31.12.13

Favourite Songs of 2013 (Part 1)

First part of my annual rundown of favourite music listened to this year, along with some attempts at justification for it. Usual rules apply: individual songs are liable to be pushed up the list by the work of the artist as a whole. The top 15 will have to wait until the new year, when I find some time to write about it...

31. Kelela - Bank Head (Extended)

Kingdom's instrumental emerged in January on the uneven Night Slugs Allstars 2 compilation, where it was overshadowed by (previously released) tracks from Girl Unit, Lil Silva and Helix. It appeared again in May on his Vertical XL EP for sister label Fade to Mind, with a vocal by then unknown singer Kelela. It stood out then next to the skeletal grime it introduced. In October, an extended version forms the centre-piece of Kelela's first mixtape CUT 4 ME where she sings over productions from Bok Bok, Jam City and Nguzunguzu. And it still stands out, perfected by the addition of additional layers of vocals and the space for them to stretch out and soar.

30. Storm Queen - Look Right Through (Lil Silva Remix)

Lil Silva drapes all manner of reverberating percussive lines and exotic noises over the 4x4, and makes this hymn to loneliness a potent addition to any dancefloor. A shame that Kelela didn't pick out a couple of his riddims to sing over, really.

29. E.m.m.a - Dream Phone V.I.P.

Blue Gardens, a shimmering, aquatic take on grime and funky, soundtracked a lot of wet early morning commuter journeys on the tube. I found the album quite unassuming on first listen, but it wormed into my life so easily I almost didn't notice how much I've ended up listening to it. It works best as a whole, and I've struggled to pick out a single track to exemplify it. The ones with Rebel MC and Sully stand out because they are heavily stamped with the collaborator's identity, but E.m.m.a. herself is harder to pin down. I've settled on Dream Phone, where she pushes her synths to sound almost shrill and harsh: a carefully calibrated balance between pleasant and painful.

28. Dom & Roland - Unofficial Jah

I spent quite a bit of time this year buried within the shattering breakbeats of No U Turn's Torque and Metalheadz's Platinum Breakz compilations, as well as a ruthlessly filleted version of Goldie's two disc Timeless. Nothing quite brought that back to the present like Dom & Roland's remix of Goldie's Jah The Seventh Seal. Those scuttling drums running underneath that massive half-step stomp - quite something.

27. Mumdance & Logos - Drum Boss

Cold Mission has now replaced Blue Gardens on those wet commutes. Keysound Recordings, (who released both albums, a heap of great EPs as well as a very good compilation) ruled the post-dubstep label roost this year, and Logos is the sharpest weapon in their arsenal. This track with frequent collaborator Mumdance (which appeared on Tectonic as it happens), is probably his most destructive.

26. Kelly Rowland - Kisses Down Low

Ms. Rowland seized on Lil Wayne's promise to "turn that thang into a rainforest" for her comeback single: championing the joys of cunnilingus in the most full-throated way possible, replacing the sighs and moans of Motivation with a huge pop chorus and Mike WiLL's hazy synth-work. Gloriously silly.

25. Busta Rhymes feat. Nicki Minaj - #Twerk It (Remix)

Though not quite as silly as this. The hashtag is entirely appropriate, highlighting how brazenly the chorus is crowbared into the minimal bed of gloops Busta and Nicki rap over. The emphasis shouldn't be on 2013 most notorious dance craze, but two of New York's best MCs putting on their finest yardie accents.

24. Helix - Whoosh Ice Dispenser

Now that Ramadanman isn't delivering the goods anymore (that name change was ruinous) we'll have to rely on Helix, although the rest of his Club Constructions EP somewhat dampens our confidence. This is a blitzkrieg of percussion interspersed with blasts of static: almost as if the track is gasping for breath. You will be too.

23. Pev & Kowton - Raw Code

Peverelist, on the other hand, is nothing if not dependable. If anything, he's getting even better. Less frenetic than the Helix track, but it digs deeper (particularly that bass). The way the different elements overlap is nothing short of mesmerizing.

22. Kevin Gates - Just Ride

Mainly because of Curren$y on the second verse, so languid I wouldn't be surprised if he was horizontal when he recorded it. But touching as well: "I was five, pictures of Ferraris and Lamborghinis on my wall. Now if I wanna see one I just step in my garage" - which is pretty much the story of street rap condensed into two bars. Also that pleading chorus by Gates, ostensibly bored by talking about his wealth, but really asking for a short respite from all the work he has to put in to accumulate it.

21. Joanna Gruesome - Secret Surprise

Turns out I still miss those guitars. My Los Campesinos! fandom being effectively dead and buried, when I heard that these guys were also from Wales and use their band name as their surname, I thought I may have found a replacement. Stupid reasons to get interested, really. And Joanna Gruesome are a different proposition, their washed out vocals lacking that bite I was looking for. But this is the exception: a scream of "I dream of pulling out your teeth!" is joined by a big dumb thrashing riff and I'm five years younger again.

20. Droideka - Get Hyper

My favourite moronic EDM-flavoured drum and bass seemed to come out last year. This one's a bit different, the two-step rhythm of so much drum and bass accentuated with toasting by a garage MC: "now badboy, are you ready for the bass? My DJ yo get on the case". Que enjoyably squelchy mechanoid farting.

19. Threnody - Emergency

Big Dada's Grime 2.0 compilation was a rather odds and sods collection, and its highlight is actually the very last track, a six minute long ode to midnight dangers, all horror film glints and violent bass pulses between harrowing empty space.

18. Instra:Mental & dBridge - White Snares

The highlight on the Nonplus Think and Change compilation (depressingly it was the oldest track on there). A pretty arpeggiating melody line is suspended above warm bass and stop-start drums, while a male and female voice, faded and echoing, call to each other. It has the feel of winter about it, something to put on during a walk in the snow (if we had any).

17. Kowton - And What (Kahn Gyal-Dem Edit)

Simple really. Just throw a Brandy vocal over a Kowton beat and you have your future R&B piping hot and ready to devour. I liked Kelela's mixtape a lot, but this is twice as captivating as anything on there.

16. DJ Rashad - Rollin

While the jungle flirtation of Let It Go is diverting, Rashad's hip-hop indebted Rollin is the superior track for me, all because of the way he continuously finds new ways to wring torrents of emotion out of those two lines of chipmunk soul.

30.12.13

The Red Shoes

The Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale concerns a spoiled girl who puts shoes and parties above duty to family and God, and is punished by being forced to dance until she dies (the problem of Susan is the version I grew up with). The 1948 film is still about the expectations placed on women, but the religious abnegation is chucked out. Instead, the competing existential projects of a student composer and a ballet director nurture and then tear apart the existential project of a young ballerina. Vicky Price has to choose between being the supporting wife of the former or the star of the latter's show. At the end we learn that her husband is just as controlling and unyielding as the inhumanly ruthless director who we are encouraged to hate for most of the film. Being almost physically pulled apart by both male forces, she dies. The red shoes come to mean not frivolity or sexuality (Susan Pevensie's lipstick and boys), but the eternal, impossible dance between living for others and living for your own life-project.

The film is less successful at delving into the drives that power this creativity (and self-creation). When we meet Vicky, she already knows that life to her means dancing. Boris and Julian are the same. But art is not the same as craft, and we get precious little insight into what powers Julian's music or Boris's direction. It is suggested that Vicky serves as the muse for The Red Shoes - for both men, although Boris's denial of human nature suggests he isn't just looking to get into Vicky's pants (as he is when he reserves a table at a restaurant after her first performance) but that he's questing after some kind of platonic ideal of ballet. The Red Shoes itself is designed to mirror Vicky's conflict, but she's not aware of this when she is performing it. She only sees presentiments of her future. The ballet is an imperfect mirror anyway, the sequence doesn't quite reflect the film's plot.

It is amazing to look at. I've grown up with colour films and yet the Technicolor in The Red Shoes is still dazzling, as are the sets, costumes and make-up, which convey the full glamour of the theatre. The ballet itself quickly dispenses with stage and audience and uses the most up-to-date cinematic effects to not only add pizzazz but dive into the psyche of the dancer, haunted and egged on by the two men in her life, the only spectators that matter. It's a feast, though not a completely satisfying one.

24.12.13

In the Realm of the Senses

"The thing to recognize is that the adult industry's new respectability creates a paradox. The more acceptable in modern culture it becomes, the farther porn will have to go in order to preserve the sense of unacceptability that's so essential to its appeal. As should be evident, the industry's already gone pretty far; and with reenacted child abuse and barely disguised gang rapes now selling briskly, it is not hard to see where porn is eventually going to have to go in order to retain its edge of disrepute. Whether or not it ever actually gets there, it's clear that the real horizon late-'90s porn is heading toward is the Snuff Film." - David Foster Wallace, 'Big Red Son', Consider the Lobster and other Essays

23.12.13

The Holy Mountain

I enthused about El Topo because despite the freewheeling narrative, it did maintain a sense of urgency, and I did manage to glean some sort of meaning from the mish-mash of symbols it presented. In the first part of The Holy Mountain, Jodorowski loses both of those things. The film begins with a loose retelling of the gospel, where the hero is used to manufacture idols by an exploitative church. In an enjoyably sacrilegious parody of the Eucharist, he eats the face of Christ before tying him to a bunch of helium balloons and letting him ascend to the heavens.

All of this is done without dialogue and with frequent asides. The reenactment of La Conquista with lizards and frogs is particularly memorable, although it is disturbing mainly because the creatures are shoved into metal suits and and then blown up with explosives. Didn't check but I doubt a 'no animals were harmed during the making of this feature' notice appeared during the credits. In fact, there are a lot of animals throughout the film: crocodiles in the sewers, elephants with painted hides, a camel next to Jodorowski's throne when he appears as the Alchemist (making him look like one of the three Magi). I do wonder at how well these critters were treated during the shoot. In one scene, a herd of swans wander around the Alchemist's baths, and it looked to me like Jodo had them spray-painted black.*

What's more disturbing still is Jodo's willingness to objectify people. At the beginning of the film, the hero is trailed by a man with no legs or arms, who is later described by Jodo's character as a degenerate who needs to be cast aside. Jodo's throne room contains not only a camel but a naked, tattooed, silent black slave woman, and I'm not sure how much irony there is to be found in both these scenes. I say this because the gallery of grotesques the Alchemist shows the hero serve a satirical purpose (mass-produced art, the beauty industry, morally-neutered economics), and all of them are redeemed by his teachings. But is Jodo able to satirise himself?

The film ends by breaking the fourth wall, and the message is a good one: myths and fables that promise immortality (in life or after death) are false, but the film as a film inevitably leads to the "reality" after the film ends. So what is its value? Jodorowski is (characteristically) full of bullshit when he discusses the tarot in the DVD featurette, but he is clear that the cards are not able to tell the future. They only reveal who you are (emotionally, sexually, "spiritually"...) in the present. El Topo was like this as well: a heap of broken images we shore against our ruins, that read us as much as we read them. And the aim is for our sense of "reality" to be expanded or adjusted by meditating on these fragments. But is it, when so much of what Jodo shows us is itself objectified and removed from any sensation of the real?

*It's evident that Jodorowski had a lot more money to play with after El Topo won him patronage from the Beatles. The sets, props and costumes are magnificent, and the digital restoration does them full justice.

15.12.13

20 books for 2013

My annual account of the things I've read this year and liked. Slightly longer list than last year, in part because the 19th century novels have been set aside for things that are shorter and easier to digest on a commute to and from work. Recently, that has meant a bit more poetry than I would normally consume (that is: none). Also comics, interest in which has been reignited by participation in the Islington Comics Forum and its Barbican offshoot. Tip of the hat once again to the Chairman, a couple of entries were his recommendations.As usual, in an order only comprehensible to myself:

Isaiah Berlin - The Proper Study of Mankind
John Gray - The Two Faces of Liberalism
R.G. Collingwood - The Principles of Art
Phillip Blond - Red Tory: How Left and Right have Broken Britain
Germaine Greer - The Female Eunuch [link]
Kate Millett - Sexual Politics [link]
Simon Reynolds - Retromania [link]

Steph Swainston - The Modern World [link]
Henry Miller - Tropic of Cancer [link]
Marquis de Sade - Philosophy in the Boudoir
T.S. Eliot - The Waste Land and other poems / Four Quartets
Simon Armitage - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Mike Carey / Peter Gross - The Unwritten (vols 6 & 7)
Alejandro Jodorowsky / Moebius - Madwoman of the Sacred Heart
Dave McKean - Cages [link]
Inio Asano - Solanin [link]
Bastien Vivès - A Taste Of Chlorine [link]
Garth Ennis / Jacen Burrows - Crossed [link]
Pierre Oscar Lévy / Frederik Peeters - Sandcastle [link]
Daniel Clowes - Ghost World [link]

13.12.13

Gravity

Three quick bullets on the film highlighting some under-discussed things I found interesting. Most of the discourse has centred on its achievements as a roller-coaster popcorn b-movie. It is all of that, but there's plenty of thought under the surface as well that rewards thinking about.

  • The long takes in Children of Men often worked to distance you from the action because the impressive technical display was distracting. However, they are immersive in Gravity perhaps because the zero G setting requires so much suspension of disbelief. When things look this unreal anyway you can get away with being more auteurish without everything looking archly staged.
  • Also helps that the film operates only partly on a literal level, constantly moving to different visual compositions layering in various symbols: the womb of technology, spaceship as coffin and as burning longboat, the birth of Venus as life crawling out of the primordial waters. Reminds me of the roving camera in Pan's Labyrinth, also a very symbolically rich film, which almost sings you into the land of dreams.
  • Only two characters, but I wonder if there is some gendering going on. Clooney the (sexually-) adventurous fate-mastering man and Bullock the family-fixated fate-bound woman, until she accepts Clooney as her spirit guide, anyway. The film avoids making her too hysterical, thankfully

Thanks are due to the recently retired Chairman of the Islington Comic Forum for his tireless attempts to get me to see the film, as I had initially dismissed it as mindless spectacle and went to see Thor 2 and Catching Fire instead.

7.12.13

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

What impressed me about the first film was its ambiguous ending. In order to triumph over the brute survivalist-capitalist gladiatorial contest, Katniss and Peeta have to utilise an alienating narrative of love forced onto them by the media hurricane around the Games. You are never free from the symbols you enact. Victory over one narrative involves enlisting another, which can be just as exploitative.

I'm happy to report that Catching Fire continues to play with these ideas, but here the dilemmas and compromises are foisted onto the "good guys" trying to fight the autocratic regime. The film, while long, wraps up unexpectedly quickly, and the details of the plot (in both senses of the word) are not fully explained. Nonetheless, it's clear enough that Katniss has been betrayed by her own side. The film begins with her at home and hunting, beyond the reach of the law and as free as she is ever likely to be. She tells Gale that she doesn't want to represent anything, she just wants to run away. That option is blocked first by the dictator himself, and then by the resistance, who both conspire to return Katniss to the Hunger Games and vie in their efforts to make her a symbol again.

The manipulation of Katniss's "image" is now beyond her control. She is the plaything of unknown conspiratorial factions embodied in Donald Sutherland's President Snow and Philip Seymour Hoffman's duplicitous Gamemaster, and they are interested only in power, not in her. The people they co-opt or coerce (Hamish, Cinna, the other Victors, Katniss herself) are pawns in a political game made literal. Johanna and Peeta are the victims in this film, and Katniss reaction to their treatment as means rather than ends in themselves is one of horror. I (still!) haven't read the books, but fully expect the sequels to continue to explore Sutherland and Hoffman's rivalry, and not shy away from the moral ambiguities that have defined the first two films in the series.

1.12.13

Ghost in the Shell

The anime, which I've loved for a long time, is taut but very dense, and it's difficult to appreciate all its details just in one sitting. That said, its basic theme is easy enough to glean from the title, a riff on the idea of the ghost in the machine, the inner enlivening spirit which separates man from the rest of the mechanical universe. When our cyborg hero, Major Kusanagi, is confronted by an A.I. (the "Puppet Master") who declares itself to be a sentient, rights-bearing life-form, she starts to wonder whether she is any different for having a few brain cells remaining in her cortex. She asks Batou whether she is human simply because of the way she is treated: a social convention that the Puppet Master will undermine.

The manga, which I've read only recently, includes a notes section at the back where the author not only gives background, but explains the ground, since the plotting is even more tangled and inscrutable than in the film. Masamune Shirow is a very frustrating guide to his own creation, coming across as an excitable autodidact who mashes and remixes a heap of memes, but who's ability to synthesise and explain his arguments has gone AWOL. Part of the problem may be that he lives in his world so deeply that he assumes the reader already understands most of it. The notes are fascinating nonetheless, particularly when they leave behind all the talk of "ordinance and equipment" and start to cover the concept of ghosts and the influence of religion on his work:
"I think all things in nature have "ghosts". This is a form of pantheism, and similar to ideas found in Shinto or among believers in the Manitou. Because of the complexity and function, and the physical constraints they have when they appear as a physical phenomenon, it may be impossible to scientifically prove this. There are, after all, humans who act more like robots than robots, and no one can say for certain that they have no ghosts just because they don't act like it. In ancient times, neither air nor the universe were believed to exist."
I've included wikipedia links in the above, and only a brief scan will confirm that these are vastly different traditions Shirow is referencing here. What's clear is that he believes in a kind of cosmic ordering in which spirits can influence our lives. This carries over into the anime: the Major sometimes hears "whispers" in her ghost, a preternatural intuition that tells her which car to tail, for example. All humans have a "ghost line", a baseline piece of information or energy you can "dive" into (read) or hack (write), which separates them from other pieces of software.

The thing about pantheism is that when you push it out enough it starts to look like atheism. Shirow's manga is suffused with his idiosyncratic musings on the way technology and the world of the spirit intermingle, but his inclusion of the idea of a machine that can generate its own ghost introduces a destabalising element to the cosmic order: where do you find Cartesian dualism if everything has its very own ghost, including our computers? Do we not then jettison the spirit world altogether for the sake of simplicity? Shirow is too wedded to his systems and phases to accept this, and he continues to believe in channelers and psychics. The anime, however, is more ambiguous, which is partly why it is one of the rare cases where an adaptation improves on the original.

The actual title of the manga translates as Mobile Armored Riot Police, and the philosophical stuff is definitely a side-order to the main course of running, jumping, shooting and intrigue. The anime chooses the subtitle of the manga as its title, and flips the focus onto the existential crisis of its hero. Its pacing is deliberately slow-fast: kinetic pieces of action are followed by languorous sequences where the Major dreams of her robotic rebirth and then relives that dream by floating on the ocean. The Puppet Master chooses her as his mate because they are alike. "He" is a program used for corporate espionage trying to escape his masters. She is an assassin who's body and soul is owned by the corporation that made it (one that dictates she has to be naked in order for her invisibility to function). In the middle of the film there is an at-first bewilderingly long set-piece where she wanders New Port City, soundtracked by a Japanese choir (borrowing the harrowing vocal tones of Bulgarian folk music). The metropolitan anomie is given a cybernetic gloss as the sequence ends on a shot of shop window mannequins. Kusanagi dreams of a new life beyond the borders of this one, just as the Puppet Master desires a life beyond the networks he traverses.

At the beginning of the film, Kusanagi explains the dangers of specialisation to a new recruit, saying that unpredictability and adaptation are necessary to make the unit stronger. The Puppet Master uses the same arguments at the end to convince Kusanagi into a sexual (in the biological sense) union. Rather than living forever and reproducing endless copies of himself, he desires a dynamic system where death and difference is the norm. The film overlays this fusion with sexual, violent and religious imagery. Sex inevitably entails death, as it is the activity that allows for our replacement. Just before the union is complete, Kusanagi witnesses an angel descending over her, blessing the new bond. The sense is that they have both transitioned into a higher order system, that much closer to the gods. But it is just as easy to read this as the machine not only generating its own ghost, but a sense of the numinous humans have evolved with.

That final showdown between the Major and the tank is not set to a thumping techno soundtrack. Instead, it speeds up the juxtaposition of kinetic and meditative scenes running through the film, and overlays it with mellow flute washes evoking the immemorial past. It is a samurai duel in the 21st century, set against the backdrop of a phylogenetic tree of life, shot to pieces by modern machinery. The symbolic richness on display is characteristic of the film, in which every element – the voice in the lake, the three different cases (which are three different chapters in the manga) – is weaved together in ways only multiple viewings can unravel. That mixture of depth and directness is what makes it a great film.

17.11.13

The Little Norse Prince

When I borrowed this DVD, I didn't realise just how old the film is. It's part of the Studio Ghibli Collection, but it was made before the Studio even existed, all the way back in 1968. Miyazaki was an animator, and it's the debut feature by Isao Takahata, who went on to direct the seminal Grave of the Fireflies. While The Little Norse Prince is a kids film, with lots of cute talking animals and songs, some of the social and political concerns of Takahata's later work can be found here in embryonic form. Most notably, the emphasis placed early and often on the importance of the community acting as a single force against external enemies. Grunwald, the sorcerer villain, has wolves, owls and sea-monsters as his servants, and can represent both a manifestation of the malevolence of the natural world and the individualistic domination of it by arrogant humans. He offers eternal life to chosen 'siblings', but this comes at the expense of the humanity held in common with your fellow man. Hilda professes to be alone but not lonely, but becomes bitterly conflicted when observing the wedding rituals of the community. The film even includes a subtle suggestion of sexual frustration and jealousy in the character, when the other women laugh at her because she doesn't know how to use a "needle". Our straight-laced hero Hols doesn't always stick to the script – going off to confront the Big Bad on his own. But these forays are not conclusively successful. Only when he unites the village around him does he prevail against Grunwald. His "Sword of the Sun" is pulled out of a stone – he is a king-in-training who unifies and focuses the general will. The parallel with the constitutional role of the Japanese Emperor is all too apparent.

14.11.13

"At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
Elevation without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
The resolution of its partial horror.
Yet the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body,
Protects mankind from heaven and damnation
Which flesh cannot endure." - T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

10.11.13

Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night

Herzog's Dracula is interesting for a number of reasons. First and most importantly, he is played by Klaus Kinski, who brings his unique combination of spellbinding charisma and sense of the ridiculous to the role. At one point Herzog has him running across an empty town square at night, revelling in the disease and confusion he has introduced into the community. Herzog also makes Kinski carry his own coffins into his ruined castle (no removal van for him), tip-toeing around like a pantomime villain. But he isn't a safe, fun figure, Kinski's commanding presence shines through the heavy make-up. His first confrontation with Harker is edge-of-the-seat stuff.

This mix is all to Herzog's purpose, as his Dracula is more anti-heroic than the all-powerful fiend in the original novel. Herzog is interested in the toll immortality has exerted. It's a "curse". The Count establishes his belligerence in his first conversation with Harker, empathising with the soul of the wolf hunting his prey. But before he signs the contract for his new house, he talks about no longer enjoying the pleasures of youth: fountains and daylight. Living for countless centuries has made him a shadowy, lonely figure.

The familiar theme of aristocratic corruption is touched on. The vampire in his castle is literally sucking the life blood of the peasant population around him. The struggle between reason and superstition also features. Van Helsing, the man with the plan in Stoker's novel, is a neutered figure in Herzog's film. Rather Lucy, who is the victim in the novel, emerges as the preternaturally aware, self-sacrificing saviour. Lucy, played by the luminous Isabelle Adjani, maintains that human beings act on belief rather than reason. Great deeds are often (terminally) foolish. Crosses and superstitions work as wards against nightly terrors. The Count obviously believes in, and is affected by, them.

Adjani is also the only one able to stand up to Kinski directly, calling out his thirst not for sex and violence but for love, the kind not even a god can destroy. Nosferatu's famous shadow creeps over the family home. He peers through the window like the beggar at Christmas. Adjani ensnares Kinski not by seducing him, but by mothering him. Kinski gives suck like a monstrous baby in his final scene. The lone wolf, the predator, just wants to be human.

However, when Harker is revealed as a vampire at the end of the film, he doesn't heed Dracula's lesson. Instead, he grins at the possibilities living death can provide to experience the world to the full. Dracula himself chose to reside in impossibly inhospitable but awesomely beautiful mountains, learning to appreciate the silence of the natural world. Harker rides out seeking the same supra-human vistas, forgetting that he, in time, will also be reduced to the second childishness that finally ruined Dracula.

Just worth noting that allegations have been made about animal cruelty during the making of this film. None of it is clear from the images in the film itself, but it's something that patrons of Herzog should be aware of. Having seen Aguirre, the Wrath of God and imagining the insanely dangerous shoot it must have been (those horses on those leaky rafts...), I'm not entirely surprised Herzog is less than professional in these matters. The man's a genius, but he deserves censure for that.

27.10.13

Sandcastle

The artist of this French comic gives a good interview here, talking about the Twilight Zone / "cruel fairy tale" nature of the story and how the comic form allows you to represent sped-up time better than films (which require naturalism-undermining CGI) or prose (where the pacing is slower). Should be said that the artistic challenge of drawing rapidly-ageing bodies is met pretty well, although I didn't always like the cartoony artwork, which over-emphasised facial features in order to make the characters clearly distinguishable.

The interview didn't touch on the rather interesting cold open the story has: an aerial shot of the costal landscape, plunging deep into the sea water, through an underwater cave and up to reveal a placid shore. In a way quite cinematic, in that it's very much about the movement of "the camera". But if it's true that CGI is an imposition on live-action, then the effect would be (slightly) different if it was on film. I suspect CGI may be good (and ubiquitous) enough for audiences to not experience it as an imposition if it appeared in an otherwise quite naturalistic setting. But if I'm wrong, comics still do have a niche to fill in this area.

More interesting than that is the symbolism which accompanies the introduction to the geography of the story, particularly the underwater cave section where the reader undergoes a kind of birth: through the watery hole and up for air, the path of life stretching away on the shore. This is followed by a sequence in which a mysterious man on the cliffs notices a woman on the beach taking off her clothes and jumping into the sea: a kind of sexual awakening metaphor. He walks away, but the final sequence is of him turning back to see her floating on the seawater, and then looking down in resignation. Later we learn that the woman is dead. So we go through a kind of birth-life-death cycle right at the beginning of the story. The silence of the images also establishes the right eerie tone, setting up a nice contrast with the buzzing activity of the arriving holiday-makers who are thrown into this creepy setting and situation.

The mystery is never explained, although a science fiction author advances a couple of theories. It's a fable – something underlined by the bedtime story told at the end about a king who builds a fortress against death which only serves to cut him off from his family. A link is drawn with the obsessive sandcastle-building the doctor succumbs to. He forgets wife and children in the pursuit of transient and ephemeral life projects. However, some projects are more ephemeral than others. The bedtime story includes the king looking over to a distant mountain and realising that he has never touched a snowflake. Similarly, one of the children regrets that he did not try to escape by climbing the cliffs when he was younger and healthier. I think the creators are trying to valorise projects which seek an understanding of and settlement with the natural world. But this is motivated by the same impulses as the need to build castles of sand (those unphilosophical castles in the air castigated by the Scottish Enlightenment), a body of knowledge not secured to and tested by the experience of nature. The final scene is of the surviving member of the group tapping out the beginnings of another sandcastle – obviously not learning the mistakes of his forebears.

13.10.13

Grave of the Fireflies

I had been forewarned that this was not only a brilliant WW2 film but a guaranteed tear-jerker, so I watched it with a guarded attitude, not wanting to give in to whatever emotional manipulation was in store. I'm quite glad I did, because while the film does not manipulate you and I was locked out of sharing the intense impact it has on others, another aspect does open up when you approach it in this way.

The firefly metaphor can't help but encourage readings of the film as a critique of the senseless destruction of war. The fireflies represent the people caught up in the war, and more broadly of the brief lives we all lead, and the fate we all share. In one scene, they remind the protagonist of watching a naval parade, and all the proud, patriotic and violent feelings the spectacle stirred within him. He sits up shooting an imaginary machine gun at the air, but the night is peaceful, underlining the embarrassing nature of the outburst.

But there is more buried under this rather unsubtle metaphor. For one, the director has made explicitly clear that the film does not contain a pacifist message. Instead, he draws attention to how the brother and sister fail to survive because of their decision to isolate themselves from kith and kin. This is a difficult perspective to get because we are so invested in Seita and Setsuko's story and their aunt really is mean and conniving. Nonetheless, it is inescapably true that their decision to live apart and alone dooms them both in the end. Independence and individualism is seductive but dangerous. When the film mourns the death of Setsuko, we don't look back to her life before the film starts. We only get images of her playing in the cave – when she was most free, but also when she was most vulnerable.

The end of the film shows the ghosts of Seita and Setsuko looking over a city, an effect Scorsese pinched for his Gangs of New York. Japan's current prosperity is built over the suffering of the generation that experienced the war, and Isao Takanaka may have intended the shot to be a pointed reminder of that fact. If so, the siblings emerge as more noble than the decadent present generation, but they have also made the same mistake – succumbing to a very modern individualist ideal and rejecting the ties that bind a community together.

11.10.13

Ghost World

The most recent convocation of the Islington Comics Forum (a local institution where I now get my words + pictures from) had this on the agenda, and there was just too little time to dig into one of the central questions posed by the book, which is why in the seven hells is it called Ghost World? The phrase is graffitied everywhere around the unnamed town the characters inhabit, and one semi-official explanation is that it refers to "the fact that the town's individuality is being encroached upon by franchises that are seen everywhere". But what about that sequence at the very end of the book, when Enid comes across the mysterious artist responsible for the graffiti? What's THAT about?

Earlier in the book, Enid is excited about meeting "David Clowes" – a stand in for the author of her comic – at a signing. The guy turns out to be a creep, and Clowes may be aiming this episode at writers unselfconciously creating their very own fantasy girlfriends in their work. Clowes is not doing that, and I learn just now that Enid Coleslaw is actually an anagram for Daniel Clowes, which further underlines his determination to keep his protagonist very close, not letting any 'other-ing' distort his account.

That piece of meta prepares us for Enid's second encounter with a manifestation of her author. Because that is who I believe the guy with the paint can and brush leaving all those "Ghost World"s is. Clowes is literally branding his creation, imposing a unifying metaphor over it. But as his central character approaches for answers, he literally runs away from providing any. In that scene, he divests himself of the responsibility of giving a moral to his tale, or a direction for Enid. The book ends on the exactly the opposite of a deus ex machina – God isn't revealed in the machine, He leaves it.

6.10.13

The Seventh Seal

Bergman says the knight and squire in the film manifest two attitudes to faith that wrestled within him at the time of making – a remnant of naïve piety and his adult cold rationality. He allows these two to lay out their stalls without conflict, they mostly stay out of each others way. The squire's (very Shakespearian) skepticism is immediate and winning, although the horrors of the medieval world make Gunnar Björnstrand rather bitter: he's more Jaques than Touchstone. Max Von Sydow gives a very intense performance, eyes always trying to pierce the inner significance of things. God's silence is not so much a source of desolation as of frustration. WHY doesn't he answer? And more importantly, if he doesn't exist WHY are we constantly plagued with the idea of his perfection? At the end, his squire says he could have offered his master medicine that would have quenched this thirst. We can live content without the dissatisfaction of forever being separated from the divine, although the knight does not have the opportunity to learn how to do this. Death (or the plague) claims them all.

Well, almost all. The existential musings of the knight and squire is contrasted with what Bergman describes as the holy within humanity, portrayed by a "holy family" of itinerant actors. The father even expresses the hope of his young son being able to work miracles, although only for entertainment purposes. Their act aims to distract and amuse an audience in a village, but their efforts are quashed when a procession of self-flagellating divines interrupt proceedings and whip up the crowd with visions of impending apocalypse. Bergman says the mural-painter in the church is a stand-in for his own attitude to art, in that you make what you are paid for. But the character also talks about how the image of death is far more potent and captivating that that of a bawd. In the middle of the film, the "holy family"supply an alternative sacrament to the company – wild strawberries and milk – much sweeter than the Christian fare. It offers a moment of peace for the knight, but he is drawn back to his game with Death. Distraction for him is momentary, the struggle for answers continues unabated.

4.10.13

Distant Voices, Still Lives

Character and plot are largely dispensed with in this film. What you get instead is the evocation of a time and place through images and songs. I'm amazed it was ever made – a film built entirely on the film-maker's personal memories of growing up in Liverpool in the 1940s and 50s. And they are very obviously memories. Many shots are composed like photographs, the family sitting still waiting for the shutter. The camera moves only very slowly and determinedly, sometimes literally shifting the audience from one scene to the next. One great example is the pan down the street into darkness that arrives at the family praying at an indoor shrine surrounded by candles. Immersion is resisted at every point. We drift through the world the film sets before us, but we are never part of it.

Pete Postlethwaite's violence is introduced early. Terrence Davies knows to put the most shocking scene at the beginning so we know exactly what's going on and how bad it is. But explanation or insight is avoided: what does a child understand of the roots of evil? This is a time when such behaviour remained unquestioned and accepted as part of the fabric of reality. Revolt and rebuke, when it arrives at the end of the film, is quickly shut down (although the daughter's forwardness contrasts with the mother's silence, and is a sign of things to come).

Although dissent is repressed, the community finds its voice in song. The film is full of them. People sing at weddings or when the bombs are falling, happy or sad or bored. At the end of the film we see the crowd of unbrellas outside a cinema, and the crowded screening inside. In another scene, someone shouts for a record to be put on to cheer everyone up. One of the themes of the film seems to be the cultural revolution brought about by the recording of sound and moving image. One scene that particularly struck me is the babysitter waiting outside an open door to be invited in – she starts singing to herself, and ends up doing a little dance in the doorway. What would I do in her situation now? Probably twiddle with my MP3 player whilst flicking through twitter. Boredom having been comprehensively annihilated, we've almost forgotten what it was like when you had to make your own fun. This film serves as a museum exhibit for a lost culture before recording and storing entertainment was possible.

Why Distant Voices, Still Lives? The film is composed of two sections shot two years apart. And while inter-titles come up to introduce the first as Distant Voices and the second as Still Lives, the film appears to me to be a unified whole: voices and stills – songs and images – from (a personal) history recreated and frozen in amber. The distance is that of memory, in which human lives are preserved unchanging. Davies is using the instruments that destroyed the customs and community of his youth to document it, and I suspect the title is drawing attention to this central irony.

21.9.13

Onibaba

The filmmaker had previously made a movie about peasants scraping by on an island, and that Marxist valourisation of the underclass may carry over into this film. That is what the DVD introduction suggests, anyway. The war is endless – samurai lead hordes of commoners to their deaths – and two women who are left behind have to rely on murder and looting corpses in order to survive. Onibaba (demon-hag) is a spirit in Japanese folklore, but I'm not sure if it's just this political background that draws the demons out.

The film opens on a shot of a hole in the ground surrounded by the tall swaying grass. This continues to be a repeating visual motif. Scenes are separated by shots of the grass rustling in the wind in slow motion, almost sensually swaying in the sun. At the beginning of the film, intertitles come up informing us that this hole in the grass has been here since the dawn of time. Hachi, in seducing his dead friend's widow, tells her that men and women have been copulating for thousands of years, and that her mother-in-law's talk of sin is a fabrication. In one scene, Hachi, mad with lust, is running in the field and stumbles across the hole. Not the kind he was looking for, but he still goes ahead and inserts his voice into it, receiving a pleasing echo. A crude symbol, but the film is not above using them. The widow is shown carrying an empty bucket of water when Hachi starts flirting with her. Hachi at his horniest grabs a blade and starts stabbing the air and grass outside.

And the mother-in-law, the demon-hag, intrudes on these bubbling desires. She needs the marriage contract to remain in place so that the young widow remains bound to her. So she warns her against Hatchi, then tries to seduce him instead. Finally, she turns to superstition – frightening her daughter-in-law back into her cage. She acquires the demon-mask from 'the most handsome man in Kyoto'. She confesses to him that she has never seen anything beautiful: her sexuality is twisted into resentment and murderous anger at the powers that be.

She is despicable: callous and manipulative. But when she wails that underneath the mask and her disfigurement she is human after all, we can't help but sympathise. If she is a demon, it is because she is desperate, fending for herself amidst an eternal brutal war and betrayed by the capricious wantoness of the young. Those twin pressures swallow her up. The hole amidst the grass ends up being her grave.

29.8.13

Through A Glass Darkly

The DVD includes a little excerpt from Bergman's autobiography where he writes about this film. It's a difficult account to get your head around, perhaps because it's a translation, perhaps because Bergman thinks REALLY deeply and seriously about his work (far more than I have done, goes w/o saying). Leaving aside the rather dull debate about whether this constitutes the first part of a trilogy or not (haven't seen the other two, so what do I care?) What was interesting about Bergman's take is that he regretted including the father-son scene at the end. I find this odd because that coda does tie-up a thread left hanging from the conversation between the father and the husband half-way through the film, where the former says he'll reveal what that hope was that saved him from suicide. That scene was so dense I had to watch it twice, and from it the father does emerge as the most interesting character in the piece, much more than Harriet Andersson or Max von Sydow, who Bergman believes delivered the best performances (and sidebar, just how harsh was he about Lars Passgård!)

Gunnar Björnstrand (the father) had recently converted to Catholicism, and Bergman suggests that this made him deliver his lines in bad faith, as if he wasn't truly invested. Which sounds really strange to me because that's (quite explicity!) what the character is all about! The father's bestselling novels flirt with faith and doubt, but the 'truth' is that these themes are tricks and evasions disguising the 'void' of detached unfeeling that is the core of his being. For the purposes of the film's narrative, this manifests as the temptation to mine his daughter's real-life breakdown for themes to supercharge his fiction and achieve that poetic immortality that has so far eluded him. But in that suicide attempt, something did emerge from the void. A love for his son and daughter, of the kind the husband has. The husband cannot imagine leaving his ill wife, his love traps him, he has no freedom. During the trip to Switzerland, similar feelings have been activated for the father as well.

In that final scene, the father rather soppily puts forward the idea that God cannot be found anywhere but in the human capacity to love. Love, hope and God are bound up together. The hope being that the daughter can recover. The method, love. The malady, the lack of love. The side-effect, the God delusion. What is suggested here is that Karin's schizophrenia is caused by her need for an father-figure. Her real father is unreachable, so she imagines another one. In the climactic scene in the attic, she is waiting for God to step into the room. Her father is framed by the doorway, but paralised with shock and unable to come in.

Bergman's notes on Karin's illness are scattershot, suggesting to me that he developed her character very organically, so I'm not sure how much there is to read into the voices she hears or her seduction of her brother. The siblings both demonstrate greater powers of imagination than their father. The husband is perhaps the least spiritually sensitive of the lot, describing himself as a simple man able to face up to life and the real world. He is a doctor and a scientist, and finds it impossible to pray with his wife in her madness. Karin is frigid with him, but flirtatious with her talanted brother, and her yearning for God (the father) is partly sexual. Her husband is a good soul, but he's also patronising (all those diminuitive pet names, my "little child"), and I want to read her illness as a result of her being trapped, creatively and sexually, in an unfulfilling marriage (just as the husband feels trapped, in fact). This territory is definitely covered in Persona, but I'm not sure if it's anything more than background here.

Bergman dedicated this film to his wife (at the time). He describes the way they fell in love through writing letters to each other, opening each other up that way, and then slowly drifting apart as they lost a common language to communicate in. The only way this feeling makes it into the film is the father's desperate attempt to cover up his detachment from his family. And the film, unlike the marriage, ends on a hopeful note, with a relationship being established between the father and son. It IS a soppy ending, it DOES disperse some of the tension of the previous scenes, but its content is crucial to making sense of what came before. Dramatic heft is sacrificed for thematic clarity, and it's clear (from Persona) that Bergman increasingly preferred not to make that trade-off.

26.8.13

She's Gotta Have It

Nola’s “body and soul” are hers, and she refuses to permanently transfer ownership to anyone, preferring to lend it temporarily to three (or more) men. So there is a problem with presenting her three suitors as facets of the “ideal” man. As suggested here, the film presents “a post-Freudian play on the id/ego/superego concept (roughly transposed to gratification/self-worth/conscience), each of her suitors adds up to the one, complete man”. If that’s true, then when the right guy comes along Nola should drop all her pretentions to self-possession and submit herself to the marriage contract, which is not actually how the film ends. Instead, Jamie is very blatantly set up as Mr. Right (to the point where colour invades the screen for his birthday present to Nola). Nola says she loves him… for now. But she remains determined to avoid monogamy and matrimony, and it is heavily implied at the end that she leaves him.

As Mr. Right is also the guy who rapes her to prove a point (Who’s pussy is this? It’s not yours!) I’m right behind Nola when she walks away, and super disappointed when she caves in. Nola still lives in a society that expects women to belong to men, and we could all do with being more open-minded about the way people chose to structure their romantic relationships. My question is why in the hell would anyone want to spend their valuable time with Nola? I mean, she is beautiful and wealthy, so maybe if you’re shallow (Greer) or broke (Mars). But she is also JUST as boring as Jamie, if not more so. I’m mystified as to why he tries so hard! The problem with the film is that Tracy Camilla Johns fails to embody the liberated woman she is supposed to represent.

This is about acting, and there’s not a lot of it about here. The absolute worst is Nola’s father, who plays the piano very well but then delivers his lines atrociously to the camera, almost as if he’s reading the script aloud for the first time and is unsure exactly what the words mean. Lee himself is only passingly convincing as the smart-talking (though not actually that smart-mouthed) Mars. The film was made on a shoe-string, it’s a debut, and it shows. It may be historically significant and admirable in its ambition, but it’s still a failure, since for long stretches you simply don’t care whether Nola ends up with Jamie or not.

Punch-Drunk Love

Why does Emily Watson even bother? It’s a good question. I do have a fondness for these sorts of films: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Garden State, Adventureland – possibly the apotheosis was reached with Buffalo 66, where the female saviour’s patience is positively angelic rather than anything recognisably human. So why does it bug me now, when Paul Thomas Anderson does the same thing? Maybe I expect more from him. Or maybe I’ve become less patient.

Watson is an only child and a divorcee, while Sandler is running away from seven sisters and (by the looks of it) has never had a girlfriend. She may just be after a quick fix – both characters are so frustrated their sexual drives have become disturbingly violent (I want to crush your eyeballs with my teeth etc.) No doubt loneliness can make you pretty desperate. Once you interrogate the fairytale you wonder how long Watson will stick around. But that’s beside the point. The film isn’t really about Watson. It’s about the male protagonist, of course.

P.T. Anderson wanted to make an Adam Sandler movie that was also an “art film”. I guess that explains the looong drag-my-steady-cam-until-I-drop tracking shots, the gooey fluorescent lights and the random piano (sorry, harmonium). Beyond the stylistic bric-a-brac, Anderson also offers an investigation into what exactly the problem with Sandler might be. One clue is found in the brilliant and hilarious showdown with Phillip Seymour Hoffman at the end. Two ridiculous figures summoning up all their male pride to yell “FUCK YOU!” at each other, trying to get the last word in before walking away. Hoffman is the baddie because he’s a pimp who (literally) controls when his women speak. Sandler on the other hand ends up defending Watson from his stupidities and submitting to her beneficent care. He admits his lies in moments of tenderness. Under Watson’s tutelage, he might even be able to learn to live with himself. If she sticks around. But that question again: why should she?

24.8.13

La Dolce Vita

This film defined a certain era of cool even though its overt purpose is to undermine it. Not a surprise, since Fellini, like Marcello, hovers on the edge between gorging himself on the decadence around him and remaining true to a purer conception of the sweet life. It's an ironic title: the free-wheeling hedonism on display is overlaid with Catholic symbols: the moral certainty of a previous age gone haywire. The film opens with a statue of Jesus being flown to the Vatican, with Marcello and his film crew trailing behind distracted by sunbathing women. The flirting is disrupted by distance, noise and the work at hand. At the end of the film, Marcello is on a beach surrounded by revellers marvelling at a grotesue sea-creature. He has joined the orgy, it's a holiday all the time now. From across the estury, the "angelic" waitress calls to him, but he cannot hear her over the sound of the waves. He succumbs completely to the spiral that (as a fellow lost soul predicts) will result in complete depravity in a few years time. The inner voice of conscience, the divine spark, is drowned out by the chaos of the modern world.

Sylvia is a different kind of divinity - inhumanly tireless, infectiously sensual: a sprite escaped from the lands of Fairie (or is it America?). She's a sort of preternaturally glowing elemental being, a nymph from an earlier pagan culture and mythology. And in that role she annoints Marcello in the Fontana di Trevi. But then the night ends, she is slapped around by her husband, and goes into another day answering inane questions from insect-like reporters, trying to hold the act together. There is a kind of magic that is being fed to the celebrity press machine, but it turns out to be a fabrication, one that ensnares and cages the fabricators.

Religion is hardly put forward as the solution to the corruption of the 1950s. The orgy in the castle ends with morning mass, the sins of the night before washed away. Then there is the miracle of the Madonna sighting gathering huge crowds and television cameras, whipping up the kind of religious hysteria that leads to death. The church, as part of the establishment, is just as implicated in the sensationalisation and meaninglessness of modern life. There is no sweetness to be found here.

Marcello's turbulent (due to his constant philandering) relationship with his partner is contrasted with the serenity of Steiner's family life. It comes as a shock when it is revealed that Steiner kills his two children and himself because there isn't enough love in the universe. Fellini undercuts any notion of the nobility of the act by focusing on the wife, who apparently isn't worth saving from the world's evils. She learns about the destruction of her family surrounded by a pack of reporters crawling around her. Steiner's decision doesn't make any kind of sense, but by this point we are like Marcello: numb to all events around us.

A bit like Persona, can't escape the suspicion that the film is acclaimed partly because it evades a too precise thematic through-line, so you can read what you like into the succession of stories presented to you. The episodes in La Dolce Vita are not united by a singular narrative, neither do they contain within them concrete explanations for the decisions the characters make, or the world in which they live in. We are spectators partly enjoying and partly disapproving of the show, without really understanding what we are seeing. Perhaps that is the point. After all, the film is wrapped up in the concept of not hearing each other, not making that genuine connection to our real selves, that pure inner spirit.

In that light, the film could be compared to the kind of existential listlessness all those French authors fell into when they were confronted with the lack of divine purpose in the world. The religious structure to the universe taken away, what's to stop us from falling into the mire of mindless sensation? The mature response isn't suicide (Steiner) or nihilism (Marcello), but the acceptance of firmer explanations for the structure of our reality, relationships and society.

18.8.13

Solanin

Slice of life stuff about what happens after university and before you settle into the rest of your life. In the afterword, Inio Asano talks about her belief that "the most important messages in our lives don't come from musicians on stage or stars on television. They come from the average people all around you". Doesn't include comic book writers in that list, I notice. But then, she (or maybe a he now) wants to draw manga that is "true" to herself. Is art just about representing the lived-in experiences of the circle around you? Is the best art reducible to autobiography? To be fair, some of my favourite comics (Maus, Blankets, Fun Home) certainly fit that description...

Reading through Sandman at the moment for an upcoming thing I'm involved in – originally a kind of hate-reading since I didn't much like the series, but now I'm getting into it – and Neil Gaiman believes something very different. He is a fantasy / horror writer after all, so it's expected that he would want to go on about the "truths" buried in the myths and stories that structure our lives. So far I don't think he's all that successful at it (blood-sworn allegiance to Pratchett, Whedon, Wolfe, rep to the death etc.) But the point stands.

Did Asano go through the bereavement her protagonist Meiko goes through in the book? I don't know, but if not, then that injection of fiction (of myth-making) is an untruth that serves to reveal truths about the characters. A device maybe, a narrative trick (and not a hugely innovative one – imagine Sandman will do something similar at the end). But Naruo is the carrier of a set of attitudes that spreads enlightenment across the rest of the dramatis personae. A fictional tragic hero as much as (if not more than) a real person.

I quite liked the fact that this ideal boyfriend is stuffed in the refrigerator in order to provide the girlfriend with motivation for her subsequent music-making activities. The problem is that the dude is by no means the wise and noble truth-speaker the book sets him up to be. I shouldn't need to point this out, but disappearing for five days without telling the girlfriend you live with (and who pays your rent!) is a textbook example of a dickish move. Also, there's very little trace of irony in the scene where Meiko's mother basically hands responsibility for the care of her daughter to her boyfriend (patriarchal assumptions and contracts alive and well, I see!)

Sounds like I'm hating on this quite a bit. I actually found it quite affecting, particularly as I am in exactly the same age and situation as the characters, and it IS true to life, it DOES have an important message. I liked the way the book was set out, with friendships drifting across and apart, as if everyone was in their own boat trying to float the same way. I even liked the earnest crappy poetry of the conversations and monologues, which aims at some deep and meaningful self-awareness but often comes across confused and ridiculous. Because there IS a truth to that as well. Those emotions and sensations are very effectively evoked. I've spent a bit of time in Tokyo, and I recognise the places and people in Asano's pages.

A note on the craft: I've read quite a lot of anglophone comics, but I'm not a veteran manga reader, so it was interesting for me to see the differences in the way the page was used. For example, the fact that each chapter was only ~12 pages long (rather than 22) and had an average of 4 panels a page (rather than 6). But it's almost all in B&W, which I guess makes it easier to churn out on a weekly basis. It's also really common for scenes to end in the middle of the page: probably designed to keep you reading, but also a great way to loosen up the transitions and have text run over to the next scene (very awkward when comics do that over the page). In several chapters in Solanin, a dramatic episode unfolds alongside a comic one, before being united at the end – a very satisfying balancing act. Finally, the book often enlarges captions to panel size, white on black. Still rare in comics (although apparently Si Spurrier is fond of doing this as well). Momentary blinks, pauses for thought, or a way to highlight thoughts of particular significance. In one scene, these black panels alternate with panels of the protagonist lying in bed trying to explain how she feels to her friend. Speech bubbles run into the captions, and it's like she can say only a fraction of the things going through her mind. It's a brilliant way to use the language of comics, and it's true as well.

16.8.13

Persona

What to make of this? David Thomson: “Persona is about an actress who has a breakdown. She dries up on the stage and becomes speechless in life. Alone on an island with a talkative nurse, she listens and gradually absorbs the nurse – part actress taking up a new role, part emotional vampire”. In one of the final scenes the nurse opens a vein and forces the actress to suck her blood, so if it’s vampirism the victim is entirely willing, although she hates her tormentor (and herself) for it. A film about celebrity and fandom, then?

Or the most widely held view, according to Wikipedia: “Bergman and Elisabet share the same dilemma: they cannot respond authentically to catastrophes (such as the Holocaust or the Vietnam War). The actress Elisabet responds by no longer speaking: by contrast the filmmaker Bergman emphasizes the necessary illusions enabling us to live.” Elisabet shuts up before being confronted with newsreel from Vietnam or the photograph depicting the persecution of Jews in Poland, but nevertheless her dissatisfaction with the theatre may have something to do with its petty and inadequate nature when compared with genuine human tragedy. Why waste your time with art when you could be looking at something real? Something to that reading as well...

Or what about the two long confessional monologues, the first about the repressed sexual desires of a recently married twenty-something, the last about the fear and hatred of children and the wish to escape the bonds and responsibilities of motherhood. A film about women trapped in patriarchal family systems, having to perform as wives and mothers and defer sexual or existential satisfaction. A feminist reading works too, it seems...

Or what about the prelude that frames the narrative (such as it is). A light coming on, a line of film wheeling past, images flashing: sex, laughter, death – constituent parts of a million stories. A boy wakes up amongst corpses (the individual always ultimately separated from his fellows and alone) reading a book and becoming mesmerised by the actress on the cinema screen (art providing that sense of connection). Is the boy Bergman? At one of the dramatic peaks of the narrative, the film warps and burns up. At the end, the camera swings from the scene to show the film crew. A post-modern film, then – drawing attention to its artificial nature — becoming a film about our need for films.

I could go on, and many appear to have done so. Is it just me, or is there something slightly underwhelming about the sheer range of options being offered? Persona presents a whole tangled mass of signification, and it’s impossible to straighten it out into a single unified whole of a film. Different people latch onto different moments and meanings, and by the great variety of readings available somehow it becomes a consensus pick for great moment in movie history.

Apparently it was originally called A Bit of Cinematography, to emphasise its artificiality perhaps. The name would prepare you for the narrative being put in the service of photographic effects. What you get is bits not quite fitting together, explorations of a heap of themes composed of the same elements (cast, crew, set). I was left hungering for some sort of clarity – a sense of purpose. Perhaps the film is ultimately about how this doesn’t exist. Personas aren’t singular wholes, but unique collections of fragments gathered together by our engagement with the world, and with each other.

Looper

Why they don’t zap them into the middle of the ocean is not really explained, but as Bruce Willis tells JGL (an acronym now, my friends tell me) in the diner scene (heavy on Heat overtones) – we’ll be here all day if we start going into the mechanics of how it all works. There will be diagrams! he threatens. Let’s just leave it alone and attend to violent matters at hand, why don’t we?

And the advice is well worth taking, because this is a science-fiction film for only as long as it takes to set up the central metaphor of “looping” – the past impacting on the present and future. For a lot of the time, Rian Johnson is back in noir territory, and he has a curious and problematic way of defining this space.

The future is your typical crumbling metropolitan dystopia. If you overlap it with the one portrayed in Children of Men, it would be difficult to spot the seams. As Emily Blunt suggests, we have arrived here because we are in a motherless world. The men in the city all look lost because they haven’t had Emily Blunt equivalents to stroke their hair when they were growing up. Tellingly, the film has only three significant female characters: a cynical whore in the city, a loving wife in the country, and Ms Blunt, whose character arc spans both environments.

All this is noir to the very bone. Men need women to love and civilize them, otherwise they become rapacious beasts. Noir heroes worship a feminine deity which fixes their moral compass – the goddess is everywhere in chains, and must be protected as a knight protects his lady (parallels, sometimes explicit, with courtly love abound.)* It’s all up to the acetic outsider fighting the swelling tides of corruption and being swallowed up. And he can be fooled: the femme fatale escapes victimhood by exploiting her sexual allure to recruit champions that will defend her interests.

Looper’s femme fatale isn’t patronised or vilified, she is proud and independent enough NOT to take Joe Junior’s money and run. Even the silent loving wife has some spunk, giving Joe Senior the finger the first time she sees him. But they both fall into their prescribed roles pretty quickly, and Blunt’s character simply moves between the two options available. Joe Junior recognises that the traditional, family-orientated female role is proper and necessary if the world is to be saved, and the film is right behind him on this. The whore that sells her hair-stroking services is offering a balm that doesn’t cure the wound. She’s not interested in family, having alternative projects in mind, and so the city continues to rot.

It's all noir’s fault. This is what you get when you adhere to the conventions of the genre. But conventions are there to be played with, no? And we’re running out of excuses when it comes to lending a bit of edge to fundamentally unchanging gender roles. Why not make some more radical changes that widen the avenues women can take in noir? Why are none of the Loopers women? Why shouldn’t the superhero/villain be a girl? Will it really undermine the central (and politically innocuous) message that criminality is partly a product of your upbringing?

*What I love about Sin City is that it makes all these assumptions in noir so flipping obvious (cf. the wry references to Lancelot and Galahad). The arch tone of the books and film goes some way towards undermining the creepy sexual politics the stories revolve around.

31.7.13

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

I picked this up because Kode9 had said it was a favourite in one of his Red Bull Academy Lectures, before playing something from the soundtrack. I had forgotten until I watched it that the famous intro to Burial’s ‘Gutted’ was taken from the film as well. The exhortation to stick to the old-school ways was universally interpreted as a declaration of loyalty to the hardcore continuum, which through a Ghost Dog lens becomes not just an aesthetic preference but a way of life.

Some of the aspects of Ghost Dog that I suspect appeal to these traditionalist dubstep dudes is stuff that I find a bit enervating. The central character is intense but introverted. He absorbs some esoteric meaning from books and music, but articulates it in the simplest terms. It’s almost as if this secret knowledge is beyond the bounds of speech, cannot be encompassed within our current concrete explanations for things. You just know, you know? Or perhaps the relationship between these aphorisms and the events we observe barely exists at all. It’s the portent, the stance and style, that’s important. And it’s not always easy to take seriously. Terrence Whittaker is so focused on being deep (that middle-distance expression, those droopy eyelids) that for large parts of the film he looks like he is about to fall asleep.

Or maybe the reason we don’t understand the Way of the Samurai is because it IS ancient. The film suggests that some of its values are recoverable: the girl Ghost Dog befriends correctly identifies the most significant story in Rashomon. However, she is still an initiate, and reacts with horror at the fate Ghost Dog must submit to. The film portrays his sacrifice as noble, even though the value system being celebrated is absurdly medieval (unquestioning obedience to the lord who holds your life in bondage). Why this becomes a standard for purity in a corrupt world that has ~moved on~ is deeply confusing.

I prefer to read character as a victim rather than a hero. Ghost Dog is an apt name, a faithful hound defending his owner to the death. As the family he protects turns against him, he looks to free himself from his conditioning, but the test of his principles at the end is too great. He remains a tool – an object used for other people’s ends (possibly set by the mysterious daughter of the gangster clan). There is something frustrating about the failure to escape, to move on. The way of the samurai is something Ghost Dog remains stuck in. Should we really lionize him for it, as Goodman and Bevan do?

26.7.13

Taxi Driver

My favourite scene is Travis watching television with a gun in his hand and eating mayonnaise with a spoon from a jar on his lap. With his foot he pushes the TV slowly over as the soap opera romantic betrayal unfolds. The scene encapsulates both the character's yearning to escape a closed autoerotic cycle through violence and the desire to take sadistic revenge for being rejected by society (and its women). In the making-of documentary, the film's writer Paul Schrader says the script started out as an exploration of loneliness (which is made explicit in the voiceover at the beginning). But as Schrader wrote it, he discovered that it was turning into a study of the way loneliness was self-imposed through contradictory behaviour: puritanism and pornography, exercise and drug abuse. It's THIS stuff – fear of women particularly – that lies behind Travis's evolving eccentricity and extremism. The assassination attempt at the rally is partly inspired by envy, the presidential candidate's "here is..." being far more accomplished that the solitary ravings of a taxi driver in his apartment. Likewise the chaotic raid on the brothel. Both of the blond-haired ladies he wishes to save look to other male figures for protection: politicians, pimps and gangsters providing greater avenues for freedom (Iris's mention of "Women's Lib" is only partly ironic) than messianic fantasists.

The white knight turns out to be a bumbling Quixote. The film puts the archetype of the noir anti-hero under a series of stress tests under which he is revealed to be a pathetic neo-nazi. The ending underlies the danger of celebrating such reactionary impulses. The lonely outsider isn't an conscientious ascetic refusing to participate in the corruption around him, he is infected by it on a far more insidious level. The retreat from society reinforces paranoid and exaggerated ideas about it, which make it less likely for you to be able to change anything. And yet the taxi driver's crusade makes all the papers and he walks free, seeing visions of lost repenting women in the night. How long before he finds another blond beauty to defend, other black enemies to destroy?

6.7.13

The Bulletproof Coffin

Fitting to read this shortly after Flex Mentallo, since it's also a meta-comic about the history of comics. Kane and Hine focus slightly more on the subject of creators rights and how they've been squashed under the mighty Big 2 Publishing (the villains of the piece). The Creators end up cashing in and leaving the more innocent era behind, implicating themselves in the death of their characters (although two are allowed a kind of un-dead existence at the end). That's what the whole comic is: a brief revival of things we have moved on from. In the world of modern comics, it's a zombie. Unlike Morrison, Hine and Kane don't offer anything 'new' here – in their hands Bulletproof Coffin becomes a pastiche of 'old' stories and styles. What saves it from being completely moribund is Kane's colourful artwork and Hine's arch narrative, which is impressively taught and organised for a story this chaotic.

30.6.13

Favourite songs of 2013 (so far)

We're half way through the year so it's a fitting time to take stock (and make a list obv.) Very rough order because I've yet to fully digest everything on here (not to mention the slowly unfolding qualities of the Boards of Canada and Zomby albums). Lots of cheating regarding timings as well, paying attention to release dates rather than anything else (so there's stuff that I imagine has been floating around for a while on here). Same rules as before, adored albums push up individual entries:

1. Cassie feat. Jeremih - Sound of Love
[Updating '773 Love' for 2013. The best bit is Cassie gasping for breath after confessing she finds it hard to breathe when around her illicit romantic liaison.]

2. Stylo G - Soundbwoy
[So ubiquitous and undeniable that even the UK broadsheets have annointed it this year's consensus summer jam.]

3. Dawn Richard - Tug of War
[Repping for most of the Goldenheart album, the choice pick changes every month or so – was 'Gleaux' until recently. There's going to be another one at the end of the year as well? The whole project is a bit overwhelming but definitely worth the work.]

4. Charli XCX - Take My Hand
[Repping for most of the True Romance album. Have been following Charli since her 2011 singles, which I liked, thought not as much as other things. Now her whole output is becoming far more vital for me. The DIY imperfections overcome by earnestness – my kind of pop star.]

5. Friction & Skream feat. Scrufizzer, P Money & Riko Dan - Kingpin
[P Money's latest mixtape was a bit crap, wasn't it? His verse here is also a let down, they should have just given Riko a go (Riko should have a go on everything, living legend doesn't get his due). Meanwhile Scru starts out aping Dizzee and slowly speeds up into the hyper-fast flow that made his name. A joy. Probably my favourite thing Skream has been involved in, which is funny b/c he threw it out there and then started doing house like the rest of the world. Ah well.]

6. DJ Q feat. Louise Williams - Trust Again
[Better than anything Disclosure will ever put their name to. Eagerly awaiting the album.]

7. Wen - Nightcrawler
[Always associate Royal-T with Rockwell for no good reason other than they came up at the same time, their names begin with the same letter, and they are the best racehorse in their particular stable. Now Wen and Woz are tied up together in exactly the same way. Funny the way the mind works.]

8. Le Youth - C O O L (Ben Pearce Remix)
[This is just another in what must be endless millions of billowy house trax sampling Cassie vox, but it's my favoured selection, so there.]

9. Kidnap Kid feat. Sinead Harnett - So Close
[Low-key pining about failing to be your beau's dream girl, but you keep trying and trying and trying to approximate and get as close as you can. Lovely and loving the way it quietly aches. Digging through Black Butter back catalogue at the moment, it's proving to be well worth it.]

10. Kahn feat. Flow Dan - Badman City
[Updating 'Say Nothin' for 2013. Flow Dan's small but significant output can definitely support a case for him as the best dubstep MC of all time.]

11. Walton - Homage
[Demented 2-step is how I reacted when I heard it played out. This is El-B worship filtered through hardcore / jungle, kinda reminiscent of the Grievous Angel release on Keysound ages ago. I'm totally down with this sort of thing.]

12. French Montana feat. Nicki Minaj - Freaks
[Amazing beat, Nicki should have stolen it for herself. Not sure who this Montana guy is but he is terrible.]

13. Instra:Mental & dBridge - White Snares
[The oldest and best thing on the the latest Autonomic compilation. Reminds me of Death Cab For Cutie. dBridge basically makes drum and bass for emos, no?]

14. Toddla T Sound - Worst Enemy
[Yet another sonic exploration of pleasure so intense it numbs and slows the senses until there's barely any movement left (cf. Nina Sky's 'Comatose'). Much preferred to the similarly conceived 'Body Party' by Ciara.]

15. Helix - Whoosh Ice Dispenser
[What I have to turn to now that Ramadanman has stopped delivering the rhythmic goods.]

16. TC4 - Mango
[New discovery of the year for me. One of the best artists on Big Dada's Grime 2.0 compilation, which was ok though lacks highlights? Their EP is front to back fire.]

17. Aaliyah - One In A Million (Flava D Remix)
[It's a perfect song already, but this 2-step remix makes it a bit more club-ready.]

18. Rockwell - Detroit
[Thankfully leaving the Rustie synth stuff behind, this is Rockwell doing what he does best.]

19. Paramore - Anklebiters
[Most of the album still not clicking, but this is a rush. Brand New Eyes had about six smashes that I absolutely adore, and I'm hoping that the new one yields up similar delights.]

20. Kelly Rowland - Kisses Down Low
[Ode to cunnilingus with celebratory synth flourishes courtesy of Mike WILL Made It. I know this is insanity and Bey is supreme empress of all she surveys, but I confess I'm secretly a bit more invested in Kelly.]

Another 10:
P Jam - Arizona Skyz
Dizzee Rascal x Zomby - Stand Up Aquafresh (Oneman Edit)
Kingdom feat. Kelela - Bank Head
Royal-T feat. D.O.K. - Saints
Terror Danjah & Champion - Explode
DJ Eastwood - U Ain't Ready (Untold 2010 Remix)
Pev & Kowton - Raw Code
Mumdance & Logos - Drum Boss
DJ Rashad - Let It Go
Roska feat. Jamie George - Secret Love

22.6.13

Much Ado About Nothing

I haven't read or seen the play before watching Whedon's adaptation, although a brief bit of research afterwards uncovered that the text does provide some support for the opening scene in which we see Benedick and Beatrice wake up after a night together. The conversation which hints at their estrangement is included in the film ("you have lost the heart of Segnior Benedick"), but I didn't clock it when I watched it. It's a smart addition not only because it explains the bitterness between the two at the start, but also because it links in with the broader themes of the adaptation. Whedon is open about the sexy places he wanted to take the story, and switching Don John's follower Conrade into a female lover was done purposefully. The license displayed at the parties in the mansion serves to highlight the hypocrisy underlying the accusations levelled at Hero at her wedding. Male pride demands that the wives men choose for themselves remain chaste, and yet these rules are frequently (inevitably) flouted, hence the obsessive talk about cuckoldry. Moreover, accusations of impropriety are weapons used to inflict harm on political enemies, women being used as discardable tools in the struggle between male lords.

If there is one possible misstep in the whole film, it is in the portrayal of the grossest example of this behaviour. Margaret is seduced by Borachio, and the way the scene is shot suggests that he might be raping her. Later on, Whedon includes Margaret's jab at Benedick "Give us the swords; we have bucklers of our own", which echoes Beatrice's speech at the film's climax, and it's a quiet moment rather than a funny one. But the weddings at the end brush past Margaret's experience a bit too swiftly – perhaps Whedon could have lingered just a bit longer on Ashley Johnson before the party starts swinging again at the end.

20.6.13

Tokyo Decadence

The film was made in 1992, just as the Japanese asset price bubble burst. In fact, a dominatrix asks her client how his real estate business is doing in these tough times, and he replies that he's weathering the storm pretty well. Later on she tells us that Japan is rich, but that Japanese men remain anxious about their wealth, and this fuels their depravity. For the masochists this may be a yearning for order to be imposed by an imperious great mother. Perhaps the sadists lord over whores in order to feel a sense of control over their lives.

Ai ("love" in Japanese) is the meek doe-in-the-headlights protagonist learning her way around decadent Tokyo. She lacks confidence, believing she has no distinguishable talents, and she is hung up on a guy who left her. The dominatrix who befriends her after their session together is far more independent. She talks about having the blood of the first creatures that crawled out of the oceans, and how she also wants to evolve so that she can survive in many places. But then she puts on a karaoke show in which she runs through a pastiche of feminine poses. While she exploits her clients, she is also reliant on them. At the beginning of the film, a John describes the wives of lawyers and politicians as the "real whores". Marriage is servitude, the film seems to suggest, but whoring offers some independence.

Another discarded lover, decaying in front of our very eyes, sings to Ai near the end of the film, it seems about their mutual doom. Relying of fantasies of powerful gentlemen who can take you to London and care for you leaves women in the gutter. The courage pill the dominatrix gives Ai doesn't result in the disorientating surreal quest, it gets all of that crap out of Ai's system, magic rings included. Stained white dress, face caked in mud, Ai has to face the music. And at the very end of the film, the music cuts out as Ai stares coldly at the bathroom mirror, turns sharply and pushes past us with a new sense of purpose. All innocence gone, she's ready to make the most of what decadent Tokyo has to offer.

It's a bleak picture. Empowerment isn't possible because chaos turns us all into savages or simpering cowards, and women have to carve out a space in these dark days by seeing themselves truly, with all illusions stripped away. The film is at its best in that final arc, where the fantasy takes flight and there is still some mystery and wonder in Tokyo. Everything else is grim, unpleasant and frightening.

16.6.13

Arrested Development Season 4

One of the reasons The Office works is that Ricky Gervais's self-flagellating cringe-inducing antics are approached in part from the perspective of Martin Freeman's normal dude in the madhouse, and his sweet relationship with Lucy Davis (Stephen Merchant's influence, I'm sure). The contrast between the likable and the horrific is what makes the series so poignant. Rightly or wrongly, I approached the first three seasons of Arrested Development in the same way – the absurd family nonetheless being kept together by the one son who acted as the straight-man for all the japery. We even had a kind of doomed romance between Maeby and George Michael to invest in.

Season 4 ends all sympathetic attachment with any of the characters – Michael and his son become just as bad as everyone else in the family. I guess this is what everyone means by the show becoming "darker". But I wonder whether Mitchell Hurwitz really finds nothing of worth in the characters he writes. Hungering for some sweetness in the season's black liquorice flavour, I found it in several of the characters choosing to waste their energy on projects they clearly have no hope of achieving rather than leaning back on their legal or medical qualifications and leading comfortable, responsible lives. I think there is a fondness for the resolute rejection of normality the Bluths represent. The satiric elements in the show (the corrupt Republican politician, the software companies built on nothing, the sub-prime mortgage crisis) are reminders that the real world is far from free from the idiocy, delusions and petty jealousies the Bluths display.

The comedy isn't even the point anymore. It's true, there are fewer LOL moments than before. Rather, the new structure where the same events are revisited and retold from the perspective of different characters forgrounds the tangled plot above everything. The lightning-fast assembly of hair-brained schemes is what the show is all about. This was always present in Arrested Development, and in fact I remember thinking that Michael was probably the true crazy for not embracing the lunatic freewheeling energy of his family. In season 4, he finally has.

14.6.13

Flex Mentallo

As a treatise on the history of superhero comics, this has the virtue of brevity. I'm not well-versed in the distinctive qualities of the golden-silver-copper ages of comics, only really being interested in stuff that came out in the 90s and 00s. Flex Mentallo does provide some clues as to the different properties and enjoyments of each age, tho in general the narrative links up all four issues pretty tightly so the distinctions aren't especially clear (the introduction does help a bit in getting more of the flavour of each age).

While the comic's formal and thematic content is pretty interesting, the central character isn't especially accessible – perhaps because unlike Grant Morrison, superhero comics do not have the ability to fundamentally alter my perception of reality. Wally's suicide attempt is due to a fatigue at how bleak and depressing comics (and by extention the world) has become. Oh, and nagging from his girlfriend – not v well explained, that. All of which makes me think that All-Star Superman is a more affecting statement of Morrison's case.

What's most interesting in Flex Mentallo is the villain – the 16 year old teen dismissing superheroes as "pathetic fucking power fantasies for lonely wankers". The source of this ire is actually self-hatred and envy at the guys with girlfriends and awesome life experiences. What's missing is Morrison's belief that ideas are there to be realised and superheroes are there to be emulated. You can become that power-fantasy, basically, if you will hard enough (and have the appropriate sigils).

One little craft effect I liked is the way one panel would bleed across the whole page, with the other panels being laid over it – quite a nice way of emphasising how the different strands of the story intersect together. Also the great opening sequence across the first two pages – muddling up the creation of the universe and the creation of the comics page while also linking in with the later symbol of ideas as eggs. The comic ends on a splash of a kind of apocalypse-turned-rapture, with superheroes finally coming down from heaven to save us from our imperfections and construct utopia. It's a superhero holy text, starting with Genesis and ending with the Book of Revelations.

12.6.13

Game of Thrones Season 3

I still made time for Game of Thrones despite pretty much quitting television. Why, though, is the question. Perhaps because I've read the first book, I felt like I had a pretty firm grasp of the first season's theme and methods. GRRM's project was to use his medievalist nerd knowledge to inject some realism into the high fantasy genre. We have dragons and zombies stirring over the border, sure, but the real story was at the centre – the political "game of thrones" where the kings of Westeros struggled to assert authority over several powerful barons they nominally ruled. Season 1's beheading of Ned Stark was a shock because it went against trad fantasy expectations – Sean Bean was the Aragorn guy rather than the Boromir guy this time, and in the ASOIAF universe THAT'S what gets you the chop. Season 3's infamous Red Wedding played the same trick over again – and here the lesson of the bloodshed (revealed in the last episode) is that barons also need to manage their knights properly if they want to continue to order them about.

Or it would have been, except that Game of Thrones tends to overlay these (rather interesting) matters about the effective practice of medieval lordship with the OTT trappings of operatic drama. Srsly the look on Roose Bolton's face when his treachery is revealed is straight out of panto. GRRM wants his realism on the level of world-building and social structure, but his characters are cut out pulp figures with only the shallowest of depths. They are all introduced quickly and undergo very slight changes despite being put through colossal hardship and strain (Sansa is now less whiny, Daenerys is more assertive, Tyrion is monogamous). GRRM's style is less to initiate change, but rather to reveal new shades of the same personality in different scenes and conversations, something the TV show has taken onboard. So we have revelations about Jamie, Tywin, Varys and Littlefinger this new season. And part of the joy of watching the series is seeing how this cast bounce off each other.

Nevertheless, what we end up being put through is the blatant maneuvering of characters and tweaking of sympathies over and over again. And to what purpose? How much longer is the show going to keep teasing us before shit gets real and we start to see some meaning behind the madcap adventures. Basically, I'm starting to worry that we're building towards a Battlestar Galactica-level epic disappointment where the threads weaved so far end up in a mess rather than, I dunno, a satisfying tapestry. Bad metaphor aside: what is GRRM trying to do with this story apart from wheel us about the seven kingdoms? However the game ends, whoever wins, will be significant. And I'm wondering whether GRRM will choose to tie everything up with a long-lost king of the north marrying a long lost queen of the desert as per fantasy tradition, or will he end on something real.

The only meaning to be found in season 3 is in the convo between Varys and Littlefinger. The former serves the realm by nudging and balancing the players of the game to achieve as much peace as possible, the kind of thinking the republican Machiavelli would champion. The latter on the other hand is an unprincipled Machiavellian prince climbing up that greasy pole – he confidently calls it a ladder, in fact. Perhaps the game is really between these two opposing wills, one selfless and conserve-ative, the other self-interested and revolutionary. It would really be saying something if Littlefinger is the one who wins, or if Varys is the one to stop him. And we're gonna have to wait an awful long time before we find out. Will it be worth it?