31.5.13

"It is not that we worship Aphrodite. If we did, we should fear these make-believes as a too probable cause of her wrath... The truth may rather be that these things reveal a society in which sexual passion has so far decayed as to have become no longer a god, as for the Greeks, or a devil, as for the early Christians, but a toy: a society where the instinctive desire to propagate has been weakened by a sense that life, as we have made it, is not worth living, and where our deepest wish is to have no posterity" - R.G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art

Iron Man Three

Shane Black definitely leaves his own imprint on the series. It's darker and scarer, but also quirkier: the quick-fire witticisms are present but they form a kind of ambient background for the real standout gags, which feel a bit like something out of Arrested Development, obsessively calling out and undercutting the conventions that structure the narrative. Black also wraps up the series in a really satisfying way: Stark finally lets go of the technology he relied on to stay alive and protect himself from the chaos around him. The film describes the suit as a 'cocoon' from which a whole Tony Stark can emerge from. Indeed, extremis (which he uses in the end to heal himself) serves as internal armour, a nice symbol that could have been developed further.

Unfortunately, Aldrich Killian is too much of a cartoon villain for this to work out. His motive is less an understandable (even sympathetic) drive for self-perfection and more a typical Dr. Doom-like resentment at the successful hero, and we've been here before with Sam Rockwell. Maya Hansen is a more ambiguous character, but doesn't have enough time to establish herself. Perhaps it would have been better to have her as the duplicitous mastermind, as she was in the Warren Ellis comic.

I still prefer Favreau's Iron Man, which maintains a clear thematic through-line and is impressively compact (apart from the robot punching at the end). Favreau was lucky in that Stark was a more interesting character back then, shifting dramatically from apathetic hedonist to troubled hero. Black is dealing with a hero fully-formed, now suffering from anxiety attacks caused by a brush with death. Even this could have been developed further, tho – just steal from Lovecraft. Stark faces down the awesome hostility of the universe and comes back fretting about how the hell the Earth can be protected. You could even add an existentialist twist: have him wondering whether his fellow human beings, trigger-happy with their nuclear weapons, are worth saving. Admittedly difficult to build up all this drama and provide a neat conclusion for the trilogy. Perhaps this stuff is being banked for when Joss Whedon puts everything together again in 2015.

26.5.13

Queen Margot

I watched the 145 minute cut demanded by Miramax, not the 161 version originally shown in Cannes, although I wonder if the extra time would have been able to reveal some sense behind the bonkers characters and the freewheeling zig-zagging decisions they make throughout. Instead of an explanation, what we get is an awful lot of desperate flailing, sighing and crying. The impression conveyed is that everyone in the Louvre is so blinded by passion that they can barely stand up straight, let alone think in a linear or logical way. Two sworn enemies fight each other to the ground, and upon being reunited become sworn brothers in a fit of clutching breasts and kisses. Margot is a bit of a skank, airily flicking through the man-flesh that has congregated for her forced marriage, but just one night of random boinking is enough to change a habit of a lifetime (although she does sleep with Henri, it's to keep the palace quiet, she remains devoted to La Môle). And as for the scheming Catherine de' Medici – swear down she's the most useless Machiavellian plotter I have ever seen. One wonders why she bothers with poisons in lipstick and books when it seems like the entire palace is ready to do her bidding. What's the point of this ridiculous subterfuge (which, btw, keeps failing!) when you've got men ready to stab your enemies into the walls with no questions asked?

But these, frankly, are stupid questions. The important thing is that the film looks LUSH. You don't come to this for insights into the machinations of power or the clash of rival faiths. You come for the outfits! All the actors are perfectly cast in their roles. Isabelle Adjani is like the Snow White who can never be banished away by her wicked mother. Daniel Auteuil's face twitches manically as if he's trying to tip-toe around a pride of ravenous lions. Vincent Pérez is suitably scrumptious as the pretty but dim young whippersnapper. And Pascal Greggory is a walking wave of dark glowering charisma. No expense was spared on the sets and locations either – it's like you're in an oil painting all the time. And the camera swirls around it all, bouncing off looks and nods among the crowds of courtiers, sweeping you along despite the nonsensical intrigue. It's gorgeous. Just don't try to think about it too much.

24.5.13

Boxed

No one here at 1100. Hard to believe as the music being played by Logos is phenom. Solid slabs concrete rumble, hard punches, swung whip-cracks. Spartan.

Some demented 2-step just came on, the rest of the set could just be this, tbh. Voices cheering maybe, but difficult to discern. Oh wait, Wen's Commotion V.I.P. just came on, horror flick pads sounding shrill and cartoony on the club's system

That's more like it. Space between an assemblage of crashes, stabs and clicks. Bric-a-brac glued together by feral engineers.

A swathe of hoovers, a low growl and giant clanging drums. Alien reptile cries over the grind.

Throbbing red membranes coat a collection of whirring clockwork. And now a metal slinky tossed between hollow bass tones, an irate mosquito buzzing through the mix for a couple of bars.

Things fill up slightly as worried strings drone, and then a troll starts pounding a makeshift xylophone and the bass bombs start falling again.

Ears prick up as the swung whip-cracks reappear. Something familiar – a constantly mutating blob of bass winding and wobbling through rolling drums. The chanting gives it away: Benga v Skream - The Judgement.

And then a blaster cannon fires ahead of a cluster of percussive ordinance. A hint of melody guiding the bursts of fire. Best thing I've heard this evening. Logos ends shortly after with some deconstructed near-beatless airy basswaves.

The ritual HAs pipe up regularly as slow enveloping clouds of matter waft through. Then some piano chords. Then two blaring tones, a trill and a third. Slightly nauseating low-end but I guess that's the point. A chorus builds. Darth Vader's marching tune if he had x2 swag.

Barely any percussion left over this disgusting bassline, the sort of thing that winds down your throat and twists into a bed of snakes in your stomach.

And then some heavy 4x4 pounding. Bug, dumb and brutal.

Is this 'trap'?

Asteroids bouncing off spaceship shieldwalls. And the ever-present coating of bass. A shimmer of melody GETS CRUSHED under reverberating colossal mountains of black gooey tar. On and on into oblivion. No one requested a rewind of that. Snatches of gasping breath escape the mangling in the torture chamber. Or is that a perverse pant?

My ears are going to fall off soon if this continues

19.5.13

The Choice of Hercules



Saw this in the Ashmolean in Oxford yesterday, apart from some statues of the god Min (check him out, he's great), this was my fave thing in there. Apparently, Shaftesbury provided detailed instructions for the attitudes and expressions of the figures. Hercules must choose between the hedonistic life exemplified by Pleasure, or Vice, and the rocky path of Virtue – but the choice must be difficult!

18.5.13

Cages

Nuff respect Islington Comics Forum for handing me a copy of Dave McKean's giant graphic novel Cages. The convener Joel read it all in one long evening, which I find pretty extraordinary since I've been reading it (and re-reading it) over something like three months. The book has 10 chapters which are quite self contained (I imagine each one took a long time to complete), and it's impressive how many patterns and repetitions stretch out over the whole book – little motifs and characters being set up, abandoned and only picked up much later. It strikes me that this kind of project would have required, if not a great deal of planning, then at least a great deal of focus.

The book rewards a close look into the workings of the comics page rather than character or theme, which if taken on their own are a bit underwhelming (and not especially enlightening). Once the mystery of Jonathan Rush unravels, what you get is an on-the-nose retelling of the trials of Salman Rushdie (clue's in the name, even!) And because McKean's prose talents ain't all that, the short excerpt we get of the persecuted author's book fails to convince as the cause of so much ire and protest.

But the tone saves it. While more outwardly 'realistic' than the superhero comics McKean wanted to escape from, there is always a degree of witching hour midnight magic to the world of Cages. Rush's torturers are outrageous villains, figments of imagination all the characters buy into. We also get resurrected cats, future-revealing clouded windows and talking birds – the kind of whimsical touch of the fantastic McKean's frequent partner Neil Gaiman built a writing career on. McKean unfortunately shares Gaiman's annoying sense of humour (a kind of childish silliness which I find a bit cloying, I'm more of a grim bastard Ellis/Ennis fan). But the craft saves it. McKean's constructions are more sophisticated than Gaiman's. The way he designs his pages is more detailed. In fact, his focus also makes the ideas of the book more pointed. I find Gaiman scattershot and vague in comparison. While both are exploring themes of faith, creativity and death, I think McKean's achievements here surpass those of his friend and collaborator.

In the spirit of the Habibi post, I'm going to note down a couple of things I spotted so they don't disappear in the fogs of my memory:

The building in which Cages is set serves as a metaphor for a cage, or more a kind of menagerie of cages – the individual apartments as closed cells in which the inhabitants harbour their secrets. When we first meet Angel, a musician and prophet, he is out on the fire escape – at the edge of the world looking out into an abyss of sky. The Drawing A Blank chapter makes the significance of this explicit. Scaffolding monsters pull back the tarp to reveal the universe: suggesting a kind of terror at freedom and creation. A blank canvas presents the unknown firmament before the creation. The different Genesis stories at the beginning link in with the personal God we meet at the end – we all create our own narratives and myths.

McKean draws birds flying out into a white sky, a contrast with the psychopathic (and very foul-mouthed) parrot who is kept in a cage, but also a way to segue into Angel playing the black and white keys of the piano. The book spends a lot of time on the expressive and liberating power of music: in one chapter it warps the bodies of two characters falling in love to reveal the inner lives pulsing beneath their composed arranged surface.

The three Strata chapters all start with lines of stacked sheets of paper. Bits of time are compressed and stored in the paintings Leo produces (echoes of panels we've already seen), and the books Jonathan writes. Those lines reappear as rain, the final strata – the pictures and words in the comic becoming the constitutive elements (the pages) of the lives of the characters.

There is a nice panel in one of the Strata chapters where a finger touches a surface of water at the edge of the panel, a kind of reaching out past the confines of the borders of life and reality and into the imagination. The panels are themselves cages, and they are frequently broken when reality starts to get slippery.

There is also a nice movement in that chapter between a couple getting closer (tied to the completion of a painting one does of the other), and a couple drifting further apart. The latter are caught silhouetted in rain at the end, while Leo sits inside his flat looking out at the rain, shielded from it. The romp through the trees Leo and Karen take (the landscape becoming increasingly impressionistic as the latter's psychoanalysis proceeds) is also linked in with Ellen's memory of trees and how these pleasures have been taken away. The contrasts are subtle (by which I mean I missed a lot of them my first read through) but they are there. It's a superbly crafted issue.

Just as good is Schism. The page divided into two horizons of clouds in the sky and leaves in the gutter, which are flipped as the cat and the man separate. We get alternating panels or the two split points of view. The visions of heaven in this chapter are more revealing than the ending of the book. First we see Jesus crying about wanting his Daddy (boo Christianity!). Then we get an existence full of meaningless sensation without examination or interpretation. Then an existence with all the ambiguities stripped away. The cat refuses a heaven so damn certain of itself, and ends up in an art gallery instead – the best of both and all possible worlds.

Although the next couple of chapters suggest a counter-argument. The fable (told by Karen to Leo's daughter?) of a King building his own Tower of Babel, a work of art to please everyone, leads to disaster. In the end, real life and relationships are more important than work, even if that work is creative. And according to Karen at the end, a full life is one where the patterns and narratives become familiar – surprises become less common and death more acceptable. In the final page, once the cat is done exploring the art gallery it jumps into the frame of a painting and into nothingness.

14.5.13

"O voluptuous young women, give us your bodies as much and as often as you please! Fuck, divert yourselves, but shy away from love. Amuse yourselves, sate your physical passions, but spurn the pursuit of love and loving. To languish in sighs and tears, to waste time writing billet douxs, is not the true way; fucking should be your god, to fuck as often and with as many men as you like, refusing enslavement by one person. Bound to one man, you would be prevented from giving yourself to others – a fatal deprivation. Nature created woman for all mankind. Mindful of this, let them surrender joyously to those who desire them: never mistresses, always whores; scorning love, worshipping pure pleasure. Then they will know only roses in life, and scatter only sweet flowers as they go." - The Marquis de Sade, Philosophy In The Boudoir

13.5.13

No Hero

Warren Ellis teams up with partner in crime Juan José Ryp for more superheroes behaving badly. The combo's previous Black Summer impressed me a great deal. This is also a superhero deconstruction à la Watchmen, focused (as all of them must) on the hero/villain repugnant-yet-necessary Ozymandias character. Ellis doesn't add much else. His portrayal of Ozymandias is nastier, a cold-blooded businessman ruling the world for money, sex, power and kicks. But his superhero squad nevertheless serves as a Leviathan force keeping the balance of power and avoiding a far more miserable alternative. The con is necessary, people need to be cowed into submission. Freedom is chaos.

Ellis may be working a betrayal of the 60s theme with Carrick's origins as an LSD merchant to the US army. More interesting for me is the Allfather figure (as callous as the God of the Old Testament) being challenged and overthrown (literally expelled out of the earth) by a sacrificed son figure, although Ellis being an irreligious sort, he plays some pretty sick jokes with these archetypes.

Multiple ironies are stacked over the "no hero" line. Josh wants to be a superhuman in order to end superhumanity, he's no hero but this is exactly what makes him heroic. And yet who is really the "insane villain of the piece"? Carrick throws the phrase at Carver, but it bounces back onto him. And yet... his new superpowered world order is what keeps the peace on earth. Perhaps unleashing freedom really is the least heroic thing to do.

But were back to the ironies in Watchmen again, Ellis only adding his own gross embellishments to Moore's foundational text.

12.5.13

Blackgas

An origin story for the Crossed universe – it's almost as if Ennis took Ellis's zombies (inhibitions stripped, mind still intact) and took them to the next level (no remorse whatsoever for the depravations they cause). Both writers are interested in "that black stuff in the back of our brains that we never act on", but while Ennis uses this to tackle ethical and religious themes, these only get an aside in Ellis's series (the stoic cop muttering "I stopped believing in God when I saw the mommies with black shit in their eyes eating babies").

Instead, Ellis turns in a Dr. Strangelove direction. Infection is harder to avoid in Blackgas, it's almost a kind of chemical weapon transmitted through any bodily fluid. When the zombies are blown up with grenades, the 'pink mist' caused by the explosions does the opposite of contain the threat – bombs just make more zombies. This catch-22 situation lends itself to several metaphorical interpretations, perhaps the most obvious one being that the war on terror creates more terrorists than it destroys. What's interesting is that Ellis grounds the political decision to nuke the horde in the rage, frustration and despair of (male) survivors of the apocalypse who decide to go on the rampage. The female survivor is only concerned with escaping the onslaught, but there are no options available when the (male) policy is to fight fire with fire. An interesting bit of gendering going on here (and almost everywhere in Ellis's work)...

10.5.13

Saga

Brian K. Vaughan doesn't really do short comics and the title of this new one suggests it's going to run on for a bit. Which is a pain from my P.O.V. because I've never liked big series (nope, never finished Sandman, Transmet, Invisibles, Preacher... none of that. Too bloody long, I've got another stack of shit to read and you should have made your point quicker.) Gave up on Y: The Last Man after about 11 issues, Ex Machina after 7-8. My favourite bit of Vaughan work is actually the Marvel stuff I encountered first: his Mystique half-run and the peerless, timeless Runaways – both quick, joyous, thrilling fixes.

So this new one. Well, Molly's back as a legless red ghost. Yorick is back as the author-surrogate. As far as I'm concerned, Buffy is written in as his beautiful, foul-mouthed wife (far more interesting than whatever they are doing to her in Season 9 I'm sure). And you get the usual deft construction of each issue. Vaughan pinches a trick done to death in TV shows and twists it slightly – rather than a narrator from beyond the grave, have the newborn baby guide the reader in white bubble-less crayon across the page. The space opera in the background is ripped pretty directly from Schismatrix, but not enough writers ransack the treasure trove Sterling laid down 25 years ago, so I salute you on that one sir. Adding the magic stuff is a cute bonus.

I'm sighing a bit (did you notice?) just because the book was bigged up by absolutely everyone when it came out, and it turns out to be yet another decent Brian K. Vaughan comic – sass, wise-cracks, and expertly-crafted cliffhanger pages. He's too good to write bad comics, but the question is whether he's good enough to astound you with amazing ones.

Saga is doing one thing differently. If comics are for kids then this one is definitely for 30-something fathers who grew up reading comics. Not one but three characters become dads in the first arc – the two 'villains' as well as the hero. The point of this maneuver is to humanise the representatives of both sides by the activation of universal paternal feelings (although in The Will's case, I found the change pretty unbelievable). Vaughan is saying that everyone has a family, even mercenaries and imperialists. We're all humans fighting our corner and standing up for those closest to us, whom we love.

Fiona Staples does scratchy foregrounds and blurry colour-drenched backgrounds, which makes the characters pop out just that little bit more. Some of the digital sheen reminded me of the obv fakeness of the colouring in The Dark Knight Stikes Again (not a diss, btw – I like that comic). The memory is triggered partly because Sextillion is Frank Miller satire taken to new absurd heights (if internet pornography isn't yet beyond satire). Anyway, the artwork accentuates the basic premise of the book: up against this shiny, wondrous universe people still curse, fight and fuck each other up like the semi-intelligent hairless apes we are.

5.5.13

2012 blind spot: Spectrasoul feat. Tamara Blessa - Away With Me (Kito Remix)

I nicked this from a Ministry of Sound Dubstep compilation – the bro kind that Mr. Muggs has taken mischievous delight in promoting. I'm all for needling narrow-minded FACT readers, though tbh most of this stuff isn't really for me. This bangs, however.

The track has this Aluna-like vocal, slightly shrill and glitching, inviting you to control, unfold, come away with her. And she'll give you everything. Except "everything" is shot to pieces by a barrage of bass, the word sliced into repeating el el els – recalling Rihanna's famous offer of shelter. I'm a sucker for the stop-start rhythm of the chorus (imagine a maximalist 'Cactus'), suggesting along with that vocal the spasming malfunctions of an overeager pleasure droid.

Are they malfunctions, though – those cut up sighs, moans and cries? She offers everything in the palm of your hand. You can stop, rewind, fast-forward. Is she not rather a siren of hypersex, a purveyor of machine love moulded to our cybernetically-enhanced desires?