The Confederate Lost Cause, Ruby Ridge, Waco, Oklahoma City, Donald Trump and the Alt-Right: The Roots of the American Moment

August 16, 2017 Leave a comment

The events of this past week, which have revolved around a far-right rally and march in Charlottesville, Virginia that turned predictably deadly, feel definitional of the fraught current moment in American politics and society. A complex web of long-simmering ideological subcultures and raging-id grievances combined in this event. Ostensibly organized and headlined by a variety of far-right internet and alternative-media figures to protest the debated removal of an equestrian statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the recently-renamed Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park) in Charlottesville, the so-called Unite the Right rally last weekend became a magnet for right-wing groups from neo-Nazis to neo-Confederates, pseudo-intellectual white nationalists to heavily-armed “patriot” militias, the Ku Klux Klan to the smugly ironic online “alt-right”. The glue holding together these disparate pieces and giving them some desultory but dangerous sense of cohesion and social validation is a shared allegiance to President Donald Trump. His golf-course attire of light slacks, white polo shirt, and red “Make Americ Great Again” hat was even an unofficial uniform for many of the reactionary marchers.

The Unite the Right cohort were confronted by a prominent and critical swath of media coverage for their Friday night torchlight event and a strong showing of diverse but not ideological-fixed counterprotesters, united more than anything by their opposition to the white supremacist ideals being advanced by the chanting marchers, on Saturday. Violent clashes erupted between the opposing sides, culminating in a terrorist car-ramming attack by a far-right-connected young man who took the violent rhetoric of his confrères all too seriously. His attack killed one person and injured 19 more, but also turned general public opinion even more strongly against the fascistic rightists than it had initially been.

The aftermath of the deadly rally has become even more disconcerting. Amidst arrests, chastened media-shy Nazis losing their jobs, and denunciations by politicians of both parties, the reaction of President Trump was watched most closely. After running a victorious presidential campaign that featured the most openly racist and authoritarian tone in modern memory, Trump’s team continued to cultivate close ties with many of the very far right groups involved in the rally, who were also among his most loyal supporters. His chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, was a key figure in this new resurgent extreme Right through its most prominent media mouthpiece, Breitbart News. Moreover, Trump himself often echoed the language and beliefs of this troubling slice of the spectrum, spouting racist conspiracy theories, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and anti-left insults like a particular belligerent Redditor.

Trump first partially hijacked an intended inoffensive White House statement of dismay and denunciation with ad-libbed equivocation about the “many sides” to blame for the organized gathering of proponents of a violent ideology descending into violence. Then, after delivering a seemingly-forced stronger repudiation of the specific hate groups involved in Charlottesville’s tragedy, Trump alarmingly and semi-incoherently ranted out a series of Fox News talking-points and responsibility-deflecting YouTube comments blaming the essentially imaginary “alt-left” for the violence and insisting that there were many “good people” among the Nazi apologists chanting about exterminating Jews and threatening African-American churches with burning tiki torches. Even for wearied observers used to new descents into the muck by this most odious President, not to mention the savvy critics who have noted that Trump’s only consistently-held belief (besides his own continued self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment) is his racism, the sight of a sitting President openly and vociferously defending no-fooling Nazis and KKK was shocking.

How did America reach this moment? The contributing factors stretch on back before the founding of America or even the arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere, to be frank, but the shock of Charlottesville has a set of clear antecedents. The rally’s impetus, the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee statue, links everything back to America’s founding sin: slavery. Furtively outlawed after the Union defeated the rebellious Confederate States of the South in the grindingly bloody Civil War in 1865, the enslavement of black people, and the racial order of white supremacy that mandated it, was thereafter transmuted into different forms: Jim Crow laws, lynchings and racial violence, segregation, and mass incarceration. Ava DuVernay’s documentary on these mechanisms of structural racism, 13th, offers a strong summation of their intent and effects.

In cultural and discursive support of these structures, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy gained prominence almost immediately after the Southern surrender at the end of the Civil War. Valourizing the bravery and sacrifice of Confederate Army soldiers but eliding the truth that what they fought for was the enslavement of African-Americans, the Lost Cause manifested itself in many ways, from the founding and periodic resurgences of the KKK to cinematic fictions of Southern nobility like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. But through the first decades of the 20th Century, it manifested noticeably across the South and beyond with a flurry of monuments honouring Confederate generals like Lee and Stonewall Jackson, as well as political figures like Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Rebels against government authority who would have been hanged as traitors in previous times and historical periods, these Confederate figures were instead enshrined as heroes in the public spaces of the old Confederacy (and in a surprising litany of non-Confederate states as well).

The commemoration of these monuments (many of which were cheap and mass-produced for quick distribution to counties across the country) not only rallied white citizens to the Confederate values of white supremacy reflected in then-contemporary social, legal, and political elites, but it also served as an implicit statement and even a threat to the African-American minority and its white allies that trangression of this order would meet with the full force of its vengeance. Combined with the increasing official usage of the infamous Confederate Battle Flag by state governments of the South, these monuments to slaveowners and slavery-defenders were a clear message: the White Man is in charge here, and don’t you forget it. Thus, the gradual progressive effort to remove these flags and statues from America’s public spaces is understood by right-wing white nationalists as a symbolic prelude to their feverish nightmare fantasies of “white genocide”.

While the cultural and discursive battles of the Lost Cause narrative have worn on, another parallel force arose on the American Right in recent decades: the so-called “patriot movement”. Focused around white-dominated (but not necessarily or inherently racially-demarcated) state militia groups, gun-ownership activists, and anti-government libertarian extremists, “patriots” conceive of gun control campaigns and legislation as the opening parry in the establishment of an authoritarian suppression of individual rights in America. The development of this subculture is traced indelibly in two films from PBS’s American Experience which aired, with serendipitous confluence, in the weeks following Donald Trump’s inauguration as President earlier in 2017: Ruby Ridge and Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City especially acts as an illuminating history of the anti-government ideology that radicalized Timothy McVeigh and led him to commit one of the worst terrorist acts of American history: the bombing of Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1995, which killed 168 people. The events at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992 – a deadly stand-off between law enforcement and an isolated and armed family – as well as outside of Waco, Texas in 1993 – where a 51-day standoff between a fundamentalist Christian sect and the FBI lead to shootouts and an infamous conflagration that killed 76 people in total – figured vitally into the self-conception of the patriot movement and into McVeigh’s motivation for his mass murder. But the films also detail surprising unorthodoxies in the belief-systems of their principle actors. Ruby Ridge raid target Randy Weaver was a conservative Christian who socialized with white power groups but did not share their racial views; Waco’s Branch Davidians might have constituted a cult, but David Koresh’s followers were an inclusive and racially-diverse cult; Tim McVeigh began doubting his government’s intentions after serving in the Gulf War, his stated objections to what happened in Iraq reflecting progressive anti-imperialism more than right-wing ideas.

Often appearing in public heavily armed but purporting to be fundamentally law-abiding, current “patriots” may not sympathize with many of the beliefs of Lost Cause neo-confederates or white power groups, but they feel that they share the same enemies (liberals, the federal government, cultural elites). And they also increasingly share the same champion: Donald Trump. Add Evangelicals and cultural conservatives to his basket of deplorable acolytes, as well; although they were not necessarily wielding torches in Charlottesville, the relative silence of these groups in the aftermath of this past weekend makes their sympathies, or at least their perceived best interest, crystal-clear.

The absurdity of looking to a petulantly unstable, hideously narcissistic, and incompetently corrupt New York City business tycoon far more interested in golfing weekends than in ethnic cleansing to achieve their oppressive goals will surely dawn on even the most obtuse of these new fashionable Nazis and their loose affiliation of fellow-travellers sooner or later (though they’re mostly stunningly dim, so perhaps not). Donald Trump will disappoint and betray them as he always does to those who put their faith and trust in him. He can do no better. But racist white supremacists have far more reason for confidence in his dedication to their cause than anyone else, and he has signalled once again that he is firmly on their side.

Much of the criticism of these new young Nazis, most of whom are little more than wishy-washy weekend fascists trying on a shocking costume as they stumble around in search of an identity, has focused on the unAmerican-ness of fascism. But as we’ve seen, the ideological bedrock of the Lost Cause and the patriot movement is deeply entrenched in American history. Indeed, in both cases, much of the heavy lifting of self-justification of baldly undeniable treasonous resistance to the authority and legitimacy of American government is achieved by a historical appeal to the founding national myth of the Revolutionary War. Confederate rebels during the war (and their venerators well afterwards) thought themselves the Second Coming of the Sons of Liberty, defending the social order enshrined by slaveowning Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence from a changing, confused, bastardized nation that had lost its way. From their self-given moniker, it should likewise be obvious that the patriot movement considers itself the heirs to the righteous rebels of the 1770 & 1780s, upholding their constitutional right to keep themselves well-armed in the event that they would need to revolt against government tyranny once again.

The alt-right, as the social-media-savvy millenials arguing for everything from anti-Muslim laws to unfettered gun ownership to rollbacks of LGBT and minority rights to old-fashioned racist views of the inferiority of blacks to whites with Facebook posts and Tweetstorms and YouTube video essays, have marinated in the juices of the various Lost Causes of the Right for their entire adult lives. They can trumpet these ideas without understanding them, without conceiving of the contours of their consequences, and certainly without having witnessed the damage those ideas can do. They dip their toes in water that runs deep and cold, toss around casual extremisms in meme form like so many skipping stones as the ghostly corpses of past horrors float up beneath the surface like in the Dead Marshes. But the past cannot be simply retweeted. Its roots entangle us all, and they will drag us down if we do not cut ourselves free from them, from time to time. Now, Americans appear to be coming upon just such a time.

Film Review: Dunkirk

August 6, 2017 Leave a comment

Dunkirk (2017; Directed by Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan’s first shot of the infamous beach of Dunkirk, France is fastidiously regimented and technically ordered, as is his habit and his wont. When a British Army private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), the last survivor of his retreating squad, stumbles onto the beach from which more than 330,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated to save them from the advancing German forces in late May and early June of 1940, he finds not chaotic terror and demoralized disarray, but orderly, geometrically-arranged columns of soldiers and materiel. Framed between rod-straight vertical flagpoles and the natural horizontal progression of beach, waterline, surf, sea, and sky, Nolan composes the notoriously desperate, frantic, and hellish Operation Dynamo as history’s grandest queueing exercise. This 70mm panorama view (like much of Nolan’s blockbuster work, the film was also shot and exhibited in IMAX, but never in dreaded, gimmicky 3D) of a pivotal event in human history’s deadliest war is carefully composed and impeccably clean. Even the sand on the beach appears to have been painstakingly raked; perhaps the BEF evacuees decided to do some calming zen gardening while they waited for rescue?

In case the observation being made is unclear, Nolan’s Dunkirk is predicated on a certain visual and functional incongruity from the hard-edged realities of the Second World War even while it strives to replicate the unbearable sensory tension of the war-zone experience. Jonathan Raban, in a perceptive piece on the film for The Stranger, notes that incongruity on the basis of the remembered experiences of his father, a survivor of Dunkirk. Raban recalls the memorable, five-minute tracking one-shot of the Dunkirk beach from Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement as a truer re-creation of the surreal horror and bedraggled absurdity of the evacuation, and indeed of the whole terrible, pitiful war. No less technically impressive than Nolan’s Dunkirk and a fraction of the length, the sequence in Atonement is infinitely psychologically (and, perhaps, artistically) deeper and richer.

This is not to say that Dunkirk is not excellent, potent, inherently impressive filmmaking. Or that its metronome-ticking rhythmic shifts between uneasy anticipation and smothering intensity are not, in their way, accurate representations of the lived experience of war. If Nolan’s controlled direction and fine shot-making, assisted by the cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema, can trespass into the too-perfect, the nigh-on precious, then other technical elements bring the full weight of craftsmanship and vision to bear with powerful affect. The sound design, in particular, is spectacular and extremely effective; when Luftwaffe planes make their first bombing and strafing pass over the sitting-duck soldiers on the beach, the roar of their engines is that of a swooping, avenging valkyrie, bent on soul-reaving. Shrill and penetrating, the sound evokes the terrifying sensation of an air assault better than any other film I can recall.

Since this is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, the story of the British soldiers’ peril and the efforts to evacuate them is told non-linearly. Cutting between events on the beach, on the sea, and in the air and covering the respective time of a week, a day, and an hour for each location, Dunkirk is arranged not by direct chronology but more in the interest of maximizing tension and impact. Characters’ dire predicaments – white-knuckle dogfights between RAF and Luftwaffe, escapes from sinking boats and planes, contentious bottle-episode dramas on board watercraft – are arranged to crescendo in concert with each other rather than for strict temporal or even thematic reasons. Hans Zimmer’s unsettled score of rising anticipation of disaster (while no match for his remarkable work for Nolan’s last film, Interstellar) contributes greatly to this overwhelming feeling of dread anticipation.

The tone and feel of Dunkirk is delineated so strong primarily because it must be, as its characters are purposely not. Plenty of capable and recognizable actors show up in the almost exclusively-male ensemble cast (a female nurse literally has a single line, and that’s it for women here). Frequent Nolan collaborator Tom Hardy is one of the RAF pilots (along with Jack Lowden), his face once again hidden behind a mask (a flight one, this time); Oscar-winner Mark Rylance is a weekend sailor who answers the Britain-wide call for small craft to ferry men from the beach at Dunkirk to the deeper-draught Royal Navy ships further offshore, and another Nolan fave, Cillian Murphy, is a traumatized officer he saves from the water; Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy are the commanding officers of the evacuation from the beach, while Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles (of One Direction fame) provide a grunt’s level view of the operation. Although all of Nolan’s actors inhabit their men-at-war archetypes convincingly and a couple of them even have something resembling an arc, the general intent is to depict men caught up in the larger sweep of the grinding war.

Dunkirk became a propaganda cause célèbre for Britain in the dark, dispiriting early days of WWII, a military debacle turned into a tempered victory and patriotic fodder for Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s legendary “we will fight on the beaches” speech to the House of Commons that steeled the nation for the forthcoming hunkering-down of the Battle of Britain. Although Nolan thrills and unnerves his audience by putting his characters in deadly peril, he does not telegraph their emotional responses with anything resembling the manipulative hand of, say, Steven Spielberg; the peril is impressionist, experiential, not necessarily empathetic in intent or effect.

The heroism celebrated in Dunkirk is of a stereotypically British stiff-upper-lip sort, driven by grim survivalism and undergirded always with firm, understated duty-bound commitment. Nolan does allow himself a moment or two of inspirational uplift: Hardy’s Spitfire heroics earn some throaty climactic cheers, as does the arrival of the greatly mythologized “little ships” at a moment of great despair for the evacuees. The latter scene is quite nearly indulgent and mawkish, with Branagh heralding the boats’ appearance with the word “Hope!” and Zimmer allowing his score to swell the heart just a bit. But the stoic eyes-forward poses of the flotilla crews save the moment from sentimentality; it’s on to the task, old chap, no need for fussing.

This focus on the task, on the ineffable realness of every moment onscreen, defines Dunkirk. It’s undeniably intense and immediate, resisting rote mythologizing almost (but not quite) to the last. Nolan’s approach and visual style can be a bit too clean and regimented to handle the full, ragged spectrum of the horrors of war, it’s true. But then human emotional trauma being smoothed over (erased, even) by sophisticated technical organization is also a vital part of the story of war, particularly of World War II, in which that organization, when combined with technological developments and mass mobilization of people, products, and ideas, produced great horrors on the battlefield and greater ones off of it. Dunkirk may not be especially good at representing the breadth and complexity of human history’s most cataclysmic conflict, but it is highly superior at drilling deep into the experience of a single, defining episode of that conflict and rendering it for a modern audience with powerful, intelligible clarity.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017; Directed by Macon Blair)

Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) is frustrated and exasperated at how terrible people are. She’s worn out by their callous unconcern, the daily toxic leakage they allow to seep into the world. Quietly and meekly, she politely watches and listens as they cut in front of her in the grocery store checkout line, drop things they don’t pick back up, let their dogs shit on her lawn and fail to scoop it up, ruin the shocking plot twists of sword-and-sorcery book series, idle their ridiculous gas-guzzling megatrucks, kill each other in mass shootings, and go to their deaths despising racial minorities with profane bitter-end prejudice. Drummed into existential despair, Ruth is discouraged by the endless cycle of taking and feels like nothing seems to matter much anymore.

The opening minutes of Macon Blair’s cumbersomely-titled I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (henceforth to be referred to as “the film” to cut waste from the word count) appear to portend a withering, darkly comedic commentary on American society and culture adrift in the helpless numbness of the post-capitalist age. Blair’s directorial debut, a success at Sundance that was thereafter picked up and released by Netflix, isn’t not that, but it does cross into violent, Tarantino-influenced indie crime-thriller territory before too long. It’s adequately gripping and plenty weird enough to pull off this turn, but the mordant sociopolitical thrust of its beginning fades as the guns start to go off towards the climax.

Ruth, an unattached nursing assistant whose only friend is a married mother (Lee Eddy) who can’t fully engage with her friend’s raging ennui, reaches the end of her tether when her home is burgled. Her laptop, grandmother’s silverware, and prescription pills are stolen. Consumer technology, omnipresent pharmaceuticals, cherished but useless mementoes of a vanished past: ordinary contemporary America succinctly embodied. The police are little to no help, an overburdened bureaucracy that can offer no justice or meaningful recompense, and compensates for its general impotence by blaming the victims for the crimes against them (Ruth left her back screen door unlocked, after all; she was practically asking to be burgled).

Seething at the sense of violation invoked by the robbery, Ruth takes matters into her own hands when she finds the burgler’s footprint in her backyard and gets a ping on the locator app for her computer. Enlisting her oddball neighbour Tony (Elijah Wood), a martial arts enthusiast and slightly-flaky Christian believer, as “back-up”, Ruth sets about reacquiring her stolen possessions and perhaps even bringing the burglers to account for their crimes. This effort lands her and Tony in serious danger when she attracts the attention of a criminal trio (David Yow, Jane Levy, and Devon Graye) targetting the home of a wealthy lawyer (Robert Longstreet) and his wife (Christine Woods).

Lynskey and Wood, both actors who experienced their greatest onscreen success in Peter Jackson movies they made in their teens, are superb here, respectively deepening and redirecting how they are seen as performers. Lynskey projects a sense of plain reality, of the quotidian working-class grind elevated to a lofty philosophic perch of critical self-awareness. She doesn’t really, honestly believe that she can get people to stop being assholes, but she hopes some comfort and maybe even some wider good can come from trying. Wood, meanwhile, leans gamely into Tony’s single-male ridiculousness: he rolls up on confrontations armed with smoke bombs and nunchaku and shuriken, then pedantically mansplains the former’s Okinawan origins when Ruth scoffs at his ninja weapons; excitedly details the corporeal physics that go into an effective martial arts kick; pretends to hacker-level computer skills when all he’s doing is googling something; and offers to let her punch him in order to even up “the energy” between after his dog (named Kevin, which is hilarious for some reason) poops on her property and he fails to pick it up.

The darkest irony of Blair’s film is that far more ill than good comes from Ruth’s quest. She might regain prized possessions as well as an unlikely friend (or perhaps more) in Tony, but the price of her limited sense of closure is a deeply traumatic experience and a shocking body count. On a different level, too, Ruth is frustrated, but surely unsurprised, to find that pinpointing accountability for any bad deed is fiendishly difficult. The police are inept and unconcerned with solving her robbery case, but the assigned detective (Gary Anthony Williams) is also overstretched, stressed and shaken by the cavalcade of horrors he witnesses, and pained by a pending divorce. The people in possession of her stolen laptop purchased it with good money from a salvage yard, which is so full of discarded stuff that strict legality would be impossible for even a conscientious operator to establish and maintain. Even her burglar, a product of wealth and privilege who has fallen into a netherworld of vice but greets it with nothing resembling regret, confounds standard nature/nurture dichotomies and sorties in search of moral reckoning.

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore references, in both its title and its overall thematic direction, a generalized, frequently-invoked, amorphously nostalgic sentiment that things are getting worse than they once were. This sentiment has gained the calcified certainty of a set ideology for many Americans, especially older and more conservative ones. Fox News supports the notion profitably every hour of the day, and Donald Trump, with his clumsy confidence man’s instinct for psychological wedges to gain leverage over his marks, used it cynically and ruthlessly to get elected President. Like Trump’s political messaging, Macon Blair’s film utilizes the fearful frisson of violent crime to emphasize this point about a decline into American carnage. Also like Trump, it’s hard to really believe in the truth of Blair’s invocation.

But this striking, oddly riveting, and very darkly funny film makes a potent case, in emotional philosophy terms if not in rational ones, for a downward decline in the norms of American society from the point of view of the young. It’s getting worse, sure, but it’s not clear why or who precisely is responsible, which accounts for the greatest share of the frustration.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Zombieland

Zombieland (2009; Directed by Ruben Fleischer)

A slight trifle of a zombie flick, Zombieland mostly cannibalizes the genre and doesn’t give much back to it. It never manages to quite become the irreverent, boundary-transcending zom-com that it initially promises that it might try to be, a brasher American species of the modern model of the zombie satire, Shaun of the Dead. Lacking the anti-consumerist social commentary of Edgar Wright’s sharper, more considered, more deeply-felt, and yet more anarchically entertaining effort, Zombieland finds instead that a Stateside undead apocalypse would only serve to magnify the survivors’ yearning for the sugar-rush quick fulfillment of the products of American consumer capitalism, and indeed would only infuse those products with the nostalgic aura of a better, irrevocably lost time before hordes of viscera-splattered ex-people sought to devour the living.

All four members of Zombieland‘s unlikely quasi-family of continent-traversing uninfected survivors, their real names forsaken in favour of monikers derived from their cities of origin, remember, through the narratives of consumerism, a time before the undead contagion collapsed the entirety of society. Protagonist/narrator Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) was an anti-social loner downing Mountain Dew Code Red and playing World of Warcraft in his Austin dorm room while nursing pervasive single-male fantasies of kissing a hot girl; now he makes an OCD list of rules of survival necessities (#1: Cardio; #3: Beware of bathrooms; #22: When in doubt, know your way out; etc.) and longs for human connection amidst the carnage. Southern-fried brusque-talking badass zombie-killer Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) subsumes a painful personal loss from his past life with a playful enjoyment in dispatching reanimated corpses and a quixotic quest for Twinkies. Con-running sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) have set their sights on a Los Angeles-area amusement park called Pacific Playland, ostensibly as a rumoured zombie-free enclave but more honestly as an attempt to recapture a measure of childlike innocent happiness for the younger Little Rock. Even Hollywood movie star Bill Murray – in a droll, mostly-improvised cameo appearance that is a bit funny but mostly shamelessly flatters his outsized comedy giant reputation – seeks to retain his man-about-town habits and celebrity public persona, even in the absence of a public to consider him a celebrity.

Mostly taking the ground rules of this undead dystopia as assumed (the zombie condition is caused by a virus, it is spread by being bitten, head shots kill zombies, etc.), director Ruben Fleischer focuses on the comic interplay of his cast and their occasional encounters with their implacable zombie pursuers. That interplay is enjoyable, if a bit too detached from the baseline reality to seem anything more than an entertainment conceit. Most of the choices the characters make in the last act of the movie in particular are driven more by the comedic thrust of the script (by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) than the core sensibilities of logical self-preservation in a constant crisis situation. Basically everything the sisters do during the climax at Pacific Playland, especially, undermines their supposed savviness.

Of course, this is intended to be a fun, laugh-out-loud zombie-killing romp. The decisions and actions of its characters need not be based in common sense or survival instincts to ensure such fun or such laughs, but it has a tendency to help if they do. After all, Zombieland throws together this ragtag foursome against their better judgements and survival-driven vows to avoid being saddled with human attachments that might imperil their endurance. They find that survival in the face of a wave of the living dead doesn’t mean much at all if their own living is effectively dead due to a lack of human connection. It’s a classic comedy-film theme of correct family-centric socialization… amidst a denuded undead hellscape where the living must go to extreme and often violent lengths to survive being consumed by the dead.

Like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland is more of a fond and enthusiastic embrace of the zombie genre than it is an upending critique of it. Unlike Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland carries no suggestions that capitalism itself is a zombiefying virus, and keeps its emotional touch light as well, electing not to push the emotional thresholds of its characters. Consumer culture is another symbol of lost happiness and normalcy in Zombieland, while in Shaun of the Dead, it’s a masking curtain for the zombie-like mindless machine that grinds down ordinary working folks. One of these films cuts deeper and draws more blood, and Zombieland isn’t it. It’s only a flesh wound.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review – Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017; Directed by Jon Watts)

The solo launchpad film for the third franchise reboot of the friendly neighbourhood wisecracking, web-slinging arachnodude, Spider-Man: Homecoming is extremely fun, sometimes raucously funny, and reasonably well-balanced, considering how many magnetic pulls it must contend with. Director Jon Watts is faced with the task of establishing not only a fresh take on one of the most well-covered superheroes in the movies (through Sam Raimi’s trilogy of films starring Tobey Maguire, as well as Marc Webb’s more recent, lightly-regarded two movies with Andrew Garfield in the title role) but integrating the world of precocious high-schooler Peter Parker (played this time by Tom Holland) with the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, which Sony has agreed with Marvel Studios to allow Spider-Man to participate in.

Spider-Man: Homecoming can be a bit of a frenetic mess in light of its in-text mixture of plots, franchise obligations, and even genres. Watts (working from a script credited to six writers whose names I will not take the effort to type out here) works to keep proceedings alternatingly light and weighty, transitioning between and connecting disparate strands of young Spidey’s conflict with a winged tech-stealing villain, the boy’s struggle to learn his abilities and earn the respect and patronage of billionaire technology maven and Avengers linchpin Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), and his negotiation of high school life and crushes on the opposite sex as a teenaged boy from Queens. The latter element sets the tone for much of the film, with Watts acknowleding a debt of influence to John Hughes’ 1980s high-school comedies; Parker even recreates Matthew Broderick’s escape through suburban neighbours’ backyards from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at one point, the original scene flashed on a television screen as he passes to cinch the homage.

This tone of youthful irreverence transfers to the film’s figuration of Spider-Man’s place in the MCU. Homecoming is extremely eager to remind you that it takes place in the same universe as the Avengers cycle; too eager, really, with a self-awareness that borders on the indulgent. Gags and references to other Marvel heroes come hot and heavy, from the first bank robbers that Spidey foils disguising themselves with Avengers masks to social studies class lectures on the superhero-limiting Sokovia Accords to a series of cameos from Captain America (Chris Evans), who has recorded several educational information videos. “I’m pretty sure this guy’s a war criminal now,” mutters Peter’s gym teacher (Hannibal Buress), but then the state mandates the videos be shown anyway (a stealthily razor-sharp commentary on American political and educational bureaucracy if there ever was one).

Holland’s Spider-Man was introduced memorably in the showpiece hero-on-hero battle in Captain America: Civil War (also the source of the Sokovia Accords and Captain America’s transgression of legal norms), and Watts recaps Peter Parker’s perspective via a witty introductory home-movie version of events, filmed by Peter’s cell phone. Energized by the experience and believing himself to be a junior member of the Avengers, Parker is frustrated by the subsequent radio silence from Tony Stark, who insistently recruited him for the dust-up at a German airport in the first place, as well as from his appointed minder, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Attending his science-centric high school for the gifted as a mild outcast with only a single, nerdy friend (Ned Leeds, played by Jacob Batalon), Peter ventures out after classes to foil criminals and serve justice around Queens. As he keeps his arachnid identity secret from his guardian Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and nurses a crush on senior academic decathlon captain Liz (Laura Harrier), Peter Parker is also frantic to unearth a web of crime and/or a dangerous threat which he can thwart in order to impress Tony Stark.

Soon enough, he finds such an opportunity. Perhaps the best thing about Spider-Man: Homecoming is the villain Parker fights against, Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes (known as Vulture in the comics). A recurring issue in superhero films lies with their antagonists, who frequently must assume deity-levels proportions in order to represent a credible threat to our superhuman protagonists. This has been less of an issue in the MCU than it has been in DC’s films (Wonder Woman, otherwise a triumphal delight, is hampered by a closing-act evil god battle), and recent highlight Civil War cleverly teased such a pitched super-tilt before turning to something more intimate and character-driven. But it has hardly been an absent element either, and the coming epic dust-up with galactic megalord Thanos in the two-part Infinity Wars film set demonstrates that it isn’t going away anytime soon.

But with an eager puppy of a neophyte suited hero at the heart of this movie, his nemesis ought to represent a similarly grounded threat. Keaton’s Toomes is exactly that, a reliable contractor and family provider (in the comics, he’s from Staten Island, New York City’s oft-forgotten proletarian borough) jerked around by bureaucratic oversight. Unceremoniously removed by a government agency from the Manhattan salvage operation that followed the destructive climax of The Avengers, Toomes and his crew secretly retain scraps of alien technology and use the devices and weapons they craft from these parts to steal more such artifacts. Toomes has made a good living from the sale of these enhanced creations, and rationalizes away Parker’s moral qualms about his illicit trade with a nakedly class-conscious argument: why should privileged elites such as the likes of Tony Stark control this technology, cutting out working people and leaving them to helplessly cope with the consequences? Toomes is a criminal and a killer, but in a Walter White kind of way, it’s completely understandable how he became one (if not quite justifiable, despite his underclass rebel pose). Keaton is very good in this role, and his character in general is a small miracle of scale in a genre prone to overwrought grandeur in its antagonists.

The high-school comedy and superhero vs. supervillain elements of the plot come together in a satisfying and clever dramatic-irony twist at the onset of the third act, as Toomes assumes an additional antagonistic facet in relation to Peter. Homecoming is an extremely Queens film; still a junior hero, Peter has yet to graduate to Manhattan and thus swings not from its towering buildings. Watts’ action sequences move away from those of the prior Spider-Man films in a similar manner, trading in the skyscrapers and traffic canyons of the city for transport vehicles/compartments: a truck, a helicopter and an elevator, a plane, the Staten Island ferry. It also distances itself from previous screen Spideys in eliding completely Peter Parker’s formative loss of a mentoring father figure. The name “Uncle Ben” is not uttered once in the film, his galvanizing death not run through in a third franchise reboot. Tony Stark is the only father figure on offer here, albeit in an ever-distant one. Tomei’s Aunt May, meanwhile, is plied with jokes about how attractive she is, following the approach of her brief appearance in Civil War. That said, she does get the movie’s final word, fantastically cut off though it is.

There’s plenty to enjoy in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Holland seems a strong match for the character over the long haul of an extended, path-crossing franchise web. It’s cleverly funny and sometimes even witty, leaving some room for some challenging ideas in its treatment of Toomes. If it’s often rough around the edges, it is perhaps forgivably and even appropriately so. Like Peter Parker’s enthusiastic but clumsy test-drive of his unlocked Spidersuit set to the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”, Homecoming sees the new Spider-Man franchise beginning to find its footing with brash, youthful energy and with no lack of promising skill and cocky confidence.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017; Directed by Matt Reeves)

The contemporary Planet of the Apes reboot series began dodgily but has grown in stature to become one of Hollywood’s most finely-crafted and emotionally-involving entertaining blockbuster narratives. It has also become perhaps the clearest clarion bell of bruised and battered American liberalism’s defeated cynicism when faced with their nation’s social and political future. Rise of the Planet of the Apes located the seeds of a catastrophic collapse of human civilization in well-meaning medical science research and the arrogant paternalism felt by a “superior” species for an “inferior” one (reflecting imperialist patterns of thought dating back to Ancient Rome). Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was a surprisingly sophisticated exploration of how conflict between communities, societies, and/or nations is made inevitable by geography, resource disparity, cultural difference, and past antagonisms, and those who seek power by capitalizing on these thornier ends of social and political relations have a natural edges over the voices of moderation and tolerance.

War for the Planet of the Apes concludes this increasingly resonant franchise trilogy by extending those previous themes and introducing new ones: the limits of mercy and forgiveness, persistent echoes of colonialism and slavery, and the potent appeal of charismatic hyper-masculinized authoritarianism in times of deprivation. Its release date, months into an American presidential administration rife with decadent, corrupt rot and unsettling intimations of fascistic discrimination against the vulnerable, might be a coincidence of timing. But War feels like a film of the now, a tapping of dark, doubtful anxieties about the positive potential of the American project from across the political spectrum.

This feeling is summarized in a single image during the action climax: conflicted, heroic ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) escaping an explosion by sliding down a burning American flag, which has been defaced with the classically-derived, religiously-inflected logo of a testosterone-dripping fascist military faction known as Alpha-Omega. This violent, take-no-prisoners battalion of soldiers is commanded by the bald-pated Colonel (Woody Harrelson), who targets Caesar for assassination and his ape community for enslavement and then extermination. The Colonel is also at odds with the remains of the U.S. Army of which he was a part, dissenting about the firmness of methods required to respond to the simian flu virus that wiped out most of the human race, with what he believes to be a mutated strain of which now threatening to further reduce the capacity of the survivors to endure.

Having defeated an internal insurgency spearheaded by radicalized ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) in Dawn, Caesar is still haunted by Koba’s bloody ghost like some simian Hamlet. Like both the Prince of Denmark and the hardline Koba, the latter whose choices are pointedly compared to his own by his wise orangutan consigliere Maurice (Karin Konoval), Caesar is also unable to surmount his personal thirst for revenge after the Colonel inflicts a heartbreaking loss on his family. Instead of leading his people on an exodus from their hidden home in the woods of Northern California to a fertile promised land, Caesar departs on a near-suicidal mission of reprisal against the Colonel and his soldiers (imagine if Moses, instead of leading the Israelites out of Egypt, took along a few thug stonecutters to curbstomp the Pharoah). Along the way, he encounters a mute angel-faced girl (Amiah Miller) whose condition hints at the fate of humans feared by the Colonel, as well as a slightly soft-headed eccentric hermit chimpanzee (Steve Zahn) who can help Caesar find his new sworn enemy at a former internment base at the northern border of the Golden State.

This material, silly as it could seem, is treated with intelligence and seriousness by director Matt Reeves, who also helmed Dawn, and star Andy Serkis, who has trained and shepherded along a cadre of actors in the motion-capture process that he developed with the special-effects wizards of Weta Digital while playing Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (the visual effects supervisor of those films, Joe Letteri, joins him again here, and Weta Digital handles the computer animation). The detail of performance discernible in the bodies and especially the faces of Caesar, Maurice, and the other apes is remarkable; Caesar features in several tense scenes of emotionally dynamic and subtextually dense material opposite Harrelson’s Colonel that play onscreen as seamlessly convincing exchanges between intelligent beings. Serkis has developed this process into an art form, no mere tech gimmick but an essential element of involving storytelling and emotional engagement. But it is not a merely technical but a performative achievement: Caesar is an ape imbued with the mental and emotional complexity and tragic dimensions of a full person. It’s a great performance by Serkis, not just an impressive CGI trick.

This effusion of praise aside, I’m not certain that War is particularly a better film than Dawn, though I’d be willing to tentatively judge that it equals its impact. Reeves and his cinematographer Michael Seresin craft impressive visuals, including trans-mountain ape migration helicopter shots, the snow-covered interior of an abandoned opulent alpine hotel, and a spectacular closing battle and cleansing natural disaster. But Caesar’s special revenge mission feels like an extended plot stalling tactic as well as an out-of-character abandonment of his responsibilities to his followers. Some aspects of the ape colony’s escape from the clutches of Alpha-Omega are also difficult to buy into, and one must reluctantly admit that the promised titular war is essential a single belated skirmish.

War‘s political themes are more robust than its plotting. Reeves, who co-wrote the script with Matt Bomback, builds in a subaltern element in the form of apes who desert Caesar’s faction to serve the human army as “donkeys” (a derivative term from the soldiers’ Vietnam-reminiscent slang for the apes: “kongs”). Branded and graffitied, the donkeys enforce the subjugation of the captured apes (Caesar works to convince one of them, a gorilla named Red played by Ty Olsson, to join him in ape solidarity), who are made to labour to build a wall to protect the mutinous Alpha-Omegas from the incoming onslaught of the main army. The slave labour of this arrangement leads to a Spartacus-like act of resistance from Caesar, which in turn inspires a Christ-like punishment of the ape leader. Furthermore, like Judeo-Christian patriarch Moses, Caesar glimpses the promised land of his apes, but does not enter it.

In addition to these biblical echoes, a sharp distinction in the moral dimensions of mercy separates Caesar from the Colonel. Caesar, his moral compass formed in an initial familial unit in Rise and then in communal inter-reliance in his ape colony, understands mercy as both a basic display of kindness and empathy and a mechanism of signalling of good intentions; it is not only a fundamental good for Caesar, it’s sound strategy too. For the Colonel, the desperation of humanity’s plight refigures mercy as a pitiless purification of weakness; it’s a brutally practical act for him, absent of moral calculation, which he dismisses as clouded emotionality. The Colonel’s exhortation towards purity and calls for the elimination of weakness is fundamentally fascist in character. Defining his embattled faction as strong and pure in opposition to the sickness of other humans or the beastial nature of the apes unites his men in a shared identity. And like any imagined American strongman worth his salt, he reaches for the easy jingoism of patriotism and faith to shore up his power base, his iron-fisted dictatorial rule buttressed by the flag and the cross.

War for the Planet of the Apes takes its time to unveil these implications, and its relative paucity of unity and coherence between narrative, characters, and themes when compared to the preceding film in the series might account for the hesitation in pronouncing it a step up from Dawn. Nonetheless, it’s a powerful-enough closing chapter to a trilogy that imagines a besieged, discriminated underclass rising up against a small-minded, exploitative elite whose self-enriching arrogance presaged apocalyptic social and biological collapse. These Apes movies have always encouraged audience identification and sympathy with the apes rather than the humans, an alignment that reveals a deep-seated scepticism about the promise of neoliberal capitalist democracy. How fitting for this tripartite vision to close as our world begins to catch up with its critical perspective.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Great Beauty

La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) (2013; Directed by Paolo Sorrentino)

For the first quarter or so of its running time, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty richly earns the grandiose aesthetics of its title. From the opening montage of slice-of-life tableaux of modest modern activity amidst the aging monuments of the Eternal City of Rome, literally every shot for the film’s first half-hour or so is ravishingly beautiful, as well as the vast majority of the shots thereafter. You will delightedly wait in vain to witness a composition that it not impeccably lit, balanced in colour and shadow, flawlessly framed, and deeply evocative of any number of internal and extrapolated meanings (the glorious cinematography, it requires noting, is by Luca Bigazzi). Sorrentino’s visual virtuosity, always operating at the service of his exploration of those meanings, does eventually relent, as he will occasionally leave aside the Old Masters imagistic lustre and golden ratios to simply block out actors in a room talking to each other. But the wonders don’t stop for long; they are merely carefully apportioned for maximum affect.

There can be a critical tendency, when noting the pure aesthetic quality of a film’s images, to separate that value from the film’s other processes such as narrative structure, pacing, dialogue, and performance. Whatever beauty a film summons up, this line of thinking might go, it is not necessarily essential to the operation of these other functions, a sensually pleasing but still supplementary element in the total package of a film. It seems counterintuitive to say so; film, after all, is a predominantly visual medium. And perhaps this critical framing of visual splendour is driven by the films being examined themselves, whose makers don’t necessarily possess the totalizing talent, visionary intelligence, and prodigious technical prowess to craft a cinematic panorama as reliant on the eye as it is on the ears and the mind.

Sorrentino does possess those gifts and those abilities, and The Great Beauty is a stunning demonstration of his self-possession as a film artist. It is not only that, however. Sorrentino arrays the full sumptuous seductiveness of cinematic aesthetics to interrogate the utility of aesthetics to life in Rome, in Italy, in our schizophrenic modern world; to sketch and qualify the dimensions of that elusive titular beauty, in broad, bold strokes. His chosen vessel of observation and consideration of these dimensions is an aging, prominent, mildly dissolute bon vivant Roman socialite and man of letters named Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), known for a well-remembered novel decades before with the Umberto Eco-esque title The Human Apparatus that he has never had the requisite ambition to follow up on. Jep re-examines his life and his city and the implications of his persistent but ephemeral presence in both of these ungraspable entities on the dual occasions of his 65th birthday (which follows the sun-kissed vistas of historic, tourist-strewn Roman sites that open the film with an exuberant strobe-lit debauch of a rooftop dance party, a visual mixture of joy, grotesquerie, and the surreal) and the revelation of the death of the first woman he loved.

Jep’s movements in Rome don’t so much follow a narrative through-line, but are structured as an episodic series of encounters and witnessings, conversations and observations. His desperate, exasperated friend and literary agent Romano (Carlo Verdone) pushes Jep to publish a book of his celebrity interviews under the title Visions and Revisions, and this title could describe Sorrentino’s conception of his protagonist’s journey (which “is entirely imaginary, which is its strength”, per the commencing epigraphical quotation from Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night). The vision of The Great Beauty is, in its own way, a revision of Federico Fellini’s seminal La Dolce Vita, also about a gossip-magazine writer proceeding through a litany of desultory episodes in a sensual and tantalizing but forever unsatisfying Rome. It also, for that matter, echoes older Italian literary touchstones, from the descent through the circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno and the satirical colloquial tales of Boccaccio’s Decameron to the writings of Gabriele D’Annunzio (Romano, literally man of Rome, plans to present D’Annunzio’s selected writings on the stage), a prominent fin de siècle poet, dramatist, and novelist whose ideas formed the backbone of Italian Fascism after World War I.

D’Annunzio’s earlier-career embrace of the intense pleasure of decadence certainly influences Jep’s (and Sorrentino’s) understanding of Roman life. The opulence of the high society and cultural events that Jep observes is matched only by their evaporating unimportance; even a funeral, that most solemn recognition of our own mortality when faced undeniably with that of another person, is largely a matter of custom-bound social performance. Jep and his circle of acquaintances bemoan Rome’s relative status as a cultural backwater in modern Europe, yet they subsist amidst smothering privilege and ostentation. Political conviction and the comfort of wealth are contrasted in Jep’s teardown of his friend Stefania (Galatea Ranzi) over friendly rooftop patio drinks, the professed proletarian ideals of the Italian Communist Party of which she is a leader rendered laughable by her decadent lifestyle. Rome is just such a foolish, tragic contradiction to Sorrentino, but no less achingly beautiful for it.

The Great Beauty is built of sequences revealing this inherent contradiction in terms at once satirical and elegiac. Sorrentino places Jep in one such scenario after another, sometimes cynically sniffing at their absurdity, sometimes marvelling at their poignancy. Jep watches a performance artist drape her naked body in a white sheet and run headlong into an ancient stone aqueduct; he observes a harrassed, exploited young daughter of wealthy art dealers theatrically hand-paint on a stretched canvas for a crowd of partygoers; he chats with a stage magician making a giraffe disappear amidst classical ruins; he sits in the opulent waiting room of a supercilious plastic surgeon who collects obscene sums to swiftly inject his clients with collagen; and he is strangely moved by a photographic installation by a man who has taken a picture of himself (or had a picture taken of him by his father, before he could do so himself) every day of his life. In between, he connects fitfully with his housekeeper, the widower of his youthful lover, a middle-aged exotic dancer (Sabrina Ferilli), and his circle of friends, his companions in daily delusion. He even stands, at one point, before the capsized hulk of the Costa Concordia, summoned by Sorrentino as a singular image of Italy’s latter-day tragic embarrassment and cowardly diminishment as a touristic simulacra of its long-faded glory as Europe’s once-indispensible civilization.

The Great Beauty looks these myriad beauties, as well as their attendant sorrows, square in the face, but it doesn’t attempt to make sense of them as anything more than an astonishing litany of feasts for the eye that, however we choose to philosophize on them or rationally quantify them, add up to life unto death. These images outlive us, however, be it on cinematic celluloid or on the semi-ruined face of the Eternal City. This strange permanence amidst impermanence, this sense of inherent ephemerality under the august aegis of immortality, pervades Sorrentino’s understanding of Rome, which is to say his understanding of life.

The monolithic institution that has persisted longer than any other in immortal Rome, the Catholic Church, has long intellectually justified itself as a collective framework for understanding “the great beauty”, for deciphering transitory temporal existence in terms of the promised permanent immortality that is said to follow it in the life beyond this inescapably fallen one. It has frequently done so in tangible terms through the visual arts, an indulgent tendency that was fuel for the Reformation but also the engine of the Baroque art of the Counter-Reformation that left such an indelible aesthetic mark upon the Rome we see today. Baroque art celebrated observable beauty in the world as proof positive of divine providence, glorying in the exquisite flesh disdained as sinful by prim, chastizing Protestants with their whitewashed houses of worship and fearful iconoclasm. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, reified material reality in its commissioned art with a fervour that might have been (and sometimes was) construed as shockingly erotic had it not been redeemed by a patina of piety.

Through Paolo Sorrentino’s eyes, Rome is the ideal holy fleshpot of lapsed-Catholic hedonism. The Great Beauty is flamboyantly neo-Baroque in its conception and execution, in its borderline-heretical refusal to separate the flesh from the spirit. This is not to say that Sorrentino sees the Church as not being prone to the same shrunken decadence as any other element of Roman culture and society: Jep meets a Cardinal whispered about as the heir apparent to the papacy who can offer him no spiritual advice, only detailed culinary recipes. But he also has a climactic meeting with a Mother Theresa-like living centenarian saint (Giusi Merli) who sits on his balcony facing the Colosseum, surrounded by a resting, magic-realist flock of migrating flamingoes (one of the most inspired images in a film swimming in them). She challenges Jep to face up to his life and his past and perhaps to write another novel, a task far more daunting for him than the 104-year-old woman’s planned ascent on her knees of the Scala Sancta as a testament of her devotion and faith.

Sorrentino’s critical side-eye at the impious, ladder-climbing high clergy and the poisoned institutions of the Church, convulsed as it has been by a scandal of faith-shaking proportions, is leavened by his generally sincere portrayal of Sister Maria’s selfless prostration to a governing humility (although he does give her a slimy sycophantic spokesman who elaborately sings her praises as well, hinting that her saintliness is a publicity creation). But he also shows Jep being beguiled by giggling young sisters at a city convent, running through manicured gardens at play with a local boy, a lovely and carefree melding of simple pleasures and deeper, thornier convenants of belief. The Great Beauty‘s aesthetic philosophy of life is simultaneously lighter and heavier than that of Roman Catholicism, which Paolo Sorrentino, announcing himself as a modern master filmmaker with this rich cinematic work of art, comprehends as a key tile in the cracked but beautiful mosaic of life in Rome.

Categories: Art, Film, Reviews