Reviews: Nine Lines of Metro and Seven Days in Berlin

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog.

Nine Lines of Metro

nine lines of metro cover neil slorance

Seven Days in Berlin

seven days in berlin cover neil slorance

Neil Slorance, Pipe Down

I know Zainab had mentioned Glasgow-based Neil Slorance’s Seven Days in Berlin on the blog before, but browsing in Glasgow recently I picked up both that work and the preceding Nine Lines of Metro mini comics and took an instant liking to them; I rarely ignore my instinct when I get a good vibe on a new work, even when I know little of it, because that instinct usually always points me to some good reading, and so it proved again. Both comics are rather charming, autobiographical short works detailing a couple of trips abroad by Neil to Spain and Germany respectively.

In Nine Lines of Metro Neil goes to visit his friend Morv, who is living with her sister, sister’s husband and their kids in Barcelona for a wee break after a rough time back home, and also to catch up with his old chum. It begins like a gentle travelogue, Neil arriving in Spain, meeting his friends, going exploring (using the metro system, whence comes the title, although he notes he later found out there were actually more metro lines than he thought, oops!) and having fun. Being Barcelona he naturally ends up taking in works by Picasso and Gaudi, wandering the narrow streets of the city’s oldest quarters.

nine lines of metro neil slorance 01

 

So far so good – there’s nothing overly remarkable, but it is a gentle, good-natured short comic, in a nice, simple style for the most past, and not so very different from many other short comics about trips to different places. But for me Nine Lines started to become a bit more different and find it’s emotional feet towards the end, when Neil and Morv come across an outdoor concert by accident and stay to listen. Smoking a pipe he attracts the attention of a German visitor, Toben, and the two of them are soon chatting away in a friendly manner, when he is introduced to one of Toben’s companions, Lisa. There’s a nice feeling of him relaxing, all troubles forgotten, sitting in a warm country with old and new friends, listening to music, content, happy. And then as he and Lisa spend more time together their hands find each other’s hands, and Neil captures the emotions of that magical moment of first physical and spiritual contact with another person rather wonderfully, I felt, that simple pleasure of mutual touch “all of a sudden I had someone’s hand to hold.” Simple, unfussy but so wonderfully, humanly warm.

 

nine lines of metro neil slorance 02

 

Of course, as is the way with such things he’s met her right at the end of his stay in Barcelona and has to leave for home just as he is starting to connect with Lisa. There’s one of those strange little sad-glad scenes as he takes his leave of her and his friends, sad to part but obviously a happier person for having come and stayed with them and for meeting his new friends. But there’s more to this to come in Seven Days in Berlin – Neil keeps in touch with Lisa and eventually takes her up on an invitation to visit her. This is a slightly longer work and starts off with him being very welcome into Lisa’s circle of friends, including Toben – in fact it is Toben’s birthday and he’s invited along, fitting in nicely. He explores the city, as you’d expect, gazing at the architecture, marvelling at the tower by the Alexanderplatz vanishing into the clouds, enjoying the festival of light, when all sorts of major buildings are illuminated in interesting ways (in fact this causes him to divert from his usual small panel sequence to do a two-page splash of the Brandenburg Gate) and suddenly coming across piece of that iconic symbol of division, the Berlin Wall:

seven days in berlin 01 neil slorance

 

Of course while I’m enjoying his recounting of visiting galleries and buildings, and musical spots, the zoo and other cultural and historical parts of Berlin, what I’m really thinking is what’s going on between him and Lisa. And that part is rather lovely and sweet and very natural, unforced, two friends who become a little more than friends but are still aware they live in different countries, mostly speak other languages, where, realistically, can this relationship go? But the pair are sensible and don’t really consider this too much, they simply spend the time they do have together as enjoyably as they possibly can, not a bad philosophy when you know the time you can share together is going to be too damned short. And he handles this in a lovely, open, charming manner, with quite sweet scenes that leave you with a nice, warm feeling inside:

seven days in berlin 02 neil slorance

 

Both connected works are nice, gentle, very enjoyable, good-natured works, the travel lit side of them is fun, although for describing some of the sights perhaps he should use a few larger panels as he did try with his Brandenburg Gate scene in Seven Days and save the smaller sequence of panels for the more intimate, person to person moments, but clearly he’s still trying things out and I’m sure he’ll play more with layout in later works. Of the two the longer Seven Days is more enjoyable and better composed – I felt as if Neil was not just trying to say more in this comic than he did in Nine Lines, I felt he was relaxing a bit (perhaps the result of two good trips!) and giving himself more space to breathe as an artist in the latter book. And both, especially Seven Days, are very satisfying on an emotional level – there’s a charming, brief romance and chance connection formed and an acceptance of it, of taking something nice when it comes into your life even if for a short while, because you know that even when you part and have to return home you take a part of that experience and person and the feelings the two of you created together with you, still inside, making you a different, hopefully better person. Sweet, honest and very charming works.

Filmish #2: more film theory meets comics

Filmish #2: Sets and Architecture

Edward Ross

Self published

Earlier this year I picked up the first of Edward Ross’ Filmish comics (reviewed here) when I spotted it in my home from home, The Filmhouse (long an institution for film and art lovers in Edinburgh not just for showing wonderful world cinema but for linking into other events, exhibitions and festivals in the city to combine the moving image with the rest of the arts world around it). Filmish #1 took three subjects – Monsters, Food on Film and Point-of-View – and tackled them in a short but satisfying manner, laying out some basics quite suitable even for those who love film but have never entered the often mystifying realms of cine-academia. Issue #2 continues to be an easily accessible look into film studies through the comics medium, but this time it concentrates instead on one main topic – sets and architecture – and I think it’s emerged as a stronger and more interesting read as a result.

Sets and architecture are, as Edward notes, two very closely related disciplines. Architecture describes the artificial environment we build around ourselves and the spaces between – or sometimes within – them that we move through and live in. Set designers attempt to create similar effects for an audience, a believable space (even when describing fantastical realms) that the audience can move through with the actors. Architects borrow from artists and film designers to create their desired effects, welding their tricks of perspective and illusion to create a reality to real world engineering, while film set designers employ tricks from stage illusions and magic, combined with engineering and architecture and art. There’s something arguably satisfying about reading about this inter-meshing of two art/science forms via the comics medium: like the best architecture comics often start as rough doodles and outlines sketched on paper, like film comics can suspend time and space to move through those imagined realms in a way not possible in the real world (and in architecture you could argue that in the computer design stage architects also play with bending perspectives, time and space as they hone their vision).

(Edward’s black and white art seemed particularly suited to the delightfully skewed monochrome designs of Doctor Caligari; from Filmish #2 by and (c) Edward Ross)

As with the first Filmish the comic is replete with examples from the screen, drawn from across cinematic history, from the great Georges Melies through to The Matrix and the current resurgence of 3D with Avatar, as before using quotes from various film studies essays to justify a particular point. Ross has fun walking his own virtual comics avatar through a variety of scenes from famous films by way of illustration, from the skewed perspectives of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, German Expressionism and Film Noir to the immersive, virtual sets of Avatar, tying these also to movements in other art forms (Surrealism and Expressionism for example), while also touching on changing ways we interact with architectural spaces like cities in the real world and how this has been reflected in film.

Unsurprisingly he picks on Lang’s Metropolis and Scott’s Blade Runner as two prime examples to use, which is fair enough given how hugely influential both have been, but he also touches on work you might not have thought about for this kind of study, notably McTiernan’s original Die Hard and the way McClane moves through the vast skyscraper tower – ducts, lift shafts, external windows – compared to the ordinary characters who move only through the proscribed, normal channels (doors, corridors) and links this to modern developments like Parkour and the way it creates a new relationship to the architecture of the city as the practitioners moves through, around, over and under it in ways never imagined by designers and as extolled in films like District 13 (and I found it amusing to think of such a straight Hollywood blockbuster type of flick as Die Hard containing such transgressional elements – proof if it be needed that the viewer can interpret what they want from a text).

Once again I found I really enjoyed this comics trip into film studies. I’m approaching this from the perspective of someone who is both a lifelong cinephile and someone who has penned more than their fair share of academic film studies essays, but Edward’s created this deliberately so that no formal knowledge of academic film studies is necessary, just a love of cinema and imagery. As with the first book the quotes from various essays used during the comic are all properly referenced so you can follow them up if you want and there is a bibliography and a selected filmography at the end for suggested reading if you want to expand your knowledge and take in some excellent films relevant to this particular theme (again for those new to film studies I highly recommend Pam Cook’s thorough and yet approachable The Cinema Book as a great prime reference text).

(“Painful to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave…”; you can’t discuss set design and architecture in film without referencing Blade Runner. From Filmish #2 by and (c) Edward Ross)

Obviously there are more approaches that could have been included and more relevant films you might think should be in this particular issue (no Dark City?) but there’s only so much space in a mini-comic and I think Edward used it well. On the production side of things the paper stock felt much better than for the first issue and on the art side I like the way Edward uses his cartoon self as a narrator, often altered to fit a particular film he’s describing (notably at one point he’s portrayed as the robot from Metropolis); I strongly suspect he rather enjoys projecting himself into those film scenes (quite rightly). Cinema and comics both largely grew up during the same century and given how much they have fed from one another (think on various film themes borrowed for comics, especially early 2000 AD, or how many films are inspired by comics, or even just on imagery and techniques inspired or borrowed from one medium to the other – Dave Gibbons’ cinematic Watchmen frames for instance) I think it is highly appropriate to be using one of those mediums to study the other. I’ve really enjoyed the first two issues of Filmish and I think concentrating on a particular topic here (as compared to three in the first issue) was a better route to go, offering a more satisfying read. I look forward to more and seeing what areas Edward tackles next – genre theory, maybe (go on, Edward, it will give you an excuse to draw yourself in Mac and Fedora as well as cowboy hat!)? Filmish is available from Edward’s website or if you are in Edinburgh you can pick it up from the Filmhouse box office on Lothian Road.

Filmish – comics meet film theory

Filmish: Comic Book Essays on Film Theory

By Edward Ross

Self published

Filmish comic book essays on film theory Edward Ross cover

I spotted this mini-comic on a recent trip to Edinburgh’s Filmhouse (spiritual home to the city’s film festival and a mecca for those who love quality cinema from around the world. not to mention a second home to me since I first came here back in 91 as a student). A short comic on film theory? Unusual topic but since I spent a fair chunk of my college time studying film theory I was intrigued and picked it up (admittedly a considerable part of my studying involved watching movies in that same Filmhouse, but that counts as research, not bunking off classes, honest). Film and media studies can leave mental scarring for life, with victims still moved years after university to indulge in pseudo-academic discussion (or talking cobblers in the pub post-film, depending on your point of view and level of inebriation) in which they use terms like “the paradigmatic and syntagmatic nature of the text.” I shall endeavour not do that here. Filmish is a short work, black and white, nice, clear artwork with card covers, and obviously it can’t cover several decades of film theory in any depth, but Edward opts smartly to take just three areas as examples and discuss those: Monsters, Food on Film and Point of View (the longest of the three chapters).

Monsters was a lot of fun for me – it will surprise no-one that I worked the more fantastical and horror genres into my film studies back in college. Actually this wasn’t just because of my own interest in those genres – films with science fiction, horror and monsters in general are a hugely rich subject area for academics. It shouldn’t be surprising since these are genres which often use the theatrical trappings of the fantastical to explore real, everyday human fears and concerns. Edward notes this and how the filmic monster has changed throughout the decades in response to historical and cultural forces: Gojira in early 50s Japan playing on the fears created by the atomic bombings which ended World War Two, the ‘reds under the beds’ scare of McCarthyist America in the 50s and how the original, classic Invasion of the Bodysnatchers fits the rampant paranoia of the time and the fear of the enemy within, through to the body horror of the 70s and 80s (step forward Mr Cronenberg) and the 21st century return to the big monster movie with Cloverfield, linking the rampaging, city-destroying monster with post-911 fears.

Filmish comics essay on film theory monsters edawrd ross

Point of View is the longest segment in the comic and covers rather more than the simple, technical meaning of POV (i.e. the viewpoint presented by the camera’s ‘eye’ to the viewer) but also the cultural point of view: the way a scene or character is framed and the way that influences the way the viewer ‘reads’ the image. Sadly this does mean a bit too much Laura Mulvey and the ‘male gaze’ for my taste (at college I thought Mulvey made some interesting points but as with many academics in this field, only selectively, there are many examples that don’t fit her theories). That said Mulvey is a major writer on understanding film and my personal likes and dislikes aside Edward would be remiss if he didn’t include her in this chapter (thank goodness he didn’t quote Barbara Creed and her ‘monstrous feminine’ or the various Freudian film analysts though).

The POV chapter also takes in later cinema which established different ways of seeing and presenting the world to the audience and changes in the sorts of lead characters audiences are encouraged to identify with, changes which mirror the way society has changed its views on, for example, women. I would question one scene though, where he implies that it was these later films that now allowed the audience to “participate with the film and think about and question the ideology of the onscreen image”; it seems to assume earlier audiences didn’t think about what they were watching, which seems unlikely. The passive audience has often been brought up by media theorists for various mass media, but I’ve never really bought into it (and indeed the old ‘hypodermic needle’ model of totally passive audience acceptance of what they are presented with is largely discredited among many media studies types. Some elements of audiences have always interpreted the text differently from the preferred reading encoded by the maker).

Filmish comics film theory point of view edward ross

The third and final short chapter is Food on Film – you might have expected something more obvious like a chapter on genre theory, perhaps, but as Edward explains “Wait” Hear me out” It’s not as daft as it might sound. In fact food has long played a major symbolic role in the movies”. He then goes on to cite a number of examples, from the early, silent era (a starving Charlie Chaplin carving up of an old boot as dinner) to more indirect uses of eating to portray characters’ state of mind (the ever increasing breakfast table, one of the simple but incredibly clever devices used to portray the cooling of a marriage in Citizen Kane) through to the more modern era and humans themselves being on the cinematic menu, be it as prey to other nightmare creatures (back to the monsters again! Cinema and film theorists can’t leave monsters and horror alone) or being served up to other humans (as in The Cook, The Thief, The Wife and Her Lover).

As I said at the start it seems an unusual subject matter for a short comic, but the fact that it is using comics on a different theme from many I read is one of the things which interested me. The brevity means there’s no time for much depth in the chosen examples, understandably – you could fill 10, 000 word essays on each of these areas easily (and for some of them I have, in a former life), but obviously Edward isn’t trying to pretend he is giving you that. Rather he’s picking out some major examples and citing some of the important writers in the field of film studies and, importantly, he concludes each chapter by listing both some relevant films and some of the authors and their books which he quotes from, so if you are a movie buff but haven’t delved much into the academic study of the medium there are some good suggested examples of further reading should the comic inspire you (on a personal note I’d add Pam Cook’s excellent The Cinema Book, published by the BFI, as a perfect general primer for anyone interested in learning more about film theory and studies). It’s an interesting wee comic which I enjoyed; I don’t think you have to have any familiarity with film studies to enjoy it though; in fact for those unfamiliar with the field but interested in cinema it probably functions nicely for introducing a few key ideas from the field that they can then follow up for themselves.

There you go and I didn’t use the term ‘intertextual’ once and I have refrained from stroking my beard in a thoughtful manner while discoursing on postmodernism in cinema. You can check out more of Edward’s work via his blog, where I see he is another of our comics community who is taking part in the Hundred Days project and posting up the results, so go check it out.

This review first appeared on the Forbidden Planet blog