Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island

"Why trap us in a world where power is enforced by the owners of so ludicrously finite a resource?" asks the hero of this short Warren Ellis steampunk yarn, where the steam is replaced with electricity. Captain Swing is leader of a commune of "natural philosophers" who believe science and technology will liberate humanity. I'm sure that similar ideas circulate in the wilder regions of Silicon Valley today. Which is why Ellis chooses a policeman as his hero, someone confronted with the worst aspects of humanity on a daily basis. As Captain Swing admits, this copper is "unable to see the world as anything but an ugly, unfair, unsaveable zoo".

Ellis keeps returning to mad scientists in the same way Scorcese keeps returning to macho gangsters – they are both seduced by dangerous powerful charismatics. Captain Swing may be an egalitarian, but his disciples are too enchanted to question his goals. In the end, Charlie Gravel (like most of us) walks a middle way between law and anarchy, the corrupt magistrates and the idealistic pirates.


The Buried Giant

Shortly after I started reading I listened to a podcast in which the author kindly explained what the novel was all about. Saved me a bit of bother, but also the pleasure of working it out for myself. Anyway, spoilers ahead! Ishiguro's big theme is the trade-offs that come with  (to use international relations terminology) post-conflict reconciliation. The Britons under King Arthur are responsible for crimes against humanity in their war with the Saxons. Gawain is charged with defending a dragon enchanted by Merlin to spread a fog of forgetfulness across the land, which prevents the Saxons from remembering the injustice they have suffered. The loss of memory keeps the peace, but allows war criminals to go unpunished. This grievance is the "buried giant" of the title. Ishiguro tries to keep the moral dilemma between peace and justice in balance throughout. To switch to Isaiah Berlin's terminology: the two values are incommensurable and the choice between them is 'tragic' in that it will involve evil either way.

Ishiguro makes a parallel between forgetfulness at the social and personal level. As with Saxon and Briton, so with man and wife. The elderly couple in the book have dark secrets in their past, which the enchanted mist has covered up. This memory loss has allowed their relationship to recover and grow stronger. However, as death approaches and the mist recedes, the past rises up and separates them. Love and harmony can only be sustained by willful acts of forgetting (if not forgiving). And yet those buried giants are never exorcised entirely, and are always liable to return. Should we face up to them? Again, the choice is tragic either way.

It's a clever conceit for a story. And apparently it came to the author before he settled on a genre. The Buried Giant has attracted interest because it is unashamedly a fantasy novel, with dragons and ogres, knights and wizards. I'll admit that this was the major reason why I picked it up. And yet it doesn't feel representative of what the genre has evolved into (plot-heavy literalist medievalism à la G.R.R. Martin or Robin Hobb). Ishiguro mentions samurai manga and the westerns of Peckinpah as inspiration. Gawain's ageing, honour-bound knight and the duel sequences definitely reflect that. Ishiguro has certainly also read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and other source material that fired up the imaginations of the Oxford Inklings. In fact, my sense is that the shadow of Tolkien hangs quite heavily on The Buried Giant, particularly the Hobbiton-esque community at the beginning and the Grey Havens vibe of the boatman at the end.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the voice Ishiguro uses, which mimics the anachronistic way Tolkien describes the dragon firework at the beginning of Fellowship as "like an express train". Ishiguro speaks directly to the modern reader at the beginning, in the same way that Tolkien does when he introduces you to hobbits. And as you are sucked into the story and get comfortable in its setting, the interjections fade almost imperceptibly away. Apparently, Ishiguro struggled with the narrative voice when writing the book (his credits his wife with urging a rethink). It's interesting that he went back to the source for a way out.


I Kill Giants

I read this in far from ideal circumstances – commuting for work or almost asleep at the end of the day, and with a long break before reaching the final two issues. And yet those closing scenes brought tears to my eyes, as they have done for many others. The break I took when reading perhaps artificially divides the comic into build-up and release, but it's a useful way of understanding how it works its magic. A great deal of time is taken introducing Barbara's character and her support network before we even know what is wrong, not to mention before we reach the moment of crisis and catharsis. While the comic explores the role of the imagination as a coping mechanism to deal with trauma (Barbara sometimes reminds me of William Blake talking to the angels in his back garden), ultimately its that support network around her that draws out the tears. Friends, family and school unite behind a brave girl lashing out against the horrible situation she finds herself in. Those bonds are the real heartstrings of the comic.


Avengers: Age of Ultron

Whedon acquits himself well handling what is an organisational nightmare of a film. With millions having seen at least some Marvel Studios output, at least he didn't have to worry about introducing the characters. But he does have to make room for each of them, and commendably he rations the time in favour of those without their own film franchises. While Cap has a moment lamenting his lost past and Thor goes off to take a bath (for reasons that remain mysterious), we learn a lot more about Black Widow and Hawkeye. And Whedon injects quite a bit of himself into the latter's secret family retreat. But the rest is a rehash of preoccupations he has covered in more detail before. Natasha Romanov's history of abuse and conditioning make her into a lost sister of Echo in Dollhouse. And Stark's ambition to built armour around the world feels like revisiting Serenity's Isaiah Berlin-like distrust of utopian visions.

Avengers finds Whedon shackled to Marvel's ridiculous narrative demands, and unlike so many times before, he has learned to deliver. But this has come at the expense of the idiosyncrasy and originality that doomed so many of his earlier projects. No wonder he's a bit sick of the treadmill now (meanwhile J.J. Abrams shows no sign of slacking). Whedon's brilliant Much Ado was done during a break in the filming of the first Avengers film. I for one am really looking forward to what he does after this one.


Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

Mamoru Oshii's sequel to the phenomenally successful Ghost in the Shell, which I praise to the skies here. This second film departs quite a bit from Shirow Masamune's original manga, and feels quite personal to the director. But Oshii is an inscrutable guy, insisting that he doesn't interpret his films until after they are made. And his obsession with realising visual ideas clearly overshadows concerns with plot, theme and character. The festival sequence took a year to make apparently, and I'm not sure it's more powerful than Kusanagi wandering around the city in the first film.

So making sense of Innocence is a tricky task, but let's give it a go. Batou takes centre stage for this one, with Kusanagi serving as his 'guardian angel' – intervening only when he's in a really sticky situation. Quite a bit of time is spent exploring Batou's loneliness, and his relationship with his dog. The film circles around the idea of humanity's interest in creating human-like robots, without really confronting it head on. The villains in the film manufacture sex-dolls with the implanted 'ghosts' (or souls) of children. Batou's dog, according to Oshii, is also a creature manufactured by humans to serve as companions. But it is nonetheless an animal and different to ourselves. And that difference is a reminder of our uniqueness. We would never feel that lack we feel with a human-shaped doll or robot, which spurs us towards greater feats of Frankensteinian creation. Controversially, Oshii seems to suggest that pets may keep us more grounded than our own children, who we are always trying to mould in our own image.

Oshii's ideas are a bit garbled, but he is clearly committed to the importance of treating sentient beings as ends in themselves, with their own equally valuable interests and attachments. Our urge to make the outside world a reflection of ourselves, and shape the reality of others, is what seems to worry Oshii. Ironically, he describes the film-making process in very similar terms – expressing the psychology of different characters visually, through the look and feel of a futuristic cityscape or mysterious ritual. Oshii clearly works his animators very hard to fulfill his vision. It's almost as if his will-to-power is siphoned away from the real world and into harmless works of art.



"In fact if you want to give a deeper reading of the film, it can be seen as a vaguely lesbian story; where lesbianism has a certain importance. Or, more precisely, where the relationships between women are sometimes of a lesbian nature and are characterised by power struggles. But because society at the time was more prudish than today, I couldn't fully express the lesbian theme and I really regret this."

That's Dario Argento rebutting the argument that he is a misogynist. And it's true that the film's male characters are largely ineffectual. The people that carry the story (such as it is) forwards are all women – the children lost in the dark woods of Germany, and the wicked witches to be found within. One of the (female) critics on the DVD denied that the nubile girls under threat are objectified by the camera, but personally I think that's a difficult argument to make with all the swimsuits, tight jumpers and loose bathrobes in the film.

The quote above seems to elide the power struggle and the desire between the older and younger women. Perhaps the former arises out of the latter, but in any case it's hardly a healthy portrayal of lesbianism. The motives of the witches are unexplained, but the simplest reading might be that the superpowered crone at the head of the coven resents the youth and beauty of the children at her ballet school. This drives her to murder those who try to escape her clutches, or uncover her embarrassingly depleted self.

But I'm over-analysing, because the film doesn't operate by the standards of plot-driven giallo. Empiricism is chucked out of the window by the professor who insists that magic is all around us. Maybe not in the real world, but the magic of cinema is certainly omnipresent in the film. Lighting, framing and music invade and overshadow the narrative completely. The story is just the means by which Argento conducts a series of experiments with his band and his cinematographer in building tension and release.

And it has dated horribly – the direction and soundtrack are so in your face that you are never allowed to sink into the situation and genuinely experience the terror inherent in it. Instead the film feels ridiculous, nowhere more so than when one of the victims foolishly jumps into a mass of razorwire in fleeing her assailant. In fact, the film's structure is rather repetitive – being a series of discreet sequences that lead to an improbably bloody murder. Describing it as pornographic is not actually that wide off the mark, in that it's flat, predictable, and a little bit dull.



Quite a sprawling and indulgent picture, unlike the last two Buñuel films I've seen and blogged. It's shot in Toledo and set in the 1930s, a place and time that has personal significance for the director, and may have encouraged digressions and superfluities. The strengths of the film lie in the two leads. Fernando Rey plays a bourgeois anarchist, with all the hypocrisy that entails. Buñuel sees not a little of himself in Rey, so the mockery is moderated. While the character pontificates about freedom, at home he behaves like a tyrant. Worse, he seduces his ward and then gets dreadfully jealous when she earns to escape his clammy grasp. But Buñuel allows some tenderness to seep in, particularly after his pseudo daughter becomes disabled. Deneuve reprises her role of chaste maiden learning about her own desires. But in the second half of the film she becomes darker, a sexual exhibitionist and would-be murderer.

The best moments in the film are where the quirks and about-turns of the two characters shine through – Deneuve's pleasure in choosing (even when the choices are near identical), Rey's insistence that all work that isn't pleasurable is base, Deneuve revealing her breasts to her deaf childhood playmate, Rey drinking chocolate with the priests. The one note of surrealism is a recurring dream Deneuve has of Rey's severed and bloody head as the clapper of a bell – a symbol of her sexual desire, her violent urges, and of her rebellion against the church.


Hiroshima Mon Amour

I thought the first words of the film – "you saw nothing in Hiroshima" – may be intended to console rather than accuse, since it plays into the theme of forgetting in order to continue living. But it's also a confession from the scriptwriter that she wasn't able to address the event directly in the script. Should we forgive her?

Resnais does a good job of editing together selections of a Japanese documentary on the effects of the bomb to convey a sense of what it must have been like, and also to suggest the feelings an uninvolved observer would have.

But there is still something off-putting about setting a film about a woman's experience of occupied France in Hiroshima. Her painful memories are dredged up by a Japanese man she has an affair with. As we don't have access to his memories, he remains little more than a device. In the end, so too is the Japanese setting, and even the documentary images at the beginning. It quickly becomes apparent that the film is all about the French woman, not the Japanese man and the city he lives in.

And perhaps we shouldn't expect a French director and writer to do anything else. But what makes me less willing to accept that is the strange flatness of the main character. Her forgotten romance feels pat, the scenarios cliché, the language pretentious. This is acknowledged by the narrator (and thus the filmmakers), but the effect is to distance you from the film, rather than lead you to think about the film's purpose – exploring the nature of memory and the way we narrate our pasts.

The effect of smashing together a love story and a war documentary is there in the title. And the suggestion that we need forgetfulness and fiction to be capable of continuing to live our lives is an obvious theme that arises from that. But with characters this wooden and opaque, it's difficult to really warm to what the film is trying to say.


Q1 2015 favourite tracks

My picks from soundcloud over the past three months, which have otherwise largely been spent catching up to things I've missed from 2014 (Tinashe, K Michelle, Miranda Lambert and those Keysound and Audio Rehab compilations).

1. Redlight x Tinashe - Pretend
2. Stormzy - Know Me From
3. Sam Binga feat. Redders - Lef Dem (Enei Remix)
4. Jammz - Hit Then Run
5. Kero Kero Bonito - Picture This
6. Darq E Freaker feat. Dai Burger - Choppin Necks
7. Jubei & DRS - The Puppeteer
8. Pearson Sound - Glass Eye
9. K. Michelle - Love Em All (Toyboy & Robin Remix)
10. TC4 feat. Arlissa - Something About You
11. Toyboy & Robin feat. Camden Cox - 300 Degrees
12. Flava D & Miss Fire - Closer

Soundcloud playlist is here, and is certainly going to grow as the year progresses.