27 March 2021
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
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)
21 March 2021
Formerly known as the Justice League
Darkseid being dictator (Zack Snyder’s Justice League) 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.
Formerly Known As The Justice League (2003)
Irony of ironies that it falls to the Justice League to receive this cinematic boost of weightiness, when it was also the Justice League which proved that you could actually replicate the nimble wit of peak US TV in comic form if you hired the right craftsmen, a whole DC Comics franchise in which serious plots were discussed in voices from Frasier and somewhere a young Joss Whedon glimpsed a future full of ironic chatter.
17 March 2021
Milligan and Hewlett
Peter Milligan and Jamie Hewlett in The Warhol Dimension
Hewligan’s Haircut in 2000AD #703 (1990)
15 March 2021
Terry & 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.
30 January 2021
Revere: Tarot card XII
In 1991 Revere was good news if you wanted 2000AD to look over the Channel at slick painted European things like Métal Hurlant and less great if you wanted something dirty and subversive. But since the door had been found it would have been dim not to go through it. From 30 years further down the time tunnel the lake of overused acrylics in which this road petered out can be seen in the distance, but Revere has the fire of an early adopter, John Smith and Simon Harrison calling for revolution in a Britain rebuilt as a Tory machine for so long that the whole edifice was cracking. All Revere’s LSD and Tarot business is like Alejandro Jodorowsky coming down a crackly phone line, although I was surprised to find that it’s still considered in some quarters to be beyond the WTF threshold. It’s not that hard to see what’s going on: Smith is thinking about standard esoteric history and Steve Ditko comics and Harrison is thinking about modernity and Salvador Dalí among others.
The modernity now is in the publishing plan since Rebellion is putting out Revere as digital-only, which might be a zero-sum game. Decoding Harrison’s art on an iPad screen, rather than on paper after a printing mechanism has done its best to reproduce the images properly with smoke rising from the cogs, can only be a shortcut to the intended enlightenment. And they never work.
I reviewed the digital re-release of Revere for the Tripwire web site.
The Avenging World: global storming
Steve Ditko’s fingerprints are all over Revere once the character sets off on self-improvement, and doubly so after reading Zack Kruse’s new book on the artist Mysterious Travellers—cunning title, Fellow Travellers being a phrase from the opposite end of the political Earth to Ditko. Proving that I was completely wrong after Ditko’s death to think that the existing biographies would be mostly unmodified, but completely right that lazy political labels stuck on an artist have to be addressed for their accuracy at some point, Kruse grapples with how Ditko’s mind materialised in the art, in the figures and plots and pen lines themselves. Which means defining what that mind actually thought and not just repeating what everyone always says it thought. After carefully claiming the word Liberal for one aspect of Ditko’s position rather than any label from further over to the right, Kruse lowers himself into the Ditko mines on a rope.
Kruse’s book goes on my shelves next to ones by Marc Singer and Brannon Costello as accessible books by scholars about comics which not only set sail into culture and politics too, but gently call for higher standards in comics criticism (not so gently in Singer’s case - it’s the whole book). This isn’t the only reason to think film criticism could do with a few comparable holistic and critical texts right now, books suggesting that some things about criticism have to stay measurably objectively valuable to people outside rather than unmeasurably subjectively good for self-expression or a formerly paying trade will become an unpaid pastime. But it is a pretty big one.
Lipstick Traces is on that shelf too, a book about punk and music and artists kicking the doors in at regular intervals like a sunspot cycle. A dimension in which Steve Ditko and Guy Debord overlapped would be more explosive than any cosmic punch-up Ditko drew, but there’s the Avenging World against scraps of newsprint and pulp, looking like something cobbled together with paper mache backstage at Cabaret Voltaire, Spiegelgasse 1, before being thrown out as too easy to understand.
22 January 2021
Quo Vadis Aida: men at work
For Sight & Sound online and in the March 2021 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.