Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Bottle Rocket

Sometime in late 1999 I found myself facing the prospect of job loss for the very first time. My job as medical librarian had come to an abrupt end due to the closure of my department by the asshats who ran 3M. So one December morning I took myself round the job agencies of Nottingham in order to find a job (wasn’t successful as it happens – the next job was so awful, I decided to quit to do my MA in Cinema Studies instead) with the promise of an afternoon at the Broadway Cinema as a treat for my efforts. The second film I planned to see was “The Straight Story”, because I’d liked David Lynch ever since I first saw “Twin Peaks” on my crappy back and white TV and I was amused at the prospect of him making something approximating a family film. And the first? Something I’d read about in the paper called “Rushmore”.


Let’s get “The Straight Story” out of the way first. Of course it’s great and it contains one of my very favourite scenes in cinema ever – the one above if you’re interested – which I always used when teaching film and, in retrospect, probably made me wonder whether my brain was wired up in a way where I should study cinema in some way. But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here about “Rushmore”. I can’t locate the exact moment in the film that it happened, but certainly it became very apparent very quickly that “Rushmore” was going to be something extraordinary. If I was to hazard a guess I’d say it was the opening montage of Max’s clubs to the Creation’s “Making Time” – exactly what kind of madness was this film going to be?


Up until that moment, if I’d ever idealised about making a film it was going to be along the lines of “Gregory’s Girl”. It’s still my very favourite film of all time because of the performances, the writing and the absolute love of the characters – it basically sets itself the task to be the ultimate film about teenage love and manages to say everything (and more!) about it. I adore it and would be proud to make anything that made someone feel even the tiniest iota of the joy that this film brings me. But it’s almost entirely about the content… Bill Forsyth would go on to make at least two films (“Local Hero” and “Housekeeping”) which would be visually interesting, but “Gregory’s Girl” really isn’t it apart from the moments in the park late in the film. But “Rushmore”? Somehow this Wes Anderson bloke had managed to peek inside my head and find a way to put it up on the screen.

Mainly this was through the music. I’ve always sort of heard music visually – not synaesthesia as such, but more using it to soundtrack the images in my head which I’d then end up mentally editing to fit the music. Being a solitary type, as soon as I had a Walkman I was taking it off for long walks and somehow mentally fitting what I saw to the music and using it as an adjunct to the stories I would be working on in my head. I always thought I was a little mad for doing this, but suddenly here was a film maker pretty much using the music as I did – and in fact constructing the images to the music in exactly the same way as I had been imagining doing. When I listened to the soundtrack that I had rushed out to buy in between the showings of “Rushmore” and “The Straight Story”, I realised that what I remembered of the film was about 80% the music and how Anderson used it. And visually the way he framed the images, the care he put into setting up the images almost as if on a stage, the way in which the camera seemed to glide through shots both fluidly and statically. This was how I’d do it. This was exactly how I’d dreamed of doing it.

And much as I loved all this, I also knew that the film was fatally flawed especially in narrative terms. Much as I love Max’s theatricals and how they sort of bring out his fantasy world into the real world, the film sort of stumbles too much with them as if it doesn’t know how to fit them into the narrative. And every film Anderson has made has been in some way somewhat lacking as a story – but visually? Textually? Musically? Sonically? Perfect. Which is why watching “Bottle Rocket” for the first time was such a revelation.


Something that has always fascinated me is the juvenilia of artists and writers – those moments where you can see the talent they’d become in the midst of something where they’re still struggling to find their voice. Perfect examples of this for me is the works of the authors Scarlett Thomas and Jonathan Coe. The former’s crime novels and “Popco” are fun but ultimately flawed books and it’s not until “The End of Mister Y” that she really manages something extraordinary. And similarly the leap from his first three novels, which are always interesting but a little flat, to the masterpieces of “What a Carve Up!” and “The House of Sleep is a massive one (sadly, Coe falls flat with the awful “Rotter’s Club” where at least Thomas’ flawed but challenging “Our Tragic Universe” is trying something a little new). Similarly the leap from “Bottle Rocket” to “Rushmore” is incredible.

“Bottle Rocket” is like a tentative demo – similar tropes, scenes and set ups to what would follow but just not quite there. The camera is a little restless and never seems to settle for long enough; the edits are too quick; you never know the characters quite enough; the music is almost right for each scene but just not quite there; James Caan’s Mr Henry is like a rough draft of the roles Bill Murray would make his own. The ghost of what to come is just there in every scene. And that’s both fascinating and endlessly encouraging to me. To see someone who I consider a great artist, for all their faults, trying to find his way as a film maker but not quite getting there is just what I need as encouragement. I’m not saying I’ll ever be someone as talented as Anderson (or Coe or Thomas) because it’s very, very unlikely… but I can try.

Three years ago I was still beating myself up for not finishing anything and now I have three comics and a novel to my name… that they’re not quite there yet is by the by. Going back to Nottingham, people who followed me on livejournal will know that about seven years ago I got about 80% of the way through a novel about one Warren Bond but gave up. I’ve long since decided that Warren’s natural home is going to be through one of my comics. It’s going to start off as a heavily fictionalised version of my life in Nottingham and initially use the peg of second hand record shops a la “High Fidelity” before jettisoning it to focus on the characters themselves. I want to make you think I’m telling one kind of story, and then veer it off into something wilder without you really noticing the join. I want to tell stories about the people who neither belong to cultures or subcultures, but those who fall in between the cracks… the lonely, the shy, the inarticulate, the boring.

But I’m not able to tell that story yet – partly because music is involved heavily in what I have planned for Warren, Hector, Dave and Jen and I can’t work out how to do that in graphic terms… and partly because I’m just not skilled enough yet to tell sequential stories. Odd little short stories and ideas punctured by illustrations? Oh yes. But something of heft and weight? Not yet. This is why “Whatever Happened to Cosmo Mandinsky?” has never materialised despite being promoted on the back of the first issue of the Common Swings (it’ll probably end up being the dry run for whenever I try Warren… my first attempt at a proper, sequential art narrative). But will I give up? I hope not. Because things like “Bottle Rocket” show to me that even people I deeply, deeply admire don’t come out as fully formed talents. They take their time too. I just need to learn patience…

Monday, 30 January 2012

The Unbearable Lightness of Being...

...A 1920's bounder. This is me in my conflicted youth, trying desperately to become a character in a Wodehouse novel. I never much cared for the modern world...

Sunday, 29 January 2012

David Shrigley Again

An Academic Writes: "What Browning does here is cleverly skewer society's norms in a trifold manner. Firstly, there is religion. Jesus, as son of God, is omniscient but seems unable to answer the protagonist's desire for butter. This is ironic but the irony becomes yet more sublime when it is considered that Jesus tells us in John 6:35 that he is the bread of life. Does the protagonist seek the butter to accept the bread of life? Does he find the bread alone too difficult to accept - to swallow, in literal terms - alone and need butter to sweeten it? Is Jesus' apparent inability to provide the figure with bread because he needs to accept the bread in and of itself?

"And then there is the other meaning of bread - bread as money. Again, this figures into the religious reading above. The figure finds himself unable to accept a world without money - as in Matthew 19:24 - in order to follow Jesus. Similarly he finds himself unable to consider a world without financial gain. What is life without money to him? Surely there must be some sort of financial aspect to Jesus' plight? How could one man be so altruistic with no financial gain? Is there some way that the man "butter" up Jesus in a figurative sense? There is also a sly nod towards a more carnivalesque reading of this as seen through the works of Mikhail Bakhtin. I trust I can remain somewhat coy on what this is... but it is thrillingly transgressive for Browning to even suggest this.

"The third and final reading is that this is simply a scribble done when watching the telly late at night and is purely a load of old nonsense thrown together at random. But surely that cannot be... can it?"

Saturday, 28 January 2012

David Shrigley

I try not to be unduly negative about people. In the comics' world I may think Craig Thompson and Chris Ware are unduly self obsessed, but I cannot for a moment deny the beauty of their art. I try not to moan too much - but part of me enjoys snark far too much. It's easy for me to translate mild annoyance of someone such as, say, Devendra Banhart being such a vocal, irritating, showy bit of pantomime nonsense masquerading as a musician into a full on rant (see? It's starting already!) but I have heard songs of his that are, damn it all, lovely. For all the half arsed, idle scraps of nonsense he records he sometimes knocks out a properly beautiful bit of music (don't expect me to find out what it is, because that would mean subjecting myself to his output. Just take it from me he occasionally does something a bit worthwhile). I was discussing this with friend/ neighbour Gavin of the excellent Arkhonia blog just yesterday. He was talking about how what he hated in music was just that sense of... laziness, of half formed ideas, of settling for just "okay" rather aspiring to do something new. He was saying this in the context of music - he was startling me with the music of This Heat at the time - and comparing it to countless lazy bands who aren't trying to startle or do something new.

I'm not so bothered by this as Gavin is I think. My interest in books, in cinema and in music is to find something new and wonderful in it rather than it be entirely new and wonderful. My reaction to, say, hearing "Firebird" by the White Noise for the first time - or indeed the above This Heat song - is rare, because you only expect to be properly steamrolled by something so new and exciting on the very rarest of occasions. I'm happy in music to be excited by just a harmony or a noise or a middle eight that's exciting - even just a texture. Similarly, I'm happy to watch a middling film like "Exorcist 3" just for that extraordinary hospital scene that just sucker punches you. I'd like to think the best of anyone creative and that for the most part they don't really want to phone it in. Those who do, I just sort of dismiss as of no interest to me (Oasis is a good example of this, again in musical terms, and so, so many film makers) and don't really let them bother me.

But what I do hate is the willfully lazy and half formed. And especially when those people are formed. And today's burst of anger? David Shrigley.

The Guardian have just posted the most ludicrous bit of nonsense about the man here and the piece is peppered with the most incredible hyperbole from the title onwards ("one of the cleverest, funniest conceptual artists...simple but profound"). Now, if you're happy with Shrigley, then we may agree to disagree. But people who I know and have regard for like him and his work. They say it's funny. I don't go along with that. I look at something like this...

That to me is an idly amusing doodle. It's not terrible, no... but it is a bit lazy. Especially as he never seems to be interested in developing his art skills. Let's look at another ostensibly lazy looking cartoonist for a moment: Jeffrey Brown...

Jeffrey Brown is an incredibly important figure for me because his simplicity and spontaneity are matched with an obvious artistic skill. Only someone who doesn't really look at his work closely would mistake it for lazy. There's a lot of simple artistic skill to it but it still looks immediate. Another similar talent, and possibly the closest to Shrigley in terms of the surreal humour, is Vic Reeves' drawings...

Again - simple, spontaneous and silly. With a gag. But the difference is that this is but one facet of what Reeves does. His jokes can also take the form of paintings and, again, his artistic skills are obvious to those who look carefully... there's a lovely pastiche of Francis Bacon's "Screaming Popes" on the back of "Sun Boiled Onions". I haven't seen any obvious progression in Shrigley's work.

Lezard in that Guardian article does though - in fact he claims a stuffed dog and cat with a "I'M DEAD" sign is, and says of it "First, you notice the audacity. It's a work of what seems like blinding obviousness. But in attributing the ability to express a condition to something that is manifestly unable to do so." No. It isn't. It's a simple gag, like so much of Shrigley's work. Whether or not you think it's weak or not is irrelevant - it's a joke, not art.

Lezard makes so many claims that I find so hard to understand. So much of it can be aimed at so many other people who I like on the web who are simply trying to make people laugh. But Shrigley has somehow managed to be mistaken as having done something important. And I don't really understand why. Why is this anything more than a doodle? Why?

Two more quotes from Lezard:

"by adopting the aesthetic of the disturbed adolescent who can't draw particularly well, or the disturbed man in a pub toilet with a pen, a blank surface to draw on and a bit of time on his hands, Shrigley sneaks profundity in under the radar. He is adept at blurring boundaries, as everyone who thinks about him notices: "naive/sophisticated; whole/part; framed/unconstrained; to scale/in perspective; naturalism/fantasy"... To which one can add, among other things: funny/not funny."

And then:

"the thing about Shrigley is that he produces insider art: manifestations and expressions of an interior weirdness to which he grants us access, and which we can, at some inarticulate but immediate level, identify with and understand. In the vile and unending struggle against futility, shame and violence, you gather pretty quickly that Shrigley is on your side."

I know plenty of cartoonists who blur boundaries, who mix naive and sophisticated and naturalism. In fact dozens and dozens of the cartoonists online I follow do this very thing. Why aren't they art? Why is Shrigley? And as for the second quote about articulating inner weirdness - isn't this what people like K C Green's "Gunshow" do all the time? Gunshow is a particularly good example because it seems like a fever dream appearing on the page of the rate Green can write it.

What annoys me about Shrigley is the claims made for him. The claims he's doing something important. Claims that ring hollow because others do it better and are still struggling. Yet Shrigley just seems to sail above it all, recording records and having people fawn all over his work... and why? Is he the ultimate Emperor's New Clothes for a new century?

In what I do, all I am trying to achieve is something that amuses me and other people and find new and better ways of doing it. New and better forms to do it in. And to improve and improve and improve. If it's what you consider as art, then bless you. But the moment I coast and just provide you with what I doodle in the side of a newspaper as the finished article, you're well within your rights to call me an asshat. And accordingly I now feel I am more than able to say that both Shrigley and Lezard are pretty much that thing as well.

Ugh. Sorry. Rant over. For now.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Afterlife

hello all! the brief silence has been due to medication changes and a sickly cat, but i'm back now with a couple of items from a ludicrous book called "the afterlife", cowritten by jenny randle of "the fortean times".i picked this up at todmorden station's book share shelf and it was too damaged to do anything with other than rescue bits of for collage work. but before i did that, i found the best two moments in the whole book - enjoy!

firstly the dullest of strange entities you could ever imagine...

and secondly, the closest thing i have seen to "look around you" in print. oh those polo poltergeists... or in fact those polotergeists...

next up: improving victorian whimsy in the form of "discontented peggy, and how she was cured"... bet you all can't wait!

Friday, 20 January 2012

amazing heroes preview special 1985: part one

hey everyone, look at me! i'm uploading bits of comics now, you know, like all those comics' blogs do... woo hoo!

one of my odd pleasures in comic buying is old interview/ promotional comics. this stems from buying various old issues of things like "the comics journal" and finding the adverts and promotional stuff as fascinating - or in some case more fascinating - as the actual articles and interviews. and this issue is one of the most enjoyable of all such things i've found in comic shops or fairs... the "amazing heroes preview special" of 1985. i shall continue to post bits of this over the next few days and weeks...

first up of interest is a listing for something called "alan moore's comic". you don't need me to say much more about this other than the possible provisional title. honestly, do we really think something by mr moore called "dodgem logic" will catch on in any way at all?

and then here's one for something odd callled "mike spammer". i think it speaks for itself really... i've looked this thing up repeatedly online and there's nothing about anything called this by someone called joe murp... in fact there's very little at all about anyone called joe murp. is this some kind of elaborate practical joke then? or is just a rubbish attempt to jump on the probably rather small "flaming carrot" band wagon?

if anyone knows, please write to the usual place.... more from this issue next week. enjoy!

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Sunday, 15 January 2012

mr teedles: the gland old man

i'm a sucker for crap. if it has a stupid name and looks ridiculous, then much to my wife's horror and disgust i can find a home for it. it's the only reason to own something as terrible as "mr. teedles: the gland old man", a novel so bad the cover and spine don't even name the author (thomas le breton) but instead state "by the author of 'a sister to assist'er'" which is about the only pun worse than the title itself. the plot? see if you can guess from the pictures and the title. suffice to say, there's something intangibly... off about this book. something disturbing i can't quite express... it's just a bit creepy. you'll see what i mean. anyway. to keep the wife happy, i'll be occasionally dusting down works of madness from the collection to jolly you all. enjoy!

Thursday, 12 January 2012

not so much direct from the dream factory, as direct from the dream maisonette...

more sketchbook fun

this is from my bedside sketchbook which often seems better than my other sketchbooks because i seem to care less what goes in it. it's more self indulgent but also has more "silly" ideas in it as well. i'm quite fond of these

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

more! scanner! fun!

i know it's a tad self indulgent to put "note book" sketches onto a blog for a somewhat obscure mini comic, but pah! time to play with my new toy... here are three such pages of brain farts and general idea thrash outs... hopefully someone will enjoy something from these

in other news - my first ever blog spam yesterday! does this mean i've made it or something?

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

more scanner fun!

here's some more scanner fun - a picture of our cat cluedo from a few weeks ago. not quite got it, but i've not been a cat drawer for that long. i don't think jeffrey brown or james kochalka has much to worry about at the moment...

i have a scanner!

thanks to the highly esteemed sam parfitt, my good friend and neighbour and the yarn mogul responsible for dark nights and yarn dreams,i have a fully functioning scanner! and here for your delectation is a single, choice selection from "the illustrated police news" direct from one of my very favourite ever books: "'orrible murder: victorian crime and passion" by one leonard de vries. years of pleasure to be had from this classic!

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

brotherhood of satan

now here's an interesting one. tipped off by the wonderful "toys and techniques" blog, i rewarded myself for job application forms by watching this odd seventies horror film. in theory, if you look at the plot in black and white (ben, his girlfriend nicky and his daughter KT, are all travelling to a birthday party when they find a crushed car. they stop off at a nearby town to let the populace know and find a town haunted by mysterious deaths and missing children) this should be the hoariest potboiler ever made. but somehow the film makers - acolytes of sam peckinpah, and partly responsible for brilliant post apocalyptic sci fi film "a boy and his dog" - manage to turn this nonsense into something rather brilliant

mainly this is because the film manages to almost entirely buck every cliche the screenplay offers up. i say almost, because the coven stuff towards the end is all a bit sub-hammer, but even the odd digression can be forgiven. otherwise what do we have? killer toys. a truly scary dream sequence. some great performances (again, slightly against type: the screenwriter l q jones particularly makes a nicely against type sheriff). a lovely, haunting little score by jaime mendoza-nava. some set design which would nicely set the film up as a precursor to "suspiria" if they weren't flatly directed. and a couple of moments which really stand up as something special, both at the beginning of the film

the first is the opening sequence which seems at first viewing - as it cuts from toy tank, to real tank crushing a car - seems to be all style over content. the second is the arrival into the small town itself. here the director and screenwriter decide, like with the opening sequence, to just not bother explaining what's going on. it takes about half an hour for us to sort of realise what's really happening, and even then it's just sort of implied rather than told us. instead the film makers just chuck us into a hysterical town filled with panic and fear... and we're not far behind ourselves

it's this approach (which also provides us with a rather sudden, disorienting ending) which makes the film so special. these are people who are obviously seeing if they can turn the hoariest of ingredients into something special and, while they don't always succeed, when they do... blimey. does it hit a target quite unlike anything else going on in horror cinema at the time. put it this way: i recently watched the mixed "lemora: a child's tale of the supernatural". and what that film wanted to be, but tried far too hard to achieve this film manages with what looks like very little effort at all

oh! and the closing credits have people down as "nepotists" - what more could you as for?


Tuesday, 3 January 2012

ronald searle

better people will have more to say about the sad death of ronald searle: more knowledgeable, skillful, learned people who either knew the man or had studied his work; more eloquent writers; more passionate writers. but what i will say is that anyone in this country who has any interest or love of illustrations or cartooning should hold searle in the same regard as william hogarth. to say he was a genius is an understatement - on one level he's much a part of british culture as a thelwell or hoffnung or giles or quentin blake. on another level he's easily one of the greatest comic artists as edward gorey or heath robinson. on yet another level he was an amazing artist... there's so much to him

some will remember st trinians. some - like me - will remember molesworth, who is as vital to the very core of my being as anything else i can think of (and it really is a book which shows the best of both willans and searle: the perfect marriage of collaborators). some will think of the illustrations for gilbert and sullivan or baron munchausen or flanders and swann. some will think of his war art (haunting and beautiful). some will think of the countless artists he has inspired (obviously steadman and scarfe, and more lately someone like richard thompson's "cul de sac). others will remember his brief and brilliant career as a publisher, with perpetua books (seriously: buy anything with the perpetua logo on it as i've yet to be at all disappointed by his choices).others will remember... actually... i think searle is one of those artists who means something to almost anyone with even a passing interest in cartooning or comic art or art. even if you don't know it, he's almost certainly influenced someone or something that you love

and ninety years of such peerless art! i see searle as almost part of a venn diagram of my interests in art and culture. he has had involvement with illustration, children's books, punch, music, cinema... so many things i hold dear to my heart. and sad as it is that he's no longer with us, i'm glad he lived long enough to be taken seriously as what he was most importantly: one of the greatest artists of all time. a true genius and master of the form

First Show in Two Years!!!

 This Saturday! The old college! Todmorden Folk Festival! I will be selling all the things! Come and buy them and tell your friends!!! (And ...