29.12.16

26 films in 2016

I haven't been to the cinema nearly enough to give a view on the films of the year. Below is just what I've managed to watch, ranked roughly in order of appreciation, and with links to the original blog posts. Just struck me that around three quarters of the films are not in the English language. Some of that's about me getting more interested in weird and esoteric material. But a little bit of it is also the fact that I watch films in terrible conditions (late at night and crouched in front of a computer), and subtitles mean I don't have to put the volume up too much and wake my family up.

New:

Matoko Shinkai - Your Name [link]
Ben Wheatley - High-Rise [link]
Hou Hsiao-Hsien - The Assassin [link]
Joe & Anthony Russo - Captain America: Civil War [link]
J.J. Abrams - Star Wars: The Force Awakens [link]
Scott Derrickson - Dr. Strange

Old:

Alain Robbe-Grillet - Successive Slidings of Pleasure [link]
David Chronenberg - Videodrome [link]
Diane Bertrand - The Ring Finger [link]
Satoshi Kon - Perfect Blue [link]
Ingmar Bergman - The Passion of Anna [link]
John Cameron Mitchell - Shortbus [link]
Bigas Luna - Jamón, Jamón (A Tale of Ham and Passion) [link]
Ingmar Bergman - Wild Strawberries [link]
Akira Kurosawa - Rashomon [link]
Wong Kar-Wai - Ashes of Time Redux [link]
Ingmar Bergman - Shame [link]
Bigas Luna - The Tit and the Moon [link]
Yasuzo Masumura - Manji [link]
Martin Brest - Beverly Hills Cop [link]
Shohei Imamura - The Insect Woman [link]
Paul Verhoeven - Turkish Delight [link]
Matoko Shinkai - 5 Centimeters Per Second [link]
Yoshiaki Kawajiri - Ninja Scroll [link]
Leos Carax - Holy Motors [link]
Bigas Luna - The Ages of Lulu [link]

28.12.16

Beverly Hills Cop

Saw this at the BFI as part of their 'Black Star' season. Although Eddie Murphy carries the film, was interesting that the role was once intended for Sylvester Stallone, and the script doesn't make many overt references to Murphy's blackness. Only occasionally does Murphy's character nod to it – when he accuses hotel staff of prejudice in order to get a room, and when he's shaming another black cop for playing at being white. In both situations, Murphy is playing mindgames with his mark in order to gain the upper hand. In fact, that's what he does throughout the film. His blackness is just another tool used to overcome the obstacles in his way.



It struck me that the film also contained a faintly homoerotic subtext. Murphy goes to California to avenge the murder of a childhood friend – someone who confesses he loves him before being killed. If it was sexual love, it was probably unrequited (Murphy flirts a bit with the only female character in the film, who becomes a damsel-in-distress at the end). But the relationship is strong enough to provide the motive for Murphy's actions throughout the film. Murphy does pretend to be gay in another scene in order to gain admittance to a private members club. And he has some memorable interactions with 'Serge', a camp employee at an art gallery. But the film's gayness, like its blackness, is understated. It's almost as if too many mentions of racism or AIDS would spoil the fun.

The other interesting thing about the film is its pacing. It kicks off with a very long-winded and expensive car chase, which apart from establishing Murphy's recklessness,i is entirely gratuitous. It goes to show that (like the intros of Bond films) frontloading action sequences is not a new phenomenon. That said, compared to modern action films, the pacing in Beverly Hills Cop turns out to be rather loose – the film lingers on not very important details, sometimes purposefully to frustrate the audience who want to find out what's happening elsewhere. It's hard to imagine getting away with that kind of thing in today's hyper-compressed blockbusters – where missing a stray bit of dialogue renders the plot incomprehensible. Instead Beverly Hills Cop is a film you can drift in and out of without losing your bearings, and it feels longer than its 105 minutes. It gives you a break. I for one found it a welcome reprieve.

27.12.16

46 books for 2016

My annual list of things I've read grows longer again this year, partly because I continue to abjure television and get my fill of visual storytelling through comics. The reason for the preference is mundane – I spend too much of my day in front of a screen and prefer to avoid it in my free time. I may well be missing out. Given the stranglehold superheroes have on the comics medium, and how everyone keeps talking about a golden age of television, my guess is that comics in aggregate may well be less innovative or interesting.

My comics consumption has been further encouraged by my agreeing to contribute columns to the London Graphic Novel Network, an initiative designed to get people to take advantage of the great selection of comics offered by London libraries. I owe my comics enthusiasm entirely to libraries (they are otherwise a very expensive form of entertainment), so this was a no-brainer for me. Links to my bits for the site are collected here.

I've also read quite a lot of Japanese fiction this year – my partner is Japanese, so it has been a way of getting to know the culture in which she grew up. It's a bit of a turnaround for me, as I'd previously avoided reading literature in translation, assuming that too much of the author's technique was lost in the process. I still think that's the case, but what you gain is still a pretty direct insight into a foreign society and history, which is hugely valuable in itself.

A lot of the non-fiction is drawn from recommendations at work (Haidt, Moretti), or following up things from the MA I did six years ago (Ryan, Tully, Geuss).

Ordered (sort of) by subject then preference. Links in the comics section go to things I've written (mostly for the LGGN), otherwise they are quotes I've posted here as I've been reading. I keep track of all this stuff on Goodreads here.

Richard Ellmann - James Joyce [link]
Alan Ryan - On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present [link] [link]
Jonathan Haidt - The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
Ian Buruma - The Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture
James Tully - An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts
Jared Diamond - Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
Richard Vinen - Thatcher's Britain: The politics and social upheaval of the 1980s
Enrico Moretti - The New Geography of Jobs
Gareth Stedman Jones - Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion
Michel Foucault - Interviews & Other Writings 1977-84 [link] [link]
Simon Parker - Taking Power Back: Putting people in charge of politics
Hugh Kennedy - The Great Arab Conquests [link]
Ben Thompson - Seven Years of Plenty: A Handbook of Irrefutable Pop Greatness, 1991-1998
J. Hoberman - Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?
Jessica Hopper - The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic
Raymond Geuss - History and Illusion in Politics [link]
James Joyce - A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Ryū Murakami - Almost Transparent Blue
Yasunari Kawabata - Thousand Cranes
Mari Akasaka - Vibrator
Jun'ichirō Tanizaki - Seven Japanese Tales
Ryū Murakami - Piercing
Jun'ichirō Tanizaki - Some Prefer Nettles [link]
Yōko Ogawa - Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales
Kieron Gillen / Jamie McKelvie - Phonogram [link]
Grant Morrison / Chris Weston / Gary Erskine - The Filth [link]
Warren Ellis / Jason Howard - Trees, Vol. 1: In Shadow [link]
Hayao Miyazaki - Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Greg Rucka / Michael Lark / Santi Arcas - Lazarus
Matt Fraction / Christian Ward - Ody-C vols. 1 & 2 [link]
Gail Simone / Walter Geovani - Red Sonja [link]
Kazuo Koike / Ryōichi Ikegami - Offered
Magnus - The 100 Pills
Paul Pope - 100% / Heavy Liquid [link]
Jonathan Hickman / Ryan Bodenheim - Red Mass for Mars
Jonathan Luna / Sarah Vaughn - Alex + Ada [link]
Kieron Gillen / Ryan Kelly / Jordie Bellaire - Three [link]
Matt Fraction / Howard Chaykin - Satellite Sam vols. 1 & 2 [link]
Ben Gijsemans - Hubert [link]
Kentaro Miura - Berserk vol. 1
Sean McKeever / Brian Fraim - The Waiting Place vol. 1
Kelly Sue DeConnick / Emma Ríos - Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike
Rick Remender / Wes Craig / Lee Loughridge - Deadly Class, Vol. 1: Reagan Youth
Mark Waid / Minck Oosterveer - The Unknown
Grant Morrison / Yanick Paquette / Nathan Fairbairn - Wonder Woman: Earth One
Bryan Lee O'Malley - Seconds

24.12.16

Beckett was addicted to silences, and so was Joyce; they engaged in conversations which consisted often of silences directed towards each other, both suffused with sadness, Beckett mostly for the world, Joyce mostly for himself. Joyce sat in his habitual posture, legs crossed, toe of the upper leg under the instep of the lower; Beckett, also tall and slender, fell into the same gesture. Joyce suddenly asked some such question as, 'How could the idealist Hume write a history?' Beckett replied, 'A history of representations.' Joyce said nothing, but some time afterwards he informed the young man, 'The only amateur philosopher of any value I know is Carducci.' Later, 'For me,' he said, 'there is only one alternative to scholasticism, scepticism.' - Richard Ellmann, James Joyce

2.12.16

Your Name

I've previously been a bit harsh on Matoko Shinkai. Your Name doesn't abandon the romantic longing of 5 Centimeters Per Second, but the angst is worn more lightly, and the characters feel less like ciphers. The animation is also more restrained – the night skies no longer look like Rainbow Road in Mario Kart, and there is a rather cool dream sequence which swaps crisp photorealism for a more flowing, sketched style.



The plot, as with many a time travel story, breaks apart the more you prod at it. But the conceit of two teenagers switching bodies is employed well. Shinkai has said that some of the town vs country stuff comes from his own experience of growing up. More important for me, however, is the way inhabiting another person's life becomes a metaphor for falling in love. Because being in a relationship is sort of like that. You gain access to memories of things you didn't experience at first hand. You learn about a childhood different from your own, with a new family and set of friends. You also get to know someone else's body in intimate detail (a source of some of the film's funniest moments). And by becoming comfortable in each other's skins, the two characters find that they cannot live happily without each other.

This is eked out a bit in the final part of the film, where Shinkai contrives to separate his heroes, and have them morosely wander around Tokyo searching for their other halves. But it serves to highlight how draining the loss of such a person might be, and it leads to a very satisfying finale.

29.11.16

The Tit and the Moon

This film continues Bigas Luna's interrogation of cajones from his previous film Golden Balls. It begins and ends with the Catalan tradition of creating human castles. Our protagonist Tete is a enxaneta, the child who is supposed to climb to the top and touch the sky. At the beginning of the film, his father's shouted exhortations about having the balls to climb higher always make Tete lose. At the end, Tete has discovered women and love, the desire for which allows him to achieve his goal, and find contentment.



It's a happy ending, in other words – the opposite of what happens to Javier Bardem in Golden Balls, who fails to complete his tower and ends up an unhappy cuckold. Rather than castigate self-defeating machismo, The Tit and the Moon celebrates the state of being lovesick. It's at its most charming when exploring the fascinatingly weird marriage between the dancer Estrellita and a Frenchman mostly referred to as 'The Frog'. Estrellita is turned on by tears and feet, and plays weird sexual games with her husband where she eats a stale baguette that he sticks between his thighs. The Frog is impotent, but the marriage survives by the arrangement of a ménage à trois, and he (unlike Bardem) ends up a happy cuckold.

The yearning for the love of women appears to be the overriding theme – the film has its own peculiar cosmology where the patriarchal sun is superseded by the matriarchal moon. Nonetheless, the erotic focus of the film – Estrellita – is a rather passive figure, remaining devoted to her husband despite his neediness and volatility. The film opens with the image of her as a toybox ballerina, echoing her husband's claim to want to put her in a box and hide her away (he's true to his word and locks her up at one point). And although the film suggests that fulfillment lies with the renunciation of such jealousy, Estrellita is still little more than an idol to be fought over. Her fate is not enviable, even if she appears satisfied with it.

25.11.16

The Ring Finger

This is a curious film – more of an extended allegory than any kind of straightforward narrative. It's an adaptation of a short story by Yoko Ogawa, who specializes in eerie tales of weird people and their strange, sometimes dangerous, desires. Olga Kurylenko abandons the prospect of a normal life with a regular working class hunk, and chooses instead to become a living 'specimen'. Her employer is an older man who runs a business purging customers of painful memories. They pay a fee to have certain objects of talismanic power taken away and stored, alongside what appear to be ghosts of the man's own past.



Kurylenko's own painful memory is of the tip of her ring finger being sliced off in an accident at a bottling factory – perhaps a symbol for the way entry into the workforce mangles the traditional role of women as wives and mothers. If that's the case, she nonetheless settles for becoming an object in the house of a controlling patriarch. Her employer seduces her, and gives her a pair of red shoes that become a symbol of her subjection to him. At the end of the film, she takes them off in contravention of his wishes, but chooses to give her ring finger to him as a 'specimen'. She slips off one ring, but surrenders a much more intimate part of herself, and joins his nunnery-cum-harem.

The film is made cheaply, and it shows, but Bertrand injects a certain style into it, using frames within frames and adding surreal flourishes like Kurylenko's dream of swinging on a enormous crane. A particularly nice set-piece is the dropping of the Majong set – an entire philosophy shattered then put back together again. The mood is helped enormously by a very effective score from Beth Gibbons (of Portishead fame), which is by turns sweet and sinister. Staying true to Ogawa's fiction, the film leaves motivations opaque and the ending unexplained. But piecing together its confluence of symbols is a diverting way to spend 100 minutes.

23.11.16

Ms Marvel

A bit of my tiny contribution to the epic London Graphic Novel Network discussion on the book by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, which is worth reading in full:

What is interesting for me about Ms Marvel is that her superpower is to change her appearance. Being a teenager is partly about experimenting with different looks and identities, and in Kamala’s case her shapeshifting brings out the (mostly subconscious) pressure she feels to conform to a certain western beauty standard – something which is not readily available to her because of her race. It’s quite a powerful moment in the comic when you realise that she is not going to take advantage of the ability she suddenly gets to appear white, blond, sexy, etc. Instead, maintaining that surface-level disguise is a distraction from the real work of saving the day. She commissions a real costume so she doesn’t have to worry about what she looks like anymore.

20.11.16

Rashomon

The device of different characters presenting different versions of the same event is less interesting than the reasons why their presentations are different. The fact that a camera is subjective should be obvious to anyone with a passing interest in film. What bears thinking about is the different subjectivities behind what the camera reveals (and conceals).

So why don't we take each version in turn. First the bandit Tajōmaru, who confesses to killing the samurai and seducing his wife. Tajōmaru is a free spirit, aroused by the winds, swinging his sword in the same way he swings his dick (the film is not subtle about drawing the parallel). His story is one of derring do, and he casts out this attitude onto the other characters. In his universe, the wife is a wilful defender of her interests – she tries to fight him off, and lays down the gauntlet of the duel. The samurai fights honourably, but both him and the wife are defeated by Tajōmaru's superior prowess. He remains unbeaten, and is laid low by a freak accident of nature.

The wife presents herself as a victim of Tajōmaru's depredations and her husband's coldness. She does not set up a duel between the two men – Tajōmaru simply leaves. She is so dutiful that she frees her husband and begs to be killed so she does not have to live with the shame of her rape. When he refuses in disgust, she loses her mind, and kills him almost by accident. She then tries, and fails, to kill herself. Throughout, she shows herself to be feeble, weak-minded, and a failure – perhaps hoping the appearance of a docile and repentant femininity will garner the sympathy of the court.



The samurai's story is delivered through a medium (which is ridiculous, although the film just about manages to overcome this – mainly because the actress is rather unsettling in the role, and because of the eerie effects put on her voiceover). The samurai is betrayed by an unfaithful wife, who asks Tajōmaru to kill him and free her from an unhappy marriage. The bandit is disgusted, and instead frees the samurai – both are bound together in condemnation of womankind. In the end, the samurai is brave enough to kill himself, even though he is plunged into hell for the misdeeds of others.

The impartial observer of these events, the woodcutter, undercuts the male bravado of the previous tales. Tajōmaru falls in love with the wife, who scorns and mocks him and her husband for being too weak to win her with their swords. She sets up the duel, which is pusillanimous and shambolic. There is no glory in the encounter – in the end the woodcutter sneaks out to steal the valuable dagger that has been left behind. Male virility and heroism turns out to be so much pathetic boasting.

It is interesting that the three each confess to being the agent of the death – the bandit out of pride, and the couple as a way of showing themselves to be more noble than the other. The marriage – which looked so perfect when we first see it, proves to be built on mutual resentments, which Tajōmaru's assault brings to the fore.

Whether this is enough to tip us into an apocalypse is arguable. Rashomon is a burnt-out husk of a place, ravaged by war, famine, banditry and natural disasters. The dregs of humanity seek shelter under the barrage of natural and moral evils. Kurosawa's interest in the lack of moral certainty, and the inability for human beings to agree on the truth, suggests a preoccupation with the crumbling of national solidarity in post-war Japan. But again, this is less interesting than the interplay of jealousy, resentment, vanity, desire and violence that structures the incident at the centre of the story. It is those psychological revelations that make the film a great piece of work.

16.11.16

Ashes of Time Redux

The template for Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin, which came out to universal acclaim at the start of this year. Again, the plot is so well known (based on a novel which is like the Chinese The Lord of the Rings) that its explication is felt unnecessary. Again, the martial arts are almost incidental. I think there can only be about 15 minutes of actual fighting in the 90 minute running time. There is ample room for the director's concerns, and flashy style, to predominate.

My sense is that Wong Kar-Wai always ends up preferring to spend his hours examining romantic renunciation. Love in Ashes of Time blooms only in an environment of betrayal. Marriages are cages our heroes yearn to escape from. They never do, which is how Wong builds up the dramatic weight in his films. Instead, we are left holding onto memories – often painful, and constantly fading. That, I assume, is what the film's title refers to.

I'm extrapolating from In The Mood For Love, which I found frustrating. Ashes of Time worked better for me, perhaps because its contrivances are entirely on the surface, and you don't feel like you're being manipulated. The film is elliptical about its plot, but entirely upfront about its themes. The characters tell you, in long soliloquies and monologues.



I guessed that In The Mood For Love left the possibility open for the two suffering lovers to consummate their affair – Maggie Cheung's son being the result. Interestingly, Ashes of Time repeats this motif almost exactly – Cheung (again!) also has a son, whose father may be our protagonist, rather than the man Cheung married. Her reflections as she watches her son out of the window is the most beautiful part of the film (incidentally, it's the only bit shot in a studio).

There is a sense here that a new generation will abandon the stifled, clandestine romantic lives of the past. But Wong appears fixated on them. Happy marriages, like that of the shoeless swordsman, are a joke. They involve compromise. Real love is about not giving in, and being alone – pining nobly for a beloved who is either far away, or dead.

17.10.16

This day before dawn I ascended a hill and look’d at the crowded heaven,
And I said to my spirit When we become the enfolders of those orbs, and the pleasure and knowledge of every thing in them, shall we be fill’d and satisfied then? 
And my spirit said No, we but level that lift to pass and continue beyond. 

- Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

15.10.16

The Gap between Panels / Strange New Worlds

Wrote this a while ago but forgot to put here – exhumes my pet theory on why comics are so fixated on the superhero genre, and how that comparative advantage has been eroded with the advent of cheap CGI. It's also a bit of a rave about Ody-C by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward. Read it here.

8.10.16

The Ages of Lulu

I've liked some of Bigas Luna's other films, but this one is unremittingly terrible. It has none of the satirical edge of his later work, which attacks bullish masculinity and capitalist excess. Nor is there a hint of Luna's surrealist sensibility. This is just a skin flick, all the worse for being played completely straight. Lulu's character is substituted for her sexuality, the development of which provides the only subject for the film. Consent is intermittently policed – in her one moment of assertiveness, Lula leaves her husband after he pushes things too far without her permission, insisting that she doesn't want to be a child anymore. But on her own and looking for thrills she foolishly walks into what turns out to be a den of rapists, and has to be saved by her husband. It's a bad bad world out there, ladies. Best explore your sexuality in the safe haven of marriage, even if your husband isn't willing to share what he plans to do to you in the bedroom. All of these titillating escapades are presented without comment. The unique character of Luna's other films is absent, either unborn or suppressed.

23.9.16

Perfect Blue

 “…after going back and forth between the real world and the virtual world you eventually find your own identity through your own powers. Nobody can help you do this. You are ultimately the only person who can truly find a place where you know you belong.”

That’s Satoshi Kon on the anime, his first feature as a director. It’s essentially a slasher film in which the victim and predator are split personalities vying for control over the main character, the latter drifting out to possess other bodies and use them as weapons. What’s real and what isn’t is kept intentionally vague, but it’s also somewhat beside the point. What Kon is really interested in is the way we find out who we really want to be in the maze of media and culture we consume.

The protagonist Mima is a 'pop idol' who wants to become a serious actress. Her fan base is exclusively comprised of young men who are attached to her pure, pleasant and infantile persona. Her career is managed by an agency, mostly men again telling her what to do. But the choice to become an actress is her own. It is a chance to grow up, but it will also disappoint her fans, who expect her to play one particular role, rather than many. An irony the film touches on (but doesn’t explore enough) is that in transitioning from her image of the virgin, Mima is almost inevitably cast as a whore. It seems there are only so many roles available, although Kon might be suggesting that more avenues become open once the teen idol fantasy is abandoned for a more adult (in every sense of the word) persona.



The decision to become an actress leads to a crisis – a part of Mima’s psyche rebels and seeks revenge for her own disgrace, murdering the scriptwriter who wrote her into a rape scene and the photographer who persuaded her to pose nude for a magazine shoot. The slasher wants to give the fans what they want, and crush Mima’s attempts to become her own person. She is a manifestation of the urge to go back and have your life controlled by other people.

The film is an efficient thriller, spending some time at the beginning establishing Mima’s character before gradually pulling apart her sense of reality. The tension rises as the bodies pile up, and good use is made of the eeriness of a sugar-sweet sprite being responsible for a variety of brutal stabbings. It feels like a more linear and focused work that Paprika (the only other Kon anime I’ve seen). And it’s a more satisfying exploration of the struggle to assert your identity in a mass media society – which amplifies rather than dissipates the expectations people have of what your ideal self should be.

11.9.16

Manji

Another adaptation of a Tanizaki novel by Yasuzo Masumura, with concerns similar to his version of The Tattoo. Again the focus is on the ‘demon woman’, a sexually irresistible but manipulative creature who traps and kills her lovers. In The Tattoo we see the way such monsters are created quite explicitly – Otsuya is unwillingly transfigured by her tattooist and the gangsters that employ him. In Manji the infection is not consciously administered by representatives of the patriarchy. Rather it is imbibed unwittingly as a result of treating women like divine beings.

Like in The Tattoo, the femme fatale in Manji is shown a picture which provides the model for her later behaviour. It’s not a vampire standing on a pile of corpses, but the Goddess of Mercy – an extremely popular deity in Japan who guides the souls of the deceased to their final resting place. The picture is drawn by Sonoko in an art class she attends to get away from her boring husband. There she meets and is smitten by Mitsuko, who begins an affair partly to cause a scandal and escape her boyfriend.

Tanizaki’s protagonists are usually ‘women-worshippers’, and here he transfers that tendency onto a female protagonist. He was writing in the 1930s, and his motives may not have been entirely enlightened – the ‘unnaturalness’ of the lesbian love affair might be a way to highlight how ‘unnatural’ Mitsuko’s allure is. In any case, the urge to put people on pedestals becomes dangerous – Mitsuko becomes both infantilised and insatiable as a result of having disciples. The attention of one person isn’t enough. She wants many lovers, all jealous of each other.



Mitsuko ends up living up to her identification with the Goddess of Mercy. She ensnares Sonoko’s husband and instigates a ménage à trois in which she is the dominant partner, receiving all devotion. The final part of the film becomes increasingly weird – Mitsuko behaving like a cult leader with complete sway over the couple who love her. When their unconventional arrangement is revealed in the press, she argues for suicide, and in a very strange ritual the three light incense in front of her picture as the Goddess of Mercy, before drinking poison.

But Mitsuko cannot help toying with her worshippers, even after death. She spares Sonoko, who is now filled with doubt about whether Mitsuko truly loved her, or whether she preferred to spend the afterlife only with her husband. Her faith is tested – she's left agonising about whether the Goddess she devoted herself to was just a figment of her imagination.

Masumura’s title is the Japanese name for the swastika – the four bent arms of the cross symbolising the four crooked relationships in the film. But it also highlights the theme of bringing the sacred into profane matters. It's a warning that attaching a spiritual dimension to the workings of love and lust is a recipe for death or despair.

9.9.16

5 Centimeters Per Second

"...if you look at our everyday lives, you realise that we're well-fed, well-clothed and well-housed. We also live in a society where there's almost no class discrimination. And we have freedom to live our lives however we want. Considering what kind of society we live in, if you still have problems with relationships with people, the cause of the problem is probably not society or anything readily apparent. In that case, you have to find the cause within yourself. That's actually a hard thing to do, I think. You might think there's a nothing within you that's causing the problem. So I had a strong desire to portray that 'nothingness' as it is."

That's the director Makoto Shinkai on the film. No doubt he's somewhat blinkered in his view that society places almost no restrictions on our liberty. That kind of complacency is frustrating, but the myopia runs deeper. The truth is, trying to isolate the cause of your discontent without reference to the expectations placed on you by others is a mug's game. That's why the characters in this film feel more like archetypes role-playing doomed love affairs rather than real people. Takaki is little more than a dreamy heartthrob yearning to protect Akari from the evils of the world. Their drifting apart is the product of the cold mathematics of speed and distance – their families move away, it's too far for them to continue their relationship. It's as simple and as brutal as that.

The real highlight is Kanae in the second 'Act' of the film – the only time it adopts a female perspective. She also pines after the cool Takaki, and formulates her life-projects with reference to his own. That leaves her in limbo when she realises that he will never be interested in her. In fact, her one moment of glory comes when she achieves something on her own – learning how to surf from her older sister. That victory is clouded by her subsequent rejection, but it points to the damage caused when tying up all your self-worth onto the whims of another person.

There is another highlight, of course – the dazzling imagery. Every frame of the anime is polished to a brilliant sheen, sometimes to the point of distraction, particularly when it comes to the nebula-stuffed starry skies. The animation is more impressive when it comes to the everyday details of train stations, convenience stores and countryside roads, which capture the look and feel of Japan unbelievably well. It's those wonderfully realised bits of quotidian existence that add a weight to the otherwise fluffy angst the film is portraying. It's a shame that for all his efforts to embed them in the real world, Shinkai can't make his characters actually feel real.

29.8.16

"The Bedouin had traditionally lived off raiding neighbouring tribes and extracting payment in various forms from settled peoples. It was a fundamental principle of early Islam, however, that Muslims should not attack each other: the umma was like a large and expanding tribe in the sense that all men were members of the same defensive group. If all the Arabs were now part of one big family, raiding each other was clearly out of the question. The inhabitants of the settled communities were also fellow Muslims. A peaceful, Muslim Arabia would mean abandoning both of the traditional nomad ways of surviving. The alternatives were stark: either the Islamic elite were to lead the Bedouin against the world beyond Arabia and the desert margin, or the Islamic polity would simply disintegrate into the warring constituent parts and the normal rivalries and anarchy of desert life would reassert themselves once more... The only way of avoiding an implosion was to direct the Muslims against the non-Muslim world."

***

"A key element in the success of the conquests was the comparatively easy terms usually imposed on the conquered. Arab commanders were normally content to make agreements that protected the lives and properties of the conquered, including rights to their places of worship, in exchange for the payment of tribute and the promise that they would not help the enemies of the Muslims. Defeated defenders of cities that were conquered by force were sometimes executed, but there were few examples of wholesale massacres of entire populations."

***

"...the Muslim conquerors put little or no pressure on the recently subjected populations to convert to Islam. Any attempt at compulsory conversion would probably have provoked widespread outrage and open hostility. As it was, the Muslim authorities established working relationships with the heads of the churches and other religious institutions that were now in their power. Conversion when it came was partly the result of fiscal pressures, the desire to escape the hated poll tax, but also because conversion provided an opportunity to escape from existing social constraints and to become part of the new ruling class."

Hugh Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests

21.8.16

The Gap Between Panels / Buffy As Comfort Food

Latest post on the London Graphic Novel Network stays true to my obsessions – in this case Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I never tire of telling people is the greatest television series of all time. David Simon magnanimously conceded that it was so, if you don't believe me. Anyway, the column goes in on the comics that continue the story after the end of the show, and which get better with each new 'season'. Read it here.

14.8.16

"To conform to a type, to be the captive of a form, means the decadence of art, it is sometimes said. But what of folk arts like this puppet theatre – have they not become what they are with the help of hard, fixed standards? The heavy-toned old country plays, in a sense, have in them the work of the race. Generation after generation of gifted performers has built each item in the repertoire to a standardization of property and action, handed on so carefully that by following its prescriptions the amateur can mount the singer's platform and bring forth a fair copy of the play, and the spectators as they watch can make the association in their minds with the great names whose work is there." - Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, Some Prefer Nettles

17.7.16

The Passion of Anna

"My philosophy (even today) is that there exists an evil that cannot be explained – a virulent, terrifying evil – and humans are the only animals to possess it. An evil that is irrational and not bound by law. Cosmic. Causeless. Nothing frightens people more than incomprehensible, unexplainable evil."

That's Bergman on the film – suggesting that it has an almost Lovecraftian undertone. In fact a good way to read it is as a kind of existentialist horror film. We get some rather unsettling images of the carcasses of mutilated farmyard animals. The culprit is unknown, underlining Bergman's emphasis on the inexplicability of human evil. But the gruesome acts instill a sense of fear and suspicion in the community that spurs a local gang to find and punish a scapegoat. The account of the punishment is delivered in dialogue, mainly because it's too awful to depict visually. Anna's description of the death of her husband and son in a car accident is also grim going. Passion is not as hard to watch as Shame, which was made at the same time and shares many of the same preoccupations. But it's uncompromisingly unpleasant nonetheless.

My emphasis on it being an existentialist horror film is not flippant – in one of the key monologues towards the end, our protagonist Andreas describes the humiliation of failure and how the inability to assert himself against the world leads to a withdrawal from society. He shares his malaise with Ava, who is trapped in a marriage with a rich, aloof and sarcastic husband, and is also unable to pick and fulfill her own life project (she refuses to have children after a miscarriage). The husband is probably the most well-adjusted character, but he's also a bit of a creep, unconcerned by his wife's infidelity and subtly driving Andreas into debt and servitude. He's an amateur photographer who understands that photography cannot capture personality, just surfaces. That outlook is underlined (and perhaps undermined) by the insertion of four interviews with the four leading actors separately discussing their characters.

But clinging to illusions turns out to be even worse than disillusionment. Andreas's violence is the result of frustrated self-loathing – the realisation that he is a worthless human being. Anna cannot process her own failures, and instead fabricates a fairytale of her happy previous married life. Although she insists on the need for people to find a truth they can believe in and live up to, that imperative turns out to create hostages to fortune. If life doesn't comply with your truth, you change it, violently if necessary. Better to kill your family and remember them lovingly than go through the pain of seeing that family crack under the pressure of real life.

One of the ideas Bergman was playing with when making Passion and Shame was of Fårö (the island where he shot many of his films) as "the Kingdom of Hell". Although Bergman prefers to gloss the evil in Passion in a transcendental way, you can also read it as a malaise caused by the subjugation of the individual by society. Anna must cling on to her belief in her perfect marriage because of the ideals and expectations that surround her. Likewise, Ava is unable to escape her lofty and remote husband because she is forced to be a jewel in the crown of his many achievements. Andreas is a failure – he can't even fix his house properly (as the opening scenes make clear). He's not the embodiment of what we expect of the male hero.

The interviews with the actors is one way of getting to the notion that these characters are playing roles foisted onto them by the tyranny of society. The darkness of human hearts is not put there by an incomprehensible creator, but by a director making a film. And one way of surviving is to recognize that these are roles to be inhabited when needs must, and then cast off when you find something better. This is not something Bergman allows for here (interestingly, he now thinks inserting the interviews was a mistake). In Passion, nothing better is available, and the characters end up walled off against each other, wandering alone in a barren landscape. Human interaction is a recipe for hypocrisy, which leads to either delusion or nihilism, with violent consequences. Genuine communication is only possible once our propensity for roleplaying is recognised. In Passion, we only get to see it when the actors speak about their characters – when they step out of their role and have the freedom to reflect on it.

10.7.16

Ninja Scroll

This 1993 anime gets grouped alongside Ghost in the Shell and Akira as being classics reasonably well-known in the West. It's an expertly crafted wuxia (martial arts) film, with very stylish and frequently gruesome fight scenes, a complex story which unfolds well, and every narrative thread tied up nicely at the end. That doesn't distract from the sometimes rather troubling genre conventions it exemplifies. As expected, the hero Jubei is an itinerant warrior who refuses to play by anyone's rules but his own – a particularly attractive fantasy for conformist Japan. His attitude echoes that of Guts in the manga Berserk, who feels nothing but disdain for those too weak to avoid exploitation.

But exploitation is inevitable in the world of Ninja Scroll. Jubei is forcibly recruited by a wizened, wry (and unexpectedly wiry) government spy as a foot soldier in a secret war between the Tokugawa Shogunate and a rebellious lord (the so-called 'Shogun of the Dark'). Neither side in the conflict are particularly noble – all elites in feudal Japan use, abuse and discard those lower down the social hierarchy. But interestingly, rather than struggling against the evil empire, our protagonist's role is to protect it from something worse – factionalism and the civil war that raged before Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated all comers and established his regime. The film reinforces the notion that you will be chewed up and spat out by those above your station, and that this is a price worth paying. No matter how individualistic these ronin are, they can't escape co-option by the political powers that be.

And then there's the women. Jubei crosses paths with a feisty poison-taster and clandestine ninja called Kagero – rescuing her from being raped by the first of what turn out to be eight superpowered adversaries. The poisons Kagero has imbibed mean she is unable to sleep with, or even kiss, someone without them dying. Her independence and fighting prowess is bought at the expense of a complete neutering of her sexuality. Rather unbelievably, it turns out that Jubei can and must seduce Kagero in order to neutralise the poison he has been infected with. His relationship with her for the most part of the film is huffy and disrespectful, but he is nonetheless steely enough to refuse to sleep with her on these terms, choosing death before dishonour. Celibacy is the route to heroism for both characters, even though both (particularly Kagero) are objectified and sexualised to some degree.

This is in marked contrast to the bad guys, of course, who all seem to be sleeping with each other. And not just with the opposite sex either, which adds an extra homophobic tang to proceedings...

19.6.16

The Gap Between Panels / Comics as PowerPoint

Latest post on the London Graphic Novel Network gets a bit self-indulgent and tries to connect comics to my day job as a digital comms guy at a think tank. Basically, infographics and powerpoints tell stories too, and maybe comics can learn a thing or three from my grubby tinkering with Adobe Illustrator. Read it here.

18.6.16

Holy Motors

Anything described as 'impossible to pin down' is going to fire up those lepidopterology urges. Holy Motors is rather weird, sure. A portmaneau fantasy film in which the mysterious Mr Oscar is driven around to various surreal 'appointments', where he dons elaborate costumes and participates (or disrupts) wildly different pieces of theatrical or cinematic performance. None of it makes any literal sense. Rather, the film is about watching actors, plays and films – and its contention is that you can stretch these activities in all kinds of wonderful ways. One of the clues that point in this meta direction is that the film begins with a shot of the director waking up in a cinema. Another clue is the brief flashes of a silent film in which a naked man tumbles around, reminding us that cinema began with disjointed displays of human action, and that we're about to witness a return to such principles.

All that's very well and good, but it did strike me when watching the brief musical 'intermission' in the middle of the film that the individual chapters have the feel of high-end music videos. Music videos have a limited time in which to do something interesting, and therefore often spend it taking something familiar and giving it a twist. It's a formula Holy Motors is indebted to. A overworked father comes home to his family, who turn out to be chimpanzees. A mad vagrant crashes into a fashion shoot, abducts the model and covers her up in a full body veil. A father picks up his daughter from her first house party, and gets annoyed when he learns she spent the evening hiding in the bathroom rather than flirting with boys.

These examples are the best because the get at the real success of the film, which is that it is actually quite funny. Most of the surrealism is about attacking our expectations (it's the vagrant that is sexualised rather than the model, the man who is married to a chimp has a home-life much less drab than we are led to believe, and so on). The film is knowingly perverse, winking at and flipping audience expectations. But even then, British comedy like The League of Gentlemen, Big Train and The Mighty Boosh have done this kind of stuff before. Holy Motors is frequently spectacular, but it would only feel innovative if you haven't been paying attention to motion pictures made outside the feature film format.

11.6.16

Turkish Delight

The film that made Paul Verhoeven's name in his native Holland is a putrid affair – full of garbage, vomit, blood and spunk. The preternaturally handsome Rutger Hauer is our protagonist, an artist who cannot sit down at a restaurant without fomenting a riot. He is completely uninhibited, but also vain, vindictive, and more than a little violent. The film begins with the suggestion that he may be a murderer. After the love of his tiny life leaves him, he dreams up disturbing revenge fantasies, wakes up in his hovel of a studio, masturbates, and goes on to sleep with as many women as would have him (inexplicably, it's a lot).

Verhoeven shoots his main man in an improvised, twitchy way, apparently inspired by the French New Wave. He encourages his cast to ham it up, and on occasion it almost looks like you're watching a silent comedy – grotesque faces, clownish gestures, visual gags. Much of this is in the service of satirising the curtain-twitching, hypocritical society of small minded housewives, ignorant peasants and obsequious royalists that Hauer bulldozes through.

But for most of the film, Hauer's liberality is much more grating. He is obscenely self-involved, unrepentantly selfish. This is nowhere clearer than in his lovemaking, which is not reciprocal, and treats women as passive objects that are maneuvered to gratify the male gaze, and the camera. Verhoeven is never just a pornographer – Turkish Delight is more that just slobbering over sexually available girls. But for parts of this film he is entirely too close to Hauer's own pornographic view of Monique van de Ven, and of his freewheeling, responsibility-free attitude more broadly.

Thankfully, the film turns out to be about growing up. Hauer is the noble savage, playing in his own shit and humping anything that moves. He is an innocent, and if anything the film is a pointed lesson in how dangerous (and deranged) such people are. His fierce, clumsy, possessive love for Monique van de Ven brings out the worst in him. And when she's had enough, he dreams of murder and attempts to rape her. But she escapes, and in the intervening period before he encounters her again, Hauer matures, and ends up caring for her when she falls ill.

Even when dying, Monique van de Ven is as impulsive and insatiable as ever. In the one nod to the title, she stuffs her mouth with turkish delight until its fit to burst, even though she fears her teeth might fall out because of the radiotherapy. The film makes the suggestion that living this fast burns you right out. Drinking too deep from the cup of life will poison you. The film ends with the image of a statue made by Hauer of van de Ven holding a baby aloft, evoking the family that the couple were never able to have. For all of his provocative liberalism, Verhoeven ends up suggesting that some aspects of traditional society may be worth preserving after all. He's more conservative than he seems.

4.6.16

The gap between panels / Rehabilitating Red Sonja

The London Graphic Novel Network has a new website, which is much flashier that the old blogspot version. Begs the question of why I still haven't switched to wordpress (or tumblr) yet – to which the answer is: I'm old and set in my ways. Latest column deals with the Gail Simone / Walter Geovani fun and uninhibited reinvention of Red Sonja, and the contrast with the Michael Avon Oeming version, which was dark, troubling and a bit crap (although Mel Rubi's artwork was stunning). All done through the prism of working out the different justifications for that ridiculous chain-mail bikini. Read it here.

The Filth

I wasn't really able to write about The Filth the first time I read it, but the London Graphic Novel Network online book group spurred me to read it again. Reposting my (slightly edited) take from the conversation, which is well worth reading in its entirety:


If we have to pick sides on the Moore/Morrison beef, I’ll probs back the latter. Never really understood the argument that Morrison is a fraud or a copyist, since his comics feel like some of the most sui generis I have read. To try and unpack that a little, I picked up The Filth from my local library just as I was getting started with comics, got about half way through and gave up. It’s now one of my favourite comics ever, but I really had to persevere with it and basically learn how to read it. This applied to a lot of Morrison’s books, actually. And it seems to me that The Filth makes fewer concessions to a broad audience (unlike something like New X-Men and Doom Patrol, which still have something of the Chris Claremont style superhero soap-opera feel to it). So I agree with David (and against Joel?) that it’s more Morrison that most Morrison books.

Trying to remember why I gave up on The Filth back then, I think it may have had something to do with my inability to deal with the compression. I was into a lot of Bendis comics at the time, and I think a lot of that was because his books had the feel of great American TV (West Wing, Ally McBeal, Buffy etc), which I had grown up watching and was already comfortable with. Bendis is like TV in panels – one six issue trade reading like one 45 minute episode, with character-building bits, action bits, quips etc. For someone working his way into the comics form, it was familiar – easy to get into.

Morrison comics were therefore a massive challenge, as the compression requires you to focus on every stray detail in order to understand the plot, never mind anything else. I remember finding Final Crisis tough for the same sorts of reasons. For some people this might be a flaw. I prefer to see it as a different way to use the form, one that’s ultimately more interesting than the serial, unflashy competence you find in most big two comics. The Filth stretches conventional plotting to breaking point. Watching a creator confident enough to warp his narrative in every direction they want, and demanding that the audience follow them, is in its own way just as captivating as a pro-storyteller carrying you all the way through a story so expertly that you don’t realise or care how the magic is made.

Why is it worth reading? I’ll have a go. The Filth is founded on the opposition between the filthy things we dream about (Morrison apparently consumed a lot of porn when writing it, as David attests) and how we repress those things – ‘the filth’ being slang for the police. In that respect it’s a lot like Blue Velvet, whose villains cannot control their desires, and whose heroes are tempted by that freedom, but ultimately manage to pull away from it and live happy American apple pie lives. The Hand literally personify the processes by which we stamp out the antisocial (or “anti-person”) urges that will make living with each other impossible. For someone who unabashedly celebrated anarchic freedom in the face of ethical and political authority in The Invisibles, that’s an curious little turnaround.

That would be interesting enough if it was that simple, but the book also contains a lot of rage against that repressive (civilizing, if you like) figure of authority. Ned Slade is an artificial “parapersonality” imposed on the unassuming Greg Feely (or maybe it’s the other way around?). That sense of being manipulated by external forces (all those CCTV cameras) is prevalent. For me, that’s a metaphor for the way we are conditioned by the things around us, and pick up 'the rules' of morality by observing and monitoring each other. For me, Greg Feely is raging against an inevitable process. Society and its demands will never leave him alone, no matter how much he would like to seal himself away from it. That final metaphor: it’s a filthy thing, authority, but the peace it creates allows for beautiful things to grow. (tl;dr: The Filth is about abandoning anarchism for liberalism discuss…)

Just to pick up on one of David’s questions RE the art team: I’m in the process of becoming a bit of a Hollingsworth devotee, and on this read through I did pick up on how drastically the colours change as Greg turns into Ned. I own the toilet paper trade, and perhaps that dulls the impact a bit (although the cheapness also feels somehow appropriate for the ugly smutty subject matter…) In any case, the garish pinks and reds, the vomity yellows and greens, used as the background to the panels in the fantasy world add up to quite a big part of the look and feel of the book Imo, so for me Hollingsworth is a bit of an (unsung?) hero for the work he did on it.

20.5.16

The gap between panels / A perfect moment

Latest column for the London Graphic Novel Network tries to talk about how comics can freeze moments in time in order to study them, using some rather obscure graphic novels to make the point (including a bit of borrowing from last year's post on Yukiko's Spinach). Meanders into the question of whether such behaviour inherently carries a voyeuristic or erotic charge, and how to cope with or redeem it if so. It's probably the most pretentious one yet, in other words. Read it here.

2.5.16

Captain America: Civil War

Marvel's gamble on the Russo brothers continues to pay off. Mainly known for cult TV comedies, they handle the massive budgets and expectations of superhero action films with aplomb. Much like Age of Ultron before it, Civil War needs to pack a lot in, and the hyperactive plotting of Arrested Development and Community turns out to be good training for making all the pieces fit together. An example: Spider-Man is introduced in something like five minutes. They also manage to craft the sequence where the Avengers finally start fighting each other into something genuinely engaging. It's of little surprise that they've been handed the keys to the Avengers films due for release in 2018-19.

Civil War only very loosely follows the framework set by Mark Millar's crossover, where superheros have to decide whether to register and become agents of the U.S. government. In the film, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been discredited, and the pressure comes from the United Nations, who wish to licence and legitimate Avengers interventions in sovereign countries (echoes of recent adventures in the Middle East and Africa are muted). Cap's reasons for resisting 'the Accords' is a bit woolly, and boils down to an intuition that he's more likely to call the shots right than the UN. Conveniently (given that it is his film) in the case of Bucky Barnes he is right.

The instrumental question about whether private citizens are better able to exercise their superpowers effectively than democratically-elected governments is a side-issue. More important is the debate about accountability. Superpowered interventions, even if they end up saving lives (or the world), nonetheless kill civilians. The villain in Civil War is after revenge for the death of his family by superhero activity in 'Zarkovia' in a prior film. It's a motive shared by the Black Panther in this film, and in the end the latter proves to be the true hero by letting go of the thirst to take an eye for an eye – something Tony Stark is unable to do. That said, Cap preference to be held accountable only by himself and his friends is troubling. A brave creative team would challenge it in future films.

30.4.16

Wild Strawberries

Although his issues with his cold and severe father are mixed in, Bergman admits that Isak Borg is a self-portrait (they share the same initials). The name suggests 'icy fortress' in Swedish, and the beginning of the film makes clear that the cause of the malady is a willful severing of contact with other people. Borg finds the endless discussions people have about other people tiring, and settles for his academic study of bacteria in splendid isolation.

That icy metaphor is contrasted with the wild strawberries of the title. In the pivotal scene in which they are introduced, they are associated with youthful exuberance and sexual frission. There is something of the Fall myth in the way a kiss spills the basket of strawberries on the ground. Borg watches on as his crush is seduced by a rival, who is vibrant and flashy rather than solemn and wise. The scenario is repeated towards the end of the film, where Borg watches on as his wife makes him a cuckold. His magnanimous superiority has always made him difficult to relate to – a distant God among mortals. The women in the film prefer men who are less accomplished, perhaps even a bit foolish, but human.

It is a fabulous performance by Victor Sjöström, who has a dry kindliness about him which inspires sympathy even when he is being berated for his grouchiness by his daughter-in-law and housekeeper. Bergman's use of memories and dreams to explore aspects of Borg's personality feels conventional now, but was groundbreaking then. Even so, the complexity of the character that emerges is still impressive. It feels like quite a modern film, even though it's half a century old.

28.4.16

"One difficulty in understanding just what Marx thought a society based on rational cooperation might look like is his insistence that there would be no sacrifice of individuality when we all contributed as we should to the productive efforts of us all. The thought seems to be that we so internalize the desire to do what we rationally must do for the benefit of the whole community that we feel no tension between our desires and the community's needs. This is either implausible or alarming; it is at least very hard to believe that work as the free expression of our creative natures will always coincide with work as our optimal contribution to the rationally organised productive mechanism that underpins our society.

...

"Full socialism imagines a form of collective economic rationality that makes sense only with an omniscient and omnipotent directing intelligence at the heart of the economy, and imagines that intelligence replacing the coercive apparatus of law and government; that comes close to self-contradiction, and if it did not, it would still presuppose an unlikely degree of spontaneous consensus on the merits of a central plan" - Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present

The gap between panels / Repetition repetition repetition

Latest column for the London Graphic Novel Network is ostensibly about creators repeating themselves, but mostly spends its time being nice about Phonogram and less nice about The Wicked + The Divine. That despite not have read the third vols of either book. Kieron Gillen found me out on twitter, which has got me worried that I've been insensitive if not outright wrong about WicDiv, but there we go. Read it here.

19.4.16

The Gap between Panels / on the Right Way to Fall in Love with a Robot

A short post on the London Graphic Novel Network comparing two comics with the same (very interesting) premise – Alex + Ada by Sarah Vaughan and Jonathan Luna, and Chobits by the art collective CLAMP. Mostly born out of a deep frustration with the latter. Read it here.

10.4.16

Shame

Shame is a tough film. Bergman talks about the influence of events in Vietnam and the wish to depict the effects of war in an uncompromising way. He is very hard on the first half of his movie, which he suggests does not fulfill this purpose and could have been drastically cut down. I think the before and after is quite useful, however. The film begins with a day in the life of the central couple, the bits of civilization (music, wine, philosophy) they treasure, and the petty disputes that disturb their tranquility (Eva wants children, but Jan is a sensitive soul who thinks it's inadvisable with a war on).

The second half shows this marriage break apart under the strain of totalitarianism, and the terrorism it fosters. A local warlord (and former friend) renders the couple his servants, and their resentment towards him is channeled between each other. Eva talks of being a player in someone else's shameful dream. She is forced to film a propaganda piece for the resistance, and later on the warlord pays her to have sex with him, which crushes the life out of her.

Jan, on the other hand, is hardened by that incident. The one bit of comedy in the film comes in the first half when, in the midst of fleeing bombardment, Jan tries and fails to shoot a chicken point blank so that he and Eva will have something to eat. In the second half, Jan is forced to reenact that experience, but this time the warlord is in his sights and it's deadly serious.

The fragility of civilization is an obvious theme – and the film is rather good on the way peace depends on trust, both personal and political. Less clear cut is the suggestion that the microcosm of the central marriage somehow mirrors the political conflict taking place in the outside world. Jan is yet another self-centred intellectual used by Bergman to punish himself, and here the self-laceration goes into the fear of the horrors he is prepared to commit to survive. Eva is the beautiful, simple-minded and kind-hearted woman who only wants children and gets trampled once society breaks down. Although she is patronised by her husband (and to some degree Bergman as well) she is arguably the more courageous, in that she cannot stomach the things Jan has to do to preserve their lives. In the end those compromises are futile, and perhaps it would have been better to die with more dignity.

Dreams of a better life bookend the film. It opens with Jan recounting a dream of the war being over and the couple continuing with their civilized lives. It ends with Eva describing a surreal dream in which she and her imagined daughter watch a garden being torched by warplanes, and she tries to remember something which makes her start crying. The couple's dreams are soiled by the violence around them, to the point where they become unable to hope for something better. But the shameful dreams of the oppressors, which have created this situation, remain mysterious. Shame explores the effects of the war very well, but it doesn't delve into its causes. That, for me, is the real weakness of the film.

The gap between panels / a splash of colour

Latest column on the London Graphic Novel Network blog looks at colour in comics. Seeing as I'm just a reader, rather than a practitioner, I can only circle around the colouring craft, and point out bits I've noticed that have impressed me. Those include Fiona Staples on Saga, Matt Hollingsworth on Alias, and Jason Howard on Trees – the latter kicking off the whole train of thought. Read it here.

5.4.16

"...whereas Aristotle thought man was a political animal intended by nature to live in a polis, Hobbes was a thoroughly modern thinker who repudiated the idea that nature had any purposes for us whatever, and emphasised that we were driven into political society. The consequence is that for Hobbes it is no loss if we live wholly private lives and take no interest in politics, while for Aristotle it would be a truncated existence suited to women and slaves but not to citizens" - Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present

The gap between panels / Comics as TV

Latest column at the London Graphic Novel Network takes the Fraction / Chaykin comic Satellite Sam as a starting point to talk about the relationship between comics and television. That's despite the fact that I have mostly stopped watching television. Read it here.

25.3.16

High-Rise

High-Rise ends on a shot of a smartly-dressed boy tuning in to hear Thatcher on the radio talking about capitalism. Hard not to read that as a comment on the kind of society we live in now, the birth of which is shown in the film we have just seen.

So what kind of society is it? Royal is a paternalistic architect presiding over a design experiment attempting to create a new kind of person – his apartment blocks are shaped like the fingers of a hand stretching out into the sky. Like the Tower of Babel, it doesn't go to plan. The allusion suggests a nod to the hubris of man, and the attempt to forge godhood out of the dust we are and the dust we shall return to.

People going feral in the corridors of stylish modern buildings suggests a clash between the order we try to create, and the inevitable resistance such creations provoke. Royal's name is significant. He is the descendant of a benevolent aristocracy devoted to their schemes to improve the world – and the people on the lower rungs of the ladder. But people don't fit into the boxes Royal stuffs them into. The planner's utopia is a failure.

The trigger for the revolt is partly the hypocrisy of the elite, who conduct extravagant parties while the tenants at the bottom of the building put up with blackouts. Royal is too steeped in his privilege to notice what is going on, and at the end gets replaced by Laing – a new kind of elite, sociopathically detached from other people, able to ride the wave of destruction let loose by the end of the old hierarchy.

The snippet of Thatcher's speech contrasts 'state capitalism', where resources are controlled from the top, with the freedom of the marketplace. Royal's aristocratic ways get thrown out in the revolution. The post-war consensus, run by grey upper-class men and their lackeys, is smashed. Deference is replaced with licence – the codes of politeness and repression that keep society going collapse. It is not a comforting sight. The lot of women spirals from putting up with condescension and passive aggression to being at the receiving end of physical abuse and rape.

People in the new order are free to fight for the space and resources to assert themselves in the world. Laing manages to wrestle out a can of paint from the bedlam of the supermarket in order to paint his room. He is strong and determined enough to fulfill his projects. Wilder is less lucky – he ends up under a table screaming his own name into a recorder. His failure to achieve his projects turns him into a brute. In a moment of lucidity, before he spurs him on to his doom, Laing calls him the sanest man in the building. The two are alike, but Laing doesn't push against the powers-that-be, he just stands aside as they get overthrown.

Invoking Thatcher may be a way for the filmmakers to show what happens when you try to abolish society. The film is darkly funny on the iniquities and decadence of the ruling classes, but it seems to suggest that rampant individualism is a lot more scary. I don't think there is a hankering for a return to the stifling social mores that keep people in check, but the trade off seems to be unrestrained brutality. In the end a new equilibrium is reached. Society goes on, a new family is formed between Laing, Melville and the little boy listening to Thatcher. It looks a rather cold, inhospitable place.

I haven't read the book, but the film definitely captures something of Ballard's style and preoccupations. The pace feels a little loose, and the visuals a little short of hypnotic, to the point where I got slightly bored through some of it. Ben Wheatley pays many debts to Terry Gilliam's Brazil – which I find a more beautiful and unsettling film. But bringing Ballard to the screen is no small feat – and there's plenty to chew over if you're able to sit all the way through it.

19.3.16

The Gap Between Panels / That Feeling of Vertigo

Third column at the LGNN blog takes The Unwritten as a starting point and delves into those comics that are particularly bewildering in their speediness. Somehow manage to rope in Machiavelli, Nietzsche and Napoleon to make the point. (I knew that Masters degree will come in useful eventually!) Read it here.

18.3.16

The Insect Woman

The story behind this film is sourced from a real woman Imamura met when drinking in what was known as a 'white district' – where prostitution was a way to top up a salary earned as a shop assistant or a maid. Imamura spent three days meeting this woman in a park (he was penniless and didn't have an office) recording her life story, and was particularly intrigued by her relationship with her step-father, which was very close, somewhat physical, although perhaps not actually sexual. The film depicts the way he would suckle at his adopted daughter's breasts – a symbol for an infantile Japanese masculinity cowering underneath tough cynical women fighting for their survival.

The film begins with a shot of an ant battling up a clump of sand, and ends with our heroine Tome struggling up a hill to visit her daughter. She is symbolically associated with the tenacity and the vulnerability of an insect. Tome is by no means the saint that appears in films by Ozu and Mizoguchi – she learns exploitation at the hands of a madam in the city, and becomes a vicious madam in turn. But although Imamura shows men to be universal cowards and idiots, they remain the ultimate expropriators. The most terrifying scene is the attempted seduction of Tome's daughter Nobuko by the man who seduced her mother. Unlike Tome, Nobuko manages to escape his clutches and the lure of the city, and returns to a purer rural farming life.

Imamura shot everything on location – none of Mizoguchi's elaborate sets for him. He also breaks up the history of this insect woman into fragments – presenting episodes of her life grouped by freeze-frames and voiceover. He also admits to being more interested in physical performances, rather than a deep investigation into the inner psychologies of his characters. The camera captures the effect of scrabbling about on the earth, bodies being affected by the environment, slowly eroding with time and effort. The episodic nature of the film reminded me of more recent attempts to map out a complete personality with a camera – Boyhood and The Life of Adèle. Both of those documentary-like fiction films owe something to Imamura.

13.3.16

Shortbus

At one point during the making of doc, the director John Cameron Mitchell tries to explain the feel of his film to his actors, who will be having sex with each other on camera. It's like a Woody Allen movie, one of the good ones from the 70s. That's particularly true for the women in the film – a relationships counsellor who's never experienced an orgasm, and her friendship with a professionally and artistically unfulfilled dominatrix. In fact, the film's quest for jokes often slides into silliness – the kind of physical slapstick that you find in TV comedies. More unsettling is the second narrative strand, exploring James's depression and his relationship with his partner Jamie.

Both these strands emphasise the way sex is really another kind of communication. The couples in the beginning of the film have their wires crossed. The metaphor of sexual circuitry is continually referred to in the animated sequences that punctuate the film – sex is a connection in the motherboard of human bodies and minds that make up a city. The answer, the film seems to suggest, is to connect with more people. Shortbus is an artistic salon in Brooklin where free love holds sway. It's a power generator that tries to recharge the city's sexual batteries. The couples find a way to be together only after they learn to stray.

The film's sexual frankness is refreshing, and its borrowing from the optimism of the musical and romantic comedy diffuses some of the challenging subject matter at hand. Characters who are or have been sex workers struggle with a feeling of worthlessness. The actor playing James wanted to explore the feeling of growing up gay in a straight man's world, and how that can cut you off from people even when you're in a loving relationship. The complications that arise with polyamory are only vaguely touched on – some relationships are closer than others. But interestingly, most seem to pair off or reconcile at the end. The final sequence is of the ringleader of Shortbus (the performance artist and drag queen Justin Bond) playing the part of a Hymen for the modern age – consecrating a new, more liberated kind of marriage.

11.3.16

The Gap Between Panels / Writing about The Unwritten

Second column for the London Graphic Novel Network blog tries to capture the sensation of Mike Carey and Peter Gross's The Unwritten, and has the temeritry to suggest the series is better than Sandman. Read it here.

5.3.16

The Gap Between Panels / The Speed of Comics

I've somehow been talked into writing a column for the London Graphic Novel Network blog. Will be trying and failing to write one every week, and hopefully they'll get better as time goes on. The first one tries to set the scene a bit, and looks at the weird constraints under which comics are created, and what that does to the way we read them. Check it out here. More soon.

21.2.16

Successive Slidings of Pleasure

"Not really a feminist protest, although why not? In another sense of the word feminist."

That's Alain Robbe-Grillet describing how his protagonist (brilliantly acted by Anicée Alvina) subverts the institutions of law-enforcement, justice and religion. The confusion over the film's gender politics comes from the fact that this agent of destruction spends much of the film in the nude and playing on the (undeniably male) spectator's own desires. Robbe-Grillet was probably aware of feminism's fire-breathing over sex in the 70s, which is why he's a bit uncertain of his claim that the film is feminist. I suspect today's more sex-positive attitude may accommodate a feminist reading more readily.

Then again, there are uncertainties throughout this film, and Robbe-Grillet is perfectly content with letting them lie unexplained. The artist doesn't have to speak for the work, it just is. And you can read as much or as little as you want into its succession of disturbingly pleasurable images. Although some viewers may dismiss the project as horribly pretentious and confused, I think that reaction misses the mischievous sense of humour running through it. This is a film made on a bet – Robbe-Grillet was determined to stick to a shoe-string budget of half a million francs. And some of the scenes are little more than in-jokes. Apparently the gravedigger who unearths the props in the film one by one is the editor, which Robbe-Grillet finds hilarious.

Even with the very obvious wreckage the creator has wrought, I think there are things to salvage. One of the funniest 'jokes' in the film is when two actresses woodenly play out the beginning of a porn scene, the seductress eagerly consenting to unimaginable horrors because they "sound like fun", before turning her eyes to the camera, and making clear that the only fun being had will be by the people watching. Robbe-Grillet likes to allude to Aristotle's idea of catharsis in justifying the allusions to murder and torture. These things reveal the monsters in our own heads, and allow us to confront them – and tame them.

Although most of the unreal, outrageous tale-spinning that we see playing out on screen is supposed to occur when Alvina is imprisoned, I actually don't think any of the film is intended to be "realistic". Partly this is because the budget didn't allow for it – the look of the film is sparse, clean and "superficial" (in Robbe-Grillet's words). Everything we see is a visualisation of what is going on in someone's head – whether the characters' or ours is an open question. A simple example the film starts with is the interrogation scene, in which Alvina starts to disrobe simply because the interrogator (and the audience) is already imagining her naked.

Another example is the flashy police investigator, who swoops and spins ridiculously in front of the camera. Again, it's the man's own interior sense of himself, or our own expectations of the cool noir hero, that we see – not what's really happening. The film's archness only draws attention to the fact that all fictional films are representations of reality. The sense of "realness" is always smoke and mirrors. Successive Slidings of Pleasure brings out that artificiality mostly to make some sly jokes at the expense of the viewer and their expectations, but also by emphasising the way our subjectivity warps the reality around us, to the point where we can get lost in the stories we tell, and the images we fetishize.

19.2.16

The Incal

Reposting my contribution to the London Graphic Novel Network discussion, which got severely (though fascinatingly) derailed by Adam at the start, but is still worth reading for the (on topic) contributions at the end. I've slightly edited the below to get rid of my internet speak:

Just want to come back to Joel's original frustration with The Incal. Curious thing for me is that (like a lot of Jodo stuff) there is a superabundance of narrative in the book – John DiFool constantly stumbling through quest after quest. And yet it's strangely unsatisfying because (as Joel says) there's no overall structure to these narratives. They are little more than excuses to give Möebius cool things to draw. In fact (if I recall correctly) because things get so convoluted towards the end, Jodo settles for invoking a fourth wall breaking deus ex machina as a way to wrap things up. (I hope I'm not getting this muddled up with Battlestar Galactica...)

That superfluity of narrative at the expense of any ~deeper~ meaning reminds me of Carey / Gross's The Unwritten, or something like Grant Morrison's The Invisibles. I'll grant that other people have gotten something profound out of those comics, but I've found it easiest to engage with them on quite a superficial level – the narrative zooming past in exciting patterns without taking the time to pause, reflect, add significance. Actually, that description isn't always fair – there are individual issues of The Unwritten in particular that lend themselves to close reading and excavation. But a lot of it is just narrative gymnastics for me, and The Incal is no different in that respect.

Which leads me on to think that this sort of hyper-compressed velocity with regard to storytelling is something comics as a form can do quite well. It's partly the strictures of the production process, which doesn't give you the time to write pages of dialogue or the space for embellishments. So your forced to start slicing away at the inessentials and cramming beats into your allotted pages. And why worry, when with an artist like Möebius, you're gonna wanna push him headlong into as many places as possible.

My take on The Incal is that it is Jodo at play. The thing took years and years to make, and throughout he was just firing off ideas without overly worrying about the shape the story will end up having once it's packaged into one volume. This is in marked contrast to The Holy Mountain and particularly The Mole, which are less riotously expansive and more linear – particularly the latter, which I did manage to start digging into for significance. Perhaps the single-minded focus required to direct, design and act in those films was an incentive to add layers under a single plot, rather than just keep adding more and more plot.

The above is a long way of saying that The Incal is fun stuff, but Jodo's masterpieces are found elsewhere.

18.2.16

"The real difficulty with anarchism is not with its philosophical, but with its real-life form. It is not that people are convinced of the philosophical validity of arguments for the obligation to obey the state, but rather that no one really believes we can now do without something like the state structure. Or rather people imagine that the attempt to do away with the state would lead in one of two directions. The first possibility would be a form of society that would be highly dangerous, unpredictable, and insecure, and would lack many of the economic advantages developed industrial societies have. The only alternative would be a society that would be highly repressive because organised into claustrophobic small groups, and in which one would have the unpleasant sense of living in the unventilated atmosphere of a Jane Austen novel all the time." - Reymond Geuss, 'The Legitimacy of the State', History and Illusion in Politics

7.2.16

Notes from S.M.A.S.H.

A comics panel event at the Barbican Library, which was excellent – over 100 people listening to some great speakers on three themes: meaning, art and diversity. I left with a cloud of ideas buzzing around my head, which were dampened with rain and alcohol afterwards (everyone went to the pub, of course). Before my terrible memory dissipates the rest, here's what stuck out at me.

MEANING

Although Crissy Williams helpfully dropped some McCloud-esque science about how the comics form creates meaning (your imagination filling the gaps between panels etc), much of the discussion went wider than comics itself. A lot of it was about where meaning happens – is it about the intentions of the creators, or is it about the response of the reader? Mike Carey was an eloquent champion of the latter view, suggesting that as comics are a collaborative medium, reconstructing a single set of intentions is futile. I'm a little sceptical of that line of argument. Comics are a part of history like everything else, and therefore you should be able to assemble evidence that can support particular interpretations of the creative team's intentions, and adjudicate between which interpretation is best supported by the available evidence (full disclosure: I did history at uni).

If Carey is right and the important stuff happens at the point where the reader responds to the work, does that mean that all interpretations are of equal worth? In some ways, yes absolutely. We're all people reading the same thing, why is your experience more accurate or valuable than mine? However, this made the presence of a critic and an academic on the panel quite interesting, as their interpretations of comics are (almost by definition) priviledged. What is the role of the critic or the scholar if all interpretations are of equal worth?

J. A. Micheline (the critic) said something interesting towards the end of the discussion that responded to this question. She said that it is actually quite exhausting to hold all sorts of interpretations of a work in your head. Eventually, you do look for a way through the maze by reaching for the threads of authorial intention. Always dangerous to do, but Micheline went on to read this development into the wider cultural conversation – postmodernism's assault on the modernist idea of the auteur is getting tired, and people have gone back to looking for some leadership and authority when it comes to the meaning of art.

ART

This was a discussion about comics art, and particularly how to distinguish between what is 'good' and 'bad' art. There was a helpful intervention from an audience member towards the end who tried to separate the question in two. Firstly and most obviously, comics art is 'good' in a functional sense – it helps rather than obstructs the narrative. Mark Stafford was particularly useful in providing some examples of this (how an artist has to draw the reader's eye to things, how they can embellish or add texture to a story).

But then beyond the question of functionality, people do still have preferences. It's all a question of a person's taste, as Hannah Chapman insisted. But should we leave it there? David Allison was interesting on this – in his introduction he talked about encouraging and becoming comfortable with a 'Tower of Babel' when it comes to the language of comics art. I think this gets at something important, which is that taste isn't innate – you're not born loving Jack Kirby. Rather, taste is something you develop, and a variety of experiences with different styles and methods might overcome some of the pigeon-holing that occurs within the form.

Speaking personally, the role of gatekeepers in clueing you into or evangelising about things you would otherwise pick up and put down again is crucial. So much of my favourite music was initially encountered as a result of criticism, but with comics a lot of it has been me fumbling around in the library on my own.

DIVERSITY

This was probably the most interesting and important panel, but being less familiar with the issue, I have less to say about it. Alison Sampson did bring up the fear among some creators of causing offence, which can inhibit their creativity. Most of the panel disparaged the idea that only certain people should be allowed to write certain characters, although Ramzee (with reference to The Danish Girl specifically) insisted that creators should be knowledgeable about the cultures and issues they are representing. Was also interesting that Kieron Gillen ruled out certain stories as not his to tell, so there is some policing and self-policing going on. I think figuring out (or being aware of and highlighting) whether a work is cynical or exploitative is a valuable role for professional critics (of all mediums) to play, but I suspect many don't see this as part of their job description.

The problem isn't so much what gets portrayed, in my view, as who gets to do the portrayal. And the comics industry still has a lot of work to do here. I think this is a rather dry process issue about the way the industry works (although some speakers preferred to go bigger and allude to the evils of capitalism). A member of the audience did introduce the idea of 'the underground' as being useful in this respect, but both Ramzee and Hannah Chapman were quite dismissive of the opportunities created by the small press scene. The general impression I got was that the most exciting stuff was happening online (tumblr, kickstarter and so on), but there wasn't time to get started on the impact of these platforms. Suspect gatekeepers upping their game and trawling these online communities is relevant here as well.



...feels like a lot of the above can be summarised as 'comics criticism is important, go critics', so I guess I'll leave it there.