22 January 2021
Quo Vadis Aida: men at work
For Sight & Sound online and eventually in the March issue of the magazine, some words on Quo Vadis Aida?, a fiction film with a ground-level perspective on the 1995 Srebrenica genocide which after all was the perspective of most of the people caught up in it.
Films about human evil often hesitate to actually look that evil in the eye, and the ones dealing with wickedness on a grand scale feel obliged to rise up into the stratosphere where art and Extreme Cinema meet—the altitude where the kid in Come and See stands looking out at you, brain dented and a meme before his time. Quo Vadis Aida? doesn’t have the resources or the inclination for that, although the facts of what went on in Bosnia are enough to dent your brain already. The film does have Aida (Jasna Đuričić) looking appalled at the other characters and at you, but a lot of it is occupied by individuals talking to and at and over each other as a warm-up for ignoring each other completely, prejudice in thought as much as deed, plus a cosmically dim view of the UN’s attempts to be useful. Ratko Mladic arrives less like Caligula and more like a regional manager en route to a particularly annoying redundancy consultation, before sending 8,000 people into eternity. A serious film with serious purpose.
David Mamet’s Al Pacino’s Phil Spector: Unhinged Melody
Another convicted killer returned to the source when Phil Spector checked out for Covid-related reasons, which made me want to rewatch David Mamet’s film Phil Spector and see if its wide looping orbit around the facts of Spector’s first murder trial felt any less odd now that he’s just a shade.
This film does look its subject in the eye, but the view is obscured by several layers of safety curtain. On top of the many mannerisms of Al Pacino, which are never going to make me ask for my money back but don’t always bring you closer to the soul of a character doing cartwheels across the screen, there’s the dislocation caused by David Mamet’s shift from leftist to rightist. The film says that freaks don’t get a fair trial in your legal system Mr So-Called Liberal Democracy, a libertarian tenet that the film could probably have built without deliberately fudging so many of the actual facts of a murder case, or indeed the facts of Spector’s domestic life, which are swept out of the way to give Pacino more room to rave. Mamet’s instinct for male persecution, or at least for males perceiving themselves to be persecuted, has made for great drama and at least one key film of the recent Hollywood Left back when Mamet was inclined in that direction, but in the Spector case there’s Lana Clarkson’s dead body in the grave to be acknowledged and the film comes perilously close to waving it away. Considering that it ends before the conclusion of Spector’s first trial, never mind the second, the film does have a great final ten minutes, when Spector emerges in full psycho pomp and Mamet films it so that Spector moves out of the shadows with a deeply ambiguous expression of self-awareness and self-destruction. A figure of cultural folklore having an actual coming out (of the elevator). Followed shortly by his shaken defence lawyer Helen Mirren crossing out her entire game plan on a legal pad with a biro and opting for Plan B, The End. Some truths lurking in there.
I said in 2017 that if people couldn’t bear to listen to songs like River Deep - Mountain High now that Phil Spector was revealed as a monster, then fine, but I wouldn’t be binning the CDs myself since the revealing was less important to me than an existing positive relationship with the stuff. Now Spector is gone there will have to be an accounting for whether erasing the Wall Of Sound from history is worth the cost, which would be easier if there were any real agreement on what the dangers of liking art made by horrible people actually are. In this case, there’s always Ike & Tina’s decision to re-record River Deep - Mountain High in 1973, a second version that’s entirely different and exactly as drastically joyous as the first. If you’re inclined to send Phil Spector off with a jeer, than the sound of him effectively scrubbed from one of the most Phil Spector songs in existence by the Svengali’s former adepts is as good a way as any. As long as you bear in mind how hard Ike was hitting Tina when they got home.
6 January 2021
Beware of God
The reissue of The Biologic Show, reviewed for The Comics Journal. When I first saw this book in 1995 and then later emerged from under the bed the only compass points I had for it were cultural hangovers from the previous few years, all the serial killers and American Psychos. But at that point I hadn’t read Lipstick Traces. Looking at Al Columbia’s comic now, it’s a drastic mad-scientist splice of the puckish macabre of early comic strips and the authentic cabaret of scorn that Greil Marcus talks about. It is, among several other things, your old colossal Dada back in town.
It’s also a reminder that comics is one mighty medium for drastic mad-scientist splices, and it’s tough to imagine this particular twitch of creative energy taking any form other than this one. Which is ironic, given that a punch-up broke out between Al Columbia and Hollow Press just before the new edition came out over whether the publishers had tampered with the work at a qualitative level. Any contract between this particular artist and this particular publisher always looked like two fissile materials voluntarily climbing into the same test tube, and the inevitable big bang might prompt a couple of questions about archival publishing of wild mutant art in sober respectful packages, bound in black like a Bible. But not a question about whether The Biologic Show is a benchmark work of its era and its maker, a query which deserves due consideration before being promptly binned.
20 December 2020
Ride the rage snake
Some comics of the year:
What We Mean By Yesterday by Benjamin Marra, who called it “Degrassi High on mescaline” but whose sympathetic skewering of America’s basic instincts lands him somewhere nearer an overlap of Charles Bukowski and Mark Twain. Exfoliating suburbia with a potato peeler, WWMBY has the added formal spice of arriving in daily portions on Instagram lasting presumably a calendar year, although the story could clearly roll on for a decade. (2021 Update: it rolls on.) Hapless teacher Bruce Barnes, a simmering ball of mid-life crisis likely to trip over a mop in exactly the way needed to make him land in a pool of piss, meanders into a psychodrama of sex and drugs and some of the whitest white people on the books. You could go on holiday and get back to find Barnes still attempting to extricate himself from the maladroit cock-up he made two weeks before. Or you could if holidays still existed—the strip’s slow-motion fever has ended up meshing with the time-dilated brainstorm of Covid-19 without Marra having to nudge things in that direction very hard. Peering behind the urban curtain to glimpse a raging cosmos, Marra took a 17-day 68-panel wordless digression into Barnes’s mind, where avatars and spirit animals tore chunks out of each other, and if David Lynch’s Twin Peaks Season 3 atom bomb had gone off in there it wouldn’t have been a complete surprise.
Coincidentally (or not) Shintaro Kago is also on a daily Instagram project, and Fantagraphics completed reissuing Dementia 21 this year too. But the tentative appearances of Kago’s comics in English had the effect of making his single images seem the place where the action is. A Japanese art book Shishi Ruirui turned up on cue collecting posters and covers and a lot else, full of Kago’s complete fascination with the human body and the culture that shapes it. Plus some impressively deadpan movie jokes: Enter The Dragon’s poster but Bruce Lee is holding two guys off the ground by the dicks instead of nunchaku sticks, Ikiru but the ropes of the sweet old man’s swing form nooses around the necks of two kids hanging from the frame behind him; knockabout stuff. All those placidly unravelling human bodies could hardly be less rigid or armoured or solid, and since bodies which are those things have the air of fascism, refuting them as emphatically as this makes Kago’s art seem liberal to the core.
Gleem is by Freddy Carrasco and after now seeing four projects of his the upward curve of ambition and skill is unmistakable. Hot Summer Nights was a comic of stillness and heat with panels of Frank Miller motion dropped into the stream, and now Gleem is an anthology of fast motion with a Miller spread of ultraviolence revealed by the turn of a page. Carrasco is pulling in threads from all over US and Japanese comics, forging them into something shaped around Afrofuturism with some of the greatest urban faces currently around.
The Biologic Show rides again, although Hollow Press grabbed a tiger by the tail when they contacted Al Columbia about licensing it and might by now wish they hadn’t bothered. But a reprint of The Biologic Show in a single volume emerges from the war zone, speaking in the same coded language of nightmare it coined a quarter of a century ago.
Portrait of a Drunk was discussed here but there are still fresh things in the art to notice: this guy being tortured with his features fading back into the paper of the page is the latest spot.
Mitchum reviewed by me for The Comics Journal. Another titanic work under zero illusions about human nature, which means it can’t help but be hopeful about the possibilities opening up even while it’s busy peering into the pit and seeing what men and women sometimes do to each other in there.
An unstoppable hitman devolving into something animal, or even more animal than he already was. The noir stories adapted by Jacques Tardi from Jean-Patrick Manchette novels along with some other unfinished stories and notes on their collaboration have been wrestled into two volumes by Fantagraphics and reissued. They sit on the shelf and glare threateningly at all the other books.
11 December 2020
There’s no tomorrow
Bacurau: by now who hasn’t?
My votes in the year’s Sight & Sound best films poll were for:
I should have included 6 Underground for the above reasons and others. I did include Portrait of a Lady on Fire, until it was ruled out for having appeared on 2019’s list. Ineligible, in a UK magazine poll in the year that the film was released in the UK and made its way onto a UK streaming platform to benefit from the influence of UK critics. Meanwhile the film at number three has had no UK presence of any kind, not even at a festival, and currently has none scheduled for next year either. It is, from the perspective of a UK reader paying to be more informed after reading the list than when they started, simply a non-thing. Hard to see that as arts criticism functioning flawlessly.
This would have been a good year to rediscover an old function or create a new one. But asking about the commercial value of film reviews was already a dicey move undertaken only by the daredevil wing of the trade while going over waterfalls in barrels—especially if you happen to ask this from left of centre somewhere—even before the removal of the actual films from people’s lives. If that of all conceivable eventualities didn’t urgently raise the question of who will pay film critics and why, then what would? The massed reviews of Tenet were a pile of rhubarb visible from the Moon, a criticism non-event that was over five minutes after it started, a gravity wave from something very small happening very far away.
Nick Pinkerton, in the course of ten thousand words about the current war, said that income from his paying Substack subscribers had “done what it needed to do,” although that income model still looks a lot like the same $4.99 sloshing back and forth in the cultural sump. Because that is what happens when a plan has no demand-side dimension worth the label.
I was more interested in his mention of a scrappy print zine from the Chicago Film Society about their travails. The failure of film criticism to retrench instinctively into zine culture in the way that other beleaguered sectors have done remains the obvious symptom of some deep and well incubated trouble, some aversion on the part of writers to write and agitators to agitate, a shift away from the idea of film reviews having any real Business To Be About at all.
5 December 2020
Shintaro Kago: Family Portrait (2019).
28 November 2020
Possessor is a serious film about mental health, by any non-judgemental description. Reviews that don’t mention David Cronenberg should get extra points—Brandon Cronenberg’s film has latex gloop and liquefying organs in quantities that his dad hasn’t used for a while—although the themes overlap too effectively for one man’s work not to be a compass point for the other. Bet those were some interesting family bookshelves to browse. Brandon toys with an audience in the family manner too: that alarming poster image of someone in some sort of mutant collapsing-face distress turns out to be exactly what it looks like, rather than whatever it is you think it looks like when it makes you spill your drink.
Possessor also has duelling corporations with sci-fi names and an industry devoted to spying through webcams to identify your taste in curtains, which as capitalist paranoia goes is crackerjack enough for Howard Chaykin, never mind a Cronenberg. But the pared down style never gets to David C. levels of outright empathy. This has something to do with the gloomier casting of some notable grumps: Sean Bean being miserable, Jennifer Jason Leigh underplaying into the ground—and sick again, as she was in Annihilation. Generally terrible people. (Hrant Alianak turns up as a doctor and suddenly it’s the Pontypool extended universe.)
All the body-swap stuff is the usual gift for actors, letting Andrea Riseborough sport an erect penis that looks fake enough to seem pagan rather than shocking, and do some scenes with the veins in her temple bulging as if the crew held her upside down for ten minutes first. And the whole body-swap genre is revving up for a revival anyway, in the current era of identity issues. Coincidence that Possessor and Freaky are arriving close together, the thinker and then the jester? No.
But inside the wrapping, the life of the mind. A plot point about suicide puts a pro-life nugget of enduring unkillable optimism in plain sight at its centre. And having been ambiguous about the mental health of Riseborough’s character from kick-off, the film jolts bolt upright at the scene of her tortuously rehearsing casual chit-chat before entering the family home she probably loathes, a scene which doesn’t skirt around issues of neurodiversity and the agonies of social performance so much as embrace them outright. The pained delivery in Riseborough’s own accent and the way she backs over and over words of affection that taste like grit is more than recognisable for anyone who has had reason to ponder what cogs are wobbling in their own brain, and tried to decipher the owner’s manual.