Raymond Bellour’s fragmented perception – in comics?

Raymond Bellour’s essay “Of an other cinema” (PDF) was first published in French as “D’un autre cinéma” in 2000. While parts of it read like merely a review of video installation works at the 1999 Venice Biennial, the article has become an important contribution to the theory of video art. Bellour’s main point is that video installations are a different kind of cinema, and they (often) transform cinema by “dividing and multiplying” the image in several channels. Because of the difficulty to keep track of what’s going on on multiple screens at the same time, Bellour characterises the video art recipient as a “dissolved, fragmented, shaken, intermittent spectator”. Other terms used by Bellour to describe such phenomena are: “aesthetics of confusion”, “expansion of projection”, “segmentation”, “exploded story”, “explosion of perception”, or (after Abel Gance) “polyvision”.

This fragmented perception that Bellour describes is specific to (and characteristic of, maybe even defining for) video installation art. But isn’t there something similar in comics? In a way, such experiences of fragmented perception occur quite often when reading comics of several pages length: as you flip the comic open to start reading it from page 1, you involuntarily glance at another page, say, page 42. You can force yourself to continue reading from page 1, but you cannot forget what you have already seen on 42. It’s as if something is already happening in the story on page 42, at the same time that you’re reading page 1. In this respect, each comic page (or each double page) is like a screen or a channel in a video installation, as only one can be perceived at a time, while on each another segment of the story unfolds simultaneously.

But there are certain comics which are even closer to what Bellour describes. I’m thinking of experimental comics, particularly “choose you own adventure”-style comics with parallel story branches. As an example, I initially wanted to dig up a particular episode of Winston Rowntree’s Subnormality that employed this method, but I discovered that the latest episode, 214: “Accidentally Insulting a Friend”, serves this purpose just as well. Instead of embedding the original image of this webcomic here, I suggest you follow the link to read it.

Subnormality #214

For the first five panels, this comic is relatively traditional, as we follow the conversation of the two young women in a car. Then, by the sixth panel, things get interesting. Which is the sixth panel, actually? Which is the seventh? The reading order up to this point was left-to-right and top-to-bottom, but that wouldn’t make sense at this point anymore, as the comic is split into a left branch and a right branch, which show what’s going on inside each protagonist’s head (plus the middle branch with the traffic light panels). The branches unite again towards the end of the episode, but in the middle, they unfold in parallel, both spatially and chronologically. You can start by reading the left branch first and then scroll up to continue with the top panel on the right hand side, or vice versa. However, while you’re reading the branch you’ve chosen to start with, you’re missing out on what’s happening at the same time in the other one. Thus, as the story of this comic “explodes”, the perception of it is fragmented, not unlike that of a multi-channel video installation.


Film review: The unsurprisingly unamazing Spider-Man

Are we drowning in a torrent of sequels and remakes?

Unfortunately, Andrew Garfield isn’t Tobey Maguire. Sadly, Emma Stone isn’t Kirsten Dunst. Regrettably, the Lizard isn’t the Green Goblin. And it’s a pity that James Horner isn’t Danny Elfman.

It was daring, to put it mildly, to release The Amazing Spider-Man only five years after Spider-Man 3. Many filmgoers still remember the Sam Raimi trilogy well, and are well able to compare it to Marc Webb’s reboot. There was no way that The Amazing Spider-Man could come off well in this comparison, and indeed it turned out to be inferior to the 2002 Spider-Man in every aspect. (However, I’m aware that some other reviewers apparently like the new film better, so this might be a matter of taste.)

That being said, ASM raises the question whether it makes sense to reboot a film franchise shortly after three previous films of that same franchise in the first place, or, generally, what to make of the endless torrent of sequels and remakes that Hollywood pours out. That topic has been extensively discussed for years, but at the cinema, the bleakness of the situation dawned on me with full force, when I got to watch not only Spider-Man 4 but also trailers for Madagascar 3, the Total Recall remake, Bourne 4, Prometheus a.k.a. “Alien 5“, Twilight 4.2, and Christopher Nolan’s third Batman film. The only original advertised film (yes, there were a lot of trailers) was, if I remember correctly, Brave.

And yet, people don’t seem to mind to spend their money on films they’ve basically already seen before time and again. Box Office Mojo reports ASM‘s worldwide gross at 521 million dollars, which is more than twice the production cost. So while economically this self-plagiarism makes sense, it strikes me as a sign of a creative bankruptcy of the US film industry. The immediate effect of the apparent popular demand for such films is that they run in the theatres for months, thus blocking the screens for more original but less commercially promising films that are dropped after a week (if they make it to your town at all).

To end this review on a more positive note, not everything was bad about ASM: Webb’s film reminds us that, with Gwen Stacy and the Lizard, there are two classic characters in the Spider-Man comics that were neglected in the Sam Raimi films but whose stories might be worth to be told, possibly in a film. But they deserve to be told well. Maybe another time.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○


Review: König des Comics

film still from flyerA theatrical release of a documentary film about a German comic artist is quite an event. As I write this, König des Comics might still be shown in some German film theaters, and it has yet to be released in other countries. Therefore, I thought I’d post a short review of it (although there already are competent reviews online, e.g. an English one by Joe Walsh at CineVue and a German one by Lida Bach at kino-zeit.de).

This comic artist is, of course, Ralf König. Despite his gay subcultural background, he is probably Germany’s best-known living comic author, so the film title is more than just a pun on his last name. As a biographical documentary, König des Comics succeeds in telling us a lot about Ralf König that we (or at least I) didn’t know before. Instead of using a lot of original early video footage (of which there simply wasn’t much, I guess), the film relies primarily on interviews with König himself and other people who either played some role in his life, or who are just gay celebrities (e.g. Hella von Sinnen). In between we get to see König doing a reading of his comics, talking to a Swiss fan, or hanging out with friends.

There’s nothing wrong with that as a method, but my problem is that the film shows a very personal side of König. Given that the film was made by gay director Rosa von Praunheim, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it emphasises König’s homosexuality, his coming out, his gay rights activism, etc. While such a perspective surely needs to be covered in a film on an author of gay comics, I would have liked to learn less about him as a person and more about him as an artist.

König is shown reading his comics along to a slide show, but hardly ever drawing them. That is a pity, because the film only hints at both the quantity and the quality of his output. I must admit that I haven’t been following his work since Sie dürfen sich jetzt küssen (2003), but König has published at least one book a year since that. For me, König des Comics was also a reminder of what a masterful draughtsman König is, however fleetingly the film treated this aspect. In itself, I don’t think it’s a particularly good film, but at any rate, it makes you want to read König’s comics again, and that’s not the worst thing a film can achieve.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○