Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Comics Review: The Lagoon, Lilli Carré

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

(Note: A somewhat revised assessment of The Lagoon appears in my review of the cartoonist's "The Thing About Madeline." Please click the link at the end of this post.)

The most interesting aspect of Lilli Carré's The Lagoon is its principal formal affectation. The story is paced through the use of sounds: the ticking of a metronome, taps on a window, the hooting of an owl. These and others are used to punctuate the story and set its rhythms. One has come across this technique here and there in various comics stories over the years. The two instances that immediately come to mind are the asylum-cell scene in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's Batman: The Killing Joke, with the smacking of playing cards against a tabletop, and Neil Gaiman and Mike Dringenberg's "The Sound of Her Wings" from The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, in which dialogue is juxtaposed with the sounds of a soccer ball being kicked around a park. But The Lagoon is the first story I can recall in which the technique is used to structure the entire piece. I was especially taken with the counterpoints Carré develops between the various percussive noises and more "melodic" sounds, such as the characters' dialogue, the yowling of a group of cats in unison, or the siren song of a swamp creature. Carré brings a whole new meaning to the notion of "orchestrating" a story.

It's not hard to imagine the technique giving a striking texture to a great comics story down the road, but the reason it's so conspicuous in The Lagoon is that there's nothing else of interest going on. The story is otherwise shapeless. It's ostensibly a slice-of-life piece about a three-generation household on the outskirts of a swamp, but Carré doesn't establish much in the way of conflicts or a dynamic between the characters. The most memorable scene involves members of the family and their neighbors gathered around a pond to listen to a swamp creature's singing, but the set piece is mostly notable for its weirdness. There doesn't seem to be any point being made, and when the siren-like song leads two characters into the waters--never to be seen again--the moments of their descending are completely affectless. The characters aren't defined enough for the reader to care what happens to them. Carré also inexplicably ends each chapter with full-page panels of, at different times, a grove of trees, underwater bubbles, and a dwindling woodpile fire. One assumes they're metaphors, but the analogies are opaque. Carré doesn't do much to develop them as tropes during the story. As a literary effort, The Lagoon is a wash.

One appreciates Carré developing a complex technique to construct her stories with, but one wishes she would develop a story worth telling. I look at the work of her and so many of her contemporaries, and I can't help thinking that we have a generation of cartoonists who have no idea of how to create a story that's effective in dramatic terms. They don't know how to build a narrative through conflicts or contrasts, nor do they know how to effectively develop tropes. These ambitious talents, admirable in so many ways, seem to turn every story into an inchoate meander, and The Lagoon is no exception.

Reviews of other work by Lilli Carré:

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Comics Review: The Moth or the Flame, Joshua Ray Stephens

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

A prefatory note: I'm personally acquainted with Joshua Ray Stephens. I've also had professional dealings with him, which involved commissions for advertising design work during my time as a book editor in New York. That said, I'm approaching this review the same way I would any other, which is writing down my honest reactions to his book. I hope Joshua can forgive me. He is a nice guy.

The Moth or the Flame takes up the question of exploitive relationships, specifically, who is more at fault? Is it the exploiter, who simply follows his or her rapacious instincts? Or is it the exploited, who, in voluntary situations, sacrifices long-term well-being for short-term happiness? Stephens frames the issue with the story of a sugar-daddy relationship between his two main characters: the wealthy Tempest McGillicutty and a young woman named Tealeaf Rosewallow. Explicitly allegorical, it's a Faust parable at heart, and like most such stories, it's a cautionary tale. The moral is pat: the exploiter is contemptible and perhaps evil, but the exploited is responsible for her doom.

Stephens dresses up his narrative with a number of disparate elements, including absurdist satire, magic-realist surrealism, and children's-story fantasy trappings. However, he doesn't do much to dramatize it. The only dynamic literary aspect is the development of the principal metaphor, a giant black raindrop that signifies the climax of McGillicutty's masturbatory exploitation of others. The characterizations are shallow, with McGillicutty and Tealeaf existing more as ideas than personalities: he's aggressive and predatory, while she's a wide-eyed pleasure-seeker who lives only for the moment. In the most notable Faust story produced in comics, Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder's "Goodman Goes Playboy," the doomed hedonist gradually reveals the depths of his depravity through his interactions with others, including conflicts with jealous friends and his "angel's advocate" Goodman Beaver. But McGillicutty and Tealeaf never challenge each other, and in the instances where they're challenged by others, the scene is either extraneous (as in the office scene between Tealeaf and her friend Violet), or it didactically spells out things that one's already inferred. It's belaboring a point for McGillicutty to tell another character, "I am a hunter. For me this is the only way. We all have our role. You just fulfill yours and allow me to worry about mine." The story is so thinly realized that it often reads like an illustrated summary.

Stephens' visual treatment, though, is so extravagant that the book's narrative weaknesses almost seem beside the point. His style is extremely reminiscent of RAW alumnus Mark Beyer's. The draftsmanship is primitivist, with positive shapes and absented backgrounds obsessively rendered with their own unique patterning. Some may find his art more engaging than Beyer's. The characters are more fluidly drawn, and they're far more emotionally expressive. But Stephens' cartooning certainly resembles Beyer's in its overall effect: one is more compelled to appreciate the panels and pages as works of art in their own right than to treat them as components of a story. The lavish printing of The Moth or the Flame, which includes hardcover binding and signatures of different-colored paper, further promotes the feeling that the book is more of a monograph than a graphic novel.

I did have a great time looking at it, I must say.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Film Review: Rachel Getting Married

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Rachel Getting Married, Jonathan Demme's latest film, is an extremely welcome return to form. He may have hit his pinnacle of commercial and critical success with The Silence of the Lambs back in 1991, but it seemed to mark his turning his back on the films of his I loved. In movies like Melvin and Howard, Handle With Care, and Something Wild, he showed a remarkable sympathy for the eccentricities of his characters. The stories seemed like opportunities to explore their world and get to know them better. Demme's style wasn't about manipulation or making "points"; it was relaxed, open, and suggestive. With the possible exception of Robert Altman, no U. S. filmmaker has captured more of the texture of everyday life. That changed with The Silence of the Lambs, a cold, ugly exercise in working the audience over. The films that followed (such as Phliadephia) weren't as off-putting, but they came across as bloated attempts at Hollywood prestige filmmaking, with every point spelled out in block letters. Rachel Getting Married, directed from a script by Jenny Lumet, is a considerably leaner and more daring effort. It banks on Demme's ability to create a slice-of-life atmosphere and suggest instead of show. He hasn't worked this way in twenty years, but he hasn't lost his touch. The film is a beautifully realized portrait of a semi-dysfunctional family, with its bonds, tensions, and disconnects.

The film begins with Kym (Anne Hathaway), the family's black sheep, waiting to be picked up from a rehab facility to go home for the weekend. Her older sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is getting married at their father's house, and Kym's been granted a leave for the occasion. But apart from her father (Bill Irwin), no one's the least bit happy to see her. Kym's drug abuse led to the death of a family member years earlier, and the pain of the loss is still vivid for everyone. And to add insult to injury, Kym is insufferably self-absorbed and insensitive to others. She cracks jokes about Rachel's teenage bout with bulimia, seduces the best man (Mather Zickel) within minutes of being introduced to him, and throws a tantrum over Rachel's best friend Emma (Anisa George) being maid of honor instead of her. Kym's boorishness reaches its nadir at the rehearsal dinner, when she turns an impromptu speech congratulating her sister into an embarrassing ramble about her progress in the twelve-step program. Rachel can barely stand Kym, and her contempt for her sister goes much deeper than aggravation: she's convinced that Kym uses her problems to manipulate everyone. When Rachel discovers that Kym slandered the family in rehab to gain sympathy, she's so incensed that she's ready to kick her sister out of the wedding altogether.

The conflict between Kym and Rachel is extraordinarily vivid, and it stands out because Demme does such a tremendous job of dramatizing the harmony between almost everyone else. The affection Kym and Rachel's father has for them is palpable, as is the love between Rachel and her fiancé Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe). Rachel and Emma have an easygoing rapport with one another, and Emma's teasing, good-natured speech at the rehearsal dinner helps emphasize what an ass Kym makes of herself during her turn at the mike later on. The warmth of the bonds among Sidney's extended family is especially sweet; whenever they take center stage it's hard not to look at the screen and grin. And Demme is unsurpassed when it comes to staging parties. The rehearsal dinner, wedding, and reception scenes have such immediacy that one almost feels as if one is among the attendees.

His handling of the key dramatic scenes is also remarkable. At one point Sidney and Rachel's father get into an impromptu competition over who can most quickly and fully load the dishwasher. Various family members gather to cheer them on, and Demme catches one up in the happy atmosphere only to pull the rug out from under it--an unexpected reminder of past tragedy stops everything cold. It's a masterfully paced sequence, and the quiet, dramatic shift from joy to sadness leaves one slightly stunned. The word stunning doesn't do justice to a confrontation scene between Kym and Abby (Debra Winger), her and Rachel's mother. As bad as things are between are between Kym and Rachel, their conflicts are nothing compared to the one between Kym and Abby, a charming but distant woman who can barely bring herself to acknowledge her daughters. The scene between her and Kim momentarily erupts into violence, and those two slaps are more shocking than any of the gruesomeness Demme served up in his most famous film.

The problems between Kym and Abby aren't resolvable; Abby's smiling, placid exterior runs so deep that she can't acknowledge anything's wrong. That slap was more about shutting Kym up than anger over what was said. Her relationship with Rachel isn't much better; the two are civil, but Abby can't help but blithely remind Rachel that she simply isn't a priority. The film calls out for a reconciliation, and it ends up being between Rachel and Kym. The scene is simple and wordless: on the morning of the ceremony, Rachel sets aside her anger and calmly gets her sister cleaned up and dressed. Demme handles the scene with a lyrical grace, and it's the most affecting moment in the film.

It almost goes without saying that Demme gets fine work from his cast. The three main actresses are especially outstanding. The defining feature of Debra Winger's Abby is her poise, and Winger effectively uses it to emphasize both Abby's callousness and her inability to acknowledge discord. Anne Hathaway's Kym is the showiest role. Hathaway lost a shocking amount of weight for the part. Her hair looks like it was cut with pinking shears, and her complexion is almost ghoulishly pasty. She also affects a gratingly flat voice, and the contrast of her appearance and manner with her more familiar glamour-girl looks and charm has a number of people predicting an Oscar nomination. It's an excellent performance despite that. Hathaway effectively conveys the character's bratty sense of entitlement along with her terror that she might not be able hold herself together. She also makes it clear that the first isn't a mask for the second; the tendencies are just two different aspects of Kym's personality. Rosemarie DeWitt has the most difficult role; she has to communicate that Rachel is the eye of calm in the hurricane of her family's relationships. She also has to balance that with Rachel's upsets dealing with her mother and sister. DeWitt has to convince one that Rachel is strong, caring, and at times capable of an almost vindictive anger, and she does a fine job of handling the challenge. Her performance embodies the feelings one takes from the film. For all the anger, pain, and competition of family relationships, love--and forgiveness--can occasionally prevail.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Comics Review: Swamp Thing: Love and Death [Book 2], Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, et al.

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Rereading Alan Moore’s run on DC Comics' Swamp Thing series, one notices that the trade paperback collections aren’t ideally divided. The run is collected in six volumes, but in terms of thematic and other story concerns, there are only three overarching storylines: the revamping of the character featured in Saga of the Swamp Thing and Love and Death, the “American Gothic” story arc reprinted in The Curse and A Murder of Crows, and the homecoming travels in Earth to Earth and Reunion. I note this largely because, in retrospect, I should not have reviewed Saga by itself; it and Love and Death would have best been considered together. Both books are about discovering and embracing the joys of one’s present circumstances. It's an affirmative approach to life that necessitates accepting the past as the past and ultimately putting it behind one.

Love and Death opens with “The Burial,” an episode that unambiguously dramatizes this theme. The story begins with Swamp Thing being haunted by the ghost of Alec Holland, the scientist whom he once believed himself to be. Knowing that, in absolute terms, he never was Holland, he angrily rejects any suggestion that he and Holland are the same person. He asks himself, “How deep? How deep do you need to bury the past before it will stay dead?” The answer is that, as he shares Holland’s memories, he can’t deny that past, and his wrestling with recollections of Holland’s dead wife and his murder only emphasize the dilemma. Swamp Thing ultimately realizes that denial cannot be a part of moving on; mourning is necessary. Moore dramatizes this in simple, effective terms: the story resolves itself by Swamp Thing locating Holland’s lost bones near where he was murdered, and giving those bones a proper, if humble, burial. The story closes with Swamp Thing thinking, “He [Holland]’s there. I know that he is there. And I know that he is smiling. But I don’t look back.” Swamp Thing’s personal account with the past is settled, and he can now go on with his own life. It’s a modest episode, with none of the spectacle one associates with adventure comics, but it is extremely affecting nonetheless.

The bulk of Love and Death is taken up with a four-episode sequence featuring Swamp Thing’s final battle with his most popular recurring nemesis prior to Moore’s run: the mad scientist Anton Arcane. Moore isn’t settling the character’s account with the past with this continuity; he’s settling the series’ account with its hackneyed recurring storylines and characters. The major goal seems to be to get rid of Arcane once and for all, and Moore’s disinterest in the character and his assorted schemes is obvious. This time around, Arcane’s worldbeating plot relates to having dead criminals rise from their graves and descend on the local community, but Moore spends so little space on it that he might as well skipped including it at all. Arcane’s defeat at Swamp Thing’s hands isn’t particularly interesting either--all Swamp Thing does is clobber him with his fists. The victory is notable only for its finality: Moore makes clear that this time Arcane is dead, and he isn’t coming back.

Arcane is a dull antagonist, but the episode arc featuring him isn’t dull at all. That’s because the drama doesn’t center around the conflict between him and Swamp Thing. Its focus is the crisis of well-being--both emotional and physical--for the Abby Cable character. Moore established her as a deeply sympathetic presence in the Saga of the Swamp Thing episodes, and he takes her conflicts to their limits in this sequence. As seen in the first volume, her marriage to the Matt Cable character is in its final stages. A once-promising intelligence official, he’s become a slothful drunk. He deeply resents any demand on Abby’s time that takes her away from him, specifically her job as a caregiver to autistic children. (One imagines that her friendship with Swamp Thing might be an issue as well, but it’s never highlighted.) The story begins with Abby finding hope that Matt and their marriage have turned around. He’s stopped drinking, he’s found a well-paying job, and he even moves them in to a beautiful new home. He’s become confident and supportive in every way. The rug is horribly pulled out from under her when she realizes that Matt has become possessed by Arcane's consciousness. (It's especially disturbing because she's had sex with him since he's been possessed; her uncle has used her husband to rape her.) Her dream becomes a nightmare, and Arcane ultimately uses her in an attack on Swamp Thing. He ostensibly murders her and damns her soul, and the only reason is to demoralize Swamp Thing over his inability to save her. Swamp Thing’s easy defeat of Arcane is ho-hum by itself, but the combination of that triumph with his failure to save Abby gives the sequence its power. He has won a Pyrrhic victory; it's an irony that invariably makes for powerful fiction, and this continuity is no exception.

Everything of course works out in the end, and Abby is returned to her old self, but Moore has put the final nails in the coffin of the series he originally found. Swamp Thing’s self-pitying quest to regain his human identity is past, the cheesy archenemy is gone, and Moore even clears the deck of the distraction of the Matt Cable character. Swamp Thing and Abby are the series protagonists, and the volume’s concluding episode shows their relationship taken to its logical conclusion: their rapport has gone beyond friendship and becomes love. Couples in adventure comics before Swamp Thing and Abby never really seemed to be in love with each other--the feelings always came across as mutual infatuation. There was lots of kissing and “I love you,” but there was never much of a rapport between the characters. (This can also be seen in the movie adaptations of the material; just look at the way the Peter Parker and Mary Jane characters interact in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films.) Swamp Thing and Abby come across as loving couples do in real life: they find comfort and a sense of security in each other’s presence. The outlandishness of a romance between the two aside--as Moore has Abby say, “I mean, it’s just so ridiculous, right? It’s impossible, it’s bizarre, it probably isn’t even legal”--the relationship Moore depicted rang truer than any shown in adventure comics when these episodes first saw print in the mid-1980s. It was a signal achievement in the field.

But like most innovations, its handling was imperfect. Moore has Swamp Thing and Abby consummate their relationship in a shared hallucinogenic trip, and he uses it to indulge the worst aspect of his writing: namely, the purple verbal incontinence he falls into whenever he writes descriptive prose. His ear for voices is terrific, and his expository prose is admirably concise--the dynamic he creates between it and the images is especially effective. But when Moore is called upon to be descriptive, he launches into a faux-poetic extravagance, and the reader gets passages like this:

A smear of platinum scales breaks the surface, rolling, resubmerging. There is a delicious ambiguity. Looking up through his eyes: The pale woman gazes down, a burning waterfall adrift on the milk waterfall of her hair. Its lank tips draw clear sable brushstrokes between the lichens engraving my chest.

There’s just one descriptive trope piled on one after another; Moore doesn’t develop them into a conceit, and he doesn’t create a dynamic between them. It’s rhapsodic blather. The context offers some justification, as the passage reflects perceptions while intoxicated, but that doesn’t make it enjoyable to read. It’s most reminiscent of song lyrics from ‘70s acid and progressive rock bands, and I find those embarrassingly indulgent as well.

The trip sequence is somewhat redeemed by the gorgeously hallucinatory art provided by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben, ably complemented by the work of colorist Tatjana Wood. Their work throughout the rest of the volume is superb as well, with their atmospheric handling of settings being particularly strong. I also was struck by their effective use of near-abstract rendering in facial close-ups. The weakest aspect of the art is the occasional use of fill-in talent. Rick Veitch does a seamless job of substituting for Bissette in one episode, but Alfredo Alcala’s collaboration with Bissette in another lacks the delicacy of the latter’s teamwork with Totleben. Shawn McManus and Ron Randall’s styles seem completely incompatible with that of the Bissette-Totleben team. McManus’s renderings have an exaggerated sculptural dynamism that comes on too strong in comparison, and Randall’s work is tacky in the manner of Hammer horror films: a woman in a nightgown is embarrassingly used for cheesecake fodder, and everything’s blowing in the wind. Bissette and Totleben have a sense of nuance and propriety that most of the substitute artists lack.

In Love and Death, Moore completes his redefining of the Swamp Thing series. The character’s new core is the fulfillment he finds, both in his acceptance of his circumstances and his relationship with Abby. It’s also clear that the foundation of the strip will be the tension between maintaining the happy aspects of his life and the demands on his sense of duty. Moore starts and ends with a self-centered hero, but he gives the character a self-centeredness that is admirable: Swamp Thing now has faith in the present rather than the past. And uniquely among superhero characters, he trusts the world around him. The effectiveness with which Moore and his collaborators bring it off clearly mark his Swamp Thing as one of the most noteworthy strips in the superhero genre.