Robin Hood (2010; Directed by Ridley Scott)
Ridley Scott is resolutely the wrong filmmaker to make a Robin Hood movie. Russell Crowe is utterly the wrong actor to play the leader of the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest. Their Robin Hood is not the beloved, merry Robin Hood of Errol Flynn and Disney’s underrated anthropomorphic 1973 animated version, for certain. It follows the much darker, much more violent rendition of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, with its relative period accuracy and invocation of the quotidian horrors of the medieval life. Such an adaptation is not wholly unwelcome. The Robin Hood of benevolent redistribution of wealth, athletic derring-do, good-tempered comradery, and mischievious defiance of villainous authority is a prime carrier of the romantic myth of the chivalric Middle Ages. This myth is one of history’s great white lies, suffusing the heritage of European civilization with a nobility and pride that the historical record of grasping exploitation, divisive superstition, and pervasive barbarity greatly undermines. Why not demystify?
Unfortunately, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood demystifies with a self-flagellatory determination before naively re-mystifying. Crowe’s Robin Longstride is working his way back to England after crusading in the Holy Land in the army of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston). Richard, often a romanticized figure of glory of arms who righteously descends to restore justice at the conclusion of Robin Hood narratives, is no such hero here. He’s a galvanizing military leader, certainly, but that only makes him a king of thugs, and Robin challenges him for the massacre he carried out at Acre on the Crusades that tarnishes his legacy. Richard is equally tarnished at home, where his constant campaigning has bankrupted the royal treasury, placed noble and commoner alike under an undue taxation burden, and exasperated his younger brother John (an appealingly preening Oscar Isaac) and their imperious mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins).
The Lionheart is felled by a crossbow bolt during the siege of a French castle, and then his right-hand man Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge) is killed in an ambush while en route back to England to deliver the news of the king’s death along with the crown for John. Robin and his comrades Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes), and Allan A’Dayle (Alan Doyle of the Newfoundland folk-pop band Great Big Sea, a buddy of Crowe’s who gives the film some needed verve with spirited performances of period music) happen upon the dying Loxley, who extracts a promise not only to return the Crown but also his father’s sword to the family estate in Nottingham.
After a pit stop in London to see the protean John made King, Robin arrives at his promised destination and finds Loxley’s resilient widow Marion (Cate Blanchett, doing absolutely everything that she can to overcome material clearly that is beneath her) and his blind, aged father Sir Walter. The latter is quick to press Robin to pose as Robert to put off the king’s tax collectors and to protect the family estate, much to Marion’s consternation (the Robin-Marion hate-to-love arc is completely paint-by-the-numbers and is dotted with stultifyingly awful attempts at lightness and humour). His acceptance of this role puts Robin and his allies on a collision course with a marauding shakedown effort led by King John’s advisor Godfrey (Mark Strong), which is secretly the vanguard of a planned invasion of England by King Philip II of France (Jonathan Zaccaï).
The resulting cinematic product is classic late-period Ridley Scott: an impressively staged and detailed historical epic, but bloated, broad, and stubbornly whitewashed. If it’s not as pretentious as some of his recent efforts, then it does not scratch fitfully at Big Ideas as they do, either. It’s a collection of reproduced tropes, its forward movement distinctly inert, its existence sustained by common recognition of its stock concepts and familiar elements of the Robin Hood myth (not all of these are bad; Mark Addy, for one, was utterly born to play Friar Tuck at some point in his career, and does not waste the opportunity offered to him here). Crowe, not exactly a figure of onscreen magnanimity on a good day, stalks through medieval England with an adamant glower, about as far removed from Flynn’s chortling acrobatic trickster as a crocodile is from a puppy.
In terms of its politics, Scott’s Robin Hood betrays the persistent tendency of Hollywood historical epics to reflect and appeal to contemporary conceptions of personal freedom in reference to state power. Like the hint of religious tolerance in Scott’s Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven but ultimately more similar to the proto-democratic yearnings of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, Robin Hood imagines the embryonic contract of post-despotic liberty known as the Magna Carta as the product of some broad-based populist sentiment rather than a tensely-forged and oft-discarded definition of contentious power relations between a king and his least cowed nobles.
It’s telling that a document that has been granted such mythic status requires a myth of a man to champion it, as well as a fantasy foreign threat to motivate it. The jumbling of the historical chronology around the events of King John’s reign and his conflicts with the northern barons and King Philip II of France serves the quasi-democratic urges of the English people, as focused through the proxy of Crowe’s Robin. As an archer, he cuts an apt figure in this role, although the most notable overthrow of aristocratic privilege in war by the common folk of the English longbowman ranks was at Agincourt, two hundred years in the future. In historical fact, Philip never invaded England itself, only its territories in Normandy, where he thumped King John’s armies soundly and repeatedly in the early 13th Century. The rebellion of the northern barons was launched in response to King John’s discarding of the Magna Carta agreement, and was fomented by the intriguing Philip, not as a defensive measure against his incursion onto English soil.
The threat of French invasion sets up a climactic battle sequence that is both staged and symbolically couched as a sort of inverted 13th-century D-Day. French landing craft disgorge warriors on an English beachhead, where a vicious engagement commences, ostensibly in the name of liberty from autocratic tyranny. It’s June 1944, sometime in twelve-oh-whatever. Martial brutality carried out under the banner of lofty principles of freedom is the sole acceptable method of justifying war to a modern popular audience; the cocktail of territorial ambition, greed for plunder, and desire for power that fuelled most medieval warfare (like Richard the Lionheart’s campaigning at the start of the film) seems too petty and small, and heroism is ever defined by service to a larger cause.
One of the things one learns very quickly about medieval history if one actually studies it, however, is that there are precious few larger causes available to serve. The fealty of vassalage was almost always all that was required to put boots on the ground. If a lord wanted to fight, he did, and his dependents fought and died for him. The Crusades, with their fanatical mutual jihad, are virtually the only exception to be found in the rich annals of medieval warfare, and modern sensibilities (including Scott’s own, as expressed by Kingdom of Heaven) don’t find such zealously religious motivations to be righteous at all.
Overlaying myths of freedom onto these wars typifies the modern imperialist notions towards history as having worth mainly as a seed-planting operation for our current neoliberal capitalist democracy (Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history”). Robin Hood gets the surface details of the Middle Ages broadly correct, but like many of Hollywood’s popular historical fictions will not let the Middle Ages be what they were: a cruel grind of hopelessness for most, the pain and resentment of which was soothed and/or strangled by aggressively enthusiastic and unquestioned (and unquestionable) religious fervour, punctuated by endemic deadly violence. The fundamentally alien quality of the medieval world, its preternatural distance from our modern experience, is subsumed, understood as primarily a question of placement at a juncture of less sophisticated technological and ideological development rather than reflecting a deep gulf of sensibility and conception of life.
Perhaps this re-mystifying is perfectly appropriate for a Robin Hood movie. As a popular myth, the Robin Hood legend can be traced to a period of great social pressures and general discontent about ingrained economic inequalities in medieval England, where tales of the greenwood outlaws expressed a colourful fantasy of defiance and limited inversion and overthrow of that unjust order. All periods of history across the globe witness such periods and such myths in reaction to them, and that includes our own. What are anti-social anti-heroes like Walter White, Don Draper, or Batman but Robin Hoods of their particular context? They are vessels for anxieties, for discontent, for sentiments of revolt against inequitable power relations.
But Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood makes for a poor fit in this thematic receptacle. Linked to historical figures and events, inhabiting a reconstruction of the medieval world that spares no expense or detail in achieving a convincing simulacrum, this film purports in both its production and marketing to imbue the Robin Hood legend with a veneer of historicity that it has never previously possessed. Whether it is a worthwhile aim to grant a popular myth such historical authenticity, Robin Hood does a creditable (if not very enjoyable) job of it.
But it must have its myths too, albeit of a more grimly self-serious, less merry sort. Liberty in the Middle Ages reposed not in hard-won rights (which were rarely fought over and even more rarely won), but in brief interludes of festive celebration. Tellings of the Robin Hood legend have often operated as part and parcel of those celebrations, and Hollywood versions have often joined in the festivities. But this quasi-historical take on the myth renders the merriment very briefly indeed. Robin Hood is a bit of a joyless slog, which makes it quite a bit like the Middle Ages, after all.
The Walk (2015; Directed by Robert Zemeckis)
Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) walks literal tightropes, but he also walks a figuratively tightrope in his personality and philosophy. He balances between maniacal dedication and playful charm, between insufferably whimsical tweeness (he is a French street performer, how much more twee can one get?) and serene, almost transcendent grace. He has the subversive and anarchic instincts of an uncompromising street artist, but when his illegal art is revealed to the world, his audience (which includes the supposedly oppressive state authorities) gasps in wonder and delight even while nothing vital is really subverted. He is both an unstable, unreliable trickster and a heroic protagonist in his own magnificent odyssey, a man who converts followers and accomplices for his grand scheme and alienates them almost as quickly.
Petit’s grand scheme – his “coup” as he calls it in a punning French/English hybrid – will be familiar to buffs of Manhattan-centric 1970s cultural ephemera, as well as to viewers of James Marsh’s fantastic Oscar-winning documentary, Man On Wire. Petit, who had previously performed guerrilla high-wire walks between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge (only the former makes it into this film), glimpses a magazine image of the under-construction twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Centre in 1973 and conceives of a mad plot to rig his wire between them and walk across it, 110 stories above the pavement of Lower Manhattan.
Everybody in his life, from his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) to his wirewalking mentor Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) to his friend and “official photographer” Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony) to his cadre of accomplices (the excellent James Badge Dale as a French-speaking New Yorker master talker, César Domboy as a loyal but acrophobic French math teacher, Steve Valentine as a magnificently mustachioed insurance company dandy who is their WTC inside man, Ben Schwartz and Benedict Samuel as stock stoners) thinks him completely bugnuts insane for even dreaming up such an act. But they help him to make it a reality, perhaps realizing that being denied in his ambition will make him even crazier and perhaps being seduced by the eccentric, intoxicating grandiosity of the “coup”.
Director and co-writer Robert Zemeckis is certainly intoxicated by the grandiosity of Petit’s wondrous high-wire act, and constructs The Walk in anticipation and in celebration of it. The sustained climax of the coup is The Walk‘s obvious hook, and Zemeckis and his team utilize the full digital design toolset and narrative shaping expansion set to render Petit’s audacious feat of death-defying artistry as a vertiginous spectacle of maximum memorability and visceral impact. Be forewarned: if you have any sort of problem with heights, The Walk will trigger it often and fiercely. If you do not have a problem with heights, The Walk may well aid you in developing one. I have seen Man on Wire and know that Petit both succeeds in performing his precarious walk and lives to tell about it. I’ve been to the top of the Empire State Building and several lofty European bell towers, not to mention taken a helicopter flight above a lush Hawaiian island. None of this served to prevent my palms from sweating for 45 solid minutes of absorbing but psychologically unnerving cinema in The Walk. I can’t recall ever having such a pure, potent physical reaction to a movie, and for that alone Zemeckis deserves credit.
He deserves credit, too, for bringing together many elements of disparate nature and quality from the establishing acts of The Walk to maximize the sequence’s prodigious impact. Just as Man on Wire did with its lower-budget re-enactments, The Walk frames the coup in the generic terms of a heist caper, focusing on its details and minutae, its ingenious flourishes, its odd twists, and above all the multiple close calls of its premature discovery by the authorities who might shut it down. The audience’s resistance is so weakened by the maintenance of tension for such an extended period that it is helpless in the face of Zemeckis’ photo-real re-creation of the wire walk itself. Our fears and concerns are also carefully seeded by previous wire-walking scenes, each one presenting vividly what might go wrong for Philippe Petit 1,300 feet in the air: heavy winds, inadequate rigging, and loss of mental and physical concentration could all doom him to a fatal plunge into the void.
Zemeckis does such a thorough number on our psychological impulses that he neglects the sense of summoned wonder that motivated Petit and thrilled both the walker himself and his live impromptu audience on that August morning in 1974. Even as he struts across the wire, gaining confidence and performative bravado with each careful step, Petit’s act in The Walk pins us down but doesn’t so much raise us up. It’s a tremendously viscerally affecting cinematic moment but not really a transcendent one. Why is this?
Although Gordon-Levitt’s performance in this sequence is both elevated and grounded (it’s hard to imagine another near-A-level actor who has the requisite mix of puckish twinkle and graceful physical command to pull off this particular role), Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne saddle the moment with so much extraneous visual and reactive baggage that it is dragged down just so slightly, like a wire loosened of its vital tensile strength. Alan Silvestri’s score swells, Petit’s accomplices on the towers and on the ground weep and woop in joy, the collecting crowd’s awe is lacquered on thick, massively stereotyped Noo Yawk police urge him off the wire and react cartoonishly when he dances away from their reach, and blood from a foot injury soaks through the wirewalker’s shoe, like a balletic French version of Curt Schilling in the 2004 World Series.
These lingering weights are carryovers from the rest of the film, which runs the gamut from goofy to cliched to downright irritating when it’s not set a quarter-mile above the ground. Perhaps due to Petit’s involvement in the production as Gordon-Levitt’s high-wire coach and a general consultant on all elements of the art, Zemeckis and his team greatly overestimate how much of the man’s unwavering whimsy will be tolerable to audiences. Not content with the manic presence of Gordon-Levitt’s Petit in every scene of the proper narrative, Zemeckis and Browne place him as an omniscent narrator of the events on the torch of the Statue of Liberty, looking across the stretch of New York Harbour at the World Trade Centre. Even if this framing device grants The Walk a subtle and eloquent closing nod to the towers’ telling absence from the current Manhattan skyline, it’s just another case of the film going for a bit too much.
So much of The Walk‘s framing of Philippe Petit and the incredible performance between the World Trade Centre towers that is his legacy hinges on his pursuit and eventual completion of this nigh-on impossible dream, and of this dream ultimately meaning something profound and even sublime. Zemeckis and Browne put all of their eggs of signification in the basket of conventional inspirational movie tropes, urging the romantic diaspora in the multiplexes to Follow Their Dreams like Petit did, impossible as they might seem. But they do not consider for a moment whether the masses are willing to follow where the shining example of Philippe Petit (highly acquired taste that he is) leads.
What is certain is that they are not able to. Petit’s WTC walk was truly singular. No other person ever stood where he stood and saw what he saw, and thanks to another devious plot involving the towers, no other person ever will. Robert Zemeckis’ laudably impressive technical and psychological mastery of epic image-making puts moviegoers in Petit’s place, or as close as they ever can be, via the medium of a huge screen and 3D glasses. But even as the The Walk approximates this otherwise inaccessible experience, it cannot access its meaning, if it indeed has any meaning to speak of. For Philippe Petit, alone on a wire at the pinnacle of the world’s metropolis, the experience was no doubt profound and beautiful. But for spectators, on the towers or at street level that day or in theatre seats forty years later, it is but a vicarious sublimity, an angel walk that we can only marvel at and never share. What Petit and Zemeckis conceive of as a generous act is more of a self-centered one; it cannot take us out of our own limited lives because it leaves no space for us on such a high, thin stage to go along with it. An inspiration that no one can ever aspire to, a closed beauty. Whatever you do, don’t look down.
Selma (2014; Directed by Ava DuVernay)
Two contrasting shot compositions at key moments in Ava DuVernay’s Selma visually convey the discrimination that motivated the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America and the achieved goals of that Movement. But these shots say more about DuVernay’s filmmaking methods as practiced in Selma, and how she marshals and sharpens the cinematic language to tell this vital American story with maximized impact.
The first shot frames the first attempt in March 1965 by 500+ African-American activists to march from the city of Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery to protest the systematic denial of voting rights to African-Americans in the state, and indeed in much of the South, in the wake of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act which made it legal for all African-Americans to vote in the United States. DuVernay’s camera pans dramatically and high through the girders of Edmund Pettus Bridge at the edge of Selma on the highway to Montgomery. The marchers, led by Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) and (future Congressman) John Lewis (Stephan James), march down the right-hand lane of the two-lane highway towards the line of Southern lawmen and good ol’ boy vigilantes (the distinction between the two is not too keenly felt) arrayed to halt them. The left lane is empty, a stark metaphor for the separate and unequal system of segregation endured by every African-American at the time.
DuVernay lingers on the image just long enough for the audience to register its significance, but also enfolds it into a tense and galvanizing sequence that concludes with the brutally violent dispersal of the march by the local authorities. This composition is repeated for a later march attempt, which turns back at the bridge despite the state police standing aside to (apparently, but maybe not) allow the activists to pass. Its contrasting image comes near the end of the film, after Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and the march’s organizers succeed in obtaining a court sanction to march and cross the bridge out of Selma in a great celebratory mass. Another crane shot, clear of the constricting visual tangle of the bridge girders, shows the marchers filling both lanes of the highway. Segregation, in the scope of this cinematic juxtaposition at least, has broken down. Freedom rings.
Selma in general is not nearly as forthright and triumphal about this key victory in the Civil Rights struggle, a direct catalyst for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which struck down the byzantine voter registration regulations that stood between African-Americans and the ballot box in much of the South. As seen through the eyes and filtered through the perspective of Oyelowo’s steely but thoughtful and conflicted King, the Selma march was an effort of Herculean proportions and an ordeal of Job-like suffering undertaken in order to glimpse little more than a thin blaze of light from a mere crack in the door. Selma and its oft-sainted protagonist never lose sight of the hard truth that this door was propped open by dead and mutilated black bodies beyond all measure of grief.
Selma paints a superbly detailed portrait of a Martin Luther King who, yes, achieved great things by displaying tremendous bravery, moral magnitude, and oratorical acumen (Oyelowo nails the crescendoing preacher’s cadence to such an extent that most won’t even notice that he does not utter King’s historical speeches, the exact text of which his estate did not permit to be used in the film). But Selma is not a biopic of a man, it is a panorama of a movement in one particular place and time; not a solo portrait but a group one, not A Polish Nobleman but The Night Watch. King is at the still centre of a historic ferment that will move, with or without him; one lively sequence sees King and his largely male entourage of civil rights leaders descend, chattering and joking, on the home of a local supporter in Selma, rowdy travellers putting up for the night at a hospitable roadside inn of sorts. He directs when needed, like any other of its leaders, but he also listens to other opinions and viewpoints, considers other approaches, tactics and trajectories. It’s a picture of Martin Luther King as a conciliator, a mediator, the hub of a branching tree of competing interests and directions.
This position as a core negotiating figure involves King facing not merely the African-American church leaders and student protestors of his own side, nor indeed the antagonistic forces of segregation arranged athwart them (as represented by Tim Roth’s well-oiled Alabama Governor George Wallace, they do not deign to even meet with a mere “nigra”, Nobel Peace Prize or no). He also navigates treacherous waters with LBJ (Tom Wilkinson), who is reluctant to expend more political capital on “Negro issues” after the Civil Rights Act, and with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), who resents his frequent absences, his infidelities, and the mortal dangers that his activities expose him and his family to. Through struggles and obstacles, Oyelowo’s King is not certain of the correctness of his strategies or the loyalty of every one of his allies (especially the one seated in the Oval Office), but he never wavers in the righteousness of his divine mission.
The most prominent commentator on the African-American experience of the moment, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has viewed the non-violent resistance represented by Martin Luther King with a certain ambivalence, as did Coates’ major ideological influence, Malcolm X (who makes a brief appearance in Selma, played by Niger Thatch, meeting with Coretta Scott King in the interest of aiding a jailed King in Selma). Certainly, King’s unquestionably heroic dimensions for white Americans as well as for blacks has seen his transformation, a mere half-century since the events in Selma, into a mythic saint of justice.
This icon of King is stripped of the thorny and sometimes confrontational politics that kept him under FBI surveillance, in particular his insatiable desire to radically roll back structures of institutional discrimination and his open opposition to the Vietnam War. The sainted King is today frequently invoked rhetorically in order to defuse agitation for correction and change to the structures and tendencies of the American state and society that continue to exploit and dehumanize African-Americans. Why must black and liberal activists be so aggressive and sensitive about racial problems, which were fixed at such a high cost in the 1960s? Why can’t they be patient and visionary, trusting in hope and dreams like Dr. King? The meek shall inherit, remember?
Coates, like Malcolm X, mistrusts not merely King’s aim of changing White America’s mind about the plight of Black America, but his faith-based vision of multi-generational reform and improvement beyond his own violently-shortened lifetime. The portion of the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech that has become the most moving in light of his subsequent assassination in 1968 is King’s reference to not getting to the envisioned Promised Land with us, and an exchange with a Justice Department lawyer who supported his efforts near the end of Selma echoes this faith-rooted acceptance of his mortality before his God and the continuation of the movement after he is gone.
Coates, however, is an atheist who understands our life on earth as the entirety of our existence, and as a result agitates for tangible material improvements (ie. reparations, which King himself supported) to make up for America’s historical wrongs against African-Americans sooner rather than a distant wished-for future of magical equality and justice later. Coates’ term for the airbrushed fantasy of innocent white-bread prosperity and safety, which is always already built on the destruction of the black body, in Between the World and Me is the Dream, and the nomenclature cannot help but feel like a direct shot at King’s most famous rhetoric device, an attempt to dispel an obscuring fog of fuzzy optimism around the aims that both men share.
Selma does not generally indulge this fog of optimism, even if DuVernay concludes with an archival-footage celebration of the final, successful Salem-to-Birmingham before staging King’s triumphant speech in front of the Alabama State Capitol as a victorious coda. Aside from a shocking and then abstractly floating depiction of the Birmingham church bombing, DuVernay utilizes the language of cinema with directness and power. Selma is not soft-focus. It drags a tense moment of conflict and resistance from the fog of history into the blazing light of now. Selma presents to us an important juncture in the Civil Rights Movement not as a Dream but as a vital, visceral reconstituted reality that is impossible to look away from.
Calvary (2014; Directed by John Michael McDonagh)
Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is a good man and a good Catholic priest, but that seems to matter not at all. He ministers to the concerns and doubts of his parishoners in a small community in Ireland’s County Sligo. He attempts to discourage the domestic violence committed against a promiscuous local woman (Orla O’Rourke); tries to dissuade a bowtie-wearing odd bird (Killian Scott) from his murderous tendencies as well as from giving them a professional outlet by joining the army; susses out the sincerity of a wealthy financier (Dylan Moran) who offers to make a handsome donation to the Church to assuage his guilt and loneliness; maintains a fond yet prickly friendship with an elderly writer (M. Emmet Walsh) finishing a book in an isolated cottage; admonishes his only altar boy for nipping communion wine; and fights valiantly to avoid losing patience with his twit of a fellow priest (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan). Closer to home, he also tries to reconnect with his daughter (Kelly Reilly) from his pre-ordainment marriage, who visits him from London after attempting suicide.
Above all, though, Father James struggles to overcome the widespread contempt for and distrust of the Catholic Church in Ireland following the revelations of rampant child abuse by its clergy, compounded by the Church leadership’s concerted cover-up efforts. The notorious scandal is employed by those he encounters as a persistent trump card to his well-meaning efforts to offer comfort, solace, or guidance. James scrambles doggedly for the moral high ground, but the barrages of disdain for his chosen religious vocation and its association with organized pedophilia put him in reluctant retreat every time.
But the abuse scandal has much more dire consequences for Father James. In Calvary‘s first scene, a man enters the confessional booth and promises to kill James in a week’s time, on a Sunday morning. The man reveals himself to have been sexually abused by a priest (now deceased), and will punish the Church for its crimes by murdering a good priest, to maximize the shock. The remainder of the film builds towards this fateful Sunday encounter, the identity of James’s assassin held secret until the ending and ably concealed by the consistent shabby treatment that he receives from every man in town.
Calvary is the second film by writer-director John Michael McDonagh, following the more freewheeling and comic The Guard, which also starred Brendan Gleeson. McDonagh possesses a secondhand grasp of the scabrously crude but frequently hilarious dialogue and conflicted engagement with historical Catholic guilt displayed by his better-known and more brilliant older brother Martin, auteur of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. There is much less meta-play and genre flexibility in the younger McDonagh’s films, but his visual sense has evolved quickly while his writing has sharpened and embraced the unsettling moral ambiguities inherent to the Catholic Church’s transformed role in Irish society and culture.
Calvary has some funny snatches of dialogue (the exchange between James and the bowtie-clad Milo is probably the high-water mark) but it does not ever rise to the level of black comedy, remaining as a simmering drama of one man’s accruing suffering for the sins of others. One would likely need a theological degree to properly parse the film’s Catholic symbolism, metaphors, and referrents, but the title alone (referring to the hill outside Jerusalem upon which Jesus is purported to have been crucified) makes its core association between this humble Irish priest and the divine Saviour in whose name he serves crystal clear. The Passion of Father James contains kernels of other biblical stories, too: the Book of Job, ever a favourite for dramatized explorations of the anguish of maintaining faith in a hostile world, is an obvious reference point.
But Calvary has no truck with self-aggrandizing Christ postures. The tremendous Gleeson allows James’s troubled humanity to fill the frame but never transcend its temporal bonds; his late career renaissance continues under the creative stewardship of the McDonagh brothers, who are at last giving this great actor roles worthy of his expansive ability. McDonagh punctuates James’s fateful, pained march towards judgement with sweeping, achingly gorgeous long shots of the County Sligo landscape. These shots function like god’s-eye views, as if the director strapped a camera to an angel sent to observe the trials of a mortal servant of its ineffable master.
It cannot be said that Calvary is exactly satisfying in its moral conclusions or thematic aims. But then neither is contemporary Catholicism, at least not in the unsettled hearts and minds of its increasingly numerous doubters. Calvary feels much more vital than The Guard, a resonant statement of the fallout of the Church’s perceived betrayal of its flock in Ireland, once one of its true strongholds. The sacrifices of Father James carry lingering hints of redemption, reconciliation, and resurrection: after all, he meets his fate not on a Friday, like Jesus, but on a Sunday, the day of the rise from death. But this is not a film about achieving salvation but struggling forever in search of it, to no avail. Calvary makes that struggle seem inherent noble but also sublimely painful and hopeless, and perhaps ultimately futile, though it seems to carry a prayer that this last judgement does not hold.
Indie-roots-rock critical darling Ryan Adams released his latest album recently. It consists not of original compositions of his own but entirely of covers, indeed of covers of one album in its entirety: Taylor Swift’s megaselling powerhouse 1989. This is no mere gimmick (it’s more like flattery, if both Adams’s and Swift’s statements about the record’s sincere intent are any indication), though the album does clinch Swift’s ascendancy in indie music circle as music geeks’ superstar pop princess of choice.
I haven’t a particularly distinct or developed critical view of Adams’s 1989 to offer, seeing as such a perspective would require a closer familiarity with Swift’s original work than I can admit to having, despite previous musings on her oeuvre. I know that it’s worth a listen, and that generally speaking I prefer the Neil Young-ish dichotomy of “wooden music” ache and ragged glory rock anthems practiced by Ryan Adams to Taylor Swift’s polished pop production on every day of the week as a matter of personal inclination and taste. There may be deeper factors undergirding this aesthetic judgement, and I hope to untangle these a bit more below.
One particular contrasting feature of the Ryan Adams 1989 compared to the Taylor Swift 1989 that is impossible to miss is the more openly, nakedly emotional nature of these covers. Listeners with a good grounding in Adams’s songs know that he can muster exquisite, soulful heartache with prodigious and moving skill, and he wrings every ounce of available pain from Swift’s compositions, known more for their peppy radio-friendly joyousness. At Vox, Todd VanDerWerff considers this effect of the album, or rather considers how the reception of the Adams album emphasizes the sadness that he “finds” in Swift’s songs without recognizing that these notes of melancholy and vulnerability were always already present and evident from the original album’s release. VanDerWerff argues that the poppy and the darker elements of Swift’s songs create an “emotional tension” on 1989, and Adams’s cover versions eliminate that tension and go full-on sad, with occasional irruptions of anger.
There’s something to this, but I’m not sure it’s quite right. Many of pop music’s pinnacles are products of the tension of light and dark, hooks of delight connected to depths of doubt and despair: Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, Outkast’s “Hey Ya”, and Fastball’s “The Way” come to mind, supremely catchy hits respectively about a thorny paternity controversy, the fragility of romance, and dead old people. You can see a definitely vulnerability in Taylor Swift’s lyrics, but Ryan Adams, with his traditionalist rock approach as the still barely-ascendant shorthand for authenticity (which VanDerWerff is right to be dubious about), is able to pull that vulnerable nature out more readily and evidently than Swift can in her glossier arrangements.
Look at “Shake It Off”, for example, the megahit lead single from Swift’s 1989. With the boppy sheen of the goofy video and the glare of cultural appropriations to distract and direct our attention, Swift’s original emphasizes her beefs with tabloid media speculation about her personal life and emphasizes her overwhelming sense of positivity, her ability to “shake off” the jibes and keep dancing. As it is presented for a mass audience, there’s nothing complicated or (it should be said) particular interesting about the tune (“Blank Space”, as I have discussed, is much more fascinating to think about).
But listen to Adams’s low-key cover of “Shake It Off” and different tones and meanings emerge from Swift’s words. When Swift repeats the criticisms of her intelligence and her worthiness as a romantic partner over the best state-of-the-art electronic beat that money can buy, it comes off as defiant and mocking, a confident kiss-off to the “haters” who are, after all, “gonna hate”. Adams draws out the hurt and sting in those epithets, though, as well as the low simmer of self-doubt that they create. Swift brushes off the hurtful words hurled at her, but Adams worries that they might just be true.
There are deep-rooted factors that condition this reading, that presage the transmission of these meanings. I mentioned, as VanDerWerff does, the lingering claim to authority of expression that rock claims over pop. One can also point, as VanDerWerff does, to the privilege of Adams as a male artist as opposed to Swift as a female artist, and how the underlying sexist norms of the still-patriarchal circle of music criticism construct the soulful, profound male singer-songwriter as superior to the frivolous, superficial pop queen. It is only through the prism of our prejudices that Adams’s versions are seen as deeper or truer or sadder than Swift’s, and any preference for the former over the latter is a sort of discrimination; the prism is a glass ceiling.
This is not exactly VanDerWerff’s point, but the thrust of the observation gets at the point that I wish to make about the duelling 1989s. Regardless of the web of preconditioned perspectives that make us understand the Ryan Adams 1989 as more emotional open and raw than the Taylor Swift 1989, it unquestionably presents that way. This element is not, as VanDerWerff has it, something that listeners of Swift’s songs have somehow “missed”. There’s a melancholy in the bones of Swift’s music, but how her music is composed, arranged, and especially presented betrays a lack of trust in the value of that melancholy.
We might interrogate whether this distrust is Swift’s own or that of the corporate entertainment machine arrayed behind her. Most likely it’s both, with Swift’s uncertainty about expressing the sort of vulnerability that a close reading of her lyrics betrays predetermined by marketing imperatives and focus-group research. Much of this effect has roots in assumptions about gender norms, as well, about how much vulnerability a female artist can safely display. The mainstream feminism attached to a figure like Taylor Swift privileges strength and agency and positivity in a progressive and liberated woman of the modern world. Vulnerability and emotional openness can be considered signs of weakness, and pop-feminism has not often displayed the subtlety and nuance to reconcile these characteristics with its valorization of “Girl Power”. The glossy pop of Swift’s music is an aesthetic (and commercial) choice, but it also serves to distance her pop star persona from the hurtful emotional consequences that underscore her basically happy songs. It can operate as a mask to hide the tears.
It’s instructive to recall that Swift began her recording career in country music, a genre that has annexed much of rock’s sphere of influence with white audiences when it comes to mediated expressions of emotional authenticity. Her early songs, naive high-school fantasies about princesses yearning from their imagined castles though they may be, carried a melancholy about them too, but you could say that it was a melancholy about the limits of their expressive breadth and depth. Pop star Taylor Swift has expanded and sharpened her emotional expressiveness while girding that precious expressiveness in layers of Top 40 sparkle to protect it from exposure. Ryan Adams removes that armour in his cover album of 1989 and lays bare wounded hearts, not only his own but that of the songs’ composer. The record tells us quite a bit about Ryan Adams, but it might just tell us even more about Taylor Swift and the culture that helped to shape her.
The Galapagos Affair – Satan Came to Eden (2013; Directed by Dayna Goldfine & Dan Geller)
The remote Pacific archipelago of the Galapagos is one of the few corners of the planet with no history of permanent human habitation prior to the modern era. Though archaeological evidence suggests that the Galapagos were visited by South American peoples before an off-course Spanish navigator happened upon them in 1535, the islands were only settled at last in the 20th Century. A century after their eternal fame was assured by a young Charles Darwin’s visit on board the Beagle to make some important observations concerning its native finches, the Galapagos Islands played host to a much more sinister and mysterious episode of intrigue.
This episode, involving three sets of German colonists and an enigmatic, unsolved disappearance/murder in the 1930s, is the subject of The Galapagos Affair – Satan Came to Eden. The film’s unwieldy title gestures towards lurid true crime material, but the subtitle in particular has more Miltonian philosophical intentions in mind. A sort of modern case-study reboot of the original Fall of Man, Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller’s involving documentary is a whodunit without a solution, indeed without the need for one because the guilty party is always already fallen, sinful, imperfect people. It’s a parable of perilous human geography in isolation, of the surface percolation of distrust and resentment of interpersonal coexistence in near-laboratory conditions.
Here’s the scenario, such as it is: in 1929, Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter abandon their marriages and late Weimar Germany altogether to run away together to Floreana, an uninhabited island in the Galapagos. Ritter is a physician with a self-righteous Nietzschean bent who wishes to live the untouched existence of the idealized Übermensch in the tropics. Strauch, in the thrall of Ritter’s intellect but of an overall more practical disposition, willingly goes along, although she soon finds their burro to be better company than her moody would-be philosopher lover. They scrape out a hard life for themselves in complete isolation for some time, their only outside human contact derived from an occasional visiting scientific expedition or pleasure yacht.
Their solitude was disrupted twice, and for good. First, a bourgeois Westphalian family called the Wittmers establish a homestead nearby, overcoming initial chilliness and Dr Ritter’s doctrinaire beliefs to become friendly neighbours, a self-styled Swiss Family Robinson to Ritter and Strauch’s Pacific Adam and Eve. But the relative harmony is shattered by a more intrusive and flamboyant resident, the also self-styled Baroness Eloise von Wagner and her two male Germanic acolytes. The Baroness (who is almost certainly nothing of the sort) treats Floreana with the arrogance of a sexualized conquistador, annexing edges of Ritter and Strauch’s “property” (nobody on the island seems to have anything beyond squatter’s rights to anything) and intending to develop a luxury hotel for wealthy travellers that will turn the remote Galapagos into a new vacation hot spot. Her demonstrative personality and hot-and-cold moods throw the fragile social balance on Floreana off kilter, and she is central to the dark and deadly drama that shatters this putative Eden.
Drawn extensively from the journals and memoirs of Strauch, Ritter, the Wittmers, and visiting scientist John Garth, The Galapagos Affair employs major thespianic talents like Cate Blanchett, Thomas Krestchmann, and Diane Kruger to provide voiceover readings of these accounts to dramatize them. The historical story is intercut with interviews with current Galapagos residents, many of them descended from the original inhabitants of neighbouring islands who encounters the Floreana cast of characters. These interviews attempt to contextualize the forces that drove people to move to these remote and inhospitable rocks in the ocean as well as those that keep people there today.
Like the murder mystery, the interviews don’t even approach a conclusive answer to any of the questions dogging the film. The philosophic Ritter might well agree, mind you, that location answers is infinitely less rewarding than asking the questions. The Galapagos Affair doesn’t wind up being quite as intriguing as it initially seems that it might be. The fits and starts of its real-life narrative frustrate the amateur sleuth viewer, seeking out telltales clues that would point to a culprit, and the modern-day contextual chats don’t really add much of interest. But The Galapagos Affair is about stretching the documentary form while simultaneously scribbling eccentric marginal notes for the oldest and most fundamental story of European Judeo-Christian civilization. It takes place at the unsettling crossroads where seminal Biblical morality plays meet harshly pragmatic natural selection, and neither explanatory paradigm offers full comfort from its troubling suggestions about human nature and social drives.
I Am Legend (2007; Directed by Francis Lawrence)
The consensus critical opinion that Francis Lawrence’s post-apocalyptic survivor’s tale I Am Legend boasts a superb first hour that is then let down by an incongruous and ineffective closing act consisting of frantic action and heavy-handed Christian-esque self-sacrifice is no less accurate for its persistence. Frequently, such consensus opinions, especially common in the contemporary fandom groupthink enabled by the Internet, act as mechanisms of epistemic closure, preventing productive contrary readings from being voiced and received. Everybody knows what is happening with this movie, it implies, so who are you to say that anything else might possibly be happening?
On occasion, however, a film is structured in such a blindingly self-evident way that there can be little or no argument about how it is laid out and what the effect (and affect) of that structure tend to be. Agreeing with the general perspective on that structure and affect need not hinder a critical reading, which after all can only inhabit the space given to it, can only breathe the oxygen available.
I Am Legend is based on Richard Matheson’s influential 1954 dystopian horror novel of the same name, and was brought to the screen twice before: with Vincent Price in 1964 as The Last Man and with Charlton Heston in 1971 as The Omega Man. The 2007 version returns at last to the original title but transplants the emptied-out urban setting from one coast to another, from Los Angeles to New York City. Director Francis Lawrence (later to become the helmsman of The Hunger Games franchise) keenly observed that much of sprawling L.A. already resembles a nightmarish post-human wasteland, while imaginatively stripping tight-packed, constantly thrumming Manhattan of its thronging multitudes would carry a more potent visual punch.
Indeed it does, for an indelible opening hour at least. Robert Neville (Will Smith) appears to be the only (fully) human inhabitant of what was once the United States’ largest metropolis. Alone in abandoned Manhattan, which is frozen at the moment of panicked evacuation and is gradually returning to nature, Neville and his loyal German Shepherd dog Sam cruise through the deserted, haunted streets by day. Neville hunts herds of deer, works on his golf swing from the deck of an aircraft carrier, interacts half-delusionally with mannequins at a video store (he’s been on his own long enough to work his way through to the Gs on its alphabetized shelves), and returns for an evening dinner at his Washington Square townhouse with his pooch before barricading them both in for a sleepless nocturnal siege of tense terror. Something comes out at night, living but also not living, and Neville knows it and its deadly nature well enough not to hazard his life in its presence in the dark.
There’s a rare visual and visceral resonance to this opening two-thirds of I Am Legend, which mingles the apocalyptic shock of catastrophic collapse with the isolated sense of alienation among stacked millions that we choose to call modernity. Neville, once a famed military man and scientific genius with a loving wife and child as seen in flashbacks, has seen his psychology and personality altered as thoroughly as the decaying cityscape through which he passes like a forgotten ghost. Smith diverts Neville’s energies into his survivalism, into his ongoing efforts to cure the runaway pandemic that has dwindled away the vast majority of the human race, and into his fond, charming interactions with his dog Sam.
But there is always in his eyes the haunted distance from ongoing experience of a man who has, quite literally, lost nearly everything. Neville is perhaps the archetypal role for Smith, an actor whose appeal on the big screen is amplified when aligned not against other people but against forces greater than the mere human (alien invaders, the national security apparatus, robots, structural inequality, golf, and here, nocturnally active zombie-vampires). Like Price and Heston before him, Smith’s onscreen persona has been constructed as super-human, almost otherworldly, above the childish things of human interaction and connection. Smith’s fine work in I Am Legend brings that movie-star superiority down to earth, and to a highly fallible and tenuously held-together version of earth at that.
There’s a very strong argument to be made that if I Am Legend ended after about an hour, when this man who has lost nearly everything loses one of the most important things that he has left, it would be an infinitely better film. This galvanizing tragedy is the upper note of an exquisite crescendo by Lawrence (the screenplay is by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman) and would be a moving conclusion if its leitmotifs of solitude and sadness in a continuity of pain and loss could be trusted in such a blockbuster-budgeted movie instead of being considered as preludes in the narrative arc to rote redemption and self-sacrificing heroism. But Will Smith must save the world and, with the help of a woman (Alice Braga), a young boy (Charlie Tahan), and a vial of blood containing a cure to the zombifying infection, he verily does.
He does so with an act of Christ-like self-sacrifice inspired by portents of divine intervention that would make even M. Night Shyamalan blush in embarrassment. This ending is a miscalculated forfeiture of the resonance of I Am Legend‘s compelling ideas that manifests as an unforgivable betrayal. Even an alternate ending that grants the predatory hordes of infected “Darkseekers” a measure of quasi-humanity doesn’t improve matters much, coming straight out of left field given the characterization of the ravenous nocturnal hordes up to that point (though it is closer to Matheson’s original text, it must be acknowledged).
The themes marshalled and so memorably visualized in the first two-thirds of I Am Legend are not so easily resolved by selfless moral rectitude and benevolent deism. Lawrence’s indelible images of a post-human Manhattan (shot by the late, great cinematographer Andrew Lesnie) summon the looming spectre of not merely the incipient end of American imperium but the inherent fragility of human civilization itself. Lawrence fitfully sketches these roiling, repressed anxieties with the remarkable image of Neville casting a fishing line into the reflecting pool surrounding the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This transplanted architecture of the ancients, meticulously arranged in the cultural epicentre of the pulsating heart of the modern world, becomes a metaphor for the transitory nature of human achievement in the face of history’s violent imperatives.
The inevitable collapse and gradual decomposition of even the grandest of ambitions is not an idea which the American psyche, ever ambitious and self-conceived as continually ascendant, is particularly well-equipped to handle. For the fantasy factory of Hollywood, the world can always be saved, no matter how dire its predicament. Lawrence’s rare but fleeting and ultimately dismantled achievement in I Am Legend consists of powerfully suggesting that the world is doomed as a matter of course. I Am Legend‘s title referred in its original literary form to Neville’s posthumous legacy as a faded myth to the culture of the infected who succeeded our human species in dominion over the planet. In this film, his “legend” is as a heroic avatar of mankind’s survival and regeneration. But this overlay of hope feels spurious, tacked on to a much more resonant text dominated by isolation and loss. Agreeing with the consensus view that I Am Legend is not as satisfying in its closing act as in its establishing ones does not divert us from this revealing observation. Indeed, it empowers it.