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