Music and Images of Special Magnificence: Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring In Concert
First performed in 2008, the live symphony orchestra performance of Howard Shore’s Oscar-winning musical score for the first film of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, has come to the composer’s hometown of Toronto for the first time. The score is performed live by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, two full choirs, and soloists, and is conducted by Ludwig Wicki, whose Switzerland-based 21st Century Symphony Orchestra was the first to play Shore’s classic score live in concert with the projected film and who has toured the world in the years since conducting globally-renowned orchestras. Working closely with Shore (as he has with many other major film composers on similar projects), Wicki has trained himself to conduct his musicians and singers to the film’s cues themselves, presenting a seemless aural and visual experience in top-notch orchestral halls around the globe.
I haven’t the trained music-writing expertise to comment knowledgeably on Shore’s compositions or the specific performance of them by the TSO itself. Music writer Doug Adams does have that expertise, and has demonstrated it in his book The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films (excerpts from which can be read in the TSO’s program for the concerts, downloadable from their website). For a more easily digestable analysis of Howard Shore’s use of themes or leitmotifs in his Rings scores, check out this excellent video essay by the “Nerdwriter”, Evan Puschak.
I can only scratch at the surface of their superior analyses, but scratch I will. The Fellowship of the Ring is my favourite film of Jackson’s trilogy, and really, my favourite film period; I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it, but the TSO viewing was probably somewhere in the twenties. There is much to love about it, from the masterful cinematic storytelling to the committed performances (Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, of course, but also Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn, Sean Bean’s doomed Boromir, and Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd as the poised clownish hobbits, Merry and Pippin) to the impressive totality of its visual design and execution. But as time has passed and initial passion has turned to enduring appreciation, it has become more evident that Howard Shore’s music might be the best thing about Fellowship as well as its sequels.
Shore’s music is remarkable varied and often rousing and magnificent in its own right, but the way it melds with Jackson’s filmic images, supplementing and amplifying the moods, tones, and meanings onscreen, is what makes it special. In live concert performance alongside those images, the score’s great transcendent success in this role is particular emphasized, granting a symphonic grandeur and flow to Jackson’s film in collaboration with its composition, camera movement and motion inside frame, colour, and editing.
The effect was always evident in Fellowship‘s highlight sequences. Look at Arwen’s flight to the Ford of Bruinen, astride a galloping white horse, safeguarding a mortally wounded Frodo from the black-clad and black-steeded Ringwraiths in pursuit of the One Ring that he carries: shot and edited with pulse-pounding exhiliration, Shore’s music drives and expands the pace of perhaps the most exciting riding sequence in film history. Or the Bridge of Khazad-dûm sequence, the relentless deep rhythms and staccato male choir Dwarvish chants soundtracking a desperate chase through the carved caverns of Moria and portending Gandalf’s fall into shadow, which is gorgeously lamented by a boy soprano solo.
This contrast of deep and harsh with high and ethereal, a hallmark theme and tone of Jackson’s film, is perhaps most memorably imparted in Fellowship‘s most resonant visual metaphor: a craning wide shot from above of the grim industrialized pits of Saruman’s stronghold of Isengard scored by a cruel mechanical march, suddenly interrupted by the delicate naturalistic hope of a fluttering moth scored by an elegiac, angelic vocal solo. Even seemingly incidental sequences of narrative advancement become streams of artistry when Jackson’s imagery and Score’s music work effortlessly together: witness the intercutting of the Fellowship travelling down the River Anduin out of Lothlorien with Saruman’s Uruk-Hai strike force thundering through the woods after them.
Shore and Jackson even reach into film music history to heighten the effect of the trilogy’s battle scenes. Watch and listen to the lead-up to the battle in Balin’s Tomb in Moria. Notice how Shore’s music picks up pace and timbre as the Fellowship are confronted with signs of impending attack and prepare to fight for their lives, building to a crescendo as the two forces collide and then dropping away entirely to be replaced by the brutal cacophony of clashing steel and battle cries, the symphony of hand-to-hand death? This is a direct borrowing from/homage to the Battle on the Ice from Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 epic Alexander Nevsky, with music by Sergei Prokofiev likewise climaxing and then dropping away at the moment of joined battle. Jackson liked the effect so much that he repeated it in The Two Towers (the Warg attack sequence) and The Return of the King (the Rohirrim charging the Haradrim’s war oliphaunts at the Battle of Pelennor Fields).
Howard Shore mixed diverse influences from centuries of music (from Romantic opera like Wagner to the abstract dissonance of 20th-century composition) to create a memorable score for a memorable film, and witnessing his music in live performance with the movie further entrenches both score and film as impressive and moving modern works of art of vision and grandeur.
Inherent Vice (2015; Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)
Pleasurably sunk in the acid-soaked sunshiny California menace of 1970, Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic take on Thomas Pynchon’s hippie-era detective semi-comic novel dawns on its viewer gradually as a serpentine trifle made to be anything but. Tracing multiple strands of crime tenuously connected by a disappeared real-estate magnate and his beach-girl mistress, Inherent Vice holds together (to whatever extent it does) through one desultory dialogue scene after another under the deceptively steady navigation of its dope-head private investigator protagonist, Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix).
Doc bakes out on pot at his humble beach house much of the time, meeting clients semi-surreptitiously out of a doctor’s office. The aforementioned beach girl, Shasty Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), is also a cherished ex-girlfriend of Doc’s, and when she asks him to intervene in a convoluted plot to commit her lover Mickey Wolfmann (a piece of pitch-perfect cameo casting that I wouldn’t dream of ruining) and institutionalize him against his will, he can hardly refuse, especially when she vanishes as well. Other cases and personalities intervene, alternately distracting Doc and weaving together with the Shasta/Wolfmann disappearances: black militants and white supremacist thugs, a “happy endings” massage parlour, corrupt LAPD cops, a misbehaving rich girl, a lascivious drug-slinging dentist, a violent loan shark with a baseball bat obsession, and a shadowy sea-bound drug smuggling operation known only as “the Golden Fang”.
Any plot summary more detailed than the one provided basically misses the point of Inherent Vice. This is a pure playground of textures for Anderson: the visual brew of period California, the tangible attentions of his ensemble cast, the intoxicating cadences of Pynchon’s prose, fermenting in the dialogue as well as in the narration by Doc’s chorus-like friend Sortilège (Joanna Newsom). Pynchon (as filtered through Anderson’s screenplay) infuses even slight exchanges with sociopolitical portent and displays a particular flair for naming redolent of a Charles Dickens twisted on mescaline and agave syrup: both tendencies are most evident in Doc’s consistent foil, LAPD Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin with a flat-top bullet haircut), a mega-repressed hippie-hating square cop with an unsuccessful bit-part moonlighting gig as an actor. His relationship with Doc is conducted with open hostility but is also suffused with a weird psychiatric neediness, all of which explodes in the film’s funniest moment, when he consumes an entire platter of narcotics in front of an incredulous Doc.
I don’t mean to suggest that Anderson’s grasp of Pynchon’s story or language ever loosens or slips (he’s too fine and self-possessed a filmmaker for that), but Inherent Vice fragments into a series of individual indelible elements: Doc awaking next to a dead body and pool of blood in a desert trailer park, the gathered phalanx of LAPD officers and squad cars standing him down; a silvery reminiscence of Doc and Shasta sheltering from a downpour in a doorway set to Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past” (“Harvest” shows up on the soundtrack as well, which is dynamite as per Anderson’s habit and melds beautifully with Jonny Greenwood’s score); a loopy trip to the asylum that houses Wolfmann, chaperoned by a doctor played by Jefferson Mays, whose manic fanaticism cracks and shivers Anderson’s meticulous construction even in such a small dose; and any number of superb small roles inhabited by actors more or less recognizable: Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Michael K. Williams, Jena Malone, Peter McRobbie, Owen Wilson, and Martin Short.
That’s all well and good as far as scattershot impressions go, you might say, but is Inherent Vice any good taken as a whole? It is, provisionally, but it doesn’t ever really manage to be the film that it wants to be, that Anderson obviously intends it to be. He clearly aims for a freewheeling psychedelically-infused romp through the tail end of the hippie era; he cites Cheech and Chong and broad farces like Police Squad! and Airplane! as inspiration, and it’s kind of laughable how much Anderson misses those particular targets if that’s where his gun was pointing (The Big Lebowski is also an evident touchstone, albeit a far funnier and repeatedly rewarding one).
Not only does it seem that Pynchon’s source material does not support such an approach, neither does it play to Anderson’s strengths. The artful misdirection and ambiguity of meaning of Anderson’s films (nearly a decade later, what does the final scene of There Will Be Blood actually mean?) conceals the manifestly controlled nature of his filmmaking. If he’s not quite prone to the OCD doll-house dioramas that characterize the work of his surname-sharing fellow American indie auteur Wes Anderson, the comparison is not entirely unproductive. Inherent Vice is definitely quite good but there’s a wilder and more woolly entertainment lurking in this movie, a brass ring that its crafter wished to grasp that remains tantalizingly – and perhaps a little disappointingly – out of reach.
Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015; Directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak)
Upon first glance, Aardman Animations’ feature film version of its creative maven Nick Park’s Shaun the Sheep television series may seem like an innocuous, innocent, clever little trifle of a family entertainment. A sustained examination would turn up sly sophistication, percolating cinematic references (I spotted a Taxi Driver shout-out, which I heartily did not expect), and even some mild satire lurking beyond its slapsticky, kiddie-inclined hyper-cuteness. But look deep into its sunny, soothing package and you might find in Shaun the Sheep some important insights into English rural romanticism, popular disdain for the urban life that dominates the nation, and maybe even the underlying forces behind Brexit.
“Sod off, you obscure pinko blogging wanker!” the Britside Twitter eggs might be saying. “It’s just a kid flick about silly sheep!” Well, it is that, yes. Made entirely in Aardman’s trademarked and comfortingly tangible stop-motion clay animation style, Shaun the Sheep Movie is also entirely without spoken dialogue, although it substitutes numerous sound effects, music, and mutterings and utterings to help get its point across so it’s far from a “silent” movie.
The titular sheep is the cleverest one in the flock owned by an unnamed Farmer (who bears more than a passing resemblance to the Muppet Beaker). Shaun’s stardust memories of halcyon days at Mossy Bottom Farm open the film, with the more youthful Farmer, his dog Bitzer, and the sheep frolicking together, hugging, and generally residing in the vernal glow of happiness. But the daily routine has turned to joyless drudgery for all involved, and the sheep in general and Shaun in particular are feeling glum and alienated. Craving a bit of a break from the repetitive herding, feeding, and shearing they are subject to on the regular, Shaun masterminds a plan to neutralize the Farmer (he’s highly susceptible to sleepy lullaby music) as well as his subaltern Bitzer (a pragmatic duck accepts payment in bread to be their accomplice in this part of the scheme) and settle in for snacks and a movie in the farmhouse living room.
Unfortunately, through convoluted slapstick circumstances, the old trailer they have stashed the Farmer in accidentally rolls into the big city and their master bumps his head and forgets that he was ever an agricultural entrepreneur. Shaun leads the flock and Bitzer on a quest to jog his memory and bring him home to the country where he belongs (they find they miss him after all, especially the part of the routine where he feeds them). In the unfamiliar urban environment, they must contend not only with a zealous, ruthlessly efficient goateed animal control agent who runs his pound like a prison, but also with the Farmer’s lack of recognition of his old life and reluctance to leave his successful new career as a sought-after hair stylist, a vocation which he stumbled into and which amusingly puts his wool-shearing skills to good use.
Before wading into the mucky defense of my opening critical assertion, it should be affirmatively noted that Shaun the Sheep Movie is a low-key, light-hearted delight. It’s full of Aardman’s usual inventive visual wit, a veritable gag-a-second adventure that is sure to captivate children and keep adults pleasurably involved as well. The Aardman outfit is so effective at their craft that viewing any of their products without noting the absolutely painstaking technical prowess and loving, skilled attention to detail that goes into putting even a minute of footage onscreen seems massively unfair and heartless. That the final result tends in every case to have such a good soul, a big heart, and offers such good fun is a remarkable added bonus. Shaun the Sheep also boasts the subtly impressive additional narrative feat of telling its straightforward but hardly logistically simple story without the crutch of spoken language.
Its themes are simple and broad, though, and this is where we get into the weeds of politics. The realization that their big city adventure sparks in both the Farmer and his livestock is a pretty old and hoary one: there’s no place like home (though it’s not certain that his pigs, who trash his house while he’s away, have similar access to any such insight). The soundtrack even deploys a flagrantly on-the-nose Foo Fighters ballad (entitled “Home”, of course) to emphasize Shaun’s yearning to return to the safe serenity of the farm at the flock’s lowest ebb during their urban escapade. This universal longing for home is the kind of easy but resonant theme that Aardman films (and plenty of other animated children’s movies, Pixar on down) hang their storytelling machinations, madcap humour, and visual glories upon. You could firmly insist that there’s no other specific dimension to this thematic element intended or summoned in Shaun the Sheep Movie and I suppose I wouldn’t argue with you.
But heck, let’s argue. When “home” is an idyllic farm in the romanticized, inherently nationalistic (and predominantly Caucasian) English countryside and its unfriendly opposite is one of the busy urban areas which house most of the country’s citizens (especially its non-white population), there’s a buried sociopolitical dimension to the construction. What social satire that Shaun the Sheep Movie has to offer is directed at the city and its inhabitants, who are busy types obsessed with fashion, status, and appearance, be it the hair stylists and their star clients, the adoring fans desperate to spot those stars, hoity-toity restaurant patrons and staff, or even the dime-store fascism of Trumper, the fanatical jerk from animal control. The comparative simplicity of rural life in Britain is not skewered in the same manner, and the farm retains its patina of warmth and authenticity.
Is this all so much nitpicking and over-reading? Of course “home” for sheep would be a rural homestead; they aren’t likely to be longing for return to their council estate flat or suburban row-house, are they? But Aardman productions are consistently swathed in the traditional cloth of conservative “heritage” Englishness, a set of cultural touchstones not necessarily shared and not equally accessible to all modern Britons: Wallace & Gromit found fanciful adventure springing from one of those respectable suburban homes (often motivated by good English cheese), and Chicken Run re-imagined the heroic WWII POW camp escape caper with another countryside livestock staple: chickens (The Pirates!, in mild contrast, thumbed its nose lightly at the pompous presumption of Victorian imperialism, but then it was about high-seas outlaws, after all). But in the age of Brexit, when cynical demagogues from the far right imply a dark future of urbanized multicultural uncertainty in contrast to a sun-kissed vision of the restoration of a proud and idealized English rural (read: white and imperial) past, easy distinctions between the positive country and the negative city should responsibly be challenged, even when they occur in the midst of light-hearted cartoons.
Doctor Strange (2016; Directed by Scott Derrickson)
You will see things while watching Doctor Strange that you have not seen on a movie screen before, but that isn’t to say that the film will surprise you in any way. Its narrative beats, themes, characters, and representational problems are all factory-issue Marvel Studios blockbuster archetypes, even while it features several sequences that profoundly boggle and astound the mind’s eye, leaving it pleasantly disoriented. If only such inventive disorientation could be applied to the plot and thematic elements as well.
The titular character is an arrogant, ambitious neurosurgeon who becomes a slightly less arrogant but no less ambitious transdimensional mystical sorcerer tasked with the protection of Earth from dark threats from the multiverse. If this doesn’t describe a Benedict Cumberbatch character to the letter, I don’t know how much closer an alternate description could get, and the genuine article obliges by bringing characteristic dedication and attention to detail to the role, fluff though it may be. Cumberbatch also adds a general tone of bemusement and ironic lightness to Dr. Stephen Strange (also a fairly characteristic mode for him). As an actor, Cumberbatch is well above such pulpy multiplex material as Doctor Strange, and he manages nimbly to signal that he knows it while never once slighting or undermining the film which he is tasked to carry.
Stephen Strange makes his unusual career change not precisely out of choice. So masterful at neurosurgery as to consider it practically a lark, Strange can no longer take his mastery for granted after a brutal car crash severely damages his skilled hands (and pretty much nothing else, which is a little unbelievable given the furious, dramatic depiction of the crash). After bankrupting himself looking for a medical fix and still finding himself no closer to being able to return to operating, the implacably rational Strange follows a desperate lead to Kathmandu, Nepal and to the mystical temple of Kamar-Taj. There, his scientific scepticism is challenged and finally overthrown by the mind-blowing magical spellcasting powers of the Ancient One (a wondrously dry Tilda Swinton). Before you can say “orientalism”, Strange is learning the secrets of the astral plane, mystical projection, martial arts, and ancient relics of power, his arrogant self-possession pushing him further and deeper into the mysteries of the multiverses and beyond the limits and warnings of the Ancient One, temple librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), and fellow master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Before he’s anything approaching a master of these magical arts, Dr. Strange (like any self-respecting physician, he ever insists upon the spoken title, even when being invested as a friggin’ astral wizard) must contend with the rogue zealot master Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). The villain of the piece is first seen in the memorable opening sequence of the film, stealing pages from a prized tome of knowledge in Kamar-Taj’s library and escaping the Ancient One despite a battle on the streets and buildings of London as they fold, rotate, and rise, plane-over-plane, like a memorable scene in Inception. Kaecilius is in league with a malevolent being of the Dark Dimension known as Dormammu and seeks to overthrow the Ancient One’s order (marked by a stylized symbol highly reminiscent of a basketball team logo) and unleash his dark lord’s unspeakable all-consuming power on Earth. Which, you know, is probably not good, but like the Trump Presidency, maybe we can give it a chance and hope for the best (spoiler: not a good plan, in either case).
Like most Marvel Studios efforts, Doctor Strange strikes a fine balance between respecting and imparting the core of its source material and poking fun at its pulpy pomposity. The fanciful names of the relics (eg. the Eye of Agamotto, which turns time back like the Time-Turner of Harry Potter or the magic dagger of Prince of Persia and has considerable plot implications, as might be expected) come in for a bit of ridicule by Strange, who never quite loses his rational disdain for mysticism and superstition even as he becomes a seasoned practitioner of its force. Strange’s own key relic, the crimson Cloak of Levitation, is mostly played for laughs, indeed constituting a comic relief character of its own. The mostly-thankless supporting love interest role of Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) also allows for some moments of levity, drawing on the established Marvel movie tradition of ordinary people being alarmed, frightened, and amazed by displays of superhero powers.
At this point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s continuous sequence of films, practically all of this can be assumed and go generally undiscussed, mind you. There isn’t a big plot or thematic or character beat that cannot be seen coming miles away, and the Marvel and Disney focus-grouped unwillingness to vary the formula is becoming mildly alienating. This undercurrent of predictability is unfortunate, because when director Scott Derrickson really lets loose with trippy kaleidoscopic magnificence in his action sequences, Doctor Strange looks and feels like a laboratory of the unpredictable, a petri-dish of CGI possibility. If the opening scene in London, with its white brick facades unfurling like time-lapsed flowers in bloom, wasn’t enough, Derrickson shows the Ancient One blasting through Strange’s smug Cartesian empiricism with a stunning whirlwind tour of the astral spheres that is like 2001 on amphetamines. Even this is a mere warm-up for Kaecilius and his minions chasing Strange, Mordo, and eventually the Ancient One through a mirror-universe Manhattan that folds, loops, and ripples into confusing forms like an enhanced M.C. Escher print in full bewildering motion.
Doctor Strange offers such wonders alongside its quotidian filmmaking formulas and they are appreciated. There’s even a limited Mobius Strip element to Strange’s plan to neutralize the unfathomable power of Dormammu that hints at the perception-shifting nature of the visual construction bleeding into the screenplay as well. But what could very easily have been Marvel’s first big-screen mindfuck movie keeps the psychedelic weirdness parceled out in manageable portions, serving them carefully between more safely-proven material. This tendency, in combination with the film’s softening and avoiding but not overturning of the original comics’ orientalist stereotypes, leads Doctor Strange to a place of uninspiring competence rather than challenging mind-opening.
The nearly unfathomable has happened: Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States. Despite polling, media prognostications, and the seeming inevitability that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would win the White House, the Republican nominee triumphed instead, smashing through Clinton’s firewall of supposed safe states (and the establishment consensus that backed her) on a wave of hitherto unpredictable white nationalist fury. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but it likely won’t be good for progressives, persons of colour, Muslims, Hispanics, LGTBQ citizens, women, and basically anyone who isn’t a white male (and it won’t be nearly great for them either, despite Trump’s grandiose promises).
To say that the result is disheartening for anyone but Trump’s deluded workaday partisans and the considerable reserves of open racists in his camp would be an understatement. To say that his administration is almost certainly going to be a disaster of the highest magnitude for the country (and perhaps the world) cannot be overstated. The sole slim glimmers of light shining through the dark cloak thrown over the American project today may be as follows:
- If Trump runs the country the way he has run his litany of failed businesses, the rank incompetence of the man and his team may prevent the worst of his proposals – expensive border walls, travel bans on entire faiths, broken alliances and trade deals, ordering American troops to commit war crimes, utilizing the power of the government to pursue personal vendettas against his enemies – from being effectively enacted. Even in that eventuality, though, the waste of resources, time, and effort to pursue them would be astronomical and the damage done to the legitimacy of government authority as well as to the lives of hundreds, thousands, millions incalculable.
- Flattered by the attention and prestige of his office, Trump elects to play a mostly public ceremonial role as President and leaves the hard work of governing to Vice-President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and Republican congressional leadership. This is not only unlikely but uncomforting, as Pence and Ryan subscribe to fiscal and social policy with as much or more mass hurtful potential than Trump’s wild (and perhaps safely impractical) schemes.
- Trump is 70 years old, so at least when he makes himself dictator for life, it won’t be for very long.
Grim assessments and sickened shock aside, perhaps Donald Trump’s victory is not so surprising. America’s two-party system tends to default to each party taking turns with a President from their ranks in the White House, and with incumbent Presidents’ natural electoral advantage, the switch is most likely when the incumbent leaves office at the end of their second term. Democrats have an especially difficult time achieving in-party electoral transitions, historically speaking. Trump’s crude and rude unconventionality made it seem unimaginable that he could win the election, and that unimaginability, that firm conviction and hope that he could not win, infected and displaced rational assessments from the left as to whether it was a possible result.
Furthermore, Trumpism’s victory makes a good deal of sense given a deeper knowledge of American history. Periods of demographic change, social upheaval, and expansion have often proven to be fertile breeding grounds for nostalgic, turn-back-time nativism such as that deployed by Trump this year. Witness Andrew Jackson’s damaging policies aimed at American Indians, or the Know Nothings of the mid-19th Century and their anti-Irish Catholic fervor, or the Southern backlash against Reconstruction, or the America First movement of the WWII era, or the John Birch Society in the 1950s and 1960s. Beyond these specific examples of spiritual heirs of Trumpism, however, reading back into American history shows a long string of political institutions and movements calibrated for the benefit of whites at the expense of non-whites (African-Americans in particular, of course, though not exclusively). In the light of this tradition of exploitation of cultural difference, much of it through the auspices of private enterprise capitalism, Donald Trump is not an aberration but a predictable mutation of the American predatory DNA.
There will be no limit to the designated scapegoats for this potentially world-shifting development: Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party that he defeated, of course, but also the Republican elites that mistrusted but made no attempt to stop Trump, third-party candidates, Russian interference, government institutions, the ineffectual media, and the working-class whites who turned out to elect him. But perhaps the forces, the American undercurrents, most responsible for this ominous result are the disavowed monsters of the nation’s history and culture.
The media specifically, and the national discourse generally, could not effectively counter Trump’s revanchist fantasies of restored prior glory because they have never properly and effectively faced up to the implications of American history, and to capitalism’s often pernicious role in shaping that history. In the practical short term, offering all possible lawful protest to Trump’s policies and practices, conducting a quick and effective forensic audit of the Democratic Party perhaps leading to a strong bounceback in the 2018 midterm elections is the immediate pushback against Trump’s masterplans (perhaps a deeper re-assessment of the entire two-party system may be in order, too, but neither major party is incentivized to engage in one).
But in the longer term, the United States will remain vulnerable to Trump and similar authoritarian demagogues unless it truly grapples with, and tangibly attempts to redress, the wrongs and crimes of its history. That is unlikely to happen under President Trump, who celebrates the tradition of brutality of power directed against the weak inherent to American history and will seek to recapture its “greatness”. But a wider effort in the cultural discourse to confront the past, while resisting the official reification of its darkest (and even less dark) chapters, might yet do enough good to make a difference in America’s now ever-more uncertain future.
Mascots (2016; Directed by Christopher Guest)
Off the top, let me state my firm reluctance to look a gift horse in the mouth. Christopher Guest’s latest largely-improvised mockumentary about passionate weirdos and their insular communal competitive rituals focuses on sports mascots, and it’s certainly funny. Not Best in Show funny, not even A Mighty Wind funny, and not as singular or accomplished as Waiting for Guffman, even if it’s about equivalently funny (and features a cameo from that film’s memorable central character). It definitely tops For Your Consideration, which had its moments of inspiration but generally was lost in inside jokes that Guest and his movie veteran team certainly must have found frightfully amusing (we’re glad for them, really).
So Mascots is funny. What else do you want from the Guestiverse? Frankly, insight. At their best, the products of Guest’s meticulous yet spontaneous comedy filmmaking method don’t just invite us to laugh at community theatre productions, dog shows, clean-cut white folk music, independent film productions, or sports mascots. They invite us to understand and even empathize with the people who would rather participate – indeed succeed – in these obscure disciplines, who thirst for whatever piddling recognition that success affords them, and who struggle with real-life problems (resentments, lack of respect, relationship gaps, and always, always jealousy) in pursuit of a dream that makes many others chuckle at their expense. At their absolute finest (I’m thinking of the Mitch & Mickey subplot in A Mighty Wind specifically here), Guest’s movies can make us feel as deeply and as satisfyingly as they can make us laugh.
Mascots tacks close to the laughs. The customary big event that brings Guest’s cast of mildly wacky characters is an international championship competition for the World Mascot Association’s coveted Gold Fluffy Award for the best in the business. The costumed merrymakers’ most prestigious trophy is contended for by a series of oddballs. There’s a bickering husband-and-wife team of minor league baseball marine animals (Zach Woods and Sarah Baker), a high-school-football-boosting cartoon plumber (Christopher Moynihan), a contemporary-dancing dystopian armadillo (the brilliant Parker Posey, because who else could make that work?), a hard-drinking, womanizing Irishman (Chris O’Dowd) who plays a rock n’ roll bad-boy minor hockey character called The Fist, and a sweet-natured English butcher (Tom Bennett) carrying on the family tradition of hedgehogging for his local footie club.
The competitive mascots, all younger and mostly new Guest collaborators, are supplemented by older, established guests of Guest: association administrators (Michael Hitchcock is the WMA President, ever-vigilant for rogue backstage furries and possessed of a suspiciously encyclopedic knowledge of their terminology of perversions), judges (including Jane Lynch and Ed Begley, Jr. as retired rivals), coaches (Fred Willard, out in left field as usual), sponsors (Bob Balaban as a baseball owner and Jennifer Coolidge as his escort-turned-wife), potential television broadcasters (John Michael Higgins plays one of these and has a hilarious riff on the various specialty networks and programs he’s produced), and family members. The less likable people will have misfortune befall them, the most endearing will be rewarded with glory. The various subplots cross paths at the competition and then go their separate ways.
The types of jokes utilized in Mascots, and sometimes, it seems, even the jokes themselves, are frequently recycled from past Guest efforts. What is entirely unique, and consequently Mascots‘ purest pleasure, is the performance routines themselves. Guest smartly holds back as much of the in-suit antics as possible until the competition scenes near the climax, and even if his editing directs the desired audience reaction to each act, there’s real affection from his camera for the neo-vaudeville panache of mascotery.
The problem with Mascots dons on the viewer as it goes on, in respites between genuine but quickly-faded laughter. It gradually dawns on you that Christopher Guest’s movies have, by this point, become precisely what they mean to satirize: inwardly-focused niche culture displays that inspire gentle mockery for just how much importance their participants attach to the result. Perhaps this is a testament to Guest’s dedication to his craft and immersion in the subcultural milieus that he depicts. But it’s equally likely that it represents a lack of scope, a certain narrowness of perspective in general (the casting is pretty noticeably Caucasian-centric, too, which might be related). Mascots will make you laugh, most likely, and that always deserves to be appreciated. But it’s minor, ultimately, and with the limited vision of a performer inside of a mascot head.
Citizenfour (2014; Directed by Laura Poitras)
The story of Edward Snowden, the NSA (National Security Agency) computer analyst contractor who leaked digital volumes upon volumes of information about the United States government’s top-secret data collection operations and thus revealed a sophisticated and alarming system of state surveillance of private citizens in America and worldwide, is one of the most vital political stories of our time. Citizenfour tells his story practically in real time via the camera of Laura Poitras, the intrepid political documentarian whom he first covertly contacted in his gradual, intricately-planned process of releasing the explosive information about the wide-net surveillance and data collection program.
Indeed it is Snowden’s intricacy, the elaborately considered care with which he chooses his every word just as he chose his remarkable, brave and personally dangerous course of action, that comes through so strongly through Poitras’ lens. The hyperbolic mudslinging directed at him by U.S. government spokespeople, politicians, and media (traitor, radical, Russian agent, even terrorist) invested in delegitimizing his damaging revelations about the NSA’s oppressive overreach of constitutional bounds fails to stick to this characterization.
Snowden states his objections to becoming a public figure via his whistleblowing as well as his reluctance to allow the personality-driven media to make him, rather than the compendious official abuses he exposed, the focus of the story. Still, Snowden has been in the public eye for a few years now, earning much of his income in exile through speaking engagements, and his statements and even his actions since his historic info-dump have not always demonstrated such exquisite circumspection. But in Citizenfour, in the midst of the act itself, he demonstrates a tremendously exacting determination to get every detail of his revelations precisely right. No wonder the NSA trusted him to work on their data dragnet program in the first place.
Citizenfour moves slowly in establishing the developing relationship between Poitras the investigative filmmaker (who remains ever offscreen) and Snowden the prized source, with the text of their encrypted email exchanges sometimes displayed onscreen and sometimes read in voiceover by Poitras, in one instance over footage of the construction work being done on a massive government data centre. But the film gains traction and becomes a galvanizing experience when Snowden joins Poitras and her camera, as well as Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, to hole up in a Hong Kong hotel room for days on end.
There, Snowden and the journalists whom he essentially hand-picked to sift through the information he leaked them about the NSA’s data collection program talk through its operations, its aims, its reach, and the consequences he expects and accepts for himself for revealing this stunning information to the public (he’s highly astute about even those implications; at one point, he tells his collaborators that he expects the authorities to charge him using some obscure and perhaps legally dubious 19th-century law, and sure enough when the charges come, they are under the World War I-era Espionage Act).
Basically, what he tells them is that the NSA, in concert with major telecommunications and internet companies, intercepts, collects and can instantly search the emails, cell phone calls, text messages, and internet activity of millions of Americans and other digital users outside the country as well (including heads of state, such as German Chancellor Andrea Merkel). It’s an extensive mass surveillance system straight out of Orwell which NSA officials told the U.S. Congress point-blank did not exist. Snowden could not countenance working on a secret, unconstitutional invasion of citizens’ privacy any longer, and decided to disclose it to the public in spite of the price that he himself knew he would pay for that choice. With the help of experienced journalists like Greenwald and MacAskill to sort through the documents he gives them and decide what is in the public interest to publish and what might be dangerous classified information to put out in the world (a stark contrast to WikiLeaks’ fanatical insistence on full disclosure), Snowden watches from his room as his revelations, and then his identity, break into the media.
It’s difficult not to be a little shaken by the depths of government surveillance that Snowden reveals, but the paranoid caution that Snowden displays on camera (at one point using a laptop with a bedsheet over his head and the computer to frustrate any possible “visual collection”) deepens the alarm. If someone who knows what he knows about this system is this paranoid, it must be justified (though Snowden’s position in that Hong Kong hotel room is hardly analogous to that of ordinary citizens texting and emailing about crushes, grocery lists, surprise party plans, or even political opinions). Even Greenwald, who has been writing trenchantly about the American government’s post-9/11 curtailment of civil liberties for years and has not a single scale on his eyes as regards the secretive and often malignant operations of the national security apparatus, is intermittently shocked by what Snowden tells him, especially when he reveals that a government watch list runs to over a million names.
Snowden eventually leaves the hotel room, Hong Kong, and Asia entirely, eventually winding up living in Russia indefinitely after the U.S. State Department revokes his passport while he was in transit through Moscow (he’s still there today, at an undisclosed location). Despite his qualms about celebrity and notoriety, and perhaps at least partly because of those qualms, Snowden is presented in Citizenfour as a sacrificing hero, a sort of secular ascetic saint suffering in relatively comfortable exile for America’s sins against its own fabled liberty.
Poitras respects her subject’s wish to not be the subject to some extent, leaving the only background on Snowden’s life to be provided by the man himself, but she’s too good a filmmaker to miss the human story at the heart of the larger, tentacular political one. If anything, it seems likely that she weighs the core issues more heavily than does Oliver Stone in his recent adaptation of Snowden’s story, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the infamous leaker (as much as I enjoy Gordon-Levitt, watching the real Snowden makes it clear that the only choice to play the man on film is mid-1990s Edward Norton). But the camera seeks out a star, and the forthright, intelligent, unerringly accurate Snowden is clearly its preferred focal point.
But let’s respect Snowden’s expressed wishes and focus on the cause of his exile, the sprawling program of official surveillance that he exposed and that, despite that exposure, remains in place. Snowden and Greenwald feel such a program contravenes the U.S. constitution and citizens’ privacy rights, while national security professionals insist that such trespasses, while regrettable, are the necessary cost of protecting the American people from threats they cannot begin to fully understand. Whatever you think of either of those opposing arguments (and I side with the privacy activists in finding the latter reasoning flawed; insert your contextless Benjamin Franklin “liberty/security” epigram here), the concept of a system of total surveillance of all American citizens at the disposal of the President and the government is more than a little troubling.
One might try to argue with any measure of authority that one commander-in-chief, say Barack Obama, would be of impeccable-enough character to only use this avalanche of personal data against truly dangerous enemies of the nation (although Greenwald has frequently asserted that the current President and administration is hardly above reproach in this regard). Even granting this (and we do not), what’s to stop an unstable authoritarian demagogue (I’m trying to think of one who might have a chance of becoming President but blanking at the present moment) from using the information to vengefully persecute personal enemies, discriminate against minority groups, or generally run a Real American neo-Stasi? Basically, nothing. Outside of this worst-case scenario, such power over the nation’s populace being entrusted to any government agency has disturbing implications, particularly if said agency is as non-transparent and immune to electoral pressures as the NSA.
Citizenfour is a conduit for these issues; indeed it focuses them like a laser beam. Despite Snowden’s personal sacrifice and the ongoing crusade of figures like Greenwald, the American surveillance state continues apace. The neoliberal Democrats who rule the White House are temperamentally, politically and ideologically disinclined to challenge the national security apparatus and the Republicans who control Congress are consistently chomping at the bit to wield it against their expanding plethora of enemies, real and imagined, internal and foreign. The discourse of projected strength remains the language of power in the United States, and neither faction of the country’s polarized political class nurturs much of a desire to challenge that orthodoxy. The force of Edward Snowden’s disclosures as narrativized in Citizenfour has not catalyzed such a challenge, necessary though it increasingly proves to be. But Snowden’s act may well have pulled back a curtain on mass surveillance and revealed something that cannot be hidden again, and the battle between privacy and security will rage ever on.