Archive for May, 2011

Electionpocalypse 2011: Some Brief and Intemperate Thoughts

A few more Canadian electionpocalypse thoughts to share, with the benefit of a few days’ worth of stewing (and possibly fricasseeing):

  • There isn’t much more to say about the Conservative majority and the inescapably hegemonic position that the Party of Harper now occupies that Jeffrey Simpson doesn’t say in the Globe and Mail. I’d give the whole piece a far more ominous pall, of course, and place far more hope in that closing reference to arrogance and hubris, if I had my druthers. While I don’t doubt that the uncompromising, cutthroat Stephen Harper of the past two minority governments was at least to some extent a product of circumstances, I also don’t doubt that it’s also a product of his nature. The more fair-minded political observers in this country bemoaned his unwillingness to cooperate with the other parties as a driving force for the grinding deadlock of the House of Commons, but Harper could not give the left-wing parties what they wanted and then face the nation and ask it to give him unwavering power. To make a Conservative majority seem inevitable (and, to some souls, even desirable), Harper had to make minority government seem impossible. The Conservative minority era’s failure over the past few years paved the road to their success this spring. It was astoundingly cynical of them, but not too surprising. So will Harper and his caucus govern in a completely arrogant way? Sure. Will that bring them down in the end? Not so sure.
  • The understandable leftist enthusiasm over the NDP’s historic seat count must, of course, be tempered a little by the obviously thin resumes of their Quebec caucus; without such an unprecedented and kind of nonsensical vote swing to the party’s we-gotta-run-somebody candidates in Quebec, they wouldn’t have done much better than the Liberals did. And there’s little to indicate that the New Democrats can ever hope to match the CPC’s enormous funding advantage, especially as a party with a definite anti-corporate ideological bent. But then there’s little to suggest that, frothy SUN-reported rub-and-tug scandals aside, the Tory political bile machine can do to Jack Layton what it did to Michael Ignatieff or to Stephane Dion. Whether you find his proposed policies to be compassionate and fair or irresponsible and costly (and I find them to be all four of those on some days), Layton stood out in this campaign. While the other leaders were mostly dour German Shepherds, he was a bulldog in a tutu. To achieve the kind of vote share and seat gains that Layton did, all while dealing with prostate cancer and hip surgery, is pretty amazing. Layton, I think, showed a lot of Canadians that he stood for something when it was clear that Harper and Ignatieff didn’t really stand for much at all, and whatever you thought of where he stood, you had to respect him for standing at all, even if he needed a cane to do it.
  • The eulogies for the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois were immediate, and there’s been precious little overt recognition from either party of their dire straits. Ignatieff said he might stay on before announcing he wouldn’t, and landed back in academia. I’m not among those who thought he never should have left the ivory tower in the first place, but I’m not sure the failure of this election is entirely on him. The LPC always seems to feel lately that picking a fine leader is the key thing; the Great Man theory of history clearly holds great sway with this bunch. But they’re being completely outflanked on the ground not only by the malicious Tories but also on their left side by the NDP. They can keep shuffling the figurehead until the end of time and it won’t win them back the government until they rebuild their organization and formulate a grand role in the Canadian story that is once again worthy of their tradition. As for the Bloc, theirs was always a tenuous and indeed counterintuitive position: a federal party that abhored federalism as a culture-eviscerating evil. Reports of the death of separatism in Quebec may be greatly exaggerated, but its difficult experiment in the national Parliament is likely done, at least for now.
  • And a final word for the “unite the left” utopians: fat chance. These are two distinct parties with unique and divergent traditions, and even the possibility of unseating the loathed Tories won’t entice them into a merger. How then to unseat Harper and the Conservatives? There’s no easy answer to that. Something tells me that it won’t happen while either Harper or Layton or whoever gets the interim Liberal leadership (Bob Rae seems like a good bet for the moment) remain in the picture. The next shift of this magnitude to come will be generationally driven. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take a generation to arrive.
Categories: Current Affairs, Politics

Film Review: Black Swan

May 6, 2011 2 comments

Black Swan (2010; Directed by Darren Aronofsky)

Darren Aronofsky has had it with these motherfucking swans on this motherfucking lake.

I won an Oscar for having the thespianic audacity to wear these contacts.

And so, he makes a bold, grand, viscerally beautiful film about artistry as madness and madness as artistry, portraying ballet, so superficially delicate and pretty, as a sadomasochistic pratice of unnatural self-mutilation. He melds elements of Polanski, Kubrick, and Cronenberg into a rabbit-hole psychological thriller with none of the comforting rule-based delineations of, say, a Chris Nolan film. Everything you see here, from the most elegant pirouette to the raunchiest sex act, is simultaneously immediate and detached, arousing as it is off-putting. Up to the brassy grandeur of its final frames, this is a unique cinematic experience; it makes ballet accessible and corporeal, and then corkscrews it stubbornly into the inescapably bizarre just when we’re feeling like we’re on his preferred wavelength at last.

Natalie Portman shoulders the weight of the bizarre with her always-curious mix of outward fragility and terrifying, blazing inner core of commitment. Raised and sheltered as a living wind-up ballerina by her smothering, failed-painter mother (an intermittently creepy Barbara Hershey), she’s surrounded by cute pink tokens of girlhood and, of course, a wind-up ballerina music box (hardly the only metaphor here that’s delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer). Her gradual break with this lacy cloister also involves an almost imperceptible break with sanity, although Aronofsky is deeply cagey about what’s actually happening and what’s only in Nina’s head (sometimes straining credulity in the process, but then it’s all metaphor anyway). There’s a Smeagol/Gollum effect to Portman here, as she shows us her good-girl self struggling to assert itself but inevitably losing its grip to something more sinister and uncontrollable.

Considering that the surrounding characters are meant to act upon Nina and represent her anxieties more than they’re meant to simply be, the supporting cast does solid enough work. The always-superb Vincent Cassel is in hyper-Gallic mode (as if he has any other gear) as Nina’s manipulating superior at the ballet company, steadfastly refusing to separate artistry from sexuality, on and off the stage. Mila Kunis makes me think that I must have missed some key evolution of her career, because her primal, free-spirited Lily is miles from That 70s Show, for sure. And Winona Ryder continues to hint at a surprise late rennaissance with her embrace of the deep, dark end of a prima ballerina’s journey.

Even if Nina Sayers’ dark descent (or is it a silver-lined ascent?) follows a fairly set arc, Aronofsky delights in laying down unsettling spikes along the path. You probably think you know where it’s going, and you’re probably right, but prepare to be shaken a little by the landscape on the way.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Tyranny of the Majority

Thumbs up for demagoguery!

Conservative majority government. He so went there.

There’ll be more to come about a pretty historical election (mostly in all the worst ways), but it’s worth getting it out there right now: do not doubt for a moment that this was just the result that not only the print media wanted, but the result that the money men wanted, too. With the vote subsidy the very first thing on the chopping block for Harper’s new regime, large-scale corporate campaign funding will be the way of the future in this country, and the capitalists have given themselves over to the Harperites’ war on the middle class and indifference to the poor. Mildly innured from the American-style downsides of drastic income inequality by our robust social welfare state for so long, Canadians had better get used to the growing gap between wealthy and considerably-less-wealthy widening ever more with each passing year.

More specific social conservative hot-button issues are likely to be shelved to improve or at least preserve tenuous Conservative electability in the key swing ridings of Ontario (this one is on you, Golden Horseshoe, although it always is), but the more general trickle-down economic model will see few challenges over the next half-decade, even from the emboldened anti-corporate NDP (the Official Opposition; pure insanity). Harper’s Conservatives are already incrementally changing what it means to be Canadian in the public sphere. The coming term will tell us how many of the smaller social details they can alter. It’s easy to be cynical and probably easier to be blind to consequence, but I for one am not much looking forward to this.

Categories: Politics

Obama, Osama, and the Smashing of an Icon

May 2, 2011 2 comments

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve surely heard that this happened. Between the cathartic jingoism in the streets, the thoughtful hand-wringing of media punditry, and an avalanche of snark on Twitter, it’s hard to formulate much of a thought or even a feeling on the government-mandated assassination of the Bogeyman of the 21st century that hasn’t already been manifested somewhere in the digital ether.

I suppose one way to look at this that may not have already been overstated is as a clash of symbols. Osama bin Laden, dangerous as he may have been as the actual leader and financier of a worldwide terrorist organization, was far more potent as an amorphous cipher for evil, and specifically for radical Islamic fundamentalist evil. Hence the various “heh”s at his untimely end being announced to the world on the same day, 66 years later, as Adolf Hitler, even if the horrors that bin Laden has unleashed are quantifiably dwarfed by the Fuhrer’s. Osama was the Emmanuel Goldstein of the 24-hour mass-saturation media meta-culture of our time, a sinister Other whose image stood for much more than the sum of his deeds, just as the made-for-TV vividness of the atrocity he stage-managed almost a decade ago inflated its effect (and affect) far beyond its actual costs. His visage justified at least two American wars, to say nothing of the numerous terrorist acts committed (and yet to be committed) by his ideological followers. This is odd when considering the structure of al-Qaeda; Ayman al-Zawahiri was always the idea man to Osama’s logisitics manager and treasurer, but the latter became the logo for mass cultural consumption. That logo, that icon, has now been smashed.

We contrast this with the symbols of America arrayed against him. Not just the flag or “freedom” or the evocation of the militaristic ingenuity and prowess of his assassins, but the President. I suppose it didn’t have to be Obama to get this done (and conservatives are already crediting Bush the Junior in absentia), but it was, and that’s interesting. The POTUS has been a curious hybrid of policy muscle, military authority, and untouchable quasi-kingliness since the position was created (blame George Washington for that), and the concept of Obama himself playing such an active, badass role in taking down the cartoon villain has symbolic truth in it even if it lacks strict accuracy.

Thus, it doesn’t surprise or particularly disturb me that Obama personalized the operation so much in his prepared remarks last night. As much as it makes political and electoral strategic sense for the sitting President of a firmly divided country to own this victory and use it to rally voters to him and his causes, it shows a keen understanding of the majestic, manipulative power of the Presidency to do so. Political allegiances aside, this is just what Americans most likely want their President to do: eliminate the bad guys with steely determination. Protect them like Daddy. Not to be a patronizing, puff-chested dick about it (this was Dubya’s repeated mistake), but to make them feel safe and then to reign.

There can now be no doubt that the supposedly deliberate and professorial Obama has this pose in his arsenal, and his prospective, dysfunctional freak-show challengers for the 2012 general election have now got to be even more intimidated by him than they already were. But, like so much else about the man, this is a pose. Like the putative Arabic nemesis he has vanquished, Obama stands for something greater than himself, and that something is vastly different depending on who’s considering him.

Unlike the mercurial, secretive bin Laden, eluding capture and even eyeballing for years, Obama is a master of control and iconography. Like all great politicians (because whatever else you say about him, there can be no doubt at this point that he is certainly that), Obama excels at getting anyone of even a slightly open mind to see their aspirations and expectations fulfilled in him. Even the ludicrous horror-movie tropes thrown at him by the looniest fringe of the right fit this paradigm. He is that most American of icons: the self-made man. The post-modern twist is that Obama is always self-making himself before our very eyes.

On quite another note, a major political meta-event goes down tonight: the Canadian federal election. If it ends up being as surprising and unpredictable as the polls are indicating it will be, there will be plenty to say about it, especially in the fluid days after the vote itself. Expect more pondering in this space as we move forward into a brave new public future.

Categories: Current Affairs, Politics

Film Review: The Town

May 1, 2011 4 comments

The Town (2010; Directed by Ben Affleck)

Having seen The Town, it’s now evident to me precisely why the critical community has so eagerly encouraged Ben Affleck’s career behind the camera: it’s the best way to get him out from in front of the camera.

Am I pointing this the right way?

For all the many admirable qualities displayed in this gently sprawling caper flick (and there are many of them, for sure), its downsides very nearly outweigh them. I shall quote my significant other’s reaction, because it summarizes my own issues succintly: too many scenes of Ben Affleck having sex. Sex with women, she meant, but there’s also too much sex with Boston, and too much sex with his own ego. The Town is at its best when it’s not at the service of Affleck himself; it’s hardly a surprising move that he makes himself his own protagonist, but did he have to be its flawed saint as well? Must he have himself planning elaborate bank-robbers like a working-class Moriarty, romancing the female lead (Rebecca Hall) with an expert mix of humour and honesty, being an impeccable friend with the lads, etc., etc.? It’s a dick move in the Mel Gibson mould to build yourself up so much in your own film like that, and Affleck’s well-established thespianic limitations don’t allow him to transcend the ego-bound excesses of the choice.

It certainly doesn’t help his case that the love story at the centre of the story is preposterous and deeply creepy. Affleck and his co-writers Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard are at least aware enough of this to have Hall’s character reject Affleck’s bank robber when she realizes that it was him and his gang that traumatized her, but we’re still expected to like and root for Doug MacRay even after taking such obvious and immoral advantage of a vulnerable woman, not to mention to believe in the chance that they might end up together in his secluded Florida swamp shack (a fairly ridiculous final shot, but I digress). Even for a moviegoing public reared on flawed but lovable anti-hero rogues, this seems like a step too far.

Another step too far, though only a little, is Affleck’s aggressive Boston-love. He certainly builds up a very strong sense of place, and that’s certainly preferrable to a sort of Hollywood Everycity. But Affleck himself is done up in Beantown paraphenalia in every damned scene: a Bruins hoodie, then a Red Sox jacket, then some Celtics and Patriots stuff, to say nothing of the succession of city uniforms in the climactic sequence. We get it, dude: you’re from Boston. Write what you know and all, but move along.

What saves the movie is the fantastic cast that Affleck assembles and his skill at deploying them in a handful of slick sequences. Jeremy Renner shines darkly as the gang’s dangerous firebrand, and he, Affleck and Hall have a great scene on a sidewalk patio rich with dramatic irony and nicely set-up subtexts. The film’s instantly-iconic robbery scene is at its mid-point, featuring the gang done up as masked nuns-with guns and evading police in a white-knuckle car chase through Boston’s historic brick-and-stone old town, and it concludes with a perfect punchline. Jon Hamm uses his experience with Mad Men‘s whip-sharp scripts to spit hot shit as a dogged FBI agent on the gang’s collective Irish tails. Blake Lively slums it as a convincing dope-fiend sometimes-girlfriend to Affleck’s MacRay, and Pete Posthelwaite is an emaciated-looking Irish florist-cum-gangster.

Still, that “romance” drags things down, and though I usually avoid complaints about logical inconsistencies in Hollywood efforts, there were some genuine doozies in the closing hit on Fenway Park (referred to without irony as “Boston’s cathedral”). But again, I repeat: the best thing that Ben Affleck can do as a director is to keep himself behind the camera. There’s undeniable talent there, as long as it doesn’t continue to be undermined by his need to be a star in front of the lens.

Categories: Film, Reviews