23.6.09

Dollhouse Episode 6

Some notes:

This episode was supposed to be a game-changer. Did it change the game? Kinda-sorta. There was no engagement of the week. Instead, we got a closer look at the goings on in the Dollhouse, something we've been desperate for since the second episode. The most intriguing revelation is that the business has branches all over the world, and isn't just there to make money. It has another, unknown, purpose. A conspiracy that controls corporations and governments, like Hydra in the Marvel Universe? That's what I'd do...

Each act opens with a documentary crew recording vox pops on the Dollhouse. The seductive aspect of being a Doll or hiring one is articulated by some. This is further explored in Ballard's interrogation of the dot-com millionaire. Everyone has a fantasy. The Dollhouse provides a way to fulfill that fantasy.

It seems the Dollhouse provides a way for Ballard to fulfill his own particular fantasy -- saving the girl and then bedding her. What bastards these men are. Ballard seems to recognise this, and (finally!) gets his freak on with the (OMG! Fit! Have I said that already?) next door neighbour. Except that she turns out to have been moulded to fulfill his fantasies as well. The guy just can't catch a break.

All this 'the Dollhouse isn't that bad' stuff is counter-balanced by the very grim events we see within it. Sierra has been raped multiple times by her handler, which underlines the many more times she has been raped out on engagements. The Dolls aren't real human beings, is the line of argument. We can do whatever we want to them and it's OK.

Which makes us come back to the final vox pop of the episode. If we are able to manipulate human beings to this extent, then we will be over as a species. What sets us apart -- our individuality, our independent will -- will be gone. The vox pops themselves serve to illustrate this exact point. Isn't it wonderful that humanity can express such a variety of ideas and opinions? What will happen if that ability is undermined?

The final happy springtime scene is played perfectly straight. But we can't take it at face value, for we know that Echo does not consent to participating in this fantasy. On the one side, the Dollhouse makes its clients happy. On the other, it mind-rapes the people who volunteer (or 'volunteer') to make its clients happy. Can the former really justify the latter?

What do you think?

Now on to the other stuff. The opening scene between Ballard and a rival agent is very heavy on the cliche. I mean: 'Someone's gonna put you down, and I pray to God I'm there to see it'. Come on, Joss...

Some minor funnies this episode. 'I do have access to important government information that I don't understand' being one. Echo screaming 'PORN!' is another. That's two funnies. Two. Come on, Joss...

The director of this episode (not Joss) needs to be applauded for the insane crazy fight scene towards the end. Yes. It was both insane and crazy. That's how amazing it was. Advice for future action choreographers: add more saucepans. They are key.

Victor does a fine job of looking dopey. Sierra is great at being dazed. But when Dushku is in her Doll state, her actions are weirdly tense and jerky, as if she's desperately trying to look like she's dopey and dazed. Is this just rubbish acting? Or maybe it's brilliant acting, subtly hinting at something we don't know about yet. We'll have to wait and see.

Summer Blonde

Wow. Just finished reading this four-story collection by Adrian Tomine. It's the kind of nerdy, socially retarded, semi-autobiographical comic that I would normally avoid. Why bother when you can listen to Belle & Sebastian, right? I picked this up because it had critical acclaim coming out of its ass -- just look at the back cover -- and I was curious if it really deserved it. If not, then I planned on writing a really snotty post about how everyone is wrong and I am right (cause everyone loves those!). But no, turns out Summer Blonde really is great.

Although you do have to stick with it. Each story is better than the one before, and the first one ("Alter Ego") was kinda heavy and plodding and difficult to get into. The central character wasn't particularly sympathetic, and his best friend was a one-dimensional straight-edged foil. But I appreciated the cleverness of the telling. Of the four stories, this is the only one with a third-person narrative, a sly comment on the protagonist's discovery that he can write autobiography only through the use of imaginary characters.

The second tale ("Summer Blonde", a reference to the Pavement song?) features another pathetic lead male. Again, the character was a little too wet and wimpy for me to get fully behind him. I need a little bit more wit and animation in my nerds in order to get hooked, for which, blame Joss Whedon. But I loved its open ending even more than the one in "Alter Ego", perhaps because the female love interest was more fully realised.

The last two stories I loved unreservedly. Finally, we got central characters that had the spark and energy which could balance the poignancy of their fumbling social lives. "Hawaiian Getaway"s Hillary Chan brought back fond memories of Jamie Hernandez's Maggie. Indeed, the story seemed to owe more than a little to the Locas books. But if it imitates, it does so in its own way. The open ending dovetails nicely into an almost surreal flashback, which perfectly captures the essence of the character.

The final story ("Bomb Scare") is the most Belle & Sebastian of all, which is probably why I liked it best. The tentative relationship that flowers all too briefly would have left me in tears, if I wasn't above such puny human emotions. It was brilliantly contrasted with the mother's romantic life. And the suggestive link between the First Gulf War being played out on television screens and the bomb scare presumably orchestrated by the charismatic and faintly sinister best friend was enticing. But what does it suggest?

I don't generally like open endings, but in the Summer Blonde stories they work perfectly, as they contribute to Tomine's concerns about how we interact with each other, and how we can never really tell what is going on in other people's heads. We are always left as uncertain as the protagonists. There are no answers offered, just the constant detachment and loneliness of the human condition.

So maybe critics do know what they are talking about. Sometimes...

21.6.09

Waiting for Godot

If left to my own devises, I would most likely remain chained to this computer and never leave my room. Within a few days, zombification would set in, and the imperfect social skills I have painstakingly put together would all come crumbling down. Luckily, I have friends that buy me tickets to the theatre, and so this eventuality is held at bay, at least for the time being. Anyway, today I went to see Waiting For Godot.

The production had Captain Jean-Luc Picard playing Vladimir and Gandalf the Grey playing Estragon. A stellar, magical cast, undoubtedly (hoho). This was why I was exited about seeing the play, despite hearing about how opaque and difficult it was. Two demented old men standing next to a tree, talking gibberish whilst surreal characters walk on and off. Hmm. Regular readers of the Hot-Doll pages will know I have little patience with equivocation. I expected Waiting For Godot to frustrate me with a lack of coherent patterns and metaphors -- something that would suggest everything but say nothing.

I really shouldn't have worried. Imo, the play was surprisingly brazen about its themes. God-ot. These two friends are waiting for God. They have been promised salvation when they meet him. But if they abandon the appointed meeting place they will be 'punished'. God, of course, never comes. Vladimir, the intellectual of the pair, desperately wants God to recognise his existence, for there to be some personal link with the divine. But he is never satisfied. Estragon, the down-to-earth (quite literally, a lot of the time) common man, is less perturbed by existential crisis. He is frustrated by their thankless task, but waits alongside his friend. The two are left with fallible memories, a very dim perception of time's passing, and each other. All they can do is try and entertain themselves as best they can, while the days go by. As long as they keep waking up when the sun rises, they are locked in this endless cycle of hope and disappointment. They can meet Godot only in death, but the pain of parting from each other deters them from suicide.

The play is most touching when it portrays these two characters alone, bickering, singing, telling jokes. You get a very real sense of the deep love these two characters have for each other, which Picard and Gandalf conveyed beautifully. They are equals, tethered together by mutual needs. In light of Godot's continual absence, their relationship becomes the most hopeful aspect of the play.

This is heavily contrasted with the completely unequal relationship between the aristocrat Pozzo and his slave Lucky. The latter is absolutely subservient, obeying to the letter his master's crazy demands. Marxism has never been so potently described. Pozzo holds a whip and a rope that is tied to Lucky's neck. The latter is a pack animal with no independent will. Only when told to think can he begin to. His thoughts are warped and deranged, but in their ferocity they almost set him free, until Pozzo slaps him back down. In the second half, Pozzo is struck blind for his inability to perceive the suffering of others, and Lucky is struck dumb. He now drives the machine, but has no say on where it goes. The two can't function and go down together. They present a violent hysterical dystopia, effectively counter-balanced by Vladimir and Estragon's gentle utopian relationship.

The audience laughed softly at the pranks pulled by the two pairs, but this was humour of the darkest and most hollow sort. I smiled and hated myself for it, overwhelmed by the heart-breaking pathos of each joke. This wasn't funny. Tragicomic the play may be, but the tragedy surrounds the comedy and engulfs it. I desperately wanted a reprieve -- some blissful joke that had no shadowy core. If I have a problem with the play, it is that there weren't enough such rays of light in this grinding existential purgatory. The only source of comfort remained the sometimes dysfunctional, but constantly reaffirmed love between Vladimir and Estragon.

Few works of art talk about so much in three hours. Waiting for Godot is the opposite of empty. It is so full that it can encompass everyone within it. It's infinite. It explores feelings unbound by place and time. Torturous and obtuse it so ain't. The greatest play of the 20th century..? I'd buy that.

18.6.09

My Indie Pop Timeline

Belle & Sebastian are the best British indie pop band since the Smiths. You got that? Good. Actually, for my money, Belle & Sebastian are better than the Smiths -- smarter, warmer, more affecting -- but this may well be music crit heresy right here, so I should shut up quick before a lynch mob gathers outside my doors.

I risk inciting more murderous gangs, but I've gotta say, Belle & Sebastian haven't been bringing it lately. Their finest albums were released all the way back in the 90s (remember them?). The reinvention brought about by 2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress delivered some sickeningly squelchy, saccharine anthems to God and love and happiness. The hallmarks of the band I loved -- the heroic introspection, seething sexuality and ambivalent narratives -- were fading. I have yet to listen to 2006's The Life Pursuit, for fear of being even more disillusioned.

Where do we go from here? Does my generation have a band that can ascend to the indie pop throne, and stand beside Belle & Sebastian and the Smiths? If I had been able to phrase this question back in 2005, I would have pinned my hopes on Bloc Party, who came top of my heap in the post-Strokes guitar-pop explosion. Two albums later they've been knocked down a peg, having managed the apparently contradictory feat of serving diminishing returns despite radical innovation.

But there's a new band on the horizon. Their name is Los Campesinos!, and they have what it takes to scale the heights of indie pop greatness. Don't take my word for it, listen to the good folks over at Drowned in Sound. They seem to know what they're talking about. Are you convinced yet?

How could you not be? How can you not marvel at the way a song dedicated to the pristine bliss of dancing like a maniac works in a reference to Rousseau's Discourse on the Origins of Inequality? How can you not fall in love with counter-point vocalist Alex (now sadly leaving the band) on 'Drop It Doe Eyes'? How can you not feel Gareth's betrayal when he screams in pathetic despair about sand falling from a girl's insoles? How can you not weep at the resignation with which the line 'you should have built a wall, not a bridge' is delivered?

Descriptions of Los Campesinos! as an overwhelming sugar rush confuse me, as their songs are packed with an intense, but tightly controlled, anger and sadness. This isn't a party pop band like the Wombats, the superficial comparison my sister made. Instead, they do exactly what the Smiths and Belle & Sebastian did before them -- scrape misery over jaunty tunes. It's pop, but with a twisted undercurrent running underneath, taking you by surprise, and making you feel something very different from ecstatic joy.

Overloading expectations is not gonna do anyone any good. I just can't help feeling tremendously excited about this band, and what they may grow to become. Their debut album Hold On Now, Youngster... is perfect from start to finish, and you should start spotifying there. But check out how close a second their next effort, called We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed and released only five months later, is. Such consistent brilliance is encouraging. I'm optimistic. It looks like British indie pop is gonna get good again.

17.6.09

London

"Because it is the triumph of a lack of planning – both for good and bad. It's chaos – and whether you say that with a gasp of despair or glee or both is up to you. Whereas Paris (certainly in the centre) is the success of a single overarching monomaniacal topographic vision, London is a chaotic patchwork of history, architecture, style, as disorganised as any dream, and like any dream possessing an underlying logic, but one that we can't quite make sense of, though we know it's there. A shoved-together city cobbled from centuries of distinct aesthetics disrespectfully clotted in a magnificent triumph of architectural philistinism. A city of jingoist sculptures, concrete caryatids, ugly ugly ugly financial bombast, reconfiguration. A city full of parks and gardens, which have always been magic places, one of the greenest cities in the world, though it's a very dirty shade of green – and what sort of grimy dryads does London throw up? You tell me." – China Miéville

16.6.09

Dollhouse Episode 5

Some notes:

Looks like the engagements in the standalone episodes are intended to open up and reflect on different aspects of the Dollhouse. I say again: clever.

This week, the Dollhouse is explicitly linked to a religious cult -- where your personality and individuality is deleted, and members are forced to regress to a child-like 'innocent' state. But there are serpents in these Gardens of Eden. In the Dollhouse, Victor begins to have "man-reactions". The serpent is human nature, which the Dollhouse is trying to fuck with and repress.

In the cult, the serpent is Echo. Her blindness is significant. To infiltrate the cult, her reason and judgement have to be curbed. But with the craziness and abuse that she encounters inside, her eyesight is restored. She sees clearly. She doubts and dissents, leading the others out of their collective madness.

The image of the cult leader praying with a rifle slung round his back is particularly powerful, capturing the contradiction between religion and violence, and also religion's coercive dark side.

Agent Ballard seems to be suffering from a blindness of his own, completely ignoring the overtures of his (OMG! Fit!) next-door neighbour in order to focus on finding Caroline. The fool...

There's a lanky, long-haired dude this episode called Ilia (or 'Eelia'). That's my name! Whoop! Oh. Turns out he's a raving nutcase. Bummer.

Topher still not bringing the funny. Come on, man...

The Dollhouse Head of Security seems to have some kind of beef with Echo. He prefers his Dolls safely predictable and personality-less. Echo appears to be manifesting signs of individuality, which he sees as disruptive and dangerous. A comment on patriarchy? I think so!

Love the closing shot, where the camera pulls in on Echo staring at Security Man, and she says "I see perfectly". What she should have said is: "Yep. I can recognize a walking symbol for patriarchy when I see one, thank you very much! Now, show me the way out of this place...". But that would be too obvious. So you can see why I don't write for television?

Seriously Echo, get self-aware already. I'm getting tired of all this namby-pamby commenting on how rubbish the Dollhouse is. Let's bring it down! Apparently the next episode is gonna bring the noise. Can't wait.

12.6.09

Blue Velvet

After the David Lapham episode, I decided to revisit this little film noir gem. My first visit didn't go too well. No one told me that I had to leave my irony radar at the door before entering the 'strange world' of Blue Velvet. Thus, I found quite a bit of it ridiculous, and consequently, hilarious. I mean: robins bringing in the light of love into our world? How can I take that seriously?

But you are supposed to take it seriously. This time round, I swallowed the bad dialogue, the stilted delivery, and the cheap mise en scène whole. It was all part of the weirdness Lynch weaves, asking the audience to step back and regard the piece as an artificial construct. The film is a self-conscious riff on classic film noir. It's meta up to the eyeballs.

So you get the noir theme -- in which evil, depraved impulses lurking within urban society (or, the animal in civilized man) are unearthed by an intrepid investigator. There is a femme fatale, Dorothy, who has had her blissful family life destroyed by a sadistic maniac. She herself succumbs to violent, destructive sexual fantasies (she's "infected by a disease"). The Adam and Eve of the story, Jeffrey and Sandy, are also dragged into the heart of human darkness, their shared curiosity leading to blossoming love. In the end, the mystery is solved, human evil is understood, and the three can reform their loving families and be happy.

But then Lynch adds all this surrealist, pop culture stuff on top. The insane psycho gang are cultural connoisseurs, obsessed with the theatrical, the cool, the left-field. They are seduced by art, becoming unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality. They cannot contain the monsters that hide within their darkest dreams. This is the evil our heroes have to fight against. Art, especially the genre trash Hollywood comes up with, is artificial. Pretending that it's real can lead you down some dangerous roads.

Second visits are always sweeter than the first, especially when you're visiting David Lynch. Now I have to watch Mullholland Drive again...

David Lapham

OK. Just read the first Young Liars trade. Oh my Gad! This is like the Hold Steady with the religion taken away and an extra heavy dose of fucked-up madness. Noir as all hell -- incest, rape, suicide, anorexia, psychopathic midgets, and a distant crazy billionaire wasted on shrooms. It makes you so sick of humanity you actually want to throw up. Or put a gun to your head.

And then something marvelous happens. This bunch of young liars, the most disgusting individuals you're ever likely to meet, win your sympathy. Lapham slowly peels away the lies until you understand. Our hero fucks up bad. But in the end we see that he has tried to play as straight as he could, attempting to redeem his past mistakes. And he has a dream, in love with the most dangerous, out-of-control femme fatale out there.

This is noir of the most heady and twisted sort, thumping with a frantic rock 'n' roll rhythm. I was surprised, as the only other Lapham work I had read was Silverfish, with was rather more subdued. It's great in its own way, for sure, particularly in the way it transforms the Ghost World vibe of the small town into something quite chilling. David Lynch would have been proud. But the 'fish in someone's brain' idea was a bit opaque. I'm not sure what Lapham wanted this to signify, if anything. Maybe he just thought it was cool.

But this guy is brilliant, a true-blue original. Time for me to hunt down his Stray Bullets...

9.6.09

Dollhouse Episode 4

Some notes:

In this episode, Echo and Sierra get imprinted with the same personality, and I'm sorry to say Dichen Lachman proved even more brilliant at being a hardass than Eliza Dusku. Then again, Dushku is a master at playing flirty sex queen, which Lachman hasn't attempted yet. If she does, and if she proves brilliant at that as well, then we know casting for the show has been, lets just say, less than perfect.

Topher's lab assistant has no right to be that hot. I get suspension of disbelief, but fishnet tights? Sometimes television goes too far.

Topher himself does a fine job this episode. But for a Whedon geek, he's still painfully lacking in the joke department. Dollhouse seriously needs more funny.

Good to report that Olivia Williams contains the smirk-factor within acceptable levels. And her hair this episode was, like, oh my God! Awesome!

After last week's revelation, the Agent Ballard stuff this week was dull, dull, dull.

Overall, this one was the weakest episode so far. A whole jumble of ideas that never coalesced into something bigger. There was a link made between childbirth and the imprinting process that didn't go anywhere. Also, a very unexpected discussion of a cubist painting during a lull in the action, which stated nothing but the obvious. A throwaway mention of Michelangelo seeing the statue in the stone before carving it. Where is all this going, you wonder?

I get the feeling that there was no clear idea about what the episode would be about. This was just about moving the season's plot along, making it pretty disposable overall.

I did like the image the episode ended with, however, where Echo stares into a steamed-up mirror, traces a random curving line, before wiping it and revealing her reflected face. Her true self is obscured, she is only allowed single, partial glimpses. But that final action gives us hope that Echo will awaken, and be able to see herself clearly.

Alan Moore

I do not have the brain cells to deliver an adequate discussion on the works of Alan Moore. The man needs to be read to be believed. His work is huge, and encompasses all of us. I try and grapple with Watchmen over here, but I've already been told off about the interpretation I've come up with by comics maniacs on the internet who know better than me. They really do, hard to believe I know...

Instead, I shall recount the sordid and sorry tale of how I met Alan Moore once for five seconds. A couple of years ago, Moore's 16-years-in-the-making pornographic epic, Lost Girls, was finally published in full in the UK. The work had been locked in several controversies which had delayed its release. It depicts underage sex and incest with intent to arouse. It also uses characters from well known and well loved children's stories, and the estate of J.M. Barrie objected to the way Wendy (of Peter Pan fame) was being treated.

Incredibly, opposition was overcome, and Top Shelf published a three-volume hardback in a elegant-looking box set. I was exited. I had used illegal means to sample the first 10 or so issues, and I thought the work was beautiful. I had a strong feeling that this may well be Alan Moore's magnum opus of magnum opuses (there have been many). I also found out that Moore was doing a signing in the Gosh comics store, spitting distance from the British Museum. I had to go.

And so I went. But walking into Gosh comics on the appointed day, my heart sank. The Lost Girls collection would set you back £75! Even I would find it difficult to spend that amount of money on porn. Dejected, I stumbled out and found myself gravitating towards Forbidden Planet, a comics store 5 minutes walk away, in the hope of picking out something cheap and cheerful to sooth my rage and disappointment on the bus home.

Entering the basement of Forbidden Planet, London's comics mecca, I was confronted once more with the hateful Lost Girls collection. But wait. This one had a sticker on it. A sticker with the word 'SALE' printed in big beautiful letters. Forbidden Planet had knocked a third of the price off. It was a sign. £50 for porn wasn't that bad, all things considered (desperation will make you believe anything). I clawed a copy to my chest, ran upstairs and with a wince, keyed my PIN on the PIN machine. The horrible business over with, I scurried out of the shop removing all trace of Forbidden Planet from my purchase. With the falsification complete, I sneaked into the queue snaking out the back of Gosh comics. The first hurdle was overcome.

The second hurdle was the wait. You may not know this, but Alan Moore is a popular guy. With all the fiddling I had to do, I had lost the precious advantage of arriving early. The queue was long, and getting longer every minute. Now, there was no guarantee that I would reach Moore within the 3 hours of book-signing time alloted. I could walk away and not risk loosing a whole age of my life standing around in the cold. Did I mention it was cold? And I was wearing Converse-knockoff trainers bought in Bulgaria for £1, which felt like they were made of air. My feet were freezing.

But no. I was here wasn't I? I wasn't going to forgo this opportunity to meet one of my heroes, no matter how remote that seemed. I knuckled down to it, wrapping my iPod cans around my ears, and threw on the backlog of In Our Time podcasts I had studiously downloaded but never listened to.

It was a long wait.

Looking around me at the other members of the queue, I started to feel out of place. The average age was somewhere in the mid-thirties. Everyone looked self-assured and jovial. Most were in small chattering groups. I was on my own, still (barely) a teenager, with all the awkwardness and uncertainty that entailed. And I was meeting a genius. How did these other people handle this prospect so easily?

One of the guys in front of me joked about asking Moore to sign a DVD of V for Vendetta. Moore had come out vociferously against the adaptation, which neutered the anarchist slant of his original graphic novel. I was awed at the audaciousness of the suggestion. If this surprises you, pick up your copy of Watchmen. If you don't have a copy of Watchmen, stop reading this and go buy one. Look at the back-cover photograph of Moore. The giant mass of frizzy long hair. The Gandalf beard. The furtive, suspicious look at the camera. The man looks deranged. He looks like he types out the scrips of his comics with inch-long fingernails from a hospital bed. Whoever said that genius and madness often lie side-by-side (Jack Sparrow?) appeared vindicated by that photograph. Meeting him would be a daunting experience.

I realised that I hadn't given any thought to what I might say to Moore when my turn came up. What do you say? I didn't need him to clarify anything about his work. I had no personal insights that I could give, and even if I had, it would have been presumptuous for me to do so. Asking his opinion on other creators I admired seemed petty. There was nothing I could say. Apart from thank you. Please sign my book. I think it'll be great.

Incredibly, just as the third hour drew to a close I finally entered the shop, a giant queue still shuffling on behind me. Conscious of the many people still waiting, I didn't want to hog Moore any more than I had to. And I was tired as well. I wanted the signing over and done with.

Coming down to the the stairs to the shop basement, I could finally see the signing table, although Moore himself was obscured by a large crush of people. But I could finally hear his voice, talking to one of the shopboy lackeys circling around for his entertainment. Moore was good-humouredly expounding on fellow comics legend Frank Miller, who had recently released his graphic novel 300, which Moore had branded racist and homophobic. Miller, he chuckled, with a shade of anger in his voice, had told him about how people in Afghanistan mutilated their women, and so deserved to die under American gunfire. Isn't that astonishing?

And there's the striking thing. Alan Moore, comics genius, political radical, one of the finest minds of his and all generations, was also a person who could laugh along with everyone else. He was a regular guy, one you could imagine in a pub with other regular people. Instead of the inaccessible weirdo I had expected, I found someone generous with his time, and who seemed to genuinely like talking to others.

I was up. I handed my copy of Lost Girls, and asked for the autograph to be made out to Ilia. He, being a genius, spelt my name correctly without asking. I thanked him and left. The whole thing was over in under a minute. And it was totally worth it.

Yes, my hero was a real person. Doesn't mean I could suddenly be able to speak to him. Teenager, remember? But even now, I wonder what I could possibly ever say if I had the opportunity to meet another hero of mine, Joss Whedon. Well, apart from "excuse me, may I lick your shoes?". I would choke up. So weird how someone's art can affect you on a life-changing level, and yet you are unable to speak to them face-to-face. Hopefully that self-confidence will come with age, perhaps when I have achieved something on my own.

7.6.09

Neil Gaiman

Boy, do I hate Neil Gaiman.

Why? He's a comics legend! A critically acclaimed fantasy author! That's partly why, I think. I'm jealous, and not just because of his success. I mean, look at him. As a nerdy writer, he has no right to be this attractive. It's unfair.

But there's something else. Gaiman is so nice it's insufferable. I doubt if he's ever been angry in his life. At least, not 'clothes rip like the Incredible Hulk' angry. He's just wan, melancholy, sensitive, sympathetic. Nice.

Horrible things need to happen to him.

I should get all this out of the way before I start dissing his work. It aught to be known that I can't be fair and impartial when judging Gaiman's writing. I can't. I hate him too much.

Hate him enough to read the first three volumes of Sandman before stopping. Huh? Yeah, I know. Sandman is pretty amazing. I couldn't stop myself in time. The first volume, Preludes and Nocturnes, was one of the few comic books that genuinely scared me. Number two, The Doll's House, had a wonderful central character, a great single-issue hop through time, and the genius idea of a convention for serial killers. The third collection, Dream Country, was a bit of a mixed bag. There was a silly story about cats. And for the life of me, I couldn't understand what was so special about the Shakespeare tale that warranted a World Fantasy Award (the only comic to ever get one).

Hold on. This was supposed to be a tear down job. OK, here we go. You can't read Sandman and be unconscious of the author's obvious storytelling gifts. You start reading and you keep on reading. But you finish the story, and then... what? What do you walk away with? Gaiman is incredibly coy when expressing his themes - about our need for fantasy, to tell stories, for freedom of thought and action, for family. I was constantly frustrated by the equivocal language and symbols he would use.

I found this even more with his first novel, American Gods. Yes, I devoured it. But at the end, I didn't think Gaiman had said anything particularly profound about religion or America (or indeed, the American religion). Moreover, the ideas I did encounter seemed pretty similar to the ones I had already found in Terry Pratchett's satirical fantasy Discworld. And Pratchett expressed them much more powerfully. And he was far funnier.

So Gaiman is a hack? Well... perhaps that's unfair. Nowhere have I encountered stories with the particular creepiness Gaiman can conjure. The tone of his tales is unique. So maybe we can describe him as... an artist.

Through gritted teeth.

What may unclench my jaw is Gaiman's film projects. Take a little gander at my favourite films. Gaiman has been involved with three of them. First, he did a sweep over the English translation of Princess Mononoke. I have no idea how much he amended and changed, but whatever his influence, it could not have been negative. That film is perfect. Next, he co-wrote the Beowulf film, which I praise to the skies over here. Last, there's Mirrormask, a beautiful film and a clever fable about our conflicting natures, and the need to maintain balance between them.

Today, I eschewed the sunshine (a surprise after the morning's apocalyptic rain) to go see Coraline, a film adaptation of Gaiman's illustrated children's book. The film used a similar conceit to Mirrormask, but this time the fable was about the dangers of wishing for perfection - how such perfection is neurotic at heart, and how it can imprison you. It was great, although I admit to being a little bored during the middle. Unsurprising, perhaps, as I'm a tad outside the film's target audience.

Why do I love Gaiman's films when I'm left frustrated by his books? Maybe his stories are best suited to the screen, where you need to hammer home your point, and you can't hide behind flowery language. I'm sure that if Gaiman continues to make films, my hatred for him will ebb.

But no promises.

P.S. To fully understand why Neil Gaiman is so infuriating, listen to the DVD commentary of Mirrormask, where his inconsequential comments are entirely ignored by the film's director Dave McKean. Also, read Gaiman's horribly patronising introduction to the second volume of Astro City. 'I'll tell you a secret.' he writes. 'Stories can mean more than what they literally mean'. No fucking shit, Sherlock. 'I'm not just talking about metaphor,' he adds. Yes you bloody well are. Astro City creator Kurt Busiek describes it as metaphor. It's a metaphor!

Arrh! Die, Gaiman, die!

6.6.09

Veronica Mars

When watching television in the privacy of my own headphones, I am prone to making embarrassing exclamations that would mortify onlookers. 'Sheeit!' is one. 'That's awesome!' is another. I share this with you now because no other show has elicited so many such responses as Veronica Mars. I just rounded off the last episode of season 1. And it was awesome!

I picked up the series after hearing it recommended by Joss Whedon, who I worship in scary and possibly illegal ways. He was saying something about it being the first genuine successor to Buffy. This needed investigating. When I started watching Veronica Mars, however, I was struck by how different the two shows were. I was confused. Only when I began to appreciate the show on its own terms, without making constant comparisons to Buffy, did I begin to grasp its particular achievements.

Episode structure in both shows is very similar. You have an episode arc balanced by a longer season wide arc. In Buffy, there's usually a monster of the week, and a 'Big Bad' masterminding everything behind the scenes. In Veronica Mars, there's a mystery of the week, and an ongoing Desperate Housewives season spanning mystery to be solved.

The difference between the two shows comes in the balance between plot and character. Veronica Mars relies on the twists and turns of the season arc to hold audiences in. The characters, while believable and interesting, ultimately serve the plot engine. With Buffy, it's the opposite - plot serves character. Buffy plots are - sometimes self-consciously - ridiculous (they involve monsters, for God's sake!). The thing is, the show isn't about the monsters, but the people being affected by them. Character is centre stage. With Veronica Mars, character time is squeezed by the demands of plot.

It took a while for me to stop being peeved about this. Of all the elements that comprise storytelling, plotting holds the least interest for me. It's a nuts-and-bolts thing. It needs to be done, but it doesn't make a story special. The focus on plot in Veronica Mars couldn't rope me in the way Buffy's characters could. But once I got over myself, I started to appreciate other aspects the series got right.

Joss Whedon is prone to lambasting much of television as 'radio with faces', and he has tried to make his shows more visually interesting. Watching Veronica Mars, I'm thinking he needs to try harder. The show is consistently beautiful - playing with an assortment of tilts, angles, lenses and special effects, and using sophisticated tracking shots and crane shots. Many of my exclamations were prompted by a particularly delicious-looking frame.

Many other exclamations were prompted by dialogue. Veronica Mars works off the noir genre, and so everyone is a wiseass, stuffed to the gills with wisecracks. You can't stop grinning at the coolness of it all. I don't think all this wit can quite compete with the hilarity to be found in Whedon's shows, where you get more situational comedy, silliness and the fourth wall being broken. But you can definitely see why the show drew Whedon in.

This leads me on to the final thing I wanna say about Veronica Mars. The show is based around a teenage gumshoe investigating cases in the high school she attends. It's noir in high school, which meant I was constantly aware of the film Brick, something original audiences would not have had to contend with. With this in mind, I initially felt that Veronica Mars did not take its genre far enough. Having finished the series, I now think my assumption was wrong. Veronica Mars not only uses noir to talk about teenage alienation and the gulf between rich and poor, it goes to those dark places noir has to go to - abuse, rape, madness, incest. The sunny high school setting only makes these elements more surprising and disturbing. The final episode is by far the best, being genuinely chilling, and with an extraordinary climax and emotional release at the end. It's noir through and through, and I hope season 2 continues in this vein.

2.6.09

Dollhouse Episode 3

Some notes:

Three guesses what this episode is about. Err, the objectification of women by society? Bingo!

The following doesn't exactly tread lightly:
Echo: What misery? What have you got to be miserable about?
Rayna: No. Right. I've got to be happy. I've got to be grateful. I've got to be rebellious, but just enough to give me cred so people know I'm not a factory girl. But I am. I don't exist. I'm not a real person. I'm everybody's fantasy...

So what if it's blunt. It's great writing, and it says something. Something that isn't said often enough.

The opening shot of Rayna dancing semi-naked in a cage (strangely not gilded) also not the subtlest. But it's clever, so I'll forgive its bluntness. Hey, if Baz Luhrmann is a cinematic genius...

In other news, Sierra is the cutest. Person. EVER!!

1.6.09

Dollhouse Episode 2

Some notes:

Joss Whedon is working out of his comfort zone in two ways, First, as has been pointed out everywhere, the Dollhouse premise doesn't allow for the creation of family. This is at the heart of Buffy, Angel and Firefly/Serenity. We love those shows because we experience and share in the tight bonds of friendship between the characters. This is what draws us in, and makes the shows special.

Perhaps we could have coped with this lack in Dollhouse, if it contained Whedon's unique brand of wacky humour (of which his Dr. Horrible is the finest example). Thus far, the show has flashes of wit, but no truly sublime moments of hilarity. With these two constraints, it will be difficult for Dollhouse to match Whedon's previous achievements.

There is still plenty of cleverness, however. Episode 2 really opened the premise up, and started to explore the juicy gobbets that we shall be chewing on as we watch the rest of the season.

Topher's character becomes explicitly linked with the process of creating art. He actually hands Boyd a script and 'directs' him in a 'scene' that will brainwash Echo. Boyd is recalcitrant, being uncomfortable with the artificial nature of the Handler relationship. Touchingly, at the end Echo creatively adapts the scrips she has been implanted with, and establishes a connection with Boyd that is genuine. Art is artificial, a foreign imposition. But in the process of engaging with it, we can end up with something that is meaningful to us.

The villain's repeated references to his father's ideology, the competitive nature of his sexual fantasy, and the simple fact that his hired lover has no identity (or subjectivity) of her own, suggests an explicit comment on patriarchy. As per usual in Whedon shows, our heroine kills his ass. That metaphor never gets tired.

In Echo's delirium, the misogynist client is identified with the rogue Doll Alpha. At the end we learn Alpha may have orchestrated the whole engagement. For what? To teach Echo about patriarchy? Or maybe he is the ultimate patriarch? All, I assume, will be revealed...

One final thing. Olivia Williams is cool and everything, but the smirk at the end of every smarmy retort makes her a little insufferable. Tone the delivery down, luv.