Film Review: Awakenings

September 16, 2014 Leave a comment

Awakenings (1990; Directed by Penny Marshall)

Any conscientious movie buff has seen their fair share of that specific breed of inspirational films featuring a very definite trope. I refer to the familiar narrative of the detached, jaded, self-involved or otherwise socially maladapted upper-middle-class citizen of Western democratic capitalism taken out of their comfort zone into a more “primitive” foreign milieu. Through exposure to a simpler (read: more deprived or poverty-stricken) way of life and often to the folk wisdom of a noble savage representative of this more basic existence, the spoiled First-Worlder learns to appreciate the basic stuff of life and disregard the quest for commodities and status distinctions mandated by the American capitalist order. Although the fundamental inequities and injustices of the Developing World are never rectified and rarely even addressed and often the shaman figure does not survive the process of the Western subject’s enlightenment, the subject’s social re-education is accomplished and that it what is important.

Penny Marshall’s Awakenings is based on Oliver Sachs’ alternately clinical and empathetic chronicle of the life experiences of mental ward patients suffering from enchephalitis lethargica and his attempts to draw them out of their catatonic state through therapy and pharmaceutical treatment. It adapts Sachs’ memoir as an often sentimentalized fable on the failing courage of the human spirit and the determined liberal-humanist progressivism of the medical establishment (or of a few empathetic saints in the midst of smug careerists in those ranks, at least). But more than that, it renders the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to permanently awaken these catatonic patients as a limited success as an awakening of the internalized man who tried to save them from the paralysis of their own minds. It is the post-colonial narrative described above, but with the mentally ill substituted for dark-skinned foreigners of inspiring dignity.

It’s a tragic sacrifice to soppy Hollywood convention, not least because it wastes two very strong lead performances. The now-late Robin Williams, as Sachs proxy Dr. Malcolm Sayer, plays an awkward, lonely, but ultimately big-hearted man of science learning to edge out of the world of labs and specimens to connect to people. It’s especially eerie watching the solitary Sayer spend sad evenings at home alone playing the piano and studying botanical literature, knowing how Williams left the world. Something deep inside of him was being channeled in roles like this, and he is subtly moving to watch. Robert De Niro’s Oscar-nominated inhabiting of Sayer’s star patient Leonard Lowe got the Oscar nomination love and is wonderfully detailed and observed. Who would have predicted, in 1990, how few of these rich, nuanced, emotive De Niro performances we had left to watch?

Awakenings is blessed with these fine turns from fine actors and much potentially resonant material, especially as concerns patients awakening in the late 1960s from 40-year catatonic states to find a world very much changed. Not all of this is squandered, but enough of it is to engender a sense of disappointment. For a movie about realizing that life is meant to be lived to the fullest, Awakenings does not awaken to its own potential nearly often enough.

Categories: Film, Reviews

“Songs of Innocence”, Fruits of Experience: U2, Apple, and the Atrophy of Neoliberalism

September 14, 2014 Leave a comment

U2 and Apple always seemed like a corporate partnership that was meant to be. With the exception of the Irish megaband’s collaboration with Apple’s smartphone competitors Blackberry on their ultra-grossing 360 tour from 2009-11, their late-period releases have frequently been marked by promotional crossover with the technology megacorporation that has charged a premium to package and sell post-Sixties counterculture notions of liberty to the mass consumer market. The 2004 Apple commercial featuring “Vertigo”, U2’s last kick at the youth market can (to which they were relevant for 25 years, no small feat at all), was the pinnacle piece of the company’s distinct and iconic iPod ads. Bono and Steve Jobs, like the corporate entities they each headed, were very clearly cocktail-party buddies, united in their shared mission of crafting populist secular experiences as proxies for the church-bound spirituality that modern citizens found increasingly unsatisfying. Both U2 albums/concerts and Apple Stores aim to replicate the sensation of ecstatic worship in consumable portions, to package the sublime, and to make a pretty penny at it, too.

U2’s surprise decision to release their new album Songs of Innocence for free to all iTunes Store users (controversially, whether those users want it or not) a mere week after completing it makes sense not only in terms of the players’ previously-established relationship but also in terms of each player’s current position and the music retail market as it (barely) stands. Apple’s retail buzz has been distinctly muted since its fêted founder’s death three and a half years ago; they’ve carved out a healthy share of the device market but hardly dominate it, and iTunes feels increasingly like a bit of a dinosaur system in a digital music milieu advancing much faster than anyone might have reasonably expected. Apple will always have its devotees and its detractors, but unchallenged in hegemony it most certainly is not.

If Apple has stumbled from its lofty pedestal, then U2 is clinging onto the edge of its own pedestal by their collective fingertips. No Line on the Horizon was the least artistically accomplished release of a decade of unadventurous legacy efforts from the four men who forever embalmed the concept of the Biggest Band in the World. Even worse, it did not sell very well by the band’s (admittedly outlandish) standards. Giving away a new album for free seems to make a lot of sense at this point in U2’s career: they certainly don’t need the money, can play it off as a “gift” to loyal fans (and have), and are about the point in their career at which new music they produce is only barely worth paying for anyway (consumers are increasingly dubious about whether any music is worth paying for, but that’s a separate discussion).

The narrative arc of U2’s career is marked by the headrush rises and swooning faints that likewise characterize their best musical output. It’s a fine drama, when you take it all together. The brash, ambitious New Wave punks out of Dublin with an earnest political edge rising on the backs of anthemic appeals to togetherness in a fragmented, anxious culture. They hit dual peaks evoking quasi-biblical desert vision quests as therapy for modern dislocation (The Joshua Tree) and riding the cresting wave of living history in a post-modern repurposing of David Bowie’s Berlin-period shadows (Achtung Baby). At the peak of their success, they fiddled in sonically-innovative ephemera (Zooropa, still a massively underrated piece of excellence) and grandiose, self-effacing Pop Art kitsch (Pop, never a great album but also tragically underappreciated). When a sizable portion of their massive fanbase proved unreceptive to the band pushing their creative boundaries in this way, they retreated to familiar idioms and have since maintained an easy truce with their varied aesthetic legacy and rendered it for mass consumption in bevilled-down, inoffensive form, to decreasing returns.

Songs of Innocence is, of course, a William Blake reference, and the invocation of ecstatic aesthetic spirituality must surely appeal to Bono’s understanding of faith and its relationship to creativity. That said, the “Songs of Experience” half of Blake’s titular dichotomy would seem to apply more snugly to a band pushing towards four decades together. But U2’s music in general and Bono’s lyrics (The Edge writes them too, but I prefer to blame the singer) in particular have paradoxically accrued a refreshed bloom of innocent naiveté as they have advanced in years. Bono’s aggressive sincerity has always carried with it a certain guilelessness: he did place Martin Luther King’s assassination in the “early morning” of April 4th, 1968 in “Pride (In The Name of Love)” rather than when it actually happened, in the early evening. But what many saw as the irruption of irony in the band’s 1990s work, I read as a knowing world-weariness, something approaching (god forbid!) wisdom.

Songs of Innocence is yet another conscious attempt to banish doubtful knowing wisdom from the U2 project, which has gone “back to basics” so many times that even the basics seem ornate and elaborate at this point in time. Bono was quoted an album or two back self-praising the lyrics he was writing as sounding like t-shirt slogans, as if that was a good thing. This continues to be his aim, and the band behind him aims for the alternation between anthemic rockers and skyreaching hymnal epic ballads that has characterized their post-millenial phase. Producer Danger Mouse grants a certain stripped-down feel, as if what U2 required at this point in their careers is more stripping down. The resulting record, like No Line on the Horizon, has some nice moments, even some borderline-memorable ones, but none that approach the great, the grandiose, those elusive, U2-esque moments where “God walks through the room”, as Bono typically put it.

“Song For Someone” is lovely, vintage stuff if wholly unsurprising: passionately-sung Irish-folk-ish melodies along The Edge’s trademarked clear, rising riffs. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” and “Volcano” U2 it up right behind this mild highlight, but it’s hard to grasp onto much else. Opener and single “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is a bit fun but summons only a fraction of the titularly-invoked rock n’ roll saint’s no-bullshit vitality. Even a teasing reference to “The Troubles” that once granted U2 a distinct political frisson on the free-floating closing cut doesn’t ever dig in. The experienced U2 listener will yearn for more, and will have to go back into the catalogue to get it, unfortunately.

U2’s vaunted longevity has now begun to define them more so than their audacious artistic reinventions. They could use another one of those sharp aesthetic left turns, but Songs of Innocence is not it. This is one more way that U2 is closely aligned with Apple. Both are institutions predicated on versions of enlightened neoliberal capitalist hope that rolled with the punches of social and political changes to remain relevant and profitable for longer than many would have thought possible. But both have settled into lucrative but diminishing cycles of repetitious atrophy. That their partnership is not meeting with a positive reception should be a worrisome sign for both U2 and Apple going forward.

Categories: Culture, Internet, Music, Reviews

Alex Colville: Unambiguous Representations, Ambiguous Anxieties

September 3, 2014 Leave a comment

I must confess to a lack of familiarity with the paintings of renowned Canadian artist Alex Colville before venturing into the Art Gallery of Ontario’s solid retrospective of his life and work, which runs until the end of the year. Such gaps in the continuity of knowledge are surely the consequence of the essentially autodidactic instruction in art history that I’ve managed to give myself in a piecemeal manner in recent years, but I was glad to add Colville’s eerie paintings to my personal annals.

My memory has already been marked by particular memorable images of his making, certainly. To Prince Edward Island, which customarily hangs in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, is definitely familiar; it’s likely his most famous work, a sort of Canuck Las Meninas, even if it is not really his best. But it typifies the most notable features of Colville’s art: a sense of mundane realism raised to the level of the uncanny and the mythic, witty play with planes, juxtaposition, and perspective, and a core of unsettling mystery. The woman in To Prince Edward Island stares directly at us, the viewer of the painting, but the binoculars hide her eyes: her view of us is magnified even as our view of her (and the lounging man behind her) is obscured (the exhibit notes a shot in Wes Anderson’s nostalgic time-capsule Moonrise Kingdom that seems to be a direct homage to the picture). The arrangement of this quotidian scene makes it vaguely unnerving; Colville is masterly at taking moments of everyday humanity and transforming them subtly into something superhuman, inhuman, non-human.

Born in Toronto in 1920, Colville learned art at Mount Allison University in Nova Scotia, where he later taught and then lived and painted until his death just last year. His formative creative experience, as the AGO’s exhibition presents almost right off the bat, was as a War Artist near the conclusion of World War II. He painted Europe’s war-torn landscapes and the bowed soldiers that made up the armies trying to restore order, but he also, vitally, witnesses the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, producing at least one fine painting inspired directly by what he saw there.

But Colville’s war experience, and his brush with the Holocaust in particular, seems to have infused an uneasy anxiety into his paint-on-canvas enigmas. Seemingly innocuous compositions of his peacetime experience in Nova Scotia college towns would unexpectedly contain seeds of the 20th Century’s dominant horror. Witness Professor of Romance Languages, a portrait of a neighbour of Colville’s who frequently walked alone, set in front of an industrial edifice whose smokestack inadvertently raised painful memories of the professor’s family past in the death camps. The supercharged resonance of Colville’s captured moments turns every detail into a potential symbol. Church and Horse, for example, gains some current affairs applicability when one learns, as the AGO exhibit makes clear, that the horse was based on Black Jack, the riderless steed being lead at the tail end of John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession (the picture is dated to 1964). But the image sounds deep wells of meaning whether or not one considers this particular source.

The AGO show finds Colville’s influence not only in Wes Anderson’s films but also in those of David Fincher, Stanley Kubrick (the notoriously exacting auteur used several Colvilles in the background of The Shining, including the resonantly symbolic Horse and Train to mark the Torrances’ fateful decision to winter at the Overlook Hotel) and the Coen Brothers, whose work Colville greatly admired. A painting like Pacific, with its calm menace and anticipatory stillness, seems to suggest a definite aesthetic affinity with the Coens’ patiently-crafted crime-noir Americana in Blood Simple, Fargo, or No Country For Old Men (the latter association is made explicitly in the AGO retrospective). The coldly superb composition of the picture amplifies the promise of violence just as the Coens’ visual poise and narrative acumen brings the inevitable bursts of hot blood out in sharper relief when they do arrive. The space is bissected by horizontal and vertical lines (cleverly referenced by the ruled table) which serve to frame the restive, casually shirtless and faceless man. But the muted colour palette is key as well, especially as the eye is caught and the mind is disturbed by the stark, intrusive black of the handgun’s barrel.

The AGO’s Alex Colville exhibition comes highly recommended by yours truly, even if it has its unfortunate omissions. Like many contemporarily-mounted big-ticket exhibitions, this examination of Colville’s paintings reads their symbols and extrapolates their sources in his personal life but has less to instruct concerning the technical features of his work. A close physical examination of the original canvases (or as close as the public is allowed to get) reveals that Colville’s vaunted vivid realism is stylistically the result of a painting method resembling a subtler pointillism, with many dot-like dabs of paint forming the entire image. None of the textual accompaniment to the pictures discusses this, nor is Colville’s clear representational approach properly situated in contrast to the increasing abstraction of modern and contemporary art advanced by his peers elsewhere in the art world. In many ways, Colville’s paintings evoke an earlier age in art, one of unambiguous representations with ambiguous significance. The earlier comparison to Velázquez was not a facetious one; Colville has more in common with such an Old Master than with a New Master like Rothko or Pollock. Alex Colville’s addition to the established profile of clear representational painting is the infusion of a very modern anxiety, that ever-present aura of an unstable present, a haunted past, and an uncertain future.

Categories: Art, Culture

Film Review: The Simpsons Movie

August 31, 2014 Leave a comment

The Simpsons Movie (2007; Directed by David Silverman)

A personal position-taking preamble would seem necessary before discussing the mixed blessing that was The Simpson Movie. I admit to being a card-carrying member of The Simpsons Generation (it’s in my wallet with my Elk, Communist, and Stonecutter cards). I grew up with repeated syndicated viewings of the show, catching an episode multiple times and being struck by new elements and different jokes and references each time as I aged, matured, and internalized more of the popular culture, politics, and history that was the fodder for the great television satire of the 1990s. As I gained a more rounded picture of the show as a whole (Chris Turner’s book Planet Simpson aided the erection of this larger perspective immesurably, though I read it in university, well after the peak of my fandom), I hardened into a firm devotee of Seasons 3 through 8(ish) of The Simpsons, that inarguably brilliant period when the show was achieving greatness on a consistent basis without either the crude technical hiccups of the early episodes or the long period of decline which it is (incredibly) still in.

The Simpsons at its height was, of course, always good for a laugh or ten; great episodes like “Deep Space Homer”, “Marge vs. the Monorail” or “Last Exit to Springfield” unleashed patented riffs of irresistible, deep-core bellylaughs, and inspired moments like Sideshow Bob’s drawn-out (but not this drawn-out) encounter with a series of rakes took on a legendary comedic glory that transcended mere laughter (which, it should be noted, is never only “mere”). But for better or worse, The Simpsons‘ particular satirical perspective, its skewed, anti-authoritarian, essentially skeptical but never entirely cynical view of society, culture, and human nature, has shaped the way I understand the world around me more than any other single force.

Despite this depth of influence and investment, I haven’t purposely sought out a new episode of the show since 2001 or so, and the rare snatches of late-period product I’ve caught have been painfully disappointing and even legacy-disfiguring. Even though new, post-pinnacle material continues to be produced (and indeed now far outnumbers the pinnacle material reified by Classic Era purists), The Simpsons has long felt like a completed cultural artifact of the past rather than a continuing multimedia text. I have long felt deeply that, its past greatness aside, The Simpsons has long overstayed its welcome.

So imagine my tempered delight at The Simpsons Movie, which though far from flawless and still far from the rarified level of the Classic Era Simpsons that I love and worship, is uniformly funny, occasionally hilarious, entirely narratively absorbing, and even intermittently moving. It feels like the film’s creative braintrust (the screenplay credits are shared by a who’s who of writers from the best years of the show) made a concerted and deliberate effort to put their best foot forward and make the franchise’s big-ticket cinematic foray into something worthy of the revered The Simpsons name, and not a mere extension of that tired product that they’ve been flogging weekly on Fox to line Rupert Murdoch’s pockets (not to mention their own) just a little more. The long development process and endless rewrites (over a hundred, apparently, some while animation was under way) would tend to support this obvious exertion to get it as close to right as possible.

Not every joke soars, of course (though when they do, they do; Spiderpig, anyone?). The main plot concerns acts of massively irresponsible environmental pollution and destruction on the part of Homer that leads to the government-mandated endoming of Springfield (Stephen King would like some royalties on that concept, please and thank you), the community ostracizing of the family and their relocation to Alaska, and the near break-up of Homer and Marge’s marriage. This latter arc is often lovely and even poetic (there’s an image of Homer drifting on a heart-shaped ice floe that cracks in half that is affecting even if it’s a tad obvious), but there’s never really any serious doubt as to how it will turn out.

Indeed, the movie’s narrative is mostly redolent of subplots that are a little predictable and repeats tropes previously utilized on the show: Bart has already had several dalliances with Flanders (and other figures besides) as a paternal proxy for his actual boorish and selfish father, Homer’s encounter with an Inuit shaman echoes his much more memorable insanity-pepper hallucination/spirit-journey with a Johnny Cash-voiced coyote as a guide, and Lisa has had potential boyfriends before (though this one was a cute but seriously proscribed thread). Quite ironically, The Simpsons Movie suffers most from the animated comedy syndrome that was famously lampooned on South Park: whatever the movie tries to do, it seems as though The Simpsons has already done it.

Additionally, the utilizing of Arnold Schwarzenegger (then Governor of California) as the President of the United States might be the most ill-fitting choice of the whole film where the show’s (admittedly flexible) canon is concerned. Introducing a version of the real Arnold to an animated universe which already includes a regular and much-appreciated parody of him is a very odd choice indeed. Surely Rainier Wolfcastle’s mighty heart is breaking at being so excluded (he’ll be in the Humvee), but it’s hard to fathom a convincing reason not to simply use their established parody character in the same role, especially when the Simpsonized Schwarzenegger both looks and sounds extremely like Wolfcastle (Harry Shearer voices both).

But all of these quibbles do not derail the most entertaining product released under The Simpsons name for a decade or more. At the time of its release, its relative quality compared to the foot-dragging of the show served to confirm my feeling that the long-running television arm of the franchise should be deep-sixed and the family’s adventures moved to the big screen, which they proved able to fill admirably and would perpetuate the property without running it too much deeper into the dirt. This has not happened, and a sure-to-be-painful crossover with Family Guy is happening instead. The Simpsons Movie did not quite recapture the faded glory of The Simpsons, but it could have presented a fresh start, a new path forward in a different and distinct medium. Instead, it feels for all the world like a last hoorah for the core creative braintrust of its most fruitful time. And for all of its comedic invention, that makes this movie feel more than a little sad, in retrospect.

Categories: Film, Reviews

TV Quickshots #17

August 28, 2014 Leave a comment

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.

Categories: History, Reviews, Television

Film Review: The Double

August 24, 2014 Leave a comment

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 the-double-postermay 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.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Ferguson: A Lightning Rod in the Social Storm of America

August 21, 2014 Leave a comment

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.


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