Woo! Movie and magazine theme!

*Excellence Dept: Totally jacked this from Abhay, who posted it over at the NYC Mech board, where I tend to lurk: Michael Atkinson’s blistering slam of Dave McKean’s new film MirrorMask from The Village Voice. This one has it all, folks, starting with an opening-sentence dismissal of the entirety of the ‘graphic novel’ form as an emperor most thoroughly underdressed, “…fiction, let us remember, equipped with drawings and speech bubbles…” Along the way it’s revealed that comics readers are undemanding boobs, having elevated the sublimely lucky Neil Gaiman to “subliterate demigod-hood,” and that Ghost World is apparently the only comics-based film in the history of recent cinema that’s fit for adult viewing (note that Atkinson employs the confusing descriptive title of ‘American subgenre entry’ - this is because, as I’m sure you’ve all figured out, comics are not a real art form but a subgenre of fiction, presumably prose fiction; oh, and nonfiction comics don’t exist, I guess, or else Atkinson has devised a different term for them which he’s opted to withhold). Be sure to keep reading until the block-rocking concluding summary in which comics pros are most certainly not left off the hook: “The measure of conviction needed to make and read comic books is all that's brought to bear…” Good thing Atkinson is here to assure us that the popularity of ‘graphic novels’ is just a fad, much like that 'manga' I’ve been hearing about!

Man, this is the sort of comic-centered essay you keep thinking has gone extinct. And yet, strip away the rampant blanket dismissals and patent ignorance as to anything beyond the most mainstream-visible samples of the form, and there’s some stuff there to agree with among what’s left of the piece. I mean, don’t an awful lot of us think comics readers can be pretty undemanding? Not horrendously less demanding than, say, network television viewers and summer blockbuster film fans, but therein lies the difference between us and Atkinson, I suppose.

*Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly, however, gave MirrorMask an 'A-' and noted that it has "something to astonish everyone." Lots of comics stuff in the new issue (#843), including a feature review of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes in the 'Books' section; it gets an 'A', as does The Quitter in a shorter review, which sadly forgets to credit Dean Haspiel (perhaps since the cover art screams "Harvey Pekar with Dean Haspiel," bringing to mind a celebrity writing their autobiography 'with' an experienced writer, rather than two talents working on individually vital aspects of sequential art). The errata continues into 'The Mix,' which mistakenly notes that the third volume of Tokyo Tribes won't be out until October (it was actually released back in August) at the end of its rave. Jordan Crane's The Clouds Above also gets a nice mention.

*Meanwhile, the latest issue of Giant Robot (#38) has a delightfully downbeat two-page interview with Yoshihiro Tatsumi, author of stories collected in D&Q’s soon-to-arrive The Push Man and Other Stories. Apparently, Tatsumi currently operates a mail-order comics back-issue business, and is working slowly toward the completion of his latest work, at a pace of less than 20 pages per month. He also notes that the current Japanese comics industry has basically zero interest in his brand of realist fiction (not that they had much to begin with), and praises the work of Adrian Tomine, also editor/designer of The Push Man, by the way. I particularly enjoyed Tatsumi’s tendency to distinguish his gekiga (a term he coined himself) from manga, even though most English-language fans see gekiga as a genre under the umbrella of manga (which, granted, ignores the origination of the term - gekiga roughly means ‘drama pictures,’ which strikes me as a pretty direct rejoinder to the silly or childish or nonsense pictures of manga's literal translation); it’s likely that Tatsumi has a very particular definition of gekiga - I wonder if he’d consider Golgo 13 to be part of the club, since that’s what creator Takao Saito sometimes calls it? It’s a uniquely bristling chat; at one point the interviewer asks Tatsumi if he thinks his style has changed over the course of his career (I’m paraphrasing) and Tatsumi snaps “Of course,” the irritation palpable through the page. Good reading.

Grizzly Man

Probably my favorite film of 2005, thus far. Just wonderful stuff through and through.

As you probably already know, this is a documentary on the semi-famous grizzly-devoured grizzly activist Timothy Treadwell, from much-adored director Werner Herzog (who also narrates and occasionally appears on-screen, his face always turned away from the camera). Treadwell spent a whole lot of time up on a nature preserve in Alaska, ‘protecting’ bears from nefarious (if rarely seen) poachers and shooting roughly a hundred hours of footage of wildlife, nature and himself, presumably for some nebulous television documentary project. Herzog incorporates plenty of Treadwell’s footage, as well as new interviews with assorted friends, family, lovers, supporters, experts and so on.

But what gets to me, beyond the film’s simple premise, is how deep Herzog is willing to go with the material. This is no simple biography; there’s ruminations on filmic (and in particular, documentary) reality, the slippery nature of human identity, the aspects of performance that invade everyday human life, the resulting Quixotic desire to achieve a natural purity, the impassivity of nature in the face of human struggle, the importance of accident in the creation of art, the healing power of art, the destructive power of art, death as a dealer of truth and genuinely trancendant love, the delicate threads separating madness and brilliance, stupidity and valiance - this movie puts an awful lot on its plate, but damn if it doesn’t scarf it all down.

Much of this is due to Herzog’s sly structuring of the film. We start off with the ugly details of the seemingly hippy-dippy Treadwell’s death (as well as the death of his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard). Talking heads spout off, gory details are described, and Treadwell chats away. And then, some odd things begin to happen: Herzog suddenly reveals that Treadwell had been carefully controlling his actions before the camera - he does multiple ‘takes’ of his loopy dork persona. And gradually, we begin to realize a certain artificiality to Herzog’s own footage; an actor pal of Treadwell’s suddenly seems to be ‘performing’ for the camera. Scenes begin to look staged, though it doesn’t really matter in the long run. Instead of hearing authentic audio footage of Treadwell and Huguenard’s deaths, we get what can only be described as a one-man show by the coroner who worked on them, complete with dramatic camera moves and lighting, as he vividly describes the action. It’s fiction in the service of fact.

And Treadwell, from across the sea of time and the river Stix, seems to agree. Through Herzog’s investigation, we learn of his frustrations as an actor and his invented past. We see him blowing through monologue after monologue. His initial children’s show host posturing bleeds away into plumes of profanity, shuddering anger, anti-religion invective, and raw paranoid rage - but is it any more real for its grit? Herzog approaches Treadwell’s work not as the production of a kook, but as the output of a kindred artist, praising the best bits of Treadwell’s footage, even if some of the beauty is purely unintentional (this fits in neatly with Herzog’s own filmmaking ethos, even regarding his fiction work, in which he'd often let non-professional actors improvise material). And indeed, there’s some amazing stuff in here: a shaky race with a fox, vivid bear close-ups, a beast pawing at a luminescent blue tent, shot from the inside. But the best stuff is all-Treadwell: a lengthy close-up monologue about homosexuals is the sort of outstandingly revealing bit that I can’t imagine being ‘written’ in quite as effective a manner.

And there more: the awkward, mannered nature of a Treadwell ex-girlfriend melts away as she launches into an effervescent story as to how the couple first met. A hard-hearted rescue worker offers withering, yet genuinely funny commentary on the situation. There’s bits on the native populace’s historical relations with the bears, a late introduction of a teddy bear that then serves as a potent symbol in some of Treadwell’s own footage, and an honest-to god biblical rainstorm. The final minutes of Treadwell’s footage have a distinctly apocalyptic tone, and even the film itself seems to be breaking down; at one point, Herzog announces that during the course of making the film he’d been granted access to extra footage, and he then proceeds to use it to directly contradict some things he’d said earlier (instead of, say, re-editing the material), more toying with the ‘truth’ of the matter.

By the end of it all Herzog even gets away with a soppy ‘spreading of the ashes’ sequence, so formidable is the credit he’s built up - you just know he’ll be back with another amazing bit, like a kindly helicopter pilot singing along with the film’s own closing theme, improvising a single line which perhaps holds the key to the meaning of everything. And Herzog, who never makes it less than clear that he’s philosophically opposed to almost everything Treadwell espouses, even allows the man to walk off into the sun with his beloved bears, courtesy of his own footage, the star of his own feature at least. Just professional courtesy between artists, you know.

It’s a thick, dense film, packed with stuff, and unusually sensitive to its own themes on a structural level, forcing the audience to question the safety of the documentary form on tow levels: Treadwell’s and Herzog’s. And it all trickles down onto the people involved, folks performing for the camera, performing for themselves. But Herzog would be the first to say that it doesn’t quite matter in the creation of fine art. And this is fine art, vital, sensitive filmmaking, that still not above lavishing attention on adorable little foxes when it’s not encapsulating Treadwell’s struggle in a long scene of two bears fighting, biting, clawing, shitting themselves, wrestling, then calmly returning to all-fours, nosing around gently. It’s nature's contradictions, and humans' too.