Tuscan raids

For the September issue of Sight and Sound magazine a review of Security, an Italian film set in Tuscany directed by an Englishman adapted from a novel by an American that was about Massachusetts and available on Netflix.

The plot has rich people being paranoid and horrible, which could be set anywhere; but the hints of Fortress Europe and locals scowling at incomers approaching from a southerly direction presumably came in during the translation to Italy. And like a lot of current Italian art, the oncoming threat could be read as something more viral in nature; I reviewed Manuele Fior’s comic Celestia recently, also a pre-Covid work and also now hard to separate from post-Covid malaise.

Peter Chelsom, who turns out to live in Italy and made Security just down the road, has been sticking to his romantic-comedy guns in the English language for thirty years. Having marshalled players as far apart in the cosmos as Miley Cyrus and Warren Beatty—the latter flattening the director like a slow steamroller—Chelsom probably saw Security as a chance to be more serious, although the woes of a worn out male tempted to get romantico with someone other than his wife do figure again. Valeria Bilello, whose version of romantico playing Sense8s scheming telepath was molto furioso, straps herself into garden-centre dungarees ready to hand the unhappy blue-collar electrician a pot plant, looking like an arrival from Milan Fashion Week with a Saturday job.

2 August 2021 Films

Revolution babies

For Tripwire a review of Manuele Fior’s Celestia, a major work by an artist with a few of those already on the shelf.

Some of them contain bits of business that crop up again in Celestia, but Fior nudges his magic-realism mood into a slightly new niche in the process. Even less surprise in Celestia than usual to remember that Fior is an architect, since the comic’s built environment is all walls and floors and furniture, calmness conjured by blissful Adriatic sunlight in a version of Venice where they apparently did build Frank Lloyd Wright’s Masieri Memorial. Calm on the surface anyway: all art of change and struggle now arrives through the lens of Covid, but in an Italian context the citizens of Celestia beating a retreat from an unseen invader and barricading in a lagoon has many parallels to ponder. No one actually says that art might save the day, but the visuals work with Wright and Mark Rothko and Igor Stravinsky so it goes without saying.

You could ponder how the story’s politics decodes into something that isn’t necessarily very Left, although the message that the older generation needs to get out of the road so that the young can get on with it is barely revolutionary at this point.

Somewhere very different:

Authentic revolution in Zig Zag, the new chromatic cavalcade from Will Sweeney.

Reviewing Sweeney’s last art book Grok for The Comics Journal I said that urgency wasn’t really the artist’s thing, but this time the political message gallops in at a rapid clip.

Zig Zags 24 wordless pages are a fractal sequence of actions, any one of which can’t happen before its predecessor; a preset sequence of contingency plans that could have been laid last month or last millennium. Characters are called forth by other characters and emerge from within still other characters and then consult different characters and then merge into yet further larger ones, eventually coalescing into a large multi-part multi-pilot humanoid robot that tackles some armoured dictator in another plane of reality somewhere.

Exactly what’s what hardly matters, but the thrust of some revolutionary collective action is hard to miss, as is the circularity of the events. Another cycle of all this seems assured at some point, a semi-permanent revolution, even as the giant body of the previous dictator lays in another of Sweeney’s state funeral images. The original instigator appears to be an old soldier with medals, from whom smaller (younger?) activists emerge as he melts away. Having entered the dictator’s citadel, the unified collective converts soldiers to its cause with one blast of illumination from a gun; and in the end it’s an illuminated citizen, not one of the outside insurgents, who concludes things.

At one point a group of characters catch a double-decker bus out of whatever urban city they seem to be in so as to reach a more isolated location, and later the giant dictator holds an umbrella against the rain of yellow paralyzing jism that the good guys have called forth with a firework. So it’s not without a certain British character. On black glossy paper the colour work in Zig Zag surges with voltage but it’s an adult fable, an organised revolution against something visually coded as El Presidente carried out by small cogs in a larger collective who take public transport to get where they need to be.

22 July 2021 Art

Naming names

George Caleb Bingham: Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845)George Caleb Bingham: Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845)

First Cow arrives in the UK a fairly bemusing five months after being labelled the third best film of 2020 by a UK magazine, a situation which works to the advantage of no one and has the aroma of bovine byproduct.

Kelly Reichardt’s slow cinema story of frontier opportunism and cookery repeats the very solid observation that the American Dream is built on theft and unfairness; on unhappiness (for someone else). There was some muttering when the film came out in the US about it telegraphing this goal, but you might idly ponder how much of this complaint is sparked by the carefully inconclusive view of the characters doing the thieving, two sort-of sympathetic males from different cultures who want the best for each other but don’t show an exorbitant amount of concern for everyone else. One is persuaded by the other to leave a baby unsupervised; but straight afterwards when left at a loose end in his new friend’s shack just starts idly tidying the place up. (Elsewhere two ladies of equally different cultures chat amiably as soon as their menfolk leave the room.) A sullen youth holding the pettiest of grievances loiters around, looking a lot like nemesis. What could be more America than taking on the smelly men of the Oregon Territory and getting clobbered by a stranger’s wounded male pride?

Reichardt’s style always raises some questions about realism while also being as mannered and manufactured as a quartz watch. But the least you could say is that she’s interested in form as well as content, and in this case the form comes directly out of American visual rather than verbal traditions. Signs of that drift by from time to time, river traffic and trappers’ boats with dogs on the prow.

Cue Robert Hughes in American Visions on the everyday oddity of George Caleb Bingham’s painting of the same trade on a different river, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri:

The carrier of American identity had been Nature; Bingham brought in a much more specific documentary interest in distinctively American social life. By locking his observations into a formal architecture with its highly determined poses and theatrical range of expression, Bingham sought to name America.”

You could put Kelly Reichardt in there and not be wrong.

28 May 2021 Films

Big Daddy Vegas

Army of the Dead: focus groupArmy of the Dead: focus group

Netflix put up a behind the scenes thing for Army of the Dead in which Zack Snyder seems as carefree as the winds, just coasting through some complex film-making project on the lunar currents of creativity, and if so then good for him. Army of the Dead is another notch on pop culture’s unending remix spin cycle—it’s George Romero’s Aliens Escape From Oceans 11 although I too might not put the phone down immediately hearing a pitch like that—but with Snyder there are always things that seem to happen just through artistic eccentricity. In the opening seconds two bright lights in the sky roar off in the direction of the subsequent action, never to be mentioned: what black helicopters they? The king zombie (the same guy who played Big Daddy Mars twenty years ago and he still has the moves) rocks up at one point trotting on a zombie horse, shortly after the film has produced a zombie white tiger. There’s a sudden dreamy pause when the gang reach the bank vault they are robbing and the skeletons of some previous team are there, and while one of the characters waxes poetic about how it might in fact really be them in some arm-waving cosmic circular loop of destiny the camera pans across the bodies and the clothes and accessories and well, yes, it actually is them. And the theory that Snyder must be some flavour of toxic macho misogynist once again collapses in the face of actual observation of the things his characters do and the way he films them doing it, people facing crises of principle rather than identity.

Snyder also has fun with the visual style, mostly ignored by reviewers despite the fact that it couldn’t be more blatant if the director popped up on screen and pointed at it: the film is largely shot in an insistent shallow focus, big parts of any given frame a deliberately indistinct blur. It sounds like a nightmare borrowed from Zoom, but Snyder applies it so nimbly that it seems less like an affectation and more like a modernist dare. How he even did it is unclear: in the BTS he says it was a deliberate stylistic choice with lenses to match, but the production also replaced one cancelled actor with another performer and spliced the new body individually into scenes filmed the year before, and you wonder if the indistinct nature of much of any given frame might have been engineered after the event to assist. Or maybe it’s all just a power move: ages ago J Hoberman coined a phrase about a digitally animated film satirising the technology it employs,” and Snyder might just be treasuring the thought of people checking the Netflix support forums.

In any case, digital creativity on big canvasses usually feels like a dreary head-banging energy-sapping wow-strategy and hardly ever feels like a tool—but it does when this director does it. Plus this example wasn’t that big. Looking up the budget to see how well Snyder had spent an obvious $150 million I found that the film cost Netflix just the $90 million instead, which apparently buys enough pixels on the camera sensor to be going on with, if you know what you want to do with each of them.

See also: Zack Snyder’s Justice League
And also: In Sight & Sound on Zack Snyder’s nine-elevens

25 May 2021 Films

Dr. Irony’s Irony Iron

No point blaming Tarantino for everything (apart from Death Proof which is still criminal) but what is this if not a comic caught in the eternal wake of the Tarantino speedboat from decades ago, its characters rolled up into their own talk like a poster squeezed into a tube?

Self-propelled one-man neo-noir factory S. Craig Zahler, whose films are wordy but not that wordy, has made a graphic novel motivated apparently by pure affection for the comics form, and to say the least struggles to get the words and pictures to cooperate for a greater good. Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus, with a title that waves a big neon sign saying Grindhouse, is clearly keen on Benjamin Marra comics and look here’s Marra doing the title cards for a film Zahler scripted…

Zahler…Zahler… …and Marra…and Marra

…but Zahler’s words and pictures cohabit like an unhappy couple on the outs, puffing up a hill. There’s also the inevitable Irony Issue, a briar patch Marra’s comics swan-dive into constantly without puffing any more than he intends, and which Zahler himself has sometimes made lighter work of than this—assuming of course that Dr. Divinus is intended to be ironic in the first place, the alternative being the kind of scenario that leaves critics breathing into a paper bag.

What would light work even look like at this point, a sincere un-ironic comic of pop-culture cop-culture horror starting from over here and aiming for over there? Even allowing for the not-left politics that Zahler habitually leans towards (the working class don’t get very far in Dr. Divinus but they don’t do anything about it either, apart from the one who becomes a criminal and makes a fortune), there’s also the small matter of a road well travelled. Sexcastle from Kyle Starks came out years ago to mock (tribute, it says here, but the distinction might be moot) the kind of B-movies that became A-movies in the 1990s, while Dr. Divinus is intended as a tribute (likewise, same) to pre-Code horror comics from an era before that, a story of the city as a cave into which predators can crawl”—Christopher Sorrentino’s phrase about Death Wish, said in admiration, and they don’t make them like that any more.

When everything that already exists is just data to play with, the results might be admiring but are always a game. Dr. Divinus and Sexcastle play the same game and end up looking similar, and looking” in this case has to skirt around the fact that Zahler is by his own admission drawing as a fan of comics art rather than a comics artist. You could skirt a bit less and say that there are fanzines containing art which asks fewer questions than this, questions such as who is that person over there and what are they doing exactly.

A review of Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus and why polite art goes round in circles maybe for The Comics Journal website. Several far more favourable reviews of it are available elsewhere, which is another topic entirely.

See also: Film directors writing comics
And also: The S. Craig Zahler Way of Death
And yet also: Death Wish 2, Critics 0

12 May 2021 Art

20th Century Boys

Monsters: doomed and then doomed some moreMonsters: doomed and then doomed some more

Barry Windsor-Smith emerges from many years of silence with a style you recognise in a nanosecond and a book so intensely focused on the despair of the inescapable past and the utter wickedness of mankind that you wonder exactly what those years offstage have involved for him.

If Monsters really is the resurrected starting point of that dusty old Hulk plot-line about Bruce Banner’s abuse as a child, then it also frowns at the eternally tricky concept of using that sort of thing effectively in a Marvel or DC mainstream comic as some mark of artistic maturity in a plot that never ends. The Immortal Hulk comic has lately tied the character’s victimisation into internalised traumas on a chthonic scale, but Smith’s conclusions might be even bleaker: that your fate is imposed from outside not by individuals but by history itself, and you won’t be getting out from under that boulder. Hence this 360 unrelenting pages of adult storytelling which declines to admit a sliver of hope, recovery or cure, embracing instead a bracing Old Testament doom.

The plot that emerges from the book’s flashbacks and multiple narrators circles around the Nazis as the cosmically potent source of death and despair for innocents miles down the timeline. Smith is 71 years old which surely plays a part in this choice of demons, but the story’s weight also pulls back into view the idea that the Third Reich is a low point for Western civilisation on such a scale that it surpasses a lot of raw history and acts as something closer to mystic catastrophe, a cultural devolution, the Un-Enlightenment. One day this idea will drift permanently out of artistic range and dissolve from the cultural ether altogether, a net loss if you ask me; Smith deploys it with such force that you assume he’s been sharing houseroom with it for a long time. Monsters cements that Nazi past into the foundations of American military exceptionalism, and by extension the macho masculine ethos of the country and by further extension the entire violent unknowable cosmos. Then it takes a bearing from American literary establishment, tying together two families in ways that Smith must know are the turf of Stephen King. Beyond the unflinching issues of child unhappiness and pain, rendered viscerally over the 100 pages in which cancer-ridden monster Bobby watches the ghosts of his parents fight and die, Smith really gets his The Shining on when an American GI wanders into a wartime Bavarian Överlöok of Nazi ghosts and is set on a course of destruction for the next several decades. King hovers over the book again later, with a young psychic girl and her dead ghost father, both Shining brightly, shepherding the story’s climax into view via another ghost, this one being the story’s only vaguely good-guy. (These characters are Black, and Smith’s depiction of them is a not entirely happy mix of compassion and manipulation.)

The execution of all this is robust enough to throw fresh light back over Smith’s existing career, which is quite a feat. It certainly indicates no measurable decline in his powers alongside a consistent set of ongoing formal concerns. On some level the work responds to the perfectly valid trend for softer Asian-influenced relativism and renderings of personal identity in comics, since Monsters instead yanks hard on some of the oldest traditions of the Western art canon to deal with cruel absolutes rendered in art that if you squint a bit could look like a woodcut. It’s a breeze block from an old-school source, a deposit from the Bank of America. On top of Monsters panel by panel design, which has sights and angles only feasible because of the level of craft and no small imagination, Smith deals in illumination and atmosphere, in light and weather, and Monsters is filled with intense renderings of both those things before we even get to the drawings of skin tones and ethnicities. There are two pages in someone’s living room full of…cigarette smoke, boiling broth?…and the characters are half-glimpsed behind some near-haptic layering of lines and hatchings, art by someone who understands light and ink and putting the two together.

Monsters: scene oneMonsters: scene one

The final pages seem confounding, since all this pure technique suddenly evaporates to leave a wrack of unfilled outlines and simple open forms, of characters hollowed out. But they balance the first pages 360-odd leaves ago, which are in graphics terms the most thunderously overwrought in the book. An ogre looms in big furious panels, the ground receding at an alarming diagonal with incongruous little houses nestled in the mountainous grass, colossalism run amok, art not yet constrained by the tiers and gutters that enter on page 10. Bobby at the end of the book is an outline, because Bobby’s father at the start is an over-stuffed flexing dervish of wickedness, drawn by Smith to be dissembling on the page, spewing a gothic font with his spasming limbs double- or triple-exposed. To be rid of this ghost is to be emptied of everything.

It’s tough to imagine handing Monsters to someone unfamiliar with comics and inviting them to gaze in wonder at this spell, excelsior. In yet another historical connection, its poignant unforgiving grotesqueness resonated in my head with long-ago incomprehension of old black and white EC comics reprints, whose tone mildly freaked under-10 me out to the point where I didn’t want any more of that thank you. They were serious works dressed in pulpy wrapping; Monsters drills into pulpy sci-fi until it reaches a plutonium core of seriousness. At the very least, old soldier Barry Windsor-Smith has done anything but fade away.

4 May 2021 Art