The Witch (2016; Directed by Robert Eggers)
“What went we out into this wilderness to find?” asks William (Ralph Ineson), family patriarch and religious nonconformist in colonial New England, in the opening moments of Robert Eggers’ arresting “New England folktale” The Witch. He stands in judgment with his clan before the governor and church elders, who banish him from their God-fearing colonial plantation for dissenting from the Puritan orthodoxy in his expressed beliefs. There is no small irony in this splitting, seeing as how the Pilgrim colonists of 17th Century New England were themselves painfully severed from the Church of England for their dissenting faith to come to the American continent in the first place to begin anew. Such principled breaks from the community on religious terms were hardly uncommon in New England, either; this was how Rhode Island was founded, for one, and other communities trace their origins back to strict Puritan believers who could not play well in the religious sandbox with others and struck out on their own to build a new Jerusalem in the continent’s unfathomably vast wilderness.
Eggers lingers on foreboding wide shots of the woods that tower on the fringes of the humble homestead that William and his family erect. “We will conquer this wilderness,” William vows. “It will not consume us.” But, of course, we know it will. Although the forest in The Witch is a place of mystery and peril as per both the folktale and the horror film tradition, visually it is not so much magical or nefarious but merely tangible, not looming or threatening so much as existing. Menace leeches from it into William’s family’s lives and they find nothing but misery and evil in their interactions with it. But the pregnant query at the core of The Witch asks whether evil persists in the wider natural world or if all ill emanates predominantly – or even exclusively – from the corruption of man. Furthermore, it considers quite openly whether personal liberty and fulfillment lie down the path of righteousness or with indulgence of the flesh.
As its ending titles claim somewhat righteously, the scenario of The Witch is based on copious primary documentary sources from colonial New England’s 17th Century witch hysteria (not to mention horror genre convention), as is much of the dialogue spoken by its characters. This assertion of fidelity feels faintly ambiguous considering the way the film treats the demonological phantasms of witchcraft as being all too real, but then to Protestants of that era – oppressed by an intense, practically physical fear of sin and damnation – it was all too real. The evil powers of the witch and her demonic master, while potent, exploit and indeed meld with the internal rifts within the family. It becomes difficult to tell where their desires, grief, flaws, resentments and recriminations end and where the witchcraft begins.
The matriarch Katherine (Kate Dickie) is harsh and shrewish, towards her husband but especially towards her eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), under whose care her youngest son Samuel suspiciously disappears. Thomasin resents her mother’s attacks on her, forms a fonder compact with eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and needles her hellion twin siblings Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger) with dark suggestions of practicing witchcraft, jests which will come back to haunt her. Caleb, for his part, gazes with adolescent lasciviousness upon his older sister’s body while absorbing but quibbling with his father’s sermons about the stern certainty of sin, but precipitates a family crisis when he becomes lost in the woods and ensnared by a dark force. Meanwhile, the twins spend much of their time playing with the family’s he-goat Black Phillip, and claim that he sometimes speaks to them in dark voices. All family members old enough to recognize William’s weakness and ineptitude as a provider, survivor, and nurturing patriarch (namely Catherine and Thomasin but Caleb as well in an unspoken way) resent him for it, too.
All of these cracks and fissures are exploited by dark forces, but the darkest force of all is basic human doubt and frailty. The Witch is sort of a dark mirror Book of Job (Katherine compares herself to Job’s wife at one point), only the calamities with which William and his family are beset consist not in the stress tests of an ultimately benevolent deity but of the Great Enemy. And this 17th-century Job fails the test quite comprehensively. The film weaves the family’s own all-consuming Puritan paranoia about Satan and witches lurking in every copse, about the immutability of sin and judgement, and about the temptations of the flesh and of the material world with the stock imagery of witchlore: twisted, cackling old hags, huts in the woods, eerie flight by moonlight, and fireside witches’ Sabbaths in communion with Lucifer. It’s both a practically flawless chamber horror film and a deep and true approximation of the scripture-fed superstitions and unstable social conditions that made the English colonies on the Eastern Seaboard such a hotbed for witch hysteria.
If The Witch was only those things, it would be a genre film triumph. But Eggers’ film cuts deeper than that, functioning as both an excavation into the anthropological mists of the American nation and a compelling exploration of the conflict between the hedonistic pull of personal liberty and the fetters of dogmatic, accusatory religion. No story set in Pilgrim times can claim not to be about modern America as well; such is the legacy of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Arthur Miller, and The Witch joins that august metaphorical/allegorical tradition. Is Eggers’ film about the contemporary American siege mentality, the heady and dangerous mix of security anxiety, xenophobia, and wounded self-assurance that archconservative demagogues like Donald Trump shamelessly exploit and threatens to unwind the bonds of the republic? Is it about the destructive, church-fed tendencies towards magical thinking and irrational superstition that have hamstrung one of the world’s most robust societies on consistent occasions? We may not be able to say with confidence that it is saying any of these things, but the film operates with enough ambiguity to give those possible meanings plenty of oxygen.
As hinted at (and as can only be properly discussed by indulging in spoilers, so fair warning), there’s a strong feeling that the core meaning of The Witch, at least for Thomasin, considers the costs of freedom versus those of self-restriction. Blamed for all of the family’s troubles by her imperious mother, left undefended by her milquetoast bible-thumping father, and betrayed and accused of witchery by the twins, Thomasin finds herself standing alone amidst the shattered remnants of her family, face-to-face with the Great Satan himself.
“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” the male human incarnation of “Black Phillip” whispers seductively, and she has endured through too much trauma to resist him, lost all the safe ground that she might cling to in defiance. Though why would she bother to resist? Her father’s precious piety has only served to smash his familial unit and leave him dead in a pile of his uselessly-chopped firewood, crying out in his final guilt-ridden throes, “Corruption, thou art my father!” Her life is only preserved from her mother’s wrath by the sharp edge of a blade. For Thomasin, a literal deal with the Devil is her only path to freedom from the godly misery of her society and culture. Her species of liberation through the embrace of witchcraft, through communion with evil forces but also with the corrupted, amoral natural world, is not a matter of choice but of last resort, of resigned but bleakly delighted inevitability. “I will guide thy hand,” Black Phillip promises Thomasin when she tells him that she cannot write her name in his book to seal their pact. Her agency has been relentlessly reduced until it has been taken from her, all while she is plied with the promise of pleasures that come with final, total surrender.
Thus, Thomasin’s “choice” is no choice at all, her veering in the direction of delicious indulgence a purposeful channeling by forces stronger than her burgeoning womanhood. Buried deep in its symbolic implications, The Witch suggests that her unfree choice of freedom is the one America took and the one Americans are likewise offered. What did early American colonists go into the wilderness to find, after all? A new Kingdom of God, and nationalist myth and historical impetus has long maintained that they carved this kingdom, the “city upon a hill” of Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop’s long-echoing 1630 sermon, out of the unforgiving wilderness by dint of their tireless work ethic and pious, god-fearing determination.
The Witch, as befits a cinematic text from an American era of deep ambivalence, doubt, and perhaps even dread recognition of decline and decadence of that exceptional settlement on New World shores, provocatively suggests that this myth should be understood in reverse. Americans did not conquer the wilderness, the wilderness consumed them even as they consumed it. Its primal, instinctual drives became internalized and transmuted into human desires, into that venerable “pursuit of happiness” that has translated into a liberty of acquisition, of consumption, of indulgence. This “folktale” offers this alternative myth of America’s founding, lurking beneath the trappings of an excellent indie-arthouse period horror movie. It lives deliciously.
Elstree 1976 (2015; Directed by Jon Spira)
Elstree 1976 is a modest movie about modest actors and extras whose modest film careers included bit parts in an immodestly successful and influential movie called Star Wars. Crossing paths one unseasonally warm English summer at London’s Elstree studio, they donned goofy costumes to make an odd science fiction movie (okay, I know, space opera, thanks) that some thought was a low-budget TV film but others more versed in the genre recognized as something potentially special. They moved on from there, some to the surprise megahit’s two sequels, others to prolific background careers, still others back to the respectable theatre roles that they took a break from to play exotic aliens or foot soldiers in a galatic conflict. But as the cultural profile of Star Wars grew to saturating proportions, many were sucked up in the maelstrom of its dedicated fandom, and began making lucrative appearances on the convention circuit.
I’m not at all certain what Elstree 1976 ultimately adds up to. Its subjects are too diverse, their experiences with both the film and its decades-long comet trail of fan enthusiasm both too variant and too samey to land any sort of impactful statement. There are internecine controversies in the geek-movie bit-player convention-circuit world, we are told. Cast members listed in the credits resent the uncredited extras who claim an equivalent mantle of fleeting notoreity and occupy autograph-signing booths next to them at fan events. One extra’s claim to be the infamous clumsy stormtrooper who bumps his head on a rising door on the Deathstar (certainly no laurel-draped honour) has even faced multiple counter-claims from other background players.
The most prominent cast member interviewed is clearly the towering English strongman David Prowse, who played megavillain Darth Vader in all facets except his voice. Prowse, whose mild West Country accent earned him the snickering behind-the-scenes nickname “Darth Farmer”, had his line readings later iconically overdubbed by the inimitable James Earl Jones, which he is paradoxically flattered and irritated by, seemingly at once. Prowse is also glad to have been involved in Star Wars and to continue to derive an income from it in his advanced age, but reserves some bitterness towards Lucasfilm and defied its corporate controls just enough to get himself banished from officially-sanctioned franchise events. One doubts that he’ll be invited back into the Vader suit for this year’s Star Wars film, Rogue One, which includes at least a cameo appearance by Darth.
Prowse himself may have been a rich enough subject for a documentary, but the group of veteran thespians, former models/bartenders, and flaky entertainment world hangers-on interviewed by director Jon Spira provide curious colour as well. All seem more than a little bemused at their continued relevance to Star Wars superfans, whether they were cool alien bounty hunters like Greedo or Boba Fett, the stormtrooper who gets an assist from the Force in realizing that these aren’t the droids he was looking for, or briefly-glimpsed Rebel Alliance honour guards. Fan obsession has given them a chance to cash in on their momentary brush with history, and they’ll take the opportunity with a smile.
Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2015; Directed by Tim Skousen & Jeremy Coon)
A no less obsessive but far more creatively active facet of movie fandom is witnessed in Raiders! The enthusiasm that the throngs who line up for the autograph of the unglimpsed actor playing a stormtrooper or bounty hunter in a galaxy far, far away was likewise felt by a trio of teenaged boys in 1980s Mississippi for the daring adventures of rough-and-tumble archaeologist. So inspired were Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb by Steven Spielberg’s 1981 action-adventure classic Raiders of the Lost Ark that they decided to make a film of their own. Or rather, they decided to remake that same film, shot for shot, starring themselves and their friends, over nearly a decade, with a scraped-together budget approaching a final figure of $5000 and loads of brazen inventiveness.
The dedication, ingenuity, and sheer juvenile recklessness involved in this long-term project is more than a little astounding and more than worth the documentary feature treatment. Raiders of the Lost Ark is pure blockbuster fare: impressive sets, cutting-edge special effects (for its time, anyway), thousands of extras, and, most of all, thrilling stuntwork that would be extremely dangerous for even trained professionals to attempt. These plucky teenagers tackle it all: they’re chased by rolling boulders, beset by a tomb full of snakes, and dragged behind a truck (albeit one without an engine). They even set themselves (and the basement of one of their parents’ home) on fire. The resulting giddily amateur fan film, entitled Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, has been touring the U.S. to cheering film geek audiences for a decade since cult filmmaker Eli Roth sprung an old VHS copy of it upon the attendees of Ain’t It Cool News‘ annual marathon film festival, creating major internet buzz and earning the film its own packed screening at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse Theatre (whose production arm oversaw this documentary). Spielberg himself even came across the fan film, and set a meeting with its three creators as adults to praise them for their efforts and tell them how they inspired him further as a filmmaker.
The best moments of Raiders! involve the reminiscences of the principal trio and the legion of family members and friends who participated in the venture, but there’s more to the film than stardust memories of misspent youth. But there’s more to the film than that, even though the incredible stories of the years-long production could fill an hour or more on their own. Intercut with the backstory of the Raiders adaptation is the documentation of Zala and Strompolos’ current-day attempt to raise necessary funds and surmount the necessary challenges to film the one sequence from Spielberg’s classic that stymied their teenaged resources: the explosion-filled white-knuckle fight scene between hero Indiana Jones and a towering Nazi muscleman beneath a life-sized prototype airplane.
Both the high production values and standard behind-the-scenes challenges that Zala and Strompolos face to complete this sequence are far out of step with the DIY aesthetic that made their childhood re-creation so charming. But the struggles that they face as adults – Zala with a family to provide for and a demanding boss insisting that he return to his paid work, Strompolos to find direction and stability after struggles with poverty and drug addiction, even Lamb to reconcile with the duo of friends whom he felt minimized his contribution to The Adaptation – put the more whimsical obstacles of their youthful moviemaking into context. The documentary’s juxtaposition of these challenges is a fine exemplification of the nature of maturation and conforming forces of American society. But the film’s postscript – Zala leaves his constricting job to start a film production company with his childhood compatriot Strompolos – suggests that in the creative class that springs from and feeds on the energy of fandom, the conventional narrative arc of “growing up” can have unexpected detours.
American Hustle (2013; Directed by David O. Russell)
David O. Russell’s breezily fictionalized spin on the FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s and early 1980s opens (after a droll disclaimer: “Some of this actually happened”) with a scene of its protagonist con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) meticulously arranging his elaborate combover in a luxury hotel suite mirror. Russell’s camera lingers on the detail of Bale’s exertions on his coiffure as the actor subtly revels in the flourishes of Rosenfeld’s preparations. His care and attention to detail in presenting a false follicular front to the world have little to do with male vanity, however. They are about perfecting the correct appearance to achieve the desired effect, and the desired effect is always for his mark to believe in him not because he wants them to, but because they want to.
This is the essence of the con man’s hustle, expressed as clearly and as resonantly as it perhaps ever has been onscreen in American Hustle. But Russell, a famously exacting filmmaker whose films always feel looser and more casually-constructed than they really are, is not content to simply doodle entertainingly on the level of the confidence caper potboiler, a slick Ocean’s Eleven transposed to the plush glare of the ’70s. American Hustle is Russell’s Goodfellas, stylistically and thematically. And it suggests a close kinship between its double-crossing, role-playing scammers and the vaunted American Dream in much the same way that Goodfellas melded the brash alterity of Mob life with American middle-class aspiration. The con is not a bug in America’s construction, it’s a feature.
Russell and co-scripter Eric Warren Singer change the names and many of the personas of the Abscam principals, and spice up the scenario with criss-crossing liaisons and shifting loyalties, but the broad strokes are similar. Rosenfeld is the owner of a New York-area dry-cleaning chain, the son of a glazier, and a seasoned scam artist who dabbles in fake-loan schemes and forged art dealing. His partner and paramour, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), impersonates a British aristocrat and weaves her particular seduction of victims with his own. Although they have a productive shadow-business and a passionate love life, Rosenfeld also has a family on Long Island to go back to: his mercurial, disastrous wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and son Danny (Danny and Sonny Corbo), towards whom he is a devoted father.
Rosenfeld’s split allegiances become further bifurcated when he and Sydney are busted in their loan scam by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and he presses them into an ever-broadening sting operation aimed at the dedicated but corrupt mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, sporting a spectacular coif). Polito is employing his tentacular influence in New Jersey politics to raise funds to rebuild the legalized gambling business of Atlantic City, a venture now legendary for its embezzlement, corrupt application of public funds, and Mafia involvement in skimming construction costs and casino profits. DiMaso, steamrolling over the reasonable Midwestern caution of his embattled superior Stoddard Thorsen (Louis CK), looks to snag Polito for taking bribes from an invented Middle Eastern sheikh (impersonated by a Mexican-American agent played by the indispensible Michael Peña, in what now plays like an inadvertent shot at Donald Trump’s nativist anti-immigration fulminations). He wants the cooperation and expertise of the entrapped Rosenfeld and Sydney in pulling off this sting, and needs it more and more as the web of corruption in the Atlantic City deal catches U.S. congressmen, a Senator, and a menacing Mob enforcer-turned-captain (Robert DeNiro).
I must admit to my shame that I’ve missed out on Russell’s later-period transformation from the brazen iconoclast of Three Kings to the super-skilled director of sprawling, audience-friendly awards-bait genre prestige pictures like The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle. His cast for Hustle draws liberally from his recent efforts. Bale achieves the opposite physical transformation from his Oscar-nominated role in The Fighter, where he was gaunt and hollow-cheeked in contrast to Rosenfeld’s pot-belly; the sultry, unwaveringly sharp Adams was also in that film. Cooper, whose overgrown-bro-trending career was put on a more respectable path by Silver Linings Playbook, ricochets from overconfidence to self-doubt, from aggression to desperation, from triumph to deflation. Lawrence, Russell’s megawatt muse since Silver Linings Playbook, is great as usual, saddled though she is with the stock hysterical wife role (Lorraine Bracco left so little of such a role for anyone after Goodfellas) and is only sometimes given free reign to subvert it, as when she celebrates a vengeful attempt to break Rosenfeld’s cover with her putative Mafia boyfriend (Jack Huston) via a pugnacious singalong to Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” while cleaning the house.
Technically, American Hustle is superbly crafted, flashily and subtly in equal measure. Even in what many directors would stage as static dialogue scenes, Russell moves his camera with even-handed drama, pushes in and pulls away for precisely calculated effect that feels spontaneous and effortless. When DiMaso and Sydney (the former is deeply attracted to the latter, who purports to be honeytrapping the federali but might have more feelings than she lets on) go out dancing, Russell revels in the sexiness of a Manhattan club night, all UV floods and chopped-up strobe lights.
All the fine performances and technical acumen would be wasted, however, if American Hustle‘s themes did not land so firmly on an uncomfortable and infrequently-acknowledged truth about the pursuit of wealth and happiness in America: the ends are forever justifying the means, and driving those means past the threshold of legality and morality (which are not always the same thing). In a year in which a shamelessly transparent con man stands a disturbingly good chance of becoming President of the United States, Russell’s film from a few years ago shows how the nigh-unchecked processes of American capitalism turn everyone – striving con artists, ambitious cops, politicians, mobsters, even unstable housewives – into scammers.
“Let’s be real,” says DiMaso to Sydney at several points, ironically unaware that she is not only pretending to love him but faking an entire identity and maybe conning him on deeper levels as well. DiMaso cannot play as fast and loose with reality as Sydney and Rosenfeld can, despite all of his swagger and attitude, and this problem makes him a juicy mark. The problem with America, in the 1970s as now, is the slippery nature of the “real” in the face of constant personal reinvention and relentless sales pitch bombardment of daily life. Donald Trump is not a good businessman, strong leader, brilliant thinker, or even a particularly functional human being, but he plays those roles on TV with enough blustering conviction to persuade a significant minority of American voters that he might be. American Hustle‘s characters are putting up similar false fronts for similar selfish gain; for them as for Trump, the idea of reality, the concept of truth, is just another facet of the long con they are running on the world. Early in their tense partnership, Rosenfeld and DiMaso stand in front of a Rembrandt portrait in an art museum and Rosenfeld tells DiMaso that the painting is a skilled fake that no one has recognized. But what does that matter? What is the palpable difference between the real and the fake if it is too difficult to distinguish one from the other to be worth the dubious effort, and, furthermore, if the effort of making and observing that distinction offers no tangible reward? America itself is a hustle, indeed chronically rewards the hustle, and David O. Russell’s resonant caper epic understands and demonstrates this with enjoyable and skilled bravado.
They Live (1988; Directed by John Carpenter)
“I’m giving you a choice: either put on these glasses, or start eating that trashcan!” A nameless drifter in Los Angeles (Roddy Piper) exhorts his coworker and friend Frank (Keith David) to don sunglasses, and when the latter refuses they proceed to engage in a bruising, interminable fist fight in a city alley. Taken out of context, it’s a spectacularly ridiculous scene, two men beating each other half to death over a pair of shades for what feels like half an hour (actually five and a half minutes). Even taken in context, the scene is surreal and laughable by dint of its very length. But that it’s also a metaphor for the difficulties of social consciousness makes it even more remarkable.
This sequence is the central fulcrum of John Carpenter’s They Live, the turning point of its gleefully violent B-movie narrative and its sturdy sociopolitical commentary. The sunglasses in question are not mere fashion accessories, and filter out much more than sunlight. They filter out the distracting interference of advertising illusions to reveal the core imperatives of corporate capitalism. Gazing at colourful, enticing billboards, magazines, and television ads through the glasses, the wearer sees instead a stark black-and-white world with even starker commands dictating their choices and behaviour: Obey, Marry and Reproduce, Consume, No Thought, etc. They also reveal that members of society’s wealthiest and most comfortable class of entrenched elites are not human beings but hideous, malicious bodysnatching aliens hiding beneath human facades and controlling the lives of unsuspecting earthlings through brainwashing, rewarding bribes, conversion, and violence if need be.
The drifter (named John Nada in the credits) finds it initially difficult to comprehend or accept what he’s seeing, but as a laconic, homeless itinerant labourer living from paycheque to paycheque and alienated from the monied classes, he believes his eyes before long. His buddy Frank, a family man and provider with more to lose, is less willing to pull back the curtain and must be forced into awareness of the hidden truth. Once he sees, however, he whole-heartedly joins the crusade against the malevolent shadow powers pulling the world’s strings once his eyes are opened. With the help of the underground resistance movement that made the disillusioning glasses and some of the aliens’ own technology, these two men have come to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and they’re all out of bubblegum (that meme-ish quote stems from this film, if you weren’t already aware).
During the peak of his powers in 1980s Reaganite America, Carpenter was nothing if not a broad filmmaker, utilizing cornpone dialogue, hammy leading-man action-hero acting and action, and blatantly illustrative music (he not only directed but also wrote and scored They Live) not merely to entertain on a B-movie level but also to advance countercultural sociopolitical themes. They Live is certainly the apotheosis of his method, although Carpenter devotees might advance Big Trouble in Little China or Escape from New York or Halloween as better or more enjoyable movies. Piper, a recognizable professional wrestler when he starred in They Live, certainly summons an imposing physical presence, and Carpenter gives him the symbolic contours of the rugged individualist cowboy hero of the Western myth (the repeating cowboy music cue over the movie’s opening section is a clear signal in that direction).
All of this framing sets Piper’s character as an all-American rogue hero (albeit one depicted by a Canadian famous for playing a Scotsman) aligned against an external threat to liberty of thought and action. That this external threat is indeed extraterrestrial is on one level a genre conceit but on another emphasizes the perceived un-American-ness of such centralized and deceitful control. But Carpenter’s target is an internal opponent, and a figure as typically American as the simple-spoken lone cowboy (probably more so): the shameless, exploitative capitalist, exercising his right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness at the expense of the similar rights of others. They Live is a bold broadside aimed at the propagandistic saturation of consumerism, except when it’s a brash, simplistic shoot-’em-up.
It’s hard not to keep coming back to the alley fisticuffs between “Nada” and Frank as a key juncture, however. In his analysis of They Live at the start of Sophie Fiennes’ essay-film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slovenian critical theorist Slavoj Zizek observes how Carpenter’s film, an underappreciated “classic of the Hollywood Left”, inverts the usual critique of ideology. They Live understands ideology not as the filtering glasses themselves, the obscuring lenses that need only be removed to grasp the true message at the core of social discourse; in this film, ideology is everywhere, as saturating as consumerism and deeply entwined with its driving desires, and the glasses are the telescope that peers through its fog and dispels it, leaving the categorical imperative starkly visible.
With this in mind, the fight over wearing the glasses becomes an excruciating struggle to, in Zizek’s words, force yourself to be free. In the midst of a clandestine dictatorship of ideas, to see what is in front of one’s nose needs constant struggle, as George Orwell put it. Not merely economic self-interest and preserving the security of one’s family unit argues against such disillusionment and awareness, but also the inherent surety of ideology’s cushioning illusions. Ludicrous as this extended punch-up may be, it’s oddly moving, too, an exhausting literalized document of the agony of being dragged, kicking and screaming, into becoming woke.
Victor Frankenstein (2015; Directed by Paul McGuigan)
Transposing elements of Mary Shelley’s galvanizing 1818 gothic novel to a decadent steampunk-inflected Victorian London, Victor Frankenstein presents as an unfortunately limited series of considerable missed opportunities. The core questions about science infringing upon the territory of life and death previously ceded entirely to God might have been interestingly amplified in the context of a spreading British Empire beset by unprecedented technological wonders and luxury comforts. Those themes are present and demonstratively thrust forward, but bizarrely lack resonance. The film also fritters away one-and-a-half flamboyantly scenery-chewing central performances and straightjackets another key cast member capable of producing such moments.
Victor Frankenstein‘s mistakes and confusions begin with its title, thrusting the mad scientist figure who makes it his megalomaniacal mission to bring dead flesh to life through the harnessing of electric power (played by a majestically impish James McAvoy) to the fore when it’s his oft-maligned assistant Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) who is the focus of the film’s perspective and its moral conscience. Igor is introduced as a nameless, dirty-visaged, hunchbacked clown enslaved by a travelling circus and summarily mistreated by his masters. He has dreams and ambitions, however, studying all he can about human anatomy and medical science, acting as the circus’ unofficial doctor, and pining after comely high-wire acrobat Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay).
Catching the eye of the privileged but eccentric medical student Frankenstein when he cleverly resets a bone to save Lorelei’s life after a fall under the big top, the man who would be Igor is sprung from his chattel status by the putative doctor. They escape his carnie captors in a frantic, reasonably entertaining chase sequence that comes to involve nearly the entire performing and backstage cohort of the circus; so much for “The Show Must Go On”. Frankenstein appreciates the hunchback’s skilled hands and autodidactic medical knowledge, and so he (rather forcibly) drains the malignant cyst on his back, performs a radical chiropractic adjustment, and gives him the name and wardrobe of the his mysteriously absent flatmate, Igor Straussmann. He also recruits him as his right-hand man in his initially ill-defined experiments in reanimating flesh.
Initially grateful to Frankenstein for uplifting him and energized by their scientific collaboration and friendship, Igor begins to nurse moral and personal doubts about the man and his obsessive project. There are dark clues about the fate of the original Straussmann as well as Victor’s brother, his imperious father (Charles Dance, obviously) deeply disapproves of his activities, and he is doggedly pursued by Scotland Yard police inspector Roderick Turpin (Andrew Scott), a religious zealot who suspects him not only of murder, grave-robbing, and public mischief but much more sinister and sinful crimes against creation and God’s laws as well. Lorelei, likewise conveniently lifted from the circus to become the consort of a closeted homosexual lord, begins a romantic attachment with Igor and echoes him in his uncertainty about Frankenstein’s motives and actions.
Given the pervasive cultural knowledge of at least the broad strokes of the Frankenstein narrative, it shouldn’t be hard to guess where Victor’s mad quest is headed. Not only the execution but the conception of this particular arc are badly miscalcuted at many points, particularly the thematically deflating ending, and it’s hard not to glance at screenwriter Max Landis (who also wrote another more major flop last year, American Ultra) as the prime culprit. Victor Frankenstein follows the au courant Hollywood genre property fashion of self-aware referentiality and mash-up-style recombination of familiar elements from previous franchise installments and original source material. Landis deploys such flourishes, sometimes cleverly (there’s a funny tossed-off joke gesturing to Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein which I didn’t expect to get) but often less so. Furthermore, giving Victor a personal emotional impetus for his galvanic project diminishes the grand themes about rational man challenging the dominion of Heaven even while McAvoy and Scott have overt arguments about that precise conflict. Thematically, metaphorically, and often on the more basic level of character and motivation and empathetic direction, this is a movie that can’t get out of its own way, and that’s mainly on Landis and the writing.
Victor Frankenstein is directed by Paul McGuigan, who has tread the boards as a decent feature director before but is probably best-known for directing two episodes of Sherlock‘s phenomenal first two seasons on the BBC. From this career touchstone, he borrows not only cast members (watch for cameos from Sherlock supporting players in addition to Scott’s stifled antagonist turn) but also much of its enervated style and visual techniques, most noticeably the superimposition of text onscreen (here, it’s more frequently anatomical drawings overlayed on living bodies, a canny expression of Victor and Igor’s book-to-life knowledge base).
But neither McGuigan nor his able and likable leads can overcome Victor Frankenstein‘s handicaps of construction. Radcliffe demonstrates his facility with physical observation in the opening stages while a hunchback (his West End stage performance as Cripple Billy in Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan comes to mind as a useful skill-development project in this vein) but then settles unproductively into a conflicted but good-hearted romantic lead role of dull conventionality opposite Findlay, who is given little to do but look pretty (in a genre moviemaking landscape that includes female leads in Star Wars, Mad Max and Ghostbusters, plugging in this kind of stock girlfriend role is no longer an acceptable choice).
McAvoy is much more game for the kind of depraved, visceral horror madness that Landis (paying homage to the genre classics of that sort made by his father John) and McGuigan are furtively aiming for. With Radcliffe playing the straight man, McAvoy summons a wild glint in his eye and lets rip with most of the film’s best moments. He purportedly conceived of the movie’s most loopily disgusting moment (Victor siphoning the fluid out of Igor’s back cyst with his mouth) and delivers its best joke with hilarious relish: after Victor patronizingly implores the social neophyte Igor not to do anything to embarrass him at a gentleman’s club, a nicely-timed ironic smash-cut shows him insistently declaiming to other guests about the merits of “Babies grown in vats!” McAvoy’s tense debate with Scott over rationality versus faith might be rote, but it still crackles with the sheer ability of the actors performing it. While Scott’s buttoned-up primness serves the character as written, one wishes that the crazy-eyed abandon of his iconic performance as Moriarty in Sherlock could have been tapped into alongside McAvoy’s similar embrace of excess.
Alas, as is the case with many of this project’s tantalizing possibilities, such delights are not to be. The delights here are fleeting, as on almost all occasions either the constraints of creative imagination or budget shackle the prospects of inspired entertainment of thematic thrust. Despite the intermittent CG-assisted wide shot of a circus tent or bustling urban London or a stormy Scottish coastal castle, Victor Frankenstein feels like a small movie without the intimacy, a sadly closed loop that cannot either summon or achieve a necessary sense of ambition. If it’s not nearly as terrible as its deflating box-office take and critical dismantling might suggests, Victor Frankenstein is nonetheless flawed, strained, and ultimately inconsequential.
For nearly three hours on the night of Saturday, August 20, 2016, Canada paused and gathered for the collective wake of their favourite musical sons, the Tragically Hip. Broadcast live across the country by national public broadcaster CBC from an arena in the enduringly popular rock band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario, the final concert of the Hip’s Man Machine Poem tour, though never explicitly advertised as definitely their last, was understood to be the emotional farewell of a band that defined Canadian nationalism (or a certain strain of contextual thought and sentiment disseminated as such, as I will discuss in a moment) for nearly 30 years. The lead singer and lyricist of the Tragically Hip, Gord Downie, has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and faces an indeterminate death sentence. Although couched as a national celebration and frequently infused with a positive vibe, a cloud of sadness and mourning was cast over the proceedings as well, and Canadian social media vibrated with those feelings throughout the extended set.
Taking to the in-the-round stage, the Hip’s instrumentalists – drummer Johnny Fay, bass player Gord Sinclair, guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker – clustered close to Downie in the show’s first section, as if they were a phalanx of plains bison protecting a wounded comrade from threatening predatory forces. The show proceeded in album-specific mini-sets, covering three or four successive favourites from classic Hip records like Fully Completely, Up To Here, Road Apples, Day For Night, Phantom Power, Music@Work, and even the new Man Machine Poem. It reached numerous emotional high points, particular with adored, complex, Canadiana-drenched ballads like “Wheat Kings”, “Fiddler’s Green”, “Toronto #4”, “Bobcaygeon”, and “Scared”.
Uniformly strong though it was, the concert was, to this seasoned attendee of Tragically Hip gigs at least, highly familiar. The band performed as they have for decades, tightly, impressively, but reliant on the dynamic Downie to raise the proceedings to something more special. The trying physical circumstances that he faced must be considered, but it should be noted that although Downie mustered a Herculean effort to perform a hockey-game-length rock and roll show despite debilitating brain cancer, he often fell heartbreakingly short of his customary high standards. Though in relatively strong voice (he joked about his neck scarf made from two socks for this very purpose), Downie’s iconic kooky-uncle dancing and unpredictable stage movement were both badly curtailed. He frequently glanced down in consultation to his monitor at his feet, which hid a teleprompter with each song’s lyrics, to remind him of the many words he poured forth to the world. This arrangement, though doubtlessly necessary in allowing a man with brain cancer to perform at all, did lead to occasional, uncharacteristic missed or flubbed lines, most noticeably and tragically in the glorious bridge of “Bobcaygeon” (“That night in Toronto…”), which he missed entirely. Again, the context of his illness cannot be lost sight of, and Downie’s fight against its constraints was moving and impressive in its own right. If anything, the flubs made the show more affecting, not less.
But do not let it be said that Gord Downie did not rise to what had become a momentous national occasion in other ways. He was keenly aware that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in attendance, donning the “Canadian tuxedo” of jeans, jean jacket and band shirt for the occasion; indeed, they shared a hug prior to showtime, a photo of which quickly went viral online. On two occasions between songs, Downie cannily expressed support and fondness for the young Trudeau (“we’re in good hands”), but in terms couched primarily in a pressuring mandate to correct the continuing social and economic and political wrongs done to Canada’s First Nations peoples by an enduring white colonial majority. To take his perhaps final moment in the national spotlight to divert that spotlight on to the tragic, unacceptable suffering of Canada’s least privileged is one thing. To hold a sitting PM’s feet to the fire in terms of meaningful action to correct historical damage before a captive nation is quite another.
If the concert had one truly indelible, transcendent moment, however, it was during the closing song of the second encore, “Grace, Too”. The swirling, mysterious opening track of 1994’s swirling, mysterious Day For Night, the lyrics depict a tense, ambiguous negotiation (possibly between prostitute and wealthy john) but the song closes, as many Hip tunes do, with an impressive jam. From its recorded release through two decades of live versions, Downie has punctuated the instrumental outro with haunting, visceral, rending cries (“Here / Now / Nah!”). As the band leaned into the groove and the moment for the customary cries approached, Downie began crying.
Weakened by terminal brain cancer, Downie had performed for over two hours with as much of his usual passion and peculiarity as he could muster. With the eyes of a nation on him, he was overcome with a brew of emotions we could observe and imagine but never fully comprehend. The truth about Gord Downie is the truth of all human beings: we will never known what is really in his head and in his heart. Downie, however, has been telling us and showing us the contents of his head and his heart for three decades. Those contents have quite famously not always been entirely intelligible, but like all great art they contain multitudes, activating meanings in each person who experiences it that its creator might never have intended or conceived of. The experience has been a rare privilege of insight for us, and a rare privilege of openness and expressiveness for him.
Whatever Downie was feeling – pain and exhaustion both physical and psychological, peace and humility in the face of a crowd’s adoration, regret and sadness at the prospect of performing for perhaps the final time – this unquestionably strong but sensitive man (he would embrace and kiss his bandmates at the end of each set, expressions of a male tenderness too often disavowed and hidden) allowed the swelling emotion to conquer his resistance, and he wept.
He could have simply stood onstage with his tears amidst his bandmates and best friends for 30 years and it would have been the highlight of the night, its most potent spike of sentiment. But Downie interrupted his tears to let out the screams, transmuting all of the joy and agony and nostalgia and love and hurt and hope into wrenching, primal cries against the dying of the light. It was profoundly affecting, indelible. It was, without hyperbole, the most powerful moment of raw artistic expression I have ever witnessed. This memorable moment has been repeated at this point in the set throughout the tour, so it was a stage-managed and choreographed emotional display to some extent. But its cathartic potency was unquestionable nonetheless. Like all art, its impact was as universally intangible as it was inherently unexplainable. And once it was over, Downie collected himself, politely returned the microphone he dropped to its home on the stand, and walked away.
This was not the end, as the band returned for a third encore, putatively ending their legendary live career with one of their most widely-beloved anthems, “Ahead By A Century”. Basking in the applause and cheers of a crowd and a country one last time, the Tragically Hip stood together, passing from the complicated internecine implications of an active popular culture to the gilded annals of artistic and public legacy. They stood for a final time as Canada’s band, but which Canada?
The discourse around the Tragically Hip in the Canadian media and public in the weeks leading up to last night’s show was stubbornly focused on the band’s role as purveyors of a complicated and not-entirely patriotic strain of post-boomer nationalism. It’s worth acknowledging that the collective meaning of the Tragically Hip is difficult to disentangle from the white Ontario-centric Anglo-Canadian nationalistic narratives that have dominated the discourse of national cultural identity for decades, and are still prevalent in the under-diversified Canadian media and pop culture elite.
It’s been very noticeable in the popular culture that those most moved and captivated by this event, those most invested in its national import, are predominantly white and anglophone in a country whose demographics are moving in a much more multi-ethnic and multilingual direction. What do the Tragically Hip’s cottage country anthems mean to Canadians who cannot afford a cottage? How does their meat-and-potatoes rock music, and this celebratory farewell moment, resonate with Sikhs from Surrey, or Caribbean-Canadians from north Toronto, or Somali immigrants in a city out west, or First Nations in a depressed community like Attawapiskat? Probably not as deeply, possibly in ways not hitherto imagined, but in any case those stories have gone glaringly untold.
It would be churlish and unfair to pin the narrow channels of accepted mainstream Canadian identity on the Tragically Hip. Downie has never been a flag-waving nationalist, and has often emphasized nuanced, complex, and not altogether positive elements of Canadian history, society, and politics. His work with and beyond the Hip has striven to expand the boundaries of Canadian cultural discourse, to erase unjust firewalls between sectors of Canadian society, to welcome more people in. This is an ideal of Canadian identity that is often trumpeted proudly and publicly but not as often lived up to in practice.
White Anglo-Canadian nationalism has not always been a force for good, but Downie and the Hip have always worked hard to encapsulate, express, and embody those forces at their best. This “national celebration” in Kingston, this collective moment of delight and grief that the Tragically Hip have given us (at least some of us, but they are always aiming for all of us), might well be the sunset glow of white Anglo-Canadian nationalism as we know it. If the Tragically Hip give us one last true expression of the best intentions and results of those sentiments before they are laid to eternal rest, they will have done a deep service to their country in their closing act.
Midnight Special (2016; Directed by Jeff Nichols)
For all of the ways that Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is inherently Spielbergian – in its essentials, the film is E.T. except that the boy and the alien are one and the same – it manifests a vision all its own. It represents a speculative metaphor for multiple facets of the American condition, but presents its sci-fi premise with such clear-eyed conviction that it’s worth questioning if it’s a metaphor at all. What it is, unquestionably, is quietly, subtly indelible.
Nichols once again teams with Michael Shannon, so still and intense in the director’s remarkable and similarly-pitched Take Shelter. Shannon is Roy Tomlin, who opens Midnight Special on the run from the law in Texas. He’s taken his son Alton (the amazing Jaedan Lieberher) and is moving eastwards with the help of old friend and state trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton). This is no simple overreaction to a traditional custody dispute, however: it emerges that Roy has taken Alton from the clutches of a Christian cult, referred to only as “the Ranch”, to which he himself once belonged, whose commanding patriarch (Sam Shepard) took Alton from him in turn to serve as a mysterious but revered prophet to his flock.
Alton is certainly no ordinary boy. Roy and Lucas only travel with him at night, and even then with an extreme caution over and above their fugitive status: he wears swim goggles while awake and industrial earmuffs while sleeping, which he does during the day with cardboard taped over the windows of the motels and safehouses they stop at on the road. He’s treated with the care of a nuclear warhead, except when he’s inexplicably, carelessly left alone, frequently leading to inadvertent (or perhaps not) destruction. Nichols reveals Alton’s special nature by increments, making these precautions clearer, establishing why the cult had made him into its oracle of revelation, and attracting the keen interest of the U.S. government, as represented by NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).
Roy, Alton, and Lucas remain a step ahead of not only the authorities but also of two unassuming-looking fixers dispatched on their trail by the lead preacher from the Ranch to retrieve the boy prophet (one of them, played by Bill Camp, mutters wearily before a shakedown for information that he is a licensed electrician in two states, a modest tradesman’s twist on the old standby “I’m getting too old for this” line). Rendezvousing along the way with Alton’s mother (Kirsten Dunst), the ragtag fugitives are on a quest to reach a remote location roughly in the marshes of the Florida Panhandle, the coordinates of which were “received” by Alton, by a specific date. What they will find there is beyond any of them, even Alton himself.
At the risk of making an unflattering comparison, Midnight Special is reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s work in certain ways, though not in terms of any handcuffing reliance on twists and revelations. Although in terms of Nichols’ success in crafting a compelling, stiff-lipped, psychologically realistic narrative of American rural life semi-symbolically infused with the extraterrestrial/supernatural, perhaps it’s more accurate to call it the film that Shyamalan wishes he could make. It’s not for the sake of spoilers, therefore, that I am hesitant to say much more about Alton’s special abilities, other than that they involve light, radio waves, and other ephemeral static frequencies of human civilization. It’s more out of hushed respect for Nichols’ visualization and contextualization of those abilities that it feels wrong to delineate them too fully.
What can (and should) be delineated more fully is how Nichols employs the destabilizing uncertainty engendered by such speculative elements to explore a similar sense of destabilizing uncertainty in contemporary America. Take Shelter cast Shannon as a simple man oppressed by visions of an apocalyptic nightmare who seeks to protect his family at any cost. It functioned as an entwined parable of diminished masculine agency and War on Terror siege mentality of surprising depth and power, and concluded with a stunning moment that suggested that our worst, most ragingly paranoid fears might be real.
Midnight Special throbs with the currents of political and social anxieties: fundamentalist religion, child abduction, police violence, security state surveillance, and the looming spectre of imminent catastrophe. This might sound like fodder for Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention nomination acceptance speech, but the film’s politics, such as they are, have no partisan or even ideological dimensions. The overbearing intentions of Roy, the government, and even the cult towards Alton are all treated with fundamental fairness, perhaps even equivalence, by Nichols; they are all of them reasonable approaches to a boy so remarkably special, who signifies something very deep and vital to all opposing forces. The eventual victor in the struggle is nominally the faction with the overwhelming share of power and resources. But that faction’s victory is pyrrhic and incomplete because it cannot comprehend, let alone possess, the object of fear and desire. The object has passed irrevocably beyond its reach, beyond the reach of any of them.
The use of such generalized terms in analyzing Midnight Special is meant to suggest that the object, which is Alton, is a metaphorical stand-in for some decisive element in American society and politics. Power, morality, honour, the future; what he might mean is uncertain (heck, Alton might be taxes!). But like Take Shelter (and like a lot of art), Midnight Special summons images that invoke an interwoven series of politically- and socially-charged feelings and impressions about American life at this moment. If the vaguely anachronistic Midnight Special, with its dark panelled rooms, old-model cars, pay phones, superhero comics read by flashlight, and shirts with top buttons done up, does not overtly look like a film of the moment, that may be by design (and not just in the interest of homage to Spielberg’s early classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
Nichols, a Southerner, sets his characters’ quest in the Gulf Coast states, and pulls back to a shot from atmospheric low orbit during the climax to show the radius of Alton’s dome-like dimensional portal (or whatever it is) covering much of the South. What emerges from it, astonishing Alton’s circle of protectors as well as various denizens of the long-depressed South at truck stops and in box-store parking lots, are towering city-of-the-future structures whose pinnacles seem to scrape the clouds. It’s a stock visual promise of a utopian future common to science fiction, a projection of a world that Americans were once (more than once, really) certain would soon belong to them, and to which they would belong in turn. For a whole host of reasons that Midnight Special summons like stubborn poltergeists (fanatical superstitious faith, self-centered individual fulfillment, centralized state authority), that promise has gone unfulfilled, particularly in the South. Jeff Nichols, an emerging genre auteur of great skill and sincerity, makes this point as clear as day with his striking visual juxtaposition of a shimmering future vision among the wide yet narrow American mundanity.