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.