The paranoid style

For The Comics Journal a review of Project MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs and the CIA Volume 1, a book on my radar ever since its creator Stewart K. Moore drew a Defoe story in 2000AD and unleashed some of the most idiosyncratic art that the comic has run in years.

Readers of Erik Davis’s book High Weirdness can nod wisely when bits and pieces of the early 1970s now bubble up in our current cultural moment, which is happening all over the place, but Moore’s approach to the CIAs adventures in mind control and various related smoking craters does raise the issue of how exactly you might draw that era for a comic. It’s not quite fair to say his answer is to throw the artistic kitchen sink at it—the Defoe story suggested that Moore keeps a stock of sinks to hand—but the book has some vaulting visual ambition before anything related to the story gets involved, and the energy of the layouts and figure work is unrelenting.

And unrelentingly cartoony. Conspiracy comics don’t all have to look like the Bill Sienkiewicz section of Brought to Light—cut-up fragments and jagged ink strokes and portraiture and photo-montage and a general air of mild modernism, pages that might be glued to the wall of a radical cell—although that kind of agitprop is the familiar form. But not, it seems, for SK Moore, who draws political conspiracy somewhere between Mad magazine and Guy Peellaert, a thoroughly physical as well as mental process, not an uneasy feeling but your actual shitshow. The walking moral vacuums on the Government payroll busily putting LSD into each other’s tea for a laugh are cartooned and lampooned in ways which leave their menace and its implications fully intact, the Keystone Cops apparently given the keys to the Parallax Test.

The Bill Sienkiewicz version: your tax dollars spent by villains

The SK Moore version: your tax dollars spent by clowns

April 8, 2022 Art

Pasta la vista

The Thief Collector: Ocean’s TwoThe Thief Collector: Ocean’s Two

For Critic’s Notebook four films seen online from SXSW:

  • The Thief Collector which seems to say that you should think the worst of quirky eccentric people and doesn’t do much to clarify if it’s being serious.

  • To Leslie which unleashes Andrea Riseborough on an award-worthy part but also says that destitution is an individual mistake that you tackle by pulling yourself together. At this point it might take a small cultural revolution to produce a film able to get its head around a large societal revolution for characters like Leslie, but critics not melting into tears at the sight of individual agony in films paralleling the view of the average fiscal conservative could be a start.

  • The Cow which hinges on Winona Ryder feeling old and other people agreeing with her, which seems a stretch.

  • And Spin Me Round. From the people who brought you The Little Hours, which I liked fine, another Tuscan farce with characters you might want to shove into the Arno. Or darker than farce, since it has people convincing themselves of something parallel to one particular in-the-news alt-right conspiracy theory involving casual dining establishments, and leaves it up to you if the film is mocking the theory or the people. But most films wouldn’t go near either. One film magazine has sniffed at a whimsical Muzak-esque score,” which means no one knows who Pino Donaggio is any more or detects what the result of hiring him might be.

The needle of the politic-o-meter settles over to the right in a couple of those, and Spin Me Rounds push-back is carefully ambiguous; but a festival that mints its own NFTs in a sponsored storefront won’t be the place to look for agitprop. Even so, The Thief Collectors documentary wander into a tabloid frame of mind where eccentricity and Other-ness are to be distrusted seems pretty wayward. What is that mock poster up there doing exactly, by turning a pair of middle-aged teachers who aren’t here to speak for themselves into Ocean’s Two? Faced with long dead and totally inscrutable subjects, the film is so keen to cover all possible reasons to find them entertainingly suspicious that it ends up seeing if anyone’s got a spare murder lying around that it can use for the purpose.

March 27, 2022 Films

Life as a dog

You Won’t Be AloneYou Won’t Be Alone

Sundance Film Festival 2022 round up:

For Sight & Sound reviews of:

  • 892 a serious drama with John Boyega taking hostages

  • When You Finish Saving The World a slightly barbed but mostly cozy dramedy about old Leftists and their TikTok children and yes OK but it’s not exactly Another World Is Possible.

  • You Won’t Be Alone a grim and Grimm Macedonian fable about sex and motherhood and the effects of whispered voice-overs in a cosmos where Terrence Malick films exist

For Critics Notebook a big bunch of things including:

You Won’t Be AloneYou Won’t Be Alone

You Won’t Be Alone has a lot of shots like that one up there and like this one here with a breathy narration of whispered spiritual mottoes, and if you wanted to think it was actually mocking its own art-house noodling then there isn’t much in the film to stop you.

It keeps threatening to grind to a halt; but then something else fantastical and silly will happen - like the main character turn into a dog and observe a group of fertile young men in a circle jerk or the voice-over utter some carefully calculated incantation like Are women wasps?” - and the film just keeps loping along. We are in a period of films that skirt around self-parody without seeming to realise it (The Souvenir Part II is practically a mockumentary and that won all the awards) but this one knows the territory that Angela Carter used to operate in, not without humour herself, and there isn’t much wrong with that.

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power might be wrong about a lot of things or it might not, under its 1950s pulp novel title. But that’s not as uncomfortable as the way it states opinions as facts for one hundred minutes, cites evidence in ways that wouldn’t pass unquestioned in an argument over a bar tab, and states outright that you yes you are not responsible for your own behaviour towards women because you’ve been brainwashed by the Media Industrial Complex. You don’t have to be a raving Centrist to notice when the tone of voice employed by one side is indistinguishable from the tone of voice used by the other, and to be somewhat dismayed. When the progressive Left returns to blaming art for people’s behaviour then it seems we are once again back in the bottom half of the hour.

The nearest thing to a philosophy I’ve got these days remains that Robert Anton Wilson was right: actually you are responsible, responsible for a baseline scepticism that accommodates empathy and compassion and processes evidence when it comes your way and is capable of shifting. That it’s up to you to be a good person so you had better work out a method to keep your bearings and get on with it.

January 29, 2022 Films

Vacate the premises

Farewell, Brindavoine: early Jacques Tardi from 1972 but peering at it looking for unrefined skill is wasted effort. A fully formed cartoonist is at work, World War I already installed at the centre of Tardi’s art to darken Brindavoines slapstick chase into It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Bloodbath. In the middle interlude the author turns up, complaining bitterly about the inability of storytellers to have any beneficial influence on the world and drawn like Dr. Phibes’s decaying cousin; a fairly abyssal spark of pessimism from an expert at putting nuance into that particular emotion.

I didn’t put this year’s reprint of Farewell, Brindavoine on my list for The Comics Journal ’s huge behemoth two-dozen-contributor round-up of recommended 2021 comics, but these were on there:

What is Britain - Simon MoretonWhat is Britain - Simon Moreton

Zig Zag - Will SweeneyZig Zag - Will Sweeney

Laab #2 - Ronald Wimberly et alLaab #2 - Ronald Wimberly et al

The Twelve Sisters of the Never-Ending Castle - Shintaro KagoThe Twelve Sisters of the Never-Ending Castle - Shintaro Kago

Monsters - Barry Windsor-SmithMonsters - Barry Windsor-Smith

The Grande Odalisque - Ruppert et Mulot et VivèsThe Grande Odalisque - Ruppert et Mulot et Vivès

Mysterious Travelers - Zack KruseMysterious Travelers - Zack Kruse

Son of Tomahawk - Matt SenecaSon of Tomahawk - Matt Seneca

Most of these are either solid radical comics or about the life of the mind, which might amount to roughly similar things these days even if they don’t take the same road.

The exposure of social ills or injustice, the satirizing or demystification of institutions and leaders, the recording of conflict or disturbance, the exhortation to radical violence or non-violent revolution.

as said by Amos Vogel in Film As A Subversive Art, now handily just republished so there’s a book you can wave at anyone who asks what everyone used to agree upon. Not everyone does agree any more, but at some point talking about anything other than the basics isn’t really talking at all.

See also: On Monsters and Third Reich vibes
On Will Sweeney’s previous Grok for TCJ
A bit more on Sweeney’s new Zig Zag.
And also: Robert Hughes on identity politics doing nothing for art.

January 3, 2022 Art

A feud with Jimmy Page and Kenneth Anger

Alan Moore and Tom Burke: Show peopleAlan Moore and Tom Burke: Show people

My votes in the year’s Sight & Sound best films poll were for:

This year’s votes were requested even earlier than last year’s and the film at number one isn’t released until February 2022 before we even start talking about its rigid conservatism…but no point rehashing all of that again. Anyway my real answer is probably Titane.

Double-take of the year from Tom Burke in The Show, reacting to the sight of Alan Moore’s spectral mystic Moon-Man in the back garden by going full boggle.

Single-take of the century from the elderly lady in Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn who just wanders into shot and says Eat My Cnut without it being clear if she’s in the film or of the film or just a big fan of Radu Jude.

There might seem to be a lot of space between The Show and Bad Luck Banging and between Alan Moore and Radu Jude, although both of them are humanists who can’t quite lose faith with humanity no matter how crummy its individual specimens behave. Both films are deeply rooted in their own locations too, lungfuls of dust from Northampton and Bucharest evidently inhaled. The Show is miles out of step with current British film tendencies—fans of The Souvenir Part II will have to watch it with their eyes clamped open like Malcolm McDowell—and Bad Luck Bangings initial flirt with ground-level naturalism in the age of Covid (including Mrs Cnut there, not to mention five minutes of hardcore porn) is only temporary since it becomes as mannered and calculated as a stage performance. The films hardly overlap at all, apart from both having something to say about the state of what you might in the circumstances call the Soft Left and saying it via the language of panto—which is to say they actually overlap.

An issue of that Chicago Film Society zine mentioned this time last year as a rare sighting of something that would be less rare if we were in a healthier position duly arrived at my door, its authenticity confirmed by a trip from Chicago via rowing boat taking 11 weeks. Infuriating Times #3 is sympatico and authentico, 48 pages of stapled scratchy mono noodling with something jammed into every bit of white space and some of the illustration line work bleached out to illegibility. It has several opaque projection-booth asides and obligatory not-funny funny bits, but also a 15-page article about late-2000s decline of film at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that I’m safely assuming you wouldn’t find anywhere else, cultural journalism naming a certain number of names in an unsigned essay presumably stewing for twelve years. The fact that Infuriating Times is in theory not the product of film critics at all but actual cinema staff, people affected by The Current War through the loss of employment rather than the loss of opportunities to swan around wearing a lanyard, and that it duly appeared not as something pretty on the Kindle Store but as scrap paper wrapped round the metaphorical brick, speaks for itself. This, as the old saying goes, is what they want.

And it’s goodnight from her.

December 3, 2021 Films

Flaming youth

Not Foundation Year: the way they wereNot Foundation Year: the way they were

In the December Sight & Sound magazine some words about Foundation Year, a micro-budget college romance willed into existence by the enthusiasm of its makers and formerly known as Shithouse, potentially remaining so for at least one viewer. The days when Animal House could make a point about society via bozos in some historic Zeta Zeta Zeta fraternity are already a long way back, but for a current film to earnestly say that the college-age young have skin barely one atom thick seems like a newsflash from another century now that the generation in question is trying to take control of a world both sinking and on fire.


Dune: destiny’s child’s motherDune: destiny’s child’s mother

The new film of Dune has a young man with self-confident hair deciding to depose the sitting Emperor of the Known Universe, which sounds nearer the mark.

Denis Villeneuve makes Christopher Nolan look like one of The Merry Pranksters, but since serious science-fiction is a rare cinema species there’s a limit to how much griping is appropriate when someone goes and makes some. Whether Dune actually is hardcore art, or just foundational bits of fantasy business inflated with a very dense gas, is another question. Pondering what originality even looks like in an era of massive cultural surplus is enough to blow a fuse, but you can look at Dunes sights and sounds, detect their impact and voltage in the moment, and still laugh darkly at the arrival of the latest film full of foam.

Villeneuve’s embrace of sci-fi—three films in a row depending how you classify Arrival—was precisely zero surprise once it became clear that he’s a member of the Architects Film Club (prop: Joseph Kosinski who put Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough on top of a two-mile pole in Oblivion). The built environment gets his juices going: Enemy is about a lot of things but paranoia in Mississauga high-rises is certainly one of them, and Sicarios roads and tunnels and toll booths and dead ends are shot more tenderly than half the characters, caressed by aerial drone shots. Back at the source of my Villeneuve viewing, Next Floor looked pretty good in 2008 as a dry joke from the Peter Greenaway school of baked atrocity, but in hindsight the rotten building and its creaking timbers are giving the director a thrill on their own. Of course sci-fi appeals to someone with that kind of interest in architectural vibes and the individuals feeling them.

But you still have to make an actual film in there somewhere. Dune Part One has cavernous brutalist rooms to suit the grandiosity that the story endlessly talks about, chambers of anxiety and history. Then the film swings over towards metaphysics and prophecy and altered states, which do not seem to be Villeneuve’s bag at all. In the interiors he gives the full treatment to the faces of Rebecca Ferguson and Stellan Skarsgård, the former dominating any frame she appears in and the latter taking the opportunity to be Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz. Out in the endless desert with its not very individual individuals, the director almost seems to give up, not helped by the self-inflicted stuttering un-climax of Only The Beginning. There’s talk of desert power, but the film is most comfortable with military movie power, ornithopters buzzing like Black Hawks in this particular foreign policy scenario, and evil ships gliding out from behind a mesa like the menacing flyers of Blade Runner 2049, if not Capricorn One.

Whatever the supply chain issues with serious sci-fi, the glut of general mid-table fantasticals all processed through the same post-production software and sloshing around like a cultural wine lake makes the days when sci-fi was supposed to be a headspace and a hacker genre seem as far off as the dinosaurs. Respectability has not done the category much good, judging by what my streaming services keep yelling at me to watch. Dunes message in a bottle from 1965 isn’t entirely reassuring, about decay and rot of all your established orders and the shock of the probably not very fabulous new and karma that removes the choices from your pretty head; but whether that’s intended to fit quite as well as it does with the deadening ozone of digital effects is anyone’s guess.

Villeneuve put chewy ambiguities into Blade Runner 2049, which compared to Dune trips a lively fandango, and for his trouble got some impressively dim reviews that went to great lengths to miss the point. (Me in Sight & Sound discussing the actual point.) Dune takes no chances with that, partly by aligning even more exactly with a current theme: we are also well-supplied with characters realising the truth about their individual selves, rather than about their class or their collective or their coworkers. Leftism suppressed, while individualism moves in. As the film’s funders no doubt spotted, Dunes story has always had an angle on the issues of identity without which half of current pop culture might have to head back to the drawing board. Matrix Resurrections approaches on the horizon, returning to stamping grounds of gnostic awakening and the messianic tendency that are a lot more crowded than they were when Neo first put his trench coat on—crowded with Paul Atreides waiting for his story to complete for starters. Whether or not he gets his Part Two it’s still the season of The Ones.

See also: On the Villeneuve-less Sicario 2 Soldado
And also: What’s a Leftist film anyway, in Sight & Sound
And yet also: Avengers Endgame and the last rites of Stan Lee

November 5, 2021 Films