Saturday, 14 June 2008

[29] Joy Division (2007, dir. Grant Gee)

Coming hot on the heels of last year's sleeper hit Control (dir. Anton Corbijn) is Joy Division (dir. Grant Gee). Although in production at the same time as last year's award winning biopic starring Sam Riley and Samantha Morton, this film, as a documentary, seeks for a more probing and informative approach. Unfortunately, whereas Control premiered at Cannes, became a critics' darling and went on to general worldwide release, Joy Division's release is more muted, and could easily be overlooked. It had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2007, and has only recently been released, in a limited, arthouse run, in selected countries. In the USA, it has been effectively buried by the Weinstein Company (who promoted Control big-time), and will stumble onto DVD release on June 17. However, does it suffer from proximity to its dramatic bretheren?

For those who are unfamiliar with the Joy Division mythos, here's a quick primer. 4 young lads from the Salford/Manchester area of the North West of England formed a band in 1976/1977 during the d.i.y. period of punk. They recorded 2 albums, a few singles, and were set to make it big, but on the eve of their American tour in 1980, singer Ian Curtis, who had a history of complications with epilepsy, committed suicide. The band subsequently split up, but those left behind (Guitarist Bernard Sumner, Bassist Peter Hook and Drummer Stephen Morris) soon reformed under the name New Order, who enjoyed considerable success and acclaim in the 1980s with synth-pop college rock hits such as 'Blue Monday' and 'Bizarre Love Triangle'. Joy Division, as one of the first bands to move beyond the restrictive, directionless angst of 'pure' UK punk, were hugely influential on post-punk music, and a lot of the independently-minded rock of the last 20 years.

The documentary is billed as Joy Division 'in their own words'. This is quite true. Much of the film's length is given over to in-depth talking heads with the surviving members of the band, as well as major players in the band's formation, maturation and legacy. This is fitting, as the band, with their crystallised and near-perfect output are one of the more mythologised of the rock era. Hook, Sumner and Morris are charismatic, intelligent and witty in their interviews. They are mostly reclusive people in terms of the pop music spotlight, and it is a real treat to see them on screen for significant amounts of time. They also inject the film with a self-effacing humour which seeks to deflate some of the documentary's more serious high-brow aspirations. Also featured are interviews with the recently-deceased label boss Tony Wilson, who was always a pleasure to watch, as well as with sleeve designer Peter Saville and Manchester-born writer and critic Paul Morley. One of the film's main strengths is its varied and well-selected group of interviewees. The aforementioned were the no-brainers; extra colour, individuality and identity for this project is found in the additions of musical contemporaries, such as Genesis P-Orridge (Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV) and Pete Shelley (The Buzzcocks), and even relative 'citizens', such as Annike Honore (Ian Curtis' lover, played by Alexandra Maria Lara in Control), Terry Mason (original-drummer-turned-roadie) and photographer Kevin Cummins (whose iconic shots now grace the lamentably redundant collection The Best of Joy Division).

Director Gee manages to weave a tapestry of voices, and for the first half of the film manages to strike a balance between the band members' stories, and the mythos as experienced by accomplices and onlookers. The visual style is almost consistently brilliant (although obvious use of iTunes and iPod UIs is rather corny); archived footage of television appearances, even low quality bootlegs, make up a vital history of the band's growth. This additional footage is a revelation, as live recordings (especially filmed) of the band are scarce, and mostly the jurisdiction of the hardcore fan. Equally, the use of interview material with now-deceased players, including Curtis, but also including the influential producer Martin Hannett, manager Rob Gretton and legendary radio DJ John Peel, fills in the blanks. The film initially feels well researched, and well narrated.

The jolt of singer Ian Curtis' suicide, barely 3 years into their career, has given the band, and their work, an unmistakable air of tragedy. Indeed, the story is one of the most repeated in British music history, and appears not only in Control, but also in the post-modern flick 24 Hour Party People (2002, dir. Michael Winterbottom). It is a shame that this documentary has been made in the shadow of these two films, as both focused much more on the troubled life of Ian Curtis, whose tragic death acts as a black hole for any Joy Division discussion. Like Kurt Cobain's drug addiction and suicide affecting the Nirvana story, this event skews and blurs any sense of objective or truly informative documentary work. The final third of the film takes on the air of the dramatic, with long sections dedicated to the reactions of band members, friends and lovers to Curtis' death. This is necessary, but it cannot compete with the narrative tension of Control, and after the measured handling of Joy Division's debut album Unknown Pleasures, the discussion of second album and potential masterwork Closer is discussed only in relation to Curtis' decline towards suicide.

Of course, the death of the lead singer is an important development in the band's history, and effectively ended the group. However, the focus is uneven, disrespectful, even exploitative. Whereas Control was an Ian Curtis biopic, Joy Division strives to be the final word on the band. However, this last act of the film is only concerned with Curtis' mental state, illness, and his troubled lyrical genius. It is a shame, as Gee rejects the previously anecdotal and openly, generally appreciatve approach in favour of recollection and remembrance. Furthermore, this is unfair, as the other band members are forced to dredge up and relate memories of this traumatic experience. This approach will leave no doubt that Joy Division were an important band, but the sense that Curtis was in any way a unique creative force in the musical process would be false. Not enough time is given to an equal appreciation of Sumner's minimal, yet effective guitar style (and later, adoption of keyboards), or Hook's bass playing (possibly the most distinctive-sounding bassist in rock), even Morris' surprisingly complex drum patterns (and very early utilisation of electronics). At time of release, the band and label were worried that Closer would be damned because of the bad vibe caused by Curtis' suicide. Nevertheless, it endured and was well-received. However, the approach to Joy Division as exhibited towards the end of this film merely results in affirming a one-dimensional morbidity.

Joy Division isn't as summative as it first seems to be. The film grinds to a halt around Curtis' suicide, and concludes with a messy flash-forward to 2000s-era New Order performing Joy Division songs (badly) and an awkward link between Joy Division and Manchester's development as a city. This is a shame, as it further spotlights Ian Curtis as Joy Division, and overlooks the interesting conflicts revolving around New Order's formation and early work (debut album Movement, and debut single 'Ceremony', are still very 'Joy Division' in sound). One feels that Gee and his collaborators missed the point, and the opportunity afforded by interviews and archive footage - very promising early on in the film - is squandered in favour of empty morbidity and rehashes of what is best left to more artistic, fictional approaches to the story.

Inevitably, this over-exposure diminishes this documentary's overall impact and worth. The point of saturation for all things Joy Division has probably been exceeded. In the last ten years, fans and the public have been faced with one boxset, 2 live albums, 3 reissues, a best of, and 3 films directly inspired by Joy Division. On the evidence of this film, which is half-brilliant, half-disposable, maybe it would be best to put the mythos to rest.

Joy Division is currently on sporadic limited release in various countries. It will be released on Region 1 DVD on June 17.

Friday, 13 June 2008

[28] Fair Play, by Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson is one of the best known Finnish writers on an international scale. Her most enduring, and successively reprinted work is her series of tales and picture books based around The Moomins, a family of troll-like creatures who live in a picturesque valley and have many adventures. The relaxed, pastoral atmosphere, coupled with easy wisdom and gentle humour (not unlike some of Hayao Miyazaki's work) have led to critics' praise and readers' affection for generations, and the books have enjoyed many successful television adaptations - perhaps the most recognisable being the Japanese Telescreen production from the 1990s.

However, Jansson mostly stopped writing Moomin books in 1970, and until her death in 2001 wrote primarily for adults. These ranged from short stories to autobiographical works. Unfortunately, to the English reader, the majority of these books are hard to find, out of print, or simply untranslated from the original Swedish. A small UK publisher, Sort Of, has in the last few years reprinted some of these books, including The Summer Book (Sommerboken, 1972), and Fair Play (Rent Spel, 1989). These books reveal a unique voice, not alien to the Moomin tales, but covering decidedly different themes.

Fair Play, which I will focus on, is a real masterpiece. It is short, barely surpassing 100 pages in my edition, and that is with more than liberal page borders and font sizes. What struck me, after the pastoral textures of both the Moomin stories and The Summer Book, which centres on the experiences of a girl and her grandmother on vacation, is that Fair Play mixes this familiar palate with urban, artistic and international attitudes. Jansson, as with a lot of the best and most lauded artists from the Nordic countries (from Sigur Ros to Emperor, Ingmar Bergman to Harro Koskinen), communicates the distinctive aspects of the region's landscape. This has almost become a stereotypical response to Nordic art; even though the genius is acknowledged, it is nonetheless a way of abstracting the non-Nordic reader, or patronising the artist in question. Fair Play manages to work within this tradition, but very effectively moves beyond it.

The book is told in short chapters, leading some to call it a short story collection (though the title page defiantly proclaims it a novel). This episodic structure, which creates a space between short story collection and novel, allows Jansson to gently move through different contexts and situations. Like The Summer Book, this is primarily about the relationship between two central characters, in this case two women in their autumnal years. The companionship between the two women mirrors Jansson's real-life relationship with Finnish artist Tuulikki Pietilä, who lived a reclusive life of creativity. Mari, an illustrator and writer, and Jonna, a filmmaker and artist, live together in the same building. Each chapter hinges on their shared experience, at times at odds with the social expectations of the world around them. They watch movies, critique each others work, travel around Finland and elsewhere and converse with each other about family, love and work.

This sense of voluntary seclusion, in defiance not necessarily against the world, but apart from the world, coupled with an intimacy, is one of Fair Play's most immediate themes. From the beginning, this is apparent. The second story, titled 'Videomania', finds Jonna and Mari declining an invitation for dinner with a friend because 'Fassbinder's on this evening... [and] we have to be here to cut out the commercials'. Great detail and care is given to this scene, as Jansson seeks to communicate Jonna's enthusiastic, creative obsession with recording, labelling and watching various films ('they had waited this way for meetings with Truffaut, Bergman, Visconti, Renoir, Wilder'). Again, Jansson's direct, easy humour is found in this story. After Jonna has told their friend Alma they will not be attending her dinner, this exchange occurs:

'Was she mad?' Mari asked.
'Oh, you know. Apparently the woman hasn't a clue about Fassbinder.'
'Should we unplug the phone?'
'If you want. Nobody's going to call. They know better. Anyway, we don't have to answer.'

Jansson's prose (rendered well in English by Thomas Teal) invites the reader into the private space created by Jonna and Mari. Indeed, one thing to take away from reading the novel is this notion of companionship. All of the thematic concerns of the novel do relate to this very central relationship between two women. A quote from the original edition, from Jansson, describes the book as 'a novel of friendship, of rather happy tales about two women who share a life of work, delight and consternation. They are very unlike each other, but perhaps that is why they manage to play the game successfully, with patience and, of course, a great deal of love'. In her introduction for this edition of the book, Ali Smith calls the work 'discreetly radical'. The focus should be on the word discreet, as Jansson's work mostly falls into the subtle and gentle side of the spectrum. The boundaries between vignette, short story and novel are easily blurred; the exposition of character and context is not explicit. Equally, the relationship between the two characters, perhaps homosexual in an albeit platonic form, inhabits a plain beyond simple romance and physicality, and is undeniably interesting. It is here where reality can too easily stamp an interpretation on the gracefully subtle fiction, especially concerning Jansson and Pietilä being two of the first openly gay public figures in Finland.

As the book progresses, the reader becomes more aware of the necessary space within this very close-knit relationship. The book ends with two stories: one occurs over a period of months, where the two characters barely see each other, and the final chapter ends with Jonna being offered a year's commission in Paris. This ending allows Jansson not only to break the couple apart - effectively offering a moment for conclusion - but also to impart another maxim for living. Time is revealed to be a giving phenomenon; the discussions of age and mortality are never gloomy in Fair Play, and the amount of new experience given to these old women in the book show a definite lust for life. The final paragraph shows Mari's revelation, that constant intimacy is only one aspect of life partnership;

'Mari was hardly listening. A daring thought was taking shape in her mind. She began to anticipate a solitude of her own, peaceful and full of possibility. She felt something close to exhilaration, of a kind that people can permit themselves when they are blessed with love.'

Fair Play shows a playful, wise author growing older, turning her attentions away from Moomin Valley towards the real world, where she finds just as much inspiration. The result is a work with just as much energy, enthusiasm and genius as her work for children. It is a direct, bite-sized work. A pocket masterpiece.

Friday, 6 June 2008

[27] Final Crisis #1

I decided that now I have a bit more time on my hands, I would put some effort into getting back into comix. Lucky for me, DC have just started their big comic event: Final Crisis. What follows isn't exactly an in-depth review, but I wanted to post something about it anyway.

The build up for this, a successor to previous events such as Crisis on Infinite Earths and Infinite Crisis, has been going on for over a year, with the 52 issue Countdown series. These events have been notable for their reboots of the DC Universe, involving huge crossovers and often major changes to the character rosters. I haven't read either of these previous Crisis series or the Countdown build-up, same with the splinter series such as Identity Crisis - the only real knowledge I have of these is gleaned from Wikipedia and reading around the subject online. Nevertheless, I wanted to dive right in with Final Crisis #1.

The series is written by Grant Morrison, one of the impressive crop of ex-2000 AD writers that have garnered a lot of attention and respect in the comix industry. My direct experience of his work is not as deep as with some of his contemporaries, such as Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis and Alan Moore, but I liked what I have read of The Invisibles, and the 3 issue mini-series We3 was one of the most original ideas I have seen in the medium.

One thing that surprised me about this comic is that it is not impenetrable. Even though it is a Universe-wide series, featuring many characters and references that require intimate knowledge of various DC properties, Morrison and artist JG Jones manage to communicate and convey their story well. The multiple plot lines introduced in this first issue reveal a deep and ambitious affair.

This is more than promising. I am looking forward to spending the next 6 months with the series.

One way of finding out all of the little references that a newcomer might miss is to read an annotations blog. This one, maintained by Douglas Wolk, is quite fantastic, informative, full of links, and ranges from character introductions, to background easter eggs.