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Dear Diary,

It seems to me after this week and a bit that stories exist on a spectrum between reality and fantasy. In the former, the story attempts to portray what is really there. In the latter, the storyteller condenses and refines reality in order to more clearly express a concept. They each have their flaws. A story too real feels meaningless. A story too fantasy feels fake.

Tangerine is a film of reality. A masterpiece shot on an iPhone, that uses the phone to gain an intimacy of shot, a physical closeness, that even today’s mobile DSLRs cannot. And yet, there is no sacrifice of image quality. I remember a side-on shot of main character Sin-Dee striding (and this is a transwoman with one hell of a stride, perfectly scored with thumpingly-loud music) down a sidewalk, against the bright orange bloom of Los Angeles’ setting sun and that memory is beautiful. But leave aside the sense of presence the means of video capture brings. Tangerine is real in subject. It relates the day in the life of two black transwomen prostitutes, one on a vengeful hunt for the girl who cheated with her boyfriend, the other doing business until her gig at a local club, and one Armenian cab driver, again on his daily business. Its subjects feel real, because – speaking as a Brit who has never been to LA, and knows nothing of it – I didn’t know this microcosm existed until now.

There is reality in sudden visibility. There is also reality in an absence of ease. Tangerine assaults the senses. Music is sudden, loud and sudden, silent. Dialogue is raucous and delivered at a speed that leaves just the gist of words in the brain. The characters all live within various oppressive systems they do not challenge, for unspoken reasons likely to do with limited will and capacity. They are all seeking happiness to the best of their ability, and that seeking is always compromised – they must either hurt themselves or others to get what they want. Yet despite this ugliness, the film contains within itself moments of goodness, and pure goodness too because it is goodness enacted on impulse, without calculation. It is a movie, not about resolving situations so they can no longer harm, but rather, about living through everyday harm, and the little moments that allow such life to continue.

To counterpoint Tangerine’s reality, this week and a half also brought me some fantasy, in two stories characterised by less complexity but more fine-tuned exploration of theme. It was my third viewing of Mad Max: Fury Road, and though the film may never quite reach the same heart-attack levels of tension the first viewing did, it remains utterly incredible. The thing about it that keeps amazing me on every viewing is how embedded the structures of the world the story wants us to want to overthrow are in the most minor aspects of the film – in gestures, in clothing, in background actors and their speech, in throwaway references to unexplained things. Fury Road wants to do two things. 1) Create massive, interesting looking and tense as fuck car battles. 2) Overthrow the patriarchy. And that second one ambition is no easy thing to accomplish. The whole reason patriarchy is such a difficult thing to bring down is because its structures are so endemic to life they have been internalised into individuals’ worldviews. Fury Road tackles this challenge by investing every little aspect of this world with evidence of oppression. The warboys’ religion, the way they fling themselves to death on the word of three gross old men, the way Cheedo the Fragile tries to return to Immortan Joe seeing her value as property as the surest guarantor of her safety, the same Immortan Joe screaming at Angharad not to endanger his child, his property…religion, word choice, the very clothing of Immortan Joe (the image of musculature and medals encasing something diseased and foul) all is designed to express and evoke the oppression the characters wish to overcome. And it appears in the film with such density that there is no need for us to see what Joe did to his wives, or what Joe did to Furiosa. The specificity of his acts is not important, given the evidence of oppression and perverted masculinity that exists within every design choice of the movie. This is a tool fantasy provides: unbound by the real, it can shape every aspect of the world to express what the storyteller desires. Fury Road uses it very well.

The other of the week’s fantasies was the Hateful Eight. Here what distinguishes this film as more ‘fantastic’ than the ‘reality’ of Tangerine is the characters. The characters in Tangerine are mixtures, good and bad impulses surfacing and sinking in constant flux. The Hateful Eight however are more straightforward. This is Quentin Tarantino’s exploration of humans as hating animals. It is a movement beyond the vengeance movies he’s spent the last few decades making, ever since Kill Bill in fact. He explicitly distances the violence the film contains from any sense of justice through the character Oswaldo Mobray’s comment that only the dispassionate executor can transfigure a lynching into justice. The violence of the film may be in reaction to wounds, whether against one’s person, one’s race or one’s kin, but it is never just, because the characters that wield it are so consistently vicious. Anything we might recognise as goodness in the Hateful Eight feels doomed by its very existence, though Tarantino always ensures that its demise is driven by the story not just the requirements of his theme. This is a film that ends in togetherness, like Tangerine. Unlike Tangerine though, where caring and succour emerge in response to shocking adversity, in Hateful Eight togetherness is borne out of a shared satisfaction in victimisation. This is the fantasy of Hateful Eight. Humans are neither creatures of hate, nor creatures of love – we are both. But in Hateful Eight, Tarantino makes his humans pure haters, because it is the hate he wants to examine.

Here then, my diary, are three films. Tangerine: a film that contains the breadth of reality. A film set in a city known the world over for the dream of itself that it sells, choosing to publicise the life that dream masks. And then there is Fury Road and Hateful Eight: a film that reimagines the world to clearly embed oppression in its every detail, and a film that reimagines humanity in order to examine how we hate, who we hate, and what it is to live with hate. Two approaches to storytelling, either side of a spectrum, both with worth so long as they live up to their specific ambitions.

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Putting a film on during a lesson is the universal code for two separate states of being. First, that the teacher has given up on trying to teach, and second, that the student has won the victory of avoiding having to learn for however many precious minutes the film or video or whatever is running. However the teacher cannot state openly that they have given up on teaching for the day, because they are employees of an organisation and organisations tend not to employ people who give up working before the time they should.

(Of course taking that attitude in a school, where the ability of teachers to do their job is at least halfway reliant on the co-operation of a gaggle of young idiots whose presence in said school is largely forced, either by government law, parental/societal expectation, or the desire to occupy a higher social rank/tax bracket post-school, is putting an unfair amount of responsibility on the teacher - though that said there needs to be at least some responsibility placed on the teacher because while they don't fully control the situation in a classroom, they do have extensive power within it.)

The way teachers tend to reconcile the truth of the situation with the need to pretend they are still educating is by touting the educational value of whatever film/video they put on. Usually they go about this the wrong way, because of a misunderstanding about what 'educational' art looks like.

(OK, here's the point of the article).

Narrative (whether non-fictional or fictional) is intelligent because it demonstrates the ability to be honest, not because it demonstrates accuracy.

Here, accuracy refers to the extent to which the narrative mimics real life, from whether the uniforms really look like that, to whether there were actually black people not being slaves in that time period.

Honesty on the other hand refers to the extent to which the narrative makes statements that feel true.

I realise that this latter trait relies heavily on the beholder, whereas the former is quantifiable. It is possible to express objectively whether or not a narrative is accurate. Whether or not it is honest can differ from audience member to audience member, depending on what reality each said audience member occupies.

(Here's another point - every human being occupies at once the same reality that everyone inhabits, and their own particular individual reality. So there are facts, which every human being has to deal with, and ideas, which differ between human beings and each human being assumes are shared by most other human beings. The greatest coup in an argument between two human beings is when one manages to demonstrate that the facts line up with their ideas.)

However, that said the ability of human beings to decide that certain films are better than others points to (in addition to the existence of guidelines for what constitutes good writing, camerawork, editing etc.) the idea that some films are more honest than others. And honestly, if you want to educate people through narrative art, you have to show them the films that are honest over the films that are accurate.

Which is why I think Three Kings is a really good movie to show people whom you wish to educate about war.

(Man it took us a little while to get here. OK, let's get substantiating).

Three Kings is a film available on US Netflix, if you're wondering. That means any one of you with a Netflix account should be able to watch it.

Three Kings does a couple very impressive things. First it manages to consistently occupy a tone between cynical comedy and serious drama, that causes every event that happens to be at once fun and also deadly serious. Like there's this point where a cow blows up because it stands on a landmine, and it's used to make a serious point about how dangerous travel in post-(1st Gulf)war Iraq was (and indeed has been in the many wars since, given the liking Iraqi rebel forces have for the booby trap and minefield). As in, it sets up a scene later in the movie where the characters encounter the lifethreatening danger of landmine-littered roads. But at that point the scene is played for laughs, and is referenced again for a gag a bit later when one Iraqi shouts about how terrifying the three Americans are, as they are 'covered in blood'. So an event happens, and there is both comedy and seriousness wrung from it. And these are wrung from most events in the film, which demonstrates just how impeccably this story has been told. Because the tone feels like a consistent whole even though it is composed of two competing influences, and the writing makes sure that events are not isolated, there-and-gone, but that what happens then is always used by what happens after. That way the story keeps building on itself and starts to feel substantive.

But beyond this the story is also totally honest.

There are two main stories that humans tell about war. We say war is hell. And we say that the people who support and fight the war - everyone that is, apart from the bastards who started the damn thing - are good. As a film that decided to be a comedy and a sad-drama at the same time, Three Kings unsurprisingly decides to say both these things at once. 

There is this interrogation sequence. Mark Wahlberg plays US soldier Troy Barlow. Barlow is a new father. He is a normal human being, apart from the fact that he occasionally shoots people, but in this war he hasn't had the opportunity to do that very often. He is captured by a group of Iraqi Republican Guards after an attempt to steal back some of the Kuwaiti gold the Iraqis themselves only just stole is derailed, because he and his fellow US soldiers witness Republican Guards imprisoning and killing unarmed Iraqi civilians and on instinct act to intervene. In response to that intervention he is captured and tortured by some Republican Guardsmen. One, a Captain Said played by Said Taghmaoui, takes Barlow through the tragedies the war has brought him. How American airstrikes killed his son and crippled his wife. How he only joined the Republican Guard for the pay, and now cannot leave for fear that Saddam will have him killed. And through all this, Barlow's only reaction is acceptance and empathy. Nor is this reaction torn from Barlow against his will. Barlow empathises instinctively. He accepts the tragedy of the Guard's life with sorrow. This I feel is a moment of pure honesty.

See, there is another way this scene could go. The torture scene could be struggle, the torturer Said forcing Barlow inch by inch to dispense with the patriotic lies that distort his ideas about reality. At the end of such a scene Barlow would experience an epiphany about the humanity he shares with his enemy. Some great point would be made about how empathy triumphs over the brainwashing of the militant nation-state. And it would be made dishonestly.

The honesty of this scene is that Barlow's empathy is not hard-won, but easy-won. All Said has to do is ask him what losing his child would be like, and Barlow can imagine it. The film does not portray empathy as lying at the end of an arc, but as a thing always in a human's possession and always able to rise to the surface.

Three Kings is honest because while it does tell a story about humans starting an adventure from base greed only to complete it struggling for the safety of people threatened with death, it does not tell it with character arcs where humans at first think bad things are good and then come to realise that bad things are bad and good things are good. It tells a story in which all characters know what is bad and what is good straight away, and their reactions to this knowledge are more determined by fear for their lives than their ideas about how the world is. George Clooney plays a character called Archie Gates, who states that the most important thing in life is necessity. It turns out though that altruism is necessary. That in the end humans have no choice but to be good.

Three Kings is probably accurate on the uniforms and the hardware. It's at least satirically accurate about the state of Iraq following the 1st Gulf War. But it is not this that makes it an intelligent film. That plaudit is earned when Gates, asked why he stopped the Republican Guardsman shooting an unarmed civilian, replies 'I had no choice.' Because human goodness does not lie at the end of some character-development rainbow. It is always within us. Accessible, and not to be ignored.
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BIRDMAN (2015) & FOXCATCHER (2015)

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu / Director: Bennett Miller

For full discussion, you guys should check out the No Brow Show I do with my friend Pete. For some shorter thoughts, well...

Birdman's visual and aural oddness (the decision to shoot the whole thing as if it is a single take, and to have the most prominent element of the score be improvised percussion) is beautiful, the validation of spectacle as an art form is an unexpected point for an indie film to make, and I liked the film's fluid, theatrical use of space. I have some qualms about its didactic insistence that the mass audience only ever wants spectacle from its films, the occasionally too-theatrical dialogue (stating your dreams to camera feels weird), and the way the supporting cast becomes lost as the film focusses ever more on Riggin Thompson's (Michael Keaton) mental breakdown. Still despite these issues I'd give the film a big, big thumbs up.

Foxcatcher on the other hand is a pointless film - quite literally. In direct contrast to Birdman, this is a film devoid of cinematic artifice which refuses to explicitly draw any meaning from its subject. This is not ambiguity - this is absence. It felt long and occasionally boring. The only saving grace is Steve Carrell as John DuPont, a fascinating character who might have, in another film, provided a scathing exploration the damage caused by the social need to defer to wealth, even if that wealth was not earned by those in possession of it. Unfortunately the film decided instead to focus on a Greco-Roman wrestler who is effectively a more boring version of Adam Sandler's manchild from Punch Drunk Love. Bad choice.


Written by: Gemma Files
Read by: Gordon Mackenzie

A Book of Tongues is a western with wizards, Mayan/Aztec mythology and male gay sex and oh lord is it fun. Not light and breezy mind, but rich and satisfying. Always a read I was eager to get back into, and yet full of images and turns of phrase capable of dimming the awareness of the world about me, and lighting my focussed brain up with delight. It draws these images from religion, both Aztec and Christian and are generally of an apocalyptic or hellish variety, which is of course where religion gets most wonderfully inventive. So there are passages describing the blinding light reflected from a town turned to salt, and the rows of skulls numerous as stones in the Aztec underworld of Mictlan-Shibalba, and more besides, and it is all sort-of loomingly vivid. Only it's never too grandiose because in the midst of all this magic and miracle you have a characters who express all reactions to it with a pulpy Western turn of phrase, where every word has one more syllable than it oughta and is all the better for it, and the sentences seem to circle around communication (particularly when gay sex gets discussed) rather than dart straight to the point. I cannot quite recall the best examples, being as those phrases are something of an in-the-moment delight, but any book which uses the word 'hexatious' when it wants to say 'like a wizard' is really a damn well-written bit o'yarning.

Then in addition this excellent image-work and language-work, the book even boasts some interesting structure to boot. The beginning and ends of the book are largely communicated through the POV of Edward Morrow, a Pinkerton (a massive private detective and security agency prominent in the late 19th & early 20th centuries) undercover in the criminal gang run by ex-priest and current wizard Asher Rook and his lover Chess Pargeter (the names in this give even Pacific Rim a run for its money). But the centre of the novel is all Asher Rook and while this sudden shift in POV felt a little abrupt at first, its purpose becomes quite clear towards the end. Gemma Files knew the reader would need to understand Rook, and proves willing to break from the linear mould her opening suggested in order to supply that need. And talking of supplying needs...yeah. That skill with language and image means Files also delivers a mean bit of erotica when she wants.

All of this is complemented by a nuanced reading by Gordon Mackenzie. While I was at first a little worried by a too-quick transition from one chapter to another that left too-little time for the impact of the opening to settle, any qualms I had about Mackenzie vanished as soon as he came to voice Asher Rook. The rough growl Mackenzie gives the character is a constant reminder of his strangeness, having been caused by the imperfect hanging that awakened his magic, and perfect to express this regretful, lustful zealot. I do not think the word 'Darlin' could be more perfectly pronounced than with that voice. Yet, while that performance is most-noticeable, it is just one example of how Mackenzie carefully matches voice to character in all instances, from the refined diction of Dr. Asbury to the sullen manner in which Chess usually speaks, to the delicious, malicious humour-warmth of the words of an Aztec goddess.

This book is a tale of gods and lovers, fervent emotion and sinister machinations by humans and the divine alike. Basically, it's a whole lot of fun, and is so because it is strikingly imaginative, well-written and well-read. This is pulp that refuses to cut corners just cos of its genre, and maybe that, in the end, is why I love it so.


There is a moment in Whiplash, during what may be one of the best first dates I've yet seen on film, because of how it balances constantly on a knife-edge of awkwardness, when, after Andrew (Miles Teller) has said The Right Thing, the camera cuts to below the table and Nicole (Melissa Benoist) shifts one foot just a bit so that hers touches his. It is a movement of a centimetre, a millimetre almost, yet though it is so small it communicates a hugeness, a fundamental shift in their relationship. That precise filmmaking characterises Whiplash, both in form and subject. The work of DOP Sharone Meir and editor Tom Cross in the final moments of the power-struggle between Andrew and his mentor/nemesis Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is incredible, each choice of where to focus and how long to let that focus last building and building on top of the last, and binding me ever more tightly in my seat with tension. Whiplash is made with a love for detail, for small actions, briefly interjecting, only to transfigure the scene as a whole. And the truly awesome part is is that it is Fletcher's demands for a similar precision that spark his conflict with Andrew.

Andrew is a promising, but antisocial, drummer at what he (with characteristically offhand & unintended arrogance) characterises as the best college for musicians in the US, He wants to be great. Fletcher is the conductor of said college's jazz band who wants to create greatness, and believes that doing so requires monstrosity. The story as a result revolves around the confluence in Andrew and Fletchers' aims, and the conflict caused by Fletcher's methods. There are other characters, like Andrew's dad (an adorable Paul Reiser), and the aforementioned Nicole, but their role in the narrative is more to reveal details about Andrew than be independent entities. Rather like Frank, this is a story about two men/boys and a particular myth about the making of art.

Frank's myth-busting is aimed at the notion that pain or disability makes for better artists, when instead it's shown to be a near-crippling problem only barely overcome. Whiplash is about the belief that greatness comes from abusive perfectionism, a particularly film-centric myth that tends to use the excesses of Stanley Kubrick as its main proof. It's understandable that the myth emerged. Art-making is hard. Just the act of writing can feel at times as if one is tearing out one's own brain stem, and that can be done sat-down in the warm, with plenty of snacks to make life as pleasant as possible. The making of films, done by repeating the same moments over and over again in whatever conditions exist onset until practice or chance gains the correct result, is even more exhausting (if perhaps more sociable). Then there's the question of precision. The making of art is about the production of meaning, and while there are a number of different approaches to this, all involve a certain amount of conscious design in what is read, seen and heard. At some point, something is going to need to be perfect else the art itself will not function.

However, while art is laborious and therefore feels unpleasant, and while the function of art depends on perfection, this is not license to conclude that unpleasantness is the means to perfection, that it is the stick rather than the carrot that gets the best results. This is what Fletcher believes, and in acting on that belief he damages Andrew, and in the end stands as an obstacle that Andrew has to overcome to achieve something they both want. The point being, that making art is hard, because getting that making as exact as greatness requires is hard. But it is stoicism, the drive to keep going and keep making, and not further brutality, that leads to the making of great art. And in the end it is the worth of that goal that Whiplash states, through theme, character and its very form, because this is a film where the attention of the camera to the achingly light, shimmering beat of stick on cymbal is as precise and perfectly judged as the musical achievement it captures.
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Written by: Edmund de Waal
Read by: Michael Maloney

Michael Maloney has a gentle, wry voice, and this fits the tone of the novel exceedingly well, providing the light touches of humour De Waal's occasional sideways-quips should spark. The gentility also serves to counterpoint the harshness. When Maloney's voice becomes hard, becomes dark, you feel the shift in emotion, from the warmth of the pleasure-in-things that so characterises the Ephrussi, to the ugliness of the hate that others bore them for being Jews.

This is perhaps the first time where I felt sick at the hatred of others. It was not during the Nazi takeover that I felt this, nor even in the midst of accounts of the anti-semitism of Austria. Perhaps these were too expected. It was the rising anti-semitism of France in the late 1800s, with the Dreyfuss Affair and how pervasive it was. Perhaps it was because the anti-semitism of France in the late 1800s feels so much more like the hatred of today. The hatred in Austria, the hatred used and fed by the Nazis, is open. It is violence. The scene of the invasion of the Ephrussi home in Vienna sounds like a rape. It makes clear that the Ephrussi are not safe at home, do not get to have an inviolate space. It is horrifying. The anti-semitism in France though is sickening, and I feel that the difference is the lack of an attached political project. In Austria anti-semitism is still emotional, of course, but it is an emotion that manifests in rules, in institutions, in plans for a world without Jews. In France anti-semitism is just hatred. It's planless. And it's expressed by people on the street, in unofficial pamphlets, and after this year just gone, a year full of hatred of women and African Americans, hatred that is planless and yet so pressing in so many people that they must take to the pamphlet-presses of the modern internet and vomit out bile the episode in France started to feel familiar. And so I felt sick.

Yet I also felt sick because it was in France, when the netsuke were assembled by Charles Ephrussi, that I took the most delight in The Hare with Amber Eyes.


Written by: Nnedi Okorafor
Read by: Adjoa Andoh and Ben Onwukwe

The thing that delighted me most about Lagoon was the sound of Nigerian speech. It has music in it. The sentences of readers Adjoa Andoh and Ben Onwukwe sound as if they patter up and down the scale, as if they could be written as easily on a bar as on a blank page. The accent is rich and emphatic, and brings with it new punctuation: the drawn-out ‘oooh’ of a mournful sentence, the tooth-sucking ‘tch’ of frustration. And this is just the characters speaking English. For all characters where it is appropriate, Nnedi Okorafor switches to Pidgin English, a staccato language that raced past the ears of this listener, impatient with unfamiliarity and urging me to keep the fuck up (tch). I read a lot of books and listen to a lot of books. The music of this reading makes me so glad I chose to listen to Lagoon, but there is also something more vital than my own pleasure about listening to this book in the words of Nigerians. This book is, after all, a love letter to Lagos and to Nigeria. Like any good lover it is honest about faults, but always champions what is best about the country it loves and believes that it can be better. And I think it better I heard that love speak with its own voice, than with any facsimile I might make up in my head.


Directed by: Ryan Coogler

It will forever amaze me when an actor shifts the whole mood of a scene with a twist of feature. The way the bonhomie falls from Michael B. Jordan's face, as his character Oscar Grant walks away from a job he now knows is lost, to reveal eyes that see nothing but walls closing in...why it's like wizardry. Jordan's performance won my heart. There's no other way to put it - he is completely genuine. A lad. A lover. And, despite his youth, truly a father. He made me laugh, he made me worry, he made me envious of his cool. You see the youth Oscar Grant has not yet grown out of, in his anger and his roving eyes, and you see the man he is becoming. This could so easily have been a film about that stage in a man's life, the moment where he hangs between play and duty and begins to slide towards the latter, but this is not just a film about a young man. This is a film about a young black man in America. As such it is not about growth but about potential - not about what would be, but what could have been.

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Every year the staff of the videogame review site Giantbomb get together for a series of podcasts to determined which games are the 'best' in many categories. It is a totally ridiculous exercise, that at the same time, produces some of the most entertaining criticism I experience all year. How so?

Well, the first thing I should be clear about is that I think the best of the year, top-10-style lists that spring up around this time of year are dumb. By forcing a number of very good art-things (using films as the example here) into a ranking, and then saying one of them is 'best', the critic is having to compare multiple films attempting to achieve incomparable things. Saying Nightcrawler is 'better' than The Lego Movie or The Raid 2 is weird because it's effectively me saying 'this experience of visceral disquiet is better than laughing or admiration at skill'. I can tell you my favourite movies of the year easily [1], but the 'best' one would require me say one experience offered is greater than all experiences offered. That judgement, for me, runs counter to the one real goal of the critic - to be as appreciative of as many different experiences as is humanly possible.

What's more, criticism is a largely subjective, personal activity. Not wholly so - I maintain that are limits on interpretations of an art-piece set by the boundaries of said art's subject matter - but largely. Criticism is opinion, advocacy journalism of the arts. The judgements it makes are worth taking on board only if you have some familiarity with the mind making them. Because the beautiful thing about talking about art is that the conversation is not really about the art itself. It is about the values you have and the beliefs you have about the world, which make up the lens through which you see the art. Even if that value boils down to 'I really enjoy it the stylistic hitting of people with baseball bats' [3]. So for that reason, the Giantbomb game of the year decisions, critical judgements that are communal, that are often compromises, have very little worth at all as facts. It is the process that leads to them that is worthwhile.

See, while all I said above about criticism aspiring to even treatment of multiple different types of art-thing is the end of the day a critic is going to have their favourites. And in the Giantbomb game of the year discussions you have (I think) eight critics, each with very different tastes, each vying to make sure their favourite games get recognition, when other people in the room may think their favourites are total garbage. This leads to arguing and anguish (though all on a very friendly level), but best of all, it forces that art-love-as-reflecting-values aspect to the surface because goddamnit if the others are not totally convinced that this game is important something that is truly loved is not going to get the recognition it must have. The end goal of a communal ranking of video games is dumb. But the stress it places the critics of Giantbomb under to advocate for what they believe to be the truly great games of 2014 produces some of the best criticism I get to enjoy all year.

Because criticism in the end is the articulation of emotional response. If the emotions are intense, well, that articulation is all the better for it.

[1] Noah, 22 Jump Street, The Lego Movie, Under the Skin, Guardians of the Galaxy, Hercules, Mr Turner, Nightcrawler, Boyhood, The Raid 2, The Grand Budapest Hotel
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Paprika is a story to be lost in. There is a form of film-universe that never makes its logic plain, not even in a Jodorowsky style which fills every frame with overt symbols. I am aware now (because in Paprika I have seen its absence) that most films - even without direct exposition - ensure the audience is given a rationalised world. Here we make space through the construction of distance between stages. Here we delineate between what is real and what isn't. Here is the fantasy, and here are its rules. Here, in effect, is the pause in which we set the scene. That easing-in is a fundamental part of how my culture builds its stories, but Paprika is no longer content to play with building blocks. The result wrongfooted me. Suddenly bereft of expected ease my awareness had to start the film at a scramble, and I don't think I ever caught up. Any awareness of what the film was even doing was something assembled from fragments, grabbed at as I fell through the frames. But shit man, afterwards, when had the stillness to piece it all together...damn.

Paprika is doing two things, but they occupy such divorced levels of scale that the very fact that the movie not only attempts both but also pulls them off actually feels dissonant. See on one level Paprika is the most mundane of modern tales - a story of people troubled by their own minds. The police chief Konakawa (Akio Otsuka), stuck on a murder case, experiences a recurring nightmare and seeks treatment that might make sense of it. His doctor is Paprika, an ebullient, light-hearted woman who also happens to be the dream-self of hard-edged scientist Chiba Atsuko (Megumi Hayashibara). So here we have a character dealing with unknown mental blockage, joined by one internally free yet externally repressed: two conflicts that feel very familiar. Their stories are mundane, and because they happen at the level of individuals, small. Which means that the fact that Paprika is also the tale of an attempt by a maniac to take control of the dreams of humanity and thereby reduce to conformity the great space of human free expression, comes as something of a shock. In Paprika the smallest mundane takes place on the stage of the largest fantastic.

Said fantastic is something only anime could properly convey. The pranksterish play Paprika (the character) makes with space and image could probably be replicated (with effort) in captured image. Paprika is a dream and as a dream screens and images are her playground. Through the film she bounds from 3D space into one end of a camera lens and out the other, onto a video-billboard and into an image on a t-shirt. These are not feats beyond the capacity of captured image to mimic – hell, Inception directly quotes one particular bit of Paprika's reality-shattering. No, the value of  anime does not lie in capability but in flow and texture. As Tony Zhou points out anime (and writer/director Satoshi Kon in particular) literally uses fewer frames to convey a movement than live action, which has the effect of making motions pass more smoothly. This gives animated reality a grace in transition that allows dream and ‘reality’ to mix together in Paprika so fluidly that the two feel like one even before they actually are. And then there’s the texture of anime. If you’ve watched Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle you will be familiar with the black goo-monster – an antagonist with a form that is like rubber – stretchy, bearing internal tension – and yet also like clay – malleable but solid – and yet again like thick liquid that flows lumpily as if melting. That synthesis of multiple textures is a thing I’m not sure I’ve seen beyond anime, and in Paprika that texture is not limited to antagonist design. Here it is a quality of dream, giving the unreal image an unreal tactility to match. And then there’s the thematic relevance of the freedom anime affords.

The notion that films are dreams has quite a presence in my culture, but for Satoshi Kon that notion is not a conclusion (as in Inception) but a beginning. This is literal: the dream of Konakawa that kicks the story off is shaped by film images from a selection of genres. But it is also thematic, because while dreams start as films, as the film progresses I realised I was not watching dream-as-film but film-as-facet-of-dream. Because dreams are not a medium. They are expression. Dreams are like film in Paprika for the same reason they are likened to the internet – because dreams are a space of freedom, and in terms of what you can put on screen, few media have as little constraint as anime. In anime you are limited to what you can draw, and without specifying (and spoiling the visual feast that awaits any audience for this film) I can safely say that that was no limit here. Paprika uses the abilities of its medium to make the film embody what its protagonists are fighting for. Nor is this effort limited to visuals. Meditational Field, one of the two great themes composed for the film by Susumu Hirasawa is a triumphant swell of a tune that conveys the glory of lack of limitation. This is a film with the culminating image of a giant old man whose presence saps the colour from the world, being devoured and erased by a woman made of light. It is an image that summarises the endless struggle of art - to never be set, to never be restricted, to reach always for the truest expression.

I was lost in Paprika, and I loved it. It's beautiful even when it's gross. The things it does with space are amazing. Its music is, according to need, subtle and supportive and barnstorming fun. Its characters are...well, if not quite the most interesting people, they definitely feel substantial. But above all other aspects, this is a film with beautiful motion. Paprika never stops moving and never stops inventing. It is more than a statement for freedom of expression. Paprika is free.

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Dhalgren is a book with a fearsome reputation. It's huge, plotless and its language reaches for meanings that cannot be crafted with the standard set of writers' tools. It is a book that bumps up against the limits of what the written word can actually do (or at least, what the in-narrative writer, who is also the main character, thinks the written word can do [1]), and finds those limitations a little frustrating. It is a book I left lying about on various surfaces for a while before I finally willed myself to tackle it, fully expecting to bounce off of prose I was too young and unsophisticated to understand. The first few pages seemed to confirm my fears, but still I ploughed ahead, refusing to give up so soon. And then Delany started to write about hands.

Samuel Delany writes about hands like Quentin Tarantino films feet (though his descriptions in Dhalgren are not as overtly erotic as in Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand). He is fascinated with them, to the extent that he doesn't even see them as whole things, treating them instead as an assemblage of smaller components each possessing their own unique aesthetic. Through horn, cuticle, nail and knuckle Delany assembles the hand part by part until it looms in the mind like an overzoomed image. And thing is, in Dhalgren that image is usually ugly. The opening scene, were the protagonist (a nameless man known only as the Kid) meets and fucks an unnamed woman, describes him as a generally attractive man...until the writing reaches his hands, which are ugly enough to stun his lover into silence. Nor do they get any prettier. There is one time and one time only in the book when the Kid is explicitly clean. Apart from that he rarely seems to wash, something Delany keeps in the mindseye with repeated description of hands and feet turned black by caked dirt. This, I realise, sounds gross. To me though, worried that I was taking on a book that would only prove my deficiencies as a reader, the appearance of the description was pure comfort. First, it was familiar. As soon as Dhalgren started to talk about knuckles I knew that no matter how revered it was, it was still a Delany and I love Delany. Second, the subject was physical. I could feel safe, knowing that I was not going to have to constantly work my way through language occupying an abstract, conceptual space. Dhalgren was going to be, in some ways at least, down to earth.

This was the case. Only, it was the case in quite a localised sense. Dhalgren is intensely physical to a beautiful degree (if, like me, you find really ugly things skilfully drawn to be beautiful), but only within the boundary of bodily experience. It feels like every inch of Kid's hairy, stanky, calloused and cum-coated body gets a mention somewhere in the text, and when he has sex with Lanya, and later Lanya and Denny, that bodily intimacy swells into writing that nails just how fucking great really good sex with the right person/s can get, when urge and sensation and thought subsume into a single experience where all of life's internal boundaries just...go away. Basically, this is at times a really hot book - so long as you don't mind dirty people. It is also a book that works as hard to provide a tactile experience as it does a conceptual one.

It is also very much a work of genre fiction. The city of Bellona where the story is set is a fictional place in the midst of 1970s United States. In the past the city experienced (and may still be experiencing) a massive fire, that drove most of the previous occupants away. A remnant of around 1,000 live in a city built and stocked for multiple thousands. Among them, the most striking residents are the scorpions: a half-gang, half-commune marked by their projector chains that, when activated, throw a huge animal hologram up around their wearer. For that image, of giant monsters of light, towering towards the main character or ranging about him, collapsing and rising as the scorpions mess about with their projectors, for that image alone, this book is worth reading. These, the orchids, the fires and other things besides provide fantastic images that enliven this world. However it is not these unreal things that make the world so alien to Western perception.

In his afterword to Dhalgren William Gibson describes the city of Bellona as a space where the 60s counterculture still exists, preserved by catastrophe against its demise in the rest of 70s/80s America. However, because many people in Bellona are visiting from 70s/80s America, the city is also a site of constant culture-clash. Said clash is not dominantly violent (though an enclave of Bellona's remaining whites do behave as if they live in an apocalypse), but still ever-present. As a newcomer himself the Kid lives within this clash, and much of the book addresses his reorientation to Bellona's lack of the assumed rules that govern the world outside. It is a gentle reorientation. The Kid may not know the rules, but he is willing to be taught and the people he loves (particularly his 'old lady' Lanya) are willing to teach. Take sex. Following the entrance of Denny into Kid & Lanya's relationship, Kid starts to behave in bed as if subconsciously trying to assert dominance. He is not rebuked at first, but the dissonance of the behaviour is apparent immediately and as Kid continues to behave in this way the sense of emerging problem develops until Lanya halts it with an act of dominant sex-play. After this Denny has a quiet word with Kid, and he makes a change. Kid may be the centre of a culture clash, but because he is a generally decent (though far from perfect) human, the experience is one of growing awareness and learning rather than war. It is in fact, the idealised form of cultural growth. And interestingly (and indeed, sadly) that makes it super-relevant to today.

I started my socio-political life as a citizen of the United Kingdom. Technically I still am that, but internally, I feel more accurately self-described as a citizen of the Anglophone Internet [2], a self-awareness that has only grown after I left university to live at home. Now. My parents are fantastic people. I don't just love them - I actually like them, a relationship I've come to realise is not as common as you'd hope it would be. However, in our conversations it is also very clear that we live in completely different worlds, a separation which is not down completely to the division between the worlds of maturity and immaturity. It's more a fundamental difference in cultural focus. I live in an internet realm. For me events in Ferguson were a sea-change in the Anglophone approach to race-relations and a final coming-to-the-boil of various unwholesome socio-political trends in a principal centre of political gravity. It is an event of relevance within my immediate cultural sphere. For my parents, Ferguson is still important, but it is also distant - the foreign problem of a foreign country. It is peripheral rather than central [3]. Similarly, #Gamergate was a HUGE part of my immediate cultural experience for months, and the whole PUA/MRA debacle frankly has me questioning whether any aspect of 'masculinity', even the ones that seem virtuous on the surface, is worth preserving. For my parents it was again a peripheral experience: the internal squabblings of an art medium they have no involvement with. In return, I am sure that there are any number of UK socio-political developments that I know nothing about, and that this absence of knowledge would shock them. It's not a firm divide - we each vaguely know about the same things, we share political sympathies (though we tend to be sceptical in different directions) and some cultural interests. But. The divide is there, and in reading Dhalgren and remembering the times when that gulf has loomed largest, a reality is made clear. I may be from the old world. But the more I learn about it, the more I wish to be a citizen of Bellona.

Dhalgren is an impeccable book. Delany's approach to writing is to worry over the form of every sentence, shaping and honing each one so that it has the feeling, rhythm and meaning he wants it to. He even does this within the text itself through the medium of the Kid's own writings, and in making his process naked, draws all the more attention to the efforts of his craft. And, I think, that is the note I want to end on. Dhalgren is many things. It's a hallucinatory ramble through a fractured mental-state which does not experience the passage of time in a usual way, and it is also pretty great porn. It was far easier to penetrate than I feared, but still the writing is so rich that it was most rewarding read in snatches. It is a book that can satisfy in 30 pages, and drown in 100. I cannot recommend it enough.


[1] Even if the Kid thinks that the sound of George's speech cannot be literally conveyed in a visual form, I'm fairly sure that if Wuthering Heights could convey Joseph's alien northern dialect, Delany could do it if he had thought Kid would.

[2] This is referred to most places just as 'the internet', but I feel it's quite important to make the distinction. Only being fluent in English, I have no knowledge of the fora of other languages (the Chinese Weibo being the immediate example) and as such will not assume that they have generated the same culture as exists in the Anglophone communities of Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube.

[3] Though apparently, not so 'central' for me that I travelled up to London to join in sympathy protests. Which makes me rather disappointed in myself.
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 "Your sacrifice completes my sanctuary of one thousand testicles."

This is an actual line of dialogue from this film. It is accompanied by an image where a man with a mohawk guides a youth he has just castrated round a gallery of severed balls, each pair floating in its own little jar. He then inducts the youth into his cult/police force. He is in fact the chief of police, and he stands as a symbol of government oppression and its theft of honourable masculinity.

You now know whether you want to watch this film.

The reason I love The Holy Mountain has a lot to do with how grouchy I became after watching Christopher Nolan's film Interstellar, which is one of the most boring films I have ever outlasted. Not because of plot or character - those weren't great, but they weren't terrible either. No, my major problem with Interstellar was that it was a film insistent on spectacle, on having the audience see wonders, that employed for this purpose an interminable procession of dull-ass vistas. Grey seas. Bleached white-grey ice-clouds. Big dust clouds. All of them big to be sure, but size was all they had. Otherwise they were monochrome, non-detailed wastes. Once the eye adjusted to scale, there was nothing more to see, and I lost interest.

In Holy Mountain by contrast there is always something more to see.

To be fair, Jodorowsky and Nolan are completely different artists. Nolan is wedded to a realist aesthetic, even in Inception, a film which on the face of it should be pretty surreal (and in which he quotes the hell out of surrealist film) [1]. Jodorowsky on the other hand works with pure symbolism. The people in Holy Mountain are not actual people, so much as they are representatives of various elements of humanity. Images are designed principally to make statements on a variety of thematic points, rather than, say, explore how a character feels about something. This is not to say The Holy Mountain is a film without feeling, or indeed that Inception is a film with symbolism - that would be absurd. The scene where The Thief wakes up amongst a thousand plaster Jesuses made from a mould of his drugged body is a moment of extreme horror, thanks both to the unpleasant sight of a mass tangle of frozen, spreadeagled limbs and the disquieting impact of seeing objects normally viewed as a focus of reverence treated like mass-produced tat. The difference is in the degree of focus. Jodorowsky is more focussed on what his images represent rather than the emotional impact they have, and that forces him to vary his composition, because in the meaning of his text relies on the detail of his visuals. Combine that with the sensibilities of a man who started his artistic career in the circus, and you have a film that is endlessly fascinating to watch, and acts as a salve for my grouchy soul.

And then there's what I think he's meaning.

The Holy Mountain is a film of two stories. In the first, a man known only as the Thief runs around a town earning money in a variety of odd ways, until he learns of a mysterious tower that regularly produces gold. He sneaks his way in and meets the Alchemist (Jodorowsky himself), who, after removing a squid from the Thief's neck (which I think is a representation of his desire to murder), offers him the chance of redemption and takes him on as an apprentice. Then we enter the second half, in which we are introduced to the seven best thieves in the world, all of whom represent a different thing Alejandro Jodorowsky hates, from war to commercial art [2]. The Alchemist announces he will lead them on a quest to find the Holy Mountain, where they will encounter nine immortals. After killing them, the Alchemist promises that the thieves themselves will achieve immortality.

Speaking more symbolically, The Holy Mountain is again dominated by a duality of intent. The first is mockery. Jodorowsky's condemnations of social ills are fierce and without compromise: this is a man who believes without compromise that the everyday reality of the Western world is evil. But his critique is a Fool's, a trickster's - he criticises with ridicule, having the citizens of a town waltz lovingly with their gas-masked oppressors, having a company be so obsessed with masking death that it has invented a machine that can make beautified corpses perform a strip tease. Following this, the second interest is enlightenment. On the path to the Holy Mountain, the Alchemist leads the thieves through a process of destruction of the self and the rejection of material cares. Through trial after trial Jodorowsky has his characters cast away all things, from wealth to defeat to fear, until finally they are in sight of the Immortals. And then...he reveals that there was never any prize after all. Because the effort was never about obtaining anything.

It is in this ending that I found the depth in Jodorowsky. On the whole the symbolism of The Holy Mountain is quite overt (though still open to competing interpretations). Jodorowsky is straightforward in his criticisms and his symbols of self-abnegation. But what the ending reveals is that the self-abnegation was not, as Jodorowsky/Alchemist (for the two in the end are effectively one) suggested to the thieves, something to be obtained in order that the immortals might be overcome. It was instead a liberation from their corrupting acts of theft. Jodorowsky/Alchemist lures the thieves into giving up their sin by promising immortality, the same immortality that artists have promised over and over to their patrons, only here that promise is a trick. With the promise of immortality he gets the rich and the powerful to throw their money away, only to have them realise that they never really wanted it in the first place. Jodorowsky is not just a critic of evil. The Holy Mountain is his solution. He does not redeem through preaching. He redeems through misdirection. He is critic-fool and trickster-god, and his work is wondrous.


[2] ‘The film industry is raping you. They are fucking us, and they are killing us. If you go to a picture and you’re already an idiot, you see the picture and have a lot of fun, and you come out as idiotic as you were. Unchanged. Or the film will be using subliminal politics – using you.’

Also, he hates Walt Disney. VISCERALLY.

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Goddamn the music in this show is EXCELLENT. Koko by Tamurapan (opening theme) opens sweet and delicate before exploding into a wild swarm of strings, while Teppan by Shissou Ginga (closing theme) wields a grittier feel with punchier vocals, but both are alike in their sudden-grip openings. Can't say if either song had much meaning, but the tones were spot on, particularly when Teppan becomes the dominant score of episode 9. Its punch is very well used therein.

That's what you hear - but what you see is just as fantastic. The story starts as follows: a Buddhist priest whose every drawing comes to life, draws a rabbit god for his shrine. The rabbit god falls in love with the priest and is granted a human body by a Bodhisattva. The couple then accumulate three children, and decide to go live in a version of Tokyo drawn by the priest known as Mirror City, leaving their old world behind. Most of this anime therefore takes place inside a drawing, and as such, Mirror City's trees have a certain 2D look to them (perhaps conveyed by the white outlines) and is populated by a background populace of vague person-shapes and 3D stick figures. And this is just the background of just one of the many worlds visited by the anime's characters. There's oodles more variety and colour and pocket dimensions decorated with giant mobiles beyond that.

The story of Kyousogiga focusses on the members of the strange family who came to live in the Mirror Capital, using each episode to delve into their lives and longings and treating plot as something of an afterthought. The show cares that we understand what each character wants, and has little concern for telling us what's actually going on. This created an odd situation where I had no idea what rational mechanics if any underlay what I was watching, and yet completely understood each character's stake in the action, which shows the storytellers had their priorities straight. Most of these desires are fairly straightforward - however. There is one character in particular who is far from straightforward, for reasons that require a spoiler cut.

Read more... )

So, in episode 8, the priest Myoe reveals offhandedly that he is not just some wizard, but is in fact a creator-god, one of two deities tasked by their heavenly father to keep order in the cosmos of 12 parallel universes, and while this is a surprise at the time, it quickly goes on to make sense. Myoe makes for an extremely odd human, particularly as he seems careless to a point of outright callousness. The point where he tells the recently-bereaved and suicidal Yakushimaru that he's his dad now, while remaking him without consent to be immortal, was a horrifying sequence, for while Myoe did indeed save Yakushimaru he did so without displaying any apparent empathy for his mental state. But, if Myoe is a god, that makes sense, becoming a sign of divine remove rather than sociopathy. The same goes for the rest of his behaviour in the series, which continues to be cavalier about the mental wellbeing of those around him. It's not that Myoe doesn't love his family: he certainly seems to. It's more that the character doesn't understand human relationships, until that is the very end, when Koto beats understanding into him. It's a neat reveal, deus ex machina functioning as character development, that retroactively adds a whole other layer to what the show has been so far.

In the end then Kyousogiga sounds great, looks better and has rock-solid character development. The familiars A and Un make great jesters, and my skin was all-a-prickle during the couplet of ending episodes. Also, I gather that it is based somewhat on Alice Through the Looking Glass, so: my next course of action should probably be to read that and gain more insight into this small-yet-powerful anime series.
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The exploration of civilian life in the midst of war (rather than its aftermath) is not something I've seen from a video game before. Hell, I'm not sure I've ever even seen a film focus explicitly on the subject. The Devil's Backbone (2001) and Of Gods and Men (2010) both take place during a war that influences their drama, but it is still a distant war. This is of course a failing on my part - there is likely a masterpiece somewhere I should really have seen - but the end result is that the subject matter of This War of Mine feels quite novel to me. That's good in a simulation game - after all, if the experience offered was an ordinary one, why on earth would I play it? But novelty is not enough; I need veracity too. The game knows this - but I'm not sure that we're on the same page about what reality is.

That said, the visual design, which attempts to make a game limited to just 2 dimensions feel like life, succeeds beautifully. Every setting has a sense of depth and distance to it, communicated by far-off buildings or the ever-present sounds of fighting, that makes the world feel far larger than the space you can interact with. It is 'realness' without 'realism', as is This War of Mine's visualisation of the air as fine white shading that moves and ripples about the characters. As the temperature drops, the movement even brings on a sympathetic chill. Together depth and motion work to make This War of Mine a sometimes strikingly beautiful game: that is, if you can spare focus enough to savour the sights.

This War of Mine takes place under a constant ticking clock. During the Day-turns your characters need to cook food, bandage their wounds and upgrade their living quarters. Then, at Night, you need to send a character out to scavenge up more raw resources, for the next Day's meals, wounds and furnishings. No scavenging trip provides enough to generate much more than a day's worth of resources, meaning your characters are always just a few unlucky trips away from starving even before the weather goes bad. This constant pressure combined with short turns that start and end automatically, gives the game a rhythm akin to a Netflix binge. Continuing is the default action, and there is always a problem one turn that needs to be solved in the next. This is a game it is very easy to keep playing.

However, while This War of Mine does the pressures of survival very well, that is all it's doing. In part that's because the business of keeping my characters alive left little headspace for anything else, but it's also the result of having nothing to do that might be as compelling. The humans I controlled were more calorie-burning bio-machines than characters to me. I know their skills, I can see their faces, but I have no information about their pasts or dreams and their emotional reactions are a unified, generic 'be sad at sad thing, be happy about nice thing'. As such, whenever the game threw moral choices my way, I tended to just respond with whatever option seemed like it would best promote survival - human nature be-damned. My characters were not individuals, and as such, ensuring their survival felt less like safeguarding my people than maintaining lifelike automata.

What I wish is that this game had some means of simulating relationships. Having people turn up at the door of my house and ask for favours doesn't count - relationships are an active process, mutually reinforced from both sides. Most of all however, I miss the chance to talk to people. This War of Mine is explicitly designed to convey a particularly brutal form of 'war', one where the political divisions run between neighbourhoods, sowing distrust throughout the community, and rebels do not have the ability to keep order [1]. Between that and the fact that the people you play are a loose-knit band of individuals unlinked to any sort of broader social group, This War of Mine starts to feel more like an an apocalypse than a war. To be specific, it feels quite a lot like Telltale's The Walking Dead...with no talking.

On the surface, the games do not mirror each other. They have no mechanical similarities, but despite that the situations they have the player explore feel very alike and that disappoints me. Maybe they just weren't trying to provide the type of war I wanted to experience (ie. one like the protracted insurgencies I'm most familiar with), but the situation is clearly one of civil war and that means that it should be occurring, not just amongst civilians, but amongst a society. Civil wars are not the ends of worlds - they are violent continuities, and though the evolution of society in war is rapid it is evolution not rebirth. This War of Mine is fantastic at having the player feel the stress of survival, but it lacks the tools to convey the stresses of humanity.

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I have two tv series on the go at the moment: Guillermo Del Toro's The Strain, and Stephen Soderbergh's The Knick. Neither flabberghasts on a story level - The Strain is pure Del Toro schlock (think Hellboy with less monsters and lower budget), while The Knick seems content to tell the usual story of American life in the early 20th century: ie. a story about racism, sexism and science with a 'backward society clawing its way to enlightenment' theme. Still, both of them have their merits, managing to be good stories if not great ones. What's got me thinking about them right now however is how they share one odd trait: their apparent protagonists don't feel like protagonists.

Both The Strain and The Knick are ensemble shows, with a variety of plotlines ensuring all characters gain some degree of prominence, but, both shows are also built to keep one character in particular focus. Both of these characters are straight, white, male doctors from an affluent background, possessed of a scientific mindset and dramatic character flaws. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) of The Strain is a control freak workaholic who is pathologically wedded to preserving his nuclear family, despite literally everything in his life suggesting he is not quite cut out for that sort of relationship. John Thackery (Clive Owen) of The Knick is a drug addicted racist who treats people like things and who wears sneakers to work (I mean really). Both of them are of course brilliant, and for this reason each show seems to want to treat them as protagonists, a creative decision that has started to feel weird as both men become more and more unpleasant.

The source of trouble for both men, is a flaw in their self-perceptions. Goodweather for example, having just had impromptu sex with love-interest-but-not-wife Nora (Mia Maestro) in his ex-wife's house, suddenly finds his post-coital snooze interrupted by said ex-wife's best friend. In the ensuing comic scramble of clothes and recriminations, Goodweather states to said best friend that he still loves his ex-wife, right in front of the woman he just had sex with. Certainly the character does have very strong feelings for his ex-wife (though, again...not so strong that it stops him having sex with someone else), but the context of that statement is damning. Goodweather perceives himself as a family man. He isn't, but he clings to that myth, and even when the evidence is stacked against him would rather wound a lover than see himself differently. His clashes with Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand) only solidify this impression - though in this case Goodweather argues in order to preserve some intellectual/social clout in a world where he isn't the boss anymore. Fet's barbs in return ring true - having a pawnbroker and a rat-killer know more than him definitely makes Goodweather uncomfortable. He is a man who likes control, and not having it keeps him constantly one step away from tantrums. More and more The Strain is painting Goodweather as a self-deceiving elitist who cares more about his vision of himself than he does about the feelings of others. As such, his protagonist status is starting to get weird.

The same goes for Thackery. In a scene I just watched, love interest Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) invites him in for sex. She is however nervous about the pain, it being her first time. His answer: offer her liquid cocaine (a substance he knows is addictive) and hey presto - no pain, but a mountain of ick for me. Thing is, for Thackery, that's a perfectly logical decision to make - he's an addict, and turns to the drug automatically when a problem needs solving. But the act itself is an authority figure (he is a doctor offering a drug) offering an addictive substance to someone in a moment of total, mutual trust, and offering a chemical in response to a nervousness that demands empathy. The whole sequence is tensely discomfiting, as is the following scene which, hanging in Elkins' post-coital perception, feels preoccupied, uncertain, happy and unhappy. Thackery is not Goodweather. He doesn't deceive himself so much as he just doesn't see what it is he's doing. The same goes for when he decides to hire a couple of prostitutes for the weekend so he can conduct medical experiments on them, while also having occasional sex. He's using his ability to control their bodies to do things to them beyond their usual remit, in a context where his money means they cannot refuse: yet he clearly sees no problem with his actions. Because that's Thackery. He's a racist yes, and an addict, but his major flaw, growing ever greater, is the way he seems able to treat people how he likes without thinking about how they feel. It's not that he's uncaring. It's more that caring is an option for him, and one he often prefers not to select. As with Goodweather, Thackery's perception of what he does feels quite divorced from the role in the story he seems to play.

There is of course the chance that I have completely misread the position of both characters. The two are definitely designed to be flawed, and maybe that means I should start to see them as Walter Whites, as villains in the making. Or maybe I should accept the ambiguity itself as the effect sought by the artists. Those readings have about as much potential validity as the more negative interpretation: that the makers of The Strain and The Knick wrote their characters without understanding what their behaviour implied about them. But as a conclusion is needed, here is what I think now. I do not think these characters have fully slipped their writers' control. I think both Goodweather and Thackery are meant to seem both good and bad, sometimes well-meaning, sometimes hurtful, and that is how they are in their shows. However. To write that is a balancing act, and seeing how these characters have been behaving of late, I feel they may be tipping more towards the bad than their stories are perhaps prepared for.
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Episode 10 of Paranoia Agent was tough. It is the story of how a lazy, incompetent Production Coordinator for an anime show fails again and again at his job, making mistake after mistake, which of course all fall to his colleagues to fix. He never seeks to be better, and never apologises. Instead he makes excuses, blames others and takes out his frustration on boxes in a supply closet. He knows he's done wrong but will never admit it, and as the failures mount up and he becomes hated and insulted for them, his resistance to the very notion that he did wrong swells until his reason snaps. For me, this was the toughest watch of the season because the Coordinator is a remarkable facsimile of my self-image, when most disgusted with myself. We share the same fear of failure and we share the same impulse to avoid taking responsibility for failures. He does that which most horrifies me - the inconveniencing and hurting of people - and does so for reasons I can understand. He reminds of the times I've done that myself, triggering memories like cramps, bringing tension I cannot end, only weather until it recedes. It didn't help that I was watching the episode to procrastinate, which is my most common means of postponing failure. By rights I should have finished watching, closed down Chrome, and started work. I of course didn't. Simply being aware of what I'm doing does not remove the desire to do it.

That desire to avoid torment and wish it away is a constant in Paranoia Agent, a show without many such constants. Though there is a central cast of characters they do not turn up in every episode, and though the plotline is consistent enough that the whole thing wraps up about as satisfactorily as I've ever seen in an anime, each episode still has its own individual character. This is a series where one episode is a critique-through-juxtaposition of how anime/manga tends to portray masculinity, while another is a comedy about three people who want to commit suicide. There's even evil black goo and an opening song that might be the best anime opening I've ever watched. I mean, I'd be a sucker for any song that started with musical yelling, but this opening seals the deal with visuals designed to achieve dissonance both of place (an old homeless woman standing on a table) and tone (laughing people standing against images of warzones; a cheery song about rising mushroom clouds). This is not a show where you should ever be sure of the ground under your feet, and the opening is a statement of this.

Paranoia Agent is fantastic. Indeed, it's so fantastic that I was able to maintain my desire to watch it, while every episode thematically screamed at me to stop and do some work. Though honestly, that could speak more to my nature than that of this, incredible anime.
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I'm not familiar with Mike Leigh's work. I have seen precisely two films directed by him, and both of those in the past year. The reason for this, I think, is that I tend to avoid the dour indie, 'hey look at these normal people be miserable OMG AREN'T THEY NORMAL' nebulous-notgenre label, and having had the sense that Leigh's films lay under said label, I had little interest in his catalogue. What this documentary makes clear however is just how inappropriate that label is for Leigh - and in fact, said label seems to be based on just one of his films (2001's All Or Nothing). But this is more than an issue of inventing trends that ignore the variety of Leigh's catalogue. The main mischaracterisation of Leigh that I've fallen prey to, is the idea that he makes films about 'normal people'. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is true that Leigh does not make films about the kinds of people most films are about - ie. violent people, criminal people, insane people and clowns. But he also doesn't make films about people who are aimlessly 20-something. Mike Leigh makes films about fascinating people, only, 'fascinating' in this context is defined differently to how most films approach the concept. In the vast majority of films (and probably stories in other media) people are fascinating for what they have done. In Leigh films, people are fascinating because of how distinctive they are, and they are that distinctive because the entire process of making the film is designed to make them distinctive.

The thing everyone knows about Mike Leigh is that he improvises and doesn't have scripts (or at least, he doesn't have a script in the conventional sense). What this film clarifies is that Leigh doesn't just turn up, point a camera at an actor and start filming. The process is instead one of massive rehearsal, that first establishes exactly who the actor is playing down to the smallest detail, and then places that character into a number of different scenarios to discover how he/she plays in relation to other characters. In short Leigh's story-construction method is designed to totally prioritise character over every other narrative element.

The upshot, in my admittedly limited experience, is that Leigh's films are filled with characters possessed of a distinct psychology no matter their screentime, and are narratively driven by the intent to reveal the nuance of those psychologies through the characters' interactions. One part of the documentary that really captures this comes in the section on Meantime (1983), where Leigh remembers how the Far Left got mad at him for 'wasting the chance to really say something'. But the way a Leigh film is constructed, the idea that it might say something (in the sense that the film is a build up to a conclusion about a state of affairs) is infeasible, because that would require the characters be subordinate to the commentary and in a Mike Leigh film characters bow to nothing. Mike Leigh films build up to nothing, because their subjects are always onscreen, always being investigated. Knowing this, there is a scene in Mr Turner (2014) that I suddenly understand so much better.

So, Turner (Timothy Spall) has arrived at a mansion. There he encounters a Miss Coggins (Karina Fernandez) sitting at a piano, and asks her to play him a particular song. She agrees, and as she begins to play he starts to sing along, despite being a bad singer that does not know the words. It is however not funny. It's a little awkward, but mostly sad and also tender, one of those moments in the film when Spall lets the wall inside his eyes fall down, that here reveals a vast empathy for Miss Coggins that together with the song implies great loss. What that loss is, we do not know. Nor is the fact that we aren't told a mystery that is to be solved later on in the film. This scene is the sole time in which these characters interact. In another film, a film constructed around story-beats and headed towards a conclusion, that would make this scene wasted time: an indulgence by the writer or director, pleasant but unnecessary. But that is not this film, and thanks to the documentary, that is visible. Leigh's films are built on character, and are built to express character. So long as a scene does that (as this one does), it is complete: no information necessary.

PS. Oh and also - Eddie Marsan's anecdote about how, when preparing for his role in Happy Go Lucky, he was expecting to play a Travis Bickle-type character right up until he was confronted with Sally Hawkins' Poppy, is a perfect means with which to understand what that character is. Though to be honest, that's just one amazing anecdote of dozens. They definitely picked their interview subjects well.
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