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.
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.
This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival was subdued, but livened up no end by the sight of Aubrey Plaza swearing her head off while dressed as a nun. The language emerging from underneath that wimple in The Little Hours could curdle the milk, but the register of the film is distinctly old fashioned compared to most current US comedies and their giggling Puritan vibes about the carnal. There was a time when sex comedies were vigorous and spicy because the topic was illuminating, rather than just because people were salaciously goosed by it, and The Little Hours is the first film in a while to remember – largely by drawing on a story from around 1350 written in the shadow of a slow and painful death. I watched it for Critic’s Notebook, pondering the profane while bewitched by the witches.
I also watched Final Portrait, Stanley Tucci’s very affectionate portrait of Alberto Giacometti which makes the old boy seem impossible but also has no doubts about his genius. Tucci’s well documented love of art in general and this artist in particular stops the film being dull, but it is reverential to a fault, and some of the artistic choices are a bit more bemusing than probably intended. I am, though, increasingly a fan of Armie Hammer’s nice line in needlessly-stressed decency. Lumbering any actor with the label of old-school stylist is the kiss of death, but Hammer is pretty much one of those. A review of Final Portrait will be up at Critic’s Notebook in due course.
Meanwhile on the twitters:
“Creative freedom alone is not enough to create the kind of criticism worth anyone reasonable caring about.”
— tim hayes (@pistolerosa) July 10, 2017
The Greek god of scheduling placed Pirates, in which a proto-feminist briefly cooks up her own agency before settling for all the norms, adjacent to Wonder Woman, a character outfitted at birth by her creator to give conformity a kick in the ἀσπίδες. More power to all moved by Wonder Woman, especially those moved to exercise that power when normally denied it, but beware the cultural-industrial complex bearing gifts. A shift in a genre film’s content is one thing; it will be changes to form that prove the ground is actually shifting. And Wonder Woman‘s form seems almost as conspicuously straitjacketing as before, especially during a creaking climax that gives up any intent at radicalism and just waits for the usual high-five from a weary spectator. If there really is an opening for diversity of intention and input in this neck of the woods, then there’s also a potential calling for critics up for grabs: the one in which we finally patrol the border between technique and essence in the art that emerges, and put the screws on it with something more effective than blank verse.
It’s more than 20 years since Scott Bukatman pointed out that female comics characters were becoming more free by the minute – free to be as musculinized and armoured as all the men. He thought that the muscles of Image Comics female heroes were part of the body-building culture lurking behind superheroes in general, but in modern films it’s always the myth of redemptive violence that’s exerting the magnetic pull. When Wonder Woman strides into the no man’s lands of World War One, she hasn’t had to bounce back from the kind of unmanning castration scenarios that a male’s journey would have involved by that point – no Mel Gibson martyr she – and Gal Gadot’s frown of determination is so sweetly guileless that it’s probably one reason she was cast. But how different exactly would the sound and vision at that point be if she were male, armed to the teeth and taking out the trash? The electric cello lick that Hans Zimmer and Tina Guo created for Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman makes my fillings hurt – at best a motif, at worst an example of film music no longer even attempting to do the things it used to do – but when applied to punch-ups in the middle of World War One, content has mugged form and tipped it into a dumpster.
It’s no accident that Connie Nielsen, even weighted down by wig and dead animal, and Robin Wright, trapezius muscles bare and tensing, are treated to some decent stabs at characterisation, while Elena Anaya’s scarred brittle evil genius gets nothing at all. Any hint of thematic interest in her destroyed femininity, in her encased body versus the Amazons letting it all hang out, would have gone a long way to bolster the film’s ambitions; but redemptive violence prefers its villainy to be rote, so Dr Poison’s is no more colourful than that of her male ally played by Danny Huston, tripping balls on mystic nitrous.
Above all, and just as in Pirates, some stubborn conservatism reveals itself in characters stuck with a crisis of identity rather than a crisis of principle. Wonder Woman loses the original version’s role as a proselytising ambassador for female authority, and instead gets lumbered with being the latest Chosen One off the production line – the dreariest destiny modern cinema to offer, although one that says a bunch about modern society.
Students of form vs. content had to make do with PowerPoint slides until last year, when Alex Proyas made Gods of Egypt. The critical recoil from Gods of Egypt settles any argument about the way that irony now weighs upon an IP-driven pop-culture like a lead apron. Deliberately engineer the irony away, and everyone loses their bearings. Go even further, go all the way into whimsy and pick Bryan Brown to play the god Osiris and have him practically say G’day, and everyone loses their minds. Élodie Yung sashays through Gods of Egypt with all the agency and self-determination and sexual advocacy that the Nile Delta can hold, as free as the air, and she does so speaking dialogue by the same writers who scripted Dracula Untold and The Last Witch Hunter, words made of meaningless rubble – and that right there is the difference between form and content. No cultural-industrial complex in the world is going to allow Gods of Egypt again for a while, or let Élodie Yung play Wonder Woman, although she was apparently considered. Some considerably different film that might have been. If Yung had been given a musical identity of modernist electrified shredding, it would only be because she charged onto the screen playing it herself before beaning someone with the cello.
(art by Ron Regé, of whose Wonder Woman more here.)
For the June issue of Sight & Sound magazine I watched astronauts get eaten in Life, a film happily symptomatic of the age.
“There are no margins or centres now, just a digital bacchanal of in jokes, scuttlebutt and lore churning a tense and self-conscious pop culture.” – says me, pointing in the direction of both Erik Davis and Kim O’Connor and stealing their lunch money.
We nerd out on culture that we experience as data to play with.
The in jokes, scuttlebutt, mash ups, and lore obsession of geekery allow us to snuggle up to the uncanny possibilities of magic, superpowers, and cosmic evil without ever losing the cover story that makes these pleasures possible for modern folks: that our entertainments are “just fictions,” diversions with no ontological or real psychological upshot, just moves in a game.
– Erik Davis in Techgnosis (2015 edition Afterword)
People never feel more self-satisfied than when they recognise what one thing takes from something else. Abhay Khosla described this phenomenon in an essay about Michael Fiffe’s COPRA:
“Categorise. Classify. Regiment. Bag. Bored. Bleh.”
I like the idea that there’s some critical space where you can attend to a work that is not just a take – that criticism is capable, perhaps, of transcending whatever it’s about.
– Kim O’Connor‘s essay How We Take, in Zainab Akhtar’s (now Eisner-nominated) compilation zine Critical Chips (2016)
Categorise, classify, bored, bleh. What are the chances of a film criticism that can transcend whatever it’s about, if it remains content to be a traditional conservative academic humanities discipline, and while audio-visual culture mutates away from everything that made that approach viable? You could equally ask why film criticism ever wanted to be a traditional conservative humanities discipline in the first place, but then we’re back to David Bordwell again.
For Critic’s Notebook I watched Ben Wheatley’s new film Free Fire, and once again was left trying to work out whether the problem is him or me.
I reviewed Confusion and Carnage, Adam Nayman’s new book about Wheatley, in the May issue of Sight & Sound and looked for some answers in there too. But the book has a fan’s certainty and doesn’t set out to convince doubters. Back when criticism could still be called niche employment, David Bordwell called for less interpretation and more poetics in film criticism, on the grounds that “interpretation has become easy, but analysis is still hard.”
He had enough solid reasons to be going on with in 1989, although couldn’t foresee the one that’s become most pressing right now. When expertise is mistrusted and the voice of authority has become more of a death rattle, ceaseless interpretation of every raised eyebrow and rainbow is just a really bad way to change anyone’s mind about anything.
A rhetoric of musts and onlys, of always alreadys, of dangers and complicities portrays the writer as one guided by certainties.
– Dr Bordwell, fortune teller.
My notebook says I was positive about Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, which proves that memory is a tricky thing. But Certain Women is the real deal, achieving what advocates of minimalism always say it can do and inviting you to meet it halfway as a genuine way of seeing. Short film festivals would be better off these days looking away from conventional narrative fictions, but Reichardt’s third story, in which Lily Gladstone forms an attachment to Kristen Stewart that seems born out of simple stoic yearning, would be a perfect 30-minute entry for anywhere so inclined. The confused affection of these two characters is never articulated but constantly visualised, eventually in the way Stewart reflexively hugs Gladstone slightly more tightly while riding on her horse – and immediately she’s gone, no longer able to shoulder whatever it was that just happened. Gladstone returns to her horses, as do we all. This has been a key few months for grappling with what realism looks like on screen, and Reichardt’s style always opens up another front on the issue by pruning away elements of urban life in a manner that would give Ken Loach a headache; but Loach always seems to be moving towards you from the screen, an over-emphasis that draws on his instincts as a placard-holder but which can ruin as much as it reveals. Reichardt generates pull rather than push – on the whole a more profitable transaction. Continue reading
The annual Sight & Sound Films of the Year poll is online and in the January 2017 print magazine. My votes were for:
Other votes for these films by poll participants: 0, 0, 0, 1, and 4 respectively.
In the comment box, some matters arising:
“Three of these used video-on-demand as their route to a UK audience, either with a momentary theatrical release or doing without that gesture. Should this alter how critics process them? Perhaps. The position and impact of art is criticism’s business, but the opaqueness of streaming revenues and viewing figures leaves the matter of these films’ success vague in economic and cultural terms alike. Faced with terra incognita, critics’ exploratory outlook matters. Saying that a film is in cinemas, when we really mean it’s in two cinemas for a single day, is either a safety-blanket privileging of the cinema experience or a flat parroting of the marketing message; but either way, pointing people towards places where the art isn’t looks a lot like voluntary redundancy. All grist for a rebalancing of our cultural journalism remit, perhaps via conceding that ceaseless personal curation isn’t the same thing.”
The position of art is indeed criticism’s business. Protecting the language of expertise falls to us too, in an age when the default response to any authoritative voice is disdain; so we had better recognise when we’re facing the world and when we’re facing the wall. A blind spot for coherent language when notable art falls on streaming platforms rings an alarm bell on all counts. Flag Without a Country didn’t even make it that far, yet every time the TV beams pictures from the Middle East into my living room, I find myself wondering whether Helly and Nariman are still in a position to draw breath. What exactly is notable art for, if not that?
As always, the idea that we’re curators – scholars, pathfinders – rather than cultural journalists flatters us to bits, but you end up having to justify why something called a Best Films Of 2016 list has no intention of providing the same information as a Best Books Of 2016 list, and little chance of revenue-bearing like one either. Reclaiming our authority over art as it currently exists and its effects on people we don’t already know would be a fine idea at this point – and a more challenging destiny than mapping the world from within the walled garden of a film festival, or falling for the flattering idea that the first person to correctly appreciate any given film is surely me myself and I.
Also: a review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will be in the S&S February print issue and is online here. The major unhappy tendency in current films is still a fixation on content while somehow remaining oblivious to form, which in films with the money to polish each pixel individually turns into a grim metallic certainty that hot visuals matter more than invisible things like narrative and character. As articles of faith go, it’s debatable. It became the Last Temptation Of Lucas as well, but his was a singular vision, for better or worse. And Rogue One is not.
The present manners of the nation would deride authority, and therefore nothing is left but that every writer should criticise himself.
– Samuel Johnson, voting in the 1783 Films of the Year poll.
Even by the juggernaut logic of remake culture, picking Michael Winner’s very 1970s and Charles Bronson-shaped The Mechanic out of the hat for a revamp – first as a buffed Jason Statham remake and now punted in the general direction of a franchise via an unrequested sequel – seems more like a knee-jerk marketing exercise than anything more rational. The clue is suddenly making the latest incarnation of Arthur Bishop exactly as bulletproof and immortal as your average superhero, so as to fit the template of current audience expectations without scraping the sides – although the actual give away is probably the decision to deploy the mighty colon of intent and call it Mechanic: Resurrection in the first place. Those old Michael Winner films from his US period, choked with dust and death, always deserved more serious critical analysis than they got, and the replacement of that mood with sunny slaughter and weightless green-screen pretence is as revealing as it is dire as it is ineffable. I reviewed Mechanic: Resurrection in the November issue of Sight & Sound, while pondering whether the dearth of meaningful action cinema from any creator not named Michael Mann allows it to be even called a niche any more.
And for the December issue of the same magazine I read Matt Zoller Seitz’s new book The Oliver Stone Experience, which follows the approach of Seitz’s book on Wes Anderson with slightly different results. Stone’s volubility avoids the occasional impression that the Anderson book was the record of an interview in a holding cell, and the photos culled from Stone’s archives are all deeply revealing. On the other hand, Seitz’s genial meandering friendly-witness style, deliberately transferred onto the page intact, makes for some exasperating trips around the conversational houses, and maybe frames some of Stone’s frustrations in a more baldly downbeat note than he himself seems to place them. Reading Stone and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, which doesn’t discuss his films at all, somehow seems necessary after Seitz’s book to get a fuller picture of the man; that never used to feel the case after finishing any of the Faber & Faber director interview volumes, any ten of which could fit inside Seitz’s book like a school of guppy in a whale. But books like this – books in general – seem to be the only place to carry out meaningful retrospective surgery on films these days, such as rehabilitating Savages from whatever lazy critical wasteland it was pitched into at the time, or flagging up the ten minutes originally deleted from Nixon in which Sam Waterston plays Richard Helms as the devil, probably – a scene I first ran headlong into unawares on the extended dvd and which had me lunging for the rewind button, definitely.
Elsewhere: for Tripwire, a look at another of 2000AD‘s blasts from the past and the last days of its updated version of Dan Dare, Britain’s venerable space-aviator turned here into a heavily armed short tempered weapon of mass destruction in a sheepskin jacket. A product of its time in every sense.
As for my old mate Doctor Stephen Strange: my Marvel-movie fever broke last year when a member of the van Dyne family finally turned up and I discharged myself from superhero cinema’s mobile 4077th field hospital, so the ways in which characters from my youth are winnowed and diminished to fit the rhythms and beats of the MCU template rather than expanded from within to fill the available screen real estate doesn’t raise my pulse any more. As it happens, whatever else may be wrong with Doctor Strange, its framing and pacing feel more like the work of an actual film director than any MCU film since Captain America, although Scott Derrickson has opted not to overturn the drearily masculine atmosphere and is lumbered with the same old familiar macrostructure and Big Finish, the universal language of the trans-national blockbuster. Within it arrives a dreadful Dormammu, part standard Big Cloud monster and part Nome King from Return To Oz, a visual neither interested in nor capable of summoning the formal artistic monstrousness of Steve Ditko’s design or its appalling human form.
If a film in this area really wanted to be distinct it would get Christopher Young to do the music, but short of that hiring Michael Giacchino helps; the theme has the skipping horns of Harry Potter and starts off a bit like The 13th Warrior, but on the level of simple compositional style knocks any of those terrible scores by Henry Jackman that drape like a lead smock over his Captain America films into a distant dimension. Benedict Cumberbatch, looking quite the part in the cloak of levitation and in full waspish arrogant-comeuppance mode, is probably the most authentic actorly turn in the MCU for a while, certainly the first sight of an actor having actual fun since Mickey Rourke asked Sam Rockwell about a cockatoo. At one point, speaking over Giacchino’s harpsichord and sitar twanging, he name-checks Chuck Mangione, which for reasons too obscure to really count gave me the most authentic laugh I’ve had in a superhero film since 1981. He might spice up the flat acting palette of the MCU, if that low bar counts for anything, since this is one of the few characterisations so far to spot that self-knowledge remains the only superhero coin worth minting. Cumberbatch, with his air of a martyr looking for a cross to bear, knows the score. Perhaps, you catch yourself wondering, this is a legitimate translational effort.
Or you would wonder, if the trailer for Logan hadn’t run before the film, suggesting all the things the MCU recoils from with visceral allergic horror: characters willing to be freighted with history and fate and dust, with the consequences of something not unlike Winner’s adult self-knowledge rather than an adolescent’s recognition of the dark side under the bed. James Mangold knows the score better.
For Sight & Sound, a preview of the live-action end of this year’s Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival. The knotty issue of whether films of any length, or art at all, should be dealing in “explorations rather than solutions, atmosphere rather than answers” isn’t supposed to have an easy answer, although Amos Vogel did the world a favour in 1970 by phrasing it that way as a test of which way the wind is blowing. But at some point British films’ reluctance to stray from one side of the street and inclination to fetishise atmosphere at the expense of all else will have to be prised open for a look inside. The festival subsequently gave its top prize to a British short that felt particularly parochial, neatly summarising the dilemma faced jointly by the filmmakers, the mechanisms they work within, and the festivals which should ideally set about doing the prising.
In the Sight & Sound October print issue I reviewed Taika Waititi’s Hunt For the Wilderpeople, which for all its comedy and foreseeable outcome is at least aware of both atmosphere and answers. Anticipation that a director of particular sensibilities will perturb the workings of Marvel’s less than cinematic pre-fab manufacturing operation has been misplaced in the past and may prove to be again; but Waititi seems to be made of sterner stuff, so who knows?
On the Tripwire website, a look at the two-thousandth issue of 2000AD, as an early warm-up exercise for the comic’s fortieth anniversary next year. Anniversary issues usually end up pulled in tight fluffy circles, but as Joe McCulloch pointed out 2000AD has a role as living history over and above whatever it actually publishes. So Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill probably have the right idea, returning to Nemesis and expressing suitable disdain for the power of nostalgia by simply carrying on where they left off several corrupt Archbishops ago.
Clever science: using a thread of spider silk as a focusing lens in a microscope, thanks to the strange things that can happen when light falls on very small cylinders and spheres.
As is: improved diagnosis of potential oesophageal cancer, by modifying both the fluorescent marker that identifies malignant tissue and the endoscope that takes a look – this being the latest from the prolific cancer research efforts emerging from the University of Cambridge.
And also: working out why exactly retinal implants don’t deliver high quality vision to patients by mapping what happens on a cellular level, and then tweaking things so that they might be able to.