For anyone afraid that ignorance renders him ineligible for responsibility, politics is not the right profession - Edmund Dell, The Chancellors


Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

It's probably inevitable that a story about alchemy with a happy ending must involve the renunciation of pride and ambition. Much like Frankenstein or Faust, alchemists dabble in forbidden knowledge and are punished for it. The big bad in this anime series wants to know all the secrets of the universe and live forever – usurp God's rightful place. God is having none of it however. The anime portrays him as a grinning white human outline, and he condemns the pretender to his throne to eternal despair. On the other hand, our hero Edward Elric renounces his genius for alchemy with the claim that self worth is not bought with knowledge but is conferred by one's peers – your family and friends. The grinning God is well pleased with this answer, and rewards Edward by returning his brother Alphonse from death.

This theological condemnation of human curiosity feels rather old-fashioned in the gnosticism-infused times we live in, where the Fall of Mankind is spun as a positive development à la His Dark Materials. Fullmetal Alchemist is a bit more Raiders of the Lost Arc – peering into the holy of holies will melt your face. It's also a bit weird that after apprehending the big truth that we are limited, foolish creatures who don't deserve enlightenment, Edward leaves his family and friends again at the end of the series chasing after more knowledge. The anime glamourises lone questing male heroes who must abandon their partners and children in the process of said quest... all while talking up how family is the preferred avenue of fulfilment.

But leaving these contradictions aside, the series is very good at exploring the consequences of ambition, both in the way it reduces people to a means to an end (philosopher stones are literally products of genocide), and also in the suffering left in its wake. The anime is set after the events of a brutal war against dark-skinned, red-eyed Ishvalans. In the original manga, this was a comment on the displaced Ainu of Japan. In Brotherhood it's easier to draw parallels with more recent conflict in the Middle East. What is interesting is that the purported 'good guys' have very clearly committed atrocities in the past. Likewise the most prominent Ishvalan character starts out as a terrorist, a religious zealot, and a murderer of innocents. Despite perpetrating unforgivable crimes, both he and his oppressors are given a shot at redemption, and an opportunity to reconstruct their war-ravaged societies.

This doveish theme is undercut slightly by the very prominent fascistic iconography employed by the series. The country is ruled by a Fuhrer, the setting is an alternate version of early 20th century central Europe where democracy is crumbling, and service to your commanding officer is presented in glowing terms. Roy Mustang, who emerges as the new Fuhrer at the end of the show, has as his guiding philosophy the paternalistic notion that if he looks after his subordinates, and they look after their subordinates, well-being will filter down to the country at large. Of course setting an example is important, but the checks and balances of a functioning republic only get a cursory mention, and I know which I'd rather rely on.

In any case, Brotherhood is not immune to the trope of government conspiracies, corruption and factional infighting frequently found in depictions of politics in Japanese media. Edward Elric's impetuous irreverence is the only protest levelled at the inevitability of these shenanigans, and it's an impotent one. The wheels of the machine keep turning, and resignation (like that of Edward's father) appears to be the only mature response.

It's very watchable, of course. Game of Thrones fans have no right to sneer at it (or to ever talk about fan service). Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is often more harrowing, but also infinitely funnier than George R.R. Martin's grim fantasy. Also, at 64 half-hour episodes, is more digestible and compressed than Game of Thrones. I was particularly impressed with the very tight plotting of the initial episodes, where a great deal of information is crammed in. The series slows down and stretches out as it goes on, to the point where the climactic final day goes on for something like 10 episodes. But the action never slows down, and my interest never faltered. It's an accomplished performance throughout, and well worth your time.


Labyrinth of Passion

This is one of Almodóvar's first films, made in the early 80s, and it shows. Although it lacks polish, the meticulous plot is very impressive – zipping along extremely quickly, and winding around a large cast of outlandish characters before wrapping them all up in a satisfying bundle at the end.

There is a coherent shape to the film provided by the opening and closing shots. It begins with high-angles of two characters wandering around a market looking to hook up. Sexilia, a nymphomaniac, eventually invites a bunch of men to an orgy. Riza, a Middle Eastern prince living in exile, picks up a guy at at cafe. At the end of the film, Sexilia and Riza are enjoying their first sexual experience together on a plane soaring into the sky – the former converted to monogamy, the latter abandoning his homosexuality. The tropical island they are flying to is a heteronormative paradise. Sexual deviancy is left behind in Madrid.

That's a slightly weird ending for a film that otherwise celebrates the counter-culture that blossomed after the fall of Franco, with its camp discos and punk rockers. Probably the most outrageous subplot involves a girl enlisting Sexilia's help to escape from her father, who rapes her every two days. The girl gets plastic surgery that transforms her into Sexilia's double, and allows her to assume her identity while the real Sexilia elopes with Riza. Ironically enough, the new 'Sexilia' ends up back in an incestuous relationship, although a consensual one, with Sexilia's dad.

Almodóvar seems to suggest that the sexual lives of his characters are shaped by their particular histories. You may run away from incest but it will find you again. Similarly, Sexilia's nymphomania is an extended rebound from feeling rejected by Riza when they were on a beach holiday as children. Riza's homosexuality is also a result of feeling rejected by Sexilia. The two are destined to be together, but a misunderstanding as children has led them down alternate, delinquent paths. Sexual identity is both fluid – in that frigidity, homosexuality or nymphomania can all be 'cured' – and also fixed by the laws of romantic destiny. Sexilia and Riza are star-crossed lovers. All the fun in between is a swerve away from that fate.

Which makes the bubbling sexuality in Madrid portrayed by the film provisional, incomplete. The hunger for hookups in the street-market crowd is something the main couple literally fly away from. The skies provide the setting for the sexual union perfected. The rest of the characters have to muddle through on the ground, constantly shape-shifting but never quite finding contentment. Perhaps Sexilia and Riza's transformation into an ideal couple presents a longing for escape that always feels slightly out of the reach of the punks and queens of Madrid.

Almodóvar has said that his two main characters remain undeveloped because the film keeps getting distracted by its subplots and outlandish co-stars. Those diversions, chronicling the subculture of a very particular time and place, are what make the film interesting 30 years on.


Wings of Desire

Hard to escape the impression that the angels in this film are mostly an extended metaphor for the camera. They don't do anything so crass as fly around. All of that is saved for the impressive crane shots around the library, across apartment blocks and over walls. That sense of floating omnipresence is communicated as much by the way the camera moves as the silent men in trench-coats hovering over the variously occupied people of Berlin.

What does it mean? Perhaps it's Wenders's way of trying to get across the way photography both reveals and distances you from the objects being photographed. Bruno Ganz isn't content with observing and recording other people's experiences. He wants to step into the frame and become a participant.

Not to get too David Thomson here, but it's no surprise that the angel's temporal desires become focused on a woman. She is a trapeze artist, already far more graceful in the air than Ganz could ever be. There's an interesting switch-around between the two, in that Ganz begins the film observing Berliners from the top of a cathedral, and ends it looking up at the object of his devotion. He trades omnipotence for submission, a transcendent (and silent) God for an immanent goddess. Wings of desire are liable to fall off and leave you grounded.

Object is the right word. I found Solveig Dommartin lovely but also absurd, the final consummation between her and Ganz close to laughable. It doesn't help that it occurs at a Nick Cave concert (that pompous vortex of toxic masculinity is not a sustainable model for romance). Her monologue is an egregious abuse of language, meaning and the viewer's patience. Wenders would have improved his film immeasurably if he had left the cod-poetry behind with the black-and-white, and tried to convey a sense of reality, with real people in it.


Tokyo Story

This is a long film, and it accrues significance with each scene. The effect is something like the epiphanies Joyce builds to in his Dubliners short stories, except that here the first one hits about half way through, with each scene after that adding fresh ones.

For the father, it's when he gets drunk with some old friends and the mask of respectability slips. He's finally able to be honest, and reveal his disappointment with his children. But unlike his more impatient drinking buddies, he at least realises that his expectations may be too high.

For the mother, it's when she stays over with her son's widow Noriko, after being turned out of her daughter's house. There she urges Noriko to let go of her late husband, and try to find a new partner. (The devoted young woman who refuses to marry and stray from her family is a recurring Ozu motif).

The final big whammy concerns Noriko herself – not a blood relative, yet does more for her adoptive parents than their own sons and daughters. Why? The sense of duty she displays is overwhelming. When she bursts into tears in front of the grandfather at the end of the film, she admits to feeling lonely and worried about the future as a single woman living alone in Tokyo. Although she is ashamed of her wish to move on and find a new husband, it's also obvious that she yearns for the surrogate family she already has, perhaps the only family she has (her own parents are never mentioned – they may have died in the war).

There is something vampiric about the care Noriko shows for her late husband's parents. As she explains to her sister in law, the distance between parents and children grows as time passes. It's a normal development that will happen to her eventually as well. That's why her gift of a watch from the grandfather is such a laden symbol. Time dissolves all attachments. Although given as a memento, it will also serve as her key to freedom.


Say Anything…

More a drama than a comedy, and given that I grew up with American Pie, quite sweet. John Cusack's Lloyd is surrounded by a chorus of supportive girls who only have the job of confirming what a nice guy he is. Seeking male advice is always "a mistake", and the film has some fun with the sexist jocks drinking at the petrol station without a dame in sight.

Cusack always comes in one flavour, a bit like Keanu. Nervous energy, slightly pathetic, intermittently witty. He walks into the film already besotted, on a seemingly impossible quest to win the girl. Ione Skye's Denise is the one with the arc – she gets to choose. But her choice is between the devoted Lloyd and a devoted father. The latter (brilliantly played by John Mahoney – Marty Crane in Fraiser) is a suffocating presence in Denise's life. There are several scenes in which we see the way he uses his devotion as a means of control.

Luckily for Lloyd, the dad proves to be a tax dodging criminal and ends up in jail. He gets the girl by default. But I wonder whether Denise hasn't traded one over-protective parent for another. The film ends with the couple waiting for the airplane seatbelt safety sign to be switched off. Denise has a fear of flying, and Lloyd is hyperactively trying to comfort her. I was left hoping that when Denise gets the seatbelt off, she'd be able to leave these caring men behind, and walk on her own two feet.


House of Tolerance

There are no surprises in this French film eulogising the Belle Époque brothel. Its sights are firmly placed on the lush frills, drapes and ornaments. And the women, who are stuck in the house getting drunk every night and having to sleep with the same tiresome men over and over again. Everyone is too wasted to summon up any kind of wit or personality. Although there is camaraderie among the girls, the prevalent mood is one of grinding frustration and hopelessness.

The film is at its most gruesomely impactful when it slides into horror. The director Bertrand Bornello was inspired by a dream of a film (...very French, that. It's called A Man Who Laughs and I haven't seen it) to include a prostitute disfigured by one of her clients. The grim scars on her face are unsettling, and her assault is difficult to watch. The film begins with it and returns to it several times, and it adds a hint of menace to each gloomy shot of a dimly lit boudoir. There is prevailing sense of predators lurking behind every shadow, although in the end that one psycho turns out to be less lethal than the inevitable spectre of syphilis.

The film's use of symbolism is boringly obvious. You have your petals falling from white roses, and also a surrealistic shot of a whore weeping tears of semen (gross and also a bit ridiculous). It ends with video footage of sex workers in modern day Paris – the implicit question being whether today's streetwalkers have it worse than a hundred years ago. It's not something Bornello seems interested in answering, so asking it feels a bit pointless. But if you needed reminding that prostitution is dreary when it isn't actively frightening, this film does the trick.


Spider-Man: Homecoming

‘Homecoming’ in several ways, one of which must be a knowing wink from Marvel Studios that they have finally brought the property back to where it belongs. After the weird diversions of the Amazing Spider-Man films, and the disappointment of the third Tobey Maguire movie, this finally gets the Spidey film on the right track.

It’s also a nice narrative arc to hang the film on, after the abrupt introduction of the character in Captain America: Civil War. Most superhero film franchises begin with an origin story and work outwards, with the main character taking their place in the world fighting against evil. This one starts on the grand stage and moves inwards. After getting a taste of Avengers action, Peter Parker is desperate to become a member and leave his dull high-school existence behind. That, however, is a rejection of what Spidey is all about: a superhero who is in the same situation as the teenagers that read his comics – juggling homework, family, bullies, and crushes on cute girls.

And this film has Parker dropping all of those balls. It rather neatly evokes the experience of competing expectations and responsibilities which are impossible to meet all at once. Being the cool superhero means disappointing your friends, or making your family anxious. This is conveyed physically by how clumsy Tom Holland's Spidey is at the job of fighting crime. Some of the biggest laughs in the film are from him crashing through people’s back yards, knocking down sheds and tree-houses, and terrifying the kids out on a sleepover in their tent. Parker is not used to his superpowers in the same way teenagers are not used to their changing bodies. The metaphor is forcibly and enjoyably communicated.

There are shortcomings, mostly of emphasis. Marisa Tomei is not given enough to do as Aunt May – the rock on whom Peter depends, but also a burden of responsibility which weighs over his activities as a costumed hero. Tony Stark’s distance could have been reinforced by less Robert Downey Jr. on screen. But these are tiny flaws in what is a tricky feat to pull off – an introduction to Spider-Man that’s not yet another Spider-Man origin story.


The Gap between Panels / Breaking out of History

Latest column on the London Graphic Novel Network looks at The Infinite Loop by French creative team Pierrick Colinet and Elsa Charretier. It's a cute time-travel story that uses the idea of stepping outside time to discuss the marginalisation of LGBT+ people throughout history. It's also a very impressive book from a craft perspective, particularly in its use of design and layouts. Read the piece here.