Listomania Part One

Hi, Mom! (1970)Hi, Mom! (1970)

Categorise. Classify. Regiment. Bored. Bleh.

Sight and Sound doubled the size of the voting cohort for its latest Greatest Films Of All Time poll to 1,639 people. I can account for one of them but S&S hasn’t yet said who the others are, where they are, how they were selected, what they voted for, or what they do. And the voting instructions said do whatever you like. Drawing any conclusions from a study built like that should get a term in statistics jail.

Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman was on top. Not sure how you argue that The Canon Is Smashed by passing the title to the Western European art house tradition, that plucky little sector previously out in the cold, or that the result isn’t influenced by endless non-artistic forces of access, distributor decisions, cross-network chat, and PR. The film arrived on the BFI Player simultaneously, business and art having merged into one amorphous canon-industrial complex, keen to sell you a map for trips you could profitably plan yourself.

If film criticism’s purpose is to just name films that aren’t currently part of the conversation then it has done its job, although list-making is a less than iron-clad way to do it and looks monetizable in a publisher’s business plan. Criticism’s old purpose would also have been to moderate the kind of cultural conversation about to take place when arts consumers meet a challenging thing like Jeanne Dielman and perhaps bounce straight off again; and to talk about Akerman herself. Whether that’s what criticism really does any longer is a tense question. Rank the 1,639 in terms of income from film criticism and see what that tells us.

My votes at this particular moment were for:

Films tilted as far to the Left as Hoffa don’t grow on trees, but the real piece of work here that won’t be coming back is Hi, Mom!.

Rife with political violence, intimations of uncompromising socialist revolt…images of race warfare…ubiquitous sexual innuendo…” wrote Chris Dumas in his book on Brian De Palma, copying a few more definitions of the phrase Greatest Film out of the dictionary.

December 3, 2022 Films

Englands dreaming

For The Comics Journal a read of The Legend of Luther Arkwright, only the third full length story Bryan Talbot has published in 46 years about the character who nevertheless gets mentioned every time Talbot’s name comes up.

Roughly zero surprise that from Talbot’s position on the Left the Luther Arkwright of 1989 was angry and revolutionary and the Luther Arkwright of 1999 was cautiously optimistic that things had improved and the Luther Arkwright of 2022 teeters over a deep well of pessimism about people and the media and politicians and everything—and that the book literalises these agonies directly rather than risk anything more metaphorical.

The art has reverted back to black & white after the wide-screen Hollywood colour of 1999, although a lower energy and less esoteric style than the mystical brainstorms of 1989, and the book is a sombre black hardback tome of serious import. Radical art should get back to samizdat agitprop on copier paper and radical arts criticism along with it if you ask me, but presumably Talbot feels he has something serious to say and sought a physical form to match.

Although some of the content seems like well trodden ground—a supervillain storyline and its double-cross double-bluffs could be from a Mission: Impossible cross-over with the X-Men, and a blond fool British Prime Minster blaming the electorate for voting for isolation is a sighting of that worn-out chestnut Has Art Stopped Brexit Yet?—the book smears story threads and locations into each other in ways that seem at heart extremely British. Like the first Arkwright (and less like the second) it plants a shovel into the British landscape and its various lost promises, the mythical floorboards under the uncivilised furniture.

Moving the furniture requires Luther Arkwright to slaughter a lot of people, again. He was always UK comics’ warrior-philosopher, the enlightened pilgrim in a universe Talbot is careful to show runs on strict mathematical lines, its multiverse coordinates mapped out like IP addresses. But regularly over several decades Arkwright has kept renouncing brutality and preaching a Leftist message and getting the monk’s kasaya out of the wardrobe, before being forced by circumstances to engage in the old ultra-violence and blow some brains out, sometimes while still wearing the thing.

October 18, 2022 Art

Organ accumulator

Critics falling gratefully on Crimes of the Future as Old School David Cronenberg, as if Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars had not been Cronenberg worlds right down to their atoms. As if the notes of a Howard Shore music score don’t connect any new Cronenberg film back to his baseline approach to the life of the mind before the title sequence is over.

The Shore tones duly sound in minute one of Crimes, over the credits and then a shot of the actual Mediterranean Sky cruise ship capsized and abandoned in Greek waters. The locals are presumably exasperated or bored by the thing, but under Shore’s music it’s an alien machine dumped by something that gave up the ghost long ago. Minute three is a young boy eating a plastic waste bin like it was Pringle. Minute five is his appalled mother smothering him with a pillow, Shore’s music returning for a four-chord descent like the Cronenberg cosmos respiring.

In Crimes it is said people no longer experience pain, although Viggo Mortensen is in constant discomfort, wheezing and throat clearing and swallowing painfully like a man with, well, the after effects of a chronic respiratory virus perhaps. He has to eat in a skeletal chair that pivots and jolts like a cheap flight simulator. The government takes an interest in the new organs that he manifests and then has removed as public performance, apparently because the New Vice Unit is about to start registering people’s mutating body parts. They want humans to stay pure and un-evolved, un-changed, not pass new organs down to their children.

No crime like the present” observes administrator Don McKellar; a nice line. If they do an autopsy on the boy what will they find inside?” Mortensen asks the mother. Outer space,” says she; another nice line.

All of this is more than a bit noir-ish, although flagging that as some kind of Cronenberg novelty needs another fairly blinkered view, of things like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. Mortensen prowls around in an outfit like a bathrobe plus a Jedi cowl plus the mask-scarf of The Shadow and the untied sleeves of a straitjacket. Cronenberg is so hypersensitive to matters of the flesh that he’s never seemed all that comfortable with digital effects, ever since that lizard thing in eXistenZ, and some of the CGI animation of this film’s surgery-coffins look like they might be from a Netflix time-waster. But Cronenberg has never been a time-waster and he’s certainly not starting now.

September 15, 2022 Films


Luda cover detailLuda cover detail

For The Comics Journal a review of Grant Morrison’s novel Luda, about a Scottish pantomime dame tipped into a camp psychodrama and war with their metaphysical counterpart. Widow Twankey swept up in Tarot Tartan Noir. Is this mind control erotica or a horror story?” muses a character, very reasonably.

It was hard to tell in advance how smoothly or otherwise a Morrison prose novel would work. Morrison’s comics are intensely written,” but by a mind plugged into the visual sorcery of the drawings rather than the text. The images being conjured dance before Morrison’s eyes but the author doesn’t swim in the deep oceans of the words themselves like Alan Moore does; which might be why Luda clocks in at 450 pages of brisk catty first-person narration rather than the 1200 pages of God’s-eye-view that Moore’s Jerusalem did. Moore’s language roamed across all of time and space, while Morrison’s is the same conspiratorial kitchen-sink chat from the author’s Supergods book, or for that matter the old Vertigo comics letters pages.

There’s a lot in those 450 pages though, a swirl of camp noir menace and in-jokes and film references and British horror, built around Morrison’s earnest belief that binary categories in gender or anywhere else are endless trouble and everybody should just get along. It won’t be to everyone’s taste. The novel’s ambiguity about its level of ambiguity will drive a few readers up the wall; a conciliatory approach to culture wars might not please a few more. Some of it made me think of golden-age BBC fiction of the 1970s, even before Morrison made a direct gesture towards BBC non-fiction of the 1970s by half-quoting The Ascent of Man. Grant Morrison and I are around the same age and grew up on the same island and it seems none of us has forgotten Jacob Bronowski making a plea for tolerance while up to his ankles in an Auschwitz pond.

BBC2, 1973BBC2, 1973

September 9, 2022 Art

Face off

For The Comics Journal a review of Nick Drnaso’s Acting Class.

Praise for Drnaso’s last two books was so stratospheric it would have made some artists twitch like Inspector Dreyfus and snap their pencils, but most of it seemed to be describing a prose novel. Marc Singer’s theory is that comics break the respectability threshold as text items rather than anything with drawings in, the art either a junior partner or just cluttering up the joint, and Drnaso’s books stir up the argument all over again. The two different things any kind of art is supposed to be about are information and experience, and the spark of glory comes from how the two collide. In Drnaso’s art the two don’t collide but exchange a polite text message.

Maybe even more polite this time, since accidentally or otherwise the art style is closer to an infographic than it was before. Drnaso has talked about what he’s going for, but I’m pretty sure he’s arrived instead at a super-modern post-ironic information-theory approach that would make perfect sense to a systems engineer at Bell Labs in 1950. Is it coincidence that at the exact point Drnaso’s art finds an audience that feels he is drawing their language, Meta is making bets in $10 billion dollops that images like this are both experience and information, that this is the future?

No it is not.

August 18, 2022 Art

Never mind the dybbuks


For Critic’s Notebook three films seen online from Tribeca 2022:

  • Endangered is a HBO documentary about four liberal journalists currently gathering bruises from run-ins with politicians or the cops. Somewhere there are novel ways to interrogate this consequence of the cultural moment but this film opts for some familiar ones, until even that reliable old stand-by a derelict printing press puts in an appearance to deliver its traditional line of Look Upon My Inks And Despair. At some point radical texts need to propose radical solutions, or they’re not actually being very radical.

  • Sophia is an uncomfortable documentary about a man with a vision of what artificial intelligence might be capable of. You do wonder whether either the doc’s makers or its subject or both pondered pulling the plug.

  • Attachment is a modest Jewish ghost story with modest resources that looks like Covid might have enforced some added modesty on top. The question of Cinema Film Or Netflix Original does crop up while you’re watching. But it has a sparky opening with that rarest of things a joke by the composer, and David Dencik prowls about talking darkly about dybbuks and looking vexed by the goyim as if his fedora weighed three kilos.

July 6, 2022 Films