30.12.18

Favourite songs of 2018

This year I stopped using my streaming subscription to excavate previously inaccessible music and focused on finding new things – hence a longer list than 2017's meagre 19 entries. Most of this has been active – reading about artists and listening to their albums as complete packages. And that takes a certain amount of work, a bit more than just switching on the radio or hitting shuffle on a playlist and waiting for something to pop out at you from the ambience. This year I was willing to expend the effort, but I'm not sure that will last into 2019. I suspect I will succumb to the tyranny of the playlist, as I have to most other things.

Strange that after the glut of R&B last year there is absolutely none on the list this year. Strange also that after dismissing most rock music last year as decomposing offal there should be so much of it on the list this year – female-fronted as well, although unfortunately the boys still managed to snag the number one spot. The winds of change are blowing, and appear to be blowing in shouty ladies with guitars.

As per the established practice, it's Kieron Gillen rules. One entry per artist, with the rest of the year's body of work pushing entries up accordingly. Only four entries out of the 25 below don't have a long player behind them, so even more so than last year this is an albums list in all but name.


25. East Man feat. Saint P - Can't Tell Me Bout Nothing

This just in as I only just discovered it (hats off to the magnificent Quietus list for alerting me to its existence and many other things besides). Can't believe I didn't clock this album earlier, given it's right up my alley – skeletal grime riddims being jumped on by hungry young MCs, some of who sound like they are still in school. It's a call back to the era of grime before grime had a name, and as such risks being a nostalgia trip but for the fact that the voices and flows sound so refreshingly contemporary.


24. Camp Cope - The Opener

Also a new discovery. I'm still unravelling the album but WHAT a way to open it – Georgia Maq spitting quotable upon quotable as she works herself into a lather of rage at all the patronising men in her life. Her sarcastic tirade at crummy boyfriends and pious scene gatekeepers is one hell of a ride, but one shouldn't forget the chewy riff that structures the song and provides a platform for the increasingly incensed vocal performance. Provides a thrill like only the best rock 'n' roll can.


23. Charly Bliss - Heaven

OK so this is more of a placeholder for the 2017 album Guppy, which I only got round to at the beginning of this year. 'Heaven' takes its cue from Guppy's final and worst track 'Julia', which slows down the band's energy to something approaching the heaviness of grunge. It's pretty bland, in other words, and doesn't come anywhere near the sugar rush peaks of 'Percolator', 'Black Hole' and the sublime 'Glitter', the harmonies on which are truly heavenly. I'm hoping whatever comes next from the band can recapture some of those highs.


22. Space Afrika - Gwabh

One of the more propulsive tracks on Space Afrika's Somewhere Decent To Live, which is otherwise an object lesson in minimalism, stripping percussion back to almost nothing and focusing on waves and waves of deep enveloping bass. I find most dub techno pretty dry, but there's an air of mystery and depth to this album that kept it on rotation this year. I like 'Gwabh' the most because there's just the merest hint of a two-step swing to the drums – pushing Space Afrika slightly closer to the dancefloor.


21. Daphne & Celeste (prod. Max Tundra) - 16 Stars

By various curious twists of fate I found myself selling copies of this CD at a gig at which Max Tundra (the producer) was DJing. The man is an absolute gent, and I say that not just because he bought me a drink for my efforts at salesmanship. Daphne & Celeste are of course the bratty children behind the reprehensible but also brilliant anthems 'Ooh Stick You!' and 'U.G.L.Y.', which I was the ideal target audience for when they came out 18 years ago. Max Tundra's production on their comeback album retains some of the abrasive hooky excess of the original D&C brand, but the pop here is knottier, less predictable. '16 Stars' sands down some of the jagged edges, which is why it appeals me (I'm older now, I need more stability in my life). But the whole thing is a treat.



Life in a Laser feels like it's making a case that the logical endpoint of the music that evolved into dubstep isn't the Caspa & Rusko avenue of grotesque wobbles and laddy boisterousness. Appleblim comes from the opposite, cerebral, Bristol-based end of the sound, but here he mucks in and aims for the club main room, mixing genres from across rave's history with an emphasis on light and colour rather than darkness and braggadocio. 'Itwltgstoo' draws on two-step garage (always and forever an irresistible rhythmic pull for me) but it's refined by the micro-editing precision of techno. A banger for the connoisseurs.


19. OneMind - Vibrations

The first of two future classic drum and bass albums released this year by the legendary Metalheadz label. OneMind sticks pretty close to the template established by Goldie and Platinum Breakz all those years ago – even the cover art is a tribute to the look and feel of those late 90s releases. Many of the best tracks are culled from the impressive EPs released last year, 'Pull Up' being a personal favourite. 'Vibrations' could have been a pretty straight two-step roller except that almost every bar is tuned and twisted in intricate ways that draws your attention inwards. OneMind take attention to detail – a prerequisite for practitioners of the genre – to new depths of obsessive compulsiveness. It's a pleasure to hear the effort in their work.


18. Wiley (prod. Bless Beats) - Remember Me

Godfather 2 may not be as consistent or as grimey an album as last year's back-to-yer-roots Godfather, but it's more honest, as well as having better pop moments. 'Remember Me' is particularly precious as an entry in a long line of Wiley self-doubting confessionals – valuable especially given the contrast with how he flipped out at Skepta recording a tune with prodigy-turned-nemesis Dizzie Rascal this year. "I used to be an eediat running my mouth in the beef with the paigons" – except that it turns out Wiley hasn't learned, he's still at it, still can't let go. The man's legacy is monumental, but even the recognition that comes with an MBE is not enough to settle old scores. 'Remember Me' is an all-too-brief moment of stepping back and giving thanks, before the insecurities and competitiveness drive him back into the war.


17. WSTRN - Sharna

God bless and preserve BBC Radio 1Xtra for bringing to my attention tunes that would otherwise never come within my hoary earshot. This little delight filled a similar niche to last year's much-loved balmy dancehall groover 'Reverse' by Shenseea (no 2 on the 2017 list). Only recently found out that Sharna is actually an acronym for 'She has a really nice arse', although the way these boys talk it sounds like they mostly want to snuggle up with the object of their ardour and drift blissfully to sleep.


16. Blocks & Escher - Gulls

The second of two future classic drum and bass albums released this year by the legendary Metalheadz label. The cover of Something Blue evokes the sea, as do several track titles, and there is something rather serene and balmy about parts of the record. I ended up listening to it quite a lot when I was by the beach on holiday. The drums don't really kick in until halfway through 'Gulls' – most of it is just atmosphere and a sound effect halfway between gull squawks and sirens. But there's nonetheless a hint of danger underneath the tranquil surface. That tension means you never quite sink into complacent easy-listening – there's always something around the corner to jar you awake.


15. Pistol Annies - Best Years of My Life

Pistol Annies are here to disabuse you of the notion that country music is all yee-haw good cheer. This devastator kicks off with "I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet" and it just gets worse from there. If Future (of whom more below) is the new millennium's version of the broken philandering (also pill-poppin') bluesman, Pistol Annies recount the other side of the coin – the articulate women that struggle with their own sense of Southern Gothic despair, and the men in their lives that fail to support them through it. The ironies and hard facts in the song are laid on so mercilessly it's difficult not to feel a shiver down the spine – the catalogue of disappointments building to a universal sense of the shit women put up with because they don't feel able to escape the circumstances they are boxed into.



14. Kojo Funds feat. Bugzy Malone (prod. Remedee & Mike Brainchild) - Who Am I?

Yomi Adegoke's excellent survey of current black British pop over the summer identified how grime (notionally having broken through after 15 lost years following Boy in da Corner's Mercury win) is now being squeezed by drill on one side and a medley of sounds loosely grouped as 'afro bashment' on the other. I find even the most energetic examples of drill like 'Homerton B' rather monotonous and boring, and it has made 1Xtra a less enjoyable listen given how much of the playlist is bogged down with this fodder – from the US as well as the UK. As grime dons like D Double E explain, part of the problem is the relentlessly dark and violent vibe of the genre, whereas grime always blunted that dangerous edge with humour, absurdity and lyrical ingenuity. When grime MCs 'battled' and 'slew' each other, this was mostly a metaphor for the competition pon the mic rather than in the street.

Suffice it to say that the music under the umbrella of afro bashment (the term a clumsy splice of afrobeats and 'bashment' or dancehall) appeals far more – not least because it rolls in the influence of female-friendly genres like funky and garage. 'Who Am I?' is a straight-up garage tune – calling back to the flossy excess of So Solid Crew but with the cadences updated for 2018. It's also partly a refutation of Adegoke's dichotomy, given that lyrically Kojo Funds and Bugzy Malone's concerns overlap with those of drill rappers. It's just that the beats they are jumping on are soooo much more enjoyable.


13. D Double E (prod. Swindle) - Back Then

The default position of grime MCs is to claim that they are the best grime MC, but catch them in a reflective mood and they'll concede that actually, D Double E deserves the number one spot (and also it'll be great if they could do a collab one day). For a while though I did think that D Double's best days were behind him – a lot of the singles relying on straightforward radio-friendly bars and callbacks to his classic catchphrases. A few short raps and then a chorus doesn't quite compete with the epic, dextrous torrents of verbiage he can unleash when he has a mind to (the twin pinnacles of his oeuvre remain his Frontline and Wooo Riddim freestyles). So it was a surprise to me that he largely pulled it out of the bag on his first album – released 20 plus years into a successful MC career built on radio sets, mixtapes, singles and live performances. 'Back Then' is my favourite cut because it's a sly nod to D Double's age and veteran status, because it has some of his best quips, and because there's no chorus to distract from what he does best – which is lay on bar after inventive bar.


12. Kero Kero Bonito - Visiting Hours

I used to consider these guys a singles band. Two of their best songs – 'Flamingo' and Build It Up' – were left off the concurrent long-players, and those long-players had their peaks and troughs. But this year's Time 'n' Place was a level-up, and best consumed as a whole. Although occasionally discordant and noisy, there is a persistent dream-pop vibe to the record. 'Visiting Hours' is a case in point – an almost word-for-word account of band-member Gus seeing his dad in the hospital after an accident. As sung by Sarah it becomes a paean to familial solidarity and assurance heard through the warping haze of painkillers. Delightfully comforting.


11. Natalie Evans - Hard to Forget

Was introduced to Natalie Evans when she supported Gulfer (of whom more below) at their gig in London. For a shouty mathy noisy punk band the choice of a singer-songwriter armed with a harp to open would be surprising, but then Evans's spidery songwriting does owe something to math/emo progenitors American Football – a common ancestor for both acts. So it made more sense than it seemed. Her record Better at Night is marvellously soothing, and 'Hard to Forget''s instantly memorable riff is particularly ear-wormy. Spent a lot of time with it this year.


10. Future (prod. Zaytoven) - Racks Blue

The first Beast Mode was my favourite release of Future's epic 2015 run, and its sequel is if anything even better. The third track 'Racks Blue' is where it really kicks into gear, using a pretty piano line to introduce a more melancholy, heart-tugging vibe to Future's stunting. And we shouldn't forget that he's still stunting. The topics Future covers do not stray far from trad trap bragging. The intrigue comes from the downbeat music and the grain of the voice in which they are delivered, which add the twist of decadent dissatisfaction and ennui amidst plenty. Beast Mode 2's finale 'Hate the Real Me' finally crosses the border into overt self-loathing, where you see the mask finally slip. 'Racks Blue' is the sound of Future still struggling to keep the mask on.


9. MoStack (prod. Ill Blu) - What I Wanna

MoStack's partnership with Ill Blu continues to deliver. A bit like MIST's alliance with Steel Banglez, the duo churn out variations on the same fool-proof template. This isn't much different to 2017 favourite 'Let It Ring', which I discovered quite late into the year, whereas I was cognisant of 'What I Wanna' in good time for it to be my 2018 summer banger. MoStack is a amiably awful human being – sing-rapping about being reckless and irresponsible and loving life to the max (the tune is marred slightly by a thoughtless endorsement of drink driving imho). The scamp even claims to be savvy enough to "sell a Biggie Smalls album to 2Pac", and even as a humourless old codger I find it difficult to resist this sort of brazen chutzpah.


8. Now, Now - AZ

Much as I love and admire Robyn, I'm afraid I didn't quite latch on to Honey. But that's OK though, because I had Now, Now's Saved instead. Frontwoman Cacie Dalage's vocal has that same yearning quality, and although not dance music, the loping rock rhythms of the record have a certain hypnotic effect nonetheless. The best singles came out in 2017 ('SGL' is just mahoossive), but this cut rather nicely balances the undergirding of guitar, bass, drums with a very 80s synth riff. It's about summertime and going back home and being young enough for a crush to feel like a religious experience. In fact Saved sounds a bit like CHVRCHES if you transpose them to the middle of Nowhere, USA and fed them nothing but John Hughes movies and Catholicism as they were growing up. And I'm there for that.


7. Ariana Grande (prod. Ilya & Max Martin) - No Tears Left to Cry

Let's be real here: Sweetener is actually quite an uneven record. 'The Light is Coming' is a brave experiment that doesn't work, 'God is a Woman' is Sia-level bland balladry, the final two tracks are forgettable. Pharrell's best cut is the rather sedate 'R.E.M' – the rest of his contributions are pretty mediocre (OK maybe 'Blazing' is OK). Grande's masterpiece remains her debut album – the one that cleaves closest to her Whitney, Mariah, Aguilera influences. And Sweetener picks up when she comes back to the Max Martin hit factory that produced the highest highs on Dangerous Woman. Of which, 'No Tears Left to Cry' is the standout and forms the centrepiece of the album. A euphoric crunchy belter that rises like a phoenix from the pits of the despairing croonery at the beginning, and ends on the confident flounce of pristine R&B. It's a journey, in other words, and far more assured than the confused sentiment of consensus pick 'Thank U, Next'.


6. Yizzy feat. Gemin1 (prod. D.O.K.) - Like Yours

The idea behind Yizzy's S.O.S. EP was to compile a batch of songs produced entirely by the old guard of grime beat-makers, and thus craft an appeal to 'save our sound' from what I presume to be the omnipresent monotony of drill on the one hand and vapid pop on the other. Hence cuts by heavyweight originators Terror Danjah, Prince Rapid, Maniac and Treble Clef. Apart from the too-earnest manifesto of the title track, the project is a roaring success, not least due to Yizzy's full-bore flow, honed by an experience of and appreciation for pirate radio. 'Like Yours' comes closest to capturing the energy and exuberance of a radio set, with two MCs knowing, loving and trading each other’s bars as they pass the mic back and forth.


5. illuminati hotties - Shape of My Hands

A great band name, and more importantly a great band. Ringleader and songwriter Sarah Tudzin is a studio rat and the album Kiss Yr Frenemies bears the hallmarks of her production nous – the hooks sharpened the better to tug your ears with. A bit like Charly Bliss above, illuminati hotties' indie-rock harks back to the sorts of songs you would hear in the background of bad 90s teen comedies, except that now the girls that watched those films have picked up guitars and are writing their own hits. 'Shape of My Hands' is still stuck in teenagerdom – all about how clumsy you are at romance when you miscommunicate through songs rather than trying to speak directly to each other. "Are you still thinking about me?" goes the refrain, and I think most loved-up sixth-formers know the feeling. 'Shape of My Hands' is almost too cute for its own good, but for me the callback to simpler times was hard to resist. Also, to borrow a Tudzinism, the whole album absolutely shreds.


4. Proc Fiskal - Kontinuance

Insula is a bit like what Burial would make if he grew up in Edinburgh listening to old Wiley eskibeat tunes on YouTube. It's a patchwork of influences, made more insular (hence the name) and personal by the inclusion of random chat the producer recorded when out around town with his friends. The stitching is too dense to unravel, really. There's only so much you can understand of Proc Fiskal's personal universe, but there's something intriguing in trying to follow the threads. Proc Fiskal's focus on the record was melody rather than needing to deliver the rhythmic punch the dance-floor demands. 'Kontinuance' adds to that by utilising two bars from an unidentified MC to creates a hook for the song to weave around. The final moments revert to the hiss of a radio moving between stations, which suggests a nod to the legacy of pirate radio, and the continuum of music Proc Fiskal's work is indebted to.


3. Skee Mask - Via Sub Mids

Compro is just such an endlessly listenable techno record, which is not something I say often about techno records. Care and attention is devoted to a sturdy rhythmic underpinning, borrowing freely from the breakbeat science of jungle in its prime. But there's also a warmth and emotion that comes from the atmospheres smeared over the drums. There are harder cuts on the album, but 'Via Sub Mids' stands out for the understated way it deploys its tools. The drums here almost sound like raindrops, the hypnotic drones over them like a cloudy sky slowly moving to reveal the glimmer of an obscured sun. And the drop in the middle is all the more effective for not being telegraphed. A gorgeous piece of work. Jon Hopkins's feted but meandering Singularity can learn a thing or two from it.


2. The Ophelias - General Electric

The origin story is a good one. The band are comprised of musicians who all served as token girls in other bands playing various genres in their home town. The name is pointed and ironic – Ophelia is Hamlet's beau, rejected by the philosopher prince and ending up mad and dead when she loses father and lover. This feels like a rehabilitation exercise, part of a trend of women in indie rock asserting themselves more than ever this year. 'General Electric' brings to mind the early work of St Vincent – meticulous, controlled compositions which seethe with suppressed aggression (I still maintain that St Vincent's masterpiece is the first song of her debut album). The Ophelias sing "I want to be just like the girls you like" in the same mocking Stepford Wives-esque tone, as if they are robots slowly becoming aware of their programming. It's a song about power being ceded to a lover ("I control nothing", "control me like a puppet") because these are the unwritten rules by which relationships are supposed to run. And the song itself sounds like an explosion waiting to happen – one that never quite arrives.



Math rock is supposed to be angular and precise – all of that fiddly fretwork takes a certain amount of skill and patience. Gulfer are very good at it, but their songs still sound scruffy. Perhaps it's the grain of the voices (vocal duties are shared throughout, one band-member often 'double-tracking' another at select moments), all of which have a strained quality, as if they are working towards a clear-throated singalong and never quite get there. Perhaps it's the texture of the recording – which still sounds like it could have taken place in the basement referred to in the opening song on the album. Perhaps it's the lyrics, which are vague and occasionally clumsy. There is a constant tension throughout Dog Bless between order and chaos, or the will to create something perfect from imperfect materials. There are many moments when the band get close. The final song on the album strings three such moments together, and therefore comes closest. It has a pedestrian beginning, but it ascends, and climbs peak after peak. It's the sound of pulling together at the last minute, working through the tiredness until you get at a moment of peace and serenity. And the sense of achievement is magnificent.

29.12.18

28 films in 2018

Quite a bit of my film-watching this year has been influenced by participating in the London Graphic Novel Network's Film Clubs – which in practice meant revisiting some old favourites and writing about them for the first time (Annie Hall, Fight Club, The Dark Knight, Clueless). Very grateful to Joel for organising these and getting the debate going – it's always more fun when you have something to argue against.

Most of the other films I've watched this year are things that have popped up on Netflix amidst the heaps and heaps of dross on the platform. Do have to admire the range of stuff on offer, from high-end anime (The Garden of Words, A Silent Voice), Hollywood classics (Touch of Evil), foreign-language films (The Villainess, Tale of Tales) as well as original productions (Annihilation – although that wasn't very good). You can't dive very deep into each one of these pools, but there's enough to satisfy the casual viewer, which given the demands of work and life nowadays is unfortunately what I have become.

I do want to try to get to the cinema a bit more often in 2019, and not just to see the latest blockbuster (Avengers, Black Panther). Seeing Kore-eda's Shoplifters in a near-empty Picturehouse this week was a reminder that films don't need CGI spectacle to be worth seeing on a big screen.

New:

Hirokazu Kore-eda - Shoplifters [link]
Ron Howard - Solo: A Star Wars Story [link]
Joe & Anthony Russo - Avengers: Infinity War [link]
Ryan Coogler - Black Panther [link]
Mari Okada - Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms [link]
Alex Garland - Annihilation [link]

Old:

Woody Allen - Annie Hall [link]
David Fincher - Fight Club [link]
Christopher Nolan - The Dark Knight [link]
Jean Rollin - The Iron Rose [link]
Yasujirō Ozu - Floating Weeds [link]
Shohei Imamura - The Eel [link]
Makoto Shinkai - The Garden of Words [link]
Paul Verhoeven - Total Recall [link]
Amy Heckerling - Clueless [link]
Orson Welles - Touch of Evil [link]
Paul Verhoeven - Robocop [link]
Juzo Itami - Tampopo [link]
Naoko Yamada - A Silent Voice [link]
Catherine Breillat - The Last Mistress [link]
Duncan Jones - Warcraft: The Beginning [link]
Lars von Trier - Nymphomaniac [link]
John Crowley - Brooklyn [link]
Jeong Byeong-Gil - The Villainess [link]
John Michael McDonagh - Calvary [link]
Matteo Garrone - Tale of Tales [link]
John Hughes - The Breakfast Club [link]
Jess Franco - Vampyros Lesbos [link]

28.12.18

Brooklyn

Based on the novel by Colm Tóibín with a screenplay by Nick Hornby, who is a practiced hand at adapting books into films, his own and those of other authors. This is a pretty straightforward melodrama, and for the first hour you’d be forgiven for wondering why it has received such acclaim, particularly if you can see what’s coming a mile away. I mean, the trailer wasn’t exactly coy about the central romantic dilemma faced by the character – a man in Ireland and a man in Brooklyn. And you can tell by the title which one she goes for.


But not the reason. That final confrontation between the small-minded pettiness of old country women and the newly-found independence of a young girl in a big city is the cornerstone of the film. The rest is very sappy, but effectively so. And the performances keep you interested enough through the long first hour.

24.12.18

44 Books for 2018

Until October this year I was able to borrow books from Senate House Library, which is one of my favourite buildings in London and a superb academic library. I tried to make the most of it, although apart from a few more accessible history and politics tomes I mostly gravitated towards my usual nerdy interests (Tolkien, anime etc). That accounts for the sheer amount of non-fiction I got through this year – stuff I read in the hope it would make me wiser but then almost immediately forgot. I've determined to read more novels in 2019 – at least the texture of a story stays with you a little bit more, even if the content evaporates.

I tried to think of intelligent things to say about comics this year, and although I managed three columns for the London Graphic Novel Network, I'm not convinced I succeeded. It's a bit of a struggle at the moment to find creators to get excited about, but perhaps that's just a failure on my part to be more curious. I'm hoping that re-reading some of the books that got me into the medium in the first place will kick-start my interest in the new year.

I keep track of the things I read on Goodreads, although I've yet to find the will to do more than assign stars to reviews there. Apart from the comics, the links below are just to snippets I thought were interesting and worth reproducing on the blog, or pretty pics I've taken of the covers to put on Instagram.

Tim Shipman - Fall Out: A Year of Political Mayhem
Tim Bale - The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron [link]
Harriet Harman - A Woman's Work [link]
Philip Cowley, Rob Ford (eds.) - Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box: 50 Things You Need to Know About British Elections [link]
Simone de Beauvoir - The Ethics of Ambiguity [link]
Sarah Bakewell - At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails
Anthony Gottlieb - The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy [link]
Declan Kiberd - Ulysses And Us: The Art Of Everyday Living [link]
Dennis C. Rasmussen - The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought [link]
Tom Shippey - J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century
Susan J. Napier - Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation [link]
Adam Roberts - Science Fiction
Mark Fisher - The Weird and the Eerie [link]
Pauline Kael - The Age of Movies: Selected Writings [link]
John Mullan - How Novels Work
Paul Addison - Churchill: The Unexpected Hero [link]
Peter Clarke - Keynes: The Rise, Fall, and Return of the 20th Century's Most Influential Economist
Maggie Nelson - The Argonauts [link]
Harold Bloom - The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry [link]
Sigmund Freud - Civilisation and its Discontents

M. John Harrison - Viriconium
Jun'ichirō Tanizaki - The Key [link]
Raymond Chandler - Farewell, My Lovely
Anaïs Nin - Little Birds
J.M. Coetzee - Disgrace
Margaret Atwood - Surfacing
Yasunari Kawabata - House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories
John le Carré - The Constant Gardener
Norman Mailer - An American Dream
Chris Mullin - A Very British Coup [link]
Various - Inside And Other Short Fiction: Japanese Women By Japanese Women

Harvey Pekar - American Splendour [link]
Edward Ross - Filmish: A Graphic Journey Through Film [link]
Meg-John Barker,  Julia Scheele - Queer: A Graphic History [link]
Pat Mills / Greg Staples / Clint Langley - Slaine: Lord of Misrule
Garth Ennis / Facundo Percio - Caliban [link]
David Lapham / German Nobile - Caligula vol. 1 [link]
Billy Tucci - Shi: The Way of the Warrior
Randy Queen - Darkchylde
David Wohl / David Finch - Aphrodite IX: Time Out of Mind
Brandon Choi / Jim Lee / J. Scott Campbell – Gen¹³
Fabien Nury / Mathieu Lauffray / Mario Alberti / Zhang Xiaoyu / Tirso - The Chronicles of Legion vols 1-4
Hiroaki Samura - Blade of the Immortal Omnibus 1
D.J. Bryant - Unreal City

23.12.18

"My belief, drawn from the women's movement, was that everyone had the right to be treated fairly and to have the opportunity to fulfill their potential, and in order to progress towards that the government had to take an active role. Equality is necessary for the individual: it is a basic right to be free from prejudice and discrimination. It is necessary for society: an unequal society can't be at ease with itself; an equal society generates greater social cohesion. And it is necessary for the economy: a modern economy thrives in a culture which offers employers the broadest labour pool, makes sure that everyone of working age who is able to participates in the labour market, rather than some being marginalized or excluded, and recognizes that diversity makes us outward facing as a country, helping us to compete in the global economy." – Harriet Harman, A Woman's Work

14.12.18

Shoplifters (Shoplifting Family)

The premise of the film is that a family of thieves kidnap a young girl and adopt her – they turn from stealing things to stealing people. You could extend the thieving metaphor to the entire family. They are not related by blood – their bonds are formed by money and necessity. But this is Kore-eda's 'socially-conscious' film, and so what would on the surface look like reprehensible behaviour becomes more explicable once you inhabit the house and become one of the gang. The child they have adopted was being abused by her parents. Her older 'brother' was left in a car while his carer was playing pachinko. The central couple are on the run after a murder of an abusive husband (in self-defence), and while they room with a grandmother whose pension helps them get by, they have in a sense adopted her as well after she was 'thrown away' by her real family. The film keeps returning to the idea that this family is chosen rather than the result of an accident of birth. And in some ways that makes it more honest.


The only other Kore-eda film I've seen is Our Little Sister, which tells a similar tale of family formation but in a more comfortable, middle-class setting. That film was cute, but it meandered aimlessly and slipped too easily from drama to melodrama. Shoplifters is much tougher – the only slightly soppy moment is when the boy finally uses the word 'father' to describe his relationship with his carer and mentor. And even then it's undercut first by the awareness that he's unlikely to see his adopted family again, and then further when we switch to the girl looking out of her balcony in the hope of being saved from her real parents by her adopted family. The genius of the film is to turn that theft, and all the other stealing we see, into an act of kindness.

5.12.18

"Fatally estranged from the transcendental difference that grounds human identity, the transgendered subject is barely human, condemned forever to "idiotic masturbatory enjoyment" in lieu of the "true love" that renders us human. For, as Žižek holds – in homage to Baidou – "it is love, the encounter of the Two, which 'transubstantiates' the idiotic masturbatory enjoyment into an event proper."

These are the voices that pass for radicality in our times. Let us leave them to their love, their event proper." – Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

20.11.18

Vampyros Lesbos

In the DVD interview, an admittedly ancient Jess Franco said he made the film because he thought vampires were classy and lesbians were sexy. Unfortunately there's not much more to this Euro-shlocker classic from 1970, which lacks the mystery and invention of the French sleaze-masters Alain Robbe-GrilletJean Rollin and Walerian Borowczyk. The avant-garde soundtrack enjoyed a resurgence in the 1990s, but in the context of the film it's wildly discordant and jarring, although perhaps I'm just not made for this sort of stuff, finding Goblin's celebrated work on Argento's Suspiria equally ridiculous. Franco apparently made over 160 films in the course of a long lifetime, some of which have been lost. On the basis of this supposed highlight, would guess a lot of them were pretty disposable.

18.11.18

Robocop

This might just be Verhoeven's most straightforward satire, in which the ironic stance isn't compromised by the director's complicity in what he's showing us – something that drags down Basic Instinct and Showgirls and even Starship Troopers. Perhaps it's a product of the slightly scrappier look of the picture. This was Verhoeven's first big budget sci-fi action film, and although the suit cost a fortune, it otherwise doesn't have the sheen of his work in the 90s. Its grit makes it less alluring, but it also makes it a purer work, not as contaminated by Verhoeven's taste for exploitation.


Being a comics kid first, this reminded me a lot of Frank Miller's brilliant 80s books – The Dark Knight Returns, Ronin, Elektra: Assassin –  not only in its cyberpunk aesthetic but its satirical bent, particularly when it comes to including an exaggerated version of American television news and advertising. Frank Miller contrasts the superficiality and decadence of the media with his stoic, hardboiled heroes clinging on to a notion of chivalry that's dying around them. To some extent Verhoeven follows this line – especially in his crass depiction of the criminals driving 'Old Detroit' to ruin. But Murphy is a more interesting hero because he is also a victim – the corporate powers-that-be hijack his body and programme his mind so he cannot compromise the company that owns him. He becomes a symbol of a society in which people have become products, treated as means rather than ends. Nothing in Verhoeven's later science fiction work is as simple and as powerful as that central idea.

28.10.18

Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms

An overlong high-fantasy anime released this year. It concerns a race of immortal weavers who isolate themselves from the world and record its history through the reams of tapestry they produce. The main character Maquia is warned off forming attachments by the clan's chief, who says such entanglements end in unhappiness. To love is to be alone.


The story is set up to refute this thesis. Maquia's home is attacked and she finds herself stranded far away from her country. Moreover, she finds a newborn child whose mother has been murdered, and decides to adopt and care for him. The immortal is brought down to earth, and has to deal with the real-world pressures of motherhood. Although the anime wanders off into a steampunky Laputa-esque fantasy narrative about clashing kingdoms, that stuff ultimately provides a backdrop for Maquia's relationship with the growing Ariel, who she looks over as he matures, falls in love and has children of his own.

Parenting is therefore the central theme of the story. The decision to have children is a way of ending your detachment from the world. You have skin in the game in a way you don't when you dispassionately look over events from an ivory tower, as the weavers (literally) do. It's significant that the director Mari Okada is one of the few female creators making internationally-fêted anime films. It's a valuable perspective to have in what is mostly a male-dominated industry.


The anime strains very hard to build to an emotionally powerful ending, slipping into melodrama if not bathos in the effort. I found this a bit cloying and wearying, and note that the understated approach of masters like Miyazaki and Takahata is often more effective. Okada also doesn't effectively integrate the personal story of Maquia and Ariel with the wider tale of the kingdom they live in. Instead there are awkward leaps between one and the other, making the whole thing feel longer than its 115 minutes. It's not perfect, in other words. But then again, there's also nothing quite like it.

27.10.18

"Just as the infinity spread out before my gaze contracts above my head into a blue ceiling, so my transcendence heaps up in the distance the opaque thickness of the future; but between sky and earth there is a perceptual field with its forms and colours; and it is in the interval which separates me today from an unforeseeable future that there are meanings and ends toward which to direct my acts." - Simone De Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity

26.10.18

Calvary

The film isn't shy about drawing the parallels between Brendan Gleeson's Father James and Christ. He is a good man. He knows that he is to be killed. He dies for the sins of others. In the final moments of the film it's implied that his gospel of forgiveness has at least one convert: his daughter picks up the phone to his killer – a superhuman act of forbearance and mercy.


John Michael McDonagh's approaches the issue of abuse in the Catholic church in a sideways and scattershot fashion. The film's characters treat it with lacerating black humour rather than earnestness. There's something deeply weird about how disconnected the performances are from any shred of sincerity. When Father James picks up his daughter from the train station and sees the evidence of a suicide attempt, he makes a joke, and she responds in kind. It's the sort of wisecrack-rich dialogue you would get in noir – and perhaps this is one.

There is a mystery, after all: who will kill the priest? But actually guessing the identity of the murderer is a mug's game. There's no hint dropped during the priest's rounds through the week that points to the killer. It could be anyone. And in a sense, it is. Father James is persecuted by the society around him, who mock his attachment to a faith and institution that has been discredited.

My favourite character in the film is Dylan Moran's obscenely rich Michael Fitzgerald, who made his millions in finance and then fled to the countryside after the 2008 crisis to avoid prosecution for the 'irregularities' he was responsible for. He makes explicit the tenor of detachment in the film, at times coming close to sounding like Camus in his bemusement at the meaninglessness of existence. The contrast that structures the story is between this community's listless sliding towards suicide and the integrity and courage Father James gains from his faith.


John Michael McDonagh calls attention to the artificiality of his film. At one point Father James discusses with his daughter what the third act twist of their play will be. On many occasions characters comment on the poor lines McDonagh has given them. The effect has the most bite when Aidan Gillen complains that his sarcastic doctor character is a cliche, and that Brendan Gleeson has a better role to play. For me this starts to smell a bit of the filmmaker apologising for his work rather than standing behind it. Admitting that the pieces don't fit doesn't actually make the pieces fit any better. If the film ends up overreaching itself, and relying a little too much on Gleeson's performance to pull it together, it's nonetheless still very watchable. And Gleeson is very good company.

28.9.18

Cowboy Bebop

Anime scholar Susan Napier suggests that the final two-part episode manages to reconcile ironic detachment and a conventional portrayal of the male hero:
"Perhaps Cowboy Bebop's greatest contribution to the construction of masculinity is the way it convinces its audience that traditional heroism and chivalry can exist within a postmodern framework."
That's a lot of weight placed on Spike's story, which sticks rather closely to the doomed noir antihero narrative, including a damselled and fridged femme fatale to add a bit of motivation to an otherwise supremely louche character. A cynic would say that this is just another mode the anime plays with – a genre it adopts for a 23-minute spin of the turntable before moving on to horror, farce, heist, sci-fi, action, comedy etc etc etc. How far can we take these personalities seriously, given they shift with the tropes they are required to embody?


But the series asks you to watch it in a different way – suspending the need for narrative continuity across episodes, or the urge to develop lasting themes that linger beyond the great song that plays over the closing credits. Bebob is about surfaces, and its attitude is playful rather than sincere. It's a procession of skits referencing effects and affects from other works, scrambling them together into a collage which asks you to admire its audacity, but doesn't really engage your feelings.

If anything the final few episodes draw attention to the unreal, no-stakes mode in which the anime operates. Faye Valentine finds her childhood home and leaves the adventuring life aboard the Bebop, but then realises she has nothing to go back to – she ends up rejoining the gang, finding her real family in the process. She arrives in time to warn Spike away from going back to his past, as she did. It's better to forget. But for Spike these adventures they've had together are just a dream he's been sleepwalking through. He needs to confront his origins in order to work out if he's really alive. Spike's tragedy is that he chooses Julia over Faye, a real past over an unreal present.


That reality has stakes – Julia dies, Jet gets injured, the Bebop is shot down, Spike himself is left for dead. Perhaps it's better to stay dreaming. Interestingly the standalone film (released after the series but set before the finale) warns against the seductive power of dreams. In the world of Cowboy Bebob you have to choose between meaningless death-defying spectacle or the real world of mortality and lost love.

22.9.18

Nymphomaniac

Kill Bill but replace the violence with sex and the pulp sensibility with an arthouse one. And like Tarantino, best when not taken too seriously. My favourite scene in the four hour epic, which I watched on Netflix, is Uma Thurman's darkly comic turn as a deranged wife sticking the knife into her cheating husband. That scene is absolutely brutal, but also completely ridiculous. Thurman brings the kids around to the flat where her husband's infidelities took place and gives them a tour. Her husband is a fool – leaving his wife for the titular nymphomaniac who doesn't care a jot about him. He stands as a silent witness to his life falling apart, and he only has himself to blame. The nymphomaniac, Joe, just wafts through these people's lives leaving carnage in her wake. It's an expertly judged performance from Thurman – just the right side of histrionic to communicate the pain of the scenario while at the same time registering how silly it is. It's a unique moment, and well worth putting up with the rest of the film just to experience it.


Volume I by general consensus is better than Volume II, precisely because it's more playful, and tries on several different modes. Although the second part is darker, and has an excruciating sequence where Joe puts the life of her son at risk because of her addiction, the first part surpasses it in its portrayal of the death of Joe's father. Volume II has fewer tricks up its sleeve – the only bit of levity is when Joe attempts to arrange a threesome where the two men end up having an argument about which positions to take, and she has to leave unfulfilled. You could argue that the very end of the film marks a return of Trier's very wry, dark sense of humour – Joe is first beaten and humiliated by her ex-husband and protégé, and then betrayed by her confessor throughout the film – Stellan Skarsgård's monkish Seligman.

The problem with these final cruel pivots is that unlike the Uma Thurman scene, we are left to guess at the motives of the characters. The surrogate daughter was seduced, but we don't see the seduction or the arguments used to turn her against Joe. Seligman says he is asexual, but when Joe commits herself to conquering her nymphomania, some of her desire seems to transfer onto him. The story of her life fires up a sexual curiosity in him just as Joe renounces her own sexuality. It's a twist of fate – something out of a fairy-tale. And in fact all the episodes in the film have the same quality of characters pulled deterministically by forces beyond their control, conspiring to create neat stories that don't ring true when you step back from them. The film draws attention to this, with Seligman occasionally doubting the veracity of Joe's story. It's brazenly artificial – something else the film shares with Kill Bill.


Which makes you wonder what the point of it all is. Suliman's verdict focuses on the double standard whereby women who behave like Joe face far more censure than men who behave in the same way. That's fair enough, although he offers this as an excuse for behaviour that is still pretty reprehensible. Rebellion against the repressive nature of society and religion is a cornerstone of erotic art, and feels unsatisfying as a conclusion to a film about sex made in the 2010s. I think Trier's ultimate motive is to conjure up a stubborn iconoclast who keeps getting punished, physically as well as emotionally, for being out-of-step with society, an urge he's had at least since Breaking the Waves. It's a celebration of being an outcast and martyr, and not a little self-aggrandising as a result.

25.8.18

"I do not want to see impaired the vigour of competition, but we can do much to mitigate the consequences of failure. We want to draw a line below which we will not allow persons to live and labour, yet above which they may compete with all their manhood. We want to have free competition upwards; we decline to allow free competition to run downwards." - Winston Churchill, speech of 11 October 1906, quoted in Paul Addison, Churchill: The Unexpected Hero

19.8.18

A Silent Voice (The Shape of Voice)

A two-hour teen drama anime that's on Netflix at the moment. My wife wanted to watch something romantic in the spirit of Your Name (which we both love). Indeed, Makoto Shinkai thoroughly recommended A Silent Voice when it came out, but actually it is both a darker and more flawed piece of work. First the darkness – the anime begins with a suicide attempt by a teenage boy, before we flashback to his primary school years where he horrifically bullies a new deaf student. The initial flood of sympathy for the character curdles as we see him shout at her, throw dirt in her face and rip out her hearing aids. The incidental details lend credibility to the depiction: the teacher is young, bored and ineffective; the are no father-figures anywhere to be seen. It's a useful corrective to to the idea that Japanese children are somehow always well-behaved, dutiful and hard-working.


The anime is about how as a teenager Shōya starts to atone for the mistakes he made as a boy, and learns how to build real friendships. Some of this is handled expertly. The pressure of social opprobrium is what leads to his feelings of worthlessness – suicide for several characters is seen as a way to remove a burden on others. If they can't get anything right, they might as well cease to exist.

The anime missteps when it dilutes its sense of realism by indulging in unnecessary theatrics. It starts out as a drama and increasingly slips into melodrama. At its most fanciful the anime contrives a serendipitous midnight meeting which is arranged almost telepathically. When the manipulation of an audience's feelings is this discernable, it loses its force. And there are several moments towards the end which stumble as a result. That's a shame, because with a few tweaks A Silent Voice could have hit just as hard as Shinkai's superhit.

15.7.18

The Last Mistress

Catherine Breillat, known for stark, provocative art-house films, turns to costume drama. And she brings a little of her previous style to the genre, particularly in the cinematography, which avoids soft or filtered light for brilliant, bright 'real' colour. Breillat says she was drawn to the material because the author of the original 19th century novel challenged the mores of his day, while also living with the guilt imposed by a Catholic society. That struggle between yielding to desire and living with sin seems to be the motivating force of the film.

Breillat casts the libertine young – he's supposed to be 30 but Fu'ad Aït Aattou was in his early 20s when he got the part. Asia Argento is also probably too young – the film (and book) literally translates as 'The Old Mistress' in French. But Breillat was looking for a rock n roll dimension to the character of the courtesan, and Argento certainly comes with an insouciance that tears right through the mannered performances of all who surround her – slouching, smoking, grimacing like Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow. Aattou is a model, and is mostly there to look like a Renaissance boy – big lips, big eyes, tousled hair. He's there to be ogled as much as to act.


The film is framed by the libertine telling the grandmother of his betrothed about his 10-year love affair with a courtesan, and there's certainly something of Breillat in the kind, accepting matriarch listening to the sexual liaisons of a beautiful youth. But Breillat also identifies with Aattou's character, and his death-defying passion for Argento. Aattou takes a bullet for her, and at the end of the film she begs him to shoot her if he cannot continue their relationship. This image of violent penetration is an obvious stand-in for the depth of their obsession with each other, although the love-making scenes are rather languid, as if they are both in the middle of a heroin kick.

Aattou's bride is a blond, chaste beauty who is horrified by sex, but that seems to be a turn-on for Aattou, who portrays himself as a genuine lover rather than a duplicitous rake. He is torn between the respectability of a traditional marriage in which the husband is the head of the wife (as the priest intones during the wedding) and being a slave in Argento's boudoir. Interestingly, Breillat isn't particularly interested in the pleasure he receives during his sessions with Argento – her pleasure is the focus instead. Aattou is either dominant or submissive, but there isn't really an option between the two, or a chance to trade roles in a contented, healthy relationship.


Perhaps Breillat's point is that the two sides are mirror images of each other at a time when religion warped human sexuality into sadistic or masochistic forms. Or perhaps she thinks there's no middle ground, and women are just there to conquer or be conquered.

29.6.18

The Eel

It's interesting to have Imamura's clinical documentarian eye turn to melodrama. What you get is still pretty raw – there's drunken scuffles, mental illness, sexual harassment, an attempted rape, an attempted suicide and a pretty toxic financial entanglements. All of those things make sense from the director of The Insect Woman. But while that film was based on a real story the director gleaned from a woman he met and interviewed, The Eel is based on a novel. It therefore has structure, and its metaphors and symbols are denser, if not particularly subtle.


The film is bookended by two violent scenes. The first is bloody and ethereal, almost out of an Argento serial killer film, with blood spraying the camera. The main character Yamashita discovers his wife in bed with another man, and butchers her with a knife. He gives himself over to the police and serves an eight-year prison sentence before being released on parole with a pet eel as a companion. Yamashita prefers the company of the silent and obedient eel to that of people, who have the annoying habit of not doing what he wants. Perhaps prison sent him loopy. Or perhaps the pathology was always there, and his wife was murdered because of it. The film is about Yamashita learning to embrace other people and their messy lives. He lets go of the eel and his own solipsism when he becomes a member of a community.

The film begins with shots of office blocks and Yamashita at work. This is a different kind of prison, and Imamura suggests that a move away from the big city is the first step towards rehabilitation. The film is laden with further symbols and contrasts. After his horrific knife-work, Yamashita trains as a barber, almost as a way to learn to keep his blades under control. This is a not-too-subtle nod to the sexual repression Yamashita imposes on himself, as well as his sense of sexual inadequacy. He refuses to use a spear to catch eels with his fisherman friend, preferring to lure them into a long tube – a feminine rather than masculine way of killing things.


It's good that the romantic interest Keiko has also had enough of sexually rapacious exploitative men, finding the sullen but protective Yamashita the one safe harbour in stormy weather. She also lures him in with bento boxes while he's out fishing, underlining Yamashita's identification with the solitary eel that refuses to bite. The final moment of violence in the film is a chaotic brawl in which she accidentally hits Yamashita over the head, and then smashes the tank of his pet eel, setting it free. This is shot in the clear light of day, and it feels real rather than hallucinatory. It's about life breaking in and purging the demons that set in when you spend too long chasing a paycheck in a soulless megalopolis.

17.6.18

Solo: A Star Wars Story

It's a shame this thing bombed when going up against Infinity War, because it's an enjoyable space heist / western and exceeded my low expectations. Solo is a trainee cowboy who learns how to ride his first spaceship, embark on his first train robbery, and generally cross and double cross with the big bad sheriffs of the universe. There is even a hint of colonised Amerindians and enslaved robots. Both groups get the chance to cast off their chains because of Solo's shenanigans, which means the film doesn't avoid reiterating a white saviour complex. The way the mute oppressed fuel refiners are depicted is particularly cringey.


That aside, this is a lot of fun. Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover have the tricky task of impersonating the performances of other actors, but apart from a few ticks they settle into their own groove, for which we should be grateful. More interesting than either of them is Woody Harrelson's grizzled veteran shyster Beckett, and Emilia Clarke as the ambiguous Qi'ra, both of whom have to make their own compromises with the powers that be. I'm kinda hoping to see more of Qi'ra, and Solo leaves open the possibility of an appearance in other standalone Star Wars stories. I have a hunch that although they may not be as successful as the new trilogy, these one-offs may end up being better films.

Addendum


Gave a bit of thought about why Qi'ra was such an intriguing character over the week. She's there ostensibly as the love interest, but the expectation is sent up by her decision not to follow Solo at the end of the film, and instead join the bad guys. That choice highlights the fact that she is a woman trapped by other men, and that includes Solo. There's an intriguing bit of symbolism added to this. Han Solo has a lucky charm of two dice on a chain which he gives to Qi'ra at the beginning of the film. When we see her next, she is an employee and possible lover of Dryden Vos, who dispatches underlings with a double-headed laser knife. At the end of the film, Qi'ra upgrades Vos to Darth Maul, who lights up his double-bladed lightsabre to show off what a great guy he is to work for. Qi'ra gives Solo back his trinket. He's unreliable, like his dice – and his luck. The red weapons are more deadly, but also more powerful. They hold out the prospect of her being her own woman.

5.6.18

Tale of Tales

This is right up my street – baroque, grotesque fairy tales with astonishing attention to detail and with the special effects dialled right down. Guillermo del Toro would be proud of the sets and costumes, but Tale of Tales is less controlled than a Del Toro film, where ideas are carefully explicated. Matteo Garrone is more relaxed on set, happy as he says to follow his gut.


The film is an adaptation of a 17th century collection of Italian fairy tales that inspired the Brothers Grimm. They are early, more adult versions of the child-friendly stories we're familiar with. Garrone's focus seems to be on the workings of desire in women, as teenagers, mothers and spinsters, who want a husband, a child and their beauty back respectively. All three get a version of what they want – which doesn't last.

The film isn't coy about its theme: violent desires end violently. But whether it's better to be content with your lot isn't clear, at least in Garrone's retelling. Selma Hayek's overbearing mother engineers her own downfall. But the heroine of 'the Flea' (which departs quite a bit from the original tale) kills the ogre, humbles her father, and becomes Queen. Desire is an inevitable part of the human personality. It's often (self-)destructive, but sometimes it works out anyway.

29.5.18

Floating Weeds

A gorgeous film by Yasujirō Ozu, and fittingly given it’s a story about a theatre troupe, a showcase of fine acting talent. Ganjirō Nakamura plays a hammy actor paying a visit to an old flame and an illegitimate son who thinks he’s just an embarrassing uncle. It’s a very subtle performance, conveying the ironies of a man trying and failing to lead a business and a family, someone who expects authority but doesn’t earn it.


The title is entirely metaphorical, perhaps a way of evoking how exposed the itinerant actors are to the whims of fortune. But floating weeds tangle around each other and clump together, which is exactly what we see the characters do in the film. Nakamura has two families, the acting company and his former lover's household, and they intertwine in ways he doesn’t want but cannot prevent. His arrogance leads to him losing both, and having to set out again on his own.


Nakamura is backed up by a veritable who’s who of Japanese acting talent. Machiko Kyō (of Rashomon fame) gives a star turn as the jealous Sumiko, and Ayako Wakao (who will become Masumura’s favourite in the 60s) is stunning as the young actress who is a master of seduction. Ozu stalwarts Haruko Sugimura and Chishū Ryū also give fine performances in minor roles. And the three horny actors trying to chat up the town’s young ladies are great fun. This is one of Ozu’s most enjoyable films.

27.5.18

Avengers: Infinity War

Spoilers. I don't usually care about spoilers, but for some reason I wanted to go in clean for this one, and I'm glad I did. I didn't expect what was coming. Up until the very end I thought the film was playing by the rules and would pull off a defeat of the bad guy. To have Thanos win was a glorious send up of expectations.


Joel over at the London Graphic Novel Network has written a very good three part piece (even think-pieces now come in trilogies) on the film called 'the audacity of hopelessness', which is an excellent title, as this really is an audacious move by Marvel. In previous Avengers films Joss Whedon established the protocol of having a minor character die permanently in order to generate pathos and a certain amount of tension about who would make it. It never worked because you knew almost all of them will. The chat in the run-up to Infinity War would have been who would bite the bullet this time, a popular theory being that Iron Man would be retired. What a safe option that turned out to be! Instead the four founding Avengers (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk) are spared, but Thanos wins and it's the new characters who turn to ash.

Joel loves the chutzpah of the ending, and takes issue with another good piece by Film Crit Hulk, who complains that the audacity is only skin deep. Like the Marvel comics before them, the cinematic universe will retcon the superhero cull and we'll return to our regular scheduled programming of two to three films a year. The safe option is simply deferred, and there won't be meaningful consequences. It's a justified fear, which is why I'm hoping Avengers 4 is a working title and the next film is just called Thanos. Perhaps it can even go in the direction Film Crit Hulk suggests, and explore Thanos's abused childhood and unfulfilled romance with a goddess of death. The only way the audacity of Infinity War can be earned is if Marvel continue to be audacious.

Film Crit Hulk is rather adorable in his fretting about what the Marvel films are teaching people:

I think about how many people can’t handle the basic dramatic stress of Infinity War and seeing our heroes in danger. I worry about how all the old lessons of Walt Disney’s original ethos, and the emphasis on understanding loss and consequence, could help prepare us to face the pain that we experience. For so many stories are designed to teach us the incredible healing and human power of sadness.

At my screening in the Peckamplex a lot of the kids were running around the aisles during the talking bits, so forgive me if I downgrade the importance of the Marvel Universe's underlying message. Those inured to the workings of retcons may well be annoyed at the probable lack of consequence to Infinity War's finale. But the mood in the screening was palpable – even the kids were silent in the last 10 minutes. Hulk is criticising the film to come, maybe justifiably. But the impact of Infinity War is real.

It's always about perspective. I would guess that most people still experience these things as individual films, rather than as threads in a wider tapestry. And the films are never less than enjoyable. The wider tapestry on the other hand is pretty threadbare, little more than a ploy to get you interested in the minor films (like the acclaimed Black Panther or the quirky Ant-Man) which would otherwise not have the audience they do.


And for all Film Crit Hulk's fretting about the film's disinterest in loss and consequence, even he recognises with a bit of squinting that Infinity War is trying to say something about sacrifice. In order to get the soul stone, Thanos must destroy something he loves, and he has the will to do it. He is a believer in the greater good, despite the bodies that have to pile up in the meantime. Meanwhile Gamora and Scarlet Witch fail the test, refusing to sacrifice their loved ones to stop Thanos (this gets slightly ridiculous in the latter case, as it would appear quite a few Wakandans give their lives in order to save Vision). In the end it doesn't matter, but at least Gamora and Vision both consent to their destruction. Heroes sacrifice themselves, the villain sacrifices others.

And there is some pathos to the deaths – Spidey and Stark obviously, but Don Cheadle wandering around looking for Falcon hit me quite hard. Hulk having to cope with Black Widow being gone would have been even more poignant, especially given their brief reunion, but the film spares her for some reason. The indiscriminate deaths are bewildering, quite difficult to process. But that's exactly as it should be. "Thanos will return" is a gesture worthy of Jonathan Hickman, and future films will not be able to take away the finality of that experience. I'm cautiously optimistic that Marvel will find a way to mourn the dead before righting the ship.