Film Review: Kingdom of Heaven

October 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Kingdom of Heaven (2005; Directed by Ridley Scott)

For a director with seminal cinematic masterpieces on his resume who makes expensive, beautifully-shot, ambitious pictures with epic scope, vision and deep intellectual potentialities, Ridley Scott has a tendency to fly under the radar as far as buzzworthy film releases go. He can cast Russell Crowe as a grim Robin Hood to a sort of mass shrug from popular audiences. It took a heavy-handed suggestion of Alien prequel-hood to generate much of a film-geek frisson around Prometheus, and his forthcoming Moses vs. Ramesses ancient war epic already seems mired in racially insensitive and sometimes bizarre casting, like, say, Jesse Pinkman as Joshua. He’s not received a Best Director Oscar nomination for over a dozen years (since 2001’s Black Hawk Down, which has served as inspiration for the entirety of Paul Greengrass‘ work since then but is otherwise a bit forgotten). For an auteur of Scott’s stature, that’s an eternity in the wilderness.

Scott’s hoary, unwieldy medieval crusades narrative Kingdom of Heaven seems on the surface to typify this high-budget artistic wandering. Choosing the then white-hot action leading man Orlando Bloom to play a hirsute 12th-century blacksmith who finds himself commanding the defence of the holy city of Jerusalem from Saladin’s sieging armies probably seemed like a good idea at the time. But as Kingdom of Heaven wears on, it requires brooding thought and consideration from its star that Bloom, for all of his mastery of battle movement, can’t effectively summon.

Bloom’s Balian wends his way on a rambling quest to the Holy Land through one of the most vividly detailed and accurately-pitched onscreen visions of the medieval world ever realized. It’s a world predicated on the chilled closeness of mortality and the lofty, remote promises of escape from grim quotidian conditions in a blessed afterlife. Balian kills his grubby local priest (also his half-brother, a cameo for noted crafter of creeps Michael Sheen) for a slight to his suicided wife and chases after his nobleman father (Liam Neeson) to join his company in a Crusade to recapture Jerusalem from the infidel Muslims and perhaps gain divine forgiveness for his sins and those of his wife. Neeson’s Godfrey is a hard man who teaches him some fighting skills before inevitably shuffling off the mortal coil; he memorably boasts about fighting for two days with an arrow through his testicles, so he might know a thing or two worth passing along.

Eventually shipwrecking in the Holy Land, Balian befriends a Saracen (Alexander Siddig) who may be more than the well-spoken servant he seems to be. He then becomes embroiled in a rather complicated set of Crusader State political and military intrigues swirling around the leprous but honourable King of Jerusalem (Edward Norton in a metal mask, from behind which he outacts the vacant, subtextless Bloom for long stretches) and a few rather more morally leprous French noblemen (including Marton Csokas and a wonderful scene-stealing Brendan Gleeson). He tries to get away from the religiously-tinged conflicts, farming on an estate and tiptoeing around a fetching noblewoman (Eva Green), but is dragged back in by Saladin’s assault on the ragtag Christian garrison protecting Jerusalem.

20th Century Fox forced edits to Scott’s film that rendered it somewhat incoherent, and his longer but more fleshed-out Director’s Cut is a considerable improvement. If ponderously-paced, inhumanly scaled, but occasionally sweeping and transporting medieval sword-and-sandal stuff appeals to you, I’d mildly recommend the film in its extended form, rather than advise cautious avoidance in its truncated cut. It’s not only that every major character is rendered more rounded and real (particularly Green’s Sybilla), but the rhythms of Scott’s direction and narrative throughlines of William Monaghan’s script are kept intact and gain some measure of power and pathos.

Of course, Kingdom of Heaven‘s underlying politics are still entirely too liberal-humanist to be believable in the medieval context (the Braveheart Syndrome). It preaches faith-not-religion without recognizing the highly porous boundaries between the two, and undervalues the role of both religious fervour and the naked desire for land, wealth, and power in motivating Crusading Europeans to decamp from a crowded, wartorn continent to the deserts at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. It portrays Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) and the Saracens sympathetically but also constructs them as an invading horde of Orcish Others to be dispatched in the hundreds lest they massacre every living thing inside the city walls. The Crusaders, with the exception of Balian and a wry Hospitaller (David Thewlis) who does not make it through the disastrous battle at the Horns of Hattin, are pretty uniformly complete bastards, next to which any Muslim misdeeds seem relatively slight.

Applying modern conceptions of compassion, justice, and international law to the medieval context is a foolish index to judge the moral profile of film characters, of course, but then Kingdom of Heaven panders to those conceptions fairly consistently. In a similar way, applying film criticism’s precepts to a late-period Ridley Scott historical epic on the basis of his earlier and more praised work (I refer less to Alien or Blade Runner than to his most recent unqualified critical and popular triumph, Gladiator) is also foolish, but it’s nonetheless always done. Kingdom of Heaven, especially in its Director’s Cut, has some features worth praising, but it hardly measures up to a standard that Scott once set but has now seen recede deep into the rear distance.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Body Care Products, Soup and the Absurdist Eccentricity of Modern Masculinity

October 16, 2014 Leave a comment

It’s becoming fairly apparent that the globalized social order of the post-modern, post-capitalist, post-democratic West is undergoing at least a few active crises. But seemingly at the core of all of them lies a truly earth-shaking crisis: a crisis of masculine identity. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir recently descried a nostalgic yearning to preserve and recapture a fading sense of unshakeable white American manhood in a time of increasing feminism, multiculturalism, diversity, and LGBT rights, where even unassailable fortresses of homosocial identity communion such as the National Football League, the U.S. military, and fraternities are finding themselves assailed for the less savoury consequences of their inborn chauvinism (like, I dunno, rape and domestic violence, or something).

Wherever one looks, in fact, defenders of aggressive, blustering masculinity are finding themselves seemingly besieged by the minority and diverse forces that they have marginalized and exploited for so long and are lashing out in response. The increasingly absurd machinations of the brothers Ford in Toronto municipal politics represents a pure distillation of the right-wing politics of white male resentment against the implications of liberal modernity for a permanent softening of an enduring (if ever-more vestigial) social hardness. Similar political predilections have taken firm hold of the Republican Party south of the border and are granted a seat at the proverbial table in the Conservative Party north of it.

most_interesting_man_in_the_world__60668Elsewhere, the longtime male fantasy zones of superhero comics and video games are experiencing spasms of change as open-minded creativity and criticism open them up to new, non-male voices. Some dudes may never be able to handle a female Thor, and even more dudes have crafted an obnoxiously misogynistic “movement” called Gamergate to harrass and silence incisive feminist voices criticizing sexist representations in gaming. Even international terrorism fits this masculine counter-revolution bill. What is ISIS, at its core, than the most extreme men’s rights pushback of them all, transmuted through post-colonial developing-world grievances against imperial powers and a radical, fundamentalist vision of Islam that restores a medieval gender hierarchy through brutal force? And what is the muscular military intervention against them but a resurgence of masculine martial fervour to match their vicious phallic demonstrations?

But there’s a parallel stream (or perhaps an intertwined one) to this belligerent counter-revolutionary masculinity. Corporate consumer advertising has targetted perceived male insecurity by flattering its assumptions of inherent superiority while simultaneously exposing the obsessive propriety with which it treats its cherished tenets as fundamentally ridiculous. This ironic, self-aware approach to the terms of traditional masculinity lampoons those terms just as it reinforces them. It presents masculinity as a sort of comic eccentricity to be stroked and kept placated by agents of traditional femininity, lest its claws come out. The innovating ad in this cycle was Old Spice’s viral clip starring the brilliantly deadpan Isaiah Mustafa as “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”.

There’s an overt appeal to women to the ad, of course: Mustafa is gorgeous, and he’s looking right at the camera, addressing the “ladies”, letting them know that men are basically ludicrous creatures but they have their uses (mostly, it must be said, materialist ones). But the dominant message is addressed to men: it’s okay to be traditionally masculine, but try not to take it too seriously, because that makes you a chauvinist asshole. There’s also a line out to men and women who reject the terms of traditional masculinity, nudging them knowingly and acknowledging the rightness of their view. No wonder the ad was so massively successful, launching similarly parodically manly sequels and indeed whole products lines based on the comic premise. It spoke, with exquisite, slippery balance, to most hegemonic young-adult demographics at the same time.

The Old Spice campaign found itself either inspiring or coming into discourse with similarly-pitched marketing, most prominently the meme-ready Dos Equis ads featuring “The Most Interesting Man in the World” pictured above. The tone of worldly, devil-may-care sophistication of those ads introduced a note of cosmopolitan savoir-faire to the modern masculine playbook, qualities that are often dismissed as European and effeminate. But a more recent, and odd, commercial for Chunky Soup’s blatantly male-centred Pub Inspired line of canned soup flavours focused the beam of ludicrous modern masculinity even more intensely.

The demographic appeal here is more particular: young father with teeny-pop fan daughters is offered respite from his emasculated plight by a meat-and-potatoes stew and a skull-perching eagle-wing set of earmuffs. But beyond the absurdist humour and gender assumptions lies a secretive homosocial exchange. The experienced soup-slinging bartender inside the television (his taps dispense not beer but sludgy, sodium-rich sustenance for young single men allergic to food preparation) offers sage advice and material gifts that preserve some private illusion of traditional masculinity to a subject otherwise deprived of contact with his supposedly primal (but really quite socially constructed) manhood. It’s a window into the mindset of patriarchy: private exchanges between men in settings where women are not present and certainly hold no power or sway determining the matters of true importance.

But the exchange is fundamentally silly, down to the screaming eagle with the pretentiously classical name. Perhaps the core truth of the current state of masculinity is most visible in this element of such an advertisement: although man-to-man exchange retains its protocols of respect and gravity, both the customs of this exchange and the patriarchal aims it supports and works towards have slid into a position of tired uselessness worthy of ridicule. A panicked realization of this fall from grace may perhaps serve to explain the vehemence of chauvinist masculinity’s response to the perceived reduction of its influence and dominated discursive territory.

Categories: Culture, Hilarity, Navel-Gazing

Astrological Structure and Narrative Mystery in Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries”

October 10, 2014 Leave a comment

The Man Booker Prize is no small honour, and Eleanor Catton’s narratively sprawling, absorbing novel The Luminaries is no small honouree. The 28-year-old Canada-born, New Zealand-reared writer’s 800+ page astrologically-structured mystery is set in the mid-1800s during her adopted country’s West Coast gold rush and freely mixes a directness of prose with narrative and structural complexity. A compelling read for most of its length, The Luminaries loses some must-finish appeal in its closing segments, a miscalculation attributable mostly to a privileging of that aforementioned meticulously worked-out structure over narrative momentum and character empathy and engagement.

The Luminaries is a ripping-enough yarn about intrigue, betrayal, conflict, and redemption in and around the gold-rush boomtown of Hokitika on New Zealand’s West Coast. Beginning in 1866 and moving forward before flashing back (the placement of that flashing back is a big issue, but we’ll get to that in a moment), The Luminaries begins with Walter Moody, a Scottish barrister and prospecting hopeful, who arrives in town in the midst of a deluge characteristic of the region. He’s fleeing a deep family shame and a nearer, more mysterious vision that he’s seen on board the ship that landed him in Hokitika, and plans to stake a claim on the fortune-making goldfields in the area.

Seeking solitude and comfort in the lounge of his hotel, Moody happens upon a conspiratorial congregation of twelve seemingly mismatched local men. A genial representative of the enigmatic dozen gentlemen, a shipping agent named Balfour, attempts to suss out Moody’s nature and background, and the gathering eventually elects to inculcate the newcomer into their shared secret. The meeting concerns a labyrinthine riddle involving a deceased hermit, a vanished young man, an ambitious politician, an opium-addicted prostitute, a rough-edged sea captain, a fashionable widow, stolen gold, an unsigned bequest of wealth, the local prison, and a crate full of dresses, a tangled situation implicating every man there gathered in some way.

This sounds like an intriguing set-up for a cracker of a detective story with the rational, analytical Moody as the sleuth figure. Though there would be nothing wrong with that, it’s to Catton’s credit that she proceeds unpredictably. The story does eventually reach a sort of climax in a courtroom drama section with Moody as the brilliant legal unraveller of the tangled web woven by the sea captain Carver and his comely accomplice Lydia Wells. But what leads to those chapters is a tapestry of colliding motivations and ambitions, muddled associations and trespasses into each other’s orbits pushing her varied cast of characters towards conclusions that are introductions, endings that constitute beginnings.

Catton is a fine prose stylist, fond of digressions into the psychological nuances of her characters’ self-conceptions, relations to others, and closely-held illusions and prejudices. Her narrative is also riveting, at least up until her structural choices take over from natural storytelling rhythms and reader interest inevitably wanes.

Despite The Luminaries‘ ostensible setting in a historically firm time and place, it invokes Victorian spiritualism very prominently and involves seemingly supernatural occurences (ghostly apparitions, spirit possessions, apparent mental and physical linkages across time and space) and mysteries that are never fully explained. Such supernatural elements proceed from the astrological foundations and architectural skeleton of the novel. The dozen men meeting in the hotel lounge when Moody arrives are based on the twelve signs of the zodiac: an imperious goldfields magnate and pimp is Leo, a confident and physically imposing Maori guide is Aries, and so forth. Another set of characters, including Moody, Carver, and Lydia Wells, represent the planets of the solar system. The conjunction of the characters of corresponding astrological signs and heavenly bodies and the sort of interactions they have are based by Catton on the personality traits and psychological assumptions of the astrological profiles, as well as upon the passing phases of the moon. Catton’s chapters and “parts” begin much longer and grow much shorter as the book moves along, much as the lunar cycle begins at full wax before waning to a glowing sliver in the nocturnal sky.

It’s surely this intricate, tremendously clever structure that so attracted the Booker jury, lending a depth and resonant allure to the page-turning period intrigue of Catton’s central mystery. But Catton chooses to mostly resolve the core mystery of the “current” strand of the narrative with the courtroom chapters with a hundred pages to spare, at which point she fills in the back story that leads her characters to their collisions in Hokitika. The verve goes out of the storytelling at this point, it must be said; so many juicier enigmas are left unresolved in the main body of the text that it seems odd to spend an extended denouement sketching in lesser mysteries in the narrative’s deep background. It is, to put it bluntly, a mistake, though not one that significantly dents the otherwise compelling facade of The Luminaries.

Categories: History, Literature, Reviews

The Islamic State, Neoliberalism and the New War in the Middle East

October 7, 2014 Leave a comment

It’s become official: America’s wars in Iraq now officially outnumber the World Wars. Not sufficiently chastened by two-plus decades of ill-concieved military adventurism in the Middle Eastern state whose results have been decidedly mixed (to be outrageously generous), the Obama Administration has drummed up an international coalition of support for airstrikes against the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

A radical and brutally violent militia of Islamic extremists (mostly animated by Sunni discontent in the region) who have exploited the sectarian conflicts of Iraq and the protracted civil war in Syria to gain control over a vast territory across both countries, the group was formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The latter acronym has caught on as a bogeyman moniker in America and the West (the piratical Black Standard flag they’ve adopted doesn’t hurt the villainous appearance), although the Islamic State has mostly dropped the geographic denominator in its (frankly laughable) mission to establish a global caliphate. Just because some of us might not be able to read or hear of ISIS without thinking of the Bob Dylan song doesn’t mean that they aren’t a serious, well-armed, well-funded cadre of nasty, reactionary characters who are crafting a world of hurt and suffering for local populations. So serious and nasty are they that al-Qaeda recently cut ties with the Islamic State, finding it too volatile and vicious for their liking. That’s right: the terrorist network that thought it valid to crash planes into skyscrapers to punish kafir capitalists for deviations from the path of Allah finds that these guys push it too far. That, to be put it mildly, is bad.

The usual lines of political disagreement seem to be defining the reaction in America, Canada, and Western Europe to the push for American-led military intervention. Antiwar progressives will nitpick the details and perhaps even challenge the general validity of military action, with some anti-state libertarians briefly on their side. Rabid Fox News conservatives, meanwhile, whose views and positions on anything Middle Eastern or Islamic have long been motivated by thinly-veiled xenophobia and religious rivalry, will welcome any state-sponsored killing of Muslims, even if it is carried out by a secret Muslim President (the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy; everyone is my enemy, except for Jesus).

Their psychological arousal at the thought of armed conflict (as long as it is far away and doesn’t threaten their cycles of consumption) is mirrored by that of the neoliberal hawks still manning the barricades of political discourse in defence of the Barack Obama Presidency’s foreign policy legacy. Unwilling to admit that the surveillance and national state has been expanded and covert foreign military action has been even more deeply entrenched in American public life under the President who promised to roll back such abuses of power in contrast to his neoconservative predecessors, the neoliberal elite embraces serious-minded assaults on brutal, backwards-focused fundamentalism as a self-evident good, in and of itself, as well as a forceful legitimizing tool for their foreign policy worldview.

The full, complex, knotty reality behind the rise of the Islamic State is much less simple and far more unsettling and potentially intractable than any substantial political consensus in the United States or anywhere else is willing to face up to. PBS’s Frontline examined the troubled and tragically miscalculated history behind the current version of the Iraq conflict in the recent Losing Iraq (embedded in full below) and finds both the Bush and the Obama Administrations culpable in what can only be honestly called the failure of the Iraqi state in the wake of the deposition of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The Bush team’s approach to Iraq has been painstakingly dissected and found wanting by progressive-leaning documentaries in the past, and the same issues are front and centre in Losing Iraq: the lack of planning and preparation, the assumption of ease of military victory and quick withdrawal, the privileging of neocon ideological purity and muscular conservative messaging over the advice and intelligence provided by experts in the region, the basic distrust and/or desire for punishment of Ba’athist-linked Sunnis that led to their general alienation from the increasingly Shi’ite-dominated political processes in the country. The dissolution of the Iraqi army and disenfranchisement of Sunnis is tracked directly to the stubborn insurgency that eventually morphed into the Islamic State. Driven by rigid fantasist beliefs and domestic political and PR concerns, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their Republican underlings chose at nearly every point to take actions on the basis of any interests but those of Iraqis. In a half-hearted, endlessly compromised attempt to secure Iraq, they succeeded only in rendering its insecurity permanent.

Losing Iraq‘s criticism is also levelled at George W. Bush’s successor. Whatever might be said about the inept, crippled, and reluctant nation-building exercise carried on by the Bush Administration in Iraq, at least they kept troops, diplomats, and other officials in the country to work at cleaning up the complicated mess that their overthrow of Saddam had made. Launching the second war in Iraq was a deep moral stain, but it was a moral stain that implicated Americans in the process of its protracted removal. President Obama, who ran for the highest office in the nation largely on the basis of a promised reversal of Bush’s unpopular, shameful Iraq policy, was uninterested in the warnings of his officials in the still-war-torn land that the swift withdrawal he intended to effect would have terrible consequences. The depth of the folly of the Iraq war is demonstrated in the dearth of favourable options after this particular military genie was let out of the bottle: it was such a mistake that any and all decisions that followed it and reacted to it could not help but be mistakes too, ever deepening the implications of the original tragic error. It was a foreign policy black hole, pulling even the most well-meaning plans down into a matterless oblivion.

More than anything, the assumptions of neoliberalism proved fatally insufficient when it came to Iraq, an insufficience which the Islamic State has recognized and exploited to devastating effect. Bush and the neocons, though ideologically right-leaning, bowed to the neoliberal distaste for bloody, drawn-out conflicts that send thousands of young American men home in body bags formed by the Vietnam War. Seeking to avoid the political consequences of war weariness, they constructed a strategy of minimal engagement that exacerbated existing problems while their prejudices recklessly forged new problems. Obama’s similarly war-averse neoliberalism is even deeper, and inspired his rapid withdrawal from Iraq and increasing reliance on drone warfare to engage enemies (real and perceived) in foreign conflict zones.

This aversion to the deadly sacrifices of warfare, even in a modern technocratic globalized order allowing detachment from and disavowal of faraway battles, is precisely what radical Islamists in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere have relied upon to make their gains. Just as Vladimir Putin’s Russia has calculated that principled international opposition alone would not lead to risky NATO intervention in its conflict with Ukraine and was proven right, the Islamic State made its advances in the knowledge that the democratic West did not have the ruthless core to match their own.

Even now, as warplanes drop ever-inaccurate bombs on Islamic State targets, ground troops and the attendant casualties are scrupulously avoided (even as the dreaded “military advisors” on the ground in Iraq grow in number; Vietnam War scholars remember those well). Neoliberalism seeks to achieve results through the force of its own inevitability and, of course, the materialistic desire of disadvantaged actors to achieve a fragment of the wealth and privileged status of their elitist benefactors. The Islamic State rejects material benefits as blasphemy and beheads neoliberalism’s inevitability before posting the video of the act on YouTube. It is an outcome only reluctantly contemplated, but it seems like it will take infinitely more than airstrikes to dislodge the Islamic State from either their occupied territory or from their central nesting place in the nightmares of the neoliberal West.

Film Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

October 4, 2014 1 comment

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011; Directed by David Fincher)

The initial impression one gets from the Hollywood adaptation of the first book of the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s massive-selling Millennium trilogy, and ultimately the most enduring impression, is that Scandinavia and David Fincher were absolutely made for each other. The meticulous suspense thriller stylist and grim auteur of SevenZodiac, and The Social Network is fully at home in the chilly subarctic setting of Larsson’s native land, whose landscapes and people alike come across here as physically, emotionally, and psychologically remote and unforgiving. Fincher and his cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth alternate between whitescale snowscapes in rural Sweden, grey-blue sunless daytime scenes, and sparkling black nocturnal tableaux of Stockholm that taken together feed into a sense of profound existential alienation that the dark-hued and sometimes brutal subject matter makes almost unnecessarily manifest. A brief detour to London feels like a sudden ray of blazing sunlight; you know your movie is deeply dark when the atmosphere of England lightens the mood.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does have a story, not just a mood. But it’s frankly an overwrought mess of burdening exposition that even Fincher and his capable screenwriter Steven Zaillian cannot turn into the fleet-but-dense, crisply edited thriller of information that the director has specialized at crafting beautifully in the past. Still, we must attempt a synopsis nonetheless. Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a star investigative reporter for a Swedish magazine published by his lover Erika Berger (Robin Wright). Reporter and magazine alike have been publically humiliated and nearly bankrupted by a libel suit brought by the billionaire CEO whose corrupt practices they attempted but failed to fully expose.

In need of money and vulnerable to anyone offering him promises of professional redemption, Blomkvist half-reluctantly treks to an icy town in the Swedish north to meet with Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), a retired and regretful member of a sprawling, once-flush clan of corporate industrialists. Operating under the cover of Henrik’s putative memoirist, Blomkvist is tasked to investigate the decades-old disappearance of Henrik’s beloved sister Harriet, whom the old man suspects one of his distrusted family members murdered on the compound-like island where most of the surviving (but estranged) Vangers still dwell. Henrik promises Blomkvist not only payment in return, but also incriminating evidence against the fat cat target who defeated him (and who once worked for the Vangers).

As Blomkvist moves into a lakeside cottage to familiarize himself with the Vangers and the arcana around Harriet’s disappearance, the brilliant but damaged agent hired by the family attorney Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff) to do a thorough background check on Blomkvist before they called him in struggles through daily suffering in Stockholm. A ward of the state, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is a spiky goth computer hacker with a photographic memory, bisexual leanings, and a chronic shortage of funds. She is exploited and assaulted sexually by her smug government minder (Yorick van Wageningen) in exchange for the money to survive before viciously turning the tables on him with one-upping cruelty (about which more in a bit). She also has her gear bag snatched on the subway and takes it back in a slick, bravura scene of struggle on an escalator that, cool as it is, has little or nothing to do with anything else that happens.

As the mysteries in the past of the Vanger family become increasingly labyrinthine and sinister, Blomkvist decides he needs a research assistant, at which point Frode suggests Lisbeth. Blomkvist is only briefly, wrily stung by her violation of his privacy, and they become partners in the Vanger investigation, at first awkwardly (Mara’s impatient glance at Craig’s daddish slowness on his laptop is a recognizable nerd moment) before, ahem, warming up a bit (bow-chicka-wow, etc.).

There’s way more density and detail to the plot than I’ve seen fit to mention, and way more than there should be or than holds together, honestly. The sideline serial killer mystery is resolved on a piece of evidence of extreme tenuousness, although that resolution is entertainingly conveyed in an exquisite, tense intercutting sequence involving Blomkvist visiting the house of Henrik’s indulgent brother Martin (Stellan Skarsgård) uninvited and then sinisterly invited, Lisbeth researching in the Vanger company archives, and a black-comic deployment of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow”. The film drags on with unwieldy inevitability after that, becoming steadily less interesting until an ending that feels oddly truncated considering how the narrative welcome has been so thoroughly overstayed.

It’s tempting to take a H.L. Mencken tack towards such pulpy and lurid material and bemoan the slobbering masses who have so gladly consumed it with ravenous ignorance. It’s likewise tempting to echo Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir in questioning the utility of expending the abilities of a filmmaker of Fincher’s enormous technical and intellectual heft (which are often on full display here) on such overplotted sensationalist froth. But even the pulpiest of pulp bestsellers nurture a kernel of some compelling truth deep in their cores that attracts the casual public transit/airport readers like moths to a guttering lantern. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo slaps together serial killer procedurals with techno-conspiracy thrillers while festooning its convoluted (and pretty much preposterous) story with persistent elements of misogynist sexual violence, corrupt corporate exploitation, and incipient lingering fascism until these ostensibly separate evils seem like a single, insubstantial smoke-monster of lurking menace.

I’m telling you, trepanning is a miracle cure for migraines. Let me show you.

It’s quite possible that had Larsson lived (he apparently expired from a heart attack after climbing the stairs to his flat when the lift was down, an end ignonimious in its mundanity), he would have worked with an editor to iron out the idiosyncracies, odd tangents (he describes Blomkvist’s preparation and consumption of sandwiches in excruciating detail, for instance), and other evident issues in the trilogy manuscript before publishing it. His death fixed the work in its rougher form as a nakedly obvious wish-fulfilment narrative, wherein a rumpled but principled investigative reporter (so clearly Larsson himself, a left-wing activist figure who looked long and hard into extreme right politics in Sweden) overcomes an array of nasty enemies with the help of a prickly but sexualized feminist avenging angel whom, of course, he is allowed to bed. Despite some narrative departures and fixing the proceedings in an accented Euro-English rather than the native Swedish of the domestic film adaptations of the last decade, Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is likely the more faithful and the more serious(!) take on the tone of the material. This is especially true in terms of the central performances: Craig’s droll, bemused, distinctly middle-aged protagonist and Mara’s Lisbeth, a bangs-and-piercings anti-social human cactus whose sharp edges transition into a soft, vulnerable underbelly and back again with astonishing swiftness.

Stieg Larsson is a mysterious figure whose biography and history with his world-famous posthumous novels are both distinctly unconvincing; his Wikipedia entry is as patchily written and confusingly implausible as those novels themselves (at least until it is edited or corrected, it currently states that he was born in the “northern Indien city of Miami” and spent part of 1977 schooling female guerrillas in Eritrea in the use of mortars). As concerns the inspiration for his inadvertent opus, Larsson told a deeply troubling story about witnessing a gang rape while a teen and doing nothing to help the victim, an anecdote that almost became more disturbing when word came that it probably wasn’t true.

Whether Larsson himself had this galvanizing, guilt-ridden experience or merely appropriated it from someone else, this rape story is directly transferred into his narrative, and thus into Fincher’s film, in three scenes of highly unsettling sexual exploitation. Beginning with ickily forced fellatio in her state ward Nils’ office, Lisbeth is later overpowered, handcuffed, and raped in a powerful, uncompromising, and highly representationally questionable sequence. If there is a “right” way to aesthetically represent the deep trauma of sexual assault, then the good-faith attempts to locate it have been outnumbered by misguided representations that either present the act as lurid button-pushing sensationalism or as a marker of a text’s “seriousness” that otherwise re-entrenches the monstrously unequal gender politics rather than interrogating or subverting them. It often seems that simply leaving rape out of texts entirely seems the most conscientious artistic choice, if self-censorship can ever be considered conscientious.

Larsson couched his lurid invocation of this deepest violation of patriarchal misogyny (his working title was the extremely direct Men Who Hate Women) in terms of feminist inversion, with a violent revenge fantasy in which Lisbeth seized the cruel, inhuman power of corporeal violation visited upon her to gain dominion over her rapist. Fincher represents both her violation and her up-the-ante riposte with a certain faithfulness and a smart focus on the dimension of power; Nils, such a hateable figure of abuse of position and privilege in his early scenes, is downright pitiable in their final meeting. Additionally, it’s hard to say that Lisbeth, so clearly sexualized in her consensual relations with Blomkvist, is also objectified in Nils’ assaults, which are suffused with visual and aural ugliness (Mara’s vocalizations of animalistic anguish in the handcuffed rape scene imprint themselves on your consciousness most indelibly).

But however appropriately or inappropriately these violations of sexual compliance are represented onscreen (and the oily obsidian CGI animation abstractly visualizing Lisbeth’s traumas accompanied by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Karen O’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” over the opening credits is a richer artistic expression of them, it would seem to me), their very presence in a pulp crime genre potboiler must be seriously interrogated and, I fear, found ultimately wanting. The problem with these scenes cuts to the heart of the problem with David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: despite strong performances and masterful technical and aesthetic craftsmanship, this is problematically trashy paperback bestseller crud whose overwhelming popularity is not all-legitimizing in artistic terms. Fincher and his team apply themselves admirably to make the most of such crud, but as a viewer, you’re ultimately left wondering if their effort was worth admiring after all.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Good Old-Fashioned Wholesome Fun With Search Engine Terms #11

October 1, 2014 Leave a comment

I am left to contemplate the utility of this standard preamble to my quarterly search term mockery post. To the extent that any reader is interested in what follows, an introduction is surely superfluous in nature. Certainly the precise count and general contours of the following search terms do not require such a worked-out segue, nor do they require links to previous iterations, of which there are now a full ten. They will likely take a few scant seconds to consider the psychological state and grammatical deficiencies of the searchers before moving on with their lives. I can ask no more of them.

why is jessie a pussy breaking bad season 1&2

I suppose I should dispute the offensive and discriminatory implications of the term “pussy” being used to denote emasculated weakness or perhaps note the support such web searches might lend to the association of Breaking Bad with the misogynistic male fever swamp of the bro subculture. But instead I will say that if “Jessie” is a pussy, it may be because he spells his name like a female moniker. Which he doesn’t, so perhaps he isn’t, and perhaps saying so is simplistic and couched in ignorance. Maybe.

no 1 searched actress navel on internet

Although I’m not even certain how that could be measured in the first place, I feel reasonably confident that the top result is probably Meryl Streep.

the aesthetics of a hockey stick

There is something simultaneously beautiful and dangerous about a hockey stick. Vicious and elegant all at once, like a sickle or a scimitar. I’m sure goaltenders would agree.

did bo jackson leap a 40foot ditch after killing bohogs

Probably not, but I don’t much want to live in a world in which someone will not believe that he might have.

simon winchester insuffereable prig

Succinct and to the point. Ten points to Gryffindor.

what is the rising action in godzilla

When he’s rising out of the ocean, that’s action.

empirical support on what scholars say about myrtle in the great gatsby

This represents a laudable instinct towards accruing supporting evidence, but I feel like someone out there is not quite fully cognizant of how literature is generally understood to function.

amish commodifications

Don’t try to fool me, English. I know you bought that Raise Your Own Barn Kit at Walmart.

the liberality of the netherlands

Bicycle-riding, tulip-growing, windmill-preserving Low Country left-wing elitists! Respect the taxpayer!

dubnyk is shit

Cool, Craig MacTavish visited my site.

where in hawaii was catching fire filmed

Perhaps on the island that’s 93% owned by a tech billionaire? That would certainly have an appropriately dystopian character to it, don’t you think?

Film Review: Adventureland

September 28, 2014 Leave a comment

Adventureland (2009; Directed by Greg Mottola)

For James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), the summer of 1987 commences as a series of rolling disappointments. Having completed a Comparative Literature degree at Oberlin College, his long-nurtured plan is to travel Europe before moving to Columbia in New York City for a graduate degree in journalism. But he’s low on money and so, it seems, are his parents (Jack Gilpin and Wendie Malick) all of a sudden. They can’t fund his trip and maybe not even his further schooling, so he has no choice but to stay at home in Pittsburgh and find a summer job.

That summer job is at a run-down local amusement park, where James minds the midway games (he was hoping for a job on the rides, but it seems he’ll have to work his way up to that). He’s introduced to the various carnival challenges rigged to minimize the number of winners; his boss (Bill Hader) tells him in no uncertain terms that if anyone wins an oversized panda prize on his shift, it will be his last. He’s also introduced to a rogue’s gallery of co-workers that become a circle of friends: his idiot childhood best-friend Frigo (Matt Friend), a self-aware but socially maladroit Russian Lit major (Martin Starr), a semi-legendary Catholic girl tease (Margarita Levieva), the cool-musician lothario and maintenance man Connell (Ryan Reynolds), and moody lawyer’s daughter Emily (Kristen Stewart), whom he becomes particularly interested in.

Such is the basic premise and general plot map of Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, a naturalistic reminiscence-of-youth picture saved from the generic morass by some interesting ensemble performances and a noticeable tinge of melancholy. Disaffected and/or economically under-flush youth smoke pot and drink beer and make out and tiptoe around sex and commitment and the spectral dread of their own futures, as a litany of period rock and pop music fills the soundtrack (did regular American kids in the mid-1980s really listen to that much Lou Reed and David Bowie? I feel like not).

For Mottola (who writes and directs), James’ summer at a clunky amusement park where the illusion of fun is maintained on a shoestring budget and underlied by a variety of schemes and cheats and general labour apathy seems to be a subtle metaphor for the American society and economy of the late Reagan years. The then-President appears briefly on a television, offering double-talking excuses for the Iran Contra scandal, while the money-first nation that his policies have engendered grinds on, failing all but the most privileged (James’ putative travel buddy and assumed NYC roommate has a “revelatory” experience in the capitals of Europe, changes his whole perspective… and enrolls in Harvard Business School). James and pipe-smoking Russian lit major Joel have no marketable job skills to get them a position anywhere but Adventureland, while the privileged but sulky Emily only works there to escape her unsatisfying home life. Connell, for all of his big-man-on-campus appeal at the park, is a perpetual drifter dude, with an unstable mother and a cocktail-waitress wife whom he frequently cheats on. Like the amusement park itself, everyone is a bit broken-down, paint peeling in places, but keeps going anyway: their lives, like America itself, are being inexorably dragged out of a patchwork fantasy version of reality into a harsher but weirdly liberating milieu.

Eisenberg rides his alternately easy-going and nerdy quasi-Asperger’s charm, but is allowed silent, contemplative moments to suggest how disconcerting the idea of rootlessness is to this young man. His James shares wordless glances with his humbled father whose demotion has proscribed his son’s hopes as his fastidious, intruding mother prattles out guilt-trips. His disappointments find common cause with those of Emily, whose mother died and whose father swiftly remarried to a superficial woman who can find little common ground with her stepdaughter. Eisenberg is the protagonist but Stewart is Adventureland‘s warm and sometimes volatile core. Taken in isolation, Em might well have seemed petulant or irresponsible, but Stewart nimbly evades the callow teenager act that she later expanded to pop-mythic proportions in the Twilight movies. There was a living, breathing, emoting actress in there before she was asked to choose between a beefcake werewolf and a sparkly vampire, and this is part and parcel of the lining of the tragic that surrounds Adventureland.

This melancholic element never really undermines the comedic tone, but then this is not a laugh-out-loud farce by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a gentle and thoughtful young-adult comedy-drama that’s sometimes amusing but just a bit more often sad and oddly cathartic. It shares the capital-R Romantic sensibility of its protagonist, who talks about deciding not to sleep with a college girlfriend after a Shakespearean sonnet convinces him that he doesn’t love her and makes a mix-tape of guaranteed bummer tunes for the girl he thinks he might love. A production tidbit sums up the movie’s tone of pathos perfectly: although set in summer, it was shot in Pennsylvania in wintertime. No wonder its memory of younger days feels so distinctly wistful.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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