All the corporations' men

"The Insider" director Michael Mann talks about corporate morality, muckraking and the drama of making real-life decisions.

Topics: Directors,

All the corporations' men

Do you remember De Niro in ‘Heat’?” asks Michael Mann.
That 1995 crime spectacle was the last Mann movie to reach theaters before his latest, “The
Insider,” which starts out as an exposi of the cigarette industry, expands to
debunk broadcast news and lays bare the existential anguish of white-collar
America. Mann co-wrote “The Insider” (with Eric Roth) as well as directing
and co-producing it — but now he’s busy diverting attention from himself.

“Think of De Niro,” he repeats. “Gray!” he explains with comical
exasperation, waving at his neutral-colored Los Angeles office walls. “That’s what I
aspire to — gray!” This is Mann-talk for keeping the personal out of
interviews. Mann doesn’t want to speak about his non-working life. He feels
abashed every time he does.

So he invokes the character De Niro played in
“Heat”: a master thief who lives in Spartan elegance and keeps off-the-job
attachments to a minimum. De Niro’s goal is to have nothing that would
prevent him from disappearing in 30 seconds. Mann’s goal is to say nothing
that would distract potential viewers from staying hooked to his new movie
for two hours and 32 minutes.

He needn’t worry. I’ve been a Mann fan since his TV film “The Jericho
Mile” in 1979, and I think “The Insider” is Mann at his peak. It’s that
rarity in movies: a realistic spellbinder, head-clearing and hypnotic. It’s
not merely a docudrama about Big Tobacco, Big Television and a whistle-blower
who upends both. “The Insider” is a docutragedy about men who face, too late,
that they are bigger than the jobs corporate America lets them do. It’s a
ravaging account of the hell their business dealings wreak on their bonds
with friends and family.

And it gives “maturity” a good name. In his best stuff for movies
(“Thief,” “The Last of the Mohicans”) and for episodic television (“Miami
Vice” and “Crime Story”), Mann has been an iconoclast and a creator of
icons. Using bold audiovisual strokes and veracious observations to tear down
simplistic urban or frontier fables, he has erected more complex, modern and
seductive mythologies in their stead.



Now his furious compassion burns away any patina of fantasy. In “The
Insider,” Mann’s two lead characters — Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), the
fired head of research and development for the Brown & Williamson Tobacco
Corporation, and Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), the segment producer who nudges
Wigand into telling all for “60 Minutes” — are knights in dented armor.

Wigand is tortured from the start: a perfectionist researcher who went
to work for a tobacco giant and couldn’t live with his moral compromise.
Bergman’s disillusionment is waiting to happen. A socially conscious,
go-getting journalist, he studied with Herbert Marcuse and wrote for
“Ramparts” before enlisting at CBS and teaming up with Mike Wallace
(Christopher Plummer). Bergman prides himself on protecting his sources, but
he can’t save Wigand from a media stoning.

What’s already roused controversy is the movie’s double-edged
topicality. It doesn’t just detail the cigarette companies’ awareness and
exploitation of their product’s addictive powers. It also dramatizes how CBS
News caved in when the network’s general counsel suggested that Brown &
Williamson could end up owning the network if “60 Minutes” aired Wallace’s
interview with Wigand. (Wigand signed a confidentiality agreement as part of
his severance deal; CBS feared being sued for “tortius interference” —
encouraging Wigand to break his contract with B&W.)

Wallace and “60 Minutes” producer Don Hewitt have groused about their depiction in the script. But the only network figures for whom the film displays no sympathy are the general
counsel herself (Ellen Kaden, here called Helen Caperelli and played by Gina
Gershon) and the president of CBS News (Eric Ober, here called Eric Kluster
and played by Stephen Tobolowsky).

The travails of upper-middle-class life and corporate careers are
often fodder for movie comedy. “The Insider” approaches them without
condescension or preconceptions; this film knows that the loss of medical
benefits is a weapon as lethal as a knife or gun.

Wigand’s struggle to preserve his good name and his kids’ future becomes as palpable as the quest of any action hero. But Wigand is an inaction hero — paralyzed by powerful
forces, dependent on the kindness of strangers. And, despite some advance
press reports, Bergman emerges as a complicated protagonist, not a
bloodied-but-unbowed journalistic saint. He’s bloodied, he’s bowed, but he’s
strong enough to change his life.

Mann speaks in a Chicago accent, in a kind of
elongated staccato; his disdain for personal revelation is reflected in his
language. He likes to use words like “atonal,” which are usually linked to
more abstract arts like music or graphic design. Even in idle chatter about
the visual sophistication of MTV-weaned audiences, he describes their ability
to pick up “distonic little vibes.”

But I do have one personal story. In 1981, the late Jonathan Benair, a
screenwriter and voice actor deservedly renowned for his wit, discovered he
was living in an apartment that Mann had once occupied, a block away from
Canter’s Delicatessen in L.A.’s Fairfax district. Not long afterward,
Benair asked his favorite Canter’s waitress why she’d left her post for a few
days. “Oh, there was this writer,” she said. “He used to come in and work at
all hours, and he promised me that when he made his movie he’d fly me to the
premiere.” The movie was “Thief,” the premiere was in Chicago and the writer
was Michael Mann.

I seem to remember you smoking at the time of “Thief.” You say you’ve been a
smoker off and on, and that you stopped again before the making of this
movie. I know a lot of creative people who use smoking as a sort of
kick-start. Did it work that way for you?

You ever smoke?

Never did.

Well, I don’t know exactly how it works but it’s not a kick-starter. It’s
actually more of a depressant. It becomes a habitual thing and associates
with memories. When I was a student living in Europe, I stayed up endless
nights in Paris, where this very good friend and his wife lived, and we’d
drink coffee and smoke lousy, lousy Gauloises. So there’s an association,
for me, with a certain kind of conviviality.

I mean, I would love smoking, except that if I take a cigarette I feel like someone punched me in the chest — which is good, ’cause if I didn’t feel that way, I’d really be in bad
shape. If you could get the flavor of smoking and have an auxiliary set of
lungs to take all the damage, then it wouldn’t be bad. But nicotine is
addictive and it’s just lousy for your health.

And you have to be
responsible. I’m a father. That’s an issue. You have to think of the impact
on your children of cigarette smoking, and of the impact on them of your own
potential for early disease and earlier death. You are asphyxiating yourself
on a cellular level. Everything is suffering — your fingernails, your hair,
your skin, your lungs, everything is taking a hit. That’s the fact of it.

What was important to Eric Roth and myself from the outset was that there be
nothing didactic or patronizing about this film. I would be offended if
somebody had the arrogance and the presumption to tell me what I ought to do
in my life. This film is not about “you all ought not to smoke” or “you all
ought to smoke.” That’s an individual choice.

Eric Roth and I are both smokers. We were smoking at the bar at the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica
while we wrote the screenplay. What this film is about is corporate power and
malfeasance. And huge businesses that are highly profitable, that are really
in a drug trade. From their point of view, they have a wonderful business —
they have a market addicted to their product.

In the movie we view what they do from the perspective of Jeffrey Wigand. And
now we’re getting into the reason to make the film — the chance to explore
the experience of a man who, like all of us, is far from some ideal of
perfection. Jeffrey said, “I’m very much a company man.” He understands
corporate life, he’s a product of it, he believes in it, he thinks all
corporations should be run like Johnson & Johnson.

He talks about James
Burke, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, where Jeffrey once worked — how when
somebody was putting poison in Tylenol, Burke took all the bottles off the
shelves of every store in America and created the safety cap. Burke didn’t
need the FDA to tell him to do it, he did it on his own, ’cause he’s a smart
business man who’s also a man of science — he’s not gonna have Johnson &
Johnson, his company, put on the shelf a product that’s gonna hurt people.
It’s bad business, it’s bad science, it’s bad everything.

Now, Burke is
Jeffrey’s ideal. From that, one must infer why Jeffrey would go work for
tobacco. Because, what does tobacco do? Tobacco hangs out a sign that says,
“Wanted: Scientists without conscience, for double your previous salary.”
Jeffrey answered the ad.

But if this were “Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington,” I wouldn’t have been
interested in making the film. Jeffrey is a normally flawed, inconsistent
human being whose personality is somewhat atonal. But he ultimately
personifies an anti-ad hominem perspective — to him, life is not about who
you are, it’s about what you do. Jeffrey knew that if he went forward and
spoke to “60 Minutes” and testified against tobacco, the sky would fall. And
indeed it did.

Jeffrey knows that within his basic concept of being human,
standards are often fungible, negotiable; he also knows that, at a crisis
point, you are either going to betray them or you won’t. And if you do,
you’re going to be less of yourself than you were before — then some of you
is going away. Jeffrey takes a position, the sky does fall on him, and parts
of his life get deconstituted.

People think Lowell comes out very well in this film, but you can argue that
Jeffrey comes out better. Jeffrey attacks Lowell bitterly in a couple of
scenes. “What is it that you do? What is the function? You gonna inform
people and that’s gonna change things? Maybe that’s just something you tell
yourself to justify the status of your position. Maybe this is all infotainment, and people have
nothing better to do on Sunday night.” It was our intent that these questions would resound
later on through the film. Because when Lowell hits a crisis, it’s after things have turned around for him in terms of the story — that’s when he truly has some critical decisions
to make.

And in all of the words the audience’s subconscious has been
collecting for over two and a half hours, Jeffrey has established the basis
for the questioning of what Lowell’s been doing at “60 Minutes” for 14 years.
Lowell can tell himself, “I’m still that guy who worked for ‘Ramparts’ and I
get my way with the show and have a larger audience.” But is he really? It’s
a challenge to deal with these true-to-life issues. That’s what made the
material so exciting.

How did you come to know Lowell Bergman?

A mutual friend in the DEA, Bill Alden, told me for years, “You have to meet
Lowell Bergman.” Alden at the time was head of congressional affairs in the
DEA. He had been an agent — a street agent. And he said Lowell was one of
three or four journalists that you honestly could trust. If you told Lowell
something was on background, it would be on background, regardless of how
much Mike Wallace or Hewitt wanted to go out front with it. So his reputation
was that of a man of his word — and that reputation preceded my meeting him
by a couple of years.

We had both gone to the University of Wisconsin, but
that’s a big school; we didn’t know each other, we’d gone at different times.
When we eventually met, we were trying to develop some projects together, not
on this subject at all. But he was living through this experience, and at
one point I said, “Forget the arms merchants in Marbaya, what you’re living
through is a drama.”

What attracted me was the way Lowell and Jeffrey were
such opposites — if they met each other in a social context, I don’t think
one would see much of anything in the other. But here were these two men
thrown together with only one element in common: Both of them are not living
inside the circumscribed “I” of just sheer gratification in careers; both of
them recognize that there’s something else in life. They both have superegos
that tell you “you ought to be this way” or “you ought to do this somehow,”
and they do have a sort of respect for each other’s actions, character and
principles. That there’s nothing else in common was great, because it brings
into higher relief their sole common component.

When I was in post-production on “Heat,” in the fall of ’95, Lowell was going
through all this. I was one of about 10 or 12 people that he would call up
to discuss these issues. He’d say, “You’ll never guess what Don Hewitt said
to me today. I don’t believe what’s happening here. I have relations with
people and all of a sudden I’m walking through like a pariah; as I walk past
them their eyes make it seem like I’m not there.”

Another thing is: I’ve known investigative journalists a long, long time.
And I do a little bit of that work myself. Whether investigating 1757 (for
“The Last of the Mohicans”) or drugs, you seek people out and talk to them
with different degrees of confidentiality. I’ve always been attracted to
this kind of reporting, and I understand the guys who do it a little bit. But
it is difficult for me to imagine digging out a story on a subject as
important as this and having it censured, expunged.

I can imagine it from my own experience in a limited way, but this is terribly
important stuff — this isn’t just my artistic vanities involved. Yeah, if I’m one of those
journalists, my ego is involved because I dug up this newsbreak of the year,
or two or three years, or half a decade. But this is also really important
stuff, important to the point where if this can’t get on the air, I’m no
longer who I am doing this job, or this job is not what this job is supposed
to be. And the way it unfolds — to borrow a line from “Heat”: “You gotta
make up your mind, right now, what’s it gonna be, yes or no? There’s no ‘I’ll
call you back.’” That’s really dramatic stuff. That’s another reason why
this material so terrific.

If you were already talking to Lowell, what benefit did you get from buying
Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair piece?

What that provided, big time, was Jeffrey; we couldn’t talk to Jeffrey at
that point. Marie had some insights into Lowell, even though I knew Lowell
pretty well, and we were able to trade notes, and so his character was helped
some with that.

My anticipation of the film was not to do an elegant, somewhat distant
docudrama. I had zero interest in doing that. I want you to feel that you
are underneath the skin of Jeffrey Wigand. I want you to step into Lowell
Bergman’s shoes. I did not want even to attempt to tell the story if I
couldn’t take you there, ’cause that’s the real experience to have. I’d be so
disappointed in myself if I couldn’t do that.

The picture is two hours and 32 minutes of talking. Everything is
dialogue. On the one hand you could view it as a horrible restriction; on
the other hand you could view it as this great adventure. I mean, someone
asked me early on, “How do you feel about filming all these phone calls?” And
I said, great — you get to have two people talking in two different places.
We shoot Jeffrey in his bedroom making a phone call, and where does he get
Lowell? He gets him at a crime scene in New Orleans, with a dead body and a
street full of mounted police, because Lowell’s working on a story about the
New Orleans P.D.

Then you can modify the places as a function of the perspective they give to
the scene. So when Jeffrey is sitting alone in this Hopperesque bedroom,
viewed from the back, cloistered in his corner — and you know he’s heading
into a corner — it’s not accidental, given what Jeffrey is thinking, that we
show Lowell at a crime scene where there’s blood on the ground. It’s not an
analogy or a even a simile, but there is a linkage.

Jeffrey Wigand is an
angry man, and we’re beginning to know the nature of his anger. It’s that the
people who are persecuting him get to go home at night. He’d be less angry
if they hated him. “They are just functionaries, they get to go home at
night, and I have to live with this fear of the horrible things that might
happen to my family.”

Another advantage of phone calls is that the second character can’t see the
first character, so Lowell can have a gesture of irritability or concern
without Jeffrey knowing it. And as the geographies change, you move into
Lowell’s world. He’s always working on two or three things, including the
piece on Sheik Fadlallah, the spiritual head of Hezbollah, which he does
right at the beginning of the film. We shot in Berkeley, we shot in Los
Angeles, we shot in Louisville, we shot in New York City, we shot in
Pascagoula (Miss.), we shot in the Caribbean, we shot in Israel.

There’s also a shocking collision between Lowell’s world and Jeffrey’s.
Maybe that’s dramatized best when Jeffrey takes his wife to New York without
telling her he’s going to do an interview with “60 Minutes” — and she only
finds out when they’re at dinner with Lowell and Mike Wallace.

Wigand as a character and a man is so human to me and, I found, so
powerfully emotional, because he isn’t a two-dimensional invention of fictive
imagination. You would never sit in a room, by yourself, and imagine a scene
in which he goes to New York for an interview and does not find it possible
to bring himself to tell his wife. And yet, when it happens, you know that in
the nanosecond before she trips to it, he is in agony, because of course he
realizes it is inevitable that she’ll have to know. He just couldn’t tell
her. And that’s life, man — that’s what happens in life.

When that happens, and Wallace asks Lowell, “Who are these people?” — it’s
a laugh line, but –

The laugh immediately turns on you. The laugh line sets you up for what to me
is one of the most important lines in the picture, which is Lowell saying
that they’re ordinary people in an extraordinary situation: “What do you
expect? Grace and consistency?” The line we could have added and never put in
was: “Like in the movies?”

Which brings us to the opposition of Lowell Bergman and Wallace. And Wallace
is not a bad man in the film. But from the way he’s depicted here, he’s
probably been involved with high-stakes journalism for too long; maybe he
can’t separate from the adrenaline rush and the perks to the extent that
Bergman does even from the start.

Well, what did you feel about Wallace’s sense of himself and his life — of
where he is in the throw of his life?

You feel that he’s a guy who is incredibly good at what he does. I mean
he’s terrific even before he starts to interrogate the sheik –

I’ve cut it down. It’s hilarious. It went on.

And he has a sense of integrity tied up with his own performance, which is
valid.

Sure he does. He’s the guy who says, in Scene 54, where they eat lunch, “They
aren’t gonna be able to stop a story like this. This is public interest.
This is like someone dumping cyanide in the East River, or someone
manufacturing faulty airframes. We can publish it.” You bet he believes
that.

I think Wallace wants to keep doing this the rest of his life, so a
self-protective reflex kicks in when he bows to CBS. Yet he also finally
knows that not running the interview is wrong.

Or that the game is up. I mean, this is all public record — he switched when
the New York Times, the New Yorker’s bible, came out and attacked “60
Minutes” for smearing the legacy of Edward R. Murrow, and after the Daily
News was very vocal on the same issue, with a banner headline something like
“What ’60 Minutes’ won’t show you.” Public opinion swung the other way. The
show airs without the Wigand interview on Nov. 12, ’95, and by Nov.
13, ’95, he’s on “Charlie Rose” saying, “We were caving in, and we were
wrong.” And he has flipped over to the other side.

Now, I don’t think any of that’s wrong. I don’t think it is a measure of
some kind of moral deficit that he reacts to his community. I think it’s
human; I think it’s what people do. So let’s drop all the pretense and
bullshit: There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s actions that count, not what
motivated you to do them. There’s no purely motivated action in this motion
picture — not on the part of Wigand, not even on the part of Lowell. It’s
life.

I always viewed Wallace and Hewitt and everybody at “60 Minutes” as
riders in a train wreck not of their own making. You had CBS corporate
anticipating or reacting to messages they were getting from Brown &
Williamson. So of course CBS corporate focuses in on this show and tries to
block this interview. Everybody is a victim in a train wreck, and everybody
reacts differently. That’s the way we viewed it, and I think that’s the way
the film portrays it.

All this is what separates “The Insider” from a conventional “docudrama.”
There seem to be five things going on in every scene.

I wanted to direct, I tried to direct the subtext. That’s where I found the
meaning of the scenes. You could write the story of certain scenes in a code
that would be completely coherent but have nothing to do with the lines you
hear.

For example, in the hotel room scene, Scene 35, when Lowell and Jeffrey first
meet: All Lowell knows for sure is that Jeffrey has said “no” to helping him
analyze a story about tobacco for “60 Minutes.” He doesn’t know yet that
there’s a “yes” hiding behind this “no.” There’s a whole story going on
that’s not what anybody’s talking about.

If you wrote an alternate speech for
Jeffrey, it would go: “I’m here to resurrect some of my dignity, because I’ve
been fired, and that’s why I dressed up this way and that’s why I have these
patrician, corporate-officer attitudes.” And you could do the same for
Lowell, and have him sitting there and saying, “This man wants to tell me
something that is not about why he’s meeting me.”

Al Pacino just took over Lowell’s great reporter’s intuition to sit there and
laser-scan Jeffrey with his eyes. You know, he looks at him, looks at him,
and doesn’t move, until, after all the fidgeting and shuffling with the
papers, Russell, as Jeffrey, gets to say his great line — “I was a corporate
vice president” — with the attitude “Once upon a time, I was a very
important person.” And that [Mann snaps his fingers] is when Lowell has it.

Suddenly, here’s the significance of this meeting: “He’s the former head of
research and development at Browne & Williamson Tobacco Company, and he wants
to talk to me.” Without hitting anything on the head with exposition, without
any of that awful dialogue, like “Boy, have I got a lead which may give us
the newsbreak of the decade,” you know that Lowell knows he’s on the scent of
a helluva story.

What’s great about Pacino’s performance is that he never loses that
alertness and sensitivity — even when the light goes out of his eyes.

It’s so profound and so subtle. It happens when he picks up the remote and
turns off the VCR that’s been playing the interview that didn’t air. It’s in
that moment, and it’s the simplest thing. I’ve looked at it over a thousand
times, I guess, in the editing. If you analyze it frame by frame there’s
nothing going on. But in the context of the scene and of the story, it’s one
of the most perfectly acted moments I’ve ever seen. It’s a Picasso
brush stroke; it sucks you in and you impute what’s happening.

And Al is managing what you impute, not consciously, but because he’s being the
moment — to the core of his being. There is no performance there. That is
total, one-to-one meaningfulness. He shuts off the VCR and holds up the
remote and turns and — boom. It’s just a spectacular moment.

There’s no way Bergman comes off as unscathed in this movie. The whole
point is —

The whole point is “Well, my career is over. I can’t do what I want to do
the most. I want to stay at ’60 Minutes’ and work on ’60 Minutes.’” And
why shouldn’t he? Why shouldn’t he want to have a big audience? Why
shouldn’t he want to take tough subjects and put them in front of the 30
million people who watch that show every Sunday night? And he realizes that
he can’t do it. There’s not a happy ending for him.

Of course, Crowe’s biggest moment comes when Wigand decides to testify in
court in Mississippi even though he knows Brown & Williamson may try to have
him thrown in jail when he returns to Kentucky. He’s standing in front of the
house of his lawyer, Richard Scruggs, and he says, “Fuck it, let’s go to
court.” To me, the key words come right before that; when he suggests he
wants to change things that haven’t changed “since whenever.”

He’s saying that these issues are not temporary and they are affecting your
life in the real simple ways and in the profound ways. And if you don’t make
that choice — “Fuck it, let’s go to court” — then you’re going to wind up
walking away less of who you were than a moment before. That’s the key
moment. And that’s exactly the way it happened. There was nothing we could to
improve on it, or we would have. We just did exactly what was said, on that
same lawn, in front of that house, by those trees. “Fuck it, let’s go to
court.” Those were his words. And he said ‘em, to Lowell and Scruggs, at
that place — we used Scruggs’ house for Scruggs’ house — with more police
there than I put in the scene.

In some of your films, I thought you strained to touch on the pressure the
world puts on home life and families. Here these scenes are tremendously
moving, partly because of Crowe and Diane Venora, who is amazing as his wife.
When Jeffrey realizes he may go to jail, he asks flat out what that means and
what will happen to his wife and daughters.

People go to jail on episodic television and in motion pictures all the time.
“Well, if you’re convicted, Guilty!” Bang. Bullshit! What does it really
mean? I mean, what does your wife do if that happens? Oh, your wife’s gonna
have to go to work? So who’s gonna take care of your children? In the real
world, there are ramifications.

When Brown & Williamson threatens Jeffrey
Wigand with litigation, how does he get attorneys? Who pays for the
attorneys? How do you stay secure? How do you afford security? How do you
protect your telephonic communications from being invaded? It costs money to
have somebody sweep your phone systems. How do you afford all this stuff?

Even the pressure on a well-constructed marriage would be huge. Think of
it: A Fortune 500 company that is highly litigious, that is known for having
thuggish tactics, wants to get you. They really want to get you. And
Jeffrey Wigand is not in a marriage where there is a lot of communication —
this is not Lowell Bergman walking home and his wife looks up from gardening
and asks, “Honey, what’s wrong?” ’cause she knows something’s wrong. This is
a marriage where the two people can’t talk.

You know the heart of the marriage, ’cause they can relate to a third party — the only time they’re just spontaneously close is when one of their kids is sick. But one-to-one,
it’s defensive, the words and behaviors are encoded, there are all these
problems. It’s not so much a good marriage that gets broken, as a broken
marriage in which the participants care about each other, try to re-form, and
just when they’re trying to re-form — that’s when it gets attacked. You bet
that’s where the pressure hits.

It’s a wonderful ensemble, but to me Crowe gives the most original
performance. He’s got this crabbed intensity that comes out in an
unpredictable, stop-and-go style. How did you work with him on that? Did you
go moment to moment?

First of all, I don’t talk about some of that. Some of this stuff, it’s just
not right to be public about. It’s how we work, it’s what we do; the Freedom
of Information Act doesn’t apply to it!

But it’s not moment to moment, it’s all in preparation. It’s in really understanding
the character and then finding ways to build on that understanding. In the hands of an actor like Al Pacino or Russell Crowe, that’s a great exploration. And the way I work you
have to form most of the character, ideally, before you rehearse. You test it
in rehearsals, you modify it on rehearsals, so by the time you’re on the set,
you’re executing, and if you can do it like that, then you’re open for
spontaneity.

And that’s the gold. It’s when what you didn’t plan is
suddenly occurring because the actor is in the moment, because he’s being
the moment. The look in Russell’s eye when he rolls his head a little bit;
the way he delivers the soliloquy he’s got when he stands against the window
and tells his wife it’s gonna be better: “Can you imagine what it’s gonna be
like for me coming home from work and feeling good at the end of the day?”

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

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