Friday, 11 January 2013
Back in November last year, I had a great idea.
Having spent my adult life condemning cards as a waste of paper, writing time, and postmen's arms, at 23 I found myself seeing the appeal of a Christmas Card List, as a way of getting in touch with friends who are too geographically distant to see as often as I'd like.
Cards are still rubbish, though, and I didn't fancy trying to make my own, so why not share something with my friends that they could treasure long into the New Year? Why not give them the gift ... of tunes?
And so The 2012 Mix was conceived. By the time it was actually born, long overdue, it was early January, but I posted those badboys out regardless to a number of close friends*.
In classic fashion, though, I entirely forgot to attach any tracklist, rendering the CD completely useless as th music discovery gateway I'd intended. So for the benefit of everyone who's asked me what the songs are, and for anyone playing along at home (in which case, here, have this zip file), here it is:
1 Kitty Pryde – Give Me Scabies
2 Blood Diamonds (feat Grimes) – Phone Sex
3 Big Boi – Mama Told Me
4 Taylor Swift – We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together
5 Summer Camp – City
6 Japandroids – Younger Us
7 Sleigh Bells – Leader of the Pack
8 HEALTH – Tears
9 Joe Goddard – Gabriel
10 Chvrches – Mother We Share
11 Rustie – Death Mountain
12 Crystal Castles – Sad Eyes
13 Lemonade – Neptune
14 Tennis – Petition
15 Icona Pop – I Love It
16 Kanye West – Cold
17 Grimes – Circumambient
18 Carly Rae Jepsen – Call Me Maybe
Between this and my end of year round-up (there's a lot of crossover), I think pretty much every artist I spent serious time with in 2012 is represented.
If you're observant, you'll probably notice the mix has got a bit of a loose mirroring structure going on,
because I'm like that sometimes. You might also notice that two of these songs didn't come out in 2012, because a) I only realised this after burning the first CD, and b) I don't care, I like both a lot and first listened to them last year so there.
*DISCLAIMER: If you didn't receive one of these, and you're currently scowling, it's probably because I was too scared of being redundant in the face of your superior music knowledge, and ice-cool tastes, or because I don't know you. There's also that.
Sunday, 6 January 2013
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS
People talk about The Cabin in the Woods as a post-modern horror film, and it sort of is, but the word I keep coming back to is ‘maximalist’.
That makes it hard to write about. The film is essentially its own essay. Taking into account the fact that talking about anything, even its opening scene, could outright ruin the experience of watching The Cabin in the Woods, and it’s almost impossible to know where to start.
So I'm just going to just spoil everything. Consider this fair warning. It’s a film worth seeing, and worth seeing with as few preconceptions as possible. A lot of the joy of Cabin in the Woods lies in discovering it.
If you haven’t seen it yet, I hope the fact that I singled it out of a great year of movies is all the encouragement you’ll need to check it out. If you have… well, I hope you’re sitting comfortably.
Cabin in the Woods constantly delights in pulling out not just the rug but the entire floor out from under you.
The film's 90-minute running time is divided into rough thirds. It's actually a pretty great American Pie-style teen comedy for its first half hour, mixing up gross-out humour with genuine wit: Five College Kids. One RV. The Holiday of a Lifetime.
Then a hatch opens up in the floor of the cabin, and the five of them step into the basement, and accidentally raise the dead. The Buckners, to be precise, a “zombie redneck torture family”. The kids start to get picked off, one by one, in a variety of gruesome ways, as they try and escape the cabin.
Then, just as it looks like they’re all dead and we can all go home, the film takes a left turn into sheer insanity. The two surviving kids find a hidden underground hatch, and step behind the curtain, and help bring about the end of the world.
…Except it’s not that simple, even structurally. The whole film jumps between these kids and an entirely different set of characters. They’re actually the first characters on screen, as the film cuts from its credit sequence showing various historical depictions of human sacrifice to two guys discussing their wives over a coffee. Pull back: they’re in a lab of some variety. Pull back: they’re monitoring the kids.
Over the course of the film, we pull back and pull back (it’s here that Goddard’s Lost pedigree shines clearest) until the full truth of the situation is apparent. They’re the guys who make the horror movies – manipulate the kids, prep the locations, and drop in the killer clowns/zombies/unicorns until all the kids are dead. They’re making them for the benefit of the Old Ones, world-destroying demons whose hunger for human sacrifices apparently got a whole lot funkier circa 1968.
It’s easy to see where the post-modern thing comes from. We’re watching the film from over these guys’ shoulders – they’re the filmmakers, checking conditions are just right on their banks of monitors, and the audience, cracking a beer and whooping as the blonde pulls her top off.
On its own, that could make for a reasonably interesting film, but nothing particularly new – a combination of Scream and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Trying to force the audience to question why they’re here watching these acts of unspeakable violence is a bit of a well-worn furrow for horror films.
And I think that, for people who found the film a bit clever-clever or less original than it thought it was, this is where they stopped. But I think that misunderstands the film a little.
It’s a film about pretty much everything. The catharsis of violence in movies, yes, as both a good and bad thing. How that ties into our need to see people punished. The way the older generation can view the youth in tabloid-simplistic terms. How young beautiful bodies are commoditised. Reality TV. The fact that the younger generation genuinely are arrogant and selfish. Whether it’s right to force people to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Whether it’s right to say no. How quickly we can become desensitised to that question, and to graphic violence. The rise of ‘torture porn’. How we cope with a violent world. How we cope with our jobs, unethical as they might be. The banality of evil. How we cope with boredom.
Pause for breath. It’s a film which tries turning on every switch, is what I’m saying. Even better, it’s on everyone’s side. There are, at least, ten characters in this film, and Cabin in the Woods is interested in all of their viewpoints. The guys behind the curtain aren’t depicted as straight-up bad guys – they’re sympathetic and, more importantly, they get a lot of the best lines. Meanwhile, those last two survivors – who are in many ways, the exact opposite of the cast of Buffy and Angel, unwilling to sacrifice themselves, even to save the world – aren’t damned for that decision.
It’s a really inclusive horror movie, and not just in terms of its characters. The thing that hurts the most about Cabin in the Woods being pigeonholed as a po-mo clever-cleverfest is that implies it thinks it's better than its audience, or at least the audience of your standard slasher flick.
It’s happy for the viewer to take the ‘leave your brain at the door, and enjoy the ride’ approach, and just enjoy the ride. There are gruesome murders, and action, and jokes, and boobs (and abs), and a mile-a-minute plot.
The violence is being shown from multiple angles on screens, but people keep walking in front of the action with beers and cocktails.
It’s a sharp bit of commentary, yes, but it’s also sheer sensory overload, and that’s good. Switching your brain off for two hours isn’t a bad thing. That’s one of the most beautiful things about art.
I keep coming back to the poster for the film, which is actually a masterful bit of marketing. Its Rubik’s Cube cabin gives nothing away, but hints to expect something a bit different, a reshuffling of the usual stock elements.
It’s a great visual metaphor, a picture worth a good chunk of the 1,351 words I’ve written so far.
Cabin in the Woods is a puzzle to be solved, something to turn over in your mind. It hands the viewer chunks of knowledge, and challenges them to put it all together before the film gets round to explaining them.
Meanwhile, it’s doing the same thing itself, taking the hundreds of horror films Goddard and Whedon have seen in the past and constructing its own internal logic for them so they fit neatly alongside one another. It doesn’t just point out that the characters in these films do things you’d never do, hahaha, it actually tries to find a reason why they’re behaving like that – they’re being manipulated by unseen forces, spraying pheromones and closing off doors – and explains why they’re there in the first place. It even takes a moment to explain why horror traditions are so different around the world.
That’s nicked straight from Escher – an optical illusion which hurts your brain (and eyes) to look at at first, but which, the longer you look at it, starts to makes sense.
Or is it a Picasso, and the Cubist idea that you can only get at the truth by viewing it from all different angles? The film, like the image on the poster, is something multi-faceted, as I hope I’ve shown. Many of those facets
are contradictory: It cares for all of its characters; it’s totally happy to throw them to the wolves. Jules is being mind-controlled into wiggling her bum around in hot pants; she’s an attractive girl wiggling her bum around in hot pants. The film begs to be picked apart; it’s sheer escapism.
Cabin in the Woods both has its cake and eats it, to such an extent that Whedon and Goddard must’ve stumbled on the secret for an infinite cake-machine. That might be off-putting. It might sound ethically unstable. It might sound like a film-student manifesto. It actually does undermine the scariness of the film.
But for every piece you don’t like, there are usually three others running simultaneously you might enjoy. You can opt to ignore a layer – like closing one eye behind your 3D glasses – and still be bombarded with enough stimulation/ideas/excitement/stuff for a film twice the length. That’s what I mean when I say Cabin in the Woods is a maximalist horror film, and it’s what I mean when I say that it’s the single most interesting film I saw in 2012.
Saturday, 5 January 2013
2012 was the very much The Year I Moved To London. I found my flat on New Year's Eve and moved in on the second day of the year, so the two are inextricably linked in my mind. So it seemed only right, in my round-up of the year, to talk about the feeling of being A Londoner (or the lack thereof), in relation to the game that got me reflecting on the whole thing.
DISHONORED & LONDON
It's important to stress at this point: Dishonored isn't set in London. It isn't – the city is called Dunwall. It isn't – the majority of characters speak in American accents, and even the game's title is missing a vital 'u'. It isn't – this is a fantasy universe, with magic powers and giant acid-spitting crabs. It really isn't London.
What Dunwall is is a beautifully realised caricature of London. To achieve that, all that Arkane Studios really needed to get right were two elements – the bricks, and the sky. They nailed both.
The sky varies between sheer grey and sharp blue, but the key is the permanent slight haze. I realise it's at least partly due to draw distance, but it's a beautiful use of its technological limitations. Seeing distant landmarks faded into the mist feels like London to me.
The buildings themselves are just right too, in the way they run up against one another, the texture of their bricks and roof tiles, and most of all the colours – that London mix of sandstone and terracotta and, yup, greyest grey.
I can pinpoint the exact moment that Dishonored becomes brilliant. It takes a little while to reach Dunwall proper – the game's opening takes place in a too-bright palacey bit, then a largely personality-free jail and sewer (which might be beautiful imitations of London's jails and sewers, I guess, not having been to either).
But that moment: You're in the boat of Samuel, the game's resident boatman, as it chugs along whatever Dunwall's equivalent of the Thames is, on your way to meet the hastily-assembled bunch of rebels that are your only allies in the game's world, as you round the corner and their makeshift base comes into sight. A pair of chimneys huffing out smoke into the overcast sky. A giant red-brick towerblock, bits of extraneous masonry pruned away by some unknown explosion. And in between the two, the crux of their headquarters – a pub. Of course it's a pub.
The Hound Pits is a perfect recreation of what a London pub should be – stained-glass door, brass taps, red-cushioned booths, backrooms and cellars ... the only thing it's missing is an overflowing urinal.
From this point, the game opens up – like an estuary, like an oyster, like another tenuously London-relevant simile – in all sorts of ways. Everything comes into focus: the way the game plays – as you get handed a mix-and-match toybox of magical abilities – and its structure – individual 'get in, assassinate target, get out' missions – and, most importantly, its approach-them-as-you-wish levels.
The same weekend I reached this bit, I rode the Thames Clipper for the first time. Heading east from the centre towards Greenwich, you escape the famous monuments pretty quickly, and the shore transforms into docks and those fascinatingly identical chunks of waterside flats.
I loved it, and it was an experience I would always have enjoyed, but something clicked. It's incredibly wanky, but I'm going to defer to Oscar Wilde's Decay of Lying here for a moment:
“Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? ... At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them.”See? Even in the 1890s, people were constructing their own personal London out of snatches of culture they'd experienced. After I started playing Dishonored, the rest of 2012 was spent turning corners and suddenly catching on a moment of strange déjà vu.
As well as being a brilliant imitation of London architecturally, there's something about Dunwall which resonates with the way I think about living in the capital.
A lot of London's history is collapsed into Dunwall. Most obviously, the Victoriana stuff, which is understandable, given how heavily that period still weighs on the capital. But the diseased rats which are constantly underfoot take their lead from the Great Plague of 1666. The occasional steel structures amongst all those brick buildings wouldn't be too far out of place on London skyline up until the end of the '90s. Walls are covered in the scrappy remains of those painted adverts that were the 20th Century's inheritance from its predecessor. The crumbling buildings hint to a post-war landscape.
That's kind of how London works. It's a city built on top of itself, in a very real sense, but especially in the imagination. If you try and summon up a vision of London in your head, everything overlaps - Dickens/Pepys/Curtis/Holmes/the Romans/Wilde/the Krays/Britpop/Abbey Road/Albert Square/graffiti/Zadie Smith/Jack the Ripper/Mary Poppins/gin/opium/tea - and this is the palette Dishonored uses to built its world.
Maybe it's just me. There's a consistency in the way I react to being dropped into any space which is dense with stuff - I'll try and get to the highest point I can, and I'll try and walk every street, retracing my steps endlessly until it feels like I understand how it all connects up.
Dishonored does something very interesting with its second proper level: it drops you right back into the first one again. The message is clear: dig deeper, find the things you didn't last time, and the different routes that link the main landmarks together (like London, Dunwall is best explored with the directions turned off).
It's a ballsy move, and although things are slightly altered, it only pays off because this relatively small map is so dense. The level itself is changed - some pathways open up and others close, there are new obstacles and characters and scripted events to witness. You've had chance to upgrade your abilities - maybe you're able to possess those rats and sneak into places you couldn't before, or you can jump higher and teleport further, opening up the level vertically.
There are conversations to eavesdrop on that might clue you in to a new hidden route; books and letters to read that fill in characters' backstories or the world's lore; and paintings to admire (and steal). Get up high, and you can watch the patterns traced by guards' patrol routes, or just stare out to the fog-smudged skybox horizon.
There's an excess of things to do and see, and there stories to be uncovered everywhere. Ultimately, that's probably the greatest strength of both Dishonored and London.
Wednesday, 2 January 2013
I've already talked about today's pick - very briefly - in my Comics round-up post. I called it "the much-anticipated return of Brian K Vaughan, a writer who must shoulder a large part of the blame for my comics habit. The first two issues were good, but failed to blow me away. But returning to it in trade form, I found it rich, complex and … worth writing about in depth, basically."
I'm such a little tease. But I'm not one to break a promise, not least one made on the internet, so here goes:
“Face it, our only choice is to lay low and stay out of trouble. We have a family to think about n--”For all its sci-fi set dressing - the winged and horned main characters, the quest to get escape a warring planet, the excellent monster design from Fiona Staples - at its heart, Saga is a story about what compromises you are and aren't willing to make in order to protect something dear to you, something you've created. It's a comic about selling out.
“Don't! / Don't you every say those words to me! / Sorry. But 'we have a family to think about now' is the rallying cry of losers.”
Saga starts with the birth of the series' apparent eventual protagonist, Hazel - a character who doesn't speak a single word throughout the first volume, due to being a baby, but does narrate the action, in borderless captions scribbled on top of the pictures, children's book-style.
In fact, she even gets the book's first words:
...Which is pretty much the comic's mission statement (especially because it's almost immediately undercut with the slightly more earthy “Am I [defecating]?” from the birthing mother, Alana, but we'll get back to that). The first scene, as well as being a beautifully, brutally honest scene of childbirth, keeps drawing this same line between creating a child and creating, you know, art.
“But ideas are fragile things,” says Hazel, as her parents consistently ground these highfalutin ideas with talk of sex and poo and pain. “That's why people create with someone else.”
And so the line is drawn, nice and thick, between Hazel's mother and father, and the book's - Vaughan and Staples, writer and artist, each providing their half of the whole. Within moments of birth, Hazel is in danger, and the book has its drive: Mommy & Daddy have to get off the planet before the various forces hunting them down can hurt Baby.
Every character has a clear set of values, and something they want to protect - which is actually a child in every case - and are asked by the story: what are you willing to give up for that cause?
Take Marko, who puts his violent past behind him to become a pacifist, a vow made physical in the sheathing of his ceremonial sword. But, with two bounty hunters, a TV-faced robot and two armies all trying to harm his daughter, that doesn't last too long.
For The Will and Prince Robot those dilemmas are only set up in this volume. (And if you don't want to know how, skip the rest of this paragraph). Will, clearly disinterested in bounty hunting, finds a little girl enslaved into prostitution, and realises the only way to save her is by buying her freedom. His hypocrisy is constantly, and disturbingly, questioned: “it's morally acceptable to execute people of any age, but only to make love to a select few?” Meanwhile, Prince Robot is sucked into the conflict when he discovers he has a child of his own on the way (courtesy of an earlier scene of hot robot sex) and is told he can't return to the kingdom until this matter is dealt with. Later, his TV-screen face - which flashes involuntarily with symbols showing his thoughts - shows a rattle with a ribbon tied around it, right before he puts a big sinewy hole in the chest of another character.
Violence is something the characters of Saga are forced into. For a sci-fi adventure comic, there are surprisingly few action scenes, and what it is there is ugly. The nearest we get to 'good' violence is Marko's beserker rage with that sword - and any glamour is undercut by him pratfalling ingloriously out-of-panel.
It might be reaching a bit to read Marko's attempts at pacificism – and his lack of consistency on the matter – as Vaughan himself trying to avoid big action setpieces, but there's certainly a sense of him trying to stomp down on any signs of genre convention throughout.
Vaughan and Staples are drawing as much from fantasy imagery as he does traditional sci-fi, but - like Marko and Alana turning their back on their races, which happen to be magic- and science-based respectively - Saga isn't interested in playing by either genre's rules. Mundane real-world elements are constantly dragged in, from the aforementioned Chaucerian interest in bodily excretions to everyday technology (one character complains about auto-updating apps crashing his phone).
Even the choice of Fiona Staples on art is unconventional. She draws some deeply excellent aliens (the character design of The Stalk, another bounty hunter, being an art highlight of not just this book but of the year). What she really excels in is drawing people and emotions - something Vaughan always seems to find in his collaborators. They're the focus, not her (admittedly gorgeous) backgrounds. So often, building the world is the real meat of sci-fi, but here they're sketchy, smudgy, watercolour-soft.
It all reflects the fact that the characters, on both sides, just aren't interested in the big trad sci-fi conflict. They're certainly not going to be piloting X-Wings into the heart of a space station anytime soon.
After all, for one of comics' best plotters of adventure stories and thrillers - what Graham Greene would have called 'entertainments' - Vaughan spends a lot of time undermining the plot. We know Hazel gets out fine because she's narrating the story, and because she explicitly tells us as much.
Look at the audacious double page spread which has you turning the book sideways, then fills it with a single object, just to emphasise how big it is. The amount of negative space - which seemed designed to light up internet forums with complaints about 'wasted page space' - had me laughing at the outrageous ballsiness of it all.
Look at the way each issue hits Vaughan's traditional rhythm, of opening and closing full-page splashes. But as much as that might be a establishing a threat, or a character bleeding out through the fist-sized crater in their lungs, there's there's also an issue which starts with a zoomed-out image of a character sat on the toilet, reading a romance novel, with the rest of the page again given up to negative space.
Even a classic sci-fi establishing shot of a spaceship steering perilously through some kind of terracotta asteroid field is undercut with the mundane words “Phone: call my agent”.
You could read a lot of this stuff as self-loathing, an author who thinks he's too good for the genre, or as a single finger up to the readers.
But Saga isn't mean-spirited. It's simply a really confident work, the kind we're not used to seeing too often in comics. There's no pandering, no compromise - Vaughan has said that's why he's publishing the series through Image. With Vaughan's loyal fanbase, and the series' well-deserved sales figures, this is an idea which will survive without having to surrender anything, unlike its characters. So why not pull out all the stops, all at once, and see what happens?
The first issue of Saga is available for free on Comixology. It's good, but as I said earlier, it was only in the collected trade that it really sung for me.
Tuesday, 1 January 2013
Happy New Year! 2012 is officially over, and with it our collection of Best Of lists. But I have trouble letting go and so, over the next few days, I'm going to be writing something a bit more focused in each of the media I covered before - games, films, comics, and, starting right now, music. Enjoy.
Some bands just have the perfect name, y’know?
The Knife. Crystal Castles. Ladytron. Robyn. These names are statements of intent – deep cuts; dark cocaine fantasyland; the beat of an androgynous titanium breast; popstars don’t have surnames, etc – and the very best of them could just be copied and pasted over and over, to the length of a full review.
Not coincidentally, these bands are also some of my go-to touchpoints for describing Chvrches.
Chvrches. (or more properly: CHVRCHES, which is even better but totally exhausting to type.) They were previously named Churches – which is much less perfect – until they realised that Google needn’t be their enemy, they dropped the U for a sharp Romanesque V.
As Alan Moore, Dan Brown and the cast of Sesame Street will tell you, there’s a certain magic about the letter V. It’s a great visual, echoed in The Mother We Share's cover art, endlessly repeatable and suggestive. There’s a hint at that most dog-eared of music journo descriptors,‘cathedrals of sound’, and at something a bit eldritch. The surgical removal of a soft, organic vowel sound, replaced with crystal-clear enunciation. The way it turns the word into something familiar, altered…
Seven letters. Am I reaching a bit?
Of course I am. There’s something perfectly-formed about Chvrches which repels my attempts at analysis. I have listened to these two songs – The Mother We Share and Lies – on endless repeat since I found the mp3s. But each time I try to probe further, I just surface with handfuls of cliché, like silt between my fingers.
Statement of intent. Sharp. Crisp. Cold. Icy – but no, that’s not right. Laser-tight. Beamed. Warped. Alternate Universe Pop.
When I try and talk about them, I keep reaching for tactile words. I think that’s telling. The best synths have a hallmark texture, and listening to this thin selection of songs over and over feels like exploring that surface, like running your fingers over old wallpaper, like they were designed to be made into Audiosurf levels.
So let's explore a little: Lies, 2:25–2:45. It starts with an echoing "anyoneanyoneanyone", then suddenly the crunching synths - which have until this point supported the song's weight - drop out to make way for another echo: ohohohohohoh. It's a smooth stone skimming along a fluid surface, which is left to just hang there for a moment. Then it's given an electronic tweak. The sound starts to multiply and mutate, getting layered over itself, another anyoneanyoneanyone dropped on top of it... and then the stompy bit drops back in, like a godsent L-shaped Tetris piece at just the right moment. Delicious.
Because of that reliance of the synths to build the songs, it's hard to read the sonics as anything but cold and mechanical, especially given the way they squash and squeeze Lauren Mayberry's wonderful vocals. But the way I respond to these songs is anything but inorganic - as I type this, I'm dancing at the laptop, thrusting my hands into the air at each climax, singing the nearest approximations of the words I can manage.
At their best, Chvrches are capable of what I think of as 'the Arcade Fire Moment' – songs that can flood into you, through your mouth and eyes and ears and into your heart and lungs. Songs like that have been few and far between of late for me, so it’s something I treasure.
I want to say the songs are built around a basic emotional core, as simple as the Beach Boys, but I couldn't begin to tell you what any they're about. Well, I can: they’re about looping endlessly on the biggest headphones you’ve got, and looking up to one of those perfectly clear London skies and thinking this is it, all transcendental and that... Just not, like, what the words are actually about.
But since when has that mattered round here?
(And just in case you're as addicted as I am, here is pretty much everything else they've put out. For all my brow-furrowing over that V earlier, it's worth noting the playfulness of retitling their Prince cover to I Would Die for V)