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 People’s 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 Greed’s 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
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 Girl’s 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 Girl’s 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-Man
Hugo Ball: D-Man
15 May 2020
Samurai 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.
30 April 2020
Brit-Cit and beyond
At The Comics Journal: a review of David Roach’s Masters of British Comic Art book, which takes up a fair portion of any coffee table it sits on. The histories of those Brits on the cover have been mulled over before (nearly a cottage industry in the case of Judge Dredd) but this book looks at less common parts of the map, while also trying to balance the scales a bit for a profession which has been as diverse and progressive as most of British publishing ie. not much. Another reason for a hefty tome is that it’s published by Rebellion, which has bought vast chunks of old British comics IP and surely spotted a moment to express commitment to that purchase via the medium of kilograms.
At Tripwire: brief words on Barking, Lucy Sullivan’s graphic novel about a mental breakdown. Unfair to compare everything in this area to Sloane Leong’s A Hollowing, bits of which I’m still thinking about three years after reading it; but both of them choose Expressionist horror as the way to shove a reader into the mind of someone in a bad place, while also stressing that they’re built from ink marks scratched onto paper. Realism does not offer a transparent window onto reality, reckoned Linda Nochlin and me.
Tank Girl gets onto the Masters cover and Jamie Hewlett gets his place in the line-up; but he already had a Taschen volume to himself in 2017, a book that puts your coffee table under even more strain than Roach’s does. Masters displays its artists alphabetically, which equalises things but downplays the historical moments, like the one when Hewlett spliced Moebius and MAD magazine and changed the course of the river a bit. Selecting three pages of Tank Girl for Masters restricts Hewlett’s energies much like an atom bomb squeezed into a tin can, while the Taschen book can venture into things like Hewlett’s sketches from Bangladesh for Oxfam, part of the humanitarian anti-war sentiment that runs through his art. Plus it has his drawings of Aquitaine pine trees, rigorous study of light and shade on a French headland being about as legitimate a fine arts project as it gets, historically speaking.
8 April 2020
Godard goes fishing
For The Comics Journal a review of Mitchum, a new edition of the French anthology by Christian “Blutch” Hincker which arrives now pretty much like a thunderbolt.
I wrote about Total Jazz before; but Mitchum is stronger meat, comics of obsession and violence being countered by art and dancing—of poor human nature being inseparable from the better parts, a fairly radical notion. To see the ways women are treated in Mitchum and not spot that Blutch has turned his vision onto the men involved as well has missed the point, if only since several of the men involved are clearly him. Blutch is suggesting that obsession—lust for that matter—might not be an entirely negative thing, and you don’t catch many creatives hinting at that now stories about the human id are out of fashion.
Mitchum also finds room for an incidental drive-by nutmegging of the video-essay film criticism industry before that form really existed, in the section where something resembling Robert Mitchum beams down into a story. Video-essays deal in juxtaposition and re-reading and re-emphasis and re-framing and re-scoring of images from films, but in the end you’re stuck with ingredients which actually exist. Blutch has the entire manipulative subjectivity of cartoons to work with, images freed from any kind of prior life at all. His golem of Robert Mitchum could hardly be more resistant to close reading even before you tried to work out whether he was actually Robert Mitchum in the first place. If film criticism’s current wish that art sticks to answers rather than questions is well worth chewing over which it absolutely is then it’s a good moment for Blutch to restate that art can leave you to join a lot of dots yourself. Restate through a megaphone.
It’s fine to claim Mitchum as film criticism since Blutch has some form. So Long, Silver Screen was reprinted again a while ago, and none of the stories in there could be confused for video-essays either, even though they directly involve Jean-Luc Godard, Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Orson Welles and others. Blutch lacerates himself constantly throughout this book too, as a hopeless milksop in thrall to images of women and some men, but it’s an exercise in exaggeration and self-analysis. The book is tricky and rude and ribald and shape-shifts from metaphor to farce and back in a way that says something about the dreamland of movies but probably more about the wiring of your own taste in the things. An elderly Jean-Luc Godard turns up in a story initially set-up as The Swiss Family Robinson, endlessly catching fish that promptly dissolve to dust on the hook, until an observing caveman eventually yawns in boredom and wanders off. It’s an art joke and a coherent piece of film criticism and if processed into a workable video-essay would look like something Neil Innes sketched on a pad forty years ago next to a doodle of Godard playing the bagpipes.
One section in Mitchum slides into conceptual comics territory, when Blutch takes completed conventional comics pages telling a Western story and draws a female dancer over the top of every page—apparently an unrelated image, but of course that’s not how the mind works when confronted with it. LAAB #4, the crowd-funded broadsheet fanzine still agitating for print in the face of all the forces lining up against it, had a spread by Michael Horse, his “Last Breath of the Black Snake” poster with cowboys and Native Americans fighting the Keystone XL Pipeline, drawn on top of a 1898 profit and loss ledger. Remixing cultural products gets you certain places, but remixing the symbolism might get you to alternate states altogether.
30 March 2020
In the April print issue of Sight & Sound some cross words about Bad Boys for Life, a franchise emerging from the freezer after 17 years to chance its arm at the tables just because the tables are still there. Michael Bay started the Bad Boys machine and was immediately not the answer to any question I personally was asking, and two decades later 6 Underground on Netflix looks like him settling a few old scores with everyone who told him to tone the excess down a bit. But at least excess is an option if you start from where he started. Bad Boys 3, just like Rambo: Last Blood, is so boxed in by obligatory pop-culture messaging that it can’t even become excessive. Or match the spirit of its own original film, since irony now strangles everything from the Cinema of Cartoon Cruelty before it even gets going. Meanwhile the myth of redemptive violence trundles endlessly on, in this case allowing two generations of males to find redemption by cartoonishly obliterating a devil woman from both their lives. The film is, of course, a smash.
6 Underground: hyper-real
No one will ever know if 6 Underground is a smash, since its viewing figures are just data etched into a memory crystal somewhere in the Netflix AI; but it makes Bad Boys 3 look like a wheezing grandpa halfway towards a personal best marathon time of ten hours. As Robert Hughes said about art and Tucker Stone said about these very explosions, the distinction to be made is whether any cultural doodad wants to supply its audience with information or with experience. Superhero films collapse under the tonnage of constant information, while 6 Underground junks the stuff in favour of colour-saturated cross-cut velocity, marshalled apparently by PT Barnum on a bender. This idea has flickered around before, but when something like Crank or Gamer had a go at it they were stuck with being grungy lo-fi farce, which was all that the digital workflows could conjure at the time. Plus they were strenuously masculine, and any commentary on 6 Underground needs to discuss how Bay deploys the least macho bunch of males he has ever bothered with, and two distinctly un-paper-doll females; coitus has never been more interruptus in a Bay film before. Freed to go bonkers by Netflix’s open chequebook—and by some customised RED digital cameras apparently built to specs yelled down the phone by Bay himself—6 Underground is also freed from being lo-fi anything. It’s the first full-on accelerationist thing of the Twenties, the raw materials of a heist film getting smashed together by the Large Hadron Collider.
A Hidden Life: hyper-real-er
Seemingly somewhere off in another dimension sits A Hidden Life, a major result from the research lab where Terrence Malick has been wondering what a cinema of expressionism might actually look like, and seeing what happens if you bet the house on romanticism rather than reality. Having already pondered how to handle questions of personal faith and regret in other films, Malick finally tackles the Nazis head-on, spotting immediately that the only meaningful way to do so is through questions of personal faith and regret. The director’s oscillating low-level camera has driven some viewers up the wall for years, but anyone inclined to think that he’s been getting under the skin of his characters that way might find that he’s now even closer to the poetry of earth than ever, by connecting it to the humans rising out of that clay in the first place.
You might have to note that Malick can’t actually do anything much with the Nazis themselves, who turn into the usual gurning dingbats when regarded by that fish-eye lens from somewhere around floor level. One of them is glimpsed screaming in his own office, presumably tormented beyond words; Waldemar Kobus from Black Book and many other places does a little jig of amusement, presumably not tormented at all. But they aren’t the point; and neither is Hitler, whose voice echoes across the Austrian landscape at dusk, possibly not a strictly necessary metaphor. The point is the man they are all escorting into the cosmos at the business end of a death warrant, and the potency of a film in which he does the difficult thing because it’s the right thing but not the violent thing can hardly be underestimated in a system where Messrs. Smith and Stallone take out the trash in a moral vacuum of cod xenophobic panic. The film criticism nonsense klaxon went off when someone complained that the film failed to show why Franz Jägerstätter would resist the order to read out a Nazi oath and effectively throw his life away; and it’s true that Malick neglects to show Jägerstätter discussing the lives of the saints out loud or making a helpful speech about his situation to one of his sheep. Instead he’s just shown as being in touch with his Christianity and his own place within it, depicted that way through the manner in which he looks at his neighbours and his mother and his church and his wife and children stood next to it. From there, what other decision could he reach?