Dark City (1998; Directed by Alex Proyas)
A man checks his watch; it has stopped at midnight. Another man wakes up naked in a bath in an unfamiliar green-tiled bathroom, a trickle of blood on his forehead, a broken stylized syringe on the tile floor, his(?) clothes piled on a chair in the corner. He looks at himself in a mirror, seeming to only barely recognize the stranger in the glass. He dresses, finds a jacket, keys, and a postcard from a place called Shell Beach that sparks a sunsoaked memory of a terrace by the sea. Then he sees a dead woman with spirals carved into her skin, and the phone rings.
This is the disorienting, wordless opening of Alex Proyas’ Dark City, and it never really improves on the enigmatic film noir resonance of this first sequence. What precisely has happened to this man, named John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), and what it means for the larger reality of the titular nocturnal metropolis does get revealed gradually and often deliciously and compellingly, yes. But the answers are both richer and very much poorer than the establishing questions of Dark City.
Murdoch does not know he is Murdoch until he retrieves his wallet from a Gilliamesque “automat”, a sort of vending machine sized up to a full diner. He doesn’t remember anything beyond a few flashes of a happy childhood associated with Shell Beach. He’s soon bothered by a nervous doctor named Schreber (an oddly cast Kiefer Sutherland) who promises him answers but never quite provides them willingly, pursued by a hardboiled police detective (William Hurt) suspecting him of a string of murders, and meets a wife named Emma (Jennifer Connelly) that he didn’t know he had and doesn’t know quite how to relate to. He’s also pursued by pale, bald, creepily, thinly elongated figures in black fedoras and long coats who try to kill him and/or control his mind.
Ideally, this is all a viewer would know about this movie going in. If you want to be such a viewer, stop reading now and spare yourself an attempt to consider what’s going on in Dark City. But what is going on? That is eventually revealed, mostly by Schreber in a monologue as he, Murdoch and the detective Bumstead direct a rowboat along a dark urban canal. The city, you see, is an enormous running experiment, a lab rat maze for human subjects (Schreber is seen with such a maze when Emma first meets him, foreshadowing these later revelations). The pale gents, known only as the Strangers, run the show from a kooky gothic subterranean lair, utilizing a collective mind and psychokinetic powers called “tuning” to pause and remake the cityscape each night, sprouting new buildings like accelerated-growth flowers, shifting their human subjects’ socioeconomic situations, memories, indeed their entire lives, just to register and try to understand the effect when they restart the clock and “life” resumes. The sun never rises in this constructed city, a symbolic marker of the ignorant, helpless existence of the repeatedly manipulated people who dwell in it.
John Murdoch, for whatever reason, cannot be so easily manipulated by the tuning Strangers, and as he comes to realize the situation in the city he also realizes that perhaps he has the power to change it. He sets off on a single-minded quest to find Shell Beach, to pinpoint a properly non-existent locus of purity, innocence and happiness where all uncertainties, above all the uncertainty of his identity, will be resolved. Shell Beach is a fantasy creation, invented by the Strangers’ human-memory chemist Schreber (who is named after a schizophrenic German judge who was an important case analysed by Sigmund Freud and whose memoirs are frequently referenced in the film) to provide a reasonable backstory to Murdoch’s life. It does not exist, but Murdoch’s ultimate act of resistance to the Strangers’ unseen authority is to find it, and when it cannot be found, to create it himself.
Theologian Gerald Loughlin reads Dark City as a recasted take on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: Murdoch, like Plato’s ideal philosopher, discovers from whence the shadows on the cave wall originate, but instead of freeing the imprisoned human subjects with this knowledge and power, he uses it to craft his own shadows, his own illusions. Dark City has been closely associated in late ’90s cult film with The Matrix: not only are their plots, philosophical themes and emerald-tinged, leather-bound neo-noir look quite similar, they were released a year apart and were shot in the same studios in Sydney, Australia using many of the same sets. Murdoch’s role as a specially-powered liberator of the controlled masses, but only on the preconceived terms of the forces of hidden hegemony, closely mirrors Neo’s niche as The One, delineated at the end of The Matrix Reloaded by the Architect as an established if accidental algorithm in the system that grants the disaffected with the illusion of freedom of choice while securing their unconscious obedience to the imperatives of the hegemons, be they insect-like robots as in The Matrix or teeth-chattering albino psychic creeps as in Dark City.
But The Matrix was a massive popular success while Dark City was a commercial flop that, despite the dogged persistence of the praise of America’s top film critic, has managed only mid-level cult success and appreciation since its release. Alex Proyas is not a lesser visual stylist than the Wachowskis by any measurable means; if anything, his visionary mash-up of film noir, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and nutball B-movie goth sci-fi is much more atmospheric and resonant than the concurrent settings of The Matrix. It’s depressingly materialist-essentialist to say it, but Dark City‘s Achilles heel might be its limited budget. In some features, the limitations have an clever, almost serendipitous resonance. Every scene, interior and exterior, feels inexorably like it’s being shot on a soundstage, but then, in the Strangers’ artificially-crafted city, it should feel that way. It detaches and disorients the viewer but the effect has a weird congruence. Indeed, considering Proyas’ production funding caps, Dark City has an unusually fully-realized vision and rarely feels visually compromised in any real way.
But there are other compromises. There are not any good performances to speak of. Sewell is convincing, if far from leading man material, and genre legend Richard O’Brien slithers through the movie as lead Stranger Mr. Hand, a character conceived of for the veteran of such roles. Hurt is barely trying, Sutherland is overly mannered and lost in a speech impediment, and the young Connelly is blank and bored (she was always beautiful, but only really became an interesting actress in later years). Furthermore, as seductive as the film noir set-up is, the jarring instrusion of the cornball science fiction solution is a worse turn-off than a bad pick-up line. By the time Murdoch and Stranger elder Mr. Book (Ian Richardson) are floating above a crumbling city mindwave-fighting, an intriguing premise has long since dissolve into ridiculous genre nonsense. The visions of Dark City are bold and often memorable, but their eventual implications and resolutions are not nearly as potent. One more way the film resembles The Matrix, after all.
Most Canadians believe themselves to be special by virtue of their being Canadian. If you were to confront them with this, they would likely deny it. But that denial would in itself buttress the impression of specialness. It would constitute an expression of humility accompanied (as it almost certainly would be) by even the smallest degree of self-righteous importance at being ever so humble (“I know I’m a hundred times as humble as thou art,” as one of the world’s biggest pop stars once put it). This is the purest expression of Canadian exceptionalism, which manifests as an exceptional unexceptionalism.
Like many key features of Canadian identity, Canadian exceptionalism takes as its vital oxygen a sort of oppositional energy to what is generally understood as American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism is conceived of as a continuation of manifest destiny, a ceaseless, visionary determination to occupy all continents literal and figurative, be they purely geographical or financial, cultural, political, psychological, metaphorical. Canadian exceptionalism takes its cue from American exceptionalism but overtly rejects the imperialistic expansionism inherent in this deeply-ingrained stereotype of the Yankee character. That rejection, in the national cultural imagination, is what makes Canada exceptional. Canada, it is understood, wishes not to conquer but to coexist, desires not conflict but cooperation, pursues collective order and polite equilibrium rather than engaging in some potentially destabilizing individual pursuit of happiness.
This anti-American position-taking feeds into left-of-centre self-images of Canadian society as diverse, progressive, tolerant, and more open and inclusive than that of our more populous and more powerful southern neighbours. Canada may not be able to boast of the United States’ remarkable cultural, industrial, and international achievements, but that’s exactly what makes it better. Like most stereotypes of national character, this identitarian discourse is largely bunk. A triad of recent events in Canadian current affairs both demonstrates Canadian exceptionalism in discursive action and exposes its fundamental inadequacy and inaccuracy as an explanatory paradigm.
Last week’s headlining happening in the country was the desperate, deadly shooting spree carried out by Michael Zehaf Bibeau on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. A homeless, angry, drug-addicted young Quebecker who had converted to Islam and embraced certain elements of both anti-establishment and jihadist ideology, Zehaf Bibeau shot and killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo as he stood guard at the National War Memorial before running into the Parliament buildings, where he was shot dead himself by the RCMP and the Parliamentary Sergeant-At-Arms, Kevin Vickers. National tributes to Cirillo and Vickers followed, as well as shock and resentment at and vigorous over-analysis of Zehaf Bibeau’s motivations, aims, and the catalysts for his behaviour. Following hard on the heels of another deadly hit-and-run targeted at a Canadian soldier in Quebec by a diagnosed schizophrenic who also identified with fundamentalist Islamic thought, the events in the nation’s capital sparked a round of self-examination and increased security and vigilance by Canadians across the country.
But it also fired up the engines of that particularly Canadian form of exceptionalism. Beyond shock and outrage at such disorderly violence, one of the dominant early reactions of Canadians online was to praise the CBC’s television arm for its calm, reasoned approach to covering the breaking news from Ottawa, which remained in flux for several hours after Zehad Bibeau’s brief rampage on the Hill. CBC News anchor Peter Mansbridge’s measured on-air form impressed American observers accustomed to frantic, panic-inducing sensationalism from their 24-hour cable news outlets (Canadians may define themselves as Opposite Americans, but we do hang desperately on the merest hint of incipient praise allotted to us by our elder brother to the south). Likewise, the orderly, quietly defiant resumption of the House of Commons session the very day after a shootout rang out through the corridors of Parliament fed into this self-image of Canadians as a Stay-Calm-and-Carry-On sort of people.
But there was a darker side to the popular reaction to the shooting on the Hill. A more reactionary element in the country immediately singled out Zehaf Bibeau’s extremist Islamism as the obvious cause of his assault on symbolic public monuments and those associated with them, even if this troubled young man’s story has turned out to be much more complex than what can be labeled mere “terrorism”. For a vocal, belligerent slice of Canadian conservatives, the attack was the irruption of global jihadism into Canada’s peaceful-seeming reality that they had predicted and warned of for so long that they seemed almost hopeful for it to happen, almost giddy and elated once it did. The underlying bigotry and prejudice of these views is frequently disavowed under the aegis of Canadian exceptionalism’s progressive focus on multiculturalism and tolerance, but the isolated bursts of racially- or ethnically-charged reactions to the Ottawa shootings showed this disavowal to be merely discursive.
The fear-based counterideology represented by Islamophobic Canadians dubbing this lone gunman attack “Canada’s 9/11″ (as if merely calling it such might make it so) may not precisely be supported by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party, but it is quietly fomented and fully exploited by Harper’s government. Through the Prime Minister’s remarks in the aftermath and the following day in the Commons, it was made starkly clear that the Conservatives intended to use the unsettled, insecure feelings that the shooting sparked in Canadians to push through a long-planned piece of landmark anti-terror legislation as well as to justify its military participation in the anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq. Restrictive, intrusive investigative and surveillance powers for the state and police cuts against the common conceptions of Canadian exceptionalism, to say nothing of military action; Canadians buy into patriotic constructions of the mass slaughters of World War I as nation-building crucibles, but also cherish the country’s rich (but decidedly mixed) peacekeeeping legacy.
The minority reaction of aggressive, anti-Muslim anger seems to have triggered something, however, or perhaps set existing prejudices and unprogressive actions into sharper relief. In the nation’s largest metropolis, Toronto, a bitterly divided electorate of splintered identity-politics tribes ramped up discriminatory rhetoric in a municipal election already sadly defined by it. The lion’s share of this rhetoric stemmed from the conservative Ford Nation, the frighteningly unswerving acolytes of the arch-right-wing, scandal-prone, faux-populist Ford brothers (Mayor Rob swapped places with Councillor Doug halfway through the mayoral campaign after the former was diagnosed with cancer, the maneuver executed with all of the subtlety and flow of a wrestling tag team switch). The ugly white resentment, paranoia, and distrust of misidentified elites (as if the millionaire Fords somehow don’t qualify as privileged) that the Fords have encouraged and ridden for the balance of their political careers was spilling out everywhere. Racial slurs were leveled at the most prominent liberal candidate for Mayor, Olivia Chow, at debates and in political cartoons in the city’s main right-wing populist daily newspaper, and even ran into racially-charged vandalism targeted at candidates in elections so anodyne as one for local public school board trustee. Such discriminatory rhetoric is considered deeply un-Canadian in terms of the tenets of exceptionalism, but has been proven in this election (and the four years of Ford-dom that preceded it) to have a deep-seated constituency in Canadian society and culture.
As if to lay a finishing blow on the staggering corpus of Canadian exceptionalism, the news that Jian Ghomeshi, the host of CBC Radio’s Q and one of the nation’s most beloved broadcasters, had been fired by the public broadcaster on the heels of sordid accusations of sexual assault (to which Ghomeshi responded with a $50 million lawsuit against the Ceeb) broke Sunday night and expanded today. At the risk of feeding into the sense of privileged self-regard made blatantly self-evident by Ghomeshi’s Facebook statement ahead of the breaking news, the accused sexual abuser possessed as good a claim as anyone in the country to the status of poster-boy for Canadian exceptionalism. Previously representing Canada’s self-perceived multiculturalism, creativity, open-mindedness, and sensitivity, as well as that bedrock of good-natured humility, Ghomeshi’s true nature has been laid bare by these revelations, and it is highly unsightly in its patriarchal, creepy, chavinistic disregard for women and for the bounds of sexual consent.
The persistence of Canadian exceptionalism may be proven out by its resistance to anti-terror laws and war, discriminatory rhetoric aimed at immigrants, and suspicions of sexual assault by one of its most well-known domestic avatars. Most likely, it will endure and survive by compartmentalizing these incidences as exceptions to the well-defined but malleable terms of exceptionalism. But with the right kind of eyes, it’s easy to identify in them the rotting core of the self-perpetuating ideology of Canadian exceptionalism.
The Tillman Story (2010; Directed by Amir Bar-Lev)
There’s something about the story of Pat Tillman that is quintessentially American. Indeed, there are many things: the entwined masculine conduits of self-aggrandizement and national patriotic display of professional sports (particularly football) and imperialistic war, a sense of daring, frontier-defining adventure, a tight-knit if fractured family unit built on affection, intellect, and moral principle, monolithic institutions unworthy of public trust, and an officially-manipulated popular resort to propagandistic mythmaking to justify wrongdoing. The Tillman Story frames these thematic elements as part and parcel of a general narrativizing of the life of Pat Tillman, by those who respectively want to use him, profit off of him, and love and honour his memory and personality. If the Bush Administration and the U.S. Army used Tillman’s death in Afghanistan as a propaganda myth, consider The Tillman Story a pushback countermyth by those close to him outraged by that myth.
For those unfamiliar with Tillman’s story, Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary provides a fragmentary synopsis that I will attempt to condense. A free-spirited but intelligent son of a lawyer and school teacher (now divorced) with two brothers, Patrick Daniel Tillman also proved to be athletically gifted, climbing up, hiking around, and jumping off any prominences he could around California. He played football too, and very well; undersized for a secondary player, his incredible hustle and reckless abandon as a hitter more than made up for it as he starred for Arizona State in the NCAA and then the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL. After 9/11, Tillman had a deep change of heart about his life’s direction and left behind his multi-million dollar pro football contract to enlist in the United States military along with his brother Kevin.
An Army Ranger, Tillman served several tours of duty, including in Iraq. In April 2004, while on patrol in a dangerous canyon in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, Tillman was shot and killed by friendly fire by members of his own unit. Lionized as a hero and quickly embraced as a propaganda godsend by the image-conscious White House and Army command, Tillman was given a televised funeral and a Silver Star for bravery all while the true, tragic, and potentially damaging circumstances behind his death were covered up and lied about, even to his own grieving family: he died in an enemy ambush, the nation and family were told, heroically defending his comrades. The Tillman clan, especially his indomitable mother, refused to accept the spin and campaigned the authorities tirelessly to reveal the truth about what happened to her son and admit culpability for his killing if that is what the truth demanded.
As the title indicates, this a film more about the story (stories) around Tillman than strictly about the man himself. Jon Krakauer’s contemporaneous book about the same life and events gives a better and fuller sense of who Pat Tillman was: a mix of physical prowess and daring, a profound sense of intellectual curiosity and moral rectitude, and a warmth and vigorous empathy that won over every person he met. Bar-Lev’s documentary is about how that man was lost in a flood of jingoistic simplification of a most American sort and how a similarly American determination to redress certain wrongs (at least those suffered by the privileged) set the record straight, if somewhat unsatisfactorily, in the end.
Those closest to Tillman at home and abroad get the lion’s share of the screen time, and their views drive the narrative: his mother Mary and father Pat, Sr., his no-bullshit younger brother, his wife, and members of his Army Ranger unit, in particular Russell Baer and Bryan O’Neal, who were with him in his final moments on the canyon ridge in Afghanistan (Kevin, who was closest to Pat, does not appear except in archival footage). Stan Goff, a former Special Forces soldier turned blogger who aided Mary in sorting through the mountain of official and mostly-redacted documents relating to the deadly incident which took Pat’s life, also provides keen insight into the U.S. Army mentality at the core of both the fratricide and its cover-up.
The Tillman Story is more like several interlocking stories, flashing back and forth through time and covering Pat’s youth, football career, army enlistment and experiences, and the aftermath of his death and its mythologization. It’s also several kinds of stories, generically speaking: elements of biography with a strong detective investigation streak (especially in the treatment of the friendly fire incident), ending in the deflating, anticlimactic courtroom-type drama of the congressional hearing that Mary Tillman’s efforts (and an angry letter from Pat, Sr.) managed to earn. This is a sad spectacle indeed, as the family’s righteous indignation at being mislead about their beloved son, brother, and husband’s fate contrasts sharply with the committee’s investigative impotence in the face of a cascade of prevarications, denials, and convenient lapses of memory by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and various multi-starred generals in connection with a widely disseminated high-level memo concerning the official spin around Tillman’s death.
This sequence boasts a whiff of gotcha-style documentary journalism, but embraces the sense of dissatisfaction by the principle figures instead and works better for it. Bar-Lev also chooses to moderate his film’s criticisms of the military and the government somewhat. He provides a soapbox for speculations about over-excited young men with guns making a major mistake which the brass and political arm tries to spin and distort as a net positive while the public eye is focused on the situation. But The Tillman Story tiptoes carefully around implications and accusations, some of them made by Mary Tillman herself, that Pat Tillman was deliberately targeted for elimination. Ostensibly connected to Tillman’s intention to flout the administration’s foreign policy by meeting with noted anti-war public intellectual Noam Chomsky after completing his service, this conspiratorial assassination angle is gestured at but never explicitly stated. It doesn’t seem terribly convincing, and the adapted, loose fog-of-war theory fits more of the details of the fratricide incident itself.
The climactic note of dissatisfaction overrides all. however. Even the closing meta-analysis of the narrativization and myth-making around Pat Tillman’s life rings a touch hollow in terms of the film’s actual application of it; it’s much less self-aware about the way that storytelling warps memory and identity than, say, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. The Tillman Story takes note of a key public relations episode in the Iraq War that anticipated the propaganda blitz around Tillman’s death that he had a peripheral connection with: the made-for-television rescue of Jessica Lynch, which the Army Rangers unit including Tillman and Baer provided backup for. The Lynch episode acts as a form of foreshadowing for the much more unforgivable distortions around Tillman’s death, and it also doubles as Tillman’s final disillusionment from the foreign military campaigning that seems to have motivated his patriotic enlistment in the first place. It’s a telling case of the forces of American power, which are always already predicated on image creation and dissemination, taking control of one of its citizens’ stories for its own ends.
This, ultimately, is Tillman’s story, and The Tillman Story works hard and mostly smart to readjust the trajectory of the narrative of its subject. It seeks to puncture the overblown nationalistic platitudes around Pat Tillman enough times to sink the top-heavy conservative myth they support. Pat’s younger brother Richard Tillman speaks about the man who was lost with profane, blazing directness and honesty that pops the engorged balloon of conventional, ritualized grief established by a parade of distinguished speakers at his funeral. It’s an echo of his elder brother’s famous last words, a strident (even desperate) re-assertion of his identity: “I’m Pat fucking Tillman!” Both Tillman brothers speak for the film as a whole.
Kingdom of Heaven (2005; Directed by Ridley Scott)
For a director with seminal cinematic masterpieces on his resume who makes expensive, beautifully-shot, ambitious pictures with epic scope, vision and deep intellectual potentialities, Ridley Scott has a tendency to fly under the radar as far as buzzworthy film releases go. He can cast Russell Crowe as a grim Robin Hood to a sort of mass shrug from popular audiences. It took a heavy-handed suggestion of Alien prequel-hood to generate much of a film-geek frisson around Prometheus, and his forthcoming Moses vs. Ramesses ancient war epic already seems mired in racially insensitive and sometimes bizarre casting, like, say, Jesse Pinkman as Joshua. He’s not received a Best Director Oscar nomination for over a dozen years (since 2001’s Black Hawk Down, which has served as inspiration for the entirety of Paul Greengrass‘ work since then but is otherwise a bit forgotten). For an auteur of Scott’s stature, that’s an eternity in the wilderness.
Scott’s hoary, unwieldy medieval crusades narrative Kingdom of Heaven seems on the surface to typify this high-budget artistic wandering. Choosing the then white-hot action leading man Orlando Bloom to play a hirsute 12th-century blacksmith who finds himself commanding the defence of the holy city of Jerusalem from Saladin’s sieging armies probably seemed like a good idea at the time. But as Kingdom of Heaven wears on, it requires brooding thought and consideration from its star that Bloom, for all of his mastery of battle movement, can’t effectively summon.
Bloom’s Balian wends his way on a rambling quest to the Holy Land through one of the most vividly detailed and accurately-pitched onscreen visions of the medieval world ever realized. It’s a world predicated on the chilled closeness of mortality and the lofty, remote promises of escape from grim quotidian conditions in a blessed afterlife. Balian kills his grubby local priest (also his half-brother, a cameo for noted crafter of creeps Michael Sheen) for a slight to his suicided wife and chases after his nobleman father (Liam Neeson) to join his company in a Crusade to recapture Jerusalem from the infidel Muslims and perhaps gain divine forgiveness for his sins and those of his wife. Neeson’s Godfrey is a hard man who teaches him some fighting skills before inevitably shuffling off the mortal coil; he memorably boasts about fighting for two days with an arrow through his testicles, so he might know a thing or two worth passing along.
Eventually shipwrecking in the Holy Land, Balian befriends a Saracen (Alexander Siddig) who may be more than the well-spoken servant he seems to be. He then becomes embroiled in a rather complicated set of Crusader State political and military intrigues swirling around the leprous but honourable King of Jerusalem (Edward Norton in a metal mask, from behind which he outacts the vacant, subtextless Bloom for long stretches) and a few rather more morally leprous French noblemen (including Marton Csokas and a wonderful scene-stealing Brendan Gleeson). He tries to get away from the religiously-tinged conflicts, farming on an estate and tiptoeing around a fetching noblewoman (Eva Green), but is dragged back in by Saladin’s assault on the ragtag Christian garrison protecting Jerusalem.
20th Century Fox forced edits to Scott’s film that rendered it somewhat incoherent, and his longer but more fleshed-out Director’s Cut is a considerable improvement. If ponderously-paced, inhumanly scaled, but occasionally sweeping and transporting medieval sword-and-sandal stuff appeals to you, I’d mildly recommend the film in its extended form, rather than advise cautious avoidance in its truncated cut. It’s not only that every major character is rendered more rounded and real (particularly Green’s Sybilla), but the rhythms of Scott’s direction and narrative throughlines of William Monaghan’s script are kept intact and gain some measure of power and pathos.
Of course, Kingdom of Heaven‘s underlying politics are still entirely too liberal-humanist to be believable in the medieval context (the Braveheart Syndrome). It preaches faith-not-religion without recognizing the highly porous boundaries between the two, and undervalues the role of both religious fervour and the naked desire for land, wealth, and power in motivating Crusading Europeans to decamp from a crowded, wartorn continent to the deserts at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. It portrays Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) and the Saracens sympathetically but also constructs them as an invading horde of Orcish Others to be dispatched in the hundreds lest they massacre every living thing inside the city walls. The Crusaders, with the exception of Balian and a wry Hospitaller (David Thewlis) who does not make it through the disastrous battle at the Horns of Hattin, are pretty uniformly complete bastards, next to which any Muslim misdeeds seem relatively slight.
Applying modern conceptions of compassion, justice, and international law to the medieval context is a foolish index to judge the moral profile of film characters, of course, but then Kingdom of Heaven panders to those conceptions fairly consistently. In a similar way, applying film criticism’s precepts to a late-period Ridley Scott historical epic on the basis of his earlier and more praised work (I refer less to Alien or Blade Runner than to his most recent unqualified critical and popular triumph, Gladiator) is also foolish, but it’s nonetheless always done. Kingdom of Heaven, especially in its Director’s Cut, has some features worth praising, but it hardly measures up to a standard that Scott once set but has now seen recede deep into the rear distance.
It’s becoming fairly apparent that the globalized social order of the post-modern, post-capitalist, post-democratic West is undergoing at least a few active crises. But seemingly at the core of all of them lies a truly earth-shaking crisis: a crisis of masculine identity. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir recently descried a nostalgic yearning to preserve and recapture a fading sense of unshakeable white American manhood in a time of increasing feminism, multiculturalism, diversity, and LGBT rights, where even unassailable fortresses of homosocial identity communion such as the National Football League, the U.S. military, and fraternities are finding themselves assailed for the less savoury consequences of their inborn chauvinism (like, I dunno, rape and domestic violence, or something).
Wherever one looks, in fact, defenders of aggressive, blustering masculinity are finding themselves seemingly besieged by the minority and diverse forces that they have marginalized and exploited for so long and are lashing out in response. The increasingly absurd machinations of the brothers Ford in Toronto municipal politics represents a pure distillation of the right-wing politics of white male resentment against the implications of liberal modernity for a permanent softening of an enduring (if ever-more vestigial) social hardness. Similar political predilections have taken firm hold of the Republican Party south of the border and are granted a seat at the proverbial table in the Conservative Party north of it.
Elsewhere, the longtime male fantasy zones of superhero comics and video games are experiencing spasms of change as open-minded creativity and criticism open them up to new, non-male voices. Some dudes may never be able to handle a female Thor, and even more dudes have crafted an obnoxiously misogynistic “movement” called Gamergate to harrass and silence incisive feminist voices criticizing sexist representations in gaming. Even international terrorism fits this masculine counter-revolution bill. What is ISIS, at its core, than the most extreme men’s rights pushback of them all, transmuted through post-colonial developing-world grievances against imperial powers and a radical, fundamentalist vision of Islam that restores a medieval gender hierarchy through brutal force? And what is the muscular military intervention against them but a resurgence of masculine martial fervour to match their vicious phallic demonstrations?
But there’s a parallel stream (or perhaps an intertwined one) to this belligerent counter-revolutionary masculinity. Corporate consumer advertising has targetted perceived male insecurity by flattering its assumptions of inherent superiority while simultaneously exposing the obsessive propriety with which it treats its cherished tenets as fundamentally ridiculous. This ironic, self-aware approach to the terms of traditional masculinity lampoons those terms just as it reinforces them. It presents masculinity as a sort of comic eccentricity to be stroked and kept placated by agents of traditional femininity, lest its claws come out. The innovating ad in this cycle was Old Spice’s viral clip starring the brilliantly deadpan Isaiah Mustafa as “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”.
There’s an overt appeal to women to the ad, of course: Mustafa is gorgeous, and he’s looking right at the camera, addressing the “ladies”, letting them know that men are basically ludicrous creatures but they have their uses (mostly, it must be said, materialist ones). But the dominant message is addressed to men: it’s okay to be traditionally masculine, but try not to take it too seriously, because that makes you a chauvinist asshole. There’s also a line out to men and women who reject the terms of traditional masculinity, nudging them knowingly and acknowledging the rightness of their view. No wonder the ad was so massively successful, launching similarly parodically manly sequels and indeed whole products lines based on the comic premise. It spoke, with exquisite, slippery balance, to most hegemonic young-adult demographics at the same time.
The Old Spice campaign found itself either inspiring or coming into discourse with similarly-pitched marketing, most prominently the meme-ready Dos Equis ads featuring “The Most Interesting Man in the World” pictured above. The tone of worldly, devil-may-care sophistication of those ads introduced a note of cosmopolitan savoir-faire to the modern masculine playbook, qualities that are often dismissed as European and effeminate. But a more recent, and odd, commercial for Chunky Soup’s blatantly male-centred Pub Inspired line of canned soup flavours focused the beam of ludicrous modern masculinity even more intensely.
The demographic appeal here is more particular: young father with teeny-pop fan daughters is offered respite from his emasculated plight by a meat-and-potatoes stew and a skull-perching eagle-wing set of earmuffs. But beyond the absurdist humour and gender assumptions lies a secretive homosocial exchange. The experienced soup-slinging bartender inside the television (his taps dispense not beer but sludgy, sodium-rich sustenance for young single men allergic to food preparation) offers sage advice and material gifts that preserve some private illusion of traditional masculinity to a subject otherwise deprived of contact with his supposedly primal (but really quite socially constructed) manhood. It’s a window into the mindset of patriarchy: private exchanges between men in settings where women are not present and certainly hold no power or sway determining the matters of true importance.
But the exchange is fundamentally silly, down to the screaming eagle with the pretentiously classical name. Perhaps the core truth of the current state of masculinity is most visible in this element of such an advertisement: although man-to-man exchange retains its protocols of respect and gravity, both the customs of this exchange and the patriarchal aims it supports and works towards have slid into a position of tired uselessness worthy of ridicule. A panicked realization of this fall from grace may perhaps serve to explain the vehemence of chauvinist masculinity’s response to the perceived reduction of its influence and dominated discursive territory.
The Man Booker Prize is no small honour, and Eleanor Catton’s narratively sprawling, absorbing novel The Luminaries is no small honouree. The 28-year-old Canada-born, New Zealand-reared writer’s 800+ page astrologically-structured mystery is set in the mid-1800s during her adopted country’s West Coast gold rush and freely mixes a directness of prose with narrative and structural complexity. A compelling read for most of its length, The Luminaries loses some must-finish appeal in its closing segments, a miscalculation attributable mostly to a privileging of that aforementioned meticulously worked-out structure over narrative momentum and character empathy and engagement.
The Luminaries is a ripping-enough yarn about intrigue, betrayal, conflict, and redemption in and around the gold-rush boomtown of Hokitika on New Zealand’s West Coast. Beginning in 1866 and moving forward before flashing back (the placement of that flashing back is a big issue, but we’ll get to that in a moment), The Luminaries begins with Walter Moody, a Scottish barrister and prospecting hopeful, who arrives in town in the midst of a deluge characteristic of the region. He’s fleeing a deep family shame and a nearer, more mysterious vision that he’s seen on board the ship that landed him in Hokitika, and plans to stake a claim on the fortune-making goldfields in the area.
Seeking solitude and comfort in the lounge of his hotel, Moody happens upon a conspiratorial congregation of twelve seemingly mismatched local men. A genial representative of the enigmatic dozen gentlemen, a shipping agent named Balfour, attempts to suss out Moody’s nature and background, and the gathering eventually elects to inculcate the newcomer into their shared secret. The meeting concerns a labyrinthine riddle involving a deceased hermit, a vanished young man, an ambitious politician, an opium-addicted prostitute, a rough-edged sea captain, a fashionable widow, stolen gold, an unsigned bequest of wealth, the local prison, and a crate full of dresses, a tangled situation implicating every man there gathered in some way.
This sounds like an intriguing set-up for a cracker of a detective story with the rational, analytical Moody as the sleuth figure. Though there would be nothing wrong with that, it’s to Catton’s credit that she proceeds unpredictably. The story does eventually reach a sort of climax in a courtroom drama section with Moody as the brilliant legal unraveller of the tangled web woven by the sea captain Carver and his comely accomplice Lydia Wells. But what leads to those chapters is a tapestry of colliding motivations and ambitions, muddled associations and trespasses into each other’s orbits pushing her varied cast of characters towards conclusions that are introductions, endings that constitute beginnings.
Catton is a fine prose stylist, fond of digressions into the psychological nuances of her characters’ self-conceptions, relations to others, and closely-held illusions and prejudices. Her narrative is also riveting, at least up until her structural choices take over from natural storytelling rhythms and reader interest inevitably wanes.
Despite The Luminaries‘ ostensible setting in a historically firm time and place, it invokes Victorian spiritualism very prominently and involves seemingly supernatural occurences (ghostly apparitions, spirit possessions, apparent mental and physical linkages across time and space) and mysteries that are never fully explained. Such supernatural elements proceed from the astrological foundations and architectural skeleton of the novel. The dozen men meeting in the hotel lounge when Moody arrives are based on the twelve signs of the zodiac: an imperious goldfields magnate and pimp is Leo, a confident and physically imposing Maori guide is Aries, and so forth. Another set of characters, including Moody, Carver, and Lydia Wells, represent the planets of the solar system. The conjunction of the characters of corresponding astrological signs and heavenly bodies and the sort of interactions they have are based by Catton on the personality traits and psychological assumptions of the astrological profiles, as well as upon the passing phases of the moon. Catton’s chapters and “parts” begin much longer and grow much shorter as the book moves along, much as the lunar cycle begins at full wax before waning to a glowing sliver in the nocturnal sky.
It’s surely this intricate, tremendously clever structure that so attracted the Booker jury, lending a depth and resonant allure to the page-turning period intrigue of Catton’s central mystery. But Catton chooses to mostly resolve the core mystery of the “current” strand of the narrative with the courtroom chapters with a hundred pages to spare, at which point she fills in the back story that leads her characters to their collisions in Hokitika. The verve goes out of the storytelling at this point, it must be said; so many juicier enigmas are left unresolved in the main body of the text that it seems odd to spend an extended denouement sketching in lesser mysteries in the narrative’s deep background. It is, to put it bluntly, a mistake, though not one that significantly dents the otherwise compelling facade of The Luminaries.
It’s become official: America’s wars in Iraq now officially outnumber the World Wars. Not sufficiently chastened by two-plus decades of ill-concieved military adventurism in the Middle Eastern state whose results have been decidedly mixed (to be outrageously generous), the Obama Administration has drummed up an international coalition of support for airstrikes against the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
A radical and brutally violent militia of Islamic extremists (mostly animated by Sunni discontent in the region) who have exploited the sectarian conflicts of Iraq and the protracted civil war in Syria to gain control over a vast territory across both countries, the group was formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The latter acronym has caught on as a bogeyman moniker in America and the West (the piratical Black Standard flag they’ve adopted doesn’t hurt the villainous appearance), although the Islamic State has mostly dropped the geographic denominator in its (frankly laughable) mission to establish a global caliphate. Just because some of us might not be able to read or hear of ISIS without thinking of the Bob Dylan song doesn’t mean that they aren’t a serious, well-armed, well-funded cadre of nasty, reactionary characters who are crafting a world of hurt and suffering for local populations. So serious and nasty are they that al-Qaeda recently cut ties with the Islamic State, finding it too volatile and vicious for their liking. That’s right: the terrorist network that thought it valid to crash planes into skyscrapers to punish kafir capitalists for deviations from the path of Allah finds that these guys push it too far. That, to be put it mildly, is bad.
The usual lines of political disagreement seem to be defining the reaction in America, Canada, and Western Europe to the push for American-led military intervention. Antiwar progressives will nitpick the details and perhaps even challenge the general validity of military action, with some anti-state libertarians briefly on their side. Rabid Fox News conservatives, meanwhile, whose views and positions on anything Middle Eastern or Islamic have long been motivated by thinly-veiled xenophobia and religious rivalry, will welcome any state-sponsored killing of Muslims, even if it is carried out by a secret Muslim President (the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy; everyone is my enemy, except for Jesus).
Their psychological arousal at the thought of armed conflict (as long as it is far away and doesn’t threaten their cycles of consumption) is mirrored by that of the neoliberal hawks still manning the barricades of political discourse in defence of the Barack Obama Presidency’s foreign policy legacy. Unwilling to admit that the surveillance and national state has been expanded and covert foreign military action has been even more deeply entrenched in American public life under the President who promised to roll back such abuses of power in contrast to his neoconservative predecessors, the neoliberal elite embraces serious-minded assaults on brutal, backwards-focused fundamentalism as a self-evident good, in and of itself, as well as a forceful legitimizing tool for their foreign policy worldview.
The full, complex, knotty reality behind the rise of the Islamic State is much less simple and far more unsettling and potentially intractable than any substantial political consensus in the United States or anywhere else is willing to face up to. PBS’s Frontline examined the troubled and tragically miscalculated history behind the current version of the Iraq conflict in the recent Losing Iraq (embedded in full below) and finds both the Bush and the Obama Administrations culpable in what can only be honestly called the failure of the Iraqi state in the wake of the deposition of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The Bush team’s approach to Iraq has been painstakingly dissected and found wanting by progressive-leaning documentaries in the past, and the same issues are front and centre in Losing Iraq: the lack of planning and preparation, the assumption of ease of military victory and quick withdrawal, the privileging of neocon ideological purity and muscular conservative messaging over the advice and intelligence provided by experts in the region, the basic distrust and/or desire for punishment of Ba’athist-linked Sunnis that led to their general alienation from the increasingly Shi’ite-dominated political processes in the country. The dissolution of the Iraqi army and disenfranchisement of Sunnis is tracked directly to the stubborn insurgency that eventually morphed into the Islamic State. Driven by rigid fantasist beliefs and domestic political and PR concerns, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their Republican underlings chose at nearly every point to take actions on the basis of any interests but those of Iraqis. In a half-hearted, endlessly compromised attempt to secure Iraq, they succeeded only in rendering its insecurity permanent.
Losing Iraq‘s criticism is also levelled at George W. Bush’s successor. Whatever might be said about the inept, crippled, and reluctant nation-building exercise carried on by the Bush Administration in Iraq, at least they kept troops, diplomats, and other officials in the country to work at cleaning up the complicated mess that their overthrow of Saddam had made. Launching the second war in Iraq was a deep moral stain, but it was a moral stain that implicated Americans in the process of its protracted removal. President Obama, who ran for the highest office in the nation largely on the basis of a promised reversal of Bush’s unpopular, shameful Iraq policy, was uninterested in the warnings of his officials in the still-war-torn land that the swift withdrawal he intended to effect would have terrible consequences. The depth of the folly of the Iraq war is demonstrated in the dearth of favourable options after this particular military genie was let out of the bottle: it was such a mistake that any and all decisions that followed it and reacted to it could not help but be mistakes too, ever deepening the implications of the original tragic error. It was a foreign policy black hole, pulling even the most well-meaning plans down into a matterless oblivion.
More than anything, the assumptions of neoliberalism proved fatally insufficient when it came to Iraq, an insufficience which the Islamic State has recognized and exploited to devastating effect. Bush and the neocons, though ideologically right-leaning, bowed to the neoliberal distaste for bloody, drawn-out conflicts that send thousands of young American men home in body bags formed by the Vietnam War. Seeking to avoid the political consequences of war weariness, they constructed a strategy of minimal engagement that exacerbated existing problems while their prejudices recklessly forged new problems. Obama’s similarly war-averse neoliberalism is even deeper, and inspired his rapid withdrawal from Iraq and increasing reliance on drone warfare to engage enemies (real and perceived) in foreign conflict zones.
This aversion to the deadly sacrifices of warfare, even in a modern technocratic globalized order allowing detachment from and disavowal of faraway battles, is precisely what radical Islamists in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere have relied upon to make their gains. Just as Vladimir Putin’s Russia has calculated that principled international opposition alone would not lead to risky NATO intervention in its conflict with Ukraine and was proven right, the Islamic State made its advances in the knowledge that the democratic West did not have the ruthless core to match their own.
Even now, as warplanes drop ever-inaccurate bombs on Islamic State targets, ground troops and the attendant casualties are scrupulously avoided (even as the dreaded “military advisors” on the ground in Iraq grow in number; Vietnam War scholars remember those well). Neoliberalism seeks to achieve results through the force of its own inevitability and, of course, the materialistic desire of disadvantaged actors to achieve a fragment of the wealth and privileged status of their elitist benefactors. The Islamic State rejects material benefits as blasphemy and beheads neoliberalism’s inevitability before posting the video of the act on YouTube. It is an outcome only reluctantly contemplated, but it seems like it will take infinitely more than airstrikes to dislodge the Islamic State from either their occupied territory or from their central nesting place in the nightmares of the neoliberal West.