10 books in 2011

Might as well continue to do this roundup. I have read more this year, but more was focussed around the dissertation I had to write to complete my degree. Work means I haven't been thinking (and thus writing) about what I have read as much on this blog. I'm hoping to correct that in the new year. We'll see if I actually manage it. (Maybe my new Kindle will help!) Divided by genre, otherwise no order.

R.G. Collingwood - Autobiography [link]
Peter Singer - How Are We To Live? [link]
David Hume - Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
Friedrick Nietzsche - The Birth of Tragedy
Aristotle - Politics [link]

William Gibson - Neuromancer [link]
Steph Swainston - No Present Like Time

Grant Morrison / others - Final Crisis [link]
Alejandro Jodorowsky / Moebius - The Incal
Sam Kieth - My Inner Bimbo [link]


Favourite songs of 2011: 10-1

10. JoJo - Marvin's Room (Can't Do Better)

Drunken self-delusional 3am desperation. Should have ended Drake's career by now.

9. Nicki Minaj - Super Bass

Rap meets bubblegum pop and crushes everything in its way (Gaga the first to be pulverized). Not a lot of bass to the heartbeats, but never mind. ‘When he make it drip, drip, kiss him on the lip, lip!’ keeps it filthy as well as sweet.

8. P Money & Blacks feat. Slickman - Boo You

Blacks's verse at the end jarred a bit after reading a piece about the prevalence of gang rape in London. Gave an uncomfortable ring to 'oh yeah fam, when I'm done with your girl, might pass her on to the bredren as well'. Got over it by convincing myself that the sentiment is much more childish: fantasies of saying boo you, you’ve been cuckolded added to impotent dreams of fucking 'too many, too many hoes' across the length and breadth of England. Receives extra bumps because Royal-T’s Hot Ones remix from 2009 was probably my most played grime track this year, and because the Blacks & P mixtape was really very good.

7. Araabmuzik - Electronic Dream

A stand in for the entire album really, the opening 15 seconds one of the best intros to a record I’ve ever heard. ‘My love may be invisible, but I inspire the dreams that guide you’. Trance diva as muse singing to the inspired producer. Reminds me a lot of FSOL’s Papua New Guinea, but slowed to hip hop tempo, the prescience replaced with reminiscence.

6. Katy B - Power On Me

Another stand-in for the entire album, which is one of my favourites released this year. The opening track has a similar sound and theme to the now classic As I, but it is more suspicious, accusatory. Katy's a wary lady. ‘So glad I knew not to rush things with you because now you've grown on me so naturally’. Something you could say about the whole album, actually. It’s a grower, crammed with delightful embellishments only noticed on the third replay: the descending 'bloop-bloop-bloop-bloop-bloo' in Movement, the Charly sample that bookends Go Away. Personally, I don’t understand the accusations that Katy’s voice lacks personality. Robyn’s voice has also been described to me as flat and unremarkable, which I find insane. Powerhouse technical performance is not what either songwriter is about. Instead they go for truth. And Katy’s has an earnestness that conveys her character very clearly to the listener. Personal favourite vocal moment: the coquettish ‘oh’ that caps the bridge in Why You Always Here.

5. Johnny Foreigner - (Don't) Show Us Your Fangs

I love it when my fave indie band of recent times reminds me of my fave indie band of all time. Belle & Sebastian left behind for harder guitars at the end, of course. Includes a faint ringing sound that comes in at the chorus which always makes me reach for my phone. Johnny Foreigner are building a career on singing about travel, random people you meet on the way, home-sickness and love at long distance. This year I’m finally where they are and the connect is even harder. ‘Every leaving means heading somewhere new’. Shivers each time I hear it. The band leaked the mp3 for free, so you have no excuse. Extra bumps because the new album is really very good.

4. Rockwell - Aria

See here. Hopefully Untold will bring this guy to the attention of non-d&b heads. Undoubtedly some of the most exciting ‘bass music’ {{what a horribly bland name for it}} coming out of London right about now. I mean, just check out this weirdness.

3. Kozzie feat. Marger, Merky Ace, Rival, Ego, Scrufizzer - Spartan (Remix)

‘That's how you do an 8 bar riddim!’ Someone should have told Lethal. Call to arms from the new wave of the grime scene. Here’s to exciting times ahead.

2. tUnE-yArDs - Bizness

Blues for a brighter 21st century. Also dance music for a brighter 21st century, featuring the drop of the year. In my dreams, DJs mix this in next to a lot of the other stuff on this list. Extra bumps for the album, obv. One of the most energizing records to come out this year, burning with the (often self-directed) anger of victimhood. But the music is celebratory, colourful and fun -- giving us a way out, pointing to happier times ahead.

1. Purity Ring - Ungirthed

See here. Still sounds fresh at the end of the year. Music made by polyglot creators for polyglot listeners. In fact, I recognised it being blasted out of a Mercedes on Great Russell Street and thought: now that’s an interesting choice for ridin’ out music... But rather than gluttage or hyperstasis, this evokes something very particular and private: cold bedsits, blue mornings, the passing of time, the way the banal can be transformed by a sense of the unworldly. 'Girth' is an archaic word for encircle, and this song seems to be about everyday surroundings being stripped away. That uncanny numinous feeling that leaves you shivering, teeth clicking, ears ringing, all moorings lost. It’s at number one because it shows that overexposure to the mass of stuff out there doesn’t limit the crafting of something singular, and because I can play it on repeat forever without tiring of it.


Favourite songs of 2011: 20-11

20. Rustie - Globes

I like a lot of the more lively parts of Glass Swords as well, but I found that this glowing sunrise of an interlude builds the endorphin rush better than the singles material.

19. Ke$ha - Shots On The Hood Of My Car

Going down and out while burning bright and happy... When last call feels like the apocalypse. Simon Reynolds will be able to bring in Bataille here, if he hasn't already. Someone needs to give me a proper copy so I can hear the twinkling synths actually twinkle.

18. Trim - I Am (Preditah Remix)

The Wire thought this version was too poppy. As opposed to Skipping Rope? Idiots.

17. dom - Burn Bridges

Chillwave that kept the drums

16. Burial - NYC

A.k.a Fostercare Part 2. Vocals clearer than ever before. ‘Didn't you know this is love when I'm around you... Now I see... Leave me... No.’ Burial reaching beyond London? I can't hear it, apart from a sample of what sounds like Method Man at the end.

15. Blawan - Getting Me Down

Blawan's version of chopped r&b uk dance is predictably awesome. A track built on the dual meaning of getting and being ‘down’. ‘Maybe all you need’s a shoulder to cry on’... the club providing that shoulder. The uncomfortable bass grinding underneath the dance, pain not completely numbed, remaining when the night is over. A shame the guy dropped the ball a bit at the end of the year.

14. Damu - Be Free

The hiccups that accent the end of each 'just let go don't be shy' -- the music demanding a transport to arpeggiating kaleidoscopic bliss, the dancers panting, stumbling along, trying to keep up.

13. James Blake - Unluck

Didn't have the patience for the whole album, I'm afraid. Apparently, this started off as more of a club-oriented track, and I wonder if there’s something left there which makes it a standout. As with his other songs, there are only a few endlessly repeated lines, but the song's shifting elements, builds and drops, ensure they never get boring. The words themselves are difficult to distinguish, and may perhaps shift as well, but 'care for me' and 'playing, falling, there' are clear enough: the freedom of childhood, under the protective care of family, now lost.

12. Rival feat. Discarda, Jammin, Nasty Jack, Kozzie, Badness, Merky ACE, Sharky Major, Danny D, Kwam, Big Narstie, Blacks, Dark Boi, Ego, Diesel, Jammer, Jamakabi - Lock Off The Rave 8 Bar Remix

Darq E Freaker unleashes a migraine-inducing barrage of clanging, while Discarda, Merky Ace, Big Narstie, Dark Boi and Jammer provide the lyrical peaks. Rival and Jamakabi wrap up the whole thing nicely. Unevenness is inevitable with so many MCs, but when it hits, it hits harrrd.

11. Azealia Banks - 212

This year's Like A G6, with any justice. Ribald, irreverent, irresponsible, bitchy, self-obsessed. ‘I’MA RUIN YOU CUNT!’ Ms Banks sounds like she might be insufferable in real life, but she also sounds like a really great time.



Favourite songs of 2011: 30-21

30. Bok Bok - Silo Pass

Slim pickins from Night Slugs this year, but this one kept the neon green flame burning. Sounds like a bus full of kids bumping and grinding on Mario Kart’s Rainbow Road.

29. Beyoncé - Schoolin' Life

State of the world address from its biggest R&B star, weirdly off-kilter with the economic dustbin a lot of her listeners are in.

28. Pritch & Trim - Stereotype

Trim’s on a badboy thing, as always, except here he doesn't say that in so many words, instead playfully baiting you to do the assuming. Plenty of space for him to weave around on this gloopy hip hop beat, which is how he likes it. And it shows.

27. Ny feat. Giggs - Be With You

Davinche going for pop gold, that awful hair in the video. There's always a will-to-glamour failing to disguise the girl-next-door about Ny. Great songwriter, regardless. Giggs kinda goes his own way with the concept, but when the 'be with you boy' vocal meets the 'b-b-b-b-be with you' sample, I tend to stop caring.

26. Terror Danjah feat. Ruby Lee Ryder - Full Attention

Danjah’s resurrection of R&G sea-saws between the R and the G. Ruby Lee’s static-drenched swoons are met with heavy drum and bass stomps. Apparently, the idea was that MCs would spit over it. Unsurprisingly, no one was crazy enough to try. I mean, where would you fit in?

25. Kelly Rowland - Motivation

Big up Shark Attack for this one. Kelly finally stops playing the asexual house goddess and asks you to make it rain, no less. Lil Wayne's sex raps are always arch in the extreme, but it's not like the rest of the song lacks the silly. 'Baby I'ma be yr motivation' is hardly what I wanna hear in an amorous context, not to mention 'make mama proud'. The absurdity is what makes the song such a winner. That and another truly astounding vocal performance from Ms. Rowland, who deserves better than a desk job adjudicating the X-Factor.

24. Jacques Greene - Another Girl

Learned recently that this is a shameless rip-off of this, with a lot of the personality of the original ripped out. But a breezy summer r&b-flavoured jam is a breezy r&b-flavoured jam. That is to say, always welcome.

23. Britney Spears feat. Nicki Minaj and Ke$ha - Till The World Ends (Femme Fatale Remix)

Another star turn from Minaj, plus clucking. Plus Ke$ha not being annoying. Plus lopsided structure -- guest rap, chorus, THEN verse one. Plus another chorus, plus obligatory dubstep breakdown. Eletro-pop gets a bit unpredictable. And the burning up / burning out motif that we'll talk about more when we get to Ke$ha proper.

22. Balam Acab - Oh, Why

This gets the Perfume Genius / Youth Lagoon thing right by avoiding any and all resemblance to Coldplay. Its upward climb is built on tape hiss, sampled radios, pitch-shifted vocals. The track's peak is distant and blurry through the onrush of sheets of rain. It's epic yes, but neither obvious nor bombastic.

21. Faze Miyake / P Money - Blackberry

Like this more than Take Off, plus it has P Money talking over it about how his girlfriend is ignoring him because her nose is buried in her smartphone. Which is hilarious.



Favourite songs of 2011: 40-31

40. John Talabot feat. Glasser - Families

Delorean has been missed. Luckily we have this instead. ‘Strangers in your home’, but ‘it’s the beginning of us and the end of them’. You make your own family.

39. Pandr Eyez - Little Bit

Bass squelch, wall of sound haze, vocals buried under the noise. Weary wisdom about the futility of chasing success. Worth five Video Games.

38. J Majik & Wickaman feat. Dee Freer - Ritual

‘I can't get through to you. You never should have let me go’. Where did those '90s days go? Shout out to my sister for this one.

37. Julianna Barwick - Bob In Your Gait

The massed choirs-of-one dialed back to reveal a lone voice following a simple piano line. Sometimes that’s all you need.

36. Addison Groove - This Is It

O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K build to THIS IS A PROFUSION OF COLOURFUL PULSES. About as playful and fun as the Swamp-Hessle sound gets. And we need more of that.

35. Pistol Annies - Hell On Heels

Shout to Lex for this one. Probably the first country music I've really enjoyed. Interesting hip hop comparisons being made. Argument is that this is also post-recession working class music, except that it comes from white females who live in the Republican-voting South, so are unfairly marginalized by liberal (male) music snobs. I fear that line can sometimes degenerate to more-hip-than-thou posturing, but hey, one-upmanship is an ever-present feature of internet discourse. All I can say is the album is the perfect distillation of what Drive-By Truckers have been trying to do for an entire career, and the title track's smouldering menace is the best example of the Annies' mixture of defiance and desperation.

34. FaltyDL - Hip Love

‘It's getting insane I know... Don't you see I don't need you around... True... Spend more time with me...’ Bad break-ups over muffled clattering 2step drums.

33. Toddla T feat. Shola Ama and J2K - Take It Back

‘Can we take it back to how it used to be, baby’. Where did those 90s days go?

32. Shackleton - Deadman

Same old same old genius.

31. Champion feat. Ruby Lee Ryder - Sensitivity

Kingdom and Funkystepz didn't really hit that funky-vocal sweet spot this year, but Champion did. Ruby Lee is on youtube doing Aaliyah covers, and she brings a bit of the lost legend’s unshowy sensuality to Sensitivity. Producers must love her -- how she blends with the track rather than just sitting over it. And Champion excels here. The beat withholds and teases as much as Ruby Lee’s whispered nothings.



Favourite songs of 2011: 50-41

50. Wiley - It's Wiley

‘Back to the bars that I wanna hear playing in the back of the car. We already know that's not for the charts. But it's what I done back at the start and I still feel smart.’ Yeah, keep the grime fans happy while you chase success, with a rework of Eskimo no less. It WAS smart.

49. Jessie Ware and Sampha - Valentine

Saturday morning Guardian-reading electronic pop music. So I guess I have to like it, right? So grown-up, so middle class, but it’s charming in its mannered daintiness.

48. D.O.K - East Coast

Interweaving synthy hooks to gutter basslines and ringing sirens. Energy off the scale. Comes close to the still unsurpassed Chemical Planet, which is probably the best single Butterz have ever released. Danjah schooled him well.

47. Yasmin - Finish Line (The MIKE DELINQUENT PROJECT Remix)

The mercenary garage remix alive and kicking. The original receives a short nod at the 2:30 mark, but then it’s back to skippy kiss-offs. Good break-ups over crisp swinging 2step drums.

46. Pangaea - Hex

Badman gets mistreated: chipmunk'd till he's hoarse, compressed into grainy digital squiggles. Pangaea's vocal slicing completely overpowers the thumps and grinds he lays down underneath. There are two riddims going on here, and the syncopation / disorientation that creates makes this track absolute dynamite.

45. Starkey feat. Merky Ace and Kozzie - PC

How much effort goes into sounding effortless? ‘You're working so hard...’ at what? For what? Beefs waged online, youtube views, twitter followers. ‘What have you done for the scene this week?’ Grime as hungry and competitive as ever, but everything is now channelled through your PC.

44. Chase & Status feat. Delilah - Time

Delilah goes for ravey diva in the verses, but then in the chorus she actually starts raving. An edge, a rawness. Pleading to lashing out to self-hatred when you love someone that doesn't love you back. (P.S. video completely ruins the song and everyone involved should rethink their career choices.)

43. Peverelist - Dance Til The Police Come

Finally, Tom Ford gives us something you can really lose your shit to. I swear at some point there’s about seven things going on at once. Expertly crafted dance floor madness.

42. St. Vincent - Surgeon (Live)

By which I mean her performance for Spin (linked above... it's better without the 'dance jam' at the end). Whoever thinks this song is about sex needs to listen to it more closely (srsly, now!) With St. Vincent it's all about the space stretching out between each note -- the tension and the pressure and the final SNAP into utter collapse. New album sounded like curve-balls for the sake of curve-balls and I didn't give myself time to absorb it.

41. Royal-T - Orangeade V.I.P

Cherryade is great, but Darq E Freaker will be represented otherwise below. This is also big and dumb, but the way it constantly morphs into new forms puts in on another level. Bashed piano chords, whistles, countdowns, screeches, YEAHs, layered expertly over the background fizz of a soft drink waterfall. Over-caffeinated grime banger.



The Devils

Another case of watching something so stunning and timeless it becomes difficult to talk about. Shout out to Mark Kermode for this one, he has said many kind words about Ken Russell recently. I had never seen any of his films, so I thought I should start with the early, controversial, heavily censored one (obv). The Devils is actually very humane and poignant, and quite clever about the nature of sexual sublimation and religious frenzy. It's also incredibly well designed – creating a kind of hyperhistory that punches all of the weirdness to the forefront. Unlike a lot of modern historical dramas which tend to underline how similar the past is to the present, Russell aims to show us how different it was, and how lucky we are.


The Ides Of March

Breaking news, everyone. Politics kills ideals fast. Oh, you knew that already? So did I. In a scene at the beginning of the film, Maurisa Tomei's plays Soothsayer (her character's name is Ida) and makes the point that no successful candidate is clean. Gosling's protagonist doesn't believe her. He is still infatuated with Clooney and what it will mean when he's in the White House. Predictably, Ida is right, and the film tracks the history of Gosling's fall from innocence.

However, that history is pretty unpredictable, almost to a fault. The power plays and double crosses become so extreme that it's hard to work out how we got from point a to point b. But Gosling, and Clooney's direction, save the day. From the very first shot, there is something uncanny and unsettling about Stephen. The steely focus, the not-quite-there look in his eyes, hint at a ruthlessness that explodes into action midway through the film. Clooney also plays smooth with increasing flashes of callousness. By the end, both are thoroughly disagreeable and really quite scary. It's left to Paul Giamatti's shadowy cackling demon to spell out exactly what addiction to politics does to the soul.

Clooney direction is economical but assured, aimed squarely at capturing the mercurial nature of the characters. Several key turning points in the film occur off camera, being reported second hand and after the fact. Characters keep having their questions thrown back at them, even in the most personal of conversations ("How old are you?" "How old do you think I am?") Philip Seymour Hoffman is thrown out of the car because you don't win by relying on trust and loyalty (indeed, the film makes you wonder how he got that far). Again, Paul Giamatti is there to explain: politics is about having that undefinable poise that makes even your enemies love you. Machiavelli was right: virtù is not about being virtuous.

One of the final shots tracks a new intern as she delivers coffee to the staff. Her conversation with Max Minghella is wonderfully ambiguous, recalling the first exchange between Stephen and Molly. Will the new recruit be killed by sleaze and blackmail, or is there a chance that Ben will be different? We don't know, just like we don't know what kind of people our politicians really are. This is a much bleaker film than the feel good supercool Good Night, And Good Luck, and it's much better for it.



This piece says it better than I can. Rubicon is really two shows, each one has its own plot, mise en scène, themes. It practically had two different creators. And the stuff from the 1970s just isn't as interesting as the stuff post-9/11. What was most disappointing is that the season ended on a flourish influenced by the former rather than the latter. Truxton Spangler's motive is some conspiracy beyond even his control, rather than the much more chilling revelation in the fourth episode, where he switches off a call from his nagging daughter, and tells Will about the "gift" of distance. Intelligence, government as a whole, is about seeing people as patterns and numbers, not as people. This is all Spangler knows (I wonder if the name is a reference to Spengler?) There is no empathy there. Just the joy of seeing the connections, manipulating the actors, executing the most daring and audacious plans, and impressing his cabal of school-friends.

Pace-wise, Rubicon has its moments, but it can sometimes be a slog. The nonsensical plot and the absurd institution at the centre of the show (where everything is on paper, and everyone has too much time on their hands) doesn't help your investment in the story. The opportunities for extremely rewarding character work were not taken. Instead, Grant starts off an asshole and inexplicably morphs into dependable rock. His infidelity, Tanya's substance abuse, and Miles's failed marriage get perfunctory treatment. They are little asides to add a couple of extra dimensions, before we get back to Will's quest for answers. I would have preferred it if the show abandoned the season-wide narrative, and instead did standalone episodes testing the characters' personal, ethical and political mindsets -- like the episode midway through where the team have to decide on whether to order an air strike in an area full of civilians, or when Tanya and Miles witness U.S. sanctioned torture.

...but if I wanted that, I might as well have just gone and re-watched my West Wing DVDs, right?


Favourite songs of 2011

Once again, would like to get this over with before all the other end-of-year lists go up, because I get horribly, irreversibly corrupted by them.

There’s a change of presentation from previous years where tracks were divvied up into genres. For the first time I’ll be counting down like other music nerds. I tried dividing them up, but realized pretty quickly that this didn’t work anymore. Pop has cross-bred to such a bewildering degree that setting up boundaries has become hopeless. It doesn’t help that the list is even longer this year, which makes the mess all the more evident. I ended up with five massive catch-alls: pop-r&b, hip/trip hop, grime-funky, post-dubstep-drum&bass and indie-chillwave. But where do you put the hip hop chillwavey stuff from Tri Angle, the rave-indebted pop coming out of the UK, grime MCs on dubstep tracks? Not only that, but I get the feeling that my musical tastes have narrowed somewhat. I could only find three entries for the hip/trip hop category, only one a recognizable rap song (it kicks off the list). My consumption of music broadly defined under the indie banner has also declined (about 11/60 on the list). Focus has zeroed-in more than ever on UK dance music of all descriptions (39/60 on the list), a testament to the richness and diversity of the various scenes, for sure. But there’s also a personal connection that I’ve increasingly become aware of and treasured, a change from the days where I largely looked to the USA and Pitchfork for relief from landfill indie. Actually, the fact that the people making this stuff also grew up or live in England (that I’ve even seen some of them!) adds a salience to their productions that’s ineffable but powerful.

Simon Reynolds and Martin Clark have continued to be much-relied-on guides through the glut of sonic material out there. The guys from Butterz have single-handedly restored my faith in grime, for which thanks are due. Alex Macpherson’s enthusiasm has pushed me further into long-forgotten pop and r&b areas. FACT, Resident Advisor and The Quietus have joined Pitchfork as go-to publications for new emissions. The many contributors at ILX and Dissensus have also become key sources for exegesis and cutting edge developments. Sometimes I get the feeling that I spend as much time reading about music as listening to it, which doesn’t worry me too much, since music is there to be shared and thought about. A four-minute pop song is a compact package of ideas and emotions that can represent the most non-verbal aspects of being human better than anything we have. Thinking about how you react to it, and learning about other people’s reactions, are both valuable instruments in the search for ever-greater self-awareness.

Lists have rules (which are of course bent and ignored at the discretion of the list-maker). This one steals a few from Kieron Gillen, which are adapted to suit my now rather different tastes. One track per artist becomes difficult when you get to collaborations, particularly between producers and vocalists in grime tracks, so I've made many allowances. One track per artist also means that the other work the artist has done this year that I’ve liked gets factored-in by higher placements, which is usually noted. A couple of entries are thus stand-ins for the albums they have released, which saves me the trouble of doing a separate favourite albums list. Since my attention has been mostly occupied with electronic dance music, a singles genre if ever there was one, I can count the albums that I've stuck with through the year on one hand. Finally, I’m not posting the whole thing immediately, because sixty write-ups is a lot of work. Plus, it helps pad the blog out a bit. And for those reading, part of the fun of lists is the anticipation, right? Top sixty to fifty appears today, then I’ll post batches of ten as and when I feel like it. I make the rules, after all.

Compiling lists like this looks daunting from the outset, but actually modern technology makes it pretty easy. Sort by date on the iTunes (your library should of course be kept fastidiously tidy). Pick out your faves from the current year, lob them in a playlist, and compare tracks to their neighbours, which quantifies quite clearly how much something means to you. Check Last.fm to see if anything is missed out or misplaced. If yr really mental, you’ll listen to the playlist bottom to top a couple of times to be absolutely sure of the running order, but I didn’t really have the time to do that. Nor do I care thaat much about what comes after what, so long as it gives a pretty good idea of what I value the most.

Favourite songs of 2011: 60-51

60. Young Bleed - Holla At Uh Dog

With the video: True Blood alternative credit sequence if the show was about Lafayette. As it should have been.

59. Vibezin - Mad Sick

The vocal is blurry around the edges, the synth bleets muted, the drums reverbed. Cobbled together from the crates, and the crates are dusty. A funky roller from another time and place.

58. Dauwd - Ikopol

Stood out from the more established names on the [unclassified] Adult Swim mixtape. Perhaps I’ve just been missing my regular dose of Mount Kimbie? The track is breathless, unsure, a male voice croons, repeating 'want you to...' And at around the 2.55 mark he finally gets his answer, impossible to decipher, but aching with enthusiasm.

57. Elite Gymnastics - So Close To Paradise

Jungle, meet noise pop. I think you'll get along. Hushed confessionals over sweeping vistas -- the personal becoming cosmic.

56. S-X - Bricks

Riding in triumph. Crown on your head. Slaves at your feet. Glory all around.

55. Hyetal feat. Alison Garner - Diamond Islands

I didn't have time to involve myself with M83's new double album (the reviews, even when good, suggested that it was a bit of a chore). But I had this instead, which served adequately. That booming drum sound and the swelling chorus is so 80s, it’s embarrassing. ‘I don’t remember... your eyes, your face’. Yeah, but you remember the soundtrack.

54. ASC - Silkworm

Kills everything Boddika has done dead. The Autonomic sound doesn’t get better than ASC, I think. Silkworm is a smooth roller, but its edges crackle with intercepted transmissions, striking a nice balance between serenity and paranoia.

53. The Chain - Lostwithiel

Post-dubstep that kept the drums.

52. xxxy - You Always Start It

Stepping into the shoes Joy Orbison kicked off. Swirls of synth spin you around as ‘you... you-yup-you...’ hiccups along. And then the groundswell, the pathetic ‘you ALWAYS start it!’. The sound of all your arguments running out and being too confused to be reasonable anymore.

51. Clams Casino - Illest Alive

As close to a club banger as this Tri Angle hip hop stuff gets. And thus, awesome.


Frank Miller, Twilight and Criticism

More cross-posting from Whitechapel for blog-padding purposes, this one from a thread discussing the  Frank Miller incident.

I realise this thread is in the sink, but @Finagle's question -- does an author's life and beliefs and informal writings have a bearing on critically interpreting their fiction? -- is an interesting one.

Made me think about the way the Twilight novels and films have been interpreted solely through the knowledge that the author is a Mormon, which doesn't answer why the series is such a phenomenon. (I have been guilty of this as well). Obviously, Stephenie Meyer's readers can't ALL be socially conservative Christians, there must be something else in the work which makes it vital for them. I think commentators haven't been paying enough attention to the reader-response part of @J.Brennan's New Criticism / New Historicist outline (v. helpful, thanks!)

I think I generally lean Historicist, just because privileging every reading equally, while obv nice and democratic, just gets unmanageable and a bit boring. Sure every reading is of some worth, but some are more interesting than others -- either identifying ideas and emotions that are more meaningful to you, or able to bring in relevant contexts that can shed light on the way the work was produced or received. The latter can be a platform to explore broader historical questions -- where does the work fit into the discourses of its time etc. Of course, that should be contexts plural, so you don't just narrow it down to the range of influences and motives of the author, but recognize that studying the way the work moves through society and history is equally important.

To bring it back to Frank Miller, a work (like for example) The Dark Knight Returns can stand on its own, with the reader free to interpret its ironies in any way they want. That has some value, at the very least to the individual involved, perhaps to others with whom the interpretation holds some kind of resonance. But there is also value in looking at it in the context of Miller's other work, his influences, and piecing together stylistic and thematic constants or shifts. And there is also value in looking at what impact the work had, how others interpreted it, and what that says about the form (comics, literature) or the discourse (superheroes etc.), when it came out and now. All three are worthwhile endeavours, and I tend to admire commentators that can do all of them -- although it can be a lot of work!



I'm too lazy to chase up the quotes now, but I'm pretty sure either Twilight or True Blood (or both) have been described as being about the 'terrors of intimacy'. Compared to Submarine, they really really aren't! The title references a recurring metaphor for depression used in the film -- that of being underwater. In one sequence, ultrasound (heard by dogs but not by humans, which is significant for Jordana) is turned into a symbol for communication between people, and the fact that we can never completely understand others. The link made is that depression is caused by excessive solipsism. Further, that openness to your fellow woman and man, no matter how scary and painful their situation, is the only route that leads away from suicide.

This is a clever, quirky and funny film, beautifully acted, almost note-perfect. Almost. I have my own quirks about this sort of thing, but the final scene didn't entirely work for me. At first I thought it was due to the fact that the rapprochement was indicated through a visual metaphor (Oliver following Jordana into the sea, but remaining above it). If the film's point was communication, then using symbols rather than words (which is what Oliver's mother used, in a hilariously blunt way) undermined it somewhat. But no, that's just stupid (words ARE symbols and all that...). After a bit of thought, I realised that my problem was much simpler. It's Youth In Revolt again: Oliver shouldn't earn forgiveness just by walking into the sea, and Jordana shouldn't start to trust him because he gets his feet wet. Oliver's hopeful expression, and Jordana's smiles, arrived too early. I could have done without.  Sure, the film remains ambiguous about their future, but I would have liked more ambiguity. Dudes shouldn't be given a gentle ride when they fuck up.

But as I said,  I have my own quirks about this sort of thing. It's a testament to the film's uncompromising attitude that it could well have ended with Oliver alone on the beach, fade to black, premonitions of death, and I half-expected (maybe wanted) it to. But the final image of Oliver, Jordana and her dog is too potent to discard. Still, less hope, fewer smiles. Communication isn't easy. Learning to do it takes longer than one film's running time.


We Need To Talk About Kevin

I saw this a week ago and haven't had the time to write about it, even though I've really wanted to. The film is almost perfect, one of the best I've seen this year, and well worth your time. I just wish I had the memory of it fresh in my mind right now, but I'll have to make do.

I gave Lynne Ramsey the benefit of the doubt last time around, and I'm glad I did. We Need To Talk About Kevin is more focussed, and clearer, than the meandering Morvern Callar. Peter Bradshaw is otm when he talks about motherhood being 'a ritual in which the adult consents to gradual parasitic destruction', although when it comes to Eva and Kevin I think the ritual is more important that the parasitic destruction. I say that because of the last dialogue exchange in the film. Eva finally breaks a habit of a lifetime and stops patronising her child. Instead she treats him as an equal. No more games, just an urgent need to understand 'WHY??'. Kevin's response highlights how monumental that question is: 'I used to think I knew. Now I'm not so sure.'

Eva's problem is that she plays at being a mother rather than really being one. Her behaviour towards her children is codified by rituals learnt and internalised from movies and books. Christy acts like a typical little girl, and so the relationship works, but Kevin has no desire to play by the rules society has prescribed. The film dismisses the charge of autism or mental illness. Kevin is just smart enough to understand and manipulate the codes of behaviour he sees around him, and the fact that he is too intelligent to fit within the established idea of what a child should be like makes him lash out. He torments his mother because she is lying to herself, trying to love her son even though she cannot. Hypocrisy is Kevin's enemy, the fact that people obsess over serial killers without recognising the uncomfortable sources of that obsession.

My only problem with the film is that Kevin isn't really a real person to me, rather a preternatural demon sent to play with or expose people's self-deception. The scene in the restaurant where he lists all his mother's pathetic stratagems strains credibility (although I should say the person I saw it with had no problems with it). Eva's response to such a horror frustrates, as it should, as that is what the film is about. I wasn't always very sympathetic towards her, but perhaps that lack of indulgence is just a sign that my own mother was much better at raising children than she was.


Really now, I wonder whether this has any more depth or nuance than something like The Fast And The Furious. Refn's loyalty to archetypes and fairy-tale simplicity remains intact. He didn't choose this film, he was chosen for it by Gosling, and my feeling is he did little apart from bring his idiosyncratic  style to it and strip away the excess to bare-bones plot, character, action. But is that enough?

Sure, Refn's unusual casting choices pay off, although I suspect more could have been done with them. Gosling is no action hero, his expression remains too weirdly childlike, but there isn't all that much underneath it either. Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks playing at gangsters has a certain thrill of the unexpected, but their dialogue is extremely by-the-numbers compared to what (for example) Tarantino could have delivered with the same materials. Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks don't have to do anything apart from look pretty and vaguely troubled, although they both do that very well.

So what is Refn trying to say? I don't understand whatever existentialism is implied by the driver's automobile fixation. Like Valhalla Rising (and, I guess, Bronson, although I haven't seen it), Refn comes back to study male bloodlust. Like One-Eye, the driver kills and sacrifices himself to protect a little boy, in part learning to love as well as hate. Why Refn returns to this chivalric motif is a mystery to me, but I'm rather suspicious of the kind of gender biases that may lie behind it. The trouble with sticking to archetypes is that they limit your field of possibility, which inherently leads to conservative  results.

I didn't mention it in my post on Valhalla Rising, but Refn's style requires a certain degree of patience. That film was so nuts that I found I wanted to stick with it only to see what crazy territory it would move into next. Drive is more grounded, and the slow pans across beautifully designed soundstages can be quite tiring. The hot pink titles and the great 80s-indebted soundtrack are fine embellishments, but without the throb of a well-paced plot beating through it, the film's style starts to drag a bit.

I don't think Refn is capable of making dull films. His eye for great frames and his willingness to make uncompromising choices marks him out as a director worth watching. He reminds me of Chan-wook Park, another filmmaker who tries to add an art-house sensibility to genre movies. The work of both directors is superficially gorgeous, but has troubling or incoherent themes. It's still early days, though. Perhaps they'll get over themselves and try to collaborate fully with good writers. Or maybe they'll learn on their own. As of now, they still haven't made the masterpieces they are clearly able to make.


Hume and ethics

I may not have time to write proper posts anymore, but I still seem to have time to argue with people on comics forums. So to pad this blog out a bit, here's me philosophizing on Whitechapel:

I should come out and say that I LOVE Hume, and pretty much think he's on the right lines meta-ethically, even if some of the technicalities of his system now seem a bit crazy (to be fair, he was writing in the 18th century -- we know a lot more about human nature now). I have to admit that I don't quite understand your misgivings about him: for Hume ethics was ALL about 'how we get there'. There are no transcendent 'oughts'. A scientific approach to moral philosophy seeks to understand the emotional processes by which 'oughts' are generated in different societies.


What you say about societies w/o the capacity for empathy is true, but this is hypothetical, right? Human beings have evolved to live in groups, have certain instincts, empathy, because all of these things help us survive. And ethics is a human phenomenon: we can only empirically study what's in front of us. That's about as 'logical' as ethics can get, no?

Basing your entire value system on ethos and the actions of others is even more problematic and arbitrary

Hume argues that we do this all the time, that it's a natural disposition humans have. I think a lot of that makes sense. It's arbitrary from a transcendental point of view, maybe. But if you ground ethics on the real-world experience of how humans behave, then its quite a logical point to make.

Just generally, my sense is that what is so difficult to accept about this stance is that it inevitably leads to some kind of relativism. Criticizing alternative belief structures becomes difficult when you don't have deontological laws or utilitarian calculuses. Then again, the understanding that your ethical beliefs are grounded in illogical, emotional assumptions might also teach humility, and perhaps tolerance as well. You might say (and some have) that this awareness can have a moralizing effect!


Mushroom pasta

Yeah, so posts have slowed down alot in the past month, what with valuable time now taken up w/ work (can't talk about it), BDs (don't know french well enough to talk about it) and Farscape (really not worth talking about). ((Altho, by-the-by, if people thought Gaius Baltar was the pinnacle of self-serving sci-fi Brit brats, they obv haven't experienced Dominar Rygel XVI condescend from his hover chair)). Practically the only activities I CAN talk about are everyday banalities like cooking. I haven't cooked since I came to Brussels, b/c I was staying in catered halls (where the food was surprisingly good) and then when I moved out, I reverted back to my old MO of eating absolute trash. I'm talking doritos washed down w/ beer lows, here. (Tho shd say, this being Belgium, the beer is totally worth drinking at every opportunity. Paying a euro for a can (a can!) of Leffe DEMANDS that you develop an alcohol dependency post-haste.)

Today, I finally got myself together. Went to the local hypermarket to buy supplies. Middle class student stuff: 2l olive oil, large bag o' pasta, bottle o' passata, garlic, onions, milk, museli, black pepper w/ the plastic grinder-cap, chili flakes, mushrooms (cause meat/fish/cheese is expensive). Oh, and beer of course. Go home, this is what I did, and what you should do too, if you make a habit of listening to people on the internet. Pour a goodly amount of olive oil in a pan, and put on a low heat. No need to be frugal, you've just bought two litres of the stuff. And you bought two litres of the stuff because this is the ONE THING that both tastes divine and has ZERO negative health consequences. Eat it every day, it will make you live forever. Word is bond. Dice up two onions. I was using a plate and a serrated knife, so you can imagine how neat my dicing was. No matter. Throw them into the pan. Yr gonna cook these mofos slow, make 'em melt. I slightly burnt mine, because I was busy with the garlic, but you will do better!

Garlic. I decided on four cloves, because I'm not sharing my breathing-space w/ anyone this evening. Chop, as fine as you can. Plate and serrated knife meant mine were pretty chunky. Go get them mushrooms, wash five or six, and slice them any which way you like. Chuck all that in the pan. Put a little bit of milk in it, the fiends love it -- immortal words from Raekwon the Chef. You should follow his advice. In all things. Also pepper, lots of it. I'm a six twists of the mill kinda guy. Chili also vital. You don't have money for fresh basil / oregano / other herby shit. Yr going for the heavy artillery. Spice, spice, spice. Finally, a couple of spoonfuls of the passata. Don't over-tomato, you don't want the sauce too sharp. Plus, this stuff costs a fortune and you want it to last the next fortnight.

By this time, you should have had the kettle boiling. No? I always forget as well. Boiling water in the pan, heat up. Put salt in the water. My pasta of choice is fusilli, called macaroni by the ignorant. Chuck two handfuls in (if yr as hungry as I was) and boil that shit until it's cooked. Not overcooked. People always overcook pasta. It should be chewy, not soupy. Extract and taste samples every two-three minutes until you get it right.

Right, by this time the sauce should have reduced down to a paste. Pour some of the pasta water into it to get it runny again. Then drain the pasta, throw it in the pan w/ the sauce. Spoon it round for a minute until it's good and mixed, and then pour it on a plate. By now you should be ravenous, so I shouldn't have to tell you to eat the thing immediately. Two three clementines for dessert (they're in season now), then lie down and type-up your activities for the internet to read. Then go watch Farscape.


The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me

Posting the rambling comment on Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies: Record Club #2 -- Brand New over here:

Late to the party. Was really looking fwd to this discussion, but then of course I forgot all about it! Reading thru and listening again, the following thoughts occurred:

I hear a lot of Mogwai-type post-rock on this album... which I think is great. The biggest problem I have with the genre is its grandiose portent and its lack of personality. Lacey's whispered confessionals and strained screaming solve those problems -- there's a confused guy at the centre of all the winding / crashing guitars. Brand New can hypnotize and pulverize just like Explosions In The Sky, but they've got heart as well. This might be why I'm not such a huge fan of 'Welcome To Bangkok' or 'Untitled'... they skip what's so engaging about the band. They aren't particularly interesting post-rock pieces, either. Quite simple arrangements...

I initially hated the soft crooning switch to shouting, because it sounded really wrong -- how would you produce such extreme dynamics live? But then I realized that it's actually a really cool effect. It internalizes the songs, makes them about the sounds in your skull rather than the sounds at a show.

As for the lyrics... some of the clunky lines grated at first. But I got over that. I think too many people are scared of being earnest, and I admire the way Lacey has the guts to put himself out there (as has been pointed out above, his ambivalence about this is a key part of what makes Deja Entendu so interesting). Actually, I think his conviction and his voice can redeem a bad line quite well! Plus, there are enough gems on the album to make the work of unravelling meaning rewarding.

The obscured lyrics are a boon in this task. The effect is a bit like what Grouper gets up to. Suggestions of words shrouded by the music -- songs that become more about mood than message. Also, it might be a way to avoid the teenage spokesman role Lacey's so uncomfortable with.

'Handcuffs' is a bit too arch for me. The darkness becomes comical. Also dislike 'Limousine', which is too stretched out, the repeating line at the end just becomes annoying (didn't know about the story behind the song, but it doesn't really make it more interesting for me). 'Millstone', 'Jesus', 'Know' and 'Archers' are all amazing tho. I think Deja Entendu is superior, but Devil and God is a great step forward. Daisy was awful, tho...



OK, Clerks you can forgive because it was Smith's first feature and he had no money. But should I let shoddiness slide four films in? Smith has some professionals to work with now. But Alan Rickman, Chris Rock and Selma Hayek just seemed lost, not knowing what tone to aim for -- how arch or how serious each line was supposed to be. Linda Fiorentino is TERRIBLE. I really liked her sarcastic resignation in Men In Black, but Bethany's character requires something more than that. And Smith really cannot film conversation scenes w/o making them look like bad tv. Dude, give me an over or a two-shot or make the camera MOVE a little, rather than just cut to the next facial expression... gods, this is just boring!

Smith does have a talent for writing. The best scene in the film is the marketing meeting being turned into a temple of idolatry (although it's slightly undermined by the lady in the boardroom being put on a pedestal). Rufus's injunction to stick with ideas rather than beliefs is also well-meaning (although once you start thinking about it, not all that substantial). The notion that religion is being undermined by its own pretensions to infallibility, its dogma, is a great hook for the whole film, but the relapse back into faith at the end is puzzling. I guess it is supposed to be -- Alanis Morrisette silently suggests that existence is just a benevolent joke. But my feeling is that Smith fudges the REALLY philosophical stuff by making God inexplicable.

Then there's Jay and Silent Bob. I'll admit to laughing at the former's torrential swearing and the latter lighting a smoke after throwing two guys off a train, but a lot of the other japes fell flat. These dudes are clowns, obv, but Smith has the tendency to celebrate their immature and offensive ways. He's not distant enough. Literally! He loves being a blunted, slacker-nerd who fetishizes black people and silently defends (fears) women... He's the comic-book guy who doesn't fully accept that you have to stop being a comic-book guy.


Sex, Lies, and Videotape

Y'know, it's been a long time since I've felt the numinous whilst watching a film. Addiction to pulp can do that to you. With pulp the thrills are visceral, and the pleasures intellectual. But that emotional connection, where you feel the filmmaker plucking all your strings, delving to the very core of who you are... that I haven't felt in a while. So my thanks to Soderbergh and his team.

I don't have the energy to discuss Sex, Lies, and Videotape in the reductionist way I deal with most things on this blog. This film is too big for me, I don't have the capacity to capture and box it into four paragraphs. But if ever I need to be reminded of the seductive (and addictive!) nature of honesty, and the mesmerizing effect of watching people on screen, I'll definitely come back to this one.

A while ago, I posted a notice about The Filth being one of the best comics I have read, promising that I'll write about it when I've figured it out. I never did. Well, I don't think I will with Sex, Lies, and Videotape either. It's just one of my favourite films. Sometimes that's all you're able to say.



Having the perspective of everything that has happened since 1994 makes watching this film for the first time rather underwhelming. Whatever innovations Kevin Smith cooked up have been digested and recycled so many times that there's zero shock factor now. The lo-fi production and the unconvincing acting just give the film a weird quaintness. The question is worth asking: who needs Clerks when you have Superbad?

Smith's script is best when dealing with Dante and Randal's opposing motivations for clerking -- the former's bumbling conformity and the latter's relaxed hooliganism. Smith's script is weakest when dealing with the female characters -- Veronica goes to unbelievable lengths to keep her boyfriend happy, and Caitlin's nymphomania is a (very uncomfortable) joke. Both ladies have their entire lives defined by Dante (Caitlin makes statements to the contrary, which are almost immediately contradicted). They never feel like independent beings. And it's hard not to read some misogyny into Silent Bob's words of wisdom at the end: women are either replacement mothers, or whores.

It's the first Kevin Smith movie I've seen, and so far I'm not that impressed. Looking fwd to seeing Dogma, tho. Proper production values, and perhaps a more enlightened outlook, are expected...

Valhalla Rising

Xan Brooks has a decent summary of what to expect. He didn't think there was much behind it all, but I wonder... Refn strikes me as a bit of a dick, but he definitely wants to say something with this film, and it's worth thinking about what that might be.

One-Eye has one eye, and is mute. He gets asked several questions as the film goes on, some rather existential, to which he doesn't reply. All of this suggests to me that he's a symbol for the God that doesn't answer prayers. The one eye is itself symbolic -- restricted vision, a humanity that's missing. No love and all war. It also might connote the eye-for-an-eye principle. One-Eye has been brutalized by his pagan captors, who impassively play games and make cash with people's lives, and he spends the first part of the film getting his revenge. That done, he drifts off, not knowing what else the world has to offer.

The rest of the film seems to deal with religion and its corruption. One-Eye joins a band of crusaders that promise to cleanse his soul. On the journey to Jerusalem (v. Rime of the Ancient Mariner) they go crazy and try to kill One-Eye's companion, a boy (Colridge's albatross), but One-Eye stops them. Upon arrival, the Viking chief becomes a fanatic (and dies) , the priest and the chief's son go to be with their deceased loved ones (and die) and the rest become restless when there's no treasure to be found (and get killed by One-Eye).

The final part of the film is about a sacrifice: One-Eye drops his axe, and offers his life in order to save that of his companion, the boy in search of home. The final scene is of the boy looking out into the sea, and imagining One-Eye looking back, free from the blood-lust that consumed his existence. Whether this is One-Eye rising on the third day is left to the viewer to decide.

This redemptive parting shot makes me think the film isn't just about natural man's innate capacity for violence -- Cormac McCarthy doing Vikings. Rather, "Wrath" is contrasted with "Sacrifice", and there's stuff in between about how lofty ideals end up doing funny things to your head.

One of the strangest medieval slaughter-fest movies you are ever likely to see. What I like about it is its obvious allegiance to mythic and genre archetypes -- stripping characters and dialogue to essentials, and focusing on building mood. Obv. you might have problems with the portrayal of the 'savages', cast in the red-skinned demons-in-hell role. Refn also says some stupid things about gender in the interview linked above, so I suspect he's prone to taking up insensitive or uncomfortable positions in his films... which makes me want to see Drive all the more -- will Refn deal w/ chivalry w/o being patronizing and reactionary?


Winter's Bone

Peter Bradshaw covers a lot of it. Transgression and taboo is certainly on the menu -- the film's climax is a chilling desecration scene, which ends up saving the vulnerable family faced with losing everything. However, the broader picture Winter's Bone paints is one of an environment so remote and rugged that the only political units that really matter are family. The patriarch is the law here, so you better not get on his wrong side: Ree's father betrays him to the police and dies for it. However, Ree's uncle has to stir things up before the patriarch moves to calm things down. That's the line you have to negotiate, protect your family whilst paying your dues to the power in the land. Where the people are poor and desperate, pre-modern politics holds sway.

Jennifer Lawrence is incredible in the lead role, although (perhaps because I've seen her dolled-up in X-Men: First Class) her stellar good looks did bug me a tiny bit. There seems to be a model for the way heroes are presented -- they HAVE to be extraordinarily attractive, otherwise I'll stop sympathizing or get confused. No slight on the actor, tho. Looking fwd to more from her.

The Exorcist

Roger Egbert gets rather distressed at the end of his review, worrying about the numbness of contemporary audiences who need extreme horror to feel anything at all... Bless. Revulsion at video nasties seems to have been quite widespread.

Sensory overload is definitely part of it, but dynamics is even more important. This film is looong, the characters and situation built comprehensively before the action starts. Indeed, the tensest part of the film might be before the theatrics even begin. The mother-daughter relationship is so sweet that you start dreading the eventual manifestation of demonic influence -- a development that unfolds with excruciating slowness.

But what makes the film last isn't so much the scare-tactics as the characters and themes of bereavement, mental illness, loss-of-faith and loss-of-innocence, which all resonate quite powerfully (Ellen Burnstyn, Jason Miller and Linda Blair are magnificent). There is also the beginning's gnomic visual allusions to relativism and nihilism -- Father Merrin is a mysterious character throughout, but he seems to be battling with demons that have existed for the entire span of human history. The devil is trying to convince us we are animals, and in that desert in Nineveh Merrin faces a pagan statue looking down on two fighting wolves. It's dog-eat-dog out there, except when it isn't. Karras chooses to sacrifice himself in order to save Regan. When you throw the mumbo-jumbo away, The Exorcist asks only that we don't despair, and that in the face of evil we have the courage to do the upmost to save each other. That's where its true power lies.


Nightmare on Elm Street

"Tina didn't want to sleep alone"... and that's why she had to DIE. Horror's condemnation of pubescent sexuality is something I'm quizzical about, since it eagerly teases its audience with nubile ladies and then takes rather sadistic pleasure in ripping them to pieces. Perhaps the intention is to reveal the dangerous qualities of aggressive, domineering male sexuality -- putting the audience in the place of the helpless. But there is a voyeuristic tone to some of the scenes that compromises the force of the message, but I'm thinking of Halloween more than Nightmare on Elm Street.

The latter gets to the heart of the issue by dealing with the power of fantasies and dreams directly (Blue Velvet is pretty much about the same thing). Krueger has chosen to abandon reality and realize his most selfish and antisocial desires. He is also a symbol for middle class fears of the feral working class (he likes to hang out in a factory). The hero has to learn how to identify what's real from what is imagined, and conquer it (the booby-traps as a symbol for the mastery of nature?). But ultimately, we cannot escape the fact that we are prisoners of our senses and what our imagination does with the information they give us. We make our own reality, and we can't always control what goes on in it -- Freddy can always sneak out and get you if you're not careful.



The song made an appearance on my mid-year list of fave albums / tracks, but I've been meaning to talk about it for a while... got the urge again after talking to someone who had met Rockwell, reading Neuromancer, and listening to Rude Kid's 'The Best' about 5 times in a row yesterday. There's a lot going on in the Rude Kid tune: mournful female murmuring, marching claps, the endlessly repeating synth line, the growing space between the bass thumps and the snare crack. The vox is embedded within the track, and at points drives it. It's an integrated thing, the tension coming from the way elements are pulled out and dumped back in.

Rockwell's 'Aria' is different. It's not an integrated thing. It's six and a half minutes of complexity stumbling over itself until it collapses, and the vox providing the imperative to begin again. "Sing to me" cries the echoing female voice, and the clicks and whirrs spring to life, strangled "eh-eh-eh" noises and an exclamatory "SIGH"about as human as we get. The image I have is of an rusting robot slowly winding down, becoming increasingly erratic as it attempts to perform its functions: a motley collection of sounds doggedly trying to imitate the workings of the human soul.

How do you make modern machine music sing when it's inherently cold and inorganic? Rockwell seems to me to be expressing the loneliness of the obsessive bedroom d&b producer: a life spent organizing bundles of sonic information on computer screens. 'Aria' opens with the sound of surf and birdsong, before the dramatic double blast of drums begin the ordeal: the outside world blocked out, backgrounded, as the Muse invokes and demands the sublime from tools that cannot deliver it.

An aria is a piece for one voice, usually accompanied by an orchestral arrangement. Drum & bass, as the name will tell you, is primarily focused on the arrangement end of the spectrum. Rockwell's focus on the voice here might express a dissatisfaction with what the genre, perhaps instrumental dance music as a whole, has or can achieve.



Because when you listen to enough Vex'd and Boxcutter, you start to get curious, y'know?

Obv slightly redundant to read this for the first time in 2011, when so much of what is described in the book has now become reality. Also unfair to fixate on what Gibson got right or wrong, although I did a lot of this as I was reading. For example, Case's 'Fall' from the 'the bodiless exultation of cyberspace' into the 'prison of his own flesh', while overly apocalyptic, did capture some of my own dissatisfaction when I jack out of my computer. I mean, surfing the webz is hardly a blissful rapturous out-of-body experience, but it is a kind of hungry addiction -- the dogged, sometimes desperate search for distractions, cravings, new stimuli. Withdrawal becomes less about missing the highs, as realizing how insignificant and worthless they were. I don't develop a death-wish when I'm away from my console, in other words, rather a regret at the hours stolen away by the machine.

Gibson also noticed the way computers could make you see reality differently: 'the dance of biz, information interacting, data made flesh in the mazes of the black market'. I've done this myself, although mostly through the frame of videogames. I've often felt the horror of realizing that, unlike an FPS, I cannot just reload a savegame of my life and redo that terrible decision I made a couple of hours ago. I've also come across people who have described the way they perceive their personalities and behaviour through the lens of RPGs (altho never in such simple terms as "I'm lawful neutral, is she chaotic good?"), or who understand politics through the resource management of strategy games.

Anyway enough about me and my personal problems. What is perhaps the most interesting part of the novel is Gibson's allusive discussion of AI. Wintermute (as the Finn) tells Case that the 'holographic paradigm' is the closest humans have got to 'a representation of human memory', and that 'artists' specialize in such representation. However, they are not good enough at it. We're 'always building models', but now we have the chance to build the real thing. Gibson links together memory, consciousness and the need to represent it as the fundamental drives behind invention, a process that will culminate in the creation of AI.

The plot of the novel is shaped by Wintermute's attempt to fuse with another AI and acquire the ability to form its own personality. Wintermute is all intelligence, no soul (the left brain w/o a right). Neuromancer ('Neuro from the nerves, the silver paths. Romancer. Necromancer. I call up the dead') is able to store personalities and build worlds, but has no interest in what is outside itself. The book takes this name because it is also a vessel containing artificially created personalities in an artificially created world. It's one example of the human capacity to imagine -- to imperfectly represent the memories stored in our consciousness.

There is another aspect to this unfolding. These two AIs are owned by a reclusive family that control a multinational corporation, their power making them both more and less human: a hive which clones and freezes its members for when they are needed. Their aim is immortality -- 'a gradual and willing accommodation of the machine'. One of the members of this family realize that such an existence is a sham, forever unsuitable for human life. She gives Wintermute the urge to merge with Neuromancer and to destroy / take over the hive the family have created. But when this happens, the two AIs become something else: the sum total of the whole show -- all possible forms of human consciousness. Unsatisfied, the go off in search of other AIs, and leave humanity to themselves.

Case is called out of Neuromancer's matrix / heaven by music: 'Maelcum's Zion dub'. The matrix is described as being 'like city lights, receding' -- a system too intricate to be comprehended, always out of reach. The book ends by evoking the simple sensations of food, sex, sleep, the darkness of 'pulse and blood', the 'long pulse of Zion dub'. Music being non-representational, it's used by Gibson to suggest pleasures of immediate sensory experience: the life beyond cyberspace or novels -- the baseline animal-self we all start off from. My sense is that the book, as opposed to heralding the advent of a higher form of consciousness, is actually trying to vindicate and celebrate this more simple form of life. As Case tells the flickering screen at the end: 'I don't need you'.


Bad Lieutenant

First Herzog film I have seen (WHERE have you BEEN all my life??) and it's a scorcher. I watched it late last night with ma homie, and memories are vague, but I was thinking about it a lot today as a very pedestrian version of the film's events took over my life. I made a foolish mistake that led me to question how tight my grip on reality really was: some synapse forgot to fire between the read -> remember -> write process. It's actually quite scary how CRAP my brain can be...

In Bad Leutenant, Nic Cage's grip on reality is VERY shaky. There are the iguanas (we'll come back to that) and an extraordinary scene (a oner, I think) where he accosts a couple leaving a club, and things get very David Lynch by way of Quentin Tarantino. Scene is repeated, which (film skool 101) means it's important! Cage's character Terrence is a police detective whose life slowly spirals out of control -- gambling debts, losing a witness while high, conspiring with drug-lords, threatening the relative of a senator etc. The film leads you to expect one, very unpleasant, resolution. But no. He solves the case and gets a promotion. Why? Three things. One, Cage (srsly) is charismatic and commanding, even when caned. Two, audacity -- people around him are so astounded by his crazy behaviour that they do what he says. It also makes him unreadable -- the drug-baron thinks he's crooked, but he's not. Finally, and most importantly, LUCK. The film makes this point explicit -- one of Terrence's plays fails, but it works out anyway. And that's it. Success.

It's all very Machiavelli, actually ...((Ah philosophy, I knew you'd be useful!))

I think the croc scene is meant to suggest this. One croc goes on the motor-way. Result: car crash. The other croc walks away, an over shot tracks it as it escapes -- the same kind that tracks Cage throughout the film. It's luck, innit.

And the fish. The film begins with a snake swimming in a flooded prison, and ends in an aquarium. Is this a nature / art, chaos / order contrast? We begin in the jungle, but some of us are skillful and lucky enough to escape.


Cowboys & Aliens

I haven't read the original comic, although if Fred Van Lente was involved, I suspect it may be a winner. The film is great tho, not that you would know it from the reviews. Peter Bradshaw completely misses the point (clearly spelled out by the filmmakers themselves), as well just getting things wrong (the bracelet WAS explained!). Also, the Wild Wild West comparisons are just lazy. There is no trace of Steampunk in this film, nor is it going for buddy-film comedy.

Obv, we'll need to go over the basics for the benefit of those critics who weren't concentrating at their screenings. Cowboys & Aliens has a premise based on a pun, quaintly enough. Cowboys & Indians IT AIN'T. Instead, the cowboys get to experience the genocidal end of imperialism themselves -- here's what happens when more powerful guys with the big guns and the grasping hearts (quite literally, turns out) come round to steal your stuff. No fun at all, is it? MIGHT need to hook-up with those Indians you were killing off in order to deal with these BIGGER bastards. (There's also a weird absolution arc where the adopted son forgives the sins of his father... don't know how that would play with modern Native Americans).

What abt Olivia Wilde's character, tho? Boring romantic interest, maybe. But notice her origin: the bastard aliens destroyed her 'people'. Also notice the finale where she climbs into the middle of the alien tower-spaceship and blows it to pieces. Also notice her resurrection by fire. Comment on tyranny / patriarchy / phallocentrism? Is Ella an ambassador from a freer world destroying herself to destroy evil? Will she rise again? Like JESUS? Am I just making shit up? ...JUST making shit up?

Religion also covered. There's a brilliant funeral scene in which Sam Rockwell pretty much summarizes the creed (I suspect) many Americans uphold in practice. Innocence to experience also covered. A little boy has to learn how to use his knife (ahem) when faced with the world's horrors. I'm thinking Favreau and his eight writers (!) hit a lot of profundity with their wisecracking cowboy show. A slight problem with pacing (the film is 20 mins too long) isn't gonna take away from that. Don't know about the comic, but the film is DEFFO a winner.


Three Colours: Blue

Ian McEwan's Saturday follows a well-off surgeon for a day around London, and stuff happens, some very dull (squash), some quite exciting (assault). Oh, and that day is the 15th of February 2003 -- the massive protest march against the invasion of Iraq. Now, the reader is supposed to spot the connections -- obv the surgeon's story is some allegory for the workings of international politics. But as is usual with McEwan, you never know exactly what THE POINT is supposed to be. Personally, I don't mind so much. Whenever I've read anything by him, I could always cobble together some meaning for myself (which is what it's all about, right?). Also I forget said POINT almost immediately (don't ask me to explain Saturday. All I remember is that the references to Hobbes were supposed to contrast with the surgeon's decision at the end of the book. Or something. It probably involved religion or gender -- it usually does with me.) With McEwan, the journey was always worth it anyway, particularly the early fucked-up stuff. Not so much with Saturday tho. Saturday was pretty shit...

ANYWAY. This film reminded me of Saturday only because ostensibly it's set out to be a comment on the blue bit of the french flag: liberty. But then we spend all of our time hanging out with a widow processing her grief. The connection? Beats me! OK not really, because I have books and the internet to explain to me that the film swaps the political for the personal, navigating the contours of the chazm between liberty // love. Love makes you unfree: that shot with the reflection in the eye. You can't see for yourself anymore, you see through others. It's all a bit Rousseau, actually. ((Ah philosophy! Gotta be useful for something!)) And as the film's finale sings to us: love >>> everything else.

But really, I would have preferred it if Kieślowski had called this film something else, so it didn't have all this misleading baggage which doesn't add anything and merely distracts away from the otherwise quite beautiful story of someone learning to live and feel again. A lot of this is on Binoche, who does a marvelous job being by turns icy and vulnerable. I'm also sort of impressed by the sex-worker character, who didn't seem to be shaped by creepy male fantasies (call bullshit on this please, if you think otherwise). Actually, all the characters were handled elegantly. This film cuts the crap right out, so that every line is from the heart. That's refreshing. I liked everyone I met.

David Thomson hits on something when he describes this movie's 'pride and humourlessness' as 'crushing'. The story and themes do not reach Magnolia-size (BTW pretty much my fave non-genre film, I think). And yet Kieślowski is obv going for that level of grandness. It's a bit pretentious, in other words. Quite literally.

Did I just call a French art-house movie pretentious? Welcome to the Hothouse, friends! Sweltering with original insights and controversial opinions!


American: The Bill Hicks Story

I'm new to Bill Hicks (and stand-up in general) so getting my info from this film might give me a different slant from other Bill Hicks fans. This biography has a particular approach: getting at the subject through the people who knew him best -- family, friends and their archive of photos and video. It's Bill Hicks from the subjective standpoints of those close to him, and the filmmakers take a step back to let them tell the story. This is their testimony, and we judge the truth-value for ourselves. The way they use animation to realize the various episodes described is clever. We don't just get talking heads, but a larger-than-life reconstruction of what they are talking about: a great way to portray the workings of memory.

This is one way of doing biography, valuable perhaps, but with Bill Hicks I think there's a lot that's missed out from the focus on his personal life. As the film makes clear enough, his work was a way of escaping where he came from. Indeed, the info the film provides gets very general whenever Hicks is away from Texas and his family. We don't get many details on this life placed in different contexts. Where does Hicks fit into the history of stand-up comedy? Woody Allen and Richard Pryor are mentioned as influences, but for those that don't know who they are, what did Hicks take from them? What was his influence on others? Why was he so successful in Britain? What did he read? His philosophy can't JUST be explained as a result of a far-out trip on magic mushrooms. How did his stand-up actually WORK? One thing I noticed from the clips was the way Hicks could get away with critiquing American idiocy by co-opting parts of the audience and making them feel that they weren't the stupid ones.

This is stuff a more traditional biography might cover, with input from academics and disciples. Perhaps it has been covered to death elsewhere, which is why this film took this particular route. It provides a very good portrait of the man: hard-working, driven, very American as the title suggests. But my feeling is it missed a lot of what made Bill Hicks such a cult figure.


The Skin I Live In

I'll take this as Almodóvar's atonement for Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, the last film he did with Banderas, and which made my political correctness siren start wailing over here. This film isn't entirely clear of testy moral waters. Like Talk To Her, there is a rape by an 'innocent'. Perhaps because of the different circumstances -- Vicente did stop (eventually...) when consent was withdrawn -- plus the fact that the film's stance is more distant, I didn't get worked up about it. Whether this is tantamount to hypocrisy I'll leave to you.

But at least here we have a prisoner (who may have succumbed to stockholm syndrome, or maybe not -- we are left to draw our own conclusions) who breaks free and is reunited with a real loving family (of women, of course). I wonder if Vicente steals Norma in the end?

The focus should be on Robert, however. A magnificent performance by Banderas, who has enough charisma and passion to sell his absolute devotion to his deceased wife and child, while at the same time being the clinical obsessive bad guy. When did the madness emerge? His wife started shagging his id-driven brother and his daughter was pretty old to be playing with toys when we first see her -- maybe Robert was the one that defenestrated both, albeit indirectly. Marilia was of the opinion that she had given birth to demons. Zeca "the tiger" is an animal, no restraint at all, a true rapist. Robert is all about restraint, control, observation, intervention -- I'm not surprised that his wife cuckolded him and his daughter developed social problems. And his undoing by Vera comes exactly when he lets her in. Just as he starts becoming human, punishment is delivered.

A wondrous film. The best Almodóvar mystery I've seen so far.


Super 8

Dude, seriously, quit with the lens flare already! It made sense when everything was shiny new and space age, but this is just a railway station in the 70s. There is no need for it!

A bit weird, this film. Star Trek had enough jokes to cover for the obv character beats and themes. This tries to use cuteness instead, and I dunno... Maybe I'm a cold cynical bastard, but I didn't really feel involved.

Apart from one scene. BUT SHE'S NICE TO ME! ...that one hit hard.

Also, stay for the short movie that plays over the credits. As my wise friend from over here pointed out -- very Garth Marenghi.


All-Star Superman

I'm always slightly daunted by Grant Morrison comics, which are never as simple as they appear. For example, the second issue is overtly about Lois accepting Superman's secret, but its also a riff on the Bluebeard story -- Lois thinks she is going to be trapped and forced to make lots of superbabies, but in fact Superman offers empowerment. Now if you don't have your wits about you, you may miss these big things Morrison is talking about.

There is a lot to be impressed with here. The first issue has to set up everything in 21 pages, so the first page origin and the splash on the next two are brilliant at getting across everything you need to know. The way Morrison cuts between Superman, Lois and Luthor in that issue, and across two time continuums in the tenth, shows the control he can exert over a story.

My favourite issue is pretty linear, however -- number five, which looks at Luthor as interviewed by Clark Kent. What's interesting is that Luthor portrays himself as a revolutionary attempting to create a new human renaissance. For him, Superman defines the ideal, meaning that no one can establish any alternative values ('abstracts') while he lives. The sequence in which the prison walls become panels brings a whole meta-element into this. Luthor is trapped in a reality which does not allow for his genius to flourish. As he says himself: he is a born dictator, but Superman always stands in his way, ideologically as well as literally. And all of this is brilliantly undermined by the irony of Luthor complementing Kent on his bumbling humanity. The issue is framed by Kent visiting and leaving the prison, from the air and then under the ground, which makes me wonder if this is a riff on the Inferno: Kent shown around by a demented Virgil before being carted off by an insane S&M Beatrice at the end. Maybe not, but the fact that the comic suggests such grandiose comparisons is a testament to the way it can talk about big ideas in a compact and plot-driven way.

Issue ten is the other highlight, in which Superman runs a test case of a universe without Superman. There, as here, people create gods, then try to surpass them. Nietzsche appears writing his Zarathustra. Finally, a zoom in to a pencil sketch of Superman (but in a different costume). The issue is about letting go and trusting others. Superman learns that he can rely on people to continue to generate ideals and try and live by them. That one page sequence where he saves the suicidal girl captures this well. As Mark Waid says in the introduction: Superman achieves his power by believing in us.

The religion to science development is what the book ends on. Superman provided the 20th century ideal for human aspiration. He is a modern god. Some, like Lois, think he will return once the sun is fixed. Others, like Leo Quintum, move on to solving the problems of the universe themselves. The gods show us the way, but then human ingenuity takes over.


Starter For 10

I was looking for something along the lines of this, and was rather disappointed. It's all a bit O.C. isn't it? Did Dominic Cooper have to look EXACTLY LIKE James Dean? Did Alice Eve have to look EXACTLY LIKE Catherine Deneuve? YES, obv, because otherwise we wouldn't know what character they were playing. James McAvoy was charming enough, and Benedict Cumberbatch was very funny as the team captain (also, Rebecca Hall can marry me now, please). But they didn't have a lot of depth to dig into.

The script is written by the author of the original novel, and I'm thinking either the book's rubbish or he doesn't know what he's doing. Because the film is big on cliche, lacks wit, and relies on cringe for tension. To be fair to it, there is a fundamental decency to the story that wins through (just!) despite the platitudes and contrivances. However, I do wish the characters had a few more dimensions.


Morvern Callar

With this film, I got the feeling that a lot of THE POINT was left in the original novel, with director Lynne Ramsay preferring to do Malick-style meandering w/o the voice-over. But whatevs, it was entrancing. From some of the arguments on the IMDB page, I got the impression that the novel is superior (it's narrated first person, which immediately tells me that there must be more character / theme stuff going on than you get in the film). But I haven't read it so I'm forced to ponce over what Ramsey provides. She should have thought about that.

The hook is that Morvern's lover commits suicide, but leaves his finished novel dedicated to her with instructions to send it to publishers. Morvern does so, but not before substituting her name for his. Then she takes his money and goes on holiday. And that's pretty much it. Her character is explored through action rather than dialogue, and what we see is a sullen, restless, impulsive, resourceful, uneducated girl who enjoys silence, ants and sexual encounters with strangers. ??? indeed.

I'm thinking the dead boyfriend hangs all over this film, which leads me to suspect it's less about some sort of existentialist journey (how terribly old fashioned!) and more about aesthetics and interpretation. Why not? Didn't some guy in the 60s declare the death of the author? Well I don't know about that. This guy leaves the protagonist with a "Sorry Morvern. Don't try to understand. It just seemed like the right thing to do", his love, a new jacket, a lighter, and a mixtape which she (and we) listen to throughout the film. Communication through objects and music, plus affection and condescension. Is dead boyfriend writing Morvern's life for her ("don't try to understand")? Did he want to set her free ("the right thing to do")? Or is his little toy rebelling, claiming her right to her own life, with reparations for the exploitation she's suffered ("Sorry Morvern")?

Or maybe I'm just looking for nuance in an otherwise pretty but dull film? I'll give Lynne Ramsay the benefit of the doubt. The film was pretty. And, I should have mentioned this before, Samantha Morton is magnificent.