Thursday, November 19, 2015

10 (Fifty-Five Actually) Reasons I Love Two-Lane Blacktop.

This post is part of the Criterion Blogathon, a collection of writings related to The Criterion Collection. The blogathon is hosted by Criterion Blues, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy. Follow the #CRITERIONBLOGATHON HQ.  

“People love lists.” People say this.

In an unguarded moment—no doubt involving bourbon, perhaps gin and in a pique of honesty—I might admit to being a writer, I may even say I enjoy writing, sometimes. I know I don’t enjoy not-writing. And so I dislike the popular trend of compiling lists. That’s not writing, it’s math. And I straight up despise the made-up internet word ‘listicle,’ which doesn’t charm me as an astute portmanteau for the digital age. But make me think  ‘testicle,’ some pendulous extension that hangs from the ‘taint of not-writing. In other words I don’t think ‘listicles’ have much in the way of balls, they’re a cop out, lazy.

Well, as the saying goes “don’t knock it ‘till you try it.” The criterion release of Two-Lane Blacktop includes a tribute by Richard Linklater, “10 (Sixteen Actually) Reasons I Love Two-Lane Blacktop.” It’s from an introduction he gave in 2000 at South By Southwest as part of a retrospective on the career of director Monte Hellman. The ‘sixteen reasons’ give the piece that even/uneven cardinal number cache so favored by Vulture, Buzzfeed and the other listicle swingers out there. But this is Linklater, a director who doesn’t truck with soulless slick surfaces, a raggedy director if there ever was one.

As I read Linklater’s list I let go my snark and heard the thrum and rhythm of what he lays down. Read it aloud, as Linklater would have, and you’ll catch the cadence. Ride in the pocket of the groove. Hear how these bullet points tune in on the simplicity, the stillness and the details of Two-Lane Blacktop. I got it. I get it. This is a movie about practitioners, monk-ish men, strict devotees, zealots really. They’re God is the holy road and the automobile is their prayer. Two-Lane Blacktop prizes existence, the meaning of existing … ranks it, presents it, lists it. And so should we.

With apologies to Mr. Linklater for copping his idea, here are “10 (Fifty-Five Actually) Reasons I Love Two-Lane Blacktop.”            

1. Because the color of the Car is primer grey.

2. Because Rudy Wurlitzer capitalizes the ‘C’ when he refers to ‘the Car’ in his screenplay.

3. Because it’s about handmade: a 454 with custom built headers … not a 396.

4. Because the Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) never lock up the Car when they stop.

5. Because James Taylor still has hair.

6. Because Dennis Wilson is still alive.

7. Because the Girl (Laurie Bird) just gets in the Car and makes herself at home.

8. Because the Girl’s handbag looks like a headless Muppet.

9. Because the Mechanic’s jeans are so dirty.

10. Because of the Driver’s green sweater.

11. Because the director, Monte Hellman, and cinematographer, Jack Deerson, never use the conventional two shot looking at the Driver and the Mechanic through the windshield.

12. Because there is the road … and that’s it.

13. Because “gone” is the best color.

14. Because “make it three yards muthafucka and we’ll have an auto-mo-bile, race” is a way men talk in movies to other men about car racing.

15. Because, as G.T.O (Warren Oates) says, “performance and image … that’s what it’s all about.”

16. Because it takes a singular talent like Warren Oates to make something sound as rehearsed, like a lie, as G.T.O.’s stories.

17. Because Warren Oates is still alive.

18. Because of that weird little rack G.T.O. keeps putting his Coke bottle in and out of again and again.

19. Because the Girl calls tapes ‘groovy records.’

20. Because the Driver and the Mechanic ignore the Girl when she says things like “Screwdrivers and wrenches don’t make it for me,” and “I don’t see anyone paying attention to my rear end.”

21. Because the GTO makes a whirring sound every time G.T.O opens or closes the driver's side door.

22. Because “racing bread.”

23. Because the Mechanic lies down on a clean bedspread in those dirty jeans.

24. Because it’s never not funny when a hippie walks in on a ‘business man’ in a gas station bathroom.

25. Because of the look of those ‘stock’ headrests on 1970 Pontiac GTOs.

26. Because Monte Hellman cut his own movie.

27. Because “racing for pinks” and “General Delivery” sound so cool and so desperate.

28. Because when the hand-sy Oklahoma hitchhiker (Harry Dean Stanton) propositions G.T.O., G.T.O. says “I ain’t into that! This is competition man. I got no time!” and not ‘no.’ Later G.T.O. tells the hitchhiker “I got no time for sidetracks.” But, again, not ‘no.’

29. Because the only response to a toast like ‘Here’s to your destruction’ is ‘same to you.’

30. Because a dumb-ass question like “How come you ain’t in Bakersfield” deserves a smart-ass answer like, “‘cause I’m in the Southwest.”

31. Because Two-Lane Blacktop is a time capsule of a long-distant America.

32. Because it is best “to keep a hunger on.”
33. Because this is one of the most classically and beautifully composed publicity stills for a movie, maybe ever.


34. Because it’s a story about Westerners going east.

35. Because the Hot Rod Driver (Rudy Wurlitzer) has a bad night.

36. Because cicadas are “some freaky bugs.”

37. Because of Monte Hellman’s amazing white man’s afro.

38. Because of everything going on in the background in Two-Lane Blacktop, all those horses and trains and trains carrying train cars and cars and roads, all those roads, all that road going.

39. Because neither of the non-actor-professional-musicians (Taylor and Wilson) perform in a movie that’s all about performance.   

40. Because there are few opportunities to use a phrase like “rolling stock” or “the whole shot” outside of the movies or maybe gambling.

41. Because Laurie Bird was still alive.

42. Because of who found the location where G.T.O. picks up the Texas Hitchhiker with the sign that reads: “Notice please do not pick up hitch hikers in this area, thank you, State Hospital.”

43. Because when the Car goes off the road to narrowly avoid a wreck between a tractor and a station wagon the Mechanic’s first instinct to check the Car's undercarriage.

44. Because of the Mechanic steals a license plate to help him feel ‘less nervous’ when he’s in ‘this part of the country.’  

45. Because of the way the Girl smiles, especially when G.T.O talks, which probably has something more to do with Warren Oates than his character.

46. Because nowadays so few gas stations look like the way they look in Two-Lane Blacktop.

47. Because neither the Car nor the G.T.O. has seatbelts.

48. Because “city car’s what killed ‘em.”

49. Because plot has its place. To borrow from the Driver, “’course there’s a lot of movies out there with plots. They all look the same. They perform about the same too.”

50. Because nobody ever says what year the Car is except the announcer on the loudspeaker at Lakeland International Raceway.

51. Because the only thing existential about Two-Lane Blacktop is everything and, yeah, nothing.

52. Because who wants to go to Columbus, Ohio anyway.

53. Because Two-Lane Blacktop is not about the race.

54. Because “You can’t stay with the same high forever.”

55. Because “Those satisfactions are permanent” might be the greatest closing line in cinema history.

Friday, November 6, 2015

'til the Blood Runs Red: Katie Skelly's My Pretty Vampire

(originally published at Loser City)

Katie Skelly hits all the 'feels.' Her comics bristle with verve, emotion and an 'it' factor best expressed as je ne sais quoi. What's easier, by far, to say (and see) is how she has honed her craft. Skelly is a cartoonist on the rise as her peers have confirmed. With Nurse Nurse, her 2012 debut, Skelly was able to get by on the charm of her idiosyncratic style and the risqué silliness of a story about nurses in space. In Operation Margarine (2014) she takes the sleazy low-brow trope of biker babes and elevates it to a modern morality tale of friendship, self-sacrifice, female empowerment and redemption. In between these two major works, Skelly has serialized a sex-positive-Barbarella-homage on-line porn comic, Agent 8, on slutist.

If Nurse Nurse and Operation Margarine are the major planets and Agent 8 is some kind of kinky satellite of love in the ever expanding Skelly-verse than the digital only Tonya—a skating fantasy comic about, yep, Tonya Harding—would be a whole other solar system, a recent discovery of the gravity and vastness of Skelly's talent. As if the pathos of Harding's real life story of wasn't enough, Skelly, with an equable and non-judgmental resolve, anatomizes Harding's highly toxic relationships, vulnerability and frustration as a woman amongst other competitive women and the damage therein. And all in twelve pages. The deeper tragedy Skelly wrings out of Harding's story comes from an exploration of how it must feel to be a top competitor and yet (almost) always finish out of the money, not a loser, but something far worse and far more human. Skelly shows how a metaphorical loser is perhaps better off than her real life equal. That's art. And it takes some ballsy ninja-storytelling skills to pull off such a feat. The implications on the final page of Tonya and the revelation that occurs in its final panel devastates in a way that's exclusive to comics, a last single frozen frame that sez it's all fucked (dearest) and you're (partly) to blame.

As Tonya was turning triple axels in Skelly's mind, she was also developing My Pretty Vampire on her tumblr and as a black-and-white mini-comic. In September, Skelly posted, ''after some big projects came and went and my style started changing, i [sic] decided to scrap what i had drawn to rewrite it and redraw it as a color comic.'' My Pretty Vampire took its bow in an 8½ X 11 European album format comic at the 2015 Small Press Expo. Later Skelly tweeted a vow to complete the next chapter by early November in time for Comic Arts Brooklyn.     

My Pretty Vampire begins and ends with a dream. One is unconscious and inert, while the other manifests as a conscious desire, an action. First dreams first. When Clover—the ''pretty'' vampire in question, a blond who sports a Bardot half undone updo—sleeps, she dreams of her past, of the frail girl in a diaphones robe as white as a winding sheet, of the girl she once was four years ago and the fanged bloodsucker she has become. Bare-chested and wearing red French cut briefs she looms over her supine self. Vampire-Clover is a sly coquette, curious, but un-tried. Corpse-Clover is dead and that's it. Dead. The larger panels to give Skelly's figures more brio and attitude, if such a thing is possible in her comics.

This image of the two Clovers foregrounds the dream's dominant colors, an oxygen-rich blood red and a pale canary yellow. Interlaced with black slashes, the image elicits a mood straight out of the wacked out cyclorama of Dario Argento's Suspiria. If you listen closely you can almost hear the nonsensical chanting of Goblin. Blood is colored black as it drips off flowers and from vampire-Clover's hair and as it pools around corpse-Clover's head. To turn the blood black is a smart choice from a shrewd storyteller because it foreshadows the narrative and speaks to Clover's standing as a character in stasis. The woman she was is dead and so is the blood. Clover is a vampire, yes, and powerful, yes, but she still feeds on the dead and not the living. Vampires are border crossers and Clover, for now, is stuck between stations. Right or wrong, Skelly's protagonists like Bon-Bon in Operation Margarine, Agent 9 and Tonya are all women of action and Clover is not, yet.

My Pretty Vampire is the first chapter in a longer story and even though it's a far too few fourteen pages, it's lithe and complete. Clover is a kept vampire, castled away by her brother Marcel who forces her to drink (black) ox blood instead of hunting on her own. Clover is impetuous, bratty and frustrated like many all Skelly's characters, ready to kick out the jams, but not sure how. Curious that Skelly is able to tap into this dissatisfaction when her art is so accomplished and never, never loses its shit cool.

Clover's room holds the trappings of her former life like stuffed toys and mirrors. In a flight of absurdism that dovetails with Skelly's love for cult classics and trash cinema, Clover wears a schoolgirl uniform, complete with pleated skirt, when she studies. The outfit and the requirement a vampire keeps up with her schoolwork is probably Marcel's doing … of course. It's on her way to her studies that she receives some contraband cigarettes and matches from the resident cook, Elsa. After all, who else? In a deft Argento-esque touch Skelly gives Elsa a semi-Romanian/Eastern accent that turns her 'v's' to 'f's' and 'w's' to 'v's.' Smokes in hand, the stage is set for the second of Clover's dreams, but in this one she's not the nocturnal wan wanderer looking for answers, she's a vampire with a pen, paper and a plan. Her fangs flank a cigarette as it burns between her lips as she writes: ''my escape.'' While not a full-on act of rebellion it's the proverbial penultimate moment before the wolves show up at the door, the stillness before the sharpest teeth sink through the softest flesh and all that blood starts to flow red, red, red.    

One of the reasons Skelly lists for redrawing My Pretty Vampire and publishing it is because, as she says, ''my style started changing.'' The style she refers to has, perhaps, more to do with her writing than her cartooning. Skelly sets herself apart as a cartoonist with her emotionally rich yet straight-forward linework and uncomplicated panels. Her style is her style and any 'change' is more in its refinement as she continues to perfect her craft. To see this 'change,' look at the entirely silent sequence of Clover swimming naked in the castle's indoor pool. The statues lining the pool's perimeter and the plumes of steam make Clover look like the undead goddess she's about to become. The colors and cartooning are some of the best work Skelly has done. The change, style-wise, comes in the inclusion of this sequence and how it informs the pacing of the story. It's languorous and makes the reader implicit in Clover's torpor and allows Skelly wink at (and indulge in) the Fonda-esque. The panel she reserves for a wafting curl of steam as it rises to meet the moon transcends as it adds mood on top of mood to an already moody and sexy sequence.

Slowing down the narrative to include a story beat like this steam bath is something Skelly began in earnest in Operation Margarine. She further develops this technique in Tonya where she uses a single panel of a tweeting bird to smash cut to the abuse Tonya has suffered, a metaphoric fracture as to the character's state of mind. The cutaway to the steam in My Pretty Vampire is more tangential, more about atmosphere, but the effect is similar in how it plays with time, develops the story and comments on the action. Skelly's character game has always been a strong. The only change in her work is in how much more muscular she has become as a storyteller.

My Pretty Vampire and Tonya are evidence of Skelly's ability to pull off deeper and deeper dives into emotional depths with the saucy self-confidence of an 'it girl.' Perhaps that's what Skelly is, an 'it girl' of indie comics—a sophisticated and expert cartoonist ready to strike.
For all things Katie Skelly visit her Tumblr. 

Keith Silva believes the best way to watch Deathdream is with the sound turned down and Iggy Pop's Lust for Life turned all the way up! Follow @keithpmsilva


Friday, October 30, 2015

Interrogative Mood [reprise]: RAV (1st Collection)

Cartoonist: Mickey Zacchilli
Publisher: Youth in Decline

Does a line like, ''And I'm taking the motherfucking Lesabre'' fill you with curiosity, make you laugh or give you pause? How do you cope with chaos in life? What about in art? Do you find mayonnaise a suitable sandwich spread? How much risk should a comic take? Should RAV be enough, title-wise? Would it read better as an acronym? Really Awesome Velocipede? Republicans Against Vaginas? Reread After Viewing? Would your inner-obsessive experience the howling fantods to read Mickey Zacchilli's advice in the introduction to RAV 1st Collection that she would prefer that the reader not ''hunt down RAV #1 […] because it wasn't very good so it got flushed?'' Can a comic or a 1st collection of a series of comics be incomplete? Is Zacchilli trustworthy? Believable?

If a boy asks you to go to a graveyard and make out, do you? What if his name is 'Juice' and he smokes cigarettes and never takes off his sunglasses, even at night, even in graveyards? What if, instead, his name was Snake Prince Edward and he asks to share a booth with you at the IHOP? How much graveyard-making-out leads to graveyard-sex or graveyard-handjobs? Do you enjoy the smell of your shampoo? Why is Rolo always smiling? What's he know that Juice and Rolo's boss, Ben, don't know? Do you think of the smile as a contagion? What about rage? Have you ever given in to the urge to run down the aisle in a grocery store and knock items off the shelf? How often have you gone 'commando' at work? Do you own pinking shears? When did comics become so corporate or have they always been corporate and it's only now they've become less so and therefore more risky? Two-hundred-and-ninety words in, how would you assess your level of boredom so far? Should I go on? Do you recall the first time I tried such a rhetorical device?

How do you acquaint yourself with unfamiliar words like 'shōjo' or 'josei' in reviews of comic books? Now—and from context you can probably guess at the next question—what if these words precede the word 'manga'? Do questions about Manga make you feel sheepish or do you bluff? Does a similar reaction occur when someone confronts you with a word like 'risograph'? Have you ever experienced motion-sickness? Is it spinning that turns your guts to water, abrupt changes in air pressure, how about S-curves on secondary roads, all three? When you ride in a car and a fellow passenger says they are 'car sick' and you are not, do you a feel a sense of superiority or empathy? Are you aware a cat's kidneys can process sea water?

When someone you know only tangentially like a co-worker's brother or the assistant pastor at the church your neighbor attends who has been invited to the neighbor's son's sixth birthday party for reasons you glean are political or the barber who's covering for the guy who usually cuts your hair and everyone calls 'Brother' even though he's an only child makes the joke, 'what's the difference between in-laws and outlaws?' and delivers the punchline without the common courtesy to include you, in this instance, do you wish they had just ripped a loud dog-like fart and been done with it? What's the proper etiquette when someone says 'something suddenly came up?' Where do you stand on the issue of fair-trade coffee? If it were a question of fair-trade cocaine would your opinion change? Do you have a prepared answer to the question: 'What's the best depiction of an orgasm you've ever witnessed secondhand?' Does all of this change once you open RAV to find all the pages are butterscotch yellow?     

Where was I? Did you know Mickey Zacchilli is a woman? Does it matter? Does knowledge of Zacchilli's gender increase your interest in RAV? Are we more obsessed with gender now than previous generations or is it because before people were more willing to paper over phrases like 'gender issues' with other phrases like, 'everything's going to hell in a handbasket' or 'mind your own fucking business'? When a critic refers to an artist as a cartoonist does it seem pretentious or an honest stab at accuracy? Can you make a good faith judgement, yay or nay, when, in issue #5, Juice receives a kitten from Main Marian—who, this time around instead of being naked and at home with drenching her pussy in milk, is wearing clothes and sporting a fluffy hat—as to if Juice is capable of taking care of said kitten? How do you think Sally's going to react when she finds out about a strange women with a penchant for sodden sex organs is handing out free-of-charge kittens to the guy who considers her [Sally] his 'lady'? Is the mishigas over the hatred for the word 'moist' overblown? Did you know Adolf Hitler and Ludwig Wittgenstein were classmates? Are you still thinking about graveyard handjobs? When Ben sends Juice to look for Sally in the Meat Cave, in the context of the narrative, is it considered a ruse, a red herring or a straight-up lie, neither? Have you ever bought duty-free Toblerone? Which word appeals to you the most: 'diecast,' 'kneeler,' 'distaff,' 'shopworn,' 'hobnail,' or 'Spider-Man'? How often do you consider your own breathing? Do you still pine for the Intellivision?             

If you've gone this far, why not just a bit more? Have I left enough breadcrumbs to follow, so to speak, to figure out what RAV might be about? Do you consider 'plot' a sacred trust? Is it asshole to think all these questions are a viable or valuable assessment when it comes to interrogating RAV? If cartoonists like Zacchilli make readers consider the possibilities of comics—how a comic work best when its only classification is as a comic and not this or that kind of comic—doesn't that render the story and the characters moot? Or is it the other way around, only because the adventures of Juice, Sally, Kitten, Ben, Rollo, Main Marian and Snake Prince Edward are so tied up in relatable actions like talking and the joys and pitfalls of relationships that RAV is so relatable and a comic worth your time?  Would you take the ''motherfucking'' Lesabre? Is this enough? Too much?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Vanesa Del Rey & the Power of Thinness: Hit: Pen & Ink #2

(originally published on Comics

Cartoonist Vanesa R. Del Rey works thin places.

The idea of a thin place comes from the ancient Celts. Peter Gomes, a Harvard theologian, describes thin places as ''where the visible and the invisible world come into their closest proximity … the clearest communication between the temporal and eternal … the ultimate of these thin places in the human condition are the experiences people are likely to have as they encounter suffering, joy, and mystery.''

For some the 'temporal and eternal' meet in the Golden Ratio or the stars or a lover's arms. Those old Celts would search for thin places along riverbanks or mountains, intersections where the perpendicular and the horizontal align, points in which the infinite is nigh, edgy stuff. Left unsaid in Gomes's definition is the inherent spirituality of a thin place. In its broadest sense, 'spirituality' presupposes nearness and engenders transformation in the search for meaning as each of us strives to understand ourselves and the world around us.

From image and text to the jumble of high and low, Comics exists as equal parts ink and ideas, profane, sublime and always personal. Del Rey possesses a 'know-it-when-you-see-it' bravura. She draws with an idiosyncratic and honest ferocity that leaves little doubt as to mood or manner in either her character's faces, bodies or in the unfortunate (and oftentimes seedy) settings they find themselves in. Straightforward yet complex, Del Rey's art plays big and contains multitudes. Her men are men of action with faces like cliff walls, angular, blunt and sharp, as honest as steel and twice as vulnerable in matters of loyalty and love. And the women? Curves, curls and waves, breakers in every way and undulation all the way down. Del Rey's women are survivors, bricoleurs who take what life gives and endure.

Del Rey does more than get by on her character's looks, she knows how to work the page as well. She sets these contrasts of unadulterated feminine and masculine ideals within compositions of compositions, each page and panel is stylized, couture. Panel to panel and page to page, Del Rey designs as much as she draws comics. Through her use of perspective, close-ups and all that ink, her art feels, at times, journalistic as if she were an illustrator for The Illustrated London News or Cruikshank's Comic Almanac.

Even with this documentarian's eye, she always allows her imagination to have the final say. Del Rey understands when it comes to Comics, fundamentals are not absolutes, mundane realities like limbs, backseats of cars and gun barrels distend or narrow as they are stretched by a rubber band of story and time. For Del Rey the black and white of good storytelling—its cardinal intention being understanding—trumps the greys of technique. This is Del Rey's land, her milieu, an artist of thin places, a cartoonist at the crossroads to suffering, joy, and mystery.

cover Pen and Ink
The release of Hit: Pen & Ink #2 from Boom! Studios, affords Del Rey the space her ideas deserve. The 11X17 format tailors well to her big canvas thinking. Hit is the creation writer Bryce Carlson who also serves as the managing editor at Boom! Studios. With Hit Carlson crafts an L.A. noir, straight no chaser, blacktop, bullets and broads … also cigarettes. Hit is the story of an off-the-books hit squad headed by Harvey Slater, his bent boss (natch) the Chief of Police Arthur Blair, the chief's wayward daughter (Hit's femme fatale), Bonnie Brae, whiskey-slingers, assorted hoods and the looming presence of real-life baddie Mickey Cohen. Take every James Ellroy novel and the trademark low-key lighting of John F. Seitz or Jimmy Wong and Carlson's inspirations and intentions fit like bespoke shirts and Tiffany cufflinks.

The first issue of Hit marked Del Rey's debut as a comic book artist. In his commentary to Hit: Pen & Ink Volume One, Carlson writes how Del Rey's test pages brought ''a vision'' to the project. In those pages he saw ''the version of Hit we all want to do.'' Like something out of the legend and lore of Schwab's Pharmacy—too perfect for a story set in L.A.—Carlson says, ''no one believed that this was Vanesa's first comic book […] Not every artist has the luxury of seeing their test pages published. Vanesa did.'' What Del Rey brings to that first issue is her personal sense for the design and the layout of a page as a page. In each panel she makes sure her voice and her intent are clear. Carlson says, ''I remember when the test pages came in, you'd taken it upon yourself to do the location captions. No other artist we'd been looking at had done that.'' Del Rey's use of location captions (and her intuition to do so) reflects her instinct as a storyteller; not to mention, letting the reader in on where the action takes place, especially in the shadowy environs and narrative cul-de-sacs of a noir, acts like black coffee after a weekend drunk.

The captions represent the most recognizable (and simplest) way Del Rey creates a foreground element in order to add dimension to her compositions. This devotion to perspective is one of Del Rey's signatures. Like Christmas Future, she pulls the reader unbidden into deep space where a brassiere hung from a chair or blinds or cigarettes or smoke from cigarettes or arms and legs bring perspective to the narrative. The setting of noir should feel claustrophobic and constrictive in order to amplify the paranoia, the inevitability, of what ever lose-lose situation is at hand. Cramped, overstuffed and tight spaces like barrooms, bedrooms or interrogation rooms need to appear, like life, inescapable, each its own prison, a single cell (panel?).

1766 SlaterIn Hit #3, Slater and his hit squad sit inside an unmarked car outside a Beverly Hills mansion studded with fences and guard dogs. Their cigarettes burn like censers, the smoke like an offering to some crooked saint, the patron of vagaries and fourth-place-finishers. In his mind Slater runs receipts and tallies up deaths as it begins to dawn on him he's been had. In the first panel he peers out the window, his upper body is on a slight incline off the backseat. The perspective shifts in the next panel to the front seat as the landscape of the car's interior comes into focus. Slater becomes an amorphous blot of inky dark as his partners and fellow conspirators, Porter McKnight and Sid Overstreet, knife in at the sides of the panel to cut Slater off—a subtle foreshadowing, a visual (and literal) set up shot. In the third panel Del Rey uses a subtle push as Slater slumps out of the gloom and into the light. In these three panels Del Rey corsets conspiracy (and conspiracies of conspiracies) and laces the fates of these three men together tighter and tighter until in the fourth panel, when the penny drops, a line is crossed and the intercessions to that crooked saint have been heard and meted out.

The fourth panel divides the page in half, a boundary, a sort of Mason–Dixon Line that states from here on everything is different. Carlson's original intent was to have dialogue in this panel. He says: ''it was such a good shot, such good acting that it didn't need anything else.'' Credit Carlson for knowing, like Flastaff, ''the better / part of valour is discretion'' (1H4, 5.4.118-19). This is the cinematic side of VDR. And cinema is (only) about the close-up. Del Rey understands this moment, for these three men, is an act of love, a vow. Again, she uses McKnight and Overstreet to frame the image and give depth to depth. The two faces on either side of the panel offset one another. For Overstreet, foreground left, Del Rey conveys complicity with only a slight smile while keeping most of the rest of his face, especially his eyes, off panel. While in the mid-ground and to the right, she draws McKnight's mouth clamped shut on his cigarette, to indulge a smile here would be to cheapen the answer evident in his eye: surrender.

CUIn the background, Slater's face comes into full view. His is the face of the conspiracy, no need to hide or hint with only an eye or a curled lip, Slater's commitment is as plain as the eyes, lips and nose on his face. Del Rey draws him at a slight angle so he's a bit off-center which speaks to his place in this triumvirate. He's in the middle of it, but something is still crooked, uneven. Slater may not know it yet, but Del Rey does. It's here that Slater commits to bring Blair down even though he's missing information his two stolid partners, the frames of this image, already know. They're ahead of Slater. He may be at the center of this image and the de facto leader of the squad and this conspiracy but he's still in background, literally one step behind. The decision made and the deed done, Slater is spent. The final two panels put Slater back in his place, alone in the back seat, cut off and alone, inside and outside all at once.

This is Del Rey at her thinnest. Her linework, horizontal and perpendicular, describes a moment—a place—which she elevates to show something approaching love, something eternal. One page. One panel. What she reveals are hidden secrets and hard truths. No one ever says the 'suffering,' 'joy' and 'mystery' brought on by transcendence is simple or safe.

Hit is a world of men and plans and the futility of those men who make those plans. Walk the cat back far enough and the narrative of Hit looks like a loop with the ends coming together in the character of Bonnie Brae née Blair. Bad-ish, blond and with hips like a lyre (thanks Mr. Vonnegut!) Bonnie checks all the boxes for the femme fatale. Bonnie's gift is her guile which is why when she has to break out the bleach and cold water to clean up a dirty situation. She points out: ''Rookies always make the hot water mistake and let the stain run on them.'' Such a helpful hint from a hellcat Heloise like Bonnie clearly comes from experience. Duh.

See, Bonnie's a bit mobbed up. She's back in L.A. after having to play a little 23 skidoo to avoid some associates in Cleveland which is where she ran when she got popped on heroin possession with intent to distribute by Ken Collins, Slater's old partner. Bonnie's old man was able to keep her out of the clink and so she lit out for C-town. Slater and Bonnie have a vodka-soaked past so when she returns to L.A. Slater gets that familiar itch and it's Katy bar the door. Hit #2 concludes when Slater caps some muscle who's been sent to bring Bonnie back east to pay her debts. Slater shoots the guy in the face so there's little bits of goon all over the floor of the bathroom. Standing by her man, Bonnie goes on blood, bone and brain detail, it's the least she can do since Slater took care of the body of the cop she shot at the end of Hit #1. It is, after all, thanks to Bonnie (and her right cross) that the goon Slater shoots was tied to a chair and gagged in the first place. In Hit all roads lead back to Bonnie.

This is the only time in the series where Del Rey lets the design element of the location caption stretch across the width of the page and the lettering is in black instead of the traditional white. The gutters between the six panels form bars so the word 'Westlake' appears like a nameplate on the gate to an exclusive community where women favor an ensemble of rubber gloves and negligees when sponging brain and blood from the floor.
In the first panel, Del Rey foreshortens the distance in almost one of her trademark close-ups. A tiled floor with stylized rivulets of bleachy water takes up the front of the panel followed by a sodden rag which retreats into a left arm and then further into a right arm and the hint of a lace-cupped breast. This is women's work. The second panel reveals Bonnie in all her domestic glory. Del Rey composes the image so Bonnie's body fills the frame, the focus shifts from her work to the physicality of her shape and the constraints of the situation she finds herself in. Bonnie's round bottom dominates the top of the panel to give this image a wanton aspect so much so it's easy to miss that time has passed from the first panel to the second. Bonnie has switched hands. The rag which she held in her left hand is now in her right and has moved off panel. A subtle choice by Del Rey to indicate how Bonnie's body reacts to the effort she's putting in. She's been scrubbing so hard and for so long her hand has become tired. Genius. Del Rey doesn't mind if the reader wants to leer, after all, since her subject has one of those built-for-sin bodies, but Del Rey reminds us there is work being done and hard work at that. In the third panel Del Rey goes as wide as she gets in this sequence, the bucket of cold water with the added bleach to wash away the blood stains is off to her left as she rests her tired left arm on the lip of the tub. Her strong right arm—remember her right cross?—finishes the job. The sexiness in the first two panels gets tempered in this third panel as Del Rey exposes the glorified (eroticized?) mundanity of cleaning up the bathroom floor.

Del Rey links the third and fourth panel on the page by composing each one as wide as this little bathroom will allow. It's this kind of visual storytelling that sets VDR apart from her peers. Each set of three panels tells a short story. In the top three panels Del Rey starts close with the rag and then to the medium shot before she moves out wide to show where the scene takes place, similar to what she did with Slater, Overstreet and McKnight in the car. In the first of the three bottom panels Del Rey stays wide to maintain continuity with the last panel at the top. She shows Bonnie facing the mirror—curious that the bottom three panels (nearly) mirror the top three with Bonnie's head down on top and head up on bottom—before moving in tighter to show off Bonnie's tiny waist and her vintage hips. The sixth panel with Bonnie looking back over her shoulder breaks the reverse pattern of the opening three panels: close-up to medium to wide and then wide to medium to a modified medium shot. The sequence changes because the story has changed. Slater. The framing in the sixth panel shows Slater's point-of-view. It's no longer Bonnie's story about cleaning up after her man, the narrative has shifted and her job now is to clean up for her man. Bonnie's backward glance smolders, the top of her lacey panties tease her lover. She has her nightgown down over her chest not quite ready for the big reveal, this look is for him as much as it is for her. She's still in control, still scrubbing that floor and not ready to give away any of her secrets, yet.

As an artist, Vanesa R. Del Rey traffics in mood the way jewelers deal in diamonds—it's all mood, mood and more mood. The quality of art like the quality of a diamond is subjective, sure, there are standards, but that's for the lawyers and the accountants not for the real people. In the end, art is only about the feeling(s) it creates in an individual. Del Rey's work has a feel and it certainly has a mood. Carlson knew it the moment those test pages came in. He felt something and his instincts as a writer and editor were spot on. Vanesa Del Rey's art has power, a thinness that draws people in and takes them to a place of mystery, suffering and joy.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

H is for Hausu (House)

This originally ran on Psycho Drive-In as part of the ABC's of Halloween Series (2014)
Hausu or House (1977) proves the phrase “you’ve never seen anything like …” doesn’t always have to sound (or read) like hyperbolic bullshit. You have never seen a movie like House, for sure.

Imagine a cinematic exquisite corpse, a handmade invention that combines ‘Mr. Magoo Meets Frankenstein,’ a parody of a parody of a Japanese game show which involves martial arts, elements copped from Hope and Crosby road movies (complete with kick-ass dune buggy), Japanese folklore, the most hyper-realistic rotoscoped matte paintings of blue skies, sunsets and rainbows (EVER!), giggly schoolgirls in sailor suits, watermelons and bananas, romance, a dead mother and a white Persian cat (named Blanche) that may or may not be able to deliver mail, not to mention, kill. For the sake of not ruining this head trip, it’s enough to mention only a few of the many horrors of House like the possessed lighting fixture, a dancing skeleton and a very puckish piano. Then, there’s the blood (oh God, Mother!) so much blood. So yeah, the attempt to describe what makes House House equates to a fool’s errand; and yet, for all of its what-the-fuck-ness, its House-ness, the plot plays like Horror for dummies.

During a school vacation, a motherless teenage girl who’s not at home with her father’s new girlfriend, invites six of her friends to go with her on a road trip to visit her long-time-no-see maternal ‘auntie’ at her home in the countryside. So pure it floats, right? Now, because this is House, the name of the plucky protagonist is Gorgeous (Oshare: ‘fashionable’), her six friends are Kung Fu, Fantasy, Prof, Mac, Melody and Sweet, respectively. These are the girls and these are their names. That’s the point. Hint or intent at abstraction or overthinking is coincidental. Except for Prof and Mac (short for stomach) who wouldn’t want to be Gorgeous or Sweet? As for being called Kung Fu? Cool, so cool.

Therein resides the integrity of the structure. The soul of House epitomizes a rare (bloody?) example of the self-aware avant-garde aesthetics of Cinéma pur -- visual composition, motion, the relation between sound and image and rhythmic editing -- sans the art house severity (think more Hitchcock, less Buñuel, but still some, especially the surrealism) and with all the sincerity of the most sincere pumpkin patch.

The madman at the controls of this saturnalian doomsday device of pop culture kitsch and horror clichés is one time experimental filmmaker and advertising wunderkind, Nobuhiko Obayashi. In his essay, “The Handmaidens,” Chuck Stephens writes: “What Toho Studios was hoping for … was a homegrown Jaws: a locally produced summer movie roller coaster sufficiently thrill-chocked … fast and loud, with tons of fun packed between screams.” Think about that: give us something Japanese with the crowd-pleasing sensibilities (and box office returns to boot) of Spielberg. The intentions of the Toho suits read like Act One for an only-in-Hollywood-only-in-the-70’s-auteurist-fiasco, but Japanese.

What keeps House from being a movie by committee (or a Nipponese Alan Smithee film) is, first and foremost, Obayashi’s cognizance to entertain, to be a showman. After the Toho logo fades to black a blue point of light like the flickering of film through a projector appears in the bottom left to form a box at the center of the screen and then the words “A” and “Movie” appear on separate title cards. Only a rotund Englishman lining himself up with a caricature of his own profile before he wishes the audience a “good evening” would be more self-aware, more fun.

As the premiere exemplar of a film that must be seen to be believed, to open too many of the locked doors of this funhouse would be both a cheat and a crime most foul and unfair. There are many points where the ridiculous surpasses the sublime along the way to the fireworks factory that is the Aunt’s creepy country estate. Come to think of it, House is one big fireworks factory. Obayashi developed the story after asking his pre-teen daughter for suggestions and it shows. Either through camera movement, the on-screen action or the dialogue, every scene moves with the rambunctious energy of a sugared-up six-year-old or a kitten. Even the most lactose-intolerant may start to feel cramps and nausea after so much cheese, or worse, inherent vices like cynicism and impatience may hit enough of a pique that stopping the ride seems like the only sane (and smart) action in this bat shit crazy movie.


Yes, this is, perhaps, the weirdest of weird cinema. And no, it makes no sense, except, of course, it does. Like all art, film aspires to be a transformative experience, anything goes and the only limit is the imagination (or the budget). Look no further than when the story’s knight-in-shining armor, Mr. Togo, gets his ass stuck in bucket and a small boy in a backwards Mao cap and red overalls starts to play the bucket like a drum, because of course. If this scene were written by Cervantes about another knight errant it would be considered the height of seventeenth century world literature, but here it becomes yet another silly non sequitur. Meanwhile, the soundtrack, blithely unaware of the dramas playing out onscreen, shimmies with the most bubble-gum sounding J-pop song in the history of blithely unaware J-pop songs. Ditto later on when Togo unexpectedly (?) turns into a bunch of bananas while the score swoons with a romantic ballad. Yes, you read that right. Bananas. What does this B-story in a B-movie -- House was second on the bill to less banana-centric (one assumes) teenage-romance, Pure Hearts in Mud -- have to do with the horrors of main narrative? Everything and nothing.  All the over-the-top-ness, the blind alleys House gambols along and its sheer absurdity make it of a piece, an exercise in the mindfulness of play and a true cult movie.

When House’s Id gets too manic it’s its ego, Kung Fu, who puts the madness into perspective. As matte painting clouds turn shades of dreamy tangerine, gold and turquoise, Kung Fu, in search of the missing Mac, delivers House’s most meta line without the slightest irony. She says: “This is ridiculous. Maybe it was an illusion.” Ah for the love of film. Of course, Kung Fu says this after she has fended off a surprise attack of flaming chunks of stove wood with the ancient art of karate. Before Obayashi gets on to the next bit of irrationality the blanket Kung Fu was holding before the fight began drops back into her arms. And scene.
Neither cartoonish gestures nor earnest intensions put asses in seats, let alone butts in buckets. Like the most modish Melville or refined Renoir, Obayashi cares deeply for the craft of film itself and composes every frame like a maestro. Auntie, who before was resigned to a wheelchair, now, handkerchief in hand, expectedly (?) saunters into the kitchen where Prof and Fantasy wash and put away dishes, predictably a waltz strikes up and she tells the girls she feels like she did when she was a child and went to a restaurant in town. Cut to a close up of Auntie next to a refrigerator as she wipes her lips with the handkerchief, pulls a lascivious smile in the direction of the girls and gives a handkerchief flourish befitting a grand dame after an exhausting performance. Obayashi then cuts to an overhead shot with the actors framed in the upper right hand corner. The door to the refrigerator opens and Fantasy watches Auntie steps inside the refrigerator and the door whooshes closed behind her. Fantasy drops a dish (who wouldn’t) and when it smashes on the floor Prof runs in to find out what’s happened. Fantasy explains the unexplainable. As Prof opens the refrigerator to show Fantasy there’s nothing inside (there isn’t), Auntie moves from off-screen into the foreground, turns to the camera and smiles. This kicks off a montage of Auntie as she dances barefoot in the rafters, cavorts with a life-size anatomical model of a skeleton, hums along to the soundtrack (as the cat meows along in melody and dances, via jump cuts, across the piano keys) and tucks into a human hand before giving one last wistful smile.
In House no in-camera editing trick, movement or movie-making technique is left untried. Speed the frames up, slow them down, reverse them, force perspective, spin the camera, use animation always, pedestal, dolly, truck and use as much stage blood as the censors will allow and do it, all of it, at will and never, never go light on the sound effects. It’s like Obayashi took George Lucas’s stage directions to the actors in Star Wars, to heart: “Faster. More Intense.”

House stands as a monument to imagination and DIY invention, a thumb in the eye to today’s slick, vapid binary fascism of entertainment. For the love of God, see House and believe. Speaking of which, for those fun goalies out there, perhaps Jesus’s advice to Thomas is enough: “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Keith Silva writes for Comics Bulletin. He didn’t want to spoil the bit about the bananas, but, c’mon, if the ten seconds we get to see Togo’s unfortunate fate doesn’t sum up this eighty-eight minutes of whack-a-doo-ery, what would? Probably the other eighty-seven-minutes-and-fifty-seconds, seriously.  Follow @keithpmsilva on Twitter. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Vital, Vicious and Visceral: Starve #1 (a review)

W: Brian Wood A: Danijel Žeželj C: Dave Stewart

How do you like your dog?

For those familiar with (or hungry for) Brian Wood’s agitprop storytelling there is much to feast upon in Starve: a near-apocalyptic NYC, the populist rhetoric of ‘Us vs. Them,’ the cultural bankruptcy of celebrity, gross consumerism and, a near-fetishistic environmentalism—call it, Wood du jour. Yes, in much of its ‘stuff’ Starve dovetails Wood’s oeuvre from as far back as Channel Zero, Supermarket and DMZ to more recent work like Mara and The Massive.

Nearly two decades into Wood’s career as a comic book creator, when his peers have either split or are content to act as slaves to their own machinery, Starve proves Wood remains, yes, hungry. Each of those Wood-isms (see above) receives a check in its respective box and yet there is also a further brashness, an attitude, an urgency—Starve snarls, a vital, vicious and visceral beast.

The main ingredient here is Gavin Cruikshank, a (former) celebrity chef—number one with a bullet on 2015’s list for best new characters—who is estranged from his wife, Greer, and his daughter, Angie. For the last three years Cruikshank has been on a drunk of debauchery and local cuisine. A compelling and complex character, Cruikshank is world weary and cheeky with a pinch of pretentiousness that's more charming than obnoxious.  

Wood’s one misstep is to mention Cruikshank is gay or as he calls himself, “a queer dad.” His ex-wife says she was “twenty-two when we were married and when you came out of the closet? I was forty.” Wood never goes further with how or if Cruikshank’s sexuality [1] either informed his choice to go on his self-imposed exile or to return. Cruikshank contains multitudes, for sure, but why introduce his sexuality and then do nothing to develop it? Here's hoping Wood goes further with this aspect of Cruikshank's character.

The rest of the ingredients are these: world markets are crashing and global warming (isn’t it ‘climate change’ now?) has caused Jamaica Bay to rise twelve inches and swamp Queens and JFK. Fortunately, broadcast television has fared much better in the encroaching biblical reckoning. The number one show is ‘Starve.’ Created by Cruikshank as an Anthony Bourdain-like ‘No Reservations.’ In his absence, however, his creation has put on weight to become a cutthroat reality TV cooking competition. During Cruikshank’s truancy, Greer has had him declared dead and has taken full control of all the show’s assets and fiduciary concerns i.e. Angie. In order to (maybe) recoup some of his filthy lucre, Cruikshank must compete in (and win) an eight episode season of Starve.

This is Wood drawing from a deeper well. Starve is more than its bespoke urban rot and populist politics. Wood collaborates with artist Danijel Žeželj and colorist Dave Stewart, all three are listed as co-owners on the title. To nitpick Stewart’s approach to color on Starve sounds hypocritical like arguing hitting with Ted Williams or tugging on Superman’s cape, caveat dumbass. It’s all well and good to draw from the Crayola box of Armageddon shades and tones, but perhaps there’s more to this world than sepia and ocher, gunmetal and sage. Is it too much to ask any artist, let alone an undisputed authority like Stewart, to imagine (rethink) a pre-apocalypse and therefore break from the accepted language of the genre? Perhaps. Stewart knows blood and so when it’s time for this cooking competition to get on to the real ‘meat work,’ Stewart will surely bring his trademark bloody and sinuous reds.

Few illustrators or cartoonists equal Žeželj for style, emotion or amount of ink per page. His art occupies some liminal space between woodcuts and stenciled graffiti as if Albrecht Dürer and Banksy had a baby. In those viscous lines Žeželj wrings out exhaustion, ennui and joy in equal measure in the faces and frames of his characters with an unmatched poignancy. As he does in stories set in derelict urban settings -- Luna Park comes to mind -- Žeželj’s printmaker’s precision for background details in Starve creates images so suffuse with girders, illegal wiring and bodies, bodies, bodies it feels the opposite of industrial, organic and not manufactured. So fastidious is Žeželj’s line even tiny minutiae like tattoos and logos pop in all that ink. And when it comes to tousled hair, Žeželj’s tangles are matched only by other Wood collaborators like Becky Cloonan and Ryan Kelly.

Žeželj is not a nine panel kind of artist. Almost all of the pages in Starve are composed so panels act as satellites around a central image. Žeželj often layers panels to create a kind of consistent present rather than the sense events take place moment to moment or frame to frame like in a movie. Not only is this technique ‘pure comics’ it acts like the needle of a compass pointing the way through the chaos to tell the story where everything happens all at once. With apologies to Wood and to letterer Steve Wands, Starve doesn’t need narration or dialogue, everything the reader needs to know comes across in Žeželj’s art and that is something too many readers are starved for.

As to the dog in this first issue … it’s going to be a bridge too far for many readers. It’s dark, unsettling and daring … which is the point. Exploitation works to shock, to demand the audience pay attention, the meaning is self-evident and not to be dismissed as purposelessness. The point is to be insulting without insult and to challenge conventions. There is an (over) abundance of testosterone in Starve—which would fit with male-centric reality TV cooking competitions. It’s perhaps an overreach, but Starve (almost) feels like what David Mamet would do in a similar situation and the dog is symbolic of delivering on this chest-thumping male bravado.

The machismo on display fits with Cruikshank’s character -- the wildest of the wild bunch, the cagiest of vets in for one more job, one more score, the old dog brought back to show the young pups what for -- and it fits for Wood as well. Starve is a statement about men, fatherhood and most importantly, redemption. Cruikshank is looking for redemption and not to put too fine a point on it, so is Brian Wood.

On the final page of Starve #1, Cruikshank narrates, Wood writes, “But I won’t play the game they want me to play. This is my fucking show. I’m going to do my eight episodes and burn this whole place to the ground. Watch.” These words nest within full page image of Cruikshank from the chest up. Žeželj draws a skein of raw meat as it curls out from below Cruikshank’s top teeth and bottom lip like a serpent’s forked tongue. Blood drips from the meat onto his chef’s whites, he looks vampiric … he looks awesome. Wood’s words are a promise, tenacious and immediate, Gavin Cruikshank like Brian Wood means to reclaim his vigor and prove his worth. Watch.

[1] In a later issue, Angie mentions her father’s workaholic nature which may explain why he lacks a partner or the time for to pursue a sexual or romantic relationship.