Friday, February 29, 2008

Borne back ceaselessly

To generalise for just a moment: Endings are a tricky business. Anybody who has ever written a narrative knows this. How to get an ending right, with just the perfect amount of closure, audience satisfaction, ambiguity and emotion? How to resolve long-running plotlines and honour characters with much invested in them? How to make it feel like all the effort was worthwhile, in other words? Since the end - of a book, television series, play or movie - is what you finally carry off with you back into the real world, endings have an awful lot of weight to bear. A great ending enhances what has gone before, a bad ending can make an audience feel shortchanged. And ending, moreover, can give a story meaning.

A few weeks ago, one of my favourite ongoing stories ended. "Y: the Last Man" is the only monthly comic series I've been following religiously, every single month, over the last few years. I read the issues in shops, then buy the trade paperbacks when they're released a few months later. The final trade paperback won't be released until June this year, but I read issue 60, the finale, in a comic shop a couple of weeks ago. I've been reading it since 2002, dropping into one comic shop or another to read the latest issue approximately every four weeks - and now its over. There a few characters I read casually because I have an emotional investment in them going back to boyhood - Spider-Man, Batman, Daredevil, Moon Knight - and a bunch of creators I read no matter what they do, but "Y" has been the only series I've been following for what seems like ages. Over the course of its run, writer Brian K Vaughn has added himself to that list of creators I follow, and I've read and liked his other series "Ex Machina" and "Runaways", all because of "Y". Reading that last issue, there was a certain panel detailing the fate of a (non-human) character that made me choke up. I read it with sudden tears in my eyes. Right there on the blindingly lit shopfloor in Forbidden Planet, surrounded by overgrown boys reading about costumed crimefighters. It made me think: I love this comic. I love comics. I love good storytelling.

"Y: the Last Man" is the story of Yorick Brown and his pet capuchin monkey Ampersand, the only survivors of a plague which destroys all of the world's male mammals. As society collapses, then begins to rebuild itself, Yorick and Ampersand set out to find Yorick's girlfriend Beth, who was in Australia when the plague hit. Accompanied by a secret agent detailed to keep him alive by the new Lady President (also Yorick's mother) named 355, and a geneticist searching for a reason for the plague and Yorick's survival named Dr Alison Mann, they encounter a series of bizarre characters and new cults and phenomenon during their long journey across this post apocalyptic world. That description makes it sound trashier and sillier than it really is. Its not actually trashy at all, despite its flirtation with a half-dozen separate genres, and Vaughn is too talented a writer for it to ever be silly.

The key to the series' greatness is Vaughn's strength with characterisation - "Y"s principal trio are all fascinating, utterly distinctive people, both original fictional creations and recognisably real individuals. Their contrasting reactions to the people they meet and the situations they find themselves in upon their quest allow Vaughn and artist Pia Guerra to subtly investigate each personality, sharply and beautifully delienating character arcs to mirror the physical journey undertaken by the characters. In this Guerra's art is elegantly complimentary to Vaughn's script, given that her chief strength, alongside a crisp, clean line, is an acute ability to capture the nuances of facial expression. Yorick's ironic distance, his knowing cheesiness, are evident in her depiction of him, just as much as in the frequently hilarious one-liners Vaughn provides him with. 355 is all contemptuous frowns and sarcasm hiding some inner vulnerability, Mann a deadpan neurotic. The three characters are so vividly portrayed and so believable that some way into the series, I realised that I would probably be happy just to read about their interplay - Yorick's jokey, pop-culture heavy riffs, 355's dismissal of him, Mann's quizzical remove - without any more storytime devoted to their journey.

But the journey was almost always a pleasure, as they rambled across America for a couple of years, encountering a variety of cult groups and Government concerns, learning about themselves and each other. Then the series went international, as the characters travelled to Australia and Japan and France. As it went, the plotting grew more complex and knotted as the people aware of and in pursuit of Yorick multiplied. The cast was a sprawling and eclectic thumbing of the nose to writers who cannot write women - Vaughn used female soldiers, politicians, Nuns, reporters, ninjas, scientists, astronauts, former pop stars - and he did them all justice. The series never gave an easy explanation for what had caused the plague, which might have irritated some readers. But Vaughn claims that one of the many hypotheses in the series is the real one without specifying which. There is something provocative in this, and in many of the satirical moments in the series, where he and Guerra poke fun at Government apparatus or religious extremists, at the patriarchal systems in place in the real world, at the modern media and at the idiocies of sexual politics. Vaughn is always aware of the serial nature of his narrative, and he plots great action beats and a run of great cliffhangers, all managed with a casual efficiency by Guerra. The dark tone of the setting and much of the plotting is leavened by the fact that he is perhaps the wittiest scripter in modern comics - Yorick, in particular, can be genuinely funny. And yet this is part of the beauty and complexity of the character - while light-hearted and consistently chatty and jokey, he is troubled, and at one point even suicidal. The main thrust of the story is his coming-of-age, and Vaughn handles that side of the narrative as dextrously as he does all the others. An issue where one of 355's colleagues performs an intervention by psycho-analysing Yorick is one of the series many high points. Even the filler issues - where Guerra is not the artist - are of consistently high quality. Vaughn uses them to explore the world of "Y", to focus on a character we have fleetingly met, to develop a theme or answer a question.

And so to the ending. Comics is not a medium that has to do endings all that much - all of the big Superhero icons are the stars of ongoing series, they live in the perpetual now, in a longrunning story without end. We know that when Captain America dies he will soon return, largely unchanged. Death is impermanent. Alan Moore wrote many years ago in the introduction to the original "Dark Knight Returns" collection that one of its strengths was that it gave Batman an ending. Most the great fictional icons have had definitive endings to suit their statures. The success of the "Dark Knight Returns" meant that in the years since we have seen a series of "Endings" for every major Superhero character, from Superman to the Punisher, generally set outside continuity so as not to harm the ongoing stories still making money for the publishers.

But "Y: the Last Man" was published by Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics. The really big franchises Vertigo have produced have all ended definitively - Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" and Ennis & Dillon's "Preacher" being the best examples. Vertigo is unafraid of ending a story, if that is what its creator believes must happen. Vaughn had always claimed that "Y" would run for 60 issues. And so it proved. The story proper had climaxed in the previous five issues, with a long-awaited reunion, a big revelation and a shocking death. Vaughn cleared the decks for the last issue, in effect. That meant that he could set it sixty years after issue 59, giving us an overview of the world after it has "recovered" from the plague. But most importantly we learn what becomes of Yorick himself. It is a fittingly bittersweet issue, beautifully paced and structured, and it feels like a worthy ending to a great story. The final panel is a lovely sight gag, and yet somehow, oddly moving at the same time. And the last Ampersand scene is just beautiful.

I'm obviously going to miss "Y". But I've got all of the collections so far, and I'm already sort of looking forward to rereading the whole thing in one long binge. Theres also the prospect of the movie - to be directed by DJ Caruso and possibly star Shia Lebouef - about which I am, well, ambivalent. But bad movies have been made before, based on books I love. Its no tragedy. Vaughn and Guerra's work won't suffer any because of it. One thing you just know for certain, though, is that the movie just won't, just can't get that ending right.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Vintage Trailer of the Week 1

YouTube is a treasure trove of old trailers. I love old trailers. So I'm going to post a few, in lieu of actually having to go to the trouble of, you know, writing anything.

I haven't seen this film in years, but the trailer actually makes me want to watch it again, which is all you can really ask for from a trailer. The film? Well, its directed by John Boorman and features a bizarre Ennio Morricone score, so just how bad can it be?

Ok, pretty bad. But I remember it as being an interesting kind of bad, which is often the kind that becomes good with repeat viewings. And Martin Scorsese loooves it: "The picture asks: Does great goodness bring upon itself great evil? This goes back to the Book of Job; it's God testing the good. In this sense, Regan (Linda Blair) is a modern-day saint — like Ingrid Bergman in Europa '51, and in a way, like Charlie in Mean Streets. I like the first Exorcist, because of the Catholic guilt I have, and because it scared the hell out of me; but The Heretic surpasses it. Maybe Boorman failed to execute the material, but the movie still deserved better than it got."


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Golgolgolgolgolgolgolgolgolgol: 3

Teofilo Cubilias, the greatest Peruvian footballer ever. And a No. 10. Nuff said.




Ariel Ortega, who more or less specialised in scoring goals just like this:

The 1985 FA Cup Final. Man Utd down to 10 men after Kevin Moran has been sent off, against the new champions Everton. Up steps Norman Whiteside:



Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"Tragedy, I take straight."

It seems ridiculous for anyone with a blog to say that they don't like the Internet. Obviously, I love the Internet. But there are aspects of it that I have a love/hate relationship with.

In my teens, one of my greatest pleasures was the thrill of the geek hunt. Myself and my friends were obsessive about the stuff we liked - movies, music, comics, books. We would learn about albums we knew we had to hear, comics we should read, movies we must see by reading about them in magazines and books, by seeing references on television. The web was in its infancy then. Our only hope of finding these sacred objects was in actual, old-fashioned physical shops. We trawled Dublin's second-hand record shops, comic shops and book shops. We went to obscure suburban video shops looking for VHS copies of films we needed to see. I used to stay up until ridiculous times to watch and record 50s B-movies and old Westerns off TV. Many of these Quests (that was what we called them, too, in our self-conscious, no-girlfriends way) were resolved in those years. Like 5150. Van Halen's 5150 on vinyl was found in Freebird Records on the Quays for a few quid. 5150 had been extremely hard for us to find on vinyl, for some reason. When we found it, even though only one of my friends wanted it, the three of us shared in the glory of the discovery. Because it promised that all such quests could be ended, that anything could be found.

We heard about a video rental place in the City Centre (in the far reaches of the southern edge of what could realistically be called the City centre, at any rate) above a Dry Cleaners. It was called Metropolis. The name alone suggested a classier operation than most of the Video places we frequented, which bore names like "Fast Forward" and "Hollywood Video".

And Metropolis was the perfect Video shop for us at that time. It stocked copies of arthouse films, hundreds of foreign films I had never heard of, blaxploitation stuff, classic filed certain films by Director. By Director. Imagine. On my first visit I rented "Big Wednesday" and "The Wild Bunch", both of which had eluded us for a long time. Metropolis put an end to a lot of our quests (I still used it when I was studying at University, then one day I dropped in and it was closing down and the owner had sold off most of his stock at silly prices, including all the stuff I would have bought, like "Rolling Thunder" and "Flic", causing me much bitterness).

The internet has killed off the Quest, though. I still go to second-hand shops because I love the unexpected nature of it, the opportunity to come across something I never would have gone in search of, but when I really want something its invariably available online. Back then, one of my friends endured a long-term quest for the first issue of the third Silver Surfer series, by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers. Not hard to find, you might think. But in Dublin in the early 90s, where there were only 3 comic shops and 2 stocked barely any back issues, it was like finding a decent film directed by Michael Bay - impossible. I just checked eBay for the same comic. £7.50, NM.

Now part of me loves that aspect of the Internet. If I want to buy a Mexican or Serbian or Taiwanese film thats unavailable in the UK on DVD, I can do that, and it won't cost the earth. But another part of me hates it, and misses that thrill, the beauty of the hunt, the unparalleled satisfaction at its conclusion. The Internet has made it far too easy for me.

But then occasionally pop culture defies the Internet. Occasionally I can't find something because it doesn't exist, really. Take this, for example: Perhaps my favourite film score of all time is not available in any way that I can find. That would be "Cutter's Way" by Jack Nitzsche. It has never been released on cd, never on cassette, never even on vinyl. Its not on iTunes, I can't find it on Limewire, I don't/can't do Soulseek or another form of downloading. I've got the film on DVD, because its a great film - one of the best of the 1980s - and I can put it on anytime and listen to the music, but I'd rather just have a cd or mp3 of the lot.

Nitzsche was a Composer, arranger, producer and session musician who played a crucial role in the creation of many of the key records of the 1960s. He orchestrated "River Deep, Mountain High" and was the arranger on many of the classic Phil Spector tracks from that decade. He played keyboards on a couple of Rolling Stones albums. He arranged the choral parts on "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and also arranged Buffalo Springfield's "Expecting to Fly" and the Monkees "Porpoise Song" alongside songs for Doris Day, the Turtles, Bobby Darin, the Everly Brothers, Tim Buckley and PJ Proby. He wrote a handful of minor surf instrumentals, as well as the absolutely awesome "The Lonely Surfer" and the hit "Needles & Pins". He began working on soundtracks in the late 60s when his rock connections lead him to score "Head" and "Performance". His success with these assignments lead to work on films like "The Exorcist" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest", and he completed two soundtracks a year during the 1980s, for films like "Cruising", "Starmen" and "Breathless". He won an Oscar in 1982 for Best Song for "Up Where We Belong" from "An Officer and a Gentleman". (Over the last few years, a pair of brilliant compilations of his work as a producer/arranger/composer have been released by Ace : "Hearing Is Believing" (vol 1) and "Hard Workin Man" (vol 2))

"Cutters Way" had been released the previous year to little commercial success. A pitch black adaptation of Newton Thornburg's bleak and cynical noir novel, "Cutter and Bone" it follows a crippled Vietnam veteran (John Heard) and his best friend, a beach bum gigolo (Jeff Bridges) as they attempt to prove that a local politician was responsible for the murder of a young girl. Directed by the exiled Czech Ivan Passer, "Cutters Way" is one of those films from the 80s that is really the last breath of the previous decade. Informed by a world where Watergate and My Lai made the news seem a daily list of acts of official horror and corruption, the doomed characters search for redemption by bringing down an evil they recognise and despise. If the film's climax is not as unbelievably bleak as that of the book, it is still shattering. The script, direction and performances all unite to bring this about. Playing an equal part to any of these elements, however, is Jack Nitzsche.

Nitzsche had a unique approach to instrumentation in his soundtrack work, which is evident to anyone who knows the wonkily off-kilter sound of his "Cuckoo's Nest" score. He liked to utilise obscure, little-heard instruments, and he combined them with orchestrations and rock arrangements to frequently devastating, haunting effect. "Cutters Way" is perhaps the peak of such a trend in his work, and the best thing he ever did in any capacity, I think. There is not a single clip from the film on Youtube, which is an outrage, but heres a clip of the opening credits with their first mournful run-through of the main theme from a Dutch website, and this is part of the accompanying blurb : "The score was written for a quixotic and terrifyingly effective ensemble, comprising glass harmonica, harpsichord, bowed saw and the Armin Family's electric string quartet. Recorded by a then-unknown Daniel Lanois at his Grant Avenue Studios, the sessions for Nitzsche's score introduced Lanois's name to a larger public before Brian Eno entered the picture. Between the cloudiness of a Harry Partch tone poem and a mariachi band's brassy sentimentality, Nitzsche carved a space in which courage, tragedy and suicidal pluck could coexist". I couldn't have said it any better.

As a little bonus, Nitzsche's "The Lonely Surfer" :

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Monday, February 11, 2008

"This Is my happy face."

Look at that face. Just look at it. That is a face built for Cinema. Not for beauty or posing, but for character.

Tommy Lee Jones has become, in just a few short years, the great old man of American Cinema. In recent times, Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman have squabbled over that title in their choices of roles, but Jones has come along, up the outside, and overtaken both of them.

Its not about talent, not purely, at any rate. Each of these three men is a Great actor. They could all play Lear and do an awesome job (can you imagine Gene Hackman play King Lear?). Its about choices. In the last few years, Jones has started to take risks. Or maybe hes just realised that hes getting old, he'll never be Harrison Ford - because even Harrison Ford isn't Harrison Ford anymore, whatever Calista Flockhart may say - and decided to stop listening to his agent and start listening to his gut instead.

"The Fugitive" almost ruined him, you see. He was fantastic in it - charismatic, ambivalent, scary, obviously intelligent. It was a massive hit and it won him an Oscar. Often, winning an Oscar for a certain kind of role in a certain kind of film can screw up an actors radar. So it was with Tommy Lee Jones. He went all commercial on us. He slummed. I remember reading an article about the making of "the Fugitive" in Premiere magazine and it contained a picture of Jones reading the New York Review of books with his feet up - on a Directors chair, of course - on set. He was obviously an intelligent guy, its there in his eyes, along with many other things. But he made a series of dumb films, playing nothing parts. His first film after the Oscar, for instance, was "Blown Away". There is something demonic about Jones - that bitter, evil grin, those dark eyes. He should be brilliant at playing villains. And he was, once, in "JFK", where his character was a scheming, clever liar, an interestingly conflicted, complex creation. But his attempts to play cartoon villains, caricatures and pantomime figures bring out the worst in him - the ham. He just gets bigger, and all the subtlety and modulation that face is capable of is lost. "Blown Away" is a great example of this (as well as a good example of a bad Irish accent), as is "Under Siege" and "Batman Forever".

He played Hero roles, too. In trash like "Volcano" and "US Marshalls" he drifts through, obviously never really trying or taking any of it seriously. "Men In Black" had compounded the success of "The Fugitive", giving Jones little to do but act as a foil for Will Smith but rewarding his choice of material with incredible commercial success. It seems that success convinced him he was a movie star, but of course hes not. Part of him must have realised that and remained true to his Texan self, because he made his directorial debut with the amiable Texas-set Western TV movie "The Good Old Boys" in 1995.

Maybe he got tired of it all, of playing second fiddle to the likes of Ashley Judd in movies like "Double Jeopardy", because he seemed to take a break between 2000 and 2002. Maybe it was the influence of Clint Eastwood, with whom Jones worked on 2000's "Space Cowboys". Eastwood has ever been expert at playing the Hollywood system - he makes the films he wants to make. When he whores himself, its on his own terms. Yet he retains clout and commercial viability.

Jones returned to the game different. He sleepwalked through the troubled, flatulent "Men In Black 2", but after that all of his choices seemed a bit more personal, a bit more reflective of his own tastes. Even a piece of genre pulp like William Freidkin's (virtual "First Blood" remake) "The Hunted" seems more Tommy Lee, and in its thorough approach to its own limited ambitions, it is totally successful. Jones seems invested in the story and the role, concerned as the film is with solitary, haunted, solemn men and a pursuit through a near primal wilderness (it also features what maybe the greatest knife fight in any film ever). He seems more focused and present in it than he had done for a while. He followed it with Ron Howard's "The Missing", playing the kind of role he was surely born to play. He played a haunted, difficult man, struggling with his past, his mistakes and his own nature. The film - a dark, unsentimental Western with distinct nods to "The Searchers" - gave him a strong actress to play off in Cate Blanchett, an acknowledgement of his own Native American blood and a chance to prove anew that if there is any contemporary actor meant to make Westerns, it is Tommy Lee Jones. After all, in the earlier years of his career, when he was more successful in television than cinema, he had been notably fantastic (alongside Duvall) in "Lonesome Dove" as another driven, difficult, haunted man. Back then he had been convincingly playing several decades older, but by now he was the right age, and those years of experience and living showed in his face and in his eyes. This was a man damaged by life and by his own choices, and Jones effortlessly communicated that alongside an innate formidable quality he is never without. He is ever a man you would not want to mess with.

He has possessed that quality for decades. Its there in his performances - for television - in "The Amazing Howard Hughes" (1977) and "The Executioner's Song" (1982). In both films he plays strange, driven men, his energy burning in him, the dark anger in his eyes barely contained and hinted at by the reediness of his Texan whine. I saw "The Amazing Howard Hughes" on television not long after Jones' career had really taken off in the early 90s, and he was so good in it that I was stunned he had taken so long to find true fame and success. But then he is not a conventional leading man. Even in his youth, he wasn't beautiful in the right way, there was a flat hardness to his screen presence, something resistant and a little frightening. His persona, while revealing a surprising tenderness when properly scrutinised by the camera, always seemed somewhat cruel to me. As if he is too exacting, too hard on others. But he was capable of outright theft of a film. In John Flynn's "Rolling Thunder", Jones plays the hero's best friend, and great though lead William Devane is in the film, Jones makes a greater impression in his few short scenes. He just seems utterly alive and intense, playing his barely-there character with real belief and energy.

After "The Missing", he did something he'd never really done before - he made a straight comedy. In the "Men In Black" films he is essentially a straight man. His laughs come from the incongruity of his personality set against the outlandishness of the material. "Man of the House" works its few laughs along similar lines, but Jones is enjoyably game and self-deprecating throughout. Perhaps he knew then that his next project would be "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada", his debut feature as a director. And what a debut - a magisterial, complex, beautiful, funny and moving examination of the New West which played like the kind of film Peckinpah might have made more often if only they had let him. In other words, it recalls his "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia", a brave move for any film to make. That Jones' film arguably surpasses the Peckinpah only makes it all more stunning. As well as his fine direction, Jones gives one of his very best performances - burying his characters grief and loss of sanity beneath his machismo and stoicism but hinting at it barely perceptibly. He followed it up with another set of brave moves - first he acted in "A Prairie Home Companion", Robert Altman's final film, and then he picked two other dark pieces set on his home turf: "No Country for Old Men" and "In the Valley of Elah".

The films seem almost like companion pieces, both set in the parts of Texas we rarely see on screen, and both concerned with America and the violence seemingly so central to its nature and identity. Jones plays an older man in both films, bowed beneath the weight of that violence and struggling to deal with it. Hes amazing in each film. The fire and anger of his youth and early middle age seems to have deserted him, and instead he is filled with sadness and an impotence which only becomes more moving in a man of such energy and vigour. He functions as a sort of chorus in "No Country for Old Men" and yet it is with him that the film's true interest lies - his bafflement at the violence he follows, his sadness at the dreadful things life does to people. "In the Valley of Elah" casts him in a similarly bruised role, struggling to find a reason for his son's death upon returning from service in Iraq, and not liking what he finds out. That sense he once carried of being too hard on others has been withered by age, and now he seems perpetually let down by them. Let down and hurt by that. The way he deals with this is heartbreaking - his stoicism, his refusal to give in, even to grieve. His age has given his acting a new depth, a new emotional heft that only experience can provide, and made him an even more fascinating screen presence than he was before.

A few years ago he purchased the rights to a couple of James Lee Burke's series of novels about Louisiana PI Dave Robicheux (Phil Joanou's "Heavens Prisoners" is an adaptation of another of the series). His next film, "In the Electric Mist" is the first to feature Jones in the role, and if its faithful to the books, then the casting will be a perfect fit - Robicheux is a man haunted by his past and subject to bouts of sentimental alcoholism and ultraviolence. French director Bertrand Tavernier is an intriguing choice of director, and his recruitment together with the distinct possibility that the film will play at this years Cannes festival (as both "Three Burials" and "No Country" did before it) suggests another ambitious, interesting choice of project by Jones. Perhaps he will be the one to play Lear after all...