19 October 2020

Centre stage

Mutterings about Aaron Sorkin and The Trial of the Chicago 7 suggest it’s the season to fret about the cinema of the Centre again, which would sound more convincing if the complainers addressed themselves to the state of things on the cinematic Left the rest of the time. But when anyone asks what films from the political left should now look like, what forces keep them in check, and where exactly audiences might actually find any, the response is crickets and tumbleweeds.

Not the smallest achievement of The West Wing, by accident, was the way it bridged two eras of US television when TVs form and content were being overhauled at the source. The later series’ location shoots and high-definition visuals and peer at the American electoral system from a range of six inches look in hindsight like a feature, when at the time they looked a lot like a bug, bodychecking all the russet glow and studio sets and overt social address of the Aaron Sorkin years into the bin with unseemly force. So emphatically was the weather changing courtesy of competition from HBO that no half-way-house was conceivable—you could hardly adjust the agenda like that while keeping the needle-drop music from the AOR playlist. Even in the earlier Sorkin episodes, those added songs were a twinge of concern for at least one progressive watching, whose politics felt like it should be looking forwards rather than backwards and who wasn’t sure what to do with being cemented back into the 1990s by Don Henley sticking his oar in. When Sorkin stuck with the treasured songs while modernising the whole project for The Newsroom, where the intention to stand right at the political Centre was stated out loud, the feeling that this particular habit might put a dent in the progressive agenda interfered with the enjoyment even for Sorkin nuts. Some of us would claim The Newsroom as the more fully realised radical project, actively remaking the world with literal liberal wish fulfilment; the endless wayward criticisms of the show stemmed more from an internal conflict about this among viewers on the Left than from attempts with graphs to prove Sorkin was unable to write female characters. But those songs continued the stubborn theory implanted deep within liberal TV that a musical pat on the head adds depth rather than reduces it. (Battlestar Galactica, while doing great things with Lieutenant Starbuck for one and a half seasons, marked a traumatic catharsis by licensing the Cavatina” music from The Deer Hunter, just about the most over-explanatory worn-through maudlin musical choice available - at least until the series roped Bob Dylan in later on. Starbuck duly spent the next three years in a sullen funk.)

Aaron Sorkin’s move from writers-medium TV back to to directors-medium cinema has so far not done him any favours as a director, even while returning his writing style to the land it came from, back within sighting distance of the old screwball form, the Sorkin home turf. To state what has always been obvious, the point of the Sorkin style is not that people talk but that two or more people talk to and at and over each other, often from positions on the left and right of an issue, a model for intellectual process (and for how to make progress, you assume Sorkin thinks) not to mention the root of many decent jokes. When The Newsrooms Don Keefer, tripped up by the divine Sloan Sabbith over an issue concerning buffet waffles, dropped the name of Socrates in connection with their argument, he was pointing to the mighty tradition in which the man putting words in his mouth had planted the show. But when, at the end of The Trial of the Chicago 7, the needle drops on a ballad of pleading uplift called Hear My Voice,” the effect is just sponge. Sorkin can’t get over wanting to sidle close to the viewer at the end of things, a reflex action as he hands you your hat.

Chicago 7 moves Sorkin from fictionalised history to the real thing, his basic belief in process and progress from the Centre promptly hitting choppy waters when faced with reality and its conspicuous lack of either of those things, even under the camouflage of 1969—or especially under the camouflage of 1969. The courtroom setting brings all the duelling wordplay Sorkin has been entranced by since A Few Good Men, although calling in expatriates like Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen dilutes the screwball echoes. They can’t keep up with the natives, and Michael Keaton shows up for five minutes to indicate how the game is played. He is also the Establishment liberal ally totally banjaxed by conniving political opponents, just to make the masochistic point. Sorkin turns all the political conniving into a light entertainment, probably at the cost of context. Frank Langella is sublime, but him playing Judge Julius Hoffman as a crusty eccentric who might have some woodworm in the gavel can only underestimate the historical hinge by which the loopy buffoon ended up presiding over the case in the first place. You wouldn’t need to have Hoffman screeching from the bench like Roland Freisler in old Berlin to show the rot setting in somewhere behind him in the pipework of the system that put him there, and Sorkin doesn’t give the character any of the potential understanding (not sympathy) that casting Langella would have opened up. In our own historical moment the idea of even a cautious understanding for Julius Hoffman would have brought the Furies on from the left side of the stage, and it’s chewy to wonder whether Sorkin is working within those kind of current proscriptions, or just pretending not to notice them. The real trial transcripts have their own absurdist comedy, but Sorkin is no absurdist, and in any case can’t risk taking the subject lightly. The film wants to set up a heavyweight argument, maybe one of the few that matters, between Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden about what exactly the Left should be up to; an entirely valid fight, romantic vs pragmatic. It might have been stronger if one of them had prevailed, but that would have obscured its main interest in just hearing the question spoken out loud.

The question of where the cinema of the Left has gone should be spoken out loud too, so urgent an issue for film criticism that the lack of discussion about it is another urgent question on its own. But there’s no point discussing it without discussing the whole board, also clarifying why the existing systems in the Disney Industrial Complex lean to the Right even when the lead characters are women, and where Centrist dramas might be found. No point, because political change in which everyone becomes fully politicized in the same direction all at once like a population bubble only happens in dreamland. Out in reality, the thing to aim for is just making everyone more aware of their condition, starting with those who reasonably think their everyday lives are already consumingly complicated and that they have enough to deal with. On the off chance that anger wrapped in performative irony is too schizo a potion to get the job done, then rhetorical volleying, a tactic of the Centre just as revolution and inertia are the tactics of Left and Right, might. The sound of actors going back-and-forth discussing why is more valuable than the sound of crickets and tumbleweeds.

16 October 2020

North and South

For Tripwire some words about the latest reissue of Judge Dredd: America, the thirty-year-old story that’s become its own cottage industry; the most recent reissue of it before this one was a whole twenty seven days previously. The publisher Rebellion remains happy to push it as the best place to start with the character—ignoring the reasonable marketing objection that telling new readers they should start with 1990 isn’t an automatically attractive tactic—and as the quintessential anti-fascist Dredd story, which involves overlooking the fact that a lot of writers and hence a lot of stories don’t share John Wagner’s emphatic hitting of hammer on nail. Treating America like both the monkey’s paw and the golden goose, Rebellion’s nostalgia machine rumbles on. A genuine selling point this time is the inclusion of Wagner’s original scripts, which confirm that scholars assessing his titanic contribution to British comics will have a job on their hands. When Wagner eventually bequeaths his archives to the University of Dundee, he’ll be able to take them round in the boot of his car.

An anti-fascist comic emerging from the fog of actual fascism, and so less inclined to be ironically detached about it, Perramus is the latest reprint in the Fantagraphics archival series of Alberto Breccia comics, in this case collecting the whole seven-year story in one place between hard covers so that you have to haul the book into position before boarding. Breccia and Juan Sasturain started the story in 1982 while the Argentinian junta was still carting people off in the middle of the night, and finished it in 1989 when Argentina was having its second general election, and the story witnesses a shift from strangled night-terrors to a painfully fragile optimism. But fragile might not be the word for the book’s hulking heavyweight atmosphere, storylines so thick with allegory and sideways implications that they feel like something pumped with insulating foam. Somewhere between the Marxist circus clowns and the various versions of Jorge Luis Borges, the story becomes almost entirely about its own dense nature; a fair response to terrifying oppression—as if the book itself was shivering nervously under a street light—but a tricky reading experience. It’s also distinctly sexist, if that matters in this context. There are some bonkers coincidences: nine years ago the Álex de la Iglesia film The Last Circus, another Spanish-language anti-fascist fever dream, not only featured more allegorical circus clowns but also at one point seized on the cultural shadow of Telly Savalas as Kojak. When Perramus arrives on an island run by a dodgy Henry Kissinger lookalike, the TV station censors his words by overdubbing Kojak’s voice. This, shortly before the island disappears under an endless cascade of bird shit.

The Last Circus: TellyThe Last Circus: Telly

Perramus “The Secret Circus”: on the tellyPerramus “The Secret Circus”: on the telly

The art is another matter again. Mort Cinder, the previous Fantagraphics Breccia book, showed how the artist was happy for ink smudges and fingerprints and pen smears to form part of the art style; Perramus pushes things far further through watercolour and ink wash, to the point where caricatures and distortions akin to those of Gerald Scarfe peer out of nocturnal brush work like aquatic creatures. Robert Hughes on watercolours:

Watercolour is tricky stuff, a virtuoso’s medium. One slip and the vale of atmosphere turns into a mud puddle. The stuff favours broad effects. Nothing proclaims the amateur more clearly than niggling and over correction.

Breccia’s art, driven deliberately towards mud puddle before veering (sometimes) back from the brink and filled with effects bordering on chance encounters, is as virtuoso as it gets.

In another coincidence: the 2000AD strip Stickleback, recently returned after several years at rest, finds artist D’Israeli now emphatically deploying broad effects of his own, textures and swabs and patterns from the digital tool box, ending up in a parallel if much less organic neighbourhood by distinctly less feverish routes.



22 September 2020

Roadside panic

For The Comics Journal a review of Crash Course, a righteous and angry activist comic by Woodrow Phoenix which starts off being about bad driving and road rage before taking on some of the most toxic social and law-enforcement fault lines of the moment.

It’s also a solid artistic response to dismay, having been a much shorter book 12 years ago about the first set of those problems which Phoenix has now waded back into in order to process the dire provocations of the second set. It puts anguished narrative captions over drawings of roads from which all signs of cars and humans are absent, with the occasional visual metaphor added for spice; and there is a discussion available about how successfully that works as comics, where the art might not have to serve a wider sequential purpose all the time but has to address that requirement in some form. There might be another discussion about how far the method’s radical intentions stretch in practice. The first things I thought of while reading it were films, the visuals of Patrick Keiller’s laconic Robinson semi-documentaries and the grainy views of the A4 heading west in Radio On; art that’s less urgent than this but maybe more pungent. Art about deserted roads now puts Covid-19 on the reader’s mind as well, a dimension Phoenix could hardly have seen coming. But it’s a hallmark of strong art to be in the right thematic place at the right thematic time to connect with something else entirely.

Also at TCJ, Joseph Stalin’s big robotic wang:

Infamous public domain comics hedonist Octobriana rides again, still all boobs and bazookas, although since this time it’s Jim Rugg at the controls this probably counts as her highest profile outing in a while. Rugg is a mechanic, keen to dismantle whatever car engine he’s interested in to see if he can put some new cogs back inside, and he’s probably happier doing that than embracing the boobs and bazookas bits of Octobriana lore. Which makes his Mtsyry Octobriana comic hugely kinetic and printed with UV-active inks and looking affectionately over its shoulder back at her first 1970s appearance, but maybe also accounts for why the comic doesn’t fancy tapping into her underground and subversive aspects—allowing for the chance that Rugg intends 26 pages of ballistic mayhem from an Amazon in tight snakeskin pants to be inherently underground by nature. Which, well, maybe, but Spain Rodriguez is regrettably not around any longer to wade into that argument. Mtsyry Octobriana is, in any case, an artifact from an artisan and an addition to Octobriana lore, and I’m all in favour of all of those. I reviewed it for The Comics Journal here.

Two more brief things related to Octobriana on this blog here and also here.

18 September 2020

Faces places

Candyman (1992) Bernard Rose/Clive Barker

Savage from 2000AD (2016) Pat Mills/Patrick Goddard

15 September 2020

All our yesterdays

Film viewings:

Not much about Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a surprise for anyone following Céline Sciamma’s humane and compassionate films of queer caution, and neither is that very French thing of staging a costume drama and making it modern through the faces and charisma of the performers involved—see also Catherine Breillat casting Asia Argento in The Last Mistress and driving a spike down through the film’s historical aspects and into the soil of 2007. (Anglophone films are wising up to how hiring Florence Pugh can do the same thing.) In Portraits case Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel both seem sparky enough to have arrived in 1790-ish Brittany direct from Montmartre via Vespa. There’s a specific shot of Merlant sat naked in front of a fire lighting a pipe while illuminated by a couple of candles that’s a pure crystal of one particular gaze and style, and couldn’t be clearer about that style’s country of origin if she was sat on a Tricolore rug.

Christopher Nolan does modernity and tradition in Tenet as he always does, the combo that still makes critics call him chilly” when it’s been clear for several films now that Nolan is a big softie. But unlike those Tenet doesn’t have the element of romantic love and resulting guilt at its heart, and suffers. The nearest thing is the pairing of Kenneth Branagh (redoing the dying Russian routine from his own Jack Ryan film, which proves no one watched his Jack Ryan film) and Elizabeth Debicki, a sour squabbling marriage that makes you want to throw both of them overboard from his yacht. Without that solid C-major tonic at the centre, all Tenets thunderous engineering is built on Nolan’s sci-fi nonsense instead. Which this time is nonsense indeed, occurring not in the deeply personal head space of your dreams or the equal moral isolation of outer space, but now all over the place in the real world; a distractingly numbskull notion. I liked the cheapo sci-fi hardware, like Nolan’s chrononauts have to share PPE suppliers with the National Health Service, but the idea of a massive all-out armed conflict between squadrons of time-split armed forces out in the open, Chinooks landing backwards and all, needs more finessing than Nolan gives it, which is basically none. Reviewers keep trying to connect Nolan with James Bond and Stanley Kubrick, but not for the first time it would have been the arrival of Tim Thomerson from the world of Charles Band’s Future Cop that might have fitted.

Modernity everywhere in She Dies Tomorrow, which slaps the decadent mood of the era and the plague-ridden panic of this exact second into the same blender, so that one metaphor fits all. A bunch of Millennials passing along a maybe-virus that convinces them of death’s imminent inescapable arrival and just wandering around emoting about it, a ton of existential unhappiness arriving randomly like the dude delivering your pizza, is sublimely on target. Not mentioned upfront in enough reviews, you feel, is how the same thing works as a merciless parody of indie mumblecore self-indulgence on film and indeed in general, which writer/director Amy Seimetz plays with the stoniest of straight faces. If the mock-noir title wasn’t a clue (Kiss Me Tomorrow or She Dies Deadly would also work), Seimetz presents the title card with a hammer cut and a blast of Mozart Requiem, as effective a cliché as any film maker could go for. There’s a scene in which a man disconnects his sick father’s life support and his girlfriend promptly breaks up with him right there in the hospital room and I was nearly helpless on the floor. Even better, Seimetz visits an expert in leather tanning and when he walks on it’s James Benning, the most unlikely director cameo since that time Scarlett Johansson kicked Jerzy Skolimowski in the knee. Calling it She Dies Laughing might have been nearer the mark.

30 August 2020


Nocturnal: fatherhoodNocturnal: fatherhood

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 dyeJennifer 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.