bad habits

This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival was subdued, but livened up no end by the sight of Aubrey Plaza swearing her head off while dressed as a nun. The language emerging from underneath that wimple in The Little Hours could curdle the milk, but the register of the film is distinctly old fashioned compared to most current US comedies and their giggling Puritan vibes about the carnal. There was a time when sex comedies were vigorous and spicy because the topic was illuminating, rather than just because people were salaciously goosed by it, and The Little Hours is the first film in a while to remember – largely by drawing on a story from around 1350 written in the shadow of a slow and painful death. I watched it for Critic’s Notebook, pondering the profane while bewitched by the witches.

I also watched Final Portrait, Stanley Tucci’s very affectionate portrait of Alberto Giacometti which makes the old boy seem impossible but also has no doubts about his genius. Tucci’s well documented love of art in general and this artist in particular stops the film being dull, but it is reverential to a fault, and some of the artistic choices are a bit more bemusing than probably intended. I am, though, increasingly a fan of Armie Hammer’s nice line in needlessly-stressed decency. Lumbering any actor with the label of old-school stylist is the kiss of death, but Hammer is pretty much one of those. A review of Final Portrait will be up at Critic’s Notebook in due course.

Meanwhile on the twitters:

 

unfair cops

One-Eyed Jack: duck season

Surfacing from the oceans of 1970s British comics as part of Rebellion’s current salvage operation comes police detective Jack McBane, curing New York’s crime problem one .44 Magnum-sized entry wound at a time. John Wagner created One-Eyed Jack for Valiant when Judge Dredd was just a gleam in the writer’s eye, although the conspicuously rigid moral code and ballistic approach to justice makes the connection between the strips too tempting to resist. But One-Eyed Jack‘s roots are more interesting than its descendants. As well as giving his creation a name adjacent to Ed McBain, Wagner knew the air of enchanted alarm about 1975 New York brewing in British kids who were observing the place through endless episodes of Kojak, and picturing all American cops as the guy called Dirty Harry in something too X-rated to get into. Harry would never have squeezed himself into a luggage locker just so he could leap out and shoot the criminal who opened the door; but when McBane does it, it’s cue Lalo Schifrin all the same. I read and reviewed the reissued comic for Tripwire.

The Leopard From Lime Street is another reprint in the same series and from a similar era, this time from Buster. In theory the big-hearted boy scratched by a radioactive leopard is a character aimed at a young audience, but the cues that writer Tom Tully takes from Stan Lee include the one about aiming above his readers’ heads and carrying them upwards in the draught.

And at the same place, a quick look at Dredd/Anderson: The Deep End, three comics stories set in the world of the 2012 Dredd film. As it happens I liked Dredd a lot, although it was four and a half years ago and spin-offs from it at this stage might have something to do with keeping the breadth of a live-action Dredd property on display just as a Mega-City One TV show starts to move forward. It’s not as if the comic hasn’t mapped Cassandra Anderson’s early days nicely already, but the character is one of the few that’s rich enough for all the parallel what-ifs to stay appealing.

goddess of too much

Amazonia: Wonder Woman via Ron Rege Jr and Maja D’Aoust

When the August Sight & Sound magazine arrives it will include me on Pirates Of The Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge, which has all the woes of the modern digital idyll and the trans-national franchise on the skids. “In the deep ironic oceans of the mainstream, the more that digital entertainments try to do all the reacting for you, the more conformist they all become.”

The Greek god of scheduling placed Pirates, in which a proto-feminist briefly cooks up her own agency before settling for all the norms, adjacent to Wonder Woman, a character outfitted at birth by her creator to give conformity a kick in the ἀσπίδες. More power to all moved by Wonder Woman, especially those moved to exercise that power when normally denied it, but beware the cultural-industrial complex bearing gifts. A shift in a genre film’s content is one thing; it will be changes to form that prove the ground is actually shifting. And Wonder Woman‘s form seems almost as conspicuously straitjacketing as before, especially during a creaking climax that gives up any intent at radicalism and just waits for the usual high-five from a weary spectator. If there really is an opening for diversity of intention and input in this neck of the woods, then there’s also a potential calling for critics up for grabs: the one in which we finally patrol the border between technique and essence in the art that emerges, and put the screws on it with something more effective than blank verse.

It’s more than 20 years since Scott Bukatman pointed out that female comics characters were becoming more free by the minute – free to be as musculinized and armoured as all the men. He thought that the muscles of Image Comics female heroes were part of the body-building culture lurking behind superheroes in general, but in modern films it’s always the myth of redemptive violence that’s exerting the magnetic pull. When Wonder Woman strides into the no man’s lands of World War One, she hasn’t had to bounce back from the kind of unmanning castration scenarios that a male’s journey would have involved by that point – no Mel Gibson martyr she – and Gal Gadot’s frown of determination is so sweetly guileless that it’s probably one reason she was cast. But how different exactly would the sound and vision at that point be if she were male, armed to the teeth and taking out the trash? The electric cello lick that Hans Zimmer and Tina Guo created for Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman makes my fillings hurt – at best a motif, at worst an example of film music no longer even attempting to do the things it used to do – but when applied to punch-ups in the middle of World War One, content has mugged form and tipped it into a dumpster.

It’s no accident that Connie Nielsen, even weighted down by wig and dead animal, and Robin Wright, trapezius muscles bare and tensing, are treated to some decent stabs at characterisation, while Elena Anaya’s scarred brittle evil genius gets nothing at all. Any hint of thematic interest in her destroyed femininity, in her encased body versus the Amazons letting it all hang out, would have gone a long way to bolster the film’s ambitions; but redemptive violence prefers its villainy to be rote, so Dr Poison’s is no more colourful than that of her male ally played by Danny Huston, tripping balls on mystic nitrous.

Above all, and just as in Pirates, some stubborn conservatism reveals itself in characters stuck with a crisis of identity rather than a crisis of principle. Wonder Woman loses the original version’s role as a proselytising ambassador for female authority, and instead gets lumbered with being the latest Chosen One off the production line – the dreariest destiny modern cinema to offer, although one that says a bunch about modern society.

Students of form vs. content had to make do with PowerPoint slides until last year, when Alex Proyas made Gods of Egypt. The critical recoil from Gods of Egypt settles any argument about the way that irony now weighs upon an IP-driven pop-culture like a lead apron. Deliberately engineer the irony away, and everyone loses their bearings. Go even further, go all the way into whimsy and pick Bryan Brown to play the god Osiris and have him practically say G’day, and everyone loses their minds. Élodie Yung sashays through Gods of Egypt with all the agency and self-determination and sexual advocacy that the Nile Delta can hold, as free as the air, and she does so speaking dialogue by the same writers who scripted Dracula Untold and The Last Witch Hunter, words made of meaningless rubble – and that right there is the difference between form and content. No cultural-industrial complex in the world is going to allow Gods of Egypt again for a while, or let Élodie Yung play Wonder Woman, although she was apparently considered. Some considerably different film that might have been. If Yung had been given a musical identity of modernist electrified shredding, it would only be because she charged onto the screen playing it herself before beaning someone with the cello.

(art by Ron Regé, of whose Wonder Woman more here.)

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.