29.9.09

The wisest thing I've heard Plato say so far...

From the Republic:

'Socrates - 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.

Adeimantus - If he could do that, he'd really have done something with his life.'

Most of the rest of the book, Imo, is utter bullcrap.

How I love Warren Ellis...

'Bert, it's important at this point that I tell you how I've always hated you' -- Dan

27.9.09

How I love Garth Ennis...

'Give these two to the N.Y.P.D., make sure they do their time with a bunch of homosexual rapists.' -- General Loggia

25.9.09

A dream

Blonde hair. Wide smile. Blue eyes. On the bus. Laughs with friends. I look sideways. Beautiful. Friends notice. She stares. I don't look away. (Why? Shut up. It's a dream). Do I know you from somewhere? I don't know. My friends turn. Talk. Explain. Yeah, he's strange. She smiles. She sits next to me. Puts her arm around. You won't mind if I do this then? Not at all.

...

Off the bus. Silence. I frown. She turns. Accusing. So what do we do now. I despair. I don't know. I look away. I like books, films, galleries, concerts... How fake. Gleam in her eye. On phone. I wait. Comes back. You like concerts? Yeah. Turns. Walks away. How d'you feel about Koko? Yes. YES! To see Slowdive? Turns back and smiles.

...

Dark. Music washes around. She leans on me. My arms around her. She turns. We kiss. Feels like honey and marzipan. Tastes like heaven.

23.9.09

The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future

The new Los Campesinos! single. And I'm a little bit....hmm.

They are definitely channeling the We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed skuzzy, post-rock tinged sound, 'Heart Swells/Pacific Daylight Time' in particular. Pitchfork are right to identify that song as the album's centre-piece. In an interview with them, Gareth says it is the band's best song so far.

I don't know about that. But it sure is a standout. The LC! staple of well-worded misery scraped over jaunty tunes is inverted. 'Heart Swells' is snail-paced and draped in howling mist, and the distorted despondent lyrics are Gareth at his most direct. And then there's the morph into 'Pacific Daylight Time''s warm folky acoustic guitar, and Gareth coming out for the first time as earnestly, joyously in love. But the howls and screeches return, and whatever hope and sunshine there was is brutally cut short.

That song was arty and experimental, nothing like what the band had done before. 'The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future' takes some of those elements, but uses them to build a stadium rock song. The verses follow the quiet thump of 'Heart Swells', with Gareth's clever mumble riding above it. That's all great, particularly the build towards the chorus, where you get Brand New-esque screaming sat up against measured spoken-word.

But then the chorus itself goes all hands-waving singalong. For me that's a bit 'aww really?'. It's not that the sentiment cannot match the occasion. 'A hundred years in perfect symmetry' is a meaningful, powerful line. But dressed up in such finery, I can't feel it as much.

Why?

Gareth's voice is very good at communicating emotions. It's not beautiful in any conventional sense, but that doesn't matter, because when he sings, he can make you feel what he is feeling. But I think it only works when it sounds like he is speaking directly to you -- as if he is reading a letter, or a final, fatal livejournal entry. In 'The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future' he sounds like is is trying to address everyone. His voice becomes one of many, and the passion in it is lost.

22.9.09

District 9

Peter Bradshaw is on point over here. District 9 is great as a sci-fi action film, but it's rather half-boiled as a satire on racism. My own reasons for dissatisfaction are more mundane, however.

This is rather pedantic of me, but a plot-hole got in the way of me fully engaging with the film. The alien refugees have lots of weapons that only they can use. The humans (both white and black) are desperate to crack their technology. In trying to do so, they oppress and abuse the aliens. The thing is, in this situation, the aliens are the ones who have the advantage. Why don't they use their weapons to fight back?

The only way to resolve this is to say that they are aliens. They don't think like we do. And indeed, the film is chiefly concerned with showing us just how brutal and disgusting humanity is. Its behaviour is contrasted with the loving, and surprisingly moving, relationship between an alien and his son. The image of the alien city hovering above Johannesburg hammers home this contrast. We have a scummy earthly city, and a sleek heavenly utopia above it. The aliens just want to get from the one to the other.

Our hero bridges this divide. He is transformed from a clueless, self-serving (and mass-murdering) human into an alien who dies for his friend. But that moment of conversion, the pivot on which the film turns, is strangely flat. I didn't feel it.

Why is a difficult question. I think part of it is how cliche the scene is. But I wonder whether the cliche would have worked if the relationship between our hero and the alien was more developed. If, during their alliance of mutual need, a measure of warmness and sympathy creeped in.

21.9.09

As You Like It

I went to see the Globe production last week, which was brilliant. It did everything As You Like It has to do: make you laugh and make you fall in love with Rosalind. That's the key. It's what the famous epilogue is there to tell you.

Because Shakespeare fills the rest of the play with interesting dualities:
1) Arden sounds like a Robin Hood holiday where the unnatural relationships cultivated in modern society (between the two dukes, Orlando and Oliver) are corrected, almost by magic. But at the same time, the play recognizes that Arden is a hard, desert place away from the comforts of civilization. What to choose?

2) Jaques delivers a pompous speech about the timeless vulgarity of man, only for Adam, ambassador of the Golden World, to turn up and refute his argument. You get cynicism (things never change) mixed in with hope (yes they do). Which one wins?

3) In testing Orlando, Rosalind (oh the irony!) abuses the faults of women, and denounces love. She is aware of how ridiculous Orlando is, and at the same time she's loving it, knowing that she is being just as silly.

Rosalind solves these clashes of idealism and realism through sheer force of personality. She accepts them both, and offers that you like as much of either as please you. Meanwhile, she just wants everyone to have fun. The piercing/idiotic moralizing that Jaques offers is banished from the forest. Touchstone, who can be just as piercing, but prefers to enjoy himself, stays. As You Like It's holiday spirit doesn't ignore reality. But it resolves to embrace hope, love and merriment regardless.

18.9.09

The Ultimates 3

After yesterday's soul-searching, I've pretty much surrendered to by worst instincts and thoroughly, gleefully, blissfully, enjoyed the violent sexy romp that is Ultimates 3. Like my appreciation of Ultimate Iron Man 2, I have been urged to write home about the artwork. In this case, pencils were provided by Joe Madureira, with some glorious digital painting served up on top by Christian Lightner.

First, the pencils, in which cheesecake and beefcake are prevalent. I was lusting after pretty much every-body from the first page, and was hoping that personal favourite comics sex-god Wolverine would show up in Madureira finery. He did. Happiness ensued.

Next, the colours, which accentuate every muscle bulge and give all the talking meat-sacks solidity. They almost pop-up out of the page. The painting also gives every panel a kind of epic, mythic quality. You don't get such colours in real life. The Ultimate Universe is hyperreal. Every source of light shines more powerfully, every reflection is warmer, brighter. Everything. Is. More.

On the actual writing. Jeph Loeb does his usual murder-mystery thing, as seen in his Batman miniseries The Long Halloween, Dark Victory and Hush. Personally, I've never really found this noiry stuff as interesting as the mind-warping horror of his first Batman collab with Tim Sale, called Haunted Knight. If I had my way, Loeb would stay in this genre. One of my favourite comic-books ever is The Witching Hour, a Sandman-esque story he did with the incomparable Chris Bachalo.

Anyhow, on his year-long Batman projects, Loeb had something like twelve issues to pace his whodunnit. Here, Marvel have only given him five, and have told him that The Ultimates is about in-your-face thrills and killer twists, not subtlety or character. Hence, the plot becomes completely ridiculous very quickly, and our gang of superheroes don't really have any inwardness to speak of. You're not really gonna be relating to any of them. Especially when everyone seems to be grieving for someone they've lost (Iron Man, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, Magneto), or out getting their revenge (most of the above plus Ka-Zar and friends, Wolverine, and newbie Valkyrie after some icky attempted rape).

BUT! Who needs inwardness when the surfaces are so shiny and cool? Although lacking depth, characters possess a certain energy and spark that elevate them out of being dull nothings. The dialogue is punchy, and the artwork gives everyone a real boost. If Hawkeye didn't look so ridiculously cool, and if his death-wish wasn't expressed with such a hard-ass debonair attitude, I would have lost interest and thrown the comic away. But he is cool. He swept me off my feet, to the extent that I forgot how silly a character he really is.

And Loeb does bring some skill to the ramshackle narrative. He understands where his artist's strengths are, and so sets up some lovely fight-scene splash pages for us to gorge our eyes on. The story is all over the place, but the pace is always tight and thumping. Plus, there is a rather inventive chaotic split screen page at the very end, which I was rather impressed by. It demonstrates how well Loeb understands and can exploit the form of the comic-book. So props.

Ultimates 3 isn't going to set your soul on fire or make you feel warm inside. It's adolescent testosterone-fueled nonsense. Maybe it's just the weird state I am in, but I ended up rather liking it...

17.9.09

Gender and Pulp Fiction

Spent some time today reading the ever-enlightening Tiger Beatdown. Her posts never fail to provoke new ideas and challenge my old assumptions. Her attacks on Quentin Tarantino are difficult to counter (and many have tried). They don't so much target his stylistic gifts, which are obvious to all, but rather his childish ideas and exploitative characters.

A lot of this boils down to the 'violence is cool' attitude, which leads to all kinds of moral problems. What's distressing is that I share Tarantino's fixation, and find his action set-pieces very enjoyable. When Hitler gets so pumped full of bullets that his face starts melting, a kind of mindless glee takes over me.

This reaction isn't so much intellectual - I hate Hitler and want him to die - but rather emotional - look, his face is MELTING! I would compare it to pulpy portrayals of sexiness (which can also be fraught with problems). I cannot help reacting, shall we say 'positively', to them.

I think I'm pretty much hardwired to find such sex and violence inherently interesting. What does the wiring, society or genetics, is a difficult question to which I think no one has the answer to. The important thing is that (massive generalization coming up) women don't find such representations of sex and violence in any way stimulating. I saw Tarantino's latest film with some friends of mine. The girls found the scalping business horrific. The guys thought it was great fun.

This is a massive problem for me, because I consider myself to be a semi-intelligent person who finds violence in the real world scary and in most cases a 'bad thing'. I'm also all for the ladybusiness, as Sady Doyle calls it. How do I square all of that with my inner sadism and perversity?

This contradiction may be one of the reasons why I worship the work of Joss Whedon so much. He provides a way out, as it were. He uses sex and violence to talk about feminism and family. He speaks about the things I am passionate about and gives me my pulpy thrills at the same time. It's neat, isn't it? Maybe too neat. Maybe Whedon just papers over the gaping contradiction, without resolving it.

A true resolution will only come if I am able to transform myself, and conquer my strange attraction to kick-ass violent sexy awesomeness. But is this even possible? Studying for my history degree has left me feeling pretty pessimistic.

15.9.09

The Filth

The Grant Morrison season chugs along. After this post it will unwind slowly as I re-read Doom Patrol, and it will die its lonely and miserable death when I set down exactly why I like that series more than The Invisibles.

Meanwhile: The Filth is one of the greatest comic-books I have ever read. Putting it down, I got that elated feeling you get when you finish a book that simply astonishes you with its perfection. I felt blessed to have been able to share its company.

I don't feel confident enough to discuss it just yet. I may be able to write intelligible things about it when I buy my own copy and read it again. Or I may not. This post is just a notice. The Filth is one of the greatest comic-books I have ever read.

Tokyo

First night in the city of the future and my father drags me, reeling from jet-lag, up to the top of the Mori Tower to get a good look at the place. It's amazing. Imagine billions of pulsing diamonds and rubies on deep purple velvet. Imagine that going out in every direction as far as the eye can see. Then push up hundreds of tall oblongs. Add The Fifth Element's glaring billboards and the 'Ray Of Light' video's traffic. You get the picture? Pretty amazing, right?

The science fiction feel of the place is partly a result of a dearth of old buildings. The Tokyo authorities have the compulsive drive to knock down anything that isn't thoroughly modern. And it's not always a good thing. During my visit, my father and I went to the beautiful old Kabuki theatre in the otherwise steel and glass encrusted Ginza district. It's not going to be there much longer, we found out, which is crazy. Not only is it a glorious example of traditional Japanese architecture, but it adds an air of authenticity and history to the plays performed inside.

One wonders if this urge to keep renewing the city has something to do with the perpetual disasters it has lived through. Up until a couple of hundred years ago, Japanese buildings were pretty much made out of wood and paper. Fires wreaked enormous damage. Japan also suffers from regular earthquakes. Modern engineering and building materials have fixed these problems. But the Japanese seem to have gotten used to replacing their buildings, and the practice lives on.

A gaijin like myself should be wary of trying to explain the workings of the Japanese mind. But a visit to Tokyo inevitably prompts one to indulge in a little amateur anthropology. Japanese culture and behaviour appears so strange to western eyes.

The people you meet are always well-mannered and honest. The flipside is that they show great deference to authority, and respect rules and regulations to the letter. The contrast with the motherland appears to me very great. Next to the Japanese, Bulgarians are loud, rude and crooked.

My guess would be that the Japanese mind-set has its root in a profound sense of personal honour, which would make you stick to the rules even if others break them. I often wonder whether the Japanese look down on us bumbling self-serving foreigners, and lament our lack of self-respect.

Deference always has limits. You can only push people so far. And indeed, Japanese history is as rich in rebellions and uprisings as any other. But the civil and honest Japanese spirit remains. Why? I would posit that it is difficult to have honour when you and the people around you are starving and destitute. Perhaps the people of Japan, stuck on an island with little but rice and fish to eat, have taken better care of each other. And now, Japan is the second largest economy in the world. Its people must be pretty content. They must feel that being honest, and following the rules, has made everyone better off.

This sense of personal honour and loyalty stretches back a long way. From kamikaze pilots to the samurai practice of Bushido. The idea that suicide is preferable to compromising the obligations to your dependents and superiors, or to betraying your nation and heritage, is a powerful thread in the history of Japan. I wonder whether it continues to this day. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

We're losing sight of Tokyo as city of the future. So come and check these guys out:

http://www.elliotterwitt.com/lang/en/index.html
http://www.tomiokoyamagallery.com/artists_en/ninagawa_en/
http://www.g-sho.com/guidoargentini/
http://www.gptokyo.jp/artist/index.php?itemid=180

I found them all here.

I also went to the National Art Centre's Annual Show of Contemporary Art, which wowed me in ways I had thought not possible by paint on canvas. I walked around the galleries in stunned euphoria. I wish I could show you the stuff they had in there, but I can't find any of it on the website. And the postcards I bought in the shop are all in Japanese. But the show is on every year. If you ever find yourself in Japan, I urge you to go see.

I emerged from both exhibitions thinking that Japan is surely a nation of aesthetes, and not just in the realms of photography and the visual arts. Walk around Shibuya and witness fashion trends being set before your very eyes. Look up and you'll see architecture that exists nowhere else (check out the Edo Museum in particular). The native pop music seemed a bit derivative to me, but I did spend a productive hour at DJ paradise Recofan's used CD section, where I found all the Kenickie and Bis EPs I could ever want. And then there was Mandrake -- an underground cavern stuffed with piles and piles of every kind of manga you can think of.

All this cultural stuff looks very modern, and American. Perhaps my eye isn't subtle enough to pick up the traces of Japanese tradition in the works I saw. But it does appear that people in Tokyo are much more excited by the outside world than the things found in their own country. I wonder whether this will end up eroding the very particular mores and values you find in Japan. For now, they seem to be holding out pretty well.

11.9.09

Black Summer

You ever hunger after that Watchmen feeling? Listen to this:

Bob - You'd just lay your weapons down to someone who elected himself God through force of arms?

Grant - What else do you do when someone elects themselves God through force of arms, Bob? Ask them to prove it?

And this:

Angel - They don't get to be right just because there's more of them and they have guns.

And this:

Kathrine - Dominic wanted to be big, Tom wanted to know everything and you wanted everyone to be good. Me, Angel and Zoe really just wanted to help people. And you call us crazy.

And this:

Tom - You could not think of a smarter way to change the way this country does business than just killing the villain? You watch the world like God and build palaces out of mud with those damned eyes of yours and that is the smartest idea you had? You fucking sicken me.

Trust me, really. It's all there.

Except that this is Warren Ellis doing Watchmen. Which is a bit like getting Quentin Tarantino to do Shakespeare. Dialogue is as quick and precise as a rapier. And the action hits you in the face like a sledgehammer.

Even though Ellis steers clear of writing sound effects. But with Juan Jose Ryp on art, do you really need them? As the back cover critical acclaim mentions, panels are drawn in insane detail. So you don't need to hear every crunch, slice and boom. You feel them. Through your eyes.

Tell me that's not great comics.

3.9.09

Inglourious Basterds

Hey, tis the first time I've seen a Tarantino film in a cinema. Knockout... not. Inglourious Basterds is too long and too dull.

For a Tarantino film, you understand. I mean, there is plenty of fun to be had here. No one can construct a set-piece like Tarantino. Scenes play out like theatre -- the toing and froing of dialogue slowly building into a complex, thrilling climax. It's also a visual treat. As always, Tarantino is riffing on every genre b-movie he has ever seen. In particular, he repeatedly smashes the lingering camera of the western with the superspeed action of the martial arts film, to great effect. Finally, there's the usual freakish, unsettling and plain out weird cast of characters -- from Mike Myers's ridiculous British minister to the clinical and disturbing Colonel Landa.

All very well and good, but why do I find myself preferring the early works in Tarantino's oeuvre. I mean, he is pretty much doing exactly the same thing now. Mark Kermode grapples with the same dilemma. After the brilliant Jackie Brown -- which introduced actual character development to Tarantino's writing -- Kill Bill and Death Proof fell back on the same genre thrills. Kermode believes this has something to do with Jackie Brown bombing at the box office. Tarantino, he claims, is going after the money and crowd approval. He's a sellout, not an artist. Inglourious Basterds just goes over the same ground. That's why it's uninspiring.

Personally, I doubt whether Tarantino needs to care about the box office anymore. He's enough of an established name for his films to find an audience, however crazy they are (and Inglourious Basterds is pretty crazy). I suspect what Tarantino really craves is recognition from people just like Mark Kermode. He's already won the fans. What he wants is respectability.

All this leaves our question unanswered. Why are Tarantino's first three movies better than his last three? The writing style, the visual sensibilities, the music is the same. What changed?

I'll point towards editing. Tarantino's films tend to sprawl of late. Death Proof was originally much shorter, designed to fit in as part of the 'Grindhouse experience'. When that idea got abandoned, it was released on its own, with a bunch of deleted scenes restored. They pretty much ruined the film, making it too talky, baggy and long. Most distressingly, Tarantino seemed not to notice, continually stressing that Death Proof was a film that could stand on its own, and should be treated as such. He seemed to expect all of us to swoon over two hours of Tarantino talking to Tarantino.

Let's shift towards Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. Sprawl pretty much defines the former. It became so bloated it had to be cut into two volumes. Sprawl is also a significant feature of the latter. Both films have a chapter structure -- dividing the overall work into six parts. I think this is proving to be Tarantino's undoing, as it encourages him to max out. He makes six different short films and then strings them together. There aren't enough unifying elements to give the story sufficient momentum. In the end, these films collapse under their own weight.

Inglourious Basterds has some great moments, and some interesting ideas (for more, see here). But you get the feeling Tarantino is stuffing everything he can think of into it. This impulse kind of reminds me of Salman Rushdie's novels -- where digressions, character sketches and language experiments frequently take you away from the central narrative. It's strange, but you can pretty much get away with that in a novel (especially one written by Salman Rushdie). You can read it over a month if you want to. Tarantino only has two hours.

My advice. He should remember that Pulp Fiction only had three parts, and that they interwove to create a picture that had unity, and finality. Tarantino desperately needs to recapture that discipline.