16 February 2019

Apocalypse then

The electricity went off forever. In Pat Mills’s book about his writing career he calls Alan Davidson, who wrote this panel and the rest of the 1976 drowned-Britain survival story Fran of the Floods, the Alan Moore of girls’ comics.” Since the young Davidson got his start sub-editing Roy of the Rovers and the young Moore once wrote under a pseudonym taken from child-murderer Gilles de Rais, they probably had different perspectives on the concept of irony. But squint a bit at Frans storyline—melodramatic but cerebral, morbid but empowering—and there are certainly parallels. Mills always said that girls’ comics like Jinty, which he launched and where Fran of the Floods appeared, focused on character in a way that boys’ comics would not, and in a modern light they clearly want to think about crises of principle over crises of identity, the currently unfashionable choice. This old story bears all of that out too. The Treasury of British Comics project has reprinted the whole thing, which strikes me as the sort of thing the imprint should be doing more often. In the process it seems to have removed the occasional spot colours used by Jinty and stripped everything back to black and white, which is the sort of thing I wish it would stop doing. I reviewed the reprinted story for Tripwire.

Also at the Tripwire site: a bit more of Alan Moore in the collected 2000AD strip Caballistics Inc, including another entry in the catalogue of fictional Aleister Crowley analogues and the use of Christ Church Spitalfields. But Caballistics uses almost everything, a fannish embrace of a hundred pop-culture influences from Bernard Quatermass on down. It’s a fun ton of horror homage with a dismemberment on every page, but I’m not sure it was as scary as Fran of the Floods.

12 February 2019

American visions

I started to watch Velvet Buzzsaw thinking of Tony Gilroy as the man who co-wrote The Fall, a sublime film about storytelling from which I emerged in a daze; by the end I remembered that he had a hand in Freejack, where Amanda Plummer is a sweary nun who kicks a man in the rosaries and I nearly had to be escorted out of the cinema for laughing. I laughed at Velvet Buzzsaw too, once I realised Jake Gyllenhaal’s art critic really was called Morf Vandewalt and had a sticky end ahead of him; but mockery of the art business and the kind of critic wedged up its fundament doesn’t require much more finesse than Ms. Plummer’s boot. A walking pile of art biz pomposity whose trousers stop two inches above his shoes mistakenly praises John Malkovitch’s bin bags as the next big thing, just in case the message had not got through. And since Gilroy invents a murderous conceptual art piece called Hoboman, which without the subtitles might as well be Hoberman, you assume he’s not thinking only about the art world.

The plot is just a list of vast coincidences in sequential order, but any horror film about the art market which nods towards Dario Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome, a movie whose global fanbase could meet in my kitchen, knows the score. It knows to shove the trade’s necrophilia—“the dogma of the Perpetual Resurrection of the Dead” said Robert Hughes—out from the background and into the Los Angeles sunlight. I very much wanted to hear Hughes pile into the haunted artworks apparently cluttering up the city’s gallery space (“No doubt the very dead Mr. Vetril Dease still couldn’t carve his name on a tree,” or similar), but the film has enough shots of LA itself to suggest Gilroy’s real topic might be that city and the fumes of fame and money that it breathes. There’s one bonkers aerial shot so digitally fabricated and crisp it looks like a model village complete with tiny aeroplane.

The whole thing might in fact be a country mouse’s big city odyssey through a Hell-Ay where the main responsibility of the artist is to sow disaster. Natalia Dyer’s gallery assistant Coco, an overworked naif exploited by everyone, only exists in the plot to stumble across dead colleagues and be traumatised. Having haplessly discovered one character hanged in his own installation and after that another who bled to death in two separate pieces and then a bit later a third with his neck snapped, she reasonably enough calls a cab for the airport.

4 February 2019

in the fog

Reprints show the roots of things you run into again elsewhere—it’s one thing to hear that Frank Miller and Jim Steranko were influenced by Guido Crepax, another to see the original Valentina work they were looking at—but the Alberto Breccia art in Fantagraphics’ new restoration of Mort Cinder from 1962 seems influential and almost impossible to appropriate at the same time. The deep shadows and high contrasts point at the usual noir suspects on film and someone like Gene Colan on the page, while the drawing techniques appear so improvised that the art might sit outside of a mass-production industry altogether. Every delicate shade and stipple and harsh stamp and smudge would be individual even if Breccia didn’t leave his actual fingerprints in the ink—which he does, a thumbprint serving as the Moon in the sky.

Meanwhile the story keeps leading the immortal Mort and his loyal old sidekick Ezra into liminal zones of all kinds—fog banks, night-time forests, overgrown paths, tunnels, jungles—and the Breccia art veers towards the abstract before diving into it fully. The real world and parts unknown rub shoulders all the time, just a tense walk in the fog away. Writer Héctor Germán Oesterheld ultimately vanished into a grave somewhere in the fog at the hands of the Argentinian junta, just to make the symbolism even more acute.

In ancient Babylon an alien scientist who looks like a leper fires an invisible beam at the Moon so that the reflected rays will return to Earth and alter the human mind to make communication impossible and so slow the pace of technology. And this is what Breccia draws.

1 February 2019

better realities

If you happen to be near San Francisco, there are a couple of articles by me appearing in the daily in-house magazine of the Photonics West technology conference going on at the Moscone Center. One involves a way to kill MRSA bacteria, which could be big news in healthcare. The other is about a problem with most augmented reality hardware and a UK company which thinks it can be solved, which could ultimately be big news almost everywhere.

11 December 2018

morality bites

My votes in Sight & Sound magazine’s 2018 film poll were for:

Three of these were in the overall top six, a rare alignment. On the other hand:

Another year in which film critics crossed boycotts to write for non-paying outlets, indulged the theory that curators and exhibitors have the same job as ours, allowed the cottage industry of early-career training courses to continue making money for people other than the critics on them, and couldn’t sustain a discussion of class in criticism beyond an initial statement of one fact without it imploding. Any critic accepting this status quo as the price of hypothetical progress should make their case out loud so that it can be debated.

There are a lot of things not currently being debated. It was also another year of some critics in certain quarters calling for unspecified forms of Better Criticism when considering the work of Problematic Artists. What this brave new world of well-behaved arts criticism will look like, to say nothing of the well-behaved art, is equally unclear.

At this point it might be better for those advocating the concept of Socially Responsible Art to spell out what they imagine the socially irresponsible kind is doing in the heads of the people who consume it, exactly. We’ve reached the stage of proceedings where the call is for the arts critics themselves, rather than the artists, to think harder about their societal responsibilities—which as well as being a formulation to catch the eye of any passing historian of the mid-20th Century, dragoons arts critics into the 21st Century police action underway on the anti-art Left, accumulating a few thousand volts of irony along the way.

Chances are that this is actually the important discussion, ultimately more vital than those structural catastrophes hobbling the paid-criticism trade; but the catastrophes affect our power to do the discussing, by no coincidence whatsoever. One of 1974’s most wayward cinematic sons was dragged back onstage this year, and some things do not, in fact, ever change:

Art is intrinsically spiritual not political, a spiritual thing that reminds us of the madness of our own consciousness, and to call for Bad Objects to go away is to want that nagging reminder to go away too, in favour of a more reassuring belief that art must be a spokesperson, a taskmaster, a lost dad and colossal father.

The mission taken up by much current arts criticism of a left-ish persuasion: to treat Bad Objects as if they were flawed academic papers to be retracted; to scrutinise content but remain oblivious to form; to purge, to purge, to purge.

10 December 2018

sentenced to life

The January/February Sight & Sound magazine includes me reviewing the new remake of Papillon, another film adaptation which ends by showing the creation of its own source book when that actual source does nothing of the kind. On the Road played the same game and The Rum Diary did something similar. Such a modern last-minute worry, that an audience might forget why the film’s title rang a bell in the first place. But also the unshakeable addiction to origin stories, and the panic that a story which doesn’t lay the groundwork for something coming along afterwards might be no story at all.

I went into First Man in a mild panic of my own, after scowling for the full length of both Whiplash and La La Land at director Damien Chazelle’s inherently chilly and distant manner. But First Man emphasises actors shuddering and shaking in the interiors of capsules with an apparent lack of digital effects, in sequences like Neil Armstrong’s wild flat spin in Gemini 8 and eventually the moon landing itself with its cascading alarms and resets. Perhaps prodded by the script—writer Josh Singer started on post-Aaron Sorkin The West Wing after all—even Chazelle doesn’t opt to be chilly for those.

Composer Justin Hurwitz has a lot to do with this, since First Mans modest score goes emphatically back to basics of theme and variations, with entirely successful results. There’s a melancholy harp melody for the Armstrongs that reminded me of Basil Poledouris and Les Misérables, which evolves into a bouncing arrangement of ticking determination for the Houston sequences with something of Rachael Portman about it, and eventually becomes a lunar descent of rolling triplet relentlessness which isn’t really martial enough to be properly John Barry but does understand Barry’s mechanics—tension through grandeur rather than aggro. There’s also a tiny motif for Karen, the Armstrongs’ deceased child, heard at the tail end of the Armstrong theme almost every time, the memory tugging at her parents which they never leave behind. At the zenith of the entire film and score, when Chazelle finally cuts outside the rumbling capsule for a look at the vast lunar surface and the tiny human craft flown by an introverted husband and father aiming to be the first human to walk on it, and the score hits its grandest emotional fortissimo, it’s the dead daughter’s theme that it plays. Which is one bulletproof answer, the next time anyone wonders what exactly film music is there for.