21.2.16

Successive Slidings of Pleasure

"Not really a feminist protest, although why not? In another sense of the word feminist."

That's Alain Robbe-Grillet describing how his protagonist (brilliantly acted by Anicée Alvina) subverts the institutions of law-enforcement, justice and religion. The confusion over the film's gender politics comes from the fact that this agent of destruction spends much of the film in the nude and playing on the (undeniably male) spectator's own desires. Robbe-Grillet was probably aware of feminism's fire-breathing over sex in the 70s, which is why he's a bit uncertain of his claim that the film is feminist. I suspect today's more sex-positive attitude may accommodate a feminist reading more readily.

Then again, there are uncertainties throughout this film, and Robbe-Grillet is perfectly content with letting them lie unexplained. The artist doesn't have to speak for the work, it just is. And you can read as much or as little as you want into its succession of disturbingly pleasurable images. Although some viewers may dismiss the project as horribly pretentious and confused, I think that reaction misses the mischievous sense of humour running through it. This is a film made on a bet – Robbe-Grillet was determined to stick to a shoe-string budget of half a million francs. And some of the scenes are little more than in-jokes. Apparently the gravedigger who unearths the props in the film one by one is the editor, which Robbe-Grillet finds hilarious.

Even with the very obvious wreckage the creator has wrought, I think there are things to salvage. One of the funniest 'jokes' in the film is when two actresses woodenly play out the beginning of a porn scene, the seductress eagerly consenting to unimaginable horrors because they "sound like fun", before turning her eyes to the camera, and making clear that the only fun being had will be by the people watching. Robbe-Grillet likes to allude to Aristotle's idea of catharsis in justifying the allusions to murder and torture. These things reveal the monsters in our own heads, and allow us to confront them – and tame them.

Although most of the unreal, outrageous tale-spinning that we see playing out on screen is supposed to occur when Alvina is imprisoned, I actually don't think any of the film is intended to be "realistic". Partly this is because the budget didn't allow for it – the look of the film is sparse, clean and "superficial" (in Robbe-Grillet's words). Everything we see is a visualisation of what is going on in someone's head – whether the characters' or ours is an open question. A simple example the film starts with is the interrogation scene, in which Alvina starts to disrobe simply because the interrogator (and the audience) is already imagining her naked.

Another example is the flashy police investigator, who swoops and spins ridiculously in front of the camera. Again, it's the man's own interior sense of himself, or our own expectations of the cool noir hero, that we see – not what's really happening. The film's archness only draws attention to the fact that all fictional films are representations of reality. The sense of "realness" is always smoke and mirrors. Successive Slidings of Pleasure brings out that artificiality mostly to make some sly jokes at the expense of the viewer and their expectations, but also by emphasising the way our subjectivity warps the reality around us, to the point where we can get lost in the stories we tell, and the images we fetishize.

19.2.16

The Incal

Reposting my contribution to the London Graphic Novel Network discussion, which got severely (though fascinatingly) derailed by Adam at the start, but is still worth reading for the (on topic) contributions at the end. I've slightly edited the below to get rid of my internet speak:

Just want to come back to Joel's original frustration with The Incal. Curious thing for me is that (like a lot of Jodo stuff) there is a superabundance of narrative in the book – John DiFool constantly stumbling through quest after quest. And yet it's strangely unsatisfying because (as Joel says) there's no overall structure to these narratives. They are little more than excuses to give Möebius cool things to draw. In fact (if I recall correctly) because things get so convoluted towards the end, Jodo settles for invoking a fourth wall breaking deus ex machina as a way to wrap things up. (I hope I'm not getting this muddled up with Battlestar Galactica...)

That superfluity of narrative at the expense of any ~deeper~ meaning reminds me of Carey / Gross's The Unwritten, or something like Grant Morrison's The Invisibles. I'll grant that other people have gotten something profound out of those comics, but I've found it easiest to engage with them on quite a superficial level – the narrative zooming past in exciting patterns without taking the time to pause, reflect, add significance. Actually, that description isn't always fair – there are individual issues of The Unwritten in particular that lend themselves to close reading and excavation. But a lot of it is just narrative gymnastics for me, and The Incal is no different in that respect.

Which leads me on to think that this sort of hyper-compressed velocity with regard to storytelling is something comics as a form can do quite well. It's partly the strictures of the production process, which doesn't give you the time to write pages of dialogue or the space for embellishments. So your forced to start slicing away at the inessentials and cramming beats into your allotted pages. And why worry, when with an artist like Möebius, you're gonna wanna push him headlong into as many places as possible.

My take on The Incal is that it is Jodo at play. The thing took years and years to make, and throughout he was just firing off ideas without overly worrying about the shape the story will end up having once it's packaged into one volume. This is in marked contrast to The Holy Mountain and particularly The Mole, which are less riotously expansive and more linear – particularly the latter, which I did manage to start digging into for significance. Perhaps the single-minded focus required to direct, design and act in those films was an incentive to add layers under a single plot, rather than just keep adding more and more plot.

The above is a long way of saying that The Incal is fun stuff, but Jodo's masterpieces are found elsewhere.

18.2.16

"The real difficulty with anarchism is not with its philosophical, but with its real-life form. It is not that people are convinced of the philosophical validity of arguments for the obligation to obey the state, but rather that no one really believes we can now do without something like the state structure. Or rather people imagine that the attempt to do away with the state would lead in one of two directions. The first possibility would be a form of society that would be highly dangerous, unpredictable, and insecure, and would lack many of the economic advantages developed industrial societies have. The only alternative would be a society that would be highly repressive because organised into claustrophobic small groups, and in which one would have the unpleasant sense of living in the unventilated atmosphere of a Jane Austen novel all the time." - Reymond Geuss, 'The Legitimacy of the State', History and Illusion in Politics

7.2.16

Notes from S.M.A.S.H.

A comics panel event at the Barbican Library, which was excellent – over 100 people listening to some great speakers on three themes: meaning, art and diversity. I left with a cloud of ideas buzzing around my head, which were dampened with rain and alcohol afterwards (everyone went to the pub, of course). Before my terrible memory dissipates the rest, here's what stuck out at me.

MEANING

Although Crissy Williams helpfully dropped some McCloud-esque science about how the comics form creates meaning (your imagination filling the gaps between panels etc), much of the discussion went wider than comics itself. A lot of it was about where meaning happens – is it about the intentions of the creators, or is it about the response of the reader? Mike Carey was an eloquent champion of the latter view, suggesting that as comics are a collaborative medium, reconstructing a single set of intentions is futile. I'm a little sceptical of that line of argument. Comics are a part of history like everything else, and therefore you should be able to assemble evidence that can support particular interpretations of the creative team's intentions, and adjudicate between which interpretation is best supported by the available evidence (full disclosure: I did history at uni).

If Carey is right and the important stuff happens at the point where the reader responds to the work, does that mean that all interpretations are of equal worth? In some ways, yes absolutely. We're all people reading the same thing, why is your experience more accurate or valuable than mine? However, this made the presence of a critic and an academic on the panel quite interesting, as their interpretations of comics are (almost by definition) priviledged. What is the role of the critic or the scholar if all interpretations are of equal worth?

J. A. Micheline (the critic) said something interesting towards the end of the discussion that responded to this question. She said that it is actually quite exhausting to hold all sorts of interpretations of a work in your head. Eventually, you do look for a way through the maze by reaching for the threads of authorial intention. Always dangerous to do, but Micheline went on to read this development into the wider cultural conversation – postmodernism's assault on the modernist idea of the auteur is getting tired, and people have gone back to looking for some leadership and authority when it comes to the meaning of art.

ART

This was a discussion about comics art, and particularly how to distinguish between what is 'good' and 'bad' art. There was a helpful intervention from an audience member towards the end who tried to separate the question in two. Firstly and most obviously, comics art is 'good' in a functional sense – it helps rather than obstructs the narrative. Mark Stafford was particularly useful in providing some examples of this (how an artist has to draw the reader's eye to things, how they can embellish or add texture to a story).

But then beyond the question of functionality, people do still have preferences. It's all a question of a person's taste, as Hannah Chapman insisted. But should we leave it there? David Allison was interesting on this – in his introduction he talked about encouraging and becoming comfortable with a 'Tower of Babel' when it comes to the language of comics art. I think this gets at something important, which is that taste isn't innate – you're not born loving Jack Kirby. Rather, taste is something you develop, and a variety of experiences with different styles and methods might overcome some of the pigeon-holing that occurs within the form.

Speaking personally, the role of gatekeepers in clueing you into or evangelising about things you would otherwise pick up and put down again is crucial. So much of my favourite music was initially encountered as a result of criticism, but with comics a lot of it has been me fumbling around in the library on my own.

DIVERSITY

This was probably the most interesting and important panel, but being less familiar with the issue, I have less to say about it. Alison Sampson did bring up the fear among some creators of causing offence, which can inhibit their creativity. Most of the panel disparaged the idea that only certain people should be allowed to write certain characters, although Ramzee (with reference to The Danish Girl specifically) insisted that creators should be knowledgeable about the cultures and issues they are representing. Was also interesting that Kieron Gillen ruled out certain stories as not his to tell, so there is some policing and self-policing going on. I think figuring out (or being aware of and highlighting) whether a work is cynical or exploitative is a valuable role for professional critics (of all mediums) to play, but I suspect many don't see this as part of their job description.

The problem isn't so much what gets portrayed, in my view, as who gets to do the portrayal. And the comics industry still has a lot of work to do here. I think this is a rather dry process issue about the way the industry works (although some speakers preferred to go bigger and allude to the evils of capitalism). A member of the audience did introduce the idea of 'the underground' as being useful in this respect, but both Ramzee and Hannah Chapman were quite dismissive of the opportunities created by the small press scene. The general impression I got was that the most exciting stuff was happening online (tumblr, kickstarter and so on), but there wasn't time to get started on the impact of these platforms. Suspect gatekeepers upping their game and trawling these online communities is relevant here as well.



...feels like a lot of the above can be summarised as 'comics criticism is important, go critics', so I guess I'll leave it there.