Never mind the dybbuks


For Critic’s Notebook three films seen online from Tribeca 2022:

  • Endangered is a HBO documentary about four liberal journalists currently gathering bruises from run-ins with politicians or the cops. Somewhere there are novel ways to interrogate this consequence of the cultural moment but this film opts for some familiar ones, until even that reliable old stand-by a derelict printing press puts in an appearance to deliver its traditional line of Look Upon My Inks And Despair. At some point radical texts need to propose radical solutions, or they’re not actually being very radical.

  • Sophia is an uncomfortable documentary about a man with a vision of what artificial intelligence might be capable of. You do wonder whether either the doc’s makers or its subject or both pondered pulling the plug.

  • Attachment is a modest Jewish ghost story with modest resources that looks like Covid might have enforced some added modesty on top. The question of Cinema Film Or Netflix Original does crop up while you’re watching. But it has a sparky opening with that rarest of things a joke by the composer, and David Dencik prowls about talking darkly about dybbuks and looking vexed by the goyim as if his fedora weighed three kilos.

July 6, 2022 Films

Over the moon

Tigers: shoots…Tigers: shoots…

In the print edition of Sight & Sound some words about Tigers, where the pressures at Inter Milan’s youth academy nearly destroy a teenage footballer as shorthand for the way professional sport tips young people into its grinding machine like granules from a hopper.

Whether Martin Bengtsson, whose autobiographical story this is, was exactly the individual depicted here is impossible to know, and actor Erik Enge hints at Bengtsson’s mental state in twitchy ways that might not be out of place in a more stylised film of fictional violence. By the end A Person Is Running Emotionally And Music Swells has put in an appearance too, somehow now the approved shorthand for emotional climax and spreading across scripts like rust. And most of Martin’s troubles resemble peer-group pressures that could have brewed up in dramas about teenagers elsewhere.

But Tigers at least puts money and Inter Milan’s balance sheet at the root of Martin’s troubles, which if not a newsflash does draw a line under the way this story was treated in the past. Everything in Tigers beams in from the anti-matter universe compared to the glazed perma-tan of 2005’s Goal! where more or less the same story was Hollyoaks-ed into orbit, with young footballers reclining in bathtubs full of cash with Anna Friel while the sport’s actual golden gods cameoed to add their stamp of approval. Goal! Part 1 was made by Danny Cannon and Goal! Part 2 was Jaume Collet-Serra and then Goal! Part 3 was a demure thing that looked like it cost fifty dollars, but two out of three isn’t bad. Tigers and Goal! are separated by a lot of cultural business and half the men’s cosmetics industry, but mostly separated by 2008 and the crash of the markets and the impossibility now of optimism about anything much, certainly not about teenage life.

Goal! Part 2: …scoresGoal! Part 2: …scores

June 13, 2022 Films

The paranoid style

For The Comics Journal a review of Project MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs and the CIA Volume 1, a book on my radar ever since its creator Stewart K. Moore drew a Defoe story in 2000AD and unleashed some of the most idiosyncratic art that the comic has run in years.

Readers of Erik Davis’s book High Weirdness can nod wisely when bits and pieces of the early 1970s now bubble up in our current cultural moment, which is happening all over the place, but Moore’s approach to the CIAs adventures in mind control and various related smoking craters does raise the issue of how exactly you might draw that era for a comic. It’s not quite fair to say his answer is to throw the artistic kitchen sink at it—the Defoe story suggested that Moore keeps a stock of sinks to hand—but the book has some vaulting visual ambition before anything related to the story gets involved, and the energy of the layouts and figure work is unrelenting.

And unrelentingly cartoony. Conspiracy comics don’t all have to look like the Bill Sienkiewicz section of Brought to Light—cut-up fragments and jagged ink strokes and portraiture and photo-montage and a general air of mild modernism, pages that might be glued to the wall of a radical cell—although that kind of agitprop is the familiar form. But not, it seems, for SK Moore, who draws political conspiracy somewhere between Mad magazine and Guy Peellaert, a thoroughly physical as well as mental process, not an uneasy feeling but your actual shitshow. The walking moral vacuums on the Government payroll busily putting LSD into each other’s tea for a laugh are cartooned and lampooned in ways which leave their menace and its implications fully intact, the Keystone Cops apparently given the keys to the Parallax Test.

The Bill Sienkiewicz version: your tax dollars spent by villains

The SK Moore version: your tax dollars spent by clowns

April 8, 2022 Art

Pasta la vista

The Thief Collector: Ocean’s TwoThe Thief Collector: Ocean’s Two

For Critic’s Notebook four films seen online from SXSW:

  • The Thief Collector which seems to say that you should think the worst of quirky eccentric people and doesn’t do much to clarify if it’s being serious.

  • To Leslie which unleashes Andrea Riseborough on an award-worthy part but also says that destitution is an individual mistake that you tackle by pulling yourself together. At this point it might take a small cultural revolution to produce a film able to get its head around a large societal revolution for characters like Leslie, but critics not melting into tears at the sight of individual agony in films paralleling the view of the average fiscal conservative could be a start.

  • The Cow which hinges on Winona Ryder feeling old and other people agreeing with her, which seems a stretch.

  • And Spin Me Round. From the people who brought you The Little Hours, which I liked fine, another Tuscan farce with characters you might want to shove into the Arno. Or darker than farce, since it has people convincing themselves of something parallel to one particular in-the-news alt-right conspiracy theory involving casual dining establishments, and leaves it up to you if the film is mocking the theory or the people. But most films wouldn’t go near either. One film magazine has sniffed at a whimsical Muzak-esque score,” which means no one knows who Pino Donaggio is any more or detects what the result of hiring him might be.

The needle of the politic-o-meter settles over to the right in a couple of those, and Spin Me Rounds push-back is carefully ambiguous; but a festival that mints its own NFTs in a sponsored storefront won’t be the place to look for agitprop. Even so, The Thief Collectors documentary wander into a tabloid frame of mind where eccentricity and Other-ness are to be distrusted seems pretty wayward. What is that mock poster up there doing exactly, by turning a pair of middle-aged teachers who aren’t here to speak for themselves into Ocean’s Two? Faced with long dead and totally inscrutable subjects, the film is so keen to cover all possible reasons to find them entertainingly suspicious that it ends up seeing if anyone’s got a spare murder lying around that it can use for the purpose.

March 27, 2022 Films

Life as a dog

You Won’t Be AloneYou Won’t Be Alone

Sundance Film Festival 2022 round up:

For Sight & Sound reviews of:

  • 892 a serious drama with John Boyega taking hostages

  • When You Finish Saving The World a slightly barbed but mostly cozy dramedy about old Leftists and their TikTok children and yes OK but it’s not exactly Another World Is Possible.

  • You Won’t Be Alone a grim and Grimm Macedonian fable about sex and motherhood and the effects of whispered voice-overs in a cosmos where Terrence Malick films exist

For Critics Notebook a big bunch of things including:

You Won’t Be AloneYou Won’t Be Alone

You Won’t Be Alone has a lot of shots like that one up there and like this one here with a breathy narration of whispered spiritual mottoes, and if you wanted to think it was actually mocking its own art-house noodling then there isn’t much in the film to stop you.

It keeps threatening to grind to a halt; but then something else fantastical and silly will happen - like the main character turn into a dog and observe a group of fertile young men in a circle jerk or the voice-over utter some carefully calculated incantation like Are women wasps?” - and the film just keeps loping along. We are in a period of films that skirt around self-parody without seeming to realise it (The Souvenir Part II is practically a mockumentary and that won all the awards) but this one knows the territory that Angela Carter used to operate in, not without humour herself, and there isn’t much wrong with that.

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power might be wrong about a lot of things or it might not, under its 1950s pulp novel title. But that’s not as uncomfortable as the way it states opinions as facts for one hundred minutes, cites evidence in ways that wouldn’t pass unquestioned in an argument over a bar tab, and states outright that you yes you are not responsible for your own behaviour towards women because you’ve been brainwashed by the Media Industrial Complex. You don’t have to be a raving Centrist to notice when the tone of voice employed by one side is indistinguishable from the tone of voice used by the other, and to be somewhat dismayed. When the progressive Left returns to blaming art for people’s behaviour then it seems we are once again back in the bottom half of the hour.

The nearest thing to a philosophy I’ve got these days remains that Robert Anton Wilson was right: actually you are responsible, responsible for a baseline scepticism that accommodates empathy and compassion and processes evidence when it comes your way and is capable of shifting. That it’s up to you to be a good person so you had better work out a method to keep your bearings and get on with it.

January 29, 2022 Films

Vacate the premises

Farewell, Brindavoine: early Jacques Tardi from 1972 but peering at it looking for unrefined skill is wasted effort. A fully formed cartoonist is at work, World War I already installed at the centre of Tardi’s art to darken Brindavoines slapstick chase into It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Bloodbath. In the middle interlude the author turns up, complaining bitterly about the inability of storytellers to have any beneficial influence on the world and drawn like Dr. Phibes’s decaying cousin; a fairly abyssal spark of pessimism from an expert at putting nuance into that particular emotion.

I didn’t put this year’s reprint of Farewell, Brindavoine on my list for The Comics Journal ’s huge behemoth two-dozen-contributor round-up of recommended 2021 comics, but these were on there:

What is Britain - Simon MoretonWhat is Britain - Simon Moreton

Zig Zag - Will SweeneyZig Zag - Will Sweeney

Laab #2 - Ronald Wimberly et alLaab #2 - Ronald Wimberly et al

The Twelve Sisters of the Never-Ending Castle - Shintaro KagoThe Twelve Sisters of the Never-Ending Castle - Shintaro Kago

Monsters - Barry Windsor-SmithMonsters - Barry Windsor-Smith

The Grande Odalisque - Ruppert et Mulot et VivèsThe Grande Odalisque - Ruppert et Mulot et Vivès

Mysterious Travelers - Zack KruseMysterious Travelers - Zack Kruse

Son of Tomahawk - Matt SenecaSon of Tomahawk - Matt Seneca

Most of these are either solid radical comics or about the life of the mind, which might amount to roughly similar things these days even if they don’t take the same road.

The exposure of social ills or injustice, the satirizing or demystification of institutions and leaders, the recording of conflict or disturbance, the exhortation to radical violence or non-violent revolution.

as said by Amos Vogel in Film As A Subversive Art, now handily just republished so there’s a book you can wave at anyone who asks what everyone used to agree upon. Not everyone does agree any more, but at some point talking about anything other than the basics isn’t really talking at all.

See also: On Monsters and Third Reich vibes
On Will Sweeney’s previous Grok for TCJ
A bit more on Sweeney’s new Zig Zag.
And also: Robert Hughes on identity politics doing nothing for art.

January 3, 2022 Art