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 intended 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 an excruciatingly infantile British villain? Maybe no change at all. Decades after cultural empowerment of mainstream female characters started to mean just making them as armoured and indestructible as the men—in the process putting a dent in the ability of the films to be particularly left-of-centre at all—films still face the choice of whether to deliver information or experience. A drift towards the safer, less radical option might be inevitable once pop-culture voluntarily moves from the margins to the centre, but that shouldn’t stop discussion of what the drift might be doing to the work.
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.