22 September 2020

Roadside panic

For The Comics Journal a review of Crash Course, a righteous and angry activist comic by Woodrow Phoenix which starts off being about bad driving and road rage before taking on some of the most toxic social and law-enforcement fault lines of the moment.

It’s also a solid artistic response to dismay, having been a much shorter book 12 years ago about the first set of those problems which Phoenix has now waded back into in order to process the dire provocations of the second set. It puts anguished narrative captions over drawings of roads from which all signs of cars and humans are absent, with the occasional visual metaphor added for spice; and there is a discussion available about how successfully that works as comics, where the art might not have to serve a wider sequential purpose all the time but has to address that requirement in some form. There might be another discussion about how far the method’s radical intentions stretch in practice. The first things I thought of while reading it were films, the visuals of Patrick Keiller’s laconic Robinson semi-documentaries and the grainy views of the A4 heading west in Radio On; art that’s less urgent than this but maybe more pungent. Art about deserted roads now puts Covid-19 on the reader’s mind as well, a dimension Phoenix could hardly have seen coming. But it’s a hallmark of strong art to be in the right thematic place at the right thematic time to connect with something else entirely.


Also at TCJ, Joseph Stalin’s big robotic wang:

Infamous public domain comics hedonist Octobriana rides again, still all boobs and bazookas, although since this time it’s Jim Rugg at the controls this probably counts as her highest profile outing in a while. Rugg is a mechanic, keen to dismantle whatever car engine he’s interested in to see if he can put some new cogs back inside, and he’s probably happier doing that than embracing the boobs and bazookas bits of Octobriana lore. Which makes his Mtsyry Octobriana comic hugely kinetic and printed with UV-active inks and looking affectionately over its shoulder back at her first 1970s appearance, but maybe also accounts for why the comic doesn’t fancy tapping into her underground and subversive aspects—allowing for the chance that Rugg intends 26 pages of ballistic mayhem from an Amazon in tight snakeskin pants to be inherently underground by nature. Which, well, maybe, but Spain Rodriguez is regrettably not around any longer to wade into that argument. Mtsyry Octobriana is, in any case, an artifact from an artisan and an addition to Octobriana lore, and I’m all in favour of all of those. I reviewed it for The Comics Journal here.

Two more brief things related to Octobriana on this blog here and also here.

Art
18 September 2020

Faces places

Candyman (1992) Bernard Rose/Clive Barker

Savage from 2000AD (2016) Pat Mills/Patrick Goddard

Art
15 September 2020

All our yesterdays

Film viewings:

Not much about Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a surprise for anyone following Céline Sciamma’s humane and compassionate films of queer caution, and neither is that very French thing of staging a costume drama and making it modern through the faces and charisma of the performers involved—see also Catherine Breillat casting Asia Argento in The Last Mistress and driving a spike down through the film’s historical aspects and into the soil of 2007. (Anglophone films are wising up to how hiring Florence Pugh can do the same thing.) In Portraits case Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel both seem sparky enough to have arrived in 1790-ish Brittany direct from Montmartre via Vespa. There’s a specific shot of Merlant sat naked in front of a fire lighting a pipe while illuminated by a couple of candles that’s a pure crystal of one particular gaze and style, and couldn’t be clearer about that style’s country of origin if she was sat on a Tricolore rug.

Christopher Nolan does modernity and tradition in Tenet as he always does, the combo that still makes critics call him chilly” when it’s been clear for several films now that Nolan is a big softie. But unlike those Tenet doesn’t have the element of romantic love at its heart, and suffers. The nearest thing is the pairing of Kenneth Branagh (redoing the dying Russian routine from his own Jack Ryan film, which proves no one watched his Jack Ryan film) and Elizabeth Debicki, a sour squabbling marriage that makes you want to throw both of them overboard from his yacht. Without that solid C-major tonic at the centre, all Tenets thunderous engineering is built on Nolan’s sci-fi nonsense instead. Which this time is nonsense indeed, occurring not in the deeply personal head space of your dreams or the equal moral isolation of outer space, but now all over the place in the real world; a distractingly numbskull notion. I liked the cheapo sci-fi hardware, like Nolan’s chrononauts have to share PPE suppliers with the National Health Service, but the idea of a massive all-out armed conflict between squadrons of time-split armed forces out in the open, Chinooks landing backwards and all, needs more finessing than Nolan gives it, which is basically none. Reviewers keep trying to connect Nolan with James Bond and Stanley Kubrick, but not for the first time it would have been the arrival of Tim Thomerson from the world of Charles Band’s Future Cop that might have fitted.

Modernity everywhere in She Dies Tomorrow, which slaps the decadent mood of the era and the plague-ridden panic of this exact second into the same blender, so that one metaphor fits all. A bunch of Millennials passing along a maybe-virus that convinces them of death’s imminent inescapable arrival and just wandering around emoting about it, a ton of existential unhappiness arriving randomly like the dude delivering your pizza, is sublimely on target. Not mentioned upfront in enough reviews, you feel, is how the same thing works as a merciless parody of indie mumblecore self-indulgence on film and indeed in general, which writer/director Amy Seimetz plays with the stoniest of straight faces. If the mock-noir title wasn’t a clue (Kiss Me Tomorrow or She Dies Deadly would also work), Seimetz presents the title card with a hammer cut and a blast of Mozart Requiem, as effective a cliché as any film maker could go for. There’s a scene in which a man disconnects his sick father’s life support and his girlfriend promptly breaks up with him right there in the hospital room and I was nearly helpless on the floor. Even better, Seimetz visits an expert in leather tanning and when he walks on it’s James Benning, the most unlikely director cameo since that time Scarlett Johansson kicked Jerzy Skolimowski in the knee. Calling it She Dies Laughing might have been nearer the mark.

Films
30 August 2020

Tragedies

Nocturnal: fatherhoodNocturnal: fatherhood

In the October Sight & Sound magazine some words about Nocturnal, a small-scale British working-class film of fatherly anguish. That period when the Edinburgh Film Festival set out to show the best British films not hoovered up by other festivals and just found a glum reservoir of generic council estate aggro heading straight to VOD, usually with the logo of the National Lottery attached like the mark of Cain, produced a long hangover. Nocturnal has more going for it than that—for starters it arrives from Wildcard Distribution and their cheerfully off-kilter catalogue—even if the chewy question of why British leftist films are inclined to deal in individual histories rather than collective stories, and so might not be all that far left at all, still hangs in the air. On the other hand Nocturnal has Cosmo Jarvis, the best Sensitive Brawler currently strolling across British film sets. Having made a note of the actor after Lady Macbeth like everybody else did, I laughed out loud to find him on Netflix doing one day’s work in Hunter Killer on-board Gerard Butler’s submarine, shouting All Stop Aye or similar while someone shone a red lightbulb at him. British actors who look like they’re in it for the experiences all head west eventually, but lucky for the trade that Jarvis is for now still here.


Somewhere else on the British experience spectrum entirely:

Jennifer Lee Moon in Lynn + Lucy: curl up and dyeJennifer Lee Moon in Lynn + Lucy: curl up and dye

Having already seen Rate Me and Burn My Body, two short films by Fyzal Boulifa that would have earned anyone a shot at a feature if they wanted it, I watched Lynn + Lucy distracted only by wondering what viewers coming to it cold might be thinking. That, and being sorry that it didn’t continue Boulifa’s director/star routine with Zehra Zorba, who seems to have inconveniently vanished—inconvenient for those of us who wanted her to charge across British films like Parker Posey with knuckledusters. The film is one individual’s estate story again, but this time with the entire random cruelties of fate rolling towards that individual like a boulder, and Boulifa has a streak of theatrical dead-pan in him that jolts things out of the merely observational and into a kind of passion play charged with static electricity. There’s also some significant camp in Boulifa’s style, a live wire to touch in his particular social melodramas. It would destabilise a lesser talent and capsize a lesser film, but camp is dripped into Lynn + Lucy via pipette by a filmmaker wearing a hazmat suit. Ken Loach’s company Sixteen Films crops up in the credits and the man himself was mentioned in reviews, which might imply that the criticism machine can only hold one model of working class film in mind at a time, since Lynn + Lucy could hardly be less like Ken Loach if Captain America had turned up. I’ve frowned before at the theory that Loach’s style is now particularly successful, and it looks even more dilute compared to the faces and details that Boulifa goes in for. Jennifer Lee Moon, who was superhero-adjacent on TV in Krypton, beams so much baleful intensity into the camera as a beauty salon manager that she might be sending out gamma rays. Imagine Ken Loach trying to get his cinema wrapped around that face. The negative would have melted.

Films
6 August 2020

Grok

Will Sweeney’s latest self-published retrospective art book Grok, reviewed by me for The Comics Journal.

There’s some anti-establishment aggro in Sweeney’s art, behind the simmering colour blocks and those techno-wizards on loan from somewhere adjacent to Jack Kirby, although the revolution might be a slow-burner. Wage slaves do shuffle miserably towards the office under armed guard, colonists blithely pollute other people’s rivers and icons receive epic state funerals at a snail’s pace. But the main political movement would be the Bring A Bottle Party, judging by the plates of wormy foodstuffs served up in restaurants to vaguely pompous first-class diners. The occasional blasts of hedonism are mostly things like those glam rock gods, blissed-out retro hipsters bringing you the hits of some previous recession.

Urgency isn’t really Sweeney’s thing. Next to the panel-busting eccentricities of Sweeney-fan Tetsunori Tawaraya, whose art is as interested in the animal as the vegetable, Sweeney is the calm reporter at hot events, as the old Stuart Davis quote goes. One of those characters turns up in Groks climactic image, observing something that’s either a pagan rite or the local Lady Gaga support act, and looking all set to sell the snaps to the Daily Mail.

Art
28 July 2020

Old timers

Film criticism might once have had to be dragooned into doing PR for Netflix but these days it’s obliged to volunteer, so it gave The Old Guard a warm welcome before the film even arrived and then shuffled awkwardly around how much praise to apply. No point getting tangled up all over again in the market forces compelling films to turn characters from comics into actors talking out loud at all, which has stopped looking like fun for actors and characters alike. Or in pondering how comics do their voodoo, a deeply non-cinematic art of tensions” (the label via Charles Hatfield) and a working class one at that, in which the only voices you hear are in your own head; which is part of why films are a medium for explaining what’s up with other people but comics are better at explaining what’s up with you.

Worrying about the difference between form and content would be a better bet, a discussion The Old Guard contributes to by featuring content that does all the thinking for you and form that sends you outside for a walk. What difference is created, what change is made, what action at a distance occurs, if characters intended to embody progressive qualities are depicted in ways that are indistinguishably standard in framing, editing, speech, acting style, music, colour grading and affect, while they run up against an excruciatingly infantile British villain? Maybe no change at all. Decades after cultural empowerment of mainstream female characters started to mean just making them as armoured and indestructible as the men—in the process putting a dent in the ability of the films to be particularly left-of-centre at all—films still face the choice of whether to deliver information or experience. A drift towards the safer, less radical option might be inevitable once pop-culture voluntarily moves from the margins to the centre, but that shouldn’t stop discussion of what the drift might be doing to the work.

So in a film concerned with content you get The Old Guards Charlize Theron wearing a black vest and a frown, colour graded so that the woman is indistinguishable from the sandstone, iconography of the sensitive strongman that could have come from 1985. And in a film thinking about form you get Adria Arjona striding around 6 Underground in a ludicrous skin-and-fetish-mask combo, digital grading cranked up to match the emissions of a pulsar, images incoming from somewhere around tomorrow.


Form and content, arthouse director department. Netflix also got its chequebook out for Wasp Network, Olivier Assayas’s film about anti-Castro forces in 1990s Florida. No greater admirer than me of Olivier Assayas and of Carlos, one of the great films about active historical change occurring (or not) at the end of a gun; but Wasp Network is less caustic, and most people in it are basically recognisable conflicted human beings rather than committed jihadists.

Castro himself appears via the historical archives, bobbing and weaving—saying yes we ran a spy ring in Miami, wouldn’t you?—which seems a shallower political investigation than you got from ten seconds looking into the eyes of Julia Hummer as the batshit crazy Nada” in Carlos. A weird thing in Wasp Network happens (twice) when an unheralded and unexplained voice over kicks in, arriving in the film as if thrown bodily on from the wings, which has to explain who’s who and what’s occurring before departing back to the ether. Assayas scores these explanations with Wipe Out” by the Surfaris, which considering that he had Carlos the Jackal travel from A to B backed with Loveless Love” by The Feelies feels like it must be a political statement of some sort.


Form and content, guts in a bucket department.

Reading S. Craig Zahler’s novels after seeing his films might be the right way round, since you discover that the films are such precise translations of mood and style from one medium into another that they seem refreshed when you watch them again afterwards, even if they also can’t help but feel a bit derivative. You certainly spot which bits of hair-raising violence have been run up the flagpole earlier in the books. A Congregation of Jackals has a tribe of cannibal Native American troglodytes and a character hobbled by a busted leg, and once read cannot be unlinked in the mind from Bone Tomahawk. It has a villain called Quinlan, whose first name isn’t given but might as well be Hank. Mean Business On North Granson Street, intentions signalled by that title of pure noir pastiche, foretells Dragged Across Concrete with cops of dubious morality in ballistic masks, stressed masculine partnerships, castration of men and threatened or actual blinding of women. It has a character said to resemble a movie star who turns out to be called Jerry Langford, by which point all those character actor cameos in Bone Tomahawk are starting to add up.

It also has a villain’s comeuppance involving the contents of his own colostomy bag, which I don’t think Zahler has as yet persuaded a studio to let him recreate. The tone of social dread hanging over everything is consistent enough in the films on their own, but makes added sense as a literary mood spilling over into a neighbouring field. So do the deliberate wanders away from established plot lines to see what’s happening somewhere seemingly unconnected, usually leading to the unconnected person having their fingers or gonads removed. This particular trick might finally settle the question of Zahler’s sincerity, pondered by me ever since that secondary character got emphatically Goya-ed in Bone Tomahawk. (Zahler has since written Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, a bonkers triangulation between him, the low-budget pastiche of the old Charles Band film studio now arriving through the grimier lens of Cinestate, and the outsider comics art of Benjamin Marra. It feels like Zahler and Marra ganged up on Band in a car park to teach him about the pitiless emptiness of the universe.) Zahler films are squarely set in the same unquiet land as the books, a civilisation built on awful sands and feeling obliged to steamroller the supposedly uncivilised if it’s going to get anywhere.

Films