Two new books about Nigel Kneale came out recently, and I read them both for the October issue of Sight & Sound magazine. One is a biography and the other a set of critical essays, so they are very different reads, but anyone interested enough to read one of them should find the other providing some valuable context, and once or twice some suitable balance also. There are some natural ley lines joining the current nature of arts criticism and the health of the critical essay as a form, and I read some of the pieces in We Are The Martians with a mildly clenched jaw, but the book testifies to the way that creativity in one place then seeds the same thing far over the horizon and many miles down range. Into The Unknown deals with how one particular creative came to be in a position to do that in the first place, as well as telling some tales of the early BBC, where a few of its painful future problems are already condensing out of the bow-tied 1950s air. Tales of Kneale-love from modern Hollywood have been well told many times – the suggestion that the kerfuffle around Halloween III has come to overshadow the Kneale landscape now seems entrenched, although it’s a sentiment that flatters the fantasy front-lines – but Joe Dante’s affection for the cheesy 3D sci-fi movie that once turned up in an episode of The Quatermass Experiment is a nice alignment, given the glee with which Dante put an affectionate boot into the same general target once or twice. Ultimately, talent admires talent.
The September issue of Sight & Sound magazine includes me reviewing Dark Night, a film concerned with American mass shootings and trying to get its arms around a specific and intractable modern evil. A critic should be sure of his footing when declaring the end result of such an attempt to be a failure, now that mainstream cinema and its audience have drawn up some unspoken agreement not to do that kind of thing very much any more; but Dark Night opts for a familiarity that just leads in a tight circle. The agenda of realism, whether in documentary mode or the theatrical tension of an actor being severe – the safety net of recognisable order, of cause and effect – is currently under weekly kicking from David Lynch and more occasional ribbing from Terrence Malick, and simply isn’t the tool it used to be in this neck of the woods.
Realism isn’t on A Ghost Story‘s mind either, which pretty much guarantees it a higher degree of success from the off. There are holes to be picked in it from top to bottom, and the internal logic of the ghost’s time traveling never even tries to cohere. Having gone forward in time to some neon metropolis, why does the spirit’s resigned “suicide” land him back with the early settlers, rather than, say, the dinosaurs? The visual gag – no harm in calling it what it is – of the ghost under the sheet either works for you or it doesn’t, and David Lowery tips his hand a bit when another ghost is signposted as female by the girlie patterns on her version of the outfit. But the symbolism, the implications, the whole conceit, echo in ways that sometimes make it swing close to the poetic, its images bouncing backwards through your own mind. The score by Daniel Hart is terrific, emotive and needling and disconcerting, while the deliberate childishness of the premise – instantly grasped from the first second and entirely deliberate for a film of bereavement, a feeling that makes children of us all – leads as deep into your personal history as you choose to go. Any flicker of cynicism and the whole thing falls to bits, but at this point I’ll take that chance any day of the artistic week.
At the other end of the chute, Atomic Blonde is chancy for all the wrong reasons, so desperate to transmit its knowing bromance with 1980s music and cinema that it feels about as up to date as the 1890s. The one absolute quality of the John Wick school of direction and filmmakers from a stunts background – in this case David Leitch going solo post-Wick – is its emphasis on physicality and kinetics, but you can’t go back to that well too often without having to find some actual characters to do the moving around for you. The lapse is most galling whenever Sofia Boutella appears, given the way her dancer’s grace has perked up films in the past; here she seems as chained to floor as she was in The Mummy. As usual in films where characters only step out from a rancid blue light so that they can step into a stale red one, no one in the story is very engaging, and we’re well beyond the point where an extended corridor punch-up is automatically a sign of anything good or anything at all. Really the film only seems happy as a vehicle for both its period soundtrack, applied without diegetic rhyme or reason, and its colour scheme, based on a long-ago daydream of Michael Mann’s in a warm bath. I’m not a huge fan of The Coldest City graphic novel source material either, but the huffing effort by which its black and white shallow focus deliberately scratchy pen work has been turned into something with this degree of caffeine and cacophony and so little charisma says more about the current state of second-hand IP recycling than anything else.
For real use of colour, and of IP from comics for that matter, there’s Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets, Luc Besson’s latest indulgence which has flaws a mile deep but slobbers all over you like a massive dog that just wants to be your buddy, a film so untroubled by market forces that its final robot-army gun battle only breaks out five minutes before the end. But then Besson, one of the last anti-cynics left standing, isn’t going to go changing his ways at this late date, so his return to creature-filled multi-planet space-burlesque is about half as irony-drenched as your average Guardians Of The Galaxy and roughly twice as interesting. Besson’s career-long themes bubble away: a peaceful aboriginal island culture living in harmony with the land gets squashed by a military force wearing peaked caps in the first reel, but forgives without forgetting, and left to its own devices mankind’s natural habitat is the teeming bazaar. As with The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, Besson puts the original French comic through legitimate transformations that completely redirect the source but still keeps track of where its deep humanism came from in the first place, and knows that crises of principle are more interesting than the crises of identity that litter the landscape in heaps. This approach must surely be more promising than Atomic Blonde‘s obsession with improving the source material all the way into some high orbit of Pure Thrill. In any case, it means that translation of bande dessinées material into films feels a richer and more artistic process than whatever is going on with the American superheroes, which are dragging themselves onto the big screen as if on the road to Golgotha. Valerian bounces along under a score by Alexandre Desplat, and gives Cara Delevingne the chance to confirm the usual rule that models do acting pretty well when the characters know they’re being looked at – although you could also safely say that Luc Besson has a type – but you’re reminded of the film’s true intentions every time the face of her boss appears on some futuristic viewing bubble and turns out be that of Herbie Hancock, the mark of a film that actually wants to please rather than to pummel.
Kickstarter poses problematic questions about the making of art for both ends of the production line – it fudges the role of risk-taker and the question of whose responsibility the risk actually is at the same time – but when someone like Dan Brereton stages crowd-funding campaigns and they overshoot their targets by a mile, the net good of connecting an artist infrequently spotted in the wild with a fan-base is hard to argue with. It’s also a way for characters like the Nocturnals to return to print, continuing a long-term project of Brereton’s that more or less had me at hello back in the 1990s. The Nocturnals ride again in The Sinister Path, a full length graphic novel which I read for Tripwire, and whose faults I completely forgive for the chance to examine the current version of Brereton’s evolving style of painted art, now a bit more expressionistic and flexible than it used to be, as well as the boho-chic of the ghost named Polychrome. If she can junk the great coat learn to smile, so can the rest of us.
At the same place: some words about Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 29, strips which find 2000AD‘s main man looking his city’s social and political forces in the eye. He interprets what he sees differently than anyone reading it, now or then, but that’s because these reprints are from 1998-1999, and writers Wagner and Grant are looking out of the window.
This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival was subdued, but livened up no end by the sight of Aubrey Plaza swearing her head off while dressed as a nun. The language emerging from underneath that wimple in The Little Hours could curdle the milk, but the register of the film is distinctly old fashioned compared to most current US comedies and their giggling Puritan vibes about the carnal. There was a time when sex comedies were vigorous and spicy because the topic was illuminating, rather than just because people were salaciously goosed by it, and The Little Hours is the first film in a while to remember – largely by drawing on a story from around 1350 written in the shadow of a slow and painful death. I watched it for Critic’s Notebook, pondering the profane while bewitched by the witches.
I also watched Final Portrait, Stanley Tucci’s very affectionate portrait of Alberto Giacometti which makes the old boy seem impossible but also has no doubts about his genius. Tucci’s well documented love of art in general and this artist in particular stops the film being dull, but it is reverential to a fault, and some of the artistic choices are a bit more bemusing than probably intended. I am, though, increasingly a fan of Armie Hammer’s nice line in needlessly-stressed decency. Lumbering any actor with the label of old-school stylist is the kiss of death, but Hammer is pretty much one of those. A review of Final Portrait will be up at Critic’s Notebook in due course.
Meanwhile on the twitters:
“Creative freedom alone is not enough to create the kind of criticism worth anyone reasonable caring about.”
— tim hayes (@pistolerosa) July 10, 2017
The Leopard From Lime Street is another reprint in the same series and from a similar era, this time from Buster. In theory the big-hearted boy scratched by a radioactive leopard is a character aimed at a young audience, but the cues that writer Tom Tully takes from Stan Lee include the one about aiming above his readers’ heads and carrying them upwards in the draught.
And at the same place, a quick look at Dredd/Anderson: The Deep End, three comics stories set in the world of the 2012 Dredd film. As it happens I liked Dredd a lot, although it was four and a half years ago and spin-offs from it at this stage might have something to do with keeping the breadth of a live-action Dredd property on display just as a Mega-City One TV show starts to move forward. It’s not as if the comic hasn’t mapped Cassandra Anderson’s early days nicely already, but the character is one of the few that’s rich enough for all the parallel what-ifs to stay appealing.
The Greek god of scheduling placed Pirates, in which a proto-feminist briefly cooks up her own agency before settling for all the norms, adjacent to Wonder Woman, a character outfitted at birth by her creator to give conformity a kick in the ἀσπίδες. More power to all moved by Wonder Woman, especially those moved to exercise that power when normally denied it, but beware the cultural-industrial complex bearing gifts. A shift in a genre film’s content is one thing; it will be changes to form that prove the ground is actually shifting. And Wonder Woman‘s form seems almost as conspicuously straitjacketing as before, especially during a creaking climax that gives up any intent at radicalism and just waits for the usual high-five from a weary spectator. If there really is an opening for diversity of intention and input in this neck of the woods, then there’s also a potential calling for critics up for grabs: the one in which we finally patrol the border between technique and essence in the art that emerges, and put the screws on it with something more effective than blank verse.
It’s more than 20 years since Scott Bukatman pointed out that female comics characters were becoming more free by the minute – free to be as musculinized and armoured as all the men. He thought that the muscles of Image Comics female heroes were part of the body-building culture lurking behind superheroes in general, but in modern films it’s always the myth of redemptive violence that’s exerting the magnetic pull. When Wonder Woman strides into the no man’s lands of World War One, she hasn’t had to bounce back from the kind of unmanning castration scenarios that a male’s journey would have involved by that point – no Mel Gibson martyr she – and Gal Gadot’s frown of determination is so sweetly guileless that it’s probably one reason she was cast. But how different exactly would the sound and vision at that point be if she were male, armed to the teeth and taking out the trash? The electric cello lick that Hans Zimmer and Tina Guo created for Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman makes my fillings hurt – at best a motif, at worst an example of film music no longer even attempting to do the things it used to do – but when applied to punch-ups in the middle of World War One, content has mugged form and tipped it into a dumpster.
It’s no accident that Connie Nielsen, even weighted down by wig and dead animal, and Robin Wright, trapezius muscles bare and tensing, are treated to some decent stabs at characterisation, while Elena Anaya’s scarred brittle evil genius gets nothing at all. Any hint of thematic interest in her destroyed femininity, in her encased body versus the Amazons letting it all hang out, would have gone a long way to bolster the film’s ambitions; but redemptive violence prefers its villainy to be rote, so Dr Poison’s is no more colourful than that of her male ally played by Danny Huston, tripping balls on mystic nitrous.
Above all, and just as in Pirates, some stubborn conservatism reveals itself in characters stuck with a crisis of identity rather than a crisis of principle. Wonder Woman loses the original version’s role as a proselytising ambassador for female authority, and instead gets lumbered with being the latest Chosen One off the production line – the dreariest destiny modern cinema to offer, although one that says a bunch about modern society.
Students of form vs. content had to make do with PowerPoint slides until last year, when Alex Proyas made Gods of Egypt. The critical recoil from Gods of Egypt settles any argument about the way that irony now weighs upon an IP-driven pop-culture like a lead apron. Deliberately engineer the irony away, and everyone loses their bearings. Go even further, go all the way into whimsy and pick Bryan Brown to play the god Osiris and have him practically say G’day, and everyone loses their minds. Élodie Yung sashays through Gods of Egypt with all the agency and self-determination and sexual advocacy that the Nile Delta can hold, as free as the air, and she does so speaking dialogue by the same writers who scripted Dracula Untold and The Last Witch Hunter, words made of meaningless rubble – and that right there is the difference between form and content. No cultural-industrial complex in the world is going to allow Gods of Egypt again for a while, or let Élodie Yung play Wonder Woman, although she was apparently considered. Some considerably different film that might have been. If Yung had been given a musical identity of modernist electrified shredding, it would only be because she charged onto the screen playing it herself before beaning someone with the cello.
(art by Ron Regé, of whose Wonder Woman more here.)
For the June issue of Sight & Sound magazine I watched astronauts get eaten in Life, a film happily symptomatic of the age.
“There are no margins or centres now, just a digital bacchanal of in jokes, scuttlebutt and lore churning a tense and self-conscious pop culture.” – says me, pointing in the direction of both Erik Davis and Kim O’Connor and stealing their lunch money.
We nerd out on culture that we experience as data to play with.
The in jokes, scuttlebutt, mash ups, and lore obsession of geekery allow us to snuggle up to the uncanny possibilities of magic, superpowers, and cosmic evil without ever losing the cover story that makes these pleasures possible for modern folks: that our entertainments are “just fictions,” diversions with no ontological or real psychological upshot, just moves in a game.
– Erik Davis in Techgnosis (2015 edition Afterword)
People never feel more self-satisfied than when they recognise what one thing takes from something else. Abhay Khosla described this phenomenon in an essay about Michael Fiffe’s COPRA:
“Categorise. Classify. Regiment. Bag. Bored. Bleh.”
I like the idea that there’s some critical space where you can attend to a work that is not just a take – that criticism is capable, perhaps, of transcending whatever it’s about.
– Kim O’Connor‘s essay How We Take, in Zainab Akhtar’s (now Eisner-nominated) compilation zine Critical Chips (2016)
Categorise, classify, bored, bleh. What are the chances of a film criticism that can transcend whatever it’s about, if it remains content to be a traditional conservative academic humanities discipline, and while audio-visual culture mutates away from everything that made that approach viable? You could equally ask why film criticism ever wanted to be a traditional conservative humanities discipline in the first place, but then we’re back to David Bordwell again.
Each era’s flavour of imminent extinction is different, but the sour taste of 1980s nuclear anxiety comes back pretty quickly while reading The Last American, Marvel’s 1990 Epic Comics series just republished by Rebellion. A post-apocalyptic road trip with one human being and one inevitable destination, it’s a howl of unhappiness on the part of its creators, and since they happen to be British it has the same air of brutalised trans-Atlantic complicity that powered other anti-war petitions like the BBC’s Threads half a decade previously. Exposure to a pop-culture that’s operating without an irony safety-net is now an automatic time-warp and alien enough to give you vertigo, and it’s not just the calendar that makes the book feel like art at the end of its tether, or possibly just at a dead-end; but equally, some of the book is performative and caricatured enough to count as war poetry under the shadow of a mushroom cloud. And if humane compassion ever stops being a net positive in art, then we’re all in trouble anyway. I reviewed it for Tripwire and tried to give it its due.
At the same venue: 2000AD gave US superheroes short shrift at one point, its founders inclined to fend off fascistic do-goodery with sticks. A new selection of Judge Dredd’s run-ins with recognisable Ubermenschen of one kind or another shows how views of the superhuman brigade have shifted – towards the favourable, to no great surprise.
And: the Slaine strip has featured great artists before, but Simon Davis is just about the perfect fit.
In the April issue of Chemistry World magazine I wrote about how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation wants to improve sanitation in the developing world: by invoking the dark arts of odour masking and the science of something called olfactory white noise – a topic that’s equal parts chemistry, physics and kidology. And the small matter of life or death.
Other clever tech I’ve covered lately elsewhere: Green light helps mitigate feelings of pain, but only if you actually see it visually and it enters via the eye; so what’s going on there?
For Critic’s Notebook I watched Ben Wheatley’s new film Free Fire, and once again was left trying to work out whether the problem is him or me.
I reviewed Confusion and Carnage, Adam Nayman’s new book about Wheatley, in the May issue of Sight & Sound and looked for some answers in there too. But the book has a fan’s certainty and doesn’t set out to convince doubters. Back when criticism could still be called niche employment, David Bordwell called for less interpretation and more poetics in film criticism, on the grounds that “interpretation has become easy, but analysis is still hard.”
He had enough solid reasons to be going on with in 1989, although couldn’t foresee the one that’s become most pressing right now. When expertise is mistrusted and the voice of authority has become more of a death rattle, ceaseless interpretation of every raised eyebrow and rainbow is just a really bad way to change anyone’s mind about anything.
A rhetoric of musts and onlys, of always alreadys, of dangers and complicities portrays the writer as one guided by certainties.
– Dr Bordwell, fortune teller.