30 April 2020

Brit-Cit and beyond

At The Comics Journal: a review of David Roach’s Masters of British Comic Art book, which takes up a fair portion of any coffee table it sits on. The histories of those Brits on the cover have been mulled over before (nearly a cottage industry in the case of Judge Dredd) but this book looks at less common parts of the map, while also trying to balance the scales a bit for a profession which has been as diverse and progressive as most of British publishing ie. not much. Another reason for a hefty tome is that it’s published by Rebellion, which has bought vast chunks of old British comics IP and surely spotted a moment to express commitment to that purchase via the medium of kilograms.

At Tripwire: brief words on Barking, Lucy Sullivan’s graphic novel about a mental breakdown. Unfair to compare everything in this area to Sloane Leong’s A Hollowing, bits of which I’m still thinking about three years after reading it; but both of them choose Expressionist horror as the way to shove a reader into the mind of someone in a bad place, while also stressing that they’re built from ink marks scratched onto paper. Realism does not offer a transparent window onto reality, reckoned Linda Nochlin and me.

Tank Girl gets onto the Masters cover and Jamie Hewlett gets his place in the line-up; but he already had a Taschen volume to himself in 2017, a book that puts your coffee table under even more strain than Roach’s does. Masters displays its artists alphabetically, which equalises things but downplays the historical moments, like the one when Hewlett spliced Moebius and MAD magazine and changed the course of the river a bit. Selecting three pages of Tank Girl for Masters restricts Hewlett’s energies much like an atom bomb squeezed into a tin can, while the Taschen book can venture into things like Hewlett’s sketches from Bangladesh for Oxfam, part of the humanitarian anti-war sentiment that runs through his art. Plus it has his drawings of Aquitaine pine trees, rigorous study of light and shade on a French headland being about as legitimate a fine arts project as it gets, historically speaking.

8 April 2020

Godard goes fishing

For The Comics Journal a review of Mitchum, a new edition of the French anthology by Christian Blutch” Hincker which arrives now pretty much like a thunderbolt.

I wrote about Total Jazz before; but Mitchum is stronger meat, comics of obsession and violence being countered by art and dancing—of poor human nature being inseparable from the better parts, a fairly radical notion. To see the ways women are treated in Mitchum and not spot that Blutch has turned his vision onto the men involved as well has missed the point, if only since several of the men involved are clearly him. Blutch is suggesting that obsession—lust for that matter—might not be an entirely negative thing, and you don’t catch many creatives hinting at that now stories about the human id are out of fashion.

Mitchum also finds room for an incidental drive-by nutmegging of the video-essay film criticism industry before that form really existed, in the section where something resembling Robert Mitchum beams down into a story. Video-essays deal in juxtaposition and re-reading and re-emphasis and re-framing and re-scoring of images from films, but in the end you’re stuck with ingredients which actually exist. Blutch has the entire manipulative subjectivity of cartoons to work with, images freed from any kind of prior life at all. His golem of Robert Mitchum could hardly be more resistant to close reading even before you tried to work out whether he was actually Robert Mitchum in the first place. If film criticism’s current wish that art sticks to answers rather than questions is well worth chewing over which it absolutely is then it’s a good moment for Blutch to restate that art can leave you to join a lot of dots yourself. Restate through a megaphone.

It’s fine to claim Mitchum as film criticism since Blutch has some form. So Long, Silver Screen was reprinted again a while ago, and none of the stories in there could be confused for video-essays either, even though they directly involve Jean-Luc Godard, Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Orson Welles and others. Blutch lacerates himself constantly throughout this book too, as a hopeless milksop in thrall to images of women and some men, but it’s an exercise in exaggeration and self-analysis. The book is tricky and rude and ribald and shape-shifts from metaphor to farce and back in a way that says something about the dreamland of movies but probably more about the wiring of your own taste in the things. An elderly Jean-Luc Godard turns up in a story initially set-up as The Swiss Family Robinson, endlessly catching fish that promptly dissolve to dust on the hook, until an observing caveman eventually yawns in boredom and wanders off. It’s an art joke and a coherent piece of film criticism and if processed into a workable video-essay would look like something Neil Innes sketched on a pad forty years ago next to a doodle of Godard playing the bagpipes.

One section in Mitchum slides into conceptual comics territory, when Blutch takes completed conventional comics pages telling a Western story and draws a female dancer over the top of every page—apparently an unrelated image, but of course that’s not how the mind works when confronted with it. LAAB #4, the crowd-funded broadsheet fanzine still agitating for print in the face of all the forces lining up against it, had a spread by Michael Horse, his Last Breath of the Black Snake” poster with cowboys and Native Americans fighting the Keystone XL Pipeline, drawn on top of a 1898 profit and loss ledger. Remixing cultural products gets you certain places, but remixing the symbolism might get you to alternate states altogether.

30 March 2020

Bad men

In the April print issue of Sight & Sound some cross words about Bad Boys for Life, a franchise emerging from the freezer after 17 years to chance its arm at the tables just because the tables are still there. Michael Bay started the Bad Boys machine and was immediately not the answer to any question I personally was asking, and two decades later 6 Underground on Netflix looks like him settling a few old scores with everyone who told him to tone the excess down a bit. But at least excess is an option if you start from where he started. Bad Boys 3, just like Rambo: Last Blood, is so boxed in by obligatory pop-culture messaging that it can’t even become excessive. Or match the spirit of its own original film, since irony now strangles everything from the Cinema of Cartoon Cruelty before it even gets going. Meanwhile the myth of redemptive violence trundles endlessly on, in this case allowing two generations of males to find redemption by cartoonishly obliterating a devil woman from both their lives. The film is, of course, a smash.

6 Underground: hyper-real6 Underground: hyper-real

No one will ever know if 6 Underground is a smash, since its viewing figures are just data etched into a memory crystal somewhere in the Netflix AI; but it makes Bad Boys 3 look like a wheezing grandpa halfway towards a personal best marathon time of ten hours. As Robert Hughes said about art and Tucker Stone said about these very explosions, the distinction to be made is whether any cultural doodad wants to supply its audience with information or with experience. Superhero films collapse under the tonnage of constant information, while 6 Underground junks the stuff in favour of colour-saturated cross-cut velocity, marshalled apparently by PT Barnum on a bender. This idea has flickered around before, but when something like Crank or Gamer had a go at it they were stuck with being grungy lo-fi farce, which was all that the digital workflows could conjure at the time. Plus they were strenuously masculine, and any commentary on 6 Underground needs to discuss how Bay deploys the least macho bunch of males he has ever bothered with, and two distinctly un-paper-doll females; coitus has never been more interruptus in a Bay film before. Freed to go bonkers by Netflix’s open chequebook—and by some customised RED digital cameras apparently built to specs yelled down the phone by Bay himself—6 Underground is also freed from being lo-fi anything. It’s the first full-on accelerationist thing of the Twenties, the raw materials of a heist film getting smashed together by the Large Hadron Collider.

A Hidden Life: hyper-real-erA Hidden Life: hyper-real-er

Seemingly somewhere off in another dimension sits A Hidden Life, a major result from the research lab where Terrence Malick has been wondering what a cinema of expressionism might actually look like, and seeing what happens if you bet the house on romanticism rather than reality. Having already pondered how to handle questions of personal faith and regret in other films, Malick finally tackles the Nazis head-on, spotting immediately that the only meaningful way to do so is through questions of personal faith and regret. The director’s oscillating low-level camera has driven some viewers up the wall for years, but anyone inclined to think that he’s been getting under the skin of his characters that way might find that he’s now even closer to the poetry of earth than ever, by connecting it to the humans rising out of that clay in the first place.

You might have to note that Malick can’t actually do anything much with the Nazis themselves, who turn into the usual gurning dingbats when regarded by that fish-eye lens from somewhere around floor level. One of them is glimpsed screaming in his own office, presumably tormented beyond words; Waldemar Kobus from Black Book and many other places does a little jig of amusement, presumably not tormented at all. But they aren’t the point; and neither is Hitler, whose voice echoes across the Austrian landscape at dusk, possibly not a strictly necessary metaphor. The point is the man they are all escorting into the cosmos at the business end of a death warrant, and the potency of a film in which he does the difficult thing because it’s the right thing but not the violent thing can hardly be underestimated in a system where Messrs. Smith and Stallone take out the trash in a moral vacuum of cod xenophobic panic. The film criticism nonsense klaxon went off when someone complained that the film failed to show why Franz Jägerstätter would resist the order to read out a Nazi oath and effectively throw his life away; and it’s true that Malick neglects to show Jägerstätter discussing the lives of the saints out loud or making a helpful speech about his situation to one of his sheep. Instead he’s just shown as being in touch with his Christianity and his own place within it, depicted that way through the manner in which he looks at his neighbours and his mother and his church and his wife and children stood next to it. From there, what other decision could he reach?

13 March 2020

La violence

Bodies in motion with Florent Ruppert and Jérôme Mulot.

The Grande OdalisqueThe Grande Odalisque

The Perineum TechniqueThe Perineum Technique

Portrait of a Drunk (with Olivier Schrauwen)Portrait of a Drunk (with Olivier Schrauwen)

6 March 2020

Enter the gnarly dragon

For The Comics Journal a review of Assassin Child, the latest of Tatsunori Tawaraya’s comics to appear in English from Hollow Press, and another of the books Tarawaya is creating on scratchboard using very fine blades and apparently all the patience in the world.

The tabloid-size silver-on-black result is likely to catch the eye of anyone wandering close to your coffee table, although next to some of the William Burroughs cut-up scatology in Tawaraya’s older pen and ink comics—Hollow Press has put out a 400-page slab of those too for comparison—Assassin Child swaps vice for decor, less medical trauma and more outer-space operatics. The publisher is name-dropping the melting forms of artist Mat Brinkman alongside Tawaraya, not least since it publishes both of them; but Assassin Child seems nearer to a Japanese tradition of mischievous yōkai and doomy cosmology and woodblock prints, filtered in this case through the energies of a man whose band once supported The Slits.

You could spend a happy hour poring over the art and wondering if the sheer time-consuming craft involved in Tawaraya’s scratchboard books either ruled him out as an outlaw artist or ruled him in, or how rebellious the end results actually are. But while you’re thinking about it, all that snaking silver circuitry is worming into your retinas.

1 March 2020

Purple reign

For Critics Notebook a look at Color Out of Space, Richard Stanley’s first feature film in 27 years. Since the last one was Dust Devil, still safely in my personal Top Ten, it would have been tough to hit the ground running as fast as that at the first attempt back in the arena. I’m not sure there’s much true overlap between HP Lovecraft’s Great Cosmic Downers and Stanley’s more humane beliefs about the evil that men do either; but he’s one of cinema’s true esoteric seekers, and they don’t get work often enough any more. Plus he’s already wondered about the mysteries of meteorites while making a film about the Holy Grail and the Nazis.

More on Dust Devil and Hardware from the archives. It takes three data points to make a pattern, so those credit sequences now stand revealed as a set.