Tag Archives: Neil Gaiman

Luna: the UK premiere of Dave McKean’s new film

2 Oct

Luna

Finally, illustrator turned film-maker Dave McKean has unveiled his long-awaited Luna, which had its UK premiere last night as part of the Raindance Film Festival. I caught it with my son Sam, who loved it. The last time we saw a Dave McKean film together, which was the Neil Gaiman-scripted fantasy Mirrormask, Sam was a wide-eyed kid of nine. Now he’s 18 years old and making films himself. I say this by way of illustrating what a long and tortuous road it is to make an indie film in the UK: Luna was actually shot seven years ago, but it’s taken this long to raise the funding for special effects and post-production.

So – what of the film? I don’t want to say too much, as Luna is still on the festival circuit and not yet on general release (there will be screenings in Picturehouse cinemas across the UK). Let’s just say that it’s a The Big Chill type of scenario, where old friends meet after a long gap in a big old house with a dark past by the sea, and gradually buried secrets and long-held grievances are teased out. But, this being Dave McKean, you can also throw in fawn-antlered wood-children, origami crabs springing to life, and a naked eagle-man of the rocks.

At the Q&A afterwards, Sam asked Dave about a key dinner-table monologue in the film, concerning the blurring of fantasy and reality: how there’s no such thing as an objective, absolute reality when reality is only what we perceive it to be, and when the way our brains process information (particularly when under stress, or grieving) will be very individual.

“That’s my own manifesto,” Dave agreed. “I’m an absolute realist, I don’t believe in anything supernatural, but the way our brains interpret the world and deal with it is where all my stories come from.

“You see, this is real, right here, right now,” he continued, gesturing at the cinema. “But there’s a great, swirling wall of our imagination surrounding this little piece of reality in the centre. In an hour, we’ll all be elsewhere, and doing other things, and you’ll each have a different memory of what I said here, or your own different interpretation of what the film was about.”

Dave is a prodigious talent. He’s designed over 100 album covers; illustrated numerous children’s books as well as, in the last year alone, fat coffee-table books for Richard Dawkins and Heston Blumenthal; he’s written and drawn graphic novels and the covers for all the Sandman comics; he designed the British Library’s recent Comics Unmasked exhibition and the poster for their forthcoming Gothic exhibition; he’s made stamps, and adverts, and worked on Harry Potter films, and held art exhibitions. Oh, and he plays jazz piano and composes songs, including for Luna (though don’t think I didn’t notice the Douglas Adams steal/homage in the song Words!).

In film terms, he is perhaps best described as the UK’s answer to Guillermo Del Toro, though he is also very different. This is what Neil Gaiman has to say about him.

And still he has trouble getting his movies funded and distributed? Sometimes one despairs of the British film “industry”.

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Comics Unmasked: Sunday Times plays supervillain

18 May

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On Saturday I went to the British Library’s Comics Unmasked: Art & Anarchy in the UK. It had its flaws, which I will come to, but the biggest flaw it highlights is that there has never before been such a large-scale exhibition on comics in the UK. Seriously? When the biggest blockbusters in Hollywood are powered by comic books, many of them heavily influenced by the revisionist approach of UK creators such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis and Mark Millar?

Then today I read Waldemar Januszczak’s demolition job in the Sunday Times. He couldn’t believe the British Library had devoted so much space to such a “lurid and misguided” exhibition. The only thing he could find to admire in the whole thing, I kid you not, was a speech bubble at the start with a quotation from professional controversialist Julie Burchill (gawd love ‘er): “Comic books for adults is a complete contradiction in terms, as anyone who reads comics is not an adult and should have their voting rights removed ASAP.”

He picks holes in the scholarship: a) The exhibition opens with Punch who, as any fule kno, sprang from commedia dell’arte rather than comics. Does he seriously imagine co-curators Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning are unaware of this? The point is that it sets the tone for the “Art and Anarchy” sub-line, as well as referencing the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, who art-directed the exhibition. b) The catalogue,  Januszczak complains, “describes Sergeant (sic) Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as ‘the album that kicked off the ‘Swinging ’60s’, even though it came out in 1967”. That’s not too far off: the ‘60s only become known as swinging half-way through, and Sgt. Pepper’s was a defining moment. It’s certainly not worth point-scoring over.

More foolishly, Januszczak pillories the exhibition for its focus on Alan Moore, “who gets more namechecks here than Popeye had cans of spinach”, which is as ludicrous and, frankly, embarrassing a criticism as if the Sunday Times’s theatre critic had lamented that there were far too many productions of Shakespeare being staged.

Januszczak does hit on a couple of genuine problems. To pick a single spread from a comic, and mount it in a glass case, is like showing two seconds from a film: those unfamiliar with the comic will get little idea of why it is exceptional; and the brief accompanying captions are unequal to the task of explaining it. [Though that’s why iPads are also provided with complete comics loaded, albeit an unexceptional selection.]

And organising the exhibition thematically into sections such as sex, politics, society and altered states (I paraphrase their more elegant titles; see below) does work well on its own terms, but may leave comics neophytes such as Januszczak wanting a more explanatory overview.

But these are small criticisms. The curators have dug up a wealth of content, sourcing original artwork and scripts from comics creators, and delving into the British Library’s archive to uncover historical gems such as a Biblia Pauperum (poor person’s bible) from 1470 with an illustrated account of the Book of Revelations; a contemporary knock-off copy of Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress with several panels on a single page, as a comic book might have; or serialised illustrated stories from the Glasgow Looking Glass in 1825, which Gravett says could be seen as the first true comic. And the whole thing is beautifully put together by Dave McKean, with a strikingly simple and clever 3D opening which I won’t spoil for you.

As Neil Gaiman said to me when I interviewed him for a feature in Where London magazine about Comics Unmasked, “When I was a young man I talked them into giving me a British Library Card so I could read rare books. It came in handy when Alan Moore needed a researcher on From Hell. The idea that one day the comics we were writing would be exhibited and displayed there, the idea that they would look up and realise and acknowledge that something unique had happened, was a pipe-dream of some far-off utopia. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

 

Paul GravettCurator Paul Gravett

If you want to know more about the exhibition, I also interviewed co-curator Paul Gravett (left) for the Where London feature. Some details will have changed since we spoke, a few weeks back, but these are the highlights of each section, in his own words:

Mirth and Mayhem: “This looks at the links between slapstick comedy and dark, nasty violence. Obviously that includes British humour comics like The Beano, and more recently Preacher. But it also goes back to the 50s, when there were a lot of scare stories about comics. Ironically, one of the campaigners against them was the Communist Party, who had their own reasons for not liking ‘capitalist’ American superheroes, but a lot of edgy, counter-cultural stuff got caught up in that too.”

To See Ourselves: “This is comics as a mirror – possibly a distorted, funhouse mirror – in which British society is reflected. We explore recent developments in autobiography: Spiral Cage, by Al Davison,  about his lifelong struggle with spina bifida; Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry’s semi-autobiographical comic about a kid who cross-dresses; and The Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary and Bryan Talbot, which won the 2012 Costa biography award.”

Politics, Power and The People: “This starts with how leaders are depicted. It includes Tony & Me By Georg Bush, As Told to Dr Parsons, which is drawn like a five-year-old and full of spelling errors; a very funny satire of that ‘special relationship’.  There are two very interesting comics dealing with racism: one from the Young National Front, which explains to members what to do if they get into trouble with the police; and on the other side the Anti-Nazi League, whose Action Pact comic features a white guy and a black guy who get superpowers and defeat the National Front dressed in Ku Klux Klan outfits. We end with V for Vendetta and the way its Guy Fawkes mask has become such a potent symbol for the Occupy movement.”

Let’s Talk About Sex: “This covers erotica right up to Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls, in which a grown-up Wendy from Peter Pan, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and Alice from Wonderland get up to all sorts of sexual discovery in a mountain resort on the eve of World War I. It also covers the two big obscenity trials of the ‘70s: of Oz magazine and Nasty Tales. The exhibition is not recommended for under-16s, and this section is slightly separate and clearly indicated so that parents can take any kids straight past to the superhero section.”

Hero With A Thousand Faces: “We could so easily have turned this into a superhero theme park, but its main focus is to look at the enormous impact of UK creators on American comics: writers such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Mark ‘Kick Ass’ Millar. As outsiders, they were able to challenge the conventions of the genre.”

Breakdowns: “This is quite a complex section that covers magic and drugs and altered states. Alan Moore and Grant Morrison both use magic to help in the creative process. We have John Dee’s book of spells, Aleister Crowley’s Tarot cards, Moore’s Promethea comics, and the underground comics of the ‘70s. We’re also not just talking about altered states of mind, here, but the altered state of comics – going into digital, or installations. Throughout the exhibition we provide iPads on which to view comics, and here we have a whole section on Jamie Hewlett’s cartoon music group Gorillaz. You really could spend the whole day in here!”

 

 

 

 

The British Museum’s metrosexual Vikings are no good for Hollywood

6 Mar

Swords and skeletons! Giant longships and hoards of coins! Sorcerers’ staffs and, er, chess pieces! Today is the opening of the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition at the British Museum. I write about my guided tour from the curator in the International Business Times (click to read), as well as the cover feature in Where London magazine.

One of the sad things about getting better educated about the Vikings is what that does to the films I love. [There is a commendably obsessive website that reviews every Viking-related film ever made, right down to Roger Corman’s best-forgotten The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957). Try sticking that on a cinema marquee in huge type.] The Vikings weren’t all about warfare, despite their scarily filed teeth and weird hair (shaved at the back, long at the front). They were traders, settlers, explorers, farmers. And, worst of all, they were rather picky about their grooming.

Far from being the football hooligans and punk rockers of the Middle Ages, they were in fact the metrosexuals. Contemporaries disapproved of their excessive cleanliness in washing every Saturday. Archaeological digs keep unearthing combs, tweezers, and ear spoons for removing wax – there is a gold one in the exhibition. They even dyed their hair blond. Thor, on the other hand, had red hair, despite what Chris Hemsworth would have you believe, so bang goes the Marvel franchise.

Still, we can at least look forward to the TV miniseries of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which though no longer with HBO was picked up last month by FremantleMedia. The facts can’t argue with an out-and-out fantasy.

The book cleverly posits that the powers of gods are in direct proportion to the fervour of worship they receive. Thus Odin, having sailed across to America with the Viking explorers at the turn of the first millennium, finds himself in the present day with greatly diminished powers, performing magical parlour tricks, as he wanders the land with other forgotten gods from Egypt and elsewhere.

And as to whether the Vikings really sat around the table singing about spam, I also ate the Viking Set Menu at the Great Court Restaurant: see here.

What a wunch of bankers*: The Wolf of Wall Street

22 Jan

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Thank god for Martin Scorsese. Here he is, at 71, still making big, brash, riotously entertaining films that take on weighty American topics without fear of the controversy they will inevitably cause: in this case that wunch of bankers in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Loads has been written already about how immoral/amoral the film is, in not showing the victims of Jordan Belfort’s crimes; and how chauvinistic the film is, with its lashings of ripe female flesh and its rampantly misogynistic office culture. But all this is wide of the mark, because I think the real point is this: The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the finest examples of an “unreliable narrator” since The Catcher in the Rye.

Right from the off, it’s made clear that this film will be Belfort’s version of the truth. Not only does he provide the voice-over, in the first few minutes we see him driving a red Ferrari – only for that Ferrari to change to white as he informs us: “No, not a red Ferrari, a white one like Don Johnson in Miami Vice.”

This provides some of the funniest moments: particularly when, after a massive Quaalude bender, Belfort somehow steers his car home unscathed. Leonardo DiCaprio’s physical comedy here, dragging himself along the floor to the wheel, is what surely earned him his Oscar nomination; but the real joke is at the end of this sequence. The police come to arrest Belfort the next morning; confused, he exits his mansion to see the beautiful car totally destroyed, with the back wheel hanging off and bits of tree still attached to its dents. Only then does the film replay the true version of his drugged-up drive home.

Belfort clearly has no remorse for his victims, and nor does the film. Belfort has a predatory, proprietary approach to women, somehow still believing he treats his wife well until the moment she dumps him, and so does the film.

I don’t believe it’s the job of a film, or any work of art, to be socially responsible. The Wolf of Wall Street clearly isn’t; it’s much too much fun, and the consequences too inconsequential, to be seen as a cautionary tale. No wonder bankers are treating it as a “how-to” lesson, which is a problem for the rest of us: it is their world, and sadly we all have to live in it.

No, the job of art is to be true to itself, which this is, up to a point. The problem here is that, in providing only Belfort’s viewpoint, we get no closer to the real truth: what really motivated and drove his insatiable greed and ambition; or why his father, who worked for him, made no real attempt to provide a moral compass.

Oh well. This is, in bits, one of the funniest films of the year. Sometimes it’s in a frat-house way, such as the introduction of the preternaturally beautiful woman Belfort would marry: “I would f*** that girl if she was my sister!” says one colleague. “I would let her give me f***ing AIDS!” A drugged-up Jonah Hill (brilliant; could easily win Best Supporting Actor) simply whips out his schlong and starts masturbating in the middle of the party.

But often the humour is quite subtle. Discussing the hiring of dwarfs for an office game of dwarf-tossing (yes, this was a thing in the ‘80s), Belfort earnestly stresses that “safety is paramount”. He then elaborates: “I think we should have tranquilliser guns on standby in case the dwarves get mad.”

* With thanks to Neil Gaiman for the headline. Discussing the term “a murder of crows” many years back, he told me the collective noun for bankers: “It’s a wunch,” he said. “As in, ‘what a wunch of bankers’.”

Exclusive: The Exorcist to air on Radio 4

30 Nov

ImageFirst the Jimmy Savile scandal for Radio 1, now Radio 4 is set to scandalise its listeners with the news, which I can exclusively reveal, that it has just bought the rights to The Exorcist. The radio adaptation will be aired next year. The horror film caused a sensation in 1973, with its scenes of projectile vomiting, head-twisting and sexual uses for a crucifix by a 12-year-old girl. Barf bags were issued in cinemas for patrons. When the film was released in the UK, it was banned by several councils, and was not awarded a video certification until 1999.

Jeremy Howe, Radio 4’s Commissioning Editor for Drama, made the revelation at the London Screenwriters’ Festival. “Horror is an underexplored genre for us,” said Howe, with commendable understatement, saying he was keen to diversify Radio 4’s drama output.

In May Morgan Creek announced it would make a ten-part TV series based on The Exorcist, to which original director William Friedkin tweeted, “There is no way I would even watch it”, and author William Peter Blatty cast doubt on the announcement by saying he had not cleared the rights to his book.

ImageRadio 4 clearly has ambitions to reach out to a new demongraphic, sorry, demographic. Yesterday Neil Gaiman announced on his blog that Radio 4 was adapting Neverwhere, his fantastical vision of an alternative London beneath our feet. It was mishandled as a BBC TV series in 1996, which couldn’t seem to decide whether to pitch it at adults or children. It should work well on radio, and has attracted a stellar cast: James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anthony Head, Natalie Domer and, yes, Christopher Lee. “This makes me happier than I have any right to be,” commented Neil.

It’s Radio 4, let’s not forget, that was the original home of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, still superior to the TV or film versions. Caroline Raphael, BBC Radio’s Commissioning Editor for Comedy, points out that radio can be far more “cinematic” than film can: “Johnny Vegas calls radio ‘the CGI of the soul’,” said Raphael at the Screenwriters’ Festival. “You can do epic things that otherwise you can only do with a huge film budget.”