25.12.10

Inglourious Basterds

I wrote a TERRIBLE piece on this film a while ago, which is one of the few terrible pieces I have penned that made me gag so much I had to subsequently erase it from the internet. I think my problem was trying to over-think it too much (haha, what's new?). The thing is, many bloggers I follow slavishly encouraged me to do so. But hey, really guise! This one is all too simple, no? I mean, it's all in Soshanna's cackling projected ghost crying THIS IS THE REVENGE OF THE JEWS!!! Tarantino could not BE more in-yr-face! Cinema, by portraying the Nazis as bloodthirsty, amoral robots who all get tortured, shot to pieces and burnt to a crisp, is fighting back for all the genocide they committed. Is such revenge fantasy a mature reaction to the horrors of the holocaust? Ummm.... NO! But Quentin's never really been one for maturity or complex ideas. No. REALLY, guise. He hasn't.

The thing with Basterds is tho. For a film this moronic, it ain't half bleddy long! Yes we get the slow-build tension-tension western pastiches, but did we really need all that stuff in the beginning, or all that stuff with the British? Couldn't you have cut to the chase a bit? It's not like there are any jokes here that top the banter of the 90s output. Keep the Landa stuff sure. I'm agreed with everyone on this -- Landa is a pimp. But the rest could have done with some serious chopping.

The problem with Tarantino is that he thinks he's a genius and everyone seems to want to encourage that belief. Well, we should stop, because he's getting self-indulgent. The films are getting bigger and the same old tricks are bringing diminishing returns. Smarten up, son. Or eventually you'll make a film so bloated and stupid that EVERYONE'S gonna realize the pulp cinema emperor has lost his clothes. Just some friendly advice. Hopefully, it won't make me gag two months down the line.

23.12.10

Toy Story 3

'Authority should derive from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of force!' - Barbie

Good enough to be my film of the year, although really I haven't been blown away by anything I've seen this past twelvemonth. Very funny, very smart, but the ending was just a bit too soppy for my crusty cynical mindset. Andy needed to be just a tad colder, I think.

17.12.10

Sweet Tooth

Story of an innocent in a post-apocalyptic hellhole, whose naive faith in people touches the hardest of hearts. The relationship between Gus and Jeppard is very delicately, almost silently, portrayed. Also liked the way the action was depicted in these very sudden slow-mo bursts -- a flash like lightning and then quiet. And boy, the quiet! This book has atmosphere, bags of it.

I think the basic idea is captured by the choice of title: sweet but hard, fairy-tale meets horror western. I suspect the series will trace the balance between the two elements in Gus's (and perhaps Jeppard's) character.

Hellboy is the comparison to make here, useful in bringing out (for me) the book's limitations. Mignola's hero has more attitude, and is funnier, than Jeppard. The fantasy is wilder, weirder, more stylized but also more beautiful (Jeff Lemire's artwork is kinda scrappy, tho his arrangements and blocking are very clever). Then again, Hellboy and Sweet Tooth are about different things, and it will be interesting to see where the latter gets to in the next trade.

10.12.10

Thirst

Korean vampire film, naturally. The director says in the interview on the DVD that he storyboards EVERY scene in his films, lighting and all. And boy do you believe it! Firecracker frames every single one of them. Dude likes to keep his steady-cam running too. And he likes to get the crane involved as well. And he's got a good eye for odd wide-angle shots. Special effects, sound design, all carefully considered and expertly mixed in. Srsly, I haven't been this wowed by the look of a horror film since Pan's Labyrinth. LOVE-e-ly stuff.

But let's leave the superficial considerations to one side. What is this (really long!) story about? Our protagonist, a priest, condemns suicide but has a thirst for martyrdom. Interesting enough. Next, vampirism awakens a thirst for blood and sex. Slightly less novel. For me, the film is about how to negotiate with these unwholesome desires, which cannot be entirely eradicated, and yet have the potential to do enormous damage to others. The priest escapes from the strictures of Catholicism and falls in love, but his love cannot control herself. She turns from masochism to sadism, using her lover to kill, then killing on her own. Blind faith is a dead end, but so is complete freedom to do whatever you want. By the end of the film, the priest has made too many compromises. He didn't get the balance right, and so martyrdom is the only way out.

So it's what every vampire movie is about -- struggling with your inner beast. But being a 21st century vampire movie, religion isn't the answer either (ya heard that, Twilight?). Like I said, not novel stuff, but it's so godsdamn pretty that you'll forgive all shortcomings. Honestly, more fantasy / horror films need to look like this.

8.12.10

Moon

Clones on a space station. It really is that simple. The corporation is evil setup is a sci-fi staple. Also, the look of the film is very 2001. At least the AI is friendly this time. Two interconnected themes. First, clones and robots are people too. For what are people? Machines with memories and agency. Second, how can we trust our perception of the world if so much of our information about it is unverifiable? An all-conquering spirit of enquiry and a critical mindset might be good places to start.

I couldn't quite get absorbed into the film's mood. Not Sam Rockwell's fault, I think. He gives a fine performance, in what I would imagine is a difficult role. But perhaps the writer could have given the madness a bit more oomph, more absurdism, more comedy. The pace also felt kinda saggy -- like this was an hour-long television drama stretched to film length. But there is just enough cleverness and charm to make it worth sitting through.

Mercury

The new graphic novel by Hope Larson, which is probably going to end up as my comic of the year. Two stories in parallel, with rather wonderful transitions between them, my fave being the switch from a hand clutching a tree branch to a hockey stick hitting a ball. Which rather nicely encapsulates the point of the book as a whole -- past mistakes / frustrations being corrected / resolved in the present. The most beautiful moment for me was when the crow (the cursed spirit of Asa) accuses Tara of being "a vindictive little girl", thinking she is her ancestor Josey, who incriminated him for murder and theft. But Tara is nothing of the sort. She asks only to help. And with that act of goodwill, Asa's spirit is purged.

This isn't karma across generations, which is the rather uncomfortable reading I first settled on. Rather, it is simply the present righting the wrongs of the past. And what spurs this transformation is the strong sense of the family as being rooted in a particular landscape, and the need to keep it that way. This is the other big theme of the book, and perhaps the most moving one.

6.12.10

Dollhouse Episode 2.13

Some notes:

Chuck continuity away, let's just go for the awesome. And just how bloody awesome was it! It's Dollhouse gone Firefly, edge of civilization struggle for survival. And the goal: get civilization back. DeWitt and Topher, making amends.

The Alpha / Echo / Ballard triangle was beautifully dealt with -- Alpha giving Echo THE hardest gift for him to give. And, as before, memory as imprint. Those that have passed becoming a part of who YOU are. Wonderful stuff.

Priya and Tony doing the happy families thang is nicely contrasted with Zone and Meg's split-up. But there's hope in the air. As Zone admits, it takes a while for him to process stuff. Maybe he'll be back. It's terrible lonely out there, particularly if you've been through hell.

But it's open ended, as every Mutant Enemy finale has always been. But it wraps up the series in fabulous style. You mos def leave the show with emotions bruised, the only thing you could ask for.

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1

Oh so pretty! No, I'm not talking about Miss Watson, you pervert. On which note, what's up with that? On the pale, vacant English rose stakes, she's no Keira...

But we're off topic, the topic being OH SO PRETTY! Every location, every set, had this crisp sumptuousness about it. Harry Potter brings New Zealand's Lord of the Rings back home. It's not out of this world, it's this world, slightly out. Rowling's fantasy takes drab Britain and pushes the quaint, the eccentric, the scary and surprising to the fore, making the world familiar-but-not, strange but recognizable, delightfully weird. This film, even more than the three before it, gets that aesthetic effectively onto the screen.

Well shot too. The opening extreme close up is a stunner. Voldermort and Harry's 300mph air battle is another. Watch out for the snake, another stunner. The long animated sequence telling the story of the Deathly Hallows, another. In fact, almost every frame is gorgeous. I was in a state of constant stimulation all the way through.

Even tho Daniel Radcliffe is in it! It's pretty churlish, being mean about Mr Radcliffe. But honestly, there really isn't enough charisma there. My buddy Aitch concurs. And in a story where the relationship between these three friends is front and centre, Radcliffe's (lack of) presence leaves a huge hole. To be sure, the others don't get top marks either. Hermione's strop just doesn't convince (flipping HIT RON PROPERLY!). Watson is great at the snide and the troubled, but there's not enough love in between. Grint is better, but even he can't get the soppy speech about lights and hearts off the ground. If I were directing, I would have got all method on them -- getting the three to really go camping together for a month. ACTUALLY become friends. So that on screen, we can see those invisible bonds of affection that is such an enormous part of what Harry Potter is about.

I evaluate Harry Potter movies according to how many scenes make me wince. Deathly Hallows Part 1 only has one, which doesn't irritate so much as bewilder. Harry and Hermione's dancing was an interesting idea, but ultimately the experiment fails because it cannot replace what the film really needed -- a convincing portrayal of genuine friendship. This is an incredibly difficult thing to do, particularly if you have to be moody and silent all the time. Nonetheless, it's not there, and so (no matter how beautiful it is) the film leaves your emotions unbruised.

5.12.10

Body Talk

If this be the year of Robyn, then it didn't end very well. Sure "Call Your Girlfriend" is another smash, but "Indestructible" is a bit floppy. And the greatest hits package didn't quite include all the hits. Where is "Cry When You Get Older", this blog's favourite pop song of the year? "Include Me Out" gets dropped, but the woeful "Love Kills" gets a look in?

No matter. In the age of the mp3, albums are malleable things, and Robyn's Body Talk series positively encourages you to construct your own playlist. Here's mine. Sequencing is pretty unimaginative, but I work on the assumption that the artist knows what they are doing in this area:

1. In My Eyes
2. Include Me Out
3. Fembot
4. Dancing On My Own (Body Talk Pt. 1 version, which is rawer)
5. Cry When You Get Older
6. Dancehall Queen
7. Get Myself Together
8. We Dance To The Beat
9. Criminal Intent
10. U Should Know Better
11. Call Your Girlfriend
12. Hang With Me

Bonus / hidden track: Dancehall Queen (Diplo and Stenchman Remix)

2.12.10

Dollhouse Episode 2.12

Some newts:

Yo Boyd! Wadup man? You gonna tell us wagwan with the last two seasons of this show? You know, when you were the nice guy, but no really you were the evil genius behind the whole thing? What was that all about, huh? You wanted a family? You wanted to cotch with the people you were planning to exploit? For TWO YEARS? Sounds pretty strange, doesn't it? Sounds like your character suddenly stopped making sense a little bit, no?

Yeah. At least on a first impression. But thinking about it for a spell, I'm starting to see what the show was trying to say with this contrived piece of idiocy. Boyd saw the implications of Rossum's research before anyone, and found Caroline body to be the only possible way out. But he didn't want to just save himself. He wanted a family: someone to care for as the world went to hell.

So he played Topher, DeWitt and Echo -- pushing them, changing them, giving them principles and the will to live (and die) by them. He kinda turns into Ballard squared: freeing loved ones only so that they serve his purposes. He is the ultimate patriarch, encouraging his children to excel whilst expecting complete loyalty from them. And if they don't return it... well then there's always force.

Which is why Boyd's end is so fitting. The tables are turned. He is robbed of all agency, and the people he has deceived and exploited give the orders. The children become the parents, and exact vengeance for their sins.

But all of this clever exegesis doesn't do away with the fact that my initial reaction to this episode is one of distressed bewilderment. Particularly as I had invested quite heavily in the Boyd-Saunders relationship, and to see their whole characters flipped was a bit of a downer. But more generally, as with the previous episode, the emotional and comedy beats were all strained and warped under the overriding pressure of PLOT and TWIST. There's cleverness there, but it gets crushed under breakneck nonsensical storytelling.

Then again, this is Dollhouse. Like, what's new? I guess the balance went too far the other way. I can be incredibly lenient about the show's nuts-and-bolts problems, if there were enough ideas to digest afterwards. With these past two episodes, I'm not feeling the clever so much as the confused.

A word on Ballard and Mellie. I THINK the idea was that Ballard had to become a doll before understanding that dolls can be complete human beings. Except that when he tells this to Mellie, she has been programmed to love him, which would suggest that she is NOT complete. EXCEPT except: she has been told this, fights it, and then gives into it. Is that agency enough? If we had doubts, then her suicide answers them. But again, as with all this Boyd stuff. Very clumsy.

Will the finale make things better? I hope so. Because right now season two does not look like it will surpass season one's achievements.

1.12.10

Dollhouse Episode 2.11

Some naturals:

Talk about PLOT. This one moved so quickly that the strain on plausibility became almost too much. Twists packed in like sardines. Topher and Bennett sorta had to fall in love in five minutes. Security Man materialized to deliver a warning and disappeared again. Saunders came in, had her heart broken, then totally switched. Boyd became a daddy, got shot, went away, came back, and then WHAT THA FUUUUUCK???

Didn't see that one coming!

Making the drama work in an episode with so many elements was always going to be tough. In this one, Topher really shone, doing awkward funny, awkward cute, completely broken down, resolute and selfless. In what felt like ten seconds. Ideally, you would have given the character (and the actor) more time for each phase. But under the very severe constrains he had to work under, I thought Toph did pretty well.

Not really digging the Ballard revelation. In "Epitaph One" the distance between him and Echo pointed to some interesting history between them. But no, Toph just scooped out his love for her and that's that. Bit of a letdown, really.

Similarly with Saunders. Her arc in "Echoes" was the show at its very finest. So to see her all loved up, all weepy, and then to find out that she had no agency AT ALL was a bit of a downer. A more interesting character was traded in for ohmystars THAT TWIST!

Caroline ain't ALL nice, which was a good little idea. The scene where she gets busted by Bennett displayed some fine work from Dushku. She seemed to be not only callous but TIRED of being callous. There was a faint air of dispiritedness both to her false friendliness and to her determination to bring down the evil corporation. You know what? Echo IS stronger.

Was that the point? Was that the plan all along? Here's to hoping the final two episodes make this switcharound make sense...

26.11.10

Dollhouse Episode 2.10

Some nodules:

Last post we talked about crazy. WE SPOKE TOO SOON. This one was straight-up mental in the best possible way. Things going bump in the night. IN YOUR HEAD.

Acclaimed comix artist John Cassaday (who worked on Whedon's Astonishing X-Men) is responsible for the direction, and if this was his first gig, props props props! The shootout, the giant snowcapped tree, the apocalypse. Everything looked gorgeous. And a generous helping thrills and scares. Perfect.

The obligatory Tony + Priya SO CUTE squeek over here. SQUEEK! ... and I'm done.

As for the ending, well this is what we've been waiting for! The leading figures in the Dollhouse becoming a TEAM. A family fighting alone against the world. This is where Buffy, Angel and Firefly STARTED from. This is what all Whedon products are ABOUT. And with this show, we had to wait TWO FREAKIN YEARS before we get there. That, in a nutshell, is why Dollhouse failed to engage the fans and the wider audience.

Great reveal and everything, but did DeWitt had to be so cruel to everyone beforehand? A bit storytelling > character, I feel...

But WHO CARES! We have definite Scoobies vs. Big Bad set up now. ONWARDS!

25.11.10

Dollhouse Episode 2.9

Some nibbles:

So many odd frames! It's like everything is slightly skewed! Simple, and very NOT radio-with-faces. Much appreciated.

Also, that shot of DeWitt in a drunken stupor... classic! And the oner that follows her into the Dollhouse's communal shower... slick. Props Mr. Director Man!

Then again, the final stand-off between Echo and the hive-mind soldiers was a tad silly-looking. But how would YOU shoot that scene, huh? That's the thing about this show. The stories are another degree of crazy. How do you translate them for television on the cheap? Ultimately, I'll put up with the silly if there's enough clever.

And the clever in this episode? Soldiers are dolls -- programmed machines. Individuality, meaning, purpose, is excess to requirements. But love breaks through all mind-washes. Awww!

Speaking of, Priya and Antony are just THE CUTEST!! I think I may have said that already... like ten billion times.

Ballard's on the bench, because dead. How long will that last, I wonder...

And DeWitt at the end, bathed in the blue of the electric chair, the whites of her eyes glistening. Inhuman. Even dolls she's programmed refuse to give her what she wants. Jealousy, resentment, loneliness, fear. She has no allies anymore. No family. And so... scary white glistening eyes.

24.11.10

Dollhouse Episode 2.8

Some neurons:

Such a good teaser. Bankrupt guy loves a woman who doesn't exist. An "abstraction". The idea of her is what sustains him even when he can't have her anymore. But then Alpha comes in -- it's not enough.

That ideal, abstract woman is only a part of Echo, and Echo is bigger than that. The ideal is not as true and complex as a real human being. And that's what Alpha is interested it. A love supreme, one that encompasses the entire person. Real, equal, reciprocal love. Echo's clients settled for less, which is why Alpha kills them. But Ballard didn't. He wants Echo whole. And Echo loves him for it, which is why Alpha wants to be Ballard.

But is Ballard all that great? Joel calls him a "freak" when he hears he's working for the Dollhouse, and with good reason. We are reminded again -- Ballard hasn't saved Echo. He actually puts her back inside the Dollhouse, sure with Echo's concent and in order to take it down, but the way he can live with the means to that end is slightly disconcerting. We also have the stuff from the previous episode, where he can't accept that Echo is ready to make choices about who she loves. There's something about Ballard that just cannot stop fighting battles, which is both admirable and a little... freaky.

Great stuff between DeWitt and psychologist-Victor. Dewitt has to control her sexuality. Letting go is met with chastisement, punishment. Power requires a repression of femininity. The guys don't have to deal with that. (It's very cruel that Victor is the one telling her this -- her one weakness.) And Dewitt is jealous of Echo, who's sexuality, moulded my men (virgin, whore), is celebrated. She has personal reasons for torturing her.

Great stuff between Joel and Echo as well. The memories of the dead remain in our minds, like imprints. They become a part of who we are.

And of course we have to end with Echo. "What does that make her?" asks Topher, when he discovers she can remember and recall all her imprints. A free agent, is the answer. And what does that make Topher? "Obsolete", as he himself realizes. He's not in control anymore. Echo can choose who she wants to be.

I should really say this more often, but Eliza Dusku has been brilliant this season, perhaps because she now has more of a stable personality to work with. Major probs. Could have been the next Sarah Michelle Gellar, I'm sure of it.

23.11.10

Dollhouse Episode 2.7

Some nebulas:

Confronted by the workings of a free and unequal distribution of resources backed up by the full force of the law -- i.e. CAPITALISM -- Echo snaps and remembers how to ass-kick. Long live the revolution!

The central idea of the second season is repeated again. The show is no longer about recovering a pristine Caroline. Echo cannot go back, only forwards. The realization only fully arrives when she understands that Caroline wasn't perfect. Maybe Echo can do better than Caroline. Maybe she should have this body, this life. Maybe she deserves it more.

Echo can make choices now. She is a free agent. But Ballard can't get Caroline out of his head. He still thinks Echo is a mutant, a schizo, dangerous. He's still not getting it.

As for what is going on in the Dollhouse... search me. Everyone is dissembling. Toph's secret is uncovered, but what Boyd, Ballard and DeWitt are really up to, who knows?

22.11.10

Favourite songs of 2010

Going out early, because I want to preempt everyone else’s lists. Also, I’ve been sitting on and mulling over the playlist for too long. Need to get it out and have done with it already.

If last year was a pop music supernova for me, this year was like the big bang. An entire new universe of squelchy bleeps, bass growls, ominous wobbles and echoing voices opened up. Yes, yet another university-educated, middle-class whiteboi falls prey to the lures of dubstep, and its much maligned scary-turned-poppy cousin grime. I owe my interest in this stuff to Simon Reynolds, who’s writings on the subject of the “hardcore continuum” have led me to re-acquire loved and lost garage classics, and beyond that to dip toes in the bewitching noise of jungle and rave. Shout out to Blackdown a.k.a. Martin Clark as well for providing much guidance for the uninitiated. His Pitchfork round-ups have given me a very useful history of the past five years, in which I’ve generally preferred to spend my days listening to bookish indie kids.

I haven’t given that stuff up, by the way. I remain an enthusiastic dabbler in many genres, scene-less, voyaging on the infinite sense-stream of the internet. I’ve been to about four gigs this year, no raves. I consume music in isolation, detached from the cultures that produced it. This vantage-point is both good and bad, I think. Heavy investment in a single scene gives you community and solidarity, and can up the music’s raptures. But it can also place limits on your vision. On the internet, there are no borders or us-and-them binaries. Only me, and what distracts me away from real life for the next five minutes. And I’ve always been more of a breadth over depth person anyways... Also, investment requires time and money, resources I wish to spend on a great number of other things besides music. It can only be a small compartment in my life, which is kept mostly tucked away, drawn out only when I should be reading Montesquieu...

This list has rules, as all lists must. One track per artist, because it’s long enough already. A release date in 2010, and yes there are difficulties with this one, what with internet leaks and the insular dubplate culture that reigns over the dubstepping crowd. The bigger problem is the fact that I’ve spent more time in 2010 listening to music released before 2010, so the list only partially reflects my tastes this year. The grime massive suffers particularly. Oh well. Sorry chaps! Try harder! The list is divided into genres, to make it sound nicer on spotify. Yes, there is a spotify link at the bottom of the post for your easy reference. Most of the tracks are there in some form. No real order, although we shall of course begin with my track of the year. Which is...

Creepy Crawler (Reckless Soldier / Jungle Mix) - Terror Danjah feat. Triple Threat, Funsta, Shabba D, D Double E, Skibadee, Bruza, Melo D, Hitman Hyper, Ragga Twins

After all that talk about rules, bit of a cheat really, since this first appeared on an Aftershock compilation in 2008. But that album was leaked by Danjah on twitter earlier this year, and this particular track was brushed up and included as a bonus on Danjah’s Undeniable, also released this year. Which is enough of an excuse for it to go in. Stop complaining.

Plus, I like the circularity it gives to my year in music, which started with me rhapsodizing about the Run The Road compilation. In that post I included a link to Danjah’s “Cock Back” as an example of this music’s terrifying and compulsive energy. Well, “Reckless Soldier” has all of that PLUS an awareness of history, calling back to grime’s roots in jungle and even, with the Ragga Twins at the end, rave. It’s the only fitting symbol for the journey I’ve been on this year. And it captures in miniature something huge which I missed in the 90s, when I was busy being a kid and listening to Will Smith. Around me, unawares, MCs were yabbering over jungle riddims on pirate radio stations. How I wish I had listened to them!

But forget all that. Just listen to THIS thing. The sci-fi bleeps and bass stomps, the inhuman percussion, the way it pulls back and skanks before piling on the hyper-kinetic madness. And the MCs damage the track with infectious relish and gusto: Bruza’s home-grown ‘avin it attitude, D Double’s incomprehensible gibberish, Hyper’s arm-wave to the massive, Shabba reppin his endz. This pack of nutters are not to be denied. You WILL get crunk! You have no choice in the matter. This is what it’s all about -- the need for release. And because the pressure of the environment is so high, and the gaps out of it are so small, the release is manic, demonic, almost desperate. It’s blinding euphoria emanating from the dark urban jungle. The future sound of London in all its awe, terror and glory.

Grime has settled into a comfort zone these past couple of years that isn’t particularly inspiring anymore. I guess that edge of desperation is gone. The only Danjah-unrelated highlight for me this year was hearing D Double E’s freestyle over S-X’s ‘Wooo” riddim on 1Xtra. Big up 1Xtra, btw. If 6Music had disappeared, it would have assumed the status of my default listening preference when I’m on kitchen duties. Very glad it exists. Back to D Double, “Bad 2 Tha Bone” is basically an update of Big-E-D’s “Frontline”, but with the Newham General even more insane and inventive than he was in 2004. Which is saying something.

On to the post-dubstep diaspora. Two producers have reigned supreme for me (and many others) this year. But we’re on tracks, aren’t we? Top spot goes to another jungle homage -- Ramadanman’s “Don’t Change For Me”. The renegade snares are nothing new, I suppose, but the chopped up hyph-y vocal adds a new degree of compression to the elation, the exaltation, the riotous jubilation. And that’s only the first two and a half minutes. A delirious arpeggiating synth comes in, and the vocal hook returns echoed and receding, a memory of ecstasy rather than ecstasy itself. If dubstep really is the hardcore continuum becoming aware of its history, it’s also about the new generation’s awareness of having missed out. We are living in the twilight years, and we yearn for that past that shone all too briefly.

David Kennedy is followed closely by James Blake and his “Postpone”, which takes two minutes of clumsy moans and shuffles to step out onto a plateau of resplendent morning sunshine, complete with horn fanfare. Blake’s output this year has been terribly involving, but there’s no time to go into it here. Other highs: Joy Orbison will never match last year’s enormous “Hyph Mgno”, and thankfully he isn’t trying on “So Derobe”, which settles for bubbling loved-up garage instead. Raffertie restrained the wobble this year, but with “7th Dimension” proved he didn’t need it. DVA infused last year’s “Natty” with lots of soulepower and released it as “Just Vybe”, turning murk to truly divine funkiness. Fellow hyperdubber Cooly G’s constant teasing on “Phat Si” ultimately won me over, although don’t ask me to dance to it. Pinch’s “Elements” almost reaches “Qawaali” levels of itching menace. Finally, a bit cheeky to include Ramadanman’s refix of Jamie Woon’s “Night Air”. IT’S MY HEART. What can I say?

In goth/witch-house news: Crystal Castles’ sophomore album ends up as my favourite longplayer of the year, due to a lack of anything better. Apparently, goths like to go raving in forests, although me being me, I’ve settled on the low-key “Violent Dreams” as the object of my dearest affections. Zola Jesus is a reassuring mother hen on “Night”, which is what everyone needs, particularly if there is no Bat For Lashes available. Salem’s “King Night” wraps apocalyptic choirs around dirty south hip-hop and welcomes you to his horror show. Balam Acab is a bit milder on “See Birds (Moon)”, which shimmers very prettily between bass lurches. “Ready For The World” by How To Dress Well sounds like a mumbling Burial, but you would mumble too if you were trapped in that dank reverberating fog, with just that little vocal snippet for comfort.

In chillwave news (a diffuse genre if ever there was one) the following mpfrees stood out from the crowd. Active Child’s “She Was A Vision” anchors its swirls with massive drums and piercing synths, to the point where the guy’s harp becomes pretty obsolete. White Hinterland’s “Icarus” pleasantly pulses and breezes, and the drums skip merrily along, providing just enough groove to sway to. Memoryhouse’s “Sleeping Patters” feels like those few minutes before the alarm clock rings. Twin Sister’s “Lady Daydream” coos just enough for you to forget the slightly clumsy lyrics. Elite Gymnastics relegated “Is This On Me?” to a b-side, because they are idiots. The dull vocalist is buried under a thousand layers of rich orchestral electronic psychedelia. Good save. “Heaven’s On Fire” by the Radio Dept. kicks off with some anti-capitalist spiel, before deciding to take you to the beach. Bunch of hippies. Chad Valley showed everyone that the Brits can do this hazy house stuff just as well as anyone with “Up and Down”. NDF’s “Since We Last Met” quivers fleetingly while an echoed vocal looks forward to the point when forgetfulness makes the pain go away. “Everything Is Working” by Games is just gusts of icy breath before the beat drops. And then all kinds of noises and voices drift in, retreat, come back, retreat, until a single voice is left crying ‘too young...’ A lot more interesting than the stuff Oneohtrix has done on his own. The spirit of Dilla lives on in “Maximalist” by Baths, only it’s gone surfing the Milky Way. And Lone’s “Raptured” throbs along like any other Lone track, until those arpeggios twist you right up, and then the snares get interesting, and then the arpeggios return. But you always have that sample to get you back on the straight and narrow.

In hip-hop news, little to report this year. Big Boi’s album could not BUT be disappointing, since the best cuts were leaked online before it came out. Of which, “General Patton” gets the nod here. Fat Sax rides out in front of a giant horde of orcs and proceeds to slew every rapper that ever lived. How did he manage that? He finally learned to spit SLOWLY, laying out the various reasons for his superiority so that even the biggest idiot can get the picture. That biggest idiot being, of course, me. Also, Eminem is back again, although his best work is not on his own album, but on what he did to B.o.B’s “Airplanes”. Verse of the year goes to Nicki Minaj on Kanye’s “Monster”, but the rest of the song was absolutely dire. Thankfully, “Go Hard” (originally from 2009, but on a mixtape comp released this year) is a good enough alternative. Finally, more dancehall than hip-hop, but the “Boy Shorts remix” by Mr. Vegas and Teairra Mari has to go in. Pisses on Rihanna’s “Rudeboy” from great height. Once again, hold tight 1Xtra for putting me on to this.

In dance/pop news, it was Robyn’s year alright. For more on “Cry When You Get Older”, go here. Meanwhile, Hot Chip’s “One Life Stand” is rather mediocre until Joe Goddard comes in with his falsetto, and then the chorus, and then the Knife-like stabbing synths. And that’s pretty much perfection right there. Hated faux-lesbian Katy Perry rights all wrongs with the inescapable and irresistible “California Gurls”. Designed as a riposte to Jay-Z’s “Empire” of last year. By my reckoning, if it doesn’t succeed, it also doesn’t fail. Plus, it has Snoop doing the sleazy patriarch thing. And Perry having the stones to shoot whipped cream from her tits in the video. What’s Jay gonna do now, huh?? Dubstep went pop this year, and while Katy B’s “Mission” was great, Diplo’s rework of Sunday Girl’s “Four Floors” beats it by doing the emotion thing better. Arthur Baker’s remix of “Life Magazine” by Cold Cave does little apart from make the song BIGGER, which is exactly what it needed. “Rockin That Thang” by Telephoned is about as joyous as electro gets. “Marchin In” by Lo-Fi-Fnk is happy bashing piano chords and singing stupid hooks, and you should be happy about that too. “Girls Night” by First Rate People has the cutest hook of the year, and then this DUMB DUDE muscles in and starts singing all over it! Ruined, I thought. But actually the interplay between the two elements is quite winning. The song is ABOUT dumb dudes being dumb, and that’s not so bad.

In indie/rock news. Japanese Voyeurs don’t want to let grunge go, but if they keep giving us vulnerable monsters like “Smother Me”, then that’s alright by me. Male Bonding lord over their American noise-garage-rock superiors by relentlessly rushing towards the lowest common denominator on “Year’s Not Long”. All the better for it. The latest album by Los Campesinos! had to have two tracks removed before it could be enjoyed properly (Gareth should NOT croon). Fave song keeps changing, but I’ll settle for “Straight In At 101” as probably the best introduction to what they are about. Johnny Foreigner’s new album, bar the singles, was a disappointment, but “With Who, Who And What I’ve Got” (bleepy version) restored my faith. Get it here. A free mp3 by Freelance Whales called “Generator Second Floor” had been floating around my library for a good while this year, and I’ve only just realized that it’s great. Will investigate further. Broken Social Scene return with a decent if not spectacular effort. The Emily Haines ballads are always the best things on each of their albums, and “Sentimental X’s” is a worthy addition to the group. It’s about the shift between ‘used’ and ‘used to call’. And is that “X” an ex or a kiss? It’s both. The title of the album says it all. Call it forgiveness. The Besnard Lakes finally release a good song in the form of “Albatross”. Took long enough. Glasser’s “Home” makes up for no Bat For Lashes this year even more than Zola Jesus does. And we end with Sharon Van Etten’s devastating “Love More”, which words can barely describe. Just listen.

Here’s how:
http://open.spotify.com/user/iliapop/playlist/6FWcQ2EIDe8tleykUugUWG

19.11.10

Dollhouse Episode 2.6

Some notations:

Still heavy on the PLOTPLOTPLOT, but this time there was slightly more something else. A shame that Denisof ruined it a tad with the horrible overacting. The arch pull-in to close-up didn't help matters. But yes: "we can be who we decide to be". What the show is all about.

Bennett turns out to be slightly less interesting. She's envious, bitter and out for revenge. Seems to be out of control too. One wonders why she is allowed to keep her job after stitching-up her house so badly.

But who cares, really? It's Summer Glau! Being cute with Topher, sadistic with Echo and creepy, scary and sad when she is alone. Great work, despite the character not being all that much.

Speaking of Topher, how about Viktor doing Topher? And how about Topher and Viktor-Topher talking about girls? How about that "backdoor" innuendo? High-larious high-jinks! Levity! More please!

Pleased to see that the show doesn't let characters go without giving them a little space to say something. Here, Cindy Perrin has a short scene to talk about how horrible it is to be married to someone you can't stand. She sold the venom as perfectly as she sold the sunny affection in previous episodes. And then she got strangled to death. Pity, that.

It's Ballard and Sierra's turn to sit on the bench. But with so much going on, it's difficult to fit them in anyway...

Ms. DeWitt turns on the seduction, and you start wondering how far she'll degrade herself to get what she wants. But then she turns on the power. And the threat. And you're rooting for her all the way. Which is also what the show is all about.

16.11.10

Dollhouse Episode 2.5

Some nectarines:

This one was all PLOTPLOTPLOT and not a lot else. So what to say? Ummm... Well, I do wonder if THIS was the pace and style of the show from the very beginning, would it have got a larger viewership? And would it have been less interesting? I mean, say what you like about the GODAWFUL looking pop star and religious cult episodes from Season One, but they built up patterns across plotlines, used visual symbols and generally arrived at some kind of wraparound theme. Here, we just have relentless forward momentum. Keeps you guessing, sure, but you're left with cliffhangers, not ideas.

Still, pretty good cliffhangers, particularly the end of the second act. And most of the final scene didn't make any sense to me, although I WAS busy riding the high of seeing Summer Glau again. She is (once again!) brilliant at playing strange, scary AND sympathetic. The growing Mutant Enemy stable of actors is a fine pool of talent. Hollywood should take note.

So, the episode answered a lot of old questions, and posed a great many more. It was efficient, fast, engaging, like any good sci-fi action show should be. At the same time, there was less of the funny, clever, weird, embarrasing, unique stuff that made me love Dollhouse in the first place, despite its glaring formal flaws. So... I'm in the middle, and curious as to where the show goes from here.

14.11.10

Dollhouse Episode 2.4

Some notaries:

Hey now where is Ballard? The commentary reveals all. Show has no money, so we get less actors. Boo! Thankfully, there is enough stuff going on so that we don't feel the absence.

Like, with Boyd! Finally! Of course he'll have a dark past. What paternal character in a Whedon show doesn't? Those father figures... ya just can't trust 'em.

And Topher starts to open up. Finally! DeWitt, as usual, does the spelling out. You don't have a conscience, you just like to play with people. And now someone is taking your toys away. But what really makes Topher spiral is the comparison with this episode's bad guy -- the brain doctor who fucks up Sierra's mind, enslaves her and rapes her. Isn't Topher pretty much doing the same thing? Isn't HE also the bad guy? In the end he gets his toy back, but he's not sure if he wants to play anymore.

Dichen Lachman isn't here for the funnies this episode. She's her for the happy, defiant, angry, scary, crazy, horrified, sad, etc, etc, ET CETERA. Astonishing stuff.

Meanwhile, Victor does Italian and cute, fluffy bunny. SO CUTE! Marvellous. The love blossoms are not corny enough for me to resist the sappy. Go sap!

Two songs this episode. The first ("Drones") performed by Jed Whedon. Lovely stuff. The second is only "Travelling Woman" by freaking BAT FOR LASHES. As soon as those piano chords drifted in I knew. Pumped. And for sitting through all the terror and darkness, we are rewarded with a beautifully hopeful shot at the end.

If we forget all about the second episode, this second season is shaping up pretty well...

6.11.10

Dollhouse Episode 2.3

Some noties:

Hey Ballard! Wanna dance?
'Not overly.'
...but Victor does!

Funnies make a triuphant return. As does Boyd. But no Sierra? Sadface!

Love the lingering shot of DeWitt just as Ballard is talking about pushing people away and being surrounded by copies. And the irony DOES NOT END!

Meaty stuff from Minear and Solomon, this. They have a question for ya: is a woman who exploits her sexuality for her own ends empowered? Creepy medievalist thinks so -- the Wife of Bath is NOT a whore, she doesn't let men define her, she uses the power all women have to make men her slaves. Butbutbut, (OH irony!) he is speaking to a woman he has defined! He is, in fact, the master. And Echo is his whore.

Cross-cut with creepy serial killer, because Terry also treats women as toys, although (SO MUCH irony!) his methods are cruder than those of the Dollhouse. Terry uses the power that all men have -- violence. But through some macguffin his power is transferred to Echo. Prey turns into predator, and we don't find out if the prof survives. Echo in turn gives it to Terry's prospective victims. You have to kill him, she says, or he'll kill you. If you are menaced by a monster, you have to become a monster, at least a little bit, in order to survive. Hence that final reveal -- scary and sad. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.

4.11.10

Dollhouse Episode 2.2

Some notez:

Apparently Topher codes instincts now. Echo can't forget being a mother because her body isn't letting her. You lactate, you have a 'maternal instinct', you cannot be fucked with. Umm... kinda weird territory, isn't it? Is motherhood all about biology?

Of couse, the guy can't do the fatherhood thing properly, because... what? The biology isn't there? Instead, only psychological hurdles need to be overcome -- Nate has to stop thinking his son killed his wife.

Again, very strange ground the show has found itself in. Where did the feminism go, guys?

Not a total bust, however. The episode did draw a rather interesting parallel between the way Madeline and Echo deal with the loss of their children. The former chose to forget, and has become comfortable, cold, 'not sad'. The latter chooses to remember, letting the sadness in, because feeling something is better than feeling nothing at all. John Keats would have liked that sentiment.

Looks like Senator Wesley is this season's Paul Ballard. How very last year. You wonder where this will go. THERE'S A MOLE AGAIN! Yawn...

The teaser. Exposition much? Clunk!

The thunder and butcher's knife combo was a bit OTT, really. Buffy etc. could get away with such silliness, because it spent much of the time aping and mocking genre cliches. Dollhouse is going for a serious sci-fi feel, so these references end up becoming straight cliches. Fail.

Where is Boyd?

Where are the jokes?

Where for the love of any and all gods is Joss Whedon?

29.10.10

Dollhouse Episode 2.1

AAAAND WE'RE BACK! Coverage of Dollhouse Season 2, long promised, is finally ready for broadcast.

In a conversation about a week ago, my infinitely wise friend over at Shark Attack revealed that the final season of Angel had to be watched THREE TIMES before the love could grow. You shudder at the thought... but it's kinda true -- Whedon shows require work if they are to be fully appreciated. I understand that better than ever now having emerged from my THIRD viewing of 'Vows' this week. This episode was dense, and unpacking it is probably something best left to more capable Whedon scholars. But I'll start my own exegesis over here, because there's no way I can shut up about this Dollhouse business. Rule one of the blogger's code: ignorance is no brake on enthusiasm.

Some notes:

A bit like the episode itself, we should start with the funnies and the techie stuff. First off, Tempura Joe. Love that! Second, Sierra vs. Ivy. And the nuff HAS BEEN SAID. Also, the tracking shot following Toph from bunk to HQ is pretty Battlestar, is it not? In fact, the lighting as a whole has gone from blasting hotel-lobby gold to chilly, space-station blue. A welcome change, Imo. Team Whedon must have taken a good hard look at 'Epitaph One' and thought... yeah, that's cool. Also, hey arty dissolves on the dance-floor! And hey arty sex/isolation mashup montage! Cinema! Marvelous!

Now to the substance. Let's attack the Saunders breakdown, which is pretty much what made this episode so difficult, and so incredible. Tough, because we are dealing with three characters on top of each other (real person, Whiskey, Dr. Saunders) and because there's a whole false consciousness metaphor on top of THAT. The mind is left rather boggled.

Well, actually, turns out Whedon sums it up rather brilliantly in the first exchange between Saunders (you designed me) and Topher (if you're losing it, it's your fault). Saunders has discovered she is a doll. She is not privileged like she thought. She has also been constructed by that sociopath in a sweater-vest. Even when you have power, you can't escape your gender, your objectification. Saunder's reaction is to deny responsibility -- I can't change because I'm built that way. Boyd is the first to tell her that EVERYONE is poorly constructed, and that defeatism is just an excuse.

But it's Topher that hammers the message home. Saunders wants him to confess to being a sick, evil pervert -- that he designed her to hate him so that he could win her around and have true love. The hatred she feels for her maker, the Big Brother, the ruling Male, would not be her fault. But Topher does not comply. I don't know you, he says. When constructing Saunders, for practical reasons Topher wanted a real person. Which means she chose to hate him. She IS privileged, even if she has been moulded by forces she cannot abide. She can recognise them, and fight them, if she chooses to. But that would mean going out into the world, which is scary as hell. Toph tries to comfort -- that fear means you're human. Don't flatter yourself, Saunders shoots back. She doesn't say it, but by the end of the episode we know what she's thinking: I'll MAKE myself human.

On to Ballard. The end of the first season left us hanging on what in the seven hells he was doing. But DeWitt is there to explain. He was done with Mellie, but he still wants something from Echo. Ballard admits he strives to do what's right, but he doesn't know what that means anymore. He's compromised -- his fantasies of righteousness involve using Echo for his purposes. Where does helping end and getting off on helping begin? A tension perfectly exposed in the climactic scene where Ballard's verbal and physical assault on Echo is cut up with flashbacks of all the times he's promised never to hurt her. He tried to get her out and free, but he didn't. The dual motives go further -- while Ballard is trying to make Echo snap, there is something genuine being uncovered when he talks about trading his life, betting everything, and not getting anything in return. As he confesses afterwards, he wasn't his best. Fantasies have dark sides when they remain unfulfilled.

Finally, Echo. DeWitt is aware that she is evolving, and is comfortable with letting the experiment run. But Echo's moments of lucidity are dangerous for the Dollhouse. She doesn't take too long in telling Saunders that no one is their 'best' in here. You can't help glitching when you are confronted with so many lies. That's what Ballard is after when he's slapping her around. At the end of the episode she remembers everything, and everyone she's been. But thoughts of Caroline, the person she was, turn quickly to finding her other selves. I'm all of them, she says, but none of them are me. She's not going to be able to go back. The Dollhouse has imprinted too many roles over her personality for Caroline to remain uncorrupted. Wiping doesn't work. There is no blank slate left. Echo will have to build a new identity with what her oppressive environment has given her.

And who does she turn to? Ballard, who has broken so many vows already, whose fantasies can harm as much as help. But who else is she to trust? And will the 'wedding' at the end of the episode end as disastrously as the one at the beginning? We'll have to wait and see...

24.10.10

Liberty Before Liberalism

Following on from this post about the value of history, I am now slightly less ignorant of Quentin Skinner's position, and thought I should clarify what he says.

The impression left by the last post is that history's message is essentially negative -- it gives us an appreciation of "how far the values embodied in our present way of life ... reflect a series of choices made at different times between different possible worlds", and so ensures we are not "bewitched" into believing that those values are absolute.

But Skinner puts a positive spin on this negative outcome: although "our society places unrecognised constraints upon our imagination", history can help free up that imagination -- our ability to see through present values, and perhaps consider new values beyond them. Perhaps restoring those of the past? As Skinner concedes, political, philosophical and moral questions may not be "perennial", but there must be "some deeper level" which links past and present values if his argument for history's utility is to work. In a footnote he dismisses the notion that he is pleading for "the adoption of an alien value from a world we have lost", but Liberty Before Liberalism's final rhetorical flourish ("did we choose rightly?") almost but not quite suggests the opposite. The 'not quite' hinges on the distinction between "adoption" and "imagination" -- we cannot transplant past solutions wholesale into the present, but perhaps we can be inspired by them.

17.10.10

The Social Network

The facts are the problem. Here's Jezebel on the film, and the points stand. If the origin of facebook wasn't what The Social Network suggested, why did Sorkin and Fincher make those calls? Why make a "digital hate fuck" Zuckerberg's motive? As this piece suggests, the film should have gone in a different direction, focusing on what a "canny and receptive cultural reader" Zuckerberg is, and in doing so could have said more about what facebook is, and why it took off so spectacularly.

Anywayz. Taking it as it is -- as a film, as fiction -- The Social Network is brilliant. Built around the irony of a creator of a networking site who cannot maintain friends of his own, the film does a fine job of showing the full range of arseholery Zuckerberg is capable of. The descriptor 'asshole' bookends the film, delivered by two different ladies, and Zuckerberg goes from 'is' to 'trying to be'. Rather difficult to read what that's about. The next step, I guess, would be 'trying not to be', and the final image is both cruel and hopeful on that score.

Fincher keeps the talky-talky action, you know... active. Impressive, really. While the pace of Sorkin's dialogue gives the film a certain drive, Fincher's montage sequences are just as important to the energy of the thing. I didn't know internet start-ups could be so exciting! Sorkin is indeed at his erudite blabber-mouth best. Watch out for the chicken and the principle. And Jesse Eisenberg's robotic nervous confidence was captivating. Give him awards, I say...

In sum: a perfect package, if not for the heap of lies it's built on. Not trusting it means I cannot love the film, but there is a lot to enjoy if you leave your scruples behind.
"M-m-master, when I was on the Quasar I had a paracoita, a doll, you see, a genicon, so beautiful with her great pupils as dark as wells, her i-irises purple like asters or pansies blooming in summer, Master, whole beds of them, I thought, had b-been gathered to make those eyes, that flesh that always felt sun-warmed. Wh-wh-where is she now, my own scopolagna, my poppet? Let h-h-hooks be buried in the hands that took her! Crush them, master, beneath stones. Where has she gone from the lemon-wood box I made for her, where she never slept at all, for she lay with me all night, not in the box, the lemon-wood box where she waited all day, watch-and-watch, Master, smiling when I laid her in so she might smile when I drew her out. How soft her hands were, her little hands. Like d-d-doves. She might have flown with them about the cabin had she not chosen instead to lie with me. W-w-wind their guts about your w-windlass, snuff their eyes into their mouths. Unman them, shave them clean below so their doxies may not know them, their lemans may rebuke them, leave them to the brazen laughter of the brazen mouths of st-st-strumpets. Work your will upon those guilty. Where was their mercy on the innocent? When did they tremble, when weep? What kind of men could do as they have done—thieves, false friends, betrayers, bad shipmates, no shipmates, murderers and kidnappers. W-without you, where are their nightmares, where are their restitutions, so long promised? Where are their abacinations, that shall leave them blind? Where are the defenestrations that shall break their bones, where is the estrapade that shall grind their joints? Where is she, the beloved whom I lost?" - The Book Of The New Sun

14.10.10

Arrested Development

Comedy gold, which should be enough. But me being me, satisfaction eludes. I have problems, both within my psyche, but for present purposes, with the show itself. Because comedy isn't enough, as Scott Pilgrim found out. 100-carat comedy gold needs a PURPOSE.

Ostensibly, the point of Arrested Development is the clash between responsible adulthood and unrestrained delinquency -- order and chaos. And while the show usually positions us behind the straight-man (in every possible sense of the word) Michael Bluth, you can't help but be won over to the opposite point of view by his disturbed, infantile family, who burn through money and pursue the most insane and inchoate projects. Actually, irresponsibility is more fun. It's the spice of life. Granted, Michael's family are all frustrated in some way. Lindsay and Tobias are in a loveless marriage. Gob envies the respect his brother receives, and seeks similar approval. Buster doesn't want to leave his mother's wing. His mother desperately does. Maeby wants real parents. George-Michael wants Maeby. But the frustration of keeping this pack of clowns together is greater still. You start to wonder if Michael really is more fulfilled trying to control the uncontrollable.

That's all great. My problem is, there are three (more like two and a half) seasons of this. JUST this. We leave the Bluth family pretty much as we found them, and I wanted something more. Why couldn't these characters have GOT somewhere -- better, worse, different? Couldn't the non-stop jokes lead to something, some small thing, that was earnest, moving, gods forbid... unfunny?

The comparison I would make is with The Office, probably the finest comedy of the last decade. And it was genius precisely because it went that little bit into the realm of drama. Brent's moments of generosity. Tim and Dawn's snatches of intimacy. Hard-earned, through all the idiocy and horror, but all the more satisfying for it. Arrested Development ran away from that. It's a great show, one of the most inventive comedies America has produced. But I think it could have been even better. It could have been perfect.

5.10.10

The Second Sex

Finished it last night, or rather this morning. Exhaustive, but never exhausting. Some may complain that Simone De Beauvoir takes aaages getting to the point, and when she gets there, spends aaages going over and over it. Some may complain that there isn't enough structure to her argument -- too little linear unfolding, too much exploratory circling. But actually, I liked that approach. For me, The Second Sex isn't just valuable as theory, it's brilliant literature as well. Its real treasures are its characters, hundreds of them, used to illustrate personal and inter-personal problems ranging from the most intimate to the most public: sex, love, family, work. The breadth of human experience explored in the second part of the book actually has the effect of challenging, warping, even undermining the central philosophical position set out in the first. Beauvoir spends a lot of her time trying to bend her theory around her characters, to the point where I started asking myself: can theory really capture life in its entirety?

There is breadth, but there is also depth, to her characterization. People's ideas and emotions are analyzed with great focus and detail, frustrations and neuroses are revealed and explained. For me, the conclusions arrived at are not as important as the method. This endless questing into the bowels of your psyche will dredge up interesting aspects of yourself. Things you may not like, perhaps, but being confronted with them is the first step towards acceptance and self-control, perhaps even transformation -- that transcendence that Beauvoir is so facinated by. We shouldn't run from ourselves, but instead appraise our personalities honestly, and find answers to questions like: why do I feel this way, why am I unhappy, what makes me happy, how do I do that thing that makes me happy. Marx wanted to change the world, but first he needed to understand it. Same goes for the individual.

4.10.10

The value of history

It often happens this way. You think something, and then you find that others have thought similar things, and have expressed them with a clarity and a beauty that you yourself were incapable of. In this particular case, my gratitude is extended to Quentin Skinner, whose essay on meaning and understanding in the history of ideas I've had to read this week.

Being a history graduate, I've been asked several times what the point of studying history was. My response always centered on dispelling the idea that historical knowledge can somehow help you avoid the mistakes of the past, for there is no guarantee that a solution that worked in one context will work in another. Rather, it is the skills you acquire as a historian that are beneficial -- being able to understand how a particular social context works, the way power (politics), distribution of resources (economics), social structures (sociology), ideas and culture interact. The advantage is you keep your finger in different social science pies, and so you will be able to view the present day in a more holistic fashion.

But more than that, the historian tracks the way contexts change through time. And here I'll give the (paraphrased) word to Skinner. Possessing historical awareness, as opposed to just knowledge, means appreciating the variety of viable moral assumptions and political commitments human beings are capable of. Present day arrangements are not timeless, but contingent and local. Skinner argues that such a perspective has a moralizing effect. I take this to mean that understanding the relative nature of our values will ensure we avoid condescension -- it will make us more empathetic. A corollary I would add is that history allows you to stress-test ideologies such as religion, nationalism, socialism, even patriarchy, and so will teach you to be wary of their simplifications and distortions. Skinner is talking in particular about intellectual history, but I think his conclusions can be applied to historical study as a whole. Social structures as well as values are contingent and local. There are other ways of doing things. That is history's most obvious, and most valuable, lesson.

27.9.10

Children Of Men

Bleak, grim road-trip from nihilism to hope (with Christian undertones) in a near future England cursed with infertility. How lovely! The wikipedia page goes into some detail on EVERY ASPECT OF THE FILM, so I'm not going to say much here... oh how can I resist! YES those endless tracking shots through laughter and tears and explosions really are astonishing. YES the film does cross-reference like muthafuckin crazy -- Guernica, Abu Ghraib, 7/7, Hamas, the Holocaust, the Nativity. YES the score pierces, mourns, and elevates in just the right places. Bless you Cuarón. Boy do you know what you're doing...

A couple of words on thah ahhhting. Clive Owen basically has to do noir anti-hero, with his trench, his smokes and his quart of Bell's. But he does it WELL, begad! Julianne Moore keeps her pale steely-face set perfectly, as expected. But we should really zero in on the fabulous Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is pretty much reprising his role as The Operative in Serenity. Anytime you need a villain who is also a believer, you know who to call.

Is there a stumble somewhere? Perhaps towards the end, where the uncovering of the baby puts a stop to the chaos. Maybe just slightly difficult to take? Someone would have come to their senses sooner. Someone would have tried to arrest their getaway as the shooting began again. Perhaps there was a little bit TOO MUCH hope here. In such a perfectly fine-tuned film, this scene rang just a smidgen false.

26.9.10

Son Of Rambow

A 12 certificate, which goes some way into explaining the film's problem. You've got swearing, blood, and not so mild threat, all of which prepared me for jokes and drama that accommodated adult tastes. Except that they do not. The struggle with religion is portrayed with cloying simplicity. And far too little satire was extracted from the two boys' film-making escapades. Basically, this is a Pixar film without the universality OR the nods towards the parents. I'm used to better.

(Wow. How mean am I? On the plus side: the two kids were ridiculously cute, and I did chuckle a couple of times at that French dude.)

24.9.10

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

I've read the first two volumes of the comic, and was left bemused by how much love there is for it. I mean, yeah, the talk is funny and the look is fresh, but this whole relationships as videogames conceit is a little confusing, isn't it? It was difficult for me to read INTO the fights. Metaphor muscled out character.

The film has the same problem. As far as I can see (i.e. the first two volumes) the adaptation from the comics is pretty straight. It zooms along at a merry pace, and the visuals are stunning. But at times I started yearning for it to slow down -- for fewer fights and more dialogue. Give me some time to explore what these conflicts are actually ABOUT, OK?

As it stands, there is stuff I got, and stuff that made no sense to me. Scott's duels seem to be about overcoming Ramona's defences -- the detritus from past relationships that prevent her from committing to this one. But you could also say that they are about Scott as well -- proving to himself and the world that he is BETTER than those guys (and gal). The battles are about both characters gaining the self-confidence to do this romance thing again. As Hickman's Pax Romana says: destroy the past, create the future.

So if this is our paradigm, how does Scott defeat the exes? Patel is a question mark for me (Scott finding out the insignificant reason Ramona dated him?). Lucas falls due to arrogance, Todd because of hypocrisy. Envy's aura of invincibility evaporates in the process, as her bad decisions are exposed. Then there's Roxie. A bit of brouhaha about this one. Ramona knows Roxie's sexual secrets, and Roxie has no equivalent hold on Ramona. But why Ramona fights her bi-curious past with such vindictiveness is a puzzle. Poor Roxie, I thought. Perhaps that's the point. Scott certainly gets tired of dealing with Ramona's trail of broken hearts, and their relationship crumbles.

The twins directly challenge Scott's belief in his ability to express himself (through his god-awful band Sex Bob-Omb), but he overcomes them. Gideon's microchip is interesting. Has Ramona's head been rewired to respond to manufactured signs of coolness? And maybe Scott breaks through them by being earnest? I kinda like that reading -- the revenge of underground nerd culture against the corporate masters of pop culture. Ramona is shown that videogames are better than clubs, Toronto is better than New York. A fantasy, of course. Games are made by corporations too, but what the hey.

What of Knives? Scott is straight with her, she forgives all and lets him go. That was mature of her. The problem with that, and pretty much everything in this movie, is that the videogame metaphor telescopes these character transformations so that they become pretty difficult to take seriously. Too much happens too quickly. Emotion is traded in for dynamism and bright lights. Maybe I'm getting old, but that wasn't the right balance for me.

23.9.10

Calling time on comics

The Hot-Doll index confirms that COMICS is (just!) the most popular label on this blog. Not a surprise, really. It sometimes feels like my university years have been less about reading Gregory of Tours or John Locke, and more about sinking to new depths of comics nerdery. During the honeymoon phase, this stuff was seriously addictive.

But maybe that phase is now over? I've been trying to get into Charles Burns's Black Hole, which like me slobbers all over Lynch and Cronenberg, but somehow I can't get myself to care. Turning to Final Crisis, I'm once again confronted with Morrison madness at a hundred miles per hour. But instead of being flattened into submission, this time I'm asking: what is the point of all this?

On the singles front, Sparta U.S.A. and Stumptown were diverting, but didn't give me anything Lapham or Rucka haven't given me before. Daytripper had a great penultimate issue, but the end was on the soggy side. Kill Shakespeare is treading water. Buffy Season 8 stopped making sense a while ago.

Maybe I'm not patient enough. Maybe this ennui is itself a phase. There are things to be excited about: Bendis's Scarlet, Ellis's Supergod, Morrison's Joe The Barbarian, Hickman's S.H.I.E.L.D., Milligan's Greek Street, Carey's Unwritten. Ultimate Spidey and X-Factor still deliver monthly hits of hilarity. That's quite a long list. (Paul Morley, what have you done to me!)

Still, I've been thinking for a long while that I should wind down this strange, niche obsession, not least because it's ridiculously expensive. So this is just a note to say that the Hot-Doll Pages will shift tenor slightly, away from comics and perhaps towards film and literature.

Or not. Mercer Finn breaks promises without a thought. He also rhymes. Sometimes. And he doesn't know when to let things... drop?

21.9.10

Ode on Melancholy

No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf's-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kissed
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow's mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Imprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

She dwells with Beauty -Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine:
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

Always a comfort, this one. One to turn to when, yes, the melancholy attacks. Like the previous Keats poem on the Hot-Doll Pages, I did this at school, and our class didn't quite get to where our teacher wanted us to go. Well, education doesn't end with schooling. Onwards!

The first stanza is laden with the words "no", "not" and "nor". NO we're NOT going to Lethe, for sleep is poisonous. The "anguish" is "wakeful" -- quick, alive. You should not look to "drown" it. Because as the second stanza says, Melancholy is sent down from heaven to nourish nature and our natures. "April shroud" pairs life and death together -- they are one. The "weeping cloud" "hides" the "green hill", it doesn't obliterate it. The two co-exist. Melancholy's treasures ("glut", "wealth", "rich") should be fed on. They are impermanent, and when they go we'll be able to savour greater treasures all the better.

The third stanza introduces us to a bunch of absolutes -- Beauty, Joy, Pleasure -- who die, leave or change. They are unreachable. We live in between them: transients floating from one to the other. Melancholy's shrine lurks in "the very temple of Delight". And those who are able to see it are privileged. We need to taste the sadness in Joy's might, for only then can we fully understand Joy. Again, our "palate" must be "fine", our tongues "strenuous". We should experience ALL emotions to the full, because that way lies true happiness.

There is something a little disconcerting about being hung up as one of Joy's "cloudy trophies". But the entire poem has gone on about how things shift ("cloudy"), and how you can't control them ("hung"). Joy's rewards are ambiguous. I don't think the message of the poem is overturned by this. There is a sense of permanence to being a trophy. Being prepared for change, you gain a kind of fixity. If you are a complete human being, Joy will favour you.

15.9.10

Expressions

This face is somber, thoughtful. Eyes wide, forehead long, nose noble. It's looking at invisible things, handling them and shaping them through the air. It is figuring things out.

This face is creased with mirth. A smile flashes, smirks. The nose snorts. But the eyes look down, humble. A shrug lifts. Knowing, but laughing still.

This face is ancient, concentrated. Music is conjured underneath it, pulled from somewhere deep, bringing word of buried things, old things, eternal things. Wrinkles line the forehead. The eyes are almost closed. The mouth sings.

None of these faces are my own. I know them better than my own face. They are all beautiful.

13.9.10

Feminism and Capitalism

A very interesting, and moving, piece by Anwyn Crawford over here, in which I was confronted once more with the idea that genuine liberation from the constraints of gender can only occur with the advent of what one can only call, in the vaguest possible terms, an anti-capitalist society.

This used to be a very pervasive idea in the first half of the 20th century (for so university has told me) and it usually meant that the ladies in socialist or labour movements had to wait a little bit for their freedom, while the men worked on realizing the collective ownership of the means of production. Women's liberation was effectively put on hold, and struggle against capital was given first priority.

The Second Sex, which I am still wading through, begins by attacking the Marxist explanation for the enslavement of women. I guess that might have been the turning point -- when women realized that it wasn't capitalism, but something else, that was inhibiting their emancipation. It ended up being called patriarchy -- a set of assumptions about the two genders that licensed oppressive laws, an inequitable distribution of resources, and personal relationships that lacked reciprocity.

My view is that Crawford confounds capitalism and patriarchy, which I believe (along with De Beauvoir, and along with the feminists in her wake) are two different things. Crawford argues that capitalism is an ideology which influences personal relationships -- that there is a "market paradigm" that governs the way we treat each other -- that creates female objects. (Not male ones? one might ask). I think capitalism is simply a system of distributing resources and organizing society, and can support a huge variety of ideologies: religious belief, liberalism, patriarchy, feminism...

I haven't thus far come across a convincing argument for why capitalism NECESSARILY equals patriarchy, and I would be very eager to listen to anyone who is willing to explain this link to me. In the meantime, I have no option but to continue to think that the emphasis of the feminist movement should not be on dismantling the market economy, but the patriarchal assumptions to be found within it. Let's face it, doing the latter is a tough enough task in itself.

11.9.10

Fish Tank

A kitchen sink coming-of-age erotic thriller, would you believe. The title can only refer to our protagonist, her family, the whole estate, trapped in their little world, played with by the privileged and powerful, and with nothing to do but dance the pain away.

Sounds like fun? Yeah, I know. The tone is on the downer side of things. But there are also moments of quite exquisite beauty in this film, where shots get all slow and syrupy, and our protagonist makes that human connection. So when she ends up betrayed, the horror is acute. And it only gets more nail-biting when she decides to take her revenge.

There are a lot of THEMES to dig into. Family breakdown, abuse, mistrust and the tentative steps towards socialization. Patriarchy, the way it blocks all avenues to freedom (dancing) apart from the ones that lead to sexual objectification (dancing with intent to arouse). Exploitation, treating someone as a means to an end (Connor), rather than an end in themselves (our adorable traveller Prince Charming, who is there to save Mia just as everything collapses).

So. Things to ponder on as you luxuriate in those stunning shots of urban canyons and windswept riverbanks. A good film, in other words.

5.9.10

Waltz With Bashir

The title refers to a scene two thirds of the way into the film, in which an Israeli soldier, while exchanging gunfire with his enemies, starts dancing. A rather fine comment on the absurdity of war, and the strange mental tricks we play on ourselves to deal with it.

Hence, the animation. Also, why the switch to live action in the end is entirely necessary. Our protagonist is looking for that moment of clarity, where his false memories and fantasies are stripped away, and the true horror of the situation he was in is revealed.

This structure makes for great pacing. There is a central mystery our protagonist is trying to uncover, and this keeps the audience focused through all the sudden turns and blind alleys, The film unfolds almost without you noticing the transitions, the creases in the narrative. You float with it. Beautiful stuff.

4.9.10

Howl's Moving Castle

This film has a lovely dream sequence that I think references the Cupid and Psyche story. Arguably, the idea behind the Ancient Greek tale is that lovers cannot resist prying into each others' inner psyches, but when they are fully revealed to one another, that love disappears. In the film, Howl follows Cupid in running away, but here it's because he is disgusted with himself -- his ugliness and also his cowardice. But love changes perceptions. It can make cowards into heroes, crones to maids. And I guess that is the point of the film.

But really, I'm clutching at straws. There is a LOT of stuff going on here, but little of it coalesced into something coherent by the end. The film as a whole had this feeling of drift. And it was resolved in this incredibly sudden, almost deus ex machina way. The motivation of the main villain remained inexplicable, and certain decisions by Howl also made little sense (why does he go and fight, when it causes his love so much distress?).

There are things the film gets right, of course. This is, after all, Miyazaki. The world-building is, as usual, astonishing. The setting has a kind of Prussian vibe, and the idiotic war being fought has the faint suggestion of the First World War, particularly conscription and arial bombing. Howl's creaking castle, on four mechanical chicken legs (reference to Baba Yaga?) and with its four-way door/portal, is a marvelous creation. You also get bee-like helicopter machines, shooting-star fairies, flying bat-wizards, the list goes on.

There are also brilliant storytelling flourishes. The way we are introduced to our protagonist Sophie, for example. How she reacts to her curse, both in the initial moments of realization, and in deciding what to do about it, is brought to life perfectly. It is such a shame that as the film goes on, the character slips from our grasp. While the film as a whole is erratically paced, certain segments build tension very effectively, using smash cuts to disorientate the viewer, or leave them hanging. There is also a repeated visual motif of stuff being obscured and revealed by mist or clouds (the film opens with such an image). A Cupid + Psyche metaphor, perhaps. Or the move from isolation to family, another theme that runs through the film.

So it's not an unenjoyable experience. But with an awareness of the kind of films Miyazaki is capable of making, it was a rather disappointing one for me. Too confusing, too aimless. It's a constellation of Miyazaki elements that doesn't unify into a whole that can be taken away, thought over and treasured. Not his best. In fact, it is the weakest one of his films I've seen.

3.9.10

The Limits To Growth

Just attended a very interesting talk by Dennis Meadows, and wanted to note down some things before I forget them. Mainly, the way to deal with humanity's impact on the planet:
  1. Population
  2. Consumption
  3. Efficiency
  4. Renewable energy
The focus thus far has been on 3 and 4 -- being more efficient with the energy that we have and gradually switching from fossil fuels to green alternatives. The problem is that if 1 and 2 keep growing (and they are, exponentially), any progress on 3 and 4 will quickly be reduced to nothing.

I think the reason 3 and 4 have been the most important is that they work well within a capitalist system. The genius of capitalism, as Marx made clear, is that it constantly revolutionizes the means of production -- it creates new technologies at a faster pace than any other economic system we have known. So as long as there is demand for greenery, we can be reasonably confident that the free market will meet that demand.

The other big plus with capitalism is productivity. New technology (and the drive for higher profit margins) serve to eliminate waste. Again, you need to fiddle around a bit so that environmental costs are factored into the balance sheets of firms (carbon credits etc.). But as with artificially boosting demand for green products (with subsidies etc.), this is fiddling within the system. Thus, not an insurmountable problem politically.

1 and 2, on the other hand, pose huge political problems. Politicians saying 1 (you will have fewer kids) and 2 (you will have less stuff) are not going to be popular. The latter is especially difficult because it doesn't fit comfortably within the free market, as a fact and as an idea. In terms of ideology, the call is for less activity, lower horizons, fewer opportunities. You are not going to win friends and votes with such a message. And yet this is the message that so desperately needs to get out there. How to communicate it will be one of the great challenges of our time.

29.8.10

The Matrix

Because after watching Inception, I wanted a reminder of what I was missing. What hit me this time around was just how well this film was paced -- feeding you little bits of mystery as you go along. Every scene works off the one before. Particularly liked the steakhouse cut to protein goop transition. Also noted the less-subtle-now-that-my-beard-is-long green / blue tinge of the shots in the Matrix / the Real. Clever! Cause green is, like, sickly and computer-y? And blue is, like, cold and metallic? Props Mr. Cinematographer! Also: Hey! Do you like cybergoths and bullet-time and Japanese anime? Yeah? So does THE WORLD, thanks to The Matrix.

But enough with the gush. What we want to talk about is THEMES, because that's what we always talk about on The Hot-Doll Pages. Number one, and here Mr. Nolan of Inception fame has been paying particularly close attention: is reality preferable to fantasy. Cypher believes it is, and is willing to kill his friends in order to go back to ignorance is bliss. EVIL! But wait, what is interesting here is that Cypher rebels not just because he wants steak, but because he doesn't like being told what to do by Morpheus. And here we get to theme number two: defiance of authority. Thomas A. Anderson is a cog in the machine. Get a job, pay your taxes, die. He is a battery. We ALL are, in this world we live in. You wonder, what would it be like to fly? Neo finds out at the end of the film (SPOILERZZZ!). And how does he get there? Here we arrive at theme number three: whatever the hell that Oracle lady was talking about. A puzzle, when I was younger. But now I have beard-growth! Hear me speak wisdom! The Oracle cannot tell you the future (no determinism here, strictly free will). She points the way, by making you BELIEVE she knows the future. Because when you believe something hard enough, it becomes true. At least, it worked for Morpheus and Trinity and Neo. But does it work, like, always? Also: can you fly, like, in the real world? Also: isn't Morpheus's zealotry, like, a bit scary? Could have been interesting territory to explore in Reloaded or Revolutions or whatever. If only...

So, friends, here we have THEMES. Also the bullet-time, cybergoth, anime-like stuff mentioned in the first paragraph. We shall hereby add the two together and make for ourselves one of the greatest films of ALL MUTHAFUCKIN TIME. Defence. Rests.

25.8.10

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravished bride of quietness!
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flow'ry tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal -yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoyed,
For ever panting and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Keats I did for my A-Levels, and I think the above was the first of his odes our class was asked to deal with. I remember that in the lesson we made SOME progress, but that our teacher kept pushing further. I can never know what it was she was trying to get us to find. Re-reading it now that I'm older and wiser, I've pushed my own way, and have arrived at an interpretation I'm happy with.

Although on the first lines of the poem... I'm stumped. What to make of "still unravish'd bride" and "foster-child", two familial bonds ("bride" and "child") given an unconventional twist? The urn is pure and unbroken (although it could break), and it has been adopted by "silence" (though wasn't always so). A very ponderable opener, I think. Well done, Mr. Keats!

The rest of the stanza is dominated by the word "what". The poet is looking for answers, and it looks like the urn is unforthcoming. Instead it teases endlessly. It is full of movement, energy, life: "pursuit", "escape", "mad", "wild". The pictures burst out of their borders, and a sweet and flowery tale is played to the poet's mind and imagination. All very well, but no answers.

Stanza two seems to have a thing for the words "not", "no", "nor" and "never". A pretty sad stanza, it would appear. There is no resolution to these scenes. It's all tension. But there is a perfection in such stasis. "Never" becomes "for ever". Love and beauty will eternally be encapsulated in the pictures painted on this urn.

"Happy" seems to be the winning word in stanza three. Eternal perfection is a joyous thing, is it not? But again, the last lines flip the script. All this enthusiasm has made the poet hot, sweaty, thirsty, uncomfortable. Not perfect. He is in the real world. And the real world sucks.

Not that the worlds evoked in art are always cozy. The whos, the whats and the whys return in stanza four, and here "mysterious" sounds sinister, and there's an air of oppression to "lowing at the skies". The town is "desolate", and no eye-witness can return to our own day to tell us why. Woe can be just as eternal as love.

The last stanza is full of mixed feelings: we have "branches" and we have "trodden weed". The word "attic" suggests irrelevance as well as age, the word "cold" implies aloofness -- an unfeeling attitude. The urn defies meditation and easy judgements. The whos, the whats and the whys cannot arrive at any truth. History is no friend of man, the poet finds only woe in it. Rather: "beauty is truth". Politics, religion, health, money, reality is unimportant. ART is the only truth we can be sure about, and the only one we really need.

15.8.10

The White Tiger

Might just be the first Booker Prize winner I have read (I've forgotten which McEwan won). Modern literature is pretty foreign territory for me, being crowded out by pulp (comics and prose) and the occasional classic. Read this one very quickly (it is readable), but come out with mixed feelings.

The aim of the novel is straightforward: to provide an inescapably bleak vision of India through the eyes of a smiling psychopath, who understands a thing or two about irony, and who has escaped the 'Darkness' through murder and theft. Sounds more exciting than it is, unfortunately. Most of the novel deals with the narrator as servant -- not just a job but a state of mind. One that keeps the majority of Indians inside the 'chicken coop' -- exploited and powerless. Only when all his illusions about his master are destroyed does Balram Halwai get ruthless, and the White Tiger, a rare beast, get unleashed.

The murder and theft mentioned above is actually one incident. No epic noir criminal spree here (mind fondly recollects The Moor's Last Sigh). And we are told about Balram's betrayal and emancipation at the very beginning, which I think was a mistake, as it robs the novel of any kind of tension. I knew exactly where the story was going, and I wasn't in any way disappointed.

But I think my problems with the book run deeper than that. Two weeks ago I finished Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. I haven't posted about it because I don't have the capacity to say anything particularly worthwhile. The book has similar themes: pulling yourself up by your bootstraps (or in McCarthy-speak, "whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man's will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay"). Also man's essentially mercenary nature question mark. Poetically and cognitively, Blood Meridian is a giant that crushes everything in its path. By comparison, the narrator in The White Tiger is no poet, neither is he much of a philosopher. His descriptions of India's barbarism never inspired true horror, nor much reflection.

Until the very end, that is. Balram describes his business, the way he works corrupt policemen, how he dodges punishment for the people who die under the wheels of his drivers. But the scales are balanced the other way as well. He treats his employees fairly, and not in a disingenuous paternalistic fashion. He pays weregild for the deaths he causes. Most importantly, he is free of hypocrisy. Most powerful people, he says, politicians and entrepreneurs, have buried bodies on their way to the top. For him, it was the only way out of the miserable poverty he was born in. Can you blame me? he asks, and it becomes difficult to. An extraordinary position to be put in, as a reader.

The final chapter can almost stand on its own. The rest of the novel is flawed, I think, but it is worth ploughing through to reach that carefully balanced finish. Or if that is not enough of a recommendation, trade India for the Wild West and go read Blood Meridian. And good luck to you.

13.8.10

Inception

So. All of Chris Nolan's mind-fuckery aside, what is this film actually about anyways? I was left with the following thoughts: how dangerously seductive fantasy can be, and how we can never be entirely sure if what we experience is really there or not. Interesting parallels can be drawn with Nolan's other films (that I have seen). In The Dark Knight and Memento the heroes both end up with fantasies, thrust upon them or freely chosen respectively. With Inception, reality seems to be preferred. Ahh yes, that word 'seems'. For me, the ending felt less like a final twist of the knife and more like a wry, throwaway parting shot. Two theories. One: we never actually SEE Saito and Cobb shoot themselves (although it is heavily implied) so Cobb's happy ending may still be in limbo. Two (my preference): Cobb's happy ending is real, and Nolan's teasing is a tongue-in-cheek way of breaking the fourth wall -- films are also dreams. And if he's very lucky, Nolan may have performed some inception of his own.

I ask myself: why so disappointed? Nolan's ideas, as ever, are simple, powerful and interesting. The film stuns, visually and sonically. And isn't that amazingly convoluted plot impressive? Yes, I guess, but all that stuff left very little time for character, and almost no time at all for... fun? I think back to The Dark Knight, where the fantastic set-pieces were given extra spice by the inherent silliness of the superhero genre, and which emanate from Heath Ledger's fascinating, magical, mythic Joker. The Joker creates his Gotham, and Batman tries to create an alternative. With Inception, we only have Leo earnest and guilty, with a side order of son stepping out of father's shadow. Neither held my interest that much. Neither were at all fun.

The Matrix is the comparison to make here. It contains the same ideas, but it also contains many more (the most important for me being the human being reduced to a battery -- not something we escape in our real world). Action wise, it still stuns, 14 years on. And it is fun. Neo knows kung-fu! He needs guns, lots of guns! COME ON! That is a film to love and cherish for now and for forever. The Dark Knight can go in that pile too, with its genial Alfred and histrionic Joker. Inception... well... it just doesn't make me glow inside. Sorry Mr. Nolan. So anyways, are you going to make that Dark Knight Returns movie or what?

Cat's Eye

[Notes written whilst reading, so have the double misfortune of being first impressions without the benefit of hindsight. Probably sheds less light on the novel than on the beautiful shape of my brain. Actually... all Hot-Doll material is like this.]

Also a book about oppressor and oppressed, but here it is not political but personal -- the bully and the bullied. I worried that like Handmaid's Tale I would get too little insight into the 'villain'. However, around the middle of the novel there is a beautiful moment of realization, where Elaine walks away from her abusive friends. She discovers their weakness: they need to bully her, their self-confidence is built on destroying someone else's: I am better than you.

The novel isn't just about the psychology of bully and victim, but also about the effect of the relationship on both. Elaine's cat's eye marble becomes her safety talisman; she carries this perfect, hard, round ball everywhere. And with it she learns to see differently -- to become detached from emotion, feeling, her body, to perceive only shapes, colours, puppets. An abstract vision to one side of reality. Elaine finds security in art.

High school Elaine is harder, colder. The bullying she endured has been willfully forgotten. Her interest in boys isn't emotional but aesthetic. She wants them to strike silent poses, not to talk. Cordelia, meanwhile, is much weaker. Having been deprived of someone to put down for so long, her self-confidence crumbles. We learn that the torment Cordelia inflicted on Elaine mimics and is caused by the torment inflicted on her by her father. Cordelia wants to be perfect, but can't. So she has to make someone else LESS perfect.

Elaine realizes this. What is puzzling is that she feels guilty about her relationship with her best friend. Why? Cordelia almost killed her. Elaine had every right to walk away. But she is still, unwittingly, the cause of Cordelia's deterioration. Worse, roles have been reversed. Now Elaine has been bullying Cordelia, for the same reasons. Thus: guilt, which she runs away from.

The paths of both characters crisscross twice more, and when one is on the up, the other is in the doldrums: emotionally, professionally, artistically. They are locked in a bind, where one's fortune is the other's misfortune. The present day Elaine constantly wonders where Cordelia is, how she's doing. The competition for supremacy has continued consciously and subconsciously throughout her life. Cordelia doesn't even have to be there anymore. She returns as a voice in a dark room, urging death and nothingness. One of the creepiest things I have read ever. Seriously terrifying.

Elaine wants to end the bind when returning to Toronto. Break down the walls that contain your own version of yourself, of others (by now we know the two are interlinked) and instead offer true reflection. The sharing of stories. But Cordelia doesn't turn up. She's dead, and the bind remains. So where does that leave Elaine? Victory, yes, but also emptiness. Elaine is Cordelia. So much of herself is tied up in her idea of her tormentor and friend. Cordelia's death is also her own.

The last image but two is beautifully oblique. Elaine sends her own Virgin Mary into Cordelia's past in order to save her before it is too late. Guilt, compassion, forgiveness. You wonder whether the Mary that saves Elaine suggests Cordelia felt the same feelings when she was older. But the very final image of the novel underlines the impossibility of such time-travel. The past informs the present, not the other way around. There is an acceptance, a finality, a letting go, in Elaine's parting thought that those echoes of the past are 'enough to see by'.