8 October 2019

Post-traumatic franchise disorder

John Rambo has been a cartoon character since 1986; something to recall before putting the boot into Last Blood for being a scuzzy exploitation film about a traumatised Vietnam vet hacking evil Mexican sleazeballs into thin slices. If Sylvester Stallone were still working for Cannon Films it could have been called Medal of Horror, and maybe that’s the title of the Grindhouse movie Rambo has apparently dozed off watching to produce this morbid grumble of loss and regret. It seems an entire opening rescue sequence has been removed from UK and US prints, the cheapest route to an Extended Director’s Cut yet devised; the fact that the snipped scene apparently has a local sheriff thanking Rambo for his help and is therefore the exact moment at which the 37-year arc gets resolved is less Grindhouse and more just grim.

A reader of the small print might be mildly distracted by the mock-up photo of a young Stallone in military service, given the factual record on that score; or by the obvious parallel between film and real life of grievous personal loss that has arisen since the last Rambo, and wonder whether it played any part in Last Bloods existence. Stallone co-wrote the thing and keeps control over his own characters after all—more control than, say, Liam Neeson, to name another rescuer of relatives. Science will have to decide whether Rambo’s perpetual suffering—and Rocky Balboa’s for that matter—has played any part in Sly’s weathering of occasional threats of cancellation, when Mel Gibson is still nailing himself to the floor in his films but remains in the dog house for more serious crimes.

The subject of Last Bloods PTSD-redemption arc could have been any old soldier, and the only good reason for it to be Medal of Honor winner John Rambo is so that Brian Tyler can quote Jerry Goldsmith’s original trumpet theme on the soundtrack while Sylvester Stallone rides a horse. Which is a pretty good reason when you hear it. I reviewed Last Blood for Sight & Sound.

Also: for the November Sight & Sound print magazine (and online here) a review of Driven, the second film lately to tackle the infamous bits of John DeLorean’s story. Two simultaneous films on a topic either means a major book sale has taken place somewhere or the theme has struck a nerve, in this case presumably the sight of blithe capitalists who usually swan through life actually being brought to book somehow somewhere some of the time, in something close to wish fulfilment. Which is not what happened to DeLorean—a minor detail.

12 September 2019

Orders of the MGT

John Thompson, Eternal Comics, 1973 - High Weirdness frontispieceJohn Thompson, Eternal Comics, 1973 - High Weirdness frontispiece

Erik Davis wrote Techgnosis which should be read by all pop-culture critics before they process the nature of pop-culture or anything else.

His new book is High Weirdness, a sympathetic peer into the esoteric visions of Terence McKenna and Robert Anton Wilson and Philip K Dick, which makes a good case for the mind’s free play—psychedelically fomented or not—being the most essential characteristic of modernity, especially the cracked version summoned up by a networked world and now rising around us like the sea level.

One point in both books is the way that modern technology is modern but also shaped by very non-modern (if not downright ancient) tendencies in the human brain-box. The feedback loop through which a libertarian spirit in the 1970s Californian water pushed the internet towards open horizontal networks rather than closed vertical hierarchies, and now it’s the horizontal nature of those networks that makes it hard to corral a whirlpool of signal and feedback mediated by insanely rich capitalists often based in California, is the kind of historical big picture you need a big book to unpick. A coincidence of course that Robert Bly, thinking about why unchecked consumer culture has no place for authority from above or compassion directed below, used the word horizontal” to describe the flattened and narrowed results—but Davis points out why coincidence isn’t the word for this either. (I first came across Robert Bly in a book about comics by Will Jacobs and the now very cancelled Gerard Jones, which is why the cancellation of artists should be a firm topic of discussion but the erasure of their work needs a good reason for ever getting off the starting blocks.)

From High Weirdness:

Today as memetic noise eats consensus reality and conspiracy thinking is weaponised by parties across the political spectrum, a sort of existential vertigo has opened up beneath our feet. What once felt like the world” has shattered into an incompatible chaos of contradictory engineered and disturbing reality tunnels. Ontological anarchism increasingly seems like a pragmatic response, weird realism that strangely keeps you on your toes. For while [Robert Anton] Wilson’s model of agnosticism may not hand us any guiding narratives, it does provide the ballast of taking responsibility for our perspectives.

I read Illuminatus at age 15 which wasn’t all that long after it was published, and even once my head was screwed back on I figured it was more about the past than any future. Now Wilson and Robert Shea’s overload of conspiracy theory and warped occultism and druggy dérive reads differently, and since the text hasn’t changed it’s probably me. I can see why some people give the book a wide berth, but history has caught up with it. Its playfulness with truth and lies may be the most valuable quality, not least since it now carries the context of Wilson himself tripping into the deep end of Chapel Perilous and managing to get out again. It says that responsibility for keeping your bearings these days falls only to you, so you had better work out a method and get on with it.

If we are to embrace the reality of climate change and if we are to reckon with all the nonhumans—biological or otherwise—whose destinies are now tied to ours then we have to seek and demand an encounter with a Real beyond the symbolic frameworks of consciousness and culture, beyond the tidal surge of electronic reports, narcissistic loops, and memetic brainwash. Creatively worked, and suitably expanded, the human imagination can serve as an interface to entities and realities that elude the normal nets of rationality, language, and cultural symbols.

Imagination can save us, a weird and wonderful notion.

11 September 2019

Kids rule

For The Comics Journal I wrote about Rebellion’s republishing of old British comics and the overlap with 2000AD, which follows up on things I’ve already hinted at in reviews of the individual books elsewhere, such as here. Plenty of the artwork being brought back into view is well worth reviving—Carlos Ezquerra’s pencils on the cowboy strip El Mestizo for starters—and the reprints from girls’ comics bear out some of the things Pat Mills has always said about the character of that long-gone sector. But speculating about the success of Rebellion’s cultural project and its outreach to new readers is fair game. And so is wondering if new readers or a cultural project are actually the goal, given the conspicuously conservative and 2000AD-shaped pipeline the archives are emerging from, and the heavy lean so far towards existing 2000AD readers, a famously mature demographic at least three times the age of readers targeted by the old comics in the first place. Plus, for all the reasons Marc Singer’s book on the comics scholarship landscape gets into, the fog of nostalgia we currently stumble around in might need dispelling rather than fuelling.

In my youth The Comics Journal was what happens when a pop-culture criticism bubbles up from fanzine culture in a field and a language without any academic scholars around to scold it for being unruly, and the results did not feel short of vigour at all. Pop music reviewers had a head start across that rope bridge for sure; but film criticism, to name a close neighbourhood where I have a vested interest, was already in the shadow of a decade of academic thinking before I started reading the stuff, and was trying to Frankenstein some form of film studies into higher education by the time I started writing it. The result there now is an infinity of film reviewers writing semi-academic text while stood in an impact crater and having to crowdfund their lunch. The crater and the poverty involve forces outside our control; but the prose and the fuzzy vision of what it might care to do about climbing out is all on us.

Whether the spirit of fanzine culture and its pluralist intentions are a comfy fit with modern online echo chambers, or with travelling in the same wagon as the would-be authoritative critical voice for that matter, might be another question. Three publications hauled my youthful appreciation of visual art above the level of shambles: the Monthly Film Bulletin, the TV reviews in The Observer, and The Comics Journal. Only one of those has ended up with its unparalleled archive effectively unindexed, and digitised in such a way that the material you’re after has to be sensed in the soil and dug out like a truffle.

The article on Rebellion is here at the TCJ web site.

28 August 2019

Jack Kirby, George Bellows

23 August 2019

Real as a donut

Any new Quentin Tarantino film uncorks a hot spring of emergency responders, in this case watching Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and detecting racism and misogyny and an anti-hippie reactionary yearning for films that don’t matter any more, plus the casting of anger-management head-case Emile Hirsch. Which proves that our fixation on content rather than form might, in the right Petri dish, turn into an even more basic confusion between subject and object. As Tucker Stone pointed out, cultural immersion in screens and algorithms which bend to your will expressly to create an echo chamber of your existing preconceptions might inevitably fuel a feeling that art on those screens should match your existing wishes also, which is a basic Category Error. In Captain Marvel, this means ignoring all its screaming conservative neo-liberal klaxons so that the whole enterprise can be certified progressive; but in Tarantino’s case it requires a wilful ignoring of technique into the bargain. As well as Tarantino’s usual memory games and a wish to futz with the grammar of flashbacks without helpfully providing the sound of a harp glissando on the soundtrack, OUTIH has a mordant accessibility which Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight resolutely did not, its central friendships and rewritten histories arriving buoyed on a network of on-screen details and tchotchkes and portents that add up to a vastly thicker layer of product than the average confection. Brad Pitt’s sauntering cheesy sarcasm rises from somewhere deep within the actor, while also making it clear that the character is never far from being an asshole—I appreciated him trying the quiff from Johnny Suede on for size again near the end—and Leonardo DiCaprio is all technique and twitch. His character stutters whenever he’s stuck with the task of being himself, and the bit where he’s stuttering and coughing and smoking all at the same time while talking to Panto Sam Wanamaker is dark physical comedy of self-destruction.

The film could hardly be free of destruction with the Manson Family lurking on the fringes. That early shot of them as flower children strolling along hand in hand is straightforward horror-thriller incongruity, worms in the apple, as if they were the Midwich Cuckoos—which maybe they are. Leo and Brad’s characters do indeed dislike hippies, but to say that the film does too might require evidence that it thinks the Family is representative of the whole. In fact no other counter-cultural figures even make an appearance, and by the end Susan Atkins is barely human, a shrieking gorgon of doom.

These complaints draw from the theory that art is obliged to transmit pure moral light like a lighthouse and avoid the dark places. (And it’s not the first Tarantino to be loaded with this obligation despite being inherently unreal almost to the point of sci-fi.) This is a cultural discussion which should absolutely happen but at present cannot start, so in the meantime my answer hasn’t changed and it’s still a raspberry. In OUTIH the freakish violence at the end is nastier and longer than the killings in Death Proof but serves the same story function: some women receive violence specifically so that some other women may live. But detection of wickedness and erasure of bad objects is the power move of the moment. Critics sensing invisible things insert themselves between the viewer and the film so that they can flag up Unpleasant Undertones, perhaps a valid instinct if you’re convinced that the world is falling apart but a strange way to interact with art—one that seems unlikely to put the world back together and more likely to earn a sideways glance from a historian of the mid-twentieth century. If art has to fix things—and mass culture might not be built for the burden—then the urge to sift it for hidden wickedness will always become a tidal flood washing over all associated creators, and when they don’t apologise rolling on in search of the real bad guys, a proxy war against anyone misguided enough to buy a ticket.

9 August 2019

Richard Stanley’s meteorites

The Color Out of Space, HP Lovecraft (1927):

It all began, old Ammi said, with the meteorite. Before that time there had been no wild legends at all since the witch trials, and even then these western woods were not feared half so much as the small island in the Miskatonic where the devil held court beside a curious stone altar older than the Indians. These were not haunted woods, and their fantastic dusk was never terrible till the strange days. Then there had come that white noontide cloud, that string of explosions in the air, and that pillar of smoke from the valley far in the wood. And by night all Arkham had heard of the great rock that fell out of the sky and bedded itself in the ground beside the well at the Nahum Gardner place.

Told in The Secret Glory, Richard Stanley’s documentary about the 1930s Grail Quest of Obersturmführer Otto Rahn (2001):

For Antonin Gadal, the Grail was a stone that had fallen from the moon, from the sky. The ancients called it lapis excoris, which was essentially a kind of meteorite, and this area of the Arierge is very rich in meteorites. There is something quite extraordinary about these meteorites in that they consist of a form of hematite, lapis extraordinaire, a mineral from outer space that is extremely pure iron, up to 99.99 percent pure. It is an absolutely pure mineral that doesn’t rust. It is very smooth, very beautiful, and it’s certain that since prehistory, these stones, fallen from the sky, have possessed a genuinely mysterious property in that if you take two of these stones and rub one stone against the other, drops of blood fall from them.

Richard Stanley in The Secret Glory liner notes:

The cup itself is still in the hands of an organisation in the south of France and was on public display in Tarascon until just over 10 years ago. Sadly, there are no images of it in the current cut. However, I can tell you firsthand that it does indeed bleed.

Richard Stanley has emerged from the undergrowth and made a film of The Color Out of Space, and the only thing more intriguing than that is to wonder exactly how much publicity he’s going to do for it in the long run. Stanley is an authentic esotericist, a great explicator of his own work while also seeming like he might be having you on, and one of our own high-powered fringe-dwellers. After a documentary in which the Holy Grail is explicitly invoked as a meteorite, what better material than The Color Out of Space, the arrival of a chunk of The Great Outside vertically downwards very quickly.

More on this blog about Richard Stanley and Dust Devil here and also here.

(The Colour Out of Space stars Nicolas Cage who was in Mandy which was absolutely diabolical. The differences between the Richard Stanley of old and Panos Cosmatos of today are illuminating about a few aspects of the current genre factory, and I guess we’re about to receive an update on the situation one way or the other.)