August 10, 2018

clear margins

A few science stories I had a hand in recently:

A method called laser scanning fluorescence lifetime microscopy (FLIM) looks good for peering into certain tissues, using different decay rates of fluorophores within a sample to compute an image. But the fields of view possible have so far been tiny. German specialists Becker & Hickl have tweaked the technique so that it can scan an 18 millimeter area, which is much more like it.

Also: ultrasound is commonplace, but the necessary electronics in the technique can interfere with the subtle ultrasound signals you’re looking to find. Using optical components rather than electronics and detecting the signals with a fibre-optics sensor would be better, and UCL has designed an all-optical system that can deliver high enough frame rates to make it clinically useful.

And: heavy water is already used to label proteins and lipids, since it’s close enough to normal H2O to be incorporated into metabolic processes but can then be followed with a mass spectrometer. But mass specs are big and cumbersome, so being able to do it optically would be easier. Raman spectroscopy might hold the answer, and offer a way to effectively identify the exact boundaries of cancer tumors, a perennial problem—so perennial that the FLIM technology mentioned above is being put to the same use too.

August 7, 2018

lone wolf and cub

It’s been mooted by some that Denis Villeneuve might be a not-great director who just directs the hell out of the scripts he takes on, which sounds like one sign of a great director to me. The difference between Sicario and Sicario 2 Soldado is mostly down to the change from a high style to something more routine, and since Taylor Sheridan wrote both scripts the likely source is the swapping of Villeneuve for Stefano Sollima—who, whatever else he does, does not direct the hell out of it. Sheridan doesn’t do the new man any favours, leaning into that old standby The Strong Man’s Dilemma, and doing without meaningful adult women at all—apart from a cheery US soccer mom earning a crust through people trafficking with a baby in the back of her car, which is the best moment of pointed commentary in the film—but it’s Sollima who finds ways to shoot Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro that come straight out of the Cannon Films catalogue circa 1991.

The general Cannon-ness has convinced a few people that Sicario 2 Soldado is a Conservative work, even though one thing that actually survives the sequel-manufacturing machine is Sheridan’s uncertainty that good people are righteous warriors able to change the world. Or good men, anyway. There’s been an attempt lately to banish Wind River within 12 months of its appearance, on the theory that its female character was made naive and out of her depth—as if an arc that starts there was a regressive thought crime by definition. Wind River is sedate and mournful, and more indirect proof of the influence of Sollima and Villeneuve on Sheridan’s scripts, since he directed that one himself. There’s also the small matter that Wind River shreds toxic masculinity, takes it to the absolute cleaners; but why let facts get in the way of a philosophy. I reviewed Sicario 2 Soldado in the September issue of Sight & Sound magazine.

August 1, 2018

a kick in the urals

The August issue of Comic Scene UK magazine has an article by me about Octobriana, a cult character not so much out-of-copyright as off-the-reservation. Created via a good old-fashioned comics industry rip-off so muddied that it’s not clear how much the perpetrator even benefited, and in theory now a vehicle for everything from porn to political satire, her infinite flexibility might not have done her visibility or earnings potential any favours. But the air of anarchy that arrives with her every time she rocks up somewhere is always at least entertaining.

Her first best destiny is probably rampaging through alternative comix in a cloud of hardcore sex, like the Larry Welz strip from 1972 up above, although John Short and Gabrielle Noble have lately had her emasculate Vladimir Putin and allied her directly with Pussy Riot. Which more or less brings her back to where she supposedly started, even though she actually didn’t. Buy Comic Scene UK here or in comic shops.

July 29, 2018

max mon amour

I guess by now you can get a doctorate in Mission Impossible scholarship and write a thesis about the 70/30 live vs. digital mayhem directed by Christopher McQuarrie and, say, the stuff in Avengers Age of Ultron that was on the tv when I got home, where the ratio is the other way round at best. But in the end it’s just about the effect and the affect, like always. This Impossible and the previous one have made the most of McQuarrie’s brawny traditionalist style, which helped me give Rogue Nation the thumbs-up in Sight & Sound, despite the film’s simmering stupidities. Fallout inevitably gets even sillier, and the franchise has now reached the point where it would capsize back into camp if McQuarrie wasn’t playing a straight bat of Sam Fuller-ish dimensions. The cycle by which Ethan Hunt and his team are perpetually framed and then disavowed and then betrayed and then blackmailed is now as inevitable as moonrise, but when (any) James Bond had wound up on top of the Tate Modern chimney, it would have been an unconvincing bit of Pax Britannica mummery with the joins showing. When it happens in this film, it’s more muscular altogether—and once again, McQuarrie’s Anglophilia is showing.

The actors in the Cruise Crew are a cross-section through the franchise’s different directors like rings in a tree, but Fallout does better by Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg than Rogue Nation did. And I had bags of time for Vanessa Kirby, swanning around Paris and London in swish white outfits and established to be the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave’s character in the original Mission Impossible film. Coiffed and vocalising with that exact aim in mind, Kirby’s impersonation of Redgrave is so effective she should get a spin-off series of her own. Cosmic balance is restored when the film does rather worse by Rebecca Ferguson, returning as Ilsa Faust, a character name adrift without a purpose once the film leaves any noir pastiche a long way back in the rear-view exploding fireball. But then Fallout has an overall purpose that neither of the last two Impossibles had taken up, and manoeuvres Ethan Hunt into moving on from his already long-gone wife.

As well as landing Fallout with a case of The Strong Man’s Burdens and closing the story of Hunt’s love life, a topic keeping absolutely no one awake at night for the twelve years since M:I:III, this leads to a couple of dodgy dream sequences that teeter on the brink of self-parody. They probably dive right in, although the momentum of the film ploughs onward at such a rate of knots that your objections are lost in the hurricane. The first one has Hunt imagining his psycho-killer nemesis, played again by Whispering Sean Harris, officiating at Hunt’s wedding, a scene presumably aiming for the mythic but landing nearer the dyspeptic. The second has Hunt seeing his ex-wife and his arch-enemy framed as a couple in an ethereal dreamlight, looking as if Hunt had come home early and caught them in the wardrobe. Brian De Palma gave Hunt a Freudian reverie about castrated father-figure Jon Voight back in 1996, but that one didn’t make me nearly burst out laughing.

July 25, 2018

indexed, briefed, debriefed, unpublished

The Prisoner landed on British TV in 1967, but I was oblivious until some mid-1970s repeats and an article in Comics Unlimited which made the show sound like the most exasperating brainstorm going. The same cycle probably helped spur Marvel Comics to prepare a The Prisoner comic in 1976, and maybe nothing captures the state of Marvel in 1976 better than the fact it somehow ended up with two different first-issues of the series before publishing neither of them.

Titan Books has now collected the original pencil art for both aborted versions, one by Jack Kirby and Mike Royer, the other drawn by Gil Kane (plus apparently Joe Staton) and written by Steve Englehart. The results are not milestones for anyone involved, but Kirby’s mid-1970s style is endlessly fascinating to stare at, and Kane’s aggressive cartooning makes the show look like it was dreamed up by Sam Fuller. I reviewed the book for Tripwire.

Alex Cox wrote a typically puckish analysis of The Prisoner last year, which I reviewed for Sight & Sound magazine and discussed a bit here. He reaches some conclusions which would probably never have occurred to anyone at Marvel, or possibly anyone watching the show.

July 8, 2018

black and white

Steve Ditko died without ever changing his opinion about the immoral wickedness of anyone setting themselves up as an opinion-shaper, or about the pointlessness of any artist expounding upon his work by opening his mouth about it. Ditko’s art spoke for him, in the literal sense that he himself never spoke on the record at all, which always seemed an idea as likely to appeal to left-ish arts critics as Ayn Rand-ian Objectivists: you want to know about me, fine, read the work. Barring any major discoveries once scholars are lowered into Ditko’s archives on ropes, it’s hard to see how the imminent biographies will differ much from the one Blake Bell wrote ten years ago, other than updated bibliographies. There is scope, though, for a look at how (as Jeet Heer has pointed out) Ditko’s faith that good people were rational world-conquerers produced Marvel Comics creations marked by surrealism and vulnerability. And perhaps, some respectful consideration that Ditko’s world view formed out of cosmic disappointment at the behaviour of every publisher and several colleagues and possibly most of the readers he ever dealt with, and that every passing wingnut stalker who barged in on his privacy was only proving his point. In any case, reducing an artist to just their programmatic beliefs is for the birds. I was consistently in the wrong place to see Ditko’s career arc as it happened, so my eventual encounter with the art of The Avenging World was like being slapped in the face with a stick, even while frowning at its political perspective; reading it again shortly after the Doctor Strange film came out made the statements that the film had captured the Ditko visual style into the stuff of unintentional comedy. No medium on Earth could do that, other than the one which did.

Harlan Ellison never stopped talking about himself and his work and other people and everything else, which created a few contradictions of its own; but rabble-rousers advocating for creative freedom and for writers to be fairly paid for their work are a rare enough sight, even without considering how Ellison’s stories and sci-fi hooks were catnip to film and TV producers. But in my house Ellison is inextricably linked with The Comics Journal. The huge, sprawling, profane interview he gave Gary Groth for TCJ 53 in 1980—my copy of which still has the £1.95 price tag from Forbidden Planet on the cover since it seems I never bothered to take it off—was a colossal overdose of information about Ellison and the unknown oceans that he swam in far to the West, as well as a most singular example of the interview as magazine-feature. It arrived just as I was preparing to switch off from comics for the best part of a decade and a half, and there are no words to describe my incredulity at discovering eons later that the interview had sparked legal ructions and inter-personal strife for all concerned. Groth’s introduction to the piece reads like Ellison’s perfect eulogy, despite being written 38 years before one was required, which says something about Ellison and something about Groth as well. But mostly it’s a reminder that the Journal is an incomparable living history of its chosen art form—all the more so for having such a bruising, adversarial relationship to it.

Not for the first time, I wonder what film criticism might look like if some equivalent to TCJ had miraculously sprung up and lasted for 40 years as a guide-star for ambitious would-be writers, or at least to stand in opposition to forces insisting film criticism be a traditional conservative humanities discipline. Chances are the creation of the Disney Industrial Complex would have rolled over everything anyway, but imagine the body of writing about it that we would have to rabble-rouse with now.