31.1.10

Book of the decade

Finally, and most importantly. Drumroll...

The Harry Potter series -- J.K. Rowling

WHAT? BWAHAH- but you cannot be serious! Deadly, friends. Remember, I'm only 21 years old. Do you know what that means? I am in the bulls-eye of the Harry Potter generation. Picked up the first book in my first year of secondary school, just as the series started making waves beyond the children's book audience. The last book came out in the summer of 2007, just after I finished sixth form. I GREW UP with these books. I grew up ALONGSIDE Harry and his friends. In a very real way, they defined my teenage years. Literally! When I finished the last book, it felt like I was letting go of part of my childhood. It symbolised the end of one part of my life, and the beginning of another.

So you see why I have to cheat and lump the entire series into one. To do so is uncomfortable. Unlike other fantasy series (Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials) Harry Potter is an ungainly story. Each book has its own individual narrative, and the books vary quite a lot. The early period (comprising the first three books) is very tight -- the central narratives are all short, sharp, little mysteries. In the middle 'high' period (the next two) the series' success meant that Rowling could loosen up. The sub-plots swamped the central narrative. Every crazy idea Rowling had was flung in, and the magical world really started to breathe. Needless to say, these are my favourite books in the series. The late period is more somber and subdued. The madcap invention is reigned in, and control is reestablished over the narrative. Moreover, the last two books are built around a sophisticated (for Harry Potter) character study of Voldemort and Dumbledore respectively. I had hoped to reread them before writing this post. By the time they came out I was already outgrowing the series, so I only read them once, and I don't remember either very well. Anyway, I didn't have time, and I'm diving in regardless. If the rest of this post is utter garbage, then that will be the main reason why.

What will the rest of the post be about? Well, there is only one question to ask concerning Harry Potter: why? What is it about these books that made me, and everyone I knew, reread them over and over again? Why did they take over the world?

We could do worse than to start with what Harold Bloom thinks on the subject -- a formidable literary critic who has probably read every book ever written. He is frighteningly clever, and his insights are always worth thinking about. The key, according to Bloom, is wish-fulfillment:

'Rowling presents two Englands, mundane and magical, divided not by social classes, but by the distinction between the "perfectly normal" (mean and selfish) and the adherents of sorcery... Perhaps Rowling appeals to millions of reader non-readers because they sense her wistful sincerity, and want to join her world, imaginary or not. She feeds a vast hunger for unreality'

I think Bloom is right, essentially. But he is too dismissive of that 'vast hunger for unreality' to really explore it in detail. Is it just a yearning for a vibrant, eccentric world to escape into? Or is it something more -- a contrast between the 'mean and selfish' muggles, and the... what? What is it about Hogwarts that makes us want to stay there?

The best person to ask is J.K. Rowling herself, of course. One quote I found that was particularly revealing:

'My books are largely about death. They open with the deaths of Harry's parents. There is Voldemort's obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price.'

This is quite a different binary we are looking at. If Harry Potter was just about the fun and excitement of a magical world, then the Dursleys would be the villains. Instead, they are literally peripheral, coming in at the beginning and end of each book. The central good-versus-evil clash is between a egotistical, bigoted, charismatic sociopath and an eccentric, self-sacrificing, charismatic headteacher. Voldemort and Dumbledore embody the concerns Rowling is grappling with.

Why is Voldemort evil? We are all afraid of death, but what makes him strive so hard for immortality? Ego, obviously -- he deserves to live forever. This inflated perception of his own worthiness is at the root of his bigotry, which is focused primarily on race, but really encompasses everyone -- even his followers are treated with varying degrees of distain. But I think the contrast with Dumbledore reveals that Voldemort's egoism is created by fear. He is terrified of death, and his arrogance is an attempt to justify attempting to escape it. Voldemort is the villain because he is a coward.

And Harry is the hero because he is courageous. Why does Gryffindor House value courage above everything else? It is not an academic virtue like intelligence, hard work or ambition. I think Rowling is trying to suggest that it is a moral virtue, the root of all other moral virtues. Harry stares death in the face numerous times, and unflinchingly dives into it. Dumbledore knowingly sacrifices himself. Courage is the ability to give up your self for other people. It's the opposite of egoism. That's what goodness is. It is just about the most beautiful thing we are capable of.

It's rare to find such examples of goodness in the real lives we live in. Who really would die for us? Would I ever choose to die for someone else? Could I ever love someone that much? Difficult questions, but in the world of Harry Potter they are very simple. Harry doesn't hesitate when Cedric (who he doesn't like) or Fleur's sister (who he doesn't even know!) are in danger. He puts the lives of others above his own, every time, and so do his friends. This is the wish-fulfillment working at the heart of the series. The dazzling magical world, the soap-opera antics and the confounding mysteries are part of the fun, but what actually obsesses us is the opportunity to live in a world where people die for each other. We reread the books because we want to experience and share in those friendships again -- those bonds of love that are tested to extremes but always remain firm.

I come back (because how could I not?) to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The influence of Harry Potter on Buffy is immediately apparent once you look for it. Xander, Willow and Giles (who in NO WAY resemble Ron, Hermione and Dumbledore...) risk their necks for Buffy in every episode. Buffy dies for them. THREE TIMES. The show obsesses its fans for exactly the same reason Harry Potter obsesses millions of children. I maintain that the only reason it stayed a cult favourite rather than become a mass sensation was that it was a fantasy horror made in an age before cheap CGI, and it looked awful. But underneath the rubber masks and smoke machines, Buffy was feeding exactly the same 'vast hunger for unreality' as Harry Potter, only it was aimed at older teens and adults.

Is Harold Bloom right to be dismissive of such wish-fulfillment fantasies? He wants people to engage with more 'challenging' and 'difficult' literature. This sounds like snobbery, but it isn't. Bloom simply doesn't think Harry Potter can really transform people -- it's not literature that can make readers face uncomfortable truths about their natures. It's just a distraction for deadened minds, a opiate for an atomised society built on self-interest. I hope to have shown why that isn't true. Harry Potter's themes ARE challenging. Who knows? Some of the children that grew up with me and with the series may have learned something: about friendship, about courage, about self-sacrifice. You can find transformation in the unlikeliest places. For me, Harry Potter and Buffy were my Old and New Testaments when I was growing up. I live and breathe their impossible values, and try and keep to them as best I can.

How I love Warren Ellis...

'You're all too weird to live. Get in the car before I kill you on principle.' -- Sideways Bob

29.1.10

Run The Road

It's been building for a while, but the last two days especially... total immersion. When I close my eyes now, all I picture are grey skies and estates, throbbing with sci-fi bleeps and bass growls. All I hear are raw-throated MCs yabbering and shooting guns in the air. GODS! This music is so fuckin' ALIVE! The energy is overwhelming. But at the same time, the world conjured up before you is rough, mean, bleak, scary. It's like fireworks in space, the environment too hostile or uncaring to allow the spectacle to occur. With Run The Road, you're listening to ambition hitting a wall, and trying to bulldoze through it.

Why isn't this ruling the airwaves? Why aren't these MCs (bar Dizzee) superstars? Where did all of this go? Five years on, it's still at the absolute cutting edge of popular music. I want more of this raw shit, not the compromised crossover bids these artists (bar Dizzee) made with their debut albums....

ETA: the opening song of the compilation over here. Arresting, to put it mildly.

24.1.10

Shortcomings

Is this book about Adrian Tomine working through his issues? Has he cast himself in the lead role and then made himself as odious as possible? I don't know, but it does look like it -- autobiography once removed.

The skill is in making Ben just likable enough (he is funny) so that you don't give up in anger, and can see why his best friend sticks with him. One of the few weaknesses of Summer Blonde was the blankness of some of the secondary characters, who often just existed to spark up dialogue in which the hero's problems are aired. With Shortcomings, Tomine has more pages to play with, and while the focus is relentlessly on Ben, the other characters get their due.

Ben is a bastard, and all of his shortcomings get listed at the end (for your easy reference!) There are hints of self awareness in his final words, and the ending is open as regards whether he will change or not. But since I (happily) share none of his hang-ups, his perfectly told story didn't really challenge me very much.

What I liked most about the book were the opening pages of each of the three chapters: all pieces of artistic expression (a film, a concert, a set of photographs), and all reacted to in different ways (disdain, fake admiration, heartbreak). It's an interesting little meditation on what art can do to us, how we unconciously react to it, and how we conciously modify that reaction. Ben has zero awareness of this process. More broadly, he has zero awareness of himself. He cannot see his shortcomings. That is his ultimate tragedy.

23.1.10

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Very rich indeed. The entire film has been colour-timed to look sharp, gorgeous, hyper-real. Smell is impossible to capture with images and sound, and yet this film does its damned hardest. And it works. The first act or so, when our offactory genius is discovering his gift, is the film at its most arresting, right up to the beautiful / horrific climax with his first Belle Dame.

It can only go downhill from there. Dustin Hoffman shows up, unfortunately. And later, Alan Rickman comes to do his Serverus Snape thing. Thank the gods Ben Wishaw (who was brilliant in Bright Star) is there to keep us interested. He is facinating to watch -- a brilliant anti-hero. By turns endearing and disturbing. He carries the film very well.

And what a mental film it is. The ideas get progressively more twisted and surreal, and the execution scene may be too much for some to swallow. There were pangs where I started thinking "no, now this is silly", but on the whole I stayed with it. But stayed with what, exactly? What is this fable about, anyways? Honestly? It defies any interpretation I try and place on it. I get the feeling the writers seemed more interested in constructing crazy set-pieces, not worrying too much about what it will mean when you put it all together. But that feeling may just be a cover for my inability to read anything into it. You decide. All I can say is that normally, this kind of opaqueness would bug the roaring bile out of me, but with Perfume I didn't mind. The film was beautiful and very entertaining. Sometimes that's enough.

Simon Bisley

This guy painted / pencilled / scrawled out one of my favourite comics of all time -- Slaine: The Horned God. That book was just incredible, one of Pat Mills's finest. And what Simon Bisley did to it, words cannot describe.

I bought a collection of his artwork from amazon, and it arrived yesterday. I think (I don't know) it's a pretty comprehensive survey of his career. And for the ridiculous price of £10, you get non-stop awesomeness from cover to cover. Here, feast your eyes on this poorly scanned copy of Tiger Lady I found on the internet:



Now buy the book.

22.1.10

Ideas and power

Some notes on the conversion of Constantine:

In the third century, the Roman Empire is restructured to meet the Persian threat. The armed forces and the imperial bureaucracy grow. The Imperial office is split. The Empire becomes more intrusive and more committed to an ideological stance.

Polytheism very varied -- every region has its own religious traditions. Cults do not ask for very much: demand that respect is paid to the spirits protecting the region, that rituals are performed properly. Philosophical and moral answers are looked for elsewhere.

Christianity doesn't penetrate very far into society. But isn't (in theory) local. An Empire-wide phenomenon. One God that demands exclusive devotion. Scriptures that contain universal code of law.

Laws of the Emperor regarded as the source of all order. Christian claims to the contrary are subversive. Christian attacks on idol-worship also subversive. Emperors had to demonstrate that they are acting against 'impiety', and the Church is the obvious target. Sporadic local anti-Christian violence gives way to Empire-wide edicts in 250 and 257. Diocletian's 'Great Persecution' in 303 continues for 11 years in some parts of the eastern Empire. But the religion proves difficult to suppress.

Constantine wins the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, and says his success is due to the protection of the God of the Christians. Why? Perhaps the faith fitted well with the new shape of the Empire -- more bureaucratic and integrated than before. The regional differences in religious tradition could prove divisive. Christianity wasn't regional. Based in the cities and had wealthy, educated and commited followers. It was a good pick for a new, unified, Imperial faith?

Council of Nicea called by Constantine in 325 to straighten out divergent practices. Uniformity was the key. Around 200 bishops attend, but the Emperor has the final say. Arianism condemned. However Constantine fetched Arius back from exile in 328, and had two other councils in 335 declare him an orthodox Christian.

Emperors liked Arianism because it limited Christ's role to that of another prophet, and allowed Emperors to assume an equal status -- living prophets directing the course of their church. Anti-Arian ideologies were formulated partly as a reaction against such interventionism. Carried the day at Nicea, but there would be a lot of centre-local conflict over it in future centuries. See here.

21.1.10

Fun Home

You know what, autobiography has to be honest. You have to rip your guts out to do it right. That's why Fun Home is so powerful. I loved it very very much.

Was particularly impressed with the perfect way Bechdel evokes the fun-eral atmosphere within her family. You could breathe it. I didn't think the detached, self-analysing tone was distant or unfeeling. That's what growing up in such an environment would feel like. And the reference-heavy narration didn't obfuscate. As Bechdel says herself -- that's the only way she could make sense of her family. In such arctic conditions, literature would be the only source of answers and solace.

And in any case, the book teaches you how to read as you read it -- spotting patterns, similarities, contrasts. Making comparisons. Creating binaries. Building a matrix of meaning out of those binaries. I approach literature in a similar obsessive-compulsive way (see here). On a baseline level, reading can be about crafting these satisfying little logical systems to make you feel in control, enlightened, better.

And wasn't the cartooning great? The mood and attitude of the characters was communicated with an immediacy words cannot keep up with. With one panel, Bechdel can say everything.

And, of course, it's all about growing up -- freeing yourself from the straitjacket of home and family, and creating your own identity. I didn't know much about most of the authors referenced (Wilde, Fitzgerald, Proust among others), but the riff on Joyce at the end completely captivated me. Yes! This is Bechdel's Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses rolled into one. With pictures! I can't ask for anything more.

14.1.10

Avatar

Word is bond, when I was 12, James Cameron was my favourite director. I'm mean, come ON! Have you SEEN True Lies? That movie rocked, man! And Titanic, when (SPOILERZ!!!) Leo died? Total weepfest. And the old lady with the jewels and the ocean... I mean, that shit was DEEP!

I'm a little older now, but I don't think James Cameron has grown up with me. In the interviews I've read, he has talked about how Avatar is a demonstration of the tools now available to filmmakers (basically the ones seen in Lord of the Rings. In fact, Cameron used the same CGI company). But he also stresses how those tools mean nothing if your story isn't solid. Now, if you're 12, Avatar's story is probably solid enough (COOL SPLOSINZ!!!). But, like I said, I'm a little older now.

The contradiction of an anti-capitalist, tree-hugging theme in what is a tech-obsessed, Hollywood money-spinner may strike you as rather charming. Personally, while I see that hearts were in their right places, I am by nature a grouchy motherfucker and found it annoying. Or rather, not good enough. This is the thing. When you have this good vs. evil clash at the heart of your story, setting up the good side is very easy. Everyone can dream of utopia. What makes these stories interesting (always! ALWAYS! May I say again... ALWAYS!) is the evil side. The bad guys make the whole thing work. This is where you need to be intelligent. This is where you can challenge your audience. This is where you can make them think, not only "oh, this is nice", but "hey, why aren't we here".

Cameron just gives us an Apocalypse Now caricature, except without the disturbing humour. I'm not gonna slam the actor, because for what it was, he did a pretty great job. But I needed a zinger. When the fireballs went up, he needed to quietly mutter something like "pretty bang bang", so that we get it. We like the explosions. He likes them too! THIS IS WHAT IS WRONG WITH US! I'm not expecting Hurt Locker level characterization here, but there had to be something more than just straight-up beefy badass.

Villains engage with an audience in a way heroes can't. They are always cooler. They are always more fun. Michelle Rodriguez (ohmystars!) is the only goody with any spark (not just hotness, I swear), and she loses all of it when she inexplicably joins the righteous. She didn't sign up for this, apparently... (DIDN'T YOU??) The most captivating character on screen was the business boss, played by the ever wonderful Giovanni Ribisi. I've only seen him playing gormless fools or tech-heads, so seeing him play the man in charge was a surprise. And he was funny being the dumb capitalist. I LIKED this guy, so much more than our actual hero. I wanted to see HIM go on a journey of discovery. Instead, we only got flashes of doubt, and a scene of humiliation at the end. Nothing. BOOORING!

All this lecturing aside, the 3D thing. Again, probably about 12 the last time I went to see a 3D film, and it was at the IMAX in the Science Museum. I found it pretty impressive, but that may have just been the astronauts and spaceships (I watched a documentary, it being a cinema in a museum, after all). Watching Avatar now, the effect of the 3D was, to put it kindly, subtle. It didn't notably enhance the depth of the picture. And the bits flying towards you didn't thrill once you got used to it. Worse, the floaty stuff in the forground could actually distract attention away from a scene. And the glasses dampen the brightness of the image (also, dorky and uncomfortable). So the 3D was either unnoticable or irritating. Not a revolution in cinema. Very much a gimmick.

12.1.10

Favourite song of 2009: honourable mention

Continuing from the previous post, because there's loads of other things I've listened to this year, and they deserve a nod on the Hot-Doll pages. It will be splurgy, but I'll try and make a Spotify playlist for easy reference.

Let's begin with the releases by the Grizzly Animal Projectors, which were not very album albums for me, but were dominated by a few magical singles. On Veckatimest, 'Two Weeks' is truly sublime, but I found myself preferring the angrier, rockier 'While You Wait For The Others', which always reminds me of Built To Spill for some reason. Bitte Orca is somewhat marred by the exasperating 'Useful Chamber', but 'Stillness Is The Move' is epic, and I do like the way 'Temecula Sunrise' is always falling apart only to gather itself back together again just in time for the singalong chorus. And the delirious groove of 'Summertime Clothes' is my other highlight of Merriweather Post Pavilion.

In other news. The xx remix (or is it a cover?) of Florence's 'You've Got The Love' is a slinky, sexy masterpiece. The best thing either artist has put their name to. On the Big Pink's 'Dominoes'. To echo Kieron Gillen, misogyny is OK if you have a big enough hook. Also, this is what Kasabian dream of doing. Camera Obscura's 'French Navy' goes in because the horns flutter, and that is what falling in love sounds like. 'I Am Leaving' by Blue Roses goes in because I love the way she pronounces her vowels. Will have to add Johnny Foreigner's 'Criminals' and Los Campesinos!'s 'There Are Listed Buildings' here, as I became besotted with both bands this year. In general I prefer the stuff released in 2008, but this may change. Also, Johnny Foreigner have put out a free EP of remixes, some of which are pretty awesome. Get it here.

In pop news. Beyoncé's 'Single Ladies' is kinda like 'Jumpin Jumpin' part two, except with a bridge that makes the experience slightly less horrible. On Lily Allen's 'The Fear'. Hey, is that a reference to Kanye's 'Diamonds from Sier... THAT BEAT! The vocal on La Roux's 'In For The Kill' was too much for me, but the feisty yapping on 'Bulletproof' is undeniably great. Also, it was good to see Elly Jackson acknowledging the debt to Deep Cuts in Q's Albums of the Decade issue. More synth pop was provided by Chew Lips's 'Solo'. Bleepy music with a stupid hook. Perfect for the dancefloor. The obligatory Lady Gaga single will have to be 'Paparazzi'. No "GA GA! OOH LA LA!" Plus the most world-conquering / heartbreaking chorus since Beyoncé's 'Irreplaceable'.

In glo-fi news. 'Plain Material' by Memory Tapes brings the rave to your smoked out bedroom. On 'Deadbeat Summer' by Neon Indian. Does anyone else find this guy's voice incredibly sexy? Or is that just me... 'In Steps' by Letting Up Despite Great Faults makes up for there being no M83 this year. And Delorean's 'Seasun' is my 'Surf Solar'. You'll never be the same again, either.

In hip-hop news. The death of the genre may be on its way, but there have been a couple of tunes that are keeping the flame burning. DOOM's 'Cellz' is like McCarthy's The Road, only it goes like: "missin wheel, you don't listen, you a feel head / sittin in the kitchen, pissin, twitchin, kissin steel lead". Mos Def's 'Auditorium' can't be anything but perfection -- Madliberata, Defoperata and a genius guest verse by Slick Rick. Big Boi's solo album has yet to be released, but a couple of tracks are floating around on the internet. 'Royal Flush' will get the nod here, because with all the Lil Wayne oversaturation, it's good to hear from Andre 3000 again. You know what? He's the best rapper alive.

Will have to end on 'Empire State Of Mind'. Even Jay-Z's lame, patronizing social consciousness on the third verse cannot tarnish the magnificence of Alicia Keys's chorus. One of my proudest achievements was putting it on at a New Year's party shortly after the countdown to 2010, which brought the house down. That's the thing, the song isn't really about New York (a city I don't particularly like). It's about triumph, conquest, celebration. It was exactly the right tune at exactly the right moment. I've never been able to nail that before, being a terrible DJ who doesn't believe in the first rule of DJing -- give the punters what they want. This time I did, and it was glorious.

As promised, spotifyers can listen to most of the above here.

11.1.10

2009 favourites

The final installment of the decade roundup will be broadcast shortly, but now we take a little break to consider a few of my favourite things 2009 has given me. Starting with...

Favourite song: 'My Girls' - Animal Collective

Hand on heart, when I first heard it (on Radio 1 of all places) I didn't buy it. Too long, too weird, too sugary. It's as Patrick Stump so memorably sang on 'Dead On Arrival': the songs you grow to like never stick at first.

Too many people have already written more than enough about 'My Girls' for me to add anything very valuable. I just want to mention my favourite part of the song's glorious five and a half minutes. When the first verse gets repeated again, and right before the drums come in, the lead vocal is echoed by a backing vocal. Whenever I hear it, I get the urge to sing along with the backing vocal in response to the lead vocal. Exactly the same dynamic is present when Beyoncé sings "All the single ladies!". You have to be made of stone to not shout "All the single ladies!" back at Beyoncé. In 'My Girls' the call and response vocals run through the first two verses, before merging triumphantly in the third. This is what the song is about for me. Noah Lennox's desire to shelter his family isn't universal, but the song makes it universal anyway. It breaks down the barriers between people. It makes us mirror each other. It synchronises everyone's emotional state until we are all one, all singing the same thing, feeling the same joy, love, devotion, responsibility. Step back, and you realize 'My Girls' is less about thirtysomething worries about family, and more about sharing, community, friendship. That's what makes the song so powerful. It gives me this incredible elated feeling every time I listen to it, and nothing this past year has quite matched that.

Favourite album: Actor - St. Vincent

This one was tough. A month ago, Bat For Lashes would have got the top spot for her gorgeous second album Two Suns. I have been listening to it regularly since it came out in the spring and I was sure it would triumph over all comers in what has been, for me, a supernova year in music. I thought Two Suns was as well-crafted and assured as anything emerging from the Brooklyn pop explosion (your Grizzly Animal Projectors), but ultimately it was Natasha Khan's vocal performances: hushed and yearning in 'Daniel', lonely and delirious in 'Sleep Alone', out-Florenceing Florence on 'Glass', that pushed her ahead. However, while a powerful voice can transform uninspiring lyrics, the lyrics do remain uninspiring. The dual persona idea didn't do anything for me, and the fantastical symbols sometimes got a little cliched and silly. This very slightly marred my appreciation of the album, and allowed another to sneak in and steal the top spot.

St. Vincent's Actor sounded quietly inoffensive when I first heard it, and so was relegated to working music for most of the year. Only during the winter did it make the jump onto headphones, and I pretty much fell in love with it. I wish I could write about music properly so I can describe Actor in all its wonderfulness, but I really can't. Let's just say that St. Vincent makes intricately arranged odd-ball pop songs, the tinkly melodies and soothing, airy, sing-song vocals only sometimes being overturned by blasts of crashing, chugging electric guitar.

Much of my love comes from the fact that Actor reminds me of early Death Cab songs, before Ben Gibbard developed his Radiohead crush and decided to be a rock star. Annie Clark has that same perfect voice, the same sideways mentality, the same concerns with repressed feelings in a post-industrial, consumer-driven society. Compare Gibbard's "there's a tear in the fabric of your favourite dress, and I'm sneaking glances" to Clark's "I stood transfixed by a hole in your t-shirt". Actor brings back everything I loved about We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes. The unbearable tension between a light vocal singing about the weight of the world. But with those heavy metal crunchy guitars, it brought a release as well, so we could all sing (or scream) along: "H.E.L.P. Help! Me! Help! Me!"

Favourite film: Jennifer's Body

A month ago, this accolade would have been evenly split between Swedish arthouse vampire film Let The Right One In and Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster Star Trek. Each film had something the other lacked. Let The Right One In (see note here) was deliciously bleak, the final scene resplendent with hollow hope. But it was also slow, confused, meandering. There was no spark of humanity, no lightness, to it. I can't love a film like that. Star Trek I can love a great deal. After the dramatic opening sequence (which got the tears flowing with embarrassing ease) it was just non-stop hilarity plus aliens plus spaceships. But for all the glee-inducing geekiness, the problem with Star Trek was that it was all lightness. The villain, though wonderfully hammy, was weak, and the clash between the Spartan Romulans and the United Nations-a-like Starfleet didn't go anywhere. Fun is great, but ultimately I want something more from my films.

And so we come to Jennifer's Body (see note here). I confess, if I have to watch horror films (I don't get it, why do people like to be scared??) I would prefer them to be punchy, witty and a little silly. You can read that as less scary if you like, but actually, I found Jennifer's Body just as frightening as the tense creepiness of Let The Right One In, so it fulfilled the goal of a horror film, although being a wuss, it's difficult for me to judge these things.

The point is, Jennifer's Body has the lightness and the fun that was lacking in Let The Right One In. But it's also just as profound, and to my mind, just as original. I'm not especially aware of the genre, but I've never heard of a horror film that has a prevalent feminist tone. And Jennifer's Body doesn't just expose the evils of patriarchy, it provides a lesson in how to deal with it. In comparison, Let The Right One In only investigates the inevitability of love turning sour and poisonous, and it is possible to read the vampire-girl Eli in a very misogynist way. I'm uncomfortable with that. Jennifer's Body I can stand firmly behind. And it made me laugh. And it used Megan Fox's sex object profile to brilliant effect. And I love it all the more because everyone either hated it or ignored it. Mark Kermode didn't even have the decency to stick it in his 2009 top ten, the fool. Don't you clowns realise that this is even better than Juno? Bah! It's the best film of the year. Consider it as part of the previous post's honourable mention list. and you can also add Diablo Cody's name next to Martin McDonagh as the writer/filmmaker to watch in 2010.

Favourite television show: Dollhouse

Was it ever gonna be anything else? I've grown tired of reading detailed diagnoses of why the show doesn't work -- silly plots, no characters, Eliza Dushku is rubbish etc. I don't care. Has there ever been a science fiction show as fascinating as this? Not even Firefly went to the places Dollhouse has got to in its first season. Should mention here that season 2 is still unavailable on these shores, and I'm waiting for the DVD this time.

Oh, it's cancelled of course. Not even Whedon fans could get fully behind it. The mood over at Whedoneque was resigned rather than angry when the news broke. More than a few comments expressed the hope that Whedon would now return to Dr. Horrible. Without the funnies, and without the creation of family, Dollhouse was doomed. It didn't have enough zaniness or heart to make the genre tackiness tolerable. And few would give a damn that the show's cheap thrills were being used for a higher purpose. Well, I gave a damn. This stuff was important to me. I wanted to see Whedon's brain at work. That he was at his most dull while he was being smarter than ever is unfortunate, but Dollhouse is still an achievement, one of the most impressive in Whedon's career.

Favourite comicbook: Phonogram: The Singles Club

It was touch and go between that and Young Liars. On the latter, I recorded my amazement upon completing the first trade over here. The second managed to be even more mental and confusing (the third should be out shortly). Young Liars astonishes because absolutely fracking anything can happen. David Lapham is so sure of his craft that he can push his story wherever he wants. He can make it do backflips and pirouettes, and all the while keep you invested enough to keep going. It really is virtuoso comics. And, haha, cancelled.

Speaking of which, it's been difficult being a Phonogram fan this year. I had absolutely no clue when the next issue would come out. As far as I understand, a collapse in pre-orders meant there was no money to pay the artist, and so issues trickled out pretty randomly depending on how much Jamie McKelvie could squeeze in between jobs. Unsurprisingly, the series sold poorly, (even though the trade is expected to do well) which means further series are just not gonna happen. Which, if you like comics, is just no fun at all.

The distribution problem is probably the single most significant reason the series failed, although I have a few other suggestions. First, the references. Kieron Gillen kept insisting that you don't need to know the bands in order to appreciate what's going on. Phonogram is about music, not particular pieces of music. But the fact that he had to spell it out so often is suggestive. References can be inclusive or exclusive depending on whether you get them or not. There is a certain joy in recognising a reference, and a certain frustration when you don't. When Seth cracks a joke about Girls Aloud, it won't really work as well for people who don't know who Girls Aloud are. I'm an English indie kid, so the world of Phonogram was easily accessible to me. But I wonder what an American, or an Australian, or a Bulgarian would make of it.

Second, and more controversially, the theme. Phonogram uses a music=magic metaphor to explore, in Gillen's words, 'issues of philosophy' -- different reactions to / beliefs about / uses of pop music. This isn't something I have devoted much brain-time to, and I'm grateful to Phonogram for making me think about it. That said, I suspect those who would have thought about it, or who would be interested in it, would mostly be either music makers, music journalists, or assorted wannabies like myself. A small audience, in other words. Most people don't intellectualize when they listen to music. They just want to feel. They are not that bothered about deconstructing the process that makes them feel. You're welcome to call bullshit on that, btw. The point is primarily inspired by my own feelings, not extensive field research into other people's.

So wait. If I didn't particularly respond to Phonogram's theme, what the hell is the series doing at the top of the pile of comics I read this year? Well, the only way to explore people's subjective experience of music in funnybook form is to have characters subjectively experiencing music. The Singles Club is billed as seven individual experiences of a shared social event, the event in question being a shitty indie night in which only songs with female vox are played. And in this humdrum environment, the characters we meet are broken down and transformed. The magic of music is obviously part of the process. But another part, for me the more important part, is the way the characters interact with each other. People's subjective experience of music isn't that interesting. People's subjective experience of people is endlessly facinating.

Comics are particularly suited to documenting this kind of thing. You can freeze a moment, and study in detail the way a person stands, the expression on their face, what they say. And this is where you start to appreciate how much McKelvie brings to the table. His artwork is clean, sleek, and beautiful, like a shiny pop single. But he can also bring a character to life like nobody's business. Two frames of my favourite character, Laura Heaven, particularly stick out as I'm writing: one where she is standing nervously at the bar, spying on Penny and Mark, and the other where she is looking at Lloyd, with this strange mixture of longing and sadness in her eyes. Being able to draw that is pretty impressive. I think it's a sign of Gillen's trust in his artist that he is comfortable leaving his dialogue well-trimmed and suggestive, knowing that McKelvie will do the rest of the work.

To sum up. Phonogram does something I love: take little moments of existence and make them trancendent, beautiful, meaningful. And I'm in awe of the fact that these little moments are not experiences of inanimate objects -- the dancing plastic bag in American Beauty -- but happen between two people subtly reajusting themselves in response to each other. That's a pretty magical thing all on its own. And it makes Phonogram by far the most amazing comic book I have read this year.