23 August 2019

Real as a donut

Any new Quentin Tarantino film uncorks a hot spring of emergency responders, in this case watching Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and detecting racism and misogyny and an anti-hippie reactionary yearning for films that don’t matter any more, plus the casting of anger-management head-case Emile Hirsch. Which proves that our fixation on content rather than form might, in the right Petri dish, turn into an even more basic confusion between subject and object. As Tucker Stone pointed out, cultural immersion in screens and algorithms which bend to your will expressly to create an echo chamber of your existing preconceptions might inevitably fuel a feeling that art on those screens should match your existing wishes also, which is a basic Category Error. In Captain Marvel, this means ignoring all its screaming conservative neo-liberal klaxons so that the whole enterprise can be certified progressive; but in Tarantino’s case it requires a wilful ignoring of technique into the bargain. As well as Tarantino’s usual memory games and a wish to futz with the grammar of flashbacks without helpfully providing the sound of a harp glissando on the soundtrack, OUTIH has a mordant accessibility which Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight resolutely did not, its central friendships and rewritten histories arriving buoyed on a network of on-screen details and tchotchkes and portents that add up to a vastly thicker layer of product than the average confection. Brad Pitt’s sauntering cheesy sarcasm rises from somewhere deep within the actor, while also making it clear that the character is never far from being an asshole—I appreciated him trying the quiff from Johnny Suede on for size again near the end—and Leonardo DiCaprio is all technique and twitch. His character stutters whenever he’s stuck with the task of being himself, and the bit where he’s stuttering and coughing and smoking all at the same time while talking to Panto Sam Wanamaker is dark physical comedy of self-destruction.

The film could hardly be free of destruction with the Manson Family lurking on the fringes. That early shot of them as flower children strolling along hand in hand is straightforward horror-thriller incongruity, worms in the apple, as if they were the Midwich Cuckoos—which maybe they are. Leo and Brad’s characters do indeed dislike hippies, but to say that the film does too might require evidence that it thinks the Family is representative of the whole. In fact no other counter-cultural figures even make an appearance, and by the end Susan Atkins is barely human, a shrieking gorgon of doom.

These complaints draw from the theory that art is obliged to transmit pure moral light like a lighthouse and avoid the dark places. (And it’s not the first Tarantino to be loaded with this obligation despite being inherently unreal almost to the point of sci-fi.) This is a cultural discussion which should absolutely happen but at present cannot start, so in the meantime my answer hasn’t changed and it’s still a raspberry. In OUTIH the freakish violence at the end is nastier and longer than the killings in Death Proof but serves the same story function: some women receive violence specifically so that some other women may live. But detection of wickedness and erasure of bad objects is the power move of the moment. Critics sensing invisible things insert themselves between the viewer and the film so that they can flag up Unpleasant Undertones, perhaps a valid instinct if you’re convinced that the world is falling apart but a strange way to interact with art—one that seems unlikely to put the world back together and more likely to earn a sideways glance from a historian of the mid-twentieth century. If art has to fix things—and mass culture might not be built for the burden—then the urge to sift it for hidden wickedness will always become a tidal flood washing over all associated creators, and when they don’t apologise rolling on in search of the real bad guys, a proxy war against anyone misguided enough to buy a ticket.

9 August 2019

Richard Stanley’s meteorites

The Color Out of Space, HP Lovecraft (1927):

It all began, old Ammi said, with the meteorite. Before that time there had been no wild legends at all since the witch trials, and even then these western woods were not feared half so much as the small island in the Miskatonic where the devil held court beside a curious stone altar older than the Indians. These were not haunted woods, and their fantastic dusk was never terrible till the strange days. Then there had come that white noontide cloud, that string of explosions in the air, and that pillar of smoke from the valley far in the wood. And by night all Arkham had heard of the great rock that fell out of the sky and bedded itself in the ground beside the well at the Nahum Gardner place.

Told in The Secret Glory, Richard Stanley’s documentary about the 1930s Grail Quest of Obersturmführer Otto Rahn (2001):

For Antonin Gadal, the Grail was a stone that had fallen from the moon, from the sky. The ancients called it lapis excoris, which was essentially a kind of meteorite, and this area of the Arierge is very rich in meteorites. There is something quite extraordinary about these meteorites in that they consist of a form of hematite, lapis extraordinaire, a mineral from outer space that is extremely pure iron, up to 99.99 percent pure. It is an absolutely pure mineral that doesn’t rust. It is very smooth, very beautiful, and it’s certain that since prehistory, these stones, fallen from the sky, have possessed a genuinely mysterious property in that if you take two of these stones and rub one stone against the other, drops of blood fall from them.

Richard Stanley in The Secret Glory liner notes:

The cup itself is still in the hands of an organisation in the south of France and was on public display in Tarascon until just over 10 years ago. Sadly, there are no images of it in the current cut. However, I can tell you firsthand that it does indeed bleed.

Richard Stanley has emerged from the undergrowth and made a film of The Color Out of Space, and the only thing more intriguing than that is to wonder exactly how much publicity he’s going to do for it in the long run. Stanley is an authentic esotericist, a great explicator of his own work while also seeming like he might be having you on, and one of our own high-powered fringe-dwellers. After a documentary in which the Holy Grail is explicitly invoked as a meteorite, what better material than The Color Out of Space, the arrival of a chunk of The Great Outside vertically downwards very quickly.

More on this blog about Richard Stanley and Dust Devil here and also here.

(The Colour Out of Space stars Nicolas Cage who was in Mandy which was absolutely diabolical. The differences between the Richard Stanley of old and Panos Cosmatos of today are illuminating about a few aspects of the current genre factory, and I guess we’re about to receive an update on the situation one way or the other.)

5 August 2019


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—along with TikTok and the rest. But the fact that no energetic or eloquent fanzine culture has jump-started in response is revealing enough.

13 July 2019

Dog wife is in danger

John Wick 3: Obey the rules, swear your loyalty, pay for your transgressions, beg others for redemption, peace through suffering, mutilation as penance, guilt guilt guilt, LOLs. Nods to The Matrix that make it feel like your radical brother grew up to be as square as your grandmother.

Also hotels you can’t afford full of matronly telephone operators with hipster neck tattoos writing murders on chalkboards, which is only one Simon Le Bon short of a Russell Mulcahy pop video from 1984. And like a bunch of those the Wick-verse’s revolt into style involves a lot of looking crestfallen, its affluent globe-trotting capitalist killers all miserable as hell, including the Eurotrash. Even without the baggage of the phrase Sad Hitman, which is plenty, the film is enthusiastically square. In his book Make My Day J. Hoberman mentions a 1976 film full of

Libidinal politics, celebrity worship, sexual exploitation, the fetishisation of guns, and racial stereotyping.

and it’s a mark of where we are that he was talking about Taxi Driver but could have been describing the last two John Wicks, which have all of those—plus a bunch of mixed-up class war messages—but with all the polarities reversed. Irony is everywhere and tone is everything, in John Wick 3s case the tone being that of something written on the back of a menu by Mark Millar.

Shortbox put out a minicomic—“John Wick3 —which did what comics can usually do and sliced cleanly down through the wrapping paper of someone else’s IP all the way to the counter-cultural bone.

The films say Wick is a legendary figure of fable but the only decent visual signpost of it is Keanu Reeves riding a horse, the urban cowboy (or one of the Secret Agents of History, Hoberman’s phrase) from some self-made patty of McMythology. For the comic, Eileen Kai Hing Kwang sees this bid and raises it, putting Wick on a huge fantastical Bucephalus with hooves like spears, a portrait of horse and rider twisted in the act of either slamming on the brakes or making an unclean getaway, suitable for putting on a little stand at Wick’s funeral.

Wick on his horse in his skinny black suit will be part of PhDs about Keanu Reeves’s intersectional appeal and John Wick’s rampant heterosexuality (as if Wick wasn’t clue enough) and John Wicks casting of Ruby Rose and Asia Kate Dillon as sleek representatives of the world’s hidden forces. In the meantime the comic spots Wick and Marcus (Willem Dafoe) as the franchise’s original flaming creatures, with Carta Monir drawing a battered Wick gazing up at the healthily bulging curves of Marcus’s crotch from floor-level as Marcus asks him for his safe word. Hello John” indeed.

The best bit is Jane Mai’s cover, kicking Wick back into the manga tradition that loosely inspired him, as dreamy and flexible as the films are stolid and set. Plus it reaches the only logical conclusion about a sad hitman and his beagle.

Films Art
6 July 2019

A piece of Elvis Presley’s carpet

Samurai Marathon: the usual suspectSamurai Marathon: the usual suspect

Seen at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival:

The Vast of Night is sincere late-1950s sci-fi pastiche modelled on The Twilight Zone, and until scientists work out how to do one of those without starting from there then sincerity is probably what matters most. Two nice young people (he’s named Everett Sloan” for a bit of sideways Orson Welles heritage, she’s from a Spielberg-ian ruptured family) get into a UFO mystery involving voices on the radio and reel to reel tape recordings, allowing the film to mix modern digital tracking shots with a hardcore analogue fetish for audio tape and unspooling and splicing and threading and respooling. Their town apparently prizes a remnant of Elvis Presley’s carpet, and you can’t get much more analogue than that. As films about paranoid people on the radio go it’s no Pontypool; but then what is?

Driven is about John DeLorean, played by Lee Pace with something not unrelated to Elvis’s carpet on his head. Two films about DeLorean are now out and about, almost as if we were suddenly minded to take capitalists to court while being fatalistic about why to bother. Pace, no doubt wielding the kind of authority that 0.03 percent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe can deliver, seizes his opportunity to play DeLorean as some kind of ping-pong-playing cross between Croesus and Dionysus, but a bit more crappus.

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love concerns Leonard Cohen’s randy nature and is about the painfully complicated love lives of real people in the 1960s, and the fact that they all remain sympathetic might have something to do with that authenticity.

The Souvenir is about the painfully complicated love lives of fictional people in the 1980s, and their unreality might be connected to my urge to kick the lot of them in the knee one after another. Joanna Hogg’s last film Exhibition also had affluent people trying to keep a jittery Britain out of their lives and thought that art might be the answer, while the new one knows that art can be blown up by an IRA bomb as easily as anything else. Not sure that the final Accusatory Look To Camera is a tactic with much voltage any more though; voyeurism isn’t what it used to be.

Samurai Marathon keeps Bernard Rose in employment which as always has my enthusiastic support, even if this time most of his natural eccentricity may have been used up by the eccentric idea of making a film set in 1855 for Jeremy Thomas in Japan and in Japanese in the first place. Rose’s great eye for faces is put to work in a different acting culture than usual but still works better than most other supposedly more sophisticated methods. Commodore Matthew Perry turns up with the face of Danny Huston, which says plenty about the film’s opinion of Commodore Perry before that face opens its mouth.

22 June 2019

Self-portrait as The Opium Smoker

Raqib Shaw.