Contending for the greatest prize in professional hockey for the second time in three seasons, the Boston Bruins are matched against the Chicago Blackhawks in this year’s Stanley Cup Finals (and took a lead of two games to one in the series with a grinding Game 3 win on Monday night). More than any other current NHL team, the Bruins are surrounded by a discourse that values old-fashioned smash-mouth hockey above all. Even if they are a strong puck-possession team with a protective defensive system (hallmarks of the coaching style of Claude Julien throughout his time in Boston), the Bruins are identified with all of those hoary old clichés clustered around the fading aura of hockey’s traditional culture of barely-controlled violence. Toughness, truculence, hitting, fighting, being “hard to play against”; these tropes are trotted out again and again to explain the current Bruins roster’s successes (which include a Cup in 2011).
Certainly, the prevalence of former Bruins players and coaches in the hockey media goes some way towards explaining the spread of the concept of the value of hard-edged hockey. CBC’s hockey coverage flagship Hockey Night in Canada utilized no less than three former Bruins figures in its studio team of only about half-a-dozen not so long ago: Mike Milbury, P.J. Stock, and Don Cherry were also, not so coincidentally, the broadcast’s most stringent voices in favour of fighting, hitting, and violence in the game in general (Stock and Cherry still do defend that battered rampart, as Milbury still would as well, had his preference for physical violence not become unfortunately literal in a minor hockey setting). Other public hockey figures stick up for the role of violence in the game, certainly, but there is an added element of stubborn righteousness to those who have passed through the Bruins organization and into the media. They boast the intransigent certainty of true believers, of ideological foot-soldiers for the cause of Bruinism.
The always detailed and thoughtful Ellen Etchingham takes up this subject in a fascinating recent post in her blogspace at TheScore.ca. Her insightful consideration of the Bruins’ association with conceptions of the role of nastiness, aggression, and above all physical pain concludes that these elements are valued in the hockey context not as means to an end, but as an end in themselves. What matters is not whether smash-mouth hockey leads to winning; there’s little empirical or analytical evidence that it does, and considerable agreement that high hit totals in particular are indicative of a team with poor possession percentages that tends to unproductively chase play. Violence – and for Etchingham, the shared experience and understanding of pain above all – has an aesthetic value in and of itself; indeed, it is perhaps the central defining aesthetic of the sport of hockey, in its traditional delineations.
Etchingham, who loves the game with the passion of a recent convert, conceives this aestheticization of violence and pain as essentially positive or at least grounded in the lived experience of hockey’s fans and thus basically unchallengeable in reality if not in theory. To my mind, however, this aesthetic is more problematic; indeed, even the use of the term “aesthetic”, accurate though it may prove to be, is not without its attendant issues.
My thinking on this point is influenced by the epilogue of Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (which I have employed on this blog in the past). This epilogue is often overlooked, as its specific contemporary focus on the ideology of the fascist movements sweeping Europe at the time of its composition is less widely applicable than the Marxist critique of industrial production in a cultural context that precedes it. But Benjamin’s consideration of the Futurist concepts of the aestheticization of war does seem to apply, surprisingly, to the Boston Bruins and the aesthetic of hockey violence that circles around them.
Benjamin discusses the manner in which, in a fascist state that includes a sizable proletarian class but does not threaten the holding of private property, the masses must necessarily turn to the political arena for the purposes of expression. The purest and most powerful method of that expression is through war, which becomes highly aestheticized in the Futurist conception as the ideal melding of human productive activity with industrial processes. Benjamin quotes an Italian Futurist at length as he rhapsodizes about the artistic truth inherent in bullets, shells, and gas masks, about the greatly-desired “metalization” of the human body, about the artistic glories of death in battle and the “symphony” of “the stench of putrefaction”. The massively-industrialized and hugely destructive war launched by the fascists in Benjamin’s home country of Germany shortly after (the upheavals of which cost Benjamin his life) would have come as no surprise to him. Indeed, war is not only inevitable but inevitably desirable in the discourse of fascistic Futurism.
Although the Marxist Benjamin does not connect this aesthetic valorizing of mechanized violence to the concomitant valorization of masculine strength and physical prowess in the mass culture of the fascist states (Nazi Germany in particular), it is this association that connects the aestheticization of war to hockey’s aestheticization of violence. Modern capitalist democracy has diverted the masculine self-expression of the masses away from its centuries-old conduit of martial warfare, ironically due mostly to the increasing mechanization of armed conflict that Futurists embraced as a harbinger of aesthetic fulfilment.
The expression of masculine aggression in the modern West has thus fallen increasingly to the sphere of sports, also famously extolled by the Nazis as a source of aestheticized Aryan glory. From the direct contending of weeknight sports leagues to the vicarious experience of rooting for pro sporting heroes, the masculine aggression of the masses once released in cathartic slaughter in war is now sublimated into the controlled, rule-bound competition of sports. The traditional hockey culture is often accused of glorifying violence, but Etchingham recognizes that what it truly glorifies is the endurance of pain, suffering, and physical difficulty, which are also the elements of war that are so often constructed as romantic and heroic. Hockey, therefore, is an ice-bound kabuki of teeth-gritting fortitude in the face of hardship enacted for the edification of the generally white, male, conservative, proletarian fanbase of the sport, or for the edification of this fanbase’s own hardscrabble daily negotiation of an increasingly obscure post-capitalist socioeconomic reality through association with their heroes’ struggles with adversity.
The point of this discussion is not to suggest that the Boston Bruins are Nazis (although Brad Marchand at least has probably been called worse), nor to simply equate sports to war in the one-for-one euphemistic substitution manner often favoured by its media. But dubbing hockey violence or “toughness” an aesthetic, just as suggesting that war is aesthetic as the Futurists did, opens up deeper and less intellectually ghettoized conceptions of its dissemination than dubbing it an ideology might do. Ideology exists beyond conscious adoption by subjective agents; it “works” even if you don’t believe in it, in Slavoj Žižek’s conception at least. But an aesthetic is closer to a preference or a predilection. It is chosen, while ideology chooses us. However we choose to justify it, either by Etchingham’s appeal to common empathy or the Bruinist insistence that it correlates to success in the win column, understanding hockey violence as an aesthetic makes its continued prevalence in the sport that much more troubling and difficult.
Oz The Great and Powerful (2013; Directed by Sam Raimi)
Disney’s expensive and flashy reanimation of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz mythos is saddled by as many rosy cliches and saggy bromides as it is buoyed by wondrous visual imagination. But Oz The Great and Powerful is redeemed by its knowing winks at its own fundamental silliness. This abiding self-awareness is visible not merely in the broadness of its actors’ performances, as miles-broad as they often are. As the origin story of Oz’s man behind the curtain (this time, we are asked to pay lots of attention to him), the film is a fitting tribute to the classic magician’s act of illusion, misdirection, ingenuity, and, above all, flamboyant, old-fashioned showmanship. These are not only its textual themes (and ideological implications) but the basis of its technical cinematic element as well, as director Sam Raimi celebrates the theatrical flourishes, exoticism and makeshift trickeries of the carnival midway, transposed onto the frame of a blockbuster fantasy epic film.
But Raimi opens with that carnival midway, in a field in Kansas in 1905, leaving no doubt that his sympathies, his artistic inclinations, and his cinematic antecedents lie in league with the circus freaks, trick shooters, and showy hack conjurers of this vanished, romanticized culture. One such hack conjurer is our protagonist, Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a self-involved, egotistical, ambitious carnival magician who puts on under-attended, orientalist-tinged performances for hayseeds of varying degrees credulity. He treats his long-suffering assistant and his sole sort-of-friend Frank (Zach Braff) with cavalier dismissal, and leaves a trail of broken-hearted female conquests behind him. To the great credit of not only the grinning, rakish Franco but also screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire (from a story by Kapner), Oscar (“Oz” for short) remains essentially unreformed in his abilities, appetites, and personal foibles, even when circumstances demand of him not only the greatness he aspires to but also the goodness he feels he cannot achieve.
What are those circumstances? Well, as Oscar escapes in a hot-air balloon from the angry strongman husband of one of his scorned lovers, he is swept up in a towering tornado and begs whatever force summoned the avenging storm for a chance to prove himself to be worthy of survival (jagged splinters of wood jab through the walls of the balloon’s basket in this sequence, a playful 3D-era homage to horror imagery from the erstwhile director of The Evil Dead). Oscar does survive, and drifts out of the squared aspect ratio and black-and-white palette of the Kansas sequence into a widescreen technicolour land of marvels called (like him) Oz. This technical transition is an obvious homage to the legendary shift into colour of the 1939 MGM classic The Wizard of Oz, a film that Raimi and Kapner reference and rejig but whose actual contents must be tiptoed carefully around for legal reasons (although Baum’s Oz books are in the public domain, Warner Bros. owns the rights to iconic elements of the iconic film, and character likenesses in particular could not be replicated).
Copyright stipulations do not dissuade Raimi from making his Wizard’s entrance into Oz a memorable one, however. After a rollercoaster ride in the balloon basket over a waterfall (3D gimmick again), Oscar drifts past a wondrous visual and aural symphony of musical flora. Multichromatic flowers hang pendulously and ring out like church bells, crimson butterflies flutter past lilypads tapped gently like cymbals by dripping dew and strum sinuous fiddlehead reeds like violin strings, and segmented bamboo catches the wind to blow a woodwind’s welcome. Reveals of CGI-assisted wonder are a stereotypical element of these recent blockbuster fairy tales, and Raimi’s film includes several more of diminishing affect (in one later such moment, our aesthetic reaction is clumsily prompted by a character intoning “It’s beautiful!”, as if we are unaware that it’s supposed to be). But this arrival sequence is a genuine overture of awe that Oz never again quite matches.
Emerging from this quasi-dream, Oscar is met by the lovely Theodora (Mila Kunis), who immediately and without much prompting identifies him as the great Wizard prophesied to arrive in Oz, claim the throne as king, and liberate the land from evil and tyranny. Her good impression of him is further reinforced by his freeing of a trapped flying monkey in a bellhop uniform named Finley (voiced by Braff), who becomes his defacto sidekick. What she neglects to mention, however, is that her own black-clad sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) is the actual source of that evil and tyranny in the land, lording over the green Art Deco pinnacles of the Emerald City with her crystal ball, mastery of finger lightning, and armies of Winkie Guards and vicious flying babboons.
Still, the naive Theodora falls for the handsome, flirtatious putative Wizard (Franco revels in his character’s slippery, indulgent charms) and believes him to be not only the saviour of the land but of herself as well. Ever the nomadic cad, Oscar betrays her faith not only in his ability but in his affection for her alone as well. This precipitates the scorned Theodora’s turn towards a wickedness equivalent to (if not greater than) that of her sister, which, without giving away too many particulars, has a distinct chartreuse tinge to it. Both Kunis and Weisz give themselves up to the camp value of their villainy, though Weisz’ subtle sarcastic nastiness is more amusing than Kunis’ overt cackling badness.
At any rate, Oscar must stay a step ahead of these malevolent sisters, who dispatch him to earn his throne by venturing into the Dark Forest (is there any fantasy realm that doesn’t boast one of those?) and slaying a Wicked Witch who turns out to be a Good one: Glinda, Good Witch of the South (Michelle Williams). Glinda’s kind and generous father was the last King of Oz before being usurped and killed by Evanora, and his daughter rules the last remnant of Ozians resisting the Wicked Witch’s domination, protecting them from Evanora with her bubble-magic. At Glinda’s urging (though she knows full well that he’s no Wizard), Oscar is to take charge of her citizens, a doughy petite bourgeoisie of Quadling farmers, aged tinkers, and singing Munchkins, and forge them into an army that can defeat the Witches’ forces and free Oz from their tyranny. Though he has his doubts about their value as soldiers (they are rather portly and decadent), Oscar does realize that they are well-adapted to pull off an ambitious plan of trickery much more in tune with his talents for misdirection and sleight-of-hand.
Oscar’s grand scheme is grounded in precisely the tinkering technical creativity and arm-sweeping carnival showmanship that Raimi romanticizes and identifies with in the opening scenes, and is associated with Oscar’s American contemporary “wizard”, Thomas Edison. For all of its computer-assisted technology and grandiloquent Hollywood thematic material of good triumphing over evil and belief in ideals trumping deceptive appearances (about which more in a moment), Oz The Great and Powerful is conceived of by its director as a direct spiritual heir to the turn-of-the-century travelling cavalcades of wonders that captivated the same emerging mass audiences that embraced the modern fairy tales of Baum’s Oz novels beginning in 1900. Few current big-name directors are so well-attuned to precisely the mix of greasy histrionics and ingenious stagecraft demanded and reified by this particular material as Raimi is, and he mostly strikes just the necessary balance.
Ideologically, mind you, the effect of Oz The Great and Powerful is not only different but perhaps even directly contrary to the old-fashioned entertainment impulse being lauded. Indeed, the film encases Oscar’s ultimate triumph, achieved as it is through makeshift artifice exploiting mass belief in the grounded terms of power and governance, in fundamentally Straussian assumptions. Oscar is the enlightened elite that sells a seductive lie of magical power to the gullible Ozian masses, an ingenious mustering of ideological propaganda in service of the common good. The decent and well-meaning Glinda not only tolerates this illusion but enables its establishment, and the egotistical stage performer Oscar Diggs embraces his new role as a symbol, a disembodied spectacle of hegemonic power. They both believe firmly in the power of belief (of ideology, as Slavoj Žižek would probably say) as an essential conduit of control and direction of the energies of the masses, even if that belief is based on a lie whose deceptive truth they both fully realize.
These implications lay an interesting framework for anticipated events in the established mythology of Oz, namely the arrival of Dorothy Gale (whose future involvement in the narrative is hinted at subtly in the marriage-taken surname of one of Oscar’s Kansan ex-sweethearts) and her unmasking of the Wizard’s hegemonic illusion. But this promise is tempered. Raimi’s film relies too heavily on the good-evil binaries and banal quest narratives of contemporary Hollywood fairy-tale adaptations; it’s no surprise that Joe Roth, who oversaw similar-pitched products like Alice in Wonderland and Snow White and the Huntsman, is the lead producer here.
Straussian neo-conservative implications aside, Oz The Great and Powerful boasts neither the sociopolitical complexity or moral ambiguity of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked books, and its production, release and commercial success likely procludes those superior literary Oz adaptations from receiving the serious cinematic treatment they richly deserve (a film version of the proscribed but popular Wicked musical remains likely, and a miniseries version of Maguire’s first tome at least has been rumoured to be in the works at Disney’s television arm, ABC). But for its imagination, humour, and dedication to anachronistic, carnivalesque showmanship, Oz The Great and Powerful, despite its foibles, still deserves to take a bow, if not a very deep one.
Seven Psychopaths (2012; Directed by Martin McDonagh)
A golden rule of independent film: if one of the main characters is a screenwriter, you’re in for a fair bit of meta. In Seven Psychopaths, that screenwriter character is Marty (Colin Farrell with his Irish accent and related comic timing fully intact), an Irishman in Los Angeles struggling with alcoholism (“It’s part of your heritage!” a friend cheekily tells him) as well as with an unfinished, directionless screenplay called (of course) Seven Psychopaths.
Marty is also struggling with his disapproving girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish) and his rather unhinged best friend, Billy Bickle (the reliably terrific Sam Rockwell), who is one of the things Kaya disapproves of most. The unpredictable Billy repeatedly interjects himself into Marty’s screenwriting efforts, often unwelcomed; his concepts are wild, tangential, violent, and formulaic, and Marty wants to resist Hollywood cliches. Billy also runs a dog-kidnapping scam with a disarmingly direct older gent names Hans (Christopher Walken). Billy snatches up the vulnerable pooches of rich Los Angelenos, and Hans sheepishly returns them and reluctantly accepts the rewards they offer. It’s a lucrative scheme, but it gets Billy, Hans, and the unwitting Marty into mortal danger when the wrong dog is stolen from the wrong dog owner.
This dog is Bonny, a chill ShihTzu whose bulging breed-standard eyes are often utilized for comic effect. The owner is Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), a distinctly unchill gangster who does not hesitate to kill and cares for no one but Bonny. Once he traces the canine theft back to Billy and Hans, he pursues them and unwilling tagalong Marty with deadly intent, even as far as the isolated expanse of the desert for a final showdown.
This traditional synopsis of the film fails to fathom its nuances, internal connections, and mad digressions. The literate but iconoclastic McDonagh indulges the wild tangents of Billy Bickle’s disturbed imagination both literally and figuratively. Interspersed with the main plot described above are fascinating, funny, poignant, and often gruesome micronarrative vignettes focusing on the titular psychopaths.
These interwoven Psychopath Chapters are even accompanied by Tarantino-esque onscreen titles (“Psychopath No. 1″, “Psychopath #2″, so on). There’s the evocative, religiously-tinged tale of guilt, redemption, and judgment involving a stoic Quaker (played in the imagined sequence by Harry Dean Stanton) haunting the reformed murderer of his daughter. There’s a richly-written parable of sorts about a Vietnamese man in a priest’s frock threatening a prostitute that does not resolve anything like what you might expect. And Tom Waits shows up as Zachariah Rigby, an oddball with a bad haircut and a white rabbit who tells Marty his personal history as one half of a travelling duo of killers of serial killers.
But while seeming initially tangential or fantastical, these Chapters link directly in with the themes and the characters of the main plot until they are a part of it as well as corkscrewing bursts away from it. The main figures in the dog-kidnapping narrative are very much among the Seven Psychopaths Marty tries to write about; one of them, in fact, is more than one of the psychopaths.
The conceit, of course, is that all of these stories as well as the main dog-napping scenario are finding their way into a script for a movie that Marty is writing. This script, in Marty’s artistic ideal, eschews not only aforementioned Hollywood convention but violence as well. This ambition is laughable for a piece of work about psychopaths, and he is rightly ribbed for it. Indeed, the outlandish ultra-violence of McDonagh’s movie (another Tarantino nod) further mocks Marty’s pacifistic leanings. Nowhere is this more upfront than in Billy Bickel’s ludicrous, enthusiastic contribution to Marty’s screenplay during their sojourn in the desert: a comically overblown vision of a climactic action shootout in a cemetery involving excessive violence, melodramatic deaths, and gratuitous female nudity. Amidst the carnage, and after several female participants have been gunned down, Billy insists that Zachariah’s rabbit must escape unscathed, “Because you can’t let the animals die in a movie, just the women!”
This line is a satirical venting for McDonagh, directed in specific at hypocritical Hollywood censorship standards (which mandated that he avoid planned violence to Bonny) just as the scene is directed in general at those same standards and their resulting formulaic conventions. But it’s precisely the sort of irony that McDonagh likes to layer into his writing, and precisely the sort of contextual foundation he cleverly lays for his scurrilously off-colour dialogue and subject matter. The quintessential McDonagh joke offends on its face while acknowledging both the cause and the rightness of that offence; it will call out discriminatory assumptions while scoring a laugh off of them, and then inflate them to such outsized proportions so as to upend them again. Hence, a self-conscious line about the hypocrisy of preventing the depiction of violence towards animals but not towards women, placed in a film where several women are killed with brutal disregard, but later features a separate moral excoriation for such mysogynistic violence.
McDonagh’s humour thus walks a very fine line, or perhaps crosses and re-crosses it so often that the portent of this line is called into question. It is in this way similar to but more sophisticated than the borderline comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen (I’m thinking specifically of the moment in Borat that a man in a preposterously anti-Semitic parade costume squats and lays a “Jew-egg”, a surreal illustration of the nonsensical assumptions behind a pernicious discriminatory ideology). Like McDonagh’s previous (and better) film In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths is not just a comedy, turning to genuine character pathos and evocative passages (especially with previous collaborators Farrell and Walken), pregnant with the implications of religious faith, and conscious of the consequences of rampant cinematic violence.
Seven Psychopaths also demonstrates McDonagh’s burgeoning mastery of the visual craft of moviemaking, especially when the scene shift to the wide vistas of the deserts of the American West. Many theatre creators who shift to film transfer their static assumptions from the stage to the screen, but McDonagh is flowering in film like it’s the format he’s been chomping at the bit for the chance to work in. Seven Psychopaths is not his big-screen masterpiece (nor, ultimately, was In Bruges, despite its considerable appeal), but it is further compelling proof that Martin McDonagh’s idiosyncratic artistic sensibility may one day produce such a masterpiece and will likely produce more subversive pleasures until it does.
A ruminating, dream-of-consciousness digression of considerable beauty and delicacy and surprising tensile strength, German writer W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz is not quite as compelling in general as it often is in specific. But then, Sebald shows us, life is simply the same. Following the ebbing and flowing reminiscences of its main character, a reticent but eloquent intellectual vagabond with an obscure family history named Jacques Austerlitz, the novel mixes ethereal architectural descriptions with moving human details and minimal plot. Events do not so much constitute the novel’s narrative as does a steady flow of memories; Austerlitz’s history is gradually revealed in exquisite detail, and he is older and more searching if not necessarily wiser by the book’s end, which is as abrupt and non-constructed as any of its earlier portions.
Born of liberal francophile Jewish parents in pre-WWII Prague, Austerlitz is transferred to the care of an austere preacher in Wales to safeguard him from the anti-Semitic policies of the Third Reich which swallow his parents’ lives: his mother, an opera singer, is rounded up and sent to the ghetto at Terezin (often called the Theresienstadt concentration camp, though not by Sebald) and is presumed dead either there or in the death camps beyond, while his politically-active father decamps to Paris and vanishes with nary a trace. Austerlitz quests for transient signs of their lives in the later stages of the novel, finding records in archives, hints of fates in museums, and glowing memories of them in the aging minds of those who knew them. But these traces and outlines, these fading silhouettes, are all that he can ultimately access.
Sebald’s metaphorical thesis in Austerlitz seems to be that such ghostly silhouettes of the past are always with us but ever beyond our tactile reach. He exemplifies this haunting effect of memory by utilizing Austerlitz’s twin passions, his academic profession of architectural history and his daily hobby of photography. The latter interest is expressed by frequent, spectral black and white photographs interspersed with the prose of the novel, depicting the places, people, and objects that Sebald simultaneously describes. The effect is strange and evocative, as the photographs do not dispel the mysteries encoded by memory but rather deepen and contextualize them. Photography for Sebald is not a medium of absolute definition. It is as unreliable and incomplete as our fallible human memory.
The architectural historian Jacques Austerlitz does not merely wander and take pictures, however. He has also conceived a grand, quixotic, uncompleteable academic study of architecture that aspired to make conceptual connections in the details and methods of man’s buildings that would shed light on the similar connections in man’s thinking, identity, and emotional profile. He abandons the project and destroys his volumes of research in the grips of a mental breakdown that sees him hospitalized, but Sebald’s descriptive prose proceeds from his character’s concept.
Much of the novel consists of involved, evocative descriptions of notable and less notable architecture. The novel opens in Antwerp’s lofty, impressive railway station, and takes in such diverse edifices as a thrift emporium in the aforementioned Terezin, a fortress and prison in the Belgian countryside, the state records archive in Prague, a country manor on the Welsh coast, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, London, and the forbidding, modern Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Sebald is interested in these buildings as persistent storehouses of human memory, the joys and the traumas of our lives imprinted on them like ghostly footprints or unnoticed chiaroscuro flourishes in their decoration. Austerlitz’s journey through the archive of his life’s memories employs edifices as a trail of crumbs to recall his previous path. His investigation into his continental origins and his family’s disappearance from his life commences after he inadvertently wanders into a dusty, soon-to-be-demolished waiting room in London’s Liverpool Street station where he first arrived in Britain and met his foster family. He does not know for certain, but understands, remembers, being there, and this spark kindles the fire of his quest to fill in those gaps of memory.
Sebald is masterful at sketching the implications of 20th Century Europe’s dominant ideological and sociopolitical superstructures in the comparative microstructures of these buildings. A deserted museum in Terezin (every museum Austerlitz visits is deserted or at least lonely; historical memory is not a mass diversion) sketches the minute tragedies engendered by Nazism. A comically under-attended spa resort in Soviet-influenced Eastern Bloc Czechoslovakia visited by Austerlitz and a putative romantic interest named Marie emphasizes the excision of bourgeois leisure under the Communist system. And the hyper-modern, unwelcoming, inhuman monolith that is the new Bibliotheque Nationale discourages Austerlitz’s old-fashioned archival absorption, a familiar experience to contemporary denizens of the sheer glass facades of post-capitalist urbanity.
As much as we learn about Austerlitz in the course of Austerlitz, he finishes as essentially unknowable, as do many other figures in the book, none more so than the nameless narrator and kindred thoughtful spirit to whom he relates his life’s story. Sebald paints many clues and unresolved details into his canvas of Europe and the British Isles, but they never resolve. Like memory, they are persistently present but fundamentally ephemeral, and the uncanny impact of this haunting novelistic exploration of memory is similar in its scope and force.
In Bruges (2008; Directed by Martin McDonagh)
Acclaimed Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s superbly penned, consistently entertaining, and oddly moving film debut In Bruges reinforces three things above all: Brendan Gleeson absolutely rules, Colin Farrell should only ever act when he is being allowed to employ his native Irish accent, and Belgium is extremely funny.
The core humourous conceit of In Bruges should not really prove as resilient as it does. McDonagh’s film-long joke constitutes the setting of a creatively bawdy and occasionally brutally bloody gangster crime flick in a lovely, preserved Flemish medieval city of undeniable middle-class touristic charm. The real Bruges is not nearly the fairy-tale historical time-capsule that McDonagh’s film requires it to be, of course; brand-name consumer goods shops line the narrow streets near the Grote Markt, reflecting an urban setting as dependent on the demands of contemporary global capitalism as any other more modern-seeming location. You do indeed see a “dual carriageway” upon leaving the very modern train station, and despite one character’s protestations, there probably are bowling alleys in Bruges (or at least in its suburbs).
But then the stardust-sprinkled version of Bruges in this film is more about amplifying the location’s ironic juxtaposition with the chosen subject matter of sex, violence, drug use, copious swearing, and general bad behaviour on display (the pinnacle of which surely must be a particular line about a girl on a teeter-totter of such cartoonish offensiveness that it comes across as a parody of the very concept of offensive language). And the chosen milieu is soaked in medieval Catholicism and is therefore ripe for thematic exploitation by an Irish writer concerned with an exploration of guilt, atonement, forgiveness, sacrifice and redemption.
Much of this thematic material is focused on Farrell’s Ray, a rookie hitman who botches his first job but good (by which I mean but bad). Bundled off to lay low in Bruges by his seasoned partner Ken (Gleeson) on the orders of their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes), Ray is not too thrilled at the prospect of sightseeing and expanding his cultural boundaries in the sleepy, charming Flemish city. In fact, he refers to Bruges repeatedly as “a shithole”, and mostly wants to hang out in pubs and chase women (one in particular, played by Clémence Poésy, reciprocates the interest). Ken drags him along for some history and culture while they await further instructions from Harry, with no small amount of resistance shown by Ray.
But in a nice, sophisticated moment, Ray’s belligerence is revealed to be concealing intense shame and guilt about his moral misdeed. The catalysts are two showcase paintings the pair of criminals view at Bruges’ Groeningemuseum: Hieronymous Bosch’s The Last Judgment (whose inventive, head-spinning imagery is revisited in a film-within-a-film indie production in the movie’s closing scene) and Gerard David’s diptych The Judgment of Cambyses, depicting a corrupt Persian judge being condemned to death and then flayed alive (it once hung in the chambers of Bruges’ aldermen, as unsubtle a reminder to toe the ethical line as a politician could ask for). The latter in particular visibly disgusts Ray, but it also works its message under his skin and precipitates a downward spiral. It’s left to Ken to decide whether to save Ray from both himself and from the consequences of his actions (or his sins, to get Catholic about it), or to allow moral judgment to catch up with his young counterpart.
McDonagh’s mixture of clear-eyed exploration of moral themes and hilarious, fabulously tawdry humour (witness Ray’s altercation with what he assumed to be an American couple in a restaurant, or the dwarf actor [Jordan Prentice] in the indie film who hires Dutch prostitutes, uses recreational drugs, and predicts an apocalyptic racial war) will not be everyone’s cup of tea, certainly. But with so much whip-smart dialogue and fine performances (Farrell is fantastic, and it’s wonderful to see Gleeson in a role worthy of his talents), any viewer with a slightly-twisted sense of humour would be hard-pressed not to enjoy much of In Bruges. It’s a sharp and surprising contemporary arthouse cult classic in theg gradual making. And anyway, how can a fairy-tale town not be someone’s fucking thing?
Time flies when you’re blogging excessively. It’s been a whole four months since the last post reproducing and larking on the oddest recent search terms that directed web surfers to this humble space, so we’re about due to for another installment. Past posts of this sort: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5.
lebron james violin
Playing the violin is probably the one thing LeBron James cannot do. Well, that and choose a team to sign with in a way that won’t alienate most of the world.
nbc condescending olympic coverage
The first result in the search is the NBC website: Proudly Condescending to Olympics-Watching Rubes Since 1988!
who is the subaltern in the hunger games
Now you’re asking the right question, kids. The answer is: pretty much everyone who isn’t played by Donald Sutherland.
rape ewok meme
I don’t even want to know what other results this search produced, but I suspect they involve some rather disturbing things being done to Jar Jar Binks.
is thrift shop about consumerism
At least as much as it is about the paradox of frugality. And broken keyboards.
is it possible for another king leopold today yahoo answer
Why would you think Yahoo is gonna know that? Anyway, no one else could rock that beard.
what was the last film roger ebert saw
In a terribly cruel bit of irony, it was Spice World.
fanfiction reparation thor
The socioeconomic deprivations suffered throughout history by the Space Vikings constituted a considerable injustice indeed. But how will belated monetary compensation heal such deep wounds, especially when interspersed with passionate and imaginative Thor/Loki sex scenes?
If ye allow me to practice me pacifist, spiritualist faith without suffering state persecution or exile, I shall give ye me pot of gold!
why is back to the future college film analysis
The person who typed up this complete thought took my review to task for its criticism of conservative Republican ideology. I think they were just disappointed that there wasn’t anything to plagiarize for their first-year essay.
best asses of the world
Here you go. What great asses. We salute you!
wholesome internet search
I hope this pulled up “Two Girls, One Cup” in the first three pages of results. Most searches will.
Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title to go to the review.