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., Cars, WALL-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 work, 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.
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 wave 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.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014; Directed by Francis Lawrence)
In the first half of the concluding chapter of The Hunger Games cinematic quadrilogy, the core characters’ struggles take the form of open political machinations. Previously, the divisions and grievances simmering beneath the surface of the society of the fantasy world of Panem cropped up in the context of the titular deadly game of mass-televised attrition contested by minors from across the twelve Districts. Now, after the arena-smashing ending of the last Games in the previous installment, Catching Fire, a long-hidden but secretly active faction of rebels is in open revolt against the brutal authoritarian regime of the Capitol.
The focal point of this revolution is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), first a Games co-winner and then the young Artemis whose electric arrow tore a hole in the fabricated heavens and let a new light of potential liberty pouring in. Spirited away to the massive underground bunker city of District 13, Katniss meets Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), President of this isolated breakaway people’s republic. Coin and former Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have grand plans for a guerilla propaganda campaign to accompany the continuing armed resistance to the iron-fisted government of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), with Katniss at the centre of it as their authority-defying “Mockingjay”.
Though she cannot deny that she is a potent figure of resistance for the masses and a target for Snow’s crackdowns, Katniss as usual is much less invested in the wider struggle than in protecting those that she cares about: her mother (Paul Malcolmson) and sister (Willow Shields), her platonic dudefriend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), and her fellow Games Victors, especially Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). It is her deeply-felt empathy for those around her, extended by natural sympathy to all those struggling under the yoke of oppression, that makes Katniss such a potent symbol. For Katniss Everdeen, all politics are personal, and it is not surprising that the concessions she demands of Coin and Heavensbee in return for her cooperation as a propaganda star for their cause relate to the safeguarding of her personal emotional connections.
One of those connections, to the absent Peeta, has become ever stronger in separation. Peeta is being held in the Capitol, apparently against his will, and she demands that the authorities of District 13 launch a rescue mission to bring him and other Victors who survived the Quarter Quell to safety. Peeta’s value as a target is questionable, however, as he is participating in a series of broadcasted interviews with a sober-toned Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the usually flamboyant Games host and carnivalesque spokesman for the surface platitudes that uphold the oppressive regime. Peeta doesn’t precisely trumpet the Capitol’s talking points, but does criticize the violence unleashed by the rebellion and Katniss’ role in fomenting it. This makes him a divisive figure in the eye of the rebels, a traitor to their cause, though Katniss never doubts that coercion lies behind his every word.
Mockingjay – Part 1 is a more limited film in terms of action-infused incident than its predecessors. Director Francis Lawrence, who also helmed Catching Fire, stages sequences of loggers booby-trapping a platoon of Peacekeepers and a strike team storming and blowing up a hydroelectric dam to cut power to the Capitol to give a sense of the guerilla war raging across Panem and its connections to the Mockingjay “propos” sent out from District 13. Katniss ventures near the front lines to visit a hospital for the wounded and awesomely shoot down a government bomber with an explosive-tipped arrow, too (filmed for propaganda purposes, natch). But otherwise this is a film about a movement under siege, claustrophobic and bunker-bound. Even a massive aerial bombardment effort on District 13 by Capitol forces is less about inflicting losses than sending a laser-guided message to challenge and demoralize Katniss in particular, and is thus viewed entirely from the perspective of the subterranean dwellers enduring it.
Make no mistake, Mockingjay – Part 1 is all about Katniss Everdeen and the forces tugging at her, compelling her to give herself up to their power. The pull of Gale and Peeta, her potential male romantic partners, is mirrored by the powerful orbits of the District 13 and Capitol leaderships. Gale is a brave and capable freedom fighter for the resistance who has been loyal to Katniss for years, while Peeta is a (possibly brainwashed) tool of the enemy’s fascist propaganda who has, nonetheless, shared the singular experience of the Hunger Games with her (twice); President Snow is devious and merciless beneath his suave and eloquent facade and crushes the hopes of the masses yearning to breathe free, but President Coin and her followers constitute a faceless, jumpsuited, collectivized multitude whose invocations of democracy ring worrisomely hollow in the face of their grim-visaged conformity (Andrew O’Hehir of Salon characterized the arrayed opposing forces of this civil strife quite cannily as the Roman Empire vs. the Khmer Rouge). Choosing either Gale or Peeta involves fundamental compromises of Katniss’ identity, and both District 13 and the Capitol will kill thousands or more in the name of their causes and shamelessly manipulate popular opinions about these war crimes with a barrage of propaganda.
The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins posits that there are no good choices, only less worse ones. Coin’s Maoist bunker culture says the right things about liberty from oppression and slaughters only the Capitol’s jackbooted stormtroopers in pursuit of this goal, while Snow’s regime commits heinous massacres and atrocities to sustain their authority and economic system of trickle-up exploitation. There’s little question about which side is less worse, but there is question, and that is important.
Despite this, Mockingjay – Part 1 feels less vital and politically resonant than the films it serves as a sequel for, despite being more overtly about political themes. The vanishing of the Hunger Games themselves from the text can account for some of this; their resonant self-contained and disseminated messages about the nature and cost of power have no real equal in the realpolitik workings of this narrative. One of the subtle matters of concern about Coin’s rebels, mind you, is their apparent ambivalence towards the Games. This supreme symbol of the Capitol’s control over the outlying Districts and their downtrodden peoples is not one that the egalitarian revolution feels confident in challenging. Indeed, they are glad to attempt to turn the Victors, Katniss included but not at the exclusion of all others, into PR weapons to turn public opinion in their favour. It’s a clear tell that Coin’s promised utopia may not be so different from Snow’s established autocracy, after all.
But this text’s vitality is drained more thoroughly by the unerring focus on Katniss’ central dilemma, on the false dichotomy of strength vs. vulnerability. On one hand, she heeds the appeals of those who desperately need her (Peeta, the rebels); on the other, she is attracted to the poles whose certainty and self-command complement her own (Gale, Snow and his Capitol order). Katniss’ dilemma also represents the false dichotomy of modern femininity. Her tendency towards independence and self-reliance is constructed as being at odds with nurturing maternal instincts, be they expressed towards a victimized baker’s boy or a victimized multitude of Panem citizens. Katniss Everdeen has thus far followed a third way, though she has shifted from one pole to the other at various times, sometimes drastically. Mockingjay – Part 1 suggests strongly that whatever her preference concerning these opposing options, her world is set on making her choose between them in the end, and that the fate of her world may depend on the choice. Part 2 will tell what this choice is, and what it will cost the Mockingjay to make it.
Whiplash (2014; Directed by Damien Chazelle)
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) sits at his drum skit in a practice room at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music. A first-year jazz drummer at the (fictional) best music school in the United States, Andrew is solitary, friendless, and driven to succeed by overwhelming effort and dedication to his chosen craft. His solitude is marked visually by his fellow freshman, director Damien Chazelle: he strikes the skins and strokes the cymbals inside the frame of an open door as the camera creeps towards him along a moodily-lit corridor. But the camera is not an omniscient observer, nor is it the voyeuristic audience. It is revealed to be Shaffer instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), stalking unannounced into the rehearsal room to assess Andrew’s potential.
There’s a horror-suspense element to this initial scene of Chazelle’s electric Whiplash that he will often return to in colouring the tone of his film. Simmons as Fletcher is indeed like a villain out of a slasher flick transplanted onto the body of an eminent Manhattan music academy conductor. He wields his powerful personality like a machete and hurls the abusive verbal volleys of an army drill sergeant at his band if they dare to waver in their performances. Working his expressive brow below a cruelly bald skull, his head is a furrowed, rocky field in which nothing will grow. The skin of Simmons’ neck and bulky arms stretches into black turtlenecks like that of a snake about to shed, and Fletcher is a kind of jazz cobra, slinking elegantly to a beat all his own before rearing back for the deadly strike.
Fletcher is already striking in his first meeting with Andrew, and doesn’t let up even as he recognizes the young drummer’s talent and invites him into his prestigious and highly competitive studio band. He asks the young man about his family (disappointing high-school teacher father, abandoned by his mother) and chats jazz influences with him (the famous, tumultuous drummer Buddy Rich is a major touchstone), then gives him some initial praise in the rehearsal space. But it’s all a psychological trap, the nectar to draw the naive Andrew into the man-eating jaws of his searing anger. Fletcher unloads on Andrew when his timekeeping does not conform to a standard so minutely exacting as to be possibly arbitrary, screaming, insulting, throwing a chair at, and even slapping his new drummer until the boy is reduced to tears.
Andrew is not broken by the fiery crucible of this intense tutelage, which Fletcher believes, with the zealous certainty of the niche culture fanatic, to be absolutely necessary to maximizing talent and potential in jazz. Instead, the capable but soft Andrew is reforged into a harder iron instrument; Neiman is a new man, and Teller ably embodies both ends of this spectrum. He shrugs aside the laddish bonding with his father (Paul Reiser), clashes with his football-star family rivals at a holiday dinner about the nature and cost of success, and breaks it off with his pretty but modest and unambitious girlfriend (Melissa Benoist), telling her with cold, prickish rationality that she will hold him back and they will resent each other bitterly for staying together.
The lengths to which he will go to excel under Fletcher’s eye become ever more extreme and more physically and psychologically taxing. His overworked hands become bloodied with regularity, the plasma dripping from his sticks, splattering his skins, and beading alongside the condensation on his cymbals. Chazelle visualizes Andrew’s blood-oath with Fletcher’s absolutist philosophy of excellence with a striking shot of the drummer’s hand plunging into an ice-water pitcher in slow motion. The transparency of the liquid element is gradually overcome by bloody crimson, just as Andrew’s more clear and casual personality is conquered by his bloody-minded pursuit of Fletcher’s approval.
Whiplash is reminiscent in many ways of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, another artistically uncompromising film about a young, cloistered performer in New York City driven by an emotionally unhealthy mentorship with a highly demanding teacher to greater aesthetic heights than they might have thought possible or prudent, regardless of the moral consequences or psychological toil. Both films focus on the corporeal viscera that underscores erstwhile tasteful high cultural forms and present climactic performance triumphs as carrying more ambivalent personal costs (or worse). But Black Swan‘s nightmarish, destabilizing fantasies (inheritances of Stanley Kubrick), which transform the simultaneous ascent and descent of Natalie Portman’s ballerina into a more baroque metaphor for the intersection of genius and madness, could not be supported in Whiplash. Chazelle’s film has Fletcher’s intensity and unwavering obstinance, and doesn’t require flights of fantasy; its version of reality is nightmarish enough.
If Whiplash is a nightmare, then it’s a darkly appealing one. The film’s spectacular closing sequence, in which Andrew takes over a Carnegie Hall performance contrived by Fletcher to humiliate him with furious, virtuoso drumming, is a bravado showcase, tense and stunning. Editor Tom Cross’ quick, off-beat rhythmic cutting of the band’s performance sequences in general is an intentional alignment with the syncopated pulse of jazz that is self-evident but not unsuccessful. Indeed, especially in the finale, it lends an urgency and excitement to the scenes of performance that this particular jazz non-believer did not consider possible in this particular musical genre.
But in the Carnegie performance in particular, Chazelle never lets the dazzling nature of the filmmaking bury the philosophical ambivalence of Andrew’s metamorphosis into an embryonic jazz great (even if the jazz in the film is, according to the New Yorker, not so great and underscored by a non-jazz-like solitary competitive aggression). If Whiplash is more of a horror movie than a music movie, then Andrew Neiman can only defeat the monster that is Terence Fletcher by becoming a greater monster himself. And since this was Fletcher’s mission all along, it is no victory at all.
Check your privilege.
Many of us have heard or at least read this phrase, and have maybe even uttered it at one point or other. Contaminated with toxicologically-measurable levels of smug liberal righteousness, it’s a buzzy phrase that means well but rarely accomplishes anything productive in its usage. It refers to the concept of privilege, a generally understood but sometimes fuzzily-defined term that points a finger at wealth and inborn socioeconomic advantage as an incubator of discriminatory and/or reactionary views and opinions about certain issues. A blunt directive to “check” that privilege, to put aside the web of social and cultural assumptions that set their holder above others that are less fortunate, is supposed to be an encouragement to seek out a fairer perspective.
But does the interlocutor insisting on this check of privilege feel equally capable of separating their own particular viewpoint from the tangle of cultural influences and psychological catalysts that has formed it? Doubtless, they would not consider it necessary to do so, if the privilege of others who disagree is what requires the vital check. It ought to be appreciated even by its most strident critics that privilege, pernicious and lamentable though it may be, is as inextricably a part of the identity of those formed by it than the lack of that privilege is part of the identity of others. How readily and willingly would anyone be to shift such an identity? How effective is a rhetorical tool of persuasion that basically boils down to telling someone, “Stop being who you are”, and how might these same critics bristle if such a privileged figure punched down with a similar phrase to a figure outside of the circle of the elite?
The intractable nature of the idealized privilege check is visible all over American culture at this very moment. The current frontrunner in the polls for the Republican Presidential nomination in the 2016 election is Donald Trump, a blowhard capitalist sock puppet who gleefully riles up the mostly white, male, lower-income, lower-education rump base of the GOP, a conservative political party sunk in hate, ignorance, and superstition and detached from great swaths of the complex, contradictory American social experiment. He’s violating basic campaign decorum on a daily basis, when he isn’t labelling entire internal minorities as rapists and criminals. We’re assured that he can’t win the nomination, let alone the Oval Office, but he’s ridden his unapologetic, belligerent privilege this far. How much farther can he go, and who is going to make him check that privilege?
Nor can the under-appreciated privilege of the world’s favourite pop star, Taylor Swift, be effectively checked. After Caribbean-American musical artist (and noted enthusiast of sexualized glutes) Nicki Minaj took to Twitter to complain of whitewashing in the MTV Video Music Awards nominees (or at least the exclusion of the specific brand of image-making that she herself represents), Swift felt singled out by the criticism (for some reason) and said as much. Swift pivoted the perceived offender pinpointed by Minaj from institutional and cultural racial prejudice to a gender issue, playing the wounded feminist. Swift’s country music apprenticeship and ingenue anthems of high school crushes have served to scale down her socioeconomic associations, but she is, in point of fact, the spawn of the 1%, the offspring of the wealthy American elite. Her assumptions are quite apart from those of Minaj, Trinidad-born, Queens-raised, and from fractured family circumstances, to say nothing of their divergent stances in terms of the country’s structures of cultural prejudice.
As if the lines were not drawn clearly enough, English broadcaster and puff-headed parrot of the trans-Atlantic plutocratic order Piers Morgan authored a punchy, sniffy editorial in the Tory document of record the Daily Mail castigating Minaj for her “discourtesy”. From the privileged outlook represented by Morgan, this act alone is worse than most property crimes. But both Morgan – who looks askance at such a tiff in the miasmatic swamp of lowly pop music and wouldn’t consider that it means anything – and Swift – shielded from racial prejudice and more concerned with the personal affront of sexism – are enmeshed in uncheckable privilege. Their perspectives, like Minaj’s, are formed and continually informed by their circumstances.
One of the oddest features of the so-called “classless” society of America (which is increasingly stratified in the most extreme economic terms) is the pervasive, unquestioned certainty of the superior claims to authenticity of those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. Being poor is persistently characterized in media and entertainment and cultural texts and discourses of all types as being more “real” than being rich, even while many of those texts and discourses are predicated on the overwhelming desire of millions of poor people to become rich. By what measure of identity construction does relative poverty equate to greater authenticity (itself a notorious construct) than relative wealth? Socioeconomic origins are key factors in identity formation and worldview construction, but inscribe no particular moral superiority or surplus of truth in and of themselves.
A culture that romanticizes the fundamental grounded-ness of poverty, that understands it as a rich soil for philosophical robustness, works to make income divergence more acceptable. It is not checking privilege, it is aiding the privileged in achieving their goals of crafting textual symbols that normalize income divisions. Donald Trump may be a cartoon, a clown version of elite, hopelessly out-of-touch privilege, much as TLC reality show stars present as cartoons who are imbued with essential values of community and decency that the American coastal elites cannot approximate. But those images maintain the position of privilege, even as they seem to destabilize it. A “check” of privilege is impossible in such circumstances, when privilege is at once at home with itself and apart from itself.
Hidalgo (2004; Directed by Joe Johnston)
Like most Hollywood epics, particularly those “based on a true story”, Hidalgo is patently a fantasy. It begins with a bedrock of Old West myths, Native American and Arabian stereotypes, and ingrained conceptions of ruggedly individualistic American identity as opposed to the rigid hereditary class structure of the Old World. Upon this foundation, it layers horseback heroics, gunplay and hand-to-hand combat, and backstabbing desert intrigue, with a lacquered coat of gorgeously-shot landscapes. Hidalgo is sweeping, confidently old-fashioned Hollywood dream-crafting, with much of the good and much of the bad that has tended to entail.
Given these forefront and background elements, it should be no surprise that Hidalgo was directed by Joe Johnston, who cut his filmmaking teeth on the effects and art direction teams of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for the inherently nostalgic Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies. Johnston’s own films (The Rocketeer and Captain America: The First Avenger, I’m thinking of particularly) have often been characterized by a similar obsession with the past, with a perspective that seeks to slice through the tangled Gordian knots of American history with broad strokes of cinematic mythmaking. Hidalgo fits this model nicely, especially as its purportedly “true” story is itself almost certainly a self-aggrandizing myth invented by its protagonist.
That protagonist is Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), a legendary distance racer and Western dispatch rider whose claim to have participated in a 3,000-mile ceremonial ride in the Arabian peninsula provides the fodder for Hidalgo‘s widescreen fantasy of a prestigious desert race called the Ocean of Fire, contended by owners and riders of the finest-bred Arabian horses in the Middle East for a lucrative reward. Although it is referred to as having a thousand-year history, no such race ever existed in Arabia or anywhere else. Due to be lack of hard proof, this ride halfway across the world is commonly assumed to be one of Hopkins’ fabulous fabrications from his autobiographical memoir. These fabrications include a win record of 400 long-distance riding races, a role in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (his name does not appear in the Show’s archives, though he was a stunt rider for the Ringling Brother Circus), and Lakota ancestry. He even claimed to have been born in 1865, allowing for his frontier exploits in the prime years of the Old West, rather than 1893, as his Pennsylvania birth records would have it.
So Frank Hopkins invented a series of impossible exploits, and Johnston, screenwriter John Fusco, and producing studio Disney elect to take him at face value. Or they do so just enough to drop $40 million on a perfectly enjoyable (if occasionally clunky and deluded) popcorn flick, anyway. If that commitment in addition to a “Based on a True Story” onscreen title in the opening moments might potentially offend some observers, you’ll have to look elsewhere for moral castigation.
Hidalgo takes Hopkins’ claim of being half-Lakota seriously, which could be a problem if it didn’t take it so seriously. Mortensen’s Hopkins speaks the Lakota language, understands and respects the Lakota culture, sympathizes deeply with the plight of the Lakota people, and even has a fleeting spiritual vision at a key juncture of the Ocean of Fire race. Fusco even places Hopkins at Wounded Knee before and after the 1890 massacre: he delivers the fateful orders to the officer monitoring the Lakota Sioux encampment, and is afterwards haunted by the slaughter. While performing in Buffalo Bill’s touring show, Hopkins dreams of Bill (J.K. Simmons) in the stands, shooting down Lakota below, a resonant metaphor of how the Old West mythos has contributed to a history of aboriginal displacement and even genocide. Hopkins’ claimed Lakota heritage is almost certainly an appropriation, but that appropriation is directed towards prefacing an epic blockbuster film with a deeply respectful sketch of the central tragedy of the Lakota people at its outset.
Leaving both that respect and Hidalgo‘s classic Western pastiche behind, the story soon moves to the Arabian desert for some Raiders of the Lost Ark derring-do and Lawrence of Arabia dunescapes. Hopkins and the titular mustang paint are lured from desultory faded fame in Buffalo Bill’s cavalcade to race through unfamiliar territory halfway around the world. The snobbish sheikhs and princes, stewards and riders of Arabian thoroughbreds with family trees of prestige second only to royal houses and prophets of Allah, look askance at this dusty mongrel rider and half-tamed mongrel horse. Were it not for the secret Wild West enthusiasm of the race’s overseer Sheikh Riyadh (the recently-passed Omar Sharif, cinching the Lawrence of Arabia callback), this infidel and his beast would likely not be allowed to race alongside such glorious horseflesh in the first place.
Johnston and Fusco wield all of these deep-seated class politics in the service of rooting interests alone; go elsewhere for social commentary of any stripe. Hopkins and Hidalgo satisfyingly chase down and beat a smug gentleman rider in an early sequence, and Hopkins even socks him in the kisser in a tavern afterwards, when the prig has the audacity to badmouth the bloodlines of the painted steed. There’s little doubt that this man-horse team will exact a similar comeuppance on these uppity blood-purity-obsessed desert aristocrats by the time this grueling race is over.
Hidalgo is not a mere racist colonial narrative of white hero vs. native villains: Riyadh is cultured, fair, and relatively open-minded, and his daughter Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson) strains against the Islamic yoke that her culture reserves for women. But there are some treacherous sand snakes at work too, including a traitorous advisor, a nephew with designs on Riyadh’s wealth and position, and a refined English lady who owns a top contending horse. Again, there is so little subtext to any of these characterizations that political implications (productive or offending) arrive stillborn, although the whiff of orientalism is in the air and the hostile takeover of the fine Arabian bloodlines schemed up by Lady Davenport (Louise Lombard) carries suggestions of the damaging inheritance of European imperialist meddling in the region.
More than anything, though, it is Hidalgo‘s star who stubbornly drags it towards a certain measure of respectability and transcendence of its core of melodramatic populism. Viggo Mortensen has just enough Method in him as an actor that he can’t help but approach any role, even one this silly and romanticized, with a dedicated seriousness of purpose. His Frank Hopkins is a plain-spoken, unreflective frontier rogue on the surface and maybe even several feet down, and Mortensen’s hoarse, grim whispered delivery and steely gaze imparts the proper casualness and even a hint of subversive wit. But Mortensen leans into the Lakota cultural elements as well as into the relationship with his remarkable horse until his performance seems almost to mean something.
Hidalgo is a fantastical retelling of a genuine tall tale, a myth of a myth, but it’s also a singular milestone in an interesting screen acting career. After gripping the screen as reluctant monarch-to-be and incomparable fighter Aragorn over the three-film length of The Lord of the Rings, Hollywood wanted to find out just what it had in this thoughtful but arresting multi-lingual Danish-American actor with oodles of leading man potential. Hidalgo with Mortensen as lead feels like an idea hatched after a viewing of the sequence in The Two Towers during which a half-alive Aragorn is rescued from a riverside by his loyal steed. Mortensen even seems faintly embarrassed by his abortive romantic flirtations with Jazira and Lady Davenport, much as he was mostly retiring and ashamed of the attentions of Liv Tyler’s ethereal Arwen. In the latter case, it was because his character felt himself unworthy of the Elf-maiden until he fulfilled his destiny and earned Gondor’s throne, but in Hidalgo, he’d simply rather be with his horse.
This portrait of human-equine symbiosis is Mortensen’s truest accomplishment in Hidalgo. Despite his aesthetic success as star and the film’s modestly profitable commercial returns, Mortensen as an old-fashioned movie star with a contemporary bohemian edge never quite took hold. Given a freedom of choice of projects by his convincing Gondorian kingship, Mortensen tended towards independent and international work, most notably becoming David Cronenberg’s key collaborator on a trio of acclaimed films (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method) and earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in the process. Viggo Mortensen didn’t follow the Hidalgo epic screen hero career path not because he couldn’t hack it, but because he decided not to, because other paths appear to have interested him more. To this, we say: Let her buck.
Foxcatcher (2014; Directed by Bennett Miller)
Foxcatcher is a film about how family connections breed simmering personality pathologies like multiplying bacteria on a festering wound. It’s concerned with the masculine American id, ever defined as hegemonic and ever catered to, and its chronic inadequacy in furnishing the psycho-social fuel required to run the perpetual motor of self-regard for such demanding male egos. Its central triad of men choose to express their ambitions, to project their emotional longing, in a highly physical manner, and yet their emotions are fraught and dangerous mysteries, to others as well as to themselves. Tragedy seems to always be inevitable for such figures. Bennett Miller’s patient, subtle film renders this tragedy as simultaneously grand and metaphorical, intimate and microcosmic, impulsive and coldly calculated.
Foxcatcher relates a dramatized take on the true story of Team Foxcatcher, a prominent competitive wrestling training circle funded and hosted on his family estate by multimillionaire John E. du Pont (Steve Carell). du Pont recruits the Schultz brothers, younger Mark (Channing Tatum) and elder Dave (Mark Ruffalo), both Olympic gold medalists, to coach and compete under the team’s wrestling banner. Relations eventually sour, Mark leaves the fold, and the moody du Pont shoots and kills Dave without apparent reason (beyond that of unspecified mental illness). This much is public record, though maybe also a spoiler to the unfamiliar.
No matter. Knowing what will happen in Foxcatcher does not make the road to the closing horror any less rewarding. The film moves gradually, deliberately, with purpose. Much like, I suppose, a wrestler on the mat, circling his opponent, feeling for weaknesses and asserting strengths. The Schultz brothers, as the script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman presents them, display a classic (one might even say clichéd) sibling relationship. The elder Dave, married with children, overshadows the inscrutable loner Mark, at least in the latter’s mind. It’s not totally in Mark’s head, though; the $20 fee he receives for speaking to a grade school assembly about his Olympic gold is originally written out to Dave and he has to correct it to collect it.
There’s a real affection between the brothers, though, even if the lonely Mark needs Dave more than the more socially integrated Dave needs Mark. Their relationship is one of physical definition, as one eloquent sequence of on-mat sparring expresses. Tatum and Ruffalo manifest a primal closeness, grabbing, pushing, and touching like bears or great apes or another non-linguistic animal engaging in healthy socialization. Dave manifests a similar physical closeness with his children, but Mark has trouble opening up about his emotions to his brother in a verbal manner, however. Channing Tatum’s general weakness as a performer, the slack-jawed dimbulb pose that is the default setting of his expressive features, is applied here to suggest a depth of repressed desires. Tatum’s Mark Schultz is a metaphor for Tatum himself: he’s trapped in his impressive, athletic body, and only distantly grasps how to extend his identity beyond this corporeal reality.
When a lucrative offer comes in from du Pont to relocate to the wealthy family’s compound in Pennsylvania, Mark jumps at the opportunity even if it is calculated to attract the real prize (Dave) along as well. Reluctant to uproot his family, Dave stays away, allowing Mark and John du Point to bond in his absence, forming a tentative and weird father-son proxy relationship that the orphaned Mark (raised mostly by his older brother, adding a further dimension to their relations) and the childless du Pont both try a bit too hard to press into service.
To these unsettled sibling and substitute-parent connections is added a forbidding, highly disapproving mother, Jean du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave). An old-money aristocrat with an equestrian bent, Jean sniffs dismissively that her sound-alike-named son John’s enthusiasm for “a low sport” such as wrestling is reflective of a defect of character. Her expressions of disapproval wound du Pont, and he lashes out in transference, usually at Mark; one such outburst cripples their friendship not so much from the abuse and humiliation the millionaire inflicts on the wrestler, but from his recourse to redoubling his offer to bring Dave into Team Foxcatcher, a hurtful rebuke of Mark’s wrestling prowess that serves to inflame his underlying psychological and self-esteem issues.
If the Schultzes’ deepest wants are only made manifest in a tactile manner on the wrestling mat, then John du Pont’s identity is tied up in symbols, filtered and mediated by his inheritance of wealth and privilege. On Mark’s first visit to Foxcatcher Farm, he is brought there in a helicopter and passes over Valley Forge, where George Washington and the Continental Army steeled themselves in frozen patience for the coming struggle for independence in 1777-78. Mark waits to meet du Pont in the Colonial Revival finery of the estate’s sitting room, but is ushered instead to a basement trophy room, a subterranean man-cave for du Pont nonetheless dominated by the trophies of his mother’s champion horses.
John du Pont tells Mark that his friends call him “Eagle” or “Golden Eagle”, although his later admission to having no friends (beyond a chauffeur’s son that his mother paid to befriend him in childhood) indicates that he only wishes that they would. He’s a birdwatcher (actually an accomplished ornithologist) and encourages the hobby in Mark (it does not seem to stick). In many key scenes, Miller intercuts shots of taxidermied birds around the family premises, including a prominent, rampant eagle looming behind du Pont as he films one of his self-aggrandizing documentaries to propagandize his Team Foxcatcher project (the name itself has a historical continuity with the fox hunt, that traditional aristocratic blood sport which is visually detailed in the opening credits). Miller seems to be following Alfred Hitchcock deliberately in associating these stuffed birds with an overbearing maternal presence, as was famously done in Psycho.
The du Pont fortune was founded on gunpowder manufacture, and John du Pont’s business in the film, despite the diversification of the family corporation, is stubbornly connected to arms dealing. He inspects tanks and a machine gun, has military brass coming in and out of his office as Mark waits to speak with him about wrestling. It could be extrapolated that the tactile conflict of wrestling (which du Pont himself begins to “compete” in) is a transference of the man’s repressed guilt at contributing as a supplier to a mechanized, dehumanized strain of imperialist warfare. If so, this is a secondary weight to du Pont’s overwhelming desire for praise and acceptance from the world, especially to compensate for the lack of such treatment from his battle-axe of a mother. This is glimpsed in his propaganda films, his awkward but chummy interactions with Mark, Dave, and the other wrestlers on the team, and most memorably as he and Mark snort cocaine while choppering to a gala dinner in his honour, reciting the various descriptions of his prominence and range of interests like an absurd mantra. But it’s also bubbling beneath the surface of Carell’s contained, oddly tempered performance, visible like the first hints of boiling water.
Late in the film, du Pont’s inherent need to self-mythologize precipitates the closing tragic crisis. Though there is no direct, connective narrative thread between the scenes, Dave’s persistent inability to articulate the nature of du Pont’s role in his life in the required inspirational bromides for one of the documentary films and du Pont’s internalized frustration at failing to achieve the high goals one of those films set for him and his wrestling team appear to mingle in the millionaire’s unconscious and turn him into a murderer. Dave’s pride at his rise from a humble station to Olympic gold will not allow him to even pretend that a filthy-rich dabbler in the sport he has excelled in might be his “mentor”, and du Pont is frustrated and wounded that his tremendous advantages have not allowed him to succeed upwards as men with lesser advantages such as the Schultzes have done. Mark, the wounded figure who unwillingly brought Dave and du Pont together, has departed the scene and taken a key mediating element out of the situation. The results are tragic, but then so is the aimless, deeply unrighteous power struggle of the American male psyche that is depicted so masterfully in Foxcatcher.