The Jinx (2015; Directed by Andrew Jarecki)
Illustratingly subtitled The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, The Jinx joined Netflix’s Making a Murderer and the radio podcast Serial in a minor swell of true crime documentary series last year. As the subtitle indicates, it examines the often strange case of Robert Durst, the eldest scion of a wealthy Manhattan real estate dynasty who has been suspected but never convicted in the deaths of his wife, best friend, and next-door neighbour over the space of twenty years.
But The Jinx is not simply a true crime documentary but an often slippery, compromised biography of Durst himself, who emerges as an alternately diabolically brilliant and clumsily imprudent character of baroque weirdness and mental insecurity. Director Andrew Jarecki, who made the wrenching, acclaimed documentary feature Capturing the Friedmans, gained unprecedented access to the paranoid and media-shy Durst, filming twenty hours of conversations with him over several years. Jarecki was not new to the subject of Durst, having directed All Good Things, a fictionalized version of the Durst saga starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst that is almost completely forgotten but hooked Durst with its even-handedness. Durst’s trust in Jarecki is sorely tested as the filmmaker is confronted with a growing body of evidence that his subject may indeed be a murderer, and Jarecki’s comfort level with the sting-like nature of his unfolding documentary is likewise strained.
The Jinx lays out the odd circumstances of those titular “deaths” revolving around Durst in a deconstructed manner. First is Durst’s wife, Kathie, a medical student who vanished in the winter of 1982 somewhere between their country home in South Salem, New York and Manhattan, possibly after Durst dropped her off to catch a train, probably (but unprovably) prior to that. No body was ever found and police didn’t look seriously into Durst until 1999, though a later New York DA and many of Kathie’s friends were convinced that he killed her. Jarecki is less clear and open with this particular part of the saga, but it seems clear that the Dursts’ early happy union in Vermont became permanently poisoned when he was pushed back into the family business by his father. They argued frequently, and many friends and acquaintances testified that he physically abused her. But without a body, not much could be pinned to Durst or anyone else.
The subsequent two deaths occured a year apart in 2000 and 2001, and both brought charges against Durst. Durst’s close friend, confidant, and media spokesperson Susan Berman was murdered first in an execution-style shooting at her home in Los Angeles. Berman, whom many of those suspicious of Durst believe to be the gatekeeper of his secrets, had told others that she was about to publically reveal something huge. This may not have been about Durst, as her case is complicated by her ties to her mobster father and her revelations of secrets from the mob life, but there are definite reasons to suspect Durst for the crime (and indeed he was charged and arrested for it during the airing of the series).
The third and most bizarre death was Durst’s killing, dismemberment, and disposal of septagenarian Morris Black in Galveston, Texas in 2001. Living in the isolated Texas coastal city to avoid the glare of the public eye, Durst was using a woman’s name as an alias and even dressing as a woman to disguise himself. His cantakerous neighbour Black saw through the ruse, and though Durst claims they were friends, it seems more likely that Black threatened to blackmail him by revealing his whereabouts. At any rate, Black was shot dead, cut into pieces, and dumped into Galveston Bay by Durst, who stood trial for the murder but was found not guilty when his defence team argued that Black was shot accidentally during a struggle, or in self-defence at the worst. Without Black’s head (Durst returned to the dump site the morning after leaving Black’s remains, almost certainly to better hide the head), the theory could not be disproven, and Durst walked.
Robert Durst may indeed be a serial murderer (he has been faintly connected to at least two other mysterious deaths), but the portrait that Jarecki paints of him in The Jinx is of a very strange and unfortunate man with deep emotional and mental problems that his wealth and privilege have intermittently insulated him from (this would be the titular jinx). His mother committed suicide when he was a boy (one of Jarecki’s re-enactments paints this as a particularly haunting moment), his father neglected him, his younger brother pushed him out of the family business. He’s private and anti-social but weirdly chatty with Jarecki, and oddly incautious for a man evading suspicion for multiple killings: while on the lam after the death of Morris Black, Durst was notoriously caught in a Wegman’s in Pennsylvania for shoplifting a chicken salad sandwich with $500 cash in his pocket. This anecdote, amusing though it might be, betrays a streak of guilt and perhaps an unconscious desire to face the consequences for his crimes that would serve to explain Durst’s startlingly uncareful hot-mic mutterings of a self-incriminating nature, to say nothing of a note mailed to the Beverly Hills Police informing them of a “cadaver” at Susan Berman’s address that may be the smoking gun for his recent arrest for that murder.
As The Jinx moves along, Jarecki himself becomes more and more of an active onscreen character, especially as a new discovery among Durst’s documents (which he willingly gave Jarecki’s team access to) sheds new light on the cadaver note. In its closing hour, The Jinx becomes more than just an absorbing baroque non-fiction crime saga with an elusive, enigmatic Asperger-esque lizard-person as its protagonist. It becomes that post-modern documentary feature mainstay, an examination of the nature, reach, and limitations of the documentary form itself. What responsibilities do filmmakers have to their subjects in a documentary film, especially as that subject is increasingly exposed (perhaps even employs the film itself to expose himself) as a cold-blooded killer? The Jinx suggests that the truth is paramount, even when that truth is highly obscured and the effort to uncover it leads a filmmaker to betray his subject.
Look Who’s Back (Er ist wieder da) (2015; Directed by David Wnendt)
Everyone knows Adolf Hitler – Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, self-styled dictatorial fascist Führer of the Third Reich and the Nazi Party, primary architect of World War II and the Holocaust, and general consensus Worst Man in History – died in his bunker beneath besieged Berlin in April 1945. What David Wnendt’s satirical film Look Who’s Back presupposes is… maybe he didn’t. Or he did, but then mysteriously came back seven decades later to become a media celebrity and ride the unsettled wave of European xenophobia to a sinister political comeback.
Based on the best-selling German novel by Timur Vermes, Look Who’s Back (its German title more directly translates as He’s Back) alternates between the staged and acted sequences of its plot and unscripted Sacha Baron Cohen-style interactions between its Hitler (Oliver Masucci) and ordinary German citizens, which almost invariably reveal a disturbing level of agreement between modern Germans and the charismatic monster who haunts their country’s history. There’s a core of biting satire at the heart of this film, but it’s frequently buried beneath layers of awkwardly broad Germanic comedy and errors of historical inattention.
Reappearing in the middle of Berlin on the former site of the bunker which hosted him in his final days, Hitler holes up in a newsstand and digests the developments of the previous seventy years. He’s sought out by a hapless freelance documentary filmmaker named Fabian Sawatzki (Fabian Busch), who caught the Führer’s inauspicious return in the background of footage he was shooting for a limp human-interest piece that he hopes will save his job with commercial television station MyTV. Blown away by what he believes to be a comedian’s dedicated and seamless impersonation of the Nazi leader, Sawatzki takes Hitler on a road trip across Germany in his mother’s floral delivery van, filming as they go. His footage convinces rival MyTV executives (Katja Riemann and Christoph Maria Herbst) to take a chance on using Hitler for some offensive anti-immigrant humour on a “politically incorrect” comedy show, but the Führer goes off script and strikes a deeper chord with the German public.
Look Who’s Back is very much a product of Germany’s contemporary cultural and political context, and as a result can be a tad obtuse to an outsider. A montage of blundering domestic politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, is accompanied by the withering disdain of Masucci’s Hitler, who pines for his principled rivals of the leftist Weimar period and finds surprising common ground with the Green Party’s environmentalist protection of the Fatherland. Although Masucci is excellent – funny and menacing in turn, sympathetically baffled by modern trappings but with the chilling adaptability of a charming political cobra – the supporting cast around him is mostly reduced to goofy behind-the-scenes media and office scenarios. Like the broadly offensive comedy show (Whoa, Dude) on which Hitler debuts, the general comic tone outside of Masucci’s improvised interactions with the general public does not imply the most positive things about the state of German comedy. One must note a clear exception: a spot-on parody of the best-known scene from Downfall, the acclaimed drama about Hitler’s last days, that will spark immediate appreciative recognition from internet meme aficionados.
There are glaring errors in Look Who’s Back‘s version of Adolf Hitler as well. Told by the newsstand attendant about his many Turkish customers, Hitler wonders if the Ottoman Empire had turned the tide of the war in the Axis’ favour, despite having been on history’s scrap heap for two decades by the 1940s. Even more difficult to swallow is an incident in which Hitler shoots a dog dead for biting him, the later-revealed footage of which is a serious hiccup in his rise to fame with MyTV. Look Who’s Back passes the episode off as being consistent with Hitler’s appetite for harsh discipline and cruelty, but it’s known that Hitler was also a vegetarian who deeply deplored cruelty to animals and had a particularly strong affection for canines.
Despite these hitches in its step, Look Who’s Back returns with a dogged satirical focus to its central point: despite generations of official legal and educational efforts to dissuade Germans from the ideology of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, a resurrected Hitler would find much sympathy and even enthusiasm for his ideas of populist nationalism among modern Germans. It is, of course, a cliche to liken even relatively mild expressions of conservative authoritarianism or racism or xenophobia to the views and practices of Hitler and Nazism (Godwin’s law and all that). But Timur Vermes (a co-writer on the script of Wnendt’s film version of his book) sees in Europe’s Islamophobic unrest ripe conditions for the rise to power of far-right demagogues of the Hitlerian type, and Wnendt makes that comparison explicit in the film’s closing moments (“I can work with this,” Hitler thinks, riding in an open Mercedes convertible and being greeted by a troubling number of Nazi salutes). Germany is not above another Adolf Hitler, Look Who’s Back suggests. Faults of its construction and comedic sensibility prevent it from making this point as strongly as it might have done, but the point is there, hard to miss and important not to dismiss.
Toronto’s generally quiescent political scene, engaged in low-level rambling skirmishes over transit plans and minor public policies for much of the term of establishment-friendly Mayor John Tory, erupted this past weekend over a high-profile protest launched by the political action group Black Lives Matter Toronto during this year’s Pride parade through the city’s downtown. Halting the parade’s progress with a half-hour sit-in on its route, the invited activist group extracted a set of concessions from the parade authorities for future Pride events (although statements after the event from the organizers who signed the agreement indicate that they consider it non-binding). Black Lives Matter demanded greater representation, funding, and opportunities for black LGBTQ persons in future Pride activities, but also more controversially took aim at the police, whose discriminatory targetting of black persons is the core problem that the wider BLM organization aims to address.
BLM Toronto asked that police floats and booths be barred from future Pride events, at least those “accompanied by uniformed, armed” officers, which they referred to as a “stark reminder of the history of brutality faced by the LGBT community and visible minorities”. It goes without saying that this was a controversial demand, and discussion of the “no police” concession as well as BLM’s protestation tactics in general burned up media of all sorts through the city and across Canada and the world in the wake of the long weekend. Mainstream Canadian media, one of the most whitewashed institutions in the country, harumphed at the rudeness of these uppity rabble-rousers, and conveniently-placed gay Toronto Police officers made the media rounds criticizing the proposed exclusion of an official police participation in the parade. Even conservative media outlets like the Sun, hardly beacons of tolerance and acceptance of gay rights at any other times, became overnight converts to their protection when it meant using them as a cudgel against more despised minorities (similar rhetoric buttresses the right-wing media’s frequent eruptions of Islamophobia).
Much of the foofaraw swirling around BLM Toronto’s protest can be traced down to the changed and changing nature of the Pride event, and most especially its public perception and socio-political role. One obvious riposte to those criticizing the protest is that the Pride parade’s origins lie in political activism, so engaging in further activism in its midst is hardly inappropriate but indeed appropriate. This argument, however, disregards how far Pride has come from its beginnings as a strident protest against the stigmatizing and criminalization of homosexuality. The raids on Toronto bathhouses conducted by Toronto Police over 30 years ago, for which chief Mark Saunders tentatively apologized for in the lead-up to Pride Week, were among the catalysts for the early Pride marches in the city and an open expression of desired rights by a then-radical and socially-marginalized alternative subculture.
Today, Pride is much altered from its more agit-prop early years, or even the comparatively adults-only display of open sexuality that followed. It has become an officially-sanctioned, corporate-sponsored, family-friendly, thoroughly mainstreamed public festival of celebration and inclusiveness. Even if conservative and bigoted elements of society remain quietly uncomfortable with it – as displayed by the firm, repeated refusal of Toronto’s previous mayor, the late Rob Ford, to attend to parade, a clear dog-whistle to the prejudiced portion of his Ford Nation voting base – Pride has achieved a level of cultural acceptance that was hoped for but only barely imagined by those who birthed it. This growth of popular tolerance and acceptance mirrors that of LGBTQ lifestyles and civil rights in general, but also reflects the altered form of political activism in favour of LGBTQ rights.
Pride was once about (and partly still is about) fighting for a right to be allowed to exist, to live as you are and not as the straight bourgeois order insisted you must be. With that ground won and much more, the LGBTQ rights movement takes aim at the stubborn vestiges of discrimination in the law. Legal actions and government lobbying, the practical paths to civil liberties, have taken precedence. If Pride events still have a political dimension and have not been reduced to a simple excuse for a party, they have moved towards a role of shaping the public image of gay life as fundamentally positive, as “normalized”. They are about raising “awareness”, that vital social justic buzzword that can sound like a call to self-satisfied inaction when uttered in the wrong way.
But Pride’s gospel of inclusion has meant that it has allowed many parties and forces to claim a share of it, to use it for ends that often differ from and sometimes even contradict that which the event is understood to mean. For LGBTQ persons, Pride is supposed to be a celebration and legitimation of their identity, an idealized if ephemeral safe space of not merely tolerance or acceptance of that identity but a much-needed glorification of it. For friends, allies, and loved ones of the LGBTQ community, it’s a way to openly express support for that community, still so often besieged by prejudice. But for a great mass of the public and for society’s institutions in particular, Pride is an opportunity to safely and enjoyably establish their bona fides as an open-minded and accepting wider community, no matter their views on and conduct towards the LGBTQ world every other day of the year.
This patina of positive image-branding for politicians, corporations, small businesses, and other insitutions is not universally rewarded; publically displaying acceptance of homosexuality is more expected in Canada or Western Europe than in much of the United States or Russia or certainly than the Middle East or Africa. But the key point to grasp is that as much as Pride has always belonged and still does belong to the LGBTQ community, the drive towards inclusiveness has meant that it belongs, to some extent, to everyone. And when everyone owns a piece of something, they will all have expectations of what it ought to be. And many of those who feel Pride belongs, at least in part, to them did not approve of BLM protesting in its midst as they did. They have bought into Pride, and this is not what they feel they have paid for.
For Pride, winning the sanction and even the support of government, police, and corporations has meant giving representatives of those bodies a seat at the table, a piece of the rainbow pie. Black Lives Matter Toronto, representatives (self-appointed, perhaps) of another discriminated minority whose image-burnishing possibilities have proven less attractive to the forces flocking to Pride, want a piece of that pie, too, even if they need to resort to radical activist tactics to get it. One unsettling truth exposed by BLM bringing Toronto’s Pride parade to a standstill on Sunday is that despite its embrace of inclusion and its annually unprecedented acceptance in the mainstream of Canadian society (that was sitting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau whooping it up in the middle of the parade, and even the Conservative opposition marched the route), the event and by extension the LGBTQ rights movement still has less space than it ought to for other minorities. In a country frequently smug about its progressive tolerance but afflicted with unsightly racial blind spots, perhaps this weekend’s exposure of the fragmentation of minority interests that would be stronger if united in solidarity will begin to be remedied.
The Night Manager (BBC; 2016)
BBC’s handsome, intelligent adaptation of John le Carré’s 1993 novel of espionage and infiltration is, more than anything else, a showcase for its stars. le Carré’s original story delved into the interconnections between international arms dealers and global business as well as the internal politics of British intelligence agencies. This six-part miniseries, directed by Susanne Bier, updates its context to the present day, with invocations of Egypt’s Tahrir Square unrest and the Syrian refugee crisis. Floating in the gilded shadows and profiting off of all such political crises is “the worst man in the world”, Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), a Teflon-coated upper-crust Brit arms dealer. British intelligence bulldog Angela Burr (a pregnant, pugnacious Olivia Colman) has nipped at his heels for years, but not only cannot catch him but can only fleetingly glimpse her quarry.
A golden opportunity to pin Roper to her board at last is presented to Burr in the form of Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), the titular night-shift luxury hotel manager. Crossing paths with Roper and his associates at first in Cairo with tragic consequences, Pine (who has military experience) later meets Roper again in Switzerland and begins a covert effort in concert with Burr and her agency, and gradually with Roper’s girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), to bring him to justice as payback for the events in Cairo.
If The Night Manager has any handicap, it’s made manifest in its latter stage. After convincingly establishing high stakes and the potential for considerable collateral damage, matters are resolved extremely neatly and positively. Repeated emphasis is placed on the danger of Pine’s situation and just how difficult his sting on Roper will be, but it turns out to be fairly easy in the end. The predatory corporations and corrupt institutions that Burr and Pine fight through in order to take down Roper.
Still, it’s an involving package, and Hiddleston, Colman, and Laurie are all great, the latter particularly so with his deceptively laddy tone concealing a deadly aristocratic cobra. Hiddleston’s turn as the hotel concierge-turned-spy has sparked James Bond casting chatter (not that Daniel Craig is relinquishing that role yet), but really it simply galvanizes what anyone watching this actor for years has long known: he’s ruthlessly proficient in his charm, cold and warm in equal measure (often, dazzlingly, at the same time), with a laugh-and-smile combo that could punch holes in a safe door. Watching him, alongside Laurie and Colman and Debicki and Tom Hollander (as Roper associate Corkoran), is worth the price of admission alone.
The Americans (FX; 2013 – Present)
A spy saga of much greater and more troubled ambiguity than le Carré has to offer (in The Night Manager, at least), The Americans is also less likely to conclude quite so neatly. Created by former CIA spook Joe Weisberg and set in early 1980s Washington D.C., its protagonists appear, on the surface, to be a standard all-American couple with two children but are, in fact, deep-cover Soviet KGB sleeper agents deeply involved in stealing U.S. secrets, turning American citizens into informers and double-agents, and even infiltration and assassination missions.
Much of the series is based on Weisberg’s CIA experiences as well as the revelations of the Illegals Program, but its masterful execution and tangled, wrought thematic complexity and destabilizing meanings trumps any lingering tone of insider rib-elbowing. Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) pose as humbly comfortable and non-descript travel agents, raising the increasingly rebellious Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) as dutiful and loving if sometimes forbiddingly strict parents. Meanwhile, what they’re really doing is serving the Soviet Union and the cause of worldwide Communist revolution, employing secrets contacts, combat skills, coded communications protocols, a plethora of disguises, and even additional secret identities, like a matryoshka doll of deception and subterfuge. When a FBI counterintelligence agent named Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) moves in next door, Elizabeth and Philip see it less as a threat than as an opportunity, as do their fellow operatives at the Soviet embassy.
In a television landscape dotted with antihero figures, a couple of KGB sleeper agents who work to undermine American interests and frequently kill U.S. citizens must very nearly take the cake. On a deeper level, The Americans presents both poles of the Cold War with as much balance and fairness as possible, its storylines and dialogue and character arcs expressing as much sympathy for the ideological and human struggles of KGB agents as the conventional American heroes at the FBI. On an even deeper level, though (there’s that nesting doll effect), the show questions the basic ideological assumptions of the Cold War and personifies those unsettled assumptions in Elizabeth and Philip (both lead actors, who have been in a real-life relationship with each other since the first year of the show, are superb, but Russell especially entirely shifts our view of her as a performer very drastically and impressively). Ideologically fanatical Soviet agents who doggedly protect their children’s freedom and safety in American society, they are caught between two diametrically opposed sides in a wider geopolitical conflict, while also faced with the core problems of any family unit and the fundamental disconnect between politics and the personal. Combine these fruitful dramatic and thematic stakes with a bold willingness to go for the jugular when it comes to those stakes and you have one of the most compelling narratives in a crowded television drama milieu.
The Martian (2015; Directed by Ridley Scott)
The Martian is a fantasy Apollo 13 scenario of dire space peril addressed by practical scientific ingenuity that makes Ron Howard’s 1995 film appear quaint and old-fashioned in comparison. Now, little to no labour is required on anyone’s part to make Ron Howard movies look old-fashioned, and if that was the only accomplishment of Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, then it would be a slight work indeed. As it happens, The Martian is a bit more than slight but not by much. This is expertly-crafted mass entertainment, Scott’s most solidly populist and blissfully unproblematic film in years. But it’s not merely unproblematic but insubstantial, a movie invoking Hollywood’s recent revival of space program nostalgia but little else besides.
As the internet meme wags were glad to point out, The Martian is another epic about a questionably expensive effort to rescue Matt Damon. It may be worth asking what it is about Damon that makes him suited to such a role, again. Capable, intelligent, but still oddly boyish in his 40s, Damon is just likable and vulnerable enough to activate latent protective instincts but not so emotional open and bare to make his predicament of danger seem uncomfortable or overly difficult (nobody would lift a finger to save demonstrably better actors like Christian Bale or Daniel Day-Lewis in the same situation, for example). The predicament of danger for Damon’s character Mark Watney, an astronaut and botanist on a manned NASA Ares III mission on Mars, is that he has been stranded alone on the Red Planet when a massive dust storm forces his fellow crew members, commanded by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), to ditch the planetary surface and launch into orbit. As Ares III begins a multi-year journey home, NASA, believing Watney dead, commemorates him as a fallen hero as a form of PR damage control.
Watney, however, actually survived being struck by debris during the storm and begins to MacGyver his way towards long-term endurance on the inhospitable Martian surface. He farms potatoes inside the oxygenated habitat base left behind, extracting water from the hydrogen in rocket fuel (a trial and error process, with an explosion along the way); he modifies the rover vehicle to trek to his only likely rescue site, the landing spot for the next Mars mission; he unearths and activates the Pathfinder probe in an effort to communicate with Earth, which has, by this point, realized that he is still alive (though the Ares crew is not immediately told); and he makes an effort to stay sane, recording a wry video log, cussing freely, and playing pop music in the habitat, although his choice of the latter is frustratingly limited to Lewis’ collection of disco hits, giving the film its pop soundtrack (you know that “I Will Survive” will show up at some point, although at least Scott resists using “Staying Alive” as well). He survives not merely by ingeniously providing himself with the physical essentials of life, but by channeling sympathy (of his scientific comrades on the Ares and at home, of the population of Earth, of the movie’s audience) in his direction.
Beyond the dogged, alternately wisecracking and philosophic Damon, Scott applies his large ensemble cast in an artistic manner like figures in a history painting, achieving specific effects from each one. Jeff Daniels, as the Director of NASA, holds court with withering stares (who would have thought, two decades after Dumb and Dumber, that he would have proved a more reliable and respected screen performer than Jim Carrey?); Kristen Wiig’s media relations guru is a useful source of reactions that establish how terrible the entire situation is for media relations; Benedict Wong becomes almost imperceptibly weary with the increasing work volume thrown on his rescue supply build team at the Jet Propulson Laboratory; Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor are allowed to show more emotional loyalty towards their imperiled astronauts, who are all likable if more prone to witticisms than real NASA types probably are (what else are you going to do with Michael Peña, though?). Most enjoyable is an extended cameo by Community‘s Donald Glover as an astrodynamicist at JPL, a socially gauche math nerd who explains a fiendishly complex flightplan allowing the Ares III to return to Mars to rescue Watney with pens and a stapler.
Even if you are always kind of vaguely certain that Watney will make it back to Earth (what would the point be, otherwise?), The Martian‘s obsessive focus on the minutiae of Watney’s odyssey of survival builds up a simmering tension and a fundamental human engagement, all while flattering the audience for keeping up with all of the streamlined scientific detail on display. It pleases and engages, but rarely challenges. Like another recent CGI age exploration and celebration of American space travel (Interstellar), The Martian finds essential heroism and humane sincerity in questing beyond our planet’s comforting orbit.
Unlike Christopher Nolan, however, Ridley Scott does not engage with the existential dimensions of moving out into space and the dwarfing of our self-conceptions that comes with it. This seems oddly uncharacteristic for this specific filmmaker, who instead crafts The Martian into a less feverishly intense, more inherently light and comical angle on the themes of Gravity, wherein we are asked to identify with a fragile but capable human being escaping the terrifying, negating fatality of outer space. Like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Matt Damon is running away from space’s deadly potential for erasure towards the safe haven of Earth, instead of penetrating into its unsettling quantum mysteries as in a film like Interstellar (or like the model for all Hollywood space epics, 2001: A Space Odyssey). The Martian is undeniably an entertaining crowd-pleaser to its core, and as a result it doesn’t press that crowd with larger, more destabilizing questions about what it might mean to be alone in outer space, as one man on Mars or as one species in the universe.
It is a consistent axiom of human civilization that authority is both relied upon and mistrusted, that its breakdown is wished for and feared in practically equal measure. Political movements, waves of protest, and cultural voices criticize the status quo, call for its dismantling, and puncture the elite’s ever-inflated balloon even as political party structures, entrenched bureaucracies, and stability-obsessed chambers of commerce emphasize a stay-the-course trajectory.
All of these superficially opposing but subtly reinforcing elements are baldly visible in the current American presidential election, for instance: on the Democratic Party side, Bernie Sanders appeals to more militant progressives who seek to topple the beknighted neoliberal consensus of slippery Wall Street financiers and national security hawks represented by Hillary Clinton, while amongst Republicans Donald Trump’s crude nationalistic nativism and seasoned property grifter’s self-aggrandizement has set the party’s rabidly white nationalist base against its cynical plutocratic leadership structure. Both Sanders and Trump have made serious hay with activist-minded voters on either extreme of the political spectrum by promising an overthrow of an unjust and broken system, but their exertions are unlikely to produce any more immediate result than the election of another neoliberal dynast to the White House.
Neither Trump nor Sanders would seriously deliver the sort of revolution that they intermittently pledge to instigate in their campaign rhetoric, but what might a shattering of the established order of power as we know it in the democratic capitalist West look like, and what sort of order (temporary or permanent) would fill the void? Both recorded history and historically-inflected genre entertainment suggest an alternative authority: organized violence.
HBO’s pop culture phenomenon Game of Thrones wraps up its sixth season this weekend, and its vision of a fracturing medievalist power structure on the continents of Westeros and Essos, of traditional norms of legitimacy of authority failing, is characterized by that order’s incipient successor, the application of force. In Westeros, the centralized feudal authority of the crown based on the enforced fealty of cowed vassals (symbolized by the Iron Throne, forged from the captured swords of defeated lords) is weakened by the increasingly openly-questioned legitimacy of the Baratheon line of kings (the past two of which have been incestually-produced pure-blood Lannisters, a powerful noble house but not yet a royal one). This weakness is leveraged to the advantage of a savvy religious leader and political operator, Jonathan Pryce’s High Sparrow, backed by a literal army of armed zealots known as the Faith Militant.
But outside of the capital city of King’s Landing, the contentious intrigues between church and state have little positive effect on wider social stability. Prosperous feudal estates (like Horn Hill, Samwell Tarly’s family seat) and fortified bastions (like the Eyrie, the stronghold of the Vale) maintain a measure of calm, but elsewhere might makes right. The Riverlands, unsettled since House Frey’s coup against the ruling House Tully in the infamous Red Wedding, have been recaptured by a Tully army and troubled by the guerrilla activities of the independent fighting band, the Brotherhood Without Banners, whose members sometimes branch out into pillaging and massacres of the defenseless.
In the North, meanwhile, insurgent Stark-led forces (captained by Sophie Turner’s increasingly subtle Sansa Stark and Kit Harrington’s heroic but blindly honourable Jon Snow, whose dim uprightness has already got him killed once) do battle with the Boltons who succeeded the wolf-headed clan as Wardens of the North, whose openly cruel reign of terror across the North is personified by the sociopathic Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). The pitched medieval battle between the two sides left a literal pile of bodies in its wake in the most recent episode, a visceral, graphic expression of the recourse to violence and death in an unsettled power vacuum.
All of the Westeros-based players on Game of Thrones are, in their own ways, struggling to establish themselves within a power structure whose long-held assumptions are stumbling. Further east and north, however, lie even greater forces marshalling violence with the intention of apocalyptic overthrow. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) has brought the centuries-old slaveowning order of Slaver’s Bay in Essos to heel with loyal armies and burnt its remnants to ashes with dragonfire, but intends this military conquest and sociopolitical transformation to be a mere prelude to “breaking the wheel” of the successive dynastic rule of noble houses in Westeros. In the frozen far north, the White Walkers and their army of zombiefied wights is incrementally proceeding south towards the inhabited southern reaches of Westeros, bringing a winter of discontent that threatens not merely the political order of a certain historical context but all life itself.
If Game of Thrones is a fictional exploration of how violent force and those who wield it most effectively can displace the political traditions and diplomatic compromises of an atrophied system of authority, then the complex, dispiriting arc of the Thirty Years’ War shows how the interwoven tapestry of those elements can predestine a social and humanitarian disaster. As detailed with concise but complicated power by historian C.V. Wedgwood in her seminal one-volume 1938 book, this legendarily destructive and protracted conflict in 17th-century Central Europe (which might have claimed up to 8 million casualties) had causes in the then-century-old conflict between Catholics and Protestants and the dynastic rivalry between the Bourbons who ruled France and the Habsburgs who reigned in Spain and the shrinking Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (which the war morphed into the state that would become the Austro-Hungarian Empire that would only fall in World War I). But its horrible results were the tragic consequence of the reduction of existing nodes of authority within Germany and the normalization of plundering men-at-arms extracting their wages and rations (indeed, their very survival) from the largely defenseless civilian populations of the territories they marched through. Hence the Latin phrase associated with the practices of army support during the war, bellum se ipsum alet: “the war will feed itself.”
Continental Europe’s strongest centralized states of France and Spain fought proxy battles in Germany through allies and satellite states; the conflict might have had animating religious dimensions initially, but the Thirty Years’ War increasing became a hot flare-up of a long-running cold war between Bourbon and Habsburg. From the early days of the war in 1618 until its conclusion with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the most powerful players in the saga were those who could raise, support, and command armies: soldiers of fortune like Ernst von Mansfeld and Ottavio Piccolomini, quasi-feudal warlords like Albrecht von Wallenstein and Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, even an energetic, warlike monarch like Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Their importance as military commanders overrode diplomatic influence or aristocratic privilege, and they became so practically untouchable and necessary to any success in the field that any excess of control by them or plunder and rapine on their armies’ part, while not precisely forgiven, could not be punished or held to account by any secular or ecclesiastical authority not superior to them in arms (and basically none of them were).
The ground-level results of this tyranny of force in the Germany of this time, chronicled with frequent hyperbole sprinkled with grains of truth, were of a severity and horror that echoed the fancifully shocking miseries of Game of Thrones. Theft and pillage, rape and murder, torture, sieges, massacres, starvation, plagues, ruined crops and slaughtered livestock, and occasional battlefield abattoirs (all of these are more were depicted in an infamous series of etchings by Jacques Callot). In short, human suffering. Whether explored as thematic entertainment on television or recorded as narrative history, this is the end result of upheavals that diminish established authority. Revolutions are ever attractive in the ideological abstract but the overthrow of existing power structures that does not empower those most willing to wield ruthless force has not yet been performed. Both Game of Thrones and the Thirty Years’ War provide a dire case study of human nature in the absence of moderating social and political forces to discourage violent pillage and exploitation of weakness.
Following Canadian rock veterans the Tragically Hip’s announcement last month that lead singer and lyricist Gord Downie had contracted terminal brain cancer and that their tour this summer would be their last, the band’s new album Man Machine Poem (also presumed to be their last) was released on Friday, June 17th. Assuming that their recording career will end in step with their live performance career, this album release will complete a musical oeuvre that is among the most impressive in the history of Canadian popular music. This makes Man Machine Poem’s release an apt moment to engage in a critical evaluation and definitive (in one longtime listener’s view, at least) ranking of each album in the Tragically Hip’s 30-year career.
1. Phantom Power (1998)
The timing of this album’s release may bias me in its favour: it was the first new studio record by the band to come out after I joined the ranks of their devotees. But Phantom Power (the title is a bit of stage lingo referring to a lingering electric charge after unplugging equipment, but describes the album’s feel and spectral thematic thrust beautifully as well) is also tremendous, lyrically complex, touched by massive melodies and rich textures. Its tone modulates and builds up to its two affecting closers, “Escape is at Hand for the Travellin’ Man” and “Emperor Penguin”, but its early stretch includes two of the band’s greatest anthems of ambivalent national seeking, the Cold War/hockey/marriage history micro-novel “Fireworks” and the ethereal “Bobcaygeon”, which captivated a wider audience beyond their usual core. An earlier generation of Hip fans swear by Fully Completely, but for me, it is Phantom Power above all.
Firework: “Bobcaygeon”. Everyone’s Favourite Tragically Hip Song.
Unplucked Gem: “Save the Planet”. Enervating and unnerving rock distillation of millennial social and political malaise, with flute solo.
2. Day For Night (1994)
A serious and purposely uncommercial shift in style and subject matter at the height of their popularity, Day For Night demonstrated that the Tragically Hip would not be your run-of-the-mill stadium rock band. A shadowy statement of dark intent, the record is haunted by the creeping penumbra of totalitarianism, infused with suggestions of human cruelty and death. Downie’s lyrics are fixated on shipwrecks, blood, film noir, Nazi art looting, and tense, intimate negotiations. Densely allusive, the lyrics encompass art, philosophy and history, as well as exquisite tableaux of the mundane sparkling with black humour. Day For Night set the model for the subsequent twenty years of Hip albums, but few of its ancestors can approach its powerful, textured darkness.
Firework: “Nautical Disaster”. A vivid nightmarescape of soul-shaking seaborne trauma without chorus or rhyming scheme. One of Downie’s most blazing vocal performances. And who’s this Susan?
Unplucked Gem: “Titanic Terrarium”. A collection of Downie’s best wry jokes (“Growing up in a biosphere / With no respect for bad weather”) over a subtly magnificent soundscape.
3. Music@Work (2000)
It may only be my opinion that Phantom Power was the band’s creative peak, but it was unquestionably their commercial height. It’s wrong, however, to see its 2000 follow-up Music@Work as the commencement of any species of decline. It is, without a doubt, their most sonically textured work, the clearest evidence of the influence of the then-exploding Canadian (specifically Toronto-based) indie rock scene on Downie’s writing and the band’s still-evolving sound, of a piece with the singer’s first two solo records. It has more moments of roughly polished beauty than anything else the Hip have done, and its impact has only grown with acquaintance over the years.
Firework: “Lake Fever”. Deeply Ontarian but rousingly universal, this slow-waxing magic-hour anthem of cottage country tranquility and shaken assumptions, complete with Paul Langlois’ usual froggish backing vocals straining into mightiness, must have a place in the Hip’s top ten singles.
Unplucked Gem: “Toronto #4”. Elegant poetic expression of family loss. Possibly the Hip’s most ravishing, affecting three minutes.
4. Road Apples (1991)
The apogee of the band’s initial blues-rock phase, Road Apples was always preferable for me to its much more successful follow-up. It’s little wonder that the Hip expanded the boundaries of their music from this point on, as the record makes it clear that they had exploited the form for more than all it was worth. From the killer opener “Little Bones” on, this is a relentless rock record dipped in Shakespeare and Canadiana, with slow-burn interludes like “Long Time Running” and the wrenching “Fiddler’s Green”. They branched out and got better, but Road Apples is pure, raw, nearly flawless rock n’ roll.
Firework: “Cordelia”. So many of Road Apples’ rockers spit hot fire, but it’s hard to top this one, with its loud-quiet transitions and central King Lear metaphor. Cracks your spine like a whip.
Unplucked Gems: “The Last of the Unplucked Gems”. A bit of an obvious choice, but a great bassline from Gord Sinclair and zen simplicity from Gord Downie: “I’m kind of dumb / But so are you”.
5. Fully Completely (1992)
The seminal Tragically Hip album, with multiple hit singles establishing the loyalty of a generation of Canadian rock fans. It’s certainly quite good (I love the sound of Johnny Fay’s drums in particular) but just below the upper echelon of the band’s work, to my mind. There’s some filler but there’s also some greatness, namely “Courage” (Downie’s tribute to hard-drinking, bar-fighting writers and the pitfalls of masculine identity), “Locked in the Trunk of a Car” (cruising, paranoid northern rural noir), “Fifty Mission Cap” (hockey death mystery and cultural commodification) and “Wheat Kings” (an acoustic ballad on prairie society and the David Milgaard case). If the Tragically Hip are to be remembered by posterity for one album only, it’s difficult to argue for any candidate other than Fully Completely.
Firework: “Courage (For Hugh Maclennan)”. Whiplash tick-tock riffing rhythm and Downie’s canny instinct for the mot juste and the anthemic melody make this not just an album but a full discographic highlight. Wonderful, profound lyrics in the bridge as well.
Unplucked Gem: “Wheat Kings”. Far from hidden, but a late-album cut with a complexity of cultural imagery and detail that far outstrips anything they had done prior to it.
6. In Between Evolution (2004)
Although the Tragically Hip’s recordings from the second half of their thirty-year run always have something worthwhile to offer, you’ll notice them crowding towards the bottom of this list. The mid-2000s were a relatively solid period for the band, however, and this album in particular included some sharp meathooks. It blows through the doors with the breathless opening salvo of “Heaven is a Better Place Today” (another dead hockey player song, this one about Dan Snyder, and the twinned euphemisms common to both sports and death) and “Summer’s Killing Us” before acquiring a more strident political dimension redolent of the midpoint of the George W. Bush Administration: “Gus the Polar Bear from Central Park” figures a depressed zoo-bound super-predator as a stealth metaphor for belligerent American interventionist power, “It Can’t Be Nashville Every Night” obliquely criticizes flag-waving warmongering musicians like country star Toby Keith, and “If New Orleans is Beat” anticipates the denuding of the great historic city on the Mississippi (with which the band shared a long history) in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Another record that has only grown in my estimation over time.
Firework: “Summer’s Killing Us”. Maintains such a breathless see-saw riff-rhythm that Downie’s emphatic “whoo!” comes out as an exhausted “whew!”
Unplucked Gem: “Goodnight Josephine”. An album without ballads ends with this lovely tune about paintings and teenage daughters with one of leas guitarist Rob Baker’s most nicely-attuned run-off solos.
7. Up to Here (1989)
The reputation and importance in terms of breaking the Tragically Hip gives this smart, skilled but fundamentally basic blues-rock album a bit of a boost in this list. There are some superb examples of the genre on Up to Here, the singles “Blow at High Dough” and “New Orleans is Sinking” obviously but also the woody stomper “Boots or Hearts” and “38 Years Old”, a storytelling ballad that approximates later, greater such narrative songs like “Wheat Kings” in embryonic form. Up to Here is hypercompetent at the gutpunching bluesy modern rock that made the band’s name (indeed, this is the album that made that name) but it suffers just a bit compared to the exploratory ambition of their later work.
Firework: “New Orleans is Sinking”. The Tragically Hip’s “She Loves You” breakthrough, and an indelible, serpentine Southern gothic kick-up. SWIM!
Unplucked Gem: “Boots or Hearts”. You can’t dance to much Hip, but you can dance to this. Shuffle and handclaps perfection.
8. World Container (2006)
Produced by mainstream shiny-rock maven Bob Rock, World Container was a modest commercial comeback for the Hip, who had faded from their position of prominence in the changing youth music market in Canada since the end of the 1990s. It’s certainly the Hip album most at ease with the stadium-rock milieu that was always their dominant métier, and purpose-builds big, broad songs like “In View”, “Yer Not the Ocean”, and the title track for that setting. Enjoyable as it can be for the band to embrace their concert identity on a studio album (“Family Band” is a hugely likable literalization of this identity), this embrace comes with a cost to their art. Bob Rock encouraged Downie to move away from the renowned literary obscurity of his lyrics into more intelligible expressions. This results in some of Downie’s most direct and personal songs (“The Lonely End of the Rink” reminisces on his youth as a top hockey goalie prospect and his memories of a distant father) but doesn’t so much open his creative possibilities as narrow channel them. In opposition to many other efforts from the 2000s, World Container struck me as strong at first and then faded in my estimation with the passage of time.
Firework: “The Lonely End of the Rink”. A bit too direct? Sure. But the core metaphor of the natural solitude and isolation of the goaltender on the ice reflecting a similar cold distance with his father is beyond solid. Some great guitar work from Baker, too.
Unplucked Gem: “Family Band”. The embrace of old-fashioned riff rock bears juicy fruit late in the album. It repeats the stop-and-powerfully-restart trick from “Little Bones” to maximum effect, and Fay’s timekeeping is merciless. Plus: “One day I’ll make some honest rock n’ roll / Full of handclaps and gang vocals”. A worthy goal.
9. Man Machine Poem (2016)
Loose, adventurous, and wonderfully unfamiliar, Man Machine Poem doesn’t pummel the listener with stadium anthems but beguiles them with melodic surprises. The influence of producer and Broken Social Scene supremo Kevin Drew is writ large on what is likely to be the Tragically Hip’s last record (and confirms the reverse influence of the Canadian rock giants on the Pitchfork-approved indie collective’s music which was always a matter of no small suspicion on my part). Like many an indie rock record, and like much of the Hip’s better post-millenial output as well, Man Machine Poem feels like a musical work that will reveal itself more fully and truly only over time. How painful it will be not to receive more gifts like this from the band, but how glad we are to be given one more.
Firework: “In Sarnia”. Canadian place-name in the title. Check. Low-end noodling exploding into moving grandeur. This is a song I’ll love for years, that much is clear.
Unplucked Gem: “Here, In the Dark”. The most Hipesque track on an album that often seems to purposely eschew anything overly Hipesque, with a great arhythmic chorus with Downie wordspilling compellingly. Complex, menacing final minute as well.
10. Trouble at the Henhouse (1996)
Sharing Day For Night’s dusky textures, Trouble at the Henhouse is hardly as distinguished a release, a valley between the late ‘90s peaks that top this list. It does, however, feature two dynamite anthemic singles, the grand “Gift Shop” and the sublime “Ahead by a Century”, as well as the excellent “Springtime in Vienna” and the spookily epic “Don’t Wake Daddy”. It’s the rare Hip record that peters out into relative insignificance, however; usually the band sequence in a strong deep cut or two in their albums’ latter halves, and certainly nearly always end on an up note. But not here, where the murky dirge “Put It Off” plods off into the distance.
Firework: “Ahead by a Century”. One of the eternals, this coming-of-age ballad could be made the new Canadian national anthem without facing serious opposition.
Unplucked Gem: “Flamenco”. Doggedly down-tempo, this is nonetheless a sneaky melodic charmer, with one of Downie’s sharpest digs: “Maybe a prostitute / Could teach you / How to take a compliment”.
11. In Violet Light (2002)
For some time my personal selection as the weakest Tragically Hip release since their debut, the Purple Heron Album has revealed its peculiar delights over time and risen in the rankings as mixed-bag late-period releases piled up behind it. “’It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken’” is a good, if not all-time great, single, although “Silver Jet” might be the worst thing the band ever put out to radio and Hugh Padgham’s production is weirdly thin, tinny, and generally unworthy of the artistry on display (the dull commercial font on the cover is the visual match to those sonics). The sheer quality of Downie’s writing and the increasing adventurousness of his vocals reveal themselves with deeper acquaintance, and the top-notch pair of “Dark” songs are both for the annals. Even this far removed from their best, the Hip are still very good.
Firework: “The Darkest One”. A breezy cruiser with a slick riff, it’s the best of the record’s three singles. Plus the music video is a Canadiana classic, featuring the two Gords helping the Trailer Park Boys steal an engine out of a pickup truck, who then tussle with Don Cherry when he shows up to deliver fried chicken.
Unplucked Gem: “The Dark Canuck”. A six-minute-long, beats-to-the-floor modest rock epic in three movements, this is among the Hip’s most arresting album-closers.
12. We Are the Same (2009)
The band’s second collaboration with Bob Rock also represented the end of the creative relationship. Although it’s more likely that this had more to do with the Hip’s desire for continued variety in collaborators, perhaps they saw that Rock’s emphasis on straight-ahead clarity in music and words wasn’t doing their output as many favours as they might have thought. We Are the Same is hardly a failure. There are several fine songs, at least one classic tableau of detailed empathy (“Coffee Girl”), and some ambitious turns. But this band has honestly been much better than this, and not only earlier in their career, either. Half-assed album cover, too.
Firework: “Coffee Girl”. There’s a touch of creepy middle-aged man watching young women in public to this, but it’s an infectious and beautifully observed portrait of a type outside of Downie’s personal experience, with Beck and Cat Power shout-outs.
Unplucked Gem: “The Depression Suite”. Bob Rock may have over-polished the Hip’s sound, but he did oversee this spectacular, rambling, rousing, ambitious, strings-assisted suite. Downie pulls disparate strands from Farley Mowat’s books, the isolation of urban capitalism, and the corporatized transformation of New Orleans for tourist profit into one of his most comprehensive pictures of modern malaise and the vital comfort of fellow-feeling. A great musical moment, and maybe their last on record.
13. Now For Plan A (2012)
Made with prominent Canadian rock producer Gavin Brown, Now For Plan A makes very little impression of any kind, it pains me to say. Maybe it will grow with long-term acquaintance, and some of it is kind of nice (“About This Map” and the title track are low-key efforts with unsounded depths, I feel). But with this album coming after the similarly middling (by the band’s high standards) We Are the Same, a long-running loyalty to the Tragically Hip’s continued release of new material was tested. Cheeky album cover, mind you.
Firework: “Man Machine Poem”. A title track for the album that follows this one (how eccentric!), it’s lyrically minimalist but massively sung by Downie and full of productive tension.
Unplucked Gem: “Goodnight Attawapiskat”. That reliable Hip standby, the killer album closer. Also a classic slice of Hip Canadiana, with Downie delighting in squeezing the remote northern indigenous community’s mouthful of a name into a rock lyric, although just mentioning the place, with its crippling and largely disavowed social problems, is a laudable act of social justice.
14. The Tragically Hip (EP) (1987)
This EP debut really barely represents the Tragically Hip as we came to know them at all. Downie is listed as co-writer on only half of the songs, with Sinclair and Baker sharing credit in a three-composer triumvurate. Canada’s future rock poet is vocalist only on both of the EP’s singles, including its best song, “Last American Exit”. Sinclair’s misbegotten “Evelyn” may be the biggest mistake they every committed to tape, and the EP concludes with a couple of jokey semi-novelty songs. Only the unremarkable “Highway Girl” made it onto the fan-voted 2005 Yer Favourites compilation from this EP, and even that was only due to the legendary “Double Suicide” live version. It’s generally unaccomplished, but then they were pretty young at the time. Only hints of what is to come can be discerned here, but it can be safely enough dismissed as simple juvenilia.
Firework: “Last American Exit”. Road trip blues-rock with a soaring chorus and an undercurrent of classically Canadian knee-jerk anti-Americanism. Nicely done, Other Gord.
Unplucked Gem: “I’m A Werewolf, Baby”. A silly tune, fairly terrible but still a definite oddity in the band’s oeuvre. Pretty fun, even if it’s an extended joke, and you’ve got to love Downie’s improv reply to Langlois’ repetition of the title phrase: “Not you too!”
Side releases worthy of mention: Live Between Us, the much-bootlegged band’s only official live album, recorded on the Trouble at the Henhouse tour in Detroit; Gord Downie’s brilliant, pure indie solo records, especially Coke Machine Glow and his energetic collaboration with the Sadies, And the Conquering Sun; “The New Maybe”, one of their most achingly gorgeous songs ever, from the Yer Favourites best-of album.