methods

Kate Felix, NEPD Blue: art by Paul Grist

Tom Spurgeon asked for stand-out issues in favourite runs of serial comics, and inevitably most of mine were from old Marvels by Steve Englehart, who used to throw single pivot-point issues into storylines which were rolling eternally onwards like a man who understood why soap-operas are an art form of their own. Another one was much more recent, the flashback issue of Kane where Paul Grist planted a young version of Kate Felix into the storyline her adult self had been wading through for three years. Paul Grist is a modern comics master and Kane is a spectacular – if incomplete – success, as anyone on the receiving end of my lecture on the subject five years ago will know.

My admiration for Paul Grist’s art is in no way diminished by the fact that I can tell more or less how he made it, but I’m happy to leave the exact chain of events Clint Langley goes through to produce his artwork for ABC Warriors as a mystery. Photo-references and digital manipulation seem to be involved, but beyond that it might as well be sorcery, especially if you go back and look at his earlier pencil and ink work which is recognisably by a kindred spirit but apparently by a completely different hand. I spent years being sniffy about both photo-references and digital manipulation, but it turned out I just hadn’t come across them in the right venue. In 2000AD Langley’s style aligned with the comic’s existing use of painted art and spliced it with a less expected European tradition of sci-fi excess, recalling both but without directly copying either. His first work on ABC Warriors has been reprinted once more and I reviewed it for Tripwire, realising again why the strip has been pretty much roped off from anyone else ever since.

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british rails

B-movie cop films used to be so specific to the counties they came from that you could spot the cultural sore spots from over the horizon, but now they just tell you that digital post-production workflows are the same in any language. The Liquidator put the wind up its domestic Chinese distributors so much that its release was postponed, but on western shelves it will slot in next to the ballistic bits of Vinnie Jones’s catalogue and enjoy a similar destiny. It’s also lumbered with a twist on loan from the kind of high-camp soap operas in which UFOs spirited characters away during contract negotiations, presented here with an unwise poker face. I reviewed the film for the March issue of Sight & Sound magazine.

It pains an acolyte of both Liam Neeson and Jaume Collet-Serra to admit that The Commuter is a bit of a drag, but it too is stuck in a particular type of digital post-production purgatory. The tyranny of identical software packages everywhere has drained the life from films in which everyone gets stuck on public transport, all of them now draped in a bloodless green-screen unreality, the not very convincing carriage interiors matched by the not very convincing exteriors glimpsed through the not very convincing windows. Plus The Commuter is set in the US but arrives direct from Planet Pinewood, an additional unreality through which a number of British faces swim – notably Florence Pugh who doesn’t even get to be Neeson’s quarry. There’s talk of an outside world of unemployment and capitalist collapse, but it’s not even as authentic as the fraught geopolitics of Unknown, the best of the Neeson/Collet-Serra joints, and that film was utterly bonkers. Unkown hasn’t aged a day, while The Commuter feels old already, partly since age and blatant stuntman-substitution come to us all in the end. Sic transit gloria punch-up.

resemblance

Natalie Portman, via Luc Besson and Dan Brereton

Dan Brereton’s new portfolio book In The Night Studio arrived just as Tom Spurgeon asked for suggestions of great cover artists and also just as I happened to see again the terrific 1999 painting by Brereton of a twelve-year-old Natalie Portman in Leon. Brereton loves monsters and a particular strand of gothic horror, but his portraiture is just as individual, going beyond resemblance and into characterisation. He did a painting of Ian McShane as Al Swearengen in Deadwood that makes the sheriff look like an icon carved out of dented hickory, and his versions of comicbook characters work a similar trick. In an earlier studio book there’s a picture of Iron Man as a primitivist golem against a thunderous sky, a ton of implacable matt statuary that might have wandered in from Zardoz, the colours in the armour seeming like seams in rock. All pretty much the opposite pole from the slick silicon techno-cop Tony Stark is usually portrayed as for ease of identification. Brereton’s version of Hela, one of the most striking female designs Jack Kirby ever came up with, has all the formidable otherness of the original but with an added delicious louche sensuality that Kirby never embraced easily, and to say that the Cate Blanchett version in Thor Ragnarok is a pale imitation isn’t the half of it.

Accurate resemblance is more to the point in The Beatles Story, the latest British comic from the past to be spruced up by Rebellion’s archiving project. It spins through the story of the band at a hectic sprint and leaves most of the messy complications out of it, although perhaps that’s fair enough for a strip that appeared in Look-In during 1981. Arthur Ranson’s photo-likenesses were a feature of other Look-In strips too, but most of those were fiction. Here, when he draws Yoko Ono looming out of half a panel’s worth of spotted black, he’s doing it with at least some commentary on real life. I reviewed it for Tripwire, remembering the days when comic strips were part of mass cultural education about things happening over the horizon, not to mention the days when that rescue mission took place in high-street newsagents.

John and Yoko, via Arthur Ranson and the void

LIGO restarts

If you happen to be in San Francisco this week and close to the Moscone Center, there’s an article by me in the in-house magazine of the Photonics West conference about the current status of LIGO’s search for gravitational waves. LIGO is due to be switched back on later in 2018, with some modifications to both its laser system and the core mirror optics, but the scope of the project’s technology is so broad that different parts of the exercise have been approached in quite different ways. I asked the people in charge about the overhaul, the external companies who were involved, and what might be next for LIGO.

congratulations on yet another day

The Prisoner: apocalypse then

The February issue of Sight & Sound includes me reviewing I Am (Not) A Number, Alex Cox’s new monograph about The Prisoner TV show, which decodes some of the series’ profundities from a production standpoint before a playfully contrarian interpretation of what was really going on. Most tracks through the thickets of The Prisoner have been worn smooth by now, but Cox has an engaging prose style – his biography X Films from a decade ago is still one of the clearest books about film directing and the various blind-spots of the British industry on the shelves – plus a political perspective that chimes with The Prisoner‘s twisty libertarian tangles.

He’s also still a proper film maker, wherever you stand on the qualities of Repo Chick, and no fan of the things current TV series get up to as they go about their endless long-form business. The Prisoner‘s good qualities are nearly overwhelmed by its quirks in the mind of at least one viewer, especially that final home stretch of episodes which feel like an endurance test beaming in from a London whose swinging has got stuck, but even that looks a bit like prescience from this distance. And I’d never seen the original end title sequence, featuring not just an entirely less splendid theme tune but according to Cox perhaps the end of the world as well.

in the swamp

Sense8: empathy and ecstasy

My votes in the annual Sight & Sound Films Of The Year poll were for:

Silence
Personal Shopper
Elle
mother! (mentioned here)
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (mentioned here)

One of these received double-figures votes, so by last year’s standards I swerved into the warm currents of the mainstream.

In the comment box some matters arising, in a year when more matters arose than usual:

Sense8 on Netflix was just as vivid a transfer of a filmmaker’s vision from one form to another as Twin Peaks, and gave the same impression of a modernist machine being prodded by critics using old and inappropriate equipment. If criticism is going to be relevant in the current cultural earthquakes and in the accompanying porn panic that will be along shortly, it will have to dust off the ability to grasp form as well as content, and get back to the idea of art as a mirror, rather than a prescription or a lie detector test.

Time spent arguing about whether Twin Peaks counts as a film or not while all the crockery falls off the shelves around us seems like time thrown into the abyss, but film critics’ modern dust-ups are all the same argument, the one about relevance and audience. Film critics habitually produce a thing called a Best Films Of 2017 list which a general public cannot interact with in the same way as a Best Books or Music or Art or Theatre or Poetry of 2017 list, a voluntary irrelevance which I have never pretended to understand, but the additional difficulties posed by Twin Peaks should now just be ignored altogether. The audience is anyone finding an artistic thing wherever they find it; the relevance will have to be conferred on our mighty words by them, since we have a habit of forgetting that their interaction with art outranks ours.

Film criticism still doesn’t really know what to do with TV or TV criticism, and vice versa, since one of those trades came to terms with talking about a mass-market consumable art form a long time ago, and the other clung doggedly to the idea that mass-market consumables are exactly what mainstream films were not. Twin Peaks sailed forth on a medium which has left the notion of gatekeepers far behind, and out into a culture which doesn’t know what it wants arts criticism to do other than repeat platitudes. It’s still possible – just – to think of Silence or mother! as works where critics could moderate a functioning cultural conversation and legitimately call that conversation part of the work’s effect, but the idea that Twin Peaks needed a gatekeeper to tell you what was up seemed nuts before the end of the first episode. Twin Peaks was so singular that there was only ever you and it, looking each other squarely in the eye in the quiet of your own home, and the same would have been true if by some miracle it had beamed in via BBC2, and arrived notionally for free. On that level at least, the otherwise pretty threadbare analogy between the show and experimental gallery art was on the money.

Any conversation about Twin Peaks is inherently a step forward for those of us who tried to start one about the empathies and ecstasies of Sense8 a year ago, and any conversation about form rather than content is a valuable advance, even under duress. Reluctance to talk about form has long since stopped looking like a blind-spot and become unhappily tinged with simple snobbery against things which are Not Films. It also happens to suit the ascendant lefist wish that the content of people’s words should be all that’s needed to reveal their hidden wickedness, and the form in which they say them reveal nothing at all. Attacks on Blade Runner 2049 and mother! suggesting that sexual images were present because the actual films themselves were sexist were at least better than not talking about the images at all, but the implication that mass-market art is obliged to write a prescription rather than invite you to register your own flaws is a censorship I was inoculated against at birth. Not coincidentally, a new porn-panic has nearly kicked off twice already – one (male) actor I like was heard saying that Harvey Weinstein became the man he was because top-shelf pornography magazines still exist, apparently with a straight face. Once porn gets indicted again, we’ll have to hold on to our hats.

“The idea of art as a mirror, rather than a prescription or a lie detector test.” Critics telling people that they are doing films wrong is just the worst look in the world, and that’s before we even get properly stuck in to the arena of weeding out the existing art now made suspect by the names of the men in the credits. Retreating from the hubbub into my CD collection, the infinite malleability of music and the possible benefits-at-a-distance that apply there are even more obvious and immeasurable than the ones involved in film. If we’re going to expand the current police operation beyond the artists who are outright monsters and start rounding on the ones who were temperamental man-children taking out their frustrations on women, then there won’t be a bonfire big enough for all the albums that you’ll be wanting to burn. Ike Turner was a thug to Tina, while Phil Spector is crazier than a snake in a sack and shot a woman in the mouth, but I’m not giving up River Deep – Mountain High because the thing they helped create has made me an incrementally better person from one end of my life to the other. Empathy and ecstasy. I’m not sure what arts criticism is supposed to be for, if not to talk about that.

the face of the fabulous new

mother!: back to the garden

At some point the wish that art would present answers rather than questions turns into the wish that art would just go away.

The November Sight & Sound has me talking about American Made, a film which has the usual biopic problems and ends up looking like pretty weak sauce compared to the topic at hand.

I’ll be in the December issue on The Snowman, which is compromised to dust, and also Blade Runner 2049, and that review is also online already here. Whatever you think of the latter film, it is not weak sauce. And if you believe that art has any role to play in getting us out of this mess, then Blade Runner 2049 is another klaxon that we have to get back to treating art as a mirror rather than a prescription.

In practice that will largely mean a mirror for men. There were loud calls for bits of Blade Runner 2049 to go away, and a lot more for the banishment in its entirety of Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, a film which was even further from pallid disengagement than Blade Runner. Both addressed the manhood of manly men in ways which didn’t seem to cut them much ice, before we even get to their varying engagement with women. If you believe that criticism also has a role in getting us out of this mess, then the voices saying so will have to find a way to project farther than they are right now. Mother! also dared to be blackly comic, a timely reminder that actual satire can sometimes be a sharper tool than sci-fi metaphor, although blackly is hardly enough of a word in this case. Every time Jennifer Lawrence commented on her unbraced sink I thought about Tom Hanks and Shelley Long in The Money Pit, and look what happened to them. Blade Runner and mother! generated some clippings for the scrapbook, my personal favourite being a critic conflicted over why les films de Nicolas WInding Refn gave him pleasure and the films of Aronofsky did not, when they were apparently so parallel. Leaving aside the unfashionable theory that you might consider answering these dilemmas before logging in to twitter rather than afterwards, a critic unsure on the difference in effect and affect between Refn’s crystalline colour-saturated objective cruelty and Aronofsky’s subjective grainy proximity to the agonies of Creation might perhaps consider turning in their double-O license.

last bus to summer bay

Shaky Kane art: good news all round

For Tripwire I read Brink Book One, Dan Abnett and INJ Culbard’s sci-fi crime story now collected from 2000AD, which dresses an old-fashioned 1980s style police procedural in very modern blazing colour fields with art that owes a good deal to animation. Brightly lighted noir is an under-explored arena compared to the dark and shadowy version, although Abnett opts to underplay the political dimension and element of class conflict to the point where they could almost be optional extras – but most certainly are not.

Abnett also writes 2000AD‘s Grey Area, where issues of migration and cultural prejudice aren’t subtext so much as simply text. But outside of the strips written by Pat Mills – who still hasn’t met a status quo well worth overturning – the comic’s revolutionary instincts have to fit within distinctly mainstream borders these days, and the occasional suggestion from the editorial office that 2000AD still gets all up in The Man’s grill like it’s 1977 are a bit quaint. I recently devoured IDW’s Artisan Edition of Wally Wood’s EC Comics stories, collecting the original pencil art straight from the artist’s boards, and the social stresses of late Fair Deal America and convulsions of the Korean War bubble under every brush stroke of Wood’s sci-fi artwork in ways that its distant descendants in modern 2000AD can’t really emulate. The distinction is even more stark in the war comics created by Wood with Harvey Kurtzman. I had never read Atom Bomb! from 1953’s Two-Fisted Tales #33 before, with its negative-space US-borne apocalypse arriving on page one and a deliberately ambiguous happy ending on page seven that’s so fragile and conflicted the ink still seems wet, but it’s hard to see how a modern culture drenched in irony can possibly approach Thanatos in the same way today.

The trick is to find a different way, and for that there’s Good News Bible, a titanic collection of strips by Shaky Kane from old issues of Deadline so densely personal that it arrives on the page direct from the artist’s laboratory without exposure to the outside air at all. Kane’s recent work has corralled his Kirby-ish power within workable frames and tangible lines, channeling something of EC Comics’ sci-fi intensity, but these old Deadline strips are messy and unruly and quite a handful, the jagged lines generating something close to tangible static charge. David Hine, Kane’s recent collaborator, told The Comics Journal that “the best works of art always leave things unresolved,” and Good News Bible is chimeric in ways that can only come from authentic artistic inspiration and its messy scars, not the blunt calculations of your average savage pencil. Plus Deadline had its own Last Days Of Thatcher axes to grind – “gazing into the abyss that was 1989” says the new frontispiece – and Kane’s strips about the puritanical A-Men, licensed to kick your door in and order you to cease fornicating on the authority of Chief Constable James Anderton’s Turin-style death shroud, are rendered in thick pools of black that you stare into like a suddenly dark room after the lights go out. Then the later strips leave narrative behind, turning to montage and cut-ups and typography, fraught personal investigations of frustration and self-image with which the reader just has to reach an accommodation on whatever terms can be agreed. Throughout, men of principle find those principles to be fragile and riven with fault lines, and often end up slumped against the wall in a characteristic pose. Since not the least bit of knowledge I acquired in connection with the book is that James Anderton is actually still around, Kane’s thumping pencils and their vertiginous density have a suitably modern resonance in an era when honest ambiguity has gone horribly out of fashion. Dannii Minogue is still around too, her Home and Away-era cultural presence having been tipped into Kane’s artistic blender to emerge on these pages once or twice. If the entirely gracious response from her at the time and included here is above board, the younger Minogue has a sense for the tides of underground cartooning much as her sister reads the course of haute couture.

the marsist

Quatermass Martians: old school

Two new books about Nigel Kneale came out recently, and I read them both for the October issue of Sight & Sound magazine. One is a biography and the other a set of critical essays, so they are very different reads, but anyone interested enough to read one of them should find the other providing some valuable context, and once or twice some suitable balance also. There are some natural ley lines joining the current nature of arts criticism and the health of the critical essay as a form, and I read some of the pieces in We Are The Martians with a mildly clenched jaw, but the book testifies to the way that creativity in one place then seeds the same thing far over the horizon and many miles down range. Into The Unknown deals with how one particular creative came to be in a position to do that in the first place, as well as telling some tales of the early BBC, where a few of its painful future problems are already condensing out of the bow-tied 1950s air. Tales of Kneale-love from modern Hollywood have been well told many times – the suggestion that the kerfuffle around Halloween III has come to overshadow the Kneale landscape now seems entrenched, although it’s a sentiment that flatters the fantasy front-lines – but Joe Dante’s affection for the cheesy 3D sci-fi movie that once turned up in an episode of The Quatermass Experiment is a nice alignment, given the glee with which Dante put an affectionate boot into the same general target once or twice.  Ultimately, talent admires talent.

amos vogel’s ammeter

Cara Delevingne: boldly gone

The September issue of Sight & Sound magazine includes me reviewing Dark Night, a film concerned with American mass shootings and trying to get its arms around a specific and intractable modern evil. A critic should be sure of his footing when declaring the end result of such an attempt to be a failure, now that mainstream cinema and its audience have drawn up some unspoken agreement not to do that kind of thing very much any more; but Dark Night opts for a familiarity that just leads in a tight circle. The agenda of realism, whether in documentary mode or the theatrical tension of an actor being severe  – the safety net of recognisable order, of cause and effect – is currently under weekly kicking from David Lynch and more occasional ribbing from Terrence Malick, and simply isn’t the tool it used to be in this neck of the woods.

Realism isn’t on A Ghost Story‘s mind either, which pretty much guarantees it a higher degree of success from the off. There are holes to be picked in it from top to bottom, and the internal logic of the ghost’s time traveling never even tries to cohere. Having gone forward in time to some neon metropolis, why does the spirit’s resigned “suicide” land him back with the early settlers, rather than, say, the dinosaurs? The visual gag – no harm in calling it what it is – of the ghost under the sheet either works for you or it doesn’t, and David Lowery tips his hand a bit when another ghost is signposted as female by the girlie patterns on her version of the outfit. But the symbolism, the implications, the whole conceit, echo in ways that sometimes make it swing close to the poetic, its images bouncing backwards through your own mind. The score by Daniel Hart is terrific, emotive and needling and disconcerting, while the deliberate childishness of the premise – instantly grasped from the first second and entirely deliberate for a film of bereavement, a feeling that makes children of us all – leads as deep into your personal history as you choose to go. Any flicker of cynicism and the whole thing falls to bits, but at this point I’ll take that chance any day of the artistic week.

At the other end of the chute, Atomic Blonde is chancy for all the wrong reasons, so desperate to transmit its knowing bromance with 1980s music and cinema that it feels about as up to date as the 1890s. The one absolute quality of the John Wick school of direction and filmmakers from a stunts background – in this case David Leitch going solo post-Wick – is its emphasis on physicality and kinetics, but you can’t go back to that well too often without having to find some actual characters to do the moving around for you. The lapse is most galling whenever Sofia Boutella appears, given the way her dancer’s grace has perked up films in the past; here she seems as chained to floor as she was in The Mummy. As usual in films where characters only step out from a rancid blue light so that they can step into a stale red one, no one in the story is very engaging, and we’re well beyond the point where an extended corridor punch-up is automatically a sign of anything good or anything at all. Really the film only seems happy as a vehicle for both its period soundtrack, applied without diegetic rhyme or reason, and its colour scheme, based on a long-ago daydream of Michael Mann’s in a warm bath. I’m not a huge fan of The Coldest City graphic novel source material either, but the huffing effort by which its black and white shallow focus deliberately scratchy pen work has been turned into something with this degree of caffeine and cacophony and so little charisma says more about the current state of second-hand IP recycling than anything else.

For real use of colour, and of IP from comics for that matter, there’s Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets, Luc Besson’s latest indulgence which has flaws a mile deep but slobbers all over you like a massive dog that just wants to be your buddy, a film so untroubled by market forces that its final robot-army gun battle only breaks out five minutes before the end. But then Besson, one of the last anti-cynics left standing, isn’t going to go changing his ways at this late date, so his return to creature-filled multi-planet space-burlesque is about half as irony-drenched as your average Guardians Of The Galaxy and roughly twice as interesting. Besson’s career-long themes bubble away: a peaceful aboriginal island culture living in harmony with the land gets squashed by a military force wearing peaked caps in the first reel, but forgives without forgetting, and left to its own devices mankind’s natural habitat is the teeming bazaar. As with The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, Besson puts the original French comic through legitimate transformations that completely redirect the source but still keeps track of where its deep humanism came from in the first place, and knows that crises of principle are more interesting than the crises of identity that litter the landscape in heaps. This approach must surely be more promising than Atomic Blonde‘s obsession with improving the source material all the way into some high orbit of Pure Thrill. In any case, it means that translation of bande dessinées material into films feels a richer and more artistic process than whatever is going on with the American superheroes, which are dragging themselves onto the big screen as if on the road to Golgotha. Valerian bounces along under a score by Alexandre Desplat, and gives Cara Delevingne the chance to confirm the usual rule that models do acting pretty well when the characters know they’re being looked at – although you could also safely say that Luc Besson has a type – but you’re reminded of the film’s true intentions every time the face of her boss appears on some futuristic viewing bubble and turns out be that of Herbie Hancock, the mark of a film that actually wants to please rather than to pummel.