18 March 2019

Come as you are

There’s a hair-raising sight in Climax when a pregnant woman gets kicked in the belly and another when someone’s hair actually gets set on fire, but Sofia Boutella’s freak-out is a special effect all of its own. Less confrontational than some other Gaspar Noé films, in that it only lingers in the memory like a kick in the knee, Climaxs claustrophobia eats painfully away at the freedom of the dancers in the story, whose physical exuberance makes them seem as free as the wind. They’re not; the allegory of violence and prejudice and modern France that Noé’s cooking up won’t let them off the hook. If you buy into the film’s purpose then it’s a political dance film—much rarer than its cousin the political musical, but potentially more humane.

The camera prowls in long tracking shots around the studio where this group of dancers is enduring a collective bad acid trip, which requires some silent mummery on cue from cast members glimpsed in the background. But for the sequence following Boutella as she dances through her own LSD-driven mental meltdown in an infernal red gloom, you’re not going to be looking anywhere else. Like all dancers who act, Boutella can walk across the carpet in ways that make her co-stars look like their shoelaces have come untied—and do it under prosthetics—but her crack-up of screaming and tumbling and flailing and at one point doing the straddle splits face-first against a wall with her legs in perfectly opposite directions is a sudden leveraging of modern dance in the service of something like a horror film moment, two artistic bare wires touching. (Ever the wag, Noé begins the film with a prominently displayed VHS of Possession, the arthouse-horror where Isabelle Adjani does some fine flailing of her own.) Whether or not dancers really express psychedelic trauma through the medium of dance might be a question to ask them; but this one does, making it an act of character too. Climax is full of character, so much so that you can still detect it even while the film pummels you.

More lovely movers in Fighting with My Family, the loose biography of wrestler Saraya Paige” Bevis which defies all known statistics by being a British comedy-drama and entertaining and leftist. Stephen Merchant has clearly now been in or around Hollywood long enough to absorb the local knack of being sincere and breezy at the same time; but the stuff that looks easy never is. Dexter Fletcher, lovely bloke in the same line of work, has been around the US scene longer and played several Americans, and when he made his UK working class sports comedy Eddie the Eagle it felt like he was holding the script upside-down. Merchant also lucked into Florence Pugh on the way to wherever her career is heading—when she appeared in The Falling I wrote Who’s That in the notebook and it was only four years ago—and the sight of her busking with Vince Vaughn is a team-up so eccentric you wouldn’t even have written it on a whiteboard. The cameraman has to lie in a trench to get them both in the frame. But Pugh has a knack of her own, the one about appearing to be actively high on life.

The film has activism of another kind too, a quiet left-of-centre politics that buoys the film up like a kite. British cinema’s faith that working class stories should deploy council estate aggro and miserabilism has been a dead end for years, one side-effect of Lottery funding that should have been foreseen before it started. And Fighting with My Family has no truck with it. Quite apart from being droll, Paige has no intention of transcending her origins; her path through showbiz is to celebrate her own abilities and her family, who are pulled right along behind. Her talent is explicitly framed as a skill with a use in collective endeavour; when she forms a new collective among the other female wrestlers, it doesn’t supplant the original one bit, and they move forwards together. Working class life is deftly celebrated (allowing for the moment when Merchant and Julia Davis play posher twits, but even they are allies); the family strife between Paige and her brother always floats over shared roots of history and blood that aren’t going anywhere. And this is wrestling, a sport worthy of the Marx phrase about the physical body being a commodity made up of material provided by nature and labour expended to create it. The film is progressive and feminist and funny, which is more than you can convincingly say about Captain Marvel.

11 March 2019

Nothing if not critical

The Comics Journal resurrected its print version in January, not exactly Back By Popular Demand but maybe a recognition that TCJ had a presence while it was around that no one else has wanted to emulate during its absence. The history of TCJ is what happens when a pop-culture criticism self-starts in a field with no academic scholarship around to corral the undomesticated animal and it proceeds to maul the grandparents, and that book has already been written; which leaves the question of what it intends to do here and now, when pop-culture scholarship is everywhere. The answer might not include much criticism. An editorial says TCJ will focus on letting artists speak, and be motivated by giving the comic creator [this] missing platform.” Whether the many problems of the trade have really been made worse by a lack of platforms for creators to speak is debatable—a lack of collective action perhaps, but that’s not the same thing, and the Entertainment Industrial Complex rolls on. Plus some of the new articles are so unrigorous that the magazine might be actively trying to look backwards rather than forwards. But I work on the principle that there should be more venues for arts criticism on paper, rather than fewer.

And then, among the fishes, a whale.

Marc Singer’s book Breaking the Frames also calls for more criticism, by very politely surveying the field of comics criticism and taking the current crop of practitioners to the cleaners. In the process, parallels with other departments of arts criticism and discourse in general are laid out on display. Singer calmly presents the opposing position to some choice bits of common dogma, noting that too much current pop-culture scholarship hardly amounts to criticism by the actual standards of that word at all; and that critics might consider holding a conversation not carving a position statement; and that using art to confirm the hidden wickedness of the people who make it leads to anti-art behaviour; and that critics who only talk about art in terms of art should perhaps not be critiquing art in the first place; and another half-dozen positions from the list of those currently in retreat but which absolutely should not be. The only thing he skirts around is the basic question of art’s political effect in the first place, as per Robert Hughes, walking this path decades ago. Singer’s book is essential, not least for the network of people currently tutoring early-career film critics, who should all read it and take a prompt sabbatical, filleted by the slow knife.

Some items on the slab:

Basic knowledge and scholarship:

The approach taken by academics who identify as fans: that good criticism has to be aspirational…Many of the authors of these pieces remain woefully and sometimes wilfully ill informed about the art, industry, and criticism of comics, as they often have not bothered to familiarise themselves with their subjects…Certain strands of cultural studies limit their focus to a narrow and self-affirming set of theoretical positions, while they neglect economic and historical contexts that can’t be explained through textural interpretation alone.

A radically undisciplined discipline left only with an unquestioning affirmation of the popular, and an equally vapid condemnation of a nebulously defined elite.

Considering pop-culture artefacts as if they were manufactured in isolation of the economic and historical factors that surround them is part of the current limbo, where every opinion is isolated from every other and freed from the terrible burden of consequences. Where, say, film critics embrace the low barriers to entry into criticism and the resulting open-ended workforce, but are silent about the basic economic consequence of downward pressure on wages all the way to zero and no career ladder worthy of the label.

The tyranny of training courses and the writers running them:

We are all MFAs now. Writing programs have often been criticised for producing formulaic paint by numbers fiction and promoting an assembly belt aesthetic. Investment in established notions of literary value contributes a new set of challenges.

Why are film and comics criticism treated as traditional conservative humanities disciplines in the first place, and taught as if they must remain so? Singer makes a good case for why rigorous academic language might be necessary, but the uses found for that language are the standard comfort blankets of literature studies and the hunt for The Exceptional Work, sieving aspirational self-expression and personal epiphanies from the silt. And that’s in the scholarship aisle; in the consumer-facing world, the adoption of humanities language beyond its natural borders has nearly killed the art of rhetoric stone dead.

Leftist critics praising art that is in fact conservative:

Individualism is perfectly amenable with the foundations of neoliberal policy. Any political movement focused on individual freedoms is potentially more compatible with neoliberalism than with social justice. Any mode of autobiography or life-writing is potentially consonant with the political quietism and social atomisation of neoliberalism.

It’s perfectly clear why, say, Captain Marvel should cause unease inside critics who sense friction between the ubiquitous and essentially conservative Chosen One narratives of most superhero origins, and the supposedly leftist ethos of the average pop-culture fantasy, even when blatantly delivered by the Entertainment Industrial Complex. But the discussion of what critics should do in response never begins, since it would need to recognise the lack of authentic leftist stories and why they are absent, alongside detecting how identity politics might actually suppress stories of collective action and crises of principle, rather than encourage them.

That art reveals the hidden wickedness of artists:

The demystifying debunking sensibility that approaches every text as a set of problematic assumptions waiting to be revealed. Scepticism as dogma.

Unlike some of Singer’s other topics, there are plenty of people pushing back against this, which hardly makes it less important. Of all the bad habits in arts criticism that need to cease, the one whereby critics proscribe art based on its surface level alone and look no deeper is the one that needs to be reframed first, on its way into the dustbin. At the very least, no one walking out of a Lars von Trier film at a trade show has any business claiming to do so as a liberal progressive.

The critic is not the one who debunks but the one who assembles.”
Bruno Latour, 2004.

We cannot afford to be quite so cavalier about the differences between finding things out and making them up.”
Rita Felski, 2015.

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Art Films
9 March 2019

Melancholy me

I lost a few hours last summer in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art staring at its exhibition of Raqib Shaw, since adjusting to the chromatic overload can take a while. The acres of glinting enamels and jelly bean blips beam a Pop Art impression out into the room, all those hard outlines and primary colours; but most Pop Art doesn’t make you dizzy like some of this stuff does. The art is theatrical and so is its manufacture, involving enamel paints pushed around inside tiny grids of embossed gold with quills and needles; an artisanal fandango that would put Jeff Koons into a coma and kill whichever luckless galley slave he set to the task. The process is not without a camp dimension, and neither is the result.

Shaw’s approach to his inspirations owes something to Pop Art too, since he likes to rework and reinterpret other paintings, the Old Masters tipped into Shaw’s internal machinery and emerging sometimes in recognisable condition, sometimes not. We are deep into a cultural era of pastiche and nostalgia, with art of all kinds treated as just more data to play with; but this is not quite that. There is something tense and resonant lurking in the arc from Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I engraving, one of the great facial expressions in art; to Lucas Cranach’s occult An Allegory of Melancholy; to Shaw’s own Allegory of Melancholy (After Lucas Cranach the Elder), with the artist himself now in the picture watching his studio burn down—as Shaw did, probably feeling something a bit more spicy than melancholia.

7 March 2019

The large Glass

In 2002 Newsweek floated the theory that M Night Shyamalan and Steven Spielberg were kindred spirits, an idea which didn’t survive to see 2003. Shyamalan’s new alignment with the low-budget end of the Blumhouse production line looks a better fit, and if one result is the pure indulgence of reversing back up your own catalogue and Frankensteining a franchise out of Unbreakable and Split, at least the move has some old-fashioned B-movie audacity. Glass really does look modest, a mile away from the doomy apocalyptic pulse of Unbreakable; but the real interest is in someone like Shyamalan, who has given irony a wide berth since forever, returning to the topic of comic book heroes in this excessively ironic moment. Glass is about identities run amok and individuals keeping their inner freak under wraps rather than letting it all hang out, and by being unironic about that Glass is expressly political, well beyond the coy mannerisms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—and in a different direction, aware that identity politics and neoliberal practices aren’t that far apart, and neither are superheroes and fascists. There can’t be gods among us, it’s just not fair,” says the resident mad doctor, hoovering up heroes and villains alike. Samuel L Jackson, confined in a wheelchair much as a neutron bomb is confined in a tin can, opposes the motion. They don’t want us to know the things we suspect are extraordinary about ourselves are real,” says the murderous Mr Glass, and if the film sees a problem with his progressive state of mind, then its objections are carefully couched.

Huge, colossal objections to Dick Cheney occupy Vice from top to bottom and back again. When biopics got boring and the genre headed for the rocks, my theory was that your average story of celeb struggle and epiphany was stuck like a ship in pack ice, made pointless when fame already means being lost into the grinder of tatty voyeurism and social-media prurience. Or it might have been that films like Diana were just rubbish.

Vice tries to defibrillate the corpse with a zippy morbid postmodern attack on someone whose epiphanies can look a lot like something unpleasant curdling slowly in the jar. But while attempting to rugby tackle Dick Cheney, the Current Biopic Problem just runs straight into the Current Satire Problem. Director Adam McKay’s career includes the two Anchormans, both still a very good time, and Saturday Night Live, which since his day has somehow managed to neuter the richest TV comedy heritage on the planet and thunderously failed to solve the problem of getting sketch satire out of the deep freeze. He also made The Big Short, where the attempt to break free included a certain amount of deliberate smugness, an ingredient that might have curdled a bit itself when Vice repeats the exercise. Alfred Molina has a moment as a restaurant waiter with a menu of explicitly described torture atrocities for the political agenda (“that sounds delicious”), and it’s such an frusty piece of sub-Dario Fo stage-craft that they might as well have gone to the relevant source and hired Michael Palin.

On the other hand, isn’t a cut from George W Bush’s twitching foot to an Iraqi family quivering in terror, fair comment? Cheney’s heart surgery lets the film flaunt its metaphor in a way that’s as blunt as a brick through your window but at least visual rather than verbal: the camera cranes down into the empty chest cavity of the heartless man who for now has no actual heart. Nicholas Britell’s music has some of Terence Blanchard’s jazzy blue-note growling anger, which in turn pulls the film towards Spike Lee—and if there’s anyone who understands history as travesty rather than comedy, it’s Lee. Eventually Christian Bale’s growling Cheney addresses the audience and makes the standard dingbat’s claim that it’s always the voters’ fault in the end. Gérard Depardieu blamed the public directly for his troubles too in Welcome to New York, another film about a political figure and capitalist with no moral compass, or pants in his case. From behind the teeniest fig leaf of fictionality, the would-be President of France has a meltdown and just tells the viewer to fuck off, a dose of venom that makes Vice look like it’s assaulting its target with a cushion.

22 February 2019

Einstein a go go

The Superman film came out in 1978 and birthed a bunch of future creatives all at once like Midwich Cuckoos—just a year after the similar population bubble from Star Wars. Anyone leaving the cinema and buying a Superman comic was in for a bit of mental static, but anyone who read Elliot Maggin’s tie-in novel Last Son of Krypton instead may have got a bigger dose. There was a burst of superhero novels at the time—Marvel pumped out a series, like David Michelinie’s Avengers novel The Man Who Stole Tomorrow which introduced me to Devo among other things—but most of them were trying to catch the Merry Marvel tone of genial repartee.

Maggin was chasing something else, the spirit of high imagination that lurked under the skin of DC Comics from a decade or two before, the kind of tale where the infant Superman could nearly be adopted by Albert Einstein. The attempt was so successful there may be some of those future creatives still aware of his influence now—certainly one, at least. There’s an article in the new issue of Comic Scene magazine by me talking about why.

21 February 2019

Scandinavian psycho

Bruno Ganz gone, the old devil. The House That Jack Built ends with two characters descending into hell, an exercise which looks like it involved Lars von Trier getting the ever-game 75-year-old Ganz to go caving somewhere under Trollhättan. As ever, von Trier’s personal anguish is lensed outwards in all directions on both sides of the camera.

My complaint, again and still, is that art which evades the nature of the evil it depicts and is satisfied with just the experiences of the victims has chickened out of the hard choices. And a culture which can face endless female victims but can’t look male killers in the eye has some problems in the self-diagnosis department, and has neutered one of the purposes of art existing in the first place. The pair of 2018 films about Anders Breivik and the Utøya murders were exemplary, one turning its disinterest in the killer into a formal tactic, the other making him a chilly screen presence in the Hannibal Lector mode, distanced by all the conventions of screen super-villainy. Whether either of these count as the high road towards something unspeakable or no road towards it at all is a chewy question. Something similar hampers Amazon’s Jack Ryan series, a show which proves again that the thriller template with all its logical cause and effect has become useless at understanding human violence in an age saturated with irony. Only something that brings the scent of psychic hysteria in through the window with it can get the job done.

While saying so for Sight & Sound I was thinking of David Lynch, but Lars von Trier has now chipped in. Whether travesty is strictly the right word for The House That Jack Built, it does imply the black mania of the film, in which von Trier turns his wayward gaze back to men rather than women. Wretched to watch, a satire as despairing as anything by Hieronymus Bosch, its transgressive credentials are impeccable from the second murder, when Matt Dillon’s serial killer Jack drags the body of a sympathetic plain middle aged lady away behind his car while the cop suspicious of him is still looking right at them through the window.

Von Trier predictably comes down on this material from the stratosphere with the descending arc of a cruise missile, and although the film makes it clear that Jack kills men as well as women and mutilates small animals, the gendering of the controversy is inevitable. Jack tries faking empathy in the mirror, an exercise which makes him look like a man battling the palsy. He then defiles the corpse of a young child to give it a travesty of the smile he barely managed himself; the second event is a dire violation, but it exists because of the first. He runs over an old lady with a van for no reason. He sets about killing half a dozen hysterical tied-up nobodies with one bullet. He builds a playhouse out of corpses, a sight which might have sent Bosch back to the drawing board. He does things to Riley Keough which explicitly conjure up Bret Easton Ellis, and once you look for allusions to American Psycho they’re everywhere. Jack’s desperate and unsuccessful attempts to confess and get caught, at one point yelling his guilt out of the window, are pretty clear parallels; so is the slapstick bit where he carries a body out past occupied but oblivious apartments, and then carries it back in again. And Ellis really comes to mind now when confronted with dispiriting nonsense like those critics opting to walk out of this film’s Cannes screening and turning the act into a public service, proscribing a film on sale at a trade show and which wasn’t yet even at large in the culture in the first place.

The dire howl of American Psycho still echoes through the canyons, matched by the one from Norman Mailer’s titanic review of the book for Vanity Fair. Mailer’s complaint was that Ellis didn’t connect his travesty with the fictional person committing it strongly enough for the intended thesis to hold, although the terror involved in that disconnection was clearly part of Ellis’s intention. And it’s not disconnected anyway. The book is about snobbery and money being bad news for the moral compass, and if no obvious parallel motivations turn up in The House That Jack Built, it’s because von Trier wants his killer to be a void, empty of motivation beyond the vaguest shadows of childhood anguish.

The mundane activity and the supersensational are required to meet,” said Mailer; but von Trier has never agreed. Ellis’s capitalism can be fixed, maybe, but at least it has causes and effects, which is more than Jack’s psychosis seems to have. (My point in Sight & Sound was that the engine in David Lynch’s universe is ultimately love; needless to say von Trier’s is the mirror image.) You could argue that this damages von Trier’s films as art, and perhaps be right. You could equally argue that right here, right now, a film about a man who gets away with everything without being caught and despite being desperate to be caught, a man whose irrational unstoppable hatred of women arrives without the support of capitalist avarice, might be going about its legitimate artistic business. And might be not all that far from the spirit of American Psycho, modified into an even more depressing answer than Ellis’s to suit these ironic times.

Mailer again:

Buried savageries we do not wish to meet again in ourselves stir uneasily in the tombs to which we have consigned them. We cannot go out on such a trip unless we believe we will end up knowing more about extreme acts of violence, know a little more, that is, of the real inner life of the murderer.

The issue here is whether depiction of someone crawling across the world without that real inner life—a case where there is actually no there, there—is accurate, or inaccurate, or artistic, or just naive. But by saying it about male madness at all, and today, the film might be speaking actual truth to actual power.