6 August 2020


Will Sweeney’s latest self-published retrospective art book Grok, reviewed by me for The Comics Journal.

There’s some anti-establishment aggro in Sweeney’s art, behind the simmering colour blocks and those techno-wizards on loan from somewhere adjacent to Jack Kirby, although the revolution might be a slow-burner. Wage slaves do shuffle miserably towards the office under armed guard, colonists blithely pollute other people’s rivers and icons receive epic state funerals at a snail’s pace. But the main political movement would be the Bring A Bottle Party, judging by the plates of wormy foodstuffs served up in restaurants to vaguely pompous first-class diners. The occasional blasts of hedonism are mostly things like those glam rock gods, blissed-out retro hipsters bringing you the hits of some previous recession.

Urgency isn’t really Sweeney’s thing. Next to the panel-busting eccentricities of Sweeney-fan Tetsunori Tawaraya, whose art is as interested in the animal as the vegetable, Sweeney is the calm reporter at hot events, as the old Stuart Davis quote goes. One of those characters turns up in Groks climactic image, observing something that’s either a pagan rite or the local Lady Gaga support act, and looking all set to sell the snaps to the Daily Mail.

28 July 2020

Old timers

Film criticism might once have had to be dragooned into doing PR for Netflix but these days it’s obliged to volunteer, so it gave The Old Guard a warm welcome before the film even arrived and then shuffled awkwardly around how much praise to apply. No point getting tangled up all over again in the market forces compelling films to turn characters from comics into actors talking out loud at all, which has stopped looking like fun for actors and characters alike. Or in pondering how comics do their voodoo, a deeply non-cinematic art of tensions” (the label via Charles Hatfield) and a working class one at that, in which the only voices you hear are in your own head; which is part of why films are a medium for explaining what’s up with other people but comics are better at explaining what’s up with you.

Worrying about the difference between form and content would be a better bet, a discussion The Old Guard contributes to by featuring content that does all the thinking for you and form that sends you outside for a walk. What difference is created, what change is made, what action at a distance occurs, if characters intended to embody progressive qualities are depicted in ways that are indistinguishably standard in framing, editing, speech, acting style, music, colour grading and affect, while they run up against an excruciatingly infantile British villain? Maybe no change at all. Decades after cultural empowerment of mainstream female characters started to mean just making them as armoured and indestructible as the men—in the process putting a dent in the ability of the films to be particularly left-of-centre at all—films still face the choice of whether to deliver information or experience. A drift towards the safer, less radical option might be inevitable once pop-culture voluntarily moves from the margins to the centre, but that shouldn’t stop discussion of what the drift might be doing to the work.

So in a film concerned with content you get The Old Guards Charlize Theron wearing a black vest and a frown, colour graded so that the woman is indistinguishable from the sandstone, iconography of the sensitive strongman that could have come from 1985. And in a film thinking about form you get Adria Arjona striding around 6 Underground in a ludicrous skin-and-fetish-mask combo, digital grading cranked up to match the emissions of a pulsar, images incoming from somewhere around tomorrow.

Form and content, arthouse director department. Netflix also got its chequebook out for Wasp Network, Olivier Assayas’s film about anti-Castro forces in 1990s Florida. No greater admirer than me of Olivier Assayas and of Carlos, one of the great films about active historical change occurring (or not) at the end of a gun; but Wasp Network is less caustic, and most people in it are basically recognisable conflicted human beings rather than committed jihadists.

Castro himself appears via the historical archives, bobbing and weaving—saying yes we ran a spy ring in Miami, wouldn’t you?—which seems a shallower political investigation than you got from ten seconds looking into the eyes of Julia Hummer as the batshit crazy Nada” in Carlos. A weird thing in Wasp Network happens (twice) when an unheralded and unexplained voice over kicks in, arriving in the film as if thrown bodily on from the wings, which has to explain who’s who and what’s occurring before departing back to the ether. Assayas scores these explanations with Wipe Out” by the Surfaris, which considering that he had Carlos the Jackal travel from A to B backed with Loveless Love” by The Feelies feels like it must be a political statement of some sort.

Form and content, guts in a bucket department.

Reading S. Craig Zahler’s novels after seeing his films might be the right way round, since you discover that the films are such precise translations of mood and style from one medium into another that they seem refreshed when you watch them again afterwards, even if they also can’t help but feel a bit derivative. You certainly spot which bits of hair-raising violence have been run up the flagpole earlier in the books. A Congregation of Jackals has a tribe of cannibal Native American troglodytes and a character hobbled by a busted leg, and once read cannot be unlinked in the mind from Bone Tomahawk. It has a villain called Quinlan, whose first name isn’t given but might as well be Hank. Mean Business On North Granson Street, intentions signalled by that title of pure noir pastiche, foretells Dragged Across Concrete with cops of dubious morality in ballistic masks, stressed masculine partnerships, castration of men and threatened or actual blinding of women. It has a character said to resemble a movie star who turns out to be called Jerry Langford, by which point all those character actor cameos in Bone Tomahawk are starting to add up.

It also has a villain’s comeuppance involving the contents of his own colostomy bag, which I don’t think Zahler has as yet persuaded a studio to let him recreate. The tone of social dread hanging over everything is consistent enough in the films on their own, but makes added sense as a literary mood spilling over into a neighbouring field. So do the deliberate wanders away from established plot lines to see what’s happening somewhere seemingly unconnected, usually leading to the unconnected person having their fingers or gonads removed. This particular trick might finally settle the question of Zahler’s sincerity, pondered by me ever since that secondary character got emphatically Goya-ed in Bone Tomahawk. (Zahler has since written Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, a bonkers triangulation between him, the low-budget pastiche of the old Charles Band film studio now arriving through the grimier lens of Cinestate, and the outsider comics art of Benjamin Marra. It feels like Zahler and Marra ganged up on Band in a car park to teach him about the pitiless emptiness of the universe.) Zahler films are squarely set in the same unquiet land as the books, a civilisation built on awful sands and feeling obliged to steamroller the supposedly uncivilised if it’s going to get anywhere.

7 July 2020

O Lucky Man

The 18th-century lush who stumbles around plastered in Portrait of a Drunk inflicting misery and death on everyone he meets is named Guy, so readers wondering whether the joke is aimed at any particular group of people should probably start with that. Despicable at first and then deteriorating from there, Guy’s bad behaviour is clearly going to earn him no comeuppance—although if he gets the loot he’s after there’s every chance of him tipping his prize into the ocean soon, sloshed again—which makes his one tiny ambiguous flicker of compassion in the middle feel even more dire than it would anyway. It certainly doesn’t do the young apprentice he fleetingly seems to be concerned about any good, since the kid’s already become one with the cosmos and is peering at Guy from an afterlife that’s swathed in heavy blue drapes like David Lynch’s vestibule.

The sour and stylish Portrait of a Drunk is a joint effort from Olivier Schrauwen and Florent Ruppert & Jérôme Mulot, and before reading it I had assumed it would be easy to spot who had done what; but panel-by-panel it’s nearly impossible. Schrauwen’s combative intellectual mockery is pretty distinctive—or distinctively Belgian if my struggles with films by Bouli Lanners and Jaco Van Dormael is any indication—and the feeling that the story is viewing its characters from an altitude of ten thousand feet feels like him. Ruppert & Mulot are comfortable lower down where the story’s sexual slapstick and kinetic violence flow from, something for which they have a knack. But Portraits bits of narrative free-for-all and layout gameplay could have been passed back and forth across the desk by any of them, along with the jokes. As in any morality play, the trick is to spot the void where your own morals are supposed to be; plus be reminded that where you end up will be where you started, no matter how much water has been passed since then.

Artistic coincidences: The separated body parts and spectres spying on Guy from limbo, which eventually gang up and torture him during a feverish hallucinatory sickness, include a headless body with a face in the torso. And reviewing Strontium Dog: Search and Destroy, the latest reprint of that strip’s first life which I hadn’t read since it was new in 1978, there’s John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s first depiction of the story’s mutant underclass. Grotesques as a common artistic language.

16 June 2020

Mrs. French’s cat is missed

Calling a film Dreamland gets your excuse in beforehand for any amount of arch unnatural gurning, but the latest Dreamland (latest of many) already has the spongey panto vibes that a low-budget English-language crypto-noir on the mean streets of Luxembourg is likely to haul around with it. Panto season kicks off properly when Juliette Lewis steams on as a Countess of no clear county and shouts at the locals, an American attached to middle Europe like a vampire. Her brother, an actual vampire, is as mittel-European as all hell. Gangsters hang out in a club called Al Qaeda, the rich buy and sell children as sex slaves while isolated de Sade-style in a mansion, and the band plays blithely on when the children eventually mow down their abusers with machine guns.

It’s no Pontypool. But then what is? Dreamland is Stephen McHattie and Lisa Houle saying lines co-written by Tony Burgess and directed by Bruce McDonald, and if anyone onscreen had hinted at a prior life in Ontario or some unpleasantness with a zombie plague I would have forgiven the film anything for joining the Pontypool Connected Universe. Pontypool—especially with the source novel Pontypool Changes Everything as some bigger project—is so singular that it hangs in the back of your mind like the book’s lethal virus, and even Dreamland seems to lens the light back towards it. Dreamland starts with a high-class escort practicing a foreign language, robotically reciting sounds divorced from their meaning, and ends with a coda in some artificial happy-ending limbo with the same actors who were in one of those last time, so maybe this is the PCU after all. In between everyone seems to be navigating a bubble of abrasive self-interest and artificial baloney. The collateral message, that navigating bubbles of those is your own lookout these days so you should probably get on with it, is a retro vibe of total current relevance and Burgess seems to have a bead on it. Pontypool knows the score:

The first Michael Winterbottom film I saw was probably 24 Hour Party People, and ever since the fact that he’s hardly mentioned as one of the greats has only endeared him to me more, even when I didn’t like the films—and I liked most of them just fine. It would be stretching things a bit to invoke the name of Ken Russell, but choosing to look at real lives through a mildly absurdist prism and see what aggressions emerge is one of the best tendencies the UK tradition has on the books—the Catholic hysteria may be out, but in exchange you get 24 Hour Party Peoples subterranean cultural tides, all of them walking and talking. The other name to mention might be Ken Loach, given how Winterbottom’s films bite on social and socialist issues without ever landing close to Loach’s stone-faced naturalism, a style whose potential flaws aren’t discussed enough. You could wave your arms and wonder whether Winterbottom or Loach was the better heir to the kind of thing that British TV used to get up to, as opposed to what it gets up to now as an arm of the establishment centre. In any case, Greed, the last film I saw at the cinema before someone turned cinema off at the mains, takes a spectacularly dim view of capitalists and the fortress Europe sentiments created by people like Steve Coogan’s Sir Richard McCreadie, who is clearly the rich and very establishment Sir Philip Green.

There’s a temptation to see all of these regular Winterbottom/Coogan projects as The Trip To My Bank Account, but Greeds comedy has a dose of appropriately Greek tragedy. The agent of cosmic retribution is a lion—so beat that Paul Laverty—which has consumed cocaine given to it by McCreadie’s resentful son—beat that Sophocles. Consulting the data indicates that the film received its tepid release the week after Caroline Flack died, and Flack is the first face seen in the film, one of many celebs endorsing and publicising McCreadie as the whole fetid system revolves. There’s a running gag about McCreadie resorting to celebrity lookalikes at his party; a George Michael arrives, unhindered by the real one having been dead for a while. The fact that Flack had gone too by the time the film came out undoubtedly distressed all involved, but Winterbottom’s pointed cultural romanticism makes it seem inadvertently well aligned, the ghost in the malfunctioning moneymaking machine.

26 May 2020

God squads

Idly re-reading 30 years of Tank Girl comics during a dire pandemic and political meltdown is to watch writer Alan Martin tend his holy flame without ever peering over the temple walls, much less leaving the grounds. Not even the issues eventually drawn by Mick McMahon—the Saw franchise remixed by The Young Ones—can decently process the radioactive negativity of those photos of Margaret Thatcher tootling around Lower Saxony in a Challenger tank which presumably played a part in the strip’s creation, images already beyond parody at birth. If the comics had any solid political goal, it got diluted by the twin tracks of standard Tank Girl studies: that the strip was 1) punk and 2) feminist. The second claim has to accommodate the shortage of female creators whose names have ever appeared in the credits, and the first trips over the small fact that the strip is as punk as a lemon pip. The major guide-stars for Tank Girl are elsewhere, things with one foot in British absurdity like Roscoe Moscow in Sounds, plus most of Viz, already a decade old before Martin and Jamie Hewlett had a head of state soil himself for want of a colostomy bag in Tank Girls first story.

The real mind-bender is to read Shaky Kane’s comics from the same issues of Deadline, work beaming in from further afield altogether—possibly from Spiegelgasse 1, Zurich. The 2017 Good News Bible reprint of this stuff makes Kane’s A-Men strips and their very 1980s religious terror seem hammered into Deadline like a titanium spike, the anode to Tank Girls cathode. Whatever the publishing calculations involved in Deadline, and by all accounts it couldn’t have lost more money if it was printed on gold leaf, its role as a delivery system for Shaky Kane art excuses a lot of other things. Dipping coincidentally into Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, the book falls open at passages on the dadaists at Cabaret Voltaire and the stage happenings, simultaneous poems and mock rituals” underway in downtown Zurich 1916, which could also be a stab at describing some of Kane’s instinctive cartooning, cutting up and reforming reality as he went. Marcus reckons that London punk was partly the underground currents of big daddy Dada breaking the surface again, which would make Shaky Kane’s comics punk enough to put Tank Girl into a coma. Plus right there is the photo of Hugo Ball’s Sorcerer costume, some prototype Shaky Kane walk-on character, the A-Men’s janitor. Marcus thinks performance venues like the Cabaret would seem as good a laboratory for change as any other; so are Shaky Kane comics and Greil Marcus books, and since they remain open for revolutionary business we should probably read some.

Shaky Kane: A-ManShaky Kane: A-Man

Hugo Ball: D-ManHugo Ball: D-Man

15 May 2020

Samurai Marathon

Samurai Marathon: the usual suspect, againSamurai Marathon: the usual suspect, again

Bernard Rose’s Japanese-language film Samurai Marathon, mentioned previously here after last year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, has turned up on streaming services, at a price-point that’s close to them paying you to watch it. At one point this review was in the works for somewhere else, but now it’s here instead:

Not a surprise maybe that depictions of Commodore Matthew Perry and his appearance in Japan at the head of an American navy task force in 1852 have cropped up more frequently in the culture he landed on than in the one he left, given the events he set in motion. No surprise at all that in Bernard Rose’s Samurai Marathon, a boisterous and energetic story of those consequences for the residents of Annaka Domain, Perry marches into frame in the form of the director’s favourite actor Danny Huston, bringing with him an automatic amount of haughty intimidation on behalf of the U S of A, plus the shadow of Huston’s many vampires and nutters. Perry’s arrival sends not just diplomatic but psychic shock waves through the land: Itakura (Hiroki Hasegawa), the lord of Annaka Domain, awakens from a nightmare convinced that Perry brings doom along with him. Itakura orders his entire clan to take part in a foot race to prove its fitness for conflict, but a bad case of Fake News causes the clan to be attacked by soldiers sent by the ruling shogun, who believes that a rebellion has begun.

Samurai Marathon is another East Asia project for producer Jeremy Thomas, whose hot line to studios in the region must by now get answered after the first ring. And if it seems more of a surprise to find Bernard Rose directing, apparently joining the production at Thomas’s specific invitation, then a rummage through Rose’s back catalogue is a reminder that he pushes back against British film industry labels all the time. Samurai Marathon might lack the psychological anxiety of Rose’s chamber adaptations of Leo Tolstoy stories like The Kreutzer Sonata, or the arch social commentary of Candyman, or the semi-Ken Russell theatrics of Immortal Beloved; but Rose’s emphasis on faces and the emotions crossing them during moments of turmoil remains a surefire success as a storytelling style. He also rehired composer Philip Glass, still an exceptional contributor to any film, whose music pulses in the ether around characters, a conscious Fate respiring somewhere above and beyond.

The film has enough honest men and frauds, nobles and paupers, cruelty and mercy to feel like a fable, even though the plot is based on a true story and the historical resonances speak for themselves. Hiroki Hasegawa, last seen by me trying to avoid getting trodden on in Shin Godzilla, faces down an enemy armed with US weapons who tells him that Japan is going to have to change, which indeed it will. Princess Yuki (Nana Komatsu) aggressively self-emancipates from the restrictions placed on her in a way that echoes both Shakespeare and Wonder Woman. Accountant Jinnai (Takeru Satoh) is pardoned for a mistake and spared from committing seppuku, but it’s the emotion on the face of his wife (Mugi Kadowaki) that makes an old tradition look incompatible with a coming era. And the story is now commemorated annually in the Annaka Marathon, Rose’s real-life footage of which shows it to be a full-on fun run of joggers waving and gurning for the camera, proving the golden rule that the victor in any culture war is the one in rhino fancy dress.

See also: me on Bernard Rose’s Mr Nice from 2011.