running words around
design education and visual communication
authored by chris m hughes

Pills, Thrills and (almost) No Bellyaches

Friday, 20 March 2009

In what is certainly a rare change of opinion, I am officially the newest fan of the erstwhile enfant terrible of British Art, Damien Hirst.

This week I took my Graphics students along to the first major Scottish exhibition of works by Hirst (as part of the UK-wide ARTISTS ROOMS project, featuring works from the extensive d'Offay Collection of contemporary art). As well as Hirst there were Rooms devoted to Andy Warhol, Ellen Gallagher and Alex Katz. But the Hirst stuff was definitely the centerpiece, occupying the largest rooms and receiving most of the interest.

I lived in London during the late 90's - the Brit Pop / Cool Britannia heyday - and Hirst was always symbolic of everything that was embarrassing about those times. There is still something limp about his factory-based Warholian fakery, but this collection is genuinely compelling, and the passing of time has improved the contextual merit of the pieces.

The Hirst work includes an early spot painting, Controlled Substances Key Painting, 1994; the famous formaldehyde piece, Away from the Flock, 1995; the more recent triptych,2000; the butterfly diptych, Monument to the Living and the Dead, 2006; and a photograph, With Dead Head, 1981/1991. Also featured are a series of stark minimalist posters depicting pills, prescriptions and pharmacutical language laid out in laboratory-crisp typography.

The obsession with the pharmacological industry and its empty (but expensive) promises to cure society are brilliantly realised in the various media on show. The panels of pills in particular seem to draw you in for an unfeasably long time as you stare at them and muse on the prozac generation, the Thatcher banking boom and the rise and fall of Rave. Its a direct, minimal and clinical approach.

It was also obvious to the students that all the classroom talk of 'concepts' and 'visual clarity' werre perfectly illustrated by an Artist in full control of his ideas. And the reference points are not only obvious but the connections are actually fun to see (and more importantly, to discuss) - Mondrian, Duchamp and Warhol.

It helps that Edinburgh MOMA has some great space in which to view the works, and of course the other artists featured have plenty to offer. So go along and see it. Its free and its too good to miss.

The almost bellyache? The students' indifference to the permananent collection here - almost none of them made it upstairs to the Cubist and Abstract rooms, where the likes of Miro, Ernst, Picasso, Braque, and Mondrian can all be seen, as well as Magritte's surreal masterpiece 'Black Flag'.

Still, they have plenty of time to come around.

Who is Watching the Watchmen?

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Cinema-goers and anyone with even a vague interest in the Graphic Novel will surely have an opinion on Zack Snyder's epic adaptation of 'Watchmen' - Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' classic genre-defining work from 1985.

Some said it couldn't be filmed (including the authors), others said it shouldn't be filmed, and the rest of us just wondered how it ever got finished, given that years of legal wrangling between 20th Century Fox and Warners. Fox eventually won the Warners, who had optioned the script from Fox after the latter said that the script was 'unfilmable', eventually lost the case.

I saw the movie last night in Edinburgh and was riveted to my seat for all 9,720 seconds of it. But, rather that post a review myself, I thought I'd briefly note a cross-section of critical reaction. After all, the sense of freedom one gets from reading (and even just flicking through) the book should be what stays with you when you are the one watching the watchmen.

They Loved It

"Fans of Alan Moore's landmark graphic novel, concerning a ring of Gotham superheroes brought out of retirement by an impending nuclear threat, will thrill to every pulpy line of dialogue and bloody act of retribution retained in director Zack Snyder's slavishly faithful adaptation." — Justin Chang, Variety

"Honestly, if I have a complaint it is that the film feels brief to me. Two hours and 40 minutes and it went by like a blink for me. I easily would have patiently sat for another 2 hours, but that's me." — Harry Knowles, Ain't It Cool News

"Another bold exercise in the liberation of the superhero movie. It's a compelling visceral film — sound, images and characters combined into a decidedly odd visual experience that evokes the feel of a graphic novel. It seems charged from within by its power as a fable; we sense it's not interested in a plot so much as with the dilemma of functioning in a world losing hope." — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

They Left Disappointed

"Even 'Watchmen' fanatics may be doomed to a disappointment that results from trying to stay this faithful to a comic book. The opening-credit sequence has a marvelous audacity ... [but] once the film proper begins, Snyder, who did such a terrific job of adapting the solemn Olympian war porn of '300,' treats each image with the same stuffy hermetic reverence. He doesn't move the camera or let the scenes breathe. He crams the film with bits and pieces, trapping his actors like bugs wriggling in the frame." — Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

"Alan Moore was right. There isn't a movie in his landmark graphic novel 'Watchmen' — at least not a really good one. What we get instead is something acceptable but pedestrian, an adaptation that is more a prisoner of its story than the master of it." — Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

" 'Watchmen' is a lighter version of very dark material. On its own, the movie is an efficient adrenaline delivery machine, occasionally taking flight and occasionally sputtering, but most often just motoring down a long road with colorful scenery to pass the time." — Peter Martin, Cinematical.com

They Just Didn't Get It

" 'Watchmen' features this year's hands-down winner of the bad movie sex award, superhero division: a moment of bliss that takes place on board Nite Owl's nifty little airship, accompanied by Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah.' " — A.O. Scott, The New York Times

"The bad news about 'Watchmen' is that it grinds and squelches on for two and a half hours, like a major operation. The good news is that you don't have to stay past the opening credit sequence — easily the highlight of the film." — Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

"Whenever a fight begins (and there's one about every 15 minutes in this 160-minute movie), brace yourself for an abundance of narratively pointless bone-crunching, finger-twisting, limb-sawing, and skull-hacking. These extreme sports are often filmed in 'Matrix'-style slow motion, a technique that tends to grind the story to a halt. Like the money shots in porn movies, Snyder's action scenes are an end in themselves — gratifying if you like that sort of thing, gross if you don't." — Dana Stevens, Slate

More Reading -
Watchmen Movie Site
Watchmen Wiki
Alan Moore
Fox v Warners over Watchmen