February 5, 2018

british rails

B-movie cop films used to be so specific to the counties they came from that you could spot the cultural sore spots from over the horizon, but now they just tell you that digital post-production workflows are the same in any language. The Liquidator put the wind up its domestic Chinese distributors so much that its release was postponed, but on western shelves it will slot in next to the ballistic bits of Vinnie Jones’s catalogue and enjoy a similar destiny. It’s also lumbered with a twist on loan from the kind of high-camp soap operas in which UFOs spirited characters away during contract negotiations, presented here with an unwise poker face. I reviewed the film for the March issue of Sight & Sound magazine.

It pains an acolyte of both Liam Neeson and Jaume Collet-Serra to admit that The Commuter is a bit of a drag, but it too is stuck in a particular type of digital post-production purgatory. The tyranny of identical software packages everywhere has drained the life from films in which everyone gets stuck on public transport, all of them now draped in a bloodless green-screen unreality, the not very convincing carriage interiors matched by the not very convincing exteriors glimpsed through the not very convincing windows. Plus The Commuter is set in the US but arrives direct from Planet Pinewood, an additional unreality through which a number of British faces swim — notably Florence Pugh who doesn’t even get to be Neeson’s quarry. There’s talk of an outside world of unemployment and capitalist collapse, but it’s not even as authentic as the fraught geopolitics of Unknown, the best of the Neeson/Collet-Serra joints, and that film was utterly bonkers. Unknown hasn’t aged a day, while The Commuter feels old already, partly since age and blatant stuntman-substitution come to us all in the end. Sic transit gloria punch-up.

Films
January 28, 2018

resemblance

Dan Brereton’s new portfolio book In The Night Studio arrived just as Tom Spurgeon asked for suggestions of great cover artists and also just as I happened to see again the terrific 1999 painting by Brereton of a twelve-year-old Natalie Portman in Leon. Brereton loves monsters and a particular strand of gothic horror, but his portraiture is just as individual, going beyond resemblance and into characterisation. He did a painting of Ian McShane as Al Swearengen in Deadwood that makes the sheriff look like an icon carved out of dented hickory, and his versions of comic book characters work a similar trick. In an earlier studio book there’s a picture of Iron Man as a primitivist golem against a thunderous sky, a ton of implacable matt statuary that might have wandered in from Zardoz, the colours in the armour seeming like seams in rock. All pretty much the opposite pole from the slick silicon techno-cop Tony Stark is usually portrayed as for ease of identification. Brereton’s version of Hela, one of the most striking female designs Jack Kirby ever came up with, has all the formidable otherness of the original but with an added delicious louche sensuality that Kirby never embraced easily, and to say that the Cate Blanchett version in Thor Ragnarok is a pale imitation isn’t the half of it.

Accurate resemblance is more to the point in The Beatles Story, the latest British comic from the past to be spruced up by Rebellion’s archiving project. It spins through the story of the band at a hectic sprint and leaves most of the messy complications out of it, although perhaps that’s fair enough for a strip that appeared in Look-In during 1981. Arthur Ranson’s photo-likenesses were a feature of other Look-In strips too, but most of those were fiction. Here, when he draws Yoko Ono looming out of half a panel’s worth of spotted black, he’s doing it with at least some commentary on real life. I reviewed it for Tripwire, remembering the days when comic strips were part of mass cultural education about things happening over the horizon, not to mention the days when that rescue mission took place in high-street newsagents.

Art
January 27, 2018

LIGO restarts

If you happen to be in San Francisco this week and close to the Moscone Center, there’s an article by me in the in-house magazine of the Photonics West conference about the current status of LIGOs search for gravitational waves. LIGO is due to be switched back on later in 2018, with some modifications to both its laser system and the core mirror optics, but the scope of the project’s technology is so broad that different parts of the exercise have been approached in quite different ways. I asked the people in charge about the overhaul, the external companies who were involved, and what might be next for LIGO.

Science
January 26, 2018

alive and apocalyptic

Philip José Farmer centenary.

Art
January 8, 2018

congratulations on yet another day

The February issue of Sight & Sound includes me reviewing I Am (Not) A Number, Alex Cox’s new monograph about The Prisoner TV show, which decodes some of the series’ profundities from a production standpoint before a playfully contrarian interpretation of what was really going on. Most tracks through the thickets of The Prisoner have been worn smooth by now, but Cox has an engaging prose style — his biography X Films from a decade ago is still one of the clearest books about film directing and the various blind-spots of the British industry on the shelves — plus a political perspective that chimes with The Prisoners twisty libertarian tangles.

He’s also still a proper film maker, wherever you stand on the qualities of Repo Chick, and no fan of the things current TV series get up to as they go about their endless long-form business. The Prisoner‘s good qualities are nearly overwhelmed by its quirks in the mind of at least one viewer, especially that final home stretch of episodes which feel like an endurance test beaming in from a London whose swinging has got stuck, but even that looks a bit like prescience from this distance. And I’d never seen the original end title sequence, featuring not just an entirely less splendid theme tune but according to Cox perhaps the end of the world as well.

Films
December 7, 2017

in the swamp

My votes in the annual Sight & Sound Films Of The Year poll were for:

  • Silence
  • Personal Shopper
  • Elle
  • mother! (mentioned here)
  • Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (mentioned here)

One of these received double-figures votes, so by last year’s standards I swerved into the warm currents of the mainstream.

In the comment box some matters arising, in a year when more matters arose than usual:

Sense8 on Netflix was just as vivid a transfer of a filmmaker’s vision from one form to another as Twin Peaks, and gave the same impression of a modernist machine being prodded by critics using old and inappropriate equipment. If criticism is going to be relevant in the current cultural earthquakes and in the accompanying porn panic that will be along shortly, it will have to dust off the ability to grasp form as well as content, and get back to the idea of art as a mirror, rather than a prescription or a lie detector test.

Time spent arguing about whether Twin Peaks counts as a film or not while all the crockery falls off the shelves around us seems like time thrown into the abyss, but film critics’ modern dust-ups are all the same argument, the one about relevance and audience. Film critics habitually produce a thing called a Best Films Of 2017 list which a general public cannot interact with in the same way as a Best Books or Music or Art or Theatre or Poetry of 2017 list, a voluntary irrelevance which I have never pretended to understand, but the additional difficulties posed by Twin Peaks should now just be ignored altogether. The audience is anyone finding an artistic thing wherever they find it; the relevance will have to be conferred on our mighty words by them, since we have a habit of forgetting that their interaction with art outranks ours.

Film criticism still doesn’t really know what to do with TV or TV criticism, and vice versa, since one of those trades came to terms with talking about a mass-market consumable art form a long time ago, and the other clung doggedly to the idea that mass-market consumables are exactly what mainstream films were not. Twin Peaks sailed forth on a medium which has left the notion of gatekeepers far behind, and out into a culture which doesn’t know what it wants arts criticism to do other than repeat platitudes. It’s still possible — just — to think of Silence or mother! as works where critics could moderate a functioning cultural conversation and legitimately call that conversation part of the work’s effect, but the idea that Twin Peaks needed a gatekeeper to tell you what was up seemed nuts before the end of the first episode. Twin Peaks was so singular that there was only ever you and it, looking each other squarely in the eye in the quiet of your own home, and the same would have been true if by some miracle it had beamed in via BBC2, and arrived notionally for free. On that level at least, the otherwise pretty threadbare analogy between the show and experimental gallery art was on the money.

Any conversation about Twin Peaks is inherently a step forward for those of us who tried to start one about the empathies and ecstasies of Sense8 a year ago, and any conversation about form rather than content is a valuable advance, even under duress. Reluctance to talk about form has long since stopped looking like a blind-spot and become unhappily tinged with simple snobbery against things which are Not Films. It also happens to suit the ascendant lefist wish that the content of people’s words should be all that’s needed to reveal their hidden wickedness, and the form in which they say them reveal nothing at all. Attacks on Blade Runner 2049 and mother! suggesting that sexual images were present because the actual films themselves were sexist were at least better than not talking about the images at all, but the implication that mass-market art is obliged to write a prescription rather than invite you to register your own flaws is a censorship I was inoculated against at birth. Not coincidentally, a new porn-panic has nearly kicked off twice already — one (male) actor I like was heard saying that Harvey Weinstein became the man he was because top-shelf pornography magazines still exist, apparently with a straight face. Once porn gets indicted again, we’ll have to hold on to our hats.

The idea of art as a mirror, rather than a prescription or a lie detector test.” Critics telling people that they are doing films wrong is just the worst look in the world, and that’s before we even get properly stuck in to the arena of weeding out the existing art now made suspect by the names of the men in the credits. Retreating from the hubbub into my CD collection, the infinite malleability of music and the possible benefits-at-a-distance that apply there are even more obvious and immeasurable than the ones involved in film. If we’re going to expand the current police operation beyond the artists who are outright monsters and start rounding on the ones who were temperamental man-children taking out their frustrations on women, then there won’t be a bonfire big enough for all the albums that you’ll be wanting to burn. Ike Turner was a thug to Tina, while Phil Spector is crazier than a snake in a sack and shot a woman in the mouth, but I’m not giving up River Deep — Mountain High because the thing they helped create has made me an incrementally better person from one end of my life to the other. Empathy and ecstasy. I’m not sure what arts criticism is supposed to be for, if not to talk about that.

Films