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PopMatters Television Review – The Amazing Race – Season 19 Premiere

September 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Note: I write regular album, DVD, television, and film 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 title below to go to the review.

The Amazing Race – Season 19 Premiere

 

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Categories: Reviews, Television

PopMatters Television Review: Luther – Season Two Premiere

September 28, 2011 1 comment

Note: I write regular album, DVD, television, and film 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 title below to go to the review.

Luther – Season Two Premiere

 

Categories: Reviews, Television

Myriad Americas: A Sojourn in Massachusetts

September 26, 2011 5 comments

The recent radio silence at Random Dangling Mystery has a simple explanation: I was on vacation. Such a limpid term, I know, but then tourism can be a limpid experience if one is not careful, or rather if one is too careful. I make no claim to either, but my latest flurry of travel, the first in quite a while, was not unrewarding. Spending close to a week in Boston and its environs, wandering the city until my feet were sore with the effort of enjoying as much of this unique and resonant city as possible, I was struck anew by the strange stew that is America, as I always am when I find myself in that country.

To put it another, more accurate way, though, I am struck not by America, but by Americas, by those myriad versions of the same thing that are nonetheless different. I speak not of the stereotypes of the United States, those crude caricatures of boorish wealth, spontaneous excess, and shoot-from-the-hip credulity, although, admittedly, there were plentiful examples of all of those things on display, should an observer choose to focus on them. The food portions are rather enormous, and the cheerful serving staff often seems greatly concerned that a diner in search of smaller amounts might leave in a state of insufficient satisfaction. The working-class opiniated loudmouth is a well-entrenched type there as well, especially when it comes to sports and/or politics, subjects upon which nearly everyone is much quicker to venture a viewpoint than even your most diehard hockey-loving suburban conservative in these parts. And although centuries of undiminished exploitative capitalism have left a city gloriously strewn with edifying cultural institutions and beautiful public works, there is a bit of a mishmash of styles, to say nothing of evident fondness of generations of American architects for secular temples of Neoclassical grandiosity. These features of the American human landscape are considered prevalent because they are stereotypes, but can it not alternately be argued that they are stereotypes because they are prevalent?

But my choice of reading on the trip, E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 epic of early-20th-century America Ragtime, began to point my perceptions in another direction, or, rather, directions. A rambling novel of stream-of-consciousness Americana, Ragtime argues that there are so many stories to this grand mess of a land, so many competing and cohabitating narratives constituting the nation, that one story, or even three or four, will not suffice. Doctorow gives us stories of opposing sides of the wealth and the racial divide, but they are the stories of strivers, reachers, the masses of the hopeful. And every American dream is unique and singular.

All these different Americas were very much on display in Boston, unquestionably one of the finest urban experiments in a country overflowing with them. We know much of the proud, sophisticated, proper history of the Sons of Liberty and their glorious revolution, as well as the immigrant story implied by the tight-packed stone of the North End and the vaulting glass-and-steel collaborative triumph of business capital and engineering vision trumpeted by a skyscraper like the John Hancock Tower. But there are so many other stories living in the bones of this great old port town, and discovering them was wonderful.

There is, of course, faith, that core element of American identity. Despite Boston’s reputation as a bastion of liberal enlightenment and educated spiritual doubt, it’s hard to miss nearby Salem’s historical example of religious hysteria run rampant; tucked away behind the wax museums and witchy bauble shops is a sober memorial to the very human victims of puritanical excess. The flip side of this is the tremendously impressive Christian Science Plaza, a monument to a perhaps deluded ideal of faith as something that can be reconciled with and even assimilated into the secular capitalist order, rather than something that stands impotently in the way of progress, shouting “Stop!” with all its feeble might. And there is the Old North Church and the haunted burying grounds with their tilted Halloween tombstones, constructions with religious origins that history has transformed into symbols of something more inclusive and secular.

Indeed, there can be something very haunting about New England, especially when the fog rolls in over the towers of the downtown core, turning them into towering iridescent lanterns in the deepening twilight. Indeed, it isn’t hard to see how Eastern Seaboard authors like Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, and Massachusetts’ native son Nathaniel Hawthorne were inspired to craft literary works of gothic resonance by their surroundings, an atmosphere not merely attributable to the foggy indistinctness on the coastline or the stentorian severity of the British colonial architecture. Surely once or twice they must have passed by the wide still marshes and fens north of the city and seen a lonely white crane edging through the reeds like a restless ghost. It isn’t hard to conceive of this America as a shadowy realm of headless horsemen and telltale hearts, where the perpetual golden sunrise of intrepid individualism is preceded and well-tempered by dark midnights of the solitary soul.

There are so many more Americas to be glimpsed in a place like Boston that any summary seems cruelly truncated. There is a considerable, singular artistic heritage to a city that names a square after one of its painters and maintains a major museum based purely on the whims of taste of one of its wealthy connoisseur daughters. This is to say nothing of the town’s mixed but fascinating history of professional sport or its role as the educational centre of America. But really, ultimately, it’s a city that lives, that breathes, that thinks, and that tastes of America, however that proper name is defined at any given time. Most cities in America do that, but it really does feel that Boston does so just a little more deeply. A fine place, then, for a sojourn.

Film Review: The Remains of the Day

September 18, 2011 1 comment

The Remains of the Day (1993; Directed by James Ivory)

It’s visually meticulous, narratively sophisticated, and impeccably acted, as Merchant-Ivory productions always seem to be, but tiny quibbles begin to gradually add up as I watch The Remains of the Day.

Tell me, Miss Kenton... would your first name be Clarice, perchance? Do you enjoy fava beans and chianti?

Maybe it’s because Kazuo Ishiguro is such an impeccably precise stylist of language and theme and metaphors that no visual adaptation of his work, even one as literate and faithful as this one, can quite handle the particular tone and perspective of the original material. Maybe it’s because as subtly, powerfully good as Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson both are, they are undercut at several turns, too. The former never gets the cathartic moment of ultimate emotional unburdening that Ishiguro gives his Mr. Stephens, and feels a touch too automatonic as a result (and the Stephens of the novel would emphatically not go into the crying Miss Kenton’s room to twist the knife as he does in the film). The latter seems oddly out of place in an undefinable way, as if she’s surely too clever and handsome to be a mere housekeeper (although Miss Kenton does escape the servants’ quarters, unlike the duty-bound Stephens). Maybe it’s because James Fox is just a touch too ridiculous an upper-crust dilletante for Lord Darlington. Could be all of those things, to similar minor extents.

But really, it could be that the aforementioned precision of the novel, and the subtly unreliable narrative voice provided by Stephens, can’t help but be flattened by the absolutist demands of the wide screen. Elements that were laid out with gradual technical grace in Ishiguro’s pages are just launched out there by director James Ivory, like so many paper boats on a duck pond. The extent of Lord Darlington’s dalliances with Nazi appeasement, for example, is not left as a barely-uttered mystery for long at all, compared with the half-acknowledged, half-justified truths favoured by Ishiguro’s Stephens. Even well-established prestige-hawkers like Merchant and Ivory can’t resist the lure of a good filmic Nazi threat, it seems.

Compared to most big studio productions, of course, The Remains of the Day is downright minimalist, not to mention miraculously trusting of its audience’s intelligence. But it’s still the cinema, and the cinema, by virtue of its very formal standards, must always be dragged kicking and screaming towards ambiguity. Merchant and Ivory were never much for dragging anything anywhere as filmmakers, so to speak, even when it might well be necessary, and there are times when it could be necessary in the case of The Remains of the Day.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Film Review: Local Hero

September 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Local Hero (1983; Directed by Bill Forsyth)

Likable, smart, and gently satirical, Bill Forsyth’s quaintly dated tale of a small Scottish town sent into conniptions by a multimillion-dollar offer from an American oil giant to buy it up and turn it into a refinery is charming in its attempts to give a more nuanced view of life in small rural communities.

In moments, the mild-mannered lawyer enters the booth and then exits it as... SCOTSMAN!

The later Celtic-adult-contempo-hit Waking Ned Devine seems rather influenced by Local Hero, but unlike the romanticized Irish village that bamboozles the big-city lottery folks out of millions for the good of the town, the avarice is much less warm and fuzzy here. With the exception of a beach-dwelling eccentric who holds up the deal (and causes it to transform into something else entirely), all of the colourful rustic villagers are quite happy, eager even, to sell their ancestral property to corporate Yanks.

Nor are urbanites constructed as slick, soulless operators: the town’s negotiator, Urquhart (Denis Lawson, a.k.a Wedge Antilles), is every bit as sharp as Mac (Peter Riegert, probably best known as Jim Carrey’s hapless police lieutenant antagonist in The Mask), and their repartee is quick and never one-sided. Forsyth utilizes a lot of sly visual cues and sneaky verbal suggestions that serve to show this town as anything but your traditional Capra-esque locii of honesty and moral rectitude (a common enough view of small-scale habitation in Britain, if Midsomer Murders‘ catalogue of raging ids is any indication).

Beyond its nuanced thoughts on the urban-rural split, the film is fairly scattershot in terms of real laughs. Peter Capaldi’s gawkish Oldsen is often amusing with his awkward schoolboy crush on a comely local scuba-diving biologist, but the regal Burt Lancaster provides the film’s real appeal as Felix Happer, the hereditary head of Mac’s corporate employer.

Lounging unfulfilled in his opulent office and quarters at the top of a skyscraper like a banished old wizard, Happer wends away the hours with his amateur astronomy habit, hoping to give his name to a comet since he can’t give it to any children (he has none) or to his company (his father bought out the original owner but left his Scottish name intact). There’s an undercurrent of mystic sadness to the performance, but Lancaster mostly plays Happer for cathartic laughs, particularly in his interaction with Moritz, an unorthodox shrink whose method is to berate and insult his client in increasingly determined and elaborate ways (even after he’s been fired). It’s the highlight of amusement in a smart but meandering film about identity and belonging that has something to say about finding your place in the world, but not too much.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Inspiration and Aspiration: Cultural Narratives and Income Disparity in Contemporary Capitalist Democracy

September 11, 2011 8 comments

In an age of a historic income disparity between rich and poor, wherein the owners of the means of wealth production and the labour necessary for its production are separated by a truly remarkable socioeconomic chasm, it is essential, from the owners’ point of view, for the cultural discourse to reflect and reinforce the terms of that disparity, to render that set of relations as fair and heteronormative. It could be argued that this rendering is also preferable from the more proletarian point of view, to make their marginalization by forces that they can barely comprehend seem more palatable or even escapable, which it can be, after all, in a system that still allows for limited amounts of social mobility.

This discursive imperative often finds its form in corporate-funded and/or –produced film and television narratives through the familiar “inspirational” genre. In these stories, the plucky, unlikely underdog, often coming up from the underclass or from some other oppressed or marginalized subculture, overcomes the “odds” (ie. the pre-established alignment of social class and success) to triumph in some unlikely sphere. You have Northern English working class boys becoming dancers (Billy Elliot), bountifully-boobed middle-aged women exposing corporate malfeasance (Erin Brokovich), gutsy, unrealistically moral Mumbai street kids winning flashy game shows (Slumdog Millionaire), and, of course, dim, plain-spoken Philly proletarians winning boxing championships (Rocky, in many ways the exemplar of the genre).

Must... surmount... metaphor...

Many bemoan the Hollywood dream factory’s remarkable weakness for these types of narratives, but the studios are merely reacting to the obvious popular appetite for them. In America, especially, where more and more citizens are scrambling for less and less available wealth and opportunity, such tales remain talismans for the broken-back masses who toil and strive and work themselves ragged for a mere fragment of what such silver-screen stories promise.

Even if regular working people may be lacking the essential talent or spark that allows such inspirational figures (fictional or partly not so) to succeed, they can certainly approximate the perseverance and determination that underscores their success. This feeds into the central lie repeatedly disseminated to capitalist labourers in Western democracies: with hard work and fortitude, anything can be accomplished. It cannot, not by everyone, certainly, but all that hard work and fortitude being displayed by those who make less money greatly benefits the quality of lifestyle of those who make more of it. Funding the entertainment of the masses by the feats of their supposed avatars thus has a positive, if indirect, value for the elites.

But a much more interesting and increasingly noticeable phenomenon in corporate entertainment serves a more direct need of those in the upper end of the tax bracket: the desire to experience their own stories on screens of variant sizes. Instead of the gutsy servants mastering spectacular obstacles, the relatively well-off are treated to overseers demonstrating their dominion over the world and are told that these people, the ones most like them, are the underdogs. Thus, millions thrilled at a monarch, encased in a cocoon of privilege, striking a putative blow against fascism by learning to suppress his stutter (Oscar-sweeper The King’s Speech), or a computer super-genius attending the continent’s most prestigious institute of learning surmounting numerous bothersome interpersonal entanglements to make billions of dollars (The Social Network), and they may soon likewise thrill at a well-heeled sports executive fielding a competitive team by pouring over mind-numbing stats and by spending fewer millions of dollars on players than some other talent managers (the upcoming Brad Pitt vehicle Moneyball).

Products of this type are proliferating, perhaps because they cut both ways, appealing not only to elite media opinion-makers and the comfortable upper-middle-class, but also to the aspiring lower-income consumers as well. We can call these not inspirational stories but rather aspirational stories. There is some overlap with decidedly less stirring entertainment that nonetheless glorifies wealth and fame as romantic ends in themselves, to be sure. But these usually take the form of traditionally-conceived notions of escapism, brief and desultory getaways from the daily competitive ordeal of keeping up with the Joneses by pretending to keep up with the Kardashians (as if anyone could, or would actually want to try).

What it truly illustrates in the American instance is the manner in which history’s purported watershed “classless” society is increasingly defined by minor gradations in income as it creeps into a period of unproductive post-imperial decadence (if America was ever anything other than post-imperial, or other than decadent, for that matter). Hairline distinctions in status are established through commercial consumption, while the truly deprived are effaced entirely; are identities really defined by whether you own an iPhone or a Blackberry when millions can afford neither (including those who make them)?

More than left and right, faith and reason, or East and West, even more than rich and poor, this is the definitive division of our time: those aspiring to more and those who have more and aspire to self-justification. The main thing they have in common is a mutual desire for the latter, however that may be delineated in individual cases. So perhaps aspiration cannot wholly be separated from inspiration: they are two aspects of the same post-modern human need for validation.

PopMatters DVD Review: The Best and The Brightest

September 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Note: I write regular album, DVD, television, and film 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 title below to go to the review.

The Best and The Brightest

 

Categories: Film, Reviews