Thursday, 17 May 2012

Books: Marzi


Written by Marzena Sowa
Art by Sylvain Savoia

Available now from Islington Libraries
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Yeah - ok: I know - it's a word that I use a hell of a lot. Not just on this blog (where actually I've tried to cut down my use of it: like a fat kid trying his best not to put his fingers in the candy-bowl): but also in real-life: especially when dissing - well - all the music and films that I don't much care for (and yet my friends all rave about) [1].

Recently me, my girlfriend and my literary flatmate (for some unknown reason) decided that it would be a good idea to re-watch the Kill Bill films: we hadn't seen them since they had first come out at the cinema - and although they hadn't exactly set our worlds on fire (I think my general reaction was - the first one: a shrug and a "yeah - it was alright" - and the second one: a feeling of having been somehow cheated) - we hoped that maybe watching them next to each other (instead of waiting six months or however long it was between when they were released) would make them work more: sing better - join in heavenly unison or whatever. I dunno.

I thought the first one was much more enjoyable (mainly I guess because I knew what to expect - I mean in news that will shock absolutely no one - I'd say that Quentin Tarantino has a pretty big mouth: which while it can be entertaining in places [2] - isn't really that good at setting up audience expectations for his films: I mean I can't be arsed to find the quotes he gave before Kill Bill came out: but I was expecting a much more epic-feeling spectacular extravaganza than the much more intimate-seeming film that - you know - it actually is) but the second one - as cool as bits of the first half of it can be (that whole trapped-in-the-coffin scene [3], the Raising Arizona-style trailer fight) the end was - well - a whole big mess of let-down and disappointment because (and this is best way to say it) it's just boring.

Yes - of course it's complicated. I won't spoil it if you haven't seen it: but it does all this stuff and playing with audience expectations and zagging when you thought it's going to zig and all the rest and yeah-yeah-yeah - I get it. But that doesn't make it any less boring: you know? [4]

When speaking about the film with my literary flatmate afterwards - I was like: "yeah - it's too bad that the end of the film is so boring."(or something like that) which promoted him to say: "You see - I don't know what you mean when you say that. What is boring supposed to mean exactly?"

Of course - this got me thinking. Hell - what did I mean when I called something boring? What's the essence of boring? What makes a thing boring? Where does it reside? And - you know: etc etc etc. I mean - I didn't say any of this at the time - I think we got distracted by something else that came up: but it stuck with me: gnawing at my ankles like a small misbehaving dog.

My plan was that I would sit down at some point and try my best to write down all my thoughts about what makes a thing boring in this post for this comic Marzi - seeing how at the time I read it I thought it was one of the most boring things I had maybe ever read (at least for that year): which - ha - is why the very first word of this whole thing is "boring" smashed out in big fat capital letters.

But then - I don't know: it kinda got buried by all the other stuff - other blog things, other work things, other life things and so I pushed it to the attic of my mind and threw it on top of the expansive "things to do"pile (because there's never enough time in the world to do all the things you want: oh well).

And then: this week - I was writing some emails to my friends and the word came up again. We were talking about Grizzly Bear [5] and well - I said some things and they said some things and then we got stuck on what exactly "boring" was supposed to mean [6] (or rather - you know: to be specific - what I thought boring was supposed to mean). Which made me think of Kill Bill 2 and this post and made me go scrabbling up into my mental attic to look within my "things to do" pile: because - hey - as much fun as it would be to send ages writing an email that only my friends could see - it would be better to write something that I could also share with the world - right? Right.

You still with me? Ok then. So - I guess this thing you're reading now is my attempt to elucidate exactly what this word "boring" means to me and how exactly I use it and why (or at least - that's the plan: let's see how it works out).

The most obvious and boring way to start this off would be to say "Webster's dictionary defines boring as...." [7] but the problem there is that Webster's dictionary (or the merriam-webster website at least) doesn't have a good definition ("Definition of BORING : causing boredom : tiresome <a boring lecture>"). So - screw them and let's skip on to the free dictionary which offers a whole bunch of synonyms ("monotonous, tedious, irksome, tiresome, humdrum") and then goes on to say: "These adjectives refer to what is so uninteresting as to cause mental weariness. Boring implies feelings of listlessness and discontent: I had never read such a boring book."which seems like a much more fruitful place to begin our investigations: especially in my head at least - "boring" (here comes the binary thinking) is on the bottom end of the line that on the end says "interesting." [8] And (for this human at least) the thing that makes a film or a piece of music or - hell - even a comic book - worth my time: is how much of the "interesting" side it can give me. And boring (at least how I use it) is the lack or absence [9] of interesting things.

But yeah - of course: all that really does is shift the problem: because now instead of trying to work out what boring is - I need to try and explain what interesting means. Which - hell - is another very good question.

I guess the first thing coming down from my brain is that anything can be interesting: you know - it's all a matter of perspective. Our world is normally pretty quick to make snap judgments about what's worthing watching or listening to or whatever based upon whatever quick capsule summation you can give it [10]: which often strikes me as being a little unfair. I mean - yeah: there's obviously loads of fluff and trash out there and we all need to have some sort of flitter in place (sad as it is to accept - there's no way you can watch and read and listen to everything: like I said before - there's just not enough time in the world) but I think there's also the problem of being too defensive and closed-off and not being open to the fact that - well - if you can make a film about a rat being a cook then [11] - really you can make a story about frigging anything and (hopefully I don't sound too much like the trailer for a film when I say this) but the only limit is our imaginations (which I'd say - on a good day - can probably chuck out 2 or 3 ideas a minute: which isn't too shabby at all).

So yeah - anything can be interesting and (oh well) it's not really something that you can ascertain before you start reading or listening or watching (or whatever): I mean - yeah - speaking personally I do have an interior checklist of things that push my buttons (mostly - it must be said: science-fictional concepts like personal identity, consciousness, the nature of time: stuff like that - but that doesn't mean that's all I like: at least I very much hope not) but I do my best to not keep myself from trying out new things: new flavours, new experiences - and sitting down in front of something new I always try to be as open as possible as I can be (whether or not this is possible is another matter entirely).

And that spark of interestingness? Well - obviously tastes will vary and etc: but for me there's - what? - three main things that make something interesting to me (you ready?)

1. Show me something I've never seen before. You know: originality and all that. If you can show me something new: use a combination of familiar elements and place them in some-kind of previously-unseen combination then I'm yours (good recent example: the Cloud Atlas film. I mean yeah - every part of it is cliché - but I've never had six story-lines played together all at once before: so for that reason - it's - you know - an interesting experience to have).

2. Show me how smart you can be. There's nothing as great as reading/listening/watching something that feels like it's been made my someone really smart: like Lena Durham's Girls (especially the second season is just non-stop excellence mainly because every part of it feels like they've spent ages working out how to get every single part of it exactly right. [12]) or Dan Harmon's Community [13] (I mean - the first three seasons at least - before he got kicked out and it all went downhill [14])

3. Make it immediate. This one I guess is the hardest to properly define - but I guess it has something to do with stuff like jazz and - well Grizzly Bear (the guys who kinda helped kick-start all of this in the first place). Because yeah - although I can listen to a Grizzly Bear album and appreciate that it's a new step for guitar music (and one of the only guitar bands signed to Warp I know I know): there's still something about them that's - I dunno - too tucked away, too comfortable with just staring into it's own navel: because yeah - even tho it's got complex time signatures and loads of subtle touches of production: it doesn't really seem to care about reaching out and making a connection: it's more a case that you have to go to it. And so the parts don't pop or sparkle in anykind of interesting or beguiling way (at least - not for this listener) - which: I guess - is what makes me find them so very boring.

Trying to tie this altogether then: if you can do one of these three things (or hell - maybe all of them at once) then you've got something that's not boring: something that's going to both entertain and nourish me spiritually and intellectually and whatever else. And yeah yeah - I know - it's all subjective and whatever (I know): but the point is that not everything needs to have pop hooks or whatever: like everything else - there's pop music that can be boring and there's pop music that can be interesting (and the same with every other genre of music [15]): and - hell - it's why the end of Kill Bill 2 is such a let-down: because once it springs it's little twist - things stop happening and the sense of immediacy is lost (I mean: yeah - ok: I guess you could make the argument that it's something that you haven't seen before: but it's more like it's swapping one mode / one genre for another: and you don't win any points if your romantic comedy ends with a science-fictional twist (altho that would be amazing and can someone please make that happen please?) when that science-fictional twist just has the characters sitting in the space chairs and remarking how comfortable they are for 30 minutes [16])

But - yeah. It feels like there's more stuff to say: but I guess that'll do (for now at least) and (phew) now that's all done - let's maybe talk about this comic book. Yeah?

(Takes a breath).

So. In case you can't tell from my crazy surnames (one of which comes from a famous footballer: or at least so I'm told) I'm Polish. In that - one of my grandparents came from there (I'm also German, Ghanian, and there's a little bit of Irish and French mixed in there too - what can I say? I'm a world child - form a circle): I've never been there myself - but I hear that it's very nice - if a little cold. And also something about vodka? (They drink a lot of it apparently). But anyway - you'd figure that I'd be receptive to a comic book biography thing of someone growing upin 1980s Poland under Communist rule - but you'd be wrong.

What is the point of this book? Ok - yeah - I get that you grew up in a place where things were slightly different to how things are where I grew up and yeah you had to queue for food and didn't have chocolate to eat every week and blah blah blah - but so what? And why am I reading about this? This is just someone unloading every little thing from their childhood with picture attached and I have no reason to care and oh god just trying to make my way through this book is like crawling headfirst through a vat of very sticky treacle with a ball and chain of totally boring wrapped around my skull.

I prefered it when comic books were seen as childish and beneath adult interest because at least that way everything was wild and free and crazy and lots of people did foolish things. This book tho - this is what happens when a medium becomes respectable. Quote from the author: ""As you can see in 'Marzi' there's not a lot of action in it, it's not like a normal comic book with different drawings and panels, it's very regular; it almost looks like a photograph album where you can see the photographs and Marzi is commenting on every picture... It's like a souvenir of my family, of my life in Poland." Because - yay - that's just what I want to read: someone's photo album with a running commentary.

It doesn't show the reader anything they haven't seen before. It doesn't feel like it's been put together with any great thought (apart from the thought of: "This happened to me." "And then this other thing happened." "And then this other thing happened." times like 100). And - well - none of it feels particularly immediate. Instead - it feels like slowly falling asleep and someone holding a pillow over your face. All of which to say: it's very incredibly and utterly and totally boring. So if you're thinking of reading it - maybe think about reading something else.

[1] Sorry - I guess I should have included comic books and proper books in there too: but it's mainly music and films that me and my friends talk about (and which - I guess - is the appeal of the Comic Forum meetings: in that it's the once-in-a-month chance to meet up and chat with people who do know the difference between their Frank Millers and Mark Millars. So yeah - just a little plug there for anyone thinking of joining us....). 

[2] If you haven't seen the interview he gave with Krishnan Guru-Murthy about Django Unchained then - hell - what are you waiting for

[3] Altho - calling it the trapped-in-the-coffin scene makes it sound like a R Kelly joint. But whatever.

[4] And - god: the end of Kill Bill 2 is up there with the ending to Adaptation and Apocalypse Now in terms of creating the most annoying film conversations with people in how everyone who loves those films will always assume that if you didn't like the ending then that just means that you didn't "get it" - as opposed to: you get what it does: but you just don't like it (a distinction that seems simple enough: but - man: one it can take a long while to sink in with some people: if my own experience is any indication - of course - I blame the fact that we live in a culture that's pretty much always based on binary distinctions: you're either for it or against it, a man or woman, straight or gay, black or white: and there's nothing that exists in-between: but whatever - that's an argument for another day maybe...).

[5] In particular their song Knife.

[6] I hope they won't mind me sharing like this but basically the conversation went like this (ah the beauty of emails):

Me: damn grizzly bear are boring
(girl talk remix anyone? )

Friend 1: "damn grizzly bear are boring. " and why exactly did you think I would like them?

Me: because you like boring music!

Friend 1: ouch

Me: sorry. too much?
i meant - erm - you mostly like boring music?
(that better?)

Friend 1: I think boring's the wrong word, no? Far too subjective... Is 'minimal' better? I do like some minimal music that's true, but I also quite like 'well complicated shit' as well. Aphex twin is a good example of both: Selected Ambient Works vs Chosen Lords. I love both albums and would probably kill or at least maim anyone who made me choose between the two.
So there.

Friend 2: agree with Friend 1 completely - I find r&b stuff like chris brown, frank ocean and similar whiny bullshit boring as hell, yet they have more fans than those of all of my favorite music put together. not to mention that most of my friends can't stand the music I listen to (dunno why I'm friends with them :)

Me: sorry - it wasn't my intention to my insulting (sorry). 
to explain myself a little bit better (hopefully): nope not boring meaning minimal (aklthough i totally understand how you could come to that conclusion) - more like: boring as in no pop hooks. Thom York's Amok (for me at least) kinda boring - even tho - yeah: I know there's a lot going on there. 
but this is just taste and semantics - so erm. yah.

Friend 2: oh well - in terms of hooks... I also think they are the most exciting bits and the parts that make me listen and come back for more and good songwriting usually has them - I think judge, jury is a pretty good song, very far from boring? (I know I said that already... will give the album more time) - it's all opinions. 

Friend 1: Hmmm I think you need to be careful with the word boring - like I said it's too subjective.  For me pop hooks (I'm thinking Britney et al) are mostly boring but not for other people. Other music that I find more interesting (i.e. more perceived hooks) they might equally find hookless and boring. Need the right bait to catch the right prey. music isn't radio friendly --> i.e. not that many hooks?"

Me: I feel like maybe I have to go away and write an essay about all of this in order to try and explain it properly.

[7] Which I think I read once as the number one worst way to open a wedding speech: but - hell - check it out - by admitting from the get-go about how cheesy it is as an idea I get to have my cake and eat it at the same time (because - as this is supposed to be a thing about what the meaning of the word "boring" is supposed to be: it makes sense to start off with the written definition - no?).

[8] I mean - obviously that just makes me think of Donnie Darko and "Well, life isn't that simple. I mean, who cares if Ling Ling returns the wallet and keeps the money? It has nothing to do with either fear or love." "Fear and love are the deepest of human emotions." "Okay. But you're not listening to me. There are other things that need to be taken into account here, like the whole spectrum of human emotion. You can't just lump everything into these two categories and then just deny everything else." But - in the interest of keeping things simple: let's just brush that aside for now - yeah? Cool. Thanks.

[9] I mean - I know that those are two words for the same thing: but it just sounded better to have two words there instead of just the one: okay? 

[10] A good example which happened today: am trying to get one of my friends to watch this film called Ping Pong with me because I think he'd like it (for whatever various reasons: but I guess mainly because it's a really good little film) - he asked me what it's about - and I told him (not very helpfully I guess) that it's about Ping Pong. So he was like: yeah - ok: I think I'll pass - it doesn't really sound like my cup of tea. With a little bit more cajoling I finally got him to come around: but it did make me think about the difference between what films are about (on the surface level or whatever you want to call it) and - you know - what they're about - underneath their skin. Taxi Driver is a film about a Taxi Driver. Magic Mike is about male strippers. Toy Story is about toys that come to life. But if you think that's all they're about then - well - you're missing out. Yeah?


[12] You don't believe me? Fine: then read this (Film Crit Hulk Smash: WHY GIRLS IS REMARKABLE) get back to me and we can talk.

[13] If you haven't watch it yet then I recommend you go over and read Grantland's recent profile of him (God Needs a Hobby Thirty-six hours on the road — and in the bar — with exiled TV genius Dan Harmon) and then start with Season 1. I know - you can thank me later.

[14] I haven't actually watched any of Season 4: but this Vulture article (Seitz on Community Season Four: You’re Just Some Sitcom That I Used to Know) manages to nicely sum up all my thoughts: "While watching season four of Community, I keep thinking about the post–Aaron Sorkin West Wing and the post–David Milch NYPD Blue. They were acceptable, at times very good, but they lacked that spark of mad crystalline poetry which proves that TV can be as much an auteur’s medium as cinema. I also think about the end of A.I. The android David’s mother isn’t really his mother; she's a facsimile created by luminous beings who’ve married strands of her DNA to David’s subjective, nostalgic memories, resulting in a creature that looks and sounds like the genuine article but that we know in our bones is something else, superficially close yet fundamentally false, and thus unbearably sad."

[15] Apart from - well - Jazz. (sorry Jazz). And yeah - I know that this is a massive overstatement (that probably isn't even true - but whatever): but Jazz is just so stupid people can think they're smart.

[16] I feel like the analogy is slipping away from me at this point - so maybe I should just say it's complicated and there's like other story reasons and you can't introduce a new character so late in something and then expect the audience to take them to their heart? Or something. I dunno. Whatever: it's boring and I didn't like it (maybe I should have just left it at that?).

Links: LA Times Interview with Marzena Sowa, Comic Book Resources Interview with Sowa.

Further reading: Persepolis, It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken, Make Me A Woman, BlanketsLogicomix: An Epic Search for TruthJerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City.

All comments welcome.

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