Better Call Saul (AMC; 2015)
The history of the television spin-off is a mixed one. For every Frasier or The Colbert Report that carves out a distinct legacy from its parent program, there are shows like Joanie Loves Chachi or The Lone Gunmen that fizzle out and become mere footnotes to the epochal ratings hits that spawned them. Vince Gilligan was a co-creator of The Lone Gunmen, an X-Files spin-off. He seems to have been stung by its failure but not enough to be put off by the spin-off concept. And so, after he stewarded an epochal television phenomenon called Breaking Bad, his next project jumped off from that, as if to prove that it could be done and done very well.
Better Call Saul is the resulting show, and it blows out of the blocks like Usain Bolt. A prequel to Breaking Bad that is already stronger in its first season than its creative sire was at the same juncture, Better Call Saul details the career of Walter and Jesse’s shifty law-bending legal advisor Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) before he encounters the meth-dealing duo whose dangerous activities land him in a sort of underworld version of witness protection. The artfully-shot, black-and-white opening sequence of the series pilot shows the now-anonymous Goodman toiling as a Cinnabon manager in Nebraska and screening the videotapes of the corny old television ads for his law practice in sad nostalgia.
This sets up Better Call Saul as an extended flashback narrative to Saul’s younger days, a document of his path to the wrong side of the law on which he had his feet firmly set when he met Walter White. Leaving behind a mis-spent con-man youth in Illinois and a close shave with serious jailtime, the lawyer who will become Saul Goodman is struggling to establish a practice under his birth name, James “Jimmy” McGill. Bitter at the big-shot Albuquerque law firm Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill for refusing to take him on after he scraped his way to the bar while working in their mail room, McGill does thankless public defender work while hustling for clients out of his office in a closet at the back of a nail salon (where the Vietnamese matron won’t even allow him a free sip of cucumber water). He’s saddled with an older brother, Charles “Chuck” McGill (Michael McKean), who was once a top barrister and partner at HH&M but now won’t leave his house and is afflicted with an semi-hypochondriacal “allergy” to electromagnetism that renders him professionally and even personally helpless.
Better Call Saul is sharply written, seeding early episodes with tokens of Breaking Bad lore and characters that previously have (or, in the timeline of the televised world, later will) featured in that Emmy-winning drama. In addition to Odenkirk (who is uniformly superb, clinching a suprise career renaissance), Saul’s laconic, sarcastic “fixer” operative Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) finds his way into the criminal underworld and, one must assume, eventually Goodman’s employ after a messy exit from the Philadelphia Police Department. Additionally, volatile, dangerous drug dealer Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz), a major antagonist early in Breaking Bad‘s run, crosses paths with Jimmy McGill early on. Jimmy demonstrates his exceptional courtroom skills more fully in a tense and potentially fatal encounter in the desert with Tuco and his thugs than he ever does in an actual courtroom.
Better Call Saul shares Breaking Bad‘s core themes of thwarted masculine primacy transmuted into trespasses into the criminal underworld, its social canvas of New West urban sprawl and institutional crookedness, and its portrait of moral death by a thousand cuts. Jimmy McGill’s gradual march towards Saul Goodman involves minute adjustments in the trajectory of his moral arc that become ever greater and more fateful, very much like Walter White’s. Although the traumatic run-in with Tuco recalibrates Jimmy’s compass to a virtuous true north, he finds that Doing the Right Thing often has a fairly steep cost, while brushing aside such white knight predilections can carry immediate dividends (with the harsh costs waiting further off). Veering towards an end point that those familiar with Breaking Bad are aware of and breathlessly anticipate, Better Call Saul is a different serial narrative animal. We know where Jimmy McGill is headed, broadly speaking. But if Gilligan continues to provide such superb storytelling material, we don’t mind if he takes his time getting there.
Taco Bell, it turns out, is rolling out a breakfast menu. This is precisely the sort of leading-edge current events revelation that you come to this blog to hear about, I’m sure. What sort of items are offered for breakfast at Taco Bell? I could probably do some googling and then tell you, but it doesn’t really matter, since you’re probably not going to eat them anyway. The truly important thing to know about Taco Bell’s new breakfast menu is that this brain-scrambling, utterly brazen “short film” commercial advertisement has been conceived of, shot, and released to promote it. Watch. Just… watch.
There it is: one billion-dollar fast-food corporation selling unhealthy, standardized assembly-line nutriments (Taco Bell) artfully accusing another billion-dollar fast-food corporation of selling unhealthy, standardized assembly-line nutriments (McDonald’s, the evident target of “Routine Republic”). Not only that, but the accusation metastasizes into a hyperbolic but imaginative and compelling portrait of the mass hawking of inferior conformist breakfast sandwiches as undergirding a bleak, greyscale totalitarian dictatorial state run by jackbooted McRed Army clowns and suffused with Soviet-style pro-regime propaganda urging conformity and routine. Two Young Adult dystopian fiction types rebel against this authoritarian order and take a runner for a bell-ringing utopia surrounded by green fields, where other free-spirited bright young things smile and chat al fresco in an old European piazza and chow down on Crunchwrap Huevos Supremes or whatever the heck is inside that hexagonal tortilla.
There’s so much to unpack here, one hardly knows where to begin. We’ll leave aside the above observation that Taco Bell and McDonald’s are marketing pretty much the same thing when you get right down to it (and even if you don’t), and will try not to get too bogged down in advertising agency Deutsch’s audacious conceit that Taco Bell’s fare represents some food-borne embodiment of wild-eyed freedom and individualism when compared to the oppressive conformity of McDonald’s drab factory food product. That particular twist in the discourse is prime-grade “rebel sell” material at its most unthoughtful and cynical and is not really terribly interesting except in the magnitude of its bald-faced hypocrisy, which must surely be at least partially ironic in scope. Corporate advertising has long emphasized the freedom of choice represented by the product at hand while corporate distribution and retail enforces an inflexible order of consumption, and this is not much different.
But “Routine Republic” establishes the favoured product’s liberating potential in contrast to the rigid imposition from above that characterizes the product and supporting presentation favoured by its (much more successful) competitor. The ad depicts the drained Iron Curtain quotidian reality of this McState in extremely clever and biting detail, and this depiction is the most salient feature of “Routine Republic”. Indeed, it winds up feeling more like the ad’s raison d’être than the promotion of the client’s product; “Routine Republic” is more a hit piece against McDonald’s than it is a commercial for Taco Bell. In this way as well as for its mock-serious characterization of minor divergences in corporate policy as tantamount to Orwellian oppressive absolutism, “Routine Republic” is deeply indebted to Apple’s legendary “1984” ad for its first Macintosh (which has now accrued an almost unbearable weight of irony, considering Apple’s latter-day rigid regime of tech hegemony).
Thus, the Routine Republic is a realm of stark industrial tower blocks and shuffling queues of mundanely depressed drone citizens, awaiting their limp, unsatisfying slab of morning protein and carbohydrates. Overseen by an eager voyeuristic face-painted commander (let’s call him Ronald McBrezhnev) at the pinnacle of a panoptic tower, clown-faced military underlings stand at the ready to punish any deviation from collective order, and indeed spring into action when our revolutionary heroes bolt from the food line. Peeling, discoloured propaganda posters blanket the walls on either side of the penitentiary-type yard, extolling the virtues of the morningtime mass mandate with the primary warning colours of Communism (and, eerily, also of McD’s) and overcompensatory images of populist contentment (as you can see to the right and below on the left).
This latter critique of McDonald’s image-making is the sharpest and most sophisticated offered up by “Routine Republic”, and the most lingering and unsettling comparison to authoritarian regimes. McDonald’s and Communist states alike cultivate aggressive public imagery of happiness, depicting their customers/comrades as smiling, cheerful multitudes uplifted by the beneficent regard of their monolithic patron. The inverted double-smile logo, the Happy Meals, the in-restaurant play-zones, the overt appeals to childlike delight and frequent tie-in deals with Disney entertainment (another multinational corporation with an aggressively cheerful public face); McDonald’s presents itself as a conduit of happiness above all.
“Routine Republic” turns this self-presentation on its head, likening it directly to the similar and fundamentally dishonest self-presentation of Communist regimes as essentially positive shepherds of a contented flock of citizens. The tokens of happiness in the Routine Republic are twisted into mechanisms of hegemonic oppression. The surveillance tower includes a yellow corkscrew slide, down which the subalterns of centralized power (painted clowns which trade on the countercultural conception of these makers of merry as figures of horror) slip to chase down the dissenters. To escape the Republic, the dissenters must cross a moat filled with multichromatic plastic balls, a liminal border between slavery and freedom like an inverted funhouse Berlin Wall. The discourse of happiness that supports and elides both McDonald’s mass-produced digestive misery and authoritarianism’s mass-produced social misery is exposed as a thin veneer of spin which will be brutally enforced by state violence; consumption is not a path to happiness any more than collectivism.
Punchdrunk with its own galloping wit, “Routine Republic” goes much farther than it intends to into a sneering outright critique of American capitalism’s very core. The aforementioned Taco Bell Town that the dissenters escape to, heralded by the company’s trademarked bell gong sound, is a literal city upon a hill, hearkening back to the Massachusetts Puritan John Winthrop’s biblical invocation of the new land his people were settling as a shining example of Christian-infused American exceptionalism. The idea has been repurposed by many subsequent American political leaders (most notably the noted Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan), but “Routine Republic” inverts it almost inadvertently. Tacotopia is inhabited by joyous and beautiful multicultural sun-children, contentedly feeding on the re-packaged “distinctive” cuisine of America’s much-maligned underclass southern neighbour in a distinctly Old World urban setting (prompting a brusque question: Has anyone at Deutsch ever been in a Taco Bell?).
The City of Breakfast Liberty upon the Hill is effectively marked as inherently foreign to common American experience, while the sphere of influence of the American corporate brand par excellence is marked as inherently oppressive and prison-like. The Routine Republic is the America of McDonald’s, and Taco Bell seeks to free its shackled masses yearning to breathe free with an infusion of international (ie. UnAmerican) flavour. Taco Bell’s one-time tagline “Run for the Border” takes on a brave new dimension from this perspective, coloured more than a little by the contours of the Blue State/Red State culture war. One must “run for the border” (metaphorically/culinarily at least) to evade the stifling conformity of McDonaldized America, the ad suggests.
There are many historical ironies and criss-crossing discourses at work in “Routine Republic”, and many (though likely not all) have found their way into this discussion of its implications. It is worth noting one in particular, which is the historical symbolism of the penetration of the McDonald’s brand into markets like post-Soviet Russia and limited-free-market China. More than any other corporation (even than its corporate partner Coca Cola), McDonald’s came to represent the terms of the freedom represented by American consumer capitalism as opposed to the oppression of the Communist bloc. That implication deserves to be challenged, but even those who do so must acknowledge its ingrained prominence. The deepest irony of “Routine Republic”, then, is that the company that once represented a shaft of capitalist light in the centrally-planned darkness behind the Iron Curtain is being characterized as embodying a contemporary resurrection of that darkness. And that characterization comes not from radical Left anti-capitalist activists but from a market rival that differs from the target of their withering criticism more in scale than in methodology or practice. Our current social, economic, and cultural moment is sometimes termed post-capitalism, but advertising discourse like “Routine Republic” might herald nothing less than a species of post-post-capitalism.
Insomnia (2002; Directed by Christopher Nolan)
Christopher Nolan’s now mostly-forgotten atmospheric remake of a 1997 Norwegian filmic murder mystery is set amidst the unceasing, disorienting daylight of the Arctic Circle. Two LAPD detectives are flown into the remote and suggestively-named Alaskan town of Nightmute, crossing craggy glaciers in a lurching bushplane. Similar glaciers (if not precisely the same ones) were filmed by Werner Herzog for his memorable Alaska-set documentary Grizzly Man at close to the same time, and were explicitly characterized by the enigmatic Bavarian auteur as reflective of the turmoil of the human soil. Nolan is not so explicit, but seeing as the senior detective is played by Al Pacino, it’s fair to read the traverse of great sheets of shifting, impenetrable ice as psychologically metaphorical.
Pacino is Det. Will Dormer (yes, as in the French word for “sleep”), and he and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) can’t keep their focus solely on the murder of a teenage girl in Nightmute. Their department is in the crosshairs of an Internal Affairs investigation that both cops seem to know will uncover some palpable dirt, and Eckhart sours relations soon after they arrive in Nightmute by informing Dormer that he will cut a deal and cooperate with the investigation. With a killer at large and an enthusiastic professional admirer on the local force (Hilary Swank) following on his heels like a puppy, Dormer doesn’t need the distraction and treats both the IA inquiry and soon his partner with contempt.
The murder investigation’s early arrows incline towards the victim’s abusive high-school punk of a boyfriend (Jonathan Jackson), but a sting operation at an isolated cabin among the fog-smeared, rocky shore of an inlet muddies the waters further, both suggesting another suspect and leaving Eckhart mysteriously dead, perhaps by Dormer’s hand. While maintaining compromising contact with a local mystery author (Robin Williams) who may have had something (or everything) to do with the murder, Dormer’s certainties about the case, about his partner’s death, and about his own moral equilibrium begin to fragment under the strain of his titular sleep deprivation, catalyzed by the midnight sun of the Arctic.
Nolan had not yet fully developed his now-familiar M.O. of genre homages, intellectual referentiality, and wrinkles of formal construction when he made Insomnia, and the result is a film quite beholden both to the Norwegian original and to Nolan’s filmmaking influences. Nolan does visualize Dormer’s sleepless disorientation with quick-flash montage shots of clues from the case and from his past, but not in any way that an indie filmmaker fresh out of film school wouldn’t also execute. What wit there is in the screenplay is of the sturdy cops-solving-mysteries type. Despite the hints of disequilibrium and oppressive atmosphere, Insomnia is through and through the kind of movie where the lead investigator speak the words, “I’m a cop, this is what I do”. Pacino wraps himself around this particular cliche with a vice grip.
More of note are a few strongly crafted suspense sequences, including the foggy, indistinct scene in which Eckhart is shot dead and a chase across the floating logs of a local mill. When Dormer inevitably slips up and falls beneath the water’s surface in the latter Hitchcockian sequence, he struggles underwater to find a gap in the logs to surface for a breath. The teasing, torturous promise of the shafts of sunlight between the logs recalls the midnight sun breaking through the edges of Dormer’s hotel curtain, denying him a wink of sleep.
Dormer is a man at war not only with an intelligent, manipulative suspected killer (as good as Williams is, this sort of isolated creep role can’t help but feel unsettling in other ways, given his recent end), nor merely struggling with his own moral compromises. He’s confounded by his surroundings, by the hostile environment that he finds himself in. The everlasting light of the far north and the interfering nature of the Alaskan climate and landscape reflect and intensify Dormer’s own inherent disquiet but are also external to it and are therefore psychologically incomprehensible.
This vision of the physical world as both a mirror of the soul’s violence and a sublime, ineffable mockery of the puniness of human anxiety is an Expressionist conception of the sort made solid and unforgettable by Norway’s Edvard Munch (painter of The Scream, which he officially and tellingly titled The Scream of Nature). It’s apt that the same conception animated first a Norwegian film and then a Hollywood remake, the latter at least being salvaged from a sentence of genre obscurity by not just its auteur’s subsequent mass appeal but also by its menacing setting and attendant resonant sense of anxiety and dread.
Carlos (2010; Directed by Olivier Assayas)
I fully expected to get more out of Olivier Assayas’ much-praised screen biography of notorious 1970s terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal) than I did. Strictly speaking, I could very easily have had more: this review concerns the 166-minute theatrical version of the work most readily available in North America, which was edited down from not only longer theatrical versions but from the original French television miniseries, which exceeded five and a half hours. Still, only some of the problems with Carlos are of the sort that could be remedied by fleshing out its sequence of events and expanding its narrative context. Assayas’ narrative of Carlos’s life and times conceivably ought to hold together as a compelling and involving text even with some judicious pruning, but in its second half especially it moves in jerks and becomes fatally anticlimactic.
For those unaware of the career of Carlos the Jackal (as I was), Assayas provides a kinetic and terse introduction. Following a stark murder in Paris staged like an out-take from Coppola’s The Godfather II, Ramirez Sanchez, played with a swaggering intensity by Edgar Ramirez, enters the scene. Arriving in Beirut in 1973, he moves through the streets in taxis and on scooters and up staircases to the gathering guitar rhythm of the Feelies’ “Loveless Love”. This sequence portends a crescendo of excitement that never quite arrives, but it’s a tremendous, cocksure montage in and of itself; Carlos may never be better, a backhanded bit of praise considering it happens in the first 10 minutes of the film.
The Venezuelan national Ramirez Sanchez is travelling to a meeting with the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour). He will offer Haddad his services as a soldier for the cause of Palestinian liberation from Israeli domination, which in the 1970s was a struggle that attracted idealistic leftist radicals from around the world much as the Spanish Civil War did in the 1930s (and seemed like something that could be achieved by winning hearts and minds internationally, apparently). The premise alone seems outdated and unfamiliar to contemporary observers inculcated into the narrower dimensions of the War on Terror era. Terrorism, Assayas’ film makes it seem, was a more inclusive, more romantic, altogether gentler and more idealistic practice in the 1970s (though he doesn’t pretend that it didn’t kill plenty of innocent people regardless, or that its perpetrators were not criminals). A swashbuckling anti-hero like Carlos (the codename that Illich Ramirez Sanchez adopts early in his work for the PFLP) is inconceivable in the modern terrorist context of grim fundamentalist thuggery and unpersuasive brutality and mass murder. The extreme and illegal fringes of our politics have contracted and been usurped by ideologically-rigid identity politics, just as the more moderate political mainstream has been.
Anyway, Haddad places Carlos in Paris, working with a Lebanese contact codenamed Andre (Fadi Abi Samra). When Andre betrays Carlos to a trio of French DST agents, the Jackal executes his compadre and the agents with extreme prejudice in a tense and shocking scene in a Paris flat before fleeing to Haddad’s compound in Yemen. After another in a series of dressing-downs by an angry Haddad, Carlos is nonetheless given command of a bold kidnapping plot targetting an OPEC meeting in Vienna.
The depiction of the OPEC kidnapping, an infamous media event which made Carlos a notorious underworld celebrity, takes up the lion’s share of the edited theatrical Carlos, and any impact or resonance Assayas was mustering drains away once it is ended. The arc of the event itself is a fascinating demonstration of how meticulous operational planning and uncompromising ideological intent go swiftly awry when confronted with real-world complexities and intractable obstacles. Assayas trusts in Ramirez’s magnetism and it holds our attention through a series of twists and surprise outcomes, as the OPEC plot is compromised gradually until its grander intentions are reduced to a mere pay-off.
But once the OPEC kidnapping is over, Carlos essentially is, too. Unfortunately, it goes on for another hour or more, detailing Carlos’s break with the PFLP, his terrorist free agency, his dealings with a German group of militants, and his romance and attempt at family life with the former partner of one of the German operatives (Nora von Waldstatten). Once he’s finally arrested in the early 1990s, incapacitated by illness and left without powerful backers after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the legend of Carlos and of the film about him both seem irreversibly diminished.
It can be argued with alacrity that Olivier Assayas’ Carlos cannot be properly judged at its reduced length, that it was designed to tell its story over 300+ minutes and cannot be expected to be as effective at half that running time. This observation is fair enough, but even in its shortest iteration, the bloat of ennui and indulgence begins to set in. Plot and characterization holes may be filled, motivations and fates of supporting figures may have become clearer, and some good sequences may be restored or filled out. But what was only intermittently impressive or compelling about Carlos is unlikely to become more so with additional material. It starts strong, lays out a bravado sequence or three, and maintains a remarkable performance from its charismatic lead, but Carlos has about as much sustain as its subject or as his chosen political cause. As it’s turned out, that’s not as much sustain as those invested in it might have hoped for.
All colonial societies have a dark history of violence, plunder, and disenfranchisement entwined inextricably with the usual romantic mythos of hardiness, ingenuity, and perseverence that forms their national narrative. The darkness is customarily disavowed, forgotten, or ignored in historical memory, especially when that darkness involves official policies towards indigenous inhabitants of colonized lands. Enforced suffering, fleecing indigenes of their lands and tearing out the nurturing roots of their centuries-old culture; these are all inconvenient truths of colonization in the United States, Canada, Africa, India, New Zealand, Australia, and the Polynesian Islands of the Pacific that underscore the national character and image of all of those countries (in some, such as the U.S., subsequent/concurrent machines of exploitation such as African slavery are added to the rolls of infamy). These were mass crimes, products of social and governmental machinery attributable not to faults but to purposeful design, not to flaws but to function. As such, they have no effective answer but ignorance, forgetting. But they will not be completely forgotten.
One of those modern colonial nations mentioned above has, like America, a historical stain distinct from its ill treatment of indigenous peoples. The Stain, in fact, the capitalization imparting a weight of unsettling memory never quite purged or even properly comprehended, considering the relative silence of the country’s historical and educational discourse on this particular but absolutely vital aspect of its founding. The country is Australia, and the Stain is the convict transportation system which, in little under a century, saw England banish around 165,000 people to the far side of the world to labour and often be brutally punished in a continent-sized jail which is now one of the richest and most desirable countries in the world to live.
Often glossed over in the discourse of Australian history, the convict era gets its own scholarly exacting and gruffly erudite Gibbon in Robert Hughes. Best known as an art critic for the New York Times and on the BBC and PBS, the Aussie Hughes researched, wrote, and published perhaps the definitive (and certainly the most forceful) popular historical account of Australia’s first 80 years of European settlement in 1986, almost exactly 200 years after the first English ships bearing convicts and their jailers arrived in Botany Bay to stay. The Fatal Shore is certainly the best book on Australian history that you would ever want to read, and might indeed be the finest historical non-fiction volume you would ever want to read as well. Above all, it is a tremendous and self-supporting argument for historical remembrance of uncomfortable truths in a post-modern era dedicated to burying such truths under jingoism, romanticism, and any other ism that neutralizes negative effects on profit.
One hesitates to detail the origins, practices, supporting structure, and eventual decline of the System, as the infrastructure of transportation to Australia came to be called. This is not because it is troubling and sometimes terrifying (though it certainly was) but because Hughes himself synergizes primary sources, key characters, descriptions of landscape and architecture, political and social analyses, and deeper notions of Australian identity into a gripping narrative of masterful thematic and psychological heft. Summarizing does Hughes’ self-claimed epic great injustice, and reduces the grasp of the written word and the great ocean of ideas that underlies it that allows Hughes to make that claim with absolute rightness.
Nonetheless, suffice it to say for the layman that transportation to Australia stemmed from a crime problem in Georgian Britain that was popularly understood as innate to the nature of its perpetrators but that Hughes traces to familiar liberal sociological sources of poverty and inequality as well as to the legal framework of prosecution in the British Isles. With popular appetites for public hangings over every property crime conviction waning in the mid-18th Century and in-country prisons in short supply, Britain required a dump for the human refuse its no-longer capital laws was creating. Australia, “discovered” by Captain James Cook in 1770, was selected as an experimental penal colony for English convicts, practically sight unseen.
These convicts were mostly thieves, forgers, fraudsters, and other perpetrators of property crime (as well as some political prisoners, though not as many as the Edge might have us believe), considered by mercantile Englishmen with a harshness that should seem familiar (if a mite harsh) to modern North American eyes. They were not the murderers, rapists, or prostitutes of lurid sensationalist legend, though many became those things with sufficient exposure to the difficult climate and landscape of Australia and the pitiless grindhouse of punishment and “reform” that their overseers erected there.
Hughes provides as superb a portrait of Georgian England as he does of penal Australia, but the latter picture is the one of the most value. Hughes details how convicts were sentenced, imprisoned on hulks in the Thames and then in unimaginable shipboard conditions on a nightmarish months-long passage to a land where few English folk had been and fewer still returned from. He delineates the vagaries of the assignment system by which convicts were given to free masters to work their way towards freedom, building the nascent foundations of a modern state in the process. He depicts the horrors of the System in vivid detail: infamous penal outstations for re-offenders such as Macquarie Harbour, Port Arthur, and Norfolk Island rise like malevolent demons from the miasmatic swamp of history, the reader can almost see the bloody gore inflicted by the lash oozing from convicts’ backs. Martinets, psychopaths, reformers, hard men, bushrangers, merchants, explorers, cannibals, and many other memorable characters populate the panorama. Hughes holds the entire sweeping, complex historical canvas together, its narrative strong but ambivalent like a sprawling novel by Tolstoy or Pynchon.
What makes The Fatal Shore such a truly great book is not merely that it tells an epic story well and with animating detail (though the inclusion of anecdotes like the convict who tried to slip by a checkpoint disguised as a kangaroo don’t hurt the colour of the piece). Hughes summons an unshakeable moral centre and refuses to relinquish it while also allowing a variety of views and perspectives to emerge and be given a fair airing. The System, you never once doubt, was wrong. It was based on misconceptions about the nature of crime and of criminals that dog public perceptions to this day, conservative notions of vengeful punishment and classification of mercy and kindness as weakness whose ideological ancestors pervade contemporary criminal justice to the present day. Its brutality had no reforming function and was never really intended to, just as fanciful notions of Norfolk Island pines and flax outfitting the Royal Navy with new ships for its titanic struggle against Napoleon were never a serious consideration in the colonial project of Australia.
To whatever extent English convicts were reformed in Australia, they were reformed by being treated as honest working men, afforded opportunities to advance their meagre lives by their industry that the boiling social pit of England callously denied them (and inspired their misdeeds in the first place). The prisoners of Australia were reformed by building Australia, Hughes finds, and their efforts and complicated, morally ambiguous legacy is ignored by his modern countrymen. The Stain, as the memory of Australia’s convict lineage is known, should perhaps not inspire shame but tempered pride, or at least a conflicted recognition of vital formative influence. There are deeper stains on Australian history, after all; the nation’s treatment of its Aborigines has only begun to be accounted for (and the fate of native Tasmanians, virtually wiped out during the convict era, can never be atoned for). Having convicts for ancestors is not terribly bad, and not nearly as bad as what was done to those convicts in the name of law and order.
National consciousness privileges historical accounts that instill pride, but Robert Hughes composes an account in The Fatal Shore stripped of privilege and disdainful of simplistic pride. The act of remembrance and the effort of understanding is more important than feeling good about what is being remembered and understood. It’s more difficult and more unsettling, but Hughes’ magnificent account of early penal Australia leaves not the slightest doubt that this more difficult path of historical recognition is much more worthwhile and valuable than the superhighway of disavowed, forgetful propaganda.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014; Directed by Doug Liman)
Just as its milquetoast title was hijacked by its snappier and more descriptive tagline (“Live. Die. Repeat.”, coming across like brusquely reductive existential philosophy), Edge of Tomorrow‘s conventional sci-fi action-adventure blockbuster franticness is frequently redeemed by the rejuvenating cleverness of the application of its central narrative conceit. The temporal loop that is the main fulcrum of its construction is a highly amusing device with multiple referential echoes and witty possibilities that director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) takes (not-quite full) advantage of. But the adolescent power fantasies and busy impressiveness of Edge of Tomorrow‘s apocalyptic scale gives it a more leaden step that betrays this mercurial potential.
Liman commences with that introductory mainstay of recent post-millenial Hollywood world-shaking catastrophe epics, the channel-surfing expositional prologue. The particular catastrophe in question is a destabilizing alien invasion of Europe in the near-future. Initial setbacks for the human race are trumped by a victory at Verdun spearheaded by British Sgt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who becomes central to a mass-media propaganda campaign in favour of a planned pushback expedition to the Continent by the United Defense Force (or UDF). The commander of the UDF is the Irish General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), who pops up frequently in the montage of scene-setting television clips along with U.S. public affairs officer William Cage (Tom Cruise), the ever-smiling PR man for the coming attack.
These two men meet at UDF headquarters in Trafalgar Square, London on the eve of the invasion. Brigham, for reasons that are not abundantly (or even remotely) obvious, orders Cage to the front of the beachhead invasion of Northern France. Cage, an affable talking head with no combat experience whatsoever, objects and, when those objections are brushed aside, finally attempts to flee (Cruise is superbly smarmy in this scene, his excuses and dissembling bouncing off the stone-faced Gleeson like spitballs off a rhino’s hide). Arrested and busted down to the ranks, Cage is shipped out with the advanced-force cannon fodder, strapped into a heavy metal power battle suit, and dropped into the bloodbath on the beaches. Watching his squad and even the hero Vrataski get picked off by the aliens, who seem highly prepared for the assault and resemble scuttling, digging, deracinated dreadlocks, Cage takes down one such enemy with a chest-mounted mine before expiring himself.
But then Cage awakes back at the forward military base at London Heathrow, just as he did after his arrest and before his addition to the landing force. The same sequence of events repeats itself at the base and then on the beach, Cage dies again, and awakes at the base again. After a couple of repetitions of this, Cage’s foreknowledge of battlefield events catches Vrataski’s attention on the beach, and she tells him to find her when he wakes up again.
Once he does, Cage learns that Vrataski had the same experience at Verdun. The Mimics, as the aliens are dubbed, can control and reset time through some complex interlinked process involving the key berserker fighters called Alphas and a central hive mind called the Omega. Somehow, Cage has gained some echo of this ability to repeat time through his blood; Vrataski had the ability too, but lost it after suffering combat injuries requiring a blood tranfusion (maybe the Jehovah’s Witnesses have a point about that after all). Since the Mimic force will inevitably overwhelm the UDF assault and sweep into London, exploiting Cage’s time looping to find and destroy the Omega is the only chance mankind stands of avoiding annihilation.
The temporal repetition element of Edge of Tomorrow is its surest pleasure, and the middle section of Liman’s film is a clever delight as Cage trains with Vrataski (she shoots him in the head if he suffers even the smallest wound, to reset the tape) and they attempt to proceed as far towards the Omega as possible before dying and trying it all over again. The premise is an unholy action-flick lovechild of Groundhog Day and video-gaming structure, and Liman (working from the screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel All You Need is Kill) is adept at utilizing it both to streamline his film’s pacing and expand its suggested scope by hinting that Cage’s time-loop ordeal has cycled on far longer and given him much more experience than we are shown.
Of course, this is blockbuster Hollywood with the android-esque Tom Cruise as its lead, so whatever vibrant wit is mustered is directed mainly at buttressing overwrought, CGI-heavy action sequences and simultaneously grim and superfluous martial heroism. Edge of Tomorrow has overt characteristics of the World Wars epic repurposed for our contemporary speculative fiction ascendancy, with evocations of Verdun, a besieged London, and a high-tech D-Day Normandy landing against a blackly malevolent adversary that has overrun Continental Europe. This intertextuality goes nowhere compelling, despite an intimate respite in a French country house and the climactic finale beneath the flooded Louvre.
The film’s time-looping carries intriguing metaphorical and philosophical possibilities, especially with the embedded suggestion of a history-repeats-itself replay of World War II. Edge of Tomorrow indulges none of these potentialities, marshalling the inherent intelligence of its premise for depictions of violent action heroism and nothing much more. Arguably, it is beholden to no one to provide anything beyond that. But intelligence is a terrible thing to waste, and though it is not totally misspent in Edge of Tomorrow, its utility is drained in the name of mere diversion rather than also feeding into productive significations.
One of the most surprising and ideologically unsettling movie hits of this still-young year was Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. Raking in nearly half a billion dollars in worldwide box office and six Academy Award nominations, Eastwood’s screen adaptation of the bestselling memoir of Iraq War veteran Chris Kyle, the self-proclaimed (and rather disturbingly documented) “most lethal sniper is U.S. military history”, was also a culture war talisman. The West Texan Kyle was unapologetic about his 160(!) confirmed combat kills, and supremely confident of his position of total righteousness vis-à-vis the unquestionable evil of his Iraqi victims. There was no room for anything but white hats and black hats in his worldview, and you’d best believe that Kyle himself had no doubt that he wore a white hat.
Embraced as a morally unambiguous hero by many conservatives and villified as a xenophobic mass killer by many liberals, the reception of Kyle extended to the reception of American Sniper by moviegoers. Liberal commentators called it a clumsy, hagiographic, irresponsible piece of war propaganda. Heartland conservatives, alarmed by faraway militants ISIS, wary of Applebee’s closing down due to sharia law, and convinced that their progressive, biracial president is a passive Neville Chamberlain if not a clandestine terrorist sympathizer, saw it as reflective of their worldview and voted with their dollars, making the movie a hit and a Fox News cause celebre.
I should note before any confusion creeps in that I have not seen American Sniper and yet have felt compelled to write about it or at least about its evident meanings despite that. In my own defense, I can only say that Slavoj Zizek does that sort of thing all the time, and after all one of my most popular pieces on this blog was written about a movie I had not then seen. At any rate, Andrew O’Hehir does a good job of summarizing and analyzing both the controversy around the film and what the cinematic text itself seems to be saying in his review, and I’ll let his measured take stand as my vicarious opinion until it shifts with my own viewing (which may or may not happen; Eastwood’s films do not exactly set my critical imagination aflame, I must say).
The angle I’m approaching American Sniper from is more related to a quick-take sociocultural reading of what it is about the story of Chris Kyle that appeals to so many in a post-modern nation that really ought to know better than to rush to lionize an inveterate racist who has personally ended the lives of more people than even tend to die in most plane crashes. It’s fair to assume (without much evidence to back up the assumption) that the received tone of militaristic celebration that surrounds American Sniper speaks particularly to American males, demographically the most conservatively-inclined and aggressively-natured. A quick knee-jerk interpretation would be that not only Kyle’s prowess in battle but also his non-politically-correct views on America’s perceived foreign enemies might strike this particular broad tribe as representative of a besieged perspective in the cultural discourse. Chris Kyle defends not only American social values with his sniper rifle, but also the perceived erosion of the fortress of white male power and patriarchal privilege (to the ideological opposition, that erosion is not advancing quickly enough).
This besieged position is beautifully embodied in the sniper himself. What seems to be most attractive in the figure of the sniper is his position of power. The sniper combines the martial masculinity of the soldier with a detached, zen-like voyeurism that would almost seem contemplative or philosophical if not for his deadly intent. Sniper characters in war films are often thoughtful, quiet, bookish; the professors of the battlefield. Chris Kyle, as played by Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, reclaims the sniper’s role for robust all-American masculinity.
The pathology of the modern American warfare experience is not the shell-shocked psychological trauma of the classic soldier’s narrative, the naive romanticism and sense of promised adventure swept away by the hardship of slaughter in the trenches set down in the defining anti-war text of page and screen, All Quiet on the Western Front. No, the apparent plight of the contemporary American soldier is laid out in Sam Mendes’s Jarhead: the most difficult element to deal with is not the death and inhumanity of killing but the denial of the fulfilment of the promised first-hand excitement of war by its monolithic, post-human bureaucracy and mechanization. There is no dearth of post-Iraq and Afghanistan PTSD cases, of course (one such traumatized soldier took Chris Kyle’s life a year before the film about his life was released), but the fantasy of glorious patriotic activity against a malevolent enemy is not so much subject to disillusionment as to endless deferral. Men are not being broken down by the horrors of war, they are frustrated at being shielded from those horrors by technological filters and the vagaries of command.
The sniper in general and Chris Kyle, American Sniper, in particular is an antidote to this perceived remove from from the adrenalized exhiliration and attendant psychological and moral drain of what Vietnam GIs called “the shit”. On the one hand, the sniper is a god-like figure, perched above the fray with power over life and death, theoretically untouchable except by another equivalent rifle-equipped quasi-deity (American Sniper provides one such Arabic equal, played by Sammy Sheik, which Kyle seems not to have had in real life). But on the other hand, the sniper’s position is one of uncomfortable intimacy with his targets, sharing the last moments of their lives in full magnified view before he ends them, with no disavowal of responsibility possible. In a narrowed perspective, the sniper’s power over his targets is absolute but that perspective does not spare him from the stark exposure of their inescapable humanity and mortality as a mirror of his own.
The instrument of this adapted male gaze is the scope of the sniper’s rifle. Like the camera in the classic film theory formulation, it is the conduit of the male gaze, but unlike the camera, which confers control over only representation, the scope confers control over mortality, over reality itself and not merely over a reproduction of it. It is connected to and enables that most classic of phallic extensions, the weapon of death. The gun is the source of power (or the amplifier of the power felt by its wielder), but the scope is its peephole, its interface with the human eye and the perspective of perception and intelligence. The violative voyeurism inherent to the male gaze takes on a terrible dimension of cold fatalism through the scope. But the scope is also a mechanism of literal tunnel vision; it necessarily limits the field of the sniper’s vision to his immediate target at the exclusion of the larger setting, the wider context. For Chris Kyle, that tunnel vision becomes figurative, extending to his Manichean, cut-and-dry ideology and lack of remorse for the deaths of so many fellow human beings.
O’Hehir suggests that Cooper’s performance as Kyle embeds hints of internal turmoil and guilt that Kyle himself felt no compulsion to express publically. This is the established discourse of the anti-war narrative making its presence felt, manifesting even in a demonstrably non-anti-war film as deeply repressed micro-hints of regret and moral doubt. There is a terrible irony that Kyle met his own end at the hands of a PTSD-afflicted fellow war veteran (on a shooting range, with one of Kyle’s own guns, no less). Per O’Hehir’s reading and per the dominant criticism of his memoir, Kyle’s unreflective nature and unwillingness to admit to the vulnerability of sympathy with his victims or remorse for their deaths is his central flaw. This reluctance to self-examine, this habit of (quite literally) soldiering on without looking back is not only at the core of Kyle’s downfall but at the sickly heart of conservative American masculinity as well.