Wednesday, 24 December 2014

A Top 5

The Best of The Year(s)
We've all got the internet so all of our opinions are now Objective Fact, fuelled by hubris and recorded forever - a moment’s subjectivity crystalised in data for as long as Google pay their bills - remaining long after we've even forgotten why we arbitrarily decided to quantify things by year of release. I can't even remember what I did in July, so why bother? Future civilisations will hire cyber-archaeologists to pick over the sediment of the net and try and figure out why we were so obsessed with listing things in order, and they’ll teach nascent beings the ways of their forebearers, strange meaty things that had to interface with the internet through physical terminals, desperate to leave an edifying comment about each year: “Really, 2014 was a great year for film…”

That’s all inevitable. It shall come to pass. But until then, we’re stuck with listing things to make us feel like we have some worth, some meaning when weighed against the monolithic indifference of the universe, heat death, the inexorable march of time, etc

In celebration, here is a list of the five best things I did this year. They aren't even constrained by punitive concepts such as "dates". Instead, here is my clawing on the cave walls of the digital world. One day they’ll all mean nothing, but in the moment they really spoke to me.

Hannibal S2 / The Sopranos
I'm not really one for keeping up with TV trends. I prefer to binge watch when a series finished, or at least let it get a head start on me so I don’t have to waste hours getting into something that ends up being unsatisfying. Hannibal didn’t buck the trend, because I watched all of Season 1 in two days in Winter ‘13, and then dealt with the gruelling weekly release format for Season 2. Effortlessly the most artistically diverse and daring show on TV, Hannibal is a masterclass of style over substance, but there is definitely sinewy toughness below its dreamy aesthetic and borderline pretentious dialogue exchanges. It’s television as a celebration of the medium, heavily dependent on the marriage of visuals of sound to disorientate and confound the viewer with sledgehammer blow metaphors and feather light call and response. It toys with the established mythology in satisfying ways, creates its own stylish and compelling universe, and had an utterly brutal “fuck you” of a season finale that was the perfect balance between satisfying and subverting fan expectations - and what fans the Fannibals turned out to be; scholars will have no trouble writing comprehensive volumes on Hannibal due to their painstaking unpicking of the language of film.

As outlandish as the visuals in Hannibal were, I doubt TV would have ever got to the stage where such a show was possible without David Chase’s The Sopranos. Everyone and their dog has lauded this to high heaven and back, and I’d been obstinate and determined in my refusal to submit. But it turns out it’s amazing and utterly compelling viewing. Understated and masterful, Shakespearean in its scope and execution, The Sopranos turned characters into people and made me give a shit about an absolute monster of a man. Tony Soprano’s journey is more nuanced and expertly realised than a hundred downward spirals of Walter White put together. If Hannibal excelled in overt, dreamlike metaphors, then The Sopranos laid the groundwork with its surreal gothic dreamscapes, and that absolutely perfect ending.

Infinite Jest
I feel pretty confident talking about films and TV, even despite the density associated with the medium, and especially the later - sprawling 9 season shows aren't exactly uncommon - but when it comes to books, I always feel out of my depth. Infinite Jest is towering and horrific. Sprawling and beautiful, It’s too bright to look at, and impossible to fully appreciate. There’s too much, Wallace committed far too much to page to every fully unpack. Perhaps it was unwise, and maybe a vicious edit would have given him the book he wanted: the novel that let him push past post-modernisms irony and into the New Sincerity that he felt modern literature lacked, but it’s doubtful his ego would have let that edit happen, so I’ll work with what we have.

First and foremost, it’s not a tough read, if you can push yourself through the first 250 pages. It never truly ends, which is purposeful and oddly satisfying. It’s also searingly witty, a perfectly realised near future SciFi world, deranged and unsettling, a work of unfettered genius, genuinely heartfelt and touching. Characters remain defined in my mind and their connections remain firm. The blackly comic moments stand out, as do the oddly touching and bizarre sentiments that pervade a novel full of outcasts, oddballs, down and outs, addicts, physically and mentally damaged people. Despite its impossible scope and unwieldy nature, the thing that really sticks in my mind is the fact its a novel of individuals, flawed, broken, hopeful, wasted, lovelorn, lovesick, egotistical and uneven. It’s as bizarre and preposterous as the man who wrote it, Infinite Jest is a wonderfully lopsided mirror held up to the human condition.

Stephen Malkmus
Really, 2014 has been a great year for music. There have been about thirty albums I will happily listen to into 2015, and I’ll wager I forget half of them before January is out. 2014 inadvertently became the year that I obsessed over an artist so singularly that I managed to listen to him more than is healthy. I think I reached a state of saturation that would be considered as beyond admissible, or perhaps absolutely admissible depending on which definition you’re gonna rock with. Old Malks is too old to be cool, and therefore he’s utterly cool. He is a dad, but he’s also the perhaps father of Indie. Pavement  are seminal and wonderful, they evolved yet still remained ever Pavement, and Malkmus was the core of that band, the dynamo that kept the other members on course. Lyrically and musically he’s a brilliant mess, one of those disgustingly talented people who can balance lackadaisical guitar work and singing on the knife edge of effortless and effluence.  I don’t know how he does it, which is probably for the best. I don’t want my mind’s eye image of Malkmus ruined by finding out he studiously works out his riffs and lyrics to achieve that bumbling, post-indie wig out sound, nor do I want to discover that he just gets really fucking stoned and shits out riffs, nonsense couplets, half-recorded demos and then gets his band to help him hammer them into shape. As far as I’m concerned he’s just a modern day troubadour that these songs just come to in fits and starts.

Of course that doesn’t explain how he manages to make albums like Mirror Traffic and Wig Out At Jagbags which both feel like controlled, singular outbursts of specific feelings and tone, yet it does go someway to explaining how he can write perfect 2 minute pop songs like Tigers, Dynamic Calories and Malediction, and also it stretches the other way to help massage the myth that he just jams out songs like Dragonfly Pie and J Smoov. After a whole year of listening to post-Pavement Malkmus, the defining fact is that I am not bored, I have not scoured the depths of every song, and turns of phrase, both musically and vocally, can turn my head. I wish he were my dad too.

Card/Board Games
Cardboard is great. Hopefully most of it is recycled, and the stuff that isn’t should be turned into boardgames. I’m not talking Monopoly or fucking Cluedo though, they’re a pox on families the world over that need to be mulched and turned into better, smarter board games. I have a modest stack, perhaps a little annoyingly weighted towards 2 player experiences, like X-Wing, Space Hulk, Netrunner and Conquest, it’s still paid for itself many times over. I love the way video games can now realise worlds in a way that is unprecedented in any medium, but they lack the social interaction and incredibly tactility of board games. They are harsh, coded objects with creator defined rules. They do not bend and break on a whim, they cannot have their currency childishly renamed “dongs” for an entire night. They cannot, without minor exceptions, be played around a table with food and drink at hand. They rarely cause players to buckle with laughter or shout ridiculous accusations about fumbled dice rolls and coin flips.

It is an absolute crime that toy shops across the world are bereft of copies of games like Small World and King of Tokyo, and that instead friends and families choose to sit around and play poorly conceived and creatively bankrupt cardboard experiences before committing them back to the shelf for another year. Every night I have spent around a table with friends and a board game has been memorable for a plethora of reasons. There is no limit to the bullshit people can comfortably spin when a game gives them the chance to lie about even the smallest thing. Friends will happily surpass Machiavelli in their effort to get an extra cardboard coin at the end of a round. They are a gleeful experience, built on observed rules and systems of social interaction, evocative and whimsical, calculating and callous.They are also currently in a spectacular golden age of creative fecundity where you can comfortably sit around a table and live out nearly any fantasy you have. Political Machinations and SciFi skirmishes? That’ll be Rex sir, with an extra helping of backstabbing. Knights and Assassins in Athurian legend? Resistance: Avalon will fill that gap, and you can teach it in minutes. How about urban planning? Suburbia. Infrastructure management? Trains. Your own personal b-move? Betrayal at the House on Haunted Hill. That little dream you keep having about getting away from it all and living off the land in the early days of German farming? Agricola. This ones here in cardboard, this ones available as a travel game. Every fantasy. Everythings for sale.

Legend of Korra
Every year objectively has one thing in it that is absolutely better than everything else. The logical conclusion of every end of year list is a brutal fight to the death to find out which is clearly The Best Thing of The Year. Luckily No such melee must happen here. The best thing year was obvious to anyone who watched it, the best thing this year was the successor to a children’s cartoon, aimed at the now teenaged audience, and far more willingly to overestimate its audience than nearly anything else this year.

The Legend of Korra is ostensibly a "children's cartoon" that still hits the same Nickelodeon style gag points - there is a character in it who utilizes his elemental bending skills to manipulate his farts. There are a handful of animal mascots. Once or twice it relies on pratfalls to get you on side. If you’re utterly bankrupt internally, or if you’re overwhelmingly cynical, these things could put you off. But you should power through, because this is also a show that spends four seasons tackling love and war, friendship and politics, the clash between spirituality and religion, fear and hate, and much more in four compact and punchy seasons. A few decades after the end of Avatar: The Last Airbender have changed the Avatar universe for good, and brought the world up to a more familiar setting. It is probably of little coincidence then that the themes resonate in more powerful ways this time. In the first season terrorism is encountered and confronted by Korra, the brash and headstrong young Avatar who is also struggling to deal with romance (in a way that is handled without even a pinch of condescension by the writers) and she struggles. The terrorists have a point, it isn’t one that is easily dismissed as evil. The series tends to keep this idea in mind. As eastern spirituality bleeds through constantly, so does the idea of Yin and Yang. Evil is rarely absolutely, instead it is more often a clash of ideologies that creates the adversary, or the friction between uncomfortable truths. Only season two makes the mistake of constructing a villain who is objectively awful as he wants to rule the world, but it feels like a concession to try and dissuage Nickelodeon from preventing Korra from returning to air after they killed two characters on screen in season 1’s finale, fully accepting that their audience would be mature enough to understand the motivations behind the death.

That acceptance, and confidence is the show's greatest strength. Its writers refuse to back down and make a show that simply follows by the numbers. Almost everything about the typical martial arts/hero’s journey is turned on its head and not without purpose. As the show continues on, it became more and more obvious that Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko wanted the series to be something more than just a pretty picture. It challenges gender preconceptions, assumptions of good and evil, the wisdom of the elderly versus the intuition and confidence of youth, even spirituality is handled with plenty of respect. In a world increasingly analytical of female representation, Korra has given teenagers and adults alike a hero who is a capable and emotive young woman, who has real people flaws rather than cartoon girl flaws. Large portions of the fourth season are devoted to the Beifong family, mostly mothers and sisters who command nations, police forces, characters who fight against and with each other for reasons that feel valid and understandable. Token gestures seem few and far between, and instead DiMartino and Konietzko have just decided to write characters that feel real instead of ticking quotas either way. Brotherly love is not shied away from, and romance and affection as a whole are tackled with a nuance absent from more mature show. The ending cemented Korra’s progressive stance with a terrific finale that capped off the story with a fitting final conflict between two young women that in the end were frighteningly alike - a subversion of the typical violence and strength wins the day denouement for cartoons full of fighting - and an equally fitting union between two other characters that served as a celebration of Korra’s attitude and spirit. TV writers of the future have a startling amount to learn from The Legend of Korra, and hopefully they’ll be studiously taking notes on how to treat your characters and audience with respect.

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