27.1.15

Sawdust and Tinsel

The film starts with a near-silent precis of the plot and themes - cuckoldry and the exhaustion of life on the road. But the characters are more interesting than that. Albert is a immature free spirit, whose wife prefers the comfort and stability (and income) of running a tobacconist. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, she denies her husband the right to come back into her life. She will not compromise her freedom.

Albert is a child. The final scene comes back to the cuckolded clown and introduces the idea of going back to the womb - finding some security with whoever you can, even if they have betrayed you. Albert's voluptuous mistress is enticed away by a fashionable actor, who tricks and rapes her. She is an innocent as well, but Albert mistreats her almost as badly. At the end of the film she has nowhere left to go but back to him.

Bergman has a lot of sympathy for the circus performers and spends some time on the snooty and condescending treatment they receive from the theatre troupe. Interestingly, Bergman started out in the theatre, so I wonder whether he identifies the film-making process to be similar to the circus - cruder, less well-respected, a haven for fools and innocents - and a more noble persuit as a result.

25.1.15

The Eclipse (L'Eclisse)

Antonioni may be inspired by Camus, but the beginning of this film feels more like Beckett. There is a sense of entropy and the absurd in the couple's dialogue and actions that is straight out of Beckett's Endgame.

This is the most accessible part of the trilogy partly due to the straight-talking Alain Delon. A modern man unlike the void that makes Monica Vitti so batty.

Antonioni is rightly considered to be an original stylist rather than an original thinker. The film connects the crisis at the Bourse with the crises of young lovers. But did Italy's boom and the commercialised society it created transform values to the extent where people become alien beings unable to relate to each other? Antonioni posits that our sociability has been eroded, and the only gravitational force still active between human bodies is lust. The end of the film presents harbingers of apocalypse - war and nuclear holocaust. Prophesies that have yet to be fulfilled.

But it's the visual and narrative innovation that has been lauded the most. The title Eclipse suggests spinning bodies only occasionally forming a relationship with each other, and then only from the perspective of a third body - the watching audience. I'd be lying if I said I noticed it, but apparently the film is shot so that compositions at the beginning and end aim to create heavy contrasts between black and white, while the middle is brighter. The final transition seems to nod to this - a dark street cuts to a bright streetlight saturating the screen.

But the more effective effect (bleh) is the the one the film is famous for. We see two lovers arranging to meet. Then we see the familiar street corner - the scene of their appointment. We get shots of the surrounding buildings and people moving through the location. But the actors we have become familiar with are nowhere to be seen, and yet we keep looking for them to turn up. That upending of expectations at the audience's expense feels cruel (Antonioni shines a light in our faces instead), if it wasn't for the air of detachment permeating the entire film. Antonioni shoots people as if he were an extraterrestrial tourist wandering around in 1960s Italy, and that's why his films are worth watching. 

24.1.15

A Most Violent Year

Like a lot of gangster films, this one is really about the American Dream and the myth of the self-made man. Morales wants to grow his business in the "right" way, and finds that working hard and playing by the rules can only get you so far. Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.

Morales is an archetypal American hero, completely self-possessed, fighting fit, a breadwinner. His wife is smart, sexy and an excellent mother to his three girls. Under enormous pressure, they steer their family into the clear. The film sets up a contrast between this power couple and one of Morales's drivers which leads to a confrontation at the very end. The example Morales sets proves to be an impossible standard for his employee. The two men's different fates may be a way of undercutting and critiquing the ideal the film presents.

Perhaps significant that Morales's business concerns fuel, or oil. One of the most memorable shots in the film is Morales stepping over a dead body to plug a leak in a blood-splattered container of the precious fluid. An image that may nod to American compromises abroad (something the recent death of the Saudi king has highlighed).

10.1.15

"Conventional empires, such as the first Roman Empire, the British Empire, or the current American Empire, typically come into existence when the imperial centre develops such a surplus of demographic and/or economic and/or technological resources that it is in a position to bring large tracts of territory into line either by conquest ('formal empire') or by intimidatory regimes of stick and carrot ('informal empire'). These kinds of empire will generally last only as long as the advantage in resources is maintained, plus maybe a couple extra generations thanks to force of habit, before its disappearance is recognised, and they are overturned. It was precisely because a new equality in levels of development across the European landscape had made the old Roman-type empire impossible by the end of the first millennium, that the new Papal Roman Empire came into existence, and the kinds of advantage that create more normal empires usually are time-limited, not least because the act of imperial projection tends anyway to erode them. This was certainly the case with Europe in the first millennium, and is arguably the case now, where America and the West have encouraged massive economic expansion in Asia for their own purposes, but created in the process what is likely to become the next world superpower."

...

"Limited as it certainly was in political and military terms, the papacy certainly created an empire nonetheless, and in some important ways a much more powerful and oppressive one than the first Romans had ever managed. The projection of their imperial values never got past the landowning elites, where their papal successors targeted the entirety of the population" - Peter Heather, The Restoration of Rome

3.1.15

Favourite Songs of 2014 (Part 2)

I was deprived of an MP3 player for a good chunk of this year, which meant that streaming was my primary mode of listening to music in 2014. I know it's what all the young people do nowadays, but for me it was a pretty new way of getting my fix (and may explain why I've listened to fewer albums this year). Soundcloud was my platform of choice, and many of the songs in the list, plus some other ones, are on this soundcloud playlist.

I remember Small Black as a moderately good landfill chillwave band from a few years ago. This bears the hallmarks of the (reverbed 80s) sound, except it's a proper verse-chorus-verse song. Part of the attraction here is the sorta Death Cabbish arpeggiating guitar line that wavers faintly behind the vocals. It's also a very Death Cabbish title, although the lyrics are a tad disappointing ("slaughtered the palm"??). It's the sorta thing that would turn up on soundtracks for The O.C. – and I miss listening to that sort of thing.

13. LSB feat. Sophie Wardman - If You're Here
This is basically Four Tet's 'Angel Echoes' at 174 bpm. Vocal samples sigh unintelligibly, toybox chimes twinkle, and that inescapable 2-step D&B rhythm relentlessly powers through 6 minutes or more. Do you need anything else?

12. Wayward feat. Beth Aggett - Belize
More longing-infused chill business. This and the last two tunes were often utilised at work as nerve-calming measures while I was about some mindless design task. This one is a sunbeam-pockmarked deep house number with a pining female vocal. Weirdly, Beth Aggett doesn't get a featured artist credit, and I had to do some googling to find out who she was. I've added her name above because she's a big part of what makes this song such a delight.
Back in the day Kano was considered one of the most likely grime MCs to make it "overground".  His flow – silky, adaptable, and always comprehensible (no guarantee with grime) – garnered Jay-Z comparisons, back when this actually meant something. Unlike Dizzee however, Kano couldn't deliver a classic album, and the momentum stalled. By 2011's sad update of 'Pow', he was given more bars than anyone else, and he was appalling. So the fact that we have a halfway decent Kano track in 2014 is a welcome surprise. J.M.E. gives him free reign to show off all the tricks he has (including biting Jay-Z and Dizzee on the third verse). But more than anything, it's the wildly boastful and exuberant hook that makes the song such a keeper.

10. Mr. Mitch - The Lion, The Bitch, and the Bordeaux
Parallel Memories is still sinking in, but I don't think it has anything on it that can match this stark piece of ambient grime. An irregular beat, droney bass, undulating synth, and an echoing female vocal sample stretched over four and a half minutes. Absolutely transporting.

9. Skepta feat. J.M.E. - That's Not Me
Like Kano, Skepta has been a bit of a joke in the last few years. The low point of his career was probably the literally pornographic music video for 2012 single 'All Over The House' (no, I'm not going to link to it). This was a bit of a reboot – beat is full-on grime nostalgia, the bars a strange mix of penance and self-justification. Skepa is a decent rapper, but he's a unparalleled genius when it comes to ad libbing. The first thing we hear on this track – "what'd you mean, what'd you mean?!" – is a classic. If you don't get it, then you just don't get it. Pretty much the attitude grime artists have to adopt in a culture that no longer pays them much attention.

8. Tori Amos - 16 Shades of Blue
The best St. Vincent song released this year. Actually, make that in the last five years. A meticulous depiction of a breakdown both particular and universal, the focus of the pre-chorus moving from Amos to a wider we. "There are those who say I am now to old to play", she sings as the machinery of the beat winds down behind her. A song about the twin forces of capitalism and patriarchy bearing down on creative minds everywhere, seething with controlled rage.
This year's preferred summer jam, perhaps because it fuses two of my fave songs from last year into one epic celebratory fist pump. Drum and bass legend Friction keeps the original's carnival atmosphere down to the horn accents weaving between the vocal, just speeding the beat up so that the song feels almost weightless.
Some sympathy with Tom Lea's side-eye at the various purveyors of chart-bound garage/house as he prepared to release DJ Q's debut album. Q is a bassline survivor and garage obsessive well placed to school the likes of Disclosure on how it should be done. The album has three link-ups with Louise Williams, the third of which came out this year and triumphs over all of them – a paean to the dancefloor as a respite from the 9 to 5. In a just world Williams would go on to become the next Katy B, but at the end of the year it looks as if she'll go the way of Ruby Lee Ryder.

When it came out at the beginning of the year, '2 On' signaled both Tinashe and DJ Mustard's ascent to the big leagues. A masterful confection of clicking fingers, strings, twinkles, and warm billows of bass wafting in on the chorus, with Tinashe's vocal poured over the whole thing like melting ice cream. I haven't made time for much else from these two this year, but looking forward to catching up on both their albums.

Turns out I do heart JF forever. The band slipped off my radar last year, but 2014's You Can Do Better reminded me just how much I've missed their noisy indie pop punk. As mentioned previously, JF are for life, increasingly because they themselves have become lifers. After a timeless masterpiece of a debut failed to make them the next Arctic Monkeys, they have been locked in a holding pattern, manning unsteady jobs, recording and playing when they can. Two sprawling albums about the travails of a touring band is followed up with something shorter and more ferocious. There's a song about suicide, about Scotland, and this one about the myths surrounding a capital that sucks the youth out of the rest of the country. They may not be getting better, but they feel more essential than ever.
"See man driving a German whip" makes up four out of the eight lines of the chorus. Not really close to the same level of absurd repetition as 'Versace', but I image the effect is the same, although I like the Migos song a lot less. Part of the reason might just be context. As in, I know that "do I look like a baller" nods to Meridian Dan's now-abandoned football career (grime turned out to be much better for him), while Big H spends a bar continuing a parochial beef with Trim. Or it may be the beat switching to 4x4 mid-way through the verses (like a gear change from cruising to racing speed). Or it may just be that a grime true believer like myself has more invested in the biggest hit the genre has had since P Money came through with 'Slang Like This'

Imogen Heap tied to a James Blake build-up, with the vocal overdub on the final chorus blasting away the hypertension (and hyperventilation) of holding it all in. LP1's spidery songcraft might deter some, but I found most of it utterly compelling. The focus on sex drew a lot of attention (to my mind, it's pretty much the only way Twigs overlaps with R&B), but what grabs me the most is the sense of control imposed over chaotic emotions – something a lot of my favourite music tries to capture (cf. number 8 above). 'Pendulum' does tension and release better than any other track on the album, which is why it's the standout.

1. The Hotelier - Your Deep Rest
Home, Like NoPlace Was There feels to me like the cornerstone of the #emorevival, but then again it's the only album I've really engaged with (apparently Joyce Manor is the other band adding the most fuel to the narrative – still need to check them out). I lost interest in the genre soon after Fall Out Boy's third album came out, but I was super pleased to find out the scene has been going strong (Pitchfork's Ian Cohen has been keeping an eye on it). The Hotelier's music skews towards pop even though the tone and lyrics remain on the precipice of despair. At points, the band almost slip into bathos (cf. the choking noise just before the heavy guitars drop on 'The Introduction to the Album'. Also: the album's ridiculous name). But that's par for the emo course, and your reaction to Home may depend on how embarrassed you get at such fumbles. I find their sincerity charming, and their hooks absolutely killer. 'Your Deep Rest' is the centrepiece of the album, and about as emo as it gets: "I called in sick at your funeral, the sight of your body made me feel responsible". On paper this looks like parody, but on headphones it is like a wrecking ball swinging into your house. It's my favourite long-player of the year, and it proves that emo never went away. It just got better.

31.12.14

24 books for 2014

Settling the annual accounts. I feel like I've been reading a lot more (and a lot more non-fiction) this year, although there's less of it evident on this blog. Some of the links here are just scraps of thought: quotes, tweets, links and bookmarks. If anyone is on Goodreads, I try to keep track of everything I've read here.

Brendan Simms - Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy [link]
Peter Heather - The Restoration of Rome [link]
David Goodhart - The British Dream [link]
Nick Cohen - What's Left?
Matthew Goodwin & Robert Ford - Revolt on the Right [link]
Jamie Bartlett - The Dark Net
Edward Glaeser - Triumph of the City
David Thomson - The Big Screen
bell hooks - Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations [link]

James Joyce - Ulysses [link]
Gene Wolfe - Sword and Citadel [link]
William Shakespeare - Hamlet
William Shakespeare - A Midsummer Night's Dream
William Shakespeare - Julius Caesar
Anaïs Nin - Delta of Venus [link]
Philip Larkin - The Whitsun Weddings

Paolo Eleuteri Serpieri - Carnivora
Léo - Aldebaran [link]
Julie Maroh - Blue is the Warmest Colour [link]
Jonathan Hickman / Nick Pitarra - The Manhattan Projects
Osamu Tezuka - The Book of Human Insects [link]
Kazuo Koike / Ryoichi Ikegami - Crying Freeman, Vol. 1
Junji Ito - Uzumaki
Grant Morrison - The Invisibles [link]

23.12.14

Ode to Kirihito

Instances of rape in this comic: five.

First instance. Kirihito's fiancée Izumi is raped by his colleague (and best friend?) Urabe. Izumi tells Kirihito she wants to get married straight away, because she's worried she "might stray", and that Urabe's looks make her uncomfortable. "I don't like him one bit" she says, "but he comes on so forcefully. And you're so cool towards me". A married woman is safe from sexual predators, but unmarried ones are fair game. What's particularly twisted is that Izumi uses language that puts the blame for her impending assault on herself: she "might stray".

Second instance. Kirihito and his wife Tazu are running away together. When travelling in a forest, Tazu goes off to get some water and a stranger tackles her to the ground. When Kirihito finds her, she has been raped and killed by the stranger, who flees. The stranger then makes very minor impressions on the rest of the book's plot until he is discovered by Kirihito at the end, who hands him over to a priest. The rapist is therefore little more than a means to deprive Kirihito of his wife in a disturbing but sensational way.

Third instance. Kirihito is tied up and raped by a circus performer called Reika, who has ensnared and killed seven other men in a lonely cabin in the mountains. She has a "fetish for freaks" and an "abnormal libido". Kirihito treats this as a medical rather than a moral issue. He decides it is caused by the stress of performing dangerous stunts, and tries to cure her using hypnosis. Although Reika has sexually assaulted him several times, they remain amiable and continue their travels together, although Kirihito remains loyal to Izumi and Tazu. Reika considers prostituting herself when they have no money, and finally dies in the attempt to earn enough to get Kirihito back to Japan.

Fourth instance. Although Izumi has been raped by Urabe, she goes to him to ask about Kirihito's fate and they conspire to find him. Her rape hasn't poisoned their relationship, although when Urabe confesses that he loves her and kisses her, she smacks him away. Izumi's parents suggest that she marries Urabe now that Kirihito is presumed dead, and Izumi (more from loyalty to her fiancé rather than disgust at Urabe) tries to commit suicide. Urabe is distraught and rapes one of his patients, a nun called Helen Friese. Friese seeks sanctuary in a church, but Urabe finds her, apologises, says he loves her and wants to cure her. They are reconciled in a silent panel which highlights a hanging figure of Jesus on the cross. Urabe is forgiven by both his victims.

Fifth instance. Izumi's parents work for Urabe's boss, and when he is fired (meaning he can no longer see Friese), he takes his revenge by raping Izumi a second time. When he commits suicide, Izumi's reaction isn't shown, but Friese mourns for him.

Justifiable depictions of rape in this comic: zero

22.12.14

Favourite Songs of 2014 (Part 1)

Usual rules apply. One song per artist, with allowances for features. A large body of work that has impressed this year is liable to push entries up the ladder. Part 2 will have to wait until I gather the courage to write through the top 14. To the list:

28. Fracture & Sam Binga - Grippin' Grain
Having done a couple of these lists now, I've realised how certain songs from different years mirror each other. Which leads on to the rather depressing thought that there may only be a limited amount of "types of song" that we're destined to keep attaching ourselves to. We replace the old version with the new one, but how often to we ever fall in love with something genuinely new? Perhaps the answer is that the music we look for serves only a particular number of individual purposes, and as long as these remain the same, we'll continue to go back to the same familiar formulas. Case in point: this no-frills piece of footwork-indebted drum and bass, remarkably similar to last year's scuttling 'Unofficial Jah' by Dom + Roland. Always there for when you need your ears cleaned by rapid-fire metallic percussion. Until next year's model comes along.

27. DJ Q & Flava D - PS
UKG vocal science at its most delectable. The unintelligible syllables are chopped and mixed by chefs so skillful, they threaten to distract you away from the chunky baseline they've laid down underneath. An effervescent and elusive female vocal provides a chorus in which to breathe between mouthfuls.

26. Sean Paul feat. Konshens - Want Dem All
ILX makes me passingly aware of the bounty that spills out of the Caribbean each year, but I never investigate as fully as I should. This banger somehow managed to force its way onto the list. EDM adds a superfluity of bells and whistles to the dancehall chassis while the man with the steadiest flow in Jamaica rides serenely above it all, waxing with gluttony and bending language on the hook, exhorting the listener to "move your body-dy-dy!"

25. Tirzah - No Romance
Although her score for Under The Skin received the plaudits this year, my preferred 2014 output from Mica Levi was at the opposite end of the spectrum. The noisy clutter of her work with the Shapes piled up at one end of the room to make space for a loping beat and the louche chants of the thoroughly unambitious Tirzah.

24. Kiesza - Hideaway
I find it impossible not to like Kiesza, the go-getting Canadian former marine who has turned her prodigious discipline to making faultlessly on-trend UK house-pop. The one-take video (13 million views) is certainly impressive – I particularly enjoyed the red shoes nodding both to Oz and The Red Shoes. The beat is serviceable, but the real draw is Kiesza's rich and piercing vocal, adding just the right amount of melodrama to the song without watering down its emotional punch.

23. Zed Bias feat. Stylo G & Scrufizzer - Shizam
Zed Bias was obviously pleased with his Madd Again! remix of Scrufizzer's 'Kick It', enough to invite Scru to grace this dancehall-tinged single for Black Butter. Bashment star Stylo G (responsible for one of my favourite songs of 2013) more than holds his own against Scru's trademark "fizzy" flow. My Nu Leng's more sedate and accessible remix seems to have gained more converts this year, but for now I prefer the energy of the original.

22. Ziro feat. Trim - Lost
Nu-grime is crying out for new MCs, but the high value attached to Mumdance's track with Novelist strikes me as an instance of demand outstripping supply. As this lists will show, I've generally remained more loyal to the old guard's beats and bars. That said, Trim's (literally) offbeat flow has always shone on the stark and weird end of grime, and this track proves he has the most to offer the Boxed producers.

21. Dark0 - Gaia
The closest nu-grime comes to a end-of-the-night, hands-in-the-air, stadium-sized anthem. In fact, hardly any grime remains on its polished surface. Dark0 splices together Ruff Squad's emotion-drenched melodies, Kid-D's breathy vocal snippets and Rustie's brazen digital maximalism. And to add an extra layer of new age gloss, he calls the thing "Gaia". In the cold light of day it isn't even that affecting – it's so OTT it almost sounds like a prank. But I can just imagine the synths cutting through a set and elevating everything to a whole new level of epic.

20. Hannah Wants & Lorenzo - Breathe
I find a lot of electroline dull when it's not actively annoying, so it makes sense that I would fall for a track that's cleaned up and released on Shadow Child's label. Swung drums, deep bass stabs, prevalent pads and a shimmer at the edge of the vocal sample. Like a gust of fresh air gently rocking your hammock as your yacht cruises towards ever more balmy climes.

19. TRC feat. Lily McKenzie - Closer
There will always be a need for throwback vocal garage tunes a la turn of the millennium Artful Dodger. TRC is yet another bassline survivor following DJ Q, TS7 and many others back to the UKG source. Lily McKenzie's vocal betrays just a smidgen of grit, but her chorus is all multi-tracked lightness, conveying the careful push-pull between defiance and submission in the lyrics.

18. Throwing Shade feat. Emily Bee - Sweet Tooth
Nothing anyone can say will shift my conviction that this is a chillwave song pure and simple. A warm haze envelops a lilting synth line while Emily Bee coos "He's so sweet, rots the teeth" in between trickles of lascivious laughter. She sounds sinister, but she isn't. She's just expressing the surfeit of delight that comes with gazing at cute boys. Like sugar, it's not good for you, but we all need a binge sometimes.

17. Bok Bok feat. Kelela - Melba's Call
Much of last year's Cut 4 Me mixtape was very good, but this is superior. Bok Bok somehow manages to find an intersection between Jam & Lewis and R&G – rude bass groans bumping up against synth and snare stabs straight out of Janet's Rhythm Nation. Kelela is by turns resigned and pleading, in control and out, admonishing and seducing, with the stops and starts of Bok Bok's production releasing tension only to build it up further.

16. Dej Loaf - Try Me
Reading so many EOY lists this month was eventually going to turn up something that would make it onto my own. Dej Loaf sounds like a 12-year-old with a blocked nose, which makes her threat to "put a burner to his tummy and make it bubbly" all the more surreal and frightening. Dej rambles about the death of one cousin, the incarceration of another, and "a heart full of demons" over a glistening beat from DDS that wouldn't sound out of place under an R&B slow jam. It's this contrast between sound and substance that makes the track such a compulsive listen.

15. Kero Kero Bonito - Flamingo
Should declare an interest: my girlfriend is very good friends with Sarah from the band. But then again, they are so approachable you feel like almost everyone is. Pace all the talk of PC Music's insincerity, what's striking about KKB is their generosity – a leave-your-baggage-at-the-door attitude to pop which makes room for sing-it-back choruses, weird noises, bad jokes and raps in Japanese. 'Flamingo' can almost serve as a manifesto for the band, except that most of their songs already sound like manifestos. "Show off your natural hue" Sarah urges over a loping beat, "if you're multi-coloured, that's cool too". Gareth Campesinos! once described erstwhile tour mates Johnny Foreigner as a band you can live your life by, and KKB are the same. Sign yourselves up. Pin the badge on your satchel. Their new single proves they are only getting better.

20.12.14

Of Freaks and Men

Shot in sepia and interspersed with inter-titles, this Russian film evokes the beginnings of cinema, right down to the focus on faces silently reacting rather than speaking. Johann in particular is superbly enigmatic, eating carrots with cream (an auto-erotic symbol borrowed from Taxi Driver?) and gunning down foes willy-nilly. He is a pornographer specialising in sado-masochistic images targeted at a female audience. Along with his sinister assistant Victor, he wraps his tendrils around two bourgeois families and forces their vulnerable children to perform in his films. The women's subjection is partly consensual, and everyone seems to have their own repressed fetish (Johann for his demented nanny who spanks the victims in his films). If Of Freaks and Men is about anything, it's about the primary power of cinema to represent and fulfil people's desires - it was pornography before it was anything else. One of the patriarchs declares cinema to be the future of art, ironically something he won't live to see as the matter to which the new technology is applied gives him a heart attack.

What to make of the final frames, in which Johann, after seeing the film made by his former cameraman, drifts away on a block of ice into the horizon? A tribute to (or perhaps a condemnation of) all the unknown enthusiasts, freaks and weirdos that built the foundations of cinema.