26.2.11

'Hereditary succession is a burlesque upon monarchy. It puts it in the most ridiculous light, by presenting it as an office which any child or idiot may fill. It requires some talents to be a common mechanic; but to be a king, requires only the animal figure of man -- a sort of breathing automaton. This sort of superstition may last a few years more, but it cannot long resist the awakened reason and interest of man.' - Thomas Paine, Rights of Man

25.2.11

A Genealogy of the Doctrine of Utility

This blog is really turning into a scrapbook, now. I attended a lecture by Niall O'Flaherty (who first taught me on the history of political ideas) and I just wanna jot down some thoughts.

The basic idea is that the secular British utilitarianism of the 19th century has its roots in the theological utilitarianism of the 18th century. Here's how it works. In explaining the origin of morality, natural theologians sought a middle ground between Mandeville's reduction of all motives to self-interest and Hutcheson's divine 'moral sense'. The solution was that we associate goodness with utility, but then form abstract rules based on those associations to the point where we follow those rules even when they are not useful. Hence: a moral sense born out of self-interest.

(I think this looks a lot like Hume's idea of justice, but more on that below.)

The problem here is universality: you only get local moralities with this system. So you need something else. You need God. God has designed human beings to be happy, thus whatever promotes their happiness is moral. All that association and abstraction gets in the way of this simple fact and needs to be ditched. And so: utilitarianism.

Hume, being an atheist, can't go for the God option. Both his and Adam Smith's (also Rousseau's) moral systems remain products of social environment. Maybe that's why they didn't track into the 19th century? Instead you've got Paine's adaptation of natural law, Kant's categorical imperative, Bentham's utilitarianism... Maybe Hume needed a more secular era to get his due?

24.2.11

Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader?

After the Morrison madness, it would have been especially difficult for Gaiman to shine. Like a lot of his stories, it's a bit... nice, in that unthreatening, vapid, Gaiman way. Not without merit, however. It's a gem of an idea, cute but poignant. And it does get at something essential about Batman -- his delusional obsession with this ridiculous crime-fighting business. It's all a lie, but not if you believe it. And that unbreakable will that never gives up on a problem. The man's crazy, he can't stop, he'll die in battle.

And be reborn, inevitably. The ending was a very rich cheese even by Gaiman's standards. But if the niceness is a bit sickly, it's still niceness. You can't hate him for it...

23.2.11

Superman Beyond

May have been in a darker place when I wrote this. Obv I haven't been able to stick to the comix downsizing that was promised. I've quit Ultimate Spidey and X-Factor for cost reasons, and becasue I get better Bendis and David elsewhere (you should really check out Scarlet and Fallen Angel). Buffy Season 8 ended pretty well, with a welcome confession of sins from Whedon in the final issue, so I'll be picking up the new season when it comes out. Plus I keep buying trades -- this comix disease just cannot be rid of!

That's just the background to me having a second run at Final Crisis. I'm abt half-way thru now. It's telling, perhaps, that I quit last time just before reaching the centre-piece of the story, the two issue Superman Beyond arc. If I had read it then, I may have been much more enthusiastic about the whole book. The writing here is really quite dense -- symbols and patterns weaved with dazzling skill. I just want to unravel some of them, for reference more than anything.

Monitor is absolute and perfect, a white conscious void. (God?) Flaw encased in concept containing contradictions / events / stories. It's harmful: stories destroy / limit / define. Mysteries infect Monitor. History begins.

Contact makes probe split in two. One half a Silent Sentinel, a doomsday weapon to be used at the end of the world / final crisis. (Christ?) Other half Dax Novu. Seeks knowledge, infected with the bleed / life (body?). Died to chain beast / himself. Becomes Madrakk, eater of life. Will be unleashed at the end of the world / final crisis, when Monitor civilization declines and falls. (Lucifer? Anti-Christ?)

Mammon / Madrakk the evil god of greed / property / material wealth. Coming out of the bleed / void into the multiverse. (Body taking over the mind? Addiction to story?)

Superman and Ultraman not dualities but symmetries. Beyond conflict. Hate crime fused with selfless act. An act of enormous power. Transcendent.

The Silent Sentinel awakes (awesome letterbox effect on this page!) in the city of Monitors (readers?) between dimensions / panels. Realm of form and meaning to realm of primal forms. Weeja Dell meets him and leads him to final battle. Lover of Nix Voltan who would have fought against the Vampire Gods, but was killed / exiled unjustly.

Madrakk holds elixir of life, only vampires can consume it. Madrakk believed into existence, but Superman a better story. Madrakk is Dax Novu corrupted. Superman knows his origin, and kills him. Even the idea of him lost and forgotten.

"To be continued" a warning: stories never end. Carved on tombstone: life after death after life.

Part 1: Ogama cast down where he can do no harm. Feeds Ultraman the blood of Madrakk. Will return when Superman is weak.

Part 2: Superman wakes his sleeping beauty with a kiss. Feeds Lois the bleed and revives her. Remembers and saves while Madrakk forgets and kills.

Character's dreams, character's lives, our dreams and our lives, all resonate with story.

Enough fragmentary notes. These two issues tell a kind of meta-story behind ALL stories: tragedies, comedies, the quest... The presence of Captain Atom -- Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan -- might signal the kind of ambitions Grant Morrison has here. It's an staggering piece of myth-building, an intelligent exploration of our collective unconscious, and a supreme achievement in comics, really.

Blasts Secret Invasion out of the water, that's for sure.

ETA: Finished the book last night. It was huge, constantly surprising and very very awesome. There's just one more detail to add to the ramble above. The final crisis is only that of the Monitor race. They have decided to stop interfering with the earth and surrender to the bleed / life. Also significant that the humans and super-humans win using Metron's gift of knowledge. Has Morrison been reading Feuerbach, one wonders? We don't need the gods anymore. They have become human beings.

The one line that effectively summarizes all of the above: "This is the story of all our stories."

20.2.11

Savage Grace

The effect so seamless, I didn't even notice it until it was pointed out in the "making of" feature on the DVD -- the film divided into five days, crucial turning points in the narrative. A decision forced by lack of funding, but one that pretty much makes the film what it is. There is no sweep. Rather, it is intensely focused on the detail of family bonds and secrets. Close-ups of revealing looks, faces composing themselves, moods shifting in unpredictable ways. And the pace is masterfully controlled. There is so little gap-filling info that you are constantly engaged thru every transition. And the set-pieces are gloriously put together. A movie full of little crescendos.

As for the content, well Peter Bradshaw can help with that. Father, mother and son all fail at fulfilling their expectations of each other. Barbara has to act the part of high-society wife, but her obsession with keeping up appearances alienates her husband. His presence and demeanor is a constant reminder that she doesn't fit in, and so she uses sex both to fight against and then to conciliate him. Doesn't work, obviously. He settles for sadism and then someone more carefree (and more youthful to boot).

Brooks is oppressed by the legacy of his more successful forebears, and wants his son to be cast in their image. But Tony is a mummy's boy, indolent, and worst of all, gay. Tony both desires the approval of his father, and finds his macho attitude stifling. But after the divorce, mother and son both fall apart -- drawn ever more tightly to each other, and yet repelled by that closeness. Dependance and distance, an embrace and a knife -- constant, concurrent extremes that tear the family apart.
'Virtue in rags is still virtue; and the love, which it procures, attends a man into a dungeon or desart, where the virtue can no longer be exerted in action, and is lost to the world.' - David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

16.2.11

True Grit

Will Self on the money. Little to add but affirmation. There is this sense of ironic detachment, of films about films, to the Coens. They remain pretty damn guarded in their work as well as in interviews.

Just two techy things. Hailee Steinfeld is incredible in the lead role, particularly in the shift from hardass to wide-eyed enthusiasm as she gets on the trail. Btw yes, she does have the LEAD role. My friends were discussing this after the film. Apparently the awards slot her into the supporting actress category, which is crazy. Damon and Brolin have bit parts compared to her. I guess the names count for more than the work...

Second, not enough has been said about how funny the film is. It's hilarious, sometimes just because you don't know what the frack Jeff Bridges is saying. Related to this is the discussion about how realistic the film is, what with its switching idioms and its impressive protagonist (she does have the truest of grit). The comedy gives you the clue to the answer on this one. If the Coens make films about films, then fiddling with genre is at the heart of it. It's supposed to be ridiculous, unbelievable. It's art.

On the substance, the ending was really quite touching, but the 25-years-later coda left me somewhat cold. Matty Ross was cold. True grit didn't buy you very much, did it? And yet the film portrayed her adult character straight, almost as if she was a-ok. For me, there was a disconnect there, which drained some of the emotion built up by Rooster's chivalry. He ended up a circus entertainer. That's where grit has ended up in the New America. Good point, and maybe I'm just not being pessimistic and 'mature' enough, but I could have done without the crash back to reality. Just leave me to my fantasies of the rugged but noble Wild West...

14.2.11

Repulsion

Old ladies with the bad experiences + sister with the scary sex noises = men are monsters. KILL THEM!!! Except you desire them too, don't you? You desire monsters? Looks like...

Did like one particularly contrived frame. Lady and gent right and left, with the (spinster?) neighbour in between. The moral majority getting between the beautiful young lovers.

Some visual metaphors explained in the crudest possible terms: Leaning Tower of Pisa = massive cock. Moldy rabbit = sexuality gone sour. Cracks in the walls = cracks in yr hymen. And that's about enough of that!

The aged male gypsy band waddling across London = what? A bit of the old country in the middle of the city... Innocence crippled? Tradition lost?

The nunnery? Its bells urging chastity, constantly overruled... a pop at religion? Probably wasn't an easy target, back then.

We start with Carol's real eye and we end with her eye again, a photograph of her as a child (and what a creepy child!). Comment on art maybe? The real into reel? Wikipedia says it's child abuse, although I missed that inference. I dunno... ask Polanski. Then again, child rape might be a bit of an awkward subject to raise with him...

It's all mirrors and lights and twisting doorknobs and heavy breathing down the phone. Cliches so worn they kinda lose the impact they probably had in 1965. However, the hands / rapists coming out of the walls shocked EVERY SINGLE TIME. It's still got it, even after half a century. Pretty impressive, really.
'...around the alter rise the arches of a great church, and its walls keep moving further and further out. What they enclose is -- sacred. You can no longer get to it, no longer touch it. Shrieking with the hunger that devours you, you wander round about these walls in search of the little that is profane, and the circles of your course keep growing more and more extended. Soon that church will embrace the whole world, and you be driven out to the extreme edge; another step, and the world of the sacred has conquered: you sink into the abyss. Therefore take courage while it is yet time, wander about no longer in the profane where now it is dry feeding, dare the leap, and rush in through the gates into the sanctuary itself. If you devour the sacred you have made it your own! Digest the sacramental wafer, and you are rid of it!' - Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own

13.2.11

'I am utterly amazed that men should want to subject reason, the greatest gift and the divine light, to ancient words which may well have been adulterated with malicious intent. I am amazed that it should not be thought a crime to speak disparagingly of the mind, the true text of God's word, and to proclaim it as corrupt, blind and depraved, while deeming it the highest offence to think such things of the mere letter and image of God's word. They consider it pious not to trust their reason and their own judgement and deem it impious to have doubts concerning the reliability of those who have handed down the sacred books to us. This is plain stupidity, not piety' - Benedict de Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise

10.2.11

Olympus

Four issue mini abt two demigods keeping the peace on earth and the guys from the underworld out. Not a lot to it, on a substance level. The intro goes on abt how the gods have left us to our own devices, and the story itself brings out the relationship between the two brothers rather well. But I didn't get a lot else.

But we're ignoring the artwork, of course. It's something pretty special. Contoured faces, Klimt colours, blocky shapes, extreme perspectives and the scratchy / crayony / scanned photography mishmash popularized by Sienkiewicz and co. Good layouts too. One that stuck with me was Cassie in hell, where the P.O.V. does a one-eighty as he runs to his target. Slick. Very nice sense of momentum.

So. Christian Ward is a more interesting new talent than Nathan Edmondson. It will be interesting to see where they end up.

5.2.11

Ungirthed

It's fair to say that my friends are pretty suspicious of P4k, and I can understand their attitude even if I don't share it. Personally, I think parsing thru their recommendations is worth it if once in a while you unearth something like this. The review does the song some justice, I just can't help adding some of my own slobbering over it. This is beat and vocal science applied to pop like nothing else. White gusts of chopped 'Aaah's crash against strategically fired 'Boh's over stuttering ticks, starting and stopping, stumbling and lurching. And that's BEFORE the vocal comes in. And what a vocal -- high and clear and light and sweet and sly and pouty and innocent and high and clear, all soft consonants and slurred vowels. Yes the rapidly repeating "ears ringing / teeth clicking" quivers are a highlight, but my fave bit is when the vocal and synth acends dramatically ('the air is familiar...') leaving you momentarily adrift, before everything drops back down. Oh and how it ends! Sharply winding back, leaving a final "ears ringing" refrain. It just makes you want more.

Whenever I play it, I can't simply listen to it once.

There is a lot of synthpop here, but also glo-fi's fuzzy colours, southern hip-hop's clattering hi-hats, and dubstep's low-end punch. It's like Purity Ring have picked the best bits moden music has to offer and built this little happy pulsing diamond of a song with them. I really can't wait for what they are going to do next.

4.2.11

Frankenstein's Womb

From Hell, the Warren Ellis version. It's not Jack the Ripper, but Mary Shelley that have birth to the future. Maybe by inventing science fiction? Our ability to dream about the future? Dream and believe the dream and call the dream real life? But it cuts both ways. Frankenstein -- science -- is a "dead child". Its works burn indiscriminately. The pursuit of alchemy leads to destruction.

And the alchemist realises this. Hope lies in the private, interpersonal virtues of love and self-sacrifice.

That's what I got out of it anyways. Ellis is writing poetry rather than prose here, and you can read him in lots of ways. It's a beautiful book, with exactly that Hellboy atmosphere I needed (props Marek Oleksicki -- where does Ellis find these artists??)

Kinda want to read the rest of the Apparat line now...

Doktor Sleepless

V For Vendetta with a lot of Frankenstein and a little bit of Waiting For Godot in the mix, as well as other stuff I don't recognise, probably. Oh, and written by Warren Ellis. One of the best things he's done. It's pretty much ALL ideas -- Aaron Sorkin length speeches about the world being fucked up: environmental disaster, overpopulation, privatised security, politicians building bunkers against their own people and culture manufactured for profit. This isn't the future we were promised, the book says. We have to burn it down.

Or do we? The Doktor thinks demons from other dimensions are waiting to eat us i.e. he's more than a little unstable. And then there is Sing. Ellis often leaves a (female) character to puncture the anti-hero's grand schemes for saving the world. Look at what yr doing! Yr hurting people, you arrogant asshole!

Lovely stuff about the real / the fantastic as well. People feel safer with imaginary characters -- they won't be able to affect yr life, not really. But the mad scientist persona is a masquerade. You WILL get touched.

A note on the artwork: perhaps it's the political Alan Moore vibes, but to me it feels like Dave Gibbons filtered thru the Wildstorm house style. Maybe that's just me...

2.2.11

Grindhouse

Have seen both films separate, and can add my own voice to the consensus that the original double-bill release is superior, not only for the added trailers and cross-references. The two films are of a piece thematically as well, so it really is better to see them as they were originally designed to be seen.

Planet Terror is pretty much one of my favourite films ever. Even better, because more silly, than Rodriguez's adaptation of Sin City. Why do I love it? Well, Cherry Darling is a Go-Go Dancer (not a stripper!!) who wanted to be a doctor. She left her ninja boyfriend because she thought he thought she was worthless. Keeping up? The film is basically about her gaining confidence in herself and taking over from ninja boyfriend in the ninja business. There's a similar kind of story going on with Dr. Dakota Block, a lesbian trying to escape her sadistic husband. Both ladies get their freedom with the help of gentlemen: ninja boyfriend and father respectively. Still, the film can be read as a commentary on female empowerment. Cherry starts off cavorting with the camera, and ends by firing a minigun at zombies. It's fulfillment of a sort, the sort you get in sleazy pulp movies...

Also, the brothers bickering about the secret recipe to the best BBQ sauce in the world. The striving for transcendence, and the barriers in the way. The film ends with their reconcilement and death. In its own way, quite beautiful.

Death Proof is more tricky. The film is divided into two: one set of ladies get mauled by a serial killer, another set of ladies manage to fight back, and we're asked to spot the parallels. The first group are smoked-out, one has been pressured into demeaning herself, one of them is bitter at being stood up. They are weak and die easy. For Stuntman Mike, it's a power thing. He is the driver, the victim is the passenger. Man and wife. His victim begs for mercy, and he shows none.

The second group contains two stuntwomen -- the ladies now have access to those positions of power. Abernathy isn't, but wants to join in, and she sacrifices Lee to do so. When attacked, they fight back, and this time it's Stuntman Mike who begs, and the ladies who show no mercy.

Sidebar: Kurt Russell seems to me to be doing a Quentin Tarantino impression, and Tarantino himself plays a gruesome sadist in Planet Terror. Is Quentin punishing himself for his misogyny? I smell catharsis...

If you were being really pretentious (ahem), you could describe Planet Terror as portraying female emancipation as the ladies being able to achieve fulfillment / transcendence / flourishing -- carving out a small corner of tranquility in a planet full of terrors. Death Proof is like the negative liberty flip to that -- not freedom to do but freedom from. Female emancipation means becoming death proof. It's a bleaker picture, where the gents aren't any nicer, it's just that the ladies are better able and willing to defend themselves. And not all the ladies at that. Lee, the gullible fool, the innocent cheerleader, the actress who must sell herself to magazines, is left to be torn apart by the predatory male. Uncomfortable stuff.

I liked the positive angle more, being a guy who wants guys to be constructive. But writing this, I'm even more convinced that you need both angles. Grindhouse as a whole, then, goes down as one of the more impressive geek films of recent times. And so, inevitably, one of my favourites.
'...it is better to be headstrong than cautious, for fortune is a lady. It is necessary, if you want to master her, to beat and strike her. And one sees she more often submits to those who act boldly than to those who proceed in a calculating fashion. Moreover, since she is a lady, she smiles on the young, for they are less cautious, more ruthless, and overcome her with their boldness.' - Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince