Desert Island Discs

A request for music recommendations sent me down this little flight of fancy – if I had to choose right now, what would be my desert island discs. Not records I would take with me to an actual desert island, rather to the Radio 4 show in which favourite songs serve to introduce new episodes of your biography. I don't have the time nor the inclination to share much more than the list itself, except to say that the chosen are often stand-ins for a whole bunch of music I was into at certain points in my life.

Sooooo... The Supremes sum up a childhood listening to London MOR station Heart FM. Death Cab the teenage obsession with wordy indie / emo bands (Belle & Sebastian, Bloc Party, Shins, Hold Steady). The Sundays, or more specifically Harriet Wheeler, for Tori, Aimee, Buffy, and my awkward fumblings with feminism. Terror Danjah my grime road to Damascus moment. Ramadanman the retrospective delving into jungle. "Love Shy" the (largely) retrospective delving into 2-step garage. Radiohead, who are ubiquitous on such lists (and I am not immune). And Purity Ring pointing towards the future:

Diana Ross & The Supremes - You Can't Hurry Love
Kristine Blond - Love Shy (Club Asylum Mix)
Death Cab For Cutie - Death of an Interior Decorator
The Sundays - Can't Be Sure
Radiohead - Idioteque
Terror Danjah feat. Hyper MC, Bruza, D Double E, Riko - Cock Back V1.2
Ramadanman - Don't Change For Me
Purity Ring - Ungirthed

[Speaking of Purity Ring, their new album is lining up to be my favourite of the year, just based on the tracks they've already leaked – which is about half of them now!]

Oh, and as for the book, probably a fully-annotated edition of Ulysses, which I imagine will keep me busy. I'll cheat on the luxury and go for a broadband internet connection, although if Kirsty is being mean I might have to settle for a crate of Chimay.


Chris Mullen is a bit like Clint Eastwood crossed with Bruce Willis in terms of hardness – that gravelly croak, a gut full of embers. He takes the noir antihero – always bigger than his surroundings – and grounds him in a reality that contextualises his flailing rage. I maintain that this is a genre film – with its femme fatale and inexplicably evil villain – but a responsible one.

As evidence for my proposition, I submit the cheesy montage that follows the funeral, one of a couple of moments in the film where grim realism is bitten back and feelgood music surges forward. I have a flinty heart, maybe, but I found this stuff quite saccharine, and I'm surprised Bradshaw (who is unrelenting on these things) lets it pass without comment. Perhaps Considine thought the audience needed a bit of good cheer. He may be right, but he provides it in hackneyed fashion.

What about the Tyrannosaur that hangs over the film? It's a mystery to me exactly how caring Joe was to his deceased wife (and I welcome your surmises). I guess the pet name is both affectionate and mean, as Joe is himself. The film establishes this very effectively at the beginning.

There maybe something else to the metaphor, tho – women's roaring rage repressed. Women bloated by forgiveness, extinct because they are not canny enough to navigate this cold cold world. And this is where the film gets trapped in its genre conventions: the femme fatale is dangerous when cornered, but she cannot survive on her own. She needs Joe's (masculine) strength, as Joe needs Hannah's (feminine) kindness. A common conceit in noir, and one this film does little to undermine.


Porco Rosso

Better than Kiki, not as good as Laputa... (I've seen so many Miyazaki films now I'm getting the urge to rank them) This one is also built around Miyasaki's enthusiasm for flight. And also, maybe, Casablanca? With the jazz bar full of criminals and the protagonist full of inner demons. An enigmatic, cursed, noble but fallen hero, an anarchist giving his life to fight off fascists. A Byron, except of course it's not Byron, "It's mine! See you later!"

The most striking scene in the film is the bedtime story in which Porco describes his near death experience and transformation. Reversed when, as with the frog prince, he is kissed by a woman who loves him. The link between the two events is Gina, it seems. Her first husband was Porco's comrade, now dead. Perhaps Porco's swinish form is a symbol for survivor's guilt, which fades when he receives an unequivocal sign that Gina has moved on. There is a certain logic to that interpretation, tho it feels a bit pat, and I'm pretty sure Miyazaki had deeper things on his mind.

My guess would be that it's a gender thing again. Boys will be boys going off to fight stupid wars, marrying sweethearts and getting themselves killed. Porco survives all that disfigured, convinced of the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart. And the women, Fio, Gina, are there to redeem the world. By showing that they are just as resourceful as men, and kinder too.


Snow White and the Huntsman

If Laurie Penny wanted to riff on the 'good ruler complex', the new Snow White film would have provided more appropriate material, I think. Kirsten Stewart's coronation scene looks like the graduation ceremony of the Good Ruler University of Life. Yes, like Jon Snow or Arya Stark, Ms. White has to knuckle down with the plebeians in order to learn the ways of virtuous political leadership. Unlike Game of Thrones, however, the institution of monarchy is not portrayed as inherently corrupt – while the land lies desolate during Ravenna's reign, it is abursting with fertility before her rise to power, and will again when Ms. White replaces her, if that shot of the flower opening (ripped from LOTR or Pan's Labyrinth iirc) is any indication.

Kirsten Steward does not move her face all that much during the film. She's a bit like Tintin – no distinguishing features in order to make audience identification run as smoothly as possible. It's all about Charlize Theron's Ravenna, anyway – the second time I've seen her play someone fighting down the degradation of beauty, and thus, power. Her character here is designed to be some sort of critique of patriarchy: a low-born woman using her femininity to enhance her status. The film could have run further with this idea, though: showing the way Ravenna uses her mystique more widely to keep the population in awe – using the ideology that constrains her as a weapon to constrain others.

The film makes a tenuous link between Ravenna's obsession with keeping up appearances and her rapacious rule, which really should have been developed a bit more, since it is the hinge by which the film takes an old story and makes it new. It needed to show why Burke's Marie Antoinette would necessarily turn into a psychopathic White Witch lusting for immortality. If anything, Charlize Theron would have been more radical if she didn't play up the cliché evil vain crazy woman, intimations of incest and everything. Wouldn't she have been more scary, more real, if she was calculating, smart, quiet and ruthless?

The film sets out to critique pomp and circumstance in a roundabout way, by replacing the prince with the huntsman. (Sidebar: I suspect I could rest satisfied watching Chris Hemsworth play burly noble doofuses till the end of time.) Snow White is a good ruler because she has served her apprenticeship as one of the 99%. If the coronation at the film's culmination is undercut in some way, it is in the shot of the huntsman walking in, smirking at the new queen – a reminder that this reign will be different, inclusive. The gesture is perfunctory, however, and Laurie Penny can easily leap in here to point out its inconsistencies.

It sounds like I think the film got a lot of things wrong. Actually it is better than you would expect, with gauche but enjoyable symbols of bitten apples and wedding night stabbings, a spirit of the forest taken straight out of Princess Mononoke, and seven dwarves played by the very best British character actors. Fairy tales are derivative forms of entertainment, but you can still use the format and the expectations intelligently to ram home a point. Admirably, this film tries to say something new with the story. But an Angela Carter stan like myself would expect such exercises to push further.


Game of Thrones

Season two finale just watched, which didn't fumble a single beat. The previous episode's Helm's Deep meets Normandy landing battle also a flawless hour's worth of entertainment. The one-two at the end make up for a couple of tread water mid-season episodes that didn't do much but push the plots along. Like a lot of long-haul genre shows, Game of Thrones is all about the pay-offs. And so far (unlike Battlestar Galactica) it is delivering, probably because there is a roadmap underneath it all, provided by the books.

I read the first book and watched the first season in parallel, and decided at the end of both that the show did some bits better and some bits worse, so it kind of evened out. G.R.R. Martin worked in television, and his writing is very televisual, so I didn't think I would be missing much if I just skipped the books (they are extremely long-winded). I gather that the second season has also managed to improve on the books in a bunch of ways, so I'm pretty happy with the way I've managed my time. The waiting required between episodes and seasons is frustrating, sure, but nowhere near as much as waiting for a new book in the series.

I don't think the appeal of the show lies in its characters so much as in genre. Martin sticks to the high fantasy formula but makes it palatable with dashes of medieval realism. These are not real people we are watching on the screen, they are archetypes sanded down to human-sized proportions. Sure, there are no heroes or villains. Your sympathy is drawn to all the players as they perform certain well-defined and easily-recognisable roles. No one really changes in this world (except when subjected to horrific physical and psychological abuse r.e. Clegane, Sansa, Dany, Ros – also an arc with established contours, and one not without its problems).

But would we enjoy Game of Thrones as much if its characters break free from their moulds, if they become complex and ambiguous (and not just in order to service the plot as with Varys and Baelish). Maybe, but there is a certain pleasure in the retelling of familiar stories as well. I don't mind the show staying exactly as it is: superficial flash entertaining pulp mixed in with a bit of grit.


Rather disappointing the extent to which Laurie Penny misses the point. I don't think G.R.R. Martin has a lot of faith in 'good rulers', which is why he lobbed off Ned Stark's head so spectacularly in the first book / season. The idea that the 99% are pawns in the 'game of thrones' played by the 1% was voiced quite clearly, I felt. This won't change whoever is in power. I suspect Martin and a lot of his readers believe it hasn't changed to this day.


A.I. Artificial Intelligence

What was all that guff about humans only being able to occupy one part of spacetime before vanishing forever? Why can the mother only be resurrected for one day? What makes the humans so fracking unique, huh? All that talk of spirits and souls robs the final blissful apotheosis of some of its uncomfortable undertones. Spielberg's fuzziness gets in the way of what should be the underlying existential horror running through this film – that human beings are an assemblage of circuits and that fairy-tales are a virus corrupting our software. Love can be coded. We're all going to die. The universe will stand bemused, indifferent.

THAT I can understand. The cold hard universe-eyed-view of us puny humans on our puny polluted planet. That is the starting point of great science fiction. And it will make those moments of love, gentleness, happiness all the more precious, because they are tiny pinpricks in a vast darkness. The fuck do we care if we just live out the destinies written in our genes, the possibilities our foggy minds suggest to us. Doesn't make that experience any less real or valuable or meaningful. I needed that edge from A.I. to make the sentimentality wash. I didn't mind the alien-like future beings at all. If anything, my problem with the film is that it was too human.

Where the allusions to filmmaking are, I cannot tell. I mean, it kicks off with a reference to Genesis – God created human beings and can treat them as he pleases (making Genesis a riot to read, btw, totally unhinged). Human beings exercise a similar tyranny over the narratives they create, the stories they tell. But Grant Morrison has spent a career confronting this particular idea head on, this film suggests it and moves on.

I'm not going to slam this too hard, because Jude Law and Haley Joel Osment were perfect. And then there's OMG THAT TEDDY SO CUTE I WANT ONE!!! Plus there are some fairy-tale meets reality parts of the film – the wolves in the forest, the carnivalesque zombie-robots, the flesh fair – that were striking and evocative and what have you. But I'm not going to come to Spielberg for philosophy. I don't think he has the stomach to do it properly. By which I mean, of course, the way I like it.

Wolf Hall

'A man's power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.'
Somewhere in this massive book, Cromwell wonders how anyone can pretend to know him, when he barely knows himself. Mantel approaches her protagonist sideways, mid-way between first and third person, sliding from one to the other. She doesn't know him either, really. Her portrait is well-rounded precisely because it isn't definitive: just a collection of words, actions, thoughts and memories.

What is the significance of Wolf Hall – a setting never visited, only occasionally referred to? It is the house of the Seymour family, Jane Seymour destined to be Henry's third wife, and indirectly, Cromwell's downfall. So there is an irony to Cromwell's decision to holiday there for five days at the end of the book, when he is at the height of his power.

Jane Seymour's father is having an affair with his son's wife, and early in the book the connection is made with Henry taking his brother's widow Katherine as his first wife. Perhaps Wolf Hall serves as a trite encapsulation of Henry's administration – where ministers like Cromwell have to remake England to service the king's whims. But it is a knowingly trite comparison, a hint from Mantel that her fiction bears the same relationship to reality as the Wolf Hall scandal does to Henry's court.

Wikipedia tells me that her book stands as a pointed rejoinder to A Man for All Seasons, a play written in the late 1950s with Sir Thomas More as the hero and Cromwell as the villain. If Wolf Hall has a lesson for today, it is the obvious one that principles in politics are a danger to your health, and that superstition and fanaticism are a danger to everyone.