30 August 2020
In the October Sight & Sound magazine some words about Nocturnal, a small-scale British working-class film of fatherly anguish. That period when the Edinburgh Film Festival set out to show the best British films not hoovered up by other festivals and just found a glum reservoir of generic council estate aggro heading straight to VOD, usually with the logo of the National Lottery attached like the mark of Cain, produced a long hangover. Nocturnal has more going for it than that—for starters it arrives from Wildcard Distribution and their cheerfully off-kilter catalogue—even if the chewy question of why British leftist films are inclined to deal in individual histories rather than collective stories, and so might not be all that far left at all, still hangs in the air. On the other hand Nocturnal has Cosmo Jarvis, the best Sensitive Brawler currently strolling across British film sets. Having made a note of the actor after Lady Macbeth like everybody else did, I laughed out loud to find him on Netflix doing one day’s work in Hunter Killer on-board Gerard Butler’s submarine, shouting All Stop Aye or similar while someone shone a red lightbulb at him. British actors who look like they’re in it for the experiences all head west eventually, but lucky for the trade that Jarvis is for now still here.
Somewhere else on the British experience spectrum entirely:
Jennifer Lee Moon in Lynn + Lucy: curl up and dye
Having already seen Rate Me and Burn My Body, two short films by Fyzal Boulifa that would have earned anyone a shot at a feature if they wanted it, I watched Lynn + Lucy distracted only by wondering what viewers coming to it cold might be thinking. That, and being sorry that it didn’t continue Boulifa’s director/star routine with Zehra Zorba, who seems to have inconveniently vanished—inconvenient for those of us who wanted her to charge across British films like Parker Posey with knuckledusters. The film is one individual’s estate story again, but this time with the entire random cruelties of fate rolling towards that individual like a boulder, and Boulifa has a streak of theatrical dead-pan in him that jolts things out of the merely observational and into a variety of passion play charged with static electricity. There’s also some significant camp in Boulifa’s style, a live wire to touch in his particular social melodramas. It would destabilise a lesser talent and capsize a lesser film, but camp is dripped into Lynn + Lucy via pipette by a filmmaker wearing a hazmat suit. Ken Loach’s company Sixteen Films crops up in the credits and the man himself was mentioned in reviews, which might imply that the criticism machine can only hold one model of working class film in mind at a time, since Lynn + Lucy could hardly be less like Ken Loach if Captain America had turned up. I’ve frowned before at the theory that Loach’s style is now particularly successful, and it looks even more dilute compared to the faces and details that Boulifa goes in for. Jennifer Lee Moon, who was superhero-adjacent on TV in Krypton, beams so much baleful intensity into the camera as a beauty salon manager that she might be sending out gamma rays. Imagine Ken Loach trying to get his cinema wrapped around that face. The negative would have melted.
6 August 2020
Will Sweeney’s latest self-published retrospective art book Grok, reviewed by me for The Comics Journal.
There’s some anti-establishment aggro in Sweeney’s art, behind the simmering colour blocks and those techno-wizards on loan from somewhere adjacent to Jack Kirby, although the revolution might be a slow-burner. Wage slaves do shuffle miserably towards the office under armed guard, colonists blithely pollute other people’s rivers and icons receive epic state funerals at a snail’s pace. But the main political movement would be the Bring A Bottle Party, judging by the plates of wormy foodstuffs served up in restaurants to vaguely pompous first-class diners. The occasional blasts of hedonism are mostly things like those glam rock gods, blissed-out retro hipsters bringing you the hits of some previous recession.
Urgency isn’t really Sweeney’s thing. Next to the panel-busting eccentricities of Sweeney-fan Tetsunori Tawaraya, whose art is as interested in the animal as the vegetable, Sweeney is the calm reporter at hot events, as the old Stuart Davis quote goes. One of those characters turns up in Grok’s climactic image, observing something that’s either a pagan rite or the local Lady Gaga support act, and looking all set to sell the snaps to the Daily Mail.
28 July 2020
Film criticism might once have had to be dragooned into doing PR for Netflix but these days it’s obliged to volunteer, so it gave The Old Guard a warm welcome before the film even arrived and then shuffled awkwardly around how much praise to apply. No point getting tangled up all over again in the market forces compelling films to turn characters from comics into actors talking out loud at all, which has stopped looking like fun for actors and characters alike. Or in pondering how comics do their voodoo, a deeply non-cinematic “art of tensions” (the label via Charles Hatfield) and a working class one at that, in which the only voices you hear are in your own head; which is part of why films are a medium for explaining what’s up with other people but comics are better at explaining what’s up with you.
Worrying about the difference between form and content would be a better bet, a discussion The Old Guard contributes to by featuring content that does all the thinking for you and form that sends you outside for a walk. What difference is created, what change is made, what action at a distance occurs, if characters said to embody progressive qualities are depicted in ways that are indistinguishably standard in framing, editing, speech, acting style, music, colour grading and affect, while they run up against the latest infantile villain? Maybe no change at all. Decades after improving the standard of mainstream female characters became an exercise in making them as armoured and indestructible as the men—in the process putting a dent in the ability of the films to be very left-of-centre at all—films still face the choice of delivering information or delivering experience, and still fixate on Option A without apparently feeling the dead hand of the market at the controls. A conservative pop-culture used to seem as freakish a concept as the Yeti but now here we are, with pop-culture not just trying to steer the whole ship but do so from the altar. Discussing the mixed results hardly seems worth doing while so many thorough video essays about the consequences keep being made and released as unsatisfying films.
So in a film concerned with content you get The Old Guard’s Charlize Theron wearing a black vest and a frown, colour graded so that the woman is indistinguishable from the sandstone, iconography of the sensitive strongman that could have come from 1985. And in a film thinking about form you get Adria Arjona striding around 6 Underground in a ludicrous skin-and-fetish-mask combo, digital grading cranked up to match the emissions of a pulsar, images incoming from somewhere around tomorrow.
Form and content, arthouse director department. Netflix also got its chequebook out for Wasp Network, Olivier Assayas’s film about anti-Castro forces in 1990s Florida. No greater admirer than me of Olivier Assayas and of Carlos, one of the great films about active historical change occurring (or not) at the end of a gun; but Wasp Network is less caustic, and most people in it are basically recognisable conflicted human beings rather than committed jihadists.
Castro himself appears via the historical archives, bobbing and weaving—saying yes we ran a spy ring in Miami, wouldn’t you?—which seems a shallower political investigation than you got from ten seconds looking into the eyes of Julia Hummer as the batshit crazy “Nada” in Carlos. A weird thing in Wasp Network happens (twice) when an unheralded and unexplained voice over kicks in, arriving in the film as if thrown bodily on from the wings, which has to explain who’s who and what’s occurring before departing back to the ether. Assayas scores these explanations with “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris, which considering that he had Carlos the Jackal travel from A to B backed with “Loveless Love” by The Feelies feels like it must be a political statement of some sort.
Form and content, guts in a bucket department.
Reading S. Craig Zahler’s novels after seeing his films might be the right way round, since you discover that the films are such precise translations of mood and style from one medium into another that they seem refreshed when you watch them again afterwards, even if they also can’t help but feel a bit derivative. You certainly spot which bits of hair-raising violence have been run up the flagpole earlier in the books. A Congregation of Jackals has a tribe of cannibal Native American troglodytes and a character hobbled by a busted leg, and once read cannot be unlinked in the mind from Bone Tomahawk. It has a villain called Quinlan, whose first name isn’t given but might as well be Hank. Mean Business On North Granson Street, intentions signalled by that title of pure noir pastiche, foretells Dragged Across Concrete with cops of dubious morality in ballistic masks, stressed masculine partnerships, castration of men and threatened or actual blinding of women. It has a character said to resemble a movie star who turns out to be called Jerry Langford, by which point all those character actor cameos in Bone Tomahawk are starting to add up.
It also has a villain’s comeuppance involving the contents of his own colostomy bag, which I don’t think Zahler has as yet persuaded a studio to let him recreate. The tone of social dread hanging over everything is consistent enough in the films on their own, but makes added sense as a literary mood spilling over into a neighbouring field. So do the deliberate wanders away from established plot lines to see what’s happening somewhere seemingly unconnected, usually leading to the unconnected person having their fingers or gonads removed. This particular trick might finally settle the question of Zahler’s sincerity, pondered by me ever since that secondary character got emphatically Goya-ed in Bone Tomahawk. (Zahler has since written Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, a bonkers triangulation between him, the low-budget pastiche of the old Charles Band film studio now arriving through the grimier lens of Cinestate, and the outsider comics art of Benjamin Marra. It feels like Zahler and Marra ganged up on Band in a car park to teach him about the pitiless emptiness of the universe.) Zahler films are squarely set in the same unquiet land as the books, a civilisation built on awful sands and feeling obliged to steamroller the supposedly uncivilised if it’s going to get anywhere.
7 July 2020
O Lucky Man
The 18th-century lush who stumbles around plastered in Portrait of a Drunk inflicting misery and death on everyone he meets is named Guy, so readers wondering whether the joke is aimed at any particular group of people should probably start with that. Despicable at first and then deteriorating from there, Guy’s bad behaviour is clearly going to earn him no comeuppance—although if he gets the loot he’s after there’s every chance of him tipping his prize into the ocean soon, sloshed again—which makes his one tiny ambiguous flicker of compassion in the middle feel even more dire than it would anyway. It certainly doesn’t do the young apprentice he fleetingly seems to be concerned about any good, since the kid’s already become one with the cosmos and is peering at Guy from an afterlife that’s swathed in heavy blue drapes like David Lynch’s vestibule.
The sour and stylish Portrait of a Drunk is a joint effort from Olivier Schrauwen and Florent Ruppert & Jérôme Mulot, and before reading it I had assumed it would be easy to spot who had done what; but panel-by-panel it’s nearly impossible. Schrauwen’s combative intellectual mockery is pretty distinctive—or distinctively Belgian if my struggles with films by Bouli Lanners and Jaco Van Dormael is any indication—and the feeling that the story is viewing its characters from an altitude of ten thousand feet feels like him. Ruppert & Mulot are comfortable lower down where the story’s sexual slapstick and kinetic violence flow from, something for which they have a knack. But Portrait’s bits of narrative free-for-all and layout gameplay could have been passed back and forth across the desk by any of them, along with the jokes. As in any morality play, the trick is to spot the void where your own morals are supposed to be; plus be reminded that where you end up will be where you started, no matter how much water has been passed since then.
Artistic coincidences: The separated body parts and spectres spying on Guy from limbo, which eventually gang up and torture him during a feverish hallucinatory sickness, include a headless body with a face in the torso. And reviewing Strontium Dog: Search and Destroy, the latest reprint of that strip’s first life which I hadn’t read since it was new in 1978, there’s John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s first depiction of the story’s mutant underclass. Grotesques as a common artistic language.
16 June 2020
Mrs. French’s cat is missed
Calling a film Dreamland gets your excuse in beforehand for any amount of arch unnatural gurning, but the latest Dreamland (latest of many) already has the spongey panto vibes that a low-budget English-language crypto-noir on the mean streets of Luxembourg is likely to haul around with it. Panto season kicks off properly when Juliette Lewis steams on as a Countess of no clear county and shouts at the locals, an American attached to middle Europe like a vampire. Her brother, an actual vampire, is as mittel-European as all hell. Gangsters hang out in a club called Al Qaeda, the rich buy and sell children as sex slaves while isolated de Sade-style in a mansion, and the band plays blithely on when the children eventually mow down their abusers with machine guns.
It’s no Pontypool. But then what is? Dreamland is Stephen McHattie and Lisa Houle saying lines co-written by Tony Burgess and directed by Bruce McDonald, and if anyone onscreen had hinted at a prior life in Ontario or some unpleasantness with a zombie plague I would have forgiven the film anything for joining the Pontypool Extended Universe. Pontypool—especially with the source novel Pontypool Changes Everything as some bigger project—is so singular that it hangs in the back of your mind like the book’s lethal virus, and even Dreamland seems to lens the light back towards it. Dreamland starts with a high-class escort practicing a foreign language, robotically reciting sounds divorced from their meaning, and ends with a coda in some artificial happy-ending limbo with the same actors who were in one of those last time, so maybe this is the PEU after all. In between everyone seems to be navigating a bubble of abrasive self-interest and artificial baloney. The collateral message, that navigating bubbles of those is your own lookout these days so you should probably get on with it, is a retro vibe of total current relevance and Burgess seems to have a bead on it. Pontypool knows the score:
The first Michael Winterbottom film I saw was probably 24 Hour Party People, and ever since the fact that he’s hardly mentioned as one of the greats has only endeared him to me more, even when I didn’t like the films—and I liked most of them just fine. It would be stretching things a bit to invoke the name of Ken Russell, but choosing to look at real lives through a mildly absurdist prism and see what aggressions emerge is one of the best tendencies the UK tradition has on the books—the Catholic hysteria may be out, but in exchange you get 24 Hour Party People’s subterranean cultural tides, all of them walking and talking. The other name to mention might be Ken Loach, given how Winterbottom’s films bite on social and socialist issues without ever landing close to Loach’s stone-faced naturalism, a style whose potential flaws aren’t discussed enough. You could wave your arms and wonder whether Winterbottom or Loach was the better heir to the kind of thing that British TV used to get up to, as opposed to what it gets up to now as an arm of the establishment centre. In any case, Greed, the last film I saw at the cinema before someone turned cinema off at the mains, takes a spectacularly dim view of capitalists and the fortress Europe sentiments created by people like Steve Coogan’s Sir Richard McCreadie, who is clearly the rich and very establishment Sir Philip Green.
There’s a temptation to see all of these regular Winterbottom/Coogan projects as The Trip To My Bank Account, but Greed’s comedy has a dose of appropriately Greek tragedy. The agent of cosmic retribution is a lion—beat that Paul Laverty—which has consumed cocaine given to it by McCreadie’s resentful son—beat that Sophocles. Consulting the data indicates that the film received its tepid release the week after Caroline Flack died, and Flack is the first face seen in the film, one of many celebs endorsing and publicising McCreadie as the whole fetid system revolves. There’s a running gag about McCreadie resorting to celebrity lookalikes at his party; a George Michael arrives, unhindered by the real one having been dead for a while. The fact that Flack had gone too by the time the film came out undoubtedly distressed all involved, but Winterbottom’s pointed cultural romanticism makes it seem inadvertently well aligned, the ghost in the malfunctioning moneymaking machine.
26 May 2020
Idly re-reading 30 years of Tank Girl comics during a dire pandemic and political meltdown is to watch writer Alan Martin tend his holy flame without ever peering over the temple walls, much less leaving the grounds. Not even the issues eventually drawn by Mick McMahon—the Saw franchise remixed by The Young Ones—can decently process the radioactive negativity of those photos of Margaret Thatcher tootling around Lower Saxony in a Challenger tank which presumably played a part in the strip’s creation, images already beyond parody at birth. If the comics had any solid political goal, it got diluted by the twin tracks of standard Tank Girl studies: that the strip was 1) punk and 2) feminist. The second claim has to accommodate the shortage of female creators whose names have ever appeared in the credits, and the first trips over the small fact that the strip is as punk as a lemon pip. The major guide-stars for Tank Girl are elsewhere, things with one foot in British absurdity like Roscoe Moscow in Sounds, plus most of Viz, already a decade old before Martin and Jamie Hewlett had a head of state soil himself for want of a colostomy bag in Tank Girl’s first story.
The real mind-bender is to read Shaky Kane’s comics from the same issues of Deadline, work beaming in from further afield altogether—possibly from Spiegelgasse 1, Zurich. The 2017 Good News Bible reprint of this stuff makes Kane’s A-Men strips and their very 1980s religious terror seem hammered into Deadline like a titanium spike, the anode to Tank Girl’s cathode. Whatever the publishing calculations involved in Deadline, and by all accounts it couldn’t have lost more money if it was printed on gold leaf, its role as a delivery system for Shaky Kane art excuses a lot of other things. Dipping coincidentally into Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, the book falls open at passages on the dadaists at Cabaret Voltaire and the “stage happenings, simultaneous poems and mock rituals” underway in downtown Zurich 1916, which could also be a stab at describing some of Kane’s instinctive cartooning, cutting up and reforming reality as he went. Marcus reckons that London punk was partly the underground currents of big daddy Dada breaking the surface again, which would make Shaky Kane’s comics punk enough to put Tank Girl into a coma. Plus right there is the photo of Hugo Ball’s Sorcerer costume, some prototype Shaky Kane walk-on character, the A-Men’s janitor. Marcus thinks performance venues like the Cabaret would seem as good a laboratory for change as any other; so are Shaky Kane comics and Greil Marcus books, and since they remain open for revolutionary business we should probably read some.
Shaky Kane: A-Man
Hugo Ball: D-Man