28.1.16

"We have to transform the field of social institutions into a vast experimental field, in such a way as to decide which taps need turning, which bolts need to be loosened here or there, to get the desired change; we certainly need to undertake a process of decentralisation, for example, to bring the decision-making centres and those who depend on them closer, thus avoiding the kind of grand totalising intergration that leaves people in complete ignorance of what is involved in this or that regulation. What we have to do then is to increase the experiments wherever possible in this particularly interesting and important area of social life, bearing in mind that a whole institutional complex, at present very fragile, will probably have to undergo a restructuring from top to bottom." - Michel Foucault, 'A Finite Security System Confronting an Infinite Demand', Interviews and other writings 1977-1984

27.1.16

The Assassin

Plot and character are almost incidental to this wuxia from Hsiao-Hsien. I wonder whether the story is a bit like the Chinese equivalent of King Arthur or Robin Hood – so familiar that slicing away the exposition will still leave a recognisable film intact. Very little is made easy for the Western viewer. There are hints of contemporary tensions between Taiwan and mainland China in the conflict between the Tang dynasty and the province of Weibo. Nie Yinniaang has to choose between her allegiance to the imperial court (who have trained her to be an assassin), and an underlying connection to the place where she grew up, her family, and a buried youthful romance.

But leaving all that sort of ill-informed speculation aside, much of The Assassin feels to me like an exercise in style. It's no exaggeration to say that the film is painterly when it comes to composition, sumptuous when it comes to set-design, and dazzling when it comes to cinematography. Often it's left to the sound (seemingly diagetic – in that it's not always clear where it's coming from) to subtly build and release tension. The martial arts choreography is almost embarrassingly absent. Instead, the film is all about people in space, observing each other and deciding where their loyalties lie.

21.1.16

"Actually, I think I have real difficulty in experiencing pleasure. I think that pleasure is a very difficult behaviour. It's not as simple as that [Laughter] to enjoy one's self. And I must say that's my dream. I would like and I hope I'll die of an overdose [Laughter] of pleasure of any kind. Because I think it's really difficult and I always have the feeling that I do not feel the pleasure, the complete total pleasure and, for me, it's related to death.

"...I think that the kind of pleasure I would consider as the real pleasure would be so deep, so intense, so overwhelming that I couldn't survive it. I would die. I'll give you a clearer and simpler example. Once I was struck by a car in the street. I was walking. And for maybe two seconds I had the impression that I was dying and it was really a very, very intense pleasure. The weather was wonderful. It was 7 o'clock during the summer. The sun was descending. The sky was very wonderful and blue and so on. It was, it still is now, one of my best memories. [Laughter]

"There is also the fact that some drugs are really important for me because they are the mediation to those incredibly intense joys that I am looking for and that I am not able to experience, to afford by myself. It's true that a glass of wine, of good wine, old and so on, may be enjoyable but it's not for me. A pleasure must be something incredibly intense." - Michel Foucault, 'The Minimalist Self', Interviews and other writings 1977-1984

16.1.16

Videodrome

Videodrome is ostensibly a comment on the fear that exposure to sexual or violent imagery can infect people's reality and influence their behaviour. Crudely, that horror films provoke murders, or that pornography encourages rape. The plot boils down to the protagonist watching a snuff film and becoming a schizophrenic, unable to tell reality from a hallucination. But the film doesn't stop there. It turns out that those hallucinations are 'directed' by two clandestine organisations at war with each other. One is a quasi-fascistic outfit worried that North America has lost its 'purity' and 'strength' and will be unable to withstand menacing foreign powers. They plan to broadcast the virus and exterminate those perverted enough to watch it. The other organisation is a cult fighting the fascists under the slogan of the 'new flesh'. Their ideology is less clear, but seems to involve an abandoning of the physical for total immersion in the artificial. Its prophet has died and made himself into a work of art, and something similar can be said to happen to the protagonist at the end – he is transfigured into the film we are watching.

Max is caught between these two forces, manipulated by each of them in turn. Both should be in the dock for treating human beings as puppets. The irony is that their mindless minion is a television executive, the sort of creature we imagine is there to manipulate us. In fact, Max is rakish but rather likable. He's just looking after his crappy station's bottom line, and is adorably weirded out by the S&M sexuality Debbie Harry reveals in him. I think Cronenberg is suggesting that we shouldn't worry so much about TV sex and violence, but we should be paying closer attention to the twin powers of politics and religion – particularly in their more extreme manifestations.

100%

Paul Pope worked in manga before pitching this miniseries to Vertigo, and the decision to focus on interpersonal relationships while keeping the science fiction setting in the background feels very Chobits. The plot was weaved together from several standalone shorts at the insistence of the publisher, so there is a little bit of Brian Wood's Demo in there as well, not least because the themes invariably come back to love and self-actualisation.

That second bit is important, even if unacknowledged in the author's postscript. Pope may have compromised with Vertigo on the structure of his story, but his character Kettlehead refuses to kowtow to the demands of his patrons to change his art. Several other characters are chasing, or abandoning, some life-project, whether it is opening a coffee roasting company or competing in a fighting tournament. The need for transcendence (in an existentialist sense) bubbles under much of 100%, undoubtedly because the rocky road to artistic fulfillment is a concern close to Pope's heart.

The title alludes to Kettlehead's art-project – tuning 100 kettles to whistle a single note and creating a sense of harmony from disparate objects. His patrons want him to tune his kettles to produce discord instead, as they think that's a more interesting artistic statement – but he sticks to his guns. There is a reflection here on the process of storytelling. Creating a mess is easy, but means little. Creating something that fits together, something harmonious, is harder, but ultimately more worthwhile. While the sexy sci-fi details are diverting, it's Pope's clever interlocking character-driven narrative that makes the book a keeper.

8.1.16

Jamón, Jamón (A Tale of Ham and Passion)

Reading the director's notes for the film, you get the sense of an anarchic sensibility trying to cram a heap of Spanish signifiers together, without seeing a need to string them into a pattern that can convey lucid meanings. Instead, it's all about images and associations. A wealthy, terrible mother who turns into a whore, and a poor whore who is the best mother in Spain. An absent drunk of a father who frightens his daughter away, and a rich, aloof one who steals her from her lovers at the end. Then there's the proud and spoiled son wanting to kill the meathead sex-machine who has seduced his fiancée, and ending up dead instead. I imagine Bigas Luna is happy to arrange these contrasts, and hang his hat on the irony created by them.

I think the surrealist touches and the pot-shots at materialism are better developed in Golden Balls. That film also benefits by having Javier Bardem firmly in the leading role – and with a more confident troupe of actors around him. In Jamón, Jamón Bardem is spared the full force of Luna's satirical instincts – the director is still a bit too enamoured of his hunky hero and the "dishy girl" he pursues.

Where the film excels is in the evocation of place – a poor rural part of Spain dominated by the highway and the trucks that blare across it. The soil is acrid, the jobs are horrible, the bars are cheap and the decor is tacky. Everywhere is overrun with animals, from Penélope Cruz's semi-domesticated pigs to the parrot with a filthy mouth in her mother's bar. The final pietà shot, held as the credits roll, has a herd of sheep coming past the frozen actors, as if to bring their tragedy down to earth. These are human beings with torrid and devastating passions, but they are not that far removed from the animals around them.

5.1.16

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Feel like the first line of the film must be a dig at Lucas – it's an awkward bit of dialogue in the context of the scene itself. No wonder he's a bit grumpy. Say what you like about the prequels, at least they were trying out something new. Episode VII just lifts the plot points and character arcs wholesale from Episode IV. You could almost call it a remake. Giving the fans what they want, but not what they need.

I'm one of those weirdos that rather likes the prequels, which may just be down to the fact that they came out when I was at prime Star Wars age (i.e. 10 to 15 years old). I still think the pile-up of lightsaber duel, laser shoot-out, pitched battle and space battle at the end of Episode I was an ambitious and well executed set-piece (even if the "I am Queen Amidala" stuff flew over my head). Plus don't forget podracing and Darth Maul. And Episode III had some cool church vs state, order vs liberty currents running through it. The problem wasn't that Lucas didn't have ideas, it was that he had no sense of character, making the love story in Episode II embarrassing to watch.

J.J. Abrams is a pastiche artist, but at least he can give his actors lines they can deliver without wincing. The Strong Female Character is becoming overused by male directors trying to do feminism (they need a personality as well, guys!). But Rey is still an improvement on the complete lack of prominent female Jedi thus far in the films. And the co-star is not only black but a renegade stormtrooper rebelling against fascist oppressors – although he is occasionally pushed into comedy sidekick mode.

Oscar Issac's reheated Han Solo and Adam Driver's one-man Darth Vader fanclub are also very watchable. And when Rey starts pushing into Kylo Ren's mind, and finally whups his ass at the end, it's difficult not to get a little bit excited. There's enough there for the new Star Wars to sink its claws into you for one more trilogy, but I'm hoping Rian Johnson can come up with something a little more novel for Episode VIII.