First Cow arrives in the UK a fairly bemusing five months after being labelled the third best film of 2020 by a UK magazine, a situation which works to the advantage of no one and has the aroma of bovine byproduct.
Kelly Reichardt’s slow cinema story of frontier opportunism and cookery repeats the very solid observation that the American Dream is built on theft and unfairness; on unhappiness (for someone else). There was some muttering when the film came out in the US about it telegraphing this goal, but you might idly ponder how much of this complaint is sparked by the carefully inconclusive view of the characters doing the thieving, two sort-of sympathetic males from different cultures who want the best for each other but don’t show an exorbitant amount of concern for everyone else. One is persuaded by the other to leave a baby unsupervised; but straight afterwards when left at a loose end in his new friend’s shack just starts idly tidying the place up. (Elsewhere two ladies of equally different cultures chat amiably as soon as their menfolk leave the room.) A sullen youth holding the pettiest of grievances loiters around, looking a lot like nemesis. What could be more America than taking on the smelly men of the Oregon Territory and getting clobbered by a stranger’s wounded male pride?
Reichardt’s style always raises some questions about realism while also being as mannered and manufactured as a quartz watch. But the least you could say is that she’s interested in form as well as content, and in this case the form comes directly out of American visual rather than verbal traditions. Signs of that drift by from time to time, river traffic and trappers’ boats with dogs on the prow.
Cue Robert Hughes in American Visions on the everyday oddity of George Caleb Bingham’s painting of the same trade on a different river, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri:
The carrier of American identity had been Nature; Bingham brought in a much more specific documentary interest in distinctively American social life. By locking his observations into a formal architecture with its highly determined poses and theatrical range of expression, Bingham sought to name America.”
You could put Kelly Reichardt in there and not be wrong.
Big Daddy Vegas
Netflix put up a behind the scenes thing for Army of the Dead in which Zack Snyder seems as carefree as the winds, just coasting through some complex film-making project on the lunar currents of creativity, and if so then good for him. Army of the Dead is another notch on pop culture’s unending remix spin cycle—it’s George Romero’s Aliens Escape From Oceans 11 although I too might not put the phone down immediately hearing a pitch like that—but with Snyder there are always things that seem to happen just through artistic eccentricity. In the opening seconds two bright lights in the sky roar off in the direction of the subsequent action, never to be mentioned: what black helicopters they? The king zombie (the same guy who played Big Daddy Mars twenty years ago and he still has the moves) rocks up at one point trotting on a zombie horse, shortly after the film has produced a zombie white tiger. There’s a sudden dreamy pause when the gang reach the bank vault they are robbing and the skeletons of some previous team are there, and while one of the characters waxes poetic about how it might in fact really be them in some arm-waving cosmic circular loop of destiny the camera pans across the bodies and the clothes and accessories and well, yes, it actually is them. And the theory that Snyder must be some flavour of toxic macho misogynist once again collapses in the face of actual observation of the things his characters do and the way he films them doing it, people facing crises of principle rather than identity.
Snyder also has fun with the visual style, mostly ignored by reviewers despite the fact that it couldn’t be more blatant if the director popped up on screen and pointed at it: the film is largely shot in an insistent shallow focus, big parts of any given frame a deliberately indistinct blur. It sounds like a nightmare borrowed from Zoom, but Snyder applies it so nimbly that it seems less like an affectation and more like a modernist dare. How he even did it is unclear: in the BTS he says it was a deliberate stylistic choice with lenses to match, but the production also replaced one cancelled actor with another performer and spliced the new body individually into scenes filmed the year before, and you wonder if the indistinct nature of much of any given frame might have been engineered after the event to assist. Or maybe it’s all just a power move: ages ago J Hoberman coined a phrase about a digitally animated film “satirising the technology it employs,” and Snyder might just be treasuring the thought of people checking the Netflix support forums.
In any case, digital creativity on big canvasses usually feels like a dreary head-banging energy-sapping wow-strategy and hardly ever feels like a tool—but it does when this director does it. Plus this example wasn’t that big. Looking up the budget to see how well Snyder had spent an obvious $150 million I found that the film cost Netflix just the $90 million instead, which apparently buys enough pixels on the camera sensor to be going on with, if you know what you want to do with each of them.
Dr. Irony’s Irony Iron
No point blaming Tarantino for everything (apart from Death Proof which is still criminal) but what is this if not a comic caught in the eternal wake of the Tarantino speedboat from decades ago, its characters rolled up into their own talk like a poster squeezed into a tube?
Self-propelled one-man neo-noir factory S. Craig Zahler, whose films are wordy but not that wordy, has made a graphic novel motivated apparently by pure affection for the comics form, and to say the least struggles to get the words and pictures to cooperate for a greater good. Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus, with a title that waves a big neon sign saying Grindhouse, is clearly keen on Benjamin Marra comics and look here’s Marra doing the title cards for a film Zahler scripted…
…but Zahler’s words and pictures cohabit like an unhappy couple on the outs, puffing up a hill. There’s also the inevitable Irony Issue, a briar patch Marra’s comics swan-dive into constantly without puffing any more than he intends, and which Zahler himself has sometimes made lighter work of than this—assuming of course that Dr. Divinus is intended to be ironic in the first place, the alternative being the kind of scenario that leaves critics breathing into a paper bag.
What would light work even look like at this point, a sincere un-ironic comic of pop-culture cop-culture horror starting from over here and aiming for over there? Even allowing for the not-left politics that Zahler habitually leans towards (the working class don’t get very far in Dr. Divinus but they don’t do anything about it either, apart from the one who becomes a criminal and makes a fortune), there’s also the small matter of a road well travelled. Sexcastle from Kyle Starks came out years ago to mock (tribute, it says here, but the distinction might be moot) the kind of B-movies that became A-movies in the 1990s, while Dr. Divinus is intended as a tribute (likewise, same) to pre-Code horror comics from an era before that, a story of the city “as a cave into which predators can crawl”—Christopher Sorrentino’s phrase about Death Wish, said in admiration, and they don’t make them like that any more.
When everything that already exists is just data to play with, the results might be admiring but are always a game. Dr. Divinus and Sexcastle play the same game and end up looking similar, and “looking” in this case has to skirt around the fact that Zahler is by his own admission drawing as a fan of comics art rather than a comics artist. You could skirt a bit less and say that there are fanzines containing art which asks fewer questions than this, questions such as who is that person over there and what are they doing exactly.
A review of Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus and why polite art goes round in circles maybe for The Comics Journal website. Several far more favourable reviews of it are available elsewhere, which is another topic entirely.
20th Century Boys
Barry Windsor-Smith emerges from many years of silence with a style you recognise in a nanosecond and a book so intensely focused on the despair of the inescapable past and the utter wickedness of mankind that you wonder exactly what those years offstage have involved for him.
If Monsters really is the resurrected starting point of that dusty old Hulk plot-line about Bruce Banner’s abuse as a child, then it also frowns at the eternally tricky concept of using that sort of thing effectively in a Marvel or DC mainstream comic as some mark of artistic maturity in a plot that never ends. The Immortal Hulk comic has lately tied the character’s victimisation into internalised traumas on a chthonic scale, but Smith’s conclusions might be even bleaker: that your fate is imposed from outside not by individuals but by history itself, and you won’t be getting out from under that boulder. Hence this 360 unrelenting pages of adult storytelling which declines to admit a sliver of hope, recovery or cure, embracing instead a bracing Old Testament doom.
The plot that emerges from the book’s flashbacks and multiple narrators circles around the Nazis as the cosmically potent source of death and despair for innocents miles down the timeline. Smith is 71 years old which surely plays a part in this choice of demons, but the story’s weight also pulls back into view the idea that the Third Reich is a low point for Western civilisation on such a scale that it surpasses a lot of raw history and acts as something closer to mystic catastrophe, a cultural devolution, the Un-Enlightenment. One day this idea will drift permanently out of artistic range and dissolve from the cultural ether altogether, a net loss if you ask me; Smith deploys it with such force that you assume he’s been sharing houseroom with it for a long time. Monsters cements that Nazi past into the foundations of American military exceptionalism, and by extension the macho masculine ethos of the country and by further extension the entire violent unknowable cosmos. Then it takes a bearing from American literary establishment, tying together two families in ways that Smith must know are the turf of Stephen King. Beyond the unflinching issues of child unhappiness and pain, rendered viscerally over the 100 pages in which cancer-ridden monster Bobby watches the ghosts of his parents fight and die, Smith really gets his The Shining on when an American GI wanders into a wartime Bavarian Överlöok of Nazi ghosts and is set on a course of destruction for the next several decades. King hovers over the book again later, with a young psychic girl and her dead ghost father, both Shining brightly, shepherding the story’s climax into view via another ghost, this one being the story’s only vaguely good-guy. (These characters are Black, and Smith’s depiction of them is a not entirely happy mix of compassion and manipulation.)
The execution of all this is robust enough to throw fresh light back over Smith’s existing career, which is quite a feat. It certainly indicates no measurable decline in his powers alongside a consistent set of ongoing formal concerns. On some level the work responds to the perfectly valid trend for softer Asian-influenced relativism and renderings of personal identity in comics, since Monsters instead yanks hard on some of the oldest traditions of the Western art canon to deal with cruel absolutes rendered in art that if you squint a bit could look like a woodcut. It’s a breeze block from an old-school source, a deposit from the Bank of America. On top of Monsters’ panel by panel design, which has sights and angles only feasible because of the level of craft and no small imagination, Smith deals in illumination and atmosphere, in light and weather, and Monsters is filled with intense renderings of both those things before we even get to the drawings of skin tones and ethnicities. There are two pages in someone’s living room full of…cigarette smoke, boiling broth?…and the characters are half-glimpsed behind some near-haptic layering of lines and hatchings, art by someone who understands light and ink and putting the two together.
The final pages seem confounding, since all this pure technique suddenly evaporates to leave a wrack of unfilled outlines and simple open forms, of characters hollowed out. But they balance the first pages 360-odd leaves ago, which are in graphics terms the most thunderously overwrought in the book. An ogre looms in big furious panels, the ground receding at an alarming diagonal with incongruous little houses nestled in the mountainous grass, colossalism run amok, art not yet constrained by the tiers and gutters that enter on page 10. Bobby at the end of the book is an outline, because Bobby’s father at the start is an over-stuffed flexing dervish of wickedness, drawn by Smith to be dissembling on the page, spewing a gothic font with his spasming limbs double- or triple-exposed. To be rid of this ghost is to be emptied of everything.
It’s tough to imagine handing Monsters to someone unfamiliar with comics and inviting them to gaze in wonder at this spell, excelsior. In yet another historical connection, its poignant unforgiving grotesqueness resonated in my head with long-ago incomprehension of old black and white EC comics reprints, whose tone mildly freaked under-10 me out to the point where I didn’t want any more of that thank you. They were serious works dressed in pulpy wrapping; Monsters drills into pulpy sci-fi until it reaches a plutonium core of seriousness. At the very least, old soldier Barry Windsor-Smith has done anything but fade away.
Film directors writing comics:
Madi: Once Upon a Time in the Future (2020)
Duncan Jones with Alex De Campi and in this bit James Stokoe
Noah (2011 and 2014)
Darren Aronofsky with Niko Henrichon
Alexandro Jodorowsky with JH Williams III (2002)
Southland Tales (2006)
Richard Kelly with Brett Weldele
The Fountain (2005)
Darren Aronofsky with Kent Williams
Trip to Tulum (1989)
Federico Fellini with Milo Manara
Anibal 5 (1966)
Alexandro Jodorowsky with Manuel Moro (not shown in person here)
Formerly known as the Justice League
For Sight & Sound a brief look at a lengthy thing, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, in which the plot hinges on the bad guys forgetting where they left the car keys and Amber Heard’s Mera now speaks in Heard’s best English accent even in the bits that are re-used from the first Justice League when she did not. These and similar mysteries just seem willed into existence by the man with his name in the title, unhindered by committee. In 2013 Snyder had Superman kill a man and after fans were vocally unhappy he had Batman kill a few dozen, so if anyone is telling him to stick to the safe data points he’s apparently escorting them back out to the car park. I didn’t bother pointing out the most noteworthy fact, which is the upbeat reception currently being given to Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Have the mutterings of discontent over the Marvel movies reached the point where something cast in a very different form couldn’t be downplayed any longer? Was everyone really that keen to take Joss Whedon out for a walk?
I wrote about Snyder’s films before and on the whole I like them more now than then, especially the one in which Mark Zuckerberg storms the US Capitol; but ZSJL has enough character in almost every minute to justify the extreme number of them you end up sitting through, and enough inventive imagery to send the Russo brothers off to draft a new hot-air Directors Statement. Snyder’s body-consciousness, about his characters and his actors and ultimately about himself, isn’t discussed enough—presumably people can’t get past 300 which is built almost entirely out of the stuff—but attempts to claim he’s a man of Misogynist Cinema sound thinner than ever in the face of this four hours of newly submitted evidence for the defence.
You should resist psychoanalysing film directors but sometimes they walk in and lay on the couch themselves. I said in S&S that the coda stands for your Forever War of choice, with a conversation between Batman and the Joker specifically about dead adopted children, after which Bruce Wayne awakens to be told that no relief is in sight. After four hours the look on Ben Affleck’s face at this point is not the heroic-jawline with the Hans-Zimmer-D-minor chord of fate, but instead looks like relief, acquiescence, acceptance. He practically shrugs. Even the Forever War is a way forward of a sort. Films constantly show characters surpassing grief, closing the door on it, moving on. A more complex message, of not shaking trauma off at all but finding a way to go on living in the company of it anyway, is a mark of some form of adult art.
Irony of ironies that it falls to the Justice League to receive this cinematic boost of weightiness from the far end of the periodic table, when it was also the Justice League which proved that you could channel the rhythms of peak US TV comedy if you hired the right craftsmen, a whole 1980s DC Comics franchise in which entirely serious plots were elevated by being discussed in voices from Cheers and Batman’s bat-ears were squashed by his hazmat suit, while somewhere a young Joss Whedon glimpsed a future full of ironic chatter.