28 November 2019

Into the thick of things

For Sight & Sound another of my occasional attempts to get Danny DeVito’s film Hoffa wedged into the conversation for being a vital spark of 1990s American culture, as well as an authentic leftist film. The first of those was the most important to me for a long while; but then mainstream US films became fixated on Chosen Ones and the whole machine changed into a straight neo-liberal broadcasting service and film criticism gave up trying to read the signs, so it might be time to preach the second one for a bit.

The hook for all this was due to be The Irishman, which in the end doesn’t concern Jimmy Hoffa’s labour roots at all and isn’t particularly left of centre. Mid-range Martin Scorsese might still be above the current median mark, but the hosannahs being rained upon The Irishman are a stretch. The film leads up to a final hour of solid inertia and regret, but you need to buy that the expressions on Robert De Niro’s face are bottomless pools of inner life turning foul and fetid. If you don’t, and if the CGI rejuvenations strike you as throttling human faces to a standstill rather than unleashing their inner power, then the film might be a weirdly grey restatement of things said elsewhere, sometimes by this director. Then there’s the theory that The Irishman is a Culmination Of All Scorsese Pain, a bold claim considering his last film was Silence which really was a summary of the entire faith-based department of his output and was utterly agonising, deploying exactly the romanticism and poetics I was talking about with Hoffa.

Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci may win Best awards—not Al Pacino I would think—but while I was still pondering whether they should I happened to see Tracy Letts in Le Mans 66. Letts being obnoxious and ruining the dreams of young people is one of the few things that still gets me out to a film’s opening weekend. But even I rocked back in my chair a bit at the scene in the middle where Henry Ford II has an emotional meltdown that starts off in Humiliated Troll territory before turning into something closer to debilitating euphoria mixed with some of that middle-aged regret, if not actual envy of the young, all emerging from a face at the very opposite of a standstill. Letts spends two minutes doing what the combined resources of The Irishman have decided to eliminate for three hours, but it’s debatable which one comes out ahead in the long run.

Films
7 November 2019

Fuzzy cat in dragon hoodie

Studying the scratchwork of Tetsunori Tawaraya.

Art
1 November 2019

Photonics West 2020

If you happen to be near San Francisco next February 1st to 6th 2020, there will be articles by me once again in the daily in-house magazine of the Photonics West technology conference happening at the Moscone Center. This year that includes talking to a company developing ways to let your cell phone tell if it’s looking at signs of cancer, an advance which has as much to do with developments in data handling as the camera; and another about tissue elastography, where physically prodding a suspected disease site can tell you a lot about what might be wrong. Plus an article on metamaterials, a class of substance which might soon be worth around $30 billion, so it would be good to understand why they do what they do. Eventually the conference magazines will be archived here on the publisher’s Optics.org site.

Science
8 October 2019

Post-traumatic franchise disorder

John Rambo has been a cartoon character since 1986; something to recall before putting the boot into Last Blood for being a scuzzy exploitation film about a traumatised Vietnam vet hacking evil Mexican sleazeballs into thin slices. If Sylvester Stallone were still working for Cannon Films it could have been called Medal of Horror, and maybe that’s the title of the Grindhouse movie Rambo has apparently dozed off watching to produce this morbid grumble of loss and regret. It seems an entire opening rescue sequence has been removed from UK and US prints, the cheapest route to an Extended Director’s Cut yet devised; the fact that the snipped scene apparently has a local sheriff thanking Rambo for his help and is therefore the exact moment at which the 37-year arc gets resolved is less Grindhouse and more just grim.

A reader of the small print might be mildly distracted by the mock-up photo of a young Stallone in military service, given the factual record on that score; or by the obvious parallel between film and real life of grievous personal loss that has arisen since the last Rambo, and wonder whether it played any part in Last Bloods existence. Stallone co-wrote the thing and keeps control over his own characters after all—more control than, say, Liam Neeson, to name another rescuer of relatives. Science will have to decide whether Rambo’s perpetual suffering—and Rocky Balboa’s for that matter—has played any part in Sly’s weathering of occasional threats of cancellation, when Mel Gibson is still nailing himself to the floor in his films but remains in the dog house for more serious crimes.

The subject of Last Bloods PTSD-redemption arc could have been any old soldier, and the only good reason for it to be Medal of Honor winner John Rambo is so that Brian Tyler can quote Jerry Goldsmith’s original trumpet theme on the soundtrack while Sylvester Stallone rides a horse. Which is a pretty good reason when you hear it. I reviewed Last Blood for Sight & Sound.


Also: for the November Sight & Sound print magazine (and online here) a review of Driven, the second film lately to tackle the infamous bits of John DeLorean’s story. Two simultaneous films on a topic either means a major book sale has taken place somewhere or the theme has struck a nerve, in this case presumably the sight of blithe capitalists who usually swan through life actually being brought to book somehow somewhere some of the time, in something close to wish fulfilment. Which is not what happened to DeLorean—a minor detail.

Films
30 September 2019

Action

Such as:

  • Everyone writing regularly for free on advertising-supported platforms published by other people stops doing so, immediately. 1

  • The freelance sector discusses candidly how lower barriers to entry and a widening workforce will encourage wage-freeze and a collapse of career ladders, and would do this in any trade under the sun.

  • The freelance sector separates itself from colleagues in full-time salaried film-sector exhibition, marketing and academic posts who interpret their roles as including the writing of occasional film criticism. Well-paid fellow travellers recuse themselves from the poverty-stricken freelance space while we sort things out.

  • The freelance sector recognises that a paid trade requires a working benign meritocracy, whereby good writers get better and poor writers get better or stop.

  • The freelance sector reorganises so that collective action is not unthinkable.

In short: Close the taps a little and talk to each other a lot, either of which would count as doing something rather than doing nothing.


  1. What to do with unpaid self-publishing will have to be discussed too. Blogging for free is spun as the way for writers to continue to operate in the absence of income; but it’s just as true that adding to the world’s infinite ocean of unread film criticism is part of the problem rather than the solution. Data from those critics who operate Patreons and paywalls on their own blogs would be useful, and no doubt depressing enough to make us wish we hadn’t asked. Behind all this is the current break with (or at least loss of faith in) the written word as being the most vital means of transmission, a problem thrown in writers’ laps thanks to the nature of a digital networked remix culture, but a problem we have met by putting our collective fingers in our ears. Creators of audio-visual essays have seized their moment to claim the territory—dubiously in many cases—while TikTok makes the average video essay seem as with-it as the hula hoop. But the fact that no energetic or eloquent fanzine culture has jump-started in response is revealing enough.

Films
12 September 2019

Orders of the MGT

John Thompson, Eternal Comics, 1973 - High Weirdness frontispieceJohn Thompson, Eternal Comics, 1973 - High Weirdness frontispiece

Erik Davis wrote TechGnosis which should be read by all pop-culture critics before they process the nature of pop-culture or anything else.

His new book is High Weirdness, a sympathetic peer into the esoteric visions of Terence McKenna and Robert Anton Wilson and Philip K Dick, which makes a good case for the mind’s free play—psychedelically fomented or not—being the most essential characteristic of modernity, especially the cracked version summoned up by a networked world and now rising around us like the sea level.

One point in both books is the way that modern technology is modern but also shaped by very non-modern (if not downright ancient) tendencies in the human brain-box. The feedback loop through which a libertarian spirit in the 1970s Californian water pushed the internet towards open horizontal networks rather than closed vertical hierarchies, and now it’s the horizontal nature of those networks that makes it hard to corral a whirlpool of signal and feedback mediated by insanely rich capitalists often based in California, is the kind of historical big picture you need a big book to unpick. A coincidence of course that Robert Bly, thinking about why unchecked consumer culture has no place for authority from above or compassion directed below, used the word horizontal” to describe the flattened and narrowed results—but Davis points out why coincidence isn’t the word for this either. (I first came across Robert Bly in a book about comics by Will Jacobs and the now very cancelled Gerard Jones, which is why the cancellation of artists should be a firm topic of discussion but the erasure of their work needs a good reason for ever getting off the starting blocks.)

From High Weirdness:

Today as memetic noise eats consensus reality and conspiracy thinking is weaponised by parties across the political spectrum, a sort of existential vertigo has opened up beneath our feet. What once felt like the world” has shattered into an incompatible chaos of contradictory engineered and disturbing reality tunnels. Ontological anarchism increasingly seems like a pragmatic response, weird realism that strangely keeps you on your toes. For while [Robert Anton] Wilson’s model of agnosticism may not hand us any guiding narratives, it does provide the ballast of taking responsibility for our perspectives.

I read Illuminatus at age 15 which wasn’t all that long after it was published, and even once my head was screwed back on I figured it was more about the past than any future. Now Wilson and Robert Shea’s overload of conspiracy theory and warped occultism and druggy dérive reads differently, and since the text hasn’t changed it’s probably me. I can see why some people give the book a wide berth, but history has caught up with it. Its playfulness with truth and lies may be the most valuable quality, not least since it now carries the context of Wilson himself tripping into the deep end of Chapel Perilous and managing to get out again. It says that responsibility for keeping your bearings these days falls only to you, so you had better work out a method and get on with it.

If we are to embrace the reality of climate change and if we are to reckon with all the nonhumans—biological or otherwise—whose destinies are now tied to ours then we have to seek and demand an encounter with a Real beyond the symbolic frameworks of consciousness and culture, beyond the tidal surge of electronic reports, narcissistic loops, and memetic brainwash. Creatively worked, and suitably expanded, the human imagination can serve as an interface to entities and realities that elude the normal nets of rationality, language, and cultural symbols.

Imagination can save us, a weird and wonderful notion.

Art