Wednesday, August 17, 2011

going retro

I've been more and more concerned about the ongoing recycling across popular culture, wondering when a truly new trend, art form, genre of music, etc. etc. etc. would hit (the arrival of Simon Reynolds' RETROMANIA in the mailbox today may help me put words to my anxiety). But I've always been (perhaps too) nostalgic by nature, and I'm always happy to experience new work by creators I've enjoyed in the past. At its best, this experience reveals that my old favorites continue to create vital work (as Wire, Gary Numan, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, among others continue to do).

So when DC Comics announced DC Retroactive, a series of special, single-issue stories returning creative teams from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s to the characters they worked on, I was intrigued. Particularly by the return of writer Alan Grant and artist Norm Breyfogle to the Batman book.

The original Grant/Breyfogle run on Batman (with Grant's JUDGE DREDD co-writer John Wagner) was at a fortuitous time. I was as excited about Tim Burton's then-forthcoming BATMAN movie as any of my peers, so excited that in the run-up to the movie's release I resumed reading the Batman titles after years away. At that time, the books included the Wagner/Grant/Breyfogle run on Detective Comics, which I took to instantly. These issues remain something of an unsung classic - Wagner and Grant released all kinds of their Dredd-styled pop madness on the book, combining the street-level grit of Dredd with a weirdly cartoonish darkness (their run is a nice bridge between the classic, pop-artish Englehart/Rogers run and the Bruce Timm animated series). The writers also introduced a mess of new villains to Batman's sizable rogues gallery, including Scarface and the Ventriloquist, who've been revisited by other writers and artists many times since. And Norm Breyfogle was a perfect artist for their run, creating a mise-en-scene of high energy darkness for the stories and realizing the characters with a sometimes cartoonish style that included a downright expressionistic take on physiognomy.

Plus, some of Breyfogle's covers were truly stunning:

The new book, sadly, falls into a number of traps that plague many "retro" style adventures. Grant and Breyfogle resurrect Scarface for their story, but his fate is left weirdly unresolved in Batman's battle with new foe Big Mel (whose origin - given deadly powers after being dunked in chemical goo, he seeks revenge on his criminal former employer - is too close to too many other comic book villains, including Wagner/Grant/Breyfogle's own Corrosive Man). Breyfogle's shapes and staging are as striking as ever, but his lines are a bit too think, and the coloring too soft to recapture the bleeding darkness that served his Batman so well. But the thing works, mainly thanks to the introduction of a sympathetic cab driver, once a criminal, now an expecting father. If his constant intersection with the action of the main story breaks credibility (I was reminded of the Mambo Taxi driver of Almodovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), his humanity offsets the superheroics nicely, and helps give the final page a modest but genuine lift. (Which rhymes well with the downbeat ending of "Trash," the 1990s Grant/Breyfogle/Mitchell story also included in the book.)

So though your proprietor's not quite down with the package as a whole, I can't help but be pleased to have a new issue of the Grant/Breyfogle Batman in my grasp. Hollow or unsuccessful as it often is (you can never really go home again, after all), there are joys, even fleeting ones, to going retro.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Orson Welles: A Crash Course

(cross-posted from The VHive, from a thread seeking a three-movie crash course in a genre, body of work, etc.)

Orson Welles

I suspect many could use a crash course on Welles' work - CITIZEN KANE looms in the minds of many as his greatest and sole contribution to cinema, but it's only a part of a much larger (and still evolving) story. Welles remains one of our most notorious and least understood artists, and though footage survives of many of his thwarted/incomplete projects, a string of bad luck and bad choices kept Welles from realizing most of them.

The crash course, then, is but a place to start, a solid first step compiled from the works of his that are most readily available.

CITIZEN KANE - A movie that many are tired of hearing about, but Welles' cinema (and much else) begins with it. Less a Hollywood movie than an independent realized with studio resources, the film was considered an expansive, expensive misfire upon its release. It was, of course ahead of its time. As remarkable as Welles' technique was for his first time out - some scenes look filmed in a magic box, others in a stadium, and all of it coheres so damn well - his touch with his actors is as assured (not surprising, given his expansive theatrical experience). Also impressive from a 25-year-old storyteller is his empathy for any number of characters, his understanding of the toll of age, his eloquent grasp of human suffering.

Bonus added here: Welles' own, crazy, essayistic trailer for this film, a compelling piece of filmmaking in its own right:

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI - Like many Welles projects, a compromised work, taken out of his hands during the editing process, and greatly reduced from its now-lost original form. What remains, however, is an essential noir, complete with doomed protagonist, alluring femme fatale, a world in chaos, and some gorgeous, shadowy photography. A true work of pulp art, and, compromises notwithstanding, a wholly satisfying Welles film.

MacBETH - Welles returned to the well of Shakespeare many times over his career, and this film (made for Poverty Row studio Republic Pictures) shows what Welles could do given free reign (if minimal budget). Though lambasted by critics who preferred Olivier's more stately, "respectable" take on the classic text, MacBETH serves the text gloriously, and finds within it a nourish heart of darkness that colors everything within BLACK. The film exists in two versions (both cut by Welles) - seek out the longer (107 minutes) version, which contains thick (but completely intelligible) brogue accents and the first-ever, ten-minute take in a released film (predating Hitchcock's ROPE by a year).

Most of Welles' stylistic tropes can be found here - his overlapping dialogue, his psychologically-oriented camera work, his theatrical mise-en-scene - as well as his keen grasp of tragedy (which informs all of his films, as well as, sadly, his own life and process off camera). And, most importantly, they're all insanely entertaining.