30.12.15

The Life of Adèle – Chapters 1 & 2

I'm using the original French title of the film, because although it's adapted from the comic Blue is the Warmest Colour (which is great), this is a different beast. Abdellatif Kechiche combined the source material with another story he was developing, about a teacher who stoically sticks to her duty despite her turbulent private life. So while chapter one remains quite close to Maroh's outline, chapter two goes down a different road.

Have to say I found the second half a lot more interesting, and I don't think it's just because I was already familiar with the first half. For all the endless takes and improvisation, Kechiche isn't shooting a documentary. His frames are carefully composed, as are his scenes – and much of the sexual awakening stuff at the beginning feels like heightened high school drama, removed and idealised away from the awkward, messy reality.

The film is notoriously long, and I think some of it is bloat. It tickled me to learn that Kechiche worked with several editors when cutting – I imagine he rather enjoyed the divide and rule opportunities this created. But the most fraught editing choice I agree with. Some critics found the explicit sex scenes dragged on into the gratuitous, but I think they are necessary. I'm oversimplifying only slightly when I describe Adèle and Emma's relationship as being built on their physical passion for each other, and destroyed by everything else. Part of this is class – while they live in the same town they are drawn from different cultures. But they also make their own destinies, and the film makes clear that their interests and goals diverge.

But understanding that iron grip of sexual obsession is crucial to justifying the extraordinary scene in the bar towards the end – the first time they see each other after the break-up. It is heartrending because both women are desperate for that intimacy once again. Adèle is delirious and collapses into grovelling, but Emma is mature enough to tear herself away from temptation. She loves someone else – Adèle is no longer the centre of her story.

This is a blow the comic could not deliver (it goes in a slightly forced bereavement direction instead). Adèle is hollowed out at the end of the film, giving even a potential race for your love the slip. The French language title provides the only source of comfort: this is only chapters one and two. Adèle walks away from her first relationship, and into a life comprised of many other chapters.

The closest parallel here is probably Boyhood, which I managed to see in the cinema and felt like I could watch go on for an entire lifespan. Linklater's film also isn't a documentary – it is suffused with affect. But it tries to present the development of a character as completely as possible. Likewise we see Adèle eating, dancing, working, sleeping, cleaning, showering and cumming. We get a picture of a rounded personality (thankfully less privileged than the one in Boyhood). But at some point the film has to stop and the credits need to roll, even if we don't want them to.

Favourite songs of 2015

Final list, I promise. Usual rules: one song per artist, with entries pushed up if a whole body of work needs recognition. The list is mercifully shorter than last year's mammoth two-parter, partly because I've listened to more albums this year, and relied less on browsing soundcloud for a quick fix. Most of the top 10 has an album behind it, the rest is largely grime loosies – a reflection of the resurgence the genre has had in 2015. I've tried to compile a soundcloud playlist with some of the above (plus a few other faves) here.

This one in at number 20 – as I've just discovered it. But it's grime at its most youthful and infectious – shamelessly biting the drums and horns from Amerie's '1 Thing' and laying them over a turbocharged 2-step beat. Elf Kid is just 18, a member of Novelist's Lewisham-based The Square, and self-consciously channeling Tinchy at his precocious best. He's just one of many examples demonstrating a genre in rude health.

19. Sir Spyro feat. Teddy Brukshot, Lady Chann & Killa P - Top A Top
I had some difficulties with my portable music player at the beginning of the year, which meant falling back on Rinse FM podcasts for a couple of months. Spyro's Grime Show was a go-to regular, and while the sets were wonderful (and best watched on youtube for the full effect), some of the dubs he would spin for the first hour were incandescent. For a little while I got a sense of what it must be like to listen to grime like a real fan, following DJs every week and trying to piece together tracklists of unreleased material. This is one such nugget, recorded and uploaded to youtube, but still without a proper release.

18. Jammz - 128 Bars (prod. Spooky)
If Kanye West's 12 minute account of how he became a rapper at the end of College Dropout was condensed into four minutes, it might sound a bit like this. Jammz rattles through his 128 bars in double-time, touching on some personal shit along the way only to run away from it – trying to get to the aspirational boasting that is every MC's bread and butter. Spooky lifts Kanye's Dropout-era sped-up samples to suggest a space for reminiscence, but the barrage Jammz delivers shows a man looking forward not back, and keeping busy in order to forget the poverty he grew up in.

17. Wolf Alice - Your Loves Whore
Grunge revivalists, apparently (or maybe not). I prefer them channeling Angels & Airwaves, tbh. The riffing is stadium-sized, but the verses stop and start along to Ellie Rowsell's flirty daydream as she gazes at the object of her idolatry. This is desire at its most naive, idealistic and obsessive – worth every compromise, every abasement. I'm sure Roswell has grown out of it, and has more self-respect. But she still remembers what it feels like.

16. Darq E Freaker feat. Dai Burger - Choppin Necks
Darq E Freaker's clanging grime bangers have the whiff of the pre-school playground. In his hands, the silliness lurking under so much of rap's machismo is brought to the surface, and painted in primary colours. Dai Burger's flow is cut price Nicki Minaj, but it works perfectly in this context – brash, lewd, arch, and very very catchy.

15. Kero Kero Bonito - Picture This
I wrote last year that all of KKB's songs sound like manifestos, and this one's no exception: "hold your camera high, and click / exercise your right to picture this". Refreshingly, attempts to satirise the selfie generation are thin on the ground. The knowing send-ups that sink so much of PC Music is eschewed here for pop music pure and simple. And honest. You know what? It is freaking amazing that we can capture and preserve moments of happiness that would otherwise get lost or rewritten by our imperfect memories. This song is great at not only encapsulating the fun of taking those snaps, but the fond recollection of reviewing them years later. The unhealthy side (competitive snapping and sharing, FOMO perusal of facebook walls) isn't even hinted at. It's about being selfie-stick-armed and proud.

14. Kelela - A Message (prod. Arca & Boots)
For my money, the best fka twigs track released this year. Much like 2014's much admired 'Pendulum', this deals with an emotionally distant lover slowly slipping through your fingers. But while twigs is inwardly fractured and contorted by the pressure of hiding her dissatisfaction, Kelela is remarkably composed – only a slight hesitation is audible when she wonders if it's too hard to face what will be lost. Her gliding vocals over Arca's stop-start production captures the sensation of rising above a difficult situation, and moving on.

13. Sufjan Stevens - Drawn To The Blood
I lost track of Sufjan sometime around The Age of Adz, but with Carrie & Lowell he returned to familiar territory, and I found my way back in again. This is more of an interlude than a full song, with the last third simply being a wash of oblique synths – signalling an epiphany, or maybe something a bit more sinister. While Sufjan balances the anguish of other songs with moments of contentment and acceptance, 'Drawn To The Blood' leaves all that to the wordless denouement. The rest is just rage and betrayal. A loving God does not shield the faithful from suffering: "what did I do to deserve this?", "tell me what I have done?"

12. SafOne feat. Trilla, PRessure0121 & Bomma B - She Wants A Man From Brum (prod. Preditah)
Grime hasn't been a London thing for a while now, but while the instrumental stuff has gone truly global, MCs from outside the UK capital have been thin on the ground. 2015 felt like the year this changed, and the most fertile spot for new voices seems to be Birmingham. 'She Wants A Man from Brum' is bullshit of the tallest order (very much doubt that SafOne's link "wants a man that rolls with a gun", for example). The fictional women described by the four lads are status symbols – props to (bruised?) self esteem. They are hot, rich, lascivious, and crucially, not from Brum. The song is a subliminal plea for recognition. And it looks like it's finally on its way.

11. Fetty Wap feat. Monty - Jugg (prod. Salik Singletary)
Fetty Wap isn't a rapper – a fact recognised by the sagacious staff of Islington Libraries, who've shelved his debut album in the R&B section. Instead the man is a wellspring of catchy hooks, which are crooned in a deep, autotune-slathered baritone. 'Jugg' doubles down on the exuberant sounds Fetty can emit from his throat – a ponderously slow strip-club anthem which stretches the warbling almost past endurance. The less-than-impressive Monty (who accompanies Wap for half the songs on the album) has his finest moment here, wringing everything he can get out of a single melodic phrase. I can imagine this stuff would test the patience of many a listener, but for me there's been little in 2015 that has sounded more joyous.

10. Stormzy - Know Me From (prod. ZDot)
"Got bit by a snake, but I'm over that / Can't chat about gyal, I get loads of that". With such premium non-sequiteurs, it's no wonder Stormzy bigs up Wiley at the end of his breakout single. This is a no-holds-barred grime tune, with a don't stand by me attitude and a fierce suspicion of fakers cashing in without doing the hard graft. But what sticks is the infectious giddiness of Stormzy's delivery, a highed-up playful energy that gives him the confidence to proclaim "Stiff Chocolate" as one of his many aliases. The sentiment in the the lyrics is confrontational and uncompromising, but the personality is pop all the way through.

9. CHVRCHES - Clearest Blue
A song of two halves built around a very big drop. And fittingly it's about meeting people in the middle – the tension between yielding and resisting at the heart of all relationships, romantic and otherwise. Mayberry sings about being an object 'shaped' between the earth and sky, between 'every open eye', and having to defend her ground against the demands of others. Her coos during the build are countered by one of those colossal synth hooks CHVRCHES do so well. The muscular second half is an assertion of confidence, ready for EDM-sized venues. But Mayberry's vocal echoes over the barrage are pliant, almost pleading: 'will you meet me half-a-way'. Bluster is for teenagers. Adults have to compromise.

8. K. Michelle - Love Em All (Toyboy & Robin Remix)
Partly here to make up for not getting around to the K. Michelle' album until this year. Toyboy & Robin leave the verses well alone, but cut-up the anthemic chorus into UKG-style vocal samples, and gird it all with lush piano chords ready-made for Balearic sunsets. And in the process, K.Michelle's victory in her personal battle of the sexes becomes something universal – a loved up, open-armed embrace of everyone on the dancefloor.

7. Abra - Pride
Over hypnotic snares and piano lines, Abra spills out her lovelorn guts. This is obsession felt like a haunting, a desperation that eats away at your self-respect until you are reduced to begging for a touch or a glimpse of your beloved. Abra's 80s R&B sound acquires gothic overtones here, massed choirs writhing around the chorus. It's more representative of the (brilliant) album than the coquettish single 'Roses', and it shows Abra to be a glum romantic idealist at heart.

A bit like the CHVRCHES pick, this is kitted out with big drops and synth hooks made for festival stages. And the lyrics are similarly cosmic – people as circling interstellar bodies, lifetimes stretching to aeons, a second chance blown up into "another eternity". The space between Megan James and her partner stretches out only to be collapsed, the widescreen chorus yearning for the close-ups in the verses. The orbits of a relationship become like the laws of physics, psyches mapped like kinetic forces. Volition becomes abstracted, a curious kind of out-of-body experience. The weapon-grade thuds of the synth riff are a little too on the nose, but James's blissful "o darling"s capture some of the magic of the first album.

5. Dawn Richard - Billie Jean (prod. Noisecastle III)
Knowledge of the MJ classic isn't strictly necessary to get the point – this is an update from the female perspective. And although Billie rejects the notion that she is anyone's "girl", she's still a "wet dream", trading clothes for vodka bottles "in a city full of thirsty hoes". The predicament of making a living out of your status as an object must be all too familiar for a hard-grafting R&B artist like Dawn Richard. For most of Blackheart she's moved on to loftier concerns – musically as well as lyrically. But here she's in the grim business of crowding men out of her life and generally making them uncomfortable – half rapping the verses and pitching her voice almost comically low on the hook. Subverting your objectification may still demand you to compromise yourself, but for Dawn this is only the first step towards freedom.

4. Future - No Basic (prod. Zaytoven)
I haven't been able to fully digest all of Future's output this year (haven't even got around to DS2). But the work with Zaytoven on Beast Mode was the most instantly appealing. Future's subject matter doesn't stray far from the trad trap rap topics, even if he adds the occasional confession of drug dependency and oblique reference to the end of his marriage to Ciara. Zaytoven enlivens this mix with a truly luxurious blend of piano trills and head-nodding beats. My fave is this city-sized paean to the daily grind, wrapped up around a song about how great your car is. It's like 2013 Kevin Gates favourite 'Just Ride' meets Lil Wayne masterpiece 'Hustler Muzik' (in my head anyway).

I wrote the above a week ago, and since then I've been chaining 'March Madness' and 'Fuck Up Some Commas' and a lot of other gems other people have picked out from the post-Honest mixtape trilogy (still haven't got around to DS2!) 'No Basic' may not reach those highs, but it was my way into the post-breakup anti-hero Future of 2015.

3. Riko - Ghost Chilli (prod. Rapid)
This year's obligatory inclusion from Riko is a soundcloud loosie over Rapid's 'Pepper Riddim' (it was on Rapid's EP for Butterz, but those guys really need to put this out in some form as well). The relentless forward motion of the instrumental is more than matched by Riko's outrageous gun talk. 'Ghost Chilli' revels in images of war – Riko has long described himself as the 'London city warlord' – the Idi Amin or Robert Mugabe of the urban jungle. But here the violence pushes the boundaries of taste even for a grime tune. The closest approximation of the chorus is: "if boy eva try this / rise up me gun like ISIS", which will become less funny if there's an attack on London similar to the one in Paris.

Arguably, these unsettling undercurrents have always been present in grime – see Trim semi-seriously flirting with the Taliban from at least 2007 on. This is shock tactics to be sure, but the nose-thumbs at the establishment hint at how grime has always positioned itself – harnessing the humiliation of powerlessness, and flipping it right back at the listener as an assertion of power. That brutally uncompromising form of aspiration is what makes it so exhilarating. But it's zero-sum – success is predicated on the humiliation, defeat, and enslavement of other competitors. The prize isn't only escape from subsistence living, but the invigorating sensation of dominion over others.

2. Sam Binga feat. Redders, Deft, Chimpo & Fox - Steppin V.I.P.
Sam Binga has had a banner year, and this more than anything else on the list is a stand in for the artist's entire 2015 output. It's the victory lap at the end of a great album, a reworked version of a track from a great EP, with a bunch of MCs jumping on to toast the year away. Redders, the star of so many Binga cuts, slows down his delivery and offers some of his funniest bars, although nothing beats his ad-libbed "bingie bingie bing" at the beginning.

1. Redlight x Tinashe - Pretend
Like the K. Michelle entry, here partly because I didn't get around to the album last year. That said, I could have picked something from the Amethyst EP to make up for it, but this bangs an awful lot harder. There's very little of Tinashe left on Redlight's remix. Instead, a slice of her vocal gets looped as the intro, voice becoming percussion until the first drop, after which successive layers of drums and bass weigh in. Redlight's D&B origins are betrayed by the multiple rhythmic accents added over the beat. But here the bass is deep and warm, the swung drums inviting, the vocals oozing like strawberry milkshake. It's an invitation to pull shapes like no other I received in 2015.

29.12.15

25 films in 2015

I go to the cinema so little nowadays that my opinion on the best films of the year is a waste of everyone's time. Nevertheless, the things I managed to see and enjoy are ranked below in rough order of enjoyment, if not quality. I did manage to watch a fair few classics on DVD this year, and for the purposes of list-making if nothing else, I thought I'd make note of them here.

New:

Alex Garland - Ex Machina [link]
Francis Lawrence - The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 [link]
George Miller - Mad Max: Fury Road [link]
J. C. Chandor - A Most Violent Year [link]
Isao Takahata - The Tale of the Princess Kaguya [link]
Joss Whedon - Avengers: Age of Ultron [link]
Guillermo del Toro - Crimson Peak [link]

Old:

Jaques Rivette - Céline and Julie Go Boating [link]
Nagisa Oshima - Naked Youth: A Story of Cruelty [link]
Luis Buñuel - That Obscure Object of Desire [link]
Yasuo Masumura - Blind Beast [link]
Luis Buñuel - Belle De Jour [link]
Stanley Kubrick - The Shining [link]
Michelangelo Antonioni - The Eclipse [link]
Takashi Miike - Audition [link]
Ingmar Bergman - Hour of the Wolf [link]
Abdellatif Kechiche - The Life of Adèle – Chapters 1 & 2 [link]
Michelangelo Antonioni - Blow-Up [link]
Jean Rollin - Fascination [link]
David O. Russell - Silver Linings Playbook [link]
Ingmar Bergman - Sawdust and Tinsel [link]
Yasuo Masumura - Tattoo [link]
Luis Buñuel - The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie [link]
Walerian Borowczyk - The Story of Sin [link]
Paul Thomas Anderson - The Master [link]

Punk Rock Jesus

In the afterword to the book, Sean Murphy tells the story of how he lost his faith. He was a "devoted Catholic" when starting the script for Punk Rock Jesus, but a road trip with an atheist friend made him consider beliefs "based on science and not on dogma". There's a little bit of the born-again secularist to the story, including nods to Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris (as well as Bad Brains, Black Flag, the Sex Pistols and so on). But Murphy is not interested in propaganda, no matter how much these thinkers may have influenced him. At one point, his punker protagonist is criticised for "being overly preachy" and not taking a "softer approach". Rock and roll confrontation only stirs up more sectarianism. The slash and burn attitude gets the better of him in the end. In an act of poetic justice, Murphy has him killed shortly after he suggests that "religious freedom is impeding any progress".

Some of the energy of fast angry guitar music is channeled into the book, which is blunt, pacy and adolescent. Murphy is an extraordinary artist, but his characters are drawn into edgy, easily defined icons, and the attempts to add nuance is often clumsy and wordy. But even if it isn't technically flawless, I still like its ballsy honesty and good intentions. Garth Ennis has covered similar territory in a much bleaker and funnier fashion, but he's less interested in what makes believers tick, and has less sympathy for those still clinging on to faith. Murphy's approach is "softer" (he's been through it after all), and perhaps more affecting – and effective.

28.12.15

Deliverance

The author of the novel James Dickie used several of his friends as models for the characters, and seems to have been interested in exploring the Southern US (male) personality. In making the film, John Boorman is more keen on the idea of urbanites grappling with the untamed jungle. The canoe trip is on a river that will be dammed up and destroyed. These city slickers are "raping" the natural world, in Boorman's words. And he describes the 'Mountain Men' as being like malignant forest sprites exacting their revenge. Bourgeois fears of a demonic working class aside, there is something captivating about the way the film turns a concrete situation into something resembling myth.

That isn't my description, but David Thomson's, who is otherwise rather down on the film's simplistic message and stereotyped characters. I think that although Burt Reynolds is sometimes a little melodramatic, the acting in general is superb, and fills out the limited characterisation. Moreover the details in the film – Bobbie's ribald jokes being turned against him, the church moving ground as moral convictions are shaken, the ambiguity of how people die – is impressive. It's a lean, expertly put together thriller, even if the metaphor driving it is hammered home within the first five minutes.

35 books for 2015

My list of worthwhile things I've read this year, plus links to whatever blogs and quotes I've managed to post on here. Pleased to find out I've got through a lot more books than last year. May have something to do with quitting television almost entirely (as I smugly remind anyone trying to recommend new TV shows to me). Comics are much better than box-sets anyway. I try to keep track of everything I've read on Goodreads here.

Paul Collier - Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century [link]
David Scott - Leviathan: The Rise of Britain as a World Power [link]
Mariana Mazzucato - The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths
Richard Rorty - Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
Jane Jacobs - The Economy of Cities
David Lammy - Out of the Ashes: Britain After the Riots
Ian Geary / Adrian Pabst (eds.) - Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics
Mark Fisher - Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures
Richard Sennett - The Uses of Disorder
Georges Bataille - The Accursed Share vol. 1: Consumption [link]
Roland Barthes - Mythologies [link]
Niall Ferguson - The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000 [link]

John Milton - Paradise Lost [link]
James Joyce - Dubliners
Marquis de Sade - Philosophy in the Bedroom / Justine / Simone De Beauvoir's Must We Burn Sade?
Anthony Thwaite, Geoffrey Bownas (eds.) - The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse [link]
Kazuo Ishiguro - The Buried Giant [link]
Yasunari Kawabata - Snow Country
Ryū Murakami - In The Miso Soup
Haruki Murakami - The Wild Sheep Chase
Seamus Heaney - The Burial at Thebes: Sophocles’ Antigone [link]

Bryan Lee O'Malley - Scott Pilgrim [link]
Joe Kelly / J. M. Ken Niimura - I Kill Giants [link]
Rick Remender / Eric Nguyen - Strange Girl
Frédéric Boilet - Yukiko's Spinach [link]
Hajime Isayama - Attack on Titan vols. 1-8 [link]
Alejandro Jodorowsky / Juan Giménez - The Metabarons
Jonathan Hickman / Nick Dragotta - East of West vols. 1-3
Carla Speed McNeill - Finder vols. 1 & 2
CLAMP - Chobits Omnibus vol. 1 [link]
Tsugumi Ohba / Takeshi Obata - Death Note vols. 1-3 [link]
Roy Thomas / Various - The Savage Sword of Conan vol. 1
Alan Moore / J. H. Williams III - Promethea [link]
Peter Milligan / Duncan Fegredo - Enigma [link]
Sean Murphy - Punk Rock Jesus [link]

22.12.15

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

Rather enjoyed seeing my contention that Katniss can never look beyond the personal to the political being spelled out at the beginning of the final film. Her resistance to the 'heroic' media narratives foisted onto her is what makes her a true hero. She doesn't want to play the game, and she cannot make political choices, which sometimes involve choosing between evils. In her confrontation with President Snow at the end of this film, he stresses that he never kills vindictively, only to achieve some end. Coin, who seeks to replace him, is also a calculating murderer and adept media manipulator. She kills children in order to destroy her enemy's credibility with his constituents, patrons and the armed forces. Crudely, it works – but for Katniss such people are monsters. She cannot countenance sacrificing others for your own end – she believes in self-sacrifice instead.

Those swept away by the revolutionary fervour of the previous films may be disappointed by the establishment of what looks like a representative democracy (with an Obama-looking figure as the President) at the end. The Hunger Games isn't utopian – Hamish makes the point that human beings have bad memories and are liable to repeat the mistakes of the past. The games may have ended, but the conflict between man and man they represented will continue. So will the spin, the gaudy television, perhaps the inequality between Districts as well. Only the most grievous injustices, the lack of political rights and the rule of law, are corrected. Indeed, although the final scene was awfully gauche, there is something almost libertarian in its return to the open forest. Katniss was modelled on Robin Hood from the very beginning, and its fitting that she would ultimately be most interested in defending the ancient liberties of the freeborn Englishman – property, privacy, the right to roam.

7.12.15

"...if now suddenly the Weltanschauungs politicians crop up en masse and pass the watchword, 'The world is stupid and base, not I,' 'The responsibility for the consequences does not fall upon me but upon the others whom I serve and whose stupidity or baseness I shall eradicate,' then I declare frankly that I would first inquire into the degree of inner poise backing this ethic of ultimate ends. I am under the impression that in nine out of ten cases I deal with windbags who do not fully realize what they take upon themselves but who intoxicate themselves with romantic sensations. From a human point of view this is not very interesting to me, nor does it move me profoundly. However, it is immensely moving when a mature man – no matter whether old or young in years – is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: 'Here I stand; I can do no other.' That is something genuinely human and moving. And every one of us who is not spiritually dead must realize the possibility of finding himself at some time in that position." - Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation

3.12.15

Chobits

This blog is starting to fill up with stray thoughts on half-finished manga series, but why stop now? Chobits is interesting for being a seinen (i.e. for older teens) manga written by an all-female collective of creators. Moreover, it touches on sensitive areas of identity politics with its central conceit – a world where I.T. has a human shape and weaves itself into the most intimate parts of our private lives.

Our protagonist is a poor student who rescues a 'persocom' from a trash heap. This device is created to make its owner happy – 'Chi' comes in the form of a beautiful 16-year-old girl, and is utterly obedient to her master's wishes. The book alludes to the fact that people have sex with these things, although CLAMP are more interested in the emotional effect of having these "perfect" simulations of humanity walking among us. Among the case studies in the book we find a guy who marries his persocom, another who tries to imbue his with the attributes of a deceased sister. And our protagonist is continually torn between romance with several pretty ladies and looking after his alluring new gadget.

The boys at Kraken recently discussed the (admittedly fatuous) question of whether you would make love to a robot. But the metaphor powering Chobits digs into the extent to which we already have quite powerful emotional (even physical) relationships with lifeless bits of kit. The distinction between sex with robots and internet pornography is already getting blurry. But the worry at the core of Chobits is deeper – will machines eventually replace other people in our social circle, to the point where we become cut off from humanity, with only androids in our orbit?

14.03.2016 edit to add: 


Just finished the second volume, which ups the saccharine levels considerably, and becomes an apologia for people who prefer virtual girlfriends to the real thing. The (all-female) CLAMP team see no issue with men (and it does appear to be mostly men) who fall in love with meek, child-like automatons designed to service their every whim and desire. There are other problems with the book – the plot unravels completely at the end, to the point where the whole thing feels improvised. But drawing the wrong conclusions from an interesting opening scenario is unforgivable.

30.11.15

"Far from retreating like some giant snail behind an electronic shell, the United States should be devoting a larger percentage of its vast resources to making the world safe for capitalism and democracy... [T]hese are not naturally occuring, but require strong institutional foundations of law and order. The proper role of an imperial America is to establish these institutions where they are lacking, if necessary – as in Germany and Japan in 1945 – by military force... The reasons this will not happen are threefold: an ideological embarrassment about being seen to wield imperial power; an exaggerated notion of what Russia and China would do in response; and a pusillanimous fear of military casualties. Perhaps that is the greatest disappointment facing the world in the twenty-first century: that the leaders of the one state with the economic resources to make the world a better place lack the guts to do it" - Niall Ferguson, The Cash Nexus: Money and Politics in Modern History 1700-2000

27.11.15

Death Note

Again, can't resist piling in despite having only read the first three volumes. I think the most important thing to keep a hold of when reading Death Note is how silly the whole thing is. It may be easy to forget amidst the tendrils of subterfuge and second-guessing between the two whizz kids. The details of how they chase each other's tails seem impressive, until you take a step back and see how ridiculous the thought of a teenager directing a manhunt against a supernatural terrorist really is.

The seriousness with which Death Note takes its zany concept is off-putting, not least because the Sherlock Holmes-like detective games direct attention away from what can be quite an interesting morality tale. Kira summarily executes criminals to create a new world order in which evil is eliminated. The idea of a straight-A student being a delusional psychopath must surely nod to the shock of the sarin attacks on the Tokyo underground in 1995, perpetrated by a cult composed of educated and successful members of Japanese society. Kira is our avatar in the book – the reader is being asked what they would do if they could kill people anonymously. To do so, it has to present the murderer neutrally, and his victims as fodder.

There is a risk here of losing a grip on why what Kira does is wrong. Kira's adversary L occasionally alludes to ideas of human rights and the case against what Kira is up to. But the ethical argument gets sidelined in the game of cat and mouse which takes up the majority of the narrative space in the volumes. Perhaps I'm wrong to get worked up about this – surely it will be clear to most people why we have checks and balances when dealing with lawbreakers, rather than sending them all to the gallows. But if the book is suggesting that some Japanese really do think like Kira, it has a duty to set out why that attitude is wrong-headed. The way Death Note handles its ending will be decisive in this regard.

26.11.15

Blow-Up

Having watched through the four films with Monica Vitti, Blow-Up feels like the most straightforward Antonioni film I've seen. It helps that the structure is very simple – a day (and a bit) in the life of a successful fashion photographer – and that it leans on a murder mystery plot. This being Antonioni, the plot only occasionally intrudes on more abstract concerns. But unlike the drift of his other films, I found myself quite gripped by the goings on here. David Hemmings in the lead role may have something to do with it as well.

We don't find out what the conspiracy is. Vanessa Redgrave stumbles in and out of the film almost at random, and revealing nothing. Instead the incident at the park is a tentpole on which to hang various reflections on 60s London. Antonioni is rather sniffy about the rank materialism of the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll generation. His protagonist Thomas is more interested in the gritty existence of the downtrodden – choosing photographs of old men in doss houses for his book, rather than the silly fashion stuff he's known for. But he's compromised as well, as that famous scene with Verushka demonstrates. His may want his camera to be the window into his soul, but more often it's just another cock.

My spiritual film guide David Thomson describes Antonioni as an "anxious unbeliever". It's true that the empty space and untethered morality in his films suggest the stresses of existentialism. Thomas is searching for the transcendent in art and in life – that one little element that would make the whole make sense (in the words of his painter friend). The death and disappearance in the park provide him with the miracle he needs. I suspect there may be an echo here of Jesus's empty tomb – a brush with faith which Thomas wanders away from.

Instead we end with him alone in the middle of the park, after momentarily being tempted to join an act by a bunch of revelling mimes. The transcendent is replaced with a collective imagining by artists, who seem to be enjoying themselves. Thomas used to be part of that gang, but that last shot sees him isolated from their youthful romps as well. My guess is Antonioni can't let go of his hankering for eternal truths. He finds the postmodern age, where people make their own truths, beguiling, but ultimately dispiriting.

21.11.15

Attack on Titan

How much of Japan's recent history feeds into its popular fiction? I'm just a stupid westerner, but I can't resist drawing the inferences. The interview with the creator of Attack on Titan at the back of the first volume paints a portrait of a harmless otaku weirdo (with a body hair fetish...), but I suspect there's a bit of mystification going on, because the hook for the series nods to a whole bunch of stuff that must weigh heavily on the Japanese psyche. I suspect the creator is all too aware of it.

First of all, isn't the walled human settlement surrounded by alien hostile beings a clear reference to the fortress mentality fostered by Japan's sakoku period? The feeling of exceptionalism, of an apartness from a scary and foreign world, a discomfort with the outside, persists to this day. And Erin's desire to escape that suffocating cultural atmosphere must be felt by many young Japanese right now.

Then there's the titans themselves, who supply the disaster movie action in the book, and are a blatant update of the Godzilla metaphor for nuclear weapons. The remnants of humanity are faced with a force they are simply unable to counter. They live constantly under the shadow of apocalypse – again, something the Japanese must feel all too keenly after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Who are these titans? Where do they come from? Are they a cipher for dastardly American oppressors, or a more general concern with preserving the ecology of the planet from human, all too human mutations? Answers must lie in future volumes – I'm a creature of impulse and am writing this having just read number 1. The book itself is terrifically horrible – death and disaster awaiting at every turn. I found it in a children's library and have grave doubts about the wisdom of shelving it there. Alongside The Hunger Games, it slips into the trend of supremely bleak teen fiction facing into the endtimes and trying desperately to cling on to values of decency and humanity as the onslaught approaches.

16.11.15

Selections from the Penguin Book of Japanese Verse

Kobayashi Issa

The world of dew is
A world of dew... and yet,
And yet...

*

A world of dew:
Yet within the dewdrops –
Quarrels.

Priest Saigyō

On Mount Yoshino
I shall change my route
From last year's broken-branch trail,
And in parts yet unseen
Seek the cherry-flowers.

*

At the roadside
Where a clear stream bubbles
In the shade of the willows,
'Just for a while', I said,
And still have not gone.

Senryū

In the beautiful woman,
Somewhere or other
The wife finds flaws.

*

After he's scolded
His wife too much,
He cooks the rice.

*

A horse farts:
Four or five suffer
On the ferry-boat.

*

The morning after she's gone
He's very busy
Just finding everything.

*

The prostitute, too,
When the game is slow
Changes her name.

*

Judging from the pictures,
Hell looks the more
Interesting place.

*

Glaring glumly at the sky,
Pecking at their packed lunch
At home.

*

When her daughter
Tightens her belly-band,
Mother's tension slackens.

Yosano Akiko

You never touch
This soft skin
Surging with hot blood.
Are you not bored,
Expounding the Way?

*

Spring is short:
Why ever should it
Be thought immortal?
I grope for
My full breasts with my hands.

*

No camellia
Nor plum for me,
No flower that is white.
Peach blossom has a colour
That does not ask my sins.

Translated by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite

5.11.15

Hour of the Wolf

A conscious follow-up to Persona, and much bolder in its willingness to shatter narrative conventions. Max Von Sydow plays a painter who's visions hound him to death. There's a bunch of autobiography here, and it's close to the surface. At a disturbing dinner party with some aristocrats, Von Sydow declares that any monomania rearing up as a result of his success gets chased away by the fundamental purposelessness of his vocation, of art. I'm sure Bergman is speaking for himself here. There is also an obsession with a past affair with a married woman which dominates the dream sequence in the last quarter of the film (Bergman had a fair few and was married six times). Finally Von Sydow brings up an incident in his brutal upbringing by a strict, abusive father, which feels lifted straight from Bergman's own memories.

But the heart of the film is the effect this schizophrenia has on his wife – through a near miraculous depth of sympathy she starts to see his ghosts. But she is 'whole', while he is irreparably broken. And it is these 'whole' people that reveal the story to us. Bergman's visualisation of the rich subconscious fantasies of a tortured artist are cinematic tricks, and he's insistent on this point. Liv Ullmann is interviewed by him, and the sounds of the film crew are layered over the beginning titles that tell us the providence of the story we are about to watch. We are very nearly always aware that this is a film we're watching – that there is a connection between the ghosts the characters see and the actors reacting to them on the screen. They are made of the same stuff.

Von Sydow is hardly a sympathetic character. The most disturbing fever dream in the film is him murdering a boy who teases him while he's fishing. A younger self taunts his trials and failures, a ghost of better might-have-beens, and Von Sydow crushes him under his fists. His marriage is sweet, but always haunted by the awareness that Ullmann ultimately bores and cloys him. She doesn't obsess him in the way his previous lovers do. The 'hour of the wolf' refers to the time of the night most likely for people to die or be born. Von Sydow is so terrified of his apparitions that he has to keep himself awake through it. But there's also a suggestion that he can't quite accept the yawning fact of his own inevitable death, or that his wife is pregnant and that he'll have to start taking responsibility for people other than himself. Sydow is still the child locked up in the cupboard by his father, tormented by phantoms of his own imagining. His tragedy is that he cannot grow up and gain mastery over his demons.
"...it was the combination of their own desire to defeat popery, and the legitimacy that Parliament possessed to impose the necessary taxes, that proved decisive [to British victory over France in the Seven Years War (1757-63)]. With compliant taxpayers and a comparatively accountable political system, the government was able to raise huge public loans, both in real terms and relative to the British population. A ratio of military expenditure to income that no developed state today would dare even contemplate produced a navy so powerful that it eventually allowed the British to dominate global commerce and acquire the greatest empire ever seen. Trade and colonies, in turn, generated resources vital for sustaining government spending and nourishing urban and manufacturing growth. By the 1670s the British were the most prosperous people in the world, and their unflinching war on popery was helping to create many of the economic and social preconditions for the industrial revolution." - David Scott, Leviathan: The Rise of Britain as a World Power

3.11.15

Crimson Peak

Del Toro's interview with Sight & Sound suggested that Crimson Peak was his follow-up to Pan's Labyrinth. He wrote the script years ago, but sat on it until he could get the budget to physically build the house the story is set in. Having now seen it, I'm getting worried that Pan's Labyrinth may have been a fluke. I've been known to describe his 2008 film as nothing less than a masterpiece – not only for its finely balanced parallel narrative, but the way it uses it to deconstruct the religious impulse, and to outline a new, anti-authoritarian, (lapsed) Catholic theology.

Such outpourings tend to garner raised eyebrows, and now I'll probably be a little less confident in my effusions. Because Crimson Peak is lightweight by comparison, and for Del Toro to say it's his crowning achievement feels like a terrible misjudgment of his own work. The film is built around a heavily telegraphed contrast between the past and the future, England and America, the Romantic and the Enlightened. Although Del Toro is at pains to provide some explanation for the gross behaviour of his villains, they are still (perhaps unfairly) associated with one side of that divide.

There may be an element of autobiography going on here – Del Toro escaping from dilapidated, corrupt and superstitious Mexico to make films in sunny Los Angeles. England in the film is dark and dirty, while New York is polished and purposefully bathed in bright golden hues. But the larger theme is surely about how family shapes the fate of children. Both of Mia Wasikowska's parents love and protect her (even after death), while Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain have been raised, and horrifically warped, by abusive devils. And this is wrapped up in the idea that ghosts are echoes and manifestations of trauma which need to be walked away from. The Americans just about manage to do so at the end of the film.

Despite its literary pretensions (Del Toro goes on about the influence of Jane Eyre and Great Expectations), Crimson Peak feels to me like a gnarly and scary version of Tim Burton's Dark Shadows – which is very arch, but similarly indulgent. I found the latter rather enjoyable, not least because it doesn't take itself very seriously. The comparison is a reminder that although Del Toro is lauded as an intelligent writer as well as a fine craftsman, he may end up in the same cul-de-sac Burton is languishing in, if he's not careful.

31.10.15

Tattoo (Irezumi)

A rather melodramatic adaptation of the Junchiro Tanizaki novella by Yasuo Masumura, who adds plenty of ostentatious fights and writhing deaths. But as with Blind Beast, Masumura is adept at chronicling the subtle shifts in his characters' descent into nihilism and depravity. Otsuya starts of as a willful young girl eloping with her father's apprentice Shinsuke. She cares for him, and he is besotted with her, but their relationship is pushed past breaking point as they get swallowed up by the underworld. Shinsuke becomes a killer, and Otsuya a whore, largely by circumstance, but the more courageous Otsuya is better able to capitalise on her predicament. She starts to use the enthralled Shinsuke to enact her revenge on those who betrayed and exploited her, but she gradually loses interest in him as the body count rises and the prospect of becoming a concubine to a well-connected samurai opens up.

This descent is encapsulated by the tattoo Otsuya is forcibly given at the behest of her pimp Tokubei, a jorō spider with a woman's head that feeds on blood. As part of her initiation, Tokubei shows Otsuya a painting of a geisha standing on top of a pile of corpses – a visual imprinting of the role she will assume. The tattoo is a symbol of her monstrosity, yes, but it is one forced on her by the men who kidnap and prostitute her. The tattoo artist speaks about the way his soul has escaped and been grafted onto Otsuya, so that her murders feel like his. To some degree they are, in that Otsuya is a product of her environment, and that environment is made by criminal men. Perhaps the artist speaks for the director of the film as well, and the writers who conceived and adapted the story. Otsuya is their creation as well, and they are by turns attracted to and then horrified by her, to the point where they deprive her of her life. But they are guilty as well – after killing Otsuya, the tattoo artist plunges the knife into his own chest.

17.10.15

The Shining

One of the funniest bits in Vivian Kubrick's making of documentary is the footage of Jack Nicholson riling himself up for the "Here's Johnny!" scene: manically jumping outside the bathroom door, swinging the axe around, chanting "fucking fuck, die, pussy, die!" Subtext becoming text in between takes...

Because what is Jack Torrence if not a pygmy of a man, a failed writer who feels ashamed to work dead-end jobs? Nervy and insecure, he bullies his wife and takes her for granted. There is an internalised rage at his own impotence that only gets worse as his failure to create, or to exert control over his environment, becomes more and more evident. While his wife manages the household and raises their son, he does nothing but gnaw at his own pathetic existence.

There are subtle overlays to this resentment. Jack is induced to reassert control over his family by a posh Englishman. Patriarchy is associated with bourgeois standards of respectability: the husband gains his authority by being employed, his wife and children in turn must be utterly obedient to what he says. Sex and drink outside the family home are further rewards of this status, although Jack has an almost childlike awe and fear of the female body.

A hidden racism is also unearthed. His son forms a connection with a black man who becomes an alternative source of comfort and protection. Such mixing must be ended, say the haughty poshos. This unacknowledged racism also comes through in the fact that the hotel is built over an Indian burial ground. A horror cliche, perhaps, but it does nod to the genocide that accompanied the creation of the United States. The final shot is of Jack becoming one of those sinister poshos in a 1920s photograph of a ball in the hotel, 10 years after the original inhabitants were forcibly (and violently) shoved off the land it was built on. Intersecting forces of class, sex and race underlie Jack's descent into madness.

I'm minded to ascribe most of these nuances to Stephen King rather than Stanley Kubrick, who I have a low opinion of after the tedium of 2001. This is a far better avenue for his fixation on swooping through beautiful sets with wide-angle lenses. The inherently alienating effect this creates is a good match for the chilling distance between Jack and his family. Makes me think David Thomson is probably right to say The Shining is Kubrick's one great film.

12.10.15

Sex Criminals

Was just going to say: very impressed by Matt Fraction's bravery in taking on the challenge of writing about female sexuality from a female perspective. I'm in a lot of ways not the best person to judge, but his portrayal of Suzie felt very true and those first couple of issues is some of the best comics I've read this year (admittedly, I haven't read that many). When I heard about the eyebrow-raising pitch for Sex Criminals, I expected something vaguely Woody Allen. But the idea of orgasms literally stopping time is used quite cleverly. Suzie's origin story is all about the inherent power and weirdness of sex, and how disorientating it is when it bursts suddenly into an adolescent life. For an orgasm to do something as strange as stopping time, and for you to be unable to tell anyone, actually works as a pretty good metaphor for puberty.

Where the series goes from here is more uncertain. This power is being monitored by what looks like a secret society led by a puritan soccer mom, and Fraction may be thinking of exploring the ways desire is policed in society, or how it can help remake adult life. It's a tricky proposition, but then again the initial brief was tricky enough. And so far, Fraction and the artist Chip Zdarsky have excelled.

28.9.15

That Obscure Object of Desire

I was faced with further evidence of my absent-mindedness when I realised half-way into this film that the female antagonist was being played by two actresses. The device was an unplanned development (cf. my note on Discreet Charm) – Buñuel resorted to the idea after his first choice of actress balked at the sex scene. It works because it underlines the theme of the story, which is the incomprehensibility of the objects we desire. Conchita literally shapeshifts in front of an increasingly irritable Mathieu (played by Fernando Ray and voiced by Michel Piccoli – both Buñuel favourites). She constantly blows hot and cold on his courtship, to the point where the film starts flirting with misogyny.

It avoids it partly because of the word 'object' in the title, and that aforementioned sex scene. When Conchita finally gets the keys to her own house, she locks Mathieu out of it. And to prove that she is an independent woman who has simply used her objectification against her oppressor, she makes love to her handsome boyfriend on the floor in front of Mathieu's eyes. He tries to walk away, but he can't resist coming back to gaze on his desire. Not to get too David Thomson, but if there is a reason this film is in his top three, it's because of this scene – an encapsulation of how the moving image has been harnessed to project our desires back at us, so that we look on, spellbound.

Conchita flits between such statements of her independence and professions of devotion to Mattieu. She even finds an explanation for this final outrage against Mathieu's pride (it was a test of his constancy, apparently). She's either a mad lover or a manipulative witch. Either way, we can't get rid of her. And would we really want to?

This little romcom is played out against a background of increasingly violent terrorist attacks. Like in Discreet Charm, there's the suggestion that the quotidian complications of bourgeois life paper over the cracks of class warfare. Jean-Claude Carrière (Buñuel's co-writer on most of his last films) says Buñuel was increasingly paranoid about a collapse in civility. He predicted that even family relations will become mediated by terrorism – siblings bickering with bombs rather than words. Buñuel is known for being a scourge of bourgeois pieties, but I wonder if in this film he goes some way towards repudiating his earlier, revolutionary self, and making peace with the hypocrisies of his class. That last shot of a woman mending the fabric of a blood-splattered dress seems to suggest so.

25.9.15

Fascination

Jean Rollin made low-budget exploitation films invariably featuring alluring female vampires writhing their way into the lives of unsuspecting male protagonists. Sounds like trash, but they are sought after, partly because Rollin imbibed the methodology of the surrealists and did care quite a bit about the images he was putting together. Fascination opens on a gramophone on a stone bridge, the shot slowly moving out to show two women dancing alongside it. That visual was what sparked the idea for the film, and Rollin liked it so much he held the shot for the whole of the opening credits, to the point where it becomes a bit tedious. It gets better from there though. Some of his long takes build mood marvelously well – most notably the shot revealing the coven of bloodthirsty mademoiselles to the cocksure thief Mark, fanning out like bat wings behind their leader Helen.

Mark is a lovable rascal who refuses to be blindsided or intimidated by the mysterious aristocratic ladies he falls in with. Helen's uppity attitude riles him up – he always wants to be in control. The prototypical link between sex and death inherent in the vampire myth is ever-present in the film. Fascination, bewitchment, is a mortal threat. But this is true also for the vampires themselves. One of them, Elizabeth, falls in love with Mark, and kills her lover Eva to be with him. But the aura of Helen draws her back to the coven. Elizabeth's motives are shambolic, and it's probably best not to try too hard to reconcile them. Throughout, Rollin is more interested in the way these images of beautiful, domineering women can entrap even the most free-spirited soul.

Enigma

Although it's much loved by people like Grant Morrison and Kieron Gillen, I found Enigma a bit underwhelming when I finally got around to reading it. It's grouped alongside Watchmen as a superhero deconstruction job, but whereas Alan Moore was channeling Nietzsche to destabilise the ethical certainties underpinning the genre, Milligan takes an existentialist approach. The Enigma's all-powerful consciousness develops in a universe he finds absurd and meaningless. His response is to meet absurdity with absurdity, girding his environment with the plot structures gleaned from an obscure, hastily written superhero comic. But the plan backfires – the violence he unleashes fuels a supervillain that he will be unable to defeat. He has to change tack, writing over the mind of a regular shmoe called Michael Smith to make him love a real person as much as he loved superheroes as a child. Milligan ends the book before the final showdown, so we don't know whether the ploy succeeds. Instead the focus is on the act of narration itself, and indirectly on the role of culture in shaping our (moral) selves – if only we'd listen.

But actually, the most powerful development in the book is Michael's abandonment of a 'straight' – in every sense of the word – existence. The fact of his favourite superhero stepping out into the real world triggers a wholesale collapse in the parameters that have governed his life. Michael leaves his job, girlfriend and city. The Enigma transforms his sexuality. The most powerful moment in the book is when he is given the option of going back – of becoming a straight, regular ol' member of society again. And he doesn't capitulate: "It doesn't matter how or why I had those experiences, whether it was something within me or you changing me... This is how I am now. And I like myself this way."

This rather lovely interview with the creators highlights the loose feel of the book. The artist was learning on the job, and some of the early issues are extremely scratchy and impressionistic. Milligan also seems to be winging it – I wouldn't be surprised if the idea for the twist at the end only occurred to him mid-way through the series.* Rather than wanting more structure, I almost wished there were less. My fave Millian piece is probably Screemer, a comic that gets close to Bulletproof Coffin-levels of inscrutability. That vertigo-inducing (pun-intended) fall into the strange is tempered here by the need to comply with the strictures of the superhero genre.



* Rather embarrassingly, this blog was tweeted at the creators by a book group as a "review", and Milligan has made clear that this was not in fact the case: "no payoffs were made up half way through". Apologies for my suggestion to the contrary – I made it because the idea that the narrator was somehow embedded in the story is introduced half way through. In any case, it wasn't intended as a slur – I liked the loose feel of the book.

20.9.15

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

The germ from which the film developed was Buñuel's interest in repetition as an aid to memory – his frequent writing partner Jean-Claude Carrière links this to the fact that a member of Buñuel's family suffered from dementia. This morphed into the idea of having dinner party plans be constantly upset by surreal and ridiculous intrusions. The title was thought up after the script was finished, with the aim to give a new perspective on the film.

This background reveals that the final version of Discreet Charm is rather removed from where Buñuel started. Appropriate, perhaps, given his surrealist credentials. His motives may not have been more sophisticated than to provoke some gentle (but never judgmental) laughter at the expense of the French upper crust. Some of the scenarios are quite funny, but there's something else going on here.

First the dreams: of detectives, mafiosi, terrorists, deathbeds and ghosts. The power of the army, the police, and the political class are always lurking under the surface of these polite dinners. Fernando Ray is an ambassador of a made-up Latin American banana republic, and he's always paranoid that his corruption will be exposed. At one point the group sit down to dinner only to have a curtain lift and reveal them all to a theatre audience, who start jeering when they can't recite their lines. Soldiers and policemen keep reciting dreams of torture and murder as ladies sit down to eat, cutting through the small talk with tales of horror and loss. In all these scenarios, the pressure to remain charming and discreet is a source of deep seated anxiety.

And then there's the framing device. The opening credits sequence is composed of shots looking out of a car as it drives through the night – only occasionally are features of the road and streets illuminated by the headlights. The characters have chauffeured cars driving them around throughout the film, it's one of the signs of their privilege. The ending sequence (which also appears twice during the film) is of the six characters walking down a stretch of road in the middle of nowhere and in bright daylight. Perhaps this is a levelling measure. Rather than locked away from the world and meandering in the darkness of their own closed society, Buñuel finally allows his troupe a breath of fresh air, and a dose of real experience.

It can be read in lots of ways. Perhaps it was also arrived at by accident.

19.9.15

"Negative capitalism can be undone. It will lead to a greater disruption of social life and a period of civil war initially, but the history of human societies demonstrates that cultures are neither 'bad' nor 'good', as many moral critiques or defences of capitalism assume. Humans are not just dupes pre-programmed by genetics to conquer and destroy. Following chaos or trauma such as any major war, people do work together to solve problems collectively and generate new social and economic relations." - J.D. Taylor, Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era

18.9.15

The Master

After the awesome power of There Will Be Blood, David Thomson confessed himself disappointed by its follow up. The Master is a more austere and elliptical film, but the interest in the historical roots and conflicts of American identity remains. The clue is in the title, and the final exchange between Philip Seymour Hoffman's grandiloquent cult leader and Joaquin Phoenix's broken, drunk army vet. The all-American ideal of the open road and boundless freedom is brought down to earth in Phoenix's alcoholic and unstable drifter. His father is dead, his mother mentally ill, he has no support network. And in that gap steps in a charlatan with a compulsive need for attention and people to command. Hoffman demands compete devotion, and Phoenix – in his one moment of nobility – declines the offer. Salvation, like in many other Paul Thomas Anderson films, can be found in romantic love, although here the opportunity is fleeting. The film ends with Phoenix in England hooking up with a girl called Winn Manchester. Phoenix's character is from Lynn, Massachusetts – suggesting a semblance of home is reached, although Hoffman's influence remains indelible. The final shot of the film is of Phoenix lying next to a woman made of sand – that brief moment of comfort likely to crumble, and be washed away.

14.9.15

House of Cards

The 1990 BBC version, that is. Was spurred to watch it by the boys at Kraken, who were rather taken with how deliciously evil the protagonist is. It wouldn't be fair to tar all Tories with the Urquhart brush, however (as their question cheekily suggests). The man is clearly a caricature from the moment he puts on a fake mustache (although the boldness of Mattie's murder at the end did catch me unawares). The show succeeds in spite of the silly stuff. Some of the shenanigans, particularly the way leaks and briefings to the press are used in internal party struggles, ring true. With Corbyn having to pick his way through a nest of vipers in the Parliamentary Labour Party, we may be seeing more such behaviour in the coming months...

Mattie's conspiracies are unbelievable because her editor is right (in the real world, if not in the world of the TV series) – politics isn't as exciting as sex, drugs and murder. Most of the time it's about pale old men struggling to unpick Gordian Knots of policy in a way they can advertise to their constituents and the party leadership. Urquhart's skulduggery would not work now, and I doubt it would have worked in 1990 either.

Urquhart is a pure Machiavel. The deputy editor of the Chronicle describes him as a politician without politics – appealing because of his character rather than his policies. He is all things to all men – able to shapeshift as circumstances dictate. He is the embodiment of Machiavelli's virtuoso, bending to the winds of fortune as he navigates towards his goals. The audacity with which he weaves his plots, and the way he co-ops the audience to root for him, is proof of Machiavelli's perception that there is glory to be found in cruelty and fear.
"Economists inhabit a rather chilling world in which people act only on their rational self-interest. Fortunately, our actual world is often more generous-spirited – hence mutual regard – but the implications of brute rational self-interest cannot be lightly dismissed" - Paul Collier explaining 'moral hazard' in Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century

23.8.15

Audition

And it was all just a dream... But was it? I haven't read the book so don't sue me if I get this wrong BUT I lean towards the dream-filled interpretation. Partly because the balance of evidence tends to point that way (the jump cuts, the recurring scenes and dialogue, all the stuff Aoyama can't know about Asami). But also because the film would be richer as a result. If the torture is all real, all we have is a version of the rape-revenge film – a favourite ploy of pulp directors to have and eat their feminist cake. Tarantino loves doing this, and loves this film as well, apparently. But what if it was something more? What if it was about the pulp director's guilt about his use of women as objects? What if he turns the rape-revenge onto himself?

Aoyama feels guilt first and foremost because in trying to find a girlfriend he is betraying the memory of his dead wife. But his fantasies about Asami highlight a deeper uneasiness at his behaviour towards the other women in his life. The housekeeper who praises him for raising a son by himself, even though he's actually rich enough to employ her to help out. His son's prospective girlfriend, who is sexually objectified by him. The secretary he foolishly slept with and does his best to ignore, even though she still pines for him. He is perfectly civil to all of these women, and he is also nothing if not a devoted father. The horror is made all the more acute because he is such a sympathetic character.

But there's the business with the audition. The conceit cleverly underlines the omnipresence of male domination in the film, and Japanese society. How many job interviews with powerful middle-aged men are really tests of marriageability? Aoyama remains super uncomfortable and quite sweet throughout the process. The real monster in the film is his film producer friend Yoshikawa, who organises the whole rigmarole. But Aoyama is complicit in the con trick. The measure of the man is how he checks his privilege, brutally, in his dreams.

And the twist at the end is all the more succulent. Aoyama awakes from an unforgettable nightmare next to a docile Asami, who he has promised to wed even though he now feels horror at the thought. Will he go back on his word? Will Asami be cast away, as the secretary was?

22.8.15

Yukiko's Spinach

Frédéric Boilet is a French artist who lives in Japan and is a practitioner of 'Nouvelle Manga'. My guess is that the term is in part a reference to the French 'New Wave', because there's an awful lot of fourth wall-breaking in Yukiko's Spinach. The story (of a short-lived affair between the artist and a native) is actually about how the story was put together, to the point where Boilet scans in pages from his notebook containing the sketches that ended up as panels. The foregrounding of the creative process allows for key moments to be revisited several times at different stages of refinement. Repetition, one of the basic techniques of meaning-generation in art, is shown to be a particularly powerful tool for comics, which are always a succession of frozen moments.

The sense of certain images being picked out for particular study is enhanced by Boilet's contrasting talent for portraying stream-of-consciousness in panels. Much of the comic is in P.O.V. with the protagonist's dialogue in captions at the bottom, while the other characters get speech bubbles. The gaze is liable to drift away from the person 'we' are having a conversation with, often when the subject strays into uncomfortable territory. It's a clever way to juxtapose the immediate sensation of time-bound life with the objects and practices that capture that time and allow us to meditate on it.

The story itself is barely there, but it does have a certain resonance for me. My girlfriend is Japanese and I've done a lot of the dating things the two lovers get up to (onsen, purikura). As should be obvious from the above, Boilet is very good at conveying what sharing those romantic experiences in Japan is like.

7.8.15

Heavenly Creatures

David Lynch apparently made sure Peter Jackson won the Silver Lion for best director when he was chairing the panel of judges at the Venice Film Festival. That he should warm to the film makes sense – Heavenly Creatures shares more than a little with Blue Velvet. Not just period decor and an interest in noir, but a general concern with the way we police our imaginations. Like the bohemian decadent aesthetes that slither through Lynch's film, the two childhood friends start losing track of where their imagination ends and where reality begins. Jackson's innovation is to block out any attempt to judge the killers, at least before we understand what led up to the crime.

Part of it is the fierce mutual fellowship that comes with shared ostracism (it emerged after the film that the relationship was never sexual). Part of it is the urge to escape a lonely and parochial world, one that is too confident in its finger-wagging prejudices. Part of it is also the loss of trust that comes when secrets and lies are revealed beneath what appear to be secure family units.

Incredibly, I didn't actually know the story of the film, and had no idea about the scandal it was based on. And even though Jackson foregrounds the horror of the murder in a busy sequence at the start, much of the film is free of any presentiment of where it is all heading. For me more than perhaps most, Heavenly Creatures is less of a foreboding true crime drama, and more of a film about the delights of friendship and fantasy. Jackson's achievement is to make sympathy with these two killers so easy, and then to put a murder weapon in your hands.

5.8.15

Blind Beast

There's quite a lot to unpack in this erotic horror retelling of Beauty and the Beast, made by Japanese New Wave director Yasuo Masumura. It's partly a compact and meaty drama with three characters in a couple of sets slowly pulling each other apart. The central dynamic is the sheltered child-man detaching himself from a devoted but overbearing mother and being seduced by a new woman of the 1960s keen to push the boundaries of art and sex. The gradually escalating scenarios of ploy and counter-ploy between the mother and the new arrival contain some impressive character work. Like with the Oshima films I watched previously, there is a nod to the idea of a more individualistic generation breaking the bonds of duty that tie them to parents, family and society more widely (which may reflect a debt to Ozu as much as a prevalent mood in the culture of the time). A town/country divide is also alluded to – the artist's model is a city girl, whereas her kidnapper is a naive country bumpkin who is unprepared for the duplicity of his captive.

The film takes a sudden gear shift away from this tight three-way drama as soon as it is (violently) resolved. The almost theatrical family struggle is bracketed by a more cinematic exploration of images as a mechanism for dampening the awesome power of physical sensation. There is some confusion here, because Masumura's portrayal of blindness in part evokes the desire of the audience to feel their way through an image and into the fantasy it portrays. But it also represents the danger of living a life without images. The sense of touch becomes obsessive, and without the distancing effect provided by seeing things, ultimately brings humanity down to the level of insects and jellyfish. The photos Aki poses for have her bound up in chains. In Michio's warehouse, where hundreds of gloopy sculptures of body parts cover the walls, those chains are removed, and sculptor and model both lose themselves in a masochistic, sexual frenzy. Desire and dissolution melt together.

The sculpture Michio creates magically crumbles as its real-life subject is mutilated and destroyed. By this stage, the sense of otherwordly fairy-tale has completely enveloped the film, and it doesn't come as a surprise. But what to make of it? Maybe Aki's spirit has become so infused with her simulacrum that she becomes a work of art in her own right – an idea rather than a person. Or perhaps it's the director passing judgement on the two mad lovers, ensuring that no work of art escapes to stand the test of time and inspire other sybarites to emulation. There are many ways to read it, which is another way of saying that this is a film that would reward repeat viewings.

2.8.15

Paradise Lost

Harold Bloom is onto something when he describes how Paradise Lost reads today like science fiction. A lot of that is down to Milton's distinctively monist cosmology. For him, Heaven and Hell are not in separate parallel dimensions. He believed that if you get in a rocket and went past the solar system you will eventually hit the pearly gates. Angels are physical space-faring beings that eat food and excrete through their pores. God is an awesomely powerful alien. Imagine a benevolent Galactus sitting at the top of a giant mountain.

And what's interesting for the purposes of the poem (which the beginning makes clear is to explain the ways of God to men) is that our universe was not created ex nihilo. Rather, God fashions it using pre-existing materials. Philip Pullman may have fixated on these world-building elements because they indicate some limit on God's jurisdiction. The poem personifies Chaos as a grumpy grandpa enduring chunks of his realm being annexed by his more powerful neighbour, who builds Hell and then our world during the course of the narrative (and presumably Heaven as well before the action starts). So what if these materials exist independently of God? What if other awesomely powerful space aliens have built their own worlds?

Since Blake and the Romantics, it has been all too easy to get carried away with Satan and presume some subconscious subversion on Milton's part. On this re-read I did my best to stick to my university training and take Milton at his word, without being seduced by Straussian attempts to read between the lines. Fact is Milton was a deeply pious man trying to explain the problem of evil – an insoluble theological puzzle if ever there was one. What was important for Milton was that God freely chose to create – to share the universe with others. Likewise he left his creation enough freedom to dissent from his overwhelmingly obvious and necessary lordship. Although foreseeing the Fall, he allows it without interfering, preferring devotion that is freely chosen rather than mandated. The link with Milton's political liberalism comes through at the end, where he condemns religious persecution and a politicisation of religion that leads to citizens performing empty rites that do not express their internal convictions. The only royalty Milton submits to is God – kings are but men, and removable if necessary.

All that said, for me there remains an impression of God as a limited figure. He creates angels and then realises he needs the Son as a bridging device that will allow them to more closely identify with him (the Son will later fulfil a similar purpose for humanity). Needless to say, the plan backfires spectacularly. Adam and Eve are created in God's image, but they (like the rebel angels) are in some respects pre-fallen. Eve's pride leaves her open to temptation, like Satan. Milton is at pains to point out that Adam has all the knowledge he could possibly ask for and yet he still eats the forbidden fruit. God does not seem to have a grip on his creation – it spins away from him. His dark materials are wayward elements. There is still a little bit of Chaos in them. We're not too far away here from the atomistic 'mechanical' view of the universe that will become ever more prevalent during the Enlightenment.

23.7.15

"There are no doubt all sorts of reasons – climate, building materials – for the deep Japanese eaves. The fact that we did not use glass, concrete, and bricks, for instance, made a low roof necessary to keep off the driving wind and rain. A light room would no doubt have been more convenient for us, too, than a dark room. The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty's ends." - Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

12.7.15

Scott Pilgrim

My feeling is these books get less inventive and funny as they progress (some of the jokes in the last volume are pretty flat), but they become ~deeper~ instead. O'Malley may have always intended to cut his hero down to size, or he may have experienced a slow dawning realisation as the books found an ever-growing audience that Scott may not be the best person ever. But if reversing that impression is bought at the expense of a few wisecracks and some wild formal experimentation, I think it's a fair trade.

I had two misgivings when I read the first four volumes. Number one is that the portrayal of certain non-white, non-straight characters was caricatured and potentially offensive and alienating for some readers. True, we are always looking at everything through Scott's less-than-perfect gaze, so those portrayals may say more about Scott than anyone else. However: he remains the hero, and it's therefore too easy to become complicit in his unthinking attitude to the people around him, who are too often treated as joke-fodder rather than as people (in ponce: 'means' rather than 'ends-in-themselves').

Misgiving number two was that for someone reared on Buffy and with the expectation that the fantastical elements of a fictional world can be read metaphorically in some way, I found Scott's showdowns with Ramona's evil ex-boyfriends difficult to get a handle on. Especially as the exes were about as three-dimensional as the Gym Leaders in Pokémon. In fact, Scott's drama with his own ex-girlfriends took up far more space in the books, while Ramona's character remains difficult to figure out. She is the cool, American ('othered') femme fatale Scott is gunning down all the bad guys for, but her exes don't really shed any light on her history. Instead it's Scott's history we're working through, slowly exorcising past relationships on the journey to making the new one work.

Both of these misgivings – Scott's profound dumbassery and the fundamental metaphorical instability in the book – are to some degree worked out by meeting Scott's nemesis Gideon, the last evil ex-boyfriend. Because here the final boss (a bit like Ash's rival in Pokémon) does cast light on Scott's own character. Gideon flaw is that, like Scott in much of the book, he treats everyone as a means to his own ends. The most powerful moment in the book is a double page spread where Scott flashes back to moments he has been dumped and corresponding moments when he has done the dumping. He (finally!) puts himself in someone else's shoes. And that earns him the "power of understanding" that allows him to defeat Gideon.

That may sound a bit thin, and I would understand if some readers are not ready to forgive Scott's sins just because he learns so basic an ethical principle (when he's 24!). But I still like the book for the way it tries to deal with my second misgiving – the final boss adds an interesting metaphor to (some of) the fantastical elements that appear in previous books.

Ramona's head glows when she walls off her problems and refuses to communicate. We learn that Gideon has 'infected' her with this condition, and in fact her response to it has been to tunnel inwards and escape situations she finds impossible to deal with (hence her ability to enter hyperspace and teleport). Ramona is not as self-involved as Scott, but both of them are liable to run away from (or in Scott's case, willfully forget) their baggage.

What's intriguing to me (and I accept that I may be reading a bit into the text here) is that Gideon creates his virus as an entertainment industry arsehole. He embodies the worst aspects of the means-over-ends business, and you can take this in an anti-capitalist direction if you want. For me though the inference is more specific. A book so saturated in video games, manga and pop music nevertheless has within it an underlying worry about our ability to connect with other people, and perhaps a sense that these super-fun distracting things can be part of the problem.

11.7.15

The Kindly Ones

My contribution to the London Graphic Novel Network discussion, which is well worth reading in its entirety. As ever, my thanks to Joel for the marvellous job he does organising and steering these conversations.

***

OK so there are two things I like about The Kindly Ones, and both of them are about Gaiman beating himself up over what he has written.

The first thing is a short scene between Dream and Odin in the middle of the book, and apologies but I do want to put in a quote here:
"You puzzle me, dream-weaver. Are you a spider, who's spun a web of cunning and deceit and now waits patiently for his prey to come to him; or are you a deer, frozen by the light of a hunter's flame, as disaster comes towards you?
You're a deep one. But how deep? What's illusion? That's the question...
I am disappointed, somehow. I expected more from you, dream-weaver."
From the very beginning of these discussions of the series, I've gone on at length about how the book appears to be more profound than it actually is (cf. the 'muddled uncertainty' Joel mentions above). There is the ~sensation~ of profundity, without the content. He's a deep one, maybe. But how deep? Is it just an illusion? Shouldn't we have expected more from him? Isn't there a lingering sense of disappointment?

I take the scene to be a coded mea culpa from Gaiman, not only an admission that he has lost control of the sprawling plot strands in the series (which is what in context the quote above is about), but actually about what the book might mean as a result of that loss of control as well. As Loz's note about The Kindly Ones being longer than originally envisioned suggests, there is a sense that the series as a whole is being made up as Gaiman goes along – he's freestying with a character who is on the page supposed to be brooding, rule-bound and responsible. I think The Kindly Ones is partly about Gaiman waking up to his responsibilities as a writer, and finding that's he's fallen short.

And this leads me on to the second bit of authorial self-harm in the book. The Sandman's imperious and cruel treatment of Lyta Hall at the end of The Doll's House comes back to bite him here. The origin story of the Furies in #62 suggest their revenge is partly motivated by a reaction against the predations of the patriarchy. It is significant that the Sandman is undone not only by Lyta, but by Nuala and Thessaly as well – all women he has patronised and/or ignored. Reading these bits in a meta direction is much harder – I suspect there may be some personal stuff for Gaiman wrapped up in them. But there is a more general sense in which Gaiman is becoming aware of his responsibility as a writer, and his power to ~shape dreams~. As Delirium points out to Dream: he can sway people's actions and feelings even without intending to. In having the Sandman die by female hands, Gaiman is partly trying to de-romanticise (perhaps de-eroticise?) his hero (and himself?)

Loz shot back at my pet theory that the end of the Sandman is supposed to democratise his ~dream-shaping~ powers by noting that suicide is different to exile. Dream does leave a replacement behind him, but Death's suggestion that he could have done what Destruction did to the same end perhaps makes the distinction less important than Loz makes out. I still cling on to the theory, taking comfort from the final scene of the Kindly Ones, where the Furies read out their fortune: "you can be me when I am gone". The Sandman's (and the author's) death leaves the space open for new authors shaping their own new stories. Perhaps they'll do a better job than Gaiman has done.

4.7.15

Pleasures of the Flesh

Another early Oshima feature – the noir plot is loopy and more than a little contrived, but it ultimately results in the antihero spending obscene amounts of money with the catch being that he'll have to die after a year. Would you do it? This million dollar question is less interesting than the sexual politics Oshima gets wrapped up in. His protagonist is a pretty straight kinda guy who goes around the bend when the love of his life marries another (richer) man. He starts his spending spree to change his life from a comedy in which he is always the dupe to a tragedy in which he can at least play the hero (he literally says this out loud – Oshima is perfectly happy to interpret his film for you).

So the poor guy decides to spend the money on women. The first is a courtesan, who he gallantly but unsuccessfully tries to rescue from her pimp and then a gang of corporate mafiosi (Oshima is fond of chivalry, it seems). The second is a masochist who he gives up on when he discovers she she cannot abandon her useless husband and their children. The third is an independent-minded doctor who he finds sexually repressed (a rather blinkered view of empowerment on Oshima's part). The fourth is a mute, nympho streetwalker who he is most sympatico with (again, Oshima proves no friend of feminism). You can imagine this last pairing as slightly older versions of the Bonnie & Clyde Romeo & Juliet of Naked Youth. She even helps him kill her pimp. But by then the money has run out.

All of the women are bought in some respect, and three of them are also "owned" by others – all pimps of some description, selling women's bodies to live. Oshima seems grimly fascinated by this dynamic. Perhaps he believed all relations, even the most intimate, were being reduced to the cash nexus in his 1960s Japan. The conclusion of the film is especially finger-wagging. The protagonist learns that he didn't have to die, he could have kept the money condition-free. And it's all gone by the time he really needs it to rescue the love of his life again. She, however, only wants money, and it's heavily implied that she's been selling herself as well in order to get it. And she betrays him to the police when he confesses his crimes.

Is a sillier picture that the incandescent ferocity of Naked Youth, and its women are less sympathetically drawn. But it further illuminates Oshima's obsessions with people burning out, women being sold, and the recurring image of doomed men biting into poison green apples.