Poplife: Issue #47

Thu, January 2nd, 2003 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Matt Fraction, Columnist

DEEPER

POPLIFE is a collection of excerpts from my work journal. There is no specific form or function the column serves other than to allow the reader to see what my experience in my first year as a comics-writer is like. Some weeks I get work done, so I talk about work. Some weeks I don't get any work done, so I ramble incoherently. POPLIFE's purpose is to provide a glimpse behind the curtain of my specific process.

It was a good week during which we slept in, read and rested, and ate our weight in cookies. These are what make the holidays for me: taking a quick breath and trying to slow things down. Which is hard for me to do, mandated break time and what not. Worth it in the end, because I feel as rested as I ever feel and I'm full of things bumping around in my head and bothering me to get out. The new year isn't so much the period at the end of an annual sentence, but rather the first letter of a new one.

I was thinking that now would be the time to angle towards wrapping things up-- POPLIFE started last February-- but what good is that? Everything, with the inexplicable exception of THE ANNOTATED MANTOOTH! that was itching to happen this year got limboed out or sidetracked or put on hold for one reason or the other. And hell, even the 'Tooth was out at the very last of very last minutes. This is such a weird business.

Anyway. Sitting at home, recharging batteries and all that. Tore through CLOSE-UP ON SUNSET BOULEVARD by Sam Staggs, an almost-400 page long history and analysis of the Wilder film. Eighty percent of it freewheels between being historical record, multi-perspective oral history, and fascinating lagniappe. The other twenty percent reads like an aching and overly sincere paean to the perpetual and undying glory that is Miss Gloria Swanson. Which, you know, is okay to an extent, but the book looses its control and focus, sacrificing its ambition in favor of becoming a sort of living memorial to Swanson. Staggs looses me at the end as he ties it all up by arguing that not only is SUNSET BLVD the best film Wilder did, but it's the last great film he did-- which means losing SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE APARTMENT, and at least ACE IN THE HOLE or THE FORTUNE COOKIE.

After that was the majority of the David Thompson's THE NEW BIOGRAPHCIAL DICITONARY OF FILM, which is like an encyclopedia written by a snarky little bastard who's never happy with anything.

Ahem.

Trying to find Thompson giving an unadulterated and unrestricted prop to anyone in this fucking brilliant book's pages is like trying to find a sober Irishman in Chicago. While I agree with the guy maybe half the time, if you're interested in the history of film, the people that made them, or a cutting and hysterical marriage of snark and fact, this one's for you.

Made some headway on Daniel Ellsberg's SECRETS, too-- he's the guy that leaked the infamous Pentagon Papers to the world media in 1969, exposing the Vietnam War as an illegal and self-perpetuating product of a war machine smart enough to get itself elected time and time again. Fascinating, harrowing stuff: from Ellsberg's first day as an employee in the Pentagon (which, ha ha, was the day of the Gulf of Tonkin incident), he was witness to lies and cover-ups being inflicted on the American people with a frightening yet casual frequency. It seems to me like we need more men like Daniel Ellsberg in the Pentagon. Who knows? With all of the war plans that have been leaked over the last few months, I wonder if we already do.

The biggest impact on me came from Francis Davis' warm and excellent AFTERGLOW: A LAST CONVERSATION WITH PAULINE KAEL. Davis, who's married to NPR Pin-Up Girl Terry Gross, talked to his friend and infamous reviewer of film Kael not long before her death over a span of three days. This brisk little book presents the meat of those conversations. Davis makes no apologies for loving Kael as a person and a critic, and his kid-gloves approach comes through in his conversations with her-- which is fine with me, because a guy intellectually assaulting a sweet old lady near-dead from Parkinson's ain't my idea of a good time.

I like Pauline Kael as a critic. She was famous for not seeing films more than once-- which seems retarded to me and I don't know if I buy it or not, but she backs her stance up well enough-- and for writing from an intuitive, gut-level center. For, fuck, thirty years or so she didn't just write reviews for the NEW YORKER but she wrote them well. Kael wrote about how films made her feel, speaking about the best of them with a near-sexual reverie. Even the titles of her collections were entendres: I LOST IT AT THE MOVIES, KISS KISS BANG BANG, TAKING IT ALL IN, ad infinitum. And love her or hate her (there don't seem to be too many folks in between), you had to at least admit that she believed down to her core that what she was saying was True. She was smart and she was dirty and she was funny and she did what she did at the best time there was in America to do it.

One of Kael's critical fulcrums was that film isn't high art. It's a low art and thus one that's poorly served by moralizing and self-importance. She loved films for their pop gloss and potential, fun and a little bit trashy-- and not as grandiose, stern works of the human condition. She loved the medium, and all that of the potential it contained while failing all to frequently to touch it. Here's the last line from the book, and the parallels should be obvious:

"…I got a lot of that kind of mail from young moviegoers, high-school and college kids, who couldn't understand why I wasn't as excited about things like The Towering Inferno as they were. And there are Towering Infernos coming out all the time. The people on television who got excited last week by The Patriot are getting excited this week about X-Men, and they'll get excited by something else next week. But if you write critically, you have to do something besides get excited. You have to examine what's in front of you. What you see is a movie industry in decay and that decay gets worse and worse."

Davis' interviews deal with why she quit (aside from her failing health, she kept feeling like her intelligence was being insulted too often; someone told me once that it was DANCES WITH WOLVES that finally broke her spirit but I can't get a secondary confirmation on it, even though she mocks the film here) and why she started in the first place. And that, the origins of Pauline Kael as a movie lover and critic, fascinated me and caused me to finish this self-reflexive analysis of what I've been doing and how I've been doing it that began a few months back-- ever since seeing FULL FRONTAL, I guess.

On top of all this Kael stuff, I've been reading up on the unbelievably prolific Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Miike lately. He has a habit of putting out anywhere from five to nine movies a year, working nonstop in a kind of manic, creative frenzy that seems to forever be one-upping itself. He's put out stuff like AUDITION, DEAD OR ALIVE, VISITOR Q, CITY OF LOST SOULS, FUDOH, and the infamous ICHI THE KILLER (the greatest BATMAN movie never made) in the time Martin Scorsese decided what shoes to wear this morning. His films are manic, frantic, most are grotesque and all just crackle with the pace with which they were made. His films feel urgent and horrible, disturbingly fast and disturbingly disturbing. He's making films primarily for the home video market, as many Japanese directors do. Apparently, many of his films will play theatrically for a week or two to serve as both loss leader and advertisement for the inevitable release on video where it actually makes its money.

I found this quote from him, and again the parallels should be obvious:

"We have to change the negative things into positive. In today's Japanese film industry we always say we don't have enough budget; that people don't go to see the films. But we can think of it in a positive way, meaning that if audiences don't go to the cinema we can make any movie we want. After all, no matter what kind of movie you make it's never a hit, so we can make a really bold, daring movie."

Somewhere, between the ninth and tenth metric fuckload of cookies and reading all this shit, something somewhere finally seemed to click together in my head, some kind of resolve or clarification, I don't know. After a year or so of writing comics and thinking about them, I feel like maybe, as one sentence has come to a close, I found what I've been looking for as the next one begins. Here's to 2003.

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