poets day

For Critic’s Notebook I watched Ben Wheatley’s new film Free Fire, and once again was left trying to work out whether the problem is him or me.

I reviewed Confusion and Carnage, Adam Nayman’s new book about Wheatley, in the May issue of Sight & Sound and looked for some answers in there too. But the book has a fan’s certainty and doesn’t set out to convince doubters. Back when criticism could still be called niche employment, David Bordwell called for less interpretation and more poetics in film criticism, on the grounds that “interpretation has become easy, but analysis is still hard.”

He had enough solid reasons to be going on with in 1989, although couldn’t foresee the one that’s become most pressing right now. When expertise is mistrusted and the voice of authority has become more of a death rattle, ceaseless interpretation of every raised eyebrow and rainbow is just a really bad way to change anyone’s mind about anything.

A rhetoric of musts and onlys, of always alreadys, of dangers and complicities portrays the writer as one guided by certainties.

– Dr Bordwell, fortune teller.

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critical seconds

Two strong projects brewing at Michigan Medicine, written about recently by me: Speeding up brain cancer surgery, by creating virtual stained specimens in a much shorter time than it would take the hospital path lab to produce the traditional kind on a slide. And an endoscope using two kinds of laser imaging to get a better look at atherosclerosis in clogged arteries, without damaging the plaque itself and doing more harm than good.

Also clever: pushing super-resolution microscopy into even more high-res territory, by tackling the background interference that has been stubbornly hard to remove in one particular technique.

dunstabbin’

Certain Women: horse sense

My notebook says I was positive about Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, which proves that memory is a tricky thing. But Certain Women is the real deal, achieving what advocates of minimalism always say it can do and inviting you to meet it halfway as a genuine way of seeing. Short film festivals would be better off these days looking away from conventional narrative fictions, but Reichardt’s third story, in which Lily Gladstone forms an attachment to Kristen Stewart that seems born out of simple stoic yearning, would be a perfect 30-minute entry for anywhere so inclined. The confused affection of these two characters is never articulated but constantly visualised, eventually in the way Stewart reflexively hugs Gladstone slightly more tightly while riding on her horse – and immediately she’s gone, no longer able to shoulder whatever it was that just happened. Gladstone returns to her horses, as do we all. This has been a key few months for grappling with what realism looks like on screen, and Reichardt’s style always opens up another front on the issue by pruning away elements of urban life in a manner that would give Ken Loach a headache; but Loach always seems to be moving towards you from the screen, an over-emphasis that draws on his instincts as a placard-holder but which can ruin as much as it reveals. Reichardt generates pull rather than push – on the whole a more profitable transaction. Continue reading

Gallery

disassembled

Five comics characters who lost a little something of themselves, via Tom Spurgeon.

motions

If you happen to be in San Francisco, there are two articles by me in this year’s in-house magazine of the annual Photonics West conference going on in The Moscone Center.

One is an interview with Zeev Zalevsky from Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, whose research programme has been deliberately built along more diverse and pluralistic lines than many. He’s in the running for a prize at the conference, after developing implants that tackle vision impairment by sending visual information onto the cornea by direct tactile stimulation – Braille for the eyeballs.

The other is a round up of where the hunt for gravitational waves has got to, with the US LIGO instruments warming up again ready to restart after their overhaul, and the Italian facility called Virgo about to join in. Among other things, the overhaul replaced the wires used to suspend the LIGO mirrors, after it turned out that metal molecules jiggle far too much.

living history

gary groth

Gary Groth: a single forty-year bound

No amount of arm-waving can link the appearance of 2000AD and the creation of Fantagraphics too directly, even though they appeared at almost the same moment. 1976 London was not 1976 Vermont, and rebellious insiders are not rebellious outsiders. 2000AD has always had to fit its inherited air of punky rebellion around life as a corporate brand, and hasn’t resisted that obligation for a while; Fantagraphics has gone from being a proper rouser of rabbles to one of the strongest curators of its art form that we have – the ten-year project to translate Guido Crepax is a full-scale cultural intervention – while still being prepared to take an artistic punt on material that might scare the horses.

But both have survived four decades of turmoil, so both feel like living history when you hold the books in your hand. And now both have an official biography, for the libertarian war stories and near-bankruptcies and court appearances and clarifying who exactly threw sharp objects at whom. I read the two books for Tripwire, and as always the termite art is probably where more of the action is. Neither book has any doubts about the value of making art in the first place, though.

(pic)

marginals

invitation

The Invitation: raise the red lantern

The annual Sight & Sound Films of the Year poll is online and in the January 2017 print magazine. My votes were for:

Little Sister  (discussed in part here during the Edinburgh Film Festival)
The Invitation  (wiki)
Flag Without a Country  (reviewed at Critic’s Notebook)
Queen of Earth  (wiki)
The Neon Demon  (gallery)

Other votes for these films by poll participants:  0, 0, 0, 1, and 4 respectively.

In the comment box, some matters arising:

“Three of these used video-on-demand as their route to a UK audience, either with a momentary theatrical release or doing without that gesture. Should this alter how critics process them? Perhaps. The position and impact of art is criticism’s business, but the opaqueness of streaming revenues and viewing figures leaves the matter of these films’ success vague in economic and cultural terms alike. Faced with terra incognita, critics’ exploratory outlook matters. Saying that a film is in cinemas, when we really mean it’s in two cinemas for a single day, is either a safety-blanket privileging of the cinema experience or a flat parroting of the marketing message; but either way, pointing people towards places where the art isn’t looks a lot like voluntary redundancy. All grist for a rebalancing of our cultural journalism remit, perhaps via conceding that ceaseless personal curation isn’t the same thing.”

The position of art is indeed criticism’s business. Protecting the language of expertise falls to us too, in an age when the default response to any authoritative voice is disdain; so we had better recognise when we’re facing the world and when we’re facing the wall. A blind spot for coherent language when notable art falls on streaming platforms rings an alarm bell on all counts. Flag Without a Country didn’t even make it that far, yet every time the TV beams pictures from the Middle East into my living room, I find myself wondering whether Helly and Nariman are still in a position to draw breath. What exactly is notable art for, if not that?

As always, the idea that we’re curators – scholars, pathfinders – rather than cultural journalists flatters us to bits, but you end up having to justify why something called a Best Films Of 2016 list has no intention of providing the same information as a Best Books Of 2016 list, and little chance of revenue-bearing like one either. Reclaiming our authority over art as it currently exists and its effects on people we don’t already know would be a fine idea at this point – and a more challenging destiny than mapping the world from within the walled garden of a film festival, or falling for the flattering idea that the first person to correctly appreciate any given film is surely me myself and I.

Also: a review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will be in the S&S February print issue and is online here. The major unhappy tendency in current films is still a fixation on content while somehow remaining oblivious to form, which in films with the money to polish each pixel individually turns into a grim metallic certainty that hot visuals matter more than invisible things like narrative and character. As articles of faith go, it’s debatable. It became the Last Temptation Of Lucas as well, but his was a singular vision, for better or worse. And Rogue One is not.

The present manners of the nation would deride authority, and therefore nothing is left but that every writer should criticise himself.

– Samuel Johnson, voting in the 1783 Films of the Year poll.

punks, not dead

cadet_anderson

Cadet Anderson and friend: futures not so bright

Carlos Ezquerra’s art is essentially caricature, which made me lose my bearings when I first saw it, back while obsessed with the slanty panels and alarming trousers of George Pérez. Now the upsides are much clearer, especially when the style gets buoyed up by current production standards and Ezquerra’s recent design habits – those are two serious characters up there, especially the one on the right who has a lifetime of heroism and agony ahead of her. For Tripwire I read the new Cadet Anderson collection from 2000AD, which didn’t make me change my dim view of prequel stories, but didn’t damage my admiration for Alan Grant either.

And: Martians invade and England prevails in Scarlet Traces, leading to a great many Victorian faces caught in flashes of fright, which happens to be one of D’Israeli’s areas of expertise.

And: several months of 1998 Judge Dredd collected in Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 28, some of which is smothered by the year of its creation to the point of oxygen starvation. Retrospective satire is always lumbered with knowledge of all the cyclical failures that followed – barring the odd outlier like Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan, which hovers above irrelevance on an updraught of pure dissatisfaction –  so the news that Mega-City One politics includes a Liar Party prompts a muted response in light of all events on planet Earth everywhere at the time or since. On the other hand, John Wagner and Ezquerra’s close look at Judge Galen DeMarco’s workplace dilemmas is timelessly potent. Soap opera with a purpose.

mystic twangs

sam waterston as richard helms

Sam Waterston as “Richard Helms”: what rough beast

Even by the juggernaut logic of remake culture, picking Michael Winner’s very 1970s and Charles Bronson-shaped The Mechanic out of the hat for a revamp – first as a buffed Jason Statham remake and now punted in the general direction of a franchise via an unrequested sequel – seems more like a knee-jerk marketing exercise than anything more rational. The clue is suddenly making the latest incarnation of Arthur Bishop exactly as bulletproof and immortal as your average superhero, so as to fit the template of current audience expectations without scraping the sides – although the actual give away is probably the decision to deploy the mighty colon of intent and call it Mechanic: Resurrection in the first place. Those old Michael Winner films from his US period, choked with dust and death, always deserved more serious critical analysis than they got, and the replacement of that mood with sunny slaughter and weightless green-screen pretence is as revealing as it is dire as it is ineffable. I reviewed Mechanic: Resurrection in the November issue of Sight & Sound, while pondering whether the dearth of meaningful action cinema from any creator not named Michael Mann allows it to be even called a niche any more.

And for the December issue of the same magazine I read Matt Zoller Seitz’s new book The Oliver Stone Experience, which follows the approach of Seitz’s book on Wes Anderson with slightly different results. Stone’s volubility avoids the occasional impression that the Anderson book was the record of an interview in a holding cell, and the photos culled from Stone’s archives are all deeply revealing. On the other hand, Seitz’s genial meandering friendly-witness style, deliberately transferred onto the page intact, makes for some exasperating trips around the conversational houses, and maybe frames some of Stone’s frustrations in a more baldly downbeat note than he himself seems to place them. Reading Stone and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, which doesn’t discuss his films at all, somehow seems necessary after Seitz’s book to get a fuller picture of the man; that never used to feel the case after finishing any of the Faber & Faber director interview volumes, any ten of which could fit inside Seitz’s book like a school of guppy in a whale. But books like this – books in general – seem to be the only place to carry out meaningful retrospective surgery on films these days, such as rehabilitating Savages from whatever lazy critical wasteland it was pitched into at the time, or flagging up the ten minutes originally deleted from Nixon in which Sam Waterston plays Richard Helms as the devil, probably – a scene I first ran headlong into unawares on the extended dvd and which had me lunging for the rewind button, definitely.

Elsewhere: for Tripwire, a look at another of 2000AD‘s blasts from the past and the last days of its updated version of Dan Dare, Britain’s venerable space-aviator turned here into a heavily armed short tempered weapon of mass destruction in a sheepskin jacket. A product of its time in every sense.

doctor-strange-concept-art

As for my old mate Doctor Stephen Strange: my Marvel-movie fever broke last year when a member of the van Dyne family finally turned up and I discharged myself from superhero cinema’s mobile 4077th field hospital, so the ways in which characters from my youth are winnowed and diminished to fit the rhythms and beats of the MCU template rather than expanded from within to fill the available screen real estate doesn’t raise my pulse any more. As it happens, whatever else may be wrong with Doctor Strange, its framing and pacing feel more like the work of an actual film director than any MCU film since Captain America, although Scott Derrickson has opted not to overturn the drearily masculine atmosphere and is lumbered with the same old familiar macrostructure and Big Finish, the universal language of the trans-national blockbuster. Within it arrives a dreadful Dormammu, part standard Big Cloud monster and part Nome King from Return To Oz, a visual neither interested in nor capable of summoning the formal artistic monstrousness of Steve Ditko’s design or its appalling human form.

If a film in this area really wanted to be distinct it would get Christopher Young to do the music, but short of that hiring Michael Giacchino helps; the theme has the skipping horns of Harry Potter and starts off a bit like The 13th Warrior, but on the level of simple compositional style knocks any of those terrible scores by Henry Jackman that drape like a lead smock over his Captain America films into a distant dimension. Benedict Cumberbatch, looking quite the part in the cloak of levitation and in full waspish arrogant-comeuppance mode, is probably the most authentic actorly turn in the MCU for a while, certainly the first sight of an actor having actual fun since Mickey Rourke asked Sam Rockwell about a cockatoo. At one point, speaking over Giacchino’s harpsichord and sitar twanging, he name-checks Chuck Mangione, which for reasons too obscure to really count gave me the most authentic laugh I’ve had in a superhero film since 1981. He might spice up the flat acting palette of the MCU, if that low bar counts for anything, since this is one of the few characterisations so far to spot that self-knowledge remains the only superhero coin worth minting. Cumberbatch, with his air of a martyr looking for a cross to bear, knows the score. Perhaps, you catch yourself wondering, this is a legitimate translational effort.

Or you would wonder, if the trailer for Logan hadn’t run before the film, suggesting all the things the MCU recoils from with visceral allergic horror: characters willing to be freighted with history and fate and dust, with the consequences of something not unlike Winner’s adult self-knowledge rather than an adolescent’s recognition of the dark side under the bed. James Mangold knows the score better.

hands on

Gymnasts and rock climbers both use chalk, for similar reasons but at some distinctly different altitudes. In the November issue of Chemistry World magazine I wrote a short column about how magnesium carbonate and a pioneering climber tie the two activities together, and about the ethical issue arising from the human traces left behind. There’s also a version of the same article online (paywalled, sometimes).

This month’s other clever science: peering into living brains via optoacoustics, something all set to be big news in neuroscience circles once the wrinkles are ironed out. And: optical fibres are usually stiff and brittle, but soft and squidgy ones might be implantable in the human body, to keep an eye on wound healing or the progress of diseases.