29.3.11

"Sir Isaac Newton himself who could measure the courses of the planets, and weigh the earth as in a pair of scales, even he had not algebra enough to reduce that amiable part of our species to a just equation: and they are the only heavenly bodies, whose orbits are as yet uncertain." - David Hume, Letter to Mrs. Dysart of Eccles, April 1751

25.3.11

'It would be ludicrous to believe that a defenseless people has nothing but friends, and it would be a deranged calculation to suppose that the enemy could perhaps be touched by the absence of a resistance. No one thinks it possible that the world could, for example, be transformed into a condition of pure morality by the renunciation of every aesthetic or economic productivity. Even less can a people hope to bring about a purely moral or purely economic condition of humanity by evading every political decision. If a people no longer possess the energy or the will to maintain itself in the sphere of politics, the latter will not thereby vanish from the world. Only a weak people will disappear.' Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political

24.3.11

Silkie / Mosca / Ikonika

In that order, I think, over at FWD>>. The sound, compared to Fabric, was pristine, clear, sharp, beautiful. Silkie was recognizably soulful and spacey. Mosca went for thunder and rudeboi chatter, but it was Ikonika's rugged videogame workouts that did the most damage. Never rated her all that much after that Contact album, but now I'm pretty much in love. Dropped her own bleepy version of Ciara / Tricky Stewart / The-Dream's 'Ride' in the middle of her set, a song (and video) I've been obsessing over these past couple of days. Moment of the night.
'To the wild billows it has been said, ‘thus far shalt thou go, and no further; and here shall thy proud waves be stayed.’ Vainly then do they beat and foam, restrained by the power that confines the struggling planets in their orbits, matter yields to the great governing Spirit. But an immortal soul, not restrained by mechanical laws and struggling to free itself from the shackles of matter, contributes to, instead of disturbing, the order of creation, when, co-operating with the Father of spirits, it tries to govern itself by the invariable rule that, in a degree before which our imagination faints, regulates the universe.' - Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

20.3.11

Joe The Barbarian

A riff on Conan? Fantasy novels in general, according to wikipedia. And it's Grant Morrison, and he's playing inside our collective unconscious again -- funneling timeless allegories of life vs. death, science vs. faith, cowardice vs. courage, thru a tale of a bullied teenager with an overdeveloped imagination dealing with bereavement. Heaving with ideas (warrior rats, dwarf pirates, flying machines) and phenomenal set-pieces (there's an awesome retelling of Gandalf's duel with the Balrog in the middle of the mini). As important is the palpable sense of threat Morrison and artist Sean Murphy create. The hero is diabetic, and a lack of glucose fires off a spectacular, and very distracting, hallucination. The tension between wanting to explore this marvelous imaginary world, and wanting its author to survive, is very well managed. Thrilling.

19.3.11

Ramadanman / Joy Orbison / Ben UFO / Mala / Pinch

@ Fabric, my first exposure to dubstep in rave form. Pretty good line-up, right? Some of the leading lights gathered together to celebrate the release of Ramadanman's FabricLive CD. So 'twas of interest that Rama's set, which kicked off the party, moved me the least. Very housey, I thought. You couldn't escape the 4/4. Where did the swing go, dude? The haywire precussion bits were the most energizing, but quite a lot of it plodded. I was pretty grateful when the awkward transition to James Blake's "I Never Learnt To Share" heralded the end of the set.

Joy Orbison b2b with Ben UFO were next. Joy O may prove to be a bit of a one-hit-wonder, I fear. Was that jazzy noodling I heard on one of the tracks? Ben UFO in action, however, was mesmerizing. My spirits had picked up by the transition to a more garage-y rhythm, anyways, but the way he pulled the beat back and dropped it... the man's a pro.

Mala b2b with Pinch was the highlight of the night, obv. One bringing the half-step, the other the wobble. A better fit for the soundsystem as well, I thought. The youngsters with their chopped vox and synths had the the buzz and bubble of their tracks filtered out by speakers that leaned overwhelmingly on bass. That said, I listen to Hessle's audio on computer speakers, so my perspective is probs very skewed. Anyways, once things got down to the gutter rumbles and whipcracks, skanking became an unadulterated pleasure.

As for the venue, bit of a maze. Looks great, in a superclub pretending to be grimey kind of way. The male/female ratio was really bad, however. The ladies disappeared almost entirely when the old-gen dubstep kicked in. Hessle's take on funky house is perhaps still too muscular for the female contingent to fully get on board. Racial mix was predominantly white, perhaps because of the (very house and techno inflected) music, or perhaps because it's Fabric and it costs a fortune. Very middle class clientele as well. Man, everyone looked just like me! Highlights weren't many. The fat guys with the sunglasses are always the most fun. I swear the guy standing next to (but not in) the dj booth looked exactly like Kieran Hebden. Also spotted a kid with a Tellison t-shirt, for which I was grateful. Not an insular scene, at least. But not a particularly inspiring one, either.

14.3.11

Somersault

Oppression on two levels. Heidi needs her bambi eyes, and men, to survive. Her widowed landlady is the contrast here, their scrapbooks the link between them. When Heidi tries to ensnare Joe, asking him if he loves her yet, Joe bristles. So Heidi makes herself vulnerable, dependent.

But look at Joe's farmhouse, his reference to peasant food, Heidi not knowing what to order at the restaurant. The relationship bridges a pretty stark class division as well, one brought out emphatically by Joe's jealous friend Stuart.

Great how gentle the touches of dialogue are. Bianca telling Heidi she's "alright"... to ride her brother's pony. Heidi and Joe's relationship is BUILT on indirect communication. Karl's empathy problem rather bluntly states the case: Joe can't communicate, and the only intimacy Heidi is aware of is the physical kind. Actually, Joe's just as bad, and a hypocrite for it -- rejection leads him to look for rebounds in surprising places.

Hence the blue. VERY blue, this film. Snow snow snow, snowing in the emotion. Joe uses boiled water to melt the ice off his windshield -- his first night with Heidi. And the climactic scene where the confrontations spill out -- flame red.

Several (male, which is interesting) reviewers were a bit frustrated with the beginning and ending of the film, but I think the answer lies in the director's professed fairy-tale sensibility. The film kicks off with Heidi kissing her mother's boyfriend, and then being discovered. Her mother is horrified, and Heidi runs away. No motive is readily supplied, so it does end up feeling slightly contrived. But I think the fairy-tale mood comes to the rescue. It's a thematically relevant way to launch our heroine into her somersault. When things turn upside down, then we'll get to the bottom of her character. And the ending? Well, I just like to think that the director has read Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. Feels contrived, until you start thinking about it.

Batman R.I.P.

Morrison is so consistently excellent, you end up focusing on the small number of storytelling beats he fumbles. Here, the conversation with Jezebel in the Batcave, and some of Doctor Hurt's speeches, are less sublime, more ridiculous. The pulp needs to touch base with reality SOMEWHERE, Grant. In general, the two villains weren't all that interesting, perhaps because I haven't read the series as a whole. (Le Bossu, on the other hand, was magnificent.)

But this is me quibbling at the margins. Yet another sumptuous performance, hitting that nerve of unrelenting tenacity in Batman's character much better than Gaiman did. The confidence in the storytelling, particularly in the later issues, is a marvel. Morrison is almost better at the lightning fast, hypercompressed scenes, distilling the essentials before zooming on to the next page. He trusts his audience to keep up. And our trust is rewarded.

12.3.11

Siege

Please tell me this is the end of it now. We know the line off by heart. Avengers Disassembled, House of M, Civil War, Secret Invasion -- one giant pre-planned story involving the entire Marvel universe. Is it now done? Has Bendis had enough? Isn't it time to let this thing go?

Only four issues, this one, so there's no space for anything but the punching. And said punching is just the siege of Gondor in Return of the King, but with superheroes. In itself, nothing to complain about -- there's plenty of widescreen battle-scene glee here. But what happened to the characters, guys? Osborn? Loki? Their motives, anyone? And the Sentry? Allegory for what, pray tell? What is this book saying? Why was it written?

Bendis has had a grand old time playing in the Marvel universe, and his impact at the company will (deservedly) go down in history. But he needs to leave the playpen for a bit. He's talked loads about how he believes constant output improves quality, but I think he's mistaken. His jokes aren't funny anymore, and he's running out of things to say. Tap out, man. Give some other writers a chance. Let's see what Fraction or Brubaker or Hickman can do.

Hauntology and the Cambridge School

I'm not really old enough to get into this 'hauntology' biznezz. Nostalgia can only go so far when ur in yr early twenties. Sure, I've been transported to foggy past worlds by records such as Untrue and Suburban Tours, but I've also been to Ybor City on the back of Separation Sunday. On the whole, it's difficult for me to believe that the present is somehow inauthentic, cannibalistic, whatever. Then again, I probably don't understand all this very well. Clearest exposition of hauntology I've read is in a piece on The Invisibles, for Jebus's sake! Still, this is the internet. You are positively encouraged to pontificate on stuff you know nothing abt!

Anyways. Was reading James Tully's account of Locke's property theory just now, and got to the part where he hits back against Marxist readings of Locke as the founder of bourgeois liberalism. Tully is a pretty fervent disciple of the Cambridge School (he shouts out Foucault, Pocock and Skinner often enough), and his project is to rescue the radical Locke -- the Locke who, for example, argued against absolutist private property. The Locke who was on the side of Christopher Hill's Levellers and E.P. Thompson's working class. Because that's what Skinner's method is all abt. You look to the past to discover those defunct ideologies that could serve as alternatives to present day moral and political assumptions.

Interesting parallel, innit? Might just be a parallel. Hauntology is a pretty loose concept, seems to me. Just a disposition, a vague despair, escapism, if ur being particularly unkind. Bet you can find those feelings throughout history. The idea could also probably loop together a mass of unrelated modern phenomena. But what do I know! Simon Reynolds's new book will hopefully set me straight on the subject...

8.3.11

My Inner Bimbo

Not for everyone, one of the quotes on the back cover says. Raw, interesting, confusing, are some of the other verdicts. Sam Kieth being known for mainstream work, this sort of psychedelic, psychological, semi-autobio stuff seems to throw reviewers off-balance. And B&W to top it all off!

A shame, really. This book shouldn't be viewed as niche or difficult. It is pretty much getting the comix thing right, I feel. Forget panels. Here is the brain of the author in words and pictures -- non-linear storytelling with everything left in. Jokes, influences, neuroses, flights of fancy. Everything that makes up who we are.

My Inner Bimbo has a killer hook. We have a 50-year-old protagonist called Lo and his 62-year-old wife called Betsy. It's a marriage not without its problems, which lead Lo to create for himself a Bimbo companion, which serves both as a projection of femininity and as a representation of his teenage self. Both are cast as young, weak and stupid, and Lo rapes / beats them up for it... You sold yet?

Be warned, the rest of this post is gonna get into detailed exposition and decoding. Lo met his wife when he was a teenager. Now that she's in her sixties, he's settling for porn rather than sex. He's also flirting with his hot art class teacher. Gradually we realize what's going on. Lo courts his wife's disapproval, then when she attacks him, he plays the martyr. It's a petty way of punishing the woman that makes him feel powerless. Ultimately, the routine is caused by regret at marrying so young.

Sidebar: if the book has a fault, it's the rather blunt way it relays Lo's problems. At times it almost feels like yr reading the notes of a psychiatrist. Then again, I can deffo believe the character (who is into all kinds of New Age self-improvement) self-analyzes in this way, so Kieth just about gets away with it.

The Bimbo, meanwhile, is initially just a sex object. However, a confrontation with Manet's The Lunch on the Grass begins a journey into subjectivity. She is the part of Lo that engages with art and develops as a person. But Lo isn't listening. He traded self-awareness for self-pity a long time ago. The Bimbo can't influence him, or get rid of him, so resolves on suicide. It doesn't quite work out (she is a part of his brain, after all).

Suicide also shadows Lo's existence. His wife's previous hubby killed himself, and the suggestion is that if Lo doesn't sort himself out, he'll end up dead as well. There is some very obvious symbolism with swords here: Lo has to straighten his one out and "stab" the Female Disapproval Monster. Sex seems to be key. Part of Lo's problem is the division he creates between body and spirit. Sex becomes porn, a mental activity. The hot art class teacher, meanwhile, urges her students to embrace their inner anarchy. Go wild, get weird. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and sleep with your wife!

Bimbo's suicide having failed, she expresses her distress by taking a vow of silence. Lo's curiosity about her experiences with the hot art class teacher leads to a confrontation with all his problems. He figures it out, and is reconciled (physically and spiritually) with his wife, and his female side. The only problem left is a lack of purpose -- Lo has no existentialist project. He's tied up, drifting, not listening to his singing Bimbo / muse. The final issue has a climactic battle where the conflict of the book is reimagined in allegorical form -- hero vs. monster. Lo, thru his Bimbo, discovers his own imagination, a new confidence in his drawing, and decides to tell his story in comix form. At the end of the book, Lo and his Bimbo become more and more alike. She isn't needed anymore, and Lo finally lets her go.

How many books have traced the way a self-pitying middle-aged man's sexual revenge fantasies have eventually led to enlightenment and transcendence? Not that many, I'd wager. Kieth is serving up something really fresh and exciting here. More people need to get on it.

5.3.11

'The fortunate and the proud wonder at the insolence of human wretchedness, that it should dare to present itself before them, and with the loathsome aspect of its misery presume to disturb the serenity of their happiness.' - Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

The Social Network and Criticism

Mercer Finn has been published! Well, sort of. In a spangly digital magazine called M+. Boy is it pretty! Check it out here. My bit in it is a re-working of this post from the blog. While yr over the jump, look over fellow conspirator Tim Grundy's piece on webcomics, which has very effectively convinced me that there are better ways to waste my time on the internet. In fact, flip thru the whole thing and see what catches yr eye.

My article in the magazine is slightly edited for space (and probably for the better). I've only got the text I've sent over to the editor, which is what I'll post here. Call it the director's cut. Straight from the source:

The Social Network manages to achieve something quite rare in the film business: universal critical acclaim and controversy. Its numbers on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes are eyebrow-raising (95% and 97% respectively), but it has come under fire from various quarters for its less-than-judicious treatment of its subject: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. To me, the mismatch represents two different ways of evaluating film, and art in general, which I shall herewith pompously entitle ‘technical’ and ‘moral’. Bare with me.

In technical terms -- as a film, as fiction -- The Social Network is brilliant. David Fincher keeps the talky-talky action, you know... ACTIVE. Which is pretty impressive, seeing as having people talking in rooms for two hours (as Aaron Sorkin describes his screenplay) is rarely conducive to entertaining cinema. The pace of Sorkin's dialogue is critical in giving the film propulsive power, but Fincher's montage sequences do just as much to keep things moving. I didn't know internet start-ups could be so exciting! Sorkin (who earns my never-ending admiration for creating The West Wing) is at his usual erudite blabber-mouth best. His comedic touches in particular deserve to be singled out. Look out for hilarious scenes with chickens and Harvard principles. And Jesse Eisenberg's shift from robotic nervousness to even more robotic confidence was captivating. He’ll sweep up awards this year, I’m sure of it.*

All good stuff, but let’s move to that grey area between the ‘technical’ and ‘moral’ analysis of art -- themes. Here, the film’s achievements are more shaky. Built around the irony of a creator of a networking site who cannot maintain friends of his own, The Social Network does a fine job of showing the full range of arseholery Zuckerberg is capable of. The descriptor 'asshole' bookends the film, delivered by two different ladies, and Zuckerberg goes from 'is' to 'trying to be'. Personally, I don’t really understand what Fincher and Sorkin are trying to say here. The next step, I guess, would be 'trying not to be', and the final image is both cruel and hopeful on that score.

This slightly fumbled ending leads me to suspect that the film might not be as clever as it appears to be. But even if I found it lacking, it remains impressive enough, from a technical viewpoint, to make the rave reviews understandable. But there is a bigger failure here, what I think can be described as an moral failure. The film is NOT fiction, or at least does not pretend to be. Before seeing it, I was aware of Sorkin’s insistence that his research was thorough, and that although he added drama, the story he was telling was factual. And I believed him! Only when I returned from the cinema to read around the subject did I find that the film’s ‘facts’ are, actually, seriously contested. Irin Carmon over at Jezebel (who was in the year above Zuckerberg at Harvard) notes that the decisions made by the film-makers about their story are pretty curious. Zuckerberg’s Facemash site compared men as well as women. He has had a serious girlfriend since 2003. The Social Network obscures and ignores these bits of biography. Carmon concludes that Fincher and Sorkin are “doing Zuckerberg himself a disservice to reduce his creativity and problem-solving to a sort of digital hate fuck”. The film is morally culpable.

Nathan Heller over at Slate, who was also at Harvard and knew Zuckerberg, points out that the film represented both in an extremely misleading way. Harvard was not a ‘citadel of old money’ with a ‘Jewish underclass’. The real Zuckerberg was “outwardly friendly, often smiling, confident”. Heller allows for the fact that the pressures of narrative can distort reality, but maintains that if the film’s ambition was to make sense of Facebook’s origin and success, The Social Network fails miserably. Facebook was not about getting dumped or getting into a fraternity, but grew out of a particular feeling of community that existed at Harvard. Zuckerberg was never “the best programmer around”, but he was a ‘canny and receptive cultural reader” who put those social bonds and that culture on the web. Heller reveals that there is a more interesting story here, and The Social Network did not tell it.

So we are left with a brilliant film that commits two serious ‘moral’ errors: against Zuckerberg specifically, and against the audience generally. Zuckerberg has been lied about and we have been deceived about him. Moreover, if we were led to expect a considered explication of Facebook’s origin and success, we have been rumbled. My question here is how to balance these ‘moral’ considerations with the +95% reviews the film received. I doubt whether review aggregator sites would include the articles by the two objectors mentioned above, because Carmon and Heller were writing commentaries, not reviews. They did not talk about cinematography or editing. However, they did talk about character and themes. From there they went on to critique the ideas the film was presenting as inadequate. My suspicion is that the +95% reviews have cut this last element out, and have left the audience to judge for themselves.

The Social Network is particularly good at demonstrating the distortions this approach can create. I think that criticism should cover all these areas. A critic should understand what a work of art is attempting to achieve (and how well it does so), but then should also evaluate that aim. Critics should be allowed to say that a film is bad because they do not agree with it. Such presumption might appear difficult to take at first. The irresistibly likable Mark Kermode, being a devotee of horror, has expressed wariness about making moral judgments on films. Nevertheless, his favourable appraisals of the Twilight movies, and his unfavourable appraisals of Judd Apatow’s comedies, seem to me to be based on something other than their technical achievements. Try as we might, we cannot divorce ourselves from our beliefs when we react to the beliefs of others, whether friends or film-makers. Acknowledging this when producing reviews is not only more honest, but encourages a more rounded evaluation of works of art.

* This piece was written a WHILE ago...

4.3.11

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Yet more links to Peter Bradshaw reviews. As is typical, the Christian layering is what leapt out at me most. Jesse James as the American celebrity-Christ. A living counter-cultural myth with the forces of order breathing down his neck. A fraud -- he didn't restrict himself to killing Unionists and he didn't give to the poor. But when did that ever matter? Playing the charismatic but deadly warlord is enough to ensnare the imagination. And people like him don't retire. Suicide, as Charley Ford so ironically tells him, is a coward's way out. So how do you go? How do you kill a god? You have a coward do it for you.

The cheap reenactments, and the religion they perpetuate, are a fake of a fake. Except it always becomes real, if enough people believe it. Charley's act becomes more and more lifelike, but he doesn't have the skill to engineer a glorious end. Bob is assassinated, but he never had a glorious life, ending up as a saloon owner and married to a stripper. And he realises this, and repents, before the end. Maybe his last words were a confession..?

I'm being pretty elliptical (even for me!), but that's kinda the effect the film has on you. It's all long takes, long dialogues, long silences. Oblique but tense. Bradshaw has a problem with the voice-over, but he likes his cinema extreme. I found I needed that comforting familiarity. Otherwise, I don't know if I could have taken the endless chilly exteriors and tormented, crumbling psyches...