20.5.16

The gap between panels / A perfect moment

Latest column for the London Graphic Novel Network tries to talk about how comics can freeze moments in time in order to study them, using some rather obscure graphic novels to make the point (including a bit of borrowing from last year's post on Yukiko's Spinach). Meanders into the question of whether such behaviour inherently carries a voyeuristic or erotic charge, and how to cope with or redeem it if so. It's probably the most pretentious one yet, in other words. Read it here.

2.5.16

Captain America: Civil War

Marvel's gamble on the Russo brothers continues to pay off. Mainly known for cult TV comedies, they handle the massive budgets and expectations of superhero action films with aplomb. Much like Age of Ultron before it, Civil War needs to pack a lot in, and the hyperactive plotting of Arrested Development and Community turns out to be good training for making all the pieces fit together. An example: Spider-Man is introduced in something like five minutes. They also manage to craft the sequence where the Avengers finally start fighting each other into something genuinely engaging. It's of little surprise that they've been handed the keys to the Avengers films due for release in 2018-19.

Civil War only very loosely follows the framework set by Mark Millar's crossover, where superheros have to decide whether to register and become agents of the U.S. government. In the film, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been discredited, and the pressure comes from the United Nations, who wish to licence and legitimate Avengers interventions in sovereign countries (echoes of recent adventures in the Middle East and Africa are muted). Cap's reasons for resisting 'the Accords' is a bit woolly, and boils down to an intuition that he's more likely to call the shots right than the UN. Conveniently (given that it is his film) in the case of Bucky Barnes he is right.

The instrumental question about whether private citizens are better able to exercise their superpowers effectively than democratically-elected governments is a side-issue. More important is the debate about accountability. Superpowered interventions, even if they end up saving lives (or the world), nonetheless kill civilians. The villain in Civil War is after revenge for the death of his family by superhero activity in 'Zarkovia' in a prior film. It's a motive shared by the Black Panther in this film, and in the end the latter proves to be the true hero by letting go of the thirst to take an eye for an eye – something Tony Stark is unable to do. That said, Cap preference to be held accountable only by himself and his friends is troubling. A brave creative team would challenge it in future films.

30.4.16

Wild Strawberries

Although his issues with his cold and severe father are mixed in, Bergman admits that Isak Borg is a self-portrait (they share the same initials). The name suggests 'icy fortress' in Swedish, and the beginning of the film makes clear that the cause of the malady is a willful severing of contact with other people. Borg finds the endless discussions people have about other people tiring, and settles for his academic study of bacteria in splendid isolation.

That icy metaphor is contrasted with the wild strawberries of the title. In the pivotal scene in which they are introduced, they are associated with youthful exuberance and sexual frission. There is something of the Fall myth in the way a kiss spills the basket of strawberries on the ground. Borg watches on as his crush is seduced by a rival, who is vibrant and flashy rather than solemn and wise. The scenario is repeated towards the end of the film, where Borg watches on as his wife makes him a cuckold. His magnanimous superiority has always made him difficult to relate to – a distant God among mortals. The women in the film prefer men who are less accomplished, perhaps even a bit foolish, but human.

It is a fabulous performance by Victor Sjöström, who has a dry kindliness about him which inspires sympathy even when he is being berated for his grouchiness by his daughter-in-law and housekeeper. Bergman's use of memories and dreams to explore aspects of Borg's personality feels conventional now, but was groundbreaking then. Even so, the complexity of the character that emerges is still impressive. It feels like quite a modern film, even though it's half a century old.

28.4.16

"One difficulty in understanding just what Marx thought a society based on rational cooperation might look like is his insistence that there would be no sacrifice of individuality when we all contributed as we should to the productive efforts of us all. The thought seems to be that we so internalize the desire to do what we rationally must do for the benefit of the whole community that we feel no tension between our desires and the community's needs. This is either implausible or alarming; it is at least very hard to believe that work as the free expression of our creative natures will always coincide with work as our optimal contribution to the rationally organised productive mechanism that underpins our society.

...

"Full socialism imagines a form of collective economic rationality that makes sense only with an omniscient and omnipotent directing intelligence at the heart of the economy, and imagines that intelligence replacing the coercive apparatus of law and government; that comes close to self-contradiction, and if it did not, it would still presuppose an unlikely degree of spontaneous consensus on the merits of a central plan" - Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present

The gap between panels / Repetition repetition repetition

Latest column for the London Graphic Novel Network is ostensibly about creators repeating themselves, but mostly spends its time being nice about Phonogram and less nice about The Wicked + The Divine. That despite not have read the third vols of either book. Kieron Gillen found me out on twitter, which has got me worried that I've been insensitive if not outright wrong about WicDiv, but there we go. Read it here.

10.4.16

Shame

Shame is a tough film. Bergman talks about the influence of events in Vietnam and the wish to depict the effects of war in an uncompromising way. He is very hard on the first half of his movie, which he suggests does not fulfill this purpose and could have been drastically cut down. I think the before and after is quite useful, however. The film begins with a day in the life of the central couple, the bits of civilization (music, wine, philosophy) they treasure, and the petty disputes that disturb their tranquility (Eva wants children, but Jan is a sensitive soul who thinks it's inadvisable with a war on).

The second half shows this marriage break apart under the strain of totalitarianism, and the terrorism it fosters. A local warlord (and former friend) renders the couple his servants, and their resentment towards him is channeled between each other. Eva talks of being a player in someone else's shameful dream. She is forced to film a propaganda piece for the resistance, and later on the warlord pays her to have sex with him, which crushes the life out of her.

Jan, on the other hand, is hardened by that incident. The one bit of comedy in the film comes in the first half when, in the midst of fleeing bombardment, Jan tries and fails to shoot a chicken point blank so that he and Eva will have something to eat. In the second half, Jan is forced to reenact that experience, but this time the warlord is in his sights and it's deadly serious.

The fragility of civilization is an obvious theme – and the film is rather good on the way peace depends on trust, both personal and political. Less clear cut is the suggestion that the microcosm of the central marriage somehow mirrors the political conflict taking place in the outside world. Jan is yet another self-centred intellectual used by Bergman to punish himself, and here the self-laceration goes into the fear of the horrors he is prepared to commit to survive. Eva is the beautiful, simple-minded and kind-hearted woman who only wants children and gets trampled once society breaks down. Although she is patronised by her husband (and to some degree Bergman as well) she is arguably the more courageous, in that she cannot stomach the things Jan has to do to preserve their lives. In the end those compromises are futile, and perhaps it would have been better to die with more dignity.

Dreams of a better life bookend the film. It opens with Jan recounting a dream of the war being over and the couple continuing with their civilized lives. It ends with Eva describing a surreal dream in which she and her imagined daughter watch a garden being torched by warplanes, and she tries to remember something which makes her start crying. The couple's dreams are soiled by the violence around them, to the point where they become unable to hope for something better. But the shameful dreams of the oppressors, which have created this situation, remain mysterious. Shame explores the effects of the war very well, but it doesn't delve into its causes. That, for me, is the real weakness of the film.

The gap between panels / a splash of colour

Latest column on the London Graphic Novel Network blog looks at colour in comics. Seeing as I'm just a reader, rather than a practitioner, I can only circle around the colouring craft, and point out bits I've noticed that have impressed me. Those include Fiona Staples on Saga, Matt Hollingsworth on Alias, and Jason Howard on Trees – the latter kicking off the whole train of thought. Read it here.

5.4.16

"...whereas Aristotle thought man was a political animal intended by nature to live in a polis, Hobbes was a thoroughly modern thinker who repudiated the idea that nature had any purposes for us whatever, and emphasised that we were driven into political society. The consequence is that for Hobbes it is no loss if we live wholly private lives and take no interest in politics, while for Aristotle it would be a truncated existence suited to women and slaves but not to citizens" - Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present

The gap between panels / Comics as TV

Latest column at the London Graphic Novel Network takes the Fraction / Chaykin comic Satellite Sam as a starting point to talk about the relationship between comics and television. That's despite the fact that I have mostly stopped watching television. Read it here.