Film Review: Free Birds

April 16, 2015 Leave a comment

Free Birds (2013; Directed by Jimmy Hayward)

Reggie is a turkey who doesn’t fit in with the flock. Free Birds does not really take the time to establish precisely why this is, but then it doesn’t take the time for much of anything at any given moment. It’s a computer-animated children’s feature of second-rate quality, so it’s fast-paced, desperately eager to please and generally lacking in depth, but Free Birds seems to be in more of a rush than is usual in the genre. The franticness of the affair is meant to be whipsmart and entertaining but it comes across as tiresome and uninspired more often than not.

But anyway, back to Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson). He alone amongst his turkey flock realizes that their apparently blissful existence of eating corn and doing nothing ends up in an oven and then on dinner plates around Thanksgivingtime. But his warnings fall on deaf ears (if turkeys had those, that is; earholes?) and Reggie is ostracized by his peers.

Reggie is plucked from his pariah status in the turkey coop when the President of the United States (Jimmy Hayward) grants his hyperactive daughter (Kaitlyn Maher) her mercurial wish to free Reggie as the yearly turkey pardon. Nestled into Camp David with a purloined presidential remote control, Reggie becomes a pampered couch potato, ordering a succession of pizzas and binge-watching melodramatic Mexican telenovelas. With relatively witty and quickfire jokes skewering disposable TV, advertising, conformity, and even religious dogma, these establishing scenes are promisingly amusing and are blessed with a fleet comedic rhythm. It does not last.

Nor does Reggie’s lone wolf bliss. He’s abducted by a beefy, intrepid, distinctly dim alpha turkey named Jake (Woody Harrelson doing better voicework than this movie deserves). A member of the Turkey Freedom Front (perhaps the only one, a semi-reference to Monty Python’s Life of Brian alongside other, inert 2001 and Raiders of the Lost Ark homages), Jake enlists the reluctant Reggie for a mission to penetrate a secret experimental base, steal into its prized time machine, and travel back in time to the first American Thanksgiving in 1621 to remove turkeys from the holiday feast menu for good and all.

Why does the United States have a time machine and how do they intend to use it? We don’t know. Seeing as the “First Thanksgiving” feast shared between Puritan colonists in America and the Native Americans in a spirit of openness and cooperation is a sugarcoated myth, is Free Birds aware that the holiday’s New World origins and turkey-centric traditional foodstuffs likely lie elsewhere? Evidently not. Why are the European colonists armed with 18th to 19th-century weaponry in the 162os? Why do the indigenous turkeys in colonial America possess a definite First Peoples cultural character? Who can say? Historians and Native peoples alike would be offended if they cared enough about this mere trifle to notice it.

The attraction of Free Birds lay in its narrative concept, which seemed ripe for a fascinating metaphorical illustration of the disavowed colonialist exploitation central to American history. An outsider figure encounters a besieged indigenous community, targeted as a mere exploitable resource by white European colonist invaders, and helps them defeat those seeking to loot their natural bounty for their own selfish and destructive gain. Free Birds half-promises this premise and even half-delivers it, with a fantasy resolution uniting Pilgrims, Indians, and turkeys in a convivial pizza party. But it’s entirely too hectic, unfocused, and lacking in attention span to maintain such a larger metaphorical significance and too insubstantial to support even the fragments of that significance that linger on.

Some enlivened frisson percolates on that insubstantial surface. Amy Poehler injects some nice low-key feminism into the mix with Jenny, the daughter of the turkey chief Broadbeak (Keith David). Harrelson’s Jake, as mentioned, is a sometimes-funny goof on alpha male hero figures and engages in a loopy inflated-wattle dust-up for masculine dominance with the chief’s son Ranger (Hayward also). George Takei voices S.T.E.V.E., the time machine’s dignified but mischievous artificial intelligence system, with his peculiar mix of impishness and gravity. And there’s a surprisingly emotive communal mourning ceremony involving feathers and flapping wings in the middle of the silly perpetual motion of the action.

But Free Birds doesn’t settle on anything for long enough to stick with the viewer, casual or otherwise. What might have been a subversive cartoon satire of the Thanksgiving myth and its cheery historical whitewash of the decimation of the Native American population instead parrots that whitewash and even extends it to the meat-heavy American diet. A movie that might have crackled with cleverness instead gets caught up in its own chaotic energy and stumbles consistently. Free Birds is occasionally kind of fun, but it could have harnessed that fun to broader purpose and it simply does not.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Under the Skin

April 13, 2015 2 comments

Under the Skin (2013; Directed by Jonathan Glazer)

A distant pinprick of light grows and shifts out of black oblivion. Unsettling synths and strings vibrate menacingly as the light focuses into a beam, then a ring, then a circle. Finally, it settles on a form: the iris of an unblinking human eye. The eerie electronic cricket-song on the soundtrack persists and melds with the pronunciation of basic but only ephemerally-related words as the opening title appears.

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is constructed of such minimalist, ambiguous imagery, but its narrative implications at least are relatively clear. A strong, silent motorcyclist (Jeremy McWilliams) fetches a young woman’s lifeless body from a ditch, carrying it towards a white van. Now in a blindingly white infinite space, another woman (Scarlett Johansson) methodically, unsympathetically undresses the girl and dons her clothing. She finds her way to a mall to purchase more clothes and makeup. Trawling Glasgow’s streets in the van, she pretends to be lost and asks a series of single and apparently alone men for directions as a pretense to get them into her vehicle and seduce them into joining her at undisclosed locations of absolutely blackness (the visual inversion of the initial white space where she dresses herself in the dead woman’s garments, rather than undressing men). There, teasing them with disrobed sexual promise, they are swallowed by an invisible pool of liquid, to be suspended naked until they are gradually consumed, their remnants floating in the abyss like the skin of a burst balloon.

If Under the Skin‘s premise presents as a sort of arthouse Species, then the film itself is a whole other creature. Lean, philosophical, and observant, Glazer’s text is less concerned with the taxonomical detail of Johansson’s alien femme fatale and her mission of male entrapment than it is with casting a cool, detached eye on the concept of human sympathy. The never-named woman possesses none of it, staring out her windows at potential prey like a raptor on its hunting perch. She shies away from targets with hints of connection with others, but this seems more like a tactic of self-preservation (the lone hunter evading the collective strength of the herd) than an empathetic minimization of the collateral emotional damage caused by her mysterious, chastely erotic predation.

The depths of her lack of empathy are demonstrated while attempting to capture a Czech man in a wetsuit at a rocky inlet. A chain-reaction situation develops, as the man in the wetsuit tries to save a man from the waves who is trying to save his partner, who was trying to rescue their dog. When the Czech man is beached, he is exhausted despite his failure to prevent the tragedy, but Johansson strides ups to him, chooses a rock to brain him with, and drags him off to her jet-black den (presumably). A wailing infant is left alone on the beach, ignored by the woman and later by her motorcyclist ally. The level of human tragedy invoked in this scene is tremendous, but for the woman, it’s a chance to pick off easy prey without the need for erotic seduction.

Of course, when the middle act conflict arises, it’s grounded in an unexpected irruption of empathy. The woman can’t bring herself to consign a facially disfigured loner (Adam Pearson) to the depths of the dark pool, releasing him before going on the run from the motorcyclist, who is an enabler of her mission but apparently also an enforcer of its prerogatives. Where this choice, spurred on by a moment of self-reflection before a mirror, leads the woman, I leave for the intrigued potential viewer to discover.

Glazer, who also wrote Under the Skin‘s script with Walter Campbell (based on Michel Faber’s novel, though apparently loosely), is alternately in complete control of his images and willing to trust to the magic of spontaneity and improvisation. Johansson’s encounters with people on the streets were unscripted and often shot with hidden cameras and non-actors. They feel naturalistic and unforced, while the hyper-stylized milieu of the black room and the pool possess a heightened simplicity that maginifies the significance of the ideas suggested there. Johansson, not an actress much capable of convincing introspection even at her best, is perfectly applied, accruing an incremental corporeal self-awareness. She arrives at a costly approximation of human empathy via her own adopted human form, through an understanding of the nature and limits of her own body. Johansson is excellent at regarding herself while we regard her, though her gaze is not so fraught as ours.

Sexual and gender politics are the churning undercurrent of Under the Skin, with a succubus-type female being trapping male prey in the net of her desirability and then becoming subject to assault and violation at the hands of her former prey when she drops her predatory pre-condition. Her incipient vulnerability is memorably visualized by Glazer late in the film: while sleeping in a cabin shelter in the woods, Johansson is superimposed on the swaying treetops of the forest. She is alone in the wilderness, literally and figuratively.

Even if the implications about the nature of gender and sexual roles and their effects on the freedom of the body are not easily misconstrued, Glazer leaves precisely how to take those implications entirely up to his audience. He crafts a singular, artistically resonant statement with Under the Skin that never panders or proscribes its meanings while diffusing the most unsettling of those meanings into its dominant haunted tonality (greatly enhanced by Mica Levi’s unnerving score). The film ends with a plume of smoke dissipating into the wintry air, a fading dilution of materiality to contrast with the opening scenes’ luminous Big Bang. Our certainties of self-awareness dissipate along with that smoke in the face of this vision.

Categories: Film, Reviews

TV Quickshots #23

April 11, 2015 Leave a comment

Turn: Washington’s Spies (AMC; 2014-Present)

A couple of months ago, in considering History Channel’s technically impressive but historically propagandistic Sons of Liberty, I lamented the lack of compelling and challenging mainstream screen texts concerning the American Revolutionary War. Little did I know that on another cable network, the first season of a show that comes closer than almost anything else in American entertainment to moving beyond the myths around the nation’s founding conflict had aired.

Turn: Washington’s Spies commences in 1776 and is centred on Setauket, Long Island. A Loyalist town hosting a garrison of British Army regulars, Setauket nonetheless is a hotbed of political tensions and potential rebels. One such liberty-lover is Turn‘s protagonist, Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell). Despite his patriot leanings and long-running friendships with Continental Army officers Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) and Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall), Woodhull has toed the line of loyalty to the British Crown drawn by his father, a judge and local magistrate (Kevin R. McNally). Though Abe, educated in New York City, has taken up cabbage farming as a minor token of independence from his powerful father’s influence, he has dutifully married his dead brother’s betrothed (Meegan Warner) and they have an infant son. By all appearances, he also follows his father’s staunch but increasingly conflicted loyalty to Britain, as represented by garrison commander Major Hewlett (reliable weaver of villains Burn Gorman), who is billeted in Judge Woodhull’s home.

But Tallmadge and Brewster, not to mention the fetching local tavern matron Anna Strong (Heather Lind) to whom Abe was formerly betrothed, appeal to Abe’s deeper principles and get him half-reluctantly involved in the war effort on the American side. Abe begins to operate as a spy for the Continental Army, feeding information on British strategy and troop movements to Tallmadge via Brewster and Strong gleaned through his involvement in his father’s affairs with the colonial overseers. His position becomes increasingly difficult, especially with Crown operatives such as Tallmadge’s British intelligence counterpart John André (JJ Feild, Tom Hiddleston’s non-union Coloradan equivalent) and Scottish ranger Robert Rogers (Angus Macfayden) arrayed against him.

Turn is shot mostly in Virginia, and is scrupulously well-made per AMC’s usual technical standards (Rupert Wyatt, director of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, helms the pilot episode). It’s well-written (based on Alexander Rose’s history of the Culper spy ring maintained by the historical Woodhull, Tallmadge, Brewster and Strong) and well-acted as well, with Bell and McNally demonstrating a particular chemistry (McNally, Gibbs from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, has a tremendous knowing twinkle at nearly all times). But it’s perhaps most notable for the small but key steps it makes in distilling a perspective on the historical events of the Revolutionary War that disperses the fog of heroic myth that has obscured one of the most fascinating political and military conflicts in world history.

There is likely no way around casting the British as fundamental villains in an American depiction of the Revolution, and casting the skulking, snake-visaged Gorman as the main British military commander does not diminish that impression one bit. Still, Hewlett is not a mere caricature or petty tyrant; he’s sophisticated and relatively fair, obeying the rule of law and leaning heavily on Judge Woodhull to aid him in gaining the acquiescence of the local population for his garrison’s presence. When he does seek to extract telling obedience from the judge and the townspeople, he operates not with a cudgel but with a velvet glove, manipulating Setauketans into an act that proscribes their liberty and cultural memory in a deep-seated way. Much more conventionally antagonistic is Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), another British officer with a haughty manner, sharp tongue, and cruel tendencies who presents a much more direct obstacle to Woodhull and his spy ring.

More heartening from a historical perspective is Turn‘s canny application of economic issues to its picture of Revolutionary America. The Revolution was, of course, about trade and profit first and foremost, and the complexities of business transactions during a divisive, territorial civil conflict take precedence frequently in the plot. The division of loyalties inherent to the conflict is also well-portrayed. The Civil War is generally considered a more essential historical event in this context, the definitive brother-against-brother war in American history. But the Revolutionary War was no less effective in sundering families along the faultline of political principles, as the much-anticipated clash between the elder and younger Woodhull portends. It’s only that the Loyalists’ story has been erased from the grand, arching narrative of American liberty, seeing as most of them bolted for Canada, Britain, or other colonies after Washington and the Continentals defeated the British Expeditionary Force in 1783.

But their story is also a part of the story of the American Revolution. Turn provides as strong and as complex a telling of that story as can be reasonably expected from an American television treatment, while also suggesting more subtly that contemporary America’s vast secret state of espionage and intelligence has deeper roots in the nation’s birth pangs than has been generally appreciated.

Categories: History, Reviews, Television

Film Review: Filth

Filth (2013; Directed by Jon S. Baird)

Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) is a bad cop. Not just in the “bad egg” corruption sense, nor merely in the sense of not being terribly effective, though both descriptions most certainly apply. In the quest for a promotion in the Edinburgh Police Department that he feels will mend up his marriage to his wife Carole (Shauna Macdonald), which is on the rocks is an unspecified way, DS Robertson will do just about anything to set his rivals for the Detective Inspector spot against each other and to make himself the most obvious choice. At the same time, he’s also a hedonistic whirlwind of overindulgence, popping pills, swallowing whiskey by the bottle, frequenting prostitutes, pornography, and kinky sex with the wife of a colleague, and engaging in a shady blackmail con of a Mason lodge brother and mild-mannered accountant (Eddie Marsan). And he’ll do just about anything, inside but especially outside of the law, to solve the murder of a Japanese student and earn his promotion.

Filth is based on Irvine Welsh’s book of the same name, and Jon S. Baird’s screenplay sings with the depraved melodiousness of Scots English that the author of Trainspotting has such a singular handle on. McAvoy, generally typecast in more mainstream movies as a boyish idealist whose illusions of goodness are painfully torn from his breast, revels in Robertson’s roguish unlikability, though he also gives him an inner core of sympathetic suffering that grounds and motivates the dionysian excess. He’s great with Marsan, whose trusting Clifford Blades begins as a soft-bellied mark to Robertson but endears himself and, especially after a gonzo holiday in Hamburg, becomes the arrogant, misanthropic Robertson’s only real friend.

Not that Robertson deserves even this small token of human connection. History of emotionally traumatic loss or no, Brucie is a tremendous jackhole, to put it mildly. He engages in every conceivable act of abuse (personal and professional, of others and of himself) and antisocial indulgence until he’s a contender not for a DI position but for the loftier title of Most Debased Man in Scotland (which must put him in good stead for the position of Most Debased Worldwide, surely). His misbehaviour is sometimes amusing but more often off-putting and exhausting. He crosses the line from charismatic blackguard to unlikable shitheel in the first 10 minutes of Filth and then just continues to lap himself.

It’s impressive to watch McAvoy go off so fully cocked, but not terribly enjoyable, it must be said. This is too bad, because Baird is a clever visualist with an eye for striking, revealing images and production design (Blades’ home is awash with hilariously tacky but just expensive-enough safari trappings, including a roaring big-cat doorbell). Baird’s penchant for oddness becomes baroque and Gilliam-esque when it comes to Robertson’s crescendoing hallucinations, in which he fleetingly sees his rival colleagues donning various alarming creature masks.

Most involved of Robertson’s hallucinations are the deeply looped visions of his doctor, played by Jim Broadbent, lecturing him on his mistakes and misdeeds. Broadbent is a ridiculous riot in these scenes, his white hair wild and his forehead broad like a twisted lovechild of Albert Einstein and the aliens from This Island Earth. He exaggerates the doctor’s mild speech quirks into unstable challenges and details the nature of the tapeworm with a large, fanciful drawing of the parasite (he even briefly turns into one, from Robertson’s addled perspective, although the filthy copper himself is more the implied target of the comparison).

These flashing sequences give Filth an entertaining instability, an unpredictability that revives it after each flood of overwhelming adult content. But it is, on the whole, a bit too much, even if it never promises to be anything but. Additionally, the film’s supposedly shocking revelation of Robertson’s ultimate transgression of social mores is grounded in sexual and gender role intolerance and isn’t nearly as bad as dozens of other terrible things he does. There’s an uptight Presbyterian disapproval to this one deviant act evident in Baird’s film (and thus probably in Welsh’s novel as well) that is not extended to the rest of Robertson’s transgressions. It’s a bit weird, and not really to Filth‘s credit at all. It might seem incongruent to complain of an instance of moral approbation in the midst of a movie crying out for such expressions, but the tut-tutting simply seems misdirected and perhaps revealing. Filth revels so deeply in its filth that it loses its moral compass at a key moment, much as Bruce Robertson does, I suppose.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Life Itself

Life Itself (2014; Directed by Steve James)

Roger Ebert was a beloved film critic. The phrase itself smacks of the oxymoronic. What film critic, those smugly superior cineastes peering out from next to newspaper bylines or internet film sites and presuming to tell readers why they should or should not find a moviegoing experience worthwhile, can be described as “beloved”? Critics in general are reviled as “those who can’t do” sorts, judging the efforts and struggles of artists from an elevated pedestal of assumed authority that is built on wisps of institutional cloud, if even that. They do not create art but only excrete parasitic effluvia, like so many lampreys clinging to the skin of an elegant but deadly shark.

But Roger Ebert was beloved, his death after a protracted and publically open fight with cancer mourned with popular sadness like the exit of one of the movie stars or film directors who he watched, analyzed, interviewed, and sometimes befriended. One such director, the documentary filmmaker Steve James, owed Ebert a solid; Ebert’s praise and support of James’ film Hoop Dreams helped to establish him as one of America’s foremost documentary feature filmmakers. And so James documents both the highlights of Ebert’s rich and vivid life as well as the critic’s vulnerable slide towards death.

Life Itself is based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, and includes voiceovers by Ebert reading excerpts of that book over archival photos and video and in concert with other interviews with people who knew him. The narrative of Ebert’s life is intercut with scenes of his convalescence filmed in hospital rooms, rehab clinics, and his home, with his wife Chaz ever at his side. Unable to speak with much of his throat and neck removed and only gradually regaining any capacity to walk, the avuncular, portly, passionate Midwestern film savant famous for his televised battles with critic rival (and eventual friend) Gene Siskel is transfigured but occasionally emerges. His facility with words remains constant through writing pads and computer speech technology, and his positivity through a harrowing experience is demonstrated through the famed thumbs up gesture that he and Siskel made into a cultural meme and imprimatur of cinematic quality.

Ebert’s last act, admirably playing out his health problems and physical degradation in the public eye while reviewing, blogging, and tweeting with twice the prolific energy many younger creatives can muster, contributed greatly to his legacy of popularity. But that legacy was well-established long before, as Ebert followed the populist instincts of his training in newspapers and applied it to film criticism. He lead above all with his love of the movies, and always assumed that his audience shared that love. He might try to direct the terms of that love (there was ego and control in the man, of that James leaves little doubt), and he might quibble or disagree with it. But it was an important foundation for Ebert and he never lost sight of it, which is perhaps why there is more public fondness for him than for many of his colleagues (including, it must be said, the late Gene Siskel, who died in 1999).

As New York Times film critic A.O. Scott points out, we lives in Roger Ebert’s world in terms of film fandom. The internet has democratized (or at least widely diffused) opinions on film in a way that Ebert was delighted by and very much embraced, and the ascendence of film geekdom in contemporary Hollywood follows from that process. Life Itself does not miss that influence, nor does it shy away from Ebert’s weaknesses: it details his youthful alcoholism, his occasional arrogance, and his testy professional relationship with Siskel (outtakes of their television program involve sniping must more tense and less staged than their broadcasted arguments about movies).

Some notable details from Ebert’s life and career are missing, in particular his infamous war of words with Vincent Gallo over The Brown Bunny following a controversial screening at the Cannes Film Festival or his blithe (but partially re-thought) dismissal of video games as art late in life. But James provides a generally complete (albeit just a bit cloyingly admiring) portrait of a film critic who became, in his own way, as much of a star as the people in the movies he reviewed.

Categories: Film, Reviews

TV Quickshots #21

March 31, 2015 Leave a comment

Better Call Saul (AMC; 2015)

The history of the television spin-off is a mixed one. For every Frasier or The Colbert Report that carves out a distinct legacy from its parent program, there are shows like Joanie Loves Chachi or The Lone Gunmen that fizzle out and become mere footnotes to the epochal ratings hits that spawned them. Vince Gilligan was a co-creator of The Lone Gunmen, an X-Files spin-off. He seems to have been stung by its failure but not enough to be put off by the spin-off concept. And so, after he stewarded an epochal television phenomenon called Breaking Bad, his next project jumped off from that, as if to prove that it could be done and done very well.

Better Call Saul is the resulting show, and it blows out of the blocks like Usain Bolt. A prequel to Breaking Bad that is already stronger in its first season than its creative sire was at the same juncture, Better Call Saul details the career of Walter and Jesse’s shifty law-bending legal advisor Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) before he encounters the meth-dealing duo whose dangerous activities land him in a sort of underworld version of witness protection. The artfully-shot, black-and-white opening sequence of the series pilot shows the now-anonymous Goodman toiling as a Cinnabon manager in Nebraska and screening the videotapes of the corny old television ads for his law practice in sad nostalgia.

This sets up Better Call Saul as an extended flashback narrative to Saul’s younger days, a document of his path to the wrong side of the law on which he had his feet firmly set when he met Walter White. Leaving behind a mis-spent con-man youth in Illinois and a close shave with serious jailtime, the lawyer who will become Saul Goodman is struggling to establish a practice under his birth name, James “Jimmy” McGill. Bitter at the big-shot Albuquerque law firm Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill for refusing to take him on after he scraped his way to the bar while working in their mail room, McGill does thankless public defender work while hustling for clients out of his office in a closet at the back of a nail salon (where the Vietnamese matron won’t even allow him a free sip of cucumber water). He’s saddled with an older brother, Charles “Chuck” McGill (Michael McKean), who was once a top barrister and partner at HH&M but now won’t leave his house and is afflicted with an semi-hypochondriacal “allergy” to electromagnetism that renders him professionally and even personally helpless.

Better Call Saul is sharply written, seeding early episodes with tokens of Breaking Bad lore and characters that previously have (or, in the timeline of the televised world, later will) featured in that Emmy-winning drama. In addition to Odenkirk (who is uniformly superb, clinching a suprise career renaissance), Saul’s laconic, sarcastic “fixer” operative Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) finds his way into the criminal underworld and, one must assume, eventually Goodman’s employ after a messy exit from the Philadelphia Police Department. Additionally, volatile, dangerous drug dealer Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz), a major antagonist early in Breaking Bad‘s run, crosses paths with Jimmy McGill early on. Jimmy demonstrates his exceptional courtroom skills more fully in a tense and potentially fatal encounter in the desert with Tuco and his thugs than he ever does in an actual courtroom.

Better Call Saul shares Breaking Bad‘s core themes of thwarted masculine primacy transmuted into trespasses into the criminal underworld, its social canvas of New West urban sprawl and institutional crookedness, and its portrait of moral death by a thousand cuts. Jimmy McGill’s gradual march towards Saul Goodman involves minute adjustments in the trajectory of his moral arc that become ever greater and more fateful, very much like Walter White’s. Although the traumatic run-in with Tuco recalibrates Jimmy’s compass to a virtuous true north, he finds that Doing the Right Thing often has a fairly steep cost, while brushing aside such white knight predilections can carry immediate dividends (with the harsh costs waiting further off). Veering towards an end point that those familiar with Breaking Bad are aware of and breathlessly anticipate, Better Call Saul is a different serial narrative animal. We know where Jimmy McGill is headed, broadly speaking. But if Gilligan continues to provide such superb storytelling material, we don’t mind if he takes his time getting there.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Taco Bell’s “Routine Republic” Ad and the Discourse of Post-Post-Capitalism

March 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Taco Bell, it turns out, is rolling out a breakfast menu. This is precisely the sort of leading-edge current events revelation that you come to this blog to hear about, I’m sure. What sort of items are offered for breakfast at Taco Bell? I could probably do some googling and then tell you, but it doesn’t really matter, since you’re probably not going to eat them anyway. The truly important thing to know about Taco Bell’s new breakfast menu is that this brain-scrambling, utterly brazen “short film” commercial advertisement has been conceived of, shot, and released to promote it. Watch. Just… watch.

There it is: one billion-dollar fast-food corporation selling unhealthy, standardized assembly-line nutriments (Taco Bell) artfully accusing another billion-dollar fast-food corporation of selling unhealthy, standardized assembly-line nutriments (McDonald’s, the evident target of “Routine Republic”). Not only that, but the accusation metastasizes into a hyperbolic but imaginative and compelling portrait of the mass hawking of inferior conformist breakfast sandwiches as undergirding a bleak, greyscale totalitarian dictatorial state run by jackbooted McRed Army clowns and suffused with Soviet-style pro-regime propaganda urging conformity and routine. Two Young Adult dystopian fiction types rebel against this authoritarian order and take a runner for a bell-ringing utopia surrounded by green fields, where other free-spirited bright young things smile and chat al fresco in an old European piazza and chow down on Crunchwrap Huevos Supremes or whatever the heck is inside that hexagonal tortilla.

There’s so much to unpack here, one hardly knows where to begin. We’ll leave aside the above observation that Taco Bell and McDonald’s are marketing pretty much the same thing when you get right down to it (and even if you don’t), and will try not to get too bogged down in advertising agency Deutsch’s audacious conceit that Taco Bell’s fare represents some food-borne embodiment of wild-eyed freedom and individualism when compared to the oppressive conformity of McDonald’s drab factory food product. That particular twist in the discourse is prime-grade “rebel sell” material at its most unthoughtful and cynical and is not really terribly interesting except in the magnitude of its bald-faced hypocrisy, which must surely be at least partially ironic in scope. Corporate advertising has long emphasized the freedom of choice represented by the product at hand while corporate distribution and retail enforces an inflexible order of consumption, and this is not much different.

But “Routine Republic” establishes the favoured product’s liberating potential in contrast to the rigid imposition from above that characterizes the product and supporting presentation favoured by its (much more successful) competitor. The ad depicts the drained Iron Curtain quotidian reality of this McState in extremely clever and biting detail, and this depiction is the most salient feature of “Routine Republic”. Indeed, it winds up feeling more like the ad’s raison d’être than the promotion of the client’s product; “Routine Republic” is more a hit piece against McDonald’s than it is a commercial for Taco Bell. In this way as well as for its mock-serious characterization of minor divergences in corporate policy as tantamount to Orwellian oppressive absolutism, “Routine Republic” is deeply indebted to Apple’s legendary “1984” ad for its first Macintosh (which has now accrued an almost unbearable weight of irony, considering Apple’s latter-day rigid regime of tech hegemony).

Thus, the Routine Republic is a realm of stark industrial tower blocks and shuffling queues of mundanely depressed drone citizens, awaiting their limp, unsatisfying slab of morning protein and carbohydrates. Overseen by an eager voyeuristic face-painted commander (let’s call him Ronald McBrezhnev) at the pinnacle of a panoptic tower, clown-faced military underlings stand at the ready to punish any deviation from collective order, and indeed spring into action when our revolutionary heroes bolt from the food line. Peeling, discoloured propaganda posters blanket the walls on either side of the penitentiary-type yard, extolling the virtues of the morningtime mass mandate with the primary warning colours of Communism (and, eerily, also of McD’s) and overcompensatory images of populist contentment (as you can see to the right and below on the left).

This latter critique of McDonald’s image-making is the sharpest and most sophisticated offered up by “Routine Republic”, and the most lingering and unsettling comparison to authoritarian regimes. McDonald’s and Communist states alike cultivate aggressive public imagery of happiness, depicting their customers/comrades as smiling, cheerful multitudes uplifted by the beneficent regard of their monolithic patron. The inverted double-smile logo, the Happy Meals, the in-restaurant play-zones, the overt appeals to childlike delight and frequent tie-in deals with Disney entertainment (another multinational corporation with an aggressively cheerful public face); McDonald’s presents itself as a conduit of happiness above all.

“Routine Republic” turns this self-presentation on its head, likening it directly to the similar and fundamentally dishonest self-presentation of Communist regimes as essentially positive shepherds of a contented flock of citizens. The tokens of happiness in the Routine Republic are twisted into mechanisms of hegemonic oppression. The surveillance tower includes a yellow corkscrew slide, down which the subalterns of centralized power (painted clowns which trade on the countercultural conception of these makers of merry as figures of horror) slip to chase down the dissenters. To escape the Republic, the dissenters must cross a moat filled with multichromatic plastic balls, a liminal border between slavery and freedom like an inverted funhouse Berlin Wall. The discourse of happiness that supports and elides both McDonald’s mass-produced digestive misery and authoritarianism’s mass-produced social misery is exposed as a thin veneer of spin which will be brutally enforced by state violence; consumption is not a path to happiness any more than collectivism.

Punchdrunk with its own galloping wit, “Routine Republic” goes much farther than it intends to into a sneering outright critique of American capitalism’s very core. The aforementioned Taco Bell Town that the dissenters escape to, heralded by the company’s trademarked bell gong sound, is a literal city upon a hill, hearkening back to the Massachusetts Puritan John Winthrop’s biblical invocation of the new land his people were settling as a shining example of Christian-infused American exceptionalism. The idea has been repurposed by many subsequent American political leaders (most notably the noted Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan), but “Routine Republic” inverts it almost inadvertently. Tacotopia is inhabited by joyous and beautiful multicultural sun-children, contentedly feeding on the re-packaged “distinctive” cuisine of America’s much-maligned underclass southern neighbour in a distinctly Old World urban setting (prompting a brusque question: Has anyone at Deutsch ever been in a Taco Bell?).

The City of Breakfast Liberty upon the Hill is effectively marked as inherently foreign to common American experience, while the sphere of influence of the American corporate brand par excellence is marked as inherently oppressive and prison-like. The Routine Republic is the America of McDonald’s, and Taco Bell seeks to free its shackled masses yearning to breathe free with an infusion of international (ie. UnAmerican) flavour. Taco Bell’s one-time tagline “Run for the Border” takes on a brave new dimension from this perspective, coloured more than a little by the contours of the Blue State/Red State culture war. One must “run for the border” (metaphorically/culinarily at least) to evade the stifling conformity of McDonaldized America, the ad suggests.

There are many historical ironies and criss-crossing discourses at work in “Routine Republic”, and many (though likely not all) have found their way into this discussion of its implications. It is worth noting one in particular, which is the historical symbolism of the penetration of the McDonald’s brand into markets like post-Soviet Russia and limited-free-market China. More than any other corporation (even than its corporate partner Coca Cola), McDonald’s came to represent the terms of the freedom represented by American consumer capitalism as opposed to the oppression of the Communist bloc. That implication deserves to be challenged, but even those who do so must acknowledge its ingrained prominence. The deepest irony of “Routine Republic”, then, is that the company that once represented a shaft of capitalist light in the centrally-planned darkness behind the Iron Curtain is being characterized as embodying a contemporary resurrection of that darkness. And that characterization comes not from radical Left anti-capitalist activists but from a market rival that differs from the target of their withering criticism more in scale than in methodology or practice. Our current social, economic, and cultural moment is sometimes termed post-capitalism, but advertising discourse like “Routine Republic” might herald nothing less than a species of post-post-capitalism.

Categories: Culture, Politics, Television
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