dead centres

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.

war story

The Last American: nuclear states

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.

 

pongs

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?

poets day

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.

critical seconds

Two strong projects brewing at Michigan Medicine, written about recently by me: Speeding up brain cancer surgery, by creating virtual stained specimens in a much shorter time than it would take the hospital path lab to produce the traditional kind on a slide. And an endoscope using two kinds of laser imaging to get a better look at atherosclerosis in clogged arteries, without damaging the plaque itself and doing more harm than good.

Also clever: pushing super-resolution microscopy into even more high-res territory, by tackling the background interference that has been stubbornly hard to remove in one particular technique.

dunstabbin’

Certain Women: horse sense

My notebook says I was positive about Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, which proves that memory is a tricky thing. But Certain Women is the real deal, achieving what advocates of minimalism always say it can do and inviting you to meet it halfway as a genuine way of seeing. Short film festivals would be better off these days looking away from conventional narrative fictions, but Reichardt’s third story, in which Lily Gladstone forms an attachment to Kristen Stewart that seems born out of simple stoic yearning, would be a perfect 30-minute entry for anywhere so inclined. The confused affection of these two characters is never articulated but constantly visualised, eventually in the way Stewart reflexively hugs Gladstone slightly more tightly while riding on her horse – and immediately she’s gone, no longer able to shoulder whatever it was that just happened. Gladstone returns to her horses, as do we all. This has been a key few months for grappling with what realism looks like on screen, and Reichardt’s style always opens up another front on the issue by pruning away elements of urban life in a manner that would give Ken Loach a headache; but Loach always seems to be moving towards you from the screen, an over-emphasis that draws on his instincts as a placard-holder but which can ruin as much as it reveals. Reichardt generates pull rather than push – on the whole a more profitable transaction. Continue reading

Gallery

disassembled

Five comics characters who lost a little something of themselves, via Tom Spurgeon.

motions

If you happen to be in San Francisco, there are two articles by me in this year’s in-house magazine of the annual Photonics West conference going on in The Moscone Center.

One is an interview with Zeev Zalevsky from Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, whose research programme has been deliberately built along more diverse and pluralistic lines than many. He’s in the running for a prize at the conference, after developing implants that tackle vision impairment by sending visual information onto the cornea by direct tactile stimulation – Braille for the eyeballs.

The other is a round up of where the hunt for gravitational waves has got to, with the US LIGO instruments warming up again ready to restart after their overhaul, and the Italian facility called Virgo about to join in. Among other things, the overhaul replaced the wires used to suspend the LIGO mirrors, after it turned out that metal molecules jiggle far too much.

living history

gary groth

Gary Groth: a single forty-year bound

No amount of arm-waving can link the appearance of 2000AD and the creation of Fantagraphics too directly, even though they appeared at almost the same moment. 1976 London was not 1976 Vermont, and rebellious insiders are not rebellious outsiders. 2000AD has always had to fit its inherited air of punky rebellion around life as a corporate brand, and hasn’t resisted that obligation for a while; Fantagraphics has gone from being a proper rouser of rabbles to one of the strongest curators of its art form that we have – the ten-year project to translate Guido Crepax is a full-scale cultural intervention – while still being prepared to take an artistic punt on material that might scare the horses.

But both have survived four decades of turmoil, so both feel like living history when you hold the books in your hand. And now both have an official biography, for the libertarian war stories and near-bankruptcies and court appearances and clarifying who exactly threw sharp objects at whom. I read the two books for Tripwire, and as always the termite art is probably where more of the action is. Neither book has any doubts about the value of making art in the first place, though.

(pic)

marginals

invitation

The Invitation: raise the red lantern

The annual Sight & Sound Films of the Year poll is online and in the January 2017 print magazine. My votes were for:

Little Sister  (discussed in part here during the Edinburgh Film Festival)
The Invitation  (wiki)
Flag Without a Country  (reviewed at Critic’s Notebook)
Queen of Earth  (wiki)
The Neon Demon  (gallery)

Other votes for these films by poll participants:  0, 0, 0, 1, and 4 respectively.

In the comment box, some matters arising:

“Three of these used video-on-demand as their route to a UK audience, either with a momentary theatrical release or doing without that gesture. Should this alter how critics process them? Perhaps. The position and impact of art is criticism’s business, but the opaqueness of streaming revenues and viewing figures leaves the matter of these films’ success vague in economic and cultural terms alike. Faced with terra incognita, critics’ exploratory outlook matters. Saying that a film is in cinemas, when we really mean it’s in two cinemas for a single day, is either a safety-blanket privileging of the cinema experience or a flat parroting of the marketing message; but either way, pointing people towards places where the art isn’t looks a lot like voluntary redundancy. All grist for a rebalancing of our cultural journalism remit, perhaps via conceding that ceaseless personal curation isn’t the same thing.”

The position of art is indeed criticism’s business. Protecting the language of expertise falls to us too, in an age when the default response to any authoritative voice is disdain; so we had better recognise when we’re facing the world and when we’re facing the wall. A blind spot for coherent language when notable art falls on streaming platforms rings an alarm bell on all counts. Flag Without a Country didn’t even make it that far, yet every time the TV beams pictures from the Middle East into my living room, I find myself wondering whether Helly and Nariman are still in a position to draw breath. What exactly is notable art for, if not that?

As always, the idea that we’re curators – scholars, pathfinders – rather than cultural journalists flatters us to bits, but you end up having to justify why something called a Best Films Of 2016 list has no intention of providing the same information as a Best Books Of 2016 list, and little chance of revenue-bearing like one either. Reclaiming our authority over art as it currently exists and its effects on people we don’t already know would be a fine idea at this point – and a more challenging destiny than mapping the world from within the walled garden of a film festival, or falling for the flattering idea that the first person to correctly appreciate any given film is surely me myself and I.

Also: a review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will be in the S&S February print issue and is online here. The major unhappy tendency in current films is still a fixation on content while somehow remaining oblivious to form, which in films with the money to polish each pixel individually turns into a grim metallic certainty that hot visuals matter more than invisible things like narrative and character. As articles of faith go, it’s debatable. It became the Last Temptation Of Lucas as well, but his was a singular vision, for better or worse. And Rogue One is not.

The present manners of the nation would deride authority, and therefore nothing is left but that every writer should criticise himself.

– Samuel Johnson, voting in the 1783 Films of the Year poll.