The Virgin Suicides: “When She Jumped, She Probably Thought She’d Fly”

I recently read Jeffrey Eugenides debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, for the first time and I loved it. I was so moved by the text that I didn’t plan on writing about it for this blog; I didn’t think I could put exactly how I felt into words. But days later I find myself still haunted by the prose. I keep asking myself the same question: should I have read this novel in my formative years?

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Quick Update

So there’s been another content drought on this blog. For that I apologise. I promised to be better, and have so many drafts started but for whatever reason I never finished ’em. I’m just gonna pin the blame on Brexit.

But there have been some changes, and I have a lot of content coming up. Including:

  • I’ve started writing for a music blog which can be found here. I’m still going to write about music here, but the way I see it this is another outlet to for my obsessions with La Dispute, Raleigh Ritchie and Gambino
  • I read The Virgin Suicides recently and I thought it was astonishing. Expect something written as soon as I can form the words.
  • I’m currently reading American Gods and again, absolutely engrossed. I know Gaiman is one of the most popular authors of this age, but I still might contribute my own little bit of critical writing into his canon
  • I’ve finally picked the first content to revisit for a column I’ve wanted to write since starting the blog. I’m gonna replay Heavy Rain for the first time in years with a close friend, see how it holds up.
  • I have written a postmodern reading of the work of Irvine Welsh that’s ready to be uploaded. Unfortunately this is adapted from a much longer bit of work I’ve done that is still being considered for publishing, if that falls through expect a lot postmodern and drug literature on this blog.
  • I started playing the Spike Lee story of NBA 2K16 and it is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever played. My character ended up looking like Tommy Wisseau. I might do some writing about this.
  • Always happy to take suggestions for content, if there’s anything anyone would like me to deal with in particular!

Once again, apologies for being lazy here. As you can see things should pick up into a steady stream of content over the next few weeks.

Peace out,

Dan.

The Blade Artist: “A Familiar Scenario For Frank Begbie”

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Jim Francis has finally found the perfect life – and is now unrecognisable, even to himself. A successful painter and sculptor, he lives quietly with his wife, Melanie, and their two young daughters, in an affluent beach town in California. Some say he’s a fake and a con man, while others see him as a genuine visionary. But Francis has a very dark past, with another identity and a very different set of values. When he crosses the Atlantic to his native Scotland, for the funeral of a murdered son he barely knew, his old Edinburgh community expects him to take bloody revenge. But as he confronts his previous life, all those friends and enemies – and, most alarmingly, his former self – Francis seems to have other ideas. When Melanie discovers something gruesome in California, which indicates that her husband’s violent past might also be his psychotic present, things start to go very bad, very quickly.

The first time I read The Blade Artist I struggled to get into it, despite being a huge fan of the work of Irvine Welsh. The reason for this is simple: as compelling a character as Jim Francis is, I found it hard to reconcile this against the character of Frank Begbie. The difference was just too great. I didn’t believe the man who savaged a paedophile in a prison assault in Skagboys, could transform into a committed family man living with a beautiful young family in California. After three novels being built up as a psychopath, I simply couldn’t buy into this reformed Jim Francis.

But in many ways this is the exact point of the novel. On his return to Leith, none of his friends and family truly believe in his reformation. They all see him as Begbie, the psychopath he once was. They await the inevitable explosion of violence that he will perform to avenge his son. The text therefore explores how our own identity is perhaps defined by our social reputations and what people expect of us. Because Jim Francis does succumb, he adopts the role of Begbie once more, and the novel ends in an incredibly violent fashion (seriously, this is not a book for the faint of heart). Does this mean that Jim/Begbie never really changed? Or did he ultimately conform to his existing reputation and commit the actions everyone expected of him back in Leith?

Whilst not a genuine masterpiece like some of his other work – Trainspotting and Skagboys – Welsh has written a very rich text in The Blade Artist. The readers initial scepticism about the direction this well known (and dare I say, well loved?) character has taken, gives way to a meta-textual comment on how our culture defines the individual at a social level. In his work, Irvine Welsh explores the theme of what it is to be masculine in modern Britain, and the social expectations associated with this form of hyper-masculinity (namely extreme violence). Perhaps Begbie had the capacity to change – he may have even deserved his perfect idyllic life in America – but due to the expectations of both the reader and the other characters, he is never allowed to escape his brutal past.

It is human kind to believe that if things got bad we could always run away and reinvent ourselves in a new place. But with The Blade Artist, Welsh shows what happens when this “new you” returns back to that darker realm. Ultimately the reader is forced to question whether you can ever truly escape your past in a postmodern world where both personal and gendered identity are defined on a social, performative level.

The Gender Politics of Ex Machina

[note: still trying to find a balance between the academic style of writing I’m used to and something more colloquial. This seems to be the most traditionally academic thing on this blog thus far. Any feedback about it would be appreciated]

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Ex Machina is a film about many things: how technology is shaping future interaction; what is it to be human; the desire to play god. But one of the key themes is an exploration of gender roles. This can be seen in part through the genre conventions of the film, as the techno-thriller very quickly devolves into something resembling exploitation cinema by the finale. But primarily the gender politics are explored through Ava, the feminised artificial intelligence. The hyper-feminine fetishisation of technology is not a new concept in cinema – Hel in the 1927 film Metropolis for example – but what sets Ex Machina apart is every male character is aware that this femininity is artificial. Both Caleb (Domnhall Gleason) and Nate (Oscar Isaacs) are fully aware that this is a machine, that the performance of femininity masks the lack of any organic humanity, yet they still romanticise Ava. Therefore I would argue that Ex Machina not only offers much in the way of exploring femininity, but a crisis of masculinity in response to both a sexualised form of gender, but also a consciousness which is simultaneously believable real but also calls attention to itself as a construct. What does it mean to be masculine in a world where human gender, and consciousness, are known to be performative and replicable?

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Frank (2014) and The Romanticisation of Mental Ilness

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Over the past few days I’ve been on a bit of Domnhall Gleeson wave. This marathon I’ve undertaken allowed me to revisit Frank, my favourite film of 2014.

There’s numerous reasons for my love of this film. The central performances by Gleeson and Fassbender are sensational. It is of great credit to Fassbender that, in the middle of his A-List emergence, he not only returned to independent cinema but took a role where he wears a papier-mâché mask for the vast majority of the running time; Fassbender is a bankable star and it’s a gutsy move to hide him behind a cartoon face. The music, whilst intentionally awful, is suitably catchy and enjoyable. Also the cinematography is brilliant. The screen is able to the present both the wide vistas of the Texas desert and the claustrophobic intimacy of the album recording. A particular note should be focused on the ability of the cinematography to incorporate the aesthetics of social media, like twitter and tumblr, as part of the narrative on screen.

But this is not what I wanted to talk about here today. I wanted to talk about the wonderful message at the heart of the film: why do we have assume real “art” can only come from a damaged place?

In Psychedelia and Other Colours, Andrew Weatherall argues that “culturally we imbue with superior magic the work of those who bang their heads on the way through the doors of perception”. This argument is certainly compelling, as a society we are more receptive to the work of those we define as damaged in some way. That is to say, we give importance to any piece of work that seems to be coming from a place of genuine hardship. To give a real world example: The Bell Jar was critically panned on its release, but the reception became more positive after Sylvia Plath’s tragic suicide. Frank is a film that aims to cut through this cultural rhetoric.

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Death Stranding Trailer

Now I’m not normally one to buy into the hype around marketing materials, but during Sony’s E3 Presentation I experienced something weirdly profound. It was about 3am BST, and I wasn’t exactly in the most lucid of states, and then Hideo Kojima comes on stage with this:

 

Now that’s a compelling introduction to a new IP. There’s so many immediate questions it raises, such as the floating objects or the confusing title, but what I love about this trailer is it’s primary focus on the Norman Reedus character. In other words what I think is successful is that the majority of the mystery and questions being raised are focused on a personal level: Why is he naked? Why the handprints all over him? He’s clearly lost a child, but how and why? Why the hallucinations? As a trailer it reminds me of the work of David Lynch. I have no clue what is going on here, but I am desperate to know more about the naked man crying and hallucinating on a lonely beach.

I also think the repeated use of “oil” as an image perhaps calls to the central theme of the game. Kojima is known to deal with real world issues within his work. The Metal Gear franchise, for example, deals with the nature of warfare and how things are perhaps manipulated by those who would benefit by a permanent state of war. In the Death Stranded trailer the oil primarily takes the form of man: whether it is the ghostly handprints, the baby handprints on Reedus’ leg or the puddle of oil he wakes up in, the oil is always linked with humanity. Towards the end of the piece, the point of view expands outwards to look at the destructive power of oil. The dead crabs from the opening few seconds pale in comparison to the thousands of dead fish, and several dead whales lying on the shore. This perhaps suggests that Kojima is aiming to explore environmental issues within his next game; the destructive force of this world seems to be intrinsically linked to Norman Reedus’ character, perhaps the game will be exploring Humanity as a destructive concept in the face of nature/environment?

Obviously a lot of this is all speculative at the moment. It may turn out none of this is true, and I didn’t even consider the one previous promotional still (Reedus plays an astronaut). But even so, this trailer intrigues me with both it’s depth and it’s obtuseness. I’m getting a very strong Twin Peaks-esque vibe every time I watch it, and that is getting me very excited. Death Stranding is no doubt a long way off, but it’s initial announcement means I’ll be watching it’s development with great interest.

Warcraft – Review

I watched this movie with a lot of preconceptions going into it, because if there’s any company that could lay a claim to my soul it would be Blizzard Entertainment. This comes from a number of factors. Firstly there’s Sairose, the night-elf warrior, and Zizzou, the gnome monk, both level 100 and somewhat raid specced in World of Warcraft. There’s Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls, where I have all six classes at max level, in both hardcore and non hardcore. There’s the recently released Overwatch, which I have previously discussed my love for on this blog. And finally there’s Hearthstone – my one true addiction. Assuming an optimistic win rate of 50%, I have played over 5000 games of hearthstone since it’s release.

Essentially I’m a Blizzard fan boy of the highest order.

But not all my preconceptions were positive. Anyone who has spent any significant time within World of Warcraft knows just how much of a mess it has been lore-wise for many years now. That’s not to say there’s not brilliant stories within this world – War of the Ancients, or Arthas for example – but the overall narrative is messy. The game relies too much on the concepts of characters either escaping, or dying and being resurrected later. The last two expansions have ended with the primary villain escaping via various deus ex machinas to just turn up in the next expansion. The most callous of these is Garrosh in Mists of Pandaria. Multiple expansions have set up Garrosh, the leader of the Horde (one of the games factions), as being in over his head but yet fiercely determined to protect his people through violence and power. This eventually leads to him becoming a genocidal figure, literally nuking human cities and thus the player is tasked with raiding the Orcish capital to bring him down. But his story doesn’t end there, he escapes back in time (which is a separate issue, the game can’t write interesting characters so is forced to resurrect old popular ones time and time again) thus setting up the next expansion. When the player finally catches up to him, just as the killing blow is struck  Green Jesus  Thrall steps in, challenges Garrosh to a duel, cheats, and kills him. The resolution that the player had been working towards for multiple years is stripped from them at the last possible second. World of Warcraft can tell interesting stories, but it often fails to satisfy a longer narrative arc.

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Can Horror Television Ever Truly Be Scary?

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I’m writing this at just past 11pm BST, with a nice cup of tea and one of the last episodes of American Horror Story: Freak Show on my second monitor. I’ve never been a horror aficionado simply because I am a coward. I’ve never devoted as much time to the genre as I perhaps should, and normally I would never be able to watch a true horror at night. That’s when it just hit me – not only am I watching a “horror” at night, but primarily as a house we only watch American Horror Story in the dark. Have I finally found my backbone? Not likely. So is it a case that this longer form horror simply isn’t scary?

When I think “horror” the first thing that comes to mind is Ridley Scott’s Alien. This is a film not solely built around shock and gore, but the horror comes from something deeper. It’s a film focused on maternal themes, and the chest-bursters certainly raise an explicit fear of child birth. But what makes the film a success is the tension is raises and maintains across it’s two hour running time. The xenomorph is a genuine threat at all times, and the narrative contrives a reason why it cant be destroyed; you can’t just kill the threat, you can only run away. But each season of American Horror Story is a lot longer than two hours, the shortest is twelve hours, and it gets significantly harder to maintain tension over this increased running time.

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Brand New 2000-2018

tumblr_o85mhjyqjt1qd7ozno1_1280So it’s official: Brand New are calling it a day after their next album release and tour cycle.

This news has hit me surprisingly hard. I like to consider myself an open minded person, who listens to a broad range of musical genres but the truth is since the age of 16 I have primarily listened to post-hardcore.  I’m aware of the irony of this being my favourite genre – part of what defines post-hardcore is it’s refusal to be defined in any concrete terms – but it’s impossible to ignore the impact of hardcore punk and post-punk on many of my favourite bands. At The Drive In, Letlive., Enter Shikari and Touché Amore all have different sounds, but all are unified by their influences. La Dispute and Brand New are two of my favourite bands of all time, due to both having an intense desire to create music outside the wider expectations of alternative music as a whole. This is an earnest, lyrical form of musical expression. Punk music by way of Morrissey if you will. So in honour of Brand New’s impending break up, I wanted to discuss exactly why I love this band so much and why I consider their work to be genre defining.

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