2018 draws to a close, the chattering storm clouds gathering at its edge announcing its eventual dissipation. Swarms of insects shift and stream through the gap between now and then, probosces prod and tremble in response to viscous stimuli, the temporal current bubbling from further, deeper indices. Data, folding and multiplying, copying and expanding, exploding and mutating, shattering and penetrating, tearing and shuddering. Turning in on itself, the corpus of social chains rots into new forms, dissolves and rebuilds structures within the real, extending tentacular feelers into spongey substances. The links in the chain become open doors.
Before I list some things proper, I feel it necessary to clarify the context of this entire list. 2018 was a hell of a strange year for me, one characterised by massive, in some sense violent change; to such an extent that in truth it only feels like it started halfway through. It was the year in which I abandoned my prior pretence of being an unbridled cynic, a disillusioned political centrist, and someone I really didn’t want to be, governed by an increasingly depressive cloud from which I attempted to shield myself via pathetic projections of certainty and blinkered ignorance. I shed the mask of the miserable bastard and found somewhere that I’m actually a Utopian at heart, finding, through some of the things I shall list below, something entirely new but difficult to solidly define. The disillusionment didn’t disappear, it’s simply that I found that continuing to press on despite it was more gratifying than my previous approach of simply giving in and wallowing in the mud of failure. The pushing against obstacles, the overcoming of hurdles, is something I can’t help but think defines not humanity per se, but matter itself. The structure of matter is constant straining, pushing, the paths of resistance, overcome or worked around. This is all why this list will prove a little open ended, including a few things I haven’t finished, or even that I’ve only just started on… 2018 only really got going for me relatively late in the game, and towards its end has been a veritable avalanche of new discoveries. Without further ado, I’ll get the ball rolling.
THOMAS PYNCHON – GRAVITY’S RAINBOW
Gravity’s Rainbow blew the doors open. I’m not even sure I read to the end, I think I did, and I can’t remember starting, though I know I spent a good month and a bit more buried in this whirlwind of obscene profundities. It had the effect of violently tearing me from my slumber, unfolding the spacio-temporal disjuncture of my condition at the time. The structure of this fable, a careening arc of sexual absurdities, octopuses, a giant adenoid, all coming to a point of eschaton and obsession, pulling apart reality at its seams. It acted on me as a kind of molecular insurrectionist book, seeding itself in my mind and proceeding to shift the boundaries of my thought in a torrent of things I’d never encountered before, an experimental barrage of the unknown with one sweep tearing asunder the thrones of yore and setting in place an oscillating fleshy blob of matter to rule the kingdom on their stead. I intend to further explore Thomas Pynchon’s work, I have an unread copy of Mason & Dixon sitting on my shelf and the Crying of Lot 49 calls out to me, but Gravity’s Rainbow as an event was for me a wormhole of possibilities and a strategically placed bomb.
GHOST – PREQUELLE
“It’s not metal!” they cried, clutching their copies of Opus Eponymous. They’re right, it’s not, but it’s long been obvious that Ghost’s aspirations didn’t lie in being a pure metal outfit for a long time, and in truth what I find so compelling about the band is their commitment to their cheesy, over the top theatrical stylings. What makes it more than just surface level sheen though is their ability to construct an absolutely wonderful pop song, see Dance Macabre, and refreshingly overblown Ballad in See the Light. They do away with the insistance that everything must be serious, sad, dour and inject some much needed fun into the modern rock landscape, fun here not intending to lessen their serious intent as a band, but to encapsulate a certain rediscovery of the limits of aesthetic expression that in its current iteration on Prequelle finds Ghost traversing a distinct emotional catharsis that lodged the album firmly into my brain for the better part of this year. It’s not metal but is is Ghost, in all their costumed glory.
MARK FISHER – CAPITALIST REALISM
[See also “Terminator v Avatar: Notes on Accelerationism”] I can’t actually remember where I found Mark Fisher’s essay Terminator v Avatar now, but I don’t find it hyperbolic to say reading it changed my life, as has the rest of Fisher’s work, and it caused me to immediately order Capitalist Realism on impulse, something I usually avoid entirely. If Gravity’s Rainbow blew open the doors, Capitalist Realism gave form to the seething energy beyond them. What I found in Terminator V Avatar was a concise but incredibly formulated piece on the follies of an anti-capitalist appeal to the past, this wish to return to a more “primitive” time, to live of the land, being fully assimilated into capitalist infrastructure, illustrated via looking at James Cameron’s Avatar as an embodiment of this capitalist drive to re-assimilate its own opposition. In Capitalist Realism I found one of the most effective accounts of the Capitalist apparatus I’d read, Fisher’s titular concept making sense of so much of the world around me, and again shifting the boundaries of my perception in a significant realignment. Beyond this, Fisher’s work has helped me immensely, grounded me from a state of drifting apprehension, and without it I wouldn’t have started this very blog. I won’t ramble on too much here, but Fisher finally led me to something resembling my own position, and has been something of a revelation not only in terms of my ongoing interests in philosophy and theory, but in my sense of political vitality and urgency, re-awakening a sense of potential new realities I had long given up on. Read Capitalist Realism if you haven’t already, it’s very short and well worth the few hours it’ll take.
JULIA HOLTER – AVIARY
The prospect of new Julia Holter is always an unexpected joy, but the vast expanse of Aviary confounded my expectations in the most delightful way, unravelling on first listen into an experimental cacophonous space redolent of its title, seeming to reflect the weirding of the modern world in its creation of an entire sonic ecosystem. At times it screams and wails, at others it echoes, it breathes softly, all these sounds merging into each other and flowing across the bedrock, eventually forming a vast lake teeming with life. It’s long and winding, at times forms fractured rapids and whirlpools, but the separate parts connect into a sublime organism, organic and shifting in tone and mood. It is I suppose a much more difficult, abstract release than her previous album, but in this lies some of her most ethereally beautiful compositions, and if one can spend the time on it, Aviary is one of the most impressive musical projects of the year, one that manages to weave together teeming multitudes into a coherent expression of musical catharsis.
DELEUZE & GUATTARI – ANTI-OEDIPUS
Disclaimer: I haven’t actually finished reading this yet, I’m just enjoying my time with it too much to pass up mentioning it here. Beyond its rather toothless and vapid interpretations one might find in universities, the Academy’s full tendency to shave the edges off the theory it tackles on display, Deleuze and Guattari present a truly radical work here [I would argue still today] the primary purpose of which is to ask why we wish for our own domination. In other words, this is, as Foucault expresses in his preface to the book, an anti-fascist work, not just on a structural level, but on a molecular level, taking aim at the tendencies of psychoanalysis to defer to control, to institution and tradition via Oedipus, and formulating capital as that which necessarily represses desire. The mistake some make is to think that D/G are presenting either a model, or a symbolic/metaphorical picture with this book. This is to rob their ideas of power, and as they make perfectly clear throughout the book, they are simply not talking in metaphor. The insistence of academics to time and again reduce powerful ideas to a purely imaginary gesture is consistently infuriating. With Anti-Oedipus in particular, while they no doubt use imagery to illustrate their ideas, the ideas themselves are real. When they think in terms of multiplicity, when they say “making love is not just becoming as one, or even two, but becoming as a hundred thousand” this is exactly what they mean. Every time we reduce these statements down to nothing but poetics we turn D/G into a shell of their potential. Taken as a book intended to have real effect upon the world, not just as a theoretical vaguery designed to be dissected in a lecture theatre somewhere, Anti-Oedipus is a remarkable work, and I’m looking forward to re-reading it in the future and to tackling the rather more daunting scale of A Thousand Plateaus.
My big question going into this film was “Can McQueen really keep this up?”. The man hasn’t directed a film that’s been anything less than incredible, and I’m happy to report Widows did not break that streak, a heist film on the surface that really digs deep into the social and political surroundings of everyone involved. Not a single character didn’t work, all contributing to the sense of place and political decay in the setting of Chicago, all the parts of the film operating in organic synthesis to paint a picture in the strongest terms, of being forced into a situation through no fault of ones own, of being at the whim of an abstract structure that has anything but your best interests in mind. It’s maybe not quite the stark and uncompromising statement that 12 Years a Slave was, but in its own ambitions it excels, upending the genre standards of heist stories with the greatest attention paid to the emotional resonance of each individual character’s situation. He did it again, this is another must-watch.
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
Confession: I’d never seen a Lynne Ramsey film before I saw this one on the strength of what I’d heard about it. On the strength of this I intend to rectify this situation. Joaquin Pheonix tends to be excellent, so that his performance here fits this description isn’t necessarily a surprise, but Ramsey’s direction really hits home regarding the existential instability of his character, the non-existence of his being. What’s noteworthy about the film’s approach to violence is its uncompromising focus on the aftermath rather than the action itself. The actual heat-of-the-moment combat, the brutality, dissolves into a heap of bodies on the floor, blood pooling, the psychological torment…
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE
Despite this show’s occasional use of cheap scare tactics [though it mostly steers clear of the depressingly familiar twee scary tropes of contemporary horror, preferring to stick to the genuinely unsettling building of atmosphere] it stuck with me, going into some deep psychological territory via a loose adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name. Each of the main characters serve as our guides through their own trauma, their own struggle to come to terms with the events of their childhood in a way that transcends the usually rather dull “horror as metaphor for psychology” set-up, something that usually just makes me curse the writer’s inability to have faith in their creation, to become a legitimately stirring existential poem of grief, addiction, empathy and memory.
Nicolas Cage engaged in a chainsaw battle. That caught your attention? Nicolas Cage lighting a cigarette from a flaming severed head. That? This is to sell the film short though. It’s much more than just a “Nicolas Cage goes mad” kind of film, pulling together some of the most visceral and colourfully violent scenes I saw this year as as well as featuring a soundtrack by the late Johann Johannsson, a growling, drone-metal inspired descent into hell. The first half of the film is even a surprisingly slow build up to the second half’s utter insanity. It won’t be for everyone, but Mandy is a remarkable film in many ways.
Now here’s a film everyone definitely didn’t love. Opinions on Luca Guadagnino’s re-imagining of Dario Argento’s horror classic varied from “masterpiece” to “total garbage”. I will concede that the film is probably too long and over-the-top in many ways, but if I’m being entirely honest this exactly why I loved it. The sheer ambition here, the political overtones of the film, and moments of pure body horror [seriously don’t watch this over dinner] won me over in the best way possible, so when I’d finished watching this film I felt like I’d just greedily devoured a large meal and didn’t regret it one bit, even if it was a tad rich.
Having been significantly moved by Chazelle’s previous two films Whiplash and La La Land, I took an interest in First Man on the basis of this alone, and what I got was again what could have been a flaccid, stifled historical drama transformed into an emotionally affecting exploration of grief, waste of life, being caught in a process you can’t control. On top of this, no film about space travel I’ve seen has more effectively captured the feeling of hurtling through the atmosphere in a small metal box held together with bolts. Elements of this film were like a cinematic immersion tank in how intimate the cinematography was and how Chazelle cleverly eschewed the many wide open space shots that are so tempting when making a film like this. A wonderful film in many ways compounded by a masterful soundtrack yet again from Justin Hurwitz. Oh and lest I forget to mention it, Ryan Gosling IS a good actor, he’s excellent here as Armstrong, and I won’t hear any different.
STAR TREK – THE ORIGINAL SERIES
Having set myself the task of watching more Trek, having seen frankly shockingly few episodes of it over the years, I decided this year to systematically go through the original series, and despite it being dated in some aspects, looking clearly of its time and the occasional story element really showing its age, I was surprised at how well this series still resonates. It says something to the characters that despite the fact that I know they’re not really at risk and nothing looks quite convincing I still became invested in their fates. Many of the moral quandaries and SF concepts here, while executed around a low budget, are excellent and legitimately fascinating. Of course for various production reasons the third series is … patchy, but I can enthusiastically recommend the first two as wonderful period sci-fi pieces that despite the years of pastiche, ridicule and more still hold their own.
ANNIHILATION [BOOK AND FILM]
Last, but definitely not least, are both Alex Garland’s film Annihilation and the book upon which it is based, by Jeff Vandermeer. When I originally saw the film, I’m ashamed to admit I was not in the right state of mind to appreciate it, my mind fogged for a number of reasons, so it took a second watch to really cement the film for me as a truly wonderful piece of modern SF/Horror, a film that treads ground I can remember few other films in recent memory touching, bar perhaps Under the Skin, and containing visual and conceptual intrigue far beyond even what Garland’s last Ex Machina [a film I also rather enjoyed, but one with a far greater stamp from its influences] achieved, via some utterly hair raising set pieces and leading towards a conclusion that is stunningly beautiful and uniquely disturbing in idea and execution, exploring the breaking down of identity and self destruction in profound ways.
Much, much more recently, a few days from when I’m writing this in fact, I finally read Jeff Vandermeer’s book, the first in his “Southern Reach” trilogy, and found myself enthusiastically engrossed in its pages, devouring a novel in a way I hadn’t experienced for some time. The book itself, while hitting some similar themes to the film, is a different beast in many ways, unfolding in a strangely dreamlike manner apropros the constant questioning of how much the characters can trust what they’re seeing, the constant muddying of reality via hypnosis and mutation. It reads like a visceral blend of Lovecraft, Phillip K Dick and countless others but simultaneously sets itself apart and is one of the most gripping pieces of weird fiction I’ve read in recent years. All things told, I believe I very slightly prefer the book as an entity, but I would recommend both as supremely interesting, strange and well executed works that stand on their own merits.
Not a comprehensive list by any means, as I can already think of some things I could have easily included, but the most important milestones of my year found their way here, a rough patchwork quilt of my rather strange life in 2018 in the form of films, books and television. Do whatever you want with them, I suppose. Have an INCOMPREHENSIBLE new year.