1.8.14

The Invisibles

I just checked and it's been five years since I read the first volume of The Invisibles. I picked up the rest of the series recently and started without going back to the beginning, and relaxed into it a lot easier this time around. It's a book you learn how to read, and I mostly did so by learning to let go of the need to make sense of everything. Having finished the series, I only have a vague sense of how the plot all fits together, and more importantly, no great desire to expend the mental energy to work it out. Warren Ellis, in his blurb for the final book, describes the series as like pop music: "about everything and nothing". The meaning is in the moment, and doesn't last much beyond it.

The series is built on an everlasting battle between order and chaos, and its evident which side Grant Morrison is on. Not being the impressionable undergrad the series is (overtly, judging by the end of the penultimate issue) aiming for, I found the anarchist politics in the book unmoving. To borrow John Gray borrowing Isaiah Berlin, liberty and security (more mundane terms for chaos and order) are both precious but also both incommensurable. They clash frequently, and the balance between them is the job of politics (rather than philosophy) to resolve. None of that subtlety is present in The Invisibles, but then Morrison's anarchy is less about the political and more about the personal.

The series champions individualism more than anything – the ability to author your sense of self, frequently against the prevailing culture you find yourself in. Conformity is a burden to be liberated from. The evil Archons are "only all the things you left outside when you were building your little house called me". This line could refer to the social norms cast off as you construct your subjectivity, but the representation of the Archons as Lovecraftian monsters adds a more interesting gloss. A self made without reference to the world around you ("don't believe nothing you hear, trust what you know") is in some way ungrounded, a void. And reality can come to bite you as a result.

These ambiguities are rarely dwelt on throughout the series. One of the most interesting developments is King Mob's growing discomfort with the way his strong character can dominate over others, undermining his anarchist principles. This is ripe territory for a book about anarchism to explore, since one of the basic criticisms of the idea is that human beings create informal hierarchies even when formal ones are stripped away – so that even radically equal communities often end up with the more vocal and assertive out on top. However, King Mob's struggles with this dilemma (and his dependence on violence) are only briefly dealt with.

Likewise, Ragged Robin's anarchist ideals are also shaken buy her masochistic sexuality – the discovery that she enjoys being dominated by King Mob in bed. Again, this would have been fascinating to delve into. Is such a sexuality socially constructed by a patriarchal society and therefore to be repudiated, or is such repression incompatible with a liberated spirit? Can a moral defence of BDSM be developed (that it's about trust rather than power, for example) or is that unnecessary? Morrison chooses to deal with Robin's conflict through metaphor (a telepathic war with Mr Quimper) where much of the nuance of the issue is lost.

Morrison states at the end a conviction that "we made gods and jailers because we felt small and ashamed and alone". The line rings truer for gods than for jailers, which underlines the way Morrison's liberty is personal rather than political. As an aside, good luck trying to explain the origin of justice with reference to human psychology, I think you'll always get different answers. Adam Smith for example thought it was linked to a sense of resentment. David Hume probably had the right idea all along in seeing justice as established by convention and as a result of its utility.

But if Morrison commits to renouncing the moral and political institutions that structure our lives as members of society, he also cleverly undercuts himself with the final pun on "sentence". His book is another exhortation, another imposition on the reader's sense of self. And the reader is free to spurn its sentence.

Which is exactly what I plan to do.

28.7.14

In the Mood for Love

As the previous post attests, I'm a firm believer in the importance of titles, and this one felt like a stinker while I was watching. Wong apparently arrived at it by chance after being dissuaded against Age of Bloom (a song in the film and of the period) and Secrets (which sums up the film's themes). Both are superior choices. A good title is like the cherry on top of the icing of the cake (to borrow a metaphor from conversations with Joel, keeper of the peace at the LGNN). It's a way into and a summation of what the film is all about.

The pop song's reference to blossoms is an evocation of spring, youth and the beautiful. Its deployment is partly ironic, as by the time we meet our central couple they are already trapped in loveless marriages which prevent them from being together. Nonetheless, like the pop music of youth, both look back to this time together as their true first young love.

Secrets is rather bluntly explained by Tony Leung in a bar to his wastrel friend, but that and the callback to it at the end is less interesting than the environment of secrecy that pervades the relationships in the film. Maggie Cheung has to field calls from her employer's wife and mistress. Her husband is having an affair with Leung's wife. Their fine eye for details (the same tie, the same handbag) uncovers the secret. They themselves have to be mindful in case the always present neighbours start asking questions. This is a time where you could still be told off by your landlady if she thinks you're spending too many evenings out when your husband is away.

In a society where infidelity is ever-present but rigorously policed, Leung and Cheung choose the moral high ground, even though they are falling in love. All of which made me want them to throw off the soiled principles they insist on clinging to. In fact, the film leaves that open – and I sometimes like to think that Leung is the father to Cheung's son who is revealed at the end, and that little secret was what ended her marriage. But then why would she want to raise the boy without Leung? I suspect Wong had other intentions – conspiring to separate the couple and end the film on a note of yearning for the love, and the specific time, that had passed.

25.7.14

Boyhood

For me, the most interesting thing about the film isn't the way it was made or the universal acclaim it has received. Rather, it's the way it navigates between documentary and drama. While Linklater's dialogue may feel extempore to some, for me there's no doubt that his scripts are quite tight. Even if Mason's character tracks the life of the actor playing him quite closely, the shorts filmed each year have a shape and purpose imposed by the filmmaker. The point is: although Boyhood sometimes suggests the looseness of documentary, actually this is deceptive. An authorial voice is present throughout.

So what is the film trying to say? While many reviewers have warmed to the universal bildungsroman scope of the film, what struck me was how particular Mason's story is. The protagonist is not an everyman. In fact, Linklater has him grow up to be a typical Linklaterian hero – almost an Ethan Hawke Mini-Me. And his development is presented with recourse to very American tropes and symbols (aspiration, independence, the possibility of the open road). My girlfriend is Japanese, and when discussing the film with her Japanese colleague, she told me that the scenarios portrayed felt foreign to her. This made it difficult to fully identify with the characters and the experiences they go through, and more broadly, to embrace the film in the way that it has been by Anglo-Saxon critics and audiences.

This chimes with my own reaction to the film. Mason isn't perfect, but he's intelligent, creative and has amazing hair. He grows up in a white, middle class family, has cute girlfriends, and goes to university. This is not an universal experience (trust me – I share more than a bit with Mason's character). Linklater makes some concessions on this by shoehorning a sub-plot about a Latino builder profiting from the American Dream, which I found very moving despite its clumsiness. That doesn't detract from the overwhelming feeling that Linklater is whispering consoling stories to an audience that looks very much like him.

The original title of the film was supposed to be 12 Years – it was changed last minute because the recently released 12 Years a Slave would have caused confusion (or a tougher job for the marketing department). But the working title at least emphasised that this was a particular story portrayed in a particular way – one kid from one place filmed once a year. Having Boyhood as the title suggests that the story somehow reaches beyond that. My ambivalence toward the film comes down to doubts about how much it really does so.

4.7.14

Dream Country

The latest edition of the London Graphic Novel Network's coverage of The Sandman is now up, and it may well be the best yet. Lots of people piling in on a range of questions, some of which are only tangentally related to Gaiman's work. As usual, I did my fair bit of arguing, a small bit of which is below. Worth reading through the whole thing though.

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Tend to agree with the Shakespeare Shakespeare Shakespeare reservations, tho am disposed to be a bit kinder than Mazin on the question of whether Gaiman misses the point of Shakespeare. Seems to me Mazin is equating 'stories' with plots, when actually Gaiman may mean something a bit broader. The constituent parts of 'stories' could include plot, character, themes, language, and maybe other things as well. If anything, Gaiman's error is to ascribe a certain archetypal content and mythological force to the plays - which isn't what makes them distinctive in my view. Instead, I would flip Mazin's top two Shakespeare talents and suggest he is most innovative when it comes to character - particularly creating personalities that are open to an almost limitless variety of interpretation. His felicity w/ language is a key part of that, but I think there is a reason why he is remembered as a playwright, rather than a poet, first.

Shakespeare's competing loyalties to creativity and family strike me as less of an insight into the historical Shakespeare and more as an insight into Gaiman himself. My sense is that while Gaiman is a prodigious story-generating machine, there is always a kind of detachment to his writing - his characters are often quite flat, manipulated into the paths he sets out for them rather than having the vitality to knock the author off-track (e.g. as Falstaff did Shakespeare). I would go so far as to presume that Gaiman sometimes would find the ephemeral amalgamations of past stories he rattles off so easily ~more~ interesting (or maybe less threatening) than real people. That sounds mean, but actually I think it's a brave thing to admit, and is a tendency we're all capable of.

Dream sums up the point of the Shakespeare issue as follows: "things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot". This sound like bullshit, except the "dust and ashes" gloss on "facts" suggests he is talking about the way stories outlive people, rather than nature or the universe. Fair enough, but then we get to Facade: "mythologies take longer to die than people believe. They linger on in a kind of dream country that affects all of you". The sun turns out to be a mask hiding the stories which structure our sense of the world. The protagonist's apotheosis is triggered by the surfacing of those 'shadow-truths' behind the world of empirically-determined facts. Is Dream's country becoming Plato's realm of the forms - the hidden structure behind our changable world? Is Gaiman granting myths a kind of metaphysical power over our lives? Or is it just an internal, psychological switch in perspective that somehow physiologically unlocks the ability to commit suicide. I am more comfortable with the latter reading, tho neither is particularly satisfying. Gaiman is always more comfortable dwelling on the awesome power stories have over us, rather than why we tell them or what they might be for.

22.6.14

Avengers vs X-Men

Quite a lot of the fashionable thinking around equality since the financial crisis has tried to shift the debate from the old opportunity / outcome dichotomy to focus on concentrations of power – perhaps a recognition that the focus on opportunity hasn't ended exorbitant bailouts and bonuses (the redistribution through the tax system implied by aiming for outcome obviously remains beyond the pale). Some of this new rhetoric draws on the republican idea of liberty excavated by Quentin Skinner. I've attended some of Skinner's lectures and have read his work, so it's exciting to see it influencing contemporary debate. The basic idea is that freedom should not be defined as the absence of constraint, a Hobbesian notion that allows for an authoritarian state. Instead it should widened include the absence of the ability of others to constrain you, i.e. freedom from domination by the powerful – a radically republican (as in anti-royalist) idea.

I bring all this up because the idea of concentrations of power is at the heart of Marvel's AvX crossover from a couple of years ago. The Phoenix force is coming back to empower a single mutant X-Man seen by many to be a messiah, with all the apocalyptic implications that would entail. The Avengers manage to cook up an countermeasure that splits the Phoenix force between five X-Men. Sharing this power between them, the Phoenix Five build a "Pax Utopia" on Earth. But power corrupts, and as one of the Five falls, the Phoenix force gets shared between those that remain. And as power becomes more concentrated, those that wield it become ever more authoritarian.

The mini-series ends with the chosen messiah deciding to give up the Phoenix force. Instead it gets shared out. The Phoenix evaporates and re-introduces the X-gene into Earth's population, gone since the events of House of M. This redistribution of power levels the playing field and eliminates the authoritarian Cyclops and his gang.

Funnily enough, this idea of redistribution is also applied to the making of the comic – while two artists handle the pencils throughout, scripting has been divided between Brian Michael Bendis, Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, Jason Aaron and Jonathan Hickman. The Bendis issues at the start sag quite a bit (the guy has needed a bit of a break for a good long while now), but the rest of the group are some of the hottest properties in comics right now, and the series really picks up steam when they take over and especially when the Phoenix Five are introduced by Hickman.

It's de rigeur to sneer at crossover event comics, and while this by no means reinvents the wheel (echoes of House of M and Civil War abound) I think it's admirable that Marvel still try to pin the pile-up of action set-pieces to a theme that can support the mini-series itself (while of course providing a set-up that can reverberate through the other titles). Bendis's Siege did this quite badly, while Fraction's Fear Itself was a lot more focused. Avengers vs. X-Men continues that good run. A bit like with each consecutive Marvel superhero film, it's still, just, worth investing in what the company are planning for next time.

21.6.14

Spring Breakers

Remember when P.T. Anderson wanted to make an Adam Sandler movie into an art film? Harmony Korine seems to have similar ambitions for the teen road trip movie. Spring Breakers was marketed as exploitation, but Korine is going for "impressionistic" "hypnotic" "fever dream" (all his words). The controversy comes when you consider whether anything is meant by this at all. In some respects, no. Korine is forthright that this is a film about surfaces – all that candy-coloured neon lighting is supposed to emphasise this. He also admits that the genesis of the movie was in images and footage that inspired paintings and other fine art – 'sculptural' (again, his word) constructions of sexy trashy co-ed porn and Florida party footage. The visuals came first, and it's about the feelings they evoke. Even the voiceover is talked about in the context of the aim to mimic some of the effects of EDM and drugs – loop-based music with repeating vocal samples that generate more significance the more they recur. In these respects, the film is very immediate and unassuming.

But I think there is more going on here. Korine isn't just making this because he is fascinated by these images, sounds and sensations – he is not just a fetishist. He understands the horror at the heart of the fever dreams he is conjuring. The film is a dream, mashing up cartoons, video games, gangster films, EDM, rap, weed, coke and alcohol. The girls are explicitly inspired by these things when they rob a fast food restaurant. At several moments, Korine's characters refer to this mix of bacchanalia and violence as the American Dream – a kind of unlimited individualism, a frontier spirit looking for transcendence. There is something about the iconography of spring break that goes to the heart of the myths America is built on. The evangelical religious foundations of this urge for rapture is explored through Selena Gomez's character, who reaches a point at which she starts getting uncomfortable with the dreams of her friends. Racism is also subtly present – Gomez wants to go home as soon as she finds herself in a black area. Korine has targets here – he is trying to say something. Perhaps the P.T. Anderson quip is a bit wide – more than anything Spring Breakers feels to me like an update of Terrence Malick's Badlands, a complicit look at the way we worship sex, violence, youth and freedom. And Korine has enough distance to understand that the characters, and the audience, eventually have to wake up.

15.6.14

The Book of Human Insects

The heroine of this short noir tale from manga godfather Osamu Tezuka is "far from a feminist role model" according to the blurb, and there's a fair amount of sexism in the book. Toshiko Tomura is described as a type of insect that impersonates other creatures in order to survive, and throughout her adventures she 'absorbs' the talents of her male admires (or outright steals their work) in order to achieve her ends. That she is able to do so "shows you what is so damn wrong with present-day civilization". And it's true that the world Tezuka creates is one where humans have become monsters – a society of insects in which the only way for women to survive is to become femme fatales. Interestingly, Tezuka doesn't have the patriarchy reassert dominance over these insect women. Instead, sympathetic characters are crushed, and Tomura triumphs over her assailants.

Tezuka's revenge on his predatory parasitic female creation is more subtle. After each adventure, Tomura retreats to a remote house in which she strips away the personas she inhabits and regresses to a baby – naked, pacifier in her mouth – succumbing to the fundamental emptiness at the core of her being. One of her former lovers has escaped her clutches, nobly kills a brutal gangster and hands himself over to the police. Tomura wants him, perhaps as the only man she was unable to corrupt and traduce, but he is lost to her. She confesses at the end of the book that she is lonely, and feels like she could be get "swept away", like trash. Despite her callous ambition, she still feels the need to love, or at least be attached to, someone. Without a host (male, talented) she is nothing.

The misogyny on display is something that needs to be acknowledged and faced up to. No excuses should be made. Nonetheless, there is a a mischievous glee to Tezuka's portrayal that is winning – despite the condescension (and moral condemnation) Tomura receives at the hand of her creator, the human insects she dupes and destroys are far more reprehensible. We still root for her, even more that the noble male hero who evades her. Her vitality trumps Tezuka's attempts to suppress it – I think she gets the last laugh after all, and I can well imagine her getting over a momentary thirst for dissolution and continuing her escapades in Europe.

14.6.14

The End of Summer

More reflections on Ozu's very particular style after watching the follow-up to Late Autumn. The End of Summer has its fair share of brilliantly framed compositions, which are accentuated by the static camera. The film really is photography with voices sometimes. There are more 'pillow shots' as well – not just used to establish a new scene but to indicate the passing of time or to add space and extend a dramatic moment (frequently using music to do so). Only once is a jump cut used to highlight a contrasting change of tone.

I may have been wrong to describe the actors as looking 'beyond' the camera, and in this film very often Ozu establishes where characters are sitting, and then has them directly address the viewer, with the actors definitely looking at the camera. This should place the audience within the scene, but paradoxically it doesn't. Maybe this is due to the placing of the camera at naval height rather than at eye level (elevating the characters in the process). But also there is something weirdly fourth-wall breaking about a direct address to camera. Ozu's style (perhaps accidentally) creates this intermediate space whereby the audience is continually aware of a world being portrayed, and their fleeting, intercutting presence in it.

Which is a good place to start thinking about the themes of the film. The title's appeal to nature's rhythms is a gloss over the intimate portraits of parents and children and how one generation replaces the next. The End of Summer is about the death of a patriarch, an "incorrigible sinner", an overgrown boy always on his summer holidays. Likewise Late Autumn is about Setsuko Hara approaching middle age, and the choices she has to make as a result. The audience, rather than identifying with particular characters or following a plot, take the part of serene observers of these natural rhythms to human life.

11.6.14

The Doll's House

The London Graphic Novel Network is going from strength to strength, the discussion on the second Sandman book is now up here. As before, I've pinched my bits to put below, but you should read the whole thing for a clearer view of the back and forth:

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Hob's conclusion that people don't change is (in context) about his own inability to tire of life, and by extension the fixity of an individual's character. The repetition of the overheard bar-room conversations at the end of the issue widens this conclusion - human beings haven't changed in the last 500 years. Sidebar: true enough, in that for the past 3,000 years of recorded human history the species manifestly hasn't changed - evolution works on much longer time-frames. Roman emperors and medieval peasants are just as smart (and stupid) as we are.

This same point is made more overtly at the end of Cages – a comic by Dave McKean (frequent Gaiman collaborator and responsible for Sandman's amazing covers). In that book, McKean suggests that as you grow older and experiences pile up, the patterns of life become more apparent (as above: people don't change, so as they become more familiar their capacity to surprise you is reduced). That realisation (and the completion of their life project) is what lead McKean's characters to accept death with equanimity.

Gaiman's treatment of this idea is less pointy and more suggestive – the concluding note of Hob's story is the rather corny one that friendship is what makes life worth living. But on the whole I think it's a more satisfying issue than 'The Sound of Her Wings'. Which may be another way of saying that I understand its themes and agree with them.

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The beginnings of the Corinthian's speech suggest Gaiman's underlying reading of all the psychopathic behaviour he looks at through this (very long) issue. Serial killing in the US has become associated with stories of "gladiators", "swashbucklers" and "heroes" (the Bonnie & Clyde myth and its various permutations in film might be a good way of looking at this – Malick's Badlands perhaps most of all). The collectors kill out of hubris and an infatuation with themselves as the "maltreated heroes" of their own stories. Barry strips this away and reveals how unheroic ("how LITTLE") they are – the implication being that without these myths to sustain them, the collectors' urges will be hollowed out and they will finally (privately) face the implications of their actions. How sophisticated this reading is, I'll leave up to you, but the dots do sort of connect.

Dream's intentions regarding the Corinthian are far harder to join up. Ostensibly, this masterpiece nightmare is supposed to "be the darkness and the fear of darkness", a reflection of what humanity "will not confront". Instead of this, he has been "something else for people to be scared of", and has "told them that there are bad people out there, and they've known that all along". Now: the gaps between these two outcomes are pretty difficult to parse. If anything, the Corinthian hasn't failed in being scary, it is rather that people have been better able to confront "the darkness" than Dream had expected. And In fairness, Dream admits that he is the one to blame for the Corinthian's flaws – an admission that feels less magnanimous the more one thinks about it.