Victor Frankenstein (2015; Directed by Paul McGuigan)
Transposing elements of Mary Shelley’s galvanizing 1818 gothic novel to a decadent steampunk-inflected Victorian London, Victor Frankenstein presents as an unfortunately limited series of considerable missed opportunities. The core questions about science infringing upon the territory of life and death previously ceded entirely to God might have been interestingly amplified in the context of a spreading British Empire beset by unprecedented technological wonders and luxury comforts. Those themes are present and demonstratively thrust forward, but bizarrely lack resonance. The film also fritters away one-and-a-half flamboyantly scenery-chewing central performances and straightjackets another key cast member capable of producing such moments.
Victor Frankenstein‘s mistakes and confusions begin with its title, thrusting the mad scientist figure who makes it his megalomaniacal mission to bring dead flesh to life through the harnessing of electric power (played by a majestically impish James McAvoy) to the fore when it’s his oft-maligned assistant Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) who is the focus of the film’s perspective and its moral conscience. Igor is introduced as a nameless, dirty-visaged, hunchbacked clown enslaved by a travelling circus and summarily mistreated by his masters. He has dreams and ambitions, however, studying all he can about human anatomy and medical science, acting as the circus’ unofficial doctor, and pining after comely high-wire acrobat Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay).
Catching the eye of the privileged but eccentric medical student Frankenstein when he cleverly resets a bone to save Lorelei’s life after a fall under the big top, the man who would be Igor is sprung from his chattel status by the putative doctor. They escape his carnie captors in a frantic, reasonably entertaining chase sequence that comes to involve nearly the entire performing and backstage cohort of the circus; so much for “The Show Must Go On”. Frankenstein appreciates the hunchback’s skilled hands and autodidactic medical knowledge, and so he (rather forcibly) drains the malignant cyst on his back, performs a radical chiropractic adjustment, and gives him the name and wardrobe of the his mysteriously absent flatmate, Igor Straussmann. He also recruits him as his right-hand man in his initially ill-defined experiments in reanimating flesh.
Initially grateful to Frankenstein for uplifting him and energized by their scientific collaboration and friendship, Igor begins to nurse moral and personal doubts about the man and his obsessive project. There are dark clues about the fate of the original Straussmann as well as Victor’s brother, his imperious father (Charles Dance, obviously) deeply disapproves of his activities, and he is doggedly pursued by Scotland Yard police inspector Roderick Turpin (Andrew Scott), a religious zealot who suspects him not only of murder, grave-robbing, and public mischief but much more sinister and sinful crimes against creation and God’s laws as well. Lorelei, likewise conveniently lifted from the circus to become the consort of a closeted homosexual lord, begins a romantic attachment with Igor and echoes him in his uncertainty about Frankenstein’s motives and actions.
Given the pervasive cultural knowledge of at least the broad strokes of the Frankenstein narrative, it shouldn’t be hard to guess where Victor’s mad quest is headed. Not only the execution but the conception of this particular arc are badly miscalcuted at many points, particularly the thematically deflating ending, and it’s hard not to glance at screenwriter Max Landis (who also wrote another more major flop last year, American Ultra) as the prime culprit. Victor Frankenstein follows the au courant Hollywood genre property fashion of self-aware referentiality and mash-up-style recombination of familiar elements from previous franchise installments and original source material. Landis deploys such flourishes, sometimes cleverly (there’s a funny tossed-off joke gesturing to Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein which I didn’t expect to get) but often less so. Furthermore, giving Victor a personal emotional impetus for his galvanic project diminishes the grand themes about rational man challenging the dominion of Heaven even while McAvoy and Scott have overt arguments about that precise conflict. Thematically, metaphorically, and often on the more basic level of character and motivation and empathetic direction, this is a movie that can’t get out of its own way, and that’s mainly on Landis and the writing.
Victor Frankenstein is directed by Paul McGuigan, who has tread the boards as a decent feature director before but is probably best-known for directing two episodes of Sherlock‘s phenomenal first two seasons on the BBC. From this career touchstone, he borrows not only cast members (watch for cameos from Sherlock supporting players in addition to Scott’s stifled antagonist turn) but also much of its enervated style and visual techniques, most noticeably the superimposition of text onscreen (here, it’s more frequently anatomical drawings overlayed on living bodies, a canny expression of Victor and Igor’s book-to-life knowledge base).
But neither McGuigan nor his able and likable leads can overcome Victor Frankenstein‘s handicaps of construction. Radcliffe demonstrates his facility with physical observation in the opening stages while a hunchback (his West End stage performance as Cripple Billy in Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan comes to mind as a useful skill-development project in this vein) but then settles unproductively into a conflicted but good-hearted romantic lead role of dull conventionality opposite Findlay, who is given little to do but look pretty (in a genre moviemaking landscape that includes female leads in Star Wars, Mad Max and Ghostbusters, plugging in this kind of stock girlfriend role is no longer an acceptable choice).
McAvoy is much more game for the kind of depraved, visceral horror madness that Landis (paying homage to the genre classics of that sort made by his father John) and McGuigan are furtively aiming for. With Radcliffe playing the straight man, McAvoy summons a wild glint in his eye and lets rip with most of the film’s best moments. He purportedly conceived of the movie’s most loopily disgusting moment (Victor siphoning the fluid out of Igor’s back cyst with his mouth) and delivers its best joke with hilarious relish: after Victor patronizingly implores the social neophyte Igor not to do anything to embarrass him at a gentleman’s club, a nicely-timed ironic smash-cut shows him insistently declaiming to other guests about the merits of “Babies grown in vats!” McAvoy’s tense debate with Scott over rationality versus faith might be rote, but it still crackles with the sheer ability of the actors performing it. While Scott’s buttoned-up primness serves the character as written, one wishes that the crazy-eyed abandon of his iconic performance as Moriarty in Sherlock could have been tapped into alongside McAvoy’s similar embrace of excess.
Alas, as is the case with many of this project’s tantalizing possibilities, such delights are not to be. The delights here are fleeting, as on almost all occasions either the constraints of creative imagination or budget shackle the prospects of inspired entertainment of thematic thrust. Despite the intermittent CG-assisted wide shot of a circus tent or bustling urban London or a stormy Scottish coastal castle, Victor Frankenstein feels like a small movie without the intimacy, a sadly closed loop that cannot either summon or achieve a necessary sense of ambition. If it’s not nearly as terrible as its deflating box-office take and critical dismantling might suggests, Victor Frankenstein is nonetheless flawed, strained, and ultimately inconsequential.
For nearly three hours on the night of Saturday, August 20, 2016, Canada paused and gathered for the collective wake of their favourite musical sons, the Tragically Hip. Broadcast live across the country by national public broadcaster CBC from an arena in the enduringly popular rock band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario, the final concert of the Hip’s Man Machine Poem tour, though never explicitly advertised as definitely their last, was understood to be the emotional farewell of a band that defined Canadian nationalism (or a certain strain of contextual thought and sentiment disseminated as such, as I will discuss in a moment) for nearly 30 years. The lead singer and lyricist of the Tragically Hip, Gord Downie, has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and faces an indeterminate death sentence. Although couched as a national celebration and frequently infused with a positive vibe, a cloud of sadness and mourning was cast over the proceedings as well, and Canadian social media vibrated with those feelings throughout the extended set.
Taking to the in-the-round stage, the Hip’s instrumentalists – drummer Johnny Fay, bass player Gord Sinclair, guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker – clustered close to Downie in the show’s first section, as if they were a phalanx of plains bison protecting a wounded comrade from threatening predatory forces. The show proceeded in album-specific mini-sets, covering three or four successive favourites from classic Hip records like Fully Completely, Up To Here, Road Apples, Day For Night, Phantom Power, Music@Work, and even the new Man Machine Poem. It reached numerous emotional high points, particular with adored, complex, Canadiana-drenched ballads like “Wheat Kings”, “Fiddler’s Green”, “Toronto #4”, “Bobcaygeon”, and “Scared”.
Uniformly strong though it was, the concert was, to this seasoned attendee of Tragically Hip gigs at least, highly familiar. The band performed as they have for decades, tightly, impressively, but reliant on the dynamic Downie to raise the proceedings to something more special. The trying physical circumstances that he faced must be considered, but it should be noted that although Downie mustered a Herculean effort to perform a hockey-game-length rock and roll show despite debilitating brain cancer, he often fell heartbreakingly short of his customary high standards. Though in relatively strong voice (he joked about his neck scarf made from two socks for this very purpose), Downie’s iconic kooky-uncle dancing and unpredictable stage movement were both badly curtailed. He frequently glanced down in consultation to his monitor at his feet, which hid a teleprompter with each song’s lyrics, to remind him of the many words he poured forth to the world. This arrangement, though doubtlessly necessary in allowing a man with brain cancer to perform at all, did lead to occasional, uncharacteristic missed or flubbed lines, most noticeably and tragically in the glorious bridge of “Bobcaygeon” (“That night in Toronto…”), which he missed entirely. Again, the context of his illness cannot be lost sight of, and Downie’s fight against its constraints was moving and impressive in its own right. If anything, the flubs made the show more affecting, not less.
But do not let it be said that Gord Downie did not rise to what had become a momentous national occasion in other ways. He was keenly aware that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in attendance, donning the “Canadian tuxedo” of jeans, jean jacket and band shirt for the occasion; indeed, they shared a hug prior to showtime, a photo of which quickly went viral online. On two occasions between songs, Downie cannily expressed support and fondness for the young Trudeau (“we’re in good hands”), but in terms couched primarily in a pressuring mandate to correct the continuing social and economic and political wrongs done to Canada’s First Nations peoples by an enduring white colonial majority. To take his perhaps final moment in the national spotlight to divert that spotlight on to the tragic, unacceptable suffering of Canada’s least privileged is one thing. To hold a sitting PM’s feet to the fire in terms of meaningful action to correct historical damage before a captive nation is quite another.
If the concert had one truly indelible, transcendent moment, however, it was during the closing song of the second encore, “Grace, Too”. The swirling, mysterious opening track of 1994’s swirling, mysterious Day For Night, the lyrics depict a tense, ambiguous negotiation (possibly between prostitute and wealthy john) but the song closes, as many Hip tunes do, with an impressive jam. From its recorded release through two decades of live versions, Downie has punctuated the instrumental outro with haunting, visceral, rending cries (“Here / Now / Nah!”). As the band leaned into the groove and the moment for the customary cries approached, Downie began crying.
Weakened by terminal brain cancer, Downie had performed for over two hours with as much of his usual passion and peculiarity as he could muster. With the eyes of a nation on him, he was overcome with a brew of emotions we could observe and imagine but never fully comprehend. The truth about Gord Downie is the truth of all human beings: we will never known what is really in his head and in his heart. Downie, however, has been telling us and showing us the contents of his head and his heart for three decades. Those contents have quite famously not always been entirely intelligible, but like all great art they contain multitudes, activating meanings in each person who experiences it that its creator might never have intended or conceived of. The experience has been a rare privilege of insight for us, and a rare privilege of openness and expressiveness for him.
Whatever Downie was feeling – pain and exhaustion both physical and psychological, peace and humility in the face of a crowd’s adoration, regret and sadness at the prospect of performing for perhaps the final time – this unquestionably strong but sensitive man (he would embrace and kiss his bandmates at the end of each set, expressions of a male tenderness too often disavowed and hidden) allowed the swelling emotion to conquer his resistance, and he wept.
He could have simply stood onstage with his tears amidst his bandmates and best friends for 30 years and it would have been the highlight of the night, its most potent spike of sentiment. But Downie interrupted his tears to let out the screams, transmuting all of the joy and agony and nostalgia and love and hurt and hope into wrenching, primal cries against the dying of the light. It was profoundly affecting, indelible. It was, without hyperbole, the most powerful moment of raw artistic expression I have ever witnessed. This memorable moment has been repeated at this point in the set throughout the tour, so it was a stage-managed and choreographed emotional display to some extent. But its cathartic potency was unquestionable nonetheless. Like all art, its impact was as universally intangible as it was inherently unexplainable. And once it was over, Downie collected himself, politely returned the microphone he dropped to its home on the stand, and walked away.
This was not the end, as the band returned for a third encore, putatively ending their legendary live career with one of their most widely-beloved anthems, “Ahead By A Century”. Basking in the applause and cheers of a crowd and a country one last time, the Tragically Hip stood together, passing from the complicated internecine implications of an active popular culture to the gilded annals of artistic and public legacy. They stood for a final time as Canada’s band, but which Canada?
The discourse around the Tragically Hip in the Canadian media and public in the weeks leading up to last night’s show was stubbornly focused on the band’s role as purveyors of a complicated and not-entirely patriotic strain of post-boomer nationalism. It’s worth acknowledging that the collective meaning of the Tragically Hip is difficult to disentangle from the white Ontario-centric Anglo-Canadian nationalistic narratives that have dominated the discourse of national cultural identity for decades, and are still prevalent in the under-diversified Canadian media and pop culture elite.
It’s been very noticeable in the popular culture that those most moved and captivated by this event, those most invested in its national import, are predominantly white and anglophone in a country whose demographics are moving in a much more multi-ethnic and multilingual direction. What do the Tragically Hip’s cottage country anthems mean to Canadians who cannot afford a cottage? How does their meat-and-potatoes rock music, and this celebratory farewell moment, resonate with Sikhs from Surrey, or Caribbean-Canadians from north Toronto, or Somali immigrants in a city out west, or First Nations in a depressed community like Attawapiskat? Probably not as deeply, possibly in ways not hitherto imagined, but in any case those stories have gone glaringly untold.
It would be churlish and unfair to pin the narrow channels of accepted mainstream Canadian identity on the Tragically Hip. Downie has never been a flag-waving nationalist, and has often emphasized nuanced, complex, and not altogether positive elements of Canadian history, society, and politics. His work with and beyond the Hip has striven to expand the boundaries of Canadian cultural discourse, to erase unjust firewalls between sectors of Canadian society, to welcome more people in. This is an ideal of Canadian identity that is often trumpeted proudly and publicly but not as often lived up to in practice.
White Anglo-Canadian nationalism has not always been a force for good, but Downie and the Hip have always worked hard to encapsulate, express, and embody those forces at their best. This “national celebration” in Kingston, this collective moment of delight and grief that the Tragically Hip have given us (at least some of us, but they are always aiming for all of us), might well be the sunset glow of white Anglo-Canadian nationalism as we know it. If the Tragically Hip give us one last true expression of the best intentions and results of those sentiments before they are laid to eternal rest, they will have done a deep service to their country in their closing act.
Midnight Special (2016; Directed by Jeff Nichols)
For all of the ways that Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is inherently Spielbergian – in its essentials, the film is E.T. except that the boy and the alien are one and the same – it manifests a vision all its own. It represents a speculative metaphor for multiple facets of the American condition, but presents its sci-fi premise with such clear-eyed conviction that it’s worth questioning if it’s a metaphor at all. What it is, unquestionably, is quietly, subtly indelible.
Nichols once again teams with Michael Shannon, so still and intense in the director’s remarkable and similarly-pitched Take Shelter. Shannon is Roy Tomlin, who opens Midnight Special on the run from the law in Texas. He’s taken his son Alton (the amazing Jaedan Lieberher) and is moving eastwards with the help of old friend and state trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton). This is no simple overreaction to a traditional custody dispute, however: it emerges that Roy has taken Alton from the clutches of a Christian cult, referred to only as “the Ranch”, to which he himself once belonged, whose commanding patriarch (Sam Shepard) took Alton from him in turn to serve as a mysterious but revered prophet to his flock.
Alton is certainly no ordinary boy. Roy and Lucas only travel with him at night, and even then with an extreme caution over and above their fugitive status: he wears swim goggles while awake and industrial earmuffs while sleeping, which he does during the day with cardboard taped over the windows of the motels and safehouses they stop at on the road. He’s treated with the care of a nuclear warhead, except when he’s inexplicably, carelessly left alone, frequently leading to inadvertent (or perhaps not) destruction. Nichols reveals Alton’s special nature by increments, making these precautions clearer, establishing why the cult had made him into its oracle of revelation, and attracting the keen interest of the U.S. government, as represented by NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).
Roy, Alton, and Lucas remain a step ahead of not only the authorities but also of two unassuming-looking fixers dispatched on their trail by the lead preacher from the Ranch to retrieve the boy prophet (one of them, played by Bill Camp, mutters wearily before a shakedown for information that he is a licensed electrician in two states, a modest tradesman’s twist on the old standby “I’m getting too old for this” line). Rendezvousing along the way with Alton’s mother (Kirsten Dunst), the ragtag fugitives are on a quest to reach a remote location roughly in the marshes of the Florida Panhandle, the coordinates of which were “received” by Alton, by a specific date. What they will find there is beyond any of them, even Alton himself.
At the risk of making an unflattering comparison, Midnight Special is reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s work in certain ways, though not in terms of any handcuffing reliance on twists and revelations. Although in terms of Nichols’ success in crafting a compelling, stiff-lipped, psychologically realistic narrative of American rural life semi-symbolically infused with the extraterrestrial/supernatural, perhaps it’s more accurate to call it the film that Shyamalan wishes he could make. It’s not for the sake of spoilers, therefore, that I am hesitant to say much more about Alton’s special abilities, other than that they involve light, radio waves, and other ephemeral static frequencies of human civilization. It’s more out of hushed respect for Nichols’ visualization and contextualization of those abilities that it feels wrong to delineate them too fully.
What can (and should) be delineated more fully is how Nichols employs the destabilizing uncertainty engendered by such speculative elements to explore a similar sense of destabilizing uncertainty in contemporary America. Take Shelter cast Shannon as a simple man oppressed by visions of an apocalyptic nightmare who seeks to protect his family at any cost. It functioned as an entwined parable of diminished masculine agency and War on Terror siege mentality of surprising depth and power, and concluded with a stunning moment that suggested that our worst, most ragingly paranoid fears might be real.
Midnight Special throbs with the currents of political and social anxieties: fundamentalist religion, child abduction, police violence, security state surveillance, and the looming spectre of imminent catastrophe. This might sound like fodder for Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention nomination acceptance speech, but the film’s politics, such as they are, have no partisan or even ideological dimensions. The overbearing intentions of Roy, the government, and even the cult towards Alton are all treated with fundamental fairness, perhaps even equivalence, by Nichols; they are all of them reasonable approaches to a boy so remarkably special, who signifies something very deep and vital to all opposing forces. The eventual victor in the struggle is nominally the faction with the overwhelming share of power and resources. But that faction’s victory is pyrrhic and incomplete because it cannot comprehend, let alone possess, the object of fear and desire. The object has passed irrevocably beyond its reach, beyond the reach of any of them.
The use of such generalized terms in analyzing Midnight Special is meant to suggest that the object, which is Alton, is a metaphorical stand-in for some decisive element in American society and politics. Power, morality, honour, the future; what he might mean is uncertain (heck, Alton might be taxes!). But like Take Shelter (and like a lot of art), Midnight Special summons images that invoke an interwoven series of politically- and socially-charged feelings and impressions about American life at this moment. If the vaguely anachronistic Midnight Special, with its dark panelled rooms, old-model cars, pay phones, superhero comics read by flashlight, and shirts with top buttons done up, does not overtly look like a film of the moment, that may be by design (and not just in the interest of homage to Spielberg’s early classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
Nichols, a Southerner, sets his characters’ quest in the Gulf Coast states, and pulls back to a shot from atmospheric low orbit during the climax to show the radius of Alton’s dome-like dimensional portal (or whatever it is) covering much of the South. What emerges from it, astonishing Alton’s circle of protectors as well as various denizens of the long-depressed South at truck stops and in box-store parking lots, are towering city-of-the-future structures whose pinnacles seem to scrape the clouds. It’s a stock visual promise of a utopian future common to science fiction, a projection of a world that Americans were once (more than once, really) certain would soon belong to them, and to which they would belong in turn. For a whole host of reasons that Midnight Special summons like stubborn poltergeists (fanatical superstitious faith, self-centered individual fulfillment, centralized state authority), that promise has gone unfulfilled, particularly in the South. Jeff Nichols, an emerging genre auteur of great skill and sincerity, makes this point as clear as day with his striking visual juxtaposition of a shimmering future vision among the wide yet narrow American mundanity.
It’s hard to say what it is about the current American social and cultural moment that has inspired a retrospective burst of re-examination of that mid-‘90s news colossus, the murder trial of O.J. Simpson. But there’s no doubting that it’s back in the public view in 2016, over twenty years after its shocking, divisive verdict. First, FX’s furiously-acted, fictionally-tinged, high-drama miniseries, American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, aired to critical acclaim and enough Emmy nominations to fill a white Ford Bronco. More recently, ESPN’s prolific sports documentary series 30 For 30 went to air with the troubled, searching, complex, and subtly pained five-part, nearly eight-hour film O.J.: Made in America.
Directed by Ezra Edelman, O.J.: Made in America delves into the life of the football star, actor, advertising pitchman, television personality, domestic abuser, acquitted double-murderer, and convicted armed robber. Utilizing interviews with people whose paths he crossed, court depositions from his various legal cases, and reams of archival footage and photographs, paints a shaded, deep-cutting, but not unsympathetic portrait of Orenthal James Simpson and his times that emerges in degrees as a Sisyphean (and/or Icarean) saga of tragic proportions. The greater part self-destruction with ample helpings of external societal forces to help it along, Simpson’s spectacular fall from fame, fortune, and grace speaks volumes about a host of endemic American issues, racial and otherwise.
Emerging from a San Francisco ghetto in the late 1960s to become a star running back at USC then in the NFL for the Buffalo Bills and briefly his hometown 49ers, “Juice” (as everyone calls him, whether they are his familiars or not) parlayed his gridiron heroics into lucrative endorsements, television football commentary gigs, and a B-level acting career (most notably in the Naked Gun trilogy of broadly farcical police movie parodies, opposite Leslie Nielsen). One of the first African-American athletes to break the colour barrier of American mass media representation, Simpson scrupulously managed his public image and made every effort to appeal to and indeed to belong in the comfortable realm of white wealth and privilege, a gilded kingdom consistently closed to black Americans referred to by Ta-Nehisi Coates as “the Dream”.
The Juice lived the Dream, moving in the corporate world, golfing and schmoozing with rich white friends, maintaining a fine mansion in Los Angeles’ toney suburb of Brentwood, and even discarding his first (African-American) wife to marry a beautiful young California blonde, Nicole Brown. He fancied that he had transcended race and been accepted by all of America, black and white, not as a black man but simply as O.J.
With the acceptance of white America, however, came doubts from the black community about his commitment to the collective political and social advancement of African-Americans, which seemed to be non-existent. As a prominent black Los Angeleno, his silence on the forefront issue of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s – the Los Angeles Police Department’s record of discrimination and violence against black citizens and the justice system’s impotence or reluctance in punishing it – was deafening. While Rodney King’s uniformed assaulters were acquitted and less-remembered shocking cases of miscarriaged justice unfolded, O.J. Simpson palled around with star-struck LAPD officers in Brentwood. Some of those officers even chose to look the other way when O.J. and Nicole’s marriage began to unravel and repeated 911 calls were made to report his recurring physical abuse of her.
Everything changed when Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman were brutally murdered in 1993 and Simpson became the prime suspect. Anyone of a certain age remembers at least the broad strokes of the rest of the so-called “trial of the century” as it consumed the American media for more than a year: the Bronco chase along L.A.’s freeways, Simpson’s all-star legal team and their decision to shoehorn the LAPD’s notorious racism into the trial as a key plank in his defence (and n-word-spouting Detective Mark Fuhrman’s obliging of that narrative), the disastrous pantomime of O.J. trying on the blood-soaked murder gloves in open court (“If they do not fit, you must acquit”, and they did not), and the stark racial divide in the reaction to the Not Guilty plea, with white watchers aghast and black watchers jubilant. The telling in American Crime Story, exaggerated and subtly dramatized as it was, likely covers the totality of the trial and its aftermath more completely, but Made in America’s placing of the trial in the larger context of the defendant’s life and the city’s powder-keg of racial tension, as well as its role in Simpson’s decline after the verdict, is far stronger, more comprehensive, and thematically richer.
The observation has been made, but Made in America draws it out at length: O.J. Simpson worked very hard to be seen as white, or at least as not black, and succeeded as well as could be considered possible in America (Edelman makes time to deal with Simpson’s aggressive pursuit of the role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in the film version of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, whom he identified with intensely as a black man who refused to limit himself with or even acknowledge the rules imposed on him by either white or black society). Or at least he was a success up until he was arrested for murder, at which point he became immediately and irrevocably black, to his shorter-term benefit but to his longer-term detriment. This was true in some ways but not true in others: the LAPD took a kid-gloves approach to arresting Simpson which they never would have taken towards a non-celebrity African-American, creating the televised spectacle of the Bronco chase, but there is also the matter of Time magazine’s infamous mugshot cover, with Simpson’s face noticeably darkened in a disturbing invocation of the image of the criminalized black male that has buttressed racially discriminatory views and policy in the country for decades.
A common criticism leveled at Simpson’s lawyers – and distinguished, eloquent, flamboyant African-American solicitor Johnnie Cochran in particular – was that they helped their client get away with murder by “playing the race card”. This charge even emanated from inside the Simpson camp, with defence lawyer Robert Shapiro (whose rivalry with Cochran huffed plenty of dramatic oxygen in American Crime Story) repeating the line in a post-verdict interview and adding that the “race card” was “dealt from the bottom of the deck”. What these accusations of the sleazy and cynical application of the canard of racial discrimination by the LAPD against Simpson on the part of his defence team fail to acknowledge is that the race card was already played in the public mind at least, and therefore unquestionably in the minds of the jury as well. Simpson was being judged as a black man who had murdered his white wife, an unconscious framing that only served to strengthen the prosecution’s already very strong case of domestic violence history and damning physical evidence. Centuries of systemic racism did not simply evaporate in the heat of Simpson’s 100-watt smile. Cochran would have been remiss as a defence lawyer not to seize on any and every strand that might unravel the tightly-woven prosecution narrative of his client’s guilt.
But what Cochran did in that Los Angeles courtroom was more than just that, and Made in America comes closer than any other document of the O.J. Simpson trial ever has to articulating what it was. Although Simpson’s race was increasingly a factor in the public perception of his alleged crime, it was not a discernably active factor in the investigation or prosecution of the murders, despite the sensationalist history of Fuhrman’s bigotry exposed during the trial. It could be simultaneously be true that African-Americans are frequently targeted by the police and railroaded by the courts due to their skin colour and that O.J. Simpson escalated years of domestic violence and viciously stabbed two people to death in a fit of rage (and it is indeed probable that they both are true, given all that we know now). Cochran and his team used the explosive racial issues of the LAPD of their time to inveigle a decisive measure of doubt into the jury and obtain an acquittal for Simpson, but he also used to Simpson trial as a spot-lit platform upon which to display for a captive (and captivated) audience the injustices inflicted upon black people by the white authorities not only in Los Angeles but across the United States.
Cochran’s gambit worked in the moment for his famous client as well as in the hearts and minds of African-Americans: O.J. was found Not Guilty and blacks across the country rejoiced at the rare spectacle of a black man escaping the grasp of a discriminatory justice system. But as the necessitous rise of the Black Lives Matter movement twenty years later demonstrates, the precise issues that Cochran worked to expose in the O.J. trial have not been resolved, improved, or lessened. No one inside the Simpson defence team or in the black community, no matter how activist their mindset, would have anticipated that a Not Guilty verdict would instantly erase the racial bias of police or the courts, but the strategy of that defence as well as Cochran’s provocative rhetoric (comparing Fuhrman to Hitler, for example) could only really be morally justified by its service to the greater cause of increasing black civil rights, of diminishing injustice.
What was achieved with the acquittal of O.J. Simpsons was a moment of cultural catharsis for Black America on dubious grounds. The white majoritarian order did not blink and miss it, and did not forget it (not that it ever needed concrete examples or motives to delegitimize the black liberation movement). Cochran, the black leaders of L.A., and African-Americans across the U.S. worked for and then celebrated Simpson’s acquittal, but the victory was fleeting and may have done more damage to their cause than the feeling of triumph was worth. The freedom of a famous black athlete with few connections to the community or its politics and a high likelihood of guilt for a double-murder is one hell of a hill to choose to die on.
But the O.J. Simpson case is much knottier and more problematic in its racial implications. Many white Americans, persuaded of Simpson’s guilt by the weight of the evidence as well as by their own prejudices (disavowed and otherwise), seized on Cochran’s “race card” courtroom strategy as a cynical exploitation of the spectre of racism and extrapolated it to apply to the entire continuing African-American civil rights project. Beyond the Simpson case, the awareness of discrimination and political prominence of black rights issues in the early ’90s found little purchase in terms of concrete social progress. Police departments across the country, perhaps chastened by the LAPD’s lack of reward for their rare caution and diligence in dealing with such a high-profile African-American suspect, ramped up racial profiling in inner cities and increasingly militarized their forces even as urban crime steadily declined.
America, too, had a long, slow punishment in store for O.J. Simpson, Not Guilty verdict notwithstanding. His endorsements evaporated, his ties to respectable corporations were severed, his revenue streams dried up. The family of Ronald Goldman won a civil suit for wrongful death against him, and capitalized on his questionable decision to have a cash-in semi-confessional book ghostwritten, If I Did It. His Brentwood mansion was sold, his possessions scattered, and his fame tipped into infamy. O.J. did not make much of a distinction between these two similar but sharply divergent states, and his clean-cut, suburban-friendly grin became a seedy leer. In the company of porn stars, two-bit dealers, and other unsavoury hangers-on in Florida, the once-proud Simpson became a garish self-parody as he flirted with a bad-boy image that he had diligently worked to avoid for years. A relapse into criminality seemed inevitable, and when Simpson led a chaotic armed robbery of a memorabilia dealer that he felt had stolen from him, the justice system that he had thwarted and humiliated threw the book at him.
Now incarcerated in Nevada for a 33-year sentence (the severity of which seems incommensurate with the severity of his crime, if the account provided Edelman’s film can be believed), O.J. Simpson stands as a case study in the American pursuit of the Dream and the dark underbelly of sunny image-crafting. The Made in America portion of Edelman’s title is vital: O.J. Simpson took advantage of the opportunities afforded to him in America, but America demanded a price from him, too. Its racial politics allowed him a singular place in the sun for him for a time, but ranks closed when matters became serious. The system worked for him until he exposed some of its core faults, and then it lowered the boom in response. Fame and fortune made O.J. Simpson more than he was, but they could not help him overcome his base impulses and personal faults and could not fully shelter him from their consequences as they might have for a white man. America made O.J. Simpson, and it unmade him. His grand tragedy, though it is very much of his own making as well, lays bare many fundamental truths about what America is at its core. But no conclusion or message in O.J.: Made in America is easy or simple, and preserving the saga’s troubling complexity is the finest accomplishment of Ezra Edelman’s sprawling opus.
Ghostbusters (2016; Directed by Paul Feig)
Above all a fun and enjoyably slight comedic concoction, the Ghostbusters reboot has ignited a disproportionate firestorm of online controversy that, absurd though it is, has given it a certain frisson and importance it might not otherwise have had. It’s a little hard to believe, and will be even harder to believe in the future, that a vocal minority of online male movie “fans” (a term that they hardly deserve, given their conduct and mindset) has targeted this new Ghostbusters with vociferous criticism (often of an ugly misogynistic and/or racial nature) simply because its creators had the audacity to cast four women actors as its spectre-chasing leads. And yet, it has.
Ghostbusters is a homage-drenched remake of the 1984 film of the same name that is one of the most loved highlights of the Saturday Night Live-derived manchild wave of American film comedy that has dominated the genre since Animal House at the start of the 1980s. Director Paul Feig has made a name for himself in Hollywood by applying that genre’s elements to films featuring female stars (predominantly Melissa McCarthy, his collaborator on Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy, and this film). Would this new film be seen as fundamentally feminist if not for the surge of sight-unseen hate of a small cadre of fandom whose sheer volume serves to inflate their influence beyond their numbers? With Feig at the helm and woman scientists in the ghostbusting overalls, most likely. Feig’s is a low-key feminism, concerned predominantly with allowing his female comedy characters to be as boorishly lively and big-heartedly self-involved (and, in the case of this film, as obsessively scientifically-inclined) as the genre’s usual male protagonists. It might seem like a mild and unambitious project on Feig’s part, but given Hollywood’s nagging gender representation issues, it presents as modestly revolutionary.
The female versions of those archetypal protagonists gradually coalesce into the titular apparition-fighting squad over the movie’s first hour. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abigail Yates (McCarthy) were grade-school besties with a shared interest in the paranormal, which they parlayed into an education in science and physics and even a co-authored book about ghosts. From there they diverged, however, Erin forsaking the academically dubious pursuit of ghosts in favour of the more proper pursuit of tenure at Columbia while Abby experiments with spirit-tracking and -containing technology in the basement-level lab of a dodgy scientific institute that has forgotten that she even exists. In exchange for Abby’s promise that she will stop selling the professionally-embarrassing ghost tome, Erin brings her old friend and the latter’s moderately-askew engineer compatriot Jillian Hotlzmann (Kate McKinnon) to a preserved 19th Century Upper West Side mansion struck by a sudden haunting.
Following a goopy ecto-sliming and a viral YouTube video of mortifyingly nerdy excitement at the spectral encounter, Erin is not only denied tenure by her stern dean (Charles Dance) but shit-canned from Columbia entirely, and her expected landing place with Abby and Holtzmann in their funded lab also evaporates. Frustrated by academia’s disdain for their chosen field, the women go into private business for themselves as an apparition-dispelling service just like the original trio of Reagan-era science-spouting individualists that they broadly resemble. Wiig’s and McCarthy’s characters, by the way, are mixtures of different qualities of Bill Murray’s and Dan Aykroyd’s ‘busters from the initial film (both men have cameos here, as does most of the rest of the original’s principal cast), but McKinnon’s Holtzmann is a clear analogue to the late Harold Ramis’ mega-nerdy Egon Spengler, albeit with greater self-confidence, a wicked sense of humour, and a mischievous streak a mile wide.
Unable to afford the astronomical monthly rent on the familiar and iconic abandoned Manhattan firehouse (just one of a few references to how much the city has changed in three decades), they set up shop above a noodle house in Chinatown. They hire a vain, spectacularly dim-witted beefcake receptionist named Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) and even add a non-physicist fourth member, subway attendant and city history buff Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones). Although their attempts to manage the city’s suddenly-spiking ghost problem meet with skepticism and resistance from the authorities represented by the mayor (Andy Garcia) and his chief of staff (Cecily Strong), the skills and expertise of the reluctantly-named Ghostbusters will prove particularly useful as the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead is nefariously breached in Midtown Manhattan.
In this element, it does seem that the anti-feminist internet trolling of the project, which began as soon as the decision to invert the gender of its cast principals was announced prior to production, worked its way into the writing of Feig and Katie Dippold. The primary living antagonist of the new Ghostbusters is a creepy, anti-social, misanthropic loner named Rowan (Neil Casey), a luxury hotel janitor with delusions of grandeur and obsessive occult plans of unleashing a paranormal apocalypse on New York City. The character seems like a provocative caricature of the disdainful internet Men’s Rights Activists who have plagued this film since its inception, a personification of the basement-dwelling young men with raging senses of inadequacy and bitterness manifested as a sense of superiority to everyone around them, a runaway stereotype of the Angry Male Online. It’s a sly choice by Feig and Dippold, and not one that goes unnoticed.
There might be a touch of gleefully inverted stereotypes in Hemsworth’s Kevin as well (although Janine, Annie Potts’ no-nonsense secretary from the original film, was a perfectly capable New York woman), but Hemsworth throws himself into the character’s stupidity with such good-natured enthusiasm that it’s hard to imagine anyone but the meanest troll objecting. Wiig, McCarthy, and Jones are funny people with professional timing, delivering sometimes hilarious, generally amusing lines properly. If my praise sounds qualified, it might be because McKinnon so utterly steals the show as the brazenly geeky, diagonally-inclined Holtzmann that any other sparkles are dimmed by comparison. She’s so singularly peculiar that she’s worth watching every moment she’s onscreen (eyeball her body orientation as she enters the Aldridge Mansion in the early stages; even in a nothing bridge scene like this, she’s totally switched on). The ghostbusting tech and the ghoulish visual effects deserve mention for much the same reason. There’s now so much CGI in Hollywood blockbusters, the only way to distinguish your work is with distinctive and often twisted design. The ghosts are so designed, and the tech – blasters, traps, ghost grenades, the modified hearse Ecto-1, even a handheld “ghostchipper” – reflects the crooked brilliance of its creator, the wondrously loopy Holtzmann.
Feig and Dippold build in persistent references to both previous Ghostbusters movies, though few of them have any sort of vital function in the film, functioning more as gags and intertextual doodles than anything else. These rapid-fire homages are less reverent than the loose, too-casual structure and vaguely anarchic tone that Feig creates, granting the 2016 Ghostbusters more or less the same flaws of construction of the 1984 Ghostbusters (the music, headlined by Fall Out Boy’s take on Ray Parker, Jr.’s iconic “Ghostbusters Theme”, is unquestionably worse). The advances in visual effects in the past 30 years really show (we love the earlier movie, but those ‘80s effects did not age well), and the action scenes are pleasingly amped up as well (Holtzmann goes to town on a swarm of ghouls in the Times Square climax in particularly badass fashion). It’s also a proudly New York City movie (even if it was mostly shot in Boston and Australia), in close touch with what the city now is but also what it once was: New York’s colourful past literally comes back to haunt its corporatized present in the supernatural vortex of the climax, with ghosts from its previous eras emerging from the pavement like miasmatic history to be dispatched by our heroines (“Oh my god, you killed a Pilgrim!”).
Although some will never be able to accept heroines spearheading a recognizable, bankable blockbuster movie franchise, Ghostbusters demonstrates that the representational transition need not be a bumpy one. It’s far from perfect, but so was the 1984 film. Parsing the various features of Feig’s film, it’s roughly approximate to Ivan Reitman’s acknowledged classic in most important ways (minus, of course, the originality). It even improves on the original in not only the ways mentioned above, but by excising the problematic “romantic” subplots (one of which came across as more than a little creepy at the least).
More than the male Ghostbusters (one of which was 75% out to get laid above all), the female ones are dedicated professionals (even if they are basically inventing their profession as they go along), absorbed in their work with little time for the distraction of sexual entanglements. Erin is allowed a bashful schoolgirl crush on the pretty Kevin, but Abby isn’t into him or anyone else of the opposite (or same) sex, nor is Patty (Holtzmann, although played by the openly gay McKinnon, seems unlikely to be interested in spending the night with anything other than a sodering gun). Ultimately, these women are into ghosts, and into the sense of comradery, belonging, and collaborative accomplishment that chasing the unsettled dead as a team grants them. They haven’t the time for men, they’re too busy bustin’. That might be this consistently enjoyable, occasionally delightful new Ghostbusters‘ clearest middle-finger to the baying MRA sorts as well as its most robust feminist statement.
Letterkenny (CraveTV; 2016)
A sophisticated Canadian small-town comedy of maximal linguistic inventiveness and expert deadpan timing, Letterkenny comes across as being scripted by a particularly foul-mouthed Tom Stoppard, to paraphrase a colleague. In fact, it’s the creation of Jared Keeso (best-known to Canadian television audiences for his Gemini-winning role as hockey-commentating demagogue Don Cherry in a pair of CBC TV movies), who also stars as poker-faced semi-farmer local tough guy Wayne. Keeso co-wrote the six-episode initial season with Jacob Tierney (The Trotsky), who also directs and appears as the barely-closeted local preacher, and the former draws extensively from his youth experiences in Listowel, Ontario (population 6,867) for the comic scenarios, oddball characters, and nigh-impenetrable slang dialogue of Letterkenny (which is itself an Ontario town, albeit a ghost town).
Much of Letterkenny, especially in its early episodes, consists of Wayne and his buddies (Nathan Dales, K. Trevor Wilson, and Michelle Mylett as his attractive sister Katy) reclining on the family farm – next to a dust-collecting produce stand, on the porch, in the dining room, or in front of the barn – and shooting the breeze in colloquial language so colourful as to make Trailer Park Boys seem bowdlerized in comparison. These scenes alternate with and sometimes cross paths with sequences featuring a group of local black-clad, alternative-culture “skids” led by Stewart (Tyler Johnston) as well as the dense hockey lingo of local junior players Reilly (Dylan Playfair) and Jonesy (Andrew Herr). The latter figures especially function on the sidelines of the main episode plots as hilarious Shakespearean clowns, going on extended runs of jargon-y jock braggadocio about working out, scoring goals, and scoring girls while doing little or none of the above. Their material is likewise drawn from Keeso’s experiences, as he himself played hockey extensively in Ontario’s lower junior leagues.
Letterkenny infuses small-town hick life with a rapid-fire complexity of expression that one associates with cosmopolitan urbanity, or perhaps it simply uncovers and amplifies a complexity of expression that was already there in the rural context, waiting to be given a proper artistic voicing. Keese and Tierney patiently tease out running jokes over the six episodes before resolving them very enjoyably in the finale (there’s a slowly-growing tale of two locals who allegedly committed carnal acts with an ostrich with a particularly glorious drawn-out punchline). Tierney utilizes his experience and skill as a prolific under-the-radar Canadian filmmaker to compose the Sudbury-shot Letterkenny in a series of symetrically-framed shots reminiscent of the po-faced comedies of Jared Hess or snatches of Wes Anderson.
But it’s the dialogue that hums and crackles, an inspired rough-hewn music of yokel expressiveness that punctuates in laughter coaxed out as much in appreciation of the sheer creativity of its constituent words as on the strength of its zingers or punchlines. Even if Letterkenny sometimes calls out for subtitles (which the streaming platform which commissioned and shows it, Bell Media’s CraveTV, does not provide), it’s an excellent and linguistically unpredictable slice of a certain kind of vestigial rural Canadian life that frequently makes for our country’s most notable television comedy. I dare you to watch the first episode’s cold open below and summon the fortitude to give this inspired Canuck comedy a “hard no”.
The Jinx (2015; Directed by Andrew Jarecki)
Illustratingly subtitled The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, The Jinx joined Netflix’s Making a Murderer and the radio podcast Serial in a minor swell of true crime documentary series last year. As the subtitle indicates, it examines the often strange case of Robert Durst, the eldest scion of a wealthy Manhattan real estate dynasty who has been suspected but never convicted in the deaths of his wife, best friend, and next-door neighbour over the space of twenty years.
But The Jinx is not simply a true crime documentary but an often slippery, compromised biography of Durst himself, who emerges as an alternately diabolically brilliant and clumsily imprudent character of baroque weirdness and mental insecurity. Director Andrew Jarecki, who made the wrenching, acclaimed documentary feature Capturing the Friedmans, gained unprecedented access to the paranoid and media-shy Durst, filming twenty hours of conversations with him over several years. Jarecki was not new to the subject of Durst, having directed All Good Things, a fictionalized version of the Durst saga starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst that is almost completely forgotten but hooked Durst with its even-handedness. Durst’s trust in Jarecki is sorely tested as the filmmaker is confronted with a growing body of evidence that his subject may indeed be a murderer, and Jarecki’s comfort level with the sting-like nature of his unfolding documentary is likewise strained.
The Jinx lays out the odd circumstances of those titular “deaths” revolving around Durst in a deconstructed manner. First is Durst’s wife, Kathie, a medical student who vanished in the winter of 1982 somewhere between their country home in South Salem, New York and Manhattan, possibly after Durst dropped her off to catch a train, probably (but unprovably) prior to that. No body was ever found and police didn’t look seriously into Durst until 1999, though a later New York DA and many of Kathie’s friends were convinced that he killed her. Jarecki is less clear and open with this particular part of the saga, but it seems clear that the Dursts’ early happy union in Vermont became permanently poisoned when he was pushed back into the family business by his father. They argued frequently, and many friends and acquaintances testified that he physically abused her. But without a body, not much could be pinned to Durst or anyone else.
The subsequent two deaths occured a year apart in 2000 and 2001, and both brought charges against Durst. Durst’s close friend, confidant, and media spokesperson Susan Berman was murdered first in an execution-style shooting at her home in Los Angeles. Berman, whom many of those suspicious of Durst believe to be the gatekeeper of his secrets, had told others that she was about to publically reveal something huge. This may not have been about Durst, as her case is complicated by her ties to her mobster father and her revelations of secrets from the mob life, but there are definite reasons to suspect Durst for the crime (and indeed he was charged and arrested for it during the airing of the series).
The third and most bizarre death was Durst’s killing, dismemberment, and disposal of septagenarian Morris Black in Galveston, Texas in 2001. Living in the isolated Texas coastal city to avoid the glare of the public eye, Durst was using a woman’s name as an alias and even dressing as a woman to disguise himself. His cantakerous neighbour Black saw through the ruse, and though Durst claims they were friends, it seems more likely that Black threatened to blackmail him by revealing his whereabouts. At any rate, Black was shot dead, cut into pieces, and dumped into Galveston Bay by Durst, who stood trial for the murder but was found not guilty when his defence team argued that Black was shot accidentally during a struggle, or in self-defence at the worst. Without Black’s head (Durst returned to the dump site the morning after leaving Black’s remains, almost certainly to better hide the head), the theory could not be disproven, and Durst walked.
Robert Durst may indeed be a serial murderer (he has been faintly connected to at least two other mysterious deaths), but the portrait that Jarecki paints of him in The Jinx is of a very strange and unfortunate man with deep emotional and mental problems that his wealth and privilege have intermittently insulated him from (this would be the titular jinx). His mother committed suicide when he was a boy (one of Jarecki’s re-enactments paints this as a particularly haunting moment), his father neglected him, his younger brother pushed him out of the family business. He’s private and anti-social but weirdly chatty with Jarecki, and oddly incautious for a man evading suspicion for multiple killings: while on the lam after the death of Morris Black, Durst was notoriously caught in a Wegman’s in Pennsylvania for shoplifting a chicken salad sandwich with $500 cash in his pocket. This anecdote, amusing though it might be, betrays a streak of guilt and perhaps an unconscious desire to face the consequences for his crimes that would serve to explain Durst’s startlingly uncareful hot-mic mutterings of a self-incriminating nature, to say nothing of a note mailed to the Beverly Hills Police informing them of a “cadaver” at Susan Berman’s address that may be the smoking gun for his recent arrest for that murder.
As The Jinx moves along, Jarecki himself becomes more and more of an active onscreen character, especially as a new discovery among Durst’s documents (which he willingly gave Jarecki’s team access to) sheds new light on the cadaver note. In its closing hour, The Jinx becomes more than just an absorbing baroque non-fiction crime saga with an elusive, enigmatic Asperger-esque lizard-person as its protagonist. It becomes that post-modern documentary feature mainstay, an examination of the nature, reach, and limitations of the documentary form itself. What responsibilities do filmmakers have to their subjects in a documentary film, especially as that subject is increasingly exposed (perhaps even employs the film itself to expose himself) as a cold-blooded killer? The Jinx suggests that the truth is paramount, even when that truth is highly obscured and the effort to uncover it leads a filmmaker to betray his subject.