2020 lockdown gaming

The main reason why my other EOY lists are shorter than previous years is because I've started playing computer games again. That makes perfect sense in a lockdown year where you had to find ways to occupy yourself at home. It makes less sense when you have a baby to look after, although I've found that the stresses of that (alongside some other things that have made this year pretty tough on my family) were aleviated somewhat by gaming, which has the amazing ability to take your brain elsewhere entirely.

I haven't played a computer game since going to university more than 10 years ago, so I'm neither a very experienced nor a very proficient gamer. But that hasn't stopped me from trying to think a little bit about how games achieve their effects, and writing about that here. I've been helped in this by listening to the Watch Out For Fireballs podcast, which talks through and takes apart different games on a weekly basis. That show, as well as the network in general, has been another source of entertainment and distraction during this difficult year – and it has supplied me with prompts and a vocabularly for evaluating the games I'm playing. The hosts are great company, and it's been fun to listen and play alongside them.

I've been drawn to CRPGs mostly, which are gentle on the reflexes and tend to have a greater emphasis on story and character. That's the stuff I really latch onto, over and above satisfying and rewarding gameplay. It helps that I've been playing the Citizen Kanes and Casablancas of the medium – a good way to avoid disappointment as well as educate yourself on what games can achieve at their best. I've done my best to articulate those achievements in the summaries of my playthroughs below:


26 films in 2020

I managed to avoid watching a single film released in 2020 this year – as with other things, lockdown has merely accelerated pre-existing trends. Nevertheless there was plenty to enjoy on different streaming services. In a shrewd and extremely welcome move, Netflix responded to the advent of Disney+ by making the entire Studio Ghibli back catalogue available, meaning I've now watched pretty much everything they've made. Although best known for Miyazaki's fantasy films, I found that some of the Studio's best work is in a realist vein – Whisper of the HeartOnly Yesterday and Ocean Waves are masterpieces comparable to Nausicaä and Mononoke.

For a couple of months I was subscribed to Mubi, which I used mainly to get to know the works of Céline Sciamma. I traded that in for a BFI Player subscription late in the year, which has a larger and more interesting selection of films, particularly if you're into arty schlock from France and Japan. This Chrismas has been a feast on the BBC iPlayer, where I've gorged on the very best of recent Disney/Pixar (Frozen, BraveInside Out, Moana) and Hollywood classics (Casablanca, Some Like It Hot, Singin' in the Rain).

Below is the list roughly in order of preference. I've succumbed and set up a Letterboxd account, partly in a futile attempt to work out how many films I've watched in my life (not that many, it turns out). I've started to jot down more casual thoughts on films over there, which don't deserve a full blogpost here. 

Yoshifumi Kondō - Whisper of the Heart [link]
Céline Sciamma - Portrait of a Lady on Fire [link]
Isao Takahata - Only Yesterday [link]
François Ozon - Swimming Pool [link]
Tomomi Mochizuki - Ocean Waves
Ken Russell - Crimes of Passion [link]
Yasujiro Ozu - Late Spring [link]
Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly - Singin’ in the Rain [link]
Céline Sciamma - Water Lilies [link]
Georges Franju - Eyes Without a Face [link]
Shinya Tsukamoto - A Snake of June [link]
Thom Eberhardt - Night of the Comet [link]
Greta Gerwig - Lady Bird [link]
Céline Sciamma - Girlhood [link]
Atom Egoyan - Chloe [link]
Damien Chazelle - La La Land [link]
Nobuhiko Obayashi - House [link]
Jean Rollin - Lips of Blood [link]
Ben Stiller - Reality Bites [link]
Tim Burton - Beetlejuice [link]
Tsai Ming-liang - The Wayward Cloud [link]
Hiroyuki Morita - The Cat Returns
John Hughes - Ferris Bueller's Day Off [link]
Alexander Payne - Election [link]
Masaaki Yuasa - Night Is Short, Walk on Girl [link]
Jim Henson - Labyrinth [link]


33 books of 2020

The Alzabo Soup podcast has continued to exert an influence on my reading this year. The start of their coverage of Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun spurred me to gallop through the four books over the last three months, and it's been a hugely enjoyable experience. Wolfe best known work is dense and knotty with riddles, but Long Sun is much more relaxed and easy to get into. Can't wait to start on the concluding Book of the Short Sun in the new year.

The podcast also took a detour to look at Catherynne M. Valente's Palimpsest, which got me to read it as well. And I filled out some gaps in my knowledge of the fantasy canon by dipping into Fritz Lieber, and also looking at the authorised Tolkien biography. Turns out I really can't get enough of this stuff.

The libraries closing during lockdown meant I was able to focus a bit more on the backlog of weird comics I had bought and never got around to reading. The majority wasn't particularly revelatory, but Alex de Campi, Ram V, Ho Che Anderson and André Lima Araújo stuck out as talents that deserve a bigger audience. 

I try to write something about most of the things I read over on Goodreads, even if it's just a paragraph. Most of the links below point there.

Paul Collier - The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties
Gabriel Pogrund / Patrick Maguire - Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn [link]
Humphrey Carpenter - J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography [link]

Gene Wolfe - The Book of the Long Sun [link]
Philip Pullman - The Book of Dust vol 2: The Secret Commonwealth [link]
Elmore Leonard - Killshot [link]
Paolo Bacigalupi - The Windup Girl [link]
Catherynne M. Valente - Palimpsest [link]
Natsuo Kirino - Real World [link]
Fritz Leiber - Swords and Deviltry / Swords in the Mist / Swords against Wizardry [link] [link]

Alex de Campi / various - Smoke / Ashes [link]
Ho Che Anderson - I Want To Be Your Dog [link]
Jamie Delano / John Bolton - Batman: Manbat [link]
André Lima Araújo - Man: Plus – Electric Memory [link]
Ram V / various - Brigands [link]
Lovern Kindzierski / John Bolton - Shame vols. 1-3
Stjepan Šejić - Sunstone vol. 1 [link]
Kazuto Okada - Sundome [link]
Marc Guggenheim / Tara Butters / Ryan Bodenheim - Halcyon [link]
Marc Bernardin / Adam Freeman / Afua Richardson - Genius [link]
Yukito Kishiro - Battle Angel Alita vol. 1 [link]
Pat Mills / Olivier Ledroit - Sha [link]
Elaine Lee / William Simpson - Vamps [link]
Sam Humphries / Jen Bartel - Blackbird vol. 1 [link]
Andy Hartnell / J. Scott Campbell - Danger Girl: The Ultimate Collection [link]
Sessyu Takemura - Domin-8 Me!
Saburouta - Citrus vols. 1-3
Jim Mahfood - Grrl Scouts: Magic Socks [link]
Sophie Goldstein - House of Women
Christophe Gibelin / Claire Wendling - Lights of the Amalou [link]
Guy Colwell - Inner City Romance [link]
Kazuo Koike / Seisaku Kano - Colour of Rage [link]
Kevin Eastman / various - Roninbebop [link]


Favourite music of 2020

I've listened to a lot of music this year, but very little of it was released in 2020. Partly that's down to lockdown leading me to seek out the kind of introverted favourites I listened to as a teenager (Belle & Sebastian, The Sundays, a lot of R.E.M. thanks to this excellent podcast surveying their career). 2020 was a difficult year, as it has been for a lot of people, and I needed the familiar as a source of comfort and solace. Perhaps when things brighten up the urge to investigate the new will return. 

All of that dovetailed nicely with a playlist I was building of canonical pop songs for my baby daughter (Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Nick Drake, Motown), which for selfish reasons I preferred to singing nursery rhymes. That gradually morphed into a giant collection of things daddy likes, from Erik Satie to Aphex Twin to the mellowest jungle and grime I could find. The initial intention to familiarise her with the classics has been diluted somewhat, and she may not thank me for it. But then again maybe she will. I'm looking forward to finding out. 

A lot of the new music I've investigated this year has been on the ambient electronic side of things – stuff that comfortably slots into the background while working from home. I've listed them below, but first a short run down of 2020 songs that have managed to float above the melange of chill beats and old favourites.

Favourite songs:

5. Low End Activist feat. Flow Dan - Game Theory

Impossible for me not to fall for Flow Dan over a beat that harkens back to the earliest days of grime and dubstep, when the two genres were still somewhat indistinct from each other as they emerged out of UK garage. There's plenty of menacing low end business here, but it's elevated by the swing of the drums – encouraging a bit of a skip to Flow Dan's bars, which is a welcome change of pace for him. A great tune in a year where I haven't come across many.

4. Phoebe Bridgers - Kyoto

Not enamoured of the album as a whole, which melted into the background for me and not in a good way. This single is one of its more upbeat moments, where the soaring chorus provides a bit of contrast to the sullen and slighly dazed delivery in the verses. The production is weirdly restrained and muffled for something that has horns and cymbals propel the crescendos. It's a pop song that isn't entirely comfortable being a pop song – and that may be part of the charm.

3. Gulfer - Forget (Friendly)

This year's self-titled LP isn't quite the roaring success of 2018's more concentrated Dog Bless, which was my favourite record of that year. In fine math rock tradition Gulfer's songs studiously ignore predictable structures – with mixed results. They really hit the jackpot here, though. Each element builds on the previous one to a richly satisfying denouement. Chest-pumpingly huge as the best sweaty guitar music should be.

2. The Beths - Jump Rope Gazers

Again this year's album isn't quite the unparalleled success that 2018's Future Me Hates Me was, which may have beaten Gulfer as my favourite record of that year if I had heard it in time. But the title track on this year's effort may be the best thing they've ever done – anchored by a stadium-sized riff and leading to a very sweet and understated declaration of love that will mercilessly worm into your skull and heart. An anthem for the ages.

It's only four songs and I make the rules anyway. This is quite a personal one. When my daughter had a serious accident at the start of this month, the video for Skullcrusher's 'Day of Show' was one of the only things that would keep her calm through the frighening events that followed. The EP is just 12 minutes of ambient-tinged folk, whispy and ethereal in a way that tugs at the corners of your attention without imposing itself on it. Its use as a lullaby to soothe a toddler is very far removed from the intentions of the artist, whose lyrics detail the fraught moments of self-doubt and self-actualisation that you experience in that uncertain period after the end of your education and the beginning of the rest of your life. But the tone and melodies, inspired by Nick Drake by way of Radiohead, were exactly what my daughter and I needed during the long nights in the hospital ward. 

Other 2020 records I liked:

Akasha System - Epoch Flux

Minor Science - Second Language

Sufjan Stevens - The Ascension

Tengger - Nomad

And some amazing 2020 reissues:

Foul Play - Origins

Hiroshi Yoshimura - Green

Move D & Benjamin Brunn - Let's Call It A Day


Crimes of Passion

The film makes the perhaps obvious connection between a prostitute providing comfort and affirmation to her clients, and a priest ministering to his flock. Russell must have enjoyed the perversity of the idea – he was the one who switched Shayne's role from a psychiatrist to a man of the cloth. It presented him with an opportunity to explore the way these two broken people feed off the inner lives of the men and women they serve. It's a deeper kind of voyeurism than just a sexual one. Kathleen Turner's China Blue has no personal life outside prostitution. She comes alive when she is transformed into other people's fantasies. 

The Reverend is totally overwhelmed with unwanted sexual thoughts and a fevered desire to purge them from the world around him, and finally – fatally – himself. He identifies China Blue as a kindred spirit, and confronts her with their shared pathology. But while she leads a schizophrenic life as a fashion designer by day and hooker by night, Shayne is a little bit further down the road to total psychosis. On the other end of the spectrum is a boy scout former high school quarterback with a wife and two kids, who remains a romantic at heart. Kathleen Turner's character is caught between the relative normality he offers, and the dangerous escapades of an obsessive sex-crazed priest. 

It's a gleefully transgressive film, and some of the most outré moments (including an S&M-tinged session with a policeman enjoying his own baton) were cut for the theatrical release. The smutty content is offset by Russell's theatrical, campy direction, where the actors are allowed to deliver their dialogue in long takes, as if we're watching them on a stage. The set design isn't as spectacular as in The Devils, but Russell still goes to town on China Blue's hotel room, full of props and pulsing with neon light, and Shayne's serial-killeresque den where religious symbols are pasted alongside pornography and lit up with a thousand flickering candles. The star of the show, however, is Kathleen Turner, who not only nails every bit of innuendo-laden repartee, but subtly conveys the fear and loneliness lurking beneath the bravado and roleplay. 


The Wayward Cloud

So bizarre it almost defies attempts at interpretation. It's a romance without conversation – communication achieved through bottled water, watermelons, food, cigarettes and, finally, porn, which mediates the couple's lovemaking in a disturbing way. The kitch musical numbers are little windows into the soul set against the static shots of dingy appartments and their silent inhabitants. But if the film is supposed to be about the inherent loneliness and alienation of modern life, it takes a great deal of absurdist joy in it. It reminded me a little of Tampopo in its series of loosely unconnected sight gags and focus on food as a proxy for dialogue.

The porn we see being made is ludicrous, and becomes an opportunity for wry jokes rather than titillation. However, the final scene may be designed to shock us out of that complacency. The female porn performer is comatose, and laboriously positioned by the crew in different poses so that the shoot can continue. The lack of consent is unsettling – a stark warning about the danger of treating others as things rather than people. But the sequence is also about how pornography literally comes between the couple in the film. The male porn actor humps a lifeless piece of flesh while looking at the face of the woman he really wants to be with, and she, in sympathy and sadness, starts encouraging his behaviour. But then she is also unwillingly forced into the action – the voyeur is raped as well. Is that an encouragement to the audience to consider the conditions under which their entertainment is made? Or is it just a warning about divorcing and abstracting sex from the lived reality of relationships? Either way, it's a bleak ending to a strange, sometimes ponderous, but often charming study of modern love.


La La Land

Is the final musical number suggesting the possibility that things could have worked out between Seb and Mia if different choices were made? Or is it just an idle fantasy that disregards the obstacles put in the way of the relationship succeeding? The former is the sadder, more regretful ending. The latter is resigned, and ultimately happier. Given the parallels with her own life, it must be Mia's vision we're seeing. The touchstones are the same, only the man is different. And the sequence brushes aside the problem of separation – Seb just is magically able to come to Paris and find success there. Musicals are about externalising the passions and dreams we bottle up inside ourselves – the genre allows them to burst out and change the world around us. La La Land plays with that feeling of possibilities opening up, but it's grounded enough to retreat back into the real world. Some things in life work out, some things don't. The couple achieves artistic fulfilment and success, but not as a couple. 

La La Land uses the tricks of the genre but isn't contained by it. The story isn't just an excuse to move from one song to the next – there's quite a lot of traditional comedy and drama in between. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone probably can't compete with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but they are great actors, and their best work in the film is when they are acting rather than when they are singing and dancing. Chazelle's determination to use long takes to capture the songs is admirable and technically impressive, but for me the songs themselves are unmemorable. They are there to evoke memories of Old Hollywood and how that romanticism is folded into the romance in the film – two retromaniacs finding solace in their nostalgia for forgotten artforms. It's Gosling and Stone's portrayal of that relationship that makes the film work.


Late Spring

A highlight of Ozu's post-war work, and rather more didactic than the late films I'm familiar with. There is apparently a lively discourse over the extent to which Ozu is critical of the painfully arranged marriage the film ends on. Noriko is in the late spring of life – 27 and unmarried, happily living with her widowed father in a state of arrested development. Eventually her father puts his foot down and explains to her the necessity of leaving home and starting her own family. Ozu will abandon such lecturing in future, but here his thinking is very plainly spelled out. Noriko's situation is unnatural. Her devotion to her father, while honourable, is also self-serving. She is comfortable and content, but her duty is to work at creating her own happiness with a husband. Noriko assents and admits that she has been selfish.

I don't think Ozu ultimately wishes to question the demands that tradition places on people. They are a source of pain that must be endured. The father is left bereft by his daughter's marriage – there will be no one to look after him in his old age. Likewise Noriko must try to build a relationship with a man she barely knows. These are wrenching transitions, but the naturalistic title of the film implies that they are inevitable parts of the cycle of life, and must be borne with fortitude and determination. Happiness requires work. You can't just coast on the achievements of your parents.

The film is humane enough to linger on the melancholy and bitter emotions created by the necessity of marriage. The famous scenes – at the Noh play, the empty vase – are showcases for Noriko's jealousy and shame. The interesting thing about Late Spring is that future films will valourise the Noriko character's attachments as signs of overbearing loyalty rather than selfishness. Ozu keeps returning to the archetype of the dutiful daughter and her slightly warped attachment to the old ways (where remarriage is unaccountably a filthy thing to do), but he will become more tender in his portrayal of her.

Noriko's vivacious best friend is a sign of things to come – a less conservative film-maker would have made her the hero. She has taken advantage of the freedoms after the war to divorce the pig of a man she married, and is making her own money as a stenographer. Noriko is attracted to the independence of not having a husband, but unlike her friend she buys this by looking after her doddery father who she can wrap around her little finger. Tellingly, even her entirely modan gaaru best friend insists that Noriko should get a husband already. It's a part of growing up and becoming your own person, even if it's still couched in the traditions of marriage and male authority.

The film established Ozu's famous late style. A rigidly, almost obsessively, static camera – which doesn't move even when the characters are on bikes. The low angles which position the audience as reverent observers of the quotidian interactions of middle-class families. The ambiguous pillow-shots, which sometimes serve to establish a setting, sometimes as moments of reflection, or in the famous example of the vase, to show time passing between Noriko's change of mood. The film opens on the image of a train station – perhaps a symbolic suggestion of the journey out of the family home Noriko must undertake. It ends on footage of waves on the beach – an image grounding the action of the film in the timeless movements of nature. It's a masterpiece, but Ozu's themes are still rather close to the surface. He will become subtler and more ambiguous as he continued to revisit these stories in the films that followed.


Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans Visage)

Released in the same year as Psycho and in its own way just as influential on the horror genre. Part of the power of the film lies in it not having an explicit explanation for the motivations of the characters. Unlike in Hitchcock's film, here the police fail to uncover the mystery, and there is no debrief where the psychosis is explained, providing comfort and closure to the audience.

Instead we have to rely on the skill of the actors to unravel their inner worlds. The Frankensteinian Dr. Génessier is animated by pride in his medical skill, which extends to the inability to admit or accept responsibility for the car crash that disfigured his daughter. Instead he keeps trying to erase the record and reverse the damage he has wrought. But all that does is deepen the trauma he has inflicted.

The more frightening character is his secretary Louise, who provides the doctor with a source of new faces by seducing students in Paris. She is played with the fervour of a cult follower – wild eyes and a manic rictus grin as she goes about her murderous business. She is grateful to the doctor for her own plastic surgery on her face, but he has co-opted that gratitude and turned her into his very own Igor figure – totally dependent and subservient to his whims and projects.

Christine is the child who is the victim of these experiments. The name is ironic – she’s the opposite of a Christ figure in that people end up dying for her so that she can live and be transformed. It's implied that she endures her surgeries in the hope that her beauty can be restored and she can be reunited with her fiancé, although for much of the film she is also depressed to the brink of suicide at the forlorn prospect of such an eventuality. At the end of the film she accepts that these dreams of love and the protections of the patriarchy are impossible, and she revolts. In the final moments she releases herself from parental and marital authority and emerges into the world.

It's an empowering as well as a disturbing note for the film to end on, and I suspect Alex Garland's Ex Machina takes inspiration from it. In both films, young women have been physically and psychically shaped by domineering, arrogant inventors, and are able to turn the tables on their creators and escape their remote castle laboratories. Franju uses rather obvious imagery of doves being freed from their cages to underline the point, but it's still a haunting and poetic moment, and it has had a long cinematic afterlife.