3 March 2020
Enter the gnarly dragon
For The Comics Journal a review of Assassin Child, the latest of Tatsunori Tawaraya’s comics to appear in English from Hollow Press, and another of the books Tarawaya is creating on scratchboard using very fine blades and apparently all the patience in the world.
The tabloid-size silver-on-black result is likely to catch the eye of anyone wandering close to your coffee table, although next to some of the William Burroughs cut-up scatology in Tawaraya’s older pen and ink comics—Hollow Press has put out a 400-page slab of those too for comparison—Assassin Child swaps vice for decor, less medical trauma and more outer-space operatics. The publisher is name-dropping the melting forms of artist Mat Brinkman alongside Tawaraya, not least since it publishes both of them; but Assassin Child seems nearer to a Japanese tradition of mischievous yōkai and doomy cosmology and woodblock prints, filtered in this case through the energies of a man whose band once supported The Slits.
You could spend a happy hour poring over the art and wondering if the sheer time-consuming craft involved in Tawaraya’s scratchboard books either ruled him out as an outlaw artist or ruled him in, or how rebellious the end results actually are. But while you’re thinking about it, all that snaking silver circuitry is worming into your retinas.
2 March 2020
In the April print issue of Sight & Sound some cross words about Bad Boys for Life, a franchise emerging from the freezer after 17 years to chance its arm at the tables just because the tables are still there. Michael Bay started the Bad Boys machine and was immediately not the answer to any question I personally was asking, and two decades later 6 Underground on Netflix looks like him settling a few old scores with everyone who told him to tone the excess down a bit. But at least excess is an option if you start from where he started. Bad Boys 3, just like Rambo: Last Blood, is so boxed in by obligatory pop-culture messaging that it can’t even become excessive. Or match the spirit of its own original film, since irony now strangles everything from the Cinema of Cartoon Cruelty before it even gets going. Meanwhile the myth of redemptive violence trundles endlessly on, in this case allowing two generations of males to find redemption by cartoonishly obliterating a devil woman from both their lives. The film is, of course, a smash.
6 Underground: hyper-real
No one will ever know if 6 Underground is a smash, since its viewing figures are just data etched into a memory crystal somewhere in the Netflix AI; but it makes Bad Boys 3 look like a wheezing grandpa halfway towards a personal best marathon time of ten hours. As Tucker Stone pointed out, the distinction to be made is whether a film wants to supply its audience with information or with experience. Superhero films collapse under the tonnage of constant information, while 6 Underground junks the stuff in favour of colour-saturated cross-cut velocity, marshalled apparently by PT Barnum on a bender. This idea has flickered around before, but when something like Crank or Gamer had a go at it they were stuck with being grungy lo-fi farce, which was all that the digital workflows could conjure at the time. Plus they were strenuously masculine, and any commentary on 6 Underground needs to discuss how Bay deploys the least macho bunch of males he has ever bothered with, and two distinctly un-paper-doll females; coitus has never been more interruptus in a Bay film before. Freed to go bonkers by Netflix’s open chequebook—and by some customised RED digital cameras apparently built to specs yelled down the phone by Bay himself—6 Underground is also freed from being lo-fi anything. It’s the first full-on accelerationist thing of the Twenties, the raw materials of a heist film getting smashed together by the Large Hadron Collider.
A Hidden Life: hyper-real-er
Seemingly somewhere off in another dimension sits A Hidden Life, a major result from the research lab where Terrence Malick has been wondering what a cinema of expressionism might actually look like, and seeing what happens if you bet the house on romanticism rather than reality. Having already pondered how to handle questions of personal faith and regret in other films, Malick finally tackles the Nazis head-on, spotting immediately that the only meaningful way to do so is through questions of personal faith and regret. The director’s oscillating low-level camera has driven some viewers up the wall for years, but anyone inclined to think that he’s been getting under the skin of his characters that way might find that he’s now even closer to the poetry of earth than ever, by connecting it to the humans rising out of that clay in the first place.
You might have to note that Malick can’t actually do anything much with the Nazis themselves, who turn into the usual gurning dingbats when regarded by that fish-eye lens from somewhere around floor level. One of them is glimpsed screaming in his own office, presumably tormented beyond words; Waldemar Kobus from Black Book and many other places does a little jig of amusement, presumably not tormented at all. But they aren’t the point; and neither is Hitler, whose voice echoes across the Austrian landscape at dusk, possibly not a strictly necessary metaphor. The point is the man they are all escorting into the cosmos at the business end of a death warrant, and the potency of a film in which he does the difficult thing because it’s the right thing but not the violent thing can hardly be underestimated in a system where Messrs. Smith and Stallone take out the trash in a moral vacuum of cod xenophobic panic. The film criticism nonsense klaxon went off when someone complained that the film failed to show why Franz Jägerstätter would resist the order to read out a Nazi oath and effectively throw his life away; and it’s true that Malick neglects to show Jägerstätter discussing the lives of the saints out loud or making a helpful speech about his situation to one of his sheep. Instead he’s just shown as being in touch with his Christianity and his own place within it, depicted that way through the manner in which he looks at his neighbours and his mother and his church and his wife and children stood next to it. From there, what other decision could he reach?
1 March 2020
For Critics Notebook a look at Color Out of Space, Richard Stanley’s first feature film in 27 years. Since the last one was Dust Devil, still safely in my personal Top Ten, it would have been tough to hit the ground running as fast as that at the first attempt back in the arena. I’m not sure there’s much true overlap between HP Lovecraft’s Great Cosmic Downers and Stanley’s more humane beliefs about the evil that men do either; but he’s one of cinema’s true esoteric seekers, and they don’t get work often enough any more. Plus he’s already wondered about the mysteries of meteorites while making a film about the Holy Grail and the Nazis.
More on Dust Devil and Hardware from the archives. It takes three data points to make a pattern, so those three parallel opening credit sequences now stand revealed as a set.
23 February 2020
Accidentally admitting you’re dubious about video-essay film criticism is a quick route into an argument, but let’s at least agree that the field is still waiting for a Mozart—someone able to use it more for free expression than just dry description. Or at least for some way to stop the dry description being all the same analysis flowcharts that film criticism took from English Literature departments in the first place. New disciplines are always spurred into life by the creation of new media, but at some point they have to develop new methods as well rather than wing it with whatever they’ve got.
You would go straight from argument to punch-up by suggesting that the academic approach is thriving because many essayists are traditional conservative humanities thinkers using platforms supported by public money—and that TikTok might like a word about relying on a media studies outlook at a time when the best place to study media is outdoors. TikTok is designed to terrify any passing old-timers and rightly so, but a full-throttle remix criticism may well steamroller straight over scholars’ attempts to put limits on what counts as good art in the first place, so the sooner the better.
Buried in all of this is a weird retreat from film criticism being a written thing at all, as if the tired old cliché that film critics just wanted to make films all along might actually be true. Something has to account for the lack of a meaningful print-based fanzine culture bubbling up within film criticism from writers prepared to have their unstoppable free expression flyposted onto the walls of cinemas if need be, since that culture hasn’t died off yet elsewhere.
Comics criticism is every bit as beleaguered as the film version, but there the UK profit-what-profit sector has lately produced two issues of progressive comics criticism in Critical Chips, while US output includes an ongoing authentic fanzine in Bubbles Zine and another that’s very close called Comic Aht, plus a self-published selection of Matt Seneca’s comics essays, which was at least as significant an intervention in his chosen field as any individual film critic has carried out lately, an item made more vital rather than less by arriving as a printed pamphlet.
The same sector also produced LAAB, an art newspaper backed to the tune of $30,000 on Kickstarter combining criticism, comics and cultural commentary in a full-size broadsheet item which contains an invitation from the creators to paste pages of it around your neighbourhood like guerrilla graffiti if you fancy. (LAAB #4 also contains a piece of solid film criticism about the Alien franchise, and an article on meme culture that would be directly relevant to creators of video essays.)
We’ve chosen to focus on print rather than digital for a variety of reasons. Physical objects have a life of their own, independent from any proprietary platform or device. Once you lose them into the world, anything can happen. They can be passed from hand to hand, disassembled, stolen, pasted up, reconfigured. A newspaper can blow into your face as you walk down a windy street; this is in fact our ideal delivery mechanism for LAAB.
Which is another way of saying that video-essays are bad at audience participation and hardly ever feel like anything being passed from hand to hand, both of which are part of arts criticism’s purpose. Some kind of rift has opened up if the natural energies that could spark a work like LAAB in film journalism are instead being diverted into clip-shows complaining about the editing of Bohemian Rhapsody, clips apparently hoping that criticism’s destiny in a time of utter crisis lies in a lecture theatre, rather than on the street outside.
12 February 2020
Pazuzu a Go-Go
For the Solrad site, an article about The Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, or at least those first four of Jacques Tardi’s stories that Fantagraphics republished in English before the series went on hiatus. I have a soft spot for Luc Besson’s Adèle film, but he didn’t make her the complicated bundle of exasperated irritation that her creator did. The throwaway visual of her sucking her thumb while asleep after she’s spent fifty pages bulldozing through the officious oafs who run French society is the mark of a cartoonist who knows that his character is an innocent heading for a disaster, and it isn’t even her fault.
Tardi’s appalled fascination with World War I as the pit that Europe still hasn’t climbed out of a century later looms over everything he creates, and if Adèle takes a more metaphorical route to the topic than something like It Was the War of the Trenches — which truly has something of Goya about it — then maybe that just makes Adèle’s poignancy sharper. The poilu in the trenches are in hell, but Adèle Blanc-Sec and everyone she encounters while getting caught up in plague cults and mad science and spiritualist ectoplasm in 1912 Paris still has hell to look forward to. The Solrad piece is here.
22 January 2020
Tatsunori Tawaraya, Will Sweeney
The Summon Imp from Tawaraya’s Assassin Child
Ghost Rider from the mind of Will Sweeney