7 March 2019

The large Glass

In 2002 Newsweek floated the theory that M Night Shyamalan and Steven Spielberg were kindred spirits, an idea which didn’t survive to see 2003. Shyamalan’s new alignment with the low-budget end of the Blumhouse production line looks a better fit, and if one result is the pure indulgence of reversing back up your own catalogue and Frankensteining a franchise out of Unbreakable and Split, at least the move has some old-fashioned B-movie audacity. Glass really does look modest, a mile away from the doomy apocalyptic pulse of Unbreakable; but the real interest is in someone like Shyamalan, who has given irony a wide berth since forever, returning to the topic of comic book heroes in this excessively ironic moment. Glass is about identities run amok and individuals keeping their inner freak under wraps rather than letting it all hang out, and by being unironic about that Glass is expressly political, well beyond the coy mannerisms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—and in a different direction, aware that identity politics and neoliberal practices aren’t that far apart, and neither are superheroes and fascists. There can’t be gods among us, it’s just not fair,” says the resident mad doctor, hoovering up heroes and villains alike. Samuel L Jackson, confined in a wheelchair much as a neutron bomb is confined in a tin can, opposes the motion. They don’t want us to know the things we suspect are extraordinary about ourselves are real,” says the murderous Mr Glass, and if the film sees a problem with his progressive state of mind, then its objections are carefully couched.

Huge, colossal objections to Dick Cheney occupy Vice from top to bottom and back again. When biopics got boring and the genre headed for the rocks, my theory was that your average story of celeb struggle and epiphany was stuck like a ship in pack ice, made pointless when fame already means being lost into the grinder of tatty voyeurism and social-media prurience. Or it might have been that films like Diana were just rubbish.

Vice tries to defibrillate the corpse with a zippy morbid postmodern attack on someone whose epiphanies can look a lot like something unpleasant curdling slowly in the jar. But while attempting to rugby tackle Dick Cheney, the Current Biopic Problem just runs straight into the Current Satire Problem. Director Adam McKay’s career includes the two Anchormans, both still a very good time, and Saturday Night Live, which since his day has somehow managed to neuter the richest TV comedy heritage on the planet and thunderously failed to solve the problem of getting sketch satire out of the deep freeze. He also made The Big Short, where the attempt to break free included a certain amount of deliberate smugness, an ingredient that might have curdled a bit itself when Vice repeats the exercise. Alfred Molina has a moment as a restaurant waiter with a menu of explicitly described torture atrocities for the political agenda (“that sounds delicious”), and it’s such a frusty piece of sub-Dario Fo stage-craft that they might as well have gone to the relevant source and hired Michael Palin.

On the other hand, isn’t a cut from George W Bush’s twitching foot to an Iraqi family quivering in terror, fair comment? Cheney’s heart surgery lets the film flaunt its metaphor in a way that’s as blunt as a brick through your window but at least visual rather than verbal: the camera cranes down into the empty chest cavity of the heartless man who for now has no actual heart. Nicholas Britell’s music has some of Terence Blanchard’s jazzy blue-note growling anger, which in turn pulls the film towards Spike Lee—and if there’s anyone who understands history as travesty rather than comedy, it’s Lee. Eventually Christian Bale’s growling Cheney addresses the audience and makes the standard dingbat’s claim that it’s always the voters’ fault in the end. Gérard Depardieu blamed the public directly for his troubles too in Welcome to New York, another film about a political figure and capitalist with no moral compass, or pants in his case. From behind the teeniest fig leaf of fictionality, the would-be President of France has a meltdown and just tells the viewer to fuck off, a dose of venom that makes Vice look like it’s assaulting its target with a cushion.

22 February 2019

Einstein a go go

The Superman film came out in 1978 and birthed a bunch of future creatives all at once like Midwich Cuckoos—just a year after the similar population bubble from Star Wars. Anyone leaving the cinema and buying a Superman comic was in for a bit of mental static, but anyone who read Elliot Maggin’s tie-in novel Last Son of Krypton instead may have got a bigger dose. There was a burst of superhero novels at the time—Marvel pumped out a series, like David Michelinie’s Avengers novel The Man Who Stole Tomorrow which introduced me to Devo among other things—but most of them were trying to catch the Merry Marvel tone of genial repartee.

Maggin was chasing something else, the spirit of high imagination that lurked under the skin of DC Comics from a decade or two before, the kind of tale where the infant Superman could nearly be adopted by Albert Einstein. The attempt was so successful there may be some of those future creatives still aware of his influence now—certainly one, at least. There’s an article in the new issue of Comic Scene magazine by me talking about why.

21 February 2019

Scandinavian psycho

Bruno Ganz gone, the old devil. The House That Jack Built ends with two characters descending into hell, an exercise which looks like it involved Lars von Trier getting the ever-game 75-year-old Ganz to go caving somewhere under Trollhättan. As ever, von Trier’s personal anguish is lensed outwards in all directions on both sides of the camera.

My complaint, again and still, is that art which evades the nature of the evil it depicts and is satisfied with just the experiences of the victims has chickened out of the hard choices. And a culture which can face endless female victims but can’t look male killers in the eye has some problems in the self-diagnosis department, and has neutered one of the purposes of art existing in the first place. The pair of 2018 films about Anders Breivik and the Utøya murders were exemplary, one turning its disinterest in the killer into a formal tactic, the other making him a chilly screen presence in the Hannibal Lector mode, distanced by all the conventions of screen super-villainy. Whether either of these count as the high road towards something unspeakable or no road towards it at all is a chewy question. Something similar hampers Amazon’s Jack Ryan series, a show which proves again that the thriller template with all its logical cause and effect has become useless at understanding human violence in an age saturated with irony. Only something that brings the scent of psychic hysteria in through the window with it can get the job done.

While saying so for Sight & Sound I was thinking of David Lynch, but Lars von Trier has now chipped in. Whether travesty is strictly the right word for The House That Jack Built, it does imply the black mania of the film, in which von Trier turns his wayward gaze back to men rather than women. Wretched to watch, a satire as despairing as anything by Hieronymus Bosch, its transgressive credentials are impeccable from the second murder, when Matt Dillon’s serial killer Jack drags the body of a sympathetic plain middle aged lady away behind his car while the cop suspicious of him is still looking right at them through the window.

Von Trier predictably comes down on this material from the stratosphere with the descending arc of a cruise missile, and although the film makes it clear that Jack kills men as well as women and mutilates small animals, the gendering of the controversy is inevitable. Jack tries faking empathy in the mirror, an exercise which makes him look like a man battling the palsy. He then defiles the corpse of a young child to give it a travesty of the smile he barely managed himself; the second event is a dire violation, but it exists because of the first. He runs over an old lady with a van for no reason. He sets about killing half a dozen hysterical tied-up nobodies with one bullet. He builds a playhouse out of corpses, a sight which might have sent Bosch back to the drawing board. He does things to Riley Keough which explicitly conjure up Bret Easton Ellis, and once you look for allusions to American Psycho they’re everywhere. Jack’s desperate and unsuccessful attempts to confess and get caught, at one point yelling his guilt out of the window, are pretty clear parallels; so is the slapstick bit where he carries a body out past occupied but oblivious apartments, and then carries it back in again. And Ellis really comes to mind now when confronted with dispiriting nonsense like those critics opting to walk out of this film’s Cannes screening and turning the act into a public service, proscribing a film on sale at a trade show and which wasn’t yet even at large in the culture in the first place.

The dire howl of American Psycho still echoes through the canyons, matched by the one from Norman Mailer’s titanic review of the book for Vanity Fair. Mailer’s complaint was that Ellis didn’t connect his travesty with the fictional person committing it strongly enough for the intended thesis to hold, although the terror involved in that disconnection was clearly part of Ellis’s intention. And it’s not disconnected anyway. The book is about snobbery and money being bad news for the moral compass, and if no obvious parallel motivations turn up in The House That Jack Built, it’s because von Trier wants his killer to be a void, empty of motivation beyond the vaguest shadows of childhood anguish.

The mundane activity and the supersensational are required to meet,” said Mailer; but von Trier has never agreed. Ellis’s capitalism can be fixed, maybe, but at least it has causes and effects, which is more than Jack’s psychosis seems to have. (My point in Sight & Sound was that the engine in David Lynch’s universe is ultimately love; needless to say von Trier’s is the mirror image.) You could argue that this damages von Trier’s films as art, and perhaps be right. You could equally argue that right here, right now, a film about a man who gets away with everything without being caught and despite being desperate to be caught, a man whose irrational unstoppable hatred of women arrives without the support of capitalist avarice, might be going about its legitimate artistic business. And might be not all that far from the spirit of American Psycho, modified into an even more depressing answer than Ellis’s to suit these ironic times.

Mailer again:

Buried savageries we do not wish to meet again in ourselves stir uneasily in the tombs to which we have consigned them. We cannot go out on such a trip unless we believe we will end up knowing more about extreme acts of violence, know a little more, that is, of the real inner life of the murderer.

The issue here is whether depiction of someone crawling across the world without that real inner life—a case where there is actually no there, there—is accurate, or inaccurate, or artistic, or just naive. But by saying it about male madness at all, and today, the film might be speaking actual truth to actual power.

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.