The Tragically Hip in Bobcaygeon (2012; Directed by Andy Keen)
In the summer of 2011, Canadian rock music legends the Tragically Hip headlined a concert for 20,000+ fans in a farmer’s field outside the small town of Bobcaygeon in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes, north of Peterborough. On one level, it was the sort of large-scale rock festival event that the venerable band has been staging for decades, often in remote rural locations (including, recently, the Arctic Circle) that burnish the salt-of-the-earth bona fides that are the foundation for the band’s resilient popularity.
On a deeper level, though, the Bobcaygeon show was representative of the Tragically Hip’s more profound connections with the Canadian public that has consumed, engaged with, and found meaning in their musical output over the past 25 years. This, at least, is what filmmaker Andy Keen’s hybrid documentary/concert film on the event sets out to explore, showing the band in performance, behind the scenes, and by speaking to the fans attending the show, the locals living near the concert site, and those in the band’s orbit.
Bobcaygeon, as any Canadian who has been in the vicinity of a radio for the past 15 years will know, gave its unusual name to one of the Hip’s most sublime and signature compositions. An acoustic-tinged single from 1998’s Phantom Power album, “Bobcaygeon” is accurately described by one fan interviewed by Keen as “a love story, but also a mystery”. Its surface-level narrative concerns a city policeman from Toronto seeing a woman in Bobcaygeon, a location and a relationship that provide him with a sense of peace and fulfillment away from the contentious tight-packed chaos of the metropolis, an isolated sanctuary where he “saw the constellations / reveal themselves one star at a time”. After a particularly charged riotous evening in Toronto (the key reference is to the Christie Pits riot of 1933, though it is mixed with snapshots from early Hip gigs in the city, too), our cop-narrator thinks of “leaving it behind” for his country utopia. This plotline is about as evident as any provided in the notoriously oblique lyrics of Gord Downie, not least because the song’s music video visualizes it in such a literal manner.
But the buried theme in “Bobcaygeon”, as in so much of the Tragically Hip’s work, is concerned with the animating dichotomy of Canadian identity construction, that of the country vs. the city, the rural vs. the urban. In 2011, as the Hip and their team conceived of and executed the Bobcaygeon show in celebration of some ephemeral, romantic notion of rural living, 81% of the Canadian population resided in urban areas. And yet so much of the traditional sovereign culture of the country – country music in Alberta, Group of Seven paintings of the Canadian Shield, beer ads, hockey culture, widely-recognized Canadian symbols like the beaver, the moose, and the Mounted Police – trade on the wilderness as the essential setting of national identity. Canada clings to its rural frontier self-conception even as its people increasing choose the community of the city.
The Tragically Hip’s music has often acknowledged and negotiated this cleavage between consciousness and reality of Canadian social construction, not merely in terms of population density but also in literature (“Courage”, invoking Hugh MacLennan, the coiner of the vaunted concept of “The Two Solitudes” to describe the gap between Anglophone and Francophone Canadians), language (“Born in the Water” is concerned with Quebec’s protectionist French language legislation), and sports (“Fifty Mission Cap”, embraced as a Leafs Nation anthem, probes the commodification of the superstitions that surround discourse over athletic competition). Furthermore, the band so often discussed as purveyors of Canadian identity have a demonstrated ambivalence to the rough jingoism of their flag-waving devotees, and Downie has often branched out in more international subject matter, setting his evocative lyrics in Vienna, the frigid North Atlantic, and the spooky forests of Russia on occasion.
But The Tragically Hip in Bobcaygeon strips all of that away and presents the Hip as they are and as they have long been: the pre-eminent Canadian musical heroes of the country’s centre-right, rural/suburban white hoser middle class. Keen finds and speaks to a fascinating variety of such fans in the film, and their insights into how the band’s music is received and understood and how the mystical appeal of “Bobcaygeon” is at the centre of the Hip mythos are often revealing and surprising. One couple shares the intimate details of their courtship and how the band’s music underscore their growing fondness; another couple shares a dream vacation to see the Hip in the Caribbean which included repeated encounters with band members; Bobcaygeonian locals tell of how the song has made their hometown instantly recognized across the country; a whole family of fanatical followers show off their collection of Hip-themed tattoos, including a teen girl with an eternal Downie lyrical gem from “Leave” on her ankle: “Change yourself into something you love”.
But the same insightful fan that so succinctly summarized “Bobcaygeon” and keenly diagnoses the Hip as the Canadian Rolling Stones (another group of highly-educated rock musicians who have struck a highly-successful proletarian pose) points to a telling and (for this critically-minded Hip fan) disappointing gap in the Tragically Hip’s artistic discourse. Showing off his shelves of rock n’ roll literature, he bemoans the lack of a definitive compendium on the band, or indeed the absence of much written material on them at all. There is even a literal empty space on his shelf, to be filled by a potential Hip book. The dearth of secondary texts on the Hip’s work has long been a frustrating reality. The best on offer is not a book but a website, the eloquent and intelligent A Museum After Dark maintained in spartan web environs by Stephen Dame (who also makes an appearance in the film). It’s the best source of critical analysis of Hip songs available, and even it throws its hands up at Downie’s inscrutable rock-poetry, choosing to mainly dissect his more specific references.
The Tragically Hip, however else one might choose to (over)think about them, are ultimately a highly professional, directly-focused live rock band. Especially with their ascendancy over Canadian video channels and radio stations faded along with their youth, gigs have become the main deliver method for their product, not that they ever forsook the live setting for other media. Whatever higher pretensions Downie’s lyrics may betray, he and his fellows are a working band above all, and Bobcaygeon settles into a limited concert-film groove in its second half, with full performances of “Grace, Too”, “Ahead By A Century”, “At The Hundredth Meridian” and other classics filmed at the much-discussed show.
Of course, the promised climax comes when the band plays “Bobcaygeon” in Bobcaygeon. But the actual impact is unclear; the constellations never quite reveal themselves, one star at a time. Perhaps it’s because, in this one limited reading of one specific example of the Tragically Hip’s work, Bobcaygeon itself is not essential. It could be any small town anywhere in the country, because it is not more than a symbolic representative of a romantic conception of rural Canadian life that could be filled by any other evocative place name. That the Tragically Hip chose to immortalize Bobcaygeon is neat for the town, but its greater significance is much like that of the band itself: entirely in the hands, brains, and hearts of their fans.
The Great Gatsby (2013; Directed by Baz Luhrmann)
Extravagantly-minded Australian film and stage director Baz Luhrmann has built a formidable (if divisive) career telling a certain sort of story a certain way. In his most critically notable and commercially successful films, the flickering-neon beach-noir William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and the frothy, manic Belle Époque musical whirlwind Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann constructs a showy, vivid tableau vivant of opulent dissolution and indulgent superficiality, the glittering, decadent excess of which he climactically brings crashing down like a shattering palace of glass with a theatrical dose of final-act melodramatic tragedy. The absurd heightened hyper-reality of his onscreen creations simultaneously magnifies and cheapens the narrative’s anticipated emotional impact; it’s an operatic effect, in both the figurative and the literal, intentional sense. It would not be outside the realm of possibility for Luhrmann to stage the spectacular crash of a multichromatic Mongolfier balloon into a mountain before cutting to a close-up of its star-crossed lovers in the basket, saying their heartrending final farewells. Indeed, this would constitute the definitive Baz Luhrmann moment, especially if it was accompanied by, say, a remix of a song by Phoenix.
When considered through the filter of his previous tendencies, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American classic novel The Great Gatsby seems purpose-built for Bazification, incongruous as the match of artist to source material may initially seem. The Great Gatsby is many things, but it is primarily a parable of what Rousseau (not unproblematically) erected as the fundamental dichotomy of modernity: the projection of the outer self in relation to the dimly-understood truth of the inner self.
Fitzgerald’s masterpiece crystallizes these competing ideas as an essential element of the modern American psyche, in particular in the quintessential New World individualist figure of the self-made man as represented by Jay Gatsby. Gatsby, the literary model of this social archetype, forges an ideal identity for himself that not only proceeds from wealth and privilege and the appearances of gentlemanliness, but is based entirely in the perceived value of those elements, subsuming the inner titular personal greatness of the man that only his close confidant and fictional biographer Nick Carraway witnesses. When tragedy makes its inevitable incursion and Gatsby’s immaculately-constructed “amusement park” (as Carraway calls Gatsby’s mansion) crumbles, the fall is all the greater for the lack of surviving substance behind the artifice.
The Great Gatsby should be juicy meat for Luhrmann to sink his teeth into, and both the sumptuous expressions of pride and the tense, uncomfortable fall that comes after it are imparted with bold strokes of broad drama. Carraway (a Tobey Maguire role if there ever was one) ventures into one setting of overwhelming lavishness after another as Luhrmann’s ambitious vision of Jazz Age New York City and Long Island is unveiled in the film’s early passages. Luhrmann’s camera sweeps over the steamy grey bustle of Manhattan where Carraway, a fledgling writer at Yale, tries his hand at bond trading, plunging from the pinnacle of a skyscraper down to our narrator at street level in one vertiginous moment (shot in native 3D, the picture uses the still-dubious technical trick more for depth of field than its does for such roller-coaster showcases). Later important urban rendezvous at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the electric splendour of Times Square and in a jovial speakeasy full of African-American performers are likewise swimming with furious detail.
When Nick travels across the bay from the West Egg cottage he rents to the old-money refuge of East Egg to visit his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband and his old college friend Tom (Joel Edgerton), a long, digitally-aided tracking shot pushes in on the neoclassical facade of their estate, with polo ponies prancing along the verdant lawns. Daisy’s first appearance sees her reclining on a sofa with a dreamy cascade of billowing white fabric bewitching Carraway. The first exorbitant party he attends at the magnificent castle of his neighbour Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), into whose glittering orbit and grand plans Carraway increasingly slips, sees the trademarked Luhrmann pomp and luxurious sheen placed on full, confident, playful display.
Vintage Roaring Twenties fashions choke the frame, golden booze sloshes in delicately-poised martini glasses, confetti falls in a steady stream, all set to a Luhrmannesque soundtrack of contemporary jazz stompers, reworked classical pieces, and pumping, anachronistic hip hop and indie pop selections from the likes of Florence + The Machine, Lana Del Ray, and Jay-Z (who also exec produces the film). At the orgiastic end of this revelry, Gatsby himself gets a delayed and slightly ludicrous reveal, the beaming, golden-locked DiCaprio toasting all and sundry in a tailored suit with bursting silver fireworks behind him. Goofy as the beat proves to be, it’s an appropriate association; is not Jay Gatsby, as a scion of the Roaring Twenties and indeed of fast-rising American capitalist dreams, a human firework, a flash of blinding light exploding above and astonishing all but twinkling and extinguishing before it reaches earth?
In between the city and the Eggs, Luhrmann paints the Valley of Ashes as a swart, sooty Purgatory between two American visions of Heaven (each with their own peculiar Hells), presided over by the spectacled eyes of an inscrutable deity stand-in known as Dr. T.J. Eckleburg (Fitzgerald’s prose is poetic, even mythic, but his symbolism is unsubtle enough for high-school English Lit class). Therein lies the struggling garage of George Wilson (Jason Clarke), whose wife Myrtle (Isla Fisher) is carrying on an affair with the brutish Tom, which Nick learns about on a trip to New York that ends in a debauched apartment party of boozy delusion. Tom may be a philanderer (and a white supremacist), but when Gatsby begins to circle Daisy, whom he fell in love with years before as a penniless army officer, the two Eggs are set to collide, with cracked shells to be expected all around.
The visual geography of Gatsby‘s setting is impressive and epic while also remaining scrupulously well-designed, organized and artificial. Known for his theatrical overlays to the cinematic format, Luhrmann constructs this whole elaborate, semi-historic landscape as his nearly-literal stage. His players are dwarfed by the surrounding decadence even as their dramas expand almost to bursting. DiCaprio takes on a second bloom of youth through the lens of Luhrmann and cinematographer Simon Duggan. Reunited with the director who made him a matinee idol Romeo in the mid-90s and portraying an iconic character defined by a warm core of hope, the years fall from an actor defined as of late by roles of perspiring, tortured, overemphasized intensity. When he is required to be tortured, as in Gatsby’s awkward, comic first re-meeting with Daisy in Carraway’s cottage filled with floral adornments or in a key later scene of revelation and confrontation in a room at the Plaza Hotel, DiCaprio plays it petulant, boyish, desperate to please, rather than defaulting to violent menace in the post-millenial Serious Actor template.
Mulligan is a desirable Daisy who doesn’t shy away from her character’s fundamental ephemerality. It’s easy to understand why this Daisy’s metaphorical manifestation is a green light across a stretch of water, flashing persistently but forever insubstantial and impossible to grasp. Edgerton plays the cad with a flourish, but sneaks in hints of pained emotion over his mistress’ fate (Fisher’s Myrtle has a broad comic swagger that one wishes was utilized more often). Elizabeth Debicki’s longeur and flapper-girl angularity make her a superb Jordan Baker physically, if not entirely in personality. Maguire, as implied, was formed out of whatever divine clay was at hand specifically to fill these sort of fresh-faced observer-narrator roles (though would not, say, James McAvoy been a fascinating substition, I wonder). There’s one deeply bizarre casting choice that could have caused more unproductive friction, but despite multiple dialogue mentions, Bollywood patriarch Amitabh Bachchan only has one brief appearance as suave gangster and Gatsby associate Meyer Wolfsheim. Based on notorious Jewish-American gambler Arnold Rothstein, a suspected principal in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, one might unreasonably wish that Michael Stuhlbarg’s compelling, refined version of the man from Boardwalk Empire could have been imported wholesale into the film, but it’s a middling point.
It’s a less middling point, mind you, to ask if Luhrmann’s favoured approach of spectacular elaboration and artifice proceed from being theoretically apt to depict Gatsby‘s narrative to actually achieving the difficult task of thematic translation from book to screen. Despite strenuous effort, visionary design, and the best of intentions, this is not a very great Gatsby on this deeper level. The pat framing device of having Carraway set down his account of the Gatsby affair as a form of therapy at a New England sanitorium (very, very far from canonical) doesn’t help, certainly. And the elaboration and artifice often really is too much; many viewers will agree with Tom Buchanan’s dismissive assessment of one of Gatsby’s parties as little more than “a circus”.
But for all of the opportunities it presents for the species of sweeping decadence that has become Luhrmann’s signature, The Great Gatsby proves to be less resilient to an excess of expression than even the Shakespearean tragedy the director once tackled. Baz Luhrmann cannot help but overdo everything in his movies. This tendency towards superfluity is often his greatest strength, but it lets him down when it counts here. His magnification of this defining American literary myth does not nudge it towards cinematic transcendence. Instead, it rushes this Gatsby into undermining and cheapening its own thematic impact. The curious affect of Fitzgerald’s book is that as grand and mythic and all-encompassing as it can be (and as its reputation paints it as being), it is also surprisingly intimate and personal, an inquiry on the nature of not just the society but of the self. Lurhmann’s film does not recognize that intimacy, or does not possess the facility of embodying it. Its overwhelming abundance becomes redundant before it can be properly thrown down by its tragic dimensions. There is a balance to The Great Gatsby, and it proves entirely too delicate for this particular filmmaker, in the end.
Shaun of the Dead (2004; Directed by Edgar Wright)
Upon first viewing, Shaun of the Dead was a shaggy, witty, mischievous surprise. Edgar Wright’s free-spirited slacker rom-zom-com won points for its humour and for its occasional and admirable dramatic heaviness. Stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost displayed an onscreen comfort level and comradery that could not be faked and need not be explained (and there’s not much time to explain it or anything else, once the undead show up). As a green filmmaker, Wright boasted an inventive visual flair and an evident facility with repurposing widely-disseminated icons of English culture (cricket bats, corner pubs, the hoary, overdone “stiff upper lip” thing) through the millenial generation’s ironic filters and pop-culture reference points. It was a fun potboiler with a bit of a brain; nothing terribly special, but then I wouldn’t grant that much in the zombie genre ever was (sorry, undead-heads; where you stagger, I cannot follow).
Upon second viewing years after the first, I found that was still fond of the film. But I’m still not overfond, and understood it as a more ramshackle precursor to the sharper, smarter, funnier, and flat-out better Hot Fuzz (with which it was being shown in a double-bill with Wright himself in attendance on this particular occasion). The second film in this double-bill was the product of more refined talents and a greater level of intertextual engagement with the particular generic conventions being satirized. It also had more to say about how communities in particular and societies in general are ordered and how the police enable that order (but I’m anticipating my soon-to-run review of Hot Fuzz, so I digress). But opening salvo Shaun of the Dead is the crowd-pleaser, the widely-embraced cult classic. I found myself asking, “Why?”
Because, really, what does Shaun of the Dead ultimately have to say about zombie movies? What does it contribute in the way of commentary and contextualizing on a genre whose superficial visceral thrills are overlaid on a vaunted foundation of social anxieties? Does it truly engage with the genre in a satirical way? Not especially. It deploys many of the generic standbys in a perfectly entertaining manner, sure. It does the things you do in zombie movies, and it does them with technical accomplishment and an edge of humour. But that doesn’t necessarily make it satire.
What the film is aiming to satirize is modern consumer capitalism, concerning which it employs imaginative visual style to advance a series of blunt and knee-jerk progressive criticisms. The film’s early, pre-zombie-apocalypse scenes play on the audience’s knowing anticipation of the coming collapse and on the alienated disaffection of modern urban Britain. Wright uses smooth cinematic strokes to liken the detachment of the consumer to the non-sentience of the undead. In a tone no less presumptive for all of its playful artifice, Wright asks us if we’d even notice if everyone around us became a zombie, since the capitalist system has turned each of us into one already.
It’s perhaps silly to expect rich sociological subtext from a whiz-bang action-comedy like this, but Wright’s observations are extremely shallow and pat, and his assumption that we cannot help but agree with him is grating. Hot Fuzz has far more to say about the unspoken rules of our societies and still finds room for more action, more jokes, and less thoughtless dissemination of hipster ideology. This latter weakness of Wright’s was on full display in the hubristic commercial failure that was Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which (whatever its aesthetic merits) was marinated in its subcultural juices for so long that no one unfamiliar with its flavours dared to venture a taste.
And after the obvious boho-pleasing knocks on capitalist society, Shaun of the Dead picks up momentum and loses its already-slight satirical edge. It becomes a perfectly enjoyable slice of zany zombie-killing action with engaging character dynamics and regular laughs, sure. But it’s really only just that, and not much else. That should be more than enough, some might argue, but the film’s outsized cult status seems to beg for greater justification. Fun as it is, Shaun of the Dead loses some regard for its lazy significations in general and for its lack of satirical focus once the blood starts flying in specific. A good time? Undoubtedly. A great one? Let’s not get crazy.
In the midst of the bizarre and incredible story of the escape of Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus, and Michele Knight from 10-year forcible confinement at the hands of the Castro brothers in Cleveland, Ohio, one unlikely player in the saga has grabbed the spotlight. The Castros’ neighbour Charles Ramsey helped Berry and a young girl escape from imprisonment (dropping his Big Mac and kicking in a door to do it) and joined them in calling 911 to summon the police to free the rest of the captives. Hailed as an everyday hero by a media culture that loves to anoint such figures, Ramsey gave a television interview after the event that has already become an internet meme of notable proportions:
Seized upon by the online remix culture almost immediately, Ramsey’s notable catchphrases were macro’ed and his expressive proletarian cadence duly autotuned before you could say, “Hide your kids, hide your wife”. Indeed, Antoine Dodson’s enduring internet meme-fame seems the closest analogue to Ramsey’s, and shares in its shaded outline of doubtful white guilt at the perceived exploitation and mockery of working-class African-American vernacular speech and endemic social problems. There is more than a hint of racial prejudice in the remix reaction to his entertaining interview, certainly; it’s not possible to locate the response entirely in a non-racist context, nor is it prudent to tar all responses with the brush of prejudice.
But there is also a strong underlying note of praise for Ramsey’s “heroism” (a term that Ramsey has waved aside with a modesty born out of circumstances of socio-economic deprivation) that defuses even the most flippant and thoughtless of online racially-tinged jokes. “This man did a fine thing, and he’s hilarious and expressive and breathtakingly honest!” would seem to be a fair summation of the lion’s share of the chatter around his media appearances. His longer and more thoughtful chat with CNN’s Anderson Cooper embedded below displays these qualities away from the madhouse atmosphere of his famous man-on-the-street interview. This is what seems to be grabbing people most about Ramsey, as it does in differing ways in Dodson’s case and in the cases of most of the other viral media clips (which mostly come from the less-filtered quasi-reality of local television news). What’s notable in a media culture of canned responses and cliched euphemisms is how real Ramsey sounds, how authentic he comes across as being.
Or perhaps I should type “real” and “authentic”. I’ve previously considered in this space how these terms have become detached from their prevalent meanings by their use and dissemination as dominant marketing tropes in the discourse of consumer capitalism. From this perspective, it may not really mean anything to say that Charles Ramsey comes across as “authentic”. Even the more precise and less abused adjective “honest” (so often misconstrued as an excuse for the utterance of unfashionable discriminatory opinions, mind you) does not quite serve our purposes, but we have to make do with it nonetheless.
And there is a guileless honesty to Ramsey’s view of the strange events that he finds himself a part of that many appear to find highly refreshing in a popular discourse marked by linguistic obfuscation and diversionary statements. Most noted is his forthright statement at the end of his initial interview about race relations: “I knew something was wrong when a pretty little white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Dead giveaway!” The (white) reporter responds to some inner warning (or to his producer’s voice in his earpiece) and cuts the discussion short at that moment, confirming that this assessment of racial issues, of the inability of fellow humans to see beyond outward prejudices except in moments of great stress and trauma, cuts a little too close to the bone.
But Ramsey’s growing share of televised appearances is full of such quotidian observations, such (perish the diminishing term) homespun folk wisdom. His writerly details about the inoffensive appearance of his deeply disturbed criminal neighbour (that stuff about ribs and salsa music and cleaning his motorcycle) and his own stated haunted feelings about the knowledge of what troubling horrors unfolded right next door to him encapsulate the emotional impact of the story more succinctly and powerfully than any number of expansive journalism-school adjectives could do.
And at the end of his interview below with Cooper, Ramsey holds up his paycheque and states unapologetically how lucky he is to have a job and income in a country where this sort of thing happens to his fellow citizens mere feet from his porch. It may not be as supremely meme-able as any of his more-famous catchphrases from his more emotional initial interview. But this momentary emphasis on America’s fundamental narrative of the tenuousness of economic survival, even in the face of the monstrous violations of the abduction, confinement, and rape case at hand, is a penetrating instance of direct commentary. The memory of Charles Ramsey’s role in this current-affairs crime story will fade, and the internet memes will recede into the rearview mirror. But if not only what he says but how he says it resonates with enough people, the media culture need not be poorer for his being a part of it.
Barry Lyndon (1975; Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
Adapting William Makepeace Thackeray’s sprawling picaresque novel about an Anglo-Irish rake’s rambling progress from penniless dependence to wealth and privilege, the legendary auteur Stanley Kubrick did a very interesting (and very Kubrickian) thing. Bulldozing the unreliable narration of Thackeray’s book with flattened affect, meticulous composition, and impressive technical achievement, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon maximizes the irony of the narrative by rendering it subtler and more underground. But this maximized irony is static, detached, and as cold as a hussar’s blade.
This effect is nowhere more evident than in the film’s opening scene. As the voice-over narration relates, with deadpan English literary understatement, how the protagonist’s father may have cut a fine figure in the profession of the law, small figures placed deep in the background of a finely-framed wide shot act out an evident duel scene. Pistols raise, fire, one man falls, and the dark comedy of the moment is perfectly delivered, as the voice-over reveals that the potential of Barry’s father is cut short by his death in a duel “over the purchase of some horses”. The human participants in this moment are never glimpsed more closely, their myriad hopes and fears and joys and pains left absent, their pathetic mortality reduced by their visual placements as much as by the casual slight contained in the narrative prose. They are models in Kubrick’s magnificent living diorama of the 18th Century, like static figures in one of the fashionable Rococo paintings that Barry later purchases (on credit that, as always, comes due). They have no agency or initiative in the upheavals of their own lives; their society moves them where it will, and it will rarely move them where they would wish to be.
The young Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal, entirely game for Kubrick’s dance of inscrutability) is constructed as similarly without agency over the direction of his fate, drifting into consecutive troubles that are seemingly pre-determined by his father’s ignominious end. Almost before he achieves adulthood, he fights a duel as well, with a British officer (Leonard Rossiter) over the hand of his beloved, saucy cousin (Gay Hamilton). Forced to flee his Irish home after apparently killing the officer, Barry flits through a series of adventures, his greedy fortune-seeking the only wind in his tattered sails. He is fleeced by highway robbers, fights for the British and for the Prussians in the Seven Years’ War, plays double agent for intelligence in post-war Germany, becomes a skilled gambler, swordsman, and intriguer across the continent. Eventually, Barry takes up with the beautiful Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) marrying her after her sickly husband expires and earning the indemnity of her son and heir, Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), who sees Barry for the blackguard he inescapably is. The film ends as it begins, with a duel that does not turn out well for the man surnamed Barry.
This is all good as far as it goes, and Kubrick and O’Neal manage to make the various episodes of this picaresque engaging and worthy of viewer attention as they flow into each other. But the stiff richness of the visual spectacle is entirely the point, and Lyndon becomes, as one critic put it, a bit of a museum piece, its characters collected, classified and “pinned to the frame” like so many dried insect husks. The film is so very terribly composed, in all three dominant meanings of the words: collected and dignified, constructed with visual deliberation, and set into place with the crescendoes and lulls of a musical arrangement. Its cinematography and lighting (the scenes shot with only the natural light of candles are masterful and striking) slot into the gaps left by the locations, with precisely-chosen classical pieces melding perfectly with all other elements on the soundtrack. Bach, Mozart, or Schubert score a moving painting by Watteau or Gainsborough, undergirded by a literary voice of sly, understated social satire.
Kubrick’s films are legendary for their intellectual chill, their detachment from messy emotional realities. The shoe may well fit in the case of Barry Lyndon, but what a lovely shoe it is. And this detachment is essential to Kubrick’s project of irony. Barry Lyndon may not be as self-evidently (or as darkly) satirical as Dr. Strangelove, but by unmooring the heaving dramas of Thackeray’s version of the late-18th-Century privileged class from the implications of sentiment, Kubrick skewers its assumptions and conventions as surely as he once did to Cold War military brinkmanship.
Meet the Feebles (1989; Directed by Peter Jackson)
Meet the Feebles is a work of twisted, sick genius. Practically every possible act of depravity invented by man is depicted in this film, all of them performed by sometimes-adorable puppets who are fitfully collaborating on a televised spectacular that they hope will save the theatre that employs and houses them all (and if some choice renumeration was re-routed their way for their troubles, that wouldn’t be taken amiss, either). Such content could be utterly nasty and off-putting, but future Oscar-winning blockbuster director Peter Jackson strikes a gleeful tone of juvenile delinquency that saves from the film from its own virulent vileness. That Jackson found a way to mention this thoroughly debauched film in his Best Picture acceptance speech ensured that, whatever cinematic and coporate excesses he allowed himself to fall prey to subsequently, the shaggy filmmaker from New Zealand would forever be a mischievous creative iconoclast at heart.
Again and again, be it with sex, drugs, bloody violence, pornography, scatology, foul language, Vietnam flashbacks (including theoretical discussions of Marxism by the Viet Cong), or (most hilariously) a lavish production number for a song about sodomy, Jackson repeatedly seems to be getting away with something with Feebles. Once (if?) you reach the end credits and it becomes apparent that the film was partly paid for by the New Zealand government’s cultural commission, it becomes all that much more apparent that he really did get away with a whole lot.
Whatever else you can say about this joyfully disgusting film, it firmly establishes Jackson’s undeniable abilities as a mass manipulator of audience reactions. Just as he plays his viewers like so many violins in many key macro-moments in The Lord of the Rings and King Kong (I’m thinking particularly of the tantric build-ups to the Moria orc attack in The Fellowship of the Ring and Kong vs. the V-Rexes in Kong), he gets to you in more direct, icky, and even cynical ways in Meet the Feebles. Maybe the best thing to be said about this messy but entertaining indie-shock-cinema classic is that you cannot experience it impassively. You will react to this film, even if it isn’t in a positive manner. A young director cutting his teeth on the technical challenges of filmmaking and building up the experience that would eventually place him at the head of a production empire and atop Hollywood’s directorial A-list could do worse than to gain himself some skills and attention with a film of this sort.
The Edmonton Oilers’ shortened NHL season ended on Saturday night with an impressive 7-2 win (albeit in an essentially meaningless game) over the Vancouver Canucks. Though some improvement in standings positioning was shown from previous seasons (24th is undeniably better than 29th or 30th), another finish out of playoff position (seven years running now, longest streak of spring futility in the league now that the Toronto Maple Leafs are in the postseason) was undoubtedly disappointing for a fanbase led to expect a more competitive team.
There were consequences for management, as GM Steve Tambellini was let go before season’s end and replaced by former head coach Craig MacTavish. There was also a note of challenge from the usually sycophantic Edmonton sports media to the sheltered upper management, as President Kevin Lowe (often understood to be the true mover behind the annual inadequate roster) was grilled over the team’s lack of success in a surprising press conference announcing MacTavish’s promotion to general manager. Lowe’s thin-skinned reaction to criticism later required a contrite apology, but also demonstrated that his intolerance for dissenting views may be part of the problem for the organization.
Still, this was another season lost, and though the Oilers’ talented core is young and learning, valuable years are draining off of contracts and frustration is building. In particular, hyper-competitive franchise player Taylor Hall seemed irritated with the trend of losing. Considering his emergence as a legitimate play-driving superstar this season, Hall is one player the organization cannot afford to allow to become malcontent. The fans, dedicated though they are, are not blessed with infinite patience either. Not to put too fine a point on it, but winning needs to happen for this team soon.
In terms more aesthetic, there was plenty to latch onto in the Oilers orbit this year. On multiple occasions, the offensive miracles that their cadre of stellar young forwards were capable of came to the fore and lopsided scores (including a satisfying 8-2 lashing of the archrival Calgary Flames) were the result. Hall, as mentioned, learned to “push the river”, as blogger Lowetide puts it, Jordan Eberle came down to earth a bit from a positive outlier season but still showed sublime hands and accuracy, Magnus Paajarvi made major strides towards fulfilling his potential, and Justin Schultz’s blueline learning curve was neither as steep or as shallow as variously predicted.
But you really had to not be paying attention to the Oilers if the running highlight of the truncated season was not infectious rookie Nail Yakupov. While the sea change that I hinted he may portend at the start of the season has not arrived, Yakupov’s joyful celebrations and swaggering play (which improved as the season wore on and included 11 goals in the last month of the schedule) won over the mid-sized northern Canadian city that found itself doubting the kid earlier in the season. As he finished off a hat trick in the final win over the Canucks and moved into a likely Calder trophy finalist position, it was clear that Nail Yakupov, though only a part of the future of an Oilers team that remains tremendously promising but tantalizingly lacking in tangible glories, was much closer to being ready to snatch the spotlight. The bigger triumphs for this team were disappointingly deferred for another season, but the game-by-game delights increased, and the enthusiastic Yakupov was front-and-centre in providing them. Long may they continue and grow.