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 (uncomfortable parallels with the Sarin attacks in Tokyo are largely left unstated). 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.