28.7.12

Mala

To see what the fuss is about, since the guy is revered as the wise man on the mountain by a lot of UK dance producers, I watched Mala's Red Bull Music Academy lecture recently. It's a great watch, a whole hour in which interesting questions are put to a thoughtful producer in front of a broad audience. And for sure, Mala's integrity and conscientiousness are extraordinary and admirable. However, I found some of the positions he was taking puzzling and frustrating, which prevented me from getting sucked into the mystique.

First of all, and I'm sure this has been argued extensively already, but it bears repeating: naming something does not necessarily limit your ability to understand it. This is very much the historian in me asserting that everything is a part of history and situated in a context that helps explain it. Therefore understanding a work involves understanding the connections between it and its environment. I think an audience should be trusted to do this without facing insinuations that they are somehow diluting the purity of the way they listen to music. Giving something a name does not automatically reduce the intensity of your experience of it. Music can be thought about as well as felt, and there is value to both pursuits.

Plus I smell hubris whenever an artist declares that their work cannot be 'put in a box' or defined in relation to other works. Implicit in the claim that a work is indefinable is the suggestion that all that other stuff that has a name is somehow stale and inferior. Mala is probably aware of the genre = generic trap, and explicitly laments the fact that any music is pigeon-holed by the media machine. But even without its nefarious influence, how are people to talk about the music scene they are part of? Common sense demands that they refer to it by some term. If the artists involved themselves are unwilling to provide one, others will.* That may be the underlining problem: your product is being defined and disseminated without your control. But this is an inevitability Mala is aware of: music takes on a life of its own. Once you put it out there, to some extent it stops being yours. And your audience has given it a name. Nothing strange about that.

[*Interesting in this respect the contrast with grime, where Wot Do U Call It? generated a bunch of names (sub low, 8 bar), and where Wiley actually tried to stamp his own brand on the music (eski beat). But once a consensus term was established everyone fell into line, including Wiley, who has started calling himself the King Of Grime (with some justice).]

If anything, I would say loyalty to a cultural legacy that imposes a very rigid and inflexible distribution model for your work (dubplates, pirate radio, limited runs of vinyl) encourages it to be put in a box whatever it sounds like. Signalling your respect for a certain tradition by emulating its rituals clearly marks you off and encourages others to form certain very clear associations. Compare this to the relative anonymity of an MP3 streamed or downloaded from the internet, which (if you're lucky) may come with the name of an album and a small image of its front cover. There is less to latch onto, fewer associations you can make, when you are exposed to music in this way.

To me vinyl looks cumbersome and expensive. True, when I have seen a favourite album in that big package I think I've glimpsed some of what vinyl-fetishists find so alluring about the format. But I'm also suspicious of those feelings, since I have this idea that music should be able to stand alone without needing the material around it to have an effect.* So the only argument for vinyl that makes sense to me is the quality of sound it produces, and as I'm not enough of an audiophile to really appreciate the difference vinyl makes, I'm happy to leave it aside for cheaper alternatives.

[*This can be construed as naïveté on my part, since there is a context to the consumption of music as well as the production of it, which can have a pretty huge impact on your appreciation of that music. And actually the format in which that music is presented (a record, a cassette) can be seen as a feeble attempt to exert some kind of control over that experience. But that control is weak. Other factors (taste, emotional state, the weather) exert a much stronger influence, I would argue.]

I'm going on about vinyl not because I want people to stop buying it, only to point out why I don't. In fact one of the things that I really value about labels that put out vinyl is that the effort and expense required means that releases are few and well thought out (unlike MP3-centred scenes like glo-fi or hip hop where there is a staggering amount of material to trawl through). I'm lucky in that most uk dance labels (incl. favourites like Butterz and Hessle) give their audience a choice of format. It's the restriction of choice that I find frustrating.

And it is an impotent kind of frustration, since I realise that creators can and should be able to present their work in whatever way they think best. All I can do is point out that consciously limiting your output to a certain format doesn't strike me as a particularly open and welcoming attitude to have. This comes out more forcefully in an interview with Loefah, where he identifies vinyl-buyers as the real 'hardcore' – the audience his label Swamp81 is targeting. Which I think is wrong-headed, in that buying vinyl may correlate with a certain respect for music, but not absolutely so. This means you may not be reaching some of the 'hardcore' who for whatever reason don't buy records.*

[*I wouldn't say I identify with Loefah's 'hardcore', btw. I'm more of a skittish dilettante when it comes to dubstep and its offshoots. My allegiance to grime is firmer, not least because I admire its expansionist drive.]

More generally, there is something cliquey about the 'this is for the people that know' declarations, and something precious about the 'we are not looking for attention' assurances. Why would you want to limit the exposure to your work to those that 'deserve' it? This was brought out for me in Mala's repeated insistence that the seminal Haunted / Anti War Dub release will never be repressed, in the face of one questioner who was clearly eager to have a copy. I think there is something unwholesomely inward-looking about the preference to protect and buttress the value of your record for the people that already own it, as opposed to allowing new people to attach a value to it as well.*

[*Not to mention the kind of market distortions and unsavoury speculative behaviour you get when you restrict supply in this way.]

Should repeat again that Mala seems to me like an upstanding fellow, and he's responsible for beautiful things like 'Forgive' and 'Misty Winter', which automatically earn generous measures of my respect. I'm aware that launching what amounts to a series of cloaked ad hominems at him is not the best way of showing that, but I would stress that my rambling is less about Mala and more about myself, specifically why I can't buy into his point of view despite liking some of his work. And the work is good – that new Cuba album sounds primed for summer...

21.7.12

'We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.' - H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

20.7.12

'modern people under lawless conditions tend uncannily to repeat the darkest instinctive patterns of primitive half-ape savagery in their daily life and ritual observances' - H.P. Lovecraft, The Horror at Red Hook

15.7.12

From up on Poppy Hill

By some quirk of fate, I was actually in Yokohama when I watched this film. From up on Poppy Hill is set in the sixties, but Yamashita Park and the Marine Tower are still recognizable parts of the landscape. Like all Studio Ghibli productions, it is beautifully animated. Magical, even though it is one of the few Ghibli films which is set in a real place and time.

A bit like Arrietty, the story is slight, and unfolds at its own pace. It has some weak elements, however. The central mystery – are they or aren't they siblings? – is rather unbelievably melodramatic, as one of the characters admits. Perhaps baby-switching was a common phenomenon during and after the Korean war. Even if it was, I don't think the film dealt with the repercussions that creates particularly well. It is at its best when it explores the daily life, in school and at home, of the protagonist Umi. She is perfectly charming, and in her own quiet way, one of the most inspiring heroines the Ghibli production house has created. Which is saying something.

'a post-revolutionary society is unthinkable'

‎'...if we take seriously the scale of social and psychic upheaval represented by a revolution, a post-revolutionary society is unthinkable: for someone not born in a post-revolutionary situation, it takes the process of going through a revolution to fully imagine it. To depict it is to diminish it.'
One of the ways to get around the 'so go on then, what is the alternative?' question. But shouldn't we then ask exactly what value to attach to something we cannot describe. How logical is it to believe something unrepresentable is both possible and desirable? Is it worth striving for a society you cannot even IMAGINE clearly?

I did like The City & The City, and Perdido Street Station to an extent. But if this is the sort of thinking that underpins Miéville's fiction, I don't know if it is ever going to affect me that deeply. Unless (to risk repetition) there is a change of heart / crisis of confidence / personal breakdown that takes an axe to his hopes for the restoration of humanity to some prelapsarian social and psychological state.

7.7.12

Arrietty

The urge to compare with other Miyazaki films still ever-present. This one reminds me most of Totoro, in its small scale and the way it slowly unfolds. It takes a certain amount of confidence to hold back so much in a film for children (espesh with the digital animation wonders Pixar is coming up with), and it is admirable, although (as ever) I prefer Miyazaki doing visuals and themes in widescreen. Should say he didn't direct Arrietty, he just wrote and produced it, tho I suspect creative control was quite close.

The pivotal scene is the conversation in which Arrietty reveals herself to Sho, where the subject turns to the way humans have changed the environment and have unwittingly destroyed countless species of animal and plant life. I'm not sure if Mary Norton's Borrowers were intended to be a comment on climate change, but this is what they become here, and it is an interesting imaginative conceit to take the POV of the creatures being trampled to extinction. They are tenacious and noble and so on. What's more interesting is the contrast between the unthinking, obsessive housekeeper Haru and the sickly, melancholic Sho – who is inspired by the struggle of the little guys and survives his operation (notably not a spoiler, since we are told this in the very first line of the film).

MOST interesting is the realisation that the Borrowers don't want our help, even though they are in a position of weakness. Arrietty and Sho's relationship can never develop, they are inalterably different and must live separately. My only problem with the film is is why it has to have an unhappy ending – why this inequality cannot be bridged, why humans cannot reach some accommodation with the natural world. Maybe Miyazaki isn't all that sanguine about the prospect, or maybe dramatically it would have been too trite a note to end the film on. But as someone who hopes to live on this planet for some time yet, and still manages to be impressed by the scale of human ingenuity, the tone felt a bit unnecessarily elegiac.

2.7.12

The Amazing Spider-Man

Maybe it's not always a good thing to be so invested and precious about the stories and characters you grew up with. I mean, the new Spider-Man film is competent, I guess, but for me a lot of the enjoyment was sucked out as I remembered how the comics and TV show (even the 2002 film) did everything so much better. I actually think Toby Maguire managed to convey the vulnerability to frustration to strength arc more successfully. Andrew Garfield is good alright, but he could have been better served by the script and the direction.

The thing about Peter Parker which makes him the best superhero of all time is that he was really a kid just like the kids that read Spider-Man comics. There is a large element of realism to the story – it branches out of genre wish-fulfilment and into the lives of the audience. One effect of this is that Spider-Man can hang a lantern on the inherent absurdity of wearing spandex and fighting crime. When written well, he is both empathetic and funny.

Andrew Garfield could have done that, probably, if given the chance. But the film chooses to make him into a mopey teenager instead. It suffers from Harry Potter 5 syndrome: where the hero's anger at being orphaned didn't feel earned. Spider-Man should be angry, but that anger is mostly directed at himself. He feels responsible. He has to learn to deal with looking after his elderly aunt at a young age and on his own. Also, he discovers that the failure to employ your talents in a socially useful direction only leads to guilt and unhappiness.

I don't think either of those elements were presented that well by this film. And it could have been a lot funnier too. I'm now starting to pitch my own Spider-Man film, and should stop. To repeat, maybe it's not always a good thing to be so precious about the stories and characters that are important to you. Perhaps you end up not being able to hack an adaptation that scrambles the formula. Maybe that's what it is, or maybe Marc Webb doesn't really have a good handle on what Spider-Man is about – and so delivered an overlong and uneven re-boot.

ETA: All that said, there is one moment in the film which warmed the cockles of my fanboy heart – when Spider-Man throws Gwen Stacy out of the window and you think, hold on, that doesn't happen now, does it?? Ooof! Very good ruse. Makes up for the terrible Stan Lee cameo a bit later on...