Face off

For The Comics Journal a review of Nick Drnaso’s Acting Class.

Praise for Drnaso’s last two books was so stratospheric it would have made some artists twitch like Inspector Dreyfus and snap their pencils, but most of it seemed to be describing a prose novel. Marc Singer’s theory is that comics break the respectability threshold as text items rather than anything with drawings in, the art either a junior partner or just cluttering up the joint, and Drnaso’s books stir up the argument all over again. The two different things any kind of art is supposed to be about are information and experience, and the spark of glory comes from how the two collide. In Drnaso’s art the two don’t collide but exchange a polite text message.

Maybe even more polite this time, since accidentally or otherwise the art style is closer to an infographic than it was before. Drnaso has talked about what he’s going for, but I’m pretty sure he’s arrived instead at a super-modern post-ironic information-theory approach that would make perfect sense to a systems engineer at Bell Labs in 1950. Is it coincidence that at the exact point Drnaso’s art finds an audience that feels he is drawing their language, Meta is making bets in $10 billion dollops that images like this are both experience and information, that this is the future?

No it is not.

18 August 2022 Art

Never mind the dybbuks


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

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

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

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

6 July 2022 Films

Over the moon

Tigers: shoots…

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

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

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

Goal! Part 2: …scores

13 June 2022 Films

The paranoid style

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

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

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

The Bill Sienkiewicz version: your tax dollars spent by villains

The SK Moore version: your tax dollars spent by clowns

8 April 2022 Art

Trolley problem

No way that 2022 will produce a better Covid-era liberation visual than a thirty-second tracking shot of Adèle Exarchopoulos on an e-scooter in a hot climate.

I avoided Zero Fucks Given for a while thinking that the title meant some slice of French extremity, with the divine Mlle Ex. screaming for an hour or perhaps mugging a pensioner. Not so. It’s a deft, melancholic film about how voluntary choices and unavoidable burdens get tangled up; and primarily about grief, with flight attendant Cassandre making it clear that the death of her mother in a car crash is the source of whatever ennui smoothers her in the day job.

The air of wary distraction Exarchopoulos transmits without the aid of an on/off switch has been used differently by different films, but this one puts her against non-actors and actual flight attendants with their own authentic fake-not-fake weariness and the effect is something like internal reflection. As usual it’s impossible to sense what she did on the previous take to line this one up or did on the next one in response. She might have burst into song, or levitated.

Cassandre’s perambulations around airports and malls are at one point accompanied by of all things the old Vangelis track To the Unknown Man,” and whatever that does for younger viewers it carries the promise and disappointment of the Seventies becoming the Eighties for anyone who was there when it came out, a body electric that turned out not to sing very well, a limbo of strip-lighted futures.

You wouldn’t confuse this for a joint by Olivier Assayas, former master of the airport-hotel capitalist downer, although Zero Fucks Given is built on similar worries about people and their place in profit systems, even if it’s looking down the other end of the telescope. But mainly it’s built on a bit of alchemy, in which a character who could be almost everyone is played by an actor of whom they have so far only made the one.

5 April 2022 Films

Pasta la vista

The Thief Collector: Ocean’s Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 March 2022 Films