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 to which The Old Guard contributes 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 so parallel to the books’ mood and style that they pick up some pulpy paperback sadism when you watch them again afterwards, rather than being left to their own power source which is mainly just the inevitable modern irony of everything everywhere all the time. Some of his regular bits of business, like diverting off to follow another character for no clear reason, work better as the literary tactics they essentially are, and 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—although he did write the script for Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, a triangulation between Zahler, the low-budget pastiche of the old Charles Band film studio now updated through the gorier lens of Cinestate, and the outsider comics art of Benjamin Marra. The result feels like Zahler and Marra ganging up on Band in a car park to teach the old boy about the pitiless emptiness of the universe. Zahler’s in-quotes serious films have the American Dream steamrollering the uncivilised just to stay upright, and the absurdity of Puppet Master and its cynical keg-party vibe doesn’t do much to clarify the sincerity of the other stuff, coming as it does from an artist whose transgressive instincts are starting to seem a bit mail-order. Puppet Master thinks about mocking a culture running on nostalgia and ironic detachment, but it seems pretty content to have its foot in that door.