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Good Old-Fashioned Wholesome Fun with Search Engine Terms

July 31, 2011 5 comments

One of the unexpected pleasures of Random Dangling Mystery’s WordPress home (second only to its occasional brief suspensions by overzealous anti-spam bots) has been the Site Stats feature, allowing me to feed my ego with site hit numbers and, more importantly, amuse myself with the often baffling search terms that lead web surfers to this blog. They are a mixed bag of stupid questions, ludicrous word combinations, and other weird-ass shit that makes me feel more than a little squirmy. Here, then, are my top 15 favourite search engine terms from the last few months that, for whatever esoteric reason can be imagined, suggested this blog to the searchers. No particular order, by the way, some with links to the post that (I think) they were referred to. Enjoy.

russell westbrook glasses

In one form or another, this is the most popular search term in Random Dangling Mystery’s brief history at this location. Clearly, commentary on the facial-sartorial choices of point guards is my golden ticket to the big time.

masculine supremacist napoleon

I know, he sure was, wasn’t he? Wait… was he?

rob ford says fuck you i’m going to the cottage

He might as well have…

satire irony comic for educational system and higher self-esteem

Subtitle of Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest Borat movie.

osama bitches don’t know about my horcruxes

This search term lead me to this, which was a fantastic and disturbing profile picture on Facebook for a solid few weeks.

boston red sox track jacket as worn by jeremy renner in the film the town

Available at your local Champs Sports, I would think. Jeremy Renner not included.

discuss the view that colonial legacy is to blame for the current bevilling problems in zimbabwe

Somebody’s got a term paper due…

ninja airbrush harry potter

That sounds like one hell of a magical spell. I’ll have to use that one in my forthcoming Pottermore fanfic. What’s “ninja airbrush” in Latin?

how many women has ben affleck slept with

If you have to ask, then you’ll never know. If you knew, then you would never have to ask.

why does michael palin look smug about his height

You’re a very silly person and I’m not going to interview you.

harry potter and the deathly hallows part 2 anti semitism

It’s not even a proper nose, it’s polystyrene.

what does the gazebo represent in the lovely bones

Sometimes a gazebo is just a gazebo. Not in that movie, but, you know, sometimes.

why does cpc keep referring to canada day as dominion day?

Because chauvinistic anglocentrism wins election, silly goose.

extrapolate the eccentricities of transformational leadership

Only if you say “please”…

shit eating grin ron weasley

This has got to be my absolute favourite.

Film Review: Across The Universe

July 30, 2011 1 comment

Across The Universe (2007; Directed by Julie Taymor)

Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe is a mostly-wondrous visual and technical piece of work, but it holds together about as well as the Beatles during the Let It Be sessions.

My stubble is compelling.

There’s little to no question that Taymor is a genuine visionary in the theatrical world, and this film firmly establishes her as such in the cinematic world as well. She surrounds herself with similarly singular artists behind the camera as well: Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography keeps up with the boundless imagination and constant changes of scenery, Elliot Goldenthal adapts the endlessly-familiar Beatles songs with just the right amount of defamiliarization, Mark Freidberg’s production design is rich and busy, Albert Wolsky got an Oscar nod for his costumes, and Daniel Ezralow produces some occasionally brilliant dance choreography.

Her actors are mostly steady and charismatic, even if they regularly get lost in the fever-dream of reconstituted hippie imagery. Brit pretty-boy Jim Sturgess is the film’s rock, and his Jude mostly grounds the variant madness. And, yes, he’s actually named Jude; almost all of the characters’ names come from Beatles tunes, so if that’s too arch for you, this is not your kind of movie. Joe Anderson’s Max is a scrawny bundle of twitchy energy with a surprisingly bluesy growl of a singing voice (and he wields a silver hammer at one point for no real reason). Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther McCoy, and T.V. Carpio give undercooked subplot relationships more verve and interest than you might expect. Only Evan Rachel Wood (the poor woman’s Scarlett Johansson, who’s no spring chicken actress herself) fails to stick her landings; her Lucy is a pretty blank shunted along by a plot that can’t make up its mind. Oh, and rehearse your best “Is that…?” face for several celebrity cameos as well.

But Across the Universe is all about the music of the Beatles, those key musical chromosomes in the mass cultural DNA of the West. The litany of production numbers that visualize these Fab songs are sometimes revelatory but more often off-putting. For every number that leaves your eyebrows raised and impressed, there’s two sequences that leave your eyes rolling at their forehead-slapping literal obviousness.

Examples? Taymor and her collaborators envision Abbey Road‘s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” as a cajoling to martial sacrifice, and the results are spectacular. Max walks into an enlistment office after being drafted, and is met by massive, authoritarian Uncle Sam posters literally coming to (CG-assisted) life in their desire to put his body into a uniform and ship him out. What ensues is a sequence of intensely corporeal Orwellian imagery, as army men with prosthetic square jaws strip recruits and toss them about in violent precision (Ezralow’s choreography here is amazing) and processing cubicles drop from the ceiling. The whole crazy, magnificent thing culminates with Max and other underwear-clad recruits stomping like titanic Atlases over a miniature Vietnamese jungle, laboriously hauling the Statue of Liberty on their backs over the song’s “she’s so heavy” coda. It’s not a terribly new message (the Vietnam War was an imperialistic perversion of American values; yeah, we know), but it’s imparted in such a bold and potent new way that such quibbles hardly matter.

I have no idea why wealthy elites didn't take them more seriously, do you?

Other sequences are similarly inventive. There’s a wildly theatrical “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” in a field that can’t properly be described and thus must be seen; the full gospelization of the already-churchy “Let It Be” as an elegy for the dead of Detroit’s 12th Street Riot; a simple but strong reinterpretation of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” as an anthem for the hopeless yearning of forbidden homosexual desire; a classic-musical take on “Happiness is a Warm Gun” with rotating hospital beds and multiple sexy nurses; and “Come Together” as an intro to the multicoloured richness of Greenwich Village.

But then there are the numbers that go for such stultifyingly direct uses of the songs as to spark guffaws. “Dear Prudence” exhorts Carpio’s Prudence to leave the closet (literally and figuratively, though there’s rarely much space between the two in this movie). “Hey Jude” exhorts Jude to “go out and get her”. “Revolution” is quoted to express skepticism at idealistic ’60s radicalism (there’s even a convenient picture of Chairman Mao for Sturgess to point at). “All My Loving” soundtracks a montage about the deluded optimism of separated lovers. And of course “All You Need is Love” argues that all the central lovers need is… love. Most wasteful is Bono’s cameo, singing “I am the Walrus” in a psychedelic bus surrounded by depraved hippies; the U2 frontman is damned funny with his handlebar mustache and faked American drawl, then just turns into his famous and recognizable self again when he sings. That the whole sequence is a fairly empty recreation of the Magical Mystery Tour film (itself not exactly a Beatles highlight) doesn’t really help. One is at least grateful that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is saved for end credits and does not involve Wood’s Lucy in the sky… with diamonds.

Combine these lazy applications of the Beatles catalogue with a plot that can’t make up its mind about which way to go for several interminable stretches, and it’s enough to diminish the film’s achievements, which are hardly scant. Taymor’s muse rewards often enough for a slight recommendation, but is too uneven for a strong one. Beatles nuts (like myself) will be frustrated and annoyed at least as often as they are delighted; maybe neophytes will be more diverted, but that’s not a perspective I have access to, so I can’t really say. Don’t go in expecting revelations and you’ll be pleasantly amused, is about all I can ultimately say.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

The Politics of Paid Sex: Chester Brown’s Paying For It

Chester Brown is one of Canada’s premier graphic novelists, best known for his so-called “comic-strip biography” of Louis Riel (which I wrote about academically, at great length) as well as more intimate autobiographical works like The Playboy and I Never Liked You. He is also, it turns out, a john, as well as an extremely doctrinaire libertarian. Both of these aspects of his personality are on full display in his latest comic-strip “memoir” of his relationships with prostitutes, Paying For It.

This is a curious and fairly didactic comic book, with none of the epic, compelling narrative sweep of Riel and not nearly enough of its complex, unsettling ambiguity. In a writerly voice that trespasses well into stridency, Brown fiercely defends prostitution on strict libertarian grounds, defining it as a willful transaction between consenting adults upon which currently-prevailing social mores impinge continuously and hypocritically. Brown, a stunningly straightforward and rigid visualist, intercuts stark depictions of sexual encounters with prostitutes with their illuminating pre- and post-coital conversations, and also inserts his thoughts about the issue into his narrative, through thought bubbles, conversations with friends, and most of all through his endnotes and appendices.

Although this closing flood of text , citations and philosophical, moral and political arguments deepens and contextualizes his rhetorical defense of paid sex, it has the same effect that the similarly detailed notes in Riel did, setting up a dichotomy between the instant impact of the comic imagetext and the sober, nuanced arguments of the notes. As it did in Riel, this demonstrates a sense of doubt in the ability of Brown’s chosen type of artistic form to express the political and moral complexities his notes discuss. He can’t make his case entirely through comics, ultimately, so he falls back on words alone.

His case, such as it is, is libertarian in the extreme, privileging individual property rights above all and openly characterizing any infringement of said rights as “evil”. This is in contrast to his response to any and all moral strictures against prostitution, most of which he takes the time to dismiss. The truth is that Brown’s moral and political perspective, to say nothing of the personal eccentricities that lead him to paid sex as a viable option, leaves significant gaps in his thinking. His absolute faith in the free market leaves him blind to its myriad abuses, which do apply to prostitution and will apply even if it is decriminalized and “freed” by capitalism, as Brown hopes.

Still, despite all of these elements hobbling Paying For It, the book’s argument for greater tolerance for prostitution and less morally-bound mischaracterizations of it are brave and laudable. And when he tones down the rhetoric long enough to allow the personalities of his whores (their faces always artfully obscured, presumably for their own protection but also simultaneously reducing their agency and giving impetus to accusations of objectification), they emerge as genuine, intelligent, and unfailingly realistic in their own approaches to the sex trade. Even with all of its libertarian excess, Paying For It is most effective in establishing a tone of fairness and honesty in relation to the politics of paid sex. For that alone, it deserve more than its share of positive notice.

Categories: Comics, Literature, Reviews

Film Review: X-Men: First Class

July 25, 2011 4 comments

X-Men: First Class (2011; Directed by Matthew Vaughn)

The Very Pretty Mutants Club of Westchester’s Annual Symposium

At once a model of masterful blockbuster filmmaking and a head-scratcher of a sociopolitical allegory, X-Men: First Class reverts Marvel’s foundational film property to the lean and thoughtful roots of Bryan Singer’s 2000 film, whose success catapulted the then-hit-and-miss comic-book subgenre to the forefront of Hollywood’s big-budget mythmaking. Relying less on adrenalized action set-pieces (although there are a few of those, of course) than on the dynamics between strongly-drawn, solidly-acted characters, director Matthew Vaughn’s First Class functions perfectly well as hyper-competent entertainment as well as political metaphor, even if the implications of the latter can range from problematic to outright troubling.

The story, by Sheldon Turner and Singer (who also produces and thus passes along a veneer of understated gravitas from his own X-Men films), focuses the ever-prevalent political allegories of this corner of Marvel universe on the central binary of differing masculine protagonists: the hardened, suspicious Holocaust survivor Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) and the generous and optimistic child of privilege Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). It extrapolates their divergent approaches onto the dominant post-WWII responses to the political lessons of Nazism, and their dialectical interactions mirror those of the diametrically-opposed Cold War superpowers, the United States and the USSR, who face off over missiles in Cuba during the film’s historically-fictive climax.

Unlike Singer’s original two X-Men films (the less mention made of Brett Ratner’s noisy and uninspired trilogy-ending The Last Stand, the better), however, First Class is a film about the powerful elite setting the agenda for world events, the representative of each side equally certain that they have the best interests of the masses in mind as they do so. Although X-Men and X2 situated the mutant team in relation to larger events, it focused our attention and sympathies on the more proletarian mutants like Anna Paquin’s insecure teenager Rogue and Hugh Jackman’s gruff anti-hero Wolverine (who gets a brief and characteristic cameo here). The Shakespearean thespianic hashing-out of good and evil in society was in good hands with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, but those films were more about offering case studies on the individual vs. society than wrapping everything into expansive metaphors for morality and realpolitik.

We can see this most clearly in this film’s opening scene at the gates of a Nazi concentration camp in Poland, which is not so much a call-back to the famously-heavy opening of the first X-Men movie as it is a direct recreation of it, but with one big twist. This time, as young Erik bends the metal gates with his anguished mind after being separated from his parents, someone sips tea and watches from a nearby window. It’s an image of the vigilance of authority and the power of surveillance, and it moves this rebooted narrative in wholly different directions.

There are NO degrees of separation between me and you, baby!

The man with the tea is Sebastian Shaw (played with expert smarmy knowingness by Kevin Bacon), who torments and experiments on young Erik in order to release his mutant potential, which Shaw, being a secret mutant himself, understands all too well (his ability is to absorb power and energy, apt for a Machiavellian figure of such immense and secretive power). Unfortunately for Shaw, when he murders Erik’s mother to spark the rage that activates the boy’s ability, he also activates an implacable sense of revenge that carries on to Lensherr’s adulthood. Now (“now” being the early 1960s) a precise and cunning young man with ingenious, small-scale control of his powers, Erik tracks Shaw through a dissembling Swiss banker (financier abuse in Hollywood movies is becoming one of their most consistent release-valve pleasures) and two retired Nazis in hiding at a remote Argentinian villa. The latter sequence shows off the dangerously handsome Fassbender to his greatest advantage, slipping effortlessly from one language to another as he draws his quarries in with suave laughter before delivering his righteous coup-de-grace.

Lensherr finally tracks his mentor/nemesis Shaw to a luxury yacht (Bacon struts from one set of retro opulence to the next in this movie, an involved visual marker of the übermensch-ian privilege that he represents), where he’s protected by a coterie of hench-mutants: a silent longhaired dude who hurls tornadoes from his hands (Riptide, played by Álex González), a teleporting red-skinned demon (Azazel, played by Vaughn’s frequent collaborator Jason Flemyng), and gorgeous blonde Emma Frost (the ever-plastic January Jones of Mad Men fame, whose cleavage ought to have its own cast credit), who reads minds and can turn to ice so that no one can read hers. As fate has it, mega-mind-reader Xavier (recently graduated from Oxford with a PhD in genetics and sizable chip on his shoulder) has fallen in with the CIA, who are also hot on Shaw’s trail and have chosen the same moment as Lensherr has to storm his boat. Xavier saves Lensherr from being dragged under with Shaw’s sleek escape sub, and the two men begin to make each other’s acquaintance.

Xavier and a reluctant Lensherr (who doesn’t trust monolithic government institutions, probably for good reasons) agree to help the CIA find other mutants, using a prototype of Cerebro, the mind-amplifying device that lets Xavier read minds at long range. They soon gather a motley crew of talented freaks of their own to counter Shaw’s. These include Xavier’s blue-skinned, shape-shifting childhood friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar-nominated for last year’s Winter’s Bone), super-smart, beast-footed scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult, of About a Boy, A Single Man, and hopefully many, many more films to come), red-headed sonic screamer Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), shy energy blaster Havok (Lucas Till), whose real name is Alex Summers (the brother of Scott Summers/Cyclops, played by James Marsden in the first trilogy), as well as the amphibious Darwin (Edi Gathegi) and insect-winged firefly Angel (Zoë Kravitz).

Shaw gets wind of these competing mutants and sweeps in while Lensherr and Xavier are on covert ops in Russia, plucking one for his team and destroying another who stands in his way. Xavier elects to move the rest of his fledgling X-Men away from government protection to his ancestral manse in Westchester and get serious about training to avert Shaw’s planned nuclear Armageddon, to be triggered off the coast of Cuba and meant to segue into an age of mutant dominion. From there, powers are enhanced, secrets are revealed, evil is defeated and/or deferred, and see you in two to three years for the sequel.

As I said, First Class lives up to the pun in its name. This is first-rate popcorn entertainment that’s also pretty smart, most of the time (the lead-up to the missile crisis is pretty heavy-handed, what with the repeated mentions of American missiles in Turkey and all). The action sequences don’t overwhelm, going for clean imagery and wondrous spectacle over furious violence (Lensherr lifting Shaw’s submarine and wrecking it on a tropical beach, for example) and privileging story and character development above sheer frenzied movement. The production and costume design are both super-stylish, going for the early-‘60s equivalent of steampunk (nukepunk? telepunk? Groovepunk?).

Additionally, the absurdly attractive cast (most of whom were evidently bumping uglies on set) bring far more commitment and passion than the material likely deserves. McAvoy may be the most familiar property here, as he’s carved out a solid career for himself playing boyishly-charming shiny-eyed idealists whose principles are firmly challenged but do not ultimately falter. He adds Charles Xavier to that resume with an ease that masks his evident effort.

The viciously elegant Fassbender, meanwhile, who stole the central scene of Inglourious Basterds and then looked a little morose and befuddled as Rochester in this year’s Jane Eyre, is writing with lighting as the burgeoning Magneto. Resplendent in a litany of swinging Teutonic turtlenecks and tailored period suits, Fassbender exerts his power over the movie whenever he’s in it, moulding it to his preferred form as his character manipulates metal. He takes a potentially hackneyed moment such as the one in which he must access his happiest memory to maximize his power and move a huge satellite dish and transforms it into a convincing mingling of exertion, anger, and joy. If Fassbender wasn’t a star before this movie, he surely must be now.

Of the rest of the cast, Lawrence and Hoult get the most attention, serving as conduits for the classic “Born This Way” subplot of misfits learning to accept their unique qualities in the face of social prejudices. The literality of employing Mystique (who hides her true blue form with her chameleonic powers, until she comes to accept them and thus herself) and Beast (who yearns to undo his mutation and, in the process, makes it irreversible and impossible to hide) is a bit much, and not nearly as resonant as Rogue’s blessing/curse, but it does, at least, deepen two classic X-characters who served mostly as window dressing in the previous films. Hoult is all awkward nerdy reticence before his transformation and becomes lost in unimpressive make-up after it. Lawrence, with her soft, rounded features and tone of jaded innocence, is a fine choice for the youthful, pre-disillusionment Mystique but may have a tougher time with the treacherous femme-fatale image that the statuesque Rebecca Romijn (who also has a cameo) slid comfortably into in the earlier films.

But, since this is me writing this review, I’m obviously much more interested in the socio-political allegories at play in First Class, and my oh my, are they ever doozies. Although Xavier’s cooperative soft-power liberalism and Lensherr’s aggressive mutant-pride quasi-nationalism have often been compared to the Civil Rights-era philosophical gaps between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively, that comparison is inactive in this film. Although Lensherr appeals to the African-American Darwin with a pretty unsubtle mention of potential mutant “enslavement”, the racial angle is downplayed. Indeed, it’s practically absent, as Ta-Nehisi Coates noted with his usual eloquence in his New York Times piece on the film. This absence is even imparted visually, as we see Xavier and Lensherr playing chess on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where MLK would address thousands a few years later, the practically empty National Mall stretching out behind them. This is that sort of film, where two talented, genius members of the elite decide the fate of millions, while the millions themselves have no say and not even a basic presence.

Your bishop may have taken my rook, but my turtleneck takes EVERYTHING ELSE.

But Xavier and Lensherr also represent the two strains of anti-authoritarian democracy to emerge as reactions to the fascism of the Third Reich. Xavier, of course, is well-meaning, patronizing secular liberal democracy, the sheltered, privileged golden child believing in an essential human decency and social justice that rarely fails to disappoint but doesn’t ever shake its basic convictions. He is America, Canada, and Western Europe in their best, most progressive moments.

Lensherr, however, subscribes to a siege mentality, an “us vs. them” paranoia nurtured in the concentration camps and transmuted into an unwavering pledge to never come close to being under anyone else’s boot again. This predilection shades his morality in stark terms, leading him to aggression, violence, and even the sort of discrimination against others that he’s looking to prevent against his own kind. Even if he wasn’t Jewish, it would be painfully clear that Lensherr is Israel, a fortified New Masada against enemies real and imagined. Of course, Lensherr never really self-identifies as Jewish, substituting instead his social-Darwinist views of mutant superiority. When he tells the Nazis in Argentina that they erased his people, he means it. His tribe is the mutants, a commitment solidified after he finishes off Shaw and takes over the Brotherhood.

But both of these viewpoints are crafted in reaction to the basic discriminatory assumptions of humans, who always seem frightened of and threatened by mutants. And, in the context of First Class, Magneto’s suspicions are confirmed; the authoritarian, perversely, is right. When the American and Soviet fleets join forces to destroy the mutants at the film’s climax, their combined payload is one big “muties go home.” Xavier stubbornly sticks to his rosy view of mankind’s ability to overcome its prejudice and winds up crippled and further sheltered as a result, but Lensherr has seen enough to make his choice, embracing the authoritarian militarism implied by Shaw’s stylized helmet.

That a pulpy summer blockbuster can also evoke such political conclusions should perhaps not be surprising to us at this point, but it’s always welcome when it happens. Taking the historical fiction route with X-Men should allow Marvel to set it apart from their other properties (although Captain America was also done as a period piece), even if it has a bit of a Mad Men + James Bond + mutants feel to it. Vaughn has crafted a nice, smart, well-acted, and intermittently exciting superhero film that, like the best examples of the genre, never feels like only a superhero film.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Madness, Gods and Norway

As yesterday’s shocking and deadly terrorist act in Norway begins to sink in and the accretion of details begins to give it form, we can see it for what it’s increasingly appearing to be: yet another in a multiplying litany of instances of right-wing extremist violence. Economic dislocation and insecurity often leads to this sort of thing, especially in Europe, although the debt-ceiling mess in the U.S. and the approaching deprivations of the Rob Ford regime in Toronto (likely to soon be followed by those of a Tim Hudak regime in Ontario as a whole, if provincial polls are to be believed) show that unchecked demagoguery has dire consequences on this side of the Atlantic, too, whether guns or bombs are going off or not. That the knee-jerk reaction from much of the media (to say nothing of the unhinged right itself) was to immediately speculate that Al-Qaeda or some other Islamist affiliate was behind the assault on Oslo and Utoeya Island simply demonstrates not merely the simmering anti-Muslim bigotry which far right rhetoric has enabled but also the enormous conservative-shaped blind spot that these stirrings have encouraged in media coverage.

How darkly apt that I recently finished reading Greg Hollingshead’s Bedlam, a novel about the thin, porous membrane between politics and madness, between discrimination and paranoia, and between good intentions and outright cruelty. Though it’s set in late Georgian and Regency England, where even the King was mad, that doesn’t mean it has no applicability to our current moment, where entire delusional realities can be created in the heads of our political classes and leaders and then foolishly acted upon.

Perhaps less apt would be Brian Flemming’s fairly inept but undoubtedly belligerent and provocative The God Who Wasn’t There, a meandering but angry challenge to unchecked Christianist propaganda which I also watched recently (although the Norwegian suspect in the attack self-identifies as a conservative Christian of the type being challenged by Flemming). Although Flemming mostly wastes his filmic outrage on dubious speculative scholarship about the historicity of Jesus, there is some useful scepticism concerning claims of religious moral superiority included as well, to say nothing of an unflinching expose of the overwrought bloodbath that was Mel Gibson’s “devotional” The Passion of the Christ.

I can’t really go along with his argument, though, and not only because it’s so poorly sourced (always a problem with the agitprop documentary). When it comes to arguments about religion, in particular extreme ones, I’ve always leaned towards the contrary position of whatever absolute assertions are being made. If an aggressive atheist in the Richard Dawkins mold is declaiming the ignorance, lies, and history of atrocious violence inherent to religious faith, I’ll counter with examples of its common moderation, its modern concern for social justice and improvement of the circumstances for the poor, and the myriad examples of enduring and beautiful culture that it has produced.

Alternately, if a rigid fundamentalist firebrand is fulminating about the evils of secularity and the need for a virtual (if not actual) theocracy along the doctrinal lines of his or her chosen denomination, then I’m likely to focus on the discriminatory violence, the blinkered tribalism, and the vicious stifling of dissenting and heretical points of view endemic to many religious movements, especially those that achieve authority over societies as a whole. Perhaps this is simply my intellectual predilection, but working to see the full complexity and contradictory nature of religious faith doesn’t strike me as a mistaken approach at all. And whatever mix of politics, religion and madness ends up being the fuel for the terrible events in Norway yesterday, I’m certain that a similar approach to understanding it will also be preferable.

It’s Rebecca Black’s Moment and We’re Just Living In It

I should feel worse about driving up her page hits even a small amount, but if you didn’t know, Rebecca Black of car-seat-uncertainty and cereal-bowl-loving fame has a new single and video, “My Moment”:

Yeah, just sort of over-scrubbed and mediocre, rather than epically, culture-encapsulatingly bad like the infamous “Friday”. And though the 14-year-old Black remains a comically-awkward performer (check out the initial stirrings of a Carlton-from-The-Fresh-Prince dance at 1:14 and her air-drum solo a few seconds later), only an inveterate ass would blame her for the odious poor taste that underscores her dubious fame. Overall, the image relaunch represented by “My Moment” absolutely reeks of PR polish and corporate doublethink. The image being sold through Black was the image that is always being sold in post-millenial teen culture: glamour and fame is the only end worth contemplating, even if the means can be humiliating or diminishing. When Black examines a newspaper article about her post-“Friday” fame (at 1:09 of the video), she’s positively beaming. Who cares if the article is almost assuredly discussing how horrible and embarrassing the song is; what’s important is that her name and face is in the newspaper! Cool!

Still, I only have so much patience for the mild annoyance expressed by many “Friday” critics at the video’s circulation of the worst teen-centric celebrity-culture tropes. The circulation of those tropes, or rather the ineptness of Ark Music Factory’s attempts to evoke them, was what so many really responded to in that awful song in the first place. What made “Friday” the latest online phenomenon in a litany of similar cultural memes was not merely its badness, but its complete obliviousness to its own badness. Foolishness on its own is funny, but credulous foolishness is downright hilarious. That the song and its video were so astoundingly non-self-aware in a culture largely predicated on an excess of self-awareness, that it seemed an almost serendipitous send-up of the shallow, deluded play-acting of teen culture, was what was resonant about it. Millions watched, mouths agape in shocked laughter, as American capitalist entertainment feasted on the flesh of its own young, believing it was enjoying some roasted chicken. It was tremendously satisfying.

But “My Moment” (“My Zeitgeist”?) is an instructive object lesson in how the capitalist order works to mitigate symbolic threats of subversion to its self-perpetuating bottom-line. As mentioned, the song and video entirely ignore the terms of Black’s fleeting appeal in favour of a rosy, sun-kissed portrayal of celebrity for its own sake. This is the Sarah Palin approach to the implications of criticisms (minus Bible Spice’s titanic persecution complex): either pretend they don’t exist or treat them as if they actually do you credit. It’s also fundamental to the continued functioning and desultory growth of American capitalism in the 21st century: the essential illusion of constant, upward-trending confidence.

Though I used to abide by Michel Foucault’s truism that power inscribes its own resistances, a cultural moment like Rebecca Black’s current one doesn’t quite uphold that. I suppose when an over-eager, under-talented organ of the larger corporate body churns out a product that accidentally, succinctly undermines the larger discursive project, even in a limited way, it’s a distinct and much less easily-controlled phenomenon than the usual inscribed resistances. Denial and/or airbrushing seems to be the only way to go in this case, the only path of escape from the troubling implications buried in “Friday” about the system’s operation. When capitalist power cannot inscribe its resistances, it must instead pretend that they are, in fact, superlatives. And the feast continues.

Categories: Culture, Hilarity, Music

Film Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2

July 17, 2011 6 comments

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011; Directed by David Yates)

And so, it all ends with not silvery Patronus but with a misfiring wand.

It’s Harry who does the killing around here!

I’m not entirely sure who to blame for my mild disappointment at the concluding film of the Harry Potter cinematic saga. Perhaps I should blame director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves, whose multi-film compression of J.K. Rowling’s furiously busy and detailed plots and characters was always going to have negative consequences when it came time for the final narrative throes. Perhaps I should blame Rowling herself for constructing the arc of the closing chapter as a give-and-take between spectacular white-knuckle magic-action sequences and interminably talky exposition before indulging in a mawkish denouement of epically-miscalcuated proportions. Perhaps I should blame myself for overpraising the exquisite visual craftsmanship of the last few films and building my own expectations so high when I knew full well what sort of interminable and mawkish conclusion Rowling had waiting for me. Whoever’s fault it is, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 wasn’t quite magic to me.

Which isn’t to say it was anywhere near all bad. Written with dramatic verve, directed with vision and an eye for spectacle, and acted with steely-eyed Brit conviction, Deathly Hallows – Part 2 has more than its fair share of the impressive. The sombre evocation of the common British cultural memory of the Blitz, so integral to the admittedly much more interesting first part of Deathly Hallows, continues into this second part, especially in the darkened, besieged Hogwarts, which has more foreboding atmosphere than in any film since Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban. Whether Rowling intended to harken back to Britain’s stiff-lipped resistance against Hitler or not in her books, there’s little doubt that Yates and Kloves intend to in their films, and it gives the material some haunting gravitas it might otherwise not have had.

Some of the action sequences work well as pure spectacle, as well. Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s daring raid on the Goblin Bank of Wobblecolumns in search of one of Voldemort’s hidden Horcruxes (magical vessels containing his soul, which they have to destroy in order to kill him, by the way, just in case the films’ proscribed description didn’t quite stick in your head) kickstarts the film in relative style. Involving a Polyjuice disguise, dangerously multiplying treasure, an abused albino dragon, and hordes of treacherous, hooked-nose, vaguely anti-Semitic goblins, the destructive escape from the bank quite nearly leaps off the screen as it does so completely does off of Rowling’s page.

Victory for Upfish!

Even the large-scale, effects-heavy Battle of Hogwarts has its rousing and impressive moments, such as a tense broomstick-aided escape from a magical inferno in the object-strewn Room of Requirement (the fire morphs into threatening animal forms, like the galloping horse-headed flood in The Fellowship of the Ring) and the destruction of a Horcrux in the Chamber of Secrets featuring a liquid image of Voldemort dissolving into cascade of water that soaks Ron and Hermione (who then ickily oblige Potterheads everywhere by snogging like fiends). The oddly anticlimactic final dust-up between Harry and the serpentine Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, working hard at being evil but looking like a snake that just devoured a gopher in his poorly-fitting black robes) is actioned-up almost beyond recognition, but that’s an improvement over the book, in which Rowling has her hero vanquish his nemesis (and her audience) with brain-numbing exposition.

There’s some strong non-CGI-excitement elements of note, too. Yates and Kloves totally nail the backstory of Snape and Lily Potter in a pretty and confidently melodramatic Flashback Bowl montage, allowing the incomparable Alan Rickman to actually emote at last. Grey Dead Harry’s interview with Dumbledore the White (Michael Gambon, much missed) in a spectral version of King’s Cross Station contains a higher concentration of gnomic Dumbledore-isms than anywhere else in the movies, even if it provides nothing resembling an answer for how Harry is allowed to come back from the dead. Most of the personal moments between the central trio of friends remain nicely underplayed, including Harry’s decision concerning the incredibly powerful Elder Wand in the denouement. And even if there are far too many cameos by far too many beloved characters for any of them to have much impact (David Thewlis’ sad and doomed Remus Lupin and Helena Bonham Carter’s twisted pixie of nastiness Bellatrix Lestrange get particularly short shrift), some of them have some a nice line or two, including Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, Devon Murray as Seamus Finnigan (has he made anyone laugh since, like, the second film?), David Bradley’s Argus Filch, Kelly Macdonald as the ghost of Helena Ravenclaw, and the suddenly-hot Matthew Lewis as stealth badass Neville Longbottom.

But every enervated moment in this film seems to have an oddly limp and underwhelming one to match it. The serious tone takes its toll on the essential likable spirit of this world and its characters, illustrating Rowling’s central mistake of taking a delightfully comic and cleverly fantastic twist on the British boarding school novel genre and transforming it into a ponderously Manichean moral epic of Tolkien-like proportions. When even Fred and George (James and Oilver Phelps) can’t wring a chuckle out of the proceedings, things have gotten far too heavy. The corollary of this overheated us vs. them nonsense is a quietly chilling moment of astounding prejudice, namely McGonagall’s imprisonment of every kid in Slytherin in the Hogwarts dungeons for the crime of, what exactly? Being the kids of the wrong kind of people? Not liking Harry? Being Japanese (oops, wrong war)? Rowling, Yates, and Kloves probably think this is all par for the course when it comes to good vs. evil morality, but this kind of wartime discrimination on even the side of supposed good (the other kids openly cheer this arrest without charge, even) is a pernicious idea to be passing along to an impressionable, youthful fanbase.

The Death Eaters model the latest in summer fashions.

Additionally, the Freudian obsession with the ownership of wands and which wizard won whose wand from who gets a little over-strange, especially as it concerns Harry’s youthful foil Draco Malfoy (pale and whiney in the hands of a grown-up Tom Felton) and adult antagonist Voldemort. Even having John Hurt’s stately Ollivander mutter wandlore while gingerly fingering the psyche-extensions of several wizards doesn’t make the obvious phallic quality of it all seem any less bizarre (indeed, it only increases the squirmy feeling).

More scattershot complaints: the spectacle of the nocturnal Hogwarts siege got murky at times, at least on the screen I watched the film on. Neville’s greatly-anticipated beheading of Voldemort’s snake-friend Nagini (the most flagrant symbolic castration in a series rather rife with them) is refigured very poorly, becoming less a moment of brave defiance than a sneaky and desperate act. A brief scene with Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth (an unrecognizable Ciaran Hinds) is retained despite the elimination of practically all of the background information that might have given it a reason to exist. There’s a completely gratuitous scene of Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint stripping off their shirts after a plunge into a lake that grates with its cheap appeal to teenaged girls. And although Rowling’s absolutely awful “19 years later” epilogue was less objectionable in visual form, it remained a laughable conclusion while simultaneously demonstrating just how unflattering middle age is likely to be to Radcliffe.

Maybe, in the final analysis, the strong elements of Deathly Hallows – Part 2 achieve a balance with its questionable moments. But there’s something curiously uninspired about the whole package that I never really felt after previous cinematic installments that tilts it towards the negative side. The fleet-footed artistry that’s been prominently on display in these films since Cuaron’s entry transformed them into something more poetic and nearly transcendent of their mass-culture origins is here smothered by the sheer, crushing weight of dramatic closure.

The reduction of Hogwarts to a pile of smouldering rubble, furthermore, seems like a singularly overwrought metaphor for the end of childhood innocence, much as Rowling’s circle-closing epilogue always seemed pat and saccharine. In these and many other ways (not least of all their astounding profitability), the Harry Potter saga is the defining work of a generation, and the culture it defines is a similarly messy and inconsistent one, at once intricately complex and depressingly simple-minded. A literary critic may cringe at that thought, but it may well be true. We may not all have wands, pet owls, and murderous reptilian arch-enemies, but we all live in Harry Potter’s world. Who takes cultural ownership of it now that he’s relinquishing his claim still remains to be seen, but it will take a long time to fully assess the myriad impacts of his stewardship.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker (2008; Directed by Kathryn Bigelow)

Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning thumbscrewer doesn’t necessarily have any radically new or fascinating insights into the physical and psychological toll of warfare, but her masterful control of tension and visual space makes The Hurt Locker a notable entry into the burgeoning Iraq War genre.

This is not good.

Focusing on a three-man Army bomb squad in the final month-and-a-half of their tour, Bigelow’s film (from Mark Boal’s taut script) is prefaced with a heavy-handed pronouncement: war is a drug. We are not for one moment allowed to lose sight of the clear adrenaline rush that Sergeant William James (more on this character’s conspicuous name in a moment) gets from his high-risk work investigating and defusing bombs. Jeremy Renner’s Will James oozes cocky machismo and sucks on quasi-post-coital cigarettes after each mission, but even this embodiment of American masculine swagger can’t shake the demons of war for long. The soldier’s inability to adjust to civilian family life has been a war movie cliche since the post-WWII The Best Years of Our Lives, if not longer, and Boal and Bigelow trot out the well-worn trope with little concern for its expiry date.

But The Hurt Locker is not about reinventing the brain of the war movie; it’s about giving it a lean, muscular, well-proportioned form. Bigelow indulges in flashy but undoubtedly poetic slo-mo shots of dust rising and settling after a blast, brief, zen-like snapshots of environments shattered by man. The various extended combat sequences are the true directorly tours-de-force, however, though they might more properly be called anticipation of combat. Bigelow keenly establishes the geography of her settings with initial sweeps and cuts (Jordan poses for war-torn Iraq, helped along by the casting of actual Iraqi refugees), so that when action begins to ratchet into motion, the audience knows precisely how close to deadly peril everyone stands. The superlative adjectives have been overstrained already on this film, but one still holds true: riveting.

Although a bit more displayed awareness for the film’s place in the war movie canon might have been preferable (an Iraq film with cultural knowing of Jarhead and the action set pieces of The Hurt Locker would be a formidable beast indeed), the lead character’s name hints at a veiled resonance embedded in Bigelow and Boal’s work. William James was, of course, one of the great minds of early psychology, and the founder and leading proponent of functional psychology.

Red wire or blue wire?

This school of psychology emphasizes the human mind’s active, ongoing adaptation to external environmental stimuli, precisely the sort of stimuli that cannot be replicated in controlled experiments. In a like mind to his famed namesake, Sergeant James has little patience for official attempts to tame the rabid monster that is war, and believes it needs to be confronted on its own terms, in its putrid, bone-strewn lair. He is repeatedly called a “wild man” by his more professional peers, but James feels instinctively that war itself is wild, and that any attempt to approach it as anything else is counter-intuitive. What he is, he only really is in the theater of war; his behaviour is his identity, and his identity is tied to war. Civilian life cannot engage him, for its adaptations are too proscribed, not active or extreme enough. Inscribed in Boal’s naming of the character, then, is a fixed psychological standpoint, in the academic sense, a clever nod to the film’s deeper possibilities.

Still, as entertainingly-staged as The Hurt Locker is, it has its weaknesses. It loses its momentum as the second hour winds on, and the various big-name actors in minor roles prove more distracting than anything else. Furthermore, those not of a mind to agree with my William James-functional psychology leap might find it lacking in intellectual heft and too invested in narratives of masculinity. But when Bigelow tightens the vice on us (and she does so often), such concerns are moot, and the edges of our seats bear our weight.

Categories: Film, Reviews

PopMatters Review: Paul Dempsey – Everything is True

Note: I write regular album reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the album title to go to the review.

Paul Dempsey – Everything is True

Categories: Music, Reviews

Film Review: Super 8

July 12, 2011 1 comment

Super 8 (2011; Directed by JJ Abrams)

JJ Abrams may not be much of a film artist, but as an alchemist of entertainment, he’s practically unmatched right now. Even if there’s next to nothing about his productions that even resembles genuine groundbreaking originality, he makes films with verve, excitement and wit that recycle the cream of the pop cultural crop of the last three or four decades at a dizzying rate.

See, guys? This is why my parents won't let me turn on the stove!

I haven’t seen much of Alias and also missed his Mission: Impossible flick, but have been assured that both reordered the myths of the spy thriller genre with deceptive cleverness. Although the reins of Lost were mostly in other hands more interested in problems of moral philosophy than the fanboy Abrams, its humour, convoluted mysteries, and consistent intrigues carried his signature. His crackerjack reboot of Star Trek of two summers ago may have been the most gleeful, purely Abramsian thing he threw together yet, even if it was more flippant Star Wars cool than nerdy Star Trek insularity.

For sheer Abrams-ness, though, Super 8 takes the cake, the party favours, and the lion’s share of the punch while it’s at it. That it was painstakingly constructed in the media and the public eye as his most “personal” film (more for recalling youthful filmmaking than, you know, that whole alien monster angle) perhaps doesn’t hurt this impression. That the film itself is also a painstakingly constructed homage to vintage Steven Spielberg should hurt that impression, but oddly doesn’t. Spielberg’s own involvement as a producer and fellow story-crafter may have something to do with this, but this just deepens the meta-reflexivity already readily apparent. Super 8 is a reminiscence of real-world youth that melds so thoroughly with common filmic memories that any tenuous line between the two becomes erased. As if it had any right to divide them in the first place anyway.

The story is a surprisingly engaging one, considering it’s most stolen and re-adapted from much more beloved films, many of them made by Senor Spielbergo himself. It’s 1979 in small-town Lillian, Ohio (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and a sensitive, creative pre-teen boy named Joe (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother to a factory accident (elegantly communicated through the manual reset of an “Accident-Free Days” sign). His dad (Kyle Chandler) is an uncommunicative man’s man who also happens to be a sheriff’s deputy (Jaws again). He wants Joe to bugger off to baseball camp (The Sandlot? Not quite) so he doesn’t have to deal with the boy all summer, but this possibility disappears without the slightest trace. Instead, Joe and his gang of misfit buddies (Stand By Me) labour away their summer hours on a Super 8 zombie movie (Night of the Walking Dead, etc.), lead by the invariably bossy and demanding director Charles (played by Riley Griffiths, and probably a proxy for Abrams).

When Charles has his Merian Cooper moment and decides that he needs a love interest to grant some added sympathy to his detective protagonist, he, of course, asks the prettiest girl in his orbit, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), to play the wife role. She turns out to be a natural stunner as an actress, which must surely have something to do with her using her troubled home life with her alcoholic dad (Ron Eldard) as motivation. As the ragtag production team (lovestruck Joe in particular) gawks at her riveting performance (one of many unexpected great moments in this film), a train thunders by the isolated station they’ve chosen as a location, only to be suddenly and spectacularly derailed by a pick-up truck on the tracks (The Fugitive). After a five-alarm crash of smashing, careening, exploding train cars that grinds on for eons (one is reminded of the endless tumbling brontosaurs in Peter Jackson’s King Kong), the boys (and girl) discover that the truck was driven by their science teacher (Glynn Turman) and that the train belonged to the Air Force and carried some top-secret shit, indeed. They speed off just ahead of the arriving military authorities (E.T.), scared totally shitless and vowing not to say a word about what they’ve seen.

Sure, it's beautiful, but your town is still pretty fucked up, isn't it?

As they continue their film and have various hushed conversations concerning that which they pledged not to have hushed conversations about, weird things predictably start to happen. All of the town’s dogs run off, only to be found counties away. The power flickers on and off constantly and electronics start to disappear (The Day The Earth Stood Still). People start to vanish, including the sheriff and a gas station attendant in a sequence of terrific suspense (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). The Air Force jerks, especially Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich), stymie Joe’s cop dad in his quest for information (Jaws again), and at least one alarmed housewife blames the Soviets for the whole damned mess (Red Dawn). Meanwhile, the antipathy between Joe and Alice’s dads keeps them apart, the mystery deepens, things get weirder and more serious, the town evacuates, a stoner helps them out, war zone, freaky alien, so forth and etcetera.

No Abrams devotee can be surprised that the enigmatic mysteries at the plot’s core either go unresolved (we never do find out what the deal was with the dogs, for example) or are resolved pretty much exactly as you expect them to be. There’s also lots of perfectly natural acting but not much very good acting besides Alice’s aforementioned scene. The kids are all gloriously unaffected, Emmerich is nasty but dull, Eldard is heartfelt, and Chandler is stuck with the square-jawed American hero role that he tends to do a better job at upending than merely aping. The suspense, action, and spectacle scenes are very well orchestrated, if not too unique; in addition to the gas station sequence, there’s an attack on a military prison bus that echoes The Lost World, and a climax of overdone wonder that is such a direct rip-off of Close Encounters, down to Michael Giacchino’s surging score of John Williams-level unsubtlety, that surely Spielberg must have skipped the set that day to avoid become nauseous from the overdose of flattery.

What works best, however, is the simpler stuff, the interactions of the young friends as they deal with the challenges of their silly little movie (which we see over the end credits, and is giddy and goofy in the best no-budget home filmmaking way), their parents, their feelings, and their relationship to each other. Oh, and also with the dangerous unseen monster on the loose, and the full force of the military-industrial complex. Just another summertime buddy flick, in that way.

JJ Abrams, as always, pays full homage to his influences and layers as many genre standbys as he can overtop of those influences, but his humanity never gets lost in the meta-glut. For all of the cleverness and epic scope at play here, there’s a genuine core of joy and delight at the possibilities of film and the headiness of youth at the centre of Super 8, and that can overcome any number of monsters, mysteries, and explosions.

Categories: Film, Reviews