11 December 2018

morality bites

My votes in Sight & Sound magazine’s 2018 film poll were for:

Three of these were in the overall top six, a rare alignment. On the other hand:

Another year in which film critics crossed boycotts to write for non-paying outlets, indulged the theory that curators and exhibitors have the same job as ours, allowed the cottage industry of early-career training courses to continue making money for people other than the critics on them, and couldn’t sustain a discussion of class in criticism beyond an initial statement of one fact without it imploding. Any critic accepting this status quo as the price of hypothetical progress should make their case out loud so that it can be debated.

There are a lot of things not currently being debated. It was also another year of some critics in certain quarters calling for unspecified forms of Better Criticism when considering the work of Problematic Artists. What this brave new world of well-behaved arts criticism will look like, to say nothing of the well-behaved art, is equally unclear.

At this point it might be better for those advocating the concept of Socially Responsible Art to spell out what they imagine the socially irresponsible kind is doing in the heads of the people who consume it, exactly. We’ve reached the stage of proceedings where the call is for the arts critics themselves, rather than the artists, to think harder about their societal responsibilities—which as well as being a formulation to catch the eye of any passing historian of the mid-20th Century, dragoons arts critics into the 21st Century police action underway on the anti-art Left, accumulating a few thousand volts of irony along the way.

Chances are that this is actually the important discussion, ultimately more vital than those structural catastrophes hobbling the paid-criticism trade; but the catastrophes affect our power to do the discussing, by no coincidence whatsoever. One of 1974’s most wayward cinematic sons was dragged back onstage this year, and some things do not, in fact, ever change:

Art is intrinsically spiritual not political, a spiritual thing that reminds us of the madness of our own consciousness, and to call for Bad Objects to go away is to want that nagging reminder to go away too, in favour of a more reassuring belief that art must be a spokesperson, a taskmaster, a lost dad and colossal father.

The mission taken up by much current arts criticism of a left-ish persuasion: to treat Bad Objects as if they were flawed academic papers to be retracted; to scrutinise content but remain oblivious to form; to purge, to purge, to purge.

10 December 2018

sentenced to life

The January/February Sight & Sound magazine includes me reviewing the new remake of Papillon, another film adaptation which ends by showing the creation of its own source book when that actual source does nothing of the kind. On the Road played the same game and The Rum Diary did something similar. Such a modern last-minute worry, that an audience might forget why the film’s title rang a bell in the first place. But also the unshakeable addiction to origin stories, and the panic that a story which doesn’t lay the groundwork for something coming along afterwards might be no story at all.

I went into First Man in a mild panic of my own, after scowling for the full length of both Whiplash and La La Land at director Damien Chazelle’s inherently chilly and distant manner. But First Man emphasises actors shuddering and shaking in the interiors of capsules with an apparent lack of digital effects, in sequences like Neil Armstrong’s wild flat spin in Gemini 8 and eventually the moon landing itself with its cascading alarms and resets. Perhaps prodded by the script—writer Josh Singer started on post-Aaron Sorkin The West Wing after all—even Chazelle doesn’t opt to be chilly for those.

Composer Justin Hurwitz has a lot to do with this, since First Mans modest score goes emphatically back to basics of theme and variations, with entirely successful results. There’s a melancholy harp melody for the Armstrongs that reminded me of Basil Poledouris and Les Misérables, which evolves into a bouncing arrangement of ticking determination for the Houston sequences with something of Rachael Portman about it, and eventually becomes a lunar descent of rolling triplet relentlessness which isn’t really martial enough to be properly John Barry but does understand Barry’s mechanics—tension through grandeur rather than aggro. There’s also a tiny motif for Karen, the Armstrongs’ deceased child, heard at the tail end of the Armstrong theme almost every time, the memory tugging at her parents which they never leave behind. At the zenith of the entire film and score, when Chazelle finally cuts outside the rumbling capsule for a look at the vast lunar surface and the tiny human craft flown by an introverted husband and father aiming to be the first human to walk on it, and the score hits its grandest emotional fortissimo, it’s the dead daughter’s theme that it plays. Which is one bulletproof answer, the next time anyone wonders what exactly film music is there for.

1 December 2018

the scene

The only meetings between cartooning and jazz that I used to see were the jokes in Jazz at Ronnie Scott’s, so the French strips by Blutch reprinted this year by Fantagraphics in Total Jazz are a transmission from the other side of the cultural moon entirely. Some of them are gentle self-mockery that Ronnie Scott would have approved of—the stylings of John Coltrane drive all the residents of a household crazy including the cat—but a lot of them venture where gags from Frith Street would not have cared to go.

Several times Blutch draws the jazz itself, the actual form of the music, rendered as artistic effect. Successful or not, the attempt and its careful ambiguities are a lot like the ones Guido Crepax unpicked while drawing Valentina’s sexual pleasure as ink on paper; both projects feel European to the core. But more often Blutch’s lyricism comes before violence, and then follows it too. If Charles Mingus’s punch-ups are par for the biographical course, then the domestic assault inflicted on The Scenes anonymous wife or girlfriend is far more unsettling—made worse by Blutch’s scratchy ink lines, as though the tenor sax player pummelling his woman in the face was fizzing with incoherent rage, violence enveloping him like a fog. The panel where she’s on the ground is dire stuff.

Blutch’s figures are cartoons not caricatures, and those harsh inks become tender enough on the faces of the young and the dying to cast any doubts about the artist’s sincerity into the bin; but the early pages throw in a representational monkey wrench through three stories depicting Native Americans, two of them drawn in a lush charcoal wash unlike anything else in the book. The other, an official preface, has a tribal chief and a warrior brave chatting incongruously about the nature of archival publishing and the dredging up of old jazz cartoons long after the cartoonist has moved on. The overlapping heritage of hardship and displacement shared by African and Native American cultures has left its fingerprints on the music that’s under Blutch’s microscope in the first place, and even if it hadn’t it would still be legitimate material for an artist to process; but put this kind of irony and theatricality close to each other in the current cultural test tube and questions of appropriation will occur. The best answer remains resisting the urge to detect an artist’s hidden wickedness when looking at their art, and not insisting that art deal only in lessons delivered by proxy about living a prosaically good life. As if sincere art need be well-tempered and well-behaved in the first place.

In any case, the cumulative tone of Blutch’s cartooning is complicated enough to suggest all the cultural contradictions lurking under the turf, with seams of sex and surrealism everywhere. Dealing with jazz without dealing with sex might amount to missing the point—it was the topic of the original French edition’s cover, a half-naked white woman being caressed by a group of jazzmen as if they were playing a keyboard, which Fantagraphics has opted to do without. One story ends with four white male long-haired a capella singers communing with the black female singer whose song they have covered by worshipping her extremities in some pagan ritual of consumption and sex; or possibly just of jazz criticism.

The surrealism is a bit less predictable, jolts of occult static bubbling up from the agony and ecstasy of the music. A saxophone duo are linked together by an indistinct mutant musical instrument with multiple mouthpieces; and an even more abstract cubist mechanism supplants the human players in a historical sequence, a sight which now makes me think of FBI Special Agent Phillip Jeffries evolved into a big steam kettle in Twin Peaks. One full-page image has multiple males regarding Josephine Baker with a tense combination of disdain and self-destruction; another page of portraiture includes near its centre an impossible visage, a male face so folded-in and melting that it could have arrived up from one of Clive Barker’s hells. Blutch puts the physical pleasure and physical pain of jazz for both sexes so close together in his strips that the erotic and the despairing are welded at the root. This gentleman and his warp spasm could be one of the severe and unknowable house deities of the book.

29 November 2018

dance witch-girl dance

Before everyone saw Luca Guadagnino’s new version of Suspiria he was professing his love of the old one to the point where it seemed he might turn up in person and profess it through your letter box. But a retread of Dario Argento’s hormonal sugar-rush was never on the cards, and the remake is a different kind of biological fantasy, flatter and critic-friendly. Its real estate involves witches covening not in subtly post-Fascist Italy but in overtly post-Fascist 1970s Berlin, while the Red Army Faction blow things up down the road. The only real use of this situation is Chloë Grace Moretz’s cameo as the student who vanishes at the start, and although CGM has started to look like every part she plays is being done under protest, the Le Carré-ish deal of a young woman abandoning ballet school to go and run with Ulrike Meinhof is a strong self-knowledge narrative if it’s artist to radical. Even more so if she knew it was actually witch to terrorist.

Pundits’ fixation on a film’s content rather than its form is the modern curse, mainly because films hardly ever play with form in the first place. But Guadagnino does at least dabble with it: deliberate edits used to keep the viewer off balance—here’s the frame of a chair, that thing on the wall, the back of someone’s head—and Moretz’s exposition delivered by someone whose face you never quite see and whose body is never in clear sight. Reviewers thrown by this rarity have reached strange conclusions about how Suspiria breaks all the rules of camera angles,” which to be true would have to involve it being upside-down. It’s really just the aspect-to-aspect editing code that first came my way via Japanese manga, which worked out the assembly of a moment from scattered fragments ages ago. Western films usually do it just to put the wind up the audience, but its rule book is as strict as all the others. The problem is that Argento’s careering Evil Disney colour scheme and skewed child’s perspectives under a frantic Goblin score seem more formally audacious, subversive and memorable (and funny) than anything likely to arise from a stylised editing choice in a universe of straight-faced beige.

Content eventually takes over anyway, in this case as a warm-up for falling apart. The old film had several distinct ballet students and just a couple of memorable matrons, while the new one has a horde of matrons and really only Dakota Johnson and Mia Goth as proactive students, which costs it the sense of young female community and all the business with the girls dorming together like a high-school clique. On the other hand you get much more emphasis on the actual dancing, and on creation of a work pointedly called Volk. Connect dancing and the legacy of fascism together and the spirit of Bob Fosse will appear as if summoned, but the political debate being primed by the coven splitting into two factions never actually gets very far. It’s capsized by a climax that’s part witches’ sabbath and part dubious Am-Dram, involving protracted jerking-dancing by naked extras in the background and Tilda Swinton in full-body prosthetics, all fleshy folds and sagging tits and Cenobite sunglasses. The Ancient Greeks got so used to getting out of narrative holes by cheating that they gave it a name, and would nod approvingly at the sheer scale of deus ex machina that Suspiria springs just to conclude this sequence and avoid having to rumble on for another week.

Long before then, the meaningful pans into witches’ oddball gurning faces become close to black comedy anyway, which might be the valid way to approach the film in the first place. Once I realised that a member of the coven was Renée Soutendijk, the sight of her screeching and lurching and carrying on was to imagine what Paul Verhoeven would have done with all this.

I used to wonder what Verhoeven would have done with Lisbeth Salander too, but after initially disliking the Rooney Mara version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’ve decided that she’s actually great and the best portrayal there’s likely to be. But here comes another model anyway. The Girl in the Spider’s Web doesn’t have much in common with Suspiria, apart from them both being stuck with the modern air of intellectual property returning like a comet, art willed into existence by a blend of panic and calculation, its half-life decay starting even while you’re watching. At least this one knows what it wants to be from scene one, when a passing misogynist stands in the exact unseen loop of wire needed to let Claire Foy’s Salander string him up by his ankles, a move pulled off satisfactorily only by the Road Runner. This Salander, supposedly not as super-powered as Batman, is nonetheless equally as skilled at drifting a boosted Lamborghini or sniffing a necessary plot point while it’s still over the horizon.

Origin stories are now the currency that matters, so up through a continuity implant comes Lisbeth’s evil sister and would-be nuclear terrorist Camilla, played by Sylvia Hoeks with hair and eyebrows dyed blonde and a robotic mode close to the one she used in Blade Runner 2049. The two sisters stand and stare at each other, black versus white, two contrasting fetishistic responses to shared child abuse—effacing tactics both, although the film doesn’t care to question effacement and a life beyond the law as a survivor’s response in the first place.

Claire Foy can’t be blamed for being the prettiest, most gamine, and least goblinesque Salander yet, but the fact that she is says something for the film’s mild intentions. Her hoodie and white-eyes outfit is less avenging terror up from feminism’s id and more villain up from a show on The CW, and like most revamps that claim to be sequels it’s just not possible to connect this version of the character back to a previous one, even when she verbally professes the link herself. The actor’s post-Crown career choices so far suggest little fear and no small ambition—Unsane is about to get at least one vote in the year’s Sight & Sound Best Films poll—but it’s Salander’s spark that is the problem, rekindled for a purpose that pretends to align with the one that birthed her in the first place, but really doesn’t. The film is fine, easy viewing, adventurously cast, entertaining, fun to watch—if watching a film begin its half-life decay right there on screen is actually fun at all.

25 November 2018

the scorn of kitten magee

Not long after I sighed at the things Rebellion was doing with those vintage British comics properties it acquired by buying half of the old Fleetway catalogue, it bought almost the entire other half. Some of the new batch surely can’t be pushed into another shotgun wedding with 2000AD, so perhaps the versatile archival approach that hasn’t really materialised yet will now develop. Whether having one company, however conscientious, own such a swathe of UK print culture is another question.

The latest item to re-emerge after the previous deal is a character from Wildcat, a brief 1989 comic that tried to set up a sci-fi anthology format with one envious eye no doubt on 2000AD but didn’t pull it off. Turbo Jones is too generically starship-captain-heroic, James T Kirk without the charisma, to stand out from the crowd, and the lack of satirical bite in the strip bearing his name leaves the space-opera looking prosaically right-on. Why Rebellion opted for this straight-arrow when it could instead have gone for his colleague, the scornful Amazon feminist Kitten Magee, is a mystery. So too is the emphasis given in the trade dress and introduction to the contribution of Ian Kennedy, who draws a perfectly fine 12 pages, rather than the Spanish artist(s) Vanyo, who drew more than 100 and characterised the strip for its entire span. Proper compensation for old comics work is an eternally vexed issue, one directly relevant to the mountain of archival material now piled up in the Rebellion warehouse, so it’s hard to judge what the emphasis here might be implying, if anything.

I reviewed Turbo Jones for Tripwire, along with the latest reprint of Zombo from 2000AD, Al Ewing and Henry Flint’s wildly excessive and offensive splatter comedy in which a character called Kitten Magee would have fitted right in.

20 November 2018

trouble on the line

The December Sight & Sound magazine includes me reviewing The Guilty, a Danish film about a police officer trying to control a tense situation down the phone which has been well received everywhere. Except by me, shrugging as I am at the theory that a sequence of duologues in one setting backed up by intelligent sound design is inherently cinematic, a notion that a few playwrights and radio dramatists might have something to say about. The name Locke has been dropped everywhere, this week’s example of critics fixated on content and oblivious to form, given the constant wash of colour and movement and reflections in glass that occupy Lockes every frame, none of which The Guilty is even conceived to attempt. Plus the policeman at the centre of the plot is guilty of the most heinous offence a fictional white authority figure can commit. For a current film not to flay him open for it might be a suitably Scandinavian act of reconciliation, but raises questions about the film’s intent just in time for it to avoid them by ending.

The Forbidden and Beyond The Black Rainbow: long live the new skinThe Forbidden and Beyond The Black Rainbow: long live the new skin

Horror films are always about form and content too, plus a certain amount of flaying. I liked The Haunting of Hill House, gingering up one model of horror story by the unlikely tactic of stretching it out to six times the normal length, and episode five ended with a blast of one of Alan Moore’s most poignant literary ideas about time and history; an unexpected place to find it, but there it was. And The Witch was on TV for Halloween, still sparse and terse and pagan, unknowably strange. But marooned as we are in an era when irony distorts everything like a fish-eye lens already, the more horror tries to be reflexive and ironic, the more the results fly apart under the strain. I’m not even convinced any more that the true core of horror fiction, the painful gaining of personal self-knowledge that has made it a young person’s genre for 200 years, is now best served by cinema in the first place, or that the border between parody and sincerity isn’t so weak that horror films can end up tripping backwards straight out of the door they just arrived through. How Possum can be treated independently of the fact that director Matthew Holness is a maker of parodies and written about as if he hadn’t now made another one, is a mystery. What is Sean Harris pulling that face for, exactly, if not that?

I bring this up having watched Mandy and the 1996 Clive Barker film Lord of Illusions back to back, two horror stories about cult leaders and the people they destroy, both of which are in more complicated relationships with their audience than either Hill House or The Witch. The dripping latex and early granular CGI in Barker’s film date it precisely to the minute, and although occult noir and its magical private investigators is a rock solid genre, Barker ultimately has a foreigner’s perspective rather than an innate feel for its tensions. But he and his fictions remain the only horror brand I really connect with, fully social and psychosexual and analogue. Barker’s starting point is always Jean Cocteau and Orphée, dreams and the sub-conscious, and he believes the old Cocteau principle of combining unsettling concepts with accessible imagery. The closer you get to a mystery, the more important it is to be realistic,” said the old boy, and he was right. Barker’s also a libertine in the finest sense, and his films are voluptuously sexual.

Mandy is as voluptuous as a knee injury, and its presiding spirit is less Jean Cocteau and more Jim Steinman. To let ironic homage take the place of actual self-knowledge—and most certainly take the place of horror’s highest engagement with social comment or cohesion, which Panos Cosmatos doesn’t seem to have much interest in if this and Beyond The Black Rainbow are anything to go by—is to drag any art towards fan service, of which one drop goes a long way. Beyond The Black Rainbow presages some of Mandys specific shots but does without its dollops of shaggy hysteria, replacing it instead with a trancey-stupor metaphysical style conspicuously waving at Stanley Kubrick and Nic Roeg. But fan credentials will out, so it ends with a quote from Buckaroo Banzai. Once upon a time, a quote from Buckaroo Banzai was because the director had seen it and you hadn’t; now it’s just a statement of status, the least secret secret-handshake imaginable.

I’m particularly exercised here because one dvd on Cosmatos’s shelf is clearly Hellraiser, my favourite Barker of all, summoned explicitly when one of Mandys bad guys whistles up some demonic biker types, leather-clad wheezing rubes who are Cenobites by way of Psychomania. Meanwhile Black Rainbow has a flashback of the villain’s transmogrification via a pit of black ooze shot in high-contrast colour-coded negative, which sent me to Barker’s old short The Forbidden, shot in authentic negative and which ends with Pete Atkins covered in Vesalius anatomical etchings and adopting a very similar pose to camera. But Barker was falling back on instinct and symbolism and a budget of ten pounds fifty, and Cosmatos is apparently just falling back on Barker.