Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America (2016; Directed by Matthew Ornstein)
Daryl Davis has a simple question that he wants answered: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” The African-American musician, speaker, and activist has been seeking an answer to that question in a person-to-person manner for over 25 years, and Accidental Courtesy is a documentary film depicting the green shoots and the persistent frustrations of his approach.
Davis is nearly 60 years old, and has performed with major musical artists such as Chuck Berry, Bruce Hornsby, Jerry Lee Lewis, and more over his long career. He has also spent much of his offstage time since about 1990 meeting, conversing with, and even befriending dozens of prominent hardcore racist members of the Ku Klux Klan, the reactionary fraternal American white supremacist organizational movement infamous for its hate-group-level rhetoric, protests, and often violence directed against Jews, Catholics, immigrants, non-whites, and, most prominently, African-Americans like Davis. As Davis explains to the filmmakers in interviews, to seminar crowds at speaking engagements, and to sceptical listeners from across the political spectrum, he hopes through honest good-faith discussion, ordinary politeness, and basic acts of kindness to impress his humanity and decency upon men who inherently deny his claim to both.
Davis has met with some success over the years, making friends with many Klansmen and even gently persuading some of the errors of their racist ways. Those who discard their KKK membership and ideology altogether and credit Davis’ respectful, non-judgemental personal outreach for their conversion gift him with their disavowed Klan robes and paraphenalia, which he keeps in a private collection that he hopes one day to display in a museum. Some might see this practice as strange or even troubling (and some tell Davis so right to his face in no uncertain terms), but for Davis, it constitutes a combination of trophies of victory and a tangible reminder of the deep past and enduring present of white supremacy and social and cultural discrimination against African-Americans.
Director Matthew Ornstein films Davis’ interactions with Klansmen, former Klansmen, and other white nationalists, men who are so often dismissed as frothing bigots and so often dismissive of any and all racial others and political opponents. Very little that any of the stubborn enduring white supremacists who speak to Davis on camera say or do contradicts such generalized labelling, and some who count him as a friend hold him only as an exception to the general negative nature of his “race”. Davis’ desire to recognize the humanity of these men (and very occasionally women) is certainly fraught, lest it perversely, unintentionally justify or normalize their hateful, damaging, extreme ideology (which a more recent credits post-script added to the film’s streaming release recognizes has been emboldened in an unprecedented way by Donald Trump’s election as U.S. President).
It’s impossible, however, to watch and listen to Davis speak during and after these encounters and consider him anything but well-intentioned and sincere. In the wider American political and social discourse, the exhortation to hold a meaningful dialogue on racial issues often seems a naive and perhaps cynical faux-panacea suggested by even nominally anti-discrimination figures as a productive-sounding substitute for the fundamental and nigh-on revolutionary social and institutional adjustments necessary to properly address and redress the country’s historical and continuing structures and process of anti-black oppression. Daryl Davis, however, is a charming, low-key evangelist for the transformative potential of such dialogue, at least on a micro level. The son of a State Department diplomat, Davis lived as a child in many foreign countries and in a variety of locations in the United States as well. Like Barack Obama growing up in Indonesia and Hawaii, Davis learned to relate to and connect with a diverse and oft-changing group of peers and was inculcated with the necessity and later the inherent value of forging personal liaisons with those outside of his own background, experience, and culture.
Credit is due to Ornstein and Davis, however, for being willing to include in Accidental Courtesy resonant instances of when, as it did with Obama and his most intransigent critics on the right, this dialogic approach falls short. While some of these instances predictably feature white supremacists (one major KKK leader flatly refuses to even acknowledge Davis as a friend let alone give an inch on his master-race beliefs, and an important American Neo-Nazi treats Davis politely but seems unconvinced by his soft pitch), the most explosively contentious and challenging one involves fellow African-American political activists.
Davis meets with two young Black Lives Matter marchers and organizers in Baltimore, where they have been active in civil disobedience and forceful protest against police brutality and discrimination against African-Americans, particularly following the arrest, beating, and death of Freddie Gray in 2015. Any assumptions an observer (white, especially, but otherwise as well) might have made about the potential common ground between Davis and these men is dispelled very quickly. They are aggressively sceptical about Davis’ methods, about his collection of Klan memoribilia (one flatly states that he would never take his children to any museum about the KKK), and more than anything about the effectiveness of his efforts and their tangible benefits for the African-American community. Through active protest and building of robust black institutions and communities, they feel, their people can derive more advantage than could ever be possible from having coffee with Klansmen who despise them and deny their very personhood.
The encounter degenerates into shouting and namecalling over an issue of minor consequence (which his chats with white racist never seem to, at least that we’re shown), and Davis does not come off very well from the episode. Neither do his younger antagonists, though, who blithely declare their preference for the openly racist Donald Trump (“At least you know where he stands,” they pronounce with a disastrous naiveté which they might come to regret if his administration’s promised law enforcement crackdown on Black Lives Matter and other left-wing protest groups comes to fruition) over the unreliable neoliberal Hillary Clinton. Nor do they substantively refute Davis’ accusation of the preference for segregation and separation evident in their views, although his greeting-card sentiment that they must all share the same country, black or white, seems a weak stab at persuasion.
But the whole episode is indelible, hard to shake, and challenges the perspective that has developed and been nurtured throughout the rest of Accidental Courtesy. The utility and even moral standing of Davis’ conversing approach, which Ornstein treats as fascinating and wondrously impressive up to this point in the film, is deeply shaken, and even a feel-good concluding story of one of Davis’ converted Klan scalps who now actively campaigns publicly against racism and white supremacy cannot restore the prior equilibrium. The pregnant dichotomy of the scene in Baltimore, the conflict between the macroscopic, self-righteous, mass-focused activism of Black Lives Matter and the microscopic, self-effacing, modest and friendly activism of Daryl Davis, strikes one as not only unresolved but perhaps tragically unresolvable, seeing as there are elements of merit in both approaches.
If only, the BLM agents insist, they had the time or the patience (or, one must admit, the privilege) to convince one white American at a time to treat them with equal respect and grant them equal opportunities and rights as citizens. But the plight of Black America is simply too urgent, they feel, requiring action more wide-reaching and drastic than Davis’ dialogues, which for all of their good intent strike them as irredeemably foolish and a waste of resources. Davis, for his part, does not see the effective conversion potential in BLM’s activities, and worries their tactics and aims merely calcify the racial divide that he hopes to see erode away. This dialectical collision leaves no answer for the viewer, only deepening the questions and doubts about the correct path to righting America’s most enduring wrong.
A further post-script to Accidental Courtesy, unmentioned in the film due to the proximity of the event to its release, further destabilizes Daryl Davis’ paradigm of hope for American race relations. One of Davis’ KKK friends in the film is a man called Frank Ancona, a Missouri Imperial Wizard (Klan titles and honorifics are like something out of pulp sword-and-sorcery novels; Exalted Cyclops is another). In the days before the film’s release, Ancona’s body was found in a Missouri river. He was murdered, his wife and stepson charged in his death. Personal issues appeared to be the motive, and the world of white supremacist terror groups is a harsh and violent one of its own accord. But one must wonder if the film’s revelation of Ancona’s willingness to relax his racial ideology in the case of Davis played into his death in any way as well. Hate is resilient, even if Daryl Davis kindly and doggedly suggests that love is as well.
I’ve never bought into the suspicious, nigh-on cleverer-than-thou American political observer line of thought that U.S. President Donald Trump is not dim-witted, incompetent, imprudent, or hopelessly led by impulse and instinct but is, in fact, strategically brilliant and always thinking several steps ahead of his critics and the media, laying down narratives in advance to distract their attention from real problems and reports less-favourable to him. When weighing the choice between genius and ineptitude to explain Trump and his team’s seemingly haphazard and bumbling actions through the turbulent opening months of his Presidency, I’m generally inclined towards ineptitude on Occam’s Razor grounds, at the very least.
With all of that being said, I think there could be a consistent case to be made that Trump and his Administration is allowing certain policy promises from his presidential campaign to fail, or at least they are curiously deigning not to lift more than a perfunctory short finger to battle on their cherished, America-greatening policies’ behalf as they go down in flames. The case study for this argument is his notorious travel ban applied to citizens of
seven six Muslim countries. Struck down by federal judges after its sneak weekend application at the end of January created chaos and sparked indignant protests at airports across the U.S. and the globe, a watered-down version of the ban (which Trump’s acolytes won’t even openly acknowledge is a “ban”) due to go into effect this week has also been blocked by federal courts in Hawaii and Maryland (at least partially on the basis of public statements by Trump lieutenants that the order, however it was worded, had specific religious discrimination at the forefront of its aims).
At the core of this argument, if you’ll stay with me as I make it, is the hoary, cynical old theory that Donald Trump only wants to be President for the money and the fame. This thinking has often been dismissed, and has been largely abandoned by pundits since he won the election, but I think it might still hold, at least in this case.
You don’t have to look very deeply or for very long at Trump’s public political statements to conclude that he holds them rather lightly. At the risk of getting bogged down in the much-mocked “take him seriously, not literally” morass, it’s clear that Trump very often just, you know, says things. He’s firmly stated his position on matters and then just as firmly (and sometimes conveniently) forgotten that he ever stated that position. It’s not that words don’t matter when Donald Trump speaks them, but more so that they cease to matter to him very soon after he does. The man is fundamentally a serial bullshitter, but even the supposed core values beneath that surface-level bullshit are unstable and mercurial. Certain specific views remain consistent over the years (particularly, and revealingly, those related to race), but most are up for grabs at any given moment.
What is consistent throughout Trump’s public adult (ha!) life is his shameless grifting and his bottomless gluttony for fame. His politics and even his party affiliations can and have changed depending on who he’s trying to extract money or adulation or power and influence from at any given moment, but he’s always trying to do that above all. This might be the reason why he liked campaigning so much, and why he retreats to campaign poses in times of political turmoil: ego-boosting rallies, plentiful money-making opportunities (from voters, donors, and from general brand exposure), and he could say whatever he liked without real or immediate concrete consequences.
Perhaps Trump thought it would be the same in office. It quite assuredly is not. The grifting continues, emoluments clause be damned: foreign dignitaries staying at his hotels, multiple weekends spent at his Mar-a-Lago resort club residence in Florida (which has recently raised membership fees, ostensibly due to the unspoken promise of access to the President), the purchase of items from his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line marshalled as a right-wing political act, any number of potential hidden bribes and secret deals that are not transparent to the public, etc. But Trump hasn’t gotten the adulation he feels that he deserves as President, though a man who launched his political career with nastily racist conspiracy theories casting doubt on the citizenship of the sitting President should know better than anyone that as many citizens hate the POTUS as love him, that respect for the office and its power and prestige in the abstract has rarely translated to concrete respect for the man who holds it. His (frankly worrying) choice of presidential model, Andrew Jackson, could have told him that.
More important for the purposes of this discussion than that, however, is that Trump’s words, often lightly chosen and even more lightly supported by facts, have greater consequences now. His dashed-off, seat-of-his-pants tweets, the dramatic complaining tone of which endeared this sheltered Manhattan millionaire to his horde of loyal common supporters, are now the official pronouncement of the Leader of the Free World. However flippantly Trump is used to deploying words to his perceived advantage, they mean more now.
This new reality has implications for all of those outlandish promises Trump made during the campaign. Now, as President with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, he’s expected to deliver on them, or at least to make a concerted and honest effort to do so. How firm those expectations are is unclear, based in voter perspective and passion, the support of his party, and media pressure, among other factors. Whatever the impetus for or level of these expectations, one can imagine Trump having a despondent Sideshow Bob-ish reaction to how his flood of campaign words are understood now:
The issue could be immigration, where both the blocked Muslim ban and his central promise of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border (paid for by Mexico) are proving to fall short, or health care, where the contentious and faltering Republican House bill to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a system that will cost needier patients more and cover millions fewer people flies in the face of his brash claims on the stump that he would deliver a health plan that would cover everyone. He can’t, in these and many other cases, deliver on these brazen promises and even in his isolated bubble someone around him has surely told him that much.
This brings us to his Muslim travel ban, which has again been blocked again by federal courts. Trump has legal experts of some stripe around him; someone lawyerish crafted the executive order, after all. Perhaps one should assume simple ineptitude again, but surely an advisor or few must have known that the order would not pass legal muster. And, as Trump said in a speech in Tennessee given the same night as the news dropped of the new court order blocking the revised ban order, he wants to go back to the original ban order, which he preferred anyway. And, of course, which was already blocked in court and would, in unaltered form, certainly be blocked again if re-implemented.
Is the President just that dumb? Are his people that bad at finding ways to apply his harmful intended policies? Or is there an element of unwillingness at play, a disguised through-line of stealthy self-sabotage? Despite its basis in racist xenophobia (as close to a core belief as the ever-shifty Trump has), does he not really care that much about delivering on his Muslim ban promise? Or does he consider it only useful (or more useful) as source material for rousing rhetoric to please and rile up the xenophobic rubes in his support base? Judges block his ban so its messy consequences never come to pass. But Trump can still use the court order as a rhetorical cudgel against activist judges, the politically-correct institutions of the elite, the Washington consensus, sore-loser leftist protestors, etc. Specific initiatives fail, but the narrative endures. His political brand, Trump the besieged great man held down by limp-wristed snowflakes and corrupt technocratic global elites (but no anti-Semitism here, none of that, that is right out), endures.
This idea might furtively give Donald Trump some limited credit for secretly not wanting to prevent entry to the country for all Muslims from six countries (the original seven nations minus Iraq, likely removed from the order after bad press connected to Iraqi translators and other allies of U.S. forces in the country having visa troubles) for stated, dubious security-related reasons. But whether it’s true or not (and it certainly might not be, or might only partly be), it focuses on the man’s venality and irresponsibility in occupying the highest office in the U.S. Who cares about governing, it tells us, as long as Donald Trump is raking in the cash and the accolades of (a certain declining sliver of) the masses? True or not, this theory is plausible and well-grounded in Trump’s personality and predilections, and that inherent aura of plausibility tells us nearly as much about this odd, troubling, greedy figure in emperor’s robes as the actual truth would.
Kong: Skull Island (2017; Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts)
In some ways, Kong: Skull Island is a departure from the standard-bearing films telling the semi-allegorical cinematic myth of the giant gorilla, torn from the hidden jungle island home where he rules as a god-like monarch and destroyed by an arrogant techno-capitalist empire. This Kong physically dwarfs previous iterations (I’d estimate that he’s 3 to 5 times larger than the ape from Peter Jackson’s King Kong), he never leaves his island realm and does not meet his doom at the hands of military aircraft while perched atop a Manhattan skyscraper (not really a spoiler, though others may follow), and doesn’t really have a female blond-haired American object of unrequitable affection. Indeed, Skull Island leaves out almost any hint of the unruly, often troubling sexual and racial subtexts that defined the ideological implications of prior pictures (and which I’ve written about in great detail in the past, in a four–part PopMatters feature).
In many other ways, however, Skull Island sees the Kong franchise (as Legendary Pictures is now considering it, alongside and eventually crossing over with its Godzilla films in a so-called “MonsterVerse” movie series) returning to its very oldest roots. As my essays discussed, Merian Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s original 1933 King Kong was essentially a thrilling potboiler of a B-movie whose political subtexts were established deep in its foundations and only rarely rose to the surface. Subsequent versions of the Kong narrative (John Guillermin’s in 1976, Jackson’s in 2005) layered on ideological implications and associations that clustered around the figure of Kong and reflected shifting political and social attitudes to what the ape and its destruction might be seen to represent: the struggle of African-Americans from slavery through Jim Crow and segregation to civil rights and beyond, progressing views of sexuality, and, more than anything, the nature of American global power and the sliding understanding of its moral dimensions. Kong was brought low by that power, a victim of its pitiless, prejudiced imperatives, and the 1976 and 2005 films mourned the great ape as a martyr (as the popular 1960s graffiti declaimed: “King Kong Died for Our Sins”). To be succinct, the symbolic trajectory of Kong ran from spectacle to elegy.
Cooper’s Kong is more than anything an exciting adventure movie that celebrates the waxing might of American capitalist imperialism and its triumph over primitive brutality, as expressed through Cooper’s favoured forms of projecting that power: motion pictures and air power (in addition to his moviemaking, Cooper flew fighter biplanes in World War I and the Polish-Soviet War and commanded the Allied air defense of China in World War II). Kong: Skull Island is a confident, intoxicating, beautiful reconstitution of pure old-school popcorn spectacle in the 1933 Kong‘s long-shadowed tradition, but it’s also the film series’ firmest repudiation yet of the conservative Cooper’s patriotic myth of rising American glory. Set in 1973, the film compellingly invokes the Vietnam War from which American troops were being withdrawn, as well as the zeitgeist films about the conflict that fed into Americans’ roiling doubts about their nation’s greatness and moral rectitude (Apocalypse Now, certainly, but Platoon and others too). Despite this, Skull Island is definitely the shallowest Kong film since the original, the most invested in superficial visceral sensation.
But how superficial is that sensation, really, when it’s quite this sensational? Skull Island, helmed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, is a ravishing stunner of an action-adventure blockbuster, bursting with imagination and clever visual designs and jaw-dropping epic scale. The astounding vision of this otherwise frothy distraction hits home with maximal impact in the great ape’s iconic full reveal, during a calamitous assault on a squadron of Vietnam-seasoned helicopters invading his island kingdom. There’s a dizzy, violently giddy delight to this sequence that, even with plenty of notably fun action beats to come, is singular and memorable. Vogt-Roberts’ direction is positively drunk on the inspired glory on his imagery here, and you can’t wait to tip back your glass until you’re under the table with him.
There’s some rote introduction and exposition to get through before this launch pad moment, mind you. Skull Island‘s opening act is structured in the precise same manner as previous Kong movies (though more efficiently than Jackson’s divisive, protracted voyage on the Venture), with a determined rogue dreamer talking up an expedition to a tantalizing, mysterious unexplored island and leading a team into the uncharted unknown, about which he usually knows more than he lets on. This time, the Carl Denham figure (based in the original film on Cooper himself, who made daring documentaries in exotic locales during the 1920s) is government official Bill Randa (John Goodman), who convinces a U.S. Senator (Richard Jenkins) to allow him and his Yale-graduate geologist protégé Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) to join a private mapping voyage to a skull-shaped island recently spotted by satellites in the South Pacific.
Expecting to encounter something worth protecting against, he enlists a military escort in the form of the aforementioned air cavalry, commanded by Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s reluctant to leave the war in Vietnam behind and is eager for renewed action. Randa also hires former British S.A.S. soldier James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as a hunter-tracker (though he doesn’t say what he intends Conrad to hunt and track), and neither he nor Packard elect to turn away award-winning anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who gains credentials to cover the expedition in the hopes of exposing its dark secrets.
Split up and consigned to travel on foot by Kong’s furious decimation of their seismic-depth-charge-dropping choppers, this ragtag squad encounters a fantastic and often lethal variety of superfauna as they make for a scheduled three-days-hence rendezvous point on the island’s north shore that is their only ticket off this hellish place. Believed to have alighted on the island via thermal vents which connect to vast, unexplored subterranean worlds, these animals are often enormous and sometimes more wondrous than deadly. They have runs in with a mega-spider with viciously sharp legs camouflaged amidst a bamboo forest; a docile, massively humped swamp-dwelling water buffalo; a giant squid which Kong dispatches and then snacks on; nasty flocks of ravenous pterosaur-like predator birds; a sort of towering stick-insect disguised as a fallen log; and, most dangerously, razor-toothed carnivorous dual-armed lizards known as skullcrawlers. Emerging from the vents to maraud through the island ecosystem, the skullcrawlers are only kept at bay by Kong, who kills the younger ones before they can grow too large for him to handle.
The source for much of this island lore is a stranded World War II pilot, Lt. Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly). Seen crash-landing on the island along with a Japanese fighter-pilot antagonist in the movie’s cold open, Marlow has survived for nearly 30 years there and developed a knowledge of the place as well as more than a mild eccentricity. He dwells with the island’s native human inhabitants, mute grid-painted indigenes that he calls Iwi (a term for a community of Maori, so I suppose they’re Polynesian in origin) who view Kong as a god-like protector and who dwell behind a tall wooden wall to keep out the things nastier than the ape. In the highly fraught history of Skull Island natives, the depiction can be said to have progressed to the level of noble savage, which is certainly preferable to the racist stereotypes of prior movies but still insufficient. Conrad, Weaver, and their group fall in with Marlow and the Iwi, and realize that contrary to Packard’s single-minded rules of engagement thinking and drive to avenge his dead soldiers, Kong is not their real enemy and may indeed prove to be an ally.
While Kong: Skull Island is generally glorious entertainment, the praise does need to be tempered a tad. The script (by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly) pauses too often to remind the audience of the plot goals (find lost soldiers and armaments, obtain proof of the island’s fantastical monsters, reach the rescue site in time) and driving character motivations. While some key characters are well-enough fleshed-out (Reilly’s scene-stealing Marlow gets plentiful backstory, an endearing emotional core, and even a satisfying credits coda) and others work decently in broad strokes (Shea Whigham as a cynically bemused Captain and Toby Kebbell as a Southern Major give you all you need to know about them in limited beats), others still want for added depth. Hiddleston’s Conrad, putatively the male lead, seems to be missing important development beats, and mostly stalks through the undergrowth with gun in hand, urging the others on and discouraging Packard’s single-minded revenge mission against Kong. He is given one showpiece action moment, but it’s an odd one, donning a gas mask to stride balletically through a green toxic cloud slicing purple-blooded pterosaurs in half with a samurai sword.
Larson doesn’t get too much development either (though between her and Hiddleston, both clad in skin-tight undershirts in the sweltering jungle, there is plenty of corporeal aesthetic interest for voyeurs of any orientation), but her capable and compassionate photojournalist can fully take care of herself and even displays some ingenuity in the heat of battle with the skullcrawlers. As the sole flaxen-haired white woman among the party (Jing Tian is the only other woman, as a Chinese biologist), Larson’s Mason Weaver would be the film’s obvious Ann Darrow proxy as the focus of Kong’s yearning affections. Skull Island doesn’t go there nearly at all, though: she and Kong share a moment of empathy over a nature-lover’s protective instinct, and his protection of her figures centrally in the climatic moments of Kong’s closing dust-up with the alpha skullcrawler, but neither the lascivious desire of the earlier Kong/Ann relationships nor the tragic romance of Jackson’s film enter into the picture.
Instead, the voyeurism is turned the other way: Weaver’s 1970s vintage still camera is often the filter for the human gaze viewing and assessing Kong’s world. Additionally, Cooper’s dominant composition of Kong’s fights, with gigantic beasts filling the frame locked in mortal combat while puny human spectators observe from the corner edge of the foreground, is repeated on a few occasions by Vogt-Roberts, re-emphasizing the voyeuristic impression.
This towering Kong is realistically and often thoughtfully rendered, though not transcendingly so. Played via motion-capture by Terry Notary (his heavy gait is recognizable to an eye which has beheld hours of his behind-the-scenes DVD footage on The Hobbit films), Kong doesn’t have the wounded, lonely soul of a grizzled aesthete as he was played by Notary’s mo-cap mentor Andy Serkis in Jackson’s film, but he is given a brief beat of hesitant wonder at a dazzling nighttime aurora australis display. Without romantic facets and no evocation of what has been critically understood as Kong’s African-American symbolic dimensions, however, this is Kong as a nearly pure movie monster, closer to the proud but inscrutable Godzilla than to the sympathetic cousin to humanity and tragic reflection of its flaws that comes through even in Cooper’s film.
This leaves only the questioning depiction of American power standing among the text’s standard political metaphors, and Skull Island gladly provides that. It very purposely and directly invokes the recognizable iconography and sensory detail of Vietnam movies, from its sweaty jungles to the alternating terror and fleeting comradery of green-clad GIs to the carpet-bombing period rock n’ roll soundtrack. There’s even a river voyage on a rickety boat made of salvaged plane parts, and the Apocalypse Now associations were made very literal in the parodic movie poster to the right. Skull Island doesn’t exactly dwell on its ideological message, but is quite clear in its preference for cooperation and understanding in lieu of the self-interested imperialistic realpolitik which drove the disastrous folly of the bloodbath in Indochina.
The screenplay namechecks Apocalypse Now‘s anti-colonialist literary source Heart of Darkness (directly referenced and even quoted, though not unproblematically, in Jackson’s King Kong) through the names of Hiddleston and Reilly’s characters, but digs further into the literary canon for a metaphoric carrier for its broad critique of arrogant American imperial power. As the helicopter squadron flies through the storm-front ringing the island, Col. Packard (in fine Sam Jackson style) relates the Greek myth of Icarus, whose wings of wax forged by a god allowed him to fly but who plunged to earth when he flew too close to the sun and the wings melted. A classical parable of warning against hubristic ambition, the myth is visually recreated in the very first shot of the film, the silhouette of a man (the young Marlow during WWII, as it turns out) falling from above against the hot sphere of the sun.
Packard brushes aside this ancient caution with brash techno-military confidence: the U.S. Army gave his choppers wings of Pennsylvania steel, so he fears no enemy, god or otherwise. Packard refuses to accept that the U.S. lost the Vietnam War; they “abandoned” it, he says, and he refuses to cut and run against Kong in the same way. Skull Island is a new theatre in which he can wage a winning campaign to make up for the dishonour of the Vietnam withdrawal. That the civilians around him, and even his own troops, come to view his insistence on this mission as obsessive madness reflects popular disdain for American global militarism that, despite this widespread hostility, continues to be propagated and perpetuated. Packard’s stubborn refusal to accept that American hegemony could possibly be wrong or fail mirrors that of neo-conservatives, Trumpites, and tenders of the military-industrial complex alike, and his mania for killing Kong and thus upsetting the island’s delicate balance of power reflects the destabilizing application of that hegemony across the globe for more than half a century.
Kong: Skull Island, then, is true Kong in as many ways as it is counterfeit Kong. It evades the thematic traditions of tragedy and mixed ideological messages concerning race and sexuality, and settles instead on standard-issue Hollywood assumptions both political and commercial: anti-war liberalism and skepticism of militaristic empire on the one hand, preserving its showpiece simian for continuing franchise sequelization on the other. But it’s an exciting, impeccably shot, inventively-designed action-adventure white-knuckler as well, which is what the greater mass of moviegoers who haven’t dedicated thousands of words to the deeper meanings of giant ape movies surely expect. Skull Island sees the pendulum of Kong screen narratives swing away from elegy and back towards spectacle, where the enduring cinematic myth began. Something is lost, certainly, but something else is gained, and it’s hard to regard a picture as highly enjoyable as this one as merely achieving a balance. It tips decisively to the positive, despite what it leaves off the scale.
Independence Day: Resurgence (2016; Directed by Roland Emmerich)
There may be no better predictive model for the current style of the Hollywood blockbuster than 1996’s Independence Day. The cinematic decade of which Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s hugely successful, extremely corny, doggedly entertaining alien invasion epic pastiche represents an obvious middle point includes many such important signposts to our outsized movie present. From Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 and Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000 (vital beachheads of the comics superhero invasion that has conquered Hollywood) to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Jurassic Park and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy of 2001-2003 (important demonstrations of the viability of computer-generated special effects in central filmmaking roles), we can locate many of the foundations of the blockbuster as we now know it (and frequently lament it).
But to my mind, it was Independence Day that, more than any other film, forged the big-budget movie world that we now live in. ID4 (as it was dubbed by studio marketers) was full of shameless borrowings from past hit films, featuring a rag-tag band of plucky American underdogs facing a global existential threat portrayed with SFX verisimilitude (using CGI, yes, though with many more models and practical effects than is generally appreciated). It was shot through with militaristic jingoism and liberty-bell-gonging platitudes with an added twitchy tinge of paranoid conspiracism (given his subsequent work, this was clearly Emmerich’s hand at work) that, while presenting as harmless contemporary folk-myth whimsy at the time, feels more sinister now given America’s current political predicament.
What Independence Day’s 20-years-hence sequel Independence Day: Resurgence makes surprisingly and often painfully clear is how skilled and likable the original’s deployment of unpretentious popcorn-flick entertainment really was. As goofy, predictable, and derivative as it was, as many city-destroying spaceships as you could comfortably pilot through the gaping holes in its plot and character development, ID4 was undeniably fun and charming, coasting on the endearing qualities of its unlikely co-stars, an on-the-cusp-of-superstardom Will Smith (indeed, in the role that pushed him past that cusp) and the indispensable blockbuster-elevating Jeff Goldblum. It was also, as mentioned, willing to be kind of weird, finding space for the peculiar talents of Randy Quaid as an anti-government, alien-abduction-believing kook (alternately, as himself), a wild-eyed Brent Spiner as mad Area 51 scientist Dr. Brakish Okun, and Judd Hirsch carpet-bombing Semitic stereotypes as Julius, the nagging Jewish father of Goldblum’s world-saving David Levinson. It was fundamentally stupid nonsense, but it was almost irrationally easy to enjoy.
This is how truly, incredibly terrible Resurgence is: it has inspired me to wax nostalgic about one of the cheesiest American blockbusters of the past quarter-century. Perversely, Independence Day seems like Citizen Kane in comparison to its thoroughly lackluster sequel. Saddled with incompetent dialogue both expository and exclamatory, thin characterizations, poor acting, CG spectacle at once overwrought and underimagined, scale, pacing, and tension amateurishly applied, and one anemic idea after another, Resurgence is nothing of the sort. It’s more of a degradation, and an unsurprising one given sole director Emmerich’s precipitous decline as a filmmaker since he and Devlin made ID4.
In a rare, nearly-meta convergence of release date and in-text story, Resurgence follows the original Independence Day by exactly 20 years. This allows for the natural aging of returning cast members and an easy explanation of Earth’s technological quantum leaps (utilizing technology salvaged from the hulks of the alien invaders’ destroyed super-ships), but also leaves potentially fascinating storylines of the aftermath of and rebuilding after the War of ’96 languishing in the narrative background, as we’ll see. Earth is now apparently politically and socially united, albeit with America in a primary leadership position, and preparing with great expense and techno-military infrastructure for the aliens’ anticipated return assault. Its great cities have been rebuilt (Washington D.C. is virtually identical, and London, Paris, and major Asian cities have their landmarks restored as well, though perhaps not for long), defense bases are spread across the solar system, and both the sacrifices and triumphs of the prior war are commemorated and celebrated with characteristic mock-solemn American bravado (the obelisk of the Washington Monument now carries the names of millions of the dead).
Key figures in the fightback against the malevolent extraterrestrials in 1996 have varying levels of involvement in the new order, alongside related characters. Levinson is the Director of Some Alien-Killing Research Organization, while his father Julius hawks his book about how he saved the world (an offhand comment of the elder Levinson inspired David’s computer virus plan to defeat the alien mothership) to disinterested retirement-home denizens. Former President Tom Whitmore (Bill Pullman) struggles with nightmares of the extraterrestrials, while his former fighter-pilot daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe) is an aide to the new Commander-in-Chief, President Elizabeth “Nuke Them From Orbit Then Have a Campaign Rally” Lanford (Sela Ward). Her fiancée Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), who lost his parents to the attack in ’96, chafes at the restraints of a position as a space-tug pilot on the lunar defense base alongside his buddy Charlie (Travis Tope).
Jake was busted down the ranks after his reckless piloting nearly killed fellow flying ace Captain Dylan Hiller (Jessie Usher) in a training flight. The son of Will Smith’s well-remembered cocky hero pilot Col. Steven Hiller, who is said to have died in a test flight but was really claimed by a star’s taste for better scripts (or not), Dylan is essentially a walking, talking propaganda poster as the leader of an elite international squadron; Chinese pilot Rain Lao (Angelababy; yes, that’s her real stage name) is the only other one of its members to get any real screentime, and then mostly as fodder for Charlie’s puppy-dog affections (and to help with the Chinese box office numbers).
Dr. Okun is back, too, despite having apparently been snatched and tentacularly strangled to death by a captive alien in the first film. He’s been in a coma at Area 51 for two decades, cared for by his devoted assistant/lover Dr. Milton Isaacs (John Storey), and his sudden reawakening is one of several forebodings that the long-dreaded return of Earth’s ultimate antagonists is at hand. Levinson and fellow alien researcher Dr. Catherine Marceaux (Charlotte Gainsbourg) find similar suggestions that the aliens (and perhaps another space visitor as well) are back in Central Africa, where stern warlord Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) and his people fought a brutal, often hand-to-hand guerrilla war against a landed ship’s alien crew for years. And back on the lunar base, Luke and Charlie will be at the front lines of the aliens’, well, resurgence.
One of the things that makes Independence Day: Resurgence’s abject failure to be any good even as stupidly rousing popcorn entertainment so maddening is how many far better potential sequels concepts it leaves discarded in its dull inexorable wake like husks of alien superships. As the credits rolled on the original ID4 twenty years ago, I wondered if a possible sequel might take a tonal U-turn and address the daunting rebuilding of human civilization on Earth, perhaps with some mopping-up of surviving alien forces thrown in for action-sequence fodder. Resurgence shunts this complex story into its initial expository background and lacquers over simplistic jingoism: Earth is back, better and more unified than ever! But the U.S.A. is still in charge, woo!
But Resurgence leaves more tantalizing material by the wayside as well, especially one potentially cracking narrative of badass alien-killing that resides not merely in one critic’s fevered imagination and involves considerably fewer depictions of large-scale construction projects. The merely-sketched subplot of Umbutu’s protracted guerrilla war against a surviving alien enclave in Central Africa fills a minor storytelling function early on, and there’s just the slightest beat about the warlord’s deeply-felt family losses in the conflict. But the character soon degenerates into a stereotypical (and more than a little racist) background role, his stiff-jawed warrior’s ethic played for comic relief alongside Floyd Rosenberg (Nicolas Wright), a bureaucratic drip thrust into mortal danger. But what a conceivably intense and fascinating left-turn of a sequel it would have been to have made a harrowing, intimate horror-thriller about his people’s draining battles with the aliens (which may have presented an opportunity for postcolonial metaphors and atonement for the soft-imperial flag-waving of the original) instead of relegating it to backstory duty.
Such a storytelling choice would have required a filmmaker of a whole other stripe than Roland Emmerich, however. His movie aspires to grand ambition but lands on a scale more narrow and venal. Driven centrally by empty nostalgia, it proceeds in predictable swoops of action and reaction, punctuated by sophomoric humour, wan characterizations, and wasted, almost exasperated onscreen talent. Goldblum’s performance in the original was, along with his Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, the foundation for his enduring reputation in movie fandom as a stealth savior of blockbusters. But even his ah, ah, you know, particular line delivery style can’t overcome a fatal dearth of lines worth delivering. The Lesser Hemsworth isn’t better than the material and doesn’t really try to be. Usher is an automaton, with none of the enjoyable irritated attitude of his fictional father. Spiner, a fine comic actor, is made a clown. If Pullman isn’t openly embarrassed by his role in this fiasco, he surely ought to be. Only Maika Monroe, so riveting in the indie-horror nu-classic It Follows, summons any commitment and intensity, and even then can only impart it wordlessly when she’s freed from the burden of speaking her painful dialogue.
All of these factors and more combine forces to render a model of the big, dumb Hollywood blockbuster into a case study in what happens when the deceptively fine balance of the form is clumsily upset. Independence Day was broad, bombastic, silly idiocy that hit its marks with the fine eye of a skilled archer; Independence Day: Resurgence not only fumbles and misses those marks, its bowstring snaps and blinds it in one eye. This woefully atrocious movie is the most direct and lamentable product of Independence Day‘s mixed legacy.
Logan (2017; Directed by James Mangold)
To be entirely frank, I’m firmly of two minds on Logan, the tenth X-men film, third stand-alone Wolverine film, second in a row directed by James Mangold, and quite prominently the final time Hugh Jackman will play the gruff, adamantium-clawed, self-healing, anti-hero superhero. I can fully appreciate and even admire the film’s dirt-under-the-fingernails realism and character-centric agonized drama, its pained performances from the haggard, limping, coughing, physically and emotionally scarred Jackman, as well as an endearing Patrick Stewart as a fading, elderly Charles Xavier. Its pacing, maintenance of tone, viciously violent action, and interplay of image and sound are all technically expert and sometimes transcendent. When its tender bursts of heartstrings-tugging crop up in its closing stages, they feel earned and honest instead of maudlin and manipulative. But it presents far too often as a film that should be appreciated and admired rather than persuading the viewer to enjoy and be moved by it.
Logan is extremely successful at being what it fully intends to be: a comics superhero movie that is so earnest and grounded that it takes the time for a firm meta repudiation of its comic-book origins as fantasy hogwash. Mangold, directing a script he co-wrote with Scott Frank and Michael Green, weaves the bloody-minded, gritty tangibility of the 1970s semi-independent New American Cinema with the lonely, reluctant cowboy hero of Golden Age Westerns (signalled by a clear intertextual reference to the 1953 genre classic Shane). He does the job so very well that you might be forgiven for asking yourself if he really ought to be doing it. More than any comic-book superhero film since Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, Logan self-consciously tries to carve out a serious artistic space in a genre that, despite prodigious commercial dominance, continues to struggle to be treated like prestigious cinematic art by the film industry that it has financially enriched. It’s focused on chipping away at these prejudicial conditions with convincing depictions of wincing suffering so singularly that it can, and does, forget to give its audience a fully enjoyable and rewarding experience.
Logan takes Jackman’s Logan/Wolverine to his final extremity. In rural exurban stretches of a dystopian future America in which nearly all of the multitudinous mutants of the X-Universe have been hunted down and wiped out, Logan whiles away his time and saves his precious pennies in anonimity, driving a stretch limousine in El Paso, Texas. He’s concealing Dr. Xavier in an abandoned smelting plant in Mexico, isolating the old man and drugging him silly to control his debilitating psychic seizures, the result of a degenerating brain that makes him a danger to anyone around him. The sun-shy albino Caliban (Stephen Merchant), who can detect the presence of other mutants, aids him in caring for Professor X, though he suspects Logan will exclude him from his retirement escape plan on a private boat in sunny climes.
Logan’s longtime desire to be left alone to pour salt in his many open wounds (his physical ones increasingly remain so, his healing powers’ gradual desertion of his body a sign of its slow degeneration) is irritatingly doubly interrupted. First, a Mexican nurse (Elizabeth Rodriguez) implores him to help her and a small girl in her care named Laura (Dafne Keen, giving the most hypnotic child performance in a gory action film since Natalie Portman in Leon). Logan brushes her aside, but begins to reconsider when Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook, a sort of low-rent Southern clone of Charlie Hunnam, himself a clone of a real movie star), the head of security for a mysterious multinational genetics corporation, comes asking after the girl, whose origins his employers likely have something to do with. Laura, who is far more like Logan that he suspects, winds up as his reluctant charge, and the two of them and Xavier set off on a cross-country odyssey to a supposed northern borderland safe haven for mutants with Pierce and his mutie-hunting cyborg squad of Reavers in hot pursuit.
Logan, Xavier, Laura, and their intermittent allies stay barely ahead of and frequently violently dispatch Pierce’s waves of black-clad SWAT types, with calm-but-tense interludes of quiet dialogue, emotional character scenes, and tantalizing but ever-ephemeral shadows of normality interspersed in between the blood. Logan’s path was largely blazed by the smashing success of last year’s similarly-rated X-verse entry Deadpool (and not just in the droll Superman-referencing short scene featuring the red-and-black-suited wag superhero played by Ryan Reynolds running before it in theatres), and the vicious graphic violence of its fight sequences fully earns its R rating in the U.S. It’s “mature” if not actually mature, much as Deadpool was.
Logan thus presents as a strange and sometimes deep-cutting hybrid of Sam Peckinpah, Little Miss Sunshine, spaghetti westerns, and the murkier corners of the Marvel screen universe. It even pulls off its own edgier and more tragic version of the idyllic farmhouse pause in the centre of Avengers: Age of Ultron, giving the weary, besieged travelers a brief reprieve among a humble rural family (Eriq La Salle, Elise Neal, and Quincy Fouse) while the narrative is allowed to breathe. The film’s slow burn to a gory climax rises further to an emotional crescendo which cannot be said not to be moving (shrink away from the incandescence of that bit of praise!). Mangold is a skilled enough director to not merely signal an audience how to feel but compel them to feel that way, too, and he vitally tempers Logan‘s scraped-knuckle grimness with a glow of hope.
Jackman staggers and wheezes through a worn-down take on the character that he has defined (and that, for better or worse, has defined him) for 17 years. Exasperated with his artificially extended existence without legacy, stripped of the surrogate X-family that gave him a tentative identity and sense of belonging, his heaving but scarred body a haunted house full of the restless poltergeists of a century of killing, Jackman’s Logan suffers with exquisite persistence here. If there was nothing else to great acting than that (and the Academy’s tendencies of awarding performances that privilege such suffering might persuade you into believing there isn’t), Jackman would be an early frontrunner for Best Actor a year from now. The Academy is unlikely to overcome ingrained genre prejudices for Logan, though, and I’m not saying he is that good here, either; Jackman is, and always has been, too much of a performer to excavate into the deep place of any character, let alone a grumbling mutant with a history of violence and a skeleton of adamantium.
Perhaps inspired by his co-star’s exertions, Stewart’s Charles Xavier (also his last kick at the X-can, if recent press statements can be believed) feebly battles to keep senility and death at bay and maintain an element of himself amidst unspeakable loss and a total defeat of all that he dedicated his life to achieving. With his most well-known work coming in the imaginative, fantastical genres, it’s been easy to undervalue Stewart as an actor, but he is a very, very fine one and shows every bit of his observant, empathetic quality here. Some praise should also be reserved for Stephen Merchant as Caliban, who imbues a fairly thankless supporting role with a deep but irony-edged despondency and dogged buried bravery.
Logan, then, has some good performances, a reasonably character-driven plot sequence, and solid, even exciting, action scenes. Its closing surge of feeling is genuine and potent, giving the prior labors a patina of meaning. All of this should add up to a good (borderline great, even) movie, right? I’m not so sure. Perhaps, as good as this Wolverine movie is, it can only ever be a Wolverine movie, and how much is that ultimately worth? Maybe the most succinct and accurate review I’ve read, in the form of a brief tweet, said exactly that. Logan has an abiding ambition to be more than it is, to transcend and even upend its generic constraints. It should get there, by all of the evidence available. It doesn’t, and it’s difficult to pinpoint a single reason why, other than to speculate that maybe, in spite of the best efforts of all involved, it simply can’t be what it is and also more than it is.
After initially assessing and at least partially dismissing the first season of Noah Hawley’s television adaptation of the Oscar-winning American film classic Fargo for FX as half-baked, comically-challenged Coen Brothers fan fiction, I returned to reconsider. While I did not find a work that rose to the level of the original source material (which, to be fair, is one of the great American films of the past quarter-century), watching the full season on its own terms allowed a unique, idiosyncratic work to emerge of its own accord. It was a more pitiless and sensationalist violent crime potboiler than the Coens’ Fargo (or any of their films, really), and although often funny and amusing, it could never convincingly approximate the Coens’ comic voice.
We can forgive this and resist characterizing it as a failure, given the exceptional nature of the brothers’ precisely modulated, entirely singular writing style. But Fargo the TV show was carried through by strong writing nonetheless, as well as a batch of excellent performances from the likes of Allison Tolman, Keith Carradine, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, and even an oblique, seemingly-improvised supporting appearance from comedy duo Key and Peele.
The second season of Fargo therefore became a more anticipated event, especially when reviews and returns labelled it as being far better than the first, even a veritable television classic. Imagine my concern, then, when after observing how the show wore down my preliminary objections as its first season went on, I found those objections creeping inescapably back in as its second season moved forward. The television Fargo is undeniably its own beast with its own ideas and appealing features, regardless of how many themes, character types, plot elements, settings, musical selections, writing and storytelling devices, or filmmaking techniques it borrows, recycles, or repurposes from the Coens canon. But with every callback and reference to the Fargo film or another Coens joint, its fanfic core became harder to transcend, especially when its own extrapolations on top of that core rely so heavily on standard-issue crime drama gangland dick-measuring clichés.
Set in 1979, about 35 years before the roughly current-day events of the first season, Fargo Season Two fills in a darkly hinted-at portion of that narrative’s backstory. In Season One, Lou Solverson is a retired Minnesota state trooper (played by Carradine), father to keen local cop Molly Solverson (Tolman), who is the central detective figure unravelling that season’s web of crime. Recurring dialogue references back to a disturbing and violent event that took place in Sioux Falls, Minnesota while Lou was on active duty as a younger man. The most he ever brings himself to say about what happened there, during a tense conversation at his roadside diner with cold-blooded contract killer Lorne Malvo (Thornton), is that it was more “animal” than human.
The viewer of Season Two, when judging the all-too-human errors, betrayals, pride, and resentments that lead up to a bloodbath at a motor motel in the penultimate episode that caps a series of murders strewn across three states, might find that the older Solverson’s description constitutes a certain abdication of responsibility. Fargo, like the Coens canon it is in creative conversation with, is fundamentally concerned with human choice and the dimensions of morality, but like the Coens’ work it also recognizes, with a bitter ironic sting, the limits of human agency and the ambivalent caprices of an arbitrary universe. Actions have consequences in the world of Fargo, but just as often, those consequences arise unbidden, manifesting not as karmic justice but as cosmic randomness. This combination of human fallibility and forces beyond our comprehension inevitably leads to catastrophe.
This particular catastrophe stems from an organized crime turf war in the snowy northern Midwest (actually shot in and around Calgary, Alberta, like the show’s first season). When the steely, aged patriarch of the Gerhardt family crime syndicate out of Fargo, North Dakota suffers a debilitating stroke around the same time the youngest of his sons, Rye (Kieran Culkin), goes missing after murdering a hostile judge and a pair of witnesses in a diner, the Kansas City mafia decides to exploit this moment of perceived weakness to expand into the family’s sovereign territory. Represented by Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett), encyclopedically-minded Mike Milligan (a bemusedly verbose Bokeem Woodbine), and an imposing, mute pair of twin brother enforcers (Brad and Todd Mann), Kansas City seeks to negotiate a favourable settlement of spheres of influence with the interim boss of the Gerhardt clan, matriarch Floyd (Jean Smart), whole rule is supported by her middle son Bear (Angus Sampson), but any attempts at peaceful resolution are undercut and turned towards an all-out war by the belligerence and violence of her eldest son Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) and his right-hand man, sinister Native American tracker and triggerman Hanzee (Zahn McClarnon). Meanwhile, Dodd’s rebellious daughter Simone (Rachel Keller) tries to play both sides, and Bear’s son Charlie (Allan Dobrescu) chafes at his father’s protectiveness and yearns to participate in what he sees as the glamourous life of the family criminal business.
Into this volatile situation drops Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst, who’s rarely been better), a small-town beautician with a resourceful but semi-delusional mania for self-actualization, and her husband Ed (Jesse Plemons as a deep sigh in human form), who has modest dreams of saving up to buy the main-street butcher shop in which he works as an assistant. Peggy strikes Rye with her car after he commits the Waffle Hut murders, and rather than go to the police, she and Ed follow a string of decisions that lead to Rye’s death and their pursuit by the vengeful Gerhardts and the inquiring police for their deepening involvement in the gang war. Those police include not only the young Lou Solverson (that perennially underrated gem of a quasi-leading man, Patrick Wilson), whose wife Besty (Cristin Milioti) is dying of cancer, but his stalwart, wry sheriff father-in-law Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) and the squirming, unreliable Fargo PD Detective Ben Schmidt (Keir O’Donnell). Nick Offerman also shows up for a clutch of episodes as an alcoholic local lawyer and, like Solverson, a Vietnam vet with a key role to play.
Hawley and his writers maintain a strong ear for the accented speech and polite understatement that constitutes the verbal element of “Minnesota Nice”. If it’s not the Coens’ ear, well, see the disclaimer in the second paragraph, but it’s still quite good. The dialogue approximates their indie-film avatars’ fondness for contrasting polite middlebrow misunderstandings with vicious crimeland hostility, as well as digressive but thematically/metaphorically reflective monologues and speeches (the writers really like those; some characters, such as Milligan, express themselves almost entirely in them). Punctuated by outbursts of gory violence, such tone and material can veer closer to the influence of Quentin Tarantino as opposed to the Coens, a bit of an easier creative touchstone to try to copy.
A braver and more difficult choice in Season Two’s construction, indeed its most contentious turn, is the way Hawley and his writers insert fantastical science fiction into their essentially realist (although fictionally exaggerated) crime narrative. At two key junctures in the plot – following Rye’s massacre at the waffle house and during the Sioux City shootout – a UFO appears in the night sky, distracting characters at important moments with fateful results. Hawley has only offered vague, cultural-history-type justifications of the flying saucer’s appearances, which vlogger Ryan Hollinger attempts to make sense of here (a little dissatisfactorily, I must admit). I do agree that the UFO has a precedent in the Coens-verse (Billy Bob Thornton sees one in The Man Who Wasn’t There, though its function there is more symbolic or metaphorical and has no direct bearing on the plot, as it does in the show), and that the alien visitation can be understood in terms of the concept of random, extra-human forces acting upon human lives, also a frequent Coens theme, as discussed.
But I can’t shake the thought that the flying saucer, integrated into the world of Fargo as it is, is a device for meta-commentary on the nature of storytelling and plotting itself. It’s a species of atomic-age deus ex machina for a world (in 1979 as in our own times) that can’t bring itself to trust gods to exist, let alone to intervene in human affairs for any sense of greater good. Its interference is nearly indirect; it hovers and spotlights characters, but their paralyzed awe (and the ability of others around them to overcome that sense of awe to act) carries the consequences, not extraterrestrial chess-mastering. In an America absorbed in wishful, fantastical thinking in its blockbuster entertainments (Star Wars and the sci-fi wave of the late 1970s; the superhero-driven speculative explosion of contemporary Hollywood) as well as in the supposedly more sober political sphere (Donald Trump now; Ronald Reagan in 1979, played here in a masterful satirical cameo by Bruce Campbell), a UFO as catalyst for human drama, for tragic, pointless slaughter, is an apt image, both reflective and a subtle critique of rampant fantasism. Contrary to popular blather about destiny and fate, Fargo and its UFO shine a spotlight (quite literally) on fraught human decisions. The responsibility for, and thus the crushing weight of, those decisions lies with us, not with lights in the sky, divine, extraterrestrial, or otherwise.
With such ideas in play, I can’t be entirely clear-cut in declaring Fargo an elaborate but pale Coens homage as opposed to a sophisticated and original (if highly referential) engagement and exploration of the world and the themes of their films. There are times, in the space of a single episode for certain and even in the space of a single scene, at which in can be both. Doubts aside, Fargo remains a rewarding watch. Even pale Coens homages are superior to a vast swath of what’s on television screens, just as their films are greatly superior to a vast swath of what’s on movie screens.
Get on Up (2014; Directed by Tate Taylor)
“Don’t tell me where, when, or for how long I can be funky!” exclaims the Godfather of Soul, James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) to a flustered USO officer in late 1960s Vietnam, where Brown and a reduced remnant of his 22-piece band have just landed to perform for American troops rowdily anticipating the music superstar’s arrival. Their plane has come under enemy fire and is forced to land with one engine aflame. Despite Brown’s fondness for incendiary theatrics and grand entrances, he’s not thrilled about the danger he’s been placed in, excoriating the USO man further: “You want to go down in history as the man who killed the funk?”
This scene, coming very near the start of Get on Up, Tate Taylor’s semi-nonlinear narrative of James Brown’s life and career, taps entertainingly (but fleetingly) into the characteristics that made Brown so great: swaggering, electrifying, death-defying, self-aggrandizing, hilarious, and more than a little dangerous. Unfortunately, Get on Up touches that live wire only briefly, in moments rather than sustainedly. Brown endured and even thrived in his life on the edge for quite a long time, but Get on Up retreats to the safer, stabler environs of musical biopic convention more often than not, despite a blazing central performance from its star Boseman and gestures towards an artfully fragmented narrative and metaphoric structure.
Taylor’s cinematic narrative of Brown’s life (from a script by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth) generally progresses chronologically along his common-enough rise from rags to riches, filthy anonimity to blazing fame in the burgeoning 1960s popular music world. Brown came from dirt-poor beginnings in the 1930s and 1940s South; there he is abandoned by his mother Susie (Viola Davis), beaten and then traded off on relatives by his Army-bound father Joseph (Lennie James), and inculcated into performance by the charismatic local preacher of the ecstatic African-American church and at the brothel run by his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer). Possessed with a keen eye for maintaining a swag appearance from a young age, James Brown filches a fine pair of shoes from a lynched corpse (the film’s rare and thus conspicuous nod to the reality of mortal terror for black people in Brown’s younger days) and is later thrown in prison at 17 years of age for stealing a man’s suit.
There, James Brown’s easy charm and evident talent catches the eye of visiting gospel singing group leader Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), whose family sponsors Brown for his parole. The two men become key allies through the gradual but boiling rise in fortune to come, first with Byrd’s group the Famous Flames and then under the later concert-hall-owning band fronted by Brown. Managed by wily industry vet Ben Bart (a nice supporting role for Dan Aykroyd, who had Brown himself as a guest performer in Blues Brothers), Brown’s odyssey winds through showstopping performances, creative and business trailblazing, identity crises, political tensions, personal struggle and change, and Brown’s legendary volatility and reputation for difficulty.
The latter fraught aspect of his identity receives a strong push, as Brown is shown clashing with his talented band (his lead saxophonist Maceo Parker, played by Craig Robinson, is in consistent conflict with him in the film), smacking his second wife Dee-Dee (Jill Scott) around for slight perceived offenses, and eventually breaking with longtime collaborator Byrd. Taylor prefaces his film with Brown’s dangerous unpredictability, opening with a scene depicting a dramatic and notorious episode of Brown’s well-known behavioural troubles (no, not that time he allegedly struck singer Tammi Terrell with a hammer, nor any of his drug arrests): a 1988 incident involving firearm discharge and armed threats at his Augusta, Georgia offices.
Get on Up is primarily focused on Brown and Byrd’s relationship, at times a partnership of equals but increasingly a hierarchical arrangement with the mercurial Brown as petty dictator. Their interactions and stubborn friendship, one supposes, are intended to reveal something essential in Brown’s character, something deeper and less guarded than the direct, fourth-wall-breaking, narrator-like statements about his career and life that Boseman’s Brown makes to the camera. I’m not sure it does tell us much about James Brown’s soul, ultimately.
It hardly helps that Brown’s idiosyncratic political views – he believed fiercely in black pride and self-determination, but supported and expressed admiration for U.S. politicians as diverse as Democrats Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy as well as Republican President Richard Nixon, to say nothing of his high regard for segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond – get distinctly short shrift. These are reduced to his aggressively neutral peacekeeping during a tense Boston concert after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and inviting black school children to sing on the recording of “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”, trading the ski chalet sweater he donned for a white-audience-aimed Frankie Avalon Show performance earlier on for politically-conscious African-style garb in the process. Far more running time and effort is spent detailing how he and Bart broke the concert promoter cartels by using local independent radio to drum up interest in his shows, or his innovations of the rhythmic grooves that would define funk (and later hip-hop and modern R&B, genres that would sample his music extensively). The implication, and not an inaccurate one, is that for James Brown, laying down the funk was itself as profound a political act as he could envision or enact. Anything else was mere electoral theatre.
Questionable thematic balance aside, Boseman is spectacular as Brown, nailing the small details of his dancing, his impassioned vocals (though Boseman doesn’t do all of the singing), his volatile swagger, his gravelly seductive Southern bark of a speaking voice, his swelling pride and confidence. One might nitpick that Boseman doesn’t vanish utterly into the role as, say, Jamie Foxx did as Ray Charles in Ray, or that the lean six-foot-tall actor can’t truly approximate the physical impact of the compact, muscular five-and-a-half-foot-tall Mr. Dynamite, imparting a sense of flowing grace to a performer who was much more an explosive dynamo of demon energy.
As good as Boseman is and as entertaining and even insightful as Get on Up can be (young James’ dream-fantasy encounter with the sweaty, movement-heavy African-American church congregation is especially effective in establishing a recognizable model for his stage persona), the cocksure promise of that Vietnam scene is never quite delivered upon. For all of its gestures towards fragmented non-linearality and metaphorical illustrations of James Brown’s peculiar genius, appeal, and faults, Get on Up skews consistently and with mounting disappointment towards tired musical biopic cliches. Like Taylor’s 2011 Oscar fave The Help, Get on Up can tip into the uneasy feeling of a patronizing white-centric depiction of African-American culture when it isn’t inordinately careful. It won’t go down in history as the movie that killed the funk, but it’s hard to say that it doesn’t water it down more than one might have wished.