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“King Leopold’s Ghost” and the Colonial Shadows

April 18, 2011 7 comments

I completed Adam Hochschild’s detailed and searing King Leopold’s Ghost today, as indispensible a case study of the destructive rapine of European colonialism in Africa as has ever been printed. If you aren’t familiar, the book examines the single-minded imperial quest of King Leopold II of Belgium to acquire a profitable colony somewhere on the African continent and the horrible, nigh-genocidal results when he finds land that fits the bill: the region we now call the Congo.

It’s a true, decades-spanning epic of hugely tragic proportions. Hochschild jumps from one mercurial historical player in the terrible saga to the next (sometimes to the detriment of his overall narrative arc, admittedly), sketching each vividly. We meet the titular king, an ambitious, imperious capitalist, forward-thinking wheedler and PR manipulator whose personal appetites match his economic ones. We meet his initial agent in the Congo, the famed explorer Henry Morton Stanley, an insecure, self-promoting chauvinist whose scorched-earth mapping campaign both opened up the region to Leopold’s exploitation and laid the foundations for the violent reign of terror that accompanied that exploitation. We also meet their public opponents: E.D. Morel, the English trading company employee who connected the dots concerning the forced labour system in the Congo Free State and vociferously lead an international campaign calling for its end, the first mass human rights movement in human history; Roger Casement, Morel’s friend and ally, a homosexual Irish patriot (no guesses as to what leads to his end) and British consul who witnessed countless atrocities in the Congo and campaigned eloquently against them; Joseph Conrad, the idealistic convert to British imperialism whose most enduring work Heart of Darkness was based directly on his experiences onboard a steamboat in the midst of Leopold’s Congo horror show; and others like energetic African-Americans George Washington Williams (a historian who first exposed the trade-driven terror in the territory) and William Sheppard (a Presbyterian missionary who provided damning evidence from the thick of the Congo).

Hochschild apologizes for the lack of indigenous African voices, citing the lack of local records from the period of Leopold’s corporate colonization (properly 1885 to 1908, although exploitation began before and continued after). But indeed this is the failing of most post-colonial scholarship and literature that focuses on the enormous cons of the colonial project, that even the most stridently anti-colonial screeds are still filtered through the discourse of the colonizers. There is now a considerable concentration of indigenously-fashioned texts dealing with European colonialism on the continent, but outside of the academic bastions, the Western world’s perspective on colonialism remains troublingly insular in scope. Guilt and good intentions can only go so far, and the continued problems in post-independence Africa (and the Congo in particular) are a nagging reminder of the complicity (if not the sole blame) of capitalist democracies in ongoing horrors.

This is something that I’ve come up against while working on a lengthy feature piece for PopMatters about the various King Kong films and the powerful nested meanings of the cinematic Kong myth. The filmmaking perspective, and indeed my own critical perspective, is hopelessly “First World” (an abysmal term that I use merely for convenience). The films can be analyzed with this in mind, and indeed have much more to say about the way America operates than they do about the experience of the colonized (little wonder when the colonized are represented by a non-lingual gorilla). But most, if not all, post- and anti-colonial literature that comes out of the West ends up being about the West much more than it is about colonized peoples.

Decades of this static discursive position have submerged the moral conundrums of the colonial project. We do live in a time, after all, when a conservative quasi-intellectual (from India, of all places!) can refer to the views of the first African-American President as being those of a “Kenyan anti-colonialist”, and this is considered a bad thing. It’s not that our supposedly enlightened culture has resolved the prevailing problems of colonialism; indeed, not only do we not have the answers, but we’ve forgotten the question.

Hochschild closes his book on this theme of forgetting, bemoaning Belgian museums that whitewash the rubber-collecting terror of the Congo and make heroes out of colonial agents who ordered fatal whippings and had their men cut off the hands of children. He’s perhaps too scrupulous a scholar to speculate on the reasons for historical forgetting, but this blogger has no such impediments. Why do we choose to forget the misery and murder of colonialism in not only in the Scramble for Africa but in the earlier conquest of the Americas as well? Because it made, and continues to make, our society of unparalleled wealth and comfort possible, that’s why. Our commodity-driven economy and product-centric culture has been made possible by the deaths of millions in a far-away jungle long ago (and not at all long ago, as the continued demand for coltan, the mineral foundation for most modern consumer electronics, drives continued conflict in the Congo, which is rich in the mineral). Why, I wonder, would anyone want to forget that?

Sarcasm, perhaps, is not productive, but then more earnest approaches don’t seem to be either. Moral conscience has often diverted capitalist growth, but never checked it entirely. We cannot perhaps change the economic requirements that drive colonialism, old and new, but we can perhaps be more honest and open about our desires and about their costs. Even that might be taking it too far, though. I hate to echo the pernicious light vs. darkness dichotomy that has dominated the  discourse on Africa for so long, but the artificial glow of our civilization seems altogether too comforting to risk stepping back into the colonial shadows from whence it came. Because, as King Leopold’s Ghost makes abundantly clear, our light is that darkness.

Film Review: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

April 17, 2011 Leave a comment

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007; Directed by Seth Gordon)

Billy Mitchell, American Hero

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a funny, weird, insightful and superb documentary about, yes, arcade video game nerds, but also about the strange, resilient contours of American masculinity. For the Donkey Kong rivals at the centre of this film (slick arcade star insider Billy Mitchell and humble yet determined teacher and family man upstart Steve Wiebe) achieving a world record score in an arcade game is about achieveing a displaced alpha-male dominance, a supremacy that their culture tells them is their due but that their society has stubbornly denied them. For each of them, in their own way, Donkey Kong is not a game to be enjoyed, but a vehicle to be driven ruthlessly to glory.

Because make no mistake, as much as this film is about an obsessive and absurdly self-important subculture, it’s really a narrative of powerful, contesting male wills, just like the two classic films referenced in its title. Steve Wiebe, under the gaze of director Seth Gordon’s camera at the least, is cast as the honest, decent white knight, toiling away at a dream in his free time while raising a family and selflessly moulding the youth of America as a science teacher. Even if it’s surely a distortion, the characterization is strong and even the skeptical viewer is drawn into mild outrage at the indignities that Wiebe’s championship form suffers at the hands of the arcade record establishment (represented by the ineffectually neutral “referee” Walter Day).

Take that, you pixelated gorilla!

Mitchell, meanwhile, is cast most definitely as the villain from Gordon’s point of view, and definitely fits the part in this edited reality. He’s an unfailingly assured self-promoter with a penchant for American flag ties who has parlayed his arcade royalty reputation into a modest business empire of that most American of products: greasy, flavourful foodstuffs. He also comes across as a dissembling manipulator when it comes the the Twin Galaxies gaming record community over which he towers like a joystick-wielding Greek god. He cultivates fawning sycophantic acolytes (Brian Kuh, no arcade slouch in his own right, comes across as a complete toady here) and intimidates the supposedly objective judges with the enormity of his profile in the subculture. Indeed, from what we’re shown of the dubious tape of a record-breaking Donkey Kong game that he submits from afar while Wiebe is busting ass to set a new mark “live” at a prestigious New England arcade, it’s no stretch to say that such a submission would hardly have been accepted if it had come from anyone but the Arcade Jesus.

It’s not hard to root against Mitchell and for Wiebe, but even such a stark dichotomy doesn’t diminish the effect of The King of Kong. This is an entertaining descent into a peculiar underworld as well as an ambiguous exploration of social values and homosocial influence.

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews

TV QuickShots #1

April 15, 2011 3 comments

Note: As an avid watcher of all sorts of televised entertainment, I will provide brisk regular summations of key thoughts on TV shows on Random Dangling Mystery under the TV QuickShots heading.

TV QuickShots

Luther (BBC; 2010)

Got Your Back

Despite (or perhaps because of) its overwrought psychological histrionics, the first six-episode season of Luther succeeds at systematically wratcheting up its stakes, its tension, its consequences as it wears on. One of the BBC’s recent high-profile crime dramas (alongside the much more fun and breezy Sherlock), Luther is at times ludicrous and at times riveting and only briefly bothers with the space between. This is the TV drama as relentless brinkmanship, and who better to head such an enterprise than Idris Elba (best known as Stringer Bell on The Wire), who stalks through most scenes with a combination of cool intelligence and wounded-animal menace? The smarter margins of television are full of roguish anti-heroes (Stringer Bell was one of them), and many of them are damaged-but-brilliant cops. But John Luther’s emotional and professional peaks and valleys are imparted with a magnetic mixture of unpredictable violence and cold modern grandeur that is singular on the current dial (to say nothing of the audacious daring of repurposing “Breathe Me”, Sia’s Six Feet Under‘s series finale anthem, as a very different musical statement on death). By the time you reach the finale’s outrageous mood-swing conclusion, you’re left wondering what other directions this arc could possibly bend in during a second season. Notable supporting appearances: Ruth Wilson (who once played Jane Eyre) as a calculated red-headed sociopath who becomes Luther’s unlikely ally, and a hangdog Steven Mackintosh as Luther’s fellow copper, who becomes something else entirely.

The Killing (AMC; 2011)

Yes, I would LOVE for you to tell me about how I can save on long distance!

Adapted from an acclaimed Danish show of the same English name, The Killing continues AMC’s putative original-series winning streak (although zombie-fest The Walking Dead was vastly overpraised, in my view). A multiple-perspectives take on the mysterious and brutal rape, abduction, and murder of a teenage girl, the American version is set in Seattle (played by its neighbour in coastal gloom, Vancouver), its diluted overcast skies and dim interiors evoking a very Scandinavian emotional bleakness that is far from common on shiny American TV. Although we’ve only seen three episodes thus far, the quality of the plotting and the performances (watch for sci-fi vet Michelle Forbes as a particularly aggrieved mother) is already evident, even if the emotions and the narrative twists and turns seem subordinate to the overwhelming mood of gloom and decay. Expect more words to be bandied about on its subject as the story progresses.

An Idiot Abroad (Sky1/Science Channel; 2010)

How much longer before I can, say, hang a cinderblock from my bollocks?

Karl Pilkington is not so much an idiot as he is a profoundly incurious Westerner sheltered by the amenities and assumptions of economically-advanced capitalist society. A natural deadpanner (deadpaneer?) whose comic timing even seems to surprise himself at times, Pilkington was a producer on the cult XFM radio show Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant hosted before being pulled into the fray as an on-air foil for the duo. He is emphatically not the kind of gregarious, worldly television presenter so common in travel programming, but then Gervais and Merchant want the mild, bald Pilkington to lampoon the world-travel-as-liberal-betterment narrative implied by the Rick Steves of the world (he contrasts himself to traveloguer Michael Palin several times, and even stays in the same hotel – but not the same room – as Palin did in India). He accomplishes this by, apparently, being himself (or by being a highly controlled comic persona that just feels like it’s only himself). As much fun as the mostly-unseen Gervais and Merchant have in tweaking Pilkington’s trips from the homefront for his maximum discomfort and annoyance (they especially enjoy feeding him bizarre food and making him sleep in decidedly sub-luxurious places), the real appeal of An Idiot Abroad is not as their usual comedy of awkward squirming, but as a travel-show satire. The centuries-old orientalism of the English, that smug assumption that they become greater and fuller people by briefly, touristically appropriating the culture of other civilizations, rolls off of Pilkington’s back like a duck. With casual purposefulness, he learns nothing, expands in no directions, and fails to broaden his mind. And that, in his view, is just all right.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Inglourious Basterds

April 14, 2011 3 comments

Note: Random Dangling Mystery delves into the archives today for a older movie review. An oldie, but a goodie.)

Inglourious Basterds (2009; Directed by Quentin Tarantino)

Inglourious Basterds is not a movie about killin’ Nazis. Or, rather, it’s not only about killin’ Nazis. Many Nazis do dutifully get killed, though not nearly as many as the ad  campaigns may have lead you to believe. Anyone going into this movie expecting 152 minutes of unabashed brutalization of villainous Nazis is going to be sorely disappointed, and will be left wondering why they just spent a dozen bucks to sit and watch a movie about people sitting around and talking about movies.inglourious_basterds_poster

Inglourious Basterds is above all a movie about the movies. All of Quentin Tarantino’s movies are about the movies, but none quite as overtly and potently so as this one. This is a film about the way that films pull us together and how they tear us apart, how they seem to evaporate away as we watch them and yet far outlive us all. It’s about the utility and the futility of film, the hope and the fear of film, the way it repulses us and moves us, embraces us and betrays us, the way we need film but it can quite happily exist without us.

Tarantino’s particular interest in Nazis here is entirely mediated through film, and perhaps ours is, too. Six decades as film’s ultimate villains have knocked our historical memory of Nazism askew. It’s secular blasphemy to even suggest this, but fiction has perhaps made Nazi Germany’s evils more grand and symbolic than they initially were (and they were quite terribly grand to begin with). Certainly, the spectre of one of history’s worst genocides hangs always behind every Nazi movie character, a malignant shadow that darkens their every gesture; the Holocaust need not be mentioned (and Tarantino wisely leaves it so) to invest our jack-booted villains with inherent menace.

But what makes Nazis so eerily adept as film villains is that Nazism was constantly inventing itself through its own symbolism, a symbolism purpose-built for the filmic form. Joseph Goebbels well understood the power of film, but he may not have fathomed the way that the post-war cinema of Germany’s vanquishers would undo many times over what the cinema of the Third Reich was created to do. The propagandistic iconography of the Nazis, the cruel and precise geometry of power that animates Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and many of the other products of the Nazi-run UFA, were all too easily turned against them and their repellent, murderous ideology after their defeat. True-life details of the Reich’s horrors may fade, become muddied, be lost in historical distance, but generations on, filmgoers can still understand the dark import of a swastika armband or the sneering symmetry of a SS officer, Luger in hand. We see this, and we know what to think: “These people are Nazis; these people suck. Time to boo.”

With the most linear and direct narrative of his career, Tarantino destroys the Nazis with cinema one more time, all the while musing almost aloud about the very act he’s portraying. The plot that consumes the final two “chapters” (the use of chapter titles is one Tarantino mainstay that has grown a bit stale) is to lock 350 Nazis (including enough important party brass to end the war) in a theatre and burn it to the ground by igniting the joint’s whole supply of film stock (which, in the ’40s, was highly flammable). That’s symbolism even a junior-high English student couldn’t miss. But even before this apocalyptic climax, the movies inject themselves repeatedly into the narrative, often changing its course as they do so. Everyone seems to have some stake in the cinema: the characters we meet are projectionists, producers, film critics, movie stars, cinema fans; even when they aren’t involved in film, circumstances require them to pretend that they are. And in the end, with a scant few exceptions, the cinema kills them all off.

Am I… a stop-motion puppet? A man in a monkey suit? Andy Serkis?

As intimated, this film is chocked full of people sitting around talking to each other. As if we needed any further proof of Tarantino’s skill with dialogue, Inglourious Basterds provides ample further justification. We are never bored, even when the discussion veers into German film history (and it often does). It helps to have such a strong mix of actors doing the talking, too, although all other performers in the film pale in comparison to the amazing Christoph Waltz. He owns every scene he’s in as self-described SS “detective” Colonel Hans Landa, a multilingual charmer who sniffs out deceit like a bloodhound and takes an absurd amount of delight in the whole effort, in himself, or in both. In his first brief scene with the Southern-accented Brad Pitt near the end of the film, the movie star (who is no slouch at the craft himself) can do little but stare at his eloquent German opponent, mouth agape, stupefied. Of course, Landa gets his final comeuppance (though it perhaps isn’t what we expect). But up to that point, the day is repeatedly, deliciously his.

I came in to the film fretting about the possibility of another Tarantino revenge fantasy, all cool badassery shot with style but without much underlying insight. But I came away realizing that, for this film at least, QT is really less interested in the revenge side of that term than he is in the fantasy. I’ve long struggled with the inside-joke nature of Tarantino’s oeuvre, the referential code that sparks knowing grins from viewers but never flicks on a lightbulb. But perhaps all of the hip excesses of his career to this point have been building to this, to the moment when Tarantino finally locates the light switch. Some might call Inglourious Basterds a love letter to the power of the cinema, and it certainly is that. But it’s a warning about that power as well, as cautionary as it is celebratory. The movies can fulfill our fantasies (even the dark and violent ones), but they will always exact a price. And before they are slaughtered in a moviehouse, maybe even the Nazis realized this.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop

April 11, 2011 2 comments

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010; Directed by Banksy)

 

And don't forget to pick up a copy of "Wall and Piece" on your way out!

There is so much more to Banksy’s layered, surprising satire of the culture of modern art than that wearisome query: Is it real, or is it a hoax? The very glorification of “authenticity” implied by that question is, and always has been, the target of the Bristol street-artist-cum-post-millenial-aesthetic-prankster’s iconoclastic “art”. What is it about a hoax, this film asks, that isn’t real? And what is it about reality that isn’t a hoax?

This is the fundamental paradox illuminated by Exit Through the Gift Shop‘s closing act, namely Thierry Guetta’s reinvention of himself as “Mister Brainwash”, an instant modern art celebrity who arrives, fully formed, without the supposedly requisite period of artistic growth and refinement. As Banksy himself (his face dark and hidden under a hood and his voice subtly altered to obscure identification) muses, Guetta doesn’t “follow the rules, but then there aren’t supposed to be any rules”, a fact which Banksy himself is living proof of (and the extent to which MBW is a send-up of Banksy himself is left up to us). Mister Brainwash’s art is referential to the point of absurdity; one observer notes that while Warhol’s repetition turned familiar icons into something more meaningful, MBW’s repetition of that repetition renders them meaningless. What better description of post-millenial alternative culture could you ask for?

Make no mistake, the sacred tenets of alternative culture are Banksy’s targets here. He has repeatedly eviscerated the tenets of consumer capitalism with his street art and unorthodox exhibitions, and many of those pieces appear here, along with the inferior street art of figures like Space Invader and Shepard Fairey. But alternative culture is more difficult to target on the side of a building, so Banksy swoops in and vandalizes a cutting message on one of the counter-culture’s prefered modes of communication: the independent documentary.

Believe what you will about Banksy’s art and about MBW’s “authenticity” as an artist, but I think the hat is well and truly tipped early in the film when Thierry is introduced as owning a vintage clothing shop that regularly inflates the prices of its cheaply-obtained items by claiming they are unique or “designer” garments. Art, the film suggests, is no different. MBW never seems to “make” “art” himself in the traditional imagined way; he pays a team of designers to craft his pieces in Photoshop then print them out. When it comes to actually installing the pieces in advance of his exhibition, other people do all the work too. This is contrasted to Banksy’s studio, in which everything seems in symbolic, artful chaos, just as it (apparently) should be.

What's the monkey looking at?

So what’s the joke (if there even is one, as one of Banksy’s associates wonders doubtfully)? The joke, I suppose, is on the idealized narrative of the artist as the solitary creative figure standing between the madness of civilization and the abyss of eternity, crafting art that saves society’s mortal denizens from plunging into one or the other. That’s all bollocks, says Banksy. It’s all commerce now, as if it was ever anything else. In this way, Banksy’s entrance into mainstream consciousness doesn’t diminish his commentary, it only amplifies it. If the artist is a capitalist machine like any other labourer, then art is just another product. Alternative culture is fine with believing this about corporate mass culture but not about its sacred subversive content. The key achievement of Exit Through the Gift Shop is the subversion of the subversive. In a culture that puts air quotes around everything, what else is left to us?

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews

The Last Place

April 11, 2011 5 comments

Another NHL regular-season campaign has ended, and who’s lagging hopelessly at the bottom of the league for the second year running? Yup. My beloved Oilers are seriously taxing my continued use of that adjective. Certainly, circumstances are extenuating. Endemic injuries to basically irreplaceable pieces (Hemsky, Horcoff, Ryan Whitney), sub-standard options at many positions (especially the once-robust defense, where regulars Kurtis Foster, Jim Vandermeer, and Jason Strudwick were overmatched on a consistent basis), and reliance on enthusiastic but unrefined rookie talent eroded what could have been a slightly more respectable year-end point total. Playoffs, though? Not even with all of the various stars aligning, I doubt.

The point is moot, anyhow. 30th place in a 30-team league shouldn’t really require laboured explanations, though we in Oil Country (and its continental diaspora) are being offered them nonetheless. The team is young, we are told. Growing pains, but aren’t Hall and Eberle and Paajarvi and Omark exciting? Anyway, Edmonton is a cold and remote third-rate urban centre and it’s tough to attract top-flight talent. Just wait until we get taxpayers to foot the bill for a multi-million-dollar downtown arena! Then those good times will get around to rolling!

This spring will mark the five-year anniversary of the Oil’s last playoff appearance, that fabled, magical 2006 run to the Stanley Cup finals that is the one shining moment for a generation of Oilers fans that has had too few of them. That team has now been completely dismantled by Kevin Lowe and his oft-maligned successor, Steve Tambellini, in an ineptly delayed rebuild that shows few signs of being close to over. And what has replaced it? A grasping billionaire owner. Young, poorly-utilized offensive talent. Wasted millions on Sheldon Souray, a power-play specialist who pissed off management and now can barely keep up in the minors. A broken-down, haunted funhouse of a million-dollar veteran starting goaltender. Irresponsible firewagon last-place hockey.

And hope? Maybe a bit. Taylor Hall shows ever sign of being an evolved scorer, Jordan Eberle potted some highlight reel goals, Magnus Paajarvi can flat-out fly. Whitney and Hemsky were genuine stars (albeit on a mediocre team) before they went down. Devan Dubnyk looks like a legitimate NHL goalie, and should be expected to make another step forward next year, assuming Nikolai Khabibulin’s frustrating mercurial saga doesn’t drown him out and cause regression. Theo Peckham and Ladi Smid can finally nearly almost be relied upon, maybe. Sam Gagner always gets left out of the discussion somehow, but he’s turning into a fine player without much notice.

The guy in the back led the team in points. No foolin'.

But for all the positive arrows, a certain beaten-down cynicism persists. It is kind of ridiculous to transpose that striving, marginal feeling of shaken community confidence that underlies Edmonton as a place onto the on-ice results of its city-defining pro hockey club, even if it invariably happens. That eternal E-town sense of not quite being as fill-in-the-blank as Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, Bilbao, or wherever, despite major growth in every sphere of civic importance, is in danger of being hitched firmly to the Oilers wagon. A hockey team that was once ascendant despite being based in an underdog city now risks becoming an underdog hockey team based in an ascendant city that still thinks of itself as an underdog. We’re already seeing this in the new arena debate, where a potential cash cow for Daryl Katz and the Oilers organization is being sold to a needlessly jittery populace as a cure-all for their litany of perceived civic ills (and a cure-all that they must pay for, too!). And it’s creeping into the on-ice product, too, where back-to-back last place finishes are, apparently, reason for optimism.

If there’s one player in the organization that seems to typify the ideological state apparatus of the Edmonton Oilers, it’s got to be Linus Omark. Sublime puck-handler and passer, YouTube shootout sensation, cheeky bastard, and all-around notable hockey figure, Omark, like the team whose jersey he wears (for now), is constructed by both his supporters and doubters as a plucky outsider who will never quite make it, despite his obvious talent and drive. Opponents huff about classiness and the Code when he shows them up in a shootout or even in regular play, and management shuffles him into lesser roles in the minors even as it elevates less experienced and proven players like the Young Trio. And his supporters? They love him all the more for his marginalization. Though I have plenty of respect for Tyler Dellow as a blogger, he has a consistent weakness for the position of the maverick-y truth-teller, the kicker against the pricks, and he invariably sees Omark in that light. His on-ice actions surely play into such fondness, but then they’re really just an extension of this image; Omark seems to delight in bettering his opponents, to play with a cocky edge that makes him irresistible but also makes him a target in the endlessly conformist hockey world (see Subban, P.K.). Even if he has ample statistical substance as a hockey player, his style, his feeling, his panache… they take the spotlight.

Does Edmonton want their Oilers to be Omark writ large? Does Edmonton itself want to be Omark writ large? To be noticed, but not respected? To impress, but not to achieve? To overlook the present for the future, to be potential energy personified? Or will Edmonton and its legions of hockey die-hards demand a bit more accountability from the management of its beloved Oilers, who have allowed the youth procurement staff to do all the work of improving the roster while half-heartedly tossing out middling bums to fill out the lines? Can this city and its team stop wishing it could be more and just BE more? Between the arena debate and the desultory youth-movement optimism, this Oiler fan, for one, hopes that this summer is the time for some tougher decisions with regards to the outliers and role players on this roster, and maybe with some key pieces as well. The future is all well and good, but it’s about time to start reeling in that horizon.

Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports

Film Review: Jane Eyre (2011)

April 10, 2011 1 comment

Jane Eyre (2011; Directed by Cary Fukunaga)


Soooo... about those noises in the attic...

Cary Fukunaga’s sleek and sumptuous adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel boasts considerable atmosphere, an accomplished visual pedigree, and soulful, nuanced central performances from its young stars. But it advances a truncated version of Bronte’s complex and rich narrative that privileges the love story (which my partner Liz calls “the stupid part”) while eliding the social commentary, the proto-feminism, and the freaky gothic weirdness at the core of the tale.

This is understandable for any film version, and Jane Eyre, stripped of everything else, is primarily a love story. But there are odd choices in the adaptation, in particular the decision not to reveal familial relations between Jane and the Riverses. Furthermore, opening with Jane’s flight from Thornfield (which is virtually repeated, shot-for-shot, when it arises later in the film) presages the whole plot in melodramatic terms that Fukunaga’s film, as expertly pitched as it is at times, never quite escapes. As always, the awful strangeness of Rochester locking his unhinged wife in a hidden room for years isn’t sufficiently imparted in all of its grand gothic grotesquerie. Jane’s traumatic youth at Lowood is also merely sketched, leaving us with vague Dickensian echoes as opposed to Bronte’s rigid moral outrage.

The Stupid Part

Indeed, Jane’s own principled independence suffers more than a little due to the amping up of the romantic plot. As formidable as Mia Wasikowska is in the role, her walls crumble at the merest affection from Rochester (Michael Fassbender, who is a bit too dashing and not nearly crotchety and bizarre enough), which does the Jane Eyre character a bit of a disservice. The early scenes between the leads are great stuff, of course, formed as terse, borderline-hostile exchanges of trenchant philosophical wit. But the later hand-clenching and oath-bandying on windswept stone bridges (someone might have been mixing up their Brontes) refigures these initial interactions as the bit of the romantic comedy where the leads start off hating each other, before the inevitable detente and rapprochement.

Amidst the various quibbles, I must give praiseful mention to the visual design of the film. Apart from the expected (and beautiful) wide shots of Romanticist isolation on the moors and the funereal interiors of Thornfield, Fukunaga and his Brazilian cinematographer Adriano Goldman do a remarkable job capturing the depth of darkness of pre-electric, non-gaslight English country house life. A guttering candle bravely resisting the inevitable darkness is a keen metaphor for the moral struggles of Jane and Rochester, and it’s an image that stays with you well after the romantically-heaving bosoms fade.

Categories: Film, Reviews