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New (comic review) blog!

Guys, I have a new blog. In it, I’ll be reviewing anything to do with comics, web-comic recommendations, issues, trade paperbacks, everything.

I have been reading comics for over a year now. At first, I was drawn to buying comics by my local library which had a pretty well-stocked comic book section. So, my first picks were flagship titles by DC and Marvel, stuff like Defenders #1, Avenging Spider-Man and the New 52 Batman and Wonder Woman.

Over time however, my tastes grew more eclectic, and I started pulling titles that fewer people at my store read, stuff put out by Image, Dark Horse, IDW, the smaller publishers. I noticed that these comics don’t really receive as much attention on comic book review sites like Comic Book Resources or Weekly Comic Book Reviews. That’s a shame because really, some of these titles are pretty incredible, while DC and Marvel often struggles to maintain a standard on all but a few titles. The comic book medium deserves more than to be monopolised by a few companies making money off male fantasy and fan service.

You can pop over here, and it will be updated more often than I do here. After all, nothing is happening in my life right now, so I occupy myself by being concerned about what happens in others’ (fictional ones).

Review: Cock, by Mike Bartlett

Radio Play, heard on BBC Radio 3. You can find it on Soundcloud as well.

Cast:
John – Ben Whishaw
M – Andrew Scott
W – Katherine Parkinson
F – Paul Jessen

Cockfight

Before the play begins proper, there is a short interview with the playwright, Mike Bartlett, who says rather curiously that the play was inspired by cock fights he saw in Mexico (giving the other meaning to the provocative title). Having listened to the play, the influence of the blood sport becomes clear. The entire play is essentially a war where everybody seems to be against someone at any point in time. Each scene is essentially a verbal spar between the various characters (and the last scene a vicious free for all), and is rung in by a bell that signals the beginning of the bout.

The play begins with John telling M that they are not right for each other. M does not take John’s protests very seriously at all, and languidly tells him that he annoys him because “they are like brothers and that is what brothers do”. John in exasperation leaves, only to return in the next scene bearing gifts, something that M finds suspicious. Under questioning, John reveals something that wounds M, that in the time he was gone, he had fallen in love with a woman, throwing him into confusion as to whether he is really gay. It turns out that he had met W on the tube, and when he had sex with her, he found that he enjoys it far more than when he has sex with M. He alternates between the two of them, and brings the two together for dinner, promising each that there, he will break it off with the other. But really he has not made his decision, and it is this that is the central tension, one that is propelled towards resolution by sullen and sarcastic boyfriends, doggedly determined girlfriends and a pompous, pontificating F. The final scene especially is brilliantly paced and works itself to a climax as everybody gets more desperate; even after the deed has been done and the dust is settling, the play concludes with a note of uncertainty, with John in deep thought and refusing to answer M’s plea for him to reply him, with a single word, that he will bring in the cushions and turn out the lights when he comes in.

This play reminds me of Look Back in Anger by John Osborne, because like it, it contains intense flashes of passion, characters whose actions I barely understand, and some hard questioning by the main character about who he is and what he wants. It succeeds because the writing is good and the sentiments, if not particularly well or carefully thought out, are honest and sincere. Like Osborne’s play, it does not revolve around a central character in the way that Shakespeare’s Hamlet does, for example; rather we are made aware of the tumultuous emotions of all the characters and the way they are set against each other.

The two most diametrically opposed characters in the play, M and W, provide most of the conflict, but they are both victims. The difference between them is brought out well, and it is clear that Scott and Parkinson (who worked together in BBC’s Sherlock) have a lot of chemistry. M is aloof and dismissive, mocking W’s work as a teacher’s assistant as “not real work” and almost gloating in his financial success as a broker. F, on the other hand, is guarded, always insisting that they be courteous, “because we are civilised”, and confident that John will banish the harpies in his past with a word, allowing them to leap into the golden future of Paris, babies and Christmas dinners. But behind their facade, both are very vulnerable. Both love John and to an extent are extremely dependent on him, and that is why there is something a little despicable in the way John humphs and haws and drags out his decision.

Since M and W are victims, each more or less blameless in their reactions to potentially lost love, the true moral weight of the play lies in the actions of John. (F, I think we can discount because he serves more as a mouthpiece for the ideas on the nature of sexuality than a fully developed character.) The easy thing to do is to fall into one of two positions: (1) that John is a dithering idiot who by being so bound to notions of his gayness (for example, wondering if having sex with W was a reaction to a homophobic culture) that he ends up hurting the two people who love him, or (2) that John is in the process of discovering himself and that is never a neat and tidy process. Hence, it is not right to blame him for the mess because that would be introducing blame to desire, a violation of the general liberal consensus that self-determination should generally not be punished.

What do these two positions mean? The first blames John for being indecisive, implying that his choice should be guided by his own preference, that what is important is who he loves, not what he loves. Homosexuality becomes like any sort of identity tag, a limiting factor, which is an interesting inversion. After all, being gay has always been a matter of freedom (freedom to love whoever you want), but in this case, John seems locked in by his homosexuality. He doubts his affection for W because after all, he has never been attracted to women. The genetic explanation for homosexuality acquires a rather sinister determinist cast: you are born with a preferred gender, and there is nothing you can do to subvert this.

The second position takes the issue of John’s sexuality more seriously, but I wonder, to what end? It is true that John’s situation is disorienting, especially if he has seen his homosexuality as a consistent and important part of his identity. But insisting weakly as he does that he has always only liked men is is like finding that facts do not fit the theory, and deciding that hence the facts must be wrong in some way. This is precisely what John does when he questions his sudden attraction to a woman. His theory about it being a response to a culture that is hostile towards gays is a brazenly self-serving idea, but it does raise the point that our culture has become so fascinated by sexual labels that the human relations that underpin them diminish in importance.

The play’s conclusion was written to be divisive and in my view, should be seen as a defeat. John’s own response, his silence, as well as both M and F’s attempts to fill the silence, all suggest that there has been something lost in letting F go, and that F’s vision of domestic bliss, however far-fetched and fragile, was a missed opportunity in some way. John’s inability to go, his unwillingness to abandon seven years of being in a relationship in which he feels a little out of place, especially after M desperately tries to bribe him with a cheese cake, feels ripe for remorse. Indeed, as Bartlett foreshadows early in the play, no one won from the exchange.

The play works particularly well as a radio play, mainly because it is so verbal. Perhaps this is one of those cases where removing the physical bodies of the actors benefits the experience, because it allows us to pay more attention to the nuances in the voices. The three main actors all turn in stellar performances. Whishaw’s John sounds particularly self-conscious, and contrasts well against Scott’s more lyrical delivery. Parkinson excels in the role of W, a performance elevated to stratospheric heights by the quiet hope she displays in the opening moments of the dinner which descends to horror at John’s betrayal.

Overall, I think Cock is a triumph, an emotionally charged work that delivers unequivocally on what it sets out to accomplish, that is, to portray the passions of different people as they feel them and to set them against each other in a way that prompts us to reflect on the nature of desire and sexuality.

Automated reply to your question about globalisation

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: So when companies like Wal-Mart bring their logistics ability to Africa, it actually could be a good thing for the poor people of Africa?

Cowen: It’s exactly what we need more of. Yes.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Yet there’s a fear Wal-Mart will put the smaller stores out of business.

Cowen: Yes, they do so sometimes, but they do so by charging lower prices. It makes it more accessible and more reliable. It’s not just the pricing at any one point and time. It’s what happens in the very worst periods. Companies like Wal-Mart are very, very good at keeping up supply and being regular.

This is a pretty standard reply from economists when quizzed about the devastation of local industries by foreign businesses, but I wonder if anyone knows whether anyone has looked into it more. (Recommendations welcome.) Because while I do not doubt that Walmart is able to procure and ship things with great efficiency, I do wonder what the effects of the crowding out of local businesses are and whether the cost justifies lower prices. While the possible things to do in an economy are theoretically infinite, what is immediately available to people with little skill, low literacy and poor infrastructure is finite. So after Walmart has come in to do the retailing, Nike has wiped out the shoe weavers, HSBC comes and takes away the retail banking business etc., there is less room for local entrepreneurs, and hence, a lack of employment opportunities for the local population. I have read at least one history mentioning this as one of the reasons why the privatisation of Russia had such devastating impact in the 90s.

Economists have been using this line for ages, but governments still seem to distrust this advice, perhaps for good reason: employment and sustainable local industries are important to a state that wishes not to be utterly dependent on foreign companies with powerful relations overseas (the exertion of British pressure to protect British lenders from default in Iceland?). In other words, governments do not like simply being additions to a company’s resources: it wishes to be in some way prior to the merchant class.

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.

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.

Religious hypocrisy

I thought I would never say this, but the Huffington Post has an article on hypocrisy in the practice of Islam that is both entertaining and important, although I would also argue that a lot of what he says can be divorced from the religious context and still be brutally effective. The image he paints of Egypt post-revolution is not particularly chirpy, but then again I’m not very knowledgeable about Egyptian politics and society. But his points about the triviality of religious expression are extremely well-made.

Two ideas perhaps. First, there is an interesting principles vs. consequences issue here that is slightly perverse:

Egyptians go [to Saudi Arabia] and see a society different from Egyptian society. Men and women are completely segregated but rates of sexual harassment and rape are among the highest in the world. Alcohol is banned but many people drink in secret.

The emphasis on appearance is obviously a very principle-based thing, but the Saudis’ disregard for what actually happens as long as everything looks fine suggests perhaps that policing of the external has crowded out policing of the less visible.

I am wondering what this says about religion, and I’m inclined to think not much, because this is so much an issue of how religion is actually practiced. But perhaps there is a point to be made about religion and its rule-based moral system, that it can lead to over emphasis on less important things over more fundamental problems. But I have a question that I am not sure of the answer to: why does religion have so many rules related to less important things like eating pigs and eating shellfish and having sex etc.? Is it because simply that God wants it so, or does it have something to do with chains of moral causality?

What’s a humanz kid to do with physics?

(Humanz is how my school used to abbreviate “humanities”, which is forgivable largely because humans would not have made any sense.)

I’ve been having this illicit thing going on for a while now. A year ago, I started craving something more…exotic and subscribed to New Scientist on my feed, and then the Cosmic Variance blog. Often I was so stunted in the field that I could not understand much of what was being said, but what I could get I found really interesting, and after watching Brian Cox’s A Night with the Stars, I decided that I should heed Snow’s advice and at least be literate in some scientific concepts. I borrowed two books from my local library, George Johnson’s The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments (a light-reading thing) and In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat by John Gribbin (to ease me into something I have not touched properly for a long time), with a mind to learn some quantum theory.

I write this because it struck me in the course of my inquiries that there are differences between scientists and philosophers (or at least a gap between my thinking and the inherent assumptions held by the books’ authors). The first thing I found a little troubling is how physicists talk about extremely specific things. Like light,  water, oscillation etc. What’s so special about oscillation? And that’s the thing that is never really explained: why precisely we should take a pendulum with weight g and care about its frequency.

Obviously, there is probably something important about oscillation, but my point is that there is a gap between the humanities’ habit of dealing with the general (it makes little sense for philosophers to have an American morality for example) and the scientist’s way of starting from the particular, possibly because they have no way of knowing what is general. This synthetic (in the analytic/synthetic sense) nature of scientists’ knowledge is alien to humanities students, who often do a lot more a priori thinking. Remember the problems of induction and the many pointed arguments raised in the philosophy of science against the practice of the scientific method and we reach the conclusion that philosophers are uncomfortable with the lack of necessity, the essential underdetermination that underlies our scientific efforts.

Let me give you a personal example to illustrate what I mean. I have finally understood the essential conclusions of the double slit experiment and the particle/wave duality thing that seems to be important in quantum theory. But it seems to me that the logic was never very sound. Essentially, the argument presented by Brian Cox is:
1. Doing the double slit experiment with a wave will result in light bands.
2. Doing the double slit experiment with electrons or light results in light bands.
C: Electrons and light behave like waves.

Now, particle/wave duality is probably true, but it is not logically valid. Just because electrons behave like waves in this case does not mean they will do so in other ways.

And I think this is the primary thing that makes science so strange for me. The focus on very particular examples to illustrate larger concepts and that logic does not play much of a role at all (Popper not withstanding).

P.S. Corrections to misconceptions very welcome.

Wonks and Huns

One word that has entered my lexicon through Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog is the word “wonk”, which means somebody who has devoted time to studying the details of an issue thoroughly. I conceive good policy-making as being built on wonkery, with people trying to salvage sense from the wreck of politicians’ rhetoric. However, the importance of this technical detail to the running of the government is a little problematic democratically, as few people will have the expertise to engage the issues if fields get too specialised. (This despite what Feyerabend says about the non-expert being more knowledgeable than the expert, which might be true in reality but not in appearance.)

So I’m really loving the new wonky element in the Occupy movement. They sent a 300 page letter to the SEC and now they are proposing things to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau including some rules that look like pretty good ideas. It is one of those things that make me feel like there is hope for the world and perhaps all history is a series of back-and-forth between evil power-mongers and heroic wonks, who like initiates into an order dedicated to a cause have sacrificed their social lives for the good of the world.

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.
______________

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.

Puddleglum

Yong Sheng linked to Cheriel’s piece recently and I admit that I had skipped over it when it was first published. But I really shouldn’t have: it’s quite thought-provoking in a rather unassuming way. I thought this might be a good opportunity to clarify some of thoughts about religion.

First, I think Cheriel’s reconstruction differs from Puddleglum’s conception subtly but in a very fundamental way. Cheriel takes it that Puddleglum accepts the uncertainty of his position, but what Puddleglum actually says is:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things- trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones…I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.

This of course is a more extreme version of Cheriel’s argument. What Cheriel is saying is based on making an important decision under uncertain circumstances. Puddleglum however would choose to adopt a position based on one stand even after he has rejected it, because “the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones”. I’m having trouble being convinced by this because this is essentially a gamble on which side the Matrix comes down. Suppose that in the film, Neo lives in the Matrix believing that he is living life as a spiritual leader bringing alleviation and joy to millions. Puddleglum would argue that in this case he probably should persist in the Matrix. But I believe that truth is utmost. Truth is what constrains us, gives life purpose and underpins the intellectual project. Well, I for one behave rather more recklessly when I know that my consequences aren’t real, like in a video game for example.

What do I think of religion? I admire the immense poetry of it; I think the Christian mind is a poetic one. Some of the concepts are really quite beautiful and touching, and as Weber manages to convey in the Protestant Ethic, they are supremely formed constructs. And I think all the hard atheists are missing out on a real literary experience rejecting all faith so steadfastly. I still remember my Anglican primary school, singing hymns and enjoying the feeling of being a part of something manifestly greater than ourselves. But I suppose Spinoza supplies this cosmological feeling equally well.

I, of course, do not believe in it. I have a rather terrible impression of organised religion (except for the ritualistic element, which I really like). And I find it difficult to be convinced by the idea. My mind rejects it, no matter how appealing I find it. There was a short comic strip from Flight that I thought really captured my feelings on this: I want to believe, just that I really can’t.