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.