Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Hey kids! Comics! A Teachable Moment

The editors of We're Still Here have linked to my movie blog instead of my comics and art blog, so I thought I'd provide a landing sport that shows some of my comics. This is a piece I did for an anthology that seems to have fallen through, so I thought I'd publish this here instead as a kind of teaser for the comics I draw. Enjoy.



Thursday, July 06, 2017

Shameless Self-Promotion: We're Still Here

The Kickstarter for We're Still Here, a comics anthology by trans creators, is live. There's a long story by yours truly in this book and I want to see it in print (and get paid for my work). So if you're interested, there are fifty trans cartoonists involved and the book will be fabulous.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Bullets and Bracelets

Gal Gadot in Wonder Women

Sing, O goddess, the wrath of Diana of Themyscira, daughter of Queen Hippolyta, that brought countless ills upon the scions of Germany. Many a brave soul did her ruinous wrath send down to Hades, many a hero did it yield to dogs and vultures. For so were the counsels of Zeus fulfilled from the day on which Hippolyta, queen of Amazons, and her thoughtless daughter first fell out with one another.




When I was a kid in the 1970s, I watched the Lynda Carter version of Wonder Woman religiously. I was 8 when the show premiered. It was one of the only times popular culture let me exercise my inner aspirations for my gender identity without betraying them to the world at large. I've heard a lot of women my age talk about how they played at being Wonder Woman in the 1970s using Underroos as costumes and jump ropes as Lassos of Truth. I didn't get to do any of that, though I might have wanted to. My neighbor across the street was such a girl and I was insanely jealous of the fact that she had a Wonder Woman tiara and bracelets. I had to settle for pretending to be Batman, which was acceptable to a point. I couldn't do the things I wanted as play activity, but I could watch the show, and watch it I did. Because it was superheroes and nominally an action show, it was permitted for someone who was perceived to be a boy. But it spoke to me as a girl. Wonder Woman was an aspirational figure: gorgeous, badass, invincible. Hell, even her secret identity, Diana Prince, worked for a spy organization. No life of motherhood and housewifery for her. Moreover, there was a transformational element to Wonder Woman that was absent in her near contemporary rival for girl power superheroics, The Bionic Woman. Jamie Sommers required six million dollars worth of bionic upgrades to become a hero, which was way out of reach to a lower middle-class kid like me. Diana Prince spun around and magically transformed into Diana of Paradise Island. There's a hardcore wish fantasy involved with Wonder Woman's spinning transformation, which maybe explains how Wonder Woman's fantasy gifts seemed more attainable than Jamie Sommers's technological ones. Magic doesn't have a price tag, after all. A lot of girls my age spent time spinning in hopes of becoming Wonder Woman. I did it myself in private moments every once in a while.


Wonder Woman #1 by George Perez

Wonder Woman comics in the 1970s were lousy, though. Her best stories generally appeared in team books like Justice League of America, where she was often sidelined in favor of male characters, or damselled. In her own book, the stories were often silly and usually pretty patronizing, even when the creators were aware of her status as a feminist icon. The first Wonder Woman series I ever bought was Kurt Busiek and Trina Robbins The Legend of Wonder Woman mini-series, followed closely by George Perez's revamp in 1987. The Legend of Wonder Woman was a loving pastiche of the original Golden Age version of the character, while Perez's book re-imagined her along more mythological lines. Perez's version is the canon from which the current character is drawn and it populates Wonder Woman's rogues gallery with mythological figures in preference to costumed enemies (though some of those show up too). It also changes Wonder Woman's mission in the world. She is an ambassador for both Themyscira and Amazonian ideals of peace and kindness. Moreover, the Perez comics largely avoid a male gaze when drawing both Diana and the other women who populate the story. The Amazons themselves and their island and Mount Olympus itself are rendered in loving pastiche of Hellenic art and architecture, often crossed with the gonzo spacial experiments of M. C. Escher. Perez provides Wonder Woman with an arch-enemy in Ares, the God of War. These comics are mostly pretty good. They are state of the art (in 1987) traditional comics. They stand out in stark contrast to the deconstructive versions of Batman and Superman and superheroes in general that are their contemporaries.


But they have their issues.


Wonder Woman by Azarello and ChiangMost comics created almost exclusively by men are going to step on their own dicks when writing about women eventually, and the Perez version of Wonder Woman is no different. In one issue, Diana's friend, Julia, goes off on the god, Hermes, with a righteous anger that's fully justified. At the end of the book, her outburst is written off by the character herself as menopausal, as if women's anger isn't justifiable if there's not an underlying feminine reason. Menopause, PMS, whatever. That's not to say that men can't write about women or Wonder Women specifically--Greg Rucka's superior version of Wonder Woman is largely free of this kind of shit--only that these things often happen when they do. The New 52 version of Wonder Woman, which debuted in 2011, is almost laughable in its anti-feminism. It's as if writer Brian Azarello went through the Perez origin story with the intention of demolishing its finer points, as if he wants to say, "Look! The Amazons are just as bad as Patriarchy." As if to establish a false equivalence between feminism and patriarchy. When Azarello revealed that the Amazons repopulated Themyscira by raping men and selling resulting male children into slavery, I should have checked out (the lovely Cliff Chiang art kept me reading for a while afterward, much to my chagrin). When the New God, Orion, slapped Diana on the ass and she failed to even attempt to rip his arm out of its socket, I did check out. (1) The New 52 more generally pursued a misguided romance between Diana and Superman that was just too much to bear. DC comics of the current decade really doesn't understand the appeal of most of their characters when they aren't brooding dark-night vigilantes.


In any event, these are the poles of depiction that the new film version navigates.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Maneater

Garance Marillier in Raw (2016)

I wasn't expecting Raw (2016, directed by Julie Ducournau) to be funny. I mean, French extreme horror movies like Inside or Martyrs are often grim to a point where they cease being entertainments and become endurance tests. Raw is definitely in the tradition of those films, but Raw isn't like that. Don't get me wrong: Raw is a profoundly disturbing and visceral movie, one that isn't shy about employing a gross-out scene here and there. Nor is its splatter of a slapstick variety, a la The Evil Dead. It's a deadly serious movie. And yet there are laughs to be had; some laughs come from actual jokes, some come from the cinematic audacity of the filmmakers. And some of them come from the way the filmmakers take the horror genre's structure and combine it with a contemporary naturalism. The way this is filmed doesn't feel like it's necessarily a horror movie, but the structure of the film, from its alarming first scene to its final whip of the tale, is derived almost entirely from the genre. I suggested to friends that after the final scene unfolds, I wouldn't have been surprised to find the Crypt Keeper sending the audience to the exit with some ghastly bon mot. Writer/director Julie Ducournau, making her first feature, is keenly aware of her traditions. The resulting film is self-aware and funny without being a parody.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

The Grant Mystique: Wings in the Dark

Wings In the Dark Title Card

By 1935, Cary Grant was becoming a headline attraction. His signature roles were still ahead of him, but he had enough box-office appeal that he was rarely very far down the cast list when he wasn't actually top-billed. He's second-billed in Wings in the Dark (1935, directed by James Flood) behind Myrna Loy, who was coming off the success of The Thin Man. This was the first of three films Grant made with Loy, the other two being the post-war sitcoms, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. Both of those films were made at the height of Grant's stardom, when he had become the archetype of the movie star. He was top-billed in both and they're both fondly remembered, but in truth, I like Wings in the Dark more than either of them. Bachelor and Mr. Blandings are both more tightly scripted, more lavishly budgeted, more concerned with realism, more conceived of as product. Don't get me wrong! I like them both. But they tend to make of Grant, the movie star, into a middle-class mediocrity. They attempt, at their peril, to make Grant relatable to the new, post-war middle class, to the average Joe who was moving to the suburbs on the GI Bill. In short, they tried to rob Grant of his movie-star mystique (and nevermind that knight in shining armor gag in Bachelor). Wings in the Dark is a much rougher film, not really more than a b-picture that would be forgotten if not for its stars. I'll agree that as a formal object, it's probably not as good as Bachelor or Mr. Blandings. In fact, it's utterly ridiculous. But unlike those films, it doesn't squander Grant's persona. Wings in the Dark lets Grant explore his role in a way that would be unthinkable once he became the archetype of the movie star. It's a film that lets Grant be an actor first.


Cary Grant in Wings in the DarkCary Grant in Wings in the Dark

Saturday, March 11, 2017

A Short Update

James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro

Oh, hai. According to my analytics, there are still people coming to my blog every day, so I thought I'd stop in and let you all know what's going on with me and what's going on with Krell Laboratories. I mean, I haven't posted anything since January. February was the first month in over a decade with no postings at all. Given that I get paid when I post, this is a bad situation for me, but there are extenuating circumstances. One: I've been sick. I've had a nasty respiratory infection since the beginning of February and it's hard to work up the gumption to write anything when you're in the process of coughing up a lung. I joked on Facebook that I have consumption and that I should move to Tombstone, Arizona for the weather and take up card-playing, loose women, and absinthe. I frame everything in my life through cultural references, sometimes.


Moreover, I've been poor. This is related to being sick. I have only been able to work intermittently over the last month and a half and since I'm not working a full-time day job, it means I have no paid sick leave. I'm not in danger of losing my job, but every day I miss because I'm sick is a day I'm not making any money. I am being sensible and not spending my money on movies right now, preferring to spend it instead on my mortgage and food. And on days I am working, I am otherwise occupied. I have not seen Get Out or Logan or Kong of Skull Island or Hidden Figures or Arrival or Lion or a bunch of other films recently in theaters. I want to, but I'm probably waiting for video or streaming on most of it.


On a more personal note, I've been spending a lot of my available time on defending myself from the Trump government. I've been playing an intense version of the identity document whack-a-mole that all transgender people play if they transition as fully as I have. I've been engaging in a bunch of activism, too, which isn't exactly a new thing for me, only newly urgent. I've been trying very hard not to freak out and do something completely stupid like move to Argentina with no job or friends waiting for me. It's been stressful.


Finally, I've been...well, blocked I guess. I've started, literally, dozens of posts over the last year and a half that have died a quick death as I've run out of things to say or run out of words to say them. I wrote about my favorite film of last year--The Witch--when it was in theaters and that post was easy. Sometimes it just flows like I'm a conduit for words; its a form of automatic writing. I didn't write about my second favorite film of last year--Sing Street--because I couldn't find a way into it (you should see it, by the way; it's on Netflix). Ditto some of my other favorites from last year, whether Scorsese's Silence or Park's The Handmaiden or Moonlight or 20th Century Women or OJ: Made in America or Manchester by the Sea or most of the other films I submitted on my ballot for the Muriel awards. Do I want to engage with these films? Mostly yes. The words just haven't come. It's frustrating.


So I'm going to try something a little different now.


I was sitting on the couch watching Joe Dante's Explorers, a film I liked when I saw it in theaters all those years ago, when it struck me that Ethan Hawke is the perfect actor for Richard Linklater's Boyhood, because Hawke is one of those child actors you can watch grow up on camera. He was 13 when he filmed Explorers. Every subsequent film is like revisiting him to see how he's coming along, like he's participating in a strange version of the "Up" documentaries. And it's this way for all child actors who act into adulthood. When I started to think about this, I realized that Christina Ricci is likely fixed in the popular imagination forever and ever as Wednesday Addams, a part she first played when she was ten, and that no matter what she has done as an adult, that image will always follow her. There's a little bit of Wednesday in her version of Lizzie Borden, I think. She's 37 now, which makes me feel old. I remember seeing a rerun of one of Kurt Russell's first films, Follow Me Boys, at a drive-in double with Pollyanna sometime in the early seventies, a film made when Russell was a wee boy. He's an old man now. You can watch him age film by film. All of which is a reminder that even fictional films are documentaries of a sort. They capture a shadow out of time. They're a medium for making ghosts.


These are the kinds of things I think about when I'm alone in the house and stuck inside my own head for long periods.




Ordinarily, I'd be writing about The True/False film festival around now. The festival played this past weekend. I didn't get to go, even though I selected ten films to go with my pass. I gave my pass and my tickets to my partner so she could go see something. I stayed home and coughed all weekend. Woe is me. That said. I've seen a bunch of the films that played there. Of the films I saw before the festival, the ones I liked best were I Am Not Your Negro and Rat Movie. I Am Not Your Negro is a hit beyond the festival circuit and an Oscar nominee this year. It would have been my choice of the nominees, though any of them would have been an honorable choice for a change. I don't begrudge OJ: Made in America its win even though I think it's television and not cinema, but a masterpiece none the less. That boundary blurs more and more day by day anyway. Besides, taken as a triptych, I Am Not Your Negro, 13th, and OJ are a powerful expression of why we are in the mess we're in in the United States, as if they were three parts of the same film. I Am Not Your Negro filters its view of race and America through the eyes of James Baldwin, who was clear eyed about his country, even as it murdered his friends. Rat Movie, a film about the history of rats and rat extermination throughout the history of Baltimore, is almost as racially charged. It's a mosaic film in which public health, neighborhood redlining, involuntary experimentation on minority populations, and rats themselves entwine into a damning critique of American racism. It's a bracing film.


Of this year's films, the one that's most typical of True/False's mission of examining the liminal space between truth and fiction is Kitty Green's Casting JonBenet, which examines the case through the eyes of actors auditioning for parts in a hypothetical film version. Each actor has a different take on the character for which they're auditioning, and each actor brings their own personality to the audition process, creating a weird metacinematic doorway between past and present. The end of the film, in which all of the actors appear during the filming of the fake film is a bravura piece of stagecraft. I don't think it sheds any light on the actual case, but that may be the point.


Anyway, I'll try not to stay away so long.








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Monday, January 16, 2017

The Grant Mystique: This is the Night

Roland Young, Cary Grant, and Thelma Todd in This is the Night (1932)

There are more films starring Cary Grant in my movie collection than films starring any other actor. No small feat given how many films I have with John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and Christopher Lee, respectively. I think John Wayne may have been in the lead until this Christmas, when my main Christmas gift was the Universal Vault Collection of Grant's early films, most of them from the pre-1950 Paramount library that Universal owns. They've been stingy with that library over the years. Many of the films in this set have never seen a commercial release for home video. In any event, this set has eighteen films, all made before 1935, before Grant was "Cary Grant," before he had fully developed the Grant persona (stolen from Leo McCarey on the set of The Awful Truth, if you believe McCarey on the matter). Grant's star became a supernova after 1937, when he began appearing in some of his best-loved films, including Topper and the aforementioned The Awful Truth. The films in The Vault Collection are not so well-known as a rule. Oh, it has the two films Grant made for Mae West, sure, and Blonde Venus with Marlene Dietrich and Joseph Von Sternberg, but those aren't really "Cary Grant" films, even if Mae West recognized a diamond in the rough when she saw one. West had an eye for diamonds.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Winter 2016: Jazz

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land

On the evidence of Whiplash and La La Land (2016), director Damien Chazelle sure likes jazz. He likes it so much that he wants to save it from its death spiral, single-handedly if necessary. Maybe he'll succeed. I don't know. I wish he'd try harder to save it with actual black people, you know? The people who actually invented jazz? But, like it or not--and this film doesn't--black people have moved on to other forms of expression, leaving jazz to (mostly white) academics and nostalgics. I think Chazelle is an academic, however much he wants to express a visceral passion for jazz in his films. There's a scene in La La Land where he tries to convey what jazz has become versus what he thinks jazz ought to be when he has his hero, Sebastian, a jazz pianist, trying to mansplain why his heroine, Mia, an aspiring actress, should like jazz even after she's said she doesn't like it. This resonated in my head with some recent articles in Seattle's The Stranger about bands one woman pretended to like to impress boys and it dropped me out of the movie for few minutes, a discordance that echoed back later in the film where the filmmakers tip their hats to Vertigo, which similarly follows a man who wants to remake a woman. So, basically, the politics of images in La La Land are somewhat problematic.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Winter 2016: Nocturnal Ocean Beasts

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals

Here are some comments on some of the films I've been seeing this month. I don't have the heart or fortitude for my usual jeremiads right now, so these are brief.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Doctor is In

Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange (2016, directed by Scott Derrickson) is the latest cog in Marvel Studios' massive marketing machine. By now, these are manufactured to a formula with varying levels of success. Marvel has a base level of quality they try to impose with that formula that usually makes the whole thing watchable despite the MCU being a shambolic behemoth slouching toward Bethlehem and all that.  Doctor Strange conforms uneasily to that formula. As a property, Strange is a singularly weird creation who never quite fit in with Marvel's main comics universe. As a token of his ill fit to that universe, it's been well over a decade since Strange headlined his own regular book. For the movies, he's a square peg that has been shaved of corners in order to fit into a round hole. The movie isn't entirely successful at this, and anyone who approaches the character with any kind of familiarity will wind up grousing about certain things. I'm such a person.


Doctor Strange was the first Marvel Comic I ever collected after receiving issue #33 of the 1970s series in my Christmas stocking one long-ago winter, so I have something of a personal stake in the character. He's a central part of my long love affair with comics. I have long runs of his stories including a complete run of his 1970s/80s comic and big chunks of his earlier appearances. I have almost all of his original 1960s stories by creator Steve Ditko in Strange Tales and reprints, and scattered other appearances after Ditko left the character. As you can imagine, I have certain prejudices about how the character ought to be done, but I'm not so fixed in them that I feel any entitlement to getting that character. Which is good, because the movie doesn't cater to my prejudices. This Stephen Strange is not my Stephen Strange. And if I don't like it, I can always go back to all those comics moldering away in longboxes in my attic.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

Trans in Africa

Cleopatra Kambugu in The Pearl of Africa

There is a scene in The Pearl of Africa (2016, directed by Jonny von Wallström) in which the film's transsexual heroine watches the news as her country, Uganda, passes a bill outlawing homosexuality in a way that will surely get most gay people executed. This scene provided me with a dark shock of recognition. Watching it, I felt again how I felt on the morning of November 9, 2016, when I realized that I had awakened into a world that is now more hostile and inimical to my continued ability to live a full and happy life. I was reminded, not for the first time, that American evangelical leaders were the architects of Uganda's "kill the gays" bill, only now colored by the realization that these same genocidal "Christians" had ascended to the top of the American system thanks to this election cycle. Uganda was a proving ground. Now we move to the main event. Now we see if they can implement such a thing in America. Now there is no other United States to intervene to save us.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

With A Little Help from My Friends

Rolf Lassgård in A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Ove (2015, directed by Hannes Holm) is Sweden's submission for this year's Oscars. It's not a perfect film by any measure. It relies a bit too heavily on flashbacks and it is sometimes too cute for its own good. Indeed, movies about curmudgeons who are made less curmudgeonly by the people around them are a dime a dozen. And yet, this worked on me. By the end of the film, I was profoundly moved by it. I've mentioned before that the experience of movie going is often more influenced by personal circumstance than by the relative quality of a film. This is the first film I've seen in the theater since before the election, and its generosity and kindness is something I didn't know I needed in the grim future I find myself facing. It is an unexpected comfort in dark times.


Monday, October 31, 2016

Hidden in Plain Sight

Kyle MacLachlan in The Hidden (1987)

The Hidden (1987, directed by Jack Sholder) is one of those films from the 1980s that took full advantage of the video revolution. A marginal hit in theaters, it found its audience in mom and pop video stores across the country. This was back when movies still had some kind of commercial half-life after opening weekend. Good movies--and The Hidden is a pretty good movie--could have a long commercial life even if no one saw them at the multiplex. I suppose this is still possible, but it's much more difficult in the present movie economy. There are so many more shows competing for eyes these days that a movie has to be something really special to survive the winnowing process. None of which really has anything to do with The Hidden beyond the suggestion that it is an artifact of a bygone era, but it's one that's worth your attention for all that. It's a pretty good low-budget genre picture with enough quirks to make it stand out from films of similar provenance.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Super Freaky

Castle Freak

Of the five films Stuart Gordon made from stories by H. P. Lovecraft, Castle Freak (1995) is the one that completely misses the mark. Lovecraft, famously, is very hard to film in any kind of faithful adaptation. Gordon's best films take all kinds of liberties with the material--ranging very far afield from the source texts in most cases--but still manage to capture some ineffable essence of Lovecraft while also bearing the stamp of their director's own personality. Castle Freak, by contrast, spectacularly misunderstands "The Outsider," the story on which it is nominally based. Rather than turning the tables on monstrosity and finding its horror in a cosmic loneliness--as the story does--it's a stock "nuclear family in peril" film in which the horror elements act as marriage counseling for a couple who are on the rocks. It's disappointing.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Like Father, Like Son

The Fly II

If David Cronenberg's The Fly is a drama with gooey special effects thrown in, then The Fly II (1989, directed by Chris Walas) is a melodrama with gooey special effects thrown in. Indeed, where the original film has no real villains, just several characters inflicting pain on one another in ways that real people inflict pain on one another, the sequel has very definite villains, almost of the mustache-twirling variety. Unlike Cronenberg's film, no one is going to call The Fly II a masterpiece. Certainly, some of the critical thrashing it received when it came out can be put down to outrage at the hubris of making a sequel to Croneberg's film in the first place. The remainder of the vitriol might come from the outrageous gore director Chris Walas throws at the audience. Cronenberg's film is gory, sure, but in this arena alone, the sequel outdoes it. As an example of the state of the art in 1980s practical monster movie special effects, this film rivals Carpenter's remake of The Thing.