12 February 2019

American visions

I started to watch Velvet Buzzsaw thinking of Tony Gilroy as the man who co-wrote The Fall, a sublime film about storytelling from which I emerged in a daze; by the end I remembered that he had a hand in Freejack, where Amanda Plummer is a sweary nun who kicks a man in the rosaries and I nearly had to be escorted out of the cinema for laughing. I laughed at Velvet Buzzsaw too, once I realised Jake Gyllenhaal’s art critic really was called Morf Vandewalt and had a sticky end ahead of him; but mockery of the art business and the kind of critic wedged up its fundament doesn’t require much more finesse than Ms. Plummer’s boot. A walking pile of art biz pomposity whose trousers stop two inches above his shoes mistakenly praises John Malkovitch’s bin bags as the next big thing, just in case the message had not got through. And since Gilroy invents a murderous conceptual art piece called Hoboman, which without the subtitles might as well be Hoberman, you assume he’s not thinking only about the art world.

The plot is just a list of vast coincidences in sequential order, but any horror film about the art market which nods towards Dario Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome, a movie whose global fanbase could meet in my kitchen, knows the score. It knows to shove the trade’s necrophilia—“the dogma of the Perpetual Resurrection of the Dead” said Robert Hughes—out from the background and into the Los Angeles sunlight. I very much wanted to hear Hughes pile into the haunted artworks apparently cluttering up the city’s gallery space (“No doubt the very dead Mr. Vetril Dease still couldn’t carve his name on a tree” or similar), but the film has enough shots of LA itself to suggest Gilroy’s real topic might be that city and the fumes of fame and money that it breathes. There’s one bonkers aerial shot so digitally fabricated and crisp it looks like a model village complete with tiny aeroplane.

The whole thing might in fact be a country mouse’s big city odyssey through a Hell-Ay where the main responsibility of the artist is to sow disaster. Natalia Dyer’s gallery assistant Coco, an overworked naif exploited by everyone, only exists in the plot to stumble across dead colleagues and be traumatised. Having haplessly discovered one character hanged in his own installation and after that another who bled to death in two separate pieces and then a bit later a third with his neck snapped, she reasonably enough calls a cab for the airport.

4 February 2019

in the fog

Reprints show the roots of things you run into again elsewhere—it’s one thing to hear that Frank Miller and Jim Steranko were influenced by Guido Crepax, another to see the original Valentina work they were looking at—but the Alberto Breccia art in Fantagraphics’ new restoration of Mort Cinder from 1962 seems influential and almost impossible to appropriate at the same time. The deep shadows and high contrasts point at the usual noir suspects on film and someone like Gene Colan on the page, while the drawing techniques appear so improvised that the art might sit outside of a mass-production industry altogether. Every delicate shade and stipple and harsh stamp and smudge would be individual even if Breccia didn’t leave his actual fingerprints in the ink—which he does, a thumbprint serving as the Moon in the sky.

Meanwhile the story keeps leading the immortal Mort and his loyal old sidekick Ezra into liminal zones of all kinds—fog banks, night-time forests, overgrown paths, tunnels, jungles—and the Breccia art veers towards the abstract before diving into it fully. The real world and parts unknown rub shoulders all the time, just a tense walk in the fog away. Writer Héctor Germán Oesterheld ultimately vanished into a grave somewhere in the fog at the hands of the Argentinian junta, just to make the symbolism even more acute.

In ancient Babylon an alien scientist who looks like a leper fires an invisible beam at the Moon so that the reflected rays will return to Earth and alter the human mind to make communication impossible and so slow the pace of technology. And this is what Breccia draws.

1 February 2019

better realities

If you happen to be near San Francisco, there are a couple of articles by me appearing in the daily in-house magazine of the Photonics West technology conference going on at the Moscone Center. One involves a way to kill MRSA bacteria, which could be big news in healthcare. The other is about a problem with most augmented reality hardware and a UK company which thinks it can be solved, which could ultimately be big news almost everywhere.

11 December 2018

morality bites

My votes in Sight & Sound magazine’s 2018 film poll were for:

Three of these were in the overall top six, a rare alignment. On the other hand:

Another year in which film critics crossed boycotts to write for non-paying outlets, indulged the theory that curators and exhibitors have the same job as ours, allowed the cottage industry of early-career training courses to continue making money for people other than the critics on them, and couldn’t sustain a discussion of class in criticism beyond an initial statement of one fact without it imploding. Any critic accepting this status quo as the price of hypothetical progress should make their case out loud so that it can be debated.

There are a lot of things not currently being debated. It was also another year of some critics in certain quarters calling for unspecified forms of Better Criticism when considering the work of Problematic Artists. What this brave new world of well-behaved arts criticism will look like, to say nothing of the well-behaved art, is equally unclear.

At this point it might be better for those advocating the concept of Socially Responsible Art to spell out what they imagine the socially irresponsible kind is doing in the heads of the people who consume it, exactly. We’ve reached the stage of proceedings where the call is for the arts critics themselves, rather than the artists, to think harder about their societal responsibilities—which as well as being a formulation to catch the eye of any passing historian of the mid-20th Century, dragoons arts critics into the 21st Century police action underway on the anti-art Left, accumulating a few thousand volts of irony along the way.

Chances are that this is actually the important discussion, ultimately more vital than those structural catastrophes hobbling the paid-criticism trade; but the catastrophes affect our power to do the discussing, by no coincidence whatsoever. One of 1974’s most wayward cinematic sons was dragged back onstage this year, and some things do not, in fact, ever change:

Art is intrinsically spiritual not political, a spiritual thing that reminds us of the madness of our own consciousness, and to call for Bad Objects to go away is to want that nagging reminder to go away too, in favour of a more reassuring belief that art must be a spokesperson, a taskmaster, a lost dad and colossal father.

The mission taken up by much current arts criticism of a left-ish persuasion: to treat Bad Objects as if they were flawed academic papers to be retracted; to scrutinise content but remain oblivious to form; to purge, to purge, to purge.

10 December 2018

sentenced to life

The January/February Sight & Sound magazine includes me reviewing the new remake of Papillon, another film adaptation which ends by showing the creation of its own source book when that actual source does nothing of the kind. On the Road played the same game and The Rum Diary did something similar. Such a modern last-minute worry, that an audience might forget why the film’s title rang a bell in the first place. But also the unshakeable addiction to origin stories, and the panic that a story which doesn’t lay the groundwork for something coming along afterwards might be no story at all.

I went into First Man in a mild panic of my own, after scowling for the full length of both Whiplash and La La Land at director Damien Chazelle’s inherently chilly and distant manner. But First Man emphasises actors shuddering and shaking in the interiors of capsules with an apparent lack of digital effects, in sequences like Neil Armstrong’s wild flat spin in Gemini 8 and eventually the moon landing itself with its cascading alarms and resets. Perhaps prodded by the script—writer Josh Singer started on post-Aaron Sorkin The West Wing after all—even Chazelle doesn’t opt to be chilly for those.

Composer Justin Hurwitz has a lot to do with this, since First Mans modest score goes emphatically back to basics of theme and variations, with entirely successful results. There’s a melancholy harp melody for the Armstrongs that reminded me of Basil Poledouris and Les Misérables, which evolves into a bouncing arrangement of ticking determination for the Houston sequences with something of Rachael Portman about it, and eventually becomes a lunar descent of rolling triplet relentlessness which isn’t really martial enough to be properly John Barry but does understand Barry’s mechanics—tension through grandeur rather than aggro. There’s also a tiny motif for Karen, the Armstrongs’ deceased child, heard at the tail end of the Armstrong theme almost every time, the memory tugging at her parents which they never leave behind. At the zenith of the entire film and score, when Chazelle finally cuts outside the rumbling capsule for a look at the vast lunar surface and the tiny human craft flown by an introverted husband and father aiming to be the first human to walk on it, and the score hits its grandest emotional fortissimo, it’s the dead daughter’s theme that it plays. Which is one bulletproof answer, the next time anyone wonders what exactly film music is there for.

1 December 2018

the scene

The only meetings between cartooning and jazz that I used to see were the jokes in Jazz at Ronnie Scott’s, so the French strips by Blutch reprinted this year by Fantagraphics in Total Jazz are a transmission from the other side of the cultural moon entirely. Some of them are gentle self-mockery that Ronnie Scott would have approved of—the stylings of John Coltrane drive all the residents of a household crazy including the cat—but a lot of them venture where gags from Frith Street would not have cared to go.

Several times Blutch draws the jazz itself, the actual form of the music, rendered as artistic effect. Successful or not, the attempt and its careful ambiguities are a lot like the ones Guido Crepax unpicked while drawing Valentina’s sexual pleasure as ink on paper; both projects feel European to the core. But more often Blutch’s lyricism comes before violence, and then follows it too. If Charles Mingus’s punch-ups are par for the biographical course, then the domestic assault inflicted on The Scenes anonymous wife or girlfriend is far more unsettling—made worse by Blutch’s scratchy ink lines, as though the tenor sax player pummelling his woman in the face was fizzing with incoherent rage, violence enveloping him like a fog. The panel where she’s on the ground is dire stuff.

Blutch’s figures are cartoons not caricatures, and those harsh inks become tender enough on the faces of the young and the dying to cast any doubts about the artist’s sincerity into the bin; but the early pages throw in a representational monkey wrench through three stories depicting Native Americans, two of them drawn in a lush charcoal wash unlike anything else in the book. The other, an official preface, has a tribal chief and a warrior brave chatting incongruously about the nature of archival publishing and the dredging up of old jazz cartoons long after the cartoonist has moved on. The overlapping heritage of hardship and displacement shared by African and Native American cultures has left its fingerprints on the music that’s under Blutch’s microscope in the first place, and even if it hadn’t it would still be legitimate material for an artist to process; but put this kind of irony and theatricality close to each other in the current cultural test tube and questions of appropriation will occur. The best answer remains resisting the urge to detect an artist’s hidden wickedness when looking at their art, and not insisting that art deal only in lessons delivered by proxy about living a prosaically good life. As if sincere art need be well-tempered and well-behaved in the first place.

In any case, the cumulative tone of Blutch’s cartooning is complicated enough to suggest all the cultural contradictions lurking under the turf, with seams of sex and surrealism everywhere. Dealing with jazz without dealing with sex might amount to missing the point—it was the topic of the original French edition’s cover, a half-naked white woman being caressed by a group of jazzmen as if they were playing a keyboard, which Fantagraphics has opted to do without. One story ends with four white male long-haired a capella singers communing with the black female singer whose song they have covered by worshipping her extremities in some pagan ritual of consumption and sex; or possibly just of jazz criticism.

The surrealism is a bit less predictable, jolts of occult static bubbling up from the agony and ecstasy of the music. A saxophone duo are linked together by an indistinct mutant musical instrument with multiple mouthpieces; and an even more abstract cubist mechanism supplants the human players in a historical sequence, a sight which now makes me think of FBI Special Agent Phillip Jeffries evolved into a big steam kettle in Twin Peaks. One full-page image has multiple males regarding Josephine Baker with a tense combination of disdain and self-destruction; another page of portraiture includes near its centre an impossible visage, a male face so folded-in and melting that it could have arrived up from one of Clive Barker’s hells. Blutch puts the physical pleasure and physical pain of jazz for both sexes so close together in his strips that the erotic and the despairing are welded at the root. This gentleman and his warp spasm could be one of the severe and unknowable house deities of the book.