Monday, 14 December 2009

This Blog Was Built To Self Destruct...

...but that's not how it worked out.

Unfortunately, I think I'm going to have to shut this place down, maybe just for a while, maybe for good. I normally try to avoid writing too much about my personal life on here, but my Mum goes into hospital for a cancer operation today, and my Dad's MS means that he requires a lot of care, so... even if things go well, I'll still be helping to look after them for the next few months, and I don't have the heart to worry about blogging while all of that's going on.

Now you might well ask how anyone could notice if Vibrational Match is active or not, given my haphazard posting schedule. And you'd have a point, but the thing is -- I'll know the difference, and while it might not always look like it, this place matters to me.

Sorry this isn't very articulate, but I'm struggling to write a coherent sentence right now. I'll finish off my Mindless Ones article this week, and then I'll try to write something to close the year out with, because I hate the idea of my last couple of posts being the last ITEM!s on here. No promises, but I might be able to finish of those Darkseid Week posts I started working on ages ago -- we'll see.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who linked to/read/wrote about/commented on this blog or emailed me off the back of it. You've made this worthwhile, and you've shamed me into being a better writer.

I hope this isn't too melodramatic, but I'm not really in the right headspace to judge right now so fuck it.

Take care out there.


Thursday, 26 November 2009

They Ripped His Trousers. Now Denim is his Plaid.

Sean Collins on random music references in comic book criticism:

"Just a week or two before I wrote that piece [comparing The Dark Knight Strikes Again to glo-fi pop music], I was complaining to someone about the pieces you'll read here and there along the lines of "This issue of Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers: Klarion the Witch-Boy is exactly like my favorite Sleater-Kinney album!!!" Now, art is not made in a vacuum, and even when direct influences aren't in play, resonances can be--people can tap into similar ideas or make similar decisions. It's as valuable for critics to be aware of what's going on in multiple disciplines as it is for artists themselves, and I think making connections you can make between disciplines is a perfectly valid approach. That said, making connections between anything and everything is as useless, critically, as making no connections at all."

Hey, I resemble that statement! This is the second time I've read one of Sean's offhand disses and felt my eye twitching, but I'm not taking it personally since I'd have to be a paranoid bastard to assume it was all about me. Plus Sean was cool about me tweaking his nipples at the start of my Inglourious Basterds post, so there's no reason for me to be a dick here.

Sean makes the above comments to defend his DKSA piece against criticisms that the musical references he used were completely arbitrary, and he's quite right to do so. Still, I find myself wanting to argue with Sean here, so maybe I am feeling a little touchy on this one! So, for example: The Filth doesn't look like Beyonce, and Beyonce sure as shit doesn't sound like The Filth, but I do listen to Beyonce when I'm trying to get away from the feelings The Filth generates, and in writing about them both together I can get at why.

Sometimes this technique is a big load of juvenile nonsense, and sometimes it's a useful way to write something more interesting than "I liked it because it was good/it was good because I liked it." The same good to bad ratio exists for the sort of clear line criticism that Collins deals in -- writers like Sean and Douglas can make it work, but how many of the eight thousand comics reviews that hit the Internet every week are worth reading?

In other words, to echo a refrain Sean made good use of in that interview, it all depends on the piece!

[EDITED TO ADD: If I wasn't such a self-involved prick, I would have also taken issue with the part of the interview where Chris Allen asks Sean how he feels about snarky critics like Tucker Stone and Abhay Khosla.

Sean says that he feels "suspicious" of the validity of this kind of criticism because "the harshness quickly becomes an end in itself." In the abstract that might be a fair enough point, and Sean does qualify it by saying that "It depends on the piece," but when those two writers have been specifically mentioned? Well, then it's time to call bullshit. I mean sure, those guys take the piss A LOT, but in both cases you get the same sense that you get from TV critic Charlie Brooker, i.e. that the hatred comes from an awareness of how good this shit can be.

Also, the snark is only one part of Abhay's writing -- no one else has written anything that gets at the heart of Scott Pilgrim like this piece does, for example. And Tucker? Well, he's no one trick pony either, and it's not like he's shy about praising comics when he likes them. Only last week he gave the latest volume of Naoki Urasawa's Pluto a full on crotch rub while giving Flash: Rebirth a quick kick to the dick, and if that's not the key to cosmic balance then I'll eat my own power ring.

Still, Tucker and Abhay are big boys, and neither of them needs to hide behind my peely-wally Scottish arse. In fact, I've just got to the end of this edit, and I see that Tucker has (deliberately or otherwise) defended his style way better than I ever could. Just check out this priceless bit from the end of his latest Blackest Night review:
It's about exactly what it says it's about, which is that a whole bunch of various colored and various emotion themed magic ring wielding teams are going to team up and combine the colors of their various wishing rings to construct another, more powerful and more pure color so that they can stop the physical embodiment of death, which is a bipedal humanoid character who speaks English that used to fight Captain Atom. The best part of the entire thing so far was in an issue of Green Lantern Corps, when a big black thing tried to steal Queen Coleman from the Smurf planet, but then he was stopped by a Mexican suicide bomber.

And honestly? You can pretty much add exclamation points to those last two sentences right there, and you can add the word "Awesome!", and you'll have produced a rough approximation of every positive review that this piece of shit is ever going to get. That's how easy it is to write about a positive comic book review. Make a fucking note.

Yeah, that sums it up just nicely, I think. Saying the word "AWESOME!" 'til your mouth bleeds is easy. Making genuine entertainment out of a week's worth of shitty comics? That's pretty close to modern day alchemy.]

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Time For Some Real Filth -- Johnny Ryan Gets FUCKED!

WARNING: I'm going to pull the pants right off of this book and show you the gristly phallus that lies beneath, so this post is definitely NOT SAFE FOR WORK, okay?


I was rereading this filthy, horribly addictive comic the other day when the truth fired itself out of the page and splattered me right in the eye: Prison Pit is Birdland for kids!

The Mindless Ones have already discussed the idea that this would make a great comic for children, and while some folk might blanch at the idea of comic this full of scatological violence being FOR KIDS, I still remember what being a wee guy was like and let me tell you: I would have loved this!

Like the commenter known as It Burns said:

It is playful. I mean, yeah there’s lots, LOTS of weird gore, but it reads like a WWE-wrestling-fan getting in a knife/chair/cannibalistic fight over whether the shit’s real or not. . . I couldn’t help but giggle.

There's definitely a heavy WWE component here, but there's also a strain of weird, abitrary cruelty running through the comic that's somehow too stupid to be truly upsetting. In the world of Prison Pit you can rip a guy's guts out only to have those same guts used as a smothering tentacle weapon against you; in the world of Prison Pit, burst zits are deadly weapons and you can make a battlesuit out of your own semen.

It's this constant biological fuckery that makes me think of Birdland, but where the characters in that jizz-drenched comic were trying to bang their way into a post-human pornotopia, the characters in Prison Pit live by a different maxim: Fuck or be Fucked.

And so while Birdland artist Gilbert Hernandez overloads his pages with Kirby-esque money shots, Ryan sticks his crew of grotesque miscreants in a tight space and lets them take each other to pieces. Weirdly enough, the scratchy backdrops that Ryan conjures up here remind me of another Gilbert Hernandez comic, 2007's trauma-addled Chance in Hell:

Prison Pit is every bit as raw and hopeless as Chance in Hell, but I'll maintain that it's got more in common with Birdland. Why? Well, for one thing, it opens with a shot of a whole planet being fucked:

That chapter title there? That's some subtle shit. Again, it's a childish gesture, and it fits with Ryan's aesthetic. Birdland is the perverted fantasy of a freshly minted adult who's just trying to get used to the ins and outs of love; Prison Pit is the perverted fantasy of an angry kid to whom sex is just another gross joke. The prison planet that Bloodhead/Fuckface is spurted into at the start of the story is like a grotesque parody of an ovum -- it's obviously been bombarded with spermy little gametes, but there's no reproduction going on here, only brute division.

So: is it all just a load of ick and goo signifying nothing? Well maybe, but honestly, there are very few artists who can make ick and goo seem so thoroughly alien and unclean as they do here!

Which raises the question: is Prison Pit actually Birdland as re-imagined by kids? Whatever the case, it's too idiosyncratic to be tarnished banal crudeness of some of its supporters, as I'll now try to explain by way of this Angela Carter quote:
Pornography involves an abstraction of human intercourse in which the self is reduced to its formal elements. In its most basic form, these elements are represented by the probe and the fringed hole, the twin signs of male and female in graffiti, the biological symbols scrawled on the subway poster and the urinal wall, the simplest expression of stark and ineradicable sexual differentation, a universal pictoral language of lust -- or rather, a language we accept as universal because, since it has always been so, we conclude that it must always remain so.

(Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History)
Prison Pit is definitely of a piece with toilet graffiti, but it's also the WORLD'S BEST TOILET GRAFFITI because (1) It's a fucking excellent fight comic! If the crude doodles that adorn your average public toilet were this well choreographed, I doubt I'd ever leave! And (2) Veiny cocks aren't enough for Johnny Ryan, so Bloodhead's cock is covered with massive barbs too:

This pulsing chunk of meat is Prison Pit in miniature: it's immature and it's not really acceptable in polite society, but it also provides a jolt of WHAT THE FUCK! that's distinctly lacking from your average comic. Or from your average bit of hyped up and cum-sodden pornography, as Angela Carter would probably have noted.

And while there might not be any reproduction going on in Prison Pit, the story ends with the creation of strange new hybrid made possible by the sheer violence of the book. Of course this turns out to be a distinctly onanistic bit of symbiosis, but that's exactly the right note for Prison Pit to end on. The imagery in this comic has its roots in the most basic of bathroom wall scribbles, but it's far from universal, and thank fuck for that!

Fallout #1

Being a new semi-regular feature in which I empty my head of thoughts, quotes and stray images that have been sparked off by other items on this blog.

The following quotes have been rattling around my head ever since we talked about Inglourious Basterds. I was going to write a whole post around them, but I didn't have too much to add so I've decided to post them raw:
Fine art, that exists for itself alone, is art in a final state of impotence. If nobody, including the artist, acknowledges art as a means of knowing the world, then art is relegated to a kind of rumpus room of the mind and the irresponsibility of the artist and the irrelevance of art to actual living becomes part and parcel of the practice of art.

(Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History)


(Mike Barthel on art as criticism and criticism as art)

In 1939, when it was certain that war was imminent, the Trustees of the National Gallery, headed by Kenneth Clark, decided that the whole collection was to be sent to Canada. On Churchill's intervention the plan was modified and the pictures were moved to slate mines in Wales. Civilian populations could not, of course, be provided with comparable protection and were killed in large numbers.

(John Carey, What Good Are the Arts?)


Worship of art made human beings expendable. Hitler welcomed the allied bombing raids on German cities because they cleared the way for his designs. After the massive raid on Cologne in August 1942, Goebbels found him studying a map of the city, and he confided that the demolished streets would have had to be razed anyway. In 1943, following the heavy raids on the Ruhr which severely damaged Dusseldorf, Dortmund and Wuppertal, and virtually destroyed the town of Barmen, he remarked that these conurbations were 'not attractive aesthetically' and had needed reconstruction. Beauty mattered more than people. In November 1943 he altered the German strategic plan, giving orders that Florence should not be defended. 'Florence is too beautiful a city to destroy,' he insisted. By contrast 'I do not feel a thing about levelling Kiev, Moscow and Petersburg to the ground... In comparison with Russia even Poland is a cultured country.' The same aesthetic standards governed his estimate of individuals. Art, and those who produced it, were the supreme consideration. 'Really outstanding geniuses,' he explained, 'permit themselves no concern for normal human beings.' Their higher mission justified any cruelty. Compared to them, ordinary people were mere 'planetary bacilli'.

(John Carey, What Good Are the Arts?)


Pornographers are the enemies of women only because our contemporary ideology of pornography does not encompass the possibility of change, as if we were the slaves of history and not its makers. Pornography is a satire on human pretensions.

(Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History)

(Click on the above image to experience The New Adventures of Hitler! Or at least, you know, a tiny little sputtery bit of it...)

Coming soon: Darkseid Week! Just remember, it's all Plok's fault!

Monday, 19 October 2009

Revenge of the Giant Face

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, somehow he manages, but I couldn't help myself. My laughter was absurd and inappropriate, but then so was that fucking pipe!

The difference between my take on the movie and David Fiore's would be that I'm happier to take this uncertainty as part of the ride. Dave suggests that Inglourious Basterds allows us to think about the way political perspectives are formed in an "unusually visceral" way, and I think he's absolutely right! Tarantino's movie circles around a series of overlapping schemers before plunging into the heart of the venn diagram -- which, of course, happens to be located in a cinema! This is where my reading starts to look a lot like Sean's, because the unreality of the film is key to its success. Tarantino isn't exactly shy about the fact that this is a fantasy -- after all, Inglourious Basterds starts with a title card that reads "Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France" and peaks with a scene of ghostly revenge that's straight out of a Hammer horror movie. The fact that this climax is explicitly linked to the use of film as a weapon is just so much metafictional gravy, really.

So why can't I find catharsis in this process? Because as good old Dave Fiore noted in another Basterdly post, "if the movie works at all, it works in the reverse direction–as a statement about the inability of art to do anything but respond to other art..."

It should be clear by now that the differences between my take on the movie and those of my fellow bloggers are actually pretty small, but I'm going to keep on blowing them up into something big anyway. Why? Because it's more fun!

So: Dave's right, Inglourious Basterds is about art vs. art, and that's why it's so fucking good! Again, none of this is hidden -- the movie's finale sees all of its characters collide at the premier of a Nazi propaganda film, which makes the messy, blood-drenched ending seem like a triumph of aesthetics over agitprop. This is a shot to the face of those who would wield art like a cudgel, and if that seems like a paradox to you then that just means you're still awake.

All of this points to why my opening Pat Buchanan joke doesn't really work, because while Tarantino messes around with history here, he makes damned sure you know exactly what he's doing! He also takes pains to show that this is violent, bracing business, but that might just be because his movies are all about violent, bracing business. So as a whole war's worth of plots and schemes crash into each other, the blood starts to flow and you start to count the casualties start to stack up. Tellingly, the characters who survive the climactic carnage do so by pushing their stories harder than the rest. For example, in the movie's first chapter, Landa acts as though he is comfortable being the "Jew Hunter"; in its last, he makes a fairly audacious play to find a new narrative for himself, and with it a pivotal role in history. And he gets all of that, but when Pitt's Lieutenant Aldo Raine carves a swastika into Landa's head he adds a little something extra to the Nazi's story. Which is oddly fitting, given that Landa adds a little something to the movie every time he wanders into a scene (seriously, every single mannerism is a like a comedy pipe pulled out at just the wrong occasion).

If you find yourself asking whether this jumble of cinematic pleasures is enough to justify a fully-fledged assault on history, well -- isn't that an interesting conversation to have? Inglourious Basterds doesn't open a can of worms, it machetes the fucker to pieces and then shouts "HEY LOOK, MORE WORMS!!"

Which is probably why Mike Barthel's take on the movie is my favourite so far. Using Inglourious Basterds as a jump-off point to discuss the US Constitution, Barthel waxes euphoric on the power of art as interpretation. He also comes out with this beauty of a paragraph:
The unfortunate reality of American political discourse is that people don’t really understand how the government works, and because of that, the smooth functioning of the government actively requires hiding certain things from the public. This is not to say these things are wrong; at least a few people in the government are smart, moral people who care about the Constitution, and they have thought through these complex issues and given them the thumbs-up. But they are complex issues, and getting through them requires several years of careful study and an ability to listen to arguments you don’t immediately agree with, all of which it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get people whose first impulse is to draw a Hitler mustache on something (anything! a butternut squash! whatever’s closest at hand!) to do.
When he starts to talk about Hitler moustaches, Barthel accidentally echoes David Fiore's point about America's obsession with swastika branding, framing it as an impediment to honest and open political process. So what's the solution? I don't have it, and Tarantino probably wouldn't care about it if he did, but I'm starting to think that this man might be on to something:

Yes, that's right, it's pedantic British comedian Richard Herring, getting his Mein Kampf on. I saw Herring's Hitler Moustache show at the Fringe in August, and while I won't subject Herring's routines to excessive paraphrase here (that dubious pleasure is reserved for my "real life" friends!), I will say that it was one of the best shows I've seen this decade. By branding himself with the Hitler moustache, Herring becomes a comedy villain. He becomes an uneasy joke, but as a joke he's free to question every statement that comes out of his mouth without ever giving up on meaning or morality.

The best example of this effect comes when Herring stops trying to provoke laughter and starts to berate members of the audience who didn't vote in this year's European elections. His rhetoric in this part of the show is as sincere as it is scathing, but there's an implicit irony at work that stops it from being overbearing. No matter how agreeable the sentiments Herring expresses are, you're still being lectured on politics by a man with a Hitler moustache. That small clump of hair, boldly brandished, becomes an invitation to not take what its wearer is saying at face value. It's a fuzzy reminder that there's always room for argument and debate, and as such it serves much the same function as Inglourious Basterds' "Once upon a time..." introduction.

In stark contrast to Inglourious Basterds, though, Hitler Moustache has an overt political agenda. Starting from the proposition that the toothbrush moustache can be reclaimed for comedy, it quickly becomes a rallying cry against prejudice and complacency. In a routine that was very poorly represented in this Guardian article, Herring uses crass racial stereotyping as a jump-off point for an absurdly clever examination of conflicted liberal attitudes to cultural differences. This isn't blank irony of the kind that gave David Foster Wallace nightmares, because Herring doesn't use comedy to disavow meaning. Instead, he uses it to reaffirm the fact that our opinions have to be tested if they're to be truly useful. Of course, being the man who got a forty minute comedy skit out of a yogurt-heavy trip to the supermarket, Herring is an expert at attacking a proposition from every possible perspective. That he manages to do so while taking on contentious subject matter, and that he creates constant laughter in the process, is what makes this show a triumph.

Plus, Herring also takes care of the nasty argument closing/moustache drawing trick in a silly and novel way. Or so you'd think, but it seems that some people still want to draw the 'tache on, even when it's already there! But hey, even that weird bit of graffiti-artistry is fitting when you look at it from the right perspective. Hitler Moustache is nothing less than a weaponisation of irony, and it's made me want to try to be smarter, funnier and more active in local politics all at once.

As for Inglourious Basterds, I'm not going to pretend that my take on the movie is anywhere near definitive. For one thing, I've not even touched upon how great Melanie Laurent is as Shosanna Dreyfus:

Seriously, some of the things Laurent does with her face warrant a separate two thousand word essay!

Still, I've got a big enough ego to think that if you read this essay alongside Sean's, and Dave's and Mike's and Geoff's etc, then you might just start to get an idea of what Inglourious Basterds is actually all about. Most likely you'll get a hint of it in the places where these pieces clash or blur into each other or seem wildly divergent. If Sean Witzke ever gets around to writing a full blog post on the film I think he'll probably get closer to the spirit of the thing than anyone else, but this post of mine? If you just read it on its own, and if you give it just a little bit too much of your time, you might just start to see a face staring up at you through the screen. It might look like Hitler's face, or it might look like Herring's, but if you look closer you'll realise that it's not really either of their faces. No, if anyone's face is peering out at you through these words then it's a blank parody of my face, beady eyes peering out from a queasy void:

And what should you do when you see this face? Well, like I said, you should probably move on to other blog posts, or better yet, turn the computer off and go out for a walk or something. Still, if you wanted to pause for a moment and graffiti my face I wouldn't be too sad. Just so long as you try to be a bit more imaginative than I've been here, which shouldn't be too hard. After all, I'm sure you can do better than this:

Well... can't you?

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Growing Flowers in the Outer Church

I didn't have time to get into this in my Adam Curtis post, but while Jebni was talking about the narrative possibilities of blogging he also came up with this stunning interpretation of The Filth:
Another way of illustrating the “neveryday” imaginary of blogging is through an allegory: Grant Morrison and Chris Weston’s comic book, The Filth (Morrison and Weston, 2004). Their (anti-)hero is Greg Feely, an ordinary, “sentimental” cat-lover who leads a double life as Ned Slade, a transdimensional agent for the psychic police-cum-waste-disposal agency of the world, known as The Filth....

While he’s battling giant flying spermatozoa or navigating the sewer of the world, Greg/Ned will wonder out loud if he’s forgotten to feed the cat. It is truly touching, and not pathetic. What Morrison’s narrative achieves is the realisation that in the middle of struggles over the fate of life itself, “I Love My Cat” narratives are amongst the best narratives there are. And yet this touchy-feely mundanity of cat-love is neither an authentic origin for Feely, nor just a “fake” but necessary refuge for the “real” Slade, despite its proven worth. As the book progresses, it becomes clearer that the cat scenario is neither the “real” story, nor even just one valid segment amongst several, but one of several occult media dialects: the killer sperm, the cat and the zombie “anti-persons” all enunciate or channel through each other. In the end, we learn that cat-love can be generated by a sentient nanotech infestation, but is still valid.
Jebni then goes on to draw connections between his concept of blogging and the Filthy neverworld known as The Crack, which apparently "runs through everything and everyone." This is pretty fitting really, because both The Filth and the Internet are perfect conduits for the crap that runs through our lives. As two of Greg's superiors (Man Green/Man Yellow) tell him: "The rubbish has to go somewhere. And where there's brass, there's muck, they say, don't they?"

Talking about crap: at one point, I considered relaunching this blog as a static wordpress site. The ideas was to upload a series of interconnected essays which the reader would have to navigate by following embedded links to other pages. I wrote a lot of material for this version of the site before deciding that it was too gimmicky, too hard to navigate and not nearly as flashy as it should be, but I might come back to the idea one day. [1]

Anyway, one of the essays was going to use the idea of The Crack as a jump-off point to discuss the integration of social realism, fantasy, music, pulp fiction and psychology in Dennis Potter's work. I was going to focus on Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective, with a particular emphasis on the way that Potter's disregard for realist unity allowed him to examine the best and worst aspects of his protagonists freely.

This sounds a little dry in the abstract, and maybe it would have been. But hey, at least when I was talking about how the Crack obliterates the distinctions between rage and embarrassment/escape and collapse/fact and fiction/body and mind, I could have shown you clips like this to liven things up:

That's Michael Gambon in the original BBC production of The Singing Detective -- none of that Mel Gibson pish for me thanks!

(And don't you just hate it when waiters offer you Gibson Pish in a restaurant? "Does sir wish any Gibson Pish with his scampi?" And they're always so snooty when you turn it down! [3])

As it was conceived, my wordpress blog would've fitted in nicely with Jebni's interpretation of The Crack. It would've been a place where my various different interests could have channeled through each other, but it would also have been a bit too "about" itself for my liking. And while I'm still fascinated by the many metaphorical possibilities of The Crack, I'm more interested in The Ink right now. Greg Feely learns about The Ink in issue #9 of The Filth, in which he's put through what amounts to a delayed induction day for his "job" as Ned Slade. True to form, this induction is not only eight months late but it also serves to make things even less clear than they were before. For example, while he's getting sailed around The Crack, Greg is introduced to the giant pen hand from which all of The Filth flows:

"The Ink brings things to life, you see," we're told, which is obviously true since without the lines on the page there'd be no comic!

We also lean that The Hand harvest The Ink for their own purposes, which echoes the Paperverse plot from issue #3 nicely, but there's more to The Ink than raw power. It's the stuff of life itself, remember, and in its own way it's as unfathomable as anything else in The Crack.

You see, as Greg's colleagues struggle to explain, there's a horrible ambiguity as to what the hand actually is:


Ah, there's the important bit: "AW WE KERR ABOOT'S THE INK." That's all I care about too, though possibly in a different way. Because while I'm all about theorising and criticising and trying to combine different kinds of discourse, all of that is meaningless unless it's an attempt to get at the un-gettable - which is to say the slippery substance of all this fiction. The raw stuff. The Ink. [5]

Like Andrew Hickey recently suggested, we might not be able to hold a complete working map of the universe in our heads, but there are many ways to bring elements of the big picture into focus. For example, the crude interactive technology of the modern comic book can make life very vivid if it's used correctly, as it is in The Filth. Many Most of the things that we see in The Crack are horrible, of course, but still -- The Filth is not, in the final analysis, a depressing book. In fact, it's almost sweet in its own way.

I think that this is possible precisely because The Filth doesn't hold back in its exploration of the more horrible side of the human psyche. Looking over the pages of the comic right now, I'm reminded of scenes from an earlier Morrison/Weston collaboration, The Invisibles:

There was always something slightly off about Weston's art on The Invisibles, a sense that his versions of the characters were less naturally stylish than usual. This is used to good effect in the scene I've excerpted above, in which two of our usually glamorous heroes end up coming into contact with the banal horrors in their heads. Here the lumpy everymanish quality that had previously been jarring serves to emphasise the despair that the characters find in the idea of being normal.

The shorthand used in these scenes functional if a bit obvious. Reading these pages, we understand that our protagonists (particularly vain super-assassin King Mob) can find hell in the idea of staring dependently at a TV screen that watches back. We might find this to be a dull and superficial concept of hell, but we can take this as a being a piece of snippy characterisation of King Mob if we want. The only real problem is that the imagery Morrison and Weston use in this scene is a little underdeveloped -- you can see the influence of William Burroughs and David Cronenberg in the fleshy lampshades and cyclopean bugs that populate these fantasies, but when compared to the putrid horror of those artists at their best the images we see here seem a little bit tame. [6]

When Morrison and Weston worked together again on The Filth, they easily surpass their previous attempts at horror. In addition to hiding this creepy little observer in Feely's TV...

...they also plant ears in the walls of his house, effectively turning Feely's home into an inverted skull:

Not only does that TV monster look far more convincing than anything in that Invisibles scene (it's the little scrotal brain sacks that take it over the edge, I think), it's also got a better context. By literally giving the house eyes and ears, Morrison and Weston neatly blur the different interpretations of Feely's situation. Is he being observed by his bosses at The Crack or is he just a lump of sick flesh trying to work itself out, like Michael Gambon's character in The Singing Detective?

And... oh god, I've got to be careful or I'm going to end up flapping around in circles about how attention to context and attention to detail go together like chips and cheese, but this really is a perfect example of The Crack serving as a perfect place for The Ink to flow. Greg Feely is sort of like King Mob from The Invisibles gone to seed. Feely's life would seem like a cruel punishment to King Mob, but while Greg never exactly shakes off this feeling himself, he does at least achieve a sort of battered understanding of his existence by facing up to all of its contradictions. It might all just be in his head, but even if its not then Greg's double life see's him escape from mundane "reality" into... a job. A horrible job, in which he has to deal with all the piss and shit and brutality in the world while wearing a goofy uniform, which... really, kind of escape is that? What kind of understanding could anyone find here? Well, how about the understanding of how to go on living in a world this horrific and confused? Wouldn't that be worth something?

In my last essay on The Filth I talked about how Greg ends up lashing out against his role as a Hand Officer, but I was a little shy about discussing what comes next. That's because "what comes next" is at the heart of this essay series, and it's so absurdly goofy that I don't know if I can explain it without making a dick of myself. [7] "What comes next" is realising that, like Jebni says, sometimes "I Love My Cat" narratives are the best narratives. [8] What does this mean? It means facing up to all the shit in the world, acknowledging it for what it is, and realising that if you can find it in yourself to care about something then there might be some hope after all. Like I said, this sounds stupid and soppy and banal, and that's because it is all of these things, but that's not all it is. It's a form of genuine love and appreciation, born out of the realisation that everything and everyone around you is part of the same stupid toxicoloured mess of a story -- that it's all Ink, basically!

In its own crude way, this beleaguered revelation reminds me of the incandescent poetry that Alan Moore throws out in Snakes and Ladders:
We are insensate molecules, assembled from the accidental code engraved upon our genes. Mud that sat up.

Chemicals mingle in our sediment and in their interactions and combustions we suppose we feel, suppose we love. We reproduce, mathematically predictable as spores within a petri dish. We function briefly, then subside once more to the unknowing silt.

We are a blind contingency, an unimportant restlessness of dirt and yet Rosseti paints his dead Elizabeth, head tilted back on her impossibly slim throat, eyes closed against the golden light surrounding her.

Clay looks on clay, and understands that it is beautiful.

Through us, the cosmos gazes on itself, adores itself, breaks its own heart.

Through us, matter stares slack-jawed at its own star-dusted countenance and knows, incredulously, that it knows. And knows that it is universe. [9]
In both Snakes and Ladders and The Filth, hope and self-awareness are linked, with the idea being that only by recognising the full horror of our situation are we able to work to change it. [10] This is what I meant when I said (almost 1,000 words ago now, jesus!) that The Filth is actually pretty sweet. After thirteen issues full of violence, broken dreams and grotty pornographic horror, Morrison and Weston still manages to find hope in the form of one man's love for his cat. The Invisibles found a similar value in all of our Inky little lives at the end, but The Filth manages to find hope in the life of a sad, lonely working man, which makes it kick harder for me. Possibly because I feel like a lumpy Chris Weston character called David Allison instead of the Philip Bond caricature that was bigsunnyd.

Thinking back to Snakes and Ladders for a minute, I'm drawn to the image of an Imperial Crown tumbling off George the Fifth's coffin and into the soot and spit of the street. In Alan Moore's hands, this becomes a symbol of the unification of the sacred and the profane, an indication that where there's shit there's spirit. The Filth makes this thought even more forcefully because it's far happier being part of the endless detritus of our culture. There's no real treasure here, no gold crosses mixed in with the muck, just dirty brass ones that can be polished off to reveal a faint gleam, a little light to help you find your way home:

And yes, I do consider that to be a strong enough thought to end a gazillion word essay series on!

Thanks for reading everyone.



And now the Endnotes:

[1] And if you're wondering what kind of shit I came up with for that abandoned website idea, here's one of the pages in its entirety:

Fantastically Damaged: Mickey Rourke as Man-Made God

Don’t delude yourself, and don’t believe the hype - Darren Aronofsky is a manipulative motherfucker.

He’s never been deep. In fact, like Jarvis Cocker, he’s almost profoundly shallow. Whether he's making a movie about drug addiction, advanced mathematics, wrestling or mortality, Aronofsky's focus is always on that cut, that shot, that piece of music. What's more, on the strength of The Wrestler, this definitely isn’t a bad thing.

A lot of the early press chatter around the film homed in on its supposed naturalism, with the subtext being that it was more mature than his previous hyper-orchestrated works, because it was less fussy/more manful/more real.

Which is bollocks, of course, as Aronofsky the filmmaker must surely have known, even if Aronofsky the interview subject towed the party line. [2]
The realism of The Wrestler is Oscar realism, but Aronofsky dispatches with the tragic back-story of Randy the Ram with brutal efficiency. It’s all there – the broken marriage, the non-existent relationship with his only child, the mundane day-job in a supermarket – and it’s all treated very seriously, but Aronofsky knows that this isn’t the show. It’s just a framing device, something to get you interested in that body, that performance, that face:

Who’s the good guy? Who’s the villain?

Who cares!

As soon as you’ve started to consider these questions, you’ve opened yourself up to the spectacle. And as soon as you’ve started to watch the spectacle, you can’t help but notice that body, struggling to keep the illusion alive.
And hey, some of that hyped-up orchestration is still evident! You can see it in those extended shots where the camera follows Randy from behind as he walks into the arena/the supermarket (DO YOU SEE?!). You can also see it in the way Aronofsky works the comparison between Randy and his love interest, Cassidy. She's a stripper (DO YOU SEE?!) who's struggling to keep up with the younger girls, and so she serves as both a cracked mirror for Randy and as a possible escape route -- she's there at the sidelines of his big match during the climax of the movie, but by the time she arrives he's already surrendered himself to the fantasy.Cassidy's role is slightly offensive in the standard Hollywood way, but Aronofsky's direction and Marissa Tomei's performance make this obvious manipulation work for the movie rather than against it. Here Aronofsky's focus is on his body, her body, their bodies and the mess of their lives. He shows us self-made goddesses and gods, but in doing so he can't help but show us how much damage has been done to these deities, both by the characters they've created and by the audiences these fictions attract.

The moment where Randy cries about being a "broken down piece of meat" is pure sentimental trash, but it gets to you all the same, because that mass of ragged flesh is on display. You can't ignore the meat on Randy's bones -- it's horrible, and it's magnificent, and it could break you down. What's more, looking at it for too long could break your heart.

This is manipulation that, by virtue of its sheer force, makes us question what we're being manipulated into watching, and why.

Still, if this connection -- this genuine empathy born out of showy physicality -- isn't enough to create a happy ending between Randy and Cassidy, then what does that say to the audience?

You've watched them bleed, you've found yourself moved by this, but in the end you're still just a spectator, still just part of the audience, never part of the show.
I'm just trying to give you some idea of what it's going to be like to be me as I finally go public and change the destiny of humankind forever. I'm going to expose your secret conspiracies in the name of freedom. And when I'm done, I'll step up to the microphone and say "you too can be like me: Max Thunderstone -- Man-Made God." And they'll all cheer like children, you watch...

(Max Thunderstone in The Filth #10, 'Man-Made God')

[2] On reflection, I'm actually being slightly unfair to Darren Aronofsky here. In this Slashfilm interview he makes several intelligent distinctions between the attempts at objectivity in The Wrestler and the wholehearted subjectivity his previous works. In fact, I like his comments so much that I'll quote them at length here:
I think the first two films were exercises in subjective filmmaking and pushing that to the extreme, trying to figure out every possible technique to put an audience member into the characters’ heads. Pi was constructed that way because I had a limited budget and that became kind of the strategy of how to turn that limited budget into a strength. It was to really cut back on cutting away to the bad guys and really making a whole visual language that was all about pushing the audience into Max Cohen’s head. Requiem, a big reason that I was attracted to it is when I read the novel, I realized that Selby’s a very subjective writer and constantly going into fantasy and to dream. It would allow me to kind of expand on the thing I was doing in Pi, but with a bigger budget and color and with more time and with four characters. So when I read that opening scene of the novel and I saw the mom locked in the closet and the kid stealing the TV, I instantly had this idea of a split screen sort of showing the audience, “Oh, we’re going to see two very personal stories here from two different perspectives.” Then eventually it opened up into four perspectives. They were really exercises and really pushing subjective filmmaking. When I got to The Fountain, it was kind of a transition. I was definitely done with that as an exploration and also the subject matter of The Fountain was much more– It was a romance and it allowed me to move more towards the objective, although I still kind of played a little bit with getting into Tommy’s head and into his reality. It was kind of a transition and kind of expanding my style, I guess. I think getting to The Wrestler was really just going in the completely opposite direction. Basically, the film is 98 percent objective. It’s like a documentary. I call it proactive documentary, because I think in a real documentary everything is reactive. If you’re watching Cops and a guy runs away and then a second later the camera chases after the guy and goes after him, we didn’t have that second delay. We kind of knew what the scene was about and we knew where Mickey or Marisa was going to go. So we were able to choreograph that. We kind of had this proactive style where we were working with the actor to give a documentary feeling, allow realism to happen, but we were ready for it. There’s no really internal sound stuff, except for maybe two or three times I used it, which was like during the heart attacks and when he’s walking to the deli counter and the crowd comes up. Otherwise, besides that, there’s never a personal sound beat. I kind of really didn’t want to do that, but I couldn’t resist. It’s actually a little weak. People responded to those moments, I think.
Of course, this "proactive documentary" style is still a style, but I think Aronofsky is aware of that. Besides, if I start to quibble on this point any further I might as well just reprint Roland Barthes' Writing Degree Zero, right?

[3] No, I have no idea what I'm talking about here either. Here's a wee Mitchell and Webb sketch about a snooty waiter to justify the digression:

[4] Of course issue #12 of The Filth makes it pretty obvious that the hand is Greg's own, but by the time the series has wrapped up Grant Morrison has been sure to render that reading as unlikely as any other, bless him.

[5] I'm reminded here of David Fiore's claim that:
"Life" is an uninhabitable planet. Narrative is artificial atmosphere that enables us to walk upon its surface. That's why Grant Morrison's concept of the "fiction suit" (from The Filth) is so apt.
Which sounds dead on to me. The only problem is that sometimes expeditions out into the farther reaches of the planet "Life" can scramble your perceptions. Sometimes it feels like the closer you get to your intended destination, the further away from it you seem to be. That's what happens to Greg Feely throughout The Filth, which is probably why some readers find it hard to get to grips with.

Issue #9, 'Inside The Hand', is probably the best example of this. If The Filth is Chris Weston's masterpiece (and I think it is!), then the four page sequence in which Feely meets Man Green/Man Yellow is a mini-masterpiece within the bigger one.

While Feely is being grilled by his superiors the art shifts into a dazed Gilbert & George pastiche. Weston's linework, normally expressive of crude biology, is boxed in by stark, repetitive abstraction. Instead of the usual abundant absurdities, we're left a battered close-up of Feely's face, which has been drained of colour and walled in by disinterested faces of his employers:

Being typical members of the management class, Man Green/Man Yellow explain Greg's role in short, cryptic sentences which always seem to arrive in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is as close as Greg gets to a simple explanation of what his purpose is, and he's still left with his brow furrowed and his questions unanswered:

Since you're currently reading this essay, I'm sure you've got some idea of how Greg feels. The closer I get to The Filth, the further away from it my thoughts go. All I want to do is write about The Ink, about the lines on the page and what they do to me, but I can't. As soon as I start typing my mind wanders to Dennis Potter plays and Darren Aronofsky movies.

Despite my earlier protestations to the contrary, every line of this essay is about itself and nothing else. Every paragraph is a textual representation of my bright green/bright yellow face; I keep straining to match the expressive ruffles of Greg Feely's face, but I keep falling short. Still, I'll try again and fail better, and if I'm lucky maybe I'll come up with something that's almost as expressive as the pages I've sampled above.

[6] In fairness, there aren't many people who can beat Cronenberg and Burroughs at their own game. And if you disagree, hey, don't argue with me! Argue with these guys:

[7] Thankfully the creators of The Filth were less scared of making dicks out of themselves than I am. Jebni wasn't lying about the sentient nano-tech cat love that's being spread about at the end of the series -- that shit really happens in the comic!

And you know what? I'm glad that it does. It's a perfect use of the biological motifs that have run through the whole series. If, in the world of The Filth, everything repeats from the macro scale down to the micro ("As above, so below" and all that shit), then surely it can work the other way? If we're all part of the same cross-contaminating gunk, why can't positive narratives spread out from the smallest scale to the largest?

[8] Cat haters of the world, relax, I've got your backs too! Or at least, Adam Roberts does. Just check out this quote, from his review of Charles Stross' Accelerando:
Now it may be that Stross is a cat-lover; that many of his readers will be cat-lovers; and that they will coo over this fictional cat and indulge Stross in his conceit. It so happens that I am not a cat-lover. It happens to be the case that, in addition to suffering allergic asthma when exposed to the foul polluting fur of these quadruped Nazis purrers, I find it morally inconceivable that any human could waste their affection on a creature that takes such delight in torture and selfishness -- that it takes a self-deluding anthropomorphisation and a soppy moral indolence to afford these parasites space in a person's heart.
Ouch! I'm a pet person myself, but that's some harsh, funny shit! (Link via David Golding.)

[9] If you haven't read Eddie Campbell's comic book adaptation of Snakes and Ladders I'd recommend you do so as soon as possible, because it's an absolute treasure of a comic! Go buy A Disease of Language, which collects it along with another Moore/Campbell collaboration, The Birth Caul and all sorts of other goodies. These two performance pieces turned art comics compliment each other nicelt -- The Birth Caul is a thorough deconstruction of human language and perception, while Snakes and Ladders takes human cruelty and suffering as its starting place, and proceeds to literally shoot for the moon. Moore's words are mighty, as is to be expected, and Campbell matches him at every turn. He provides lived-in textures to the various scenes conjoured in The Birth Caul, and in Snakes and Ladders he comes up with page after page of beautifully startling visuals, which... actually, you know what? Forget matching Moore, I think Campbell actually beats him on his own turf in that comic!

[10] It should be noted that seeking to strip people of their own delusions is pretty much always a dick move, since delusions and fantasies are all part of the shit we breath. It's sometimes necessary, but it's almost never going to be painless, as Greg Feely discovers when he reveals LaPen's "true" nature in issue #13:

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Knowing How the World Works/Is Not Knowing How to Work the World!

Oooh, my last post went a bit wonky in the middle didn't it? I really like the piece as a whole, and both Sean Wizke and Andrew Hickey have linked to it, but... yeah, I think I've just proved that insomnia and clarity are not friends!

I've re-written a handful of horrible sentences and taken out a few others that were simply too wretched to salvage. I think it reads much better now, but if anyone thinks I've committed an act of hideous violence please let me know and I'll put some of those clunkers back in.

Also: you should all read Andrew's latest/final entry in his Hyperpost series if you haven't already. In fact, you should read the whole damned thing from start to end, even if you have read it before! These posts are a beautiful tangle of physics, liberal politics and metafictional musings, and taken as a whole they form a playfully knotty protest against the idea of canonical storytelling. Which, really, how often do you get to read or type a sentence like that? Not often enough, I would guess, unless your life is far weirder than mine. And if is then, hey -- well done you!

Some of Andrew's closing sentiments echo the themes of my Adam Curtis post rather nicely:
The craving for order, for simplicity, to get everything in little boxes, is a very, very, very dangerous one, because sometimes – often – the things you want to put in those little boxes are people, and then you have to cut parts off them to fit, and saying sorry afterward doesn’t really help…

I’m not saying that retconning away Superman’s time as Superboy, or not counting both versions of Shada, are motivated by fascism – that would be a reductio ad absurdem of my argument. What I *AM* saying is that the world itself is a miraculous, complex, multiplex place, and none of us little monkeys really have a clue how it really works. We should expect nothing less from the stories we tell each other – be they stories about Superman, or stories about how the economy responds to an increase in lending to the banks.

Of course, the big difference here is that Andrew can just say this stuff instead of doing a stupidly elaborate dance around it, but that's just how I work so fuck it!

In the comments to one of Andrew's Hyperposts I indicated that I might write about "the difference between The Invisibles as an interactive experience (The Bomb, the Barbelith site, the lettercols, etc) and 52/Mozbats RIP/Final Crisis as an interactive experience (the blog chatter, the Dibny diaries, the Remixes, etc)."

I started writing an essay on this topic, but I don't think I'll finish it because it was coming out dumb. You see, it looked like I was going to start making some snippy comments about how Grant Morrison used to try to change the way we think about the world, but now he just tries to change the way we think about the DC Comics Universe. Which is total bullshit, really -- just look at all the thoughtful writing Morrison's work still generates, from Andrew's posts to the Mindless Ones' annocomentations to David Fiore on Seaguy for proof!

Beyond that, look at how much good writing there is on this little corner of the Internet! Honestly, I know that there are some unforgivably stupid stories on the web -- one glance at any random YouTube comment is enough to prove this, should you need it reconfirmed -- but the good stuff almost makes up for it. Almost! And hey, you can (and should!) shout the idiots down if something important's at stake, or you can turn their stupidity into a joke if you prefer, but it's important to keep all of this in perspective. There are other, better stories out there, and it's crazy easy to find them these days.

And hey, if you read this blog, I'd just like to take the time to say thanks. I don't think I've got many readers, but the ones I do have are worryingly smart, and I'm glad that they want to make me a part of their stories, however small.

Coming soon -- more Filth!

Take care out there.


Sunday, 13 September 2009

What's Inside Adam Curtis' Blue Box?

A two part reaction to Adam Curtis' new documentary It Felt Like a Kiss, by way of the Blue Box from David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.

Part 1: Preliminary Results

Adam Curtis: Where people do set out to have conspiracies, they don’t ever end up like they're supposed to. History is a series of unintended consequences resulting from confused actions, some of which are committed by people who may think they're taking part in a conspiracy, but it never works out the way they intended. For example, you could say the Gulf of Tonkin was a conspiratorial action to accelerate entry into war, yes?

Errol Morris: Here’s the conspiracy argument. The Johnson administration wanted to escalate the war in Vietnam. But they needed a pretext. And so they provoked these two incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin in order to get Congressional approval for escalation. The claim is: they had a grand plan. And the plan was war. I’ve never had much of an appetite for conspiracy theories. Here's my argument in a nutshell. People are too much at cross purposes with each other, too stupid, too self absorbed to ever effectively conspire to do anything.

Adam Curtis: “Just too self-absorbed” is the key element. To make a conspiracy work, you have to see it from all different angles to make sure the plan works. They don’t. Every time you ever read transcripts or detailed descriptions of what goes on at high level policy decisions - I'm sure it’s true of the Kennedy administration, I'm sure it’s true today in the Bush administration - The arguments, the self-absorption, the disagreements and the narcissism are incredible. And I'm sure the Gulf of Tonkin thing probably emerged as a compromise between lots of different people arguing as much as from a single, clear principle.

('Adam Curtis talks with Errol Morris' - link via Tom Ewing.)

Adam Curtis: I'm very suspicious of this idea of a balanced version of history, All history is a construction – often by the powerful. What I do is construct an imaginative interpretation of history to make people look again at what they think they know. I like to ask people, “Have you thought of this?” Like zooming up in a helicopter and looking at the ground, looking at the world in a new way. Because I think that so much of this interpretation of events is a deadening repetition agreed upon by certain people, a sort of collectivity of news reports. And often it’s completely wrong. But somehow, they all agree on it. People criticized my film by saying things like, “Why aren’t you balanced? What aren’t you putting in the other views?” And my response was, “What if the other view is wrong?” That’s the real problem of the balanced view - what's called ‘perceived wisdom.’ What if perceived wisdom’s wrong? What if – when you go and look at the evidence for sleeper cells in America – there doesn’t appear to be anything there? You know, that's the difficult area. And so it becomes up to you to judge whether to go against perceived wisdom or not.

('Adam Curtis talks with Errol Morris'.)

I think my jaw dropped permanently during the wordless encounter at the studio between "Betty", Adam, and "pseudo-Camilla", who is auditioning for the role of "love interest". The scene is dominated by crazy Old Hollywood closeups of intense longing and Linda Scott's maudlin/profound bubblegum version of one of my favourite Jerome Kern songs--"I've Told Every Little Star" (why haven't I told you?). But you can't tell the Other how you feel about her/him/it, and you can't even express these feelings very accurately to yourself.
So "opening the box" isn't just "waking from a dream"--it is, literally, death. Whatever's in there cannot even be thought by human beings--despite the fact that getting in there is pretty much all we think about! The way of "optimism" and the way of "despair" intersect at the abyss (although, as Camila notes, the second way is a "short-cut"!), and Lynch's vertiginous transition between narratives at the Utopian moment of expected fulfillment (after Betty and Rita have found the box together) is one of the most incredibly affecting evocations of the Sublime in the history of cinema. Without all of this preparation, the Diane scenes (masturbating, deliberating in the darkness about whether to accept Camilla's purred invitation, the walk from the car to the party, her quiet breakdown at the dinner table, and her suicide: the nightmare counterpart of Betty/Rita's lovemaking--both are the logical climaxes of their respective narratives, and neither succeeds in rescuing the dreamer from the necessity of dreaming!) wouldn't have nearly the impact that they do

(David Fiore's Ultimate Mulholland Drive Round-Up)

The Real of Mulholland Dr is not Diane’s supposedly waking world, but the paradoxically entrancing insomniac realm of Club Silencio (which, in acting as the gateway from the first section of the film to the second is like the ‘cut’ of the moebian band that when sutured together, transforms the two sides of the piece of paper into a single strip). I say ‘paradoxically entrancing’ because the scene is ostensibly demystifying. Yet only ostensibly so; like Magritte’s ‘This Is Not a Pipe’, Club Silencio, reminiscent of the Black/White Lodge in the first and final episodes of Twin Peaks and as intensely charged as anything in Lynch’s oeuvre, demonstrates film – and art’s - irreducible sorcery. Club Silencio’s scenario is thoroughly Potteresque. The entertainment is provided by perfomers who mime onstage to a pre-recorded soundtrack, much in the way that Potter had the characters in The Singing Detective and Pennies From Heaven lip sync to thirties’ pop. Despite the complete ingenuousness of the magician-compere’s words – ‘There is no band. What you will hear are recordings.’- we (the audience) are nevertheless unable to resist the seduction of the spectacle. So when the apparent singer, Rebeka Del Rio, collapses but the music continues, we are shocked. Something in us compels us to treat the performance as if real.

(K-Punk - 'THIS IS (NOT) THE GIRL'.)

In 2004 I coordinated Storybox, a small writing project for young refugees, using blogging as a medium. The Storyboxers experimented with ways to write about listening to dancehall pop star Sean Paul, for example, or growing up dealing with systematic abuse in a refugee camp — both types of experience were “everyday” ones for many of these people. It was a rewarding experiment, which I hope contributed a little to the participants’ capacities for autonomous expression. But when I tried to bypass the affective nature of their involvement in my first attempt to write this paper (which was originally going to be more about design and political theory), I found myself blocked. In the language of “trauma studies”, it was as if I myself faced an impossible task of representation. But following Giorgio Agamben’s insistence that just going along with the “unsayable” character of Auschwitz simply puts it on a pedestal as an object of worship (Agamben 2002: 32), I realised that rather than let my dilemma of representation freeze me in an act of genuflection, I’d have to grapple with what I’d put in the “too-hard basket”. I knew that these experiences weren’t ready to conveniently instrumentalised without a difficult kind of “accounting”— not in a way that attempted closure, but through a fragmentary, allegorical kind labour that makes suggestions.

(Antipopper - 'What's in the Box?')

The most “coherent" reading of Mulholland Drive identifies the narrative up to that point as a desperate fantasy of the mundane Diane, the “real” “Betty”, who has actually murdered her girlfriend Camilla, the “real” “Rita”. It is this violent act of sexual jealousy which apparently lies in the (vaginal?) box of repression, which resurfaces at the moment of confrontation with loss in Club Silencio. Not the most promising connotations for Storybox. But I chose the name partly because of the whiff of trauma. And what if there is another way to approach it? What if the blue box is indeed an allegorical symbol for trauma, but one which operates as a nexus for the different narratives of the film, which do not have to be organised hierarchically in such a boringly classical psychoanalytic scenario because they are actually vocabularies of a neveryday imaginary? What if the shift from Betty and Rita’s story to that of Diane and Camilla is analogous to what happens when NaturallySweet describes life at school in Sydney or under the Taliban as “soooooooooo boring” and “soooooooooo devastating”?

(Antipopper - 'What's in the Box?')

Adam Curtis has gone a bit mad. The insultingly gifted documentary maker behind The Century Of The Self and The Power Of Nightmares seemed rather quiet of late. In fact, since his 2007 BBC2 series The Trap, his only visible pieces of work were two short (and superb) mini-documentaries he created for my BBC4 series Screenwipe and Newswipe. People kept asking me what he was up to. I assumed he was chipping away at some new documentary which would be announced when he was ready.

He's ready now. He's made a new documentary called It Felt Like A Kiss. Except it isn't just a documentary. It's also a piece of interactive theatre, with music composed by Damon Albarn and performed by the Kronos Quartet. And it doesn't take place in a cinema or concert hall, but across five floors of a deserted office block in Manchester.

About now a sizable percentage of you will be thinking "that sounds wanky", and starting to back away. Don't. Because it's also ... well, it's also a funhouse. To be honest, no one really knows what it is. After a struggle, Curtis himself says it's "a psycho-political theme experience in which you become a central character. It's going to be frightening. A walk of enchantment and menace." On the official website, viewers are advised that it's "not suitable for those of a nervous disposition". "Please wear suitable footwear," it adds, ominously.

(Charlie Brooker on Adam Curtis' new documentary experience.)

Part 2: Myth or Anti-Myth?

I didn’t make it down to Manchester in time to immerse myself in Adam Curtis’ It Felt Like a Kiss, so like most of you, I’ve only got the documentary to go on.

This is a shame, because even the negative reviews of the full theatrical experience can’t help but make it sound terrifyingly brilliant:
But there was too much of the smell of conspiracy in the air, splicing together patterns of meaning with a simplistic political intent. When our descent of the five floors began the enterprise descended into melodrama with heavy-handed references to Hidden Persuaders who, having failed to sell us dreams, are now offering us nightmares from which only they can now rescue us: Pick up the phone, Don't press the red button, Take the pill, Pick up the gun, Start the chain saw.

It was like being trapped inside the set of the Sixties cult show The Prisoner with surplus fake blood supplied by Hammer Horror.
Readers, I have to confess -- I've often wanted to visit the set of The Prisoner! Which is odd, given the nature of that series, but then again this blurring of dreamlike promise and real horror is part of the substance of It Felt Like a Kiss.

It's easy to dismiss Curtis' work as having a conspiracy theory-ish vibe, because he tends to chase one idea through recent history with bloody minded determination. This concern is normally alleviated by the dryly cutting humour of Curtis' narration, which serves to remind us that we are watching a man (de)constructing history. Curtis' voice provokes laughter and invites argument, and the effect its absence has on the way It Felt Like a Kiss plays cannot be underestimated.

Stripped of voice over, It Felt Like a Kiss makes its argument using Curtis' other tools, a mix of endlessly enchanting pop music, collaged footage from the BBC news archive and bold textual statements:

It's these statements, as clear to the eye as they are in their implications, that make this feel like a conspiratorial work. In as much as it has a clear argument, It Felt Like a Kiss is an examination of the story that America tried to tell about itself in 20th Century. Naturally, Curtis includes military coups and barbaric shock treatments as part of this vision, but as his narrative charges towards September 11th 2001 and the current financial crisis it becomes obvious that he isn't going to spend too much time elaborating on the links he makes. Scenes of real life terror and fabricated wonder blend into each other, becoming one with the words that flit across the screen. This effect reaches its delirious peak in the section that deals with the movie that was made about Saddam Hussein's time as a CIA agent -- this passage plays like the brilliant dream of a madman, but its logic is irresistible and its poetry hard to deny.

Curtis layers fragmented connections upon fragmented connections, which makes
It Felt Like a Kiss seem both more and less open to argument than Curtis' other works. Less open to argument because words, sounds and pictures achieve a purity of composition here that matches that of a great pop song, or perhaps even a great advert. More open to argument because, well, who takes a pop song or advert at face value?

And so, tempting as it is to treat this beautiful film like a transmission from beyond, you can't help but find yourself thinking "Is that really all there is to the story of Brian Wilson, or 'River Deep Mountain High', or Saddam?" Where works like The Century of the Self or The Trap slowly and methodically deconstruct social theories, It Felt Like a Kiss is more like a dream on the verge of becoming a nightmare.

I keep mentioning dreams here, but that's only because It Felt Like a Kiss makes its status as a dreamscape obvious from the beginning. The movie starts with a series of clean white lines on black background. The movie starts with these words:
When a nation is powerful it tells the world confident stories about its future.

The stories can be enchanting or frightening but they make sense of the world.

But when that power begins to ebb the stories fall apart and all that is left are fragments which haunt you like a half-forgotten dream.
Like I said above, It Felt Like a Kiss plays out the moment where the dream starts to forget itself, where doubt has crept in but the sense of wonder has yet to fade. It foregrounds the rhetorical power of Curtis' collaged film fragments, which condemn the senselessness of our stories while being far too inviting in their own right. You might find yourself thinking that Curtis is overselling his own narrative here, but to do so is to accept the basic argument of the piece: that all of our explanations are mostly inadequate as either blueprints or records. This is why you can't really accuse Curtis of being a conspiracy theorist -- his recent work has been staunchly anti-mythological, and It Felt Like a Kiss is no exception. It demolishes certainty, but it's too weirdly emotional to salt the ground in the process, at least not if the rapidly flowering thoughts it left in my brain are anything to go by.

This is why I can't help of thinking of Mulholland Drive when I think about It Felt Like a Kiss. As the various clever bastards I quoted at the start of this post indicate, the Blue Box at the heart of Mulholland Drive exists as more than a route from dream to reality. For me, it's the point where conflicting stories and modes of interpretation bleed into each other, the disorientating heart of a disorientated movie. Watching It Felt Like a Kiss I feel like I'm just about to slip into the Blue Box, or at least I feel like I'm staring into the box and watching conflicting stories blur out into strange new shapes. I can see Doris Day and Saddam Hussein waiting inside, and I don't know what sort of room I'm supposed to find this box in (maybe I will if the full production goes to London), and I don't know what to do next but I can't stop staring.

What's inside the box? Maybe, like David Fiore suggests, it's something far too huge for the human mind to understand, something too big for any one narrative to contain. Maybe it's too much for us to question and contextualise all the stories we hear without succumbing to nihilism, but as always I can't help but feel that it's worth a try.