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Category: Arts and Letters

Super [Review]

We might as well get this out of the way.

Some other reviews have noted that Super is basically an extended riff on one big joke: a psychotic loser clubbing people with a pipe wrench in a silly suit. But that is being unfair, not only because the violence does come in MANY MANY WAYS (at one point, Boltie, Page’s character, stabs a henchman with X-23 claws), but also because the nihilism underlying the film is exhilarating.

The plot is as simple as it is ludicrous. Frank is a cook in a diner whose greatest moments in life come from marrying Liv Tyler (no, I mean her character Sarah) and from helping to stop a burglar. But his marriage unravels as his wife becomes hooked on drugs, eventually leaving him to be with drug dealer Jacques (or Jock, as Frank knows him). After watching an episode of Bibleman the Holy Avenger, he becomes convinced that he is chosen, and dons the mantle of the Crimson Bolt to club people who cut the line at the movie theatre.

There are three main reasons why you should watch the film: 1) the actors are very entertaining, 2) the violence is very entertaining and 3) the way it laughs at how sententious Frank is while exposing the hollowness of his ethic. It is not a film with a message or with some special significance, and those who like that sort of thing might want to give this a miss.

1. The acting here is pretty good. Wilson here is so pathetic and unlikeable that I would pump for Jacques, even though he is a stereotypical douche, just because I hate Frank’s delusions. There is obviously a religious parody here, how some Christians take unto themselves some notion that they are brave crusaders for God’s good (or the chosen as Frank puts it). Ellen Page plays Libby as absolutely psychotic, entering a sort of berserkergang after she hurts people. (One glorious scene when she crashes a car into some guy and runs out in her bra shouting and gloating.) It works because it’s a pretty good contrast to the indie chic that she pulls off so effortlessly.

Unfortunately, this is not some superheroine bondage scene but Boltie about to smash a vase over some guy who may or may not have keyed her friend's car.

2. Glorious violence. It is the return of the slapstick school of violence, which involves: too much violence, unexpected violence, disproportionately harsh violence, and pointless violence, as we see from a rather Burn After Reading scene where the inspector gets shot by Jacques’s thugs.

3. What this all means that this film is meant to be a good time watching silly humans be misled, killed and deluded. Take the faux feel good ending, which is silliness by parodying earnestness in the mode of the players at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Crimson Bolt, an utterly violent maniac, ends up with a sort of happy ending (with a pet rabbit) and Sarah the junkie goes on to have a family, playing on everybody’s sense of justice for this maniac to be punished in a cruel and hilarious way. In a way, a reverse-Hamlet making the same point that sometimes things work for no particular reason, and that it is silly to read karmic account-keeping to how things happen.

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Comics and Ballet

[What do the two have in common? Muscular men in tights.]

After a rather productive period of reading earlier this month, I have again become incredibly lazy, barely making it past a few chapters of Feyerabend everyday. I have mainly kept myself alive with comic books, which now takes up a fair bit of my monthly budget.

Below are some brief thoughts on some things I have read/heard/seen:

1. The State of the Art by Iain M. Banks
Banks is one of those authors I like, but can’t really finish. His writing is exciting, humorous and he is really good at thrilling sex scenes, but sometimes, like in Complicity, his plot becomes too obvious and hence a little draggy. All in all, a better writer than storyteller.
The State of the Art is also like that. It has a few good pieces, the eponymous novella being the best of them all, and some rather bewildering experimental ones, especially Scratch. My favourite short story is definitely Cleaning Up, possibly because I love stories with misanthropic undertones.

2. Hickman’s Fantastic Four and FF run

Hickman’s Fantastic Four run has stretched across three years and brought us many great ideas: the Council of Reeds, the return of Nathaniel Richards, the Future Foundation, Johnny Storm’s death, the rebirth of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, the Universal Inhumans, the Mad Celestials… Well, his work has simply been outstanding and any fan of Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben (also Franklin and Valeria and Nathaniel) should pick up his stuff. But start at the beginning because it’s all very confusing.

One of the really cool Doom covers.

Franklin Richards battles a Celestial

Right before "I have been a prideful and foolish man."

3. Wolverine and the X-Men and other X-Men titles

I’m picking up four X-Men titles-Wolverine and the X-Men, X-Men, Uncanny X-Men and Generation Hope (and the limited series Wolverine and the X-Men: Alpha and Omega)- because I really like the X-men. Something, probably, about being born with power, which makes it all more deliciously existentialist than the Captain America bit.

Wolverine and the X-men has great artwork and good characters, but it hasn’t hit its stride with a really good arc. X-men and Uncanny X-men are good old-fashioned action titles, and I really love the vampiric Jubilee. Generation Hope started out pretty strong, but it plods along and can’t seem to get off the ground, but maybe the confrontation with Zero will speed things up.

5. The Manhattan Projects

My latest purchase has been the Manhattan Projects, also by Hickman and it features a badass robot-killing Einstein (Japanese death robots designed by Soichiro Honda and attacks through a portal powered by Buddhist monks). Extremely promising.

7. Swan Lake

I watched the SDT’s Swan Lake yesterday, mostly because I felt that I really needed to get back to wasting my money on plays and such. I remember being rather sleepy for bits, but once I got home, I couldn’t stop youtubing the dances again and again. I still think the most striking dance is the Cygnets’ Dance, but I enjoyed the Black Swan Pas de Deux.

Hard Candy (Review)

I was on holiday the week before and was much too lazy to write anything last week. But then I felt what little writing skill I had ebbing away and felt compelled to write something, anything.

So this is a review of the 2005 film Hard Candy, starring Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson (here on Metacritic). I have been meaning to get this for a while, well just for Ellen Page, and I finally managed to find it for 5 pounds in Fopp near Covent Garden.

I think I navigated that excuse to digress about Singapore’s media stores reasonably well.
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I thought Hard Candy was a great film, but one that traverses the moral landscape quite unguardedly, like an Iain Banks novel. It similarly makes little effort to do all the characterisation and moral messaging that some people seem to demand in a film. It is, however, a thought experiment fleshed out for us. In this sense, the gratuitousness seems more an advantage than a crippling flaw.

The film opens with an online chat between Thonggrrrl14 and Lensman319 which makes it quite clear that the dynamic between them is sexually charged. They meet up in a cafe. (The scene opens up with a rather gratuitous close up of a knife cutting through a cake. Make of that what you will.) Hayley Stark proves to be an intelligent and precocious 14 year old who reads med school texts and listens to Goldfrapp. The paedophile, Jeff, is a presentable, successful fashion photographer. They go to Jeff’s isolated house somewhere away from the main city, and there, Hayley drugs Jeff, and proceeds to torture him for about 75 minutes.

I'm still 19, so it is within the bounds of decency for me to note that Hayley looks prety darn fine.

First, the two leading actors turn in stellar performances, and it is frightening just how good Ellen Page is as a smart, psychotic dominatrix/torturer (the sexual aspect of their dynamic being the focus of a rather uncertain review by Roger Ebert). The writer successfully exploits the uniqueness of the character’s provenance, duly making her call a friend after tasering Jeff in the showers, contrasting the innocence and vivacity of her voice against the image of her psychologically tormenting this unbelieving mess of a man.

Here, some critics come in, a little nonplussed by the lack of direction of Page’s character. It is indeed true that it is difficult to fathom exactly why Hayley does what she does, although it is believable enough to me that she is on a generally anti-paedophile rampage, which is supported by the fact that she has forced Jeff’s accomplice, Aaron to suicide too. This may not be an extremely deep purpose, but it is certainly sensible. The confusion comes from the fact that she seems to be enjoying it too much for this to be pure vendetta. She is a sadist, pretending to castrate him and making him believe that she has put his testicles through a meat grinder. In one scene, he asks her desperately why she will not just kill him. She replies that she does not want him to get off too easily, which is a standard enough reply but one that seems to us to miss out her personal enjoyment of the torture process.

As a character in what is essentially high-grade mental porn, Hayley exceeds expectations. Neither are the scenes in any way really bland and indistinguishable as other critics allege. As a teenager, she really can work a man’s mind. How exquisite was the scene where she makes him watch her successfully figure out the keycode to his safe full of child porn? Or for that matter, the scene where she pretends to castrate him? Like him, we see her flounce around with two bloody balls in glasses, and at that moment, watching her decide whether to fling his severed “testicles” out for the dogs. Well, in any case, this is pretty damn good torture porn.

"Oh get a grip."

But, a central question posed of the film is whether it has any purpose, any unifying sort of line it is advancing. And I think not; it is precisely this sort of morality-based aesthetic sense that confounds attempts to enjoy the film. In the DVD extras, the director recalls that this was inspired by a story about Japanese schoolgirls who lure in and victimise middle-aged perverts. So this film is purely an exploration of the victim turned predator dynamic. The details in the film are far more enjoyable when seen as plays on this theme. For example, Hayley’s physical frailty (the scenes where Jeff succeeds in nearly overpowering and/or wounding her) compared to Jeff should not be some sort of comment on a paedophile’s inherent advantage over his victim. It is simply a good detail that enhances our enjoyment of the film’s portrayal of a certain dynamic.

In short, if you like your films fraught with cautionary tales and an optimism about the human condition, feel free to stay the heck away from this film. But if, like me, you have a certain fascination for the idea of a nymphet dominating a paedophile, this is an entertaining 100 minutes. The real strength of the film is how successfully it is advancing a vision, not how well it has crafted and delivered a creed on paedophilia.

Post-post War

Not to make excuses but the fragmented nature of my posts is a pretty good reflection of my thinking style at the moment: no longer obliged to be coherent, my mind seems to revel in half-thoughts and incomplete expositions. So it was when I finally finished Tony Judt’s mammoth book on European history since the world wars.

The book is as the author admits, a fox instead of a tortoise, and indeed I think it is its chief strength. First, it does justice to what the author knows. For example, when discussing Scandinavian social democracy, he goes to differentiate the models of governance we are so accustomed to thinking of as a bloc. In fact, he does this sort of thing all the time, betraying an extensive familiarity with all of Europe, rather than the England-France-Germany tripartite most people engage with.

So as a general introduction to history, this is a pretty good tome to pick up. But most of all, I like it because it deals with themes of memory, remembrance, guilt and history. It manages to fit the things I know about Europe now (the various countries today and things like the Eurozone crisis) into context. In fact, in his bit about the Maastricht treaty, his observations about the monetary union are remarkably similar to what is being said now. Judt may not be a pathbreaking economic thinker, but he often shows us that what we find novel is a rehashed version of something else in history. Or as Ecclesiastes puts it: “there is nothing new under the sun”.

I had the misfortune of being stuck in camp yesterday defending the nation by standing around for 8 hours while Crystal left to return to New York. And as we both noticed, it’s a strange inversion, is it not? I was the one crazy about the US last year and she about Cambridge and now she’s in Columbia and I’m probably going to Oxford. I guess it all works out in the end.

P.S. After putting it back on the shelf, I suddenly felt a sense of loneliness, the sort of emptiness Carol Ann Duffy was talking about, now that something that has been with me for so long (15 days) and featured so prominently in my life in that period of time will now be gone. What does that say about my prospects for a real relationship with a real person?

Postwar

I chose Tony Judt’s Postwar as my new year big book and after a few chapters, I must say it’s really good. Not just because it is really well-written but also because Judt’s conception is tinged with themes of memory, history and continuity. Strangely enough, for an author so good at mustering up a sense of the zeitgeist of the immediate post-war years (the part I’m at now), his writing steers clear of a master narrative, as he himself notes, and this does credit to the complex and haphazard Europe in those days (and style-wise avoids incessant repetition, given the tendency for dominant narrative theorists to see everything as fuel for their fire).

In other news, happy new year everybody! I was initially rather apathetic to the start of what is surely my annus horribilis, but am now in a suitably festive mood. Here’s to a year of reading too much, writing too little and doing little much else!

Reading

Reading takes up most of my free time now, although I have limply resolved to write more, since reading can be so passive. I have began keeping lists of books I have read: I have catalogued the books I have in my house (over 200 of them!) and am on goodreads (username alvinenator) and I am keeping this notebook which I update every time I finish something.

Just a note here about a book I have really enjoyed about a theme close to my heart: W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants which is so another brilliant entry in the line of books with unbearably precise and incisive prose and unflinching realism. The parted nature of this book reminded me of the equally brilliant Dubliners by James Joyce (although the fragments are longer). In it, Sebald writes as an unnamed emigre narrator who at points in his life is caught up with the story of four emigrants from Germany or Germanic lands. Every single one of them is brilliant. Particularly, I love the sense of being alien that I think is fundamental to all emigrant experiences. This works both ways: towards the home country where you no longer belong and towards the host country where you can never truly belong.

This I think is the central conflict of being an emigrant: the lingering concept of your nationality that remains to be resolved. There is no pretending that there can ever be a clean cleavage. If so, why do you maintain such an interest in the homeland? Why are you affected by the feeling that the country has changed and no longer fits you? The emigrant experience naturally is one tinged with a little sadness, and I think this is what makes it quite poignant.

Another theme that has been haunting me since the death of Christopher Hitchens is the relationship between essay and essayist. I think Hitchens is a pretty good essayist, not a brilliant one, but one who is consistently good and incisive and astute. But what is the point of so impermanent a form. What is the essayist trying to accomplish? Is it possible to write so many of these short pieces without Ozymandias repeatedly coming to mind?

Hyde and Seek

(It’s not my joke. It’s Stevenson’s joke. It’s in the book.)

I am in a pious mood today. I have just finished Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (not as catchy as just Jekyll and Hyde, but I think the Dr. and Mr. are quite deliciously placed here) and it’s quite interesting throughout. The basic premise is a little like The Picture of Dorian Gray, in that the evil in their souls manifests externally. Who knew Hyde started out as a small, deformed thing, resembling a troglodyte rather than a Hulk-menace?

The interesting thing about Jekyll and Hyde, besides the duality of man (divisible into good and bad) thing is how Edward Hyde was seen as a morally unconcerned creature, an escape into immoral lawlessness. I wonder why Stevenson framed it as escape. Perhaps he meant it to be read as a morality tale about the danger of succumbing to moral licentiousness. But just as possibly, it is a comment that being good is not satisfying. Jekyll, who is good, law-abiding and loves the adulation of his friends, often wants to be Hyde. He finds Hyde’s ability to do anything without personal penalty amusing. I don’t know whether this is a particularly modern opinion.

Anyway, a thought about the gold standard next time.

Phyrexians and Mirrans

I have been reading Eugene Rogan’s The Arabs to understand the dynamics of the Arab world. Two things stand out: first, how the imperial powers (Britain and France) made wartime promises of independence and later went back on their word after they survived the war. Or how the colonial powers generally claimed to be liberating the Arabs from the Ottoman empire, like Napoleon did. In short, the West has always lied to the Arabs, and when they caught on, beat them down with aerial bombardment and artillery shelling. Why are we so confused about why some of the Arabs are crying foul when Nato sends in their planes?

The second is this fascinating notion that the West saw their imperial expeditions as “civilising missions”. The arrogance of civilisations is perhaps not new, but still, I find it quite surprising:

“(Maurice Viollette) opened a debate on granting citizenship rights to a select group of Algerians on the basis of their assimilation of French culture and values – referred to in French as évolués. The expression, meaning ‘more highly evolved’, was pure Social Darwinism that conceived of Algerians as advancing from a lower to a higher state of civilisation as they shed Arab culture in favour of ‘superior’ French values. This ‘civilising mission’ was one of the principles by which the French justified their imperial project.”

Sounds like the Phyrexians and the Mirrans to me.

Econombies

I’m still reading Ill Fares the Land after a particularly ill-advised outing on Saturday evening, and there are two things that seem to stand out. (By the way, I think the book is a remarkably clear and eloquent exposition of the economic divisions between the right and the left, and as expected from a historian, brings valuable historical context to the debate.)

1) How the post-war consensus was a solidly “left” one, and that efforts were made to pare down the excesses of the unregulated market economy. Which stands to reason that if the modern right succeeds in reversing those reforms (child labour laws?), the old tensions that plagued society will re-emerge.

2) An extremely interesting chapter on how the 60s college protesters were borne of the prosperity of the social democratic state, but rebelled against bureaucracy and statism. The shift was from collectivism (from the belief that important social problems cannot be tackled by the individual)  to individualism, and interestingly, the new left also led to the resurgence of the new right, which similarly espouses individuality. All in all, those hippies did not stand for much of American youth (as not many people did attend college), alienated both right and left, and were inconsistent in their advocacy for foreign governments to intervene in their countries and for their own governments to back off.

Get the book.

Cajun Moon

I was listening through a JJ Cale greatest hits when I came across this gem which I have missed before:

So I went on youtube to listen to other versions.

Randy Crawford has a pretty good version.

Herbie Mann feat. Cissy Houston: