Film Review: Little Dieter Needs to Fly

March 22, 2019 Leave a comment

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997; Directed by Werner Herzog)

A documentary film about war, survival, beauty, madness, dreams, nightmares, heroism, barbarism, triumph, absurdity, and above all memory, Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly evokes and summons more depth of meaning and indelible thought and fascinating ambiguity in a barely-feature-length 80 minutes than most films, fiction or non-fiction, can muster in twice that running time. It relates the incredible (and quite possibly embellished) story of German-American Navy pilot Dieter Dengler’s imprisonment in Laos and escape to Thailand after being shot down during the Vietnam War, mostly through Dengler’s own overflowing narrations of remembrance, but also through odd re-staged re-enactments of his time in the jungles of Southeast Asia featuring the aged Dengler himself alongside hired locals, and some archival wartime footage as well.

Like many of Herzog’s documentary subjects, Dengler is both a semi-autobiographical reflection of the inimitable (though often hilariously imitated online) German director and a profile of a figure entirely alien to his own (hardly proscribed) experience that deeply fascinates Herzog and his camera. Growing up in the abject poverty and starvation of post-war Germany as Herzog did, Dengler (who hailed from the Black Forest village of Wildberg in Baden-Württemberg, not too far from Herzog’s native Bavaria) became fascinated with flying during a wartime bombing raid on his village and moved to the U.S. to become a pilot, eventually working his way into the cockpit of a Navy fighter over Laos, where he was shot down in 1966. Captured by Pathet Lao guerrillas and eventually handed over to the Viet Cong, Dengler endured imprisonment and torture and witnessed myriad bizarre and brutal episodes in the sweltering jungle before escaping improbably and returning to the U.S. as a decorated veteran (Herzog returned to Dengler’s story with a more conventional Hollywood action movie telling, directing Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale in 2007).

Herzog introduces Dengler as an older man (he died in 2001, four years after the release of the film, as a postscript of his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery reveals), who is disarmingly voluble, bracingly forthright, and marked by his experiences in psychologically visibile ways. His house sits high on Mount Tamalpais in the Muir Woods north of San Francisco, which gives him a sense of security; one episode Dengler relates from his Laotian experiences involved scaling a mountain’s heights to escape his captors and (unsuccessfully) signal rescuers. He is shown obsessive-compulsively opening and closing his car and house doors numerous times, which he effusively explains is a reminder to himself to cherish his freedom, in remembrance of his imprisonment; he also hangs multiple paintings of open doors in his entryway, probably for the same reason (although Herzog, always ready to stage-manage the “reality” of a documentary in search of deeper truths about his subjects, crafted the moment for that effect; Dengler claimed that he only bought the paintings because they were such a good deal). Little Dieter Needs to Fly gives off the distinct impression that Dieter Dengler would be a strange man even if he had not suffered through what he suffered through in the jungles of Laos, but his eccentricity was more extremely shaped by those experiences.

But how much does Dengler, who relishes the storytelling and being put through the re-enactment scenes like a born performer, shape those experiences himself? In many cases, he is the only witness (or the only identifiable, surviving, English-speaking witness) to what happened in the jungle. His reminscences are so vividly, minutely detailed that they carry the whiff of hyperbole at least, if not fabrication. They are often quite literally unbelievable. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is not an open door on this question, but then the documentary films of Werner Herzog are not documents of bare, useless fact but existential quests through the swamps of lived reality for deeper, more mystical truths. All of their narrators are unreliable, because to be human is to be unreliable, unknowable, a well and a mirror of memory and experience.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly is also the rare Vietnam War film that does not stake out a stance about the conflict, let alone about conflict in general. Dengler’s prison camp sufferings are not understood by Herzog to be reflective of any particular injustice or larger political project, and they are not pivoted purposely against either the imperialist American war machine or the repressive communist state apparatus. They are points on an endlessly stretched-out continuum of barbarous fellowship, the infinite ribbon of violent and intimate proximity that constitutes human civilization, forever sustained and obliterated by armed conflict. Herzog even finds an incongruous and twisted beauty in modern warfare, interspersing hypnotic aerial footage of American bombing runs over Southeast Asian jungle villages. Scored by otherworldly traditional Tuvan throat singing and his trademarked narration characterizing the images as a “distant, barbaric dream”, Herzog edits devastating slow-motion napalm explosions to resemble precious unfolding flowers in an apocalyptic spring. He sees art in destruction, but not as fascistic romance like Marinetti did but as something alien, unfamiliar, and dangerous in its beauty, like the magnificence of a remote galactic supernova.

When Dengler’s Viet Cong guards try to make him sign a statement against America’s actions in Southeast Asia (many U.S. POWs did, especially after persistent torture), he flatly refuses. He harkens back to his grandfather, who suffered terrible reprisals when he would not cast his vote for Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party during World War II, and tries to emulate his strength of will and conscience. The connection between German fascists and Vietnamese communists is not an ideological one for Dengler, nor is it based in wider historical sweep. It’s family history, personal principle, psychological bedrock. History, like memory, is fluid and subjective, and what it is most subject to is perspective. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is a marvel of perspective, and, like all films by Werner Herzog, a unique, strange, and indelible experience.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Captain Marvel

March 13, 2019 Leave a comment

Captain Marvel (2019; Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck)

It must be said, from the top, that Captain Marvel is not a great film, only a competently good one. Given the absurd online campaigns against it by toxic sectors of male fandom, this assessment needs to be exhaustively qualified before being further delved into. The much-hyped latest movie from Marvel Studios is not distinctly average because it is the first out of the culture-dominating Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with a female superhero as the lead character, released to coincide with International Woman’s Day. Nor is it because outspoken self-described feminist Brie Larson plays that character, former American fighter pilot-turned-intergalactic energy-blasting super-soldier Carol Danvers. Nor is it because Captain Marvel is imbued with themes of women’s empowerment, self-determination, and solidarity, not to mention a potent metaphor for the gaslighting behaviour of abusive relationships buried deep in Danvers’ interactions with her male mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). Neither is Captain Marvel firmly in the middle of the road of quality due to its subtly controversial cross-marketed collaborative relationship with the United States Air Force. Although this likely means that, as is often the case with Hollywood’s insidiously cozy production relationship with the American military, the military had some say over the final script, that oversight did not preclude Captain Marvel from quite openly criticizing propagandistic, militaristic imperial expansion and the atrocities perpetrated against the vulnerable engendered by it.

Indeed, there’s a neat reversal to Captain Marvel‘s core ideology that reflects the contemporary political moment as well as the arc of personal conflict and resolution (such as it is) of Carol Danvers in the film. To discuss it properly, we will need to venture deep into plot detail, so spoilers ahead (hashtag that if need be). When we first meet Larson’s character, she is called Vers, and acts as a rubber-suit-clad member of the elite Starforce of the Kree Civilization. The Kree are a galaxy-spanning empire-coalition of diverse alien races ruled by the Supreme Intelligence, an organic AI that offers bland know-it-all advice about controlling emotions and subordinating your agency to the greater good of the empire like the smuggest offspring of the Jedi, the Vulcans, and army recruiters.

Vers has been with the Kree for 6 years and fights for the civilization in their ongoing war against their archenemies the Skrulls, Bat Boy-lookalike extraterrestrial shapeshifters who are branded terrorist infiltrators and earmarked for annihilation. But she is also haunted by flashes of memory from her life before Kree-ification, on what looks to us like Earth: at an airbase with a fellow pilot, smashing up a go-cart as a child and being admonished by her father, jeered on a military training ground by fellow cadets, and at a charred crash site alongside a woman who, if the same woman’s manifestation as Supreme Intelligence is any indication, Vers admires more than anyone else.

It’s not only Vers who wants to know more about these memories. When a band of Skrulls led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) springs an ambush on Vers and her Starforce unit, it’s to capture her and plumb the depths of her mind for more details about the woman she sees, who is named Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) and who was last seen on Planet C-53, ie. Earth. Vers escapes the Krulls and crash-lands in Los Angeles in 1995. Meeting young S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Vers causes havoc on a L.A. elevated train in pursuit of a form-changing Skrull agent (a few French Connection homages in this otherwise unremarkable action sequence). She then joins forces with Fury to seek out clues of Lawson and her Pegasus project, coming across a cat named Goose (who steals half a dozen moments, and is no ordinary feline besides that), her former best friend and fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), and learning much about Lawson, Pegasus, the Kree, the Skrulls, and herself that will shake her reality and shift her perspective and her allegiance.

Lawson, our heroine discovers, was a Kree scientist named Mar-Vell working covertly on Earth to build an energy-core engine which, when destroyed by her top pilot Carol Danvers, grants the latter superhuman powers and mostly erases her memory. Returned to the Kree homeworld by Yon-Rogg – who, she recalls with horror, killed Lawson – and transfused with his Kree blood, the soldier now known as Vers is told nothing of her old life, nor of Lawson/Mar-Vell’s true, rebellious intent: to reveal the propagandistic lies of the Kree and aid the Skrulls, who are little more than hunted refugees in search of a home and are victims of an ongoing genocide by the side that Vers fights for. Talos reveals much of this history to the woman who can now call herself Carol, and the casting of Mendelsohn, even behind layers of Skrull prosthetics, becomes a minor masterstroke: he’s mostly been used as a villain by Hollywood and fills that role well enough earlier in Captain Marvel (he appears without makeup as Talos shapeshifting into the form of Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D. boss, Keller), but the Skrulls-are-actually-good twist allows Mendelsohn to mine deep reserves of desperate, soul-felt sympathy. Along with the steely Lynch and Jackson, having a fine old time as his aged-down self (that CG effect has come some way since Marvel Studios test-drove it a bit awkwardly with Robert Downey, Jr. in Captain America: Civil War), Mendelsohn is a supporting highlight.

But back to the point: Captain Marvel, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (whose previous directorial highlight is probably the indie dramedy Half Nelson, with a then-ascending Ryan Gosling), features a hegemonic military power ethnically cleansing a landless minority of oppressed people labelled shifty terrorists. Besides the Starforce (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s Korath, who appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy earlier in the MCU release slate but later in the in-universe chronology), the Kree also project the Supreme Intelligence’s unquestioned technocratic will through their enforcer Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace, also from Guardians, where he was the haughtily humourless villain tricked and defeated by Peter Quill’s cheeky distraction dance), who is summoned by Yon-Rogg to carpet-bomb Earth’s surface at the climax. Echoes of America’s (and, even more provocatively, Israel’s) imperial power-flexing in the Middle East and its humanitarian collateral damage run through these elements of the film, and an important part of Carol Danvers’ self-actualizing awakening has to do with her throwing off her Kree brainwashing, and then questioning and finally pledging herself to fight against its malevolent expansionist ambitions.

Vers’ conversion to Carol Danvers follows the established parametres of MCU heroes’ arcs while also firmly and a bit rousingly taking the form of women’s empowerment. Like a lot of Marvel superheroes, Larson’s embryonic Captain Marvel (not to be confused with DC’s male superhero of the same name, who will be incarnated onscreen as Shazam a month after this film’s release) begins her origin film as a very powerful badass warrior already. Much like Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in particular, she’s comfortable and cocksure (Larson plays this quality very well, with a keen comedic timing) with her formidable powers before being limited in them by circumstances and challenged by self-doubt. Like many a male MCU protagonist, Carol doesn’t so much undergo a real shift in her fundamental character (Larson does not handle the identity-questioning as well, which is surprising given her Oscar-winning dramatic pedigree) as stubbornly re-affirm who she was all along, and thus gains a decisive boost in power and heroism that allows her to triumph over adversity and her enemies.

Applying this familiar heroes’ arc to a female protagonist represents Marvel Studios’ careful, formula-savvy conventionality at its most noticeable, assuring fans as it does that even with a woman as a lead, matters remain comfortingly secure in the MCU, thematically speaking. But Captain Marvel rises to the implied feminist agency in its premise and marketed profile as well, no doubt shepherded forward by the numerous women in the creative team: not only co-director Boden, who also co-wrote the film with Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, but the trio is joined in the story credits by Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve. Carol Danvers’ emergence as a flying, super-strong, photon-blasting superhuman god in the last act is couched as a moment of female empowerment both literal and figurative.

Though she has already recaptured many of her memories from Earth and reconnected with her sister-in-arms Maria Rambeau and realized the errors of her Kree imperial-subaltern ways, Carol’s climactic overcoming of the hegemonic Kree (who are, nominally at least, a kind of scrubbed-clean patriarchy) is catalyzed by her memory-mining realization that her true power is the true power of all women who are marginalized and underestimated: the strength and bravery to get up when they are knocked down, to rise when others, especially men, would see them fall. This idea is imparted in a montage of Larson and the girls playing younger flashback versions of herself rising to their feet with a look of defiance and determination as Pinar Toprak’s score swells with on-the-nose inspirational flourishes. I’ll take the more metaphorical No Man’s Land sequence in Wonder Woman over a scene like this any day (in the representation of women and basically nothing else, the DC films, or at least that single, mostly non-representative DC film, have to be said to have been ahead of the Marvel ones), but it’s Captain Marvel‘s most moving moment. It may be upstaged, however, by Carol’s more viscerally satisfying defeat of her paternalistic mentor Yon-Rogg, who patronizingly chides her not to be so emotional and impulsive in a martial-arts training sequence at the film’s beginning and whose last-ditch effort to beat his now-overwhelmingly-powerful opponent at the film’s end is to patronize her again in insisting on a photon-less hand-to-hand proving-ground fight. Smacking his sexist gaslighting down with an energy burst, she asserts, with empowered confidence, that she has nothing to prove to him.

Captain Marvel might have a little more to prove. If I’ve gradually warmed to its themes and ideas and the execution thereof in this analysis, I must step back and re-assert its general averageness. It hasn’t really a memorable action scene to its name, and Larson slips into stiffness when the plot requires her not to remember important things that the movie never really adequately accounts for her not remembering. The Skrulls’ turn feels a tad whiplash-quick; perhaps a second viewing would make their actions and presentation seem less openly antagonistic before Talos bids for Carol’s, and therefore for our, sympathy. It is revealed how Nick Fury loses the use of his eye, and it’s a light, jokey moment rather than the portentous event loyal MCU followers have been led to expect. And of course, whatever Captain Marvel is doing on its own is subverted on a larger scale to its place in the Avengers cycle of the MCU, and the ending exchange of a pager between Carol and Fury and the related mid-credits stinger scene from the forthcoming Infinity War sequel in which Captain Marvel will play a part is a sobering reminder of that.

Captain Marvel‘s period setting offers more pleasures. The mid-’90s milieu winks and nods with references to Blockbuster Video, internet cafes, and comparatively glacial computer processing speeds. But it’s on the soundtrack that Boden and Fleck really kick into the palpable nostalgia, with a series of pitch-perfect needle drops of mostly woman-fronted period alternative rock and R&B. Danvers steals a motorcycle to the power-pop strains of Elastica’s “Connection”, then bombs through the desert towards a half-remembered roadhouse bar to Garbage’s “Only Happy When It Rains”. She and Fury drive towards the Pegasus facility with TLC’s “Waterfalls” playing on the radio, and Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be” is on in the background as she renews acquaintance with Maria Rambeau at her Louisiana country house. She battles her former Starforce mates to the spunky accompaniment of No Doubt’s “Just A Girl” (though the scene is murkily edited, one of the weakest fight sequences in all of the MCU), and the end credits feature the triumphal thunder of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin”. Veruca Salt is conspicuous by their absence (how badass would “Volcano Girls” have been over, say, her climactic devastation of the Kree bomber fleet?), and there are R.E.M. cuts, Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” over a Supreme Intelligence interrogation scene, and a spot-on Nine Inch Nails logo shirt worn by Larson for a third of the film, but the overall filmic jukebox tone is one of defiant and brash women’s voices asserting their agency and power.

Captain Marvel is a manifestation of those voices in action-blockbuster form, and thus is a manifestation of our political and cultural moment as well, at least as Hollywood chooses to understand it and profit handsomely from it. If it’s generally good but never close to great, then maybe that’s all right and even mildly encouraging: if big, expensive, obvious movies starring men and chiefly about them and their psychology and social positioning can be massive successes without moving any goalposts in terms of artistry or ideology, then why can’t such movies starring and chiefly about women be so, too? It can even be conceded that Captain Marvel has just enough going on in its surprisingly dense subtext (a subtext only amplified by the culture-wars nonsense that swirls around it online) to push it above the MCU average. As it smashes an important glass ceiling in Hollywood’s most sprawling franchise, Captain Marvel puts another few cracks in a larger and more resilient glass ceiling. But it’s far from a shattering blow, by any measure.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: First Man

First Man (2018; Directed by Damien Chazelle)

First Man is a space exploration movie that is sturdily, even stubbornly earthbound. Like the version of its focal character played by Ryan Gosling, Damien Chazelle’s biographical drama about NASA engineer and astronaut, American icon, and first human being to step onto the moon Neil Armstrong is determined, practical, and emotionally reticent, expending maximum effort on technical accuracy and experiential fidelity and allotting naught but a bare sliver of space to wonder and transcendence. As with many recent Hollywood films of note, First Man was burdened (and, perhaps, its box office and awards prospects weakened) by a boundingly moronic bad faith controversy (“con-troversy”, I call them, emphasis very much on the “con”) driven by jingoistic online-right reactionaries disappointed that Chazelle did not show Armstrong plant the American flag on the moon’s surface like a boastful interplanetary conquistador. Even the Con-in-Chief, U.S. President Donald Trump, weighed in stupidly on First Man‘s mortal representational sin.

Even if the Right’s self-serving whipped-up outrage over the missing flag-planting hadn’t blocked First Man from their sight like an artificial eclipse, it’s doubtful that these arrogant, magical-thinking nationalists would have found much to like in the film anyway. Chazelle, directing a screenplay by Josh Singer based on James R. Hansen’s book, gives us a profile of Neil Armstrong that is doggedly unromanticized, emphasizing his stoic work ethic, his ever-increasing matter-of-fact nature, and stone-faced emotional bottling in the face of recurring, agonizing tragedies. Gosling plays Armstrong as a man who puts his head down and presses on through pain and danger that consumes men around him, and wins enough saving throws to get through NASA’s sometimes lethally audacious Gemini and Apollo programs with his skin intact and, almost incidentally, with his name etched in the annals of human history.

But Gosling’s internally-contained performance also clearly registers how Armstrong’s professionally-focused march to immortality comes at the cost of his family and personal relationships. The early part of First Man details the devastating loss of Armstrong’s daughter Karen to a brain tumour. Armstrong tracks her symptoms and treatment options in a notebook, displaying a methodical approach that serves him well with NASA but makes her death no less inevitably or agonizing. The tears he sheds for her are last that we see stain his cheeks, and he buries almost any hint of open emotional communication with her. This walling off of Neil Armstrong from the world increasingly strains his relationship to his wife Janet (Claire Foy, doing remarkable things with the usually thankless wife role), who he eventually separated from and then divorced in the 1990s, and to his two sons (Gavin Warren and Connor Colton Blodgett), who he can barely bring himself to say goodbye to before his fateful (and very possibly deadly) trip to the moon on Apollo 11. Armstrong retreats ever further into himself and into his work, even as that work claims the lives of colleagues close to him like Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) and Ed White (Jason Clarke), the latter one of three astronauts to perish in the Apollo 1 fire.

First Man contrasts the earthbound scenes of Armstrong building up his personal walls with white-knuckle sequences of Armstrong tensely striving against the gargantuan forces of spatial physics. More so, perhaps it actually likens the scenarios that face him on earth and in space: Armstrong strains to survive against forces that would crush him pitilessly, protected only by the shuddering but stalwart metal armour of the space capsules. The space flight scenes operate as embodied metaphors for his personal life. What does Neil Armstrong do on earth but rely on similar armour to protect him from being crushed by forces of feeling that are all the more terrible to him for being unquantifiable and unmeasurable, unlike the realm of math and physics of rocket science? There’s a breaking-point tension to these scenes: his opening atmospheric test flight, his Gemini 8 orbital flight with David Scott (Christopher Abbott) that sees Armstrong narrowly avert disaster with timely ingenuity, and finally the nail-biting climactic lunar landing alongside Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), with the red digital fuel indicator counting down ominously and Justin Hurwitz’s score pulsing with mortal urgency. But for Gosling’s Armstrong, none are as tense and terrifying as looking his sons in the eye and willing himself to tell them that they may never see him again.

First Man functions as a demystifying artistic document as regards the mythical Neil Armstrong, who, at least in Gosling’s no-nonsense incarnation, would not have long suffered the grasping, grubby fools who sought to use him to represent the dubiously-conceived positions of their cause in the 21st-century American culture wars. But it also demystifies the inner workings of 1960s NASA: it’s a workplace, albeit a high-stakes and highly specialized one, with its rivalries and alliances, where the personnel decisions behind history-making missions are mostly about whose turn it is. And it leaves time, in a tonally incongruous but undeniably interesting montage aside, to demonstrate the contemporary disagreement about and criticism of the American space program. Although now beknighted and glorified by the boomer-centric epistemological elite for its leaping aspirational achievements, the U.S. space program’s literally astronomical costs and risks were controversial across the political spectrum in the 1960s, and Chazelle cheekily scores a compilation of these protests with a re-creation of jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” performed by Leon Bridges.

This sort of demystification is particularly abhored by the breed of power-worshipping authoritarian nationalists who criticized First Man sight unseen, like Trump and Republican Senator Marco Rubio (who called the choice not to show the lunar flag-planting in the film “total lunacy”, which makes one wonder how he would characterize his party’s legislative agenda). The complications of history and human psychology, the limitations and minutiae of science and engineering, and the realities of messy political and social non-consensus give the lie to their propagandistic fantasies of manifest destiny reaching into the cold, dark immensity of space. First Man very skillyfully and compellingly turns Neil Armstrong from an icon into a man, and transforms his historic steps on the moon from an act of immortality into the laboured achievement of a mortal, of many mortals. It brings this astronaut down to earth, and in the process tells us more about him than any number of jingoistic skyhopping hagiographies ever could.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

The Nuanced Dualistic Masculinity of Letterkenny

One of my recent favourite creators of soft-academic video essays on pop culture and entertainment is Jonathan McIntosh, whose Pop Culture Detective channel on YouTube features detailed, compelling, and well-argued video dissertations on the political, ideological, and psychological implications of tropes common to film, video games, and television. McIntosh is particularly insightful on the subject of masculinity and its depictions – toxic, troubled, insidious, and otherwise – in entertainment. His excellent dual video essays on the “adorkable” misogyny and the complicity of geek masculinity of the hit CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory are a video-essay lecture opus that deconstructs the often ugly sexual and gender politics of the most popular comedy on American television. Watch these intelligent and devastating 41 minutes and you’ll never want to watch a minute of The Big Bang Theory ever again (if you ever did in the first place).

McIntosh’s Big Bang Theory analysis put me in mind of another (much, much funnier) television sitcom that models both traditional and modern masculinity in complicated, nuanced, and often contradictory ways. The popular Canadian streaming hit Letterkenny, set as it is in a small Canadian town (based on co-creator and star Jared Keeso’s rural hometown of Listowel, Ontario) and peopled by farmers, hockey players, emo/goth meth-heads (known as the Skids), First Nations, and other sundry local oddballs, might be expected to be grounded in traditional and conservative conceptions of masculinity and gender politics, which is to say the patriarchal, privileged, misogynistic discriminatory arrogance of the contemporary political North American Right. This sort of stereotypical conservative masculinity is unfortunately very familiar and sadly resilient, as personified in its current exploded avatar Donald J. Trump, and recently and vividly played out in disheartening political theatre south of the border with the sexual assault allegations which very nearly derailed the nomination of conservative movement stalwart Brett Kavanaugh (of “I like beer!” infamy) to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The country certainly has no monopoly on the hallmarks of this traditional toxic masculinity: tendencies towards racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, dishonesty, or bullying, to say nothing of discomfort with women or people of colour in positions of power, insensitivity to differing cultural or ideological identities or perspectives, or distrust of open displays of male emotional sensitivity and preference for assertive and often violent shows of strength to resolve conflicts. The city can lay claim to the same flaws in the masculine character, and it would be urban liberal snobbery of the purest strain to assume that these dirtbag qualities are only possessed by rural men (perhaps together we can envision a glorious future wherein the country and the city join forces against their implacable mutual enemy: the suburbs). If the hicks that are the centre of Letterkenny – Keeso’s Wayne, Nathan Dales’ Daryl, K. Trevor Wilson’s Squirrely Dan, and Michelle Mylett’s Katy, Wayne’s sister – are carefully defined as non-judgemental and tolerant of other races, persuasions, and creeds, the main duo of hockey players, Reilly (Dylan Playfair) and Jonesy (Andrew Herr), do conform to the worst stereotypes of dim-witted, vain, womanizing male athletes, to the consternation of some who might hope for those stereotypes to be at least modestly moved beyond.

If Letterkenny is often at pains to establish its ag-hall protagonists as politically correct and mildly woke (or at least not openly bigoted), then its dominant masculine comedic discourse of heavily colloquial and homosocial chatting, joking, and chop-busting frequently runs towards the crude, and thus towards homophobic comments and negative suggestions of feminine qualities. Both of these less-enlightened turns are present among the first clutch of jokes in the series’ very first scene, even, and it’s hard to guarantee that none of Letterkenny‘s numerous involved dialogic digressions don’t also veer occasionally in such directions. Local pastor Glenn (played by series co-creator, co-writer, and director Jacob Tierney) is likewise a way-over-the-top flaming homosexual stereotype, and the First Nations characters from a nearby reservations led by queenpin Tanis (Kaniehtiio Horn) can veer close to the offensive as well. A brief survey of media articles on Letterkenny, in truth, turns up thinkpieces from right-leaning publications like The National Post and The Federalist. The show’s alignment can be tough to pin down, but it has certainly been embraced by certain conservative circles.

But masculinity is not chiefly concerned with political alignment, nor necessarily with prejudice or the lack thereof. It is above all about how men act, speak, and present themselves, how they interact with women, with other men, and how they think and feel about themselves. In these matters, Letterkenny can also be difficult to pin down, if for no more reason than its prioritizing of its jokes, with plot developments and even consistent characterization often left aside in favour of the big laugh. Still, even before Katy’s more consistent presence in the hicks’ jawing sessions after the first season shifts their nature to less mannish tones, Wayne, Daryl, and Dan only occasionally venture into the sort of lurid discussion of sexual matters or conquests that one might expect in the company of young men (extended simulations of orgasmic porn star exclamations aside), and when they do, Wayne (and indeed the other two as well) expresses care and discomfort (“It’s impolite to kiss and tell”), and the discussion is closer to sex ed than random horny chatter. It’s weirdly open and respectful, and even more weirdly sweet. Even in the locker room of Reilly and Jonesy’s hockey team, the expected “locker room talk” is conspicuously minimal: volumetric sex-related trash-talker Shoresy (voiced by Keeso) is a despised antagonist, and after Katy breaks it off with Reilly and Jonesy, their main encounter with the hockey-adjacent girls known colloquially as “puck bunnies” involves scaring one such woman off (with Katy’s invaluable aid) in order to improve their team’s on-ice focus.

In relationships, there is a similar respectfulness. Katy is characterized as sexually active, but make a negative comment about it and you have her formidable brother to answer to. Daryl is awkward and naifish towards the opposite sex, and when he does get a girlfriend at the end of Season Five (Kim Cloutier’s Anik), it’s practically in a soft-focus fantasy sequence, as she appears out of the blue to confess her love for him despite barely interacting with him previously. The Skids are understood to be basically asexual, with the exception of a brief and unsuccessful relationship between Katy and lead Skid Stewart (Tyler Johnston) early in the series that is forgotten about quickly afterwards (Sarah Gadon recurs as a more enigmatic sort-of love interest to Stewart). Wayne’s love interests include the bookish homebody Rosie (Clark Backo) and Tanis, who becomes pregnant by him in a season-ending cliffhanger and then discusses her choice to have an abortion matter-of-factly, with his level-headed understanding and even agreement.

Indeed, Letterkenny‘s protagonist Wayne is a key focal point in the show’s nuanced and difficult-to-pigeonhole vision of masculinity. We’ve discussed his respectfulness of both men and women (at least those judged deserving of this respect; those who aren’t, we’ll get to) and his absence of prejudice and indeed sensitivity to suggestions of bigotry. But in Keeso’s often near-monotone performance and even in the actor’s wardrobe, we see that Wayne is emotionally reticent and undemonstrative of his feelings, a Clint Eastwood-like strong, silent type (who, like most of the characters in this talky sitcom, is rarely silent). In his lack of emotional display and in his shirts, he is quite literally buttoned-up, an embodiment of traditional masculinity’s imperative to men to hide their feelings in all circumstances. Contemporary psychology tells us that this sort of emotional bottling is unhealthy to both the mental well-being of men and to their relationships with those around them, but it doesn’t seem to do Wayne much damage. When he does become unbuttoned emotionally, it’s played for laughs, as when he grows so heated while discussing Katy’s loss to Stewart in Letterkenny’s prestigious Adult Spelling Bee that he hilarious tears his trademarked button-up shirt open.

Any consideration of the depiction of masculinity in Letterkenny would be terribly remiss if it didn’t address one of the show’s consistent features: its numerous fight scenes, which with their stylish slow motion and rock-music accompaniment constitute a fairly textbook audio-visual glorification of violence. Wayne begins the series as a legendary tough-guy scrapper whose ex-girlfriend (Kalinka Petrie, later more fully characterized as the team-poisoning puck bunny) had made him foreswear punch-ups. Through the first season, he defeats a series of challengers to his crown of Letterkenny’s fight king, and begins a recurring theme of providing fistfulls of comeuppance to various jerks, rez gangs, snobbish city slickers, Quebeckers, tiki-torch-carrying alt-right racists, and, of course, the ultimate source of insidious evil in this fallen world: degens from upcountry.

Taking recourse to physical violence to solve disputes is toxic masculinity at its most brutish and blunt. It’s also depicted patriarchally as a men’s-only activity; Katy and other women mostly stand aside during the regular donnybrooks. But as Letterkenny continues through its current run of six seasons and five holiday-themed specials (so far), fighting becomes, if only through comic inversion, a perverse way of building community. The people who scrap with Wayne and his friends – Reilly and Jonesy, the musclebound Tyson (Jay Bertin) and Joint Boy (Joel Gagne), Tanis’ rez crew, even the Quebecois “hiques” – later become his allies and friends, often called upon or calling upon him when it comes time to vanquish the marauding orcish hordes of the Letterkenny universe, those hated degens from upcountry. Fighting, comically romanticized and glorified as it is on Letterkenny, is not a destructive social force, but one that brings people together.

It’s worth keeping in mind, of course, that Letterkenny is a comedy first and foremost, and as mentioned focuses on the laughs well before giving any care or consideration to consistent characterizations, themes, or ideas. Its comedic nature also renders it especially slippery as a text about masculinity; it can be difficult to pinpoint when exactly Letterkenny is lampooning the harsher elements of traditional masculinity and when it is celebrating them. There is a species of nuanced dualism to the depiction of masculinity in Letterkenny, a concerted effort to retain traditional markers of masculinity and integrate them with positive elements of more modern and progressive ideas of what it means to be a man.

One of the first season’s highlights is the second episode, “Super Soft Birthday”, in which Wayne and Katy throw an annual birthday party for Daryl that, as the name implies, revels in “soft”, childish, even feminized elements: pink balloons and streamers, a bouncy castle, a pony with a braided mane, tiaras and feather boas, cupcakes and cotton candy, and colourful and sweet alcoholic drinks. Letterkenny at once ironically contrasts this super-softness with the stereotypical hardness of rural masculinity (Wayne does fight Joint Boy when the latter crashes the party, after all), but it also unironically enjoys this super-softness, because it’s just fun, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. The super-soft birthday is Letterkennian masculinity in a nutshell. Letterkenny is comfortable with a more fluid and open conception of masculinity at the same time as it locates a certain old-fashioned value in traditional masculine definitions, which it also feels free to rib gently. It’s a nimble and nuanced dance that is always buoyed by humour and good nature, and despite its cruder and less sensitive moments, it’s a dance of the masculine that gets Letterkenny through.

Categories: Culture, Politics, Television

Film Review: Mother!

February 23, 2019 Leave a comment

Mother! (2017; Directed by Darren Aronofsky)

Darren Aronofsky’s defamiliarizing psych-horror fable Mother! might as well have been entitled That Escalated Quickly: The Movie. Set entirely in a rambling, isolated country mansion, the film is generally constructed as two unexpected and unwanted visits that crescendo into death and tragedy, seen from the perspective of the titular Mother (Jennifer Lawrence), who only wants peace, quiet, cleanliness, and alone time in the house she is renovating for her husband (Javier Bardem), a writer’s-blocked poet labouring to produce a follow-up to a famous and revered prior work. What begins as a chamber-piece social drama about guests that just won’t leave becomes a discomfiting, graphic parable before it is realized (belatedly for me, perhaps embarrassingly so) that the whole thing is a politically-charged biblical allegory. Like I said, that escalated quickly.

The unwelcome guests that first disturb the domestic solitude of Mother and the Poet (so I will choose to call Him, which Aronofsky’s script dubs Bardem’s character) are a researching doctor (Ed Harris) and his uncomfortably forward wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). They are soon followed by their sons (real-life brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson), who bicker violently and eventually fratricidally over their inheritance, then by a growing mourning party that begins to destroy Mother’s house and test her bustling patience. Mother tries to expel the guests and then scolds them for their destructive misbehaviour, but the Poet can only ever indulge them, no matter how bad things get. Some peace and bliss is restored when Mother becomes pregnant with a long hoped-for son, which sparks the Poet’s creativity at last and leads to the completion and successful release of his promised book. But this bliss is finally and irrevocably shattered by a descent of a flood of his zealous acolytes, whose sincere adulation turns into cultish worship, more violence and disruption, and still greater horrors of blood and fire.

If you hadn’t guessed (and I did not, as I must acknowledge, until sadly late in the film), Lawrence and the house are the Earth, Bardem is God, Harris and Pfeiffer are Adam and Eve, the Gleeson Bros are Cain and Abel, Lawrence and Bardem’s long-awaited child is Jesus Christ, and the waves of unwelcome, damaging guests are the grasping, crude throngs of humanity that has so deformed and threatened and taken for granted the planet that is their shared home. I honestly ought to have clued into Aronofsky’s allegorical intent early on, amidst the business with the precious apple-like lump of crystal given pride of place and care in the Poet’s private writing library, and certainly should have caught on after the fratricide, to say nothing of the broken sink and flooding episode that leads Mother to banish everyone from the house. I suppose, if I want to absolve my own perceived slowness to interpretation, that it’s testimony to Aronofsky’s clever construction and immersive experiential perspective that he is able to misdirect the audience for so long about the subtext of what’s happening in Mother!

But when one realizes that Mother! is simply allegorically retelling the foundational narrative of Judeo-Christian cultural civilization, once all hint of the specificity and psychological nuance of the actor’s performances vanish into the grand sweep of the Greatest Story Ever Told, one is left to wonder at the point of it all. Aronofsky – who has tread the biblical boards in previous films like Noah and, to some extent, the heightened philosophical mysticism of The Fountain – plays with some bold critiques of human nature and religious faith here, especially concerning the fundaments of Christianity, but the parable-type tone largely means that nothing really lands.

The masterfully orchestrated litany of encounters that Lawrence has with the houseguests are brief doodles of visual thought on ritual worship, political oppression and revolution, and the nature of God. Mother! is a tremendously-made film from a technical perspective, with strong performances (Pfeiffer is undergoing an understated renaissance that aging actresses rarely are afforded in Hollywood) and plenty on its mind. But when Darren Aronofsky pulls back the curtain and reveals that this often unsettling work of art is essentially adapting the hoary old book that dominates the complex and problematic construct that we have found ourselves calling Western civilization, it’s hard to say that it doesn’t diminish rather than elevate the final product. Are not human psychology and social conventions and behavioural extremity not fulsome enough subjects without lashing them to the Bible? It’s hard to say that Mother! is made more impressive cinema as a result, and that leaves it as a difficult and paradoxical work of filmic art.

Categories: Film, Religion, Reviews

Film Review: Room

February 17, 2019 Leave a comment

Room (2015; Directed by Lenny Abrahamson)

The quietly remarkable Room is a sturdy and unsentimentalized child’s eye view of forcible confinement, psychological and sexual abuse, and recovery from sustained trauma. Put it that way and it sounds a harrowing ordeal, but Irish director Lenny Abrahamson’s Best Picture-nominated emotional-realist drama about a boy and his mother who are held captive for years by a predatory man in a single-room garden shed is instead a clear-eyed statement of the healing power of connective love and the unaccountable strength of a child’s imagination and almost magical capacity for self-renewal.

Room is set for its first half or so entirely within Room, as recently-turned five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) calls the spartan, messy confines of the prison he shares with his mid-20s “Ma”, Joy Newsome (Brie Larson). Ma and Jack rely on their captor, known as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), for food, electricity, and running water, and he extracts sex from Joy once a week or so as his forced reward. Joy has managed to shelter Jack from the harshest sharp edges of their experience and feed his precocious imaginative nature as much as she can, and Jack has constructed an entire juvenile mythological cosmology, complete with promises of hope and freedom that he can barely fathom, to account for the harder truths that she hasn’t yet opened up for him. But Joy can only hide Jack in the cupboard when Old Nick enters Room to have his way with her for so long, and when the curious boy ventures out and has a contentious encounter with Old Nick, she begins to reveal the reality of their condition and conceive of a way that Jack can free them from it.

Abrahamson, working from a script by Emma Donoghue based on her own novel of the same name, has a keen sense (passed on from and/or shared with Donoghue’s writing) of just how much of the harsher elements of Ma and Jack’s confinement should be shown and how much should be implied (Old Nick’s regular rapes are definitely kept as the latter), as well as when to open the story up by getting them out of Room. Jack’s escape takes a bit longer than planned, as he is awestruck and paralyzed by his first glimpse of open sky (Tremblay is a preternaturally tuned-in child actor, and he nails this moment memorably), and one might nitpick (if one were so inclined) that Old Nick lets him go far too easily and incautiously, considering the years of carefully devious self-preservational captive-keeping that has led up to that point.

But when Jack does effect his and Joy’s freedom from Room, Room becomes a moving and patient examination of recovery from a shattering trauma and regaining a hard-won measure of emotional equilibrium. Safe in the home of Joy’s mother Nancy (Joan Allen, who is never not tremendous) and her rumpled, empathetic partner Leo (Tom McCamus) – Joy’s father, played by a careworn, impatient William H. Macy, separated from her mother in the wake of their daughter’s abduction and can’t bear the sight of the boy that is a living reminder of it – Joy and Jack adjust to life in the wider world at their own pace, with their own struggles. And it’s Jack, whom a kindly doctor (Cas Anvar) is understandably concerned will be permanently scarred in psychological and social terms by the ordeal, who proves more fluid and resilient in his road to normality, bonding movingly with Nancy and Leo and Leo’s little dog Seamus and a new neighbourhood friend, and dragging a shaken and haunted Joy (Larson won the Best Actress Oscar for the role and it’s not undeserved) along with him.

Abrahamson’s previous film Frank began as a very specific farcical in-joke (about the independent music subculture, in particular) but then expanded with surprising emotional deftness into a larger, more potent statement about connection and belonging in the context of mental trauma. Room doesn’t have a satirical bone in its cinematic body, but is structured as a similarly unfolding bloom of emotional honesty and complexity, from a literally confined setting to a heartening, healing engagement with a wider experience of the world. It’s a wondrous little movie, and one quite worth making acquaintance with.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

February 15, 2019 Leave a comment

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018; Directed by Bryan Singer)

It’s extremely self-evident exactly why the Freddie Mercury and Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody was such a thunderous box-office hit at the same time as it is undeniably clear why it is not, properly speaking, a good movie. Spearheaded by a brassy mirrorball-smash of a performance by Rami Malek as Mercury and featuring numerous spectacular and exhilirating cinematic re-creations of the English rock legends’ bravado live performances, Bohemian Rhapsody leaves you humming and buzzing as its credits roll. It’s a spirited and slavishly faithful tribute to Queen’s ambitious, dramatic music, which, after all, remains very popular, so why shouldn’t a movie about them be likewise popular?

But this is a film that never met a musical biopic convention it could resist locking onto like a rocket ship on its way to Mars, even if (especially if) those conventions inconveniently did not happen to apply to Queen’s career. Outside of its performance sequences (and even inside of them), it’s also a frequent technical fiasco: a queasy cinematographical palette from DP Newton Thomas Sigel, frightfully, distractingly over-busy editing from John Ottman (he was nominated for an Oscar for editing like this, in run-of-the-mill dialogue scenes, no less), and a glaring lack of vision and finish. This last flaw might have been predictable, given the erratic and contentious stewardship of original director Bryan Singer, who was fired by 20th Century Fox with weeks to go in principal photography over persistent absences and was replaced by Dexter Fletcher (who isn’t allowed a directorial credit due to guild rules; he’s listed as an executive producer). Bohemian Rhapsody‘s success has been understood to be in spite of Singer, not because of him; at least one hopes so, given the litany of accusations of sexual misconduct made against him, which themselves did not rise to the level of disqualification from helming such a prominent studio release.

The extent to which any of these technical or behind-the-scenes criticisms will damage Bohemian Rhapsody, let alone matter to anyone watching it, will certainly vary. I, for one, was almost irrevocably lost to it when Mike Myers, buried under blotchy make-up, a permed wig, and an English accent as a fictionalized EMI record exec, directly references the unlikelihood of a scene like the iconic “Bohemian Rhapsody” singalong-in-the-car sequence in Wayne’s World ever happening when arguing with the band about releasing the six-minute rock-operatic classic as a single. If I hadn’t been watching the movie in my living room, I would have walked out right then.

That’s the kind of nail-on-the-head in-joke that Anthony McCarten’s screenplay thinks is amusing (and that Myers always has), and those thought processes transfer to more serious dramatic elements of Bohemian Rhapsody. The script builds in a growing distance and then personal rupture between Mercury and his first partner Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton); while they did end their romantic involvement with each other when Mercury told her about his sexual orientation, they were close friends until the end of his life. The pre-third-act crisis that “breaks up” the band is precipitated by Mercury’s desire to make a solo album, which the other three band members treat as an arrogant betrayal; in truth, every Queen member but Mercury released a solo album before he did. The band’s performance at Live Aid in 1985 – widely considered to be the greatest single live performance of rock era, which we must by now get used to referring to definitively in the past tense – forms the climax of the film (it was re-created and filmed meticulously in its entirety, though two songs are cut from the final film), and is built up by the implication that it was their first show together in some time, when really they had released an album the year before and toured extensively just prior to Live Aid. Quibbles about historical accuracy can be judged to be particularly fruitless in terms of a cinematic biography of self-mythologizing rock stars, but these things add up and give an impression that Queen was something other than they were.

Who Freddie Mercury was, however, is the real focus of the non-musical-number scenes of Bohemian Rhapsody. He was an unlikely person to become rock history’s most obscenely outsized talent: the son of Indian Parsi Zoroastrians born in Zanzibar before emigrating to England, he was a sublimely gifted singer with perfect pitch, a (rumoured, never quite confirmed) four-octave range, and pure, swaggering on-stage panache. Identifying as bisexual though increasingly involved in the growing gay community (from which he contracted the AIDS that would claim his life), he was and is nonetheless accepted by a wide range of music fans who responded to his talent and his music, whatever they thought of his lifestyle. Bohemian Rhapsody suggests that behind the arrogant rock star swagger was profound self-doubt and self-loathing without a specific root, that he projected supreme self-confidence but never felt it. The film stumbles clumsily around Mercury’s sexuality and identity, but always retreats to a safe neutral position that it didn’t really matter, because he will, he will rock you. For those of LGBTQ identity who find inspiration and tragic pathos in Mercury’s blazing comet of a life, a position like this in a film from supposedly progressive Hollywood in 2018 smacks of an insult.

The film that treated Mercury’s sexuality with a bit more respect and nuance than Bohemian Rhapsody does would be a better film. But then, a better film would have found a way to balance the joy and the tragedy of Mercury’s life in and out of Queen. A better film have explored the giddy inventiveness of Queen’s recording, rather than quick-cutting from the working band selling their van to pay for studio time to swinging guitar amps and scattering coins on drumskins because someone randomly shouted out, “We’ve got to get experimental!”. A better film would explore the interpersonal dynamics of massively popular and rich rock stars and their managers and entourage without inventing conflicts and ruptures that didn’t happen and tell us nothing about Mercury or Brian May, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor as people (and Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t offer us much about Mercury’s bandmates, although Gwylim Lee, Ben Hardy, and Joe Mazzello labour away to give them personality that the script is uninterested in).

A better film, too, would have been able to find a consistent and potent dramatic and emotional equilibrium between the mass-participation delight of Queen’s live shows and the private, diminishing agony of Mercury’s slow health decline from AIDS. Bohemian Rhapsody does better with this than it perhaps ought to, given its other related limitations. Rami Malek’s Best Actor Oscar nomination is really for his impressive physical approximation of Freddie Mercury as a performer (the Academy is full of narcissists and therefore responds strongly to good impersonations of famous people like them), but he is an observant-enough actor to effectively sell the film’s link between the fear and uncertainty he feels due to his AIDS diagnosis and his closing Live Aid performative triumph.

Malek registers, almost imperceptively but entirely clearly, how the awareness of creeping mortality spurs Mercury on to ensuring his immortality. And damn it, despite itself, here at the end, when it matters, Bohemian Rhapsody works. Malek’s Mercury has fully reconciled with his bandmates and told them of his AIDS death sentence. He has found sufficient inner peace to seek out companionship from Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), the loving partner of his final years, while also having a place in his life for Mary. He has earned the approval of his conservative Parsi family (although his father’s proud regard is only finally earned by the “good deed” of playing Bob Geldof’s preeningly compromised African famine relief charity mega-concert, so okay, then).

With all of that held in mind, with those charged atoms pinging through the electrified firmament, Malek-as-Mercury’s delivery on the Live Aid stage at Wembley of the passionate piano verse that is the second movement of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, with its melodramatic scenario of maternal entreaty, murder and death, and existential erasure, sees the film that shares the song’s name snap suddenly, unexpectedly into sharp and powerful focus. When he sings for a billion people “I don’t wanna die / I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all”, his face reflected in the surface of the piano, I’ll be damned if it isn’t finally moving.

Maybe it’s folly scratching at the picayune inconsistencies and inaccuracies of Bohemian Rhapsody (though I’d argue its technical problems are a bit more major). Almost certainly, however, it’s folly to wish it to have been more subtle and nuanced. This is a Queen biopic, after all, and you do not rush into Queen’s bejazzled bosom in search of subtlety and nuance. You go there to be swaddled in smothering grandeur and boundless ornate ambition, to be swallowed whole by the bloated, sparkling beast and sleep cozily in its gold-encrusted bowels.

Queen gets a bit of posthumous flack for the reduction of some of its stadium anthems (“We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” primarily) to sports-arena fan-riling fodder, or for unintentionally birthing the half-feral stepchildren of 1980s cornball hair-metal, that absolute nadir of a half-century of popular music genres. But Queen was unquestionably greater than the parasitic worms that would feed themselves from its spent body. It’s hard to argue, though, that despite its popularity and flashes of quality, Bohemian Rhapsody is one such worm. But Queen also gets the bombastic, unsubtle, mass-market biopic homage that it arguable deserves (and with manager Jim Beach, played in the film by Tom Hollander, producing and with May and Taylor as executive producers, the film the keepers of its legacy asked for and oversaw). Maybe that’s a decent measure of balance, after all.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews