31.1.11

Happy Birthday Dollhouse Hothouse

Another year, and these pages still just about living. To celebrate, I was going to write a long self-important post about what I get out of this blog and what other people might get out of it. But then that would be sickeningly indulgent, wouldn't it? And boring. So I thought I'll write a short post about those things instead!

First, these pages exist because I have a terrible memory, and I want to log thoughts about stuff before I forget them. Second, the act of writing itself helps with spotting patterns, refining arguments and solving problems. Remember the pensieve in Harry Potter? A metaphor for this process, I'm sure of it. Third, there's the thing mentioned here -- Adam Smith's love of system applied to criticism and commentary. Building a logical machine that works is adding another psychological bulwark against the horror of a chaotic cosmos devoid of any inherent meaning.

But enough existentialism! What this should tell you is that I don't put in a lot of thought about audience. Or not anymore, at least. At the beginning I was more keen on trying out voices and getting attention, but both enterprises failed miserably so I've given them up. I suspect my writing has improved as a result. Now a lot of posts look like notes, which is pretty much what they are, tho I still try to tidy them up a bit to make them understandble to someone who isn't me.

What that means is you don't get reviews, but immediate judgements and sometimes more thought-out commentary. Spoilers and obscure references abound. The focus is on ideas, because I'm useless at anything and everything technical. The one virtue of all this is that posts are short. More bloggers should think about word count, tbh. A reader's time is precious in an age of info overload.

So. No pretence. These pages are just little nuggets of my consciousness -- with all the incoherence, contradiction and offensiveness left in. Defences and justifications aside, I do hope they are worth reading.

If you think they are, I invite you to raise a glass.

Long life Dollhouse Hothouse!

Let's see if it survives another year.

30.1.11

"I assert once again as a truth to which history as a whole bears witness that men may second their fortune, but cannot oppose it; that they may weave its warp, but cannot break it. Yet they should never give up, because there is always hope, though they know not the end and move towards it along roads which cross one another and as yet are unexplored; and since there is hope, they should not despair, no matter what fortune brings or in what travail they find themselves." - Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Decade of Livy

29.1.11

Screamland

A comic about nostalgia for old monster movies and washed-up actors looking for another chance, one an alcoholic, one a convention whore, one a closet homosexual who still gets work as a screen heart-throb. Not original stories, tho they are handled very well. Particularly like the single panel flashbacks that cut up the exposition. The hook is that the characters are all creatures of the night. It looks like a horror comic, but it's actually a poignant drama of the Sideways mold. My fave page of the book captures this contrast superbly: the Wolf-Man wolfs-out ready for murder, and then his mobile rings. Tension to bathos. The chapter is called 'Return of the Wolf-Man', not to commit another killing spree, but to do another movie. The habit of art in 22 pages.

A word on the artwork -- Gabriel Bá meets Ben Templesmith. Sounds awesome, right? It is.

26.1.11

Oldboy

Gotta say, I've got some sympathy with this review. I mean, the film is not ALL style over substance, but the substance IS pretty meagre. Listening to the interview clips on the DVD doesn't change that opinion. Chan-Wook talks about anger being taboo, but revenge not bringing satisfaction. Ah, the irony of injury making you inflict injury on others, I remember it well! Eye for an eye leaves us all blind, such a valuable pearl of wisdom!

More interesting and confusing is the whole incest business. In the pivotal voyeur scene, the hanky-panky throws up a handheld mirror. What is that about? Reflection? Detachment? Vanity? I'm gonna go for the latter. Bro and sis are obsessed with perfection. Perhaps that's why they don't stray beyond the bloodline. When their secret is revealed and their names muddied, the girl chooses death, the boy vengeance... gender, eh?

What of Oldboy's really grim final scene with his daughter / lover. On the DVD, Park answers questions from the audience, and has to address one woman who just didn't get that shit. Well, Oldboy's desire is just too strong for the relationship to stay paternal, Chan-Wook explains. Yuck. So he is allowed to forget. He may be a beast, but he still deserves to live a little, right? Umm...

So where's the masterpiece, I ask you? Oh, you mean the style of the thing? Point taken. On a purely sensory level, the film pummels . Yeh, the fight scene in the corridor, the zoom-out thru the chopsticks, the freaking octopus! Das sum craizy shit! But it leaves you with nothing but shudders when the credits roll. Thirst was a lot more purrty and sophistikaty, Imo. So, bigger and better things to come, one hopes...

22.1.11

Volver

If Bad Education is about the dark side of Almodóvar's childhood, Volver revisits the light. We're back to films about women and family again. In an interview on the DVD, Almodóvar admits that for him, women symbolize "life" and "fun", a result of being raised in female company. The men of La Mancha (very macho apparently) did not deal with the kids or the household. So there's your reason for the slightly uncomfortable gendering present in many of Almodóvar's films.

But I can easily breeze past that. It doesn't matter that the family assembled here is female-only. The film is about more than that. Pedro reveals all in the roundtable discussion with his cast, also on the DVD. Volver ('return' -- it seems the Spanish word is simple enough for the international audience) is about justice. Qualification: human justice. Justice between people as opposed to (in Almodóvar's words) "institutional justice". You could also add to that justice meted out by the media -- there is a very pointed and bitter scene about a Jerry Springer-type TV show. These mediating bodies corrupt rather than heal (the early Marx would like this). Having buried bodies somewhere in your past, you should impose your own penalty, and pay it without regret.

21.1.11

Black Swan

Yet another post that starts with a link to a Peter Bradshaw review. What? He's really good! Picks up on the innocence vs. experience theme, which isn't surprising, seeing as it was bludgeoned into the audience's mind every two minutes. That was a problem. The film took too long to get going. Being of the ADD generation, I needed the mental to happen sooner. Not just because of the chilling builds and sexy times. The film went on to say something that I don't think Bradshaw picked up on -- the obsession with perfection in art. John Keats would have liked this film, I think. Nina works superhard at her technique, but she doesn't live her roles. She is still trapped in herself, with her insecurities and her mother. When she is told to loosen up, it's not just about moving to experience. It's about moving into the world you're acting out. To appreciate art completely, perfectly, you need to kill your self.

A postscript on Natalie Portman. Swoon and whatnot, but also, wow. The scene where she locks herself in the toilet cubicle and phones her mum to tell her she's got the lead... man. Give her awards right there.

18.1.11

Bad Education

Have to agree with this Time Out review: 'it's too fractured to stoke clear empathy or steer to dramatic satisfaction'. Didn't stop the reviewer giving the film 5 stars, but whatevs. At the end of that I remain curiously unmoved. It's the first time an Almodóvar film has not left me fazed. Why the lack of faze? What happened, Pedro?

One explanation is that the demands of the thriller plot result in
Bernal's character remaining a mystery for much of the film. Great acting, sure, but you're not gonna be sympathising with an enigma. The three time-frame switches also don't exactly make investment in the story easy. Tangling up the threads of the narrative so much makes you lose momentum. A third of the way into the film, I literally started looking at the clock.

I wonder if I was missing something more, tho. When the villain finally returns to tell his extraordinary tale, the film doesn't push into the fantastic.
It stays pretty subdued (for Almodóvar). There's not a lot of energy in the loco life of the blackmailed peadophile ex-priest, the blackmailing junky transexual, and the long-suffering ambitious brother. I think Almodóvar tried to cut through the mental and go straight for the ominous. But wouldn't it have been better if we had both? Maybe the contrast would have ENHANCED the two elements.

Both Bad Education and Talk To Her have gone for a darker style. Both films are also focused almost entirely on male characters.
Almodóvar seems to be more ambivalent and equivocal when it comes to dealing with the men-folk. The new direction isn't really working for me, tbh. I miss the benign female universes constantly plagued by treacherous males. Those films got the light-dark balance right, I feel. They were soapy, colourful and exciting. This new stuff may be more 'mature', but it loses the things that made Almodóvar so special in the first place.

I guess what I'm saying is I prefer
Almodóvar to stay stupid but fun. Perhaps that means delving into his earlier films, pre-Women on the Verge...

16.1.11

Talk To Her

This one, even more than Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, was an uncomfortable watch. I don't much like romantic fantasies that ask you to sympathise with rapists. We should allow Almodóvar to explain himself, however:

'The point about Benigno's character is that he is completely innocent, in the sense that he does not have experience. He lives in another world. This world is parallel to the real world but it has its own rules. Sexual orientation probably does not exist in this world. He could have probably gone for any object of desire but it just happens that he becomes enamoured of that body in the hospital. Strangely enough, it is the film that brings that onto him. The film makes him recognise his desire and makes it real for him. That's why he is so shaken up by the film. It suddenly makes it real for him.'

Benigno (Spanish for 'benign'? A very cruel joke...) lives in an innocent world with different rules. What in our world is rape was for him an expression of love. That decision ensures his death, but it also brings his Sleeping Beauty back to life. Does that justify his transgression? What is Almodóvar trying to say? I get the feeling that our morality and Benigno's warped morality get so tangled that the film cannot take a stance anywhere. As Almodóvar says, Benigno's 'tenderness becomes almost asphyxiating'. We're tied in knots.

Almodóvar draws attention to the role of cinema in this crucial twist in the narrative, but what is its significance? Does it corrupt Benigno's innocent world? Does it reveal his unknown desires, and so produce self-knowledge? Again, the film does not, cannot, take a stance.

What to make of the two gentlemen in general? One moves but doesn't talk, the other talks but doesn't move. Neither listens. Almodóvar says he wanted to begin the film by 'telling the audience that there are going to be two women with closed eyes who will be facing this world full of obstacles.' They float around, beautiful, mysterious. The guys just care for them, talk to them, but do not really know them. That is their shared tragedy, and we are asked to sympathise. Should we?

I think Almodóvar wants us to:

'...for there to be a loving relationship it is only necessary for one person to love. For there to be communication within a couple, it is enough for there to be only one person who communicates or who really wants to communicate. Even though a couple consists of two people, if one of the people in a couple puts all their effort into moving a couple along they will move along.'

Almodóvar says this is a movie he 'needed to make'. It's a 'declaration of sadness, of melancholy'. It sounds like Almodóvar wanted to valorize the loneliness of talking to someone without getting a response. I have problems with that sentiment (and the horrible place it leads to!) which meant I could not enjoy this film.

15.1.11

'What is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care. People pay most attention to what is their own: they care less for what is common; or at any rate, they care for it only to the extent to which each is individually concerned' - Aristotle, Politics

Ultimatum

Seeing as how I rather liked Loeb's take on the Ultimates, I was curious to see why the next part of the story, this big crossover, met with such ire. Turns out it's a major fail, comprised of SO MANY minor fails. Let's do some close reading, just to capture a flavour of what the book offers.

First page, the establishing panel is pretty enough. Second panel, Sue and Reed look about 30 years old, and what's with Sue's hard-to-get attitude? Maybe I do, or maybe I don't? Where does the surliness come from? Fourth panel has Johnny as sulky teen. He actually tells his father: "you don't get me and you never will". Nuff said, really.

Second page, another pretty establishing panel. Panel two, Cap wants to go "on patrol" rather than await the next disaster. Patrol where, genius? The world? Panel three, Valkarie switches from giving Thor the sass to fawning over him WITHIN ONE SENTENCE. In panel four, Hawkeye -- that uncontrollable sweary psychopath -- berates Yellowjacket by calling him a "loon". Has he time-warped from Elizabethan England or what?

Third page, again nice establishing spread. Perhaps David Finch should stick to drawing buildings? In the second panel, Peter and Kitty look like elves from Middle Earth. Third panel, TERRIBLE banter with Kong. Panel four, Gwen's dejection completely unexplained, plus lamest comforting strategy / set-up for big reveal ever: "well, it's not like it could get any worse, right?" I wonder...

Enough with the details. The five issues pretty much continue in this vein. Actually, this being superhero comics, there was some stupidity I enjoyed. First, The Thing vs. a whale, just one standalone panel, completely unexplained, never called back to. Second, Danvers with a bust bigger than her head, balancing an assault rifle the size of her torso in the air with one hand, the other clutching a submachine gun, both weapons drawn FOR NO REASON. Third, Hela, just everything about her. Finally, of course, HULK SMASH MUMBO JUMBO!

There's a dialogue exchange that pretty much sums up the book as a whole. Thor: "How is it possible?" Captain America: "I don't know, we'll figure that out when this is over." (Btw, we don't figure it out). I suspect Loeb is hanging a lantern on the masses of fridge logic he's put in the story.

My favourite typo (of which there are several) is Magneto's "I am EVERYTHING but mad". Cracker.

There is a massive slab of Spidey's story missing from this volume, told in Bendis's run I expect. Seeing as it can stand alone, wouldn't it have been neater if it was just excluded entirely from the miniseries? Commercial considerations trump storytelling yet again!

The meaningless-death fatigue got to me as well. There was no time to earn each INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT character's passing, so you end up with the impression that they are almost falling at random.

There are themes of course. After the death of his children, Magneto goes mental and decides to remake the world in his image. He starts going on about Noah and the flood, the unworthy drowning, the worthy being saved, and him on the seat of judgement. Wolverine is right on the money (and really quite scary) when he attacks Magneto with the battlecry "God is DEAD!" Enjoyed that bit. There should be more blasphemy in superhero comics, I say.

The conclusion is less satisfying, unfortunately. Fury tells Magneto that mutants are not naturally (providentially) superior, but were created by a "crazy ass doctor" in a lab -- men deformed and abused by men. This rather interesting philosophical distinction is enough for Magneto to repent and change his ways. Slightly contrived, some might say, although I lean towards sympathy. At least the book tried to be clever.

Still, tried and failed. Ultimatum is just too badly constructed to redeem whatever ideas it is trying to explore. Probably the most idiotic event comic I have ever read. But there is a certain delight in idiocy of this magnitude. I was entertained, I have to admit.

12.1.11

The King's Speech

Little to say that has not been said already. The wonderful look of the film should be reiterated. Difficult to give people talking in rooms cinematic drive, but this film (with the help of a lot of steady-cam and wide-angle lenses) does a fine job. The sparkling dialogue exchanges between Firth, Rush and Bonham Carter are also a major source of delight. Talk and visuals combine to produce a very sweet portrayal of friendship.

What interested me particularly were the existential projects of the two main characters. Lionel Logue is a failed actor turned speech therapist. It is interesting that after the King masters his speech, Lionel jokingly points out a flaw. As his patient waves to the adoring crowd, in what is quite a subtle touch, Lionel leans towards the window, trying to get a sense of the applause that he could not earn himself. It would have been interesting if the film developed this resentment a bit, give Rush an arc of his own to play with.

Firth is brilliant at doing stuck-up nervous poshos, and he's on fine form here. The conceit of the film is that this stammerer has to be the nation's spokesperson and do its PR. It's a clever move to have Bertie be confronted with footage of Hitler's rousing speeches. Wars might be fought with tanks, but they are also fought with words, and the king will have to fight this latter battle. Of necessity, a kind of monarchist tone develops from this idea: the king is a totem of the British Empire. He represents and unifies the tribe against the enemy.

To leave the film behind, one wonders where today's national totems reside, and whether we need them. In any case, the modern media have pretty much destroyed the monarchy in this respect. Which makes me think they no longer have any function left. Perhaps we can finally let them go?

11.1.11

All About My Mother

After a very long hiatus, it's time to fire up that Almodóvar Season. This one is supposedly his finest work, so it's a good place to start. Again.

The film is beautiful, no doubt, but not just because of the dazzling sets and the clever frames. It's the actresses! Cecilia Roth, who plays the protagonist, is pitch-perfect in every scene. How she can portray affection AND discomfort, pain AND kindness, anger AND regret, is really quite magical. Marisa Paredes is tragic as the grim, pathetic fading star. Antonia San Juan of course kills everyone with her short speech about authenticity (one of the finest pieces of writing I've encountered in an Almodóvar film), but she is even more winning elsewhere as the witty, flirty, street-smart ally and confidante. Rosa Maria Sardá has a comparatively minor role, but she's brilliant as the confused and worried centre of a dying family. Penélope Cruz shines less brightly, but she holds her own in the scenes with Roth, and convinces as the vulnerable idealist in need of a home.

In fact, the only miss for me is Tony Cantó as Lola. While the poor quality sound may have been partly to blame, his performance at the funeral scene was just slightly off. It felt like it was straight overblown melodrama, which distanced rather than enhanced the emotion of the scene. Cantó looked great as the repenting charismatic rake, but he could not get beyond the costume. Slight stumble here, tho the rest of the film got the fantasy / reality balance perfect.

Because that's what Almodóvar's whole deal is, right? Crazy plotting, pulpy drama, nerdy referencing, but all that rendered somehow affecting, deeply moving. Without the actresses -- and without his talent for directing actresses -- I don't think it would work.

Which is why the final dedication 'to all women who act' is entirely appropriate. There are more dedications, and we might ask what else the film is about. Motherhood, suffering, forgiveness, friendship, fulfilment, perhaps. It's not a coherent set of messages for me. But it doesn't matter. Themes, for once, are not the main draw. I say again, this one is all about the women who act.

10 books in 2010

Should repost this comment over here, really. These are the books I read last year that had the biggest impact on me, most of which I've written about on these pages. Divided by genre, otherwise no real order.

The Second Sex – Simone De Beauvoir [link]
On the Genealogy of Morality – Friedrich Nietzsche [link]
The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith
Regarding Method – Quentin Skinner [link] [link] [link]
Energy Flash – Simon Reynolds

Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy [link]
Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood [link]

Fun Home – Alison Bechdel [link]
Mercury – Hope Larson [link]
From Hell – Alan Moore / Eddie Campbell [link]

10.1.11

'Look round this universe. What an immense profusion of beings, animated and organized, sensible and active! You admire this prodigious variety and fecundity. But inspect a little more narrowly these living existences, the only beings worth regarding. How hostile and destructive to each other! How insufficient all of them for their own happiness! How contemptible or odious to the spectator! The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind Nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children!' -- David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

9.1.11

Meaning and Understanding

Final thoughts on Quentin Skinner, now that I've typed this post up into a three thousand word essay ready for submission tomorrow.

Skinner takes on board Wittgenstein's notion that words are also deeds, so understanding what they mean requires a knowledge of the author's intentions. Writers write for a reason, and understanding their reasons is a part of understanding their texts. These reasons are locked in a particular historical context. Hence knowledge of the context will lead to your knowledge of the author's intentions, which in turn will lead to your understanding of the text. In Skinner's field (the history of political ideas) this results in regarding works such as Leviathan as addressing particular questions set by the intellectual debates of the time, rather than addressing all posteriority up to the present and beyond.

Writers write because they want to answer questions they are interested in. In Skinner's corner of the academic playpit, these questions are most directly set by the discussions of politics at the time of writing. Hence the criticism leveled at Skinner that his work ends up being all about intellectuals talking to one another. Obviously, political questions can also be set more indirectly by political events. But where else can questions come from?

From quite a lot of places, I think. What interests me most is the personal psychological questions authors may be looking to answer in their writings. Our views on ethics and politics are rarely dispassionate, particularly if we are moved to write about them. When I read Karl Marx's writings, and then read his biography, I get the feeling he wasn't just debating with his peers for the sake of it. There are deeper frustrations here that push his activity as a writer.

Skinner is interested in the proper historical understanding of texts. For him, intentions are enough. He just wants texts to be explicable but foreign, so that we can be inspired by the different ways of thinking they present. The deeper layer of motive is not a priority. The thing is, this is the layer I'm most interested in, and I'm not sure it can so easily be separated from the less complex and more easily identified layer of intention. I, like Skinner, want to be inspired by different ways of thinking, but for me this means a fuller engagement with the consciousness the texts present me with.

Skinner is suspicious of his forebear (in SO MANY WAYS!) Collingwood's notion of 'empathy' as a necessary precondition for understanding. He does not want 'to enter into the thought-process of long-dead thinkers', merely to 'appreciate their beliefs and, so far as possible, to see things their way'. I simply don't know what distinction is being made here. For me, a fuller understanding of a text or action will mean a more complete conception of the consciousness that produced it, even if perfect syncronicity is ultimately impossible. I guess that means that if I am to do this intellectual history thang, I'll be more of a Collingwoodian than a Skinnerite.

My allegiance is declared.