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.