Sarah Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates”: Puritan America, Then and Now

August 29, 2015 Leave a comment

It is frequently stated that the United States of America is a Puritan country. Intended as a facile sort of penetrating insight, this epithet connects contemporary American stuffed-shirt morality to the semi-legendary English founders of the first permanent colonies in the northeast of the continental U.S. In this formulation, the Puritans who settled in the Massachusetts Bay area in the early 1600s are popular understood as severe, humourless, stuffed-shirt Bible-thumpers who enforced a strict conformity on the basis of Scripture that has survived, in altered form, in the modern society of the nation.

This impression has been accomplished with a literary assist from the common curriculum assignment novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was descended from a judge in Puritan America’s defining atrocity (or one of them), the Salem witch trials (to say nothing of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a transparent historical allegory for McCarthyist “witch hunts”). In the Puritans, those who employ this simplified expression see the precursors of today’s Bible Belt’s Evangelical Christian fundamentalists, a prediction of the pearl-clutching shock with which evocations of sex are greeted in the public sphere, and/or a historical explanation for any rigidity to change or difference displayed anywhere in the 50 states at any given time.

It wouldn’t be exactly correct to dismiss this received opinion of the New England Puritans as an entirely inaccurate myth. Indeed, it is more than half-right, encapsulating much more of the nature of these important figures in American history than many popular myths come close to doing (Andrew Jackson, right this way, throw your coat up on the bed). But as Sarah Vowell shows in The Wordy Shipmates, the Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony are not only ironclad religious authoritarians. They are certainly that, but they are also dedicated scholars, pragmatic administrators, unselfish communitarians, rebellious seekers and irrepressible mavericks, and cruel, racist war criminals.

Drawing on archival sources as well as her own particular experiences with the remnants of Puritan society and culture to fill in the full, rounded human nature of the Puritans, Vowell locates many more aspects of the American character than mere unbending, stringent moral rigidity (which is intermingled with clandestine permissiveness in American society anyway). In the published sermons of Puritan preachers prior to and during their Transatlantic crossing, Vowell traces the kernels of communitarian values and destructive exceptionalism alike.

She spends some fruitful time exploring the numinous application of the Biblical phrase “a city upon a hill” by the Colony’s first, dominant governor John Winthrop to the forthcoming settlement in his lay sermon A Model of Christian Charity. “The city on the hill” was engraved firmly upon the modern American psyche by President Ronald Reagan, who utilized the image frequently throughout his political career to legitimize the arrogant strain of American exceptionalism that his presidency rendered hopelessly ascendant. Vowell, who grew into her peculiarly patriotic progressivism in the Reagan years, valiantly battles for many pages against Reagan’s claim to Winthrop’s Biblical invocation, pointing to rising homelessness, economic disparity, Defense overspending, and the deeply distasteful Iran-Contra scandal as compelling reasons to doubt Reagan’s rosy optimism as well as to emphasize his excising of the sense of highly-exposed sense of responsibility in face of a judgmental deity inherent to Winthrop’s use of the phrase in his sermon.

But more tangible elements of Puritan New England occupy Vowell’s attention and strike both author and, consequently, reader as being more vital to the development American social and civic identity. The tremendous bookishness of the Puritans, as referenced in the title, is one of the defining features of their society as well of their faith, especially as contrasted to early 17th Century Catholicism. This highly Protestant engagement with the text of the Bible and with analyzing and understanding the word of God for one’s self marked the Massachusetts Puritans as scholars and intellectuals in a way that current American conservative Christianity, with its reverence for patriarchal power and seemingly endless enemies list, has lost. Indeed, Vowell laments the anti-knowledge philistinism of contemporary America in general. For all of the Puritans’ God-bothering ignorance and ranks-closing prejudice, they possessed an admirable intellectual openness.

Less admirable, to Vowell’s eyes and likely our own, were other Puritan characteristics. The conflicts between Winthrop’s Bay Colony power base and the uncompromising ideas of unorthodox citizens like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson demonstrate an iron will towards communal conformity that continues to make differences in identity and adjustments in social standards painful and difficult in modern America. Both splitters were banished from the Colony for their divergent conceptions of how to live under God’s law (and founded new settlements in Rhode Island that allowed for religious dissent in a way that Winthrop’s regime would not), belying the claimed preference for co-existence and compromise by the Colony’s Puritans (as opposed to the Plymouth Pilgrims, who pointedly agitated for separation from a Church of England that they found to be irredeemably tainted by Papism, the Massachusetts Bay Puritans balanced their disapproval of the Church with a stated desire to remain within it and achieve desired reforms).

Perhaps Vowell’s most vigorous effort of connecting threads of American history in The Wordy Shipmates involves her detailing of the Pequot War, one of the initial salvos in European colonists’ long, heinous, and largely successful genocidal cleansing of the continent’s indigenous inhabitants (following on the heels of cataclysmic epidemics of disease that denuded Amerindian populations after first contact). A brutal skirmish in alliance with other local tribes, the Pequot War was marked by one terrible massacre and other atrocities besides while either killing, capturing, or dispersing the Pequots almost entirely. There was nothing noble or even justifiable about the Pequot War, and Vowell sees in its prosecution the template for future Indian wars and mass displacement that remains a largely unacknowledged but horribly important factor in U.S. nation-building.

Vowell, who claims Cherokee ancestry, has a bee in her bonnet on this subject (and good for her; America needs more bees of this sort in their collective bonnet), which also provided the engine for her outrage at American imperialism in Hawaii in Unfamiliar Fishes. The Wordy Shipmates is not only about the first stirrings of Amerindian genocide, but the Pequot War is the harshest manifestation of the social characteristics of Puritan New England that Vowell skillfully (and even entertainingly) narrates in the book. Puritan society is very unlike modern American society in many ways, but it resembles it in many ways as well. It’s worth appreciating Sarah Vowell’s work on the subject for establishing distinctions in regards to those resemblances.

Film Review: Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

August 26, 2015 Leave a comment

Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014; Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu)

It’s more difficult than it may initially seem to get one’s head around Birdman. It’s a satirical comedy that isn’t all that funny and misapprehends the processes of satire, an ambitious and technically accomplished film that strives for (and is consciously concerned with) stripped-down immediacy and authenticity. It’s awkwardly rhythmic, playfully meta and stubbornly square, its themes so numerous and intertwined that it feels like it’s simultaneously about everything and nothing. Like its protagonist, a washed-up superhero movie star named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who stages a Broadway stage version of a Raymond Carver short story in a last-ditch effort at artistic relevance and recognition, Birdman is trying to figure out who or what it is. But that quest for self-truth is fraught, so deeply implicated in the swirling, conflicting psycho-cultural discourses of contemporary America that no self-definition can be confidently disentangled from their consequences.

It’s important to know a few things about Birdman (awkwardly subtitled The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance for reasons that become clear in its closing scene but will not otherwise be drawn out herein). First, it is directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the massively talented Mexican auteur of the prestige dramas Babel, 21 Grams, and Biutiful. It’s his first comedy, and should arguably be his last; Iñárritu launches himself at the quest for laughs with a confidence and vigour that belies his inexperience with the genre but does not overcome it.

Second, Birdman is presented as being shot in a single take (although it could not possibly have been and doesn’t appear to be). Iñárritu’s camera follows Riggan, his fellow actors, and his professional and family circle through the corridors and rooms of the backstage of the theatre hosting his play, as well as onto the roof, into the auditorium and onto the streets of New York City beyond. Scored by the jazz drumming of Antonio Sánchez (and a few key classical pieces), the single-take conceit drives Birdman ahead in ruthless syncopation. This animating momentum renders its social and psychological commentary in a dizzying form but quite possibly contributes to the stillborn comedy, which feeds off of speed but not of this technically rigourous sort. Beyond these aesthetic and technical peculiarities, the single-take conceit doesn’t add anything tangible to Birdman‘s erection of meaning.

Third, Birdman has a lot to say (maybe too much, ultimately) about American entertainment culture, about Hollywood’s current superhero blockbuster zeitgeist and New York’s privileged circle-jerk of high-art elitism and celebrity and social media and reality television and rehab and I could go on but the very thought of it is more exhausting that Birdman can (sometimes) be. To make his Carver play work, Riggan must rely on his assistant and alienated daughter (Emma Stone), his alternately panicked and threatening friend and lawyer (Zach Galifianakis), and especially his fellow actors, including his erratic girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), approval-seeking female lead (Naomi Watts), and a hot-shot theatre-acting vet with an uncompromising streak (Edward Norton). He must also contend with his own unravelling psyche, represented initially by a niggling, mocking, resonant voice that later inhabits a costumed version of himself as Birdman, the superhero he is lingeringly famous for portraying decades before. “Birdman” convinces Riggan that he is worthy of greatness and capable of impausible, superhuman feats, including levitation, telekinesis, flight, and making theatre relevant again (*jazzy rimshot*).

It might be worth the effort of untangling Iñárritu’s cat’s cradle of ideas and comments about American culture. His core point that “low” popular culture is, at the same time, America’s fatal weakness and its redemptive salvation is a worthy one. All national cultures utilize grandiose myths to self-legitimize, but America has uniquely turned those mythic discourses into a pervasive carpet-bombing corporate monolith of global reach that is at once glorified and derided in public life. Riggan cannot separate his own search for fulfillment, meaning, and identity from the Hollywood-fed celebutainment machine because no American really can; they are the same mechanism, the gears turning each other.

If this is taken to be true, then the internecine skirmishes between high and low culture, between stage and screen, between mass and niche appeal, between artist and critic that burst out throughout Birdman are sideline battles, mere territorial disputes. Iñárritu is canny about how little is ever won in such subcultural stand-offs, and he gleefully subverts and upends even the most righteous position-takings, turning them on a dime from noble to petty and back again. The content of the film does this as well, holding the messy thespianic project in its focus as well as the spectacular heroic destruction of the superhero epic. Low and high tussle ineptly as well, with dick jokes and slapstick sharing space with high-minded cameo references to intellectual literature, not only Carver but also Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths (Norton’s Mike Shiner reads it in his tanning bed) and Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation (reflected in a dressing room mirror). This inept tussle becomes literal, when Riggan and Mike come to a physical confrontation over their competing perspectives and missions.

There’s much that’s worth knowing about Birdman, a film that oddly and miraculously works, soars even, despite evidently not working in so many visible ways. Riggan rages against the “labels” relied upon by a withering New York Times theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) to understand works of art and, by extension, the world itself. Whatever else a critic might label Birdman, with its dismissive defiance of labels, it cannot be called lifeless. Indeed, its life and verve, peculiar and convoluted though it may be, is what carries Iñárritu’s film through the thick fragmentary underbrush that it both produces itself and whose prevalence in entertainment culture it reflects. Birdman is so resonant and existentially profound that it knows enough to reject and even mock resonance and existential profundity. Or, more vitally, to understand them as the sideline skirmishes they are, as distractions from living. But both the living and the distractions, it’s important not to forget, can be beautiful, and are the stuff that make us what we are.

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews

Television Review: True Detective – Season Two

August 15, 2015 Leave a comment

True Detective – Season Two (HBO; 2015)

The second season of Nick Pizzolatto’s brooding, gothic crime anthology series is not up to the level of the first season, which cast Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Louisiana State Police detectives investigating a series of occult-tinged murders with connections to big-money corruption and depravity over seventeen years. This initial admission is, to this observer, both indubitably true and critically fruitless. Season Two’s quartet of principal characters do not have the surprising chemistry that made McConaughey’s Rust Cohle and Harrelson’s Marty Hart the unlikely bromance couple of 2014, nor are any of their dialogue exchanges as simultaneously philosophically profound and sneakingly hilarious as the chats of Hart and Cohle. Neither Pizzolatto’s notoriously scattershot writing nor the direction over eight episodes (united in S1 under Cary Joji Fukunaga but handle by six different directors in S2) packed a consistent and compelling punch.

It’s best to get that unproductive verdict recorded and out of the way so that we can properly consider what Season Two of True Detective is about and how it is about it (a process which, inevitably, will involve spoilers, in case anyone was planning to catch up with it later). It would also be best to recall that holding up Season One as canonically great misremembers the divided reactions to the episodes as they originally aired, especially following the halfway-point false resolution at the Ledoux compound. Season Two is its own beast with its own drives and appetites, haunted by its own demons that are, nonetheless, close cousins of those unleashed in Season One. It should be judged on its own themes and invocations and should be spared, as much as is possible, from invidious comparisons to its predecessor.

Swapping southern neo-gothic for grimy West Coast noir, the latest season of True Detective is set in the Los Angeles area and follows four investigators (“true” detectives if not always literal ones) delving into a high-profile murder. California Highway Patrolman Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) discovers the body of Ben Caspere, the city manager of the unfathomably crooked industrial suburb of Vinci, by the roadside. By degrees, Woodrugh is pulled into an inter-agency investigation overseen by the state to not only solve Caspere’s murder but also bust open the the hothouse of corruption that is the Vinci municipal government and its web of connections. His co-investigators are Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), a Vinci PD detective tainted by the overflowing graft and haunted by his moral trespasses, and Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) from the county sheriff’s office, whose checkered sexual past and uncompromising nature threaten to derail her career. Meanwhile, gangster Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), to whom Velcoro owes a long-standing debt of gratitude, tries to correct his course towards legitimacy after Caspere’s death cut him out of a lucrative land development deal.

All three cops are broken misfits of some stripe. Velcoro’s marriage fell apart when he went after the man he believed to have raped his wife (Abigail Spencer); he struggles to connect with a son that may not biologically be his own and spirals downwards into substance abuse. Bezzerides is estranged from her faded hippie father (David Morse), frustrated by her artist/sex worker sister (Leven Rambin), and hampered by contentious romantic entanglements around the office. Beneath Woodrugh’s macho All-American exterior, he’s scarred by wartime experiences in Iraq and in furious denial of his evident homosexuality. Even Semyon, despite his beautiful wife Jordan (Kelly Reilly) and projected masculine self-confidence, has problems: he’s unable to get Jordan pregnant, a symbolic reflection of the debilitating collapse of his threatened criminal fiefdom (doubly symbolized by the dying avocado trees in his yard).

These characters’ stories and hang-ups interfere and contribute to their excavation of the core mystery of Caspere’s death. Velcoro’s knowledge of the corrupt Vinci administration proves useful, Bezzerides’ family connections gain her insight on and access into the shady sex parties where shady deals are made between shady (but powerful) men, and Woodrugh is, as Velcoro once puts it, “a god warrior”, a tremendously efficient tactical weapon who carries them through two precarious and memorable operations. These episode-ending sequences, a draining massacre of a shootout with a Mexican gang tapped as Caspere’s executioners and a woozy nocturnal infiltration of one of the infamous sex parties that goes very wrong and is scored with a fine Black Angels song, are conceived and shot as stand-alone set pieces to end meanderingly-plotted episodes with a bang, much as the intense and technically outstanding drug house robbery and escape scene in Season One was. Neither moment was quite so shocking and disorienting as Velcoro’s apparent shooting death in a creepy fetish house by a man wearing an eagle head in the season’s second episode. But all of these stinging endings embedded a feeling of import and impact in the gut of the viewer nonetheless.

But what about beyond the gut? What did the second season of True Detective have to say to the head? Like Season One, this neo-noir, self-serious to the point of pulpy camp, metaphorically exposes a vision of America in decline, a sprawling urban-industrial wasteland of corruption, murder, rapine, filth, and deviance. As in Louisiana, this decay is both historically grounded and inherently contemporary, a morass of rampant greed and illegality simultaneously reflected by the brazen breaking of social and sexual taboos and naturally fulfilled in those acts.

But there’s a grandeur and ambition attached to the accomplishments in this slime-splattered milieu as well, a mirror of the self-legitimizing embrace of the culture and image of classical antiquity that has marked American society for centuries (especially in the slave order of the South, but that’s an analysis for another time). Unmissable Ancient Egyptian visual references and associations littered the establishing episodes and, as one astute watcher laid out in a series of tweets, magnify a core theme of leaving a legacy even (especially) in death. Woodrugh and Velcoro leave sons behind them, but the former is posthumously constructed by the corrupt local order as a hero and the latter as a villain; Frank Semyon is not remembered at all, another career criminal who pissed off the wrong thugs and is left bleeding out in the desert, his steps haunted by carrion birds and by cruel embodied memories that poke and prod at his weakness.

Bezzerides and Jordan survive to walk tall through an energetic Latin American carnival unlike anything in embalmed America, a resilient matriarchal compact. Velcoro, Woodrugh, and Semyon represent a spasming masculinity no less valiant for its delirious, delusional desperation. This strain of masculinity belongs to a past order that cannot perish quickly enough, but will take as much capital – economic, human, and otherwise – as it can with it in its protracted death throes. It is emtombed in monuments in the social wasteland of Southern California like the pharoahs in their magnificent pyramids: forever remembered, but still inescapably dead. It’s a mask that all three men feel they must wear, but it fits them as awkwardly as a fake bird’s head and is just as far from their true natures. Velcoro at least has the decency to realize that before the end, recording a (undelivered) message to his son admitting that his masculine posturing was always weakness, never strength.

These are big, broad, resonant themes that echo through Season Two, and their potency gives the lie to the critical narrative coalescing around the “failure” of this anthology story. Was it a flawed story? Often, yes. But then it’s a flawed world, too, especially in the world of True Detective. Ultimately, we get the True Detective we deserve.

Categories: Reviews, Television

TV Quickshots # 23

August 11, 2015 Leave a comment

Hinterland (Y Gwyll) (S4C/BBC; 2013-Present)

Written, filmed, and aired in both English and Welsh, Hinterland is set in and around Aberystwyth, a seaside holiday destination and university town known for the relative isolation of its location in Wales. It follows the tradition of British mysteries that hew to whodunit formulas while simultaneously imparting a sense of the subconscious cultural geography of a certain time and place in the country. DCI Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington) and his team solve unnerving murders in their forbidding countryside with echoes of devil-fearing superstitions, creepy voyeurism, and the backwoods gothic.

hinterlandThe latter tone predominates, fulfilling the rough-hewn promise of the show’s English title and painting the region as the Appalachians of the British Isles. Its Welsh title, Y Gwyll, translates as “The Dusk”, a more poetic moniker and less of a backhanded shot at the perceived parochial nature of Wales and its inhabitants. Indeed, although Hinterland is often strikingly shot, the Welsh landscape and the people found in it are wounded, isolated, their footsteps haunted by poverty and painful pasts. Mathias is saddled with just such a painful past, although the character development is such that little time is reserved for delving into his background. Generally, one great thudding hint into the lead’s backstory is allowed per episode, to be forgotten about or at least not further pursued in any meaningful way.

Mathias fares better than his co-stars, who remain investigative machines with only the barest personality quirks to distinguish them. An early gesture is made towards exploring some facet of institutional corruption or collusion: Mathias’ Chief Superintendent has some close ties to important community figures and swoops in every now and again to try to divert his DCI’s attention away from one suspect or another. But this angle never adds up to anything substantial, and neither does Hinterland, for all of its hard-bitten Welsh gothic quality.

Wallander (BBC; 2008-Present)

A very similar detective-mystery concoction to Hinterland, Wallander is both better acted and more socially resonant. It’s also distinctly awkward, almost by design. Adapted from Swedish novelist Henning Mankell’s novels about a frumpy, personally turbulent police inspector in the mid-sized town of Ystad (which were also made into films and then were the basis for new stories for television in Sweden), the UK production is set and (mostly) shot in Sweden, and the characters all have Swedish names and (one supposes) Swedish cultural contexts. But they are played by British actors who speak English, often with particular regional inflections and expressions.

A viewer may never really get past this basic incongruence, but if they do, Wallander is a well-made, often intriguing and occasionally nearly transcendent televised detective fiction. A gone-to-seed Kenneth Branagh plays Kurt Wallander with a distinctly worn drowsiness and a simmering psychological disquiet that manifests as quiet Nordic desperation. He’s generally superb, and the murder mysteries he solves often are good as well, penetrating hidden, dark depths beneath the hard-frozen social democratic veneer of Sweden.

Well-shot (as most BBC productions of any ambition manage to be) and perfectly involving, Wallander doesn’t quite take full advantage of all of its pieces. Like Hinterland, Wallander’s fellow investigators are mere ciphers, mostly present to bounce ideas off and provide sounding boards for necessary exposition. This is common enough to the genre, but sparks some disappointment when an actor of the talents of Tom Hiddleston is wasted among the supporting cast (although his work on the first two series did help Hiddleston get the role of Loki in the Branagh-director Thor movie, thus freeing him from thankless support work in British television genre exercises). But generally speaking, Wallander is a strong television mystery serial with a particular sense of place and tone.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Burke & Hare

August 7, 2015 Leave a comment

Burke & Hare (2010; Directed by John Landis)

There could be a great, dark-comic, socially and historically resonant genre film to be drawn out of the 1828 murder spree carried out in Edinburgh, Scotland by Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare, who sold the bodies of their victims to a prominent local physician for use in his popular anatomy lectures before finally being caught. John Landis’ broad, nigh-on vaudevillian take on this bizarre, unsettling episode in Scottish history is certainly not it. A rich tapestry of crime, poverty, science, and capitalist greed, the tale of Burke and Hare could entertain and amuse the macabre-minded while also carrying trenchant commentary on the nasty hidden nature of an “Enlightened” society. Burke & Hare lightly touches on all of these elements, but never grasps onto any of them with the teeth of satire. It’s a superficial concoction, its comedy painfully unsubtle and prone to mugging, and not nearly as funny or subversively shocking as believes itself to be.

This is rather unfortunate, as the slightly-rusty Landis (12 years out of the feature-directing game) has a very much rough-and-ready cast at his disposal. Burke and Hare are played by Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, respectively, both screen performers of considerable ability and charm that comes through even in haphazard material of this sort. As very loosely-adapted versions of the historical murderers, Pegg and Serkis represent an inversion of the popularly-conceived images of the duo. In real life, Hare was little more than a common thug who, along with his wife (here played by Pegg’s Spaced collaborator Jessica Hynes), fingered the (apparently) more intelligent Burke as the mastermind of the killings, for which the latter hung while the former was granted immunity to punishment before being chased into obscurity by a series of angry mobs (the Scottish are experts at angry mobbing).

Burke & Hare characterizes Serkis’ Hare as the smooth-talking schemer who drives the anatomy murders as a lucrative underworld business, with Pegg as the more decent and morally doubtful partner who takes the fall (and the swing) out of a sense of uprightness and, as this is not a very imaginatively-scripted film, out of love. While Hare vacillates between icy hostility and ribald intercourse with his accomplice of a wife, Burke finds himself moon-eyed over a fetching actress/prostitute named Ginny (Isla Fisher). He finances her dream theatrical project, an all-female production of Macbeth, in an effort to win her affections and companionship in bed, thus indirectly inculcating her in their killing spree to provide anatomy-lecture corpses to Dr. Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson).

Pegg wins your begrudging sympathy with the barest effort, while Serkis uses the incredible facial expressivity that even pushed through a computer-animated filter as Gollum, King Kong, and Caesar the ape for mostly mud-splattered mugging. Fisher is the real treat, tapping into deep cinematic veins of classic screwball comedy to recite Scots-accented Bard snatches and pursue her loopy (and entirely too progressive) staging of the Scottish Play like a 19th-century stargazer Orson Welles. She’s fully at home in the milieu of Landis’ over-the-top, jokey tone in a way no other actor in the film is, with the possible exception of Tim Curry as Knox’s foot-obsessed eminent physician rival.

But that tone is a consistent problem. Telegraphed gags land with the thud of a dead weight. Landis’ gallows humour has spent so much time in the grave that it’s gone distinctly wormy. References that might have come across as sly and knowing in a less indulgently broad script (this one was penned by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft) slip by half-noticed due to their lack of attention-grabbing tactics. Thus, a nod to the dedicated mutt and Edinburgh icon Greyfriars Bobby standing patient guard at his dead master’s grave is lost in slapstick antics by the city militia (evidently only three men strong), while guest spots by Wordsworth and Coleridge (and Charles Darwin, for that matter) are frittered away by weak and obvious punchlines. There are a panoply of cameos of variant wisdom, too, including Stephen Merchant pulling faces as a Holyrood Palace footman, Christopher Lee ranting as a near-death Napoleonic Wars veteran, and stop-motion monster master Ray Harryhausen as a doctor.

More unforgivable than any amount of silliness or any number of awkward guest appearances, however, is how Burke & Hare misses a golden thematic opportunity to say something about how the murders reflected something innate about the time and place of the text. A sort-of narrator (and also a hangman, played by another Pegg fave, Bill Bailey) sneers at the idea of Edinburgh of the 1820s being “Enlightened”, and there are some overworked attempts on Landis’ part to gesture towards the fundamental irony of medical science relying on grave robbery and even murder to advance its knowledge base (and, on both sides of the partnership, to make a pretty penny at it). But it’s all completely rote, and evokes nothing beyond a brief chuckle. This is a film of brief chuckles, at its very best.

Landis takes advantage of the gothic stone lanes and vertiginous wynds of Edinburgh’s Old Town and its moody environs to craft a couple of predictable old-fashioned genre suspense sequences, but is not much interested in this fascinating period city beyond its role as a horror-movie-ready setting. Burke & Hare is not an illuminating and diverting walking tour of a rich and complicated corner of human civilization (and the lack thereof), it’s an often frantic and only fleetingly sophisticated ghost tour for wheezing tourists. Perhaps my hope for more than that is misplaced, but there’s enough talent percolating in this dark-comic historical diorama to encourage such an expectation. Virtually any hopeful expectations are disappointed by Burke & Hare, however.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Inside Out

August 4, 2015 Leave a comment

Inside Out (2015; Directed by Pete Docter)

Inside Out is a representative Pixar Animation Studios effort. It takes an infinitely realistic and entirely relatable crisis in the life of a child – in this case, a move to a new city, struggles to adjust to new circumstances, a deep sense of sadness for the loss of the familiar old ones – and overwrites it with a frenetic, adventurous, imaginative, colourful fantasy world where developments impact upon or at least mirror those in the “real” world. When broken down to its constitutive elements in that way, that summary could serve just as well in describing children’s fiction and its procedents in general. Youth-aimed fantasies from Peter Pan to Alice in Wonderland to The Wizard of Oz and beyond render childhood struggles in fanciful terms that nonetheless reflect their sometimes difficult experiences of growing up.

Pixar’s works are undeniably indebted to that tradition, but substitute a certain world-building meticulousness and detail-oriented internal consistency for the conscious fantasy equivalences of J.M. Barrie and L. Frank Baum. The great children’s fantasies have always been believable, but Pixar’s tremendously rich computer-animated visualizations demand an increased element of the concrete, the rationally or at least cognitively coherent, to be accepted by an ever-more discerning young (and not as young) audience. They are also much more knowing and self-aware, as a consequence.

The worlds of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., CarsWALL-E, and Inside Out have sets of rules that govern them, and resemble our own reality in myriad familiarizing ways. Very often, it’s the breaking of those rules, the transgression of the familiar, that drives the plot of Pixar films: lost toys, a missing offpsring, a displaced house, even the reappearance of a vanished civilization. This journey away from what these films’ characters know best and what makes them feel comfortable and meaningful is, like all great children’s fiction, a grand metaphor for the pain and uncertainty of growing up. Smaller metaphors for the same thing may be embedded in the texts but the larger one resonates the most.

This is fundamentally what happens in Inside Out. Directed by Pete Docter, who helmed Up and Monsters Inc. for the studio, Inside Out proposes that inside each person is a gland-like control room manned by five contending (and, ideally, collaborative) emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. This quintet’s stark divisions are especially pronounced inside the head of 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), although the ever-positive Joy (Amy Poehler) dominates the highly industrialized operations of Riley’s feelings and memories and relationships. Keeping Riley happy above all is Joy’s driving mission. She heads off eruptions by Anger (Lewis Black) and Fear (Bill Hader), directs the distate of Disgust (Mindy Kaling) to productive ends, and treats the dour Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and her eternal downerhood like a leper to be quarantined.

Joy is the managing director of Riley’s internal infrastructure, maintaining the amusement-park-like “islands” of her personality and caching away happy memory after happy memory, visualized as coloured spheres, deep in her Library of Babel-like memory banks. Riley’s emotional life runs smoothly and happily until, one day, the familiar is (un)expectedly stripped away. Her dad (Kyle MacLachlan) starts a new job in San Francisco, uprooting the family from rural Minnesota to the urban environs of the Bay Area, away from Riley’s friends, her hockey team, and increasingly away from the happy life she knew. Sadness begins turning happy golden memory spheres to a melancholy blue, and Joy’s attempt to stop the process ejects them from Headquarters and lands them both among the memory stacks, far from the nerve centre at this most critical time in Riley’s emotional growth.

The other emotions struggle to cope with the crisis created by the move without Joy being around to run things. As Joy and Sadness enlist the help of Riley’s mostly-discarded imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) in their trek back to HQ, personality islands begins to collapse, heralding a worsening emotional orientation in Riley’s life. Joy will find that some long-treasured elements of Riley’s emotional life cannot be saved, and that the influence of Sadness may be important to preserve still others.

The overarching message of Inside Out is that transitioning from childhood to adulthood is a agonizing process of acquiring emotional complexity and, inevitably, of happiness bleeding away and a measure of sadness replacing it. The loss of innocence, cartoonified. At least this is the process for Pixar’s idealized bourgeois child of relative sheltered privilege, which Riley represents; what types of emotions might toil away in the control room of an emotionally-damaged child of dysfunctional upbringing, Inside Out does not have the dark-hued boldness to imagine.

Its imagination does have vision and breadth, and even some fleeting adult-oriented sophistication. One visual and comedic highlight of the film comes when the journeying party attempts to take a shortcut through a chamber dedicated to Abstract Concepts and the characters undergo a modern art representational degeneration through Cubism to Abstract Expression to two-dimensionality. Later sojourns in the surreality of Imagination Land, the dark vault of the Subconscious (featuring a clown depicted like a city-destroying monster), and the Hollywood insider satire of the Dream Production Studio rattle off interesting concepts, even if they are too often abandoned for sequences of manufactured peril.

There’s an undercurrent of Red State culture politics buried deep in the cortex of Inside Out as well. Riley’s heartland home in Minnesota (also Docter’s home state, not uncoincidentally, I’m sure) is an idyllic Eden for the young girl, constructed as a locus of happiness for her. This is set against the drained urban bleakness of San Francisco, where they serve broccoli on pizza, don’t play hockey on frozen ponds, and live in disappointing townhouses (Riley is pretty down on their new home, but it’s pretty damned nice for San Fran). This contrast is amplified through Riley’s own biases and emotional state, but there is an element of reactionary conservatism at insideout1work, too, that simplified, fantastical American cultural dichotomy of family-oriented, close-knit heartland communities and detached, developmentally fraught coastal urban enclaves of degeneration and filth.

But Inside Out is ultimately a film about emotions, and about emotions having emotions. It’s psychologically accurate in some ways, or at least strives to be, and Riley’s reactions to and decisions about her turbulent move to California make sense in terms of her own emotional backstory, identity, and memories as well as her relationship with her parents (although her most fateful moves are all a bit too drastic and dramatic, coming across like plot mandates above all). Docter has the film make what reads as an honest and genuine effort to reach out and touch its audience, but there’s a core manipulative nature to it that is worth resisting, if only to allow us to consider its inherent prerogatives.

In a curious and likely unintended way, Inside Out textualizes Pixar’s calculated regimentation of emotion, their well-honed, highly professionalized manipulation of their audience’s feelings through the studio’s films. The still-dimly-understood sectors of the brain governing emotion, personality, and memory are rendered as an all-monitoring corporate office type of operation, as the result of centralized control. Procedures, machinery, and a highly sophisticated and interlinked storage structure govern the every mood swing of an 11-year-old girl. And yet there remain processes and cause-and-effect relationships that are only dimly grasped by the professional emotions as well, that require leaps of faith and sentimental extrapolations to achieve desirable (but not always happy) results.

With this in mind, Inside Out can be seen as a sort of fantasy narrative of the modern American condition as filtered through the ideology and psychology of the pursuit of happiness and the complex, often contradictory and even counter-productive implications of corporatized creative industry in that neverending quest. To get more specific, it’s an imaginative expression of Pixar’s own idealized mission, its melding of visual technique, deep and resonant ideological themes, earned emotional responses, and cathartic humour to craft entertainments of near-universal appeal, for the purposes of both artistic messaging and bottom-line profit.

With its image and practice as a free-thinking, progressive “creative class” operation, it’s easy to lose sight of Pixar’s identity as a corporate organ (an ease which their brand managers gladly encourage). Pixar is connected in its inception to Silicon Valley’s co-opting of open-minded liberality to justify corporate consolidation and control. The studio is reliant on entertainment monolith Disney for funding and distribution, but also shares a bedrock commitment with the House of Mouse to simultaneously flatter and challenge the assumed conditions of childhood innocence through its releases. Aimed at the most impressionable and vulnerable moviegoers, Pixar features unapologetically advance very particular and influential ideas and utilize the highest technical and psychological expertise to manipulate their audience’s emotions to convince them of the premises presented.

The emotional resonance of Pixar films is a frequent talking point for fans and critics alike, but with certain exceptions (Toy Story 3‘s arresting incinerator scene, the exquisitely tragic broad-strokes life story that begins Up) it’s often staged and employed cynically and cloyingly, complete with close ups of eyes tearing up and tinkling minor piano keys on the soundtrack. Move beyond technique and affect, though, and there remains the disconcerting question of what larger purpose Pixar’s emotional manipulation serves, and how that manipulation reconfigures our absorption of emotional stimuli. In Inside Out, that emotional infrastructure is conceptualized and visualized as industrialized and corporatized. Our feelings are run through machines and offices, and are governed by encyclopedic user manuals; our memories stored in impossibly vast archives in which they lose their importance and vitality. Does Pixar understand its products as mitigating these processes or as contributing to them? Inside Out raises this question, perhaps without meaning to, and may just answer it without meaning to as well.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #8: Hillsborough

August 2, 2015 Leave a comment

In April 1989, 96 football fans died in a crush of overcrowded terraces at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield during a FA Cup semifinal match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The worst sports disaster in English history and one of the deadliest football-related incidents anywhere ever, the Hillsborough disaster is many things beyond a horrible and unnecessary tragedy.

It is a dark landmark in professional football in England, a predictable outcome of reactionary crackdowns after a hillsboroughwave of hooligan violence around the game during the preceding decade. It was a catalyst for drastic change in the upper echelons of the sport in the country of its inception, an important impetus behind the corporatization effort that lead to the formation of the Premier League in 1993. It became a core element of the supporter culture of Liverpool, whose fans suffered not only death and injury but the subsequent slander of a concerted, media-supported campaign to pin the awful consequences of police crowd mismanagement on the club’s (supposedly) drunken hooligan fans. It had a painful personal cost for the families of the dead, who lost loved ones and then suffered through two decades of protracted, agonizing struggle to hold the authorities responsible for their negligent failure to protect the public safety.

Daniel Gordon’s ESPN 30 For 30 film Hillsborough, one of the few feature-length entries in the sports documentary series’ Soccer Stories imprint rolled out in advance of the 2014 World Cup, depicts all of these elements of the disaster with gravitas and detailed alacrity. But it also finds in Hillsborough the crumb trail of a euthanized society, a failed regime of public order in England in which the privileged power of institutional continuity consistently trumps individual rights and security. Hillsborough was a tragedy that only deepened due to a police cover-up that eventually reached to multiple institutional levels. This scrubbing-up effort encompassed same-day narrative shaping, investigations by police and the coroner in the immediate aftermath of the disaster that emphasized blood-alcohol levels and shifted responsibility onto the mob itself, alterations and falsifications of police statements that were critical of command decisions on match day, and long-lasting refusals by the national government to dig into the scandal around Hillsborough. Only recently, with a new independent inquiry in 2012, has the truth of the mix of institutional mismanagement and evidence alteration come to wider light in Britain.

Director Gordon also made 9.79*, one of the stronger 30 For 30 films that also dealt with a system of corruption and backroom shadowplay. Hillsborough is grounded in much more sober stuff than blood doping in sprinting, however. Without a narrator, Gordon weaves together archival footage, specially-filmed geographical orientation material at the stadium, and gripping interviews with police officers, families of victims, and other figures close to the event to tell a powerful story. His narrator-proxy is Professor Phil Scraton, a criminologist whose eloquent, concise crusading for a re-evaluation of and new investigation into Hillsborough was vital to the formation of the independent panel of inquiry (on which Scraton served). This is a compelling documentary film for the football fan as well as for the sports neophyte.

What is striking now about Hillsborough is how obvious it seems that something terrible like it would happen, and indeed that it took so long until it did. The disaster was a dark prologue of Thatcherite Britain, the inescapable conclusion of a broken society that, as the Iron Lady would have it, did not exist and ought not to. Crowd control and event policing in 1980s English football had become so obsessive about curtailing violence and isolating hooligans that it endangered mainstream spectators, which were always the vast majority. Combine the metal barricaded pens in the stands with distrustful, disdainful policing that assumes criminality and catastrophe is almost inevitable. Coming at the end of a long period of welfare state rollbacks and pitiless union-busting, Hillsborough was another blow to ordinary Britons by Thatcher’s Conservatives that, for all of its inadvertence, landed very painfully nonetheless.

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