It’s been something of a strange couple of weeks, which has ranged from various incidents, both little and large.  From a suddenly positive change in job security, to a negative change in job security, to discovering a co-worker dropped dead at the weekend, to the dropping of The Zero Theorem into cinemas.

Mister Attack caught a sneaky glimpse up the skirt of the abyss, and it made him feel…

Revenge of the Giant Face

March 12th, 2014

Ah, let’s indulge in some time travel shall we? Let’s go all the way back to September 2009, when Sean Collins had this to say about Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds:

It is, in other words, a deliberate assault on the facts surrounding the deaths of millions and millions of people, including the systematic genocide of six million Jews in the Holocaust… It’s morally monstrous and its practitioners are moral monsters.

Oh, wait, shit. That’s not quite right. That’s what Sean C. had to say about Nazi-sympathizing turd-monger Pat Buchanan. Sorry everyone, but problems like this tend to occur when you start to mess around with history, you know?

In order to find what Sean actually thought of Inglourious Basterds we have to go back even further, to August 2009 no less! It was a kinder time, a gentler time, a time where a man could read an essay on the cathartic, history rupturing violence of Tarantino’s latest picture without any danger of stumbling onto this long winded response.

Here’s what Sean actually said about the film:

Inglourious Basterds may be the punkest movie I’ve seen in I can’t even think how long. Maybe ever. It’s about nothing less than the power of art to destroy evil. It’s about how important it is to love film more than the likes of Hitler hate life. It’s about how movie violence, art violence, art designed as a FUCK YOU, can help you deal with the violence that so terrified Chamberlain’s cohorts and to which Hitler and his cohorts were so indifferent. It’s Woody Guthrie’s “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS” guitar slogan made literal. It’s a lingering closeup on the bloodlust-saturated eyes of Eli Roth, the beautiful Jewish torture-porn poster boy and enemy of good taste, as he empties a machine gun into the bodies of members of the Third Reich. And it’s a total fucking fantasy. Yet that’s what makes it so vital.

Collins then went on to compare the release he finds in Inglourious Basterds with the traumatized euphoria of a Nine Inch Nails concert. It’s a good essay — so good, in fact, that it almost had me convinced that I felt the same way. Except that if I’m honest, I didn’t find any release in Tarantino’s spaghetti-western-war-punk-fantasy.That said, Inglourious Basterds didn’t bother me the way it bothered David Fiore! Still, I get where Dave’s coming from, because it’s a deeply strange movie — the mix of stomach wrenching tension, goofy comedy, expressive violence and defiantly “Tarantino-esque” banter makes it hard for the viewer to know how they’re supposed to react. Even the film’s first chapter, which Sean correctly describes as being loaded with real danger, has at least one absurd laugh in it. It’s not easy to keep a straight face when Landa pulls out his massive comedy pipe, is it?

Well, some how *he* manages…

George Eliot – Silas Marner

Despite its sentimental, Dickensian cover and premise – an outcast weaver is drawn back into society by the arrival of an orphaned child in his life – this short novel is yet more evidence of Eliot’s ability to create the impression of distance in her fictions. Eliot’s mastery of the bourgeois novel is of a similar kind and order to Milton’s mastery of the epic poem; the devil, as always, is in the details and how they’re relayed.

It’s worth comparing Marner’s transition over the first part of this novel with Scrooge’s in A Christmas Carol in order to better understand Eliot’s method.  Dickens is one of the all time great narrators, and he trusts that the effects he has conveyed so spectacularly throughout his ghost story will linger with both his notorious outcast and miser and the reader even after he’s allowed the illusion to collapse in on itself:

For the first time the hand appeared to shake.

“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”

The kind hand trembled.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the  year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”

In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him.

Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.

Compare the drama of Dickens’s line to the ever-shifting emphasis of this paragraph from the final bloom of Silas Marner‘s first volume:

Silas began now to think of Raveloe life entirely in relation to Eppie: she must have everything that was a good in Raveloe; and he listened docilely, that he might come to understand better what this life was, from which, for fifteen years, he had stood aloof as from a strange thing, with which he could have no communion: as some man who has a precious plant to which he would give a nurturing home in a new soil, thinks of the rain, and the sunshine, and all influences, in relation to his nursling, and asks industriously for all knowledge that will help him to satisfy the wants of the searching roots, or to guard leaf and bud from invading harm. The disposition to hoard had been utterly crushed at the very first by the loss of his long-stored gold: the coins he earned afterwards seemed as irrelevant as stones brought to complete a house suddenly buried by an earthquake; the sense of bereavement was too heavy upon him for the old thrill of satisfaction to arise again at the touch of the newly-earned coin. And now something had come to replace his hoard which gave a growing purpose to the earnings, drawing his hope and joy continually onward beyond the money.

In Eliot’s hands a seemingly romantic conceit – a child’s improving effect on an alienated adult – is nevertheless established to be effective only inasmuch as Marner’s continued obligations to the child necessitate a continued interaction with society as a whole.  This is typical of Eliot’s approach, which emphasises connection and consequence over the triumph of kind hearts and stirring rhetoric.

This comparison is, however, not offered in order to disparage Dickens, whose busy narration looks simultaneously backward to the jarring shifts of the best English poetry and forward to the juddering machinery of modern comedy.  And if it’s true that those same novels are premised on a call to individual kindness that overlooks the necessity for any broader or more systematic change then that does not diminish their effectiveness in making vivid the muck and dirt of unreformed reality.

The simple truth is that Eliot’s talents are slightly different in nature, and their magnitude does not need to be exaggerated by the disparagement of other novelists even if they may be better understood in light of the comparison.

Staying mindful of the example of Dickens, it occurs that the subject of the novelist vs. the social order that produced them is a curious one when applied to Eliot’s work.  The form of the bourgeois novel she so excels at may in itself may replicate bourgeois values by way of its sheer confidence, but Eliot interrogates these conventions through the startling depth and clarity of her narrative judgements, which contrast with the narrative itself in a way that can’t help but provoke quiet inquiry.

The introduction to the edition I read makes up for any awkwardness its cover may engender by virtue of an astute introduction by R.T. Jones (an Honorary Fellow of the University of York, apparently), in which Jones tracks some of the juxtapositions that exist in Silas Marner‘s framing story, arguing that for all Eliot’s narration chides Godfrey for foolishly hoping that all would work out well when he didn’t claim his secret child, the story bears out his actions more than it does her words:

…the novel leads us to conclude that if Godfrey had done the right thing, acknowledged his first wife and her baby as his, Nancy would not have married him; Eppie (under a different name, of course) would have grown up in the Red House with no mother and a resentful father; so Godfrey, Nancy and Eppie would have had very little oppotunity for happiness, and of course Silas Marner would have remained an exile from human society.

Silas Marner ends on a statement of total happiness that somehow fails to ring false, but the novel never once lets you forget that fairy-tale conclusion has been built on a series of disappointments, lies, and betrayals, and it is Eliot’s ability to keep both of these seemingly contradictory positions in perspective that gives the truest account of her peculiar genius in this short novel.

Read more reviews of books without pictures after the cut!

Salla Tykkä: The Palace

March 8th, 2014

A video triptych by Finnish artist Salla Tykkä, The Palace comprises of three short films – Victoria, Airs Above the Ground, and Giant – that de-naturalise their subjects in a series of increasingly overwhelming ways. The contrasts upon which these pieces have been built risk obviousness, but if the slow, immersive quality of Tykkä’s visuals doesn’t quite break down this objection on its own, the steady accumulation and alteration of meaning that accrues through the progression from subject to subject ensures that this is not merely a prolonged statement of the obvious.

An Amazonian plant transported to England and named in honour a British monarch, the Victoria lily is for Tykkä a symbol of the spoiler of colonialism and Empire.  Despite textual cues to this extent, Victoria is the most traditionally beautiful of the pieces in The Palace.  Perhaps this is intentional – it is, after all, the entrance to this piece.

For the duration of this video, we watch the lily writhe through a time-lapse ballet of its life cycle, all to the strains of suitably “stirring” classical music.  Does the ghostly choreography of the lily’s movements, its abundant grace emphasised by the editing, cause us to question the sequence of events that has brought this beauty to our attention?  Perhaps, but as the lily’s colour shifts from white to pink its status as a “natural” spectacle is also subtly reinforced by the piece, the viewer reassured that they are watching something do what it was always meant to do.

From its opening minute onward, Airs Above the Ground is clearly anything but a natural spectacle

A few thoughts on the Spritz app, which has been designed for wankers’ glasses and other such “smart” platforms with a view to allowing punters to read up to 500 words per minute:

  1. Trying out those samples is a bit like consenting to get poked in the eye repeatedly by a robot with a fistful of multi-coloured sticks, but I found it bearable on the short term and despite the fact that I’m a quick reader the upper speed there was definitely quicker than mine.
  2. Its effectiveness for prolonged use seems highly dubious for a variety of reasons that our good friend Andrew Hickey has already outlined behind closed doors at Mindless HQ – it’s not necessarily faster than some people’s extant reading speed, the stream of flashing red letters seems like a sure route to a headache, and their method of delivery ignores the fact that writing is composed and consumed in units separate from the individual word.  Plus there’s also the fact that whole project seems not to take into the account the existence of blinking – I did a genuine lol when Andrew pointed this out to me.
  3. HOWEVER!  I’m actually pretty fascinated by the thing for what it seems to me to be: a way to take in writing that is fundamentally different from the process of “reading” as we currently understand it.
  4. Without wishing to downplay the many differences between ebooks and their traditional counterparts, Spritz seems to me to be an order apart from both books and their digital equivalents in terms of the experience it suggests.
  5. The fact that Spritz takes the progression of time out of your hands/rendered it non-collaborative is not just a quirk but a ground-up realignment of the reading process.  To state it plainly: Spritz obliterates the idea of the page or paragraph as constructed units, elides the difference between description and dialogue, and renders obsolete any other techniques the author may have used to arrange their chosen words.
  6. This process echoes and amplifies the experience of reading comics on a smartphone by dictating the amount of time you spend on any given linguistic unit while also limiting the context in which this encounter takes place.  In both instances the compositional unity of the page is obscured, but this new(ish) method of reading comics preserves the reader’s input as to the flow and narrative density of time.
  7. Mister Attack described the experience as being like downloading a file instead of reading and he’s not wrong.  There’s a slightly dated Matrix-porn aspect to what we can see of this app, a fetishisation of the idea that you too can learn kung-fu in twenty minutes without ever getting off the couch!
  8. What Spritz represents is a reduction of writing to communication – the writerly aspects of composition are only effective here inasmuch as they were already striving for the effect of information overload.
  9. There’s a potential for further reduction implicit in this first one, namely the reduction of language to mere commodity, to be valued purely in terms of the volume in which it is consumed  – for extra marks, compare and contrast this with the different values words accrue by virtue of their usefulness to search engines.
  10. Spritz therefore seems most suited to the brute rush of “necessary” information to my eyes; certainly, anything that requires thought, reflection and inflection would prompt a bracing disengagement from the system.  This encompasses both works of fiction and non-fiction, of course – neither having a monopoly on allusion or complexity or forward rushing exposition.
  11. All of this calls to mind the passages of Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction where he claims that new forms develop to achieve effects that old forms have been straining in vain towards - photography achieved things that realist painting was striving towards just by existing, film made easy effects that Dadaist art and poetry had been thrashing out at in defiance of the traditional values, etc.
  12. Bearing that idea in mind, is there a possible application of Spritz‘ effects in fiction?  Can we imagine it as an extension or fulfilment of any existing forms?  I can see an endpoint to/heightening of hysterical realism that would be possible using this form that exceeds the possibilities for reading, but many other styles of writing - from Emily Dickinson to Toni Morrison by way of Alan Garner - would be rendered aggravating or just plain useless here.
  13. I still don’t actually think this will work, but if it did work what would it do?  The immediate possibilities seem depressing – bullshit “e-learning” initiatives, a constant stream of data flickering into your eye at work, “DO YOU SUBMIT TO THIS PROGRAMME?”, etc.  Still, eternal optimist that I am I keep coming back to Benjamin and his attempt to imagine a radical potential in cinema.  Given his efforts to imagine the automated flow of film being broadcast to a distracted public as a potential engine for communal agitation, the question occurs – is there any such potential in the Spritz app? Given that it has been developed for wankers’ glasses and e-readers and is therefore primarily an enclosed, solitary form of distraction, the most likely answer is “probably not” but I would greatly enjoy being proved wrong on that point, because the idea of there being yet another channel for commercial noise to filter through into my life without it adding much of anything is too fucking tedious to bear.

With thanks to Brother Bobsy, Mister Attack, Andrew “Andre Whickey” Hickey, Ad Mindless, Amypoodle, CormacTaters, and Kip Manley, all of whom helped me focus my thoughts on this topic via twitter and email.

 

Having spent 2011 and 2012 listening to so much new, free hip-hop that I almost lost track of who I was and where I laid my head (in case you were wondering: a man who writes about comics on the internet; Glasgow), I made a decision early at the start of 2013 to cut back a bit.  While this means that someone like the Bottie Beast is probably better placed to give you an overview of what’s going on with hip-hop right at this point in 2014, it also means that I’ve had a decent amount of time to really dig into the albums and songs I did check out over the past few years.

With an album like Ab-Soul’s Control System,  it’s just as well that I had time to spare because otherwise I might not have got my head around how good it really is.

As the member of the Black Hippy crew who does the most to live up to the back half of that description, Ab-Soul risks being obscured by some of the more traditionally appealing rappers in his posse. Schoolboy Q’s perfectly titled Habits and Contradictions provided an early warning that the current era was going to belong to the TDE crew, and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city received so much praise that it kicked off a discussion about what rap fans mean when they label something a classic.

Still, now that the smoke has started to clear – well, shit, as I type this Q’s Oxymoron is currently setting fire to my speakers but let’s deal with that in a separate post – it’s Control System that’s stayed with me.  Ab’s too stoned and too subtle to make an album full of straight bangers, but there’s something about the raw fluidity of his rhymes that just gets to me.  The way he can get stuck on a series of punishing homonyms for most of a verse before switching his flow up to effortlessly hit series of breathlessly off-kilter punchlines suggests the movement of a mind that’s still in the process of making itself up.  This sits in stark-contrast to Lamar’s ever-more impressive verbal gymnastics: the power of good kid, m.A.A.d. city lies in the fact that it always seems like Kendrick knows what he’s doing, while the genius of Control System is that it makes you feel like you’re thinking these thoughts for the first time every time.

The cracks in Ab-Soul’s voice have as much to do with this as words he’s speaking.

During a heated bit of trolling at Mindless HQ, Brother Bobsy expressed his incredulity that “anyone watches US TV drama expecting it to be somehow better than TJ Hooker (which at least had Shatner and Locklear in it).”

Curious little Mindless that I am, I decided to expose his statements on the overwhelming silliness of American TV drama to the True Facts contained within my might brane… 

Properly Good American TV Dramas:

  • The Wire - Or ‘How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us’ part 2.  Like David Peace’s best work – his GB84 tells part 1 of this story, of course – The Wire ends up feeling even more mythological for its reliance on things ripped from the real.  If season five presses its argument home too hard then it’s a testament to the strength of the show that it’s details remain as crooked and cryptic and free even at the point where the system is finally completed.
  • The Sopranos - Embodies everything that’s annoying about so much popular serious drama, with its faux cinematic stories about serious men hurting each other (some of them are quite ugly,  THEY DO CRIME!) but nevertheless stays far ahead of its peers by allowing visuals, plot lines, and actors as much focus as they demand.
  • Mad Men - All the strengths of the Sopranos divorced from the macho genre weaknesses, plus this show deals with the protagonist problem that is inherent to this type of TV show more confidently than some of the reactions might have you believe.
  • Twin Peaks - Half of this is admittedly not so good, but the best stuff is still excellent at a lot of things that the rest of the shows on this list have approached only tentatively.
  • The first three episodes of the third season of Battlestar Galactica - Watch the first two series so you get the full impact of this story, which represents the point where the American military imagination somehow manages to conceive of itself in the Al Qaeda position. Watch the rest of it if you want: it’s neither as good as it threatens to be nor as bad as its worst episodes might suggest.  The board game is still totally amazing though!
  • Gilmore Girls - One of the few successful uses of the chatty American dialogue style, probably because it aspires to pseudo-Shakespearean fencing instead of pseudo-Shakespearean posturing.  Horrific warning signs such as “quirky,” “offbeat,” and “irreverent” somehow manage to stick without turning everything they touch to shite for a change. Also one of the few American TV shows to display and awareness of and willingness to investigate ideas of class, how money effects relationships, etc.  You will all disagree with me about this one but I am not wrong.
Good American TV Dramas
  • Girls - Generation Vice on autocritique, manages to be both massively cringey and genuinely empathetic at the same time; an exceptionally strong show, if narrow.
  • Generation Kill - Girls for boys.
  • Breaking Bad - Starts slow but builds to a sustained tension high before tipping all the way over into wonky Batman logic. Limited re-watch potential, but fuck me was it good, awful fun for a while there! (Richard Cooper makes a case for the first four seasons being Properly Good here.)
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Yeah yeah yeah, but fuck it, I don’t even give a toss about Joss Whedon anymore but this is the best adaptation of that Stan Lee/Chris Claremont style of self-aware soap opera to the screen, screw yer Marvel movies and yer Agents of S.H.I.T.E..  Shame the last couple of seasons are a bit duff though, eh?
  • The Corner - Somehow manages to be both more didactic and more anecdotal than The Wire, but it’s good even if it does feel like the materials for a modern myth than the real thing.
Shite But Entertaining American TV Dramas
  • Game of Thrones - Dynasty with actual backstabbing, Dinklage is phenomenal, it can get a bit racy, etc; don’t worry, I’ll get round to the books once people stop telling me that they don’t read fantasy but they do like to read Game of Thrones.
Ambitious and (Accidentally?) Relevant American TV Dramas That Aren’t Actually Very Good
  • Dollhouse - see Plok for the why of this.
Shite But Entertaining But No Wait They’re Probably Just Shite American TV Dramas
  • Dexter and True Blood - these shows are both full of high nonsense from the word go, but I’ve actually got more time for the increasingly absurd and unstable True Blood these days. I couldn’t pretend that it was good but it’s a fun train wreck that I can watch without worrying about my girlfriend’s enjoyment levels so we fuck with it every now and then just to make sure everyone’s entertained (basically, she just wants to bone Alcide).
American TV Dramas I’ve Not Seen Enough Of To Properly Judge But Which Might Be Good
  • Treme, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, True Detective, The Shield - actually I’ve seen a bit of SFU but I’d need to watch it again to get a sense for how good it is. Never watched more than a minute of the rest but they have their enthusiasts, so.
Having completed this survey I am now relieved to be able to confirm that while Bobsy isn’t right, he’s not entirely wrong either.
Tell me, friends – would you have it any other way?

It must be strange to be in Mogwai, and to read reviews that chastise you for sounding too much and not enough like yourself.  It’s a familiar pattern, but then Mogwai are a familiar band these days.  Perhaps that’s the problem: when they started out with the ten minute songs and the Blur: Are Shite t-shirts and the Bucky rage they were easier to idolise.  Eight albums in, they’re a more difficult journalistic proposition.  As comfortable noise merchants, opinionated men who are adamant that their music carries no pre-determined meaning, purveyors of defiantly mainstream art rock, what exactly are we supposed to make of Mogwai in 2014?

These concerns seem relevant in blog posts and in music magazines, but in the context of January’s show at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall they seemed utterly meaningless, even absurd.  It’s an observation that’s tired enough to seem trite by now, but Mogwai are one of those bands who you really need to see live in order to fully appreciate.  2010′s Special Moves is an excellent simulation of the band’s live dynamics that doubles as a testament to the quality of their later work, but even played at an absurdly high volume it never threatens to capture Mogwai’s true range.

There’s something in the grain of Mogwai’s live show that’s never quite made it onto their records.  It’s in that washed out, trebley guitar sound that starts out sounding like an inner ear itch and then grows until it batters you bodily.  The physical impact of this noise would be near-impossible to recreate without the help of plush PAs like the one in the Concert Hall, but you can hear an echo of it Mogwai’s quieter recorded moments – it haunts Happy Songs for Happy People and provides the undercurrent of barely controlled rage in their soundtrack to Douglas Gordon’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, for example.  You can hear it on Rave Tapes too, but what was merely a whispered rumour on the album version of opener ‘Heard About You Last Night’ is screamed loud enough to ruin hairlines and destroy reputations in concert.  

Speaking of damaged reputations, click here if you want to see me do more violence to my own!

Note 4 – Empty Space: A Haunting

It’s important to read new M. John Harrison novels while on holiday. No other author is able to describe with such alarming clarity the necessity of escaping yourself.

Harrison’s latest novel Empty Space is the conclusion of a trilogy of science fiction novels that started with Light in 2002 and was continued in 2006′s Nova Swing.

Like both of its predecessors, Empty Space presents the reader with a future that dazzles with the romance of a thousand yesterdays: women who’ve chosen to be rebuilt with the “Mona” package, but who base their look on that of Marilyn Monroe; virtual fantasy lives that play out like an episode of Mad Men drained of all sex and drama (until, of course, that sex and drama forces its way on in there); covert action groups who, with their lattes and general sense of boyish intrigue, can’t help but remind you of the sort of spooks you’ve never quite managed to catch out of the corner of your eye; Harrison manages to make all of these fantasies gleam briefly in the pages of this book.

This is an exhausted vision of the future, but it’s still a vision of the future for all that, one that sees past the ever-present apocollapse and on to a possible reality that’s like right now stretched out some more. Whether that seems like a hopeful vision or a dystopian nightmare is very much up to you.

Make the future happen, after the jump!

Shada is a television story from 1979 starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor, Lalla Ward as Romana and David Brierley as K-9, the incomplete parts of which got a video release in 1992.