Broadchurch – Series 1 (ITV; 2013)
There is much that is familiar about Broadchurch, British broadcaster ITV’s critical and popular hit drama about the murder of a boy in a small, quiet seaside town in Dorset. It’s built around a whodunit murder mystery full of false suspects, dramatic feints and twists, and character archetypes festooned with leading hints about potential guilt: there’s both a young priest (Arthur Darvill) and an elderly Sea Brigade (read: Boy Scouts) leader (David Bradley) with access to the local boys, as well as an aggressive dullard with a crossbow (Joe Sims) and a suspicious lady living on her own by the beach (Pauline Quirke) to choose from. Additionally, the detectives heading the investigation (David Tennant and Olivia Colman) display considerable, charming friction towards each other (think Marty and Rust of True Detective, but opposite sex and Scottish/English), largely because of the irascibility and misanthropy of the anti-hero Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (Tennant), who has both a secret in his past and a physical ailment to hamper his efforts to find the boy’s murderer.
Broadchurch should be so much more formulaic than it is, but creator Chris Chibnall (who co-wrote the series with Louise Fox) is nimble enough to avoid this trap. The final solution to the murder doesn’t quite play fair, to be honest; there are sizable dialogue hints that point to the unpresupposing suspect in the latter clutch of episodes, but little that indicts that person more directly than anyone else in town until minutes before the finale’s reveal. But the whodunit narrative is the bait to draw audiences into a richly shot, written and acted portrait of a community rent by distrust and suspicion and a family torn by grief, guilt, and resentment but grasping at love and at a normalized future.
Broadchurch‘s tremendous, haunting sense of place (much of the series was shot in West Bay on the Jurassic Coast, with some doubling shot to the north in Somerset and Bristol) and compelling portrait of local dynamics, as well as the potent central performances of Tennant, Colman, and Jodie Whittaker and Andrew Buchan as the murdered boy’s parents, carries it through the rough shoals of formula into equally troubled but artistically deeper waters. Chibnall is working on a second series on the aftermath of the murder mystery’s resolution, and has also developed an American adaptation for Fox starring Tennant and Breaking Bad‘s Anna Gunn. Each will have a hard time matching the rare power of this ingratiating first series, however.
American Experience (PBS; 1988 – Present)
Although PBS’s venerable American history documentary franchise continues to produce superlative films that celebrate national successes while interrogating the troubling implications of those successes (films on Old West outlaws like Jesse James or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid come to mind, as do those examining events like the My Lai massacre or Reconstruction), another less acceptable subset of productions has crept into the series’ expanding canon.
Witness recent episodes about the construction of Penn Station or the growth of the tech industry in Silicon Valley. One deep concern often expressed about the increasing funding of PBS programs via corporate funding and elite foundations rather than government funding is that the subjects and perspectives of the programming would begin to reflect and support the positions and predilections of their funders. This has been visible at the once-mighty science program Nova, where funding by the Koch Brothers has seen the fine documentaries of yesteryear devolve into Discovery Channel-level filmed engineering experiments.
Both of the cited episodes constitute little more than corporate hagiography. The Rise and Fall of Penn Station treats the grand Manhattan railroad terminal’s proto-CEO mastermind Alexander Cassat as a laudable visionary and the project itself as a gift from the private sector to the wider public. It has considerably less to say about the market forces that flattened the grand Neoclassical structure for a sports arena and claustrophobic subterranean train station. Silicon Valley, more damningly, presents the pioneering technological and corporate work on superconductors by Fairchild in San Jose, California in the 1950s and 1960s as romantic and heroic, but fails to even acknowledge the mean-boss monstrousness of Fairchild founder William Shockley, let alone his later, very public profile as a bigoted white supremacist.
Much, much better at tackling the complexities of 20th Century American history was the hugely entertaining (and fairly droll) examination of Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast and the now-ridiculous mass panic that it created. The details of Welles’ creative fire and clashes with radio executives are wonderful, and the re-enacted statements from those who heard the broadcast and panicked about Martians invading New Jersey are often hilarious. A lighter subject, yes, but one just as revealing of an easily-alarmed corner of the American psyche that is well worth keeping in mind in every major crisis.
The Double (2013; Directed by Richard Ayoade)
“You’re in my place,” a faceless but uncannily familiar man says to Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) as he rides a nearly empty subway car to his empty, faceless job. Simon meekly obliges anyone who attempts to take something from him, so he gives up his seat, but glances persistently back at the man who has taken “his” place. Light and shadow pulse across the frame with the motion of the subterranean train in this key initial moment of foreshadowing, and Simon sees his own image in a mounted, segmented mirror. Reflected, doubled, but fragmented, broken up.
This is the opening scene of Richard Ayoade’s The Double, and it is exquisitely, precisely shot, lighted, edited, and acted for maximum symbolic, intellectual, visual, and emotional impact. Practically every sequence that follows this first representative one is similarly flawless in its highly-charged visual exactitude. This is a film that could exclusively provide frames as fodder for @OnePerfectShot for months to come. It may be a long time before you see another film as masterfully, completely controlled in the totality of its mise-en-scène as The Double; even auteurish stylists like Terrence Malick or Stanley Kubrick occasionally take a break from composing motion art to point a camera at an actor and let them talk. Ayoade is on an Ingmar Bergman-level visual trip here, but the The Double is not merely artfully shot but also accurately acted and possessed with an inspired black tragicomic sensibility. It is, in an often-misapplied term, brilliant.
The narrative, from a script by Ayoade and Avi Korine, is drawn from Fyodor Dostoyesvky’s novel of the same name, and the plots are basically the same even while the details differ greatly. Simon is a low-level cubicle drone in a dour corporate office run by a distant, unglimpsed authority figure called The Colonel (James Fox). The construction of his spartan, drained existence owes a deep dystopian debt to Franz Kafka (especially as visualized by Orson Welles) as well as to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, though one gets the sense that Simon would give his right arm for the unpredictable bursts of whimsy that characterized the latter imagined world. He’s intelligent and hard-working but his efforts, and indeed his existence, go pretty much unnoticed by everyone, from his boss (Wallace Shawn) to the cute copy room girl that he likes (Mia Wasikowska) to the co-worker (Noah Taylor) who casually calls him a “non-person”. His 2/3rds-senile mother (Phyllis Somerville) only notices him on occasion, and then it’s to call him a massive disappointment.
Simon’s awkward loneliness has creepy undertones, especially as concerns his nocturnal surveillance of the copy girl Hannah, who dwells in the apartment block across from his own stark digs; he even collects her discarded red-hued etchings from the trash chute. One night, however, he watches through his telescope lens (he gazes outwards in his fantasy-leisure time after spending the rest of his life gazing inwards) as the man in the flat above Hannah’s waves at him and then jumps to his death. Soon afterwards, a new employee starts at the office and moves into the vacant apartment: James Simon (Eisenberg also), a dead ringer for Simon, though only the doppelgängers themselves seem to notice the resemblance. James is confident and likable, and after a brief period of befriending and trying to aid in Simon’s efforts to get out of himself, this double begins to rise to successes in the professional, social, and sexual spheres that Simon can only wish for but never achieve. Simon doesn’t have much and aspires to only a little more, but James seems intent on taking all of it for himself.
Mere synopsis and description cannot do The Double requisite justice. Ayoade’s shot composition is repeatedly impressive, but is never simply about technical showmanship: it’s firmly at the service of the artistic, thematic vision. The nods to Kafka and Gilliam in the production design coalesce into Simon’s hilarious interactions with the workplace bureaucracy, which gradually erase his professional existence with curt, polite absolutism. The seamless conversations between Simon and James are also rapid-fire dark comedy, with James instructing Simon on the many small things he can do to evade giving off the impression of homosexuality (“Defence wins championships,” he quips). Eisenberg is superb in the split role, nailing Simon’s insular instincts as assuredly as James’s devil-may-care outgoing nature. He even seems to wear each character’s identical wardrobe differently: Simon’s suit is just a little bit too big, underscoring his awkward solicitude, but in the case of James, the mis-fit of his clothes emphasizes his casual personality and libertine activities.
There is a strong, implied critique of corporate capitalism’s erasure of individual agency at work in The Double, in contrast to Dostoyevsky’s more historically proximal critique of Tsarist Russia’s vast, dehumanizing official bureaucracy (a fleeting illuminated cross is a formless stab at faith, quite contrary to Dostoyesvky’s orthodox Christianity). But The Double, its setting steadfastly archaic in a way that makes it seem more like an alternate past than a dire future, is metaphorically contained. Its symbolic implications are compellingly imparted in images of duplication, containment, and stagnation, but they reach no further than the textual boundaries of the film frame. Ayoade has constructed a potent, focused package of technical and aesthetic virtuosity that scratches at the gates of that hoary, indeterminate realm of what we tend to call “genius”. That focus, however, is ever directed internally, just as Simon’s is. This may not be a criticism but only an observation. The Double is a tremendous work of cinema, wherever its focused gaze is directed.
There now seems to be a distinct possibility that, nearly two weeks after unarmed 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown was killed by six bullets fired by white police officer Darren Wilson, the tense multi-day standoff in Ferguson, Missouri between protesters and heavily-armed police is witnessing a distinct de-escalation. The civil unrest initially focused on the perceived lack of accountability for the killing, exacerbated by long-entrenched racial tensions. Wilson’s name was not released for many days following the incident, and he still has not been charged or even suspended from his position with the Ferguson PD pending investigation. The majority African-American community of Ferguson, served and protected by a 94% white police force, carried out (mostly) peaceful protests demanding at least some rudimentary steps towards what they felt to be justice for the slain Brown. The Ferguson PD responded with a paramilitaristic show of force, rolling in over a hundred cops in riot gear, armored personnel carriers, assault and sniper rifles, and dispersing crowds with tear gas, rubber bullets, and mass arrests.
With outside authorities as high up as the Governor of Missouri, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (who visited the victim’s family and local officials in Ferguson), and even President Barack Obama calling for calm and then taking concrete steps to ensure that (at least the illusion of) a compensatory investigative process is properly commenced, the situation is beginning to normalize. But at its height late last week and into the past weekend, the events in Ferguson took on the appearance of the potentially explosive revolt that seems ever to be simmering beneath the veneer of quotidian American capitalist democracy in contemporary times. It was a lightning rod in a persistent electrical storm of politics, economics, race, social structures, law enforcement and justice, gun violence, and creeping authoritarianism, and the eyes of much of the world were on this St. Louis suburb as flash after flash tore through the darkness.
As with most social crises that spiral out of the control of any of the parties involved in recent years in America, the unrest in Ferguson appeared in a different light depending on the vantage point from which it was viewed. The African-American community (such a monolithic and distorting term; as if every black American feels the same way about every issue) rallied behind Brown as yet another tragic loss at the hands of a law enforcement, justice, and penal system that seems distinctly tilted against them. He was a new Trayvon Martin, another victim of the order of Jim Crow transmogrified and disavowed but forever virulent in the American corpus. With the force of white progressives behind them (especially online, where Twitter’s #Ferguson hashtag has proved essential reading), the protesters’ Hands Up, Don’t Shoot gesture struck a chord with a national community of minorities feeling unduly affected by blithe powers-that-be determined to act upon their agency without regard for their well-being. Some media outlets covering the developments soon rallied to their side when their reporters experienced the heavy hand of the police response firsthand, and commentators warning about the increasing, alarming militarization of police departments across the country could point to a stark object lesson of their views on the matter by the images filtering out of Ferguson.
Many conservative observers were equally troubled by the oppressive response of the police to the demonstrations, and major libertarian figures such as Senator Rand Paul belatedly expressed trepidation about the apparent iron fist of state power crushing the expression and equitable treatment of fellow citizens (although libertarianism’s relationship to American race relations has rarely been sensitive to African-American concerns). But the Fox News Right reacted with a predictable mix of pitiless fascistic glee and thinly-veiled racial prejudice, amplifying reports of looting, disseminating the Ferguson PD’s self-serving impugning of Brown’s character (he had no criminal record, and though he may have been a suspect in a robbery the same night, Wilson knew nothing of this and was confronting him about jaywalking), and generally supporting the righteousness of armed officers killing unarmed black men for simply looking like a criminal (because what else does a criminal look like to a white conservative than a young black male?).
Even if I pretty plainly believe that one of these perspectives is right and the other is dangerously wrong, this does not change the lingering truth that both of them see in the Ferguson unrest a volatile but powerfully demonstrative opportunity to support their ideological predilections. This is a curious but revealing fact of modern American domestic crises that is amplified by the apparatus of instant absorption and response of the internet.
It may be that a crisis like the one now dwindling away into history in Ferguson could once have changed minds, shifted views on the underlying social discrepancies and discriminatory infrastructures that form the roots of the ignited problems at hand. But Ferguson seems to instead have hardened opinion and further entrenched both the opposition to and the support of that extensive root system of restriction that has always lain beneath the superficial freewheeling liberty of America. It’s worth remembering that even the mass slaughter of the Civil War could not fully persuade Americans of a century and a half ago to tear out the roots of racial prejudice and systematic inequality that snaked rhizomatically beneath their growing national project. One fears that the courage (or the necessity) required to commit to this uprooting will require another crisis of such cataclysmic proportions while fervently hoping that it does not.
12 Years a Slave (2013; Directed by Steve McQueen)
A British arthouse director made the greatest film about American slavery by encapsulating as many of the different species of horror and degradation as could be reasonably contained in a single feature-length cinematic narrative. Physical pain, corporeal mutilation, psychological torment, verbal abuse, emotional agony, sexual objectification and assault, severing of family bonds, moral and intellectual debasement, curtailment of freedoms, and the constant, unpredictable possibility of immient, punitive death; 12 Years a Slave finds the time and space for all of the dominant cruelties of the antebellum slave order. Most impressively, it neither over-aestheticizes slavery’s horrors nor renders them with a pitiless affect that numbs its audience’s empathetic muscles. This is a relentless film, but its trials purify rather than punish.
Director Steve McQueen (the Caribbean-Briton video artist, not the 1970s actor, who is quite dead) and his screenwriter John Ridley draw from a fairly conventional slave narrative memoir for their quietly, searingly revolutionary film material. Solomon Northrup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free African-American living with his wife and two children in Saratoga, New York in the 1840s. He works as a violinist and has friendly relations with his fellow (mostly white) citizens. Persuaded by a pair of purported circus agents (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) to join them in Washington, D.C. on a two-week paying gig, Northrup awakes from a night of excessive dining and drink to find himself in chains in a cell. He is not in prison, but rather has been captured into slavery. He is shipped and sold south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and spends more than a decade of his life as a slave on several different Southern plantations before gaining his freedom again in fortuitous circumstances.
Northrup’s story hardly seems extraordinary to students of this particular American literary genre, nor are its harrowing details radically new to anyone familiar with antebellum history and the slave system’s terrible particulars. But the mass audience of American and worldwide moviegoers who made 12 Years a Slave an undeniable commercial success are neither of those things. Indeed, concepts like the kidnapping of free blacks to be sold as slaves, slave auctions (Paul Giamatti runs the sale of Northrup and of a female slave who is a mother of two), and lynchings may be new to these masses, and if not, have certainly not previously been glimpsed being performed by movie stars in a major prestige picture.
McQueen presents slavery’s horrors as intractable realities, and the truly tremendous Ejiofor is his conduit of simultaneous corporeal, psychological, and moral alarm and suffering. The corporeal, it must be said, dominates his approach. McQueen’s vision of pre-Civil War America is one of recurring, persistent mutilation of bodies of all kinds: trees and sugarcane felled and carved up by axes, machetes, and saws, rivers churned violently by turbulent paddlewheels, and, of course, the backs of Negro slaves criss-crossed by the open, suppurating wounds inflicted by the master’s lash. Beaten down in existential despair by his enslaved plight, Northrup even tears his violin to pieces, its discarded shreds left on the ground like the scant shards of his human dignity stripped and smashed by the slavery system that has entrapped him.
This has been a common trajectory in discursive texts to the overwhelming set of problematic implications that African-American slavery manifests, to emphasize the bodily oppression of a system that reduces people to property to synecdochize its myriad other oppressions. But where most texts can’t proceed beyond the shock value of the chains and whips, 12 Years a Slave utilizes the violence meted out on black bodies as the preamble of its conversation on slavery. McQueen and Ridley never fall to sermonizing, but demonstrate in natural, successive moments the panoply of degradations to Northrup’s self and to his liberty.
They also reveal the differentiated costs of slavery on his fellow slaves: one (Michael Kenneth Williams) is killed before even reaching auction, another (Adepero Oduye) is consumed by grief at being torn from her children, another (the memorable Lupita Nyong’o) is used as a sex object by her mean drunk of a white master (Michael Fassbender) and violently resented by his wife (Sarah Paulson) in a way which can only lead to her suffering.
Inverted costs consume the slavers: Northrup’s first master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) is relatively kind and appreciative of Northrup’s intelligence and abilities, but cannot protect him from a vindictive overseer (Paul Dano) and sells him on to the aforementioned cruel Epps (Fassbender). Epps is played by Fassbender as a man whose very soul is absent, eaten away inside of him by the epidemic parasite of slave ownership and the related assumptions of masculine strength, godliness, and white superiority that he clings to in order to sustain some illusion of its legitimacy. Mrs. Epps, located above her slaves with an agency proscribed in ways distinct from them, despises this shell of a man but preserves hegemonic social assumptions by displacing her resentment onto his object of desire, Nyong’o’s Patsey. Even Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian opposed to slavery on principle, is hesitant to help Northrup deliver a letter to friends in the North lest it cost him paid employment in the South.
I’ve prefaced this review by characterizing 12 Years a Slave as a something of a holy fire, burning away the lingering sins of American slavery by exposing them unflinchingly to the blazing flame of aesthetic openness. Nowhere in the film does this flame burn more brightly or with more harrowing portent than in its unforgettable sequence of searing exposure of a historical horror. Northrup is snatched by Dano’s Tibeats, who intends to lynch the slave for defying his fickle authority. Another overseer chases off Tibeats and his confederates before they can finish the hanging, but Northrup is left strung by the neck over the branch of an old tree in full view of the plantation house, standing on strained toes to prevent his own suffocation. Many witness his plight, though only a fellow slave’s offer of water relieves him in any way. McQueen holds on the image of Northrup’s partial lynching for long inexorable minutes as our discomfort grows in relation to that of the victim (though it can never be more than a shadow of its shadow). The only sounds are Northrup’s choking and the pastoral hum of a gorgeous Southern plantation summer’s day around him. It’s a scene of discomfort that seems like it will never end, that stretches on towards eternity. It’s a representative tableau of the remarkable 12 Years a Slave as a whole: moral ugliness illuminated by aesthetic beauty, oppressive cruelty shown in all of its immutable awfulness, but with a serious, steadfast refusal to look away, even for a second.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014; Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo)
After being unfrozen half a century following his last conscious moment (tough break) and helping to save the world from transdimensional alien invasion (ho hum, just another day), the erstwhile Captain America, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is adjusting to life in 21st Century America. He doesn’t mind the food (“we used to boil everything” in the 1940s) or the Internet and he’s got a list going of the things that he needs to catch up on from the last few decades (he’s crossed off Star Wars, but still needs to get to Star Trek). He’s got a nice pad in a brownstone in Washington, D.C. and works as an operative for the national mega-security agency S.H.I.E.L.D under the command of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and alongside Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).
We see the Captain and his S.H.I.E.L.D team in action early on, boarding a highjacked agency ship in the Indian Ocean to free hostages. As the super soldier stealthily and gymnastically neutralizes pirates with fists, feet, and vibranium shield before tangling with their leader Georges Batroc (Georges St-Pierre), Romanoff pulls some encyrpted data off of the ship’s computers on secret orders from Fury. Cap is irked to have been lied to about the full import of the mission, but he’s about to find out that the agency is a veritable hothouse for deception, conspiracies, infiltration, counter-infiltration, and surprise birthday parties that he wasn’t invited to and has now ruined for everyone else (I may have made up one of those, guess which one and win nothing whatsoever).
Fury seems stung enough by Rogers’ Greatest Generation disapproval of his underhandedness to show a bit of his hand. Beneath S.H.I.E.L.D HQ on the banks of the Potomac are three huge Helicarriers of the sort that featured in The Avengers. Linked to spy sattelites and intelligence databases, Project Insight (as the hyper-weaponized aerial platforms are called) is a sophisticated system of preemptive identification and instant elimination of threats to national security, however we choose to define that term (though “we” never get to define it, which is the exact problem). Cap’s hesitance at the implications of the use of these ultra-drones must sting Fury as well, because he delays implementation of the program, to the dismay of the senior Secretary of S.H.I.E.L.D, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford).
Before you can so much as google “NSA”, however, Fury is ambushed and evidently killed on the streets of D.C. Fury finds Rogers first, handing him the flash drive that Romanoff recovered from the ship and telling him to trust no one. Rogers tries to chase down Fury’s assassin, a masked man with a bionic arm, but loses him (it won’t be their last meeting, and it wasn’t their first either, not by a long shot). Back at S.H.I.E.L.D, Pierce can’t convince the Captain to share what he knows, so he has him targetted for elimination as a seditious fugitive. With Romanoff and a former Air Force pararescueman (Anthony Mackie) as his sole allies, Captain America’s conviction in the value of liberty will be challenged as he unravels what is being done by the nation’s defence establishment to secure that liberty.
Full of sneak attacks, ruses, digital data swaps, and contemporary distrust of institutions, The Winter Soldier stands as a purposeful contrast to The First Avenger, Joe Johnston’s exciting-enough but distinctly square-jawed exercise in WWII era nostalgia. The director’s chair is shared by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, best-known as directors of television comedy, including most of the best episodes of Community (one cast member of that eternally-resurrected classic makes a cameo appearance which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling). They have a mastery of the sequences of ridiculous comics action, including Cap flattening an elevator’s worth of foes and a running battle with the titular badass (played by Sebastian Stan) on a D.C. freeway and streets, that was evidently worked out in Community‘s paintball episodes. They also load down their fleet action picture with push-button current affairs political issues from the national security surveillance state dossier. Romanoff even becomes an Edward Snowden figure near the end, only with better hips, one would imagine.
But if The Winter Soldier desires to embed some trenchant political commentary on the ethics of American power in its silly (but, this being Marvel, impeccably executed) superhero yarn, then the big, game-changing twist on the nature of S.H.I.E.L.D (which must be spoiled below to make the necessary point) is a gigantic cop-out. Rogers and Romanoff (Evans and Johansson have an easy but never sexualized chemistry, which is hard for two pretty people to pull of convincingly) discover an early S.H.I.E.L.D base in the ruins of an army compound. There, the computer-locked consciousness of Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) reveals to them that Hydra, the secret Nazi splinter group of misanthropic scientific fanatics with global genocidal aims that the Captain thought he had defeated in the war, is still alive. Not only alive, but subsisting as a malevolent worm inside the body of S.H.I.E.L.D and soon to take control of the mass extermination potential of Project Insight.
In the midst of Zola’s expositional screed (Jones’ German-accented smarm is a real highlight), there’s an apparent reference to most of the dirty-handed secret ops attributed to American government agencies (coups, assassinations, empowering of dangerous extremists) being the work of Hydra. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a highly fictional narrative, granted, and this reference is a throwaway one. But how convenient that all of that underhanded covert activity that Americans feel ashamed to know that the CIA was behind was not actually the work of home-grown government agents but of secret Nazi madmen.
It’s a stroke redolent of the particular ideological context of Captain America, where American power can only ever, at its core, be morally upright and freedom-preserving, a force for positive outcomes worldwide. No True American would do evil, and you’d better believe that Captain America is a True American. War and propaganda got similar whitewashings in The First Avenger via this particular brush, but The Winter Soldier evokes a whole volatile set of civil liberties trespasses and then forgives the real-world perpetrators of those trespasses within the boundaries of its own comics-derived discursive text. The Russos want to invest their movie with the weight and import of vital political issues but also want ultimate immunity from the conclusions that those issues might ultimately lead audiences to draw about the abuses of power of the national security state. In other words, The Winter Soldier wants to have its freedom cake and eat it, too. But this critic, for what little it might be worth, is sending this movie to bed without dessert.
12 Monkeys (1995; Directed by Terry Gilliam)
The films of Terry Gilliam (more of which obviously need to be written about in this space by your humble critic) frequently find themselves returning to the same themes and attendant supporting images. The imaginative individual, whose fantastical visions seem at odds with rational reality, is dismissed and even actively oppressed by a petty-minded, intensely bureaucratic authority that labels this divergent agent as mad, frivolous, or counter-productive. Fantasy and reality, time and memory meld and trespass upon each other; a porous membrane appears to separate them, rather than a hard wall. Most memorably, the entire experience of confronting these slippages, this representational no-man’s land between the concrete and the abstract, is marked not by an old-fashioned, quasi-epiphanous aesthetic wonder at the revelation of the sublime but a disorientation and discomfort at the irruption of the magical realm into the definite boundaries of our recognizable quotidian reality.
12 Monkeys might be Gilliam’s most fully realized and coherently narrativized expression of these ideas that fascinate him and pervade his films. More recently contextualized as the middle chapter of a decades-spanning dystopian trilogy including 1984’s Brazil and 2013’s The Zero Theorem, 12 Monkeys is of a piece with not only the rest of Gilliam’s works but also with contemporaneous genre cinema like Seven and The Matrix, offering a harsh portrait of social decay and impending apocalyptic catastrophe that clashed provocatively with the optimistic prosperity of the Clinton boom years of the 1990s. But it’s also a less era-specific illustration of the madness of memory, as well as one of the great time-travel films (greatly influential on the more superficially clever Looper, for example, with which it shares not only a generic subject but a male lead) if only because it jettisons the paradoxical trickery and presents the stream of time as immutable and ultimately unchangeable, if fairly muddy.
12 Monkeys shifts forward and backward in time, without any flashy visual cues, along with its protagonist, James Cole (Bruce Willis). A barcode-tattooed convict, Cole is taken from his cage and tasked with a mission. It’s 2035, 40 years after a viral contagion killed 5 billion people, and mankind’s remnant dwells in a half-salvaged makeshift subterranean world, unable to return en masse to the surface of the planet. Sent to the frozen ruins of Philadelphia in a bubble-plastic hazmat suit to collect insect specimens allowing underground scientists to study the upper world, Cole surprises the egghead committee that assigned him to the task by actually returning alive (though only barely, after running across a grizzly bear in Philly).
Having proved himself both expendable and cleverly observent, Cole is chosen for a very different but much more important mission. He is to be sent back in time via a crude (and, of course, vaguely sexual) method of the scientists’ devising. He will arrive in the months before the virus began to spread, in 1996, where he will track down the terrorist organization called the Army of the 12 Monkeys, believed to be the responsible party for the contagion. If he can obtain a sample of the virus so that it can be studied and perhaps provided against so that the surface can be accessible again, that would be good; if he can stop the Army of the 12 Monkeys and avert the whole catastrophic turn of events, that would be great.
Unfortunately, time travel is not an exact science. Cole is first sent to Baltimore in 1990, where his insistence on being from the future gets him institutionalized. In the asylum, he makes the acquaintance of psychologist Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), who seeks to understand his delusions, as well as that of Jeffrey Goines (a young and unhinged Brad Pitt), who has a formidable set of delusions of his own. Eventually returned to his own time and finally arriving in 1996 (after a brief, nude appearance on the Western Front of WWI, where he receives a bullet in the leg), Cole tracks down Railly, then Goines, and begins to unravel how they are connected to the end of human life as we know it, as well as to a recurring dream/memory from his youth whose elements begin to look more familiar the longer he stays in his past.
Gilliam’s films are always wonders of production design (this time by Jeffrey Beecroft), and both his future and our present are resonantly discomfiting in their knarled, inhuman detail. 2035 is patchwork metal, concrete and electronics; Cole’s debriefings by the committee take place with him strapped to a metal chair raised high above the ground, a probing sphere with screens showing the disembodied eyes and mouths of his inquisitors floating before him. In the 1990s, both Philadelphia and Baltimore are pictures of advanced urban decay (the film was shot on location in both cities and Gilliam’s lens is far from flattering). Homeless people stagger among piles of refuse, Cole saves Railly from assaults in a grimy abandoned theatre and a roach-friendly motel room, and the rare clue presents itself inevitably in the form of graffiti.
The asylum is a bad old-fashioned madhouse that probably didn’t exist anymore in 1990, high whitewashed vaulted rooms filled with the unwashed insane, cartoons and Marx Brothers movies (Monkey Business, natch) running hysterically on the television, the jabbering Goines narrating and extrapolating on every detail and more for Cole like Dante’s escort through Hell, everything shot with unbearable closeness through Gilliam’s use of fresnel lenses. Even when his settings move up the social scale, Gilliam throws the viewer purposely off-kilter: in 1996, Cole finds and confronts Goines at a fancy dinner party at the mansion of his famous virologist father (Christopher Plummer), and the time-traveller then fights for his escape from Goines’ security thugs down and around a vortex-like grand wooden spiral staircase.
The disorientation of this sequence and the discomfort of Cole in an unfamiliar time where he is quickly labelled as a mentally ill criminal fugitive represents what Gilliam, as always, understands as the disorientation and discomfort of the individual in the face of a rational capitalist social order that mandates productivity and normalized behaviour. Goines’ paranoid rantings, inside and outside of the asylum, return to this theme of centralized control of behaviour and thought, often within the framework of leftist anti-consumer invective. He’s unstable and other characters label him as such, but Goines see the strings more clearly than anyone else.
Much more resonant is the way that 12 Monkeys presents memory itself as a form of madness. Like a good psychologist, Railly works to convince Cole that his mission from the future and the epidemic that will mostly wipe out the human race are delusions, symptoms of a past trauma or a general, untenable reality that he’s fleeing from. Cole even begins to want to believe her, but instead she comes around to his line of thinking and aids in his quest. Her conversion to his accomplice comes in a movie theatre screening an Alfred Hitchcock marathon; as they don disguises eerily similar to those in his haunting vision of a shooting in an airport concourse, Scottie and Judy trace decades on the tree rings of a felled redwood in Vertigo. Railly completes the rapprochement of memory and perceived reality when she dons a blonde wig; she emerges as a dark mirror image of Kim Novak’s first appearance after being transformed into the spitting image of a woman long dead, the red light that saturates Stowe marking the moment as a clear warning to Cole in contrast to the queasy desire of the green light that bathes Novak in Vertigo. This is not merely a namecheck homage, but a metaphorical reference that deepens 12 Monkeys‘ treatment of memory and perception by evoking another great film about the disorientation of the past, the madness of memory.
12 Monkeys is possibly Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece because its jumble of clues and images and metaphors crystallizes into a clear, tense, and emotionally satisfying final act and not simply a flattering intellectual/aesthetic exercise. Just as the legendarily Quixotic and supposedly wasteful auteur delivered a complicated film on time and under budget (and turned a major profit for Universal in the process), Gilliam’s film displays a lean hunger and focus without sacrificing any of his idiosyncratic visual grace notes. It’s such a compelling fable of memory and madness because it keeps the madness at bay, or at the very least on a tight leash.
Fargo – Season 1 (FX; 2014)
After screening the first two episodes of FX’s 10-part anthology-style teleplay twist on the snowy, bloody milieu of Coen Brothers’ cinematic masterpiece, I dismissed this television Fargo as an uninspired, comically inept, tonally mistuned rehash on superior material. After its broadcast run, however, enough reliable sources attested to its quality to convince me to revisit it, to entertain the faint possibility that this humble critic may have been, perish the thought, wrong in his judgments in this particular case.
The truth is that Fargo begins to find its own voice around the third episode and becomes a markedly more absorbing and even very occasionally affecting narrative of off-kilter crime drama. It doesn’t really become much funnier, one of the biggest problems noted in my PopMatters review linked above; a Coens acolyte will wait patiently for cathartic bursts of loopy deadpan dialogue that never arrive. But it begins to build up a clever interactive relationship with the events of the film Fargo, establishing them as a part of this world’s history.
Oliver Platt’s supermarket giant Stavros Milos, for example, has a mid-season subplot (too swiftly resolved and abandoned) about divine judgment and forgiveness centering around the suitcase of money buried in the snow by Steve Buscemi’s Carl, and his blackmailers set a meeting with him at the top of the parking garage where Carl kills Wade Gustafsson to acquire the money (it’s a Memorial Parking Garage, a droll referential gag). The character proxies begin to dovetail with their original models more as things proceed as well: the talkative and silent duo of underworld types (Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard) share a similar survival rate as those played by Buscemi and Peter Stormare; brilliant small-town cop Molly Solverson (Alison Tolman) ends the season pregnant just like the iconic Marge Gunderson does; and the doomed final escape of Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, excellent as always) mirrors the deflating capture of the shifty Jerry Lundegaard.
What emerges as the story marches on, however, is that writer Noah Hawley is a student of the Coens’ other work, too. In particular, the film that finally won the quirky indie filmmakers their first Best Picture Oscar, the completion of the initial Academy Award breakthrough of Fargo, is a major influence. Hawley borrows from No Country For Old Men a suggestion of decent folks’ world-weary resignation in the face of pitiless, violent brutality, giving Bob Odenkirk’s aw-shucks small-town police chief a version of Tommy Lee Jones’ monologue about horrors overcoming neighbourly sympathy. He also adapts the source of those horrors from the aforementioned work. Billy Bob Thornton’s calmly evil, sociopathic mastermind killer Lorne Malvo racks up a frightening body count like Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh while pontificating parables about the order of good and bad, natural and artificial. Thornton, along with Freeman and flashes from Odenkirk, is often the best thing about Fargo, but his primacy in the narrative also reflects an embrace of morally reprehensible, sophisticated, “badass” villainy that is at odds with the cinematic text being referenced and expanded upon in this television version. If I was perhaps wrong to dismiss this Fargo entirely, I was not far wrong about the reasons to do so.
The Amazing Race Canada (CTV; 2013-Present)
Much further down the artistic spectrum of rejigged formats, CTV’s Canadian take on the seemingly eternal CBS globetrotting game show/social relationship fishbowl is currently flying through its second season. There isn’t too much to say about it that you couldn’t equally say about the American flagship of the franchise: a heady, irresistible mix of first-past-the-post competitive appeal, traveller’s envy, and the catty mockery of its archetypal contestants (Driven athletes! Laid-back permabaked hippies! Young urban professionals! Parent-child duos with Oedipal issues!), it’s basically an endlessly-repeatable formula for disposable entertainment. Perfect television.
That much of the same can be said for this Canadian version is a statement to its much more confidently staged and edited second season. A brief detour away from all-Canadian settings and overseas (to Hong Kong and Macau) folded easily into the package, too. There’s some smugly quasi-nationalist sniffing in some quarters at the implied conquest of Canadian television by an American franchise, but this criticism ignores the undeniable fact that The Amazing Race Canada features considerably more specifically Canadian content than almost anything else on location-neutral Canadian TV (heck, they had a stand-in for Robert freakin’ Service testing Season 1 contestants’ ability to recite his poetry, for pete’s sake).
Keeping all of this firmly in mind, one can criticize the show for certain structural and/or casting issues. The product placement for Ford, Air Canada, and Scotiabank is much more central to the workings of the show than even the in-show advertising in the American version. Celebrity and semi-celebrity contestants are gradually conquering the whole of the cast, though it’s interesting to see women’s hockey gold medalists with terrible eye-makeup, ballet dancer Rex Harrington reacting petulantly to every setback, and Joanne McLeod of Body Break tell someone to go fuck themselves.
The choice of host might leave the most to be desired, however. Skeleton racer Jon Montgomery got the job, mostly on the collective memory of his attention-grabbing sporting and media performance during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where he won a gold medal, celebrated by walking through a jubilant crowd on Whistler’s main street and chugging from a pitcher of beer, and held the amateurish, jingoistic Canadian media at the event rapt with his motormouth charisma in a classic Manitoba hoser accent. He performs most of the hosts’ duties well enough, narrating the challenges and destinations mostly impeccably and welcoming exhausted racers to the leg-ending mat with the requisite mix of cheeriness for good finishes and sympathy for eliminations. But Montgomery might just be a bit too sincere when compared to the flagship’s Phil Keoghan, with his raised eyebrows and non-elimination leg misdirection (the goofily unaffected Montgomery can’t summon the gumption to mislead anyone, even for the telegraphed few moments that Keoghan does so). Keoghan’s slightly knowing air and dry unflappability signals the participatory interpretations and judgments of the viewers at home; who can forget his immortal “Oy vey” when faced with an overconfident team eliminated with an Express Pass in their pocket? Montgomery is not quite as detached, and his earnestness is shared by the show in general, to its very mild detriment.