REVIEWS

Night Business #4

There’s a bit in Quentin Tarantino’s original screenplay for Natural Born Killers in which Mickey and Mallory Knox, after being arrested, convicted, and incarcerated, reunite in the middle of a prison riot. They kiss. In his stage directions, Tarantino describes the moment like this:

This kiss has been a year coming. Now they’re doing something everybody told them they would never do again. For this moment they are the only two people on earth.

Natural Born Killers was directed by Oliver Stone, who substantially reworked the screenplay, to Tarantino’s initial dismay. (He ended up with “story by” credit.) In the final version, the stage directions become dialogue… in the mouth of tabloid journalist Wayne Gayle, the film’s real villain, who’s describing the moment in the most saccharine terms possible for the audience watching the riot live on TV at home. Yet at the same time Stone fades the dialogue down and cranks up the Cowboy Junkies version of “Sweet Jane,” Mickey & Mallory’s love theme. The camera swirls around them, the lights bathe them. An asshole tells us what a romantic moment this is supposed to be and thereby the moment is mocked; the film itself shows us how romantic it is and thereby the moment is revered.

In Night Business #4 there’s a scene which the reunited male and female vigilantes Johnny and Chase make love. (There’s no other way to describe it than to use that soap-operatic term.) Here and only here, Marra abandons his panels and their wide gutters and cramped figures for a two-page spread of repeating images of their bodies floating against a black background, moment overlapping moment. The captions read, in part:

…TIME IMPLODES… FOR A MOMENT ALL OF THEIR FEARS, OF DEATH, THE VIOLENCE SURROUNDING THEIR LIVES, THE BRUTALITY OF THE CITY, ARE ELIMINATED… THEY ARE THE ONLY TWO PEOPLE ON THE PLANET…

I always thought Stone was taking a swipe at Tarantino by taking the young writer’s romantic two-against-the-world clichés — delivered, mind you, to celebrate the love between two sociopathic spree killers — and putting them in the mouth of a venal, amoral hack. Winking reclamation of tough-guy b-movie tropes were Tarantino’s stock in trade then as now, but the winkiness of it had yet to develop into the self-critique in evidence in Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds. It took Oliver Stone, of all people, to properly puncture the po-facedness of the stage direction. Yet it also took Oliver Stone to take it seriously, to use lighting and editing and camerawork and music to acknowledge the very real power of the moment he was reminding us not to trust at the very same time.

That’s what I get from Marra over and over, and never more than in Night Business #4. In that sex scene, the woman’s breasts and buttocks are inflated to shining tautness like an erotic balloon animal, the man’s muscles and veins bulging like he was made entirely out of penises. She’s wearing a motorcycle helmet to hide disfiguring facial scars. He’s unconscious. They just got finished murdering several people who were in the middle of raping a prostitute as part of a gang initiation. It’s all deeply ugly and silly and reprehensible and preposterous. It’s also undeniably beautiful, featuring Marra’s best use of blacks to date — I’m having a hard time tearing myself away from looking at the shadows on Johnny’s cheeks and chest or Chase’s back and collarbones long enough to write this post — and paced with precisely the same manipulative expertise as the genre trash it’s pastiching. Throughout the issue, individual moments pop with genuine illustrative power; the action sequence’s blows connect with palpable impact, while standalone images have the weird beauty of all that Pettibon Marra’s been mainlining lately, or Basil Wolverton’s grim-faced spacemen, or the turned-away angst of ’50s romance comic covers. In Marra’s blood-soaked hands — and this is his best handiwork to date — you can have your cake and eat it too. You can have a heart, then turn around and break it.

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