31.12.14

24 books for 2014

Settling the annual accounts. I feel like I've been reading a lot more (and a lot more non-fiction) this year, although there's less of it evident on this blog. Some of the links here are just scraps of thought: quotes, tweets, links and bookmarks. If anyone is on Goodreads, I try to keep track of everything I've read here.

Brendan Simms - Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy [link]
Peter Heather - The Restoration of Rome [link]
David Goodhart - The British Dream [link]
Nick Cohen - What's Left?
Matthew Goodwin & Robert Ford - Revolt on the Right [link]
Jamie Bartlett - The Dark Net
Edward Glaeser - Triumph of the City
David Thomson - The Big Screen
bell hooks - Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations [link]

James Joyce - Ulysses [link]
Gene Wolfe - Sword and Citadel [link]
William Shakespeare - Hamlet
William Shakespeare - A Midsummer Night's Dream
William Shakespeare - Julius Caesar
Anaïs Nin - Delta of Venus [link]
Philip Larkin - The Whitsun Weddings

Paolo Eleuteri Serpieri - Carnivora
Léo - Aldebaran [link]
Julie Maroh - Blue is the Warmest Colour [link]
Jonathan Hickman / Nick Pitarra - The Manhattan Projects
Osamu Tezuka - The Book of Human Insects [link]
Kazuo Koike / Ryoichi Ikegami - Crying Freeman, Vol. 1
Junji Ito - Uzumaki
Grant Morrison - The Invisibles [link]

23.12.14

Ode to Kirihito

Instances of rape in this comic: five.

First instance. Kirihito's fiancée Izumi is raped by his colleague (and best friend?) Urabe. Izumi tells Kirihito she wants to get married straight away, because she's worried she "might stray", and that Urabe's looks make her uncomfortable. "I don't like him one bit" she says, "but he comes on so forcefully. And you're so cool towards me". A married woman is safe from sexual predators, but unmarried ones are fair game. What's particularly twisted is that Izumi uses language that puts the blame for her impending assault on herself: she "might stray".

Second instance. Kirihito and his wife Tazu are running away together. When travelling in a forest, Tazu goes off to get some water and a stranger tackles her to the ground. When Kirihito finds her, she has been raped and killed by the stranger, who flees. The stranger then makes very minor impressions on the rest of the book's plot until he is discovered by Kirihito at the end, who hands him over to a priest. The rapist is therefore little more than a means to deprive Kirihito of his wife in a disturbing but sensational way.

Third instance. Kirihito is tied up and raped by a circus performer called Reika, who has ensnared and killed seven other men in a lonely cabin in the mountains. She has a "fetish for freaks" and an "abnormal libido". Kirihito treats this as a medical rather than a moral issue. He decides it is caused by the stress of performing dangerous stunts, and tries to cure her using hypnosis. Although Reika has sexually assaulted him several times, they remain amiable and continue their travels together, although Kirihito remains loyal to Izumi and Tazu. Reika considers prostituting herself when they have no money, and finally dies in the attempt to earn enough to get Kirihito back to Japan.

Fourth instance. Although Izumi has been raped by Urabe, she goes to him to ask about Kirihito's fate and they conspire to find him. Her rape hasn't poisoned their relationship, although when Urabe confesses that he loves her and kisses her, she smacks him away. Izumi's parents suggest that she marries Urabe now that Kirihito is presumed dead, and Izumi (more from loyalty to her fiancé rather than disgust at Urabe) tries to commit suicide. Urabe is distraught and rapes one of his patients, a nun called Helen Friese. Friese seeks sanctuary in a church, but Urabe finds her, apologises, says he loves her and wants to cure her. They are reconciled in a silent panel which highlights a hanging figure of Jesus on the cross. Urabe is forgiven by both his victims.

Fifth instance. Izumi's parents work for Urabe's boss, and when he is fired (meaning he can no longer see Friese), he takes his revenge by raping Izumi a second time. When he commits suicide, Izumi's reaction isn't shown, but Friese mourns for him.

Justifiable depictions of rape in this comic: zero

22.12.14

Favourite Songs of 2014 (Part 1)

Usual rules apply. One song per artist, with allowances for features. A large body of work that has impressed this year is liable to push entries up the ladder. Part 2 will have to wait until I gather the courage to write through the top 14. To the list:

28. Fracture & Sam Binga - Grippin' Grain
Having done a couple of these lists now, I've realised how certain songs from different years mirror each other. Which leads on to the rather depressing thought that there may only be a limited amount of "types of song" that we're destined to keep attaching ourselves to. We replace the old version with the new one, but how often to we ever fall in love with something genuinely new? Perhaps the answer is that the music we look for serves only a particular number of individual purposes, and as long as these remain the same, we'll continue to go back to the same familiar formulas. Case in point: this no-frills piece of footwork-indebted drum and bass, remarkably similar to last year's scuttling 'Unofficial Jah' by Dom + Roland. Always there for when you need your ears cleaned by rapid-fire metallic percussion. Until next year's model comes along.

27. DJ Q & Flava D - PS
UKG vocal science at its most delectable. The unintelligible syllables are chopped and mixed by chefs so skillful, they threaten to distract you away from the chunky baseline they've laid down underneath. An effervescent and elusive female vocal provides a chorus in which to breathe between mouthfuls.

26. Sean Paul feat. Konshens - Want Dem All
ILX makes me passingly aware of the bounty that spills out of the Caribbean each year, but I never investigate as fully as I should. This banger somehow managed to force its way onto the list. EDM adds a superfluity of bells and whistles to the dancehall chassis while the man with the steadiest flow in Jamaica rides serenely above it all, waxing with gluttony and bending language on the hook, exhorting the listener to "move your body-dy-dy!"

25. Tirzah - No Romance
Although her score for Under The Skin received the plaudits this year, my preferred 2014 output from Mica Levi was at the opposite end of the spectrum. The noisy clutter of her work with the Shapes piled up at one end of the room to make space for a loping beat and the louche chants of the thoroughly unambitious Tirzah.

24. Kiesza - Hideaway
I find it impossible not to like Kiesza, the go-getting Canadian former marine who has turned her prodigious discipline to making faultlessly on-trend UK house-pop. The one-take video (13 million views) is certainly impressive – I particularly enjoyed the red shoes nodding both to Oz and The Red Shoes. The beat is serviceable, but the real draw is Kiesza's rich and piercing vocal, adding just the right amount of melodrama to the song without watering down its emotional punch.

23. Zed Bias feat. Stylo G & Scrufizzer - Shizam
Zed Bias was obviously pleased with his Madd Again! remix of Scrufizzer's 'Kick It', enough to invite Scru to grace this dancehall-tinged single for Black Butter. Bashment star Stylo G (responsible for one of my favourite songs of 2013) more than holds his own against Scru's trademark "fizzy" flow. My Nu Leng's more sedate and accessible remix seems to have gained more converts this year, but for now I prefer the energy of the original.

22. Ziro feat. Trim - Lost
Nu-grime is crying out for new MCs, but the high value attached to Mumdance's track with Novelist strikes me as an instance of demand outstripping supply. As this lists will show, I've generally remained more loyal to the old guard's beats and bars. That said, Trim's (literally) offbeat flow has always shone on the stark and weird end of grime, and this track proves he has the most to offer the Boxed producers.

21. Dark0 - Gaia
The closest nu-grime comes to a end-of-the-night, hands-in-the-air, stadium-sized anthem. In fact, hardly any grime remains on its polished surface. Dark0 splices together Ruff Squad's emotion-drenched melodies, Kid-D's breathy vocal snippets and Rustie's brazen digital maximalism. And to add an extra layer of new age gloss, he calls the thing "Gaia". In the cold light of day it isn't even that affecting – it's so OTT it almost sounds like a prank. But I can just imagine the synths cutting through a set and elevating everything to a whole new level of epic.

20. Hannah Wants & Lorenzo - Breathe
I find a lot of electroline dull when it's not actively annoying, so it makes sense that I would fall for a track that's cleaned up and released on Shadow Child's label. Swung drums, deep bass stabs, prevalent pads and a shimmer at the edge of the vocal sample. Like a gust of fresh air gently rocking your hammock as your yacht cruises towards ever more balmy climes.

19. TRC feat. Lily McKenzie - Closer
There will always be a need for throwback vocal garage tunes a la turn of the millennium Artful Dodger. TRC is yet another bassline survivor following DJ Q, TS7 and many others back to the UKG source. Lily McKenzie's vocal betrays just a smidgen of grit, but her chorus is all multi-tracked lightness, conveying the careful push-pull between defiance and submission in the lyrics.

18. Throwing Shade feat. Emily Bee - Sweet Tooth
Nothing anyone can say will shift my conviction that this is a chillwave song pure and simple. A warm haze envelops a lilting synth line while Emily Bee coos "He's so sweet, rots the teeth" in between trickles of lascivious laughter. She sounds sinister, but she isn't. She's just expressing the surfeit of delight that comes with gazing at cute boys. Like sugar, it's not good for you, but we all need a binge sometimes.

17. Bok Bok feat. Kelela - Melba's Call
Much of last year's Cut 4 Me mixtape was very good, but this is superior. Bok Bok somehow manages to find an intersection between Jam & Lewis and R&G – rude bass groans bumping up against synth and snare stabs straight out of Janet's Rhythm Nation. Kelela is by turns resigned and pleading, in control and out, admonishing and seducing, with the stops and starts of Bok Bok's production releasing tension only to build it up further.

16. Dej Loaf - Try Me
Reading so many EOY lists this month was eventually going to turn up something that would make it onto my own. Dej Loaf sounds like a 12-year-old with a blocked nose, which makes her threat to "put a burner to his tummy and make it bubbly" all the more surreal and frightening. Dej rambles about the death of one cousin, the incarceration of another, and "a heart full of demons" over a glistening beat from DDS that wouldn't sound out of place under an R&B slow jam. It's this contrast between sound and substance that makes the track such a compulsive listen.

15. Kero Kero Bonito - Flamingo
Should declare an interest: my girlfriend is very good friends with Sarah from the band. But then again, they are so approachable you feel like almost everyone is. Pace all the talk of PC Music's insincerity, what's striking about KKB is their generosity – a leave-your-baggage-at-the-door attitude to pop which makes room for sing-it-back choruses, weird noises, bad jokes and raps in Japanese. 'Flamingo' can almost serve as a manifesto for the band, except that most of their songs already sound like manifestos. "Show off your natural hue" Sarah urges over a loping beat, "if you're multi-coloured, that's cool too". Gareth Campesinos! once described erstwhile tour mates Johnny Foreigner as a band you can live your life by, and KKB are the same. Sign yourselves up. Pin the badge on your satchel. Their new single proves they are only getting better.

20.12.14

Of Freaks and Men

Shot in sepia and interspersed with inter-titles, this Russian film evokes the beginnings of cinema, right down to the focus on faces silently reacting rather than speaking. Johann in particular is superbly enigmatic, eating carrots with cream (an auto-erotic symbol borrowed from Taxi Driver?) and gunning down foes willy-nilly. He is a pornographer specialising in sado-masochistic images targeted at a female audience. Along with his sinister assistant Victor, he wraps his tendrils around two bourgeois families and forces their vulnerable children to perform in his films. The women's subjection is partly consensual, and everyone seems to have their own repressed fetish (Johann for his demented nanny who spanks the victims in his films). If Of Freaks and Men is about anything, it's about the primary power of cinema to represent and fulfil people's desires - it was pornography before it was anything else. One of the patriarchs declares cinema to be the future of art, ironically something he won't live to see as the matter to which the new technology is applied gives him a heart attack.

What to make of the final frames, in which Johann, after seeing the film made by his former cameraman, drifts away on a block of ice into the horizon? A tribute to (or perhaps a condemnation of) all the unknown enthusiasts, freaks and weirdos that built the foundations of cinema.

14.12.14

UKIP voters are so disaffected, and so distrusting of politicians, they cannot easily be 'bought off' by policy offers. There are also more limits than there used to be on the capacity of mainstream parties to respond to these concerns over Europe and immigration. The radical actions demanded by these voters come with large risks and large costs, and are opposed by many other voters as well as significant organised interests, like the business community. Policy-makers face the difficult task of having to balance these demands, but the compromises that result do not satisfy the radical right electorate. Meanwhile, politicians are generally unwilling to explain to voters that they cannot have the policies they want. Few people in politics want to admit to being powerless, particularly on issues like immigration and Europe, where many of their constituents have very strong opinions. Therefore, they often make incremental policy shifts and try to sell them as radical reforms. This, however, can backfire dramatically: if already sceptical voters feel they are being hoodwinked, such reforms can reinforce the dissatisfaction and distrust they are designed to address. - Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, Revolt on the Right

7.12.14

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

The Hunger Games become war games in the latest installment of the franchise, but the rules remain the same: a contest of messaging and propaganda as much as of fighting prowess. The most memorable moment in the film is when Katniss's genuine anger is captured by "our" camera and transformed into a rebel campaign video. The same frames are taken from the film we see to become something the characters see – another reminder (for those seduced by film's power to represent reality) of the subjective nature of the medium. It's a startling effect.

The propaganda videos almost have the satirical crudity of the ads in Paul Verhoven's Starship Troopers, and a further push in that direction would have been welcome. You do get glimpses of fascistic ritual in the revolutionary District 13: a militarised community stripped of individuality – something highlighted by the presence of Effie, the stylist from the Games and a self-declared "prisoner of war". Effie's obsession with fashion and celebrity were mocked in the previous films, but are a reminder here that decadence is just another word for civilization.

Splitting the film in two was roundly condemned as a ploy to milk the series as much as possible, but there is a logic to it. The story of Part 1 is structured around the two sides using survivors of the Games (Katniss and Peeta) in a war of hearts and minds. It is an extension of the televised killathon: Katniss's destruction of the arena in Catching Fire blew the conflict into society at large. And the film concludes with the end of this round of the "game": a battle won by the rebels, but at the cost of the individuals used in the campaign. Katniss, as ever, remains the hero due to her inability to go beyond the personal to the political. She treats people as ends rather than means, insisting on Peeta's rescue even though it doesn't make strategic sense. She is a messianic figure – the figurehead of the rebellion, not a person who can lead it.

Cut the final book in half and you still get a two-hour film – and the flab is distracting. The first 30 minutes slow the tempo right down while Katniss takes a needless trip back home to collect the family cat. There is also a pointless escalation midway through where same cat has to be rescued before District 13's blast doors shut. The film could have been a lean, mean 90 minutes and would have served as a welcome reprieve from the blockbuster bloat we can expect from the coming Hobbit.

30.11.14

2001: A Space Odyssey

At the BFI screening I went to, we were provided with the interpretation of a New Jersey teenager called Margaret Stackhouse, written shortly after the film was first released (and available online here). Stanley Kubrick fully endorsed her reading, so it's likely the best place to look if one is searching for a guide to the film's ambiguities. Although Stackhouse builds alternative explanations into her analysis, the transcendent nature of the monolith (the mysterious object driving the plot of the film) is inescapable. Like the god Prometheus, it is there at the "Dawn of Mankind" to give us the tools to improve and murder each other: the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. And at the end, a rapture. Stackhouse allows for either a capricious or a life-sustaining God, but it's some sort of interventionist God alright. In this regard it is worth comparing 2001 to last year's Gravity, in many ways just as visually impressive and innovative (and far more propulsive in a narrative sense) but also fundamentally concerned with the incredible unlikelihood that we have managed to get even this far. Gravity's commitment to our loneliness in the universe makes it the more coherent and admirable film.

It's telling that Kubrick's preferred analysis comes from a 15-year-old. No slight on Stackhouse intended, but there is something adolescent about 2001 in its complete devotion to cosmic musings at the expense of character. In fact, the only moment of human connection comes at the beginning, where space scientist Floyd has a skype conversation with his daughter, whose birthday he will miss. Interestingly, Kubrick used his own daughter Vivian for the scene, and that one slice of (autobiographical?) family life outshines an awful lot of the ponderous mechanics and dizzying lightshows that follow.

29.11.14

The Virgin Spring

The film begins with a prayer to Odin and ends with a prayer to God. Both are answered in their own ambiguous way. This being Bergman, the wronged father begins by procaming how he cannot understand a Creator that allows such evil to befall a good man. But rather than let that condemnation ring out into silence, he leans once again on the Christian imperatives of sin and redemption. And God listens: a stream appears from out of nowhere to baptise the father anew and wash away the step-sister's guilt. It's a more optimistic ending than Bergman will allow himself down the line.

And what of Odin in the beginning: the lusty, dangerous old man in the forest? He also answers prayers, or fulfills curses at least. The potency of the old gods may suggest that religions come and go, but evil and our attempts to deal with it are perennial concerns, both in the 13th century and in 1960. Then there is the title: the journey from innoccence to experience (sexual and moral) superimposed onto the changing of the seasons. The spring is that liminal time between bountiful summer and cruel winter, and the film's setting seems to move between all three. Evil, like weather, is both immutable and unpredictable.

Thankfully, Bergman's existentialist obsessions do not overshadow his real talent for intimate family drama, particularly in portraying the relationship between the sisters. Karin is already sliding towards corruption (dresses, dances and boys), yet her angelic countenance make her the favourite of the family. They also make her dark-haired (and pregnant) step-sister jealous. No sign of an expectant father appears. Did her lover abandon her, or maybe she was raped as well? We don't know, because any anger she may feel is not directed at the true source of her predicament, but serves as fuel for a murderous resentment against the perfect woman she can no longer be. Her confession before her father is the film's most powerful moment – far more so than the miracle with which it ends.

1.11.14

"It was true that the French, British, Germans and some other European peoples remained willing to make great sacrifices to defend themselves against aggression... But they had for the most part lost their appetite for national greatness and thus the imperative to order society accordingly. The long uncoupling of western European state and society from the project of making war had begun. Just as the interminable wars of past centuries had left their mark on European society, so now would the long peace shape domestic structures. The tradition of the primacy of foreign policy passed to the remaining European great powers, the Soviet Union and the United States." - Brendan Simms, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy

19.10.14

Red Desert

Antonioni's first colour film is a visual treat. Industrial structures are composed into symphonies towering above Monica Vitti – the protagonist and stand-in for the alienation created by modernity. The film opens on out-of-focus shots of what looks like an energy plant, queasy drones on the soundtrack. The mood is unnatural, inauthentic. Our machines have separated us from the real world. A female voice slowly fades in amongst the electronics – the angelic battling it out with the mechanical. At the end of the film, Monica Vitti tells a bedtime story to her son about a young girl living a carefree life on an island. One day a ship appears and she swims towards it, but it floats away. The girl then starts to hear a beautiful female voice among the rocks, but she cannot find the singer. The parable feels like a microcosm of the film's world, in which people are both attracted to and repulsed by factories and globalisation, and are constantly disappointed in their search for the divine.

Antonioni apparently didn't have precisely this intention, wanting to convey the "poetry" of the industrial landscape. In that he succeeds brilliantly – the images are sumptuous. But the familiar themes of the breakdown of communication between people and the damage caused by "ways of life that are by now out-of-date", remain. The dialogue is characteristically elliptical and frustrating – barely rising out of nonsense some of the time. But that is to the film's purpose, and so forgivable. Monica Vitti herself has to do more work here than in The Adventure and The Night (the other two Antonioni films I've seen), and she acquits herself as well as someone can doing the crazy stuff Antonioni wants. Even the obviously overdubbed dialogue works to establish a sense of unreality to the proceedings (although this is a typical feature of Italian movies of the period).

Vitti's impact in The Night is greater, and that film's shape and coherence is more admirable than the meandering here. But the images Antonioni has crafted in Red Desert is something new and thrilling in cinema, and the film deserves to be seen for that reason alone.

11.10.14

Gone Girl

I went into the film with the twist slightly ruined for me by an FT feature about the gender issues it has stirred up. Fincher's latest effort (and in fact, most of his work) probably doesn't deserve the amount of analysis applied to it, since neither Amy nor Nick's characters can sustain a prolonged investigation into what makes them tick. But let's give it a go:

"Amazing Amy" has (due to her unique childhood) picked up the ability to identify and manipulate the various socially-prescribed roles foisted onto women. She is a femme fatale in the vein of Sin City's Ava – only in Gone Girl she is allowed to get away with it.

Why does she stay with Nick? Self-interest certainly plays a part, but there's also her delight in watching Nick learn his own role of adorable doofus. She has converted him to be her playmate in their sterile sham of a marriage – she can now manipulate him forever, his insides twisting pleasingly as he performs her every wish. Why write stories as wish-fulfillment (like Amy's mother did) when you can write reality itself?

The film ends on a slightly different note – generalising Amy and Nick's relationship into a comment on the institution of marriage as a whole. It does so by underlining the impossibility of ever really knowing what your partner is thinking, and how much of what you observe of them is role-play and bad faith. Fincher twists every sinew trying to extract as much horror from Rosamund Pike's final blank expression as he can. Whether it works depends on how much belief you can suspend in the film's ramshackle plot, which has Amy reacting to as much as shaping events, and which gives very weak motives for Nick staying with her and playing along.

1.10.14

Fashion Beast

Although marketed as a "lost masterpiece", Fashion Beast feels like a minor work in Alan Moore's career – a comic book adaptation of a film script he wrote for Malcolm McLaren in the 1980s. In comparison to the near-contemporary Watchmen, this is relatively slight. Moore admits in the introduction that the world of fashion is largely foreign to him, and his attempts to analyze it have the feel of an outsider looking in. Moore's lecture is summarised thus: the manipulation of our image is an assertion of power over others – an impulse encoded by evolution and that has helped us survive. But for the shadowy Tarot-reading fashion designer Celestine, these images hold out the possibility of transcending our natures, and he fantasizes about a world where humanity is erased and only clothes remain. There are shades both of Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan in this rant.

Moore prefers to side with the people. The young Jonni is in line to inherit Celestine's throne and finds inspiration in the immanent – sex and the streets. But even then, Moore adds a jarring note – Doll quips that the working class Jonni worships are sexist, racist and homophobic, and she cannot be blamed for trying to run away from her origins. That exchange encapsulates Moore at is best: exploring how the messiness of life undercuts grand visions. He is on shakier ground in contrasting Jonni's base inspirations to the conflict powering Celestine's creativity – an overbearing mother who taught him to despise his own appearance and sublimate sexual desire. Compared to the subtleties of Rorschach or the Comedian, this is relatively blunt characterisation.

The book is lovingly put together by Antony Johnson and Facundo Percio, who keep quite a bit of the cinematic camera zooms that Moore used in Watchmen, as well as a few visual/verbal segues that bridge his scene transitions. The characters in particular are extraordinarily well-rendered. McLaren apparently demanded the couple be a girl who looks like a boy and a boy who looks like a girl – and it's astonishing how well this is pulled off on the page. Likewise the two Madams that guard Celestine have these wonderfully pinched wrinkled faces, and seem to float in their ornate baroque costumes. Although the story's origins as a screenplay are not entirely erased, Johnson and Percio both deserve a good deal of credit for how well it works as a comic.

28.9.14

Paris, Texas

The first Wim Wenders film I've seen (Beyond the Clouds doesn't count – it was terrible anyway), and its the craft that is most immediately striking. The pace is on slow burn for most of the picture's running time, but interest is maintained by the central mystery behind the protagonist. The story has already happened, we just don't know it and have to settle for watching the consequences unfold.

Then there is the light. The first shots of the desert are technicolor western pushed to Black Narcissus levels of lushness. The colours of those location shots are postcard perfect. And as Travis slowly returns to civilisation the neon glow seeps in. The final shots of him in the parking lot wreathed in green fluorescent mist, of him driving bathed in tail-light red, felt like all of Refn's Drive compacted into a couple of minutes.

And then there is the actual story, not shown, but narrated, in a setpiece right out of David Lynch's repertoire except this is a couple of years before Blue Velvet. It feels like a confession – Travis and Jane taking turns in the booth. And their stories are not just theirs, but ours: star-crossed lovers, the cowboy, the private eye, the femme fatale, the whore. And buried beneath, a man, woman and child unable to make their family work under the weight of these roles they have to play.

21.9.14

Sin City 2: A Dame To Kill For

The great virtue of Sin City is its clarity. If an extraterrestrial falls out of the sky and asks you what noir is, sit them down in front of the film or give them one of the comics it was based on. Frank Miller's creation isn't noir at its purest – it's noir at its most blown-up. All the subtleties of the genre are ripped away to reveal the machinery pumping underneath.

The brazenness is admirable for one reason only: it exposes the politics that structure the genre. The 'yarn' I felt did this best was the one I read first – A Dame To Kill For – which provides the centrepiece for the second film. Dwight is a Jekyll desperate to "never let the monster out" (no cigs, no booze, no women). Men in Frank Miller's world are rapacious animals, at their best when they grovel before female goddesses, at their worst when they assault the divine feminine that provides the only moral force in the world. Galahad and Lancelot are the exemplars, devotion to the unattainable Guinevere the rock upon which righteousness is built. To simplify, the bad guys beat and rape women and the good guys stop them.

A Dame To Kill For destabilises this manichean outlook by introducing a goddess who turns out to be a witch. The femme fatale uses sex rather than violence to achieve her ends. Nonetheless, there is a proto-feminist tone present in Ava's determination never to have to lie on her back to get what she wants. Here at least a woman is allowed to have a will-to-power of her own, rather than be an object of male worship or denigration. Needless to say, Dwight must terminate this assertiveness and avenge the good men she has ensnared.

The third story in the film finally gives a woman's voice to the protagonist role - this time it's Jessica Alba avenging Bruce Willis. The film bottles it a bit by having Hartigan come back from the grave to distract Rourke just enough for Nancy to shoot him. Does Rourke develop a conscience in those final moments, or does Nancy have the force of will to somehow project her own guardian angel into the world? Or is it actually a real ghost? If the latter, then the film robs the only female protagonist of agency just as its prospect is within reach.

The first film was a success partly down to arrangement: two weaker stories were bracketed with a very strong third one, ending on a genuinely moving finale in which Hartigan commits suicide. The sequel doesn't have anything approaching so poignant a moment. While I loved the original book enough to forgive Eva Green and Josh Brolin's take on it, the two new stories were very slight. I'm just hoping the film makes enough money for Rodriguez to make a straight up adaptation of Hell and Back (the final book) with Johnny Depp, rather than compiling assorted new brainwaves occurring to an increasingly demented Frank Miller.

31.8.14

"I feel as if I were a painting already. Or a statue. I looked down at my own body like some object, some impersonal object" - Anaïs Nin, 'Artists and Models', Delta of Venus

27.8.14

La Belle Noiseuse

I watched the four hours over two days (more films should have intermissions) and enjoyed almost every second. Exhaustive is probably the right word to use for this study of the creative process, in that there is no one process being depicted, no one reading you could apply to the characters and relationships presented. Instead the artist and model set-up serves as a springboard for multiple elliptical essays on the subject.

Unsurprisingly, the one that struck me most is the confrontation at the end of the first half. Frenhofer becomes dominating, forcing the (always naked) Marianne into increasingly twisted poses. He talks of breaking her bones, and there are uncomfortable sexual undertones coursing through his mania. But then he starts talking about her flesh as a portal to galaxies and black holes. He is attempting to stamp his authority not only on women's bodies but reality itself. Everything must become an object under the control of his paintbrush.

Marianne at one point recoils at being treated like a doll, but submits immediately afterwards and apologises. Why does she go through with it? Shortly after Frenhofer's existentialist rant, she laughs in his face, and he storms out. But she forces him to continue. The extraordinary beginning of the film (one of the best opening sequences I have watched) introduces her as a consummate mask-wearer. Maybe she's partly seduced by Frenhofer's talk of truth in art, a window into her self that she can't look through on her own. Or maybe as a writer she using him for material as much as he is using her. After all, the film begins and ends with her voiceover – she more than anyone is its author. Perhaps she is the trouble-maker, the nutcase, that spins everyone around her fingers for the diversion of a (foreign, ignorant) audience – just like the English tourists the film opens with.

But then it turns out the painting is a masterpiece. In Frenhofer's definition: it captures a lifetime in a single image. Frenhofer's wife Liz marks the back with a cross, and its composition does feel like a kind of crucifixion. And like Christ, it has to be walled up in a tomb. The idea of it emerges in wings of crimson from the blue nude Frenhofer fobs off to the public – streaks of blood cracking open the human shell. Just three characters (a trinity?) see the miracle unveiled, we only glimpse a bit of it. The Balzac short story the film is based on apparently haunted Cézanne and Picasso. Here it's Marianne more than anyone that haunts the film, denying us answers, but teasing us with the possibility of miracles.

25.8.14

Fun Home

The latest edition of the London Graphic Novel Network is now up. I've written about Fun Home ages ago, and I don't say a lot of new things, but the other reactions are worth reading. My bit below:

It's telling that Bechdel explains explicitly why [the literary allusions] are used:

"I employ these allusions not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms. And perhaps my cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the arctic climate of our family than any particular literary comparison"

I say "telling" because each allusion Bechdel uses is ALSO explicitly explained. Fun Home isn't like rounds of Radio 4's Quote Unquote where you are quizzed on your literary knowledge. It's not a game of spot the reference, because Bechdel always does the work for you and gives you all the answers. Which is why some ppl can read it and not even be fazed by its uber-literate stylo. And her attitude is the opposite of haughty. Instead she describes the habit almost as a tic - and the reasons behind it are actually (when you read the above) q sad.

I almost get the sense that the references are involuntary - an abnormal, almost pathological way to engage with the world. I like to draw a link with the obsessive compulsive disorder Bechdel develops and then overcomes when she's 10. There is a sense in Fun Home that literature becomes about asserting control of a reality that is in fact ~beyond~ your control. Developing links and patterns to your experiences is a way to digest and understand them, and there is a comfort and satisfaction to that very similar to counting things and coming to an even number.

That for me is the central insight in the book, and why I think it's so brilliant.

23.8.14

Orphan Black

The only TV commentary I read comes from the folks at ILX, and this rings particularly true: every explanation to date has been less an explanation and more a reveal of something else that requires explanation. The writers blog each episode, and it seems that the show-runners tend to throw in random scenarios which the room then has to fold into the narrative. This leads to very noticeable lurches where a character or plot-line is wrenched away from one location to the next, all in the service of thrills and spills. No doubt the velocity of the story is captivating, but when you step away from the vortex you're left with more questions than answers.

And as great as Maslany is, she can't make a character like Rachel breathe without the writers giving her a motivation to run with. An obsession with motherhood feels incongruous buried within a ruthless corporate clone: are all female leaders (the hated boss bitch) just sublimating their maternal instincts? The show as a whole is vague about the conflict it sets up between religious nuts and science freaks. Ostensibly, the heroes are fighting for a middle way between these extremes, defending their family against the assaults of ideologies that seeks to destroy it. But 'family' is also an ideology and subject to change in the face of social and technological change. This is ripe territory for the show to explore.

As an example: how will the mechanisation of childbirth transform motherhood? How will women feel towards their children when they are freed from constraints men have never had to bear (the process of pregnancy, birth, postpartum). The show steps back from such a future. Instead both Rachel and Helena (and the organisations that raised them) are obsessed with children and jealous of Sarah for having a daughter. Clones are facinating and valuable for still unarticulated reasons. Two seasons in, that's disappointing.

10.8.14

Guardians of the Galaxy

Before watching the film a colleague told me that there were certain gender problems with it, so I was on my guard. And true enough, at the very end there's a deeply creepy moment in which the love interest character (played by Zoe Saldana) is overtly identified with the dead mother of the male hero (played by Chris Pratt). The brazen way the film restates the notion that girlfriends are replacement mothers is almost impressive. But actually, that's all there is to Saldana's character. Chris Pratt is the lovable rogue who treats women abominably and who we are nevertheless encouraged to identify with. Reports that the film has a large female audience makes this all the more depressing.

The film itself is moderately enjoyable, but perhaps less funny than it thinks it is. The visuals are spectacular, but slightly deadened by the 3D (I foolishly didn't check before buying my tickets). Marvel's genius for picking people to helm their film projects does not extend to James Gunn (or Alan Taylor for that matter). The studio has built up plenty of good will with Avengers Assemble, which may explain why people are still coming out to see related films. And let's not forget the Transformers rule whereby spending enough money inevitably delivers a box office hit regardless of quality. Nonetheless, I'm starting to doubt how far this golden run will last.

3.8.14

Fanny & Alexander

I watched the 180 minute theatrical cut, not the five hour TV series, and it still felt a bit too long to me. The bagginess is front-loaded in a very detailed depiction of Christmas where the different characters are introduced. The actual first scene is intriguing: Alexander's imagination is activated while he's wandering around the empty house looking for his family. He calls out the names in a way that echoes the bedtime prayers he and his sister recite every night. But in the silence which greets his calls, he fantasises that a statue moves instead. At the end of the film, Alexander's God is revealed to be a monstrous puppet. Collective religious myths are replaced by individual inspiration.

I just wish we jumped a bit more quickly to the standout scenes. Some of the flab (particularly the scenes shot on location with extras) could definitely have been cut away. But there is a lot to treasure here: Alexander's father gives an extraordinary speech at the beginning (echoed by his uncle at the end) summing up Bergman's views on the purpose of art - a way to explore or escape from suffering, both aims being of equal worth. Helena's account of performance sounds like Bergman's final statement on the way we change masks through our lives, like actors do. The great scene between the Bishop and Emelie where she reveals why she loves him - the emptiness of the theatrical life leaving a yearning for the certainties and strictures of a religious one. The climactic phantasmagorical sequence in which Alexander's stories merge with that of the film. And the final gut punch where the ghost of Alexander's stepfather introduces himself.

1.8.14

The Invisibles

I just checked and it's been five years since I read the first volume of The Invisibles. I picked up the rest of the series recently and started without going back to the beginning, and relaxed into it a lot easier this time around. It's a book you learn how to read, and I mostly did so by learning to let go of the need to make sense of everything. Having finished the series, I only have a vague idea of how the plot all fits together, and more importantly, no great desire to expend the mental energy to work it out. Warren Ellis, in his blurb for the final book, describes the series as like pop music: "about everything and nothing". The meaning is in the moment, and doesn't last much beyond it.

The series is built on an everlasting battle between order and chaos, and its evident which side Grant Morrison is on. Not being the impressionable undergrad the series is (overtly, judging by the end of the penultimate issue) aiming for, I found the anarchist politics in the book unmoving. To borrow John Gray borrowing Isaiah Berlin, liberty and security (more mundane terms for chaos and order) are both precious but also both incommensurable. They clash frequently, and the balance between them is the job of politics (rather than philosophy) to resolve. None of that subtlety is present in The Invisibles, but then Morrison's anarchy is less about the political and more about the personal.

The series champions individualism more than anything – the ability to author your sense of self, frequently against the prevailing culture you find yourself in. Conformity is a burden to be liberated from. The evil Archons are "only all the things you left outside when you were building your little house called me". This line could refer to the social norms cast off as you construct your subjectivity, but the representation of the Archons as Lovecraftian monsters adds a more interesting gloss. A self made without reference to the world around you ("don't believe nothing you hear, trust what you know") is in some way ungrounded, a void. And reality can come to bite you as a result.

These ambiguities are rarely dwelt on throughout the series. One of the most interesting developments is King Mob's growing discomfort with the way his strong character can dominate over others, undermining his anarchist principles. This is ripe territory for a book about anarchism to explore, since one of the basic criticisms of the idea is that human beings create informal hierarchies even when formal ones are stripped away – so that even radically equal communities often end up with the more vocal and assertive out on top. However, King Mob's struggles with this dilemma (and his dependence on violence) are only briefly dealt with.

Likewise, Ragged Robin's anarchist ideals are also shaken by her masochistic sexuality – the discovery that she enjoys being dominated by King Mob in bed. Again, this would have been fascinating to delve into. Is such a sexuality socially constructed by a patriarchal society and therefore to be repudiated, or is such repression incompatible with a liberated spirit? Can a moral defence of BDSM be developed (that it's about trust rather than power, for example) or is that unnecessary? Morrison chooses to deal with Robin's conflict through metaphor (a telepathic war with Mr Quimper) where much of the nuance of the issue is lost.

Morrison states at the end a conviction that "we made gods and jailers because we felt small and ashamed and alone". The line rings truer for gods than for jailers, which underlines the way Morrison's liberty is personal rather than political. As an aside, good luck trying to explain the origin of justice with reference to human psychology, I think you'll always get different answers. Adam Smith for example thought it was linked to a sense of resentment. David Hume probably had the right idea all along in seeing justice as established by convention and as a result of its utility.

But if Morrison commits to renouncing the moral and political institutions that structure our lives as members of society, he also cleverly undercuts himself with the final pun on "sentence". His book is another exhortation, another imposition on the reader's sense of self. And the reader is free to spurn its sentence.

Which is exactly what I plan to do.

28.7.14

In the Mood for Love

As the previous post attests, I'm a firm believer in the importance of titles, and this one felt like a stinker while I was watching. Wong apparently arrived at it by chance after being dissuaded against Age of Bloom (a song in the film and of the period) and Secrets (which sums up the film's themes). Both are superior choices. A good title is like the cherry on top of the icing of the cake (to borrow a metaphor from conversations with Joel, keeper of the peace at the LGNN). It's a way into and a summation of what the film is all about.

The pop song's reference to blossoms is an evocation of spring, youth and the beautiful. Its deployment is partly ironic, as by the time we meet our central couple they are already trapped in loveless marriages which prevent them from being together. Nonetheless, like the pop music of youth, both look back to this time together as their true first young love.

Secrets is rather bluntly explained by Tony Leung in a bar to his wastrel friend, but that and the callback to it at the end is less interesting than the environment of secrecy that pervades the relationships in the film. Maggie Cheung has to field calls from her employer's wife and mistress. Her husband is having an affair with Leung's wife. Their fine eye for details (the same tie, the same handbag) uncovers the secret. They themselves have to be mindful in case the always present neighbours start asking questions. This is a time where you could still be told off by your landlady if she thinks you're spending too many evenings out when your husband is away.

In a society where infidelity is ever-present but rigorously policed, Leung and Cheung choose the moral high ground, even though they are falling in love. All of which made me want them to throw off the soiled principles they insist on clinging to. In fact, the film leaves that open – and I sometimes like to think that Leung is the father to Cheung's son who is revealed at the end, and that little secret was what ended her marriage. But then why would she want to raise the boy without Leung? I suspect Wong had other intentions – conspiring to separate the couple and end the film on a note of yearning for the love, and the specific time, that had passed.

25.7.14

Boyhood

For me, the most interesting thing about the film isn't the way it was made or the universal acclaim it has received. Rather, it's the way it navigates between documentary and drama. While Linklater's dialogue may feel extempore to some, for me there's no doubt that his scripts are quite tight. Even if Mason's character tracks the life of the actor playing him quite closely, the shorts filmed each year have a shape and purpose imposed by the filmmaker. The point is: although Boyhood sometimes suggests the looseness of documentary, actually this is deceptive. An authorial voice is present throughout.

So what is the film trying to say? While many reviewers have warmed to the universal bildungsroman scope of the film, what struck me was how particular Mason's story is. The protagonist is not an everyman. In fact, Linklater has him grow up to be a typical Linklaterian hero – almost an Ethan Hawke Mini-Me. And his development is presented with recourse to very American tropes and symbols (aspiration, independence, the possibility of the open road). My girlfriend is Japanese, and when discussing the film with her Japanese colleague, she told me that the scenarios portrayed felt foreign to her. This made it difficult to fully identify with the characters and the experiences they go through, and more broadly, to embrace the film in the way that it has been by Anglo-Saxon critics and audiences.

This chimes with my own reaction to the film. Mason isn't perfect, but he's intelligent, creative and has amazing hair. He grows up in a white, middle class family, has cute girlfriends, and goes to university. This is not an universal experience (trust me – I share more than a bit with Mason's character). Linklater makes some concessions on this by shoehorning a sub-plot about a Latino builder profiting from the American Dream, which I found very moving despite its clumsiness. That doesn't detract from the overwhelming feeling that Linklater is whispering consoling stories to an audience that looks very much like him.

The original title of the film was supposed to be 12 Years – it was changed last minute because the recently released 12 Years a Slave would have caused confusion (or a tougher job for the marketing department). But the working title at least emphasised that this was a particular story portrayed in a particular way – one kid from one place filmed once a year. Having Boyhood as the title suggests that the story somehow reaches beyond that. My ambivalence toward the film comes down to doubts about how much it really does so.

4.7.14

Dream Country

The latest edition of the London Graphic Novel Network's coverage of The Sandman is now up, and it may well be the best yet. Lots of people piling in on a range of questions, some of which are only tangentally related to Gaiman's work. As usual, I did my fair bit of arguing, a small bit of which is below. Worth reading through the whole thing though.

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Tend to agree with the Shakespeare Shakespeare Shakespeare reservations, tho am disposed to be a bit kinder than Mazin on the question of whether Gaiman misses the point of Shakespeare. Seems to me Mazin is equating 'stories' with plots, when actually Gaiman may mean something a bit broader. The constituent parts of 'stories' could include plot, character, themes, language, and maybe other things as well. If anything, Gaiman's error is to ascribe a certain archetypal content and mythological force to the plays - which isn't what makes them distinctive in my view. Instead, I would flip Mazin's top two Shakespeare talents and suggest he is most innovative when it comes to character - particularly creating personalities that are open to an almost limitless variety of interpretation. His felicity w/ language is a key part of that, but I think there is a reason why he is remembered as a playwright, rather than a poet, first.

Shakespeare's competing loyalties to creativity and family strike me as less of an insight into the historical Shakespeare and more as an insight into Gaiman himself. My sense is that while Gaiman is a prodigious story-generating machine, there is always a kind of detachment to his writing - his characters are often quite flat, manipulated into the paths he sets out for them rather than having the vitality to knock the author off-track (e.g. as Falstaff did Shakespeare). I would go so far as to presume that Gaiman sometimes would find the ephemeral amalgamations of past stories he rattles off so easily ~more~ interesting (or maybe less threatening) than real people. That sounds mean, but actually I think it's a brave thing to admit, and is a tendency we're all capable of.

Dream sums up the point of the Shakespeare issue as follows: "things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot". This sound like bullshit, except the "dust and ashes" gloss on "facts" suggests he is talking about the way stories outlive people, rather than nature or the universe. Fair enough, but then we get to Facade: "mythologies take longer to die than people believe. They linger on in a kind of dream country that affects all of you". The sun turns out to be a mask hiding the stories which structure our sense of the world. The protagonist's apotheosis is triggered by the surfacing of those 'shadow-truths' behind the world of empirically-determined facts. Is Dream's country becoming Plato's realm of the forms - the hidden structure behind our changable world? Is Gaiman granting myths a kind of metaphysical power over our lives? Or is it just an internal, psychological switch in perspective that somehow physiologically unlocks the ability to commit suicide. I am more comfortable with the latter reading, tho neither is particularly satisfying. Gaiman is always more comfortable dwelling on the awesome power stories have over us, rather than why we tell them or what they might be for.

22.6.14

Avengers vs X-Men

Quite a lot of the fashionable thinking around equality since the financial crisis has tried to shift the debate from the old opportunity / outcome dichotomy to focus on concentrations of power – perhaps a recognition that the focus on opportunity hasn't ended exorbitant bailouts and bonuses (the redistribution through the tax system implied by aiming for outcome obviously remains beyond the pale). Some of this new rhetoric draws on the republican idea of liberty excavated by Quentin Skinner. I've attended some of Skinner's lectures and have read his work, so it's exciting to see it influencing contemporary debate. The basic idea is that freedom should not be defined as the absence of constraint, a Hobbesian notion that allows for an authoritarian state. Instead it should widened include the absence of the ability of others to constrain you, i.e. freedom from domination by the powerful – a radically republican (as in anti-royalist) idea.

I bring all this up because the idea of concentrations of power is at the heart of Marvel's AvX crossover from a couple of years ago. The Phoenix force is coming back to empower a single mutant X-Man seen by many to be a messiah, with all the apocalyptic implications that would entail. The Avengers manage to cook up an countermeasure that splits the Phoenix force between five X-Men. Sharing this power between them, the Phoenix Five build a "Pax Utopia" on Earth. But power corrupts, and as one of the Five falls, the Phoenix force gets shared between those that remain. And as power becomes more concentrated, those that wield it become ever more authoritarian.

The mini-series ends with the chosen messiah deciding to give up the Phoenix force. Instead it gets shared out. The Phoenix evaporates and re-introduces the X-gene into Earth's population, gone since the events of House of M. This redistribution of power levels the playing field and eliminates the authoritarian Cyclops and his gang.

Funnily enough, this idea of redistribution is also applied to the making of the comic – while two artists handle the pencils throughout, scripting has been divided between Brian Michael Bendis, Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, Jason Aaron and Jonathan Hickman. The Bendis issues at the start sag quite a bit (the guy has needed a bit of a break for a good long while now), but the rest of the group are some of the hottest properties in comics right now, and the series really picks up steam when they take over and especially when the Phoenix Five are introduced by Hickman.

It's de rigeur to sneer at crossover event comics, and while this by no means reinvents the wheel (echoes of House of M and Civil War abound) I think it's admirable that Marvel still try to pin the pile-up of action set-pieces to a theme that can support the mini-series itself (while of course providing a set-up that can reverberate through the other titles). Bendis's Siege did this quite badly, while Fraction's Fear Itself was a lot more focused. Avengers vs. X-Men continues that good run. A bit like with each consecutive Marvel superhero film, it's still, just, worth investing in what the company are planning for next time.

21.6.14

Spring Breakers

Remember when P.T. Anderson wanted to make an Adam Sandler movie into an art film? Harmony Korine seems to have similar ambitions for the teen road trip movie. Spring Breakers was marketed as exploitation, but Korine is going for "impressionistic" "hypnotic" "fever dream" (all his words). The controversy comes when you consider whether anything is meant by this at all. In some respects, no. Korine is forthright that this is a film about surfaces – all that candy-coloured neon lighting is supposed to emphasise this. He also admits that the genesis of the movie was in images and footage that inspired paintings and other fine art – 'sculptural' (again, his word) constructions of sexy trashy co-ed porn and Florida party footage. The visuals came first, and it's about the feelings they evoke. Even the voiceover is talked about in the context of the aim to mimic some of the effects of EDM and drugs – loop-based music with repeating vocal samples that generate more significance the more they recur. In these respects, the film is very immediate and unassuming.

But I think there is more going on here. Korine isn't just making this because he is fascinated by these images, sounds and sensations – he is not just a fetishist. He understands the horror at the heart of the fever dreams he is conjuring. The film is a dream, mashing up cartoons, video games, gangster films, EDM, rap, weed, coke and alcohol. The girls are explicitly inspired by these things when they rob a fast food restaurant. At several moments, Korine's characters refer to this mix of bacchanalia and violence as the American Dream – a kind of unlimited individualism, a frontier spirit looking for transcendence. There is something about the iconography of spring break that goes to the heart of the myths America is built on. The evangelical religious foundations of this urge for rapture is explored through Selena Gomez's character, who reaches a point at which she starts getting uncomfortable with the dreams of her friends. Racism is also subtly present – Gomez wants to go home as soon as she finds herself in a black area. Korine has targets here – he is trying to say something. Perhaps the P.T. Anderson quip is a bit wide – more than anything Spring Breakers feels to me like an update of Terrence Malick's Badlands, a complicit look at the way we worship sex, violence, youth and freedom. And Korine has enough distance to understand that the characters, and the audience, eventually have to wake up.

15.6.14

The Book of Human Insects

The heroine of this short noir tale from manga godfather Osamu Tezuka is "far from a feminist role model" according to the blurb, and there's a fair amount of sexism in the book. Toshiko Tomura is described as a type of insect that impersonates other creatures in order to survive, and throughout her adventures she 'absorbs' the talents of her male admires (or outright steals their work) in order to achieve her ends. That she is able to do so "shows you what is so damn wrong with present-day civilization". And it's true that the world Tezuka creates is one where humans have become monsters – a society of insects in which the only way for women to survive is to become femme fatales. Interestingly, Tezuka doesn't have the patriarchy reassert dominance over these insect women. Instead, sympathetic characters are crushed, and Tomura triumphs over her assailants.

Tezuka's revenge on his predatory parasitic female creation is more subtle. After each adventure, Tomura retreats to a remote house in which she strips away the personas she inhabits and regresses to a baby – naked, pacifier in her mouth – succumbing to the fundamental emptiness at the core of her being. One of her former lovers has escaped her clutches, nobly kills a brutal gangster and hands himself over to the police. Tomura wants him, perhaps as the only man she was unable to corrupt and traduce, but he is lost to her. She confesses at the end of the book that she is lonely, and feels like she could be get "swept away", like trash. Despite her callous ambition, she still feels the need to love, or at least be attached to, someone. Without a host (male, talented) she is nothing.

The misogyny on display is something that needs to be acknowledged and faced up to. No excuses should be made. Nonetheless, there is a mischievous glee to Tezuka's portrayal that is winning – despite the condescension (and moral condemnation) Tomura receives at the hand of her creator, the human insects she dupes and destroys are far more reprehensible. We still root for her, even more than the noble male hero who evades her. Her vitality trumps Tezuka's attempts to suppress it – I think she gets the last laugh after all, and I can well imagine her getting over a momentary thirst for dissolution and continuing her escapades in Europe.

14.6.14

The End of Summer

More reflections on Ozu's very particular style after watching the follow-up to Late Autumn. The End of Summer has its fair share of brilliantly framed compositions, which are accentuated by the static camera. The film really is photography with voices sometimes. There are more 'pillow shots' as well – not just used to establish a new scene but to indicate the passing of time or to add space and extend a dramatic moment (frequently using music to do so). Only once is a jump cut used to highlight a contrasting change of tone.

I may have been wrong to describe the actors as looking 'beyond' the camera, and in this film very often Ozu establishes where characters are sitting, and then has them directly address the viewer, with the actors definitely looking at the camera. This should place the audience within the scene, but paradoxically it doesn't. Maybe this is due to the placing of the camera at naval height rather than at eye level (elevating the characters in the process). But also there is something weirdly fourth-wall breaking about a direct address to camera. Ozu's style (perhaps accidentally) creates this intermediate space whereby the audience is continually aware of a world being portrayed, and their fleeting, intercutting presence in it.

Which is a good place to start thinking about the themes of the film. The title's appeal to nature's rhythms is a gloss over the intimate portraits of parents and children and how one generation replaces the next. The End of Summer is about the death of a patriarch, an "incorrigible sinner", an overgrown boy always on his summer holidays. Likewise Late Autumn is about Setsuko Hara approaching middle age, and the choices she has to make as a result. The audience, rather than identifying with particular characters or following a plot, take the part of serene observers of these natural rhythms to human life.

11.6.14

The Doll's House

The London Graphic Novel Network is going from strength to strength, the discussion on the second Sandman book is now up here. As before, I've pinched my bits to put below, but you should read the whole thing for a clearer view of the back and forth:

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Hob's conclusion that people don't change is (in context) about his own inability to tire of life, and by extension the fixity of an individual's character. The repetition of the overheard bar-room conversations at the end of the issue widens this conclusion - human beings haven't changed in the last 500 years. Sidebar: true enough, in that for the past 3,000 years of recorded human history the species manifestly hasn't changed - evolution works on much longer time-frames. Roman emperors and medieval peasants are just as smart (and stupid) as we are.

This same point is made more overtly at the end of Cages – a comic by Dave McKean (frequent Gaiman collaborator and responsible for Sandman's amazing covers). In that book, McKean suggests that as you grow older and experiences pile up, the patterns of life become more apparent (as above: people don't change, so as they become more familiar their capacity to surprise you is reduced). That realisation (and the completion of their life project) is what lead McKean's characters to accept death with equanimity.

Gaiman's treatment of this idea is less pointy and more suggestive – the concluding note of Hob's story is the rather corny one that friendship is what makes life worth living. But on the whole I think it's a more satisfying issue than 'The Sound of Her Wings'. Which may be another way of saying that I understand its themes and agree with them.

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The beginnings of the Corinthian's speech suggest Gaiman's underlying reading of all the psychopathic behaviour he looks at through this (very long) issue. Serial killing in the US has become associated with stories of "gladiators", "swashbucklers" and "heroes" (the Bonnie & Clyde myth and its various permutations in film might be a good way of looking at this – Malick's Badlands perhaps most of all). The collectors kill out of hubris and an infatuation with themselves as the "maltreated heroes" of their own stories. Barry strips this away and reveals how unheroic ("how LITTLE") they are – the implication being that without these myths to sustain them, the collectors' urges will be hollowed out and they will finally (privately) face the implications of their actions. How sophisticated this reading is, I'll leave up to you, but the dots do sort of connect.

Dream's intentions regarding the Corinthian are far harder to join up. Ostensibly, this masterpiece nightmare is supposed to "be the darkness and the fear of darkness", a reflection of what humanity "will not confront". Instead of this, he has been "something else for people to be scared of", and has "told them that there are bad people out there, and they've known that all along". Now: the gaps between these two outcomes are pretty difficult to parse. If anything, the Corinthian hasn't failed in being scary, it is rather that people have been better able to confront "the darkness" than Dream had expected. And In fairness, Dream admits that he is the one to blame for the Corinthian's flaws – an admission that feels less magnanimous the more one thinks about it.

8.6.14

Tangents

A 1995 comic album by Miguelanxo Prado, comprising of 4-5 page shorts exploring bourgeois sexual encounters that are inevitably unfulfilling. The weakest stories revolve around the notion that the rich and powerful cannot recapture the true, pure love of more innocent times. The sacrifices they make on the altar of capital rob them of an ability to connect (and the ability to sound like real human beings). The delusions and hypocrisies of the rich and famous can be a rich seam to mine, but Prado's portrayals mostly feel like ressentiment-fuelled caricatures.

Better are the stories that dig into characters' sense of themselves as actors in a story, or as stage-managers of their own fantasies. This allows Prado to evoke the way sexual desire blends with, and is shaped by, other desires. But it also leads to the finest moments in the book, where the objects being directed around the porn set step out of their roles and bring reality crashing down on the protagonists.

26.5.14

Late Autumn

My first time watching an Ozu film, and I started with one of his final ones where his style is the most pared down and 'pure', following the recommendation of the Guardian's John Patterson. And it's all there: the camera placed a little below waist-height rather than at eye-level (so we are always looking slightly up), the characters in mid-shot almost but not quite facing the audience, the deep focus compositions of frames within frames. And of course, the camera never moves. Ever.

The combined effect of this extremely particular style is worth thinking about. The tilt up from waist-height puts the audience in a humble position, close to the ground, reverential. The mid-shot portraits feel weirdly artificial – we're almost behind the eyes of the person being addressed, but the actors always look slightly beyond the camera. It's as if the audience slides literally in between the conversation (how the actors worked with a camera placed this way is really difficult to imagine). The layered depth of field isn't distractingly stage-y, but does enforce a sense of spaces sliding open and closed between the characters, invisible barriers only occasionally being lifted. The score is more conventional – accentuating moments of comedy but also supercharging melodramatic scenes.

While the plot and concerns of the film are minute – marriage, family and manners – the style in which they are presented does much to elevate them in the audiences eyes (Patterson's comparison with Jane Austen is a great way of thinking about it, and rubbishes the notion that these films are impenetrably Japanese). Ozu is supremely sensitive to the heroic sacrifices generations of women make, and the callousness of powerful men who meddle in women's lives for their own amusement. Throughout the film, Setsuko Hara grins maniacally, and a little bit scarily, through conversations with the male matchmakers. It ends with her alone, deprived of her daughter, but with a genuine smile on her face. The film is all about the conflict between public conformity and private happiness – all of which is captured in that sad smile.

24.5.14

Preludes & Nocturnes

For the past two weeks I've been participating in a email discussion on the first Sandman book. The entire thing is now up on the London Graphic Novel Network. With the kind permission of Joel, who is organising the venture, I'm posting some of my contributions below. A good deal of very smart stuff has been said during the debate, so if you're interested in the series, you should really go and read the whole thing. If you like an argument and want to join the fray, send an email to the address at the top right.

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I like the first volume a great deal, quite a lot more than most of the series, actually. Joel described the books as not being about hard, important real issues, but as soft and beguiling. "Beguiling" is a very apt descriptor, I think, particularly in its negative sense of "to deceive", because a prevailing impression I've had of the series is that it appears to be more than it actually is. Sandman creates the sensation of being profound (something the horribly fawning introductions to the trades encourage further), but I personally find it quite difficult to interrogate. Gaiman is certainly aware that myths and stories are metaphors we use to understand the real hard stuff (as it were), but he often gets lost in them to the point where the allusions fail to add up to a coherent point. He seems to exercise remarkably little control over his writing (the first issue is 40 pages long, almost twice the size of a regular issue). It came as no surprise to me when it was revealed (I think in the published script for 'Calliope') that he had no idea how to end The Doll's House when he started writing it. Sometimes it works (The Doll's House is for my money the best volume of the series), but often it goes horribly wrong (e.g. A Game of You).

So what I like about the first volume is that it is the least "beguiling" of the lot, in that it is the least deceptive and the most rooted in pulp and genre. "Pretentious" is an unfortunately overused word that can scare people from engaging with something that is difficult and worthwhile, but I have no fear in describing The Sandman to be in many parts pretentious properly so called – pretending to offer value it doesn't actually possess. Preludes' great virtue is that it doesn't pretend to be more than it is – it's actually a very good horror comic, possibly containing the most chilling story Gaiman has ever told (Sleep of the Just contains a small but telling nod to Stephen King, and I suspect the diner sequence bears some of his influence). It is also, I think, ably illustrated. I'm always surprised when Sam Kieth gets a drubbing in discussions of The Sandman. I've just reread the first two issues and I think his layouts are striking and the way he embellishes the page is very impressive. Art is always an eye of the beholder deal, but I find his rubbery and caricatured figures really lovely (Kieth has gone on to write and draw his own comics – check out Zero Girl and particularly My Inner Bimbo, which is fantastic). Kieth is certainly let down quite a bit by the colouring, which was terrible even for the standards of the time. The biggest revolution comics have undergone in recent years is digital colouring, and I think the new Sandman trades have had their colours "updated", which will hopefully make the artwork clearer. People may also disparage Kieth's Sandman because he never cracked the character's look in the way Dringenberg did when he took over on pencils, but I definitely think it has its charms, particularly the face Morpheus pulls when he sees his phallic castle in ruins.

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The most striking part of 'The Sound of her Wings' is Dream's claim to be far more terrible than Death. In his words, death is a gift – but what is the nature of that gift? The poem Dream recites suggests it has something to do with providing an end to suffering (sickness, war, captivity, uncertainty – in order of obviousness). And the anamorphic personification of Death takes the recently deceased almost literally under her wing. She isn't just Dream's big sister, in a way she is everyone's big sister – a kind of universal guardian angel with invisible wings. Her "function" is to provide comfort to the dying. The thing is, death (small d) isn't always so benign – the example of the comedian showcases death as robbing people of their opportunity to become subjects, and the cot-death showcases the devastation caused by bereavement. It is difficult to interpret either of these things as any kind of 'gift'. Dream's reading of Death's function isn't therefore very satisfying. Is Gaiman purposefully muddying the waters, or is he just confused? Something doesn't cohere.

Dream also has "responsibilities" – he, again almost literally, finds his own wings at the end of the issue (but are they made of sand??). What these responsibilities are is left unclear, and I'm not sure if it's ever conclusively answered (if you have a theory, do let me know!). Whatever they are, they contrast with the purpose that Dream has been pursuing in the previous seven issues. Vengeance has left him feeling "empty", but this new purpose promises a real and lasting fulfillment. If it's anything like Death's, it must involve providing some sort of comfort to people facing the pain and uncertainty of human existence. But as we find out, an inherent aspect of Dream's 'job' is to author nightmares, which sort of do the opposite. Again, there is ambiguity as to what the point of these Endless really is. Is that intentional on Gaiman's part, or is he unsure of what they are really about as well? Do they stand apart like indifferent gods? If so, what "responsibilities" do they have that bind them to somehow serve humanity or the universe?

Personally, I suspect that Gaiman is so steeped in myths and fairy tales that he can quite easily riff on them, raconteur-like, and go with what sounds or feels right, without overly worrying about consistency. If Sandman has a point, it is an attempt to valorize that very particular gift, and I think it develops into an exhortation to the reader to unleash their own story-telling powers, since The Sandman's (and the author's) are so limited. I think this confession lies at the heart of The Kindly Ones, and it's what redeems the series in my eyes, but we'll get to that when we get to that.

Does Gaiman provide a reason as to why caps-lock bold-type 'story' (to borrow Mazin's phrase) is such an integral part of withstanding the pain of existence? Does the argument stand up? Perhaps Gaiman prefers to step back and let the medium be the message. And because Gaiman's off-the-cuff stories lack that weight, perhaps that's why I remain unconvinced.

4.5.14

The Adventure (L'Avventura)

Having admired the formal ingenuity and compositional beauty of Antonioni's The Night, I thought I'd give the first of his trilogy on the jaded middle classes a go. Critical opinion seems to suggest that The Adventure is the more accessible work, having a plot that uncannily mirrors Hitchcock's Psycho (released the same year). Knowing the set up of the film coming in, I found it far more boring. The Night is long, but it is stretched between a brilliant beginning and ending. The Adventure is just long, vaguely episodic but drifting, without the bookends that wrap up La Dolce Vita (also released the same year) in a satisfying package.

The concerns of Antonioni's film are similar to Fellini's – both Italians appear to be going through the sort of existential crisis faced by Sartre and Camus in France 20 years previously, accentuated by economic boom and the arrival of celebrity culture. Traditional (Catholic) morality crumbles all around the protagonists in these films. Marriage, family and fulfillment in work are increasingly meaningless ideas Gabriele Ferzetti and Marcello Mastroianni struggle towards, beset by the demands capital makes on their labour and the new freedoms of the permissive, individualistic and consumerist society they find themselves in. Both directors also find solace in angelic females who redeem their wayward males. The Adventure concludes with Monica Vitti forgiving her lover minutes after finding him in flagrante delicto with a prostitute, losing all credibility in the process. La Dolce Vita is darker – at the end of the film, Mastroianni is sunk so deeply into listless excess that he can no longer hear the words of his guardian angel. Antonioni's follow-up The Night is even more dark: Monica Vitti is crushed and ruined by the nihilism at the heart of modern marriage, and the film ends drifting away from a rape at a golf course. None of these films are perfect, but The Adventure is the most disappointing by quite a measure.

20.4.14

The Night (La Notte)

I'm part-way through Mark Cousins' The Story of Film: An Odyssey (very impressive, if occasionally exasperating). Michelangelo Antonioni gets relatively brief treatment, but Cousins identifies his preference for framing people at the edge of shots as being particularly innovative. Watching The Night, I very quickly became aware of this. Cousins argues that the device suggests a separateness between characters – people circling the empty world around them. The effect is most commonly used for depicting Jeanne Moreau, who we learn at the end is feeling suicidal. Throughout the film, Antonioni visually puts her on a knife edge.

There is more formal ingenuity to sink one's film-school teeth into. The Night is built around one married couple and two love triangles. The third wheels mirror each other – one is at the end of his life and the other is at the beginning of hers. Each love triangle get its own 'triangle scene', one at the beginning and one at the end of the film, in which the camera moves in an especially conspicuous and rigid way, highlighting the connections between the characters. The shot in which Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau and Monica Vitti stare towards (and beyond) the camera is especially brilliant, each observing while not knowing they are observed. Moreau is the one that turns to 'complete' the triangle – she is the most self-aware character, and also the most lonely.

Even the dialogue expresses the sense of orbiting bodies around a black hole. People talk in parallel monologues rather than to each other, and there are only occasional moments where meanings connect. Much of the script is therefore obtuse, and if anything, I wanted it to be more purposefully so. I suspect Antonioni wanted these people's ramblings to suggest the empty poetry of the human condition. I think the film would have been more striking still if the characters seemed to barely speak the same language – bored by everyone and fatally robbed of the curiosity of trying to understand each other.

The title refers to the all-night house party in which Mastroianni leaves Moreau to chase after Vitti, but the film is also about the long night that encloses all our lives. It begins with a dying man and ends with the wife at the edge of dissolution, a corpse to be violated by her grasping, desperate husband. The film suggests that the inevitable end of love robs life of meaning, leaving empty shells drifting past each other in silence.

4.4.14

Under the Skin

So what are we left with here? Scarlett Johansson plays a predator who is a skeletal obsidian void – her purpose to suck lusty men into another black void at the command of fierce male motorcyclists. These silent beings are hungry for the fleshy red insides they themselves lack. The contrast between humanity and the alien other comes down to the biology that underpins our sexual and romantic lives. Perhaps... The film really leaves you to work it out for yourself.

What I am certain of is that Johansson's casting was quite deliberate. A bit like Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave, her star-power is impossible to ignore, which is all to the film's purpose. Her role here almost feels like a comment on parts she has played in so many other films (Lost In Translation, The Other Boleyn Girl, Vicky Christina Barcelona) – the babe who isn't quite aware of how alluring she is. Here she is given her skin and forced to seduce men, and she does it clumsily. And yet even that is part of her charm – a corruptible innocent, a bambi-eyed femme fatale who rewards saviours with sex.

When Johansson is damselled for real she encounters two men – the first seemingly benign, the second a rapist and murderer. The first is a proper gentleman, but her silence and passivity means that his interest in her can be little more than physical, since her inwardness is entirely alien and strange. The second turns the tables on the honey-trap predator and destroys her – her sensuality is both her means of survival and her downfall. There is something slightly slut-shamey in this, except that the film suggests that Johansson is being coerced into her role. The motorcycle men collect a dead prostitute at the beginning of the film, which may be a defective model Johannson is replacing. In any case, the women here are disposable and shaped for male ends.

In all these scenarios, the film is gesturing towards ideas that are hardly new or surprising: the automated doll that starts developing a sense of self and begins to dissent gave this blog its title. That this revolution is stirred by the solidarity Johannson finds with the lonely and marginalised is also an unsurprising character arc – in fact, it's romantic almost to the point of cliché. Even the final images, where she is burned to death and the falling snow extinguishes her funeral pyre, evoke allusions to witchcraft, martyrdom and nature's indifference to all the living and the dead.

All of the art-film trappings – the black to white framing device (suggesting the birth and death of both the protagonist and the universe), the great soundtrack by Micachu (minus the Shapes) – doesn't quite disguise the fact that pulp has covered this territory already. Under the Skin is stylish, but it isn't all that clever.

1.4.14

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Given the compromising position S.H.I.E.L.D. was in at the end of The Avengers, there was only one way this film could go - and it's a credit to Marvel that they went the whole hog, getting arch-liberal Robert Redford to play against type as the villain. My fellow movie-watcher, long-time comrade and true believer remarked that the major flaw with the film is how black and white the conflict ended up being. Redford could not just be himself, he had to be the head of a 60-year-old Hydra conspiracy as well. If you had to have Hydra there (to link back to the battles of the first film and hammer home the difference between the state Steve Rodgers fought for and the one he is now fighting against) they could have played a more muted role. Perhaps Redford could have been Zola's dupe - someone who betrayed his country in order to achieve that vision of absolute security. The film's failure is that it didn't give Redford the space to articulate just how seductive that vision can be.

I don't tend to watch a lot of action films, but do think this is one of the best I've seen. I'm paying a compliment when I say the competence on display was dazzling. The directors are most well known for television comedy, but they prove that that's no barrier to really solid stacks of gunfights, car chases and lightning-fast fisticuffs. At points it reminded me of Bad Boys II (again, a compliment) were the sequences pile up without the pile ever feeling too big.

The actors also play their (little more than) functional roles perfectly, their modest little arcs neatly composed in tidy satisfying packages - like an assortment of delicacies in a bento box. Chris Evans is brilliant in what is a tricky part to pull off. Being Mr Sincere in such an arch film can slip into parody, and to his credit there were very few times in which he reminded me of a pre-self-aware Buzz Lightyear. Again, it's a compliment.

30.3.14

Blue is the Warmest Colour

I balked at watching the 3 hour film – the original comic looked far more manageable. It also turned out to be impressively put together. Julie Maroh studied comic art at university and self-published three comics before getting to Blue is the Warmest Colour, and it shows. Her artwork is most impressive when it plays with focus – lines becoming increasingly blurry further in the background, which creates amazing immersive crowd panels (at the demonstration, the bar, the house-party). And it accentuates a great effect when Emma's distinctive blue hair is gradually revealed and then gradually swallowed up by the crush of monochrome people.

There is also a good deal of attention payed to page construction. Individual pages frequently balance each other – the last panel echoing the first and compositionally underlining the change (in plot or character) that has occurred across the page. There are also some clever effects playing with panel borders and panel shapes, speech bubbles and captions.

Interest in the comics form extends to the title and theme. Blue is traditionally perceived as a cold colour (an association perhaps encouraged by the way we experience natural phenomena like rivers, lakes or the sea). At the beginning of the book, the narrator Clementine redefines it as warm – a personal association based on her own unique experience (of her infatuation with her blue-haired lover). This calls back to the theme of the book: that love isn't a universal, fixed (Platonic) ideal, but shaped by the individual. The closing lines of the book are a tad saccharine, but they are about something: "love may not be eternal but it can make us eternal". The book puts the people before the idea – for Clem and Emma blue is the warmest colour even if most of us tend to see it as cold. As Emma gazes into the sea at the end (a liminal setting if ever there was one, and perhaps indicating the threshold at which she becomes a true artist), we see her redefining it with her own memories and associations – suffusing it with warmth, as Clem had done.

23.3.14

Ulysses Episodes Ranked

Taking inspiration partly from this brillant ILX post, although my list is of favourite chapters rather than easiest. Rankings reflect the fact that I still find Stephen (Joyce's avatar) more fascinating than Bloom. Bearing in mind that Ulysses is a sequel to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, my preference is a bit like when His Dark Materials introduced Will as a protagonist in the second book, and my connection with Lyra carrying over from the first book meant I couldn't detach myself entirely from her perspective. That may explain the top choice, in which Bloom hardly features at all, but to the list itself:

18. Eumaeus
The most frustrating of all the episodes – not because it's difficult to understand, but after the phantasmagoric circus of Circe which unifies Bloom and Stephen at the end, we end up in a limbo of parallel conversations only momentarily connecting with each other. And on top of that, the narrative voice is purposefully designed to annoy you. A couple of moments worth the time spent getting to Ithaca: D.B. Murphy's unreliable tales of heroism contrasted with Bloom's own mundane voyaging, Bloom's quick sketch of a socialist paradise and Stephen's solipsistic response.

17. Proteus
Stephen's solipsism reaches its heights in this chapter, where we hear what his stream-of-consciousness sounds like. I found it by far the most difficult, since I was reading without much recourse to annotations and the incursions into French and Latin lost me completely. I should have tried harder, since the episode covers in scattershot flashbacks the crucial period between Stephen leaving Ireland at the end of Portrait and us discovering him back in Dublin at the beginning of Ulysses. In any case, the commencement of Bloom's stream-of-consciousness in Calypso came as welcome relief (which may not be an accident).

16. Aeolus
The first half of Ulysses is far more stylistically consistent than the second half (after Wandering Rocks). While this early episode breaks up the text with newspaper-like headlines, it still retains the feel of Bloom's narrative in the episodes around it. Bloom leaves the centre of the action for half of the episode, which is then occupied by Stephen, and their almost but not quite meetings throughout the novel are the main (and not-inconsiderable) source of tension in the plot.

15. Hades
I read Dubliners 10 years ago, so it wasn't easy for me to keep track of all the people we meet again at Dignam's funeral. Bloom's (very temporal) observations suggest he was an acquaintance rather than a close friend. Moments that stand out: Hamlet's gravedigger reborn as Corny Kelleher (who will save Stephen in Circe), the acute awkwardness of Power condemning suicide after which we flashback to Bloom's father's suicide note.

14. Lotus-Eaters
Bloom's stream-of-consciousness continues from Calypso. Main enjoyment in this episode comes from his opportunistic letching, his clandestine erotic excursions as Henry Flower, and the final image of him reclining in the bath as we zoom in to his limp, floating (flowerlike) penis.

13. Oxen of the Sun
Reading aloud does help as Joyce cycles through the history of the English language. The Latinate beginning and slang-slinging ending are the most difficult bits – but there's some enjoyment to be had in between (I liked the medieval pastiches in particular, although they are not as good as the ones in Cyclops).

12. Wandering Rocks
This montage sequence appears in the middle of Ulysses and tries to evoke the churn of the city, but the finest moments are the glimpses we see of Stephen's family, and the choice Stephen has to make when he comes across his desperate younger sister. Also priceless is Father Conmee witnessing an illicit tryst in the bushes.

11. Sirens
The musical episode starts with an overture chopping up the sounds we will encounter as we read along, and finishes with Bloom's contribution of a surreptitious fart at the end. Not knowing the context (and a lot of the content) of the songs put me at a disadvantage, but there was quite a lot of enjoyment in working out the various noises and what they mean. Best moments include the intercutting notes of Blazes Boylan's trek to his liaison with Molly, and the drinkers being treated to a flash of thigh by one of the barmaids.

10. Lestrygonians
Perhaps slightly overrating this long section of Bloom's wanderings in search for lunch (vegetarian, in contrast to his carnivorous breakfast), but it's one of the best accounts of the character's fundamental decency in the book.

9. Calypso
Bloom's introduction to the story sets up some of the key plot strands that we follow through in the rest of the novel – his relationship with Molly and their mutual sexual infidelities, as well as their differing relationship to their daughter Milly and the buried trauma of their dead son. Bloom remains caught in Molly's orbit despite these strains, his quiet acts of devotion mirrored in the final moment in the book when Molly is transformed from Calypso into Penelope.

8. Ithaca
Joyce may have derived much of his enjoyment in this episode from subverting the form of Catholic catechism into a relentlessly secular investigation into the causes of things. The moments of ponderous detail weigh into what should be the dramatic climax of the novel, and there is the slight frustration that we cannot hear Bloom and Stephen talk to each other in their own voices. The displacement is all to the novel's purpose – the omniscient perspective circles around the characters without providing final solutions to their dilemmas. Stephen refuses the offer of a place to stay and walks out homeless (his, and Joyce's, odyssey is just beginning), and Bloom and Molly are deprived of their symbolic son. The finest moment is Stephen chanting the anti-semitic poem, which to me has echoes of a Fall myth in which the boy loses his (maiden-)head. This transformation from innocence to experience comes as Joyce anchors Stephen to the Ithacan rock of Bloom's open, curious, de-mythologised view of the universe.

7. Nestor
Stephen's musings on history and his recalcitrant attitude to authority was always going to win me over, even though this is a comparatively slight episode in the book. Stephen's silent inward retorts to Deasy's arguments are like catnip to me, and none are finer than his rapid mental calculation of all the debts he owes when exhorted to pay his way in the world.

6. Circe
Circe's comically absurd nightmare is at its finest when it exposes Bloom's very kinky sexuality, and the weird persecution/punishment complex he has developed. It also underlines Stephen's association with Hamlet, as here he is confronted with the ghost of his dead mother, and the guilt he feels for abandoning his family in order to pursue his own freedom and development. The drama whirls around unceasingly up until the final moments in which Bloom sees another apparition of his son, this time bringing hope. It's a bravura performance, bewildering but impressive.

5. Cyclops
The down-to-earth unnamed narrator taking over the episode makes this a comparatively easy read, and the lapses into sarcastic reproductions of heroic, legal and other styles provide some of the funniest moments in the book. The final sentence, in which Bloom's ascension is described as being "like a shot off a shovel", merges the different voices together and reveals the digressions to be part of the unnamed narrator's consciousness – the background linguistic and ideological formulae that underpin the average Dublin male's world-view. The narrator's exasperation at Bloom's multi-polar take on every subject ("till he near had the head of me addled") is both hilarious and underlines his own simplistic, one-eyed P.O.V.

4. Nausicaa
After the macho Cyclops, Nausicaa puts us in female company. As devotions are offered to the Virgin Mary, the various expectations imposed on Dublin women are exposed on the rocks below. Gerty's crush on the boy with the bicycle is sweet, but her misplaced romantic daydreams about Bloom add a bitter edge to her story arc. The revelation of her disability is a crude assertion of reality knocking down the sexual and romantic fantasies conjured by the fireworks display.

3. Penelope
Molly's final "yes" comes after a long and looping screed in which she complains about Bloom almost incessantly. But while she seems exasperated by her husband, the fact that her thoughts keep reverting back to him reveals her underlying longing (and loneliness). The strain in Bloom's marriage is in part due to him ignoring or condescending to his wife. They haven't had sex in 10 years, since the death of their son Rudy, and neither of them are fully satisfied by their extra-marital entanglements. Bloom's discovery of paternal feelings towards Stephen, and Molly's own idealised view of the "professor and author", may (it appears, and I hope) lead to some kind of reconciliation in the future.

2. Telemachus
The first time I read Ulysses I think I understood about 60% of what was going on. This time around I may have raised that to about 85% with the help of the internet. But I started, as before, with no guidance whatsoever. Thankfully, I knew both The Odyssey and Hamlet a bit better, and the way Joyce layers the parallels in Telemachus is a wonder: the prince deprived of his castle, his mother slandered, his father absent. Reading without the Gilbert schema would be a huge deprivation, and it's puzzling why Joyce (and some commentators) believed revealing the structure underpinning the novel would be distracting.

1. Scylla & Charybdis
Stephen's finest hour, puncturing the inflated Platonism of his contemporaries with appeals to the material reality of producing literature and the fact that art is always embedded in life. Joyce here is at his most self-reflexive (even more than when he lists the episodes of Ulysses in Circe and Ithaca), not only giving his avatar his own ideas on Shakespeare, but his justification of the novel itself. This is the only episode which refers to the Roman hero (twice!). Stephen mentions how tired Ulysses can have his heart softened by his son, teasing his own encounter with Bloom at the end of the book. Furthermore, John Eglinton mocks Stephen's attempt to make "Ulysses quote Aristotle", and insists they cannot now "combine a Norse saga with an excerpt from a novel" as Shakespeare would. And yet this is exactly what Joyce does, outgunning the entire Irish Literary Revival in the process (Stephen's inward response "Bear with me" may be my favourite moment in the novel). While Bloom is almost entirely absent in the episode, there is symbolic portent in the final image of the way he passes unrecognised between Stephen's inflexible and self-obsessed genius and the whirlwind of Buck's superficiality, the golden mean which proves him to be the true philosopher.