The Gap Between Panels / Buffy As Comfort Food

Latest post on the London Graphic Novel Network stays true to my obsessions – in this case Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I never tire of telling people is the greatest television series of all time. David Simon magnanimously conceded that it was so, if you don't believe me. Anyway, the column goes in on the comics that continue the story after the end of the show, and which get better with each new 'season'. Read it here.


"To conform to a type, to be the captive of a form, means the decadence of art, it is sometimes said. But what of folk arts like this puppet theatre – have they not become what they are with the help of hard, fixed standards? The heavy-toned old country plays, in a sense, have in them the work of the race. Generation after generation of gifted performers has built each item in the repertoire to a standardization of property and action, handed on so carefully that by following its prescriptions the amateur can mount the singer's platform and bring forth a fair copy of the play, and the spectators as they watch can make the association in their minds with the great names whose work is there." - Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, Some Prefer Nettles


The Passion of Anna

"My philosophy (even today) is that there exists an evil that cannot be explained – a virulent, terrifying evil – and humans are the only animals to possess it. An evil that is irrational and not bound by law. Cosmic. Causeless. Nothing frightens people more than incomprehensible, unexplainable evil."

That's Bergman on the film – suggesting that it has an almost Lovecraftian undertone. In fact a good way to read it is as a kind of existentialist horror film. We get some rather unsettling images of the carcasses of mutilated farmyard animals. The culprit is unknown, underlining Bergman's emphasis on the inexplicability of human evil. But the gruesome acts instill a sense of fear and suspicion in the community that spurs a local gang to find and punish a scapegoat. The account of the punishment is delivered in dialogue, mainly because it's too awful to depict visually. Anna's description of the death of her husband and son in a car accident is also grim going. Passion is not as hard to watch as Shame, which was made at the same time and shares many of the same preoccupations. But it's uncompromisingly unpleasant nonetheless.

My emphasis on it being an existentialist horror film is not flippant – in one of the key monologues towards the end, our protagonist Andreas describes the humiliation of failure and how the inability to assert himself against the world leads to a withdrawal from society. He shares his malaise with Ava, who is trapped in a marriage with a rich, aloof and sarcastic husband, and is also unable to pick and fulfill her own life project (she refuses to have children after a miscarriage). The husband is probably the most well-adjusted character, but he's also a bit of a creep, unconcerned by his wife's infidelity and subtly driving Andreas into debt and servitude. He's an amateur photographer who understands that photography cannot capture personality, just surfaces. That outlook is underlined (and perhaps undermined) by the insertion of four interviews with the four leading actors separately discussing their characters.

But clinging to illusions turns out to be even worse than disillusionment. Andreas's violence is the result of frustrated self-loathing – the realisation that he is a worthless human being. Anna cannot process her own failures, and instead fabricates a fairytale of her happy previous married life. Although she insists on the need for people to find a truth they can believe in and live up to, that imperative turns out to create hostages to fortune. If life doesn't comply with your truth, you change it, violently if necessary. Better to kill your family and remember them lovingly than go through the pain of seeing that family crack under the pressure of real life.

One of the ideas Bergman was playing with when making Passion and Shame was of Fårö (the island where he shot many of his films) as "the Kingdom of Hell". Although Bergman prefers to gloss the evil in Passion in a transcendental way, you can also read it as a malaise caused by the subjugation of the individual by society. Anna must cling on to her belief in her perfect marriage because of the ideals and expectations that surround her. Likewise, Ava is unable to escape her lofty and remote husband because she is forced to be a jewel in the crown of his many achievements. Andreas is a failure – he can't even fix his house properly (as the opening scenes make clear). He's not the embodiment of what we expect of the male hero.

The interviews with the actors is one way of getting to the notion that these characters are playing roles foisted onto them by the tyranny of society. The darkness of human hearts is not put there by an incomprehensible creator, but by a director making a film. And one way of surviving is to recognize that these are roles to be inhabited when needs must, and then cast off when you find something better. This is not something Bergman allows for here (interestingly, he now thinks inserting the interviews was a mistake). In Passion, nothing better is available, and the characters end up walled off against each other, wandering alone in a barren landscape. Human interaction is a recipe for hypocrisy, which leads to either delusion or nihilism, with violent consequences. Genuine communication is only possible once our propensity for roleplaying is recognised. In Passion, we only get to see it when the actors speak about their characters – when they step out of their role and have the freedom to reflect on it.


Ninja Scroll

This 1993 anime gets grouped alongside Ghost in the Shell and Akira as being classics reasonably well-known in the West. It's an expertly crafted wuxia (martial arts) film, with very stylish and frequently gruesome fight scenes, a complex story which unfolds well, and every narrative thread tied up nicely at the end. That doesn't distract from the sometimes rather troubling genre conventions it exemplifies. As expected, the hero Jubei is an itinerant warrior who refuses to play by anyone's rules but his own – a particularly attractive fantasy for conformist Japan. His attitude echoes that of Guts in the manga Berserk, who feels nothing but disdain for those too weak to avoid exploitation.

But exploitation is inevitable in the world of Ninja Scroll. Jubei is forcibly recruited by a wizened, wry (and unexpectedly wiry) government spy as a foot soldier in a secret war between the Tokugawa Shogunate and a rebellious lord (the so-called 'Shogun of the Dark'). Neither side in the conflict are particularly noble – all elites in feudal Japan use, abuse and discard those lower down the social hierarchy. But interestingly, rather than struggling against the evil empire, our protagonist's role is to protect it from something worse – factionalism and the civil war that raged before Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated all comers and established his regime. The film reinforces the notion that you will be chewed up and spat out by those above your station, and that this is a price worth paying. No matter how individualistic these ronin are, they can't escape co-option by the political powers that be.

And then there's the women. Jubei crosses paths with a feisty poison-taster and clandestine ninja called Kagero – rescuing her from being raped by the first of what turn out to be eight superpowered adversaries. The poisons Kagero has imbibed mean she is unable to sleep with, or even kiss, someone without them dying. Her independence and fighting prowess is bought at the expense of a complete neutering of her sexuality. Rather unbelievably, it turns out that Jubei can and must seduce Kagero in order to neutralise the poison he has been infected with. His relationship with her for the most part of the film is huffy and disrespectful, but he is nonetheless steely enough to refuse to sleep with her on these terms, choosing death before dishonour. Celibacy is the route to heroism for both characters, even though both (particularly Kagero) are objectified and sexualised to some degree.

This is in marked contrast to the bad guys, of course, who all seem to be sleeping with each other. And not just with the opposite sex either, which adds an extra homophobic tang to proceedings...


The Gap Between Panels / Comics as PowerPoint

Latest post on the London Graphic Novel Network gets a bit self-indulgent and tries to connect comics to my day job as a digital comms guy at a think tank. Basically, infographics and powerpoints tell stories too, and maybe comics can learn a thing or three from my grubby tinkering with Adobe Illustrator. Read it here.


Holy Motors

Anything described as 'impossible to pin down' is going to fire up those lepidopterology urges. Holy Motors is rather weird, sure. A portmaneau fantasy film in which the mysterious Mr Oscar is driven around to various surreal 'appointments', where he dons elaborate costumes and participates (or disrupts) wildly different pieces of theatrical or cinematic performance. None of it makes any literal sense. Rather, the film is about watching actors, plays and films – and its contention is that you can stretch these activities in all kinds of wonderful ways. One of the clues that point in this meta direction is that the film begins with a shot of the director waking up in a cinema. Another clue is the brief flashes of a silent film in which a naked man tumbles around, reminding us that cinema began with disjointed displays of human action, and that we're about to witness a return to such principles.

All that's very well and good, but it did strike me when watching the brief musical 'intermission' in the middle of the film that the individual chapters have the feel of high-end music videos. Music videos have a limited time in which to do something interesting, and therefore often spend it taking something familiar and giving it a twist. It's a formula Holy Motors is indebted to. A overworked father comes home to his family, who turn out to be chimpanzees. A mad vagrant crashes into a fashion shoot, abducts the model and covers her up in a full body veil. A father picks up his daughter from her first house party, and gets annoyed when he learns she spent the evening hiding in the bathroom rather than flirting with boys.

These examples are the best because the get at the real success of the film, which is that it is actually quite funny. Most of the surrealism is about attacking our expectations (it's the vagrant that is sexualised rather than the model, the man who is married to a chimp has a home-life much less drab than we are led to believe, and so on). The film is knowingly perverse, winking at and flipping audience expectations. But even then, British comedy like The League of Gentlemen, Big Train and The Mighty Boosh have done this kind of stuff before. Holy Motors is frequently spectacular, but it would only feel innovative if you haven't been paying attention to motion pictures made outside the feature film format.


Turkish Delight

The film that made Paul Verhoeven's name in his native Holland is a putrid affair – full of garbage, vomit, blood and spunk. The preternaturally handsome Rutger Hauer is our protagonist, an artist who cannot sit down at a restaurant without fomenting a riot. He is completely uninhibited, but also vain, vindictive, and more than a little violent. The film begins with the suggestion that he may be a murderer. After the love of his tiny life leaves him, he dreams up disturbing revenge fantasies, wakes up in his hovel of a studio, masturbates, and goes on to sleep with as many women as would have him (inexplicably, it's a lot).

Verhoeven shoots his main man in an improvised, twitchy way, apparently inspired by the French New Wave. He encourages his cast to ham it up, and on occasion it almost looks like you're watching a silent comedy – grotesque faces, clownish gestures, visual gags. Much of this is in the service of satirising the curtain-twitching, hypocritical society of small minded housewives, ignorant peasants and obsequious royalists that Hauer bulldozes through.

But for most of the film, Hauer's liberality is much more grating. He is obscenely self-involved, unrepentantly selfish. This is nowhere clearer than in his lovemaking, which is not reciprocal, and treats women as passive objects that are maneuvered to gratify the male gaze, and the camera. Verhoeven is never just a pornographer – Turkish Delight is more that just slobbering over sexually available girls. But for parts of this film he is entirely too close to Hauer's own pornographic view of Monique van de Ven, and of his freewheeling, responsibility-free attitude more broadly.

Thankfully, the film turns out to be about growing up. Hauer is the noble savage, playing in his own shit and humping anything that moves. He is an innocent, and if anything the film is a pointed lesson in how dangerous (and deranged) such people are. His fierce, clumsy, possessive love for Monique van de Ven brings out the worst in him. And when she's had enough, he dreams of murder and attempts to rape her. But she escapes, and in the intervening period before he encounters her again, Hauer matures, and ends up caring for her when she falls ill.

Even when dying, Monique van de Ven is as impulsive and insatiable as ever. In the one nod to the title, she stuffs her mouth with turkish delight until its fit to burst, even though she fears her teeth might fall out because of the radiotherapy. The film makes the suggestion that living this fast burns you right out. Drinking too deep from the cup of life will poison you. The film ends with the image of a statue made by Hauer of van de Ven holding a baby aloft, evoking the family that the couple were never able to have. For all of his provocative liberalism, Verhoeven ends up suggesting that some aspects of traditional society may be worth preserving after all. He's more conservative than he seems.


The gap between panels / Rehabilitating Red Sonja

The London Graphic Novel Network has a new website, which is much flashier that the old blogspot version. Begs the question of why I still haven't switched to wordpress (or tumblr) yet – to which the answer is: I'm old and set in my ways. Latest column deals with the Gail Simone / Walter Geovani fun and uninhibited reinvention of Red Sonja, and the contrast with the Michael Avon Oeming version, which was dark, troubling and a bit crap (although Mel Rubi's artwork was stunning). All done through the prism of working out the different justifications for that ridiculous chain-mail bikini. Read it here.

The Filth

I wasn't really able to write about The Filth the first time I read it, but the London Graphic Novel Network online book group spurred me to read it again. Reposting my (slightly edited) take from the conversation, which is well worth reading in its entirety:

If we have to pick sides on the Moore/Morrison beef, I’ll probs back the latter. Never really understood the argument that Morrison is a fraud or a copyist, since his comics feel like some of the most sui generis I have read. To try and unpack that a little, I picked up The Filth from my local library just as I was getting started with comics, got about half way through and gave up. It’s now one of my favourite comics ever, but I really had to persevere with it and basically learn how to read it. This applied to a lot of Morrison’s books, actually. And it seems to me that The Filth makes fewer concessions to a broad audience (unlike something like New X-Men and Doom Patrol, which still have something of the Chris Claremont style superhero soap-opera feel to it). So I agree with David (and against Joel?) that it’s more Morrison that most Morrison books.

Trying to remember why I gave up on The Filth back then, I think it may have had something to do with my inability to deal with the compression. I was into a lot of Bendis comics at the time, and I think a lot of that was because his books had the feel of great American TV (West Wing, Ally McBeal, Buffy etc), which I had grown up watching and was already comfortable with. Bendis is like TV in panels – one six issue trade reading like one 45 minute episode, with character-building bits, action bits, quips etc. For someone working his way into the comics form, it was familiar – easy to get into.

Morrison comics were therefore a massive challenge, as the compression requires you to focus on every stray detail in order to understand the plot, never mind anything else. I remember finding Final Crisis tough for the same sorts of reasons. For some people this might be a flaw. I prefer to see it as a different way to use the form, one that’s ultimately more interesting than the serial, unflashy competence you find in most big two comics. The Filth stretches conventional plotting to breaking point. Watching a creator confident enough to warp his narrative in every direction they want, and demanding that the audience follow them, is in its own way just as captivating as a pro-storyteller carrying you all the way through a story so expertly that you don’t realise or care how the magic is made.

Why is it worth reading? I’ll have a go. The Filth is founded on the opposition between the filthy things we dream about (Morrison apparently consumed a lot of porn when writing it, as David attests) and how we repress those things – ‘the filth’ being slang for the police. In that respect it’s a lot like Blue Velvet, whose villains cannot control their desires, and whose heroes are tempted by that freedom, but ultimately manage to pull away from it and live happy American apple pie lives. The Hand literally personify the processes by which we stamp out the antisocial (or “anti-person”) urges that will make living with each other impossible. For someone who unabashedly celebrated anarchic freedom in the face of ethical and political authority in The Invisibles, that’s an curious little turnaround.

That would be interesting enough if it was that simple, but the book also contains a lot of rage against that repressive (civilizing, if you like) figure of authority. Ned Slade is an artificial “parapersonality” imposed on the unassuming Greg Feely (or maybe it’s the other way around?). That sense of being manipulated by external forces (all those CCTV cameras) is prevalent. For me, that’s a metaphor for the way we are conditioned by the things around us, and pick up 'the rules' of morality by observing and monitoring each other. For me, Greg Feely is raging against an inevitable process. Society and its demands will never leave him alone, no matter how much he would like to seal himself away from it. That final metaphor: it’s a filthy thing, authority, but the peace it creates allows for beautiful things to grow. (tl;dr: The Filth is about abandoning anarchism for liberalism discuss…)

Just to pick up on one of David’s questions RE the art team: I’m in the process of becoming a bit of a Hollingsworth devotee, and on this read through I did pick up on how drastically the colours change as Greg turns into Ned. I own the toilet paper trade, and perhaps that dulls the impact a bit (although the cheapness also feels somehow appropriate for the ugly smutty subject matter…) In any case, the garish pinks and reds, the vomity yellows and greens, used as the background to the panels in the fantasy world add up to quite a big part of the look and feel of the book Imo, so for me Hollingsworth is a bit of an (unsung?) hero for the work he did on it.