valentina on the phone

Valentina by Crepax: message received

A while ago I called the ten-volume project to bring all of Guido Crepax’ comics output into the English language a cultural intervention, and that still looks like the right label. Crepax’ artistic treatment of an internal fantasy life is vivid enough on its own to make most erotic comics look stuck in tar, but the more of the stuff that Fantagraphics reprints, the clearer it gets that Crepax was trying to get actual tactile sexual sensations down in an ink-on-paper form—critic Matt Seneca wrote about it in those terms, and he was spot on. And it works so well in the Valentina stories that the character—even though she’s always naked or in bondage or just letting it all hang out—never seems to be on the receiving end of male gaze at all. The strips are piled high with sexuality from floor to ceiling, but it’s all Valentina’s view of Valentina’s own, and there’s nowhere for a reader’s voyeurism to fit. It’s simply irrelevant. This is quite the cultural moment to discover that Crepax worked out how to achieve that a few decades ago.

Every story also has some piece of visual storytelling from Crepax’ 1960s and 1970s output that seems to bubble up from a broad expressionist tradition and inform something more recent. The first volume had a bunch of Frank Miller faces; the third one has some very Bill Sienkiewicz demon bears. An entranced Valentina receives hypnotic instructions from the witch Baba Yaga via the telephone several nights in a row, worshiping the handset in different poses, and eventually she does the same thing with a wind-up gramophone playing some satanic 78 vinyl. It’s an authentic erotic reverie that no Dario Argento character could match.

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gardeners world

Annihilation: supernature

The May issue of Sight & Sound includes me reviewing the Chinese film Detective Chinatown 2, in which a pair of goofball detectives visiting from Beijing get all starry eyed in New York on the trail of a killer whose identity is obvious from the minute that the Anglophone actor in question walks on. Joe McCulloch, writing about English translations of Japanese manga in the anthology Critical Chips 2, said experiencing a foreign culture in a translated version was like looking at a garden from the outside through a hole in the wall, unable even as a conscientious observer to really know the situation in which the works exist. Which is also how I felt upon discovering that Detective Chinatown 2 had made $530 million in its own territory.

Annihilation has remarkable gardens, to the point where it ventures into the natural sublime in proper Burke-ean terror-tinged ways—a rarity in a culture more comfortable with the technological sublime instead. It puts Alex Garland into a strand of British film making that doesn’t have many members, somewhere in an overlap of Danny Boyle and Peter Strickland, although Annihilation deals directly enough with cancer and metabolic change to ally Garland with David Cronenberg as well. The alterations from the source book make for a more conventional ending, but some of Garland’s tweaks are appropriately visual rather than thematic. When the characters stumble across a house overgrown in greenery, only we and Natalie Portman recognise that it’s identical to her house in the real world, and Garland gracefully doesn’t even give her a double-take to flag the matter up. A monster duly terrorises her there, up from the id of her own adulterous bedroom.

And Annihilation promptly terrorised and stress-tested modern film criticism to near-destruction in about five days flat, which was always going to happen as soon as something turned up on Netflix that we might actually feel people should see. Twin Peaks gathered the kindling for this turn of events, but it was 18 hours long, so claims that it was Clearly A Film became a shibboleth for folk not comfortable admitting that work of quality could merit any other label. Annihilation though really is a film—made as one and delivered as one, until Paramount chickened out and sold it on. The results have been calamitous, a coming together of both the major current critical regressions at the same time. A fixation on content and blindness to form—that being the mindset required if you’re committed to a film’s -isms and ideologies being the work’s true essence and the way its makers will reveal their hidden wickedness—has instead dented our skills at sounding convincing about why one form is better than another. Meanwhile an inability to speak in any decent motivational rhetoric—never mind poetics—instead of dry academic language has squelched our ability to motivate a passing viewer to open their minds, or indeed open an envelope. After voluntarily surrendering those two weapons, what’s left?

artistic license

Judge Dredd: no cherubs Dud

All three recent books about the birth of 2000AD point out that MACH 1 was a blatant attempt to make readers think of The Six Million Dollar Man, but since Enio Legisamòn put a very Lee Majors-ish face on the character for page one it was hardly a state secret to anyone reading on the school playground at the time. From four decades down the time tunnel, MACH 1 might be more successful at the comic’s two stated aims – cash in on sci-fi while alarming British adventure comics as much as possible – than most of the other stuff in Prog 1, just by being such an enthusiastic cash-in itself. Rebellion has collected the first year or so in a new volume, where the constant churn of artists and writers doesn’t do as much damage as I remembered – partly since I had forgotten that the strip is utterly nuts. It’s boys adventure comics for boys delirious with fever, or dreaming of receiving six hundred pounds worth of cybernetics from some branch of the Callaghan government and marrying Farrah Fawcett. I reviewed the collection for Tripwire.

Also at the same venue: a review of the latest Judge Dredd Case Files collection which covers 1999 into 2000, and by my sums might be the last to contain stories only published by Fleetway before Rebellion swung in through the window on ropes. Those books mentioned above make it clear that a lot of creators felt the period before that happened was desultory, and of course they should know. But Dredd has always occupied his own tonal niche isolated from properly wayward editorial whims, a niche shaped very much like writer John Wagner. (Dredd’s counterpart, Psi-Judge Cassandra Anderson, had the luxury of taking months or years off here and there, and her stories over the same period in the hands of Alan Grant were properly ambitious.) Dredd gets back into humorous mode a few times here, but the book includes Wagner and Henry Flint’s story from March 2000 in which the residents of a city tower block respond to their unsafe building and uncaring politicians by committing enthusiastic mass suicide, which in a current light is practically Swiftian. You would need to be sure of your critical footing to say that a period which put that on the shelves of WHSmith had failed to do its cultural duty.

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.

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.