28 May 2021

Naming names

George Caleb Bingham: Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845)George Caleb Bingham: Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845)

First Cow arrives in the UK a fairly bemusing five months after being labelled the third best film of 2020 by a UK magazine, a situation which works to the advantage of no one and has the aroma of bovine byproduct.

Kelly Reichardt’s slow cinema story of frontier opportunism and cookery repeats the very solid observation that the American Dream is built on theft and unfairness; on unhappiness (for someone else). There was some muttering when the film came out in the US about it telegraphing this goal, but you might idly ponder how much of this complaint is sparked by the carefully inconclusive view of the characters doing the thieving, two sort-of sympathetic males from different cultures who want the best for each other but don’t show an exorbitant amount of concern for everyone else. One is persuaded by the other to leave a baby unsupervised; but straight afterwards when left at a loose end in his new friend’s shack just starts idly tidying the place up. (Elsewhere two ladies of equally different cultures chat amiably as soon as their menfolk leave the room.) A sullen youth holding the pettiest of grievances loiters around, looking a lot like nemesis. What could be more America than taking on the smelly men of the Oregon Territory and getting clobbered by a stranger’s wounded male pride?

Reichardt’s style always raises some questions about realism while also being as mannered and manufactured as a quartz watch. But the least you could say is that she’s interested in form as well as content, and in this case the form comes directly out of American visual rather than verbal traditions. Signs of that drift by from time to time, river traffic and trappers’ boats with dogs on the prow.

Cue Robert Hughes in American Visions on the everyday oddity of George Caleb Bingham’s painting of the same trade on a different river, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri:

The carrier of American identity had been Nature; Bingham brought in a much more specific documentary interest in distinctively American social life. By locking his observations into a formal architecture with its highly determined poses and theatrical range of expression, Bingham sought to name America.”

You could put Kelly Reichardt in there and not be wrong.

Films
12 May 2021

Dr. Irony’s Irony Iron

No point blaming Tarantino for everything (apart from Death Proof which is still criminal) but what is this if not a comic caught in the eternal wake of the Tarantino speedboat from decades ago, its characters rolled up into their own talk like a poster squeezed into a tube?

Self-propelled one-man neo-noir factory S. Craig Zahler, whose films are wordy but not that wordy, has made a graphic novel motivated apparently by pure affection for the comics form, and to say the least struggles to get the words and pictures to cooperate for a greater good. Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus, with a title that waves a big neon sign saying Grindhouse, is clearly keen on Benjamin Marra comics and look here’s Marra doing the title cards for a film Zahler scripted…

Zahler…Zahler… …and Marra…and Marra

…but Zahler’s words and pictures cohabit like an unhappy couple on the outs, puffing up a hill. There’s also the inevitable Irony Issue, a briar patch Marra’s comics swan-dive into constantly without puffing any more than he intends, and which Zahler himself has sometimes made lighter work of than this—assuming of course that Dr. Divinus is intended to be ironic in the first place, the alternative being the kind of scenario that leaves critics breathing into a paper bag.

What would light work even look like at this point, a sincere un-ironic comic of pop-culture cop-culture horror starting from over here and aiming for over there? Even allowing for the not-left politics that Zahler habitually leans towards (the working class don’t get very far in Dr. Divinus but they don’t do anything about it either, apart from the one who becomes a criminal and makes a fortune), there’s also the small matter of a road well travelled. Sexcastle from Kyle Starks came out years ago to mock (tribute, it says here, but the distinction might be moot) the kind of B-movies that became A-movies in the 1990s, while Dr. Divinus is intended as a tribute (likewise, same) to pre-Code horror comics from an era before that, a story of the city as a cave into which predators can crawl”—Christopher Sorrentino’s phrase about Death Wish, said in admiration, and they don’t make them like that any more.

When everything that already exists is just data to play with, the results might be admiring but are always a game. Dr. Divinus and Sexcastle play the same game and end up looking similar, and looking” in this case has to skirt around the fact that Zahler is by his own admission drawing as a fan of comics art rather than a comics artist. You could skirt a bit less and say that there are fanzines containing art which asks fewer questions than this, questions such as who is that person over there and what are they doing exactly.

A review of Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus and why polite art goes round in circles maybe for The Comics Journal website. Several far more favourable reviews of it are available elsewhere, which is another topic entirely.

See also: Film directors writing comics
And also: The S. Craig Zahler Way of Death
And yet also: Death Wish 2, Critics 0

Art
27 March 2021

Day job

Film directors writing comics:

Madi: Once Upon a Time in the Future (2020)
Duncan Jones with Alex De Campi and in this bit James Stokoe


Noah (2011 and 2014)
Darren Aronofsky with Niko Henrichon


Eucharist Sun
Alexandro Jodorowsky with JH Williams III (2002)


Southland Tales (2006)
Richard Kelly with Brett Weldele


The Fountain (2005)
Darren Aronofsky with Kent Williams


Trip to Tulum (1989)
Federico Fellini with Milo Manara


Anibal 5 (1966)
Alexandro Jodorowsky with Manuel Moro (not shown here)

Films Art
21 March 2021

Formerly known as the Justice League

Darkseid being dictator (Zack Snyder’s Justice League)Darkseid being dictator (Zack Snyder’s Justice League) Darkseid reading dictator (JLI #21 1988)Darkseid reading dictator (JLI #21 1988)

For Sight & Sound a brief look at a lengthy thing, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, in which the plot hinges on the bad guys forgetting where they left the car keys and Amber Heard’s Mera now speaks in Heard’s best English accent even in the bits that are re-used from the first Justice League when she did not. These and similar mysteries just seem willed into existence by the man with his name in the title, unhindered by committee. In 2013 Snyder had Superman kill a man and after fans were vocally unhappy he had Batman kill a few dozen, so if anyone is telling him to stick to the safe data points he’s apparently escorting them back out to the car park. I didn’t bother pointing out the most noteworthy fact, which is the upbeat reception currently being given to Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Have the mutterings of discontent over the Marvel movies reached the point where something cast in a very different form couldn’t be downplayed any longer? Was everyone really that keen to take Joss Whedon out for a walk?

I wrote about Snyder’s films before and on the whole I like them more now than then, especially the one in which Mark Zuckerberg storms the US Capitol; but ZSJL has enough character in almost every minute to justify the extreme number of them you end up sitting through, and enough inventive imagery to send the Russo brothers off to draft a new hot-air Directors Statement. Snyder’s body-consciousness, about his characters and his actors and ultimately about himself, isn’t discussed enough—presumably people can’t get past 300 which is built almost entirely out of the stuff—but attempts to claim he’s a man of Misogynist Cinema sound thinner than ever in the face of this four hours of newly submitted evidence for the defence.

You should resist psychoanalysing film directors but sometimes they walk in and lay on the couch themselves. I said in S&S that the coda stands for your Forever War of choice, with a conversation between Batman and the Joker specifically about dead adopted children, after which Bruce Wayne awakens to be told that no relief is in sight. After four hours the look on Ben Affleck’s face at this point is not the heroic-jawline with the Hans-Zimmer-D-minor chord of fate, but instead looks like relief, acquiescence, acceptance. He practically shrugs. Even the Forever War is a way forward of a sort. Films constantly show characters surpassing grief, closing the door on it, moving on. A more complex message, of not shaking trauma off at all but finding a way to go on living in the company of it anyway, is a mark of some form of adult art.

Adam Hughes art from JLA #32 (1989)Adam Hughes art from JLA #32 (1989)

Irony of ironies that it falls to the Justice League to receive this cinematic boost of weightiness from the far end of the periodic table, when it was also the Justice League which proved that you could channel the rhythms of peak US TV comedy if you hired the right craftsmen, a whole 1980s DC Comics franchise in which entirely serious plots were elevated by being discussed in voices from Cheers and Batman’s bat-ears were squashed by his hazmat suit, while somewhere a young Joss Whedon glimpsed a future full of ironic chatter.

Films
17 March 2021

Milligan and Hewlett

Peter Milligan and Jamie Hewlett in The Warhol Dimension
Hewligan’s Haircut in 2000AD #703 (1990)

Art
15 March 2021

Big data

Terry & Rachel Dobson achieving more life with pens than Warners could with $200 millionTerry & Rachel Dobson achieving more life with pens than Warners could with $200 million

Zack Snyder’s Justice League looms ahead like the Cirque du Soleil performing The Book of Revelation. But first:

The purpose of Wonder Woman 1984 probably seemed clearer to the board of AT&T Incorporated than to anyone watching the film. Finding things to praise about it—there are a couple—has to coexist with pointing out that it might be one of the worst written films ever to receive such high-profile attention, and critics urging people to see it—there are a couple of those too—just proves how other factors now weigh down the simple job of telling people when a film is held together with string.

We are up to our necks in an era where fantasy films think a story must be just a list of data points, but WW84 does the whole dubious system a service by showing all of its working out and deletions. Witness: Diana tells a story about a suit of golden winged armour used when a legendary Amazon did a 300 Spartans routine against impossible odds. Come the climax she specifically detours to fetch it—before wearing it to fight four blokes and a cat for two minutes. Because the armour is irrelevant. What actually matters is that it’s a visual data point from a 25-year-old comic painted by Alex Ross and that the data point is ticked, the whole machine tipping over to poke the knowledge and dopamine receptors of a subset of a subset of the audience. You assume this rotten Easter egg came from co-writer Geoff Johns, and if so then the time has probably come to lock the comics writers out of the shipyards now and let actual screenwriters build these oil tankers, if they must be built at all. (WandaVision, just concluded on TV, looked as if it was playing this game a different way with its sitcom callouts but capitulated at the end into the compulsory big battles, greenscreen cloud monsters casting all the usual animated lightning, and the pop-culture nods were just superfluous fluff.)

WW84 says that people have to pull together as a collective and get real, which by the standards of the Disney Industrial Complex is practically socialist. Everyone gets to wish for what they want and it’s all fun and games until the nuclear missiles rise in the background. As with the X-Men franchise, one character pleading with the better nature of another remains the strongest sight these digital punch-ups can realistically go for, but all the other plot elements going nowhere pile up in a heap. Diana is (vaguely, apparently) immortal, but why this woman of all women needs to resurrect one man of all men in order to jump him is never pondered. One old photo seems to show her involved in liberating the Nazi camps, a philosophical dot the film never joins back up to, although the nationality of the actor comes to mind unbidden. It does when she rides a missile fired at some Arab children too, along with wondering if anyone really looked at this stuff on the page.

But all that is content, and as usual it’s the form that really drives the hangover. Ever since Captain Marvel a realisation has finally hung in the air that this form, these specific kinds of sights and sounds and rhythms and music from the Hans Zimmer anvil chorus, are at best a small-c and probably a capital-C Conservative broadcasting service whose calculations were increasingly unsubtle as the strains in the mechanism started to build up even before Covid arrived. Now that it has and things like WW84 are rocking up in your living room, surely it’s the discrepancy, the let-down, the big void between the implied humanist message of the data points and the empty impersonal way they are actually delivered, the colossal overemphasis on prosaic repetition of the same material when that material is such small-scale acting and myth-less visual non-flair, that sits at the root of the problem, one huge all-encompassing Irony in this the age of irony that just cuts viewers adrift. And then WW84 ends with a scene in which Lynda Carter walks on, the film irising down and down onto one last small insular and Forty Five Year Old data point which oh look happened to reappear on HBO Max at the same time as the film, disappearing down into its own cells like it’s Fantastic Voyage.

Coincidence, or not, that We Can Be Heroes, the latest of Robert Rodriguez’s young-adult films for the young at heart made for roughly the cost of the WW84 catering, has a similar dig at stupid presidents and a big central message of taking collective responsibility for sorting out the planet—which in Rodriguez’s case means letting the young rehabilitate the damaged Earth while anyone over 35 just gets out of the way. All of which breezes by in a candy Android app store that makes WW84 look as dulled as a something dug up from an Athenian flea market.

Films