Thursday, 31 December 2015

Old Acquaintance





Here you are, at the season finale of another series of 'Your Life". In an ideal world you will stand, surrounded by the key cast members, who listen in reverent, beautifully lit silence as you give a speech about everything you've learned in the series just gone. You will mourn your losses and celebrate your victories. Reflect on some of those really good episodes that defined your character's personal growth this year. Maybe you'll seed some of the major plot arcs of the next series. Then you'll all file out to watch the fireworks, but the camera will linger in the deserted room. And then fade to black. And credits.

In your mind, the new year is not just 'tomorrow'. It's a whole new series. A new title sequence, revamped sets, a brand new Big Bad and a fresh narrative direction. And it's in that new opening credit sequence that we see the biggest change of all. Unfamiliar names, as new cast members join the ranks of the show. And names that are missing from last year. Actors who have moved onto other projects, their characters written out or - like Mandy in the West Wing series 2 - just gone without comment.

 
I wonder how many names have been effectively written out of the credits of my show this year? Or, to be less self centred, I wonder how many other people's credits no longer feature my name? This time of year does make me realise that there are some people I simply don't connect with any more. I'll compile invite lists for Christmas parties and become aware that there are people on those lists who have drifted away.

Some of them are names I just skip over - faces on Facebook that no longer exist in my real life. Why are they still there? Should I delete them? No, we're still friends. Aren't we? Are we? I do click to like their posts once in a while...   But if we are friends, why has the entirety of 2015 passed without me seeing their actual human aspect even once?

Some of them are people who I wish I still saw, but for whatever reason never get back to me. Maybe I did something terrible to offend them. That's not unlikely, actually. I'm often saying dumb stuff online. And because we don't see each other, they forget that most of what I say is subject to nuance, or irony, or part of a complicated set of evolving thought processes that can't really be summed up in a tweet or Facebook comment. And I forget that they are human beings, with thoughts and feelings, rather than abstract opinion on a screen, good for a critical kicking. So those friendships become part of a circular loop, whereby our lack of understanding of each other contributes to an exponential erosion of relationship.


I finally find someone I can agree with.



It's an oddness. And one that until a few years ago might have passed us by. We don't really have opening credits. Well, we might have, I suppose, but we don't get to see them because we're stuck inside the narrative. Buffy the Vampire Slayer never got to look at her opening titles and think "Oh good, Angel's in it this week - I'll spend a bit more time on my hair." And in the same way we can't step outside our own stories and say "Oh, I see they've dropped Sharon from the title sequence. I guess she's not that important any more. No Christmas present for her!"

No. What we have now that we didn't have until about ten years ago, is a list of 'Friends' on social media. Whereas once Sharon might have drifted out of my life without either of us noticing, now she has a virtual presence that exists as a constant reminder. Here's a human being that you used to know. She's still a 'friend', but you know that's not the truth. Because it turns out 'friends' is a complicated idea that doesn't really fit into that catch-all definition.

Some people have hundreds of online 'friends', don't they? Fair enough, obviously - they can do what they want. But that can't be 'friends' in the way that I define it. I get a bunch of friend requests each year from people I've never met. I'm sure you do too. People who seem to collect 'friends' like you might collect whisky bottles on a shelf or ticket stubs of gigs. Really odd.

Because friendship is about action, isn't it? About choosing how you relate to someone and what that means. It's not a state of being, that just exists in space without you doing anything. Yet that's how some people treat it. I had a conversation this year where someone told me that they couldn't spend any time with me because 'life moves on in different ways.' And I thought 'OK', because I knew there were circumstances behind this, but then I thought, "Actually, no, that's total horseshit. Life doesn't move you anywhere. You decide to do things. I've got friends - good friends - who have in the past been utterly furious with me for very stupid things I did. And they've forgiven me. And there's people who have made my life very difficult here and there, but whom I have learned to value and respect anyway, because that's where friendship comes from.


Picture of me and Ric Neale for no reason whatsoever.


I'm very glad that my friends are not a series of narratively useful characters, thrown at me by the scriptwriters of my life. These are not characters who find their way into the show because that's where life has led me. They are people who have chosen to spend time with me, despite my constant demands for wine and attention and my propensity to try stroking everyone to see what they feel like.

And I've chosen them. There's no point me pretending that I 'lost touch' with certain people, as if it just happened without my consent. If I don't keep in touch with you any more, that's because on some level - possibly subconsciously -  I've decided to prioritise other things. That doesn't make me feel very good about myself, but it's a more honest evaluation of 'friendship' that generally seems to exist.

I think I did lose a few friends this year. Some are still 'friends' by the definitions of social media, but one or the other of us has decided not to make the effort. Some have probably deleted me and I haven't noticed, which means that the relationship didn't really exist any more anyway. One person deleted me and wrote me an essay on why. Credit to that person at least for making it an active choice and not just blaming the universe.

On the other hand, the friendships I do have are frankly amazing. I am constantly delighted that middle age has not consigned me to a dull circle of tired old forty-somethings, shaking their heads and saying, "No, I can't come out to play wizards, I have to stare at this wall all night and then die." I know a lot of funny, clever, creative people, from teenagers to pensioners, who definitely all deserve their place in the credits.

And then there's this.

This Summer I met up with two of my oldest friends. We hadn't been together as a threesome since we were teenagers. The intervening years have seen us drift apart to the point where we haven't really talked for at least 15 years. Marriage. Divorce. Careers, children, lost hair and expanding stomachs. Three people met up who were fundamentally different in almost every way to when they had last shared space.

We met up in the pub we used to go to in Bradford - the Malt Kiln. I got there first and sat alone, feeling some trepidation. What if it was like that programme Justin Lee Collins did when he tried to re-unite the actors from the A-Team in a pub? Mr T never showed and George Peppard was too dead to attend, leaving Dirk Benedict and Dwight Shultz to make uncomfortable small talk for half an hour. What if it was like that?

1988


A song came on. Forever Autumn, from Jeff Wayne's musical version of War of the Worlds. Unbelievably, this song had played 26 years ago, the last time I had been in the pub. If there are scriptwriters in my life, they are not ashamed of a bit of contrived coincidence.

Paul and Ian arrived. We ordered three pints of Purple Nasty - the drink that characterised our teenage foolishness. We talked for hours. I was loud and bossy. Paul was gently funny and self deprecating. Ian was in trouble with a woman. It was like no time had passed at all, and it was one of the best days of my year.

2015





Friendships are choices. No-one else is writing the credits of my show. I don't necessarily deserve the brilliant people that come into my life. But I am responsible for making those relationships work.

Thanks for putting up with me, everyone. Now bring me wine.

Happy New Year.





Monday, 28 December 2015

Not Quite My Tempo

As I write, Peter Jackson's interminable version of The Hobbit is crawling towards its conclusion on the television. You don't need me to tell you that it's an over- long, tedious waste of everyone's time that's nowhere near as fun as the ZX Spectrum game from 1980 or thereabouts. Ah, those happy days, pretending to be friends with Robert Wilson just so I could have a go on his computer and experience Tolkien's world through the medium of text and low-res graphics. Odd that 30 years of technological advancement and millions of dollars should result in something so much less involving.

But the good news is, films aren't always exercises in total tedium. No. This year in particular has been very good and I've enjoyed many things. In the spirit of end-of-the-year retrospection, here are some of my favourites.

It is my intention to be more or less spoiler free. However, I will be giving a flavour of what kind of things happen, and why they matter, so use your own discretion. 

Oh, and Star Wars isn't here. I only just saw it, so it will take some processing. I'm sure I'll let you know what I think later on.


Birdman

A crazy, jazzy trip through art, theatre and madness. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson - a superhero film actor who has seen better days and is now trying to claw back some credibility by staging a Raymond Carver play. We follow the action in one apparently unbroken take, lurching woozily through rehearsals, arguments and performances with scant regard for the rules of time or space. The fluidity of the camera leaves us trying to hold onto the narrative, just as Riggan tries to keep control of his play and his sanity. His actors are egomaniacs, his critics snobs and all the time, lurking behind him, is the (possibly illusory, possibly demonic) presence of Birdman himself...

A brilliant, audacious piece of film making, bristling with style.





Whiplash

This is the film about all the drumming. You might think it doesn't sound very exciting, but that's because the last thing you saw was Star Wars and you're still giddy. This is the most thrilling film of the year, leaving me utterly blown away as the closing credits rolled.

The plot is simple. A young music student - Andrew Nieman  - wants to be a truly great drummer. He comes up against music tutor and band leader Terence Fletcher, played by JK Simmons in a performance best described as 'awesome'. Nieman is driven beyond reason. Fletcher is a monster. The battle of between them is explosive. Chairs are thrown, fingers bleed, drums are well and truly drummed.

It is amazing. You must see it. I will be testing you.




Mad Max: Fury Road

"Waaa!" Cried whiny, insecure boys at the release of this film. "This movie has strong, empowered women it! In a film called Mad Max! Why are feminists taking away our toys?"

This film does, indeed, feature strong women doing ridiculously confident things like driving cars and ignoring the natural rule of their overlords, men. But, as a whiny insecure boy myself, I found myself surprisingly OK with this. This is a blisteringly powerful piece of film making and its gender politics, though progressive, are not really something to get upset about nor really the focus of the experience.

Men and women alike charge excitedly through a world made of mud, drums and spikes, their characters defined by their actions, which is as it should be. At one point an evil mutant guitarist shoots flames from his guitar while bouncing about on bungee ropes attached to a speeding desert truck! Vehicles and mountains explode! Warriors drop out of the sky on chains! How can anyone care about the sex of the protagonists when it's this exciting?

Answer: men are jerks. 

Sorry.





Inside Out

Hurrah! Pixar are good again. 

This is the film where little colourful people inside your head govern your psychological and emotional responses to the world. It's an ingenious idea, executed with the creativity and verve that characterises Pixar at their best. The visual design is stunning, the script thoughtful and the overall experience uplifting. You know, like Up, but not like Cars 2.

I was moved to tears, but not at a sad bit, like in Up or the end of Toy Story 3. (OK now, pull it together. Don't think of that scene. Come on... We can do this. Stay on target.) There's a beautiful moment where a character relives the bliss of a happy memory... closing her eyes in rapture as innocence and harmony overwhelm her... it's gorgeous, and it's what cinema is for.



Those are the best films. There were lots of other good ones that deserve your attention too, though. Very quickly, because your time is precious, here are some very good also-rans...


Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Loads better than the very similar Spectre. Fast, enjoyable and full of great set pieces that crackle with invention and wit. A brilliant cast, given lots to do, and not just Tom Cruise running. Although, obviously, quite a lot of Tom Cruise running.



Trainwreck

What? Another bloody film where women are confident, independent human beings capable of thought and character? What is this emasculating, feminist bullshit?

Oh. I see. It's a thoughtful and touching rom-com that portrays both men and women as flawed yet interesting people, negotiating romance and its pitfalls in a way which is insightful yet enjoyable. Along the way it subverts audience expectations in a delightful and surprising manner, commenting on the very nature of romantic narratives through a series of hilarious set pieces.

Well alright then.


Ant Man

Lighter and funnier that the more cumbersome Age of Ultron, this film skips deftly around the conventions of the superhero movie with elegance and panache. A great cast and some laugh out loud moments. Delightful.


The Martian

Matt Damon gets stuck on Mars, leading to enjoyable adventures in space-peril and botany. Damon is funny, believable and engaging and should get an Oscar nom. The script is thrilling and trips along at a good pace. Ridley Scott makes film making on this level look effortless. Brilliant stuff.


It Follows

Spooky as hell horror flick, borrowing stylistically from best scary movie ever Halloween. Evil demon entity can disguise itself as anyone. It walks slowly towards you, forever, until it catches you and then it kills you to death. Best watched while drumming fingers nervously on your own skull and occasionally shouting "Arg! Arg! Behind you! Arg!"


John Wick

The most exciting action film of the year. And indeed most years.

Keanu Reeves is a retired bad ass.
Bad gangsters kill his dog.
Keanu exacts vengeance, doing a lot of tremendously exciting violence along the way.
You jump up and down, shouting in excitement.


So, there you go. I've probably forgotten loads of stuff. But that will certainly do for now. Please go watch all these films. And prepare me a written report on why I'm right.


Thursday, 24 December 2015

Waiting in between


Today is Christmas Eve. Well, it probably isn't for you. You live in the future, stalked by cybernetic robots and/or downloading your personalities from the sky. You look back at Christmas Eve as 'the time before the cockroaches rose up against us' and weep for lost innocence. But for me, this is Christmas Eve and I sit before a sparkling tree, Bailey's in one hand, iPad on my knee, thinking back over the year gone by. 




December 24th is my favourite day of the year. It always has been. It's not always a great day, a day where wonderful things happen, but it is a day of promise and of anticipation. Crackling with maybes and possiibility, like the whispers in the air that mean it's going to snow. Not that it generally does, these days. Snow, that is. Tonight the sky is full of rain, or, as I like to call it, 'lazy snow'.

It snowed in 1984. Or thereabouts. I sat in the front room of my parents' house, alone in the near dark, watching snow billow down through the night sky, loving it. I was very cool then, as you can imagine, so I was spending my day reading the Companion Rulebook for the popular role playing game Dungeons and Dragons. It's among the happiest I've ever been, buried in charts and tables and descriptions of mythical beasts. Which is a good thing, as I wouldn't have anything resembling a girlfriend for quite some time. 

I don't do role playing much any more, but I still think very fondly of that night and, indeed, of the whole 'role playing' thing. In many ways it's still part of my life. This year I've played a number of video games that have been up there with the best artistic experiences I've ever had, and they are rooted in the same place as that Companion Rulebook. Systems and structures that try to create meaning and significance from things that are, essentially, nonsense. Games of pretend that are at once meaningless and profound; wastes of time and works of art. Whatever fascinated me on that Christmas decades ago still ticks inside.

Here are a few of the games I've played this year. I recommend them.

This War of Mine

If you've played The Sims you'll know the pleasures of controlling the lives of a bunch of little pretend people as they go about decorating their homes and pursuing careers. It's like a Rorschach test for the  soul. Do you play the game as intended, living vicariously through their consumerist urges and buying them the best sofa on the planet? Or do you simply trap them in a swimming pool and watch in glee as they wee themselves to death? Or maybe you could make everyone have affairs, so they all end up desperately sad and weeping, until you burn their house down and kill their pets to give them some perspective on what misery really feels like.

This War of Mine is a bit like that, only this time you don't need to do anything terrible to the people under your care - it's already happened. The bunch of characters under your control live in bombed out ruins, eking out a pathetic existence somewhere in the midst of war torn Eastern Europe. Your job is to help them scavenge for food, fortify their crumbling home against violent scavengers and try to keep their spirits up against the grey relentless misery of life in a time of senseless war.



It's a good game, well balanced with strong mechanics and a distinctive aesthetic that draws you into the world. But it would be hard to describe as 'fun'. Your character will starve. Freeze. Weep. If you're not careful they'll attempt suicide. Worst of all are the things you might find yourself doing to survive. Robbing a house for food is fun, until the old couple that live there start following you sadly about, crying as you take their only belongings. Shit, video games, what are you up to? I came here to be a bastard, and now you're making me feel terrible about it.


Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

A beautiful and clever game. Bright and colourful, this is lots of fun and has a great central mechanic. You control the titular brothers as they venture through a fairytale land in search of a cure for their dying father. So far, so so. The clever bit is that you control them both at once, through the two sticks of the controller. Not an easy proposition, especially for someone like me who can quite easily confused when stirring milk into tea, but one which brings a real sense of connection to the two characters. 

I've become more and more interested in how gameplay techniques can reinforce theme, and here it works very well indeed. You often have to work both characters at once, your two hands working simultaneously on different aspects of a challenge. It binds the brothers together in a very real way - they are separate, yet inextricably connected. It's a clever idea with surprising emotional resonance.




Life is Strange

Probably my game of the year, unless Fallout 4 simply beats me into submission with its relentless, addictive, enthralling beauty.

Life is Strange is the story of a teenage girl - Max - who finds her college life interrupted by a David Lynch-ian series of events which are at once terrifying and compellingly beautiful. You control Max through a simple point-and-click interface, no running and shooting here, and get to choose her conversational and emotional responses to the bizarre events which confront her. 

This is a cine-literate and mature experience. It's about sex, self confidence and murder. It's about art, friendship and what it means to grow up. It's about abuse, both physical and emotional. Sometimes it is uplifting and beautiful beyond measure, but on other occasions it can be quite breathtakingly distressing. 



The central game mechanic allows Max to rewind time - to replay incidents and conversations and choose different approaches each time. At first this just seems to be an admission of what all games do - they give us the chance to try again. But this is more than that. This is about choice and consequence. Making a choice when you don't know the outcome is one thing. If it goes wrong, you can always tell yourself that you didn't know what would happen. But when Max rewinds time and gets to look at all the ways things can play out, she has to take responsibility for the results of those choices. When bad things happen - and they do happen - she has to swallow the guilt.

This is a game which deals in ambivalence and refuses to give easy answers. I felt a whole bunch of emotions while playing, not least guilt at the things I let happen to the people around me. But there's also real pleasure at the intimacy of the relationships that develop and the deep satisfaction of burrowing into a world constructed with such love and passion.



I played other games this year, but these are three which really stand out as artistic experiences which moved and delighted me. They are all fun, even though they have the ability to poke at more serious issues, and they are all worth your time.

Christmas Eve. Sitting by a tree, in the dark. Thinking about the gap between things. Between now and that Christmas in 1984, with all the snow, Between now and the noise of tomorrow, with all the wrapping paper and then noise. Between the pressing of a button on a game controller and the emotions that can result. 





Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The Closing of the Year

The future year 2015 is stumbling to its end, trying to find its coat and woozily telling everyone it loves them and they should open a pub together. As we wait patiently for it to leave, so we can finally get some sleep, it's time to look back and see what the whole thing was about.

And when I say 'what it was about' I mean, 'What did Rob like best?' There's no point pretending otherwise - I only care about myself and things which give me pleasure. So this probably won't be about explaining the rise of ISIS, unless someone makes an awesome movie about it in the next 8 days.

Let's start somewhere obvious. Television. That's the best thing in the world, isn't it? So that's an ultimate good. Here's some of the TV I've really liked.

I could have just said that to start with, I suppose.



Agent Carter, Daredevil and Jessica Jones

It feels kind of redundant and obvious to say it, but here I go anyway: the Marvel Cinematic Universe is really bloody good. A brilliantly planned, creatively diverse array of stories that has fundamentally changed mainstream cinema and, perhaps more importantly, made excellent, sexy use of Scarlett Johanssen. It hasn't always hit the mark; Incredible Hulk feels a bit of an imposter, Thor: The Dark World is needlessly complicated and Iron Man 2 is made of testicles. But for the most part it's been a series of awesome, exciting and varied wonders.

One of the most enjoyable films of the year has been Ant Man - a playful, zippy movie that made ingenious use of its premise and, in Paul Rudd, gave us yet another example of Marvel's great eye for casting. But far more exciting, for my money, was the arrival of the MCU on the small screen.

Agent Carter is a beautiful period piece, lit up by the luminous Hayley Attwell. She's great - confident, funny and believable - and brings a lightness of touch to a show that could easily become over impressed by its own period detail and (excellent) feminist credentials. The story telling is solid and it looks fantastic.



Daredevil is also powered by a strong performance, but this time it's not really the eponymous hero that thrills. Loki aside, the MCU has struggled to give us a truly great villain. Not any more. Vincent D'Onofrio bristles and thunders at the centre of this show, inhabiting the villainous Wilson Fiske with an astonishing combination of fury, cunning and childlike desperation. There's also some awesome fight choreography, especially in episode 2's already famous corridor battle.

And then there's Jessica Jones. Bloody hell. Just when I was ending the year thinking Agent Carter was going to be the best female action hero and Daredevil had given us the best villain. Along comes this super-confident, amazingly written piece of work. Great performances all round and a strong script give us the most mature and interesting iteration of the MCU yet. The subject matter is dark,
serious stuff yet the show is smart enough to stay witty and human throughout. David Tennant plays Kilgrave as, well, basically an evil version of his Tenth Doctor, and he's quite magnificently creepy - not least because he retains a certain likeability even as he does the most despicable things.



All three series show that the success of the movies is no fluke. This is more than just a canny marketing exercise. Marvel is stepping beyond an (impressive) array of superhero movies and starting to develop genuinely diverse narratives. Free of the need to accommodate the high-stakes plot arcs of the movies, these stories are dealing with more profound and personal issues.

The Infinity Stones may have some huge, universe shattering importance but I find it much harder to care about them than I do about Peggy Carter's struggle to be accepted in a world designed for men, or the emotional consequences of Jessica's abusive relationship with Kilgrave. I'm way more interested in the battle raging within Wilson Fiske than I am in a hundred robots destroying yet another city. This is great television made with heart, passion and real intelligence, and if we're in luck, it's the future.