Batman vs Superman vs Everyone

Alright let’s get this over with. The world doesn’t need another article about superhero movies, they make enough money and don’t need defending by lone gunmen like me. HOWEVER Batman vs Superman has come under so much fire I feel like I need to say something. Because I like it. I like it a lot. Yes, I’m a DC kid, always have been, so I am biased but I never went in for the tribalism. I love Marvel and think the films are great too and they’re certainly “winning” (if this were a battle, which it isn’t). The reason I wanted to write this is because with the DVD release of BvsS the vitriol tap has been reopened and I get a little annoyed at the rhetoric that implies I shouldn’t like this film as a sane person: it’s garbage and if you like it you’re stupid, seems to be the overall line which really annoys me because I, without irony or concerted effort nor turning a blind-eye, really like Batman vs Superman.

Why?

Well let’s deal with the problems first. Most of the dislike is a matter of opinion. People do not care for the sombre, serious, murky world Man of Steel and BvsS inhabit. Marvel by contrast is bright, wry, wisecracking and fun. What warner bros are doing is quite sensible, don’t try and beat Marvel at their own game, they’ll lose. As such, the DC film universe is entirely different. My argument would be if this came out 10 years ago people would have lost their shit over it but whatever, no point ‘what-iffing’. BvsS was roundly lambasted by critics and fans, therefore there must be problems with it and there are, or rather there is. One main problem. The script.

Like every hollywood blockbuster these days, to justify the ticket price and get the most bums on seats you have to have a long film that has a universal appeal to adults and younger audiences, for lighter tone movies this is easy (Marvel strikes this balance exceptionally well) but a ‘darker’ movie will struggle. In short the script is too long, bloated and way too convoluted to be generally entertaining and despite the run time too little time is given over to development. The pacing is strong but leaves a lot behind and there are a lot of plot holes. Not to mention the confusing “Martha” plot hinge. Generally its a bit of a mess. You know, just like pretty much every major hollywood blockbuster of the last 10 years. In fact at least the Villain’s plan didn’t rely on getting captured for once like Dark Knight, Avengers, Skyfall, etc etc. Prometheus is a good example of a film destroyed by its script, it could have been great but I hate that film purely because of its script. So yeah there are script issues, lots, but no less or more than any Marvel movie it just came under greater scrutiny and comparison. When you’re up against the biggest movie series of all time and the most critically acclaimed Batman movies you can’t succeed sadly.

Then there’s Jesse Eisenberg’s repeat of his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg as Lex Luthor. I won’t defend it, it’s a bad misstep and doesn’t fit with the tone. And is pretty annoying. BUT his motivations and his plan make as much sense as ANY other film at the moment. But yeah, Lex was a misfire.

So if we ignore my bias and accept the fact the script is droopy and flawed why do I love this film? It boils down to one reason. One word in fact: Imagery.

I know I boil everything back to Poetry but Imagery is a powerful tool in any medium and as I said waaaaay back in my post reappraising Man of Steel the iconography used is deliberate, the same is true here. Gods and Monsters, heaven and hell, Jesus and the Devil, this kind of symbolism is inherent in comic books and superheroes and was deconstructed in the comics very well. BvsS transfers this imagery to the screen, very successfully in my opinion.

I get the impression everyone hates Zack Snyder which means you should give props to Warner Bros for staking the entire series of films on a single auteur. I don’t mind him and like Watchmen a lot too. But, despite protestations, Batman vs Superman is NOT badly made. Badly written? Yes. (But for me no worse than any other blockbuster) but it is not badly made. Want to see badly made? Watch Party Monster. This will seem like Citizen Kane afterwards. Snyder, to my mind, is actually the only true blue comic book filmmaker working today because he uses the imagery and iconography of the comics for his screen interpretations, way more than Marvel does. Freeze frame any part of BvsS and it will be a (admittedly dark and murky) classic comic book panel and that is what makes my goosebumps come up. Bruce running into the cloud, Superman hovering in the air over the woman reaching out, the statue, the dream sequences, the dilapidated Wayne manor, in fact almost any frame of this film is a picture and nearly all of them reference one or many comics: Dark Knight Returns, Year One, For Tomorrow, Death of Superman and many more get visual references and I squeed a little every time. Snyder and Team have deliberately gone in a (literally) more operatic direction. The imagery of Man of Steel was the same, continual Biblical and Greek references including the hints of Darkseid as what looks like a literal devil in BvsS plant the flag pretty heavy in the ‘Serious’ camp. For a stupid superhero film where they beat seven bells out of each other this is clearly problematic and it, understandably, lost a lot of audiences. I was so happy in Man of Steel to see Zod and Supes beat the crap out of each other. If Gods did fight that’s what would happen.

In short BvsS is much more philosophical, and akin to the comics of Frank Miller, Alan Moore, et al, than any other superhero movie – which I loved – but is why I think everyone else hated it. These films are for entertainment and perhaps discussions of theology, senate hearings, heroism as a political act and personal soul searching is a bit much for people who just want a popcorn movie. Saying Batman vs Superman is ‘cerebral’ is silly, but it does ask more questions than any Marvel film does, its just not any questions an audience wants asked. Except me apparently.

This is to say nothing of Batman and Alfred being my absolute favourite screen incarnations of those characters ever. Batfleck and Irons are just EXCELLENT in those parts and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. Gal Gadot kicks all kinds of arse too, her introduction at the end was a delight for me and I look forward to her own film with relish. Also, and I will happily fight for this one, the score is better than ANY score of any blockbuster I’ve seen of late. Zimmer is a notorious thief and false advertiser of a composer but by golly he makes music that is SO memorable and attuned to the scene Marvel should actually be ashamed. It saddens me to hear Hans won’t be doing anymore such films but if it were up to me I would make it a priority to find someone with as sensitive an ear as him to score the rest.

I won’t deny there are problems with Batman vs Superman but I honestly believe it has come in for a lot of unwarranted stick that boils down to expectations and just general opinion. It can’t fight that sadly and whether we like it or not we’re grandfathered in to a million more of these films that frankly even I am sick of now but whatever. I like Cavill, I like Affleck, I like Gadot and I like Snyder. The series needs work if it wants a more favourable response next time but I really hope that doesn’t mean sacrificing all the things I like about this movie.

In short, I’m just asking for some perspective please and to stop making me feel guilty for liking this dumb film instead of your favourite dumb film about dumb superheroes hitting each other. This is all stupid and we’re all taking it too seriously, including the film I’m defending but can’t I just enjoy my favoured bit of idiocy without being made to feel more of an idiot than we ALL are for sponsoring this kind infantile nonsense? You want better films? Stop watching these. Or better still, make your own…

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P.S. If you want a more rounded response to some of the things I like about BvsS this has a lot of it (but is actually too fanboy for my likes, it defends stuff that shouldn’t really be defended and ignores parts that should be pointed out but generally I agree with it) but equally this is a good reference point for a lot of the major issues (though, again, it leans too heavily on some pretty petty stuff and – like most people – really really hates it so kinda skews the supposed objectivity). This was written in response to my buddy Matt Post making a video about why he didn’t like it so basically FUCK YOU MATT! YOU DON’T KNOW SHIT! IMMA CUTS YOU BITCH! (Seriously though he makes a good point, but it is a point I feel can be made about every superhero movie of the last 6 or 7 years).

A League of Their Home

A few months back I watched all three series, the Christmas special and the film of The League of Gentlemen. I remember the first series airing on television because it was endlessly advertised on the Beeb and I thought it looked brilliant. Sadly I wasn’t able to watch it as I was too young at the time, it being on past the watershed and, frankly, it is still terrifying. I was intrigued however and picked it up on repeats when I was a little older and managed to watch the whole 2nd series which was a gem. By the time series 3 rolled around I was a grown up and it blew me away. I have been a firm fan ever since and have followed what the four of them have done since with great pleasure. But what I didn’t notice at the time was their sophisticated subtext.

The League of Gentlemen from their humble beginnings where they payed to hire out a venue as a residency, to winning the Perrier, to the radio show, to television and onwards were very much seated in the Comedy bracket. Specifically the Dark Comedy bracket. This, to my mind, plays down the more extreme edges of the show, in that it is not far fetched to refer to the series as Horror. The Christmas special is a doffing of the cap to the portmanteau horror films of the past and a delight to watch but the series itself deals with the depraved depths of humanity at every turn. Incest, murder, rape, racism, ableism, masturbation, sexism, terrorism, homophobia, amputation, disease, the list is endless of the things that the League of Gentlemen use as a basis for characters and situations to shakily stand their comedy on. I’ve said in the past how Horror should reflect a real worry or fear and the League accomplish that in a very unique way: they use social commentary.

Upon a rewatch of their entire output (minus the radio program, most of which was translated to the TV show anyway) the League’s scattergun approach encompasses every social strata of Royston Vasey from the cleaner in a council estate with 12 kids and the unemployed restart office, through the middle class suburbia of John Lewis shoppers and management retreats, to the mayor himself, doctors, mob bosses and more. The pitch black comedy they derive from each character is founded in their social position: Stella & Charlie in their council estate house make barbed comments at one another while one goes to the arcades and gambles while the other takes up line dancing and is stifled in his attraction to another man. Pauline mocks the unemployed men (they’re all men) in her restart class everyday, lording her superiority over them and physically assaulting them. Doctor Chinnery, flop haired and well spoken, attends to rich over-fed pets, farmyard animals, Kes-styled birds to be released and more besides. The town itself hopes to benefit from the “New Road” being built to increase business and tourism too. A cruel doctor manipulates a group of patients into a bizarre games evening as a form of Private Healthcare. At all turns the League pursue their own brand of macabre whilst simultaneously confronting us with the horror of our own class system. It is uniquely British in that sense. The sort of class divide Britain endures is singular to our little island and is only getting worse. There were many moments that have lost their humour due to their closeness to reality in recent years. For me it is the characters of Mrs Levinson and Iris that seemingly  epitomise this.

Iris lives in atrocious living conditions in a forgotten council estate with her brood of 12 children and is cleaner for the well-to-do Mrs Levinson. When ever they meet, at the supermarket, at their homes, they spar, Mrs L lording her wealth courtesy of the unseen Mr Levinson over Iris, while Iris  wearyingly accepts these condescensions as she too explains the life of abandon and sexual ecstasy she enjoys at home. To me this is the most explicit example of the League’s intent to display the disparity in class we have here in the UK, both live equally squalid lives but both equally live lives of pleasure whereas they do their best to hide one half behind the other. The final ‘punchline’ of their relationship is not only hilarious but unpleasantly sharp.

By the third series they had dispensed with the incongruous laugh track and trimmed the episodes back to focus on individual arcs. Each episode, instead of dealing with sketches, now dealt with three stories of three separate characters. Each episode however was connected by a vehicle crash at the end of each episode where the main character of each episode found themselves. It is a tour de force of performance, direction and, most importantly, writing. It bowled me over afresh upon rewatch and it still amazes me as to why it is not better remembered. Admittedly the tone is dark and subject matters tough, but there has never been anything like it on television before or since. It beats most dramas hands down for sheer weight but equally has more actual laughs per episode than any episode of My Family et al.

The film is something to behold too. Whilst it never quite hangs together as a sustained narrative for me, it’s ambition and ideas are second to none. It is the logical conclusion of such a wild and varied and mad television series. Since then the four of them have split to create such equal delights as Funland, Doctor Who, Sherlock, Psychoville, Inside No.9 and more but for me the League is yet to be surpassed. In the same way as Python lampooned the strata of British class with pure silliness the League do so with the tropes and standards of the Horror genre. With that as a template they weave humour, pathos, suspense and even a little hope into the stories and lives of the people we see all around us every day.

On my way to work I walk past a Hotel. It is white walled and wide. I think it tries to look like a Greek house in some way. It is only two floors and every evening I can see into the bar and entrance lobby. They are always empty at whatever time I pass. Signs occasionally hang outside advertising a 70s or Disco night. It is opposite a railway station and on the main road from London. But it is the car park at the front that draws my attention. Everyday, in front of this grotty little Hotel, there are variety of cars. Little european hatchbacks and swish modern audis, run down old bangers to rag top Jaguars, groaning scuffed Transits to blacked out Bentleys and four wheeled drives next to a Chopper and at the back sits a tiny red Ford that has never moved and is covered in a layer of green filth showered from the tree that overhangs it. I have resisted the temptation to look up its website or online presence, its physical presence is enough to instil curiosity. I have no idea who uses this Hotel. Commuters? Wealthy businessmen? Labourers on a late or early morning job? Adulterers? People soliciting sex? The unassuming, rather ugly facade could suggest all these things or none. Is it simply a Fawlty Towers-esque seaside B&B where The Major and the little old ladies enjoy their twilight years along with travelling guests? I have no idea but I often think it would be an ideal situation for a story as it seems, from the outside at least, a microcosm of British society. In the same way that little northern town of Royston Vasey tell us all the horrors inherent in our class struggle behind every closed door. And that is something sorely lacking in modern popular British culture: commentary. After all, you’ll never leave…

Spectre at the Feast

Ambrose Bierce wrote a short story printed on Christmas Day in 1886 called ‘An Inhabitant of Carcosa’. It’s a creepy story told in first person mainly about death and the afterlife. In 1895 Robert Chambers published a collection of short horror stories under the title ‘The King in Yellow’. The name is taken from a fictional play that drives anyone who reads it mad that is mentioned in most of the stories and serves as a connecting tissue for the whole collection. Quotes from the play introduce certain stories, one of them containing the line “But stranger still is Lost Carcosa”. Carcosa is mentioned in many of the stories too. Chambers made no secret of his homage to Bierce  and the stories from ‘The King in Yellow’ themselves share a similar dark atmosphere to ‘An Inhabitant of Carcosa’. Some years later in 1926 a writer called HP Lovecraft began having stories published, now dubbed the Cthulu Mythos, concerning themselves with a genre he termed ‘cosmological horror’, the notion that the vast universe contained horrors we could not comprehend and how insignificant we were in the face of them. Lovecraft equally payed homage to Bierce and Chambers using similar techniques as theirs in his shorts: first person and unreliable narrators, dark and pervasive atmosphere, a book – the infamous Necronomicon – that reappears in many stories and many other themes, styles and settings that they used. Many writers have added to the intertextual horror of the Cthulu Mythos over the years but it seems there has been a rather pointed resurgence in popular culture in the last two years.

My interest was first piqued when I was watching the first series of True Detective, which remains an absolute favourite, and the murderer and his accomplices talk explicitly about Lost Carcosa, the Yellow King, and talk at length about theoretical physics and humanity’s entirely redundant place in the universe and at a key moment a character demands Rust “take off your mask” which is a direct quote from the King in Yellow. This is more of a subtext in the inferior second series but still there in many ways. This added a deep and dark extra layer to something that was already pretty grim. Then there was a computer game released for the latest console generation entitled Bloodborne. Bloodborne is, in its entirety, a fond doffing of the hat to Lovecraft with its sanity meter, Shoggoth-type monsters, dream-like horrors and continual references to the Great Old ones and cities beyond the stars (how Carcosa is often described), all set in the Gothic Victoriana of a fictional city populated by werewolves and madmen. These are two very popular, very well-known pieces of cultural ephemera making explicit references to little known horror stories over a century old.

This weekend I went to see a play at the Royal Exchange in Manchester called ‘Pomona’. It is named after the bizarre and empty island between the canals in the centre of Manchester. It’s poster features someone wearing a Cthulu mask. The play itself is set in a maybe-future-maybe-now Manchester where girls are disappearing and the lives that are thrown together because of this. It shares a lot in common with True Detective in its themes but more so in its references to cosmological horror. Characters in the play are playing a role playing game based on Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulu and this may or may not be reflected in their real lives. The same paranoia, insignificance and helplessness infused within Bierce, Chambers and Lovecraft runs through the play like a stick of rock. Independently I could perhaps see that I was simply following my nose to seeking out these things being a fan of this type of high concept horror but it was then that the most subtle but definitely most striking entry into this canon showed itself without me having any idea it would be there.

I took a day trip to London to see Spectre as Skyfall had not only set itself as my favourite Bond but hands-down one of my favourite films and I had high hopes. Largely it delivered, it wasn’t as good as Skyfall (it was never going to be) and was rather long and flabby but was a hearken back to the late Connery/early Moore Bond films and was enjoyably fun and a bit daft. What truly amazed me, however, was its own references to the same intertextual lineage of cosmological horror present in Bierce, Chambers, Lovecraft, Bloodborne, True Detective and Pomona. I’m sure at this point I am being scoffed at but let me explain… and if you haven’t seen Spectre please do so but don’t proceed beyond this point as there will be spoilers.

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First and foremost Spectre opens in the festival of the dead in Mexico City,  a hardly subtle planting of the flag in the same arena of the uncanny as the other entries but still a similarity. The concept of a shadowy organisation and corruption and paranoia and insignificance in the face of such a force are overriding themes in the others too and certainly in Spectre. The organisation itself is depicted as all pervasive and Bond having no idea what he is in for, “a kite dancing in the wind” but these are more general themes and ideas that I could easily just be bringing to the analysis without their overt presence within the film. As such let’s look at some specifics:

The most obvious is the meteorite. Blofeld (parenthetical aside: why the FUCK did they not just say who Christoph Waltz’s character was before hand? We all knew. The film’s called Spectre for fucks sake. Shit I hate marketing) brings Craig and Seydoux to look at the asteroid that created the crater where his base is, giving a little speech about the insignificance of man against the cosmos. Not only that but the asteroid is shaped with circular divots and drop lit creating the impression that the stone is covered in eyes. In short: it’s an inert Shoggoth from Lovecraft. Lovecraft also wrote a short called ‘The Rats in The Walls’ about a man driven mad by the scratching of rats in the walls of his house where he and his colleagues then explore discovering lost horrors in the foundations of the building. In Spectre Bond comically/drunkenly asks a rat who he works for only then for the rodent to disappear into the walls revealing a secret room beyond. Also worth mentioning a similar rat story is told (badly) by Vince Vaughan in True Detective 2. I did not catch the image but on the cork board above the picture Seydoux snatches in the secret room is a Victorian illustration that looked rather gothic horror. I’d be willing to bet on a freeze frame that is some thinly veiled reference to ineffable monstrosities from beyond the stars. Oh and then there’s the mysterious Mr. White from Casino Royal and Quantum of Solace  (intertextual again) referred to as ‘The Pale King’. The safehouse towards the end is called ‘Hildebrand Prints and Rarities’ a reference to Bond’s own mythos and a Fleming Short called ‘The Hildebrand Rarity’ about a rare fish that Bond goes fishing for (side note, Cthulu and associated monsters are beasts of the deep), the safehouse bears a striking resemblance to the description of the residence of Mr. Wilde in ‘Repairer of Reputations’ by Robert Chambers. Mr Wilde also has a cat, a scar and is well versed in everyone’s business using it for his own Machiavellian ends. Sounding familiar? There was also a wonderful moment where a crowd of drones tapping at keys suddenly halts and turns to face Bond in silhouette. A brilliantly chilling moment that isn’t a reference per se but definitely feels straight out of a Chambers/Lovecraft story.

The most blatant reference to Lovecraft/Bierce/Chambers however is in Spectre’s imagery and symbolism. In True Detective 1 the imagery of a vortex is seen throughout the series, either in the scrawls by the occultists or in the swirling flock of crows until it culminates with the swirling black hole of space Rust finally sees at the end of their case. In True Detective 2 two rorschach-like blotches seen above Vince Vaughan’s bed and on the tablecloth eerily reflect the empty sockets of his murdered colleague’s eyes. In Spectre the repeated imagery is the octopus logo of the organisation itself. Seen repeatedly throughout the film on the ring, it crops up in the corners of frame at regular instances but most subtly when Bond shoots the bulletproof glass which cracks in the same way as the film poster into the shape of the octopus. The octopus itself is shown in gargantuan size in the opening credit sequence, wrapping itself around naked and scantily clad women and none-too-subtly resembling every image of Cthulu available. If you think I am reading too much into this imagery Mendes put plenty in Skyfall, most notably the film’s use of Maritime paintings to convey Bond’s struggle for relevance in today’s world. For real, check it out. This kind of foreshadowing is used a lot in film, sometimes called a callback, and certainly if it is unstated this kind of visual storytelling is profoundly effective in conveying tone but also a deeper sense of a plot or subtext. Humans use symbolism to work through problems. Confronting our own failings is painful and difficult and not always rewarding which is why we tell stories with universal themes and identifiable characters and settings so we can project these feelings and thoughts onto the fiction and process our problems better. It is this cathartic process that can be refined and almost subconsciously adapted to tell a story or convey a point. Horror utilises this particularly well.

My favourite horror film is Don’t Look Now. It is not, on the whole, a scary film but it IS deeply, deeply unsettling throughout and it is the finale that is most terrifying. Roeg uses symbolism and imagery throughout the film to tell the story and to give the shocking ending such weight and horrifying depth. He uses three small things: broken glass, spilled water and the colour red. One of these will be in every scene in that film, maybe even every shot and it has a cumulative effect. From the opening shattering scene involving the broken glass spilling water onto the slide of a red hooded girl that mirrors their daughter’s awful drowning outside to THAT ending that will never leave me, the three pieces of symbolism and imagery connect the whole story start to finish and make it all the more haunting. It’s wonderful stuff. Spectre isn’t quite so involved but the use of its own symbolism that it undeniably cribs (maybe not intentionally) from those early horror writers lends the darker moments much more depth and weight.

So why now? Why is modern culture suddenly so keen on the cosmological horror of writers and stories from over a century ago? The pre-civil rights/post-war world Lovecraft wrote in, paranoia and the feeling of insignificance in the face of larger threats was ever present in society at the time. Lovecraft was also an indefensible racist and anti-semite, something that sadly pervades his work but goes a long way to explain where this resurgence of his and Chambers & Bierce’s brand of intertextual existential and worried horror in mainstream popular culture maybe coming from. We live in a world where (as Spectre also points out) the Snooper’s Charter is in headline news, we’re being watched by drones, innocent black people are being gunned down, school shootings are a near weekly occurrence, each new discovery from a comet to new pictures of Pluto places us in a inconceivably vast universe, wars abroad causing influxes of refugees to all shores across the globe and economic depression are almost all events shared with the time Lovecraft was writing.

‘The spectre at the feast’ is a turn of phrase in reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth (oh look at that, another recent film) where Macbeth’s feast is ruined by him seeing the ghost of Banquo, indicating he cannot hide from his guilt as it is his burden. Some people sometimes call this ‘the elephant in the room’. We live in scary and uncertain times that we are struggling to find our place in and it should be deeply troubling to all of us that such massive global blockbuster fare as James Bond would be, intentionally or not, using iconography of a hundred years ago to reveal the horrors being wrought on the planet. This current crop of creative writers, directors, playwrites and game developers who are returning to these stories as they strike such a deep chord, are addressing our own Spectre at our own feast and I worry that this “fit is not momentary” and we should heed better this “very painting of our fears”.

6xjOR

Macbeth, The Blood Moon and Prophecy

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I saw the new adaptation of Macbeth tonight and it was great. It was one of the most visually arresting pieces of cinema I have seen in a long time. Which considering how explosive and visually overwrought many Hollywood blockbusters are these days it is amazing that none of them achieve the level of awe and scale this film achieves. Something didn’t quite gel for me though. The speeches and dialogue asserted themselves as the truly brilliant literature they are, affirming Shakespeare’s genius cannot be dimmed with time or interpretation and the performances were universally great, Cotillard and Sean Harris as Macduff were of particular excellence, and as I said the visual style and choices in direction were unique and powerful. The music is also sensational written by Jed Kurzel whom I assume is related to the director Justin Kurzel. And yet somehow it didn’t quite knit together for me, the text and the film seemed to operate on different levels. Everything about the film was wonderful and we all know the play is a masterpiece but the film seemed to sit on top of the text. It by no means ruined or broke the film it just wasn’t as deeply satisfying as I would have hoped. The most satisfying and intriguing moments were the first and final shots which are entirely of the films invention: a scene depicting the Macbeths holding a funeral for their own deceased child as prologue and an epilogue I had never considered but has now forever coloured my entire reading of the play and I mean literally coloured it, Red. There were many liberties taken with the text in that a lot of speeches were rearranged or moved entirely to suit the plot and whilst this gave some truly unique takes on popularly regarded moments and scenes it did occasionally wrench the action, meaning many moments that would normally require dialogue had to remain silent to adhere to the text. Interpretations of many scenes were also delightfully off kilter: Lady Macbeth’s plot plaid out as sex scene, Lady Macbeth’s madness and death scene transposed to wholly different locales and time frames, the Weird Sisters’ removed of their ‘witch’-like appearance, the dagger scene played out very differently, the introduction of a whole new character, all were excellent and surprising choices. It was Macbeth as directed by Bergman which for me is a perfect match. I think my problem with the film was revealed in the credits. I spent the whole film wondering how such a slow, methodical, dark, brooding, challenging film could be made and released so successfully despite a (relatively) low budget. And then there they were, executive producers, the Weinsteins. I audibly groaned. That pair can’t seem to keep their grubby mitts off British heritage can they? The Iron Lady, The King’s Speech, Coriolanus, the Imitation Game, Paddington all bloody Weinsteins. I think that’s where the disjunct comes for me, the American oscar-bait filter that the Weinsteins impose on these admittedly massively successful films. Despite the fact there did seem to be complete creative control on this one and it was funded by the BFI (gawd bless em) and Film Four the hairline fracture comes with their presence, I doubt this film would have got made let alone released without the presence of the terrible twosome and their cultural hoover of a production company. In spite of them, it was still a great film and I loved it. Do you know why…?

It was my idea. Or rather it’s aesthetic and delivery were something I thought of years ago. I wanted to make a film called the ‘Harrying of the North’ based on the events of 1069-1070 where William the Bastard laid waste to the north of England. In my head it told the tale of three characters: a knight who had fled to the north after defeat at Hastings and finds himself a simpleton as squire, a father who leads the guerilla rebellion against the Kings army when they appear in the North and William’s Captain whom he leaves up North to do his dirty work. A year or two later a book called The Wake came out that basically took the father and guerilla army plot set at the same time and made a Booker nominated novel out of it so I shelved the idea. Then upon seeing Macbeth I gave up on it altogether as that was basically the film I wanted to make. It sounds hard to believe but every aspect of that film I had already conceived: The use of the colour red throughout, in particular an opening scroll in red text explaining the back story, opening shots of grey mountainscapes accompanied by a howling wind, a finale wreathed in flame, the soundtrack of discordant folk strings, I even (seriously) had mentally cast Fassbender as the Knight. In short Macbeth was the film I wanted to make so I don’t need to make it now.

If this was a one off I wouldn’t mind. Only last week Bill the Film was released in cinemas, about Shakespeare himself and his lost years. Interesting fact, I had been talking to friends about wanting to make a comic called ‘The New Adventures of Shakespeare’ set during Bill’s 12 lost years where he becomes an action hero. I also wrote a short story about a pub crawl at the End of the World called The World’s End named after a pub. I began writing a novel about someone waking up on a beach and finding the whole populace disappeared which was then released whilst I was writing it by Patrick Ness called ‘More Than This’. I could go on. This seems to happen to me a on a pretty regular basis. Yes the ideas will differ in the details but the broad strokes are always exactly the same, something that if I were to pursue as a creative project would mean I would be laughed at for ‘copying’.

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In the early hours of 28th September the moon was at its orbit closest to the Earth and directly opposite the Sun with Earth in between, this created a lunar eclipse of an uncommonly large moon combined with the reflection of our atmosphere off its pale white face. This was called variously a Super Moon, the Blood Moon, the Harvest Moon or the Super Blood Harvest Moon. This is a rare occurrence and won’t happen again until 2033 and due to its genuinely haunting and uncanny nature it is small wonder that myths and speculation have surrounded this lunar event for millennia. I have read enough books and seen enough films to know that a red moon and a lunar eclipse can mean only one of several things, or all of them: the werewolf uprising, the end of the world, the turn of mankind, aliens landing or just some form of general apocalypse. In practical terms it will be interesting to see where we are in 2033 when the next one comes… I stayed up till 3am to watch the spectacular cosmic display and it was a life changing experience. I walked to Preston Park and stood in the middle where the least amount of streetlight glare could reach me. The night was clear and pristine, I could plainly see the stars and the moon was so huge and bright it looked like a white daylight lit the park. It grew darker then as the penumbra dragged across the moon’s face. The town was silent and no one else could I see. The moon only turned a shade of red, not Blood, but like spilled wine on cloth, a red and orange iris around the umbra pupil in its centre. I, like many others tried to capture its grandeur but failed miserably so I simply stood and stared in the silence, dwarfed by the immensity of the universe and the movement of celestial objects that knew nothing of me and cared even less but profoundly effect me and my home. When you think all life is derived from the sun which burns millions of miles away and our seas are literally tugged around the globe by the pull of the moon, our skins are photoreactive and our bodies are 80% water. I do not believe in astrology but you would be just plain ignorant to think that the Universe at large had no effect on our lives.

The definition of Prophecy is ‘a prediction of what will happen’. Not would could happen but what will happen. Astronomers then are prophets, meteorologists are then prophets. The notion that something will happen, when examined, brings into question the very nature of time and if it really is as linear as we say. There is a theory that  Time dilates the denser the Gravity, given dense enough gravity in one area we could witness the future. This is not currently possible but on a basic level if you are adept at pattern recognition you could simply take the idea of probability and prediction and redefine yourself as a prophet. With little or no effort I prophecise there will be another school shooting in America this year and there will be another Blood Moon in the decades to come. Lo, I am as prophet! Cassandra was probably just a blamelessly gifted and intelligent woman with a vivid imagination who could use these abilities to make accurate predictions given prior evidence but alas, cursed to never be believed. Somewhere in the bible Jesus said “A prophet finds no honour in his own country” (something most detractors of Gun Laws in the USA are daily made aware of). Celestial, lunar and solar events are almost always used to signify a huge change of cataclysmic size happening despite their arbitrary and random nature. And yet we KNOW these planetary movements effect us in a practical, even visible, way. Extending beyond that and looking at higher physics like M-theory, were we to look at the universe from the outside we’d see all matter were connected and the dark energy passing between us possibly in constant movement. The idea of prophecy surrounding the Blood Moon would make sense if you were to assume time as a flat circle, as M-theory may imply, and that these events are actually the exact same event repeating.

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At the heart of Macbeth lies a paradox. A conundrum that still puzzles. Would Macbeth have done all he did without the Wyrd Sisters’ suggesting it? Were the Wyrd Sisters using foreknowledge, information gathered by spies, that the Thane of Cawdor had betrayed the King and knew Macbeth would inherit the ‘borrowed robes’? Thus with one accurate prediction made Macbeth certain of his fate, setting him on his path? Could they have known Macduff was born by caesarian? Were they knowledgable enough to understand military manoeuvres and that Birnham would be the most practical way of approaching Dunsinane? Or was Macbeth always set on a path of destruction and madness? Or is this, as the new film suggests, a path that shall be trod again and again? Memories, ghosts, prophecy all are collected in Macbeth as they are in some fashion in all our lives but are we truly walking in that shadow of the past and the future, all time happening at once, strutting and fretting our hour upon this stage?

Fate has the same etymology as fatal, it literally means ‘an end’. Destiny has the same etymology as destination, literally ‘where we are going’. We all have a destination and we all have an end. We are all going somewhere and we are all going to die. To say there is no such thing as fate or destiny is foolhardy, an implication Macbeth makes clear. Be it that Shakespeare saw this as magic (the M in M-theory is often referred to as ‘magic’) or we see it as a metaphysics based on cosmological movements or just simply as plain, real-life, lab-tested physics, this life of ours, this tale told by an idiot, has all the auguries and portent of any powerful play as it goes on. Whether it be that I ‘prophesied’ the various books and films that got made or that Nasa foresaw the Super Blood Moon or that we see our own ends, our deaths and those of others, in the finale of other’s lives I do not think that Prophecy is as much a nonsense as modern thought would have us believe and, like most things, Shakespeare knew that 400 years ago.

They Just Wouldn’t Let it Be

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Let It Be was was the final album released by the Beatles but not the last recorded (that was Abbey Road). Why? Because ‘Get Back’ as it was originally called, and its accompanying documentary film, were a total mess by all accounts. Relations in the band were at a low ebb, McCartney having become a little dictator trying to guide a wandering steer the other members were no longer interested in riding. The initial idea behind the album had been to dispense with the over production of previous albums and return to the Please, Please Me Roots of their recordings. “None of your nonsense”, as Lennon put it to George Martin. The result was strained recording session played out in front of the cameras without a usable product to finish with. The tapes were shelved and they moved onto Abbey Road. After that the Big Wigs at EMI demanded the tapes be released but nobody was happy with them so Lennon basically dumped them onto Phil Spector with a “pick the bones out of that” attitude. Spector duly picked the bones out of it and was left with some less than prime cuts so he slathered them in some very sweet and sugary oil: the notorious ‘Wall of Sound’. Having tried to distance the band from over-production McCartney was appalled by the finished product with its Disney strings and sweet choirs of angels. Justifiably I would add.

This is all well known Beatles lore. What seems to have been forgotten was that in 2003 after an extensive digitising of all the Beatles back catalogue for what would become the Love album three years later, McCartney leapt at the chance to ReMaster his poor lost album. The band politics had rather obviously simmered down what with two of the members being dead, so McCartney persuaded Yoko and Ringo to give it another going over and drafted in the poor retired Martin to oversee remastering. The result was the stupidly named ‘Let It Be… Naked’. It was unfavourably viewed as a piece of Machiavellian Ret-conning on the part of McCartney by basically everyone at the time and roundly savaged then ignored once the hype had simmered down. Unfortunately, whilst it was certainly an ego project on McCartney’s part, it turned Let It Be into a really great album that people seemed to overlook in their haste to vilify. Far from being the tacked on album at the tail end of the band’s career Let It Be Naked sits the album firmly in the same quality bracket as their other albums.

I bought the album upon release and it sounded very strange to me at the time. I was used to the Spectorisms and their absence made it sound empty. I put it on my iPod the other day as I was finding albums that were recorded with Telecasters as I plan to buy one for myself soon and I remembered Harrison was playing one on that album. For the sake of clarity I chose Naked as I’d be able to pick the parts out more. I listened to it twice back to back today and was delighted to find it is a really great album. Far FAR superior to the 1970 release not just in a production sense but as songs it is far more cohesive.

Get Back: The first major change was the running order. Moving the last track of the 1970 release to the first for the 2003 edition sort of plants the flag and does so with style. What you get is basically the single version recorded in 1969 on the rooftop and without the needless chatter. It is polished to a mirror shine however and makes far more sense as an opener.

Dig A Pony: Again the same as the original release but now glowing with a bit of digital polish. Lennon’s Epiphone is revealed as the mushy fuzz growler it should be and the riff to open doesn’t suffer from the pointless false start Spector left in and takes your head off instead. Harrison’s solo gleams now too.

For You Blue: Unusually the Harrison tracks, placed now amongst a much stronger and cohesive Lennon-McCartney album, suffer significantly. This is the same take as the original with an added acoustic guitar and the brush and touch up applied. This album also provides the best sounding acoustic guitar I’ve heard on record. Also nice to not have Lennon’s slightly ropey slide guitar dominating the whole track. McCartney’s piano solo is also a surprise now it’s less buried: it’s really good. Sadly it’s just a 12 bar from a band that didn’t need to record another one. Stand out for any other band, filler for the Beatles.

The Long and Winding Road: The one that McCartney most wanted changed, by all accounts. And it is unrecognisable here. The original recording is a mushy mess all covered in saccharine strings and choirs by Spector. Sadly (as the book of Beatles recording lore Revolution in the Head puts it) he had to do something. The original was a bad take, Lennon’s bass playing tantamount to sabotage: missed notes, wrong notes, fudged slides up the neck all litter the original recording but were, rather cannily, buried by Spector. Listen to the 1970 release version again and pay attention to the bass. It’s bad. Also McCartney’s vocal is not that great, largely flat for the man who would record ‘Oh, Darling’ a few months later. The Naked version is an entirely different take with electric piano and guitar not on the original and the orchestra and choir entirely absent. Lennon’s bass is still lacklustre but workable at least. Harrison’s guitar is a thing of lush shimmering beauty and Ringo’s typically precise but understated rhythm is perfect. What screams at you though without the sludge of Spector is what a beautiful song this is. Easily one of McCartney’s best and his piano playing is something to envy, the doubling of his lines by the strings utterly unnecessary. I can see why McCartney wanted this song ‘saved’, turns out its one of the best the Beatles ever wrote or recorded. And almost, almost made me understand why people like Chorus pedals on guitar.

Two of Us: With the clarity afforded the remaster the foibles of the original recording is revealed on this one. The vocals are very ‘poppy’, the slightly inferior mics used for live recording are rather evident on an acoustic track. Other than that this is the original take polished up again and what a polish. If there was a division between Lennon and McCartney you wouldn’t know it. You couldn’t fit a fag paper inbetween those harmonies and it is clearly a team effort form the two songwriters resulting in yet another classic.

I Got A Feeling: Whilst everyone points out that it is simply Suspicious Minds slowed down, I Got A Feeling has got some serious balls to it. This is apparently a composite of two recordings from the rooftop and is certainly different to the original release, the vocals are much better and the mix shows off just how damn groovy they could be when playing together. The only thing I miss is the break in the original had Harrison’s guitar play the riff with massive distortion making McCartney whoop with joy and sounded so cool. In fact Harrison’s guitar is just much louder generally on the original but the Naked version is much more of a song which is to the album’s endless benefit. One of the best examples of the differences in Lennon and McCartney’s style and how they made that fit in one song seamlessly. Probably my favourite track on the album.

One After 909: Again, how tight were this band? It’s a remix and master of the original but is just a proper good laugh. Probably the closest thing to what McCartney wanted out of the album and he didn’t even write it. When pub bands endlessly imitate this style why do they never sound this good?

Don’t Let Me Down: With the merciful removal of the weird and needless Dig It and Maggie, Don’t Let Me Down was added to beef up the run time. One reviewer at the time of Naked’s release sniffed this away saying the song was nothing but a dirge. Far from it I say, it’s another tight performance (again a composite from both rooftop versions) of a great song and makes the whole album less of a novelty piece with its presence. It’s minor tonality is a nice offset to the rest of the album too. A welcome addition.

I Me Mine: Again not one of Harrison’s best but the remix without the Spectorisms brings it up to par. It is also oddly lengthened which also reveals it as rather slight compared to the other songs on the album. Works really well if you imagine it as a proto version of Cream’s ‘Badge’. The song that probably benefits the most from the remaster.

Across the Universe: Another complete retread. Slowed down and all of Spectors production is exorcised leaving just the acoustic guitar, more akin to the original single b-side version. Something, I feel is lost on this one, it does need something. Maybe not wah-wah guitar or full symphonic orchestra and choir but something. I suppose it does end up sounding as empty as the Universe is which was maybe the original intention. I guess we’ll never know. Probably the one that suffers most from the remaster. No doubt to the glee of McCartney…

Let It Be: The remaster, again, reveals master songwriters and incredible performers at the heart of the band. Sadly, the removal of all Spectorisms means it is overshadowed by the much better known and bigger original as that’s the one everyone knows. Personally I would have this one replace it as it is an amalgam of all the takes with Harrison’s better solo and McCartney’s best vocal take. Also the piano is de-muffled and like Winding Road absolutely sings, carrying the song to that soaring last chorus. Makes much MUCH more sense as an album closer too. A never to be forgotten classic song given the recording it deserves, putting the band front and centre and showing what a consummate group of musicians and artists they were. This should be the archived take that gets the radio play. The crowning achievement of the Remaster for me. Wonderful stuff.

In all, Naked is an album, specifically a Beatles album, where as the original ended up being something of a curio with all its mire of production, bad blood, between song chit chat and novelty half-songs. Let It Be was the soundtrack to a film, Naked is an album in its own right and fits in neatly with the rest of the canon far more comfortably. I highly recommend a listen if you can find it.

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A Translation of the Silence

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The title of this post is from a quote by former American Poet Laureate Charles Simic: “Poetry is a translation of the silence.” Of all the many things I use to describe poetry (cribbed from other, better, writers) that feels like the ‘right’ one and it goes a long way to explaining the importance and necessity of silence.

The trouble we have is defining what silence is, because it sure as hell isn’t a total absence of sound. That’s just bizarre. There are sound proof rooms where no ambient noise exists but what people have found is when this occurs you start to hear the noise of your joints moving and your digestive tract squelching and when you are stood in the wilderness far from any habitation or car noise what you hear is quieter but certainly not ‘Silent’: You hear trees rustling, the breeze, birds, your own breathing, etc. In fact the only place where sound would be completely absent would be outer space and you could not survive in the vacuum long enough to perceive that phenomena. Deaf people may be the only people fully qualified to explain the idea of silence but even then it has been pointed out by people with this disability that even they feel vibrations that they interpret as sound but without the refined perception someone with hearing can sense. As such, no one has experienced ‘true’ silence, what we experience is simply the quiet as a juxtaposition of loudness.

Its amazing how loud everyday life is to that end; a constant barrage of sound that it takes a lifetime to filter out. People who were born deaf then given cochlea implants normally have to turn off the device regularly as the overwhelming sensory overload of constant sound can be painful. Equally people with tinitus who are burdened with a constant whine in their ear can find that unbearable. From this sort of anecdotal evidence we can tell that sound is a major factor of human experience, like any of our senses, but it seems to me it is the one we are least aware of. Or at least the one we pay less attention to day to day. Sight tends to be the one we focus on most (pun intended). Why is that?

Whilst it seems like an asinine and obvious observation that “hearing is, like, really important and stuff”, the reason I’ve been thinking about this was that I was house sitting recently for a friend who needed me to look after their dog while they were on holiday. While I was there I didn’t really do a lot except read and write and play a computer game. Now, day to day, I try to drown out the silence of my own life either with music, conversation, the idle prattling of a podcast or the radio etc and I rarely leave the house without my headphones in so my life tends to be ‘aurally dense’ to use a poncey term. But for this week of house sitting for one reason or another I spent the week in quiet. There was no stereo, I had no computer to use, I didn’t want to play around with their radio or anything so by and large just wrote and read in quiet then took the dog out for a walk twice a day. This amounted to almost a week of very little external sound which was actually a little disorientating. Far from being a distraction the sound is normally put there as audio wallpaper to help me focus on things and think, my own thoughts tend to wander and for some reason music in particular keeps me focussed. As such the proverbial Silence that ensued was pretty distracting to me when I was inside the house. On the flip side whilst taking the dog for a walk I had forgotten how nice listening to the sounds of the world was and how stimulating it can be. But it certainly wasn’t ‘silent’, just a lot quieter.

Something else I did whilst I was there was played through the game ‘The Last of Us’ (which I may review in full at a later date) and one of the things it did really really well was sound design. The most jarring difference to most AAA games was the almost total absence of score. With no music telling you when to be sad, scared, pumped, happy or safe you are forced to pay closer attention and in a game where a lot of it is sneaking around and a game mechanic based around ‘listening’ to the movement of enemies, that is an incredibly effective choice. I lost count of the times I was clenching my teeth and holding my own breath as a guard trudged, heavy footed past me. It also extended to quieter moments too, the sound of conversation from another room, the birds in the sky, distant gunfire, rain, wind, all given unique audio that really gives you a sense of space and place. The other game I thought achieved this most effectively was possibly my Favourite Game Ever, Half-Life 2. What this does most effectively is creates gaps, it isn’t just a constant wall of sound, never letting up at any moment but allows pauses for breath and therefore heightens the tension; sudden gunfire or a shout can really make you jump. I also went to the cinema to see a film called Ex Machina which also uses the loud/quiet dynamic very well. It all amounted to reminding me of an interview with one of the sound team from Pixar who described sound as being the part of a film that “enters through the back door”. You don’t notice it but you would if it was done badly or wasn’t there. One thing you learn when making films or videos is that an audience will tolerate a bad picture, they will not tolerate bad sound. Screw up the audio and you lose your audience immediately.

So being a Viner I decided to translate this to social media. My friend Mark Dudlik does a challenge on Vine where he does a 100 day project where he makes 100 posts over 100 days on a given topic/tag. I did a wussy version of this by doing a 60 day challenge which I dubbed 60DaysofSilence. It’s finished now and you can search them all on Vine, a few other people joined in as well. What it proved to me was that absolute silence cannot exist so I simply made the rule that I could not speak. I could only create ‘silence’ by not adding to the sound already existing in the world. This, in turn, scared me, because that is truly what silence is: not allowing someone a voice. So many people are made silent or feel they should be silent in the world today because it is so noisy already but equally we (who make all the noise) should really be listening because as the saying goes “90 percent of communication is non-verbal”. People crying for help or feeling lost or alone are telling us this every day in a variety of ways but because they don’t say it out loud we don’t listen. Ironically you don’t even need your ears for that.

Death is the Great Silencer. No one is more quiet that in death and whilst that is a bleak notion it relates to the previous paragraph because we’ve just seen several migrants (immigrants to many) drown in the sea without rescue. Their pleas for help were ignored and they fled, their voice was silent. Now many of them are dead and just as silent, just as ignored. Yet we can have chitinous, self-luminescent, 12 legged creatures of the deep spewing slugs, worms and bile from her vertical, razor toothed jaw like Katie Hopkins who has the loudest voice writ large in national print heard by thousands and it is this latter shoggoth that we listen to and are most upset and offended by. It would be easy for me to say that Hopkins should be ‘silenced’ but personally I think that thief has more than enough rope to hang herself with if she is allowed to keep her voice. What we should be doing is listening better and using OUR OWN voice, that small thing we have on a piece of paper that involves us in these affairs, to make these plights heard and help create a more attentive and compassionate civilisation. Even if, as most revolutionaries say, “we will not stay quiet any longer” people have to listen for change to happen.

Silence, like everything, is relative, it boils down to what YOU are hearing. If you want people to hear: Be louder (vote). And then, start listening.

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Mockingjay & Paddington as Protest

*SPOILER Warning: Plot spoilers for both films below video. Go and see them both before reading. They’re both worth it.*

I saw the third instalment of the Hunger Games franchise Mockingjay yesterday and just got back from seeing the latest incarnation of children’s literary favourite Paddington at the cinema. I thoroughly enjoyed both but not simply as sheer spectacle but they both had some subtle and not-so-subtle critical points to make on western history and on modern politics that I was nothing short of delighted to see. They are both worth the price of admission at the cinema and certainly worth a look when they get released on DVD/Netflix as they are both action packed and rather fun but equally far more intelligent than they are being billed.

Starting with Mockingjay is easiest at its politics are the most obvious parts of these films. It is a really rather open attack on American domestic and foreign policy, its use of media and its dehumanising effect on a populace and a stringent and almost enforced class disparity. Contrary to what a woefully inept critic said in the Guardian not so long ago (whose protest seemed to be so dogmatically old school and anti-populist he came across far more as a Tory than any kind of ‘lefty’) this is not purely an attack on the state its an attack on a set of values now inherent in modern politics and society. This kind of questioning, especially when aimed at the young, should be endlessly encouraged and not whinged about for not picking a target you dislike more. HOWEVER, in this particular part of the Hunger Games series something leapt out at me far more strongly than its anti-westernising ideology; its historical political narrative.

Mockingjay Pt.1 has a very neat set of historical references throughout that compound its initial message that to my eye (and ear) were far more than its tubthumping neo-liberalism (which, again, I like). What brought this to my attention in this film more than the others, was the music. A frequently used fiddle is heard at key moments, the sort of folk fiddle sound you would associate with the American west, certainly at the time of the American Civil war. Katniss’ return to the Victor’s Village at two different points in the film compounds this music with set design. Having recently toured the MET in New York (*CLANG* sorry that was a name I just dropped…) I was particularly interested in the American history section. They had several mockups of mid-19th century households, something near immaculately replicated by the set designers in Mockingjay. Plush 19th century furniture, raggedy work clothes as seen in many photos of the period, wood slat and Queen Anne houses and victorian pastoral scenes are all depicted in the film. Taken together with the western swing style fiddle and the beautifully orchestrated a cappella work song (performed very well by Lawrence) this comes over as an overt commentary. Combine this with the notion of districts being fired upon, especially District 13 depicted as a ‘fort’ which is often seen as the start of the Civil War when Fort Sumter was fired upon. Compound that with the depictions of the districts (certainly in the books) as being populated by different races, most obviously the district from which Rue comes has a nearly all black population. The very notion of each district as slaves, be that logging, coal mining or road/railway building is inescapable in its parallels with the Civil War.

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Another interesting note is that the supposed ‘good’ side of the rebels is not depicted in a favourable light either. Totalitarian, grey and uniform is admittedly the exact reverse of the gaudy Capital but is equally depicted as not exactly an ideal replacement for the gross indulgence of the Capital. This again is a major theme in both the films and the books but the commentary of the literal Capitalism of them is often brandished by its fans and detractors far more than their criticism of the mad, communist utilitarianism of the rebels. Coyne is just as vindictive, steely eyed and (as Pt.2 will no doubt reveal) just as heartless as President Snow. This is perhaps a more subtle sub-text but very much there in District 13’s lack of amusements, prescribed quarters, use of literally ‘red’ propaganda, brutalist architecture and dislike for cats (…you get what I mean). Most notable for me was wonderful character beat between the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Elizabeth Banks where he tells her ‘the door is unlocked’ to which she replies there is nothing  out there for her. Very much a parallel to the communist notion of ‘do as you will’, the notion that restrictions are not placed upon the populace but upon their belongings and allowances. I may be taking it too far when I point out the exciting yet hushed finale is played out under bright RED lights but mise en scene is a powerful cinematic device too and no imagery is innocent.

Put together this creates an actually rather sophisticated extension of the film’s political criticisms making the Hunger Games franchise a series that I hope will warrant further critical study in the future and mass appeal for many generations. To say nothing of Lawrence’s genuinely all-encompassing performance. The woman’s a marvel. Paddington’s political merits, however, are somewhat more implied.

Other than it being a really lovely, old fashioned fable of family and friendship, set against a Mary Poppins back drop of America-friendly London, Paddington came across as a rather determined stand against the rise of the Modern Right. With UKIP now having a seat in parliament the complete implosion of the Liberal Democrats, not to mention the slow ‘Rightification’ of Labour and an unelected Tory government, right wing politics – as the Hunger Games argues – seems to be the norm today in our mass globalised world. A hot button topic going hand in hand with this the world over is Immigration. UKIP itself stands (or sits) on this one issue almost and the fact they now have a voice in government should worry us all and amazingly enough Paddington spells that out for you.

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A Bear Called Paddington was written by Michael Bond in 1956 and the eponymous character’s now famous introduction was prompted by very real events. During the second world war children were evacuated from their homes in London and sent to the countryside for safety away from notorious bombing sites to live with rural families. In addition to this the film makes it clear many european families were separated during the war too, many also sent to England to escape the conflict, in particular – Jewish families. And we all know why they didn’t want to hang around Europe at that time… The film explains this in great detail, even giving it its own little animation that reminded me of the Three Brothers fable that struck me dumb in Harry Potter. But Paddington goes even a little further.

Every nation on earth is built on immigration and humanity’s evolution depends on a diverse mix of our various cultures and creeds, the utterly asinine rhetoric spouted by the Nu-Right attempts to undermine or disprove this by indirectly promoting a fictitious type of National Purity where only a poorly defined idea of a ‘British Person’ may reside on our shores. That may sound hysterical but that really is the ground politicians are fighting on right now. Throughout the film Paddington is resolutely portrayed as a refugee: his home in darkest Peru is destroyed, he stows away to reach London and arrives with nowhere to stay. It does not patronise and even makes a rather satirical joke of the sort of deplorable conditions immigrants can be left to suffer in: Paddington says he will sleep in a bin for the night near the beginning and is later seen sleeping rough on a bench in the rain. London is not initially depicted well at all: commuters ignore the talking bear, pickpockets roam the streets and Mr. Brown is immediately depicted as the kind of ‘pull-your-socks-up’, old school tie Tory I loathe, sniffing at Paddington’s homeless state, calling him a liar, demanding his children lock their doors, etc. But by the end Paddington’s differences are embraced and incorporated by the Brown family, making them far better people and the immigrant Paddington notes “London is a place where anyone can fit in” and “whilst I’m not from here, it feels like home”. Of all the carefully structured heartstring tugging moments that one got me. Yes, Britain and London are places where anyone can fit in, whatever your colour, creed or nationality. Diversity is what makes any country tick and contributes to a rich, interesting and broad cultural pot I am proud to call my home nation.

I admit Paddington and Mockingjay both miss a few things in their keeness to state their case. For a multi-cultural London there aren’t that many people who aren’t white seen there, similarly in Mockingjay despite the token black guy its a pretty WASPy film and even the slummier parts of London are coated with a nostalgic Victorian sheen. These small quibbles aside both film’s hearts, and more importantly – their wallets, are in the right place: their mouths. It appears the most compelling opposition in modern politics comes from the cinema.

With a general election just around the corner in the new year and immigration a key point in every party’s manifesto, a film with Paddington’s box office pull and no doubt due for home release in the spring near election time, it could not be more of an obvious protest against the current political landscape. It is a great fun family film with laughs aplenty and a lot of heart but more importantly it carries with it a warning from history in the same way Mockingjay does: its never those who seek power that change lives, it is those closest to us that do and can do so in the smallest of ways. Ways like volunteering for a sibling or offering a bed for the night. Or simply a helping hand.

To deliberately mis-quote our unelected Prime Minister: We are in this together, they aren’t in it at all.

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Little Epics

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“Epic” is a term that has bizarrely dropped into common vernacular in recent years. The original meaning is to do with poetry (YES I’M A ONE TRICK PONY, DEAL WITH IT) epikos from the Greek epos meaning ‘word’ or ‘song’. Epic Poems were long, sprawling tales of mythology, legendary figures and mighty deeds. It was then commonly used as an allusion to such tales if the thing being described could be seen as similar, i.e. something long, big, with lots of characters, set over many years and concerning major events, wars or countries. Today this has been filtered down to simply mean something impressive. My first exposure to the word I remember was a quote on the back of “Outcast of Redwall” by Brian Jacques which simply said “Epic” in quotes. Looking at it now I realise it was simply The Da**y Ma*l being lazy critics but I do remember asking my Mum why it just said that to which her reply was “That’s all you need to say really isn’t it?” As if this was the highest praise.

Epic Poems and their like were life works by the authors or accumulated tales of an oral tradition from centuries handed down. Grand and sacred, stately and revered Epics told to us great truths about people, politics, love and the soul. I recently saw The Amazing Spiderman 2 described as Epic in its saturating marketing campaign. It was at that point I somewhat lost faith in its weight as an adjective.

Blockbusters must be Epic now. Name one of the big (usually superhero based) blockbusters of the last 10 years and they are all longer than two hours, most have a large ensemble cast, are laden with massive explosions, destruction of property, high body counts and utterly unconvincing stunts. This to me is an idiots appraisal of what something “Epic” is. Something grandiose but with none of the detail or the subtleties. Someone was shown Cleopatra or Ben Hur or Spartacus and was told “That’s an Epic” and took that on face value. Interestingly it seems little used as a descriptor in the world of literature.

I went to see The Amazing Spiderman 2 last night and actually enjoyed it. Its still not that good but it fares better than its predecessor. Its biggest problem, as with the one before it, is that it does not need to exist. Sam Raimi’s exemplary Spiderman 1 and 2 were barely out of short trousers when the last one came out. Sadly this franchise boils down to licensing not creative necessity. Sony still own the rights to Spiderman unlike a lot of Marvel’s other intellectual properties which they (see Disney) have bought back and are frankly paddling the shit out of every entertainment industry with at the moment. Seeing the success of the  “Marvel Universe” Sony clearly did not wish to relinquish a much desired property and decided to strike while the iron was hot. The Amazing Spiderman was painfully obviously a designed-by-committee cash cow that had been rushed out to meet demand. It was confused, had a solitary and not well known villain, clumsily strong armed in a conspiracy plot from one of the murkier arcs of the spiderman comics to make it an obvious series, it was poorly paced, the CG was clearly hastily cobbled together and the script was a bloated, unwieldy mess. AND YET. Garfield and Stone were amazingly good and almost single handedly saved it, along with Sally Field and Martin Sheen. Parker also was written a bit more like the cocky nerd he was in the comics not the shy, bumbling, awkward teen Maguire portrayed. In this respect I actually prefer Garfield’s Spidey. SHOCK HORROR.

Its sequel fairs better but still suffers from problems of the first. It was comissioned not dreamed up. You can practically smell the gunpowder from the gun at the cast and crew’s heads. You can feel the jet black cold hand of Sony’s Creative Board in every shot: “It needs more peril” “We need more beautiful people in this shot” “Put a piece of pop music under this scene” “Our market research shows this is popular, put this in frame”. To say nothing of the overbearing and nauseating product placement by Sony itself in nearly every shot as well as many others. Sony obviously focus grouped THE SHIT out of the poor success/critical pasting of the last film and heard that the villain was crummy, therefore they over compensate by shoving in three this time. At every turn I wanted to shout “CALM DOWN” at the screen. But despite all of this it comes out okay. Just. The reason for this is the Pun-Ready named director Marc Webb.

Webb directed the delightful 500 Days of Summer and strangely enough this is where both his Spiderman films come into their own. Garfield and Stone’s obvious chemistry as Parker and Stacey is milked wonderfully and just like the last film this is where it comes to life and where Webb feels most comfortable and interestingly this is how the film actually succeeds in being Epic.

I watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade over the Easter Bank Holiday and tweeted along to it with many nerdy observations. What it brought home to me is how little the film is to do with saving the Holy Grail and by extension the World and how much it is to do with characters. I’ve always known a story will stand or fall on the characters as if you don’t care what happens to them then the story doesn’t matter, you can have the most complex and intricate, wonderful plot but it counts for crap if you could give a shit whether Johnny Everyman lives or dies. Indy doesn’t give two craps about the Grail for most of the film he wants his Dad back. In this way Spiderman is similar. Webb realises all of Spidey’s acrobatics mean sweet bugger all without some emotional investment. Parker is practically invincible so by developing his relationship with Stacey we give a crap what happens and as the climax approaches we are really really nervous about the outcome. Especially someone like me who is sadly in on what happens having read the comics. You can feel Webb literally straining against the hellishly tight bonds of Sony’s demands and crowbarring in necessary character points for everyone. That’s when it works best. He has also assembled a really good cast even though the marketing demands mean almost all of them get sidelined in favour of shitty conspiracy plots and corporate bullshit. Foxx turns in a really nuanced performance as Electro which  I was crying out for more from, Field is wonderful as a more sassy Aunt May, Giamatti has a ball with his two pages of screen time as the Rhino, the only misstep is the emo Harry Osborne who seems only to have been cast because he looks a bit like a Goblin. Regardless what this amounts to is an audience knowing why things happen and where every character stands which adds weight to the action sequences and tension where necessary. The pyrotechnics are all pretty perfunctory whizzbangs towards the end with the slow downs and speed ups but the finale is pretty tense.

Sadly most of what I saw was ruined by trailers and promotional material that Sony threw EVERYWHERE prior to release which meant it didn’t have the impact it could have. Many of the main “twists” being spoilt and most of the good jokes. The scene in Times Square is pretty fantastic though. If it could have been stripped back to just a film about Electro, Spidey and Gwen Stacey with a little more breathing room you could have had a really stellar film. What this made me realise though was its not necessarily the size, length or budget that makes an Epic.

As I said earlier, Epics deal with big topics and grand themes but normally on a personal level: The war is brought about by Helen of Troy in the Odyssey, Its Adam and Eve that bring Sin into the world, Spartacus leads the Slaves to war, etc etc. The intensity of Helen’s beauty and Odysseus’ love for her, the depth of Adam and Eve’s shame and despair at their treachery, the heat of Spartacus’ fury at his captors are all things we as an audience relate to and sympathise with. The Epics bother personifying the protagonists and their struggles instead of simply having them as avatars for battles, historical events or to deliver well known speeches. What this ultimately means is that something very small can be Epic it just depends how intensely you are concerned with the characters and the results of their trials. Back to the Future amounts to little more than a kid getting his parents to hook up and breaking the speed limit but by golly how tense is the last half an hour?! With Doc on the clock tower? Marty in the Delorean with its engine not starting? You’re tearing your hair out! Truly an epic finale as he races toward the wire as Emmett Brown wrestles with the plug.

I recently rewatched The Princess Bride and was stunned how budget it now seems. The cast is smaller than I remember and there is little in the way of grand events but from minute one you give a crap about Buttercup and Wesley, then later Inigo and Fezzik and so the fairly minuscule sword fight, hand fight, battle of wits, fire swamp, lightning sand and ROUS’ in comparison to the frenetic, crash bang lightning quick action scenes in the Amazing Spiderman, are suddenly EPIC! Same as Indiana Jones merely ducking a blade, playing giant foot scrabble and stubbing his foot on a painted floor is BREATHTAKINGLY TENSE AND THE WORLD’S GONNA END OH SHIT. Audience investment is what makes an Epic because what makes an Epic is what concerns us personally. Humans are messy, live a long time and a lot of crap happens to us in a lifetime, our best stories reflect that. Human’s require symbolism to work through our problems, we use art as symbolism for inner turmoils, the closer a work of art represents these problems the more drawn to it we are. The deeper the fears, loves and joys represented the more fiercely we care, to get at those the more detailed a work of art must be (or certainly more direct) this means the canvas must be bigger. More Epic.

We are Epic works which is why when something impressive happens that affects us we use the word to describe it now. Being an angsty, insecure teenager deep down The Amazing Spiderman films speak to the bit of me that loves mushy teen romances and sterling action. It is a badly flawed film but for me there was enough there for me to enjoy it. Yet, ironically, to make it truly Epic it could have done with being shorter, quieter and smaller.

The most hilariously ironic, almost mendacious, piece of nomenclature.
The most hilariously ironic, almost mendacious, piece of nomenclature.

Some Unseen Censor

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I went to see the modern remake of RoboCop on Monday as I had some cash to spare for a change and treated myself to a day out. My favourite nerdy film site Den of Geek gave it a thumbs up so was willing to give it a try. I was pleasantly surprised by a rather nuanced and intelligent film with a very interesting argument at its core with some of the trademark satire that made the original so great. Sadly the original hangs over it like a big black cloud. Verhoven’s masterpiece cannot be bettered purely because of its context and impact at the time. It is a razor sharp parody of 80s culture, a comic book action story par exellence, a cops and robbers thriller, a pitch black comedy and quiet meditation on humanity all in one bombastic package. The new incarnation is actually much slower paced and is much more interested in the human argument, something it argues very well. The satire is funny and occasionally bold (Samuel L Jackson’s expletive deleted and the so-near-the-knuckle-its-practically-touching-skin opening act are good examples) but in general its slightly toothless. The reason for Verhoven’s original having such punch is its excess – like the 80s itself. Excessive sex, excessive money, excessive drugs and, most importantly for this post, excessive violence.

The modern remake has a lot of “action” but no real violence. The most it offers is some robot shooting and wrestling but few humans are killed and the one scene where there are is enacted in the pitch dark. Verhoven’s on the other hand (pun for fans there) is out and out gore start to finish with a wonderfully satirical take on the “cut throat” business world and board rooms in the first scene, to the sadistic torture of Murphy himself. And yet. I watched the original LONG before I was eighteen and by-and-large was unaffected by it, it was and is a brash hell-for-leather action movie with a lot of gore similar to the comics I read. For me it swam by in a haze of tongue in cheek silliness and exciting explosions and gunfights, the latest incarnation cannot be said to do the same. Its strength is also peculiarly what makes it feel it should have been rated higher than its 12a rating. The human element of Murphy’s story, well portrayed by Joel Kinnaman and Abbie Cornish as his wife, is affecting and is the focus of the film. The psychology of Murphy being put into an armoured and walking iron lung is investigated well and for me was horribly sad and quite affecting, something a younger audience (12 or under) would either not understand or not care about. Additional to this is the numerous scenes in which Murphy’s remaining organic parts are revealed without the suit. In these scenes he is shown as a pair of lungs, a throat and spine and a head with the skull removed exposing his brain. I am not shy to say this made me wince and suck my teeth at the reveal, making me more and more uncomfortable as the scenes lengthened and the disembodied biological matter talked, argued and wept. To my mind this is not material aimed at 12 or under. Not because it is too grisly or frightening but it is confronting a child with stuff it perhaps would find difficult to understand or at the very least not want to know. So why is it a 12a?

I have ruminated a lot over the last few years over the classification system. I am not a prude by any stretch and believe overt censorship is (like that being practiced by our own government on our very existence these days) reprehensible and, frankly, evil. However, censorship is necessary. The word derives from the latin ‘Censere’ meaning ‘to assess’, critical thought is the foundation for human evolution. Without assessing and revising our stance on everything we would still be monkeys in the trees, so censorship and self-censorship is – I believe – necessary when it comes to such mass consumed entertainment as cinema. Yet who dares be the one to censor these films and what gives them the right? In this country we have the British Board of Film Classification who explain themselves jolly well on their website. In fact there is a page that gives a breakdown of the original RoboCop’s film classification on there which is worth the read.

The BBFC separate films into the following age restricted classifications depending on their content: U for Universal, PG for Parental Guidance, 12a for cinema release and 12 for home/DVD release, 15, 18 and R18. U and PG are accessible by anyone of any age and are merely guides for parents or guardians so they might ascertain the content of the film before allowing their charge to go and see said film, 12, 15 and 18 are legally enforced classifications that prohibit anyone below that age seeing the film. I recall most of these being on VHS cases and cinema posters my whole life apart from 12. I was very young when Tim Burton’s Batman came out but I do remember being pissed I couldn’t see it because it was a 15 rated film. I loved Batman (as I still do) and wanted to see the film. A year later when the film was available to rent (yes kids that’s how long it took in those days) it had been changed to the bizarre new rating of ’12’. I wasn’t 12 so still couldn’t see it but it was a new certificate which was interesting. How did this happen? Well like PG and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom before it, 12 was invented to appease both the censor and the studio/director. You see a film will be made based on the story (as it should) and then it will be put up for classification, the BBFC in this case will view it and give it their rating and their explanation for it. Then the problems start. You see Indiana Jones and Batman are undeniably characters for younger people to watch; a man with a bullwhip and fedora and one who dresses as a bat are hardly Hamlet and Citizen Kane. Unfortunately artistic integrity on the filmmakers part meant in those cases making Temple of Doom a lot darker than its predecessor and similarly the same with Batman. In doing so the censor wanted to rate them higher as they were deemed unsuitable for children but if they did that the film loses half its audience and largely its key ‘demographic’ i.e. Young Children. That means losing a lot of money. So the filmmakers and studios fought the MPAA in Temple of Doom’s case and the BBFC in Batman’s case for a new rating that would not ostracise their key ‘market’ but allay fears to parents and warn of the stronger content. More recently this happened with Sam Raimi’s original Spiderman for which the 12a rating was invented so that children younger than 12 could see the film if accompanied by an adult.

Lately though I have noticed this swing in a reverse direction. With film studio’s desire for larger audiences and therefore more money they are essentially trying to manipulate the system so a film can be made adhering to the strict Classification rules and therefore be able to be sold to children of 12 or younger but also be broad enough to speak to adults. This designed by committee mentality has ruined a lot of films to my mind and feels like a return to the old days of the studio system. But what I find most strange is the BBFC’s classification for films that are, to my mind, not for children at all. Most of the time this is not because of horror, strong language or violence but purely because the film itself is not made to cater to children. The most recent film to garner complaints for too low a rating was The Woman in Black which the BBFC upheld their classification of, admirably. Films such as The Dark Knight, Skyfall, Iron Man 3 and yes, Robocop all have got 12a ratings at the cinema but perplexingly are barely tailored for younger viewers. The properties they represent may have an appeal to children but the tone of the above listed films at no point approaches ‘light hearted’ or ‘fun action’. The Joker is a homicidal psychopath, Bond goes through Oedipal torture, Stark suffers PTSD and kills a lot of people and cracks wise about more adult stuff throughout and Robocop pensively ruminates on the meaning of free will and human nature and its desire to play god. Yes there are bangs and whistles throughout each but the overall piece is solely aimed at a mature audience. For me this raises the question of why mitigate your work purely for a larger audience share? If the new Robocop had the balls to put a decapitated head and independent lungs on display why not just go all out and have Samuel L Jackson say “Mother Fucker” and have Murphy cruelly shot to pieces for the same inherent shock value and thus deepen the argument for maintaining our humanity?

The BBFC are (as a friend put it) “sophisticated readers”, contrary to popular belief they do not have a tick list of how many F words, sexual thrusts or pints of blood are used and certify accordingly, they approach each film autonomously and judge it in isolation. Their guidelines state they classify a film based on: Context, Theme, Tone and Impact, Discrimination, Drug Use, Imitable behaviour, Language, Sex, Threat and Violence. To this end a thorough reading of the film is not just what you see or hear in the film but what is implied by it and what its intent is. This requires a serious engagement with the source. A prime example of this is in 1979 the BBFC returned Ridley Scott’s fantastic space horror ‘Alien’ with an “X” certificate (equivalent to an 18cert now). This upset Scott and the studio apparently so they asked for an explanation, the letter was available online at some point but I can no longer find it (if you can please do put the link in the comments or tweet it to me). It was a rather fascinating read as it explains its reasons thoroughly. The chest burster itself was not their cause for concern, nor the jumps, the decapitated robot or scary pitch black corridors all of which they said would have put it in the “AA” category (equivalent of 15 cert today), no their distinction was its overriding sexuality and sexual violence subtext. Giger’s drawings are and have always been phallic or related to genitalia, the alien is no exception and amounts to little more than a giant Penis stalking the ship and murdering people. Not to mention the Vagina like face-hugger that impregnates poor John Hurt which as Mark Kermode accurately pointed out is building on the mass hardwired fear among men of male rape (something commentators/psychologists have said is one of the reasons the reverse is so hauntingly prevalent in society). This sexual imagery combined with the violent context is genuinely unsettling and psychologically disturbing making for a much more affecting and thrilling film but one which can be perceived as being rather damaging to someone too young to perhaps discriminate these processes brought about by the film. For me this shows how well the BBFC viewers do their job. A sophisticated appraisal of the content and most importantly its message – be it overt or covert – is necessary but this returns me to the rather bizarre recent trend for hovering around the 12a mark for almost ALL modern blockbusters.

The film Hanna was the decider for me. It is an excellent, almost arthouse, hitman chase thriller starring a young Saorise Ronan in a fearless performance as an ass-kicking young assassin. This film included a strange sadistic pimp, a climactic, murderous battle in an abandoned fun fair, a worrying parent/child relationship, sexual awakenings from two central teenage characters, a 12 year old breaking men’s necks and a man murdered, hung upside down, pierced by arrows and bled like a pig. It was rated 12a. I mention nothing of the slow pace, pitch black tone, sophisticated terminology and complicated espionage plot. To this day I honestly don’t understand that certification. As stated I do not wish to censor another’s voice but I feel this film was not only too strong in its content but just simply not for children. Its a complicated and subtle film for adults. Its only appeal to children would be the fact the lead is young herself but equally the Shining has a young lead and no one would ever class that as being for children.

This raises a point that really sticks in my crotch over the certification “Game” film studios play: Horror. A lot of horror films are now purely toothless monsters that rely on startling jumps, murky instagram filters and clown make up to make them scary. Or purely gore and nudity. Sex and violence seem to be what people get most up in arms about censorship wise (especially when combined) but something as a subtle as ‘Alien’ in its combination of the two as opposed to the trashy, obvious and pointless ‘Hostel’ films it is far more affecting and horrific. A lot of horror films are being passed as 12a or a very light 15 which is indicitive of the fact the studio demands as big an audience as possible so robs it of any weight or depth. Films like The Exorcist, The Ring, The Descent, The Thing, Nightmare on Elm Street and even Psycho are inherently terrifying not because they are gory or make you jump but because they deal with child possession, distrust of technology and fear of the unknown, fear of the dark and claustrophobia, fear of one another, fear of our nightmares, deep-seated parental abuse and in the case of the Shining – our own minds. They are justifiably all 15 or above and don’t pull their punches as horror should not. Horror in context should allow us to question ourselves and the world around us as it preys on basic fears like I said waaaay back in my werewolf post. If they were to self-expurgate you would have nothing of any great worth or interest so by lessening the certificate you are lessening its impact and to my mind, its purpose.

Blockbusters are going through something of a renaissance of late. Some of my favourite films have been the biggest grossing in the last 5 or 6 years: Christopher Nolan’s output, The Marvel Films, Skyfall, The Hunger Games yet all of these have “played the game” of cutting the bare minimum that allows it to pass with a 12a rating. A good point to be made here is I don’t remember the last time I saw a PG certificate on ANYTHING. Its either U or 12a at the cinema. What I find interesting is the certifications themselves. U, PG and 12 use the traffic like psychographics of Green, Amber and Red as progressive signals for warning. 12 and 15 share exactly the same colour scheme in their ident whereas 18 is a much deeper hue of red to relate a more aggressive warning. Between the ages of 12 and 15 there is only 3 years, so why the distinction of two separate certificates that don’t actually look any different? Why indeed? The desire for a wider audience against artistic expression and a questioning mind has boiled down to a 3 year age gap. Yet the same is true for 15 to 18 but 18 is the national age of adulthood. You are officially an adult at 18 and as the BBFC’s guidelines themselves state: Adults should be free to choose their own entertainment. Anyone below that age and it becomes a very careful game of “Simon Says” with the industry and nannying to the audience and a 15 year old requires less “Nannying” than a 12 year old but this does not mean a 12 year old is the same as, say, a six year old which is what the 12a certificate implies.

Ultimately for me I feel this means we have lost the meaning of the an age restriction and considered censorship. Filmmakers and studios simply see them as irritating restrictions to be loopholed out of or worked around and this is very much to cinema’s detriment. Risks aren’t being taken and as such films aren’t allowed to experiment and less is actually being said in cinema. For the reasons of certification films that are rated higher tend not to get seen or buried beneath the mass consumer friendly entities. As I say some of my favourites have been rated 12a but they tend to be based on existing properties and therefore require a certain element of experimentation so as not to repeat themselves with existing depictions/adaptations. Case in point: RoboCop whose meditative tone and graphic depiction of biology, medicine and psychology would have been far more impactful and would have made a more noteworthy film had they pushed the content over the 15 certificate mark. It would then be more likely to stand shoulder to shoulder with the original as opposed to in its shadow. Ultimately it bears little resemblance to Verhoven’s classic and to be frank would have probably just been a better film if it had dropped the moniker altogether. But that’s another massive audience share you’ve just lost…

My favourite current director is Ben Wheatley whose still relatively slim output has been of a staggeringly high quality and extremely experimental within cinematic confines. And they have almost ALL been massively violent, obscene, unsettling, unhinged and affecting. His forthcoming adaptation of JG Ballard’s ‘High Rise’ looks set to be no different and I’m hoping will gain nothing less than a heavy 15 but more likely an 18 as it will mean he has taken the source material seriously and is making progress which if you recall is what I said censorship was all about. Critically analysing ourselves and the world and voicing the wrongs so they may be changed. This is what art does to us and that is what a censor will do and should do to art.

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Post Script: The BBFC website will be launching its new revised guidelines on February 24th and you can look at the specifics here (pdf alert!). I have emailed them directly with a link to this article and a query regarding my concerns. Whether they will reply or not remains to be seen but if they do I will add that to this post. They do a tough but necessary job that we all pay attention to but rarely acknowledge, cinema and all art would be a very unpleasant minefield to negotiate without some form of censorship. This article does not seek to criticise their work or necessity, simply to wearily reflect on the fact that yet again “MARKETING” is ruining great art. Or even its mere possibility. Please check out their website and continue to view with discretion.

50 in 2013

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I read some books this year. Fifty to be exact.

I’m not normally one for new year’s resolutions as I feel if a change needs to be made you can do that whenever the hell you like not at some arbitrary line in the sand drawn by a fairly loose abstract calendar based on changing weather conditions. Anyway. Last year I read 2 books that weren’t comics or poetry collections which, for someone trying to be a writer, is utterly pathetic and shameful. Therefore I decided to do a challenge frequently undertaken by users of Goodreads but was inspired by internet hilarity generator and all-round loveable creature Ophelia Dagger. I set my target as fifty books to be read in 2013 which equates to about one a week. My rules were: no non-fiction (because I don’t enjoy it), no poetry, I can’t have read the book before, no comics/graphic novels and out of necessity must be short enough to be read in a week.

After various pauses and crashes of will I actually managed it! Hoorah! And I am sure you are all dying to know what books they were. Yeah, course you are. Well I’m going to tell you anyway. In the order I read them starting January 1st to today:

  • Dracula – Bram Stoker
  • The Pursuit of Love – Nancy Mitford
  • The End of Mr. Y – Scarlett Thomas
  • Women in Love – DH Lawrence
  • Don’t Tell Me The Truth About Love – Dan Rhodes
  • Turn of the Screw – Henry James
  • Hemlock & After – Angus Wilson
  • The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
  • Hard Times – Charles Dickens
  • Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness
  • Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins
  • Lord of the Flies – William Golding
  • The Road – Cormac McCarthy
  • The Ask and The Answer – Patrick Ness
  • Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins
  • The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter
  • Tale of a Tub – Jonathan Swift
  • Monsters of Men – Patrick Ness
  • Diary of a Nobody – George and Weedon Grossmith
  • Moon of Gomrath – Alan Garner
  • Three Men in a Boat – Jerome K Jerome
  • The Flame Alphabet – Ben Marcus
  • Red Moon – Benjamin Percy
  • The Old Man & The Sea – Ernest Hemmingway
  • The Invisible Man – HG Wells
  • A Country Doctor – Franz Kafka
  • A Song of Stone – Iain Banks
  • I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
  • Boneland – Alan Garner
  • Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
  • Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
  • Franny & Zooey – JD Salinger
  • The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan
  • The Dead – James Joyce
  • King Solomon’s Mines – H Rider Haggard
  • The Tenth Man – Graham Greene
  • The Pearl – John Steinbeck
  • Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote
  • Beau Geste – PC Wren
  • Wise Blood – Flannery O’Connor
  • The Duel – Joseph Conrad
  • Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis
  • Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes
  • Amsterdam – Ian McEwan
  • Lost Art of Keeping Secrets –
  • Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut
  • Dark Matter – Michelle Paver
  • The Woman in Black – Susan Hill
  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne

Fifty doesn’t sound a lot when you say it but in a list its a lot more than you realise. Some people were reading 100 this year!

As you can see I did my best to vary the type of book I was reading, be that by genre, sex of the author and its period. This revealed something interesting. For all the talk of “LITERARY FICTION” a title I hate and I believe is utterly false and misrepresentative, it uses the same tools, syntax and language every other genre of novel does it just normally uses more of it. As ever, it was the self-acknowledged or those forcibly titled ‘Literary’ that I liked least. The title (chiefly British) of ‘Literary Fiction’ seemed to only ever to actually mean ‘social realist’ and rather dull. Having said that there were a few confessedly ‘Literary’ novels I did really enjoy this year but it still makes me more aware of what a pompous and pointless moniker it is.

Anyway, rant over. Lets start at the bottom, shall we? Far and away my least favourite book all year was ‘The End of Mr. Y’ – a self-consciously edgy novel that tried waaaaaaay too hard to be clever than it actually was by name dropping various theorists but investigating none of their theories to any depth and almost entirely forgetting about a plot. It was a sore disappointment as it is set in Canterbury where I was brought up and the writer lectures at UKC so finding out it sucked was a bit sad. Sense of an Ending and Amsterdam were my two forays into the painfully dull world of Booker prize winners and proved what over-written, paper thin and largely vacant twaddle the much lauded ‘Literary Fiction’ is. Amsterdam actually irritated me with its word vomit prose and wholly self-involved and unlikeable characters which may have been McEwans purpose but frankly it worked too well then Ian. Sense of an Ending just bored me however, it ‘meditated’ on the idea of memory but made no point and seemed to forget its own story, rather ironically. Hard Times and Tale of a Tub, whilst in no way BAD, were the other couple of my least favourites. Dickens has never really been that enjoyable to me and relies to heavily on coincidence for my liking. Swift was just DULL in the extreme, I realise the Tale of a Tub is by definition a story that wanders around and makes no point and is an early investigation into ‘Wit’ but christ, wit is something that dates quite severely it seems. I confess to skim reading a lot of that one. As I say neither were badly written just utterly contrary to enjoyment to me.

There were a lot of books that I didn’t dislike but had no real impact on me. If I don’t mention them these are probably the ones.

A surprise discovery was my enjoyment of ‘dated’ fiction, i.e. Writing that was done pre-WWII as this seems to be when the more modern tropes of writing we come to accept as ‘standard’ today come into common use. Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde, Invisible Man, The Duel, 39 Steps were all cracking good reads that I enjoyed start to finish and would highly recommend. I do understand that some adjustment to the style of prose must be made but if you persist I can safely say the Victorians knew how to write a ripping yarn.

Many a good laugh was had, 3 Men in a Boat and Lucky Jim being my particular favourites for this but Diary of a Nobody, Don’t Tell me The Truth About Love and Breakfast at Tiffany’s all had good giggles in them too.

Whilst not included on the list Freud’s ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ had a profound effect on me and made quite an impression on my thinking and the book I was writing at the time. Slaughterhouse 5 also gave me definite pause for thought.

It turned out the ladies had some of the strongest stuff for me this year too. The Bloody Chamber was excellent and wonderfully weird, The Pursuit of Love had the best dialogue and some of the best fun of all the books I read this year and The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets was a charming little romp through the 50s I smiled the whole way through.

A year of dead authors was also a through line. Along with James Herbert, Ian Banks and Richard Matheson passed away in the summer so I took great pleasure in reading some of their work. I Am Legend was fantastic and had one of the most moving chapters of any book I’ve ever read in the middle. I’ve been a fan of Banks for years but this seemed an excuse to indulge a bit more. Wasp Factory is an astonishing debut and made me think twice about my own writing but Song of Stone was incredible, if there was any book that deserved the title of ‘Literary’ this was great literature. Beautifully written with a central mystery that was truly affecting. Highly recommended.

Okay so what were my favourites is what you really want to know, right? Well other than the ones I have actively slandered above, I enjoyed all of them and got something out of each book but there were some clear winners that had a massive impact on me.

I mentioned in a previous post what a cracking read Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy was and Knife of Never Letting Go was by far my favourite. Exceptional writing in any genre, a wonderfully told story with a fascinating cast of characters in a peculiar situation with genuinely painful moments of emotional climax, a wonder and quickly made Ness (along with A Monster Calls) a firm favourite. Dark Matter was creepy and eerie and didn’t oversell its scares but invested in atmosphere to its unending credit making it a horror classic. So good. The Dead started drearily but its finale had a startling effect of love and romance I wasn’t expecting and made me realise why he is so well regarded. Not quite up for Ulysses yet though…

I read Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen as a kid and it basically informed almost all of my reading/writing thereafter so I returned to that series as an adult and was not disappointed. Moon of Gomrath is SO strange and wonderful and magical and brilliant it was like I was a kid again returning to the children’s adventures. Boneland is a wholly different animal however. Almost a modernist tome, a la Ulysses with its dreamlike segments and wandering prose, lack of punctuation and psychological explorations it was a successor to Gomrath and Brisingamen in name only, feeling a lot like Cormac McCarthy in many ways. An incredible achievement and proof if it were needed that age does not diminish talent. Would never be considered ‘Literary’ as it is ‘Fantasy’ but does more for literature and language than some of the other purported ‘Award Winners’ did.

Lord of the Flies was not a set text for me at school but I had seen the various film incarnations so knew the story. I was not expecting it to be one of the best written, most challenging, dark, mysterious, profound and out and out wonderful novels I have ever read. Its hard line cynicism and misanthropy is obviously appealing to me but the prose is so subtle yet beautiful in its imagery I devoured the book and was utterly satisfied with its crashing finale. This is a book that is still relevant today and I see why it is taught at schools now, if you read it as a kid read it again now, it is stunning literature and is justification for Golding’s nobel prize. What amazed me most was the much talked of ‘fit’ Simon has halfway through. This is omitted from every film/television adaptation despite it being where the title of the book comes from and its central message. The common line is that Simon is hallucinating that the impaled pig’s head is talking to him while he has an epileptic fit. Personally this excuse does not wash, fit or not Golding is pointing out the rather hellish tendencies of humanity throughout the book and this is the mouthpiece for the novel. The devil is of our own making “close, close, close!” and is our “essential illness”. A hard fact to admit and one we still struggle with but those two pages for me are some of the most insightful, harrowing, profound, intelligent and brilliant in all of literature. Please, please, please, re-read or just read this book. It is amazing.

Kings Solomon’s Mines was flat out fantastic and a true Romance with a capital R. I loved this book not just because it was so much fun and exciting but also of what it represents and is largely ignored. It is very much the flip-side of the same coin as Heart of Darkness (another great book) and I am flummoxed as to why this book is not used as a core text. Whilst Conrad’s effort is painting the ‘Darkness’ in many ways including at the heart of a colonial empire Haggard is very much part of the old guard and on-side with colonialism. And yet… It paints the “savages” in far more finer detail than Conrad. The war of the tribes is far more akin to some sort of Shakespearean battle and all the native characters are invested with similar characteristics as the White characters. The whole book feels like it is doing its best to incorporate colonialism into the modern way of thinking which is still ultimately wrong but does (in my opinion) more for personifying what were just seen as mere commodities, i.e. slaves and savages, at the time. Also, for me KSM is the height of Romantic fiction, coming 10 years before Heart of Darkness it is (again, to my mind) the last great Romantic novel. The prose is quite literally ‘sumptuous’ and evocative, a scene near the beginning on the deck of their boat being a particular moment of “Holy Shit, I’m there!” as well as the magnificent descriptions of the mines themselves. It seems to be a lost treasure, ironically, and one that is worth investigating. The racism and sexism do take some stomaching but there is a definite diamond under that dirt.

My final two favourites are, I realise, subjective but I insist on their merits as they had a massive impact on my writing and on me personally.

Women in Love was a curve ball thrown by my best pal Dr. Smith. His offerings followed a pattern: either being a core text from critical analyst FR Leavis or being about/set around academia. WIL is one of the former and was utterly eye opening to me. It was a weighty book and I should probably have left it as it set me behind early in the year but I persevered and was rewarded with a book so singular and resonant I was amazed. I still can’t put my finger on where my utter love for this book comes from: the poetic prose and imagery, the dense metaphors and symbolism, the fascinating social commentary, the contrary ideology, the brilliant and finely drawn quartet of lead characters or simply its period style and setting. I’m inclined to think it is to do with its inherent scepticism. Lawrence is clearly trying to un-think standards and norms of the time which with hindsight is truly astonishing. He seems to sense that history is about to repeat itself, i.e. another world war, and is trying to break apart what is largely understood and accepted to varying degrees of success. The one thing he does succeed in is creating a sense of doubt in the reader, the last words of the book seem to summon this idea to the forefront of the reader’s mind: “I don’t believe it.” This is a negative book and I mean that in the best possible way. It is the negative of what should be written or what is understood. Lawrence’s view on Love is complicated in this book and his desire to see it reset is somewhat naive and a little tricky but again he certainly makes you question its validity or what you accept about it. There is a difference between Skepticism and Cynicism, the latter being healthy and that which this book breeds in spades. Question everything and take nothing for granted. Plus I think this book is a pretty good counter argument to cries of sexism levelled at Lawrence. They may be valid criticisms but this book certainly does not make me think of him as a sexist. The reverse in fact. Its not an easy read and is very much of its time but made me utterly rethink my own life, love and my writing and very very very few things can make that claim. A wonderful book and an essential experience.

Finally, Suzanne Collins is flavour of the month with the Hunger Games trilogy riding high on bestsellers lists and cinema box offices worldwide and I have already discussed my love for this franchise on this blog but it deserves reiterating: The Hunger Games are books that should be popular – well written, enjoyable books with a genuine positive message. In a male dominated world Collins and Katniss are a breath of fresh air and testament to the fact that, well, fuck gender, a person is a person and we’re all in this shitty world together and its our choices that make the difference. Its ‘liberal rhetoric’ as the Yanks have it is such a wonderful and noble thing to have put so obviously in such a popular book I will sing these book’s praises till the end of my days. If only more writers had the balls to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Collins and Malorie Blackman who make mass produced, hugely popular and widely consumed ART with a real and pertinent message. Aside from its social importance and necessity in this day and age the series is just a wonderful read. Fun, exciting and heartfelt each book is blast to read and perhaps heavy handed but never unwieldy. Mockingjay is undoubtedly my favourite and is some fucking BOLD writing for a Young Adult novel too but they are all brilliant pieces of literature which I firmly believe will stand the test of time and be hailed as classics alongside the equally brilliant Harry Potter series in future generations as the books that not only got us reading again but got us thinking long and hard about the bigger questions in life but without the pomp, pretention, obfuscating language, cliquey elitism and snobbery of modern ‘Literature’. I implore you to at least give them a try.

And that’s all I got. I realise that was quite long so thank you for reading the whole thing and I hope you got something out of it. Now I have the internet again you will hopefully be getting a little more out of me on here so please do keep checking in. In the meantime, happy new year and all the best for 2014!