The Playwright

Not really a comic by Eddie Campbell and Daren White. Two-three panels a page with captions describing 'the sex life of a celibate middle-aged man' (as the back cover puts it), but no speech bubbles or directly reported conversation. More accurate to describe it as a picture book, such that children would read perhaps, except this portrays an overgrown child who is going through the process of sexual awakening in his 50s. In fact, the book starts with stray snatches of nursery rhymes – Georgie Porgie and Jack Horner. The former's kisses make girls cry and he runs away when the boys come out to play. The latter sticks his thumb in the pie and pulls out a plum – sexual innocence and experience across one page.

At the end of the book the protagonist finds love and gives up his writing career, so there is a very clear link being made between celibacy (or social inadequacy) and creativity. This reminded me (of all things) of Stuart Murdoch's incredible burst of creativity after recovering from the long illness he had as a teenager. In the documentary for Pitchfork, he described the way he would ride the busses around the town and think up stories about the randoms he saw around him. The songs were catalysed by a mixture of isolation and desire – not just sexual but for any kind of human contact. Once he had mined out that rich songwriting seam, (those first two Belle & Sebastian albums) he felt comfortable handing over to the other members of the band (which produced mixed results).

The idea of imagination as indicative of a lack of something in your life is not new, but it makes sense. The motive force for creating any kind of art must be some sort of frustration with reality as it is. The authors of The Playwright don't write plays, but they recognise this underlying urge animating their drawing and writing, and choose to focus their attention particularly on sublimation. True sensation wipes out the need for words and pictures. The end of the book is almost a warning to the reader – we can't escape our obsessive need to create, but you can. Close this volume, leave the house, and run out into the world.


The Decameron

No I haven't read the book (r u mad, it's like a billion pages long). But I watched Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1971 film version last night, on a shiny BFI dual-format DVD complete with informational booklet. This was the first in his 'Trilogy of Life' adaptations of medieval literature depicting a lost pre-capitalist paradise. Just off the bat, strange for me to find a communist denouncing the evils of industrialisation harking back to the Middle Ages, since Marx and most of his followers considered feudalism to be infinitely worse. Pasolini seems to be lamenting a kind of moral and cultural decay spreading alongside economic development, effacing more grounded, more 'real', pre-modern ways of living.

No sympathy with that theory I'm afraid, and what's worse, the film itself turned out to be a drag. It's a textbook study in the risks you run when you choose to work with non-professional actors and pick people because of their interesting faces. Pasolini is content to just shoot close-ups of these life-filled, 'authentic' personalities staring blankly into the camera, which inadvertently makes them look all the more inauthentic. There's a weird realism-idealism divide when you stage these stylized shots (almost like paintings) and then get this fourth-wall breaking behaviour from the people in them. The booklet considers this a strength – real people stepping out of their allegories – but this also demolishes audience engagement with the story.

What's frustrating is that I'm not sure exactly what the uncorrupted culture being celebrated here is about, or if it's particularly desirable. A devious merchant fools an ignorant peasant into sex with his wife. A teenager seduces a girl on a balcony and is discovered by her parents – but he's rich, so instead of being put to death he is promptly married with his dick still wet. Three brothers murder the lover of their sister because he is a servant, even though at least one of them is sleeping with a servant-girl as well. Double-standards everywhere you look.

The stronger stories deal with the hypocrisy of religion: a nunnery succumbing to the pleasures of the flesh, a sinner being honoured as a saint because of the lies he spins to his confessor on his death bed. My favourite is the cuckolded husband coming home early to sell a massive jar to his friend, not knowing that his wife has hidden her lover there. The jar being a very obv symbol for her you-know-what, some very enjoyable innuendo ensues. I like it because it's one of the few times the sexual double-standard is flipped in the woman's favour. Nonetheless, The Decameron still depicts a world governed by patriarchy and superstition, and a class society as deep-rooted as the one ushered in by the industrial revolution. In the end, Pasolini seems to be celebrating the live-and-fuck-while-you-can attitude of his characters when faced with these abuses – an individualism at odds with whatever kind of communitarian political ideal he (I assume) supports.


Sky Blue

A Korean anime film that (according to the back cover) took 7 years to make. The wikipedia entry focuses almost entirely on its technical achievements: photo-realistic CGI, rendered vehicles, cel animated characters. It looks as impressive as it sounds, at least I think so, but I grew up on the thrill of computer game cut-scenes. What's equally impressive is the attempt (if not the achievement) of a political message. Ecoban is a city-state run by callous philosopher kings and supported by a serf population kept outside its shielded walls. One particularly nasty member of the elect is called Locke, perhaps a nod to the property-loving 17th century liberal philosopher (although if people knew their history they would be more inclined to place him on the side of the revolutionaries). The leader of the copper class is called Noah, and wouldyabelieveit he lives in a boat, enduring the unceasing rain and planning for a brighter tomorrow where humanity abandons carbon fuels and switches to solar panels.

The film is less knowingly postmodern in its use of imagery, with its motorbikes from Akira and masks from V for Vendetta. I was tempted to bring up games again as a comparison – parasitically feeding off ideas generated in other mediums. However, conversations with still-active gamers (I only occasionally relapse into booting up Baldur's Gate) have underlined that, actually, games ARE innovative. It's just that, like everything else, there's a lot of derivative crap out there. And upon reflection, there are games I've played (Planescape: Torment, Alpha Centauri) that built worlds like nothing I had seen before.

Back to the point: Sky Blue isn't showing you anything new. The accumulation and combination of existing elements could have been made an asset, however, if it thoroughly embraced the potential such a strategy holds out for symbolic layering. Steal and repurpose, quote and re-contextualize. Abandoning the rigours of science fiction and sticking to archetypes and symbols would have been a striking effect, espesh combined with the inherently distancing computer-generated visuals. It's what Jodo's The Incal is all about.

The worst aspect of the film is the terrible characterisation, made x1000 worse by the insipid English dub (no other option on the DVD). While watching, I kept imagining alternatives not taken – Cade more heroic, Locke more human, Moe being gay for Zed. Anything to enliven the horribly predictable maneuvers each character makes. Notionally our protagonist is Jay, who is in the middle of a love triangle between Clint Eastwood-voiced rebel-rebel Shua and soft-spoken backstabbing turtleneck Cade. Her lack of personality is alarming. The only other female character is a scared little blind girl groping for someone with agency to care for her, a fitting summation of the way Jay is treated by the film. Being stuck behind those eyes is asphyxiating. A more interesting character (this is overstating it slightly) is Cade. There is a nice circularity to his conversion: he separated Jay and Shua and abandoned the latter to his death, now he unites and saves them both. Perhaps he would have been a better narrator.


Golden Balls

Bigas Luna's film is a satire on having cajones, and he doesn't shy away from providing a moral – reducing the glory-hunting, gold-digging, sex-mad Javier Bardem to floods of tears at the end. Benito is an energetic prick of a young man, hungry for money and a good time. He's possessive about women as well, and when his girlfriend cheats on him with his best friend, he becomes violent. It's not clear whether the drive to build the tallest tower in town is a direct consequence of this episode, or the gradual development of his obsessions, but in any case the project is all about erecting a phallic temple to his own potency. Luna is big on obv symbols (Benito name-checks Dali while drawing drawers on the bodies of his lovers) and the film sets up a contrast between two gendered visual metaphors: churning, insect-ridden cement and water. We start with a shot of the former and end with Bardem ripping out the plumbing in his bathroom and sobbing as the credits roll.

If there is a qualifying note to his inevitable comeuppance, it's in Bardem's suggestion that sex is fantasy. Perhaps his actions are best explained as the result of the fevered desires that a materialist and patriarchal society have stirred up within him. I cling to this reading also because it explains the tolerance Benito's women display when confronted with his abuses. Driven, dangerous swinging dicks are the stuff of feminine sexual desire, and the women in this film are also undone by it.


Aguirre, Wrath of God

Difficult to watch this without thinking of all the films that followed in its wake. Apocalypse Now most obv, although I think Herzog's film is much finer (and more compact), sticking close to its warrior-prophet from beginning to end. But Aguirre's influence might even be felt in things like Jackson's Lord of the Rings, where the Fellowship is being chased by orcs down the River Anduin.

None of these successors can quite capture the sense of precariousness in Herzog's film. The images he managed to get show quite clearly the reckless nature of the shoot – horses going crazy on floating rafts, men flipped upside down by jungle booby-traps. Like his hero, Herzog is a little touched by the that sense of capturing greatness at whatever cost. Unlike his hero, he knows when to stop... just.

The other unexpected element is the frequent sense of the bizarre: the almost Monty Pythonesque deaths of some of the minions, the exaggerated overacting of Klaus Kinski in the title role, that final circling image of Aguirre pacing the raft overrun by monkeys, muttering about the fame and power he will wield. There is a fine line being navigated between pathos and bathos, which is crucial to Herzog's theme of the delusions of imperialism. It is that sense of detachment, the silent observation of this preposterous treasure hunt's inevitable unravelling, which is the film's greatest achievement.



This isn't just a shock-fest. The horror of the crossed is acute, but they are seductive villains because they represent humanity at its most free. One wonders if this is what Nietzsche's reign of the noble would actually look like – a carnival of aesthetic perversity. The contagion isn't explained because it is metaphorical: the decaying flesh shaped into a cross should be an obvious enough symbol. I didn't like what I've read of Ennis's Preacher because its musings on religion didn't strike me as particularly coherent. Crossed achieves much more with less. The story of survivors clinging onto their humanity as they have to make morally impossible decisions is as old as any zombie movie, but Ennis has pushed that bleak survivalism to its absolute limit, as if to completely efface the notion of any kind of transcendent or eternal moral authority. If He exists, God must be a grade-A cocksucker for having created such a screwed-up world. The book ends with a secularised biblical image: a new Adam and Eve walking out of a blood-splattered Eden and ready to face the world with clear eyes, encapsulating the hard-headed journey from innocence to experience which is the book's central theme.

The Red Wing

Jonathan Hickman dedicated this book to his son, and there is something quite personal in the theme of generational guilt and conflict. A future warlord blames the scarcity of his present on the profligacy of the past, and decides to time-travel and pillage the resources that his fathers wasted. Interesting new twist on what otherwise looks like an X-Wing: Rogue Squadron comic. I can just imagine the writer looking at his son growing up in a world threatened by economic and environmental insecurity and welling-up with shame at the crimes of the baby-boomer generation. In chapter two, the narrative voice says: "We record our sins. We pretend writing these things down absolves us in some way." A message from the heart.