Film Review: Interstellar

November 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Interstellar (2014; Directed by Christopher Nolan)

The films of Christopher Nolan are intelligently-constructed hybrids of the work of other cinematic auteurs first and foremost. Interstellar is no exception, and zeroes in particularly on the hallmarks of two such directors. With his grand, constructed visions and rational precision, Nolan tends to resemble Stanley Kubrick rather more than perhaps any other major filmmaker; the other major filmmaker he resembles in his genre enthusiasm and populist outreach is, perhaps surprisingly, Steven Spielberg. Nolan has found himself shifting progressively closer to Spielberg’s profile while tiptoeing carefully around Kubrick’s considerable artistic legacy, while also engaging in the sort of ambitious philosophical puzzle-building that never much interested either of those men.

Interstellar began production development life as a Spielberg project: Nolan’s screenwriter brother Jonathan was hired to pen it and suggested his sibling as director when studio production alignments took the rights out of Spielberg’s reach. This explains the preponderence of grand emotional sop to some extent; it’s easy to imagine to Nolan’s mansplaining devotees balking at the sheer number of tear-soaked cheeks on display here. The film is also an old-fashioned, grandiose, stargazing sci-fi epic of the kind that Spielberg once excelled at (Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of many reference points, along with Star WarsStar Trek, Andrei Tarkovsky, Superman and even Apollo 13) but that was forever defined by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. If Nolan has spent years of his notable big-budget directing career giving the self-evident Kubrick associations a wide berth, he dispenses with the hedging with Interstellar. This is a film that not only evokes and often directly references 2001 (there’s a clear Star-Child callback just after the climax), it’s likewise the product of the concept of manned space travel as the starting point for a deeper existential discussion.

The Brothers Nolans begin with some heavy-handed politically-charged dystopian material that does not bode well for the rest of the picture. Sometime not terribly far in the future, a phage of agricultural blight has reduced human civilization in both population and ambitions. Only corn can be grown, and probably not even that will provide plentiful harvests for long. In America’s Great Plains grain-basket, massive dust storms descend on the regular. Nolan makes the 1930s Dust Bowl association explicit by intercutting testimonials from aged witnesses filmed for Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the period into his opening section in the Heartland. The dire need for food production has made itself felt on American education: university spots are hard to come by and most capable young people are steered back to the fields. Frustrated farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) even learns that textbooks have been conquered by conspiracy theories and are teaching that the Apollo moon landings were propaganda exercises by NASA to drive the Soviet Union to bankrupt itself on space exploration spending (the scene revealing this is awkwardly overdone, barely fits in the movie, and probably would have been cut had it not reflected a pet issue of the screenwriter, who is also the director’s brother).

Cooper is frustrated as a farmer because he isn’t really one. He was a NASA pilot and engineer before the agency was forced out of space flight by a shift in funding priorities (sound familiar?). He now reluctantly tends his farm along with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) and two kids, his field-tilling heir Tom (played by Timothee Chalamet as a teen and Casey Affleck as a young man) and his science-loving maverick daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy as a girl, Jessica Chastain as a young adult, Ellen Burstyn as an old woman). Murphy suspects that a ghost is leaving her morse messages with books on shelves and in gravitational waves acting on falling dust. Coop thinks it nonsense until he realizes it’s binary, and that the message is a set of coordinates.

The coordinates lead Cooper to a secret NASA base on NORAD’s subterranean premises in Colorado. There, the brilliant (but subtly dissembling) Professor Brand (Michael Caine) has masterminded a last-ditch effort to save the dwindling human race from the planet they’ve irrevocably poisoned: find another world out in the stars that is amenable to conditions of human life and transfer either humanity’s survivors or their fertilized embryos there to start over. A dozen solo astronauts have passed through a wormhole near Saturn and landed on potential planets; some are still broadcasting data about conditions that may or may not be promising for colonization. Brand wants Coop to pilot a crew through the wormhole to investigate these potential new homes and begin the process of either relocation or genetic repopulation. Coop doesn’t want to leave his family, but knows he belongs in space and not in the dirt. He decides to accept the offer, and to the stars he goes.

I hesitate to go into much more detail about what follows, partly to avoid spoiling the fascinating revelations and partly because I’m not entirely certain I understood them, particularly the ones grounded in complex theoretical physics. Suffice it to say that the space-bound later acts of Interstellar feature visually wondrous travel through the spherical wormhole, to forbidding planet surfaces, and over the horizon of a supermassive black hole; maximum emotional wringing of the concept of relativity; Anne Hathaway with short hair, Wes Bentley awaiting an inevitable snuffing (what does that man do but die in movies? He’s like a more metrosexual Sean Bean), and a surprise cameo on a world of frozen clouds (no, it’s not Billy Dee Williams); not one but two sassy talking robots (I’m not kidding); and, finally, a more hopeful and unambiguous conclusion than any of us would have had any reason to expect from Christopher Nolan.

Like most of Nolan’s films, Interstellar is a transporting, entertaining, impressive cinematic experience. The operatically monumental long-building climax is tremendously tense, a marvel of interwoven performance, effects, technical excellence, and emotion-manipulating editing acumen elevated to the level of the visually symphonic by Hans Zimmer’s rising, resonantly dramatic score. I’m hardly qualified to speak on the film’s scientific accuracy, although both consulting theoretical physicist Kip Thorne and prominent astronomer and public science intellectual Neil DeGrasse Tyson are so qualified and they were both pretty much on board, with Thorne authoring scientific papers on the basis of the computer effects and Tyson even defending the most tenuous leaps of the film’s ending.

Does all of this mean, however, that it’s a good film? Long experience with Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre should give us pause about praising the whole on the basis of the sum of its parts. While the editing of specific sequences is superlative, the movie as a whole is far too long, with unwieldy portions concentrated in its earthbound opening act and even occasionally in its more involving space sections. And it’s undeniable that the ask of belief on the part of the Nolans in the ending is huge and maybe beyond most casual moviegoers.

As always, the visual and intellectual scope of Christopher Nolan’s visions deserve our admiration even while his populist compromises, rule-bound rigidity and recurring aesthetic hiccups tend to temper that admiration. The results of his Spielberg/Kubrick hybrid are often astonishing and always compelling. But the philosophy and existentialism can be submerged by sentimentality like in Spielberg and can equally alienate its audience with its museum-display composure like in Kubrick. Interstellar is unquestionably spectacular, but like its characters, it passes through a cinematic black hole and doesn’t entirely retain its structural integrity while it does so.

Categories: Film, Reviews, Science

Film Review: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

November 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998; Directed by Terry Gilliam)

“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.” So goes the memorable opening line of Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo memoir on the early 1970s zeitgeist, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The phrasing is simultaneously specific and vague, straight-faced and descriptive while also evocative, symbolic, mythic. On the cusp of enterting the desert, that arid, unforgiving space of existential questing and contemplation long before and well after Jesus Christ spent 40 days and nights there being tempted by Satan (and he wasn’t even looped on mescaline and ether, at least as far as we know), revelations of some kind (capitalized or otherwise) are foreshadowed. And the drugs, gifted by Thompson’s sentence with an agency, a menace, a power beyond that possessed by the helpless apes who dare to consume them, let alone one that they are capable of resisting or overcoming. All of Fear and Loathing, in its anti-narrative flow and bacchanalian scattershot inspiration, follows from this simple but potently charged sentence.

Terry Gilliam, more than any other filmmaker possibly could, gets what Thompson was after with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the resulting cinematic adaptation of the self-styled Doctor of Journalism’s unreliably phantasmagorical memoir of degenerative excess might well be one of the truest but also among the most imaginatively extrapolated page-to-screen translations in movie history. Like much of Gilliam’s oeuvre, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas blurs the line between reality and fantasy in an effort to destabilize an oppressive establishment. Unlike much of Gilliam’s oeuvre, the drug-fuelled apparitions observed by our vision-questing protagonists are not dreams but nightmares of the pharmaceutically-initiated sort. As per the Samuel Johnson quote that takes up the film’s first frame, Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo become beasts to rid themselves of the pain of being men. And America manufactures pain on an industrial scale.

Duke, played by a bald-pated Johnny Depp as an exploded, bow-legged, cigarette-holder-chomping caricature of Thompson (whom he dwelt with and studied for some time in preparation for the inspired role), rents a convertible and drives from Los Angeles to Vegas in 1971, ostensibly to cover a desert motorcycle race. Dr. Gonzo, a fleshy, wild-haired civil rights lawyer based on Chicano activist Oscar Zeta Acosta and embodied with an exhilarating, dangerous abandon and lack of vanity by Benicio Del Toro, accompanies Duke, helping him to consume their encyclopedic catalogue of psychotropic drugs and generally wreak antisocial mayhem around Sin City and its environs. Duke and Gonzo are rough sketches of Thompson’s ego and id, respectively, his relatively square, accredited word-slinging journalist persona and the unhinged werewolf that chased every high available to him. The wild and woolly exploits of his two halves gradually reveal a mirror-image madness in the character of an America squirming under the thumb of Richard Nixon and losing itself to a reckless hedonistic quest for self-fulfilment that never quite ends.

Gilliam’s film commences with an insane sense of dizzy momentum. Duke and Gonzo barrel through the desert in their red convertible, phantom-chased by hallucinated bats and weirded out by a wispy-haired hitchhiker (Tobey Maguire in a brief, terrified cameo appearance; a pre-stardom Cameron Diaz shows up later in a small role, too). They arrive at their Vegas hotel just as a hellacious acid trip kicks in for Duke: the carpets crawl up guests’ legs, the front desk agent (Gilliam fave Katherine Helmond) has moray eels swimming through her face, and a sojourn into the hotel bar features the patrons transforming into inebriated, blood-drenched, sex-mad reptiles (“Buy us some golf shoes, otherwise we’ll never get out of this place alive!” exclaims Duke with the clarion anti-logic of the drug-blitzed).

The subsequent ebb and flow of fragmentary plot, extended drug trips, and embarrassing social scenes might not be as “fun” as the opening surge on the open stretch of highway, strictly speaking. But Gilliam shows masterful, uncompromising control of his images (and his wonderful soundtrack, wall-to-wall period songs with no filler), and refuses to tone them down or make them easier to digest. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas becomes a difficult, queasy experience before too long, and Gilliam purposely arranges his visuals to cause maximum discomfort and disorientation. You may not enjoy it, exactly, but you cannot but admire the skill and the dedication to unsettling the viewer. The sick violet glow during an adrenal extract trip, Gonzo’s skin-crawling exploitation of young portraitist Lucy (Christina Ricci), and a final descent into complete madness (“You people voted for Hubert Humphrey, and you killed Jesus!”) that ends with Duke wading through a flooded hotel suite in hip-waiters and a dinosaurian tail with a tape recorder taped to his chest: this movie is an epic sensory experience, and often an unnerving one.

But then that’s Hunter S. Thompson, too: he troubles you even as he enlightens; or perhaps it’s the enlightenment itself that is so troubling. Terry Gilliam reduces the original novel to its constituent parts and rearranges them in his preferred form while allowing their nature to remain evident. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is that rarest of cinematic adaptations that represents the visions of both the source’s author and the film’s director with equal effectiveness and imagination. It’s also performing a key public service in demonstrating the effects of hallucinatory chemicals without requiring their actual consumption. I have never felt the slightest urge to attempt psychedelic drugs mainly because I’ve seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and therefore already know the things that they might make you see. What’s the point? This tremendous, utterly unique movie is the only drug I’ll ever need.

Categories: Culture, Film, Literature, Reviews

Conservatism and Class in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth Works

November 16, 2014 Leave a comment

With the considerable cultural capital built up by the Middle Earth works of J.R.R. Tolkien in the geek subculture and with the progressive-leaning bourgeois creative class in general, there has been a tendency to construe the legendary Oxford don’s mythological-fantasy literary fictions as fundamentally liberal texts. This impression has been encouraged by the film versions of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which under the stewardship of a left-leaning movie director and his creative-class cadre of collaborators placed a greater emphasis on progressive canards visible in the texts such as environmentalism and interracial tolerance. The third film in the Rings series, The Return of the King, even included a striking, Wellesian montage vibrating with anti-war sentiment and explicit criticism of deluded, imperious political leaders sending young men to die for dubious causes.

It’s important to recognize, however, that Tolkien’s work stems from and reflects a very specific political context but, much more importantly, a specific class context in early 20th-Century Britain. The Oxford professor was an officer in the First World War and a firm member of his country’s bourgeois educational establishment thereafter. He was conservative in the small-c sense at least, in that he yearned for the restoration of a glorious past that he felt to have been worn away by current socioeconomic conditions. For Tolkien, that desired return to the past involved a much farther journey through time: the glorious lost England to be admired and emulated was not that of a few decades earlier but of several centuries earlier. Tolkien thought, not un-idiosyncratically, that it was all downhill for distinctive Anglo-Saxon culture after the Norman Conquest, and felt the pain of 1066 as acutely as if that year’s historic events were the death of a friend. There’s been quite a bit of critical work published on the influence of Catholic thinking on Tolkien’s work. There’s also been plentiful analyses of the roots of Middle Earth in mythology, medieval literature, and the history of language. But much less has been written and said about the class assumptions that preconditioned his work and its ideological implications.

Take the aforementioned environmentalist angle of The Lord of the Rings, for example. Tolkien demonstrated the characteristics of an avid nature-lover in his writing, penning meticulous, aesthetically-pleasing descriptions of landscapes, flora, and fauna (the spectacular New Zealand vistas that characterize Peter Jackson’s films of Tolkien’s work are a visual extension of these flourishes on the page). The element of Rings usually cited as environmentalist in thrust is the subplot of the walking-tree being Ents demolishing the industrialized Isengard stronghold of wizard-gone-sour Saruman the White, who has denuded the nearby forests in the name of a demonic form of technological progress. Although inspired by Tolkien’s narrative frustration at William Shakespeare’s broken promise of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane and bringing ruin with it in Macbeth, the Ents’ assault on Isengard is generally seen as a radical, vengeful sabotage of industry by a slighted and injured natural world.

Published in the 1950s in Britain, The Lord of the Rings first rose to the level of cultural phenomenon when unauthorized paperback copies spread through American universities in the 1960s. The rising youth counterculture of the period embraced the trilogy as an imaginative vision with rebellious undertones (the Ring as the atom bomb has been a common symbolic reading), with flower-child hippies responding particularly to the pastoral humility of hobbits, the natural harmoniousness of the Elves, and the anti-industrial assault of the Ents on Isengard. Tolkien, though faintly amused by the growing fanbase for his writings that he once dubbed his “deplorable cultus”, made statements broadly agreeing with what we now think of in terms of tree-hugger ideology, specifically lamenting the disappearance of England’s woods and fields that he remembered from his youth and their replacement by concrete urban blocks.

Such views carry a very different valence in Britain than their dominant leftist overtones on this side of the pond, however, even down to today. They dovetail with heritage preservation efforts that are among the bastions of quotidian Toryism in the UK, seeking to preserve and even reconstitute architectural and pastoral realities redolent of a weakened aristocratic order of inherited class positions. Lampooned in pop culture by progressive voices like the Kinks in The Village Green Preservation Society and Edgar Wright, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg in Hot Fuzz, these campaigns and the worldview that underlies them evince a sharp anti-modernity and anti-diversity that is often manifested in Tolkien’s work and is central to conservatism from its classic to contemporary iterations. Behind such backwards-looking nostalgia lurks a robust belief in the inherent benefits of social stratification and the maintenance of hereditary privilege.

This ideological colouring is apparent across Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Repeatedly, “good” characters and races are marked as the product of noble lineage and gentlemanly wealth, while “evil” ones carry the markers of the working-class. It has been pointed out (by a critic whose name I cannot recall and therefore whose observation I cannot cite) that the compelling tension of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings stems from Tolkien contrasting the more historically proximal, familiar pastoral landed gentry character of the hobbits (what are they but diminutive hairy-footed gentleman farmers, like background figures out of a George Eliot country opus?) with the high-myth heroism of the milieu of medieval romance represented by Elves, dwarves, men and wizards.

The humble, sympathetic hobbit heroes Bilbo and Frodo Baggins may sit lower on the grand Middle Earth hierarchical pyramid than Elf princes or kings in the wilderness or quasi-angelic wizards, but they still possess a noblesse oblige that grants them a begrudging respect from the upper-crust fellows that they encounter on their journeys. Even the comparatively irresponsible and immature Merry and Pippin are scions of major Shire families, while Sam Gamgee, though clearly from the servant caste, distinguishes himself chiefly by maintaining his steadfast loyalty to his master and to the class order that he represents. The antagonists, meanwhile, are clumsy, dirty, morally-debased proletarians who threaten the viable authority of the more noble peoples, be they the hated orcs or savage men or even trolls or spiders.

Language was always paramount to the philologist Tolkien, who allowed the lineage and meaning of names and words to suggest character arcs and narrative developments in his books. So it makes ample sense that Tolkien marks his world’s vital class distinctions most strongly through language and dialogue. The formal speech of Elves, of Gandalf and Saruman, and of noble men like Aragorn contrasts with that of the hobbits, although even the Bagginses have a way with words: the dangerously clever-speaking dragon Smaug notes Bilbo’s fine verbal manners particularly. Orcs, meanwhile, speak like guttural factory workers, while the comic trolls turned to stone in The Hobbit express themselves in the dialect of rural commoners and even have English peasant names (Tom, Bert, and William). Even the spiders of Mirkwood, whose speech Bilbo can understand, hiss and spit out lower-income-level colloquialisms.

In addition to these examples, the predominant narrative obsession in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is the restoration of the male heirs of noble lineages (be they the House of Durin or the Kings of Gondor) to positions of political control. It betrays Tolkien’s allegiance to a conservative conception of British society that privileges noble bloodlines and a traditional hereditary aristocracy over an open and inclusive democracy that breaks down invidious class distinctions. Middle Earth may be a convincing, detail-rich fantasy world creation that is the setting for stories that have captivated millions of readers and moviegoers, but it remains a world founded in assumptions of class stratification reflective of its creator’s position in and dedication to a social and political context of a highly-ordered, class-driven Britain.

Categories: Culture, Film, Literature, Politics

Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and the Gender Politics of Celebrity Melodrama

November 11, 2014 Leave a comment

American pop megastar Taylor Swift released the second single off of her latest album 1989 last week, entitled “Blank Space”. More importantly, she released a music video to go along with it, a self-proclaimed “film” directed by Joseph Kahn. It’s a nutty slice of aristocratic opulence and purposely overwrought hysterics that is either slyly brilliant, deeply problematic, or quite likely both. Either way, it has to be seen to quite be believed.

Swift inspires unswerving devotion from a young generation and everything from chin-stroking benefit of the doubt to hostile dismissiveness from a slightly older one. She’s clearly come a long way from the country-tinged castles-in-the-sky idealized romances of her early releases, now properly classed as mass-selling juvenalia. Her turn to Top 40 synth-pop on 2012’s Red gained her the regard and qualified support of the indie music intelligentsia, with her lyrics increasingly focused on her public image, relationships, rumours, and personal identity. As a young female artist and songwriter, Swift is far from unintelligent and is not self-unaware; her lyrics scratch fitfully at gender roles and romantic tropes now in a way they did not in her more innocent days. But her perspective is so predetermined by her own specific experiences and perceptions that she has a tendency to miss the forest of social politics for the trees of her personal feelings.

Taylor Swift is getting a bit wiser as she ages, though, and with 1989‘s singles is cultivating the image of a goofy, down-to-earth girl cheekily undermining the celebrity machine of monolithic glitz that has made her a star but also threatens to swallow her identity at every moment. This was certainly the impression generated by “Shake It Off”, which cast a wacky Swift as embodied tropes of fragile femininity such as the ballerina and the cheerleader while also gussying her up as a twerking hip-hop queen and a contemporary performance-art pop star like Lady Gaga. The concept is that she dances to her own beat in terms of both traditional and more current conceptions of a young woman’s identity, a square peg that does not fit into any of these round holes of entertainment-media convention.

The video for “Blank Space”, meanwhile, is an overblown but fascinating assumption of the character of a hysterical, practically psychotic jealous woman by Taylor Swift. Her fledgling acting career looms large; this is an ambitious audition for screen roles, of sorts. That the stock character Swift plays is hugely troubling and problematic from a feminist point of view only seems to dimly register with the young woman playing it. But it does register, it seems; indeed, “Blank Space” contains suggestions of satiric intent, if one looks hard enough.

The entire clip proceeds visually from a striking, quasi-poetic early couplet in the troubled-romance lyrics: “I could show you incredible things / Magic, madness, heaven, sin”. Set in and around a palatial country estate (it’s nearly something out of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby), Swift and the male object of her affection (and hostility, played by Sean O’Pry) carry on a tumultuous romance, beginning as idyllic, opulent scenes of privileged love before degenerating into over-the-top melodrama. Before she knifes paintings and lays into a tremendously expensive sports car with a golf club in rage over her dude’s insensitive texting at a picnic, Swift stars in Kahn’s nigh-on surrealistic tableau of emotional hyper-drama: weeping mascara tears, singing passionately, fist pounding at a well-appointed fireplace, an impassive deer behind her. Later, Swift is clad in riding gear on a hedge-framed path in the house’s gardens, standing on the saddle of a horse. It’s an image out of a lost Magritte painting.

But what does all of this mean? Can we give Taylor Swift enough credit to claim that she or her collaborators are saying anything with the “Blank Space” video? Is it a subtextual critique of the public appetite for moody, dramatic celebrity relationship antics, pantomimed with convincing loopiness by Swift? Is it a reinscription of discriminatory constructions of irrational, emotion-driven women or an explosive blow-out of those pernicious discursive stereotypes? Is its setting of aristocratic wealth a subtle reference to the neo-Gilded Age elite who utilize the media discourse to dazzle the voyeuristic masses with images of privilege and riches and compel their compliance via aspiration? Or is it serendipitously tapping into deep veins of gender politics, celebrity fascination, and class distinction in an unambitious effort to make a memorable video for a relatively unmemorable pop song? Maybe the title is a clue: this text may be construed a “blank space” to be filled in with our own understandings or with the lack thereof.

Categories: Culture, Music, Politics

NHL Jersey Ads and the Flickering Spirit of Sports

November 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Professional sports are massively popular conduits for corporate profit. To deny this or even to minimize its vital importance in the continuing perpetuation of any significant athletic competition would be foolish and blind. The will to profit relies fundamentally upon the deeply-felt, visceral, tribal loyalty of fans to their teams in particular and to their sport of choice in general. The force of their belief is irrational, and its purest iterations are unconnected to competitive success: witness the persistent home arena sellouts for the perennial basement-dwelling Edmonton Oilers. These deep reserves of loyalty and dedication are the stuff of corporate executive dreams, for they predict a lifetime of consistent consumption on the particular brand of the fan’s choice (if, indeed, the alignment was a choice in any conscious sense; such affiliations can be matters of family or community inheritance).

In the National Hockey League, the business side of the equation is as dominant as in the NBA, Major League Baseball, or the black-eyed capitalist colossus that is the NFL. Arenas have corporate name sponsors, the boards surrounding the ice are wraparound billboards, signature television broadcasts are run by corporate conglomerates who sell segment name rights to other companies. The NHL is a profit machine, and much of that profit is tied in with corporate marketing strategies that visually and linguistically associate the on-ice product with corporate logos and taglines.

And yet, like the other three major North American sports leagues, a line is drawn in the metaphorical sand when it comes to the sale of advertising space on NHL team jerseys. Unlike European sports leagues or domestic organizations like NASCAR, where paid logo ads are plastered onto uniforms with impunity, the NHL and its fellow leagues forbid such ads. And so it was with a tone of faux-resignation, the kind so often utilized to discursively presage paradigm-shifting alterations in the status quo masterminded by corporate decision-makers against the consent of consumers, that NHL COO John Collins said that jersey ads are “coming and happening”.

NHL fans have already objected to this suggestion at various magnitudes, and the core of their assumed objections was summarized eloquently by Paul Campbell at The Hockey Chat. Transgressing this last boundary, allowing corporate imagery to compete with and ultimately sully team jerseys and all that they are taken to mean, is conceived of as a serious body blow to the symbolism, the magic, the aura of the game, those who play it, and the teams and fanbases they represent. The team jersey has an “inviolability” and a “sanctity” that would, if ads were permitted alongside a team crest, be violated.

Campbell makes his point very well and it will doubtlessly resonate very deeply with many hockey fans, especially those with strong team loyalties who likewise share an aesthetic appreciation for the sport’s flashes of beauty (and may also appreciate its enervating but troubling bursts of violence). But considering jersey ads to be an unforgivable trespass on the near-religious significance of the sport to many strikes me as a curious distinction to make in a sports milieu already suffused and often disfigured by capitalism.

It is also a distinction that is contradicted by precedents. Campbell does not mention that corporate sponsors have been emblazoning their logos onto the kits of major European soccer clubs for decades without evident ill effects on the sanctity of the game. Indeed, many of these clubs can boast of a level of fan loyalty and inextricable community identification that some of the NHL’s more marginal franchises would kill for (does it “mean” anything to be, say, a Florida Panther?), and the sport of international football enjoys a level of global popularity (and, at its best, an aura of sublime inspiration) that would make Gary Bettman weep into his ginger ale if he ever cared to contemplate it. Does Manchester United mean less to its legions of worldwide devotees because of the Chevrolet logo in the dead centre of its jersey? If so, I’d be curious to know how.

The jersey ad distinction also raises an interesting question about team logos themselves. Campbell cites the common NHL practice of skirting around the team crest on dressing room floors; to tread upon it is considered a transgression on par with stomping thoughtless on graves in a cemetery, if not worse. But is a team crest not itself a corporate logo, by any conceivable definition? If it is animated with a resonance that goes beyond that of the standard corporate logo, is that not a triumph of consumer conditioning and brand marketing rather than a statement of communal meaning as established through a shared history of experience? To what extent has that shared history, if it does predominate in the construction of team significance, been coopted by corporate forces for the sake of profit? Where precisely, in a contemporary North American culture consumed by corporatism, does the capitalist imperative end and the deeper spirit of engagement with the game begin? On the jersey, we are told.

The idea of the team jersey as an inviolable space reflects, to my mind, the interesting and self-contradictory magical thinking that undergirds the attitude towards professional sports in North America. In the United States, a nation whose identity is very much defined by its self-conception as a culture of liberty-chasing, free-market entrepreneurs, the business of professional sports is run and protected by powerful cartels that disregard supply and demand and other economic imperatives at every turn. For all of America’s stereotyped conceptions of European society, its major football leagues operate more closely on free market principles than the North American Big Four leagues.

Football clubs that lose money, run up debts, or are otherwise characterized by financial malfeasance are punished in competitive terms: Glasgow Rangers, the Toronto Maple Leafs of Scottish football (to Old Firm rival Glasgow Celtic’s Montreal Canadiens), were busted down to the fourth tier of the national competition pyramid after the liquidation of the club’s corporate entity in 2012. Competitive failures, in turn, carry economic consequences through the promotion/relegation system, wherein the clubs with a given league’s worst records are dropped to a lower division, replaced by that lower division’s best. Profits are higher in the better leagues, lower in the weaker ones, commensurate to the level of competition. Such regulations applied to the NHL would have driven storied franchises like the Oilers and Leafs out of the league as they have gone through recent cellar-dwelling spells, and money-losing Sun Belt franchises like the Panthers and Arizona Coyotes would have slid to lower levels or simply folded rather than been propped up by revenue sharing and league ownership.

Professional sports in Canada and the United States increasingly reflect the state of capitalism in those countries. In spite of corporate elites’ self-image as self-reliant, trailblazing individualists, their business model relies on being sheltered and protected from market forces, propped up by government subsidies and tax breaks, coccooned in silky privilege. This state of things could be roughly equated with the similar notion of some lingering core of pure spirit surviving deep in the game of hockey despite being blanketed by smothering corporatism. There is some flickering light of the sublime glowing in the heart of a sport like hockey, on that its many devoted fans can agree. But the extent to which it can be believed in on its own terms and not as another commodity, as a mere platitude in a marketing campaign, is unclear.

Categories: Culture, Sports

Film Review: World War Z

November 2, 2014 Leave a comment

World War Z (2013; Directed by Marc Forster)

With World War Z, the zombie movie genre enters its decadent phase. Scaled inhumanly up, then down again, then up, then down again, Marc Forster’s impressive but overblown undead epic has the quiet-loud structure of a grunge rock anthem (though its pacing, oddly, kind of works) and the global scope and international scene changes of a James Bond movie, albeit a pretty slummy one: a key escape sequence early on takes place in Newark, New Jersey, the sort of place that could never exist in the Bond universe. It also deploys swarming waves of zombiefied humans, teeming, rasping masses turning their bodies into battering rams, projectiles, and all-biting mechanisms for spreading an undead virus that threatens to overrun all of uninfected mankind. The zombie outbreak reduces the lion’s share of the planet’s inhabitants to an escalating plague of locusts, swamping civilization like an insectoid infestation.

The swarm association is made palpable in the opening credits sequence, which intercuts images of masses of ants and snarling wolves with the sort of channel-surfing images of cable-news unease and uncertainty that often form the preamble of Hollywood’s current crop of apocalyptic blockbusters (this one is especially uneasy thanks to the paranoid sonic textures of Muse’s “The 2nd Law: Isolated System”; the band’s music frequently provides support for Marco Beltrami’s score). There’s just time to briefly establish the putative emotional core of World War Z (pronounce it “zed”, please, we’re Canadian) before everything falls precipitously apart. Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), his wife Karin (Mireille Enos), and their two young daughters eat some pancakes together and are running for their damn lives before they can even digest their breakfast.

Gerry is getting calls from a very important UN type (Fana Mokoena) immediately after giving the undead hordes the slip in a chaotic scene in quickly-overwhelmed downtown Philadelphia (think about it as a quick prequel to the snowy abandoned Philly of Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys). Gerry was once a UN investigator who operated in post-genocide hot spots, which apparently makes him a badass of the highest order; right-wing One World Government conspiracy theorists among the audience will find their paranoid eyes twitching at the implications of well-armed UN commandos in their black helicopters imposing a tentative order on a collapsed world. Leaving Karin and the kids on an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic that acts as a command base for the dwindling governing authorities, Gerry sets off on a heroic quest from an army base in Korea to a highly fortified Israel to a medical research facility in Wales in an effort to pinpoint the source of the undead disease, or at least to suss out a weakness to give the remnants of humankind a fighting chance against the galloping zombie Ragnarok.

Gerry flies to the isolated base in Korea, maintained by a big-stick alpha male military type (James Badge Dale), along with a hot-shot Harvard-grad epidemiologist (Elyes Gabel) on a vague rumour that the outbreak started there. He finds a couple of clues there, and the main lead directs him to Israel, where walls and well-guarded security perimetres erected to keep Palestinians out also function pretty well on the zombie hordes. The Israel scenes are the nearest World War Z ever veers to sociopolitical applicability, but neither criticism nor praise is reserved for the Israelis’ siege mentality (which fails catastrophically and ridiculously, at any rate).

Based conceptually rather than narratively on Max Brooks’ neo-epistolary novel, itself inspired by an oral history of World War II by Studs Terkel, World War Z grabs at elements of Brooks’ piecemeal global history of a destructive zombie war and sprinkles the background with them while Pitt’s protagonist pretty much single-handedly finds a band-aid solution to the epidemic. A ranting CIA agent (David Morse) tells Gerry of North Korea’s creative and brutally efficient strategy to stave off infection (let’s just say that their dentists were kept very busy); the mushroom cloud of a nuke disrupts his flight across Asia; the President of the United States is said to be dead, along with four of the six Joint Chiefs (what other use do they ever serve in apocalyptic films of this ilk but to establish the seriousness of the situation by expiring?). But Brooks’ interesting approach of telling the story through varied accounts (which provide much of the story but not nearly all of it) is jettisoned for a traditional heroic narrative from the solo perspective of a resourceful male protagonist.

World War Z boasts some grand visual strokes and undeniably tense scenes of pursuit by and avoidance of the zombies: sequences in a darkened Newark apartment block, the stone streets of Jerusalem, and on board an infected airplane are especially good, although the contagion genre workout at a WHO facility in Wales at the climax is a bit of a letdown at a key time. That said, World War Z is also a deeply preposterous exercise, even when taking the considerably lowered standards of logical credulity that define the zombie genre into full account. Many major plot points tax audience belief heavily, and minor ones do, too: the fall of Israel to the zombies comes about via an astounding lapse in vigilance that seems quite at odds with IDF attention to detail, Karin dials Gerry on a satellite phone to chat as he attempts a stealth infiltration in an undead-heavy area (she doesn’t know, but should be a tiny bit more careful, as should he), and Gerry’s key observation about the undead’s exploitable blind spot is both blatantly obvious and subtly obscure. Hints and clues are introduced and then dropped from sight, as are cynically manipulative heartstring-tugging supporting characters, like Gerry’s asthmatic daughter or a streetsmart Latino kid who escapes Newark with the Lane family and then vanishes on the carrier once Gerry leaves on his mission.

World War Z is simultaneously too big and not big enough earn the promise of its title. Forster, working from a script penned and re-penned by five writers at least, achieves scope but not scale, a global reach and character without an international sociopolitical perspective to offer. Hollywood convention gets its hooks into this material but good, turning it into a star vehicle for a sensitive but ruthless masculine hero. Pitt, a dedicated physical performer, has cultivated a sense of detached thoughtfulness as he’s aged, which is distinctly at odds with carrying out a desperate zombie-battling mission. Making World War Z all about one man’s efforts in the face of a spreading undead scourge diminishes the patchwork cultural history appeal of Max Brooks’ novel, and burdening it with clumsy, outlandish plot turns and oily cliches puts it so far behind the 8-ball that it has no hope of ending up in front.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Dark City

October 29, 2014 Leave a comment

Dark City (1998; Directed by Alex Proyas)

A man checks his watch; it has stopped at midnight. Another man wakes up naked in a bath in an unfamiliar green-tiled bathroom, a trickle of blood on his forehead, a broken stylized syringe on the tile floor, his(?) clothes piled on a chair in the corner. He looks at himself in a mirror, seeming to only barely recognize the stranger in the glass. He dresses, finds a jacket, keys, and a postcard from a place called Shell Beach that sparks a sunsoaked memory of a terrace by the sea. Then he sees a dead woman with spirals carved into her skin, and the phone rings.

This is the disorienting, wordless opening of Alex Proyas’ Dark City, and it never really improves on the enigmatic film noir resonance of this first sequence. What precisely has happened to this man, named John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), and what it means for the larger reality of the titular nocturnal metropolis does get revealed gradually and often deliciously and compellingly, yes. But the answers are both richer and very much poorer than the establishing questions of Dark City.

Murdoch does not know he is Murdoch until he retrieves his wallet from a Gilliamesque “automat”, a sort of vending machine sized up to a full diner. He doesn’t remember anything beyond a few flashes of a happy childhood associated with Shell Beach. He’s soon bothered by a nervous doctor named Schreber (an oddly cast Kiefer Sutherland) who promises him answers but never quite provides them willingly, pursued by a hardboiled police detective (William Hurt) suspecting him of a string of murders, and meets a wife named Emma (Jennifer Connelly) that he didn’t know he had and doesn’t know quite how to relate to. He’s also pursued by pale, bald, creepily, thinly elongated figures in black fedoras and long coats who try to kill him and/or control his mind.

Ideally, this is all a viewer would know about this movie going in. If you want to be such a viewer, stop reading now and spare yourself an attempt to consider what’s going on in Dark City. But what is going on? That is eventually revealed, mostly by Schreber in a monologue as he, Murdoch and the detective Bumstead direct a rowboat along a dark urban canal. The city, you see, is an enormous running experiment, a lab rat maze for human subjects (Schreber is seen with such a maze when Emma first meets him, foreshadowing these later revelations). The pale gents, known only as the Strangers, run the show from a kooky gothic subterranean lair, utilizing a collective mind and psychokinetic powers called “tuning” to pause and remake the cityscape each night, sprouting new buildings like accelerated-growth flowers, shifting their human subjects’ socioeconomic situations, memories, indeed their entire lives, just to register and try to understand the effect when they restart the clock and “life” resumes. The sun never rises in this constructed city, a symbolic marker of the ignorant, helpless existence of the repeatedly manipulated people who dwell in it.

John Murdoch, for whatever reason, cannot be so easily manipulated by the tuning Strangers, and as he comes to realize the situation in the city he also realizes that perhaps he has the power to change it. He sets off on a single-minded quest to find Shell Beach, to pinpoint a properly non-existent locus of purity, innocence and happiness where all uncertainties, above all the uncertainty of his identity, will be resolved. Shell Beach is a fantasy creation, invented by the Strangers’ human-memory chemist Schreber (who is named after a schizophrenic German judge who was an important case analysed by Sigmund Freud and whose memoirs are frequently referenced in the film) to provide a reasonable backstory to Murdoch’s life. It does not exist, but Murdoch’s ultimate act of resistance to the Strangers’ unseen authority is to find it, and when it cannot be found, to create it himself.

Theologian Gerald Loughlin reads Dark City as a recasted take on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: Murdoch, like Plato’s ideal philosopher, discovers from whence the shadows on the cave wall originate, but instead of freeing the imprisoned human subjects with this knowledge and power, he uses it to craft his own shadows, his own illusions. Dark City has been closely associated in late ’90s cult film with The Matrix: not only are their plots, philosophical themes and emerald-tinged, leather-bound neo-noir look quite similar, they were released a year apart and were shot in the same studios in Sydney, Australia using many of the same sets. Murdoch’s role as a specially-powered liberator of the controlled masses, but only on the preconceived terms of the forces of hidden hegemony, closely mirrors Neo’s niche as The One, delineated at the end of The Matrix Reloaded by the Architect as an established if accidental algorithm in the system that grants the disaffected with the illusion of freedom of choice while securing their unconscious obedience to the imperatives of the hegemons, be they insect-like robots as in The Matrix or teeth-chattering albino psychic creeps as in Dark City.

But The Matrix was a massive popular success while Dark City was a commercial flop that, despite the dogged persistence of the praise of America’s top film critic, has managed only mid-level cult success and appreciation since its release. Alex Proyas is not a lesser visual stylist than the Wachowskis by any measurable means; if anything, his visionary mash-up of film noir, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and nutball B-movie goth sci-fi is much more atmospheric and resonant than the concurrent settings of The Matrix. It’s depressingly materialist-essentialist to say it, but Dark City‘s Achilles heel might be its limited budget. In some features, the limitations have an clever, almost serendipitous resonance. Every scene, interior and exterior, feels inexorably like it’s being shot on a soundstage, but then, in the Strangers’ artificially-crafted city, it should feel that way. It detaches and disorients the viewer but the effect has a weird congruence. Indeed, considering Proyas’ production funding caps, Dark City has an unusually fully-realized vision and rarely feels visually compromised in any real way.

But there are other compromises. There are not any good performances to speak of. Sewell is convincing, if far from leading man material, and genre legend Richard O’Brien slithers through the movie as lead Stranger Mr. Hand, a character conceived of for the veteran of such roles. Hurt is barely trying, Sutherland is overly mannered and lost in a speech impediment, and the young Connelly is blank and bored (she was always beautiful, but only really became an interesting actress in later years). Furthermore, as seductive as the film noir set-up is, the jarring instrusion of the cornball science fiction solution is a worse turn-off than a bad pick-up line. By the time Murdoch and Stranger elder Mr. Book (Ian Richardson) are floating above a crumbling city mindwave-fighting, an intriguing premise has long since dissolve into ridiculous genre nonsense. The visions of Dark City are bold and often memorable, but their eventual implications and resolutions are not nearly as potent. One more way the film resembles The Matrix, after all.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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