6.6.17

Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhall is literally unbelievable as the unscrupulous thief spouting entrepreneurial gobbledygook who gets involved in filming crime scenes for local news. It's an unlikely composite character, which suggests that it is a metaphor for something else: Los Angeles, Hollywood, America, capitalism in general.


Although sensationalism in the news is the film's most obvious target, the lasting impression is of Lou's ridiculous management-speak being used to threaten, coerce and exploit the people around him. They don't have the economic security to resist his obscene offers. Lou's language of aspiration and empowerment ring hollow, and add a rich undercurrent of dark comedy to the film's proceedings.

3.6.17

Margin Call

Turns out the good guys in this Wall Street drama – the risk analysts who spot the error that precipitates the financial crisis – are both engineers by training. They could have spent their lives building tangible things, but the money to be made in finance was too much to turn down.

J.C. Chandor portrays this twilight world of investment banking as a place of constant alienation and existential bewilderment. Employees lose their jobs at random. No one is certain of where they stand relative to anyone else. The sense of people's work and words is often unclear. In some respects it reminded me of the numb absurdity of an Antonioni film.


This is captured in a great shot-reverse-shot sequence with Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore towards the end of the film. Both are supposed to be looking at each other, and normally that would mean having one to the left of the frame looking right, and the other to the right of the frame looking left. Instead, one is framed to the right and looks right outside the frame, and the other to the left looking left. There are supposedly talking to each other, but actually a dialogue is never achieved. They are speaking to the empty space around them, unable to make a connection.

6.5.17

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie

An exercise in style, mostly. I haven't watched the series, but given that the characters are just collections of archetypes, it's very easy to catch up and get into the swing of things. The animation is brilliant – particularly in its use of distorted perspective and skewed framing. And the music choices are inspired – a selection of jazz and funk tracks that bring the science fiction setting down to earth, and highlight the debts owed to hard-boiled noir. The characters are all flamboyantly-dressed Tarantino-esque smart-mouths (although the film does tend to disrobe the women to telegraph their vulnerability).

Piecing together what the film is about is an unhappy task. There is something to its notion that being free from the fear of death is the source of true liberty. It also seems to be the source of the main character's exhilarating martial arts and piloting abilities. An almost Buddhist renunciation of worldly attachments is married to the rugged individualism of the wild west.


The villain is the victim of a corporate conspiracy, who wants to share the pain he has been put through by releasing a chemical weapon in the middle of a city parade (parallels with the Sarin attacks in Tokyo are left unexplored). As is typical in anime, the corporation does not get its comeuppance at the end (in contrast to the new Ghost in the Shell film, for example). Instead the only way out is suicide, of a sort. The filmmakers link this death drive to a sense of the numinous and transcendent, and end by asking the audience if they can tell what's real and what's make believe. The villain and hero are mirror images of each other, and the film may be warning the audience away from the alluring but nihilistic aesthetic they embody.

Ghost in the Shell

The LGNN discussion (which I contributed to at the margins) did a good job of exploring the whitewashing controversy. Perversely, it made me want to watch the film more, to get a sense of exactly how it dealt with the idea of Scarlett Johansson playing a Japanese woman. Turns out that you can excuse that decision in the same way that you might excuse the gratuitous nudity in the manga and anime – the Major is designed by a heartless corporation according to its (patriarchal, white supremacist) whims.

There's a strange auto-criticism in so blatantly placing a Japanese ghost in a white American shell, given that it is done at the behest of the villains of the film. The evil corporation kidnap Mokoto Kusanagi (a rebellious teen) and wipe her memories, and I find it impossible to tell whether this is a sly nod to how Dreamworks and the filmmakers have treated the original property. Not least because the CEO who is responsible for the nefarious plot is dispatched in fine style by none other than 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano, an acclaimed Japanese comedian, actor and film director in his own right. You could read it as the return of the repressed, or the revenge of the colonised on their imperial masters.


The film is at its least interesting when it indulges in shot-for-shot recreations of the anime (which I love). The rather generous Observer review is on point in so far as it identifies the sordid world as the main distinguishing feature of the remake. In the (unspecified) city of the future, giant holograms tower over buildings advertising brands both real and imaginary, adding their own sinister comment on the film's mercenary nature.

30.4.17

All About Eve

Gender and Christian myth are my go to lenses when interpreting film, and All About Eve is at the centre of that Venn diagram. It's not a feminist film at all, but then there's the scene where Margot (a feisty aging actress) admits that being a woman is just another performance. She can try to carve out a career for herself, but at the end of the day this is just a distraction, a way to spend the time until you find a suitable husband. Marriage is the only route to happiness available for women – any other kind of ambition is monstrous. Margot is valourised for accepting her fate, regardless of how independent-minded she may appear at first glance.

Because then there's Eve of course, who at first glance appears meek and is revealed to be anything but. The name cannot be an accident – she is an alluring object, a potential theatrical star. But she is also a tempter, and a serpent. It's interesting that despite her best efforts, the men in the film who are in relationships remain faithful to their partners. Eve's victims are women, not men. The film never allows her to have the upper hand.

Eve's intrigues spring from the same motive as Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost – observing what others have (love, grace, success) leads to resentment and ambition. It will end up in a desire to dominate that is far less benign than Margot's melodramatic inflexibility, which the film frames as feminine caprice and weakness. The filmmakers aren't brave enough to show Eve unbound. Instead, they transfer that end state onto a man: Addison DeWitt, a critic (of course).


DeWitt is a villain greater than Eve. He is omniscient – seeing through all Eve's secrets and using them to make her his slave. "You belong to me", he says, and slaps her when she doesn't comply. DeWitt also provides the initial voiceover at the start of the film. It starts off being a voice of God, before DeWitt introduces himself, and the film's one radical act is to associate his character's cold inhumanity with the deity of the Christian faith. DeWitt is a jealous God insisting on complete obedience from his servants.

I admit I missed the suggestion that Eve and DeWitt are gay, which adds a homophobic tenor to the film's defense of marriage. All About Eve has a gay following, but that is due to Bette Davis in the role of Margot – who has the largest presence, and the sharpest wit, in the film, and therefore displays a certain freedom before being forced to retire from the spotlight. The film ends with Eve's success, and the notion that the ambition that powered her ascent is something universal. And although there is something morbidly fascinating about Eve's duplicity, I wonder whether the film would be a classic without Bette Davis sparkling turn as Margot, who makes the character's retreat into domesticity into a tragedy.

27.4.17

The Handmaiden

The first two parts show two women being fashioned by the desires of two men. But neither of the men see into what the women truly want. Only at the very end does the con man realise what has happened – the relationship that has developed between the two women. He finally sees what they truly desire.

The irony being that that final vision (which the film ends on) is informed by the culture (those books) they have read. It flickers the first time we see it, but it's difficult to see the truth at first.

The film also exploits its cast for the enjoyment of the audience. We're not innocent either – we are the people listening to filthy stories in the library. But if our desires are to be warped by books (or films), at least we should understand what others truly want, rather than using them for our own ends.

23.4.17

The Gap between Panels / Standing on the Edge of an Alien Invasion

Latest column on the LGNN is a rather discursive one drawing parallels between two big manga hits – Knights of Sidonia and Attack on Titan. I also try to explain why I prefer the personal stuff in the former over the political and historical stuff in the latter – mostly because the former avoids the Battlestar Galactica problem of an unending series with compounding plot problems, and also because it's just more fun. Read it here.

12.4.17

"I know what I'm doing, trust me. 'Cause these man are taking major L's in front of their idols. Me and Drake are texting each other, bussing up. Checkmate. It's given me such an energy. At this point here, the only way back for me was through. I had to go through. I said it to my mum the other day. She said, 'Son, I'm getting tired of you making people famous and them disrespecting my family. Enough is enough now, Jamaal.' I said, 'Mum, I had to do this at fourteen, but you just weren't watching.' Now it's the internet time. There are histories of sets where I'm on my jacks and I have to swing. I'm wearing Nike and I have to go on the microphone and slew Nike. That's how it was. You have to go in, you have to step up and murk and that's the energy that I'm doing what I'm doing now. The only difference is I'm doing it to guys who probably wouldn't have made it to Fuck Radio. The reality of us being in the same building for a set is very unlikely. When I go to sets now, Skep will be there, the new yutes will be there and it's that environment again. These yutes actually might have their knives on them, but you have to normalise yourself and they have to see that you are reachable. If Yungen had to spit his 'One Take' in a room full of MCs not from his ends, he wouldn't get his whole bar out, I swear down. He wouldn't 'cause it's a completely different school these yutes are coming from. If you just have to let negative energy out of your body for me, that's fine, 'cause I'll lead and this time I'm not letting anyone run."

Chip speaking his own private language in Hattie Collins & Olivia Rose, This Is Grime

10.4.17

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring

It feels weird writing this, but I think Žižek may be onto something. Kim Ki-duk may have intended his film to be a straight depiction of Buddhist asceticism, but you get the sense that the austerity being portrayed is just as brutalizing as life in the secular world. The monk warns his ward that lust leads to possessiveness, jealousy and murder. But the tranquil world of the temple is shown to have its own strictures, that possess the minds of its inhabitants. There are doorways without walls, which the characters continue to respect and use – just as they cling to the traditions and morality they have grown up with.


The boy finds an cruel kind of pleasure in exercising his power over animals, only to turn that same will-to-power back on himself when he grows up – mortifying his body in order to cleanse his mind. Kim may be suggesting that the boy would have become a killer even if he wasn't a monk, and that religion has been a way to atone for his crimes. I wonder whether the socialisation available in the big bad world isn't a better way to curb violent tendencies.

5.4.17

12 favourite emo albums

Using the rather expansive definition and longlist put together  for this ILM poll, which was a great way of discovering things I'd previously never heard of. A lot of these are on the outskirts of what would be considered emo proper, and most of it reflects things I listened to maybe 10 years ago. Restricted the below to just one album per band, to make sure it isn't just a list of Death Cab records:

1. Johnny Foreigner - Waited Up 'til It was Light
2. Death Cab for Cutie - We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes
3. Fall Out Boy - Take This to Your Grave
4. The Hotelier - Home, Like Noplace Is There
5. The Dismemberment Plan - Emergency & I
6. The Anniversary - Designing a Nervous Breakdown
7. American Football - American Football
8. blink-182 - Enema of the State
9. Brand New - The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me
10. Motion City Soundtrack - Commit This to Memory
11. The Promise Ring - Nothing Feels Good
12. Sunny Day Real Estate - How It Feels to Be Something On

2.4.17

Exotica

One long striptease of a film, except what is being revealed isn't alluring at all. These clubs are wells of loneliness, and Exotica is about putting that pain and neurosis on display. The film begins with the command to observe people closely – this is a customs official at an airport instructing a newbie, but the lesson is actually for the audience. We are here to furret out what the characters we meet are hiding.

The task is complicated by the fact that all of them are friendless – some are dealing with loss, others have never been able to adjust to society. And so conversation is inevitably guarded and stilted. In the most explicit description of this unmoored kind of existence, a character talks about a constant state of tension between himself and others. He doesn't try to overcome it anymore. It's just something you get used to and live with.

The film loops in the owner of an exotic petshop who is somewhat peripheral to the slowly unfolding story, but serves to mirror and comment on the proprietors of the stripclub. Both establishments are inherited – the current owners never managing to step out of their parents' shadow. The dancers are associated with exotic animals put up for sale, and the film makes the point that they are for entertainment, not healing. Except the latter is what the characters really need.


Atom Egoyan seems to be interested in the ways people cope with trauma – particularly the idiosyncratic crutches they lean on to process it, even if to the outside observer the behaviour looks strange or deviant. The film seems to suggest that the protagonist doesn't go to the stripclub for a sexual thrill at all – although you can interpret this more unkindly if you so wish. The petshop owner has his own strange way to spend his evenings, and they are mostly for the purposes of hooking up. But the film is asking us to dig a little deeper, and try to accept the way people choose to deal with their problems, even if they seem unsatisfactory at first glance.

There are several layers of meaning in the line "it's a jungle out there" – which gets muttered as one of the characters is leaving the petshop. It underlines a feeling of detachment and alienation from others. But if we are to associate the shop with the nightclub, it also suggests that these places are havens where the hostility of the outside world is tamed. For those that find sex or relationships impossible, Exotica a sanctuary.

I think Egoyan presents all this rather uncritically – he might think that this is where the characters should end up. I'm not sure that's a good lesson to draw, however. The film presents a torturous path to overcoming trauma – one that comes very close to inflicting more hurt and death on people. There is also something about the main character (a white middle class guy) doling out cash to young women in order to work through his issues that feels a bit cringe. The power to weave the fantasy you need to keep going is granted to those who can pay for it, and we get very little insight into the history and desires of the women who provide these services – until the very last moments of the film, that is.

27.3.17

Train to Busan

Working title for which was probably 'Zombies on a Train'. Which may be enough to hang a film on, but this horror flick from Korea is worth a closer look for two reasons. Firstly, the tension is remarkably sustained throughout the running time. After about 20 minutes of set-up, the film is essentially a series of escalating scenarios that winnow down a train's worth of passengers to a handful of survivors. And while the in-world logic comes under some strain towards the end (an unexplained flaming locomotive appears randomly at one point to supercharge the mayhem), there's enough inventive use of the obstacles and opportunities of the setting to keep a thrill-seeker satisfied.


The second reason is that the film is actually about something more than zombies on a train. The protagonist is a fund manager who may share some responsibility for the outbreak. His marriage has failed, and he doesn't spend enough time with his daughter. When the zombies appear, he instructs her to look after number one, and not try to help others. He is contrasted on the one hand with a burly expectant dad who understands that fatherhood is about sacrifice, and on the other with a cowardly small businessman who gets increasingly comfortable with throwing others to the zombies in order to save his own skin. The film keeps coming back to this battle between self-interest and selflessness. At one point, it suggests that there may be a generational aspect to this divide – an older, more community-minded cohort who might still remember the Korean War, and a newer, more individualistic breed of Korean out to work hard, make money and leave others in the dust. It is heavily implied that the zombies are only the next step in that (d)evolution.

But if parenting is about sacrifice, the film places an awful lot of the burden on preserving a happy family on the men. All the female characters in the film are there to be put in peril and subsequently saved by the male characters – even the teenage girl, who doesn't have the excuse of being too young, too old, or pregnant, to fight. The women also don't really have arcs – they either already accept that survival requires selflessness, or are otherwise mindless paranoiacs whipped up into a frenzy by the villain. The only female character who makes a choice in the film chooses suicide in disgust at the moral compromises of her fellow passengers. She kills herself in order to kill others. Only the men kill themselves to preserve their families. Which makes me wonder how far the critique of absent fathers working long hours to support their kids goes.

At one point the burly expectant father boasts that he 'made' the baby growing inside his partner, erasing her role in the process. It's a cute moment, but the joke becomes less funny the more the film valorises his conduct.

18.3.17

Keyhole

My first foray into the works of Guy Maddin – this is a gangsters in a haunted house story loosely based on the Odyssey and preoccupied by the ways your parents mess you up. The Odysseus figure is an authoritarian crime lord who cannot recognise his son, and who is on a mission to gain forgiveness from his estranged wife. The surrealism is justified by the insinuation that all of the action is taking place in the dreams of the son, who is processing his feelings of estrangement from his family. In what is probably the most touching scene, the son demonstrates a machine he has invented which can pass messages to different rooms in the house. He is still a boy trying his hardest keep lines of communication open, and put his family back together. But of course, they're all ghosts in his head. The house is empty.



The film is shot through with streaks of absurdist humour – my favourite being the father's mistress who replies only in (unsubtitled) french. Otherwise, I found the jokes a little bit amateurish, but perhaps you need to be in a certain forgiving mood to enjoy them. More arresting are the slightly coy instances of sexual awakening in the film – not just the son's desire for a beautiful medium he falls in love with, but his fear of the sexuality of other members of his family (the mistress who steals his father away, his mother's father who is always naked and probably gay, and his sister). The film probably adds up to less than the sum of its parts, but there are moments and images that make it worth trying out.

15.3.17

The Love Witch

A film seven years in the making, with the director Anna Biller also taking charge of the writing, editing, set design, wardrobe and props. The care taken over the mise en scène is extraordinary – every bit as impressive as the creations of other detail-driven film-makers like Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton. Biller's world-building makes very few concessions to reality, up to and including the eye-popping Technicolour and stilted acting – a nod to films of the 50s and earlier. But is this visual feast meant to please, or unsettle?

I was getting mixed messages. On the one hand, Biller seems to want to provide female viewers with the enjoyment of watching their fantasies on screen – cute clothes, dashing men, driving red convertibles across California. On the other hand, the OTT girlishness is difficult to take seriously, or at face value. You're not supposed to buy into it in the way you do with Baz Luhrmann or Sex and the City. It's all a bit too fake, too clumsy.

That audience distancing is to the film's purpose, which is to comment on and undercut the world-view of the main character, who is basically a Lana Del Ray figure with a propensity to murder. Elaine is a witch who uses spells to make men fall obsessively in love with her – although the rituals are only the half of it. Most of her allure is down to her willingness to transform herself into a compliant and available male fantasy.



Biller has done her research on assorted pagan and wicca subcultures, but her portrayal of this religion is not flattering. The coven in the film is led by a man, who is basically a creep. He delivers a long lecture on the power of female sexuality to two young girls, who end up dancing provocatively for the enjoyment of old men in a burlesque club. He also gropes Elaine, and there are hints that he used his status as the head of a cult to sexually harass or even rape her in the past. It's therefore difficult to take his advocacy of female empowerment seriously. Biller elsewhere has made the argument that the sexual revolution of the 1960s was incomplete – women may be freer to express their sexuality, but the form and purpose of that expression is still shaped by men. 

Elaine's preoccupation with having men adore her is insatiable. There is an emptiness at her core which requires the constant approval and love of other people. As well as the possible rape by the creepy warlock, Biller reveals that Elaine was (at least verbally) abused by her father. Throughout her life, she has faced demands to be desirable, and seems to have been punished when she is not. Her 'sex magic' is a way to reassert herself using the only thing she has been told she has of value. There is no glory or satisfaction in it. Biller's femme fatale is just an object that stabs back.

5.3.17

Funeral Parade of Roses

Although Toshio Matsumoto acknowledges that an interest in the Oedipus story is what gives this film its shape, he also says the primary motivation for making it was to document Tokyo's emerging gay subculture. And so the plot is constantly interspersed with documentary – including interviews with the actors about the motivation of their characters. Those interviews are sometimes rather uncomfortable to watch – calling to mind Foucault's idea that the demand to disclose your feelings is in its own way oppressive. The questions are often accusatory (what about getting married? don't you like women as well?) and the subjects answer or evade them with as much dignity as they can muster.

It's often quite a fun film – Matsumoto is keen to exploit every cinematic trick he can think of, so there's slapstick routines (mostly absurd catfights), wild psychedelic parties, free love, drugs and (rather violent) student politics. The film employs a cut-up technique, short scenes scrambled together, and sometimes revisited. The effect is to present a kaleidoscope of gay life, building up a sense of a particular place and culture, rather than sticking to a certain character or narrative.



That said, the director's use of the Oedipus story provides a (rather artificial) backbone to the film. By having to follow in Oedipus's footsteps, the protagonist is given a dark past and a doomed future – which casts a pall over the fun and games. The film seems to suggest that these characters are running away from broken families, and are all destined for early deaths. Matsumoto is too fascinated by the counterculture he is filming to condemn it, but the logic of the story he is telling means the film cannot be celebratory either.

Why Oedipus is so interesting to Matsumoto is unclear. Perhaps the transgressive nature of the tragedy serves to underscore the transgressiveness of queer sexuality, particularly in the 1960s, and particularly in Japan. To transgress means to offend propriety, and live with the shame of not being able to conform. The film ends with the protagonist being stared at by a circle of random people on the street, the outrage of the incest melding with the outrage of a nonconformist lifestyle. There's no way around that sort of Greek tragedy, even if one hopes that the subculture the film explores continues to grow and thrive.

4.3.17

Ice

A post-apocalyptic anime film with a premise similar to Children of Men, but with a curious gender twist – only male babies stop being born. In the all-female society that emerges in the ruins of Tokyo, masculinity is associated with militarism and the hubris of science – the two forces that led to the unspecified natural disaster or war that has transformed the planet. Soldiers demure from using handguns, which are perceived as dangerously 'male' weapons.

On the one hand, charges of essentialism are avoided by having a villain tempted by the same 'masculine' forces her society abhors – Julia wants to use abandoned technology to remake the world again. On the other hand, both Juila and the hero Hitomi are presented as very masculine women – in terms of wardrobe, hairstyles and voice. Hitomi is much like other brooding, self-sufficient, celibate male protagonists in anime, and Julia is much like other decadent and depraved male antagonists. The 'female' female characters in the film are invariably of lower rank, less skilled, and have fewer opportunities to display any kind of agency.



The film's environmental message is rather heavy-handed. A memorable instance of body horror is used to disparage the idea of genetic engineering. There is also the rather strange conceit of Hitomi being haunted by the spirit of a girl from 'our' pre-apocalyptic world, who wakes up at the end convinced to change her polluting ways.

It is a rather weird concoction – as with a lot of anime, the plot zips along and compresses a huge amount of information at the start. The overload means you spend much of the film befuddled and unsure of why things are happening. But as a vehicle for extravagant, surreal images of the future, it's rather effective. There are some quite beautiful visual sequences in the film, not least the strange scene of birds transforming into plants and trees. At points you get that sense of future shock from seeing a completely alien civilisation comparable to something like Frank Herbert's Dune. That makes it worth seeing, despite the questionable gender politics.

11.2.17

Chunking Express

This feels like a minor film compared to In The Mood For Love or Ashes of Time. It's set in the present day, and while Wong Kar-Wai is still obsessed by the lovelorn stoicism of his characters, at least here he gives one budding couple an escape.

It's still a bit of a mess though, and I'm not just talking about the long exposure effect Kar-Wai likes to use for his chase scenes. The film is actually two separate films clumsily jammed together, with a takeaway outlet in Hong Kong's Chungking Mansions serving as the bridge between them. Both don't really have enough to them. They are like short stories – vignettes designed to introduce you to a shared setting. And the first is particularly ludicrous, involving a drug dealer gunning down a bunch of double-crossing Indian migrants.



All the characters in Chunking Express feel one-dimensional, defined by quirks like a fixation on tinned pineapples or the song 'California Dreamin' by The Mamas & the Papas. These serve as obvious symbols for loneliness or wanderlust, and they create recurring patterns which fail to build to anything beyond the sum of the parts.

The plot is as contrived as anything else by Wong Kar-Wai – every one of his films I've seen tries to stretch out the possibility of a connection between lovers past endurance. Depending on your tastes, this might be a good thing or a bad thing. I find it unappealingly manipulative when the achingly cool characters involved are so completely devoid of personality.

5.2.17

Trans-Europ-Express

One of the reasons I loved Alain Robbe-Grillet's Successive Slidings of Pleasure was that beneath the weird random imagery it had a sly sense of humor. That delight in the absurd shines through a lot clearer in Trans-Europ-Express – which is essentially a parody of Hitchcockian thrillers. There are several sketches and exchanges which are really quite funny – often almost childishly so.

The film could have done with a bit more of that, and a bit less of the protagonist wandering around the city or the train or pacing his room. But you can't blame Robbe-Grillet for wanting to film great images of Antwerp's Grand Central Station or the city's docks. Nor can you stop him from inserting three scenes exploring the protagonist's deviant sexuality. While noir usually keeps heroes chaste and reserves perversity for villains – here the hero is entrapped and destroyed by lust. Detective stories are usually rather formulaic affairs, but here the plot gets chewed up and mangled by the presence of desire.



While it's enjoyable to watch Robbe-Grillet improvise a film off the cuff and be constantly undercut by the script girl (played by his wife), the film within a film conceit feels less fresh than it perhaps would have done in the 1960s. The overt reminders that you are watching something made up doesn't feel that radical any more. Successive Slidings of Pleasure basically uses the same effect without calling attention to it, and that subtlety makes it a more surprising and provoking film.

2.2.17

The Gap Between Panels / Finding a role

Latest column on the London Graphic Novel Network spoils the shit out of Fumio Obata's Just So Happens – whose main character shares some uncanny similarities with my partner (even down to the name). The book is a critique of ossified Japanese social norms, but it also recognises that it's impossible to completely step outside of society and define yourself without reference to other people's expectations of what you should be. Title of the piece an oblique reference to Dean Acheson's famous quote about Britain, and this book I haven't read. Read it here.

25.1.17

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

This is laughably late. Back in November last year there was another S.M.A.S.H. event at the Barbican, a three-hour, three-panel discussion on comics, with excellent guests and topics. I wrote up some notes for the one in March, so I thought I'd do the same for November. I've only just now got my act together and managed to complete them. This is all unedited jottings, with lots of potential confusions and contradictions. But S.M.A.S.H. does work by filling your head up with ideas, and the below is hopefully an accurate reflection of that. The event was recorded, and I've added the links to the audio below.

GENRE

My main memory of this is Simon Spurrier's discomfort with having comics reduced to one or two word explanations, and therefore his ambivalence about genre. He described genre as a list of ingredients rather than a recipe, in that most stories combine ingredients from many different genres into one unique mix.

I'm not sure that's the best way to think about genre, however. Another panelist mentioned that genres set up expectations. And expectations are about what happens next, i.e. they are a combination of elements rather than a disparate selection of elements. I think genres are recipes, in that they have rules you should follow. Creators use the expectations inherent in them to achieve their effects. Some comics are straightforward genre exercises. The ones I tend to be interested in are those that break the rules in interesting ways. But you have to know the rules in order to break them.

And actually, I think there may be a bias towards genre in comics, because contrary to what you might think, the form is actually less liberating than prose. Visual storytelling is more immediate, but it's harder to use images to convey complex information. I speak from (limited) experience – whenever I create an infographic at work, I find I'm always simplifying what has been written in prose. It's pretty clear to me that you can convey more raw information in a page of a novel than you can do with a page of comics.

Comics therefore inherently have to compress information. And genre is often a good way to do so. The audience already know the rules, and can lean on a set of expectations when being introduced to a story. A creator can therefore leave a lot of the background world-building to one side, in order to have time to get the narrative going. Given that most comics are periodical, I wonder whether there is something structural about the use of genre – creators tending to lean on genre at the beginning before spinning away from it. I think The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S might be a good example of this.

The panel went on to discuss the creation of genre classifications – and I started thinking about who gets to do this, and the fact that genres in comics tend to be quite fixed. This is in sharp contrast to genres in music, where terms are coined far more rapidly, particularly within a genre (think of all the subdivisions of metal or dance music, for example). If you had left that to labels and shops, you'd be stuck with the overarching definitions – functional labels to guide the consumer to what they want to hear.

The multiplication of genres in music is mostly the work of fans and critics, who often compete to be the first to define a new genre (see for example the various terms floating around before chillwave and grime were consolidated into genres). It feels like that multiplicity of genres is what some on the panel were hoping for. But you can only generate that kind of discourse when a fan or critical community achieves a certain size, and comics are (for good or ill) still a minority interest.

And that might not be a bad thing. A lot of shops and libraries classify genres by publisher (thankfully separating the Vertigo stuff from the DC stuff). That essentially segregates everything that isn't a superhero comic in one place, and within those shelves of Vertigo / Image / Dark Horse / Avatar comics all kinds of genres jostle together, awaiting the open-minded browser. That's not a bad state of affairs to be in, and it's not too far removed from the ideal comic book shop the panellists started to fantasise about at the end of the discussion.

FUTURE

The most difficult topic to say anything about, and the discussion ended up looking at the position of comics within culture, whether it will grow or remain a 'black sheep'. I think most in attendance were attached to the idea of comics as an insurgent, underground or inherently anarchic medium. But actually that contradicts the adage that you can and should do everything with comics – including drab narratives about middle class people having affairs. Also, given the incredible complexity involved with breaking a story into panels and 22 pages, you could argue that comics need a good deal of discipline to make properly. I for one would be curious about what would happen if comics became a mass market phenomenon, like they are in Japan. I suspect the amount of dross would grow exponentially – but you will also get more experimentation rather than less (the number of strange manga niches is quite something).

There were worries also about piracy, and how creators can be compensated for their labour. That's a question that applies to all creative endeavours, and although I love the idea (put forth by Rob Davis) of libraries as the solution, I suspect something like a Spotify for comics may be the best outcome for everyone (streaming services may be on the cusp of reversing the massive loss of revenue music labels have seen over the last 20 years). That said, eReaders need to figure out a way to display images in colour before I start going digital.

Another tidbit was the recognition that the production of comics is extremely inefficient relative to their consumption – Rob Davis was particularly rueful about spending months making a book that takes a couple of hours to get through.

TASTE

The panellists dived into the knotty problem of how you can compare tastes if taste is subjective and a product of your subjectivity. Are all tastes as good as each other, or are some better than others? If everyone is equal, what's the point of comparing opinions? I remember Mazin tried to resolve this by suggesting readings of the formal qualities of a work can be compared (and ranked). But once you stop talking about the work as a work, and start talking about how it resonates with your own experience, you've stopped talking about the work itself.

That's a recipe for rather dry critique, I suspect. And while some creators are interested in craft exercises, that's not the starting point for everyone – most are trying to communicate something as well. Criticism for me is a bit like a conversation where you try the best you can to understand what the creator is saying first, and then reflect on the resonances that has to your own experience. Interpretations of what an author meant to do with a work can also therefore be ranked. Whether your tastes align with those of the author you are reading may help you gain insight into what they are trying to say, but it's not essential. The versatility or range of a critic's tastes may determine whether they are specialists or generalists.

But this is taking us away from what for me is the more interesting issue around taste, which is how it's basically a proxy for your identity. And as such is often public and demonstrative. Dave McKean mentioned top 10 lists – which is a good example of this. Creating a list of your favourite comics artists is a statement about who are (or want to be) as a person. It is bundled up with all kinds of claims about the things you think are important.

Thinking about taste in terms of identity helps to answer the question of why people find it difficult to change their minds on things. If your taste defines who you are, it's difficult to renounce favourite works, even if you don't turn back to them now, or even think they are that good any more. Julia Scheele was quite eloquent on this when describing the discomfort of starting to have misgivings about Transmetropolitan, given how big an impact the book had on her in the past.

Taste as identity also sheds light on the dynamics of group-creation, and how groups tend to consolidate in opposition to other groups. You like something partly because those people over there don't like it. And that makes bridging the taste divide quite difficult. This works in comics all the time – 2000AD fans can be pretty disdainful of any comic that gets reviewed in the Guardian, for example. The danger is that your taste becomes ossified by refusing to countenance the stuff that doesn't fit within it, not least because sticking within the narrow bounds of what you know can burn you out. I've been feeling this way with anglophone comics as a whole for a while now, to be honest. The best tonic for that is to dive into alternative views and new experiences, as Dave McKean suggested. But that means being less tribal – and if taste is wrapped up with your identity, that's always going to be a tough thing to do.

22.1.17

"There is no authentic human essence to be realised, no harmonious unity to be returned to, no unalienated humanity obscured by false mediations, no organic wholeness to be achieved. Alienation is a mode of enablement, and humanity is an incomplete vector of transformation. What we are and what we can become are open-ended projects to be constructed in the course of time [...] This is a project of self-realisation, but one without a pre-established endpoint. It is only through undergoing the process of revision and construction that humanity can come to know itself." - Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work

21.1.17

The Third Man

I saw this at the Prince Charles Cinema just now and it really does deserve to be seen on a big screen. Not only for the fantastic (in every sense of the word) location shots of Vienna in ruins, but also for the ornate set designs, and to feel the full impact of those Dutch angles. The film is a visual treat, but it's also fast paced and carefully written. Graham Greene makes the protagonist an American writer of pulp fiction, who is under no illusions about the extent of his talents. At one point he gets asked about his opinion of James Joyce and stream-of-consciousness, to which he cannot offer a meaningful reply. Some of that may be Greene reflecting on his own inadequacies as a writer. But he tries to redeem his hero nonetheless. His pulp fiction is all about brave men setting an example – something very difficult to do in the moral cesspit Vienna has become. The choice the protagonist has to make is between sticking up for his friend, or ensuring that he faces justice for his crimes. Both are honourable choices, and while he chooses the latter, the femme fatale he falls in love with chooses the former.



Why she remains loyal to Orson Welles's Harry Lime is difficult to answer. Welles gives little indication that his character is capable of love. He is the mercurial nihilist willing to put a price on poisoning children. But Anna is capable of loving such a monster. Perhaps she is simply hoodwinked, and wishes to preserve the false happy memories of her affair. The shattering of her illusions might explain the final scene, in which she ignores any further romantic entanglements and walks out of the film. She describes Harry Lime as a child caught up in a grown up world. That better describes the protagonist – who clings to boyish ideals of male heroism. Welles on the other hand has already learned to swim with the sharks.

16.1.17

You Can Count On Me

The BFI is showing all of Kenneth Lonergan's films at the moment, and given that Margaret is is an all time favourite of mine, I invited my mum along to see his debut feature. You Can Count On Me also focuses on a single mother (superbly played by Laura Linney), but the wayward child here is her younger brother – an awkward and volatile Mark Ruffalo. The siblings are orphaned at a young age, and each reacts in contrasting ways to their bereavement. Linney stays in her parents' house and tries to build a stable environment for her son. Ruffalo gets out as soon as he can, and ends up drifting around the United States.

The film is a compilation of scenes prodding at this dynamic. Like Margaret, you get the sense that a lot more material was shot, with the strongest sequences edited together. Sometimes the seams show through – occasionally you can tell that a scene has had bits sliced out of it. But that extra bit of shooting probably allowed the actors to spend more time inhabiting their characters – and we get to see several sides of them. Ruffalo has to become more responsible when living with his sister. And Linney reveals that she's more reckess than she at first appears.



The one big discordant note for me was when Lonergan appears in his own film as the village priest giving counsel to both Lilley and Ruffalo. The wise religious figure is a cliche anyway, and casting yourself as the authoritative font of wisdom feels a tad adolescent. The message itself is interesting however – and echoes some of the current debates around 'post-liberalism' in the UK. Ruffalo's rejection of religion is part of a general abjuration of the parochial community he grew up in. But leaving behind your roots makes you rootless – unable to navigate through relationships or jobs. The only reason Ruffalo survives is because he is anchored by his sister. He knows that wherever he he ends up, he can rely on her to be where she's always been.

In fact, this is Lilley's film to carry. Lonergan (as the dog-collared chief interpreter of his own film) is there to coax out Lilley's confession that the relationships with the men in her life are based on pity. She goes out of her way because she feels sorry for them. It's a revelatory admission. Lilley is more together than her brother, lover or boss. She wants to be able to count on them, but they all end up counting on her.

7.1.17

Favourite songs of 2016

As usual it's Kieron Gillen rules – one song per artist, with the rest of the body of work pushing things up the list. This saves me from doing a separate albums rundown, although interestingly this year most of the songs below have an album behind them. I'm not on trend – for a couple of years now it has been assumed that YouTube and Spotify (as well as a general pop culture shift away from rock music) will kill off the album. Perhaps that's still to come, but for now it looks like artists are still finding value in presenting their music in 30 to 50 minute suites – they still want to control the context in which an individual song is experienced. As someone to prefers to look at the intentions of creators rather than the way a work travels through the culture when it's released, this is welcome. I'm still suspicious of algorithms and playlists ordering music for me. It's better to trust the producers.

20. Martha - 11:45, Legless in Brandon

This just in, because I only heard of these guys a week ago. A pop-punk four piece from Durham – a bit like Los Campesinos! without the anguish, or blink-182 if they grew up with a sense of British irony. And like the latter in their prime, mostly singing about teenage love, which is more like a mixture of lust and idolatry. 'Legless in Brandon' is my current favourite from their album, because the hook is timeless: 'you’re good for my mind, but not my productivity'.

19. Kero Kero Bonito - Trampoline

Another future classic from these guys. This one a confidence boost, the trampoline as a metaphor for picking yourself up when you're down, and being able to jump higher next time. As with the best KKB, the seemingly silly and trivial becomes a manifesto for better living.

18. Kamaiyah - I'm On (prod. Drew Banga)

Another pick me up. Kamaiyah says her mother was absent and her father did drugs, and money was a constant source of stress growing up. Living debt free ('I don't have to finance') is therefore a source of celebration. And that celebration is inclusive – witness all those people singing along to Kamaiyah's performance in the video. And it's warm and inviting, thanks to the gentle swing of Drew Banga's production.

17. Britney Spears - Private Show (prod. Tramaine "Young Fyre" Winfrey)

One of the best things about Glory is the way Spears experiments with her voice throughout the album, nowhere more so than this song, which understandably proved divisive (a friend of mine thought it was 'horrid'). I think it's great, and betrays a sense of confidence and optimism after what has been a rough ride of a career. The gaucheness of her delivery in the pre-chorus ('wrrkit, wrrkit, boy watch me wrrkit') feels like a cheeky wink at the listener – daring them to accept the song in the way Spears wants to sing it.

16. Dinosaur Jr. - Goin Down

I'm just glad these guys are still around, 30 or so years after You're Living All Over Me, which many regard as their crowning achievement. 'Going Down' kicks off their new album with a monster riff and a blistering guitar solo, the heavy metal theatrics softened by J Mascis's unassuming, slightly flat vocal. It's a variation on the same formula, but that's OK by me. Long may they continue.

15. Katy B - Honey (prod. Kaytranada)

Katy B's latest album is a mixed bag, and doesn't quite work as a showcase for Rinse in the way On A Mission did. The most successful song is rightly put at the top. 'Honey' plays to Katy B's strengths – describing in microscopic detail the moment when a connection between lovers or dancers is made. The charged atmosphere finally erupts with Katy B's vocal overdubs in the final chorus. Slightly over the top, yes, but Kaytranada's hypnotically steady beat needs some kind of release. In that sense, it's a perfect evocation of female desire.

14. Junior Boys - Baby Give Up On It

Junior Boys's latest album works on similar principles to the Katy B song above – utilising the regular rhythms of house and techno to explore the workings of desire. Big Black Coat feels slightly older, and perhaps a bit sadder – Jeremy Greenspan describes how he took inspiration from lonely-looking guys walking around his town, who he imagined were frustrated by life and women. This track's lyrics reflect those concerns ('I don't want you anymore'), but sonically it still sounds like a come on. The ambiguity of a phrase like 'give up on it' encapsulates that tension perfectly. Whether the cut up vocals at the end signal a release from a fragmenting relationship, or its renewal, is impossible to work out.

13. Jammz - Just Eat (prod. Anz)

Jammz is usually all about serious issues, which is why having him sit back and tell a funny story is a good look for him. For sure, we still end up with a tirade, because Jammz is Jammz and his flow always conveys a sense of escalating stress-levels. That bottled up frustration is pure grime, but so is a sense of the quotidian and absurd (cf. D Double E in a cab below).

12. Levelz - Rowdy Badd

Much of the beginning of my 2016 was spent with the debut mixtape from Manchester rap and production supergroup Levelz, which served as a useful corrective to Mayoral hopeful Andy Burnham's laments about the state of the city's music scene.

11. Dej Loaf - Bitch Please (prod. DDS)

Imperial nonchalance on top of another sparkling production from DDS – so great Dej doesn't even bother with a chorus. She says she doesn't eat pie but wants you to bake it anyway. I'm not arguing.

10. Jeremih feat. Stefflon Don, Krept & Konan - London (prod. Soundz)

Obvious biases apply, but this is the best track on Jeremih's Late Nights Europe mixtape, mostly because you can actually dance to it. It's London by way of Jamaican dancehall, with a stellar performance from up and comer Stefflon Don.

9. The Hotelier - Piano Player

I found this year's followup to NoPlace a bit underwhelming, but given that NoPlace might be the best emo album since Cork Tree, perhaps that shouldn't be surprising. Goodness leaves behind the disintegration and despair, and reveals the band to be hippies at heart. 'Piano Player' employs a little bit more studio trickery, Holden sounds a little bit more like Michael Stipe, and the chorus drives through the imperative to 'sustain' by repeating the word over and over. And all of that propelled by an urgent drumbeat bashing all the way through the song's five and a half minutes.

8. Trim - Up to Speed (prod. Asa & Sorrow)

Asa & Sorrow's muscular production spurs Trim to get back on the warpath. This is high definition grime, with weighty bass squelches and horror film strings, and it adds authority to Trim's boasts of drowning out the competition. There is a nod to the insecurity that has permeated his work of late ('no matter how irrelevant I might have been'), but 'Up to Speed' is a needed reminder that Trim is at his strongest when fighting from a position of weakness.

7. Radwimps - Zenzenzense

This is another recent discovery, and a new departure for me, given that I listen to almost no music in a language other than English. Radwimps are a phenomenon in Japan, and this is taken from their excellent soundtrack to Your Name (my favourite film of 2016). The song is used to convey a sense of youthful, almost vertiginous, exuberance – where sensations and emotions pile up faster than your ability to process them.

6. Chance the Rapper feat. Saba - Angels (prod. Lido & The Social Experiment)

Chance sometimes feels like a latter day William Blake, chatting to angels in his back garden, sometimes like Walt Whitman, expounding on his own supreme excellence. No wonder the video for 'Angels' casts him as a superhero flying over the skies of Chicago, charged up with God's grace. With Saba's timpani backed pre-chorus leading into Chance's horn-fuelled chorus, the feeling of elevation is palpable.

5. Dawn Richard - Lazarus (prod. Machinedrum)

I'm still digesting Richard's final installment of her 'heart' trilogy of albums, which are as technically impressive and emotionally involving as anything put together by Radiohead. Redemption suggests a happy ending after the epic warfare of Goldenheart and the angst of Blackheart. 'Lazarus' suggests it, anyway, playing with images of ascension and appropriating traditionally male metaphors of the wolf's hunger and the king's ego. Every album review has picked up on this song's line: 'I didn't change, I became'. It's a highlight, in other words. And it might be what settling into your identity sounds like.

4. Ariana Grande - Into You (prod. Max Martin)

Dangerous Woman is a return to form after Grande's muddled sophomore effort, and it's biggest single is its most immediate entry-point. Max Martin can probably churn these out in his sleep by now, but the scale of this production's chorus is well matched by Grande's powerful voice. It's a deserved hit, and hearing it played on the radio and in shops around London goes to show that good pop can still find an audience.

3. Capo Lee feat. D Double E - Mud (JD. Reid Remix)

It's been Sir Spyro's year as far as grime's concerned. My 2015 favourite 'Topper Top' finally got a release, and his productions for Ghetts, Stormzy and P Money have all become anthems. This one for newcomer Capo Lee is my favourite, however, utilising the traditional grime technique of rhyming each bar with the same word and inflecting it with different meanings. Unfortunately for Spyro, I've fallen a little bit harder for JD. Reid's remix, which gives the ominous original a shiny makeover, and proves a better fit for D Double's cartoony rant at his cabdriver in the second verse.

2. Beyoncé feat. Jack White - Don't Hurt Yourself (prod. Derek Dixie)

I found the happily-married Beyoncé of the self-titled album strangely uninvolving. Tellingly, the most interesting song on that album for me was 'Jealous', which was the one that hinted at the double-standards and double-shift that still structures many marriages. So when Lemonade took that song and made an entire album out of it, I got right on board. Unlike 'Jealous', 'Don't Hurt Yourself' no longer redirects the rage at marital injustice inwards – it lashes out at the source: 'tonight I'm fucking up all your shit, boyyy'. That line, with the full force of Beyoncé's voice behind it, sends a shiver down the spine.

1. Johnny Foreigner - The Worst of Us

I liked the last album, but did wonder if the band were doubling down on a successful formula rather than trying to move beyond it. Turns out I needn't have worried. Mono No Aware is more adventurous with its song structures – melting together JF's pop punk influences into new forms. 'The Worst of Us' is a jagged thing, speeding up and juddering to a halt when you least expect it. It sounds like running down a series of dead ends – which is exactly what the song is about. The band sing about being trapped in grey cities, 'proxy the beach' and the sense of possibility that entails. Settling down like your parents means the world closing in around you, all escape routes shut off. But perhaps that's inevitable – 'I'm convinced I need you to stabalise'. Adventure entails risk – dropping out of your life is hard. 'The Worst of Us' is about finding that point of stability from which you can go and find those 'white mountains and silver seas'. I got married this year, and all of that rings very true. And it goes to show that JF are also a band to grow old with.