Oh god, he's reviewing those awful movies again.

*I'll do some comics farther down in this post, an upcoming AiT/Planet-Lar book.


*Aw c’mon, at least I’m not covering that new '20s/'30s Avant-garde cinema release from Kino, which is currently en route to my plush abode.

*No, that’ll be next week. Ooooh, Duchamp!

*Last night, however, I viewed the barebones R1 dvd release of Johan Grimonprez’s 1998 documentary opus, Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, which can superficially be described as a eulogy for the romance of terrorist airline hijackings in the latter half of the 20th century, though we’re always kept aware that such romance carried the seeds of violence right from the beginning. Obviously, the film takes on several brand-new connotations today, its oft-apocalyptic montage of explosions and stock-footage biplanes slamming into homes and tall buildings collapsing then reassembling upon film reversal adopting a churningly eerie tone today, quite involuntary in particularized intensity.

It’s a troubling film all around, utterly admirable and sometimes outright brilliant, yet flippant, poised directly on the razor’s edge of exploitation, though I suspect the creators might charge exploitation as a necessity in crafting properly confrontational art. Few viewers will be left unmoved in some direction by the merry closing-credits sequence, which sets footage of various airplane crashes to The Hustle. Compare that to the opening sequence, an impossibly beautiful slow-motion explosion filmed from inside a cockpit; what can be the point of such aestheticised destruction?

Well, if nothing else, its aesthetics are far preferable to me than those of the Michael Moores of this world; visually, the film is composed entirely of stock footage, mostly international news reports on assorted airline hijackings throughout history, although theatrical newsreels are presented too, along with cartoons, snatches of silent films (Larry Semon!), on-plane safety videos, random camcorder footage, and much more. There is also an intermittent narration, though it’s composed entirely of quotes from Dom DiLillo’s novels White Noise and Mao II, many of them dealing with the seizure by terrorists from novelists of the ability to shake nations and societies with pure visibility. And we see it for ourselves: the film moves in roughly chronological order from the first-ever televised airline hijacking to the bleak and muddy mid-‘90s world of hidden bombs and the like, and we are rarely spared news coverage of each new development. We meet popular figures in international hijacking, like Leila Khaled, who famously underwent cosmetic surgery between exploits, as the whole world had already seen her face. Subtitles occasionally match years to events, accompanied by sensational (authentic?) period headlines that inevitable comment on the visual action. Hijacking moves from an ambiguous, cloudy act to a well-covered, familiar sight, thrills palpable in the air, until more and more violence mounts. There’s a lot of authentic blood in this film. You might say that such use of human death amounts to an aestheticisation of atrocity. But the film itself seems to argue that irreversible aestheticisation has already been accomplished via news broadcasting; all that is left is recontextualization.

For all the 'real' footage employed, there is little straightforward reportage of facts in this film; I expect that the filmmakers would be taken aback at the very idea that a ‘documentary’ film should strive to present an objective presentation of events. The stock footage isn’t strictly there as illustration or punctuation, in an Errol Morris sense; it’s also present to provoke you, to confuse you as to what is real, fictional presentations inter-cut with authentic action. The soundtrack, assembled by David Shea, is positively vital; loud, out-of-place sound effects are added over raw visuals, reminding the viewer as to the capacity for misinformation as possessed by audio-visual media. Period tunes play over the action, grossly manipulating emotion, adoringly perverting the intent of the visuals, until all intent seems a perversion in terms of television reportage. There’s a lengthy scene of a little girl being led off a de-terrorized plane, wandering with her mother through a crowd, then being sat down at a bank of microphones, in one long shot. A vapid local news spot on what to do during a hijacking is first mixed with silly fictional reenactments, then more subtly mixed with similar-quality footage of a terminal massacre, corpses strewn along the snack bar, custodians mopping blood from the tiles, the soundtrack of the chipper local newsreader playing on and over. Near the end of the film, a hostage-taker literally dies while being interviewed, the reporter repeating his question long after the man is plainly incapable of communication; perhaps that is the true point, that the act of audio-visual reportage is fundamentally incapable of discerning truth. Surely this film scoffs at the very notion, through its capricious construction.

Obviously it’s all up for interpretation, though the enclosed booklet finds Grimonprez chatting a lot about televised ‘news’ adopting the guise of fiction (editing, dramatic structuring of reportage, etc.) to become more palatable as reality; we’re also apparently meant to see the film’s thematic focus on hijacking as a metaphor for recontextualization itself, the fiction-reality of raw news footage seized and processed into newer, more overt fiction (and thus, presumably, a heightened statement of reality). Be sure to tie that little tidbit back into DeLillo’s comments on the bond between terrorists and novelists, as Grimonprez seems intent on reasserting himself as author-terrorist in dominance over the fiction-reality of political terrorists, provided courtesy of international airwaves (playing the role of, god save our punning souls, ‘airline’ in tonight’s meta-narrative).

It gets tiring, the film’s perception-bouncing spirit just barely able to sustain itself for its 68 minutes. Good arguments can be made that the film is unconscionably callous, that even if it’s correct in identifying the aestheticisation of violent terror and human suffering, it’s exactly as culpable regardless, the critical equivalent of ‘an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.’ But I am inclined to see the film primarily as a challenge to the common acceptance of contemporary modes of reportage, including the now-trendy yet ever-debated nature of the ‘documentary’ film. The political subject matter is but a vivid means of exploding the presentation of the same, though it’s all the more vivid for the subsequent seven years of presentation we've now been through.

Go Netflix this film up, or buy it from Other Cinema.

*Hmm. Let's clean ourselves off with a little SNEAK PREVIEW OF UPCOMING BOOKS!

Smoke and Guns

This will be out sometime soon from AiT/Planet-Lar. It's a 104-page original graphic novel, written by Kirsten Baldock with art by Fabio Moon (working in comics without collaborator and twin brother Gabriel Ba for the first time), retailing for $12.95. The fans of non-stop shooting will enjoy it, and it looks really pretty.

Still, I've been noticing a trend creeping up. I first felt its scratchy presence when I read AiT's own The Couriers: The Ballad of Johnny Funwrecker, and I wrote about it a little then sort of put it aside. Then I noticed its presence again while going through Oni's Sharknife, and I made a greater note of it in my head, if not on this site. And now here it is again: we've got one mighty invincible action protagonist here.

This time it's Scarlett, a gun-handy cigarette girl in a strange world where rival gangs of stylishly-clad cancer stick distributors rule individual districts; everybody is packing heat and itching to blow some skulls open and Scarlett, well, she just doesn't play by the rules. Indeed, one has to ponder how, exactly, this nicotine-happy city keeps running with an unkillable spitfire like Our Heroine running around, muscling in on rival turf from Page 1 and blasting away other gals with endless skill. Oh sure, she gets a little too drunk at one point in the book, but this only serves to put her into yet more situation where she can strike poses and battle costumed rivals and sometimes say action movie things. The only other character in the book of significant presence is Scarlett's pal Annie, a cowgirl who doesn't need to be told to get her gun, and is otherwise completely indistinguishable from the book's lead in a characterization sense.

But something (maybe my Spider-Sense, or perhaps the ghost of a particularly comics-savvy dead relation) is telling me that this book isn't the type to keep character on its mind. Same goes for plot: the book doesn't really have one beyond 'Scarlett is cocky and gets into trouble with other parties; shootings ensue.' This book really is just one action scene after another, but all of them star the same flaw-free killer cutie, who's prone to damaging the heel on one of her shoes at the very worst, no matter how thick the trouble gets. And I don't find this type of action storytelling to be very exciting on its own, though Baldock does sometimes amp up the sheer ridiculousness of her premise, which is always cool with me; it's no major feat of world-building, but at least her ménage of tobacco-peddling girl killers manages a bit of color every now and then. I liked the cigarette girl roadblock. I found the idea of a smoke-free district in which all of the cigarettes are produced to be kind of neat, although the notion is almost instantly dropped in favor of more action. I really liked the scene where Scarlett is locked in a closet, wondering what to do, when suddenly she notices a mop bucket full of loaded guns. Now that's almost goddamned Brechtian in its 'hey look - it's an action comic' attitude.

Maybe that's my problem; I can stand an unstoppable hero(ine) if I just have a wild enough environment surrounding him/her. And this one's just mildly zany, well-dressed but straightforward in always relating back to the gunplay.

But as I said before, it looks awfully good. Moon's got an excellent approach for this kind of book, his tall, thin characters lapsing into simplified forms when moving quick or off in the distance, no line left in surplus. He's liberal with flakes and fleckles of white and black, representing ash and blood and smoke and all sorts of things. He can draw a half-dozen girls running around in high-heels and make it look natural and easy, not a whiff of labored stiffness or awkward composition. A climactic tableaux of a burnt-out building, corpses dotting the rubble, manages to look funny, even whimsical. It's just what the book needs to survive, more valuable to these cigarette girls than even the heaviest ordinance.

And in a book like this one, something more valuable than a gun is valuable indeed.

Even if you're unbreakable.