How Poetry Died

For those who don’t know me in real life – I’ve been unemployed for a little while now since returning from India, looking for work and somewhere to live in London. I’ve had a handful of interviews already, and hope to have some good news on this front soon. But in the evenings, after I’ve spent my day drinking double strength coffee and slavishly refreshing indeed.com, I’ve been working on another task, one equally heroic though considerably more pointless. Like a modern day Sisyphus, slowly pushing a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down again, I have been – yes – trying to clear out my Steam library.

Call it the one benefit of having too much time and not enough money: I’ve been trying to get through the long list of games I’ve purchased on digital game market Steam, but never found the time to actually play. Every adult with a Steam account probably knows that vaguely depressing feeling of scrolling through your games library and realizing you’ve never even installed half the titles in it. You feel like you’ve become just another cog in the wheel of cultural capitalism, a victim of market psychology: ‘Oooh, it’s half price – wouldn’t it be stupid not to buy it?’ But, inevitably, you never find the time to play through that copy of Grand Theft Auto 2 which was marked down to 60p.

A culture of consumption

Of course, we know why this is happening. The people who run digital markets like Steam, Playstation Store and Amazon are masters of sale psychology. Limited time deals, wishlists and free trials tap into a particular part of the brain, and lead us into purchasing decisions we might not otherwise have made. It doesn’t make any difference to the platform holders whether we actually play the games or watch the movies we buy, so long as we’re spending money on them. (As a side note: anyone who wants to learn more about how corporations advertise to you should watch this fascinating Youtube video on the six principles of persuasion.)

We can see it in the world of music, too. I’ve sometimes caught myself listening to an album for no more than twenty minutes before abandoning it forever, for the sole purpose of logging it on music database rateyourmusic.com, a website where I have rather obsessively ranked almost 2000 albums on a scale of 1-10. As someone who writes critically about music, it can certainly be a useful tool for keeping track of everything I listen to. But there’s definitely an element of fetishizing the sheer quantity of music that enters into my ears, without giving it the critical attention it deserves. And even more perverse is game database backloggery.com, which I recently stumbled across, where users spend large amounts of time creating detailed lists of all the games they haven’t had time to play. Instead of, y’know, actually playing them.

“This is the reason why poetry is pretty much dead in 2018”

I think this trend towards a culture of consumption, which has probably been happening since the industrial revolution, is accelerating faster than ever now that online stores make it so easy to purchase media. And I also think this is the reason why an artistic medium like poetry is pretty much dead in 2018, or has at least lost a great deal of its cultural relevancy. A book of poetry doesn’t have a runtime, or a clear beginning and end – it gives out as much as you’re willing to put into it. It requires patience and space to think, both of which are in short supply in the digital age. And it isn’t easily qualified or ranked. In short: you can’t consume it quickly and throw it away.

And poetry is also almost completely removed from technological advancements, which have been at the heart of culture throughout the 20th and 21st century. Film, games and music have all developed alongside the technology that powers them, taking us from rudimentary projections, Pong and Kraftwerk to 4K displays, virtual reality and an electric organ made entirely out of furbies. OK, whether that last one is an evolution or a monstrosity might be up for debate. But regardless, these mediums are the ones that have remained, or become, relevant to contemporary culture (by which I basically mean popular and financially viable) because people want progress. And in the digital era, technology is progress.

“We’ll still be able to write poems in the dirt with our mutated, radioactive fingers.”

I went to a poetry workshop in Bath a few weeks ago titled ‘Publishing Your Poetry’, which was hosted by a small publisher called Burning Eye Books. One of the things that struck me the most was when the speaker made a very casual comment that there was ‘absolutely no money in poetry’, and that none but the one or two biggest publishers do better than barely staying afloat. Of course, I never expected I would make any money from writing or publishing poems I’d written, but I was surprised to hear just how bleak the business reality is.

Perhaps that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though. Everyone who works on the publishing side of poetry does it purely as a labour of love, and for the sake of the art. Likewise the people who still feel the urge to write poems in 2018. If poetry is dead, maybe it can live an afterlife where it serves as an antidote to the culture of consumption which surrounds contemporary art? One which exists outside the whirlwind of reviews, sales figures, fame, twitter controversy, and – yes – steam sales. And even if that never comes to pass, we can at least take comfort in this thought: when Donald Trump and North Korea lead the world to an inevitable nuclear apocalypse and all human technology is destroyed, we’ll still be able to write poems in the dirt with our mutated, radioactive fingers.

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FILM REVIEW: Eraserhead (Lynch, 1977)

Pipes, holes, void, semen, pus, heat, shadow, mud, erasers. These are just a few of the ingredients fermenting inside David Lynch’s brilliant and disgusting surrealist masterpiece Eraserhead. Where to start with a review for this film? A technical breakdown of its qualities and flaws doesn’t really seem appropriate SO instead let’s go on a brief and bloody journey through some of the things that make this movie so intriguing.

Contrasts…Eraserhead is full of beautiful hazy soft focus and lighting but its images are harsh and industrial. It demands repeated viewings to be fully understood but actively repulses the viewer away from watching it.

Broken bodies…perpetual disgust at the oozing squishy and soft nature of everything INSIDE like all the doors opening and closing and all the pipes and orifices that we enter through and emerge out of with the camera. I wonder if Lynch is trying to make a point about how technology distances us from our bodies?

Daring imagery…all the Lynchian themes are here even at this early stage: sex, fear, dreams. The neighbours face emerging from darkness. Jack Nance silhouetted against a cloud of dust or maybe stars. The lady in the radiator singing adorably while limpid foetuses rain down on her head. All sublime.

Religious tones…the mother is Mary, the baby (if we can call it that) is wrapped up in blankets like some kind of twisted nativity…the dog puppies suckling their mother at Mary’s parents house…

Classic surrealism…the influence of someone like Bunuel is very evident here, before the Lynch style developed and absorbed swathes of genre like noir and crime and mystery. And I get shades of Samuel Beckett, particularly Endgame, from the minimal and claustrophobic atmosphere, too…

Eraserhead is Lynch in his foetal state: everything that has made his movies so wonderful and twisted and unique over the last forty years is clearly on show in this debut, as fresh and sticky as a newly born baby. Second only to Mulholland Drive in concept and ambition, I think this is Lynch’s most poetic and most ambiguous film, and one that deserves to be endlessly dissected. I’m equal parts excited and terrified to return to it.

9.7/10

FILM REVIEW: Kiki’s Delivery Service (Miyazaki, 1989)

Kiki’s Delivery Service is a heartwarming coming of age tale that sets itself apart through an imaginative and vividly realized setting, as well as the high level of visual and narrative detail which quickly became the Ghibli standard. Where else in the world of cinema would the role of the protagonist’s mentor be filled by a magical, crow-whispering hippie artist who lives in a cabin in the woods? In the mind of Hayao Miyazaki, that’s where.

Few others could have dreamed up the magical realist Eastern European setting that serves as the backdrop for Kiki’s Delivery Service, either. This is a world of cobbled pavements, bikes, bakeries and clock towers that could resemble anything from Prague to Amsterdam, and it’s brought to life by its contrasting against the light, playful fantasy our teen witch protagonist embodies at every turn.

The characters and writing are a joy throughout, but there are definitely some moments where the plot of Kiki’s Delivery Service begins to meander as it shows us Kiki’s day to day working life. Part of me finds that really appealing, though: this is a movie that doesn’t overly romanticise adulthood, and isn’t afraid to represent it as occasionally full of just as much responsibility and routine as freedom and adventure.

The one real criticism I have for this movie is that the ‘coming of age revelation’ which Ursula delivers Kiki towards the films end felt a little bit unearned from a plot point of view. Still, the sentiment itself and the scene in which it was delivered were warm, cosy and thoroughly lovely. All of which are adjectives I would use to describe Kiki’s Delivery Service as a whole.

8.5/10

FILM REVIEW: Ponyo (Miyazaki, 2008)

Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo is a gorgeous elemental fable more explicitly aimed at children than some other Ghibli movies. The animation in this movie is absolutely breathtaking, particularly the underwater scenes where each frame is full of hundreds of colourful flowing fish and lights. I would say this is a close third behind Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away in terms of beautiful visuals, but the pencil-drawn backgrounds really make this film stand out among the Ghibli catalogue.

The scene in which Ponyo escapes her father and rides a tidal wave of colossal golden fish just had my jaw on the floor: this is surely the stuff animators wet dreams are made of. The scope of Miyazaki’s endlessly generous imagination never fails to amaze me, and it’s in full force throughout Ponyo.

The story here is a touching family drama with some splashes of the mystical/supernatural, and is most effective when it keeps its feet on the ground. If I have one slight complaint about this movie, it’s that the epic scope of the ending (‘save the world, restore harmony to nature’) feels a bit forced, and the environmental moral of the story a bit simplistic when compared to classics like Mononoke or Totoro. Oh, and the English voice actress for human Ponyo is pretty annoying. As always, watch in Japanese if you can.

Even despite a couple of minor flaws, Ponyo is a spellbinding watch. I find it hard to believe that this is supposed to be one of Miyazaki’s least acclaimed films, if I’m honest. I keep expecting to find at least one dud in the man’s catalogue as I explore it, but I’m starting to think he might just really be that consistent. Ponyo is a more than worthy addition.

8.4/10

How to Not Get Laid on Valentine’s Day

Hello everyone. Today is Valentine’s Day, and that means network television and organized broadcasting the world over will be delivering you a steady drip-feed of romantic sap to fuel your plans for getting laid. For those of you who have no such plans – for the freedom fighters rocking it solo on the most depressing day of the year – I’ve put together this list. Here are my favourite subversive movie romances: the tales of love that were weird, dark, or entirely unexpected. All are guaranteed to not get you laid on Valentine’s Day.

Wall-E

Yes, Wall-E. Wall-E is a movie about a pair of binoculars on wheels who falls in love with a floating trash can, and in the process of trying to court her accidentally ends up saving the Earth from a biological apocalypse. For my money, this is Pixar’s finest hour: a screwball romantic comedy starring two robots who never speak, and yet tell us so much about climate change, the nature of humanity and the power of love. And who could forget that intergalactic slow-dance through the vacuum of space, Wall-E flying around with his little fire hydrant, wide eyes staring longingly at his robot darling?

Before Midnight

Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ trilogy contains two of the most romantic movies ever committed to film, but there’s something a little different about Before Midnight, its third and final act. This movie is about the parts of a relationship that don’t get idealized in movies: the late stages, where two people have become so comfortable with each other’s quirks and idiosyncrasies they know each other better than themselves. Linklater’s depiction of marriage is dangerously intimate, and shocking in its pragmatism. “If you want true love, this is it. This is real life. It’s not perfect, but it’s real.”

Y Tu Mama Tambien

Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien is a coming of age story about two Mexican teenagers who embark on a road trip with an alluring older woman. All three characters have secrets, and Cuaron’s depiction of young love, lust and jealousy are scintillating as the group make their way across Mexico, a backdrop which seethes with political and economic turmoil. Much of Y Tu Mama Tambien’s power rests on a masterful romantic turn at the very end of the movie which I won’t spoil here, but which forces the viewer to reassess everything that came before.

Her

Spike Jonze’s Her is one of the most contemporary and socially aware romances made this decade. In it, Joaquin Phoenix’s Theo falls in love with an artificial intelligence inside the operating system of his apartment, played by Scarlett Johannson. The unusual pair develop a growing intimacy throughout the course of some wonderfully written conversations about sentience, commitment and the nature of feeling. Her is both a glorious satire of modern humankind’s obsession with technology, and a touching, passionate story about the limits of what can (and cannot) be loved.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

This excellent movie is all about love and memory: what we remember of the people we used to love, and how we might forget about someone we’ve stopped loving. Couple Joel and Clementine have a vicious argument, causing Clementine to seek the assistance of new age corporation Lacuna Inc, who have the ability to remove all her memories of the relationship. A devastated Joel resigns himself to the same procedure, but midway through decides against it, and the majority of the film takes place inside his mind as he fights to save his memories of Clementine from being erased. Imaginative, futuristic and totally unique: this is a romance like no other.