as the powerless. I don’t think any man, no matter how great a philosopher, will be able to stand this. Perhaps you can, Socrates? If so, you would be in the minority.

Another objection: in the real world an elite will want to pass on power, not only to the most deserving, but to their relatives and friends. This is an ingrained human behavioral pattern, which your system of people transfer goes against. Will guardians really wish their inferior children to work the fields? But we should first explore your radical proposals on women and the family before I continue down this line of reasoning.

Socrates: Very well. As regards women, I believe that ‘innate qualities have been distributed equally between the two sexes, and women can join in every occupation just as much as men, although they are the weaker sex in all respects’.

Thrasymachus:
I don’t quite understand that last bit. You must mean physically weaker, but otherwise equal. In that case, to be able to go against the fundamental assumptions of your society in order to uphold what is manifestly true and fair marks you out as a man of rare intelligence, and a true philosopher.

Socrates: Thank you.

Thrasymachus: Please continue. What about the family?

Socrates:
The population as a whole will mate according to a eugenics programme, presented in the guise of religion. The guardians will ‘take the children of good parents to the crèche and hand them over to the nurses’, and ‘they’ll find some suitable way of hiding away the children of worse parents and any handicapped children of good parents’.

Thrasymachus: Hiding away?

Socrates: Well, ‘those with a poor physical constitution will be allowed to die, and those with irredeemably rotten minds will be put to death’.

Thrasymachus:
Err... You know when I said you are a true philosopher?

Socrates: Yes

Thrasymachus: ....Never mind.

Socrates: OK, well anyway. The other key proposal is that ‘all the women are to be shared among all the men. And the children are also to be shared, with no parent knowing which child is his, or child knowing his parent’. The point of this is to make the community one giant family. They will share in each other’s pleasure and distress, and so be bound together and act as a unity. There will be no factionalism. The leadership will be harmonious and peaceful.

Thrasymachus: Once again, I will counter that transforming human relationships in this way is IMPOSSIBLE. As Aristotle has argued, this big family will produce only a ‘watery’ kind of friendship. Doing away with the family unit ignores the way human beings ACTUALLY BEHAVE: the way they choose their friends, the way they fall in love, the way they quarrel and disagree. Your ideal city is predicated on the TRANSFORMATION of humanity. IS THIS POSSIBLE!?

Socrates: ‘Is it possible for anything actual to match a theory? Please don’t force me to point to an actual case in the material world which conforms in all respects to our theoretical construct. If we can discover how a community’s administration could come very close to our theory, then let’s say we’ve discovered how it’s all viable.’

Thrasymachus: So how are we to get as close as possible to your theory?

Socrates:
Here we come to the crux of my argument. ‘Unless communities have philosophers as kings there can be no end to political troubles, or even to human troubles in general, I’d say, and our theoretical constitution will be stillborn and will never see the light of day’.

Thrasymachus:
And what makes philosophers so special?

Socrates:
They are able to see things like beauty and goodness, each ‘in itself, in its permanent and unvarying nature’. A philosopher’s ‘eyes are occupied with the sight of things which are organized, permanent, and unchanging, where wronging and being wronged don’t exist, where all is orderly and rational’. A ruler who lacks such insight will have ‘nothing absolutely authentic to contemplate and use as an accurate reference-point, before establishing human norms of right, morality and goodness.’ You see, ‘there is no way in which a community is going to be happy unless its plan is drawn up by artists who refer to a divine model’.

Thrasymachus:
Hold on. We need to look at this very closely. Most importantly, we need to question the theory that ‘beauty’ and ‘goodness’ have a permanent and unvarying nature. Your entire argument rests on the proposal that these things are OBJECTIVE. That if everyone acquires enough wisdom, they will all be able to agree on what is beautiful and good. But IS THIS POSSIBLE? Let’s look at what our reason CAN establish as objective. In very abstract fields such as mathematics and logic, we ARE able to arrive at true and eternal laws. In our attempts to comprehend the world around us, we can also arrive at semi-objective laws, which are modified according to the evidence supplied by our fallible senses. But when we find something beautiful or good, reason plays only a part in the decision. We are reacting EMOTIONALLY to external phenomena, and human emotions are infinite in their variety. There cannot be any objectivity in this field. We can’t see true beauty and goodness in itself, because the emotions that decide what is beautiful and good are SUBJECTIVE.

Let’s try another tack. We look at x and find it beautiful. We look at y and also find it beautiful. You haven’t proven why the thing that makes x and y beautiful is THE SAME THING. Can’t the emotions we feel when looking at x and the emotions we feel when looking at y be DIFFERENT, and we just use the word ‘beauty’ to describe them both? You have already made this mistake comparing the city and the individual. And you should know better. Terms like ‘beauty’ can be infinitely malleable; it can apply to all kinds of objects. There’s nothing objective that unites these objects together. They are only united in your own head. Someone else will group a different set of objects under the banner ‘beautiful’.

So when your philosopher king consults his ‘divine model’ of a perfect, pure humanity, the particular aspects he will define as ‘good’ will be subjective. Another philosopher king will come up with a different model. Consider Aristotle. He also shares you opinions on specialization, the need for moderation and the value of reason, and his perfect city ends up looking quite similar to your one. But he also believes women to be inferior to men, and that equality demands that democracy be practiced among the ruling elite. Others may believe that EVERY human being is able to achieve the philosophical life, and is thus entitled to a share in the constitution.

Indeed, I would argue that looking up and contemplating a perfect humanity is an INSULAR and LIMITED way of arriving at the ideal community. In order to understand how human beings can be perfected, isn’t it better to look down and STUDY THEM. Understand their impulses, their talents, and their capacity to commit horrific crimes. Only by knowing intimately the human capital you have to work with can you go on to build a political system that is suitable for them. I believe this will involve, not just education (which can only go so far), but also balancing incentives – social contracts, you might say – in such a way as to limit the evil we do to one another.

But we’ve digressed too far away from your argument. Lets ignore the subjectivity objections for now. Please, explain how the philosopher king will establish the ideal community.

Socrates: Well, ‘they will banish everyone over the age of ten into the countryside. Then they take charge of the community’s children and make sure that they’re beyond the reach of existing conventions, which their parents adhere to, and bring them up under their own customs and laws, which are similar to the ones we were describing before. That’s the quickest and simplest way for the community and political system we’ve been discussing to be established, to attain happiness, and to benefit the people among whom they occur.’

Thrasymachus:
So let’s recap. Your philosopher king will wipe the slate clean using BRUTAL COERCION, and then set up his new regime with a GRAND PROPAGANDA PROJECT – creating foundation myths and a religion that will indoctrinate brotherhood and a clear class system. Education will be completely controlled by the state, to ensure the propaganda keeps working. And the family will be abolished. I will repeat my misgivings, louder, since you appear unable to take note of them. CAN HUMAN NATURE BE TRANSFORMED IN THIS WAY? Won’t your citizens chafe at having their families dissolved? Won’t they rebel against being told what to think? Won’t they want to be able to choose who to have sex with? IS THIS COMMUNITY EVEN POSSIBLE??

Socrates: ‘The community may be difficult to realize, but it’s feasible: the essential prerequisite is that genuine philosophers – one or more of them – wield power’. If even one king, ‘in the entire passage of time’, ‘remains uncorrupted’ and lives ‘in a community which is prepared to obey him, then that is enough: everything which is now open to doubt would become fully-fledged reality’.

Thrasymachus: TWO THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AND HUMANITY IS STILL WAITING FOR YOUR IDEAL CITY! WHAT DO YOU PROPOSE WE DO IN THE MEANTIME??

Socrates: Hmm. Well I guess there isn’t much a person can do. Those few who ‘have glimpsed the joy and happiness to be found in mastering philosophy and have also gained a clear enough impression of the madness of the masses; when they’ve realized that more or less every political action is pernicious and that if someone tries to assist morality there will be no one to back him up and see that he comes out unscathed, but would rather die before doing his community or his friends any good, and so would be useless to himself and to everyone else, he lies low and does only what he’s meant to do. It's as if he's taken shelter under a wall during a storm, with the wind whipping up the dust and rain pelting down; lawlessness infects everyone else he sees, so he is content if he can find a way to live his life here on earth without becoming tainted by immoral or unjust deeds, and to depart from life confidently, and without anger and bitterness’.

‘He could do much more with his life if he just lived in a suitable political system, which enabled him to preserve the integrity of public business as well as his own affairs.’

Thrasymachus:
So where are we? We use the ideal city as an example for perfecting our own souls and for living a moral life. Personal morality is the only true politics we can engage in. We should be content with this. Only in an ideal community will this private struggle translate into common good. It’s not much, is it? Even the rewards for morality seem pretty meagre. We just lie low and wait for compensation in the next world? That’s how you end your Republic, isn’t it? With an elaborate doomsday myth about how sinners will be judged? Do you really believe this? Or are you acting like a philosopher king, using propaganda to convince people to be good? Is this what we’ve sunk to?

You have to admit, there’s very little of your theories that we can salvage.

Socrates: Perhaps... but maybe there’s enough. My ideas can no longer find purchase in a post-modern world. They will be discredited and ridiculed. But the questions I’ve asked remain important, I think, and will continue to be asked. And I hope my idealism, and my attempt to defend the moral life, will live on in spite of my mistakes. I’ve only tried, in my own way, to find something true, beautiful and good in the imperfect world I live in.