Posts Tagged ‘daniel clowes’

Perhaps the most interesting thing about following the “career arc” of cartoonist/screenwriter Daniel Clowes is noticing the subtle shift that his work has taken toward the cautiously optimistic over the years. I’ve been a major fan of his for about as long as he’s been at it, and there’s not a single of his “major” works that I don’t consider to be flat-out masterful, but the outright nihilism of Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron shifted a few degrees toward the sympathetic unease of Ghost World , which then gave way to the happy-but-ultimately doomed resolution of David Boring, and then the bleak everyday hopelessness of Ice Haven and the quiet loss of a largely illusory past in The Death-Ray. One way or another, though, the message always seemed to be a variation on the idea that we were all destined to be slowly and silently crushed by the weight of silent but ever-present cosmic forces beyond our very comprehension, much less our control, and while later, post-Eightball graphic novels/novellas such as WilsonMister Wonderful, and the recently-published Patience don’t necessarily contradict that premise, they do each offer something of a suggestion that there’s a way to at least peacefully give in to, perhaps even co-exist with, this awareness of the inevitable. If you think about the fact that every day brings us one step nearer to the grave and that we’re each of us prisoners of our own foibles and shortcomings, sure, it would be enough to drive you nuts — but if you quit fighting against all that and instead call some sort of truce with with it, who knows? Maybe you’ll find some sort of contentment, perhaps even a semblance of happiness. It’s worth a try, at any rate.

The first two cinematic adaptations of Clowes’ work, Ghost World and Art School Confidential, offered reasonable-enough approximations of the core ideas explored by each on the comics page, and certainly director Terry Zwigoff seemed sympathetic to the idea of maintaining their integrity, but either a lot was lost in translation (Ghost World) or too much was added to it (Art School Confidential), resulting in a couple of films that were, at least in my view, rather up-and-down affairs. I certainly recommend seeing both, but I can’t pretend that they’re altogether successful. In certain respects they’re wildly so, but in others, they try hard but still miss the mark.

Which brings us up to the now. Working once again from a screenplay by the cartoonist himself, director Craig Johnson went off and made his own film (in my hometown of Minneapolis, no less — great to see my parents’ building on the screen as well as an appearance from Joe Minjares, owner of local Mexican restaurant institution Pepito’s, as a cab driver) without the same level of day-to-day involvement that Zwigoff afforded/extended to his collaborator. Surprisingly, the end result is probably the most faithful, in terms of both tone and content, of any of the “Clowes flicks,” and also the best of the bunch. Don’t ask me how that came to pass, but I’m downright ecstatic that it did.

The idea that the titular one-named character of Wilson is a stand-in for his creator is certainly accentuated by the uncanny physical resemblance achieved by star Woody Harrelson, but in many ways he’s more the sort of “unconventional everyman” we all know : the middle-aged guy who never “got his shit together” (there’s no mention of him having a job, for instance) and seems as lost at 50 as he was at 30 — heck, at 20. A lot of that is down to his own immaturity, to be sure, but he’s so ultimately harmless (to others, that is) that he’s definitely plenty lovable despite not being particularly likable. Still, even for a person this stuck in their ways, things happen that subtly shift their perspective, and for Wilson, the death of his largely-estranged father kicks off a bout of fear of his own mortality that sends him on a low-key odyssey to get back in touch with his fallen-on-hard-times ex-wife, Pippi (played by the always-exceptional Laura Dern), only to learn he has a now-teenage daughter named Claire (Isabella Amara) that he never knew about and who was given up for adoption. When the now-reunited “lovers” decide to interject themselves into their offspring’s life you know it’s going to go south, but watching it happen is both strangely heartwarming and massively entertaining. Wilson is an off-kilter personality, to be sure, but even at his weirdest he doesn’t do anything you couldn’t see someone vaguely like him doing, and Harrelson is never less than more or less perfect in what feels like a role he was born to play. When things do go off the rails for him thanks to a confrontation between Pippi and her neurotic, hyper-competitive, malicious sister, Polly (Cheryl Hines), they really go off the rails, but the absurdity of ensuing events is more than mitigated — heck, it’s made doubly believable — by the relentlessly low-key, “we’ll get through this” tone adopted by Johnson and channeled through his terrific cast. Clowes’ graphic novel employed the inventive conceit of telling its story by means of a series of one-page strips illustrated in a rotation of easily-recognizable “Sunday Funnies” styles, and while that would be impossible to faithfully translate visually to film without being jarring, the easy-going flow Johnson establishes at the outset and sticks to throughout cleaves to the temperament inherent in the book without being slavishly beholden to its exact technique. It works marvelously, in case you hadn’t already figured that much out, and if you’re not utterly engrossed by this film’s easy-going humor, lovingly-illustrated losers, and deep (without being overbearing) implicit understanding of the human condition, shit — I don’t know what it takes to make you happy.

And for much of the film, Wilson doesn’t seem to know what it will really take to make himself happy, either — he’s grasping for a “happily ever after” that never feels entirely out of reach, but his ill-considered actions ensure that he’s never more than a false move or two away from fucking it all up, either. The late-game arrival of his long-suffering dog-sitter, Shelly (Judy Greer), in a more prominent role in his life offers a last chance to get things right, but, as with all things, that could go either way, too. You can’t help but root for Wilson (heck, for everyone) until right up to the end, but unless and until he learns to find a measure of appreciation for what he has and how to let go of the way he wishes things could be, the ever-present, if largely unremarked-upon, tension that has underpinned his entire adult life will continue unabated. Watching how this all plays out is yet another of the film’s central joys, and even though Wilson’s utter cluelessness can be infuriating, it’s somehow never annoying. That takes deft scripting, direction, and acting to pull off, and damn if all parts of that trifecta aren’t present and accounted for here.

Everyday life is a deeply complex and multi-faceted affair even at its most purportedly “easy” times, and even if we don’t see it as such while it’s happening. Wilson is an unassumingly honest and humane reminder that even at its lowest ebb, there is something very much akin to magic to be found in it — if only we can allow ourselves to be our own best friend rather than our own worst enemy.

Patience

And so — here it is. Five years on from the release of his last original graphic novel, Wilson, comes (at long last) the ironically-titled Patience, Daniel Clowes’  self-described “cosmic timewarp deathtrip to the primordial infinite of everlasting love.” Which only sounds like it doesn’t make any sense but is, in actuality, a stellar example of truth in advertising.

Confused yet? There’s really no need to be, even though Patience hails from that frequently-most-confusing-of-all genres, the time-travel story (I won’t call it  science fiction because the “science” involved in this book is clearly and plainly absolute hokum) — and that’s down to the simple fact that Clowes actually keeps things fairly straight-forward here, and is, as always, much more concerned with his characters than he is with the plot devices he employs getting them from their various “Point A”s to their “Point B”s. And frankly, those characters feel pretty well instantly familiar to anyone who’s followed his creative oeuvre through the decades.

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Our protagonist this time out is one Jack Barlow, at first glance a standard-issue luckless Clowesian archetype who has found what passes for undeserved salvation in the form of his wife, the titular Patience, and their soon-to-be-born first child (the story, in fact, opens with the moment of the baby’s conception detailed in stark close-up). Sure, they’re broke, and sure, he’s bullshitting her about a job he doesn’t really have, and sure, she’s still coming to grips with her fucked-up past, but somehow — some way — Jack just knows things are gonna work out. Until an intruder breaks into their apartment and kills Patience, their unborn offspring, and his entire future in one go.

When next we meet him Jack’s a bitter old man in the year 2029 who hasn’t allowed himself a moment’s happiness in 17 years. A crackpot would-be scientist offers a “solution” most would scoff at in the form of a mechanical-and-drug-induced time travel method, and our now-pathetically-desperate “hero” is just dumb and/or bottomed-out enough to give it a go. Lo and behold it works, of course, and as we journey from 2029 to 2006 to 1985 to, eventually, the “present” (okay, 2012) again, what changes even more than the  period settings is Jack’s level of single-minded, frankly harrowing, determination. We’ve already established (or at least I’ve opined) that all Clowes stories are character studies first and foremost, and obsession is common theme in his work that goes all the way back to Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron‘s Clay and absolutely informs each and every action of the title characters in David Boring and Wilson. One could also argue, though — and quite successfully — that characters like Ghost World‘s Enid and Mister Wonderful‘s Marshall are clearly obsessives in their own right, as well. So, yeah — familiar turf here for anyone who’s been following along since Eightball.

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Don’t take that to mean that that there’s nothing new under the sun with this story, though. Clowes has played in various genre sandboxes before, of course, from super-heroes to surrealism to autobiography to noir fiction (elements of which certainly make their presence felt here in Jack’s constantly-running, world-weary internal monologue that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Raymond Chandler novel — hmm, Barlow as Marlowe?), but never has he wedded a deconstruction of their trappings so closely with the overall “arc” of his characters. And never has he given his typically-unlikable central figure such a concrete and well-realized reason for being a self-centered ass — nor to, believe it or not, cheer for him. Or at the very least for his aims.

Maybe the years are mellowing Clowes, or maybe he’s just adopted a more holistic view of the human condition for reasons known only to him, but whatever the reason,  redemption never feels completely out of reach for Jack in these pages and, more crucially, we never feel like he, his wife, and his child don’t have it coming. Especially not after all they’ve been through.  Jack in particular may not always be easy to like — but he’s always easy to empathize with, and that speaks to a further maturation and honing of his creator’s already-exceptional storytelling skills.

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As far as the art in Patience is concerned, Clowes’ line-work is a bit less “tight,” and more “free-form,” than it used to be, and while every page of every panel is still instantly recognizable as coming from his hand, there’s a fluidity and dynamism to it that is a more recent — and entirely welcome — development. The psychedelic double-page spreads (such as the one pictured above) that we’re treated to here probably would have missed the mark by at least a hair if attempted by the Daniel Clowes of, say, 1996, but the Daniel Clowes of 2016 absolutely nails ’em with every bit as much bravado and confidence as he brings to the refreshingly- non-photo-referenced images of 1985 and 2006 bleak American suburbia. This is, simply put, an astonishing book to look at, and the lavish colors are the perfect icing on the metaphorical cake.

At the end of the day it’s, of course, an astonishing book to read. I’ve made it through Patience, cover-to-cover, twice now, and I have no doubt that many more a sitting will be spent eagerly re-examining its contents. We’re barely over three months into 2016, it’s true, but barring an absolute miracle of Earth-shaking proportions, I fully well expect this to go down as the graphic novel of the year — if not of the last several.

 

While many of his contemporaries from the late-80s/early-90s “alternative comix” scene have either mellowed with age or disappeared completely, Eightball creator Daniel Clowes — perhaps best known to regular readers of this blog as the screenwriter of Ghost World and Art School Confidential — seems to be gaining a deeper, if ultimately more pessimistic, handle on the human psyche over the years, and while new work from his strikingly able pen appears at what could generously be called a snail’s pace at best, the meticulous nature of both his artwork and his economic and incisive scripting demonstrates that he’s certainly not resting on his laurels.

Case in point — The Death-Ray, originally published by Fantagraphics Books in 2004 as (to date) the final issue of his previously-mentioned Eightball series and recently reissued in a handsome, oversized hardcover edition from Drawn & Quarterly, is nothing less than a disarmingly bleak masterwork that’s stunning to look at and oftentimes painfully, albeit gorgeously, misanthropic in tone. The title of one of Clowes’ earlier lengthy serials was Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, and this book definitely packs a wallop underneath its lush, even soothing at times, visuals.

The story presented here of orphan-turned-teen-outcast Andy, a casually misanthropic (mostly) loner who acquires remarkable super powers through remarkably outrageous means (see the panel reproduced above for a clue) and also happens upon the titular “death-ray” gun that can instantly wipe anyone or anything completely out of existence, is, on one level, a pretty simple meditation upon the old “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” slice of conventional wisdom, but it’s also much more — a stark portrayal of deepening alienation that sets in slowly over the years and it’s resultant heart-hardening and conscience-numbing; a requiem for lost loved ones we never really knew; and a simple yet profound study of two friends who drift apart over time, all related through a series of what by all rights should be hopelessly disjointed short comic-strip vignettes that vary nearly schizophrenically in tone and style, yet flow from one to the next with grace, ease, and confidence in service of producing what ultimately reveals itself to be a jaw-droppingly seamless whole.It’s also a perfect example of how to subvert reader expectations — the more we see of Andy as the years progress, the more distant he becomes; the more we find ourselves able to predict his actions (and his targets), the less we can relate to him; the more casual and nonchalant his violence, the more it shocks us. As we watch a tragic figure devolve into a monstrous one, we can’t seem to fight it when our pity turns to despair turns to disgust. It’s an emotional roller-coaster ride delivered with a dead-pan, entirely matter-of-fact sense of almost clinical detachment. Camus in the American suburbs.

Andy’s story doesn’t end so much as it simply stops, with Clowes presenting the reader with a number of potential conclusions to the story in “choose your own adventure” style, but in all honesty, while this sounds like a bit of a cheat, if you’ve gone with his flow to this point it actually feels not only fitting but necessary, since a hard-and-fast resolution would, in fact, betray the tone of everything that has gone before by interjecting hard-and-fast authorial manipulation into a work that’s been meticulously constructed to avoid any semblance of it from the outset. Clowes’ style here has the distinct flavor of a true documentarian, even if the people and events he’s portraying are entirely fictitious.If there’s one minor quibble I have with The Death-Ray, it’s that $19.95 (assuming you pay full price) is an awful lot to shell out for a book that’s only 48 pages in length, even if those 48 pages are dimensionally more than generous and reproduce the varied-in-style-but-uniformly-stark-and-exquistite artwork in luscious, vibrant detail. It’s a just a damn hefty price tag, plain and simple. Still, this is a work that rewards rereading and careful analysis and can be viewed and interpreted in so many different ways that it’s downright impossible not to ultimately get your money’s worth from it. As rich, complex, and challenging a piece of graphic fiction as you’re ever likely to find, that presents no easy answers — or any answers at all, for that matter — yet resonates with an internal truth all its own, The Death-Ray numbers among a small handful of books that well and truly show comics to be a medium as limitless in terms of their possibilities as film or literature.

These days, everything’s viral. Seriously, you can’t even have a good, old-fashioned shouting match with your significant other without running the risk that the whole thing — or snippets conveniently edited to portray you in the worst possible light — end up on YouTube. If it sounds like I speak from personal experience, I can happily report that I don’t. That doesn’t mean I don’t live in a permanent state of fear that it could happen, though.

In the late ’80s, though, that wasn’t the case. The average person had a degree of privacy — or better yet, the even-more-preferable-yet- now-even-more-alien concept of anonymity — that one has to go actively out of their way to achieve these days. Basically, if you wanted to get the level of notoriety that so many instant internet sensations either have thrust upon them or, more perversely, go out of their way to cultivate in this day and age, you had to seriously piss somebody off.

Enter San-Franciscans-by-way-of-Wisconsin Mitchell D (real name Mitch Deprey) and Eddie Lee Sausage (real name who the fuck knows) and their two (well, three if you count Tony, but more on him later) elderly, alcoholic neighbors, Peter Haskett and Raymond Huffman. Little did Eddie n’ Mitch know when they moved into the notch-above-skid-row apartment that they less-than-affectionately dubbed the “Pepto-Bismol palace” in late 1987 (due to its nauseating pasty-pink paint job) that the old-timers in the unit next door would keep them up all night with their knock-down,drag-out, verbally (and occasionally physically) violent inebriated uber-arguments.

Given that Haskett, a flamboyant homosexual, and Huffman, a raving homophobe (talk about a truly odd couple), were both long-term welfare recipients, they didn’t have jobs to get up and head for in the morning, so the very concept of time seemed downright lost on them and the fact that their brains were both pickled from countless decades of alcohol abuse didn’t help matters much, either. After a few weeks, our intrepid midwestern transplants decided they’d had enough, and set about recording the nightly wars-of-words next door through the apartment’s paper-thin walls when a first attempt at asking them nicely to tone things down resulted in death threats.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Mitch was into recording mixed tapes for his friends and would often include choice segments of Peter and Raymond’s — uhhhmmm — “dialogues” in between songs for a laugh. As time went by and their recording of the less-than-dynamic duo next door became more blatantly obvious (and you won’t believe how blatantly obvious until you see the film), they eventually started putting together 60-minute cassettes of nothing but Monsieurs Haskett and Huffman raving at each other. Their friends would pass the tapes on to their friends, who would pass them on to their friends, who would pass them on to their friends — and eventually the phenomenon known as “Shut Up, Little Man!,” the title taken from Peter’s favorite expressive command directed (several times per day, apparently) at Raymond was born.

And so was a semi-profitable, if non-copyrighted, mail-order business. When Mitch and Eddie left the cozy confines of the “Pepto-Bismol palace” and returned to the midwest (Mitch to Ohio, Eddie back to Wisconsin), they began selling tapes of the “best” of Pete n’ Ray. The tapes begat CDs. The CDs begat comic books. The comic books begat a stage play. The stage play begat movie production deals (no less than three at one time, although only one had involvement from Senors D and Sausage themselves —for the record none of them went anywhere due to the obvious legal implications of semi-surreptitiously recording these guys in the first place). And by the time our intrepid audio engineers decided to get off the fence and actually copyright this material, the whole thing was out of their hands.

Australian director Matthew Bate’s new documentary (well, new on DVD at any rate — it played the film-festival circuit last year and is now available for home viewing from New Video as part of the Tribeca Film Festival DVD series (sponsored, as they prominently remind you all the goddamn time all over the disc’s start-up and extras menus, by American Express) — it’s presented in 5.1 surround sound with a widescreen picture and extras include re-creations of some of Pete and Ray’s more memorable arguments by a couple of actors, a return visit to the freshly-painted “Pept-Bismol palace” by Eddie and Mitch, and an extended interview with Ivan Brunetti (who we’ll get to in a second), for those of you who keep track of such things when weighing a potential purchase or rental), Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure, is frankly more about the convoluted twists and turns of all these divergent projects spun off from the original “Shut Up, Little Man!” recordings took than it is about any of the principles themselves, with “celebrity” (of a sort, at any rate) fans like comic artists Daniel Clowes and Ivan Brunetti and Mark Mothersbaugh of DEVO offering their takes on the genuinely underground phenomenon, but at its heart it does return to the question all of us dedicated fans of SULM! have had over the years, namely — just what was the nature of the relationship between Raymond and Peter and why the hell did they keep living together all those years if they obviously hated each other so much?

Enter Tony, the third wheel on the Haskett-Huffman insanity wagon, a redneck drifter with a violent streak who occasionally crashed out at Pete and Ray’s place and is the only surviving member of the trio, Raymond having passed away back in 1992 with Peter joining him in the afterlife in 1995. There have been as many theories about just who the hell Tony was (were he and Peter lovers? was he just a drinking buddy?) as there have been about why Ray and Pete stayed together (was Raymond a self-loathing homosexual who was secretly in love with Peter but covered for it with his foaming-at-the-mouth anti-gay diatribes? were they a couple at one point in the past?) over the years. Fortunately, for all of us who have wondered about this crap since we first heard the “Shut Up,Little Man!” recordings (my own first exposure came courtesy of noticing the CD in the racks at the late, lamented Let It Be Records in downtown Minneapolis sometime in the mid-1990s and thinking to myself “this looks like something I absolutely must buy!”), Tony agreed (eventually, after much prodding) to talk with Eddie and set the record straight about everything. The answers are both more simple, and infinitely more complex, than we could ever have imagined.

Those answers, along with Mitch and Eddie’s reunion after many years to talk about how the whole experience quite accidentally changed their lives for both better and worse, along with some jaw-droppingly juicy anecdotes in regards to some of the crazy shit that went down amongst the principal players trying to get a “Shut Up, Little Man!” movie production deal off the ground,  give this documentary more humanity than any long-time fan of SULM! probably had any right to expect — but truth be told, if you’re not already familiar with the audio exploits of Haskett and Huffman, there’s not necessarily a lot here for you grab onto and you may feel like everybody’s speaking in a language you don’t quite understand. There’s frankly just not enough given by way of example of the original “Shut Up, Little Man!” recordings to draw in casual viewers on anything but the most cursory level. All of which is probably quite understandable given that the two people this whole things started with are dead and lead lives they could barely remember even when they were around, anyway.

For those already on the wavelength, though, Bate’s Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure is pure gold. As Ray himself might say, go watch it right the fuck now you poor little  goddamn lying piece of shit queer cocksucker.