BELATED WEEKEND ROUNDUPFRIDAY: A Netflix Night
The Ice Harvest
Though it was directed by Harold Ramis and written by Richard Russo and Robert Benton (based on the novel by Scott Phillips), this is pretty much the best Coen Brothers movie since The Man Who Wasn't There
. Or, rather, it's one of the better movies in that Blood Simple
black-humored neo-noir vein that I've seen recently. Call it "Wichita
" and it could even be a Fargo
sort-of sequel, the second in a string of movies about go-nowhere losers getting violently fucked up in towns all across the heartland. Des Moines, you're next.
The basics of the plot are that mob-connected lawyer Charlie (John Cusack) and strip-club entrepreneur Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) have stolen $2 million from a local crime boss and are hanging around Wichita for the night tying up loose ends. Mayhem, of course, ensues. It's fast and tight (under 90 minutes), twisty and nasty, and all the actors make the most of their time onscreen. Thornton's working his Bad Santa
mean streak, Cusack reels you in just by being John Cusack, until you realize Charlie is nowhere near as smart and charming as a Cusack character usually is, Connie Nielsen seems to have wandered in from an actual 40s noir (this also marks the second time
she's played a character about whom a "handjob" reference is made), Mike Starr
(who always shows up in movies like this) gives an excellent little performance without ever showing his face, and Oliver Platt completely steals the show with his boozy-asshole routine. And in an oddly timely twist, a dude gets shot in the face with birdshot and lives. It doesn't stick with you like Fargo
does, but it's a satisfyingly mean piece of work, and represents a nice return to form (and possible new direction) for Ramis after the Analyze This & That
disappointments.SATURDAY: An Open Letter to PBR
Dear Pabst Blue Ribbon,
Thank you for making this weekend awesome.
GardnerI am huge and pale and for some reason I can't stand up straight.
That's right, on Thursday the Grassy Best
achieved its first victory, so to celebrate we got drunk. Well, we get drunk when we lose, too, but this time we got drunk on Thursday AND Saturday. Thanks to Meanwald for hosting, but seriously, in a town with no shortage of bad-parking situations, Beachwood has got to be the champion. How many damn bus stops does one residential street need? Had to park next to the Scientology Center. Beck was my valet. Bet you didn't know they made the believers work there on the weekends. Next time it's my place, and it's tea and crumpets and a nice game of bridge. People my age shouldn't be out till three in the damn morning, walking a mile in the cold to the Scientology Center!SUNDAY: Let's Go Nerd It Out at the MuseumMasters of American Comics
I'd been meaning to go to this exhibit since it opened in November, but it took me till the day it closed
to finally drag my ass the three blocks to the Hammer to check it out. And, of course, that meant I missed the second half of it at MOCA (which was the part I really wanted to see anyway, thanks to Kirby and Ware), but whayagonnado. The collection at the Hammer focused on newspaper comics artists from the first half of the 20th century--McCay, Feininger, Herriman, King, Segar, Caniff, Gould and Schulz. Winsor McCay and Charles Schulz occupied the entrance and exit galleries, respectively, and also boasted the largest collections; fitting, since they are arguably the two most influential and important artists showcased in the exhibit, and also represent the endpoints on a continuum of approaches to the newspaper comic strip.
Anyone who's seen So Many Splendid Sundays
knows how overwhelmingly gorgeous McCay's Little Nemo
work is when viewed at its intended size, but it was something of a revelation to see that his original pen-and-ink drawings were even bigger--these huge, poster-sized works that the reader can practically sink into. And at that scale, his nearly inhuman draftmanship is even more impressive; the first works in the exhibit were a few Sunday pages from 1908 in which Nemo and co. visit Befuddle Hall, and the strips utilize distortion and mirror effects that look practically computer-generated. An editorial cartoon depicting small human figures scaling a huge stone edifice spelling out IMAGINATION was composed of such fine crosshatching that it seemed like it must have taken weeks to finish. If this exhibit accomplished nothing else, it at least made it clear that Winsor McCay could draw like a motherfucker.
The McCay display was a mix of original drawings, color proofs and actual newspaper pages, an approach that continued throughout the exhibit. Occasionally this allowed one to see the same strip three different ways: as a work of art, as an element in a commercial enterprise, and as an historical artifact. Each held its own appeal. The original drawings were sometimes twice as large as the published strips, allowing you to see each pen and brush stroke, to see the real human craft that went into each disposable strip. Not to mention all the little imperfections that you don't see in the published versions: whited-out lines, pencil marks, pasted-in titles and indicia. There's even a real poignancy to Schulz's Peanuts originals, as his increasingly shaky hand becomes crystal-clear at the larger scale--a noticeable waver starts to develop in the line in the strips from the late 70s, and by the 90s the lines are like miniature seismograms, though no less expressive. And there's a subtle psychological difference to the original drawings--because they're so big, they start to feel like "art." The figures become more abstract, more a collection of lines and shapes than coherent actors. It's the same effect you see in Roy Lichtenstein's paintings or Chip Kidd's design work for graphic novels like The Dark Knight Strikes Again
--comics are so often meant to be small that seeing them in a large format turns them into something else entirely.
The color proofs were fascinating because, they, unlike the newspapers, still retained much of their original lustre--the colors popped off of nearly-white pages, giving new life to art that is so often viewed through a yellowing lens. And the actual newspaper pages, of course, gave historical context to the strips, particularly when they were abutted by ads or other, forgotten strips. A typically gorgeous Frank King Gasoline Alley
page lay next to an unintentionally hilarious comic-strip ad for Rinso detergent and a crudely drawn, barely coherent Frances the Mule strip, reaffirming King's status as a "master"--with a mass-produced commercial art form like comics, it's easy sometimes to fall into the nostalgia trap and equate "old" with "good," so it's nice to have reminders that King et al really were the best.
As the exhibit progressed along a strict chronological progression, the evolution (some might say devolution) of newspaper comics came into focus. After McCay came Lyonel Feininger, whose Wee Willy Winkie
and The Kinder-Kids
were similar thematically to Little Nemo
, but were drawn in a looser, more abstract and oddly sinister style, instead of McCay's meticulous architectural renderings. Then came George Herriman and Krazy Kat
, which moved even further away from realism; the backgrounds of a typical Krazy Kat
strip are abstract moonscapes, while the characters are cartoony, anthropomorphized animals. Krazy and Ignatz are characters we could see on a comics page today, while Nemo and the Kinder-Kids would look completely alien. Herriman also used language in a way that McCay and Feininger, whose prose was largely functional at best, did not--the idiosyncratic dialect of Krazy and Ignatz still has yet to be equaled on the comics page.
Frank King's Gasoline Alley
was one of the major revelations of the show for me; though I was aware of King's reputation, thanks to Drawn & Quarterly's new Walt & Skeezix
reprint series, I had never seen any of King's work. But seeing his work in the exhibit made it clear why people like Chris Ware (who edits Walt & Skeezix
) revere him. His Sunday pages are similar to McCay's in scale, detail and the use of nuanced color, but Gasoline Alley
shares little of Little Nemo
's whimsy, and even less of the gag humor so typical of newspaper comics. King's great innovation was to have his characters age in real time (unlike perpetually youthful Charlie Brown or Calvin), and so Gasoline Alley
becomes this unfolding drama made up of the small, seemingly mundane moments in its characters' lives. Because time passes in the strip as it does in real life, it's the only strip in the exhibit to acknowledge, in a real way, the possibility of death--Ignatz will always throw bricks at Krazy, Nemo will always wake up from his dreams, Lucy will always pull the football away just as Charlie Brown tries to kick it, but there is no such certainty for Walt and Skeezix. One of the more beautiful pages in the exhibit simply showed Walt and Skeezix walking through a landscape, commenting on Nature's artistic abilities--it wasn't particularly funny, it wasn't very cute, but it was suffused with this longing for beauty and a resigned acknowledgment of beauty's ephemerality, all told through a metaphor that could only be done in comics.
The King exhibit did illustrate one of the shortcomings of the show, however: there was little tangible acknowledgement of the influence these artists had on other artists (both other "Masters" and those not in the exhibit). For example, King was a clear influence on Chris Ware, but at least at the Hammer there was no side-by-side comparison to show how King's use of color and innovative page layouts influenced, say, Jimmy Corrigan
. And elsewhere, what struck me most about Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates
originals was how much his brushed inking style looks like that of Charles Burns
. Or how the squared-off mien of Chester Gould's Dick Tracy anticipated Marv from Frank Miller's Sin City
--actually, looking at Gould's use of shadow, and his experiments with rain and snow effects, it's hard not to see Sin City
as one big Dick Tracy
homage. Granted, this kind of comparison is perhaps beyond the scope of an exhibit whose stated goal is simply to showcase the work of fifteen great comics artists, but I thought it would have been nice to see nonetheless.
The show ended with a large retrospective of Charles Schulz's Peanuts
, by far the most well-known work in the Hammer's half of the exhibit (EC Segar's Popeye
is likely in second place). Peanuts
, though equally worthy, is almost diametrically opposed to Little Nemo
in every way. Nemo
was largely concerned with visual spectacle; Peanuts
, with internal conflicts. Nemo
represented a time when Sunday comics took up an entire newspaper page; Peanuts
was the great harbinger of the gag strip, which could be miniaturized to ridiculous degrees, allowing editors to cram more comics onto the funny pages. It's fitting that Schulz is the last artist in the exhibit to work primarily in newspaper comics--the artists in MOCA's half of the show worked mainly in comic books--because, for better or worse (no pun intended), Peanuts
' debut in 1950 set the tone for the next half-century of newspaper comics. Every newspaper cartoonist since then has worked in Schulz's shadow, and arguably none have equaled his artistic achievements. Maybe Watterson, possibly Trudeau, but beyond that, who? Schulz's portion of the exhibit spans fifty years by itself, and though in his later years other strips (notably Calvin & Hobbes
) supplanted Peanuts
as the best thing on the comics pages, as a consummate artist for those fifty years he was untouchable.
If there was one major shortcoming to the exhibit, it was the apparent lack of rhyme or reason to which works were selected for each artist. This is likely due to the curators simply selecting what was available--I can imagine there not being much, particularly for the earlier artists. But though the exhibit as a whole presented a logical journey through fifty years of comics, the individual artists' segments were more-or-less haphazard. It would have been nice to see an extended, unbroken run of Gasoline Alley
continuity, for example, or a collection of Lucy-the-psychiatrist gags over the years from Peanuts
. But on the whole, simply seeing this art in its original format was enough to enthrall this longtime comics reader, and I can imagine that for the neophyte the exhibit will open up a whole new world.