Robert Hughes, as close to a house deity as this blog has, stuck some 24-carat quotes from artist Stuart Davis into The Shock of the New and American Visions:
I care nothing for Abstract Art as such, but only as it evidences a contemporary language of vision suited to modern life.
That was 1950, but the principle still rolls onward over all the imaginative visuals and brilliant creatures that crop up in comics, where the art has one foot in the abstract department before you even get to the occasional high-modernist artist or Jack Kirby’s pop-art collages. For that matter the principle blasts from the screen when you try to keep track of the brawls in John Wick 3, a language of vision suited to punching foreigners in the throat without consequences.
And “evidences a vision suited to modern life” sounds like the life comes first and the art’s vision adjusts; a better arrangement than believing that art should jostle ahead of life on the track and reveal the hidden wickedness of the artist if the critic only peers at it hard enough. All of which makes Davis’s anti-fascism more overt rather than less, spelt out in pulsing signs and symbols, a modern life going nowhere but forwards.
Real art determines culture when its image is a public view of satisfaction of impulse - not merely an SOS from a subjective event. Painting is not an exhibition of feelings.
I believe that there is a vast audience which, like myself, is more interested in the scenery than the familiar furnished room of their own short-circuited emotional wiring.
By which point he might as well have been talking about arts criticism, a large sector of which has opted for the subjective SOS about its own emotional wiring as the main sellable product, shortly before discovering that such language was suited to modern life but not suited to getting paid.
For the Solrad site, an article about The Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, or at least those first four of Jacques Tardi’s stories that Fantagraphics republished in English before the series went on hiatus. I have a soft spot for Luc Besson’s Adèle film, but he didn’t make her the complicated bundle of exasperated irritation that her creator did. The throwaway visual of her sucking her thumb while asleep after she’s spent fifty pages bulldozing through the officious oafs who run French society is the mark of a cartoonist who knows that his character is an innocent heading for a disaster, and it isn’t even her fault.
Tardi’s appalled fascination with World War I as the pit that Europe still hasn’t climbed out of a century later looms over everything he creates, and if Adèle takes a more metaphorical route to the topic than something like It Was the War of the Trenches — which truly has something of Goya about it — then maybe that just makes Adèle’s poignancy sharper. The poilu in the trenches are in hell, but Adèle Blanc-Sec and everyone she encounters while getting caught up in plague cults and mad science and spiritualist ectoplasm in 1912 Paris still has hell to look forward to. The Solrad piece is here.
Seems fair to call Greta Gerwig’s Little Women exactly that, since Gerwig’s own tart self-sufficiency from Frances Ha and its Mistress America flip side aren’t hard to spot in there, not to mention the deadpan delivery she used in Damsels in Distress while claiming that the twist was popularised by someone named Chubbard Checker. The film is going for modernisation and American authenticity at the same time—and doing it with hard calculation rather than impetuous exuberance, the inevitable bargain if mass-culture is society’s cart rather than its horse. But Gerwig is trying for tenderness too, something hardly any films know what to do with in this, our age of irony.
It also has Florence Pugh, owner of enough exuberance for any three films. Every now and again someone British rocks up who splices the domestic acting tradition with American mechanisms and makes it look like the two schools are cosily compatible, rather than from parallel dimensions. Pugh is today’s designated alchemist and has been ever since she frugs along to that car radio in The Little Drummer Girl, beaming with the joy of just doing the job in the first place—the rarest Anglo Saxon knack of all. She bosses Little Women from the front in her own scenes before doing it again from the background during other people’s. Next May she goes twelve rounds with Scarlett Johansson while wielding a Russian accent that sounds like it could squash a pebble, which might be something between a title bout and a bacchanal.
A serious bunch, apart from Anna which like most Luc Besson films is stoked with the joys of just being a film in the first place, like a happy puppy. Peter Strickland’s In Fabric was a hoot too, but took Britain and its endless neuroses and service industries to the proverbial cleaners, Are You Being Served as body horror, a pretty venomous jab at the old country; the newborn baby girl immediately giving her own father the finger caught the mood of the national moment. Isabella Eklöf came to the Encounters Short Film Festival in 2012 with Notes From Underground, and the course from there to Holiday was in sight even then.
Pointless to question (again) whether a Best Films of 2019 list where the films are not available to the magazine’s readership until later in 2020 serves any purpose beyond flattering the egos of those asked to vote, and personally I would rather have mine flattered by higher rates of pay instead. Whomever your magazine is aimed at the other eleven-and-a-half-months of the year, Best Of Year lists are supposed to be for general arts consumers who dip in and out, not for repeating the same praise for the same festival hits you’ve already praised once before, or finding a hypothetical audience who plan their arts consumption months in advance like Operation Overlord.
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.