Friday, 13 January 2012

Sherlock (BBC) (Review)

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Way back in 2002 I came to Japan for the first time. Before popping over I had become acquainted with the excellent Nero Wolf detective series by Rex Stout. These wonderful stories distinguish themselves from the crowd with superior, economic, well wrought writing. Nero Wolf somehow led to the wonderfully incompetent, immoral Jewish Texan cowboy detective, Kinky Freidman. Two very different takes on America grounded in skilful takes on the genre. After quickly exhausting my stock of books and a brief dalliance with Anne Rice (kisses to you, New Orleans, go and crush those west coast hippies this weekend, will ya?) I found myself in front of a void. I was still hungry for crime but living in a country with limited access to English language books. And so one day, quite by accident I turned to the past. A massive tome of Sherlock Holmes (part one of two) practically fell off the bookshelf as I squirmed through the crowded aisle of the foreign language section in Mei-eki’s Sanseido. Ravenous for mystery I tore open the paper bag and started drinking it in on the train ride back home.

Of course it was all over far too soon and I had to go back and buy the second volume. By the end of it I was sad to leave behind Holmes and Watson but uplifted by the fact that I had actually read every single story. This latter fact allowed me to enjoy television and film adaptations much more thoroughly and critically. Then in 2010 I had the opportunity of seeing the BBC’s modernised take on Conan’s canon. This first series, part reboot, part interpretation, part remix simultaneously played with and respected the content and feel of the original stories. It felt both new and familiar. Holmes and Watson still made sense in present day London’s Baker Street yet still retained an air of fantastic other-worldness. Some of the visual innovations, such as onscreen text, ran close to being overdone but the quality of the stories, the wit of script and the very British vibe of the acting was enough to counter-balance any concerns.

This New Year’s just like my original bookstore accident I was greeted with a surprise: a second series! And what a series it is. The first episode takes what made the first series so compelling, amps up the wit, humour and style, tones down some of the visual excess (but thankfully retains enough of it) and injects enough twists, turns and convolutions to make even the most jaded mystery critic happy. There are a number of questionable plot holes or inconsistencies but the pace of the show and the charisma of the leads is enough to pull one back into the realm of suspended disbelief. Well done. The producers have chosen to play with Holmes and Watson’s relationship making explicit what has always been implicit yet not being sensational. It is an elegant exposition and frames male friendship in an interesting and innovative fashion.

Moonshiners (Discovery Channel) (Review).

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To quote Mr Seth Romatelli of the consistently listenable Uhhyeahdude:

“This shit is my jam.”

You got that Sethro. Moonshiners, like Good Hair and The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is quintessential America. Basically another Discovery Channel documentary series that distinguishes itself from the field through the way it allows its subjects to speak. Moonshining, the illegal production of distilled alcohol is an American tradition as strongly associated with the Appalachians as crystal meth is these days. From the earliest colonies through to prohibition and the present, the image of the American moonshiner stands proud among a cast of cowboys, Indians, gangsters and other heroes of the New World. On Moonshiners we get access to this world in detail through the ABC (alcoholic beverage control a uniquely American institution) and the producers (said access is limited naturally by the ‘shiners themselves for legal reasons). We are introduced to a world of risk, high danger and high rewards, shotguns and car chases, police raids, forest romps and bleary eyed recounts of history.

Like the fictional drama of the biker gang drama of Sons of Anarchy, Moonshiners presents a unique ambivalence at the heart of American society. On one hand is the spirit of creation, where strength and conviction are held in each hand and with perseverance come to forge new societies both within and outside of the dominant social, legal and political cultures. This harkens back to the earliest days of the New World’s switch from colony to independence. Meanwhile it also sheds light on the extent to which a country so apparently enamoured with freedom and opposed to over-regulation is in a state of total paradox and collapse. The poor Shiners, living in poor America live life at standards well below the imagined society seen on TV. Their poverty and education levels see them excluded from this fantasy world. Yet even as they struggle to determine the means of survival in their lives their communities are controlled by archaic religiously inspired taxation and prohibition laws.

But let me be clear, I do not justify or excuse the individuals and the communities they create in Moonshiners. Nor do I romanticise them. For me, these people fall into a similar conceptual framework as Housos. Living in the margins in a state of moral, legal and ethical complexity, pushed and pulled by poverty, violence, history and geography. Yet what I do respect is their conviction, strength and gall to forge ahead in a world where they no longer belong. A world of neuroses, of endlessly bifurcating virtualities and sensations. They do a lot with a little and while that lot may be questionable, they do it with focus passion and a connection to landscape. Shine on.

Spawn (Comic)(Review)

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Every Wednesday, after “school sport” (which I naturally chose to be in a location downtown rather than near school), I would slip into a main street newsagency and head straight for the comics. I had loved comics since my father bought me my first two: an issue of Transformers in which Optimus Prime’s head is on life support and issue 320 of The Incredible Hulk taking place in the Banner/Hulk post separation anxiety arc. Over the years I dipped into comics as I could. Given my family’s lack of wealth most of my comic reading took place next to display racks or the incomplete collections of friends. Spawn was no exception. I had heard about it from friends, it had even been on TV, it was bloody, gruesome and satanic they all cried (not long after a similar controversy would arise around Cannibal Corpse’s breakout album, Tomb of the Mutilated). To a social outsider as myself there could have been no better hook. A year later my taste was justified when I learned that the homeless kid with a coat and pet rat at school was also into the same comic! So when I found that comic on the shelf, I had to have it. With what money I had, I paid the over-inflated, gouge worthy Australian markup price, got it home and read it. A true moment of dreams coming true.

I collected Spawn for a while, largely ignorant of the significance of guest writers and artists yet fascinated by MacFarlane’s caricature meets hyper-real art style (which I had first encountered in Spiderman). Being a youth, my interests turned elsewhere and I lost touch with Spawn and comics in general. It would not be until late last year that I had an opportunity to lay my hands on a complete stash of Spawn and go back to the beginning.

The happy reality is that twenty years later, Spawn still holds up. Given it is such a long series this review will only touch on the key points which I believe are worth exploring. That said, Spawn as a series would make an excellent visual/graphic arts dissertation subject. Onward then.

I think when MacFarlane made Al Simmons, aka Spawn an African American he did not realise the significance of this decision. While there are still too few non-white protagonists in mainstream comics now, there were fewer still back in 1992. From an artistic point of view, MacFarlane was able to experiment with black aesthetics: bodies, faces, colouring. In this regard, I am reminded of the earliest days of colour film where there emphasis on lighting and colouring was on white subjects resulting in a greening of black skin tones where and when they appeared. MacFarlane’s eye for detail and his colourists’ skills were a spit in the eye of mainstream comic logic as he made liberal use of browns, blacks, purples, reds and greens to great effect. While somewhat of a stretch and I can certainly not vouch for the veracity of the connection, Spawn functions aesthetically, visually as a response to Toni Morrison’s critique of “darkness” as “evil”, eventually turning the whole logic of evil on its head and repositioning these conceptual locations. While Simmons is of hell and inhabits a world of darkness, death and decay, the series eventually locates these concepts as fundamental to the very nature of reality. Total mega-Buddha, dude! Of course there is more too it than this and a sustained critical reading would unpick some of the underlying assumptions of fear, the unknown and their relationship to blackness. What is worthy of significant praise, however, is the deliberate embrace of darkness, aesthetically and conceptually in an original and engaged fashion.

Although the emphasis on religious critique shifts over the course of the comic it remains a core concept in Spawn. What is so refreshing is the Krishnamurti style rejection of dominant concepts and dominant oppositions. God is mortal-ised, as is Satan, they are also re-placed in a pantheon and revealed as bit players in a universe much greater than even their reckoning. Spawn takes them all on and beats them. In this way, again deliberate or not, Spawn reflects a Japanese conceptual aesthetic in which multiplicity is a given. Japanese story telling makes frequent use of ghosts, demons, angels, gods and devils but rarely assumes the arrogance of Western storytelling where monotheism lies at the core. Whether conscious decision or parallel development this critically distinguishes Spawn from the pack.

Spawn has been consistently great and frequently excellent over its twenty year run and is worth reading from the start. I can only be thankful to small-minded current affairs TV for introducing me to the image of Billy Kincaid’s ice-cream scoop stabbed body strung up with chains with a popsicle protruding from his mouth. I am also thankful for the many artists and writers who have worked on MacFarlane’s creation to date. Now, onto Endgame!

Vektor – Outer Isolation (Review)

Vektor’s 2009 album, Black Future came along at precisely the right time to gain recognition. The whole re-thrash phenomenon was building, spearheaded by groups such as Municipal Waste and a zeitgeist led wave of nostalgia saw net critics, professional and semi-literate alike turn their gaze back to the raucous cacophony of 80s and 90s thrash. Suddenly names that had not appeared in public memory since that time, Kreator, Exodus, Testament, Possessed and a whole slew of others took on a Vaseline smudged, midday soap opera, soul food like sheen. Everyone loved thrash again. And why not? Thrash is rad. The deeper you dig in, the more you find. The remnants of punk melody and recklessness, the beginnings of technicality, origins of “brutality” can be peeled back and rearranged, repositioned in an attempt to either design or discover musicological and genre cohesion. Historic thrash is a Lego playground, endlessly splintering the further you go in time and geography. Re-thrash became “let’s trash re-hashed thrash”, the bubble burst, survivors continued onward and Vektor’s latest album, Outer Isolation, quickly and quietly slipped under everyone’s radar in an oddly timed year end release.

Outer Isolation is essentially an updated Twenty-First Century take on prog-period Voivod (Dimension Hatross, Nothingface). Isolation twists and turns, throwing out new riffs and time changes and is sewn together by interesting chord voicings and an overall Hawkwind (in spacey concept, certainly not sound) vibe. Normally this kind of aggressively scattershot approach is not my cup of tea but unlike a lot of highly technical metal its heart lies in an accessible place: gnarly, inventive thrash. What is worth special mention is the way jarring clean guitar tones are used to accent and emphasise riffs and provide a sense of both clarity and expansiveness to the tightly compressed galloping, grooving and twisting thrash riffs. With a cover as cool as it has, Outer Isolation demands a vinyl release. Here’s hoping!

Battle of the Undead: True Blood vs The Walking Dead

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VS


What follows is a tightly parsed reconstructed article written before New Year that disappeared when Windows decided it could no longer read my user profile. That’ll learn me to save in a folder on the desktop.

True Blood and The Walking Dead (hereafter abbreviated to TB and TWD) have a lot in common: the undead, the south, desperate situations, religion and high quality source material (novel and comic book series respectively). So then why is it that one is so much better than the other? I’ll tell you.

The Undead

TB’s undead are cool, nutso, sexy and diverse. TWD’s have great make-up but no personality. TB is set in Lousiana which means swamps, forests, weeping willows on river banks, plantation mountains, Cajun twang, great food and sweat. TWD is supposedly set (well, it was) in Alabama which means it should have really cool rednecks, great music and lots of guns. Instead it has sweat and long grass lining freeways.

Desperation

TB has desperate situations that in spite of their fantastical nature are believable and shed light on both the peaks and depths of human emotional experience. TWD settles for over-wrought, ham-fisted, very vanilla human interactions based on every other survival movie/show ever. It also has an interpersonal logic not unlike the terminal time waster with no payoff, Lost (glad I bailed on that midway through the second season – hey producers, give me my time back, assholes).

Religion

Certain forms of Catholicism and Baptism underpin TB making even the most trite utterances of “God bless you” and “Jesus have mercy” ring with a truth and conviction consistent with the multicultural colonial historic flavour of the South. It has voodoo, too! TWD uses the same lexicon but instead it rings of mediocre, middle American, fat free fatuousness. I mean really, post apocalypse wouldn’t your view of god have changed somewhat?

Source Material

TB’s source material is great. The production and direction of the show takes it in interesting directions. TWD’s is great as well (even if it is eerily similar to Vince Locke’s totally depraved, off the hinges Deadworld), the show fails to capitalise on this and instead of innovation offers up plot retreads and scene recreations lacking originality and punch. How did that happen.

Verdict

The Walking Dead should have been brilliant. It could have been so much more. It was supposed to be a human drama but instead feels like Lost with zombies and implausibly worse pacing. True Blood has fun, enjoys its medium and shows how it is possible to make a midday melodrama, complete with heaving bosoms, pecs, biceps, gory violence and kinky sex (help, I’m being gang-raped by female werepanthers!) just work. You be the judge.