July 8, 2018

black and white

Steve Ditko died without ever changing his opinion about the immoral wickedness of anyone setting themselves up as an opinion-shaper, or about the pointlessness of any artist expounding upon his work by opening his mouth about it. Ditko’s art spoke for him, in the literal sense that he himself never spoke on the record at all, which always seemed an idea as likely to appeal to left-ish arts critics as Ayn Rand-ian Objectivists: you want to know about me, fine, read the work. Barring any major discoveries once scholars are lowered into Ditko’s archives on ropes, it’s hard to see how the imminent biographies will differ much from the one Blake Bell wrote ten years ago, other than updated bibliographies. There is scope, though, for a look at how (as Jeet Heer has pointed out) Ditko’s faith that good people were rational world-conquerers produced Marvel Comics creations marked by surrealism and vulnerability. And perhaps, some respectful consideration that Ditko’s world view formed out of cosmic disappointment at the behaviour of every publisher and several colleagues and possibly most of the readers he ever dealt with, and that every passing wingnut stalker who barged in on his privacy was only proving his point. In any case, reducing an artist to just their programmatic beliefs is for the birds. I was consistently in the wrong place to see Ditko’s career arc as it happened, so my eventual encounter with the art of The Avenging World was like being slapped in the face with a stick, even while frowning at its political perspective; reading it again shortly after the Doctor Strange film came out made the statements that the film had captured the Ditko visual style into the stuff of unintentional comedy. No medium on Earth could do that, other than the one which did.

Harlan Ellison never stopped talking about himself and his work and other people and everything else, which created a few contradictions of its own; but rabble-rousers advocating for creative freedom and for writers to be fairly paid for their work are a rare enough sight, even without considering how Ellison’s stories and sci-fi hooks were catnip to film and TV producers. But in my house Ellison is inextricably linked with The Comics Journal. The huge, sprawling, profane interview he gave Gary Groth for TCJ 53 in 1980—my copy of which still has the £1.95 price tag from Forbidden Planet on the cover since it seems I never bothered to take it off—was a colossal overdose of information about Ellison and the unknown oceans that he swam in far to the West, as well as a most singular example of the interview as magazine-feature. It arrived just as I was preparing to switch off from comics for the best part of a decade and a half, and there are no words to describe my incredulity at discovering eons later that the interview had sparked legal ructions and inter-personal strife for all concerned. Groth’s introduction to the piece reads like Ellison’s perfect eulogy, despite being written 38 years before one was required, which says something about Ellison and something about Groth as well. But mostly it’s a reminder that the Journal is an incomparable living history of its chosen art form—all the more so for having such a bruising, adversarial relationship to it.

Not for the first time, I wonder what film criticism might look like if some equivalent to TCJ had miraculously sprung up and lasted for 40 years as a guide-star for ambitious would-be writers, or at least to stand in opposition to forces insisting film criticism be a traditional conservative humanities discipline. Chances are the creation of the Disney Industrial Complex would have rolled over everything anyway, but imagine the body of writing about it that we would have to rabble-rouse with now.

Art
July 1, 2018

we have always been at infinity war

Three seen at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2018:

Cold War: Paweł Pawlikowski uses his square black-and-white tall-ceiling frames to loom over a sprawling 15-year political love story going on in the bottom of them, in which Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) loses his mind over Zula (Joanna Kulig) while the Iron Curtain closes. Ms. Kulig sings and dances and looks a bit like Jennifer Lawrence singing and dancing, and the chemistry between her and Mr. Kot is so minimal I assumed it was a deliberate comment on the nature of frustrated men being blasted sideways by mysterious women. In which light Cold War is pretty wicked and I’m surprised the Current Mood has been so accommodating of it. Terrific film.

Papillon: In which we see not only how Papillon gets sent to prison, but also how he wrote the book of the film you’re now watching. Because everything has to be an origin story, even though not everything is Batman. Rami Malek is a decent Dustin Hoffman, Charlie Hunnam really is not Steve McQueen, and everybody’s teeth remain distractingly perfect. Pointless.

The Parting Glass: A bunch of alumni from True Blood make a film that’s several light years from True Blood, but camaraderie counts for a lot when it shows through on screen. Not quite a weepy but certainly a bit of a teary, its view of the necessary banalities that follow bereavement will chime with anyone who has been there which is more or less everyone, and the film has a go at telling some of its story visually rather than verbally, which is something else that counts for a lot. Anna Paquin remains miraculous, a screen face like no other.

Elsewhere:

Sicario 2 Soldado: Having spotted that Josh Brolin now looks like Kurt Russell in the right light, it’s tough to see Sicario Too as anything beyond a 1980s Cannon production, before the film itself made several very obvious moves of its own in that direction. By the end Benicio del Toro is as indestructible as John Rambo. Emily Blunt is much missed, but since her character spurred some of the duffest film criticism of 2015, maybe not missed entirely. A different film than Sicario made for different reasons, all of them worth frowning at. Will be reviewed by me in the September 2018 Sight & Sound magazine, so more to follow.

Solo: A Star Wars Story: Form versus content, big screen edition. Production kerfuffle gives Ron Howard, a traditionalist’s traditionalist, $275 million and all the current buttons to press and the result is…traditional. But how refreshing is traditional right now. No shakycam overdose, fight scenes in which who exactly is punching whom and from where remains dangerously clear, a script by (traditionalist) Lawrence Kasdan, and photography by Bradford Young who is not necessarily a traditionalist but knows how to massage his muted colours in service of those that are. John Powell’s music always makes live actors seem about to clout each other with shovels in an Aardman production, but the energy imparted is as if someone plugged Rogue One into a defibrillator. And the film is wonkily cast from top to bottom, everyone a misfire, but let’s assume the original directors were culpable there.

Ocean’s 8: Charm-free film making by flow chart with the soul of an accountant. But not as much as…

Avengers Infinity War: Reviewers using the word culmination” about a film with a sequel date already set in stone was another bad day for the language, but there aren’t many stress-free ways to discuss a product of pure 21st Century Media, a knot of marketing and logistics so densely packed that it feels like storytelling squashed at the heart of some neutron star. Infinity War is hermetically sealed, no doorway provided for anyone ignorant of who, say, that talking racoon is—except that the droll asides of Bradley Cooper in a dubbing booth and the ever-better digitally-twitching whiskers of Rocket Racoon are designed by experts to be enticing enough to take the place of whatever groundwork characters were expected to lay, back in the far off days of ten years ago. This is the big change from Transformers, which couldn’t care less about ways in, and indeed from the DC movies too, which have opted not to dabble in warm characterisations as a tactic, wisely or otherwise. Somewhere between Bradley Cooper’s sarcasm and Gal Gadot’s sweet tussles with the English language lies a key to 21st Century entertainment. We have always been at Infinity War.

The Sense8 Finale: Form versus content, Netflix edition. Sad to report that the two-and-a-half-hour finale of Sense8, willed into existence by the wish of the series’ creators to do justice to a dozen characters, was a misfire. Letting it be made was an honourable instinct beyond the usual venal instincts of television, but the sheer volume of plot that had to be hauled from A to B to C left the finale beached like a whale. The whole point of Sense8 was pulpy content plus form to die for, twenty different location shoots that the great John Toll must have corralled with one of those wall charts covered in pins and string, creating a thing that looked like nothing else on TV. It was a massive parable of love and tolerance and forgiveness expressed in colour and framing and editing, interrupted now and again by lengthy bouts of far and away the most sex-positive sex available on any non-porno screen anywhere. The finale had bits of this but also none of it, the breakneck pace of plot emphasising all of its genre banalities rather than its holistic instincts, and its formal daring seemed to have become just acres of slow motion without point or reason; not an evolution of the series’ style but a devolution. The bad guys, once cartoonish for a purpose, are now just cartoonish, especially Valeria Bilello’s Lila Facchini—to say that it’s a shame she kept her clothes on is to risk misunderstanding, but having created a femme fatale on a dreamscape scale in the second series, the character is now passive and inert, and not the least bit sexy. There’s also the screen violence, copious and stupid, gouts of blood spurting and pooling on the floor. Having machine-gunned a few faceless individuals, the nominal hero ends the series and fixes his problems by firing a rocket launcher at a helicopter, another Cannon hero. Of all the series that could have forged a path forward without tripping over the myth of redemptive violence, Sense8 felt like it might be the one. The entire series was a landmark in screen erotica anyway, though, and more proof that the Wachowskis know the score.

Films
April 15, 2018

valentina on the phone

A while ago I called the ten-volume project to bring all of Guido Crepax’ comics output into the English language a cultural intervention, and that still looks like the right label. Crepax’ artistic treatment of an internal fantasy life is vivid enough on its own to make most erotic comics look stuck in tar, but the more of the stuff that Fantagraphics reprints, the clearer it gets that Crepax was trying to get actual tactile sexual sensations down in an ink-on-paper form—critic Matt Seneca wrote about it in those terms, and he was spot on. And it works so well in the Valentina stories that the character—even though she’s always naked or in bondage or just letting it all hang out—never seems to be on the receiving end of male gaze at all. The strips are piled high with sexuality from floor to ceiling, but it’s all Valentina’s view of Valentina’s own, and there’s nowhere for a reader’s voyeurism to fit. It’s simply irrelevant. This is quite the cultural moment to discover that Crepax wanted to achieve that decades ago and worked out how to get the job done.

Every story also has some piece of visual storytelling from Crepax’ 1960s and 1970s output that seems to bubble up from a broad expressionist tradition and inform something more recent. The first volume had a bunch of Frank Miller faces; the latest one has some very Bill Sienkiewicz demon bears. An entranced Valentina receives hypnotic instructions from the witch Baba Yaga via the telephone several nights in a row, worshiping the handset in different poses, and eventually she does the same thing with a wind-up gramophone playing some satanic 78 vinyl. It’s an erotic reverie that Dario Argento would appreciate, but could not match.

Art
April 14, 2018

the outlaw life

Death Wish by Michael Winner: nature or nurtureDeath Wish by Michael Winner: nature or nurture

The great pop-culture recycling machine has had one bite at Michael Winner already, when it had a brainstorm and tried to turn The Mechanic into a Jason Statham franchise, as mentioned in passing before. But Death Wish is a different beast altogether. The film’s reputation as a toxic conservative virus has preceded it into every room for 44 years, which might automatically make it an item to be examined rather than erased from history no matter where on the political spectrum you happen to stand. The new remake by Eli Roth tweaks the story to be less abrasive culturally and politically, while escalating the cinematic sadism to suitably Roth-ian levels, but the unspoken worry that a story of a non-violent man becoming violent is just too dangerous to be left loose in the culture has summoned up all the old concerns.

For critics the big problems from 1974 are still in business: what’s the difference between form and content, how to assess American violence on screen, and does impolite fiction have a role to play in getting us out of this mess? Is all art an invitation to disagree, or not? What, in short, is art for? I wrote about Death Wish old and new for Sight & Sound, having already waded into the argument about whether pop-culture should be obliged to address you only from an altar of virtuousness while reviewing Blade Runner 2049 and the superhero films of Zack Snyder in the same venue. Answer remains: I think not.

Death Wish by Brett Parson: culture or culturalDeath Wish by Brett Parson: culture or cultural

Films
April 12, 2018

phantasm at twenty-five

I’m going to be at the inaugural Portsmouth Comic Con on Saturday 5th May to chair a couple of panels. One of them will be about the art of Star Wars, from the perspective of both the designers behind the films and the artists who create painted fantasy art and book covers and other graphic designs once the films are out in the culture. The other will be a chat with Dirk Wood about his new imprint from IDW Publishing, and its recent hardback volume of cultural essays and strips called Full Bleed.

Another new print publication about comics and cartoons has started up in the UK, and the launch issue of Comic Scene includes a piece by me about the animated film Batman Mask of the Phantasm which is now 25 years old. Full-length Batman animated films have chugged on as a cottage industry ever since and wandered far and wide, but the only thing about Phantasm that really shows its age is the flat 2D animation and the lack of colour gradients. Everything else is a story Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams would have been very happy with, and a solid look at Bruce Wayne’s troubled character, including the part of it that gets a kick when Gotham citizens turn the lights on and Batman turns out to have been standing six inches away all the time.

Art
March 23, 2018

gardeners world

The May issue of Sight & Sound includes me reviewing the Chinese film Detective Chinatown 2, in which a pair of goofball detectives visiting from Beijing get all starry eyed in New York on the trail of a killer whose identity is obvious from the minute that the Anglophone actor in question walks on. Joe McCulloch, writing about English translations of Japanese manga in the anthology Critical Chips 2, said experiencing a foreign culture in a translated version was like looking at a garden from the outside through a hole in the wall, unable to really know the situation in which the works exist. Which is also how I felt upon discovering that Detective Chinatown 2 had made $530 million in its own territory.

Annihilation has remarkable gardens, to the point where it ventures into the natural sublime in proper Burke-ean terror-tinged ways—a rarity in a culture more comfortable with the technological sublime instead. It puts Alex Garland into a strand of British film making that doesn’t have many members, somewhere in an overlap of Danny Boyle and Peter Strickland, although Annihilation deals directly enough with cancer and metabolic change to ally Garland with David Cronenberg as well. The alterations from the source book make for a more conventional ending, but some of Garland’s tweaks are appropriately visual rather than thematic. When the characters stumble across a house overgrown in greenery, only we and Natalie Portman recognise that it’s identical to her house in the real world, and Garland gracefully doesn’t even give her a double-take to flag the matter up. A monster duly terrorises her there, up from the id of her own adulterous bedroom.

And Annihilation promptly terrorised and stress-tested some outposts of current film criticism to near-destruction in about five days flat, which was always going to happen as soon as something turned up on Netflix that we might actually feel people should see. Twin Peaks gathered the kindling for this turn of events, but it was 18 hours long, so claims that it was Clearly A Film became a shibboleth for folk not comfortable admitting that work of quality could merit any other label. Annihilation though really is a film—made as one and delivered as one, until Paramount chickened out and sold it on. The results have been calamitous, a coming together of both the major current critical regressions at the same time. A fixation on content and blindness to form—which is the approach needed if you’re inclined to see a film’s -isms and ideologies as both the work’s true essence and the way its makers will reveal their hidden wickedness—has instead dented our skills at sounding convincing about why one form is better than another. Meanwhile an inability to speak in any decent motivational rhetoric—never mind poetics—instead of dry academic language has squelched our ability to motivate a passing viewer to open their minds, or indeed open an envelope. After voluntarily surrendering those two weapons, what’s left?

Films